Major highway in India threatens reptiles and amphibians

“Is it the road that crosses the habitat, or does the habitat cross the road?” ask scientists before agreeing that the wrong road at the wrong place is bound to cause various perils for the local wildlife, habitats and ecosystems.

Is it the road that crosses the habitat, or does the habitat cross the road?” ask scientists at Gauhati University (Assam, India) before agreeing that the wrong road at the wrong place is bound to cause various perils for the local wildlife, habitats and ecosystems. Furthermore, some of those effects may take longer than others to identify and confirm.

This is how the research team of doctoral research fellow Somoyita Sur, Dr Prasanta Kumar Saikia and Dr Malabika Kakati Saikia decided to study roadkill along a 64-kilometre-long stretch of one of the major highways in India: the National Highway 715. 

What makes the location a particularly intriguing choice is that it is where the highway passess between the Kaziranga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Assam and the North Karbi Anglong Wildlife Sanctuary, thus tempting animals to move to and from the floodplains of Kaziranga and the hilly terrain of the Sanctuary to escape the annual floods or – on a daily basis – in search for food and mating partners.

In the beginning, they looked into various groups, including mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, before realising that the death toll amongst frogs, toads, snakes and lizards was indeed tremendous, yet overlooked. Their findings were recently published in the peer-reviewed scholarly journal Nature Conservation.

“To our surprise, the death toll within that 64-kilometre stretch of the highway was indeed dramatic. We estimated that it has been over 6000 animals that have fallen under the wheels of motor vehicles within a single year. Prior to our study, similar research had focused on big charismatic species like the tiger, elephant and rhino, so when we took into account also the smaller animals: frogs, toads, snakes and lizards, the count went through the roof. Thus, we decided to make smaller species the focus of our work,”

comments Sur.

In conclusion, the scientists agree that roads and highways cannot be abandoned or prevented from construction and expansion, as they are crucial in connecting people and transporting goods and necessities. 

“Yet, we can definitely put some effort into designing and constructing them in a scientifically sound, eco-friendly and sustainable manner, so that they don’t become the bane for our ecosystems,”

the team concludes.

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Research article:

Sur S, Saikia PK, Saikia MK (2022) Speed thrills but kills: A case study on seasonal variation in roadkill mortality on National highway 715 (new) in Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong Landscape, Assam, India. In: Santos S, Grilo C, Shilling F, Bhardwaj M, Papp CR (Eds) Linear Infrastructure Networks with Ecological Solutions. Nature Conservation 47: 87-104. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.47.73036

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Tiger geckos in Vietnam could be the next species sold into extinction, shows a new survey

The endemic reptiles are already proposed to be listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora

While proper information about the conservation status of tiger gecko species is largely missing, these Asian lizards are already particularly vulnerable to extinction, as most of them have extremely restricted distribution. Furthermore, they have been facing severe declines over the last two decades, mostly due to overcollection for the international exotic pet market. Such is the case of the Cat Ba Tiger Gecko, whose tiny populations can only be found on Cat Ba Island and a few islands in the Ha Long Bay (Vietnam).

In their study, a Vietnamese-German research team, led by PhD candidate Hai Ngoc Ngo of the Vietnam National Museum of Nature in Hanoi, provide an overview of the evidence for domestic and international trade in tiger gecko species and update the information about the abundance and threats impacting the subpopulations of the Vietnamese Cat Ba Tiger Gecko in Ha Long Bay.

By presenting both direct and online observations, interviews and existing knowledge, the scientists point out that strict conservation measures and regulations are urgently needed for the protection and monitoring of all tiger geckos. The research article is published in the open-access journal Nature Conservation.

Cat Ba tiger gecko (Goniurosaurus catbaensis) in its natural habitat. Photo by Hai Ngoc Ngo.

Tiger geckos are a genus (Goniurosaurus) of 19 species native to Vietnam, China and Japan. Many of them can only be found within a single locality, mountain range or archipelago. They live in small, disjunct populations, where the population from Ha Long Bay is estimated at about 120 individuals. Due to demands in the international pet trade in the last two decades, as well as habitat destruction, some species are already considered extinct at the localities where they had originally been discovered.

However, it was not until very recently that some species of these geckos received attention from the regulatory institutions in their home countries, leading to the prohibition of their collection without a permit. Only eight tiger geckos have so far had their species conservation status assessed for the IUCN Red List. Not surprisingly, all of them were classified as either Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered. Nevertheless, none is currently listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which could be the only efficient and reliable method to monitor, regulate and police the trade of the species on a global scale.

“Tiger geckos are neither sufficiently protected by law nor part of conservation programmes, due to the lack of substantial knowledge on the species conservation status and probably due to the general lack of public as well as political interest in biodiversity conservation,” they explain. “To date, exact impacts of trade on the species cannot be identified, as data of legal trade are only recorded for species listed in the CITES Appendices”.

During their survey, the researchers tracked local traders in possession of wild-caught tiger geckos representing all five Vietnamese species en route to foreign exotic pet markets, mainly in the United States, the European Union and Japan. The species were also frequently found to be sold in local pet shops in Vietnam, as well as being offered via various online platforms and social media networks like Facebook.

