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Field work with Nature Live

34 Posts tagged with the field_work tag
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Today I am observing the fieldwork methods of Museum scientists Jo Wilbraham (algae, including seaweed) and Mary Spencer Jones (bryozoans). We depart on the boat from St.Mary's to St. Agnes at 10.15am in calm waters, under clear blue skies.

 

St. Agnes is a beautiful island, with many interesting locations to collect specimens. We arrive at low tide, which is ideal for finding a diverse range of seaweed and bryozoan specimens. Jo chooses a beach 10 minutes walk east of the quay, where it is possible to wade far out. It takes a while, and some skilled rock climbing to reach where we are going but once we arrive at the tidal interface the diverse range of species is quickly apparent. We see a wide range of seaweeds, sea anemones and polychetes patiently waiting for the tide to come back in and relieve them from the stress of exposure to the mid-day August sunshine.

st-agnes-seaweed.jpgJo Wilbraham examines seaweeds great and small at the beach on St. Agnes.

 

Jo seems quite happy with the spot and comments on the range of species whilst pulling collecting bags and knife out of her pocket and rucksack to begin collecting, making the most of the low tide. The method of exploring and collecting are surprisingly similar to the methods that I use when working in the landscape or on a residency, although the selection criteria and motivation differ considerably. Some of the specimens collected are Furcellaria, Bifurcaria bifurcata and Palmaria palmata.

 

By this point my walking shoes have flooded after being submerged in shin deep seawater and I am inspired to draw some of the collected species on dry land. I am also preparing for the drawing workshop of creative morphology (a method inspired by Goethe’s ‘Delicate Empiricism’) at Phoenix art studios in the evening.

seaweed-field-drawing.jpgDrying out my feet and drawing seaweed specimens on the beach.

 

The free drawing workshop is fully booked, and attendees will be almost exactly half Museum scientists and half St.Marys residents or visitors. Due to the demands of fieldwork some of the Museum scientists are late, which means they have a bit of catching up to do. The workshop builds up observational drawing techniques that prepare the individual for a creative exploration of the morphology of the specimen.

 

Creative morphology drawing workshop

 

The group produce some very interesting drawings and discussions. One scientist remarks that they did not expect drawing to have method, rather that it was something they associated with scientific work. This point was important as it helped the scientist to acknowledge artistic research and methodology.

 

Another scientist remarks that drawing helped them to identify important characters of the specimen, and to engage with it. This was helpful as it led to a discussion of the values of drawing and photography/SEM technologies in scientific work. We end the workshop by considering the relationship between the practice of creative morphology and creative evolutionary processes. 

herbarium-sheet-specimen.jpgSpecimens collected at the beach on St. Agnes are arranged on a herbarium sheet, ready for entering the Museum's collections.

 

After the drawing workshop I put a few questions to Jasmin Perera, an entomologist at the Museum:

GA: Do you feel the method helped you to 'know' or think about the specimen in a new or different way? If so, could you try to describe this difference?

JP: Yes the method did make me think a lot more about the specimen. It made it far more memorable structurally. There are parts that I would never have thought of analysing so much that I now know exist, which is great because I would feel far more confident in identifying the specimen if I came across it in future.

 

GA: Do you feel that the method helped you to deepen your engagement with the specimen?

JP: I think I did engage a lot with the specimen, however I feel I get a similar experience when identifying flies under the microscope as the keys we have to follow go into details as little as the length and direction of the little hairs on their body.

 

GA: Do you think this method could be useful in your scientific or artistic work? If so, how?

JP: I would find this method useful in a scientific environment as it would really make me remember any specimen I came across. Especially by pulling the specimen apart, figuring out all the bits that put it together.

 

After the drawing workshop I visit the Museum field station at the Garrison, St.Mary’s, where I find Jo sorting through the day's collections, soaking and pressing before carefully arranging on a herbarium sheet. The sun is setting, the team is tired and tomorrow awaits...the marvellous world of insects!

 

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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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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It's taken a while for me to get back into the swing of things after my return to London, but at long last here's what happened on the last few, hectic days in Mexico, which included one last day in the field to collect our final samples:

 

A 05:00 start was a harsh way to take on the most challenging climb of the trip but by then Chiara and Dave were ready. Although as they trooped out to the jeep, heavy limbed, it was hard to discern that they knew it. Your devoted reporter remained on the bench in Amecameca on the basis of a four-only-in-the-jeep rule; jealous of the landscapes the rest of Team Popo would see and the last chance at such physical endeavour.

 

I wanted to leave town exhausted but I'd just have to leave educated and elated instead. On writing and curation duties, I was to source rock-packing materials, a somewhat vital task, so was spurred on in the role. In preparation, I demolished huevos rancheros and set off with the sun on my face, a less than ideal command of the language and immense purpose.

 

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Forget what you know about eating fried eggs, tortillas, cream and green chilli sauce at different times.

 

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When riding other animals, it's customary to do it contraflow to heavy traffic. 

 

My insight into the last day of scientific field work on Popo came as the team arrived back at base early in the evening. They looked at the peak of their exhaustion. We dined quietly but when asked how the day went, Dave gave a dazzling smile and explained how in his element he was. 'Where did your energy come from?' I asked. 'I don't know, he replied. It was some kind of euphoria. I just kept on going, following my body rhythms.'

 

Reaching their highest altitude yet of 4,474m, Chiara too had a strong final day in the field. She described how for her, Hugo had set the pace and by 'making small footsteps in his wake', she could maintain the energy to make it. 'Without Hugo, I would have failed,' she said, with what's become her trademark grin and shrug of the shoulders. 

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Hugo: Two steps ahead and a dab hand with a 5kg mallet. He's a field work essential.

 

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Popo: Quietly cultivating a 50-a-day smoking habit.

 

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Beautiful Monarchs converge on an outcrop.

 

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I'll name that layer in one.


Chiara's research will very much depend on the data she generates once she's tested these samples back at the Museum. However, as the week progressed it's clear Dave can already see how his work here will enhance the Museum's collections. The Popo samples from this trip will have context of the type he rarely sees in the collection, with his photographs and field sketches giving an exact visual of the make-up of each outcrop.

 

This, along with the GPS and field notes places the sample more firmly at it's location and - to fully understand Popo - this helps immensely. 'It was also great to get back into making sketches,' he says. 'To be here to collect from the source is invaluable. I have much more to information to offer those wanting to use these collections now.'

 

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Dave tells me his drawings have been 'enhanced' by years of doodling with his two kids.


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Local dining requires rapid response paperware.... In truth, our visit to procure more packaging for the specimens.

 

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Amecameca prepares for a two week festival as we depart (a coincidence?)

 

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I don't know what he's selling but I want one.

 

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Lost Highway: Laden with rocks, Dave and Chiara's taxi takes ten wrong turns too many. Mostly to the right.

 

If any of you have seen the film, The Canonball Run, you will have some insight into the way Mexican highways and byways work. As Chiara and Dave's taxi heads for Mexico City and the beginning of our journey home, we spot a car boot full of people with their legs sticking out, the vehicle swerving between traffic. My palms begin to sweat at the sight.

 

The 90 minute journey extends to a joyful five hours as the taxi gets lost and our Sat Nav diverts us to the more 'exhilarating' - i.e. terrifying - parts of town. A lifetime later, we've booked into our hotel and hit the streets of the busiest city I've ever been to and spend the evening re-living the highs and lows of the trip. The sheer volume of people traffic serves only to remind us of the dangers of Popo, a mere 70 kilometres away. It also makes me think of how vital Chiara's research could one day be in predicting their safety.

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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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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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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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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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