The Malay Archipelago, by Alfred Russel Wallace

Chapter 14

The Natural History of the Timor Group.

IF we look at a map of the Archipelago, nothing seems more unlikely than that the closely connected chain of islands from Java to Timor should differ materially in their natural productions. There are, it is true, certain differences of climate and of physical geography, but these do not correspond with the division the naturalist is obliged to make. Between the two ends of the chain there is a great contrast of climate, the west being exceedingly moist and leaving only a short and irregular dry season, the east being as dry and parched up, and having but a short wet season. This change, however, occurs about the middle of Java, the eastern portion of that island having as strongly marked seasons as Lombock and Timor. There is also a difference in physical geography; but this occurs at the eastern termination of the chain where the volcanoes which are the marked feature of Java, Bali, Lombock, Sumbawa, and Flores, turn northwards through Gunong Api to Banda, leaving Timor with only one volcanic peak near its centre, while the main portion of the island consists of old sedimentary rocks. Neither of these physical differences corresponds with the remarkable change in natural productions which occurs at the Straits of Lombock, separating the island of that name from Bali, and which is at once so large in amount and of so fundamental a character, as to form an important feature in the zoological geography of our globe.

The Dutch naturalist Zollinger, who resided a long time on the island of Bali, informs us that its productions completely assimilate with those of Java, and that he is not aware of a single animal found in it which does not inhabit the larger island. During the few days which I stayed on the north coast of Bali on my way to Lombock, I saw several birds highly characteristic of Javan ornithology. Among these were the yellow-headed weaver (Ploceus hypoxantha), the black grasshopper thrush (Copsychus amoenus), the rosy barbet (Megalaema rosea), the Malay oriole (Oriolus horsfieldi), the Java ground starling (Sturnopastor jalla), and the Javanese three-toed woodpecker (Chrysonotus tiga). On crossing over to Lombock, separated from Bali by a strait less than twenty miles wide, I naturally expected to meet with some of these birds again; but during a stay there of three months I never saw one of them, but found a totally different set of species, most of which were utterly unknown not only in Java, but also in Borneo, Sumatra, and Malacca. For example, among the commonest birds in Lombock were white cockatoos and three species of Meliphagidae or honeysuckers, belonging to family groups which are entirely absent from the western or Indo–Malayan region of the Archipelago. On passing to Flores and Timor the distinctness from the Javanese productions increases, and we find that these islands form a natural group, whose birds are related to those of Java and Australia, but are quite distinct from either. Besides my own collections in Lombock and Timor, my assistant Mr. Allen made a good collection in Flores; and these, with a few species obtained by the Dutch naturalists, enable us to form a very good idea of the natural history of this group of islands, and to derive therefrom some very interesting results.

The number of birds known from these islands up to this date is: 63 from Lombock, 86 from Flores, and 118 from Timor; and from the whole group, 188 species. With the exception of two or three species which appear to have been derived from the Moluccas, all these birds can be traced, either directly or by close allies, to Java on the one side or to Australia on the other; although no less than 82 of them are found nowhere out of this small group of islands. There is not, however, a single genus peculiar to the group, or even one which is largely represented in it by peculiar species; and this is a fact which indicates that the fauna is strictly derivative, and that its origin does not go back beyond one of the most recent geological epochs. Of course there are a large number of species (such as most of the waders, many of the raptorial birds, some of the kingfishers, swallows, and a few others), which range so widely over a large part of the Archipelago that it is impossible to trace them as having come from any one part rather than from another. There are fifty-seven such species in my list, and besides these there are thirty-five more which, though peculiar to the Timor group, are yet allied to wide-ranging forms. Deducting these ninety-two species, we have nearly a hundred birds left whose relations with those of other countries we will now consider.

If we first take those species which, as far as we yet know, are absolutely confined to each island, we find, in:

Lombock 4 belonging to 2 genera, of which 1 is Australian, 1 Indian.
Flores 12 " 7 " 5 are " 2 "
Timor 42 " 20 " 16 are " 4 "

The actual number of peculiar species in each island I do not suppose to be at all accurately determined, since the rapidly increasing numbers evidently depend upon the more extensive collections made in Timor than in Flores, and in Flores than in Lombock; but what we can depend more upon, and what is of more special interest, is the greatly increased proportion of Australian forms and decreased proportion of Indian forms, as we go from west to east. We shall show this in a yet more striking manner by counting the number of species identical with those of Java and Australia respectively in each island, thus:

In Lombock. In Flores. In Timor.
Javan birds 33 23 11
Australian birds 4 5 10

Here we see plainly the course of the migration which has been going on for hundreds or thousands of years, and is still going on at the present day. Birds entering from Java are most numerous in the island nearest Java; each strait of the sea to be crossed to reach another island offers an obstacle, and thus a smaller number get over to the next island. [The names of all the birds inhabiting these islands are to be found in the “Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London” for the year 1863.] It will be observed that the number of birds that appear to have entered from Australia is much less than those which have come from Java; and we may at first sight suppose that this is due to the wide sea that separates Australia from Timor. But this would be a hasty and, as we shall soon see, an unwarranted supposition. Besides these birds identical with species inhabiting Java and Australia, there are a considerable number of others very closely allied to species peculiar to those countries, and we must take these also into account before we form any conclusion on the matter. It will be as well to combine these with the former table thus:

