by Antony J.Lynam

Thailand’s Andaman region spans four degrees of latitude and two degrees of longitude. It boasts spectacular land and seascapes across Thailand’s southern provinces of Phuket, Krabi, Phang-nga, Trang, Satun and Ranong.

A new assessment of the biogeography of peninsular Thailand shows the Andaman coastline to be more diverse than ever before imagined. A myriad of ecological processes and diverse geology are concentrated into an area of about 500,000 square kilometres. This diversity is reflected in the vast range of natural habitats and ecosystems that form key elements of the complex fabric of the landscape and marine environment. These include the northern and southern mangroves and seasonal forests, central beaches and forests, karst caves, shallow reefs and sea grasses, as well as islands further offshore.

Scientists are only now beginning to understand how ancient geological and ecological processes have combined to produce the dazzling biodiversity to be found above and below the sea.

This remarkable variety places the region alongside some of the most diverse areas on the planet, and make it unique in places. Peninsular Thailand is one of only two geographic areas where equatorial habitats have links to northern tropical areas via a narrow land bridge. The other is the Darién Gap in the Isthmus of Panama, connecting Panama in Central America to Colombia in South America. In Thailand, the land bridge occurs entirely within a single country, making it unique.

In only a very few locations around the world is it possible to see coral reefs, mangroves, sea grass and rainforest covered islands so closely juxtaposed. In the Andaman bioregion, these features also cover a larger area than in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere in Mexico or the Coiba National Park in Panama. Like the Andaman coast, the Sundarban National Park in Bangladesh features extensive mangroves but it lacks islands by comparison.

Compared with karst rock formations in China, Vietnam and Sarawak, those in Thailand’s Andaman bioregion represent a different period of geological history. Only Vietnam’s Halong Bay and Phong-Nha-Ke Bang World Heritage Area are comparable in size and beauty with the drowned karst seascape of Phang-nga Bay, and the islands stretching to its southeast.

Active fault lines criss-cross the region exposing rock layers from all geological ages. Some of the oldest rocks on the planet are found here, dating to the Cambrian era roughly 500 million years ago. The first evidence of human life in Thailand comes from rock formations in Krabi that are 40,000 years old. Dinosaur fossils are found here too.

These recent findings have led to a new quest by a Thai project team spearheaded by scientists from the Centre for Biodiversity of Peninsular Thailand at Prince of Songkhla University; Kasetsart University; the University of Hong Kong; and the Thailand Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plants Conservation. Their shared mission is to protect and preserve this rich natural heritage.

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