Tweezer-beaked hopping rats discovery in Philippines

Celaenomys silaceus (top) and Rhynchomys soricoides, two species related to the two newly discovered species

From the University of Utah in the USA:

Two new species of ‘tweezer-beaked hopping rats‘ discovered in Philippines

Elusive rodents finally found when scientists switched out peanut butter bait for earthworms

June 6, 2019

Summary: A highly distinctive (weird-looking) group of rodents sometimes called ‘tweezer-beaked hopping rats’ love earthworms. Armed with this knowledge (and worms), the scientists discovered two new species of the tweezer-beaked hopping rats.

Just about everybody loves peanut butter. We put it on sandwiches and in candy, we use it to trick our dogs into taking their heartworm pills, and, when we have to, we bait mouse traps with it. But, as scientists learned when trapping rodents in the mountains of the Philippines, peanut butter isn’t for everyone. A highly distinctive (weird-looking) group of rodents sometimes called “tweezer-beaked hopping rats” don’t care for peanut butter, but love earthworms. Armed with this knowledge (and worms), the scientists discovered two new species of the tweezer-beaked hopping rats. The discovery was announced in the Journal of Mammalogy.

“In the late 1980s we were doing standard mammalogy surveys and using standard baits that most rodents really like: a combination of peanut butter and slices of fried coconut. It was really attractive bait, it makes your mouth water,” says lead author Eric Rickart, a curator of the Natural History Museum of Utah at the University of Utah. The researchers knew that some of these critters had been found in the area before, but the rats weren’t biting. One finally stumbled into a live trap, but it still didn’t touch the peanut butter bait. The team tried to figure out what it did eat; when they offered it an earthworm, the rat, in Rickart’s words, “slurped it up like a kid eating spaghetti.”

“Once we began baiting the traps with live, wriggling earthworms, we discovered that these little animals are common and widespread,” says Larry Heaney, a curator at the Field Museum and a co-author of the study. The field team, led by the late Danny Balete of the Field Museum, began finding more species that specialize in eating earthworms, including the two new species described in their recent paper.

The new species are named Rhynchomys labo and Rhynchomys mingan. The genus name, Rhynchomys, comes from the ancient Greek rhyncos for snout and mys for “mouse”, a reference to the tweezer-beaked hopping rats’ long pointed noses. The species names are for the mountains the rats are found on, Mount Labo and Mount Mingan.

“They’re quite bizarre”, says Rickart. “They hop around on their sturdy hind legs and large hind feet, almost like little kangaroos. They have long, delicate snouts, and almost no chewing teeth.”

“They’re very docile, very cute”, adds Heaney. “Their fur is short and very, very dense, like a plush toy. They make little runways through the forest and patrol these little trails, day and night, looking for earthworms.”

The two new rodents are examples of the generally poorly-known, incredible biodiversity of the Philippines, which boasts more unique species of mammals per square mile than anywhere else on Earth. “Up until the late ’90s, we all thought maximum mammalian diversity was in the lowland tropical rainforest” explains Heaney. But Heaney, Rickart, and their colleagues found that mountains like those on the Philippines were the perfect breeding ground for new species of mammals. The different habitats at different elevations on a mountain can lead to different adaptations by its mammal residents, and their diversity actually increases as you go up higher into the mountains. Furthermore, the mammals on one mountain are isolated from their relatives on other mountains. Generations of isolation eventually lead to new species forming on different mountains, the same way that unique species emerge on islands. “Just about every time we’ve gone to a new area of Luzon with mountains, we’ve discovered that there are unique species,” says Rickart.

But the Philippines’ biodiversity is under threat. The islands are among the most extensively deforested places on Earth, with only about 6% of the original old growth tropical forest remaining. That’s a big problem for the watershed. High mountains in the Philippines receive between 10 and 20 feet of rain every year, leaving steep slopes vulnerable to typhoons. The mulch-carpeted mossy forests in the mountains help to soak up that rain “like a giant sponge,” says Heaney. “If you don’t have an intact watershed and forest up in the mountains, you’re going to have massive floods and landslides, because the water floods off instead of getting absorbed into mossy ground cover.”

The researchers hope that the discovery of the two new species of tweezer-beaked hopping rats will serve as an argument for protecting the mountainous forests where they’re found. “Every time we find a reason to say, ‘This place is unique,’ that tells people that it’s worthy of protection,” says co-author Phillip Alviola of the University of the Philippines.

