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With flights back to the UK this afternoon, there was time this morning for a final visit to the Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) campus.  Dan, Kerry and I took the opportunity to have a closer look behind the scenes of the Institute for Tropical Biology and Conservation, part of UMS.

 

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The insect collections at the Institute, kept in row upon row of cupboards and drawers.

 

The Institute has an insect collection of more than 10 000 specimens, kept in sealed drawers and cabinets, in a room where the temperature and humidity is carefully monitored. They also have a wet collection (where specimens are preserved in alcohol) including fish, amphibians and snakes, and a botanical collection of more than 6000 specimens of plants and fungi. The majority of specimens kept at the Institute were collected from various locations in Sabah, and it is here that our specimens of invertebrates and lichens will have a permanent home in the future.

 

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Dan admires the collections at the Institute.

 

It has been a tiring but memorable six weeks for Pat, Holger, Dan, Kerry and Keiron in Borneo. They’ve visited, collected from and sampled three different areas in Sabah and have a lot of hard work and study still to come.  I asked each of them about their memories and experiences of the trip.

 

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Holger

 

I asked Holger if anything had surprised him during his time in Borneo…  ‘I had very low expectations for my area of special interest, which is aquatic lichens.  Lowland tropical areas tend to have very few of them.  But here there were quite a lot and even in the secondary forest, where there are properly managed fragments preserved along the rivers, the river lichens looked pretty good and there was an amazing species diversity.  There is quite a lot of damage in the forest but if habitats are managed properly there’s hope to save quite a significant number of this unique diversity.’

 

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Kerry 

 

Kerry told me about her highlight of the trip…  ‘At home I work with tropical butterflies and seeing them in the wild, flying around, has been the best part for me.’

 

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Keiron

 

I asked Keiron what had struck him most about the differences between Borneo and the UK…  ‘There are the obvious things like the different trees and mammals, like the monkeys, that we don’t get back home.  But what I’ve really enjoyed is the all the big invertebrates that we get in the forest, like the scorpions and the stick insects, the praying mantids and the beautiful fulgorids.  It’s been a real pleasure to see them.’

 

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Tony

 

Tony has been busy following and filming the scientists over the past two weeks.  Here’s what he had to say… ‘It’s been an amazing experience, seeing the rainforest and working in that environment.  It’s been tough, carrying equipment and filming in those conditions, but it was worth it.  The highlight for me has been seeing and filming the gibbon, gibbons don’t get enough attention!  I’ve also really enjoyed working with the scientists, they’re a great group of people and a pleasure to work with.’

 

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Pat

 

Pat has done a lot of fieldwork in the tropics over the years, I asked if anything had really struck her about this trip… ‘I’ve never been to Maliau before, so this forest has been amazing to me.  It’s a forest that you can really work and move in, despite it being so diverse and such a huge amount of species.  It really contrasted with the terrible SAFE site where there are all these spiny rattans and lots of vines and the slippery mud….I really thought I wasn’t going to survive!’

 

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Charlotte

 

For me, I have had an incredible and memorable couple of weeks.  I have learnt so much about tropical rainforests and the species that live there, and the enthusiasm and passion of the scientists I have had the privilege to work with has been contagious.  I would like to thank all the people at the Natural History Museum who have helped support me over the past few months and have made this blog and the various public and school events possible.  It’s been a real team effort and I couldn’t have done it without you! I will miss the rainforest, it’s smells and sounds, it’s towering trees and incredible wildlife, but I have lots of wonderful memories to last me a lifetime!

 

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Dan

 

One of the things Dan is most looking forward to on returning home is food!  We’ve had a lot of rice in Borneo and Dan can’t wait to dig into lasagne, bangers and mash, and cottage pie.  I asked him to sum up the past six weeks and what the future holds…

 

 

 

Dan has the final word.

 

Don’t forget, you can read more about Dan’s experiences in Borneo on his blog.  We’ll have a final Nature Live event with Dan in November, giving you the opportunity to ask him your questions and hear first hand about the highs and lows of his time in Borneo.

 

Thank you for following the blog and for all of your comments and questions – keep them coming!

 

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From the city of Kota Kinabalu, on a clear day, you can see a mighty mountain rising up on the horizon. This is Mount Kinabalu – the tallest peak in South East Asia at 4095m above sea level. 

 

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Up in the clouds in can be difficult to see anything!

 

Unfortunately, for most of today the mountain was hidden from view due to low lying cloud, and it was into this cloud that we all drove in search of more lichens (for Holger, Pat and Charles) and a chance to experience Gunung Kinabalu National Park.

 

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The conditions in Gunung Kinabalu National Park are far less hot and humid than we have been used to in Maliau.

 

A World Heritage Site, the park stretches for 754km2 (an area larger than Singapore) and surrounds Mount Kinabalu.  In a far cooler climate (due to the altitude) than Maliau Basin, the forest feels distinctly different.  There are lots of ferns and mosses and cream coloured orchids.

 

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A wonderful purple toadstool that we spotted in the forest.

 

Because the park is so massive, we only had time to see a small part of it.  We briefly visited an area that has natural hot springs and a tree-top walk that attracts a lot of visitors.  Just like in Maliau, it was wonderful to view the forest from a different perspective, although a little nerve-racking…I’m sure it was higher up than before and the walkway was certainly a lot narrower!

 

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Wonderful views but not for those who suffer from vertigo!

 

With the cloud still hanging low and the rain coming and going, we chanced upon something very special, the opportunity to see a Rafflesia in bloom.  There are 17 different species of Rafflesia plant, all of them endemic to Borneo.  They are also known as the ‘corpse flower’, because of the smell of rotting flesh that they give off when in bloom. 

 

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A fly briefly settles inside the flower of the Rafflesia.

 

The flower blooms for several days, letting off a pungent smell that attracts carrion flies (that pollinate it).  After this short period, the petals become blemished and the flesh darkens and rots. Our flower wasn’t smelling very strongly when we saw it…perhaps a good thing, it doesn’t sound very pleasant!

 

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Up close and personal, fortunately this flower didn’t smell too badly during our visit!

