- Filipino scientists have discovered a new species of insect-eating pitcher plant in a mountain range in the country’s southern Mindanao region.
- The range is a key biodiverse area but has not been granted any form of environmental protection, and is prone to armed conflicts, criminal activity, and tribal wars.
- The scientists risked threats to explore the unprotected remote area, but say they are determined to catalog as much of the biodiversity as they can before it is destroyed by logging and land conversion activities.
- Identifying new species could help preserve the ecology of this area that is crucial to the existence of indigenous ethnolinguistic groups, researchers say.
Scientists have discovered a new insect-eating pitcher plant, Nepenthes cabanae, in the Philippines’ southern Mindanao region. Thriving in a small area within a known conflict zone, the pitcher plant has already been declared critically endangered.
The new species is enchanting yet deadly for its prey: insects attracted to its nectar glands are unable to keep their footing on the slippery waxed throat of the pitcher, sliding into the acidic enzyme stew waiting below, to be slowly digested. It is a beautiful plant, outwardly marbled with flecks of red on an acid-green background, the pitchers lined in a deep burgundy and hanging fatly in the shade of the montane forest understory like paper lanterns on living strings.
The plant’s discovery, published in the Philippine Journal of Systematic Biology last year, brings the number of known pitcher species in the Pantaron mountain range, a biodiverse area in central Mindanao, to eight, as a group of local scientists struggle to catalog the biodiversity of this underexplored, politically unstable and conflict-prone region.
Mindanao is the pitcher plant capital of the Philippines, with 34 different species identified so far. The newly identified species, N. cabanae, is named after Veneracion G. Cabana, a prolific Filipino scientist who supported scientific expeditions in unexplored areas of Mindanao.
“Everything about this species is interesting,” lead researcher Noel Lagunday tells Mongabay. They are carnivorous “and thrive by attracting, trapping and digesting insects, and small animals,” Lagunday says, highlighting evolutionary adaptations not present in most plants.
N. cabanae differs from its closest relatives structurally; its pitchers are not as cylindrical, and its leaves sprout straight from the main stem at irregular angles, with no petiole, or individual leaf stem. The ridges surrounding the mouth of its pitchers are shorter by half, and its leaves always have four veins from the central midrib instead of varying between three and four.
Upper pitchers and leaf attachment of N. cabanae growing in a Manobo tribal area of Mount Malimumu, Mindanao, Philippines. Image courtesy of N.E. Lagunday.
The Pantaron mountain range cuts across six provinces in Mindanao. It’s not legally protected and is under threat from illegal logging and land conversion for agriculture and settlement development, so Lagunday and his team are racing against time to identify new species before it’s too late.
“They have always been there but some species just die without even being known or named,” Lagunday says. This is especially true in regions at risk from habitat destruction and where conflict makes access even more difficult.
Mounting an expedition through an area that can turn into an active conflict zone in the blink of an eye can be complicated. “In doing research in these red flag areas, protocol and advance information is our lifeline,” Lagunday says. “What we standardly do is acquire prior informed consent from tribal leaders, entry protocol from the local Philippine Army force, Local Government Units, and sometimes the local police force.”
Lagunday is a lumad, or indigenous person native to Mindanao, growing up aware of tribal animosity. But the mountain range is home to rebels and criminal groups as well as indigenous communities. A total of 46 environmental activists were killed in Mindanao in 2019 alone, according to local NGO Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment.
Armed conflict between secessionist rebels and the military is also common across the region, which was only released from martial law in January this year. “There is a scenario the team would make it out alive but there is also a potential of not making it out to safety,” Lagunday says. “On top of military and rebel clashes, a magahat [tribal war] can happen. When there is a magahat things could really go south.”
But this didn’t stop the scientists. Lagunday and his team ventured onto Mount Malimumu, in the southern Bukidnon area of the Pantaron range, on dirt bikes to look for plant species several times in August and September 2015.
Lagunday and his team pose for a picture with their dirt bikes while looking for plant specimens on Mount Malimumu, Mindanao, Philippines. Image courtesy of N.E. Lagunday.
They camped in hammocks under tarpaulin sheets, collecting samples they preserved in a 70% alcohol solution before depositing these specimens with the University of Central Mindanao’s herbarium for analysis.
The group found N. Cabanae only on a small part of the mountain, leading them to estimate that the species may be confined to a range of less than 10 square kilometers (4 square miles). It has been classified as critically endangered under the criteria of the IUCN Red List for this reason as well as the threats it faces from habitat destruction.
The individual plants sampled during Lagunday’s expedition were all found growing along ridge trails connecting several Manobo tribal villages. To acknowledge and show respect to the local Manobo tribespeople, Lagunday and his team took part in ritual ceremonies before heading into the forest to look for plants.
“In most ritual ceremonies the baylan [shaman] kills the offering of three chickens and prays to the spirits in the forest requesting that my team be allowed access and protection in the area,” he says.
Preserving the ecology of Mount Malimumu, named after the deity of the people who live on her slopes, is also crucial for the ethnolinguistic groups in the area, Lagunday says. “It is their culture, their way of life, their home, their source of food, medicine and their place of worship.”
He says the identification of new species like N. cabanae is an important link in protecting this fragile world. “By putting efforts in Nepenthes or carnivorous pitcher plant conservation in situ we are conserving the entirety of the ecosystem,” he says.
“The presence of threatened and endemic species of Nepenthes in the area calls for immediate conservation strategies by the local stakeholders to preserve and protect these plants,” the paper recommends.