Seeking out rare, new species in Bougainville

AN expedition to find rare and new species of mammals in a region dubbed “the Galapagos” of the Western Pacific will be the first of a series of expeditions mounted by the Australian Museum in its new Trailblazer series.
Seeking out rare, new species in Bougainville Seeking out rare, new species in Bougainville Seeking out rare, new species in Bougainville Seeking out rare, new species in Bougainville Seeking out rare, new species in Bougainville

The ABC website Bougainville News reports that scientists are heading Bougainville, as well as the Solomon Islands, to look for animals such as monkey-faced bats and giant rats.

Bougainvillean scientists say they are excited to have been put in charge of the expedition by Professor Tim Flannery, in what has been seen as Flannery working to build leaders in conservation.

Flannery, who has just been appointed as ‘Trailblazer-in residence', will work with indigenous biologists and communities.

"The flora and fauna of the Solomon Islands is very much underappreciated for its diversity and special nature," Flannery said.

"Giant rats and monkey-faced bats are the Solomons' version of … charismatic megafauna.

"These rats are some of the most spectacular rodents on earth.

"They are incredible things … two kilograms in weight and the best part of a metre long."

Flannery said the monkey-faced bats were an ancient lineage of bats.

"They have such enormous teeth they are capable of cracking green coconuts," he said.

"They evolved in the Solomons because there were no land mammals apart from the rats competing with them."

The Bougainville giant rat has not been seen by scientists since 1937 and another species on the island of Malaita has never been recorded.

The expedition's innovative partnership with indigenous biologists and communities is already paying dividends.

A skin of the Bougainville giant rat has been found by Dr Jeff Noro, who will be in charge of the Bougainville leg of the expedition.

Noro, a molecular scientist who did his PhD at the University of New South Wales, is director of the Kainake project - a community cultural and conservation organisation based in his home village in prime giant rat habitat in virgin rainforest on Bougainville.

The teams on the ground on each island will set camera traps, test mammal DNA, listen to local people's experiences and stories of the animals, and examine their hunting trophies.

With feral cats and logging adding to the threats to the mammals, the expedition has been labelled "timely".

Junior Novera, a Bougainvillean who is about to start a PhD in zoology at the University of Queensland, will be the onsite science manager on Bougainville.

After years of being part of gruelling field trips in other parts of Papua New Guinea, Novera was delighted to be working at home where the civil war of the 1990s had kept loggers away and habitats relatively intact.

"It [this project] gives us this huge opportunity to go and rediscover, and hopefully discover species are still out there and unknown to science," he said.

Australian Museum chief executive Kim McKay sees the results being produced by the PNG and Solomon Island cultural and scientific partners as vindication of the decision to put indigenous people at the heart of the project.

"We are actually learning from the local community and working with them, and that's the point of them being here at the museum this week — to share that experience," she said.

As one of the world's leading experts on mammals of Melanesia, Professor Flannery's decision to put the Bougainvillean scientists in charge is not being taken lightly.

"For him to actually trust us, to say ‘you guys go and take the lead', I think that is huge for me," said Dr Noro.

"I think he is really trying to build leaders in conservation."


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