Papua New Guinea
For more than a decade, scientists and students from the Faculty of Science have been studying plant and insect communities in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea.
The Ecology of plant and insect communities in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea
New Guinea is one of the last areas where we can still find continuous tracts of intact tropical forest. At the same time, this island is known for its stunning diversity of unique plants and animals. For example, of the more than 20,000 local plant species 70 % occur only here. The same is true for frogs, snakes, birds, and insects. The late colonisation of the island and the impenetrability of the terrain mean that we still know nothing about the ecology of most of the organisms there and many species are still waiting to be discovered.
Scientists and students from our faculty have been studying plant and insect communities in the local forests for more than ten years. In the early days a tiny base was established near the port of Madang on the shores of a coral lagoon. Today, the station has several buildings, including an air-conditioned laboratory with the modern equipment required for ecological research. The station's 20 Papuan employees ("parataxonomers", specially trained indigenous experts on the local natural environment) help collect and process insect and plant samples. The entire international project also includes American, Australian, and British institutions. Its aim is to understand the processes behind the creation and maintenance of the vast biodiversity of tropical areas. We are especially interested in the relationships between insects and plants, which make up the vast majority of organisms in the tropics. The caterpillars of butterflies and their parasitoids, ants, and wood-boring beetles are the main subjects of study. Currently, this scope is expanding to other groups, including vertebrates.
The cooperation of our students with local assistants has proven to be very effective. The research results have been published in a number of scholarly articles in leading scientific journals, including Nature and Science. A long-term study of the relationships between host plants and leaf-eating insects has helped to refine the global estimate of insect species diversity from the original 10-30 to just 4-6 million species. The Papuan mission also includes the education of the indigenous population (e.g. the building of a new village school) and the protection of the natural environment (efforts to declare protected areas; ecological education).
Students of our faculty have already been able to try out tropical research for themselves four times. Every two years, an excursion is organized as part of a course in tropical ecology, where 10 students from various biological disciplines are selected for a three-week stay in Papua. So far, expeditions have taken place in 2006, 2008, 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017. Each student had the opportunity to work on their own project together with one of the Papuan biology students. The expeditions have included the exploration of all of the basic types of environment that can be found in Papua. Students have dived on coral reefs, worked in the lowland inland rainforest, canoed in mangroves, climbed through the misty mountain forest to the top of Mt. Wilhelm to 4500 MASL., visited a volcanic island, danced with local people decorated in war paint and headbands of bird-of-paradise feathers, chewed betel nut, and tasted cassowary.
New Guinea research is carried out at the Department of Zoology in cooperation with the Institute of Entomology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic (contact persons Vojtěch Novotný, novotny at entu.cas.cz and M. Janda, janda at entu.cas.cz).
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