A new bird species, Bugun Liocichla, was discovered in 2006 by Ramana Athreya, an astronomer by profession and an ecologist on the side. The bird is classified as a vulnerable species, with barely 14 or so individuals spotted so far. Government of India’s Department of Posts has released a commemorative stamp with Bugun Liocichla to signify conservation of biodiversity on the occasion of the eleventh Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity held at Hyderabad in October 2012.We will revisit here the story of discovery of the bird and learn about Ramana Athreya’s dual career in two very unrelated disciplines.
Ramana Athreya received his early education in Bangalore and Kanpur majoring in Physics and got a Ph.D. from the National Centre for Radio Astronomy (NCRA, TIFR) in Pune. After a few years as a postdoctoral researcher in France and in Chile, he returned to the academic faculty of NCRA. Alongside working on telescopes and imaging galaxies, he turned his long-time passion of bird watching into a full-fledged line of research by studying biodiversity and promoting its conservation in the forests of Arunachal Pradesh, a biodiversity hotspot that hosts nearly two-thirds of India’s species including elephants, tigers, birds and reptiles. In recognition of his contributions toward forging alliances with Himalayan tribal communities for wildlife sanctuary management, Ramana Athreya has been awarded the Whitley Nature Fund’s Award in 2011. Athreya is presently a faculty member at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune.
You have discovered a new bird species Bugun Liocichla in the forests of Arunachal Pradesh. Please can you share with us the story of your discovery?
Arunachal Pradesh is really the most remarkably diverse part of Indian wilderness. Nearly two thirds of India’s diversity is found in that state. I had wanted to go there for a long time. Since my first visit there in 1994, I’m kind of stuck, haven’t yet managed to get away from that place. As an astronomer, I had very limited time and resources for doing something useful on wildlife. Apart from a fascination for the place, I thought I would be able to do a lot more useful work in a place largely ignored by ecologists compared to a place like Western Ghats which is visited by lots of researchers. I thought whatever I find and whatever I do as an amateur would be new, would be different. This is part of the reason I chose Arunachal Pradesh and in that sense it has worked out very well.
I went to Pakke tiger reserve in Arunachal Pradesh in 1994 because Vidya (his wife Vidya Athreya is a wildlife biologist and works on leopard ecology and human leopard conflict) was doing a project on wild life there. As a good husband I went there and then completely ignored her – so she claims – and watched birds. The forest officer of a neighboring area suggested that I go to Eaglenest Sanctuary, a very rich area and hardly visited by anyone. That was an expedition in itself, as few had heard of the place—just 30 km as the crow flies across the river from Pakke but it took two days of hitching rides on bus, army truck and a motorcycle to reach Eaglenest. Typically, in a week, four days were spent in getting in and out and three days birdwatching.
It was in one of those treks that I first found two birds, which we later named Bugun Liocichla. It had a very distinctive color pattern and I realized that it was not listed among Indian birds. In those early days of the internet I could not access any resources on birds of neighboring countries (China and Myanmar) to identify the bird. But in any case, I had just seen the birds for just a few seconds and after a while, I thought the altitude must have gotten to me and I was imagining things!!
After this trip, I went back to finishing my Ph.D. and went abroad for a post-doc. On returning to India in 2003, I received funding from Rufford small grants, U.K., for a two-year project to document and conserve the biodiversity of Eaglenest Sanctuary. I saw the bird again in 2004 and 2005, and then I knew it was real. Based on my description of the bird, a friend dug out a picture from the internet of a closely related species from China.
Apart from this bird, we also saw several other animals and birds which were very rare and some had not been recorded for nearly 100 years! This was surprising because the road passing through In fact the main route passing through Eaglenest is well-traversed route and is associated with has several historical events. Only, this time, someone with binoculars and an interest in birds had gone along it!
How did you test your hunch that you were looking at a new bird species?
In January 2005, I saw the bird dive into a bush and immediately heard a bird call from that same bush, which I recorded. As luck would have it, it turned out to be the call of another bird species that happened to be in the same bush. We finally managed to record the bird call in April 2006. The bird popped out of the shrubbery right into the open as soon as I played back its song—singing is an aggressive activity in birds and it was clearly looking to chase away this encroacher singing in its territory. A month later I went back and managed to catch a couple of birds in mistnets, collected feather samples (for DNA work) and took photographs before releasing them.
Based on the bird’s features, we first identified the family/group it belonged to, which is made up of four members including this newest member: one is restricted to Taiwan, another to some hills of southwest China (1000 km from Eaglenest) and the third is widespread across north-east and south-east Asia.
We named this new bird Bugun Liocichla—Bugun after the local tribe and Liochichla being the already existing genus comprising its close relatives. I thought naming the bird after the tribe would push for conservation efforts in the area… and it has!
You are an astronomer by training. What sparked your interest in bird watching?
