email a friend iconprinter friendly iconFoja Mountains
Page [ 2 ] of 5

Brother Henk catches a medium-size butterfly. With blunt-ended tweezers he spreads its wings, which are deep black with J-shaped markings in gleaming white. "Oh, this is great, great, great!" he says, a huge smile on his white-bearded face. "Surely a new species to science."

Though he is a Franciscan lay brother and not a formally trained biologist, he's spent decades studying the butterflies of western New Guinea and knows them as well as anyone. If Brother Henk has never seen this bug before, no one has. It's like being present at the creation—or, in one sense, even before the creation, since by the rules of science this species won't exist until it's deposited in a museum and Brother Henk publishes its description in a journal.

"Look, there is the new honeyeater," Brother Henk says, pointing toward the green wall of vegetation at the edge of the bog. A medium-size bird with blackish feathers and brilliant orange flaps of bare facial skin hops through a shrub, picking fruit with its beak. It is a wattled smoky honeyeater, a species found only in the Foja Mountains. Perhaps a dozen scientists have ever seen it alive.

The world's second largest island, New Guinea has for centuries intrigued and challenged even the most adventurous and experienced scientists. In the mid-1800s legendary explorer-scientist Alfred Russel Wallace, who had seen more than a few wild places, wrote that the rugged and densely forested New Guinea landscape presented "an almost impassable barrier to the unknown interior"—a statement that remained true throughout much of the 20th century. As scientists gradually explored other ranges, the Fojas' deep valleys, sheer cliffs, knife-edge ridges, and unbroken forest canopy resisted exploration until biologist Jared Diamond conducted surveys in 1979 and 1981.

In 2004 ornithologist Bruce Beehler flew over the Fojas and spotted a small clearing in the forest, a bog where annual flooding restricts plant growth to shrubs and grasses—and, more important, where a helicopter could land. In late 2005 Beehler led the first intensive scientific expedition to the Fojas, a 25-day trip conducted by Conservation International's Rapid Assessment Program (RAP), designed to provide biological information to facilitate environmental protection for areas of important biodiversity. During the expedition, members discovered the wattled smoky honeyeater (the first new bird species found in New Guinea since 1950), more than a dozen new frogs, and several mammal and plant species. Henk van Mastrigt collected more than two dozen types of butterflies and moths, now under study as possible new species.

Page [ 2 ] of 5