Ornithoptera croesus

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Alfred Russel Wallace: The Forgotten Evolutionist


In the Malay Archipelago


Artist Notes

The final part of my research took me to Malaysia and Indonesia, known to Wallace as the Malay Archipelago. Here I was accompanied by my collaborator, Dr George Beccaloni of the Natural History Museum, London. Wallace was particularly impressed by the sudden difference in bird families he encountered when he sailed some twenty miles east of the island of Bali and landed on Lombok. On Bali the birds were related to those of the larger islands to the north – Java, Sumatra and mainland Malaysia. However, on Lombok the birds were related to those of the east and south – New Guinea and Australia. He marked the channel between Bali and Lombok and beyond, to divide the two great zoogeographic regions of the Oriental and the Australian – now known as The Wallace Line.

The Wallace Line

My planned work was to collect a series of sea water samples at regular intervals, on a section charting the assumed passage of the Line through the Bali Lombok Straits. This was a methodical process, collecting one hundred samples, structured around time intervals and GPS readings. Further work was made at Santubong, Sarawak, Borneo where Wallace wrote the 1855 paper. I spent additional time on the very small island of Mesa, two hours passage out of Labuan Bajo, Flores. The island is only two hectares in area. This island is not for those who seek comfort. I stayed with a family, the man of the house I had met on the Island of Komodo. This was a stilt-house built on low sand only 1 metre above normal sea level. I slept on the hard floor boards and joined the family for meals of fried dried fish and rice, twice a day. Originally, I did hang my hammock as planned, strung up diagonally across the front room, but on gently getting in the hammock, the lightly constructed house was stressed and I feared it may well collapse!!

I ‘paid’ my hosts in provisions, 20kgs of rice, 2kgs coffee, 5kgs sugar, 1kg salt, treats for the children, 75l of bottled water, of which, in the dry season, there was no supply on the island.

Sadly, time and funding constraints did not permit a visit to Ternate where Wallace wrote the 1858 paper. This is for another time.

Fred Langford Edwards, October 2009

Find out more

Introduction The Specimens In the Amazon Basin
In the Malay Archipelago Biography