Liters of alcohol and old newspapers. These are on Constantijn Mennes’ list of things to pack for the expedition. Not to be used for catching up on old news while enjoying a fine spirit; these are the scientists’ tools. As are plant presses, tubes and silicagel, to name a few. Constantijn will take care that all these supplies will be present in Kota Kinabalu, as the expedition starts.
“Last week I ordered the alcohol: 40 liters of non-denatured ethanol in a 96% solution. This will work fine for both plants and insects”, Constantijn says. The ethanol is necessary in order to conserve and transport the plants and animals that will be collected on Borneo. It will ensure that the DNA does not degenerate, so that it can be extracted later on, back in Leiden. “For some animals, a 70% solution works better, because higher percentages can make the material stiff, causing morphological characteristics to become distorted. In those cases, we will dilute the solution with distilled water”, he says. While he is actually going to do research on plants in Borneo, his responsibility to take care of the equipment gives him a lot of extra knowledge of other disciplines.
For each group of insects, a different assortment of chemicals is best suited for preservation. That’s why also liters of ethyl acetate, acetone and glycerin will be brought to Borneo, as well as some other dangerous-sounding materials. All these chemicals will be ordered by the Sabah Parks colleagues and delivered on the spot on Borneo.
Plants in the oven
And what about the old newspapers? They will be used in the plant presses. Constantijn shows a wooden framework, looking rather old-fashioned, but still very effective. “The collected plants will be placed between the old newspapers carefully and then pressed tightly together with this press”, he explains. “And then they will be put into the oven.” The oven? “In order to extract the moist and to dry the plants properly.” Back home in Leiden, a neat herbarium sheet will be made.
For fungi, alcohol doesn’t work as a preservative. The specialists use a special Ctab-buffer, which will preserve the DNA. Soil samples containing fungi will have to be put into the freezer instead of the oven. Both oven and freezer will be available at the research station.
Together with the organizing team, Constantijn is also responsible for the application of permits for collecting and export, and if necessary, a special CITES-permit for endangered species. “In general, we do not take any living things, that makes it a lot easier.” He adds: “Of all the specimens we collect, two samples will stay in Borneo. Two local institutes, the Forest Research Centre and Sabah Parks, will use those specimens for their own collection and research. This cooperation with the Malayan institutes is very important for both parties.”
Since they do not have to bring their own equipment, what will the researchers pack in their luggage? A lot, it appears. On Borneo all climates are present, from hot and humid to cold – and humid. It will not be dry. So they will need boots, moisture regulating clothes, warm sweaters and thin t-shirts. And DEET, repelling all the stinging and biting insects that feel very at home in that moist climate. “I will be doing fieldwork in the tropics for the first time”, says Constantijn, “so I am very curious about what I’m going to encounter there. I do have some research experience on Spitsbergen, but that is a totally different extreme climate, to say the least.”