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Friday, August 14, 2009

Life has new meaning in the Himalayas

By Raja Murthy

An intrepid tribe of scientific Indiana Joneses has unearthed a remarkable treasure trove of unknown species in the eastern Himalayas, marking one of the biggest-ever series of discoveries of new life forms on Earth.

In a search from 1998 to 2008 that covered the eastern Himalayan regions of India, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, scientists found 353 new species - including 242 plants, 16 amphibians, 16 reptiles, 14 fish, two birds, two mammals and 61 invertebrates.

The high number of new species found in one sub-region suggests a call for increased investment to learn and care more about terrestrial life forms - before spending billions looking for extra-terrestrial versions in Mars and beyond.

With the major success of the biological brand of Indiana Jones in the eastern Himalayas, the region ranks among the top of famous biological hotspots among 200 globally designated areas rich with animal and plant life, such as Borneo in Asia and the California Floristic Province in North America.

A World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report released on August 10, titled "Collision of Worlds - New Species Discoveries, Eastern Himalayas", gave more details of the fascinating finds over the past decade.

Star discoveries included the leaf deer (Muntiacus putaoensis) which is now the world's smallest deer, standing 60 centimeters to 80 centimeters tall and weighing about 11 kilograms.

Other significant recent finds included the primate Arunachal macaque (Macaca munzala) that is the first new monkey species found in over a century, and a brightly colored bird named the Bugun Liocichla (Liocichla bugunorum) that an Indian astronomer and bird-watcher Ramana Athreya first spotted in 2006.

The discovery of the Arunachal macaque, for instance, was most significant, say scientists. The macaque, a type of monkey, was named after India's Arunachal Pradesh state where it was found. Finding new mammal species, especially primates - the order of beings that include lemurs, apes, monkeys and, allegedly, us humans - is ranked high in the "very rare" list among scientists worldwide.

"The Arunchal macaque is also one of the highest-dwelling primates in the world, and certainly of all macaques, occurring between 1,600 meters and 3,500 meters about sea level," said the WWF report.

The biological exploring of the the eastern Himalayas included the Chinese botanist duo of Yuan Yong-ming and Ge Xue-jun, who discovered the blue diamond impatiens flower in Medog, Tibet, a remote region nearly 1,000 meters above sea level and 100 kilometers from any roads.

The blue diamond impatiens (Impatiens Namchabarwensis) was named after the remote Namcha Barwa canyon where the Chinese duo first spotted it. Growing to 60 centimeters in height, it can blossom all year and its petals dramatically change color according to season. It sometimes appears beautifully blue during cool weather and then turns purple, as if angry in hotter temperatures.

Biologists Yuan and Ge found this highly endemic (meaning region-specific) marine-blue flower in 2005. They had determinedly plunged into the bowels of the Namcha Barwa canyon, a gorge nearly 250km long and with some of its areas nearly twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US.

More such fascinating floral life forms could be waiting to be discovered in the Himalayas, for instance in the Valley of Flowers in India's Uttaranchal state.

The Himalayas, the world's largest range of mountains, is already designated home to an estimated 10,000 plant species, 300 mammal species, 977 bird species, 176 reptiles, 105 amphibians and 269 freshwater fish.

More famously, the eastern Himalayas also hosts the highest population of the Bengal tiger and the one-horned rhino in the world, two majestic beasts facing extinction thanks to human greed and foolishness.

The near-mystical snow leopard, too, prowls this region. Myth has it that the Yeti, the un-abominable snowman, resides somewhere in a penthouse cave in the Himalayas.

Much life already teems in the Himalayas. "The world's northern-most tropical rainforests can be found in the eastern Himalayas and nearly half of the flowering plant and bird species known from India," confirms the WWF report "Collision of Worlds". "The plant life of Arunachal Pradesh is considered among the most diverse in the world, ranking second only to Sumatra in Indonesia and greater than Borneo, Brazil and Papua New Guinea."

The title "Collision of Worlds" refers to the creation of the 3,000-km "Himalayas", the word meaning "abode of snow" in the ancient Indian Sanskrit language. The Himalayas arose from a mighty collision of two continental plates - the chunk of earth containing India crashing into the rest of Eurasia - some 50 million years ago.

