"By using these methods, we're discovering a lot of cryptic diversity," he says, explaining that many animals that appear similar actually turn out to be unique species. (And, conversely, even those animals that look vastly different can be male and female versions of the same species.) The genetic analysis, especially as the time and funds required for processing declined, has become an important intermediate step for new species identification. "Even with the leaf deer we were able to generate a lot of DNA data showing it was distinct from the only known deer in the region…. Subsequent examination of morphology showed it was different," Amato says.
The latest DNA testing can even gather readings from animal remains, feathers or even a fecal sample, Amato says.
But even as these species are at last being catalogued, their habitats are being threatened by deforestation and mineral mining. "The eastern Himalayas squeeze between the two rising Asian superpowers, China and India—and these countries need resources," he says.
Climate change, too, is already being felt in the heart of the Himalayas. "As it gets warmer, ecosystems literally begin to move up to adjust to these new temperatures," he says. And animals that already live at the top altitudes, such as snow leopards, don't have any more habitat to move into. Rapid glacial melting has also caused devastating floods, Miceler notes, which have decimated human settlements along with important animal habitats.
But living in an area of political dispute seems to have helped to protect some of these animals. "It's a no-man's-land where not many people are allowed to go," Miceler says. He likens the area to the demilitarized zone, a stretch of land between North and South Korea, which, he says, "is incredibly intact." Such a location has "actually preserved them," he says. "In some senses, the restrictions on these areas have kept away forms of development that would have sped up the degradation, such as logging."
Such a dubious status, however, does have its detractions, Amato says. It protects the area from easy development, but "on the other hand, you can't have a secure protected area," he notes. And the status quo of political limbo becomes crucial to retaining the current levels of biodiversity. Now, for instance, as relations between northern Myanmar (Burma) and China have improved, more areas for trade and resource exploitation have opened up, he explains. "All in all, I would take a secure network of protected areas over a politically unstable place. That's a better hope for long-term conservation of species," he says.