Even in this day and age we are far from finished with discovering new species and uncovering the extent of this planet’s sheer diversity of life. Indeed, as we push forth into the frontiers of nature and the wild places of the world get closer, we are discovering more new species than ever before. Yet often one does not have to venture far, or penetrate forth into the most isolated areas of remote jungles, lost forest worlds, and the dark depths of uncharted seas to unveil an amazing creature never before seen by science. In some cases, one only has to journey to a food or fish market, where among the bustling people and stalls stacked with a menagerie of all manner of beasts great and small there are sometimes incredible and unique zoological surprises to be found. It seems that sometimes new animal discoveries or rediscoveries are not only made in the most surprising of places, but they are also what’s for dinner.
One of the most remarkable mammal discoveries in recent years was not only a new species, but a whole new family of animals, represented by a single, lone surviving species. While new species discoveries happen all of the time even now, and indeed even new genus, an entire new family being uncovered is decidedly rarer. One might think that this amazing discovery would be the realm of far off, remote lost forest worlds and unexplored rugged wilderness, but one of more exciting zoological finds in recent years was made not in some isolated wild expanse far from civilization, but rather in a bustling, thriving food market in Laos filled with throngs of hungry people looking for things to cook for dinner.
In 1996, in a market in Thakhek, in the Khammouan region of Laos, the remains of a few strange rat-like animals were found among various carcasses of assorted bush meat being sold for human consumption. The grey to blackish animals were around 26 cm (10 in) long, generally much like a rat in general appearance, but with large, prominent heads and uniquely shaped skulls, bulbous noses, distinctive rounded ears, and long, bushy tails like those of a squirrel. Perplexed scientists who later returned to the market to investigate the mystery creatures further were able to find a few more specimens, and also learned that the animal was well known by locals, who often hunted it among limestone boulders and called it the kha-nyou. Indeed, locals didn’t seem to really see what the big deal was about.
Although it was clear to scientists that it was certainly a new and unusual species of rodent, it was not known just how unusual it actually was until the first official description of the creature was published in 2005, by a Paulina Jenkins and coauthors, in which it was considered to be a completely new family of mammals, called Laonastidae. This classification would be challenged in 2006 by a Mary Dawson, who maintained that the animal represented still a different family, called Diatomyidae, which was long thought to have gone extinct in the late Miocene, around 11 million years ago, only to disappear from the fossil record entirely and suddenly reappear at a Laotian meat market. Such a remarkable reemergence prompted Dawson to nickname the creature “the coelacanth of rodents.” Live specimens of what is now commonly referred to as the Laotian rock rat (Laonastes aenigmamus) managed to elude scientific researchers until June of 2006, when a professor emeritus of Florida State University named David Redfield, along with Thai biologist Uthai Treesucon, managed to photograph, film, and capture a live rock rat in the wild among hillside karst limestone boulders.
Other unusual rodents have been found hidden away in food markets as well. In 1998, a researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society named Robert J. Timmins was in a market in Laos at the foothills of the Annamite Mountains, at a place called Ban Lak, where he intended to get some supplies for a totally unrelated project in the mountains, when he came across a strange animal at one of the stalls that he had never seen before. There lying among other assorted creatures was an unusual looking striped rabbit of some kind, which Timmins immediately recognized as a potentially new species, and certainly not anything known to be native to the region. The rabbit was striped with black and brown across its face and back, and had a short tail and ears and a striking red bottom. Although the researcher just happened to be in the remote, rugged region looking for new species on an expedition, as the area was and still is well-known as a treasure trove of new animal discoveries and rediscoveries including even large new mammals, he had hardly figured he would run into one while restocking on provisions at a food market.
Timmins found three of the dead rabbits at the market and had samples sent for analysis to find out just what he’d found. The results were surprising. It was found that the striped rabbits that Timmins had found at the food market were of a new species that was distantly related to the extremely rare, exceedingly elusive, and possibly extinct Sumatran striped rabbit, which is found 900 miles across the water to the south on the island of Sumatra and has been seen only once since 1916, in a trail cam photograph. Indeed, the Sumatran rabbit is so elusive that it required 100-year old preserved museum specimens to perform a DNA comparison. The results went on to be published in the journal Nature.
Yet another new mammal discovery was made in a food market in Laos as recently as 2013, when a single dead specimen of a new species of flying squirrel was found being sold as food along with other bush meat in Ban Thongnami, in the Bolikhamxai Province, and remains the only known specimen of its kind. This particular new species is only the second ever found from an entire newly discovered genus, of which the other species lives 1,250 kilometers away in India. The Indian species, known as the Namdapha flying squirrel, was only itself discovered in 1981 and is also known from only a single specimen collected in a wildlife reserve in Namdapha, Tirap District, Arunachal Pradesh. The discovery of the new flying squirrel in the Laotian food market brings the number of total specimens of this whole new genus to two, and none have been seen since.
In addition to mammals, there have also been various species of reptiles discovered or rediscovered being sold as food in markets. Perhaps the most striking of these was the discovery of an incredibly rare species of turtle found in only one small area in the world. The Arakan forest turtle (Heosemys depressa) is a species of semi-terrestrial turtle found only in the Arakan hills of western Myanmar. The mostly lethargic, inactive turtles are rarely seen, spending most of their time hiding within leaves, twigs and other detritus on the forest floor, and only occasionally coming out to look for food such as insects, worms, and fish. The Arakan forest turtle had been thought to be extinct since 1908, yet in 1994 some specimens were found on sale at a food market due to their purported potent medicinal benefits.
