By Priyankar Mondal
Taxonomists are busy bees and especially if they are working with tiny insects. Finding specimens in the field is tiresome and curating those to differentiate from others till describing the taxa is no less than identifying a star in the Milky way, rather far troublesome to do. So, you can imagine how difficult it is to catch hold a taxonomist and have a chat with them. Indian Entomologist crossed the barrier of the great Indian Ocean to reach Andaman and catch Dr. Anil Kumar Dubey (Of course, if you don’t believe that a phone call can connect us!). Dr. Dubey is a frontline insect taxonomist from India and an enthusiastic naturalist who served the country’s premier institutes and organizations in the field of taxonomy, described more than a hundred species, and still continuing his work as a scientist of the Zoological Survey of India. We literally caught him 30kms away from Port Blair inside a forest with a “torn chappal” running behind the insects. But he was kind enough to spend his valuable time during field collection and talk about his experience in doing taxonomy of whiteflies.
Priyankar:When and How did you start your career in Entomology?
Dr. Dubey: I did my M.Sc. in Zoology with a specialization in Entomology during 1999. Then I was looking for an opportunity to start my career in research and got an assistant professor position at a government college. Surprisingly, as soon as I joined, I got a call for a JRF interview in Bangalore at the Institute of Wood Science and Technology under the supervision of Dr. R. Sundararaj, Scientist E. He had a small project funded by the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MOEF) for two years and wanted to study the faunal diversity of whiteflies in the Western Ghat area. During the interview, he said “If you are joining in the project, I can get you registered for a Ph.D., because, you have the UGC lectureship exam cleared and I don’t have any other candidates qualified for this exam. So, you need not go for the entrance examination.” Once I got this opportunity, I developed my interest in whiteflies, I surveyed all over the Western Ghats area and continued till now. Those days camera lucida was not available in our laboratory and Dr. J. Poorani, NBAII, Bangalore helped in various ways, like drawings, editing manuscripts, etc.
Priyankar: I heard that you also worked in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, is it right?
Dr. Dubey: Yes, I am posted here since 2017. Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change, recruited a group of scientists for(for or from) Zoological Survey of India and I was selected for the post of scientist D. The director (ZSI) was Dr. Kailash Chandra at that moment and he said that Andaman is a very good place to explore the biodiversity and we decided to send you there, “All the best, you go and study the fauna of Andaman.” We have a regional centre of ZSI in Port Blair, I joined here and since then continue research on whiteflies, Hymenopterans, Lepidopterans, Odonates, and whatever groups I am encountering. I am taking photographs, exploring the diversity, and describing new species. Even right now, I am in a field survey, some 30 km inside the forest area to sample some butterflies, odonates, and aquatic insects.
Priyankar: Which group of insects excites you the most?
Dr. Dubey: My group only, the whiteflies! They are grouped under a single superfamily Aleyrodoidea in the order Hemiptera. As you know, these are the sap-sucking insects and many of them are economically important such as Bemisia tabaci, Aleyrodicus dispersus, then there is Aleyrodicu srugioperculatus recently invaded India; they have become serious pests on agricultural crops especially, B. tabaci. All the stages of whiteflies suck sap from leaves which cause premature shedding and the development of chlorotic spots. There are many indirect losses as some of the whiteflies carry plant viruses causing malformation and retardation of growth in plants. They secrete honeydew, over that sooty mold grows which drastically hampers the photosynthesis by plants. I was fortunate enough to get unlimited access to SEM in IARI, New Delhi through Dr. V. V. Ramamurthy which helped me a better understanding on whitefly surface morphology.
Whiteflies have a very good diversity in tropical countries and temperate regions. Overall, the origin and evolution of whiteflies have taken place in the afrotropical region. If you look subfamily wise, the faunal assemblage in the Old World is completely different from the New World. So, there is clear geographical isolation! Their taxonomy is mostly based on pupal morphology which is again very interesting. They mostly occur on the underside of leaves and you need to collect the pupal cases to identify species. Adults are generally monomorphic and it is extremely difficult to differentiate those.
Priyankar: So far, how many species of insects you have described?
Dr. Dubey: So far, I have described nearly 100 species of insects. Besides whiteflies, I have described some Hymenopterans in association with some other colleagues. I worked on ants as well but could not progress much, there is a very interesting subfamily of ants that fascinated me a lot, Ponerinae, the queen-less ants! Usually ants have kings, queen(s), soldiers and workers but these guys don’t have a queen. Instead, one of the mated workers, we call it ‘gamergate’, that lay eggs and colony considers it as a queen but morphologically it is almost indistinguishable from other workers of the colony unless you see it laying the eggs. As soon as I started my work on ant taxonomy (nearly one year), I received a postdoctoral fellowship from National Taiwan University, I joined there and served for 5 years and came back to work on whiteflies.
