Saving Bornean Peatlands is a Must For Conservation

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The leading cause of extinction on this planet is loss of habitat. As an ecologist, it pains me to see how frequently this gets ignored. Plants, animals, fungi - literally every organism on this planet needs a place to live. Without habitat, we are forced to pack our flora and fauna into tiny collections in zoos and botanical gardens, completely disembodied from the environment that shaped them into what we know and love today. That’s not to say that zoos and botanical gardens don’t play critically important roles in conservation, however, if we are going to stave off total ecological meltdown, we must also be setting aside swaths of land.

There is no way around it. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. Land conservation must be a priority both at the local and the global scale. Wild spaces support life. They buffer it from storms and minimize the impacts of deadly diseases. Healthy habitats filter the water we drink and, for many people around the globe, provide much of the food we eat. Every one of us can think back to our childhood and remember a favorite stretch of stream, meadow, or forest that has since been gobbled up by a housing development. For me it was a forested stream where I learned to love the natural world. I would spend hours playing in the creek, climbing trees, and capturing bugs to show my parents. Since that time, someone leveled the forest, built a house, and planted a lawn. With that patch of forest went all of the insects, birds, and wildflowers it once supported.

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Scenarios like this play out all too often and sadly on a much larger scale than a backyard. Globally, forests have felt taken the brunt of human development. Though it is hard to get a sense of the scope of deforestation on a global scale, the undisputed leaders in deforestation are Brazil and Indonesia. Though the Amazon gets a lot of press, few may truly grasp the gravity of the situation playing out in Southeast Asia.

Deforestation is a clear and present threat throughout tropical Asia. This region is growing both in its economy and population by about 6% every year and this growth has come at great cost to the environment. Indonesia (alongside Brazil) accounts for 55% of the world’s deforestation rates. This is a gut-wrenching statistic because Indonesia alone is home to the most extensive area of intact rainforest in all of Asia. So far, nearly a quarter of Indonesia’s forests have been cleared. It was estimated that by 2010, 2.3 million hectares of peatland forests had been felled and this number shows little signs of slowing. Experts believe that if these rates continue, this area could lose the remainder of its forests by 2056.

Consider the fact that Southeast Asia contains 6 of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots and you can begin to imagine the devastating blow that the levelling of these forests can have. Much of this deforestation is done in the name of agriculture, and of that, palm oil and rubber take the cake. Southeast Asia is responsible for 86% of the world’s palm oil and 87% of the world’s natural rubber. What’s more, the companies responsible for these plantations are ranked among some of the least sustainable in the world.

Palm oil plantations where there once was rainforest. 

Palm oil plantations where there once was rainforest. 

Borneo is home to a bewildering array of life. Researchers working there are constantly finding and describing new species, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. Of the roughly 15,000 plant species known from Borneo, botanists estimate that nearly 5,000 (~34%) of them are endemic. This includes some of the more charismatic plant species such as the beloved carnivorous pitcher plants in the genus Nepenthes. Of these, 50 species have been found growing in Borneo, many of which are only known from single mountain tops.

It has been said that nowhere else in the world has the diversity of orchid species found in Borneo. To date, roughly 3,000 species have been described but many, many more await discovery. For example, since 2007, 51 new species of orchid have been found. Borneo is also home to the largest flower in the world, Rafflesia arnoldii. It, along with its relatives, are parasites, living their entire lives inside of tropical vines. These amazing plants only ever emerge when it is time to flower and flower they do! Their superficial resemblance to a rotting carcass goes much deeper than looks alone. These flowers emit a fetid odor that is proportional to their size, earning them the name “carrion flowers.”

Rafflesia arnoldii  in all of its glory.

Rafflesia arnoldii in all of its glory.

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If deforestation wasn’t enough of a threat to these botanical treasures, poachers are having considerable impacts on Bornean botany. The illegal wildlife trade throughout southeast Asia gets a lot of media attention and rightfully so. At the same time, however, the illegal trade of ornamental and medicinal plants has gone largely unnoticed. Much of this is fueled by demands in China and Vietnam for plants considered medicinally valuable. At this point in time, we simply don’t know the extent to which poaching is harming plant populations. One survey found 347 different orchid species were being traded illegally across borders, many of which were considered threatened or endangered. Ever-shrinking forested areas only exacerbate the issue of plant poaching. It is the law of diminishing returns time and time again.

