This prolonged absence may have something to do with your good authors finding themselves abandoned somewhere in the Crocker Range in darkest Borneo with the sole purpose of collecting beetles! As you will come to learn over the next few blogs there are many methods, both creative and gruesome, for collecting in the field.
It takes a huge amount of planning and resources to transplant four game entomologists from their cosy little nest at the Natural History Museum to one of the remotest and under-explored parts of the world, namely Sabah (formerly British North Borneo). So, with limited time and a mission to collect as much of the area’s biodiversity as possible over the period of just one month, we really had to think about what methods we would employ to maximise our collecting.
So why not use rotting fish? I know, it’s obvious!
It all began within the sanitised environs of one of the many air-conditioned shopping malls to be found in Kota Kinabalu, the region’s capital.
First choose your ‘bait’.
Here is Max Barclay and retired Head of Collections, Howard Mendel, carefully selecting just the right type of frozen fish to attract our little beauties.
Before heading in to the field, we had a days’ shopping to procure everything we needed for three weeks in camp. This included luxury items such as wet wipes and instant coffee, as well as the above bait, and the essential fieldwork tool, the panga, (yes, dark thoughts did set in after about week one…)
Max possesses - or becomes possessed by - the 'blade of Borneo'
As the fish was frozen, this allowed us to transport it into the field and it be relatively ‘fresh’ for making into bait. Max ‘like a fish to water’ took to the role of fishmonger. It was almost as if he were born to it, so expertly did he fillet!
Actually filleted fish and not the remains of one's colleagues...
We use fish as bait as it rots down quite ‘nicely’ (for want of a better word!), and it really, really stinks - apparently with an attractive smell to many beetles. Given the temperatures on average were around 31°C, and humidity was high, this facilitated the rotting process and it was interesting (really, it was!) to see the changes in beetle fauna over the advances in decay.
Here is our delightful bait: from fresh to semi-decomposing in about four days!
Ours was not a precise science; and it is very difficult to work in a controlled way in the field when there are so many variables to affect the outcome of our trapping methods. So basically we chopped up the fish, put various parts into sections of cut up opaque tights (see how we recycle!) and hung them over a bucket that, in turn, was hung over a tree branch or some such so as to not be taken by carnivores (though one would have to be desperate to take this rotting fish!). The beetles should be attracted to the bait and fly to land, falling in to the bucket from which they cannot escape! We set four traps and checked them every few days as the rotting process was so accelerated.
Here is the somewhat alarming final stage of decay which resembled porridge with blueberries, or some such – breakfast, anybody?! Beetles were retrieved using a pair of forceps and precise dexterity!
As you can imagine (but I understand if you dont want to!) this was a very messy and smelly business. Managing to empty the traps without covering oneself with mushy-maggot-infested-rotting-fish-guts was a challenge, and there were a few near misses. Despite my most careful emptying, the smell would linger for a few days afterwards, just in time to empty them once again!
As for the results, well this is quite exciting. We think we collected between 30-50 different species of beetle. The main families were the Hybrosoridae (vertebrate and invertebrate carrion feeders as we would expect!), Scarabaeidae and Staphylinidae, and two specifically exciting species (well to us at least!) were Phaeochroops gigas Arrow, 1907 (Hybrosoridae), and Synapsis cambeforti Krikken, 1987 (Scarabaeidae) described from Brunei and endemic to Borneo; this species is considered really quite rare and only collected from a few localities (though this might be why we consider it rare!). The beetles are now here at the Museum and will be distributed to experts for identification. We expect to have results for some groups within six months!
I shall leave you with some images of us actually enjoying fish, which was not rotting.
Well okay, not actually fish but in close proximity to: Beulah and Alessandro share a well earned deep fried squid, it was a beautiful moment!
Again, not actually fish, but the world's largest prawn, swiftly consumed by the Fishmonger of Borneo (I'm not mentioning the T-shirt, it speaks for itself...!)