Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Trip to the Danum Valley; A Breakfast Guest; Noisy Gibbons, and a Leech!

Looking over the misty clouds in Danum Valley in Sabah, Borneo
Every botanist who goes to Sabah wants to spend time in the Danum Valley --  primary, undisturbed, mostly lowland dipterocarp rainforest. It is famous for its exceptional flora and fauna, and its world-class research center.  There are all sorts of animals there including Bornean pygmy elephants, the very rare Sumatran rhinoceros, orang-utans, sun bears, gibbons, mousedeer, and even clouded leopards. There are also over 270 species of birds at Danum. Of course, with botanist vibes, we didn't see any of those, but we did see leeches!

The road to Danum from Lahad Datu gradually took us through miles of palm oil plantations to logged secondary forests and finally into beautiful untouched rainforest. On the drive in, monkeys playing on the roadside became more frequent, as did the feeling of entering an almost forgotten, isolated part of the world. Once we unpacked our gear in the researchers quarters we began to explore this living laboratory.   

With Mike Bernadus

Danum hosts dozens of researchers every year and they all seek out this man -- Mike Bernadus, the resident botanical expert.  His decades of experience at Danum have made him invaluable.  He's a rarity among tropical botanists -- he is a strong, strong generalist and knows a lot about a wide range of plants and doesn't focus on just one family. He was also a great host and took the time to show us his collection and the facilities there, & even answered our questions about some of the most intriguing plants we saw! 

Voucher collection at Danum

One of the most interesting research projects at Danum is the ongoing work with the Center for Tropical Forest Science (connected with the Smithsonian) that monitors 62 forest plots in 24 countries. They are doing long-term research to study over 6 million trees and 10,000 species. At Danum they store the specimens here in the voucher collection. It's yet another reason -- as if more were needed! -- why herbaria are important!

Alsomitra macrocarpa -- a breakfast guest!
One morning at breakfast I spotted this under the table. At first I thought it was a scrap of a plastic bag until I realized that it was a seed joined to a membranous wing! We took it to Mike and he named it right off -- Alsomitra macrocarpa. This unusual liana vine grows high in the canopy -- 50 or 60 meters high -- and produces a seed pod that gets as large as a football (in fact, some children wear the empty shells on their heads like a helmet)!  Some people call this a "Javan Cucumber'' and believe it or not, it really is in the Cucurbitaceae (the cucumber) family.

Look out below-- Alsomitra macrocarpa pepo!

The pepo (the fruit that contains the seeds) is never really completely sealed (sort of like an open-ended bell) and when the time is right it opens up and hundreds of these shrink-wrapped seeds come fluttering down like cellophane butterfly gliders. They can glide for hundreds of meters, and land all over the forest. This one though, was local: Mike said it was from a vine growing outside his office window!

The Alsomitra seed up close.

Danum is a wonderful place for hiking and trying to match up what you find on the forest floor with the trees and vines that tower all around you. Here's the flower from a tree in the Lecythidaceae family, Barringtonia pendula.

Barringtonia pendula (young) fruit:
note the yellow ''stringy" flowers
about 2/3 down the fruit cluster.

Barringtonia pendula (fallen) flowers

The beautiful, woody vine Poikilospermum suaveolens.
Another very interesting and absolutely beautiful liana is Poikilospermum suaveolens. At times this robust liana appears to be the tree's canopy -- it is only when you take a closer look that you notice it is only a vine on the tree.  This plant is now in the same family as stinging nettles (Urticaceae). I have never seen another plant in that family as beautiful as this!  Like nettles, it is dioecious -- meaning the plant has either all female or all male flowers.  Unlike nettles -- it doesn't sting! 

At this present time there is NO one research work describing the lianas of Borneo, though there are (invaulable!) volumes which describe the trees in this area. It certainly would be the ultimate challenge and a great tool to produce a work like this!  Any takers?

As mentioned above, Danum Valley is a wonderful place to see wildlife -- and, as I also mentioned, we didn't see any!  But we did hear the cries of some male and female gibbons. These wonderful primates are found all over Danum and Imbak. Here's a brief video where there is not much to see; instead, listen to the sounds of the rainforest, the insects and then, near the end, the quickening and increasingly loud cry of a male gibbon -- crank up your audio!

And did I mention leeches earlier? Here's one of the little suckers in action. They stay low to the ground and wait on fallen leaves or on low vines. They are nothing remarkable to see -- they look like striped segments of spaghetti. But they are heat-sensitive, and as soon as some big warm-blooded animal wanders by, they attach themselves to their meal-ticket! The bite doesn't really hurt: it is more like a slight sting that quickly wears off. When the leech has filled up on your blood, they just drop off -- the perfect crime!

But not quite! They inject a mild anti-coagulant into you that makes your blood flow even when they are long gone. You only know you were leeched when you notice all the fresh blood on your pants or socks-- ick! You should always try to say something nice about everyone so how about this -- leeches don't typically carry any diseases! The video is a little blurry -- sorry about that!

Thanks for reading this far! Next blog we go to peninsular Malaysia to visit Malaysia's largest herbarium at FRIM (the Forestry Research Institute of Malaysia), the famous garden at Rimba Ilmu at the University of Malaya, and a very large Hindu shrine set in a massive cave -- come back to check it out!

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