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Wild Mekong! Hundreds of New Species Found in Mekong Basin

Over 1,000 previously unknown species have been found in the Mekong basin in the past decade. In 2010 alone, scientist have found 100 plants, 28 reptiles, 25 fish, and seven amphibians that were previously unknown to science. The Mekong river and its surrounding watershed is one of the most bio-diverse regions on the globe. Though [...]

Over 1,000 previously unknown species have been found in the Mekong basin in the past decade. In 2010 alone, scientist have found 100 plants, 28 reptiles, 25 fish, and seven amphibians that were previously unknown to science. The Mekong river and its surrounding watershed is one of the most bio-diverse regions on the globe. Though the mechanisms which are currently allowing for these explosions in bio-diversity discoveries are also those which present challenges to the survival of many species in the region.

In point, over the past decade scientists have been able to make many astonishing discoveries in the Mekong area precisely because they are able to gain access to previously unexplored areas on the back of increased human activity in the region, such as hunting, logging, and infrastructural/ economic development. Scientist are now able to do research in areas that were previously out of range, but they are only enabled to do this because of new roads and infrastructural projects in areas that were once completely remote. Many scientists are now fearing that, because of this increase of human activity in previously undisturbed ecosystems, multitudes of species in the Mekong basin are threatened to go extinct before they can even be discovered.

Gumprects green pit viper, photo by Ries Ren

New species that have been discovered recently in the Mekong include the Leiolepis ngovantrii, an all-female lizard which reproduces via cloning without the need for males; a monkey with an “Elvis-like” hairstyle; a very loud and distinct leaf warbler bird; a very colorful gecko with a yellow neck, grayish-blue body, and yellow stripes; the wolf snake, which got its name because it has large fangs on both jaws; and a fish that looks like a gherkin. While many of these new species are being found in remote areas, some are being discovered in very close proximity to humans — such as the Siamese Peninsula pit viper which was identified by science for the first time as it slithered through the rafters of a Thai restaurant, the Laotian rock rat — thought to have been extinct for 11 million years — which recently turned up in a local market, and even the cloning lizard was found by a Vietnamese scientist in a tank at a restaurant where it was being served as food.

“By length, the Mekong is the richest waterway for biodiversity on the planet, fostering more species per unit area than the Amazon. Many of the species are endemic to the region,” reports the World Wildlife Fund who published a study on threats to the Mekong.

Cloning lizard

The area surrounding the Mekong river — which begins in Tibet and goes through China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia — is home to nearly 30,000 known species of plants, mammals, reptiles, and fish; including elephants, tigers, and the giant Mekong catfish that can weigh over 600lbs.

“This region is like what I read about as a child in the stories of Charles Darwin,” said Dr Thomas Ziegler, Curator at the Cologne Zoo. “It is a great feeling being in an unexplored area and to document its biodiversity for the first time… both enigmatic and beautiful.”

“Mekong governments have to stop thinking about biodiversity protection as a cost and recognize it as an investment to ensure long-term stability,” a representative for the the WWF stated. “The region’s treasure trove of biodiversity will be lost if governments fail to invest in the conservation and maintenance of biodiversity, which is so fundamental to ensuring long-term sustainability in the face of global environmental change.”

Newly discovered gecko species

As the true cache of biodiversity in the Mekong region is just beginning to come to light, so to is the multitude of major threats to the continued survival of many of the species that live there. China has already constructed dams along the upper Mekong and Laos is pushing to do the same on the lower. Apart from dams, logging, hunting, infrastructural development, and migration of humans into wild areas are also causing the ecosystems incredible stress and is leading to the death and extinction of many species. In point, the lid of the Mekong’s biological treasure chest has been pried open, and the fear is that it is being looted faster than the book keepers can even record what it contains. If nothing else, the discoveries that are being made with rapid frequency in the Mekong show that humans — with all of our innovation, technology, and scientific knowledge — still do not even have a grasp on the sheer amount of bio-diversity that our planet contains, and that major surprises are still out there to be discovered. The hope, I suppose, is that these species are not being discovered just to watch go extinct.

Cloning lizard cooked and served as food in a restaurant

Videos of new species found in the Mekong region

Filed under: Conservation, Environment, Laos, Rivers, Southeast Asia, Thailand, Top Stories, Vietnam

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3543 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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