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December 16, 2009

These hard-to-reach "plush toys" on Papua New Guinea have been outfitted with "Crittercams" for the first time. The breathtaking treetop footage is already solving tree kangaroo mysteries, researchers say.

© 2009 National Geographic

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High in the northern mountains on the island of New Guinea, in the cloud forest, lives an elusive animal found nowhere else in the world.

With an endearing face and thick fur, the Matschies tree kangaroos of Papua New Guinea are only found on the islands Huon peninsula, and, theyre endangered.

Threats include a growing human population and subsistence hunting. Tree kangaroos for a long time have been part of the local diet.

They are difficult to study because of the remoteness of their habitat, and, they spend most of their lives high in the rain forest canopy, 70 to 100 feet above the ground.

Just getting to their home isnt easy. First, the area is inaccessible by vehicle, so researchers need a small plane, landing on a bumpy air strip in the village of Yawan.

Then, its a 2-day hike through dense forest, up and down steep mountain ridges. Even once you get there, they are extremely difficult to find. Local hunters and trackers provide the critical skills to locate these elusive animals.

Dr. Lisa Dabek is Director of the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program based at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Shes studied this endangered marsupial for more than 20 years.

SOUNDBITE: Lisa Dabek, Director, WPZs Tree Kangaroo Conservation Pgm. Tree kangaroos spend most of their time high up in the trees, and we are not able to see what they are doing up there.

Thats why shes asked for the help of the National Geographic Crittercam.

SOUNDBITE: Lisa Dabek This Crittercam for the tree kangaroo is completely new. Weve been working with National Geographic for several years to try and find a way to have a small enough Crittercam to put on a tree kangaroo.

It takes a team of experts for this project: scientists, veterinarians, and the local hunters.

SOUNDBITE: Lisa Dabek These are the local landowners who used to hunt tree kangaroos, but now they are helping us with our research. So they are the best people to find the tree kangaroos in the forest. SOUNDBITE: Lisa Dabek Tree kangaroos really hide in the trees. You might be able to see the mosses on the trees are the very same color as the tree kangaroos themselves. And tree kangaroos tend to hide in the moss or they sit on the moss and you cant tell them apart. SOUNDBITE: Lisa Dabek They look like plush toys, up in the branches. But theyre very well adapted for the cloud forest, again with the thick fur, and they have long claws for climbing the trees, and they have their long tail for balancing themselves. But they can also leap down from the trees onto the ground and not hurt themselves.

When one is spotted, there are no tranquilizer darts or anaesthesia used. A hunter will climb the tree the kangaroo is on, and coax it to leap to the ground. Below, other hunters clear brush, and wait for the moment.

Papua New Guinean Gabriel Porolak handles the captured male. He is the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program Research Coordinator, and a key figure in the local preservation effort.

The captured animal is weighed and examined by veterinarian Carol Esson.

And then the Crittercam collar is fastened into place.

And then the animal is released. For the next few days the animal will have a new role- as a Crittercam videographer.

What the researchers found was more than they ever dreamed of seeing. SOUNDBITE: Lisa Dabek: Its way beyond my wildest imagination. It actually brought tears to my eyes. These animals go so high up in the trees. You cannot know what they do unless you have a camera on them, and now we can see that.

The Crittercam recorder is on a timer, so it records short segments at different times of the day.

Scratching.

Grooming

Eating

As he scales one old tree branch to another, you can see the lush vegetation mosses and orchids that serve as a smorgasbord--- some 90 different species of plants the tree kangaroo eats.

SOUNDBITE: Lisa Dabek, So you get this view all the way down to the ground, from probably 100 feet up. And then it was sunrise, it was about 6am or so, because thats when we think that they feed. And in fact, thats when we saw in the video that he was feeding. But then he looked out, and it was the sunrise which was amazing.

The team captured a 2nd kangaroo, this one a female theyve been tracking for 3 years, named Trish. And this time, she has a baby joey developing in her pouch.

When Trish was set free with the camera, she collected video from a female perspective, including one segment where she is seen cleaning her pouch.

SOUNDBITE: Lisa Dabek Dono, one of the landowners and hunters, he pointed to the video and said, Oh my gosh, thats one of the orchid species weve never known that species before. Now we can write that down as one of the animals food plants.

The forest where these tree kangaroos live is pristine, and it will hopefully stay that way, as the local population has agreed to set it aside as a Conservation Area. Dabek helped enlist the local population that she says is crucial to the efforts to save this species.

This first Crittercam tree kangaroo project was funded through the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants program.

SOUNDBITE: Lisa Dabek, This is an incredible tool. We can now see what the animals are eating up in the canopy, which we never could do before. We can see how theyre moving in the trees and at what time of day.

The project was a success for tree kangaroo research and also a crucial test for the new Crittercam. With this smaller system, Crittercam will be opening windows into the hidden lives of many new species.

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