Our Planet Reviewed: International Scientific Expedition Papua New Guinea

Our Planet Reviewed: International Scientific Expedition Papua New Guinea

Bradley Gewa (Left) is a former Research Technician from the New Guinea Binatang Research Centre in Madang, where he helped in the study of insect-plant interactions in the PNG rainforest, as well as supported community-based conservation projects. He has a keen affinity for nature, loves books and writing, and is a life-long student after the pursuit of knowledge.

PNG Insight is delighted to publish Bradley’s writings. Read about his work below.

New Guinea Binatang Research Centre

“Our Planet Reviewed” Scientific Expedition in Papua New Guinea

In 2012, I was privileged to be part of the major IBISCA “Our Planet Reviewed” scientific expedition that took place in PNG.

My time at the Binatang Research Centre (BRC) had involved many adventures, including field expeditions to some of the most remote places in PNG with beautiful, undisturbed natural habitats.

But the IBISCA “Our Planet Reviewed” scientific undertaking would mostly stand-out for me, in terms of its scale, the fieldwork and challenges involved, and just the overall experiences of being a member of this extraordinary and historic study in the country.

IBISCA stands for ‘Investigating the Biodiversity of Soil and Canopy Arthropods’ and is a program involving a network of multinational scientists who study insect biodiversity in different areas around the globe.

The “Our Planet Reviewed” expeditions aim to explore and document both marine and terrestrial biodiversity in some of the least-explored, biodiversity-rich places in the world.

It involves an international collaboration of marine biologists from the French National Museum of Natural History, a team of French explorers and scientists, as well as the multinational IBISCA network.

Previous “Our Planet Reviewed” Expeditions in Vanuatu and Africa

Before the large-scale, multinational PNG expedition in 2012, the “Our Planet Reviewed” study had been conducted in Mozambique and Madagascar between 2009 and 2010, where 155 people from 19 different countries were involved, including over 100 scientists, plus media personnel and support staff.

Before that, its first expedition took place in Vanuatu in 2006, comprising of a team of 233 persons from 23 nationalities.

“Our Planet Reviewed” Expedition in Papua New Guinea

After the Vanuatu and African expeditions, the “Our Planet Reviewed” team set their eyes on PNG as their next destination. This was an obvious choice because of PNG’s exceptional and mostly unexplored terrestrial and marine biodiversity.

In addition to PNG’s highly attractive biological diversity, a major reason that enabled and facilitated the “Our Planet Reviewed” expedition’s ambitious terrestrial component in PNG, was the Binatang Research Centre’s (BRC) established forest research infrastructures, and the highly-trained local team of research technicians, which was known to key members of the IBISCA team who had long-term research connections with BRC.

“Our Planet Reviewed” Expedition components

The marine component of the “Our Planet Reviewed” team was based at the Divine Word University campus. The marine component worked with PNG marine biologists as well as students and staff from various PNG universities, studying the ultra-rich marine biodiversity of the Madang Lagoon and its surrounding areas.

The IBISCA terrestrial component of the expedition, mainly focused on insect surveys, was primarily engaged with the BRC team.

The PNG expedition’s total budget of about 1.8 million Euros was co-funded by various donors and organizations, most notably private funds from the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation and other European donors. The expedition budget also included public funds from institutions like the Belgian National Science Foundation and the New Caledonian Government.

At the end of the terrestrial expedition’s fieldwork, the BRC team and other international scientists working on sorting the massive insect collections at BRC’s remote Swire-Steamships Research station in the Ramu jungles would get to personally meet the expedition’s royal patron, Prince Albert II of Monaco, in a surprise visit to congratulate the team’s efforts.

But this will be a story to come later.

“Our Planet Reviewed” Terrestrial Expedition preparations

Being an unprecedented, large-scale, and high-profile expedition to be hosted by Binatang Research Centre (BRC), or by any research organization in the country for that matter, many months of planning and preparation had to go into making sure that the expedition’s objectives would be satisfactorily achieved.

In total, the terrestrial expedition would involve 63 people from 11 different nationalities, including scientists, research technicians, students, media, and support personnel- with logistics and fieldwork implementation heavily dependent on the BRC team.

The sites for carrying out the terrestrial expedition were in Madang’s Wanang Conservation Area in the Ramu lowlands, and the Mt. Wilhelm Complete Altitudinal Rainforest Transect that straddled both the Madang and Simbu Provinces.

