Dr. Kalesh Sadasivan is a wildlife photographer, researcher, an amateur taxonomist and a Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Specialist by profession at the Government Medical College, Trivandrum, Kerala. He is a founding member of the nature NGO, TNHS. He has discovered and described more than a dozen new species from the Western Ghats, including frogs, reptiles, wasps, ants & odonates.
“This one time, Manoj and I had travelled to the forests of Wayanad in search of an Indomyrma species. We only had three days on our hands. On the second day, we were traversing the jungle, and I impulsively asked the driver to take a detour on reaching a certain location. It was like an intuitive thing. We stopped near a tree, started exploring a dead log on the forest floor. And there it was – a colony of the species we had come in search of!
“Our co-travellers were so taken aback that they asked us, ‘How did you two – coming all the way from Trivandrum – guess the location of an ant colony here in Wayanad? Most of us can’t even locate an ant right in front of us on a desk, a couple of minutes later!’.
As Dr. Kalesh fondly recalls one of the memorable experiences from his days of ant research, he firmly notes that this wasn’t just a mere coincidence or a blind intuition. Rather, their years of reading, research, travel and analyses have registered such things subconsciously, he feels.
Dr. Kalesh’s love for nature blossomed during his childhood, growing up in a village in Alappuzha, surrounded by paddy fields, lakes and trees. When he moved to Trivandrum to start schooling, the spark died down in the urban atmosphere. It was reignited many years later when during his tenth standard vacation he picked up a volume of 60 Indian Birds. Fascinated by the book, he studied birds for the next few years.
His passion shifted from birds to butterflies after he entered college. By the time he finished his MBBS from Trivandrum Medical College and was preparing for the MS entrance, two things had changed in his life. Firstly, he had gotten married! Secondly, he had decided to approach this “hobby” of studying butterflies more scientifically and publish the research too.
The Birth of TNHS
In 2010, some of those who held similar nature-scientific interests like him and belonging to the Southern Travancore side decided to join and register as an NGO, naming it the Travancore Nature History Society – TNHS.
“There were around 10-12 of us initially, from various backgrounds, all united by our love for nature. We were serious researchers and did our homework thoroughly before setting out on field trips. Our goal wasn’t to click some photos and upload them on social media. Through our research on an insect, bird or animal, that creature or its habitat had to benefit some way,” he says.
“In the absence of such scientific output, intruding the private lives of these creatures would seem a form of voyeurism, wouldn’t it?” he questions.
Over the years, TNHS have held numerous quizzes and workshops, conducted sessions in schools and collaborated with the Kerala Forest Department for surveys as well. Dr. Kalesh proudly notes that, if one were to pick the top five experts in the country in the research of dragonfly, butterfly, mantis, ant, cicada, marine diversity, etc., then someone from TNHS was bound to be on that list!
Stepping into Ant Research
Dr. Kalesh was still pursuing his research on butterflies when he met Manoj Vembayam through TNHS in 2011. A mechanic based in Trivandrum, Manoj was extremely passionate about the study of ants but required guidance with the taxonomical aspects of research.
“After a decade of studying butterflies, frogs and dragonflies, I felt like exploring something different too; I’m someone who looks forward to such challenges,” says Dr. Kalesh.
Under TARG (TNHS Ant Research Group) of TNHS, Dr, Kalesh set out on his expeditions with Manoj. He soon realised that to study ants as individual entities made little sense. They were social beings and you had to observe them as a superorganism; a colony of ants.
“The more I studied them, the more I realised that we could draw a lot of parallels with humans too,” he observes.
Dr. Kalesh and Manoj delved into taxonomy full-fledged only in 2015. There wasn’t a great deal of literature available on ants at least until the 1970s or 80s, he points out. This was even more scarce concerning the population in India. C.T. Bingham, an Irish entomologist and Thomas Jerdon (who described the Indian jumping ant) were two pioneers during British India to have researched and authored on ants. The American biologist E.O. Wilson is considered to be a leading expert on the study of ants in the current era, Dr. Kalesh adds.
“But our ‘Guru’ was the renowned Indian entomologist, Dr. Mushtaq Ali,” he says beaming. “Manoj and I were fortunate enough to be trained by Dr. Ali in ant taxonomy. Sadly, he passed away last year. I’m glad though that we named the first ant species we described after him – Tyrannomyrmex alii or T. alii.”
“You’re sitting on a gold mine – This is what Dr. Ali remarked to us many years ago, while discussing the rich biodiversity of the Western Ghats, and about ant population in particular,” Dr. Kalesh reminisces.
They came across T. alii during the fieldwork following a taxonomy workshop conducted for the forest department in the Periyar Tiger Reserve.
