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."

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."

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