MADANG - Armed with thousands of test tubes, flasks, microscopes, mouth aspirators, gillnets and compressors, Olivier Pascal and Philippe Bouchet have arrived in Madang, their departure point for their new expedition in Papua New Guinea, which started last month.
The botanist for an NGO, Pro-Natura International, and the zoologist specializing in mollusks at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris are old accomplices. They even have special nicknames for each other: "Muddy old boot" for the former and "Sea-shells" for the latter. Since 2006, they have led the biggest known research team in recent years. "Our Planet Reviewed" has taken them from Santo Island and Vanuatu to Mozambique and Madagascar in 2009 and 2010.
After two years of preparation, they are finally ready to embark on a new chapter in their inventory of the world's biodiversity, visiting one of the most richly diverse areas, but also one of the least traveled, in the world. The expedition will last three months and will include almost 200 scientists of 21 different nationalities.
The island of Papua New Guinea presents a double attraction for the scientists. It is situated at the heart of the Coral Triangle, which stretches out between Taiwan, the Philippines, the Malaysian peninsula and Indonesia. This is the world’s most bio-diverse marine environment, where two-thirds of the world's coral reefs are to be found.
On land, the potential is just as appealing. The eastern half of the island, shared with Indonesia, possesses the third-largest expanse of intact tropical rainforest, after the Amazonian basin and the Congo. The team will be based in Madang province, where the rainforest extends from the coastal plains to the edge of the slopes of Mount Wilhelm, reaching up to around 3,800 meters.
"Each new expedition is bound to lead us to the discovery of new species," predicts Philippe Bouchet, who will lead the marine mission. This is especially true as the mission will focus on species that have until now been neglected by zoologists: mollusks, crustaceans, polychaeta and algae.
"Mollusks and crustaceans represent around half of marine species; there are eight times more of them than there are fish," says Philippe Bouchet. "However, the scientific community suffers from the same problem as the general public. They're only interested in certain species, such as large mammals."
There is also another reason for this professional snub. It takes a considerable amount of time to track down, classify, and sample these small organisms, rarely bigger than a few centimeters. It can take years to declare a new species.
Oceanic ships and super-sleuths
Discoveries are made almost unintentionally; however, they do follow a precise structure. Philippe Bouchet, staying with his team at the Divine Word University campus, painstakingly goes through minute details with his team each night before dinner.
"On an expedition of this magnitude and at this level of complexity, I have to devote 100% of my time to management. You have to find the right balance between running a tight ship and one that allows researchers to fully express their creativity," admits the museum researcher, putting a dampener on the feeling of adventure that goes with these large expeditions.
If the weather permits it, around 20 divers will go down 30 meters each day to do preliminary sampling, armed with breathing apparatus, light traps and brushing equipment, etc. There is also the Alis, the oceanographic ship being supplied by the Research Institute for Development (IRD), another partner of the expedition, with its trawling net that can reach down to 1,200 meters.
For more delicate operations, the leader of the mission is counting on a few super-sleuths: divers to whom he has entrusted the targeted sampling, and a Filipino fisherman whom they met in 2004, who is second to none when it comes to maneuvering a gillnet around awkward or sloping areas on the ocean floor.
All samples will be sent to the laboratory, on campus, to be studied, sorted, photographed and packaged, then given to the top specialists after the expedition.
As well as this, artificial reefs (around 30 in total) will be installed in the lagoon of Madang after the best sites have been identified by satellite images. They will be taken out again after one year, the time it takes for them to become colonized by various species.
No time to relax or build shelters
On the humid slopes of Mount Wilhelm, surrounded by rich vegetation, Olivier Pascal is preparing for a completely different voyage. He is no stranger to extreme conditions, after his first escapades during the late 1980s in the Amazon. "It'll be bad if it rains," he admits.
Earlier, in May, they had searched for ideal locations, which has allowed them to signpost each stage of the climb. "As soon as we arrive, we have to follow the precise, pre-established scientific protocol." There are eight sites, each divided into five patches of 20m2, and prepared with traps. The sites range from 200m above sea level to 3,700m above sea level.
The researchers will spend three days at each site, and one day hiking to reach the next one. Therefore, there will not be much time to relax or even build shelters. Tarpaulin sheeting will have to do. "You have to be in really good shape, even if we have a doctor with us," says Olivier Pascal.
The scientists will concentrate on insects, which form by far the largest group, on land, of neglected biodiversity, and which represent this expedition’s main area of interest. Unlike Philippe Bouchet, the botanist can also work with a strong team of local researchers.
For 15 years, Vojtech Novotny, a world-renowned Czech specialist in tropical ecology, has been managing Binatang Research Center in Madang. He coordinated the biggest study ever done on the distribution of species in a tropical, low-altitude forest.
The results, published in 2010, have provided one of the most recent evaluations of the world's biodiversity. Olivier Pascal is hoping to prolong the exploration on the peak of Mount Wilhelm with the help of Papua New Guinean parataxonomists trained by Novotny.
The final objective for the pair is to come up with a new estimate of the number of species currently living on Earth. "For me, that's where the real adventure begins," Philippe Bouchet confides. He is already thinking about the years in the laboratory to come, after these "three months on the ground."