Thursday, March 30, 2006

ENV: Read-bellied Woodpecker?

Animal Planet: Beehler makes global discovery
by James Tyson, 3/27/2006 2:05:25 PM, Black and White

Bethesda ornithologist Bruce Beehler and his colleagues jump out of a helicopter into a small clearing on Indonesia’s Foja Mountains, one of the most remote and diverse regions on the planet. As he walks along the moist ground and between old moss-encrusted trees, he notices the deafening birdsong and croaking frogs that echo through the misty jungle. Within their first five minutes in this “fairyland”, his expedition team has discovered a new species of bird, a rare mammal and several unique species of butterflies.

Beehler, father of junior Grace, led a two week expedition to the Foja Mountains in Papua, Indonesia in December 2005. Conservation International, Beehler’s employer, financed the expedition in an effort to explore the area and investigate means of protecting its unique plant and animal life.

Beehler says the recent expedition to the Foja Mountains held great personal significance because he completed a long unrealized goal of visiting the area. “It took me nearly a quarter century to get to Papua and so the anticipation was pretty high. I had been thinking about it for quite a while.”

During the expedition, Beehler and his companions discovered several new species of mammals, a new species of honeyeater bird, four new species of butterflies, five to ten new species of plants and around 20 new species of frogs. “We also recorded the first sighting of a tree-kangaroo in Indonesia and rediscovered the lost six-wired bird of paradise, last seen in 1897,” Beehler says.

Beehler says, if preserved, the Foja Mountains could provide scientists with the chance to study unique species. “The Foja Mountains are wet enough, high enough and isolated enough to be a biodiversity incubator. It’s a little bit like an island, surrounded by a sea of lowlands, but it has different trees and temperatures and therefore different species.”

Beehler developed an interest in ornithology as a child and says his passion for nature has endured throughout his adult years. “I got interested in ornithology when I was 8, when I saw my first read-bellied woodpecker. I got all excited, and birds became a passion of mine. Then, in my senior year at Williams College I got a Watson fellowship, which allowed me to spend 15 months in Papua New Guinea. It was there that I realized that I could make ornithology my profession.”

After spending his fellowship in Papua New Guinea studying the behavior of several tropical birds, Beehler embarked on a path that would turn his passion into a career. “After New Guinea, I went to graduate school and got my doctorate and became a professional. I probably wouldn’t be an ornithologist if I hadn’t gotten the fellowship and gone to New Guinea,” he says.

David Wilcove, professor of ecology and public policy at Princeton University and a bird-watching companion of Beehler’s, says Beehler is well-qualified to lead wilderness investigations. “I met Bruce in the fall of 1981 when he was a graduate student studying the behavior of several species of birds of paradise in New Guinea. One of the things that I really admire about Bruce is that his interest in nature is very broad. He is interested in not only birds, but mammals, insects and plant life.”

Wilcove says the trip holds worldwide importance because of widespread interest in the discoveries. “The most recent expedition is very significant in the amount of new species discovered and the public attention it has generated.”

Beehler’s broad knowledge of nature and his boundless determination sets him apart, Wilcove says. “He’s a great naturalist and he is willing to go to remote or even dangerous places. Those two qualities, when combined with his passion for his work, are what make him successful.”

AP Environmental Science teacher Kelly Garton says scientists rarely discover new land-based species. “Usually new species are found in the oceans, but there obviously are places, such as these mountains, that we know very little about. I think that it will surprise people how little we know about our world. The more people who realize how special these places are, the more they will care about how we treat the environment.”

Bruce’s wife Carol says Bruce’s work often involves long periods of travels. “He spends a fair amount of time away, but it’s in large chunks. The hardest part is that when he’s in the wilderness, we don’t have contact with him. We’re proud of what he does, it’s his love. I think it’s benefited us because we have a lot of background knowledge about nature, and a greater sensitivity to environmental issues.”

Time constraints limited exploration during the recent trip, Beehler says. “Conservation International will do a follow up trip in the fall. There’s lots of stuff we haven’t seen yet. We were on the mountain for only two weeks, which is a short time for tropical field work. We have only scratched the surface.”

Beehler says he and his companions explored the Foja Mountains as a part of a larger effort to explore and conserve Indonesia’s Mamberamo Basin and its surrounding terrain. “The Foja Mountains are already technically protected as a wildlife sanctuary by the Indonesian government, but the science work that we did was part of a bigger conservation project. We are interested in this big forest, the Mamberamo, that the Fojas are part of. We have been trying to create a conservation plan to please the locals and the government.”

Scientists must balance the needs of indigenous peoples and conservation arrangements, Beehler says. “We help them plan to save this area, but we also help them with the logistics, such as parks, education, health care and business opportunities. We often have more luck with preservation in the developing world than in the developed world.”

Wilcove says Beehler has made numerous discoveries outside of his most recent trip. “Several years ago, he and some other scientists discovered a bird called a Pitohui that somehow secretes some chemical in its feathers that’s quite poisonous to people and other animals.”

Bruce says the Foja Mountains offer an ecosystem utterly different than any in North America. “Here in the United States, we have mountain ranges, but we have seasonality here, and animals migrate. In the tropics, it’s warm and wet all year round, and animals don’t have to migrate.”

The discoveries will contribute to the effort to preserve the Foja Mountains, Wilcove says. “It’s probably too early to see the long-term implications, but some of the things include greater international attention to the area, which would help with the protection of the mountains later on. The mountains may be difficult to access now but roads can be built and populations will expand. The expedition will raise public consciousness and appreciation for conservation efforts.”

Bruce says he hopes the international recognition of his discovery will foster increased commitment to the conservation of the Foja Mountains and other unique regions. “I’m hoping that these 15 minutes of fame will allow my voice to be heard. I hope it will allow me to be a more effective conservationist, and save some of these places.”

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