Ongoing microscopic work in the Palynology laboratory
Ongoing microscopic work in the Palynology laboratory

Since its establishment, the Institute has investigated the diversity and dynamics of vegetation in India, especially in the Western Ghats, one of the major biodiversity hotspots of the World. It has also pioneered and created the most important resource collection in tropical Palynology at the Asian level and has allowed the development of a research axis focused on past vegetation changes in the subcontinent. The accumulated knowledge over the years and the combination of field inventories and remote sensing data provide a unique perspective on vegetation changes in response to climate and anthropogenic changes. Pursuing vegetation monitoring and predicting future dynamics is at the core of ambitious projects and collaborations with the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) and several other institutions (e.g. Indian Institute of Sciences). The collected voucher specimens and enrichment of associated taxonomic data is also recognized at national and international levels. It provides invaluable information on plant diversity, which still needs to be explored, while Indian institutions often lacks reference Herbarium material. The classical Herbarium collections have also been integrated in cutting-edge bioinformatic projects, e.g., generation of interactive computer based species identification keys, online database of digitized samples with detailed ecological information ( The database is constantly updated with the recent taxonomy and specimen collections. In collaboration with the GeoSMIT department and the other various Indian partners efforts were made to build online portals through crowd sourcing of region specific biodiversity data as a citizen science promotion (for the Western Ghats/India/Assam-ongoing; and Android apps on tropical trees, mangroves and weed species identification.

The umbrella question of the Ecology department is: how do past, present and future global changes impact local and regional land cover and land use and in turn biodiversity, functional ecology and ecosystem services? Thus, our current scientific project for the forthcoming five years is based on 3 axis: (i) forestry and botany; (ii) palynology and paleoecology and (iii) conservation ecology

Axis 1. Forestry and botany team

This axis is split in two sub-themes of research:

  • Functional ecology and Biomass assessments of tropical forests

    Increasingly accurate and intensive data collection in Uppangala during the past three decades provides us an opportunity to assess biomass and carbon sequestration and to evaluate the methodological approaches of upscaling process from local forest data to regional extrapolations by linking remote sensing data. The Western Ghats being a biodiversity hotspot and a recognized carbon sink, the Uppangala model is a pilot to help guide future environmental policies at the national and international levels. It also requires additional series of 1-ha plots data in different landscapes as well as new analytical and modeling techniques. Collaborations are underway with GeoSmit department and NRSC. At present 15 1-ha plots have been established at Yellapur (2014-15) in the Western Ghats in collaboration with NRSC and AMAP through CEFIFRA funding. Two more sites (Shimoga and BRT hills) were selected for establishing new series of 1-ha plots for regional extrapolation of biomass. This will provide the means to address the issue of scaling, sweeping processes from individual, forest, landscape to biome in its entirety.

  • Biodiversity characterization and assessment of functional diversity across spatio-temporal scales

    Forests currently face dramatic threats related to changing monsoon regime and anthropogenic destructions. In order to understand the current status and predict the dynamics of forests in the context of changing climate, we need to address their organization (species diversity, composition and structure) and functioning (functional diversity and composition) over a broad range of scales, from the individual trees to the scales of forest stand and to entire biomes. This understanding will help us to determine the ecological stability, resistance and adaptive capacities of forests to the changing climate. (A couple of proposals have been or will be submitted to the Indo-French Centre for the Promotion of Advanced Research and the Department of Biotechnology in collaboration with Indian colleagues and institutions).

Contact: Dr. Ayyappan N

Axis 2. Palynology and Paleoecology team

The main axis’ objectives in the next five years are:

  1. To establish quantitative pollen-based past land cover reconstructions in south India - across very different present day landscapes and at different altitudes. This of course implies a variety of efforts in terms of methodology as one method will not fit all. Thus, in addition to the well established method explored through the PhD thesis of NavyaReghu, new statistical approaches matching pollen and vegetation data and in places where the vegetation is on steep slopes trying to use vegetation relevees and or LiDAR and other finely sensed RS data will be tried. For the past data and its interpretation, a powerful long term baseline source of information on the changes in terrestrial vegetation assemblages over time comes from Marine cores in the Bay of Bengal. A CEFIPRA project to study one such core from the Mahandi river mouth and going back to 1.2million years has been submitted in collaboration with GeoSMITdepartment and EPHE Bordeaux.

  2. To establish the need for more than one proxy (for example - at least phytoliths) in a terrain such as south India - given the terrain's heterogeneity due to natural (rainfall gradients) and the long history of human peoples settled here. The climatic and particularly precipitation and moisture available gradients in peninsular India are steep and in combination with topography provide for a land cover and in the anthropocene context, landuse heterogeneity spatially. With phytoliths and working in a transdisciplinary manner with archeologists in south Asia (partners in a new ANR project ModATHOM led by French archeologists in Cambodia started early 2018), it is possible to understand the temporal dynamics and dimensions of this.

  3. To develop comprehensive research programmes centered on the reference/ resource collections - pollen, phytoliths and interlinked to the herbarium. This will include efforts to looks at the present day evolution of plant traits for past applications as well as phenology and applications in pollination ecology (as a part of the second phase of the Melissopalynology and ecorestoration project).

Contact: Dr. Anupama K

Axis 3. Conservation ecology team

Because humans are numerous and our needs are insatiable, we have a very strong imprint on the environment. The DoE is also trying to understand the operation of the "human component" on other ecosystem components and processes (fauna, flora, soil, atmosphere ...), we carry out multidisciplinary studies that include ecological and social sciences.How to propose more sustainable management of our environment? How to preserve living species while continuing to utilise them economically? How to continue to benefit from the services provided by our ecosystems without jeopardizing their survival? The projects in this research area of DoE explores the conditions for sustainable management of biodiversity in human-dominated landscapes in India.

The main axis’ objectives are:

  1. to develop a new interdisciplinary approach focusing on the conservation of the Coromandel Coast biodiversity, especially the endangered tropical dry evergreen forest and wetlands. We aim to improve our understanding of the impacts of global change on the past-present-future social-ecological interactions and to produce environmental management and planning scenarios on the coastal area of Tamil Nadu by mixing historical ecology, conservation ecology, political ecology and participatory modelling experiments;

  2. to reinforce our involvement in conservation planning and management in Western Ghats by strengthening our existing partnership with regional and local authorities and especially with forest services and ecology scientists from Bangalore;

  3. to map functional diversity and ecosystem services. The proposed research is intended to appraise the functioning of individual organisms, populations, communities and ecosystems, and to develop the approach for better understanding of the current spatial extent of forested landscapes, condition of ecosystem health and their functioning and response in the context of changing climate with the following questions: 1) How do environment and human activities influence taxonomic/functional diversity of various communities at different scales in the target landscape? 2) What are the quality, quantity, and spatial distribution of ecosystem services (viz., the resources and flows of water, carbon and nutrients) provided by the different types of land cover or land use in the landscape? and 3) How is taxonomic/functional diversity of the plant communities linked to and regulate the ecosystem services in the landscape and how will the system respond to the climate change? (A proposal that shall be resubmitted next year);

  4. to pursue our efforts of software and smartphone apps development on flora identification and citizen science promotion in strong collaboration with the GeoSmit department.

Contact: Dr. Raphaël Mathevet, Head of Department