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Panglao, Bohol: a center of marine biodiversity

March 02, 2007

THE COLLECTION OF SOME 200 NEW CRUSTACEAN species and some 2,000 new mollusk species from the waters off Panglao Island in Bohol in 2004 and 2005 was a major scientific achievement.achievement.

“For invertebrates, the scale of what we have done is unprecedented,” said Peter Ng, a member of the Panglao expedition and of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, the body that regulates how new species should be described.

With 80 participants from 19 countries, the Panglao Marine Biodiversity Project is considered the most comprehensive survey of benthic invertebrates conducted in the tropics.

The new species further establish the Philippines as the “center of the center” of marine biodiversity in the world. It has been found that the Philippines has “a higher concentration of species per unit area” than Indonesia.

The Philippines and Indonesia are part of the “Coral Triangle” that is believed to contain the highest number of marine species. The triangle includes Taiwan and New Guinea.

Location, geology could explain phenomenon

By Kate Pedroso

THE WATERS OFF PANGLAO ISLAND IN BOHOL are among the richest biodiversity spots in the world. A total of 150 to 250 new crustacean species and between 1,500 and 2,500 new mollusk species were found in the area during two expeditions—the Panglao Marine Biodiversity Project in 2004 and its extension, the Panglao Deep-Sea Cruise in 2005.

For the first time, numerous species were observed and photographed alive. Specimens were collected by inter-tidal sampling not only on mudflats and sea grass beds but also in mangroves, and by scuba diving, trawling and dredging. Traps and tangle nets were also used.

Covering about 15,000 hectares, the study yielded more than 1,200 species of decapod (10-footed) crustaceans and some 6,000 species of mollusks.

In contrast, the 300-million-hectare Mediterranean Sea has 340 species of decapods and 2,024 species of mollusks.

Coastal ecosystem fauna were the focus of the six-week 2004 survey, while deep-sea ecosystems were surveyed for two weeks in 2005.

Ghost shrimp

Among the new shrimp species discovered during the expeditions were the Panglao Ghost Shrimp (Eucalliax panglaoensis), the Panglao Crinoid Shrimp (Unguicaris panglaonis) and Chan’s Deep-Sea Prawn (Heterocarpus chani).

The Panglao Ghost Shrimp got its name from its cryptic behavior and transparent white body. The new species was named by Peter Dworschak of the Museum of Natural History in Vienna, Austria.

The Panglao Crinoid Shrimp’s specially adapted claws on the legs, which allow them to clamp firmly on their hosts, make them a new genus.

Tin-Yam Chan, who named this species, is from the National Taiwan Ocean University, and was a participant in both the 2004 and 2005 surveys.

Chan was also one of the collectors of another new shrimp species, the Heterocarpus chani or Chan’s Deep Sea Prawn, which was named after him by Xinzheng Li of Academia Sinica in Qingdao, China.

The expeditions discovered new crabs, such as Daniele’s Deepwater Porter Crab (Dicranodromia danielae) and the fuzzy sponge crab (Hirsutodynomene vespertilio), which got its common name from its dense fur and unusual carapace features.

New snails discovered included Largo’s Segenziid Snail (Ancistrobasis largoi), named after one of the project’s principal investigators, Danilo Largo of the University of San Carlos, and Tramier’s Trochid Snail (Pseudominolia tramieri).

Saw-tooth shark

Other interesting specimens obtained from Panglao in 2005 included a “possibly undescribed species” of saw-tooth shark, as well as a good number of specimens from two relatively rare crab families, the Retroplumidae and the Tymolidae.

The question ultimately is: What’s so special about Panglao and its waters? What makes it a “hotspot?”

Kent E. Carpenter and Victor G. Springer, in their 2004 paper, “The center of the center of marine shore fish biodiversity: the Philippine Islands,” pointed to the central Philippines as “a peak of marine biodiversity.”

“Our study indicates … that there is a higher concentration of species per unit area in the Philippines than anywhere in Indonesia,” they said.

Highest concentration

An earlier study by Guido Poppe and Philippe Bouchet found that the Philippines had the highest concentration of living Pleurotomariidae or Emperor Slit Shells in one spot, with at least five species thriving around Balut Island in South Mindanao.

Among these species was the Balut Island Emperor Slit Shell, (Bayerotrochus philpoppei), a new species. This family of shells got its common name from a Japanese tradition in which fishermen deliver the shells to the emperor, lest they be sentenced to death.

Ludivina Labe, senior marine biologist at the National Fisheries Research Development Institute, said Panglao’s richness could be traced back to geological events, such as changes in sea levels and the formation and submersion of islands through time, citing the Carpenter and Springer study.

Theory of the sill

“Another aspect of the geological history that could have contributed to a concentration of species in the Philippines is the integration of islands that created the archipelago,” said Carpenter and Springer.

The “theory of the sill” could explain the rich marine fauna in the waters off Panglao, said Noel Saguil, project manager of Census of Philippine Marine Biodiversity and one of the scientists involved in both Panglao expeditions.

“Technically speaking, Panglao belongs to the inland seas of the Philippines. The waters surrounding Panglao [are] shallow, [and] as we go outside to the Pacific they become deeper. So whenever there’s a wave … the area becomes a sort of ‘dumping area’ of biodiversity,” Saguil told the Inquirer.

Labe noted that even before the expeditions Panglao was already known worldwide as a haven for rare mollusks and crustaceans.

“That’s why Bouchet (of the French National Museum of Natural History) coordinated with us for an international expedition, to see what’s in there,” she said.

National Museum

On Feb. 5, the group turned over 103 holotypes to the National Museum of the Philippines. The turnover represented the single largest entry of holotypes in the museum.

A holotype is the reference specimen that bears the name that’s applicable to all specimens of the same species. They are thus of utmost importance, especially to future scientists.

“Holotypes are really natural, national treasures. These are kept in vaults. What are displayed are the … duplicate copies. Holotypes are priceless,” Saguil said.

Conservation

The results of the study are not only expected to benefit science and the academe, but conservation efforts as well.

A biodiversity study is important in understanding the web of life. “Once we know what organisms are there, we would know how they are associated with each other... Associations within a marine ecosystem are so intricate, so you don’t know which organisms would disappear in the event that another organism does. You need further detailed studies for that,” Labe said.

“If we don’t protect them, try to get to know them, we wouldn’t know what management and conservation measures to apply,” she said.

However, conservation does not lie with the scientists, according to Saguil.

“We have recommendations … like, in this area, don’t do this or that. There’s the Convention on Biodiversity, to which we are a signatory. We already have specific laws, penalties, implementing rules and regulations,” he said.

‘‘It’s the implementation, (that matters) Saguil said.”

(Pedroso is on the staff of Inquirer Research.)

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