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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Ancient Wonders of New Caledonia

One of the world's most botanically-important places, New Caledonia is struggling as a critically endangered environment. Many Pacific Islands are of relatively recent volcanic origin however New Caledonia is an ancient fragment of the Gondwana super-continent. When New Caledonia and New Zealand separated from Australia 85 million years ago and from one another 55 million years ago, isolation from the rest of the world’s continents made New Caledonia a treasure trove of the prehistoric Gondwanan forests. An amazing diversity of unique and extremely primitive plants and animals of Gondwanan origin are still found here. Some have become emblematic in local culture. Among them is a hen-sized, flightless bird, commonly-known as the Cagou or Kagu whose song and image are frequently seen as nationally-recognized symbols. Others include the Columnar or Cook's Pine, the Niaouli tree whose sap contains Gomenol, a camphor-smelling compound, used to treat head colds, and as an antiseptic. New Caledonia is home to a species of plant believed to be genetically close to the ancestor of all flowering plants, and has the largest number and diversity of conifer species in the world, unusual in that conifers are usually rare in tropical regions. High rainfall supports the rain forests and a more arid region is home to the now exceedingly-endangered New Caledonia dry forests. Extensive farming in the dry forest areas has caused these forest ecosystems to virtually disappear. The country is also home to important aquatic ecosystems, evolved in long isolation, and the rivers and streams are home to ancient and endemic species. The New Caledonia Barrier Reef is the second-largest coral reef in the world after Australia's Great Barrier Reef, and reaches out 930 miles (1,500 k).

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