Hidden in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, a new species of crocodile newt remained undetected on the forest floor — until now. The new species, dubbed, Tylototriton ngoclinhensis, has an oval-shaped head that appears dipped in florescent orange paint, then stippled with 14 warty dots on each side of its back.
"It is an exceptional discovery as it is one of the most colorful species in the genus Tylototriton. This is also the first time biologists recorded a crocodile newt species from the Central Highlands of Vietnam," says Trung My Phung, study first author and the discoverer of the new species, in a statement. Scientists described the taxonomic details of the knobby newt in ZooKeys.
The amphibian was found at elevations between 1,800 to 2,300 meters above sea level, making it an elevational record for crocodile newts. Before, this genus of newts was found at elevations between 250 and 1,740 meters. The team suspects the Central Highlands may be a hotspot for Vietnamese amphibian diversification and evolution.
The Colorful Crocodile Newt
The semi-aquatic amphibians appear like a cross between a frog and a lizard. Crocodile newts get their name from their similar bony and bumpy appearance to crocodiles.
About 38 species of crocodile newt inhabit the hills and mountain forests across Asia within the Asian Monsoon climate zone. Aside from forests, the newts are in areas where woods used to exist, such as rice fields, tea gardens, meadows, ponds and lake's shores. And in the past five years alone, 15 new species of crocodile newts were described.
Researchers located T. ngoclinhensis during a field survey in the Ngoc Linh Nature. The colorful newt differs from others because of its head shape, which is longer than it is wide, along with its shorter tail, coloration and genetic makeup. It was named after its only known habitat, the forests near the water on Ngoc Linh Mountain.
In total, Vietnam hosts six species and seven taxa of crocodile newt. All of which are from northern Vietnam. T. ngoclinhensis represents the southernmost distribution of the newts to date.
Newly Found, But Also Endangered
Despite the recent discovery, researchers of the study are calling to list T. ngoclinhensis as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) Red List of threatened species. The Ngoc Linh Crocodile Newt faces a great extension risk because of their tiny population size. The distinct coloring on the newts also makes them highly attractive to collectors.
All species of crocodile newts are considered endangered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The biggest threats to crocodile newts are habitat loss around breeding bodies of water and collectors or poachers who capture them for the pet trade.
Since the T. ngoclinhensis's discovery, the team has been working on breeding conservation plans to protect the species and increase numbers. Another species of crocodile newt from Vietnam described in 2013, T. vietnamensis, has already seen some success from captive breeding programs established through the IUCN's Conservation Planning Specialist Group.
"More than 350 individuals could have successfully been reproduced at the Cologne Zoo in Germany and also at the Melinh Station for Biodiversity in Vietnam, which is a promising example for IUCN's Reverse the Red campaign and the idea of the conservation zoo," says Thomas Ziegler, a curator, and Vietnam conservation team member at the Cologne Zoo, in a statement.
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