Monday, September 28, 2009

ENV: Discoveries

Bird-eating frog among 163 new species found in Mekong region
By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN

(CNN) -- A frog that eats birds and a gecko with leopard stripes are among the 163 new species discovered last year in the Greater Mekong region of southeast Asia, according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund.

The discovery of 100 new plants, 28 fish, 18 reptiles, 14 amphibians, two mammals and one bird species highlights the extent of the biodiversity in the region, said Barney Long, head of the WWF's Asian Species Conservation program.

"It's a melting pot of diverse habitats. It has some of the wettest forests on the planet, high mountains, and a diverse array of terrestrial and marine habitats, including the Mekong River," he said.

"We continue to find new species of fish, primates and mammals, and nowhere else compares to the amount of large mammals that have been discovered in the region. It shows how little we know about species in the region," he said. "From a biodiversity perspective, there are still huge amounts to discover about region."

The Greater Mekong consists of the countries through which the Mekong River flows: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Yunnan Province of China.

With 16 global ecoregions -- areas defined by their shared ecological features and animal communities -- the Greater Mekong has more protected spaces than anywhere else on mainland Asia, according to the WWF.

The colorful Cat Ba leopard gecko of northern Vietnam has large, orange-brown "catlike eyes" and a body of leopard stripes, according to a report released Friday.

Its name refers to its place of origin, Cat Ba Island, the largest of 366 islands in Cat Ba Archipelago and home to many rare species that can only be found on the island. Scientists believe the high number of species unique to the island might be due to the long separation of the island from continental Vietnam, the report says.

Limnonectes megastomias -- a fanged frog with an appetite for other frogs, insects and birds -- has only been found in three remote areas of medium-to-high altitudes in eastern Thailand.

Globally, new species of mammals are rare finds, but in 2008 alone, new species of the mouselike musk shrew and a tube-nosed bat emerged from the region. PhotoSee photos of newly discovered species »

War and political unrest have kept large parts of the region, particularly Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, off-limits to scientific exploration up until the past two decades, Long said.

Since 1997, nearly 1,200 new species have been discovered, many that cannot be found anywhere else, said Dekila Chungyalpa, director of WWF's Greater Mekong Program.

But the rapid pace of development in the Mekong region, coupled with the effects of climate change, are threatening to drive the species into extinction, Chungyalpa said.

"As we become familiar with more species in the region, our understanding of climate change and how it impacts these new species is changing," she said.

Chungyalpa said conservative estimates by the WWF project a 1-meter rise in sea level on the delta's coastline over the next decade, which will affect not only marine life, but also people who rely on the delta as a source of sustenance and employment, she said.

In 2007, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Fourth Assessment Report, which projected that global sea levels could rise from 18 to 59 centimeters (7 to 23 inches) over the next century based on six possible scenarios.

Already, Chungyalpa said, the area has been affected by an increase in tropical storms off the coast, which brings in more seawater and changes the flooding patterns in the delta. Some researchers, however, have questioned the link between climate change and more intense tropical storms. Apart from climate change, construction of dams and hydropower plants along the delta could further disrupt its waters, potentially displacing millions, destroying sources of drinkable water and disrupting the production of rice, Chungyalpa said.

"The delta is the rice bowl of the region. What will happen to people who depend on it if it's no longer there?" she said.

The WWF says it supports the idea of an agreement among the Mekong countries on how to respond to infrastructure development and climate change in terms of protecting its natural resources and people.

"Climate change is making it obvious that we can't treat development like it's a separate issue," she said. "We need to be addressing this issue now. It's such an immediate issue for us and it's going to change everything in this region if we don't address it."

850 new species discovered living underground
Virtually all are blind and completely lack eyes, and lack pigment
By Charles Q. Choi, LiveScience, updated 10:44 a.m. CT, Mon., Sept . 28, 2009

Down under in Australia, down underground, scientists have found 850 previously unknown species living in subterranean water, caves and micro-caverns.

These insects, crustaceans, spiders and worms are likely only about one-fifth of the number of undiscovered species the researchers think exist underground amid the harsh conditions of the Australian outback. Two species of blind fish and two of blind eels were also uncovered.

"What we've found is that you don't have to go searching in the depths of the ocean to discover new species of invertebrate animals — you just have to look in your own backyard," said researcher Andy Austin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia. [Scientists say only a fraction of the species of plants and animals on the planet have been discovered.]

Only half of the species discovered have so far been named, the scientists announced today. Generically, the animals found in underground water are known as "stygofauna" and those from caves and micro-caverns are known as "troglofauna."

When it came to the water-dwelling stygofauna, small crustaceans dominated at about three-quarters percent of all species, then insects, all beetles, at roughly one-sixth, with other kinds of creatures making up the rest. For the cave-dwelling troglofauna, arachnids dominated at about one-half of all species, with insects at about one-quarter and crustaceans and others finishing the list.

"Virtually all are blind and completely lack eyes, and lack pigment, so they are pale or white in color," Austin told LiveScience. Often the species are quite delicate, he added, "and the insects in caves often have long legs and antennae — most sense vibration and use chemical senses, as they cannot see in the pitch black."

The scientists found these species during a comprehensive four-year survey of underground water and caves across arid and semi-arid Australia.

Austin and his colleagues suggest these species hid underground long ago due to past climate change.

"Central and southern Australia was a much wetter place 15 million years ago when there was a flourishing diversity of invertebrate fauna living on the surface," Austin explained. "But the continent became drier, a process that last until about 1 to 2 million years ago, resulting in our current arid environment. Species took refuge in isolated favorable habitats, such as in underground waters and micro-caverns, where they survived and evolved in isolation from each other."

So far the surveys have examined only 10 percent of the areas that likely have stygo- and troglofauna, Austin said. They now want to drastically expand their geographical coverage, as well as perform more genetic work to dissect when these creatures diverged from their brethren and see how this matches up with climate change and other geological events.

Although this new discovery is exciting scientifically, it also poses a number of challenges for the conservation of these species, as many of them are located in very remote areas of Australia, where there is significant ranching and mining that could potentially impact their survival.

"This said, it has been environmental monitoring by and support from mining companies that has helped with these discoveries," Austin noted.

The scientists detailed its findings at a scientific conference on evolution and biodiversity in Darwin, Australia, which celebrated the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin and finished Sept. 28.

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