Written by Renz Miciel M. Trovela
Illustration by Savio Aquino
Published 2021 March 15
Aside from its beautiful beaches and historical landmarks, the Philippines is also world-renowned for its rich biodiversity. The country is home to almost 53,000 species where more than half of it is endemic. Although researchers from all around the world succeed in cataloging new species yearly, statistics show that there are still 86 percent of flora and fauna yet to be scientifically described. Given this, local researchers devote their time and exert vigorous efforts to search for the country’s hidden wildlife.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has also affected the development of field research as safety protocols made expeditions run into an abrupt stop. Scientists across the globe were concerned about the halt in data collection, thinking that this may cause them to miss out on new information such as a sudden appearance of a new species in the ecosystem. Despite this, researchers remained resilient and adaptable amidst the new normal and figured out their way towards meeting their objectives. Even researchers from the Ateneo de Manila University did so, and have unveiled new additions to Philippine biodiversity as a result.
Through the determination of the Ateneo Biodiversity Laboratory members, they were able to scientifically describe new members for various species groups. They documented a total of 46 new species by the end of 2020. These include 24 new species of mayflies, one new species of stonefly, four new species of water bugs, and 17 new species of aquatic beetles. The team is composed of Biology Department Research Coordinator Hendrik Freitag, Biology Department Assistant Professor and Laboratory Head Dr. Jhoana Garces, and graduate students Emmanuel Delocado, Arthien Pelingen, Marc Ryan Sabordo, Clister Pangantihon, Kyra Mari Dominique Aldaba.
Along with this, Dr. Garces states that the COVID-19 pandemic has limited their laboratory work and field sampling and collection significantly due to restricted transportation and the health risks of exposure in public areas. Despite this, some faculty members have access to research laboratories in campus grounds but still adhere to public health protocols.
At present, Dr. Garces notes that the team has shifted their priorities in analyzing existing specimens, collection, and materials in the laboratory which are maintained by the research staff in Loyola Schools and School of Science and Engineering; in writing and publishing existing data that resulted to the publishing of new species in 2020; and in alleviating the pressure on the team for working amidst the pandemic.
“[…] While we are still trying to work and efficiently use our time, we should not expect the same output during these times. We are still in the middle of the pandemic, with all the pressures and mental burden in just trying to get by. And we are all doing this on top of the overall uncertainty in the world and navigating the new world of online teaching,” Garces adds.
The newly identified species came a long way before it reached international journals. These samples were collected from various islands from the Philippine archipelago , especially the rich island of Mindoro.[6,7] Afterwards comes the tedious laboratory works: the parts of the samples were examined, DNA were extracted through non-destructive methods , and were described with its genetic, geographic, and ecological information before DNA barcodes were generated and uploaded to global databases.
Interestingly, a few of the species were named after some of the Ateneo Biodiversity Laboratory members themselves, L. delocadoi sp. nov., L. freitagi sp. nov., and L. pelingeni sp. nov. of the mayfly species  for instance, in honor of those “who collected specimens for their colleagues in a mutual effort.”
With the help of researchers and field biologists, these new species are introduced to the scientific community which renders several benefits not only to general knowledge through further studies but also to the constituents of wildlife as well. Primarily, identifying species is used to measure biodiversity in an ecosystem and to determine the realistic number of species that exist at present. Researchers say that it is necessary for the ecological monitoring of species. This information can also lead us to observe their individual habits and geographical distribution.
“I believe that naming, the process of giving names, is very human nature and act. It signifies that we recognize this “thing” exist[s], and it is part of the world we live in. On a more applied end, the names serve as folders, a filing system, which is how we attached the other biological facts about the organism. When we search about the biological, conservation, and other applications and details about the species, we input or search using their names,” says Dr. Garces.
Moreover, identifying species provides them protection as well. The information garnered from research, population trends for example, can guide conservation and management efforts to preserve the group and biodiversity of the area in general. Through species identification, it can inform the public regarding the status of the species and so encourage people to collaborate with authorities to further safeguard the flora and fauna, especially now research says that biodiversity is declining at a faster rate and more species are at risk of becoming extinct.
In the Philippines, several legislations were published mainly in pursuit of protecting biodiversity. Among these is the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act, commonly known as Wildlife Act. This act intends to “conserve and ensure the sustainability of all wildlife resources and habitats in the country.” It does so by restricting the definition of biodiversity prospecting to research, collection and utilization of biological and genetic resources in order to apply these knowledge for commercial purposes only.  Hence, it will require strict implementation to effectively protect the species known and yet to be discovered.
