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The Cambridge conservationist with 11 species named after him

Dr Tony Whitten regional director Asia-Pacific for Flora & Fauna International, based at the David Attenborough Building. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Tony Whitten regional director Asia-Pacific for Flora & Fauna International, based at the David Attenborough Building. Picture: Keith Heppell

Karst landscapes in Myanmar yield new gecko named after Dr Tony Whitten

Hemiohyllodactylus montawaensis
Hemiohyllodactylus montawaensis

Dr Tony Whitten is one of those rare people who has had a species named after him – but there’s been others, including a bug-eyed tiger beetle, a translucent snail and the latest, a gecko called the Hemiphyllodactylus tonywhitteni.

“In fact it’s the 11th species to bear my name,” Dr Whitten told the Cambridge Independent. “There’s been fish, snails and three beetles, including a dung beetle.”

The Hemiphyllodactylus tonywhitteni was named after the scientist based at Fauna & Flora International (FFI) in the David Attenborough Building. FFI, one of the world’s oldest conservation organisations, was founded in 1903 by British naturalists and American statesmen based in Africa.

The NGO announced the arrival of H. tonywhtteni earlier this month. It was one of 15 new gecko species discovered in Myanmar (Burma) last year: 12 were discovered in a frantic two-week period among the country’s karst (limestone) landscapes.

Cyrtodactylus sp
Cyrtodactylus sp

“There were 15 new gecko species revealed in one scientific paper recently,” Dr Whitten said, “and very kindly one of them was named after me. In fact the 15 new species are just the start, there’s four more on the way.”

The story of their discovery starts 20 years ago, when Dr Whitten was working at the World Bank.

“Some Frenchmen were concerned about certain hills in Vietnam being destroyed, and they thought that some species on the hills – they were looking at birds and big mammals – were in danger. They didn’t consider that other species that might be lodged in the limestone. The environment these species were in was rather like coral reefs – they grew upwards towards the light, and they were then being exposed and eroded.”

Dr Whitten went to Vietnam, researched the wildlife in the hills, and concentrated on the karst topology. So began an odyssey of discovery in the karst quarries which provide the habitat for the many new species currently, quite literally, coming to light.

Cyrtodactylus sp 3
Cyrtodactylus sp 3

“I realised how the cement firms working in the area can cause the extinction of animals and plants.

“You hear about the palm oil trade, among others, and it does make some species rarer but the production process very rarely causes extinctions. However, a few bad explosions in the limestone, or concrete paths being put down, can cause species to be made extinct.”

One of the things that can help save these species – many of which are still uncatalogued – is publicity.

Dr Whitten said: “I’ve been working in limestone areas of South East Asia for more than 20 years and have been involved in cave surveys, and talking to the monks at the nearby monasteries and local officials to make them aware of this work, and it’s starting to get traction now, at least one cement company is genuinely ‘getting it’. I still have correspondence with the firms causing extinctions in the hills, which they will ultimately destroy, and they do nothing about saving the species involved.”

Cyrtodactylus sp 2
Cyrtodactylus sp 2

Dr Whitten joined FFI as regional director, Asia-Pacific, in 2011, after many years as senior biodiversity specialist at the World Bank.

“FFI is not a campaigning group,” he says, “but we will do what we can to help the cause along. Every company prefers good publicity and the cement firms operating in the hills of Vietnam caught attention, and that firm is now working with us, fortunately.”

The FFI’s Myanmar work is a minor miracle given the dislocation of people and ongoing political turmoil in the country, though?

“The FFI has been working in Myanmar for more than 10 years, and we have good relations with the national and local government. It’s a good experience working there for us. We work at the pleasure of the government and we ask permission for what we do, we’re respectful and polite and that works fine.”

Myanmar, where a number of new species have been found
Myanmar, where a number of new species have been found

The new gecko name is a tribute to the scientist’s work: Dr Whitten wasn’t on site at the time.

According to the paper, whose senior author is Dr Lee Grismer of La Sierra University in California, the epithet “honours Dr Tony Whitten who has championed a broad range of conservation efforts in Indonesia and Asia-Pacific for well over a quarter of a century. His tireless efforts to conserve and help manage karst ecosystems have been a great inspiration to the senior author.”

Dr Grismer has also supported FFI’s wider Asia-Pacific programme by conducting biodiversity and reptile surveys of karst landscapes, which – despite increasing recognition of their importance for biodiversity – are still under threat from quarrying by the cement industry.

The researchers write: “In an age of biodiversity crisis, managing and conserving these karst ecosystems throughout South East Asia should be given greater priority.”

Pilosaphaenops whitteni - Dr Tony WHitten FFI
Pilosaphaenops whitteni - Dr Tony WHitten FFI

Dr Grismer notes the sad irony that Myanmar has some of the most extensive areas of karst in all of South East Asia, yet it is the least protected. “Hundreds of new species could face extinction without proper management,” he says, “but this [management] cannot happen unless these species are discovered and described – hence why we’re ramping up our efforts in these regions.”

The full list of species is:

1. Thopeutica whitteni - gold spotted tiger beetle from Sulawesi

2. Sulawesidromia whitteni – small lake snail from Sulawesi

3. Anaglyphula whitteni – a snail from a Balinese volcano

4. Plectostoma whitteni – a snail from Peninsular Malaysia

5. Lentipes whittenorum (named after both Tony and his wife) – a fish from a Bali river

6. Onthophagus tonywhitteni – a dung beetle from Sulawesi

7. Cnemaspis whittenorum – a gecko from West Sumatra

8. Papillacarus whitteni – a soil mite from Vietnam

9. Sinella whitteni – a springtail from southern China

10. Pilosaphaenops whitteni whitteni (pictured left) – a blind and long legged cave beetle from southern China

11. Hemiphyllodactylus tonywhitteni – the gecko just discovered in Myanmar.

Of the 15 new gecko species discovered, three were dwarf geckos from the genus Hemiphyllodactylus:

· Hemiphyllodactylus linnwayensis

· Hemiphyllodactylus montawaensis

· Hemiphyllodactylus tonywhitteni (as above).

There were also 12 bent-toed gecko from the genus Cyrtodactylus, but the names of these species are still under embargo.

“If I had to pick a favourite,” says Tony, “it would probably be the blind cave beetle Pilosaphaenops whitteni from a cave in Guangxi province, southern China, because it is so hugely adapted to life in caves being blind with no colouration or marks, with hugely elongated legs and antennae.”

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