New wildlife species amaze US, Philippine scientists | Inquirer News

New wildlife species amaze US, Philippine scientists

By: - Reporter / @jgamilINQ
/ 01:33 AM June 26, 2011

There is no question now that the Philippines is a biodiversity hotspot. That is, it is one of the world’s biologically richest countries with a significant share of endemic species that are under threat from humans, making it a top priority for global conservation.

A recent expedition of international and local scientists yielded previously undocumented wildlife species, both in land and water, and even along the shorelines.

After more than a month documenting wildlife in Luzon’s mountains and waters, 31 scientists from the California Academy of Sciences (CAS) and 12 local counterparts  from the University of the Philippines, among others, presented the expedition’s initial findings in a symposium at UP Diliman recently.


The 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition is the first expedition to study simultaneously marine and terrestrial habitats in the Philippines. It covered, beginning on April 26, Lake Taal, Anilao and the Verde Island Passage in Batangas, and the mountains of Makiling in Laguna, Banahaw in Quezon,  Malarayat in Batangas and Isarog in Bicol.


While they were hesitant to declare new species pending further testing of the recovered specimens, the scientists said they were optimistic that a number of the wildlife they documented are new to the scientific world.

Unknown and undocumented

They said that diving the shallow waters of Batangas alone yielded wildlife either unknown to the scientists or previously undocumented in the Philippines.

“We saw at least 30 new species of barnacles; more than 50 new species of nudibranchs (sea slugs); 45 sea urchins and sand dollars, six of which have never been recorded in the Philippines, one or two probably new; one new species of eel; and one new pipe fish,” reported Terrence Gosliner, the CAS dean of Science and Research Collections and leader of the expedition’s shallow water team.

Added Richard Mooi, CAS curator of invertebrate zoology who joined the expedition’s deep water team: “We found 500 [wildlife] species in eight days, while trawling the deep sea. Some species we couldn’t yet identify on the ship, but 75 to 100 species are brand new and have never been seen before.”

200 species of worms


“We found 200 species of worms, and I won’t be surprised if 40 to 50 turned out to be new to science. We collected 150 crustacean species, somewhere around 18 to 20 may be new to science. There were so many different kinds of starfish, there are undoubtedly new species, somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 50 species which I collected,” Mooi said.

“We collected 50 different fish families, 74 genre, identified 94 species. We need better facilities to determine what the others are,” said David Catania, senior collection manager of the CAS Department of Ichthyology, who was with the expedition’s deep sea team.

Gosliner expressed amazement that after 20 years of studies on the Philippine coral reef triangle, of which the Verde Island Passage is a part, “we still keep finding new things.”

This included soft corals, hair-like urchins, cat sharks and predatory worms not previously known to the Philippines.

Exotic treasures

Two marine creatures were confirmed to be new species: a polychaete (marine worm) that spreads sperm as it swims, and a flat, minute starfish, no bigger than a centavo, which lives exclusively on wood.

The scientists didn’t even need to look far to make exotic discoveries. One unknown species of sea urchin was simply plucked from the waters off a resort.

“Mooi was trying to find a common sea urchin, picked it up and he realized he never saw it before. Serendipity plays a large role in what we do. There are so many treasures that can be found here,” Gosliner said.

Catania, in collecting fish specimens, also employed a simple “tried and true” method: visiting the local fish market. “We brought back 30 specimens, 29 additional species for our records,” he said.

Terrestrial study

The expedition to Mount Makiling alone yielded significant finds for the terrestrial team: Lizards that had no limbs and burrowed underground like snakes; lowland striped shrew rats; around five unique species of bats, some previously unknown to the mountain.

There were also traces of Philippine brown deer, two species of musang (civet) and long-tailed macaques. The mountain also yielded 15 species of amphibians, 28 species of reptiles, according to Philip Alviola, collections manager of the UP Los Baños zoology and wildlife section.

Mt. Banahaw saw cicadas that made sounds which superstitious locals thought were “dwarf laughter.” Charles Griswold, the CAS curator of arachnology, also reported three possible new spider species.

The terrestrial team had their share of adventures. While camping in the mountains, the vertebrate team experienced Typhoon “Bebeng” and a magnitude 4 earthquake. A tree to which they had tied a hammock fell.

“We feel very lucky to have survived it,” said Alviola.

More plastic than fish

But while there is no question that Philippine wildlife is rich in variety, these endemic  populations are dwindling and endangered.

“There should be more fish in the deep seas than there are here. What bothered me was how few fish there were. We were fishing well off-shore, in an area not very overfished. Something on land is affecting life in the deep sea,” said CAS senior scientist John McCosker from expedition’s deep water fishes team.

He also expressed alarm that the amount of trash exceeded the amount of life. Trawls would comb the ocean 2,300 meters from the surface for half an hour and come up yielding more plastic than fish. Some barnacles have even started adapting to the plastic, he said.

Alviola said that while the mountain mammals are naturally difficult to capture, the 14-day expedition to Mt. Makiling would sometimes only yield one specimen of certain animals, implying their “vulnerability.” He bewailed that some wildlife in the mountains were being hunted “for fun.”

Climate change

Climate change is certainly not helping. For example, wide expanses of corals are dying—“bleaching”—as the plants they need to survive die from increased temperatures, said Wilfredo Licuanan of UP Diliman’s Marine Science Institute. Anchoring ships and uneducated scuba divers also contribute to coral reef degradation, he said.

“We collected about 21 species out of 56 previously documented species of staghorn corals. Fifteen I still have to find again, I hope they’re still there,” said Licuanan whose team, after scouring the shallow waters of Anilao, discovered nine previously undocumented species.

“But 40 percent of the staghorn corals are vulnerable. They will be among the first to go if temperatures change,” he said.

“This emphasizes that one, there’s a lot out there we don’t know about, and two, that we may have already lost some of them before we can even get to discover them,” Licuanan said.

Great hope in PH

The scientists called on the public to start preserving biodiversity.

“Life overcomes some of the horrible things we’re doing to natural habitats. But we need to stop bad practices to give life the chance to do that,” Mooi said.

Licuanan underscored the importance of tapping citizen scientists, or educating communities about wildlife in their areas. While it may take as long as two years for the results of the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition to be published, Licuanan said he intends to publish a field guide from his own studies on corals.

The expedition also included representatives from De la Salle University, University of Batangas, Ateneo de Naga University, the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources of the Department of Agriculture, the National Museum of the Philippines, and the Pusod nongovernment organization.

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“The sun hasn’t set yet on your oceans. There is great hope in the Philippines. Spend more time investigating from the highest mountains all the way to the bottom of the sea,” McCosker warned Filipinos.

TAGS: Biodiversity, environment, Researches, wildlife

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