All of the work on this project was conducted with permits and strong support of the Philippine Department of Natural Resources. The study was contributed to by authors from the University of Utah/Utah Natural History Museum, the Field Museum, the University of Kansas, the University of the Philippines, and Louisiana State University.


Endangered young Philippine eagle growing up, video

This February 2019 video says about itself:

Watch an Endangered Philippine Eagle Chick Grow Up in Rare Video | Nat Geo Wild

Rare footage of a Philippine eagle family shows parents intensively caring for a single eaglet, and the fledgling learning to fly, over the course of five months.

Ancient Filipino human relatives discovery

This 10 April 2019 video says about itself:

New human species found in the Philippines

Scientists have found a few bones and seven teeth belonging to a previously unknown species of human. They’ve named the new species Homo luzonensis, after the island of Luzon in the Philippines where it was found. The bones are tiny, suggesting that Homo luzonensis was under 4 feet tall. That would make it the second species of diminutive human to be found in south-east Asia; in 2007 scientists announced the discovery of Homo floresiensis, found on the island of Flores in Indonesia and nicknamed the hobbit.

Both species lived around 50,000 years ago, at a time when Asia was also home to our species, the Neanderthals and a group called the Denisovans. The new species raises many questions, including who were its ancestors and how did it move?

Read the research paper here.

See also here. And here. And here.

Dugongs of the Philippines, video

This 6 January 2019 video says about itself:

In this amazing adventure, Jonathan teams up with world-renown IMAX filmmakers Howard and Michele Hall on a filming expedition to Busuanga, Palawan in the Philippines searching for the elusive and rare Dugong.

Although Dugongs are closely related to manatees, they are much more difficult to find and exceptionally shy. The Blue World team has their work cut out for them on this trip, but the reward for patience is a truly incredible look into the lives of dugongs, and a shocking discovery!

JONATHAN BIRD’S BLUE WORLD is an Emmy Award-winning underwater science/adventure series featuring underwater cinematographer/naturalist Jonathan Bird.

Facebook outsources Internet censorship to unskilled underpaid Filipinos

This 16 April 2018 video is the trailer of the film The Cleaners, by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck.

This 26 May 2018 video from Germany says about itself:

In this documentary preview, filmmakers Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck will present their film THE CLEANERS – Die Digitale Müllabfuhr. THE CLEANERS is a journey into the underground industries of Manila, right at the centre of digital censorship – where the Internet must be “cleansed” of controversial contents. Who controls what we see and what we think?

Translated from an interview with film maker Hans Block in Dutch TV guide VARA Gids, 8-14 September 2018, pp. 18-19:

[The social media corporations don’t talk about who does the censorship work. About how difficult it was for the film makers to talk to the unskilled underpaid Filipino censorship workers:] They are scared, they have signed secrecy contracts. If they do talk, then they get big fines. At one company, even a prison term. …

I think the biggest scandal is the contrast between the influence of the ‘cleaners’ and their work situation. First, these are young people with limited possibilities. They are about 20, usually have never left Manila, they don’t have much education, usually don’t read papers every day, and have views sometimes very different from, eg, Europeans or Americans.

Interviewer: In the film, an ex-‘cleaner’ as an example judges a cartoon by Dutch cartoonist Ruben Oppenheimer. In the cartoon, Turkish President Erdogan penetrates the blue Twitter bird from behind [about Erdogan’s censorship of Twitter]. The cleaner follows the instructions which he got and judges: sexual act, bestiality, so: delete. How can you let a boy at the other side of the world judge about political satire about Turkey?

Hans Block: Exactly. Also, that is my second point: he has very little time for it. Within five or six seconds the cleaners have to decide whether to delete or ignore the content. Because only then they fulfill their production quota; sometimes 25,000 images in a ten-hour night shift. … We [rich countries] used to dump our analogous thrash in the Philippines, now our digital shit as well. …

Interviewer: In Berlin there is a Facebook ‘cleaning’ factory as well. Are circumstances there any better?

Hans Block: Not really. They get three to five days training before their work starts. … I think that Facebook uses that Berlin branch especially for show to the outside world, to show that everything is hunky dory. The bulk of the work, also of YouTube, Twitter and Google by the way, is in Manila.

This 5 May 2018 Canadian TV video says about itself:

‘The Cleaners’ Who Scrub Social Media

Social media platforms say they want to scrub fake news and inappropriate content off their platforms. Find out who’s doing some of the work of actually cleaning it up.

