Ongoing microscopic work in the Palynology laboratory
Ongoing microscopic work in the Palynology laboratory

We depend directly and indirectly on the vegetation around us, yet our understanding of its structure, composition and evolution is relatively poor. We are only beginning to understand its operation and urgently require viable plans for sustainable management of this vegetation. Thus, the main objective of the Department of Ecology (DoE) is to understand the dynamics and structure of vegetation and, more broadly, the functioning of ecosystems and landscapes.

The DoE, since its inception in the 1960s, has created a "scientific reference" for the unique vegetation of south India. The Department specialises broadly in research on the palynology (study of pollen), bioclimatology, and biogeography of plant communities in India and southeast Asia, with a large number of projects in the Western Ghats, which is identified as a global hotspot of Biodiversity. Our expertise in this area has resulted in a detailed mapping of the natural vegetation of southern India, which benefited from long-term collaborations with the Forest Departments of the southern states, especially, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka.

In 1990 a permanent forest monitoring plot, measuring 3.12 ha was set up in the lowland moist evergreen forest at Uppangala in the Western Ghats, with the cooperation of the Karnataka Forest Department, to promote a more intensive study of forest dynamics and response to environmental change.  Recently this plot was expanded to cover a total of 10 ha. We also monitor a large number of 1-ha plots covering almost the entire length of the Western Ghats, to facilitate modeling of species turnover and evolution of endemism.

Currently there are 4 main axes of research at the DoE:

Axis 1. Laboratory of forestry and botany

To understand the complex interactions and functions of wooded vegetation, we carry out temporal and spatial studies at multiple scales simultaneously. We use modern quantitative methods, which require the use of extended databases. With this objective, the DoE relies on large inventories of land and a deep taxonomic expertise gained over four decades of work conducted in the Western Ghats.

The projects aim to elucidate and model complex ecological processes and interactions at multiple scales in the Western Ghats. This produces both practical information for decision making and theoretical perspectives on the origin and maintenance of biodiversity through the implementation of numerical methods. The field-based studies are carried out mainly in the Western Ghats, and are supported by the databases and Herbarium (HIFP) maintained by the DoE.

The Western Ghats, which has been studied by the DoE for almost 40 years, is truly remarkable from an ecological perspective. This area is internationally renowned for being very rich in species that are endemic to this area and found no where else on earth. Given the relatively high human population density of this area, it is important to understand the distribution and protected status of endemic species of the Western Ghats, and one of the key questions studied at the DoE is whether endemic species are currently receiving adequate protection or if they might be better protected by changing the locations or rationalising the boundaries of existing Protected Areas (i.e., Sanctuaries and National Parks).

Recently a program to study “xylology” or anatomy of trees, was initiated at the DoE. These studies will complement the ongoing studies of forest dynamics and paleo-environments, as wood properties provide insights into development, growth and survival of trees. In addition, the study of growth rings in wood can be used to learn about forest structure and adaptations to climatic conditions. Such studies based on information available in wood are rare in India, especially for tropical tree species.

Axis 2. Laboratory of Palynology and Palaeoecology

The laboratory was established in November 1960 with Ph. Guinet as its Head under the Directorship of Jean Filliozat initially with the mandate of establishing a reference collection of pollen grains of tropical plant species and to publish scientific papers on their description. Gradually, sedimentological, aerobiological and melissopalynological studies were also initiated with pollen as the main tool. Research in this lab has been a holistic one with an approach that includes the human dimension provided by History and Archeology, since its very inception (Guinet, 1966). While this remains integral, powerful modern technologies such as remote sensing and computer aided identification have also been incorporated into recent projects. The present approach remains interdisciplinary and multi-proxy, in active collaboration with experts from Geology, Bioclimatology, Ecology, Phytogeography, Apidology also Indology and Social Sciences, keeping in mind the human dimension.

Thanikaimoni Pollen Slide collection: The laboratory has built up a huge collection of pollen reference slides of nearly 15500 plant species mainly from tropical India and also including those from other parts of the world on an exchange basis (collection ca., 22000 reference slides). Several scientific papers and books have been produced using this pollen collection and the available facilities like modern light microscopes with advanced microphotographic facilities, huge literature collection and a well-equipped chemical processing laboratory.

Being perhaps the largest pollen reference collection in Asia, particularly for Asian Tropical species, the requests to visit and use its expertise and facilities continue to come from all over the world. This resulted in the hosting of training programs and workshops and an attempt is being made to make available the resource online.

The basis for the laboratory was of course a strong foundation in the fundamentals – i.e., pollen morphology: a systematic collection and description of various species, with an understandable emphasis on Tropical Asian species (Guinet, 1972). To diversify and continue this foundation, recently an effort has been made to build up a similar reference collection of Phytoliths, another important biological proxy used in Paleoecology and Archeobotany, complementary to pollen in the proxy record.

It must be emphasized that there are only few other centers with palynological collections in India. These include, Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany and National Botanical Research Institute in Lucknow; Bose Institute, Kolkata and Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan in West Bengal; Agarkar Research Institute, Pune, Bangalore University and Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute and an upcoming one at the Environmental Resources Research Centre in Thiruvananthapuram. Compared to the Thanikaimoni pollen slide collection of over 22000, all these other collections put together account for less than 10000 (Garg, 2014).

IFP’s is the only centre devoted to Tropical Palynology in India (with the largest collection for Asia, as well). Hence, the success of this lab in completing its original mandate and building on it in tune with the needs of the Indian academia is a feather in the cap also for Indo French cooperation.

The projects ongoing in the laboratory currently include: 1. Palynological studies of sediment cores in south India ; 2. Landcover reconstruction in south India using pollen data ; 3. A Melissopalynological approach to Ecorestoration ; 4 Archeobotanical studies in neololithic and Paleolithic sites of Tamil Nadu ; 5 Basic pollen morphology studies.

Axis 3. Laboratory of Environmental Management

Because humans are numerous and our needs are insatiable, we have a very strong imprint on the environment. The DoE is also trying to understand the operation of the "human component" on other ecosystem components and processes (fauna, flora, soil, atmosphere ...), we carry out multidisciplinary studies that include ecological and social sciences.

How to propose more sustainable management of our environment? How to preserve living species while continuing to utilise them economically? How to continue to benefit from the services provided by our ecosystems without jeopardizing their survival? The projects in this emerging research area of DoE explores the conditions for sustainable management of biodiversity in human-dominated landscapes in India. These projects are based on detailed inventories of agroforestry landscapes and vegetation of these sites, as well as lifestyles of their players, to reconstruct the past workings and propose new management strategies combining biodiversity conservation and local development. They rely as much on recent methods of Environmental Sciences, Information Systems (GIS) and numerical models of landscape.

Axis 4. Methods for Ecology

The legacy of the DoE’s studies on forest biodiversity includes valuable tools such as free software and Internet-based applications. This activity includes the development of applications for IDAO, an aid to species identification on the computer through a graphical interface that enables the user to correctly obtain tree species’ identities and descriptions ( Thus, a botanist or walker in the Western Ghats forest is now able to identify with a good probability, the species in front of him, by use of the Biotik application and comparison with databases of IFP. This development received the Manthan Award (2009), which rewards the best innovations in e-content and creativity in India.

Another project underway at IFP is the development of an online portal of forest biodiversity of the Western Ghats, which provides access to various biodiversity databases, including the herbarium of the IFP and data developed with public participation (citizen science). This platform provides the basis for a network of key players involved in the study of the biodiversity of Western Ghats.

Contact: Dr. Raphaël Mathevet, Head of Department