Now that you are caught up on my Liquid F emergencies, I can fill you in on what happened just a few days into our trip to the central islands. After a brief visit to Cebu Island, we made our way to Dumaguete City on Negros Island. In my opinion, it is one of the best places to visit in the Philippines. Dumaguete is quiet college town with plenty to see, great restaurants, and less traffic than most cities surrounding it. Of all of the great restaurants in the town, my favorite is Jo’s Chicken Inato. The restaurant serves very simple, cheap meals consisting of a cup of rice and a skewered chunk of rotisserie chicken. However, the meal also comes with a small dipping container that you can mix fish sauce, soy sauce, and spicy sili peppers to dip your chicken and rice into.
I am a bit of a spice junky, and on every visit I ask for extra peppers. This particular visit I had five small peppers I began to crush in the tiny, plastic sauce container. You are not served silverware, and so I began to hastily crush the peppers and liquid with the end of my wooden skewer. As I am sure you already guessed, the cup flipped and the contents sprayed directly into my left eye. As the sensation of liquid hot magma hit my eye my eyelids closed, and I could actually feel a seed stuck under my eyelid. I explained to you what formalin feels like so that you would be able to understand that this pain felt as close to formalin in your eyes as you could possibly get. Being in the middle of the restaurant, I didn’t want to make a huge scene. Somehow I managed to stumble blindly to the hand-washing sink and dunked my head under the small faucet, trying to hold my left eye open. After a few minutes I realized I needed a bigger sink. I left money for my friend Jason to pay the bill and I somehow stumbled back to our pension house and sat under the sink for 20 minutes. Now I wear goggles while prepping specimens, and while eating at Jo’s Chicken Inato.
We were in Hinoba-an, a municipality in the southwestern half of Negros Island. The mission was to try to collect the first genetic samples in the world of a burrowing species of lizard first described from the western half of Negros. To survey the habitat in the municipality during our visit, we hired a local tricycle driver to take us around during the day. Tricycles or pedicabs are dirt bikes that have had small carriages attached to their bodies. So the driver is able to carry 4–6 people inside the carriage and 1–2 people behind him on the actual bike. Of course, if you happen to be a slightly overweight KU graduate student in Hinoba-an, you are the only person that can fit inside one of these carriages. Jason rode on the back of the bike behind the driver.
Just to describe these carriages, they almost fully surround the passengers. There is a small window with access to the driver, a small opening to enter the carriage, and in the front, there is a one-foot square opening through which passengers can see the road. As we were driving on our first day in town at what I assume was the bikes top speed, I noticed that up ahead, the wind had blown several leaves off of a tree. I watched as the leaves slowly fell in Brownian (random) motion to the ground. As we got closer, one of the leaves seemed to be falling right in front of my side of the carriage. Then, out of nowhere, the leaf flew right through my small front window and slammed right into the left side of my face, scratching me under my left eye. Jason and the driver thought it was so funny that they pulled over to laugh at me for quite some time. Seriously, what are the chances of that happening? The good news is we were able to find the species we were hoping to encounter. The bad news is that I seemed to have some interesting luck accompanying me throughout the trip.
I wouldn’t necessarily call myself clumsy, but at times I wonder if I should. My recent trip to the central Philippine islands had its first disaster a mere 3 days into the trip. However, before I can get into the details of the saga, I need to quickly recap a few of the most painful experiences I have had while doing fieldwork. Formalin is one of the most painful substances to squirt into your eye—that I know of, anyway. Formalin is the fluid used by many researchers in the field to harden and preserve specimens. It comes in 37% solution, which is entirely too strong if you ask me. So what must be done is a simple dilution to 10% for preservation purposes. Formalin is a known carcinogen in the long term, and in the short term seriously dries out any tissue it comes into contact with, be it fingers or eyes. The danger in my work comes from the method in which specimens are preserved. We use syringes filled with Liquid F, as some people like to call it (mainly just me). Over the past five years I have managed to spray formalin into my eyes.
Yeah, it hurt like fire. Two of the three incidents occurred on the same two-week trip in the field. I happened to be with the one of our close friends and field assistants, Vicente Yngente, or Enteng the Terminator. His nickname comes from being recognized as one of the best hunters and wildlife specialist. The first incident occurred at night right after the Terminator had just entered the bathroom to shower off. Of course he was a little surprised when I busted down the door screaming in pain to get my eyes under the only water faucet in the pension house. Even though I knew he was embarrassed trying to hide behind the shower curtain, I think deep down he felt good about helping to make sure I would be able to see the next day. The second pain fest occurred three days later on the island of Semirara. This was one of the most painful experiences I have ever been through.
