Posts on New Guinea

New Pitcher Plant Species from New Guinea

29 November 2013

It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that we are presently experiencing a Golden Age of pitcher plant discovery. Scarcely 16 years ago there were 84 officially recognized species in the genus Nepenthes; now that total is fast approaching 150, with nearly 30 new taxa described in the past 5 years alone. Whilst most of these new taxa are only slight variations of previously described species or are ‘splits’ where a single taxon has been divided based on what are deemed significant differences, a few are unique and represent striking new forms (e.g. N. attenboroughii and N. undulatifolia).

Last month, whilst trekking through the mountains of Papua (Indonesian New Guinea) with longtime friend and colleague Dr. Charles Clarke, we were excited to encounter yet another undescribed species of Nepenthes on a remote forested ridge. Our 2-week expedition had been fraught with numerous setbacks, including illness and inter-tribal warfare which nearly thwarted our entire climb and ultimately prevented us from reaching the summit we had originally targeted. Nevertheless, we were able to explore some incredibly beautiful and pristine montane habitats and in a fortunate turn of luck, stumble across this new and distinctive species.

Because of this plant’s unique features, it’s taxonomic affinities with other Nepenthes, both within and outside of New Guinea, are not yet evident. The globose lower pitchers (below left) with their broad and strongly-toothed peristome, and the funnel-shaped upper pitchers (below right) bear little resemblance to other Papuan taxa. Additional unusual traits include the leaves, which are broad and sub-petiolate, and the dense coating of brownish hairs which cover all parts of the plant, giving it a “wooly” appearance. Unfortunately, as our expedition was purely a photographic one we did not collect herbarium specimens, and a formal description of this species will have to wait for a future survey equipped with collecting permits.

Nepenthes sp. New GuineaNepenthes sp. New Guinea

This discovery is further remarkable considering the relative paucity of Nepenthes in New Guinea. Despite the island’s vast size, the presently recognized diversity of the genus on the New Guinea mainland is quite small (only 11 species). Unlike other islands of the Indonesian archipelago such as Borneo (39 species) and Sumatra (37 species), where pitcher plants occur in abundance on most mountains exceeding 2000 m, Nepenthes are patchily distributed in New Guinea and are seemingly absent from large regions of highland areas. In 2004 and 2006 I climbed two separate mountains each exceeding 3000 m in elevation and, whilst the habitats were very rich in a variety of typically associated plants, I did not observe a single Nepenthes.

Notwithstanding the large number of new Nepenthes which have been distinguished in recent years, the addition of this interesting species shows that we still have a long way to go towards our complete understanding of the genus, with perhaps other great discoveries to be made in the mountains of Papua.

References:

Jebb, M. & M. Cheek (1997) A Skeletal Revision of Nepenthes (Nepenthaceae). Blumea 42: 1-106.

Jebb, M.H.P. 1991. An account of Nepenthes in New Guinea. Science in New Guinea 17(1): 7–54.

Wasur National Park

30 May 2006

Wasur is a large national park (4000+ sq. km) located in the southeast corner of the province near the Papua New Guinea border and is the only protected area which covers extensive lowland habitats. This is a region faunistically known as the Trans-Fly and is a relatively dry zone characterized by its open monsoon forest, grasslands, and swamps. Many of the species found here, such as the Agile Wallaby (Macropus agilis) and multitudes of waterbirds are also found in northern Australia.

Most of the land is completely flat, the only topographical features being huge termite mounds, some of which reach over 3 meters in height. During the wet season much of the savannah becomes inundated with water making travel difficult except by dugout canoe. The great Rawa Biru (‘Blue Swamp’) lies at the center of the park and encompasses a vast flooded plain of reeds and waterways. Here New Guinea Crocodiles (Crocodylus novaeguineae) patrol the waters for prey, and there is an abundance of migratory waterbirds.

Paperbark swamp

Although seldom visited, Wasur has long been regarded as a wildlife-watcher’s paradise, as viewing animals and birds is particularly easy due to the open countryside. However, it appears that in recent years the abundance of large animals has drastically declined, and I was shocked by the amount of hunting I witnessed during my recent visit. Although the management program allows for the sustainable utilization of these resources in order to maintain the traditional lifestyles of people living within the park’s boundaries, illegal and excessive exploitation such as quarrying of sand and hunting for profit have become commonplace and measures are clearly required to maintain the integrity of this unique reserve.

To view photos taken during my 2006 trip to Wasur National Park, click here.

An Introduction to West Papua

2 April 2006

A visit to New Guinea offers one of the last chances to glimpse a passing world, which until relatively recently remained untarnished from the touch of western technology. The vast unexplored forests, swamps, and mountain ranges remain to this day one of the few places on earth that can still be described as truly wild. Any trip into the interior is an adventure fraught with the difficulties of travel but with the exciting reward and promise of encounters with unusual wildlife and charming people.

As a naturalist, my interest in New Guinea lies in the wealth of biodiversity on the island, which from a Southeast Asian perspective is unique in the archipelago. Lying to the east of Wallace’s Line, the fauna is distinctly Australasian in nature, with countless endemic species. In contrast to other large islands in Indonesia, the forests of New Guinea are also almost completely intact and pristine, and many other habitats remain relatively undisturbed by development. When I first flew over the island in 1994 I was awestruck by the vast size of the unbroken forests and lofty mountains which seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon, and I have been captivated by the land ever since.

