Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ming the Bear Man...

This is my new friend Ming (left) and one of his local team members, Dodi (right). Ming is a PhD student like me (but he goes to the University of Kent in the UK), and he's one of the 4 westerners in this town. Ming's project is about the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus). Ming has been based here in Sungai Penuh for a little while, but he spends a good bit of time out in the forest on the trail of the bear. Ming and his team have set up a number of special cameras in the forest. The cameras have a special infra-red sensor (like the door at the supermarket that opens automatically for you) and detect when a bear is near by and take a picture. This is called camera trapping, and is a widely-used strategy for research on wild animals. Camera traps have also been used to track Sumatran Tigers at Kerinci Seblat National Park. You can see a picture of one of these gadgets to the right. Camera traps are very effective because species like the sun bear tend to avoid humans. People make a lot of noise and smell funny (to most animals), and so the bears easily know when people are around. It's rare to see one in the wild, though one of Ming's team members has seen three of them! You may have seen the sun bear at the Honolulu Zoo. They have one. I've been to the zoo a number of times, but it always seems to be hiding when I am there.

Ming is interested in the sun bear because it is an important species in the forest. It helps with seed dispersal (like birds). They also help to break down dead trees so that they decompose more quickly and return their nutrients to the soil so that other plants can use them to grow. Although these bears are classified as carnivores (1), they mainly eat fruits and insects. They like sweet fruits like jackfruit and durian. They also appear to really like termites! The bears sleep in trees and only come down to the ground to get food. Check out the pictures from Ming's camera traps I've included below. I really am thankful he shared these with me.

Ming is really interested in how forest disturbance (2) affects the habits and patterns of these bears. Sun bears are an example of what conservationists call an umbrella species. That means that they are a good target for nature conservation efforts, because if you protect them it means that many other plants and animals are protected as well (3). In other words, the other species are protected under the umbrella of the sun bear. But in order to set up effective conservation policies and strategies, field researches have to go out and collect data about the umbrella species so they can know how much habitat the species needs and the types of food it likes. Some species require much more territory than others. For example, the Sumatran tiger needs about 50 square kilometers of habitat, and they are very territorial!

Well, that's it for this evening. See if you can answer the questions below. When you finishing you can watch the neat videos Ming shared with me of a river crossing on one of his treks into the forest.

1) Can you find out what carnivore means? What other kinds of "vores" are there? Can you think of examples of each? What kind of "vore" are you?

2) "Disturbance" is a word conservationist use to refer to changes in the forest, both natural and human-caused. For example, when a strong storm comes and blows down trees, it is a disturbance. Or when people cut the trees down. Natural disturbances are very important for the life cycle of the forest as a whole. But human-caused disturbances can be very damaging to the forest.

3) Can you think of some good umbrella species for Hawai'i? Think of both the land and the water. Why would these be umbrella species?

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