As the Mekong River snakes its way through Southeast Asia, it passes through some of the most biodiverse land on earth. From its origins in China’s Tibetan-Qinghai 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.1
2015 was another incredible year of discovery in the Greater Mekong. A rainbow-headed snake, a dragon-like lizard and a newt that looks like a Klingon from Star Trek were among the 163 new species that were found crawling in caves, flying through rainforest canopies and growing deep within remote jungles. In all, 9 amphibians, 11 fish, 14 reptiles, 126 plants and 3 mammals were described for the first time.
Naturally, scientists flock to the Greater Mekong every year to study these incredible ecosystems and to hopefully make new discoveries. Between 1997 and 2015 there have been 2,409 new species described here,2 adding to the over 430 mammal species, 800 reptiles and amphibians, 1,200 birds, 1,100 fish and 20,000 plant species already known to science. With an average of two new species being identified every week3, there’s no telling what is waiting to be found.
But it’s not all good news for wildlife in this part of the world. The region is under unprecedented development pressure, threatening the survival of the natural landscapes that make it so unique. Construction is well underway on the Don Sahong Dam in Laos, a project that could have disastrous effects on the last Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins and the millions of people depending on the river’s fisheries.4 The dolphin population in Laos was declared functionally extinct in 2016, mostly due to gillnet fishing.5 In Thailand, the proposed Mae Wong dam, presented as a solution to water management issues in Nakhon Sawan province, has the potential to irreparably damage one of Thailand’s most important forest and wetland ecosystems, which also happens to be a critically important tiger habitat.6
The Dawei Road project in Myanmar and Thailand is planned to cut through the Dawna Tenasserim Landscape, one of Southeast Asia’s largest, most intact forest ecosystems.7
Even more direct threats to these species are poaching for bushmeat and the multi-billion dollar illegal wildlife trade. Hundreds of snares can be set in a single night in the region’s dense forests and they do not discriminate among species.8 Many collectors are willing to pay thousands of dollars for the rarest, most unique and endangered species.
WWF’s most 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. The report shows how people are overpowering the planet for the first time in Earth’s history, threatening iconic species, including those in the Greater Mekong region, such as the Irrawaddy Dolphin and tiger.9The solutions proposed in the Living Planet Report echo the sentiments of the scientists who discovered these species: we must recognize the importance of global biodiversity and prioritize the protection of the ecosystems in which these threatened species live.
These snakes, lizards and bats are more than just new species, they serve as reminders that there is still much left to be explored on our planet. Alexandre Teynié, one of the discoverers of the snake species Parafimbrios lao, described the importance of these discoveries, saying “it is a small stepping stone to the living heritage of humanity. A small but bright spot for understanding the history of populations, the evolution of life, and a sense of humility before our ignorance.”10 If we are able to protect these vital landscapes and the biodiversity they hold, then we can ensure that generations to come will be able to make their own new discoveries and add to our collective understanding of the world around us.
Rainbow-headed snake native to Laos that some at WWF have likened to David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” character. 111th snake species recorded in the country. Distinct from close relatives because of the unique coloration pattern and different number of scale rows and upper teeth11.
On a particularly hot and humid night in the northern province of Luang Prabang in Laos, Alexandre Teynié and his team prepared for a long hike along the karst cliffs, waiting for the hour when reptile and insect activity would reach its peak. Along the way, they happened upon a snake perched on a mossy rock. “It did not look like something something known,” recalls Teynié. “We approached with shock, bringing to mind all known species in Asia that it may resemble, but there was no match!”
After studying the morphological characteristics of the snake, the team concluded that the closest relatives it could have are distant cousins in southern Laos, Vietnam, or China. Not only was this snake a new species, it was part of a whole new Genus: Parafimbrios.
Having a species known only in one locality can mean trouble for its survival chances. “The locality of Parafimbrios lao is already undergoing significant changes and destruction,” says Teynié. These rare, small-range species highlight the necessity of protecting vulnerable land in the region.
