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Day 4: Tiny robberflies, different spiders and New Year's Eve! 

Cyclommatus canaliculatus stag beetle.

Certainly not used to the terrible pressing heat yet, we waded out of our little hut for breakfast. The jungle didn’t feature much in our plans today as we were going to explore down the sides of the human-made canal leading water into the reservoir. Pulling on boots and grabbing camera we set off, the sun already pushing the temperature above 25˚C despite it only being about 8 in the morning. The heat forgotten almost instantaneously when we started finding animals. Each footfall encased in heavy jungle boots saw a scattering of small Pardosa pusiola wolf spiders diving for cover. A few were carrying slate blue eggsacs carefully under their abdomens. These were the females and one of them specifically caught my attention. She had no eggsac as all of her spiderlings had hatched and climbed up onto her back. Wolf spiders are attentive mothers and, unlike many other spiders, will keep her young with her at all times. During this period the tiny spiders will feed on the remnants of yolk protein they store in their abdomens. After a few days (and often after the first moult) the spiderlings are big enough to disperse and find food for themselves (this is likely to be tiny springtails for these little predators)!

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Pardosa pusiola with her young.

A shout from our guide Agus Din, who had thoroughly accepted our insect obsession at this point, heralded the arrival of a different type of stag beetle: Cyclommatus canaliculatus. Unlike yesterday’s Odontolabis castelnaudi this one was a male and had huge pincers! Them and the rest of its head were bigger than the rest of its body combined! Like our stag beetles in the UK the males use these big modified mandibles to fight for dominance over good mating sites (a rotten log which females are likely to emerge out of for example). We were looking especially for stag beetles as the authors of our ‘Beetles of Borneo’ book seemed to have an affinity specifically for the Lucanidae (stag beetle) family and a large percentage of the book was devoted to them (despite the Lucanids being by no means the most numerous family here in Borneo!).

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Cyclommatus canaliculatus beetle.

Suddenly the most amazing praying mantis flew past us. It was almost perfectly mimicking a grey old dead leaf and sat in a bush in the perfect spot for a photograph save for a stray branch half obscuring it. Seeming settled on its perch I gently moved the branch out of the way and crouched to get the light right, confident that it would be confident itself in its camouflage and stay there. I had, of course, failed to take a record shot in my assurance and as soon as I twitched to push the shutter the terrible mantis flicked its wings and zipped off over the lake, never to be seen again.

Laughing it off but cursing inside I continued with more care to take record photos first. Luckily, our next point of interest was far more static. It was a bridal veil stinkhorn fungus in the Phallaceae family on account of its amusing shape of the main stem. We were lucky to spot one with its veil out as they emerge very quickly and disappear in just a couple of days. The reason they ‘flower’ like this is to attract insects to disperse their fungal spores throughout the forest. The fungus smells just like rotting meat and many carrion feeders like flies, beetles, grasshoppers and some bees all congregate to work out what is happening. It is the top brown part of the fungus that releases the smell and so it may be that the bright white veil is specifically for making the fungus very obvious to pollinators in the dim jungle light.

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Bridal veil fungus.

Made wary by my harrowing experience with the flighty leaf-mimic mantis, when I spotted a robberfly from a distance I made sure to get a record shot first. As I approached, camera shutter clicking, I realised that, in fact, the robberfly was much closer than it appeared and was absolutely minuscule! It was one in the Ommatius genus and these flies like nothing more than to perch at the end of twigs and branches, watching their world for any unsuspecting prey. They are brave things (this one was completely unfazed by my finger showing its scale) and are terrifying predators if you happen to be one of the few insects smaller than it…

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Tiny Ommatius sp. robberfly.

Near a stump at the corner of the reservoir a couple of huge black wasps were buzzing. They were the infamous tarantula hawk wasps of the Pompilidae family, not entirely sure which but maybe from the Pepsis or Hemipepsis genuses. These big wasps fly about trying to find large spiders (big huntsmen seemed more abundant than tarantulas here so maybe they went for those) to paralyse, drag back to their nest burrows and lay their eggs on them! The wasp’s young will then eat the spider (kept alive but immobile by the wasp’s sting to keep it fresh) until it is full grown. Interestingly the young will eat the spider’s non-vital organs first and only move to its vital organs towards the end of the wasp’s development in order to keep the spider alive, and therefore fresh, for longer! These wasps also have a terrible sting and so I was less inclined to snaffle one into my net…

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Tarantula hawk wasp.

