[UPDATED] A team of experts is studying a suspected 10 to 16 million-year-old set of Cetacea fossils discovered in 2016 in Barangay Tagabenit, Puerto Princesa close to the underground river national park.
The fossilized bones that include what appear to be ribs, limb/long bones, and humeral bones are embedded in sediment-filled fissures in limestone within the tower karst dubbed by locals as “Wonderground”.
They were discovered by personnel of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (PPSNRP) Cave Management Unit, and the Palawan Speleological Society (PSS).
The fossils are currently under analysis by specialists from the National Institute of Geological Sciences (NIGS) of the University of the Philippines (UP), Palawan State University (PSU), and other researchers from Japan and Taiwan for species classification and determination of accurate age.
The preserved remains, once classified as a cetacean, will be the first cetacean fossil record in the Philippines, according to Dr. Jun Cayron, PSU professor and curator of the PSU Museum.
“The fossils would provide data/information regarding cetacean evolution and dispersion in the Western Pacific Region. Except for Taiwan and Japan, we have little information about this in the West Pacific Region” Dr. Cayron said.
He explained that the detailed study of such fossils will add to the aquatic vertebrate paleofauna, or animals that lived during a specific geological period in history because prior to the discovery of the Sirenia fossil in 2011 in the cave of the Puerto Princesa Underground River (PPUR), much of the information about the country’s vertebrate fossil record came from terrestrial vertebrates rather than aquatic.
The Sirenia fossils which belonged to a dugong (sea cow) was found embedded in the limestone wall inside the underground river. The Sirenia is older than the suspected Cetacean fossils in Tagabenit.
However, Dr. Cayron’s team, as well as other archaeologists, did not rule out the possibility that the remains were from a terrestrial species.
Dr. Cayron said if this is the case, the Cetacean fossils in the tower karsts of the barangay would be one of the Philippines’ oldest terrestrial vertebrate fossils, probably dating back to the Early Miocene Period.
Whether the fossils are from an aquatic or a terrestrial vertebrate, the discovery is significant in the information of the Philippine paleofauna.
Wonderground can be reached by trekking the forest floor and rappelling the estimated 25-meter tower karst. Upon reaching the elevated entrance of the “dry” cave, there are cracks and tunnel-like holes below that are big enough to allow only one person to pass through before eventually reaching the exact limestone fractures where the fossils are established.
The karst is identified as a Class I cave, which means that there are delicate geological formations, archaeological figures, and extremely hazardous conditions. It is allowed only for research and scientific activities.
However, the PSU research team is open to the concept of establishing a site museum on the “Wonderground” forest floor to house replicas of the fossils. If this is ever completed, it will be a new tourist destination. They further stated that the decision will be made in consultation with the PPSRNP management, the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), and the community.
“In our part sa academe, willing kaming tumulong upang gawin itong site museum and pagandahin lang with a lot of babasahin and information regarding the fossils. Hindi rin kasi possible na iakyat natin ang mga turista doon sa fossil site kasi nga it will be detrimental for the fossil and for the safety na rin [of everyone],” Dr. Cayron said.
The PPSRNP management, on the other hand, said that although they welcome this kind of initiative, safeguards should be placed first to avoid instances of encroachment and poaching.
“Kasi kahit sabihin na hindi sa mismong cave idi-display ang fossil, magiging mainit sa iligalista na mag-explore sa ibang caves para makakita rin ng fossil,” Elizabeth Maclang, PPSRNP park superintendent, explained.
She added that communities might also be inspired to open up another tourism product because there is a similar discovery of such in their caves, which can be difficult to manage since especially in the PPSRNP, they “keep a balance between environmental protection and conservation and tourism.”