PHL Biodiversity Expedition aims to catalog country's full flora and fauna
In 2011, more than 300 new species were discovered in the 42-day Philippine Biodiversity Expedition done in Luzon alone by the California Academy of Science together with many of our own Filipino scientists.
Dr. Terrence Gosliner, leader of the expedition said that they found new species “during nearly every dive and hike” as they “surveyed the country's reefs, rainforests, and the ocean floor.”
The Philippines, though collectively small in land area and marine territory, is a biological mega-diversity hotspot, sharing the limelight with the huge chucks of land that are Brazil, Australia, and the United States.
Our islands are tenfold more diverse than the Galapagos archipelago where Charles Darwin himself made discoveries now written in The Origin of Species, according to a study by Lawrence Heaney and Jacinto Regalado, Jr. in 1998.
The Philippines was cited to have, hectare per hectare, one of the highest degrees of biological diversity in the world in a book called Megadiversity: Earth’s Biologically Wealthiest Nations by Russel Mittermeier, Patricio Robles Gil, and Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier.
One of our unique species is the Inflatable Shark that puffs up to scare predators. But no one really knows exactly how diverse the Philippines is because many areas still remain unexplored by scientists.
A new expedition is now underway. It's mission: to map the whole of the country's flora and fauna.
The big idea: A Philippine Expedition
Dr. Michael Purugganan, Filipino geneticist and Dean of Science of the New York University proposed the idea of a Philippine Expedition, which he describes as “a comprehensive survey and collecting expedition for botanical, zoological, paleontological and anthropological samples.”
The basic principle is this: mobilize our scientists to explore the entire Philippine archipelago and make a comprehensive collection of all our natural resources – every plant, animal, fossil, even every rock that hasn't been recorded yet.
The Philippines is no stranger to expeditions. Foreign explorers and scientists have been coming to the country from way back in the 1800s to find new species of plants and animals, or collect geological samples.
Filipino scientists have also conducted several independent local explorations of their own, resulting in the discovery of hundreds of plant and animal species over the years.
“There are institutions who are silently working.” Diesmos said. “They are producing a lot of new discoveries, publishing a lot of new species from the Philippines in scientific papers. They don’t get as much media coverage as they should but they’re doing their work.”
However, there hasn't really been a concerted national effort to explore the entire country and record all the species we have. We still lack information about the biology and geology of the archipelago, said Purugganan.
“Every time somebody does an expedition – even a small expedition – they're always discovering hundreds of new species which tells us that we have a lot out there that we haven't really explored.”
Many of the mountaintops, deep ravines, and similar areas that are difficult to access, have not yet been explored.
Dr. Arvin Diesmos, chief herpetologist of the National Museum of the Philippines, agrees that this should be done – and soon – before we lose more without actually knowing what we lost.
Mounting such a big scientific endeavor “will definitely have a major effect on our national capability”, he said. “And we really believe – me and my colleagues – that we can do it anyway: a Filipino-led exploration of the natural resources of the Philippines.”
Why? For practical reasons
The first obvious reason is the conservation and management of our natural resources.
“How can we conserve our rare and endangered species if we don't even know what these species are?” Purugganan asked.
At this point we know about 80 to 90 percent of plant and animal species, and are still discovering more, said Diesmos. What we lack much knowledge on is ecological knowledge of these species, which sheds light as to how these plants and animals live and co-exist.
A catalog for conservation
Conducting a Philippine Expedition will not only allow us to catalog every species that exists in the country. It will also allow us to figure out how to conserve and care for them.
“The Philippine government is still at a very early stage in terms of managing our natural resources,” Diesmos said. “Generating scientific information from such a biological expedition will give us sound ideas or sound advice in managing our resources.”
It also opens the doors to endless possible discoveries that could benefit the human race, from new cures for diseases to interesting food sources,
“We've seen time and time again that new drugs, new enzymes in industries can be discovered in strange species,” said Purugganan. “They come from plants, animals, and bacteria that are in our environment.”
By knowing these resources, the government can also protect them through a patent, Diesmos said.
A nationwide concerted effort called the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) was put in place by the government in 1997. It aims to uplift the scientific capability of the Philippines.
An effort like the Philippine Expedition will benefit this national agenda.
It could drive Filipino scientists and institutions toward a common goal: biodiversity research. The results of which could be applied in producing better ecosystem management, climate change adaptation plans, and natural resources conservation plans.
The dream is doable
It may seem to be a daunting task but Purugganan said that it CAN be done, and relatively cheaply, at that.
“You don't need fancy machines,” said Purugganan. “You need really good people who are willing to go out and go kilometer by kilometer and collect as much new species as they can.”
By Diesmos’ estimate, about 10 to 100 million pesos can cover all the expenses of a nationwide expedition that spans, say, five years, depending on how extensive the project is. There are donors also who can provide the money, he says.
We do not lack qualified scientists who are capable of conducting a project of such magnitude either. Most expeditions, though lead by foreigners, have been done in close collaboration with Filipino scientists.
“We [scientists] have learned so much already from collaborating with all those international partners in terms of scientific research, analysis of the data, of course, writing of scientific publications,” Diesmos said.
It's just a matter mobilizing enough people and institutions that are willing to collaborate on a project of such magnitude.
The difficulties of collaboration
A project of such magnitude will require great organizational effort from government institutions like the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), non-government organizations, the academe, and other science institutions.
Here's where it gets complicated. Each organization has its own system that works effectively when applying it in independent scientific work. When engaging in collaborative projects, however, differences of processes are usually the source of disagreement during the execution.
“Finding a common ground is the challenge,” Diesmos said. “Although, it [has] been done before.”
More than two decades ago, the DENR collaborated with NGOs in a national effort to establish protected area systems such as the Mt. Apo Natural Park, and the Sierra Madre Mountain Range National Park. As a result, National Integrated Protected Area System (NIPAS) Act of 1992 was enacted into law.
“Of course, there were major hiccups, a lot of humps,” said Diesmos who was a student volunteer at that time. But in the end, it became a success.
Ideally, this project should be initiated by the government, Diesmos said. Although, Purugganan said that the National Museum should take the first step.
“It's our mandate, anyway: to study the natural world of the Philippines,” said Diesmos. “Yes, it can be initiated by the National Museum, of course, in close partnership with the DENR and some academic institutions.”
If it will be undertaken, though, it should be done soon.
“We are losing most of our natural forest. Now is when we should do it or we're going to lose a lot of these species forever,” said Purugganan.
“Ideally, it should be done within the next five to 10 years,” Diesmos said. – KDM/TJD, GMA News