Honing in on Hornbills

Aditi Lele, a doctoral student in the Department of Biological Sciences, conducted field research on the relationship between hornbills and ecologically important tree species in the Anamalai Hills (also known as the Elephant Hills) of the Western Ghats, a mountain range in western India.

Aditi’s field work is a continuation of pioneering research in the 1990s performed by Doug James, University Professor emeritus of biological sciences at the U of A, and Ragupathy Kannan, James’ former graduate student who now is a professor of biological sciences at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. Her field research was partially funded by the Arkansas Audubon Society.

A Malabar grey hornbill near the nest. | Courtesy Aditi Lele

A Malabar grey hornbill near the nest. | Courtesy Aditi Lele

She describes her field work in an e-mail:

When one hears the word “tropic”’ we tend to imagine life beaming with diverse plants and animals. I have always been fascinated by tropical ecosystems. That’s what I am doing now, studying the important ecological aspects of the majestic birds of the old-world tropics, the hornbills.

Dr. Kannan’s research focused, among other things, on what fruit tree species are important resources for hornbills in these evergreen forests. It is equally important to find out how these tree species depend on hornbills – and this is my research question: Would it matter to these trees if hornbill populations fluctuate or decline?

I’m seeking to understand how trees such as wild nutmeg and black dammar, which produce large seeds, depend on seed dispersal by hornbills. These trees hold economic value and have been exploited in tropical regions. I am studying dispensers of seeds of these trees that efficiently disperse seeds across the landscape. Hornbills are a key seed disperser. They are called “farmers of the forest” because they have the ability to disperse seeds over long distances.

This experience of working in the wild was unique in many respects. I spent three years carrying out field work where I had to stay in the middle of the forest during the field trips. My two tribal assistants were my best companions who taught me how to climb a tree in case a bear attacks, or how to find honey, mushrooms or roots in the forest as well as cooking with bare minimum equipment.

Adit Lele observing hornbills in the Anamalai Hills of India. | Courtesy Bela Arora

Adit Lele observing hornbills in the Anamalai Hills of India. | Courtesy Bela Arora

On numerous occasions we were charged by elephants and sometimes our huts were thrashed by them. But at the same time the experience of seeing wild dogs making their kill or a leopard sitting royally on a rock is unparalleled. Having to spend my time almost away from civilization has made me realize doctoral work is so much more than just reading journal articles and papers. It was fascinating to see myself learn a language from scratch to work with tribal community.

My experiences in the field prepared me for challenges ahead. They made me realize that I want to find a way to do science where local communities – which have plethora of knowledge of forests – are involved.



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