Bat faeces and biodiversity in Indonesia

This 2015 video says about itself:

Bat Man of Borneo | Expedition Raw

Braving guano, urine, and infectious diseases is all in a day’s work for bat ecologist Donald McFarlane, who descends into the depths of Borneo’s Gomantong Caves [in Malaysia] to study the bats that live there.

From James Cook University in Australia:

Holy Pleistocene Batman, the answer’s in the cave

Let’s say you wanted to solve a 20,000-year-old mystery, where would you start?

April 25, 2019

Summary: Examining a 3-meter stack of bat feces has shed light on the landscape of the ancient continent of Sundaland. The research could help explain the biodiversity of present-day Borneo, Sumatra, and Java. It could also add to our understanding of how people moved through the region.

Let’s say you wanted to solve a 20,000-year-old mystery, where would you start? Perhaps archaeology and geology come to mind. Or, you could sift through a 3-metre pile of bat faeces.

Researchers from James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, chose the bat poo in their quest to answer to a long-standing question: why is there some much biodiversity on the islands of Sumatra, Borneo and Java, when not so long ago (geologically speaking) they were all part of one vast continent?

One theory has been that the former continent (Sundaland) was dissected by a savanna corridor. “That might explain why Sumatra and Borneo each have their own species of orang-utan, even though they were linked by land for millions of years,” Dr Chris Wurster said. “The corridor would have divided the two separate rainforest refuges, as the sea does now.”

The corridor theory has been boosted by millions of insect-eating bats, which have gathered evidence about the landscape over millennia and deposited it in layers in their caves.

“Bat poo is highly informative, and especially so in the tropics, where the climate can make some of the more traditional modes of investigation less available,” Dr Wurster said.

A three-metre pile of bat faeces at Salah Cave in Borneo gave the researchers a 40,000-year-old record composed of insect skeletons.

“We can’t tell what insects the bats were eating throughout that time, because they’re in tiny fragments, but we can read the chemistry,” Dr Wurster said.

“Eating insects that have been feeding on tropical grasses results in faeces with a characteristic chemical imprint. It’s quite different from the result you’d get from eating insects that fed on tropical trees.”

According to the bat record the landscape around Saleh Cave (now featuring lush rainforest) was once dominated by tropical grasses.

“Combined with other cave studies in the region, this leads us to support the corridor theory, and also gives us some confidence as to the extent of the corridor,” Dr Wurster said.

The corridor could also shed light on human pre-history.

“A savanna corridor, which would be much more easily traversed than rainforest, might help to explain how people moved relatively quickly through this region and on to Australia and New Guinea.”

‘Savanna in equatorial Borneo during the late Pleistocene’ is published in the latest edition of Scientific Reports.

Dr Chris Wurster is a Senior Research Associate at James Cook University, specialising in stable isotope geochemistry.


Wallace’s giant bee rediscovered

This 21 February 2019 video says about itself:

Watch the world’s biggest bee in action | Science News

After searching Indonesia’s forests for days for Wallace’s giant bee, scientists found and captured a single female and observed her flying within a net tent. They then released her and watched as she flew home to her nest in a termite mound.

By Jeremy Rehm, 2:31pm, February 21, 2019:

The world’s largest bee has been rediscovered after 38 years

The walnut-sized female bee was found on an island in Indonesia

Everything about Wallace’s giant bee is goliath: It reaches an average body length of around 4 centimeters — about the size of a walnut — and has a wingspan of over 7.5 centimeters. Yet despite its eye-popping size, it’s been nearly 40 years since the world’s largest bee (Megachile pluto) was officially sighted in the wild.

So when Eli Wyman, an entomologist at Princeton University, had an opportunity to hunt for the elusive bee, he jumped at the chance. He and two other scientists, along with photographer Clay Bolt, set off in January for a two-week expedition to forests on two of only three Indonesian islands where the bee has ever been found.

