Page 2 of 2   <      

A Lost World in Indonesia Yields Riches for Scientists

Jared Diamond, a scientist at UCLA and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, did visit the area in 1979 and 1981. He chanced upon the nearly mythical golden-fronted bowerbird, a species that had not been seen since the 1890s. But Diamond did not take a picture or capture a live specimen. Beehler's team snapped the first bowerbird photo.

On the second night of the mission, as the scientists were in their base camp, they saw two birds engaged in a mating dance. The male was black with metallic plumage along its throat and white plumes on its flank. It had what looked like wires extending from its head.

The scientists were stunned, and gradually realized the pair were six-wired birds of paradise, the elusive species first described more than a century ago by German ornithologist Hans von Berlepsch.

The male was fluttering about in saplings, flitting his wings and whistling a sweet two-note song for the female.

"It was just the most amazing thing, right there in our camp," said Richards, noting that no foreigner had ever seen the bird.

Another night, Richards almost stepped on the tail of an echidna, a bizarre, egg-laying mammal like a hedgehog that is also called the spiny anteater. It was so unaccustomed to human contact that it allowed Richards to pick it up and carry it back to be examined.

About a dozen Papuans accompanied the scientists. Though very knowledgeable about lowland flora and fauna, the expedition leaders said they were stunned to encounter animals such as the spiny anteater.

The team also spotted a golden-mantled tree kangaroo, the rarest and most beautiful of jungle-dwelling kangaroos. It had previously been found only in Papua New Guinea, a separate country that is part of New Guinea island.

If not quite Darwin's Galapagos Islands, the team members said, the Foja Mountains are a wonderful research lab of biodiversity.

"This mountain range is big enough and complex enough to actually be a generator of new species," Beehler said. "It's actually producing new diversity."

The team found a giant rhododendron with a flower six inches across, which they believe might be a new species. Richards found a tiny frog less than half an inch long.

New plants and animals are valuable, the scientists said, for developing new medicines, among other things.

"I know the Bush administration is talking about going back to the moon and going to Mars," Beehler said. "But there are plenty of new things to look for right here, in our rain forests, in our oceans. There are whole worlds that are unknown to us."

<       2

© 2006 The Washington Post Company