At the time, typhoon Mimi had hit the island complex where we were camping, and the wind and torrential rain had gotten very dangerous. The large syringe needle I was using had not been completely secured onto the syringe container. And while re-injecting a large monitor lizard with purified formalin (not diluted), the needle popped off and a large amount of formalin sprayed off the animal and into both of my eyes. My eyes instantly shut with pain and I fell to the ground yelling for help. Enteng and his son ran and picked me up by my arms. The three of us stumbled outside in the storm to a nearby well with a manual pumping system. There we stayed for close to 45 minutes while SOTT (Son of the Terminator), or Mark, helped hold my face under the water being pumped out of the ground by Enteng. For the next three days my vision remained slightly blurred. I looked as though I had barely survived a run-in with Manny Pacquiao, the national boxing hero and icon here in the Philippines. So for all of you future Liquid F junkies, or field biologists, remember to where protective eye gear when using formalin. Although your field companions might snicker at how silly you look, you will thank me when they save your little vision-makers from a syringe full of liquid lightening.
The word of the month for March was exhausting! I spent 26 days traveling through several islands in the central Philippines. I have created a little digital map to summarize the trip. We went from Manila to Cebu Island, then traveled to southern Negros Island, northern Negros Island, Bohol Island, Lapinig Island, and finally back to Luzon. It was such a ridiculous trip of traveling that I actually took the time to calculate just how much time we actually spent on a boat, bus, or jeepney. The total came to 102 hours! Now, assuming we slept for at least 8 hours a night, that means that there were roughly 16 hours per day for expedition related activities. If you do the math you realize this is the equivalent of 6.38 entire days were spent just traveling (I rounded to the nearest hundredths place for those of you interested). By the third long bus ride I had already finished reading the first Twilight book and had designed a new line of chic clothing for field biologists.
Regardless of how much time was wasted in transition, the trip was a complete success. We were able to secure new permits for several protected parks and we collected specimens of several species of burrowing lizards that are incredibly rare in museum collections. Since we are in the middle of the dry season, the weather our entire trip was hot, humid, and hot. We had two tiny bouts of rain that lasted less than 10 minutes each. We returned safely to Manila and have spent the last week catching up on sleep and preparing reports for the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). On April 3rd we head back out for a brief expedition to Tablas and Carabao Islands, just off the southern coast of central Luzon Island.
There we were, just outside of Dumaguete City. We had been trying to access a small watershed at the foot of Mt. Talinis in southeast Negros Island. While we couldn’t access the area during this visit, we were able to stay at the house of one of the wildlife specialists in the area. Renee runs a tree and flower nursery of native plants from around the Philippines. His property in the Municipality of Bacong is actually quite impressive. To be honest, though, it wasn’t the diversity of his plants that caught my attention, but the world’s largest pig. OK, I am sure it is not the world’s largest pig, but to me this thing was huge! The pig was a pregnant female and was only a month away from giving birth. We delicately named her Big Bertha.
It sounds more interesting than it actually is. PAMB stands for Protected Area Management Board. To access any protected national parks here in the Philippines, you first have to get the approval of the PAMB board. Unfortunately, these boards meet irregularly and only 2–3 times each year, and so you have to be in the right place at the right time. I planned our Visayas trip around the goal of attending PAMB meetings for two national parks on Negros Island: the North Negros Natural Park and the Mt. Canlaon Natural Park.
However, once the trip commenced, the meeting dates were changed on a daily basis. By the time mid-March rolled around, the Mt. Canlaon PAMB meeting was postponed until the year 2020. Fortunately, I was still able to attend the North Negros Natural Park’s PAMB meeting on March 16th. The PAMB board is made up of members of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, barangay (small community) captains, mayors, NGO representatives, and other officials. During the meetings the committee will discuss current projects concerning the protected area. Visitors who attend the meeting can present their research and request the support of the council. This particular meeting went smoothly, and I was able to secure permits for our program to conduct biodiversity and conservation surveys in the protected area. I don’t want to mislead you. When I say smoothly, I don’t mean to give you the impression that visitors can pop in, present, and get out. Most meetings last for hours, and this specific meeting lasted for five hours. It all boils down to a game of endurance, and at times, even the well-trained member needs a moment of reflection.