 

Content and happy at our chance viewing of such a famous flower, we made our way back towards the city. Pausing on the way to sample some barbequed Bearded Pig (particularly tasty!) the clouds finally parted to reveal a picturesque view of Mount Kinabalu in the late afternoon light.

 

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Mount Kinabalu

 

Having spent the day with Charles (one of our main collaborators from Universiti Malaysia Sabah), he introduced us to one of the best places in Kota Kinabalu to go for dinner.

 

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A huge area full of table and chairs and lots of fish!

 

In a massive almost warehouse sized area, we found ourselves surrounded by several different fish restaurants.  Here, tank upon tank housed live fish and shellfish of almost every variety imaginable. Charles picked out the scallops, prawns, soft-shelled crabs and grouper (a type of fish) we were to have for dinner.  You don’t get much fresher than that!  Delicious.

 

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Charles picks out the fish we are to have for dinner while Dan and Pat look on eagerly.

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Yesterday, our collaborators at Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) warned Dan that some of his specimens were leaking.  Not good news!

 

All of the lichen and invertebrate specimens (collected over the past 6 weeks of sampling in the forests of Borneo) are now at UMS, waiting to be sorted and packed and eventually loaned to the Natural History Museum (NHM) for further study and identification.

 

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But the invertebrate specimens cannot be transported or stored safely while they are leaking alcohol (which acts to preserve the specimens) so it was all hands on deck this morning at UMS.

 

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The container the specimens had been stored in was swimming in alcohol.

 

On arriving at the university we discovered it was one container in particular that was causing the trouble.  Inside were specimens that had been collected by other NHM scientists in Danum Valley, but instead of being stored in tubes they had been sealed in plastic bags…that were meant to be leak-proof.  But the bags had failed and now there was alcohol swilling around the container producing a particularly bad smell!  Left in this condition the specimens would soon rot.

 

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The painstaking task of carefully emptying the bags and putting the contents into tubes.

 

So, one by one, the bags were opened and the contents removed and resealed in plastic, screw-top tubes.  A valuable lesson in the importance of reliable storing methods, without which weeks of collecting and hard work can be for nothing.  On the upside, it did give us the opportunity to see some different and interesting specimens including various ‘horned’ beetles, large cicadas and a crab!  The latter presumably having been collected close to a fresh water river.

 

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An unexpected discovery amongst the collected specimens.

 

But it wasn’t just Dan, Kerry and Keiron (with the added help of Tony) who were kept busy with attending to specimens today.  Elsewhere in the university, Pat and Holger had discovered one of the main difficulties with storing specimens in the tropics – humidity.   The specimens of lichens had been left in closed, plastic bags, and consequently moisture had collected and was causing the lichens to become damp.  A dangerous situation that can lead to the growth of mould and the loss of entire collections of samples.  Needless to say, everyone was kept busy for most of the day.

 

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Packing specimens for transportation involves lots of cardboard boxes and bubble-wrap!

 

Finally, once re-sealed and re-labelled, the invertebrate specimens were carefully packed by a removal company, ready for transportation to the UK.  Not the most common of courier requests!

 

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Dan was particularly pleased when the last box was sealed!

 

Having rinsed the smell of alcohol and dung beetles off of our hands, we decided to spend what was left of the day exploring the city.  Kota Kinabalu is clearly a busy and bustling city and well set-up for tourists, with a multitude of restaurants to choose from and markets selling memorabilia and gifts. And it doesn’t all stop when the sun goes down…in fact it gets better!  By the waterfront is a massive, open-air night market, selling vast quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables and a wide array of fish.   At some stalls, you can choose the fish you want and they will cook it for you, there and then.  We had to give it a try!

 

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One of the many stalls cooking fresh fish and seafood. 

 

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I think Kerry managed to trump my tasty but tiny prawn!

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Our final morning in Maliau. Our last time hearing frogs call in the middle of the night, waking up to the sound of gibbons and cicadas, and watching the hornbills congregate in the Strangling Fig tree to feast on the ripened fruit.

 

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Pat soaks up the view while we have breakfast in the Rest House.

 

With bags packed and specimens safely stored in large holdalls, we loaded the vehicles after breakfast, ready for a 7-hour car journey to Kota Kinabalu. 

 

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The team, just before getting in the vehicles to leave.  Left to right: myself, Tony, Kerry, Kishneth, Dan, Holger, Pat and Keiron.

 

Driving along the track from Maliau Basin Studies Centre back to the entrance of the reserve, it became clear why it’s important to a) travel in in a four-wheel drive vehicle and b) travel in convoy.  This is because the track can become INCREDIBLY muddy and it’s not uncommon to get stuck.  If there are other vehicles travelling with you, they can at least help to pull you out!

 

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Travelling in convoy.  Note the deep ruts in the road.

 

Fortunately, when we did get stuck, we managed to get out of the mud ourselves….with a fair bit of revving and a lot of wheel spinning!

 

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Thick mud and trying to drive up a slope = a sticky situation.

 

We paused at a lookout point for a final view of Maliau Basin.  A very special rainforest (the scientists all agreeing that it’s been their favourite place to work during this trip), untouched by logging and plantations, and a haven for some incredible plant and animal species.

 

A few of the smaller animals that we encountered during our stay in Maliau.

 

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Looking out over the Maliau Basin Conservation Area.

 

Once out of the reserve and on more definite roads, we came across lots of logging vehicles and vans containing the harvested fruit of Oil Palms. 

 

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Logging vehicles are a common sight outside of the forest reserve.

 

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Malaysia and Indonesia are the world leaders in palm oil production, supplying over 80% of the market. The oil extracted from the crushed fruit of Oil Palms (seen here in the back of a vehicle) is used in a variety of products including biofuels, shampoo, biscuits, chocolate, cosmetics, toothpaste etc.

 

We also passed villages, schools, mosques and churches, all lining the road and set against a backdrop of wooded hills. 

 

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Many of the houses we passed were raised above the ground, on stilts.  This is to help protect them from flooding when it rains.

 

As we approached Kota Kinabalu and crossed over a mountain range, we found ourselves driving through low-lying cloud and fierce rain.  Interestingly, when the rain stopped, you could immediately see the water evaporating off the hot tarmac.  A sight rarely seen in the UK!

