A James Madison University (JMU) professor takes his students on an international collaborative adventure to document the amphibian and reptile biodiversity of Borneo.
I have always felt I was born about 100 years too late. When I am out doing my fieldwork in the tropics of Southeast Asia, I wonder what it would have been like to be in Borneo with Alfred Russel Wallace in the 1850s–60s. How different would it have been? How similar? What am I seeing that he didn't? What did he see that I will never encounter?
As an educator and researcher, I’m engaged in training the next generation of taxonomists, ecologists, and citizen scientists. How do we best do this? First, we introduce them to biodiversity. We challenge them to become observers, to question things, and become problem solvers. We provide them with tools to address their questions and facilitate their exploration of the natural world. Then, we watch with great expectation that they well surpass our efforts and understanding.
During the summer of 2016, a team of students and researchers from the Smithsonian Institution, James Madison University (JMU), the Universiti of Brunei (UBD), and Sabah Parks worked to document and study the amphibian and reptile diversity at two focal locations Brunei Darussalam and the Malaysian state of Sabah.
In Brunei, 16 students from JMU and UBD participated in a 3-week field course where they learned field sampling techniques, experimental design, and the challenges of conducting research in the field where so many variables are unpredictable. In Sabah, a small team of U.S. and Malaysian researchers worked to document the herpetofaunal diversity in Crocker Range National Park, an important, but poorly studied UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere (MAB) reserve site.
With the support of the Global Genome Initiative, a collection representing 40 genera and 81 different species was made and is now being DNA barcoded and studied. In addition to the specimens collected, notes on natural history, ecology, and behavior were recorded. Photographs were taken of nearly every specimen in life, documenting colors, textures, and the nuances of the living specimen that might be lost in preservation. Amphibians were swabbed to check for the presence of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a fungus linked to amphibian die-offs around the globe, but not yet documented in northern Borneo.
Tadpoles in the fast-flowing Bornean streams have evolved oral discs that allow them to “stick” to rocks in the current. This life stage of amphibians is poorly understood and the tadpoles of many species have not yet been described. Our project will use barcoding to match the DNA of adults with tadpoles in an effort to further our understanding of the natural history and evolution of amphibians.
Borneo offered us amazing opportunities to observe, discover, and understand a small part of the island’s diversity! The fantastic herpetofauna included giant toads at the river edge with eyes that shone in our head lamps and frogs that communicate visually by waving their feet because they live around noisy waterfalls where calls alone are hard to hear. We also were fortunate to encounter Hornbills with their equally distinctive beaks and calls, and troops of long-tailed macaques moving gracefully through the trees along the rivers, and pairs of gibbons singing their duets to signify to the community that they are a couple. Borneo is truly a living laboratory. Borneo is paradise.
By David S. McLeod, edited by GGI Staff.