Science - February 9, 2006

Commentary/ Lost world

An international team of researchers has found a ‘lost world’ in the Foja Mountains of New Guinea. They have discovered a dozen new plant and animal species, including a butterfly, birds, frogs, palms and a rhododendron. They also found a bird of paradise species thought to be extinct. The place reminded one of the expedition members of the Garden of Eden. Is this a unique find? Or are there more remote areas where a dozen new species could be discovered if you let four taxonomists loose there?

Professor Marc Sosef, professor of biosystematics
‘It depends on where you send the taxonomists. A remote area of high mountains in New Guinea is a sure thing in any case. New Guinea is already renowned for its abundance of species, because two rich bio-geographic areas come together there – Australia and Indonesia. This in combination with mountains creates a motor for evolution that leads to a high level of biodiversity.
‘A team of taxonomists with different specialisations could indeed discover a dozen new species in other places on earth as well. Finding a new bird species is a bit more difficult, however, because a lot of research has been done on birds and mammals. This could indeed be an impressive discovery, but I’m not falling from my chair yet. During fieldwork in Gabon we regularly find two or three new plant species. If I were to go on a month-long expedition with a group of butterfly, bird and frog taxonomists we may be able to discover ten species.
‘Whether you can call the area in New Guinea a hotspot depends on how you define the word. It is used by some to refer to a place that has high biodiversity. Others call something a hotspot only if dramatic things are about to happen there, such as if the biodiversity in the area is being threatened. The description of the place as a virgin forest where few people have ever set foot indicates that it cannot be called a hotspot in this last meaning of the word. The area’s flora and fauna are not being directly threatened.
‘There are a few places in the rainforests of Africa that also have relatively high biodiversity. They were rainforest refugia – islands of forest that remained when the last ice age drastically reduced the total area of rainforest – where many species were able to survive. A number of species were able to spread out again from these centres after the ice age, but the biodiversity in the refugia is still greater than in the surrounding areas. Something like this could also be true for New Guinea.
‘The table mountains in Surinam and the Guyanas of South America also have comparable areas. These are practically inaccessible high plateaus in the rainforest that are enormously rich in flora and fauna. These areas are unique because they were able to develop for a long time in isolation. There are therefore probably many more lost worlds on the planet still to be discovered.’

Gert van Maanen