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Tuesday September 3, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Tuesday September 3, 2013 MYT 11:52:53 AM
by natalie heng
Killer shot: It took Dr Lee Grismer two days to get this picture of a Robinson’s angle-headed lizard (Gonocephalus robinsonii) in its cloud forest home in Cameron Highlands, Pahang. Grismer is a master at capturing the essence of a species’ habitat. — Photos by DR LEE GRISMER
World-renowned herpetologist finds paradise in Malaysia.
FOR SOMEONE whose earliest memory is trying to catch a lizard by the family swimming pool at aged two, it’s no wonder Dr Lee Grismer grew up to be one of the world’s most respected and intrepid herpetologists. He’s as tough as nails, with an insatiable appetite for discovery, and – based on numerous photos on-line – has a penchant for Hawaiian holiday shorts.
A professor of biology from La Sierra University in California, Grismer has spent a quarter century doing fieldwork on the Baja peninsula, studying and describing just about every kind of snake, frog and lizard imaginable over there. However, the year 1996 opened up an entirely new world for him. He remembers picking up the phone, a former student furthering his studies in distant Malaysia was on the other end of the line. The student told Grismer: “You gotta get over here, this place is crazy.”
So he booked his flight, and his trip to Malaysia turned out to be life-changing. “It was like starting over. I had all those exciting feelings, like I was a boy catching lizards again. Except this time, the lizards could fly, and so could the snakes, and even the frogs.”
After just six weeks on his first trip here in 1996, Grismer saw 128 species that he had never encountered before – and that was just at the field station in Gombak, Selangor. At 40, Grismer rediscovered himself as a herpetologist. He says he thought he knew a lot about science and the world, “but then I came here, and realised I didn’t know s**t!”
South-East Asia makes up 14% of the world’s land mass, but is thought to contain about 25% of the world’s biodiversity. Malaysia’s upland regions harbour some of the rarest animals on earth, whilst our diverse landscapes create all kinds of geographically distinct micro-climates, home to a mind-blowing number of species adapted to each and every niche.
Yet, Grismer points out, there is so much more to discover. In a recent expedition to the Merapoh caves in Pahang, his team found three new species of geckos. It was part of a stock-taking exercise to find out what kinds of flora and fauna a planned cement production project, which will involve blasting 300 million years old karst formations, will be putting at stake. It is a perfect example of why people like Grismer, who are constantly on the lookout for new species, are so important.
“There is a real urgency to publish taxonomies and inventories, so that we can better plan for, and understand, the impact of development in certain areas. Whenever someone does look into the areas in Johor that are still intact, they seem to discover something amazing.” Which is why he encourages scientists and naturalists to publish their inventories in a timely fashion. “So we can say, at this point in time, this particular species existed here.”
Home away from home
Malaysia has become Grismer’s second home. He comes here about four times a year – sometimes staying just a week, sometimes as long as three months. He has made friends with local scientists, and together they have formed a “herp coalition” of sorts.
Grismer often joins Dr Norhayati Ahmad and Shahrul Anuar Mohd Sah, associate professors with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Universiti Sains Malaysia respectively, visiting national parks throughout the country to see what new species they can discover.
“Until the 2000s, we didn’t even know we didn’t know enough,” says Grismer, adding that diversity is tremendously underestimated, especially in the upland regions.
In the last 10 years, more new species of lizards have been discovered in the Malaysian peninsula than in the whole of the previous century.
And despite complaints that the field is underfunded and in trouble, taxonomy – the discipline of classifying new species – has become quite vibrant when it comes to herpetology, according to Grismer.
“More people have been acknowledging its importance to ecology and conservation. Much of this progress is linked to huge advances in the field of molecular biology.”
Lower costs and greater accessibility to genetic sequencing technologies have led to many new developments in the field. For example, what scientists always thought to be the banded juvenile of Asthenodipsas vertebralis, a member of the Asian slug snake family, turns out to be a different species entirely.
After DNA analysis indicated distinct groupings on the phylogenetic tree, the researchers looked back at where the specimens were collected from, which led to an astonishing discovery. Despite a broader geographical overlap, all the banded specimens were collected from the ground and the unbanded specimens, from trees – signifying two separate micro-habitats for two different species.
“Exploring unknown regions of the genome is just as important as exploring unknown regions of the planet, we need a two-pronged approach,” says Grismer.
He strongly believes that the old adage “take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints” should not apply to scientists. “In my opinion, that’s a recipe for extinction. To save a species, you need to collect a few individuals. You can’t lobby for conservation without data, and the real threat, above all else, is habitat destruction.”
In June, an entire room of nature-lovers got to jump into Grismer’s world, where no leaf stays unturned and possibilities lurk behind every boulder. (Grismer has a knack for making science sounds fun.) At a talk at the Malaysian Nature Society’s headquarters in Jalan Kelantan, he spoke about how he discovered Colubridae gongylosoma when out for a walk on Tioman Island.
With five students in tow, he spotted it being eaten by a ratsnake just along the path. He went to grab it but it scooted during the commotion. The whole team then spent half an hour turning over leaves until they found it again.
“Which is just as well, because it turned out to be a new species,” says Grismer.
Then there’s the business of naming things once you’ve found them.
This time, Grismer and his team were in Langkawi, Kedah, during the month of Ramadan, thinking of a suitable name for a freshly discovered gecko that was new to science.
“The only food we could find on the island at the time was roti canai. Someone said, ‘Hey, roti canai sounds Latin’.”
So, there is a lizard out there now known as Cnemaspis roticanai. And if you Google it, there is a nicely orchestrated picture of it sitting on a piece of, well, roti canai.
Grismer is famous for his stunningly composed herps-in-habitat shots. He has even had photographers from National Geographic inviting him on trips to show them how it is done.
But Grismer always has too much work and too little time.
The level of dedication he puts into each shot is telling of his passion for his job. Take the stunning portrait of a Robinson’s angle-headed lizard taken in Cameron Highlands, Pahang.
“I knew exactly what I wanted … to be able to say (that) this species lives in a cloud forest covered with moss.”
First, Grismer had to catch the lizard. Then, he walked around looking for a good spot to set up the shot. And then he waited there for a day, to figure out when the light was best, and what time clouds come in.
“When I was finally ready to take the shot, it was too sunny. But then suddenly the clouds started rolling in, and I just went Bam Bam Bam! This is like, one of my favourite shots,” he says proudly.
Indeed, it is shots like these that offer a poster picture of the potential that Malaysia has to become a flagship for conservation in the region.
Grismer also works in places like Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, but he is concentrating on Malaysia because he believes this is the best place to set an example to South-East Asian nations on how to safeguard the environment.
For now, he is focusing on gathering data on the upland forests in Malaysia’s north-east because much of that area is a black hole.
By documenting the unique and wonderful array of flora and fauna there, scientists will be better able to set priorities for conservation.
“Malaysia has so much good habitat left,” says Grismer. “And that’s why I’m working so hard here.”
Tags / Keywords:
Environment, Lee Grismer, Herpetologist, Genetic analysis, Sunda Land, Snakes, Reptiles, Lizards, Biodiversity
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