Exhibit highlights forest canopy research

by Nicolas David C. Mercado

The Museum of Natural History (MNH) opened its exhibit entitled “Life in the Trees” last August 29 at the lobby of the museum building. The exhibit showcases new vertebrate species found in Makiling through the Forest Canopy Observation, Positioning, and Investigation (CANOPI) Program, including species of birds, bats, reptiles, and other vertebrate animals found in the canopy and sub-canopy layers of Mt. Makiling.

CANOPI is a two-year research program funded by the University of the Philippines that aims to create a complete baseline of the species in Makiling’s understory,
sub-canopy, canopy, and emergent layers. The program consists of four projects, namely, Project 1: Management, Project 2: Flora and Invertebrate Fauna, Project 3: Vertebrate Fauna) and Project 4: Bacteria and Fungi. The program is currently in its first phase.

Program leader and Project 1 head Dr. Nathaniel Bantayan said that their task is to study the least studied area, which is the canopy. In a terrestrial forest, the main canopy may be deemed as the crown, and under it is the sub-canopy or middle layer, followed by the forest floor, the groundstory, and the understory. Above the main canopy is the emergent layer, which consists of the tallest trees.

According to Prof. Juan Carlos Gonzalez, MNH director and leader of Project 3, the exhibit features the results of two surveys of Makiling’s forest conducted by his team, including the four terrestrial vertebrates found in Makiling’s canopy, namely, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. Five representatives from each class are displayed.

Whizvir Gustilo, a research assistant in Gonzalez’ team, said that the exhibit is one way of getting research results out to the public. Because the program is publicly funded, the exhibit is also a way to show how people’s taxes are being used on research.

While forest canopy science is not new, Gustilo said that the program the first of its kind in the Philippines. Given that the Philippines has “high forest coverage,” and that the canopy is a largely “unexplored region,” he said that the team is aiming for a holistic
sampling of the forest, which, in turn, would lead to new discoveries. Dr. Bantayan established the CANOPI program to take the opportunity to know more of what he calls as “experimental mountain.” He believes that despite the 100-year history of research in Mt. Makiling, there is much more to discover.

“Mt. Makiling is a host. We try to answer scientific questions using our own [mountain], and then develop tools for teaching materials, etc.,” Dr. Bantayan added.

The program’s exhibit hopes to raise awareness of the biodiversity in Makiling so that people can somehow experience the species that these researchers encounter. “I want them to be with us,” Gustilo said of those who visit the exhibit, “I want them to be amazed [with us]. And I want them to see [these species] habang andiyan pa.”

In addition, Gustilo said that the exhibit carries the underlying message of environmentalism. He noted the “urgent need for conservation” because human activity and deforestation have pushed forest coverage to its lowest in the last century. “Hopefully, this exhibit will help in minimizing further losses,” he said.

Dr. Bantayan emphasized the value of forests to society. He calls a forest as a life support system because it is a source of products, water, and other essentials. “Here, through this research, we’re giving it more proof. [that forests are important] And, with this proof, society will [hopefully] listen, people will listen, [the] government will listen,” he said.

He later added that people need  to imbibe and “inculturize” conservation.

After Makiling, Dr. Bantayan wishes to move on to other mountains and other
forests in the Philippines. He expressed hope that the Forest CANOPI Program would allow for collaboration with other ASEAN nations in canopy science.

The “Life in the Trees” exhibit will run for a few weeks and will then be brought to the Institute of Biological Sciences, the Student Union Building, and other places within UPLB. Eventually, the team hopes to bring it to UP Diliman.

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