National Geographic
Menu

New Specimens, Friends, Colleagues, and Insights

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. 

At the end of the last report, we were deciding how to spend our last days on Mindanao after the discovery of Cyphophthalmi harvestmen “cyphos” in the Mt. Kitanglad Range. Dave General came down to join me and the other “cypho hunters,” Dr. Alma Mohagan and her husband, entomologist Dave Mohagan, their daughter Dale Joy, and Loloi Yamba. I decided that the best use of our time was to return to Impalutao to try to find more specimens of the cypho discovered there.

In Dr. Arvin Diesmos' office at the National Museum, I show him the adult cyphos collected in Mindanao, and we examine the topography of the island. (Photo by Ronald Clouse)
In Dr. Arvin Diesmos’ office at the National Museum, I show him the adult cyphos collected in Mindanao, and we examine the topography of the island. (Photo by Ronald Clouse)

There were multiple reasons for doing this. Although we had enough specimens from the first day to describe the species, more specimens would allow us to make a more thorough description as well as share specimens with more institutions. We also wanted to give Dave General an opportunity to see cyphos alive in the field, since he has worked so hard to find them and will be a regular examiner of leaf litter in the Philippines for years to come. Although it might be nice to find another species in the area, it was always a gamble trying to find them in a new location, and it was better to go to a place where we knew they could be found.

Well, when cypho-collecting is involved, the simplest plans can go wrong, and our return to Impalutao was nearly fruitless. The night brought heavy rains, and low clouds and drizzle greeted us in the morning. Dave G., Dave M., Dale Joy, Loloi, and I drove to Malaybalay and took breakfast there, worrying about the rain—wet leaf litter is difficult to sift and spread out in pans, the low light makes it more difficult to discern cyphos from leaf litter and the high humidity makes it easier for the cyphos to play dead for longer.

When cyphos play dead, they can look exactly like a piece of debris, and they can successfully hide right in front of your eyes. Although motionless cyphos can sometimes be found, the best way to see them is when they move. However, this takes patience. Follow the video link at the bottom to see just how difficult it can be to stare into a pan waiting for a cypho to move!

Luckily, the rain abated, and we went back to the same path where we found them before. A few meters down the path from the site of our first collection, Loloi quickly gathered, sifted, and began searching leaf-litter. We searched leaf litter from that location for an hour without finding a single cypho, and it seemed a good time to start panicking. Loloi began taking litter from the exact same spot we found them in before, and finally he found a specimen. I gathered some litter from a flat area above the path, and from that I found a specimen, and, soon thereafter, Dave General found his first cypho.

Loloi found two more specimens, making him the definite king of cypho hunters, and soon it was time to go. After four hours, the five of us found only five specimens, and poor Dale Joy and Dave M. bore most of the load of frustration from the day’s difficult searching. However, four of the specimens were males, which is the sex used for taxonomy, so we had a scientifically valuable collection that would greatly aid our work.

New friends and colleagues, clockwise from upper right: students and faculty at the University of the Philippines Mindanao, including Dr. Aleyla Escueta-De Cadiz (lower left, second from left), who took me to Tagum City for collecting at Hijo Estates; Darrell Blatchley and his visitors at D' Bone Collector Museum in Davao City; biology students at Ateneo de Manila Unuversity; with Dave General and students at Central Mindanao University; Dr. Alma Mohagan and family in Bukidnon Province in central Mindanao (back, left to right, Loloi Yamba, Dale Joy, Dave). (Photo by Ronald Clouse)
New friends and colleagues, clockwise from upper right: students and faculty at the University of the Philippines Mindanao, including Dr. Aleyla Escueta-De Cadiz (lower left, second from left), who took me to Tagum City for collecting at Hijo Estates; Darrell Blatchley and his visitors at D’ Bone Collector Museum in Davao City; biology students at Ateneo de Manila Unuversity; with Dave General and students at Central Mindanao University; Dr. Alma Mohagan and family in Bukidnon Province in central Mindanao (back, left to right, Loloi Yamba, Dale Joy, Dave). (Photo by Ronald Clouse)

Dave and I packed our bags and prepared to take the bus to Davao City, but before we left, the cypho-hunting team had a celebratory goodbye dinner, complete with a sampling of the local fruits. At one point I noted that in the car were the only six people who had seen live adult cyphos in the Philippines—”Drive carefully, Dave!”

On our last collecting day on Mindanao, Darrell Blatchley of D’ Bone Collector Museum, took Dave General and me back to the two forests in Davao City that Darrell had shown me before, and we looked for another sandokanid harvestman to use in special molecular analyses. We investigated a moist forest that could be a cypho site. We got the sandokanid but no more cyphos, and soon it was time say goodbye to Mindanao for now.

At Central Mindanao University Dave and I lectured on harvestmen, ants, and the general utility of leaf-litter arthropods to monitor forest health and learn about its recent and ancient history. We were inspired by the enthusiasm of the students and hoped among the audience were young people who will collect specimens and help build an understanding of the immense biodiversity in the Philippines. The story of finding one of the region’s oldest inhabitants, which until recently wasn’t even known to live there, was fun to share with students who were excited to learn that biological discoveries could be made right in their neighborhood! If the forests of Bukidnon and all the Philippines can be protected and allowed to have untouched areas, these little treasures can continue for many more millions of years into the future.

Back in Manila, it was time to show Dr. Arvin Diesmos adult cyphos, the hunting of which he inspired with his discovery of juvenile cyphos on Mindanao in 2009. We discussed their possible routes into Central Mindanao, compared the different forests and microhabitats where they were found, and dreamed up possible new cypho-hunting trips. I also tallied our collection of all harvestmen from Mindanao, and Perry Buenavente kindly prepared them for shipment to the U.S. for Dr. Prashant Sharma and me to commence their further study. After delivering a lecture at Dave General’s alma mater, Ateneo de Manila University, kindly invited by Dr. Hendrik Freitag, there was one day left for Dave to give me a small tour of Manila’s historic sights before I had to leave the Philippines.

Cyphos also live on Palawan Island, known from a single male collected in 1960. Can we rediscover them there, too? Can new collectors in Mindanao find more species there? Will we be able to find cyphos in the Zamboanga Peninsula of Mindanao? With our initial survey of harvestmen from the Philippines now in place, and new insights gained about where cyphos live, the study of Opiliones in the Philippines has just begun!

Video links:
Second day of collecting cyphos at Impalutao, Mindanao.

Are you as patient as a cypho?

Read More by Ronald Clouse