Biodiversity Science in Vietnam

Vietnam harbors an astonishing range of habitats, from rain forests and dry forests to mangroves and coral reefs, and is home to an unusually rich array of plants and animals. The reasons for Vietnam’s extraordinarily rich biodiversity are complex, and that complexity captivates biodiversity scientists. 

A critically endangered Saola wild ox in Vietnam
The critically endangered saola was discovered by scientists in Vietnam in 1992. © Toon Fey/WWF

Biodiversity science in Vietnam is a young and rapidly expanding endeavor. For decades, the country’s troubled political history prohibited biologists, Vietnamese and foreign alike, from exploring its biological wealth. In recent years, an increasing number of scientists have searched Vietnam for new species, and their efforts have been rewarded. For example, botanists working in Vietnam have described more than 100 new species of plants in the past ten years. Even large mammals are turning up, among them two new species of muntjac, which are also called barking deer; a striped rabbit; and the saola, a member of a previously unknown genus related to oxen. The discovery of the saola in 1992 captured the attention of biologists around the world. Finding a new species of large mammal is exciting, but to discover a new genus is doubly so. How could such a large mammal, representing a previously unknown branch of evolution, have remained hidden for so long? Discoveries like these lend an air of excitement to field biology and systematics (the study of how species are related to one another through evolution) in Vietnam.  Biologists understand that they have only begun to appreciate the nation’s tremendous biodiversity.  

Between 1998 and 2000, an international team of scientists—from the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC) at the American Museum of Natural History; the Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG); and the Institute for Ecology and Biological Resources (IEBR) in Vietnam—carried out a series of expeditions to further document and study a wide range of biodiversity in Vietnam, including fishes, reptiles, birds, amphibians, mammals, invertebrates, and plants. For plant scientists, the trips were particularly rewarding: the team discovered dozens of plant species new to science, including several new varieties of cycad, an unusual group of plants sometimes referred to as “living fossils” because their evolutionary roots trace back more than 280 million years. Vietnam is a center of cycad diversity; its 24 species exceeds the diversity of cycads in any other Asian country. “Thanks to the expanding collaboration between Vietnam and other countries, we pay attention to more botanical groups,” says Phan Ke Loc, a botanist with IEBR. “Cycads are one of the groups that we really care about. They are very rare and precious.”

Biological discoveries depend a great deal on who does the looking and whether anyone has bothered to look in a particular place before. “We have collected over 50 new species of fern, simply because we are the first ones to actually focus on collecting them,” says Dan Harder of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Having the right scientist on your team—an expert on cycads, for example—can also greatly improve the chances of identifying new species. The more you look and the better trained you are, the more species you’re likely to find.

Field biologists observe biological diversity firsthand. They visit habitats around the world and explore the plants and animals found there: reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals, insects, worms, fungi, algae, down to the smallest living thing. These scientists collect and identify specimens, and then carefully archive them for future researchers to study. The work can be exciting, fueling a researcher with the hope of perhaps finding a species—of deer, mosquito, barnacle, or bird—never before named by science. Like any job, it also involves plenty of drudgery: long, soggy days searching for insects in a swamp; late nights typing page after page of data into a computer. Botanists on the plant-finding expedition to Vietnam spent their time hiking, climbing trees, digging roots, and clipping branches. They collected stems, leaves, fruits, flowers, bark, and anything else that helped them distinguish one species from another. Each day they gathered anywhere from 50 to 150 specimens. At night, back at base camp, they sat together examining each plant and noting its color, smell, and oils—“the things you would encounter in the plant if you saw it fresh,” Harder says.

By collecting and identifying all kinds of species, scientists aim to infer important biogeographical patterns: where species, particularly rare ones, are to be found; which habitats are central to the survival of those species; and which regions contain the most biological diversity. Coupled with other information, scientists and conservation managers can identify important regions under immediate threat from development, pollution, poaching, or other human activities. This information in turn is critical to conservation efforts, both in Vietnam and around the world. The more that is known about the number of species and where they live, the easier it is to figure out how best to conserve them.