Practicalities of Tropical Field Ecology

Three months of field work in Borneo. What should be expected? The name Borneo conjures up images of enchanted primary rainforest, pockets of forest that have managed to endure and remain unscathed, huge tropical trees extending up to the heavens, an array of unusual, exotic wildlife from brightly coloured birds to venomous snakes and the charismatic orangutans. All those images are correct apart from one: unfortunately there are no orangutans in Maliau where my field work is based. However there are a number of other images that should sit alongside the others when it comes to field work. Fluorescent leach socks; long sleeved shirts soaked in sweat; mosquito bites; sample bags; hold-all bags brimming with equipment including a handheld augur, reels of flagging tape, duct tape, electrical tape, cellotape, tape measures, and any other tape you could name; plastic tubes of an array of shapes and sizes; ziplock bags; forceps; petri dishes and various other paraphernalia. Ecology does not always demand the most technical equipment.

The suspension bridge leads into Maliau Basin Conservation Area
The suspension bridge leading into Maliau Basin Conservation Area

The practicalities of tropical field work ecology are not all glamour and adventure. Truly there is little glamour, some adventure and lots of preparation. Chasing a paper trail to obtain permits, traipsing around shops to buy obscure but vital items of equipment, lots of design, manufacture and the inevitable setbacks. Experimental field ecology generally requires the ability to construct. Be it traps, exclusion devices or receptacles to hang various monitoring devices. The ability to construct is a skill that is slowly eroded away by hours, days, weeks, years even sat at a desk intellectualizing, philosophizing and musing over questions, theorems and data. The scientific researcher’s efforts at bringing the envisaged device to life is consistently eclipsed by the creations of the local research assistant. The researcher is frequently dependent on their local assistant not only to bring those ideas to fruition but in the collection of data. Under the guise of various names: research assistants, field assistants, guides, they are the unreferenced cornerstones of many research projects.

Musa, my dependable research assistant, makes light work of setting various traps and monitoring devices along the tree trunk and into the canopy
Musa, my dependable research assistant, makes light work of setting various traps and monitoring devices along the tree trunk and into the canopy. Without help there is no way that I could set as many traps or sample so many trees.

My general aim is to collect arthropods. Specifically ants that live under the ground and ants, termites and beetles that live up in the canopy. Sounds straight forward enough. Preparation and sample collecting commenced and so did 12-14 working hour days. What could possibly take so much time? 1) Preparation: drying and weighing 360 wooden blocks, making 360 mesh bags, hours spent heating wire to pierce through 144 plastic cups to make arboreal ant traps, even more hours spent drilling holes in 120 plastic tubes to make subterranean ant traps, locating suitable trap sites (safe trees to climb), labelling all traps clearly, devising sampling schedules and more organisation. 2) Deploy the traps: a) bore deep holes into the ground and b) climb 35-50 m trees; neither easy tasks in high heat, high humidity, with hard soil that is crowded with roots and trees harbouring bees nests or other surprises. 3) Collect the traps: a) dig the traps out of the ground and b) climb again. 4) Sort through the samples: hundreds to rinse, to view under the binocular microscope and to store in alcohol. 5) Preparation again: wash all traps and collection devices to deploy again. The mundane practicalities of tropical field ecology that are not advertised.

The wildlife is the inevitable draw of Bornean rainforests. The wildlife can also be a hindrance to success or comfort. I hear the constant warning of ‘be careful of the venomous snakes’ when going to the tropics.  I have spent more than 50 weeks in tropical rainforests. Over that time period I have been accompanied by more than 200 students and over 100 guides or other researchers exploring and working in remote areas of rainforest. Not a single snake bite have I ever encountered and long may that remain with continued care. There is the inevitable mosquito bites and potential parasites or microbes that will upset the stomach, however consideration should be given to the wily ways of other wildlife. Wild pigs have so far done their best to hamper my research. The first deployment of 90 subterranean traps were dug up: pigs 1 – researcher 0. Take two, chicken wire is pegged tightly over the traps and hidden, pigs still destroy 80% of traps: pigs 2 – researcher 0. Take three, heavy metal sheets pegged over the traps and partially buried under soil: outcome – yet to be determined. This field site is the most luxurious I have had the pleasure of staying at, equipped laboratories, a shower, flushing toilets and a well-stocked kitchen which has not gone unnoticed. A Malay civet has become a frequent night time raider of our food stores. Food left out on the table and the door left open, too easy: Malay civet 1 – researchers 0.  Door shut, food put away where possible, still…Malay civet 2 – researcher 0. It has even begun to prowl around outside just as night falls, no longer waiting for the house to fall asleep. As for ants in the kitchen it is always a losing battle in shared accommodation in the tropics. Camping may be more difficult to prepare and sort samples but I am reminiscing that it was perhaps the cleanest way to live in the tropics.

Prime suspect (and his croonies) in the destruction of my subterranean ant traps
Prime suspect (and his comrades) in the destruction of the subterranean ant traps

The practicalities of mine that I mention here are not in any way a deterrent to tropical field ecology. The constant problem solving is a key scientific and useful life skill. Satisfaction is found in finding a way to answer the research question posed regardless of the obstacles presented and some of the tiresome tasks required to get there. Furthermore the environment is more beautiful and more stimulating than any of those images that the word ‘Borneo’ invokes. Three months of field work in Borneo. What should I expect? The unexpected.

Field work does contain many fun and adventurous aspects such as climbing the huge dipterocarp trees
Field work does contain many fun and adventurous aspects such as climbing the huge Dipterocarp trees


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