Bee Gardens

from Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop with Dr Noraini Bahari

Dr Noraini Bahari is a member of MY Bee Savior. She was a landscape architect at USIM for six years and is currently a senior lecturer at UiTM, Perak.

Bees today

MY Bee Savior Association is an NGO that was established in 2015 to create public awareness of the importance of bee sustainability. It also aims to strengthen the efforts to increase bee populations and to empower corporate commercialisation in the field of bee keeping. Bees are highly important for crop pollination. These bees include Apis mellifera (western honey bee), native to Europe, and Apis cerana (eastern honey bees) which can be found in our country. They are highly managed in hives for crop pollination.

Populations of these agricultural pollinators are declining worldwide. This phenomenon, known as Colony Collapse Disorder, occurs when the majority of worker bees disappear. It first came to the world’s attention with reports of western honey bees disappearance in North America in 2006.  But most beekeepers in European countries (especially in Northern Ireland) experienced a similar phenomenon in 1998, where there was a reported decline of 50% in bee population.

Now, this phenomenon has become global and affects some Asian and African countries as well. This shows the great need to protect, conserve and preserve our bee populations. We have to start worrying now before it is too late. 

The possible causes of Colony Collapse Disorder include climate change, non-native species presence, pesticides and genetically modified crops. Discontinuous supply of flora resources, disease and habitat fragmentation all play a role in the decline of bee populations.

Bees need us. How can we help them?

From the perspective of a landscape architect, one of the ways which can help restore bee populations and preserve their habitat is establishing bee gardens. Cities hold the key to saving bees because cities encompass urban green spaces (UGS), for example, green roofs, public gardens, community gardens, allotments, domestic gardens, etc. The ability of these places to support biodiversity has been recently acknowledged. There is now a call to effectively integrate these UGS in biodiversity planning and management to ensure their full inclusion in biodiversity conservation.

The urban garden is one of the UGS that we are concentrating on now. It is preferred by bees because of the wide range of fruits, vegetables, flowers that can be found in the garden. Many studies find that urban gardens often attract up to ten times more bees than the places we might consider bee havens such as nature reserves, parks, cemeteries and other public green spaces. This is because bees are unable to thrive when there are only trees or turves. Thus, we should try to plant a variety of flowering plants that are richer in pollen and nectar.

Bees provide flowers the vital service of pollination, help us to produce healthy crops and maintain thriving ecosystems, which in turn ensure our health. In simple words, bees are important for the overall health of the environment.

Urban bees

Here are some of the bees that can be found in our cities:

  • honey bees (lebah madu)
  • stingless bees (lebah kelulut)
  • solitary bees (lebah tunggal)
  • bumblebees (lebah dengung)

(among the four types of bee, the bumblebee is perhaps the most glamorous because of the movie Transformers)

Establishing bee gardens in the city

Bees are unique insects. They play a major role in plant pollination due to their absolute dependence on flowers as their source of food. Therefore, bees that live in the cities seek out green spaces like parks and gardens. These green spaces in urban areas provide a proper habitat to the bees, thus helping in the conservation of bees.

When designing a bee garden, the flowers have to be in large patches because these would allow bees to dine at one spot for a long period of time. Otherwise bees would expend too much energy flying from one location to another, leading to stress. In one spot, we ought to have more than two species of plants. Researchers suggest a minimum of ten species of plants to be planted in one spot.

When there is limited space, a vertical bee garden can be one solution. We can use walls or trellis as media to hang the plants. We can also make cool ponds for bees to take water, adding features like pebbles in the water so the bees have something to land on and do not drown.  

Typology of green spaces for bee gardens

There are many types of green spaces in the city. When considered collectively as wider infrastructure, they can create extensive and powerful recreational, cultural or community spaces and improve environmental quality as well as provide diverse and species-rich habitats.

Urban squares attract urbanites to get together and socialise, why not extend this function to let bees to have fun as well? By planting a variety of trees and plants in the planter boxes, and establishing green roofs at the gazebos, we can make urban squares key sites for conserving bee populations. 