Allies in research
Knowing these emphasize the responsibility and importance of field researchers’ roles in protecting wildlife. However, ordinary people and common science enthusiasts can actually support these studies, which is a practice today known as Citizen Science. Basically, it is the involvement of volunteers that may not be full time researchers within scientific projects for larger scale of data collection.
According to studies, the extensive participation of volunteers in citizen science allows researchers to gather necessary information in order to understand the implications of a certain subject. The practice made the scientific method inclusive to the public, which promotes the scientific literacy for its participants. Financial-wise, it is also practical as studies gain more manpower for less funding demands.
In terms of biodiversity, citizen science has largely contributed to international monitoring of various animal and plant taxa. The information garnered from these reflect the databases for international biodiversity monitoring. However, the reliability of these data is called into question as volunteers are not formally trained in science; yet, studies show that the accuracy has developed through time with the engagement of participants in nature and the improvement of protocols provided. 
Given this, researchers recommend that the scientific community should build the participants’ interests in research programs to further strengthen biodiversity-associated programs.
“At the core of biodiversity research is just the beauty and excitement of discovery. We can go all over the evidence and cite journals for these natural science applications across biogeography, conservation, environmental management, and public policies. However, at the end of the day, we all start with something familiar and definitely fundamental to those who choose the biodiversity research track. That is just the simple excitement of discovery, most especially in the never-ending process of discovery in the center of biodiversity, which is the Philippines,” states Dr. Garces.
The promising future of Philippine biodiversity is achievable through the undying dedication of local scientists in the country; yet, it is guaranteed for the scientific community to be successful if ordinary citizens would conscientiously partake in the necessary actions that will invigorate safekeeping of wildlife. By the time the public learns to cultivate interests in science and research, the growth of humans as stewards of nature will have borne fruit for the sustainability of all life forms present and in the years to come.
- Ani P, Castillo M. Revisiting the State of Philippine Biodiversity And The Legislation on Access and Benefit Sharing [Internet]. FFTC Agricultural Policy Platform (FFTC-AP). 2020 [cited 2021Mar4]. Available from: https://ap.fftc.org.tw/article/1836
- Villazon L. How many species have yet to be discovered? [Internet]. BBC Science Focus Magazine. [cited 2021Mar4]. Available from: https://www.sciencefocus.com/nature/how-many-species-have-yet-to-be-discovered/
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- More than 40 new species published by the Ateneo Biodiversity Laboratory in the year of the pandemic [Internet]. Ateneo de Manila University. 2020 [cited 2021Mar4]. Available from: http://ateneo.edu/ls/sose/biology/news/more-40-new-species-published-ateneo-biodiversity-laboratory-year-pandemic
- Kaltenbach T, Garces JM, Gattolliat J-L. The success story of Labiobaetis Novikova & Kluge in the Philippines (Ephemeroptera, Baetidae), with description of 18 new species [Internet]. ZooKeys. Pensoft Publishers; 2020 [cited 2021Mar6]. Available from: https://zookeys.pensoft.net/article/58017/
- Pelingen AL, Freitag H. Description of Neoperla mindoroensis sp. nov., the first record of a stonefly from Mindoro, Philippines (Plecoptera, Perlidae), and identification of its life stages using COI barcodes [Internet]. ZooKeys. Pensoft Publishers; 2020 [cited 2021Mar6]. Available from: https://zookeys.pensoft.net/article/53746/
- Pelingen AL, Zettel H, Pangantihon C, Aldaba KMD, Fatallo EK, Leon JMde, et al. Contributions to the knowledge of water bugs in Mindoro Island, Philippines, with a species checklist of Nepomorpha and Gerromorpha (Insecta, Hemiptera, Heteroptera) [Internet]. Biodiversity Data Journal. Pensoft Publishers; 2020 [cited 2021Mar6]. Available from: https://bdj.pensoft.net/article/56883/instance/5948318/
- The Open University. Citizen science and global biodiversity [Internet]. OpenLearn. Date unknown; [cited 2021Mar6]. Available from: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/ocw/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=82448§ion=1
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- University of Turku. New species described in 2020 [Internet]. ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily; 2020 [cited 2021Mar6]. Available from: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/07/200701100030.htm
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