News / Science & Technology

Newly Discovered Animals in Mekong Deemed Highly Vulnerable

Cambodian Tailorbird (Orthotomus chaktomuk), a small, light and dark grey bird with an orange-red tuft, was described by scientists as "hiding in plain sight" in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh when first spotted in 2009. (James Eaton/Birdtour Asia)
Cambodian Tailorbird (Orthotomus chaktomuk), a small, light and dark grey bird with an orange-red tuft, was described by scientists as "hiding in plain sight" in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh when first spotted in 2009. (James Eaton/Birdtour Asia)
Nearly 400 plants and animals were discovered in the Greater Mekong region in 2012 and 2013, bringing the total of new species found in the area to more than 2,000 in the past 17 years.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, scientists say a warbler found to have been hiding in plain sight around the Cambodian capital is among the new species documented.

Thomas Gray, manager of the WWF-Greater Mekong Species Program, says the Cambodian tailorbird (Orthotomus chaktomuk) is the only bird added to the new species compilation for 2012 and 2013.

“Birds are perhaps the most well-studied group of animals on the planet and a new species of bird discovered less than five kilometers away from where I’m talking to you here in Phnom Penh, inhabiting some of the flood plain scrub that is outside of Phnom Penh, is amazing,” he said.

Herpetologist Jodi Rowley from the Australian Museum Research Institute is credited with finding a giant, bright green flying frog — a discovery she calls unexpected.

“It’s actually quite unusual where we found it," she said. "I was surveying a patch of forest not that far from Ho Chi Minh City, one of the biggest cities in Southeast Asia, and I wasn’t actually expecting to find anything new. And while we were walking along a footpath through the forest, a dirt track, there was this huge green flying frog just sitting on a log next to the path not that far from roads, people and buffaloes.”

Initially Rowley did not realize she had made a discovery because she had thought it was a similar already-known giant frog. But when she saw that other frog a year later — is has since been named Rhacophorus helenae — she concluded the Vietnamese frog she had crossed paths with was indeed something new.

She notes that the only two places where her new 10-centimeter long frogs have been spotted are surrounded by rice paddies and other agriculture.

“There’s no way for them to traverse through the rice paddies because they’re so dependent on trees," she said. "We’re very worried about their long-term conservation in these two little patches of lowland forest which are so threatened. This is the same area that the rhinoceros became extinct in Vietnam a few years ago, as well. So it’s in a lot of trouble.”

It is not the only newly discovered animal or plant in trouble. The Greater Mekong lies in one of the five most threatened biodiversity hotspots on the planet.

WWF’s Thomas Gray says rapid, unsustainable development is just one of the dangers confronting the flora and fauna.

“Ironically one of the new species, a giant flying squirrel from Laos, was discovered in a wildlife meat market, which highlights another of the major threats to the species — the rampant trade in wild meat, in bush meat and other luxury wildlife products," he said.

Among the other previously unknown species documented in the new WWF report: the “hunch-bat” (Hipposideros griffin), found in two Vietnamese national parks that lie 1,000 kilometers apart; an unusually long rainbow lizard (Lygosoma veunsaiensis) in Cambodia; the first eyeless huntsman spider (Sinopoda scurion), discovered in a cave in Laos; and a Vietnamese walking snakehead fish (Channa longistomata), which is able to survive on land for days.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

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