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Secret species: scientists team up to discover and preserve tropical wildlife.

In the early 1990s, as government researchers hiked through the forests of Vietnam, they spotted something they had never seen before: the top half of a skull with long, curved horns. The bones resembled a hybrid of a half-goat-half-antelope. Interviews with local residents who had collected the skull led researchers to conclude that it was from an animal called the saola.

Researchers who spotted the skull had never seen a saola alive the wild, and no one today is sure how many exist. The saola is very large--85 kilograms (200 pounds). So how could a mammal this big go undiscovered by scientists for so long in a country smaller than California and packed with 85 million people?

Until the early 1990s, only people living in Vietnam and Laos knew of the saola's existence. That's because Vietnam had been isolated from much of the world since the mid-1940s due to years of conflicts, including the American war in Vietnam. Scientists from countries like the U.S. were blocked from studying there. Beginning in the early 1990s, Western scientists were able to study in this biologically diverse region.


Since 1997, scientists from the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC) at the American Museum of Natural History in New York have worked alongside Vietnamese and other international researchers to catalogue newly discovered plants and animals. Their goal is to create awareness of the urgent need to conserve Vietnam's wildlife and their habitats.

"There are species in Vietnam that are not found anywhere else in the world," says Martha M. Hurley, a scientist working on the CBC's Vietnam project.

Since beginning their work, the CBC scientists and their collaborators have found a small zoo's worth of animals. They have found one genus and three species of mammals and many new amphibians, reptiles, and insects.

One of the species unique to Vietnam is the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey. These primates have a bluish face and large clownlike lips. Unfortunately, these monkeys are critically endangered by hunting and forest loss.


What about Vietnam makes its wildlife unique? It has much to do with its mountainous geography and tropical climate. Mountains provide stable, humid habitats and shelter areas from outside influences. Plants and animals in these uplands can evolve and remain relatively undisturbed by changes in rainfall or temperature. The mountains and forests make it hard for scientists to find these rare species. When they find an area with such plants and animals, the researchers work with the Vietnamese government to protect the wildlife within it. They also work with scientists there to create new ways to conserve the areas.

Hurley says it is important to protect these animals because if they die out in Vietnam, they are lost from the planet forever.

what's this?

Can you guess what animal is shown in the photo below? HINT: Its scientific name is Nycticebus pygmaeus.

Find the answer at:

The Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC), established at the American Museum of Natural History in 1993, is dedicated to the study and conservation of biological diversity. The CBC coordinates partnerships between the Museum's scientific staff and national and international conservation organizations. Current initiatives include programs in Bolivia, Vietnam, and New York.

To learn more, ask your teacher, or visit

web extra

To learn more about conservation, visit:


Jump-start your lesson with these pre-reading questions:

* The Mekong River, which runs through southern Vietnam, is home to the world's largest, scaleless freshwater fish. The Mekong giant catfish can grow to 3 meters (10 feet) in length, weigh up to 295 kilograms (650 pounds), and live for more than 60 years. This jumbo fish is also endangered. Overfishing and pollution are causing the giant catfish population to decline. What other animal species that live in Vietnam are endangered?

* The Tonkin snub-nosed Monkey, which is endemic to Vietnam, is one of the top 25 critically endangered primates of the world. Approximately 200 of the species remain today. For a large part of the 20th century, primatologists considered the species extinct until a few of the monkeys were rediscovered in 1989. What are some factors that make it difficult for scientists to locate certain species in Vietnam?


* Do you think it's important to save rare species? Explain your reasoning.


LANGUAGE ARTS: Have students imagine they are scientists on an expedition to study the unique species that live in Vietnam. One day, they catch a glimpse of a never-before-seen species. Have each student create a field-journal entry about the brief sighting of the animal. The entry should include a description of the animal, and provide information about where and how it was discovered. It should also include ideas on how the expedition team might search for the animal. Be sure to tell students to do research to help them create an accurate description of Vietnam.


* To learn more about Martha M. Hurley's work, visit this Web site from the American Museum of Natural History:

* For more information about the saola, check out this World Wildlife Fund Web site:

* Visit this Web site of the Primate Specialist Group to download a conservation action plan for saving the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey:

* For maps and general background information about Vietnam, visit this Web site created by the Vietnamese Embassy in the United States:
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Author:Klein, Andrew
Publication:Science World
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Apr 2, 2007
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