[Podcast] Imprints: Finding molluscs with Devapriya Chattopadhyay

  • Molluscs build their shells with calcium carbonate from the sea water. Their shells record the sea water chemistry which lets us decipher the changes that occurred in their environment.
  • Paleoclimate scientist Devapriya Chattopadhyay studies mollusc fossils which helps reconstruct the marine paleoenvironment. Her findings revealed that even periods of slight warming affected mollusc diversity in an area considered to be less affected by changes in the climate.
  • In this episode of ‘Imprints’ Chattopadhyay talks about her fossil hunting adventures, interesting discoveries and patterns, the humans she encounters on the field and the challenge that India faces in setting up a museum for natural history.

What can shells tells us about marine paleoclimate? It is essential to collect fresh paleoclimatic data based on past analogues to understand the current climate change. Shells and molluscs store a wealth of paleoclimate information. Seashells store the history of the marine saltwater environment so well. Unravelling the sea water chemistry records from these shells helps us decipher the changes that occurred in their environment.

It is important to record this information, as every day new infrastructure projects erase pieces of natural history. And research on mollusc fossils in Kachchh that go back millions of years, has revealed that even periods of slight warming affected mollusc diversity in an area considered to be less affected by changes in the climate. In the context of present day climate change, this paleoclimate research is considered to be very useful to bridge some knowledge gaps.

In this episode of Imprints, Mongabay-India Contributing Editor and podcast host, Sahana Ghosh speaks with palaeontologist and scientist Devapriya Chattopadhyay, Associate Professor, Earth and Climate Science, Paleobiology and Marine Ecology, Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research (IISER), to understand how palaeontologists reconstruct the biological world that existed before the development of human civilisation.

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Full transcript

Sahana Ghosh (SG): You are listening to Everything Environment by Mongabay-India.

Not all palaeontologist work on dinosaurs. Our guest today, Devapriya Chattopadhyay at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research or IISER- Pune, is fascinated with fossilised snails and clams because their shells lock in the history of the marine saltwater environment so well. These molluscs, invertebrates with hard outer shells, build their shells from calcium carbonate and all the shell-building components – calcium, carbon, oxygen- come from the sea water.

Their shells, therefore, record the sea water chemistry, which lets us decipher the changes that occurred in their environment. Mollusc fossils help Devapriya reconstruct the marine paleoenvironment of Kachchh in western India millions of years ago.

Welcome to our show, Imprints. I am Sahana Ghosh, Contributing Editor at Mongabay-India. You will hear how scientists like Devapriya look at the past to understand the modern climate and changes in biodiversity.

Devapriya’s research on mollusc fossils in Kachchh that go back 23 million to 16 million years ago, has revealed that even periods of slight warming affected mollusc diversity in an area considered to be less affected by changes in the climate. She also studies the distributions of modern, living molluscs in the waters surrounding the Indian subcontinent.

But mushrooming infrastructure projects are imperilling fossil records. Many such fossil hotspots, such as those in Kachchh, are now irreversibly lost to dams and road projects which, to Devapriya, is “losing parts of history,” and this loss brings about a knowledge gap, that she says is going to stay forever.

And India, which has a very good fossil heritage that is unique in many respect, does not have natural history museums, like the Smithsonian in the United States, for example, where fossil collections can be housed and curated on a large scale.

Moreover, India’s colonial past, which hit its economy, also hindered the development of natural history and museum culture within the country. And our fossils made their way to museums being constructed in Western Europe and the USA. Lack of access to these resources, funding support from Indian agencies to do fieldwork or visit these museums – there are many challenges for a person working in paleo research. But Devapriya, along with like-minded colleagues, is pushing for a national museum to house these treasures. She hopes it materialises soon.

Devapriya Chattopadhyay on her fieldwork in Kachchh and seashell fossils. Photo from Devapriya Chattopadhyay.
Devapriya Chattopadhyay on her fieldwork in Kachchh and seashell fossils. Photo from Devapriya Chattopadhyay.

