Indonesia

Cave Crabs of Bali

As a museum curator, I’ve done field work in lots of places, but this was the first time I’d had to wear a purple sash.

The sash and sarong were hired for 5,000 rupiah (about 50c) from a shop by the main road on the island of Nusa Penida, near Bali, Indonesia. I was about to venture into a cave to look for endangered crabs, but because the cave is also a popular Hindu temple you have to be properly attired.

1. Entrance Giri Putri

 You are warned when entering Giri Putri cave that it is a sacred place.

The Giri Putri temple used to be just a smallish hole on a hillside; you have to crouch, clamber, and shuffle to enter it, before the ceiling rises and you’re in one of several large caves. Today, there are steps, buildings, white-clad priests praying, and a visitor’s book.

Back in 1993 Australian biologist Tony Whitten explored Giri Putri, and was struck by the number of crabs scuttling about on the cave floor. He collected some, and they turned out to be not one, but two new species, dubbed Karstarma emdi and K. balicum. Freshwater crabs like these can be found in several cave systems in south-east Asia. They have long legs for feeling their way about in total darkness. Isolation and time leads to speciation, and the two species in Giri Putri seem to be found nowhere else but this small cave.

4. Hindu Temple at Giri Putri

Giri Putri is a working Hindu temple, with worshippers present at all hours, leaving food offerings and coexisting with insects and bats.

Unfortunately, they’re under threat. Giri Putri is now a busy temple with artificial lighting everywhere, large fans to keep the air moving, lots of concrete and tiled floor and rows of benches and altars. Whitten noted that in every visit he made there were fewer crabs, and in the hour I spent searching with a headlamp in the dark corners of the cave I didn’t see any at all. I asked one priest if the crabs were there. He told me “sometimes”. The International Union for Conservation of Nature is pushing for better monitoring of the crab population, and the temple authorities seem keen to work to minimise human impact, so here’s hoping.

There’s plenty of other life in Giri Putri, though. I kept disturbing bats which zipped here in there in silence, sometimes an inch from my face, reminding me that I didn’t get a rabies vaccination before coming to Bali. The walls of the cave were crawling with invertebrates, including large Periplaneta cockroaches, camel crickets that looked just like the cave wētā back in New Zealand and good-sized whipscorpions.

2. Cockroach

The cave was full of large winged cockroaches in the genus Periplaneta.

Back home, I uploaded the photos I’d taken with my phone to NatureWatch, and asked Mark Harvey at the Western Australian Museum what he thought. Mark identified them as tailless whipscorpions in the family Phrynidae, probably the genus Phrynus. This was interesting, because almost all species of Phrynus are found in the New World, through Mexico and Central America. The sole exception is a species Mark himself named and described, Phrynus exsul from the island of Flores, Indonesia, thousands of kilometres away from its closest relatives.

3. Whipscorpion

Whipscorpions are also known as whipspiders. They are arachnids, but are neither scorpions nor spiders.

Only one problem: Bali is 400 km away from Flores. So either these whipscorpions are Phrynus exsul and a new record far west of where they were first observed, or they’re an undescribed species of Phrynus.

Whipscorpions are not especially inconspicuous. Giri Putri is right by the main road, and a popular tourist destination. Nusa Penida is a short ferry ride from Bali, which has millions of tourists a year. And it seems that in over 20 years nobody has thought to collect one of these critters, take it to an expert, and find out if it’s an undescribed species or not. This is the plight of the tropics in miniature: stuffed full of biodiversity which is disappearing faster than we can discover and put names to.

 

Mike Dickison was the Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Insects of Java

5. Antheraea larissa

There are many species of silk moths in Asia: this one, Antheraea larissa, doesn’t even have an English name. Its caterpillars only live on the endangered forest tree Shorea glauca.

I recently spent nearly three weeks in Indonesia, mostly looking for tropical insects. In New Zealand we’re proud of our beautiful forests and amazing birds, but even a short time in Java drove home to me just how impoverished our flora and fauna are in comparison to the tropics.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country. Two hundred and sixty million people live there, 141 million in Java alone, an island smaller than the South Island. Even in a densely populated and developed landscape, there were still national parks and botanic gardens housing enormous biodiversity.

4. Milionia fulgida

Not all moths come out at night. Some, like this beautiful iridescent Milionia fulgida, pollinate flowers during the day.

We stayed in the Botanic Gardens of the town of Cibodas in the mountains south of Jakarta. The Gardens had guest houses for tourists and they left the outside lights on all night, for security reasons. Every morning all we needed to do was to stroll around the building to see extraordinary numbers of colourful moths and beetles that had been attracted to the lights overnight.

Each day we photographed about 15 species we hadn’t seen before; each morning would bring a new harvest, showing almost no overlap with the diversity of the night before. After a week of spotting a dozen new species every day without even trying, we realised we were barely scratching the surface of the biological richness of the tropics.

1. Grey Pansy

The grey pansy (Junonia atlites) is found throughout Southeast Asia; it was common in the Bogor Botanical Gardens.

New Zealand has a well-supported conservation movement, and DOC does its best to preserve our forests and endangered wildlife. We learn the names of our native birds, and every bookshop has shelves of coffee table books about kiwi and kākāpō as well as field guides to birds, insects and trees.

In Indonesia conservation operates on a shoestring. The national parks are full of litter. Poaching of endangered bird species is rampant. The bookshops have no field guides, just racks of publications about agriculture and fish farming. Huge swaths of untouched rain forest are being cut down for palm oil plantations – the same forests our shining cuckoos migrate to each winter.

3. Atlas beetle

Named after Atlas, who supported the world on his back, males of the giant Chalcosoma atlas beetle fight with each other over potential mates, using their enormous horns.

Most visitors to Indonesia holiday in Bali, but a better choice might be supporting ecotourism in Sumatra or Sulawesi where your money goes directly to preserving rain forest. New Zealand has thousands of threatened insect species that most people neither know nor care about, but our species are in safer hands than Indonesia’s. It sounds like heresy, but donating money to conservation projects in the tropics may do far more good for the world’s biodiversity than spending it here.

 

2. Hawk moth

Sphinx moths or hawk moths can hover like hummingbirds, and have long coiled tongues for drinking from tubular flowers. There are hundreds of species in Asia, and just one in New Zealand.

Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum