Species in red

As always, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list, which catalogues the endangered species of the world, has brought in good and bad news alike. At least four species from India figure in the ‘critically enangered’ category — two animals and two plants. Some were already in that category and some have got upgraded following further decline in their numbers.

The recently discovered resplendent shrubfrog Raorchestes resplendens living in the Anamudi summit in the Eravikulam National Park of Kerala is a curious case. Less than 300 of these amphibians are believed to be living on this summit in a territory not bigger than three square kilometres. Their population is going down though the cause for such decline remains unknown.

The Great Indian Bustard Ardeotis nigriceps has been uplisted to ‘critically endangered’ following extremely rapid decline primarily due to habitat loss and degradation. Earlier found in the Thar desert and Deccan tableland, it is now confined to Rajasthan (175 birds), with smaller populations (less than 50 birds) in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, and about 20 each in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka.

The two plant species — Syzygium travancoricum, a native of Kerala and Ilex khasiana from the Khasi hills of Meghalaya — are equally intriguing. The Kerala species has a very small reported population (less than 200). The sacred grove of Aickad is reported to harbour four of these trees and another 15 to 20 have been seen at Guddrikal.

Ilex khasiana, on the other hand, is barely there. Occurring in mixed evergreen forests, only 3-4 trees are hanging on to dear life on the Shillong Peak! That makes this species a must see next time in Shillong.

Of the 62,000 species that the IUCN evaluated, nearly 20,000 are threatened. And like always, the red list has put the spotlight on these species, urging to protect them through renewed conservation efforts.

Indus comes to India

Heavy flooding has apparently pushed Pakistan’s Indus river, bed of the great Indus valley civilisation, into Indian territory via the Rann of Kutch, according to new satellite data. Though the study is yet to be peer reviewed or published, Gujarat University researchers working on the water bodies of the west Indian state say they have found satellite data that shows the river has re-entered India and is feeding a lake near Ahmedabad.

Y. T. Jasrai, the professor who oversees the climate change programme at the School of Sciences in Gujarat University, says they are in the process of writing the manuscript and would be submitting it to a journal this month. His post-doctoral student Rohan Thakkar found streaks of blue through the Rann of Kutch while scanning satellite images. These streaks signal the entry of the river into Indian territory.

Geographical data supports the theory that the river, earlier following this very route, may have shifted course after an earthquake in 1819. Silting in the Indus river basin is also being seen as another reason that might have brought about the present change in the river’s course.

The re-entry of Indus into Gujarat is expected to benefit the water-starved Kutch and Bhal regions of the state.

It would be nice to see the study peer reviewed soon.

Deadly bugs

Recovering slowly after a particularly stressful battle with dengue, I am told that I should be thankful I got the virus this year. Reason: the virus circulating this year in the national capital region of Delhi is far less virulent than its cousin from last year. “If you came with dengue last year, we would have had a tougher time managing it,” the attending doctor said by way of comforting my weak body and soul.

Well, whatever they say about first hand experience is true. After having reported for ages on vector-borne diseases, the first brush with a near-fatal condition has left me more interested in the bugs scene in the national capital region of India, in particular, and in this country in general — teeming with a variety of these tiny winged creatures this time of the year. Dengue is now commonplace in the National Capital Region of Delhi. People don’t get shocked to hear they have dengue — it has now become a ‘manageable disease’, like malaria.

The National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme has a tough time during these seasonal spurts in cases of dengue, malaria, chikungunya and Japanese encephelitis.

Amidst all this distress, we now have a new study reporting that Leishmania donovani, the bug causing Kala-azar, is showing significant genetic diversity in the state of Bihar making it more drug resistant and widely prevalent in that part of the country. Incidentally, Bihar accounts for 90% of all cases in Asia due to ignorance, poverty, and low treatment compliance.

I seem to be hearing about new bugs every season. Have you been too?

Dating for techies?

