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The Final Leg in Papua New Guinea

by AMNH on

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. Paul Sweet will be sending dispatches from the field as long as his laptop—and a signal—persist. 

[Written Nov. 1, sent Nov. 12] For those following the blog, apologies for the long silence. Unfortunately my computer battery died before I could send the latest dispatch, so we’re taking a quick trip back in time.

Since the last post, we left our camp at 1,800 meters (5,900 feet) and returned to Malaumanda village. The return was somewhat more graceful than the trip out to camp, but it still took Chris, Neil, and me two long, hard days.

Back at Malaumanda, we had a chance to do some surveying in the disturbed forests around the village and also to interact with the local people. Most importantly, our colleague Michael Kigl, an environmental scientist from the PNG Institute for Biological Research, was able to interview a village elder and record the “Tok Ples” (local language) names for the birds, mammals, and herps of the area. 

Tok Ples
Michael Kigl researched “Tok Ples” names for the local fauna.
© AMNH/P. Sweet

Although missionaries have translated the Bible into the local tongue, as far as we know these names have not been previously recorded. Amazingly, 36 names of frogs are recognized. Chris asked if any of the species had cultural significance but was informed only that they were all good for fish bait.

I also spent some time playing guitar with some of the young men and learning to strum some Tok Pisin gospel songs (3 chords) and was then invited to attend the Sunday service at the church near our house. At the end of our Malaumanda stay, Bulisa and Neil returned to Port Moresby and New York respectively. We hope they had a safe return.

We are now established at our final camp at a small river named Ayuwagu, about 5 km (3 miles) west of Malaumanda village. The elevation is around 700 meters (2,300 feet) in hill forest habitat, a sweet spot for biodiversity. The forest is tall but not nearly as mossy as the upper elevation sites and the climate is much warmer. 

The disadvantage of the higher temperature is the prolific insect fauna. By day we are plagued by bees, mostly stingless sweat bees that fly into your nose and ears and crawl on sweaty arms to lap up salts, but also some honeybees, which love to get inside my T-shirt and sting when they get trapped. Then at night, when we’re working by headlamp, swarms of winged termites surround us, and giant moths and beetles crash into our faces. 

Indigenous men eating large insect grubs prepared on a large green leaf.
Our assistants enjoy some local insect fauna for lunch.
© AMNH/P. Sweet

Insects aside, we are very happy with the site and are finding some fantastic birds. We have already recorded Red, Magnificent, and Lesser Birds of Paradise as well as some other uncommon species like the Broad-billed Fairywren and Black-chinned Robin, which reach the eastern limits of their ranges right around our site.


A Papuan Dwarf Kingfisher bird held by human fingers. This beautiful tiny bird has dark purple feathers on its head, yellow on its breast, and a long thin black beak.
A Papuan Dwarf Kingfisher was a common sight at our 700-meter camp. 
© AMNH/P. Sweet

Chris has been very busy with herps. The reptile diversity is high with snakes, skinks, geckos, and agamid lizards complementing the high diversity of frogs. We are now in the snake danger zone, with Death Adders and Small-eyed snakes expected. Enock Kale, another colleague from the PNG Institute of Biological Research, is continuing the mammal surveys and has already recorded many species that did not occur at the high camps, notably four species of tube-nosed bat. 

Enock Kale
Mammalogist Enock Kale poses with a common tube-nosed bat. 
© AMNH/P. Sweet

We will walk out of Ayuwagu on November 10 and hopefully fly back to Mount Hagen on November 11, where we will have electricity and, with luck, a beer or two.

Read the first post in the series here.