ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Scores of New Species Discovered

Scientists proclaim Indonesia's Bird's Head Seascape the most biodiverse marine area in the world.


Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

September 18, 2006 The findings of two recent marine expeditions, led by Conservation International (CI) and co-announced Monday with the Indonesian Government, reveal that the Bird’s Head Seascape—a marine area named for the distinctive shape of the peninsula on the northwestern end of Indonesia’s Papua province—is a veritable “species generating factory” of unprecedented proportions.

Exclusive Images

Click here for a look at some of the new species discovered in Indonesia

Dozens of new species were discovered in the area, including two new species of shark—one that “walks” along the sea floor—as well as new varieties of coral and reef fish. Scientists and researchers say that the number and variety of species found in this marine Eden far exceed that in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef or the Caribbean Sea, areas previously held up as Earth’s preeminent bastions of aqueous biodiversity.

“We strongly feel that this is the epicenter of marine biodiversity, and unquestionably, for an area of its size, it’s the most biodiverse yet documented,” said Mark Erdmann, senior advisor of CI’s Indonesian Marine Program, which led the surveys.

CI ran its first expedition in the Bird’s Head Seascape region in 2001, focusing on the Raja Ampat Archipelago. “The results of that survey were dazzling from the perspective of overall marine biodiversity,” said Erdmann, “and immediately established Raja Ampat as the bull’s eye of global marine biodiversity.” Then, in 2004, together with The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), CI established a large-scale marine conservation program focused on the Seascape. At that time, even though Raja Ampat’s diversity was well-documented and WWF had a long history of working in the Cenderawasih Bay area of the Bird’s Head, CI identified a clear need to survey the other major reef areas within the Seascape. CI anticipated that these areas would also reveal high levels of biodiversity due to their proximity to Raja Ampat but, said Erdmann, “We never imagined the mind-blowing number of undescribed and new species we’d uncover.”

With the new discoveries, the 38,000-square-mile Seascape now has a total of 1,233 documented species of coral reef fish, and at least 600 species of reef-building coral. The Caribbean Sea, which is more than one hundred times the size of the Bird’s Head, contains only 58 species of reef-building coral, and fewer than 1,000 species of coral reef fish.

Among the headlining creatures discovered in the Seascape are two new species of small, slender sharks that shuffle along the ocean floor using their fins like appendages. “If disturbed, they’ll swim away like a normal shark, but the walking is a most intriguing behavioral feature,” said Erdmann.

Two new species of flasher wrasses are particularly memorable. “These fish are normally very drab in coloration,” said Erdmann, “but when the male is trying to impress his harem of five to 12 females, he’ll rise up in the water column and suddenly ‘flash’ a pattern of brilliant colors including reds, yellows, blues, and violets to entice a female to spawn.”

Scientists have long recognized that the area now commonly referred to as the “Coral Triangle”—the region encompassed by the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands is the Earth’s center of marine diversity, and the reasons for this have been debated by bio-geographers for several decades.

Some hold that this region is the “center of origin” for many of the species found in the Indian and Pacific oceans, while others argue that its intersection between the two oceans means its fauna comprises components of both. It’s agreed, however, that a great number of coastal habitats and semi-isolated deep sea basins that open and close off their own endemic plants and animals and the genetic interaction and competition between these species has positively impacted the biodiversity of Bird’s Head over the millennia.

Though confined to a body of water the size of Missouri, CI’s discoveries are globally significant. “The potential benefits of this biodiversity range from local benefits generated by fisheries and marine tourism,” said Erdmann, “to global benefits from potential medical, pharmaceutical, and genetic engineering applications derived from organisms such as sponges, sea squirts, and barnacles.”

According to Ketut Sarjana Putra, CI’s Indonesian Marine Program Director, there are a host of imminent threats to the reefs that require urgent attention from destructive fishing techniques involving the use of bombs and cyanide to economic development plans that call for significant intensification of commercial fishing in the region. Putra says planned mining and timber operations in coastal areas with steep slopes also have the potential to cause erosion and sedimentation on the coral reefs, “which would effectively smother them.”

Indonesia’s national and local governments have responded positively to the survey results, indicating a commitment to develop a network of protected marine areas in the Bird’s Head that will ensure biodiversity and the sustainable management of the fisheries in the area.

“We’ve been very pleased with the reaction of the Indonesian government to these findings, and we’re committed to fully supporting their plans to safeguard this tremendous biodiversity and ensure sustainable fisheries,” said Putra. “As for local Papuan stakeholders, they’ve rightfully been very proud to learn they’re the owners and guardians of such globally significant marine biodiversity.”

These discoveries will not be the last of their kind, according to Erdmann. He thinks that the most productive area for undiscovered marine biodiversity is going to be the so-called “twilight zone” of the reefs of the Coral Triangle. This is the region between 164 feet (50 meters) and 656 feet (200 meters) below the surface that’s largely inaccessible with scuba-diving equipment, and not yet the focus of submersible or Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) research.

“This is, in my mind, one of the last great frontiers for marine biodiversity of fishes and macro-invertebrates,” said Erdmann. “And I look forward to exploring it.”

Filed to: