The Global Genome Initiative (GGI) and the Smithsonian Myanmar Biodiversity Initiative are working with Fauna & Flora International's (FFI) on conservation research to protect and preserve Myanmar forests rich in biodiversity.
The Tenasserim is an area on the Malaysian Peninsula that was politically contested between Myanmar and Thailand in the 1700’s; it later became an administrative unit under British-India and is now recognized as the Tanintharyi Region of Myanmar. The geography contains a mountain chain of lowland tropical forest and a coastal mangrove archipelago along the western edge.
This was my third summer in the Tenasserim conducting biodiversity surveys (see my blog from 2015); my focus is on amphibians and reptiles. One of the goals of FFI in Myanmar is focused in the southern Tanintharyi, to identify biodiversity values and the threats they face, with an emphasis on tiger conservation. With the tigers being a “top predator,” their fate is linked with that of the entire forest. Therefore, FFI has set up the Tanintharyi Conservation Program, working with the Myanmar government and non-governmental organizations in both Myanmar and neighboring Thailand to conserve the biodiversity in this region.
The Smithsonian contributes through training and conducting research in biodiversity studies, by scientists with specialized taxonomic expertise. This year we worked with and trained students from the departments of Botany and Zoology, of Myeik University. Our surveys consist of hiking on trails and through streams, day and night, searching for amphibians and reptiles. The Zoology Department researchers worked with me, and two Myanmar conservation biologist colleagues Myint Kyaw Thura and Thaw Zin, studying the amphibians and reptiles of the Tanintharyi Region of Myanmar.
The Tenasserim has a rich amphibian and reptile diversity that is important for taxonomic studies because it contains many "type localities" from early explorations (mid-1800's). A type locality is the place from where the specimens used to describe a new species were initially collected. This is important, for instance, when a widespread species is re-evaluated as multiple species. For example, the Black-striped Frog (Sylvirana nigrovitatta) was thought to range from India east to Vietnam, and China south to Malaysia. Now we are finding that it consists of multiple species based on genetic data. The type locality is "the valley of the Tenasserim River." Therefore, our genomic samples appear to represent the type material and will maintain the name Sylvirana nigrovitatta, while other more genetically (and geographically) distant populations will later be recognized as distinct species.
We have found up to four species of tree frogs in the genus Polypedates, a speciose genus common throughout Southeast Asia. This year we found many more, breeding on the trails and in bogs. They are "foam-nesters," meaning they lay their eggs in a nest of foam (on the ground or in vegetation), thereby keeping them moist throughout their development. This year we will use DNA Barcoding to verify which species lay their eggs on the ground, and which species lay their eggs in the vegetation, contributing to our knowledge of the biology and life history of this unique group of frogs.
In summary, this year's trip to Myanmar was another success. We collected many genomic samples in order to fulfill GGI's goal to collect and preserve genomic biodiversity of life on Earth. We also trained students in biodiversity science and surveys, and I presented preliminary results of our amphibian and reptile DNA Barcoding work in the Tanintharyi at FFI's Tiger Conservation Workshop in Myeik. Our conservation research efforts in Myanmar are conducted under collaboration between FFI and Smithsonian Institution, funded through generous support of the Helmsley Charitable Trust, the European Union (Myanmar), and GGI. Each year I come back physically and mentally exhausted, thinking this will be the last trip I make—but once I recover, I can't wait to go back!