25 Jun 2013

Scientist hails turbo taxonomy in PNG as forest disappears

5:12 pm on 25 June 2013

A new method of describing species is proving increasingly valuable as more and more of the Pacific's primary rainforest gives way to development.

A German biologist specialising in weevils says traditionally taxonomy has been quite tedious work, with only 10 to 20 species able to be named in a year.

But Alexander Riedel says 'turbo taxonomy', as it is known, now makes it possible to name 100 different types of weevil within the same period.

He says such speed is crucial in Papua and PNG, where farming and the extractive industries are driving the loss of biodiversity and extinction of species at about one thousand times the natural rate. Annell Husband spoke to him.

ALEXANDER RIEDEL: If we wait for another 50 years or something, it may be many of the species we have in museum collections are in the mean time extinct. So at that stage it would still be nice to have a name on them, but it would be of less practical value. And I think at the moment it's really important to gather some information on local endemism, to find out the species which have very restricted distribution. So it means that some species may occur only on a single mountain. And of course this should be considered if some company applies for a logging concession, for example. So if the information is available that on this particular mountain a huge number of species occur that can be found nowhere else, then this may be an important piece of information for NGOs or for the local government. So I think it's quite relevant to have this taxonomic information available as soon as possible.

ANNELL HUSBAND: And in your view, having worked in both Papua and Papua New Guinea, have you seen for yourself definitely the pressure that development is putting on biodiversity in those countries?

AR: Oh, sure. The weevils I am studying, they are wingless, they cannot fly, so they are poor dispersers. They are restricted to primary forests. So that means if a forest has been converted to, let's say, gardens, or to a palm oil plantation, there is actually no need for me to look for these weevils anymore - I can be pretty sure that they have disappeared. Actually, historically, even before the arrival of Westerners, huge areas of the highlands of Papua New Guinea, they have been stripped of the natural vegetation, and more or less, they are now potato gardens and grasslands. And I'm pretty sure that many of the species occurring there, they've gone extinct already, maybe a thousand years ago. But the unfortunate situation now is that it is happening much faster than it would occur naturally.