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Arnold Arboretum

Work begins in Plot A

April 27, 2011 by Cam Webb

The day after moving our camp, we began work on ‘Plot A,’ in a lovely patch of alluvial forest. This, for me, is the best work there is: going from tree to tree and making notes; observing leaves through binoculars; cutting through the bark slightly with a parang (bush knife) to look for sap and to smell the wood; photographing the slash; and collecting fallen leaves or using a ‘Wrist Rocket’ slingshot to shoot them down. After 20 years in these Bornean forests, I recognize most species, and can at least place them in their taxonomic family, but the fun is in never knowing when something new (at least to me, and maybe to science) will turn up.

My office in the forest!

My office in the forest!

We’ll slowly start to pick up second individuals for a handful of species (e.g., Dipterocarpus tempehes in Plot A) as we go through the 150-200 trees in a plot, but most species will be represented by a single individual. Compare this to most US forests, where it becomes increasingly hard to find new species after identifying the first ten. Thus, just keeping track of this diversity is a challenge in itself.

In previous projects I would bring the fallen leaves back to a dry space to match them between trees and between plots, keeping track of the different ‘morphotypes’ (different types of individuals in the same species) that I had observed. In this current project, where I also want to collect good botanical specimens and DNA samples from one to a few individuals of each species, I need to know the final morphotype list before leaving the expedition.

Matching among hundreds of bags of fallen leaves in the field would be quite a task, but technology has come to my aid, in the form of high resolution digital photography (my camera of choice: Panasonic LX3). We match specimens with photos of leaves and bark, rather than with the leaves themselves, unless two taxa are very close—then observing the actual leaves is very important. While this solution is making rapid taxonomic progress possible, it does mean long hours in front of a computer screen, after the day’s fieldwork is done. At least the office view (see above) is quite nice. And there’s no distraction from email!


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