Meet the researcher seeking survival hacks from a time before the dinosaurs
GVR Prasad, one of India’s leading palaeontologists, believes his field could hold the key to how life survived after each of Earth’s previous mass extinction events.
GVR Prasad saw his first fossils when he was 14, just outside his village in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. It was during a field trip conducted by S Subbarao, an associate professor of geology who grew up in the same village and returned to visit every summer.
On this visit, Subbarao took some of the village kids on a trek around a local stone quarry and explained how the rocks there dated back to the time of Gondwanaland, having formed 120 million years earlier.
The fossils he pointed out were plant fossils, but Prasad would later learn that this was also the age of the dinosaurs. The period would become his life.
By age 17, having learnt of how India and South Africa, Antarctica and Australia were once so close, and how the Himalayas were created when India crashed into mainland Asia, Prasad had made up his mind to graduate in geology.
He is now one of India’s leading palaeontologists, with a PhD in the field, and teaches palaeontology at the University of Delhi. Since 1982, Prasad has gone on palaeontology field trips every year, to areas such as the Deccan volcanic province in central and western India, the Cauvery basin in southern India, the Pranhita-Godavari valley in south-central India and the Narmada valley in west-central India.
“My most exciting find has been a 66-million-year-old fossil of the first cretaceous mammal that lived in the Deccan volcanic province,” says Prasad, now 62-years-old.
Palaeontologists have a tough job, though, he says. Interior regions are still difficult to access. Villagers are often suspicious of city folk, fearing that the outsiders want to take away their land. In areas like central and south-central India, there’s political and social unrest.
Right now, his work is close to home, at a dig site in the Adilabad district of Telangana. Prasad and his team are trying to piece together a puzzle of global proportions. “According to earlier findings, Gondwana or the current landmasses of Antarctica, South America, India and Africa, should have hosted similar fauna as they were once the single supercontinent,” Prasad says. “But we have found fossils of mammal groups from the Jurassic age (160 million years ago) in India that have closely related forms in Europe, North America, and Asia, which were part of another supercontinent known as Laurasia. We are trying to find out the reason behind this.”
Among other things, discovering how this happened could help scientists understand how ecosystems can change and life persist amid dramatically changing climate. “Earth has had several intervals of ice ages and greenhouse conditions and several mass extinctions. Life has always returned, even if in a different shape and form. By studying fossils we can learn more about how life has evolved in the past to adapt to changing environments.”
At least once a year, Prasad also returns to his village. There isn’t anyone there today who is as riveted by the tales of Gondwanaland as he was as a boy.
“I suppose the work that I leave behind from my studies on the evolution of various vertebrate groups in India during the Mesozoic era, a time when dinosaurs ruled the land, will be my legacy. As well as the dedicated students who will form a much-required future workforce for the fast-dwindling palaeontological community of India,” he says.