An international project combines community ecology, phylogenetics & morphology to uncover and describe the cryptic species of Mount Wilhelm, the highest mountain of Papua New Guinea. Hundreds of New Guinean flightless mammals have been sampled – visiting researcher František Vejmělka tells us more.

To answer major questions of community ecology – that is, factors that influence a community’s biodiversity, the distribution and abundance of a species – do we use genetic or morphological techniques? The answer is: both. In 2019, I spent six months in the remote rainforests and mountains of Papua New Guinea collecting data for my PhD focused on community ecology. Trapping non-volant (flightless) mammals along the highest mountain of the country, Mt. Wilhelm (4509 metres high), I sampled several hundred individuals. This complete elevational gradient, spanning from the lowlands up to 3700 meters, was established and is maintained by the New Guinean Binatang Research Centre led by Czech Professor Vojtěch Novotný.

This project involved trapping non-volant (flightless) mammals along the highest mountain of the country, Mt. Wilhelm (4509 metres tall), Papua New Guinea.

This project involved trapping non-volant (flightless) mammals along the highest mountain of the country, Mt. Wilhelm (4509 metres high), Papua New Guinea.

Image: František Vejmělka

After the fieldwork, I decided to barcode (genetically determine) each sampled individual, so I conducted molecular research at the Institute of Evolutionary Science of Montpellier (southern France). These studies shed light on the phylogenies (trees of life) of the unexpectedly rich mammalian communities from Mount Wilhelm. Interestingly, the results also demonstrated that when we base our findings on in-field morphology only, we greatly underestimate the number of local species, and we found that elevation is a key parameter of the Mount Wilhelm mammal speciation. The species that we morphologically considered united at that time are substantially divergent genetically. Among the most astonishing results is that most of the newly identified species were not only cryptic, but actually overlooked.

Strengthened by these results, I headed off from my University of South Bohemia in the Czech Republic to the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI) which hosts a formidable collection of mammals from the New Guinean region. Co-operating with world-leading experts on the mammals from the region – Chief Scientist and Director of AMRI, Professor Kristofer Helgen and my French colleague, Dr. Pierre-Henri Fabre – we started to search for previously overlooked morphological features of these newly revealed species. Currently undertaking collections-based research at AMRI, I am happy to report that the project is progressing well.

Morphological measurements in the AMRI lab.
Morphological measurements in the AMRI lab. Image: František Vejmělka
© František Vejmělka

The goal of this research combining community ecology, phylogenetics, and morphology, is to uncover and describe the species from the New Guinean region, and document both their evolution, relationships, ecology, and eco-morphological diversity. This will help us to precisely identify and describe the species co-occurring in the poorly known mammalian communities from Mount Wilhelm. The knowledge of the number of species and how they are distributed along this altitudinal gradient may ultimately help in protecting these populations against mining and overlogging this remarkable and species rich area.

František Vejmělka, PhD candidate at the university of South Bohemia, Faculty of Science; Research Assistant at Biology centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Laboratory of Tropical Ecology; and AMRI Visiting Travel Fellowship recipient, 2021/22.