Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
The Philippines is one of the 18 mega-diverse countries in the world as it contains two-thirds of the earth’s biodiversity and between 70% and 80% of the world’s flora and fauna species.
“The Philippines ranks fifth in the number of plant species and maintains 5% of the world’s flora,” says the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), known informally as the Biodiversity Convention, a multilateral treaty.
In the past, when people talked about biodiversity in the Philippines, they usually thought of Luzon, the largest island in the country.
It’s understandable. For instance, Mount Makiling in Los Baños, Laguna alone, has been found to have higher species diversity than the whole of North America. In 1997, the late award-winning zoologist Dioscoro Rabor reported at least 50 species of mammals, 120 bird species, six species of amphibians, 19 types of reptiles, and several varieties of fish are inhabiting the Mount Makiling Forest Reserve.
Even before that, in the late 1800s, American forester Dr. Hugh Curran Sr. came to the place and started to plant various species of trees coming from all over the country in Mount Makiling. Today, the mountain has been described as having an “exceptional diversity of woody plant species, totaling more than the entire number of woody species found in the United States.”
Russell Mittermeier, one of the authors of Mega diversity: Earth’s Biologically Wealthiest Nations, said the Philippine biodiversity was “truly amazing in global terms and this is certainly true of overall diversity but especially so as regards endemism.”
But it’s not only in Luzon where biodiversity abounds. Mindanao, the country’s second-largest island, is home to a huge number of biodiversity; in fact, some of them are completely unknown yet.
A team of researchers, led by herpetologist Marites Sanguila of Father Saturnino Urios University, described Mindanao as the “epicenter” of southern Philippine biodiversity. They made such a claim after surveying northeastern Mindanao and associated islands.
“The terrestrial biodiversity of the Philippines is amazing, and this part of Mindanao is the center of the center of that diversity,” commented Dr. Rafe Brown, curator-in-charge of herpetology at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute.
“The biodiversity is so high in this pocket of northeast Mindanao, largely because the ranges of so many species in the archipelago overlap in this one area,” Dr. Brown was quoted as saying by earth.com. “We knew it was really diverse, but we didn’t have a sense of this one area being the bull’s-eye, the epicenter of this diversity.”
The result of the survey made it to be published in the online open-access journal ZooKeys, which detailed their findings: a total of 126 species, including 40 frogs, one caecilian, 49 lizards, 35 snakes, a freshwater turtle, and a crocodile.
Some of these species are completely unknown. “(About) 95% of Mindanao’s amphibians don’t appear anywhere else in the world,” Dr. Brown said.
For its part, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) is also conducting its own study through its Biodiversity S&T Program of the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD).
The Biodiversity in Selected Mountain Ecosystems of Mindanao for Conservation and Sustainable Development was implemented by Central Mindanao University (CMU), headed by Dr. Victor B. Amoroso. This three-year project aims to update, assess, and monitor biodiversity and evaluate the physicochemical properties of the identified mountain ecosystems.
Assessment of biodiversity was conducted in Mount Hamiguitan in Davao Oriental, Mount Apo in North Cotabato, and Mount Pantaron and Mount Tago Ranges, which are both in Bukidnon.
A new terrestrial orchid species, called Dilochia deleoniae, was discovered in Mount Hamiguitan Range, according to a report by Eirene Zaragosa-Arcayos published in The PCAARRD Monitor. “This endemic species prefers to open in partly shaded habitat where it is found either in clumps or scattered,” she wrote.
New species of flowering plant called Hypericum perrryongii was also discovered in Mount Hamiguitan. This species flowers from June until late July and bears fruit in August.
Other new discoveries include: Actinostachys minuta, a grass fern that grows on the trunk of the tree fern embedded between adventitious roots; and Metapocyrtus bronsi, a type of snout beetle named after the Mandaya word bronsi (meaning bronze), the prominent color of the scale markings on its skin.
The research team also discovered Arulenus validispinus, a pygmy grasshopper, and Gymnosiphon syceorosensis, a type of flowering plant. Because only one population of the latter has been discovered, “no estimation of its abundance or overall distribution can be made yet.”
