George Weiblen is no stranger to braving the unknown. As part of his studies of biodiversity, he has spent nearly 20 years cataloging the diversity of life on the island of New Guinea — one of the last remaining tropical wilderness areas on the planet.
His team is mapping, measuring and identifying a quarter of a million trees in 100 acres of New Guinea rain forest. So far, they have recorded more than 400 different species. Here, he describes how the indigenous culture guides the cataloging of species.
“We have a field crew of 20 who map and measure hundreds of trees each day. Most of the crew are local landowners who speak an indigenous language known by fewer than 400 people. The language is rich in myths, names and traditional uses of plants, on which locals depend for subsistence.
The indigenous naming of trees is similar to our own system of biological classification — just as botanists assign plants to genus and species, Wanang people often combine a general name and a specific name for each type of plant. Prior to our study, none of this traditional knowledge had been recorded, so we attempt to match indigenous names with scientific names.
One of the plant species we discovered was new to science but not to the people of Wanang. Generations have boiled the leaves of this plant to produce a red dye that is applied to grass skirts. We named the species Ficus rubrivestimenta, or ‘the fig of red cloth’ in botanical Latin, to recognize its traditional use.”
Weiblen is currently a curator at the University of Minnesota Herbarium, a division of the Bell Museum of Natural History, and a professor in the Department of Plant Biology. His research is funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, Swire & Sons Pty. Ltd., and the Institute on the Environment.