KOTA KINABALU: Sabah’s reputation as a biodiversity hotspot has been reinforced with the discovery of six new insect species in the pristine Danum Valley near Lahad Datu.
The discovery was made by a team of “citizen scientists” who visited the 438sq km conservation area, which is about twice the size of Penang island, as part of the inaugural Taxon Expedition recently.
Three of the newly discovered insects, all tiny beetles living in rainforest leaf litter, were published in the Biodiversity Data Journal on Thursday.
The other three, belonging to the family Elmidae (riffle beetles), will be published next year.
Taxon Expeditions is the first organisation in the world to hold field courses for citizen scientists in biodiversity hotspots, with the aim of discovering, describing, naming and publishing new species under the slogan “You can be Darwin too”.
Taxon Expeditions director and biologist Dr Iva Njunji said scientists have estimated that over 80% of the world’s animal and plant species are still undiscovered.
Although the work of taxonomists – whose job is to describe and name these species – is appreciated by the general public, funding for taxonomy is dwindling, she said.
“Moreover, the areas hosting most of the unknown biodiversity are under threat ... time is running out,” Dr Iva said, adding that recruiting citizen scientists as extra hands means that unknown species may be discovered faster.
“For this type of work, you don’t even need to be a trained taxonomist,” she said.
Members of the inaugural expedition used the “Winkler extraction method” in which dead leaves collected from the rainforest floor are sifted, revealing tiny soil-dwelling insects.
Joint expedition leader Prof Menno Schilthuizen recognised three of the insects as new species.
Under his guidance, the participants studied, photographed and drew the specimens in the expedition’s field laboratory, extracted the insects’ DNA and prepared a draft for publication.
They also came up with the names for the new species. English teacher Sean Otani from Japan decided to name one Colenisia chungi, after Malaysian entomologist Arthur Chung.
The names of the other two beetles, Clavicornaltica sabahensis and Dermatohomoeus maliauensis, refer to the studied sites and were suggested by staff and rangers of the Maliau Conservation Area during the farewell party for the expedition.
All the samples collected have been deposited in the insect collection of Universiti Malaysia Sabah, and the data has been published online as a resource for other biologists working on Borneo’s biodiversity.
In March, Taxon Expeditions will again head into the Maliau Basin with a new group of participants.