Now, this one really amused me.

Sometime back while we were reinventing the Nature India website and inviting suggestions from our readers, someone said it would be a great idea to introduce a dating/matrimonial corner for scientists. Though we did not take up the suggestion on grounds that it might not gel with our core objectives, it looks like the idea has been bounced around. And some enterprising youngsters have actually created a social dating site for students of the country’s elite technology and management schools — the IITs and IIMs!

So when I saw DateIITians, I didn’t bury my curiosity. I browsed around to find that the site was still under construction in parts. In the age of social networking, it does not come as a surprise that someone has tailor-made a dating site for techies and management graduates. What I could not understand though was why a site meant for Indian students should have European-looking models! The objectives and privacy policy of the site are very well laid out. And apparently, there’s a waitlist running for enrollment!

Do you know of more such networking/dating sites for scientists, tech graduates? Write in. It would be interesting to track this new social trend.

Doing science in India

This week I was rummaging through data to understand what it means to be a scientist in India. I poured into fresh government policy documents, funding proposals and announcements. I read again the Prime Minister’s address to the Indian Science Congress. I pursued with interest the angry voices of post-docs and scientists in the Nature India forum. I spoke to women scientists who have their share of problems. And some more.

All this in a week that saw one of the biggest fights against corruption on Indian soil by Gandhian Anna Hazare and thousands of his followers. The issue of corruption and nepotism in the scientific administration in India has also been a topic of hot debate in the Nature India forum.

The result of this research was a guest blog piece I wrote on invitation from Nature Network. The piece aims to aid the monthly discussion series Science Online NYC (SoNYC) held in New York City where invited panellists talk about a particular topic related to how science is carried out and communicated online. The topic this time would cover, among other things, science in developing countries.

Please feel free to comment on the issue here.

Shuttle shuts shop

India’s GSAT-12 Communication Satellite, launched onboard Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C17), perched itself successfully in the geosynchronous orbit this week. On the other side of the globe, curtains came down on NASA’s three decade long space shuttle programme.

Here’s a lovely video made by colleagues at Nature Videos marking the end of NASA’s shuttle programme with the return of Atlantis to Earth: Space Shuttle: The complete missions .

The video is a journey of NASA’s incredible reusable space transportation system that sent five shuttles — Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour — with 355 men and women into space. It has endearing visuals of their triumphs and losses, the rigours of a space mission and the techonological prowess involved in such programmes.

American President Ronald Reagan’s historic words after the crash of Challenger in January 1986 seem prophetic on hindsight as the shuttle programme’s dream run comes to an end: “The future doesn’t belong to the faint hearted, it belongs to the brave.”

You might also want to read this Nature Network blog interviewing Charlotte Stoddart of the Nature Video team on the making of the video. There’s also a Nature special talking about the end of the space shuttle programme and the uncertain future of the human space flight.

Caffeine alert

What would we expect from an energy drink? An instant blast of energy, of course. But do we even know where that energy comes from? Are our energy drinks safe?

Research into the contents of eight energy drink brands by New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Enviroment has now found ‘dangerous’ levels of caffeine in these beverages — way higher than permissible limits. These levels were obviously either not mentioned or fudged on the packaging.

Close to half of the samples of popular energy drinks tested by the centre’s lab were found breaching the safe limit of 145 parts per million (ppm) of caffeine prescribed by the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act of 1954.

Regular intake of high levels of caffeine is known to result in hypokalemia (low potassium levels), hallucinations, increased intracranial pressure, cerebral edema, stroke, paralysis, rhabdomyolysis (muscle fibers in blood), altered consciousness, rigidity, seizures, arrhythmias, and even death.

These energy drinks — targetted at the youth — are also marketed as sports drinks and bought in bulk by gyms, bars and clubs. However, consumed during intense physical activity, they can actually lead to dehydration.

It’s alarming how easily dubious foods and beverages can be marketed in this country!