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Biodiversity assessment in Palawan yields exciting results


Photo by Jonah van Beijnen, Centre for Sustainability

Photo courtesy of the Centre for Sustainability

A team of researchers from the Centre for Sustainability, the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development and partners are thrilled and surprised by a number of findings from their biodiversity survey on the lush island province of Palawan. The survey, which was funded in part by Global Wildlife Conservation, aims to help conservationists understand which species depend on this safe haven, what kind of habitat those species need and how to best protect the area. The primary expedition took place between Dec. 1 and Dec. 14, 2014, while the researchers conducted a series of smaller research trips between December of 2014 until February of 2015.

Palawan is a last frontier for conservation in the Philippines. The island boasts half of its original primary forests, some of the oldest and most diverse in Asia. The forests of Pawalan are understudied and diminishing rapidly, however. Global Wildlife Conservation and the Amphibian Survival Alliance are working with local partner the Centre for Sustainability and the last members of the Batak tribe to create Cleopatra’s Needle Forest Reserve to safeguard more than 40,000 hectares of lush forest home to dozens of unique species and the Batak tribe itself.

Here we summarize the findings in a report from the Centre for Sustainability.

Photo courtesy of Photo by the Centre for Sustainability

Photo courtesy of Photo by the Centre for Sustainability

HERPETOFAUNA

We encountered 12 amphibian and 14 reptile species. Our new data provides an invaluable insight into a diverse and healthy herpetological community inhabiting Cleopatra’s Needle. Several highly significant discoveries resulted, including substantial new range extensions and geographical records.

The herpetofauna team observed the Palawan Toadlet (Pelophryne albotaeniata), which scientists had only observed once in the last 40 years. This exciting observation redefines and widens the geographical range previously assigned to the toadlet.

The team also collected the Malatgan River caecilian (Ichthyophis weberi) for the first time in more than 50 years. This species was originally discovered and described in 1920 and prior to this biodiversity assessment, known from 12 specimens only. After its initial discovery, the species was never seen again, and its taxonomic status was in doubt. Evidence of the species was lost during World War II when the National Museum of the Philippines was bombed. During the survey, the team found one specimen, officially confirming the species’ existence.

The team also collected several hard-to-identify tree frogs of the genus Philautus, and will be doing further research on this complex species using DNA samples collected.

Photo courtesy of Photo by the Centre for Sustainability

Photo courtesy of Photo by the Centre for Sustainability

MAMMALS

During the biodiversity survey, the majority of the small endemic mammals were observed in abundance, indicating a highly diverse and intact mammal community around Cleopatra’s Needle. Twelve mammal species belonging to 10 families in seven order taxa were recorded, using a range of techniques.

Six of these species are endemic to the province of Palawan—the Palawan stink badger (Mydaus marchei), the Palawan flying squirrel (Hylopetes nigripes), the Palawan pencil-tailed tree mouse (Chiropodomys calamianensis), the Palawan spiny rat (Maxomys panglima), the Palawan tree shrew (Tupaia palawanensis) and the Palawan shrew (Crocidura palawanensis).

Two species recorded have been categorized by the IUCN Red List as Vulnarable, the Asian small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinerea), and the Palawan bearded pig (Sus ahoenobarbus). Researchers also observed indigenous hunters transporting two live Palawan bearded pigs they had captured using snare traps.

Other species also recorded include the Common short-nosed fruit bat (Cynopterus brachyotis), Masked palm civet (Paguma larvata), Long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis ssp. philippensis), and the Palawan leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis heaneyi).

CRUSTACEANS AND AQUATIC INSECTS

Eighty-seven taxa of 43 or more families have been identified from the samples. Among the species with somewhat known ecological preferences, the following can be regarded as indicators for good habitat condition: Ancyronyx pseudopatrolus, A. montanus, Hydraena claudia, H. castanescens, H. jojoorculloi, Hydraena “sp. E” (this species is undescribed, but known to the investigators from a few other pristine collection sites), Aphelocheirus palawanensis, and Prosopistoma palawana.

The following recorded taxa are undescribed species: Geosesarma sp. (currently under scientific description by Manuel-Santos, Ng and Freitag), Graphelmis sp., Limnebius sp. and Hydraena sp. E (currently under scientific description by Gołębiewska and Freitag).

Photo courtesy of Photo by the Centre for Sustainability

ODONATA

The biodiversity assessment was conducted in December, a typically dry period with limited rain in the area. Odonata activity, however, is most dynamic during the rainy season such that we encountered relatively few species. Of these species, however, the team recorded a high number of endemic and/or threatened species at Cleopatra’s Needle.

Although some of the specimens are still being identified, two new species of dragonflies have already been confirmed and will be described later this year. Additionally, it is believed that at least four new species of damselfly will be described after the collected specimens have been compared to existing museum collections.

Other notable observations include the presence of Neurobasis daviesi, one of the rarest and most beautiful damselflies endemic to Palawan. The species had not been observed since the 1960s. Also the first ever female of Stenagrion petermilleri was recorded.

Lastly, the elusive Phaenandrogomphus treadawayi was recorded, listed by the IUCN Red List as Near Threatened, only known from one location 200 kilometers north of Cleopatra’s Needle.

BIRDS

The research team found 65 different bird species during the survey. While some of the endemic species recorded are on the IUCN Red List, these were found in relatively high abundance, including the Palawan hornbill (Anthracoceros marchei), which is listed as Vulnerable; the Palawan peacock-pheasant (Polyplectron napoleonis), listed as Vulnerable; the Palawan tit (Parusa mabilis), which has no listing; and the Palawan blue flycatcher (Cyornis lemprieri), which is Near Threatened.

Rommel Cruz, a Palawan native and bird expert who joined the expedition, has scouted the whole island for 15 years, yet he reported that this was the first location in Palawan where he recorded all of Palawan’s endemic bird species in one location.

CONCLUSION

This biodiversity assessment is the first of its kind in Cleopatra’s Needle. Even with the relatively limited research conducted during this brief period, the high number of endemic and threatened species already recorded, as well as the significant number of new species re/discovered, demonstrate the uniqueness of the area in terms of biodiversity—Cleopatra’s Needle is indeed one of the Philippines’ top biodiversity hotspots!

The unique forests of Cleopatra’s Needle represent one of the largest intact remaining primary forests of the Philippines. Government agencies from the local to national level, environmental and indigenous peoples NGOs, and the Philippine citizenry must work together to effectively protect this area in the name of Philippine biodiversity, of some of the Philippines’ oldest tribal homelands, and of future generations of the Philippine people.