Chasing Gooseberries With a Forest Ecologist

“They want to bring serious researchers back into JNU. The UGC that way has done a great job with the faculty recharge program, starting in various universities to try to get the stagnation out.”

Soumya Prasad. Credit: Aashima Dogra/TLoS

Soumya Prasad. Credit: Aashima Dogra/TLoS

The Life of Science – A volcano erupts in the ocean; an island is formed. A coconut floats from miles away. A fruit bat travels far to the island and takes a solitary poop.

The first seeds have arrived!

“Bats are invariably the first ones to bring seeds to newly-born islands. These are incredible creatures that disperse seeds to crazy distances. African Savannah elephants have also recently been shown to disperse seeds to 20 km and more,” she said, painting pictures in my head. I have never met Soumya Prasad, a forest ecologist specialising in seed dispersal, but we were catching up like long lost friends.

In her 10 years of work researching animal-plant communities inside Indian forests, she slid outside the canopy only to write papers, get grants and now to mentor other researchers at JNU. Her findings, if paid attention to, can save our forest ecosystems, which are currently being sliced by encroaching towns and infrastructure projects.

I am fully absorbed as she tells me her stories from the forests – most of which also take the shape of research papers published in small and big journals. She stops mid-sentence and offers to accompany me around the lush JNU campus to point at Lasoda trees (Cordia dichotoma) that are dispersed “only by civet cats and bears”. Animals that assist seed dispersion are the heroes in all her stories. And thanks to her, now I understand – that’s how trees migrate! They don’t have legs, trains, planes or cars but they have seeds and animal friends.

Sitting and looking at trees

On exciting days, Prasad will tag animals with transmitters to keep track of their movements. She has tagged five species in north Indian forests. She might also collect some dropping and set up cameras. But on a typical day on the field, Prasad will do many simpler things – get access from the forest officers, look for a tree with pulpy fruits and settle down for the next few hours very quietly in a well-hidden spot that offers a good view of the tree. The rest of the time her eyes stay fixed around the tree. She will observe and record everything that happens here.

One such day in Rajaji Nature Reserve, Dehradun, she made a discovery that defined her PhD research.

“I wanted to know which animal eats amla (Indian gooseberries). So I went to the forest, set up some silly (unsophisticated) cameras, and waited below the fruiting trees. Some people had said that Hornbill birds eat amla; no, they don’t. The animals eating amla and dispersing its seeds were deers – chital and barking deer.”

Prasad’s awe didn’t end there. Deer can’t reach the amla fruits on the tree on their own; she witnessed how the ecosystem provided another solution. There was another animal partnering with deer to help disperse amla.

“Langurs love the amla fruit. They eat it but don’t disperse it. They eat the pulp and drop the remaining fruit with the seed under the tree itself. And langurs are also very clumsy – when they move, they bring down all the fruit,” she said.

“Deer tend to follow langurs in the forest during the six-month-long amla fruiting season from October to March. The langur drop the fruits and the Deer eat them.”

Up and down the peer-review tunnel

When she tried to publish these results, for the first four years her paper was rejected several times. “There was a paper from the 80s that declared deer as ‘seed predators’. It basically said deer are destroying all large seeds like amla and don’t disperse them.” Prasad’s paper was suggesting the exact opposite.

The methodology of these two papers – Prasad’s and the other one – were completely different. This incident is a clear example of how the same research question can give opposite results because of differences in the methodology.

The older research was done by looking at the stomach contents of hunted deer and their droppings – where only damaged seeds were found, leading the biologist to believe that the deer had ground all the seeds. Prasad’s finding, on the other hand, was based on an observation in the forest which had never been recorded.

“The deers were doing something fascinating – they come, eat the fruits of amla, they retain it in their bellies for a few hours, and then when they are resting like goats and cows do, they bring it back as chew cud (mixing with saliva repeatedly).”

“They have a very specialised digestive system, with rumination in multi-chambered stomachs. The fruit goes in and because the seed is really hard and very large it can’t go into the second chamber. It’s not like grass, it doesn’t move beyond, it is brought back to the mouth, repeatedly chewed and then regurgitated. So this is not a seed that is being pooped out, it is being regurgitated.”

Prasad also worked with captive animals to get collect evidence of this regurgitation process.

“Thankfully, this Mexican scientist reviewed my paper on the 23rd attempt to publish it – and he had also observed similar effects in deer in Mexico.”

Surrounded by trees and role models

As a little girl, Prasad spent many of summer vacations in some or the other forest. Her father was a wildlife photographer, a nature lover, who paved the way for Prasad’s passion.

In old Bangalore, where she grew up, there was no falling short of role models. “In those days in the 90s, scientists were doing many outreach events for kids like we are planning in JNU. Every weekend we would go to the planetarium for a talk or workshop. The PhD students in Indian Institute of Science were inviting us into their labs and lecture halls to pass on the excitement of doing science.”

