The Timor-Leste expedition
The expedition aimed to provide information about the species of animals present in Timor-Leste to assist in developing a Protected Area Network, regions set aside primarily for nature and biodiversity conservation.
In 2012, the Australian Museum undertook a survey of the biodiversity and conservation of Timor-Leste, the first combined terrestrial and marine expedition ever to the country and one of the largest scientific expeditions organised by the Australian Museum in its almost 170 years of history.
In November 2011, two Australian Museum scientists and a museum associate conducted a scouting trip to identify specific areas for us to take specimens and to speak with relevant authorities and partners. A first expedition group departed for Timor to conduct the terrestrial portion of the survey in May 2012. The marine survey followed suit in September 2012 to study the biodiversity in marine habitats.
Timor is the second largest island in a group within this archipelago known as Wallacea, which is the transitional zone between the Australian and Southeast Asian regions. By studying Timor’s animal life, we hope to discover some fascinating insights into the origins of some Australian animal groups.
Australia’s near neighbour Timor-Leste (also known as East Timor) is an emerging nation of biological mystery that excites the minds of many Museum scientists.
‘Timor-Leste is a fascinating and unique place’, said entomologist Chris Reid, who recently returned from a scouting survey of Timor-Leste with malacologist Frank Köhler.
‘Timor’s mountains reach almost 3000 metres, the climate is monsoonal and the main natural vegetation is dry woodland – including three native species of Eucalyptus – but there are also some areas of rainforest’, Chris said.
In a two-week whirlwind trip, Chris and Frank identified areas for further sampling and began the important process of engaging with local people and authorities.
Natural habitats across the country are patchy and isolated as a result of human land uses, the rugged terrain and a varied climate.
‘Just as patchy is our knowledge of the fauna’, Chris said. ‘A few groups, like the reptiles and amphibians, have recently been studied, but there has never been a systematic biological survey of Timor-Leste.’
All that is about to change with two major biological surveys – one terrestrial, the other marine – scheduled for 2012. The expedition has been made possible by a generous private donation to the Australian Museum Foundation.
‘Timor-Leste is evaluating its system of protected areas for biodiversity’, Frank said. ‘Both the terrestrial and marine surveys will answer questions about biodiversity and provide crucial data for identifying new areas that may need to be conserved.’
The Museum’s Dr Lauren Hughes agrees and will travel to the island later this year as one of ten Museum scientists for the marine survey.
‘The seas surrounding Timor are part of a mega-diverse coral triangle, with deep onshore coral reefs teeming with unexplored sea life’, Lauren said. ‘While the survey team expects to find many specimens – and new species – for the Museum’s collection, the results will also help answer important scientific questions.
‘We want to know the origins of Timor-Leste’s fauna – Asian, Australian or other – and whether it’s old or new compared to other islands in the archipelago’, Lauren said.
The first survey is scheduled for May and excitement is buzzing in the corridors and laboratories of the Museum’s Collections & Research Building. ‘We’ve been planning this survey for months now and can’t wait to see what’s out there’, Lauren said. ‘Let the Australian Museum Expedition to Timor-Leste begin!’
By Brendan Atkins.
This story was first published in Explore 34(2) pp 22–23.