On a later expedition in a neighboring province of Laos, Teynié and his team happened upon another individual of Parafimbrios lao, extending the knowledge of the range of the species and giving more hope of its survival in the region. “If the spirit of the forest exists, it is at these times that one feels humbly crossed.”12
Lowland forest dwelling lizard species native to Phuket Island and the Phuket mountain range in Southwest Thailand. This medium-sized species is distinct from its mainland relatives based on unique coloration, placement and size of its many threatening-looking horns on it’s head and down its spine.13
The island of Phuket, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Southeast Asia, is generally not an area frequented by researchers. “The reptile fauna of Phuket has been ignored for many years by biologists because most of the forest cover of the island has been destroyed by human activities,” says conservation biologist Olivier Pauwels. However, the discovery of a seemingly-endemic diminutive gecko in 2004 drew Pauwels and his research team into the few remaining forest patches on the island in search of the undiscovered.
After two successful species discoveries of a tree viper in 2011 and a gecko in 2012, the team was thrilled to find Acanthosaura phuketensis, commonly known as the Phuket Horned Tree Agamid, hunting insects in a tree not far from their trail. Despite its long horns and crest giving it the appearance of a mini-dragon, it is completely harmless.
Habitat loss is a major threat to the species; according to Pauwels it appears to not be able to survive in degraded forests or plantations. Because of its beauty, it is also under threat of being exploited for the pet trade. “Ensuring the future of this species means to offer protection of the last patches of primary and mature secondary forests in the region and to control its possible exploitation for the pet trade,” says Pauwels.
He hopes that these new species discoveries will draw tourists to local organizations like the Phuket Marine Biological Center and the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, which offer alternatives to the traditional tourist activities of the island. “We are continuing research on the island hoping for more unique jewels of nature.”14
Medium-sized bat found in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Vietnam is home to some of the world’s highest species diversity within this family of bats, which are known for the thick and woolly fur on their heads and forearms.15
Dr. Nguyen Truong Son has made it his personal mission to expand knowledge of the Murina Genus of bats in both his home country of Vietnam and all of Southeast Asia. Although this bat probably won’t be competing in any beauty pageants, Dr. Nguyen stresses the importance that this species adds to an already highly diverse Genus.
He and his team worked through long nights in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, all in the hopes of being able to describe a new Murina species. “When we collected the first specimen of Murina kontumensis, the weather was so cold and wet, but I was happy because we had a new chance at discovering a new species,” he said. “We wanted to affirm the diversity of the Murina genus not only in Vietnam but also in the Southeast Asia region.”16
Habitat protection is key to the survival of bat species in the region because, according to Dr. Nguyen, each species of bat has adapted to very specific environmental conditions. Murina kontumensis has only been found in the adjacent area between primary and secondary forests in the Central Highlands, tying its fate to that of its home range. Discoveries like this help to clarify how the complex geography of countries like Vietnam can lead to such interesting biodiversity, especially when it comes to odd looking, furry bats!
Knowing there were only three newt species known to exist in Thailand was what originally drew Dr. Porrawee Pomchote and his team to Chiang Rai province in the northeast of the country. He began this research in 2007 and was only able to identify the subtle distinctions in taxonomy between the populations of newts in the regions after years of careful study, especially given the close proximity of their distributions.
With its striking red and black markings contrasting dramatically with the green of the surrounding landscape, these newts add to the list of unique amphibians found in Thailand. However, amphibians are especially sensitive to pesticides given their porous skin. Pesticide use and deforestation make up the main threats to Tylototriton anguliceps, according to Dr. Pomchote.
He remains optimistic, though, despite the threats faced by newts in Thailand. “It is rather lucky that nearly all newt populations in Thailand are distributed in many protected areas like national parks or wildlife sanctuaries. But I strongly support raising awareness of the incredible biodiversity of the region and the need to protect it.”18
Dr. Nguyen Quang Truong: expert species discoverer
What do this year’s newt, gekko and snake have in common? Dr. Nguyen Quang Truong was a member of each discovery team! Having been a part of 80 species discoveries in his career, we learned about some of his most interesting experiences:
How many species have you been involved in discovering?
Three genera, 80 new species, and one new subspecies.
