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Field work with Nature Live

35 Posts tagged with the biodiversity tag
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Before our field trip to the Isles of Scilly, I conducted the following short interview with Jo Wilbraham, an algae and seaweed specialist:

GA: Can you tell me about your fieldwork methods when collecting seaweeds?

JW: When searching the intertidal zone, we aim to spot all distinct species and collect samples where necessary for identification/voucher preservation. It is important to get an eye in for spotting seaweeds that look different, which probably are (but not necessarily) different species. Observation is the key to finding and recording species diversity. Photos of species in situ and the general habitat are very useful as are notes on observations in the field etc.

 

GA: What do you do with the specimen after it has been collected?

JW: We Identify the samples. We tend to take a microscope and ID book to the field station with us if possible, and work on identifications in the evening before pressing the specimens.

 

GA: Can drawing help to tune the scientist’s observation, benefiting their scientific fieldwork?

JW: Observation is critical in fieldwork as you are trying to visually pick out the species diversity of the group you are looking for against a lot of background ‘noise’. This is where drawing is very helpful and delineation can show important morphology and omit surrounding details. We never have much time as we also have to press the specimens/change wet drying papers etc. So there is no time to do drawings or extensive notes.

 

Shared methods

 

During the trip, the field methods of exploring, observing and collecting were shared by the artist and the scientist. It is the motivations, selection criteria and outcomes of the fieldwork that differentiate what we do.

 

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Diagram showing where artistic and scientific fieldwork methods converge and diverge.

 

As an artist, I identify the morphological subset of forms within the specimen and then re-order and re-classify the specimen through drawing methods. I spend time with the specimen in it’s three-dimensional form, observing and drawing, building on my previous drawing and observational practice. The scientists take lots of photos of the specimen and then process it for the Museum collections, pressing plants into two dimensional forms and pinning insect material.

 

Although observation is still important in many scientific practices, the motivation behind observation in fieldwork is to identify the specimen (to name) and observational drawing is rarely prioritised in contemporary practice. I do not want to name the specimen, but to creatively explore it’s morphology through drawing methods in order to expand what and how I can know about the object.

 

Drawing the ‘uncollected’ fieldwork specimens

 

The collected fieldwork specimens are immediately pressed; their three-dimensional form squeezed into two dimensions before anyone - scientist or artist - has observed them in detail. It becomes clear that there is no time on fieldwork for the scientists to draw the collected specimens, or even for an artist to draw them!

 

But I am still determined to draw what the scientists have collected, and I decide to ask  if I can draw the specimens that  will not be taken back to the Museum - ‘the collected, uncollected’. These specimens, which have been brought together by the scientists, create a very unusual species combination at the field station. They are superfluous to the needs of this field trip, and would otherwise be thrown away as rubbish, so drawing them transforms them into a different material, it is a nice form of recycling!

 

etching-process700.jpgDrawing leftover specimens: the etching process.

 

I draw the specimens together to create a micro environment, where the work of the scientists and the artist combine. As an artist I am interested in how these specimens, which have been valued and subsequently devalued, can be re-valued and re-known through drawing practice; a practice which scientists are valuing less and less in contemporary scientific work.

 

finished-etching.jpgA scan of the finished etching: 'Collected, uncollected'.

 

I have explored these ideas further in my recent research paper ‘Endangered: A study of the declining practice of morphological drawing in zoological taxonomy’ (Published by Leonardo Journal, MIT Press 2013). I focus on the established drawing practice of three zoologists at the Natural History Museum in relation to my own drawing practice, adapted to the camera lucida device.

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson, an artist and PhD researcher who accompanied Musuem scientists on a field work trip to the Isles of Scilly between 17 and 23 August 2013.

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At the field station on St. Mary’s I find Martin Honey, an entomologist who works on lepidoptera. He shows me his moth trap, which is a circular vessel filled with empty egg cartons with a glass lid and a large light bulb in the middle (in other words, it looks a bit like a big rice cooker with a light bulb sticking out of the top!).

moth-trap-600.jpgMartin's moth trap in a shady area at the field station. Awaiting winged nighttime visitors.

 

Martin tells me that when he switches on the bulb - which is mainly ultraviolet light - at night, the moths are attracted and once inside, they can rest on the egg cartons until he collects them in the morning. Martin keeps the trap in shady places so that the moths don’t get too hot in the sunlight. He shows me a few specimens that are inside and says he has just freed quite a lot so if I come back tomorrow he will keep some for me to draw.

