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2014 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition 

June 6, 2014

Not all interesting dives are deep

After making a couple of general collections on shallow reefs—and doing some targeted collecting of particular species for population level studies in Calatagan—the “Fish Team” spent two hours snorkeling in shallow water (1 to 3 feet deep), checking out seagrass beds and mangrove areas for potential collecting sites. Cameras are usually left behind on the collecting trips themselves, so an outing like this provides a perfect opportunity for taking photos—just as Don Dumale (Ichthyologist at the Philippine National Museum) is shown doing here.

In sandy patches there were an abundance of gobies (Cryptocentrus sp., see photo below) sharing burrows with Alpheid shrimp; the goby stands watch while the shrimp excavates and maintains the burrow. Banded sea snakes were also with us; these cobra relatives are quite venomous and curious, but thankfully, not aggressive.

The very distinctive chocolate-chip starfish (Protoreaster nodosus) was present in the seagrass beds. There were also clusters of Diadema urchins with long needle-like spines that can easily pierce glove or wetsuit. Seeking refuge among the spines, much like an anemonefish does with its host’s tentacles, small scribbled rabbitfish (Siganus spinus) stayed safely out of reach.

Not all of the fishes and invertebrates are as easily seen. The bristle-tailed filefish (Acreichthys tomentosus) blends in beautifully with the seagrass; on sand in the photo below, you can see it more easily. The mangroves were shallower still—less than a foot deep in some places (and we weren’t even close to low tide). These areas in particular presented an unusual underwater landscape. To navigate the forest of vertical shoots, I used the well-worn foot trails that are exposed at low tide.

—Dave Catania, Senior Collections Manager, Ichthyology

Clockwise from top left: A mangroves-eye view; a goby in its burrow; a bristle-tailed filefish; a striped puffer (Arothron manilensis).

Filed under: Research — editor @ 3:52 pm

A forest of sea fans

One of the goals of our NSF-funded Philippines research expedition was to explore an east-to-west gradient in the Verde Island Passage, an important waterway that separates the open Pacific Ocean from the South China Sea. Part of what makes this area so interesting from a zoogeographic perspective is that the passage has strong currents in some areas, and allows the exchange of ocean water between the open Pacific and East Asia.

Our primary job was to identify differences between the animal communities found in each coral reef region along that gradient; to determine how the species found there are distributed, and why. Along with colleagues from the Philippines and other institutions in the U.S. and Japan, we explored reefs in three areas: southwestern Luzon at Mabini, Calatagan to the west, and further to the southwest around Lubang Island, a place so remote that it was the site of the last Japanese soldier holdout from WWII, who hid in the rugged mountainous forests of Lubang for 30 years before being captured in the early 1970s.

During a series of dives, Bob Van Syoc (Senior Collection Manager of Invertebrates at the Academy) and I explored vertical walls at depths of 100 to 130 feet, finding a virtual forest of sea fans—a kind of large, fan-shaped, highly branched corals (also called gorgonians) that require substantial water currents that deliver food in the form of microscopic plankton. These corals are known as “micropredators”—that is, they use eight tiny, feather-shaped tentacles situated around the mouths of polyps to catch microscopic animals (zooplankton) and various plant-like algae (phytoplankton).

Zoogeographic and other findings will take a while to put together, but some of the more immediate results of the expedition—like these photos—can be enjoyed right now.

—Gary Williams, Curator of Invertebrate Zoology and Geology 

Filed under: Diving,Research — editor @ 10:45 am

June 5, 2014

Educational outreach: the perfect partner to scientific research

The beaches of the Philippines are beautiful, but they’re not without the environmental challenges facing many parts of the world. To help address the issue of trash along the coast, the Academy expedition co-hosted a “Coastal Clean-Up” event with our friends from the U.S. Embassy.

We focused our work on a small beach on Corregidor Island, where tons of (mostly plastic) trash littered the beach—in some places as deep as 3 feet. In addition to cleaning a section of the beach, our efforts helped to spread awareness about the importance of actions such as keeping trash out of the ocean, creating a solid-waste management plan, and encouraging better personal environmental decisions.

Coastal clean-up projects are just one method of educational outreach, which is an extremely important component of Academy research expeditions. From teacher workshops to events with local communities, Meg and I have been working hard to spread the message about the unique natural resources that exist in the Philippines, and how important it is to take action to protect these areas.

At each of our primary research areas, the expedition team has been holding community-outreach events where local students, teachers, and interested community members come to learn about the expedition and hear updates from both Academy and Filipino scientists—and to meet some of the charismatic marine invertebrates of the region.

We try to deliver our message in an inspirational, action-oriented way, and we’re happy to say it’s been incredibly well received. There are many things that can be done to ensure the biodiversity of coral reefs is protected, and the Filipino audiences we’ve encountered are up for the challenge. From minimizing plastic consumption to supporting legislation for marine protected areas (areas that are already proving themselves highly successful at protecting marine life), we’ve heard some wonderful ideas from the local communities we’ve engaged.

This kind of community outreach goes hand-in-hand with the scientific research we’re conducting on the Verde Island Passage. While research contributes to our understanding of species richness—and provides the hard data that conservation actions require—outreach helps to inspire that action. Through programs at elementary and other schools, it also helps to ensure that protections of these biodiverse areas will have many supporters for generations to come.

—Katie Levedahl, Assistant Director of Youth Programs

Filed under: Education — editor @ 2:00 pm


Greetings from the Philippines!

Reach down
I stepped off the open-air bus wearing the pair of old Sambas I’d brought solely for this day, and looked down at a small stretch of beach on the island of Corregidor. It was early still, but the sun beat down a hard 95 degrees as we clambered down wearing our work gloves and long pants, trash bags in hand.

