Monday, August 10

S’wak, spiders, and a 160-year-old mystery

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Wallace’s spider in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

HAVING proved that Alfred Russel Wallace had indeed collected spiders on his travels (thesundaypost — Aug 20, 2017), my wife Angela and I needed to travel to the depths of Sarawak. Our plans were drawn meticulously and with the help of our friends on the ground in Sarawak, we hoped to retrace Wallace’s steps and with good fortune find the elusive Friulla wallacei spider that only exists as a dead specimen pinned to a board back in the dusty vaults of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in the UK.

Wallace had originally collected it somewhere in Sarawak and then sent it back to England, where it had eventually found its way into the museum where it was to lie undisturbed for almost 150 years.

Simunjan

Borneo has always felt like home to us. We have visited it numerous times over the last 20 years and it holds a special place in our hearts. As we sat in the air-conditioned hotel lobby pawing over maps and photos of the areas; the atmosphere was electric with excitement. The next day, we would travel to Simunjan, about three hours drive away from the capital. It was here that Wallace had spent nine of his eleven months in Sarawak.

In 1856, Simunjan was a rapidly growing mining town and even in these early times a lot of the forest had been removed to allow coal miners access to the hills. It was here that Wallace collected hundreds of beetles, his particular favourites. Due largely in part to the large numbers of felled trees that lay drying in the heat, they were indeed numerous. He collected the long horn beetles in great numbers, carefully recording each specimen in his notebook.

Simunjan has much changed now and vast swathes of oil palm plantations fill the horizon. The exhausted mines have been sealed and only the descendants of the Chinese workers that plied their lucrative trade here so long ago remain, clinging on to solitary existence farms.

Nevertheless, we carried out an enjoyable but ultimately fruitless search at Wallace’s main collecting site. As the sun began to set, we decided to regroup and, the following day, journeyed to the second of the sites mentioned in Wallace’s excellent narrative of his time ‘The Malay Archipelago’ — that being Bukit Peninjau.

Gunung Serumbu

After spending almost nine months in Simunjan, Wallace made a shorter excursion to a small hill 20km southwest from Kuching town centre. The area today is known as Gunung Serumbu.

Wallace had met Sir James Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak, in Singapore in 1854, and he was invited to Sarawak to continue his exploration of animal species. Brooke was then 51 and Wallace was almost 20 years his junior, but Brooke being a keen natural historian in his own right soon invited Wallace to join him at his summer residence situated on the summit of the hill.

Today the entrance to the site is reached by road and easily missed, but Wallace would have arrived by river and disembarked at the village of Siniawan. From here the Rajah’s loyal Dyaks would have led him to the cottage. On our visit, we too had the advantages of Dayak guides, although I suspect it was their youthfulness and GPS technology that they brought with them, which facilitated our journey rather than their ability to ‘read the land’.

Soon we found ourselves before a large wooden building with a huge sign that proudly proclaimed ‘Rajah Brooke Restoration Project’. This is the site of the original Brooke Cottage and although the original structure was long gone, the area is undergoing a complete revamp.

We abandoned the car in the empty car park and were greeted by a toothless old man at the door. He smiled and conversed with our guides in Malay. He explained that there was much work going on and that the trail was wet and difficult at this time — we were welcome to explore but we must be careful.

We signed the visitor book and prepared for our assault on Gunung Serumbu. The terrain was difficult and, as the old man had rightly predicted, very wet. The incline was exceptionally steep and walking sedately would not be an option. This was going to be tough. The path was overgrown as the forest attempted to reclaim its domain but nevertheless we soldiered on.

Spotting arachnids

Being an entomologist has its advantages in situations like this. The main one is that you are at least staring at the floor as you walk, so tend to see the pitfalls more than an ornithologist might as they look to the heavens. You also see more things than others might.

Angela and Ray make their way along the riverbank.

A tractor millipede (Polydesmida sp) marched nonchalantly across the path. Giant orb weaving spiders of the Nephila genus hung motionless in large messy webs waiting for their breakfast to arrive, whilst colourful tiny jumping spiders eyed us curiously as we encroached on their micro world.

We were of course still looking for our spider but were content to settle for any arachnid that might appear. Friulla wallecei is a Gasteracanthid type spider. They are also commonly called spiny-backed orb-weavers, due to the prominent spines on their abdomen. These spiders can reach sizes of up to 3cm in diameter (measured from spike to spike). Although easily spotted, it is however prudent to be aware of the preferred habitat of such spiders before you begin your quest.

Masteracantha acuata, for instance, is known to set its web either near to or above rivers. It will sit in the centre in clear view and wait for any flying insects to rise from the river edge. They are certainly water lovers and all examples that we have found over the years tend to follow the same modus operandi. To this end, the trail up the mountain followed the course of a slow flowing spring as it cascaded down the slope. We were hopeful that if our spider were here, then it would be close to this course.

We soon came across Gasteracantha hasselti and two other thorn spiders but no wallacei. The path became even steeper and the dense flora that had covered the lower path soon thinned and became sparse, clinging to huge granite boulders protruding from the ground at obtuse angles. These rocks glistened with water as it flowed ever down. The path led us between two huge outcrops and then climbed ever higher. At a convenient point, we stopped to refresh ourselves with the water and to take a moment’s rest.

It was then we heard voices and to our surprise three Dayaks appeared from the twisting path above us. They explained that they were working on the restoration of the cottage and were on their way down for more wood. We asked how long to the top and with a smile one announced, “For us? Twenty minutes … the speed that you walk about two hours.” It was a great source of amusement for them.

I did, however, notice that none of them wore shoes of any kind and they walked over the wet rock with ease, their feet appearing to mould to the surface. Despite our ‘superior’ walking boots, we could only tread carefully as we slipped and slid in every direction. Wishing us well, the three men continued on their downward journey and we continued on our ascent even more determined than before.

We found a scorpion (Heterometrus sp) entangled in a spider’s web but still alive. Giant hammerhead worms (Bipalium genus) squelched their way over the soaking trees. Beetles of all shapes and sizes scurried to and fro (Wallace must have been in his element here). Grasshoppers and crickets chirped loudly and there were ants a plenty but no Friulla wallacei.

Back to base camp

After another 30 minutes, we made the painful decision to begin to descend. The light was fading and weather turning; rain had started to fall albeit lightly. However, we all knew that in this region torrential rain is never far away. Arriving back at base camp, we decided to take a good look around the area. It is often the case that insects and spiders prefer the company of mankind.

Humans are dirty creatures. We throw our food and waste away anywhere, and this attracts insects. This in turn attracts spiders and the spiders bring birds. It’s all part of the food chain. We were not disappointed. We began to find many species. A fine St Andrew’s Cross Spider (Argiope sp) sat perched in her web and a number of beautiful butterflies floated by on wings of gossamer.

All in all, the day was a success but still no spider. Bidding the old man farewell with a promise to return one day, we set off down the hill to begin the long drive back to Kuching. The mood was somber but as we arrived back at our hotel, little did we know that next day we were to have an experience that we would never forget.

(To be continued in two weeks’ time.)

Ray Hale is vice-chairman of the British Tarantula Society. He and his wife Angela are true arachno-hunters with expert knowledge of Alfred Russel Wallace’s life and times in the UK and the Malay Archipelago. Following in Wallace’s footsteps for many a year, both in Sarawak and in the Indonesian islands, they still hope to find ‘Wallace’s spider’, which has proven elusive to date. They have not given up their quest yet!