BANGKOK • A rainbow-headed snake, a tiny frog and a lizard with dragon-like horns are among more than 150 new species confirmed by scientists last year in the ecologically diverse but threatened Mekong region, researchers said yesterday.
Winding its way from the Tibetan plateau through the mountains and jungles of South-east Asia, the Mekong river helps sustain one of the most diverse regions on the planet.
Each year, scientists announce new species, after an often lengthy identification process, highlighting how much more there is to learn about the region.
But there are fears that many species may die out before they are even discovered in an area of the world that is rapidly developing and where rule of law is notoriously shaky and wildlife smuggling rampant.
"The Greater Mekong region is a magnet for the world's conservation scientists because of the incredible diversity of species that continue to be discovered here," Mr Jimmy Borah of the World Wildlife Fund's Greater Mekong team said.
"They are racing against time to ensure that these newly discovered species are protected."
The Greater Mekong region - which includes south-western China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar - is under intense pressure from dam and road building as well as a thriving illegal wildlife trade, much of it centred on the lawless Golden Triangle area where the latter three meet.
"Many collectors are willing to pay thousands of dollars or more for the rarest, most unique and most endangered species," Mr Borah said.
In total, scientists described 163 new species last year - nine amphibians, three mammals, 11 fish, 14 reptiles and 126 plants.
Among the most eye-catching are Parafimbrios lao, a snake found in the limestone karsts of northern Laos whose scales reflect rainbow- like colours around its head.
On Thailand's tourist island of Phuket, scientists found a lizard (Acanthosaura phuketensis) with a fearsome-looking ridge of horns down its head and back.
And in the northern province of Chiang Rai, researchers found a newt (Tylototriton anguliceps) with dazzling red and black markings that they likened to a Klingon's head from the Star Trek franchise. It is the fourth newt species found to exist in Thailand.
In Cambodia and Vietnam, a new frog species - Leptolalax isos - that could fit on a finger tip was also discovered. The 3cm-long animal was first spotted in 2006, but peer-reviewed confirmation that it was indeed a new species took nearly a decade.
Between 1997 and 2015, there have been 2,409 new species described in the Greater Mekong, the equivalent of two new discoveries a week.