Iva Njunjić’s dream to explore caves and work on cave beetles took her far from her home country of Serbia — to the beautiful island of Borneo.
This photo was taken during field work in Sabah, Malaysia where Prof. Menno Schilthuizen, his PhD student Mohd Zacaery bin Khalik and I went to explore caves and hunt for new species of cave invertebrates. We spent many days around a small village on the Kinabatangan River, trying to locate caves in numerous limestone hills and gather information about the organisms that live there.
The inaccessibility of subterranean habitats makes these animals poorly known and poorly understood by both scientists and local communities. As a result, they’re under strong anthropogenic pressure, facing threats of quarrying and pollution. Our mission was to measure the biodiversity of cave beetles and snails. (Some of the explorations we undertook in this area are captured in a short video.)
Our days were filled with adventures in the field, stunningly beautiful caves and interesting animals, but the tropical temperatures, mosquitoes, and sharp vegetation made it hard work. Our evenings, meanwhile, were peaceful – we would sort out the material we had collected during the day and watch life in the forest change as the sun goes down.
This photo was taken during one such evening, while Menno was examining beetles from a cave that we found that day. We were staying with a local family. The youngest two of the five children were interested in our toys: strange-looking animals, vials, a microscope, petri dishes, and several kinds of forceps.
They watched from a distance, slowly approached our table and, finally, joined our game of “look what I found today.” In fact, scientists do not differ much from children. We share the same fascination of the world around us, and we are driven by the same basic human instincts to explore and discover new things.
But, unlike children, scientists have a somewhat wider array of toys at their disposal; and are more aware of the size of the worlds that are yet to be explored, analysed and explained. I remember how fascinated with nature I was as a child. I was often botanising in my grandparents’ garden on Mount Durmitor in Montenegro, or trying to identify insects from an old book I had found in the attic.
I haven’t changed all that much since then. I’m still excited when I find a beetle I’ve never seen before or when I descend into a sinkhole knowing that I am the first person to discover and explore that particular part of the subterranean world. As scientists we are privileged never to grow out of our bug period – we can still play in the mud whilst others must wear suits.
Which leads me to my current job. As a co-founder and co-director of Taxon Expeditions, I help non-scientists to make scientific discoveries. By doing real scientific research in the heart of the Borneo rainforest, guided by expert scientists, we let people wake up their dormant inner child. Together, non-scientists and scientists discover, name, and publish completely new species of wild animals, especially insects and other invertebrates. The collected samples are put into a database, DNA-sequenced, and deposited in the Borneensis Collection of Universiti Malaysia Sabah. There, they become part of a permanent reference collection for Borneo-based biodiversity conservationists and scientists.
This way, participants go home with the unique experience of having discovered and named new species of wildlife themselves, and to have contributed to the documentation of Borneo’s threatened biodiversity. Over time, we will build a resource for other researchers who are working throughout Borneo to understand the impact of deforestation but are often hampered by the lack of online databases of organisms tinier than birds and mammals.
Some might think this is nothing but a new sort of eco-tourism, but to me, it’s a completely new way of doing biodiversity science and funding taxonomical research. Our first expedition will take place in September-October 2017, and both Menno and I are very excited. We’re hoping to find participants who are eager to learn new things, willing to forget, for a few weeks, about their everyday jobs and let themselves be submerged into a wonderful world of science and play as if they were children again.
Iva Njunjić is a co-founder and co-director of Taxon Expeditions. She obtained her PhD from the Paris-Sorbonne University and published scientific papers on the bizarre spider-like cave beetles of southeastern Europe. Her work has been featured in international media like The Guardian and Live Science and some of her cave explorations were captured in videos that can be viewed here and here.