Posts from 2013

New Pitcher Plant Species from New Guinea

29 November 2013

It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that we are presently experiencing a Golden Age of pitcher plant discovery. Scarcely 16 years ago there were 84 officially recognized species in the genus Nepenthes; now that total is fast approaching 150, with nearly 30 new taxa described in the past 5 years alone. Whilst most of these new taxa are only slight variations of previously described species or are ‘splits’ where a single taxon has been divided based on what are deemed significant differences, a few are unique and represent striking new forms (e.g. N. attenboroughii and N. undulatifolia).

Last month, whilst trekking through the mountains of Papua (Indonesian New Guinea) with longtime friend and colleague Dr. Charles Clarke, we were excited to encounter yet another undescribed species of Nepenthes on a remote forested ridge. Our 2-week expedition had been fraught with numerous setbacks, including illness and inter-tribal warfare which nearly thwarted our entire climb and ultimately prevented us from reaching the summit we had originally targeted. Nevertheless, we were able to explore some incredibly beautiful and pristine montane habitats and in a fortunate turn of luck, stumble across this new and distinctive species.

Because of this plant’s unique features, it’s taxonomic affinities with other Nepenthes, both within and outside of New Guinea, are not yet evident. The globose lower pitchers (below left) with their broad and strongly-toothed peristome, and the funnel-shaped upper pitchers (below right) bear little resemblance to other Papuan taxa. Additional unusual traits include the leaves, which are broad and sub-petiolate, and the dense coating of brownish hairs which cover all parts of the plant, giving it a “wooly” appearance. Unfortunately, as our expedition was purely a photographic one we did not collect herbarium specimens, and a formal description of this species will have to wait for a future survey equipped with collecting permits.

Nepenthes sp. New GuineaNepenthes sp. New Guinea

This discovery is further remarkable considering the relative paucity of Nepenthes in New Guinea. Despite the island’s vast size, the presently recognized diversity of the genus on the New Guinea mainland is quite small (only 11 species). Unlike other islands of the Indonesian archipelago such as Borneo (39 species) and Sumatra (37 species), where pitcher plants occur in abundance on most mountains exceeding 2000 m, Nepenthes are patchily distributed in New Guinea and are seemingly absent from large regions of highland areas. In 2004 and 2006 I climbed two separate mountains each exceeding 3000 m in elevation and, whilst the habitats were very rich in a variety of typically associated plants, I did not observe a single Nepenthes.

Notwithstanding the large number of new Nepenthes which have been distinguished in recent years, the addition of this interesting species shows that we still have a long way to go towards our complete understanding of the genus, with perhaps other great discoveries to be made in the mountains of Papua.

References:

Jebb, M. & M. Cheek (1997) A Skeletal Revision of Nepenthes (Nepenthaceae). Blumea 42: 1-106.

Jebb, M.H.P. 1991. An account of Nepenthes in New Guinea. Science in New Guinea 17(1): 7–54.

On Assignment: Batang Ai

9 October 2013

On assignment: Batang Ai

One of Sarawak’s Heart of Borneo zones, Batang Ai National Park comprises over 270 sq. km. at the headwaters of the Ai River, above the Batang Ai hydroelectric dam. This traditional homeland of the Iban people is a beautifully rugged wilderness, with undulating hills of pristine forest accessible only through a vast network of clear water rivers and streams. In addition to hosting numerous rare and protected species of wildlife, the park is home to an estimated 300-350 individuals of Borneo’s rarest subspecies of orangutan, Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus.

Since February this year, I have made a series of expeditions into the interior of this region on assignment for Borneo Adventure, a local company that has pioneered the area’s ecotourism and worked with the Iban people to develop a sustainable conservation strategy. My work was aimed at producing images for a book showcasing the rich natural and cultural heritage of Batang Ai and the neighboring areas. After a total of six weeks in the forest, enduring torrential rains, an enormous enraged orangutan, and several destroyed cameras (including one plunging into the river with a 600mm lens, and another having its innards invaded by an army of tiny stinging ants) I tallied over 6000 captured images. Shown below is a sneak peek view of a handful of the photos. The book is scheduled for publication and release in early 2014.

Potter waspHeadhunting relicsPhrynoidis asperaFungi
River fishingAerial viewWeavingPitta granatina
Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeusChloropsis cochinchinensisNeurobasis longipesHeadwaters of Batang Ai

New Species of Gliding Frog from Borneo

18 September 2013

Few animals seem to encapsulate the magical qualities of the Bornean jungle more than gliding frogs. Armed with huge webbed feet and flaps of skin along their limbs, these colorful amphibians sport the uncanny ability to paraglide down from the tree tops and even change directions in mid-flight. Once, during a visit to the canopy walkway in Danum Valley Conservation Area in Sabah, I witnessed firsthand just how effective the gliding ability of these frogs can be. Upon arriving at a tree platform in the middle of the walkway, perhaps 50 meters above the forest floor, I noticed a small orange frog (Rhacophorus pardalis) perched on one of the wooden planks near the edge. As I approached for a closer look it abruptly leapt off the platform and I watched as it soared down through the air, carved a wide arc around a lower tree and disappeared into the forest below.

Several gliding frog species occur in Borneo, all in the genus Rhacophorus and all equally charming with their gaudy colors and oversized (seemingly ungainly) floppy feet. The most well-known is undoubtedly the large and spectacular Wallace’s Flying Frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus), made famous by Alfred Russel Wallace’s description and illustration in The Malay Archipelago. Smaller, but no less attractive is the Harlequin Flying Frog (Rhacophorus pardalis) which is perhaps the most common of the species, being found all across the island around muddy pools of water in the forest.

Last month a scientific paper published in Current Herpetology brought to light an entirely new species, the Bornean Gliding Frog (Rhacophorus borneensis). Perhaps the most colorful of all the Rhacophorids, R. borneensis is a pale lime-green with an orange underside and interspersed with patches of black and brilliant sky-blue. This frog had been known previously from a few scattered collections and photos from Sarawak and Sabah, but was thought to belong to the Javan Flying Frog (Rhacophours reinwardti). The new research compared both color patterns, size, and DNA, and showed that the Bornean specimens are indeed distinct from R. reinwardti, which is now believed to occur only in Java.

Rhacophorus borneensis

Like other gliders, R. borneensis is a true tree frog, and it is believed to live almost its entire adult life in the forest canopy, descending to pools of water only to breed and lay eggs. Simply judging by how rare encounters with this species are, its visits to ground level are probably even more infrequent than R. nigropalmatus or R. pardalis. The presence of R. borneensis in the forest is often only detected by the distinctive call of the male, sounding somewhat like a woodpecker drumming on a hollow tree.

So far the life-history of the Bornean Gliding Frog remains almost completely unstudied, but further research is certainly warranted for this newest member of Borneo’s magnificent gliders.

References:

M. Matsui, T. Shimada, A. Sudin. A New Gliding frog of the Genus Rhacophorus from Borneo. Current Herpetology, August 2013; 32(2): 112-124.


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