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Expedition Discovers New Species in PNG


The island Bazimut, one of the many islands in the Madang Lagoon for which scientists have given local place names when describing new species. Anamixis bazimut is an amphipod described and named by Jim Thomas who collected the original specimen from the reefs of Bazimut. *All Photos Courtesy Jim Thomas

Annelids, amphipods, and mollusks…oh my!

While these creatures would be quite a mouthful for Dorothy, scientists view them as invaluable bio-indicators in coral reef systems, signaling the health and integrity of the reef, and they are found in great abundance in the Madang Lagoon, which is nestled along the remote north coast of Papua New Guinea.

This past month, a research team returned to the lagoon to conduct a current taxonomic assessment that can be compared to biodiversity levels recorded in the same spot 20 years earlier, as well as hunt for new species. A small team of 4 scientists and 2 graduate student researchers led by Professor James Thomas from Nova Southeastern University’s National Coral Reef Institute were embedded within a larger French expedition to the area under direction of Philippe Bouchet from the Natural History Museum in Paris. According to Thomas, the Madang Lagoon has the greatest diversity of marine species in the world that has been formally described, and the goal of the trip was to document any changes that may have occurred since it was last explored.


A new species of Leucothoe amphipod found living inside a sponge.

Back in 1990, Thomas received two seed grants from National Geographic for the original site work that lead to the discovery of the unusual levels of diversity in the lagoon. His initial goal was to establish diversity levels across the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). “Nobody thought there were reefs on the northern coast of New Guinea, because researchers assumed you needed shallow coastal areas for coral reefs to thrive,” Thomas explains. Nevertheless, the team began the census in the Madang Lagoon before heading to the northern tip of the GBR and was puzzled to discover an unprecedented amount of diversity right where they thought it wouldn’t be.


“In Madang, we went a half mile out off the leading edge of the active Australian Plate and were in 6000 meters of water. There were no shallow bays and lagoons typical of most coral reef environments. When we returned to our labs and began to formally assess our collections we found more species in our study organisms in this relatively small lagoon than the entire remainder of the Great Barrier Reef,” Thomas recalls. The vast array of species the team found in this first lagoon, which is a mere 3 by 14 kilometers, set a high benchmark for the rest of the expedition. This finding challenged the accepted theory of species radiation, and caused scientists to ask how this deeply branched diversity arrived in Madang Lagoon.


Another new species of an amphipod, Leucothoe, found living as a male-female pair the mantle cavity of a small clam, Lyocardium sp.

On the heels of his successful findings, Thomas continued his work cataloguing the lagoon’s species through a four-year funded program he established at the Smithsonian, which sent researchers from various disciplines back to the site. What resulted were numerous published scientific papers on one of the most detailed and diverse catalogue of tropical coral reef species ever recorded. Thomas explains that the team of researchers also eventually learned that the high biodiversity found in Madang was likely linked to the complex geology of the area rather than the biology. “What you have in northern New Guinea is layered accretions of old reef heaped up as the Australian tectonic plate moves northward colliding with other major and minor plates. It’s akin to many Noah’s arks crashing into the shoreline,” he explains.


A crinoid, or feather star echinoderm. Dr. Greg Rouse, Scripps, is studying the crinoids, graduate student Mindi Summers is investigating the commensal invertebrates that live crinoids.

And now his story has come full circle.

With news of World Bank-funded tuna canneries popping up alongside new mining operations in the lagoon, Thomas and his crew along with the French research team not only wanted to conduct a census to see what has changed in the past 20 years, but also to create a new baseline that the local landowners could use to track the effects these new industries might have on their reef. “This part of the world is a complex interweave of biology and sociology. The new mining operation is now dumping thousands of tons of mining waste into the Ramu River, the residue of which could end up in the Madang Lagoon. So the big worry is heavy metal accumulation and siltation,” Thomas explains. While Thomas’ team concentrated on previous research sites, the French group conducted comprehensive surveys of the entire reef system and surrounding deep waters, resulting in hundreds of new species records, many waiting to be confirmed as new to science.


Children from Riwo village run to wave at us as we pass by in our boat. Young children are given small outrigger canoes and are free to explore their island waters.

The research is no piece of cake due to logistics and local politics. From the Eastern US it’s a forty-four hour trip to reach the lagoon. Once the team arrives they must navigate local customs and landholdings. According to Thomas, everything in the country is owned. “You can’t just go out on a boat and dive, or you could be dynamited.” The three clans that own the Madang Lagoon require the team hire a boat, a captain, and an observer for each location. In addition, to help build strong relationships with the local landowners prior to the expedition, the French research team headed by Dr. Bouchet spent time conducting advance visits and meetings. As a result, Thomas goes on to explain that, on the whole, landowners appreciate the work the researchers are doing.


Mindi Summers, a PhD graduate student at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, showing local children her feather star specimens.

