New Guinea has always seemed an intriguing place. Originally, during the Pleistocene Ice Ages, when sea levels were lower, it was joined together with what is now Australia across the Torres Strait. The original European explorers did not venture very far from the coast, because the center “spine” of New Guinea appeared to be a more or less continuous mountain range. The interior (between what turned out to be two ranges of mountains) included a huge variety of flora and fauna that were previously unknown. Much of the human society there had also developed more or less in isolation; in his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond estimates 1,000 of the 6,000 known human languages originate in central New Guinea.
The Guardian is reporting that a new expedition, sponsored by the BBC, to an extinct volcano in Papua New Guinea has turned up more than forty new animal species:
A team of scientists from Britain, the United States and Papua New Guinea found more than 40 previously unidentified species when they climbed into the kilometre-deep crater of Mount Bosavi and explored a pristine jungle habitat teeming with life that has evolved in isolation since the volcano last erupted 200,000 years ago.
Among the new discoveries are 16 species of frogs, and a giant rat that is about a yard long. The crater is apparently visited rarely, even by the indigenous people; many of the animals found had little fear of humans.
“These discoveries are really significant,” said Steve Backshall, a climber and naturalist who became so friendly with the never-before seen Bosavi silky cuscus, a marsupial that lives up trees and feeds on fruits and leaves, that it sat on his shoulder.
It is easy to imagine, in our era of air travel and Internet connections virtually everywhere, that there is very little about the Earth that we don’t know. It’s good to be reminded that there are corners that are still unexplored; perhaps that may also remind us that there might be something in those corners worth keeping.
The Guardian also has a great photo gallery with pictures of some of the newly-discovered creatures, as well as an earlier article describing some of the challenges faced by the expedition (they scheduled their visit for the wet, rather than the very wet, season). There is also an article on the expedition at the PhysOrg Web site.