Interview with SAGE 2022 awardee Camila G. Meneses

The PhD student at University of Kansas shares about her work on the amphibians and reptiles of the Philippenes that earned her the Best Poster Award at SAGE 2022

A  specimen  of  Pseudogekko  isapa with  tail  autotomized.
Photo by Camila G Meneses.

In August 2022, Pensoft Publishers joined the 4th International Conference on Southeast Asian Gateway Evolution (SAGE 2022) in Manila, the Philippines. As a sponsor of the conference, we gave Best Talk and Best Poster awards at the event, providing a complimentary publication in a Pensoft-published journal of their choice to each of the winners. 

A month later, we are happy to present you the first claimed prize. Titled Amphibian and reptile diversity along a ridge-to-reef elevational gradient on a small isolated oceanic island of the central Philippines”, this Annotated List of Species paper, authored by scientists at the University of Kansas, University of Oklahoma and University of the Philippines Los Banos, and published in the Check List journal, reports on the herpetofauna of Mount Guiting-Guiting Natural Park, located in the so far understudied Sibuyan Island in the Philippines. In their study, the team recorded a total of 47 species of amphibians and reptiles, including 14 new island records and one atypical occurrence of a snake species recorded for the first time from a high elevation.

Now, the first author of the study, PhD student Camila G. Meneses (University of Kansas), who was awarded at SAGE 2022 for her poster: “A New Species of Fringed Forest Gecko, Genus Luperosaurus (Squamata: Gekkonidae), from Sibuyan Island, Central Philippines” joins us for an interview, sharing some further insights into her research and recent publication.

Congratulations for your Best Poster award at SAGE 2022! Can you introduce the topic of your poster to our readers? How does it fit in the broader context of your research?

The poster is entitled “A New Species of Fringed Forest Gecko, Genus Luperosaurus (Squamata: Gekkonidae), from Sibuyan Island, Central Philippines”. We are currently describing a new species of one of the rarest endemic Philippine lizards which corresponds to the Sibuyan Island population in central Philippines.

It is a poorly understood Southeast Asian and Southwest Pacific genus Luperosaurus, known popularly as fringed geckos, wolf geckos, or flap-legged geckos, and is documented here for the first time.

In the context of my research, visualizing historical, dry land connections that were once shared among modern islands has been crucial for understanding the distribution of biodiversity in the Philippines, an archipelago in which sea level oscillations during the Pleistocene undoubtedly influenced the assembly of regionalized floras and faunas. Sibuyan Island, separated by deep-water channels from neighboring landmasses, harbors distinct communities of amphibians and reptiles, many of which are island endemics.   

Happy to see your Annotated List of Species for amphibians and reptiles from the central Philippines, which just got published in the open-access journal Check List. Can you tell us a bit more about the biodiversity of the region and what made you and your co-authors choose it for your survey?

Centers of ende­mism in the Philippine archipelago coincide with the physi­ography of the greater Pleistocene Aggregate Islands Complexes (PAICs) of Luzon, Palawan, Negros-Panay (West Visayan islands), Mindoro, Mindanao, and the Sulu Archipelago during Pliocene and Pleistocene sea level regressions according to Inger (1954) and Voris ( 2000). However, until relatively recently, little attention was paid to fully inventorying smaller islands like those in central Romblon Province. The province is not only known for its beautiful landscapes but also the seascape.

Sibuyan was identified as a focal site for this study because of its unique complex ecosystem with notable geologic history that contributed to its high endemism—oceanic origin, geographic isolation, elevational relief, and relatively intact forests. In addi­tion, Sibuyan Island presents biogeographically com­pelling questions relating to the colonization history of organisms that could only have arrived on Sibuyan by dispersing over water . 

We also considered that a comprehensive characterization of the diversity and distribution of amphibians and reptiles of Mount Guiting-Guiting would be highly desirable on the part of the local government, specifically the Protected Management Board and the regional Department of Environment and Natural Resources (Region IV-B) for future management planning. The additional informa­tion and data will strengthen their existing conservation programs, ideally by engaging local communities, wild­life managers, ecotourists, and university researchers in Romblon Province. 

