A Soupçon of SciComm with Pratik Gupte on animal and bird migrations

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Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Pratik, and I work with GPS movement tracks of African elephants and Indian mesocarnivores. Mesocarnivores are animals that mostly hunt their food, but also supplement their diet with plant matter.  I’m a research assistant at the Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES) at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), and at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), in Bangalore.

I study how African elephants living in Kruger National Park, South Africa, move in their dry savanna landscape. Elephants are well known to be water dependent, returning to water sources quite frequently. However, we don’t know how this influences their movement in the landscape, or what effect a rapidly warming world could have on their movement.

I’m also working with some movement data from mesocarnivores not far from Pune. We have some jungle cats, Indian foxes, and golden jackals tagged in a landscape dominated by sugarcane plantation, and I’m looking at how such a human dominated landscape can support an abundance of wildlife.


How did you get where you are right now?

My main interest has always been in birds, and I’ve wanted to study them professionally since I was eight years old. I received my bachelor’s in zoology  from St. Xavier’s College, Bombay, but I was unsure whether I was cut out for a career in science, and so I decided to find out. I took a year ‘off’ between 2014 and 2015 to intern with four different groups.

I joined  Kavita Isvaran’s Evolutionary Ecology Research Group at CES, IISc, in 2014. I worked on how the number of parasites infesting two lizards common to the Deccan landscapes where I grew up, the Indian rock agama Psammophilus dorsalis, and the smaller but very similar looking Blanford’s rock agama P. blanfordanus, were different.

In the summer of 2014, I volunteered with the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC) based out of Leh in Ladakh. I was first tasked with compiling SLC’s quarterly reports into an annual report. I traveled with the team on a mission to Turtuk in Baltistan, where we interviewed locals about their flora, fauna, and cultural landmarks. I also assisted a master’s student in determining the availability of food for migratory waterbirds in Ladakh’s wetlands. It was very exciting work in very harsh environments, and is better described as a book chapter in Bird Migration Across the Himalayas.

I then hopped continents to join the the Succulent Karoo Research Station (SKRS), in Goegap Nature Reserve, South Africa as a field assistant between September and December 2014. SKRS was set up in the early 2000s to study the fascinatingly social African striped mouse Rhabdomys pumilio. Post-doc Rebecca Rimbach @RimbachRebecca was working on how individuals’ behaviours and movements during the day are related to their social status. Since mice are too small to be fitted with GPS-trackers, I followed individual mice that had been fitted with ultra-light radio transmitter collars, while carrying the GPS tracker myself.

Finally, I joined Vishwesha Guttal’s @vishuguttal lab at CES, IISc in January 2015, where I ran experiments on collectively moving groups of fish. Vishu was keen on extending experiments he had been working on for his postdoc and I helped set up and run these using locally sourced fish, testing a number of species’ suitability for our work.

These three stints were invaluable because I discovered  that I enjoyed doing science and that I could work in harsh field conditions. My interests began to shift to animal movement at Vishu’s lab, and I started to seek out projects that studied animal movements at larger spatial scales.

I joined the Erasmus Mundus Master’s in Applied Ecology (IMAE) in mid-2015. Very early on, I found a great project jointly led by Andrea Kölzsch at the Department of Migration and Immuno-ecology at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology (MPIO), and Kees Koffijberg at SOVON Vogelonderzoek Nederland (SOVON). I used data collected by citizen scientists, as well as GPS tracking data, as part of long term monitoring of Arctic migratory geese in the Netherlands to test some ideas about whether migration and aggregation in these geese is related to the size of their families.

After I finished my master’s in 2017, I decided that I wanted to continue studying animal movement. I looked for a PhD position to work further with Arctic birds. This brought me back to to Bangalore, and I began working as a research assistant with Maria Thaker at CES, and Abi Vanak at ATREE.

Very soon, I will return to studying Arctic birds at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. For my PhD, I plan to study the movement of birds called Red Knots.  Red knots are a species of sandpiper, ie, small shorebirds that feed on molluscs they find along the beach. While they breed in the Canadian Arctic, they migrate to and winter in Holland.


© Hans Hillewaert, Wikmedia Commons


Imagine you have the power to go back in time to when you were in high school or undergrad. You get to explain a single cool finding/concept from your field of science/profession to your younger self. Can you do it in an easy to understand manner with as little scientific jargon as possible? (500 words limit)

A lesser known fact about bird migrations is that they can be highly variable!. Many species have developed some very interesting migration strategies. Sometimes, birds can make some very surprising migratory decisions. For example, a recent study showed that rock sandpipers (small shorebirds) living in Alaska, don’t migrate at all. Instead, they choose to remain on their breeding grounds, and brave the harsh Arctic winter of Alaska. This is surprising because otherwhen closely related birds with a similar diet and size undertake yearly migrations of 10,000 km or more.

Until around 12,000 years ago, a large area of warmer parts of Arctic Russia and Canada were covered by ice throughout the year. Today, they host millions of migratory birds. Therefore, 12,000 years ago, these regions were not conducive to bird migration in summer, as they are now. Over time, as the ice caps receded, bringing summer grasslands to the Arctic, sandpipers and waterbirds living in warmer areas began to establish migration patterns towards the tundra to exploit this newly available habitat.

This means that bird migration must be relatively quick to evolve, and migratory pathways quick to change. We have some idea of how fast this can happen. Citizen scientists’ observations have shown us that Barnacle geese, a European species, have over the last decade altered their migratory patterns. There are now three distinct strategies a goose can follow at the end of winter: fly back to Russia from Europe, in a series of shorter flights with numerous stops to feed; fly back to Russia in one quick, long distance flight after spending early spring in Europe, or finally, to not fly back at all and spend the summer in Europe.

Intensive agriculture allows some birds to remain in areas that would otherwise have been exhausted of food sources by the end of a season. Can this explain why the rock sandpipers of Alaska stay put in winter? These birds only manage to survive in winter because the population of their prey, a mussel called the Baltic clam, is exceptionally nutritious. This sustains them through harsh Arctic winter, helps them avoid a long and potentially dangerous migration.

In general, birds migrate in order to maximise the benefits they gain from their environment, and are intelligent enough to correctly gauge when they should depart a site based on their energy requirements. As scientists, we try to understand how they make these decisions, using experiments and observations. One of the latest developments in our studies has been miniature devices that record the position, temperature, heart-rate, or other variables of an animal. These are called biologgers because they monitor and report biological data from individual animals. Together with data from earth observation satellites, these biologgers allow us to test why, when, and where an animal moves through a landscape.

This broad field of biotelemetry coupled with movement ecology is now offering us unprecedented insights into how animals are coping with a rapidly changing world.

One comment

  1. Am impressed with the work of this gentleman. Pretty articulate also. Well spoken and well documented too!

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