Asteroidea Celebes: Interview with Tony Whitten

I’ve never met Dr. Tony Whitten, formerly of the World Bank, now with Fauna & Flora International. Haven’t seen how he reacts when a cockroach waves at him from the kitchen counter or when an old friend disappoints in February of a grey winter.

But I do know he’s the kind of person who when visiting Bali discovers a new species of crab after following a young villager into a shadow beneath a boulder.

And I know he wrote the definitive book on the ecology of Sulawesi. It’s the island in Indonesia, formerly known as Celebes, that looks like a malformed but balletic starfish. Read Ecology of Sulawesi to learn why it looks like that—you would have had a ringside seat for that geologic happening if you’d been on the leading edge of Gondwanaland 19-13 mega-annum ago when it collided with Sundaland.

As part of a project to correspond with interesting people and learn about every country in the world, my daughter and I exchanged emails with the good Dr. Whitten in January 2015. Decades of leading work on biodiversity have given him some fine stories to tell.


POPO AND DAUGHTER: I was explaining to my daughter that deforestation is a major problem in Sulawesi, or at least it was some years ago. She asks: What are the environmental changes in Sulawesi like? Are there signs of progress?

TONY WHITTEN: Deforestation on Sulawesi has dropped – but only because the accessible forest is now largely gone. Much of the island is in fact hilly or mountainous and it is hard to log. However, where there are high-value ebony trees loggers will penetrate a long way. That can actually be beneficial because by taking the highest value tree, they are in effect ‘creaming’ the forest and the value of the remaining trees does not justify other commercial logging. However, there is always a demand for house timber and all forests continued to be nibbled away from the edges. Another major issue is gold mining, not just because the miners (generally small, local enterprises) clear more forest but because they use mercury. The mercury is poisonous to the people who use it and it also poisons the rivers into which spills.

POPO: Cambodia has the most delicious bananas I’ve ever eaten. My daughter wonders: What is the food in Sulawesi like? If you could have Sulawesian food for lunch today, what would you eat?

WHITTEN: A typical meal in Sulawesi would be boiled rice and fried fish, often with a spicy chilli sauce. Rice is present at every meal and without it someone doesn’t real feel as though they have eaten. In the extreme north of Sulawesi people are Christian and have a wider range of meat than elsewhere. This would not just be pork, but also wild boar and the weird wild pig called a babirusa. In markets in that area you will also find BBQ rats-on-a-stick, squirrels-on-a-stick, bats, snake and dog!

POPO: My favorite question of hers: What is it like to go outside and not just see what you can find but to look for something new?

WHITTEN: I love it! I have discovered many new species (quite a few are called whitteni in their scientific name). There’s so much to find if you have the eyes and the patience to find it. The world is an amazing place!

POPO: The rest need no introduction, especially this one: How do you study a duck’s hearing?

WHITTEN: Well, you asked … I used a behavioural method, meaning I compared their behaviour in the presence of the smell and in the absence. They wore little hats so they couldn’t see what I was doing. Smell is complicated. If you open a jar of mustard or horseradish and take a deep breath, the sensation in your nose is not really smell. It is other nerves which are stimulated. So, to do the experiment you have to use a ‘pure’ odour and a common one is ‘skatole’ which is flakes or white crystal. This is the chemical which gives dog poop its characteristic smell. Unfortunately, sometimes the birds would flap and the crystals would blow out of the bowls. After I week I was asked to leave the little hotel where I was staying because I smelled like walking dog poop!

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