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India's fossil collection under threat

Kolkata, Aug 29, 2013, (PTI): 15:05 IST
File photo for representational purpose only.
Dead for millions of years, they are now at the risk of yet another death! In the absence of modern curatorial and storage facilities for fossils in India, paleontologists are worried about the future of their precious fossil collections, the only tools for mankind to go back to prehistoric ages.

Much of India's geological and paleontological heritage comprising thousands of specimens collected by faculty members of Indian universities on Indian soil and preserved at their academic institutions.

"However, as those institutions are not museums, they cannot maintain specimens when there is no in-house researcher actively working with them," says California-based eminent geologist Nigel Hughes who researches on the prehistoric rocks of Himalayas.

With limited space and resources to preserve his rich collection, paleontologist Subhendu Bardhan has been forced to dump many of his fossils inside a storeroom at the department of geological sciences in Kolkata's Jadavpur University.

India's rich collection of fossil-containing rocks, which date as far back as 3500 million years ago, provides excellent opportunities to understand the patterns of evolution and extinction. Of particular interest is its role in revealing the geological, chemical and physical processes that led to the formation of the Himalayan mountain chain.

For students and children, fossils are like magic wands which allow them to travel through the corridor of time and understand how life existed on this earth in the remote past.

"We are doing so much in conserving our endangered wildlife but what about those animals, plants and other organisms which lived on this earth millions of years ago. Their traces are still with us by means of fossils," Prof Bardhan told PTI.

The professor specialises in ammonite fossils, a species of molluscs that is now extinct. Some of his collection dates back to 150 million years.

"It's a tragedy that the hard work of my whole life would get wasted if there is no national archive to preserve these fossils. They are now waiting to be extinct after I retire in 2016," he says.

Hughes, who was in Kolkata recently to participate in a science workshop for children organised at the American Centre, fears that these specimens, rock samples, fossils, and microscope slides, risk being orphaned, forgotten and lost when the scientists who studied them retire.

Paleontologists have even written to the government demanding a national repository for storing fossils and other geological specimens.

"No attempt has been made either to educate people on our prehistoric treasures by housing and displaying them in a well-equipped and well-organised museum, or to conserve our natural heritage," says geologist G V R Prasad of Delhi University.

The Geological Survey of India museum in Kolkata is probably the only one in India having fossil, mineral and rock collections from different parts of the country.

Other institutes like IIT Roorkee, Wadia's Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun and the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany in Lucknow also store specimens collected by their staff researchers.

Stating that the importance of India's precious fossil collection has been fully understood by western geoscientists, Prasad says the need of the hour is the creation of a museum to preserve and display the country's geological heritage.

"Prehistoric museums enable us to make an excursion into the past to understand the evolution of life through long geological time periods, areal distribution of land and sea, ecological and climatic changes and their effects on faunal and floral distributions and patterns, and causes of biotic extinctions," he points out.

"We are trying to build up a consensus in India through the scientific community and then have the government construct a prehistory museum otherwise which we risk losing fossils," Nigel says.

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