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Birds and Mammals Research 

January 21, 2009

Where is Paradise???

PNG-o-centric world


Ahhh, Papua New Guinea…

In New Guinea, when you ask someone how far is it to the village or to the other side of the mountain, they say, “ino longwe, tupela haua tasol” or “not a long-way, just a couple hours.” Often it ends up taking several days to get there. Right now I can feel my distance to PNG – the other side of the world – in days or even hours. And I’m starting to panic that I’ll be ready to leave on time.

This trip is a special one. It’s been nearly three years since my last visit, and apart from my home, PNG is my favorite place. The forests are beautiful and wild, the local people are lovely and alive, the animals are strange and fantastic. PNG is home to the world’s largest butterflies and walking sticks, poisonous bird species, and forests that pulsate with the sound of insects and birds.

In the next 20 days, I will be traveling to the limestone karst country below Mt. Bosavi in Southern Highlands Province. Don’t be fooled by the province name; we will be well out of the mountains and in the steamy-hot lowlands. This is rugged landscape strewn with jagged uplifted limestone and streams that disappear underground and appear again somewhere else. BBC has assembled a team of scientists – me to study birds from California Academy of Sciences, and along with colleagues from Smithsonian, Bishop Museum, Oxford University, PNG Institute of Biological Research, and other institutions, we will study mammals, insects, bats, plants, etc. We will be surveying the area’s life and highlighting some of the gems that New Guinea has to offer…

Here’s another GoogleEarth image of PNG showing the location Fogoma’iu village near our study site.

We’ll be flying from the capital of Port Moresby by a twin-engine “Dash 8″ to a small town along Lake Kutubu, and then flying in an even smaller “Twin Otter” to the jungle grass-strip at Fogoma’iu. From there, we will either float down the river to our bush camp, or if the river is too swollen from rain, we’ll shuttle in on helicopters.

You can see the thick green lowlands around Fogoma’iu, with the flanks of Mt. Bosavi in the lower-left-hand corner of the screenshot. The white line is 5 miles long for scale.

Once there, I’ll focus on birds. Pitohuis are my favorite species: jay-sized birds that carry a potent neurotoxin in their skin and feathers. I’ve studied them for years, and on this trip, we hope to study a little beetle in the genus Choresine that pitohuis eat to get their poisons. Where the Choresine beetles get their toxins is anyone’s guess. I’ll also study how cassowaries respond to low-frequency calls. Cassowaries are among the largest birds living in the world today – they are flightless ancient relatives of emus and ostriches. In New Guinea, the cassowaries send deep booming sounds into the forest – presumably to communicate with each other. The Macaulay Library of Sounds at Cornell University gave me 9 high-quality recordings to use in these experiments – thanks Tammy and Greg!

Here is a photo of Choresine pulchra (Pic), the toxic “nanisani” beetle, next to the Hooded Pitohui, Pitohui dichrous. Both carry potent neurotoxins, and presumably the pitohui picks up toxins from eating the beetles.

One last project that I am really excited about… Our colleagues (Joe DeRisi and his lab) at University of California San Francisco have engineered a DNA chip that screens for all known virus types, and can potentially help discover new viruses. We will be working with Joe’s lab to see what old and new diseases are affecting wild birds on the island of New Guinea. This is important work, as many emerging diseases originate in wild places like New Guinea and jump to humans where people and wild animals come together. It’s also important because wildlife on isolated islands can be devastated by the introduction of exotic diseases, so getting baseline data in wild places like New Guinea will help us to monitor pathogens in the region. Joe and his lab have been very generous and have provided us with most of the supplies we need to test the birds.

Here’s some nice lowland hill forest not far from the area we’re headed…

For more information about my work at California Academy of Sciences, you can check out some of my older blogs or click on my home page. You can read about the department’s collections here.

To learn more about Papua New Guinea – stay tuned. I’ll try to blog whenever I can from the BBC camp. For now, I have to start packing…


Filed under: Research Division — jdumbacher @ 8:58 pm


  1. i enjoyed this very much and very interesting,educational for a grand ma. thanks.

