Malaysian rainforest biodiversity


The ancient Dipterocarp rainforests of southeast Asia are some of the most globally-significant hotspots of biodiversity yet these forests are constantly being lost or degraded due to logging and development pressures. Rapid global climate changes now add an additional threat to the future health and persistence of these incredible forests. In many cases, this forest habitat is being lost before we have even documented all the plant and animal species they support. There is therefore an urgent need to study the biodiversity and protect as much remaining ancient rainforests in the region as possible.

In 2016 I joined an international team from the California Academy of Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia and other local individuals and organizations to document the biodiversity of an ancient rainforest on Penang Hill, Malaysia. This forest reserve is located on the upper slopes of the island of Penang, and is quickly and easily accessed by millions of people who live at lower elevations on the island and nearby mainland. An interpretive nature walk and canopy-level walkways at The Habitat on Penang Hill provide unrivaled opportunities for visitors to experience the beauty and diversity of the forest not available elsewhere. The long-term aim of the project is to build support for the protection of the forests and surrounding community of Penang as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.

In fall 2017 our team conducted a comprehensive 2-week survey of  the biodiversity of the forests and streams on Penang Hill. This survey documented the presence of a wide array of terrestrial and freshwater plants, animals, microbes, insects, and fungi, and included the first effort to survey canopy biodiversity in Malaysia. The principle focus of my efforts as part of this team was to collect leaf samples from multiple crown positions of diverse tree species for archiving in herbaria at the California Academy of Sciences and Malaysian universities. These samples not only serve to document the tree species present in the forest there, but provide important baseline samples that can be compared with future leaf samples to understand how the trees respond to climate changes (i.e., by analyzing changes in leaf morphology, stomatal characteristics, and stable carbon isotope composition). 

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