June 27, 2011

Scientists Discover New Species Around New Guinea

Scientists have made spectacular discoveries of more than a thousand new species on the island of New Guinea and its waters from 1998 to 2008, according to environmental group World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The remarkable finds total 1,060 new species, but due to a poor planning and unsustainable development in the country, many of these unique creatures are at risk of becoming endangered or extinct, a WWF report finds.

The paper -- Final Frontier: Newly Discovered species of New Guinea (1998 "“ 2008) -- shows that the research has yielded positive results into the discovery of 218 plants, 43 reptiles, 12 mammals, 580 invertebrates, 134 amphibians, 2 birds and 71 fish species.

"This report shows that New Guinea's forests and rivers are among the richest and most bio-diverse in the world," WWF's Western Melanesia program representative, Neil Stronach, told AFP. "But it also shows us that unchecked human demand can push even the wealthiest environments to bankruptcy," he added.

Its rainforests are the third largest in the world after the Amazon and the Congo. Though the island only covers 0.5 percent of the Earth's landmass, it contains up to eight percent of the world's species, says the WWF.

New Guinea has already been known for its breathtaking biodiversity, which includes the world's biggest butterfly -- with a 12-inch wingspan -- and a giant rat measuring up to 3 feet long.

It is also home to Asia's most pristine and untouched rivers and wetlands. Its natural gifts also extend to the reefs surrounding New Guinea, in the heart of the Coral Triangle, which have the world's highest concentration of coral and reef fish.

Scientists estimate that two-thirds of all the plant and animal life in New Guinea exists nowhere else in the world. And the 1,060 confirmed species found over a period of ten years lead scientists to believe they have only scratched the surface of this extraordinary ecosystem.

"Such is the extent of New Guinea's biodiversity that new discoveries are commonplace even today," WWF said in the report.

"If you look at New Guinea in terms of biological diversity, it is much more like a continent than an island," Stronach told the French news agency. During the decade-long expedition, scientists discovered "an average of two new species per week," he added.

No fewer than seven new species of rainbow fish were identified over the period, including Allen's rainbow fish (Chilatherina alleni). And scientists collected more than a hundred orchids in Papua New Guinea's (PNG) Kikori region, eight of which were new to science, including the exquisite firework-like display of the Dendrobium spectabile orchid.

One of the scientists' most notable discoveries was that of a round-headed dolphin, which swims in protected, shallow coastal waters near river mouths. It was discovered in 2005 in PNG and was the first new dolphin species to be recorded anywhere in the world in 30 years. WWF officials say they now know the species to exist in Australia as well. Another mammal find was that of an anteater named in honor of British naturalist Sir David Attenborough, Sir David's Long-beaked Echinda (Zaglossus attenboroughi).

In the amphibian world, more than 130 species of frogs were discovered in the ten-year hunt. One was dubbed Litoria sauroni because of its eye-catching red and black spotted eyes that reminded scientists of the evil character Sauron in the "Lord of the Rings." Another new frog species was notable due to its tiny size -- less than a half-inch long. And another frog species had vampire-like fangs.

Among invertebrates, which totaled 580, scientists found nine snail species and a brightly-colored apricot crayfish.

WWF said the most notable freshwater discovery was that of a 8-foot long river shark found in PNG, that has since been also found in northern Australia.

The most notable reptile find was a 4-inch long snake that had scales over its eyes, could not bite and had no venom.

But despite all the incredible discoveries, scientists are concerned that the region's rich biodiversity is in danger due to increased human encroachment. Much like the Amazon and Borneo rainforests, humans are destroying New Guinea's natural habitat at an "alarming rate."

The country's forests are facing "serious threats from logging, mining, wildlife trade and conversion to agriculture, particularly oil palm," says Dr. Eric Verheij, Conservation Director, WWF Western Melanesia.

Between 1972 and 2002, independent studies in PNG have shown that 24 percent of rainforests were cleared or degraded through logging or conversion to agriculture. The same studies also report that the forest clearance rate is up to 3.4 percent annually, much higher than previous reports.

China buys about 82 percent of PNG's timber exports each year, representing more than 78,000,000 cubic feet. Studies suggest that as much as 70 percent of this logging is illegal.

Based on the WWF's "ËœLiving Forests Report,' more than 230 million hectares of forest will disappear around the world by 2050 if no action is taken. The report proposes that policymakers and businesses unite around a goal of Zero Nett Deforestation and Degradation (ZNDD) by 2020 as a global benchmark to avoid dangerous climate change and curb biodiversity loss.

"As a region with high rates of poverty, it is absolutely essential that New Guinea's precious reefs, rainforests, and wetlands are not plundered but managed sustainably for future generations," says Dr Susanne Schmitt, New Guinea Program Manager at WWF's United Kingdom office.

"Environmental protection and economic development must go together to ensure the survival of New Guinea's unique species and natural habitats," says Schmidt.


Image Caption: Chilatherina Alleni rainbow fish. New Guinea has some of the most beautiful freshwater fishes found anywhere, including gobies, gudgeons and rainbow fish. Rainbow fish are small but breathtaking in colour, varying from a single vivid colour to a spectrum. Credit: © WWF / G.R. Allen


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