Happy birthday A.R. Wallace

by Ursula
Publish date
8 January 2012
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Ursula Smith works in the natural sciences collections at Museum Victoria. Though a palaeontologist by training she finds all the collections fascinating and swings between excitement at all the cool stuff in them and despair at the lack of time to look at it all.

Today is the birthday of Alfred Russel Wallace, who was born on 8 January, 1823. While he isn't terribly well known today, at the end of the 19th century he was one of England's best-known naturalists – which is saying something considering that he was a contemporary of people such as Charles Darwin and Joseph Hooker. In fact, Wallace’s famous letter to Darwin prompted the latter to write On the Origin of Species after a joint presentation of their work to the Linnean Society. This post, however, is about another of Wallace’s important contributions to biology.

Photograph of Alfred Russel Wallace, taken in Singapore, 1862. Photograph of Alfred Russel Wallace, taken in Singapore, 1862.
Source: In the public domain, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

After trying his hands at a few trades, Wallace became a field collector – a career that combined his desire to travel with his passion for natural history. After four years collecting along the Amazon River (and an eventful return voyage to England in which he spent 26 days in a lifeboat after his ship caught fire and sank!), Wallace set off for the Malay Archipelago – what is now Malaysia and Indonesia – and spent nearly eight years collecting shells, insects, reptiles mammals and birds for sale in England. The book he published about this trip, The Malay Archipelago, the land of the orang-utan and the bird of paradise; a narrative of travel, with studies of man and nature, was one of the best selling travel books of the nineteenth century.

Museum Victoria has around 200 bird specimens collected by Wallace on this trip that were sold to John Gould and then donated to the museum. Birds are very important in Wallace's story - not only was he looking specifically for the highly sought after birds of paradise on his trip so he could sell them to collectors in England, but his observations about the distribution of birds amongst the islands he visited were highly important in allowing him to develop the theory we today call biogeography – the science of where animals live and why.

Shelf of bird mounts A shelf of bird mounts collected by AR Wallace in the Museum Victoria collection.
Image: Ursula Smith
Source: Museum Victoria

In June of 1859 Wallace made an unscheduled trip between the islands of Bali and Lombok when he couldn't find a direct boat from Singapore to Makassar (at the south end of the island of Sulawesi, then called Celebes). He noticed that even though the islands are within sight of each other and very similar in size, elevation and climate, the bird species on Lombok were very different from those he'd seen on Bali. Wallace came to the conclusion that the two islands belonged to distinct Zoological provinces. He wrote in The Malay Archipelago:

I may mention that during a few days' stay in the island of Bali I found birds of the genera Copsychus, Megalaima, Tiga, Plocus, and Sturnopastor, all characteristic of the Indian region and abundant in Malacca, Java, and Borneo; while on crossing over to Lombock, during three months collecting there, not one of them was ever seen; neither have they occurred in Celebes nor any of the more eastern islands I have visited. Taking this in connexion with the fact of Cacatua, Tropidorhynchus, and Megepodius having their western limit in Lombock, we may consider it established that the Strait of Lombock (only 15 miles wide) marks the limits and abruptly separates two of the great Zoological regions of the globe.

In a paper about the distribution of birds in 1868 T.H. Huxley labelled this boundary that Wallace had described between the Asian and Australian biological regions as 'Wallace's Line', the name by which we still know it today. Since then we've discovered that there are other boundaries passing through the archipelago that are relevant to groups other than birds, but Wallace's Line remains the best known and the area is still an important location for research today.

Bird collected by Wallace Bird specimen, an adult female Eclectus Parrot, in the MV collection that was collected by AR Wallace.
Image: Ursula Smith
Source: Museum Victoria


Meet Me at the Museum: Birds of Paradise

Capturing Paradise: Alfred Russel Wallace's Red Bird of Paradise

Ornithology Collection

Entomology Collection

Wallace's books available as free ebooks from Project Gutenberg

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