Bio­di­verse moun­tains

TREVOR PRICE has been study­ing birds in In­dia since 1972, in­ves­ti­gat­ing breed­ing bi­ol­ogy and bird dis­tri­bu­tions, es­pe­cially in the Hi­malayas. He is a lead­ing ex­pert in bird spe­ci­a­tion—the for­ma­tion of new bird species in the course of evo­lu­tion. Cur­rently

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Top bird sci­en­tist says the east Hi­malayas could yield new bird species

What is the fo­cus of your re­search?

There are about 450 species in the eastern Hi­malayas that are not found in the western Hi­malayas, which is what we are re­search­ing. We are not in­ves­ti­gat­ing how bird species form, but how they spread their range.

The most re­cent species found in the eastern Hi­malayas was the Hi­malayan For­est Thrush in Jan­uary last year by Swedish evo­lu­tion­ary re­searcher Per Jo­han Al­str m. Will more bird species be dis­cov­ered in the eastern Hi­malayas in the fu­ture?

There are prob­a­bly one or two more species to be dis­cov­ered. You have to separate the species that you see in one

place from those you might see in two dif­fer­ent places. So clearly, we are go­ing to dis­cover that some of the species in Megha­laya are dif­fer­ent from those in the Hi­malayas. The discovery of new species in one place is go­ing to be very dif­fi­cult. We could dis­cover one or two new species in the eastern Hi­malayas, but it will take many years.

Does the rich­ness of bio­di­ver­sity in the eastern Hi­malayas also ex­tend to other life forms such as mam­mals, rep­tiles, am­phib­ians and fish?

We do not know enough about fish and rep­tiles. But in gen­eral, across the world, there is a very strong as­so­ci­a­tion between dif­fer­ent life forms. The eastern Hi­malayas is a very poorly stud­ied re­gion for some of th­ese life forms. But as far as we know, if you look at rep­tiles, am­phib­ians and mam­mals, you are go­ing to find that the eastern Hi­malayas are the sec­ond or third-most di­verse re­gion in the world and should be stud­ied more.

Re­search sug­gests that on av­er­age, each eastern Hi­malayan song­bird species has been sep­a­rated from its clos­est rel­a­tive in the re­gion for 6-7 mil­lion years. This is roughly about the same length of time that hu­mans and their clos­est rel­a­tive, the chim­panzees, have been sep­a­rated. Does your work have lessons for the study of hu­man evo­lu­tion?

Hu­man evo­lu­tion is unique be­cause by hav­ing a big brain, we have changed our en­vi­ron­ment, which, in turn, has changed us. An­i­mals, on the other hand, are not do­ing that. They are just re­act­ing to their en­vi­ron­ments, with­out mod­i­fy­ing it. If you com­pare a chim­panzee with a hu­man, you would agree that they look pretty dif­fer­ent. But birds, even if they are sep­a­rated for the same length of time can look ex­tremely sim­i­lar. A chim­panzee has not changed very much in the last 6 mil­lion years, but hu­mans have. So we have not seen this as­pect of evo­lu­tion.

Why are the trop­ics more bio­di­verse than tem­per­ate re­gions?

That’s the big ques­tion. It is over 150 years now since Bri­tish nat­u­ral­ist Al­fred Rus­sell Wal­lace asked it. And we are still strug­gling to find the an­swer. There are two hy­pothe­ses. Let me ex­plain them through the prism of the Hi­malayas. Ac­cord­ing to one hy­poth­e­sis, since the eastern Hi­malayas are more tropical as com­pared to the western Hi­malayas, the eastern side is warmer and wet­ter with more plants and food. So the eastern side is packed with species.

The other hy­poth­e­sis says that about 20,000 years ago, the western Hi­malayas had very few an­i­mals. Thus, most species got con­fined to the eastern side. There is also a his­tor­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion that tropical ar­eas are sta­ble; and, there is the mod­ern ex­pla­na­tion that the trop­ics are rich in food.

But in­ves­ti­gat­ing which side is more im­por­tant has been dif­fi­cult. We have made some ad­vances in the Hi­malayas and have gath­ered ev­i­dence for both th­ese hy­pothe­ses.

Re­search shows that a warm­ing cli­mate is af­fect­ing the breed­ing habi­tats of birds across the world. Can we over­come global warm­ing?

I be­lieve that if In­dia gets richer, then peo­ple will value bio­di­ver­sity and bio­di­ver­sity will en­rich ev­ery­one’s lives. My sense is that there will be a revo­lu­tion and we will never hit the 20 rise, the limit set by the Paris Agree­ment. At present, we have cheap oil and we are emit­ting more CO2. But in a few years, we are go­ing to move to­wards a car­bon-free sys­tem. In­dia it­self has such great so­lar re­sources. I feel cli­mate change will be in our con­trol one day. What we have to do is to make sure that bio­di­ver­sity sur­vives till then.

What have you dis­cov­ered about bird mi­gra­tions from north­ern Asia to the south via the Hi­malayas?

I have not stud­ied bird mi­gra­tions in de­tail. But re­cently, we were in the Kanchen­junga Na­tional Park—at 4,000 me­tres above sea level—and we saw a duck that breeds in Rus­sia, but spends its time in the win­ter in the plains of north­ern In­dia sit­ting on a lake. Of course, there are other fa­mous ex­am­ples like the bar-headed geese land­ing on glaciers.

But study­ing mi­gra­tion th­ese days has be­come an enor­mous task be­cause you can now track birds us­ing tech­nol­ogy. As is well known, or­nithol­o­gist Salim Ali led a move­ment to ring birds. The bird ring­ing pro­gramme in In­dia stopped in the last 20 years. But for­tu­nately, it is be­gin­ning once again, and the first birds were given ge­olo­ca­tors to fig­ure out whether they go over the Hi­malayas dur­ing their jour­ney.

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