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Conversation with a Field Biologist in India

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Swati Diwakar, trying to record ambient sound in the Kudremukh National Park. Her field assistant, a good tree climber, is in the background holding the ultrasound recorder

Swati Diwakar, trying to record ambient sound in the Kudremukh National Park. Her field assistant, a good tree climber, is in the background holding the ultrasound recorder

Physical courage is not a requirement for studying science, but field biology seems to call for exactly that. Swati Diwakar, 34, spent many a night in an evergreen forest in South India collecting data for her dissertation on crickets taking the occasional viper bite in her stride. As assistant professor in the department of environmental studies at Delhi University in India’s capital, she is now looking to recruit research students. I chat with my compatriot, mother of a toddler, about her work.

What made you take up field biology?

As a child, I was interested in natural history — it meant recognizing butterflies or birds that visited our garden. I majored in biology but for my masters’ project, I was in the lab running gels, centrifuging DNA, and sterilizing everything that came my way with alcohol. Then it became clear to me: this is what I do not want to do. For my PhD, I went to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). The campus is so sylvan there are coffee table books about its rich flora and fauna. To pick my dissertation topic, I went with my doctoral supervisor Prof. Rohini Balakrishnan to sites on the IISc campus, two national parks, and wildlife sanctuaries in the Western Ghats, a mountain range known for its biodiversity.

Cricket, the sport, has millions of aficionados in India. How did the insect cricket become your research subject?

As a city-bred, I don’t think I’d even heard a cricket call before I went to IISc. Broadly ‘cricket’ refers to field crickets, tree crickets, bush crickets (katydids) and king crickets (wetas). When I set out on those field trips, we only had the taxonomic identities of these insects from the Western Ghats complete with type specimens locked up in museums. We knew little about their bioacoustics.

Male crickets call to attract females. They are most vocal at dusk and some carry on well into the night. Each species has its own unique frequency and temporal patterns. We wanted to document and inventory these calls for all existing species in the region. Then we’d have a quick and non-invasive way to check the health of that forest. If the diversity of cricket calls goes down, it indicates a problem.

In tropical forests, animals that communicate through sounds have to compete for broadcast channels and time. There is a whole chorus in the wild. How do crickets operate in this noisy environment? There was much to find out. Kudremukh National Park was my study site.

So you ventured into the jungle for fieldwork?

If I need the data, I have to get it, right? I was determined to do that. I had not camped outside before and had climbed nothing higher than a guava tree. Crickets are everywhere from the floor to the canopy of the forest, so I carried a portable ladder.

I never entered the forest alone. There was a local field assistant, a project assistant, and a forest guard armed with a wooden stick fashioned from the branches of a nearby tree! My ladder got me to shrub height, but the field assistant was an excellent tree climber. Our jeep driver would also come out of curiosity to see what I was doing.

I was never uncomfortable being in the minority gender-wise. I was only afraid of wildlife encounters…vipers next to my shoe, an elephant thirty meters away, or a boar charging!

From 2002 to 2006, I set out after the monsoons – September till the end of March was good for fieldwork. Mine wasn’t a continuous stay, I would come back to campus after every three weeks or so: take stock of data, spend a week or ten days in lab updating data, replenish supplies of antihistamines because I’d developed allergies to tick and leech bites.

With your current research grant what will you be studying?

My present research grant is to study diversity and behavioral ecology of wetas. So far they have been reported mainly from New Zealand. In India, we found one species, which was acoustically active. I want to explore if there are other species of wetas either in Western Ghats or in North Eastern India, in the Himalayas, another hotspot of biodiversity. But first, my graduate students have interesting findings on field crickets around Delhi and that needs further looking into.

Do you find it difficult to get researchers?

Some students run right out of the door when they learn that there is no bench work involved in the lab; others run after knowing that their workbench is actually the forest, and that too at night. A couple of students had shown interest and motivation but I lost them to outsourcing or biotech companies which pays them a salary higher than a PhD scholarship. I have one doctoral student currently and his field site is limited mostly to university campuses in Delhi.

Is this research that takes you outdoors and at odd hours a tough sell to women given that sexual assaults on female students and professionals have been making headline news lately?

I was never verbally or physically harassed or assaulted in Bangalore, where IISc is located, or in any of the places in South India where I did fieldwork for my thesis. I am, however, quite concerned about how a girl student will carry out work in and around Delhi. I would never send anyone alone into the forest – they’d go as a team. I plan to hire a field assistant and project fellow from the grant. PhD students can devise their work plan to assist one another in data collection.

Are remote monitoring techniques used in India?

Automated bio-acoustic monitoring is the latest method for assessing species richness. These techniques are mainly being tested out in temperate forests with comparatively low diversity. Even where it has been used in tropical forests, there are technical limitations. We know how many species are calling based on unique frequency bands and temporal pattern, but how about the number of individuals of each species?  The frequency band between 3-6 kHz (where most of the field crickets call) is still difficult to resolve with automated recording techniques. So, we still have to go to the forest to study crickets.

What, to you, is the best part of doing fieldwork?

The joy and excitement of finding something new is the reward. The finding may not be new to science. The thrill perhaps may not be comparable to scaling a mountain peak but discovering a green katydid with beautiful yellow spots perched on a leaf or a 4mm field cricket calling from under a fallen dry leaf gives me a high.

After my PhD, I taught for two years in Bhopal as visiting faculty. Now as a mother I cannot go away for long durations leaving my 2.5-year-old in his grandma’s care, but I do accompany students to sites around Delhi. I miss fieldwork and want to go to the Western Ghats or the Himalayas for research, as soon as I can.

 

Vijaysree Venkatraman About the Author: Vijaysree ‘Vijee’ Venkatraman is a Boston-based journalist and contributes to Science Careers, New Scientist, and the Nature India blog among other publications. Challenges facing women scientists is a topic she often writes about. But she also wishes gender in science will become a non-issue soon, so she can shift her focus to other things. Follow on Twitter @vijeescijo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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