This 9 May 2018 video from the Netherlands says about itself:

Q&A about Facebook secrets with ‘The Cleaners’ director Hans Block

A fantastic, exciting and very topical film about how social media is destroying the world. Two young German filmmakers manage to gain access to one of the better guarded secrets of Facebook.

It is the beginning of a documentary as a thriller, which digs deeper and deeper into the back of the social media and shows how it distorts and affects our world. Directors Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck know how to gain access to the people who have the ungrateful task of determining what may or may not be posted on Facebook.

The whole world is scanned from an anonymous office building in the Philippines. Often without any knowledge of different cultures, history, politics or sex, the cleaners try to apply the protocols as well as possible. For the first time we gain insight into why certain images may or may not be seen. But also how the algorithms used push outrage.

Slowly it becomes clear how Facebook has become a kind of modern version of George Orwell’s 1984. Especially in countries where internet is synonymous with Facebook, the consequences are devastating.

Philippines worm-eating mice and evolution

This 2011 video says about itself:

In animal news, seven new mammals are discovered in the Philippines. A group of American and Philippine scientists have identified the previously unknown forest mice species, belonging to the genus Apomys, on Luzon Island.

The researchers called for protection of the watershed areas where the mice live, stating that both the animals and humans will gain from a healthy ecosystem.

Our hats off to you, American and Philippine researchers, for your wonderful discovery. May we always safeguard the loving animals who continue to add color and blessings to our planet.

From the Field Museum in the USA:

Worm-eating mice reveal how evolution works on islands

Scientists discover smallest island where mammal species have multiplied

May 16, 2018

Summary: When animals are isolated on islands, they can evolve into strange new species found nowhere else on Earth. But what’s the cut-off — how small can an island be and still support the evolution of multiple new species from a single common ancestor? A family of worm-eating mice [Apomys] from a tiny island in the Philippines have set a new lower limit for island size and evolution.

Australia has a bunch of kangaroo species, Madagascar has multiple species of lemurs, the Galapagos Islands have boulder-sized tortoises — islands get lots of cool animals. That’s because when animals are isolated on islands, they can evolve into strange new species found nowhere else on Earth. But what’s the cut-off — how small can an island be and still support the evolution of multiple new species from a single common ancestor? A team of mammalogists just discovered that four species of mice evolved from one common ancestor on Connecticut-sized Mindoro Island in the Philippines, making it the smallest known island where one kind of mammal has branched out into many more.

“The single most remarkable thing about planet Earth is there are so many species here, so much biodiversity. We take it for granted, but holy cow, there’s a whole lot of stuff out there — how did it get here?” says Lawrence Heaney, Negaunee Curator of Mammals at Chicago’s Field Museum and co-lead author of a recent paper in the Journal of Biogeography. “This is one of the few papers ever written to look at whether there’s a limit to how small an island can be for species diversification to occur, and it’s the only one looking at it in mammals. Mindoro is by far the smallest island on which we’ve seen this happen.”

According to Heaney, this quest to find the smallest island that can support new mammals started with a thought experiment posed in 1980. Michael Soulé, a conservation biologist, wondered if new animal species could diversify in an area the size of the largest of existing national parks. Diversification means that multiple species arise from one parent species. “There are many islands that have species that arrived from somewhere else and that subsequently changed into something distinctive. Many of these islands are much smaller than Mindoro”, explains Heaney. “Rather, the key to this study is whether a single species that arrived from somewhere else has produced multiple species that all evolved within the given island from the single ancestral species. It is the issue of an increase in the number of species within the island, by evolution within the island.”

Previously, the smallest island where scientists knew mammal species had diversified was Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines. But Luzon is one of the biggest islands in the world, about the size of Virginia. Heaney and his team wanted to see if they could do one better — “We looked at a map and said, okay, where’s there a smaller island where diversification may have occurred?”

The scientists didn’t have to look far — they turned to Mindoro, a small island just across a channel from Luzon. Mindoro is a tenth the size of Luzon — it’s about two-thirds the size of Connecticut. Heaney’s colleague Danny Balete, now deceased, led the fieldwork missions on Mindoro for four field seasons, searching for the island’s mammals.

This is where the worm-eating mice come in.

“The mice we looked at in this study are all members of the “earthworm mouse” group Apomys — they love earthworms, but they also eat seeds and fruits. They’ve got big dark eyes, great big ears, long soft fur, white feet, dark tails — they’re very pretty little mice”, says Heaney.

When the team analyzed the DNA of Mindoro’s earthworm mice, they found that the mice belonged to four separate species, three of which were new to science. And all four of the species, Heaney says, evolved on Mindoro from a common ancestor.

