As you launch in to the forest to find and follow your vocal individual for the day, there are some things you will undoubtedly think of… One wide ranging subject that your mind will dwell on for some time throughout your long day, will be pondering on the species you my encounter. Here is a thoughtful account of some the Borneo forest species that have my wishes, whether good or bad, over the past 65 days. Conveniently the book I only finished last week had a fabulous quote that very much applies to dwelling on the possible locations of various tropical species – “The imagination is a terrible thing to take with you.”(1)
Predominantly, I find, when walking through undergrowth, one tends to firstly think about what is touching your face. So let the list start with things that can easily be at face height. Interesting leaves, plants, fungi and beautiful forest-scape views obviously apply – most of which are covered or connected by substantial spider webs. There is no feeling quite like slowly picking strands of silk off a sweaty face. The silk has some of the highest strongest tensile strength known in the world(2). As you begin to pull them off, you become aware the strands can run down your neck or past your ear. This is where that dangerous imagination kicks in.
Imagination error number one: was the web empty or old? If it wasn’t – what was in it?..
The bite and venom of Borneo (and indeed global) spiders remains predominantly unknown and unstudied. I can only presume when they look like this one(3) I saw (about 2 centimetres from my face) on Thursday, that hopefully they’re investing in external rather than internal, chemical deterrents…
The second most common species at face height and easily touchable is a caterpillar hanging on silk or sitting on a twig.
Harmless, indeed in most of the UK caterpillars are entertaining and a cheap pet for any budding five year old entomologist. Not so on the equator. Many of the caterpillars here are covered in very long hairs, which are only sometimes visible in day light/at first glance. If these hairs touch your skin, you will be itching for days or weeks or sometimes months afterward, when you skin gets irritated or hot due to other reasons – helpful. This can sometimes obviously be stopped by your clothes and a well-administered stick. Of course this is only worth doing if you know the poor sod who will be washing you clothes and that a) it wont be you , and b) you don’t like them very much. In comes imagination error number two: how many hairy caterpillars will I see today? How close to my nose will they be before I see them? Or will they just look like twigs – an extra treat. Perhaps worse of all – how many there must be that I never see, and how close are those to many arms/neck/ears/head?
The advantage of these caterpillars is that they are awesome. Beautifully awesome. There are a distinct lack of photos of ones I’ve seen , but here is a Asian selection…
Lastly one or one may not worry about snakes. I tend to worry about these less – probably I instinctively presume there are less of them as they are higher up to food chain. Though, when you add up their prey base with in this peatswamp forest (a wide variety of small mammals, birds and insects and even fish) I’m sure the snakes are in their hundreds in the area I have so far walked. Around three common species are venomous here, one of which I had a good prepared encounter with – Wagler pit vipers(4) can live in one place for a while *Say cheese*…
So, this would make imagination error number three : does the dry leaf litter filled hole I just put my foot into (with some force as I try to keep up with my guide) have a snake in it? I would like to venture that this compares to asking whether a lovely house in England with a garden has residents. Apart from the fact that these obviously do not compare; my foot has plunged into many(!) dry warm leaf/root holes. How many snakes have bit me ? None.
How many snakes have I seen less than 2 meters away – about four. Three of these have been me choosing to approach the snake, camera and ecologist brain in hand. One was a vine snake in the
In addition to these guys, there are fire ants and centipedes. Fire ants are one of four predominant species of ant here, which swarm over the ground and hunt for food. Either you look down and you are standing in the swarm, or you hear them coming as every other animal jumps out their way. They bite readily and feel like a bad wasp sting for about two minutes and an itchy and painful for about ten minutes. I prefer them to mosquitos, but only because the ants are quite avoidable. Do not presume they look the worst, the largest ants (which can be up to around five centimetres and are can be seen from pretty far away) are wood ants and are lovely.
Centipede species are mostly fine, indeed do buy one for you five year old entomologist in your lovely English house (or don’t because it would be an imported species, from a protected area). However one or two species – black, with red where their body segments join – merit the biggest fear. These are insects that eat vertebrates (5+). Their bite can put the place bitten out of action for days. Again, the small ones are more painful than the large ones. Stories include men not walking for two days, swollen heads and faces and (worst of all) a man being held back by his friends so he won’t cut his own leg off due to the pain. Having seen only two, so far my imagination has not run away with it’s self yet. We can remain on three errors. These species like to come to camp in the wet season to find dry places, so I look forward to see what my imagination does then.
For all these reasons, as well as irritant bark and sap, the one-finger rule applies. As when working on coral reefs, if all else fails and you have no way out, use one finger to touch the wildlife to steady and orinentate yourself. On reefs this so you kill as little thousands-of-year-old-coral(6) as possible. In forests, it’s mostly so our pathetic human bodies keep safe. What gets really exciting is how much skin is touch things you can’t see – most often the other sides of trees that you use to put your self free of the dry hole/ mud hole/canal/root ball you are stuck in. So lets mix it all together and say that, so far, my imagination has four go-to places, that I could do without it going to.
If I were to list the things I wished were regularly less than ten meters away, I would obviously include some of my favourite memories of animals ; stunning coral, super interesting fungi, beautiful plants and grasses, wondrous bioluminescence (7), impressive gibbons and heart warming orangutans… and ironically I would also list the spiders, caterpillars, etc – all the other potentially dangerous species – they are just as interesting, if not more interesting to me (sorry mum). Fellow ecologists say “you simply get used to not getting hurt” and I can definitely confirm that. My biggest scare would be not to have the chances to see the world’s nature. Thank god we take our imagination with us, to decide what to see next!