Local explorer returns to Papua New Guinea

John Lane hopes to discover more new species

MODERN CAVE MAN<br>John Lane, an avid caver and adjunct science professor at Chico State, will return to Papua New Guinea at the end of the month.

John Lane, an avid caver and adjunct science professor at Chico State, will return to Papua New Guinea at the end of the month.

Photo courtesy of John Lane

John Lane doesn’t take trips, he plans expeditions. His latest obsession: the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea. He’s been there four times since 2006, the last one just six months ago, with his wife. This time she’ll stay behind with the kids while Lane ventures once again to the remote island, with the company of a few people from Chico State and a geologist friend from Colorado.

“John puts together some great expeditions, partly because of the unique ability that he has to be able to deal with adversity,” said Jim Reed, by phone from his home in Golden, Colo. “At the last minute there’s always some real big showstopper. But he’ll just jump right over them.”

Lane, principal scientist at Chico Environmental Science & Planning, is a little more modest, but it’s clear from the direct tone of his voice and the passion in his eyes that this is more than just a hobby—it’s a way of life. During this newest trip, which leaves June 29 and will last three weeks, Lane’s biggest goal is to find and trap a tree kangaroo. Sounds a little silly, but it could have a huge payoff.

Back in 2007, when he led a six-week expedition in the area, the team noted the existence of tree kangaroos on the island, along with new species of butterfly, frog, snake and fish. All their findings were compiled into a report submitted to the Nature Conservancy, among other groups. Recently, Lane said, he was told that not only was that tree kangaroo a surprising find, despite the island’s proximity to Australia, but it was likely a new species.

“Finding a new species of mammal—that’s where the publicity comes from,” Lane said. “And it makes you wonder—what else could we find out here? We could even make first contact with other people in those forests.”

If his team is able to capture a tree kangaroo and gather DNA, his project to help preserve the area from loggers and palm-oil encroachment could reach epic proportions. His previous ventures, to Borneo and Sumatra, have yielded everything from getting the areas preserved to creating national-park status. He works primarily with the Nature Conservancy and the United Nations Development Programme.

He’s received some grants, including one from the International Foundation, but has also gotten funding locally from Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and Fred Hargesheimer of Nevada City, the man who sparked Lane’s interest in the area back in 2006.

CUTE LITTLE GUY<br> John Lane and his team discovered this tree kangaroo in Papua New Guinea in 2007. Now scientists think it could be a whole new species, so he’s returning to gather DNA evidence.

Photo courtesy of john lane

Hargesheimer’s plane had gone down on New Britain decades before and he hoped to locate it. The region Lane and his crew have studied—including a lake and a volcano crater—have been named “Hargy” after the man who lived with the indigenous people until he was well enough to return home.

Beyond finding a tree kangaroo, Lane has two other objectives for this short trip: to discover more species of butterflies, as “butterflies really indicate the health and diversity of an ecosystem,” he said; and to delve deeper into the untouched wilderness and explore more caves—one of his main passions.

Reed explained exploring New Britain as an opportunity to “go back in time.” He related it to the city of Guilin, China, with its unique mountains jutting from the landscape, as both cities are built on a bed of limestone. New Britain also has countless volcanoes, which have formed coral beds surrounding their mouths.

“This is Guilin 2 to 10 million years ago,” Reed said.

Lane suggested that local myths pointed to the possibility of modern-day pterodactyls living in the rainforests. While he’s not optimistic, he’s not quick to rule the possibility out. These regions have never been studied before.

One of the touchy subjects Lane and his cohorts—among his companions Chico State professors Don Miller, a butterfly specialist, and Randy Senock, who will study forest density—are faced with is the implications of their findings. On the one hand, exploring this area will likely lead to future expeditions by other groups. The tradeoff, Reed said, is the preservation of the area from logging and other ecological hazards.

In January, Lane described for the CN&R what it’s like to go where no man has gone before: “People say it’s like walking on the moon—but people have done that. So, it’s not like walking on the moon.”

Reed, whose main objective on this trip is to figure out the geology of the island—how it came to be and what it will become—described the feeling similarly.

“In 2007, we hiked up to a volcano and we got up to the rim,” described Reed. “We were standing there with one of the tribal chiefs and I asked him, ‘Did you ever hear any stories from your grandfather of anyone ever going into this caldera [volcano cave]?’ He said, ‘No.’ How many places can you say that about on this planet?

“Of course there’s the whole Star Trek thing. But until you’re actually there, realizing that you are the first person to ever be in this place—I was surprised at my emotional response. I thought: This is worth dying for.”