 

Martin shows me a specimen that he has put to sleep with a special liquid. The moth’s wings are closed, and I ask how the wings are kept open as we see in the museum collections. This proves to be a good question...

 

In the field work room we find Martin's microscope and a few dozen moth specimens. He tells me that the wings are set by hand, and proceeds to show me how this is done. He carefully takes a moth specimen with forceps and places it under the microscope alongside some pins, which are so small they are almost invisible!

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Moth specimens and pins at the microscope, ready for setting.

 

Martin looks down the microscope, controls the instrumental pins with forceps and begins to slowly open the wings… he arranges the legs at 45 degrees and makes sure the antennae are forward, then slowing impresses the pins into the foam to hold the posture that he has now created for the moth specimen. He makes it look effortless and I am inspired, it is really quite an artful practice.

 

Martin tells me he learned to set moth wings by hand at the Museum, and I am intrigued to hear more:

GA: Are all entomologists at the NHM expected to do this in their job description?

MH: Some people just cannot do this, it requires too much dexterity.

GA: So some scientists can do it, but are people employed just to do the setting, and in the past, has the NHM employed setting staff?

MH: Yes - there used to be a special room called the setting room in the NHM, and specially trained people just did that work. Now there are specialist setters in Prague, they are not scientists but mostly amateur entomologists. I may send the larger specimens there depending on their number and I might do some setting work when I retire, and challenge the Prague group!

live-specimens-550.jpgMartin gives me four live moth specimens found on St.Mary's. I will draw them and let them go afterwards.

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson, an artist and PhD researcher who accompanied Musuem scientists on a field work trip to the Isles of Scilly between 17 and 23 August 2013.

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At 10am I find Mark Spencer and Jacek Wajer on St. Mary's south beach identifying a plant specimen with a field guide. The Isles of Scilly are the northernmost habitat for a number of plant species, including aeoniums, which originate from the Canary Islands and were introduced in the 1850’s as a garden plant. But it is not the garden plants that Mark and Jacek are interested in, it is the weeds.

 

While we root around in flower beds by the south beach, local authorities jokingly suggest that they could do with a bit of weeding. "Save us some effort!" they say. Mark tells them about the Museum's work and assures them that we will indeed be helping remove some of the unwanted plants. The three of us continue to nosy around in the flower beds.

mark-bagging-weeds.jpgBy the south beach on St. Mary's, Mark Spencer approaches weeding with more enthusiasm than most.

 

We find lots of interesting weeds and some fungi, and I find a small succulent weed which Mark says may never have been recorded at St. Mary's before. The specimens we select show a good representation of the whole plant in maturity; flower, leaf, all salient features that are necessary to qualify for the herbarium. The morning’s collections are then bagged and tagged, each labelled with who collected it, the location, the date and the species. It may take up to six months for the specimens to be dried, prepared and mounted on a herbarium sheet, at which point they finally become part of the Museum’s collections.

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Unidentified succulent weed found by Gemma Anderson in a flower bed near St. Mary's beach. A possible first record of this species for the area.

 

We then carry the bagged plants back to base for sorting. Delicate specimens are prioritised, and the specimens are left to wilt overnight in a flower press until herbarium paper is brought on Monday.

 

At 4pm we leave the base and walk to the east of St. Mary's, plant spotting in hedges along the way. Jacek spots another possible new plant record for the Isles of Scilly, and we immediately press the specimen in my sketchbook before continuing along footpaths, small lanes, fields and coastal paths. We finally come to gorse land in wave formations, a micro landscape which Mark tells us is an endangered environment. There is an unusual mix of white and purple heather and a folkloric atmosphere as a rainbow emerges overhead.

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An unusual mix of white and purple heather on the Heathland, St.Marys.

 

I ask Mark if the walk is part of his method: to orientate, to locate, and to formulate ideas and questions. He replies ‘yes, very much so’. I had taken an observational walk the evening before for the very same reasons; as artist and scientist, this method is essential to the beginning of our fieldwork.

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson, an artist and PhD researcher who accompanied Musuem scientists on a field work trip to the Isles of Scilly between 17 and 23 August 2013.

