A CENTER of biodiversity.

Dubbed as “Galapagos times ten,” the Philippines boasts of a rich biodiversity where different species thrive, especially those known to be endemic in the country.

In 2011, the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) released the New Conservation Areas in the Philippines Project (NewCAPP) report, stating that the Philippines—housing more than 52,000 wildlife species throughout the archipelago—belongs to the 17 “megadiverse” countries in the world.

Rey Donne Papa, a biology professor from the College of Science, said the label referred to the abundance of species present in every given hectare of land.

The rich wildlife in the archipelago is brought by several historical and geographic factors, said Papa, who specializes in Limnology or the study of freshwater environments and inland waters.

“The fact that we are in a tropical country makes it conducive to a higher rate of evolution or the increase of different kinds of species,” he said, adding that the stability of climate contribute to the diversity of marine, freshwater and terrestrial organisms.

In a 2012 report titled “Communities in Nature: State of Protected Areas Management in the Philippines,” the DENR said the geographic origin of the country largely contributed to the Philippines’ rich biodiversity.

The long and complex geological history of the Philippines is the primary driver of diversification of ecosystems that gave rise to very high levels of endemicity among many groups of plants and animals, the report stated.

The Philippines has been also labeled as the “center of the center of the world’s marine biodiversity” by foreign biologist Kent Carpenter from Old Dominion University in Virginia. He noted that the country was home to thousands of marine organisms like fishes, mollusks and crustaceans.

Papa explained that it was the area in the Verde Island Passage, a strait separating Mindoro from other islands of Luzon, which made the Philippines the epicenter of the world’s biodiversity.

“Scientists learned that among the many areas in the Coral Triangle—a region in the Pacific which is considered to be the global center of marine biodiversity—the Verde Island Passage has the highest concentration of biodiversity per given area,” Papa said. The area of the Coral Triangle is known to have 2,983 marine species with more than 300 coral species, said to be the largest concentration of corals in the world according to Carpenter’s study.

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Isolation is also a big factor in the evolutionary process of endemic species, an example of which is the case of Sardinella tawilis, the only known species of sardine that lives in a freshwater environment and is endemic in Lake Taal in Batangas.

“Lake Taal was once open to the sea but the series of volcanic eruptions many years ago gradually closed that open body of water into a lake and in the process some marine organisms were confined inside,” Papa said. “The enclosed body of saltwater slowly became freshwater, where marine species began to adapt the new environment until the population evolved into a separate reproductively-capable [freshwater] species.”

Mae Lowe Diesmos, a biology professor and a researcher from the Research Center for the Natural and Applied Sciences (RCNAS) working on Herpetology—the study of amphibians and reptiles—reiterated that isolation is a huge factor in endemism, especially in terrestrial environments.

“Most amphibians, reptiles and other mammals have limited movements in terms of habitat as compared to birds which can migrate from one place to another,” she said. “Once a population of terrestrial species starts to develop new features and reproduce at an isolated area, there is a high possibility that these animals will become endemic to that area.”

‘Flora of the Philippines’

Besides its promising fauna, the Philippines is also home to an exceptional floral diversity. Data from NewCAPP showed approximately 14,000 plant species which exist in different parts of the archipelago.

Forty percent of the total number of identified species is considered endemic in the country and there are still a lot of species that are yet to be discovered, especially in Mindanao where some areas remain unexplored, said Grecebio Jonathan Alejandro, a plant systematist leading the plant biodiversity group of RCNAS.

Among the plant families recorded to have a high number of existing species, Orchidaceae or the orchid family is known to be the highest in terms of population in the country, followed by the coffee family of Rubiaceae.

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Alejandro said the Philippines has a remarkable number of Rubiaceae, having numerous species proven to be endemic, a great factor why the country sits fourth in rank in terms of the family’s worldwide population.

One species of endemic Rubiaceae is Mussaenda ustii, discovered by Alejandro in Panay Islands in 2008, which he named after UST.

But despite the huge number of extant species of plants in the country, Alejandro stressed that Philippines is still behind other countries when it comes to the study of floral diversity.

“The total number of newly-identified plants [in the country] is only less than 200 for the last ten years. This is very minimal with the promising flora of the Philippines and this is because only a few people do research in this field,” he said.

He also noted that there is a lack of a comprehensive inventory of plants present throughout the archipelago compared to other Asian countries like Thailand, China and Indonesia which have already established a flora of their own.

A flora is a series of publication or a book containing the descriptions of different plant families found in a country, serving as an inventory of the total number of plant species..

However, there is already a current collaborative work among faculty members and researchers from different institutions aiming to revive the Philippine flora. This project will provide substantial information on Philippine plants, especially those species that are already threatened by possible extinction.

Megadiverse hotspot

Even though the country has an impressive biodiversity, Papa warned that it also makes the country’s ecosystem very vulnerable to damage, making it a biodiversity hotspot, a region with notable biodiversity but threatened due to human actions.

Industrialization and commercialization are the major reasons behind the high rate of destruction of biodiversity. “We have a growing population that needs to be fed, so they convert more of our forested lands into agricultural lands,” Papa said.

Diesmos noted that disturbances in natural habitats, especially in mountainous areas, will result in either the dispersion of animals to other “undisturbed” areas or the complete extinction of the species if they fail to adapt to the environment where they moved in.

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“In the case of frogs, some species can still survive even if they move to higher elevations of a mountain. However, some species are highly selective and they cannot survive in different regions with different temperatures,” she said.

Diesmos added that the introduction of invasive species of frogs during 1930s and 1960s in the Philippines to control crop insect pests and to improve commercial farming eventually led to the disruption of ecosystems in the country.

In her paper titled “Status of distribution of alien invasive frogs in the Philippines,” the species of Rana catesbeiana, also called as the American bullfrog, was attributed to the loss of native and endemic species of frog in major islands of the country because it is a carrier of chytridiomycosis, a fungal disease responsible for the massive death and decline of amphibian species worldwide. In addition, Hoplobatrachus chinensis, known as the Chinese Edible Frog, is considered a “harmful invasive species” because its ability to breed in natural forests results in competition of food resources with other native and endemic species.

Meanwhile, Papa said despite the availability of good environmental laws, the country still lacks the ability to reinforce these laws properly. “We are weak when it comes to enforcement of laws, that is why our biodiversity gets destroyed.”

The biologists also pointed out that more people studying biodiversity and proper funds from the government are also important factors in the conservation of the country’s treasures.

Studies on animal and plant biodiversity are only being done by only few researchers in different institutions.

At present, researchers from RCNAS have already conducted different studies on the distribution of different plants and animals in the country. Data from these studies are helpful in updating the status of biodiversity in the Philippines.

“There are many species of animals and plants that are continuously discovered especially with the advancement in molecular sciences. Some of these discoveries just await publication but are now currently on review,” Papa said. Altir Christian D. Bonganay and Giuliani Renz G. Paas

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