Third world ecologist




A leech on a leaf, its body fat and round, full of blood.

One of the most dreadful animals of the rainforest, the pacat. Known as the land leech in English. The English language is particularly poor at describing leeches, having to append the words "water" and "land" to properly describe aquatic and terrestrial leeches. In Malay, the land leech is the pacat, while the water leech is the lintah. Pacat are typically only found in the subtropical and tropical regions of the world, they need a somewhat wet atmosphere so they don't dry out while on land.

Pacat hang off the leaves of shrubs, waiting for a passing mammal. It then grabs on and climbs in with an inching motion towards a hidden spot, like between the folds of skin or under some clothing. Once it reaches a suitable spot, it begins cutting through the skin with its jaws. It has three saw-like jaws that it uses to cut a circular hole into the skin of its host, where it releases its saliva, a cocktail of anticoagulants and substances that numb the wound. Once it is fat and full of blood, it drops off and settles somewhere to digest its meal.

Needless to say I don't like them at all. If you have to do field work in the rainforest, you end up having to peel at least a couple off your body by the end of the day. There are ways to keep them away, usually through the use of socks (Field workers usually wear long football socks which the tuck their pants into, so leeches don't get into their pants) and by frequently checking places that pacat like to feed at.

When I was a more junior researcher, I used to get so many of them on me after field work that I got really frustrated with them. I contacted a leech expert and asked him if he wanted any specimens. If they insisted on coming to me I might as well get some research out of it. I eventually got involved with a project to extract mRNA from them (I was dealing with mRNA before it was a mainstream word). And at the point when I needed to get some fresh specimens, suddenly they stopped coming for me. Animals never show up when you are looking for them. Instead of picking them off after field work, I actually had to go look for them and randomly walk through the forest and try to pick up a few on my body.

I finally managed to get some leeches, the project was done and some stuff was published from the collaboration. A few years later I heard that the leech expert was a fired for some sexual harassment allegations. I'll never know the full story, but I should be more careful with my collaborations in the future.

Star worm



A long brown beetle larva, half of it is in shadow, with only a series of small round lights that run along its body visible.

Whenever I need to write about something I just grab whatever photos I have on my computer. I have documented a ton of weird creatures, but it's all just sitting in my computer files. Now is the best chance to get it out into the world.

Rhagopthalmidae is one of those long and overly complex science words. The common name, which is much simpler, is the "Star worm". I've never seen an adult, but the larva (and possibly larviform adult female) is a brownish worm that could be mistaken for a mealworm in a brightly lit space. But put it in the dark and it looks otherworldly. It has 3 lines of glowing ghostly green spots traversing its entire body. It looks like either a tiny subway train or something out of a 90s sci-fi real time strategy game.

This is one of those species that I file under "I kind of know their habitat but they are still hard to find". They have a tendency to crawl amongst the leaf litter, and I've seen them in damp mossy beds too. I've spotted several attacking milipedes up to 5 times larger than their size biting and dragging them away. Possibly like firefly larva they have some sort of venom. Also like fireflies, they are actually a type of beetle.

I once showed one to a bunch of children, and they were amazed at the sight of the tiny crawling glowing thing. It's rather magical to see all those tiny lights moving so purposefully in the dark. These beetles are incredibly charismatic and I hope one day their existence is common knowledge.

Branded Imperial



An orange butterfly whose wings look like a sunset, its hindwings have elegant fluffy tails that are white with black spots.

I have a dislike for butterflies. Mostly because I once had to identify, sort and catalog about 10,000 specimens in my university's Lepidoptera collection. Some species are large, conspicous and easy to identify. Others like the family Lycaenidae (Appropriately also known as named "blues", which describes my emotional state when having to work with them), are an incredibly difficult game of "spot the difference". Counting the bars and spots on the undersides of wings is not fun at all.

While looking for velvet worms I spotted this butterfly along a forested path. It's a Branded Imperial, Eooxylides tharis distanti. While it belongs to the "blues", it's bright orange in color with long fluffy tails at the end of its hindwings. These likely function to distract predators from the head of the butterfly. I've seen the species several times, it's common in secondary forests and likes to patrol around a small area. If it gets spooked and flies off, there is a good chance of spotting it again in the same place on a different day. Likely it was there because its host plant, a secondary forest shrub known as Smilex, must have been close by.

Like most lycaenids, it is associated with ants. Their caterpillars have thick skins that are resistant to ant mandibles. But it is hardly necessary, since they also offer 'bribes'of sugar from a special honeydew gland to ants, which will protect them and at times even carry them around for this treat. They appear to be able to communicate in the pheromonal language of the ants, able to reduce or prevent ant aggression and signal for help if hassled by a predator.

The English name of the butterfly, the Branded Imperial, is because of historical reasons. Many of the pioneer butterfly collectors in the region, like Lt. Col. J.N. Elliot, were military men or part of the colonial apparatus. So aside from latin names, they bestowed a lot of butterflies with very militaristic/nobility associated names like Barons, Courtesans, Laskars, Yeoman, Imperials, etc. There have been efforts to give these butterflies Malay local names, but it usually involves just translating the English names. I do speculate what names these butterflies would be given in a time not so steeped in war and colonialism.

Giraffe weevil



a reddish beetle, with a compact body and a neck that is half its length

In my undergrad days I once walked into my lab to find a man with flowing long white hair on one of the microscopes. I thought that I just stumbled upon Saruman. The man was the late Mustapha Babjee, one of the original first generation of Malaysian scientists, he was retired by then but that didn't stop him from doing science. We started chatting and he told me about the giraffe weevils that he was studying in his garden. He was apparently famous for a lot of other contributions, but whenever I see one of these little weird beetles I'm reminded of this encounter.

