Why this pur­suit of new species

Dis­cov­er­ing new species is cru­cial to un­der­stand­ing evo­lu­tion­ary pro­cesses and en­sur­ing food se­cu­rity and hu­man wel­fare

Down to Earth - - COVER STORY -

WITH VAR­IED eco­log­i­cal and cli­matic con­di­tions, In­dia is one of the 17 mega-di­verse coun­tries. With only 2.4 per cent of the world’s land­mass, it har­bours 7-8 per cent of the species known world­wide—over 45,000 species of plants and 96,891 species of an­i­mals. But in­creas­ing de­vel­op­men­tal ac­tiv­i­ties and chang­ing cli­mate in re­cent decades are threat­en­ing In­dia’s rich bio­di­ver­sity. Its nat­u­ral habi­tats and ecosys­tems are be­ing re­duced, re­placed or mod­i­fied to the ex­tent that they can no longer sup­port the orig­i­nal po­ten­tial of bio­di­ver­sity. Large-scale ex­tinc­tion of species and the loss of ge­netic di­ver­sity have be­come a harsh re­al­ity.

This loss has far-reach­ing im­pli­ca­tions for food se­cu­rity and econ­omy. A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of peo­ple in the coun­try di­rectly or in­di­rectly de­pend on the bio­di­ver­sity for food se­cu­rity and liveli­hood. The bi­o­log­i­cal re­sources also con­sti­tute the feed­stock for in­dus­tries like biotech­nol­ogy. To con­serve th­ese bi­o­log­i­cal re­sources and to en­sure their sus­tain­able use and fair and eq­ui­table shar­ing of the ben­e­fits aris­ing out of util­i­sa­tion of re­sources, In­dia has rat­i­fied the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity and has passed the Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity Act, 2002.

It is also im­per­a­tive to doc­u­ment changes in the di­ver­sity, dis­tri­bu­tion and com­po­si­tion of an­i­mal and plant com­mu­ni­ties. For this, it is im­por­tant to dis­cover, iden­tify and name species across the world and pre­pare a com­plete in­ven­tory, if not the ab­so­lute one. Re­mem­ber, new species is a re­source to the na­tion and hu­mankind. Called tax­on­omy in sci­en­tific lex­i­con, this sys­tem of nam­ing and clas­si­fi­ca­tion is es­sen­tial to un­der­stand the evo­lu­tion­ary process that pro­duced the di­ver­sity of life. At a broad func­tional level, tax­on­omy is also an ap­plied sci­ence ba­sic to hu­man wel­fare. It is es­sen­tial to know the iden­tity and name of an or­gan­ism be­fore un­der­tak­ing any kind of re­search on it—be it re­lated to bio­di­ver­sity, con­ser­va­tion, ecol­ogy, agri­cul­ture, fish­eries or medicine.

Since com­mon names vary from re­gion to re­gion, or­gan­isms are as­signed sci­en­tific names, which are uni­form and uni­ver­sal. In most cases, th­ese are bi­nom­i­nal—mean­ing, they have a generic and spe­cific name. Some­times, the names are tri­no­mial, and the third name refers to the name of sub­species, va­ri­ety or form. Names are given to or­gan­isms ac­cord­ing to the in­ter­na­tional codes of zoo­log­i­cal, botan­i­cal and bac­te­ri­o­log­i­cal nomen­cla­ture.

At the core of th­ese codes is the “type spec­i­men”—a par­tic­u­lar spec­i­men based on which the dis­cov­erer de­scribes the species and fixes its sci­en­tific name. This is fol­lowed by in­ven­to­ry­ing and mon­i­tor­ing of bio­di­ver­sity. Pre­par­ing the in­ven­tory in­cludes sur­vey­ing, sort­ing, cat­a­logu­ing and map­ping of en­ti­ties, such as species, pop­u­la­tions, habi­tats, ecosys­tems or their com­po­nents, and syn­the­sis or analy­ses of the in­for­ma­tion into pat­terns and pro­cesses. Whereas mon­i­tor­ing refers to the process of mak­ing re­peated in­ven­to­ries over time and space and mea­sur­ing change in the pat­terns or process of bio­di­ver­sity.

The Zoo­log­i­cal Sur­vey of In­dia ( zsi) has been ac­tively doc­u­ment­ing an­i­mal di­ver­sity of the coun­try since its in­cep­tion in 1916. Ev­ery year, it car­ries out sys­tem­atic sur­veys and ex­plo­rations to dis­cover and de­scribe new species. So far, zsi has de­scribed more than 5,000 species new to sci­ence from di­verse ecosys­tems and habi­tats of In­dia and its neigh­bour­ing coun­tries. It has also pub­lished over 1,500 sci­en­tific doc­u­ments on fauna of In­dia, in­clud­ing doc­u­ments on fauna of 22 states, many pro­tected ar­eas and ecosys­tems, and sta­tus sur­veys. zsi is a ma­jor repos­i­tory of the Na­tional Zoo­log­i­cal Col­lec­tions of voucher spec­i­mens, in­clud­ing nearly 20,000 type spec­i­mens, of all fau­nal groups, from pro­to­zoa to mam­mals, known from In­dia and the ad­ja­cent coun­tries.

Af­ter all, sci­en­tific doc­u­men­ta­tion of fauna at lo­cal, re­gional and ecosys­tem lev­els is es­sen­tial for longterm con­ser­va­tion and sus­tain­able util­i­sa­tion of bi­o­log­i­cal re­sources.

KAILASH CHAN­DRA Di­rec­tor-in-charge of Zoo­log­i­cal Sur­vey of In­dia, Kolkata

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