Having spoken to local dealers in Vietnam, the team found the animals were traded via long and complex chains, beginning from local villagers living within the species’ distribution range, who catch the geckos and sell them to dealers for as little as US$4 – 5 per individual. Then, a lizard either ends up at a local shop with a US$7 – 25 price tag or is either transported by boat or by train to Thailand or Indonesia, from where it is flown to the major overseas markets and sold for anywhere between US$100 and 2,000, depending on its rarity. However, many of these delicate wild animals do not arrive alive at their final destination, as their travels include lengthy trips in overfilled boxes under poor conditions with no food and water.

Indeed, although the researchers reported a large quantity of tiger geckos labelled as captive-bred in Europe, it turns out that their availability is far from enough to meet the current demands.

In conclusion, the team provides a list of several recommendations intended to improve the conservation of the Asian geckos: (1) inclusion of all tiger geckos in the Appendices of CITES; (2) assessment of each species for the IUCN Red List; (3) concealment of any currently unknown localities; and (4) improvement/establishment of coordinated ex-situ breeding programmes for all species.

Signboard handed over to the Ha Long Bay Management Department to point to the threats and conservation need of the Cat Ba tiger gecko in English and Vietnamese languages.

The inclusion of all tiger gecko species from China and Vietnam in CITES Appendix II was recently proposed jointly by the European Union, China and Vietnam and is to be decided upon at the Conference of the parties (CoP18) in May-June 2019, held in Sri Lanka.

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Original source:

Ngo HN, Nguyen TQ, Phan TQ, van Schingen M, Ziegler T (2019) A case study on trade in threatened Tiger Geckos (Goniurosaurus) in Vietnam including updated information on the abundance of the Endangered G. catbaensisNature Conservation 33: 1-19. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.32.33590

Newly discovered turtle species is facing extinction

For decades, it has been assumed that the Chinese Softshell Turtles from East Asia all belonged to one and the same species, Pelodiscus sinensis. Widely distributed all the way from the Russian Far East through the Korean Peninsula to China and Vietnam, the species was said to vary substantially in terms of its looks across localities. However, around the turn of the century, following a series of taxonomic debates, scientists revalidated or discovered a total of three species distinct from the ‘original’.

Recently, a Hungarian-Vietnamese-German team of researchers described a fifth species in the genus. Their discovery is published in the open-access journal ZooKeys.

The new species, which differs both genetically and morphologically from the other four, has well-pronounced dark blotches on the underside of its shell. The markings are also the reason why these turtles are going by the scientific name Pelodiscus variegatus, where “variegatus” translates to “spotted” in Latin.

“This morphological feature, among others, led to the discovery that these animals belong to a hitherto undescribed species,” explains Professor Dr. Uwe Fritz of the Senckenberg Natural History Collections in Dresden.

Unfortunately, the identification of multiple species within what used to be a single one has its potentially ill-fated consequences. While the Chinese Softshell Turtle was once considered widespread and not threatened, each newly discovered species “reduces” the individual population numbers.

“When we look at each species, the distribution range as well as the number of individuals is much smaller than when all were combined. Until now, the newly described Spotted Softshell Turtle was considered part of the Lesser Chinese Softshell Turtle Pelodiscus parviformis, which was discovered by Chinese researchers in 1997. Pelodiscus parviformis was already considered critically endangered. Now that its southern representatives have been assigned to a different species, the Spotted Softshell Turtle, the overall population size of each species is even smaller,” explains Balázs Farkas, the study’s Hungarian lead author.

Because of its restricted range and the levels of exploitation it is subjected to, the conservation status of the new species is proposed to be Critically Endangered, according to the criteria of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Habitat of the newly discovered softshell turtle, Pelodiscus variegatus. Photo by An Vinh Ong.

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Original source:

Farkas B, Ziegler T, Pham CT, Ong AV, Fritz U (2019) A new species of Pelodiscus from northeastern Indochina (Testudines, Trionychidae). ZooKeys 824: 71-86. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.824.31376

Orchid or Demon: Flower of a new species of orchid looks like a devil’s head

A lone and unique population of about 30 reddish to dark violet-maroon orchids grows on the small patch of land between the borders of two Colombian departments. However, its extremely small habitat is far from the only striking thing about the new species.

A closer look at its flowers’ heart reveals what appears to be a devil’s head. Named after its demonic patterns, the new orchid species, Telipogon diabolicus, is described in the open access journal PhytoKeys.

Discovered by Dr Marta Kolanowska and Prof Dariusz Szlachetko, both affiliated with University of Gdansk, Poland, together with Dr Ramiro Medina Trejo, Colombia, the new orchid grows a stem measuring between 5.5 – 9 cm in height.

With its only known habitat restricted to a single population spread across a dwarf montane forest at the border between departments Putumayo and Nariño, southern Colombia, the devilish orchid is assigned as a Critically Endangered species in the IUCN Red List.