My first day as part of the Philippine Biodiversity/Verde Island Passage expedition involved joining Meg Burke (the Academy’s Director of Teacher and Youth Education) and Katie Levedahl (Assistant Director) in the U.S. Embassy’s annual Earth Day beach clean-up. I gripped my large, black plastic bag and surveyed the area. Littered across the beach were hundreds of shoes, mostly flip-flops, some Crocs, a few sneakers, and the occasional dress heel. The vast majority of these shoes looked brand new; the time that had passed between their purchase and their arrival upon this shore was relatively short. Also worthy of mention is that these shoes were scattered atop a thick blanket of plastics.

Even after 125 full bags of trash had been packed up, the sandy bottom of the beach was still far from visible. I wanted to get some sort of idea of the scale we were dealing with; reaching down, I began filling my first bag with only flip-flops, which I was able to do while moving just a few feet away from my starting position. Within minutes, I was topping the bag off with the one-hundredth flip-flop. I looked up again. Where was this all going to end up? There is no recycling infrastructure. With sweat dripping from under my Giant’s cap, I looked around at the rest of the beach. People were picking up straws, plastic bags, wrappers, toys, and I thought about San Francisco’s new plastic-water-bottle ban. That wouldn’t even be helpful here, in a place were access to potable water itself is a challenge.

Reach forward
The morning of my first research scuba dive, I asked the Academy’s Senior Curator of Invertebrate Zoology, Terry Gosliner, for advice on collecting nudibranchs. He responded, “Look really closely.” Turns out, he’s right. My first dive, I brought back big, colorful slugs; they were about as rare as pointing out poppies and eucalyptus in a biodiversity survey of Golden Gate Park. Within my small collection of large, common slugs, two tiny, mostly white slugs passed the test and were deemed interesting enough to bring back to the Academy.

I was elated. I quickly switched my strategy to finding the smallest slugs, which meant moving slowly, recognizing where to look, and developing my nudibranch eye. I spent hours the first few days collecting, sketching, and releasing all the common nudibranchs I could find to develop my identification skills, and learned quickly what we were looking for.

Reaching into the deep to discover new species was exhilarating. Sarah was the first to find a slug in the genus I study. Having only worked with museum specimens these past two years, this was the first time I was able to see a Glossodoris alive. Incredible doesn’t even describe it. After more dives with greater success in finding less common slugs, I finally heard the words I’d been waiting for: “This is new.” Remaining calm, I replied, “awesome,” while inside I felt like I’d hit the biodiversity jackpot.

Reach out
A week into our stay at Lago de Oro, I hopped into an “aircon” van with Terry, Meg, Katie, and Meg D. and drove out of the resort for the first time since arriving. We passed roadside shops with hand-painted signs advertising what was sold inside and the name of the owner. One of the things I love about the Philippines is how colorful everything is, and the local elementary school was no exception.

We walked across a sandy lot landscaped with low-hanging trees and into a room full of excited students and teachers. The classroom had been expanded to three times its normal size by pushing back dividers, like in the ballrooms of hotel conference centers.

The chair desks had been painted aqua green years ago, and the small stage featured a mural of a yellow-pink sunset with small frames containing their own maritime pictures painted on as if they were hanging on the wall themselves. As soon as we arrived, everyone rose for the national anthem, amplified by a microphone held up to a tiny recorder. It was beautiful. The energy inside the walls of this classroom with students from all over the county was nothing short of alive. After Meg and Terry’s outreach talks, the students lined up in one of the most organized, attentive, non-pushy lines I’ve ever seen. And slowly, with the littlest kids first, they came to see the creatures we’d brought from the reef in their own backyard. What never gets old? Watching kids light up when they see their first nudibranch.

Reach up
It was late into our last night in Calatagan after an exhausting day of packing the lab and cataloging all of our specimens. One by one, we all ended up in the pool under a cloudy night sky.

It was hard to tell whether the water or the air was warmer, and lightning lit up in the distance across the passage. Our group had shrunk considerably in the previous two weeks. Talk of logistics for tomorrow’s move to Lubang and reflections on this leg of the trip were interrupted by loud booms of thunder moving closer.

Amanda told us about an article she’d read stating that reaching your arms up above your head triggered a hormone release that raised confidence. So there we were, on our last night in Calatagan—standing in the swimming pool, hands raised over our heads, laughing as the rain poured down.

Reach in
As the team loaded up the van to head to Lubang, I was preparing to embark on my own adventure. I handed off the expedition baton to my lab-mate, who’d flown in that morning to join in the last leg of the trip, and headed off to the beach to relax and reflect (this is in fact where I’m writing from now).

I learned a lot these past two weeks. Besides increasing my nudibranch vocabulary ten-fold, I figured out what I want to include in my field tool-kit on my next expedition, from the obvious—field microscope—to the less obvious, like spoons and droppers. I was also exposed to a lot of the ins-and-outs of the planning that goes into a trip of this caliber. Perhaps the best part was seeing the curators happier than I’ve ever seen them before—yup, this was the right career choice.

On a more personal note, I experienced (and made it through) what it was like to be on an expedition not only as a graduate student, but also as a man. The day of my departure for the expedition, I celebrated four months on testosterone. My department at the Academy has been on board with my transition from female to male, but I’d been incredibly nervous about the new scientists I would be working with—how I would be read, and how gender would play out in general in the Philippines. I can’t say it was a walk in the park, but I can say I had a lot of unexpected and wonderful conversations (along with a few hiccups), and that overall things continue to get easier. I feel incredibly lucky and privileged to be navigating these waters.

—Shayle Matsuda, grad student and assistant to the Academy’s Invertebrate Zoology and Geology department  

Filed under: Research — editor @ 1:00 pm

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