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Caves, Bats and Butterflies at Mulu, Borneo

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Mulu is a dramatic area of forested limestone hills in northwest Borneo, the site of an incredible network of caves, some with huge individual chambers, others smaller in scale, but richer in beautiful cave formations. Bats in their millions inhabit the caves. I had visited once before, in 2004, but wanted to see the area again, with the idea of making some better pictures of the bats and butterflies, specifically the Rajah Brooke's. The flight from Miri inland to Mulu follows the beautifully sinuous Baram River and then its tributary the Tutoh, and then its tributary the Malinau. The border with Brunei is clearly visible, the forest cleared on the Malaysian side (up to the edge of the Labi Forest Reserve in Brunei) until the forested limestone hills of Mulu are reached.  A view to the North showing the location of Mulu and its famous caves at lower right, south of dark and forested Brunei. The Baram river at left terminates at its delta near the Sarawak city of Miri. The Malinau

Alfred Wallace's amazing flying frog

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I knew about Wallace's flying frog from reading "The Malay Archipelago" (published 1869).  It's a fantastic looking creature with splayed toes and webbing providing the ability for gliding flight. Here's the illustration (by John Gerrard Keulemans ) in Wallace's "The Malay Archipelago."  Wallace's description was as follows:   " One of the most curious and interesting reptiles which I met with in Borneo was a large tree-frog, which was brought me by one of the Chinese workmen. He assured me that he had seen it come down, in a slanting direction, from a high tree, as if it flew.  On examining it, I found the toes very long and fully webbed to their very extremity, so that when expanded they offered a surface much larger than the body. The fore legs were also bordered by a membrane, and the body was capable of considerable inflation. The back and limbs were of a very deep shining green colour, the under surface and the inner toes yellow, while

The Albatross

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Yesterday I made an impulse trip to Bempton Cliffs on the Yorkshire coast, hoping to see the lone albatross who arrived here in March this year (2022). An albatross in the northern hemisphere is a great rarity. I photographed puffins, razorbills, guillemots, gannets, kittiwakes and fulmars while I waited for "Albie" to show. Hands were becoming frozen in the icy wind at the cliff edge. And then he appeared from below the cliff, flying circuits over the elephant rock at Staple Newk. Vast long narrow black-topped wings, effortless movement, sweeping above the gannets on the rock and the flying kittiwakes below. I'm looking down from the top of the cliff. There's a kittiwake down below. The wingspan reaches about 2.4 m. The size is particularly impressive on a close fly by. Flying over the massed gannets on Elephant Rock at Staple Newk. Effortless flight. Banking above the kittiwakes. This morning, at breakfast, I suddenly remembered Bruce Chatwin's short story about

A Distinctive 19th century Fang Knife from Gabon and the Journeys of Mary Kingsley and Oskar Lenz

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Mary Henrietta Kingsley (1897) recorded her experiences during a journey to Gabon in 1895, travelling as a trader and collecting freshwater fish for the British Museum. She admired the Fang peoples she met and travelled with (she refers to them as Fans), describing them as " full of fire, temper, intelligence and go ." She also admired the quality of their iron work (page 323). " The iron-work of the Fans deserves especial notice for its excellence. The anvil is a big piece of iron which is embedded firmly in the ground. ... The hammers are solid cones of iron, the upper part of the cones prolonged so as to give a good grip, and the blows are given directly downwards, like the blows of a pestle.   The bellows are of the usual African type, cut out of one piece of solid but soft wood ; at the upper end of these bellows there are two chambers hollowed out in the wood and then covered with the skin of some animal, from which the hair has been removed. " She had a go w

A Fang Axe and accounts by Du Chaillu, Burton and others in 19th C Gabon

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The traditional art of the equatorial west African country of Gabon has fascinated the world. There has been particular emphasis on the products of the Fang in the north, the Kele-Tsogo groups in the northeast, the Mbede-Teke groups in the east and the Punu-Shira groups of the southern coast and adjacent inland areas. Sculptures and masks are very well known from these areas, but distinctive styles of decoration can also be found on objects of daily use such as knives, axes and neck collars. I recently acquired a Fang axe from the north of the country (shown below), which matches illustrations from the mid 19th century and pieces collected during the second half of that century. A 42 cm Fang axe with decorated blade,  light and very well balanced.  The shape is distinctive, with handle flaring upwards to a forward pointing projection before tapering back to an angular termination. The thin iron axe blade displays elegant decoration, though less elaborate than some examples (Tessmann 19

Land of Lemurs

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The great allure of Madagascar is the uniqueness of its wildlife, first and foremost the spectacular variety of the endemic lemurs (see Herrera 2017 for a discussion of their adaptive radiation). On a journey in August 2019, I finally had a chance to encounter these wonderful animals in the wild, in the distressingly few remaining areas of forest. At one end of the scale is Indri indri, the largest extant lemur (the gorilla sized Archaeoindris being now extinct). At the miniature end of the scale are the charming and tiny mouse lemurs, including the smallest primates on the planet. And then, there are the different styles of locomotion to observe and enjoy, from the ballet-like leaps of the sifakas to the all-fours scampering of the Eulemurs and the scurrying of the mouse lemurs. There is also a prize for weirdness, which goes to the nocturnal aye-aye. Eight families of lemurs have been recognized, three of which are extinct. Cheirogaleids are the dwarf lemurs, including the smal