KAMORO USE OF INSECTS
Kamoro hors d’oeuvres: grubs, worms and other delicious snacks.
(Remember: Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder)
Kal Muller, June 2000
Sago grubs are well known to the various ethnic groups living among the mangroves on New Guinea
and the Kamoro are no exception. Right from the beginning of my research I was confronted with
some live, wiggling grubs, perhaps as a test of my manhood or rather adaptability. Fortunately, a
life-time of experience among traditional cultures has inured me to the way anything looks: the taste
is the thing on which I judge exotic food. (If you can eat - chew and swallow that is - fresh peyote,
you can eat anything.) My Kamoro hosts explained to me that the KO, the sago grub, has a business
end which bites. This is a smooth, shiny dark-colored head equipped with a pincer-like appendage.
That’s how the little critter, about four centimeters long, chews its way through the sago pith and
adulthood as a beetle. I could see for myself the dozen or so grubs nestled in a chunk of sago pith,
wiggling and displaying their pincers. Someone showed me the eating technique: pick and hold by
the head, bite it off and eat the rest. No problem. The body is fatty, a bit chewy and pretty much
devoid of taste. A bit like butter. I must admit to preferring the grubs roasted, but simply because of
the texture: crisp and crunchy.
Proofs of manhood and adaptability done and over, I wanted to identify the animal in scientific
terms. I thought that with the popularity of the sago grubs in New Guinea, there would be reams of
literature. No such luck. Even a monograph on New Guinea beetles makes no mention of our little
friend. It was relatively easy to identify a somewhat similar beetle which are specially fond of (and
cause plenty of damage to) coconut trees: the palm weevil Rhynchophorus cruentatus: hefty-bodied,
shiny, six centimeter long beetle with a long curved horn projecting upwards. But nothing on the
sago grub of such widespread use at least among the Asmat and the Kamoro.
It took my buddy and collaborator David Pickell, who solves just about any problem I have, to
identify the grub. But even he needed a sample. So I collected some of the beasts, pickled them in
some preserving solution given to me by the Freeport environmental lab and sent the critters (I’m
fairly sure this was highly illegal) to David. At the Berkeley library, he found a multi-volume
description of all Australian weevils. Fortunately for us, our specific friend also lives in Aussie land
(at the ragged edge of its distribution range) although probably no one there, except perhaps the
Aborigines who eat any and everything, consumes them. Et voilà: Rhynchophorus ferrugineus;
family Rhynchophoridae, a large weevil. But wait: it’s been identified and classified since 1790, by
someone named Oliver. The genus name comes from the Greek meaning ‘snout-bearing’ while the
species name is derived from Latin, meaning rust-colored. It seems that our beetle has variable
coloration and several forms have been identified. The adult of the species sports elbowed antennae
tipped with orange clubs. It is called AMAPIKO by the Kamoro.
Much later, after several scientific institutions best left unnamed misidentified our grub, I found in
the wonderful PROSEA series (Volume #9, Plants Yielding Non-seed Carbohydrates) that someone
in this wide universe did know something about our grub. The volume mentions the weevil of the
genus Rhynchophorus, weighing three to eight grams, with three to seven per cent protein, ten to
thirty per cent fat and the rest water. The common name given is Red-striped palm weevil, puzzling
to me as I have never seen any red-striped models - but it seems that there are several color
variations. The species-level identification given is Rhynchophorus schack (=R. ferrugineus, variety
schack), the so-called sago worms. Good work, congratulations.
Beetles were one of the earliest groups of insects to evolve and those species which were found to be
involved with palms are often members of primitive beetle families, in particular Curculionidae
(weevils) and Nitidulidae (nitidulid beetles). Our sago grub is known as a weevil, a term which
applies to all the members of the Rhynchophora/Curculionidae group. Weevils are distinguished
from all other beetles (whence the different name) by the head prolonged into a distinct snout or
beak which is curved downwards with the jaws at the tip. The antennae are clubbed and elbowed.