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Between 17 and 23 August 2013, some of our scientists were back on the Isles of Scilly to carry out more of their studies. This time, instead of someone from the Nature Live team, they were accompanied by an artist and PhD researcher, Gemma Anderson, and she has been keeping a diary of the trip:

 

Arrival


It is wet and windy and the rain soaks the decks of the Scillonian 3 as it departs Penzance for St. Mary’s. After a bumpy ride with many tales of seasickness, we arrive into a foggy and rainy St. Mary’s to begin the Museum’s August fieldwork trip. We are assured that the weather will get better tomorrow!

 

Artist on a scientific fieldwork trip?

 

Artists and scientists are interested in how Earth has been shaped by the forces of nature, and my research addresses how we engage with and observe the natural world. I am here to observe the scientists’ field methods, and to explore possible ways of constructing records across scientific disciplines.

 

The ‘field’ can be anywhere, it has no geographical or physical bounds; it is defined by those who go there to investigate, study or commune with nature. In this case the field is the islands of St. Marys and St. Agnes, and the people are botanists, entomologists and an artist.

 

18-08-13-2-650-wide.jpgCareful observation and recording of flora and fauna are important skills for both artists and scientists studying the natural world.

 

The traditions of recording: enquiry, careful observation, patience and arduous experimentation, perseverance in the face of monsoons and parasites (or massive arts cuts!) are shared by artists and scientists. Fieldwork mixes scientific pursuits with exposure to new terrain, languages and peoples and has an inseparable aspect of adventure, from which a narrative of the field has also emerged.

 

I have previously participated in this narrative as artist-in-residence in the Galapagos Islands, Poustinia Jungle Park (Belize) and rural Japan, where I practiced the field methods of exploration, collection, observation and recording, although the selection criteria and motivations differ considerably to those of the scientists.

 

Although the focus of my artwork is the morphology of species in the specific location, my approach to the ‘field’ equally values observing and interacting with the people, so culture is just as important. My artistic practice is also a part of this narrative and asks questions about natural form and morphology. Isomorphology is the study of the shared forms of animal, mineral and vegetable species through drawing practice. As part of this research I have been working with Natural History Museum scientists and collections since 2005.

 

Documenting the art of natural history

 

Fieldwork is important because of the immeasurable diversity of life, but also because of the human experiences that inevitably arise through study, adventure, and sightings that take place in the field. Record-keeping and field notes exist as a critical component of the study and experience of the field.

 

I will be emphasizing the role of drawing within these practices, both as a way of recording memories and as a way of experiencing the natural world. The act of drawing can heighten our awareness and sensitivity to the natural environment, changing the way that we see and feel the world around us. Seeing the natural wealth in our environment and our relation to it, can enrich the quality of our lives.

 

“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful." Jules Henri Poincare

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson.

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Today started dull and overcast - grey and gloomy - but we weren’t going to let the weather get us down because this morning we did our first, live video conference from the field with schools. Students from all over the country get to talk with our scientists and ask questions about what they are doing here in the Isles of Scilly.

 

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Tom chatting to Mark during a video conference with students at a primary school.

 

In the first VC, primary school students got to meet Mark Spencer, the botanist of the group and team leader, and Jon Ablett, Curator of Molluscs. Mark did a small tour of the wild flowers we can find here, explaining that the Isles are located at a crossroads between Mediterranean plants and northern ones.

 

The relatively mild climate of the islands mean that plants that are usually more typical of Mediterranean countries find a home here, while for other species, the Isles mark their southern-most limit. It’s an overlapping landscape, which is a delight for us to experience, and a joy for the many species of insects and birds who pollinate these plants.

 

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Museum scientists taking in the beautiful scenery, while Holger Thues (far left) is distracted by a rock covered in lichen!

 

Jon Ablett showed some of his slugs and talked about innovative ways of preserving specimens for the Museum’s collection, while the white vapours of liquid nitrogen made Mark and Tom (who was hosting the event) feel even more cold. Jon is looking mainly for land snails, but will also try to fish for some octopus and squid as we are not sure which species live in these waters. Keep an eye on this blog to find out what he discovers!

 

The secondary school students had the chance to meet lichen curator Holger Thues. Holger explained that lichens are composite organisms (comparable to corals), meaning they are a combination of a fungus and an algae living side-by-side in a symbiotic relationship (i.e. they both benefit from one another). Lichens are incredibly important indicators of the environment around them and are often used to study changes in the atmosphere and air pollution.

 

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Orange lichen on a rock, but how did it get its nutrients?

 

The orange lichen in the photo above only exists in places with high levels of nutrients, you will see them near the sea where the wind itself is loaded with nutrients. However, if you see them on a rock in land, wait and with time you’re more than likely to see a bird arrive ...  you’ll soon find out how the nutrients arrived there!

