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Dung, fog and more dung in Borneo

Posted by Blaps Mar 25, 2013

This blog is from one of our excellent specimen preparators and research assistants,  Lucia Chmurova who was lucky enough to spend some time on one of the Museum expeditions to Borneo. Here she gives us an insight into beetle collecting in the tropics!

 

'I was very lucky to join a big NHM expedition to Borneo in August 2012. I was extremely excited because I have missed Borneo ever since I returned from my first trip there in 2010. Upon Max Barclay's advice I agreed to sample dung beetles as my project (and unwittingly I agreed to everything that comes with it…). I followed a set protocol developed for dung beetle trapping in order for future comparison with already sampled sites by other scientists. The protocol consists of 10 dung, and 2 carrion-baited pitfall traps and 2 flight interception traps. The Malaysian dung beetle fauna is well known, well represented in the museum's collection, and there are specialists that are able to identify them. Fulfilling these three criteria suggests a promising and achievable project. With my project chosen and kit assembled I was ready to go!

 

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A quick teaser for invertebrate fauna of Borneo; a predatory land flatworm or a ‘hammerhead worm’.

© Tim Cockerill

 

Our expedition started in the Danum Valley, perhaps one of the busiest research stations in the world. Located in the middle of a conservation area in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, the Danum Valley field station is very well equipped and has housed hundreds of scientists from around the world. The timing of our arrival was somewhat comical, coinciding with a visit from Prince William and The Duchess of Cambridge on a leg of their Southeast Asian tour. As the couple emerged, perfectly dressed, from their helicopter, our team covered in mud and sweat looked a bit less royal in comparison.

 

Some readers might not know that traps for catching dung beetles must first be baited by … well … dung. This involves preparing wrapped packages of dung and hanging them above the trap to lure beetles in. I thought to myself that I should be perhaps a bit more selective about where I would go and prepare my perfumed 'dung packages' so I don't put off potential future patrons of the station. As for the perfume, I was quite well-equipped and so the highly dreaded preparation of tens of dung packages wasn't so bad after all! I have to admit I opted out from Max's tip to use a plastic bag with a hole in its corner and squeeze dung out like I would do with icing for a cake! I used a fork instead.

 

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Me and THE package.

© Tim Cockerill

 

I am not going to go into much detail about what trapping techniques we used while in the field as these are already nicely described in the Tanzania blog , perhaps with the exceptions of water pan traps and fogging. Although not so much used by Coleopterists, water pan traps are very popular when trapping for wasps and bugs. These are simply plastic bowls of various colours (most commonly yellow or blue) filled with water and a few drops of detergent. Its smell in combination with yellow colour attracts insects that are eventually drawn inside the traps.

 

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Although the contents of this pan trap might not look like much, what looks like dust to our eyes, might in fact be hundreds of tiny Hymenoptera trapped inside.

© Tim Cockerill

 

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I could not resist showing you this sophisticated upgrade to a pitfall trap: chopsticks and a plate instead of a usual leaf to stop the trap filling with rainwater! (to find out what exactly a pitfall trap is, read …)

© Tim Cockerill

 

Fogging is perhaps the most efficient sampling method for insects - it collects vast amounts of all kinds of insects in a short period of time. A selective insecticide (which doesn't affect birds or mammals and evaporates quickly) is sprayed into a tree, under which collecting trays are placed to catch all falling insects.

 

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A fogger being hoisted up the tree.

© Neil Greenwood

 

 

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Collecting trays ready to collect falling insects.

© Tim Cockerill

 

This must be done in perfectly windless and rainless conditions, to avoid the insecticide being spread out into surrounding trees and insects sticking to the leaves once they are dead. As the name ‘RAIN’ forest hints, these conditions do not happen very often. All fogging kit assembled together is quite bulky so we were happy when a group of Oxford University students volunteered to help with carrying all the heavy kit for us. After a few attempts of waking up at 5 in the morning (as this is unfortunately the 'windlessest' hour of the day) and trekking to the field site only to discover that leaves are once again wet, we eventually managed to fog at least once!

 

At the start, the lucky chosen individual (in this case a professional fogger, Timothy), tries to start the fogger by moving the engine rod quickly in and out, looking comical and failing repeatedly. Eventually the fogger trembles vigorously and a sound similar to a lawn mower spreads through the forest. After this amusing start, thick fog starts spreading up the tree and the whole situation suddenly looks nothing but impressive. One has to wonder what insects live up 40m tall trees. It was amazing to realise that even my help and research could help to be a step closer to discovering diversity of one of the earth's least known faunas - that of tree canopies. 

 

Some of the joys of field work:

 

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Coleopterist Peter Hammond and lichenologist Pat Wolseley forgot their waterproofs, bin bags did well enough.

© Neil Greenwood

 

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#Hymenopterist Andy Polaszek after a sword fight (or leech fight?!).

© Neil Greenwood

 

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Some serious work after a successful fogging day. In case you don't recognise us, from left:

Neil Greenwood, Andrew Polaszek, Lucia Chmurova and Tim Cockerill.

© Neil Greenwood

 

 

 

Our last stop was Maliau Basin. The forest here looked a bit different to that in the Danum Valley; here there were many more old growth trees present with open spaces between them in comparison to vine and rattan-entwined trees in the first field station. It felt a bit less disturbed, and even the bearded pigs looked attractively slimmer here. My pitfall traps were getting so full after one day of collecting that beetles started literally spilling over and escaping from them. A picture below shows the contents of a single pit-fall trap!

 

 

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The contents of a single dung pitfall trap.

© Tim Cockerill

 

 

After a few days in the Maliau Basin, and collecting kilos of dung beetles, our trip came to an end. Although very sad when leaving Borneo, I was happy about my successful trapping. At the moment, my collected material is still in Malaysia but will hopefully be sent to London soon so I can have a look at the wonderful diversity of beetles that scientific trapping reveals'.

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A tenebrionid couple.

© Tim Cockerill


 

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Some moths (notably members of the Arctiidae family) pupate in a woven basket of the caterpillar’s body hairs rather than silk.

© Tim Cockerill

 

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Coccinellidae

© Lucia Chmurova


 

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A cockroach shedding its skin.

© Lucia Chmurova