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The forest dragon Hypsilurus dilopus is a relatively widespread New Guinea lowland lizard that varies geographically in its color pattern however and may well represent a species complex. Copyright © Alex van Zon

Flora and fauna of West Papua

The sheer variety of ecosystems in West Papua fosters very high levels of biodiversity, cramming for instance as many bird and plant species as nearby mega-diverse Australia in one tenth the land surface. Whereas the birdlife appears to be relatively well known, large tracts of the territory do remain terra incognita for most other taxonomic groups till this day.

The flora of West Papua is one of the most diverse in the tropics, yet also the least studied and understood. Botanists have estimated that the varied soil types may nourish as many as 20-25,000 species of vascular plants, including a staggering 3,000 orchids!

New Guinea's insect fauna probably exceeds 200,000 species and may even realistically approach 300,000 sorts, more than half of which are considered likely to occur in West Papua. Top of the bill are the beautiful birdwing butterflies among which the Paradise Birdwing Ornithoptera paradisea perhaps stands out as particularly attractive.

With 164 documented species, the mammalian fauna of West Papua is still poorly known, especially when considering that 227 sorts have been found across the border in Papua New Guinea. Large carnivores, monkeys and squirrels are lacking completely. Instead, there is a weird and rarely seen monotreme, the Long-beaked Echidna Zaglossus bruijnii, a miscellany of cuddly marsupials including tree kangaroos, cuscuses and ringtails, as well as more bat species than anywhere else on Earth.

Some 330 sorts of amphibians and reptiles are already known from West Papua, though the herpetofauna is believed to easily exceed 500 species. These include more than one hundred native species of frog, eight freshwater and six marine turtles, some 140 lizards among which the Giant Monitor Lizard Varanus salvadorii stands out as the world's longest, furthermore two crocodilians, and 75 species of snake, some of which highly venomous as one might expect.

Finally, West Papua boasts more than 700 bird species, 54 of which are endemic and hence may be seen nowhere else on Earth. The cliché-ridden examples of spectacular avian diversity from many an ornithology textbook all occur here: from the huge, flightless cassowaries and the fascinating megapodes or incubatorbirds, to majestic crowned pigeons, amazing bowerbirds, and of course the nearly mythical birds-of-paradise. To these may be added another exciting unicum: the comparatively recent realization of plumage toxicity in the New Guinea genera Pitohui and Ifrita.

Related links

Read on about the birdlife of West Papua.

Browse our check-list of the birds of West Papua.

To a biogeographer it is tantalizing, as well as confusing or frustrating when trying to determine the history of its biota. To an ecologist, and to all biologists, it is a happy hunting ground of endless surprises, and unanswered questions. To a conservationist it is like a dream come true, a 'flash-back' of a few centuries, as well as a challenge for the future.
J. L. Gressitt, 1982