Scientists and animal lovers alike were caught off guard last month by the discovery of a new bird species right in the heart of Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, with a population of 1.5 million people. Curious to know how much of an anomaly the Cambodian Tailorbird is, we dug a little deeper — and discovered that the feathered newcomer is only the latest in a series of new species to be discovered in Asia, where a number of previously unknown mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, and plants have been identified in the last couple of decades.
In some parts of Asia (such as Cambodia, for instance), years of violent conflict previously inhibited the exploration of remote areas. But many animal and bird species are also only now being described following initial mislabeling or after spending years "hiding in plain sight" near densely populated regions. The eight newly recognized species showcased here represent just some of Asia's most recent arrivals to scientific consciousness.
Cambodian Tailorbird (Cambodia)
Formally granted species status just two weeks ago, the Cambodian Tailorbird (Orthotomus chaktomuk) was first photographed and misidentified in 2009 during routine sampling for avian flu. In 2012, scientists spotted the bird at a construction site in the Cambodian capital city of Phnom Penh and began questioning its original classification. The species epithet chaktomuk is a Khmer word meaning "four faces," an allusion to the bird's habitat in the area where the the Tonle, Sap, Bassac and Mekong rivers converge.
Helen's Flying Frog (Vietnam)
This 3.5-inch-long frog was also discovered near a city. While conducting a survey in a well-traversed area in 2009, amphibian expert Jodi Rowley happened upon a specimen of what would become Helen's Flying Frog (Rhapcophorus helenae) perched on a log less than 60 miles outside of Ho Chi Minh City. There are 80 types of flying frog, a label given to frogs that use their webbed appendages to glide, but R. helenae is distinctive in that its sizable hands and feet are webbed all the way to the toepad. In her 2012 paper, Rowley named the frog in honor of her mother, Helen Rowley.
Semachrysa jade (Malaysia)
In a fortuitous collision of social media and science, Semachrysa jade was discovered after macro photographer Kurt (Hock Ping Guek) of orionmystery captured photos of a particularly exquisite green lacewing he had come across and posted them to his Flickr page. When entomologist Shaun Winterton chanced upon the photos, he realized that the lacewing with an unusual smudge on its wings could be a new species. It was only after Guek physically captured a specimen a year later in 2012, however, that definitive analysis could be performed and the lacewing declared a new species. S. jade is named not for its pale green hue but for Winterton's daughter, Jade Tanya Winterton.
Camiguin Hawk Owl (Philippines)
The existence of the Camiguin Hawk Owl (Ninox leventisi) as its own species was announced in a 2012 paper that also documented the rediscovery of the Cebu Hawk Owl (Ninox rumseyi). The Camiguin Hawk Owl is endemic to Camiguin Sur, the small Philippine island for which it is named. Originally thought to be a subspecies of another Philippine owl, N. leventisi was revealed to be a discrete species after researchers collected enough recordings of its vocalizations to establish that they were markedly different from other owls'.
Calotes bachae (Vietnam)
Calotes bachae was confirmed as a separate species in 2013 after genetic testing was performed on a specimen — initially thought to be a member of another, visually similar lizard species — that was captured during a survey in Vietnam's Cat Tien National Park. During the day, especially during mating season, males are vividly hued in shades of cobalt blue and turquoise, but in the evening, they are a dark brown. C. bachae, which can grow up to 11 inches in length, is sometimes also found in downtown Ho Chi Minh City parks.
Seram Masked Owl (Indonesia)
After first being photographed in 1987, the Seram Masked Owl (Tyto almae) was identified in 2012 on Seram, one of the largest islands in the Indonesian archipelago that served as Darwin contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace's Galápagos. The owl joins at least 13 other species that are endemic to the island. T. almae is named for Alma Jønsson, the daughter of senior report author Knud Andreas Jønsson.
Elegant Rainbow Skink (Australia)
The Elegant Rainbow Skink (Carlia decora) is the latest addition to a list of Australian skinks that comprises nearly 400 species. C. decora, which achieved species status in 2012, is not a new sight to herpetologists — it is in fact the most common skink in the Queensland city of Townsville — but was previously considered part of another species, despite morphological differences. The species epithet decora is Latin for "beautiful."
Margaretamys christinae (Indonesia)
Margaretamys christinae was discovered in 2011 in the Mekongga mountains of Sulawesi, the Indonesian island where the three other rodent members of the Margaretamys genus are also found. Like its fellow Indonesian the Seram Masked Owl, M. christinae is endemic to its island home, and its discovery is particularly notable because the naming of a new mammal species is a rare event. In his paper, published in 2012, researcher Alessio Mortelliti named M. christinae after his girlfriend Christina, who accompanied him on the expedition that yielded the discovery.