Fanged Frog and Leopard gecko among new species found in Mekong

A fanged frog that eats birds and a gecko with leopard-like spots on its body are among 163 new species discovered last year in the Mekong River region of Southeast Asia, an environmental group said Friday.

Cat Ba Leopard Gecko - This newly discovered gecko has an orange and brown marbled body and a black and white tail. Its catlike eyes and long legs seem like something out of a sci-fi movie. Named after the northern Vietnamese island where it was found, the Cat Ba gecko is related to a number of gecko species that are captured and sold as pets. Scientists are worried that the rare lizard will be overcollected, so they are recommending that it be classified as an endangered species.

WWF International said that scientists in 2008 discovered 100 plants, 28 fish, 18 reptiles, 14 amphibians, two mammals and one bird species in the region. That works out to be about three species a week and is in addition to the 1,000 new species catalogued there from 1997 to 2007, the group said.

"After millennia in hiding these species are now finally in the spotlight, and there are clearly more waiting to be discovered," said Stuart Chapman, director of the WWF Greater Mekong Program.

Researchers working for WWF warned that the effects of climate change, including an upsurge in droughts and floods, threaten the diverse habitat that supports these species. That is on top of traditional threats such as poaching, pollution and habitat destruction.

"Some species will be able to adapt to climate change, many will not, potentially resulting in massive extinctions," Chapman said in a statement. "Rare, endangered and endemic species like those newly discovered are especially vulnerable because climate change will further shrink their already restricted habitats."

Khorat Big-Mouthed Frog - Found thus far only on three remote Thai islands, the Khorat big-mouthed frog is an opportunistic predator. A patient hunter, it lies in wait for its prey in streams, where it strikes birds, insects and other frogs with fangs that protrude from its bottom jawbone. Unlike many other species of frog, the Khorat big-mouthed frog has males larger than females, and they often fight each other.

Among the stars in the new list 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 males.

Another unusual 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-stripped pit viper in Vietnam described 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," Grismer said in a statement. "We caught the snake and the gecko and they both proved to be new species."

That gecko species was not included in the WWF report because it hasn't been published in a peer-reviewed journal yet. All the other species listed by the WWF have been described in journals.

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 is put into conservation and countries make it easier to do field work.

"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," said Mahood, whose group this year announced finding the first nest of white-eared night heron in Vietnam and the discovery of a baldheaded song bird in Laos called the barefaced Bulbul Pycnonotus hualon.

On Friday, it announced that it discovered three more sites where the endangered, grey-crowned crocias or Crocias langbianis can be found in Vietnam. The bird has a white underbelly and brown and slate feathers.

Other new species found are a tube-nosed bat named Murina harpioloides that lives in southeastern Vietnam and a new bird species called the Nonggang babbler that favors walking to flying and is found in the karst rainforest on the Chinese-Vietnamese border, an area of limestone fissures, sinkholes and underground streams.

Experts said a range of factors contributed to the upsurge in new species, including better access to regions that have seen decades of war and political unrest and more spending by governments on research to protect and identify plants and animals.

The WWF, which plans to pubish yearly tabulations of newly discovered species in the Mekong, called for increased efforts to ensure new species are protected by preserving the large areas of forest and the free-flowing river networks they need to survive.

Rough-Coated Tree Frog - This frog hails from Vietnam's Truong Son mountain range. Its entire body is covered in rough bumps and its head is longer than it is wide — uncommon for frogs.

Cnemaspis Biocellata - Discovered in 2008, this gecko is a native of the isolated karst peaks of the Nakawan mountain range, which spans the border between Thailand and Malaysia. Among the most brightly colored of the newly discovered species, it has five yellow, butterfly-shaped spots that extend from its shoulders to the base of its tail. Males are yellow and gray, females are light brown. The species is generally nocturnal, and but can be seen during the daytime in the shade afforded by rocks and tree trunks.

Nonggang Babbler - Named for the Nonggang Natural Reserve in which it was found, this Sino-Vietnamese bird lives in flocks of five to 10 and flies short distances (but only when frightened). Most of its time is spent foraging for insects that live between rocks. So far, only 30 of these birds have been spotted.

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