Scientists on holiday

Scientists like a working holiday. Under the auspices of scientific research I managed to make it as far afield as Singapore, New Zealand, and Manchester. Charles Darwin made it to the Galapagos Islands. Alfred Russell Wallace reached the Malay Archipelago, a catch-all term relating predominantly to modern day Indonesia.


From Singapore over 60 individual trips Wallace investigated the flora and fauna of some of the thousand plus islands making up the archipelago. It was the 1850s, so travel wasn’t easy, but in doing so Wallace independently theorised the principle of evolution.


The modern waterways around Singapore, about where Wallace would have arrived


Wallace’s extensive investigations led him to realise animals on the western islands (islands like Sumatra and Java) came from a region of ‘oriental’ origin, while islands further east (like New Guinea) were home to animals from ‘Australian’ origin. As a result species like the tree kangaroo can be seen struggling about the trees of Australia and New Guinea, but not on islands further west than a deep oceanic channel now called the Wallace Line.


Wallace’s 60 trips (in red) took him all around the Malay archipelago


The Wallace Line separates two biogeographic regions. Intriguingly the channel separating the islands – Bali and Lombok – is only 35 km wide, roughly the length of the channel tunnel. But it is the depth of the channel which is important. Its depth ensured a barrier between migration of land animals and birds even when sea-levels were significantly lower, when islands as far apart as Australia and New Guinea were united with land bridges.


So next time you think a scientist is on a jolly, they probably are, but leave them be just in case.
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