“Herping” On A Green Sponge

From the Field posts

This fall, a team of vertebrate specialists from the Museum—Brett Benz, Chris RaxworthyPaul Sweet, and Neil Duncan—is heading out to one of the most remote areas in the world in search of new species and specimens on the Explore21 Papua New Guinea expedition. Ornithologist Paul Sweet has been sending updates as the team made the journey to high camp, and today, herpetologist Chris Raxworthy sent this report from the field. 

[Filed October 10]: We are now eight days into our biological survey of the high elevation camp at Malaumanda: eight days of rain every day, in a forest that feels like a super-saturated giant green sponge where thick moss grows on everything. 

Eight days into survey work in Papua New Guinea, herpetologist Chris Raxworthy is finding great species diversity—and getting soaked to the bone.

Eight days into survey work in Papua New Guinea, herpetologist Chris Raxworthy is finding great species diversity—and getting soaked to the bone.


Grab a clump of moss, and you can squeeze half a cup of water from it. Every footstep in the forest makes a sucking noise, as your boots sink in the peaty soil. And the topsoil is so wet that it turns to slippery mud, should you try and walk in the same place more than once. To minimize the mud, thankfully, we have duckboard paths around the camp, and raised platforms for the tents. 

The forest that surrounds us is also staggeringly beautiful: a sea of broccoli trees when viewed from above, that must now stretch unbroken like a giant sea for many, many miles in all directions. And this forest is now beginning to reveal its amazing wildlife to us. 

This frog, from the genus Barygenys, was among the 18 amphibian species the team has found at high elevation. ©AMNH/C.Raxworthy 

This frog, from the genus Barygenys, was among the 18 amphibian species the team has found at high elevation.

©AMNH/C.Raxworthy 


My survey work is focused on the amphibians and reptiles. Brett warned me about reduced species diversity at this camp, because we are already so high at 1,800 meters elevation, yet we have already found 22 species. These include one snake, three skinks, and 18 frogs, including beautiful tree frogs and strange narrow-mouthed toads.  Because this region has not been previously surveyed, some of these may represent new species. 

One of the tree frogs the team has spotted so far at camp is from the genus Litoria. ©AMNH/C.Raxworthy 

One of the tree frogs the team has spotted so far at camp is from the genus Litoria.

©AMNH/C.Raxworthy 


Finding these animals has been hard work, however. Bulisa Iova, the collection manager from the Papua New Guinea National Museum, the camp staff, and I spent the first two days building two pitfall trap lines of sunken buckets and plastic drift fence. 

Another tree frog is from the Nyctimystes genus, commonly known as  big-eyed tree frogs. ©AMNH/C.Raxworthy

Another tree frog is from the Nyctimystes genus, commonly known as  big-eyed tree frogs.

©AMNH/C.Raxworthy


It was an exercise of digging through a mat of tough tree roots and mud (of course!) and praying that the staple gun will not jam. Now that these pitfalls are in, they are checked twice daily for animals, and have already yielded some rarely seen skinks, frogs, and many small mammals (much to Neil’s delight). So many small mammals in fact, that we demand the mammal team install the pitfalls at the next site (they owe us!).  

Along with 18 amphibians, the team has turned up three skinks, genus Sphenomorphus.  ©AMNH/C.Raxworthy

Along with 18 amphibians, the team has turned up three skinks, genus Sphenomorphus. 

©AMNH/C.Raxworthy


We have also been searching for animals at night, using headlamps and following streams and ridges in a pathless forest, and recording frog calls, which should help with species identification. Lingering on those large rocks by the streams offers a pleasurable break from the mud. Bulisa’s skill in locating tiny frogs the size of a pea, inside a clump of moss or under a leaf, based only on the short peeps of their frog calls, is utterly awe-inspiring. 

Bulisa Iova, who is working with the Explore21 Papua New Guinea team in the field, is able to locate tiny frogs based on their brief calls. ©AMNH/C.Raxworthy

Bulisa Iova, who is working with the Explore21 Papua New Guinea team in the field, is able to locate tiny frogs based on their brief calls.

©AMNH/C.Raxworthy


The day is spent searching for basking lizards and snakes (on the rare times the sun is out, or can be seen below the canopy), flipping rotten logs, photographing, and taking field notes. 

Day surveys focus on reptiles and have so far yielded one snake species, from the genus Tropidonophis. ©AMNH/C.Raxworthy

Day surveys focus on reptiles and have so far yielded one snake species, from the genus Tropidonophis.

©AMNH/C.Raxworthy


This Sunday, some of us plan to push on up the mountain, along a ridge trail that is currently being cut, to establish a satellite camp for several nights at around 2,500 meters. This will give us access to the alpine grassland above tree line, and even the continental divide in the New Guinea Highlands. Everyone says it is going to be cold up there, but it also offers the chance to find new and rarely seen species that are adapted to this strange tropical high-montane world.  After that, we return to Malaumanda village for some mid-altitude survey work in warmer climes, with the promise of sun bathing and games of marbles on the airstrip.

Future blogs will reveal more of life in camp and progress with the other surveys. But in brief, the work is going gang-busters, everyone’s health is good (a smattering of colds, stomach issues, and skin infections), and the ground coffee and Bovril is excellent. We have to be super careful about battery power for computers and communications, as we will have no charging options for the next month, but we still have a stock of the famous PNG chocolate frog cookies, and my iPhone is still playing “Turn my lead into gold (“Wot’s …Uh the Deal?”) from Pink Floyd’s Obscured by Clouds.  We should soon be able to see The Valley.

Read the next post in the series here

Tags: Explore21