Wilderness and biodiversity protection organisation Conservation International  reports on the discovery of several new species in Papua New Guinea.

Dwarf Wallaby

A scientific expedition to a pristine wilderness once dubbed “The Lost World” by Western media has revealed a stunning diversity of spectacular species, many of which are believed to be new to science, Conservation International (CI) and the National Geographic Society announced today, during a week that will mark the 2010 International Day for Biological Diversity.

The array of new species, which include several new mammals, a reptile, an amphibian, no fewer than twelve insects, and the remarkable discovery of a new bird, was found by a collaborative team of international and Indonesian scientists participating in Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP), which explored Indonesia’s remote Foja Mountains on the island of New Guinea in late 2008.

RAP surveys, which typically last three to four weeks, bring together teams of field biologists to conduct rapid, first-cut assessments of the biological value of selected areas. The biologists on this expedition endured torrential rain storms and life-threatening flash floods as they tracked species from the low foothills at Kwerba village to the top of the range at 2200 meters (7200 feet), reporting notable discoveries that included a bizarre spike-nosed tree frog; an oversized, but notably tame, woolly rat; a gargoyle-like, bent-toed gecko with yellow eyes; an imperial pigeon; and a tiny forest wallaby, the smallest member of the kangaroo family documented in the world.

The frog (Litoria sp. nov.), which was observed to have a long, Pinocchio-like protuberance on its nose that points upwards when the male is calling but deflates and points downwards when he is less active, represents a particularly distinctive find that scientists are interested in documenting and studying further. Its discovery was a happy accident, after herpetologist Paul Oliver spotted it sitting on a bag of rice in the campsite.

Other discoveries recorded during the RAP survey included a new blossom bat which feeds on rainforest nectar, a small new tree-mouse, a new black and white butterfly related to the common monarch, and a new flowering shrub. Images of the never-before-seen animals were captured by National Geographic magazine photographer Tim Laman.

In addition to the new kangaroo-related dwarf wallaby, scientists obtained the first photographs of a free-ranging individual of the extremely rare golden-mantled tree-kangaroo, which is critically threatened by hunting in other parts of New Guinea.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the expedition came when ornithologist Neville Kemp spotted a pair of new imperial pigeons with feathers that appear rusty, whitish, and gray. This novel imperial pigeon was seen no fewer than four times by scientists, yet overlooked on previous surveys, which could indicate a very low population.

This November 2008 expedition was conducted with financial and scientific support from the National Geographic Society, Smithsonian Institution, and Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) and marked a return visit to a mountainous region recognised by scientists as a profound species generator because of its relative isolation, elevation, and tropical environment.

The Foja Mountains, located in the Indonesian province of Papua on the island of New Guinea, encompass an area of more than 300,000 square hectares of unroaded, undeveloped, and undisturbed rainforest. The health and biodiversity of this wilderness provide a critical carbon sink for the planet, as well as vital ecosystem services to a series of forest-dwelling peoples who depend on its resources.

Recent reports show that world governments failed to meet the targets agreed to in 2002 to reduce the rate of loss of biodiversity by 2010, which was declared by the United Nations the International Year of Biodiversity. In October, the international community will gather in Japan to discuss new targets for the next 40 years.

“While animals and plants are being wiped out across the globe at a pace never seen in millions of years, the discovery of these absolutely incredible forms of life is much needed positive news,” said Dr. Bruce Beehler, a senior research scientist at CI and participant on this expedition. “Places like these represent a healthy future for all of us and show that it is not too late to stop the current species extinction crisis.”

A special feature on the expedition, “Discovery in the Foja Mountains,” appears in the June 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine. The National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council provided funding for the project.

“The Foja Mountains are a virtual island where species have evolved for millennia,” said John Francis, Vice President for Research, Conservation and Exploration at National Geographic. “We are delighted to support such an exciting expedition that expands our appreciation of the world’s biodiversity.”

CI is hoping that the documentation of such unique, endemic biodiversity will encourage the government of Indonesia to bolster long-term protection of the area, which is today classified as a national wildlife sanctuary.

With 20 years of RAP surveys to its credit, CI is now embarking on an ambitious project – to double or even triple the number of species discoveries over the next few years by collaborating scientists to ramp up their search in the unexplored reaches of our planet. Many of the still undescribed species may be beneficial to people’s health, food, and fresh-water security, and therefore important for conservation.

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