PAPUA NEW GUINEA 2008

Dami
West New Britain Province
23-27 May 2008


Map showing location of Dami Research Station, West New Britain Province, PNG.
click to enlarge more localised map

At the end of the 2008 field trip Dave had been invited to Jakarta to a WHO conference and that provided me with the opportunity to accept a long-standing invitation to visit West New Britain, courtesy of an old friend Charles Dewhurst, senior entomologist at the Dami Research Station. Charles wanted me to present a talk on identification and conservation of New Britain snakes.

I had long wanted to visit New Britain (and its easterly neighbour New Ireland), part of the Bismarck Archipelago to the east of the New Guinea mainland, but since most of my fieldwork in PNG was centred around the medically important elapid snakes it had been hard to justify, since the Bismarcks are only home to one minor elapid, Müller's crowned snake (Aspidomorphus mulleri).

Accepting Charles' invitation I flew to Hoskins, a 1hour 20minute flight from Port Morsby, on the north coast of New Britain, to the east of the impressive and rather strange Willaumez Peninsula. This northward projecting strip of land encompasses Lake Dakataua at its tip, a lake supposedly home to a large crocodile population, something I would sadly not have time to investigate during my short sojourn in New Britain.

I did, however, hope to find a Bismarck ringed python (Bothrochilus boa) in the wild since it does not occur on the mainland of New Guinea and therefore was one of the few snakes to have eluded me since 1986. Charles assured me they were common.

Hoskins Airport, West New Britain. Air Nuiguini landing at Hoskins.
Willaumez Peninsula from Hoskins.

From Hoskins we drove southwest a short distance along the coastal road towards to Dami Research and Experimental Forestry Stations, passing a large road-killed Amethystine python (Morelia amethistina), the first of several DOR specimens I saw in my five days. Some of these snakes are killed on the roads but others are killed elsewhere and thrown onto the roads.

One of the problems Charles hoped I would address in my talk was conservation of beneficial snakes (most New Britain snakes since there is only one venomous terrestrial species). The oil palm industry is also at war with burgeoning populations of introduced rats within the plantations and they are desperate for a solution. This problem can at least partially be addressed in two words: Conserve Pythons!

A common but sad sight, a road-killed python,
Amethystine python, Morelia amethistina

I was to stay with Charles at his beachfront residence, where the first live herp I encountered was the introduced Cane toad (Rhinella marina). Charles is also at war with these creatures, although his methods might be called Medieval Scottish!

Charles' house on the beach - my base for the week.

Another challenge for me was to go through the accumulated frozen herps in the Dami Research Station freezer that Charles had been gathering ever since he first invited me to West New Britain over a year earlier.

Specimens in Dami Research Station collection:
Gekkonidae Geckos
Gehyra oceanica Oceanic gecko
Scincidae Skinks
Lamprolepis smaragdina Emerald tree skink
Agamidae Dragons
Hypsilurus cf. godeffroyi Godeffroy's angelhead
Varanidae Monitor lizards
Varanus indicus Mangrove monitor lizard
Typhlopidae Blindsnakes
Ramphotyphlops braminus Brahminy blindsnake
Ramphotyphlops flaviventer Yellow-bellied blindsnake
Pythonidae Pythons
Bothrochilus boa Bismarck ringed python
Morelia amethistina Amethystine python
Colubridae Typical snakes
Boiga irregularis Brown treesnake
Dendrelaphis punctulatus Common treesnake
Stegonotus cf. parvus New Britain ground snake
Natricidae Keelbacks
Tropidonophis dahlii New Britain keelback

The Bismarck pythons in were of particular interest, a group of neonates hatched from eggs at the station, one neonate had cannibalised its own sibling. Also of interest was the Yellow-bellied blindsnake (Ramphotyphlops flaviventer) as I am fascinated by rarely sighted fossorial reptiles.

 

PRESERVED SNAKES from DAMI
click on an image to enlarge
Bismarck ringed python, Bothrochilus boa, cannibalistic juvenile.
Yellow-bellied blindsnake,
Ramphotyphlops flaviventer

The wild diversity of invertebrate life also provided me with ample opportunities to use my Canon MP-E 65mm macrolens with its 5x life-size capabilities (up to 10x when I use a 2x convertor). I photographed the Palm plant hopper (Zophiuma lobulata) [Lophopidae], going through ecdysis at the Research Station, and both Green tree ants (Oecophylla smargdina) [Formicidae] and a Melanesian rhinoceros beetle (Scapanes australis) [Scarabaeidae] on Charles' verandah.

INSECTS from DAMI
click on an image to enlarge
Palm plant hopper, Zophiuma lobulata [Lophopidae]
Melanesian rhinoceros beetle, Scapanes australis [Scarabaeidae]
Green tree ant, Oecophylla smaragdina [Formicidae]

I made three fieldtrips in search of herps, accompanied on various occasions by a Catherine, a Kenyan entomologist, and two of Charles' men (Setet and Paul). The first two field excursions were into the oil palm plantations where we found only Mys' four-fingered skinks (Carlia mysi) and Solomons forest skinks (Sphenomorphus solomonis), and more cane toads. The third field trip was to a small cluster of coconut palms were Setet, Paul and I dug through several piles of coconut husks.

Oil palm plantation at Dami Research Station. Setet and Paul on coconut husk pile.

We found a large number of giant centipedes, more Solomons forest skinks, more toads, Papuan wringled frogs (Platymantis cf. papuensis), Pelagic geckos (Nactus cf. pelagicus) and two snakes, a New Guinea ground snake (Stegonotus cf. parvus) and a New Guinea ground boa (Candoia aspera schmidti)*. We did not find any Bismarck ringed pythons but I had the opportunity to photograph a local Amethystine python (Morelia amethistina) that Charles had rescued from destruction.

*At first I was expecting this latter specimen to be a representative of the Bismarck ground boa (Candoia aspera aspera) but its scale counts placed it within the mainland species. Since the only previous specimens of C.aspera aspera I have seen have come from New Ireland it is possible that subspecies is confined to New Ireland with New Britain home to the mainland subspecies.

 

FROGS from DAMI
click on an image to enlarge
Papuan wrinkled frog, Platymantis cf. papuensis

 

 

LIZARDS from DAMI
click on an image to enlarge
Pelagic gecko, Nactus cf. pelagicus
Mys' four-fingered skink, Carlia mysi
Solomons forest skink, Sphenomorphus solomonis

 

SNAKES from DAMI
click on an image to enlarge
New Britain ground snake, Stegonotus cf. parvus
New Guinea ground boa, Candoia aspera schmidti
Amethystine python, Morelia amethistina

My last complete day in West New Britain was devoted largely to the two talks I had been asked to present. In the morning I took the ground boa and the ground snake to a local school and spoke to the children about how beneficial snakes could be and why they should not be killed on sight (but at the same time were not to be played with). In the evening I presented a more indepth Keynote presentation to the New Guinea Oil Palm Association employees and their families at their Mosa Club, followed by a curry dinner.

The next day I flew back to Port Moresby, without seeing a live, wild Bismarck ringed python, and two days later I flew home to the UK.