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Biodiversity Blog


Meet Krushnamegh Kunte

Krushnamegh ButterflyPortrait Med
Field work in the Andaman Islands

Dr. Krushnamegh Kunte is Principal Investigator and Faculty Coordinator of the Biodiversity Research Collections in Bengaluru, India, where he is also Curator of Lepidoptera, Cicadas, and Odonata. He is also Associate Professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences. Kunte received his PhD here from UT in the Section of Integrative Biology in the School of Biological Sciences, now known as the Department of Integrative Biology.

Dr. Kunte will be at UT to give a talk on mimicry in swallowtail butterflies.  Talk is on November 10th at 10 am on the UT campus. Learn more here.

This interview below explores his research and his involvement in the study of and outreach for India’s biodiversity.

Can you tell us broadly what your current research focus is?

The overall goal of my lab is to study the evolution of tropical biodiversity with a special reference to speciation and morphological diversification in the Indian Subcontinent. We study the entire organization of biodiversity, from communities, species and populations at ecological and evolutionary scales to genomics and developmental genetics at molecular scales. Research in my lab currently focuses on three main topics: (a) speciation, mimicry and trait evolution (especially wing colour patterns) in swallowtail butterflies, (b) evolutionary dynamics of butterfly communities, with a particular emphasis on evolutionary assembly rules that determine the composition and species diversity in mimetic butterfly communities, and (c) taxonomy (species discovery) and systematics (building the tree of life) of butterflies, odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) and cicadas, as representative insect groups.

What and/or who got you excited to pursue this area of research?

I grew up in India at a time, in the 1980s, when there were no toys and TV at home, but there were plenty of trees, dragonflies and butterflies in the neighbourhood and further afield. During my school years I was also introduced to natural history. Chasing birds, snakes and insects thus became my primary hobby and occupation. However, it was my mentor Dr. Milind Watve – an inspiring college teacher and an amazing thinker – who introduced me to evolutionary biology, changing my entire perspective on natural history, science and professional careers when I was still a kid. India’s pioneering biodiversity guru Prof. Madhav Gadgil gave me an opportunity to survey butterflies throughout the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot when I was still a young college student, and later asked me to write my first book on butterfly biology and natural history just after I had finished my Masters degree in Wildlife Science. Prof. Gadgil also arranged the great pioneer of biodiversity studies and conservation, late E. O. Wilson of Harvard University, to write a foreword to my butterfly book. Egged on by all these early opportunities, encouragement and successes, it was inevitable that I would become a full-time tropical biologist probing the mysteries of animals in the mountains and forests of India.

As I was finishing my butterfly book in 1999-2000, I started looking for opportunities to do a PhD. I was familiar by then with Prof. Lawrence Gilbert’s research on insect-plant co-evolution and the biology of Neotropical longwing butterflies (Heliconius). He agreed to take me on as a PhD student, and the university arranged for fellowships that would support me through my PhD. Having grown up in a small town in India and never having traveled abroad, I landed in Texas, in one of the most prestigious ecology/evolution departments in the world!

PapilioDiversity web
Photographing during field work in South Andaman

You were a graduate student here at UT in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior? What was your research focus? How did your experience here shape your current work?: I was a graduate student in the Section of Integrative Biology from 2002 to 2008. All the greats who had made UT Austin Integrative Biology the exceptionally vibrant, intellectually exciting academic force were there: Eric Pianka, Don Levin, Larry Gilbert, Mike Singer, David Hillis, Jim Bull, Mike Ryan, Mark Kirkpatrick, and Camille Parmesan, among others. In graduate school, people begin to narrow down their focus. Instead, I expanded my focus to absorb wide-ranging conceptual foundations and methods in ecology, evolutionary biology, population genetics, and phylogenetics, from all these scientists as well as their students. This early burst of very broad training serves me well to this day. I decided that rather than mastering specific techniques and specialising, I was going to ask broad questions about the evolution of biodiversity and attack these questions from all possible angles—from basic ecological to evolutionary genetics. This was going to allow me to gain a comprehensive understanding of the evolution of biodiversity, from speciation to morphological diversification. I leveraged my knowledge of butterflies and used them as a model animal group to try to gain new insights. All this would not have been possible without the very broad outlook as well as deep insights that I gleaned from my teachers and student peers in the department.

For my PhD thesis, I explored how natural and sexual selection acting differently on males and females result in sexual dimorphisms and polymorphisms, specifically in the context of mimicry. Mimicry, it turns out, has driven much of the rapid morphological diversification seen in the wing colour patterns of swallowtail butterflies, especially in mimetic females. This specific discovery provided a unique view of evolution, which was very striking at the time, that rapid evolution of novel wing colour forms is driven by natural selection acting on females rather than on sexual selection acting on males.