 

Thanks to all the schools for their many questions during the video conferences, it was great to speak to you all!

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We have settled in to island life on the Isles of Scilly. Our digs for the next two weeks are an old bunker in the south western corner of St Mary’s with a wonderful view across to St Agnes. It is quiet and beautiful and we are surround by the spectacular atlantic ocean.

 

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The view out onto the Atlantic Ocean

 

Our trip is part of a project led by Mark Spencer, Senior Curator of the British and Irish Herbarium at the Natural History Museum. The Isles of Scilly are a unique and stunning environment and they contain common and rare and (in some cases) invasive species - Mark’s work here aims to enrich the Museum's collection of British and European plants and animals with recent material.

 

This will fill gaps in our collections and make sure they cover a continuous span of time right up to the present day. Often, we don’t know how a collection will be used in future and they can play a key role in research. By keeping a collection like the one at the Museum, we have access to the information locked inside the specimens which could be used to answer questions on environmental change and other, similarly huge issues in the future.

 

The rest of the science team are arriving later in the week so, as an introduction to the island (and to find something to eat), Mark led us on a foraging tour of St Mary’s.

 

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Mark Spencer looking for plants on St. Mary's to cook for supper

 

We found a whole host of amazing (and delicious) species, more than enough for supper. It should be said that we found a lot more edible species that we didn’t collect. It is important to understand a plant's role in the ecosystem and environment and some plants were too rare, or delicate to collect. Mark has an excellent knowledge of the local flora and it is important to really understand an area before harvesting anything from the wild as well as having permission for anything you want to collect.

 

 

I think it is safe to say if you’re in doubt, leave it in the ground. Not only does this protect the environment but also saves any potential poisoning (so don't try this at home unless you know what you are doing!). We passed lots of species that are absolutely deadly including whole fields of hemlock water dropwort, which is exceptionally poisonous.

 

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The exceptionally poisonous hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) - not part of our supper later in the day!

 

Having said that, when in the company of an expert like Mark, the natural world explodes with interest and intrigue. Every plant has story and history and a whole world of edible possibilities is opened up.

 

scilly-day-1-image-4.jpgThe basis of our supper, all harvested from the wild.

 

Later in the day we cooked up our foraged plants - finding things that are good, or interesting, to eat is always great fun and the meal at the end of the day was blooming delicious.

 

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For the next two weeks I am fortunate to be joining a Museum field trip to the Isles of Scilly, 30 miles off the southwest corner of Cornwall. Alongside my Nature Live colleague Ana Rita Rodrigues and Media Technician Tony Vinhas, we will be reporting back from the trip in daily posts and organizing live-video-links to for 4-days-worth of Nature Live events in the Museum's Attenborough Studio.

 

If you want to experience the project live and direct come to the Attenborough Studio for one of the following events, and keep checking the blog for updates:

 

 

All the events are are free to attend (as is entry to the Museum) and each will last 30 mins. You’ll be able to see and talk live to scientists in the field, see specimens collected during the trip and meet a Museum scientist in the studio.

 

The team in the Isles of Scilly comprises scientists studying topics as varied as flowering plants, fishes, lichens and flies! I will introduce the different scientists and their areas of specialism over the coming days but for now - to set the scene - here are some photos the trip's leader, Mark Spencer, took last time he visited the islands.

 

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They are clearly exceptionally beautiful, a fact that makes the involvement of the National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty even more pertinent and this collaborative project will strive to further our understanding of these incredible islands.

 

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I am so excited to be visiting the islands and to be accompanying the team. Spending any time with our scientists is an education in the natural world and two weeks exploring a stunning part of the world with such experts is a very exiting prospect. On a more personal note, I am also very pleased to be able to relive one of my Dad’s dinner time stories. Many a family meal have been the forum for a retelling of the old man’s ‘best ever, EVER dream. In his own words ...

 

‘At some point it the 70s, or was it the 80s(?), I was in Bryher in the Isles of Scilly. Half way through a walk around the island I lay down on the beach for a nap. During the dream that followed I became a professional tennis player and managed, against all odds, to win Wimbledon. Having raised the trophy and flushed with pride, I woke up and finished my walk.'

 

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Some say he [my dad] never fully woke up from that nap on the Isles of Scilly ...

 

See you again next week when we will all have arrived!

 

Tom

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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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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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