Plumbers for Nature Research

I was born and brought up on a forest estate in the Himalayan foothills. From an early age, i.e. 4 years, I developed a passion for studying insects, particularly butterflies and moths. This passion led me to many parts of India, where I have spent thousands of days in forests and mountains, studying insects in their natural environment. During the early years, I was guided by my late father. Subsequently, I proceeded on my own.

Initially, it was butterflies and moths for their sake alone, but later, as my familiarity with these creatures increased, their links to their environment became more and more the focus of study. Major population fluctuations in the wake of repeated forest fires, communities disappearing following environmental degradation, new entrants in the wake of climatic change led me to the realization that these are, in fact, very sensitive indicators of the state of their immediate environment, or the “health” of the ecosystem that they inhabit. Their great diversity suggests that species can be found to provide indication of the state of even very specialized niches. I was invited to the University of Oxford, U.K. in order to present these findings in a talk to the University Entomological Society in November 1991.

Given the connection between forest ecosystems and the functioning of watersheds, I suggested that insects, particularly butterflies and moths, could be used as a means of monitoring the health of forest ecosystems which in turn would provide insight into the status of Indian rain fed rivers. In degraded areas, insect communities could be used to indicate which parts of the ecosystem had been degraded and the rehabilitation of such parts could be monitored by monitoring the concerned insect species or community. Applied to the rehabilitation of rivers, monitoring community structures of butterflies and moths could provide a detailed map of the parts of the forest ecosystem requiring rehabilitation, which, upon being restored, would restore the original seasonality of the rain fed rivers. To follow up this proposal, I received a Times Fellowship 1991 from the Times of India newspaper group. Under the fellowship, I traveled to various parts of India.

During the course of the project, I realized that moths could not be ignored, considering that there are at least four times more moth species than butterflies. Further, they can be monitored easily and are more easily enumerated. However, the problem that had to be surmounted was that there was very little up to date information on Indian moths and the taxonomy of most groups was in a mess. I set out to straighten matters, which took the best part of fifteen years for the community on our front lawn. I hate to think of what awaits one in the Western Ghats and north-eastern India! In the course of this work, I described ten Lepidoptera new to Science, including two species, two subspecies, an incipient species and some infra-subspecific forms. At least a dozen more taxa in my collection await description, which is held up due to the lack of funds. I should mention that all the above work, except the Oxford visit and Times Fellowship, have been funded from my personal funds.

A number of my findings have been published in scientific journals such as the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society, Records of the Zoological Survey of India, etc. Some of these (I know of four) have been cited in papers by other scientific workers. Many findings await publication.

My personal reference collection contains seventy type specimens of taxa described by me, making it one of the most important collections in Asia. I have donated identified specimens, on request, to the Indian National Collections at the Zoological Survey of India in Kolkata and Dehra Dun; the National Museum of Natural History in New Delhi; the Natural History Museum, London, the University Museum, Oxford; etc.

A more Detailed Profile of the work of Peter Smetacek

I was born and brought up on my father’s forest estate in the Himalayan foothills. From him, I inherited a passion for butterflies. During my childhood, this led me all over the estate and adjoining areas with a net over my shoulder and a box in my pocket. The fact that there are over 150 species of butterflies on the estate surely fuelled my passion. As I grew older, the trips grew longer, the luggage increased, but the net remained, even though its use was partly replaced by a camera. Since those early years, I have spent thousands of days studying insects in the field.

Over the years, I noticed changes in populations of butterfly species and in communities due to forest fires, degradation and ageing of biotypes, etc. and recorded new entrants who arrived and colonized areas in response to the changing environment and climate. This led to the realization that butterflies are sensitive to changes in their environment and that, conversely, these changes can be monitored by monitoring butterfly communities. In other words, a butterfly community can be interpreted to understand the “health” of a forest ecosystem, something that is otherwise very difficult to assess or quantify. These findings were presented at an invited talk to the Oxford University Entomological Society at Jesus College, Oxford, U.K. on November 20, 1991.

Drying water springs, eroded forest ecosystems, flooding rivers and falling butterfly populations led to the realization that these phenomena are linked and that the reverse is also possible, that is, if groundwater and local climate is governed by forest ecosystems and butterflies can monitor a forest’s health, then they can be used to monitor the re-establishment of ecosystems with a view to stabilizing groundwater systems and, consequently, rivers. I was enabled to follow this up under a Times Fellowship titled “Towards the rehabilitation of Indian rivers” in 1992, during the tenure of which I traveled to forests and watersheds in many parts of India.

