evolution of shola BIrds


In the naturally patchy habitat of the Shola forest and grasslands are a variety of bird fauna that are endemic and restricted largely to the sky islands of the Western Ghats. These natural habitat patches, are further disjunct at a larger scale because they are found on sky islands! This make these species a wonderful and interesting group to conduct research on.


Evolution on sky islands

Ravi Kiran

Kalyan Varma

Clement Francis


Vishnudas has joined us with considerable experience leading bird surveys across the Western Ghats of Kerala. He was part of the team in 2011 that retraced and compared avifaunal changes since early bird expeditions by famous ornithologist Salim Ali. He leads several expeditions for our project in parts of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and more recently in Chattisgarh!

Ranjini is fascinated by the natural world and after BSc Forestry, she studied the social behavior of the Indian spider and also learnt about plant conservation, briefly studied the ecology of the Himalayan rivers and about the Van Panchayat system of forest management. She has moved on to a Masters in Forestry in Belgium.

Pooja has been working on generating Shortwing microsatellite data and she has been helping us getting our field work done with lots of support from the lab. She helps coordinate the entire lab work of the sky island project. She is also standardizing markers for multiple Western Ghats species. She has now moved on to a PhD programme in IISER-Kolkatta.


Pooja Gupta

2010 - 2014

Phulmani has done her BTech in Biotechnology from NIT, Durgapur. She helped plough through the large amount of genetic data generated in the lab. She has now moved on to a Masters in Tata Institute of Social Science.

Chetana  primarily worked on the song project, recording songs from different sky islands. She also helped us collect samples from many of these locations. She has now completed a Masters programme in Wildlife Biology at NCBS and works on an independent project at Dakshin Foundation

Anusha help the project on field and in sorting out samples in the lab. She has worked on hornbills for her masters from Pondicherry University and has now moved on to a PhD programme at Stony Brook.

Abhilash worked on mangroves and forests in Kerala for his Masters and is now helping us collect data both on field and in the lab.

Sahas helped start off the multi-species project by doing the first trial run, even before we got funding. One of his captures from 2011 has been photographed in 2016!


Anusha Shankar

Chetana Purushottam

Abhilash Babu


Phulmani Baro


Vishnudas CK

(2012 to present)

People in the project - PAST & PRESENT

Chetana Purushotham


Ravi Kiran has had extensive experience working with floral components in Eastern Ghat and Arravali mountain ranges.  He helped us collect plant samples from Shola habitat in different parts of the Western Ghats apart from helping with our bird research. He is presently a scientist at Botanical Survey of India.


Ravi Kiran


Species pictured on this page are some of the endemic birds from the sky islands. Species like the Black-and-Orange Flycatcher, the White and the Rufous bellied Shortwing, the Nilgiri and the Grey-breasted Laughing Thrush, are all forest understorey birds. These species would perhaps experience different evolutionary pressures or even anthropogenic pressures compared to grassland birds like the endemic Nilgiri Pipit and the Broad-tailed Grassbird. There are also other species also found in the lower elevations in this habitat (e.g. Red-Whiskered Bulbul).

There is very little information on the biology and evolution of these species. Differing levels of ecological adaptation may have affected species in different ways in evolutionary time. Differing ecological specialization may also have a deep impact on how species respond to anthropogenic pressures like recent deforestation. Understanding how species cope with natural and anthropogenic patchiness in this habitat is not just academically interesting, but may also be critical for conservation decisions in the future.

Taking off from what we have learnt from a decade of research on the White-bellied Shortwing, the recent investigations on the evolution and the comparative phylogeography of the almost entire sky-island bird community are revealing interesting patterns.

Our results indicate that the size of the valley, in combination with historic (paleo) climate has caused genetic divergences in various species. We uncovered that the largest valley, Palghat Gat impacts most number of species, with a subset of these species being impacted genetically by the smaller Shencottah Gap and a further subset being impacted by the smallest Chaliyar valley. Interestingly, this nested pattern was recovered in the age of divergences as well, with the oldest divergences at the largest valley and the younger divergences at the shallower, narrower valleys.

This project covered the entire sky islands of Western Ghats, studying all songbirds in this habitat - a unique achievement, made possible due to the extreme hard work of the team listed below.

The project provides insights into how biodiversity is created in such mountain systems, highlighting the role of deep valleys. The results also provide insights into how ancient climate has impacted many species, also implying that future climate change is likely to impact these globally endemic and threatened species that appear to be susceptible to climate change.

The original manuscript describing the results is in Proceedings of Royal Society B. Write to any of us if you need a reprint.


National Centre for Biological sciences

National GEOgraphic Explorer CRE AWARD

PRESS coverage about this study

Some some images from field work here

These explorations have led to the recovery of two new bird genera with seven endemic species - one new - all endemic to the sky islands of the Western Ghats. ...more information coming soon!

Endemic radiation on sky islands

Sahas Barve