Over winter break, Herpetology curator Rafe Brown is leading a team of KU students to the Philippines. The group's research will help scientists better understand the biodiversity of the Philippines, an archipelago of some 7,000 islands.
Today was a cathartic day in my own personal journey in studies of Philippine biodiversity. The story starts in 1991 when, as an undergraduate student at Miami University, I joined my first biodiversity inventory expedition to the Philippines. This was a great experience for a 22 year old, and my life took an immediate and irreversible turn (for the better) towards my passion for the study of life in islands archipelagos. But more to the point: in 1991 we surveyed the southern slopes of Mt. Busa in South Cotobato Province (southern Mindanao). The southern Philippines was a bit wild back then and a major commercial logging operation was focused on logging out the remaining huge, closed-canopy, forests along the south coast of Mindanao. Valued at $10,000 per trunk on the Japanese timber market, the hardwood logs that came down the slopes of Mt. Busa made two Kiamba area families extremely wealthy…and changed the landscape and biodiversity of the immediate area forever.
In 1991 I took this image of a WWII MacArthur era weapons carrier truck, converted to a logging skidder, carrying out the massive trunks of the last giant trees from the lowland forests of southern Mindanao. The environmental devastation imparted by this kind of logging is clearly evident; in this picture a logging truck drives through a small stream in a denuded area where a few days before I had collected frog specimens in what had then been pristine forest.
On that trip, justifiably convinced that all local frog populations were going locally extinct, we mounted a salvage operation and collected specimens to the very legal limit allowable by our permits. We anticipated that no animals would survive the holocaust of large-scale commercial logging in that drainage on Mt. Busa and we did the best we could to document every resident species’ presence in the form of preserved specimens, before the record of their existence had been erased forever.
In the middle of a large series of preserved frogs, I unknowingly preserved a single specimen of what I have, over many years, come to believe is new species, still unnamed and unknown to the world. At the time, the slight morphological differences did not impress me and I misidentified the specimen as one of the locally common species. Years later, during my Masters work at Miami University, I showed that this one individual was genetically distinct…but I hesitated to name it because I had only that one specimen…
Now, 21 years later—last night—I finally collected another specimen and knew in an instant what it was…as I flash backed to my memories of Mt. Busa in 1991. How could I have ever doubted myself? This frog obviously is a new species of great conservation significance.
After decades of biodiversity work, so many species discoveries, years of contributions to conservation efforts and student training, I reflect back on so many arguments with my fellow “conversation” biologists on the topic of faunal collecting and the age-old tradition (standardized by Linnaeus) of preserving specimens for describing and documenting biodiversity. Some individuals, understandably abhorring the killing of animals for any reason, frequently speak ill of the practice of collecting and preserving specimens for science. They argue that it is no longer necessary, that it is unethical, or that scientists may actually contribute to extinction of a species by removing a few individuals from the gene pool. Given the unceasing pace of habitat destruction brought about by logging, mining, and gradual conversion of forest to agriculture, there is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that the real threat to biodiversity is habitat loss, not occasional specimen preservation by scientists. We can debate about all the possible causes, but at the end of the day the fact remains: when we cut down the forest, the organisms that depend on it will go extinct. If we cut down all the forest in an area in rapid succession, there is little to no chance for survivors.
For my part, I’m reminded of how important it is to document biodiversity assessments with vouchered specimens. I’m relieved that I unknowingly collected and preserved that large series of frogs in 1991, before their population’s extinction at the hands of the loggers. We now know that there once was a population in the previously forested area, which has now been converted to scorched, arid, grassland. And in the process we discovered a new, unknown species, albeit by mistake. It has taken me 21 years to convince myself of its distinctiveness, but today I am vindicated. And another population (in a protected area) has now been identified, with positive prospects for the continued survival of the species. Finally, the Philippines now has 110 + 1 species of amphibians.
Transportation in the rural Philippine countryside can be a challenge. Getting away from the city centers, through the agricultural areas of the lowlands, and up to the foot of a mountain requires multiple stages of transportation from bus, to jeepney, to four-wheel drive truck, and eventually to local village Hubble-hubble motorbikes.
Did you know that the English popular colloquial use of the slang term “Boondocks” (as in the 1965 Billy Joe Royal hit song “Down in the Boondocks”) originated with U.S. service men in the Philippines? During the first part of the last century sailors adopted use of the Tagalog word “Bundok,” (meaning mountain) and applied it to any place far from civilization.
As I said, getting in and out of the village is accomplished via Hubble-hubble, an expertly driven motorcycle with two wooden platforms attached to each side, and a two-foot long stick for a kickstand. The platforms can each support three people, and together with the two or three people who sit on the seat behind the driver, it is not uncommon to see six to ten people riding a single motorbike. Of course with my added weight, five people are the limit—and even then the back tire is nearly flat. Hubble-hubble drivers have superhuman balance and driving skills, and they drive back and forth with a car’s weight on two wheels all day long.
I wonder what folks back in Kansas would think of us hubble-hubbling in the Philippine boondocks? —Rafe
As the centennial KU Philippine expedition continues, we are all continually impressed by the abilities, incredible hospitality, and hard work ethic of our collaborators and local field counterparts.
Our primary collaborator, Dr. Marites (“Tess”) Bonachita Sanguila, an instructor at the nearby Father Saturnino Urios University in Butuan City, has taken charge of all logistical details for supporting the field crew. This amounts to numerous massive shopping trips per week, responding to all the miscellaneous requests from the field team, and coordinating our activities with the village head, tribal chieftain, municipal authorities, provincial administrators, police, military, and nearby townspeople. It's important that everyone knows we’re here, are aware of what we’re doing, and gets an opportunity to voice any concerns they might have about a bunch of foreigners coming to their home town.