 

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The rain was so heavy that at times that you could barely see the traffic in the road up ahead.

 

After a long and tiring journey, the majority of which was thankfully on tarmacked roads, we finally arrived at our destination.  Some of the team were eager to enjoy the opportunity of a hot shower at the hotel (all of our showers having been cold in Maliau).  Others were looking forward to wearing normal clothes (rather than leech socks and trekking attire).  But at the forefront of everyone’s mind was food.

 

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Keiron has been looking forward to eating fast food...but without the side order of rice!

 

Although the food at Maliau was very good, having rice at almost every meal had lost it’s appeal and we were all looking forward to going to a restaurant and having a cold drink and a choice of food!

 

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For dinner we visited an Indian restaurant close to our hotel.  Although I voluntarily chose rice to go with my meal we were spoilt with a selection of sauces and accompaniments, squid and chicken in hot masala sauces, and everything served up on a banana leaf!  Delicious.

 

Walking around Kota Kinabalu, with the sun having already set, I caught my first glimpse of the sea (the city lies on the coast of Northern Sabah).  Small islands can be seen in the distance and boats bob up and down in the water.  Tomorrow, once we have paid a visit to Universiti Malaysia Sabah to check on our samples, we shall explore the city.

 

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Looking out over the sea towards a nearby island.

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Following an early start watching Hornbills yesterday and a late night linking live (via satellite) to the Museum in London, everyone was looking forward to a lie-in this morning….but no-one had explained this to the local Bearded Pigs.  At about 5am there was a huge commotion with snorting and bellowing right outside our bunkhouse, goodness knows what about, but Kerry was the only person not to be woken by it!

 

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A regular visitor to the Studies Centre, the Bearded Pigs are aptly named.

 

Today is our final day in Maliau and everyone has been busy packing and preparing for the journey to Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of Sabah.  Not only do we need to worry about how everything will fit back in our suitcases/bags, the samples of invertebrates and lichens need to be carefully sorted and packed, to ensure they are not damaged on the long (inevitably bumpy) car journey tomorrow. 

 

 

Lichens that are going to be used by Holger and Pat, who will identify and describe them, need to be carefully prepared and packed.  I asked Pat how she goes about doing this…

 

The lichens will all be added to collections held at the Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) and then those that require further study will be sent to the Natural History Museum (in London) for Pat and Holger to identify and where necessary describe new species to science.

 

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Kishneth’s bark samples cover the floor of the laboratory, ready to be packed and transported back to Kota Kinabalu.

 

Meanwhile, the sections of tree bark and further (cross-referenced) samples of lichens will be analysed by Charles and his team of chemists, including Kishneth, at UMS and their chemistry studied.

 

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Kishneth gets to grips with the intricate structure of some of the lichens the team have collected.

 

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Keiron empties the containers that have been collecting material at the bottom of the Winkler bags.

 

Elsewhere, Dan, Kerry and Keiron have been emptying the final Winkler bags and gathering their various samples together.  There’s a noticeable difference in the volume of material that the different traps have collected.

 

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A ‘line-up’ of samples – a pair of Malaise trap samples on the left, SLAM traps, pitfall traps, and finally a pair of leaf litter samples on the far right.

 

The Malaise traps have been particularly successful in sampling a large number of forest invertebrates, while the pitfall traps have caught some of the larger specimens.

 

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A Whip Scorpion found in one of the pitfall traps.

 

While walking towards the forest today for a final stroll beneath the mighty Dipterocarp trees, I couldn’t help but notice a small flowering plant on the side of the road.  Particularly memorable because of what happens when you touch it….

 

 

The leaves of Mimosa pudica quickly fold inwards or droop when touched.

 

Mimosa pudica, while intriguing, shouldn’t be here.  It is a species native to South and Central America, but is an invasive weed across much of the tropics.  It seems incredible that such a small plant could have made it all the way from South America to the depths of Sabah in Borneo, and yet it’s not an uncommon tale.

 

We’re looking forward to a change of scenery when we get to Kota Kinabalu tomorrow but for now, with the closest village 2 hours drive away, games of cards and charades are the mainstay of our evening’s entertainment.

 

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It’s a film…..four words….

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An early start today. Tony, Kerry, Dan and I wanted to stake out the Strangling Fig tree near our accommodation, in the hope of seeing gibbons feeding on the fruit.  We arrived at 5.30am, just as it was beginning to get light, and sat patiently watching the tree.

 

It was fascinating to watch as different groups of animals took it in turn to gather and feed from the tree.  First it was the hornbills, various different species including the Rhinoceros Hornbill (a MASSIVE bird with a bright red and yellow bill and a horn shaped ‘casque’) and the Asian Black Hornbill (where the bill of the male is white in contrast to the bill of the female which is black).

 

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A Rhinoceros Hornbill in captivity.  Photo by Jim Bowen.

 

Dozens of Hornbills filled the branches of the tree, with Dan counting 56 or more.  But two by two (Hornbills pair for life and are rarely seen on their own) they gradually left, with a sudden final exodus marking the arrival of the next group of animals, the Macaques.  We saw both Pig-Tailed Macaques and Long-Tailed Macaques in the tree today, deftly clambering and jumping from branch to branch.

 

Once the Macaques had gone, the tree remained fairly quiet and we decided to have our own breakfast. But when Tony and I returned half an hour later, we spotted a small, round, hairy rump protruding from amongst a clump of leaves.  As the animal moved and gracefully swung between the branches, we realised it was a Bornean Gibbon, the final morning feeder at the tree. 

 

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The Bornean Gibbon (also known as Mueller’s Gibbon) is endemic to Borneo.  Photo by Ltshears.

 

We’ve seen gibbons a couple of times over the past few days, but only ever from a distance and always fleetingly as they disappear off into the dense vegetation of the forest.  This one was unusual because it appeared to be on it’s own (Bornean Gibbons are more commonly seen in pairs or family groups).

 

 

Our Gibbon sighting today, coupled with the soulful morning call of local Bornean Gibbons (which they make to mark their territory).

 

While looking for large animals in the rainforest can be time consuming and frequently unsuccessful, looking for lichens is easy – they’re everywhere!  The trees are often covered in them, on their bark and on their leaves. 

