Blog: Alfred R Wallace

SARAWAK 2017

Sarawak, Spiders and a 160 year old mystery

The Naturally Wild Company visited Sarawak in 2017 and returned in 2018.We went looking for Wallace’s Spider, not seen alive since 1856.  Did we find it?

You will have to read my new blog on our trip . I can tell you that we did find some VERY interesting critters including a potential new species or even genus of cave tarantula.

THE great naturalist and intrepid traveller Alfred Russel Wallace spent over eight years in South East Asia. During that time he travelled over 14,000 miles and under took over sixty journeys often travelling alone or with one or two native guides.

DSC00519We met the 1st Minister of Sarawak and his wife at the Astana palace……..and got down deep and dirty in a cave full of bat guano and tarantulas as big as your hand.

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THE great naturalist and intrepid traveller Alfred Russel Wallace spent over eight years in South East Asia. During that time he travelled over 14,000 miles and under took over sixty journeys often travelling alone or with one or two native guides.

Being an ardent admirer of Wallace, I have always considered my knowledge of the man and his work to be more than adequate. His place in history although assured has often been overlooked and his work on evolution and particularly his co authorship of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection with that other great naturalist, Charles Darwin has I am sure slipped willingly from the mind of many an academic. Never the less whilst Alfred Russel Wallace should be remembered for his great work on evolution and his ground breaking Sarawak Law paper of 1855 he is worthy of our respect due to his prolific collecting and his contribution to our knowledge of the flora and fauna of both the Amazon basin and the Indonesian archipelago. However it was the work of a colleague, on that other great naturalist Charles Darwin that made me re-assess my whole perception of not only Wallace but also my own understanding of his work. I realised that all who had gone before me had overlooked a whole area of Wallace’s work. Just has they had with Darwin.

Whilst working on spider specimens at the British Museum of Natural History, a fellow arachnologist, none other than our very own Ray Gabriel, stumbled upon a jar at the back of a cupboard. The jar was simply labeled “Darwin’s Spiders”. It was with great excitement that he opened the jar and peered inside. It is a fact that nowhere in any of the literature about Darwin and his travels does it mention that he collected spiders. There is the scant mention of spiders in passing but in truth Darwin passed them over with haste often referring to them a “brutes” or “denizens of the forest”.

Darwin’s spiders

At first this might appear puzzling, spiders are plentiful in the tropics and Darwin would have certainly encountered them on his travels, as indeed would Wallace. As to why seemingly neither collected, seemed interested in them or more importantly recorded them one can only speculate. On investigation it soon becomes clear as why this might be. The early entomologists simply lumped arachnids in with insects and it is quite possible that Darwin and Wallace did collect spiders but chose not to separate them. Of course by the 1820’s and certainly by the 1850’s the two groups had been formally separated. A more plausible explanation may be that Victorians where a discerning lot when it came to filling their collecting cabinets. Bugs, butterflies and all things entomological where fine but spiders were viewed with utter disdain. After all these vile creatures killed their prey with venom in the most revolting of manners. No it was simply, as the English would say, “not cricket dear boy”. From Darwin and Wallace’s point of view there was simply no monetary gain to be had on our eight legged friends. The early naturalists need to collect and sell on their charges quickly in order to fund their research. There is another plausible reason as to why spiders were not collected in big numbers. Spiders are in the main nocturnal and the early explorers would have found it difficult to traverse the rainforest in the dark with only oil lamps to show the way. Indeed Wallace himself declared that he had no time to collect at night, as he was busy recording his daylight finds. Beetles and butterflies were active throughout the day and one need only turn over a rotten stump in a forest to reveal a myriad of interesting creatures.

What my colleague had discovered was ground breaking. He lovingly laid out the contents and soon realized that the jar contained not only many specimens of spider but also a pair of fangs that obviously belonged to a tarantula. (Downward striking!). He had, in one afternoon, proved that not only did Darwin collect spiders but also from our point of view, tarantulas. It was a pivotal moment. He published his work in “The Journal Of The British Tarantula Society” (Volume 24 No 3 pp. 90-93) and it was on reading his article that I resolved to prove a similar “modus operandi” for Wallace. In the world of evolutionary science there is much rivalry between the Darwinians and the Wallacites and, albeit it friendly, it nevertheless exists. Many an argument as to whom, when and why as been settled or rather not over a pint. The story of Darwin and Wallace’s “joint” theory of Evolution by Natural selection is well documented and here is not the place to discuss it further.