In Lombock. In Flores. In Timor.
Javan birds 33 23 11
Closely allied to Javan birds 1 5 6
Total 34 28 17
Australian birds 4 5 10
Closely allied to Australian birds 3 9 26
Total 7 14 36

We now see that the total number of birds which seem to have been derived from Java and Australia is very nearly equal, but there is this remarkable difference between the two series: that whereas the larger proportion by far of the Java set are identical with those still inhabiting that country, an almost equally large proportion of the Australian set are distinct, though often very closely allied species. It is to be observed also, that these representative or allied species diminish in number as they recede from Australia, while they increase in number as they recede from Java. There are two reasons for this, one being that the islands decrease rapidly in size from Timor to Lombock, and can therefore support a decreasing number of species; the other and the more important is, that the distance of Australia from Timor cuts off the supply of fresh immigrants, and has thus allowed variation to have full play; while the vicinity of Lombock to Bali and Java has allowed a continual influx of fresh individuals which, by crossing with the earlier immigrants, has checked variation.

To simplify our view of the derivative origin of the birds of these islands let us treat them as a whole, and thus perhaps render more intelligible their respective relations to Java and Australia.

The Timor group of islands contains:

Javan birds 36 Australian birds 13
Closely allied species 11 Closely allied species 35
Derived from Java 47 Derived from Australia 48

We have here a wonderful agreement in the number of birds belonging to Australian and Javanese groups, but they are divided in exactly a reverse manner, three-fourths of the Javan birds being identical species and one-fourth representatives, while only one-fourth of the Australian forms are identical and three-fourths representatives. This is the most important fact which we can elicit from a study of the birds of these islands, since it gives us a very complete clue to much of their past history.

Change of species is a slow process — on that we are all agreed, though we may differ about how it has taken place. The fact that the Australian species in these islands have mostly changed, while the Javan species have almost all remained unchanged, would therefore indicate that the district was first peopled from Australia. But, for this to have been the case, the physical conditions must have been very different from what they are now. Nearly three hundred miles of open sea now separate Australia from Timor, which island is connected with Java by a chain of broken land divided by straits which are nowhere more than about twenty miles wide. Evidently there are now great facilities for the natural productions of Java to spread over and occupy the whole of these islands, while those of Australia would find very great difficulty in getting across. To account for the present state of things, we should naturally suppose that Australia was once much more closely connected with Timor than it is at present; and that this was the case is rendered highly probable by the fact of a submarine bank extending along all the north and west coast of Australia, and at one place approaching within twenty miles of the coast of Timor. This indicates a recent subsidence of North Australia, which probably once extended as far as the edge of this bank, between which and Timor there is an unfathomed depth of ocean.

I do not think that Timor was ever actually connected with Australia, because such a large number of very abundant and characteristic groups of Australian birds are quite absent, and not a single Australian mammal has entered Timor — which would certainly not have been the case had the lands been actually united. Such groups as the bower birds (Ptilonorhynchus), the black and red cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus), the blue wrens (Malurus), the crowshrikes (Cracticus), the Australian shrikes (Falcunculus and Colluricincla), and many others, which abound all over Australia, would certainly have spread into Timor if it had been united to that country, or even if for any long time it had approached nearer to it than twenty miles. Neither do any of the most characteristic groups of Australian insects occur in Timor; so that everything combines to indicate that a strait of the sea has always separated it from Australia, but that at one period this strait was reduced to a width of about twenty miles.

But at the time when this narrowing of the sea took place in one direction, there must have been a greater separation at the other end of the chain, or we should find more equality in the numbers of identical and representative species derived from each extremity. It is true that the widening of the strait at the Australian end by subsidence, would, by putting a stop to immigration and intercrossing of individuals from the mother country, have allowed full scope to the causes which have led to the modification of the species; while the continued stream of immigrants from Java, would, by continual intercrossing, check such modification. This view will not, however, explain all the facts; for the character of the fauna of the Timorese group is indicated as well by the forms which are absent from it as by those which it contains, and is by this kind of evidence shown to be much more Australian than Indian. No less than twenty-nine genera, all more or less abundant in Java, and most of which range over a wide area, are altogether absent; while of the equally diffused Australian genera only about fourteen are wanting. This would clearly indicate that there has been, until recently, a wide separation from Java; and the fact that the islands of Bali and Lombock are small, and are almost wholly volcanic, and contain a smaller number of modified forms than the other islands, would point them out as of comparatively recent origin. A wide arm of the sea probably occupied their place at the time when Timor was in the closest proximity to Australia; and as the subterranean fires were slowly piling up the now fertile islands of Bali and Lombock, the northern shores of Australia would be sinking beneath the ocean. Some such changes as have been here indicated, enable us to understand how it happens, that though the birds of this group are on the whole almost as much Indian as Australian, yet the species which are peculiar to the group are mostly Australian in character; and also why such a large number of common Indian forms which extend through Java to Bali, should not have transmitted a single representative to the island further east.