Most of the weevils (rhymes with evils) are awful pests, especially in the larval stage, to nuts, fruits
and grain of living plants. People should try eating them and develop and appreciation, as do the
Kamoro. Put weevil larvae on menus, prepared French-style, with a fine vintage (white) wine.
From the NG Beetles monograph: Family Curculionidae (weevils, bark beetles). This group is often
referred to as the largest family of animals in the world; weevils are associated with plants, majority
with woody plants; many are wood-borers or root-feeders in the larval stage; some have long lives as
adults and are the most hardy insects, quite difficult to kill. The most obvious characteristic of many
weevils is the long snout or rostrum. Larvae are usually white or pale creamy, with a brown head and
usually lacking legs; they are a major agricultural pests in New Guinea.
Slimy-looking, but fine tasting: tambelo
(Note: this is really a bivalve mollusk, but we have included it here as it looks like a long, thick
worm. The animal is better covered in the chapter on mollusks.)
Aside from the sago grub, and eaten far more often in the coastal villages, we have the tambelo (the
designation used in West Papua), a long, slimy, wormy looking creature which lives in fallen
mangrove trees. Unlike the sago grub, this customer has an excellent taste, just like a fine, sweet
oyster. Indeed, it is a bivalve, contrary to appearances. There are several species of tambelo, all
belonging to the Teredinidae Family. This family includes a close relative, the dreadfully destructive
shipworms, not good to eat as far as we know. The longest, slimiest and best tasting of the tambelo is
usually called KO and scientifically Bactronophorus thoracites. The larger, mature specimens
average some 30 cm in length. This top-of-the-line tambelo comes from two species of mangrove
trees, Rhizophora stylosa (PAKO in Kamoro) and R. apiculata (PAE). All tambelo are called KO
(or KO’O or just plain O) in Kamoro except the freshwater species, named TITIRI. This beast is
thinner and does not taste nearly as good as the KO. We found it interesting that when we asked
among the neighboring Asmat about tambelo, its use was not very widespread. One informant told
us that tambelo use was introduced to the Asmat by the Kamoro teachers and other Catholic mission
workers who first arrived in the mid 1950s. Be that as it may, the tambelo is not an insect, the
subject of this section of our study.
Other grubs for future taste-tests
We thought that with the sago grub safely in the id bag, we could forget about insect use among the
Kamoro. And we did. It was late in the day - towards the very end of our field research - that we
learned about a far wider use of insects than we had suspected. [In the resource=poor highlands,
many insects are eaten as dietary supplement.] Our informants in Atuka told us that the Kamoro eat
grasshoppers as well as using them for fishing bait. They also told us about two animals, aside from
the well known sago grubs, which they consume fairly regularly. The sago grubs, KO or KO’O
thrive in the pith of the AMETA, Metroxylon sagu which are usually felled before the tree ‘flowers’,
pushing up an inflorescence from its crown. If the tree is allowed to flower, its pith becomes a sweet,
edible (but not preservable) substance. In this form of the pith we find a different kind of grub called
KAURI thrives and can be eaten. This animal is said to be much longer than the ‘normal’ sago grub,
perhaps 10 to 12 cm., whitish in color, narrow with a curved shape: ((.
In Atuka, we were also given the information that, aside from the tambelo whose mollusk status is clear
enough, there were other edible species of dead-tree dwelling, similar-looking beasts. We did not have the
opportunity to see these, let alone eat them or to collect samples for identification. That will be the lucky fate
of some future researcher.
Here is a start anyone interested. To begin with, when describing the following animals, used the
Indonesian word ‘ulat’ which can mean caterpillar, maggot or larva.
1. The BAMAKO is a type of grub consumed, 12 to 14 cm. long and living in two species of trees:
WIRIKU (Hopea nodosa) and KIMOKO (Pimeleodendron pinnatum).