All in all, 219 species were initially documented in Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary: 42 ferns and lycophytes, 130 understory flora, and 138 trees and shrubs belonging to 96 genera and 51 families.
A total of 490 species of plants were recorded and assessed in Mount Tago Range: 60 bryophytes (mosses, liverworts, hornworts), 202 ferns, and lycophytes, 125 understory flora, and 103 trees and shrubs.
Mount Apo, with an altitude of 2,954 meters (9,692 feet), is the country’s highest peak. It is the original home of the delicately beautiful waling-waling (scientifically known as Vanda sanderiana). It is touted as the queen of Philippine orchids.
Although not part of the PCAARRD study, Hedcor, a subsidiary of the publicly-listed Aboitiz Power Corporation, and the University of the Philippines-Mindanao conducted a research study entitled “Wildlife Inventory and Biodiversity Assessment Project at the Impact Areas within the Mount Apo National Park of Sibulan Hydroelectric Powerplant” from June 2015 to February 2016.
The fieldwork documented all biological systems within the identified impact sites, specifically recorded vascular plants, butterflies, moths, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.
The study found 368 species of plants, with 26 (7.1%) of them endemic (prevalent in or limited to the area) and 23 (6.3%) considered as threatened species (either vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered).
Insects abound in the area with more than 235 species: 89 species of moths, 26 species of butterflies, and 20 species of dragonflies and damselflies. More than 100 species of other insect orders were found, including beetles.
As for terrestrial vertebrate fauna, about 146 have been identified, with 64 (43.8%) endemic and ten threatened species (6.8%). Of those identified, 25 were amphibians, 27 reptiles, 81 birds, and 13 mammals.
Biodiversity – or biological diversity – is made up of all species of plants and animals, their genetic material, and the ecosystems of which they are apart. Species diversity refers to the variety of species within a given area. Genetic diversity, on the other hand, refers to the variation of genes and genotypes between and within species.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about 75% of human nutrition is provided by only seven species of crops: wheat, rice, corn, potato, barley, sweet potato, and cassava. Roughly 20% of the protein requirements of humans in developing countries are provided by animals, particularly from fish for Filipinos.
In the Philippines, at least 68 common plants are being used as medicines. Two of the most important anti-cancer drugs in the world come from the rosy periwinkle found in Asia’s tropical rainforests. Taxol, the only drug that shows promise against breast cancer and ovarian cancer, is derived from the Pacific Yew bark.
If nothing is done soon, some of the unknown species will become extinct. Once a species is extinct, it cannot be brought back again. “When the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again,” naturalist William Beebe reminded.
The principal threat to most species – land, aquatic and marine – is the loss or degradation of habitat due to human activities: conversion of natural ecosystems to farming and aquaculture, animal husbandry, mining, logging, bottom trawling, industrialization, and urban expansion.
“Loss of habitat affects nine out of ten threatened birds and plants, along with over 80 per cent of threatened mammals,” People and the Planet pointed out.
“Human activities contribute more to the loss of biodiversity than any other factor,” FAO contends. “Biological resources are renewable resources, but they are being exploited at rates that exceed their sustainable yield.”
Climate change will be an increasing factor in the loss of habitat. “While habitat loss and fragmentation have been the primary drivers of past and predicted species extinction, climate change is now putting additional pressure on many animals and plants,” said Rolando Inciong, head of Communication and Public Affairs of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity.
The second main source of threat is direct exploitation – in tropical areas, many endangered mammals are a source of meat. “It is in our culture to catch, kill, and or cook anything that moves,” deplored Mike Lu, treasurer of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, who has observed a dramatic decline in bird species over many years.
Finally, there is the introduction of alien species. The following groups have had a particularly negative impact on wetland biodiversity: fish such as the giant catfish and black bass; toads and frogs, including the marine toad, the American bullfrog, and leopard frog; and aquatic plants like the water hyacinth and water fern.
“Of all the global problems that confront us, species extinction is the one that is moving the most rapidly and the one that will have the most serious consequences,” declared Dr. Peter Raven, Director of the Missouri Botanical Garden.