What are some of the unique or unexpected challenges you encounter in doing biogeographic research? How do you tackle them?

This is my first co-led (with the late young mammalogist, James Alvarez) big expedition in the country. The most challenging aspects for us as students this time are getting funding to do ridge to reef sampling for each season (wet and dry season), the inaccessibility of the area, and the unexpected natural calamities when we are at the peak of the mountain.

Biodiversity conservation efforts often depend on cooperation with non-experts in the field and wider support within the local community. What is the most important message that you hope your research helps transmit to the general audience?

Our knowledge of the endemic species diversity in these islands is still incomplete. It is of crucial importance to continue long-term, repeated biodiversity survey efforts that utilize a multifaceted approach and integration of an independent data stream for the understanding of small islands’ species community composition. 

We encourage the conservation of  the island’s seascape and landscape (one of the well-known tourist spots in the country), and we highly encourage interested students in nearby universities to continue studying the richly biodiverse areas in the province.

Finding excitement in your work is one of the great gifts of doing what you are passionate about. What brings you the most excitement?

For me, gradually getting answers for your own questions and making new discoveries are exciting, but of course the outstanding scenery, journey, experiences, skill sets being developed, and the stories we come to create during each expedition are priceless.

Did you happen to encounter your favorite species during the field surveys in Mount Guiting-Guiting Natural Park?

Honestly, when I am studying the diversity of amphibians and reptiles of Mt. Guiting-Guiting Natural Park, I consider every species that we collect my favorite.

Each survey site brings new knowledge (i.e., new elevation site recording, morphological variation, new distribution records, varied habitat type preferences of secretive species, etc). There are observations that have not been documented for some species in previous studies (even going back over 50 years ago in Brown and Alcala field collection, or more recently in the 2012 study by Siler et al.). This is especially the case for secretive RIG island endemics of amphibian and reptile species.

However, there are three species I can definitely say are my favorites — Brachymeles dalawangdaliri, Pseudogekko isapa, and the undescribed species of Fringed Forest Gecko These are very rare and secretive species of Philippine endemic lizards that can be found, we assumed, on Romblon Island Group and nowhere else in the world. Hence, the new collections are, we can say, very highly significant.

The first two have very few museum specimens, but we were lucky enough to document and collect enough samples to redescribe both species in terms of their morphological variations and know their first ever phylogenetic placement in relation to its related congeners (see Meneses et al. 2020). The third one is our new discovery of the Fringed-forest Gecko.

Scientists identify northeast Mindanao as major ‘bull’s-eye’ of biodiversity

Butuan City, Agusan del Norte. In a scientific report appearing Monday October 17th in the open access journal Zookeys, a team of researchers led by herpetologist Dr. Marites Sanguila of Father Saturnino Urios University announced that they have identified a new “epicenter” of southern Philippine biodiversity in amphibians and reptiles.

The international team of herpetologists (scientists who study frogs, lizards, snakes, turtles, and crocodiles) collaborating on the study is composed of scientists from Father Saturnino Urios University, the University of Kansas, the University of Oklahoma, the National Museum of the Philippines, Silliman University, and the Philippine Department of the Environment and Natural Resources. After an intensive five-year study, the team came to the ground-breaking conclusion that the Caraga Region of northeast Mindanao has the single highest herpetological species count of any similarly sized region in the country known to date.

Following a series of expeditions to four mountains in northern Mindanao, plus analyses of the distributions of species documented in museums around the world, the multi-institution effort culminated today with the announcement that the Caraga region is home total of 126 species of amphibians and reptiles.

According to Dr. Sanguila, this strikingly high diversity includes 40 species of frogs, one kind of caecilian (a secretive eel-like amphibian), 49 types of lizards, 35 varieties of snakes, plus one native freshwater turtle and, of course, one species of crocodile. According to the new study, the key to understanding the Caraga Region’s high biodiversity newly documented distributions of those 126 species, which overlap in northeast Mindanao. At a boundary between mainland Mindanao Island and the eastern Visayas (Samar, Leyte, Bohol, Dinagat, Siargao islands), “the Caraga region is an area where many species’ distributions come together and overlap, making this spot a kind of central hub of biodiversity,” said Dr. Sanguila. The new study brings more good news from the Philippines, a country internationally recognized as global biodiversity conservation hotspot of biodiversity.124836_web

“International collaborative biodiversity inventories are a great way to promote student training and faculty research development,” said Dr. Marites Sanguila, “In this research, we followed the example of the life-long collaboration between Dr. Angel Alcala, from the Silliman University, and Dr. Walter Brown, from California Academy of Sciences, and invited our U.S. counterparts to join in the effort to synthesize information on Caraga amphibian and reptile biodiversity. The results have unfolded in ways we could not have predicted, and generated opportunities for students on both sides of the Pacific.”