2. The BAKAMU grub lives in the MANARO tree (Hopea novoguinensis); it tastes like sago grubs
and its color is said to be white and brown
3. MAKAMO: a ‘worm’ from the breadfruit tree, pohon sukun, OPAKO, Artocarpus communis or
A. altilis; it is said to be toe-sized, 10 to 12 cm. long.
4. OTAI is said to be a kind of worm (cacat) which breaks apart when pulled; it is bitter tasting and
found in the tree UMU, Xylocarpus moluccensis.
Appendix A: Useless, but with redeeming social values
Of no practical use, but making for a pleasant night-time show, there are synchronous fireflies called
NANIMAMOKO which display on the trees TEEKO (Avicennia officinalis) and IWAE (Hisbicus
tiliaceous), with no season for the performances.
These are beetles, also called lightning bugs, of the Family Lampyridae. They have the unique
ability to flash their lights on and off: other luminescent insects glow continuously. For the
technically minded, the light in these beetles is produced by low temperature oxidation brought on
by special enzymes. Now the mystery is gone.
Also of no practical use to the Kamoro, a plethora of insects abound in the area. Some are quite
pretty and, like the birdwing butterfly, spectacular. We have a dozen plus insect photos awaiting ids
by Peter Ebsworth (on vacation as we write this, so will complete when he - and we, the royal we,
that is - return, in early August....)
On an unpleasant note, we must mention a surfeit of common house flies (especially when trying to
eat fish out in the sticks) and mosquitoes, including four species of malaria-carrying Anopheles (will
get these species from Peter Ebsworth).
Appendix B: A perspective on the Hatfindo insect biodiversity study
Highly qualified entomologists came (and quickly went) to sample various bugs in our Project area
as part of the tremendous biodiversity study undertaken as part of the 300K Amdal. Great material
for specialists, this study has turned our area into the most well researched section of the whole
island of New Guinea, biologically speaking. The problem is that for the layman, lists of Latin
names are pretty meaningless. Below, we have tried to flesh out the two volumes (#10 on selected
land-based insects and #11 on aquatic insects) into something a bit more meaningful to the
(admittedly few) interested laymen.
The species selected for study were picked because they were representative of the insect life and
gave a good idea as to the various eco-systems. Also because the scientists were familiar with the
critters from their work elsewhere. And because they were relatively easy to capture for a close look.
1. CICADAS: Homoptera: Family: Tibicinidae
These are the nosiest beasts in the tropical rain forest, setting up a cacophony of sound which
overpowers even a whining outboard engine. Sometimes they do their number in unison, sometimes
each individual male on its own, loudly proclaiming his sexual powers. The cicadas are one of best
known groups in New Guinea as they come to lights under right conditions. We got swarmed by
them on several occasions when staying in the rain forest. (See photo, with Peter Ebsworth). As
with many other animals, they come around uninvited and bother humans; when humans want them
for study, they coyly stay away. So it has been proposed to use their ‘songs’ to monitor cicada
populations, as currently done with frogs and birds. I don’t know how big cicadas grow around here
but in Borneo they can attain be huge enough perhaps 10 to 12 cm. to scare a human (me). Having
one fly into you full tilt is most unpleasant, aside from just plain hurting.
2. FLAT PLANTHOOPERS: Homoptera: Family Flatidae. Our researchers call these guys one of
the best known groups in New Guinea after the cicadas, as they readily come to lights. (We might
have a photo...). Around there, we’ve seen them and they resemble a leaf with a head. In the
mountains, they grow to huge size.
3. SCARABAEDIDAE DUNG BEETLES: Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae
(quote about God being inordinately found of beetles, that’s why He created so many of them....).
While attractive enough in appearance, these beetles’ way to make a living is none too appealing
(except to ecologists and their parents). They are among best known beetles due to their importance
in decomposition of herbivore dung and the interest this holds for the biological control of dung, as
well as community ecology research. Over 80% of New Guinea’s dung beetles are endemic.