Apart from these explorations of evolutionary processes that drive diversification of butterfly wing patterns, I went a bit wild during Dr. Gilbert’s field course in Costa Rica. Here, I studied how butterfly communities are shaped by resource availability and competition. I did an unusual experiment in which I relocated entire populations of two dominant, invasive butterfly species to see: (a) how their removal affected availability of nectar resources for other butterfly species, and (b) how the absence of dominant species and changes in nectar resources altered the diversity and composition of butterfly communities. I found out that removing the dominant invasive species increased standing nectar amounts in flowers that native forest butterflies could feed on, and that the absence of dominant species increased the abundance and diversity of native forest butterflies in the communities. That experiment remains one of the few direct demonstrations of how competition for nectar resources shapes butterfly communities.

Apart from these scientific explorations, it was truly fascinating for a naturalist from India to be able to compare the Old and New World tropics, and enjoy an unimaginable wealth of butterflies, lizards and other animals in Costa Rica’s amazing forests.

These experiences from grad school remain with me as indelible influences to this day. They made me a fiercely independent research scientist. They convinced me that I had original contributions to make in the fields of evolutionary biology and biodiversity sciences, and set me on a path to do truly integrative biology that weaves together insights from ecological selection, evolutionary processes and genetics. My work during grad school helped me identify a set of exciting questions that will last me a lifetime, and gave me new reasons to continue to chase butterflies and other insects back in India. In many ways, the inspiration that I have from my young self from grad school still drives a lot of exciting research in my lab.

Field work in Arunachal Pradesh

What has been your involvement in biodiversity awareness? I realized during grad school and then during my post-doc at Harvard University that much of the progress made by European and American biodiversity scientists is due to the tremendous specimen resources and other archival materials that are accessible to them in numerous research museums. I benefited from these resources myself, as much of the characterisation of butterfly wing patterns that I used in my research was based on museum specimens. Although India has several biodiversity museums, Indian academicians traditionally do not have a culture of amassing and maintaining such resources for modern evolutionary, genetic, conservation and taxonomic studies within the university system and research institutions. To remedy this situation, I spearheaded the establishment of the NCBS Research Collections (http://collections.ncbs.res.in), which provides world-class infrastructure and resources needed for museum-based biodiversity research in the 21st century. These include state-of-the-art facilities to hold dry and wet specimens, deep-frozen DNA libraries, and other biodiversity-related materials. The Research Collections facilitate several multi-institutional, national and international collaborations in taxonomic discovery, molecular systematics, and evolutionary and conservation genetics. The NCBS Research Collections have yielded over 100 research papers describing more than 100 species in the past six years and will continue to have a deep impact on the growth of biodiversity sciences and species discovery in India and South Asia.

Over the past 10 years, I have also spearheaded the establishment of Biodiversity Atlas – India, a powerful natural history web platform for species-based bioinformatics, for which I continue to serve as the chief editor. BioAtlasIndia supports the efforts of one of the most well-integrated professional-amateur scientific communities that aggregates big data on Indian biodiversity with the goal of studying ecological trends. This bioinformatics platform now drives eight taxon-based websites, which are edited by top subject experts, on Indian butterflies, moths, Odonata, cicadas, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. The platform is used extensively for educational and other outreach programmes, in addition to research in ecology, evolutionary biology and species conservation. See further details at: https://www.bioatlasindia.org.

How is India a unique biodiversity hotspot? Biodiversity Atlas-India showcases some amazing species and resources.

India is a huge landmass but it is effectively a set of habitat islands divided by large rivers, mountains and oceans, experiencing substantial environmental variation along latitudinal and elevational gradients. This rich tapestry of landscapes and seascapes has enriched the biodiversity of the Indian Subcontinent, both by drawing species from neighbouring biodiversity hotspots and through endemic species radiations. India is at a critical biogeographic junction, drawing its flora and fauna from Oriental, Palearctic, Eremic and African biogeographic zones. Its ancient Dakhan (Deccan) plateau, part of the original Indian plate that collided with Asia and created the Himalaya, is relatively dry but has supported endemic radiations of several animals such as geckos and lizards. The rainforests of the Western Ghats have an incredible diversity and endemism of plants, odonates, amphibians and innumerable other organisms. The drier, colder Western Himalaya draw a large proportion of plants and animals from temperate regions, and the wetter and hotter Eastern Himalaya and NE India have strong affinities with the Oriental flora and fauna. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have many unique groups of species that are closely related to SE Asian islands. It is a true privilege to be able to travel the length and breadth of this country, study its biodiversity, and train a generation of younger students to study and conserve it. My own training at UT Austin made this possible, for which I will remain forever grateful to my teachers and mentors, and for the vibrant international experience that the university provided.

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