Bioswale or rain garden can be turned into ‘Beeswale’ gardens. While managing the stormwater, we can also take care of urban bees.

Vertical walls have an amazing and dramatic appeal. These walls are popping up in major cities all over the world. A large vertical wall can be covered by hundreds of plant species which are good for bees.

Bee pop-up gardens can be established anywhere in the city, even at the roadside or in parks. They beautify the environment while providing foraging habitat for bees in the city. One of the pop-up gardens in Sweden comprises hexagonal structures which act as planting vessels that contain plants and water. These gardens can be incorporated into edible gardens as well.

Other places include rooftops, residential gardens and small individual gardens.

The landscape structure of bee gardens

To sum up, the basic elements for creating bee habitats are softscape, hardscape and water features.

Softscape refers to a composition of native plants with varieties of bee-preferred species. These plants should have flowers that are rich in pollen and nectar. It is good if the plants flower all year round. The plants also have to be intensely fragrant and have vivid colours. Some choices include Cosmos caudatus (ulam raja), Portulaca grandiflora, Angelonia spp, Antigonon leptopus (coral vine or air mata pengantin), Jasminum sambac (jasmine), Nelumbo nucifera (lotus).

Hardscapes or hard structures such as planter beds, boxes or vertical walls support the plants. These structures are useful when you have limited garden space. We can also construct bee houses or bee hotels for solitary bees to rest, lay eggs and raise their young. Although these bees do not produce honey, they are excellent pollinators.

Water features provide fresh water for the bees.


This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

You can watch the entire session here.

Biodiversity Gardening

from Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop with Tan Kai Ren

Tan Kai Ren was the project officer of the Rimba Project in University of Malaya where he conducted a series of urban biodiversity conservation and education programmes. He also organised the Klang Valley City Nature Challenge in 2019, a citizen science project that focused on collecting biodiversity data in the urban area. A former YSEALI Academic Fellow for Natural Resource Management and Environmental Issues, he is now an environmental officer at Club Med Cherating.

Kai Ren discusses how we benefit from biodiversity and how we can introduce elements that promote urban biodiversity.

Importance of biodiversity

Biodiversity provides us with oxygen and food, a fact that many of us seldom appreciate as we do not see the link between nature & human. It helps increase productivity as diverse soil microbes are involved in nutrient cycles where they break down organic matter underground and keep plants healthy.

Biodiversity also contributes to our health. Many pharmaceutical products are made with raw materials that come from many different plants in the forest. It contributes to our economy as well: places with high biodiversity become recreational destinations and attractions for tourism.

Biodiversity contributes to pest control too as it regulates the number of pests by natural processes through prey and predator interaction.

The keys to high biodiversity in your garden

High number of plant species results in high diversity of features and micro-climates that promote different kinds of wildlife. For example, companion plants grown alongside desired garden plants distract insect pests. This helps targeted plants grow more successfully.

Selecting local plant species for your garden attracts local animals as they seek their preferred food.

There is an easy way to look at how local wildlife can improve our life quality. The plants and animals such as the mammals, insects and birds in our garden interact among one another, forming food webs that regulate the population number of each species, including pests.

Many people think that more plants will attract more mosquitoes. In fact, once a whole ecosystem is established, there will be fishes eating the mosquito larvae and dragonflies eating the mosquitoes. As a result, less mosquitoes are found in the place.

The roles of a garden as a habitat

As urbanisation takes place, land that was covered almost entirely by natural forest habitats is replaced by high-rise buildings, roads and houses that lead to habitat fragmentation. Some animals find it difficult to survive in such conditions, especially those that need large spaces, e.g. elephants, tigers and other large mammals. Animal populations end up being threatened, some may become locally extinct, even the so-called common or urban species.

