Bird's Head Seascape contains reefs that shelter thousands of fish species and hundreds of corals. Click here to see examples of some of the new species. Image: © GRAHAM ABBOT
Some say the age of exploration is over, but there are still parts of the world that scientists and other explorers have rarely penetrated. Many of these places lie beneath the sea's surface, and one such place--the so-called Bird's Head Seascape off the western coast of the island of New Guinea--revealed upon recent survey that it contained as many as 52 new species of fish, shrimp and coral. "The scientists that went there did expect to see impressive things," says Sebastian Troeng of Conservation International in Washington, D.C., the advocacy group that organized the expedition. "But I think they were blown away by the biodiversity that they did encounter."
A peninsula juts off the northwestern coast of New Guinea on the Indonesian side, which helps the world's second largest island look vaguely like a turkey. In that picture, the peninsula represents the bird's head, and the area between its beak and wattle is the area surveyed. An initial team had scouted it back in 2001, but in February and April of this year Conservation International put together a team of biologists and other scientists to scour the seascape as part of its rapid assessment program. These expeditions aim to quickly register the flora and fauna in order to inform conservation decisions.
During the six weeks of survey, scientists catalogued more than 1,200 species of fish and nearly 600 species of coral as well as 52 potentially new species, including a shark. "These epaulette sharks have very large pectoral fins that they can use to hobble along the bottom and basically look like they are walking," Troeng notes. The new species include: two confirmed flasher wrasses (see gallery for images), some suspected new reef-building corals and mantis shrimp. "They are neither mantis nor shrimp, but they look a bit like both of them," Troeng explains. "Some species have been recorded striking so hard that they can break an aquarium glass."
The scientists searched the seascape from Teluk Cenderawasih in the north to the Raja Ampat archipelago in the west and the Fak Fak - Kaimana coastline to the south. In the heart of Asia's coral triangle, the 180,000 square kilometer area full of islands and submerged reefs represents one of the most abundant discoveries ever, dwarfing even Australia's Great Barrier Reef in terms of biodiversity. "The numbers are there to say that it is one of the most diverse areas that has ever been found," says marine biologist Russ Chapman of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. "I personally do not know of a similar example where there was such a richness in terms of new species."
But the unique creatures of the Bird's Head seascape face an uncertain future, given Indonesia's previous plans to expand fishing in the area. "There are a number of emerging threats: some destructive fishing methods, like dynamite or cyanide; the threat from overfishing; and sedimentation from mining or logging might impact coral reefs," Troeng says. "We still have a window of time before these emerging threats become overwhelming."
Initial indications are that the Indonesian government is responsive to protecting its natural heritage, as are local villagers who rely on the sea for their livelihoods. "We're quite optimistic that there will be a system, perhaps of marine protected areas, that will be put in place so that it will be managed in a sustainable manner," Troeng says. "One option that is being considered now is to focus development on promoting sustainable ecotourism." Regardless, it is clear that the world beneath the waves still has plenty to reveal to explorers; future expeditions plan to chart the undersea glories off Madagascar and Brazil. As Chapman notes: "This survey and the discoveries show us how much marine biodiversity remains to be discovered if we can get to some of these sites before they disappear."