Three-quarters of the world’s animal and plant species are still undiscovered and unnamed–many have gone extinct before even being discovered. Taxonomists, the biologists who document unknown biodiversity, are therefore facing a monumental task. Now, a new initiative combines the powers of citizen science, eco-travel, and DNA technology to help them chart the unknown world biodiversity and aid in its conservation.
A new organisation, Taxon Expeditions (www.taxonexpeditions.com), organises expeditions for non-biologists in Malaysian Borneo. But unlike other ecotourism outfits, the participants are guided by international experts through all the steps of real scientific research. Together, they discover, name, and publish completely new species of wild animals.
During a 10-day stay at a field study centre in the heart of Borneo’s rainforest, participants receive a solid tropical biology training from seasoned field biologists. Then, they explore the forest to look for tiny animals like snails and beetles. The collected samples are then mounted, photographed, databased, DNA-sequenced, and digitised and deposited in the Borneensis Collection of Universiti Malaysia Sabah. There, they become part of a permanent reference collection for Borneo-based biodiversity conservationists and scientists.
This way, the citizen scientists go home with the unique experience of having discovered and named new species of wildlife themselves and to have contributed to the documentation of Borneo’s threatened biodiversity.
At the same time, the expeditions build a resource for other researchers. Throughout Borneo, teams of scientists are working to understand the impact of the disappearance of tropical rainforests, but they are often hampered by the lack of online databases of organisms tinier than birds and mammals. The citizen scientists’ work provides such a resource.
“It’s a completely new way of doing biodiversity science,” say Iva Njunjić and Menno Schilthuizen, the two entomologists who initiated Taxon Expeditions. “We give eco-travellers the thrill of discovering animals that have never been seen before, and naming them for posterity. And at the same time, we build on the documentation of Borneo’s wildlife that helps us to protect threatened rainforest ecosystems.”