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United Nations Development Programme
United Nations Environment Programme

Pacific Island Gives Clues to Tropical Biodiversity

By Julio Godoy*

Around 100 new species have been classified in just a month on the island of Espiritu Santo island in the South Pacific, which faces biodiversity devastation as a result of global climate change.

PARIS - Since early September, 170 scientists from 25 countries are exploring for the first time the island of Espiritu Santo, in the Oceania archipelago of Vanuatu, to conduct an inventory of tropical biodiversity. The biological wealth of this island region is so great that in about a month they have cataloged a hundred new species.

The multidisciplinary mission, known as Santo 2006, aims to index previously unknown species -- before climate change decimates them forever.

Increasing average temperatures, the consequence of the so-called greenhouse effect from the accumulation of carbon emissions (largely from the burning of fossil fuels) in the atmosphere, produce higher sea levels that are threatening islands, like Espiritu Santo, around the world.

"For this reason, we must hurry," Philippe Bouchet, naturalist and director of the taxonomy and collections division at the Natural History Museum of Paris, told Tierramérica.

"At this point in our civilization, we still are unaware of the existence of numerous species," added Bouchet, who coordinates the mission, in cooperation with scientists from France's Institute of Research for Development, and from the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

These organizations chose Espiritu Santo as the centerpiece of the multinational expedition because it has remained practically unexplored, and because it holds both tropical forests and coral reefs -- the two richest ecosystems and the two most threatened by climate change.

Furthermore, Espiritu Santo is the largest and highest island of the Vanuatu archipelago, a mountainous chain in the South Pacific, rising more than 1,700 meters above sea level, crowned by Mount Tabwemasana.

In addition to its dramatic geography is its geologic age. The island dates back to the Miocene era, previous to the last ice age. Its geographic and ecological isolation is an important factor in the evolution -- and vulnerability -- of the island's species.

The islands are particularly rich reserves of endemic species, but they are also microcosms threatened by invasive species.

According to Bouchet, microorganisms constitute the essence of the living world, due to the number of species, their weight in overall life, and the role they play in maintaining the integrity of the planet.

"Today we have only a fragmented vision of biodiversity," said Bouchet. His statement is confirmed in comparing the number of species already inventoried -- 1.8 million -- with scientific estimates that the Earth is home to dozens of millions of species.

The island is also interesting from the demographic and ethnic perspective. Espiritu Santo's 30,000 inhabitants speak more than 40 languages and dialects.

The scientific investigation to put together a species inventory marks a qualitative jump in the unexplored world. "Stepping foot in a virgin territory is very intriguing," Vincent Prié, a biologist with the Natural History Museum of Paris, told Tierramérica. "One has the impression of being present for the first sputtering of life."

In the first weeks of the study, the scientists identified about 100 previously unknown species.

"Given the ecological wealth of Espiritu Santo and its surroundings, it was evident from the start of the mission that here we would discover unknown species," said Bouchet. "We estimated that we could catalog some 3,500 species of mollusks in the southern region of the island alone -- nearly twice the total species present in all of European waters."

One of these species, discovered on Sep. 13, is the Scandarma sp., a crab capable of climbing mangroves.

Another task of Santo 2006 is to establish the geographic origin of the species living on the island.

Michel Pascal, an ethnobiologist from the French Agricultural Research Institute, found a giant invasive snail: "This type of snail comes from Africa. It is exotic to Oceania. Surely it arrived on the island during World War II, hidden in a flower pot. What is certain is that the snail is devastating to the vegetation of Espiritu Santo."

The mission entails specific units of exploration and classification, centered around particular habitats: the marine depths, coral reefs, cave areas (on land or under sea), and forests, both coastal and mountain.

Each will be studied from a unique perspective, to estimate the true magnitude of their biodiversity and consider the weight of the very rare species in the make-up of the overall populations.

"The classification of species on Espiritu Santo will allow us to identify organisms in order to prevent the negative effects of human activities on biodiversity," said Bouchet.

The species discovered in Espiritu Santo will be indexed at the Natural History Museum of Paris, and the results will be made available to the information center of the Convention on Biological Diversity, signed in 1992 during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

* Julio Godoy is an IPS correspondent.

Copyright © 2007 Tierramérica. All Rights Reserved

External Links

World Conservation Union-IUCN

Convention on Biological Diversity

Santo 2006 - in French

Natural History Museum of Paris - in French

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