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Final Report Summary - EXPLORATION-NEI (Paradise Unexplored: Biodiversity of the Seven Sister States of North East India)

Biodiversity is unevenly distributed in space and time, and biologists seek to explain the generalities and exceptions. North East India (NEI) is very rich in biodiversity. Previously this was thought to be because it is a gateway between the Himalaya and IndoBurma regions. These two latter regions are considered biodiversity conservation hotspots, with the boundary between them running through NEI. It was a major surprise therefore when recently the Researcher discovered and named a new family of amphibians (Chikilidae) that was endemic to NEI, and that has been evolving there for 10s of millions of years, and had its closest living relatives in Africa. This newly discovered major lineage demanded i) that the new family is thoroughly characterised and understood in the broader context of amphibian evolution, ii) that the generality of the historical biogeography of Chikilidae is tested using independent but broadly similar lineages, and iii) that the environmental and biological history of NEI is reassessed, specially the implications for recognising biogeographic units and demarcating hotspots.

The objectives of the EXPLORATION-NEI were:
a) analyse the internal anatomy, genetic and life-history diversity of the new amphibian family Chikilidae
b) infer phylogeny and historical biogeography for ichthyophiid amphibians and synbranchid fish
c) synthesise multitaxon data to test hypotheses about the palaeoenvironmental history of North East India, and assess implications for the demarcation of biodiversity and conservation hotspots.

Using the appropriate methodologies outlined in Annex I of the Grant Agreement, we have studied the internal anatomy of Chikilidae and documented, for the first time, the cranial and trunk musculature in three (of the four known) species of Chikila (C. alcocki, C. gaiduwani, C. fulleri). I compared the musculature, both of the cranium and of the trunk, and of cranial osteology among these three Chikila species, and also with other caecilians from all other caecilian families available so far in published literature and from comparative material in the host institution. I have produced micro-CT scan 3D volume reconstructions of all three species of Chikila, two each of male and female sexes. I also produced micro-CT scan 3D volume reconstructions of 28 individuals of C. gaiduwani, two males and two females each from seven populations across the species’ distribution range and documented variations in the species’ cranial osteological characters. A series of high quality descriptive papers are in advanced preparation, these will for the first time document the cranial osteology, and cranial and trunk musculature of Chikilidae. The anatomical character data I have generated will be used in the first comprehensive family-level morphological phylogenetic analysis for caecilians.

The results of our ichthyophiid molecular phylogenetic studies are consistent with the accepted hypothesis that ichthyophiids dispersed from the Indian subcontinent into South East Asia. Our analysis is the first comprehensive phylogenetic analyses that included samples from NEI.Based on the tree topology and branch lengths our results indicated that the NEI ichthyophiid lineage is more closely related to ichthyophiids from SE Asia than to those from peninsular India or Sri Lanka, and that the ichthyophiids of SE Asia are monophyletic – consistent with the hypothesis that dispersal route out of S Asia into SE Asia was via the NEI.

Through EXPLORATION-NEI, the European host, especially the Vertebrates Division of the Natural History Museum, has received extensive and valuable, rare expertise in North East India and native northeastern Indian biodiversity. The MC Fellow’s extensive expertise in NEI disseminated crucial knowledge of this key but neglected and poorly known region to the host and other European researchers – better enabling them to figure it into international efforts to understand biodiversity patterns across Asia in time and space. For example, the MC Fellow has worked with the host’s Ichthyology Section to help understand the diversity and origins of the fish fauna of IndoBurma.

Through EXPLORATION-NEI the Fellow acquired expertise in utilising micro-CT, X-radiography, different software for reconstructing CT data diversifying her skills on novel imaging techniques of broad application in different areas of research and practice. The Fellow also acquired skills on highly intricate myological dissections from her co-host to study the various muscles and their relationships in the head and in the trunk of Chikila spp., which can be applied to other caecilian groups and other related animal groups. The Fellow has made solid collaborative links with European researchers developing strategic networks, increasing her opportunities of reaching a permanent position as scientific researcher in her home country India, or elsewhere. The Fellow’s status as a role model and an inspiration for women scientists, especially in a developing country India, as a native female biodiversity scientist received more highlights by being selected as the Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellow of The Week (the week 18–25 of November 2016). After her training and experiences in Europe as a MSC Fellow, the researcher is the most widely experienced, well-rounded caecilian biologist in Asia making her a competitive candidate for permanent positions.
The results of EXPLORATION-NEI are being made available in peer-reviewed publications and through web-based tools to benefit the global community.

Reported by

NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM
United Kingdom

Subjects

Life Sciences
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