Suddenly the deepest buzz ominously filled the air and out of the corner of my eye I spotted a huge black insect barrelling enthusiastically towards me. Instinctively I flicked my net up and nabbed the beast out of the air. Crossly buzzing it was revealed as nearly the largest bee in the world, Xylocopa latipes. He was a male whose abdomen was bald and black with a purple iridescence. As well as having huge green eyes, the males have wonderfully furry white front legs on which he gathers scented oils from plants to impress the females! His legs also cover the eyes of the female during mating (which occurs while flying), presumably to ensure she doesn’t get distracted. It is the females that gives this bee its common name; Carpenter bees. They burrow into dead wood such as fallen trees or even telephone poles to make their nest burrows. As soon as I released this big bee he buzzed off like a mobile earthquake and quickly came to rest on a nearby bamboo stem and sat there. Curiously, these bees can become quite attached to their perches, with preferences spanning generations!

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Xylocopa latipes bee. 

However, even these big bees have enemies. A flash of orange in the vegetation drew my attention to a large Conopid or ‘bee-grabber’ fly. I’m not at all sure on the species and my searches have thus far been fruitless. However, due to its size I wondered whether it specialised on the Xylocopa latipes bee… The female Conopid would lay her eggs between the abdominal plates of the bee very quickly and her young would feed on the bee, growing until it fills the abdomen entirely. When fully developed the fly bursts out of the bee and goes to find a mate, continuing its life cycle. Fairly grim but it is only the fly’s mother wanting the best for her children!

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Big orange Conopid fly.

In stark contrast to our earlier minuscule robberfly, a huge one suddenly landed on a leaf in front of me, holding its plaintively buzzing prey. Its prey was the first truly wild honeybee I’d ever seen, Apis cerana! The robberfly was not best pleased about my intruding camera and quickly zipped off to enjoy its meal in peace.

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Apis cerana being eaten by a robberfly.

I had been left a fair distance behind by this point on account of Ted trying to spot whiskered tree-swifts with Agus-Din and was too far back for them to hear my shouts about my new find. It was a bee-fly of sorts but so different from our beige, furry creatures that it was almost unrecognisable! Its abdomen was black with a single cross line and four white spots near its tapered end, the thorax was dark on top with an illustrious golden orange fringe. From the thorax sprouted two smokey wings with shimmering blue iridescence. Watching with interest, I noticed that these flies’ differences to our species extended into their behaviour. Our beeflies tend to throw their eggs into the nest burrows of solitary bees so their young can develop on the bee’s young. But this creature was far more carefree with her egg distribution, flicking them seemingly with abandon into the grass, full of hope that they would find an unsuspecting creature to feed on to develop. We found out later that this beefly was Ligyra tantalus.

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Ligyra tanatalus bee fly. 

In the baking heat, many butterflies were about trying to find a bit of moisture. Dark veined jays, Graphium bathycles, with their stunning iridescent blues and greens were alighting on the wet ground, sipping minerals. These showy butterflies were amongst the most beautiful we saw but they were pushed hard to the top spot. I think my favourite feature of theirs was their blue-green legs.

We were only just leaving the reservoir at this point having spent a good few hours walking about 500m and the sun was nearing its zenith. Spying a shelter, we sat underneath for a water-stop. Almost immediately a different butterfly species landed on Ted’s finger, tasting the salt of his sweat. This was a tawny Rajah, Charaxes bernardus, and was a vague leaf mimic to avoid predation; in stark contrast to the bright startle colours of the dark veined jay above!

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Dark-veined jay and tawny Rajah butterflies.

Continuing, our path was occasionally interrupted by streams of dark termites. The majority were carrying tiny specks of food back to their colony but the odd one had a bit bigger slightly paler heads and mandibles; the soldiers. This specific caste of termites are there for protection of the trails, making predators like small lizards, birds and other insects think twice. Interestingly, the soldiers are often too busy protecting to return to their colony to eat and so are fed by the workers on the trails. The soldiers will also lead the workers on exploratory trips to find new food sources. Unlike social Hymenopterans, termites have both a queen and a king. The king will mate with the female multiple times a year to ensure the continuation of the colony and can live for over seven years! However, the queen is the true dominant in the nest and will go through multiple kings in her 25 year+ lifespan.

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Termites. 

Further down the canal we reached a thin rickety bridge spanning the water. Consisting of two thin trunks lashed together with the occasional support strut the bridge swayed ominously under our weight. Edging across holding my camera high in the air it was somewhat a relief when I jumped onto the bank deep in the grass. Turning round, full of hope that Ted would slip and fall in, I was disappointed before turning my attention to what was ahead. A small house built on the edge of the jungle was apparently where Agus Din and some of his family sometimes stayed when he wanted to get away from the village. It looked out onto a small pool of a stream running into the canal lined with thick vegetation and small trees. As we sat in the shade of the house we did a bit of bird watching. Red-headed tailor birds flitted through the leaves while little spider hunters hunted in the tree tops.