“Tyrannomyrmex translates to ‘The little terror ant’. It’s quite small in size, but if you look at its magnified image, you’ll know how it got that name,” he chuckles.
“This was a rather rare genus and only three other species had been discovered in the world until then – in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Ponmudi (Kerala).”
But just finding a specimen is the tip of the iceberg and there’s a long meticulous process to be followed before it gets officially acknowledged and described, Dr. Kalesh says.
“Firstly, you need to have the necessary permits from the forest department for entry and collecting the specimens. At a time, you can only bring back eight specimens of a particular species. We preserve the specimens in alcohol then and get down to observing them under the microscope.
There’s a key for each genus; we identify the genus by running the keys. Then comes the next step, which is running the key for each species under that genus to check against the characteristics of our specimen. If we can’t match them against any of the keys……we’ve discovered a new species!
We name them according to the internationally specified (ICZN) nomenclature, prepare a paper with all the objective evidence listed and submit it to a globally acknowledged scientific journal for peer review. In our case, it was Zootaxa.
The journal will pass it on for a ‘blind peer review’ from their side. After each review process, the paper gets returned to us with comments, which we address and resubmit. When the paper finally gets acknowledged and accepted, the process becomes complete.
Oh, and by the way, the specimen should also be deposited in an approved lab/repository here and mentioned in the paper too,” Dr. Kalesh concludes explaining the process.
And thus, after the discovery of Tyrannomyrmex alii, Manoj and he – two ant photographers – finally became ant taxonomists, he adds proudly.
The first thing that greatly fascinated him as he forayed into the world of ants was that they had a majorly female-driven society. Just like bees, they follow a queen-worker system too.
The ants we see around us are worker ants and entirely females, Dr. Kalesh explains. The male ants “exist” only during the breeding season and live for a short duration. A nest’s/colony’s queen ant decides on the gender of her off-springs, producing the “winged” male ants through the unfertilised eggs solely for mating. The worker ants born through the fertilised eggs don’t have reproductive capacity. The whole process is controlled within the queen ant’s body through chemical inhibition processes.
“Some species don’t even have male ants and can clone themselves to keep the population going,” he adds. “There are also multi-queen systems and even queen-less ones.”
For a colony to survive there typically needs a queen hence, he notes. (In a queen-less system, known as Gamergate, one worker ant doubles up as the queen). The queen usually also lives for much longer periods than the worker ants. Ants are very much environment-dependent beings and need their micro-climate to survive. If the suitable micro-climate is available, a queen can be transported somewhere else and survive too, he says.
“That’s how most of the species we see around here come, you know; they’re invasive or ‘tramp’ ants. There even has been a case of a queen ant trapped in a cyclone inside a piece of wood, carried from Indonesia to Seychelles to evolve as a subspecies there. If that was possible, imagine all the migrations that have happened in the course of history,” he reflects with wonder.
Typically, regions with an elevation of 400-800m are found to have the most diversity in the ant population, Dr. Kalesh says. And above 2500m or so (like in the Himalayas) they will find it difficult to survive. Climate-wise, ants prefer wet conditions more than dry regions. The rainforests around the world are known to have an abundance of species.
The Curious Case of Ants
Depending on the species and the composition of chemicals, there’s a whole spectrum of ant stings, Dr. Kalesh says. He recalls with a grimace the time when he was stung by the Indian jumping ant (Harpegnathos saltator) during a field trip in Munnar.
“I had a vial with the specimens in my pocket and accidentally the lid came off. I got stung by the group on my thigh and I saw stars that day!” He also reckons that the jumping ants, known to leap and catch their prey, have one of the most intuitive minds in the ant world.
The ant species commonly found in Kerala, infamous for their stings must be “Katturumbu”, or the Bi-spinous ant and “Neer” or the Red Weaver Ant (certain tribes in East-Central India are known to use them in their cuisine as ‘Weaver Ant chutney’).
But amongst all the species globally, The Bullet ant (Paraponera clavata), found in the rainforests of Central and South America, whose sting is supposed to match the pain by a bullet shot, must win this category hands down, he remarks.
The harvester ants are those that primarily feed on grains. Then there are “farmer” ants that maintain a farm or herd of livestock insects to feed on the nectar they suck from plants. There are different species of predatory ants too, one of them being the Dracula ant that specifically feeds on centipedes, commonly found in the Western Ghats. But what makes them even more interesting is that, during their lean periods, they will feed on the nymph fluid of own larvae to stay alive. The jumping ants and the army ants are a couple of categories that feed on living creatures themselves. The army ants don’t even have nests and they move in large foraging trails through the forests, attacking grasshoppers and other insects on the way, Dr. Kalesh exclaims.
Foes in the Nature!
As he already mentioned before, ants are social beings, and every ant will belong to a colony hence. The colonies will have individual boundaries and a particular territory in a jungle may have umpteen such ant colonies present, he says. And at all times there are battles going on between same or different species.
