Discovery of New Species Highlights Conservation Need in Mekong Region

By Rachel Vandenbrink
cambodia-tailorbird-wwf-600.jpg The Cambodian Tailorbird, Orthotomus chaktomuk, a new bird species discovered in 2013.
Photo courtesy of James Eaton / Birdtour Asia

Scientists have discovered more than 360 new species in Southeast Asia’s Greater Mekong region in recent years—including a red-furred flying squirrel, a peculiar-looking bat, and a skydiving gecko—according to a report released Wednesday that highlights an urgent need for environmental conservation in the area.

In 2012 and 2013 scientists identified 367 new plant and animal species in the six-country region along the Mekong River, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said in a new report marking World Environment Day on Thursday.

The discoveries demonstrate that the biologically diverse region—which spans Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and southwest China—is on the frontier of scientific exploration, the "Mysterious Mekong" report said. 

But the unique species are under pressure from rampant wildlife trade, habitat loss, unsustainable forest use, and climate change, the WWF warned, urging regional countries to foster green economies and to protect the habitats that made the new discoveries possible.

“The species discoveries affirm the Greater Mekong as one of the world’s richest and most biodiverse regions,” Thomas Gray, manager of WWF-Greater Mekong’s species program said in a statement.

“If we’re to prevent these new species disappearing into extinction, and to keep alive the hope of finding other fascinating creatures in years to come, it’s critical that governments invest in conservation and green growth strategies,” he said.

Bizarre birds and beasts

The newly identified species included 290 plants and 77 animals, among them a number of bizarre creatures.

In Cambodia, scientists discovered an iridescent rainbow lizard, and a new warbler was found hiding in plain sight in the capital Phnom Penh.

In Laos, scientists identified a new species of flying squirrel based on a single animal collected from a bush meat market—in what is the first record of the genus from Southeast Asia.

Griffin’s leaf-nosed bat, or Hipposideros griffini, was named a new species in 2012. Photo courtesy of Vu Dinh Thong / Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources, Hanoi.
Griffin’s leaf-nosed bat, or Hipposideros griffini, was named a new species in 2012. Photo courtesy of Vu Dinh Thong / Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources, Hanoi.
A creature nicknamed “the hunch-bat of Vietnam” for its grotesque, fleshy nose and first seen on the country’s Cat Ba Island years ago was found to be a previously unknown species.

Also in Vietnam, scientists discovered a fish that mates head to head and found a new species of “flying” tree frog in a patch of forest surrounded by agricultural land.

Gray said the location where the frog species was found highlighted a need for conservation of lowland forests in the Greater Mekong region.

“Lowland tropical forests are among the most threatened habitats in the world due to human pressures, such as logging and degradation,” he said.  

“While Helen’s Tree Frog has only just been discovered, this species, like many others, is already under threat in its fast shrinking habitat.”

Since 1997, 2,077 new species have been newly identified in the region, which is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet and home to numerous endangered species.

But rapid unsustainable development—including poorly planned infrastructure, uncontrolled and non-transparent extractive activities, and agricultural expansion—as well as poaching are profoundly degrading the health of the region’s ecosystems, the WWF said.  

Warmer temperatures and extreme weather caused by climate change exacerbate the problem, it said, urging regional countries to foster sustainable forestry, alternatives land uses, and sustainable livelihoods.

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