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The insect life of the Malay Archipelago

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                                           Singapore, April 30th. 1856

My dear Bates

 

Hearing from Mr Stevens that you had expressed a wish to hear from me I will now do myself the pleasure of writing you a long letter, giving you an account of the Entomology of this part of the World, the details of which will be more interesting I am sure to you than to any other person to whom I should communicate them. I must first inform you that I have just received the "Zoologist" containing your letters up to September14th 1855 (Ega) which have interested me exceedingly & have almost made me long to be again on the Amazon, even at the cost of leaving the unknown Spice Islands still unexplored.

 

I have been here since February waiting for a vessel to Macassar (Celebes) a country I look forward to exploring with the greatest anxiety & with expectation of vast treasures in the Insect world. Malacca, Sumatra, Java & Borneo form but one Zoological province the majority of the species in all classes being common to two or more of these countries. There is decidedly less difference between them than between Pará and Santarem or Barra. I have therefore as yet only visited the best known portion of the Archipelago and consider that I am now about to commence my real work. I have spent 6 months in Malacca & Singapore, & 15 months in Borneo (Sarawak) and have therefore got a good idea of what this part of the Archipelago is like. Compared with the Amazon valley the great & sticking feature here is the excessive poverty of the Diurnal Lepidoptera. The glorious Heliconidae represented by a dozen or twenty species of generally obscure coloured Euplaeas. The Nymphalidae containing nothing comparable with the Epicalias, Callitheas, Catagrammas, Callianira, Cybdelis &c. &c. within these variety on number of species to make up for this want of brilliancy. Terinos clarissa and a few species of Adolias Limentis and Charaxes are almost all. The Satyridae have nothing to be placed by the side of the Haeteras of the Amazon. The glorious Erycinidaeare represented by 5-6 species of Emesis and even the Lycaenia though more numerous and containing some lovely species do not certainly come up to the Theclas of Pará. Even the dull hesperidae are wanting here for I do not think I have yet exceeded a dozen species of this family.

 

All this is very miserable, and is most discouraging to one who has wandered in the paths around Para, & on the sands of the Amazon & Rio Negro. The only [group] in which one may consider the two countries as equal, are in the true Papilios (including Ornithoptera) though even in these I think you have more species. Including ornithoptera & Leptocircus I have yet got only 30 species (5 of which I believe are new). Among them is the magnificent Ornithoptera Brookeiana. (Wal.) perhaps the most elegant butterfly in the world.

 

To counterbalance this dearth of Butterflies there should be an abundance of other orders or you will think I have made a change for the worse, and compared with Para only perhaps there is , though it is doubtful whether at Ega you have not your coleopteran quite as abundant as they are here. But I will tell you what I have got, & then you can decide the question, & let me know how you decide it.  You must remember it is just now 2 years since I came into Singapore, & out of that time I have lost at least 6 months by sickness, & voyages, besides 6 months of an unusually wet season at Sarawak. However during the summer at Sarawak I was very fortunate in finding a good locality for Coleoptera, which I worked hard. At Singapore & Malacca I collected about 1000species of Beetles at Sarawak about 2000, but is at least half or perhaps more of my Singapore species received also at Sarawak. I reckon my total number of species may be from 2400 to 2500.The most numerous group is (as I presume with you) the Rhyncophora, of which I have at least 600 species, probably much more. The majority of these are very small and all are remarkably obscure in their colours, being in this respect far inferior to our british series of species.

 

There are however many beautiful and interesting forms, especially among the Anthribidae, of one of which, (a new form) I send a rough sketch. The group next in point of numbers & to me highest in interest are the Longicorns. Of these I got 50 species the first 10 days at Singapore and when in a good locality seldom pass a day without getting a new one. Of Malacca & Singapore species I obtained about 160; at Sarawak 290, but only about 50 of the former occurred at Sarawak, so my Longicornis must in all reach 400 species, or very near to it. Of these the Lepturidae about 80 species, and all the rest Lamiadae which this comprise more than ¾ of all the Longicorns.

 

One of the most interesting groups of these is the Genus Glenea consisting of graceful insects about ½ to ¾ inches long, most elegantly marked with spots bands or lines of blue yellow or white . Of these I have 45 species, fully â…" of which I expect will prove new, as they are very active & are only found in shady forest paths, where I imagine scarcely any one has collected in Singapore or Borneo. In Clytus I am also rather rich possessing between 20 & 30 species.

 

My largest species are two fine Pieruidae 3 ¼ & 3 â…" inches long a fine Batocera about the same size and a few fine species of Hammaticherus, Phryneta, Monochamus &c. In all I have only about 30 species exceeding an inch in length, the majority being from ½ to ¾ inch, while a considerable number are of 2 & 3 lines.

 

I see you say you must have near 500 species of Longicorns, but I do not know if this refers to Ega only or to the whole amount of your S. American collection. The Geodephaga, always rare in the tropics, we must expect to be more so in a nearly level forest country so near the Equator, yet I have found more species than I anticipated. As near as I can reckon I have a hundred. Of these24 are cicindelidae viz 5 cicindela, mostly small and obscure, 6 of the rare genus Haeteras, which are like small megacephalas & are found in leaves. Two or three of the curious apterous ant - like tricondylas, and the rest belong to the elegant genus Collyris resembling your Apas in form, but so active & ready to take flight, that it requires a most rapid & instantaneous stroke of the net to capture them. Among the Carabidae (besides the Mormolyce,) the genus Catascopus is the finest, then Orthogonus, of which I have 6 species (5 alas, 'unique specimens!) and the rest are mostly small species of Pericallus, Lebia, Dronicus & Demetrias, and 2 or 3species of the curious genus Thyceopterus * Lamellicornes are very scarce about 140 species in all of which 25 are Cetoniidae (all very rare) and about the same number of Lucanidae.

