Conservation International & Disney discover new species in the 'Realm of the Yeti'
Scientific discoveries on Himalayas expedition to China and Nepal enhance environmental storyline of Disney's newest attraction, 'Expedition Everest'Scientists from Conservation International (CI) and Disney's Animal Kingdom found a vast array of exotic wildlife–including plant and animal species previously unknown to science–during a two-month expedition to little-known regions in the shadow of Mount Everest. The discoveries and observations announced today, coincident with opening of the Expedition Everest attraction at Walt Disney World Resort, included:
- a giant hornet so deadly, locals call it the 'Yak Killer';
- a beetle that buries birds and small rodents in subterranean crypts to feed its offspring;
- an endangered jumping mouse;
- and several new species of amphibians, insects and ants.
The scientific journey into the mountains of Southwest China and Nepal also included Walt Disney Imagineering representatives who researched cultural beliefs related to the legend of the Yeti, a creature whose traditional role as "protector of the sacred" has been integral to conservation in the region. Those beliefs inspired the story of Expedition Everest – which includes selected findings from the two-month expedition included as part of the experience. Additionally, Jeff Corwin, host of Corwin's Quest, documented the Nepal expedition for broadcast on a special edition of his show Corwin's Quest: Realm of the Yeti, premiering Saturday, April 15, from 8-10 PM (ET/PT) on Discovery's Animal Planet.
"By weaving the scientific discoveries and cultural research into the storyline of Expedition Everest, park visitors are provided with a unique opportunity to learn about the environmental heritage of this region. The experience created by Disney is much more than just the physical thrills of a high-speed journey through the domain of the world's tallest mountain," said Dr. Russ Mittermeier, president of CI. "We are thrilled with Disney's dedication to conservation through their scientific and financial contributions to the expedition."
Even though they faced rugged terrain and frigid temperatures not normally associated with new discoveries, the team of international and local scientists also documented a significant number of new, rare and endangered species - lending further proof to the importance of Tibetan 'Sacred Lands' as a source of environmental protection in the face of increasing population pressures.
"The fact that we found so many new species in such a harsh environment, as well as documented several rare and endangered species, is good news for these two regions," said Dr. Leeanne Alonso, the lead scientist of the expedition and vice-president of CI's Rapid Assessment Program (RAP). "Local efforts by Tibetan communities through their 'Sacred Lands' are helping to prevent these plants and animals from going extinct and demonstrate that cultural values can play an important role in conservation."
Highlights of the new species discovered by the team of biologists, botanists and other technical experts include:
- A wingless grasshopper (Kingdonella) that can withstand extremely low temperatures and communicates by 'gnashing' its teeth. The male in this group rides on the back of the female for quite a long time, often days, to prevent other males from mating with her.
- The confirmation of a new beetle species (Nicrophorus schawalleri) that specializes in burying small bird and rodent carcasses into a subterranean crypt to feed their offspring.
- A new subspecies of a small mammal known as the Qinghai vole (Microtus fuscus), which was also a new record for the Sichuan province.
- Up to three new species of frogs, eight new species of insects, and ten new species of ants
- Several potentially new species of plants.
Among the highlights of the rare and endangered species the team came across are the endangered Sichuan jumping mouse (Eozapus setchuanus); a katydid (Tettigonia chinensis) which has been seen only once since it was described in 1933; and two ancient plant species, including one that is an important source for cancer drugs (Taxus wallichiana). Adding an additional element of danger, the team was also forced to dodge the Giant Asian Hornet (Vespa mandarinia), which local villages have named the 'Yak Killer' for its deadly sting.
A select team from the mission also had the thrill of observing the world's only fully habituated troop of golden monkeys (Rhinopithecus roxellana), which is the region's largest living primate and the country's No. 2 flagship species after the giant panda.
The full results from the expedition will be shared with numerous entities, such as the Chinese government, environmental organizations and scientists to develop conservation strategies to protect the unique species of the region.
During the two-month expedition, the team explored six different sites in the Mountains of Southwest China and Himalaya Biodiversity Hotspots. The biodiversity hotspots are 34 regions worldwide where 75 percent of the planet's most-threatened mammals, birds, and amphibians survive within habitat covering just 2.3 percent of the Earth's surface (roughly equivalent to the combined areas of the five largest U.S. states). Fully 50 percent of the Earth's vascular plants and 42 percent of terrestrial vertebrates exist only in these 34 hotspots. Hotspots face extreme threats and have already lost at least 70 percent of their original vegetation.
"Being part of the Mission Himalayas team has given us all a renewed sense of hope for conservation efforts in this region of the world," said expedition scientific team member Dr. Anne Savage, senior conservation biologist at Disney's Animal Kingdom. "Having seen how the sacred lands project has integrated cultural needs and conservation priorities, resulting in the discovery of new species, and having the opportunity to see how golden monkeys–which were severely threatened by poaching and habitat destruction–are now thriving, it is clear that local communities, conservation organizations, and governmental agencies can work together to effect change and insure the survival of species and habitat. The yeti isn't the only one who can protect the forest–we all can!"
The Mountains of Southwest China and Nepal are home to Tibetan Buddhists, whose cultural values encourage the protection of living beings–and therefore, of the natural world. Killing of life, especially in an unsustainable fashion, is in direct opposition to Buddhist teaching and Tibetan cultural values. The legend of the yeti, which posits the creature as a defender and inhabitant of only the most pristine lands, contributes to this practice. Yet even in this area filled with rich biodiversity and the strong influence of Tibetan culture, the Himalayas face great challenges from rapid social and economic development. In the Mountains of Southwest China, a growing population of immigrants from other parts of the country is shifting the balance of Tibetan influence. Road construction, which is causing habitat loss, also is bringing more tourists to the area, which in turn has created a market for wildlife products.
Joining CI, Disney, and Discovery were a number of local partners including the Sichuan Academy of Forestry, Chengdu Institute of Biology, Sichuan Regional Forestry Department, and The Mountain Institute in Nepal.
Funding for the expedition was generously provided by Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund (DWCF) and the Walt Disney Company. The Mission Himalayas expedition builds upon a decade-long relationship between CI and Disney to support biodiversity conservation. During that time, DWCF and the Walt Disney Company Foundation have contributed to several CI initiatives including a Global Amphibian Assessment, the protection of Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains, and a conservation project in Botswana. Additionally, Russell A. Mittermeier, Ph.D., president of CI, is a member of Disney's Animal Kingdom Advisory Board. CI's contributions to Disney's Animal Kingdom have been fundamental to the values of the park, and continue with Expedition Everest.
Expedition Everest, the attraction, is a high-speed runaway train adventure that combines coaster-based thrills with the folklore of the yeti. Guests depart from a Himalayan village and venture nearly 200 feet upward to the snowy heights of the vast Asian peaks. Yet a run-in with the yeti--the guardian of the mountain--sends travelers on a forward and backward hair-raising escape. The spirit of the attraction and the spirit of the Mission Himalayas expedition are bound in a shared respect for the value of the ancient traditions that have preserved these areas for millennia.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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