After months of planning, it's now time to begin the search for Malaita's unknown mammals in the mountains of East Kwaio.
The Solomon Islands chain is close enough to New Guinea that mammals have managed to cross the ocean divides and colonize a number of times. However, it is also far enough away that the majority have evolved into fascinating species found nowhere else on earth. The diversity of wildlife these islands support is greater than that found in the Galapagos, so there is opportunity to learn a great deal about the evolution of life and also discover new species.
Most islands in the Solomon archipelago (except Malaita and Makira) support at least one, or even up to three native species of rodent. They are the only mammals other than bats that have spread here naturally and are closely related to some of the species found in New Guinea and Australia. Here, isolated in an environment with no competition, they have evolved into spectacular giant rats, the largest of which reach over a kilogram in size.
I've headed to the East Kwaio region of Malaita for the survey, partly because of people's knowledge of a rat here known as kwete. There are accounts from early historians of "a monster rat that cracks coconuts" living on Malaita. However, until today noone has managed to determine which species this monster actually is. Many believed it was probably already extinct, but recent sightings have provided some hope that it may survive. If it does, it is almost certainly a mammal new to science.
Kwaio people are infamous throughout the Solomon Islands and often referred to with a great deal of mystique. Many have refused to convert to Christianity and instead still follow traditional 'kastom' religion. When I mention to other Solomon Islanders that I'm working with the Kwaio they're often quite surprised. Frequently I'm told "they're wild people", "they carry huge knives", and "they live in mountains and don't use clothes". It's enough to make people reconsider coming here. In truth of course, the people here are warm, friendly and extremely hospitable. The fact the Kwaio continue to practice aspects of their kastom and pre-European religion is instead something that should be admired. I'm lucky enough to be working with Chief Esau Kekeubata and Tommy Esau, two generations of Kwaio leaders that are guiding me to Kwainaa'isi in the mountains at approximately 900m above sea level.
We begin our hike into the mountains mid morning and as we leave the coastline it immediately becomes difficult. This isn't unusual, most islands rise quite sharply out of the sea and the fertile volcanic slopes are a great location for village gardens. The combination of a slippery climb, lack of shade and extreme humidity are a wake up call to the field work ahead.
Finally, after seven hours we reached Kwainaa'isi, our base for the first leg of the survey. It's cold up here and the beginnings of cloud forest are apparent - mossy trees, mist and fog. Surrounding us is a patchwork of forest, small gardens and village hamlets, all customary land. It means that the most important part this work is to "sidaun and stori fastaem". This means simply to take some time to stay with people, find out who they are, and tell them about yourself and your work before you actually get into it. Ultimately, it often means coming to a realisation that you know nothing about the place you're in. In the few days I've been here at Kwainaa'isi I've feasted on pig, sweet potato and taro cooked in a motu (a hot stone ground oven), joined a binu binu (cultural dance), and witnessed a Kwaio bride price ceremony. So this process certainly has its benefits!
From here we will head to the highest peak - Mt Tolobusu. Malaita holds the densest human population in the Solomon Islands and I'm hoping that the less populated higher peaks may be the best place to find a giant rat or monkey-faced bat. We have some good leads but these animals are rare so it will be challenging to find them.
Tyrone Lavery, AMRI
Dr Tyrone Lavery from the University of Queensland is the inaugural recipient of the Australian Museum Research Institute's Expedition Fellowship for 2015/16. Tyrone is playing a large part in AMRI's presence in the Solomon Islands over the coming months, where ground-breaking research on native mammal populations will take place. Tyrone's area of specialty is exotic bats and rats, hence his important role in the Australian Museum's Solomon Island Expedition. Tyrone will be providing periodic updates on his involvement in this research expedition, which can be followed through our AMRI Blog feed.