Priyankar: What are the challenges you have faced so far in doing Taxonomy?
Dr. Dubey: Taxonomy needs a lot of expertise. Frankly speaking, when I joined Ph.D., my advisor was very busy those days and he didn’t have the time to sit with me during office hours. When I nearly spent one and half years, we started to sit one hour after the office times to discuss the work. So, it was a bit difficult for me at the beginning. Now in a broader sense, the availability of type specimens makes taxonomy a challenging task in India. We do not have a consolidated place where all type specimens can be deposited as some are deposited in IARI, some in NBAIR, some in ZSI and without type specimens you won’t be able to compare your collected specimens, right? Most of the time the descriptions are not adequate in earlier literature and sometimes taxa are described without any illustration. Next, the availability of literature itself is scarce. We may ask researchers abroad to send literature and you are lucky if you can recover some! Many old literatures are written in a regional language such as Spanish, Latin or Chinese and you may have to spend hours to translate those. Describing species and communicating their significance to the scientific community or general people itself is a big challenge! There is no training for scholars on how to write taxonomic papers, how to present taxonomic information, or make illustrations. Taxonomists also lack adequate lab facilities.
Priyankar: Do you think ‘Taxonomy’ as science requires a boost in India?
Dr. Dubey: Taxonomy is almost a dying science and Taxonomists are being extinct! Not only in India but in other countries also nobody wants to take taxonomy as it is a laborious job and there is limited scope for a career. Most modern universities are equipped with molecular laboratories but I would say even if you go for DNA sequencing, you need to identify the species first. Only when the species identity is confirmed by classical taxonomy, then only you can tell that the DNA is from this particular species and later DNA from your new specimens (anticipating new species) can be compared with the earlier one. But in classical taxonomy, when you have a type specimen, that will serve as an authenticated proof for a new species. Now the scientific organizations (for example, ZSI) should organize training courses to build next generation of expertise and they are already doing some too. A lot of people are doing molecular taxonomy but there you will get so many haplotypes (genetic variants); for example, Bemisia tabaci has nearly 24 genetic variants and all these often complicate the species identity.
India is blessed with huge faunal diversity and if we are not identifying our species, people from another country will not come here to describe those. When you see a butterfly and a bird in field, you can differentiate them morphologically but you can not extract DNA at the field to distinguish them, right? Molecular sequencing is also very expensive and not practical to categorize the huge biodiversity of this country. So, classical or morphological taxonomists must survive and grow in numbers in India. Now, most of the institutes have limited funding for research and within the limited funding, they receive a lot many proposals. When proposal for taxonomy is received, they consider other better ones because they are interested to show some advanced things to the public like research on cancer or diabetes and some other popular topics. But, some organizations like DST is supporting taxonomy; I myself received three projects. You need to present the importance of your group in front of them to get the funding.
Priyankar: How are you planning to carry forward your work in the coming years?
Dr. Dubey: Andaman was never a plan and it came as surprise! I worked with IWST, IARI, FRI, CES(IISC) for many years and now I am expecting to go Kolkata at ZSI headquarters and study the type specimens, curate them and work with people with a broader interest in different groups. Also, I will be able to survey all over India. So now I am planning to study the Indian faunal diversity of Aleyrodids and related groups like mealybugs and scale insects and also develop some students so that the knowledge can be inherited; otherwise, the expertise I have gained, nobody will be there to continue that. I am also expecting to develop some international collaborations, especially in Asian countries as the fauna in Indo-Malayan region are more evolutionarily related to afrotropical fauna and they need to be explored widely. There are some wonderful suggestions from Dr. V.V. Ramamurthy for working on whiteflies considering global perspectives to facilitate identification. These are some future plans. Let’s see how it goes.
Priyankar: One fun question! If not Entomology, then what might be your career?
Dr. Dubey: (Laughing loudly!!) I think getting JRF in IWST was the turning point of my life because I never looked back after that and moved ahead only. If I was not getting that position at that moment, I may be teaching in some government school now! I come from Chhattisgarh and there we don’t have any other better opportunity than teaching. Although I had a lectureship certificate the opportunities to end up in a college were very few. Throughout these many years of my career, I surveyed all the major biodiversity spots of India and yes, I enjoyed my job a lot rather than being a school teacher (both laughing)!
Priyankar Mondal is one of the Student Associate Editor of IE and working as a Researcher Scholar at Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya, Mohanpur, West Bengal, India.
You can contact him @ Email: email@example.com
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