4. BUTTERFLIES: Lepidoptera, various families. These pretty insects can be highly informative in
assessing the biological diversity of an area. During the Hatfindo study, some 2000 specimen were
collected, mostly from marginal secondary forest in the lowlands. The specimen included the female
of the most common and widespread of birdwings, Troides (Ornithoptera) priamus, and a pair of
these was sighted flying across road at Kwamki Lama. These butterflies are endangered due to the
high demand for their pupae (the next stage in metamorphosis after larva) for farming and general
collecting. The birdwings of New Guinea are (recently re-classified) as all of genus Troides, eight of
them, with six occurring or expected in the Project Area.
The Herperiidae are a family of butterflies common called skippers. Their antennae clubbed and
usually hooked at the tip and widely separated at the base; they are stout-bodied and strong fliers.
This is a very large group, with many species.
*Some amazing (well, interesting) butterfly/moth facts:
1. Both butterflies and moths own a proboscis (an elephant has one too), usually in the form of a
2. How to tell them apart: butterflies’ antennae are long, slender and always knobbed at the end! (no
such luck for moths: plain antennae are their sad fate)
3. The larvae of both are called caterpillars and have salivary glands modified into silk glands, but
the butterfly pupae have the pretty name of chrysalids (one: chrychalis; plural: chrysalids) and no
such luck for the moths; this is perhaps because moth pupae seem sculptured and sometimes sport
bright colors while the moths’ offspring start as brownish and smooth. By the way, metamorphosis
goes: egg > larva > pupa > adult. Don’t ask why: it’s too complicated.
4. Pretty or not, the larva of many butterflies and moths alike are awful pests of both cultivated
plants as well as grain and flour.
5. The way to really tell the members of the butterfly/moth family apart is essentially by wing
venation. But forget it: most venation is obscured by scales, requiring bleaching to see properly.
Stick to the wing patterns and colors. It may not be as accurate but it’s a hell of a lot more fun.
My own take on all this is that butterflies are pretty, both at rest and when flying. Moths tend to be
hairy, fly erratically into you but do, sometimes, display nice wing patterns.
Forgive us for what we think is an interesting aside: have you ever seen a bottle of mescal, a tequila-
like, cactus-based booze from Mexico, with a ‘worm’ at the bottom? There is close connection with
the family listed above. The giant skippers (Family Megathymidae) sport a wingspan of 40 mm or
more; their larvae bores into the stems and roots of yucca and related plants. This larvae is edible
and considered a delicacy in Mexico: it is usually cooked in deep fat, canned and sold as ‘gusanos de
maguey’. Or put into bottles of mescal as proof of authenticity. We have eaten these in Mexico,
fried, and were delicious. The hangover from the mescal was awesome.
5. MOTHS: Lepidoptera, especially the Geometridae and Crambidae families. - During the
collecting period, as the weather was extremely dry (El Niño times), there were too few samples for
meaningful analysis. But worthy of note, almost all the moths collected from the mine site were
undescribed species, new to science.
6. CHARCIDAE WASPS: Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae (nothing to say on these....)
The volume on aquatic insects covered three main kinds, with three other ones tagging along. ‘These
groups chosen due to the consistency of their representation across the range of habitats sampled,
variation of species assemblages in response to altitude and habitat type, and relatively well
investigated taxonomy, which allowed confidence that identification could be made at least at the
genus level which reduced the potential number of undescribed species to be dealt with.’
1. Order Odonata: Dragonflies and Damselflies
These insects sprout two pairs of elongate, membranous, many-veined wings; wings are at rest are
usually held outstretched (Anisoptera) or together above body (Zygoptera). Remember: at rest
damsels hold their wings vertically while the dragons extend them horizontally. You can often see
them all flying in tandem, the male holding female by back of head or the prothorax with the
appendages at the end of his abdomen; all stages are predaceous, feeding on mosquitoes, midges and
other small insects, helping to keep them under control. The principal separating character is wing
venation, so forget even trying.
Anisoptera: dragonflies: relatively stout-bodied
Zygoptera: damselflies - abdomen very slender
2. Order Hemiptera: called just plain ‘bugs’ Some are predaceous, thus valuable in keeping pest
species under control.
