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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Inside a Lost World

Researchers find birds of paradise, strange frogs and enormous flowers in New Guinea

More than 25 years ago, Bruce Beehler, an expert on birds of paradise, started planning a trip to the Foja Mountains of western New Guinea.

Last November, he finally got there -- and the trip was worth the wait.
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 butterfly, 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 may be the most pristine natural area in Asia and the Pacific, said Conservation International, which organized the expedition with the Biology Research Center of the Indonesian Institute of Science.

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

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

Blazing trails with pink and yellow flagging tape, the field team spotted 40 rare species of mammals, including six kinds of kangaroo.

They also encountered a bizarre spined, egg-laying, hedgehog-like mammal called the long-beaked echidna -- so docile that the scientists carried them back to camp for study.

Beehler did not discover a new bird of paradise. But he did discover what he thinks is a new bird species, a honeyeater.

Among the rare and previously unknown species of mammals, birds and plants discovered:

  1. Long-beaked echidna: The largest species of the egg-laying group of primitive mammals called the Monotremes, seen three times during the monthlong expedition and even allowed scientists to pick it up and observe it at their field camp. The enigmatic creature has never reproduced in captivity, and scientists have never seen its eggs.
  2. Berlepsch's six-wired bird of paradise: Described by indigenous hunters in the 19th century and named for the long wire-like feathers on its head. The team of scientists witnessed a male performing a courting dance and took the first known photograph of the bird.
  3. Golden-mantled tree kangaroo: An arboreal jungle-dwelling kangaroo new for Indonesia and previously thought to be hunted to near extinction in New Guinea.
  4. Honeyeater bird: The honeyeater, with a bright orange face-patch and a pendant wattle under each eye, is believed to be the first new bird species discovered on New Guinea island since 1939.
  5. Golden-fronted bowerbird: First known photograph of the bird described in 1895 by Lord Walter Rothschild, based on trade skins collected in an unknown location of western New Guinea.
  6. Rhododendron: Largest known rhododendron on record, measuring 5 7/8 inches across the face of the flower.
  7. New species: Four new butterfly species, more than 20 new species of frogs, and a series of undescribed plant species, including five species of palms.


Detroit News Wire

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