Birds of paradise, biogeography and ecology in New Guinea: a review


Michael Heads Science Faculty, University of Goroka, PO Box 1078 Goroka, Papua New Guinea. E-mail:



The paper reviews the biogeography and ecology of New Guinea using the birds of paradise (Paradisaeidae) as an illustrative example.


New Guinea, the Moluccas, North-eastern Australia.


Panbiogeographic analysis (Craw et al., 1999).


The family Paradisaeidae is interpreted as the main New Guinea vicariant in Sibley & Ahlquist’s (1990) Corvinae. It has evolved mainly on the New Guinea orogen, extending, like the orogen, to the northern Moluccas and the Milne Bay islands, but not present north of it on Karkar Island or New Britain. Within the orogen, Vogelkop – Huon Peninsula disjunctions (1500 km) occur between putative sister species in Paradisaea, Astrapia and Parotia. Whatever taxonomic rank these affinities warrant, the biogeographic connection is inexplicable by ‘jump’ dispersal from the mainland, but is compatible with an accreted terrane model of New Guinea tectonics including massive lateral strike-slip movement. This would also account for many aspects of distribution of Paradisaeidae within the New Guinea highlands, and also disjunctions between Sulawesi and the Bismarck Archipelago in the related genus Artamus.

Main conclusions

Birds of paradise are sedentary forest dwellers with small home ranges and are tolerant of disturbance. It is suggested that populations have been caught in the dramatic geological uplift and downwarping of different parts of New Guinea. This has led to fragmentation and juxtaposition of ranges, and determined the altitudinal range of the taxa (including altitudinal ‘anomalies’). Areas of endemism in birds of paradise include Quaternary volcanoes. In New Guinea large areas have eventually been covered by lava flows of different volcanic phases, but the living communities, including local endemics, may remain more or less in situ by constantly colonizing younger flows from adjacent older flows. In this way older life can ‘float’ on younger stratigraphy. At least five, possibly six, of the fifteen genera in subfam. Paradisaeinae are known to occur in mangrove. The ancestors of Paradisaeidae and other New Guinea bird families such as Ptilonorhynchidae probably included birds of the mangrove, beach forest and coastal hinterland which have been stranded in central Australia following marine transgressions (Ptilonorhynchidae) and uplifted in New Guinea during the Tertiary orogeny (Ptilonorhynchidae and Paradisaeidae).