Garden blogs

Science in the rainforest of Borneo


I’m one of the National Botanic Garden of Wales’ two new Science interns, but before my work at the Garden began I had the amazing opportunity to join a combined National Botanic Garden of Wales and IBERS at Aberystwyth University Field Course to the rainforests of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo – possibly the most exciting start to a placement year I could imagine!

The Garden works with Aberystwyth University and Cardiff University to carry out research at the Danau Girang Field Centre (which is run by Cardiff University and Sabah Wildlife Department) in Borneo. The Field Centre is situated by the Kinabatangan River, which was once surrounded by a vast floodplain of rainforest that now exists as a narrow corridor along both sides of the river (protected as a Wildlife Sanctuary), surrounded by oil palm plantations. This expansion of the oil palm industry has led to large amounts of fragmentation of the rainforest, breaking up its diverse wildlife habitats. This puts at risk many species that are already endangered, such as orangutans, sun bears and pygmy elephants.

Our trip to the Field Centre had the aim of comparing the young sapling trees and adult trees within different areas of the rainforest and, given the fragmentation of the forest, to investigate how the forest will regenerate in the future. Tree saplings can often look very different to their adult counterparts, so we collected samples from both adult and sapling trees that we will DNA barcode here at the Garden.  This will enable us to identify corresponding adult and sapling trees to improve tree identification when working in the field in the future.

Our work involved visiting four different plots of rainforest within the surrounding area, each very different in their ecology.  At the first two plots we took samples from both the adult trees and the saplings to establish which species were present in the plot. We also took samples that we will analyse to discover the diversity of saplings within the plot – how many of each species is present.

The third and fourth plots we sampled were a little different to the first two. These plots are called ‘regeneration plots’ and are the outcome of hard work from the local community, an organisation called KOPEL and Cardiff University. They have reclaimed land next to the Kinabatangan River that had been illegally encroached upon by oil palm companies. It was amazing to see these plots, the first only three years on since rainforest tree species had been replanted, with trees already almost forming a closed canopy. The final plot had a completely different variety of tree and sapling species, as the replanting method was experimentally different.

All the samples we have taken will be DNA barcoded in the next few months at the Garden, in our Science department. This new data will be added to the last two years of DNA barcodes. The samples will also be processed and become part of our herbarium collection here at the Garden, another valuable resource for scientists to use now and in the future.

Our research in identifying tree species that thrive in certain conditions within the rainforest (such as the first two plots sampled) will provide vital information that can be used in the replanting of regeneration plots elsewhere in the rainforest, so that resources and effort can be more efficiently directed.

This is of course just one use of the open science data we will produce from our samples. Many other current and future researchers worldwide will be able to use our data to further their research, such as Valentine Thiry, PhD student at Université Libre de Bruxelles. Her work uses our DNA barcodes to help analyse the diets of proboscis monkeys, an endangered primate species only found in Borneo.