Biology / Conservation / Ecology

The Snub-Nosed Sneezing Monkey and 210 Other New Himalayan Species

By: Julia Zeh

Edited by: Ashley Koo

Deep in the Eastern Himalayas, isolated from human activities, members of a newly discovered species of snub-nosed monkey sit with their heads between their knees, hiding from the rain. The recently discovered Rhinopithecus strykeri, a member of the snub-nosed monkey genus, is described as having black fur, an upturned face, fleshy lips, and an almost nonexistent nose. In fact, its nostrils are so wide that when it rains the monkey frequently gets water up its nose and starts sneezing. These monkeys will put their heads between their knees in order to keep the water from getting up their noses during the rainy season. Scientists have used this unusual character trait of the monkeys to track them in the wild; they follow the sound of sneezes to find the creature that they have nicknamed “Snubby.”

Unfortunately, no photographs exist of this unique, new species of monkey. Although scientists have observed them in the wild, photographers have not yet been successful in capturing the monkeys on film. Instead, the only photographs scientists have is of a dead individual caught by hunters, which was then eaten.

Local demand for this species is high, and thus it represents a conservation message. Scientists estimate that there are only about 300 individuals left. R. strykeri has qualified for the characterization of “critically endangered” on the International Union for Conservation (IUCN) Red List. This discovery was very recent and yet the scientists found the species at a population level that qualifies it for critically endangered status. This poses a warning for the wellbeing of all species in such a biologically rich area.

A digital reconstruction of Rhinopithecus strykeri, the snub-nosed sneezing monkey.

The snub-nosed monkey is one of the 211 new species discovered in the Eastern Himalayas over the past five years. This includes 133 new plant species, 39 invertebrates, 26 fish, 10 amphibians, one reptile, one bird, and one mammal ( the snub-nosed monkey). The Eastern Himalayas are one of the most biologically rich and diverse places on Earth and are a vital habitat for thousands of organisms. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the ecosystems of the Himalayas are home to at least 10,000 plant species, 300 mammals, 977 birds, 176 reptiles, 105 amphibians, and 269 freshwater fish. Of the organisms that live in the region, 30% of the plant and 40% of the reptile species are unique to this area alone. The Eastern Himalayas are a haven for biodiversity, teeming with life, and there is much still to be explored.

The 211 new species demonstrate the fascinating, unique organisms living in this biodiversity oasis and imply that the age of discovery is not yet over. Among the 26 new fish species discovered was Channa andrao, a walking fish. C. andrao is a long snakehead fish with vibrant, bluish scales, making it distinguishable from other snakeheads. Snakehead fish have gills, but they are still able to breathe air. In fact, this species of snakehead can breathe air for up to four days and can “walk” on land for up to a quarter of a mile, given that the ground is wet. This adaptation is important if the fish’s habitat dries up. When this happens, the fish can survive on land, breathing air, until it rains or the fish can make its way to another source of freshwater. These fish are known to be aggressive and can grow up to 1.2m long.

The “walking” dwarf snakehead fish, Channa andrao

Though we may be in a post-biodiversity era of sorts, this does not spell the end of discovery. In an age that feels saturated with human knowledge about the natural world, it comes as a shock that so much exploration is still possible. Yet, as we reach out to the stars and the outer reaches of the universe, at the same time we are still sending expeditions to the far reaches of the earth. Despite our apparent dominance on this planet, there still exists a multitude of life about which we have little to no knowledge or understanding.

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