Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Grass that Cries Pearls, Wearing Ferns, Rhinos, and Eating Ears!

With Research Officer Mr. Alex Lee at
Sarawak Biodiversity Centre
Community Plant Collections 
Before we head off to the rainforest stations at Imbak Canyon & Danum Valley, let's take time to explore some wild adventure at Sarawak Biodiversity Centre! There is always something interesting and unexpected that pops up there --- no doubt drawn to the beautiful surroundings and the boundless energies & good vibes of everyone at the centre.

Later in May SBC will host an "Open House" and invite the general public to come and see the facilities and get a sense of just how important and useful native plants and animals really are. The centre sets up displays & activities and gears the event toward participation and skill demonstration - when people see the actual process (as opposed to just seeing an object) of  something being made, or do something themselves, they will enjoy and remember it more.  One activity scheduled is making jewelry.  This skill uses a needle & thread, a pretty ribbon and seeds of a certain grass (Coix lacryma-jobi) -- also called Job's Tears. This grass has a teardrop-shaped pearly grain  and has been used as an ornament ( & an ingredient in making beer!) for quite some time. It is an ancient cultivar, from India & Myamar brought over to native peoples of Malaysia around 1000 BC.  

Angelina Nguan, one of the talented expert staff at SBC, is handling the task of piercing the grains and festooning the ribbon with pearly tears. In an earlier blog, you have seen her work -- an example of  her woven stitchery on an herbarium specimen.

"You have to be very vicious."

Job's Tears Jewelry

Lygodium sp.

Another demonstration will be weaving jewelry out of native ferns! The fern in this case is a species of Lygodium, a long trailing fern that climbs trees whenever it gets the chance.

Perparing the fern is an involved process: the long stipes (leaf stalks) must be skinned & soaked  to make them flexible, then cut to the right size. The weaving itself interlaces the stips around a piece of twine. It is not easy (especially for those of us with 10 thumbs) but Angelina makes it look efffortless and creates a subtle and elegant band of braided fern.

The finished product!

Mischievious Asha Kaushal 
photobombs a ticklish moment 
at a rhinoceros beetle meet-and-greet

One afternoon, at a delicious post-program outdoors reception tiffin, Asha Kaushal & Margarita Naming, (whom you have seen earlier in this blog), called out "Rhino!"  My eyes were directed to a shiny, jet black shape on the sidewalk.  It was a titanic Rhinoceros Beetle, making his way down the ramp.  Asha picked him up and presented him to me -- and Margarita documented this event for the blog!  Neither of these ladies was even a bit squeamish about admiring this horned wonder, unlike a certain other brilliant but bug- shy scholar, who will remain anonymous, but who ran away and hid until the insect meet-and- greet was over!  

One big beautiful Beetle! 

The beetle, as you can see, was a  remarkable and beautiful creature (especially when compared to the person holding it!), a bit slow but proud, and with a lot of personality! What's not to love?


I never ever thought of myself as a picky eater.  But that is a notion that has dissolved during this visit!  Malaysian food is really good and tasty -- because people are so diverse, the food Is so varied and includes so many different things that you can eat. Not only delicious curries, noodles,  fruits, bakery goods that make you drool, fritters that you can't stop eating, traditional sweets that are too beautiful to eat ( but you are so happy when you DO eat them), tempeh,  delicious vegetables like ferns -- I could go on and on --but it also has food items which I regretfully have been conditioned not to eat. 

I was invited to go out to lunch with 4 brilliant and charming women on the day before we left for the rainforest.  In the van, talk turned to food. Everyone, except taste-conservative yours truly,  was well versed in eating interesting bits -- I saw just how picky I was! For instance, it is difficult for me to eat heads and eyes.  Chicken heads, or duck heads ( with crunchy bills), fish eyes and mammal head parts -- well, I must say, my palate is pretty bland and probably, truth be told, wasteful. (We usually are pretty much vegetarian at home, out of taste preference, though I must admit to an occasional hotdog at Sonic or even (about once a year) a pork chop if we go to Biscuitville. 

I'm sure I've eaten ears before, 
but in a different form...

That day, I was told that pig ear was good.  My hosts ordered the ears for themselves in a kind of brothy stew, with other vegetables and a purée of hot chilis. Asha handed me an ear from her bowl, in a pair of chopsticks, to document this (once-in-lifetime perhaps)  event. It wasn't too big-- kind of tasted a bit like a liquified porkchop. If you've eaten a hotdog at the ballpark, you have probably eaten everything but the oink anyway, so I got off lucky with the pig ear! I'd have to say, I'm not much of an omnivore!

  We just got back from Sabah and are rainforest visits to the research stations at Imbak Canyon & Danum Valley. These are 2 of the largest protected areas of primary, untouched rainforest left in Malaysia. I'll let you know when it is posted!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Back to Bako! Pitcher Plants, Ant Plants, Bearded Pigs, Proboscis Monkeys and Lizards

Iron-laced cliffs at Bako National Park
 Last week we had a chance to re-visit Bako National Park, a wonderful slice of Sarawakian terrain, flora, and fauna. It has a little bit of everything – mangrove swamp, mixed dipterocarp forest, high, dry kerangas (rocky highlands with almost no soil, but rich with Nepenthes), all packed into a peninsula that juts out into the South China Sea. We visited there for a couple of days in 2008, and we were so enchanted that we were anxious to go back!

