Dr Saji’s discoveries show us that there is much we still have to learn about the UAE’s biodiversity: Sheikh Nahyan
An Indian scientist based in Abu Dhabi has been awarded the prestigious Sheikh Mubarak bin Mohammed Prize for discovering 11 species of insects.
Dr Anitha Saji, scientist at the Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi (EAD), said insects are an important component of biodiversity and crucial for ecological balance.
“We are losing our valuable biological diversity at an alarming rate because of climate change and habitat degradation. Research and understanding on insects can play an important role. It is important to understand our natural resources and biological diversity to prevent its destruction, and ensure its preservation for future generations,” she said.
Over the years, Dr Saji has been carrying out detailed studies of insect life in desert and protected areas of Abu Dhabi and discovered species new to science and UAE’s records like ichneumonid wasp (2007), bradynobaenid wasp (2007), cuckoo wasp (2014), gasteruptiid wasp (2016), dance fly (2016), spider wasp (2018), digger wasp (2019), biting midge (2021), among others.
Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Tolerance and Co-Existence, recognised her efforts with the Sheikh Mubarak bin Mohammed Prize 2021.
“Dr Saji’s discoveries show us, once again, that there is much we still have to learn about the UAE’s biodiversity,” said Sheikh Nahyan.
The Prize established by Sheikh Nahyan nearly 30 years ago, is awarded every year by the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Natural History Group (ENHG) to an individual who has made an original contribution to the knowledge of the UAE’s natural history.
In 2002, Dr Saji started her stint with the EAD and has since engaged in invertebrate research and monitored terrestrial biodiversity leading to a robust insect collection. Most of her discoveries have been made at Al Wathba Wetland Reserve and other protected areas.
“We understand and document insect species through our invertebrates inventory initiative. This involves undertaking surveys in our protected areas and documenting species found,” she said.
The vast insect collection shows a glimpse of Abu Dhabi’s insect diversity, she added.
“It adds to our understanding of species: threatened, pest, poisonous as well as invasive, and hence have greater societal benefits.”
Dr Saji said that research work on insects helps in the management of protected areas.
“A good example is our work on the brine shrimp and its relationship with the water quality to understand the ecology of the species, which is an important source of food for the greater flamingo, a flagship species for conservation in Al Wathba Wetland Reserve. Such work, which demonstrates ecological relationships and impact of factors such as water salinity and temperature, contributes to the improvement of conditions and effective management of the protected areas.”
Dr Saji stressed on the need to highlight the importance of entomological research.
“Insects can be used as indicators of habitat quality. Since insects have a short life span, even short-term or brief impacts on an ecosystem can affect the entire insect population, making them ideal bio-indicators. Many undiscovered species may have already gone extinct before being identified.”
She noted that the EAD’s collection is an important research resource for the scientific community and students and to engage and educate the public about insects.
“I developed EAD’s insect collection to be fully referenced and catalogued, containing more than 2,500 species belonging to 34 orders of invertebrates.”
Her work has led to development of an Abu Dhabi red list of species and the city biodiversity index for the emirate.
“I thank the EAD, ENHG and Sheikh Nahyan for the award, which has been one of the most memorable moments of my career.”