From space satellites to new human species: PH scientific breakthroughs in the last decade

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 03 2020 03:31 PM | Updated as of Jan 03 2020 03:59 PM

MANILA - From thought-provoking discoveries to inspiring innovations, the Philippines had its fair share of scientific advancements in the last 10 years. 

Filipino students may not rank high in science, based on a recent global survey, but the country has seen an increasing number of scientists and researchers who have made remarkable contributions to the scientific community here and abroad.

Here’s a round-up of the country’s biggest science news in the last decade.

ARCHAEOLOGY: HOMO LUZONENSIS AND ANCIENT HUMANS

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Dr. Mijares appears in front of the media on April 11, 2019 to announce to the whole world the major archaeological find that put the Philippines in the archaeological world map. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Among the most groundbreaking was the discovery of the Homo luzonensis, a new ancient human species that is believed to have lived in Luzon around 67,000 years ago. 

Filipino archaeologist Armand Mijares and his team of foreign experts have been building up the case for the new species since 2007 when he first found a foot bone in Callao Cave in Cagayan province that was not Homo sapiens or any of the two other ancient human species that existed in Southeast Asia.

Since then, Mijares’ team has found a total of 13 teeth and bones from three individuals. The discovery, announced in 2019, has been both game-changing and controversial. Besides being a new species, the bones are now the oldest fossilized remains of ancient humans in the Philippines. It also raises questions on how the Homo luzonensis was able to reach the Philippine archipelago. 

Unsurprisingly, the discovery was widely published and discussed in the Philippines and abroad. While some have questioned if the fossils are enough to declare a new species, the discovery indeed put the Philippines in the archaeological world map, as Mijares said.

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But before Homo luzonensis was officially announced in 2019, Filipino archaeologists made headlines in 2018 for uncovering the 700,000-year-old remains of a rhinoceros. Its butchery marks suggest the presence of ancient humans in Luzon further back in history. The findings of their next dig is definitely something to look out for. 

Another interesting archaeological find were the rock coffins in Mulanay town in Quezon province in 2012. While the tombs were already raided by treasure hunters decades ago, it did show that Filipinos practiced advanced burial rituals as early as a thousand years ago, based on carbon dating tests done on some remains found in limestone graves.

SPACE SCIENCE: DIWATA AND OTHER NANOSATELLITES

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Atlas V, carrying the first Filipino-assembled microsatellite, DIWATA, rockets into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Screenshot from NASA footage

The Philippines made history in 2016 when it launched its first microsatellite Diwata-1. Assembled by Filipino engineers with the guidance of Japanese experts in Hokkaido and Tohoku universities, it was launched into space aboard the Cygnus spacecraft from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

At the time, the government was hoping that it would help with weather forecasts, disaster risk management and monitoring agriculture, mining and territorial borders.

Since then, the Department of Science and Technology has launched Diwata-2 and cube satellite Maya-1. A total of 13 satellites are expected to be either in space or in laboratories as engineering models in the coming years. 

The current microsatellite program aims to create four cube satellites through a graduate studies program at the University of the Philippines (UP). While only 10 cubic centimeters in size, a cube satellite also has the capability to take pictures and other measurements from space. The current program is also involving local industries by testing their products for space use.

With the creation of the Philippine Space Agency in 2019, Filipinos may expect more space-related projects and research that will help the country gain more data and insights as it shifts towards a knowledge-based economy.

YOUNG INVENTORS

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Aisa Mijeno, CEO, co-founder and inventor of SALt lamp. Handout photo

Who said young Filipinos are not interested in science? In the last decade, we’ve had a handful of remarkable young scientists who tried their hand at innovation. 

There’s Aisa Mijeno who invented an environment-friendly lamp that ran on salt water, making it perfect for coastal communities.

There’s also Angel Palma, who invented an air conditioning system that does not use refrigerants back when she was in Grade 10. Her AirDisc has received international awards and is just waiting for investments to start manufacturing.

 

And let’s not forget the now popular Liter of Light project that was launched as a social enterprise in 2011. The simple design of a two-liter bottle with water and bleach has helped poor communities not just in the Philippines but other countries as well.

Competitions and conventions have also showcased a number of inventions by Filipino students from a break leak-sealing valve to a mechanism that converts dirty water into energy.

