Dr K Ravikumar’s office is bright and airy, and overlooks an even brighter stretch of foliage that is the Institute of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine (I-AIM) campus in north Bangalore. There are photographs of plants on the walls, and books about plants on his shelves. On the day I visited, sunlight streamed in from the large window near his desk, and I could tell he would much rather be outdoors. Dr Ravikumar is an authority on angiosperm taxonomy – over the course of his career, he has discovered 25 new plant species. Early on in our meeting, he gestured to a set of library-green hardbound books. Well-thumbed and stacked all in a row was the Flora of British India, compiled by Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker. “This is still the best resource we have, and it was written 150 years ago,” Dr Ravikumar told me.
Hooker’s Flora of British India, a seven-volume encyclopedia that names every plant species known to exist across the Indian Empire, was compiled over a period of 22 years, from 1875 to 1897. Around the time that he was putting together the first volume, Hooker was famously criticised for doing little more than “attaching barbarous binomials to foreign weeds”. The practice of systematic botany and zoology wasn’t highly respected, even in its heyday. Nearly a century and a half later, not much has changed. Taxonomists in India, the scientists who consider Hooker’s Flora to be something of a bible, find their work similarly discounted.
Several times over the course of working on this story, I was called on to clarify: “No, they’re not the people who stuff dead animals to display.” Taxonomists, unlike taxidermists, concern themselves with the classification – and naming – of all organisms. The “barbarous binomials” conferred by scientists like Dr Ravikumar allow us to frame, and order, the chaos of biodiversity around us. Even today, biologists are expected to know how to identify species, no matter what their specialty is.
Yet, taxonomy seems to be a dusty branch of science that few remember, and even fewer think is relevant. “It is fading away nowadays. Every student wants to do medicine, engineering, anything else,” said Dr Ravikumar.
By most accounts, taxonomy in India is in the midst of a crisis. At the very least, it’s in somewhat of a slump. Existing volumes of the Flora of India, released infrequently and in haphazard order since 1993 by the Botanical Survey of India, don’t even cover 20 percent of the present-day national flora, Dr Ravikumar told me. “The kind of documentation we need requires an army of taxonomists,” he said. It’s an army we don’t have.
Animal taxonomy is facing the same plight. Dr Gururaja KV, a batrachologist at Gubbi Labs, a research collective based in Bangalore, said that his area of study – the field of frogs – is woefully unmanned. “There are hardly 15 frog biologists across the country. That is nothing, given our biodiversity,” he pointed out. It’s a problem that bears addressing. In 2015, while commemorating the centenary of the Zoological Survey of India, Prakash Javadekar, then-Union minister of Environment, Forest and Climate, pleaded with taxonomists to reach out to students and create more enthusiasm about the basic sciences.
So why has interest in taxonomy waned so drastically? As it turns out, there are several reasons. Dr R Ganesan, a researcher at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) who specialises in flowering plant taxonomy, explained: “There’s an apathy about the field – that it’s all history, and there’s nothing new to be documented.” This is a misconception.
In fact, the chances of discovering new species in India are actually quite high. Even with their numbers dwindling, taxonomists identified 614 new species of plants and animals in 2014; in 2015, they found 445 more. Still, Dr Ganesan said, very few students consider taxonomy a viable career option. Research positions are few, and difficult to come by. It’s also exceedingly challenging to obtain funding for purely taxonomy-focused projects, he pointed out. “I can’t exclusively do plant taxonomy and ask the government for money. So we practice it as a kind of hidden agenda. We write grant proposals that highlight resource development or conservation,” he explained.
When I spoke with him over the phone, Dr Ganesan was out on fieldwork in a remote region in southern Tamil Nadu. The area had been classified as arid, barren wasteland, allocated by the government to the paper pulp industry for growing eucalyptus. Dr Ganesan and his team recently found eight hitherto-undiscovered plant species on that land, and he hopes to find a way to protect their only known habitat from being turned into a plantation.
