New Lab Members: Binod Borah

This is the first in a series of interviews with our new lab members! Binod obtained his MS in Wildlife Biology and Conservation at Tata Institute for Fundamental Research in Bangalore, India. His MS research focused on the responses of mixed-species bird flocks to selective logging. Binod will be studying animal-mediated seed dispersal and plant communities in India.

1. What is your research focus?

My research focuses on ecological interactions, particularly in the broad domain of the ‘seedscape’. I would like to study the synergestic effects of adult plants (supplier), seed dispersers (delivery) and dispersed habitats (receiver) in generating the seedscape and what roles interactions such as frugivory, seed predation etc. play in them. Forest conservation will depend on a mechanistic understanding of this coupled system and the forces that threaten it.

2. How did you get interested in this kind of research?

I made a late entry to ecology, having  spent couple of years in corporates as a mechanical engineer. My ‘moment’ came when I chanced upon a book titled ‘The way of the tiger’, by noted biologist Dr Ullas Karanth. After few internship stints in local NGOs where I worked in three biodiversity hotspots, I realized a career in ecological research was right for me. I eventually studied a Masters program in Wildlife Biology and Conservation funded jointly by National Centre for Biological Sciences and WCS-India Program, which gave me an academic introduction to ecology.

I got particularly interested in seedscape ecology when I was surveying a vast landscape estimating the distribution of five sympatric hornbills, a major seed disperser in North East India. Hornbills are threatened by hunting and habitat loss, and it made me wonder what changes the forest undergo as we slowly lose these beautiful birds.

3, Can you describe some of your past research?

My masters dissertation looked at the relationship between interspecific associations in mixed-species bird flocks and selective logging. The study was conducted at 2000m ASL in Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in East Himalaya, a montane forest that is extremely rich in biodiversity, yet facing increasing anthropogenic pressure. My research found that even in logged forests, flocks were functional as both number and frequencies of species associations varied expectedly (from a null model).  I also sampled for prey availability to confirm my initial assumption that changing prey availability has a strong correlation with these emergent patterns. These highlight the conservation importance of logged forest as they are now increasingly converted to agriculture or plantations.

Before my masters, I was involved with projects that estimated the distribution of sympatric hornbill species in North-East India and demographic trends of large carnivores and their prey in deciduous forests of Western Ghats.

4.  What made you choose Utah State University/the Beckman Research Group?

I am particularly keen on integrating theory with empirical research, and plan to study seedscapes in a changing world. This is one of the main research themes of the Beckman lab and motivated me to choose the group. I also chose USU as it has a large group of people working in different ecological fields, and therefore provide me with an opportunity to learn from them. Besides, the campus and the sceneries look beautiful!

5.  What are your goals after you’re done here?

My immediate goal would be to continue what I love doing, that is ecological research. So, I would preferably look for a Post-Doctorate stint. In the long run, I would either like to have a career in academics or in an NGO and continue research and conservation in India.

6.  What do you like to do in your free time?

I am an avid birdwatcher and always eager to pick up a pair of binoculars whenever I get the opportunity. I also like reading books and am currently reading ‘The heart of a woman’ by Maya Angelou. Otherwise, I like playing ultimate frisbee and also am a running enthusiast.

7.  Tell me your best field work/research-related story.

This was back when I was interning for a local NGO in a deciduous forest in Western Ghats. Shankara (a local assistant) and I were walking along an elephant trail and keenly recording signs of human disturbances along the trail (lopped branches, logged stems etc.). As we passed through a mixed forest with tall grasses, we bumped into a Sloth Bear, that was digging a termite mound. The bear clearly despised our intrusions (we were hardly separated by around 5-8m) and displayed its displeasure with growls and erratic movements (it was undecided whether to charge at us or flee and eventually stood on its hind limbs). We were at our wits ends, shouted and threw tree branches at the large animal, but to no avail. Finally, the tense standoff was resolved as we hit the bare eucalyptus trunks with wooden planks, that made loud sharp noise like gunfires. The bear fled, but I couldn’t thank our fortune enough that we emerged unharmed from this incident.


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