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But to lump all Bornean forests under the general label of “rainforest” is a bit misleading. Borneo has multitude of forest types and one of the most globally important of these are the peatland forests. Peatlands are vital areas of carbon storage for this planet because they are the result of a lack of decay. Whereas leaves and twigs quickly breakdown in most rainforest situations, plant debris never quite makes it that far in a peatland. Plant materials that fall into a peatland stick around and build up over hundreds and thousands of years. As such, an extremely thick layer of peat is formed. In some areas, this layer can be as much as 20 meters deep! All the carbon tied up in the undecayed plant matter is carbon that isn’t finding its way back into our atmosphere.

Sadly, tropical peatlands like those found in Borneo are facing a multitude of threats. In Indonesia alone, draining, burning, and farming (especially for palm oil) have led to the destruction of 1 million hectares (20%) of peatland habitat in only one decade. The fires themselves are especially worrisome. For instance, it was estimated that fires set between 1997-1998 and 2002-2003 in order to clear the land for palm oil plantations released 200 million to 1 billion tonnes of carbon into our atmosphere. Considering that 60% of the world’s tropical peatlands are found in the Indo-Malayan region, these numbers are troubling.

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The peatlands of Borneo are totally unlike peatlands elsewhere in the world. Instead of mosses, gramminoids, and shrubs, these tropical peatlands are covered in forests. Massive dipterocarp trees dominate the landscape, growing on a spongey mat of peat. What’s more, no water flows into these habitats. They are fed entirely by rain. The spongey nature of the peat mat holds onto water well into the dry season, providing clean, filtered water where it otherwise wouldn’t be available.

This lack of decay coupled with their extremely acidic nature and near complete saturation makes peat lands difficult places for survival. Still, life has found a way, and Borneo’s peatlands are home to a staggering diversity of plant life. They are so diverse, in fact, that when I asked Dr. Craig Costion, a plant conservation officer for the Rainforest Trust, for something approaching a plant list for an area of peatland known as Rungan River region, he replied:

“Certainly not nor would there ever be one in the conceivable future given the sheer size of the property and the level of diversity in Borneo. There can be as many as a 100 species per acre of trees in Borneo... Certainly a high percentage of the species would only be able to be assigned to a genus then sit in an herbarium for decades until someone describes them.”

And that is quite remarkable when you think about it. When you consider that the Rungan River property is approximately 385,000 acres, the number of plant species to consider quickly becomes overwhelming. To put that in perspective, there are only about 500 tree species native to the whole of Europe! And that’s just considering the trees. Borneo’s peatlands are home to myriad plant species from liverworts, mosses, and ferns, to countless flowering plants like orchids and others. We simply do not know what kind of diversity places like Borneo hold. One could easily spend a week in a place like the Rungan River and walk away with dozens of plant species completely new to science. Losing a tract of forest in such a biodiverse is a huge blow to global biodiversity.

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Nepenthes ampullaria  relies on decaying plant material within its pitcher for its nutrient needs.

Nepenthes ampullaria relies on decaying plant material within its pitcher for its nutrient needs.

Also, consider that all this plant diversity is supporting even more animal diversity. For instance, the high diversity of fruit trees in this region support a population of over 2,000 Bornean orangutans. That is nearly 4% of the entire global population of these great apes! They aren’t alone either, the forested peatlands of Borneo are home to species such as the critically endangered Bornean white-bearded gibbon, the proboscis monkey, the rare flat-headed cat, and the oddly named otter civet. All these animals and more rely on the habitat provided by these forests. Without forests, these animals are no more.

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The flat-headed cat, an endemic of Borneo. 

The flat-headed cat, an endemic of Borneo. 

At this point, many of you may be feeling quite depressed. I know how easy it is to feel like there is nothing you can do to help. Well, what if I told you that there is something you can do right now to save a 385,000 acre chunk of peatland rainforest? That’s right, by heading over to the Rainforest Trust’s website (https://www.rainforesttrust.org/project/saving-stronghold-critically-endangered-bornean-orangutan/) you can donate to their campaign to buy up and protect the Rungan River forest tract.

Click on the logo to learn more!

Click on the logo to learn more!

By donating to the Rainforest Trust, you are doing your part in protecting biodiversity in one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. What’s more, you can rest assured that your money is being used effectively. The Rainforest Trust consistently ranks as one of the top environmental protection charities in the world. Over their nearly three decades of operation, the Rainforest Trust has protected more than 15.7 million acres of land in over 20 countries. Like I said in the beginning, habitat loss is the leading cause of extinction on this planet. Without habitat, we have nothing. Plants are that habitat and by supporting organizations such as the Rainforest Trust, you are doing your part to fight the biggest threats our planet faces. 

