Mount Kinabalu: A marine biologist lost at forest


I am what every terrestrial expedition needs, the token marine biologist.

butterfly backpack

Butterfly backpack

The initial reactions of participants to my participation in the 2012 Kinabalu/Crocker Range Expedition were ones of surprise (So what’s YOU’re expertise? Really…..marine biology? Sponges? Right….). How I got involved in the expedition is a long story. Suffice it to say that the past year I have been active in the organisation together with expedition leader Menno Schilthuizen and the other organisers in the Netherlands: Vincent Merckx, Constantijn Mennes, and Liew Thor-Seng.

A leach on a leg

A leach on a leg

Now my tasks during the expedition are to coordinate the DNA sampling for analysis after we return. If you think about it, a marine person is perfect for the coordination of the sampling – I’ll show no bias to any group, it is all foreign to me after all. I’ll later write a blog-entry on this DNA work, but for now I’d like to share some first impressions of a novice in a jungle expedition.

I’ll be honest, it’s hard for my untrained eye to distinguish much in the jungle. Everything is pretty much green and leafy. Every day I make a point of walking with different taxonomists, as everyone has eyes specialised to different objects.

Leach socks

Leach socks

Somebody points somewhere and suddenly amazing things materialise out of the sea of leafy green. An orang-utan nest, flies with eyes on stalks like periscopes, myco-heterotrophic plants hidden like needles in a haystack amidst roots and leaves, phallic-shaped fungi, the wonders are truly endless.

For my doctoral research I studied landlocked marine lakes in Kalimantan and Papua, Indonesia (to get an idea here’s my blog). The fieldwork required frequent climbing over ridges covered by sparse lowland tropical vegetation. Because the climbs were relatively short (at max 45min), I kept my wetsuit on during the treks through the light jungle. The wetsuit provides ultimate protection to scratches and particularly to ‘bugs’.

A phallic-shaped fungus

A phallic-shaped fungus

How I wish I could have the protective armor of my wetsuit in this jungle of Sabah, where you are prey to such monsters as leaches. Alas, in wetsuit garb I would expire from overheating before any leach could drain me of blood. Leaches do deserve some special attention in this blog post as they are disturbingly prevalent in some stations and are remarkably fast. Once they feel vibration and sense heat, they hop and skip (truly I can’t describe it any other way) over to their target. Then they try to squiggle through your socks/clothing to get to your skin, generally with success. Success, unless you have these things called ‘leach socks’. To my great stupidity I did not bring any along. Thank you Fred from Sabah Parks for your spare pair!! I never thought I would be so eternally grateful for being able to borrow someone’s used socks!! Here’s a video of two species of leaches I brushed off my arm: competition between a tiger and a buffalo leach (fighting for my blood?).

Though I would preferably SCUBA-dive through the jungle without touching much, it must be said that all the trails I have walked are well maintained and very accessible. In fact, one even encounters steps when it gets a little steep – I suppose this is jungle at its most decadent.

One aspect that seems to be unmistakably part of any fieldwork in the tropics, whether on land or at sea, is the eau de DEET-sweat-mildew that becomes pervasive among participants after a couple of days. On that smelly note, I leave you as I need to get some laundry done before we move to the next station tomorrow.

Photos: all by Lisa Becking, except photo of a leach on a leg by Joris van Alphen

Previously in this series:

Mystery of the Mountain

Mount Kinabalu: First Sight of the Summit

Mount Kinabalu: In the Footsteps of Wallace

Mount Kinabalu: Love and Loathing in the Rainforest

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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