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A marine biologist lost at forest

Posted on 18-09-2012 by Redactie

I am what every terrestrial expedition needs, the token marine biologist. The initial reactions of participants to my participation in the 2012 Kinabalu/Crocker Range Expedition were ones of surprise ("So whats YOUre 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. 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 Ill show no bias to any group, it is all foreign to me after all. Ill later write a blog-entry on this DNA work, but for now Id like to share some first impressions of a novice in a jungle expedition.

Endless wonders

Phallic-shaped fungus. Photo Lisa Becking.

Phallic-shaped fungus. Photo Lisa Becking.

Ill be honest, its 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. 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.

Leaches For my doctoral research I studied landlocked marine lakes in Kalimantan and Papua, Indonesia ( to get an idea heres 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.

Leach on leg. Photo Joris van Alphen.

Leach on leg. Photo Joris van Alphen.

Leach socks. Photo Lisa Becking.

Leach socks. Photo Lisa Becking.

How I wish I could have the protective armour of my wetsuit in this jungle of Sabah, where you are prey to such monsters as leaches. Alas, in wetsuitgarb I would expire from overheating before any leach could drain me of blood. Leaches do deserve some special attention in this blog 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 cant 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 someones used socks!! Heres 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.

Lisa Becking