Tess has an admirable way of making everyone feel at ease, even during difficult negotiations and discussions of delicate topics like local politics, jurisdiction and land access, permitting, and security in the area. Even the village dogs have taken a shining to her (no small feat: dogs in rural areas here are more “scavenger” than they are “pet”).
Randy, the son of the Datu (the head of the indigenous peoples’ group with tribal jurisdiction over our study area) is a strong personality with a confident, direct, and strikingly vociferous demeanor.
He has taken charge of organizing the porters (it takes 20-30 people to move our gear up and down the slopes of the mountain) and local guides. He definitely has their well being in mind and he is not afraid to tell us when their needs are not yet quite met. Making sure everyone is happy and well fed is priority number one! —Rafe
From the coast of Agusan Del Norte, Mt Hilong-hilong looks pretty tame. “Hilong” means “nose” in the local dialect….I guess if you squint, the peak looks a bit like a face in silhouette with a prominent nose.
Down at low elevation it is hot, arid, and dry near the north coast of Mindanao Island. The skies are clear, the sun is out; definitely good conditions for trecking up this mountain.
Up on Mt. Hilong-hilong, a different story is unfolding. Below the forest canopy, only a little sunlight reaches the ground. The forest floor is saturated and in just a few days’ time the comings and goings of 20 field biologists have turned our kitchen (and the rest of the camp) into a frothy soup of brick-colored mud. Eventually our guides attempted to put down a floor of saplings, but I can soon see the poles slipping under the mud….
It’s a good thing that everyone has rubber boots. “putik” translates to “mud” in Tagalog, so Camp Putik was quickly coined and universally adopted by our field team.
A few days later my right ear and side of my head has begun to sting and itch incessantly. Some scaly, itchy thing is spreading around on my neck as well. As it turns out, I have been infected with some sort of tropical fungus; it’s now responding well to fungicide and showing signs of retreating—but how gross is that? Can you imagine having Athletes’ Foot on your ear? -Rafe
Five days later, the team departs Camp Putik (with an amazing collection of specimens, several species new to science, and fantastic new data on the startling high resident biodiversity) and heads for the blissfully hot and dry lowlands. First order of business: wash the mold off everything, do laundry and dry out tents, get as much mud out of our gear as possible, and visit the local university clinic for an infusion of fungicide. It turns out three more people have broken out in strange rashes and can’t stop scratching.
It’s always interesting to see how people adjust to life in camp when first arriving in the field. I am particularly intrigued by what appeals to new students—what interests them, which animals they like, what questions develop. It’s a finer point, but these initial impressions can have a profound impact on someone’s life. It is that passion for the organism that not only has the potential to inspire someone to take up a career in biology, but which may also sustain them for five or six years of graduate school or whatever higher training they may undertake.
This year, as we embark on the 100th year anniversary of herpetological collaboration between the University of Kansas and the National Museum of the Philippines (actually titled the Philippine Bureau of Science when Dr. E. H. Taylor first travelled to the archipelago in 1912), I am accompanied by a new student, Kerry Cobb, who has just earned his bachelor’s degree from KU and has been excitedly looking forward to this trip (his first time out of the States) for the last several months.
Kerry is already an accomplished field biologist who has done very hard-core, months-long, back-country fieldwork on salmon ecology in major parks in the western U.S. He wasted no time fitting right in to the group social dynamic of our all-Filipino field team, going out every night to catch amphibians and reptiles with the herpers, cracking jokes with the mammalogists, poking fun at the parasitologists for their study of very gross things, and in general staying amused and in good spirits. On our second day he discovered that the nearby river was full of tadpoles and went back to his tent with a purpose, produced a pair of swimming goggles, and spent the next couple of hours swimming back and forth across one of the larger pools. He then triumphantly came back to camp with several goldfish bags of tadpoles and spent another hour or two sorting the larvae into batches corresponding to species. A day later, after he had time to think about it a bit, he did the math and perceptively pointed out that although we had encountered six or seven species of frogs in the area, there were nine species of tadpoles present in the site. What could be going on here?
As it turns out, the idiosyncratic reproductive cycles of the various frog species present at any given site and time is always in flux. Clearly there were two or three additional species breeding here a month ago, and while we have not yet encountered the adults, we know they were here because of the presence of their larvae in the river. Perhaps the adults have dispersed back into the forest at this point, may have gone under ground or up into the tree canopy…we just don’t know. “Well, how do we identify them?” Kerry asked, “And are there any published papers that we can use to key out the tads?” Unfortunately, the state of knowledge of vertebrate biodiversity is so underdeveloped in this part of the country that those kinds of resources do not yet exist. The best we can do is sort the tadpoles to apparent species, preserve a few of each kind for future studies back in the museum, and take tissue samples for subsequent DNA identification. When we get back to the lab in several months, we can sequence the DNA of all the adults and tadpoles for a common gene fragment. Then we can match them up and identify the tadpole of each resident species….but the mystery tads will remain a mystery until an adult (possibly from another part of the island, or the next island over) can be sequenced and matched to their genotype. Doing this systematically for the country, trying to match all the larvae with all the adults (there are more than 110 frog species in the Philippines), would be a great first step for a graduate project and constitute a major contribution to Philippine herpetology. Hopefully a bright student with a passion for tadpoles will emerge. I can see the first kernel of curiosity in Kerry; hopefully someone like him will be inspired to take on the Philippine tadpole challenge. —Rafe