    Comment by suzanne poulsen — March 1, 2009 @ 11:05 am


    Comment by sherrie moore — March 1, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

  3. I appreciate all the research and study that goes on to help us better understand and appreciate our world and its creatures, I am wondering what environmental impact you and your team have on the local environment which is very fragile. Do you consider conserving as much as possible with air travel, road travel, etc.? A lot of gear, food items, etc. are brought in. What do you do with all that “stuff” at the end of the visit? Hopefully, you carry it out with you when you return home.
    A concerned environmentalist

    Comment by Susanna — March 2, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

  4. Dear Dr. Dumbacher,
    I had first noticed the study of poisonous birds in my copy of the Birds of Paradise/Frith & Beehler. I am interested in Coleoptera in particular, and have had a fascination for parasitism and toxicity (Beetles sequestering plant allomones and toxins for defense). How does natural selection play in this scenario of the birds (Ifrita cowaldi and Hooded Pitohui) predation on such aposematic and toxic insects as the Melyridae? It seems an extreme adaptation, since there a. re a massive number of other less-toxic insects to choose from in the rainforest environment. Obviously it must have taken some time and acclimatization for the birds (as the poison-arrow frogs) to sequester the deadly toxins involved. I do not expect an answer to my comment, but I just find this all very strange and wonderful and want to thank you, and others like you, for these elegant views into the world which is often so confusing and truly MAGNIFICENTLY BIZARRE! Sincere thanks, D.McIntire-Tucson, AZ.

    Comment by Don McIntire — March 12, 2009 @ 7:28 am

  5. Good questions – and ones that we should all think about with all of our work. As I am sure that you know, the CalAcademy is very committed to reducing our impact in every way possible. In the field, my research team travels as light as possible, and we try to reduce our impacts on the local culture as well as on the environment – this means living as simply as possible, carry as little as possible, and eating with and staying with our local hosts whenever possible. Purchasing garden food from local villages helps reduce trash (plastic wrappers, tins, etc.), while supporting the local economy and affirming local food choices.

    This particular camp, set up by BBC, is being turned over to the local villagers when the expedition is finished. The village is working with another outside group to use the infrastructure for future eco-tourist enterprises and working with university groups in PNG, USA, and Australia for college credit courses. We are all hoping that this is successful – as it will be an amazing place to continue rain forest research and to teach tropical ecology and evolution! It would be very difficult or impossible for the village or the universities to launch such an enterprise without the initial support provided by the BBC.

    You may be interested in our CalAcademy planning for future island related research, in which we will utilize a sailboat for getting to the islands and for living on. This will additionally reduce our impact in many ways, including reducing our use of fossil fuels for transportation, reduce our need to build camps on the islands, and we plan to equip the boat with the latest solar and wind powered generators for our work. The work we are blogging here in MIlne Bay and Manus is basically reconnaissance for that future work that will require a boat and visits to some of the most remote and unstudied islands…

    There are lots of things we are doing in addition to reduce our impact – too many to mention here – but we will be posting them on our South Seas research pages:
    Check out the “Expedition philosophy” link for some hints. I hope to find time to add more thoughts here. Feel free to email me with any thoughts or ideas you may have too.


    Comment by jdumbacher — March 23, 2009 @ 4:43 pm

  6. Brings back lots of memories of when I was a Patrol Office in the Bosavi 1974-76. As OIC Komo Patrol Post I used to patrol through the entire area carrying out various function from policeman, magistrate, agricultural adviser etc. My last case as a local Court magistrate was one of canibalism in the Bosavi.
    Next time you go please invit me son who is senior curator at Queensland Museum. Just publishing a paper on three dinosaurs recently discovered in western Queensland.
    Great country, great people, great nature.

    Comment by John Hocknull — June 21, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

  7. With your collection of beetles, might be fun to look at their phoretic assemblages compared to other, less toxic beetles in the same area. You’ve probably already done that.

    As a complete aside, can you con IT people at calacad to make your blog RSS type, so I can subscribe?? Would increase readership by orders of magnitude, I suspect. Great to see you.

    Comment by Colin Purrington — September 12, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

  8. Good Day Jack and Tiffany!
    Wonderful blog and absolutely fascinating story of your latest sailing ventures.
    We live vicariously through your blog and the girls will share the sailing adventure in class next week. We have you guys as a pinpoint on the map in Soleil’s classroom. A very fine educational tool and what a story.
    Send more photos.
    Lukim yu Behain,
    Telluride Kids.

    Comment by Ramona, Kento and Girls — November 2, 2009 @ 4:29 am

  9. Well done!

    Comment by Gretta Kwasnicka — December 26, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

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