Jun 27

A remarkable 1,060 new species were discovered on the island of New Guinea between 1998 and 2008, according to a WWF report. 

Photo of Allen's rainbowfish

Allen’s rainbowfish, just one of the 38 new freshwater fish discovered in New Guinea.

New Guinea’s rich biodiversity 

The report, entitled “Final Frontier: Newly discovered species of New Guinea (1998 – 2008)”, lists 12 new mammal species, together with 2 birds, 43 reptiles, 134 amphibians, 71 fish and an incredible 580 invertebrates. It also lists 218 new plants, of which nearly 100 are orchids. 

Among the newly described mammals are an endemic marsupial, the blue-eyed spotted cuscus (Spilocuscus wilsoni), as well as a new species of snub-fin dolphin (Orcaella heinsohni), and a long-beaked echidna named in honour of Sir David Attenborough, Zaglossus attenboroughi. Other discoveries include a metre-long turquoise and black monitor lizard, a 2.5 metre-long river shark, and several new colourful ‘rainbow fish’. 

Photo of Huon tree kangaroo in canopy

New Guinea has the highest diversity of tree-dwelling marsupials in the world, including this Huon tree kangaroo.

Such is the extent of New Guinea’s biodiversity that new species are still being found. For example, a BBC expedition in 2009 to the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea discovered at least 40 new species, including a new species of woolly giant rat. Since 2008, over 100 more species have been described from New Guinea, and many more have yet to be discovered.

Unique species under threat 

The largest tropical island on Earth, New Guinea contains the world’s third largest tract of rainforest after the Amazon and Congo. Divided between the countries of Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, this diverse island covers less than 0.5% of the Earth’s total land area, but is home to around 6 to 8% of the planet’s species. Over two thirds of these are found nowhere else. New Guinea also possesses Asia’s most pristine rivers and wetlands, and is surrounded by rich reefs with the highest numbers of coral and reef fish species in the world. 

If you look at New Guinea in terms of biological diversity, it is much more like a continent than an island,” says Dr Neil Stronach, WWF Western Melanesia Programme Representative. “Scientists found an average of two new species each week from 1998 – 2008 – nearly unheard of in this day and age.” 

Photo of Albericus siegfriedi, dorsal view

Albericus siegfriedi, discovered in 1999.

However, the report highlights the growing threats to New Guinea’s rich biodiversity. The island’s forests are being lost at an alarming rate, to logging, mining, road construction and conversion to agriculture, particularly oil palm plantations. Around a quarter of Papua New Guinea’s rainforests were cleared or degraded between 1972 and 2002, and invasive species, wildlife trade and unsustainable fisheries present further threats. 

This report shows that New Guinea’s forests and rivers are among the richest and most biodiverse in the world. But it also shows us that unchecked human demand can push even the wealthiest environments to bankruptcy,” says Dr Stronach. 

Photo of long-beaked echidna

Four species of echidnas inhabit New Guinea, including three species of long-beaked echidna.

Conserving New Guinea’s unique species 

According to the WWF report, there is still time to protect New Guinea’s flora and fauna, as well as its amazing cultural diversity. For example, certification schemes for timber may go some way towards protecting New Guinea’s forests, and there is potential to boost the capacity of local communities to protect their lands and resources. 

As a region with high rates of poverty, it is absolutely essential that New Guinea’s precious reefs, rainforests, and wetlands are not plundered but managed sustainably for future generations,” says Dr Susanne Schmitt, New Guinea Programme Manager at WWF-UK. “Environmental protection and economic development must go together to ensure the survival of New Guinea’s unique species and natural habitats.” 

Photo of a male Queen Alexandra's birdwing

New Guinea holds many species world records, including the world’s largest butterfly, the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing.

The WWF report concludes, “It’s vital that New Guinea’s forests, rivers, lakes and seas are managed in a way that ensures they’ll continue to sustain economic and social development – and support the island’s fabulous wildlife. If we’re to safeguard this ‘final frontier’, it’ll require active partnerships between New Guinea’s communities and a wide range of stakeholders.”  

Read the full story and WWF report: WWF – More than 1000 new species found in New Guinea

As part of its 50th Anniversary, WWF-UK is celebrating the remarkable new species being encountered across the world each year in a short film, ‘Astonish Me’.  A magical tale of adventure and discovery, the film has been created by acclaimed writer and director Stephen Poliakoff.  WWF-UK and the ARKive project have been working together to find film clips and photos of just some of these amazing, newly discovered, species to feature in ‘Astonish Me’.

Read more about ‘Astonish Me’ and, if you live in the UK, find out how you can enter WWF-UK’s competition to win a once-in-a-lifetime conservation experience to Monterey, California. 

View photos and images of species from New Guinea on ARKive

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author