Untangling the mystery of the ancient shola forest-grassland ecosystems of India

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Online seminar followed by Q&A – all welcome. NB: all times given in UK time/GMT

Today we know that the shola-grassland ecosystems in the upper elevations of the southern Western Ghats in India are ancient ecosystems, pleistocene relics that are naturally bi-phasic, with patches of stunted montane forests (sholas) set in a mosaic of rolling montane grasslands, and sharp boundaries between the two states. This was not always the case. When colonial foresters first chanced upon these ecosystems in the 19th century, they were at once enchanted by the emerald green downs and the cool climate that reminded them of home and convinced, based on the presence of cattle herding local communities, seasonal fires and the abrupt shola-grassland boundaries, that the downs owed their presence to human agency. In this talk Jayashree will trace the history of how this misreading of the ecosystem led to century of exotic tree planting in the grasslands; how recent experiments demonstrate, surprisingly for such a tropical latitude, that rather than fire or grazing, it is winter frosts maintain these grasslands; and the unexpected gnarly ecological choices that we now face in our efforts to restore the endangered grasslands of these mosaics. She will conclude with the implications of what we have learnt in this ecosystem for widespread policies that promote tree-planting in grasslands (we shouldn’t do it!).

Jayashree Ratnam is an ecologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bangalore, where she currently serves as Director of the Wildlife Biology and Conservation Program. She is particularly interested in the history, ecology, function and conservation of tropical savannas, forests and grasslands. Her current research includes the history, assembly and reclassification of Asian tropical dry biomes, functional turnover and boundary dynamics at tropical savanna-forest and forest-grassland boundaries, and long-term responses of tropical forest and savanna to ongoing and future climate change.