Copyright 1996, Royal Ontario Museum.

ROM curators identify new amphibians reptiles and insects on second trip to Vietnam.

When ROM herpetologist Bob Murphy and entomologist Doug Currie returned to Toronto from the rainforests of Vietnam last month, the results of their field expedition were identical to the last time they ventured into the country's remotest areas: discovery after discovery of new wildlife. A veritable find of never-before-seen snakes, flies, moths and spiders.

"Vietnam is such an incredible, uncharted country," says Murphy. "Not only are we discovering new species, but the species we thought we did know and did understand are doing completely unexpected things -- living in areas where they shouldn't be found, exhibiting strange physical characteristics or habits. Vietnam is a huge mystery to us; it's a scientist's dream come true."

So successful has been the Royal Ontario Museum's work in Vietnam, that Vietnam's Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources signed an agreement with the Museum in May 1995 to cooperate on five biodiversity research projects in different areas of Vietnam. This agreement marks Vietnam's first major cooperative venture with a Western research institution and the ROM's most ambitious multidisciplinary scientific research project ever. Over the next several years, ROM curatorial staff from the ornithology, mammalogy and ichthyology departments will join Murphy and Currie as they help Vietnam document its biodiversity.

It's difficult to imagine that a corner of the earth has escaped modern exploration and development and can still yield undiscovered species. But until recently, war-torn Vietnam was closed to Western scientists. Thanks to Murphy's past collaboration with the renowned Russian herpetologist Ilya Darevsky (a man Murphy describes as a "god-like figure who has worked throughout Eurasia for over 50 years"), the ROM's curators were among the first Western biologists invited to Vietnam to study the country's biodiversity. Prior to this invitation, only Russian scientists were allowed to explore Vietnam given the two countries' close political ties.

Biodiversity and resource management issues are especially critical in tropical areas where the Earth's most extensive biological diversity occurs. Often these tropical regions fall within developing countries, such as Vietnam, that lack the resources and training to carry out the necessary research and conservation. As well, the country is facing increasing economic pressure to tear down the rainforests and replace them with agricultural crops such as rice or Australian gum trees, or sell Vietnam's reptiles, birds and mammals on the Asian black market. "Untold numbers of plants and animals are in danger of disappearing before scientists can adequately understand the significance of these species and the effect their disappearance may have on the quality of human life," says Murphy.

According to the agreement signed by the ROM and the Vietnamese government, the Museum will provide the expertise needed to assess and document the quantity and variety of animal life that Vietnam's rainforests currently support, finance the expeditions, provide training in field and laboratory techniques for their Vietnamese colleagues, and manage and care for the resulting collections. In exchange, the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources will support the ROM by helping to obtain permits and visas, make arrangements for field excursions, provide Vietnamese experts to help with fieldwork, and help publish scientific materials.

"What we're trying to do in Vietnam is reconstruct evolutionary history by determining how species are related to one another, and how and why groups evolved," explains Murphy. "More specifically, we're examining the evolutionary constraints of cryptic species (animals that look the same but are genetically different), and looking at the biogeography of Vietnam's mountains to see if their history holds some clue to the fauna's extraordinary diversity."

To date, Murphy and Currie, accompanied by Russian colleagues and students from the University of Toronto, have focused their field activities in fall 1994 and spring 1995 to sites in northern Vietnam - Sa Pa, Ba Vi and Ba Be National Parks, Tam Dao and locations along the Khe Mi River. In the future, Murphy hopes that the ROM's curators can also start to explore the fauna of southern Vietnam, as well as returning to regions in the north. The next trip is slated for the spring of 1996 when Murphy and Currie hope to be joined for the first time by researchers from the ROM's Mammalogy Department who will study bats, rodents and other small mammals.

"It's my hope that over the next four years we can spend three to four month-long periods in the field, collecting as many species as we can," says Murphy. "We've already collected over 4,000 diverse specimens, making the ROM's holdings of Vietnamese amphibians and reptiles the largest in the world. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. If we're really going to understand the significance of Vietnam's incredibly diverse flora and fauna, we need to acquire much more comparative material, and then it's going to take up to ten years of laboratory analysis involving cutting-edge DNA technology in order to get a clear idea or a bigger picture of the country's wildlife."

"Some people express concern at our own collecting, perhaps seeing us as no different from the black market dealers, but there is a fundamental difference between our aims and theirs," explains Murphy. "When illegal traders remove animal after animal from its environment, it's simply to turn a fast buck with no thought to the consequences. When we do our field collecting, we only take an organism if we are absolutely sure that it will add to our understanding of what this animal is, how it interacts with its environment and ultimately how we can preserve this species and its habitat from extinction. If we don't understand Vietnam's flora and fauna, we'll never know how to save them."

As stipulated in the agreement between the ROM and Vietnam's Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources, all of the Museum's research will be shared with the Vietnamese, who are committed to conservation and learning how to use and manage their resources for both economic and health gain. As well, Vietnamese colleagues will come to Toronto to offer their expertise and learn new methods from the ROM's researchers. Conserving the country's rainforests and wildlife is a challenge though, says Murphy. "Vietnam's need for money could serve to undermine conservation efforts. The worst thing that could ever happen to any of their organisms is to have them identified as being rare or special. As soon as this happens they begin to disappear. Already, a thousand snakes a day are lost, victims of the trade in species."