The giraffe weevil is a small beetle (about 2cm in length) with a very long neck, which takes up half its entire body length. Unlike the girrafe of its namesake, the long neck isn't used for foraging higher up (in fact it awkwardly bends down and feeds on leaves under its body). The function of the neck is for male to male combat and the length is an example of how sexual selection creates these exagerated body forms. The males challenge each other to fights, using their necks for extra leverage to flick their opponent off the leaf that is their ring. Males with longer necks are more successful at this combat, and that causes natural selection for longer necks in this species.

As far as I know, the pictured giraffe weevil belongs to the genus Trichelophorus. They are leaf rollers, the females cut up half a leaf before rolling it into a compact cylindrical nest where they lay a single egg. This waterproof chamber keeps the larvae safe until it becomes an adult. They are quite easy to spot their presence if you can recognise the distinctive cuts and nests on the leaves. Anecdotally they seem to visit guava trees, although I have spotted them on other wild shrubs.

As a kid that was always crazy about insects I was delighted whenever I found them and I've known that they existed since I was a child. But when I talk with my friends apparently not many are aware that these little creatures are in the trees, fighting their battles, rolling their leaves and living their tiny fervid lives. With such busy lives they might think the same of us too.

Blaugust and other blog matters.



I'm throwing my hat into the ring for Blaugust 2023. This means I'm going to try to write 31 posts for the month of August. Considering the amount of animal and plant facts I have in my head, I don't think that would be difficult. The real problem is figuring out what I actually want to do with a blog.

This blog is strangely minimalistic and boring by modern web design standards. This is both intentional and caused by circumstances beyond my control. I'm keeping it simple because I don't want to spend too much time fiddling with HTML, so I can focus on the content. I also don't have much time now, so it's better to put my attention to what I think is important. Time constraints mean minimal editing and plenty of spelling errors as well.

Why the pixelated low resolution photos? I kind of missed how low resolution everything was in the 90s. And I want to try to keep my file sizes as small as possible in an exercise of minimalistic elegance. My goal is that by the end of Blaugust, I can fit everything on a 1.44MB floppy disk.

Everything will be janky and barebones, but this is the burn-in period where I try to figure out where this blog is heading. I hope you, hypothetical reader, will have some patience as you join me for this journey.




A butterfly on a purple senduduk flower

"What was that leaf that you used to treat the leech bites?" one of my friends messaged me. It happened to be that I went jungle trekking with her once and I was carrying a pocket full of leaves just in case anybody got bitten by leeches. As always in a tropical rainforest a whole lot of people got bitten by land leeches (Haemadipsa interupta). I took out my leaves, crushed it up into a rudimentary poultice and pressed it against the wound. The anticoagulants in leech saliva can cause blood to ooze from leech bites for up to 2 days. Treated properly the bleeding stops within 5 minutes. I learned how to use this leaf from some people that I met in the Wildlife department, it's a trick from the kampung.

The leaf was from the senduduk plant (Malestoma malabatrichum), a common roadside plant that grows in abandoned fields and anywhere where it is sunny enough. It tolerates very poor soils and is very hardy. It can be identified by its narrow hairy leaves and its quite attractive purple flower. The berries tht it produces is edible, and it was a common snack for kids growing up in villages. The sweet ripe berries turn the toungue a dark purple-black. Which kids would stick their now disgustingly colored toungues out at each other. Fruit eating birds also like it, and that is how it spreads its seeds so easily.

It's considered a weed by municipal councils and they are fast to clear it away, leaving the plants for too long creates large senduduk thickets and older senduduk can grow into the size of small trees. Nonetheless it's a pretty useful plant, aside from treating leech bites, boiled leaves are traditionally used to create a tea that helps with high blood pressure. It's also a lovely flower for attracting native bees.




A pink necked green pigeon on a branch

I'm not one to like vertebrates. I did most of my work with insects for both my masters and doctorate. But recently I've taken a liking to observing the Pink necked green pigeons (Treron vernans) around me. They are small pigeons, slightly smaller than the common rock pigeon (Columba livia), that are mostly arboreal. They stay in the trees, usually flying from canopy to canopy, where they search for small berry sized fruit. I can quite reliably find them by watching fruiting figs with smaller berry-like fruit like Ficus benjamina and F. microcarpa.

They're common in suburban neighbourhoods, especially ones with wild figs and planted palms. I noticed that they are not particularly early risers, usually activity begins around 10am. I rarely see them moving in groups, although they do flock together when there are no humans around. I've come across a flock of about 10-15 birds in Rimba Ilmu Botanic Garden on a weekend when nobody was around.

Their local name is the Punai. I remember someone telling me that their tiny hearts are used as a traditional medicine. Anecdotally I heard that they are getting rarer in the countryside, but it seems that they have found a refuge in the city where people are too busy, stuck in an office or classroom, to look up and notice them.

It's 2023. The age of the blog has returned.



The year is 2023. The internet has fallen apart. From its ashes rises an ancient beast. A lumbering primordial creature: The blog.

I decided to dust off my HTML skills that I learned in the early 00's and just start a rudimentary blog. There's no point in waiting for my web development skills to get good enough before I start, so I'll just put up whatever is on my mind now. I write this in notepad.

This blog was made with POSSE in mind. Basically Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere. Instead of putting my thoughts on some emphemeral app that's hard to search and archive, I'm just plopping everything here in a steaming pile of HTML.

What is this blog going to be about? It'll probably evolve into something else, but I wanted a place to talk about and put up photos of cool animals and plants. Maybe even some writing about ecology. Probably some stupid, silly stuff too.