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Tuesday, 19 June 2007
Philippines Could Hold Clues to Mysteries of Life


Deseret News (Salt Lake City)

By Susan Whitney

In times past, when Eric Rickart and other biologists talked about their research in the Philippines, they sounded gloomy. And it is still true that the situation is urgent. Habitat is still being destroyed at an alarming rate.

But it can regenerate. Rickart says biologists are newly encouraged by how well the habitat can regenerate.

Rickart speaks about the Philippines on Tuesday, as part of the Utah Museum of Natural History's "The Nature of Things," lecture series. He is the curator of vertebrates at the museum, as well as an adjunct assistant professor of biology at the U. and a research associate at the Field Museum in Chicago.

Earlier in the week, Rickart said he was still working on his talk, working on nontechnical language. He wants his audience to understand what makes the Philippines so unique, biologically, and also to see how knowledge gained there can have implications in faraway Utah.

Rickart calls himself "hardly the most important" of the scientists at work in the Philippines. He's one of a team studying mammals. His team cooperates with botanists and entomologists and earthworm experts and the like.

The Philippines is clearly one of the world's hot spots of diversity, Rickart explains. The Philippines offer a perspective not easily gained elsewhere, he says. The Philippines are islands -- oceanic islands, islands that were never a part of Asia, islands that are very old. Because they are so isolated and so ancient, a relatively small number of plants and animals made their way to the Philippines, and the process of evolution and extinction has gone very slowly, he explains. There are so many species that are endemic, found nowhere else in the world.

He says it is easier on the Philippines than it would be on a large continent to tease apart the history of the various species. Easier to unravel the mysteries of life.

Only a few years ago, on Luzon, he and the other biologists found a new mouse, a mouse never before described by science. The mouse was living in a remanent patch of lowland forest. "The forest was hardly pristine," Rickart adds. So to find something brand new, in an area that had been logged so heavily that they despaired of finding any native species at all -- well, Rickart still sounds happy when he talks about it.

He says scientists used to believe that all was lost as habitat erodes and non-native species take over. And on some islands, like Hawaii, that may be true. But in the Philippines at least, scientists are learning the native species are much more resilient than they knew and, given time and a space, can make a comeback and drive out the non-native species.

He's not saying the world is not in an ecological crisis. But there are so many discoveries to be made, he says. Not only in the Philippines but in our own back yards.

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