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10]

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12]

A Bat-Pollinated Passion Flower From Ecuador

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Say "hello" to one of Passiflora's most recent additions, the bat-pollinated Passiflora unipetala. The first specimens of this vine were discovered back in 2009 by Nathan Muchhala while studying flower visiting bats in northern Ecuador. It is a peculiar member of the genus to say the least. 

One of the most remarkable features of this plant are its flowers. Unlike its multi-petaled cousins, this species stands out in producing a single large petal, which is unique for not only the genus, but the whole family as well. The petal is quite large and resembles a bright yellow roof covering the anthers and stigma. At the base of the flower sits the nectar chamber. The body of the plant consists of a vine that has been observed to grow upwards of 6 meters up into the canopy.

Flowering in this species occurs at night. Their large size, irregular funnel shape, and bright yellow coloring all point to a pollination syndrome with bats. Indeed, pollen of this species has been found on the fur of at least three different bat species. Multiple observations (pictured here) of bats visiting the flowers helped to confirm. Oddly enough for a bat-pollinated plant, the flowers produce no detectable odor whatsoever. However, another aspect of its unique floral morphology is worth noting. 

The surface of the flower has an undulating appearance. Also, the sepals themselves have lots of folds and indentations, including lots of dish-shaped pockets. It is thought that these might help the flower support the weight of visiting bats. They may also have special acoustic properties that help the bats locate the flowers via echolocation. Though this must be tested before we can say for sure, other plants have converged on a similar strategy (read here and here).

As it stands currently, Passiflora unipetala is endemic to only a couple high elevation cloud forests in northern Ecuador. It has only ever been found at two locations and sadly a landslide wiped out the type specimen from which the species description was made. As such, its introduction to the world came complete with a spot on the IUCN Redlist as critically endangered. Luckily, the two localities in which this species has been found are located on privately protected properties. Let's just hope more populations are discovered in the not-too-distant future.

Photo Credits: [1] 

Further Reading: [1]

Tropical Ferns in Temperate North America

All plants undergo some form of alternation of generations. It is the process in which, through reproduction, they cycle between a haploid gametophyte stage and a diploid sporophyte stage. In ferns and lycophytes, this alternation of generations has been taken to the extreme. Instead of the sporophyte relying on the gametophyte for sustenance, the two generations are physically independent and thus separated from one another. In a handful of fern genera here in North America, this has led to some intriguing and, dare I say, downright puzzling distributions.

The presence of a small handful of tropical fern genera in temperate North America has generated multiple scientific investigations since the early 1900's. However, as is constantly happening in science, as soon as we answer one question, seemingly infinite more questions arise. At the very least, the presence of these ferns in temperate regions offers us a tantalizing window into North America’s ancient past.

To say any of these ferns offer the casual observer much to look at would be a bit of an exaggeration. They do not play out their lives in typical fern fashion. These out-of-place tropical ferns exists entirely as asexual colonies of gametophytes, reproducing solely by tiny bundles of cells called gemmae. What's more, you will only find them tucked away in the damp, sheltered nooks and crannies of rocky overhangs and waterfalls. Buffered by unique microclimates, it is very likely that these fern species have existed in these far away corners for a very, very long time. The last time their respective habitats approached anything resembling a tropical climate was over 60 million years ago. Some have suggested that they have been able to hang on in their reduced form for unthinkable lengths of time in these sheltered habitats. Warm, wet air gets funneled into the crevices and canyons where they grow, protecting them from the deep freezes so common in these temperate regions. Others have suggested that their spores blew in from other regions around the world and, through chance, a few landed in the right spots for the persistence of their gametophyte stages.

The type of habitat you can expect to find these gametophytes.

Aside from their mysterious origins, there is also the matter of why we never find a mature sporophyte of any of these ferns. At least 4 species in North America are known to exist this way - Grammitis nimbata, Hymenophyllum tunbridgense, Vittaria appalachiana, and a member of the genus Trichomanes, most of which are restricted to a small region of southern Appalachia. In the early 1980's, an attempt at coaxing sporophyte production from V. appalachiana was made. Researchers at the University of Tennessee brought a few batches of gametophytes into cultivation. In the confines of the lab, under strictly controlled conditions, they were able to convince some of the gametophytes to produce sporophytes. As these tiny sporophytes developed, they were afforded a brief look at what this fern was all about. It confirmed earlier suspicions that it was indeed a member of the genus Vittaria, or as they are commonly known, the shoestring ferns. The closest living relative of this genus can be found growing in Florida, which hints at a more localized source for these odd gametophytes. However, both physiology and subsequent genetic analyses have revealed the Appalachian Vittaria to be a distinct species of its own. Thus, the mystery of its origin remains elusive.

