Two students graduate

The year began with a note of accomplishment with two PhD students, Vivek Ramachandran and Ravi Ramalingam, receiving their doctorates in early January 2014. Ravi and Vivek are among the senior-most students, being from the first PhD batch, of 2006, when ATREE’s Academy for Conservation Science and Sustainability Studies was established.

See the abstract of their defence below.

Vivek Ramachandran: Effect of habitat alteration on canopy bird and small mammal communities in the wet evergreen forests of the Western Ghats.

The tropical wet forest canopy is a highly variable environment that provides structural and functional niches for several living organisms. Much of the diversity in tropical forests is found in the canopies and yet it is one of the least studied and most threatened of terrestrial habitats. Canopy science in India is in its infancy and pioneering work in this field has been done by researchers from ATREE on pollination and frugivory at the Kalakad- Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR). The forest canopy here is considered structurally complex and an ecologically critical system of the forest. These forests have a history of human exploitation. Tea estates were established in 1928 and subsequent selective and clear felling for timber and cardamom plantations have also modified the habitat. This has created a variegated mosaic of natural and managed ecosystems. This thesis aims to study the bird and small mammal communities across this habitat mosaic of unlogged, selection-felled and clear-felled forests. With secondary forests becoming dominant in tropical landscapes, it is important to ask, how forest communities are vertically stratified in such modified habitats. More specifically, I explore the effects of disturbance and change in habitat/canopy structure on these communities by 1) identifying the lacunae that exists in community ecological studies related to forest canopies, 2) Devising and testing effective sampling protocols for the two target taxa: Aves and small mammals, 3) Evaluating the change in community structure and vertical stratification of bird community and small mammal communities across the habitat.

The local bird community structure along the disturbance gradient indicates a reduction in species richness and abundance in Clear-felled habitats. Guilds too are affected by the change in habitat structure. This is termed as ‘guild compression’ and is attributed to the simplification of the habitat. For small mammals, results indicate that structural change in habitat may alter the community composition of different forest layers but they do not seem to alter greatly specific patterns of vertical habitat utilization. A synthesis of the findings will be presented with a perspective on current canopy based research.

Ravi Ramalingam: Studies on insect community responses to habitat restoration efforts in the tropical forests of the Western Ghats.
Worldwide, restoration projects are implemented to restore degraded habitats, as large-scale degradation and biodiversity loss are out-pacing conservation efforts. Recently, several international conservation organizations have recognized the need for forest landscape restoration that aims to regain ecological integrity and enhance human well-being in deforested and degraded landscapes. In 1995, the Attappady Hills Area Society (AHADS) implemented an eco- restoration program to restore the degraded forests and alleviate poverty which is intricately linked to environmental degradation in the Attappady region of the Western Ghats. Their restoration activity involved active and passive management of the degraded forest fragments. However, their approach towards monitoring was limited to revegetation.

To develop appropriate monitoring protocol, insects were used as indicators of restoration success by studying their responses to restoration efforts by AHADS. Monitoring the recolonization of restored sites by invertebrates has gained momentum as they are vital for ecosystem processes such as facilitation of soil aeration, soil structure, litter decomposition, nutrient cycling, pollination, seed dispersal, and as food resource for vertebrate predators. The research findings of this thesis suggest that there were no differences in the responses of the insect communities across the actively and passively restored forest fragments. Therefore, to develop an appropriate monitoring scheme, the underlying ecological processes were studied to determine the distributions of woody plant and ground-dwelling insect communities among the restored sites. Based on the findings, recommendations are made for monitoring restoration projects, which may be implemented in future.