It’s thought that the females build a home by using their formidable jaws to burrow into termite nests and line the tunnels with resin to ward off termites. So while trekking in the oppressive jungle heat, the team stopped at every termite nest spotted on the trunk of a tree and watched for 20 minutes for a telltale bore hole or a bee emerging.

“After several days of searching and looking at a lot of these termite nests and not seeing anything, I think we all kind of internally just accepted that we weren’t going to be successful,” Wyman says.

As the search was ending, the team decided to check one last nest only about 2.4 meters off the ground — and found the signature hole. Wyman, standing on a small platform, glanced inside and tapped the hole a few times with a stiff blade of grass. Moments later, a lone female Wallace’s giant bee emerged.

“We were just all over the moon,” Wyman says. “It was a great relief and incredibly exciting.”

The team captured the female and put her inside a tented enclosure to observe her before releasing her back to her nest. She buzzed and opened and closed her enormous jaws. And yes, she had a stinger to match her goliath size, one she presumably uses, though Wyman wasn’t willing to find that out firsthand. “She was the most precious thing on the planet to us,” Wyman says.

The nonprofit organization Global Wildlife Conservation, which included Wallace’s giant bee on its 25 Most Wanted lost species list, announced the bee’s rediscovery February 21. While there are no set plans to look for more bees, the team hopes the rediscovery sparks efforts to protect the habitat from deforestation. In a blogpost, Bolt noted: “Just knowing that this bee’s giant wings go thrumming through this ancient Indonesian forest helps me feel that, in a world of so much loss, hope and wonder still do exist.”

GOLIATH OF BEES A honeybee’s size pales in comparison to that of a the recently rediscovered Wallace’s giant bee, as seen in this composite image by Clay Bolt

New leaf-warbler species discovery in Indonesia

This 23 October 2018 video says about itself:

A new bird species, Rote Leaf Warbler (Phylloscopus rotiensis) from Rote, Indonesia was recently described by a team of researchers from National University of Singapore and the Indonesian Institute of Science.



Rote learning: a unique leaf-warbler discovered in Indonesia

By Dominic Mitchell

An unusual warbler discovered on a small Indonesian island as recently as 2004 has just been described as a new species of leaf warbler. Named Rote Leaf Warbler after the island in the Lesser Sundas where it was found, Phylloscopus rotiensis differs from all other species in the genus by its relatively long, tailorbird-like bill and distinctive coloration.

Although many islands in the region harbour breeding populations of leaf warblers, Rote Island – which lies south-west of Timor – was historically not known to have any. However, while birding on the Tapuafu peninsula in December 2004, Dr Colin Trainor from Australia’s Charles Darwin University observed several warblers which were “frequent in woodlands and tropical dry forest” and uttered a “breezy, rising and falling whistle” not unlike that of Timor Leaf Warbler on the adjacent larger island of Timor.

Five years later Philippe Verbelen and Veerle Dossche visited Rote Island to observe and study the birds, and succeeded in making detailed observations and obtaining a series of photographs. Philippe noticed that the leaf warblers looked substantially distinct from any other Asian, African or European species with which he was familiar: “Alarm bells went off when we realised how strikingly different the bill shape and the coloration of the Rote bird were compared to all other leaf warblers.” The long bill had a yellow-orange lower mandible, and additionally the undescribed warbler showed a broader and more yellow supercilium than in Timor Leaf Warbler, a more prominent yellow crown stripe, warmer yellow sides of the head and underparts, and an olive-green rather than olive-grey crown.

In 2015, as part of an expedition to study this new taxon, ornithologists visited two sites on Rote Island – one south of the central region within Seda forest, which is one of the few small mature forest patches still remaining on the island, and the other on the Tapuafu peninsula, where the warblers were first discovered. Using playback, they were able to observe the birds’ movements and behaviour, and a holotype specimen was collected. The researchers say they do not believe that collection of this single individual had a negative impact on the survival of the taxon, and emphasise that all fieldwork was conducted according to the government guidelines of the Republic of Indonesia and the Republic of Singapore.

