Jun 1, 2008

New Species Discovered In Borneo

Evolution in all its magnificence

10 years, 360 species discovered

New life forms keep coming in.

Between 1994 and 2004, at least 361 new species have been described from Borneo: 260 insects, 50 plants, 30 freshwater fish, 7 frogs, 6 lizards, 5 crabs, 2 snakes and a toad.

Yet, this is most certainly an underestimate, as many species discovered have not been published in the scientific literature or the press. In fact, whole groups of animals remain understudied.

Still, amongst larger mammals, key discoveries have been made about the genetic distinctiveness of the Bornean elephant and the orang-utan.

Hide and seek in the rainforest
Conducting studies in the rainforest is no easy task, hence the lack of knowledge about the species still at large in Borneo. Most species are highly cryptic (secretive or difficult to distinguish) in their appearance and behaviour.

Further, many species are active at night, hiding in burrows or tree holes during the day. Even their capture and systematic study requires considerable effort, with generally low trapping success.

In Borneo's tropical rainforests, endangered species such as the pygmy elephant and the Sumatran rhino meet orang-utans, along with an assortment of other animals with colourful names including the clouded leopard, the moonrat and the sun bear.

Here squirrels, lemurs and foxes fly. And what some species don't have in a name they make up for in appearance. For example, the proboscis monkey’s nose, long and flattened, is one of the most characteristic in the animal realm.

Only in Borneo

Borneo is conservatively estimated to hold 222 mammals (including 44 endemic – not found anywhere else in the world), 420 resident birds (37 endemic), 100 amphibians and 394 fish (19 endemic).

Borneo has a cat species unique to the island, the bay cat, which is considered one of the rarest cats in the world. Just in the Heart of Borneo, a 220,000-km2 region in the mountainous centre of the island, there are 10 primate species, over 350 bird species, and 150 reptiles and amphibian species.

At least 15,000 plants, of which 6,000 are found nowhere else in the world, grace the swamps, mangroves, and lowland and montane forests of the island. The Heart of Borneo is home to approximately 10,000 of these.

What accounts for Borneo’s huge biodiversity?

Borneo’s tropical rainforests and climate provide the ideal conditions for a wide variety of species to thrive. Dipterocarp trees hold the greatest insect diversity on Borneo - as many as 1,000 species have been found in just 1 tree.

They are also home to thousands of plants, lichens and fungi, which in turn form the base of a food chain that nurtures a wide array of species. This web of life is at the heart of the Borneo tropical rainforests.

Find out more about dipterocarp forests

Science magnet

Borneo has lured scientists for over 150 years, and has played a key role in the discovery of evolution. Notably, Alfred Wallace's theories of natural selection were inspired by his travels on the island in the 19th century.

Since that time, scientists have busied themselves discovering and naming new species, and the latest research suggests that they will continue doing so for decades to come - if the forests are not wiped out by deforestation.

Where to look for rare wildlife

The place that holds the largest potential for new discoveries is the Heart of Borneo, as it harbours large, and more importantly, continuous tracts of virgin montane forest, many of which remain unexplored.

The montane forests of Borneo form high altitude islands in a sea of lowland dipterocarp forests. As a result of their isolation, these places harbour a unique and rich selection of species from Asian and Australasian families, making Borneo's montane habitats some of the most diverse on Earth compared to similar ones elsewhere.


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