Return to Seram! (Preparations)

by Cam Webb, Research Associate
October 15, 2012

Return to Seram! (Preparations)

Looking out over the lowland forest of north central Seram

After being delayed for a year as the result of my wife’s close call with a box jellyfish and subsequent illness (still not quite resolved), we’re off to Seram on Monday for the full expedition. This will be the second site we plan to sample for our current NSF-funded research on the biogeography and ecology of Indonesian trees. I hope to post a number of (nearly) live blog entries during this trip, although we expect to be offline for much of it, far even from any cell phone signal.

Seram is in the Maluku group of islands, the fabled ‘Spice Islands’ of the past, and still a major supplier of the world’s nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, and cloves. It’s east of Wallace’s Line, with a biota similar to New Guinea, although floristically the Maluku islands are closer to the others in ‘Wallacea’ (van Welzen et al. 2011) than to New Guinea. We hope to capture the signal of this biogeographic turnover in Asian and Australian plant clades (evolutionary lineages) with our sampling of forest trees. To minimize variation in clades due primarily to soils among our five sites, we will be trying to match rock substrate as far as possible: we’ll avoid limestone and try to locate mid- to low-fertility sites on granite- or sandstone-derived, well-draining soils. This can be difficult in eastern Indonesia, where so many of the islands are either volcanic or young limestone (from raised reefs). However, the wide plain of north central Seram occurs over Pleistocene coastal sand deposits, and the foothills of the metamorphic Kobipoto massif are widely overlain by sandstones (Payton 1993). We’re also looking for local variation in elevation, so we can site some plots on drier ridges and some in moister valleys, but all below ca. 400 m ASL.

Target sample site, in the Manusela National Park

When I first visited Seram on a ‘recce’ trip last September, I was struck by the great extent of remaining forest compared to the devastated land in Borneo. However, much of the lowland forest was an almost mono-dominant stand of a valuable dipterocarp, Shorea selanica, and logging concessions to the east and west of the Manusela lowlands have been operating for many years (Kinnaird et al. 2003). While the permitting requirements for working in National Parks in Indonesia are significant, most of the remaining intact forests are still in protected areas and our five sample sites will probably all be located in parks. On my recce and during the short collecting trip carried out by Endro and Acun in April, the director and staff of Seram’s Manusela National Park were very supportive and welcoming, and we look forward to working with them again.

Overall, we are being steered towards a target sample site in the foothills of the Kobipoto range, a day or two’s walk inland from the north coast, probably along the very wide, pebbly riverbeds that drain northwards (open this KML file in GoogleEarth). I’m particularly drawn to visit the village of Elemata, which appears on GoogleMaps/Earth as a cluster of ten thatched houses in a small clearing 20 km up the Wai Isal river. Where are their fields? How do they travel in? I’m aware that this satellite image was taken in 2005. A lot could have changed in seven years, let alone since the last botanical collecting survey (Kato & Ueda 1988) passed through in 1985, led by Professor Kato of the University of Tokyo.

Preparations have been underway for several weeks now. While Seram is not really remote (there is a road along the north coast, and there is mobile phone reception in Wahai), setting off into the forest for six weeks, not knowing exactly where we are going, does make one feel a certain kinship with the ‘explorers’ of the last century. We’ll have to solve challenges of route finding, camp building, supply chains, cash caching (no ATMs past Masohi on the south coast), and health issues. We must deal sensitively with the expectations of team members and local villagers, and patiently with local government representatives. Our ‘warm up’ trip into Gunung Palung last year serves as a template for our research methods and will guide us in purchasing sufficient supplies. But compared to Kalimantan, I don’t know Maluku at all—weather, local customs, bugs, prices—and I am aware of all the things that could go wrong. I do hope I won’t have to report on this blog that I’m back home after two weeks, having sustained some serious mishap.

One of the main ways that today’s collecting trips differ from those of the last century is our use of electronics. I’ve been cramming maps into my new GPS unit (see another post on this) and downloading and organizing a PDF library of articles. Over the past few years I’ve been scanning all the relevant botanical books I can find and now have a good digital library that fits on a tablet computer. Not that we need to identify things in the field, but it makes it more fun, and should increase our efficiency slightly by alerting us to which species are very common and not in need of collection. We’ll also bring the photos of collections that Endro and Acun made in April. As with other aspects of Maluku life, I don’t know the flora, and will be very excited to get many new ‘personal firsts’ for plant genera. Our species management model—doing leaf matching via photographs in the field (explained in detail here)—means we also need digital cameras and laptops. The drawbacks of being dependent on all these gizmos are that they’re heavy, they break, they don’t like rain/rivers, and they need power. As with last time, we’ll bring a small gasoline generator into the forest with us. Now if we can just remember the extra spark plugs!

Next post hopefully from Masohi, in southern Seram.


  • Kato, M. and Ueda, K. 1988. Taxonomic Studies of the Plants of Seram Island. Botanical Gardens, University of Tokyo.
  • Payton, M. 1993. Soils of the Manusela National Park. In Edwards, I. D. et al. Natural History of Seram: Maluku, Indonesia. Andover, England: Intercept.

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