Well, two things that influenced me a lot were during my high school years in Bangalore. Firstly, the Bangalore Science Forum, started by H. Narasimhaiah—an extraordinary person, ex-vice chancellor of Bangalore University, and someone who spent his life building the National College in Bangalore into an institution—would host weekly lectures in science covering a huge range of topics, and summer school for students. These had a remarkable influence on me and played a major role in the breadth of interests that I developed. Secondly, the monthly meetings of the ABAA (Association of Bangalore Amateur Astronomers) and WWF, which was very active in Bangalore, added to this experience. While I was interested in bird watching at that time, I did not enjoy the way Biology was taught in school—you can enjoy cutting up a cockroach only so much!
IIT Kanpur, where I did my masters in Physics was a particularly good place for bird watching, it was just an overnight journey to the Himalayas and the Ganga was just a morning bicycle ride away. The banks of Ganga are full of migratory birds during winter.
How and when did you choose to convert a long standing hobby into a parallel research pursuit? Did it matter that you did not have formal training in biology?
The basic methodology is the same for most research topics. More than anything else, the belief that numbers are important is a crucial part of research. In fact, soon after my Ph.D., an ecologist had asked me if I would be interested in a postdoc position in his lab. I asked him if he would be okay with hiring an astronomer and he said “well, you can identify birds and you can count”!!
The kind of ecology I do now has its roots in the hobby I have nurtured for the last 30 years. It is about identifying species, quantifying and understanding diversity and the underlying reasons. Research is okay, but I’m still uncomfortable teaching basic biology to students. Teaching requires a different magnitude of breadth of knowledge and my lack of formal training in biology has left large gaps of knowledge in biology. Each time I come across something new, I have to read it up and work my way backwards to the very basics and come back again. My research topics have been carefully chosen to match the skills I developed as an amateur. For example, I have not started on behavioral research because I have absolutely no background in it, neither formal nor informal. If I do get into behavioral research, I will have to spend a year just reading up on it.
Every topic has details whose knowledge is important for research. For example, as a bird watcher with three decades of experience in several continents, when I go to a new place, I can usually sense in just a few minutes whether it is a good location for bird watching. It is an intuition you develop with experience. I think such a foundation is essential for doing research. You can’t just wake up one morning and start doing research in a competitive manner in a completely unrelated area.
The depth of my involvement in ecology has depended on the resources I have received at every stage. As the funds I received increased, I made my investigations a little more complicated, a little more involved. In 1994, I had just my binoculars and a month’s vacation and I was simply enjoying my vacation… and I discovered a new bird species. When I got the money for the project in 2003, I was still an astronomer, I had only a limited time at my disposal, but I decided to focus on a single place (Eaglenest) for several years. My team looked at the change of bird species communities during different seasons, at different elevations. We focused on recording bird calls. We quantified diversity across different taxa. Everyone in the team was an amateur, but skilled in observing and identifying different animals—snakes, frogs, butterflies, so on. Together, we were able to put together one of the most comprehensive databases of biological diversity of any location in north-east India. With IISER Pune, I have been able to take this to a different level, using genetic tools, and more intensive sampling to better understand species diversity patterns.
Here, I should caution undergrads against spreading themselves too thin—it is important to understand issues, and gain skills, in depth in one field before moving on to a second. One can double the pleasure by exploring two fields … but there is a price to pay—you will have to put in more than twice the effort.
Can you describe your research in astronomy?
My work in astronomy covers a wide spectrum: during my Ph.D. and early research career, I had worked on galaxies at high redshifts, which are distant galaxies that allow us to study the early universe. We found strong magnetic fields, much higher than those predicted by theoretical models in the early universe. I then spent several years working on gravitational lensing by galaxy clusters using high quality optical images. The last 7-8 years, I have been working on making better images through telescopes at low radio frequencies and in getting rid of noise generated due to radio interference from human activities.
How do you divide your time between these two areas: astronomy and ecology?
I use the Draupadi routine—dedicate a couple of weeks to a particular topic and see the task through. It is difficult to switch between galaxies and birds or frogs and moths on the same day. When people ask me this I tell them on a lighter note that it helps to work in two areas which are both considered “soft sciences!” Also, some areas of research require years of scholarship for any significant progress, while others require lateral thinking more than depth of knowledge. The two approaches are equally important and complement each other. I think I am better at the second … and that makes it a little easier to straddle two very different topics.
What is your current research in the area of biodiversity?
I’m presently working on identifying different species of moths and frogs present at different elevations in Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh along with my students Mansi Mungee doing a PhD on moths, Anurag Mishra (2010 batch) doing semester projects on frogs, etc. The diversity is simply amazing… and at times overwhelming, as Mansi would testify! There are many genera which include 10-15 species in just that one area. While the diversity itself is very fascinating in an aesthetic sense, our goal is to understand speciation patterns and dynamics. We will map the temporal sequence of speciation (using genetic information) on to the spatial patterns we observe in the field and hopefully answer some of the hows and whys governing speciation.
– Interviewed by Shanti Kalipatnapu