I can’t lie, long field expeditions have a tendency to wreak havoc on your body. Not only are you in a constant state of exhaustion, but also you often have to deal the occasional absence of showers, laundry facilities, and yes, mirrors. There is little point to this entry other than Jason having too good of a hair day to keep it secret. So without further delay, please let me introduce you to my friend and field companion Jason Fernandez.
Finally back in Manila you would think the bad luck would have stayed in the Visayan (central) Islands. Just so you all know, if you plan on joining a friend outside your apartment after midnight while he smokes a cigarette, remember to bring the keys to your apartment because some apartment doors lock on their own when shut. Oh yeah, and wear more than just your boxers. Jason and I had an enjoyable time debating on whether we would have to break into our own apartment, walk down the street in our underwear to stay at a pension house until morning, or sit outside for the rest of the night. The landlord of my apartment just happened to be out of town, and our chances for securing her spare key seemed bleak. We eventually were able to get one of the nanny’s to locate the spare key for us and made it back into our apartment before sunrise. The experience was just a little embarrassing.
Towards the end of our March expedition through the Visayas, we headed to Bohol Island. While Bohol Island is in close proximity to the other islands we visited on the trip (Cebu and Negros), it has a completely different fauna, or diversity of animals. The species on Bohol more closely resemble those found in many of the southeastern Philippine islands, or the Mindanao Faunal Region. Bohol is one of the few places in the Philippines that has done a good job in developing income based on ecotourism. The island has some amazing places to visit and animals to see, like the Chocolate Hills, Raja Sikatuna Natural Park, and the Philippine Tarsier, one of the world’s cutest primates. They are tiny! Seriously, they could fit inside the large pockets on a pair of cargo pants.
While we met with officials on Bohol, our target was actually a small island off the northeast coast call Lapinig Island. There are small pump boats that take you to the island. After getting there we realized there were no places to stay, but the islands only mayor was kind enough to allow us to stay in a community house next to the mayor’s office. Our trip happened to straddle a weekend, and for nearly three days we had the entire house to ourselves. The only method of transportation around the island was hiring local motorcycle drivers to take us around on their bikes (it is called hubble-hubble). The town we stayed in was a true fishing community, and we were able to buy fresh fish each day from the market to cook our own meals, which included octopus, crab, parrot fish, squid, tuna to name a few. Our goal on the island was to see whether we could find another rare species of burrowing skink. It had not been collected in more than 30 years. This species had evolved a small body with extremely reduced limbs with only a few tiny claws on each hand and foot. It has been my experience that these tiny species of burrowing lizards have patchy distributions, and it is often difficult to find more than one or two specimens in most sites. However, on our very first day we were able to find a few individuals, and by the third day we had observed more than forty. I guess the species is doing just fine on Lapinig, and so were we. It was a fun and relaxing way to end one tiring expedition.
One of my favorite aspects of doing fieldwork in the Philippines is learning about the local folklore and beliefs. The Philippines actually has a strong history of believing in spirits and forest-dwelling creatures, and adhering to superstitious beliefs. They even have an island in the central Philippines (Siquijor Island), which is famous for its sorcerers and witchcraft. The island celebrates an annual witch festival where you can buy all sorts of potions. I am sure that at one point in time, many of these creatures were made up to keep children (and possibly husbands) from wondering from home at night. Regardless of how they originated, they are all part of the local folklore here, and so we might as well bring you up to speed on a few of the common creatures you hear about. The White Lady—She is often seen late at night roaming dark hallways in buildings. I have heard from some that she dances around in the darkness, and from others that she simply floats across the floor.
Aswang—This is one of the many mythical forest creatures. I guess that it is similar to a vampire, with some stories describing the creature as half vampire, half beautiful woman. Often I have heard that she attracts men into the forest with her beauty only to prey. Duende—Little dwarfs. I actually don’t know much about these fantastic little creatures, but what a cool name. I do know that they are sometimes blamed for small problems that arise around the home or at work. Sigbin—I am not sure if I am even spelling this correctly, but this creature is commonly heard of in the central Philippine islands. It resides deep in the forest, and feeds on humans, leaving only a pile of coal as evidence. There have been multiple instances where I have had difficultly hiring local guides to assist me in the forest surveys because of fear of becoming a pile of coal. They have what doctors diagnose as creaturecolificationobia. If you are interested in reading more about some of the many mystical creatures of the Philippines, there is a great Wikipedia entry covering many of them.