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A ‘VIP’ of global marine biodiversity in the Philippines

Whenever we hear about a newly discovered plant or animal, we tend to focus on the exotic location where it was found, or distinguishing morphological traits that merit its classification as an entirely new species. We rarely talk about how scientists determine new species, which isn’t really surprising. After all, it isn’t that hard to understand that the process of naming a new species is far more complicated than thinking of a cool-sounding Latin binomial name and calling it a day.

When experts come across an unidentified specimen, they use a system of concepts ranging from physical appearance to reproductive compatibility in figuring out whether or not it really is a new species. Another part of the process involves checking existing records to ensure that the seemingly new species isn’t just a variation of an existing one.

Admittedly, it’s not uncommon for scientists to discover new species each year. Roughly two million unique species have been catalogued over the course of human history; scientists estimate that the actual number of species in the wild could easily be five times that.

Nevertheless, one can only imagine the kind of rush that comes with adding yet another name to the taxonomic record. It’s probably the same kind of rush that Dr. Terry Goslinger, Senior Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at the California Academy of Sciences, has felt during virtually every single one of his visits to the Philippines over the last 27 years.

VIP: A very important place

“I started working on coral reefs in the Philippines in 1992,” Goslinger said at a recent forum in Manila. His colleagues had told him that the marine life in the Philippines was rich and diverse, in waters that were relatively unexplored. At that point, Goslinger had been conducting his research in Papua New Guinea.


Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan, Dr. Meg Burke, and Dr. Terry Goslinger speaking during a forum.


“One of my colleagues said, ‘If you think Papua New Guinea is rich, you ought to come to the Philippines.’ And they were absolutely right, and I was astounded,” he said.

It didn’t take long for Goslinger and his fellow scientists to verify that the Philippines was exceptionally rich in marine biodiversity. Furthermore, they found that the richest area was a 1.14-million-hectare waterway separating Luzon and Mindoro known as the Verde Island Passage (or VIP).

The VIP is part of what marine scientists call the Coral Triangle. Located in the western region of the Pacific Ocean, the Coral Triangle encompasses the waters of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste (also known as East Timor), and the Solomon Islands.

Serving as the underwater home of six marine turtle species, nearly 600 species of reef-building corals, and over 2,000 reef fish species, the Coral Triangle is recognized as the global center of marine biodiversity—and the VIP is the center of the center.

The VIP itself houses over 400 species of corals, and functions as a safe haven for hundreds of marine species from both subtropical and tropical climate zones. These include, but are not limited to, whale sharks, sea turtles, nudibranchs (colloquially known as sea slugs), and about 60 percent of the world’s shorefish species. Various species of fish and larvae also find their way to the VIP, carried by strong currents from the Pacific Ocean.

Additionally, local and foreign experts from different research and conservation institutions discover new marine species in the VIP every year. In 2018, the Academy announced that it had found 14 new species in the Philippines, a number of which were nudibranchs from the VIP.

These factors have earned the VIP not one, but two scientifically backed titles: the Center of the Center of Marine Shorefish Biodiversity, and the Center of the Center of the Marine Biodiversity of the World.

Coral lesson

For over three decades, Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan has been actively surveying and monitoring coral reefs across the country. Recently, he led a nationwide assessment of the overall health of coral reefs in the Philippines.

Throughout Licuanan’s career, however, there’s one significant detail about his work — specifically, about corals — that he has had to explain to various audiences and stakeholders more times than he can probably remember:

“When we talk about corals [in the context of coral reefs], we’re not talking about rocks; we’re talking about animals.”

According to Licuanan, a Full Professor of De La Salle University’s Biology department, each of these tiny coral animals — called polyps — possess very thin tissue.

“Most of the coral is actually skeleton,” he explained, “hence the common misconception that corals are rocks.”

Not all corals have skeletons. Soft corals (such as gorgonians, sea fans, and sea pens) are feathery, flexible, and plant-like. The ones that we tend to mistake for rocks are hard corals — corals with skeletons made of aragonite, a type of calcium carbonate. These skeletons are designed to protect the corals from strong waves or other animals.