The specimen made detailed morphological and biometric comparison possible with Timor Leaf Warbler, with which the leaf warblers from Rote were initially mooted to be conspecific based on geographical proximity. DNA was also extracted from the Rote specimen and compared with leaf warbler samples from Timor and Peleng, while the genome of the closely related Greenish Warbler P trochiloides viridanus (mapped to the complete Zebra Finch Taeniopygia guttata genome) was used as the reference genome. “This may well be the first time – to the best of our knowledge – that a new bird species has been described partly on the basis of genome-wide DNA data,” commented Elize Ng, a researcher with the Avian Evolution Lab (AEL) under the National University of Singapore (NUS) Department of Biological Sciences, and one of the co-authors of the paper describing the species.

The genomic analysis indicated that Rote Leaf Warbler diverged from Timor Leaf Warbler approximately 1.7 million years ago, corresponding well with divergence time estimates for the entire Indo-Malayan leaf warbler clade, which is estimated to have occurred about 2.0-2.5 million years ago. Rote and Timor Leaf Warblers were also shown to be sister to all the other South-East Asian Phylloscopus species included in the researchers’ analysis.

“The new species is part of a large group of Asian warblers but is unique among them due to its unusually long bill,” said Dr Nathaniel Ng, who was also involved in the description of the bird during his PhD candidature at the Department of Biological Sciences at the NUS Faculty of Science. He added: “This odd bill shape is likely an adaptation to Rote’s dry landscapes, given that most other Asian leaf warblers live in humid forest.”

Despite deep genomic and morphological differentiation setting Rote Leaf Warbler apart from its relatives, however, exhaustive bioacoustic analyses did not reveal vocal differentiation between the different island taxa.

Little is currently known about the behaviour and ecology of the new species, which is found in intact primary deciduous forest as well as secondary forest. Due to Rote’s long history of intensive agricultural use, there is little forest habitat remaining on the island with the exception of the Tapuafu Peninsula and the Seda forest areas – together they comprise just 19 per cent of the island’s total land area of 1,284 square kilometres. An IUCN Red List categorisation of Vulnerable has been proposed, but given that the new leaf warbler does not seem to occur at high population densities, it may even merit Endangered status.

Avian endemism on Rote Island has long been underestimated, the researchers note, and it hosts many species-level endemics as well as an additional number of threatened, range-restricted species including Yellow-crested Cockatoo, Timor Green Pigeon and Jonquil Parrot. Amazingly, Rote Leaf Warbler is the second new bird species to be described from the island in just 12 months, following the formal description of Rote Myzomela Myzomela irianawidodoae (Treubia 44: 77-100), highlighting Rote’s significant conservation value and the need to establish significant protected areas to conserve its avian heritage.


Ng, N S R, Prawiradilaga, D M, Ng, E Y X, Suparno, Ashari, H, Trainor, C, Verbelen, P, and Rheindt, F E. 2018. A striking new species of leaf warbler from the Lesser Sundas as uncovered through morphology and genomics. Sci Rep. 2018 Oct 23; 8 (1): 15646. Doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-34101-7.

Tsunami disaster in Indonesia

Sunda Strait, Indonesia

By Richard Phillips:

At least 280 dead as tsunami hits Indonesian settlements

24 December 2018

According to the latest official figures, 280 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured, when a tsunami suddenly hit coastal cities and beach resort towns adjoining Indonesia’s Sunda Strait at 9.30 p.m. local time on Saturday.

The official death toll is expected to rise over the next days. At least 57 people are missing and rescuers have still not yet been able to reach all the affected areas.

The disaster came just three months after an earthquake and tsunami struck Palu City on the island of Sulawesi on September 28, killing over 2,500 people and engulfing hundreds of homes in deep mud.

