New freshwater species discovered in Myanmar

water_3 A file photo of the Ayeyarwady River. Scientists have discovered four new species of mussels in the river. Photo - EPA

29 Aug 19 - Source: Myanmar Times - A team of international and local scientists have announced the discovery of previously unknown species of freshwater mussels in Myanmar.

The discovery of four new freshwater mussel species and four new subspecies was recently announced by a team from the wildlife conservation organisation Fauna and Flora International.

"The mussels discovered in areas of the Ayeyarwady, Sittaung, Haungtharaw, and Dawei rivers are an indication of Myanmar's rich biodiversity in both marine and freshwater areas," said U Zaw Lunn, a member and researcher with FFI's Myanmar programme.

These rivers, however, are under severe pressure, including from dam construction, water pollution, the over-exploitation of aquatic resources, and invasion of alien species. So these threats increase the chances of extinctions of native and endemic mussels, U Zaw Lunn added.

Freshwater mussels are among the most threatened groups of freshwater species in the world, with 40 percent of species being near threatened, threatened or extinct, according to a press statement from FFI.

Freshwater mussels are sensitive to habitat and water quality, and show the fastest rates of global extinction caused by human activities among aquatic animals. These animals are especially diverse in tropical Asia and often exist only in their specific location, making them more vulnerable to extinction.

"We can refer to them as an environmental indicator because they can't survive in polluted water," said U Zaw Lunn.

"Freshwater mussels survive in a location with good water quality, and they do not move to other areas. If the water quality deteriorates due to pollution, they will lose their habitat and die, though some can cling on in rocky and watershed areas along a river.

"We can say that water quality is good where freshwater mussels can be found, and we will continuously expand the survey," U Zaw Lunn said.

He added that local communities know where mussels can be found and how they are used, so their role is crucial to identify and protect freshwater ecosystems, including these new species.

Describing the team's efforts, U Zaw Lunn said the scientists tried to follow in the footsteps of the first adventurous explorers of remote rivers in the country, but with the newest scientific methods in their hands. This allowed them to uncover the hidden diversity of freshwater mussels that had been overlooked until now.

According to the FFI report, the Ayeyarwady River is of great importance as a national freshwater ecosystem, and is the primary migration route for several migratory fish species that provide food and support the local economy.

The interior river systems of the US, Central America, Yangtze Basin, India and Southeast Asia are the most species-rich hotspots of freshwater bivalve diversity globally.

The survey was supported by the Myanmar Department of Fisheries and local communities in the areas. The new species are described in the latest issue of Scientific Reports, a nature research journal.

In the future, the research teams plan to expand their studies into other Southeast Asian countries to complete a taxonomic revision of freshwater mussels for the region, and to provide a map of the true levels of endemism across a variety of river drainages.

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