Did you always expect this to be a part of your career?
When we do field research, we always expect to discover something new, but we didn't think that we would find such an amazing number of new species from the Lower Mekong Region, particularly in Vietnam and Laos.
What is the most interesting new species you and your teams have discovered?
Oreolalax sterlingae: Specimens of this species were found at 2900 meters above sea level, near the top of Fansipan Mountain in Vietnam, the highest peak in the Indochina region. Hundreds of studies have been conducted in this mountain but we have never seen this kind of animal, a small toad with hidden tympanum (hearing structures), a dorsum (back) with spiny warts, and flanks with white spots. This is also the first record of this genus from Vietnam so I traveled to China to check museum collections in Kunming and Chengdu.
What’s the strangest species discovery experience you’ve had?
Describing species based off road-kill specimens, such as Fimbrios smithi from Ke Bang National Park in Phong Nha and Calamaria concolor from Bach Ma National Park in Central Vietnam.
A rare banana species found in Northern Thailand. With a fluorescent red flower blossom and significant tiny flower structures differing from all other members of the banana family, only two small populations of the species have been discovered.19
You might not expect there to be such a thing as a “Banana Unit,” but that’s exactly what Dr. Sasivimon Swangpol and her team at Mahidol University in Bangkok call themselves. When they received a picture of a mysterious new wild banana species spotted in Nan Province in Thailand, the Banana Unit jumped into action.
Hiding out of view of the main road, a bright red flower contrasting dramatically against the green of the surrounding jungle was spotted by the team. With several unique floral characteristics compared to other banana species, they knew this was something new. “I have been working on the diversity of the banana family (Musaceae) in Thailand for 15 years and the discovery of the unique structure of this species changed the description of the whole family,” says Dr. Swangpol.
Unfortunately, the province where the individual plants were found has seen increasing deforestation in recent years. Because only a handful of individuals have been found in a few localities, the species is considered critically endangered by IUCN criteria. Dr. Swangpol and her colleagues named the banana Musa nanensis to mark the importance of the Nan Province as a home of the rare plant and the imperiled forest in which it lives.
Although the common name, Kluai Si Nan, means “banana pride of Nan,” another small population of the species was discovered in similar forest conditions in Laos shortly after Dr. Swangpol’s publication. “The news was delightful and gave hope to the team that the banana could be uncovered in other sites in the still-rich forests across the Mekong river between Thailand and Lao PDR.”20
A new species of frog which is less than 3 cm long, lives in forest from ~650–1100 m elevation and breeds in small rocky streams of northeastern Cambodia and adjacent Vietnam.21 Its distinctive markings, toe webbing, and call set this frog apart from the thousands of species that call Southeast Asia home.22
When it comes to amphibians, scientists rarely get to enjoy the moment of discovery of a new species immediately. That’s an understatement for Dr. Jodi Rowley and her team. The confirmation that they had indeed seen a new species took almost 10 years.
On her first scientific expedition to Southeast Asia, in Virachey National Park in Cambodia in 2006, Rowley spotted a tiny leaf-litter frog that she immediately thought could be a new species. However, it would take years of comparison and acoustic analysis to confirm her initial suspicions. “While there are certainly moments in the field when you know that you are the first scientist to have ever seen a frog -- and that is an amazing feeling -- in many cases it’s more a process of investigation, and the reward and species description comes many years down the track,” says Rowley.
According to Dr. Rowley, new discoveries like this highlight our lack of knowledge about amphibians in Southeast Asia. “It’s vitally important that we better understand the patterns of biodiversity in the region so that we can better identify priority areas for conservation,” she says. The forests upon which species like Leptolalax isos depend are under threat of logging, agricultural expansion and hydroelectric projects, even in protected areas. Bringing more attention to high biodiversity areas can help ensure that limited conservation resources are allocated to the places and species that need them most. “This little frog is just the latest piece in the biodiversity puzzle of the region, but its discovery will hopefully help inform biodiversity management in the area.”23
With its pale blue spotted skin and piercing dark eyes, this species was found hiding among the remote karst massifs of Laos. Because of the incredibly high diversity of the Gekko family, it took sophisticated DNA analysis to differentiate this individual as a new species.24
Dr. Michael Bonkowski and Gekko bonkowskii may not be from the same family--or even the same genus--but they do share a name. “It was a total surprise,” Bonkowski said of finding out his colleagues had lent his name to the gekko. “I feel greatly honored that this wonderful species was named after me.”
