Pacific Island Gives Clues to Tropical Biodiversity
By Julio Godoy*
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.