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The pan-Pacific science conference


Defining the meaning of Wallace's Line
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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A particularly important thing, which I was not the first to point out but the one who pointed it out most vigorously, is the fact that during most of the Tertiary there were two tropical American faunas, one north of the Panama gap, and the other one south of it. Usually it is forgotten that there was this northern gap, and so, in reality there are quite a number of families of North American birds that were basically of tropical origin and at one time had their major centre of distribution in this tropical North America, while nowadays people always think anything tropical is South American. Now, my boss in… in New York, Dr Chapman, was one of those people who had also pointed this out. To go back once more to the more easterly region, there is a famous line, so-called Wallace’s Line, that was first described by Wallace who said that if one went from the island of Bali, which is the island just east of Java, to the next island in that chain, the island of Lombok, one went from an Asiatic or Indian fauna to an Australian fauna. And he called that… line which in the north continues between Borneo and Sulawesi, Celebes, and then further north between Asia and the Philippines, this line was – since Wallace had discovered it – called Wallace’s Line. But the argument arose very soon, what was the meaning of Wallace’s Line, and there were two schools. The one said this was indeed as Wallace had said, the border between an Australian and an Asian fauna. And I, together with one or two others, showed that it was actually the edge of the Asiatic shelf, the so-called Sunda Shelf, and that still east of this line, for instance, the island of Celebes, and all the Lesser Sunda Islands… the Lesser Sunda Islands, yes, and the Philippines, basically had a much more Asiatic fauna than Australian one, and that the real border line between the Australian and the Indonesian or Indo-Malayan fauna went east of… Celebes, and east of the Lesser Sunda Islands, between the Moluccas and New Guinea on the one hand, and Celebes and the Lesser Sundas on the other hand. And since the paper in which I pointed this out was published, the vigorous battle that had been raging for many years about the meaning of Wallace’s Line has virtually died down except that a few people said, let’s still accept the Wallace’s Line and a line near New Guinea, and call this area in between Malaysia and make that a new faunal region. I, personally… this is [sic] particular was done by students of mammals who… the mammals are known that they are poor… poor in crossing water gaps, and so actually between the Sunda Shelf and the Australian Shelf, there is… there are very few mammal species and to make a special zoogeographic region for that mixture of elements that colonized from both sides always has seemed to me as something that was not advisable.

The late German-American biologist Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) was a leading light in the field of evolutionary biology, gaining a PhD at the age of 21. He was also a tropical explorer and ornithologist who undertook an expedition to New Guinea and collected several thousand bird skins. In 1931 he accepted a curatorial position at the American Museum of Natural History. During his time at the museum, aged 37, he published his seminal work 'Systematics and Origin of the Species' which integrated the theories of Darwin and Mendel and is considered one of his greatest works.

Listeners: Walter J. Bock

Walter J. Bock is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Columbia University. He received his B.Sc. from Cornell and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. His research lies in the areas of organismal and evolutionary biology, with a special emphasis on functional and evolutionary morphology of the skeleto-muscular system, specifically the feeding apparatus of birds.

Tags: Tertiary, Panama, North America, South America, New York, Wallace’s Line, Bali, Java, Lombok, Sulawesi, Borneo, Australia, India, Celebes, Philippines, Asia, Sunda Shelf, Asiatic shelf, Lesser Sunda Islands, Indonesia, Australian Shelf, Moluccas, New Guinea, Malaysia, Alfred Wallace

Duration: 3 minutes, 45 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008