A new World Wildlife Fund report has announced the discovery of over 1000 new animal and plant species in New Guinea.
Papua New Guinea is an island that sits in the Tropic of Capricorn, just above the northernmost point of Australia, and is mostly made of mountains and highlands covered in dense rainforests. This makes it extremely inaccessible to both natives and explorers, who can only get in on foot or by aeroplane. And you thought it was a pain to get to Kelburn every morning.
But for biologists, it has always been worth the trip, because it rivals the Amazon in the sheer amount of biodiversity. They say if you go to New Guinea and you look, you will find a new species. This goes for both land and sea. New Guinea sits in the Coral Triangle, a region of ocean that also encompasses Indonesia and Malaysia, and is described as one of the most biodiverse oceanic habitats in the world.
The survey took place between 1998 and 2008, listing about 1060 species of new marsupials, birds, reptiles, fish and insects. Here are just some of the discoveries:
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A blue monitor lizard, Varanus macraei, found on islands off the coast of the Vogelkop or Bird’s Head Peninsula in northern New Guinea.
A new species of river shark, Glyphis garracki, a little-known genus of which only sixteen specimens have been described. River sharks dwell near shorelines and river mouths in the Asia-Pacific and are seldom seen by humans.
A new honeyeater bird, the Wattled Smoky Honeyeater, Melipotes carolae, which was found just minutes after discoverers landed in the Foja Mountains in northern New Guinea. This bird is in the same family as our own tui and bellbird, but unlike its chatty New Zealand cousins, it is completely mute.
A new species of rainbow fish, Chilatherina alleni. Yes, just like the book, although not quite as iridescent (see picture). In the ten years the survey was conducted, 33 new species of fish were named, seven of which were rainbow fish.
New Guinea is also home to a number of other strange animals, some of which it shares with neighbouring Australia, while others are unique to the island. In addition to marsupials like possums and wallabies, its forests are home to tree kangaroos. These are climbing lemur-like animals that don’t resemble their ground-hopping namesakes, but still share a common ancestor. The only native monotreme (egg-laying mammal) is the long-beaked echidna, a larger variant of the spiny anteater found on mainland Australia.
New Guinea is most famous for its bird life, which includes the various members of the colourful bird-of-paradise family and the cassowary, a large flightless bird with a bright blue head and neck, which is famous for being fiercely protective of its young. One slash from its elongated foot claws is capable of slicing a man’s stomach open.
Unfortunately, the natural habitats of New Guinea are constantly threatened by logging, urban expansion, overfishing and global warming. The latter threat is usually associated with polar ice caps, but it affects tropical regions as well: increased heat about the forests and savannas in the tropics dries out the native foliage and makes them vulnerable to brush and forest fires. In response to this, almost all of the species discovered have labelled “Vulnerable” or “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List, a catalogue that keeps tabs of the conversation status of endangered animals.
You can learn more about the work of the World Wildlife Fund or make a donation at www.worldwildlife.org.