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Friday, August 20, 1999 Published at 13:29 GMT 14:29 UK


Striped rabbit revealed in Laos forest

The red-rumped Annamite rabbit: Only the second striped rabbit species known

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

A new species of striped rabbit has been found in the mountain forests of Laos and Vietnam.

Rob Timmins describes what he saw in the market
The furry, red-bottomed creatures have black and brown stripes across their face and back. They resemble the endangered Sumatran striped rabbit, the only other known striped rabbit.

A British biologist, Rob Timmins, found the new rabbits in a Laos market. Diana Bell, an expert on rabbits at the University of East Anglia in the UK, analysed them.

[ image: Annamite rabbits on sale in a Laos market (Photo P Davidson/Wildlife Conservation Society)]
Annamite rabbits on sale in a Laos market (Photo P Davidson/Wildlife Conservation Society)
"This discovery is extremely exciting and underlines the biodiversity value of the mountain forests in Southeast Asia," Dr Bell said.

The discovery, reported in the journal Nature, follows recent sightings or photographs of other rare mammals from the same area.

Last month, the world's smallest deer species was discovered in Burma and the first pictures appeared of the Vietnamese rhinoceros.

In the last few years a forest pig and a hoofed animal like an antelope, the saola, have also been found in the region.

Another revelation

Dr Timmins, who was working with the Wildlife Conservation Society, found three dead rabbits which had been hunted in the Annamite mountains, the range straddling Laos and Vietnam.

Dr Diana Bell explains why the find is significant
Samples were sent for identification to Dr Bell. One of her colleagues, Dr Alison Surridge, compared DNA extracted from the Annamite rabbits with that from 100-year-old museum specimens of the Sumatran striped rabbit.

Caught on film

The Sumatran rabbit has been seen only once since 1916.

But last year a team from Fauna and Flora International photographed it with an automatic camera.

The Annamite and Sumatran rabbits look very similar, both having dark stripes, short tails and ears, and a distinctive red rump.

[ image: Dr Surridge with 100-year-old rabbits at Leiden Museum in the Netherlands (Photo University of East Anglia)]
Dr Surridge with 100-year-old rabbits at Leiden Museum in the Netherlands (Photo University of East Anglia)
But Dr Surridge's work suggests that the two species may have diverged about eight million years ago.

Dr Bell hopes the discovery of the Annamite rabbit will help scientists to a better understanding of the factors governing patterns of biodiversity in the region.

She told BBC News Online: "If there are large mammals still in there, you can bet there are interesting invertebrates as well".

"We've probably found all the big mammals now, so the aim must be to try to protect them. They're hanging in there by the skin of their teeth. But two primitive species of striped rabbits with red bottoms may survive to at least start the next millennium.

"Laos is a very poor country, yet it's managed to protect a lot of its biodiversity. But it needs financial help from abroad so that local people can find other sources of food, and of income."

Main image from Trinh Viet Cuong / Fauna & Fauna International

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