 

* W. must mean here "Thyreopterus" - there is no genus "Thyceoptera"-F.B- 

                   

Elaters are rather plentiful but with few exceptions small & obscure. I have 140 species one nearly 3 inches long and several of 1½ inch. The Buprestidae are exceedingly beautiful, but the larger & finer species are very rare. Half my collection (110 species) are wider 4 lines in length, though one, Catoxantha bicolor, is 2 ½ inches. Two Genera of Cleridae (Omadius and Stigmatium) are rather abundant, others rare; but I have gradually got together a nice collection of at least 50 species which compared with the very few previously known from this part of the world is very satisfactory. The groups already mentioned are those in which I take most interest & of which I have therefore most accurately separated the species. The phytophaga forms the bulk of the remainder of the collection, and though pretty are very small. The heteromera are next in number and contain hosts of closely allied metallic coloured species, and a series of pretty ones near our Melandrya. Then come the Malacodermus which are more numerous in individuals than in species. The Brachyelytra are very scarce & of Paussus I have not yet obtained a species. There are many curious Endomychidae & some Erotylidae, under decaying wood & fungi. The individual abundance however of Coleoptera is not so great as the number of species would show. I can hardly collect on an average over 50 beetles a day, in which there will be from 30 to 40 species. Often in fact 20 or 30 in as much as I can scrape together now when giving my whole attention to these for unfortunately Butterflies are too scarce to distract it.

 

Of the other orders I have no very accurate account; the species however of all the orders united (except Lepidoptera) about equal to the Coleoptera. I found one place only where I could get moths, & obtained above a thousand species mostly of small & average size. My total number of species of insects I therefore reckon at about 6000, & of specimens collected above 30,000. from these data I think you will be able to form a pretty good judgement of the comparative Entomological riches of the two countries, which I hope you will communicate to me as soon as convenient. The matter however will not be permanently settled, till I have visited Celebes, the Moluccas &c. which I hope to find as much superior to the western Islands of the Archipelago as the Upper is to the Lower Amazon.

 

In other branches of Natural History I have as yet done little. The birds of Malacca & Borneo though beautiful are so common as not to be worth collecting. With the Orangutan I was successful, shooting 15, & proving I think satisfactorily the disputed point of the existence of two species. The forests here are scarcely to be distinguished from those of Brazil but by the various species of Calamus (Rattan palm) and the presence of Pandani, as well as by the rarity or absence of those Leguminous trees with finely divided foliage which are so frequent in the Amazon forests. The people and their customs I hardly like so well as those of brazil, but the comparatively new Settlements of Singapore and Sarawak are not good specimens. Here provisions & labour are dear & travelling both tedious & expensive - Servants wages are high and the customs of the country do not permit you to live in the free & easy style of Brazil.

 

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What is your greatest number of species of Coleoptera collected in a day;- mine is 70, of which 17 were Longicornis.

 

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I keep a complete series of Coleoptera & Lepidoptera from each Island, so as to study the Geog. distribution. Mr Saunders takes series of all the other orders of which he has undertaken to publish lists. I wish you could work some locality on the N. side of the river so as to ascertain how far it separates distinct faunas. I trust you have your Obidos & Barra collections kept quite separate. The birds of the lower Amazon are very distinct on the two sides. I put a locality ticket to every oneof my specimens. Of my Longicornies Carabidae Buprestidae & Cetoniidae I have made figure and short descriptions sufficiently accurse to determine how many of the species I may obtain for the future; are identical with those of Malacca & Borneo. This enables me to send home my private collections when I leave each locality. For the future I intend keeping a daily collecting system of the number of species of each order & of each principal group of Coleoptera I capture - If you would do the same you would I think find interesting for reference & for comparisons between your various stations and between us at some future day. I once took 130 species of moths in one evening at a lamp in a verandah. I hope you are keeping plenty of duplicates, especially of your Longicornis as I hope some day to be able to make exchanges with you, and have some idea of collecting all Longicornis, if I continue to find them abundant & can get duplicates enough to exchange for the species of other countries.

 

I must tell you that the fruits of the East are a delusion. Never have I seen a place where fruits are more scarce & poor than at Singapore. In Sarawak &at Malacca they are more abundant but there is nothing to make up for the deficiency of Oranges which are here so sour & disagreeable that they would never be eaten even when in England. There are only two good fruits the Mangosteen and the durian. The first is very nice but not deserving of the high place generally giving to it. The durian is however a wonderful fruit quite unique of its kind, & with coming to the Eastern Archipelago to enjoy. It is totally unlike any other fruit. A thick glutinous almond flavoured custard is the only thing it can be compared to, but that it far surpasses. Both these however can hardly be had more than one or two months in the year & in all towns & villages except for in the interior are dear. The plantains even & bananas are poor, like theworst sorts of S. America.

 

If you should fall in with Spruce remember me most kindly to him & tell him I will write                            when I get into unknown ground.

 

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May 10th. The ship is at last in which I have been waiting for nearly 3 months, and in about a week I hope to be off to Macassar. The monsoon is however dead against us & we shall have to beat all the way, it will be probably a forty days passage. But then I hope to be rewarded. Celebes is quite as unknown as was the upper Amazon before your researches or perhaps more so. In the B.M. catalogues of Cetoniidae Buprestidae Longicorns papilionidae &c. There are no specimens from Celebes & very few from the Molaccas, & the fine large insects which have long been known by the old naturalists & some of which have recently been obtained by Madame Pfeiffer gave good promise of what a systematic search may produce.                Wishing you good success & hoping to have an interesting letter from you in due course.                                          I remain Dear Bates

Yours Faithfully

[signed] Alfred R Wallace

 

 

[to] H Bates esq.

 



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