Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Down to earth, in search of the unknown

Aditya Ghosh

Mumbai, March 11, 2007

This scientist ignores the white lab coat and gets his hands dirty in an unusually vast laboratory brimming with biodiversity. Down in the Western Ghats, Verad Giri often disappears to crawl and burrow in search of slithery species unknown to the world.

As we spoke at the Bombay Natural History Society, Giri brought out a rectangular box from under the table. Inside it floated black lizards in several sizes, with yellow stripes on their back. "Look, they are gorgeous,'' said Giri. I nodded, but to my untrained eye they looked like chameleons wrinkled in formalin solutions.

Two species Giri introduced to the world in 2004 - Indotyphus maharashtraensis - are even named after him and British experts Mark Wilkinson and David Gower who had then flown to India to assist his muddy explorations.

Giri is now on the verge of announcing the discovery of three hitherto unknown species, two legless and one with legs. The former are from a group called caecilians, reptiles with an elongated body resembling little snakes. The leggy one is a lizard, but the researchers have next to no available data to work on.

"Conventionally, the Western Ghats was always considered a much explored region. But all the five new species are from that region and they are all new to science," Giri said.

The subjects of Giri's attention are 6 inches to 1.5 m long, with small eyes that have a protective skin cover that oftens leads to a misconception that they are blind. They are ecologically significant, and help retain soil fertility and a balance between chemical components in soil. But scientists know little about their reproductive biology or other habits.

So Giri has developed a set of internationally accepted markers: a set of physical characteristics and identification details to help identify, catagorise these creatures. "I am now working on a set of markers for lizards," he said.

The scientist's unusual work has steadily interested the locals around the Western Ghats to make a start in conserving biodiversity. "Groups like the Malabar Nature Conservation in Amboli and Green Guards in Kolhapur have been formed, and the locals now talk pure science," said Giri with a touch of pride. "They know more about these species and recognise their identification markers better than scientists."

But Giri did not reveal anything about his new discoveries. The findings have been accepted for publication in an international journal. "They are some remarkable creatures we had no idea about," is all he divulged.

The creatures he works with are not glamorous like tigers and elephants. They are slimy, dirty animals most people would despise. Funds are hard to come by. But as Giri pointed out, 'somebody's got to do this research.'

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