Bako is about 30 kms from Kuching but seems so much further away. After a bus ride to the village of Bako you board a boat and take a 30 minute thrill-ride to get to the park. It doesn’t have to be a thrill-ride, but when the sea is a little choppy and they talk about aggressive Sarawakian crocodiles on the shore, that is thrilling enough!

The Park headquarters is just off the beach, and is besieged by the three types of monkeys that live in Bako – the mischievous macaques, the luxurious Silver-Leaf Monkeys, and the famous Proboscis Monkeys. Macaques can get into almost anything with zippers, doors, or handles -- and they do! The "Naughty Monkey" sign is very useful!

The first big hike we took was to the top of the keranga on the Lintang Trail. We started out on a boardwalk through a lowland swamp dominated by palms, and then made our way up to the top of the plateau.

Kerenga on the Lintang Trail
Kerangas are open spaces with rocky substrate and thin layers of sandy, acidic soil.  The trees are different and much shorter than in the surrounding, lower forests, and it is a very dry environment -- it’s about the only place in Malaysia where we have seen warnings about starting brush fires.  The main attractions here are plants and ants – there are plants that eat insects, and then there are plants that that become symbiotic homes to insects, namely ants.

Drosera spatulata -- the hungry Sundew!
The keranga at Bako and certain acidic sandy outcrop areas in South Carolina share something in common – the plant Drosera (Sundew) that preys on the tiniest of insects, with its glistening sticky hair-like glands.  This treacherous little ruby is often overlooked in favor of the other carnivores nearby.

Nepenthes rafflesiana
The Asian Pitcher Plant– Nepenthes spp. are vining beauties that come in all different shapes and sizes. This vine generally starts with its larger pitchers close to the ground, & decreases the size of its bug-catching vessels by the time it is hanging from trees and shrubs.  Nepenthes lure unsuspecting insects into their fluid filled pitchers, which are actually modified extended mid-vein tendrils of the leaves [woah!]. Then, the insects can’t get out, and end up as plant food.  Our own, non-vining Pitcher Plants in SC, the (unrelated) Sarracenia, have the same strategy, but in a cone-shaped modified leaf blade.  We had a lot of fun looking at the different kinds and morbidly peeking into their pitchers for victims. (plants gotta eat too! …..)

Nepenthes ampullaria
Nepenthes in the trees

On the kerangas there are also examples of epiphytic “Ant Plants.” These provide shelter for ants, which, in turn, protect the plants from herbivores (and intrusive botanists)! 

Who lives here? Ants!
Hydnophytum sp.

There are several kinds of ant plants but this one, Hydnophytum sp., has a calloused bulb-like base – think of a yam made out of mud, stuck on the side of a tree – with several small branches protruding.

Sea Coconut -- Nypa fruticans

Once we finally got down from the keranga, we wandered the mangrove forests along the beach. Washed up on the sand we found Sea Coconut, the edible fruit of the Nipa Palm (Nypa fruticans), that grows up and down the rivers and streams along the Borneo coasts.

Tacca leontopetaloides

But we found another surprise in a narrow strip of vegetation just off the beach.  A Tacca! Sometimes called Polynesian Arrowroot or “the Bat Flower,” Tacca leontopetaloides is an herb whose leaves look very much like Amorphophallus (Corpse Flower) leaves, but the cluster of flowers is very different. 
Check out the streaming bracts!

The flowers are subtended by curious, dark-colored bracts that hang down like thready streamers.  A starch taken from the tuber of this plant is used as both food and medicine.  I had seen it in books, but hadn’t counted on finding it here – and was, of course, delighted at this pleasant surprise!

Bearded Pigs on the Mangrove beach

We weren’t the only beach combers at Bako that day. The park is roamed by several families of wild boars, the famous bearded pigs.  They are equally at home plowing up the beach with their snouts, or creating wallows (which fill with rain and eventually become frog habitat!) in the jungle interior.  

Male Proboscis Monkey

Everyone comes to Bako hoping to see the famous Proboscis Monkeys, an endangered and protected species found in Borneo only in a few enclaves in Sarawak and Sabah. You’ll recall that we missed them when we were in Maludam National Park. But this time we were so fortunate!

Female Proboscis Monkey
Several small groups of Proboscis Monkeys made their way along the tree-like Pandan plants lining the beach, right in front of the park headquarters.  Each morning and evening, they feed on the tender bases of Pandanus shoots.  The males, especially, have rather large pot-bellies and, of course, they have that distinctive nose!  They were posing in the trees, eating Pandan and even swinging from branch to branch.

Monitor Lizard at Bako
But our discoveries in the vegetation just by the beach weren’t quite finished – we came across this beautiful monitor lizard.  It was casually strolling the undergrowth and was approximately 1.25 meters long from nose to tail tip.  I liked the little markings that looked like Cheerios dotting its exquisite skin!  Such a beautiful creature in such a remarkable place!

Next time we head to a different Malaysian state in Borneo – Sabah, at the North-eastern end of the island.  We’ll be deep in the rainforest at the Imbak Canyon Conservation Area, talking to the staff there about field collection technique and creating an herbarium. Hope you’ll be joining us!