Reed Magazine February 2005
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Brus Isua  
   
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It's what's for dinner: stewed greens from Ficus dammaropsis.

 
   
science in the village

A subsistence farmer with a sixth-grade education and five children, Brus had never met a professional biologist before. As is customary with visitors, he accompanied me as I surveyed the forest paths of Ohu for fig trees. It didn't take long to realize that Brus was a person with extraordinary curiosity and a sharp eye for natural history. We chatted in pidgin English, or "tok pisin," about fig trees. I pointed out how there are more species of figs in New Guinea than occur anywhere else on earth. I told him how very small wasps pollinate the figs, how each species of fig is pollinated by a unique species of wasp, and how they depend on each other for survival. As we counted the species, Brus described their local uses and named them in Amelé, a traditional language with just a few thousand speakers. The leaves of some species make excellent stewed greens, he told me. Another species is a source of bark cloth while others provide colorful dyes for grass skirts. Some fruits make a tasty snack when salted, yet others are sweet.

"Ficus pungens," I said.

"Epe-al," replied Brus.

To my amazement, each scientific name was matched by a different Amelé name for the plant. I had found a field assistant. Choosing to work with Brus was one of the best decisions I've ever made.

Within the year we had documented more than 60 different species of figs in Madang alone, and we had collected countless insects from their fruits. Many of the fig wasps that Brus found were new to science, and we sent them to experts around the world.

Brus learned how these wasps pollinate the fig flowers while laying their eggs, and how wasp larvae feed on the seeds inside of the fruit. Then one day he noticed some wasps inside a fig that looked like no other fig wasps he had seen before. He drew a picture showing how the antennae were long and curled instead of straight. Brus had just discovered a new genus! After consulting museum specimens, it came to light that Brus had made the first record of fig-inhabiting braconid wasps outside of South America. In honor of his discovery a new genus and species, Ficobracon brusi, was named after him. At the same time another fig wasp, Kradibia ohuensis, was named after Ohu village.

The fact that Brus and scientists across the globe have made such discoveries in the forest of Ohu is a source of pride in the community. With increased awareness of the uniqueness of their environment, the people of Ohu have created a reserve, the Ohu Conservation Area, to protect their biological resources for future generations. A pidgin sign at the entrance reads "tambu tru long bagarapim dispela hap bus," which means that "it is forbidden to damage this forest."

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Reed Magazine February

2005