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Yak in Indian Himalayas facing threat of climate change

Dinesh C Sharma

Itanagar (Arunachal Pradesh): Yak – the lifeline of pastoral nomads in high altitudes of the Indian Himalayan region – is facing the threat of gradually rising temperatures in the region.

The increasing trend of environmental temperature at high altitudes is resulting in heat stress in yak during warmer months of the year. This, in turn, is affecting the rhythms of physiological responses of the animal. Studies have shown that the average environmental temperature in the region has increased 1.5 percent in the last 25 years, with yearly incremental increase of 0.06 degree.

Yak is accustomed to very cold temperatures and can survive up to minus 40 degrees but finds it difficult when the temperature crosses 13 degrees. “Yak can efficiently conserve its body heat during cold weather conditions and has minimal body mechanism to dissipate heat by way of sweating. This makes yak more susceptible to heat stress,” explained Dr Vijay Paul, principal scientist at the ICAR-National Research Centre on Yak (NRCY), Dirang, while addressing a media workshop on climate adaptation here.

The animal alters its respiration rate not only in response to a changing need for oxygen but for regulating body temperature. Therefore, increased respiration acts as a predictor of heat stress, along with other symptoms like panting, reduced feed intake and higher intake of water. Noticing these indicators of heat stress, nomads have started own adaptation measures for their animals.

Climatic variables such as rainfall, cold waves and temperature change has been studied for the two yak rearing districts of Arunachal Pradesh – Tawang and West Kameng. Since past meteorological data is lacking in this region, researchers from NRCY have collated information from Brokpa namads who are engaged in yak husbandry in Arunachal Pradesh. Two other prominent nomadic communities engaged in yak rearing are Changpas and Dokpas in Ladakh, Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh. The total yak population in six states in the Indian Himalayan region is estimated to be over 76,000. Globally, China – mainly Tibet region – has the highest numbers of yak.

“Yak rearing is an eco-friendly livelihood for nomads who migrate to higher altitudes during summer and return to lower altitudes at about 3000 meters above sea level during winters. This ensures that their animals remain in almost same ambient temperature all through the year. It helps minimize heat stress. This traditional migratory pattern is getting disturbed with changing weather patterns,” noted Dr Paul.

Besides heat stress in animals, fluctuating temperature also affects growth and availability of fodder in alpine pasturelands. This, in turn, lowers productivity of the animals. Yaks provide nomads milk, fibre and meat. Milk production depends directly on the quantity and quality of forage in pasturelands. The long hair of yak have water-resistant properties and can be a good packing material. Nomads use yak hair to weave material for making tents. In addition to climate-related factors, there is a reduction in grazing areas and degradation of pasturelands due to various developmental activities as well.

Dr Paul said nomadic communities were taking several adaptive steps as duration and timing of migration was changing. There is proliferation of yak-cattle hybridization as well as diversification of herds. Yak rearing needs to be preserved as this is the only source of livelihood for nomads. This can be done by rejuvenating degraded pastures, improving livestock healthcare practices and providing feed supplements for yaks. “We also need to develop stains that are less sensitive to heat stress,” he added.

Arunachal Pradesh had prepared the state action plan on climate change in 2013. The five year plan period has come to an end but no adaptation projects have been taken up in the state. The plan had components on adaptation measures for agriculture and animal husbandry sectors but there was no specific mention of protecting yak populations. “The plan was approved for Rs 6500 crore but no funds were received for its implementation,” said Omkar Singh, principal secretary, department of environment and forests, Arunachal Pradesh.

“We are in the process of reviewing the state plan based on new inputs such as high resolution vegetation maps which have since become available,” added D. Dohu Robin, deputy director (environment) and programme coordinator.

The three-day workshop has been jointly organised by the Indian Himalayas Climate Adaptation Programme (IHCAP), Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Centre for Media Studies (CMS), along with the state climate change cell. (India Science Wire)


Virtual psychiatrist is effective in diagnosing mental disorders: study

Dinesh C Sharma

New Delhi, December 26 (India Science Wire): India has severe shortage of psychiatrists, as a result of which mental illness in rural areas either remains undiagnosed or does not get proper treatment. A ‘virtual psychiatrist’ tool developed by Indian researchers can help address this problem. It has been found that it can be used by non-psychiatrists and is as effective as diagnosis by specialists.

The tool called clinical decision support system (CDSS) for diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric disorders was developed at the Department of Psychiatry of the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh. It has been field tested in remote villages in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jammu & Kashmir.

The study evaluated diagnostic accuracy and reliability of the application at remote sites when used by non-psychiatrists with just a brief training in its use. The knowledge-based, logical diagnostic tool showed ‘acceptable’ to ‘good’ validity and reliability when used by non-specialists. The diagnosis done by non-psychiatrists was compared with that done by specialists.

