Researchers from the UPLB Museum of Natural History discussed their objectives and plans during the launching on 14 June 2021 of the Center for Cave Ecosystems Research (CAVES) Program which is being funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) NICER Program.

Led by Dr. Juan Carlos T. Gonzalez, museum curator for birds and CAVES program leader, the project proponents gave overviews on the general focus of their respective researches.

Dr. Ireneo L. Lit, Jr., curator for scale insects and other terrestrial arthropods and CAVES Project 3 leader, gave an introduction to cave ecology and biodiversity research. He discussed on caves in the biological sense and the effect of light availability and temperature on the presence and lives of organisms inside caves.

“Because of unique conditions inside caves, the become refuge for several unique species and because the Philippines has an estimated 1,500-2,000 caves, they are considered as unique, natural and non-renewable resources with very important scientific, economic, educational, cultural, historical and aesthetic values,” he said.

Prof. Phillip A. Alviola, curator for mammals and other wildlife and CAVES Project 1 staff, talked on cave bats. Prof. Alviola provided information on bats which are the most common of cave dwellers.

There are 42 species of bats in the Philippines which are associated with caves, but it is interesting to note that out of the estimated 2,000 caves in the Philippines, only around 100 of these have been scientifically surveyed for bats.

“Unfortunately, there is only one published survey of cave bats in the CALABARZON,” Alviola said. “The CAVES Program is indeed timely so that we can rectify this dearth of information,” he added.

Aside from conducting cave bats biodiversity assessments, Alviola plans to study the effects of disturbances to cave bats, bat echolocation and bat census using infrared videography, and even bat viruses.

Dr. Decibel F. Eslava, curator for special collections and CAVES Project 1 consultant, meanwhile tackled cave hydrogeology, a branch of geology which looks at water behavior underground.

“In our current context, we will conduct research on the interaction of water with the materials inside cave systems,” Eslava clarified. Aside from looking at the occurrence, distribution and movement of water inside the target caves, Dr. Eslava’s team will study the water also from outside the systems.

“We will characterize the karst areas’ water basin as well as the water aquifer, and of course, water budget and their quality,” she expounded.

Dr. Eslava’s team member, Dr. Jessica Villanueva-Peyrabue, also detailed on the research aspects on cave air. “You may probably know that caves, they also breathe, and how air and its quality is maintained inside caves is driven by temperature and pressure,” she explained.

According to Peyrabue, CO2 and radon inside caves will vary and water chemistry maybe altered due to changes in temperature and pressure. If there is too much CO2, fauna and even humans cannot stay long inside caves and fungus may proliferate. Speleothems may eventually dissolve and change shape, possibly reducing the beauty and interest of the cave.

“Radon is carcinogenic. We do not want them inside caves,” she stressed.

To do measure the important parameters, her group will install several sensors inside the caves. “The instruments will record temperature, pressure, CO2, radon and analyze and assess the fine interactions between the environmental parameters and the quality of air,” she said.

Prof. Analee S. Hadsall, curator for orchids and epiphytes and Project 2 consultant discussed her team’s goal to determine and assess the diversity of plants in the sites of the selected cave and karst areas using botanical field techniques.

“Caves and karst landscapes and their edaphically distinct substrates provide a haven for unique vegetation,” she presented. “They are great natural laboratories for biogeographical, ecological, evolutionary and taxonomic research.”

According to Hadsall, information on the limestone flora of CALABARZON, and the Philippines in general are scattered amongst flora and taxonomic revisions, species descriptions, inventories, and checklists.

“We hope to provide the baseline information on the plants of forests-over-limestone in CALABARZON as well as come up with an indicate conservation plan which will involve the academe and the local stakeholders,” Hadsall said.

Cristian C. Lucañas, research associate for Project 3 gave a brief background on cave insects and arthropods in the Philippines.

“Arthropods, animals generally characterized by their jointed appendages, are actually the most diverse group of organisms on Earth,” Lucañas explained. According to him, despite the above fact, Philippine arthropods in caves are almost unheard of in scientific literature.

“Previously, there are only 16 reported and described species of arthropods in the Philippines, composed of beetles, cockroaches, spiders, whip spider and a harvestman,” Lucañas recounted. “We noted that cave arthropod diversity is being underestimated,” he said.

He then enumerated several orders of organisms that are currently being studied by members of the team and several associates. “We have the Acari, Araneae, Entognatha, Insecta, Blattodea, Orthoptera, Hemiptera, Diptera, and possibly many others,” he said.

According to Lucañas, arthropods are integral in maintaining balance of life in cave and subterranean habitats. “We need to continue surveying and generating knowledge, but what is more important is that, we need to increase the consideration on arthropods when we craft cave management plans,” he ended.

Finally, Dr. Marian P. De Leon, Museum director and curator for microbes, and leader of Project 4 discussed on cave microorganisms which can be found inside caves. According to Dr. De Leon, bat guano which can be found in caves are good substrates for microorganisms. “For example, through metagenomics, we have found that Streptomyces is one of the microbiomes of bat guano, and when we looked at guano’s functional profiles, we saw an amazing source of genes which are involved in a number of metabolic processes,” she discussed.

In fact, in one of her studies, Dr. De Leon and her associates found a species of Streptomyces from bat guano which is active against a Bacillus species.

“We have also isolated other cave bacteria which may have possible applications in energy, biomineralization, pigments and medicine,” she said.

“We had the opportunity to collect microorganisms in the past all over the country, and it is high time that we look into the full potential of these microorganisms from caves using phenomic, genomic and metagenomic approaches,” she reported.

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