 

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Ted on the 'bridge'.

It was very hot and so we waited there for a good while, picking at our food. Eventually I had recuperated a bit of energy and left Agus Din and Ted and wandered into the close jungle, hissing with cicadas and half expecting a velociraptor to bound around the corner at any moment. The vegetation on the edge of the path was rather foreboding with large spines and grabbing vines. However, the deeper I went the vegetation seemed to accept me and I began to hunt about. A few big ant mimic midges sat on leaves, using their rough mimicry to gain a survival advantage. However, it was the ants near my feet that held my attention. They were weaver ants in the Oecophylla genus and seemed to be watching my every move, even standing on their hind legs to have a closer look at my camera! These ants make their nests up in the tree tops and will all work together to hold the leaves together while other ants retrieve their own larvae from existing nests. When the leaves are held together by the ants, the larvae are tapped in such a way that they produce silk which the ants use to stick the leaves together. The larvae now will not have enough silk to create their cocoon so they will need to help that the nest is secure enough for nothing to happen to the larvae while they are developing!

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Curious Oecophylla ants. 

Carrying my bag that I had left with them, Ted and Agus Din had come to find me. As I was already a way into the jungle we decided to continue and anyway, Agus Din seemed to know the area well. Lying in wait in the darkened underbrush was a female Heteropoda venatoria huntsman looking especially ominous. She was waiting for evening to fall to snaffle some unsuspecting prey or to listen out for a mate (see Day 2). Another spider nearby was a young Argiope spider. It was a juvenile and was quite white in comparison to the colourful adults. Interestingly, the juveniles don’t tend to make the ‘X’ shapes of the web decoration (stabilimenta) of the adults and instead go for a circular lace-like pattern. It is thought that the spiders use their bright colours to fool pollinators into thinking that they are flowers and so are lured to their demise. The ‘X’ shape is thought to potentially mimic the nectar lines of flowers that the pollinators use as pathways to find the nectar pool of flowers. Maybe because the juveniles are smaller than the adults, if they made the ‘X’ pattern it would be too small and it is of benefit to the young to make a large bright, white area in order to be very distinguishable in the low light of the jungle to make sure they get enough food for development!

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Heteropoda venatoria huntsman.

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A juvenile Argiope spider.

Some spiders, in contrast, do not want to stand out as they would make a tasty morsel for one of the many jungle predators. One such spider was this tiny jumping spider, likely Thiania latefasciata, hiding from me and the great eye of my camera lens in her shelter of two leaves held together with silk. These are cursorial hunting spiders and so have no need for a web, only a little house to shelter in.

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Thiania latefasciata jumping spider.

At this point Ted and Agus Din had wandered off well in front of me as I was taking so long to spider hunt. So far had they had walked, they were completely out of sight and I was alone in the jungle! Straining to see the sun through the trees, I tried to work out the compass point I should head towards as we headed roughly west into the jungle. However, we were just about in the southern hemisphere and this was casting doubt on my directional nose as I tried to work out whether the sun would still be in the south at its zenith. Deciding on what I thought was west I set off and jumped almost immediately at a shout from Ted from just behind a mound to come and look at a spider he’d found. He was so close that I decided not to tell him I had got lost but was secretly pleased that I was heading in the right direction.

The spider in question was certainly worth getting a little lost for. It was an orange and black creature with shining pearls of white markings on her high abdomen which extended over her head. Most beautiful however was her little combs of hair fringes on her legs, the use of which I am not sure… maybe they are just like eyelashes for her to attract the most handsome males. She is called Opadometa fastigata and, from my research, this is the very first time that she has been found in Borneo and is only known from Sulawesi in Indonesia!

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Opadometa fastigata spider.

Balancing over a log that had fallen over a steep sided stream we followed Agus Din into a clearing, meticulously swept clean from fallen leaves and filled with what looked like wooden grave ‘stones’. There were 60 graves and astoundingly they were all Agus Din’s relatives, we had been invited to see his family burial ground which was such an honour. The shapes of the gravestones varied between the sexes, hourglass shaped for women and squarer posts for men. Incredibly, the oldest grave here dated back to the 1300s!! The graves had Islamic symbols on them connoting the religion that most modern Bornean people follow but this must have been a recent addition to the earliest of graves as the 1300s are well before families such as Agus Din’s would have been in contact with the Islamic religion! What is also amazing is that his family had not moved in all that time. Many Bornean people were nomadic, especially deep in the forest but here, near the coast, the habitat must have boded well for a more sedentary lifestyle. An amazing family record and one we felt very privileged to be shown!