Saturday’s tsunami struck without warning at the height of the Christmas holiday long weekend. It destroyed hundreds of homes, businesses, and at least nine tourist hotels and other buildings. The Pandeglang region of Java’s Banten province near Jakarta, along with South Lampung settlements in Sumatra, were among the worst affected areas.

Splintered wood, concrete, bricks and other broken building material lie scattered along the coast and the now deserted villages and towns. Thousands of people have been rendered homeless. Survivors have posted photographs and video on social media of upturned and badly damaged vehicles and boats, and debris-laden water smashing into homes and other buildings.

Many of those killed were tourists, thought to be visiting the popular beach resort area of Pandeglang which also encompasses a national park. Frightening footage of a beachside concert by “Seventeen”, a local rock band, shows a massive wave demolishing the concert platform and sweeping away the band and audience members.

This 22 December 2018 video from Infonsia shows the tsunami engulfing the band Seventeen’s concert.

The concert was part of a holiday retreat for workers and their families from PLN, Indonesia’s national electricity company. The rock group has released a statement saying that their bass player, guitarist and road manager were killed and that two other band members and the wife of one of the performers were missing.

Aftermath of the tsunami where the concert was held

A spokesman for Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) said that many victims were trapped under collapsed buildings, and that heavy machinery would be required to help with search and rescue efforts. However, as of Monday morning, the much-needed machinery had yet to be sent to all of the affected areas.

Geophysicists suggest that the tsunami could be the result of a major landslide, above or below the water line, at Anak Krakatoa (Child of Krakatoa), a 300-metre high active volcano in the Sunda Strait. This is believed to have pushed a huge wall of water across the strait, which, at its narrowest, is only 24 kilometres wide.

Anak Krakatoa, which emerged from the caldera of Krakatoa about 90 years ago, is one of the country’s most active volcanoes. It has been erupting since June and did so a day before the tsunami. According to a BBC report today, it is still erupting, raising fears that another tsunami might be imminent.

Earthquake geologist and University of Michigan professor, Ben van der Pluijm, told Reuters that the “instability of the slope of an active volcano can create a rock slide that moves a large volume of water, creating local tsunami waves that can be very powerful. This is like suddenly dropping a bag of sand in a tub filled with water,” he said.

Rahmat Triyono, earthquake and tsunami chief at Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG), told the New York Times that “there was no earthquake” and that’s why “there was no tsunami warning.”

The apparent absence of an earthquake, and thus seismic data, only partially explains the absence of any tsunami warning.

In the wake of the devastating 2004 earthquake and tsunami that claimed an estimated 230,000 lives in the Indo-Pacific, most of them in Indonesia, major powers pledged to help set up an early warning system to ensure such a catastrophe would never happen again.

The early warning system was to link global seismic detection centres, with a system of buoys and sensors that could detect water movements characteristic of tsunami. Various land-based systems were then supposed to be built to sound the alarm.

Even if the weekend’s tsunami was not triggered by a quake, the buoys and sensors should have been in place to provide an early warning. Clearly that was not the case and the victims had no time to react to the wall of water that engulfed them.

Indonesia’s National Disaster Management spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho admitted in September this year, following the Palu disaster, that the country’s warning system was inadequate. The network of 22 hi-tech buoys has not been working since 2012 due to the lack of funding. As a result, the warning system relies on some 134 tidal gauges which are limited in their ability to provide advance notification.

Whether there were any working sensors in the Sunda Strait last weekend is not known at this stage.

Indonesia has 130 active volcanoes and its location in the Pacific “Ring of Fire”—an arc of intense seismic activity that stretches around the Pacific and includes the whole Indonesian archipelago—means that earthquakes and volcanoes are a fact of life.

The devastation caused by what are termed natural disasters is compounded by the poverty that is rife throughout the region. Many people are compelled to live in makeshift housing, often close to the sea, that leaves them vulnerable to tsunamis and quakes as well as typhoons that are also common.

