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ODU PROFESSOR DISCOVERS EPICENTER OF MARINE BIODIVERSITY

The Philippine Islands, located in the Southeast Asian marine biodiversity triangle, has the richest concentration of marine life on the entire planet, according to a study conducted by Kent Carpenter, Old Dominion University associate professor of biological sciences.

A multidisciplinary project headed by Carpenter that lasted more than 10 years and involved 101 of the world's foremost authorities on marine life produced 2,983 maps of marine species for the western Pacific Ocean. The study, conducted for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, produced "the largest and most accurate database available" according to a review by Bruce Collette of the National Marine Fisheries Service Systematic Laboratory at the Smithsonian Institution.

"Scientists have long known that the area in Southeast Asia that includes Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines holds the richest marine biodiversity. I was amazed to discover that the extreme center of this biodiversity is in the Philippines, rather than closer to the equator," said Carpenter. "However, a geographical information system analysis of this extensive database clearly shows this pattern."

The results of these findings will be published in the journal Environmental Biology of Fishes under the title, "The Center of the Center of Marine Shorefish Biodiversity: The Philippine Islands." The article is co-authored by Victor Springer of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The computer analysis was done with the support of Conservation International.

Carpenter's goal now is to understand the natural forces, such as lithospheric plate movements, prevailing currents, and the geography and geology of the area, that contributed to the evolution of the biodiversity. "This discovery poses some very interesting questions about the origins of marine life in our oceans. Perhaps the Philippines hold the key to unraveling mysteries about how marine biodiversity patterns change through space and time."

Another of Carpenter's goals is to support conservation efforts in the Philippines. Teaming with life on its coral reefs, mangrove swamps, seagrass beds and soft-bottom habitats, the Philippine Islands are the marine counterpart to the Amazon rain forest in terms of concentrated biodiversity, he said. Unfortunately, the Philippines share another sad common characteristic with the Amazon-many of its inhabitants are being threatened with local extinction due to uncontrolled deforestation, soil erosion, air and water pollution, coral reef degradation and destructive fishing techniques.

The study also found that this center of marine biodiversity has a comparatively high number of species that are only found in the Philippines. Therefore, there is the real threat of extinction, including some species that have yet to be discovered by scientists.

"This area is highly threatened and a number of destructive fishing practices, including dynamite fishing, contribute to the decline," said Carpenter. "The biggest problem in terms of coral reefs is in runoff from poor land use that results in heightened erosion. This runoff goes into the rivers and out to sea covering the coral in sediments that are detrimental to their survival."

Species Carpenter helped catalogue in the waters off of the Philippine Islands include seaweeds, corals, bivalves, gastopods, cephalopods, stomatopods, shrimps, lobsters, crabs, sea cucumbers, sharks, rays, chimaeras, bony fishes, estuarine crocodiles, sea turtles, sea snakes and marine mammals.

"Biodiversity is of major interest to many people," he said. "Many marine organisms have yet to be looked at for pharmacological purposes. Some sharks appear resistant to cancer. It turns out that sharks are becoming endangered because of over-fishing. Some marine organism might hold the cure to cancer, but we are destroying them before we get a chance to study them."

Based on Carpenter's findings, a good place to look may well be in the waters off of the Philippine Islands.

This article was posted on: August 20, 2004

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