East Timor is situated in a transition region between Australia and Asia
known as Wallacea. Defined by the famed Wallace Line to the west and the
Weber/Lydekker Line1 to the east, Wallacea covers the region east of Bali
and west of New Guinea,including the island groups of Sulawesi, Lesser Sundas,
and Maluku. Geographically, all of Wallacea lies in the area where the Eurasian,
Indian-Australian, and Pacific-Philippine plates collide. Biologically, Wallacea
is a hotspot of biodiversity where species from Asia and Australia mingle.
Located on the southeastern boundary of Wallacea2, East Timor literally sits
on the continental margin of Australia. Among major Wallacean islands not
sharing a continental shelf with Australia, Timor is closest to the Australian
continent. Newly independent, it is the only part of Wallacea not under Indonesian
As a bioregion, Wallacea is far better known for the high distinctiveness
of its fauna. Both the richness in species and the level of endemism seem
much lower in its flora. The southern islands3 of Sumba, Flores, and Timor
are especially poor in plants. However, it is worth mentioning that there
has never been any full botanical account of Timor and neighboring Roti
since 1885. Apparently all the past botanical documentations were performed
before the degradation of Timor's primary rain forest in the mid 1950s.
Those efforts were also focused on trees and woody plants. East TImor's
forest patches offer the last few natural stands of Eucalyptus urophylla
and Santalum album (sandalwood). Well recognized for its economic value,
Eucalyptus urophylla is planted across the world as short rotation forest.
A comparative genomic study of the naturally growing Eucalyptus urophylla
in East Timor to its counterparts produced through selective mating and clonal
plantation could guide us in preserving and enhancing economically important
traits in the plant. Currently, the original habitats in Timor consist of
highly isolated fragments. Of some 20 habitats under protection, most are
less than 100 square miles in size. Only one large block of forest remains
on Timor4. Such advanced habitat fragmentation poses serious threat to the
biodiversity of the ecoregion. Thus, surveys of biodiversity and the collection
of critically endangered species are urgently needed. On the other hand,
the isolated and shrinking habitats also provides the unique opportunity
to study the survival/extinction of species5.
Mathematics could provide the groundwork in solving intricate problems in
biology. For one thing, cellular automata is an intriguing tool in the simulation
of evolution. It can be used to study various aspects of life such as energy
expenditure, mate selection, symbiosis and self-defense. The results of
the simulations can then be compared to what is observed in nature and offer
us valuable insight in building conjectures on long-term system behavior.
The stability modeling of biological systems would have significant implications
in the timely identification of ecosystem endangerment and the optimal allocation
of efforts in conservation. The knowledge gained by studying biological
systems may also enhance our understanding of complex systems in other fields.
Personally, as a probabilist, I am interested in modeling catastrophes as
large deviation events, especially in the context of extinction. However,
a mathematician does not work in a vacuum. Before one tinkers with equations
and parameters, it is healthy to have some appreciation for the field work
that provides the real data.
As we recognize the huge potential benefit in the cataloging and conservation
of biodiversity in East Timor, we must also acknowledge the importance of
forging a strong relationship with institutions in East Timor. For the UW
community, the collaboration with East Timorese academe could provide UW
scientists habitat access, local staff and lab space. For our East Timorese
partner, UW-Madison could offer its expertise in many subjects related to
conservation and help train East Timorese personnel. Not only does a sister
university program with East Timor National University provide a channel
for exchange and enlightenment, its formal and encompassing nature also gives
crucial support in promoting inter-university cooperation in the interdisciplinary
pursuit of knowledge and discovery.
1 Weber’s Line is more consistent with the geographical features such as
Sahul shelf of Australia. It is also to the West of Weber’s Line that one
sees balanced mixing of fauna from the two continents.
2 Weber’s Line roughly coincides with the Timor Trough.
3 These islands remained separate during the most glaciation when sea level
was 400 feet below the present level.
4 The block overlaps both East and West Timor and is between 390 and 750
square miles in size.
5 see E.O. Wilson's island biogeography hypothesis.
A Guide to the Birds of Wallacea : Sulawesi, the Moluccas and the Lesser
Sunda Islands Indonesia, by Brian J. Coates and K. David Bishop (illustrated
by Dana Gardner)
Dove Publications 1997 Aldersley, Queensland 4051, Australia
Terrestrial Ecosystems of the Indo-Pacific : A Conservation Assesment, by
Eric Wikramanayake, Eric Dinerstein, Colby J. Loucks et. al. , Island Press