“The results are unambiguous — we’ve got four species of forest mice on Mindoro from one colonization event from Luzon about 2.8 million years ago,” says Heaney. “And three of those four mouse species are found on their own separate mountains.”

Chris Kyriazis, Heaney’s former undergraduate student and co-first author on the paper, led the DNA analysis from the Field Museum’s Pritzker DNA Lab. “By examining genetic variation across these populations, we were able to confirm not only that these mice originated from a single colonist on Mindoro, but also that they are distinctive enough to be considered different species. The fact that variation in external measurements show the same pattern only strengthens the case”, says Kyriazis, who is now pursuing his PhD in biology at UCLA.

The fact that the four mouse species evolved on this little island means that there’s a new answer to the question posed by Soulé in 1980: mammals can diversify in an area as small as Mindoro. And since Mindoro is the same size as Yellowstone National Park, that means that new mammal species can evolve from one ancestor in areas as small as at least some large wildlife preserves.

The implications of Heaney and Kyriazis’s discovery goes far beyond a thought experiment, though: it gives scientists a valuable tool for planning conservation spaces.

“This study changes how I think about conservation”, says Heaney. “When we think about how to design protected areas, we need to think about the topography of the Earth, not just a flat map. The fact that these mice evolved on their own separate mountains within a limited geographic area tells us that mountains are important.”

And figuring out how to plan protected wildlife spaces is crucial for preserving biodiversity. “As human population continues to expand, what’s going to happen to everything else? How will new species be able to evolve?” asks Heaney. “This project is a step forward in being able to answer that.”

This project was supported by a grant from the National Geographic Society. It was contributed to by scientists from the Field Museum, Florida State University, and the Natural History Museum of Utah.

New shrew species discovered in Philippines

This video says about itself:

Did You Know: Newfound Shrew Lives on a Single Remote Mountain “How the Heck Did It Get There?”

A new species of shrew has been discovered living high on a single peak in the Philippines, and no one knows how it got there. The shrew, a tiny gray creature with big front feet and an unusually fuzzy tail, probably split evolutionarily from its last relative about 10 million years ago.

The mountain it lives on, Mount Mantalingahan on Palawan Island, is no more than 5 million years old. That means the shrew traveled far to land in its current location, but wait — the new species’ closet relatives (which aren’t all that close) are found in Africa.

“The one mountain is the only place that we know of them occurring,” said Lawrence Heaney, one of the authors of a new paper describing the shrew and the Negaunee Curator of Mammals at The Field Museum in Chicago.

“So one of the questions is, ‘Well, how did it get there?'”

A weird little shrew

Scientists first discovered the shrew in 2007 on an expedition to survey Mount Mantalingahan for biological diversity. Researchers caught multiple specimens of the animals in traps baited with earthworms or fried coconut coated in peanut butter. The shrew, now dubbed Palawanosorex muscorum, or the Palawan moss shrew, immediately piqued the interest of Danilo Balete, the leader of field surveys for the Philippine Mammal Project and a research associate at The Field Museum.

“I started getting messages saying, ‘Oh, we’re getting this weird little shrew. We don’t know what it is,'” Heaney said. The researchers found the shrew living in forests between 5,085 feet and 6,398 feet (1,550 to 1,950 meters) up on the 6,844-foot-tall (2,086 m) mountain. It dwells in the leaf litter among low trees studded with orchids and ferns, and it’s active entirely at night, Heaney said.

The animal measures about 3.5 inches (90 millimeters) long on average and weighs about 0.7 ounces (20 grams) when fully grown.

Mysterious origins

What makes the shrew weird are its strong front feet and the dark fur covering its tail. Most shrews have tails covered with scaly skin, Heaney said. The shrew is one of three mammal species endemic to Mount Mantalingahan, meaning they live exclusively in that small geographic region. The other two are the Palawan montane squirrel (Sundasciurus rabori) and the Palawan soft-furred mountain rat (Palawanomys furvus). “The Philippines, we have gradually come to realize, has the greatest concentration of unique mammalian diversity — the technical term we use is ‘endemic diversity’ — of any country,” Heaney said.

From the Field Museum in the USA:

New shrew species discovered on ‘sky island’ in Philippines

Mountain-dwelling shrew’s habitat gives insights into biodiversity, flood prevention

May 9, 2018

Summary: A team of scientists recently identified Palawanosorex muscorum, a new species of shrew known more informally as the Palawan moss shrew. This shrew, found on what Heaney calls a ‘sky island,’ may help explain why the Philippines is such a hotbed for mammalian biodiversity.

