WONDERS OF THE WESTERN GHATS – Grass tells a unique story

Hubbardia heptaneuron is a species of grass that was believed to be restricted to the area near the waterfalls where it was first discovered in 1919.However, when the hydro-electric project was built, the habitat changed and for decades the grass could not be spotted in the area. Eventually, it was classified as “extinct,“ said Chandrakanth Salunkhe, assistant professor at the Postgraduate Centre for Botany at the Krishna Mahavidyalaya in Shivnagar, Satara.

WONDERS OF THE WESTERN GHATS A group of researchers had a lucky breakthrough when a patch of the same grass was discovered in Tillari in Kolhapur.Even today , it is only found in an area limited to about one square km and classified as “vulnerable“ by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Salunkhe said.

The species of grass may not have perished, but with limited attention given to the study of grasses, especially in India, experts fear that there may be other species facing a similar fate.

“There is a feeling among researchers that grasses are a difficult group to identify with minute floral organs. They require special terminology and their spikelets and inflorescence have complicated structures,“ Salunkhe said.

To the untrained eye, a grass land might just be a green patch with blades of varying lengths but there are more than 1,200 species of grasses found in India and over one-third of the species are found in the Western Ghats. Moreover, many of the species of grass found in the region are endemic and are not found anywhere else.

“As many as 13 genera (groups of species) are endemic to the Western Ghats. Some, like Arthraxon, Dimeria and Ischaemum have a number of closely related species with intermediate forms restricted to the region,“ Salunkhe explained.

Within the region, some species of grass are extremely limited in their habitat. Pogonachne racemosa and Triplopogon romasissimus are so far known to grow only in Maharashtra while Chandrasekharania keralensis is found only in Kerala, he added.

“Dichanthium jainii is another species of grass that, so far, is only known to grow in Maharashtra. It grows on open hill tops and on bunds of fields at an altitude above 1,000 meters. It is used as fodder, fuel and for thatching. Overexploitation of the grass has resulted in the plant becoming endangered,“ he explained.

According to the assistant professor, grasses are a homogenous group of plants with remarkable diversity. “Given their use as fodder, they are of tremendous economic as well as ecological importance. They play a crucial role in the maintenance of world’s ecosystem and biodiversity. Despite this, t h e y re m a i n n e g l e c t e d , “ Salunkhe said.

Bringing it back from the brink

Following the rediscovery of Hubbardia heptaneuron, which was feared to be extinct, researchers led by S R Yadav reintroduced the species at 108 locations along the Western Ghats. Across a distance of about 677 km, from Malshej Ghat to Jog Falls, over 5,000 individual grasses were planted.

“It is an ideal example of a plant species driven to extinction as a result of development projects as well as of the sincere efforts made by botanists to conserve it,“ said Chandrakanth Salunkhe, an expert on grasses.

Conservation efforts

At the botanical gardens of Krishna Mahavidyalaya in Satara, a conservatory of endemic grasses of Western Ghats has been established. More than six endemic grass species of the region are housed here.
Source : TOI

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