Human-Biodiversity Interactions through time in Asia-Pacific.

Researchers: Dr Simon Haberle, Dr Janelle Stevenson, Prof Geoff Hope and Dr Andy Fairbairn

Palaeo-diversity in Asia-Pacific:
The Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (RSPAS) at the Australian National University is engaged in ongoing analysis of long-term ecosystem change within key biodiversity hotspots of the Pacific and Southeast Asian region. Currently we are developing a number of related projects focussed on our understanding of the nature of biodiversity change over time scales of decades to millennia within 6 key Biodiversity Hotspots in the Asia-Pacific region (Table 1). These projects use palaeoecological approaches to reconstruct vegetation change through time and are developing records at decadal resolution in order to address questions relevant to not only the life span of many species represented within these hotspots but also the people who exploit the resources found within these hotspots. The regions under investigation are under pressure from a range of human resource exploitation (Fig. 1) from ancient forest clearance for agriculture to recent deforestation for commercial logging and mining. The collaboration between palaeoecologists and archaeologists within the School has also fostered an interest in the long-term interactions between humans and the diverse ecosystems upon which they derive their livelihoods. Transfer of project outcomes to key organisations involved in on-the-ground management of these biodiversity hotspots (eg. Wildlife Conservation Society, Galapagos National Parks) provides an avenue to influence conservation strategies with these regions.

Fig. 1. Key Biodiversity hotspots within areas considered by Myers et al. (2000) to be highly vulnerable (yellow dot) to human activity and within areas of low vulnerability (blue dot) to human activity.

Project Description:

Galápagos Islands
Human impact on arid lowland and moist upland forests of the Galápagos Islands. The Galápagos Islands are a National Park, UNESCO World Heritage site and a Biosphere Reserve. The islands lie within remote eastern Pacific Ocean and has long been thought to be one of the few locations that remained unaffected by humans prior to European discovery some 470 years ago. Since the arrival of Europeans the impact of human occupation on the native flora and fauna through burning, pastoralism and introduction of exotic species has resulted in dramatic reductions in native species abundance and diversity (Charles Darwin Foundation and World Wildlife Fund, 2002). In collaboration with the Dr Kathy Willis (Oxford University) we will apply archaeological and palaeoecological techniques over the next 3 years within the arid lowlands (Cerro Cowen, Santiago) and moist upland forests (upland bogs and peaty soils) of three islands in the Galápagos group (Santa Cruz, Santiago and Floreana) in order to confirm the age and origin of first human occupation and construct the history of human impact on the biodiversity of the Galápagos Islands.

New Caledonia
130,000 years of vegetation history in southwestern New Caledonia. New Caledonia is an area of high biodiversity and biogeographic interest due to its high level of plant endemism, particularly within the ancient conifer family, Araucariaceae. A combinaton of 3000 years of hman occupation (Stevenson, 2004) and a colonial legacy of nickel mining has increased the vulnerability of natural ecosystems to human activity (Myers et al., 2000). Lake Xere Wapo, in southwest New Caledonia, has the longest continuous terrestrial pollen record to be recovered from the tropical southwest Pacific and reveals a series of millennial scale changes in vegetation, over what is thought to be the last 130,000 years (Stevenson and Hope, 2005). The pollen record from Xero Wapo is currently being refined through additional dating and analysis of a further 8m of sediment core (total 19m) with a completion date of end 2006.

Papua New Guinea
Rainforest history and human interactions in the Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area (CMWMA), Papua New Guinea. The island of New Guinea contains the third largest expanse of rainforest on earth which supports an highly diverse range of subsistence strategies ranging from hunter-gatherer to intensive agriculture. The CMWMA was established in 1994 with support from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) as a cooperative venture between The Research and Conservation Foundation of PNG, local landowners, and government, and encompasses a region typifying the cultural and natural variability across the island. In collaboration with archaeological research into the antiquity of human occupation and resource exploitation in the region this project is investigating the last 15,000 years of vegetation change and human impact on the landscape at a crater lake, Aguai Ramata, surrounded by diverse lower montane/lowland rainforest. This project will intergrate archaeological and palaeoecological approaches to landscape change in order to address key questions such as; When did agriculture develop in lowland Papua New Guinea?; What are the environmental and biological constraints on subsistence change through time? Is there a relationship between biodiversity and human subsistence strategies?

High-resolution records of rainforest development in the Wet Tropics of northern Queensland, Australia. The Atherton Tablelands of northern Queensland contains part of Australia’s most significant expanse of tropical rainforest. Three key palaeoecological sites have been investigated at high-resolution (decadal resolution) through the last 15,000 years (Lake Barrine, Walker and Chen 1987; Lake Euramoo, Haberle, in press; Lynch’s Crater, Turney et al., 2004). All sites are located within or near the margins of the World Heritage Wet Tropics Bioregion of North East Queensland and record in detail the expansion of rainforest from glacial refugia onto the Atherton Tablelands during the Holocene. To address questions of rate of change, nature of rainforest development and the impact of fire and human activity on these environments there is an ongoing program of improving the sampling and chronological resolution at all these sites.

