New Guinea animals and plants | WWF
© Brent Stirton/Getty Images / WWF-UK

New Guinea animals and plants

from left to right: Victoria crowned pigeon (Goura victoria), Short-tailed spotted cuscus or spotted cuscus (Spilocuscus maculatus), unidentified orchid

Evolution runs amok

If you were asked to show on a world map the regions with the most biodiversity, your finger would probably end up pointing at the Amazon, the Congo Basin or the island of Borneo.

 rel= © Brent Stirton/Getty Images / WWF-UK

But on New Guinea, an island that represents no more than 1% of the world’s landmass, an array of extraordinary animals and plants have also flourished, such as tree kangaroos and birds of paradise.

Close to 10% of the world’s vertebrates are concentrated here, while 7% of the world’s higher (vascular) plants grow on the island’s productive soils.

The New Guinea Book of Records

On a walk through the forests of New Guinea, you may encounter the world’s largest pigeon (the Southern crowned pigeon, Goura scheepmakeri), smallest parrot (the red-breasted pygmy parrot, Micropsitta finschii) and the longest lizard (Salvadore's monitor lizard, Varanus salvadorii).

Sooner or later, the world’s largest butterfly (Queen Alexandra birdwing, Ornithoptera alexandrae) would flutter by. To recover, you would sit under the shadow of Araucaria (a conifer), at up to 70 m in height the tallest tropical trees on the planet.

A natural laboratory for new creatures

Such diversity doesn’t just happen. As tectonic plates have shifted and climates undergone dramatic changes, New Guinea has seen a wide range of starkly different ecosystems form. A diverse range of endemic species - plants and animals found nowhere else in the world – have had ample time to evolve and thrive.

The difference in the wildlife make-up between New Guinea and the neighbouring islands is striking. Just as amazing however are the differences between the separate mountain ranges of New Guinea. Some have been sufficiently isolated over time to give rise to species unique to that area.1

Biodiversity peaks and troughs

Species groups have their comfort zones. Take plants for example. In New Guinea, the greatest diversity is seen in lowland forests. For birds, it’s the opposite - diversity increases as we go up in altitude. Meanwhile, mammals are at their most diverse in lower montane forest (1,000 - 2,000 m). Insects generally reach their greatest diversity in the 500 - 1,500 m range, and declining above this.2

Biologically diverse, but for how long?

New Guinea's forest wildlife is fortunate in that the island has been spared the ecological abuse witnessed in the Congo and Amazon basins. At the local level however, species such as birds of paradise and tree kangaroos are often under pressure from humans.

A closer look at New Guinea animals and plants…

1 Flannery T. 1994. The Future Eaters. Reed New Holland. 432 pp.
2 WWF. Forests of New Guinea - Papua New Guinea - A Mega-diversity Hot Spot. Accessed 11/12/2005