Chennai

Chennai biodiversity project clocks 37,000 observations in three years; documentation of ‘nearby nature’ proliferates during the pandemic

Domino roaches. This species is endemic to the Coromandel Coast. They feed on leaf litter and decaying organic matter, and for this reason, are bracketed along with detritivores. In manicured garden, one does not find them. Leave leaf litter alone, and you would be inviting these creatures home

Domino roaches. This species is endemic to the Coromandel Coast. They feed on leaf litter and decaying organic matter, and for this reason, are bracketed along with detritivores. In manicured garden, one does not find them. Leave leaf litter alone, and you would be inviting these creatures home | Photo Credit: M Yuvan

There is the inevitable “Santiago moment” to be lived. It can probably be postponed, never ducked. Everyone lives it, in different contexts. This moment demonstrates with epigrammatic clarity that the “nearby” and “close-at-hand” are just as fascinating as the “faraway” and “hard-to-reach”. At the height of the pandemic, naturalists lived the Santiago moment many times over, a fact reflected in the observations at “Biodiversity of Chennai”, a home-grown project on the iNaturalist platform.

The “Biodiversity of Chennai” section on iNaturalist.org

The “Biodiversity of Chennai” section on iNaturalist.org | Photo Credit: M Yuvan

Here is a digression, for the sake of perspective. Centred around the travels and adventures of Santiago, its protagonist, The Alchemist by Paul Coelho promotes a form of pareidolia, inviting the reader to discover various meanings at different times of their life’s journey. In a widely-recognised interpretation of its central meaning, it seems to strike a blow for the “familiar”. In the novel’s denouement — which to some might come across as an anti-climax — Santiago finds a treasure of great worth buried in an old, familiar haunt, after he had strayed far and wide in search of just that kind of a largesse.

Ditch jewel dragonflies. Through the year, they are the most common dragonflies. They breed in marsh lands, and have a high tolerance threshold for sewage and any other form of contaminated water, which is why they known as brachythemis contaminata and are easily sighted in urban environments. While odonates as a whole are on a decline, this species seems to be bucking the trend.

Ditch jewel dragonflies. Through the year, they are the most common dragonflies. They breed in marsh lands, and have a high tolerance threshold for sewage and any other form of contaminated water, which is why they known as brachythemis contaminata and are easily sighted in urban environments. While odonates as a whole are on a decline, this species seems to be bucking the trend. | Photo Credit: M Yuvan

The lockdowns striking the “far” and “wide” off naturalists’ maps, there was suddenly a keen appreciation of “nearby nature”, the life forms around them, their senses having been quickened to register their presence, notes naturalist M Yuvan.

The species that came up repeatedly in the “trawl net” were what had earlier been “unfamiliar regulars”. They had been ignored simply because they were regulars. Yuvan remarks that they had been ignored to the point that on discovery, they seemed exotic. He presents a few examples. Sweat bees, “which is in every garden pot” held centre stage. “Among bees, there are social bees and solitary bees. The sweat bee is a common example of a solitary bee. They would be found in any watered potted plants. The sweat bees may lack the highly complex social structure of the social bees, but the female bees do form a sisterhood, building a burrow and nesting together,” elaborates Yuvan.

Sweat bees. Among bees, there are social bees and solitary bees. The sweat bee is a common example of a solitary bee. They would be found in any watered potted plants. The sweat bees may lack the highly complex social structure of the social bees, but the female bees do form a sisterhood, building a burrow and nesting together.

Sweat bees. Among bees, there are social bees and solitary bees. The sweat bee is a common example of a solitary bee. They would be found in any watered potted plants. The sweat bees may lack the highly complex social structure of the social bees, but the female bees do form a sisterhood, building a burrow and nesting together. | Photo Credit: M Yuvan

Leaf-cutter bees, which have a way of cutting leaves of certain trees in a semi-circular fashion, found themselves in the limelight — well, the camera flashlight, if one insists on factual correctness. The potter wasp, “which builds nest in every imaginable nook and cranny around the house”, would have been startled by the sudden glare of attention.

The process
M Yuvan, naturalist, explains how someone can contribute to building data at the Biodiversity of Chennai project, on iNaturalist.org.
One just has to take a photo of the taxa one comes across and post them, having joined the community.
Yuvan elaborates: “If the post has more than two agreements about the species identification, it becomes research-grade. Along with the images, one needs to specify the date, time and location. After two approvals have earned it research-grade status, the observation becomes scientific and becomes fodder for informed scientific research and observations . If you go to Google, and type iNaturalist and scientific papers, you would find a mind-boggling number of them. The number of scientific papers that are coming from citizen science is indeed phenomenal.”
The Biodiversity of Chennai can be accessed at https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/biodiversity-of-chennai

Due to this, the outcome of the exercise to record the “Biodiversity of Chennai”, launched in April, 2019, has proved counter-intuitive. One would have expected observations to have dipped during the pandemic, but they were on a par with those from the pre-pandemic year.

At last count, the project has 37,202 observations, 3631 species identified, 1988 identifiers and 843 observers (or the number of people who have contributed to the project).

Potter wasps.  They ensconce themselves in door hinges, wall vertices and corners. You would find them under taps to collect wet mud and build their nests.

Potter wasps. They ensconce themselves in door hinges, wall vertices and corners. You would find them under taps to collect wet mud and build their nests. | Photo Credit: M Yuvan

iNaturalist allows observations of all kinds of taxa — every member of the kingdom animalia, kingdom fungi and kingdom plantae.

Three years ago, when it was on the ground floor, the Biodiversity of Chennai project had young naturalists M Yuvan, Vikas Madhav Nagarajan, Mahathi Narayanaswamy and Rohith Srinivasan initiating it. As it climbed up the floors, the project has had an increasing throng of naturalists packing those higher floors. The heartening part of it is that many young naturalists currently in college or barely out of it, and some even bothering their head about school assignments, have sent in their records.

As with almost all other citizen science platforms, iNaturalist does not set the filter to prior knowledge about a species. The contributor can learn about the species — often times, from the ground up, starting first with its very name — from the rest of the community. People can put their observations up on the platform, even if they do not know the species from Adam. Yuvan illustrates it: “If someone has not made sense of morning glory, they just have to type plant. The photo identification will take care of that. There are resource persons who are watching it. You cannot go all over the world to study bees. If you put up an image of a bee that you have captured in your neck of the woods, there are thousands others out there who are watching it. Some of them will throw light on it. If a bee from the Chennai region finds the spotlight, I am likely to notice it, as I am invested in what observations are coming from this metro. While everyone can view anything posted from any part of the world, they are likely to closely watch the species and region they are invested in.”

The naturalist reiterates what is now an increasingly-appreciated fact about citizen science platforms: “Just pure documentation can lead to conservation of biodiversity”.

Yuvan elaborates: “There are any number of examples to illustrate it. Take the very important conservation battles in the last five years in Tamil Nadu, from the Adyar Estuary road to Vedanthangal, and you will notice that citizen science helped us. The Environment Impact Assessement told us there are only around 30 species of birds in Vedanthangal, and eBird (a citizen-science platform) has documented 195 species of birds from Vedanthangal.”


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Printable version | Jun 27, 2022 6:06:48 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/chennai-biodiversity-project-clocks-37000-observations-in-three-years-documentation-of-nearby-nature-proliferates-during-the-pandemic/article65443053.ece