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New species found in Papua 'Eden'


An international team of scientists says it has found a "lost world" in the Indonesian jungle that is home to dozens of new animal and plant species.
"It's as close to the Garden of Eden as you're going to find on Earth," said Bruce Beehler, co-leader of the group.

The team recorded new butterflies, frogs, and a series of remarkable plants that included five new palms and a giant rhododendron flower.

The survey also found a honeyeater bird that was previously unknown to science.

It's beautiful, untouched, unpopulated forest; there's no evidence of human impact or presence

Dr Bruce Beehler, Conservation International
The research group - from the US, Indonesia and Australia - trekked through an area in the mist-shrouded Foja Mountains, located just north of the vast Mamberamo Basin of north-western (Indonesian) New Guinea.

The researchers spent nearly a month in the locality, detailing the wildlife and plant life from the lower hills to near the summit of the Foja range, which reaches more than 2,000m in elevation.

"It's beautiful, untouched, unpopulated forest; there's no evidence of human impact or presence up in these mountains," Dr Beehler told the BBC News website.

"We were dropped in by helicopter. There's not a trail anywhere; it was really hard to get around."

He said that even two local indigenous groups, the Kwerba and Papasena people, customary landowners of the forest who accompanied the scientists, were astonished at the area's isolation.

"The men from the local villages came with us and they made it clear that no one they knew had been anywhere near this area - not even their ancestors," Mr Beehler said.

One of the team's most remarkable discoveries was a honeyeater bird with a bright orange patch on its face - the first new bird species to be sighted on the island of New Guinea in more than 60 years.

The researchers also solved a major ornithological mystery - the location of the homeland of Berlepsch's six-wired bird of paradise.


First described in the late 19th Century through specimens collected by indigenous hunters from an unknown location on New Guinea, the species had been the focus of several subsequent expeditions that failed to find it.

On only the second day of the team's expedition, the amazed scientists watched as a male Berlepsch's bird of paradise performed a mating dance for an attending female in the field camp.

It was the first time a live male of the species had been observed by Western scientists, and proved that the Foja Mountains was the species' true home.

"This bird had been filed away and forgotten; it had been lost. To rediscover it was, for me, in some ways, more exciting than finding the honeyeater. I spent 20 years working on birds of paradise; they're pretty darn sexy beasts," Dr Beehler enthused.

The team also recorded a golden-mantled tree kangaroo, which was previously thought to have been hunted to near-extinction.


Mr Beehler said some of the creatures the team came into contact with were remarkably unafraid of humans.

Two long-beaked echidnas, primitive egg-laying mammals, even allowed scientists to pick them up and bring them back to their camp to be studied, he added.

The December 2005 expedition was organised by the US-based organisation Conservation International, together with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

The team says it did not have nearly enough time during its expedition to survey the area completely and intends to return later in the year.

The locality lies within a protected zone and Dr Beehler believes its future is secure in the short term.

"The key investment is the local communities. Their knowledge, appreciation and oral traditions are so important. They are the forest stewards who will look after these assets," Dr Beehler told the BBC.

A summary of the team's main discoveries:

A new species of honeyeater, the first new bird species discovered on the island of New Guinea since 1939
The formerly unknown breeding grounds of a "lost" bird of paradise - the six-wired bird of paradise (Parotia berlepschi)
First photographs of the golden-fronted bowerbird displaying at its bower.
A new large mammal for Indonesia, the golden-mantled tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus pulcherrimus)
More than 20 new species of frogs, including a tiny microhylid frog less than 14mm long
A series of previously undescribed plant species, including five new species of palms
A remarkable white-flowered rhododendron with flower about 15cm across
Four new butterfly species.
 

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WASHINGTON - It has the face of a rat and the tail of a skinny squirrel — and scientists say this creature discovered living in central Laos is pretty special: It's a species believed to have been extinct for 11 million years.

The long-whiskered rodent made international headlines last spring when biologists declared they'd discovered a brand new species, nicknamed the Laotian rock rat.

It turns out the little guy isn't new after all, but a rare kind of survivor: a member of a family until now known only from fossils.

Nor is it a rat. This species, called Diatomyidae, looks more like small squirrels or tree shrews, said paleontologist Mary Dawson of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Dawson, with colleagues in France and China, report the creature's new identity in Friday's edition of the journal Science.

The resemblance is "absolutely striking," Dawson said. As soon as her team spotted reports about the rodent's discovery, "we thought, 'My goodness, this is not a new family. We've known it from the fossil record.'"

They set out to prove that through meticulous comparisons between the bones of today's specimens and fossils found in China and elsewhere in Asia.

To reappear after 11 million years is more exciting than if the rodent really had been a new species, said George Schaller, a naturalist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, which unveiled the creature's existence last year. Indeed, such reappearances are so rare that paleontologists dub them "the Lazarus effect."

"It shows you it's well worth looking around in this world, still, to see what's out there," Schaller said.

The nocturnal rodent lives in Laotian forests largely unexplored by outsiders, because of the geographic remoteness and history of political turmoil.

Schaller calls the area "an absolute wonderland," because biologists who have ventured in have found unique animals, like a type of wild ox called the saola, barking deer, and never-before-seen bats. Dawson describes it as a prehistoric zoo, teeming with information about past and present biodiversity.

All the attention to the ancient rodent will be "wonderful for conservation," Schaller said. "This way, Laos will be proud of that region for all these new animals, which will help conservation in that some of the forests, I hope, will be preserved."

Locals call the rodent kha-nyou. Scientists haven't yet a bagged a breathing one, only the bodies of those recently caught by hunters or for sale at meat markets, where researchers with the New York-based conservation society first spotted the creature.

Now the challenge is to trap some live ones, and calculate how many still exist to tell whether the species is endangered, Dawson said.
 
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