“A jungle floor is a front for so many such silent wars,” he says laughing.
There are predators that prey on ants, amongst other insects, birds and animals. The ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne) is known to shrewdly roam around with an ant tribe and prey on them as a chance arises. Certain wasps are known to lay eggs in the ant trails knowing well that the ants will carry them to their nests and when the eggs hatch, the wasp larvae feed on the ant larvae.
“But the main enemies of ants must be themselves, and then it must be us – humans!” Dr. Kalesh adds.
Analysing the ‘Ant Condition’
The role that ants play in our ecological balance is still so underestimated and under-researched, Dr. Kalesh feels. Because it’s still mostly pure research and not translational/applied research, there’s usually the lack of funding, even more glaring in a country like India. Nonetheless, research is picking up here in the current age and times, he says, with Panjab University being one of the prominent institutes in that.
Since time immemorial, the behaviour of ants has been observed in predicting the weather. They are known to sense tiny patterns that we can’t see.
“Take for example the small black ants called the Longhorn crazy ants (Paratrechina longicornis) marching in great numbers along our walls when the skies become dark. One wonders if they sense the incoming rains and carry their eggs to migrate to a drier location.”
The studies on ants have always revealed some fascinating things. The incredibly efficient commuting system of ants has been studied by scientists for road traffic management. Ants’ resource management, including networking and food transportations systems, is being studied deeply now. The toxins of certain ants have been extracted and studied for medical applications too.
“When we look at them, most people just see chaos – millions of these insects scurrying here and there. But within their world, they’re extremely organised,” he says.
Ants and Extinction
As he mentioned earlier, ants are their foremost foes and the competition within their world impact their existence. The invasive ant species flock to regions (quite far away too) often, causing the local species to go extinct.
“The Yellow crazy ant is one such species. Where you find them in large colonies, you bet they’ve driven out some others,” he notes.
The tiniest disturbances to the micro ecosystem can impact the existence of a particular species. With aggressive urbanisaton and climate change, the more that keeps happening around us, and greater are the chances of many species going extinct.
“When the Kerala floods that happened, many of the ground-nesting ants’ colonies got destroyed. It took months for them to restore that.”
The role of ants in maintaining soil fertility and other properties is another aspect that needs more in-depth research, he says. Here again, the endemic species in a region have to be studied to know how climate change could disturb the microsystems and in turn affect ant population.
“But what hinders studies often is the absence of proper background data due to the lack of research earlier, especially in our country. Hence, it’s all the more important that we have a systematic research system undertaken at least now with long-term methodologies planned,” he points out.
Research and Numbers
“As of now, we (TNHS) have research permits for all the forest reserves across Kerala. We’ve covered almost all of Periyar Tiger Reserve as well as Silent Valley, Agasthyamala and Wayanad. Although we’ve travelled to North East India and studied the ant species there, Kerala and the Western Ghats combined is a huge unexplored region for ant research itself,” Dr. Kalesh notes.
While they have only described one species yet officially, the papers for three others have been submitted and are under review, he says.
“In ant-research, there’s a good chance you will stumble upon a new species now and then and we are forced to be more selective. Besides, when we describe a species, the morphology is not as important as the ecological relevance it plays. The genus Tyrannomermex, being quite rare in itself, we had published the species we discovered without a second thought,” he adds.
According to the statistics, currently, there are around 100 genera and 800 species found in India, he says. Around 60 genera and 276 species have been described from Kerala. But in actuality, the numbers should be much higher than these, he feels. As per their research and calculations, the Western Ghats itself should be home to more than 600 species.
When they started TNHS, Dr. Kalesh says, their target for the first 10 years was to work as a nature NGO and conduct wide research and studies and publish their work as much as possible. They’ve accomplished that quite satisfactorily too, he feels. Their goal for the next ten years is to raise the NGO to the status of a research institute.
The nature society, which started with a handful of members, have 25 members at present, he says beaming. There are dozens of others involved with the activities, with members as young as college graduates also.
As for Dr. Kalesh, he has been giving considerable thought to moving on now and dedicating his time more for cicada research, something he has been pursuing for a while. And he also feels this is a good time for that as, besides Manoj, there are a couple of newer members in TNHS who’re interested in ant research now.
In the field of research, you don’t necessarily always end up getting praise, even within the research circles, Dr. Kalesh muses.
But he has learnt to take these with a pinch of salt, he says laughing.
“People remark stuff like – do we plan to become immortal by describing a new species? Well, technically, that’s kind of how it works. Until the day the world ends, that species will be known by the name we gave it. And we, alongside, will be known as its discoverers!
That’s close to being immortal, isn’t it?”