Making Connections

The new research conducted by scientists at the Biodiversity Institute is starting to show that water barriers between the Philippine islands have had less of an influence in keeping species sequestered than previously thought. Through the occurrences of “rafts” – a critter transported to another island by hitching a ride on flotsam – species spreading and propagation might have often occurred between islands.

“Aided by stout winds and fresh water jettisoned from islands during tropical storms, terrestrial animals and plants could potentially get quite far. Maybe even 40 to 50 miles,” says Brown.

The same holds for languages. Mountains, hills, and expansive plains have restricted the distribution of languages more so than water barriers. Considering cultural lifestyles and traditions, this makes sense: if you live near the beach and know how to fish, gather shellfish, and you have a good canoe, it’s safer and more practical to move to the beach of another island instead of learning an entirely new set of skills to help you survive on hilly or mountainous terrain.

Strange as it may seem, in some regions such as Eastern Mindanao and the islands north of it, the language dispersal patterns match the plant distribution more than the animal. This is because just as different terrains support different soil types (and the plants that live in those soils,) terrain borders are also cultural barriers, isolating peoples because of their specialized, terrain-based food gathering and dwelling practices.

The animal species that range between these areas often earn many names, one or more for each cultural pocket. The Philippine tarsier is an example. This diverse archipelago has molded some of highest percentages of unique biota in the world. And along with that, a fortune of culture and language diversity, shaped by its natural wonders – landscape, seascape and organisms. Perhaps success in the conservation of one could influence success in the other.

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In some regions such as Eastern Mindanao and the islands north of it, the language dispersal patterns match the plant distribution more than the animal. On the left is a language map. One major language group is shaded in peach and surrounded by a red border. The middle map shows plant distributions, which are similar to that of the languages. On the right is an animal distribution map, showing two zones with different animal groups.

Language map © 1981 & 1983 the Australian Academy of the Humanities.