On his current expedition, Ronald Clouse ventures into the jungles of the Philippines to study harvestmen, or daddy-long-legs, of the order Opiliones. By collecting data for phylogenetic analysis, he hopes to learn more about the history of these creatures and the lands they inhabit.
Ever since Dr. Arvin Diesmos picked up two juveniles under a tree in 2009, and the sharp-eyed Dave General recognized what they were, it has been known that the strange harvestmen in the Suborder Cyphophthalmi (“cyphos”) live on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. That started new thinking about the possible land connections that would have allowed this ancient, slow-moving animal to have come to Mindanao (and where the island originally migrated from), and it started a personal quest for me to find adult cypho specimens on Mindanao.
With adults, we could see the features that these animals may have evolved during their multi-million-year trek from Borneo, where their nearest relatives live. Also, we could formally describe the species and give them Latin names.
As readers of this blog know, however, finding cyphos on Mindanao has not been easy. I called off our first planned expedition to the island for safety reasons, and then I decided to just come to Davao City on Mindanao and see what forests I could get permission to search. This led Dave General and me to climb Mt. Apo, which didn’t produce any cyphos, and when Dave returned to Luzon, I had to start from scratch in a city where I knew almost no one and didn’t speak the language.
I took Arvin’s advice and contacted Darrell Blatchley, owner of the D’Bone Collector Museum in town, and, having lived in Davao City since he was a kid, Darrell knew of some private forests we could check. He also knew two entomologists at Central Mindanao University (CMU) in Bokidnon Provice, Dr. Alma Mohagan and her husband, Dave, whom he contacted right away about a possible search around there. At the same time I accepted a generous invitation to give a seminar at the University of the Philippines Mindanao, where I met Dr. Aleyla Escueta-De Cadiz. She knew of a good coastal forest we could investigate, Hijo Estates and Banana Beach Resort in Tagum City, and the owners kindly let us collect specimens and even gave us guides to help.
The collections at Banana Beach turned up the usual families found in disturbed areas, epedanids and podoctids, perhaps because such flat lowlands are regularly flooded during large storms. At first I wondered if it was also a factor of human disturbance, but when Darrell plucked three specimens of the very picky and sensitive family Sandokanidae from leaf litter next to a parking lot right in Davao City, I had a new thought: if an area is historically diverse enough, like mid-elevations on Mindanao, the picky harvestmen can actually survive a fair amount of human activity.
Another insight I had—since Darrell and I were finding sandokanids at the base of a steep cliff where the leaves made thick piles—was that the vertical inclines might be the place to go hunting for cyphos, too.
So, no more looking for pristine forests high in the mountains, and no more looking for flat places where leaves collect. Cliffs in the mid-elevations might be where cyphos live.
Darrell and I collected at the cliff in Davao City until dark, leaving just enough time for me to grab a burger, shower, and race to the bus for a four-hour ride to CMU. The next morning I met Alma, and she, her husband, their daughter Dale Joy, brother-in-law Vicente “Loloi” Yamba and I went to nearby Musuan Peak to see what harvestmen were around. The forest looked heavily disturbed by clearing, replanting, and agriculture, and being an active volcano, I didn’t have much hope. However, we collected five of the six families of Laniatores harvestmen known in the Philippines (no sandokanids), so the possibility that cyphos might be nearby didn’t seem so remote.
On day two in Bukidnon Province, Dave Mohagan, Loloi, and I went to a Impalutao, a replanted area surrounding two large waterfalls. Again, it didn’t seem to hold much promise. Our first sifts of leaf litter turned up little besides some podoctids and epedanids, so we just kept walking. The path then went along the top of a steep incline going down to a river, about 100 feet below. Covered with vegetation, and with the roar of a waterfall in the background, it was pretty, but our sifts of leaf litter there turned up nothing.
Then Loloi found an assamid, which although a mobile, disturbance-tolerant harvestman, could easily be a new species. So, whatever, fine… I stopped packing my gear and worked with Dave to find more specimens. We found another assamid, but then we found a sandokanid. Whoa—sandokanids are pretty picky. Dave and I decided to film this big specimen before preserving it, and while we were, Loloi politely asked me if something he just found in his pan was of any interest. Oh yes, indeed it was! It was an adult cypho, the first one seen in Mindanao, and the first seen in the Philippines since 1960!
With all my photographing and texting to Arvin, Perry, Dave, and Darrell, I never actually found any cyphos that day myself. Dave Mohagan and Loloi collected a handful more of adults and a few juveniles before we had to leave. The next day the Mohagans, Loloi, and I went to a new locality, this one on the slopes of Mt. Kitanglad. Again we went to a waterfall, and again on the nearly vertical slopes going down to the river we found four cypho adults in the wet leaf litter clinging to the cliff, Dale Joy spotting the first one this time.
While we were collecting on Mt. Kitanglad, Dave General was flying down to Mindanao to join us on the Mindanao cypho hunt. With new footwear to battle the Mindanao mud, and new attitudes, we are heading out tomorrow to increase our collection of cyphos from Impalutao to share with scientific institutions. When I have a stronger internet connection I’ll upload videos, including one where you can test your patience against a cypho playing dead. Until then, the race is on to find as many more as possible before I leave for home.
The smile on my face may fade in a few days, but for now it feels permanent. Cyphos have been found!