Searching for reptiles in the mountains of Laos is not always glamorous work. Bonkowski credits his colleagues Vinh Quang Luu, Prof. Thomas Ziegler, and Dr. Nguyen Quang Truong with operating under harsh conditions in remote terrain, where sometimes their only source of drinking water was found dripping off stalactites in caves, all in the hope of studying the incredible biodiversity of the region.
While Bonkowski says the discovery is important to bring attention to species that are threatened by habitat loss and the pet trade, the most important part of the discovery may lie within the gekko’s DNA. “When we take the molecular phylogenetic analyses of my colleague Dr. Minh Le at IEBR in Hanoi into account, the data show that the [gekko species] radiate along the Annamite Mountain Range in a way comparable to the Darwin finches on the remote Galapagos islands. If we manage to protect the newly discovered species in their natural habitats, they may hold the key to understanding lizard evolution in this biodiversity hotspot.”25
The next step, says Dr. Nguyen Quang Truong, is to provide recommendations for new protected areas for species conservation and inclusion of the species on the IUCN red list and CITES appendix.26 These actions could lead to better habitat protection for this species as well as the many other endangered reptile species in Southeast Asia.
A small purple flower with petals resembling mouse ears found atop Mt. Victoria in Myanmar.27
Within the “Chin Hills” of Southwest Myanmar is Mt. Victoria, the highest mountain in the range at 3,015 m. As dusk neared on a particularly harsh and rainy day in 2002, Dr. Nobuyuki Tanaka made his way down a stream at the foot of the mountain, picking leeches off his arms and legs as he went. He noticed a small purple flower hiding under the shade of the foliage along the banks of the stream. Unknown to him at the time, the last person to collect a specimen of this flower was the legendary British botanist and explorer Frank Kingdon-Ward in 1956.27
Dr. Tanaka had originally been drawn to Mt. Victoria because there had been no botanical research there since Kingdon-Ward’s last survey in 1956.28 Kingdon-Ward’s explorations in Myanmar and the Himalayas in the early 20th Century led to many tales of adventure and new species discoveries29, but Impatiens kingdon-wardii is the most recent species to bear his name.
Because Dr. Tanaka and his team were only able to find small populations of the species in locations within Natma Taung (Mt. Victoria) National Park at the base of the mountain, they have preliminarily assigned it to be Vulnerable (VU) according to the IUCN Red List Criteria. Dr. Tanaka is a project leader for a new partnership between the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo and the Myanmar Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation aimed at increasing floristic research in unexplored parts of Myanmar. They hope this project will lead to more new species discoveries in the region in years to come.28
This little purple flower is another unique gem of the many endemic species within the Impatiens genus in Myanmar, but it is also a reminder that the age of exploration is far from over. Scientists like Dr. Tanaka are the new generation of explorers out to discover the unknown.
As the scientists who made these discoveries note, the species were mostly found in remote, hard to reach locations, crawling through dense forests, hidden among dramatic mountains and cliffs, or swimming in free flowing rivers. Most importantly, they are immune to international borders. At the heart of WWF’s work in the Greater Mekong region is our protection of the large, transboundary landscapes that are home to these incredible species. Working across borders to protect the region’s forests, mountains, and rivers from development and destruction is critical to ensuring these plants and animals survive.
