Exploration of Sulawesi, Indonesia

by Bonnie & Rashika
Publish date
11 November 2013
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Bonnie Gambhir is a Computer Science student with interests in scientific exploration. Rashika Premchandralal is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Biotechnology. Both are studying at the University of Melbourne.

This is the second post of an MV Blog mini-series celebrating the past, present and future of exploration on planet Earth and commemorating the adventures of Alfred Russel Wallace who died 100 years ago.

Wallace's exploration of the islands of Indonesia contributed to the theory of evolution by natural selection, as well as the field biogeography–the study of the distribution of species over space and time. Wallace famously divided the world’s animals into zoogeographic regions, with his travels through modern day Indonesia providing important clues about the transitions of more Asian-like species to those of Australian origin.

"The island of Sulawesi is a place where many Asian lineages get their easternmost distribution and many Australian lineages get their westernmost distribution, and Sulawesi represents a mixture of the flora and fauna of these two great continents," says Dr Kevin Rowe.

Skull of Babirusa MV specimen R8050: skull of Babirusa, Babyrousa celebensis, an ancient lineage of pigs on Sulawesi. Pigs are not native to the Australian continent and Sulawesi represents their easternmost distribution.
Image: Karen Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria

mount of Bear Cuscus MV specimen C27221: mount of Bear Cuscus, Ailurops ursinus. An ancient relative of the Ringtail Possum, the Bear Cuscus is endemic to Sulawesi and represents the westernmost distribution of Australian marsupials that never reached the Asian continent.
Image: Karen Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria

Since Wallace’s time, further scientific exploration in Wallacea has contributed immensely to our understanding of the distribution and evolution of species.

Researchers at Museum Victoria are continuing this exploration on the island of Sulawesi; Dr Kevin Rowe and Dr Karen Rowe have made several expeditions in recent years, leading to the description of new mammal species and new knowledge of the evolutionary relationships between Indonesian and Australian birds.

When Wallace visited Sulawesi, he recorded only five species of rodents. Today, we recognise almost fifty. Described in 2012 by Kevin and colleagues, one recently- discovered species from Sulawesi challenges the definition of rodent. The unique rat, Paucidentomys vermidax, (meaning “few-toothed worm-devouring mouse”) is the only rodent, among more than 2,200 species, with pointed upper incisors and no molars.

Dr Kevin Rowe with Paucidentomys vermidax Dr Kevin Rowe with Paucidentomys vermidax, a nearly toothless rodent, on the day of its discovery in the rainforests of Sulawesi.
Image: Kevin Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria

The honeyeater family Meliphagidae is one of the most diverse groups of Australian birds. Most of the nearly 170 species are found in Australia, New Guinea and adjacent Pacific Islands. A few species are native to Wallacea where the family reaches the westernmost limits of its distribution. Through her fieldwork on Sulawesi, Karen is studying the endemic genus Myza and their relationship to all other honeyeaters.

Lesser Sulawesi Honeyeater Lesser Sulawesi Honeyeater, Myza celebensis, found in the forests of Mount Dako, Sulawesi in 2013.
Image: Karen Rowe
Source: Mustum Victoria

Expeditions to Sulawesi by MV researchers and their Indonesian and US colleagues have produced several new records of species that have not been recorded since the 1970s. Many of these species were previously known from a single locality and are listed as 'data deficient' by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Hence the recent exploration of Sulawesi is helping to improve understanding of the habitat requirements and distributions of these little-known species.

Local knowledge and assistance is as much a part of modern exploration as it was in Wallace’s time. Our final post in this series will explore how international cooperation has contributed to the success of Museum Victoria’s research in the region.


MV Blog posts about Sulawesi field research

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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.