The Malay Archipelago, by Alfred Russel Wallace

Chapter 9

Natural History of the Indo-Malay Islands.

IN the first chapter of this work I have stated generally the reasons which lead us to conclude that the large islands in the western portion of the Archipelago — Java, Sumatra, and Borneo — as well as the Malay peninsula and the Philippine islands, have been recently separated from the continent of Asia. I now propose to give a sketch of the Natural History of these, which I term the Indo–Malay islands, and to show how far it supports this view, and how much information it is able to give us of the antiquity and origin of the separate islands.

The flora of the Archipelago is at present so imperfectly known, and I have myself paid so little attention to it, that I cannot draw from it many facts of importance. The Malayan type of vegetation is however a very important one; and Dr. Hooker informs us, in his “Flora Indica,” that it spreads over all the moister and more equable parts of India, and that many plants found in Ceylon, the Himalayas, the Nilghiri, and Khasia mountains are identical with those of Java and the Malay peninsula. Among the more characteristic forms of this flora are the rattans — climbing palms of the genus Calamus, and a great variety of tall, as well as stemless palms. Orchids, Aracae, Zingiberaceae and ferns, are especially abundant, and the genus Grammatophyllum — a gigantic epiphytal orchid, whose clusters of leaves and flower-stems are ten or twelve feet long — is peculiar to it. Here, too, is the domain of the wonderful pitcher plants (Nepenthaceae), which are only represented elsewhere by solitary species in Ceylon, Madagascar, the Seychelles, Celebes, and the Moluccas. Those celebrated fruits, the Mangosteen and the Durian, are natives of this region, and will hardly grow out of the Archipelago. The mountain plants of Java have already been alluded to as showing a former connexion with the continent of Asia; and a still more extraordinary and more ancient connection with Australia has been indicated by Mr. Low’s collections from the summit of Kini-balou, the loftiest mountain in Borneo.

Plants have much greater facilities for passing across arms of the sea than animals. The lighter seeds are easily carried by the winds, and many of them are specially adapted to be so carried. Others can float a long tune unhurt in the water, and are drifted by winds and currents to distant shores. Pigeons, and other fruit-eating birds, are also the means of distributing plants, since the seeds readily germinate after passing through their bodies. It thus happens that plants which grow on shores and lowlands have a wide distribution, and it requires an extensive knowledge of the species of each island to determine the relations of their floras with any approach to accuracy. At present we have no such complete knowledge of the botany of the several islands of the Archipelago; and it is only by such striking phenomena as the occurrence of northern and even European genera on the summits of the Javanese mountains that we can prove the former connection of that island with the Asiatic continent. With land animals, however, the case is very different. Their means of passing a wide expanse of sea are far more restricted. Their distribution has been more accurately studied, and we possess a much more complete knowledge of such groups as mammals and birds in most of the islands, than we do of the plants. It is these two classes which will supply us with most of our facts as to the geographical distribution of organized beings in this region.

The number of Mammalia known to inhabit the Indo–Malay region is very considerable, exceeding 170 species. With the exception of the bats, none of these have any regular means of passing arms of the sea many miles in extent, and a consideration of their distribution must therefore greatly assist us in determining whether these islands have ever been connected with each other or with the continent since the epoch of existing species.

The Quadrumana or monkey tribe form one of the most characteristic features of this region. Twenty-four distinct species are known to inhabit it, and these are distributed with tolerable uniformity over the islands, nine being found in Java, ten in the Malay peninsula, eleven in Sumatra, and thirteen in Borneo. The great man-like Orangutans are found only in Sumatra and Borneo; the curious Siamang (next to them in size) in Sumatra and Malacca; the long-nosed monkey only in Borneo; while every island has representatives of the Gibbons or long-armed apes, and of monkeys. The lemur-like animals, Nycticebus, Tarsius, and Galeopithecus, are found on all the islands.