In order to see them for yourself, you have to be willing to cram yourself into some interesting situations. They really put the emphasis on the "micro" part of the microclimate phenomenon. Also, you really have to know what you are looking for. Finding gametophytes is rarely an easy task and when you consider the myriad other bryophytes and ferns they share their sheltered habitats with, picking them out of a lineup gets all the more tricky. Your best bet is to find someone that knows exactly where they are. Once you see them for the first time, locating other populations gets a bit easier. The casual observer may not understand the resulting excitement but once you know what you are looking at, it is kind of hard not to get some goosebumps. These gametophyte colonies are a truly bizarre and wonderful component of North American flora.

Photo Credit: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Central America - Part 2: The Journey to San Vito

The sun was up and burning by 6 AM. We were sweating by the time we arrived at the bus station. I always over-pack. Always. My backpack was loaded with extra clothes and camera gear. Luckily we were in store for a 6 + hour bus ride. The night before didn't do much in the way of helping me catch up on sleep. Alajuela is a loud city. It seemed like none of the cars had mufflers. Every passing hour came complete with multiple car alarms as well. Despite our exhaustion, we were excited to be catching the bus to San Vito. 

We first had to catch a bus into San Jose. It was an interesting process. It was a weekday morning and we quickly got caught up in rush hour traffic. Walking was easy. It would seem that driving in this country takes a whole new set of skills that I simply do not have. There are no street signs and everyone seems to follow some unwritten Darwinian traffic code - only the strongest survive. Trucks and buses move in and out of tiny, crowded streets without hitting the cars sandwiched in between them. Motorcycles and mopeds weave their way through what little space remains. Watching this unfold was an experience unlike anything I had ever encountered. I would surely crumble under these conditions. My pampered American ways had no place on these roads. 

We managed to find the first bus. What should have been a 15 minute commute from Alajuela to San Jose was actually going to be about an hour. Luckily I found myself sitting next to a man names Carlos. His English was perfect, probably better and more formal than my own. Carlos could certainly sense how out of place I was and was kind enough to strike up a conversation. As it turns out, Carlos is a plant scientist working at an agricultural research institute in San Jose. His work centers around making Costa Rican farming more sustainable. His current project involved introducing new potato varieties from Peru into the mix to help transition away from monocultures. 

We talked for a while about his approach to this but his concerns seemed daunting. Like everywhere else in the world, Costa Rica is facing an uncertain future with climate change. Areas that once sustained certain types of farming are no longer able to do so. He made sure to point out every farm along our rout and explain to me what was obviously wrong - huge, chemical-laden coffee plantations, timber lots chock full of invasive eucalyptus trees, and almost no erosion control anywhere, which is clogging up tropical streams with an endless supply of runoff and sediments. 

I could have talked to Carlos all day, however, we had to part ways. I was lucky to have met him. We grabbed a cab to the next bus station. Yet another awkward ride ensued as the kind cab driver did his best to speak in slow, easy Spanish. Within an hour our bus had arrived. We boarded with only a handful of other people. From what I have come to understand, there are two main routs from San Jose to San Vito - one takes you through the mountains and the other takes you down the coast. With my face glued to the window, it soon became apparent that our driver was taking us through the mountains. 

Like a kid in a candy shop, the scenery had my complete attention. The combination of the size of the bus and the elevation that we had to climb meant that the ride was slow enough that I could actually do some botanizing from the window. Again, I had almost no idea what I was seeing. The only plants I was remotely able to recognize were some sort of Dicranopteris fern that covered exposed roadsides and plenty of bamboo orchids (Arundina graminifolia), a species that has naturalized throughout the tropics but was originally native to parts of Asia. The rest quickly became a green blur of tree ferns, palms, and other tropical looking trees. I couldn't wait to explore with someone who knows a thing or two about Costa Rican flora.

We actually made good time considering the length of the trip. In just under 6 hours we were walking down the main path at the Wilson Botanical Garden. Here we were to meet our friend Dave. We found him watering some cacti. Though this was technically the rainy season, they had not received any rain in over a week. Some of the plants didn't quite know what to do. We found our sleeping arrangements for the next few days and were anxious to start exploring. The main grounds of the garden were jaw droppingly gorgeous. There was more plant diversity within a stones throw than anywhere else I have ever been. Dave had some work to finish up so he gave us a map of the grounds and sent us on our way. 

