Rainforest ecology

The rainforests of Borneo are some of the oldest in the world. These ecosystems are the most biodiverse places on the planet and contain species that are not found anywhere else.

The Garden organises a field trip to join a research and training facility in a nature reserve in Borneo and contribute to rainforest conservation and research.

The Danau Girang Field Centre is run by Cardiff University and Sabah Wildlife Department. Situated by the lower Kinabatangan River, it is surrounded by varied types of dipterocarp forest.  Not much more than 20 years ago the forest would have covered the whole floodplain. Now, all that remains is a narrow corridor of protected trees surrounded by oil palm plantations.

Palm oil is a common ingredient of everyday items, from biscuits to shampoo. Half of the products on British supermarket shelves contain palm oil. This crop represents an economically important plant, but vast oil palm plantations have a destructive effect on the ecosystem.

Our research in Borneo is focused on the secondary and degraded forest. There are many questions we want to answer. How has logging affected the forest? Are saplings near the forest floor the same species as the adults in the canopy? If not, how is this affecting pollinators, insects and larger animals that are dependent on certain trees?

We need to be able to identify trees to species level, both as adults and saplings, to answer research questions.

There are around 3,000 tree species in Borneo and their identification is a highly specialised skill. Additionally, the saplings cannot be identified to species level as they look so different from the adults.

To tackle this problem we are using DNA barcoding, and starting to build a genetic database of Borneo’s tree species. By looking at the genetics of the identified adult trees we can start to identify the unknown saplings using this information.