 

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Lichens of the Physma genus, seen up close, with brown fruiting bodies that produce spores. Photo taken by Kishneth Palaniveloo, one of our local collaborators at the University of Malaysia, Sabah.

 

 

Holger compares temperate and tropical forests, and the differences he has seen in the lichens that can be found there.

 

The majority of the trees in the Lowland Dipterocarp Rainforests of Borneo are evergreen. This means that instead of dropping their leaves in the Autumn (as many British species do) they retain them for several years.  This gives lichens time to colonise the leaves, with some species specialising in growing on this surface (rather than tree bark). 

 

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Various species of lichens have colonised this leaf.

 

In the UK, Pat uses the lichens growing on twigs as indicators of short-term environmental changes. Similarly, lichens growing on leaves in the tropics can be used to study short-term patterns and changes in the atmosphere, as opposed to the lichens growing on tree trunks, which have been there longer and reflect a greater period in time.

 

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These brightly coloured ‘Script’ lichens, so called because of the patterning of the fruiting bodies, are reminiscent of raspberry ripple ice-cream!  Photo taken by Kishneth.

 

Today was the last day in the field for Dan, Kerry and Keiron (although Pat and Holger will continue to collect lichens for a while longer).  Tomorrow they must pack up their samples in the Studies Centre laboratory and organise all their kit, ready for the journey back to Kota Kinabalu (where we will be based for the final couple of days of our trip).  Working in the laboratory is a far cry from the heat and humidity of the rainforest, and is far easier to move around in! With heavy rainfall daily, the paths and trails in the forest quickly become muddy and slippery. 

 

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Good balance and plenty of stamina are needed for trekking in the jungle.

 

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A Parang (a large Bornean knife) is vital for cutting through thick undergrowth in the rainforest.

 

Walking in thick mud can be tricky at the best times, but combined with thick undergrowth, exposed tree roots and steep ridges, going for a walk in the rainforest is not for the faint-hearted.  But it’s worth the effort, you never know what you might stumble across….

 

 

Dan makes an interesting discovery in the forest.

 

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A torrent of worker termites (of the Hospitalitermes genus) march along a fallen branch.  At the edges, the soldier termites stand guard, protecting the colony from marauding ants (seen at the edge of the photo).

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Last night we had thunder and lightning, almost directly overhead.  It rains most evenings/nights here but last night’s down pour was particularly heavy.  Most of us were consequently woken up in the small hours of this morning by the sound of frogs!  It sounds like there are hundreds of them surrounding our bunkhouse, although it’s too dark to go out and count, but their constant calling and croaking creates a deafening noise.  I will try and get a recording for you to listen to!

 

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Keiron with an earthworm he found in one of the soil samples.

 

Soil sampling is a simple but effective way of discovering some of the numerous species of invertebrate that are living in the rainforest.  Keiron showed me how he digs a hole at set points along the transect line (a line running 100 metres through the site/plot being studied) and then sifts through it looking for animals.

 

 

Keiron demonstrates how the team sample the soil in the rainforest.

 

Dan, Kerry and Keiron have found a variety of animals living in the soil.  The majority tend to be ants and termites, which dominate the soil habitat of tropical rainforests, but they’ve also found centipedes, beetle larvae and earthworms (amongst other things). 

 

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A large beetle larva found in one of the soil samples.  They have sharp jaws so it’s best not to handle them!

 

Any animals that are found in the soil samples are picked up (using tweezers) and popped into a tube of alcohol.  This kills and preserves them (stopping them from decomposing).  Some of the ants can move particularly fast, meaning you end up chasing them around the tray with the tweezers….I certainly need to practice more before I’m up to Kerry and Keiron’s standard of tweezer/ant control.

 

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Kerry, with tweezers and tube of alcohol at the ready, carefully studies her soil sample.

 

Pat, Holger and Kishneth were collecting lichens at the final site today.  I had heard that tree diversity in tropical rainforests was high, but I was still surprised when Pat counted up the number of species they have sampled from.  Of 84 trees they have sampled, there are 49 different species of tree.  And that’s still only a handful of what’s living in the forest here.

 

 

Pat explains more about the trees and lichens that she and the lichenologists have been studying.

 

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A good hand lens reveals the colourful and intricate world of lichens on a whole new scale.

 

Today has been a particularly memorable one because of the ‘monkey action’ we all witnessed this morning taking place in a massive Strangling Fig tree, close to the Studies Centre buildings. 

 

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The Strangling Fig tree, viewed from the veranda of the Rest House.

 

For the best chance of seeing birds and mammals in the rainforest, you want to find a tree that is in flower or fruit.  In the last couple of days the figs on this mighty tree have been ripening, and everything is taking advantage of this ready food source! 

 

Yesterday we saw lots of birds, including species of Hornbill, flying into the upper branches. This morning, we caught a quick glimpse of a Bornean Gibbon before it swung swiftly away….which was probably due to the arrival of a troop of Pig-Tailed Macaques.  The Macaques managed to get right up into the highest branches, maybe 40 – 50 metres above the ground, and Tony filmed them as they skilfully moved through the branches and seemingly catapulted down the tree!

 

 

Despite being so perilously high above the ground, the Macaques are clearly far better adapted to life in the trees than we are!

 

Needless to say, as sat having dinner this evening (on the veranda outside because it never gets cold here), we all had smiles on our faces following another magical day in the jungle.

 

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Meals of rice, meat and vegetables are supplemented by the odd box of biscuits!

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Kerry and I got up at 5am this morning in the hope of seeing gibbons! Brandishing torches, we stumbled out of our dormitory and into the darkness, heading towards the swing bridge that crosses the Maliau River.  We’d heard gibbons calling from this area before, and thought we might have a better chance of seeing them in the early morning, when it’s a little cooler and wildlife in general tends to be more active.

 

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The Maliau River.

 

No such luck.  We sat on the bridge for over an hour, with a no sign of the elusive gibbons.  But it did give us the opportunity to hear all the other animals waking up and producing their morning calls. 

 

After breakfast (a mixture of cereal, rice, chicken nuggets and small sausages) I followed Kerry as she sampled the dead wood along the transect line on today’s site/plot.  The transect line is laid out at each site and is 100 metres long.  It is along this line that the scientists sample the leaf litter and soil at set intervals, as well as studying any dead wood found between the start and end point.

