SciCafe Goes to Papua New Guinea

Q&As

The Explore21 team  © AMNH/P. Sweet

The Explore21 team 

© AMNH/P. Sweet


Last fall, Ornithology Collections Manager Paul Sweet was one of a team of Museum researchers who travelled to the island nation of Papua New Guinea on an Explore21 Expedition. Sweet and his colleagues Brett Benz and Chris Raxworthy will be discussing their fieldwork at the next SciCafe  on Wednesday, March 4. (If you want to learn more before the talk, you can also read the team’s reports from the field here.) Sweet answered a few questions about his time in the field.

You were in the field for seven weeks on this expedition. How do you prepare for a trip like that?

I’ve led and participated in many expeditions, so I have a packing list ready. You have to be prepared with camping gear like your tent and sleeping bag, as well as equipment to capture and prepare specimens. There’s a visit to the doctor to get inoculations up to date, as well as prescriptions for malaria prophilaxis and antibiotics. But every trip is different. For instance, we knew this was going to be a very wet trip, so gear like a wet bag—a waterproof backpack that rolls closed—was key. And then there’s the research prep, like studying field guides and loading the vocalizations of birds we hope to encounter onto an iPod.

A typical camp breakfast consists of crackers with peanut butter, jam, or other toppings. © AMNH/P. Sweet

A typical camp breakfast consists of crackers with peanut butter, jam, or other toppings.

© AMNH/P. Sweet


Was there anything you wish you had packed once you were there?

A better pair of hiking boots. I decided not to buy a new pair for this trip, because hiking boots take some time to break in. But the moisture in Papua New Guinea was such that the soles detached from my boots within the first day. So I was stuck hiking in “muck boots,” which are like heavy-duty rain boots. They’re not meant for the heavy hiking we were doing, and they cut my legs up pretty badly. 

What did you miss in the field?

The key to keeping yourself mentally in shape is not missing anything in the field. It’s best just to immerse yourself in the work at hand. And I think for most of us, that’s pretty easy. We don’t look at this as a privation. This is a thing we strive to go and do, so when you’re in the field, it doesn’t make much sense to pine for the comforts of home. 

That said, when the hot sauce ran out, I was a little bummed.

How does this change your work at the Museum when you return?

There’s data entry, cataloging, and additional specimen processing to do. The skeletal specimens of birds and mammals need to be cleaned in the dermestid beetle colony here at the Museum. Once that’s finished, the scientific work begins. Brett is working on several projects that will use the genetic samples we brought back.

A Papuan Dwarf Kingfisher was a common sight at our 700-meter camp.  © AMNH/P. Sweet

A Papuan Dwarf Kingfisher was a common sight at our 700-meter camp. 

© AMNH/P. Sweet


Why is it important to explore Papua New Guinea?

Papua New Guinea is well known as a biodiversity hotspot, but it’s still not fully explored. The Museum has a long history of making expeditions to the island of New Guinea [the eastern half is part of the nation of Papua New Guinea; the western half is governed by Indonesia], so we were following in the tradition of naturalist explorers like Ernst Mayr, Richard Archbold, and E. Thomas Gilliard. And that’s really the thrust of these Explore21 expeditions. It’s a great way to continue the tradition of scientific collecting expeditions alongside cutting edge 21-century methods like genomics.

Tags: Q&A, Explore21