To re-introduce wildlife into our city, we can start growing fruit trees and wildflowers in our garden, as these plants attract butterflies and birds. We can view gardens as a shared space for ourselves and the wildlife. When we establish a balanced ecosystem in our garden, our garden serves as a place for animals to rest, nest and feed. Perhaps it is not for the relatively large animals, but the garden is still friendly to smaller and more mobile animals that contribute to the food chain.

We can view gardens as a shared space for ourselves and the wildlife.

We can try to make our gardens a bit wilder so as to attract wildlife such as the monitor lizard, bats and the Asian tree toad. Sometimes, when biodiversity comes to us, we push it away for reasons like guano from bats, for example. However, we can still try to find a solution to overcome these problems.

During the Klang Valley City Nature Challenge, over 2000 species of plants and animals were documented in Kuala Lumpur despite its urban setting. Urban gardens play a large role in supporting wildlife. Therefore, anyone can contribute to wildlife conservation, even in the city, by just growing a single plant in his or her garden.

Elements to encourage biodiversity

  1. Sunlight. The essential element that plants can’t live without but there should not be too much exposure.
  2. Shade. Shade is especially important for certain plants such as moss, ferns and orchids.
  3. Water. Both continuous supply and temporary puddles are important to wildlife. Water features will attract frogs that eat mosquitoes.
  4. Hideouts. The small lizards and frogs need these dark spaces, whether they are natural or artificial.
  5. Plants. Have more plants that attract pollinators such as bees, butterflies as well as birds. The selection of plants depends on our expectations and objectives. Arrange plants in multiple layers to create spaces for shade-loving species. It is important to know the growing requirements of the plants. Choose plants that flower and fruit all year round. These plants are best for wildlife.
  6. Decaying materials. Compost, logs, mulch that consists of dry leaves or wood chips increase biodiversity underground and keep plants healthy.
  7. Feeding station. Provide grains for birds.

Ideas for a wildlife garden

  1. Build an insect hotel by piling branches or rocks to create a moist and dark space for the insects.
  2. Mulch plants to attract beneficial insects and earthworms that help release nutrients back into the soil. This will also attract more birds e.g. the wild junglefowl.
  3. Create a small pond using plastic bottles or trays. Insert fish to inhibit breeding of mosquitoes. Small ponds help to increase biodiversity despite their size. It is also a good place for dragonflies to lay eggs.
  4. Start composting. We produce food waste every day. The fruit peels or roots of vegetables can be turned into compost that help gardens grow.
  5. Limit the use of insecticides as the toxins will cause long-lasting effects on non-target insects. Try alternative methods e.g. hand removal of the pest insects.
  6. Plant fruit trees as most of them are perennial. Besides, they bear edible fruits for humans and animals.

Knowing your limits

Knowing the right microclimate is especially important for plants such as orchids and leafy vegetables. Also, make sure there are enough spaces for the plants to grow. The intensity of sunlight is a decisive factor for plant growth. We also need to have the suitable soil type to produce healthy plants that support wildlife.

Most importantly, make sure you have enough time to manage your own garden. More is not always better as nature can be messy sometimes. It is always about balance. Avoid dominance in terms of plants as well as animals. 


This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

You can watch the entire session here.

Butterfly Gardens

from Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop with Dr Cyren Wong Zhi Hoong

Dr. Cyren is an ecological anthropologist and ethnozoologist who studies the relationship between human society and the natural environment. He is also a lepidopterist who specialises in the study of butterflies & moths. One of the chapters of his PhD research focuses on the butterfly naming and collection practices among Semai people living in Gopeng and Cameron Highland.

Why Butterflies?

Butterflies are a suitable flagship species for insect conservation because the adults share resources with a wide range of other beneficial insects such as flower flies and bees. As generalist feeders, many of the flowering plants for adult butterflies are also suitable to sustain populations of other pollinating insects.

Besides, both adult and larval stages of butterflies are very important food sources for a wide variety of animals including birds, reptiles and amphibians.