“Our findings show that diagnostic tool of the telepsychiatry application has potential to empower non-psychiatrist doctors and paramedics to diagnose psychiatric disorders accurately and reliably in remote sites,” researchers have said in the study published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research (IJMR)

A total 18 commonly seen mental disorders are covered in the tool – delirium, dementia, mania, depression, dysthymia, psychosis, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, reaction to severe stress and adjustment disorder, somato form disorder, dissociative disorder, neurasthenia, sexual dysfunctions, alcohol dependence, substance dependence and mental retardation.

Dr. Savita Malhotra

“Mental health care is mostly unavailable or inaccessible in most parts of the country. About 90% patients in need of psychiatric treatment do not get it due to lack of psychiatrists. Our system fills that gap by creating a virtual psychiatrist,” Dr Savita Malhotra, who led the research team, told India Science Wire.

The expert system can assist a non-medical person to interview a patient with mental disorders leading to an automated diagnosis, she explained. It can also assist a general physician to treat mental disorders in remote areas where there is no mental health care. The ICT technology used is very simple – a computer, broadband internet, Skype and a telephone line. The application software online and can be accessed by authorised users through password.

The researchers hope to disseminate the tool in the country. “We have written to the central government and state governments to adopt the system. It can be deployed at multiple sites or centers at once and has the potential to quickly solve the problem of deficient mental health care in the country,” said Dr Malhotra.  It has also been planned to upscale the system and create mobile platforms so that patients can access services from their homes.

“Telepsychiatry holds the potential to solve the massive and intertwined problems of underdiagnosing and undertreating persons with mental illness and the lack of trained workforce at grassroots level. Furthermore, initiatives must be taken to set up procedural guidelines and recommendations as the field advances,” noted psychiatry experts in a commentary published in the same issue of IJMR.

The research team included Savita Malhotra Subho Chakrabarti, Ruchita Shah, Minali Sharma, Kanu Priya Sharma, Akanksha Malhotra, (PGIMER, Chandigarh); Suneet K. Upadhyaya (Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Base Hospital, Srinagar, Uttarakhand); Mushtaq A. Margoob, Dar Maqbool (Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir) and Gopal D. Jassal (Regional Hospital, Bilaspur, Himachal Pradesh). The research was funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST). (India Science Wire)

New study suggests kidney disease may be linked to pesticide exposure

Bhavya Khullar

New Delhi: Patients with chronic kidney disease have higher amounts of organochlorine pesticides in their body, a Delhi-based study has indicated.

Doctors at the University College of Medical Sciences and Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital in Delhi studied 300 individuals aged 30-54 years, who visited kidney clinic between January 2014 and March 2015. Their blood samples were tested for presence of a range of organochlorine pesticides – alpha and beta endosulphan, DDT and DDE, dieldrin, Aldrin, and alpha, beta, and gamma HCH.


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“We found that Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) patients had higher levels of threepesticides, beta-endosuplhan, aldrin, and alpha-HCH in their blood as compared to healthy people”, Ashok Kumar Tripathi, who led the research, told the India Science Wire.This, he said, suggested a possible involvement of pesticides with abnormal kidney function.

It was found that the median levels of alpha-HCH, beta-endosulphan, and aldrin in healthy subjects were 0.7, 1.38, and 1.6 parts per billion respectively. In patients of chronic kidney disease, these levels were significantly higher -1.68, 2.38, and 2.15 parts per billion respectively.The results were published recently in journal Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine.

Although the mechanism of how pesticides affect kidney health is yet to be elucidated, researchers believe that accumulated amounts of pesticides may induce oxidative stress in the kidneys, which leads to CKD. In order to confirm the link,follow up studies with a larger group of people are required, said Dr Tripathi.

Still the study is significant because it finds high levels of pesticides in people living in an urban area like Delhi – who are not directly involved in agricultural activity or manufacture of pesticides – and who probably got exposed through environmental contamination, pointed out Catharina Wesseling, toxicologist at the Central American Institute for Studies on Toxic Substances, Universidad Nacional in Costa Rica. She was not involved in the Delhi study.

Dr Wesseling told India Science Wire that, “while this study does not establish that pesticides cause kidney disease, it is known that many pesticides are toxic for the kidneys. One can expect to find associations between (some) pesticides and kidney dysfunction”.

Organochlorine pesticides such as DDT and endosulfan are banned in many countries owing to their long persistence in the environment and adverse impacts on human health. Previous studies from El Salvador, Central America, Mexico, and Sri Lanka have indicated their possible involvement in development of CKD. Chronic Kidney Disease affects nearly 17 per cent of the Indian population and is expected to rise with increasing cases of hypertension and diabetes.