SG: Hey Devapriya. Welcome to Imprints! At the start, I want to dig deeper to understand the exact nature of your job. What is it that you do as a palaeontologist? What drives you to be one? Could you paint a picture for our listeners?

Devapriya Chattopadhyay (DC): So, when we talk about palaeontology, it typically means the study of ancient life forms. And as a palaeontologist, our interest is to reconstruct how the world looked like, how the biological world looked like, before human civilisation. To do that, we use different techniques to reconstruct. And not all palaeontologists work on dinosaurs. And there is a vast variety of animals and organisms that catch the interest of palaeontologists. Primarily they, because they get preserved very well. And it also tells us a very interesting story of how the entire biological world evolved, and how it interacted with the environment. It’s not just the environment, which changes the biology, it’s the biology, which changes the environment too. So, it’s a two-way street that has been interacting over the last three billion years.

SG: But did you have it all figured out when you started on this course to study these specific subjects? Did you know at that point that this is what you would eventually come to do? And when you’re in school and when you were in college, did you have any inclination that this is what I am going to be doing?

DC: No, absolutely not. I don’t think palaeontology or geology, which is one of the subjects that you can focus on, in order to become a palaeontologist was ever discussed in our school curriculum, which is unfortunate. But it was not part of the mainstream, academic, you know, a street that you generally carry on your career or you base your career on. Well, I had a little different childhood, I would say, compared to a typical city dweller. I grew up in a small town in North Bengal. And I was always very close to nature. And apart from all the things that were going on in the school, I was really curious about how things work in nature. I used to accompany my father, who was a college professor, but he was also a nature painter. So, he used to go to a small forest every weekend or so to paint and I used to go with him. And while he was sketching and painting, I used to roam around and pick up small leaves or curious-looking pods or look at, you know, termites, building their nests and things like that.

So, I guess, I never thought of it when I was a kid as a, you know, profession or a viable profession, but I don’t think any kid actually thinks about those. It was something that was very close to my heart, but also something very interesting to me and which never, I think, went away.

And I think around when I was 14 or 15, there was a school competition where we were supposed to talk about some science project. And I decided to talk about the formation of fossil fuels – coal, petroleum, natural gas, and things like that. But I guess that’s the first time I started looking into books and different kinds of materials and realise there is a vast world where people are interested in knowing what happened in the past. And there is a very, very long past, which we do not have a written record of, but the entire story is kept in the natural records. And it’s just waiting to be discovered!

I think that was the point of thrill for me, and I sort of started thinking… this can be taken as a career and as a, you know, path that can be followed in the future. So, but still, I mean, I don’t think I was quite certain about it, till I finished by 12th grade. And once I finished my 12th, I had the standard physics, chemistry, math and biology combination, I decided to do my bachelor’s degree in geology. So, at that point in time, not really palaeontology, but just geology. I studied geology at Jadavpur University. And I think all my classmates remember this very vividly, although I am not very certain that it exactly happened like this. But in the first palaeontology class, we were shown a fossil, and that was probably the first fossil I looked at very closely. And I was so excited, I think I started talking about it. And the teacher got quite upset. And I think, according to my friends, I was thrown out of the class, the first palaeontology class of my career. But that’s when I started having a keen interest. And then, it continued through my MSc, which I did at IIT Bombay. And then eventually, during my MSc, I decided that I would like to continue on this. And that’s why I decided to do a Ph.D., which I did at the University of Michigan.

Mollusc fossils in Kachchh. Photo by Devapriya Chattopadhyay.
Mollusc fossils in Kachchh. Photo by Devapriya Chattopadhyay.

SG: So, your career trajectory is quite interesting. It literally began from your father’s sketches and progressed with a school science project on formation of fossil fuels and then you had that experience of being thrown out of your first palaeontology class in university. But now that you have made it as a career palaeontologist, what are major issues or questions you are trying to address with your work and what kind of fossils help you in your quest?

