Wildlife haven of Sulawesi much younger than first thought, according to new research

April 11, 2018

An Oxford University collaboration has shed light on the origins of some of South East Asia's most iconic and unique wildlife; the 'deer-pig' (Sulawesi Babirusa), 'warty pig' and the 'miniature buffalo.' In doing so, the research has revealed that Sulawesi, the island paradise where they were discovered, is younger than previously thought.

Sitting in a region called Wallacea (named after Alfred Russel Wallace, who discovered the island), at the interface of Eurasia and Australia -- two vastly different eco-zones, the island of Sulawesi is home to hundreds of unique plant and animal species. The origin of these species has fascinated generations of Naturalists since the 1700s.

To better understand the ancestry of Sulawesi's extraordinary fauna, a team of researchers from Oxford's Department of Archaeology and Queen Mary University of London, used a combination of morphological and genetic data, alongside geological reconstructions of the island. Their analysis, which makes use of over one thousand samples, many of which were collected during the 19th and 20th century, represent the largest genetic study of these species.

The results reveal that though each species most likely arrived on what is now the island of Sulawesi at different times over the past 13 million years, all of them began to spread across the island simultaneously about 1-2 million years ago. This timing exactly coincides with geological evidence for the emergence of the arms of the island from the ocean. This coincidence indicates that the highly biodiverse and endemic ecosystems of Sulawesi have been assembled over a far more recent time frame than previously thought.

Professor Greger Larson, Director of Palaeogenomics & Bio-Archaeology Research Network at Oxford and senior author of the study, said: 'Sulawesi is an amazing island, unlike any other on Earth. The key link between the three large mammals in this the study is that none of them fly. Sulawesi has been an island for a long time so however they arrived, they have been evolving in isolation.

'Understanding their evolutionary history was only possible by looking not only at their genetic signatures but also the geologic history of the island. The whole region is highly tectonic and we were able to reconstruct how much of the island was under water and when.

'Using a molecular clock we were then able to date the time of the expansion of all three species and by correlating those dates with the appearance of the different land masses that make up Sulawesi, we found a perfect temporal match.'

Laurent Frantz, Lecturer in Molecular Genetics and Informatics at the Queen Mary University of London said: 'Following his famous explorations, Alfred Wallace described Sulawesi as anomalous, first noting the merging of two immensely different worlds on this island. For a long time, we thought these anomalous ecosystems slowly assembled over tens of millions of years, as continents drifted. Yet, we now know that very recent geological processes, over only the last few million years, dramatically shaped this singular tropical paradise.

'This research relied not only on state-of-the-art technologies, but also the efforts of 19th and 20th century naturalists and museum curators, who meticulously collected and preserved specimens for future generations.'
Notes to editors:

The full paper citation is Synchronous diversification of Sulawesi's iconic artiodactyls driven by recent geological events, Proceedings of the Royal Society B. By Laurent A. F. Frantz1,2,†, Anna Rudzinski3,†, Abang Mansyursyah Surya Nugraha4,},†, Allowen Evin5,6,†, James Burton7,8,†, Ardern Hulme-Beaman2,6, Anna Linderholm2,9, Ross Barnett2,10, Rodrigo Vega11, Evan K. Irving-Pease2, James Haile2,10, Richard Allen2, Kristin Leus12,13, Jill Shephard14,15, Mia Hillyer14,16, Sarah Gillemot14, Jeroen van den Hurk14, Sharron Ogle17, Cristina Atofanei11, Mark G. Thomas3, Friederike Johansson18, Abdul Haris Mustari19, John Williams20, Kusdiantoro Mohamad21, Chandramaya Siska Damayanti21, Ita Djuwita Wiryadik, Dagmar Obbles22, Stephano Mona23,24, Hally Day25, Muhammad Yasin25, Stefan Meker26, Jimmy A. McGuire27, Ben J. Evans28, Thomas von Rintelen29, Simon Y. W. Ho30, Jeremy B. Searle31, Andrew C. Kitchener32,33, Alastair A. Macdonald7,‡, Darren J. Shaw7,‡, Robert Hall4,‡, Peter Galbusera14,‡ and Greger Larson2,‡

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.2566

URL after publication: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/lookup/doi/10.1098/rspb.2017.2566

Images: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/6mtoedyy6vqvvm6/AAB8LKbL-xK1PxUV7ebfS_Kja?dl=0

For further information please contact Lanisha Butterfield, Oxford University Media Relations Manager, 01865-280531 or email lanisha.butterfield@admin.ox.ac.uk

About Queen Mary University of London:

Queen Mary University of London is one of the UK's leading universities with 25,332 students representing more than 160 nationalities.

A member of the Russell Group, we work across the humanities and social sciences, medicine and dentistry, and science and engineering, with inspirational teaching directly informed by our research. In the most recent national assessment of the quality of research, we were placed ninth in the UK amongst multi-faculty universities (Research Excellence Framework 2014).

As well as our main site at Mile End - which is home to one of the largest self-contained residential campuses in London - we have campuses at Whitechapel, Charterhouse Square, and West Smithfield dedicated to the study of medicine and dentistry, and a base for legal studies at Lincoln's Inn Fields.

Queen Mary began life as the People's Palace, a Victorian philanthropic project designed to bring culture, recreation and education to the people of the East End. We also have roots in Westfield College, one of the first colleges to provide higher education to women; St Bartholomew's Hospital, one of the first public hospitals in Europe; and The London, one of England's first medical schools.

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