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Exciting Discoveries Continue on Mindanao

On his recent expedition, Ronald Clouse ventured 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. 

I left Mindanao and the Philippines in mid-July feeling relieved we had found those cryptic little harvestmen in the suborder Cyphophthalmi, otherwise known as “cyphos.” Our main goal in the expedition was to survey all harvestmen from across the archipelago, and among over 1,000 specimens we collected were several interesting species from various families. Nonetheless, there was no hiding my emotional investment in finding cyphos, not only because they are so rare but also because they present such strong evidence of ancient land connections. Before this trip, only four cyphos had ever been seen in the Philippines, three of which were juveniles.

Large harvestmen in the suborder Eupnoi walk across leaves at Mt. Malambo.
Large harvestmen in the suborder Eupnoi walk across leaves at Mt. Malambo. (Photos by Alma Mohagan)

I also departed feeling a bit sad that it could easily be many years before cyphos were seen in the Philippines again, and that most species on Mindanao will go extinct completely undiscovered. Although cyphos have occasionally been collected in Southeast Asia since colonial times, they have generally escaped notice despite a century-and-a-half of natural history investigations in the region. As we learned at Impalutao before I left, even when one knows precisely where they live and is working hard to find them, hours of examining sifted leaf litter can produce only a handful of specimens.

So imagine my surprise to receive a message the day after I arrived back in the U.S. that the Mohagans (the family of Alma Mohagan, chair of the Biology Department at Central Mindanao University) had once again found cyphos! On July 27th, Alma’s daughter, Dale Joy, wrote to say that her father, Dave, and youngest bother, Dada, had found six adult cyphos (and one juvenile) on Mt. Malambo. This is an area in the southern end of Bukidnon Province, a place we had considered going on my last day in the region, ultimately going back to Impalutao to collect more specimens of the species around there. Without any equipment, Dave and Dada simply spread damp leaf litter from a steep hillside out on a concrete pad and inspected it for specimens, where they made their discovery.

Dada (left) and Dave Mohagan show the incline landscape where they found cyphos (one of which is shown in the inset) on Mt. Malambo in southern Bukidnon.
Dada (left) and Dave Mohagan show the steep incline where they found cyphos (one of which is shown in the inset) on Mt. Malambo in southern Bukidnon. (Photo by Alma Mohagan)

But there’s more! Within a month, Alma had organized a series of harvestman workshops for Grade 7 students at Lake View Academy in Bukidnon. With the help of their teacher, Ma’am Ivy Tanamal, and Principal, Mr. Romel R. Subigka, a series of seven workshops were planned for the students. One goal is the publishing of a report on the leaf-litter diversity and ecology in Bukidnon Province. During their first workshop, back at Mt. Malambo, the students, assisted by Alma’s daughter, Dale Joy, found another four adult cyphos and one juvenile.

Students from Lake View Academy in Bukidnon Province, Mindanao, collect leaf litter and hunt for harvestmen on Mt. Malambo.
Students from Lake View Academy in Bukidnon Province, Mindanao, collect leaf litter and hunt for harvestmen on Mt. Malambo. (Photos by Alma Mohagan)

Dale Joy was especially motivated during this first workshop, as she had the bad luck of not finding a cypho in over a month. Directing the students as to where to retrieve good litter, they quickly found one adult, then another, and then a juvenile. As it is when hunting any rare animal, every capture can be remembered with great relish! Alma reported that during the workshop the students exhibited diligence and energy, putting as much effort into their searches as seasoned field researchers.

Dale Joy Mohagan (left) helps a Lake View Academy student look for harvestmen on Mt. Malambo.
Dael Joy Mohagan (left) helps a Lake View Academy student look for harvestmen on Mt. Malambo. (Photo by Alma Mohagan)

Being harmless, diverse (but not overly so), easily identified to family level, and informative of ecological conditions, harvestmen make excellent models from which students can learn about the diversity, history, and ecology of their forests. Alma extended thanks to the students of Lake View Academy, Baranguy Captain Uayan for accommodation during their trip, and she’s now working to fabricate leaf-litter sifters for the upcoming workshops. She has been purchasing screen, wire, canvas, and other materials provided from the grant, and they are now in the hands of a craftsman for assembly. Moreover, Alma’s workshop has inspired similar workshops at her home institution of CMU for the undergraduates taking Zoology, Taxonomy, and Invertebrate Zoology.

Cyphos and other harvestmen have survived on Mindanao and other areas of the Philippines for tens of millions of years, but only now are they being discovered and understood. It is encouraging that among their human neighbors is a growing community of caretakers that can help them continue their incredible success. In the video below, Darrell Blatchley of D’ Bone Collector Museum, Inc. remarks on the diversity and peril of Mindanao’s biodiversity, much of which is living in tiny forest plots surrounded by development. The miniature, steep hillside where Darrell is speaking is home to sandokanids, which he had a knack for finding. Darrell also had a knack for keeping Dave General and me upright on near-vertical slopes, finding lost field bags, finding baby vipers and angry wasp nests (the latter via their stings!), and driving a jeepney through Davao City traffic. Between Darrell, Alma, Aleyla Escueta-De Cadiz at UP Mindanao, Jayson Ibanez at the Philippine Eagle Foundation, and all their students, colleagues, and helpers, Mindanao biodiversity may not be lost.

Video link:

Darrell Blatchley of D’ Bone Collector Museum Inc. talks about conservation on Mindanao


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