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Malaysia Rivers: Big Grant to Explore Reptiles and Amphibians

Jun 27, 2015 05:10 PM EDT
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If the number of known species on Earth is around 8.7 million, or about 80 percent of the species on our blue-green planet, as was said in 2011, we have some work to do. It's exciting, then, that a new $20,000 grant from National Geographic Society will allow researchers to vigorously explore the specific but dense area of Malaysia's rainforests and river-scapes, which researchers call "megadiverse."

Chan Kinn Onn, a doctoral student at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Ecology, has trekked through Malaysia, his home country. But now, through the Geographic grant, Chann will focus on riverscape genetics of reptiles and amphibians in one area, that country's northeast peninsula.

Since 2003, Chan has participated in field research in Malaysia, resulting in the discovery of 78 new species. This has helped raise the nation's amphibian and reptile count by more than 25 percent, according to a release on the University of Kansas website.

Chan's work will focus on shallow-water islands and three species-rich mountain chains -- the Bintang, Timur and Titiwangsa ranges -- that contain multitudes of reptiles and amphibians new to science, according to a release.

In part, the explorations will aim to bring more awareness of the biological diversity to Malaysians, Chan said in a statement on the University of Kansas website. "The Malaysian mindset about our natural world is paradoxical. On one hand, we love being outdoors and enjoying nature; on the other hand, our sense of conservation is rather lacking. That's what a lot of our research is centered upon, educating the people about the world around them -- and hopefully inspiring them to conserve it."

Chan will use the KU labs to sequence DNA and examine species relationships and population genomics. Using genomic data with a technique called "ecological niche modeling," Chan plans to look closely at four species of river-dwelling frog.

His research will focus in particular on creatures whose habitat is being destroyed by tourism projects or agriculture, in order to call attention to their situation, according to a statement on the University of Kansas website.

"We look for highly specialized species that occur in very small and limited areas, as they're the ones that are most fragile and threatened," Chan said in a statement.

The grant partners include researchers at KU, La Sierra University, and Universiti Sains, Malaysia, the release said.

If you'd like to learn more about the known species on Earth, look here.

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