Menagerie of new species

THE Vu Quang forest, a sweltering, extremely wet, slime-covered rocky terrain on the mountainous border between Laos and Vietnam, is proving to be a veritable zoo of animals unknown to science.

After the discovery of the Vu Quang ox (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) last year (Down To Earth, August 31, 1993), biologists John MacKinnon and Shanthini Dawson, the latter from India, both working on a World Wide Fund for Nature project in Vietnam, stumbled on another creature -- a giant muntjac or barking deer (BBC Wildlife, Vol 12, No 6).

As with the Vu Quang ox, the barking deer is known only from its remains, especially horns, found with the local villagers. The giant muntjac may have remained unknown if it hadn't been for Dawson's insistence on checking out rumours that the local people also had giant muntjac skulls. A quick examination of the skulls convinced the scientists that they belonged to some sort of muntjac and this has since been confirmed by an analysis of DNA by Peter Arctander, working at the University of Copenhagen. Some fieldworkers contracted by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society now even claim to have taken blood samples from a live giant muntjac. The claim is yet to be verified.

The remains of the giant muntjac suggest it was about 80 cm tall, with 20 cm long antlers, and weighed up to 50 kg, almost double that of the common muntjac that is widely distributed throughout Asia. Though the scientists are almost sure the new find belongs to a distinct species, taxonomists are still debating whether it belongs to a new genus as well.

Close on the heels of this discovery, Vietnamese scientist Nguyen Ngoc Chinh found the skull of a creature that the local hunters call the quang khem or the slow-running deer, which may be a new species. The skull was found north of the Vu Quang forest.

With one biological find after another, Mackinnon recently told Time magazine that this area is "a biological goldmine". Apart from the 3 creatures, a monkey, a fish and a pheasant that aren't found anywhere else have also been discovered in the inhospitable area around Vu Quang forest. The scientists believe that the climate in this region probably remained unchanged for several million years, allowing these species to survive.

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