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Life has new meaning in the Himalayas

August 17, 2009

By Raja Murthy
Asia Times
August 15, 2009

MUMBAI - 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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