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 Talk 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.

New light on the controversial question of species abundance and population density

Inspired by the negative results in the recently published largest-scale analysis of the relation between population density and positions in geographic ranges and environmental niches, Drs Jorge Soberon and Andrew Townsend Peterson of the University of Kansas, USA, teamed up with Luis Osorio-Olvera, National University of Mexico (UNAM), and identified several issues in the methodology used, able to turn the tables in the ongoing debate. Their findings are published in the innovative open access journal Rethinking Ecology.

Both empirical work and theoretical arguments published and cited over the last several years suggest that if someone was to take the distributional range of a species – be it animal or plant – and draw lines starting at the edges of the space inwards, they would find the species’ populations densest at the intersection of those lines. However, when the team of Tad Dallas, University of Helsinki, Finland, analysed a large dataset of 118,000 populations, equating to over 1,400 species of birds, mammals, and trees, they found no such relationship.

Having analysed the analysis, the American-Mexican team concluded that despite being based on an unprecedented volume of data, the earlier study was missing out some important points.

Firstly, the largest dataset used by Tad and his team comprises observational data which had not required a certain sampling protocol or a plan. Without any standard in use, it is easy to imagine that the observations would be predominantly coming from people around and near cities, hence strongly biased.

Additionally, the scientists note that the analysis largely disregards parts of species’ geographic distributions for which there were no abundant data. As a result, the range of a species could be narrowed down significantly and its centroid – misplaced. Meanwhile, the population would appear denser on what appears to be the periphery of the area.

Similar issue is identified in the localisation of populations in the environmental space, where once again their range turned out to have been represented as significantly smaller, when compared to data available from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF).

Further, a closer look into the supplementary materials provided revealed that the precision of the population-density data was not scalable with the climate data. As a result, it is likely that multiple abundance data falls within a single climate pixel.

In conclusion, the authors note that in order to comprehensively study the abundance of a species’ populations, one needs to take into consideration a number of factors lying beyond the scope of either of the papers, including human impact.

“We suggest that this important question remains far from settled,” they say.

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Original source:

Soberón J, Peterson TA, Osorio-Olvera L (2018) A comment on “Species are not most abundant in the centre of their geographic range or climatic niche”. Rethinking Ecology 3: 13-18. https://doi.org/10.3897/rethinkingecology.3.24827