After six weeks in the Philippines trawling the ocean floor, canvassing the jungly flanks of volcanoes and diving in coral reefs, scientists believe they have discovered more than 300 species that are new to science. Their research constituted the largest, most comprehensive scientific survey ever conducted in the Philippines, one of the most species-rich places on earth.
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The survey, led by the California Academy of Sciences, brought scores of bizarre and unexpected creatures into the annals of life as we know it. It revealed more than 50 kinds of colorful new sea slugs, dozens of spiders and three new lobster relatives that squeeze into crevices rather than carry shells on their backs. The scientists found a shrimp-eating swell shark that lives 2,000 feet under the sea, a starfish that feeds exclusively on sunken driftwood and a cicada whose call sounds like laughter.
For two weeks I shadowed teams of scientists—from seahorse specialists to spider experts—as they surveyed reefs, rain forests and the South China Sea. On a deep-sea vessel, scientists dropped traps and nets to obtain a glimmer of the life that exists in the shadowy depths. They surrounded each haul excitedly as it was deposited on deck, picking through the curious sea life and discarding the garbage that inevitably accompanied it. “To see live stalk crinoids”—feather stars—“come up that I’ve only seen as preserved specimens is like a scientist’s dream world!” said invertebrate zoologist Terrence Gosliner, who led the expedition, one afternoon as he sorted spindly starfish and coral from candy wrappers.
Three new species of deep-sea “bubble snails” that possess fragile, translucent, internal shells arrived in one trawl, along with a snake eel and two new “armored corals” called primnoids, which protect themselves against predatory nibbles from fish by growing large, spiky plates around each soft polyp. Ten-inch-long giant isopods as imagined by science fiction turned up in a trap. “If you saw District 9 I’m sure they modeled the faces of the aliens off these,” said marine biologist Rich Mooi, who studies sea urchins and sand dollars. Later that evening, the catch yielded several two-foot-long, mottled swell sharks that inflate their stomach with water to bulk up and scare off other predators.
“When I watch the trawl come up it’s like a window onto the frontier,” said Mooi. “You start going through this material wondering, ‘What are they doing down there? Are they interacting with each other?’ We’ve seen a very tiny percentage of that sea bottom—three-quarters of the planet is obscured by this endlessly restless mass of water you can’t see through.”
Many of the new species found in the survey had evaded science because of their small size—the 30 new species of barnacles discovered measure just fractions of an inch in length—while others lived in areas rarely visited by humans. A primitive, fernlike plant called a spikemoss was found growing on the precipitous upper slopes of a 6,000-foot volcano. “Our scientific understanding of this part of the world is still in its infancy,” said Gosliner. “For people interested in biodiversity and the distribution of organisms and evolution, the Philippines is a treasure trove.”
Yet it is a gravely imperiled treasure trove. The rate of species extinction in the Philippines is “1,000 times the natural rate,” according to the country’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, because of deforestation, coastal degradation, unsustainable use of resources, climate change, invasive species and pollution. A recent study by Conservation International found that just 4 percent of the Philippines' forests remained as natural habitat for endemic species, and according to the World Wildlife Fund, destructive commercial fishing has left only 5 percent of coral reefs in the Philippines in excellent condition.
Scientists described the expedition this spring as a kind of emergency response. “We’re living in a burning house,” said Mooi. “In order for firemen to come in and make an effective rescue they need to know who’s in those rooms and what rooms they’re in. When we do biodiversity surveys like this we’re doing nothing less than making a tally of who’s out there, who needs to be paid attention to, and how can we best employ the resources we have to conserve those organisms.”
For years scientists have recognized a 2.2-million-square-mile area around Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines as being home to the world’s highest diversity of marine plants and animals. It’s known as the Coral Triangle and considered the Amazon basin for marine life. The waters harbor 75 percent of the planet's known coral species and 40 percent of its coral reef fish.
In 2005 Kent Carpenter, an ichthyologist at Old Dominion University, identified the core of that diversity. Overlaying global distribution maps for nearly 3,000 marine species, including fishes and corals, sea turtles and invertebrates, Carpenter found that the highest concentration of marine species on the planet existed in the central Philippines. “I fell off my chair—literally—when I saw that,” Carpenter recalled recently. He dubbed the region “the Center of the Center.”