Unseen gems from the Western Ghats of India

One foot into the Western Ghats of India and you will hear a variety of birds singing, frogs croaking, cicadas calling and see the landscape covered with evergreen trees of different shades of colours. But what lies beyond what can be heard or seen with the naked eye?

Each year, several new species of flora and fauna are still being discovered from this landscape. The vast number of species found here makes it one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. While a lot of researchers, conservationists and nature enthusiasts are working on different taxa found here, the micro-flora and fauna are relatively unexplored. With this regard, we set out to peek into the micro-world along with a group of early career researchers interested in ecology.

As part of a project on exploring foldscopes as a research tool to study diatoms, a workshop was conducted by Gubbi Labs in Coorg District, India on 24th May. Diatoms are unicellular photosynthetic algae which are found in water bodies all over the world. They are often referred to as the ‘jewels of the sea” due to their ornate silica cell walls. Scientists use diatoms as environmental indicators, to study the quality of water bodies and to understand the composition of lakes and rivers in the past.

After a brief introduction to foldscopes, diatoms and sample collection, the group set out to collect diatom samples from a nearby pond. Samples were collected from epilithic (rock), epiphytic (emergent plants) and human- made (water pipe) habitats.

Sample collection from a pond with floating and emergent plants
Sample collection from a rock using a brush
Sample collection from a water tank
Samples were collected in Whirl-Paks

A drop of water from each sample showed several live microorganisms from golden-yellow coloured diatoms to tiny bacteria moving around and ameboid organisms like Pelomyxa which feed on diatoms.

Live diatoms
Live diatoms of the genus Ulnaria
Live diatom samples

We then quickly got to work in our make-shift lab to fix and prepare slides for the participants to observe under the foldscope.

Makeshift lab in the field

With the help of a field guide, the diatoms were grouped into different shapes and some of them could be identified to the genus level.

Diatoms as seen from the fixed slides
Diatoms as seen from the fixed slides

A brief note on how the slides were fixed: The sample was first oxidised with Hydrogen Peroxide and heated to remove the organic matter. The contents were then separated using a centrifuge and the sample was dried on slides using a hot plate before observing under the foldscope.

Group photo with the team

This project was funded by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India, as part of the DBT-Prakash Labs (Stanford University) effort to spread microscope access across India.

 

 

2 Comments Add yours

  1. laksiyer says:

    By some stroke of luck, I spent my childhood in the western ghats of maharashtra. Wish I had a foldscope then. Fantastic post. I love your hand-cranked centrifuge (is it a hack?– could you provide details of the hack?).
    Here’s a small suggestion. Re-edit your post. Click on one of your pictures, a menu pops up and click on the pencil icon (Edit), In Display Setting of the new menu that pops up, on “Link to” choose “Media file”. That will make your pictures clickable and zoomable. Once you do this for all pictures of a post, I think it remains so for all future posts. Looking forward to reading your explorations.

    1. VigneshKamath says:

      Thank you. I have updated the pictures as suggested by you. The hand powered centrifuge is available in most stores which sell scientific instruments. It is portable and can be fixed to a table.

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