DC: So, at this point, if you think about the global concern, one of the major concerns is the biodiversity change, at the global perspective. We are facing certain changes in the environment, one of them being climate change. And if we look at how it impacts, there are ways to do it. I mean, people can observe it over, let’s say, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. But certain changes do not really take place in this timescale. And it’s often very difficult to predict what’s going to happen down the line, because not all these reactions are, you know, linear. And it’s not always, I mean, the nature of change, actually, the rate of change changes over time. And the examples that we can study is the geologic past, where these kinds of climate changes happen, maybe not for the same reason. But naturally, there were major changes in the climate, and in the environment, and that impacted biodiversity. So those are one of the classic examples.

In fact, there are multiple such examples that we can study, in order to understand better what to expect, what to worry about, and how we can expect this biodiversity pattern will eventually change or maintain its equilibrium and things like that. So again, coming back to the point that, although that’s the overall interest, we are not really equipped to get all kinds of animals in the fossil. So only certain types of fossils actually emerge, or only certain types of animals actually get fossilised. And those are those animals that have hard shells, or they live in conditions, which help them to get preserved. And one such thing is the clams and snails because they have a hard external skeleton, which helps them to get preserved.

And that’s what my fascination is, I’m interested in the marine record, which gets preserved very well. And in particular, these kinds of animals, because they get preserved very well.

And these shells are made up of calcium carbonate. And all of this calcium, carbon, oxygen, all of these things are actually coming from the seawater. And therefore, they basically record the seawater chemistry at different levels in their shell. So that becomes an extremely useful geochemical archive, which tells us, again, the changes in the physical Atmos physical environment. So, it’s almost like a nice little specimen, which carries with it the triggers, as well as the response. And that’s one of the reasons I’m fascinated by it.

Lastly, you can also find some of these groups in the modern-day. So, you can do live experiments with them, and connect to what you expect and what might have changed. So, it also gives you the flexibility of doing live experiments and then connecting it to the observation in the fossil record.

Read more: Time capsules in fish ears that unpack responses to climate change

SG: So, how small or how tiny are these fossil records? I have never actually seen them. Or I might have seen them and may not have realised that these are really important. And now that I am aware of it, can I actually also see them if I go along to these specific sites that you work at?

DC: Yes, molluscs, typically are not micro-organisms, they are visible without a microscope. And I am sure that many of us actually encountered them, not maybe the fossils, but the live molluscs or the freshly dead molluscs on the sea beach. You see, all these seashells, those are the groups we are talking about. And you can simply pick them up on a sea beach. And you will be surprised that often some of these seashells date back as far back as a couple of 100 years, okay, but they still look very fresh, because of their hard skeleton.

SG: Another thing that I have noticed on your webpage, there is a banner image and it is kind of a very tranquil image. It’s soothing to look at – it’s got blue skies and it’s a coastal area. Where was this? Is this one of your typical fossil localities that you go fossil hunting to?

DC: Well, I have to think about exactly which picture you are talking about. Probably you’re talking about the blue sky and you know, the coastal area, I think it’s one of the pictures I have taken from the Andamans. So that’s where we studied the recent dead molluscs and tried to understand their ecology in order to understand the fossil ecology more. But there is another picture which is again with the blue sky and you will see a yellowish rock. And that entire yellowish rock is full of fossils, a combination of molluscs, and some microfossils, but the entire rock is full of life, as it was full of life at some point in time. So, that was from Kachchh and it is another place that I visit regularly. So, these are, at this point, the two places where I’m concentrating.

SG: What’s amazing to me in this part of the conversation is that you’re actually talking about rocks as being full of life. It’s quite a paradox – you know, rocks and rocks being full of life. When you go to these fossil locations, for example, in Kachchh, how do you know that this is the area that you’re to focus on? How do you know that there are fossils there? Is there a connection with our Earth’s history? Was there a specific point in time, where something happened, and these fossils appeared at these specific sites?

DC: Thanks Sahana, for this question. I think this is one of the very simple questions, but it baffles people a lot. And the moment they think about palaeontologists, they think that we go to just random places and start digging and we stumble upon some fossils.  It really does not work this way.

