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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Carnivorous plants found in Girnar forest, say researchers of BKNMU

The presence of these plants along with megafauna species such as Asiatic lions has been hailed by experts as a commendation of Girnar forest being a “healthy and functional ecosystem” as these plants do not thrive where pollution levels are high.

Written by Gopal Kateshiya | Rajkot |
Updated: August 25, 2021 7:56:00 pm
utricularia janarthanamii plants recorded by BKNMU researchers in Girnar forest near Junagadh. (Express Photo by Naman Doshi)

Carnivorous plants of utricularia janarthanamii species of bladderwort family that prey on insects have been found in the hilly Girnar forest near Junagadh city, according to a team of researchers of the Department of Life Sciences of the Bhakta Kavi Narsinh Mehta University (BKNMU), Junagadh.

The presence of these plants along with megafauna species such as Asiatic lions has been hailed by experts as a commendation of Girnar forest being a “healthy and functional ecosystem” as these plants do not thrive where pollution levels are high. These plants were recorded only in Maharashtra before this discovery.

Prof Milind Sardesai of the Department of Botany at Savitribai Phule Pune University who has done research on bladderworts, and confirmed the species identified by the Junagadh university, told The Indian Express, “Ecologically speaking, utricularias are found where pollution is less and indicate cleanliness of water. They are never found in polluted water. The presence of lions and these plants suggest that the forest is a healthy and functional ecosystem”.

A team led by Prof Suhas Vyas, head of the Department of Life Science of BKNMU, spotted plants of four species of utricularia genus a during a field survey in a radius of around one kilometre in Lal Dhori area of Girnar forest near Bhavnath Taleti, the foothills of Mount Girnar on the border of Girnar Wildlife Sanctuary in Junagadh on August 22 last year.

A detailed laboratory analysis and identification process has established that some of those plants are U. janarthanamii, the carnivorous plant species whose distribution was considered to be limited to Maharashtra only. This, the BKNMU team claims, is the first distributional record of this insectivorous plant anywhere in India outside Maharashtra.

The team also has PhD scholar Kamlesh Gadhvi, associate professors Sandip Gamit, who specialises in taxonomy, and Dushyant Dudhagra, all from the life sciences department of BKNMU as well as Dr Rashmi Yadav, an associate Prof at St Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad. They also identified three other plants — Utricularia reticulata, U. striatula and U. stellaris — all recorded in the state earlier.

Initially, they concluded that a bunch of plants on the surface of porous wet rocks at around 100 feet above mean sea level belonged to an uncertain species of bladderwort. After DNA sequencing and matching the sequencing results with the existing databases of molecular biology, the specimens were confirmed to be of U. janarthanamii, adding one more species to the floral diversity of Girnar forest, which is home to 56 Asiatic lions.

“This is a very exciting discovery. The plants are tiny but play an important role in local ecology and food-chain in that ecology. They prey on small insects and keep their population in check,” said Prof Vyas, adding that U. janarthanamii is the eighth species of carnivorous plants to be recorded in Gujarat.

The state’s floral diversity records so far include bladderwort species like U. arcuata U. aurea, U. caerulea, U. gibba subspecies exoleta, U. reticulata, U. stellaris. and U. striatula. They mostly occur in forests in Dangs and along the Gujarat-Maharashtra border as well as in Saurashtra, Vyas said.

The team sent specimens to a reputed biotechnology institute in southern India for its DNA analysis and fed the results in the database of a portal, which is a reputed repository of molecular biology information. Specimens were also sent to Prof Milind Sardesai for identification and confirmation of the species.

“With the help of the portal, we could ascertain that there were previously recorded three species of bladderworts in Junagadh but the sequence we had fed was of the fourth species that was not recorded in Gujarat before,” Prof Vyas told The Indian Express.

“While genetic evaluation confirmed it to be U. janarthanamii, for further proof, we sent specimens to Prof Sardesai who also identified it as U. janarthanamii and said that this plant has not been recorded anywhere outside Maharashtra at least in the past 100 years,” Prof Vyas added.

The U. janarthanamii plant species has been named after Dr MK Janarthanam, a Goa University professor, in recognition of his contribution to the research on bladderworts in India. This species is endemic to Kolhapur and Satara districts of Maharashtra. It grows seasonally on porous and moist surfaces in warm and wet weather. They prey on macroinvertebrates by sucking them in their pinhead-sized bladders-like sacs or traps.

Utricularia bladders, among the most complicated parts of carnivorous plant species, are filled with water. For trapping insects, the plants pump water out and create negative pressure inside the bladders. Once one of the two tentacles of the bladder sends a signal indicating presence of an insect in nearby water, the bladder opens its mouth and sucks in that water mass with the prey. It then releases water again while trapping the insect inside and consumes the prey by releasing digestive secretions, botanists say.

Worldwide, around 220 species of carnivorous plants of the bladderwort family have been recorded and 40 of them have been recorded in India, said Prof Sardesai.

Out of them, a majority of them are recorded in peninsular India, including 23 in Maharashtra, and some are restricted to northeast India. He also confirmed that U. janarthanamii had not been recorded outside Maharashtra so far.

Prof Sardesai said that so far it was believed that U. janarthanamii was distributed only in Maharashtra, but its recording in Junagadh by BKNMU enhances botanists’ understanding of the species distribution. He also said that this species is also an indicator of the health of an ecosystem. “Ecologically speaking, utricularias go where there is less pollution. Therefore, they can indicate cleanliness of water. Utricularias are never found in polluted water. The fact that lions thrive along with these plants suggests that the forest is a healthy and functional ecosystem,” Dr Sardesai told The Indian Express over phone. “This plant species could always have been there in Junagadh but it is only now that botanists are recoding it,” he added.

Prof Padmanabhi Nagar, associate professor with the department of botany at the MS University of Baroda in Vadodara, also termed a progress in interest in plant taxonomy in Gujarat. “This will channelise the lost interest in botany and subsiding botany departments in Saurashtra. Botany is playing a very significant role in recent times in all sectors of development… Exploring new plants in Saurashtra will (provide) boot other botanists in Saurashtra,” Prof Nagar, who has researched on flora of Barda hills near Junagadh, said.

After it was confirmed that their discovery was the first distributional record of U. janarthanamii in Gujarat, researchers submitted their research paper detailing their discovery to Scopus-indexed Plant Science Today (PST), an e-journal published by Thiruvananthapuram-based Horizon e-Publishing Group in December last year. The Horizon, which publishes online scientific information in the form of e-journals, accepted the paper and published it in its February 2021 issue of PST. Researchers say that their paper was also accepted by the Ecological Society of America last month.

Scopus is a database of citations and peer-reviewed literature.

Prof Sardesai and Prof Vyas said that given the tiny size of the plant, whose leaves are maximum five millimetres in size, it is not fodder for large herbivores but is an important part of the ecosystem. “The plants are abundant in Girnar forest and we want to study their frequency, density, abundance and density relative to other species,” Prof Vyas added.

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