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The Popa langur (Trachypithecus popa)

Today’s news featured a story which I wasn’t expecting at all in 2022–a new species of primate has been identified in the Mekong region! Actually the new langur was discovered in 2020 (when it was duly reported by the BBC) but the news did not make it to the World Wildlife Fund’s list of newly discovered species until now thanks to circumstances of the wider world. Indeed, the endearing Popa langur was not alone: there were 224 newly discovered species on the list released by the conservation group. The list highlights the need to protect biodiversity in the Mekong region (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam) where new species are still being discovered. Ferrebeekeeper has previously posted about the saola and iridescent snake for similar reasons (you should look at those posts since they rhapsodize about the mysterious hinterlands of Indochina, which are home to all sorts of mysterious and compelling creatures). Speaking of new snakes, this year’s WWF report also included a bright orange snake that lives on slugs!

The new langur species was identified by whiskers which point forward and by broad white circles around its clever eyes…oh and by DNA (in fact the species was originally discovered and collected in the 19th century, but nobody properly identified the bones at Britain’s Natural History Museum as belonging to a new monkey species until now). Unfortunately this “new” primate is already in pretty deep trouble and scientists estimate the total population to be at 200-300 individuals, most of whom seem to live near Myanmar’s dormant Popa Volcano (an otherworldly location pictured immediately below).

Mount Popa also features a fetching monastery

It is easy to wring our hands about the fate of these amazing new rainforest organisms, since they may well disappear forever…right after we have learned they exist. Myanmar, in particular, is going through a destructive era in the aftermath of the 2021 coup d’etat. Yet the pristine forests of Southeast Asia (along with their ghost monkeys, iridescent snakes, and giant catfish) have lasted this long thanks to their remoteness and to the customs and lifestyles of the people who live there. And the national governments are not universally dedicated to economic extraction over all else (Vietnam in particular is serious about protecting its ecological treasures–like their astonishing giant softshell turtles). The rest of us need to find a way to help out. There are wonders in the Mekong jungle (and I never even told you about the new succulent bamboo species).

Mekong Giant Catfish

The largest freshwater fish currently alive is the endangered Mekong Giant Catfish Pangasianodon gigas (there are sturgeons which are much heavier and longer, however they are classified as anadromous—they breed in freshwater but live in the sea).  The largest Mekong catfish on record have measured up to 3.2 meters (10 feet) with a mass greater than 300 kilograms (660 pounds).  Ichthyologists know little about the life patterns and spawning habits of the enigmatic Mekong catfish.  Juvenile catfish undergo an omnivorous stage when they eat insect larvae, zooplankton, and other small fish (including smaller juvenile Mekong catfish).  As soon as they reach their adult stage the catfish lose their barbels (the “whiskers” from which catfish derive their common English name) as well as their teeth to adapt a vegetarian diet of algae. The adult fish are silver or gray with yellowish bellies.

Giant catfish once lived throughout South East Asia in the waterways of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and Yunnan. But today, overfishing, dam-building and industrialization have taken a heavy toll: the Mekong Giant Catfish can only be found in Mekong River and its tributaries in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

 

Because of their giant size and their mysterious habits, the catfish have a place in the mythology and folklore of South East Asia.  The fish feature in many tales of Buddhist monks, najas, and water spirits. Miranda Leitsinger, who wrote an article about the fish, even relates a story of ritual human sacrifice, “In Laos, legend has it that four centuries ago, the king used to sacrifice a man and woman each year to cave spirits to get their permission to catch the giant catfish.”  Apparently the cave and water spirits are not the force they once were, because today the Mekong giant catfish is rapidly becoming a legend itself.

Prehistoric cave paintings of fishermen throwing nets at the catfish (upper left) from Pha Taem National Park. The paintings are possibly 3,000 years old or older.

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June 2022
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