In an age where humans have mapped the Earth’s surface in increasingly detailed resolution, it can be hard to imagine that there are still treasures out there to be unearthed, but a newly released report detailing the discovery of 224 new species in the Greater Mekong region shows us there are still mysteries awaiting us in the wilderness.
With a complex geological and climatic history, and home to an astonishing diversity of landscapes, the Mekong region is a hotspot of global biodiversity. This new list, compiled by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), is the latest contribution to an ongoing assessment of the region’s floral and faunal richness, a project that began in 1997. Altogether, the project has identified more than 3000 new species.
Let’s meet some of these new faces.
Fresh faces of the jungle
Among the species newly described by researchers are 155 plants, 16 fishes, 17 amphibians, 35 reptiles and a singular mammal – a new primate, dubbed the Popa langur.
Primate – Popa langur
The first evidence of this new langur species came not from the wild, but from genetic analysis of specimens housed in the Natural History Museum in the United Kingdom. With genetic evidence pointing to an undescribed species living in the Mount Popa region in central Myanmar, WWF and Flora and Fauna International researchers set out to track it down.
Camera traps delivered images of the stunning primate, revealing distinctive markings – broad white rings around its eyes, a crest of hair and forward-facing whiskers.
Even though it’s newly discovered, the species is already being considered for listing as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, with a suspected population size of only 200 to 250 individuals threatened by forest fragmentation and agricultural encroachment.
Cave fish – Kayahschistura lokalayensis
This cave-dwelling fish lacks colour, has extremely underdeveloped eyes and unusual pectoral fin rays. The fish is distinct enough to warrant the creation of entirely new genus, Kayahschistura.
The cave in which it was discovered sits in the catchment of a tributary of the Salween River, which is one of the few rivers in Asia untouched by large-scale dams. Its discovery highlights the importance of protecting the remaining free-flowing rivers, which are some of the most vulnerable habitats in the world.
Knobby newt – Tylotriton phukhaensis
Researchers discovered a thriving population of more than 50 of this new newt species, indicating a healthy and intact swamp habitat.
This is a promising sign amid encroaching human threats, with researchers saying that knobby newts can be used as an indicator species for assessing environmental health. The pristine state of the forest in which this new population was found makes it an excellent target for conservation.
Succulent bamboo – Laobambos calcareus
This bamboo species is the first documented case of succulence in bamboos. The volume of its stem can vary through the seasons, depending on water availability, allowing it to store reserves ahead of climatic shifts.
The species was first observed in the dry season, where it looked deflated and wrinkly. A subsequent visit during the rainy season showed the plant looking inflated and remarkably similar to bamboo. Researchers believe that, since it is a wild cousin of the widely used and economically important tropical bamboo species, further research could identify possibilities of making commercial bamboo in seasonally dry areas more climate-change resilient.
Stinkbug ginger plant – Amomum foetidum
It wasn’t just the jungles that yielded new species. A stroke of luck led to the discovery of this new plant species from the ginger family in a plant shop in north-eastern Thailand.
The new species has a pungent odour that has earned it the local moniker of “mang khang”, the Isan and Lao words for stinkbug.
What does this mean for conservation in the region?
These discoveries, while thrilling, are more than just additions to our encyclopaedia of life on Earth. They are a stark reminder that we have only scraped the surface of understanding the richness of the natural world. Many species go extinct before they are ever discovered, succumbing to habitat destruction, human-exacerbated spread of disease, predation and competition by invasive species, and the devastating impacts of the wildlife trade.
Professor Thomas Ziegler, adjunct professor at the Institute of Zoology, University of Cologne, believes that while broadening our knowledge of the diversity of this region is necessary, this knowledge on its own is insufficient. We need more boots on the ground to develop an understanding of the species’ ecological traits, distribution and population sizes if we’re going to make any headway on conservation.
“To record this treasure trove of biodiversity before it is completely lost, we must accelerate our work and strengthen international cooperation,” he says. “Studying the degree of endemism and existing threats is as important as the work of discovery. Unfortunately, for many species, these data are completely unknown, and we must build the capacity of young researchers to help fill these knowledge gaps.”
Ziegler advocates the adoption on the “One Plan Approach” supported by the IUCN, which incorporates both in-situ conservation efforts focused on protecting and restoring habitats, and ex-situ efforts that work to establish breeding populations and gene banks, often housed in facilities such as zoos, to safeguard populations in the case of habitat degradation.
He says that while total habitat protection would be the first choice in an ideal world, protective measures are often instigated too late to save threatened species. By establishing population “arks” in local facilities, much-needed extra time can be bought to ensure the protection of healthy habitats.
“In parallel, nature conservation in the wild is our ultimate goal, so that this ark has some land where it can dock later,” Ziegler says.
He says that reports such as this are important for opening our eyes to the diversity of the planet, which he describes of “a precious and limited gift”.
“We must all learn to be more careful and coexist with all the other creatures on our planet, instead of just exploiting and extirpating them,” he says. This is the most important conclusion of this report, which spotlights one of the world’s richest biodiversity hotspots and its desperate call for improved conservation.”