 

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Kerry holds onto one end of the measuring tape as the team lay out their transect line.

 

Dan and his team also measure the temperature and water content of the soil (how much moisture is in it) and look carefully at what type of soil is found along the transect line. These are all important factors that will influence the type of plants and animals that are found in a given area.

 

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Keiron uses a thermometer and a soil moisture meter.

 

 

Dead wood provides an important shelter and food source for some species of invertebrate.

 

Amongst the numerous animals that Kerry found in her dead wood samples, there was a particularly bold soldier termite that tried to bite her finger! 

 

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Fortunately Kerry’s gloves gave her some protection against this feisty soldier termite.

 

Kerry also found a scorpion in a piece of dead wood further down the transect line.  Good reason for always being cautious when sampling!

 

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It’s not unusual to find scorpions sheltering in dead wood.


 

Also joining us in the field today were local collaborators from the University of Malaysia, Sabah (UMS). They are working closely with Pat and Holger to study the lichens here.  Professor Charles Vairappan is a Natural Product Chemist and interested in analysing the chemicals that different species of lichens produce. 

 

Research suggests that Lichens produce chemicals for various reasons.  Some chemicals help lichens avoid predation from animals (such as springtails, mites, snails, slugs and caterpillars), while other substances protect the lichens from UV light or excessive light intensities.  A unique property of some lichen chemicals is their water repellent function (like a biological Gortex) which helps to prevent them from ‘drowning’ (remember the film footage of the rain in my Day 5 blog?)!

 

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This is the lichen I mentioned yesterday, Herpothallon ‘woolly’, which contains interesting chemicals that are essential for identification.

 

But what’s particularly interesting is the diversity of these chemicals. Different lichens produce different chemicals, and this information could therefore be used to assist with the identification of lichens (alongside morphological descriptions (what a species of lichen looks like, both the outer and inner structure) and DNA analysis. 

 

By identifying the unique chemicals of the different lichens, Charles will contribute to the description and identification of tropical lichens that Pat and Holger are working on.

 

Charles is also interested in why some species of tree in the rainforest have very few lichens living on their bark, while other species are covered in lichens.  This may be due to chemicals that are produced in the bark of the tree, but no-one has studied what these chemicals are. 

 

 

Charles explains the two areas of lichen research that he is focusing on.

 

One of Charles’ students, Kishneth, is collecting sections of tree bark (from the same trees that Pat and Holger are sampling), so that they can be analysed in the laboratory.  Requiring a chisel and hammer and a good deal of strength, it’s hard work, but the results from the chemical analysis should be fascinating.

 

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Kishneth removes a small piece of bark from each tree for analysis.

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Another day, another site. We’re over half way through our time here, and Dan’s pretty happy with how things have been going.  The team have learnt how to position their pitfall traps so that they don’t fill up with rainwater and sediment in the extremely wet conditions of the rainforest (far less of a problem in the New Forest where they’ve been sampling for the past ten years and using the same trapping methods).

 

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Kieron reveals the contents of his Pitfall trap…including a cockroach.

 

At previous sample sites, the team have also had to contend with animals stealing their Pitfall traps (pigs are the main suspect).  There are some things you can’t always plan for when carrying out experiments!

 

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Pat and Holger take a closer look at the lichens on the tree.

 

The lichenologists, Pat and Holger, were hard at work today.  As with every day, they came out to the sample site with us and were studying the lichens on the trees.  At each site, they choose twelve trees to study and sample from.  These are a mixture of small and large trees and are a variety of different species, all factors that can influence the species of lichen living on the bark.

 

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Local botanist Mr Kho Ju Ming helps Pat and Holger identify the different species of trees.  He has to use binoculars to see the leaves clearly (which will help him identify the tree) because they are so high up!

 

Lichens are fascinating. They are composite systems (comparable to corals), meaning they are a combination of a fungus and an algae living side by side in a symbiotic relationship (they both benefit from one another).  Lichens occur almost everywhere, surviving in some of the most extreme environments in the world. They are abundant and diverse in rainforests, and there are many to be found here in Maliau. 

 

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Pat ties a piece of string around a tree that is to be sampled.

 

Once Pat and Holger have selected the trees they are going to study, they set up a ladder quadrat on the trunk and begin to identify the lichens.  If they find a lichen they need to check in the laboratory, they write a brief description of it and give it a field nickname.  For example, Pat and Holger have given one of the lichens the nickname Herpothallon ‘woolly’.

 

 

Pat and Holger explain how they study and sample the lichens on trees.

 

There are many animals that have evolved similar colours and patterning to lichens, helping them to avoid predators.  This moth we found, although large, can easily go unnoticed resting against the lichen.

 

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A night-time visitor to the Studies Centre.

 

It can be hard to get a good view of the rainforest when you’re walking along the ground, the tree canopy is very far above.   To get a slightly better view, Tony and I went up onto the ‘Sky Bridge’, near the edge of the forest.  It requires a good head for heights, in places reaching 21 metres above the ground. But this is still only a fraction of the height of many of the trees here in Maliau, some of which reach up to 70 metres.

 

 

The Sky Bridge allows you to get closer to the forest canopy, although still not that close!

 

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Tony and I had a bird’s eye view of Dan, Kerry and Kieron from the canopy walk.

 

Finally, remember the massive ant in one of yesterday’s videos?  Well, today we found something even bigger – possibly a Queen ant of the same species (Camponotus gigas) but a lot bigger than the workers we usually see around the forest floor.  Huge!

 

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Possibly a Queen Ant of the species Camponotus gigas.

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Although the rainforest is full of wildlife, it can be easy to miss.  Many of the animals that live here, especially the invertebrates, are well camouflaged or spend their time hidden in rotting wood, buried in the soil or under the leaf litter that carpets the floor of the forest.  That’s why Dan and the team are being so thorough and using a variety of methods to find these animals.

 

Dan and Kerry sampling the leaf litter.

 

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The sieve inside the bag.

 

Dan’s project involves sampling at three different locations in Sabah, Borneo.  You can find out about the first two locations and what Dan experienced there by reading his blog

 

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Lichenologist Holger Thus walking through the rainforest in Maliau.

