The Philippines & Its Rich Biodiversity

Manila Bulletin, May 15, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Philippines & Its Rich Biodiversity


THE term biodiversity, coined by Walter Rozen of the United States Academy of Science in 1986, was first used by E.O. Wilson, the famous Harvard biologist, in 1988. Since that time, it has become increasingly popular among biologists, and is now entrenched in the scientific literature. The term encompasses the total richness and variety of life on earth. Biodiversity studies are directed at five levels of biological organization: Gene, species, population, community, and ecosystem. This paper will focus on Philippine biodiversity at the species level.

The Philippines, with a land area of 300,000 square kilometers, is one of the countries in the world with a very rich diversity of species. It has an estimated 13,500 species of terrestrial plants, 8,000 of which belong to the flowering group. About 40 percent of these flowering plants are endemic. Of economic and scientific interest are 39 species of trees in the Family Dipterocarpaceae, the source of Philippine mahogany.

Its biodiversity in vertebrate animals compares favorably with that of Brazil and Madagascar, two countries known for their outstanding biodiversity Brazil, which is 28 times larger than the Philippines, and Madagascar, which is two times larger than the archipelago. The country is home to about 911 species of resident and breeding terrestrial vertebrate animals. These compose approximately 100 amphibians (80 percent endemic), 240 reptiles (70 percent endemic), 396 birds (44 percent endemic), and 175 mammals (64 percent endemic). We have about 529 endemic species as compared to Brazils 725 endemic species, considering that Brazil is 28 times larger than the Philippines. Madagascar, which is twice larger than the Philippines, has only 90 unique mammals vis-a-vis our 111 unique mammals.

While the country possesses no extensive freshwater habitats, Lake Lanao was reported to harbor about a dozen endemic species in three or four genera of true freshwater fish of the Family Cyprinidae. The species richness of corals, shells and fish is very high in the fertile triangle formed by the Philippines, New Guinea and the Malay Archipelago. Some 400-500 species in 90 genera of hermatypic (reef-forming) corals and 4,000 species of marine fishes are believed to have existed in this area. The 900,000-square-kilometer Sulu-Sulawesi Sea (part of this fertile triangle) is home to 2,500 species of fish including a species of coelacanth, five species of marine turtles, and 22 species of marine mammals. However, small reef systems harbor much fewer fish species. For example, 200 species have been observed on two reefs in the Central Visayas over a period of 30 years. Pristine reefs in the country such as Tubbataha Marine Park should have more than this number.

For the Philippines, the factors that are responsible for the high species richness in old-growth tropical rainforests are: (1) geologic age (main land masses more than 50 million years old), (2) tropical location providing equable climatic conditions, (3) environmental heterogeneity as shown by diversification and complexity of microhabitats, (4) insular (island) condition, and (5) contiguity to a large land mass (Asia) and islands in the south and southeast serving as source of immigrants. The first four factors have favored the development of new species (speciation) through evolutionary processes operating on biological and genetic materials of immigrants. Movements and distribution of terrestrial species are limited by natural barriers that influence speciation processes such as bodies of water, high mountain peaks, and in modern times by cultivated areas. …

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