Because just like any other science, in palaeontology we practice the same system of hypothesis testing. So, we go to address a specific question. And there is a whole slew of the planning phase, which determines which locality we are going to go.

Now, coming back to Earth history and more about Indian history. And to tell you something about why Kachchh. So, the Indian subcontinent reached its present configuration relatively recently in Earth’s history. It reached its present position along with the development of the Himalayas, sometime around Miocene, which is basically 25 million years ago, I mean, roughly speaking, but before that, long before that, it was actually part of a larger continent, which was quite far down. And it was at some point, it was actually part of a large continent, where even Antarctica was part of, this large continental mass started to break down and India started its northward movement. It’s one of these rare cases all over the world where a large piece of landmass moved from, I mean, took up such a huge journey from the southernmost point to cross the equator. And finally, you know, stopping at a tropical position.

So, because of this long journey, its terrestrial fauna changed, because it was also moving from one latitude to the other latitude. Along with that, it also changed the seaway configuration. So finally, again, as I’m saying that about the end of Cenozoic, where it was crossing the equator (Cenozoic means 65 million years ago, roughly), it was crossing the equator, there was an ocean on the north of India, where we see the Himalayas right now. And this ocean was called Tethys. And when India finally collided with this Eurasian mass, this ocean started to close up.  This was still not complete when the Kachchh started to form. So, what we find are these remnants of these seabeds of Tethys.

And the other interesting aspect of Tethys was that it was continuous from the Indian region, all the way in the west to the Mediterranean region. It’s only again, fairly recently, around Miocene when the connection was lost. And we found the Arabian Sea, which is completely disconnected from the Mediterranean Sea in the West. So, one interest that I have is how seaway configuration change, changes the animal of the sea. And that’s why one of the places to go would be to Kachchh and to study this particular time. If I go to Kachchh and look at rocks of older times, all it’s going to show is this Tethyian sequence or seabeds of Tethys, which was not disturbed. But it’s only during this time interval wherein the West, the Seaway was closing, it was losing the Mediterranean connection, where I can expect to see a change in the animal organisation and their community ecology and their species. So that’s why Kachchh.

The tethys sea. Photo by Lennart Kudling/Wikimedia Commons.
The Tethys sea. Photo by Lennart Kudling/Wikimedia Commons.

Now the next question is how do we know in Kachchh, where to look at? So, that’s a tedious process. One way of doing it is to look at older literature, whether somebody has reported anything, but apart from that, there have been maps, geologic maps, which demarcate the areas of specific time, and these are the maps which are primarily made by previous researchers, sometimes Geological Survey of India, they undertake these large mapping projects, and these kinds of maps are extremely useful. So, once we know that, which space in Kachchh corresponds to this particular time, then the next challenge comes that this area probably we are talking about a few 100 miles, and you cannot really go there and scan everything.

The next point is to locate certain elements, where we are more likely to encounter fossils, one such place is the dried-up river canals, because these river canals, cut through the existing rocks and expose older rocks. And if there is water, you cannot really see. So, we also have to take care of the season when we are going if it rains heavily, which is rare in Kachchh, but still, we cannot really find anything. But during the drier times, these river sections are quite revealing, they expose these older rocks. So before going there, we painstakingly go through satellite images, tracking down all kinds of riverbeds, looking at the changes in altitude, which shows that there is a river cliff, and then go to each of these localities, these shortlisted localities, and then try to find fossils.

SG: It sounds like you chase riverbeds to look for dead molluscs. I bet you must have had thought-provoking field experiences. Can you share one of them with us?

So, we often have to take long travels to reach a particular fossil locality because, as I said, we take the river beds, and we often follow the riverbeds, the river channel and keep on looking for fossils. So, that’s the part where we really do not know exactly at which spot, we will start finding the fossils. And we cannot really take the car into the river channel. So, we park the car in the closest road or a place where a car can go and then take this walk and sometimes these walks can take hours. And we try to go there with our hands-free carrying the least number of things possible because we expect, or at least we hope to bring a lot of fossils and therefore we should be able to carry them back. And in doing so, we are always in this catch-22 situation, as we spend enough time, we feel very hungry and thirsty, but we don’t have enough food and water.