 

By sampling in these three areas, Dan hopes to gain a better understanding of the diversity of invertebrates and lichens found in these rainforests, and how similar or different they are between locations eg whether Maliau rainforest and Danum Valley rainforest (a previous sample location) share many of the same species of termite.  By understanding how different a rainforest is, and whether many of its species are unique to that forest, conservationists can start to prioritise the protection of certain areas.

 

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An amazingly well camouflaged insect that we spotted hiding against some lichen in the rainforest.

 

It’s hard work setting up traps and sifting through leaf litter.  If we sit still for a moment, for a quick snack or a drink, we find ourselves surrounded by small flying insects.  These are sweat bees and, as the name suggests, they are attracted to our sweat (which in these conditions is copious!)  Sweat Bees collect the sebaceous secretions of other animals, such as sweat or tears, and take it back to their nest to make it into honey!

 

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Sweat Bees on Dan’s back.

 

Once back at the Studies Centre, the team have to put the leaf litter samples into Winkler Bags. This allows them to collect (in a pot at the bottom of the bag) any invertebrates that are amongst the litter.

 

Leaf litter material is left in Winkler Bags for three days.

 

One animal often found in the leaf litter, and in many of the other traps, is the largest species of ant in Borneo – Camponotus gigas.  A massive ant, but not at all aggressive.

 

A Camponotus gigas ant on my hand.

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I was back out into the rainforest today with Dan and the team.  It was a particularly long, sweaty and gruelling trek to their newest sampling site.  We enlisted a local guide to help us find the quickest and easiest route there, but it still involved a lot of slipping and sliding up and down several ridges before we got there. 

 

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Dan and our local guide discuss the best way to get to today’s sampling site.

 

Dan and the others are studying the invertebrates and lichens at 8 different sites within the lowland Dipterocarp rainforest here in Maliau.  At each site, Dan, Kerry and Keiron carry out 6 different sampling methods, in order to collect as many different flying, crawling and wriggling invertebrates as possible.  This should give them a really good understanding of exactly what is living here.

 

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Dan with a Malaise Trap in the rainforest.

 

As well as the Pitfall traps that I showed you yesterday, the team also use Malaise traps and SLAM traps. These look a little bit like modified tents, and are used to catch aerial (flying) insects.

 

Dan explains how Malaise traps and SLAM traps work.

 

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A SLAM trap hanging in the air, having been hoisted up with the aid of a tennis ball and some rope. 

 

The Malaise and SLAM traps stay up for three days before the team return to the site to collect them. We’ll wait and see whether today’s traps have been successful….

 

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Look closely and you can see an insect has already flown into this Malaise trap.

 

Back at the Studies Centre, having survived the walk back through thick undergrowth and over several fallen trees, I was feeling pretty smug that I had yet to experience a leech bite in Borneo.  On arrival in Maliau several days ago, Tony and I had been greeted with numerous tales of engorged leeches and bloodied clothing from various members of the team. But the worst leechy story was Keiron’s (one of Dan’s volunteer Research Assistants). Having eaten an orange for lunch, some of the fruit appeared to have got trapped between his teeth.  He dug around inside his mouth and pulled it out, only to discover it wasn’t a bit of orange between his teeth, it was a leech! To this day no-one is quite sure how it got there (perhaps it was hanging around on the mouth piece of his water bottle) but it was the last thing Keiron expected to find between his molars!

 

So it was with a mixture of annoyance and a slight sense of respect that I discovered a VERY fat leech attached to my shoulder today. 

 

A well-fed leech!

 

Having ‘liberated’ the leech and detached it from my skin, the wound continued to bleed for some time. The anti-coagulant that leeches use to stop your blood from clotting and ensure a free-flowing meal is clearly very effective!

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A great start to the day. While clearing up after breakfast (a mixture of noodles, chicken nuggets and potato wedges followed by a particularly good cup of Bornean tea), Dan spotted some movement in the trees close to the dining room.  We gathered round, peering hopefully across the clearing into the forest.  The branches moved again.  The leaves rustled.  We caught a glimpse of a monkey…and where there’s one monkey, there’s usually more!

 

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A Pig-Tailed Macaque bounds through the trees.

 

After waiting patiently, we were rewarded with the view of several Pig-Tailed Macaques (recognisable by their short, half-erect tails), jumping from branch to branch and occasionally peering back out at us through the densely packed leaves. Unlike most monkeys, Macaques spend a lot of their time in the lower canopy and on the forest floor searching for fruit and insects (among other things) to eat. Which is fortunate for us, because it makes them far easier to see!

 

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Today, like every other, was full of retrieving traps and sampling.  One method the team uses, to collect fast moving invertebrates on the forest floor, is digging pitfall traps.  As with all the sampling techniques being used here, this is a method Dan has previously used to sample invertebrates in the New Forest, back in the UK.

 

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Dan digging a hole for a pitfall trap.

 

It’s hard work digging holes in such humid conditions, and the soil in the forest is often full of plant roots.  Once the holes have been dug and the plastic cups inserted, the pit fall traps are left for three days before the team return to collect them. 

 

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A pitfall trap, prepared and in place on the forest floor.

 

Emptying Pitfall Traps

 

Unfortunately, the frequent rainfall has been causing havoc with the team’s samples.  It rains daily here, usually in the afternoon or evening, and when it rains, it pours!

 

The rain in Borneo

 

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The rain here can soak you to the skin in minutes.

 

Tomorrow we’re heading to a sampling site on top of a ridge.  In theory, it’s only a small ridge, but it’s apparently very steep and very slippery.  I will go prepared with my trusty walking stick!

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….you’re certain of a sweaty but memorable day!  Today was my first day in the Dipterocarp Rainforest of Borneo and a real eye-opener to the research our Museum scientists are carrying out, and the conditions they have been working under. 

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We head off bright and early, leaving the Studies Centre for a morning of sampling and studying in the rainforest.

 

After a breakfast of rice, hard-boiled egg and a rather hot chilli and fish dish, we donned our gear and set off.  Working in the rainforest requires a fair amount of preparation, making sure you’re wearing the correct clothes and carrying the necessary essentials. 