As the emerging picture cleared, the role of moths became more and more apparent. Although I had studied them, too, since childhood, they proved a different kettle of fish because of their vast variety and habits. In the Himalaya, there are roughly five times more moth species than butterfly species. On one hand, this is excellent, since it gives one five times more indicators to understand a forest with, but on the other hand, everything about them is unclear, especially their taxonomy. It took me over twenty years of relatively continuous study since 1983 to clear the taxonomy of the moths that visit our verandah. During the course of this work, I discovered and described four genera and ten moths new to Science, including two species, one subspecies and several infra-sub specific taxa belonging to three families. A new butterfly subspecies also came to light, the first to be described by an Indian worker. At least ten more taxa belonging to four families in my collection await description. This work is progressing slowly due to the lack of funds. I should mention that so far, except for the Oxford visit and Times Fellowship, all this work has been funded out of my pocket.

A high altitude trekking agency which I ran during the 1980s enabled me to travel to many parts of the Western Himalaya and track populations of insects. Interaction with various international and national organizations such as the Natural History Museum in London, the University Museum in Oxford, the Museum und Forschungsinstitut Alexander Koenig in Bonn, etc. proved invaluable in my work. The result of the travel and the interaction was the creation of a well identified reference collection of butterflies and moths, from which identified specimens have been donated, on request, to various national and international institutions, especially the Indian National Collections at the Zoological Survey of India, Calcutta (Kolkata) and Dehra Dun; the National Museum of Natural History, New Delhi, the Natural History Museum, London, etc. Today, this collection contains nearly seventy type-specimens and paratypes of taxa described by me, making it among the most important private reference collections in Asia. Some of these paratypes will soon be deposited in the Natural History Museum, London; University Museum, Oxford; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Forest Research Institute, Dehra Dun; Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, etc.

Several of my findings on a dozen different Lepidopteran families have been /are being published in thirty papers and notes in reputed national and international scientific journals. Several more are under the consideration of editors. At least four of these have been cited in papers by other workers. To increase popular awareness about butterflies and moths in India, I wrote a field guide to the butterflies of Delhi, eighteen feature length articles in popular magazines (including two cover stories), a fortnightly column on ecology in the Sunday Review section of the Times of India newspaper between August 1992 and April 1993, a peer reviewed series on butterflies in Resonance and numerous newspaper features in several Indian languages over the years.

Several journals and organizations, namely the Eastern and Western Ghats Committee of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests; Project Lifescape of the Indian Institute of Science; Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society; Current Science and Resonance, refer papers and projects on butterflies and moths to me. I am also the consultant on natural history for the Indian version of the Guinness Book of World Records called the Limca Book of Records.

I run a service which provides identification and associated information of butterflies and moths and am among the six recognized determiners in India for Lepidoptera vide the Directory of Determiners published in the journal Bionotes.

The study of bio-indicators is of especial interest to me. The study of the changes in the Hawkmoth community in Kumaon enabled me to predict the probable course of climatic change in the western Himalaya. This was published in a pioneering paper in 1994, and was reported in several vernacular newspapers at the time. In retrospect, the climatic changes in the area during the ensuing decade have borne out my predictions.

Most information available on moths is based on dead specimens. It is often revealing to study these creatures alive, for one gets insights into their ecology, wing patterns, coloring, structure, and other little understood but related matters. There is much that remains to be done and discovered, for these data are useful towards building up a bank of information to be used in determining potential bio-indicators for various purposes, from climatic change to the appropriate amount of leaf litter on the forest floor.

As the fresh water situation deteriorates, we are faced with the necessity of doing something about it. Experience has shown that mechanical methods of storing water, such as dams, tanks, etc, are not very successful. Nor is the idea of joining rivers a long term solution, as events in the Caspian basin have demonstrated. The point that is overlooked is that it is pointless trying to make a river that has historically been seasonal, into a perennial one. However, this does not mean that a river which was once perennial but is now seasonal cannot be made perennial again, or that the dry season flow of perennial rivers cannot be improved. The role of watersheds has seeped into the planning process. What has not seeped through is the fact that “green cover” is not a valid one-size-fits-all, at least in the context of re-juvenating natural water systems. Forests are of various types, each according to the resources available to it. To merely “plant more trees” is a stop gap solution. It increases the circulation of nutrients and water, but does NOT necessarily increase the quantity of available water during the dry season, NOR does it necessarily stabilize groundwater systems. What is required is the re-establishment of indigenous forest and other natural ecosystems.

This can be better understood by using an example of an isolated human community: if a village consists entirely of people practicing a single trade, it will not fulfill the purpose of a village, which is to provide sustenance and supply the needs of the inhabitants within a limited area. What is required is that the inhabitants practice a mix of trades, each supplementing the other’s needs. By this, a sort of meta-identity is created. This sort of an entity can stand on its own and organize a supply of resources (e.g. money) to further the interests of the community. A single species plantation is similarly restricted, while an ecosystem can be compared to a community practicing a mix of trades, which will be in a position to organize a supply of resources (i.e. water).