Mt. Wilhelm Altitudinal Rainforest Transect

The Mt. Wilhelm Altitudinal Transect would be the most important field site for the terrestrial expedition’s fieldwork, and one of the major reasons for its interest in carrying out the study in PNG.

The Transect was established by Binatang Research Centre (BRC) around 2009 as one of its key field sites and begins in the lowlands of Madang at 200m above sea level and continues up to the base of Simbu’s Mt. Wilhelm at 3700m above sea level, where the tree-line stops.

Along this transect are a total of 8 research sites established at 500m elevational intervals, in long-term partnerships with the local landowning communities at each site.

Importantly, this transect is globally recognized as one of the few sites of its kind in the tropics that has continuous, undisturbed rainforest-cover that runs from the lowlands up into high altitudes where proper tree growth naturally ceases.

With average temperatures ranging from 27.4°C at 200m to 8.6°C at 3700m, this transect provides excellent opportunities for scientists to study how plants and animals respond to changing climatic conditions and vegetation types.

Presenting the rare prospect of mimicking and testing the effects of climate change, and also to investigate the rich unexplored biodiversity present in its wide range of habitats.

Essentially, the transect is seen as a scientific ‘one-stop-shop’, if it may be so described. As such, the ultimate goal of the terrestrial component of the “Our Planet Reviewed” PNG expedition was to estimate for the first time, with intensive simultaneous sampling at all 8 sites, the insect diversity created by the elevational differences along this transect.

Mt Wilhelm Transect - BRC led expedition
Google Earth image showing the Mt. Wilhelm Complete Altitudinal Rainforest Transect and elevation sites (Image credit: BRC)

Botanical Survey and Community Awareness, Mt. Wilhelm Transect

To prepare the Mt. Wilhelm Altitudinal Transect for the impending expedition, a reconnaissance team comprising of Binatang Research Centre (BRC) botanists was sent up to establish forest plots for the insect studies to be conducted within, where 3 plots of 20m X 20m were established at each of the 8 sites, and plant species identified and recorded.

Beginning at 3700m above sea level down to the lowlands at 200m, this total of 24 botanical survey plots would provide the baseline data to complement the insect studies to be undertaken along the transect.

As well as setting up the botany plots, the team also had the vital role of carrying out awareness at each elevational site about the upcoming expedition’s schedules, activities and aims.

They also would recruit local assistants to build or maintain field camps, identify any problems or issues that could be of possible hindrance to the expedition that needed to be settled, and return to report to base.
Preparations at the BRC campus

Binatang Research Centre (BRC) sampling protocols

At the BRC base in Madang, as the months counted down towards the expedition’s starting date, a hectic flurry of activities was already in progress.

BRC office staff had to procure equipment and supplies for the teams at each of the 8 field sites. Other essential supplies that were expected from overseas or to be sourced there had to be gathered and readied. As always, a fully equipped and supplied expedition was of paramount importance, although this particular one was on a much larger scale.

As for us, the BRC entomological team who were to carry out most of the fieldwork following the international IBISCA sampling protocols, we had to organize our field equipment and supplies, making sure that the office staff had procured adequate and correct materials for our teams.

And most importantly, to study the IBISCA field insect sampling protocols and train via demonstrations and trial activities. Because of the scale of the operation and a shortage of manpower, each of the 8 sites was to have 2 BRC research technicians well-versed in the insect sampling protocol. This culminated in a 16-man full team for the job.

Furthermore, to meet the total workforce required for this extensive insect sampling, additional help would be gathered at each field site by training local assistants on-the-job.

Local ‘Manufacturing’ of Flight Interception Traps (FITs)

One of the insects collecting methods used during the expedition was the Flight Interception Traps or FITs, which comprised of a 2m X 1m rectangular, semi-transparent mosquito net type mesh that would be stretched out over collecting trays at the forest sites.

This was to trap flying insects like beetles and flies, which would bump into the partly invisible mesh and drop into the collecting trays placed underneath, containing water mixed with soap and salt.

The soap was to break the surface tension of the water so that any insect that fell in would immediately drown and not swim around and climb out of the trays again. The salt was to preserve the dead insects until they were collected the next day.

Since there were limited numbers of the manufactured FIT meshes supplied from overseas, we had to ‘manufacture’ some more by using plastic mesh rolls from hardware stores and secure their edges with duct tape strips for rigidity. Because each team had to have 20 FITs per site plus spares in case some got torn or damaged, a good amount of mesh roll had to be purchased from the hardware.