Being completely new to this area, I was a bit wary of what I might encounter. Does Costa Rica have its own tropical version of poison ivy? Was I going to brush up against or touch something that would result in a rash? I asked Dave if there was anything I should avoid and he had only one response, caterpillars. "Don't touch any of the caterpillars. Some can totally ruin your day." Noted. 

Being much closer to the equator than New York, we had to get used to the sun schedule. It starts getting dark around 6 during this time of year and we didn't want to be out unsupervised after dark. We kept our musings to the immediate area near our cabin. A friend joked that going to a botanical garden in a rainforest is kind of like going to a zoo in Africa. Though it was a funny comparison, it couldn't be farther from the truth. The beauty of the Wilson Botanical Garden is that it allows you an up-close and personal look at the flora. Sure, there are paths and labels but these are a great place to familiarize yourself with some of the local species before setting off blindly into the jungle. Begonias and gesneriads carpet walls and rocks, Palms offer shade for ferns and orchids alike. Countless endemic bird, insects, and amphibians haunt these grounds. We even saw our first wild agouti. I was both overjoyed and overwhelmed. 

As if on cue, it happened. We rounded a bend and dangling off the side of a tree was an orchid in full bloom. It was Gongora armeniaca. I never really understood what it meant to be speechless until this moment. In fact, I don't think my brain could fully comprehend what it was seeing. The long inflorescence was in full bloom. Each of its strange flowers were perfect. I have seen Gongoras before as curiosities tucked in the back of orchids rooms at various botanical gardens. However, nothing comes close to seeing a species like this in situ. I was going to have to pay a lot of attention to trunks and branches if I was going to see more botanical wonders like this. 

Central America - Part 1: Costa Rica

This journey really began back in April. Grad school was coming to a close and our move to Illinois was scheduled for August. A celebration was in order. Other than a brief exploration of a Caribbean island and a few visits to Florida, I have never really experienced anything remotely tropical. Through documentaries and an obsession with houseplants that borders on hoarding, I developed a longing for the equatorial rainforests of the world. It was high time I visited some. 

We managed to find ourselves some cheap tickets into Costa Rica. My friend and horticultural mentor, Dave Janas, had taken a job at the Wilson Botanical Garden in San Vito. I could not think of a better person to introduce us to the flora and fauna of this region. With our flights set we now had something to day dream about for the next few months. 

In no time at all the day had arrived. We hopped on a plane in Buffalo, NY and in less than half a day we had landed in San Jose, Costa Rica. All we had were our backpacks and some cash. No matter how much you read and prepare there is always going to be some culture shock. This was especially true in my case. I had been to Portugal as a kid, though I hardly remember most of it. Other than Canada and the Caribbean, I have not traveled much outside of the country. I was ready for something new and challenging but very little sleep and my almost non-existent grasp on Spanish made the first few hours a bit trying. After an awkward cab ride from the airport in San Jose to our hostel in Alajuela, I needed to regroup a bit. 

After a small nap, I was ready to get my bearings. It was time to explore Alajuela a bit. We decided to grab some food and see what the parks were like in town. Getting around town proved to be a slow process - not because of transportation or any sort of infrastructure but because every garden was teaming with plants I have either never seen before or only encountered in the indoor section of a nursery or botanical garden. Poinsettias and palms were obvious favorites. They decorated most open lots. There were also a handful of mango trees dotting the city scape. When we finally arrived at the park, I could barely contain myself. 

It wasn't very big but it was packed. The ground was trampled as well. It was obvious that this was quite a popular place. Most of what was growing there were various palms and each palm was adorned with its fair share of tillandsias. It didn't take long for my ever-present search image to locate a few orchids as well. At this point you may be asking "what species?!" and to that I will say that I haven't the slightest idea. I was quickly realizing just how out of my element I was. Other than some of the more obvious plants that decorate houses and offices up north, most of what I was seeing was completely new to me. This was going to be an exciting trip. Never in my life have I been this ignorant to the plants and animals around me. If this is how the dense urban centers were going to be, I could hardly wait to run off into a real rainforest. That leg of the adventure was to begin at dawn the next day. 

We found a fruit vendor and grabbed some dinner for the evening. It consisted of some granadilla (Passiflora ligularis) and rambutans (Nephelium lappaceum). We sat on a bench and ate all the while a pair of crimson-fronted parakeets were loudly tending to something inside a hole in a dead palm. I had finally done it. I was finally about to explore one of these tropical wonderlands.