A Soupçon of SciComm with V. Deepak on Convergent Evolution

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  • Who are you and what do you do?

My name is  V. Deepak, and I am a herpetologist. I am currently doing my postdoc in the Department of Life Sciences at the Natural History Museum in London.

My area of research is systematics, ecology and evolution in reptiles. I have been collaborating with various research groups in understanding and documenting diversity of reptiles in Asia. Documenting the number of species found in an area (species diversity) is important to understand global patterns in species distribution and conservation of species.

I am currently researching one group of snakes called Natricines. This group has the highest diversity in Asia, with some species also found in Africa and North America. Natricine snakes are largely aquatic with a few terrestrial species. All the Natricine snakes (56 species) occurring in North America give birth to live young but all except one in Asia are egg laying.

 

  • How did you get where you are? (academically/professionally)

I completed my undergraduate degree in Zoology from Loyola College, Chennai. I was fortunate that my nascent interest in wildlife research was actively encouraged by my professors. My family also had a greater role to play because they supported my field of choice which involves possibly dangerous trips into remote forests to study reptiles.   

I got a Master’s degree in Wildlife Biology from A.V.C College, Mayiladuthurai. For my MSc dissertation, I studied the population status of a lizard (Salea anamallayana) found only in the high elevations.

Soon after my MSc I joined as research fellow with the Forest Department in Karnataka to survey and document reptiles and amphibians (Herpetofauna) which was for 3 months.

Later in 2006, I joined a project as a research fellow in Wildlife Institute of India to study two endemic turtles (Cane turtle and Travancore tortoise) in Western Ghats. This project lasted until 2010 and a major portion of this research shaped my PhD work. I radio-tracked and surveyed turtles to understand their behaviour and ecology. I was helped by two field assistants, who helped me manually measure a forest plot of 110 hectares every 20 meters and characterise the microhabitats in this patch of rainforest. It was hard work and I am very thankful to them. Overall,  the results of this study greatly increased our understanding about their activity patterns and how these two species use their respective microhabitats at different times of the year.

Looking back, these were the most exciting times of my research career. Apart from watching turtles, I also observed and studied many other snakes, frogs and lizards thus helping to increase  the already minimal documentation that was available.

After my PhD, I went to Egypt with a research team and did some freelance work to document and study herpetofaunal diversity. I followed it up by working with  Professor Sushil Dutta. Professor Dutta is a a famous Batrachologist or someone who studies amphibians. During my time with him, I studied lizard collections at the North Orissa University, Odisha and Zoological Survey of India, Kolkata.

The allure of freelancing beckoned me again and I started working with colleagues on ongoing projects to sample lizards in Peninsular India. During the time spent doing these surveys and my study of the lizard collections in Odisha and Kolkata, I became very interested in fan throated lizards..

These lizards are small, brown, terrestrial lizards found across India but some show different features. With a view to quantify these features in various populations of fan-throated lizards (Genus: Sitana), I wrote a proposal in 2012 and joined Dr. Praveen Karanth’s lab at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. This was my first postdoctoral research project from 2013 to 2016, funded by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India.

During this period with the help of various collaborators, naturalists and friends I travelled across India sampling for lizards. I came back to the lab and collected morphological and molecular data to understand and quantify the variation in these lizards. These lizards are a  species complex made up of more than a dozen species. To our surprise, we also found a new unknown genus (Sarada)! Our studies show that fan-throated lizards evolved with changes in climate and habitat types of the Indian subcontinent.

In 2017, I was awarded a Marie-Curie fellowship and moved to London in October. I currently work with Dr. David Gower at the Natural History Museum. My current research focuses on when and how Natricine snakes have diversified over time. And more importantly, why different species of Natricine snakes show different distributions across the world.     

 

  • 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 scientific finding/scientific concept from your field or profession to your younger self. Can you do it in an easy to understand manner with as little scientific jargon as possible? 

Sometimes, distantly related animals that live in different parts of the world, evolve similar traits in order to adapt to similar environments. This process is called Convergent Evolution.  

There are several studies and literatures on convergent evolution in birds, mammals, amphibians and plants. My favourite example is from one of my favourite group of animals, amphibians. Frogs actually have pretty complex ways of  communicating with other frogs. Most of them use different forms of vocalisations or sounds but there are some frogs that also use visual signals.

By SathyabhamaDasBiju [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons
Imagine trying to listen to a quiet conversation over a very noisy stream. Vocalisation is not useful as a mode of communication in such cases when the background noise is high. Therefore,  a group of frogs that live near these noisy streams have evolved a way of communicating with each other using visual signals. Scientists call this “foot flagging” behaviour because these otherwise dark skinned frogs use their lightly coloured feet to signal other frogs. They open and raise their hind foot, very much like a flag, to communicate with other frogs. There is a group of frogs in the Western Ghats called torrent frogs or dancing frogs (Genus: Micrixalus). This is because they use this ‘foot flagging’ behavior that makes it seem like they are dancing!

Distantly related frogs from South America and Borneo have also evolved this foot flagging behaviour because they also live very close to loud flowing water.  As we can see, frogs that live across continents, in similar habitats have independently evolved similar solutions to similar problems. This is convergent evolution.

I find ecological processes to be very fascinating and intriguing. We currently know so much about so many of these processes because of the hard work done by researchers/scientists. They spend time to go out into natural habitats to observe and document plants/animals and their interactions with their surroundings.

Sadly, large proportions of these natural habitats are being modified for development or agriculture every day. I believe that science communication helps scientists to talk about their work with the public, to help the common person recognize and understand fascinating processes like convergent evolution. Moving forward, this will help us, as human beings, to take more responsibility and work harder towards the conservation of natural habitats and species.

 

References:

  1. Deepak on Twitter
  2. BBC Earth article on fan throated lizards
  3. Scientific Article in Contributions to Zoology
  4. Diversification in fan-throated lizards
  5. Convergent evolution in an Indian lizard

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