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Borneo's biological treasures

Peter Koomen
Click for slideshow: A newly discovered green and yellow slug has an unusually

long tail that it can wrap around its body when resting. Click on the image to see

more creatures from the "Heart of Borneo."

Scientists are showing off some of the 123 new species they've found in the remote forests of Borneo, three years after the three nations that own pieces of the island agreed to safeguard 85,000 square miles (220,000 square kilometers) in the "Heart of Borneo."

The species, including a flying frog that changes color and a slug that shoots "love darts," are detailed in a report from the global conservation group WWF, celebrating Earth Day as well as the success of the Heart of Borneo preservation effort. The leaders of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia signed onto a pledge in 2007 that called for species protection as well as sustainable development of the rainforest region.

The Heart of Borneo boasts scores of animal species, hundreds of bird species and thousands of types of plants that are found nowhere else in the world. A century and a half ago, evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin called the island "one great luxuriant hothouse made by nature for herself."

Scientists are just beginning to get to the remotest regions of that hothouse - but they're racing against developers who are putting in roads, chopping down trees and turning large tracts of the forests into palm oil plantations. About half of the Heart is in private hands, so "the private sector is crucial to ensuring sustainable land use," the WWF's report says.

The three-nation initiative provides for the establishment of a "Green Business Network" that will raise private-sector awareness about green-development goals. Financing mechanisms are being set up to reward conservation-conscious land use, and public lands are being put into a network of protected areas.

"Three years on, the Heart of Borneo Declaration is proving to be an irreplaceable foundation for conservation and sustainable development by establishing a framework for action to protect Borneo’s globally outstanding biodiversity, ecosystem services and livelihoods," Adam Tomasek, leader of the WWF's Heart of Borneo initiative, said in an Earth Day news release about the newly discovered species.

The continuing pace of scientific discovery - about three new species per month - provides evidence that the initiative is working, Tomasek said.

The "Heart of Borneo" is an area divided between Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia on the island in Southeast Asia, north of Australia.

The Heart of Borneo is home to the world's longest insect, which was formally identified as a new species in 2008. Another species recently found in the region is Kopstein's bronzeback, a beautiful snake with a terrible bite. (You can watch a YouTube video of the snake gobbling down a lizard. Ick!)

Yet another species is a frog that can glide through the air using its wide, webbed feet and aerodynamic flaps of skin on its arms and legs. The frog has bright green skin at night but turns to a brown hue during the day. And then there's the green-yellow slug that shoots "love darts" made from calcium carbonate at its would-be mates. (If you must know, the darts are coated with a chemical that appears to promote successful fertilization.)

Our brand-new slideshow highlights these and other species from the Heart of Borneo. To learn still more about the project, check out this edited e-mail exchange with Christopher Greenwood, the WWF initiative's international communications manager:

Cosmic Log: It sounds as if the Borneo initiative is a success story for species preservation. How does this compare with other projects to set aside areas for protection? What activities had to be curtailed? Have there been difficulties in enforcing the protected status, or was the region so remote that it was more a question of guaranteeing preservation from potential future activities?

Greenwood: The Heart of Borneo Initiative may be a success story in the making for preservation, but this is actually only one of its objectives. The value of the Heart of Borneo approach is that it recognizes the need to balance conservation and sustainable development to ensure a secure future for biodiversity, habitat conservation and indigenous livelihoods as well as meeting the ever-present government requirements for development. 

There are continuing difficulties in enforcing the protected status. It must be remembered that the Heart of Borneo is not a national park. It is a mosaic of protected areas, wildlife corridors and sustainable land-use areas.

There are many challenges in adequately enforcing protection: illegal logging, forest fires, conversion to agriculture/palm oil, wildlife trade and mining are among the most difficult challenges faced. The 2007 declaration was in some respects a line in the sand from which all three governments acknowledged the need to begin to address these challenges.

Overcoming these challenges will require new ways of doing and thinking about business in the Heart of Borneo, both in existing sectors such as palm oil as well emerging sectors such as carbon trading. Rather than conventional stereotyping of traditional environmental foes, we see an alternative future where industry provides both economic development and conservation outcomes. Likewise, international market-based mechanisms such as reduced emissions from deforestation (REDD) and payments for ecosystem services (PES) need to be realized and implemented. That is, forests need to be worth more standing than clear-cut.

