Published: August 11, 2011

Discovering diversity in the Philippines: seven new mammals from Luzon

Lawrence Heaney, Curator, Negaunee Integrative Research Center

In recent years, Field Museum biologists have shown that the Philippine Islands have one of the world’s greatest concentrations of unique biological diversity, leading to the islands becoming known as “the Galapagos times ten”; over 75% of the nearly 200 mammal species live nowhere else. 

In a monograph published in May 2011 in The Field Museum’s scientific journal, Fieldiana, Lawrence Heaney (Curator of Mammals, Zoology Department) and eight co-authors from the US and the Philippines described seven new species of small mammals, all from Luzon Island, where Manila and the former Subic Bay Naval Base are located.  The seven new species increase the number of mammal species that live only on Luzon Island from 42 to 49, a 17% increase.

According to Heaney, all are native forest mice of the genus Apomys, each living in only one of the many small mountain ranges that comprise Luzon.  They actively avoid humans, preferring to live in the forest where they feed on earthworms and seeds.

“These animals are part of the rich biological heritage of the Philippines”, said Dr. T. Mundita Lim, Director of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau, Department of the Environment and Natural Resources.  “The forests where they live are crucial watershed areas for Manila and many other cities.  Protecting their mountain forest habitat is good for them and for people.”  The DENR is a collaborator on the project, providing assistance at field sites and co-organizing conferences on wildlife and conservation.

“It is extraordinary that so many new species of mammals remain to be discovered in the Philippines,” according to Danilo Balete, leader of the project’s field team.  “In the past 10 years we’ve published formal descriptions of 10 other species, and other biologists have described five more, for a total of 22.  And we are nowhere close to the end of our discoveries.  The Philippines may have the greatest concentration of unique species of mammals of any country in the world.”

Dr. Scott Steppan, co-author and head of the laboratory at Florida State University where the DNA portion of the study was conducted, said that “the Philippines is an ideal place to study the evolution of animal diversity, even better than the famous Galapagos Islands. These animals have been evolving in the Philippine archipelago for millions of years."

With about 100 million citizens in an area the size of New Mexico, many of whom live at the subsistence level, and a history of ineffective and often corrupt government, the need for accurate and current information is acute.  Only about 8% of the country retains the original rain forest, making it one of the most severely deforested tropical countries.  Rainfall averages about 2 meters per year in the lowlands, and up to 8 meters in the high mountains.  Because these forest mice live in high mountains with heavy rainfall, they make ideal “flagship species” to attract attention to crucially important watershed areas.  By working closely with Philippine government agencies, conservation organizations, museums, and universities, the project’s past discoveries have served as a spark to help create four new national parks and to upgrade three others from “paper park” to “real park.” 

M. Josefa Veluz, biologist at the Philippine National Museum and co-author of the study, pointed out that the new species from the Sierra Madre and Mt. Banahaw live within protected areas, but those from the Mingan Mountains and Zambales Mountains do not.  Logging, expansion of agriculture, and mining all have an impact on wildlife and watersheds, she said. These seven new discoveries quickly prompted the Philippine Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau to place the mountain homes of three of the mice on their list of places under consideration as new parks. 

Mr. Romeo Trono, Country Executive Director for Conservation International - Philippines, said that “Protecting land and marine resources is key to maintaining healthy ecosystems which deliver ecosystem services such as food, clean water, health, tourism and cultural benefits and stable climate which are vital to the very survival of every Filipino. Although small in size, these little animals are part of our biodiversity which forms the basic foundation of healthy ecosystems.” 

In addition to conducting basic research that includes expeditions to previously unsurveyed areas, the Philippine Mammal Project, directed by Heaney, has provided training to over 75 Philippine biologists and produced educational materials (books, posters, and websites) that are primary sources of information about the mammal fauna and conservation.  Funding for the project in recent years has been provided by the Negaunee Foundation and The Field Museum’s Brown Fund for Mammal Research.

Above right illustration by Velizar Simeonovski: Apomys brownorum is one of the new species from the peak of Mt. Tapulao, Zambales Mountains, where mining activity is removing part of its limited habitat. Middle left picture by LR Heaney: Mt. Tapulao, Zambales Mountains, where two of the new Apomys species were discovered. Lower left illustration by Velizar Simeonovski: Apomys zambalensis, another of the new species, is widespread at middle elevations in the Zambales Mountains, including the upper reaches of the former Subic Bay Naval Base.

More information on the Philippine Mammal Project.

Lawrence Heaney

As Negaunee Curator of Mammals at the Field Museum, Larry has been actively involved in research, education, care of the museum’s research collection, development of exhibits, and management of the museum since 1988. He began his career as a volunteer at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History, attended the University of Minnesota and worked at the Bell Museum of Natural History as an undergraduate, and received his PhD in Systematics and Ecology from the University of Kansas. He currently teaches undergraduate students and advises graduate students at the University of Chicago, with a primary affiliation with the Committee on Evolutionary Biology.

His primary research interest is in the evolutionary origin, ecological maintenance, and conservation of mammalian diversity in island ecosystems. He began conducting research in the Philippines in 1981, and has led teams of researchers (both foreign and Filipino) to many remote areas, where they have discovered dozens of previously unknown species of mammals, documented patterns of diversity along elevational and disturbance gradients, and inferred the historical processes that have led to the development of this highly distinctive fauna. This research has helped to promote the declaration of many national parks, and has helped to improve the management of others. With funding from the MacArthur Foundation, he worked with Filipino colleagues to establish the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Philippines in 1992 (now the Biodiversity Conservation Society of the Philippines), and now serves as Emeritus Member of the Board of Directors for that society. He served as President of the International Biogeography Society from January 2011 to 2013, and remains actively engaged with that organization and its journal, Frontiers of Biogeography, as Associate Editor.Larry Heaney was born in Washington D.C. and began his career in biodiversity studies as a volunteer in the Division of Mammals at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.  He attended the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate, and the University of Kansas for his MS and PhD studies.  After serving on the faculty of the Museum of Zoology and Department of Biology at the University of Michigan, he returned to the Smithsonian Institution for several years, then moved to the Field Museum (in 1988).  He has conducted field research in many parts of the United States, but has focused most of his research on the mammals of the Philippines, where the density of mammalian endemic species is among the highest globally.  His research deals with the long-term evolutionary, ecological, and geological factors that influence patterns of biodiversity and endemism in oceanic archipelagoes, in collaboration with a wide range of researchers, conservationists, and government officials in the Philippines as well as the US.  Much of this research has contributed to the development of a community of conservation-related biologists in the Philippines.Related Links:

Expeditions: Studying Mammalian Diversity in the Philippines

Philippine Mammal Posters and Guides

Synopsis of Philippine Mammals

Vanishing Treaures of the Philippine Rain Forest
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