Archive for the ‘Species’ Category

Biblical scholars say that Noah’s Ark measured about 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. We can argue about which cubit to use but let’s say Noah used the Roman cubit which is about 0.4445 m. That translates to an ark that measures 133.2 x 22.2 x 13.32 cubic meters. Athanasius Kircher, a German Jesuit who published Arca Noe in Tres Libros Digesta in 1675, said that the ark only has 150 kinds of birds, and roughly the same number of animals from the other vertebrate groups. This of course, did not include the fishes since they don’t need a boat, or those that arose from spontaneous generation. During the 17th century then, the animals did fit snugly in Noah’s Ark, not to mention his grinding mills.

By the end of the 17th century however,  500 species of birds, 150 species of quadrupeds, and roughly 10,000 species of invertebrates were recognized by science. By then, the ark is overcrowded. Now, we know that there about 5,498 species of mammals, 10,027 birds, 9,084 reptiles and 6,638 amphibians (Hoffman et al., 2010). You can tell me to exclude the marine mammals and the birds that spend most of their lives in open ocean but they still won’t fit in Noah’s Ark, however he calibrated his cubits. Especially if they came in pairs. Even if there were only a pair of rice-field rats in there.

Linnaeus solved this problem by saying that the Ark should be interpreted symbolically, rather than literally. He who has described, named, and catalogued about 6,000 species would know that biological reality does not reconcile with the Biblical story.

Taken literally, or metaphorically, with the way we’re consuming our resources, perhaps given a few years, life on Earth will fit again in Noah’s Ark.

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The Species Dilemma

Douglas Futuyma, in his book Evolutionary Biology (1998), said, “Subspecies are quite arbitrarily defined; the same is true for genera, families, and other higher categories of classification. But one taxonomic category, the species, is thought by many to be real and non-arbitrary, and to play a critical role in evolution.” But what is a SPECIES? Ernst Mayr (1942) defined species as “a group of actually or potentially interbreeding populations, which are reproductively isolated from other such groups.” This definition has proliferated our (and I mean the Philippines) books, our classrooms, and I could be wrong, but could still very well be what your biology student, or teacher, will tell you. However, there is another definition, one that most of our students, or teachers, may not be familiar with. Joel Cracraft (1983) defined ‘phylogenetic species’ as “an irreducible cluster of organisms which is diagnosably distinct from other such clusters, and within which there is a parental pattern of ancestry and descent”.

Each definition is of course, not without criticism. Mayr’s Biological Species Concept begs the question: how can you define a species by simply basing it on reproductive capacity? What of fossils and asexual organisms? Are they not species as well? What of spatially-isolated populations? The differences in trait between two groups, even those not related to reproduction may not be sufficient to prevent them from interbreeding. This conundrum brings us to phenotype, which of course, also ushers in problems, given that phenotype is influenced by the environment.

The fundamental problem with Cracraft’s Phylogenetic Species Concept is that it requires a phylogenetic tree. But what if we cannot construct one for a certain organism? Is it not longer a species then? And what is ‘diagnosably distinct’ anyway? Who defines that? Who draws the line in such a hierarchical concept as the tree? And, how much weight do we give each of these: morphological, behavioral, or molecular diagnosibility?

So what if we do not have a clear definition of a species? Well, rightly, or wrongly (and this could be another blog!) our conservation activities are often centered on certain ‘species’. Our policies, action plans, management schemes, and the very core of our work rely heavily on ‘conservation status’, which is assessed mostly on the ‘species’ level. Enough said.

The debate amongst scientists is sizzling hot such that publications on the topic are spit out out like an old woman chewing on nganga. Join the kerfuffle?

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Invitation to the Biodiversity Forum

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a natural storyteller

My sister flew home from Taiwan for a visit a few weeks ago, and she alerted me that Cebu Pacific’s in-flight magazine contained an article on Dr. Laurence Heaney. Fortunately, the article is available online and I didn’t have to book a flight to be able to read the feature on one of my favorite scientists. You can read the article here, or you can also check out my own profile on Larry Heaney, which I did when I was still with Haribon. I’m posting it here in a sudden fit of nostalgia and affection for Dr. Heaney and his work. You’ll see why.

