A rainbow-headed snake resembling David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character, a dragon-like lizard and a newt that looks like a Klingon from the movie Star Trek.
These are three of the 163 new species found in the Greater Mekong region crawling in caves, flying through rainforest canopies and growing deep within remote jungles – according to a report released recently by World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
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As the Mekong River snakes its way through South-East Asia, it passes through some of the most biodiverse land on earth. From its origins in China’s Tibetan Plateau to Southern Vietnam where it empties into the South China Sea, the river acts as the backbone of a region where the wildlife is as diverse as the 300 million people that call it home.
The report, Species Oddity (alluding to Bowie’s landmark song Space Oddity), documents the work of hundreds of scientists who discovered nine amphibians, 11 fish, 14 reptiles, 126 plants and three mammals in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
Between 1997 and 2015 there have been 2,409 new species described here. With an average of two new species being identified every week, there’s no telling what is waiting to be found.
“The Greater Mekong region is a magnet for the world’s conservation scientists because of the incredible diversity of species that continue to be discovered here,” said Jimmy Borah, Wildlife Programme Manager for WWF-Greater Mekong.
“These scientists know they are racing against time to ensure that these newly discovered species are protected.”
• A rainbow-headed snake, Parafimbrios lao, that has been likened to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character. It was found among steep limestone cliffs in Northern Laos.
• The Phuket Horned Tree Agamid, Acanthosaura phuketensis, is a lizard with a fearsome set of horns. It was found at the little remaining forests at Phuket island, Thailand. It is threatened by rapid habitat loss and collection for the pet trade.
• A rare banana species discovered in Northern Thailand, Musa nanensis, is already considered critically endangered due to increasing deforestation. However, the recent discovery of another small population has given researchers hope for the species.
• A new frog species from Cambodia and Vietnam, Leptolalax isos, has a name that is about as long as its body. At 3cm, this tiny amphibian is threatened by logging, expansion of plantations and hydroelectric projects.
• A newt discovered in Thailand’s Chiang Rai Province, Tylototriton anguliceps, has stunning red and black markings that resemble a Klingon from the movie Star Trek (top image). Its porous skin makes it especially sensitive to pesticides, the main threat alongside deforestation of its habitat.
• A gecko discovered in the remote limestone mountains of Laos by a team of scientists who often had to rely on water dripping off stalactites in caves. Gekko bonkowski is believed to hold the key to understanding lizard evolution in the mountains between Laos and Vietnam.
• A plant from the Chin Hills of North-Western Myanmar has two petal coverings (sepals) resembling mouse ears. Discovered on Mount Victoria, Impatiens kingdon-wardii is a reminder that Myanmar’s rich biodiversity needs protection as the country rapidly opens up to development.
• A bat, Murina kontumensis, found in the Central Highlands of Vietnam with thick and woolly fur on its head and forearms.
As scientists celebrate the new species discovered in the the Greater Mekong region, there’s bad news too.
The area is under intense development pressure from mines to roads to dams, threatening natural landscapes and species.
Construction is well underway on the Don Sahong Dam in Laos, a project that could spell disaster on the last Mekong dolphins and the millions of people depending on the river’s fisheries. The dolphin population in Laos was declared functionally extinct in 2016, mostly due to gillnet fishing.
An even more direct threat to these species is the multi-billion dollar illegal wildlife trade.
“Many collectors are willing to pay thousands of dollars or more for the rarest, most unique and most endangered species, often buying them at the region’s illegal wildlife markets,” said Jimmy Borah, Wildlife Programme Manager for WWF-Greater Mekong.
WWF recently launched an ambitious project to disrupt the trade by closing down the biggest markets in the Greater Mekong region.
WWF’s recent Living Planet Report found that by 2020, global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles could have declined by two-thirds in just 50 years.
But these snakes, lizards and bats are more than just new species, they serve as reminders that there is still much left to be explored and to understand on our planet.