A group of Filipino botanists and researchers have published in the scientific journal Phytotaxa on May 27 a new species of wild orchid found only in Palawan, named Corybas circinatus.
A team of researchers composed of Danilo Tandang, Ulysses Ferreras, Annalee Hadsall, Stephanie Pym-lyon, Alastair Robinson, and Rene Alfred Anton Bustamante was behind the discovery of what is believed to be the second Corybas species discovered in Palawan.
Bustamante, a psychology graduate who has been in botany research for more than 10 years, told Palawan News the latest recorded discovery underscores Palawan’s rich biodiversity that still remains “poorly documented”.
“Each discovery of this kind shows us how much we still don’t know about Palawan’s biodiversity. In this day and age, when it seems that we’ve discovered everything, Corybas circinatus reminds us of how much our environment can still surprise us,” Bustamante said.
Corybas circinatus, which is yet to be given a local name, was described as a distinct species from all its known genus. It has a four-lobed labellum, with two of its longer upper lobes curved over two shorter lobes. It has a cucullate dorsal sepal with a retuse apex and a small glandular protuberance at the front of its pedicel.
The endemic helmet orchid has been previously sighted in five other locations in Palawan, including Mount Bloomfield and Mount Bahile in Puerto Princesa City; Mount Mantalingahan in Rizal town; and Mount Victoria and Sultan Peak in the municipality of Narra.
The new species was immediately distinguished based on the team’s pre-existing knowledge of the genus. However, Bustamante said that other subject matter experts had to peer-review their findings for proper documentation.
“A review of all known Corybas species was carried out as part of our research to document it properly. Our findings were summarized and submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, which suggested improvements and (more) importantly confirmed our findings,” Bustamante said.
The endemic helmet orchid was first photographed at Mount Victoria in June 2007 by Robinson, an Australian botanist who was also part of the published research team. Though categorically recognized as a new species at the time, the helmet orchid remained scientifically undescribed as permits to collect samples were not procured until locally-led expeditions were made available.
Subsequently, several other scientific excursions were held throughout Palawan as initiated by Philippine Taxonomic Initiative Inc., a non-government organization (NGO) based in Barangay Maligaya, El Nido Palawan.
Usually found on mineral-rich or “ultramafic” soil, Corybas circinatus is associated with extremely high levels of endemic biodiversity, or plants that are specialized to grow on challenging soil that is found nowhere else.
Helmet orchids, or the Corybas, are found in India and Australia where they grow among mosses and leaf litters on the forest floor. According to the Philippine Biodiversity Conservation Foundation, the country holds the record of four other known Corybas species, two of which are endemic to Palawan including the currently recorded discovery.
“Unfortunately, since this soil is rich in minerals, it is under constant threat from mineral prospectors,” said Bustamante, as he explained the significance of the recent discovery.
Bustamante also hoped that the recent discovery of Corybas circinatus could spark interest among the younger generations to preserve and conserve the natural wonders of Palawan’s biodiversity.
“My hope is that the publication of this species helps to highlight the incredible and still poorly documented biodiversity of Palawan, and demonstrates how we, as stakeholders in this land, should protect our natural habitats so that species such as this one will continue to thrive for future generations to treasure,” Bustamante said.