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Somethin’ fishy about Borneo

Posted by Blaps May 10, 2013

Dear Beetlers,


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’.

 

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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…)

 

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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!

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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!

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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...!)

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Dear Beetlers,

 

Come to Science Uncovered this Friday 28th September to hear more about this:

 

We have returned safe and well from our recent fieldwork trip to Tanzania (we are into our second year of collecting!) and really want to share with you some of the techniques employed in the field. This trip was undertaken in the months of July and August - the dry season, where ordinarily there is not much beetle activity; however, one of the aims of this series of collecting trips is to map Tanzania's beetle and butterfly and moth fauna through all of the seasons. Eventually we will have a really useful data set from many (and remote) localities; and hopefully this will yield some very interesting new species...but until we get everything identified (we are still identifying material from 2010 - there's soooo much of it!) here is how we found our specimens in the first place...

 

Given we were heading to some really remote localities it was really important to inform local officials and indeed local people who we were and why this pair of crazy western 'researchers' had just appeared from nowhere. Here is our 4x4 vehicle with its very official notice!

 

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U Tafiti is 'research' in Swahili; 'wadudu' is insect! So we were entitled 'U Tafiti wawadudu'!

 

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Here is HT having quite a giggle with the Mama and farmer at Mount Hanang where we camped (Tanzania's fourth highest mountain at 3417m)

 

Once we had set up camp after a five hour drive from the city of Arusha; it was time to um, relax!

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The beautiful Mount Hanang in the background.


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HT and some cows; overseeing unpacking proceedings!

 

But, whilst some of us lounge about taking it easy, others are hard at work keeping the camp in order...

 

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BG working hard whilst HT 'relaxes'! This is our 'science table' where all the processing of specimens: labelling, cleaning, filling up tubes with IMS happens.

 

And so into the field. Here at Mount Hanang there is diverse habitats: mid altitude grassland, farmed countryside, ericaceous forest and sub-montane and montane forest all a happy hunting ground for the intrepid entomologist...

 

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HT, our local guide Isaiah and Jembe our Masai guide all erecting a butterfly trap on the forest edge at Hanang. This will be elevated high up in to the canopy and baited with some delicious rotting fruit.

 

Whilst HT was busy butterfly trapping I was off in another direction beating for beetles!

 

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BG, our camp expert Saleem and Jembe all looking for SBJs (small brown jobs, such as Phalacrids, Shining Flower Beetles) and weevils by  beating vegetation with a big stick onto a big umbrella-like white sheet!

 

Winkler Traps

 

Then it was into the forest edge to collect some leaf litter for sieving (again SBJs live in leaf litter, we are hoping to find things like fungus beetles (Lathridiidae) and Pselaphinae, and all manner of Cucujoidea)!

 

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And the prize for the most boring photo...


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Here's HT and Jembe sorting through leaf litter with a series of sieves

 

As most creatures that live in leaf litter are small and secretive there is another very effective method we use to collect them by, which is known as the Winkler trap! Once we have sieved the litter to remove all the big stuff the remaining topsoil and litter is placed inside mesh bags within the cotton bag and basically hung up to dry. Eventually the small organisms will start moving about and head to the bottom of the trap where they fall into a waiting pot of IMS.

 

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Me with my Winkler! A very cold early morning at Mount Hanang!

 

We took samples of leaf litter at all three sites we collected from. The final site at Hasama Forest in Mbulu district was again at high altitude (c.2000m); as far as we know the last person to collect in this area was Kielland in 1990 and he was looking for butterflies...

 

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Sieving litter for Winkler traps at Hasama forest, Mbulu. It was soo cold and windy that the only way to do it was to seek refuge by the truck!

 

Dung Traps

 

We can't have a blog without mentioning poo it would seem so, onto dung trapping! We were very lucky at Mount Hanang to have the employ of a team of able and willing young entomologists who worked very hard searching for dung beetles (so we didnt have to!) and were amply rewarded with 500 Tanzania shillings and a packet of sweeties! Our  'snacky time' was around 5pm and the children soon learned that the office would be open once the hard fieldworkers had taken off their boots and had time for a G&T before supper (very civilised!). Here's HT 'negotiating' prices with the children.

 

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'Snacky time' at Hasama Forest! Of course a freshly pressed newspaper was always made available!

 

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Driving a hard bargain! Our terms: one full tube (no padding with extra dung) and no repetition for 500 Shillings and a packet of jellies!

 

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Team dung beetle! (I'm the one on the left...).

 

As our dung beetle workers would never reveal their sources, (very good business!) we did employ other methods. The classic dung pitfal trap where little pre-made knapsacks of dung (this time buffalo!) are suspended above pitfal traps work really well. These were placed every one hundred meters into and along the forest at Hanang.

 

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HT and Isaiah preparing dung pitfal traps

 

On to Longido, about 50 km from the Tanzanian / Kenyan border to a very different habitat: the bush! Very very dry and surrounded by Masai, goats and Acacia trees...we had to work very hard to find beetles here!

