Lost Bird of Paradise Found, In Paradise
Scientists explore the Lost World in Indonesia’s rugged and remote Foja Mountains, where no human has ever been, and discover more than 40 species of never-before-seen animals and plants
I would give anything — in fact, I’d give absolutely everything I ever had, currently have and could ever hope to have — to be part of the recent Conservation International (CI) expedition to Indonesia. This month-long expedition was the brain child of scientist and CI vice president, Bruce Beehler. His goal? To explore the mysterious Foja Mountains in western New Guinea, formerly known as Irian Jaya.
Beehler gathered a team of 25 international scientists to conduct the first ever survey of biological diversity in this pristine region of tropical rainforest and they discovered many species that are new to science, along with several formerly “lost” species, including the Golden-fronted Bowerbird, Amblyornis flavifrons, and Berlepsch’s Six-wired Bird of Paradise, Parotia berlepschi. The mysterious bird of paradise was formally described in 1897 by the German ornithologist, Otto Kleinschmidt, from study skins prepared from dead birds found in the private museum of Hans von Berlepsch.
“This mystery bird was, in essence, forgotten by the ornithological world in a way that the Golden-fronted Bowerbird was not,” says Beehler. “That’s the difference in impact of a ‘species’ versus a ‘subspecies.’”
The researchers spent nearly a month in the area, collecting flora and fauna from the lower hills up to nearly the summit of the Foja Range, which reaches approximately 2,200 meters in elevation. They were only able to explore a very small portion of the area, which covers approximately 300,000 hectares. The region lies on the upper slopes of the Foja Mountains, in the easternmost and least explored province of western New Guinea, which is part of Indonesia. The rugged mountainous terrain has allowed hundreds of distinct species to evolve, often specific to small areas, which makes New Guinea the most biodiverse place on earth.
“It’s beautiful, untouched, unpopulated forest; there’s no evidence of human impact or presence up in these mountains,” said Beehler.
The only other scientist to ever explore the Foja Mountains was University of California ornithologist and geographer, Jared Diamond. Among Diamond’s discoveries in 1979 and 1981 were the formerly “lost” Golden-fronted Bowerbird, and the female bird of paradise. However, Diamond did not see the distinctive male described in Kleinschmidt’s notes.
“This is a place with no roads or trails and never, so far as we know, visited by man,” said Beehler. “This proves there are still places to be discovered that man has not touched.”
According to Beehler, even two local indigenous groups, the Kwerba and Papasena people, customary landowners of the forest who accompanied the scientists, were astonished at the area’s isolation.
“We were dropped in by helicopter. There’s not a trail anywhere; it was really hard to get around.”
On only the second day of the team’s expedition, the amazed scientists watched as a male Berlepsch’s bird of paradise performed a courtship dance for an attending female in their field camp. This was the first time a live male of the species had been observed by Western scientists, and it proved that the Foja Mountains was the species’ home.
The Foja Range is incredibly rich in bird life: more than 225 species breed in the area, including 13 species of birds of paradise. One scientist in the party exclaimed that the avian “dawn chorus” was the most fantastic he had ever heard.
Beehler’s group captured the first photographs of the live bird of paradise and of the Golden-fronted Bowerbird. Additionally, within mere hours of arrival, the team discovered a new species of Smoky Honeyeater — the first new species of bird to be described for New Guinea in more than 60 years.
“This [Bird of Paradise] had been filed away and forgotten; it had been lost. To rediscover it was, for me, in some ways, more exciting than finding the honeyeater. I spent 20 years working on birds of paradise; they’re pretty darn sexy beasts,” said Beehler.
The team found more than 60 species of frogs, including 20 that were previously unknown to science, and one of which is less than 14 millimeters (half an inch) long; they identified more than 150 species of butterflies, and discovered four new butterfly species; they found 40 species of mammals and described a new large mammal for Indonesia: the Golden-mantled Tree Kangaroo, Dendrolagus pulcherrimus, which was not known to live on New Guinea.
The scientists also identified at least 550 species of plants, describing five new palms and an epiphytic rhododendron that bears the largest flower ever seen for this genus — almost six inches across.
“What was amazing was the lack of wariness of all the animals. In the wild, all species tend to be shy of humans, but that is learnt behaviour because they have encountered mankind. In Foja they did not appear to mind our presence at all,” Beehler remarked.
Two long-beaked echidnas, Zaglossus bruijni, a primitive egg-laying mammal that is classified as a monotreme, even allowed scientists to pick them up and bring them back to their camp to be studied, he added.
“Yet we’ve just scratched the surface,” says Beehler, who is already planning a follow-up trip to the range in late 2006. “The Foja Mountains are a key part of the Mamberamo conservation corridor, CI’s largest terrestrial priority in Melanesia. With the new scientific information from this expedition, we hope to refine our conservation plan for the area and generate more political support for conservation in the region.”
Please, oh please, take me with you.
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Originally published at scienceblogs.com on 7 February 2006.