Carrion Flowers and Hammerhead Flatworms: This is Why We Work

Nina Finley, a recent graduate of Whitman College currently researching disease ecology and traveling the world on a Watson Fellowship, shares her notes on an expedition to Gunung Palung National Park -- and the amazing flora and fauna she encountered there!  This is the first in a series of blog posts that Nina shared with us while visiting Sukadana and our pilot program Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI). Read more about Nina's travels on her blog Natural Selections.

I woke up on Saturday morning, my first weekend in Sukadana, itching to get into the rainforest. What better place to hike and camp than Gunung Palung National Park, the 350 square miles of protected lowland tropical forest in our backyard? My housemate, Dr. Krista, a family practice doctor from San Francisco, and I were excited to take a weekend expedition into the park. Our two backpacks bulged with sleeping bags and a mosquito net, all our bottles filled with water. At ten-past-eight, ASRI staff members Amad and Samsul arrived and we set off on our weekend adventure.

Bare-dirt rice paddies seen from our forest path | Photo: Nina Finley

The entrance to Gunung Palung National Park was barely one. Our local guide, Yudik led us down a wooden ladder, across a curved concrete dam, back up a ladder, and along the forested margin of bare-dirt rice paddies.

Workers rested on benches under a stand-alone roof, hollering and waving as we hiked by. After passing a friendly brown sapi (cow) and several relaxing kambing (goats), we veered right and ventured deeper into the forest. We walked near a cool, trickling stream and crossed in several places over stones. Pohon pisang (banana trees) and patches of sunlight made obvious the secondary-growth nature of these woods.

Epiphytic ferns enjoy the sunshine of the forest's edge. | Photo: Nina Finley

I joked with Amad that I would like to see blooming orchids and orangutans, ideally together. Soon, the anggrek (orchids) appeared! Their leaves, grass-green ovals with pointed tips and parallel veins, grew in a bunch. A single stalk, three feet tall, erupted from each cluster of leaves and carried a head of a dozen white blossoms. There was no fragrance, but the appearance was arresting. Each flower showed zygomorphic symmetry, the lower flag's pale orange contrasting with snowy-white petals. Five or more pods hung from the stem below the flowers with immature, green pods closer to the head and mature, brown-black pods lower down. These anggrek tanah (land orchids) grow in soil, unlike the epiphytic anggrek pohon (tree orchids) which show bulbous stem-bases, and the lithophilic anggrek batu (stone orchids) which can be found coating exposed boulders.

Blossoms of the anggrek tanah, land orchid. | Photo: Nina Finley


Pods of the anggrek tanah. | Photo: Nina Finley

No orangutans yet, but we encountered many strange fungi including red shelf fungus with a white outline, a rotting log smothered in little white fairy mushrooms, the perfectly round jamur mangkuk (bowl mushrooms), and an exquisite mushroom draped in a hexagonal mesh of its own creation.

The most exquisite mushroom I've ever seen. | Photo: Nina Finley


Jamur mangkuk, bowl mushroom | Photo: Nina Finley

Color was provided by the holly-red berries of kopi hutan (jungle coffee), a low, herbaceous plant reminiscent of a white-lily houseplant. I was excited to find a patch of cultivated coffee, too. Before this land was protected as a National Park, farmers tended coffee here. Now the farmers have gone, but the trees still produce a crop of red berries, each containing two slimy, green-blonde coffee beans.

Coffee beans that will never be roasted. | Photo: Nina Finley

My favorite specimen was the bunga bangkai (carrion flower). Its stalk is a sturdy stick, about two centimeters in diameter, rising from no apparent foliage to the height of my rib cage. The plant's sexual organ resembles less a flower and more the head of a spear, coated in a sheath of dripping wax or rotting flesh, and pointed to the sky. This wrinkly, gray-pink flower is encircled at the base by single, fused leaf. I caught no scent, but the name and cloud of flies – large flying ones and small crawling ones – indicate that the odor resembles putrid meat.