 

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Longido bush setting traps: dung knapsack - tick! Soap-laced water for pitfall traps - tick! This entomologist is good to go!

 

Sometimes less sophisticated methods can also be employed given one has the time and the inclination to look hard enough...

 

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Yes, I am literally grubbing about in fresh buffalo dung; here I found some interesting Hydrophilid beetles especially adapted to living in poo!

 

Water Beetles

 

That takes us on nicely to collecting for water beetles. Whilst having a dreamy ride through the Eastern Rift mountains on our way to Mbulu, HT exclaims rather excitedly 'Stop the truck! Water!' I was less enthusiastic and stayed in the truck observing from a safe distance whilst HT sank up to his knees in a stagnant no doubt disease ridden puddle of water in the pursuit of water beetles and their ilk (Dytiscidae). And what better way to catch them than with a household sieve!

 

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NOT allowed back in the truck!

 

Once at Longido, our Masia guide (we are not permitted to enter any forest reserve without a local guide) promised there was water in the mountains. After an arduous trek to approx 2500m, and at times loosing what path there was, not to mention the searing heat, we eventually came to a mountain stream...

 

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Here we found not only some curious looking Dytiscids (predacious diving beetles) but also some whirligig beetles (Gyrinidae), leeches (yuk!) and a fresh water crab!

 

Water beetles are really hard to catch, being predacious they are really fast swimmers and also the bigger ones can give you a nasty nip if you're not careful; we found some big ones...

 

SLAM and Malaise trapping

 

Trapping using nets is the most common method but can often times be difficult in challenging terrain, not to mention remote environments where local people are overtly curious about what on earth you are up to! In Longido, where Masai children would appear as if by magic (We hold them entirely responsible for our missing pitfal traps!) we decided that the SLAM trap was too enticing for curious minds so we erected it as high up in the canopy as we could! This type of trap is very versatile as it can be erected anywhere but is especially good for wood piles where emerging beetles will fly into the net and become trapped.

 

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Hoisting the trap with BG and Saleem

 

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The entomologists demonstrate their good work!

 

Malaise traps are more precise in where they should be placed. Ideally they should be in the way of an insect flight path so that insects fly into the net, instinctually fly upwards and just like the SLAM trap, become, um, trapped!

 

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The very important job of holding a piece of string; erecting the Malaise trap, Mount Hanag

 

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But oh no! It's all gone wrong  - in an ironic twist of fate it is the entomologists that have become trapped...

 

Finally to end on a 'lighter note' we must mention light trapping! Light trapping might be commonly employed for trapping butterflies and moths but it is actually very effective for catching beetles too. So, each night at dusk we would start up the generator and the mercury vapour light would work its magic! One night at the Longido camp an unexpected downpour somehow broke the light and so we lost a nights trapping; at Hasama forest the winds were so high that the light was smashed; another nights trapping lost. But, on a good night, it's possible to stay up for as long as you can, say until 3pm gradually picking off the insects that come to the light. At longido I found a prize Carabid, an Anthia, or more commonly known as a Domino beetle, that was more attracted to the sausage flies than the light!

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The downpour at Longido; luckily we had enough tarpaulins but failed to secure the storm flaps on one of the tens = wet sleeping bag!

 

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The entomologist (still apparently in her pyjama bottoms), demonstrates the light trap!

 

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And we leave you for now with a beautiful view!

 

Next time the hardships and hiccups of fieldwork; and after that, fashion, fieldwork and friviolity...watch this space!

 

So the intrepid entomologists say farewell; and hope that you will join us and our wonderful colleagues on Friday night at Science Uncovered to hear more about collecting in the field, all over the world! http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/whats-on/after-hours/science-uncovered/index.html

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Entomological Gap 'Yah': Part Deux

Posted by Blaps Aug 16, 2012

 

A more serious post on beetle collecting in Tanzania will follow once our intrepid explorers return from the field and all their beetles are identified...we are hoping for some new species...

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Imagine the scenario: dung is thin on the ground (literally) - we find no monkey dung, no big cat dung, in fact no dung other than dog-poo with which to entice those most industrious of organic recyclers, the dung beetles (sub family Scarabaeinae) in to our collecting pots. There is nothing else for it but to 'make' our own. Now, amongst entomologists this is common practice - perfectly normal, honestly, it is! But to 'normal' folk, this might seem a bit strange, indeed, not a common topic of conversation. I recall back in the day when I was a mere novice, perusing the Museum's collection and coming across a label which read 'collecting method: human faeces'; I recoiled in horror, quickly looked over my shoulder to see if anyone had noticed my extreme reaction; but my secret was safe; I had to come to terms with it - this was 'normal'.

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A less alarming data label: 'dung-baited pitfall trap'. Scarabaeinae; Oxysternon sp.