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NEW SPECIES

In addition to have a diverse array of talent, the Philippines is also one of around 18 megadiverse countries in the world. According to the World Wildlife Organization, 35 percent of the 580 birds recorded in the world can only be found in the Philippines. And more than 60 percent of mammals and 65 percent of plants are endemic in the archipelagic territory of the Philippines.

Because of the country’s diverse terrain, there are still a lot of areas that have not been thoroughly explored by scientists. Every year, new species are being discovered and described. Hundreds were found in the Philippines in the last decade, some by Filipino scientists and others by foreign teams.

BONIFACIO, URDUJA-NAMED INSECTS

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From the UPLB Museum of Natural History

Among the most interestingly named new insect species from the last decade are the leaf insect Phyllium bonifacioi named after revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio and the spider Masteria urdujae named after the legendary warrior Princess Urduja.

Phyllium bonifacioi, which was discovered in 2014 by Dr. Ireneo Lit Jr. and Mr. Orlando Eusebio of the UP Los Baños Museum of Natural History, brings the number of leaf insects in the Philippines to 10.

The cave-dwelling Masteria urdujae, on the other hand, is the first of the Masteria genus in Northern Luzon. It was discovered in 2019 by Joseph Rasalan and Dr. Aimee Lynn Dupo, also from UP Los Baños. The last time a new species from the same genus was discovered in the Philippines was more than a decade ago. 

Dupo said the discovery of the leaf insect by her colleague is significant because its vulnerability to changes in the environment such as good forest cover “makes it important to monitor its population in the next few years.”

Many of the other species discovered in the last 10 years were also either threatened or endangered because of human actions or climate change.

Other insect species discovered in the last decade was the water beetle Hydraena ateneo found inside the Ateneo de Manila University and about 40 new ant species discovered by researchers from the Palawan State University and Harvard University. David General, who led the team, also raised the problem of deforestation that destroys the natural habitat of the insects.

METAL-EATING, FUNNY-SMELLING PLANTS

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Photo from the Biodiversity Research Laboratory of the University of the Philippines

There were also a few curious discoveries by local botanists. In 2014, UP Los Baños scientists found a plant that absorbed nickel in high amounts, a rare ability for a plant. The Rinorea niccolifera was found in the western part of Luzon, in an area known for having soils rich in heavy metals.

It was in 2016 that UP biologists announced that they found a new and currently the smallest species of the foul-smelling Rafflesia plant. The parasitic plant Rafflesia consueloae was found in Nueva Ecija in the Pantabangan watershed area.

OWLS AND WARBLER

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R. O. Hutchinson

In 2012, two new owl species from the Philippines were declared – the Cebu hawk owl, Ninox rumseyi, and the Cebu hawk owl, Ninox rumseyi. Five more owl species, formerly believed to be a subspecies of the Philippine hawk owl, were also declared full species. 

A year later, an international team discovered the Sierra Madre ground-warbler in Luzon.

RODENTS AND TARSIER

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Just this year, a team of experts from the United States and the University of the Philippines in Los Baños found two new species of mice – Rhynchomys labo from Mount Labo in Camarines Sur and Rhynchomys mingan from Mount Mingan in Aurora. Both have snouts that are “tweezer-like beaks” to slurp earthworms and have been observed to “hop like small kangaroos.”

There were also reports that a new species of tarsier was discovered in Dinagat Islands but follow-up stories said studies have yet to confirm this though they show that the population is “genetically-distinct.”

LIZARD AND FROGS

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Ted Alijibe, AFP/File

In 2010, a new species of the giant lizard (at 6.5 feet in length) was announced. The Varanus bitatawa eats fruit instead of meat like its cousin the Komodo Dragon and was found in a river valley in northern Luzon.

In 2012, two new frog species were unveiled. They are said to be allied to two different groups of species, the Platymantis guentheri group and Platymantis hazelae group.

PURPLE CRAB, BUBBLE SHARK AND MORE

Various expeditions in the last 10 years have yielded hundreds of new species found in deep waters around the Philippines. 

Among them are four new species of freshwater crab that are bright purple in color. They were found in streams in remote areas of Palawan.

The California Academy of Sciences also found hundreds of potential new species in 2011 and in 2015. Among their finds were a deep-sea shark called a bubble shark because it swells in size to scare off predators, according to Phys.org.

The Smithsonian Magazine also reported that the institution’s dive in 2015 yielded samples of a new kind of heart urchin and a sea slug that is hot pink and orange in color.