The collision of the two "worlds" was so emphatic that the pressure is still being felt 50 millions years later. Geologists say the Himalayas continues to grow taller into the skies.

Inevitably, the 30-page "Collision of the Worlds" report listing discovery of so many life forms - in so brief a period in just one region of the Himalayas - makes one wonder how many more life forms await discovery in the rest of the land and water of planet Earth.

Oceans, for instance, from where the mighty Himalayas arose, cover about 70.8%, or 361 million square kilometers, of the Earth's surface. What strange and wonderful creatures do the oceans of the world hide?

"There are more species of animal in the deep sea than beetles in the rainforest," according to Dr John Copley, a deep-sea biologist in the National Oceanography Center, Southampton, quoted in Britain's Telegraph newspaper in its May 11, 2009, edition.

An intriguing hint of what incredible and mysterious life forms lurk in watery depths comes up in deep-sea exploration projects such as HADEEP, in collaboration with the University of Tokyo.

Funded by the Nippon Foundation in Japan since 2006, and by the British Natural Environment Research Council since 2007, HADEEP is the Indiana Jones of the vast ocean depths. The project uses deep-sea machines, or "landers", carrying high-definition video cameras that can operate at ocean depths where no human can survive.

At depths where the mountain of water above is equivalent to the pressure of 1,600 elephants standing on the roof of a small car, HADEEP machines - with their roof made not of glass, but a sheet of sapphire - produced footage that stunned scientists.

They expected to find little or no life at ocean depths of 11,000 meters, a depth vertically more downwards than Mount Everest in height, where there is little oxygen and light for life forms to survive. Yet they found this ocean depth awash with life.

"We got some absolutely amazing footage from 7,700 meters," project leader Alan Jamieson, aboard the Japanese research ship Hakuho-Maru, said in a media release dated October 7, 2008. "More fish than we or anyone in the world would ever have thought possible at these depths."

The incredible life forms included the black dragon fish that emits infra-red light. Another strange creature of the deep, the spookfish, also called barreleye - because its eyes can turn through 90 degrees - has a transparent skull through which its glowing green brain can be seen throbbing.

How many life-filled Himalayas lie in ocean depths? The 353 new species found in the past decade in the eastern Himalayas finds awesome perspective in the "Census for Marine Life", a decade-old global network of researchers in over 80 countries that is studying life in oceans.

The census, a first-of-its kind project undertaken by the Washington-based Consortium for Ocean Leadership, plans to release "the world's first comprehensive census of marine life - past, present and future" in 2010.

Involving an astonishing number of over 400 governmental and private organizations worldwide, the Census for Marine Life is one of the most significant and least-known projects in the world.

Its participants include the New York-based Alfred P Sloan Foundation, Google, the Cousteau Society, the National Institute of Oceanography of India, the Ministry of Science and Technology of China, the European Commission, the National Geographic Society, Stanford University, the US Army Corps of Engineers and the World Wildlife Fund, Canada.

Biologists have already identified 1.5 million terrestrial plants and animals in the 23% of land that forms the Earth. But if an average of 30 new life forms is being discovered in one sub-region of the Himalayas, how many more unknown millions of remarkable creatures share our land space?

The remaining 73% of watery Earth hosts a confirmed list of 230,000 species of marine animals, the number a mere fraction of what scientists expect to find in the deep. They estimate a mind-boggling 10 million undiscovered species living in the oceans, undetected perhaps for millions of years. The number might as well be 100 million, given the vast ocean depth terrain.

Vast underwater oceanic mountain ranges, also called sea-mounts, number in the tens of thousands and offer secluded places were it may take centuries of evolved high-technology scientific equipment to detect life forms.

For instance, the deepest place on the surface of Earth is under ocean waters. It's called the Mariana Trench, near Guam in the Pacific Ocean, east of the 14 Mariana Islands, at 11"21' north latitude and 142" 12' east longitude, and near Japan. Scientists say that if Mount Everest were placed in the deepest part of the trench, there would be 1.6 kilometers of water above it.

The "Collision of the Worlds" report and the Census for Marine Life project strongly indicate how many more millions of life forms exist. Sadly, if the endangered Asiatic elephant, the Bengal tiger and the one-horned rhinoceros could hire public relations agencies, they might warn these undiscovered, exotic species to stay hidden from humans.
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