Science

Discovery of new species born to die

Damian Carrington

Amazing previously undocumented creatures found in the Greater Mekong area are under threat because of uncontrolled human expansion.

The Greater Mekong is one of the world's richest and most biodiverse regions — but it is under threat. (Reuters)

Several high-flying creatures, including giant flying frogs and squirrels and a parachute gecko, are among the hundreds of exotic new species recently discovered in the greater Mekong region in Southeast Asia.

A new eyeless spider and a fish that mates head to head are also highlighted in a report from the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) on the extraordinary biodiversity in the forests surrounding the Mekong River, which runs through Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and China, and is also home to about 325-million people.

The discovery of more than 300 new species of animals, fish and plants in the region in 2012-2013 comes as scientists revealed that human activities such as the destruction of habitats, hunting and the pollution of land and water have driven extinction rates to 1 000 times faster than the natural rate.

“Most species remain unknown to science and they likely face greater threats than the ones we do know,” said Professor Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University in North Carolina, United States, and who led the new study published in Science.

Without urgent action, he said, further rises in extinction rates are likely, heralding what many believe could become the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history. The discoveries in the Mekong region illustrate how, even as many species are dying out, new animals can be revealed, even in heavily populated areas.

On sale
The new species of red-and-white-furred flying squirrel was discovered on sale in a bush meat market in Laos. In Cambodia, a new tailorbird warbler was found hiding in plain sight in the capital Phnom Penh, during routine checks for avian flu.

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

Among the 21 new amphibian species discovered is Helen’s flying frog, discovered less than 100km from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

The huge green frog managed to evade biologists until recently by using its large, webbed hands and feet to glide between treetops and only coming down to breed in rain pools. It was found in a patch of forest surrounded by farmland, highlighting the urgent need for conservation.

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

Also discovered in Vietnam was a tiny new fish with a very complex anatomy, which includes having its sex organs just behind its mouth. As as a result, it mates head to head.

The new species of parachute gecko was discovered in the evergreen forest in western Thailand’s Kaeng Krachan National Park, which also hosts one of the world’s biggest tiger populations. The new spider, which has evolved to have no eyes as a result of living permanently without daylight in caves, was found in Laos.

Although nature reserves are critical, Pimm said many threatened animals lived outside them and called for citizen scientists to help conservationists to track the species. “Most species live outside protected areas, so understanding how their environments are changing is a vital task,” Pimm said. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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