The challenge is massive. The Greater Mekong is under intense development pressures that threaten the survival of the natural landscapes that make it so unique. Cambodia’s Eastern Plains Landscape, one of the largest remaining tropical dry forests in Southeast Asia, is threatened by mining projects that could disrupt critical forest tracts.30 The Central Annamites Landscape along the border of Vietnam and Laos has high levels of endemism and is home to the extremely rare Saola, but deforestation, illegal logging and poaching are rampant.31 The Dawna-Tenasserim Landscape shared between Myanmar and Thailand is the single best hope for tiger recovery in the region, but the Dawei Road project plans to cut a path through the habitat tigers need to migrate through.7
Habitat destruction is a major threat to many of these new species, but the possibility of being captured and put into the illegal wildlife trade looms as much as ever. Poaching for bushmeat or the multi-billion dollar illegal wildlife trade puts immense pressure on wildlife in the region, meaning many species could be lost before they are even discovered.32
“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, especially in the Golden Triangle region where China, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar meet,” says Jimmy Borah, Wildlife Programme Manager for WWF-Greater Mekong. “To save them, it’s crucial that we improve enforcement against poaching and close illegal wildlife markets as well as the tiger and bear farms that openly flaunt wildlife laws.”
WWF recently launched an ambitious project to disrupt the trade by closing down the biggest markets in the Greater Mekong region. Working with partners and across borders, WWF will attempt to significantly reduce illegal trade in key threatened species such as elephants, tigers and rhinos by promoting species protection legislation, supporting effective transboundary cooperation and improving law enforcement effectiveness at key border crossings.32
A key to protecting these unique species is policy work at the national and regional level that reaches across borders to cooperatively save these unique species and ecosystems. WWF is working at all levels, from communities on the ground to businesses to governments and policy-makers, to ensure that we come together to find solutions to these globally significant problems and protect the Greater Mekong’s wildlife for generations to come.
In the meantime, we look to scientists like the ones highlighted here to remind us that there is much more value still waiting to be found in this region. “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,” says Borah. “These scientists, the unsung heroes of the Planet, know they are racing against time to ensure that these newly discovered species are protected and saved.”
1. WWF-Greater Mekong. 2016. Discovering the Greater Mekong. Accessed 14 December 2016. http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/greatermekong/discovering_the_greater_mekong/
2. WWF-Greater Mekong. 2016. A biological treasure trove. Accessed 14 December 2016. http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/greatermekong/discovering_the_greater_mekong/species/new_species/
3. WWF-Greater Mekong. 2016. Discovering the Greater Mekong. Accessed 14 December 2016. http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/greatermekong/discovering_the_greater_mekong/
4. WWF-Cambodia. 2016. Stop the Don Sahong Dam. Accessed 14 December 2016. http://cambodia.panda.org/projects_and_reports/don_sahong_dam/
5. "Irrawaddy Dolphins Now Functionally Extinct in Laos." WWF-Greater Mekong press release, 26 October 2016. http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/greatermekong/news/?282570/Irrawaddy-dolphins-functionally-extinct-in-Laos-WWF
6. "Open Letter to your Excellency Minister of Agriculture and Cooperation General Chatchai Sarikalaya." WWF-Thailand press release, 6 September 2016. http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/greatermekong/news/?277471/Open-letter-to-your-Excellency-Minister-of-Agriculture-and-Cooperation-General-Chatchai-Sarikalaya
7. WWF-Myanmar. 2015. A better road to Dawei. WWF-Myanmar, Yangon. http://wwf.panda.org/wwf_news/?251074/New-WWF-Myanmar-report-highlights-benefits-of-integrating-ecosystem-services-and-wildlife-into-planning-for-Dawei-Road
8. WWF-Laos. 2016. Carbon & Biodiversity Program (CarBi). Accessed 14 December 2016. http://www.wwflaos.org/projects/carbi/
9. "As global biodiversity declines, WWF urges wildlife protection and changes to energy, food systems." WWF-Greater Mekong press release, 27 October 2016. http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/greatermekong/news/?282677/As-global-biodiversity-declines-WWF-urges-wildlife-protection-and-changes-to-energy-food-systems
10. Teynié, A. Personal communication.
11. Teynié, A., P. David, A. Lottier, M. D. Le, N. Vidal & T. Q. Nguyen. 2015. “A new genus and species of xenodermatid snake (Squamata: Caenophidia: Xenodermatidae) from northern Lao People’s Democratic Republic.” Zootaxa, 3926 (4): 523-540.
