Florida State University, Uthai Treesucon/AP
The Diatomyidae, or Laotian rock rat

More Than 1,000 New Species Found in Mekong Region Over Past Decade

December 17, 2008 07:25 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
A hot-pink millipede and the Laotian rock rat are among the species that have been found in the Greater Mekong River region of Southeast Asia.

Mekong a Hotbed for Biodiversity

The World Worldlife Fund says in a new report that at least 1,068 new species, including 519 plants, 279 fish, 88 frogs, 88 spiders, 46 lizards, 22 snakes, 15 mammals, four birds, four turtles, two salamanders and a toad, were discovered or newly identified from 1997 to 2007. Thousands of new invertebrates were also found during the same period.

Researchers now say that the survey, titled “First Contact in the Greater Mekong,” suggests that the Greater Mekong River region, which includes Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the southern Chinese province of Yunnan, is among the most biologically diverse places on the planet.

“This region is like what I read about as a child in the stories of Charles Darwin,” said Dr Thomas Ziegler, Curator at the Cologne Zoo, in a WWF press release. “It is a great feeling being in an unexplored area and to document its biodiversity for the first time … both enigmatic and beautiful,” he said.

Some of the recently discovered creatures include the dragon millipede, which is hot pink in color and produces cyanide; the Laotian rock rat, which scientists had thought had been extinct for 11 million years but was found in a local food market; and the Siamese Peninsula pit viper, which was found in the restaurant of a national park in Thailand.

But although new species pop up at a rapid pace—about two per week—the region is also seeing unprecedented economic development, and scientists may not have a lot of time to delve into its biological treasures.

“This poorly understood biodiversity is facing unprecedented pressure … for scientists, this means that almost every field survey yields new diversity, but documenting it is a race against time,” Raul Bain, a biodiversity specialist from New York’s American Museum of Natural History, said in WWF’s press release.

Background: New species, endangered species

The pygmy tarsier, one of the world’s tiniest and most unusual primates, was recently rediscovered after long being thought extinct. Scientists announced in November that they had trapped three of the animals, whose large eyes and ears invite comparisons to the creatures from the 1984 movie “Gremlins” or to the Furby electronic toys, on a mountain top in central Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Indonesia was also the site of another unusual find: the 2004 discovery of ancient bones and a skull belonging to hobbitlike “little people,” or what some scientists have dubbed Homo floresiensis. Skeptics, however, say that the bones belong to small humans deformed by genetic or pathological disorders.

In nearby New Zealand, researchers announced that while studying a rare and endangered penguin species, they discovered remains of the Waitaha penguin, a previously unknown penguin species that disappeared about 500 years ago. Research suggests that early humans on the island nation hunted the Waitaha to extinction in 1500.

Despite concerns about widespread extinction and endangerment, scientists continue to discover new species. A new species of snake, called the “Leptotyphlops carlae,” was found in Barbados this year. Scientists also discovered new species of fungus and dolphin in August alone.

Though scientists welcome new additions to the animal kingdom, they also continue to issue warnings about environmental threats to species. A five-year survey of 5,500 mammal species has found that one in four are in danger of extinction, about half are in decline and more than 1,100 face extinction.

Related Topics: The strangest creatures on earth

Many strange-looking creatures were discovered in the Mekong, but they have plenty of good company around the world, both on land and sea. The environmental site TreeHugger claims that the “weird” animals of the Earth are as important to the environment as the cuter, furrier variety. Unfortunately, they are also among the most endangered.

Though pygmy tarsiers may be about the size of mice, some mice have mutated into giant, carnivorous rodents. Last summer, scientists reported that common mice on the remote Gough Island in the Atlantic have mutated into giant rodents that are endangering rare seabirds by eating baby chicks at night.

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