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Field work with Nature Live

7 Posts tagged with the dan_carpenter tag
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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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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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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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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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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.