KATMANDU, Nepal – The world's smallest deer, a flying frog and catfish that stick to rocks — as well as more than 350 other species — have been discovered over the past decade in the Himalayas, making it one of the world's most biologically rich regions, an environmental group said Monday.
But researchers warn that the effects of climate change, as well as development, threaten the diverse habitat that supports these species.
"This enormous cultural and biological diversity underscores the fragile nature of an environment which risks being lost forever unless the impacts of climate change are reversed," said Tariq Aziz, the leader of the World Wildlife Fund's Living Himalayas Initiative, a regional conservation program that covers India, Nepal and Bhutan.
The WWF is calling on the countries to develop a conservation plan for the region — which also includes parts of Myanmar and Tibet — and for governments to give local communities more authority to manage the forests, grasslands and wetlands.
The group found that almost three-quarters of the discoveries between 1998 and 2008 were plants, including 21 new orchid species. But it also listed 16 amphibians, 16 reptiles, 14 fish, two birds, two mammals and at least 60 new invertebrates. Most of the discoveries have already been reported in peer-reviewed, scientific journals.
Among the most exciting was the miniature muntjac, the world's smallest deer species — standing just 25-30 inches tall and weighing about 24 pounds. Scientists at first believed the animal found in northern Myanmar was a juvenile of another species, but DNA tests confirmed it was distinct.
Scientists also found Rhacophorus suffry, a bright green frog in northeast India that uses its long, webbed feet to glide in the air. They also discovered two chocolate-brown catfish from Nepal that have evolved unique adhesive undersides to stick to rocks in fast-moving streams.
"It is astonishing to observe that a large number of new species of flora and fauna are discovered even today in the Himalayas," Nepal's forest and soil conservation minister, Deepak Bohara, said at the release of the report in Katmandu.
Further study of the eastern Himalayas would find far more new species, said Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary Asia, a wildlife and environment magazine published in India.
"There will be close to 3,000-5,000 species that will be discovered if a systematic study is done over the next five years," he said.
Still, observers say there no reason to believe that the area is immune to the effects of climate change and development.
"While climate change has its impact, which is common to all other such hotspots, human-induced projects such as construction of 100-plus dams in such a fragile and relatively small area is going to worsen the situation further," said Anwarudin Choudhury of The Rhino Foundation in India.