Also, many butterflies, especially the urban ones, are large, brightly coloured and easily recognisable. These characteristics make them prime candidates for simple observation. From an educational perspective, butterflies possess a strong cross-cultural appeal, across relatively broad demographics.

Another reason is butterflies are unable to cause physical harm through transmission of diseases, biting or stinging, which makes them excellent candidates for community science projects and amateur studies.

Plant Selection

To create a butterfly garden, the first thing you need to do is to make a distinction between larval-host plant and the adult-food plant. Larval-host plants are species of plants that are necessary for butterflies to complete their larval stages whereas the adult-food plants are flowers that butterflies prefer to feed on.

Food plants for adult butterflies

The great thing about butterfly gardening is that the different life stages of butterflies have different needs. You can partition your garden or create a segregated area in such a way that you have plots of more attractive flowers that butterflies can fly around, and put your larval-host plants somewhere hidden if you worry the site would be full of caterpillars or the leaves would be full of holes.

Fortunately, most butterflies are generalists. It is not that difficult to choose adult-food plants for the butterflies. Of course, there would be certain flowers that butterflies are more attracted to than others. These are flowers that meet the CEWL criteria.

  • C – cluster flowers
  • E – exposed nectaries
  • W – warmer colours
  • L – longer stamens

Cluster flowers

If you observe butterfly-attracting plants, one of their common characteristics is that they have flowers that bloom in a clustered pattern. These are plants where multiple flowers are grouped together on a single stalk. For example, flowers of Lantana, Ixora, Bauhinia, Saraca and Buddleia.

Exposed nectaries

Butterflies also prefer flowers with exposed nectaries. Flowers that have short nectar receptacles such as those of the family Asteraceae, i.e. daisy or daisy-like flowers, are usually excellent choices because most of them possess bright colours and short nectar receptacles. They are easy for butterflies to access.

Some people ask whether they can grow morning glory and butterfly pea to attract butterflies. The fact is butterflies do visit them but as a general rule, many tube-shaped flowers tend to be more frequently visited by bees compared to butterflies as their receptacle are too deep for many small or medium-sized butterflies. Therefore, they don’t prefer these flowers although they still visit them when there is a shortage of food sources.

Warm colours

In terms of colours, butterflies tend to be more attracted to colours on the warmer end of the spectrum as opposed to bees that tend to be attracted to colours on the cooler end of the spectrum. Butterflies tend to go for flowers that are in shades of pinks, reds, yellows, oranges, or even white. In fact, if you are in the forest and you want to see butterflies, you can lay down a piece of red cloth on the forest floor. You will find that many species of butterflies even the ones that usually just stay at the upper canopy level descend to investigate when they see the red colour.

Long stamens

If you are fortunate enough to notice larger butterflies in your area such as the swallowtail or birdwing butterflies, and you wish to attract more of these butterflies to your garden, you can also try to grow plants with longer stamens. The stamens and the anther are parts of the flower that stick out where the pollen is attached. Examples of flowers are Hibiscus, Clerodendrum, the pagoda flower, and Caesalpinia.

Larval-host plant

The other thing you need to know is how to select the larval-host plants. The adult-food plants and the larval-host plants are equally important if you want to sustain a stable population of butterflies.

It is definitely not enough to just grow flowers without a reliable food source (for their young) that they can breed on. The butterflies will not be able to sustain themselves in the long run and you will eventually see less and less butterflies as time goes by.

Try to observe and identify the butterflies that you see in your surrounding area and the plants that they visit, since butterflies are also found near plants that they reproduce on. You can do a bit of research on their interactions with the local flora. Look at the plants where butterflies stop and lay eggs. These plants are the first plants that you should be cultivating.

Unfortunately, many of these larval-host plants are what we consider weeds. You might not be able to buy the plants at a nursery. On the other hand, because many of them are weeds, upon discovering a larval host plant, you could just dig it up and bring it home.

Community-Assembly Approach

The thing to remember is that we are trying to build a sustainable habitat for a community of local butterflies and other pollinators. In nature, every species is a member of a community. It goes through a series of checks, balances and filters that ultimately decide whether the species is capable of adapting and integrating with other plants and animals that are already in that area. This process is what ecologists know as community-assembly theory.

