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A Trove of Unearthly Species Uncovered in New Guinea's 'Eden'

February 07, 2006|Robert Lee Hotz | Times Staff Writer

In one of the world's most isolated jungles, the Foja Mountains of western New Guinea, naturalists have discovered a vast unexplored preserve of exotic species new to science.

During a 15-day expedition in December, the researchers found hundreds of rare birds, more than 20 new species of frogs, five kinds of previously unknown palms, four new breeds of butterflies, and giant rhododendrons with white blossoms the size of bread plates -- believed to be the largest on record.

All told, the 3,700 square miles of mist-shrouded tropical forest on the Indonesian half of the island may be the most pristine natural area in Asia and the Pacific, Conservation International announced in Indonesia today.

"It is as close to the Garden of Eden as you're going to find on Earth," expedition chief scientist Bruce Beehler said.

Under the forest's lush canopy, animals hunted to extinction elsewhere were plentiful and so unused to human contact that they approached the naturalists unafraid, allowing themselves to be handled easily and photographed.

Blazing trails with pink and yellow flagging tape, the field team spotted 40 rare species of mammals, including six kinds of kangaroos. They also encountered a bizarre spined, egglaying, hedgehog-like mammal called the long-beaked echidna, which was so docile that the scientists picked up a pair and carried them back to camp for study.

It was a journey that had taken a decade of planning.

"The politics and the environmental constraints of western New Guinea are changing all the time," Beehler said. "It is difficult to get permits. By some miracle, everything came together."

The expedition was organized by Conservation International in Washington and the Biology Research Center of the Indonesian Institute of Science.

The researchers received financial support from the Swift Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the National Geographic Society and the Global Environment Project Institute.

The custodians of the forest, which is designated a national wildlife sanctuary, are the local Kwerba and Papasena tribes. But they rarely venture any deeper into the wilderness than its fringes, where wallabies, giant crowned pigeons, wild boars and cassowaries are abundant.

By the expedition's best estimate, about 1,200 square miles of the old-growth tropical forest have never been visited by humans. The heart of the highland, with 7,000-foot summits, is so isolated that researchers could only reach it by helicopter.

"This is one of the last new places to go," Beehler said. "This mountain range generates its own species, a little bit like the Galapagos."

So far, finds include a new species of honeyeater, the first new bird species discovered on New Guinea in more than 60 years.

This orange-faced honeyeater is a dark-feathered flier whose black eyes are ringed with yellow and set off by broad orange patches of skin.

"The first time I saw the face of that honeyeater with those wattles was a heart-stopping moment," Beehler said.

The naturalists also obtained the first photographs of the golden-fronted bowerbird, a species previously known only from a few skins collected by local hunters.

The bird is so rare that at least a dozen expeditions in the last 82 years have tried and failed to find its home.

The naturalists also discovered the breeding grounds of Berlepsch's six-wired bird of paradise, an unusual species whose homeland several previous expeditions also had sought in vain to find.

The birds, normally shy and secretive, paraded into camp and performed their mating display between the tents.

It was the first time scientists had ever seen a male of the species.

"Everyone was so transfixed," Beehler said. "You are seeing a bird that no Western scientist has ever seen.

"I was shouting," he added. "This trip was a once-in-a-lifetime series of shouting experiences."

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