From the Philippines’ densest jungles to its steepest mountains, these brainy explorers have helped unlock nature’s complex mysteries one bird, one bat, one frog, one lizard at a time.
On Wednesday, 10 Filipino wildlife scientists and an American were honored for their role in the discovery over the past 25 years of close to 300 species of plants and animals found only in the Philippines.
The 11 were awarded plaques in simple rites at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to recognize their efforts in locating and identifying more than 270 animals and plants previously unknown to science.
“The discovery of 270 species in the past 25 years only shows that the Philippines is indeed a very beautiful country, wonderful and diverse,” said one of the winners, Arvin Diesmos, chief of herpetology of the Zoology Division at the National Museum.
Diesmos paid tribute to his fellow wildlife biologists, “who never stopped searching and never ceased to hope” that new species were still to be found in the Philippines.
Diesmos is codiscoverer of 14 reptiles, 21 amphibians and a bird species. He was the lead discoverer of a new species of narrow mouth frog (Kaloula walteri) found in the woods of Mt. Banahaw in Quezon province in 2002.
The other scientists cited were Liza Paguntalan, director for field operation of the Philippine Biodiversity Conservation Foundation (PBCF); Danilo Balete, field leader of the Philippine Mammal Project of the Field Museum of Natural History; Victor Amoroso, director of the Center for Biodiversity Research and Extension in Mindanao; Ulysses Ferreras, field botanist of Blue Water Consultancy Inc.; Philip Godfrey Jakosalem, wildlife biologist of PBCF; Perry Ong, director of the University of the Philippines Institute of Biology and Mariano Roy Duya of the same institute; Maria Josefa Veluz, head of the Mammal Section of the National Museum; and former Environment Secretary Angel Alcala.
Also cited was Rafe Brown from Kansas University, who, while working with the DENR’s Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) in the past 20 years, discovered at least 54 animal species—28 reptiles and 26 amphibians.
Botanist Leonard Co, who was killed along with two others in November 2010 while conducting an inventory of tree species in Kananga town in Leyte province, was also given a posthumous award for his contributions in the identification of native Philippine plants.
In an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Diesmos said the list of 270 new species covered only plants and terrestrial birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. It does not include insects and marine life.
He said most of the expeditions that led to the discovery of new species were mounted by foreign scientists but local knowledge was indispensable to such explorations.
Found in ‘small forest patches’
Most of the newly discovered creatures were found in “small forest patches and remnants of natural habitats,” which, Diesmos said, underscored the importance of saving not only the plants and animals but also their natural environment.
In a country like the Philippines, where few places remain unexplored, it is a wonder that new species are being discovered almost regularly, Diesmos said.
“It only shows how much we still do not understand in the natural world,” Diesmos said when asked what this meant. In this sense, he added, finding a new species is the same as unlocking a part of that puzzle.
He noted that fewer than two million species of plant and animal life have been identified out of the estimated five million to 100 million species in the world.
PAWB Director Mundita Lim said each new discovered species affirmed the richness and diversity of Philippine wildlife, as she stressed the necessity of conserving and protecting their habitats.
For every species discovered, Lim said, there could be others that have gone extinct without people ever knowing about them.
“It’s important that Filipinos are aware of these important creatures so they don’t just trap, kill and eat them without a moment’s thought,” she told the Inquirer.
“These endemic species are our living jewels. They are irreplaceable and unique components of our awesome environmental heritage,” said Environment Secretary Ramon Paje.
Shrinking forest cover
But the discovery of the new species can also be taken as an indication of how threatened they are, he said.
“The prospects for their discovery have increased because our forest cover has shrunk, making the species more concentrated in more compact areas,” Paje said in a statement.
Among the threats to the new species, he said, are habitat destruction, illegal trading, the introduction of exotic and invasive species, pollution and climate change.
“Saving a species is more than a simple matter of putting it in a cage or pot. It requires us to protect or rebuild its habitat, as well as the balance it keeps in relation to other species lower and higher in the food chain or web of life,” Paje said.
The PAWB has included on its list of new discoveries 29 species of rodents found across the country; three species of bats from Mindoro and Abra; four bird species from the provinces of Cagayan, Cebu and Camiguin; and 44 reptile and 29 amphibian species from Luzon, Negros-Panay, Greater Mindanao and Sulu.
More than 160 new plant species have also been recorded, including some species of the world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia.
The Philippines ranks fifth globally in the number of plant species, and it hosts about 5 percent of the world’s flora, the DENR said.
The Philippines has been named one of the world’s 17 “megadiverse” countries, and it has been ranked one of the countries with the highest rates of discovery in the world, following the discovery of 16 new species of mammals in the past 10 years.
The country also recorded the highest number of endemic species on a per unit basis in the whole Indo-Malayan region. Endemic species refer to species found only in one region, the DENR said.