12. Teynié, A. Personal communication.
13. Pauwels, O. S. G., M. Sumontha, K. Kunya, A. Nitikul, P. Samphanthamit, P. L. Wood, Jr. & L. L. Grismer. 2015. “Acanthosaura phuketensis (Squamata: Agamidae), a new long-horned tree agamid from southwestern Thailand.” Zootaxa, 4020 (3): 473-494.
14. Pauwels, O. Personal communication.
15. Nguyen, T. S., G. Csorba, V. T. Tu, V. D. Thong, Y. Wu, M. Harada, T. Oshida, H. Endo & M. Motokawa. 2015. “A new species of the genus Murina (Chiroptera: Vespertilionidae) from the Central Highlands of Vietnam with a review of the subfamily Murininae in Vietnam.” Acta Chiropterologica, 17(2): 201-232.
16. Nguyen, T. S. Personal communication.
17. Le, D. T., T. T. Nguyen, K. Nishikawa, S. L. H. Nguyen, A. V. Pham, M. Matsui, M. Bernardes & T. Q. Nguyen. 2015. “A new species of Tylototriton Anderson, 1871 (Amphibia: Salamandridae) from Northern Indochina.” Current Herpetology, 34(1): 38-50.
18. Pomchote, P. Personal communication.
19. Swangpol, S. C., P. Traiperm, J. Somana, N. Sukkaewmanee, P. Srisanga & P. Suksathan. 2015. “Musa nanensis, a New Banana (Musaceae) Species from Northern Thailand.” Systematic Botany, 40(2): 426-432.
20. Swangpol, S. C. Personal communication.
21. Rowley, J. 2015. "A News Species of Frog Discovered from the Forests of Cambodia and Vietnam." Australian Museum Blog. Accessed 14 December 2016. http://australianmuseum.net.au/blogpost/amri-news/amri-a-new-species-of-frog-discovered-from-the-forests-of-cambodia-and-vietnam
22. Rowley, J. J. L., B. L. Stuart, T. Neang, H. D. Hoang, V. Q. Dau, T. T. Nguyen & D. A. Emmett. 2015. “A new species of Leptolalax (Anura: Megophryidae) from Vietnam and Cambodia.” Zootaxa, 4039(3): 401-417.
23. Rowley J. Personal communication.
24. Luu, V. Q., T. Calame, T. Q. Nguyen, M. D. Le & T. Ziegler. 2015. “Morphological and molecular review of the Gekko diversity of Laos with descriptions of three new species.” Zootaxa, 3986(3): 279-306.
25. Bonkowski, M. Personal communication.
26. Nguyen, T. Q. Personal communication.
27. Tanaka, N., T. Sugawara, M. M. Aung & J. Murata. 2015. “Impatiens kingdon-wardii (Balsaminaceae), a new species from Mt. Victoria (Natma Taung), Myanmar.” Phytotaxa, 234(1): 90-94.
28. Tanaka, N. Personal communication.
29. Schilling, T. 1991. "Frank Kingdon-Ward: Plant Hunter and Romantic." The American Rhododendron Society. Accessed 14 December 2016. http://www.rhododendron.org/v45n3p140.htm
30. WWF-Cambodia. 2016. On the Ground Conservation. Accessed 14 December 2016. http://cambodia.panda.org/projects_and_reports/
31. WWF-Laos. 2016. Our Landscapes. Accessed 14 December 2016. http://www.wwflaos.org/projects/our_landscapes/
32. WWF-Greater Mekong. 2016. Shutting Down the Greater Mekong’s Illegal Wildlife Markets. Accessed 14 December 2016. http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/greatermekong/challenges_in_the_greater_mekong/wildlife_trade/
33. Nguyen, Q. T. Personal communication.
Report prepared and designed by Mallory Graves.
Special thanks to Lee Poston, Jimmy Borah, Kelsey Hartman, Nina Wagner, and all the scientists who contributed to this report.
Published in 2016 by WWF-World Wide Fund for Nature
(also known as World Wildlife Fund).
Text © WWF 2016, all rights reserved.