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The research team included Rishila Ghosh, Manushi Siddarth, Neeru Singh, Vipin Tyagi, Pawan Kumar Kare, Basu Dev Banerjee, Om Prakash Kalra, and Ashok Kumar Tripathi. This study was funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST-SERB). (India Science Wire)

Twitter- @BhavyaSc

Indian astronomers discover supermega river of galaxies, name it Saraswati

T V Venkateswaran

Two most massive clusters of galaxies in the Saraswati supercluster

New Delh: A team of Indian astronomers has identified a cosmic behemoth – a supercluster of galaxies – about 4 billion light-years away from us. The new discovery has been named Saraswati – which in Sanskrit literally means ‘ever-flowing stream with many pools’.

The supercluster spans over 650 million light years in its expanse, containing over 10,000 galaxies in 42 clusters. Its total mass equals 20 million billion suns. The team of astronomers was led by Joydeep Bagchi of Inter-University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune, which used data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

The discovery is forcing astronomers to rethink about early stages of the evolution of the universe and it provides vital clues about mysterious dark matter and dark energy. The results of the study were published in The Astrophysical Journal on Thursday.

The megacluster has been named Saraswati – the goddess of knowledge, music and art. Saraswati, in Sanskrit also means ‘ever-flowing stream with many pools.’ “This supercluster located in the constellation of Pisces has many clusters and groups moving and merging like the mythological Saraswati river, which prompted us to give this name,” say the researchers.

“There are hundreds of superclusters in size range of less than100 million light years, Saraswati supercluster clearly stands out in the sky as an especially rare, and possibly among the mega superclusters exceeding 500 million light years in size,” said Somak Raychaudhury, one of the co-authors and the Director of IUCAA, Pune.

“A large-scale structure this massive evolves very slowly, and therefore it may reflect the whole history of galaxy formation and the primordial initial conditions that have seeded it,” said Joydeep Bagchi.

Our Sun is one among billion stars in a vast cosmic structure called Milky Way galaxy. However, Milky Way extending 120,000 light-years across is just a pin-head in cosmic scales. Gravitational interaction between galaxies results in a much larger structure called “galaxy clusters”. Our Milky Way is part of “Local Group”, a cluster containing around 50 galaxies and measures more than 10 million light-years across. Recent surveys have shown even larger cosmological structure, ‘cluster of clusters’, superclusters.

Interestingly, Somak Raychaudhury, co-author of this study, discovered the first massive supercluster of galaxies of this scale during his PhD research at the University of Cambridge in 1989 and named it “Shapley Concentration” after an American astronomer, Harlow Shapley, in recognition of his pioneering survey of galaxies. The supercluster Laniakea – of which our sun, our Milky Way and “Local Group” are a part – consists of about 100,000 galaxies.

Was the Universe built from the ‘bottom up’, with galaxies condensing first, then aggregating into clusters, superclusters and other large-scale cosmic structures? Or did it happen the other way round, with vast gas clouds that fragmented into smaller clouds; each of the smaller clouds then evolving into a galaxy. Which model is correct? Cosmologists are split.

The long-popular “Cold dark matter” model of evolution of Universe predicts that small structures like galaxies form first, which congregate into larger structures. The existence of large structures such as the “Saraswati Supercluster” evolved as early as 10 billion years since the Big Bang is a challenge to this model. The time elapsed since the Big Bang is not adequate for the slow process of gravitational attraction to have created such a large scale structure. “The discovery of these extremely large structures thus forces astronomers into re-thinking popular theories of how the Universe got its current form, starting from a more-or-less uniform distribution of energy after the Big Bang,” says Prof Raychaudhury.

In the large-scale cosmos, gravity is not the only force to reckon with. While the mutual attraction of gravity tries to bind the ordinary and still elusive dark matter together creating lumps like galaxies, clusters and so on, the still unknown dark energy repulsive in nature causes expansion of the Universe to accelerate, hampering the growth of large-scale structures.
“Our work will help to shed light on the perplexing question; how such extreme large scale, prominent matter-density enhancements had formed billions of years in the past when the mysterious Dark Energy had just started to dominate structure formation’’ said Bagchi.

“This paper is unique because it is a direct product of IUCAA’s associateship programme, under which a faculty member of an Indian university or a post-graduate department in a college can visit IUCAA for periods of short and long durations over a span of three years to develop his or her interest and expertise in astronomy and astrophysics” added Prof Raychaudhury.

The research was funded by the University Grants Commission and Indo-French CEFIPRA programme of the Department of Science and Technology (DST). While the lead author Bagchi and co-author Raychaudhury are from IUCAA, other researchers are Dr Prakash Sarkar (National Institute of Technology, Jamshedpur postdoctoral fellow at IUCAA), Shishir Sankhyayan (undergraduate student at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune), Pratik Dabhade (Research Fellow at IUCAA) and Dr Joe Jacob (Newman College, Thodupuzha, Kerala). (India Science Wire)