Since then, several of the forest turtles have been collected alive, most from food markets, with one wild individual gathered in 2000 and a few others in 2009 with the help of trained dogs. Their status in the wild is unknown but considered dire. Even in captivity there are only 14 known specimens in world, yet even in this extremely critical state, with the population teetering on the brink of oblivion, the Arakan forest turtle is still actively hunted and sold in markets, as well as for private collectors in the pet trade. Indeed, the black market exotic pet trade has provided other new species of reptile, such as two new large species of brightly spotted and striped monitor lizards measuring 3 to 4 feet long which were discovered in an illegal pet shop in the Philippines, where strange, rare animals are routinely smuggled and sold either as pets or for food and medicinal purposes.
Adding to the menagerie of new or thought to be extinct species turning up at markets are birds as well. The extremely elusive Worcester’s button quail, or Luzon buttonquail (Turnix worcesteri), of the Philippine island of Luzon, was long known only from sightings and drawings alone, with no specimen ever found or even a photo of one. The quail species, which is known as the “Pugo” to locals, is characterized by its striking appearance of white spots and patterns on a fluffy brown body, and its yellow legs. It was unconfirmed and a complete specter until a birdwatching group called the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines came across a single specimen at a food market in Nueva Vizcaya, northern Luzon. The group managed to photograph and videotape this lone specimen, and this remains the sole photographic evidence that the species even exists. The Worcester’s buttonquail is such an enigma and so cryptic and little understood that the IUCN has listed it as simply “Data Deficient.” It is somewhat sad to think that the only known specimen of this species, indeed the last one for all we know, probably wound up as someone’s dinner.
Considering the vastness of the world’s oceans and the enormous amounts of sea creatures we harvest for food, it is perhaps no surprise that new species of fish have also made regular appearances in various food markets. One enigmatic new species of shark turned up at such a market after having been long considered either extinct or an invalid species. The smoothtooth blacktip shark (Carcharhinus leiodon) was long known from only a single museum specimen at the Vienna Museum, which was donated in 1902 by the scholar and naturalist Wilhelm Hein, who had brought it back from Yemen along with a menagerie of other animals and plants. This solitary shark specimen would sit forgotten and collecting dust until 1985, when it was finally noticed in storage and recognized as a new species of shark, yet it remained the only known specimen and not much could be determined of its status or even its true classification as a species, as there was some speculation that it was just an unusual individual of a known species.
For years the mysterious shark remained a riddle and only known from a single specimen, until 2008, when a research group from the Shark Conservation Society uncovered a strange shark specimen that they hadn’t seen before while combing through a fish market in Kuwait. It was not until later that it was ascertained that the shark was the first known new specimen of smoothtooth blacktip shark ever seen since the only other known one in 1902, which was slightly odd considering that Kuwait was thousands of kilometers away from where the original specimen had been caught. In the following years, 47 additional specimens of the new species would be found in various fish markets in the Middle East, providing all of the little knowledge we have of them.
Other new species of shark have turned up in the fish markets of the world as well. Dave Ebert, research director of the Pacific Shark Research Center at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, has routinely checked fish markets in Taiwan and other countries on the lookout for any new or unusual species, and has personally managed to find 24 new species of shark, ray, and sawfish in the past decade alone using such methods. He additionally claims that among the many unique specimens he has collected and preserved for his collection at the laboratory there are perhaps up to 30 new species that just have not been formally classified and described yet. And this is probably only the tip of the iceberg of new species waiting to be found being sold as food. Ebert described his thoughts when he first started searching these markets thus:
I started seeing a lot of species and I was going, ‘What the heck is this?’ And in many cases it was a known species but we didn’t know it occurred here. Then I realized there were some species we didn’t even have names for, they weren’t even known about, and here people were catching them and selling them.
The rate of new species of fish discovered at fish markets is so high that scientists have begun to use them as a research tool to supplement traditional field work. There are inherit difficulties to doing so, as the fishermen can be wary of outsiders snooping around, especially if there is any smuggling or illegal fishing going on. Researchers are also required to arrive at the markets very early and look through vast catches of fish and even foul trash bins of rotting sea life in order to find specimens of interest, after which they need to be measured, sampled, and most often purchased. It can all be a grueling ordeal, but the advantage is that these fishing fleets pull in way more fish, cover a wider area, and have more access to vast resources than traditional field sampling teams, meaning they are far more likely to catch new species, even if it is unintentional.
The use of food markets for finding new or presumed extinct or out of place species goes beyond even sharks and other fish, as biologists that study terrestrial animals have also begun to make the rounds through these markets to see if experienced local hunters have managed to find a creature that has eluded scientific discovery. Often there just aren’t enough resources or money for scientific expeditions to go into the field looking for new species, or for the long term field work required to find very elusive animals, and biologists may have no idea of where to even look in the first place. However, locals are always there, they know the land and its animals, and very often these “new” species are well known locally, or ethno known, to the point that they can be bemused when foreign scientists find these animals so amazing and exciting. In some cases, for locals these new species to science can be downright mundane, or as we’ve seen here a common item on the menu.
It seems that although there are indeed many animal discoveries awaiting us at the unexplored fringes of our planet, there are also some that can be hiding right under our noses. As science continually expends money and resources as it strives to understand, sample, measure, and catalog the numerous new species that are uncovered in the wilds every year, there are others in the world who would just as soon catch them and eat them, or grind them up into medicine. They know nothing of the zoological importance of these creatures or even that they are “new” animals at all. To them, these are just animals that are good to eat. As disconcerting as that may be to those who see it as a terrible waste, perhaps in the future scientists will work towards coming further along the path to finding a balance between these two very different worlds and almost alien ways of thinking to each other, and find a way to use these markets more and more effectively to their advantage as a tool towards understanding and conservation. If that ends up being the case, then perhaps it would have been worth it for these food markets to be there. In the meantime, somewhere someone is sitting down to a meal of what might just be the last of its kind on earth, and they will likely never know it. Perhaps no one ever will.