‘Wildlife detective’ Uma Ramakrishnan uses genetic clues to bolster Tiger conservation efforts

Pic courtesy: Shraddha Nayak

Nine newly constructed underpasses beneath India’s longest highway afford safe passage for tigers and other animals between the expansive Kanha and Pench tiger reserves. The credit for their construction is due in part to data from Uma Ramakrishnan’s lab at the National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, on the connectivity and movement of tiger populations in the area. Ramakrishnan is a molecular ecologist who uses genetic tools to study the evolutionary history of mammals in the Indian subcontinent. She is best known for her work on tiger conservation, illustrated in this infographic from The Life of Science.

What drew you to science, and to ecology in particular?

I’ve always been fascinated by the natural world. I love animals and I’ve always loved thinking about what’s going on in their lives—are they moving around, where are they from and so on. Just as we are fascinated with these questions for humans, I was drawn towards answering these questions for the species around us.

Can you break down what a molecular ecologist does?

We seek to use genetic or molecular tools to try and understand things that are happening in ecology. Ecology is basically interactions—either between individuals of species, individuals and populations, or species themselves. So the questions we ask could range from which individuals are mating to how a community or species has come to be. The answer to all of these questions lie in an organism’s DNA. The story of their past and a record of some of their interactions with other individuals, like matings, and can be inferred from their DNA without having actually witnessed them.

Pic courtesy: Prasenjeet Yadav

How do you collect this DNA?

That’s the fun part and it is like being a detective. We all, humans and animals, leave traces of ourselves and our DNA in places we’ve been. We know that this is used in forensic analysis. Similarly we can use DNA that these animals—often elusive or endangered—have left, and infer many things about them. We look for their DNA in their hair or fecal samples. When tigers scratch trees to sharpen their claws, for example, they leave hair behind. DNA can even be retrieved from lick marks on prey.

What does a typical day in the field look like for anyone in your team?

Even after so many years, every day in the field is a great learning experience. Days on the field begin very early and you would typically cover about 25 kms on foot. Your eyes are trained downwards looking for fecal samples if you are doing, say, carnivore work. Imagine having to look for hair on trees—it’s not going to be easy, right? And while you are looking around, you sight and observe wildlife and behaviors. In many ways, it’s a very private and enriching experience that can be very hard to describe. And by being in these places and interacting with the people there, you also learn a lot about the socio-political backdrop of wildlife and conservation. Fieldwork also takes scientists outside their comfort zone—unlike a lab, there are many things one cannot control. On the field, one is really an observer.

Do you have a favorite field anecdote to share?

One of my favorite encounters happened when we were trapping for small mammals in the Himalayas, looking for this high-altitude species called pika. We found one trap that was really heavy, much heavier than a pika could be. When we peeked inside, we saw a half-eaten pika and a weasel. The trapped pika was a ready meal for the weasel, but he couldn’t get out after having his fill!

Pic courtesy: Kaushal Patel

How does your work with DNA support or inform conservation efforts?

Our biggest impact has been in the context of connectivity. Highways cut across animal habitats and disrupt free movement. Overpasses are expensive, but data from our lab and others persuaded the courts to rule that the National Highway Authority of India has to have underpasses in place for animals to cross. The first of these was recently constructed in the Kanha Pench wildlife corridor.

A lot of our efforts also are focussed on raising awareness. Only when we understand the ecology can we make an argument for why a habitat should be conserved in the first place, and then come up with strategies for that conservation. Our work provides those contexts. I must add that over the last 15 years of our work in India, many of the stakeholders—managers and bureaucrats—have become sensitized to genetics and the role of DNA in conservation. This was completely unknown before.

Who are the women you count as role models?

There are a lot of women I’ve met who I find really inspiring. My postdoc advisor Liz Hadley is one person whom I really admire for her creativity and how she thinks. I’ve always looked up to people like Soumya Swaminathan (an Indian Paediatrician and Clinical Scientist known for her work in Tuberculosis, and Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization) and Vidita Vaidya (an Indian neuroscientist and Professor at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai). Maybe I’m biased here but I tend to look at people who also have families as role models simply because it is a choice that I have made. It’s nice to see others who have made those choices and are able to do a lot and do it with grace.