Academy researchers make underwater discoveries

June 23, 2011 5:46:37 PM PDT
Scientists at the California Academy of Sciences believe they have discovered at least 300 new species of life. The discoveries were made in last few weeks by Bay Area scientists who traveled to the Philippines.

When most of people think of the Academy of Sciences they picture the museum in Golden Gate Park. But the academy is also a high level research institution. The Philippines is one of the most biologically diverse places in the world, so it was chosen for the biggest research expedition in academy history.

Dive after dive, hike after hike, academy scientists and their Filipino colleagues joined forces for more than a month. The mission: to find and document life of all sizes and shapes on Luzon, the largest of the Philippines' 7,000 islands.

"There isn't a dive that I've made here where I haven't seen something unexpected and something new," Dean of Research and Collections Terry Goslinger, Ph.D., said.

Goslinger led the expedition, which was funded by a gift from Margaret and Will Hearst.

Scientists estimate about 90 percent of all life on earth still has not been discovered and many unknown treasures are believed to be in places like the Philippines.

"It's got riches in the tropical forests and high mountains all the way down to the coral reefs, which are the richest in the world," Goslinger said.

A lot of the trip discoveries were under water, like colorful sea slugs and a new type of swell shark with distinctive camouflage. Scientists found them more than 1,500 feet deep.

"For anybody to find a new species is very exciting, but to find a new species of shark, that's a rare event," senior scientist John McCosker, Ph.D., said.

Researchers also discovered what is believed to be a new species of sea pen.

"It's not a plant, it's an animal, because it feeds on other animals; it's related to sea anemones and corals," Curator of Invertebrate Zoology Gary Williams, Ph.D., said.

Some members of the team are long-time professionals, at the top in their field. Some are giddy graduate students full of the excitement of the chase.

It is fun, but still serious science. Back in the lab, researchers will spend months examining specimens and analyzing DNA to confirm new species and find potential uses for the future.

"For example, some of the slugs that I study in the ocean are being studied to develop new drugs to fight HIV/AIDS and cancer," Goslinger said.

Scientists also hope their research will help the Philippines protect its rich natural resources, which are under constant threat from pollution and habitat destruction.

Filipino scientists say they welcome the collaboration.

"There is very little appreciation of biodiversity, of what we have here, and for a large group of scientists to come over, the locals start realizing what they have," Wilfredo Licuanan, Ph.D., of De La Salle University in the Philippines, said.

ABC7 News spent two weeks in the Philippines with the California Academy of Sciences and will be reporting all summer on the expedition.

On June 30, the academy is presenting some of its findings from the trip in a public celebration at the museum in Golden Gate Park.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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