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'Dementor' Wasp One of 139 New Species Discovered in Greater Mekong

May 28, 2015 10:02 AM EDT
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The soul-sucking "dementor" wasp is just one of 139 new and unusual species discovered in the Greater Mekong region in 2014, and with this area under attack from human activities, a new report highlights the need to protect such bizarre creatures.

In total, 90 plants, 23 reptiles, 16 amphibians, nine fish, and one mammal are detailed in the report, among them a stealthy wolf snake, a bat with remarkable fangs, and the world's second-longest insect, measuring at about 54 centimeters.

This brings the total new species discovered in the Greater Mekong, which includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, to 2,216 between 1997 and 2014 - that's an average of three new species a week.

"The Greater Mekong's unique ecosystems are truly the gift that keeps on giving, providing sanctuary for a treasure trove of species and critical benefits for millions of people across the region," Teak Seng, Conservation Director for World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-Greater Mekong, said in a statement.

But perhaps the most mentionable find is the dementor wasp (Ampulex dementor) discovered in Thailand, so named for its resemblance to the soul-sucking dementors from the Harry Potter series. This new species confounds its prey - mainly cockroaches - with a single sting before devouring them alive. They do this by injecting venom into the mass of neurons on its prey's belly that essentially turns it into a zombie - that is, the cockroach can move but is unable to control its own body. Wasp venom blocks receptors of the neurotransmitter octopamine, which is involved in the initiation of spontaneous movement. Once the cockroach has lost control, the wasp drags its stupefied prey by the antennae to a place where it can feast on its prize.

Unfortunately, this and many of the other newly-described species are under threat from new roads and dams, and from the region's high demand for wildlife meat and luxury timber, the report says. And climate change only increases the pressures on these species' environments through warming temperatures, rising sea levels, and more extreme storms, droughts and floods.

Consequently, the Greater Mekong is one of the five most threatened biodiversity hotspots in the world.

While Southeast Asia is still considered a "treasure trove" of biodiversity, WWF expert Thomas Gray says scientists have only "skimmed the surface" in terms of new discoveries in the Greater Mekong, according to the AFP. What's more, it's possible that some unknown species have already disappeared before researchers have had the chance to discover them. Authors behind the report thus hope that fascinating new species like the ones discovered in 2014 can encourage more conservation efforts in the region.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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