New Guinea is the second largest island in the world (after Greenland) and covers over 792,000 square kilometers. The interior of the island is composed of extremely rugged terrain, the prime feature being a central cordillera of mountains running east to west which have formed from the collision of the Australian and Pacific plates. In numerous places these mountains exceed 4000 meters in height, and Puncak Jaya, at 4884 meters, is the highest peak in all Southeast Asia and the locality of one of only three equatorial glaciers in the world.

The western half of the island is a province of Indonesia, and referred to under various names including Irian Jaya, Tanah Papua, or Propinsi Papua. Although this huge province occupies over 20% of the land area of Indonesia, it is home to only 1% of the population, and not surprisingly is also the least developed territory. There is an astonishing diversity of native cultures, with several hundred distinct languages being spoken.

Familiar Southeast Asian animals such as wild cats, monkeys, civets, and deer are completely absent (except where introduced), and all of the larger land mammals in New Guinea are marsupials, comprising a number of families including kangaroos, wallabies, cuscuses, possums, and bandicoots. Although some species are shared with northern Australia, many are unique to the island including tree kangaroos (Dendrolagus), and a number of Phalanger species. There are also two species of monotremes, or egg-laying mammals, the Short-beaked and Long-beaked Echidnas, the latter of which is endemic. Placental mammals include a huge diversity of native rats, mice, and bats, many of which are endemic to New Guinea. Giant fruit bats (Pteropus spp.) are often observed at dusk flying over the forest canopy in great numbers. Many species are hunted for food and have declined in numbers near populated areas. New discoveries are still being made, and it was only recently that an entirely new species of tree kangaroo, the Dingiso (Dendrolagus mbaiso) was found in the remote highlands of the interior.

New Guinea is famous for being home to some of the most beautiful and bizarre birds in the world. Of over 700 native species, an incredible 101 are endemic to the island. The list includes the glorious birds-of-paradise, bowerbirds, crowned pigeons, and a great assortment of parrots. The largest native land animal is the flightless cassowary, of which there are 3 species, which can reach up to 1.5 meters in height and have a nasty reputation. In contrast to islands to the west such as Borneo and Sumatra, New Guinea’s bird fauna is distinctly Australasian and has no woodpeckers, barbets, pheasants, trogons, or bulbuls.

With over 200 species of frogs recorded so far, it is a wonder that new species are still being discovered today, yet there are doubtless many more to be found. There is also a diverse assemblage of lizards including skinks, geckos, agamids (including the extraordinary Hypsilurus, shown below), and monitors, among which the Emerald Tree Monitor (Varanus prasinus) is perhaps most well known. Some species of snake such as the Death Adder (Acanthopsis antarcticus) and the Taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus) are extremely poisonous, whilst others such as the Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis) are highly sought after by collectors.

Hypsilurus hikidanus

An astonishing diversity of insects occurs in the jungles of Papua, including many beautiful species. Some, such as the giant birdwing butterflies, are renowned for their value on the collector’s market and are now being reared in specialized nurseries. Many species of colorful native beetles including Scarabaeidae and Lucanidae are also collected and sold in souvenir shops.

In contrast with its largely Australasian fauna, the flora of New Guinea surprisingly has its closest affinities with Southeast Asia. Some families of plants that attract notable attention here include the orchids, of which the genera Dendrobium and Bulbophyllum are particularly diverse. An overwhelming diversity of Rhododendrons occurs throughout the mountainous areas with many new beautifully flowered species awaiting formal description.

Although less diverse than on Borneo or Sumatra, Nepenthes pitcher plants are nevertheless common in some areas and there are a handful of endemic species. A few such as N. klossii and N. paniculata grow in highland and ridge-top mossy forest, and others such as N. lamii extend into the alpine zone on the higher mountains. At least two species, N. treubiana and N. insignis occur on lowland limestone cliffs, but the latter is also frequently an epiphyte. Both N. neoguineensis and N. papuana have been found to grow on ultramafic hills, but they also occur elsewhere. There are doubtless undescribed species awaiting discovery in the vast network of mountains.

The naturalist and explorer J. L. Gressitt once wrote of the island:

New Guinea is a fantastic island, unique and fascinating. It is an area of incredible varieties of geomorphology, biota, peoples, languages, history, traditions, and cultures. Diversity is its prime characteristic, whatever the subject of interest. To a biogeographer it is tantalizing, as well as confusing or frustrating when trying to determine the history of its biota. To an ecologist, and to all biologists, it is a happy hunting ground of endless surprises and unanswered questions. To a conservationist it is like a dream come true, a “flash-back” of a few centuries, as well as a challenge for the future.

Suggested Reading
Mammals of New Guinea by Tim Flannery.
Birds of New Guinea by Bruce Beehler et. al.
The National Parks and Other Wild Places of Indonesia by Janet Cochrane.
Irian Jaya, Indonesian New Guinea, a Periplus Adventure Guide, by Kal Muller.
Biogeography and Ecology of New Guinea by J. L. Gressitt.

To view photos taken during my 2006 trip to West Papua, click here.


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