In addition to mesh rolls, we bought clear plastic sheets to shelter each FIT trap from rainwater that would possibly cause the collecting trays to overflow and spill the collected insects.

Palmolive dish-washing detergent was found to be the ideal candidate to create soapy water for the collecting trays, and cartons of table salt packets (separate from those for the field team’s culinary use) also had to be secured.

Regarding the collecting trays for the FITs, manufactured trays were unavailable, and so a brilliant female BRC office staff suggested using disposable aluminium baking trays. Surprisingly it turned out to be the best substitute for our purpose.

As a result, all available pieces of the usually limited-stock aluminium baking trays in Madang town were bought clean off. A shopping party had to be sent to Lae City to procure more of this important piece of our ‘entomological’ equipment, including other needed supplies unattainable in Madang.

The IBISCA Insect sampling methodologies

The insect sampling involved a number of protocol designs and methods to sample different insect groups.
This combined, simultaneous insect collection at the 8 sites was to take place over 16 days of continuous sampling without break.

A major factor that enabled this unprecedented, large-scale sampling was due to the availability and efforts of the well-trained Binatang Research Centre (BRC) research technicians, with valuable experience and expertise in field insect collecting.

The 5 main insect-catching methods employed in the survey included:

  • Flight Interception Traps or FITs,
  • Malaise traps,
  • Steiner traps,
  • Beating of the understorey vegetation, and
  • Insecticide Spraying on Tree barks.

Brief details of these 5 methods are outlined below.

For the 16-man BRC entomology team to master these various insect collecting methods, a training trip was undertaken into the Wanang Conservation Area in the Ramu lowlands where the team practised the methods at BRC’s remote Swire-Steamship Field Research Station for a few weeks.

The training was led by Dr. Yves Basset, an expatriate entomologist with decades of research experience in PNG with BRC, and a leading member of the IBISCA group.

Flight Interception Traps or FITs

As previously explained above, this rectangular plastic mesh material was stretched out between two poles stuck in the ground, with a plastic roof over it to protect from rain, and 3 aluminium trays containing salt and soapy water placed underneath the mesh on level ground to act as collecting trays.

This trap targeted flying insects that would normally drop downwards when they hit an obstacle, which would mainly be beetles.

Twenty of these FITs were set up at each elevational site, placed at least 50m apart and operated for 16 days, where trapped insects were collected each day and soapy water and salt replaced whenever needed.
Insects collected were stored into sealed plastic bags containing 90 percent alcohol for preservation.

Insert image ‘FIT 3200m’. Image Caption: “Flight Interception Trap setup in the field (Image: Maurice Leponce 2016)”

Malaise ‘Flying Insects’ Traps

This trap is an open tent-like structure with black fabric walls and a white roof, with one end of the roof having a small opening that leads into a collecting container partially filled with diluted alcohol.

The base of the trap is secured to the ground and its roof is suspended and stretched out using ropes to nearby trees or wooden poles. The trap is efficient in capturing flying insects like moths, butterflies, beetles, flies, bugs, and others.

The idea is that insects fly into the trap, land on the black wall and climb upwards (which is an instinctive behaviour in most insects) towards the white roof and into the opening and fall inside the collecting container, which is later removed to collect the insects and replaced with fresh alcohol for further collecting.

It is similar in principle to the FITs but instead of collecting insects that drop-down, it encourages them to climb upwards, and looking for an opening to escape, fall into the collecting container hanging outside one end of the roof.

This trap is mostly placed in openings or gaps in the forest floor where insects normally fly through, to optimize collecting effort.

An interesting disadvantage with using this trap in the PNG lowlands is due to Oecophylla or Weaver ants (Kurakum), who quickly learning about this contraption and possibly seeing it as a free meal-provider afforded to them by kindly humans, readily assemble in great numbers on the trap walls to pick off any unlucky insect that lands there.

They can also be found heavily concentrated around the opening in the roof and inside the collecting container to grab any insect before it falls into the alcohol. As a result of this, it is not uncommon to find that the traps may yield low numbers of insects in the collecting containers when checking the next day.

As an effective remedy against these shrewd ants, sticky insect glue is applied on the ropes connecting the trap to nearby trees or wooden poles, on the metal pegs that secure the trap walls to the ground, and basically on any pathway that the ants might take to enter the trap. The ants, again, quickly take note of this sticky obstacle, and focus their food-gathering attention elsewhere.

