An­i­mal king­dom

PNG is a bi­ol­o­gists’ dream

Paradise - - Contents -

If sci­en­tists go down in the woods to­day, they’re sure of a big sur­prise. More than one, in fact. In Pa­pua New Guinea, it seems re­searchers can hardly poke a stick, turn over a leaf, look un­der a rock or climb a tree with­out en­coun­ter­ing the truly re­mark­able: an­i­mals un­known to sci­ence. For those in the busi­ness, it’s like be­ing the prover­bial kid in a candy store so un­usual you don’t know what you’ll be en­coun­ter­ing next.

Some years ago, the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety car­ried out a sur­vey in just one tiny part of PNG, a se­ries of lime­stone cliffs known as the Hin­den­burg Wall in the Star Moun­tains of West­ern Province. Its re­searchers re­turned with 89 plant and an­i­mal species hith­erto un­known to sci­ence. A sep­a­rate ex­pe­di­tion in the same area by Con­ser­va­tion In­ter­na­tional doc­u­mented 600 species, of which an as­ton­ish­ing 50 were new, in­clud­ing three kinds of frogs, sev­eral spi­ders and a gecko of a type never be­fore seen in dense rain­for­est habi­tat.

Even more strik­ing, has been the dis­cov­ery of en­tire new gen­era, a tax­o­nomic rank­ing that groups re­lated species to­gether (such as the genus ca­nis for dogs, coy­otes and wolves).

Three new gen­era of jump­ing spi­ders were among the re­mark­able finds on the Hin­den­burg Wall.

“They’re strik­ingly dis­tinc­tive evo­lu­tion­ary lin­eages un­known be­fore, with a group that is al­ready very dis­tinc­tive on the evo­lu­tion­ary tree of jump­ing spi­ders,” ex­plains Wayne Mad­di­son, a sci­en­tist from the Uni­ver­sity of Bri­tish Columbia. “Their key po­si­tion on the evo­lu­tion­ary tree will help us un­der­stand how this unique group of jump­ing spi­ders has evolved.”

The star­tling returns on such rel­a­tively mod­est ex­pe­di­tions point to how lit­tle we know, as yet, about the rich bio­di­ver­sity of PNG. Ac­cord­ing to the World Wide Fund for Na­ture (WWF), a to­tal of 1060 new species was recorded in PNG in the decade from 1998 to 2008, rang­ing from a brightly coloured rain­bow fish to a cus­cus – a mar­su­pial about the size of a cat – and a fresh­wa­ter shark mea­sur­ing 2.5 me­tres.

“If you look at New Guinea in terms of bi­o­log­i­cal di­ver­sity, it’s much more like a con­ti­nent than an is­land,” says WWF West­ern Me­lane­sia’s Dr Neil Stronach. “Sci­en­tists found an av­er­age of two new species each week from 1998 to 2008, nearly un­heard of in this day and age.”

In the years since, how­ever, things have only hot­ted up. When Con­ser­va­tion In­ter­na­tional launched an­other species-hunt­ing ex­pe­di­tion, this time into the Muller Moun­tains, it re­turned with 200 un­known species in­clud­ing a tiny long-nosed frog, a bright orange spi­der and an ex­tra­or­di­nary katy­did (grasshop­per) with pink eyes and a pen­chant for eat­ing flowers.

Pro­gram di­rec­tor, en­to­mol­o­gist Dr Leeanne Alonso, picked up 42 in­di­vid­ual katy­dids and was stunned to find that the sam­ple con­tained 20 new species. In all, nearly 100 new species and sev­eral new gen­era of in­sects were recorded.

Among 20 new frogs was a yel­low-spot­ted va­ri­ety ( platy­man­tis sp. nov.) that lives in dense, high-al­ti­tude bam­boo thick­ets, and which lays eggs on land, which hatch di­rectly into froglets with­out a tad­pole stage.

An­other new species ( lito­ria sp. nov.) lives high in the for­est canopy. Although they could con­stantly be heard, only one was cap­tured by one of the re­search sci­en­tists bold enough to climb a tree.

The re­search team was also able to sci­en­tif­i­cally de­scribe some species that, while not en­tirely new, had never been prop­erly doc­u­mented, in­clud­ing a type of feather-tailed pos­sum and a tube-nosed fruit bat.

Sci­en­tists found an av­er­age of two new species each week from 1998 to 2008, nearly un­heard of in this day and age. In the years since, how­ever, things have only hot­ted up.

This is a joy for sci­en­tists, but even bet­ter is the re­dis­cov­ery of a species thought to be ex­tinct. A decade ago two stu­dent re­searchers from the Uni­ver­sity of Queens­land were on a field ex­pe­di­tion in Abau in Cen­tral Province when they caught a New Guinea big-eared bat

(pharo­tis imo­gene), which hadn’t been sighted since spec­i­mens were first col­lected in 1890.

Per­haps none of this is en­tirely sur­pris­ing. PNG’s rugged, re­mote ter­rain and off­shore reefs are dif­fi­cult to ac­cess and have been lit­tle stud­ied by sci­ence.

What we do know is that PNG is one of the world’s bio­di­ver­sity hotspots, making up just half a per cent of the Earth’s sur­face but home to seven per cent of its known species. Two-thirds of these are found nowhere else, so we can rea­son­ably con­clude that there are many more unique crea­tures.

For the mo­ment, PNG claims some 740 bird species, 640 am­phib­ians and rep­tiles, 300 fish and 280 species of mam­mal.

That tally con­tin­ues to in­crease, much to the ex­cite­ment of the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity. In 2014, ecol­o­gist Euan Ritchie from Mel­bourne’s Deakin Uni­ver­sity, set up cam­era traps in the Tor­ri­celli Moun­tains of

north-west­ern PNG, in­tend­ing to study the highly en­dan­gered tenkile, a va­ri­ety of tree kan­ga­roo. What he cap­tured on cam­era in­stead were sev­eral new mam­mal species, in­clud­ing var­i­ous ro­dents and bandi­coots and a re­mark­able dor­cop­su­lus wal­laby the size of a small dog.

In 2015, at­ten­tion turned to Manus and Mus­sau is­lands in north­ern PNG, where re­searchers quickly dis­cov­ered new species of frogs, dam­sel­flies, leaf-nosed and tube-nosed bats, gi­ant geckos and a tree-climb­ing dragon lizard with elon­gated toes. Last year, sci­en­tists pro­duced a new fresh­wa­ter tur­tle species

(elseya rho­dini) – though not at all new to lo­cal is­lan­ders, for which it is a food source.

Re­cently, a new ant with dragon-like spines caused a rum­ble in the me­dia when Ja­panese sci­en­tists – in a clever PR stunt – named it phi­dole dro­gon af­ter the largest and most fear­some of the dragons in Game of Thrones. Yet there’s no fan­tasy se­ries quite like PNG bi­ol­ogy, in which ev­ery turn of the page re­veals an­other sci­en­tific sur­prise.

PNG's 'new' crea­tures ... (from left) the tree- climb­ing lito­ria frog; a tube- nosed fruit bat; a feath­er­tailed pos­sum; the grasshop­per with pink eyes and a pen­chant for eat­ing flowers; a yel­low- spot­ted frog; a rain­bow fish; and a mon­i­tor lizard.

A new kid on the block ... Dr Leeanne Alonso, an en­to­mol­o­gist who col­lected 42 in­di­vid­ual grasshop­pers in PNG and was stunned to iden­tify 20 new species.

Tak­ing the high ground ... the lito­ria frog that likes to live high in the for­est canopy.

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