Borneo Rainforests Yield Secrets of New Species

GLAND, Switzerland, December 19, 2006 (ENS) - A new species of fish, so tiny that it ranks as the world’s second smallest vertebrate, was discovered this year in Borneo's acidic blackwater peat swamps. Threatened by habitat destruction, this fish is just one of 52 new species of animals and plants that scientists identified on the southeast Asian island.

The discoveries, described in a new report by the global conservation organization WWF, include 30 unique fish species, two tree frogs, 16 ginger species, and three new species of trees.

"The more we look the more we find," said Stuart Chapman, WWF international coordinator of the Heart of Borneo Programme. "These discoveries reaffirm Borneo’s position as one of the most important centers of biodiversity in the world."

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Newly discovered Borneo tree frog species, Rhacophorus gadingensis, is one of dozens of new species described this year for the first time. (Photo © Alexander Haas courtesy WWF)
The Heart of Borneo is a 220,000 square kilometer mountainous region covered with equatorial rainforest in the center of the island.

"These forests are also vital because they are the source of most of the island’s major rivers, and act as a natural "fire-break" against the fires that have ravaged the lowlands this year," Chapman said.

WWF warns that the habitat where these plants and animals have thrived undiscovered for millions of years is at increasing risk.

Conservationists have been warning for years that Borneo could lose almost all its lowland forest and that the need to conserve the habitat and species of the world’s third largest island is urgent.

Large areas of Borneo's rainforest are being cleared for rubber, oil palm and pulp production. Today, WWF estimates, only half of Borneo's original forest cover remains.

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The Rupert River in the Heart of Borneo (Photo © Rupert Ridgeway courtesy WWF)
"The remote and inaccessible forests in the Heart of Borneo are one of the world’s final frontiers for science and many new species continue to be discovered here. We are just waiting for the next surprise," said Chapman.

The new creatures found between July 2005 and September 2006 include a catfish with an adhesive belly which allows it to stick to rocks and maintain its position in turbulent waters. Discovered within the Heart of Borneo in the Kapuas River system, in the province of West Kalimantan, Indonesia, these catfish inhabit fast flowing clear streams with beds made of gravel, cobbles or large rocks.

Six new species of Siamese fighting fish were found in the freshwaters of Borneo. Three were found in the Kapuas River basin at Kalimantan Barat in the Heart of Borneo. The other three were found in other Kalimantan provinces.

The miniature new fish species, Paedocypris micromegethes, is translucent in color and together with its slightly smaller cousin P. progenetica found on Sumatra, measuring 7.9 mm, represent the two smallest vertebrates known to science.

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The miniature new fish species, Paedocypris micromegethes, measures only 8.8 mm in length. Its peat swamp habitat is threatened by logging, urbanization and agriculture. (Photo © Dr. Maurice Kottelat courtesy WWF)
This fish is native to the very acidic, threatened, blackwater peat swamps of Southeast Asia, and was found only in shaded forested areas, not in light exposed open areas.

Habitat destruction jeopardizes the survival of these fishes. The structurally complex peat swamp forests are disappearing quickly in Southeast Asia, due to logging, urbanization and conversion for agricultural use, especially oil palm plantations and shrimp farms.

Peat swamp forests paid a high toll to the forest fires of Sumatra and Borneo in 1997, which lasted for several months. Many of the peat swamps this recent research surveyed throughout Southeast Asia no longer exist and their fauna is eradicated. All the endemic fish species that inhabit the peat swamp forests of Borneo are endangered.

A tree frog with bright green eyes was discovered within the Heart of Borneo, at Gunung Murid Sarawak, the highest mountain in the state of Sarawak, in northwestern Borneo. The species, Polypedates chlorophthalmus, is named for its strikingly colored eyes, its name coming from the Greek for green eyed.

For plants, the ginger discoveries more than double the entire number of the Etlingera species found to date,

The known trees of Borneo have been expanded by three new tree species of the genus Beilschmiedia. Beilschmiedia species exhibit long erect trichomes on twigs, six to ten pairs of secondary leaf veins, and large pale red flowers.

One of the tree species, Beilschmiedia oligantha, was originally discovered in July 1979 but only described as a new species in July 2005. The plant was found in Kapit, in Sarawak Malaysia within the Heart of Borneo boundary.

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Map of Southeast Asia showing the location of Borneo. (Map courtesy CIA World Factbook)
Similarly, Beilschmiedia crassa was discovered in Sarawak in March 1970 in the Kalabit Highlands, Bario and also in Kapit, both locations within the Heart of Borneo boundary. Beilschmiedia microcarpa was discovered in March 1977 in a variety of locations in North Borneo, and in East Kalimantan - some within the Heart of Borneo boundary. These two species were only described to science in July 2006.

In addition to these new species found or described since July 2005, at least 361 new species have been described from Borneo between 1994 and 2004 - 260 insects, 30 freshwater fish, seven frogs, six lizards, five crabs, two snakes and a toad and 50 new plant species.

At a meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity held last March in Curitiba, Brazil, the three Bornean governments - Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia - declared their commitment to support an initiative to conserve and sustainably manage the Heart of Borneo.

Conservationists now hope that they will finalize a formal joint declaration to put the Heart of Borneo on the their list of top conservation priorities.