Seven species found on the Malay peninsula extend also into Sumatra, four into Borneo, and three into Java; while two range into Siam and Burma, and one into North India. With the exception of the Orangutan, the Siamang, the Tarsius spectrum, and the Galeopithecus, all the Malayan genera of Quadrumana are represented in India by closely allied species, although, owing to the limited range of most of these animals, so few are absolutely identical.

Of Carnivora, thirty-three species are known from the Indo–Malay region, of which about eight are found also in Burma and India. Among these are the tiger, leopard, a tiger-cat, civet, and otter; while out of the twenty genera of Malayan Carnivora, thirteen are represented in India by more or less closely allied species. As an example, the Malayan bear is represented in North India by the Tibetan bear, both of which may be seen alive at the Zoological Society’s Gardens.

The hoofed animals are twenty-two in number, of which about seven extend into Burmahand India. All the deer are of peculiar species, except two, which range from Malacca into India. Of the cattle, one Indian species reaches Malacca, while the Bos sondiacus of Java and Borneo is also found in Siam and Burma. A goat-like animal is found in Sumatra which has its representative in India; while the two-horned rhinoceros of Sumatra and the single-horned species of Java, long supposed to be peculiar to these islands, are now both ascertained to exist in Burma, Pegu, and Moulmein. The elephant of Sumatra, Borneo, and Malacca is now considered to be identical with that of Ceylon and India.

In all other groups of Mammalia the same general phenomena recur. A few species are identical with those of India. A much larger number are closely allied or representative forms, while there are always a small number of peculiar genera, consisting of animals unlike those found in any other part of the world. There are about fifty bats, of which less than one-fourth are Indian species; thirty-four Rodents (squirrels, rats, &c.), of which six or eight only are Indian; and ten Insectivora, with one exception peculiar to the Malay region. The squirrels are very abundant and characteristic, only two species out of twenty-five extending into Siam and Burma. The Tupaias are curious insect-eaters, which closely resemble squirrels, and are almost confined to the Malay islands, as,are the small feather-tailed Ptilocerus lowii of Borneo, and the curious long-snouted and naked-tailed Gymnurus rafllesii.

As the Malay peninsula is a part of the continent of Asia, the question of the former union of the islands to the mainland will be best elucidated by studying the species which are found in the former district, and also in some of the islands. Now, if we entirely leave out of consideration the bats, which have the power of flight, there are still forty-eight species of mammals common to the Malay peninsula and the three large islands. Among these are seven Quadrumana (apes, monkeys, and lemurs), animals who pass their whole existence in forests, who never swim, and who would be quite unable to traverse a single mile of sea; nineteen Carnivora, some of which no doubt might cross by swimming, but we cannot suppose so large a number to have passed in this way across a strait which, except at one point, is from thirty to fifty miles wide; and five hoofed animals, including the Tapir, two species of rhinoceros, and an elephant. Besides these there are thirteen Rodents and four Insectivora, including a shrew-mouse and six squirrels, whose unaided passage over twenty miles of sea is even more inconceivable than that of the larger animals.

But when we come to the cases of the same species inhabiting two of the more widely separated islands, the difficulty is much increased. Borneo is distant nearly 150 miles from Biliton, which is about fifty miles from Banca, and this fifteen from Sumatra, yet there are no less than thirty-six species of mammals common to Borneo and Sumatra. Java again is more than 250 miles from Borneo, yet these two islands have twenty-two species in common, including monkeys, lemurs, wild oxen, squirrels and shrews. These facts seem to render it absolutely certain that there has been at some former period a connection between all these islands and the mainland, and the fact that most of the animals common to two or more of then, show little or no variation, but are often absolutely identical, indicates that the separation must have been recent in a geological sense; that is, not earlier than the Newer Pliocene epoch, at which time land animals began to assimilate closely with those now existing.

