Home / Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday /  The afterlife of Subramaniam Bhupathy

When S. Muralidharan and Subramaniam Bhupathy were roommates—they were also college-mates and later colleagues at work—one subject of friendly contention was the mirror in the room. Muralidharan is 5’11’ in height while Bhupathy was 5’1’.

“So the mirror would move up and down a hook every day," recalls Muralidharan, when remembering the late scientist.

Herpetologist Bhupathy died in 2014 when he slipped on the Agasthyamalai Hills while returning from a research trip, doing what he loved most—field work. But his memory came alive recently when a bunch of scientists decided to honour him.

Scientists who discovered a new species of frog in the Western Ghats—with shiny, purple skin, a light blue ring around its eyes, and a pointy pig-nose—named it Bhupathy’s purple frog (Nasikabatrachus bhupathi).

Photo: S. Jegath Janani
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Photo: S. Jegath Janani

The scientists, S. Jegath Janani, Karthikeyan Vasudevan and Ramesh K. Aggarwal from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CSIR-CCMB), Elizabeth Prendini from the American Museum of Natural History, and Sushil Kumar Dutta from Nature Environment and Wildlife Society (NEWS) put their findings in Alytes, an international journal that publishes articles on batrachology (a branch of zoology that studies amphibians) and the conservation biology of amphibians.

“The first clue to this new species came from work on the ‘barcoding of anurans of India’, a DBT (government of India) funded project. While working on the project, we found that the DNA barcode signatures of some of the ‘larvae and froglet samples that resembled those of the pig-nose frog’ were distinct from those of our earlier described species. It was indeed a pleasant surprise as we realized that we had discovered a new member species of the monotypic family of the pig-nose frog," says Aggarwal, chief scientist at CCMB, in an email.

The rarity of the discovery lies in the fact that the frog comes to the surface just two to three days in a year.

Bhupathy, a wildlife biologist with a deep-rooted interest in natural history, worked on lizards, amphibians, and some birds too. His contributions, though, were more focused on reptiles.

He started his career in the mid-1980s, at a time when laboratories were not well-equipped, and training was limited. He came from a background which focused on just being there—to walk, search, and document.

When Bhupathy’s name was suggested for the newly-discovered species, all the authors of the article readily agreed, having collaborated with him in some form or being familiar with his large body of work. “That (field work) is no less an important technique when compared to what we do today. That’s one of the reasons why we don’t want people’s names to vanish," says Vasuedevan, explaining their choice to name the species after their late colleague and friend.

Long association

Muralidharan, now a senior principal scientist (ecotoxicology) at the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (Sacon) in Coimbatore, knew Bhupathy from 1983, when they were studying for their MSc at the AVC College in Mayiladuthurai in Tamil Nadu.

While Bhupathy subsequently worked in the Bombay Natural History Society in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, the two men later got back together—staying in the same room as bachelors and students of the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur during their PhD.

“As a student, he already had an interest in reptiles and frogs," says Muralidharan over the phone from Coimbatore. “His interest in birds was second in line. In college, he was fond of just looking at snakes."

The two men were also colleagues at Sacon, where Bhupathy was last employed as a principal scientist.

In over a quarter of a century, Bhupathy published several papers on reptiles, particularly on the python, and on soft-shell and sea turtles, while at BNHS between 1985 and 1995. The Sacon website provides a list of over 60 co-authored papers from 1985 till 2012. His other works (1995-2000) include studies on the horse-shoe pit viper, lizards, migratory waterfowl and some seminal reports on turtle trade in South Asia that made a significant difference in the field of conservation.

He also devised a method to identify individual pythons using their blotch patterns, just like the stripes on a tiger, or the human fingerprint. He worked in the Western Ghats, conducted ecological studies on reptiles in Sikkim in the Himalayas and did surveys for sea turtles on the coastline of south India—covering many ecosystems.

“I cannot think of anyone who has done better, more rigorous search of freshwater turtles around the country after his time," says Vasudevan over the phone from Hyderabad. “He travelled everywhere in the country to find illegal trade. Based on his work, the extent of exploitation was highlighted and the organization that monitors trade and traffic published a report with a poster."

The challenge in 1993-4, says Vasudevan, was people didn’t know what these species looked like. Illegal traders would take the turtles in the garb of fish and people inspecting wagons were not skilled in identification.

With help from some others, Bhupathy produced the first pictorial representation of the species, which was a big hit and helped people to identify the species. “Scientific data is relevant at the policy level; on the field level, you need to empower people interested in cracking down wildlife trade mafia," adds Vasudevan, who knew Bhupathy since 1992.

India has around 23 species of turtles and there is heavy trade in these animals—as pets, and for their eggs, meat and shells.

“His work helped clamp down on exploitation of the species, probably why we find such species alive today," says Vasudevan. “If the trade had continued (as it was), some species would have been gone by now."

Humble, confident, blunt

Friends and members of the scientific community remember him fondly—as humble, mild-mannered, well-liked and dedicated to his research. He was gentle with his students, a good colleague and no one saw him getting annoyed.

Muralidharan describes him as being confident, someone who never felt any constraints—scientifically or academically. “He had no compromising stand in any issue. He had a view and it was available. He was blunt with no diplomacy," Muralidharan says.

“We used to fight and not talk to each other for months. Then, we would speak as if nothing happened in between. There never was a rift in our basic friendship."

Dutta, now a retired professor and honorary curator at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru, says Bhupathy’s interest was in field ecology, taxonomy and natural history; not only in amphibians and reptiles, but in birds too.

“He believed in God, he was deeply religious," adds Dutta, who knew Bhupathy for around 30 years.

The discovery of the new species of the pig-nosed frog, Nasikabatrachus bhupathi, was five years in the making, according to people who worked on the project. It was not just about finding the animal, but getting enough information to make a convincing case for its distinctiveness as a species. It included the kind of field work that Bhupathy would have been proud of.

“Even if he was alive, we may have been tempted to name after him," says Vasudevan.

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