Thursday, January 19, 2017 - 11:00

A team of UK scientists is in Borneo performing cutting-edge research to try to restore life to a rainforest depleted by deforestation and oil palm plantations.

The combined team from the University of the West of England Bristol and the Eden Project believes that the bird’s nest fern (scientific name Asplenium nidus), a plant commonly found in many homes, could play a critical role in restoring the biodiversity and reviving the ecosystems of the world’s rainforests.

Eden’s Rainforest team has been working with UWE Bristol for the last four years.  Researchers have been trialling their experiments in Eden’s Rainforest Biome to ensure that both scientific theory and sophisticated equipment can withstand the rigors of the tropical rainforest.

The next phase will not only focus on how the ferns house all sorts of life in the rainforest, but also aims to restore biodiversity to the millions of hectares of oil palm plantations that now cover much of the island of Borneo where rainforests once stood.

This is a common situation across Southeast Asia and a major factor in the global biodiversity crisis. Large areas of the biodiverse rainforest ecosystem are being lost to make way for the vast oil palm plantations that provide palm oil for a wide range of foodstuffs. 

The research is led by Dr Farnon Ellwood of UWE Bristol and his team of PhD students, Julian Donald and Josie Phillips. The Eden team consists of Hetty Ninnis, who is in charge of the Rainforest Biome – the world’s largest indoor rainforest - horticulture scientist Michael Cutler and apprentice Rosie Wade, an oil palm specialist.  

The expedition has been jointly resourced by the UK’s Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) and the Eden Project.

Hetty Ninnis said:  “We will be climbing trees and collecting bird’s nest ferns in the wild. This is a fantastic opportunity to follow the whole experiment through, from helping set the experiments up under the Eden Rainforest Biome, to installing the ferns in the high canopy of Borneo’s rainforest, before watching the experiments come to fruition in the field.

“We will experience the challenges of working in the lowland tropical rainforest of Danum Valley and also experience oil palm plantations for real, encountering leeches, river otters, and orangutans. The trip promises to be a great chance to collect real plant and people stories about this challenging subject, so we can provide our visitors with state-of-the-art information.”

The issue of oil palm expansion is now so important that UWE Bristol and Eden are building an exhibition in the Rainforest Biome to raise awareness of the consequences of replacing rainforest with oil palm. Dr Ellwood’s team believes that bird’s nest ferns are crucial to maintaining tropical biodiversity and to ensuring that processes such as carbon and nitrogen cycles continue to function. The ferns contribute not just nutrients but a unique habitat - without these plants the world’s rainforests will suffer in many different ways.

Dr Ellwood said: “Bird’s nest ferns are epiphytes meaning that, by definition, the plants rely on trees purely for support, taking no nutrients from their host in the way that a parasitic plant such as mistletoe would. The ferns feed themselves by forming a rosette of leaves, which catch rainfall, falling leaves and other debris. These ‘canopy composters’ provide homes for microorganisms and invertebrate animals such as earthworms and insects.”

Working from the controlled environment of the Eden Rainforest Biome, Dr Ellwood, Julian Donald and Josie Phillips have designed a series of experiments that will inform the latest phase of the project.

Dr Ellwood said: “Eden is our indoor laboratory. By working on a model system in a model rainforest we have been able to focus on developing our ideas, our techniques and our methodology in a precise and very controlled way before performing the experiments in the wilds of deepest darkest Borneo.

“Bird’s nest ferns are islands in a sea of canopy: they produce compost and recycle important nutrients from the trees to the forest floor; they create habitats for millions of insects and countless micro-organisms. Many of the insects, having never been seen, will certainly be new to science.” 

He added: “If epiphytic habitats such as bird’s nest ferns are removed from the rainforest, or if the ecosystems contained within them fail, there is a real possibility that the entire rainforest ecosystem could collapse, or at least change dramatically. We are in a race against time to understand and ameliorate these consequences, which is why we do everything we can to perfect our novel and highly ambitious experiments in the controlled environment of the Eden Project, before heading off into the more challenging and unpredictable environment of the real rainforest.”

A key question that the scientists wish to answer is which species play the most important role in the functioning of ecosystems, and what would happen if those species were to go extinct.

The team is filming the expedition thanks to sponsorship from camera makers GoPro. This will allow the researchers to show how the experiments unfold in Borneo, adding to the story surrounding the new UWE-funded oil palm exhibit at Eden.