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Excep­tional species diver­sity found on island in Philippines

pub­lished 15 July 2016 | mod­i­fied 15 July 2016

Cloud rats Luzon islandThe largest island in the Philip­pines may be home to the great­est con­cen­tra­tion of mam­mal diver­sity in the world, accord­ing to a research team that has been explor­ing the Philip­pines’ Luzon Island for the past 15 years.

Florida State Uni­ver­sity Pro­fes­sor of bio­log­i­cal sci­ences Scott Step­pan is part of a team that has pub­lished a new paper in June in the sci­en­tific jour­nal Fron­tiers of Bio­geog­ra­phy that shows 56 species of non-​flying mam­mals are now known to live on Luzon Island, 52 of which can­not be found any­where else in the world. And out of those 56 species, 28 were dis­cov­ered in the course of the team’s research.

It’s become clear that Luzon Island has excep­tional diver­sity and the great­est con­cen­tra­tion of mam­mal diver­sity, I’d say on the planet
« Scott Step­pan, Depart­ment of Bio­log­i­cal Sci­ence, Florida State Uni­ver­sity, Tal­la­has­see, USA.

Step­pan is part of a multi-​university team that came together in late 2000 at the request of Lawrence Heaney, the Negaunee Cura­tor of Mam­mals at the Field Museum of Nat­ural His­tory in Chicago. Com­bin­ing the exper­tise of sci­en­tists from a vari­ety of back­grounds, the team embarked on an exten­sive effort to cat­a­logue the numer­ous species they believed were on this island.

Luzon is roughly 100,000 km2 and has never been con­nected to any con­ti­nen­tal land, but it has a com­plex geog­ra­phy. It’s trop­i­cal, but also very moun­tain­ous with lots of vol­canic pieces that have come together as the con­ti­nen­tal plates have crunched into each other. The moun­tain­tops form what sci­en­tists call “sky islands” – dis­tinct habi­tats that are widely dif­fer­ent from the base of the moun­tain. This dif­fer­ence allows ani­mals iso­lated high on the moun­tains to diverge from their sib­lings else­where on the island.

Luzon island Philippines(A) Map of Luzon and adja­cent islands, show­ing the loca­tions of moun­tain ranges and moun­tains, and the loca­tions of the inten­sive study areas. Hatched areas are large lakes. (B) South­east Asia, show­ing the loca­tion of Luzon and other islands of the Philip­pines.
Image credit, Heaney et al.(2016) from Dou­bling diver­sity: a cau­tion­ary tale of pre­vi­ously unsus­pected mam­malian diver­sity on a trop­i­cal oceanic island; Cre­ative Com­mons (CC BY 4.0).

Earthworm mice Luzon islandAmong the 28 new species dis­cov­ered by the team, there are four species of tiny tree-​mice with excep­tion­ally long whiskers, and five species of mice that look like shrews and feed on earth­worms. These rodents live high in the moun­tains where typhoons can drop 12 to 14 feet of rain per year.

Heaney and col­leagues put out roughly 100 traps a night for sev­eral years mov­ing up the moun­tains at dif­fer­ent elevations.

Researchers, who found dif­fer­ent species the higher they went in ele­va­tion, recog­nised that many of the small mam­mals they trapped were a bit dif­fer­ent than ani­mals they had pre­vi­ously iden­ti­fied. After eval­u­at­ing them, they would then send tis­sue sam­ples to Step­pan so he could con­duct a thor­ough DNA analy­sis, which could con­firm if ani­mals were entirely dif­fer­ent species or a rel­a­tive of some­thing researchers had pre­vi­ously identified.

The fact that we found some new ones was not sur­pris­ing,” Step­pan said. “New small mam­mals are being dis­cov­ered all the time, but find­ing 28 new species on one island – an island that had been stud­ied pretty well before – was beyond expectation.”

For com­par­i­son, in Luzon there are 56 non-​flying land mam­mals, 52 of which are endemic to the island. In Cuba, which is roughly the same size, there are 15 non-​flying mam­mals, most of which are native to the island. And in the state of Florida, there are 39 non-​flying land mam­mals, but only one that is unique to the state.

(Source: Florida State Uni­ver­sity news release, 14.07.2016)

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