Penang Hill BioBlitz Argonaut Update — Candace Miller

Teacher Argonaut Candace Miller is from Brooklyn, New York. She shared her journal entry from the first week of the Penang Hill BioBlitz in which she recounts her experiences birding, stargazing, surveying ants, and searching for rainforest mammals at night.

Teacher Argonaut Candace Miller

*Close your eyes*

Now imagine laying comfortably on a large wooden bench with your new Argonaut friends in the middle of the Penang Hill rainforest. The stars are beginning to peek out, and Jude hands you a gadget that allows you to explore the stars to the buzzing of life in the jungle. Time stands still as you realize just how small you are in this vast world.

*Now open your eyes*

While it seems a dream in hindsight, this was one of the many serenely scientific moments we had throughout this wildly wonderful Wednesday. Beginning by entering Penang Hill via our favorite funicular, we started the day working with bird researcher Dr. Jack Dumbacher. He taught us how to differentiate between the critter sounds and actual bird calls. This involved listening intently and trying to spot birds in the trees. Alexa, Brittany, and Travis stayed on the trail in hopes of surveying and recording the various avian creatures of the forest.

Sharon and I, on the other hand, got to spend some time with ant expert extraordinaire, Dr Brian Fisher. Initially I had reservations working with ants due to past run-ins with their sharp pincers. I decided, however, that I wanted to learn to love ants, and who better to teach me than someone who spends all of their time studying these creatures? Our group began discussing the nature of ants. Brian described the fact that to truly understand ants, one has to look at the colony as the true organism.

In the ant world, individual ants serve a purpose greater than themselves. For example, the simple process of eating is a well-orchestrated event. The daughter soldier ants that we tend to see walking about the ground find food and bring them back to the colony. There, they do not gather together around a large table and feast on their finds. Rather, they feed these solid foods to the larvae, who conveniently have the necessary anatomy to digest solid foods. In turn, these baby ants regurgitate a liquid that is then passed around to everyone in one of the two adult ant stomachs. This “social stomach” provides a means for other ants and the queen to feast as well. See what I mean!? Ants are incredibly organized and social creatures. And as a teacher, I appreciate the fact that they can stand in a straight line without constant prompting.

Eventually Brian led us off-trail where we experienced new activities, such as flipping logs in order to look for ants. While a bit tedious, it definitely pays off as later Brian proudly showed us a male ant of a species that had never before been seen or studied. The Penang Hill forest holds so many creatures that our eyes have yet to behold!

Fast forward to that afternoon, we got the opportunity to watch the sunset on the Curtis Crest walkway. I have no words that can explain how serene and beautiful it was.

Continuing on in our adventure, night fell and after looking at the stars and being still in the breeze, we met up with Priscilla Miard for a night creature walk. Using an incredibly cool (and kind of scary) night vision scope, we each had the chance to see the forest in a way we never have before! We got the rare opportunity to view nocturnal creatures such as owls, mice, and monkeys. We stealthily navigated the trail in search of mammals of the night, which happens to be when the jungle truly comes alive.

Haley and the JASON Argonauts join Priscillia Miard from the University of Science, Malaysia on a night hike to survey rainforest mammals.

All things considered, this day was filled with bugs, birds, science, passion, sunsets, serenity, and pure joy! I’d love to tell you more, but now it’s back to the jungle with JASON…

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