Preparing for Egg-laying Mammals, Birds of Paradise, and More in Papua New Guinea

From the Field posts

This week, a team of vertebrate specialists from the Museum—Brett Benz, Chris Raxworthy, Paul Sweet, and Neil Duncan—are 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.

Explore21 Papua New Guinea team members leave for the airport. From left, Brett Benz, a curatorial associate in the Department of Ornithology; Chris Raxworthy, curator-in-charge of the Department of Herpetology; Paul Sweet, collections manager in the Department of Ornithology; and (seated), Neil Duncan, collections manager in the Department of Mammalogy. © AMNH/D. Finnin

Explore21 Papua New Guinea team members leave for the airport. From left, Brett Benz, a curatorial associate in the Department of Ornithology; Chris Raxworthy, curator-in-charge of the Department of Herpetology; Paul Sweet, collections manager in the Department of Ornithology; and (seated), Neil Duncan, collections manager in the Department of Mammalogy.

© AMNH/D. Finnin


They are following in the footsteps of biologist Ernst Mayr, who made the first trip to New Guinea on behalf of the Museum in 1927. The Pacific island, which today consists of Indonesian provinces in the west and the country of Papua New Guinea in the east, has a disproportionately rich flora and fauna: about 7 percent of the world’s species live in an area that is only approximately 0.5 percent of the Earth’s land mass.

Assuming his laptop survives the rain and humidity, team member Paul Sweet will be blogging intrepidly from the field—and finding his way from underneath dense canopy cover to send back posts over a satellite phone. Sweet answered a few questions on the eve of the team’s departure. 

Why Papua New Guinea? What do you hope to find?

We’re undertaking intensive biodiversity surveys in one of the most remote and least studied regions of the globe: the Strickland-Lagaip Divide in Papua New Guinea. We will be collecting birds, mammals, herps [reptiles and amphibians], as well as their parasites and viruses. We’re anticipating discovering new species of reptiles and amphibians, parasites, and viruses. Current estimates are that less than half of the amphibian species in Papua New Guinea have been discovered.

What are some of the more unusual animals you expect to see on this trip?

Perhaps the strangest mammal we may encounter is the long-beaked echidna, a spiny monotreme— a mammal that lays eggs. We may also see some of the many diverse marsupials such as tree kangaroos, bandicoots, quolls, and dunnarts. The fruit bats known as flying foxes that occur in New Guinea are some of the world’s largest.

After the 29-hour flight from New York City to Port Moresby, the capital, you’re heading out to some very remote sites. How will you get there?

 

From Moresby we will take a commercial flight to Mount Hagen, a city in the highlands, to complete final shopping for the field. From Mount Hagen we will fly two small chartered planes to a grass airstrip in the village of Malaumanda. 

After a commercial flight to Mount Hagen in the Papua New Guinea highlands, the team will fly on small chartered planes to a grass airstrip in Malaumanda, as seen in this photo. ©AMNH/ B. Benz

After a commercial flight to Mount Hagen in the Papua New Guinea highlands, the team will fly on small chartered planes to a grass airstrip in Malaumanda, as seen in this photo.

©AMNH/ B. Benz


After that the real challenge begins. We will reach our high camp by foot after several days of hiking from lowland tropical forest to alpine grasslands near 3,200 meters (about 10,500 feet) above sea level. We’ll be crossing potentially raging rivers on bridges made of saplings and vines or even on felled tree trunks. Fortunately we will have the help of local cargo carriers from Malaumanda to carry our camp gear, field equipment, and food.

The team will reach high camp by foot after several days of hiking, including crossing rivers on bridges made of saplings and vines, as shown here on one of the scouting trips made by team leader Brett Benz.  © AMNH/ B. Benz

The team will reach high camp by foot after several days of hiking, including crossing rivers on bridges made of saplings and vines, as shown here on one of the scouting trips made by team leader Brett Benz. 

© AMNH/ B. Benz


What are some of the challenges of being out in such remote locations?

One of our biggest difficulties will be daily rain and humidity, which can play havoc with any electrical equipment such as cameras and computers. This weather also stops specimens from drying. Power, or lack thereof, is also a problem. Once we leave Mount Hagen, we will be completely “off the grid,” with no access to power aside from the batteries we carry and whatever charge we have on our devices. Canopy cover, clouds, and deep valleys make solar charging almost impossible.

You’re finishing up packing tonight, but you’ve sent a lot of items ahead and you’ll also pick up provisions in PNG. What are some key pieces that you’re bringing to the field?

For all of us, a good headlamp is one of the most important pieces of field equipment, as we will be working a lot at night, as well as a machete or “bush knife” for cutting trails.

What’s something that you personally hope to see over these next few weeks?

As a lifelong birdwatcher, it has always been my dream to see Birds of Paradise in the wild and experience the courtship displays that I first read about in [Alfred Russel] Wallace’s Malay Archipelago. Hopefully we will also observe several species of Bowerbird and their exquisitely decorated bowers, some of the most elaborate animal-made structures. 

Read the next post in the series here