Stunning crocodile newt species discovered in Vietnam

Crocodile newt species found in Vietnamese mountain region. Image: Tao Thien Nguyen

A spectacular new species of newt has been discovered in the central highlands of Vietnam, by an international research team.

Crocodile newts, scientifically known as the genus Tylototriton, include nearly 40 species that inhabit temperate mountain forested areas throughout the Asian monsoon climate zone. The habitat of the new species - Tylototriton ngoclinhensis - is located around 370km from the nearest Tylototriton population, which makes it an important discovery in terms of evolution and zoogeography.

Remarkably, 15 newts of the Tylototriton species have only been recorded for the first time in the past five years, and there are several unnamed subspecies, including some that are difficult to distinguish from each other.

"This is also the first time that a crocodile newt species is recorded from the central highlands of Vietnam."

Trung My Phung, Vietnam Academy of Science & Technology

“It is an exceptional discovery as it is one of the most colourful species in the genus Tylototriton," says discoverer and first author of the study Trung My Phung. "This is also the first time that a crocodile newt species is recorded from the central highlands of Vietnam.

"Occurring at elevations from 1,800 to 2,300 metres above sea level, this discovery sets an elevational record for the genus in the country, with former distribution ranges between 250 and 1,740 metres.”

The discovery by the Vietnamese-German researcher team was supported by the Vietnam Academy of Science & Technology and Cologne Zoo in Germany, and is the southernmost distribution range of the genus found to date.

The new crocodile newt species is named after its home, Ngoc Linh evergreen montane forest region. Tylototriton ngoclinhensis is currently known only to exist in the Ngoc Linh Nature Reserve in Kon Tum Province. It is the eighth salamander taxon identified in Vietnam, and the thirty-ninth Tylototriton species officially recognised.

Image: Tao Thien Nguyen

Established in 1986, Ngoc Linh Nature Reserve is a key area for biodiversity and rare species, including the endangered golden-winged laughing thrush and the Truong Son muntjac, one of the smallest species of muntjac deer. It is a hotspot of amphibian diversity, with numerous species existing in a tight geographical area and the Ngoc Linh crocodile newt will be another flagship species of this protected area and its surroundings, say the researchers.

“[The central highlands is] where the highest amphibian species diversity was recorded for Vietnam, with 130 species, while also containing the highest number of regionally occurring, micro-endemic amphibians, amounting for 26 species,” explains Professor Truong Quang Nguyen, vice director of the Institute of Ecology & Biological Resources (IEBR) in Hanoi.

The Ngoc Linh crocodile newt belongs to the group of range-restricted, micro-endemic species, which face the greatest risk of extinction because of their small population size and restricted geographical footprint. On top of its special zoogeographic precarity and rarity, its particularly colourful appearance could make it highly attractive to illegal collectors.

The species should be provisionally considered to be listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of threatened species, the researchers say. Conservation activities on site already have priority, but the team is working on breeding conservation measures in line with the one plan approach developed by IUCN.

“This has already been successfully implemented for another recently discovered, micro-endemic crocodile newt species from Vietnam, Tylototriton vietnamensis, of which already 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 Professor Thomas Ziegler, a member of the Vietnam conservation team and coordinator from Cologne Zoo.

The research article was published in the journal ZooKeys.