Scientists from the California Academy of Sciences have discovered hundreds of new species in the Philippines.† They discovered a shrimp-eating shark, sea urchins, sea slugs, sea stars, corals, insects and other species. Terrance Gosliner, Ph.D, Senior Curator and Dean of Science and Research Collections, at the California Academy of Sciences answered some questions about their expedition.
Q: Since you have recently discovered so many species, is it reasonable to guess there may be many more there, and if so, how many?
A: I think it is safe to say that the Philippines literally has thousands of new species waiting to be discovered. I base that statement on the fact that in my twenty years of research, I find new species on almost every dive I make into the water there. Also, the mountains and reefs that we explored are relatively easily accessible and in most cases are only a couple of hours from Manila. The more remote parts of the Philippines are even less explored and probably harbor an even greater number of new species.
Q: When new species are discovered it may be perceived as an indication that nothing is wrong overall with natural habitats, but what should people also be aware of about conservation in these times?
A: Discovering a new species in an area tells you that the area is still incompletely explored, but tells you very little about the health of the habitat your are investigating. Only by understanding the relative species diversity of an area and understanding the ecological relationships of the species can you know whether that habitat is in good shape or in trouble. Also, you need to understand how that diversity changes over time. A good example is the reefs of the Philippines. In some areas they are very healthy, but top predators like sharks and large fish are largely absent from the habitats. We only saw two reef sharks in more than 30 days of diving. On a less impacted reef you would typically see these sharks on every dive. That being said, the small marine protected areas that currently exist where we were diving are helping. Schools of large fish are coming back. Sea turtles are starting to be seen commonly again. Conservation efforts are working, but there need to be more and larger protected areas to act as a reservoir for repopulating depleted areas.
Q: Have you seen the impact of climate change on wild animals there, and what can be done to help them?
A: The impacts of climate change are clearly visible, both on the coral reefs and the mountains where we explored. The coral reefs we were studying had a major coral bleaching event last September and October but have since bounced back and most of the corals have new symbiotic algae in their tissues and are healthy again. Other parts of the Philippines and Southeast Asia did not fare so well. To the west, on the island of Palawan, reefs died from this bleaching event and in Thailand and Malaysia there was a massive die off of reefs from this same event of warming waters. What we expect to see on the mountains we explored is that species will be found increasingly higher on the mountains as the climate warms. We donít have enough historical data to see this happening on this particular set of mountains, but the data we collected will form the basis for future comparisons of these shifts in altitude as a result of climate change.
Image Credits: California Academy of Sciences