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Interviews: Searching for the Poisonous Pitohui

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Interviews: Searching for the Poisonous Pitohui

Radio Expeditions

Interviews: Searching for the Poisonous Pitohui

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick with another National Geographic Radio Expeditions interview. This one by phone from far western New Guinea and a place there called the Bird's Head Peninsula. A scientist from Conservation International, Bruce Beehler, has been walking across the peninsula trying to solve the biological mystery of a poisonous bird. And he's been hoping to get help from a magic man, if he could find one willing to talk to him.

Bruce Beehler, welcome to DAY TO DAY. What is this bird and how poisonous is it?

Mr. BRUCE BEEHLER (Vice President of Pacific Programs for Conservation International): The bird is called a Pitohui. It's an oriole-like bird, about the size of the oriole and in black and orange, and lives only on this island, this great island of New Guinea. It lives in the foothills and the mountains.

And the remarkable thing about it is it carries in its feathers a kind of poison called homobatrachotoxin that is highly toxic, more toxic than strychnine. And it's exactly the same molecule in the feathers of this bird that is found in the poison dart frog of Venezuela.

So the big question scientifically when Jack Dumbacher discovered this poison bird and the poison in it was how does the bird and the frog both have this strange molecule living in its feathers or in its skin, protecting it?

CHADWICK: How does it become poisonous and what are the theories?

Mr. BEEHLER: Well, Jack - who's been working on this problem for about 20 years now - has discovered a tiny Melyrid beetle that also has this poison. And so I'm here with a small team from the State University of Papua and several other colleagues from the United States trying to track down where the beetle gets its poison. The bird gets the poison from the beetle and we think the beetle gets the poison from some plant in the forest here.

CHADWICK: And presumably, this beetle or something an awful lot like it and this plant, the identical thing must exist in Venezuela for this frog to get the poison?

Mr. BEEHLER: Well, that's what we're thinking. So we're thinking if we can get that answer here in New Guinea, we can also help move the discovery ahead in South America as well.

CHADWICK: And where does the magic man come in in all of this? who is the magic man, and how would he know?

Mr. BEEHLER: Well, you know, all through New Guinea - in fact, all through Indonesia, magic is very much alive and well. It's very much a part of life. Nobody dies a natural death here in New Guinea. Everyone is carried off this planet by some sort of magic or some sort of poison. So the magic man, he's the man who has a grip on this magic. And you go to him and work your magic if you want to get even with someone, if you want to get rid of someone, or you want someone to leave.

So it's the magic man who knows how to work that magic. And in this case, the magic is often a combination of some sort of mystical thing and something much more potent, like a poison. These beetles carry this medicine, and the magic man - we've been told - actually collect these beetles and use them in a potion to do black magic. So to find the right magic man is perhaps to find where the beetles are going to get their medicine.

CHADWICK: So were you able to find a magic man who would talk to you about this bird and what is it that makes it poisonous?

Mr. BEEHLER: Well, we're still tantalizingly on the cusp. We think we have a magic man in a village called Jing Tu(ph), which is about an hour's drive from here on the edge of the Arfak mountains. And we've been told this particular magic man does know the beetle and uses the beetle in his magic rituals. The question is can we get him to tell us where the beetle gets its poison?

So we still have not quite achieved our goal, but we're basically circling around it. In all the discussions we've had in probably 40 or 50 different villages in the last month, people have told us things and sometimes they've looked off into the distance and not told us things.

So we're working with colleagues here on the ground to work at that. And it's probably local Papuans here are better at getting this answer than I. So we're basically turning this research project over to the University here in Manokwari and having the students here finish this up in our absence.

CHADWICK: You're a naturalist, Bruce Beehler. You have a Ph.D. in biology, but you work most of the time in Washington, D.C. I just wonder how it is for you to be walking through the forest trying to talk to a magic man when most of your time would be spent in the canyons of the lobbyists in Washington, D.C., which is a different territory.

Mr. BEEHLER: Well, I think it's a remarkable split life, and I think I need both sides of those lives to exist a sort of satisfying and happy existence. I've been working here for 35 years, and really, it's like no other place on earth.

CHADWICK: Thirty-five years. What kinds of changes do you see, 35 years in a place so remote as New Guinea?

Mr. DUMBACHER: Well, you know, we went to two different mountain ranges on this trip. In the Arfaks we found remarkable changes, incredibly modern people accessible by road on a daily basis, people with modern housing - in some cases with electricity - people cutting down the forest, shooting the birds with BB guns and pellet guns - actually, from my viewpoint, quite a depressing sort of modern, Western society.

Luckily, we had another look at the Tamrau Mountains, just around the corner on the northern side of this peninsula. And there we found a wonderful forest that had not been cut, where the people were still very traditional, where they still respected their spirits in the mountains and where the birds still sang every morning. So in fact, we saw two sides of modernization: one where the people had chosen a Western path, and the other, in the Tamraus, where they're still holding on to their traditions in this modern day.

CHADWICK: Bruce Beehler is vice president of Pacific Programs for Conservation International, also a recipient of a grant from National Geographic's Expeditions Council, and he spoke with us from Manokwari. That's a port town in New Guinea. Bruce Beehler has been the subject of a Radio Expeditions interview earlier. You can find more on that, with pictures and maps of the remote region where he's looking for this rare, poisonous bird. That's at our Web site, npr.org.

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