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Web Hunt: Biodiversity in Vietnam

Why are scientists so fascinated with the plants and animals in this small country in Southeast Asia? Find out as you explore Vietnam’s diverse habitats on this virtual trip to the American Museum of Natural History.

May 8, 2006
Martha M. Hurley is a conservation biologist for the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. (Photo courtesy of M. Hurley)
Martha M. Hurley is a conservation biologist for the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. (Photo courtesy of M. Hurley)

From its tropical forests to its mountains to its coral reefs, Vietnam is home to an amazing diversity of plants and animals — including many species found nowhere else in the world. But the scope of the country’s biodiversity was largely unknown to the outside world until recently. Vietnam had been shut off to Western scientists since the 1940s because of political turmoil and conflicts. When Western scientists were invited back in in the 1990s, they were astonished to discover many new species of plants and animals — long known to the local Vietnamese, but never before identified by scientists. Scientists also found that the country’s habitats and wildlife were in danger from hunting and habitat loss. For the past 10 years, scientists from the American Museum of Natural History have worked with Vietnamese and other international researchers to catalogue and help protect the region’s plant and animal species. Explore some of the country’s remarkable biodiversity, its relationship to the geography, and why so many species are threatened.

1. Vietnam’s biodiversity is closely linked to its geography. This relationship between the distribution of species, their evolutionary history, and the environments where they’re found is called biogeography. Explain why tropical areas like Vietnam tend to have more species than areas the same size farther from the equator. How does Vietnam’s position at three colliding plates affect its biodiversity? Why are species on the western and eastern slopes of the Truong Son mountain range different?

2. The green pricklenape lizard is a good example of biogeography. How do scientists explain how this lizard spread across Southeast Asia? What’s keeping it from spreading farther to the west?

3. Several of Vietnam’s plants and animals are endemic species — they are unique to the country and cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Explore three species that live only in Vietnam: the Annam flying frog, the Delacour’s leaf monkey, and a rare orchid. Where does the Annam flying frog live? How did it get its name? How do infant leaf monkeys change when they grow up? Describe the habitat of the orchid Dendrobium ochraceum. Why is this species threatened?

4. Scientists in Vietnam have also identified several new species of animals, including insects, reptiles, amphibians, and even a few larger mammals. Check out the Ba Na eastern spadefoot toad, which was discovered in 1997. Why do these toads make their mating calls from inside holes? Another exciting discovery was the large-antlered muntjac. Why are these animals called “barking deer”? Describe their habitat.

5. Scientists in Vietnam have discovered more than just new animal species. In the past 10 years, they’ve also identified more than 100 new plant species. Why is one group of plants, the cycads, called “living fossils”? Why is Vietnam an ideal place to study cycads?

6. In one expedition, Museum scientists traveled to Mount Tay Con Linh to inventory the diversity of birds in these mountains. Click through the slide show to view just a few of the array of birds they observed. (Click “View Slide Show” to access the slides.) Compare the physical appearance and songs of two typical Southeast Asian birds, the long-tailed broadbill and the large niltava.

Bonus Round: Biodiversity at Risk
Vietnam’s incredible biodiversity is at risk. In 2003, more than 280 species of the country’s plants and animals were threatened with extinction. Some of the animals in most danger are birds, reptiles, and mammals. Describe one major threat each to Vietnam’s song birds, the Indochinese box turtle, and the dhole. Many plant species in Vietnam are also endangered. Why is the evergreen plant, the Fokienia, at risk?

Deforestation, or the removal of trees, is a major threat to much of Vietnam’s wildlife. So is forest fragmentation, the division of forests into smaller fragments by logging, road building, or farming. Why are large mammals like elephants in particular danger from forest fragmentation?

Some of Vietnam’s species are so rare, they can be almost impossible to track. How did scientists capture this picture of the elusive Eld’s deer?