PNG is a biologists’ dream
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.