But at the same time, that will also probably mean that we will be carrying a lot of fossils.

So, we always have a debate about how much to carry and how much not to carry in terms of food and water but ended up not carrying enough. One such time I was in one of these walks along with my students. And we definitely miscalculated the amount of time we were supposed to walk. And finally, we ended up in a place, but I could clearly see that all of us were extremely tired and thirsty. And it was one of the best localities we have encountered. There were fossil crabs, there were large molluscs, very well preserved. So, we started working on it, so basically have chiselling it out. But again, as I’m saying that, I could clearly see that we are going to that direction of the point of exhaustion, where it would be very difficult for us to even go back. And I could see two kids, they were probably like, seven and 10. Two kids were curiously watching us and we tried to talk to them. They could understand that we were doing something, but they were simply smiling and looking curious about what we were doing. Then they vanished for some time. I think it was almost 3 pm When we realised that it was too much. And we have to go back. But it was really, again, we were exhausted. And we could see these two kids coming back with you know, with a small, bucket sort of thing, with some water.

And they basically came back and said that they went back to their home. And they told the story to their mother, that they were these ‘curious creatures’ looking for something in the bed. Their mother insisted that these people are there, they do not have any, and they must not have any food. So you should carry it back. They brought lots of peanuts, and buttermilk and then I asked how long does it take you to go back home and then come back? They said Not much. It’s just one hour. So, they basically did that to feed some strangers and for absolutely no reason. Apart from I would say humanity. I think that’s one of the things that still reminds me of, you know, I think that’s the image of India I would like to be proud of and ignore all the other things that make me depressed once in a while in terms of human interaction.

SG:  I do relate to the pride and enthusiasm that you experience on the field. This fieldwork is also the beginning of your research that you then continue in the lab. What are the key findings from your research? What patterns emerge in the way these molluscs responded to environmental changes in the past?

DC: Okay, so, there are different things that I work on. Because we were discussing Kachchh, maybe I can mostly focus on Kachchh. As I mentioned, the Miocene record of Kachchh shows that it was at some point in time it was connected the Tethys Sea was connected to the Mediterranean and around 19 million years ago, this connection was broken. So, what we found is the response of that in the marine record. What we found was that the community composition, and what kind of species lived there, changed right after this barrier. So, once this got disconnected, it no longer had the same composition, that it used to have when the connection was there. And there could be various reasons for that. One could be that the same species that used to be there, which used to be in contact with Mediterranean species, were no longer there. So, the group in the Mediterranean became completely different from the group that we find now, even now. And it started this kind of divergence started around 19 million years ago. The second thing that we thought about was, this is also a time when, because of this disconnection, the water circulation changes that which might also impact other behavioural characteristics or morphology, like how big they are, how small they are, what is the composition of their body, but we did not find any change in those.

All we found is that at the species level, animals are responding to the species certain species are not getting found, and certain species are dominating. But when it comes to the same species, and individual morphology, that is not showing any change. That’s one aspect that we found. The other aspect that I investigate is when we look at the modern sea creatures or along the shores of India, what does it look like? Because what started 19 million years ago, didn’t stop right there, it continues. And what is the pattern for the last 19 million years ago, or nine over the last 19 million years, would be sort of represented in the present distribution of molluscs along the coast.

And we find that the northern part of western India, around Kachchh, all the way up to Goa, the species composition is similar within themselves. But the moment you cross go on, you go towards the south, and the species composition is very different. And this divide that makes them different from the north, when we compare the South, is something quite astonishing, simply because there is no physical barrier. So, there could be barriers, which are not physical barriers, it’s not something that’s stopping them to go to the other side in terms of a ridge, or in terms of, you know, land connection, it’s simply that if you look at the circulation, ocean circulation, those ocean circulation characterises these patterns. And there is difference in salinity from the north to the south. And we think that the salinity is at least maintaining this difference, why and when these differences were created, we really do not know at this point. But again, our expectation is it happened anywhere between 19 million years and today, some geologic event, which changed this continuous distribution, from Kachchh all the way to the bottom of the Indian peninsula, was divided into these two segments. So, these are, I would say, in a nutshell, some of the major patterns that we observed, and as a response to changes in the environment, or what we find as a present environment.

