How does one immortalise oneself?

In the field of zoology, one way is to find a novel species and to get it named after you. That said, this is no easy feat. For most, this remains a dream. But for Dr Khairul Adha A. Rahim, one of Borneo's leading aquatic biologists and a senior lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, this dream has recently turned into reality.

Far in the untouched streams of the Bornean rainforests, the research team, led by Dr Alexandra Zieritz from the University of Nottingham, discovered two new species of freshwater mussels as well as a new genus. One species was named Khairuloconcha lunbawangorum after Dr Khairul Adha and the Lun Bawang tribe of Borneo, and the other, Khairuloconcha sahanae to honour the late Dr Sahana Harun from Universiti Malaysia Sabah, one of the collaborators in the research.

Their road to discovery was full of wonders and new experiences. There was an evening when their water sampling was disrupted by sightings of a crocodile. Dr Khairul Adha also recalled a time when the team picked pucuk paku (the Sarawak jungle fern) for a meal. Cooked with shrimp paste, the meal was devoured by team members from the USA, Portugal, and UK who tasted the ferns for the first time and loved them.

The last description of freshwater mussel from Borneo was 94 years ago, thus making this discovery an exciting one. Even more thrilling, the new species of freshwater mussels that the team discovered are very rare, known only from one single site each (one in Sarawak, one in Sabah). Whilst both are endangered, one of the species, Khairuloconcha lunbawangorum, is at especially high risk of extinction due to ongoing habitat destruction.

As explained by Dr Khairul Adha, “The only site it's known from has already been dedicated for an industrial oil palm plantation. We are in the process of preparing the paperwork to get this area protected. This would not only help the unique biodiversity in this area but also the indigenous Lun Bawang tribe after which we named that species.”

Freshwater mussels are an important asset for freshwater habitats. They act as biological filters by removing algae and other organisms from the water. In addition, they are indicators for biomonitoring, i.e., the use of organisms to assess environmental contamination.

This discovery signals the vast amount of unknown knowledge that remains to be discovered, not only regarding freshwater mussels, but also on Borneo’s rich biodiversity.

We asked Dr Khairul Adha if he has ever tasted the mussels or if he plans to in the future.

“No,” he laughs. “I think not. I don’t feel like eating something that has my name on it.”

These findings are published in the journal Aquatic Conservation, A new genus and two new, rare freshwater mussel (Bivalvia: Unionidae) species endemic to Borneo are threatened by ongoing habitat destruction.