K Sankara Rao (left) and Lakshmi Narayanan (right) during the launch of the website
Nature enthusiasts now have free access to peer-reviewed information on over 10,000 species of plants from peninsular India, thanks to the Digital Flora of Peninsular India, a website developed by Indian Institute of Science (IISc)'s Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES). The website was launched on March 2, 2019 by Lakshmi Narayanan, former VC and CEO of Cognizant Technologies, and Kameswara Rao, retired chair of the Department of Botany and Sericulture, Bangalore University. The duo have been instrumental in promoting this initiative: Mr Narayanan, recently, made a personal contribution to this cause and Kameswara Rao chaired the database's peer-reviewing committee.
Addressing the gathering through a video call, K VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India, congratulated Mr Rao and his team for the accomplishment. He suggested that they also bring out the website in Kannada, to reach a wider audience. In response, Rohini Balakrishnan, the Chair of CES, assured him that bringing out the website in multiple languages was on the cards.
This online database draws on the information available in the herbarium -- a collection of dried, pressed plant specimens and their associated data -- housed at CES.
The herbarium was founded by botanist CJ Saldanha, who collected these specimens from his explorations of Karnataka's flora, according to a statement from IISc. The institute acquired the herbarium after Mr Saldanha's retirement, according to K Sankara Rao, herbarium in-charge and retired professor of the Department of Biochemistry.
When Mr Rao took charge in 2007, he decided to reinvent the herbarium by developing an online database that would contain comprehensive information about each plant species: its vernacular name, taxonomic description, habitat, geographic distribution, flowering time, conservation status and more. To do this, he put together a team of volunteers, who digitised and compiled records of plant specimens, and programmers, who created the database.
But Rao faced a problem. "Because the collections are over 30 years old, there could be a sea of change in species diversity in a habitat," he explained.
So his team carried out extensive ecological surveys to ensure that the information provided on the website is accurate and up-to-date. The website also features photographs taken from the team's field trips as well as scanned images of the herbarium specimens.
In the early years, Mr Rao's team focused only on digitising the flora of Karnataka. But the exercise gradually expanded to include other states through which the Western Ghats runs, and also the Eastern Ghats. The team spent four years to collect, process and upload the information on the website.
According to Mr Rao, the availability of the online database is a crucial first step in addressing issues related to conservation of both plant species as well as habitats.
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