In our urban gardens, every stage of this selection that would otherwise be driven by environment and inter-species interaction, is driven by us since we decide the plants to be grown and propagated in our gardens.

By controlling the species composition of plants to be grown, we also control what animals are capable of living and thriving in the spaces that we create. Therefore, when you are creating your butterfly garden, it is useful to think of it as living experiment and you get to decide what the final community structure would look like.

Dr Cyren’s advice is to always start small. Try to pay attention to not only how well your plants are growing in your garden but also whether the plants are attracting local butterflies or any other pollinators. If they are, you can add more of these plants in your garden. However, if the plants are not doing well or more importantly, if none of the local butterflies are interacting with them, then maybe it is time to get rid of the plants and try something else.

Challenges

The mindset that many people have today, especially if they are not wildlife enthusiasts or environmentalists, is that the human environment needs to be carefully designed, manicured and sterile. Even in these so-called green cities and communities, we tend to witness spaces with closely manicured lawns, and an abundance of non-native ornamental plants which are not really of any use to local wildlife.

You can see the beautiful green walls and trees. But, if you look closer, there is no sign of fauna interaction. Birds are not building nests in the trees. There is no insect munching at the leaves and no flower attracting butterflies and bees. There is very little space in our urban communities to set aside and allow nature to thrive, to run wild, which is precisely what the beneficial animals need.

The other important thing to consider is to try and just allow things to go a little wild. In fact, a lot of grasses and wild flowers that are very weedy or ‘semak’ to us play an important role and are irreplaceable. We cannot swap them out for ornamental ones as they have the vital position in the life cycle of countless species of native animals.


This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

You can watch the entire session here.

Fig Trees in Town

Fig fruit
Image by Couleur from Pixabay

We might not all recognize them, and we might not recognize all of them but fig trees are among the native flora that have come to settle in cities with us.

Some are intentionally planted in urban areas, while others continue to appear spontaneously, self-sowing, even in the less than ideal habitat that is the city landscape.

Fig plants belong to the genus Ficus and there are over 700 species of fig species spread throughout the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Throughout Peninsular Malaysia alone, there are around a hundred Ficus species native to the peninsula.

fig plant aerial roots

This large group of flowering plants has a diverse growth pattern and, depending on species, can be

  • large trees,
  • shrubs,
  • climbers or
  • epiphytes (plants which live on the surface of other plants for support)

In the wild, these plants are important sources of food and shelter for wildlife. In some natural ecosystems, they are so important that they are described as keystone species.

Keystone species are organisms in a community that have a great influence on other members, regardless of their actual size or number. Although all organisms will have a role to play in a given habitat, the presence of keystone species can be critical to the welfare of the other organisms.

But what role can these plants play in cities?

The Ficus species that survive in cities tend to be those that come from relatively dry and exposed natural habitats like the edges of forests. Or they are the kinds that are capable of sprouting (from seeds dropped by animals) from crevices, to cling to and grow on vertical surfaces like stone walls.

While not all species of native figs can tolerate city conditions, those that do, share the features that make these groups of plants valuable in the wild. They produce fruits that a large variety of urban wildlife, including squirrels, shrews, primates, bats, and fruit-eating birds, find palatable.

The dense crowns and surface roots of fig trees on the other hand, are of value to urban residents where they can offer shade and stabilize and enrich soil cover. Fallen leaf litter decompose and return nutrients to soil and the spreading, surface roots of the trees help prevent soil erosion by improving the soil structure.

weeping fig tree, Ficus benjamina
Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina)
Photo by Craig Franklin (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Fig trees will also do what trees do so well—provide spaces (holes, branches) for animals to build shelter and nests. In return, animals spread the seeds from fig fruits far and wide.

But there is one animal, an insect, with which figs have a somewhat unique relationship. One which determines how it flowers and fruits, thereby helping make it the important food source that it is.

