By Diane Ako
PAPUA, NEW GUINEA (KHNL) - More than fifty years ago, Bishop Museum scientists began studies of New Guinea led by a brilliant and indefatigable scientist J. Linsley Gressitt who died tragically in 1982 a plane crash in China. Today the work continues under the steady leadership of Drs. Allen Allison and Fred Kraus. Their recent work has yielded a rich diversity of animal life including the amazing discoveries of more than 130 new species of frogs, lizards, and snakes.
Bishop Museum is one of the world's greatest natural history museums. Its founder, Charles Reed Bishop came to realize early on that one could not understand people without understanding their environment, and that one cannot understand Hawai'i without knowing about the rest of the Pacific. Current scientists at Bishop still support this approach.
New Guinea is the world's largest and highest tropical island. Bishop Museum scientists were drawn to New Guinea because of its reputation for enormous biological diversity and its designation as the primary gateway to the initial colonization of Polynesia by plants, animals, and people. The island comprises more than 85 percent of the land area of tropical Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia. It is home to most of the world's birds-of-paradise, the world's largest butterfly, tree-climbing kangaroos, and an extraordinary diversity of other animals and plants. Its surrounding reefs are among the most diverse on the planet.
The island has exerted considerable biological influence on the rest of the Pacific. Hawai'i's human ancestors and many of its plants and animals can be traced to the southwest Pacific region and it is that significant link that drew Bishop Museum scientists to New Guinea.
Gressitt pioneered the New Guinea studies, establishing the Bishop Museum New Guinea field station at the township of Wau in the central mountains of what is today Papua New Guinea (PNG). He organized major field expeditions to various parts of the islands. The field station was later converted to a local non-profit and renamed the Wau Ecology Institute (WEI).
Bishop Museum has based more than 35 major field survey expeditions out of the Wau Ecology Institute and now holds the world's largest biological collections from New Guinea. Several thousand new species from New Guinea have been named through the course of their expeditions of discovery. The WEI has also served as an important site for long-term ecological research and the major training institute for most of New Guinea's leading biologists.
In the mid-1970's, Allen Allison, who now leads the Bishop Museum's Science Division, conducted his doctoral field work in New Guinea. A number of other scientists who currently work in New Guinea also conducted their doctoral studies at WEI including Thane Pratt from the U.S. Geological Survey and Bruce Beehler from Conservation International.
In the last four years, under the leadership of Allison and Kraus, funding from the National Science Foundation has supported more than 17 major expeditions which have led to the discovery of more than 130 new species of frogs, lizards, and snakes. Collaborating with a number of other biologists and scientists, the Bishop Museum team has branched out from WEI and is creating a new field station called Kamiali located on the north coast of New Guinea. Generous grants from the Morgan Family Foundation and the Swift Foundation are underwriting these groundbreaking efforts.
Kamiali is readily accessible from Lae, a modest-sized city with an international airport and full range of goods and support services. Because Kamiali is accessible only by boat, it is relatively well protected from some of the lawlessness that now plagues parts of PNG.
In 1993, Kamiali was designated an important area in the comprehensive Conservation Needs Assessment conducted by the PNG government with the help of Conservation International, Bishop Museum, and others.
Allison and his team currently enjoy the support of Kamiali landowners who embrace conservation efforts and are working to protect their forests from the logging that has devastated much of the northeast coast of New Guinea in the early 1970s. The surrounding forests and adjacent marine ecosystems have been declared a Wildlife Management Area and are protected under rules adopted by the local landowners.
In a recent survey, Bishop Museum scientists discovered at least nine new species of frogs in the rich surrounding forests. They also discovered the first reported instance of fly parasitism of frogs in the Papuan region. They have collected nearly 10,000 specimens in alcohol and published an on-line bibliography of Papuan herpetology available to researchers at http://www2.bishopmuseum.org/PBS/PapuaHerpBib/query.asp>. The team has published more than 30 papers, discovered more than 150 new species of landsnails, and provided 50 new island records for a variety of bird species.
"Kamiali has an essential combination of easy access, long-term protection, high biological diversity, and landowner support which makes for an ideal location for our new field station," says Allison. "It is also a part of the Pacific-Asia Biodiversity Transect Network (PABITRA) which is an effort to produce comparative studies in Hawai'i and other islands in the Pacific in order to elucidate common features of island biology."
About 10 years ago, Village Development Trust (a New Guinea non-profit) built an ecotourism lodge on the coast near the main village of Kamiali. Bishop Museum plans to build its field station and laboratory near the ecotourism lodge. The students and scientists will be able to eat and sleep at the lodge while having easy access to their field survey locations and labs. Allison also hopes to build a network of rustic trails and branch stations in the surrounding forests, with the support of the local landowners.
"We expect the Kamiali Field Station to become the premier site in New Guinea for long-term field research," says Allison. "We also plan for it to become an important educational facility for training graduate students from PNG and overseas."
Allison hopes to train ten PNG Masters and Ph.D. students within a decade of completion of the field station. Bishop Museum is also helping to organize a PNG Biological Survey, modeled after the highly successful Hawai'i Biological Survey.
"Like many other pristine sites in the world, the pressure to log the vast forests and reap those economic rewards are great," he says. "We are the true vanguard in the efforts to provide critical biological data to the PNG government and conservation organizations. We hope our important research will prevent that kind of ecological disaster from happening."
In many cases, the research Allison, Krauss and their team are completing provides first-source educational materials on reptiles, amphibians, and landsnails of the region. Their research helped motivate the PNG government to join the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and the Pacific Biodiversity Information Forum. Allison and Krauss expect to host workshops about Papuan reptiles for experts who study them at Bishop Museum in late 2007. They also conduct a variety of outreach programs including visits to public schools to make presentations for PNG students. Newly appointed PNG Ambassador Leslie Rowe recently visited Bishop Museum to learn more about the work being done by the science team. The scientists have also gifted the PNG National Museum with more than 1000 specimens significantly expanding their collections.
"Much of our work is aimed at assisting the PNG government with conservation planning and priority-setting and to that end we are building collaborative partnerships with the World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and PNG's Department of Environment and Conservation," concludes Allison.
Bishop Museum expects to break ground on the Kamiali Field Station in mid-2007. The work completed at this new science outpost will inevitably result in more sites being identified for protection and preservation.