• The Habitat Penang Hill
    A canopy walkway stands 50 feet above the pristine forest floor less than four miles from the city of George Town in Penang, Malaysia. (© The Habitat Penang Hill)
  • Dr. Meg Lowman
    The Academy's Dr. Meg Lowman and colleagues will participate in top-to-bottom rainforest survey. (© Rob Nelson)

SAN FRANCISCO (October 9, 2017)—This month, researchers from the California Academy of Sciences will explore a 130-million-year-old Malaysian rainforest, conducting the first-ever comprehensive survey of the forest’s rich biodiversity in an effort to better understand and protect this thriving ecosystem. Remarkably, the rainforest stands untouched less than four miles (six kilometers) outside the state of Penang’s bustling capital city of George Town. In collaboration with the The Habitat on Penang Hill (The Habitat) and local scientists, the Academy team and their colleagues will record plant and animal life in an epic “bioblitz” from the upper treetops to the forest floor—a survey unprecedented in its top-to-bottom, multi-disciplinary approach. Resulting data will advance the understanding of this little-explored rainforest and contribute to its nomination as a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) biosphere reserve.

The Habitat on Penang Hill to host bioblitz
The Habitat is a world-class ecopark and rainforest discovery center offering sweeping views from its perch nearly 2,300 feet (700 meters) above sea level on Penang Hill. Visitors can explore nature trails and stroll along elevated canopy walkways 50 feet (15 meters) above the ground, and come face to face with wildlife in the treetops like dusky leaf monkeys and Asian-fairy bluebirds.

An intact rainforest so close to a major metropolis is incredibly rare anywhere in the world, but especially in Malaysia—where 40% of the world's palm oil (the most widely used plant oil on the planet) is produced. Penang and The Habitat have emerged as leaders in sustainable tourism for the nation: a five-minute train ride takes 1.6 million visitors annually to the summit where they can gaze into the heart of a timeless landscape. The forest has never been cut down due to the foresight of the Penang government, which established The Habitat and adjacent forest as a Virgin Jungle Reserve in 1911.

“Most forests like this are thousands of miles from the public,” says Dr. Meg Lowman, the Academy’s Lindsay Chair of Botany. “But here we have the opportunity to inspire countless people, since the forest is within quick access to George Town’s two million residents.” As a pioneer in the field of canopy science and leader in forest conservation, Lowman helped build the world’s first canopy walkway in 1985 and advised The Habitat on its recently unveiled walkway.

The Habitat is now supporting the Penang State Government in its bid for international recognition to nominate the area as a biosphere reserve under the UNESCO Man and Biosphere (MAB) Program, and has invited Lowman and Academy colleagues to join with local experts in the Penang Hill BioBlitz from October 16 – 27, 2017. This detailed survey of plant and animal life on Penang Hill and the adjacent Bukit Kerajaan Forest Reserve will provide an opportunity to discover new species diversity while underlining the urgent need to conserve tropical rainforests under threat around the world.

“Penang Hill BioBlitz 2017 is the fulfillment of part of our larger vision to establish The Habitat as an internationally recognized center for scientific collaboration in the area of rainforest conservation, environmental education, and research,” says Reza Cockrell, co-founder of The Habitat and The Habitat Foundation. “Conservation, education, and research are fundamental principles underlying everything we do.”

Academy participates in unprecedented survey
Whether climbing to the upper treetops to sample canopy-dwelling plants, sifting leaf litter for nocturnal scorpions by headlamp, or using a machete to carefully search the soil for ants and other insects, Academy researchers will share and exchange field methods with their collaborators.

“I see this opportunity to work alongside local colleagues—knowing the data we collect might help conserve this breathtaking forest for generations to come—as critical to the work I do as a scientist,” says Dr. Lauren Esposito, the Academy’s Schlinger Chair of Arachnology and scorpion expert.

Given the participation of so many subject specialists from multiple institutions coupled with the application of new technologies and research techniques, the joint survey is almost certain to produce new species discoveries that speak to the astounding diversity present with the rainforest.

Academy scientists and collaborators will focus on finding rare species of ants, working with local students to net birds and estimate abundance, setting up black lights and tent-like structures to attract insects, and sampling leaves to preserve their DNA for future analysis.

“It’s rare to have such close collaboration across disciplines and partners, especially on expedition,” says Dr. Nathalie Nagalingum, the Academy’s McAllister Chair of Botany and an expert in ferns and cycads. “We are so honored to partake in this effort with local stewards and to all share one voice for forest conservation.”

Follow Along
The bioblitz will be recorded on the nature-tracking mobile app iNaturalist, with the platform’s co-Director Dr. Scott Loarie on hand to talk about the importance of global species tracking and to help participants load photos of the plants and animals they encounter. This free-to-use global hub aggregates data and relies on enthusiastic experts to help verify species identifications around the world. Bioblitz data will be made freely available here to everyone from novice naturalists to policymakers interested in land management.

The innovative JASON Learning initiative, made possible with support from the TREE Foundation, will also allow high school students the opportunity to digitally accompany researchers into the field from classrooms around the world in real time.

Follow #PGHillBioblitz2017 on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for exciting expedition updates.

This expedition is generously sponsored by The Habitat Foundation.

Video and hi-res photos available upon request (press@calacademy.org). Interviews available before, during, and after the expedition, which runs October 16 – 27, 2017.

Academy participants: arachnology and entomology (Michelle Trautwein, Brian Fisher, Flavia Esteves, Lauren Esposito, Stephanie Loria), ornithology and mammalogy (Jack Dumbacher), botany (Meg LowmanNathalie Nagalingum, Anthony Ambrose, Bryson Voirin), microbiology (Shannon Bennett and Durrell Kapan), and Scott Loarie of iNaturalist.

About Research at the California Academy of Sciences

The Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences is at the forefront of efforts to understand two of the most important topics of our time: the nature and sustainability of life on Earth. Based in San Francisco, the Institute is home to more than 100 world-class scientists, state-of-the-art facilities, and nearly 46 million scientific specimens from around the world. The Institute also leverages the expertise and efforts of more than 100 international Associates and 400 distinguished Fellows. Through expeditions around the globe, investigations in the lab, and analysis of vast biological datasets, the Institute’s scientists work to understand the evolution and interconnectedness of organisms and ecosystems, the threats they face around the world, and the most effective strategies for sustaining them into the future. Through innovative partnerships and public engagement initiatives, they also guide critical sustainability and conservation decisions worldwide, inspire and mentor the next generation of scientists, and foster responsible stewardship of our planet.

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