These days it is relatively rare for a new, large mammal species to be discovered by scientists. Researchers acknowledge that thousands or millions of insects, plants, and microorganisms remain undiscovered, but most of the world’s larger animal species have at least been identified and given a formal name by scientists. Still, every once in a while a completely new and relatively big mammal species turns up. That’s what happened late last month, when researchers discovered a new snub-nosed monkey in the shrinking forests of Myanmar.
The “sneezing snub-nosed monkey” gets its name from the fact that the nostrils of this species are relatively unprotected, meaning they fill with water and cause the monkeys to sneeze when it rains. Unfortunately this makes it easier for hunters to find the monkeys during the raining season, and many are killed for food. Scientists don’t yet know why the monkeys evolved their unusual faces, or what the benefits of such strangely shaped nostrils could be.
The sneezing snub-nosed monkey was discovered by scientists from the UK-based conservation organization Flora and Fauna International. Researchers tracked down the monkeys with the help of local people familiar with the habits of the species, documenting a dead monkey being sold in a market and eventually finding live ones in the forest of northern Myanmar. There are still no known photographs of a live sneezing snub-nosed monkey, as the animals sighted disappeared before pictures could be taken.
Myanmar’s rainforest ecosystems are home to an immense diversity of plants and animals, including such charismatic species as elephants and tigers. Compared to some nearby countries, this Southeast Asian nation retains relatively large wilderness areas and undisturbed ecosystems. Yet Myanmar’s wildlife is increasingly threatened by both over-hunting and encroaching development, and many of its species are considered at risk of extinction. The sneezing snub-nosed monkey is already classified as critically endangered, and scientists believe less than 300 individuals remain in the wild.
Though the species is new to scientists, local people have known about sneezing snub-nosed monkeys for years—and some have hunted them for food. However a bigger threat to the monkey’s survival is logging and dam development in its habitat, driven largely by economic growth in nearby China. Chinese logging companies are moving into Myanmar’s forests, while a Chinese power provider is looking to build a large dam in the area.
Continued development will mean more roads in the area and improved access to the monkey’s habitat, making it easier for hunters to track them down. Currently monkeys throughout Southeast Asia are under pressure from the illegal wildlife trade; animal parts and sometimes even live animals are sold for medicines, souvenirs, or novelty items on the illegal market. Though China is the biggest market for animal products from Southeast Asia, international poaching operations sell to buyers in the United States as well.
Protecting the sneezing snub-nosed monkey and other endangered species in Myanmar’s forests will require stricter enforcement of wildlife conservation laws, as well as efforts to avoid irresponsible development in the region. Fortunately there are at least some signs China is waking up to the enormous impact its economy has on plant and animal species. At an international conference on biodiversity protection earlier this fall, China announced a new plan to protect threatened and endangered species within its borders. Though critics say the plan does not due enough to curb the illegal wildlife trade, the announcement suggests China at least takes the need for conservation seriously.
In the end, not just China and Myanmar but countries all over the world must commit to preserving biodiversity if extraordinary species like the sneezing snub-nosed monkey are to survive. The discovery of a new, relatively large mammal species in Southeast Asia highlights how much scientists still have to learn about life on this planet, and how fragile much of that life is. It’s to be hoped the discovery of the sneezing snub-nosed monkey will inspire policymakers and ordinary citizens to go to new lengths to protect plant and animal species on this planet.
Photo credit: Preetam Rai