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Celebrate World Wildlife Day with ecologist Anusha Shankar8 min read

March 3, 2021 5 min read

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Celebrate World Wildlife Day with ecologist Anusha Shankar8 min read

Reading Time: 5 minutes
Sourced from Giphy

Every year, March 3rd is observed as World Wildlife Day! It is a day to celebrate our co-inhabitants of the beautiful planet we call home. We started our celebrations with a retrospective of good news for wildlife in 2020, a comparison between dolphins and humans, a discovery of the oldest DNA in a furry friend who lived on earth 4,000 years ago, and a curious case of dogs turning green and blue in Russia.

And today, we bring to you the story of a young scientist and explorer who has dedicated her time to the study of wildlife— Anusha Shankar.

Anusha is a National Geographic Explorer and Young Leader, a Lewis and Clark Field Scholar, and is currently a  Rose Postdoctoral Fellow, studying hummingbirds at Cornell University. She wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on how hummingbirds budget their energy across a number of sites in Arizona and Ecuador. Earlier, she got a Master’s from Pondicherry University, India, studying nesting hornbills in the Western Ghats, and a Bachelor’s in Zoology and Biotech from Stella Maris College, Chennai, India. She is interested in making science more accessible to people and works towards that goal through initiatives like BrainChem and Science Outside. She has also written a book for Pratham’s Storyweavers called Why do Sunbirds Eat All Day.

Owliver met this unstoppable explorer to know about her journey and her world!

How did it begin?

“I definitely did not grow up thinking of becoming a wildlife ecologist or biologist. In fact, I did not know you had to chose one thing,” says Anusha. For a very long time she believed that she would be a psychologist and spend her days studying human behaviour. It was only when she ended up doing a Zoology degree for her bachelors, and some volunteer work which focussed on wildlife that she found her path. She adds, “I always loved animals and before I knew it, I was studying animal behaviour.” Presently, Anusha is studying hummingbirds and how they use energy and balance their time in natural environments.
Anusha says, “At every step, it was never obvious what the next step will be.”

When did she start studying hummingbirds?

“I always thought I will study insects and snakes and other ‘non charismatic’ insects etc.,” says Anusha. But when she was looking for Ph.D. programs, she found an advisor who was working on hummingbirds in Ecuador. She adds, “I was really interested in the questions my advisor was asking. I was more interested in the science than the animal system. Once. I started studying them, I realised how fascinating they are. I was amazed at how they manage to exist for 7-12 years as the fast flying energetic creatures that they are!”

Watch Anusha talk about this incredibly fascinating creature:

Her most special memory from fieldwork?

Sourced from Giphy

The study of wildlife takes Anusha to remote corners of the world. Anusha recalls an incident from one such study. She says,” I was studying how hummingbirds manage to make it through the night. They use energy so quickly that they need to feed frequently to survive. If they don’t eat for a few hours, they can die. So, how do they make it through the night when they cannot eat? Well, they lower their energy needs, and bring down their body temperature.”

Anusha was winding up her 2 A.M. shift studying the night routine of a hummingbird in Arizona. She says,” I was watching a hummingbird using a thermal camera when I watched its heartbeat slow down and its body temperature fall from 41 degrees to 15 degrees. As I finished my shift, I turned around to look up at the sky and saw the Milky Way right above. It was such a surreal experience to realise that I get to live in these remote places, watch wildlife with such intimacy, and see the galaxy overhead, all at the same time.”

Here’s a short video of this study:

How does she work to make science more accessible. Is this how the book, Why do Sunbirds Eat All Day came about?

Anusha received a grant from National Geographic seven years ago. A lot of these opportunities of academic outreach came her way because of this grant. She adds, “Explorers were invited to visit the NatGeo headquarters where they were trained to speak to the public. This is where I started getting invites to deliver talks before school audiences. It is such a joy to speak to young minds who are ever so curious and brimming with questions!”

The book was born when Anusha’s batchmate, a guest-editor at Pratham, approached her. She says, ” I adapted what I knew of hummingbirds to a very similar bird in India called the Sunbird. It was a fun and relatively easy venture for me. The illustrator did most of the work. “

Sourced from Storyweaver

Who inspires her:

She says, “My parents encouraged me to take up this strange career and go live in these remote places for research.” Even her teachers were ever supportive. She adds, “It is the personal connections that are the true encouragers in this story.”

Project closest to her heart:

Anusha says, “I have been studying hummingbirds for the last nine years but I love snakes and butterflies and insects!” The study of what she calls “creepy crawlies’ excites her. She adds, ” When I am walking through a forest, I still look at the ground to find insects. I think that is where my heart is.”

And here’s a message for our readers—

And here’s Anusha telling us how we can learn to manage time better from hummingbirds:

Anusha’s journey tells us that there is wonder around us if we pause to notice. From the flapping of a hummingbird’s wings to the sound of its heartbeat, everything teaches us something more about the world, and in turn, about us.
This World Wildlife Day, let’s make a conscious effort to tune into the melody of the wild world. It is a sweet song!

Photo: ©Jen Shook (National Geographic)