The Mammalia of Timor as well as those of the other islands of the group are exceedingly scanty, with the exception of bats. These last are tolerably abundant, and no doubt many more remain to be discovered. Out of fifteen species known from Timor, nine are found also in Java, or the islands west of it; three are Moluccan species, most of which are also found in Australia, and the rest are peculiar to Timor.

The land mammals are only seven in number, as follows: 1. The common monkey, Macacus cynomolgus, which is found in all the Indo–Malayan islands, and has spread from Java through Bali and Lombock to Timor. This species is very frequent on the banks of rivers, and may have been conveyed from island to island on trees carried down by hoods. 2. Paradoxurus fasciatus; a civet cat, very common over a large part of the Archipelago. 3. Felis megalotis; a tiger cat, said to be peculiar to Timor, where it exists only in the interior, and is very rare. Its nearest allies are in Java. 4. Cervus timoriensis; a deer, closely allied to the Javan and Moluccan species, if distinct. 5. A wild pig, Sus timoriensis; perhaps the same as some of the Moluccan species. 6. A shrew mouse, Sorex tenuis; supposed to be peculiar to Timor. 7. An Eastern opossum, Cuscus orientalis; found also in the Moluccas, if not a distinct species.

The fact that not one of these species is Australia or nearly allied to any Australian form, is strongly corroborative of the opinion that Timor has never formed a part of that country; as in that case some kangaroo or other marsupial animal would almost certainly be found there. It is no doubt very difficult to account for the presence of some of the few mammals that do exist in Timor, especially the tiger cat and the deer. We must consider, however, that during thousands, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, these islands and the seas between them have been subjected to volcanic action. The land has been raised and has sunk again; the straits have been narrowed or widened; many of the islands may have been joined and dissevered again; violent floods have again and again devastated the mountains and plains, carrying out to sea hundreds of forest trees, as has often happened during volcanic eruptions in Java; and it does not seem improbable that once in a thousand, or ten thousand years, there should have occurred such a favourable combination of circumstances as would lead to the migration of two or three land animals from one island to another. This is all that we need ask to account for the very scanty and fragmentary group of Mammalia which now inhabit the large island of Timor. The deer may very probably have been introduced by man, for the Malays often keep tame fawns; and it may not require a thousand, or even five hundred years, to establish new characters in an animal removed to a country so different in climate and vegetation as is Timor from the Moluccas. I have not mentioned horses, which are often thought to be wild in Timor, because there are no grounds whatever for such a belief. The Timor ponies have every one an owner, and are quite as much domesticated animals as the cattle on a South American hacienda.

I have dwelt at some length upon the origin of the Timorese fauna because it appears to be a most interesting and instructive problem. It is very seldom that we can trace the animals of a district so clearly as we can in this case to two definite sources, and still more rarely that they furnish such decisive evidence of the time, the manner, and the proportions of their introduction. We have here a group of Oceanic Islands in miniature — islands which have never formed part of the adjacent lands, although so closely approaching them; and their productions have the characteristics of true Oceanic islands slightly modified. These characteristics are: the absence all Mammalia except bats; and the occurrence of peculiar species of birds, insects, and land shells, which, though found nowhere else, are plainly related to those of the nearest land. Thus, we have an entire absence of Australian mammals, and the presence of only a few stragglers from the west which can be accounted for in the manner already indicated. Bats are tolerably abundant.

Birds have many peculiar species, with a decided relationship to those of the two nearest masses of land. The insects have similar relations with the birds. As an example, four species of the Papilionidae are peculiar to Timor, three others are also found in Java, and one in Australia. Of the four peculiar species two are decided modifications of Javanese forms, while the others seen allied to those of the Moluccas and Celebes. The very few land shells known are all, curiously enough, allied to or identical with Moluccan or Celebes forms. The Pieridae (white and yellow butterflies) which wander more, and from frequenting open grounds, are more liable to be blown out to sea, seem about equally related to those of Java, Australia, and the Moluccas.

It has been objected to in Mr. Darwin’s theory, of Oceanic Islands having never been connected with the mainland, that this would imply that their animal population was a matter of chance; it has been termed the “flotsam and jetsam theory,” and it has been maintained that nature does not work by the “chapter of accidents.” But in the case which I have here described, we have the most positive evidence that such has been the mode of peopling the islands. Their productions are of that miscellaneous character which we should expect front such an origin; and to suppose that they have been portions of Australia or of Java will introduce perfectly gratuitous difficulties, and render it quite impossible to explain those curious relations which the best known group of animals (the birds) have been shown to exhibit. On the other hand, the depth of the surrounding seas, the form of the submerged banks, and the volcanic character of most of the islands, all point to an independent origin.

Before concluding, I must make one remark to avoid misapprehension. When I say that Timor has never formed part of Australia, I refer only to recent geological epochs. In Secondary or even Eocene or Miocene times, Timor and Australia may have been connected; but if so, all record of such a union has been lost by subsequent submergence, and in accounting for the present land-inhabitants of any country we have only to consider those changes which have occurred since its last elevation above the waters since such last elevation, I feel confident that Timor has not formed part of Australia.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30