Press release prepared by Vardhanam Daga, NCBS, with the Science Media Centre – India (SMC – India).
Also see the research page on our work on Indian cicadas.
2016: The first detailed catalogue of the cicadas of India and surrounding countries in more than a century has been published by researchers from Bangalore.
Cicadas are winged insects famous for their rasping songs used to attract mates or as alarm calls. The new 150-page catalogue provides descriptions of 281 species from India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
India has one of the most diverse populations of cicadas in the world, but the only comprehensive checklist was published in the early 1900s. A lack of proper records of the bugs had become a matter of increasing concern for researchers studying biodiversity.
“Not having a species inventory basically straps you down. You cannot do any serious research or conservation work in absence of this basic information,” said Krushnamegh Kunte, assistant professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, and one of the authors of the research published in the Biodiversity Data Journal.
While American, European, and Thai cicadas have been fairly well studied by taxonomists – scientists responsible for naming, describing and classifying organisms – the cicadas of the Indian Subcontinent had remained neglected for many decades.
“Taxonomy as a discipline has suffered seriously over the past several decades since it is seen as merely ‘stamp-collecting’ by biologists in general,” said Rohini Balakrishnan, professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, who specializes in crickets. “But all biodiversity inventorying and prioritizing of areas for conservation requires basic data on the identification, occurrence and ranges of species, and cicadas are no exception.”
That’s why Kunte teamed up with scientists from the Natural History Museum, UK, and the University of Connecticut, USA. The first step was for the museum’s curator Ben Price to photograph all cicada specimens from the Indian subcontinent preserved in their comprehensive collection in London.
The descriptions of each species were then checked against the specimens to make sure there was no labelling error. For further verification these specimens were then matched against the ‘type specimen’ – the specimen or set of specimens on which the species’ description is based.
Kunte’s team then checked the taxonomic literature as far back as 300 years to compile description and distribution records. They even ended up rummaging through the work of the father of modern taxonomy Carl Linnaeus who had worked on Indian cicadas.
Finally the team built a DNA library of cicada species by going out into the field to collect fresh specimens from the forests of India and extracting their genetic fingerprints.
“It is a huge effort. The adults are difficult to catch as they are effectively camouflaged against the bark of the trunks on which they rest. Catching them on tree trunks, sometimes very high up, is a very difficult task,” said Prashanth Mohanraj, principal scientist at the National Bureau of Agricultural Insect Resources, Bangalore, and an expert on insect biodiversity of the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
While collecting specimens Kunte's team also recorded the insects’ songs and are now compiling them into an audio library. Once completed, this library will allow scientists to estimate the biodiversity of cicadas in a forest by just studying the calls.
“They are quite vocal. So you can go to a forest and record all the calls and even without seeing them you’ll know what diversity you are looking at,” said Kunte.
A new website www.indiancicadas.org has been created to host the entire catalogue and encourage citizen science – members of the public can freely contribute to this scientific database.
With the groundwork that this study provides Kunte feels scientists can now start asking interesting questions about the ecology, evolution, and conservation of India’s cicadas.
The Science Media Centre – India (SMC – India) is a non-profit organisation that aims to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the media in India. Set up in 2014 on the lines of similar centres in UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada our intent is to help in enhancing the capacity of Indian media organizations and journalists, and scientific institutions to communicate science better.
Price, B. W., E. L. Allan, K. Marathe, V. Sarkar, C. Simon, and K. Kunte. 2016. The cicadas (Hemiptera: Cicadidae) of India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka: an annotated provisional catalogue, regional checklist and bibliography. Biodiversity Data Journal, 4:e8051. PDF file (1.3MB).