Students these days have to realise that taxonomy is an applied field, he said. For rare species especially, the right identification matters. Information on their classification, their range, and their numbers helps secure resources for their conservation – after all, we can’t protect what we don’t know is endangered, or what we think is something else entirely. Taxonomy is also far from static. “We can learn about adaptability, and make predictions about climate change through taxonomical studies too,” said Ganesan. “Distributions change, plant behaviour changes. This is data we need.”
But scientists are struggling to convey any of this and recruit a future generation of explorers and discoverers. Dr Navendu Page, who has described three new species of trees and shrubs in as many years, is one of the younger scientists practicing taxonomy in India. At 31, Dr Page, who works at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, is generations apart from nearly all of his peers. He said it’s the education system that is largely to blame. “There are very few courses offered in taxonomy at a higher level. And there just aren’t many good teachers left. If it becomes only about diving into scientific names and technical aspects, it is a dry, daunting subject,” he said.
For students to become interested in botany, in zoology, in the naming of plants and animals around them, they have to step out of the classroom or laboratory, said Dr Page. His love for nature and wildlife was instilled early on: not in school, but by his mother, an avid mountaineer and trekker. Dr Ganesan told me much the same thing: there’s no substitute for first-hand field experience. “You have to feel with your hands and eyes, to appreciate tiny variations, and it will be there in your mind forever. You cannot just redraw morphological features from the internet,” he said.
Most scientists engaged in taxonomical studies try to spend as much time as they can off the internet, and out in the field collecting specimens. The specimens they collect on an expedition are then carefully preserved, in much the same way they’ve been preserved for hundreds of years. In Dr Ravikumar’s office at I-AIM, plants from his team’s recent visit to the northeast had been dried and pressed, ready to be catalogued into his herbarium. I-AIM’s library of over 45,000 medicinal plants, collected since 1993, is considered to be one of the finest in Bangalore. “My life’s work is here in this room,” said Dr Ravikumar. Although there is plenty to marvel over on these shelves and within the stacks, not too many students spend much time in the herbarium these days, he told me.
Before the fragile specimens make their way into the herbarium, they are first mounted carefully onto herbarium sheets, which happens in an adjacent, equally sunlit wing. When scientists measure hundreds of morphological characteristics, taxonomy looks a lot like math, but this process, involving delicate fingers, some glue and sometimes a stitch or two to keep woody stems attached to handmade, acid-free paper, seemed to me a lot like art.
In another room, before the herbarium sheets are deposited into the stacks, they are individually scanned and uploaded. Data logging is a constant, painstaking effort, but, as Dr Ravikumar explained, it is invaluable for scientists and students who can’t make it to Yelahanka, Bangalore, to be able to study the plants they are interested in. In the course of their research, before they submit their own work for review to academic journals, taxonomists are expected to study existing herbarium sheets just like the ones Dr Ravikumar has spent years collecting.
It’s important for taxonomists to compare and cross-reference relevant Flora and other published literature. “We have to be clear about how the species differs from all known species,” Dr Page explained. There is no comprehensive global database (though resources like The Plant List do maintain working records), so taxonomists in different parts of the world need to make sure they aren’t describing a species that’s already been identified, or describing a new species when it could just be an undocumented variation.
Molecular technology is helping to shed light on these grey areas. “With recent developments in gene sequencing, we’ve sifted out a lot of cryptic species. For instance, the fan-throated lizard or the wrinkled frog looked similar to existing species, but their genes are different,” said Dr Gururaja of Gubbi Labs. Aside from analysing frog DNA, he also studies the animals’ osteology, or bone structure, and the pattern of their calls. “Multiple lines of evidence – from morphology, from ecology, from genetics – just means the taxonomist today is better informed,” he said. Taxonomy is still a field that needs fieldwork, but increasingly, it is aided by digital tools.