Bunga bangkai, carrion flower. | Photo: Nina Finley

Of course, the pohon (trees) are what truly make this hutan (forest), and the most renowned of those is the ironwood. Naturally, such a valuable tree comes with a vault of names: belian in formal Bahasa Indonesia, kayu ulin in local Malai, kayu besi to emphasize the wood’s ironlike constitution (kayu means wood, besi means iron), or Eusideroxylon zwageri if you prefer Latin. I saw only young and middle-aged individuals due to this tree’s immense value as timber. One grand old stump remained near the trail as a ghost of forests past. Its wood was vivid reddish-orange. A gnarled knot at the base surely would have caused a secret passage to open, had this tree been a whomping willow. I could see multiple episodes of cutting and regrowth, giving reason to believe this was a tenacious tree. Currently, a foot-in-diameter shoot is defying death and emerging from the main stump. I hope no axe or chainsaw thwarts its mission to the sun.

Photo: Nina Finley

We saw no birds. The only signs of orangutan were discarded fruit shells and a nest high in the canopy. Today’s fauna was dominated by invertebrates. Mosquitoes, of course. Ants, both usual and unusual. I was horrified and intrigued by the raja semut (king ants), growing up to five centimeters long plus sweeping antennae of half that length. Their bulbous, translucent abdomens looked ready to pop with a toxic ruby fluid. They made up for their large individual body mass with low numbers; I saw maybe twenty ants in total, crossing the path and milling in their nest below the leaf litter. The largest – the king of kings – carried a dead cricket in his jaws. He refused to let it go despite our harassment. Amad warned me, “Don’t let it bite you! It is poison!” but that didn’t stop Yudik from letting one crawl over his hand and fingers. Anything for the photo!


Raja semut, king ant. | Photo: Nina Finley

We saw tractor millipedes with segmented black armor like suits of mail, and a smaller brown millipede on a leaf. A pillbug rolled into an unassailable ball. A red worm thrashed maniacally when the rain started; here and in Bali I have observed the most lithe, energetic worms of anywhere in the world. Ant lions guarded a landscape of sand craters under the log table and benches in our camp; perhaps they congregate here for the ants that seek our crumbs, or perhaps the shelter makes a dry, dusty substrate they can’t resist. A few large butterflies startled as we passed. A thorned grasshopper melded into a mossy boulder.

Tractor millipede (Polydesmida) | Photo: Nina Finley


Tightly curled pillbug | Photo: Nina Finley


Small, brown millipede.| Photo: Nina Finley


Thorned grasshopper blending in with a mossy boulder. | Photo: Nina Finley

The best invertebrate of the morning was certainly the hammerhead flatworm, also known as a broadhead planarian, of the genus Bipalium. It's no leech or earthworm, but a member of the phylum Platyhelminthes along with parasitic tapeworms and flukes. Luckily, planarians are predators of worms and slugs, not parasites of humans. To eat, they evert their pharynx and digestive juices over a prey item and dissolve it outside their body before absorbing the nutrients into their branching gut. (Reminds me of ochre sea stars back home!) This flatworm was decorated with black-and-white scrawl markings and a perfect hammerhead.

Hammerhead flatworm, Bipalium sp. | Photo: Nina Finley

At one point, Samsul paused to pluck a treacherously spiny vine from the forest floor. It was rotan (rattan in English), the vine of a creeping palm used to make rope, hats, jewelry, and woven cane furniture. I was amazed to see how Samsul handled the weapon without harming himself. He looped it around the trunk of a tree and flossed it back and forth, shredding off the spiny green bark and transforming it into harmless fiber.

Rotan (rattan), a creeping palm vine.| Photo: Nina Finley


Samsul neutralizes its spiny bark.| Photo: Nina Finley


A coil of strong rattan fiber. | Photo: Nina Finley


Yudik wore a delicate ring of woven rattan.| Photo: Nina Finle

Finally, our hike’s lookout did not disappoint. The ridge opened to a panoramic view of the valley below, painted from edge to edge with rectangular rice paddies in shades of green. The houses served neatly to separate the paddies from the broccoli-like tufts of rainforest trees coating the hills and beyond. The rainforest melted into raggedy shards of cloud, giving the illusion that it might continue to the very ends of the earth.

Photo: Nina Finley

Twilight was filled with the screeches of cicadas. A frog chorus rose and fell. Insulated from the distraction of the internet, I welcomed a sense of peace. I could smell oxygen and clorophyll and pulsing life. This is why ASRI and Health in Harmony exist to promote planetary health. This is why we work.


About Nina Finley | View all posts by Nina Finley