SG: I am getting a sense of how important these fossil records are, to understand how things changed in the past. And how these organisms responded to these changes. Now that we know that these fossils are important, how do you protect India’s fossil heritage? We are seeing development all around us and these are necessary. Often these projects cut through such fossil localities that archive the past natural history and climate. How do we protect these fossil sites?

DC: You know, I think this is one of the major concerns for palaeontologist all across the globe, but particularly in places like India. There are overall, (I wouldn’t call them legislation but the overall) expectation that there would be protection — protection against harm, which will protect this natural Heritage but there is almost no implementation of it.

I think there is a disconnect between what is supposed to happen and what’s happening. And as a result, are there are plenty of places that used to have very good fossils that are completely lost, not only because of personal reasons.

So, you will hear isolated instances where you will hear people are selling dinosaur eggs or other fossils. But then there are events where a large road has been constructed or a large dam has been constructed. And those were all, I mean, in many of the cases, in Kachchh, they were on fossiliferous locality. So now those localities are gone, they cannot be studied. And the most important component of it is that we are basically losing parts of Earth’s history along with that. And it’s not simply that we can recreate it, it’s the knowledge gap, that’s going to stay forever.

This gets even more complicated because we do not have a national repository for fossil collection, where the fossils, once collected, can be kept there under supervision, where the researchers can go and study them. This is a common practice in many countries outside India, such as if you can think of Smithsonian, you can think of Field Museum and the London Museum of Natural History. So, a number of natural history museums all over the world, protect these kinds of collections. So even if the locality is gone, which is not ideal, at least there is some information about the fossil content of those localities. But in India, we really do not have that. Things get lost quite often from the field, once it’s collected by a researcher. Sometimes after the researcher is leaving the job, maybe retiring, there is no place for these fossil specimens to go. And sometimes, because of space constraints, they are thrown out.

And these are valuable fossil content and unless it’s curated properly, that basically means you have all kinds of information, where it’s from which locality, which depth, what was the rock type, like all kinds of information? Just a piece of a fossil without this information is often not useful in a meaningful way. So, I think that there is this part, which is one of the major hurdles for palaeontology in India.

Hall of Mammals, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C. India which has a very good fossil heritage that is unique in many respects, does not have natural history museums. Photo by Ken Lund/Flickr.
Hall of Mammals, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C. India, which has a good fossil heritage that is unique in many respects, does not have natural history museums. Photo by Ken Lund/Flickr.

SG: Your responses have been very insightful. This one is my last question. Protecting India’s fossil heritage and the inadequate museum infrastructure also links to the country’s political history and economics, especially our colonial past. And in one of your papers, where you’re a co-author, you have discussed the impact of colonialism and global economics on the reconstruction of past biodiversity. What did happen, and how are we planning to address the impacts?

DC: So, this particular paper, which came out in Nature, Ecology and Evolution, was a collaborative work, where I was a co-author, and it was led by Nusseibeh and Emma. And it represents a variety of people from all across the globe, I think, seven of us representing different parts of the world. Now, our main focus was that we hear quite a bit about the reliability of data in terms of the paleontological databases. We expected that there would be, you know, a slight bias towards global north and, in particular, Western Europe and the USA in terms of data contribution, but we thought it’s just going to be something slightly tipping over 50%, maybe 70%.

But what we found is that 97% of the contribution in terms of fossil locality data and fossil abundance data comes from these parts, which is a very biased scenario. It’s especially worrying simply because this particular database  — paleobiology database is heavily used to reconstruct past biodiversity and address multiple questions regarding past biodiversity. And if our data source is so biased towards one particular country, or it’s guided by socio-economic issues, then we have to question the reliability of data.

