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The 2014 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition

Our latest expedition to the Philippines is a continuation of more than a century of Academy research in and around this nation of some 7,000 islands. Focusing exclusively on marine habitats near the apex of the Coral Triangle, a multi-disciplinary team of scientists and aquatic biologists will spend seven weeks in the first half of 2014 assessing and documenting the region's biodiversity—exploring dive sites and depths not yet studied.

New discoveries to be made

As species-rich as the Verde Island Passage region is thought to be, it's still largely unexplored. At the same time, the area is also under threat from overfishing, pollution, and climate change. The primary mission of this and near-future expeditions is to document the biodiversity here and to work with local people and governments to quickly establish conservation guidelines that will help protect these creatures and their habitats.

“Center of the center” of biodiversity

Research divers in the Philippines

Coral reefs constitute less than 1 percent of the world’s oceans, yet they contain more than 25 percent of all known marine diversity—and all of the coral reefs on our planet, the reefs of the Indo-West Pacific are the richest by far. Zoom in further, and you’ll find the “Coral Triangle,” an area bordered by the Philippines, Indonesia, and Papua-New Guinea that's been documented as the area of greatest marine diversity, home to an astounding number of species that exist nowhere else in the world.

It's within this area that you'll find the Verde Island Passage—waters teeming with such an abundance of life that Academy scientists suspect it may be “the center of the center” of biodiversity. Our 2014 expedition seeks to document the astounding life in the Verde Island Passage, collecting and identifying species not yet described (and in many cases never before seen) and creating a base of knowledge that will help to protect this area going forward.

Unexplored Depths

Deep water diving

The 2014 Philippine Expedition will include a first-ever survey of the Coral Triangle’s “twilight zone,” defined as depths of 40 to 150 meters (or 130 to nearly 500 feet). Using cutting-edge, mixed-gas rebreather diving technology, Academy crews will explore habitats no human has entered before. The results of these dives are expected to be extraordinary; previous twilight zone dives in other parts of the West Pacific have yielded new-species discoveries at rates of 4.2–11.2 per hour.

Twilight zone exploration will do more than yield new species—it'll also help to answer some fundamental questions about the relationship between these deep reef communities and the shallow-water habitats directly above. By collecting material for molecular sequencing, researchers will be able to begin answering questions about the Verde Island Passage twilight zone itself, as well as its deep-sea denizens.

Knowing what's there is half the battle

We've learned a lot about the factors that contribute to marine biodiversity (from geological stability to deep currents that deliver nutrients), but our understanding of biodiversity itself—especially in mega-diverse areas like the Coral Triangle—is still in its infancy. Philippine coral reefs stands to revolutionize our thinking about marine biodiversity, but only if we, in collaboration with the Philippine people and government, move quickly to document and protect it.

Spreading the Word

School room with lecturer

The Academy’s 2011 Philippine Expedition yielded more than 100 new shallow-water “taxa,” scientific units that generally include multiple species. The discoveries included more than 50 new species of opisthobranchs (nudibranchs, sea snails, and more), 30 new species of barnacles, 6 new species of crab, 15 new species of polychaete worm, at least 15 new species of octocorals, 20 new species of echinoderms (starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers), and five new species of fish. But letting people know about those discoveries is just as important as the discoveries themselves.

Raising public awareness about the richness of Philippine coral reefs—and about global biodiversity in general—has been a key priority. In addition to raising that general awareness (through local and international media, outreach programs, and public exhibits), the Academy works with local and international partners to establish areas of high priority for conservation. To prepare for the future, the Academy also trains students from the U.S. and the Philippines in field techniques and data capture, building both countries’ future abilities to make sound conservation decisions.

Implementing Change

Sunset on the water with small boat

Philippine biodiversity faces severe threats from pollution, coastal development, global climate change, and non-sustainable fishing practices. To combat these dangers, the Academy developed a practice of rapidly translating data collected in the field into effective marine conservation actions. By working with Filipino and international governments, organizations, and communities, we’ve been able to create real-world change.

The 2011 Philippine Expedition resulted in recommendations for better regulation of existing Marine Protected Areas, as well as the establishment of new MPAs. Together with community-based conversation projects, that work has recently begun to yield reversed degradation in coral reefs. While the threats still far outweigh any recovery, these comprehensive policies and practices have begun to slow the loss of biodiversity in the Philippines. Here at home, our work in the Philippines enriches and informs Academy exhibits, where it continues to reach millions of visitors, teachers, and students each year.

Not all interesting dives are deep
June 6, 2014

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).

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Admission to the California Academy of Sciences includes access to all museum and aquarium exhibits, including the rainforest, the planetarium, and the living roof.

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At 25-feet-deep—and holding 212,000 gallons of water—the Academy’s Philippine Coral Reef exhibit is one of the deepest indoor displays of live corals in the world.

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Typhoon Victims


The Academy remains committed to supporting victims of Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines in November 2013. If you'd like to join us in supporting those affected by the storm, please consider making a donation to one of the following organizations: