California botanists explore the Philippines

July 25, 2011 8:46:06 PM PDT
"Super hero" might not be in the official job description for a botanist, but if you want to study plants, you better be tough. At the California Academy of Sciences, botanists spend part of their time in their elegant building in Golden Gate Park, but ABC7 News got a chance to see what they are really made of when we traveled with them on an expedition to the Philippine island of Luzon.

A lot of days in the Philippines start with a ride -- scientists bouncing along for an hour or so in a colorful open air bus. This is the cushy stuff. For what's ahead, you better be rugged.

Peter Fritsch is the group leader of a team from the California Academy of Sciences -- bay area botanists joining Philippine colleagues to research and rescue the country's rain forests.

"It's one of the hotspots of tropical bio- diversity, which means that it's extremely diverse in terms of species and it also is under extreme threat," Fritsch said.

The Philippines has close to a 100 million people on islands that together are about the size of Arizona. The population is growing and the pristine natural areas are shrinking. Scientists hope this expedition will help demonstrate the need to save what's left.

"I'm looking for anything in flower or anything in fruit that we haven't seen yet," Fritsch said.

Botanists spent five days on Mount Izarog -- a national park and the last stop on a five week trip.

The mountain is covered with dense tropical forest. This time of year the high temperature averages 90 degrees with 85 percent humidity -- so it can feel like more than 110 degrees. And there are lots of leeches.

Even so, Jim Shevok, a 61-year-old retiree, does this for fun.

"You want to try to get one of everything that's up here," Shevok said.

That includes everything from tiny mosses to much showier plants. During the trip, they collected 1,200 specimens, each with its own unique spot in the ecosystem.

Philippine scientist Benito Tan says even the mosses are critical.

"They absorb water during heavy rain and they release the water during dry days," Tan said.

The team includes an expert tree climber. He works barefoot, climbing 50-60 feet in just a few minutes, then neatly dropping the specimens

The work goes on for hours. Some nights they camp, some they go to a hotel room to organize what they've collected for shipping home.

"We can be working on specimens well past midnight," Shevok said.

The next morning they're back in the field. It's grueling, but this is what botanists call the glamour part of their job.

Frank Almeda believes there's no better career.

"The only regret I have in doing this line of work is that one lifetime isn't enough, that's the only regret, it's true," Almeda said.

The botanists will now spend months in the lab analyzing all those specimens. The research may uncover new species, new uses for plants and new ideas on how to save the tropical rain forests.

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

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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