At each elevation site, 4 of these traps were setup and collected from over the 16-day sampling.

Malaise trap for catching insects
Malaise Trap setup in the field (Image credit: Maurice Leponce 2016)

Steiner traps

Steiner traps are small containers suspended horizontally about 1.5m off the ground to trap fruit flies. Their removable lids contain a small opening that allows the flies inside.

Within the container were placed 3 different scent lures to attract the flies, which resemble the mating scents of male flies, as well as fruit scents. Once inside the container, the flies are killed by a powerful insecticide also placed within.

These lures are very potent, as well as the insecticide, and so these were carefully handled using surgical gloves, since touching the lures with bare hands would invite annoying fruit flies onto your person the whole day, apart from the danger of ingesting the poisonous insecticide.

The traps were checked the next day and any flies found inside were collected over the 16 sampling days. Five of these traps were used at each elevation site.

steiner insect trap - mt wilhelm
Steiner Trap setup in the field (Image credit: Maurice Leponce 2016)

Beating of the understorey vegetation

This method involves the timed, physical beating of understorey vegetation with a stick over a white cloth spread out on a 1m X 1m frame, where insects dislodged from the vegetation and onto the cloth are collected after 5 minutes of beating.

This was done by walking in parallel, straight lines inside the 20m X 20m plots until all the plot area was covered in about 50 minutes.

This method collects various insects that are found in the understorey vegetation, including spiders, ants, beetles, and other groups. The collected insects were then stored in plastic packets containing alcohol.

The beating was undertaken in 5 plots per elevation site and done only once at each site.

beating - catch insects
Collecting from the cloth after beating (Image credit: Maurice Leponce 2016)

Insecticide Spraying on tree barks

This was done by spraying Mortein insecticide on a 2m X 1m area of bark on 12 large trees selected within the botany plots.

A yellow plastic sheet was placed below the sprayed area, and after a waiting period of 15 minutes, dead insects that had fallen onto the plastic sheet were collected and stored in plastic packets containing alcohol.

The method was carried out only once at each elevation site, particularly on dry, sunny days.

Bark spraying - collect insects
Carrying out Bark Spraying” (Image credit: Maurice Leponce 2016)

My team is to be stationed at 3700m

My two-man BRC team, which I would be in charge of, would be stationed right at the top of the Mt. Wilhelm Transect at 3700m at the base of PNG’s highest mountain, and the coldest and harshest working environments within the whole transect, from the viewpoint of a coastal person.

Not having previously been to and worked in that environment before, I mentally questioned why our Director, Professor Vojtech Novotny, would want to station me there during a major field project, but gladly welcomed the opportunity to experience this exciting new challenge and its alien environment.

I also secretly relished the idea of accomplishing my first ascent of the Mt. Wilhelm summit and looked forward to this expedition with enthusiasm.

Apart from my eagerness to be at this study location, the Mt. Wilhelm campsites of 3700m and 3200m were in an area known to be a hotspot for tourists scaling Mt. Wilhelm. Tales from colleagues who had been there before cautioned me of the difficulties they had experienced in dealing with some of the landowners and locals regarding land access and local assistant payments.

This was mostly due to the community there being used to the bigger amounts of money offered for guides, porters and other services by expatriate tourists who frequented the area to climb Mt. Wilhelm.

With these anecdotes in mind, I mentally looked forward to having a challenging time during the expedition, especially as this was a high-profile study with a lot more at stake, of which the landowning-communities were well aware of and also looked forward to with perhaps great and varying expectations.

Binatang Research Centre (BRC) Community Relationship

As a stance with Binatang Research Centre (BRC) in its dealings with local communities, reasonable, consistent, and consented amounts of payments are done to community members involved in its projects, in addition to valuable training offered to locals, and the promise of long-term partnerships.

Unlike tourists and other visitors who may appear for a few days, pay large amounts for services, and leave forever, BRC aims to develop sustainable cooperation with its field site communities to ensure enduring mutual benefits.

Despite all the stories I had heard, in gladly, a surprising contrast to my over-anticipation of the possible challenges awaiting me at Mt. Wilhelm, I had one of the best experiences of my life at camp 3700m with my field team and the community there. The only real hardships were the numbing cold during fieldwork and the impossibility of going outside to use the toilet in the freezing nights, as you will hear about later in another story.

3700 m camp - mt wilhelm png
Vegetation type and camp at 3700m (Image credit: Maurice Leponce 2016)