The month-long expedition began 25 years ago in the imagination of Conservation International (CI) scientist and vice president Bruce Beehler. At least a dozen others had tried unsuccessfully to reach the virtually untouched and unexplored Foja Mountains of western New Guinea. Beehler hoped to succeed where others had failed and close the case on a near century-old scientific mystery. In December 2005, his plans were realized and the lost bird of paradise was found.
With an international team of 11 scientists, the majority from the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI), Beehler conducted the first thorough survey of biological diversity in the Foja Mountains – the largest nearly pristine tropical forest in Asia. There they uncovered a trove of new and "missing" species, among them the mysterious and legendary Berlepsch's Six-wired Bird of Paradise (Parotia berlepschi). On their second day in the forest, the team became the first outside scientists to observe a male bird of paradise, finally putting to rest the mystery of the origin of this species.
"We stood in awe as the male romped about in the saplings around our entrance trail, flicking his wings and white flank plumes, and whistling his sweet two-note song for the female-plumaged bird," says Beehler. "I was too spellbound to go get my camera."
The Berlepsch's Six-wired Bird of Paradise was first described in 1897 by the German ornithologist Otto Kleinschmidt from wildlife skins in the private museum of Hans von Berlepsch. The striking black bird with metallic plumage along its throat and white flank plumes was named for the curious wires that extend from its head in place of a crest. It appeared to originate in northern New Guinea, but a precise location of the bird's habitat was unknown. In this respect, it was similar to the Golden-fronted Bowerbird (Amblyornis flavifrons) – also described in the 1890s from an unknown location in New Guinea. Whereas scientists remained curious about the bowerbird, however, they determined the bird of paradise to be a "mere" subspecies – though this was later disproved – and had relatively little interest in it.
"This mystery bird was, in essence, forgotten by the ornithological world in a way that the Golden-fronted Bowerbird was not," says Beehler. "That's the difference in impact of a 'species' versus a 'subspecies.'"
At least a dozen attempts were made to find the two mysterious birds over the next 80 years. Prominent scientists were repeatedly unsuccessful, exhausting time and resources to scour the mountain ranges of Earth's second largest island – a scientific "needle in a haystack" scenario. Then in the late 1970s, scientists turned their attention to the Foja Mountains.
"The Fojas were a promised land to biologists in search of the unknown," says Beehler. "The human population there is so small, scattered, and confined that the core forest block today is apparently entirely free of human influence. In our two weeks ranging out in all directions from the camp, our team never encountered any evidence of humankind – present or past. It was a wild land given over to wildlife."
The local Kwerba and Papasena people are customary landowners of the forest, though they live primarily on its outer fringes and rarely venture deep into the jungle. Their knowledge of the species within, including the Six-wired Bird of Paradise, comes either by firsthand encounters or from accounts from their ancestors, and they shared these stories with Beehler and his colleagues. "The oral tradition clearly thrived in this corner of New Guinea," says the CI scientist. "The Kwerba and Papasena elders were as appreciative and excited as us when we encountered a 'missing' creature."
University of California geographer and explorer Jared Diamond was the only scientist to reach the Foja Range before Beehler's team. Among his discoveries in 1979 and 1981 were the lost Golden-fronted Bowerbird and the female bird of paradise. He did not, however, encounter the distinctive male described in Kleinschmidt's notes.
Beehler's team had much better luck. They captured the first photographs of the bowerbird and the bird of paradise. Among other discoveries was a new species of honeyeater – the first new species of bird to be found in New Guinea in more than 60 years – as well as 20 new frog species, four new butterfly species, and a new large mammal for Indonesia: the Golden-mantled Tree Kangaroo (Dendrolagus pulcherrimus). The scientists also found what may be the largest rhododendron flower on record – almost six inches across.
"Yet we've just scratched the surface," says Beehler, who is already planning a follow-up trip to the range in late 2006. "The Foja Mountains are a key part of the Mamberamo conservation corridor, CI's largest terrestrial priority in Melanesia. With the new scientific information from this expedition, we hope to refine our conservation plan for the area and generate more political support for conservation in the region."
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