The Indonesian government certainly bears a large measure of responsibility for the latest tragedy. The lack of proper infrastructure, inadequate warning systems and poorly funded rescue and relief services are testimony to the indifference of the government and the ruling class to the lives of millions of working people.

The major powers, which exploit countries like Indonesia as cheap labour platforms, also bear responsibility for the lack of resources for warning systems and disaster relief. The promises that were made after the 2004 catastrophe have proven worthless.

Following the weekend’s tsunami, political leaders around the world have been shedding crocodile tears for the victims. US President Trump described it as “unthinkable devastation”, adding: “We are praying for recovery and healing. America is with you!” What will follow, however, is a pittance in aid, if anything, and the tragedy will be quickly pushed aside in the world’s capitals.

The author also recommends:

Indonesia’s earthquake catastrophe
[6 October 2018]

The Asian tsunami: why there were no warnings
[3 January 2005]

The death toll from the Sunda Strait tsunami disaster continues to rise. The Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management (BNPB) announced yesterday that at least 429 people have been killed, over 1,480 injured and more than 150 remain missing. Thousands of homes and over 70 hotels and 60 shops were heavily damaged or destroyed: here.

Greater bird-of-paradise mating season, video

This video from Indonesia says about itself:

Enter the rainforest canopy of the Aru Islands to watch the coordinated displays of two male Greater Birds-of-Paradise. Then see two females take particular interest in the males’ bright colors, strange sounds, and contorted poses. Filmed by Tim Laman in September 2010.

See also here.

Mass murder, sexual abuse in Suharto’s Indonesia

This 25 October 2017 video from the USA is called Indonesia: killings under Suharto.


The End of Silence (Review)
Reviewed by: Clemens Six
Reviewed item:
The End of Silence: Accounts of the 1965 Genocide in Indonesia

Soe Tjen Marching. 2017.
The End of Silence: Accounts of the 1965 Genocide in Indonesia
Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press
ISBN 9462983909

Lest we forget: Testimonies of the 1965 mass killings in Indonesia

The mass killings of suspected communists as well as their supporters, families, and friends in Indonesia during the months after the failed coup on 1 October 1965 is an increasingly rich research field that covers more and more aspects of these fatal events and their impact on society. Recently, for example, historians have drawn attention to the question whether there was a central coordination of the killings under the command of those parts of the armed forces controlled by General Suharto.[i] Others would like to have a better understanding of what the contribution and central motives of social and religious organisations were and to what extent their assistance to the army was indeed decisive for the conduct and the consequences of the bloodbath.[ii]

The book edited by Soe Tjan Marching altogether covers a different facet of these events. It intends to give voice and visibility to the experiences, perceptions, and personal encounters of the victims of the violence as well as their offspring. A strong and vivid plea against what Marching calls the ‘genocide of memory’, this book is a collection of 19 carefully selected testimonies of witnesses directly affected by the persecutions, but also of their children and grandchildren, who inherited the social stigma and the painful silence within their families about the seemingly shameful past of their parents and grandparents. Among these testimonies are seven accounts of women that illustrate this book’s particular interest in gender-related questions.

The offence of silence

In her introduction addressed to a general readership not specifically familiar with the mass killings, Marching provides a general overview on who masterminded the coup, how the killings evolved, who the main perpetrators were, and what Suharto’s regime did to silence any fruitful debate about these events after he had effectively taken power in March 1967. For Marching, this chapter of contemporary Indonesian history is mainly about fear in combination with authoritative approval. In this light, the mass murder is primarily a manifestation of fear instilled and instrumentalised by the armed forces, which not only unleashed the criminal collaboration of so many Indonesians but also paralysed Indonesian society for generations. This interpretation leaves probably too little space for deliberate strategies of different societal groups and their material, social, and political interests in the mass murder. For the interpretation of the testimonies assembled here, however, this question is less pivotal.

