The Greater Mekong region — a 200 million-acre area that encompasses southwestern China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam — is flush with exotic wildlife and new species just waiting to be discovered. In 2016, scientists found 115 new species. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) announced the discoveries in mid-December 2017. (It takes time to verify and classify new species, hence the year-long gap between discovery and announcement.)
The latest report found 11 amphibians, two fish, 11 reptiles, 88 plants and three mammals all living in different corners of the region. This brings the tally of new species discovered in the region since 1997 to 2,524. The last survey turned up 160 new species — an incredible rate of discovery.
“More than two new species a week and 2,500 in the past 20 years speaks to how incredibly important the Greater Mekong is to global biodiversity,” Stuart Chapman, WWF-Greater Mekong Regional Representative, said in the WWF’s statement about the new species. “While the threats to the region are many, these discoveries give us hope that species from the tiger to the turtle will survive.”
The threats include mines, roads, dams, the illegal animal trade and poaching. The WWF is working to stop the illegal trade of the creatures through promoting and supporting legislation that increases border security and animal protections.
“The species in the Greater Mekong are like works of art, and deserve protection from unscrupulous collectors who are willing to pay thousands of dollars or more for the rarest, most unique and most endangered species,” Chapman said.
Below, you’ll find six species highlighted by the WWF, including a turtle that likes to munch on snails, a bat that looks like it belongs in a “Star Wars” film and an already very rare lizard.
Vietnamese crocodile lizard
That regal-looking lizard at top is native to the freshwaters in evergreen forests of southern China and northern Vietnam. While the Shinisaurus crocodilus vietnamensis was discovered in 2003, it wasn’t until 2016 that researchers could confirm that it was a whole new subspecies of crocodile lizard.
Sadly, fewer than 200 of these colorful lizards are thought to be alive today, due to habitat destruction and the illegal pet trade. The researchers responsible for discovering and classifying the lizard are working on proposals for a wildlife corridor and a breeding program that would help the lizard species recover.
Unlike some of the other species announced this year, the moles of the Greater Mekong region, including the Euroscaptor orlovi, have managed to thrive and survive because they hide out underground.
Researchers did extensive genetic testing to make sure that the E. orlovi and the E. kuznetsovi were distinct from other moles in the area. The rivers and streams of Vietnam allow species to separate from one another, and diverge genetically.
While they’re known for their long bodies and notable stripes, we don’t know a lot about how diverse loaches are as a species. This particular loach was discovered in a stream in Bokor National Park in Kampong Province, Cambodia.
Thanks to its preference for streams as opposed to more developed rivers, the Schistura kampucheensis is expected to remain a relatively undisturbed species.
Mountain horseshoe bat
A distinctive-looking creature, the mountain horseshoe bat is named for its nose flaps that resemble — you guessed it — a horseshoe. The yellow tint on its nose had researchers thinking they had discovered a new species. A decade later, after genetic testing and more data gathering, the researchers were finally able to announce the bat’s existence and name.
Not a moment too soon, either. The bat has been seen in only a few spots around Laos and Thailand, and only a few specimens have been collected. Habitat destruction has likely played a part in the bats’ potentially small population; it needs forests to survive.
This multi-colored frog is found in a small range of karst forests in northern Vietnam. Researchers suspect that plenty of other currently undiscovered vertebrate species live in this small area, too.
Because of quarrying and road construction, the frog faces habitat destruction. Researchers have recommended new protected areas around the forest to keep the frogs safe.
The snail-eating turtle is one of the oddest discoveries of the year because the find didn’t happen in the jungle or near a river. This turtle was discovered in different street markets in Thailand. Researchers confirmed that this was a new species of turtles that enjoys snails and found that its colors, shell shape, head and scales were all different than other species.