The Philippines teems with biodiversity: 657 bird species roam and fly throughout the country’s 7,641 islands, and over 2,000 fish species swim in the surrounding seas. But beyond these beaked and scaly creatures, the Philippines is also home to the world’s greatest concentration per square mile of unique mammal species.

One of these species — a shrew found around 5,000 feet above sea level — may give us some clues as to what makes the Philippines an ideal environment for mammals.

Palawanosorex muscorum, known more informally as the Palawan moss shrew, was recently identified by a team of researchers, including Larry Heaney, Negaunee Curator of Mammals at the Field Museum in Chicago, in a Journal of Mammalogy paper.

First spotted in 2007 by the late Danilo “Danny” Balete, field survey leader and research associate at the Field Museum, the Palawan moss shrew has a slender, pointed snout and dark coat. Unlike other shrews, its tail is covered in dense fur rather than visible scales. With broad forefeet and long claws, the Palawan moss shrew digs through humus in search of its favorite snack: earthworms. Rainer Hutterer, the paper’s lead author, analyzed these anatomical traits to determine that the Palawan moss shrew was a distinct species.

Heaney emphasizes that the Philippines is such a hotbed for mammalian biodiversity that finding the Palawan moss shrew didn’t exactly shock him and his team: “In many ways, finding this species was exactly what we had expected.”

Co-author Jacob Esselstyn from the LSU Museum of Natural Science adds, “It provides some clues about how small mammals have evolved and moved between Asia and Africa.” In other words, the Palawan moss shrew might help us figure out how the Philippines’ many mammal species got there in the first place.

Another clue: The Palawan moss shrew’s home is a hotbed within a hotbed. Mt. Mantalingahan, a mountain on Palawan Island in the Philippines, is habitat to three unique mammal species, including the shrew.

“There are entire countries that don’t have three unique mammal species — so for there to be three species on one mountain, on one island, in one country is really something,” Heaney emphasizes.

What accounts for this species richness? Mt. Mantalingahan, Heaney explains, is a “sky island.”

While that might sound like something straight out of a sci-fi novel, “sky islands” are real ecological phenomena — isolated mountaintops home to distinct habitats separate from the lowlands and neighboring mountains. These “sky islands” create hubs of biodiversity, allowing for multiple ecosystems — and, by extension, a wider range of species — to coexist within a single geographic area.

These “sky islands” might help explain why mammalian biodiversity thrives in the Philippines specifically. “There could be many new species on these high mountainous regions in the Philippines, but because they are so high, and hard to get to, knowledge of their existence is awfully limited,” Heaney says.

Learning what species dwell in these mountains, Heaney notes, isn’t only helpful for zoologists and ecologists. For those who live and work in Palawan, which constitutes the Philippines’ largest province, protecting the Palawan moss shrew and Mt. Mantalingahan hits even closer to home — it’s a matter of personal and economic safety.

Mt. Mantalingahan, in addition to being a “sky island”, functions as a crucial watershed, regulating the flow of water in Palawan through natural processes. In Mt. Mantalingahan’s case, humus — the low-density mountainous soil the Palawan moss shrew digs through — acts as a sponge, holding water from the frequent rainfall high-elevation places tend to experience.

Deforesting these “sky islands” bears grave repercussions. “That’s where most of the water comes from that people in the lowlands depend on,” Heaney warns. “In deforested areas, when a typhoon hits, it kills thousands of people and animals, and destroys buildings. And if water isn’t being released slowly from the mountains, you’ll have less of it in the dry season, causing drought. If you want to protect your watersheds, you’ve got to protect your habitats.”

Built on agriculture, fishing, and tourism, Palawan’s economy depends greatly on the steady flow of water — from where the Palawan moss shrew lives, to where nearly three-quarters of a million people live.

Today, much of the Palawan moss shrew’s habitat remains undisturbed by human activity. And both it — and we — stand to benefit from keeping it that way.

“Sometimes it’s presented that environmental concerns and economic development are at odds with each other. That’s false,” Heaney asserts. “Smart economic development means not creating situations that cause mass damage as a result.”

Beyond the economic implications of the shrew’s discovery, Heaney says he hopes the new species sparks excitement among the Filipino and international scientific communities, which in turn can help encourage research, conservation, and advocacy efforts.

“People in the world get excited about the cool things that live in their country,” Heaney says. “The fact that the Philippines is such a unique hotspot for mammalian diversity is something people should be aware of, something that people can take pride in.”