The very old tale of the fig and the wasp

For each fig species, there is a single wasp species capable of transferring the flowers’ pollen to allow the plant to reproduce. The wasp species in turn relies solely on that fig flower to complete its life cycle (to live in and lay its eggs). One would not survive without the other.

As important as these two groups of plants and insects are to each other, their interdependent relationship affects other life forms as well.

fig wasp species, female
Fig wasp species (female)
Photo by Robertawasp (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The reason that fig plants are considered keystone species is tied to this relationship with wasps. In order for there to be enough chances for the short-lived wasps to find flowers or fruits to live in, individual plants produce flowers and fruits at different times throughout a year.

This means that there is almost always a fruiting fig tree. Even when other plants in some forest communities fail to produce fruit or are not in season, fruit eating mammals and birds would be able to find a supply of food at a fig plant.

Nature in cities

The fig tree is a good example of a tree that is traditionally popular, capable of withstanding urban conditions and has ecological significance (for both humans and wildlife).

There are many factors that dictate what trees can be planted without disrupting roads and spaces for pedestrians, residents and drivers. Nevertheless, the urban habitat consists of such a variety of land types and structures that, by understanding the ecology of wildlife, cities may very well be able to meet both practical and ecological concerns.

References

Lok, A. F. S. L., W.F. Ang, B.Y.Q. Ng, T.M. Leong, C.K. Yeo & H.T.W. Tan (2013). Native fig species as a keystone resource for the Singapore urban environment. Singapore: Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research.

Shanahan, M., So, S., Compton, S. G., & Corlett, R. (2001). Fig-eating by vertebrate frugivores: a global review. Biological Reviews76(4), 529-572.

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Biodiversity in Cities

plant shoot road

In recent years, ecologists have begun to take a second look at plants and animals appearing in cities. There seems to be more ‘nature’ in urban areas than one would expect. Cities are supposed to be human territories—steel, brick and concrete—not exactly welcoming to wildlife. But urban places display a variety of species and habitats – biodiversity—in places we did not plan for them.

This makes us ask some questions:

Why are these plants and animals surviving in human settlements while others disappear? How and when did they move in? How many of them can survive in our cities?

Urbanized areas often share characteristics like:

  • hard surfaces (roads, pavement)
  • roads and buildings that break up natural, vegetated spaces
  • bright light at night, loud sounds, water and soil pollution

All of these are known to make it difficult for ‘natural’ habitats to survive near cities.

But there are also ‘built’ green spaces like public parks and private gardens that cultivate a wide range of native and exotic plants. These can form the bases of food chains that attract consumers (like ants, grasshoppers, bees, beetle, squirrels) and their predators (lizards, birds, and monkeys), without our approval. If left uninterrupted, patches of wild ecosystems can be established within these built spaces.

But exactly which species of birds, bees and trees settle in cities? Where in a city are you more likely to come across wildlife? And, how come I can see kingfishers in one district but not another?

Another attribute of cities is the diversity of the habitats (or shelters) they can, unintentionally, form. Within one city, you can find

  • abandoned lots-turned-grasslands
  • waterways
  • old buildings that create dark and cool shelters
  • long stretches of roadside vegetation
  • food gardens
  • golf courses
  • remnant forests

Each of these will have unique structural features, creating different kinds of habitats.

gliding lizard

For instance, reptiles that inhabit open spaces within their original forest habitats will probably adapt well to places in cities that have widely spaced trees and vegetation.

Wildflowers too benefit from the abundant sunlight and absence of competition (bigger plants) in urban patches. These are conditions not found beneath dense, natural forest canopies.

A more familiar example is the ubiquitous city pigeon. Have you ever wondered why this bird in particular flocks in cities worldwide? One reason might be the similarity between its original habitat – rocky cliffs – and the hard, ledged surfaces of city buildings that offer it space for nesting.