Family Gerridae: water striders
Family Belostomatidae: giant water bugs: these can inflict painful bites on humans
Family Nepidae: waterscorpions: predaceous on other insects: painful bite
Family Velidae: Ripple bugs - small water striders
3. Coleoptera: Family Gyrinoidea: the whirligig beetles. The common name comes from their habit
of swimming in groups in an odd, gyrating fashion. They differs from nearly all other beetles by
having two pairs of eyes: one set for looking out for enemy and prey above the water and the other
pair for below the water surface. They are predaceous. Some adults, when handled, give off a smell
Rhinoceros beetles and coconut damage????: KOMIHI = Oryctes centaurus??
Family Dytiscidae: diving beetles, highly predacious, including feeding on fish! The larvae (called
water tigers) have large sickle-like jaws and suck the body contents of the prey through channels in
the jaws. In PNG, and especially in the Sepik area, some of the larger of these carnivores water
beetles are carefully caught in small nets and valued as a delicacy.
Order Ephemeroptera: mayflies - abdomen with 2 or 3 hairlike tails: long, slender, gracefully
Order Trichoptera: caddisflies: move backwards more often, and faster, than forward
Appendix: Lorentz insects, from WWF
John Matabang (WWF Irian) from Agats to Mimika, in lowland swamp area, 50m. collects two
species of birdwings, according to literature not under 1000m: Ornithoptera chimaera and O.
In Jila, a completely white type of Morphotaenans sp. (Amathusidae) can be frequently observed.
Densities are relatively high. This completely white form is known only from the mountain areas of
PNG, it is not known from any other location in Irian Jaya other than Jila.
Group or subgroup///Sub-species///Area of occurrence
WM = western mountain area of the park; EM = Eastern mountain area of the park; LA = Lower
areas of the park, south of the range; ? = doubt about exact location.
Chrysomelanea group: Delias ladas levis (LA) and D. ladas wamenaenis (LA)
Geraldina group; Sagessa sub-group: D. geraldina spp. (WM); D. microsticha microstiga (WM,
EM); D. riyeli yofona (WM, EM); D. hypomelas rubrostiata (WM); D. hypomelas lieftincke (EM);
D. argentata argentata (EM);
Facelis sub-group: D. facelis amungme (WM); D. facelis ibelana (EM)
Aroae-spheres sub-group: D. yabenis (EM); D. balimensis (EM); D. approximata rectimargo (WM,
Eichhorni sub-group: D. heliophora germana (EM); D. antara (EM); D. carstensziana (WM); D.
Carstensziana f. alcicornis (EM); D. leucobalia distincta (WM); D. leucobalia ericetorum (EM); D.
catisa wisseliana (?); D. catisa aurostriga (EM); D. toxopei morosa (WM); D. toxopei toxopei (EM)
Bornemanni group: D. nais denigrata (WM); D. nais holophaea (EM); D. zebra zebra (EM); D.
klossi klossi (WM); and D. klossi chrysanthemum (EM)
Mesoblema sub-group: D. arabuana arabuana (WM, EM); D. flavistriga flavistriga (EM); D.
callista callipulchra (WM); D. callista callipareia (EM); D. luctosa gottsi (WM); D. luctosa
Weiski group: D. hapalina spp. Nov. ? (WM); D. hapalina amoena (EM)
Weiski sub-group: D. leucias leucias (WM, EM); D. rosamontana rosamontana (EM)
Kummeri group: D. ligata weylandensis (WM); D. ligata interpolata (EM); D. alepa spp. ? (WM);
D. alepa orthobasis EM)
Mairae sub-group: D. walshae walshae (EM); D. inexpectata ssp. nov.? (WM); D. inexpectata
Mira sub-group: D. hiemalis flabella new species (?) (WM) D. autumnalis autumnalis (EM)
Niepelti group: D. meeki hypochrysis (WM, EM); D. meeki hypoxantha (WM, EM)
Belisima group: D. aruna irma (LA);
Hyparete group: D. mysis lara (LA)
(Note from WWF: preliminary species list; main source: Henk van Masticht)