 

 

The rainforest itself was dense and humid, with ridges to climb up and over and vines that tangled themselves around our feet.  It was muddy in places, and even in my walking boots I struggled not to slip.  I have a glorious bruise already from a failed attempt to remain upright! 

 

Our first stop was at a site where Dan and the team had been three days ago.  At each site they carry out a variety of sampling techniques – breaking up and sorting through rotten wood, sifting through soil that they have dug up and sieving the leaf litter.  They then set up a series of different traps including Malaise traps and Pitfall traps, which are left out for three days and then collected.

 

While helping to collect the traps, I had my first leech encounter…I discovered a Tiger Leech looping its way across the front of my shirt.  You won’t believe how elastic and rubbery they can be!  Once they’re on your skin, it’s really difficult to get them off, no matter how hard you try to pull them. 

 

 

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(c)T. Cockerill. A Tiger Leech, identified by the bright orange stripe on it’s underside, found in the rainforests of Borneo.

 

After collecting the traps, we moved onto a new site and began sampling there.  Pat and Holger were also with us, busily studying the lichens on the trees.  The trees here are incredibly tall, stretching high up above our heads. There are hundreds of different species, with trees from the Dipterocarpaceae family dominating the forest canopy – hence the name, Dipterocarp Rainforest.  Some of the trees have massive buttress roots, which can make them look like rockets about to take off!

 

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Charlotte standing next to the massive buttress roots of a tree.

 

It’s hard to describe what it’s really like in the rainforest.  It’s so densely packed with trees and vines that photographs rarely do it justice.  But by listening to the sounds of the forest, you can hopefully begin to imagine what it’s like here.

 

 

I’ll be following Dan, Holger, Pat and rest of the team over the coming days and telling you more about the different sampling techniques and traps that they’re using and what they hope to achieve.  Don’t forget, Dan has also been blogging about his experiences, including what he was doing before coming to the Maliau Basin. 

 

For now, I’m feeling pleasantly tired and very satisfied after a successful day in the forest!

 

Forest-River.jpgThe Maliau River, running out of the Maliau Basin.

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Today has been a day of discovery!  Not only have I been exploring our home for the next ten days, the Maliau Basin Studies Centre, but I’ve also been discovering some of the weird and wonderful animals that live on our doorstep.

 

stag-beetle1.jpgA Rhinoceros Beetle, so named because of it’s ‘horns’ and rhino like appearance.  This is one of Dan’s favourite insects in the rainforest.

 

The Centre itself is brilliantly equipped, there’s a laboratory where Holger and Pat can start to study the lichens they have collected, clean and comfortable bunkbeds for the end of tiring days in the field, and a large dining room serving particularly tasty food.  The meals here often consist of rice or noodles, with chicken and seafood being popular too.  There’s a ready supply of fresh fruit and cold drinking water – a real treat considering how hot and humid it is.

 

 

Day and night, the air is saturated with the sounds of insects and birds.  Cicadas chirp constantly and there’s a species that chips in, particularly loudly, at 6pm everyday.  It was premature today, being heard at about 5.30pm, and Kerry said this meant it was likely to rain.  Only an hour or two later, as predicted, the heavens opened. 

 

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One of many different species of Cicada, living in and around the Maliau Basin Studies Centre.

 

Insects are relatively easy to see here because they’re attracted to the building lights at night, noisily buzzing around the lightbulbs and occasionally crashing to the floor.  Larger animals such as birds and mammals are harder to spot, but we’ve seen evidence of their presence already.  Hopefully as the days pass we may get a sighting of a Red Leaf Monkey or a Gibbon…or if we’re VERY lucky, an Orangutan!

 

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Evidence of a four-footed mammalian visitor.  These Civit paw prints were found just outside our living room door, perhaps attracted by interesting smells coming from the wastebin!

 

Tomorrow, Tony and I are venturing into the rainforest with Dan and the others.  I have my leech proof socks at the ready, insect repellent and a LARGE bottle of water.  I can’t wait!

 

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A Preying Mantis, a predatory insect, hanging out in our dining room.

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No sooner had we left the city of Tawau, and started the long car journey to Maliau, we were surrounded on both sides of the road by palm tree plantations that stretched as far as the eye could see.  At first it looked exotic, but as the views remained unchanged mile after mile we soon realized that this was no tropical paradise, it was cultivation on an immense scale.  We were looking at Oil Palm plantations.  I knew the palm oil industry was big in Borneo, but I wasn’t prepared for this. 

 

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Eventually the plantations subsided and we were left with views of undulating native forest.  Our 4x4 vehicle proved its weight it gold, as the road changed from tarmac, to loose gravel, to dirt track.  Massive dips and holes in the road, compounded by the sluggish logging vehicles that we regularly passed, made the journey slow going.  But with the luxury of air conditioning in the heat of the day, we were in no hurry.

 

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Finally, after five hours, we arrived at the Maliau Basin Studies Centre, our home for the next 12 days.  Here we were greeted by Dan, Kerry, Keiron, Holger and Pat, all in good spirits despite four weeks in the field already!

 

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Relieved to find a delicious meal of sweet and sour squid and fresh pineapple for dinner, I happily sunk into my (none too small and pretty comfy) bed, ready to begin exploring tomorrow.

 

 

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We have arrived in Borneo! It took a while.  First I nearly missed my taxi to the airport, then we had a 12 hour flight to Kuala Lumpur and then we took off on our connecting flight only to have to return to the airport because of a problem with the plane!  By this point, Tony and I were exhausted. Sleeping on planes is not easy, partly because you’re sat up, and partly because the in-flight entertainment is so tempting!

 

After a short delay, while they attempted to fix the plane, we were finally off again and heading to the city of Tawau in Borneo.  By the time we got there it was already dark and we had been travelling for over 24hrs. Following a meal of fish and rice and a curious green custard type dessert, we gratefully made our way to our air conditioned rooms and bed.

 

Waking up this morning, I forgot for a moment where I was.  I drew back the curtains to see a sprawling city, surprisingly green, with a mixture of new and old buildings, corrugated iron roofs and tall office blocks. Tony and I took our breakfast outside, and the first thing that struck us was the heat.  Far warmer than the autumnal Britain we left a day or two ago. 

