Friday, March 22, 2013

Papua New Guinea 6. New Britain

Off the northeastern coast of New Guinea lie the large islands of New Ireland and New Britain.  Some interesting palms had been found there by earlier explorers, and so I had wanted to go for years.  I finally got there in 1989, accompanied by my old friend Heinar Streimann and a couple of my students from the University of South Florida.  Though my main goals were thwarted by a combination of washed out roads, governmental red tape, bad weather, and the threat of a volcanic eruption, it turned out to be an interesting trip.

Flying by New Britain in 1972, I caught this glimpse of steam
rising from one of New Britain's volcanoes (Pago?)
The island is largely volcanic in origin, and several volcanoes are active.  An eruption in 1994 devastated the capital city of Rabaul.  One of the roads I had hoped to take had been blocked by volcano-related rock slides, so we were forced to work in a different part of the island.

We took an old logging road up into the central part of the island.  It was passable, but overgrown in parts by morning glory and other vines.  Logging roads are always sad reminders of forest destruction, but we managed to get into some decent forest.

Later, we wandered around on some other roads, apparently avoiding disaster without knowing it.  We found out from one of the local hotel owners that some tourists had been killed by a gang of thugs in the area we'd just toured only a week before.  Also there was an outbreak of Dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease somewhat nastier than malaria, in the area.  So we had also by dumb luck avoided the mosquito thugs of the area.

As always, most of the local residents were friendly and bemused by the strange antics of the pale-faced scientists.  We were even invited to a pig roast by a relative of one of our botanical assistants.  We were able to collect a couple of new palm species.  One I later named Ptychosperma hentyi, in honor of one of the long-time resident botanists, Ted Henty.  It was later moved to the genus Drymophloeus by one of my younger colleagues.  Unfortunately I don't seem to have gotten any decent photographs of this interesting palm which has very broad, fan-shaped leaflets. The other new species was a Heterospathe, which I named H. parviflora, for its very small flowers.
One of our assistants holds the leaf and infructescence of Heterospathe parviflora.

Along the way some other curiosities included a specimen of the odd gymnosperm genus Gnetum.  This is one of three genera of the order Gnetales, which is now known to be an offshoot of the Conifers.  The other two genera are Ephedra (source of the drug ephedrine) and Welwitschia, the strange dweller of southwestern African deserts that produces only two ribbon-like leaves during its lifetime.
A reproductive shoot rises from the
straggling stem of a Gnetum species.
This interesting inflorescence appears
be something in the Solanaceae.

A tiny Dendrobium, possibly a form of D. bracteosum.

The widespread Passiflora foetida was also common along
the logging road.

A load of oil palm fruit awaits pickup beside the highway.
Much of the lowland forest in New Britain has been
converted to oil plantations.
Children always greeted us with smiles and laughter.
We were forced to leave the island by heavy rainfall that was predicted to last a week or more, intrigued by what we had found, but disappointed that we hadn't been able to do more.

In a local village, a man prepares roofing panels from coconut
palm leaves.
Our camp along the logging road.  Heinar Streimann is in the center, Kathy Kuhlman at the far right.