That was one of them, you know, scientific questions that we were after. And we tried to do it in a very quantitative manner, to show that there is a very strong link. It’s simply not somebody’s idea that probably colonialism plays a role probably, the present economics plays a role, we actually showed that there is a link and a very strong link, which we cannot ignore. Now coming back to how it’s relevant in terms of the Indian perspective. So, as I said, India has a very good fossil heritage, and in various ways, India is unique. But the problem is that because of the colonial past, we really did not develop the natural history and museum culture in India.

During the colonial past, all of these places in Western Europe and the USA, that’s when these large museums were created, and they took big expeditions to collect materials from all over the globe, and then curate them in these large institutions. As a palaeontologist, when somebody starts their career in India today, they face a number of challenges. The first challenge is that many of the collections are right now in those museums, and we do not have access to them. That means if we write to them, they are less likely to send us back the specimens. Because globally, there is no real consensus over the repatriation of fossil specimens to the country of origin. The second point is our own funding agencies do not really support fieldwork, outside India, or visit these museums to do research on those specimens. So, a researcher cannot go there, they cannot access those materials. And also, because of its colonial past, India was pretty devastated. At the end of the colonial era, when we got independence.

Economically, it was a time of real discovery of how oppressed we were. At that point in time, I don’t think India had the luxury to build these museums, and to start this thing. And obviously, the focus shifted to more applied things, to build more roads, to build infrastructural things and these are interfering with many of these fossil localities.

So, if you go to a fossiliferous locality, and you see that obviously, the first preference for the local people would be that they get the food quickly. So, they need roads, and they should be agricultural land. But where are these spaces coming from? These are the places that are fossiliferous localities, so always the human need trumps over these scientific questions unless you make alternative provisions, and colonialism actually crippled us in that way. This long history of economic oppression made it very difficult to make up for that time. And to preserve these areas, as well as these collections, in our own museums.

Now, the time has passed — in many places, building a museum is a science of the past century. So, it’s not a priority. I think the countries are moving towards more applied parts. And it’s probably discovering something in space and not in the long-past history of the earth. So, I guess there are these issues, which are historic in nature. And it really requires detailed thinking, and collaboration among stakeholders, not just the government, not just the scientists, but also the citizens, and what should be our goal? What it actually means to preserve these things? Are they simply the interests of scientists? Or are these actually part of our heritage? I think these are aspects that one has to seriously start thinking about. Before we can even, propose some ideas of what to do.

One means one step towards the right direction is that a group of scientists, journalists, graphic designers, group of us we gathered together a couple of years ago, and we started thinking about developing a museum, National Museum and it, we thought that the appropriate name would be The Indian Museum of Earth time. And it was the idea was supported by the PM’s office and the scientific adviser, and they were supporting it. In the future, we have to see when and how it materialises. But if and when it materialises, I think that would be one of the major steps in the right direction, to bridge the gap. And probably to undo some of the things that happened during our colonial past.

SG: Thanks to you, Devapriya, we were able to go back in time. Not only did we go back to learn about your career history, but we also learnt about the Earth’s living history. Thank you, Devapriya, for being with us here today.

DC: Thank you, Sahana, for this opportunity.

SG: In our next episode, we speak to a palaeontologist who digs for dinosaurs and other fascinating large beasts that once roamed the Indian subcontinent. Please subscribe and share our podcast, Everything Environment by Mongabay-India, with your friends and family.

This episode of Imprints was hosted and produced by me, Sahana Ghosh, co-produced by Kartik Chandramouli and edited by Tejas Dayanand Sagar. Cover art by Kartik Chandramouli and copy edits by Sapna Verma and Priyanka Shankar.

Listen: [Podcast] Imprints: Lake and archive diving with Atreyee Bhattacharya

Banner image: Fossil of ceratites, an extinct mollusc, at Museum of Paleontology, Tuebingen. Photo by Ghedoghedo/Wikimedia Commons.

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