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The use of 26 camera traps - funded through the crowdfunding site Pozible - has enabled Deakin ecologist Dr Euan Ritchie and Jim Thomas of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance to discover three possible new mammal species in remote Papua New Guinea.
Working within the Centre for Integrative Ecology, Dr Ritchie raised almost $22,000 through Deakin’s inaugural crowd-funding venture last year.
In the first comprehensive camera trapping study of endangered species ever to be conducted in Papua New Guinea’s Torricelli Mountain Range, Dr Ritchie, Jim Thomas and their team attached the motion-activated infrared cameras to trees in the rainforest. The cameras then snapped photos of animals every time they walked past over the next several months.
“We couldn’t have done this even 10 years ago,” said Dr Ritchie. “The technology is amazing. The animals are very shy, but with these cameras we can now take photos of them without disturbing them in any way.”
The team used these traps with the initial aim of assessing the presence and behaviours of two critically endangered mammals: the Tenkile (or Scott’s Tree Kangaroo), and Weimang (Golden-mantled Tree Kangaroo). It is believed that only 600 individuals of these two species, combined, may remain.
In the process of their research, three new mammals may have been discovered: a miniature wallaby (probably within the genus Dorcopsulus), about the size of a domestic cat; a giant eared mouse; and a type of antechinus, a shrew-like marsupial.
The discovery has attracted wide media coverage for Dr Ritchie, Jim Thomas and their team over the past week.
The Tenkile Conservation Alliance is overseen by Deakin Adjunct research fellow Jim Thomas, who has spent the past 10 years managing the alliance and working with local villagers in remote New Guinea. The alliance has been described by Professor Tim Flannery as “the most successful conservation organisation in Melanesia.”
Dr Ritchie explained that he “always loved running around the bush as a child” – and a key motivator for him as a biologist is ensuring that his own two children, and the next generation, have access to the same sort of world that he knows and loves.
He is optimistic that his research findings will help encourage the New Guinea Government to formally protect mountain ranges in the Torricelli area, which, so far, have been undisturbed by mining, logging and oil palm. The main threat to the wildlife has been from hunting, but work by the Tenkile Conservation Alliance has made considerable progress in supporting alternative food sources for locals.
He added that the area is a “biodiversity hot spot”, with many new species of plants, insects, birds, frogs and reptiles likely to be found there.
“This is a goldmine for ecologists. There could be hundreds, if not thousands, of new species across the entire ecosystem,” he said.