 

 

So there we were, over 30 keen entomologists, in fact to classify us correctly - Entomologists; Coleopterists; Scarabaeologists - coming together from all over the world, in darkest Peru, secondary forest, over 200km from Lima, having traversed the mid range peaks of the Andes at over 4000m altitude and arriving at a jungle lodge which would be our home for the next two weeks; only to discover very early on that there was a poo-deficit!

I might suggest that should you ever find yourself in the company of strangers and are looking for a conversational opener, poo will get you right in there - it breaks down barriers, it is the lowest common denominator (as it were) for most of the organisms on the planet - what better subject to make friends with than...poo?

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A cross-section of scarab fieldworkers, Chanchamayo, Peru: Bethany Teeters, Ami Maile, Bruce Noll, Fernando Escobar Hernandez, Miryam Damborsky, Jhon Neita Moreno, Sayde Ridling, Beulah Garner, Andy Matz, Mario Ibarra Polesel, Dana Price, Nicole Gunter

Photo: Jhon Neita Moreno 2012

 

For more information Scarab beetles and the work of 'Team Scarab' follow this link

http://www-museum.unl.edu/research/entomology/scarabcentral.htm

 

At first strangers (this collecting trip brought together scarab workers from all over the planet, mainly north & south America, and a small commonwealth contingent!) with a common purpose, to learn tropical fieldwork techniques, to meet fellow workers and form future collaborations, and most importantly to collect beetles; by day two, 'poo' was a common topic of conversation over breakfast!

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Breakfast

Photo: Brett Ratcliffe 2012

 

It goes something like this:
'So how are you today?'
'Oh, a little 'backed-up' you know, I think it's all this rice.'
'Yes, me too, having a bit of difficulty 'making bait'. Perhaps if we drink more coffee that will help?'
'It's worth a go, but really, I think it's all this rice.'

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Rice

 

So one by one, we would discreetly excuse ourselves and head off to our respective receptacles and 'make bait'. In fact we were doing the plumbing infrastructure of Peru quite a favour. The plumbing system is by no means able to cope with a 'heavy flow' and it is recommended not to flush paper or any other foreign object down the lavatory unless you are prepared for a reprisal! Anyway, collecting methods I'm sure varied, and I never did go as far to ask any of my colleagues exactly how they 'captured' their bait. I for one was armed with old pairs of 60 denier tights with various holes and ladders rendering them no longer fit for their original purpose, but, they make excellent 'bait' receptacles, being porous they effectively let out the enticing odour to lure the unsuspecting beetle to its scientific end. Other methods include wrapping the 'bait' in muslin / cheesecloth or simply placing the bait in a small plastic container such as those little mouthwash cup that dentists use!

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A 'baited' pitfall trap, already some unsuspecting scarabs have been enticed!

 

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Scarabs are not the only insects attracted to bait traps!

 

Then, one morning, I was woken by my housemate to the alarmed cry:
'SOMEBODY STOLE MY POO!'

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Nicole gathering 'bait' of the canine variety - happy in the days before we discovered a poo-thief!

 

 

 

The four of us sharing our little lodge had a rude awakening. Surely not? Who or what could do such a thing?
As you can imagine, stock-piling poo for bait is not a particularly social occupation. I am happy to say that none of us were anti-social enough to keep it in our rooms or even the shared bathroom, but we did on one occasion try to keep it in the fridge (with temperatures on average of 28 degrees and high humidity, things 'go off' pretty quickly) along with the coke (for energy), water (for hydration) and rum (requires no explanation), oh, and a few overly excited insects that needed calming down a bit before a photo shoot. But we soon realised that this was in fact anti-social so we took to keeping our bait outside our front door in sealed pots in zip-lock bags.

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Crime scene

 

On this particular occasion, we had managed to secure some dog poo which was kept in a separate clear vial, and our own bait which was in an opaque container, both in a zip lock bag. The human bait had been taken, and only the dog poo remained, with the bag perfectly sealed. We all stared on incredulously; my housemate hanged her head, crestfallen, and whimpered, '...but I worked really hard to make that bait...' We all reassured her, surely there was plenty more where that came from! But, to this day we shall never truly know who or what stole the bait; perhaps it is enough to say that this prized commodity had driven people to the extreme of their integrity; and the desire to collect beetles overcame any other reason...


The take home message is this: you're not an entomologist until you've got a s**t story...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The author is indebted to the organisers of this trip: 'Team Scarab' : Drs Brett Ratcliffe, Mary Liz Jameson, Ron Cave, Paul Skelley, Andrew Smith, Federico Ocampo & too to all the brilliant and enthusiastic participants!

 



Blaps

Blaps

Member since: Sep 15, 2009

I'm Beulah Garner, one of the curators of Coleoptera in the Entomology department. The Museum's collection of beetles is housed in 22,000 drawers, holding approximately 9,000,000 specimens. This little collection keeps us quite busy!

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