“Dr. Sanguila’s research tells us in a very special way something we have known intuitively for years, but have been unable to articulate: there is something very special about the unique biodiversity of the Caraga region! At the ‘center of the center’ of southern Philippine biodiversity, our small corner of Mindanao is undoubtedly unique, in need of conservation, and worthy of intensive scientific study,” said Rev. Fr. John Christian Young, president of Father Saturnino Urios University.

 

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Original Source:

Sanguila MB, Cobb KA, Siler CD, Diesmos AC, Alcala AC, Brown RM (2016) The amphibians and reptiles of Mindanao Island, southern Philippines, II: the herpetofauna of northeast Mindanao and adjacent islands. ZooKeys 624: 1-132. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.624.9814

World’s smallest of giant flowers discovered in the Philippines

Some of the world’s giant flowers, those of the parasitic plant genus Rafflesia, can reach up to a meter and a half in diameter. Therefore, what could be more impressive about them are ‘dwarves’ such as the record-breaking one that was recently discovered by scientists from the University of the Philippines Diliman and the University of the Philippines Los Baños. Its average diameter is only 9.73 cm and has been named  consueloae. The study is published in the open-access journal PhytoKeys.

Curiously enough, the discovery happened after a field assistant accidentally tripped over a pile of forest litter to expose a decayed flower. Later on, lead researcher Prof Perry S. Ong would describe the novel finding as “serendipitous”.

The new species is named Rafflesia consueloae in honor of Ms Consuelo ‘Connie’ Rufino Lopez, lifelong partner of Filipino industrialist Oscar M. Lopez. “With her demure, but strong personality traits, which Rafflesia consueloae also possesses, she provides the inspiration for Mr Lopez’s pursuit of biodiversity conservation in the Philippines,” Prof Ong says.

Image 2 IMG_9892.JPEG Photo by Edwino S. Fernando

Rafflesia flowers are unique in that they are entirely parasitic on roots and stems of specific vines in the forests and have no distinct roots, stems, or leaves of their own,” explains co-author Prof Edwino S. Fernando. “Thus, they are entirely dependent on their host plants for water and nutrients.”

In Sumatra and Borneo another species of the same genus, Rafflesia arnoldi, holds the record of being the largest single flower in the world with a diameter of up to 1.5 meter. In the Philippines, Rafflesia schadenbergiana, found only in Mindanao, is still large with a flower diameter of 0.8 meter. Professor Fernando, added that Rafflesia consueloae is the 6th species from Luzon Island and the 13th for the entire Philippine archipelago.

The new species has been classified as Critically Endangered, based on IUCN criteria as it has less than 100 km2 extent of occurrence with its two small populations. The continued protection of the populations of this species is important as some local people still hunt wildlife within the area and forest fires are likely in the dry season, factors which might threaten the survival of R. consueloae.

The field and laboratory work of the field scientists are part of the Comprehensive Biodiversity Conservation Monitoring Program of Pantabangan-Carranglan Project, funded by the First Gen Hydro Power Corportation (FGHPC) and Wildlife Forensics and DNA Barcoding of Philippine Biodiversity of the University of the Philippines Diliman – Department of the Environment and Natural Resources – Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB).