At the lab facilities located on the campus of The Divine Word University established near the Madang Lagoon, the researchers sort, photograph, classify, and analyze genetic information of all the species collected during the day’s dives. The researchers welcome local landowners and children to the lab area to work alongside them. Locals are encouraged to look through the microscopes, observe collected materials, and help process the samples. “Many who look at the teeming small things under the microscope had no idea such things were present on their reefs,” Thomas explains.

Now back in Australia and debriefing before returning stateside, the team has counted the expedition a success and is looking forward to bringing the unique story of the Madang Lagoon and its astounding biodiversity to the public eye.


Some of the team after a dive at Tab Island Reef. From left to right; Jim Thomas, Expedition Leader; our Riwo boat captain, Lasek; Greg Rouse; Mindi Summers


The Madang Research Team:

-James D. Thomas, Professor, Nova Southeastern University’s National Coral Reef Institute
-Greg Rouse, Professor, Scripps Institute of Oceanography
-Terry Gosliner, Provost & Director of Science & Collections, CA Academy of Science
-Matthew Jebb, Director, National Botanic Gardens, Dublin
-Ms. Mindi Summers, PhD Student working with Dr. Rouse
-Mrs. Stephanie Andringa, Masters Student working with Dr. Thomas


*Please contact Dr. James Thomas at Anamixis@hotmail.com for further information about the expedition and research on Madang Lagoon.


  1. Lina Pandihau
    February 17, 2013, 12:48 am

    Come on Kel Gomo, I hope you know what you are talking about. The PNG government has never invested in research or expedition of such extent, simply because they are too ignorant or are focusing too much on exploiting the natural resources. We still lack proper documentation and data on our biodiversity and I for one appreciate they effort and resources diverted into documenting and studying our marine resources, especially by foreign scientists. By the way, please be reminded that no one would want to cross breed such tiny marine invertebrates that are just discovered with unknown biology and ecology. It would require a lot of resources, time and technical procedures that is not worth investing as such creatures, though have ecological importance have no commercial value that is worth investing on. There are some genuine scientist out there, who are researching and making available data for us Papua New Guineans so please lets show some respect and appreciation for what they have done. Thumbs up to the expedition team for the job well done. Na yupla ol PNG, please maski toktok nating sapos yu no kilia gut long ol kain wok, yumi wokim yumi yet luk olsem fool.

  2. Morgan Knowles
    February 7, 2013, 5:28 pm

    Way to go Dr. T!!!!

  3. James Thomas
    New Zealand
    December 29, 2012, 4:44 am

    I would like to add that our small team of four scientists and two student researchers were part of a much larger expedition led and organized by Dr. Philippe Bouchet of France. Dr. Bouchet and his colleagues have organized a number of previous marine expeditions exploring the rich diversity to be found in tropical marine ecosystems. Their larger goal in Papua New Guinea included sampling a diverse variety of habitats including both terrestrial and marine.

    Scientists were deployed to the tops of the highest mountains, to coastal marine habitats, and into the deep ocean regions surrounding Papua New Guinea. You can follow their activities at:


    The chance to work with such a large and diverse group of scientists and investigators provided a unique synergy and illustrates how researchers from many different countries can unite under a common theme to benefit a countries resources and its peoples.

  4. Julian Owens
    December 27, 2012, 2:38 am

    Much like what I tell my 10 year old daughter who is a budding scientist herself, there is still so much in this world to be found and explored. Science is an ever evolving process. Never think that it’s all be discovered or found and nature will continue to surprise us. For so man other young children with hopes and dreams of exploring a science field, keep exploring, keep researching and keep discovering. We need you.

  5. Marc
    December 26, 2012, 2:37 am

    I am a lecture on the Divine Word University Madang an I and my colleges congratulation the expedition for the good work. We hope that the politician can see the richness of this country. And stoop the Ramu Nickal factory to pollute this bay with cobalt and nickel wastes. Witch started this year.

  6. James Thomas
    New Zealand
    December 24, 2012, 7:19 pm

    As the expedition leader I can assure all who read this blog that every precaution was taken to work with our local counterparts to secure access and pay compensation to all landowners of the Madang Lagoon. In their honor we have named a number of species for place names and individuals who have helped in the field. Many of the species we study may only occur in the Madang Lagoon. They were here long before modern peoples lived in the region. It is with respect and sincerity that we work in these waters. The responsibility to protect the native and endemic marine species in the Lagoon belongs to everyone, whether locals, visitors, or readers of this blog. These species have existed for millennia in this lagoon. We must assure their future survival.

  7. Kel Gomo
    Wambul Pena, Mt Hagen, PNG
    December 20, 2012, 7:02 am

    Pleasing to hear that there in my country are some species of Creatures are discovered and yet to discover but do what is right and legal to preserve them in its own habitat and don’t cross bread and make it a second native. People went there for some discovery purposes but they take some native plants and animals away with out the consent from local people or the government. Some are fake scientists who go there for other criminal reasons.