There is also another feature of cities that might be important for supporting biodiversity – the greater amount of food available. For species that are not very particular about their diet, gardens, cafeterias, litter, bird feeders, ornamental trees and nutrient-rich waterways offer abundant food resources.

So what does this mean for us?

One reason that ecologists are interested in urban wildlife is the benefits associated with biodiversity.

In natural ecosystems, there is abundant tree and vegetation cover, and processes like pollination, seed dispersal and decomposition that are carried out by large and small animals. All of these contribute services like food production, climate and water supply regulation.

These benefits (also known as ecosystem services) are important for us. If cities can support biodiversity, then they can help in species conservation and contribute these services that keep our environment healthy.

Urban biodiversity still poses many questions for ecologists to explore.

  • How much green space is enough for biodiversity conservation?
  • What ecosystem services can we expect from urban biodiversity?
  • How are urban plants and animals different from those in natural habitats?
  • How and why do biodiversity patterns vary among cities and geographical regions?

Answering these questions will take time and require that we pay closer attention to the other lives unfolding parallel to ours. 


Resources for further reading:

Müller, N., Ignatieva, M., Nilon, C. H., Werner, P., & Zipperer, W. C. (2013). Patterns and trends in urban biodiversity and landscape design. In Urbanization, biodiversity and ecosystem services: Challenges and opportunities (pp. 123-174). Springer, Dordrecht.

Schilthuizen, M. (2019). Darwin comes to town: How the urban jungle drives evolution. Picador.

Related articles

Visit @ubi_my and @Urban Biodiversity Malaysia for more on Malaysia’s urban biodiversity

Gliding lizards and how disturbance helps biodiversity

gliding lizard

Draco gliding lizards are interesting tropical animals. They have ‘wings’ that fold out from their ribs and allow them to glide from tree to tree. They also have a small flap under their chins that acts as both a flag to communicate and like the tail of a plane to stabilise their flight. When I read about them as a kid, they always struck me as incredibly exotic animals that would be really hard to find.  It turns out that they are quite well adapted to living in our cities.

There are 11 species of Draco in Peninsular Malaysia. In the natural world, they tend to be found in forest clearings where there is space between trees and not too much dense vegetation. These gaps between trees are usually created by tree fall events. In a mature rainforest, trees fall very often, either due to old age, disease, or unstable soil. Rainforest trees are often connected to other trees by vines or lianas, so when one tree goes down, it can pull down others and crush anything smaller in its path. This is a natural disturbance that creates gaps in the otherwise dense canopies of the rainforest. Young trees and saplings use this opportunity to fill the gap and start the cycle over again.

Liana have long, woody winding stems that climb up vertical structures like trees, thus extending from the ground to high canopies

Many species are known to take advantage of these forest gaps, including gliding lizards. The constant disturbance of tree falls creates more diverse patches of forest, where trees of different species and ages are always going through tree falls and regrowth, nothing staying permanent. This, in turn, creates space for all sorts of gap species that are adapted to these environments. The layperson may view change and disturbance as something undesirable or negative, but these are necessary processes to keep the ecosystem in balance.

In cities, humans are the main force of disturbance. We cut weeds and shrubs and maintain clear gaps between trees. While this may not be good for animals that prefer some shelter, the lack of dense vegetation seems to be a boon for gliding lizards. They can bask in the sunlight created by our sparsely planted trees and glide in between them with ease. Scientists call this pre-adaptation – an organism is predisposed to survive in certain habitat structures, allowing it to take advantage of new habitats with similar features.

A lot of our urban species have, by luck of the draw, found a place for themselves in our urban spaces. So perhaps we should ask the question of how we should use disturbance as a tool for biodiversity and healthier ecosystems, instead of maintaining landscapes just for the sake of maintaining aesthetic practices.

References:

Whitmore, T. C. (1984). Tropical rain forests of the Far East. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Grismer, L. L. (2008). A revised and updated checklist of the lizards of Peninsular Malaysia. Zootaxa, 1860(1), 28-34.