Over 200 New Species Discovered in Mekong Region, WWF Reports

A Popa langur
Scientists discovered one mammal, the Popa langur, which is already classified as critically endangered. WWF - Myanmar

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has reported 224 newly discovered species in the Mekong region, which stretches across parts of Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, China and Myanmar and contains rich biodiversity in its 200 million acres.

The report covers species identified in the area in 2020 because such a lag is typical, as the WWF explained in a press release: “Scientists typically wait to reveal new discoveries until a species is officially described as a new species – a time-consuming process – hence the lag between the initial discovery and announcement for some species spotlighted in the report.”

There are many notable species included in the findings, including the San Phueng rock gecko, a frilled tree frog, and several other types of amphibians, reptiles and fish. Scientists also discovered one mammal, the Popa langur, a monkey with a long tail and white rings around its eyes. It is estimated that only about 200 to 250 of the species remain, meaning this mammal is already classified as critically endangered.

“These species are extraordinary, beautiful products of millions of years of evolution, but are under intense threat, with many species going extinct even before they are described,” said K. Yoganand, WWF-Greater Mekong’s regional lead for wildlife and wildlife crime, as reported by Reuters.

The report is not all about animals, though. The WWF report includes the discovery of 155 plants. There’s a new type of begonia found in Myanmar, a mulberry tree species in Vietnam, and the only known bamboo species with succulence, meaning the stem can inflate and deflate during dry and wet seasons, that was found in Laos. 

To track down such a wide variety of species, naturalists and taxonomists used data from museum collections and DNA analyses to compare to the new species. Cameras trap images and studies on behaviors, like frog calls, also help scientists identify species in the region. 

Sometimes, the discoveries are a little less calculated, though. The report includes a ginger plant with a strong odor that is frequently used in place of stink bugs to make a chili dipping paste in Thailand. This ginger plant was found in a plant shop in northeastern Thailand.

Since 1997, experts have discovered over 3,000 species in the Mekong region. This vast, biodiverse area is home to many unique creatures, including the saola, an extremely rare and critically endangered mammal with two long, parallel horns that is often referred to as the Asian unicorn or spindlehorn. It has only been documented in the wild four times since it was first seen in 1992.

The recently discovered species of the Mekong region show promise in an area otherwise facing increasing threats of habitat loss from economic development. Aside from habitat loss, the Mekong region also experiences stress from climate change, the illegal wildlife trade and hydropower development.

“To record this treasure trove of biodiversity before it is completely lost, we must accelerate our work and strengthen international cooperation,” Thomas Ziegler, Curator for Herpetology, Ichthyology and Invertebrates with the Zoological Garden Cologne, said in a press release. “The Covid-19 crisis has made it very clear that humans cannot intervene in nature, its networks, food chains and biodiversity with impunity. 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.”

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