My sister flew home from Taiwan for a visit a few weeks ago, and she alerted me that Cebu Pacific’s in-flight magazine contained an article on Dr. Laurence Heaney. Fortunately, the article is available online and I didn’t have to book a flight to be able to read the feature on one of my favorite scientists. You can read the article here, or you can also check out my own profile on Larry Heaney, which I did when I was still with Haribon. I’m posting it here in a sudden fit of nostalgia and affection for Dr. Heaney and his work. You’ll see why.
Originally published in Haring Ibon magazine, 3rd Quarter 2003
It was a familiar but still captivating story. I watched across the dinner table as biologist Laurence Heaney related the details to one of Haribon’s board members: how a rat specimen sat unidentified for 20 years at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History until somebody realized it was an unknown species; how a team of scientists came to Mt. Isarog and “re-discovered” it; how they despaired at trying to feed it everything in the forest until they discovered that it eats practically nothing but earthworms. It happened in 1988, and he must have told the story and written about it dozens of times, but to hear him tell it he might as well have just come home from the mountains still flushed with the joy of discovering a new species.
“I went to the Philippines for the same reason that Charles Darwin went to the Galapagos Islands. I wanted to know where the species live, how do they live, who their relatives are… to study biodiversity – where they come from.”
The Galapagos Islands, of course, are known for harboring amazing biodiversity, and Charles Darwin was its most famous visitor. But in the Philippines, Larry Heaney has found his own Galapagos.
“The Galapagos Islands are dull and uninteresting compared to the Philippines,” says Heaney. “The Philippines has fantastic diversity, both in plants and animals. The level of endemism is certainly the highest in the world.”
He should know what he is talking about. Larry started working in the Philippines in 1981, and has done studies up and down the archipelago, from Mt. Balbalasang in Kalinga, Mt. Isarog in the Bicol region, the islands of Sibuyan, Leyte, Maripipi, Biliran, Camiguin and Negros, down to Mt. Kitanglad in Bukidnon. He comes to the country almost once a year, staying for a month or so and spending most of that time in the mountains. “When I get here, I tend not to stay in Manila too long, I want to get into the field right away.” He has worked with various Philippine institutions and individuals, not to mention ingenious local guides and trappers with the knack for finding the most elusive creatures in the forest. Not a few former and present Haribon scientists – Blas Tabaranza, Aldrin Mallari, Mymy Tabao, Genevieve Gee, Nina Ingle, Danny Balete – have spent some time with Larry in the field, either as students or eventually, as collaborators.
The places he’s worked in are areas of great biodiversity in their own right, affording Heaney the perfect laboratories for his studies. For his interest is not only in cataloguing biodiversity, but studying the long-term evolutionary factors and processes by which all those species came to be there in the first place.
“The history of the earth is a wonderful, fascinating thing…understanding how the different pieces all fit together… [it’s like] a big puzzle.” Climate, geological developments, land areas, habitat types, all play a role in the biodiversity that evolves in a given area.
What emerges, among other things, is a fascinating story of species development and diversity that branches out and grows and takes on numerous dimensions as millions of years pass. For example, what started out as 2 rodent species twelve million years ago has branched out all around the archipelago to roughly 40 species with an amazing range of characteristics – those that crawl and burrow on the ground and those that dwell on tree-tops, those that hunt insects and those that dig for earthworms, those with delicate pointed snouts and those with nicely-rounded, furred faces.
As Heaney put it, it’s like investigating the end twigs of the tree of life and finding out that it has turned into an entire branch, a branch that is restricted to the Philippines. “It’s that kind of story that makes the Philippines unique.”
His most recent trip to the country was spent in Balbalasang-Balbalan National Park in Kalinga Province, to continue studies began in late 1999 by the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History and Haribon Foundation (see Haring Ibon 2nd quarter 2003).
“Balbalasang-Balbalan is the most beautiful place in the Philippines…it’s gorgeous…its wildlife is the most abundant anywhere in the country,” Larry enthuses, comparing the place to a “giant garden.” It is also one of the places where the community, mostly of the indigenous Banao tribe, have retained a firm hold on the management and protection of the forest, applying their own methods of resource management and retaining their cultural independence.
Places like Balbalasang-Balbalan are one of country’s beacons of hope. “In many cases, things are not as bad as we think,” Larry notes. “Research work has been important in developing an accurate picture…there are more forests than we thought.” Research has also shown that some species have the ability to survive in secondary or recovering logged forests, buying us some time as we strive to rehabilitate degraded habitats.
“The threats are very real and visible,” Larry says, “but there is absolutely no reason to think that there is no hope.” He also noted that Philippine biodiversity is now becoming more famous and more appreciated, and that the level of awareness and public interest on the environment has also been increasing.
In the meantime, Larry Heaney and his Filipino collaborators continue their work in weaving the tapestry of Philippine biodiversity. “It would have been easy for me to get projects elsewhere,” he says. “But the story that can be told here, and we’re in the process of telling, is going to be one of the most interesting and instructive stories of biodiversity anywhere in the world.”
Since the above article was written five years ago, numerous new species have been discovered by Larry Heaney as well as by other research teams all over the Philippines. The story is still being told.