Going out on a limb: Life above the forest floor

November 27, 2018
Jillaine Henry
photographer: Lyon Duong | UF Photography

The impact of global environmental change has no borders.

To assess how habitat loss and habitat degradation is impacting reptiles and amphibians, Jesse Borden, a PhD student in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at UF/IFAS, traveled to Kenya to see how these animals are using their habitat in three dimensional space, from the edge to core of the Arabuko Sokoke Forest.

Reptiles and amphibians are strong bioindicators of a healthy environment. They are some of the organisms most vulnerable to global climate change, providing researchers with signs for what to expect of other organisms. With biodiversity declining at unprecedented rates, Borden has dedicated his studies to community ecology and how ecosystems are responding to human-caused disturbances.


Jesse Borden, right, with his team in the Arabuko Sokoke Forest.

Working with Patrick Malonza, research scientist in the herpetology department at the National Museum of Kenya, Borden set off to learn more about two native reptilian species: the Tana River Gecko and the Green Keel-Bellied Lizard.

The two reptiles are classified as “data deficient” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Borden’s research specifically targets gaining information about these rare species, while simultaneously surveying the entire herpetological community in the forest to see how habitat degradation is impacting their abundances, distributions and use of ecological niches.

“To better protect biodiversity and manage healthy ecosystems in the face of rapid human-caused change, we must first understand the ecology of individual species and how they fit into their ecological communities,” Borden said.

Tackling declining biodiversity

Completely surrounded by cultivated lands, the Arabuko Sokoke Forest has a sharp boundary that is agricultural land on one side and natural forest on the other. Climate-sensitive reptiles and amphibians are greatly affected by factors that alter the microclimates of the forest.


Borden, climbs the Arabuko Sokoke Forest trees to gather samples and collect data.

Working with the Scheffers Lab and Flory Lab at UF, Borden designed this preliminary survey to collect as much data as possible on the reptile and amphibian community within the forest. Starting on the edge of the forest and moving inward toward the core, he conducted scans of the forest floor at increasing distances from the forest’s edge. Using arborist climbing techniques, Borden searched at stopping points vertically along the climbs to look at height distribution and species composition throughout the forest, from the degraded forest habitat edge to the more pristine forest interior.

While it is no surprise that global biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate, Borden recognizes the importance of first understanding the ecological role these endangered species play before being able to mitigate their loss.

“One of the biggest goals for this research project was to be a preliminary study of the area and to form connections with local agencies, organizations and people, so that we can keep designing future research there,” Borden said. “It was a study of the area to see what was going on and set the stage for future research.”

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