It is advancing in other ways too. Taxonomists like Dr Gururaja are trying to make the process of discovering and describing species more of a communal effort. What is required is a collaborative effort and network, he said, much like the army Dr Ravikumar had spoken of. “For decades there were only 4-5 authorities on insect taxa in India – they never trained anyone else and now people feel there is nobody carrying on the work on insects,” said Dr Gururaja. The way forward, he said, is to work with more people wherever possible.
Through Dr Gururaja’s Frog Watch program, conducted in biodiversity hotspots around south India, citizens, and not just scientists, can learn how to identify species of frogs. They take photographs, study acoustic communication and breeding behaviour, and the data they collect helps Dr Gururaja map amphibians in the region. This open-source, creative commons approach to taxonomy research has already reaped rewards. Over the last few years, his Frog Watch team has monitored the Malabar Tree Toad, a species listed for decades as an endangered species due to infrequent sightings. The team recorded more than 35 observations last year, and mapped its distribution to a wide area around the Western Ghats. Based on their findings, the toad was delisted from endangered to vulnerable, a critical development in amphibian conservation.
“We involved people, and that changed everything,” said Dr Gururaja. It looks like that much-needed army of explorers might just be forming after all.
What’s in a name, anyway?
In January this year, a species of moth found in southern California and northern Mexico was described as Neopalpa donaldtrumpi. The moth’s head covering – and allegedly, the size of its genitals – were evocative of the President-Elect, now the 45th President of the United States. Donald Trump is one among hundreds of famous names to populate the animal and plant kingdoms. A few years ago, taxonomists bestowed a similar honour on Beyonce: Scaptia (Plinthina) beyonceae is a horse fly whose rounded golden bottom reminded the scientist of Queen B’s. Closer home, a spider in the Western Ghats, shaped somewhat like a sorting hat from the Harry Potter series, was named Eriovixia gryffindori. Clearly, taxonomists the world over aren’t limiting themselves to unpronounceable Latin double barrels. The profession may involve measuring minutiae and waiting years to be published, but when it comes to the naming of species, it looks like scientists are having a bit of fun.
Being immortalised in taxa is not always the result of notable celebrity morphology. In most cases, Dr Gururaja KV told me, it’s driven by the hope that the newly named species will help commercialise the scientist’s work, and bring in money for research. Sometimes a name can be more of a commemoration: Avahi cleesei for instance, is a species of lemur named after John Cleese, who filmed a documentary to raise awareness about endangered lemurs. Sylvilagus palustris hefneri is a marsh rabbit that isn’t known to be a playboy bunny, but Hugh Hefner funded the fieldwork.
New species are often named after scientists as well. In India, Micrixalus gadgili is a frog named after renowned ecologist Madhav Gadgil, but Gadgil didn’t name it. (It was described by SD Biju.) “There’s no rule as such, but ethically, taxonomists prefer not to name species after themselves,” said Dr Gururaja, who prefers to choose monikers based on the species’ own characteristics. His Kumbara night frog, or Nyctibatrachus kumbara, named after the Kannada word for potter, has a very artistic way of plastering mud from the stream onto its eggs. Dr Gururaja tends to select simple, approachable names that are rooted in regional languages.
Dr R Ganesan, too, prefers to choose names based on some unique aspect of the species. Litsea kakkachensis, a laurel plant he described in 2011, was named after Kakkachi, the region in the Western Ghats where it was first collected. “There’s a lot of responsibility associated with describing a new species,” he added. People would always be able to trace the species back to the scientist who described it, so they have to be systematic in their research and the process of peer review. No scientist wants to risk stigma about veracity, no matter how big the thrill of having your name (and the name you choose) recorded for posterity.
But ultimately, taxonomy isn’t a race whose reward is the chance to attach a binomial (even one that is less than barbarous). “It’s not just about naming a species,” said Dr Gururaja. “When you see a frog, you see how it dances, how it croaks, how it covers its eggs. You are not worried about its name. How it does what it does, what its ecological habitat is, how it evolved – all this matters more.”