Sunday, January 8, 2012

Hunting for species in rain

Prof Dr G K Bhat, who leads a team of researchers, has found five new species of animals, a rare feat for any zoologist

While the rest of the city lets out a collective groan when the monsoon rains come around each year, Prof Dr G K Bhat couldn’t be happier. For him, its time to leave for the forests of the Western Ghats where he spends his time searching for new animal species.

What began as work on a PhD has turned into a passion, one that has earned the professor rare distinctions in the field of zoology. Although retired, Bhat continues his relentless search for new species and the search has often taken him to obscure and remote places. The city-based professor has introduced the world to as many as five new species of animals, a rare feat for any zoologist. He and his team of researchers have discovered two more new species which are yet to be named and classified. 

Their latest discovery is a snake-like non-toxic creature, which measures only a few inches and produces a sort of mucus. 
Dr. G K Bhat (third from left) seen with his research team, says it takes tremendous patience to discover a new species

“In fact they have been referred to as Blind Snakes by local residents, but that is a separate variety altogether,” Bhat said. “These creatures feed on earthworms, termites, other insects and soil microbes. They are basically nocturnal in nature and burrow deep into the soil. Males are smaller in size and they reproduce by laying eggs. The female sits on the eggs for two months without consuming either food or water. While a normal adult weighs 20 to 25 gms, the female could lose around 5 gms in body weight during this time.”

Bhat himself might call the find sheer luck, but there is no lack of effort and the searches have been painstaking.  “Discovering a new species is nothing but a gamble,” Bhat said. “Every year, during the rainy season, we head to the forests of the Western Ghats and camp in remote corners while searching for a new species. There have been several years when we have returned empty-handed. It requires tremendous patience and determination. Had it not been for the support of local residents and the forest department, we would not have discovered these creatures.” 

Last month, for a record fifth time, Bhat was honoured by the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) for discovering yet another limbless yellow striped caecilian near Chorla village in Khanapur taluk near the Goa border in Belgaum. That species has been named Ichthyophis davidi, after Bhat’s teacher in London. 

Apart from the yellow-striped caecilian - the fifth species found by the team — Bhat’s team had also discovered a tail-less caecilian in Kundapura in 2004 which was named Gegeneophis madhavai, after Prof Madhav Gadgil another teacher. The team discovered Gegeneophis nadakarnii in 2004 in the Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary of Goa, Gegeneophis goaensis in 2007 in north Goa and Gegeneophis mhadeiensis in 2007 near Belgaum.

“You need to find at least five species before you can report it to the ZSI. We have found two more species, but we haven’t reported it,” said a member of the team.

Although the species are a treasure in the world of zoology, these creatures are routinely killed by local villagers and residents.

“These species are non-poisonous and bio-indicators in nature,” Bhat said. “But people kill these creatures as they mistake them for snakes. This apart, intense use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides in nearby areas has affected their life cycle. Because of soil pollution, many have died.”
Despite his voluntary retirement from academics, Bhat has remained active and currently teaches students at a private coaching institute.
“I plan my research well in advance and obtain permission to carry out my research,” Bhat said. “Rainy days are completely dedicated to finding these creatures as we roam around forests. On other days I engage myself with students.”

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