As a marine scientist and conservationist based in the global epicenter of marine biodiversity, new species discoveries are in fact a relatively regular occurrence in my line of work. Conservation International works closely with both the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) and local universities like the State University of Papua (UNIPA), as well as a core group of internationally-acclaimed taxonomic experts to conduct rapid biodiversity surveys in our focal regions. New species are a frequent "byproduct" of this work. The results of these surveys often highlight diversity "hotspots" and regions of high irreplaceability where we feel compelled to especially focus conservation efforts to maintain this special biodiversity and the important ecosystem functions that rely upon it. A new species discovery calls our attention to the area in which it was discovered, especially if there are multiple new species found in a given area, we might begin to suspect this is an area of high endemism and hence especially worthy of conservation efforts.
Today marked the online publication of the description of yet another 3 new coral reef fish species (fang blennies in the genus Meiacanthus) uncovered during CI-sponsored surveys in eastern Indonesia. This particular paper has special meaning to me, as my colleagues Dr. William Smith-Vaniz and Dr. Gerald Allen decided to name one of these species Meiacanthus erdmanni in my honor - as I had recently discovered this fish in September 2010 while surveying the deep reefs of Cendrawasih Bay in the Bird's Head Seascape of West Papua, Indonesia.
But perhaps more important to me, this publication is in fact but the latest in a string of 6 papers in the last few months by Indonesian and international scientists that describe an additional THIRTEEN (!) new species of marine life from the Bird's Head Seascape (LINK to the other descriptions?). Included in these new species are 3 endemic hard corals, 3 freshwater fishes, and 7 more coral reef fishes. Of the 14 new species described, eight appear to be found only in the Bird's Head region - thus providing even stronger verification of my oft-stated claim that this region is a true "species factory" and hence an absolute global priority for conservation efforts. Indeed, with these new species records, the Bird's Head region now boasts 1630 known coral reef fish species (over 40 of which appear to be endemic to the region) and over 600 hard coral species - firmly establishing this region as the global epicenter of shallow water marine biodiversity.
To give this perspective, this 185,000 km2 area is home to over ten times as many coral species as are found in the entire Caribbean Sea. Even within the vaunted "Coral Triangle" region, the Bird's Head stands by itself; while the Coral Triangle is delineated by those ecoregions supporting over 500 coral species, internationally-renowned coral scientists Dr. Charlie Veron, Emre Turak and Lyndon Devantier reckon the Bird's Head is the only region that reaches 600 species!
There is an incredible thrill in exploring the spectacular reefs of this region - the buzz that comes from finding a species new to science is hard to explain unless you're a fellow "fish geek" Over the past eight years of working for Conservation International, I've had the pleasure of working closely with a number of fantastic scientists from LIPI and UNIPA, while also being mentored by one of the most prolific ichthyologists of all time, Dr. Gerry Allen. Together we've discovered nearly 80 new fish species during this time - many from the Bird's Head. Right now Gerry is actually working furiously towards a self-imposed end-of-year deadline to publish our 3-volume book set "Reef Fishes of the East Indies" - which aims to comprehensively provide photographs and descriptions of ALL of the known reef fishes from the Coral Triangle region (which has never before been attempted!). We'll cover about 2700 fish species in the book - while also describing 26 new species in the process.
I recall as a sixth grader giving a speech to my class in which I bemoaned the fact that the golden age of the great naturalists (Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and their colleagues) had long passed, as my greatest wish was to explore exotic lands while trying to better understand Nature's secrets. Alas, I noted to my teacher, the world's biodiversity was disappearing and I'd just have to console myself reading about those great voyages of discovery back in the 1800's. Little did I know at the time, there are in fact still LOTS of mysteries in Nature to be explored and a wealth of biodiversity we haven't even imagined. Moreover, I've been blessed with a job that allows me to both seek out and work hard to protect some of this undescribed marine biodiversity so that it may continue to provide benefits to the people of Indonesia. Along the way I get to work with some of the most dedicated and passionate conservationists on the planet - our CI Indonesia marine staff - and that alone is even more satisfying than finding a new species...
Dr. Mark Erdmann is the Regional Coordinator of the Bird’s Head Seascape Initiative, Global Marine Division for Conservation International