“A Paradise Teeming with Life”
New Guinea’s plant diversity the greatest in the world
Prepared by Zachary Fenn – PPP Development Coordinator
A new study suggests that New Guinea holds the greatest plant diversity of any island in the world, as reported recently in an article from The Guardian. This title was previously attributed to Madagascar, which is now thought to have 19% less variety than New Guinea. To arrive at this conclusion, 99 scientists from 56 institutions and 19 countries have scanned through countless samples, some of which were catalogued by early European travellers in the 1700s. Unlike Madagascar, which was catalogued in large part by 2008, biological research in New Guinea has been slower due to the island’s rugged terrain.
New Guinea plant life. ©Art Holbrook
The secret to New Guinea’s diversity is its varied geography. As quoted in the above article, “This allows for different types of habitats, such as mangroves, swamp forests, lowland tropical forests and also montane forests, which have high levels of endemism,” said researcher Cámara-Leret. “And then at the very top, just below the limit of plant growth, are these alpine grasslands … This habitat is unique to New Guinea in Southeast Asia.” New Guinea’s topography is relatively young in geological terms and has given rise to a wonderful wealth of species, many only found on the island, over the last million years.
A total of 13,634 plant species were identified in the study that earned New Guinea its “most diverse” title. The scale of the work done to establish this number was enormous, with scientists inspecting over 700,000 specimens. The research has spanned across generations and borders, facing stops and starts with shifting governments and changing colonial and corporate involvement in the region. With continued research in the region, the future is exciting; the study’s authors estimating that “4,000 plant species could be found in the next 50 years.”
New Guinea man canoes under palms. ©Art Holbrook
The study’s main goal is to bolster continued efforts to conserve and catalogue New Guinea’s plant life. Its authors hope that more scholars will contribute to this dataset, as it is an important tool for informing the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and protecting endangered species. Crucial to this initiative is the support of the two governments on the island, as well as partnerships between local Papuans and global supporters. This is a historic moment for New Guinea and an impetus to us all to help preserve such a precious place.