East Timor
Lake Ira Lalaro and the Conis Santana National Park, Lautém, East Timor.
The recent independence of East Timor (Timor Leste) has heightened international awareness of the need for conservation of the regions natural resources. A protected area network was established since 2002 between the East Timorese Government, the New South Wales (NSW) Government (Australia) and BirdLife International and efforts to assess the countries biodiversity has resulted in the proposal for a national park, the Conis Santana National Park in southeastern East Timor, that encompasses the regions largest lake (Ira Lalaro) and the greatest expanse of lowland tropical rainforest (Trainor et al., 2004). Archaeological investigations by researchers the Australian National University has established that the region also has immense cultural and historic significance with the site of Timor's earliest human habitation and cave painting considered to be thousands of years old. We are currently developing proposals to gain research funds for a long term landscape history of the proposed National Park, through palaeoecological research of Lake Ira Lalaro. The lake is of significant size, approximately 2200 ha, with seasonally fluctuating water levels under the influence of the Asian Monsoon, and potentially contains a long sediment record. Palynological and chronological research will contribute to our understanding of the influence of regional climate systems (monsoon) as well as people on the fragile environment.

Landscape and biodiversity change through time on Mount Pulag, Central Cordillera of Luzon, Philippines. Montane forests are changing rapidly in the Philippines due both to widespread clearance and in response to climate change. Yet we have no knowledge of the long term dynamics of these forests to assist with the management and conservation of these diverse and sensitive communities. This project will establish baseline conditions for a montane forest region in central Luzon, by analysing the changes it has undergone since the late Pleistocene. This will allow an assessment of the long term ability of these forests to withstand impacts, such as climate change, fire and evolving human activities through time, from the earliest hunter gathers and swidden cultivators in the more distance past up to the present day large scale clearance for cash crops. The project will focus on the area around Lake Ambulalakao in Mount Pulog National Park. The Mount Pulog region is the perfect location to undertake such a study as the mossy forest flora, with an endemicity rate of around fifty percent, has biogeographic relationships that are considered unique for the Philippines (Aguilar et al., 2000). However, this mountain landscape is increasingly being modified by large scale clearing for cash crops. The study will result in two valuable outcomes. Firstly it will provide important long term data for those charged with the management of these mountain landscapes. Secondly, it will produce the first long record of vegetation history from anywhere in the Philippine archipelago, a vastly understudied region of island Southeast Asia, making a significant regional contribution to the study of human impact and climate change in island Southeast Asia.

Local Partner Organisations
Funding (*pending)
Upland bogs and peaty soils, Galapagos Is
Galapagos National Parks
New Caledonia
Lake Xere Wapo, southwest New Caledonia
Institut de Recherche pour le Développement
Papua New Guinea
Aguai Ramata,Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area
Wildlife Conservation Society, The Research and Conservation Foundation of PNG
Lake Euramoo,Atherton Tablelands, Wet Tropics of northeast Queensland
Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service
East Timor
Lake Ira Lalaro, Conis Santana National Park
Timor-Leste Government
*National Geographic Society
Lake Ambulalakao, Mount Pulag, Central Cordillera of Luzon
Museum of Natural History, University of the Philippines
*National Geographic Society
Table 1. Locations currently funded or proposed for funding within the Key Group Project. Each project will provide data to the funding agencies and local partner organizations.


Aguilar, N. O., Lourdes, B. C. and Cajano, M. A. O. (2000) Spore and Seed Bearing Plants of the Mount Pulag, Benguet, Philippines. Museum of Natural History, University of the Philippines Los Banos College, Laguna, Philippines.

Charles Darwin Foundation and World Wildlife Fund (2002). A Biodiversity Vision for the Galapagos Islands. Ed. Bensted-Smith, R. CDF, Puerto Ayora, Galapagos.

Haberle, S.G. (accepted Jan 2005) A 21ka pollen record from Lake Euramoo, Wet Tropics of NE Queensland, Australia. Quaternary Research.

Myers, N. Mittermeier, R.A., Mittermeier, C.G., da Fonseca, G.A.B., and Kent, J. (2000) Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature 403, 853 – 858.

Stevenson, J. (2004) A late Holocene record of human impact from the southwest coast of New Caledonia. The Holocene 14, 888-898.

Stevenson, J and Hope, G. S. (accepted Jan 2005). A comparison of late Quaternary forest changes in New Caledonia and northeastern Australia. Quaternary Research.

Trainor, C. R., Santana, F., Xavier, A., do Santos, L. Xavier, F., and dos Santos, J. (2004) Status of globally threatened birds and internationally significant sites in Timor-Leste ( East Timor) based on rapid participatory biodiversity assessments. Report to BirdLife International – Asia Programme.

Turney, C.S.M., Kershaw, A.P., Clemens, S.C., Branch, N.. Moss, P.T., Fifield, L.K. (2004) Millennial and orbital variations of El Niño/Southern Oscillation and high-latitude climate in the last glacial period. Nature 428, 306-310.

Walker, D., and Chen, Y. (1987) Palynological light on tropical rainforest dynamics. Quaternary Science Reviews 6, 77-92.


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