evolutionary cycle

How lizards revealed the millennia-old evolution story of India’s grasslands

A study by the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru also found 25 new species of Ophisops lizards.

It is not very clear when grasslands spread in India, nor is it clear whether they evolved naturally or developed as a result of human activities. There is much debate between scientists who claim grasslands developed as humans cleared forests for agriculture, and others who think that grasses evolved as Earth was subjected to different climatic changes.

One way to gain insights into the evolution of grasslands is to study the emergence of animals closely connected to them. In the case of grasslands, these animals are Ophisops, a genus of lizards from an ancient time that are restricted to open grassy habitats in India, and other arid parts of Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt – which scientists studying the geographical distribution of animals refer to as the Saharo-Arabian region.

The lizard-grassland connection

In a recent study, researchers from the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru carried out genetic analyses to investigate the manner in which these lizards evolved, and also investigated the time period in which they spread across peninsular India.

Since Ophisops are restricted to grasslands, understanding the evolution of these lizards allowed the researchers to test two hypotheses related to the origins of Indian grasslands. The first hypothesis was that if Indian grasslands expanded at the same time as grasslands globally – which was four million to eight million years ago – the spread of Ophisops would date back to around roughly the same time period. The second hypothesis was if grasslands expanded only when humans started cultivation in the last 10,000 years to 20,000 years, Ophisops would have only spread to areas cleared by humans in the more recent past.

The researchers collected specimens from 108 areas across India spanning a range of different habitats – from the Thar desert to the Western Ghats, the East and West coasts and many parts of central India.

“We extracted DNA from 125 specimens collected from these localities and examined the similarities and differences between their DNA to understand the evolution of Ophisops,” said Ishan Agarwal, an evolutionary biologist and the lead author of the study.

Differences in DNA accumulate over time and hence the genetic divergence between two species can tell us how long ago they diverged from one another. “We also investigated at what rate species diversified through time, which can vary due to several factors including climate and available habitat,” said Agarwal.

The study also examined the relationship between Ophisops from India and those found in similar conditions in the Saharo-Arabian region. In their study, the researchers found that these lizards spread into India from the Saharo-Arabian part of the world between 23 million years and 28 million years ago. This suggests that there were open areas available in India during that period, as these lizards are only found in open areas today. After coming to India, around 20 million years ago, the lizards split into two groups of big and small body sizes – big being more than 50 mm and small being less than 45 mm.

Genetic analyses of specimens collected from field sites and museums also found 25 new species of Indian Ophisops lizards when only five were previously known to science. Such findings are not uncommon among a group of organisms that are similar in appearance, and whose biological classification has not been evaluated with genetic methods.

“The homogeneity in habitat across their distribution range could be one of the reasons for the cryptic diversity,” said Varad Giri, a taxonomic expert on reptiles who was not part of the study. “The lizards have retained their body form across their range with limited or no changes to their appearance.”

The small-bodied species of Ophisops diversified rapidly around five million to nine million years ago, which corresponds to the time when grasslands were expanding globally. Around the same time – that is, during the late Miocene period – the Indian Subcontinent and other Asian regions went through a period of aridification. This opened up more dry arid areas, increasing the suitable habitat for these lizards to expand into. Thus the ancient past when these lizards spread suggests grasslands in India evolved millions of years ago.

Grasslands are of ancient origin

Of the many lizard species that evolved, the study also suggests that some members of the large-bodied group dispersed back into the Saharo-Arabian region, eventually evolving into new species. “It is the first time such an unusual bio-geographic pattern has been documented,” said Agarwal.

While several animals have dispersed from India to South East Asia, such a westward dispersal has not been documented previously. This could be because most research is focused on forest-dwelling species while the animals belonging to dry arid habitats are understudied. “[When more studies] find many groups of animals with a similar pattern you would infer that there was probably a broad geological or climatic event that facilitated this,” said Agarwal.

Grasslands are usually considered to harbour a low diversity of animals and are believed to be devoid of any unique diversity. But as this study suggests, grasslands may support many diverse understudied creature.

Grasslands are among the most neglected ecosystems in India. In spite of 40% of the country’s natural habitats being covered with grasslands, they are poorly understood and often ill-treated. This study makes a case for grasslands being of an ancient origin, and highlights the urgent need for conservation of arid landscapes that support a wide array of creatures.

Corrections and clarifications: This article has been updated to make a few changes. Earlier, it was mentioned that scientists had found “30 new groups of Indian Ophisops lizards”. That has been updated to say that scientists had found “25 new species…”

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.