Prasad was hooked. She wanted to be a biologist, doing lots of field work, like her cousin, M.D Madhusudan, who would run off to the forest now and then to study tigers. When it was time to choose a college, she was adamant about going to the best place. Madhusudan had just started the Nature Conservation Fund and recommended the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun.

“Still, my family, especially my father, was very reluctant to let me go far away from the family. Even for my BSc, my father wanted me to attend a college really close to my house. It as Bangalore in the 90s and I was not allowed to take a bus to college which was further away. They’d say it’s not safe, why do you want to go that far…”

Since Madhusudan had been to WII, he knew it would be perfect for a sprouting wildlife biologist like Prasad. “He came and convinced my dad at this crucial juncture to let me go to WII. In those days, it was one of the best of the three institutes with masters in wildlife biology. So my cousin and his friends egged me on and off I went.”

WII was the best time she had in her life she said. “Everyone seriously interested in nature and conservation was there. You would learn more in the corridors than in the classrooms.” WII is also where she met her husband Raman. They have been married for 10 years.

After her masters in the WII, she spent some time whiling away with her two seniors, in Valparai, Tamil Nadu.

“We were sitting around doing nothing. I was done with Masters and they were done with their PhDs. We were looking at seedlings germinating in the backyard and we started plotting them. We were thinking of what to do, so we started this nursery, just like that. Because we had a lot of time on our hands.”

Today the nursery they started is a huge programme for restoring rainforests in the Anamalai Hill Range. Prasad has also developed a database of the woods there. “I went there last year and some of the plots that we first worked on are so tall. That was so satisfying.” Often, this field is depressing, so in moments like this, it must be quite a feeling.

JNU media circus was disturbing

Having joined the university only a year ago, Prasad considers herself to be a little bit of an outsider to JNU. But that is about to change as she is one of the few researchers recently employed to bring fresh new academic breeze into campus. She has been working with the top management to organise the first open day at JNU when everyone will be invited to interact with researchers there.

“I got into JNU as part of the Faculty Recharge Programme – a fantastic program set up by the University Grants Commission. The only thing they went by is my CV and my publication track record. So you upload your CV online and they interview you and they do a thorough review and entirely based on your qualifications, you are actually given a job,” she proclaimed.

My face must have responded with “Isn’t that how everyone gets a job?” She explained: “Eight of us who joined JNU through this program come from different institutions, we don’t have any JNU in our backgrounds. That’s unusual for JNU.”

“They want to bring serious researchers back into the university. The UGC that way has done a great job with the faculty recharge program starting in various universities to try to get the stagnation out.”

According to Prasad, the disturbing media circus that ensued at JNU months ago around the arrest of its student leaders was orchestrated by politicians and media in many ways. “In JNU there is a lot of engagement with various political parties. And they are trying to recruit to their clubs.” She said that a lot of people trying to be political are unaware of real issues in the country and have too much of a frog-in-the-well syndrome.

The focus is on all the wrong things, she protests. “There are various issues at JNU that all of us here should be concerned with.” These issues have to do with the research and teaching that happens at JNU. “And I wish people would talk about it or the student leaders would raise these issues.”

The media lens is also turned the wrong way. “If anybody wants to interview Kanhaiya about his PhD work and if they write about it, I would be very happy. Or like you want to know about my research – that is really surprising. Because nobody wants to know about our work. Nobody wants to know about that, nobody wants to write about that.”

“This is predominantly a research-based university,” she reminds us. JNU has no undergraduate programs other than languages. Researchers like Prasad don’t do any undergraduate teaching. Even the master programs, of which most schools run just one, there is minimal teaching. “We have a really good faculty and student ratio. The students we engage with, if they are masters or PhD,  are all doing research. I hardly engage with people who I’m meeting only in the classroom.”

“During the fiasco, life was disturbing in general and administration was a bit slack. It has only just picked up.” But the biggest blow to JNU from events of earlier this year is the image problem. Her students prefer to not mention they are from JNU when they are out seeking permissions and doing fieldwork. “We all have to listen to people’s deep opinions. Everyone thinks we are radical, crazy types.”

Prasad believes that these events may also impact student recruitment and funding for JNU in the near future, but may fade out in the longer run.

Soumya Prasad’s top tip for researchers

“I feel it is best to keep publishing just to stay active, just to stay thinking about your work. You need to be collaborating and not just in the country. Sometimes I feel as if, if I don’t do that I will die. In science, things needs to be written down. You can be doing all sorts of ambivalent things that take don’t take you anywhere. Be it paper or a book you need to have a target, an achievable one.

A thesis is really an imaginary aim that you need to go towards. This is what I tell my PhD students also: don’t think of your thesis as a whole, think of it as papers, doable units, one paper at a time, this is one paper – I can get to it this year. Second paper, next year. Then its doable. Then you combine the papers and you get the thesis.

If I don’t have a target in my mind, I’ll be lost. And that’s our job. Just like your job is to write for media, it is my job to write papers or books. So we need to accept it – that this is our job.  And get done with it.”

This piece was originally published by The Life of Science. The Wire is happy to support this project by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj, who are traveling across India to meet some fantastic women scientists.