The Volcano’s Child

14 Jan

Here is where the jungle reaches the mountain. This is Indonesia, where the conflux of biology and geology reaches its height. Sulawesi is only one of a thousand islands in the Indonesian archipelago, most easily recognizable by its unique shape, like a horseshoe on a string. Or, considering the entire archipelago is volcanically active, perhaps smoke rising from a mound is more fitting.

One inhabitant of Sulawesi in particular has formed a unique attachment to the geologic energies here. It appears unassuming to the eye. One would not be blamed for mistaking the maleo (Macrocephalon maleo) for just another jungle bird. Something small and chicken-like, scratching for food on the jungle floor. The maleo is part of the megapode family and is recognizable by its large feet, crested head, and salmon underbelly. Maleos are endemic to Sulawesi and have an interesting array of calls, but otherwise appear similar to most every other megapode here.

It is when we consider the maleo’s method of reproduction when the bird becomes more interesting. Megapodes don’t build nests. Instead they bury their eggs in huge mounds, and the maleo is no exception. Usually the mound is made of compost and rotting debris. The idea usually that the decomposition would produce enough heat to incubate the eggs instead of the parents (although the male sometimes stays around to monitor the temperature and guard the nest). The maleo, however, only uses dirt and sand instead. It gets its heat elsewhere.

Specifically, volcanoes. The birds form colonies in sandy areas and dig down to where the earth is heated naturally. You can watch a video of them in action below.

The maleo is an excellent example of what can happen to endemic animals. The limited range allows for relatively local events or conditions to wreck vast changes to the species. A larger gene pool would have probably negated these effects, but here on these isolated islands, extraordinary things can still be found.

Sources: Random History,, BBC, Wikipedia

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Posted by on January 14, 2012 in Natural History


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