This Behind the Scenes article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation. Chris Austin’s fieldwork takes him to some of the most inaccessible places on Earth in the pursuit of knowledge about the diversity of the world’s amphibians and reptiles. He serves as assistant curator of Herpetology and assistant professor of Biological Science at the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science and Department of Biological Science. This story relates some of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of field work in remote New Guinea.
The island of New Guinea, located just south of the equator and north of Australia, is the world’s largest and tallest tropical island. New Guinea’s steamy lowland jungles give way to montane moss forests, cloud forests, alpine grasslands and finally tropical glaciers that cap the mountain peaks that exceed 16,400 feet (5,000 meters).
The myriad habitat zones, packed into an area one-tenth the size of the United States, harbor some of the most diverse and exquisite life on Earth: from kangaroos that live in trees to lizards with green blood.
The diversity of life on the island is so varied it has been called megadiverse and it is so vast and unspoiled it has been identified as one of the world’s five High Biodiversity Wilderness Areas.
One of the mysteries about New Guinea’s megadiversity is that it is thought to be relatively new. The main mountain range that provides the diversity of habitat types is only 5 million years old, a geologic and evolutionary blink of an eye. How the high levels of diversity arose in New Guinea in such a short evolutionary time scale is what I am trying to figure out.
Flying into the jungle
In order to collect data to address this question I led a small expedition into the pristine lowland rainforest area of the Sepik Basin in north central New Guinea. Along with me are CJ Hayden (a PhD student in my laboratory), Chris Dahl (an honors student at the University of Papua New Guinea), and Jim Anaminiato (a researcher at the Papua New Guinea National Museum).
The extremely limited road system in Papua New Guinea means that we flew to our destination. I chartered a little single engine Cessna to fly us into a small grass airstrip near the Gedik river, a northern tributary of the Sepik river. The Sepik is the longest river on the island and possibly the largest uncontaminated drainage system in Australasia with a catchment of approximately 30,900 square miles (80,000 square kilometers).
At this location we conducted a survey of amphibians and reptiles, identifying what species occur in this part of the island as well as trying to discover species new to science. We collected genetic material that we will use to examine fine-scale patterns to better understand the underlying processes that have been responsible for generating so much diversity in such a short biological time scale.
Working day and night
Herpetological fieldwork is neverending. We worked in the day collecting lizards and snakes and we worked by night collecting frogs.
Frog collections and identifications add an additional level of difficulty. Many frog species are distinguished by male mating calls. Therefore, working on frogs requires extreme patience and stealth as well as specialized recording equipment in order to collect, identify, and describe frogs. With the help of Tano, the village elder, and many eager young men to help us in the field, we conducted a survey of the primary rainforest that surrounds the village.
Our expedition has been a great success. In about two weeks we documented 79 species of snakes, lizards, and frogs representing 40 genera from 11 families. This includes at least 10 species I believe are new to science. In addition to our scientific pursuits I’m very interested in the conservation of the fauna and flora of this wonderful island.
At the end of the field season, complications arose for our scheduled airplane pick up. Via a static filled satellite phone conversation with our airbase I learned the plane was in need of repair to its single propeller and we could either choose to leave two days early or wait two weeks until the small Cessna would be back from repair. Through static filled Aussie idiom, the expatriate pilot assures me that the propeller is ‘quite functional’. Given that our survey work was close to complete I decided for the group to leave two days early on the shoddy propeller.
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Editor's Note: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering.