MANILA — A new snail subspecies found in a popular eco-tourism spot in Rizal was recently recorded by a group of scientists from University of the Philippines Los Baños.
Masungi Georeserve, a tourist favorite for its limestone formations and rope courses, is believed to be the only known habitat of a subspecies of the Hypselostoma latispira, which has so far only been seen in Baguio City.
Dubbed the Hypselostoma latispira masungiensis, the new subspecies was identified after 3 years of extensive morphological and DNA analyses and specimen collection by Filipino scientists Harold B. Lipae, Angelique L. Estabillo, Ian Kendrich C. Fontanilla, and Emmanuel Ryan C. de Chavez.
Their findings were recently published in the Philippine Journal of Systematic Biology.
According to Masungi Georeserve management, H.I. masungiensis is a land snail usually found attached to limestone boulders. It feeds on lichens and other vegetation. As a “microsnail,” it is less than 5 millimeters in size or just the same size of a worker ant.
It is considered a new subspecies because its shell differs from the Baguio City snail, which has a smaller shell and a narrower body whorl.
“The snails from Masungi also have five apertural teeth inside its shell, while the snails from Baguio only have four teeth,” a media release of the finding said.
According to the study, while the snails differ physically, their genetic similarity was found to be at 99.98%, suggesting that the snails from Masungi are from the same species.
“The slight divergence of genes between the two subspecies may be attributed to the different environmental conditions between the two sites (e.g. 1000-m elevation difference). The research team also notes that genetic differentiations are more likely to occur where physical barriers are present, such as the 200-km distance between Baguio and Masungi,” the release said.
According to Masungi Georeserve, the discovery of a new microsnail subspecies highlights the importance of karst (limestone) ecosystems like Masungi as areas of high conservation value.
This is especially evident in the fact that the snails are dependent on karsts as a source of calcium for their shell and eggs.
“Some land snails are exclusively found on limestones due to their dependence on high calcium content (calcium carbonate) which are plenty in karsts. Karsts can also be considered as habitat islands. Snails through time became intimately dependent on these habitats, are then "trapped" in these areas. This is true for Hypselostoma,” said Dr. Ryan de Chavez of the Animal Biology Division, Institute of Biological Sciences at University of the Philippines Los Baños.
Ann Dumaliang, Managing Trustee at the Masungi Georeserve Foundation, said the discovery “stresses the urgent need to protect Masungi against destructive interests, such as quarrying and land trafficking, which significantly alter the landscape.”
Earlier this year, Masungi Georeserve faced problems as a quarry company blocked a portion of its reforestation area in Rizal.
Masungi Georeserve has previously been plagued by alleged incidents of land grabbing, illegal logging and even treasure hunting. The Masungi Georeserve Foundation, which now manages the area, has won awards for its conservation and geo-tourism work.
“With low mobility, snails are among the most vulnerable and helpless animals. If the rocks and soils are extracted, these species will be annihilated without a trace,” Dumaliang said.
She said limestone ecosystems were often overlooked despite being “arcs of biodiversity and vital waterways.”
“We must aggressively apply innovative area-based conservation management models and engage all sectors of society,” she said.
For now, the Masungi Georeserve Foundation and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) continue to study the high diversity of snail species at Masungi, which they said may be one of the “highest ever” recorded in the country.
They are also working with public and private sector groups to restore 3,000 hectares of degraded land around the limestone formations at the Masungi Geopark Project.