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April 9, 2014

Writing about the Environment

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – The one thing that I have to do, well not really have to do, is to write a column for the Malaysian Nature Society. I sort of got roped into it by volunteering, and now I am stuck with it. I do like it though as it keeps me up with the local happenings in nature.


Borneo is not like any place I have ever lived. It is a hot spot for nature, and there are three or four article a week about goings-on in this part of the world. Hundreds of scientists have flocked here to do research, and the papers have been coming out thick and fast about the local environs.


The papers are written by the scientists and are then distributed by a publication such as the International Journal of Primatology, the Journal of Aquatic Biology or Oecologia. The problem is they cost about $30-$50 to read, and I just cannot afford it.


I have found a way around it though. I simply send an e-mail to the author and they promptly send the article back. I used to bribe them with a copy of my book, but the price for mailing is now four time the cost of the literature, so I have had to quit mailing them a copy.


Using this approach of begging, I have written about bacteria in orang-utans, the mouth parts of the Swift, the Spirit loach (a fish), a tsunami that occurred thousands of years ago, the most expensive coffee in the world, two new freshwater crabs found in caves, the origin of local mites, and the rediscovery of a bee that may or may not be part of the Sabah (a local political division here) fauna.


For some reason, frogs seem to be especially prolific. There are at least one or two each week about them. They are either new discoveries, expansions of home range or other facts about them. They occupy a prominent place in Zootaxa, the weekly spot for new discoveries.


The problem is that the newspaper I write for is a picture publication, and I just cannot provide the images. A new insect, named after the naturalist Alfred Wallace, was a mere scrap in a large collection of varmints recently discovered. It was collected along with a host of other critters and returned to the lab where each one is looked at. The new discovery is some limpid creature that looks like it has been bottled for awhile, which it was.


Another problem is understanding the articles. Most I have no problems when armed with a good dictionary. I simply look up the offending word and that the answer is provided. But the genetic ones, oh, the genetic ones.


The ones that isolate the species because of their genes are difficult, nay, impossible. They have a whole lot of mRNA, tRNA, tDNA and the like, which I don't understand and never will. They also wind around the Watson-Crick molecule and its many sub sets, which become incomprehensible after the first sentence. I have given up on these, and thank God there are not too many of them.


I will continue to write about the critters of the jungle world mainly for my own knowledge and will be able to pass it on to others. I hope they like it as well.


...Life is good. . . . .


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