 

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We are now sat waiting for a car to take us to the rainforest, a good four hours journey away. Our bags are repacked (with a bit of squeezing and shoving), I’ve taken my travel sickness tablets (a precaution in case of bumpy, winding tracks) and we are really excited about finally meeting up with Dan and the team in Maliau.

 

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Charlotte Coales will be your roving reporter, writing daily blogs and keeping you updated on life in the rainforest, giving you an insider’s view on the research and sampling techniques being undertaken by our Museum scientists.


Following a BSc in Ecology and Environmental Biology and an MSc in Science Communication, Charlotte gained work experience at the BBC Natural History Unit before working as a researcher at Natural History New Zealand.  Returning to the UK, Charlotte worked as an explainer at London Zoo before getting a job at the Natural History Museum on the Nature Live team.  She regularly hosts public events with Museum scientists and loves working at the museum and being surrounded by animals, she just wishes they weren’t all dead!


Earlier this year, Charlotte took time off work to travel to South Africa and Botswana, where she trained to be a Safari Guide.  She loved spending time outdoors and learning more about Africa’s incredible plants and animals but is glad to be back at the Museum.  She can’t wait to explore the rainforests of Borneo and will be revealing some of the incredible things our Museum scientists discover.

 

 

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Tony Vinhas is the media technician going to Borneo with Charlotte. His primary role will be to operate the satellite equipment, cameras, etc. so that you can see live and pre-recorded videos of what the scientists are researching while they are there.


Tony is really excited about getting out there and being able to capture footage from one of the most beautiful and biodiverse areas on the planet. He’s most looking forward to hopefully seeing Orang-utans, Sumatran rhinos and clouded leopards. He’s least looking forward to the leeches and mosquitoes.

 


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The scientists I will be following over the next couple of weeks are already out in Borneo and working hard.....

 

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Dan Carpenter likes soil, so it is lucky that he works in the Soil Biodiversity Group in the Life Sciences Department of the Natural History Museum. Having completed a BSc in Wildlife Conservation, he went on to do a PhD in Soil Science jointly at the University of Reading and the Museum and studied earthworms and their effects on mineral weathering in soils.  He is now a Post-doctoral Research Assistant and he has been studying diversity patterns of soil invertebrates and their role in ecosystem processes.

Dan is particularly fond of earthworms, so much so that he played a large part in setting up the Earthworm Society of Britain and sits on its committee.  When he isn’t digging holes, Dan likes running around in mountains and swimming. He is also a member of the Berkshire Lowland Search and Rescue team, so he is a handy person to know if you get lost!

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Kerry Leigh studied Biology at university before moving to London.  After originally volunteering in the tropical butterfly house at the Natural History Museum, she began volunteering with the Soil Biodiversity Group, spending time in the New Forest with Dan and his team sampling different habitats. The enthusiasm of everyone in the group rubbed off on her and she’s been helping out in the lab ever since, sorting and identifying various invertebrates that the group have collected.


When not in the Museum, Kerry  works in a little butterfly house in West London where she looks after caterpillars, pupae and butterflies, and sends some of them off to other exhibitions. She loves travelling (particularly in Africa) and her favourite country is Sierra Leone, she hopes to move there one day and build a hostel and restaurant on a beautiful beach! 

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Keiron Derek Brown has been volunteering in the Soil Biodiversity Group of the Natural History Museum for over 2 years.  A biology granduate, with field work experience in the tropics, Keiron decided his dream was to work in the field on zoological projects and conservation.


Keiron's time at the museum has been spent looking down a microscope to sort and identify invertebrate samples that he helped collect on field trips to the New Forest.  In his spare time he enjoys going on courses to learn more about the amazing wildlife that live across Great Britain and is also a member of the Earthworm Society of Britain. Over the summer he has been working for the Bat Conservation Trust where he provides advice to many different kinds of people for all things bat-related! Keiron has always wanted to visit the island of Borneo and is excited about experiencing life in the rainforest.

 

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Holger Thues is a curator at the Natural History Museum. His focus is on lichenised fungi and their associated algae which makes him a part mycologist / part-botanist. Before he came to the NHM , he was working partly as a researcher and partly as an environmental consultant. This included work with lichens, mosses and seed plants but also with various animal groups:  from aquatic invertebrates, leafhoppers to hamsters and salmon.


Holger's previous fieldwork has been mostly all over Europe (particularly “rocky” habitats from coastal cliffs to alpine peaks – you can easily locate him in the field by the sound of his chisel). In the tropics so far two field trips to the Venezuelan part of the Andes (focussed on freshwater habitats in open areas with Paramo-vegetation) and earlier this year a month in the mountains of Costa Rica.


One of his hopes for this trip is to collect a rich selection of fresh lichen material from areas which have never been studied by lichenologists before such as the Maliau Basin and to enhance the collections both in Sabah and for our museum with poorly known taxonomic groups which will become a resource for further studies by researchers in Malaysia, at our museum and for other collaborators across the world.

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Following on from two amazing trips to Costa Rica and the Bahamas earlier this year, I'm preparing to fly out to Borneo in South East Asia this weekend! 

 

I'm going to be joining a group of Museum scientists who have already been steeped in the hot and humid rainforests of Borneo for the past four weeks, and have been blogging about their experiences so far.  I'll be reporting back on their research, giving you an insider's view on their ingenious sampling methods, keeping you updated on exciting wildlife sightings and recounting the highs and lows of life in the field.

 

You can join in by following our blog and using the comments section at the end of each daily post, or by visiting the Museum in person for some very special Nature Live events in the Attenborough Studio including live-video-links to Borneo:

 

Thu 11 October at 14.30: Biodiversity in Borneo

Sat 13 October at 12.30 and 14.30: Caught in a Trap: Borneo (the 14.30 event will be British Sign Language interpreted)

Wed 17 October at 14.30: Eaten Alive in Borneo

 

Time to get packing......

 

Charlotte Coales

 

P.S. We also have a special series of Nature Live in the Field videoconferences and live-chats for Schools. The first is on Friday 9 October so if you want your school or class to take part, contact us as soon as possible.

 

Image copyright: Tim Cockerill