CSIRO's work in Papua New Guinea more than 50 years ago is now helping manage biodiversity in the Kokoda area, a place of high cultural and environmental significance.

The challenge

Understanding biodiversity

Kokoda is an area of cultural importance to many Australians, a place to experience some of the history of World War II. The Kokoda area is also a global hotspot for biodiversity, a place where nature has played out a rich and beautiful experiment in diversity.

The Kokoda Track and Owen Stanley Ranges were part of CSIRO’s land-use surveys in Papua New Guinea (PNG) during the 1950s and 1960s. As part of these surveys, many plant and animal specimens were collected in the region. These have since been housed at our natural history collections in Canberra, including the Australian National Herbarium, which is home to more than 200,000 plant specimens from PNG.

These specimens from PNG are an incredibly valuable resource for biodiversity research. They provide a record of the plants and animals that existed in the area that can be used to understand and care for PNG's biodiversity and manage its environment. But until recently this resource was not readily accessible to the people of PNG.

Herbarium sheet showing pressed and dried flowers and leaves of a rhododendron.

A rhododendron from Papua New Guinea, collected by CSIRO in 1961.  ©Australian National Herbarium

Our response

Providing specimen data to PNG

Focussing on specimens from the Kokoda Track and Owen Stanley Ranges, we began by trawling the Herbarium's PNG collection, ensuring specimens were correctly identified and capturing detailed information on name, collection date, location, altitude, habitat and more in the Herbarium's electronic specimen database.

There are many challenges in working with the PNG collection:

  • some of the older specimens have limited label data that excludes information now regarded as vital, such as latitude and longitude
  • identifying exactly where a specimen was collected can be made more difficult due to the complex and changing geography of PNG villages
  • many species are undescribed, making them difficult to identify
  • plants from the tropics are often fragile and difficult to handle in collections, due to having large, soft leaves that become crisp and brittle when dry.

We began with the Ericaceae, a group that includes showy plants like rhododendrons and is richly represented in the Kokoda area. We then added specimen data from birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians of the Australian National Wildlife Collection, and from butterflies, dragonflies and beetles of the Australian National Insect Collection.

In early 2016, we delivered the trove of specimen data to the PNG Government.

The results

Managing biodiversity in the Kokoda area

The biodiversity data we provided will be used to manage biodiversity conservation and tourism in this area. We'd like to continue the work by adding other plant groups from the Herbarium's PNG collection, such as ferns, figs and umbrella trees.

This work was funded by the Australian Department of the Environment to validate and provide biological collection data to the PNG Department of Environment and Conservation for inclusion in the PNG National Biodiversity Information System.

The Australian National Herbarium is part of the Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research, a joint venture between Parks Australia's Australian National Botanic Gardens and CSIRO.

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