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Discovering diversity in the Philippines: seven new mammals from Luzon

In recent years, Field Museum of Natural History biologists have shown that the Philippine Islands have one of the world’s greatest concentrations of unique biological diversity, leading to the islands becoming known as “the Galapagos times ten”; over 75% of the nearly 200 mammal species live nowhere else. 

In a monograph published in May 2011 in the Field Museum’s scientific journal, Fieldiana, Lawrence Heaney (Curator of Mammals, Zoology Department) and eight co-authors from the US and the Philippines described seven new species of small mammals, all from Luzon Island, where Manila and the former Subic Bay Naval Base are located.  The seven new species increase the number of mammal species that live only on Luzon Island from 42 to 49, a 17% increase.

According to Heaney, all are native forest mice of the genus Apomys, each living in only one of the many small mountain ranges that comprise Luzon.  They actively avoid humans, preferring to live in the forest where they feed on earthworms and seeds.

“These animals are part of the rich biological heritage of the Philippines”, said Dr. T. Mundita Lim, Director of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau, Department of the Environment and Natural Resources.  “The forests where they live are crucial watershed areas for Manila and many other cities.  Protecting their mountain forest habitat is good for them and for people.”  The DENR is a collaborator on the project, providing assistance at field sites and co-organizing conferences on wildlife and conservation.

“It is extraordinary that so many new species of mammals remain to be discovered in the Philippines,” according to Danilo Balete, leader of the project’s field team.  “In the past 10 years we’ve published formal descriptions of 10 other species, and other biologists have described five more, for a total of 22.  And we are nowhere close to the end of our discoveries.  The Philippines may have the greatest concentration of unique species of mammals of any country in the world.”

Dr. Scott Steppan, co-author and head of the laboratory at Florida State University where the DNA portion of the study was conducted, said that “the Philippines is an ideal place to study the evolution of animal diversity, even better than the famous Galapagos Islands. These animals have been evolving in the Philippine archipelago for millions of years."

With about 100 million citizens in an area the size of New Mexico, many of whom live at the subsistence level, and a history of ineffective and often corrupt government, the need for accurate and current information is acute.  Only about 8% of the country retains the original rain forest, making it one of the most severely deforested tropical countries.  Rainfall averages about 2 meters per year in the lowlands, and up to 8 meters in the high mountains.  Because these forest mice live in high mountains with heavy rainfall, they make ideal “flagship species” to attract attention to crucially important watershed areas.  By working closely with Philippine government agencies, conservation organizations, museums, and universities, the project’s past discoveries have served as a spark to help create four new national parks and to upgrade three others from “paper park” to “real park.” 

M. Josefa Veluz, biologist at the Philippine National Museum and co-author of the study, pointed out that the new species from the Sierra Madre and Mt. Banahaw live within protected areas, but those from the Mingan Mountains and Zambales Mountains do not.  Logging, expansion of agriculture, and mining all have an impact on wildlife and watersheds, she said.  These seven new discoveries quickly prompted the Philippine Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau to place the mountain homes of three of the mice on their list of places under consideration as new parks. 

Mr. Romeo Trono, Country Executive Director for Conservation International - Philippines, said that “Protecting land and marine resources is key to maintaining healthy ecosystems which deliver ecosystem services such as food, clean water, health, tourism and cultural benefits and stable climate which are vital to the very survival of every Filipino.  Although small in size, these little animals are part of our biodiversity which forms the basic foundation of healthy ecosystems.” 

In addition to conducting basic research that includes expeditions to previously unsurveyed areas, the Philippine Mammal Project, directed by Heaney, has provided training to over 75 Philippine biologists and produced educational materials (books, posters, and websites) that are primary sources of information about the mammal fauna and conservation.  Funding for the project in recent years has been provided by the Negaunee Foundation and the Field Museum’s Brown Fund for Mammal Research.

 

Above right illustration by Velizar Simeonovski: Apomys brownorum is one of the new species from the peak of Mt. Tapulao, Zambales Mountains, where mining activity is removing part of its limited habitat. Middle left picture by LR Heaney: Mt. Tapulao, Zambales Mountains, where two of the new Apomys species were discovered. Lower left illustration by Velizar Simeonovski: Apomys zambalensis, another of the new species, is widespread at middle elevations in the Zambales Mountains, including the upper reaches of the former Subic Bay Naval Base.

 

For more information on the Philippine Mammal Project, click here.