Even the bats furnish an additional argument, if one were needed, to show that the islands could not have been peopled from each other and from the continent without some former connection. For if such had been the mode of stocking them with animals, it is quite certain that creatures which can fly long distances would be the first to spread from island to island, and thus produce an almost perfect uniformity of species over the whole region. But no such uniformity exists, and the bats of each island are almost, if not quite, as distinct as the other mammals. For example, sixteen species are known in Borneo, and of these ten are found in Java and five in Sumatra, a proportion about the same as that of the Rodents, which have no direct means of migration. We learn from this fact, that the seas which separate the islands from each other are wide enough to prevent the passage even of flying animals, and that we must look to the same causes as having led to the present distribution of both groups. The only sufficient cause we can imagine is the former connection of all the islands with the continent, and such a change is in perfect harmony with what we know of the earth’s past history, and is rendered probable by the remarkable fact that a rise of only three hundred feet would convert the wide seas that separate them into an immense winding valley or plain about three hundred miles wide and twelve hundred long. It may, perhaps, be thought that birds which possess the power of flight in so pre-eminent a degree, would not be limited in their range by arms of the sea, and would thus afford few indications of the former union or separation of the islands they inhabit. This, however, is not the case. A very large number of birds appear to be as strictly limited by watery barriers as are quadrupeds; and as they have been so much more attentively collected, we have more complete materials to work upon, and are able to deduce from them still more definite and satisfactory results. Some groups, however, such as the aquatic birds, the waders, and the birds of prey, are great wanderers; other groups are little known except to ornithologists. I shall therefore refer chiefly to a few of the best known and most remarkable families of birds as a sample of the conclusions furnished by the entire class.

The birds of the Indo–Malay region have a close resemblance to those of India; for though a very large proportion of the species are quite distinct, there are only about fifteen peculiar genera, and not a single family group confined to the former district. If, however, we compare the islands with the Burmese, Siamese, and Malayan countries, we shall find still less difference, and shall be convinced that all are closely united by the bond of a former union. In such well-known families as the woodpeckers, parrots, trogons, barbets, kingfishers, pigeons, and pheasants, we find some identical species spreading over all India, and as far as Java and Borneo, while a very large proportion are common to Sumatra and the Malay peninsula.

The force of these facts can only be appreciated when we come to treat the islands of the Austro–Malay region, and show how similar barriers have entirely prevented the passage of birds from one island to another, so that out of at least three hundred and fifty land birds inhabiting Java and Borneo, not more than ten have passed eastward into Celebes. Yet the Straits of Macassar are not nearly so wide as the Java sea, and at least a hundred species are common to Borneo and Java.

I will now give two examples to show how a knowledge of the distribution of animals may reveal unsuspected facts in the past history of the earth. At the eastern extremity of Sumatra, and separated from it by a strait about fifteen miles wide, is the small rocky island of Banca, celebrated for its tin mines. One of the Dutch residents there sent some collections of birds and animals to Leyden, and among them were found several species distinct from those of the adjacent coast of Sumatra. One of these was a squirrel (Sciurus bangkanus), closely allied to three other species inhabiting respectively the Malay peninsula, Sumatra, and Borneo, but quite as distinct from them all as they are from each other. There were also two new ground thrushes of the genus Pitta, closely allied to, but quite distinct from, two other species inhabiting both Sumatra and Borneo, and which did not perceptibly differ in these large and widely separated islands. This is just as if the Isle of Man possessed a peculiar species of thrush and blackbird, distinct from the birds which are common to England and Ireland.

These curious facts would indicate that Banca may have existed as a distinct island even longer than Sumatra and Borneo, and there are some geological and geographical facts which render this not so improbable as it would at first seem to be. Although on the map Banca appears so close to Sumatra, this does not arise from its having been recently separated from it; for the adjacent district of Palembang is new land, being a great alluvial swamp formed by torrents from the mountains a hundred miles distant.

