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The color ‘decoder’

Photo Credits: Siddharth Kankaria/ Research Matters

Charles Darwin, in his treatise ‘On the Origin of Species (1853)’, introduced the world to the struggle individuals partake to survive the hostilities of the environment and most strikingly, the sheer diversity and extravagance of natural forms and colors that appear to defy strategies of survival. Over the past century and a half since Darwin, great strides have been made to uncover the hidden complexities in a species’ survival and reproductive game. Spirited new breeds of modern evolutionary biologists have been relentlessly invested in streamlining and magnifying the foci of their investigations. Bolstering such endeavors, novel syntheses and approaches are gradually unveiling the rules of the survival game that species and individuals play by.

One such formulation that has molded the research interests of Dr. Maria Thaker, Associate Professor at Center for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore is ‘problem solving’. “Individual organisms are forced to constantly solve problems in order to survive and reproduce. To achieve some level of fitness, organisms have to defend territories, identify rival males and females to mate with, communicate with each other, escape predators, etc.”, explains Dr. Thaker. She is quick and vivacious to declare that her laboratory is excited by the vibrant hues of natural organisms and so explores how colors facilitate or impede survival and procreation. She clarifies that it is not the flutterers and the chirpers that captivate her lab’s passion, but the crawlers and slithery that escape most urbanite’s attention.

Among the many species that she and her students study, two groups are the agamids and the geckos, both known for their radiant ornamental colors. More profound than their fascination is the abundance of colors that these groups of species sport; how the colors are formed, how they are maintained by bodily functions, how they change within minutes or over the lifetime of the individual, whether their vibrancy varies with seasons and local conditions, whether brighter males attract more ladies, and if they recognize their own species using them? Within the same theme, another exciting line of inquiry is how colorations vary when organisms inhabit different regions like forests, grasslands, rural areas and urban environments. Perhaps the diversity and quality of colors are better understood as a consequence of the physical environment, rather than the selection pressures imposed by the need to communicate or to camouflage from predators.

The urban environment has its own set of idiosyncratic hostilities for a gecko or an agama. Fathomably, navigating across concrete boundaries, searching food in heavily pesticised gardens and then finding and courting females in urban landscapes are understandably complicated problems. To unravel these intriguing but deceptively simple questions, Dr. Thaker dexterously combines field observations with laboratory experimentation. “We are not constrained by techniques as they are simply tools to tackle your questions, be it temporary maintenance of lab populations, or the use of immunological, physiological, endocrinological, ethological or chemical analyses”, declares Dr. Thaker. Her current doctoral students are pursuing their research in the Western Ghats, as well as the semi-arid areas of Karnataka.

Although not too distant from the interests of the students in her lab, Dr. Thaker’s scientific exploration also forays into problem-solving by large mammals, like African elephants and mesocarnivores like foxes and jackals. With those species, she is interested in long-distance movement strategiesin search of feeding grounds, or the subtle strategies required to survive in areaswith high human activities. Beyond scientific engagements, Dr. Thaker has also been instrumental in initiating research collaboration between the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and several other universities, including the University of Melbourne and the University of Technology – Sydney in Australia, as well as the Hebrew University in Israel. These collaborations will facilitate co-supervision of students and student exchange programs. With organisms not seeming to run out of problems in the foreseeable future, Dr. Thaker can only be expected to be undeterred in the pursuit of comprehending their travails and we hope that she continues to fascinate the world with her findings.

Contact Information:

Dr. Maria Thaker,

Associate Professor,

Center for Ecological Sciences,

Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India.

Email: mthaker@ces.iisc.ernet.in

Office contact: +918023601455