“Meeting Larry”
Originally published in Haring Ibon magazine, 3rd Quarter 2003

It was a familiar but still captivating story. I watched across the dinner table as biologist Laurence Heaney related the details to one of Haribon’s board members:  how a rat specimen sat unidentified for 20 years at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History until somebody realized it was an unknown species; how a team of scientists came to Mt. Isarog and “re-discovered” it; how they despaired at trying to feed it everything in the forest until they discovered that it eats practically nothing but earthworms.  It happened in 1988, and he must have told the story and written about it dozens of times, but to hear him tell it he might as well have just come home from the mountains still flushed with the joy of discovering a new species.

“I went to the Philippines for the same reason that Charles Darwin went to the Galapagos Islands. I wanted to know where the species live, how do they live, who their relatives are… to study biodiversity – where they come from.”

The Galapagos Islands, of course, are known for harboring amazing biodiversity, and Charles Darwin was its most famous visitor.  But in the Philippines, Larry Heaney has found his own Galapagos.

“The Galapagos Islands are dull and uninteresting compared to the Philippines,” says Heaney.  “The Philippines has fantastic diversity, both in plants and animals.  The level of endemism is certainly the highest in the world.” (more…)

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Lord of the Forest

If it’s possible to fall in love with a bird…

this would be The One.

“It is possible that no one has ever described this rare raptor, one of the world’s largest, without using the word “magnificent.” If there are those who did, then heaven heal their souls.”

“In the kind of irony all too familiar to conservationists, however, the very evolutionary adaptations that made it magnificent have also made it one of the planet’s most endangered birds of prey.”

where have all the forests gone?

where have all the forests gone?

“Awareness about conservation issues, however, is rising in the Philippines. A series of devastating floods and mud slides in the past decade has convinced Filipinos that the loss of forest affects not just wildlife but people too.”

Head over to National Geographic here to see the rest of the magnificent photo gallery, photos taken by Klaus Nigge. The text in italics are from the accompanying article “Lord of the Forest” by Mel White, here. Go.

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(Polillo, Quezon)… The Polillo Group of Islands, also known as the Pollillo Archipelago, is probably unknown to many because of its isolation from the mainland of Luzon. Facing the Pacific Ocean, 25 kilometers east of Luzon, the archipelago is usually only heard of during news updates of weather disturbances. This group of islands is comprised of 27 islands and islets belonging to five municipalities: Polillo, Burdeos and Panukulan, which occupy the mainland, and the two island municipalities of Patnanungan and Jomalig .

The island got its name from the Chinese “Pu-li-lu”, which means “an island with plenty of food.” It is an apt name because aside from the abundance of seafood, the islands also boast of amazing terrestrial resources some of which can be found nowhere else in the Philippines, much less the whole world. This richness has drawn a lot of interest in the scientific community, and numerous scientific studies have been conducted in this part of the country since early last century.

About a three-hour boat ride from the municipality of Real in Quezon, the Polillo towns are typically rural, with no permanent and regular public utility buses and jeepneys plying the routes from one municipality to the other, and the road system not yet well established. The most common mode of transportation is by boat and many residents have to settle for motorcycles as inland transportation. Only few of the settlers here own vehicles, although a lot of houses especially at town centers have already been renovated into big bungalows.

The environment here is quite peaceful and simple with not much opportunities for nightlife. Electricity is available only between two o’clock in the afternoon to six o’clock the following morning. Simple as it may the lifestyle may be, the Polillos have much more to offer, which many of its residents are even unaware of, and these are the rich biological resources found in this part of the country.


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In the Philippines, forests have become denuded due to logging and mining concessions, while coastal areas have been polluted and destroyed due to navigational accidents and destructive fishing methods. Fisheries resources have been plummeting and recovery has been deemed to be unsuccessful as fisher folks continue to fish endlessly. Fish stocks have difficulty in recovering, and as a result, catch composition have shifted. Thus, in light of the recent occurrences of fish stock depletion, many communities have realized that exploiting environmental resources is no longer sustainable. With this realization, an alternative livelihood such as tourism is very important.

Tourism is highly valued in the Philippines. The country is endowed with vast coastal areas with a coastline summing up to 17,460 km. It is known for having one of the most ecologically rich coastal resources in terms of diversity and endemicity. (BFAR 2003, http://www.haribon.org).

