An elusive rodent named after its discoverer, Filipino biologist Danilo Balete

They may not get as much attention as the Amazon Rainforest or the Great Barrier Reef, but the mountains of the Philippines are one of the most rich in biodiversity on the planet. Inch for inch, these misty cloud forests are home to more unique species of mammals per square mile than anywhere else on Earth. Finding these mammals, most of which are tiny and difficult to spot, is hard work for even the most seasoned scientists. But the late biologist Danilo Balete had a special talent for fieldwork. One of the mice he discovered turned out to be not just a new species, but an entirely new style.

“During decades, we’ve learned how incredibly important the Philippines is for being home to mammals found nowhere else, and much of that knowledge goes back to the fieldwork led by Danny Balete,” says Larry Heaney , curator of mammals at the Industry Museum in Chicago and lead author of the article describing the new mouse in the Journal of Mammalogy.

“Name a new species after someone is a big deal, a major honor given to people who make long-term, high-impact contributions to biodiversity science,” says study first author Dakota Rowsey, head of vertebrate collections at Arizona. Point out College, and Associate Researcher at the Area Museum. “Naming a new genus after someone is one of the highest honors biologists can bestow.”

The mountainous geography of the Philippines contributes to its biodiversity. Its high mountains are cooler and much wetter than the surrounding lowlands, and it is difficult for small mammals to move from peak to peak. As a result, they tend to remain isolated on their own “sky islands”, evolving separately from each other and forming new species. “The higher and taller the mountain range, the more species of mammals there will be that live nowhere else in the world,” says Heaney.

Heaney has been studying the mammals of the Philippines for 25 years and he first met Danny Balete at the end of 25 years ). At the time, Balete had just finished his bachelor’s degree at the University of the Philippines and was already making a name for himself with his love of character and talent for fieldwork. “I was in the process of establishing a research program and I asked around: ‘Who would be a really good and enthusiastic young person to take to the field?’ And several people immediately said, “Danny Balete.” So I invited him to do some field work with me, and he did really well,” Heaney recalled. “He was just a superb field biologist. Danny could identify every plant, every frog, every insect, everything you came across, it was just amazing.” Balete and Heaney continued to work together for the next 25 years until Balete’s sudden death in 2017.

“Danny has contributed enormously to scientific knowledge of biological diversity in the Philippines. His enjoyment of biodiversity was truly infectious, making him a mentor and inspiration to a generation of researchers and conservationists,” says Mariano Roy Duya, assistant professor of biology at the University of the Philippines. , and co-author of the new publication. “At the time of his death at far too young an age, he was already one of the foremost biodiversity scientists working in the Philippines.”

But even after his death , Balete continues to shape what scientists know about Philippine mammals. When scientists discover something in the field, it often takes years for their work to be analyzed, written up and published. This is the case of the newly described shrew.

In 2007 and 2007, Balete has participated in expeditions to Mount Kampalili on the island of Mindanao as part of a Subject Museum collaboration with the Philippine Eagle Foundation, which wanted to find out which mammals lived alongside one of the largest and most endangered, the Philippine Eagle. On Mount Kampalili, Balete and the team made a startling discovery: a dark brown mouse with small eyes and an extensive, tapering nose like a shrew, unlike anything he had ever seen on that island. It looked more like mice he had seen hundreds of miles away on the island of Luzon.

“High in the mountains, Danny was able to get phone services moveable, so he immediately texted me saying, ‘We just caught this animal that looks a lot like the Luzon ones, and it shouldn’t be here,’ Heaney recalled. “So he immediately recognized that it was something really amazing.”

Three specimens of the new mouse were shipped to the Area Museum for further analysis to confirm Balete’s intuition. And despite Balete’s death, his colleagues continued to study the specimens from his fieldwork. Rowsey, then a postdoctoral researcher at Heaney, conducted a DNA analysis of the shrew and found that Balete was right, the rodent was unlike any species known to science.

“This DNA study demonstrated that the new mouse was not related to the species from the northern Philippines, but rather to species from Mindanao. This appears to be a remarkable case of what biologists call convergence – distant species that have independently evolved to resemble each other in a way that allows them to use habitats and resources in similar ways,” says Rowsey.

Animals (as well as plants, fungi, and other organisms) are given scientific names based on their closest relatives. Humans, for example, are Homo sapiens. Sapiens is our species, and we are part of the larger Homo style, which includes our now extinct closest relatives such as the Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis. And since a style is a higher level group than a species, describing an entirely new style, like this mouse, is more vital than finding a new species.

“New species of mammals are being discovered around the world at a tremendous rate, perhaps 50 to 100 new species per year,” says Heaney. “Finding a whole new genre, previously unknown to science, like this one that only happens two or three times a year at most. In our 40 years of intense study of Philippine mammals, this is one of nearly 50 new species, but just the fourth new genus we discovered.”

The scientific name of the new genus means “Balete’s mouse”, in the honor of the work of Balete in its discovery and of so many other creatures. “As we began to pick up the pieces after his death, it became clear to us that we had to name this new mouse after him, he deserves it,” says Duya.

In addition to honoring Balete, the researchers say the new genre is crucial because it’s another piece of the puzzle for understanding the diversity of life in the Philippines. Demonstrating that Mount Kampalili is home to a mouse found nowhere else on Earth could bolster conservation efforts by indigenous communities, helping mouse neighbors, including critically endangered Philippine eagles, to extinction.

“It is really important to show that when we protect a species, like the magnificent Philippine eagle, we are protecting not only our exceptional biological richness, but also our cultural heritage. says Jayson Ibanez, co-author and director of Philippine eagle research and conservation. Foundation.

The Philippine eagle and the new “mouse of Balete” are neighbors of the Mandaya indigenous group of Mount Kampalili. “Indigenous peoples get very excited every time they learn that they share their homeland with a totally distinctive life form. And in this case, when we help protect Mount Kampalili, we are also protecting the main watershed, airsheds and biocultural sanctuaries for much of Southeast Mindanao, providing enormous benefits to all people who live here,” says Ibanez. “With all the threats of watershed destruction and climate change, we need all the help we can get.”

above, this study was conducted by Sharon A. Jansa of the University of Minnesota and Eric A. Rickart of the Organic Record Museum of Utah.

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