A gecko with spots like a leopard and a fanged frog that preys on birds are among more than 160 new species that have been discovered along the Mekong River but which face the threat of extinction as a result of climate change.
Scientists in south-east Asia said that in 2008 they discovered 100 plants, 28 fish, 18 reptiles, 14 amphibians, two mammals and one bird species in the region that spreads over Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand Laos and southern China.
Yet almost before they are fully documented, the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) believes these new species could disappear because of the increased incidence of extreme weather linked to climate change. Floods, droughts and rising sea levels are all threats.
“After millennia in hiding these species are now finally in the spotlight, and there are clearly more waiting to be discovered. Some species will be able to adapt to climate change, many will not, potentially resulting in massive extinctions,” Stuart Chapman, director of the WWF Greater Mekong Programme, said in a report published yesterday. “Rare, endangered and endemic species like those newly discovered are especially vulnerable because climate change will further shrink their already restricted habitats.”
The countries through which the mighty Mekong drains have long been identified as being remarkably rich in wildlife and there have been numerous reports of scientists making magical discoveries of previously-unknown species. In 1997, a previously unrecorded muntjac deer was found while five years earlier the Saola or Vu Quang ox was recorded by outsiders for the first time, both animals being discovered in Vietnam.
The report, released ahead of major UN talks on climate change in Bangkok next week, makes clear that such zoological riches exist in a region of the world highly vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Governments in the region have also been unable to prevent the destruction of habitats as a result of logging and development.
“The recent conflicts in these areas means there have not been the number of scientific expeditions that have gone elsewhere,” said the WWF’s Heather Sohl. “The area is a very rich habitat with a lot of bio-diversity. But there is also great concern that “some of these new discoveries could become threatened or even possibly extinct.”
Among the stars in the new list of creatures is a fanged frog in eastern Thailand. Given the scientific name Limnonectes megastomias, the frog lies in wait along streams for prey including birds and insects. Scientists believe it uses its fangs during combat with other male frogs.
Another unlikely discovery was the Cat Ba leopard gecko found on Cat Ba Island in northern Vietnam. Named Goniurosaurus catbaensis, it has large, orange-brown catlike eyes and leopard spots down the length of its yellowish brown body.
Lee Grismer, of La Sierra University in California, said he found a tiger-striped pit viper in Vietnam - another creature mentioned in the report - while he was attempting to capture a second gecko species. “We were engrossed in trying to catch a new species of gecko when my son pointed out that my hand was on a rock mere inches away from the head of a pit viper,” he said. “We caught the snake and the gecko and they both proved to be new species.”
Simon Mahood, a conservation adviser for BirdLife International in Indochina, welcomed WWF's attention to the new species and said more could be discovered if additional money was directed towards conservation efforts. He told the Agence France-Presse: “We are seeing more reports of new discoveries and populations because this region is relatively poorly known, particularly when it comes to cryptic and less fashionable groups like fish and amphibians.”