A pioneer of upper canopy research in rain forests

 

  • Current Activities, May 2017: Part of a team working on the Repatriation of Malaysia’s Insect Heritage through Digital Means. During the colonial period it was the practice to send back the taxonomic type specimens of fauna and flora for safe keeping to the major museums in the UK, US,  Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere. Now that the former colonies are independent and increasingly appreciative  (and protective) of their faunal and floral heritage, they would like these specimens back. For one thing, it is extremely expensive for taxonomists to travel abroad to examine type material. For another, arguably they belong to Malaysia and Malaysians and should be housed in the country of their origin.
  • However building museums and training staff to the standard required to house these precious specimens, particularly in tropical countries, is very costly.  Recent advances in website technology and 3D imagery have been phenomenal and mean that one no longer need have an actual specimen ‘in hand’ because one can study digital representations of it (images of the type specimen wing pattern and genitalia, DNA analysis, facsimile of the original description). These data can be put in the public domain, for the benefit of both scientists and the general public in Malaysia and overseas, via the internet. This way the type specimens can be brought back, digitally, to Malaysia. It is not just insects that can be treated this way, but all fauna and flora.
  • Since 2009 Stephen has been one of four researchers (Dato’ Henry Barlow, Lim Kooi Fong and Dr Terry Whitaker being the others) who have been developing a delivery system to do this. The central concept is a website  http://pyralids.plattenbaukasten.de  supported by printed volumes of images with QR codes linking directly to individual species in the website (please refer to the ‘Recent Posts’ item in the toolbar above ‘A New World of Moths’).  This kind of  ‘hybrid publishing’ has a lot of power. We are studying  specimens of the thyridid and pyralid moths of Borneo which are held in the museums of Europe, imaging them and  slowly loading up them to the website.  This work is slow because each species has a separate page of the website and there are 2,500 species to be uploaded.  So far only the thyridids (295 species) are in the public domain with 500 pyralids loaded but not on disply as they are being edited. There is still a long way to go but it is clear that we now do have a delivery system for the repatriation of natural heritage by digital means.  It is extremely powerful when used by scientists and for the very first time takes this natural heritage, in its marvellous diversity, out of the museum and visible for all the public to see. The IT development which has made all this possible has been led by Lim Kooi Fong through his company Biovis Informatics Sdn Bhd.
  • A very different project: Taxonomy is a rather dry science and Stephen has found a foil to this by working with the Rotary Club of Kota Kinabalu (of which he is a member) with additional financial support from the Sunway Group, to upgrade the skill, income and status of mountain guides of Mt Kinabalu.  Stephen was severely shaken by the 6.0 earthquake which struck Mt Kinabalu in June 2015 resulting in a number of fatalities and massive rockfalls from the summit ridge. The mountain lodge he was staying in at 1600m was shaken for 30 seconds as a terrier dog shakes a rat. He was thankful to emerge unscathed. In the aftermath he realised that the mountain guides were suffering economic hardship and trauma as a result of the gempa and resolved to try and help them recover. The resulting training programme currently under way is a pilot project to enable guides to develop English literacy and knowledge of plants, animals, weather and geology (including earthquakes!) so that they can explain to visitors to the mountain what a unique, hugely diverse and magnificent place it is.
  • From time to time Stephen lectures on insect biodiversity and canopy research to academics, civil societies and tour groups in Sabah and writes articles and reviews. In 2011 he co-authored a paper covering 40 years of observations on changes in melanism in the peppered moth (Biston betularia) in Yorkshire, UK and with Andrew Davis in the lead has published three papers on canopy insect diversity in Sulawesi (Indonesia) (see publications).
  • Stephen was responsible for the contents of the website http://www.borneobooks.com/blog Until 2015 this was trading site, but it is now a source of reference only on books that can be bought elsewhere (we recommend https://www.nhpborneo.com as a good source).