The problem with trying to re-establish ecosystems is that we do not know enough about it. The relative populations of hundreds of plant species specific to particular areas, obtaining seeds of the numerous species, raising them, etc., etc. is no easy task. Insect bio-indicators can prove invaluable in understanding the variety of biotypes and specific local conditions, which is not otherwise easily assessable. Moths present themselves as among the best subjects for understanding forest ecosystems, provided their taxonomy is properly worked out. This is the direction of my present research effort.

List of research based publications on butterflies and moths by Peter Smetacek

1987. A new type of mimicry in butterflies. J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc. 83: 471.

1992. Record of Plebejus eversmanni (Staudinger) (Lepidoptera: Lycaenidae) from India. J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc.89: 385 – 386.

1993. Catopsilia pomona Fabricius (Lepidoptera: Pieridae) at high elevation in the Uttar Pradesh Himalaya. J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc. 90: 303 – 304.

1993: Neptis cartica Moore (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae) in the Uttar Pradesh Himalaya.J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc. 90: 527 – 528.

1994. An annotated list of the Hawkmoths (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae) of Kumaon, N. India: a probable case of faunal drift. Records Zool. Survey of India, Occasional Paper 156: 1 – 55.

1995. A new altitudinal and range record for the Copper Flash butterfly Rapala pheretimus Hewitson (Lepidoptera: Lycaenidae). J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc. 92:127 – 128.

1997. Pieris brassicae L. (Lepidoptera: Pieridae) in Delhi. J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc.94:584 – 585.

1997. The Notodontid moth Cyphanta chortochlora Hampson in Kumaon, N. India. J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc. 94: 585.

1997. Record of a diurnal moth Callidula erycinoides Walker (Lepidoptera: Callidulidae) from the W. Himalaya. Indian Journ. Biodiversity 1(1);

1998. On an unusual Endoclyta (Lepidoptera: Hepialidae) from Kumaon, in the N.W. Himalaya, India. J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc. 95:136 – 137.

1999. Notes on species of Phalera moths from the Kumaon Himalaya (Insecta: Lepidoptera: Notodontidae). Bionotes1(1): 8 – 10.

1999. The distribution and ecology of Polyura agraria Swinhoe (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae) in India. J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc. 96: 487 – 488.

2000. (with Rajani Smetaček) A supplementary list of the host plants of Indian Lepidoptera. J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc. 97: 157 – 160.

2001. Forms of Danaus chrysippus L. (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae) in the Kumaon Himalaya, India. J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc. 98: 131 – 132.

2001. Resolution of the controversial western limit of the range of Delias acalis Godart (Lepidoptera: Pieridae). J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc. 98: 298 – 300.

2002. Individual variation and sexual dimorphism in Thamnoecha uniformis (Butler) (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae). J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc. 99: 26 – 29.

2002. The genus Pontia Fabricius (Lepidoptera: Pieridae) in the Kumaon Himalaya. J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc. 99: 224 – 231.

2002. Notes on new records of Hooktip moths (Lepidoptera: Drepanidae) from the Kumaon and Garhwal Himalaya. J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc. 99: 446 – 454.

2004. On the occurrence of Marumba cristata Butler (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae) in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh. J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc. 101: 171 – 172.

2004. Pleurona falcata Walker, an addition to the Noctuid fauna of the Indian mainland. J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc.101: 172 – 173.

2004. The genus Corymica Walker (Lepidoptera: Geometridae) in the Kumaon Himalaya with the description of a new form of C. deducata caustolomaria Moore. J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc. 101: 173 – 176.

2004: Taxonomic comments on Lepidoptera reported recently in Bionotes. Bionotes 6(3): 72.

2004. Descriptions of new Lepidoptera from the Kumaon Himalaya. J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc. 101: 269 – 276.

2005. On the taxonomy and appearance of Mixolophia ochrolauta Warren in the Kumaon Himalaya. J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc. 102: 130 – 131.

IN PRESS (February 2006)

The Epipleminae ( Lepidoptera: Uraniidae) of the Kumaon Himalaya. J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc.

Batesian mimic butterflies taken in by their models and the mimetic status of Argyreus hyperbius L. (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae). J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc.

Motion camouflage and spinning wheels. J. Bombay nat. Hist. Soc.

Some distasteful Asian Papilioninae. J. Lepid.Soc.

How wild monkeys eat large hawkmoths and beetles. News Lep. Soc.

The aggressive defence mechanism of a Himalayan moth. News Lep. Soc.



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