21 November 2017: Learning about conservation biology in the field, Yale-NUS student research trip to Danum Valley

By Daryl Yang | Images provided by Aidan Mock

During the mid-semester break, a group of students travelled to Danum Valley in Sabah, Malaysia, as part of their Conservation Biology course.

Led by Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Jennifer Sheridan, the group conducted field experiments in Danum Valley. The project that Aidan Mock (Class of 2020) worked on sought to assess whether climate change has affected the size of frogs in the area.

“There is strong support that many different types of organisms are getting smaller due to the increasing environmental temperatures caused by global warming. I was looking to see if this phenomenon can also be observed among frogs in Danum,” he explained.

“My study required me to conduct night surveys to measure the snout-vent-length of frogs. The study had to be conducted at night because many frogs are nocturnal. I compared the data against two earlier sets of data collected by Dr Sheridan and her field assistants in 2010 and 2015 to determine if there has indeed been a reduction in size of frogs over time.”

Dr Sheridan has conducted research in Danum Valley since 2010, focusing on the long-term changes in frogs and their ecological responses to habitat and land use changes. The area is known as one of the last areas of primary pristine lowland forests in Southeast Asia.

“Danum Valley is one of the best examples of primary lowland forests in Borneo. It is also one of the few areas that has a research station established in 1982,” she shared.

According to Dr Sheridan, the course aims to “understand what biodiversity is, the major threats to biodiversity and what can be done to ameliorate these threats.”

“The class focuses on biology rather than policy, which is another element of conservation. What we study include the different threats to biodiversity, as well as elements of life history, range size and species diversity,” she added.

For Adolfo Castro Dominguez (Class of 2020), his personal background led to his keen interest in the course.

“I have always been concerned with issues of biodiversity, with a parent who is a conservationist and another who’s an ex-hunter. Having both of my parents involved in these topics in some way has given me good perspectives on the conservation issues we face. Additionally, I have stayed in a biodiversity reserve in India for two years and this course allowed me to connect the learning with my desired career,” he shared.

What struck Adolfo most during the field trip was catching a glimpse of the rare red leaf langurs.

“These are monkeys which only live in Borneo and nowhere else in the world, so it was amazing to see them in the wild. Additionally, they are one of the species that I am researching on, and after reading about the forest cover loss problems they are facing, it was incredible that I was finally seeing them in the wild,” he said.

Adolfo’s project focused on the primate species that are unique to Borneo.

“My project consisted of overlapping the distribution maps of the eight primate species which live in Borneo and nowhere else with maps of forest cover loss in the 2000-2015 timeframe. Having done this, I wanted to figure out which species would require most immediate conservation action to ensure their survival,” he explained.

Dr Sheridan said that the course was planned in such a way to give students a theoretical overview of the discipline before heading into the field at Danum Valley for an opportunity to experience a pristine rainforest environment and conduct an independent research project.

“The students had great ideas going into the trip and they executed the studies very well in the field. Since returning to Singapore, they have been sorting through the data and drafting their research reports. I am hopeful that the majority of them, if not all, will be submitted for publication in a natural history journal as well,” she shared.

For Aidan, a key takeaway from the course has been understanding how the field of conservation is “a multi-faceted field that is comprehensive but not easy to access or understand.”

“There are many different ways to approach studies in the field and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to conservation. It is thus important for anyone interested in wildlife conservation to fully educate themselves about the many different aspects of the field before delving into conservation efforts across the globe. There are no easy answers to the questions facing environmental conservation, but taking the course has definitely provided me with more information to answer them in a nuanced manner,” he added.

Aidan also gained a new skill during the field trip: handling frogs.

“When we were at Danum Valley, Dr Sheridan taught us how to catch and hold frogs in the field. Up till that point, I had never caught or handled a frog before and I had the misconception that most frogs were poisonous or dangerous to handle. Being able to reach out and pretty much grab any frog sitting on a leaf or a rock was a pretty neat experience for me,” he shared.

For Adolfo, the class has expanded his understanding of conservation concerns in the world and particularly in Southeast Asia. “I am quite familiar with the context in Latin America and South Asia but this course really allowed me to better understand the region in which I now live,” he noted.