Although the curious orchid could be mistakenly taken for a few other species, there are still some easy to see physical traits that make the flower stand out. Apart from the demon’s head hidden at the heart of its colours, the petals themselves are characteristically clawed. This feature has not been found in any other Colombian species of the genus.close-up

“In the most recent catalogue of Colombian plants almost 3600 orchid species representing nearly 250 genera are included,” remind the authors. “However, there is no doubt that hundreds of species occurring in this country remain undiscovered. Only in 2015 over 20 novelties were published based on material collected in Colombia.”

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Original source:

Kolanowska M, Szlachetko DL, Trejo RM (2016) Telipogon diabolicus (Orchidaceae, Oncidiinae), a new species from southern Colombia. PhytoKeys 65: 113-124. doi:10.3897/phytokeys.65.8674

New gorgeous coffee tree species from Honduras is critically endangered

Amid the challenging terrain of north-western Honduras, where Dr. Kelly’s team faced rugged and steep forest areas cut across here and there by a few trails, a gorgeous tree with cherry-like fruits was discovered. Being about 10 metres (33 ft) high and covered with cream-colored flowers, it was quickly sorted into the Coffee family (Rubiaceae), but it was its further description that took much longer. Eventually, it was named Sommera cusucoana, with its specific name stemming from its so far only known locality, the Cusuco National Park. The study is available in the open-access journal PhytoKeys.

During a plant diversity study in the Cusuco National Park, conducted by Drs. Kelly, Dietzch and co-workers as a part of a broader survey by Operation Wallacea, an international organisation dealing with biodiversity and conservation management research programmes.

A couple of curious findings in the past decade provide a strong incentive to further work. The place turns out to be not only of high biodiversity, but to also contain rare and hitherto unknown plant and animal species.

For instance, the tree Hondurodendron (from Greek, ‘Honduras Tree’) and the herbaceous plant Calathea carolineae are another two endemic species discovered as a result of the Operation Wallacea survey.

In 2013, two individuals of another unknown, 10-metre high (33 ft) tree with cream-colored flowers and red, cherry-like fruits were found by Daniel Kelly and Anke Dietzsch from Trinity College, University of Dublin, Ireland. The two were aided by local guide Wilmer Lopez.

The multinational collaboration did not stop then and there. Although the scientists quickly figured that the tree belonged to the Coffee family, they needed some additional help to further identify their discovery. Thus, they were joined by two leading specialist in this plant group, first Charlotte Taylor from Missouri Botanical Garden and then David Lorence from the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii.

It was actually David who was the first to recognise the unknown tree as a member of theSommera genus, a group of nine known species of trees and shrubs. Later, the team decided to name the new plant Sommera cusucoana to celebrate its singular locality, the Cusuco National Park.

“Sadly, there has been extensive logging in the vicinity in recent years, and we fear for the future of our new species,” the authors stressed. “According to the criteria of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), it must be regarded as Critically Endangered.”

“We hope that the publication of this and other discoveries will help to galvanize support for the conservation of this unique and beautiful park and its denizens,” they concluded.

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Original Source:

Lorence DH, Dietzsch AC, Kelly DL (2015) Sommera cusucoana, a new species of Rubiaceaefrom Honduras. PhytoKeys 57: 1-9. doi: 10.3897/phytokeys.57.5339

Under the wing of science: Two methods for aging nestling Carnaby’s cockatoo species

Multi-year research on two populations of the endangered endemic Carnaby’s cockatoo in southwestern Australia was conducted in order for two separate methods for nestlings aging to be assessed. If accurate enough, Dr. Denis Saunders and his team believe that the results could be vital in the threatened species’ preservation, as explained in the Carnaby’s cockatoo’s recovery plan.

One of the methods they have looked into is based on changes in the physical appearance of nestlings over the 10-11 week nestling period. The other relies on measurements of a nestling’s folded wing length and its comparison with growth curves from measurements of nestlings of known age. In their paper the Australian team also examines the timing and length of the egg-laying season. Their research is published in the open-access journal Nature Conservation.

The researchers point out that accurate nestling aging is essential for many ecological studies. The data could be used in investigating population dynamics, life histories, behaviour, longevity, conservation planning and management. It could also help in scheduling the visits of breeding areas so that the disturbance for the populations is minimised without compromising the results.

The scientists found out that observing the changes in a nestling’s size and feathers is less accurate than measuring the folded wing length. Its main disadvantage turned out to be the lack of distinguishable physical changes once the birds become about nine-week-old. However, “with experience it may be useful for gaining an approximation of the commencement and end of the breeding season without having to handle nestlings to take measurements,” the team says.

Their research on the egg-laying dates concluded that the most effective approach for examining nestlings is to conduct two visits per breeding season. Curiously, their findings showed that in wetter autumns the egg-laying begins earlier.

The team also suggests that their methods could be adopted for aging the currently under-researched closely related Baudin’s cockatoo until more species-specific technique is found.

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Original source:

 

Saunders DA, Dawson R, Nicholls AO (2015) Aging nestling Carnaby’s cockatoo, Calyptorhynchus latirostris, and estimating the timing and length of the breeding season.Nature Conservation 12: 27-42. doi: 10.3897/natureconservation.12.4863