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Original source:

Galindon JMM, Ong PS, Fernando ES (2016) Rafflesia consueloae (Rafflesiaceae), the smallest among giants; a new species from Luzon Island, Philippines. PhytoKeys 61: 37-46. doi: 10.3897/phytokeys.61.7295

Known from flower stalls as ‘Big Pink’ orchid proved to be an undescribed wild species

As easy as it might seem, seeking new species among cultivated plants could be actually quite tricky. While looking into the undescribed orchid, known at the market as ‘Big Pink’, Bobby Sulistyo and his team were likely to find yet another man-made hybrid. In reality, they are now describing as ‘new’ a wild orchid species that has been sitting at the flower stalls since 2013. The story behind their discovery is published in the open access journal PhytoKeys.

While studying a cultivated plant might be quite a motivator and serve as a starting point for scientific quests around the world, the assumptions that one has found a new species at the florist’s could easily be wrong. Not only is the place of origin, written on the label, often doubtful, but there is always the chance of accidentally describing a man-made hybrid as a new species.

Such could have been the case of Bobby Sulistyo and his team when they discovered that although previously assumed impossible, the relatives of ‘Big Pink’, they were surveying, could also make human-assisted hybrids. Moreover, both of the specimens they have had at hand had come from uncertain place of origin.

However, the scientists conducted a series of sophisticated DNA analyses to conclude that firstly, ‘Big Pink’ is a separate species within its genus and then, that there is no evidence for it being an artificial hybrid. Eventually, the species was found in the wild as well. As a result, the orchid species was given the official name Dendrochilum hampelii.

In the wild, ‘Big Pink’ is found at around 1,200 m above sea level in the Philippines, where it harmlessly plants its roots on tree trunks and branches among mosses.

So far, little is known about the orchid’s distribution in nature, so the researchers suggest its conservation status to be considered as Data Deficient according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN 2012).

 

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Original source:

Sulistyo B, Boos R, Cootes J, Gravendeel B (2015) Dendrochilum hampelii (Coelogyninae, Epidendroideae, Orchidaceae) traded as ‘Big Pink’ is a new species, not a hybrid: evidence from nrITS, matK and ycf1 sequence data. PhytoKeys 56: 83-97. doi:10.3897/phytokeys.56.5432

Sir Elton John is the inspiration behind the name of a new coral reef crustacean species

While exploring the remote coral reefs of Raja Ampat in Indonesia, Dr. James Thomas from the Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography, Florida, and his colleagues from Naturalis Natural History museum in the Netherlands, stumbled across a small but extraordinary crustacean living inside another reef invertebrate in a commensal association (without causing any harm, nor benefit to its host).

In his amazement to the amphipod’s unusual form, Dr. Thomas called it L. eltoni after musician and actor Sir Elton John. The research is available in the open access journal ZooKeys.

“I named the species in honour of Sir Elton John because I have listened to his music in my lab during my entire scientific career,” the lead author explains. “So, when this unusual crustacean with a greatly enlarged appendage appeared under my microscope after a day of collecting, an image of the shoes Elton John wore as the Pinball Wizard came to mind.”

Taxonomists, scientists who study and name new species, have the choice to pick names that are relevant to locations, features of the animal, or people the scientist admires.

In an interesting twist L. eltoni is now reported from Hawaiian waters as an invasive species. “Several years ago I was contacted by scientists from the Bishop Museum in Honolulu to help identify an unusual amphipod they had collected,” said Dr. Thomas. It proved to be the same species as the one from Indonesia. The most likely scenario for its introduction into Hawaiian waters was as a hitchhiker inside its host sponge or tunicate that was attached to a large floating drydock transported to Hawaii from Subic Bay, Philippines. Recent studies by Dr. Thomas in the Philippines during a California Academy of Science expedition in 2014 have shown this new species is also found there.

Marine animals can have unknown effects when transported to other ecosystems where they can compete with native species. In most cases these “invasions” go unnoticed. However, because scientists at the Bishop Museum had established a baseline of species over the years the presence of this invasive amphipod was quickly noted.

“Such studies show the importance of regular environmental monitoring, especially in tropical environments,” commented the scientist. He also pointed out that even though their tiny size, crustaceans such as L. eltoni provide crucial information about reef health.

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Original source

Thomas J. D. (2015) Leucothoe eltoni sp. n., a new species of commensal leucothoid amphipod from coral reefs in Raja Ampat, Indonesia (Crustacea, Amphipoda). ZooKeys 518: 51-66. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.518.9340