This is why the launching of this report by the Bruneian minister, on Earth Day, at the fourth trilateral meeting is significant – because it is at these events that the three governments come together to further the objectives of the declaration.

Q: How does Borneo compare as a reservoir of biodiversity, and what is it that makes the area a "hothouse" for exotic species?

A: Well, the quote is Charles Darwin’s - but if we were to interpret him in the context of the Heart of Borneo, it would refer to the fact that the area is such a breeding ground for an incredibly diverse range of plant and animal species.

If you look back over the past 15 years, you'll see that there have been more than 500 species discovered in the Heart of Borneo - which is nearly three species a month. As the press release indicates, these are in addition to the 'charismatic megafauna' - for example, the pygmy elephant and orangutan which are found in only one other place in the world.

Q: How are the scientific expeditions to Borneo organized? What sorts of challenges do scientists have to put up with to visit and study these regions?

A: The areas are remote, requiring weeks of travel in hot, leech-invested, malaria-prone eco-tourism hotspots.  That last bit was a joke - though there is no doubt about the eco-tourism potential of the area. That leads us back to the idea of sustainable development. If we can preserve these areas and at the same time generate income for local communities, private enterprise and the government, then there is a chance we generate a mechanism which by default preserves these areas in perpetuity.

Q: Any lessons learned from the project, either in terms of conservation management or scientific insights?

A: The huge lesson is obviously that the more we look, the more we find. If the Heart of Borneo approach is not a success, we risk losing countless undiscovered treasures, which may reveal a host of medical and related solutions to problems we have not yet encountered – as described in the WWF report on biodiscoveries.

Secondly, there are constant challenges, such as the palm oil plantation threat and road development. That is why it is so important to continue to demonstrate the uniqueness of this region and its global significance.

Update for 8:40 a.m. ET April 22:Menno Schilthuizen, a researcher from the Center for Biodiversity at Naturalis, the Netherlands' national museum of natural history, sent along an e-mail discussing the discovery of the slug you see in the picture at the top of this item:

Cosmic Log: Are there any anecdotes about particularly challenging or amazingly coincidental finds? For example, can anything notable be said about the slug discoveries, or is it simply a case of turning over every rock (so to speak).

Schilthuizen: My students and I discovered some 70 new species of snail and slug all over Borneo during the time that I was living and working there for Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS). We used to pack a bunch of ramshackle 4-wheel-drive vehicles with makeshift tents, machetes, cooking utensils, bandages, copious amounts of rice and salted fish, and of course boxes and boxes with tubes, vials, bottles and bags for collecting all kinds of organisms.

The trip during which we found the first specimen of the spectacularly green-and-yellow semi-slug Ibycus rachelae [shown above] was a two-week expedition to Gunung Trus Madi, the third-tallest mountain in Borneo. A group of some 30 UMS academics and their students camped in the mud and rain, and spent long days studying their favorite kind of animal and plant. Mine were slugs and snails, of course, and the specimen of Ibycus rachelae was waiting for me at the tip of a large log at the edge of camp as we returned at dusk and in the rain after a day of hard work.

Since it's a slender and elegant species that resisted for a long time revealing what exactly it was, I named it after my partner Rachel.

Q: Any lessons learned from the project, either in terms of conservation management or scientific insights? Are there things you've learned about Borneo and its species that you didn't know before?

Peter Koomen
This spiny snail was discovered in Borneo.

A: Our work on land snail evolution has revealed novel insights into "speciation": the evolution of new species. Many land snail species occur in small pockets of habitat, sometimes just a kilometer or less across, and are found nowhere else on earth.

For a long time, people thought such "endemic" species evolved purely by chance: Cut off from their brethren elsewhere, random mutations in their DNA would eventually, over long periods of time, change the species enough for it to be considered a separate species. In the Heart of Borneo, we learned that the characteristic traits of these endemic species are not accidental or random at all, but fine-tuned adaptations to the local environment.

In the case of the spiny snail in the photo [above], these adaptations are defenses against the local version of a snail-eating slug.

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