What is well known and documented is that Wallace was a collector extraordinaire when it came to insects and whilst his numbers of collected mammals was much less it was non-the less equally as impressive.  Over the eight years that he spent exploring the Malay Archipelago he collected over 110,000 specimens of insects, 7,500 shells, 8,050 bird skins, 410 mammal and reptile specimens and numerous specimens of plants and ferns. Of these he kept 3,000 bird-skins plus at least 20,000 beetles and butterflies, as well as some vertebrates and land-shells, for his own private collection.

It is easy in today’s modern politically correct world to view such numbers as excessive and perhaps even unwarranted but we must be careful not to apply our 21st Century morals on a 19th century mind set. Collectors in those early days needed to fund their research and this was a lucrative way of financing one’s work. There were no TV companies with open chequebooks or helicopters waiting to whisk them of to some long forgotten plateau. The working class back in Europe and England were beginning to demand education for themselves and their children and the thirst to see for themselves these weird and wonderful creatures was all consuming.

My mind was made up. I would search the available documentation and literature to see if I could find if Wallace had collected spiders as indeed Darwin had. My first port of call was Wallace’s own masterpiece “The Malay Archipelago”. He makes brief mention of “bird eating spiders” but also makes it clear that he has no time for these “monsters”. Wallace was a meticulous collector and kept detailed notes, many of which survive now in foxing notebooks written in his own, ironically, spider like handwriting.

I began with Wallace’s letters and correspondences all well documented on the excellent Wallace On Line Project (http://wallace-online.org/) and, after some searching I found the following reference in a letter from Octavius Pickard Cambridge addressed to Wallace’s daughter Violet after her fathers death.

In it he states that her father was looking at his collection when he chanced upon a spider and exclaimed, “Why it is my old Sarawak spider” and that he remembered collecting it “as if it were yesterday”.

So it would seem that a spider was collected in Sarawak but when and more importantly from where?

Fig 1: The original drawings of Friula wallacii made by Pickard Cambridge

 

I scoured the notebooks (on line) that now reside in the Natural History Museum. The records clearly show that Wallace was in Sarawak from November 1854 to January 1856 and during that time he spent his time as a guest of the Rajah James Brooke at his residence at Santabong, collecting at the mines at Simunjan some 50 km outside the city of Kuching and scouring the slopes of Gunung Serambu near the gold mining town of Bau. He recorded each and it seemed every collected specimen on the pages of the now browning books. Yet there was still no record of the spider. One can only assume that Wallace like Darwin did not record the collection of the spider for one or two reasons. Either he felt it unworthy of recoding due to its lack of resale value or he did not know enough about spiders to hazard a guess to its genus and without such information it would be pointless. He would certainly have known it was a spider but the question is would he have had any interest in it? The notebooks whilst of great interest to me were a dead end. After more research I managed to find a copy of the very short paper

“On some new and little-known spiders (Araneidae) . Proc. Zool. Soc. Lond. 1896, pp. 1006-1012.” by Octavius Pickard Cambridge.

The spider is described as Friula wallacii and is accompanied by a number of excellent line drawings. (Fig 1) I had now found my quarry but where might I find the type specimen today. The plot seemed to thicken but I had the scent and I would not be shaken.

 

After five years of searching I now knew that he had collected a spider, when it had been collected and where from within a few miles. I needed now to find the type specimen. The drawings were well done but did the spider actually look like this? If it did it was indeed a strange beast. This would be more difficult. Wallace had been in Sarawak for 15 months before moving on to Aru, from here his shipments were all carefully logged and sent to England to Samuel Stevens, Wallace’s agent responsible for the resale of the items. The meticulous logs show that of many shipments sent from Sarawak Stevens had sold one such shipment to one William Wilson Saunders a keen entomologist and president of the Entomological Society. Saunders later fell on hard times and sold his entire collection to Pickard Cambridge. Cambridge was a keen arachnologist and seeing a spider within the collection described it as Friulla wallacii. Ironically he had no idea that the spider was one of Wallace’s when he described it. On Cambridge’s death his entire collection was donated to the Oxford Museum of Natural History. It was here that the type specimen had lay deep within the museum’s vaults for so many years. I contacted my colleague at the museum in Oxford. Again ironically the same person who had discovered Darwin’s spider and after searching the records he supplied me with images of the original type.

I had found (with help) the type (Fig 2) and had managed to prove that Wallace did indeed collect spiders. Now all I had to do was find a live specimen in Sarawak………That might prove difficult but the flight was already booked.

 

to be continued.