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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Scientists Find Dozens of New Species in Rainforests

At least 52 new species of animals and plants have been identified this past year on the island of Borneo, according to scientists.

The discoveries, described in a report compiled by WWF, include 30 unique fish species, two tree frog species, 16 ginger species, three tree species and one large-leafed plant species. The 52 new species were discovered between July 2005 and September 2006.

WWF says that these findings further highlight the need to conserve the habitat and species of the world's third largest island.

"The more we look the more we find," says Stuart Chapman, WWF International Coordinator of the Heart of Borneo Program. "These discoveries reaffirm Borneo's position as one of the most important centers of biodiversity in the world."

Borneo is one of only two places on earth -- the other one is Sumatra Island -- where endangered species such as orangutans, elephants and rhinos co-exist. Other threatened wildlife that lives in Borneo include clouded leopards, sun bears, and endemic Bornean gibbons. The island is also home to 10 primate species, over 350 bird species, 150 reptiles and amphibians and 15,000 plants.

Many of these creatures new to science are amazing: a miniature fish --the world's second smallest vertebrate, measuring less than one centimeter in length and found in the highly acidic blackwater peat swamps of theisland; six Siamese fighting fish, including one species with a beautiful iridescent blue-green marking; a catfish with protruding teeth and an adhesive belly which allows it to literally stick to rocks; and a tree frog with striking bright green eyes.

For plants, the ginger discoveries more than double the entire number of the Etlingera species found to date, and the tree flora of Borneo has been expanded by three new tree species of the genus Beilschmiedia.

Several of these new species were found in the "Heart of Borneo," a220,000km-square mountainous region covered with equatorial rainforest in the center of the island. But WWF warns that this habitat continues to bethreatened with large areas of forest being increasingly cleared forrubber, oil palm and pulp production. Since 1996, deforestation across Indonesia has increased to an average of 2 million hectares per year and today only half of Borneo's original forest cover remains, according to the global conservation organization.

"The remote and inaccessible forests in the Heart of Borneo are one ofthe world's final frontiers for science and many new species continue to bediscovered here. We are just waiting for the next surprise," adds Chapman."But these forests are also vital because they are the source of most ofthe island's major rivers, and act as a natural "fire-break" against thefires that have ravaged the lowlands this year."

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. It is now hoped that they will finalize a formal joint declaration as a matter of urgency to put the Heart of Borneo on the global stage of conservation priorities.

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