Banca, on the other hand, agrees with Malacca, Singapore, and the intervening island of Lingen, in being formed of granite and laterite; and these have all most likely once formed an extension of the Malay peninsula. As the rivers of Borneo and Sumatra have been for ages filling up the intervening sea, we may be sure that its depth has recently been greater, and it is very probable that those large islands were never directly connected with each other except through the Malay peninsula. At that period the same species of squirrel and Pitta may have inhabited all these countries; but when the subterranean disturbances occurred which led to the elevation of the volcanoes of Sumatra, the small island of Banca may have been separated first, and its productions being thus isolated might be gradually modified before the separation of the larger islands had been completed.

As the southern part of Sumatra extended eastward and formed the narrow straits of Banca, many birds and insects and some Mammalia would cross from one to the other, and thus produce a general similarity of productions, while a few of the older inhabitants remained, to reveal by their distinct forms, their different origin. Unless we suppose some such changes in physical geography to have occurred, the presence of peculiar species of birds and mammals in such an island as Banca is a hopeless puzzle; and I think I have shown that the changes required are by no means so improbable as a mere glance at the map would lead us to suppose.

For our next example let us take the great islands of Sumatra and Java. These approach so closely together, and the chain of volcanoes that runs through them gives such an air of unity to the two, that the idea of their having been recently dissevered is immediately suggested. The natives of Java, however, go further than this; for they actually have a tradition of the catastrophe which broke them asunder, and fix its date at not much more than a thousand years ago. It becomes interesting, therefore, to see what support is given to this view by the comparison of their animal productions.

The Mammalia have not been collected with sufficient completeness in both islands to make a general comparison of much value, and so many species have been obtained only as live specimens in captivity, that their locality has often been erroneously given, the island in which they were obtained being substituted for that from which they originally came. Taking into consideration only those whose distribution is more accurately known, we learn that Sumatra is, in a zoological sense, more neatly related to Borneo than it is to Java. The great man-like apes, the elephant, the tapir, and the Malay bear, are all common to the two former countries, while they are absent from the latter. Of the three long-tailed monkeys (Semnopithecus) inhabiting Sumatra, one extends into Borneo, but the two species of Java are both peculiar to it. So also the great Malay deer (Rusa equina), and the small Tragulus kanchil, are common to Sumatra and Borneo, but do not extend into Java, where they are replaced by Tragulas javanicus. The tiger, it is true, is found in Sumatra and Java, but not in Borneo. But as this animal is known to swim well, it may have found its way across the Straits of Sunda, or it may have inhabited Java before it was separated from the mainland, and from some unknown cause have ceased to exist in Borneo.

In Ornithology there is a little uncertainty owing to the birds of Java and Sumatra being much better known than those of Borneo; but the ancient separation of Java as an island is well exhibited by the large number of its species which are not found in any of the other islands. It possesses no less than seven pigeons peculiar to itself, while Sumatra has only one. Of its two parrots one extends into Borneo, but neither into Sumatra. Of the fifteen species of woodpeckers inhabiting Sumatra only four reach Java, while eight of them are found in Borneo and twelve in the Malay peninsula. The two Trogons found in Java are peculiar to it, while of those inhabiting Sumatra at least two extend to Malacca and one to Borneo. There are a very large number of birds, such as the great Argus pheasant, the fire-backed and ocellated pheasants, the crested partridge (Rollulus coronatus), the small Malacca parrot (Psittinus incertus), the great helmeted hornbill (Buceroturus galeatus), the pheasant ground-cuckoo (Carpococcyx radiatus), the rose-crested bee-eater (Nyctiornis amicta), the great gaper (Corydon sumatranus), and the green-crested gaper (Calyptomena viridis), and many others, which are common to Malacca, Sumatra, and Borneo, but are entirely absent from Java. On the other hand we have the peacock, the green jungle cock, two blue ground thrushes (Arrenga cyanea and Myophonus flavirostris), the fine pink-headed dove (Ptilonopus porphyreus), three broad-tailed ground pigeons (Macropygia), and many other interesting birds, which are found nowhere in the Archipelago out of Java.

