A Lost World in Indonesia Yields Riches for Scientists

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Feb. 7 -- A team of scientists has discovered a lost world of rare plants, giant flowers and bizarre animals -- including a new species of honeyeater bird, a tree kangaroo and an egg-laying mammal -- on a mist-shrouded mountaintop in a remote province of Indonesia on New Guinea island.

Flown by helicopter to a mountain preserve virtually untouched by humans, the scientists found more than 40 species new to science. They also spotted the legendary six-wired bird of paradise, a species with distinctive wiry head plumes that was first described in 1897 but that has proved elusive ever since.

Team leaders on Tuesday described how they spent two weeks in December, butterfly nets and binoculars at the ready, traversing the foggy slopes of the Foja Mountains in Papua province. Among trees encrusted with moss and draped with huge ferns, they marveled as birds and animals approached with no fear.

"It has a fairyland quality," said Bruce Beehler, an ornithologist with Conservation International in Washington and the expedition's co-leader. "It's a spectacularly beautiful Garden of Eden."

Beehler spent more than 20 years trying to put the trip together, working with Conservation International for the past decade and facing political and logistical hurdles. Finally the team of 13 scientists, including three Americans, reached the Foja Mountains.

"By some miracle of the stars, everything came together and we were able to spend two weeks on the mountain," Beehler said in a phone interview from Washington. "I'm still pinching myself that it could work."

At a news conference here Tuesday, officials from Conservation International and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences heralded the discovery of what may be the most pristine natural ecosystem in the entire Asia-Pacific region -- a find that also suggests what New Guinea was like 50,000 years ago.

"There are very few places left on Earth where there's been so little human impact," said Stephen Richards, a vertebrates curator with the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, who was the expedition's other leader.

Within minutes of their helicopter landing on an open, boggy lake bed, two team members spotted a blackish, chicken-like bird with strange orange wattles, Beehler said. "It was freaky-looking," he said.

He determined that it was a new species of honeyeater, making it the first new bird found in New Guinea in more than 60 years.

Beehler said he had wanted to go to the Foja Mountains since the mid-1970s, when he was a graduate student at Princeton University.

"Naturalists love to go to places that haven't been visited before," he explained. "And this was one of the last, perhaps the very last."

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