To the informed reader, this historical overview does not add much that is new, but the background information the editor gives about herself – her father being dragged from the family home by Suharto’s henchmen, Marching herself growing up with a strong taboo in her family around these events – and this remarkable book project is indeed. The book can therefore also be read as a very personal breach of a societal taboo that still defines Indonesia’s present. Consequently, this collection of testimonies is primarily motivated by today’s fears and stigmas around this issue and the increasing danger that the memories of those who anticipated the killings will be lost soon once and forever. What the introduction unfortunately does not provide is a more systematic evaluation of the testimonies or, in other words, an explanation by the editor where she herself sees the main strength of this material on the background of the ever-growing literature. For that reason, let me highlight three areas in which I see the biggest potential of these accounts.

Detainees, women’s views, and the inherited stigma

Besides the hundreds of thousands killed during the anti-communist pogroms, hundreds of thousands more were detained as political criminals and thus suffered from immediate and long-term repression, which determined not only their personal fate but also their families’ future.[iii] In comparison to the numerous publications on the killings, there is significantly less literature and historical knowledge about the experiences of the detainees, the circumstances of their confinement, and the survivors’ life paths after their release. Marching’s book provides some fascinating insights into the biographies of such detainees. Arrested for trade union activism, journalistic investigations, or entirely arbitrary reasons, the persons interviewed by Marching report in an illustrative and moving manner about the various forms of chicanes they were exposed to. In these testimonies we learn about the cynical and humiliating treatment of prison inmates through military personnel as well as civilian guards, the harsh circumstances of forced labour, but also small acts of resistance and avoidance to preserve a certain degree of dignity and self-respect. Although documented before, particularly interesting is the role of religious services, authorities, and instructions as a central element of the government’s ‘re-education programme’.

A second aspect highlighted by the testimonies is the gender-specific experiences of girls and women. Although there is a growing body of literature produced by Western as well as Indonesian scholars on the female perspectives of the mass killings and the consequences,[iv] this remains a research field that needs more and more detailed empirical analysis. The women’s testimonies assembled here illustrate sexual harassment in sometimes unsettling details – routine verbal abuse, relationships of women with prison guards and the pregnancies resulting from these. Also, the continuous social stigma after the release, particularly prevalent against women, is repeatedly described in these biographical statements.

Finally, the stories of the victims’ children and grandchildren constitute a major part of this publication. Some of them witnessed directly the murder of their parents, were born in prison, or grew up like orphans in families that were not their own. Their life stories are moving accounts of a life-long search for reliable information on what happened to their (grand)parents, the personal struggle against the taboos and the silence within their families, and the professional and social discrimination many of them experienced as offspring of former ‘communists’.

To conclude, this book is a rich and fascinating account of first-hand experience with the anti-communist mass killings and their devastating long-term impact on Indonesian society that were exacerbated by the comprehensive propaganda campaigns and strategies of silencing under Suharto’s dictatorship. The book is not only excellent material for generally interested readers, but also a rich primary source for students and lecturers who want to dive deeper into the abyss of 20th century anti-communist violence, mass persecutions, and patriarchal restoration.

[i] For an overview see John Roosa, The state of knowledge about an open secret: Indonesia’s mass disappearances of 1965-66, The Journal of Asian Studies 75(2), 2016: 281-97.
[ii] Cf. Annie Pohlman, Introduction: The massacres of 1965-1966: New interpretations and the current debate in Indonesia, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 32(3), 2013: 3-9.
[iii] Douglas Kammen and Faizah Zakaria, Detention in mass violence: Policy and practice in Indonesia, 1965-1968, Critical Asian Studies 44(3), 2012: 441-66.
[iv] Cf. Saskia Wieringa, Sexual Politics in Indonesia, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002; and Amurwani Dwi Lestariningsih, Gerwani: Kisah Tapol Wanita di Kamp Plantungan (Gerwani: The story of female political prisoners in Camp Plantungan), Jakarta: Kompas, 2011.