An article was published recently in the Biodiversity Data Journal entitled, “Report of Platythomisus octomaculatus (C. L. Koch, 1845) and Platythomisus sudeepi Biswas, 1977 from India (Araneae, Thomisidae)”. The first species, P. octomaculatus, is being recorded after 120 years of its last report and its distribution has been extended to Assam in India from its previously known distributions in Java and Sumatra. The article was published by Ms. Swara Yadav, a zoologist from Satara, Maharashtra and Dr. Vijay Anand Ismavel, the Medical Superintendent of the Makunda Christian Leprosy & General Hospital (www.makunda.in) in the Karimganj District of Assam. Mr. Vinayak Patil from the College of Forestry in Dapoli, Maharashtra had also found another species in the same genus, P. sudeepi, and this observation is also discussed and reported in the same paper.
The Assam observation was possible through the activities of the “Makunda Nature Club”. Dr. Vijay Anand Ismavel had been working in the Makunda hospital (a mission hospital situated in a remote part of Assam, bordering Mizoram and Tripura) since 1993. He started photographing and documenting biodiversity in and around the campus in 2009 (shortly after suffering a heart attack). Over the next 7 years, he documented over 5300 observations (of nearly 2000 different species) – all of them uploaded to iNaturalist with over 10,000 supporting photographs - http://www.inaturalist.org/people/8853. Most of them are also posted to the different iNaturalist groups of DiversityIndia.
In 2015, Dr. Vijay Anand founded the “Makunda Nature Club” – this is formed with some staff members (postgraduate teachers in Botany, Zoology and Biotechnology of the Makunda Christian Higher Secondary School - a school run by the Hospital Society with over 900 children studying upto Class XII in Arts/Science) and about 30 student members. A seminar on Forest Conservation was the first activity – tree-planting and a talk by Padma Shri Jadav Payeng, the “Forest Man of India”. The club then organized a biodiversity documentation workshop conducted by Mr. Rohit George from Indian BiodiversityPortal (IBP) at Makunda and following this a “Makunda Nature Club” group was also formed on IBP to enable members to upload photos from their cellphones directly using the IBP App. Mr. Siddharth Kulkarni, an arachnologist from Pune who is also the Country Coordinator for India on the World Spider Catalog (he is presently pursuing his Ph.D in Arachnology at the George Washington University in the USA) then conducted a workshop on “Basic Arachnology” for the Club members. A few months later, Mr. Siddharth Kulkarni and Ms. Swara Yadav were invited to Makunda to spend time with the Club members in doing a survey of spider biodiversity in the 350 acre campus of the hospital. Members learnt about spider families, habits and how to identify different species. The hospital purchased a stereo-microscope for the Club so that identification of spiders could be done in the school science laboratory. It was during this survey, that two specimens of Platythomisus octomaculatus were found (one by Antina Pasyad, a student from Class 8 of the school and the other by Rejoice Gassah, who has joined the hospital as a full-time staff of the Club – he was a student of Makunda’s School and is now pursuing his BA – both of them belong to the Jaintia tribe and their families live in jungle villages close to the hospital). One of the spiders had an egg-sac – members observed spider-lings emerge and grow over several days till they dispersed. Further scientific work on confirmation of the identification was done by Ms. Swara Yadav and Mr. Siddharth Kulkarni leading to the publication.
The Makunda Nature Club is probably the only (or one of the few) nature clubs in schools in India that inform and engage student members in actual professional scientific research in surrounding forests. This creates an awareness of the different life forms that exist, their interdependence with each other and leads children to appreciate their beauty as well as the need to conserve forests and all the species that forests support. It also stimulates the curiosity of children and inculcates an interest to learn more about the species that are observed and adds meaning to the biology subjects that they study in class. A few children, having been exposed to observation and documentation of biodiversity may decide to pursue it as a career.
In 2015, Dr. Vijay Anand and some members of the Club found a male van Hasselt Sunbird (Leptocoma brasiliana) in surrounding forests – this species has now been found in the hospital campus as well. This was the first time this species had been photographed in present-day India and this observation was published in Indian Birds by Dr. Vijay Anand (along with Mr. Praveen Jayadevan, a researcher from Bangalore). We hope that in the years to come, more such discoveries would be made and citizen science initiatives such as the “Makunda Nature Club” would make significant contributions to existing knowledge on biodiversity.