Dr. Allen Allison on an Expedition to New Britain, PNG - Part 1

Here’s my latest submission for “The Understatement of the Year”:  Dr. Allen Allison knows a thing or two about Papua New Guinea.  Anyone who is acquainted with Dr. Allison knows he can spend hours waxing poetic about that country’s incredible landscape and exceptional people.  But it’s the flora and fauna of the place that have really captivated him, and compelled him to spend his professional career climbing mountains and crossing rivers in pursuit of rare lizards, frogs, and snakes.  In fact, that’s where he is right now.  On the island of New Britain, probably standing under the forest canopy listening for frog calls, and having a perfectly wonderful time.

Dr. Allison, a Bishop Museum herpetologist, has been travelling to Papua New Guinea since the mid-1970’s (that’s over 40 years for those of you who hate doing math in your head).  Field work for his PhD at UC Davis is what brought him there in the first place.  Not long after that, he was put in charge of managing the field station at Wau, a Bishop Museum venture that eventually became the Wau Ecology Institute and the base of operations for dozens of survey expeditions throughout the country.

His ongoing research in the Papuan region has resulted in hundreds of scientific papers and the collaborative discovery of over 130 new species of reptiles and amphibians.  His collecting efforts have helped provide Bishop Museum with one of the world’s best assemblages of New Guinean herpetological material.  And he has also been instrumental in establishing and developing the Kamiali Field Station, a premier site for long-term ecological research (www.kamiali.org).

Some of you may be wondering at this point why a researcher at the State Museum of Hawaii would spend his time toiling away in Papua New Guinea, an country over 4,000 miles away from Honolulu.  The answer lies deep in the biological history of the Pacific.  Back when the islands of Hawaii had not yet begun to bubble up out of the ocean, the island of New Guinea (the world’s largest and highest tropical island) was teeming with a rich diversity of plants and animals.  These species would eventually spread out and colonize the rest of the Pacific.  Understanding the organisms that occur in Papua New Guinea helps us understand how and why certain organisms arrived and established themselves in Hawaii.

As mentioned above, Dr. Allison is currently on an expedition to the Bismarck Archipelago, which on a map looks a bit like an upcurled tail emerging from New Guinea’s rump.  Along with researchers from UC Davis, Dr. Allison is surveying the plants and animals of New Britain, the largest of the archipelago’s islands.  Why New Britain?  Logging and mining activities have reduced the lowland rain forest on that island to a fraction of its previous expanse. Much of what remains is included in existing or proposed logging concessions or Special Agricultural Business Leases (SABL).  Loss of forests leads to loss of species.  New Britain is arguably Papua New Guinea’s greatest conservation concern.  Yet even though it is an area of high habitat disturbance, much of the region’s biodiversity has been under-surveyed and, as a result, is poorly understood.

Dr. Allison and his collaegues are trying to change that.  By gathering enough inofrmation about the unique plants and animals that inhabit New Britain, they hope to demonstrate that the area is biologically essential and should be protected via governmental restrictions.

Dr. Allison and his crew have just finished gathering the last of their supplies in Kokopo, the new capital of New Britain.  (I say “new” because Kokopo has only been the capital since 1994.  During that year, two volcanoes erupted and destroyed the old capital city, Rabaul.  More than 15,000 people were evacuated from Rabaul and relocated to Kokopo.)

City of Kokopo in the foreground, and the volcano that destroyed Rabaul in the background.
Bulisa Iova and Allen Allison on a previous expedition to Papua New Guinea.

City of Kokopo in the foreground, and the volcano that destroyed Rabaul in the background.

Please stay tuned in the coming weeks as we follow the team’s progress at the field camp!