Blog for 2010-06-04

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Of Borneo and Dipterocarps

Chris Anderson


An overwhelming mass of green--such is the first impression of many visitors to a tropical rainforest. Tropical rainforests carry the world's largest amount of biodiversity, and plants are certainly no exception. We spent our second full day at Lambir National park immersed in that overwhelming mass of green as we learned about some of the unique plants that makes Borneo such a special biodiversity hotspot.

The day began at 8:00am with a lecture from Cam Webb about CTFS (Center for Tropical Forestry Science) forest plots and their many uses for scientists around the world. Lambir's CTFS plot is particularly important to CTFS because it was the first plot that was established and also contains some of most diversity in the entire CTFS plot system—there are more than 1100 tree species in 52 hectares. The Lambir plot is surpassed only by a plot in Ecuador that has roughly the same number of species in half of the area. The data that comes from CTFS plots has been an incredible boon to scientists over the last 30 years. Especially now that we're in a period of climate change, the carbon uptake and turnover data that has been collected in CTFS plots have greatly improved our understanding of the amount of carbon that tropical rainforests can hold. This kind of information is especially important for conservation efforts since this data can help establish how useful rainforests are in holding excess carbon from the atmosphere.

After a short 10 minute break, Dr. Chuck Davis, a botanist from Harvard University, began a lecture on angiosperm evolution and phylogeny. Since many of us were still jetlagged and only vaguely aware of where we were, Chuck started broadly gave us only a very general phylogeny for angiosperms. Despite the broad nature of the lecture, Chuck was able to drive home the point that angiosperms are incredibly diverse and have come to dominate terrestrial ecosystems worldwide.

The rest of the morning was spent actually learning how to identify plant families in the field. Cam and Dave laid out ten labeled examples and gave us the task of identifying characters with which we could use to identify each family. The character table that we constructed is on the right. Even though we only used four characters we can now identify 80% of the trees in Bornean Dipterocarp forest to family or order.

The plant quiz

Even though we had a quiz later in the day (don't worry, everyone passed. Except for Sarah, she did so poorly that she went into a fit of hysterics upon seeing her score and was inconsolable for several hours), our true test came after lunch as we actually went into Lambir's plot in order to measure a subplot of a couple hundred trees. Even though it was hard and somewhat dry work (to me, I'm a bug guy—but who knows how those masochist botanists felt about it) it was fantastic to actually be out in the rainforest identifying trees. The rainforest takes on a completely different dimension when that overwhelming mass of green starts to become something other than an impenetrable screen.

The rest of the day was uninteresting and after a lecture on phylogenies from Rod Eastwood we all slept soundly and dreamt of dancing Dipterocarp.

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