Khoi’s mossy frog is a large, spectacular find that is mossy-green coloured, which helps it blend into the lichen and moss-covered stony, leafy background. — Photo courtesy of Nguyễn Thiên Tạo/WWF

A colour-changing lizard, a thick-thumbed bat, a poisonous snake named after a Chinese mythological goddess, an orchid that looks like a muppet, and a tree frog with skin that resembles thick moss are five of the 380 new species described by scientists in the Greater Mekong region of Southeast Asia in 2021 and 2022, according to a new report released recently by WWF.

With many of the species already under threat of extinction from human activities, WWF is calling on governments in the region to increase protection for these rare, amazing creatures and their habitats. 

The report documents the work of hundreds of scientists from universities, conservation organisations and research institutes around the world who discovered 290 plants, 19 fishes, 24 amphibians, 46 reptiles and one mammal in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Việt Nam.

This brings the total number of vascular plants, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals described in the Greater Mekong region since 1997 to 3,389.

“These remarkable species may be new to science, but they had survived and evolved in the Greater Mekong region for millions of years, reminding us – humans – that they were there a very long time before our species moved into this region,” said K. Yoganand, WWF-Greater Mekong regional wildlife lead.

“We have an obligation to do everything to stop their extinction, protect their habitats, and help their recovery.”

WWF highlights of the report include the Cambodian blue-crested agama. This aggressive lizard changes colour as a defensive mechanism and was identified by studying lizards found near an Angkor-era archaeological site.

Việt Nam’s Thai crocodile newt is threatened by agricultural encroachment, logging, and collection by communities as a traditional cure for abdominal pain and parasitic infection.

Khoi’s mossy frog is a large, spectacular find that is mossy-green coloured, which helps it blend into the lichen and moss-covered stony, leafy background.

Hayes’ thick-thumbed myotis, a mouse-eared bat with unusual fleshy thumbs was named a new species after a specimen sat in a Hungarian museum for 20 years.

Dendrobium fuscifaucium is a miniature orchid with brilliant pink and bright yellow colouring that resembles the beloved ‘Mah na mah na’ muppets.

Suzhen’s krait is an extremely venomous snake named after Bai Su Zhen, a snake goddess from a Chinese myth called the Legend of the White Snake.

Cleyera bokorensis is an evergreen shrub threatened by a Cambodian casino, dam and residential development. 

Thailand’s bent-toed gecko was named after a mythical tree nymph – Rukha Deva – that lives in trees and protects the forests. Discovered in the Tenasserim Mountains bordering Myanmar, it aggressively opens its mouth and waves its tail side-to-side when threatened.

A new gecko species was discovered in Laos’ capital city Vientiane, whose home is being fragmented by construction projects.

A semi-aquatic snake, Hebius terrakarenorum, found in the Dawna-Tenasserim Landscape between Thailand and Myanmar, is 650mm long and was identified entirely from road-kill specimens collected over a decade, and a few photos.

These new species are under intense pressure from deforestation, habitat degradation, road development, loss of streams and rivers, pollution, diseases spread by human activities, competition from invasive species, and the devastating impacts of illegal wildlife trade. Sadly, many species go extinct before they are even discovered. 

In his foreword to the report, Dr Trương Nguyên with the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources at the Việt Nam Academy of Science and Technology notes that immediate action and the increased use of new technologies such as bio-acoustics and genetic sequencing are needed to help scientists discover more species in this biodiversity hotspot.

“To reverse the rapid biodiversity loss in the region, more concerted, science-based, and urgent efforts need to be made," he said. "Conservation measures need more attention from governments, NGOs and the public.”

WWF works with governments, communities, non-profit and private partners across the five Greater Mekong countries on conservation strategies designed to protect these species and their habitat.

They work through these partnerships to protect flagship species such as Asian elephants, Irrawaddy dolphins and tigers, as well as the forests, rivers and oceans they depend on. To stop wildlife declines, WWF is strengthening protected areas and tackling the snaring crisis, illegal wildlife markets, online wildlife trade, and the financial crimes associated with wildlife trafficking. 

This is the latest in a series of reports highlighting new discoveries in the Greater Mekong region.

Last year, WWF also reported on 25 different primate species out of 44 found in Việt Nam called the Greater Mekong home. Still, these unique species are increasingly threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, climate change, hunting and illegal trade.

Deforestation, habitat degradation and hunting driven by the wildlife trade have forced many primates in the Greater Mekong to the brink of extinction. — VNS