Biggest fish in the World

The whale shark, Rhincodon typus (Rhiniodon typus), the largest fish in the world circumnavigates in subtropical to tropical climates (Figure 1). It is of high importance in fisheries and in industries because of its liver oil. This slow swimming and harmless shark is a filter feeder that depends on plankton and krill (www.fishbase.org). It swims to the Philippines to feed and mate with its kind.


Figure 1. The whale shark – the largest fish in the world is not a whale but a shark (www.fishbase.org).

Figure 1. The whale shark – the largest fish in the world is not a whale but a shark (www.fishbase.org).

Whale Shark Capital of the Philippines

The whale shark, just like in other countries in Asia has been captured by commercial fishers. However, in the small town of Donsol in Sorsogon province, the gentle giant or locally known as the butanding has become one of the most loved animals. Donsol locals have started to protect it rather than capturing it. In 1998, with the assistance of the World Wildlife Fund – Philippines and the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources, the town has instituted the protection of the shark through ecotourism (www.donsol.gov.ph, http://www.wwf.org.ph).

Since these fish are passive and slow swimming, whale shark interactions has been made as the tourist attraction in Donsol. Selected fishermen have been educated and trained on how to handle and behave around whale sharks and on safety protocols for tourists as well. The fishermen which were highly dependent on fishing, now has an alternative livelihood by serving as Butanding Interaction Officers from the months of November to May. This form of ecotourism has not only been significant in protecting whale shark populations in Donsol and in the Philippines as a whole, but served as good information, education, communication (IEC) campaign not only to the townsfolk but to all the tourists that have come there as well (www.donsol.gov.ph, http://www.wwf.org.ph).

Other means aside from Whale Sharks

Swimming with the whale sharks has been ranked as the Best Animal Encounter in Asia as stated in the Time Magazine in 2004 (en.wikipedia.org). Because of this popularity and the frequency of the whale sharks venturing in the Donsol, the locals have come up with other ways of improving their tourism services. Aside from establishing more resorts and accommodations, other tourist attractions were added to make more revenues for the town. Additional attractions that were set up as packages aside from the butanding interactions were firefly and bird watching and diving in Ticao Pass (www.donsol.gov.ph).

Bird watching is very popular in the Philippines, since many areas in the country have been named as Important Bird Areas by BirdLife International (www.haribon.org.ph). Donsol, even if not named as an IBA still has numerous bird species that could fascinate a beginner or an avid bird watcher. Firefly populations have been dwindling in the whole world due to development. However the fireflies in Donsol river is so many that one who watches them might think that mangrove trees are burning because of them. The firefly watching is a night activity that starts with a boat ride under the stars from the beach area of a tourist resort to the river. The Philippines is famous for its coral reefs. Ticao Pass which can be accessed through Donsol is ventured by advanced divers for its strong currents and manta rays and thresher sharks (www.donsol.gov.ph).

Community-based Ecotourism and CRM

Donsol has come a long way from protecting an endangered species to providing locals alternative means of livelihood. They have begun to learn the value of their ecosystems and their resources and thus have been very adamant when it comes to protecting these resources. Hopefully, more coastal communities in the Philippines take the example of the community involvement if not in ecotourism but in coastal resource management. Hopefully, other communities begin to realize the importance of habitats and resources and not just think practically, or commonly succumb to the ‘tragedy of commons’.


BFAR. 2003. Fisheries Statistics Profile. http://www.bfar.gov.ph/FishProf.asp

Froese, R. and D. Pauly. Editors. 2007.FishBase. http:// http://www.fishbase.org, ver (04/2007).

Haribon. 2005. Ang Paraisong Pinaka… a showcase of superlatives. http://www.haribon.org.ph/?q=node/view/216.

Municipality of Donsol, Province of Sorsogon, Philippines. http://www.donsol.gov.ph

Wikipedia. 2007. Donsol. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donsol,_Sorsogon.

World Wildlife Fund for Nature – Philippines. 2004. Community-Based Ecotourism and Coastal Resources Management Project in Donsol, Sorsogon. http://www.wwf.org.ph/about.php?pg=wwd&sub1=00011

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