The third biggest island in the world (after Greenland and New Guinea), Borneo is one of the most biologically diverse places in the known universe. Charles Darwin described it as, "one great luxuriant hothouse made by nature for herself". Most lowland areas have been deforested, and selective logging presses farther into the hills every week. But because of its sheer size and inaccessibility, parts of Borneo's interior remain intact. Interestingly, we're finding that many rainforest mammals are quite resilient to selective logging and, where they're not excessively hunted, can do just fine in disturbed forest. The exceptions are many carnivores, which do seem to require old-growth. But the biggest threat to Borneo forests is the expansion of agriculture, particularly oil palm. Malaysia and Indonesia (the two countries that make up most of Borneo) are the biggest producers of palm oil in the world, and it is an important commodity in their economic portfolios. I am working with partners to help ensure that oil palm development can occur with the least impact on biodiversity. There are also countless opportunities to learn more about ecology and evolution from studying the under-explored plants and animals of this region. My lab and I have worked at a number of sites in Sarawak and Sabah.
This shows the seven sites where I have conducted extensive wildlife surveys using motion-triggered "camera traps". The proportion of camera locations in each area in logged and unlogged forest is shown in red and green, respectively. Four of the sites are protected areas such as national parks or conservation areas. But even some protected areas, such as Hose Mountains and Maliau Basin, have had portions that were heavily logged. The other three sites, Ulu Baram, Ulu Padas, and Ulu Trusan, are not currently protected. Ulu Trusan has been recently (and heavily) logged, but the other two sites still retain substantial intact forest. Wildlife abundance and diversity in the Ulu Padas region was possibly the highest of anywhere that I worked, showing that even unprotected areas still can have substantial conservation value, and need to be part of our overall strategy for biodiversity protection. These (and other) unprotected sites can also help form "habitat corridors", to ensure that wildlife can continue to disperse between the protected areas.
This is a large island shaped like a four-armed starfish. Though just to the east of Borneo, it is separated by a deep ocean trench that many organisms have been unable to cross. Indeed this trench forms part of "Wallace's Line", named after the great naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace (one of my heroes), that separates two of the major zoographic divisions on earth. Borneo and the other "greater Sunda Islands" (Sumatra and Java) are on the Sunda continental shelf and were recently (i.e. during the Pleistocene, 10,000 years ago) connected to mainland Asia. New Guinea and some it its surrounding islands are on the Sahul Shelf along with Australia. But in between lies Wallacea, the region at the crossroads of Asia and Australasia. Sulawesi is the largest island in Wallacea, and honestly should actually be considered a separate tropical realm all of its own. Unlike the rest of Wallacea, it has primates (an endemic radiation of macaques and one of tarsiers), carnivores (a single endemic palm civet), and ungulates (two endemic pigs and two endemic dwarf water buffalo). But unlike Asia it has marsupials (two species of cuscus). So clearly it's a pretty fascinating place biogeographically! What really makes it a great place to work is that, while the vertebrate fauna is highly unique, the tree taxa and environmental conditions are not very different from either Borneo to the west or the other Wallacean islands to the east. This provides a great natural experiment to look at animal community assembly, and the ecology and evolution of plant-animal interactions. For now, I am working with the Macaca Nigra Project in northern Sulawesi, and Operation Wallacea in the far southeast, providing training in wildlife survey techniques, the design of seed dispersal studies, and climate change monitoring. I'm also working to get research permits for field work in several remote forests in the center of the island.
The next large island to the east of Sulawesi, Halmahera has the same weird shape as its larger neighbour, with four long peninsulas radiating from a central core. Halmahera is the largest of the Mollucca Islands, the famous "spice islands" from which nutmeg and cloves originated. The human history of the region is utterly engrossing, and the natural history even more so. Halmahera is in the heart of "Wallacea", completely lacking native ungulates, primates, carnivores, and squirrels, but with such Australasian elements as marsupials (a single endemic cuscus), cockatoos, and the only two bird-of-paradise species to have made it off the Sahul Shelf. But once again the forests and environmental conditions are not all that different (though much less species-rich) than those of both Borneo and New Guinea. So this is the third survey point along my transect of the Indo-Malay archipelago. I'm not aware of any other research efforts or conservation groups working here (though please contact me if you know of any!). I'm partnering with a private ecotourism company to do some wildlife surveys in their forests. This will provide important baseline data, as well as providing a critical piece of my larger biogeographic transect puzzle. I'm also hoping to work with Indonesian partners to start some large-scale plant-animal interaction work.
New Guinea is the other end of the line, the eastern endpoint of the Indo-Malay archipelago. I'm working here to assess vertebrate communities to see whether they converge -in terms of biomass, food web structure, predator/prey ratios, etc- with vertebrate communities to the west of Wallace's Line where environmental conditions are similar but zoogeographic history is vastly different. I'm also looking at the evolution of fruit traits across the Wallace Line -as Asian tree genera spread east, losing their original mammalian seed dispersers, did they evolve new fruit morphology or chemistry to attract new dispersers and repel new predators? Stay tuned!