Insects furnish us with similar facts wherever sufficient data are to be had, but owing to the abundant collections that have been made in Java, an unfair preponderance may be given to that island. This does not, however, seem to be the case with the true Papilionidae or swallow-tailed butterflies, whose large size and gorgeous colouring has led to their being collected more frequently than other insects. Twenty-seven species are known from Java, twenty-nine from Borneo, and only twenty-one from Sumatra. Four are entirely confined to Java, while only two are peculiar to Borneo and one to Sumatra. The isolation of Java will, however, be best shown by grouping the islands in pairs, and indicating the number of species common to each pair. Thus:—

Borneo 29 species
Sumatra 21 do 20 species common to both islands
Borneo 29 do
Java 27 do 20 do
Sumatra 21 do
Java 27 do 11 do

Making some allowance for our imperfect knowledge of the Sumatran species, we see that Java is more isolated from the two larger islands than they are from each other, thus entirely confirming the results given by the distribution of birds and Mammalia, and rendering it almost certain that the last-named island was the first to be completely separated from the Asiatic continent, and that the native tradition of its having been recently separated from Sumatra is entirely without foundation.

We are now able to trace out with some probability the course of events. Beginning at the time when the whole of the Java sea, the Gulf of Siam, and the Straits of Malacca were dry land, forming with Borneo, Sumatra, and Java, a vast southern prolongation of the Asiatic continent, the first movement would be the sinking down of the Java sea, and the Straits of Sunda, consequent on the activity of the Javanese volcanoes along the southern extremity of the land, and leading to the complete separation of that island. As the volcanic belt of Java and Sumatra increased in activity, more and more of the land was submerged, until first Borneo, and afterwards Sumatra, became entirely severed. Since the epoch of the first disturbance, several distinct elevations and depressions may have taken place, and the islands may have been more than once joined with each other or with the main land, and again separated. Successive waves of immigration may thus have modified their animal productions, and led to those anomalies in distribution which are so difficult to account for by any single operation of elevation or submergence. The form of Borneo, consisting of radiating mountain chains with intervening broad alluvial valleys, suggests the idea that it has once been much more submerged than it is at present (when it would have somewhat resembled Celebes or Gilolo in outline), and has been increased to its present dimensions by the filling up of its gulfs with sedimentary matter, assisted by gradual elevation of the land. Sumatra has also been evidently much increased in size by the formation of alluvial plains along its northeastern coasts.

There is one peculiarity in the productions of Java that is very puzzling:— the occurrence of several species or groups characteristic of the Siamese countries or of India, but which do not occur in Borneo or Sumatra. Among Mammals the Rhinoceros javanicus is the most striking example, for a distinct species is found in Borneo and Sumatra, while the Javanese species occurs in Burma and even in Bengal. Among birds, the small ground-dove, Geopelia striata, and the curious bronze-coloured magpie, Crypsirhina varians, are common to Java and Siam; while there are in Java species of Pteruthius, Arrenga, Myiophonus, Zoothera, Sturnopastor, and Estrelda, the near allies of which are found in various parts of India, while nothing like them is known to inhabit Borneo or Sumatra.

Such a curious phenomenon as this can only be understood by supposing that, subsequent to the separation of Java, Borneo became almost entirely submerged, and on its re-elevation was for a time connected with the Malay peninsula and Sumatra, but not with Java or Siam. Any geologist who knows how strata have been contorted and tilted up, and how elevations and depressions must often have occurred alternately, not once or twice only, but scores and even hundreds of times, will have no difficulty in admitting that such changes as have been here indicated, are not in themselves improbable. The existence of extensive coal-beds in Borneo and Sumatra, of such recent origin that the leaves which abound in their shales are scarcely distinguishable from those of the forests which now cover the country, proves that such changes of level actually did take place; and it is a matter of much interest, both to the geologist and to the philosophic naturalist, to be able to form some conception of the order of those changes, and to understand how they may have resulted in the actual distribution of animal life in these countries; a distribution which often presents phenomena so strange and contradictory, that without taking such changes into consideration we are unable even to imagine how they could have been brought about.

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