Eight New Natural Wonders Named

Surtsey, a small island that formed of the coast of Iceland in the 1960s, is a model for plant and animal colonization. (Image credit: © IUCN - Chris Wood)

Eight new natural wonders, including the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico and what has been dubbed "the Galápagos of the Indian Ocean," have been added to the World Heritage List. World Heritage Sites are named by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The sites, both cultural and natural, added to the list are deemed "of outstanding value to humanity" and deserve protection and preservation, according to the UNESCO Web site. With the new additions, the World Heritage List now boasts 878 sites (679 cultural, 174 natural and 25 mixed) in 145 countries. The eight new natural sites added this year include:

  • Joggins Fossil Cliffs (Canada)
  • Mount Sanqingshan National Park (China)
  • Lagoons of New Caledonia: Reef Diversity and Associated Ecosystems (France)
  • Surtsey (Iceland)
  • Saryarka - Steppe and Lakes of Northern Kazakhstan (Kazakhstan)
  • Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (Mexico)
  • Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona (Switzerland)
  • Socotra Archipelago (Yemen)

"These eight stunning natural sites are amongst the best of what nature has to offer," said David Sheppard, head of the IUCN's Protected Areas Program, which recommended the sites. (IUCN stands for International Union for Conservation of Nature.) Below are details on all the sites: The Socotra Archipelago is known as "the Galápagos of the Indian Ocean" and is home to 825 plant species of which 37 percent can only be found there. Ninety percent of its reptile species can be found nowhere else. Its marine life is also diverse, with 253 species of reef-building corals, 730 species of coastal fish and 300 species of crab, lobster and shrimp. Socotra is already well set up for long-term conservation, IUCN officials say, as about 75 percent of its land area is already included in natural sanctuaries and national parks. The Joggins Fossil Cliffs have also drawn a comparison to the diverse Pacific Islands made famous by Charles Darwin's work, as they are sometimes called "the Coal Age Galápagos." The cliffs are considered to be an excellent reference site to the Coal Age (about 300 million years ago). The rocks there bear witness to the first reptiles in Earth's history and preserve upright fossil trees. "This is a fascinating site where you can literally see a slice of history," said Tim Badman, World Heritage advisor of IUCN's Protected Areas Program. Surtsey, a new island formed by volcanic eruptions off the southern coast of Iceland from 1963 to 1967, is interesting for the new life forms that have settled there. The young bit of land has provided a unique scientific record of the ways in which plants and animals colonize land. The Mariposa Monarca Biosphere Reserve protects eight areas of wintering habitat of the monarch butterfly in the oyamel fir forests of central Mexico. After traveling thousands of kilometers, as many as a billion monarchs overwinter there. More than 200,000 hectares of Central Asian steppe, a vast region of open grassland, is found in Saryarka, Kazakhstan — more than half of it is pristine. The area's Korgalzhyn-Tengiz lakes provide feeding grounds to around 16 million birds and support hundreds of thousands of nesting waterfowl. "The wetlands of Korgalzhyn and Naurzum State Nature Reserves are key stopover points for migratory birds," Sheppard said. "Some of these species are globally threatened. Saryarka offers them a safe haven on their journeys from Africa, Europe and South Asia to their breeding grounds in Western and Eastern Siberia." Saryarka is also home to the critically endangered saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica). Mount Sanqingshan National Park in China was selected for its "outstanding natural beauty," the IUCN said. The park features a diverse forest and unusual granite rock formations, including shaped pillars and peaks, which can be viewed from suspended walking trails. The Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona, on the other hand, was picked for its geological value; it features a dramatic display of mountain-building, including an area called the Glarus Overthrust, where older rock overlays younger rock. The highly diverse coral reef ecosystems of the Lagoons of New Caledonia put it on the new list — they equal or possibly surpass the larger Great Barrier Reef in coral and fish diversity. These eight natural sites were accompanied by 27 cultural sites as inductees into the World Heritage program. The IUCN also helps monitor conservation at the natural sites. It has deemed several World Heritage sites as under threat, including the Galápagos Islands, in Ecuador, Machu Picchu, in Peru, and Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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Andrea Thompson
Live Science Contributor

Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.