Butterfly effect: Meet the team protecting biodiversity in India

Student researchers are protecting biodiversity by increasing butterfly pollination in the Western Ghats of India

By Rob van Daalen - April 21, 2020
Ankur team collage
Students on Dr. Ankur Patwardhan’s Biodiversity Team at Maharashtra Education Society’s Abasaheb Garware College doing field work in the Western Ghats of India (Photos by Rob van Daalen)

One of the most beautiful areas of India is the Western Ghats, a long mountain range parallel to the western coast and one of the world's 10 "hottest biodiversity hotspots." It has thousands of plant species and insects, hundreds of different mammals (tigers, bears, leopards, wild boars, black panthers, macaque), and hundreds of birds, amphibians, and freshwater fish species. At least 325 globally threatened species make their home in the Western Ghats, and it is likely that many undiscovered species live there too.

View from the mountains in the Western Ghats of India (Photo by Rob van Daalen)

Biodiversity is under pressure worldwide, and a recent article published in Biological Conservation, which presents a comprehensive review of 73 historical reports, reveals dramatic rates of decline that may lead to the extinction of 40 percent of the world's insect species over the next few decades. Another article in the same journal claims that in the state island of Singapore, nearly half the butterfly species will be  extirpated in 160 years.

Dr. Ankur Patwardhan, Head of the Biodiversity Department at Maharashtra Education Society’s Abasaheb Garware College in Pune, India, was last year’s winner of the Elsevier Foundation-ISC3 Green and Sustainable Chemistry Challenge for his project: “Butterfly attractant for pollination and ecosystem health.” The project, which combines ecology and chemistry, involves field observations and lab-based experiments.

Watch a video of their research

In February, Ankur invited me to his college to give an Author Workshop.

Rob van Daalen, Senior Publisher at Elsevier, gives an Author workshop at Abasaheb Garware College in Pune, India, before heading to the Western Ghats with Ankur’s research team.

After that, we visited the Western Ghats, where he is running his projects with a small but very motivated team of students. Ankur explained:

Our primary goal is to develop a natural bio-attractant to improve plant-pollinator interaction, especially butterflies, thereby aiding pollination. This will have a positive impact on fruit set in wild plants thereby conserving biodiversity. The green bio-attractant we are preparing will be target specific, environmentally friendly and doesn't have any residual effects. It’s water based and will be user friendly and can be used by farmers.

Pollination is a phenomenon that is essential to maintaining ecosystem health and biodiversity. Climate change has severely affected the flowering and fruiting cycles in plants. Excessive use of insecticides has also negatively impacted the population of honeybees and other pollinators, resulting in decreasing crop yields and wild plant occurrence. Attempts have been made to develop artificial attractants of honeybees, but there were no reports for developing such lures for butterflies, even thought they are responsible for 30 percent of the pollination in the Western Ghats.

The visits of butterflies to the crops and wild plants are random, so a lot of pollen grains of one variety of plant get transferred to the plants of another variety and become ineffective. There is an urgent need to address these losses.

In the field study, Ankur’s research team observes plant species that are frequently visited by butterflies. Extracts of the various parts of these plants or the corresponding essential oils are expected to possess attractant properties. The students analyze nectar and essential oil composition in the lab to develop formulations that increase the efficiency of pollination.

They also study color preference by making paper flowers with different colors holding the same sugar solution as nectar.

Students “plant” paper flowers to see which colors butterflies prefer. (Photo by Rob van Daalen)

The team experiences challenges that are quite unusual to us; monkeys regularly raid the test fields.

The proposed methodology is environmentally friendly and will provide more sustainable use of natural resources. The improved pollination efficiency will help ensure the biodiversity in this fragile part of India.

Ankur is passionate about his research, and he absolutely loves butterflies. He confessed to me that he sometimes imagines how it is to fly like a butterfly in the Western Ghats. This passion extends into his personal life. At home, he has built a small butterfly garden, which he proudly showed to me.

Ankur (third from left) at home with his family and students. By his side is Rob van Daalen, author of this story.

For Ankur and his team, the Green and Sustainable Chemistry award is helping them visibility for their research as they seek to apply it in the world around them:

It’s given us a global platform to present our idea and share and learn from each other’s experiences. It also helped us getting recognition at the institute and university level. The award news received a wide coverage in the local media and helped us to reach to the grass roots. It’s also facilitated the interaction with the forest officials here as pollination biology is one of the topical areas linked with human well-being.

In the chemistry department at Elsevier and at the Elsevier Foundation, we are very proud we can support such passionate researchers who are doing important work under difficult circumstances.


Written by

Rob van Daalen

Written by

Rob van Daalen

Rob van Daalen is Senior Publisher for Green, Physical and Theoretical Chemistry at Elsevier, responsible for a portfolio of chemistry journals. He studied Analytical Chemistry and is based in Amsterdam. He has held various positions within Elsevier and has been working as a publisher for 10 years. Rob is the initiator the Green and Sustainable Chemistry Challenge, which is now organized in collaboration with the Elsevier Foundation. He was an Elsevier volunteer for the IMC Weekendschool, which offers extracurricular motivating education to children aged 10 to 14 from underprivileged neighborhoods.

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