Searching for Pekpek is a moving story about a rainforest biologist who pioneered studies in parts of Papua New Guinea which were too remote and rugged for most biologists to bother visiting. But Andrew Mack’s risks paid off in big rewards: not only in the research he produced, but in the vision of conservation he came to embrace and inspire.
Pekpek is a term the semi-nomadic Pawai’ia people use to describe the substance scientists refer to as “scat,” (more commonly known as feces). Go ahead, giggle. It’s okay, really. But if you’re unfamiliar with scatology, know this: these little packets of biological refuse are rife with revelatory information. They can help uncover things like an animal’s diet composition, the role of animals in dispersing seeds, and even hormone profiles and health conditions — and for this reason, biologists often go to great lengths to collect freshly deposited scats.
But let’s get back the Pawai’ia of Papua New Guinea… this people group occupies tribal lands within the area Mack focused his studies, which was largely centered on Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area. This conserved area is located roughly south of Goroka in central Papua New Guinea (which is the eastern half of the island of New Guinea — notably, the world’s second largest island). It’s an area of mature rainforest characterized by rivers, waterfalls, gorges, and rugged slopes coated in mud the likes of which most North Americans have never experienced. Mack wished to study cassowary scat in particular because these large forest birds, tall as a person, eat the fruits of rainforest trees and then disperse the tree’s seeds elsewhere. But where? And to what advantage to the tree? By studying where cassowaries ate individual fruits, which he painstakingly tagged with uniqie identifiers, where the birds eventually expelled the seeds, and where seedlings eventually grew Mack planned to answer questions about the evolutionary advantage to rainforest trees of producing fruits which depend upon these lumbering birds — seemingly left over from the age of dinosaurs — for dispersal. Continue reading