Thursday, February 10, 2005

Frantic race

Frantic race

Posted 11:43pm (Mla time) Feb 09, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the February 10, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

"WHAT we discovered in Panglao Island in Bohol was absolutely daunting," admitted Dr. Philippe Bouchet of France's National History Museum.

Apparently ill-at-ease with adjectives, this marine scientist was sketching, before a packed room of professors and students, the stunning range of species found by 74 other savants, researchers and divers from 19 countries in their study of Panglao waters. These ranged from a "blind crab" in mangroves at the Abatan River to a Balicasag Island shell last seen in an 1897 survey.

"Panglao Marine Biodiversity Project 2004" is arguably the world's most comprehensive inventory of crustaceans and coral reef mollusks, said Dr. Danilo Largo, chair of San Carlos University's biology department. Largo and Bouchet were the principal investigators for the project.

The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Asean Regional Center for Biodiversity Conservation and Total Corporate Foundation supported the inventory within the so-called "Golden Triangle": the Philippines, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

In this "Triangle" are more species of coral, sponges, fish and invertebrates than anywhere else, Largo explained. The "Triangle" crests a "species gradient" that thins out, in richness, across the Indo-Pacific area.

Tacked below Tagbilaran City, Panglao harbored more than just coral gardens for scuba divers, scientists always felt. Now, hypothesis is hardening into data.

The project focused on Panglao's coastal ecosystem. Teams scoured the intertidal mudflats between Tagbilaran and Cortes, to narrow rocky platforms on Panglao's northern coast and Balicasag. Some 59 sites were sampled intertidally, using a range of tools: traps, tange (pamo) nets to yabbie pumps that suck out minute organisms in burrows.

So far, the project's ongoing inventory has turned up 1,200 species of "decapod crustaceans" or shrimps, lobsters, crabs.

The result came as a total surprise to the crustacean researchers. "Put that in perspective and you'll understand why," Bouchet said. From the cold temperate Kuriles in the north to the tropical Ryukus in the south, Japan has just over 1,600 species.

Known for his worldwide survey, the Singapore scientist on the team "was state of the art," Bouchet recalled. "We showed him a stone crab, from the Parthenopidea family, trapped 20 meters from our lab. 'I've never seen this before,' he said. This is a new species."

The scientists anticipated Panglao would yield a rich trove of mollusks or snails, clams or squids. It did. They found almost 6,000 species crammed within the 15,000-hectare study site.

"Again, see that in perspective," Bouchet suggested. "The Mediterranean is 300 million hectares. And it has just 2,024 species of mollusks and 340 crustaceans."

The Panglao team explored Abangan's pitch-dark mangrove channel waters, part of the over 1,150 dives the expedition did. They came up with, among other things, a blind crab never seen before. "Over how many million of years did it take to adapt to an environment without light?" Bouchet asked.

Questions like that will keep an international network of scientists engrossed for many years, including a startling range of brilliant micro-mollusks. Analysis of Panglao findings is now proceeding in Cebu, Paris, San Francisco, Singapore and other study centers.

"There could be 10 to 15 potential Panglaos here," Bouchet said. "But for how long, as you seek a balance between activities like tourism and conservation?"

There's a race to identify species -- and possible uses of their unique genes -- before spreading human settlements drive some of them to extinction. Can this rich biodiversity survive in complex tropical environments, often with imploding populations?

Genes are building blocks of life. They combine into new plants, food, medicine, etc. They can spin off into Vitamin-A rich rice or anti-cancer medicine, like Madagascar's periwinkle.

Estimates vary on how many species exist. But roughly less than 15 percent, most scientists agree, have been catalogued. Like Abangan River's blind crab, about 85 percent remains to be tallied. "It's a world complex beyond understanding and valuable beyond measure," Worldwatch Institute says.

But today's decimation of species is a "killing curve." Unless reversed, Oxford University scientists estimate that within 30 years, a fifth of all species could become extinct.

Squirting cyanide into reefs originated in the Philippines and Thailand in the 1960s. It devastated reefs. And in 20 years, cyanide tainted over four out of every five kilos of fish, the United Nations Environmental Programme notes.

Dynamite decimated fishing grounds. Only 4 percent of reefs here remain in excellent condition, updates of the "Inventory of Coral Resources" reveals. "The most significant decline has been in the Visayas."

Giant clams, Mindoro tamaraws, Cebu cinnamon have been virtually wiped out. What species disappeared when loggers creamed the remaining forests in Aurora and Quezon? No one knows.

When a species becomes extinct, so do its unique God-given genes, the late National Scientist Dioscoro Umali said. "That forecloses little-understood options for our grandchildren. Obliteration is forever."

That's what the Panglao study is all about.


Post a Comment

<< Home