February 15, 2006 — Two lost worlds were in the news last week. One was discovered halfway around the world, but the other is right here in Canada.
The first was a never-before examined patch of tropical rain forest deep in the heart of New Guinea. It’s likely one of the most biologically diverse areas on Earth, and it shows how little we really know about life on this planet.
An international team of scientists recently returned from the Foja Mountains of New Guinea having discovered 40 extremely rare mammals, including the golden-mantled tree kangaroo, which was thought to have been hunted to near extinction.
They also discovered four new butterfly species, a new bird species, 20 new frog species and many previously unknown plant species. Having never encountered humans, some of the creatures were so unafraid of people that researchers could simply pick them up off the ground.
That places such as this still exist is cause for hope. With well over 6 billion people on the planet and an insatiable appetite for resources, pristine places are becoming increasingly rare and species are disappearing at an alarming rate. Yet scientists have only studied a small percentage of life on Earth. Researchers estimate that there are literally millions of species out there that we have never examined and have no clue what they do in an ecosystem. As Oxford entomologist George McGavin points out: in a tropical rain forest, every second or third insect you pick up is probably unknown to science.
The other lost world in the news last week is also a remote and incredibly diverse rainforest — but this one is in Canada. British Columbia’s north and central coast, known as the Great Bear Rainforest, is unique; it is special and it contains creatures found nowhere else in the world. Most people know about the Kermode bears that live on this coast. They’re a white version of the black bear, found only in this area. And their differences extend to more than just fur colour: researchers are finding that they behave differently too.
A new agreement will protect Great Bear for future generations
Wolves of the Great Bear are also different — smaller, more agile and specially adapted to forage for the bounty of sea life found along the shore. Then there are the salmon, which researchers have found are vital to the health of the forests and many land-dwelling creatures. Hundreds of unique runs of salmon find their way back to the Great Bear every year to spawn.
The Great Bear Rainforest made international news last week because the B.C. government, along with First Nations, environmental groups and the forest industry, have drafted a plan to protect a portion of it. That’s good news for science and good news for the people who depend on the health of this ecosystem for their livelihoods.
The story is only partially complete, however, as discussions are still underway as to what kind of logging will take place in the parts of the Great Bear outside the protected areas. This is critical because unprotected areas make up more than 70 percent of the land base and contain the majority of salmon streams and much of the best wildlife habitat.
Scientists have only just begun to understand this magnificent region and all the life within it. The recent agreement, if combined with truly sustainable logging practices outside the protected areas, could keep this ecosystem functioning, allow economic activities such as tourism and logging to co-exist and give scientists a chance to understand more about Canada’s own lost world.
It’s an opportunity we would be foolish to pass up.