New! Explore Phil Torres' photographs from the expedition in bioGraphic.

On a tiny island off the Malaysian coast, an ancient rainforest overlooks a modern metropolis. The thriving, 130-million-year-old ecosystem atop Penang Hill was the subject of its first-ever floor-to-canopy biodiversity survey—or bioblitz—in October 2017. Led by a team of Academy experts, an international cohort of 117 scientists logged over 1,400 observations of plants and animals using iNaturalist, and discovered at least four new species and observed 25 plants and animals never before seen in Penang or peninsular Malaysia.

The findings from this expedition illustrate the incredible breadth of the island's biodiversity—and could help Penang Hill achieve a listing as a UNESCO biosphere reserve. 

This project would not have been possible without the generosity and expertise of The HabitatUniversiti Sains Malaysia, and JASON Learning



Field Notes

Search #PGHillBioBlitz2017 and #CASfieldnotes on social media for more field notes and photos.

Day 1
In the field for just one day and Academy scientists are already making discoveries! Lauren Esposito, Assistant Curator and Schlinger Chair of Arachnology, along with post-doc Stephanie Loria, spotted what could be a species of scorpion previously unknown to science. Score!

Day 2
Using a variety of trapping methods (including the aptly named malaise trap), the team identified a number of fly, ant, and spider species—as well as a giant millipede.

Days 3-5
Field note roundup, organized by altitude. Canopy-level: Ant experts from Universiti Sains Malaysia modeled high-tech harnesses as they conducted research along the treetop walkway. Understory: Academy botanist Nathalie Nagalingum demonstrated proper fern-pressing technique in the understory. "Forest" floor: Academy sustainability fellow Durrell Kapan takes a selfie break with USM students.

Day 6
Making news in Malaysia! Lauren's (likely) new scorpion species experiences a brush with fame in the Sin Chew Daily

Day 7
The team ventured out of the forest to explore George Town, a UNESCO world heritage site. With luck, this expedition's bioblitz will help the forest atop Penang Hill achieve the same designation.

Day 8
By day, a local birder named Irshad helped Academy curator Jack Dumbacher's team capture birds just long enough to record their species before releasing them unharmed. As the sun went down, the scorpions came out—and the blacklights came on. Why? Any entomologist worth her spotting scope knows that scorpions fluoresce under UV light.

Day 9
513 observations of 210 species—and counting! Mammal-lovers will appreciate the following observations: dusky leaf-monkey, red giant flying squirrel, and Sunda flying lemur.

Day 10
Today's action was in the understory: The mammal team, led by USM zoologist Dr. Nadine Ruppert, successfully ID'd and measured 11 small mammals—including a white-bellied chestnut rat, which was scientifically determined to be adorable.

Day 11
That's a wrap! The epic Penang Hill bioblitz has drawn to a close. The team presented some impressive initial findings at a post-bioblitz symposium in George Town—1,600 species observations!—and will spend the next few months analyzing data and perhaps confirming the discovery of myriad species previously unknown to science.


  • The Penang Hill bioblitz team poses under the canopy walk.
    Day 11: With 1,600+ species observations under their belt, the bioblitz team takes a well-deserved breather under the Habitat's canopy walk.
  • Scientists against a giant tree in Penang Malaysia
    Day 10: The mammal team is all smiles after a successful morning bioblitz.
  • Malaysian white bellied chestnut rat in the hand of a biologist
    Day 10: A white-bellied chestnut rat is ready to high-tail it back into the forest after getting its measurements taken.
  • Sun drenched rainforest scene on Penang Hill Malaysia
    Day 9: When golden hour hits Penang Hill, it hits hard.
  • A scorpion fluoresces under a blacklight
    Day 8: Using a blacklight to spot scorpions—which fluoresce under UV light.
  • Birder shows a mist net used for humane trapping of birds
    Day 8: Irshad holds up a mist net, used for humanely trapping—and quickly releasing—birds.
  • Academy scientists at a pagoda in George Town Malaysia
    Day 7: The team takes a break from the bioblitz to explore UNESCO-designated George Town.
  • Sin Chew Daily newspaper featuring Lauren Esposito and new scorpion species
    Day 6: Lauren Esposito in the Sin Chew Daily displaying what could be a new species of scorpion.
  • Malaysian students wearing safety harnesses pose on the Habitat's canopy walkway
    Day 3: When studying ants in the canopy like these USM ant experts, you can never be too safe.
  • Academy botanist Nathalie Nagalingum and USM students press ferns
    Day 3: Nathalie teaches students how to press fern specimens.
  • The Academy's Durrell Kapan poses with USM students in front of a bioblitz banner
    Day 3: Durrell and some Malaysian colleagues take a selfie break from the bioblitz.
  • giant millipede crawls up arm of scientist in Penang Malaysia
    Day 2: A millipede snakes around researcher Stephanie Loria's arm.
  • Malaysian scientists use a rope to descend a rainforest slope in Penang Malaysia
    Day 2: Two USM students carefully—and cheerfully!—rappel down a lush rainforest slope.
  • Coaxing a tiny scorpion into a specimen vial
    Day 1: Arachnologist Lauren Esposito doing her best to coax what could be a new scorpion species into a specimen vial.
  • Lauren Esposito and Stephanie Loria proudly pose with their scorpion specimen
    Day 1: Scorpion specimen: Collected!
  • Dozens of water barrels line a suspended canopy walkway to test its strength
    Day 1: Testing the strength of one of The Habitat's new canopy walkways with water barrels.
About IBSS

The mission of the Academy's Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability (IBSS) is to gather new knowledge about life's diversity and the process of evolution—and to rapidly apply that understanding to our efforts to regenerate life on Earth.