Coral reefs are formed when polyps living in colonies (groups of hundreds, thousands, or even more) deposit calcium carbonate beneath their bodies and form large structures. For this reason, hard corals are also known as reef-building corals.

Coral reefs support some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. Aside from being a fortified habitat for countless marine species, they also play a significant role in the food chain, as they provide important nutrients (such as nitrogen) and facilitate nutrient recycling (the movement and exchange of organic and inorganic matter back into the production of living matter).

Coral grief

Corals have a symbiotic relationship with microscopic algae called zooxanthellae. Zooxanthellae serve as the corals’ primary food source, as well as the reason behind their color.

However, when water temperatures grow warmer, the relationship becomes stressed, resulting in the expulsion of the algae from the corals. When this happens, the corals turn ghostly white--a phenomenon we call coral bleaching. And while this does not immediately kill corals, they will eventually die if they are unable to recover.

Rising ocean temperatures due to global warming are the primary cause of coral bleaching. Meanwhile, water pollution and abusive fishing practices are significant hindrances to coral recovery.

Consequently, the death and breakdown of corals and coral reefs will have severe effects on the countless marine populations that depend on the reefs for sustenance and protection. Coral bleaching also negatively impacts entire industries, such as fishing and tourism.

One of the most noteworthy examples of wide-scale coral bleaching in the Philippines happened in 2010, brought about by El Niño. It was one of three incidents documented by the Philippine Coral Bleaching Watch over the last twenty years.

“We lost many of the coral reefs in Southeast Asia, and we saw extensive bleaching in places like Palawan,” recalled Goslinger, “We saw a lot of coral death.”

At the time, approximately 25 to 30 percent of the VIP experienced massive coral bleaching.

“The corals were getting rid of their algae, looking very sick, and looking like they may die. This was the first time we had really seen this extent of coral bleaching and unhealthy conditions, and we were very, very concerned about that,” he said.

To the scientists’ surprise, however, things looked different when they returned to the VIP six weeks later.

“Already, the corals that had bleached were starting to regain their color, because they were absorbing new algae,” he said.

Eventually, the damage that the VIP’s corals had previously sustained was almost completely gone, revealing that apart from its rich biodiversity, the VIP also possesses natural resilience, for reasons that require further research to understand.

“There is great hope that the Verde Island Passage can repopulate other parts of the Philippines, and can be a genetic storehouse [as well],” he said.

Reef power, reef responsibility

Truth be told, while the VIP is full of marine wonders and mysteries, there may not be enough scientists in the Philippines (or even in the world) to understand what must be done and take the necessary measures before it’s too late.

And that’s precisely where citizen action comes into play.

“We think it’s not only important, but an obligation to help the local community understand why we’re there, and why the reefs are important,” explained Dr. Meg Burke, the Academy’s Associate Dean of Science Operations.

A frequent visitor of the Philippines and the VIP, Burke’s efforts are focused on science education—specifically, engaging the communities and empowering them with the skills and knowledge necessary to monitor their own reefs.

“If you can take that first step and help people understand that corals are living animals, you can often see the lightbulb go off,” shared Burke. “And it’s like, ‘Now I get it.' Because if corals are living animals, then when anchors are dropped on corals, you’re killing living animals. You’re not just breaking up a rock. If dynamites are used, you’re not just making big rocks smaller. You’re killing animals."

“Only by training local communities can you help ensure that there will be eyes on the reef — that people will be watching to see what’s going on,” she added.

Over the last few years, government agencies, conservation groups, and law enforcement have worked on initiatives to combat the major threats to the VIP’s sustainability: overfishing, illegal waste disposal, and daily commercial vessel activity. Just last year, the local government declared every fourth week of September to be the Verde Island Passage (VIP) Conservation Awareness Week.

Additionally, marine conservationists and concerned parties in the area have been pushing for the VIP’s nomination and proclamation as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site—not for recognition, but for the purposes of pressuring officials to take better care of the VIP. 

“We still have time to protect the richest reefs in the world," Goslinger assured. "Our treasure trove of biodiversity on this planet.”

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—JCB, GMA News