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Monday, June 20, 2011

Cats and Civets and Otters, Oh My!
Ever heard of a Hose's civet? How about a Borneo ferret badger or collared mongoose?? These are a few of the 24 carnivore species at the center of attention of this week's conference in Borneo. Yesterday, each species was profiled in terms of research history, distribution, and threats and the overwhelming outcome was that our knowledge of most of these creatures is abysmal.

One of the primary goals of the conference is to gather all existing and historical records on known locations of Borneo's carnivores into a single database that can then be used to create models predicting the distribution of each species. Prior to the conference, researchers completed questionnaires detailing locations of specimens from camera traps, actual sightings, road kills, etc. In addition, collection locations were amassed from specimens in natural history museums as well as from historical research publications. These data were then combined with maps of Borneo's climate, topography, and human activities and habitat alteration. The result is a Habitat Suitability Index map that serves as a very rough predictive model of where the species may occur which can drive further research and conservation planning.

Here's what the Sunda clouded leopard HSI looks like. The colors represent the probability that the species will occur in the area with dark red being the highest, the warm tones intermediate, and the blue tones being low probability.

However, it is extremely important to note that there are several factors that influence these maps and limit their predictive power. First, the records used for modelling use actual location data, the maps are strongly biased toward Sabah, the Malaysian state in the far north of Borneo as that is where most research efforts have been undertaken. Therefore, that weights the habitat there more strongly and may inaccurately indicate too low of a liklihood of a species occuring in regions that have been little studied. There are also issues with maps being out of date, especially in terms of habitat alteration. Therefore, it may show a high probability of a species occuring in an area that has been transformed into a palm oil plantation. However, these maps are an important first step in being able to determine the gaps in research efforts and point out how species distribution may relate to protected areas and influence conservation planning.

I was very impressed by the technical expertise and determination required to collate all this information for each species. It was also amazing to hear the feedback from the researchers assembled as they relayed their experiences encountering (or not encountering!) these fascinating species that have so far mostly flown under the radar of wildlife conservation attention.

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