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Agus Din's burial ground.

Turning around and clambering back over the fallen log a shout from Agus Din alerted Ted to the presence of a snake and he dashed off in hot pursuit. Madly chasing through the leaf litter the snake made it to the slow moving stream and dived. Ted also steamed into the water and flushed the snake to the surface, grabbing a few photos (very much blurry record shots!) from the side it was revealed to be a Red-necked keelback.

We birdwatched a little more on the way back to the little canal-side hut and when we arrived we had another small rest as we were still in the heat of the day and the temperature was pushing 35˚C. Almost as soon as we sat down, Ted spotted a lizard that he had been dreaming of seeing, a five-banded flying lizard (Draco quinquefasciatus)! These lizards have flaps of skin on the sides of their body attached to their legs. They are able to jump between trees in order to save energy from walking down! This is quite a lot of movement and movement alerts predators. To counter this, the lizard’s skin flaps are often coloured rich browns and reds, just like that of falling dead leaves so that predators avoid them! These lizards are voracious ant predators and we watched it slowly move up the tree until it entered the canopy and its green body rendered it invisible.

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Shiny Ted and a five-banded flying lizard Draco quinquefasciatus.

Crossing the rickety bridge again we briefly turned right to reach the end of the canal to hunt unsuccessfully for crocs before turning to head back to the lodge, admiring the large heart-shaped leaved plants speckled with red and white.

As we walked we could hear the call of possibly my favourite bird in the world, the plaintive cuckoo. They’re quite brown birds and probably wouldn’t win any beauty contests (unless they were judged by me) but they have an evocative call; a rising ‘tay-ta-tee, tay-ta-tee, tay-ta-tee’.

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Ted identifying and a sketch of a plaintive cuckoo.

We made it back to the lodge and spent the next few hours cooling down in the shade, away from the searing heat. Today was New Year’s Eve and before he left Agus Din invited us over to his house to celebrate with his family which we gladly accepted. With hope in our eyes, Ted asked whether there would be beer. Encouragingly Agus Din said he would see what he could do…

Night was falling and so we decided to take ourselves on a short night walk. Exploring the jungle behind the lodge again, we found the beautiful but fairly large and intimidating hermit of Malabar spider (Nephilengys malabarensis) who makes huge webs near buildings and retreats into her silken burrow whenever threatened, earning her hermit moniker.

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Nephilengys malabarensis Hermit of Malabar spider. 

Moving further into the jungle a largeish cursorial (non-web building spider that likes to run) spider with silver shining legs was spotted. Thinking it was a type of wolf spider it was only when I looked closer that I realised that he was a Ctenus sarawakensis, a Sarawak wandering spider! He is quite slow moving and prefers to sit and wait on the edge of insect trails for his food. Unlike his Brazilian wandering spider cousin I don’t think his venom is quite as bad, although I didn’t want to try.

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Ctenus sarawakensis, the Sarawak wandering spider. 

A shimmer of blue caught our torchbeams and one of the largest butterflies we had ever seen loomed out of the gloom. Asleep on a leaf, this Papilio memnon or the great Mormon butterfly was a midnight blue and I had to boost the power of my flash to make it stand out, such was the light-absorbant qualities of its scales.

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Papilio menmon, the great Mormon butterfly.

The final animal on our night walk was a familiar one to our moth trapping escapades in France, a passenger moth! Identical to our European species it was quite surreal to see one on the other side of the world!

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Pardosa pusiola with her young.

As we walked back to the lodge music began to wash over us. But something was wrong, what should have been the tuneful voice of Jessie J singing her price tag song was instead stolen and replaced by a much less tuneful karaoke singer blaring out of speakers almost as tall as us! We sat, amused by the grating warblings for another half an hour or so until it was time to go and see Agus Din and his family at his house. We arrived and were greeted with wide smiles and invited to join in the demolishment of the amazing array of food spread out across the whole of his covered front patio area. Spicy rice dishes, steamed vegetable dishes full of flavour, fresh chicken and myriad of other less identifiable plates but none anything less than delicious. Ted and I had already been provided with tea earlier in the evening but being especially glutinous humans, we didn’t refuse. Sitting down with Agus Din, our other guide Lintar and a few more, Agus Din opened a cool box and a golden glow shone out, complete with an ethereal angelic chorus as beer was proffered. Gratefully accepting we showed photos and shared stories of our snow covered home, played guitar with Agus Din’s son, listened to music that left a lot to be desired (three Westlife and Boyzone songs on repeat), before counting in the New Year, eight hours before anyone at home! Eventually we wandered back to our hut to sleep, up early tomorrow for more jungle walks!

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Agus Din, Ted and Lintar on New Year's Eve.