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Paradise found: scientists discover new frogs and butterflies--even a tree kangaroo--in Asia's most isolated rain forests.

PICTURE THIS: 21ST-CENTURY explorers come upon a tropical paradise teeming with bizarre wildlife, huge flowers, and odd species untouched by humans for thousands of years.

This is not a scene from the latest adventure movie. It was the real-life experience of 14 researchers who explored one of Asia's most isolated tropical forests last December.

The team of scientists from the United States, Indonesia, and Australia was dropped by helicopter onto the mist-covered slopes of the Foja (FOY-uh) Mountains in Indonesia's Papua Province, on the island of New Guinea (see map).

"There's not a trail anywhere," said Bruce Beehler, co-leader of the month-long expedition. "It was really hard to get around."

The absence of any sign of human settlement gave the team a glimpse into what rain forests must have looked like tens of thousands of years ago. "It's as close to the Garden of Eden as you're going to find on Earth," Beehler said.

The discovery stunned not only the scientists, but everyone who learned about it. "A lot of people had given up hope that such places remained on Earth," Tom Cohen told JS. Cohen is a spokesperson for Conservation International (CI), a nonprofit environmental group based in Washington, D.C. CI and the Indonesian Institute of Science sponsored the expedition.

Exotic Wildlife

Almost immediately after landing, the scientists found dozens of new species, as well as species that had been considered "missing." They were surprised to see an orange-faced bird with strange wattles. It was a new species of honeyeater--the first bird discovered in New Guinea in more than 60 years.

They also spotted the famous Berlepsch's six-wired bird of paradise (see photo, table of contents). The bird is named for German ornithologist Hans von Berlepsch, as well as for the wire-like feathers that extend from its head in place of a crest. This was the first sighting of the male of the species since 1897.

A rare egg-laying mammal showed no fear of the scientists. It was a long-beaked echidna (ih-KID-nuh), a spine-covered, anteaterlike creature that feeds on earthworms. (The platypus is the only other mammal known to lay eggs.)

The scientists discovered more than 20 new species of frogs, 4 of butterflies, and at least 5 of palm trees. They also found a golden-mantled tree kangaroo, thought to be nearly extinct.

Protecting a Rare World

CI is working with the Indonesian government and indigenous people to protect the forest's rich biodiversity. (Biodiversity refers to a great number of plant and animal species living in a particular environment.)

The scientists plan to revisit the area later this year. They hope to apply their discoveries to the outside world. "In a place like this, you've got a fresh laboratory with all your samples--an entire ecosystem that is allowing evolution to occur," Cohen said. "New species are forming [here] as they adapt to the environment around them."

In time, some of the Foja Mountains plants and animals may become the basis for new medicines. But, said Cohen, "The goal is to keep this land just as it is now, so the wildlife will continue to thrive and evolve, providing all the benefits it possibly can, hopefully forever."

WORDS to Know

* crest: a projecting tuft or outgrowth en the head of a bird or other animal.

* ecosystem: a biological community, including plants, animals, and microorganisms, considered together with its environment.

* indigenous: originally living in a region; native.

* ornithologist: a scientist who specializes in the study of birds.

* wattle: a fleshy, often brightly colored fold of skin hanging from the neck or throat of an animal.

Your Turn

THINK ABOUT IT

1. Describe some of the new species found by scientists in Papua Province,

2. How might the scientists' discoveries benefit humankind?
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Author:Harvey, Mary
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Geographic Code:90ASI
Date:Mar 27, 2006
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