Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park has officially joined a new UNESCO study that seeks to improve scientific data collecting and analysis to discover diverse ecosystems of 25 distinct marine World Heritage Sites.

Rowell Alarcon, ecosystems management specialist at the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO), noted that the method included collecting water samples from five different sites at the Tubbataha Reefs, which is the only marine protected are in the Philippines included in the research.

Tubbataha water samples were taken on April 14 and 15 and will be transported to the UNESCO headquarters in France for further research.

“So we [will] collect water because usually it is where different species of marine life, including corals, secrete their waste, to determine how biodiverse a place is,” Alarcon said.

At Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP), a group from the Tubbataha Management Office is gathering water samples to be examined using environmental DNA sequencing and analysis at UNESCO Headquarters. The purpose is to uncover the biodiversity ecosystem of the park. As part of a larger project of UNESCO, this eDNA water sampling is taking place at 25 marine World Heritage Sites, including TRNP.

“The water samples will give us information on what kinds of species can be found in Tubbataha, and there might be other species that have not yet been discovered here,” he explained, adding that the data that will be collected will be added to the global data of all world heritage sites included in the study.

He added that water specimens were collected from five distinct areas to serve as a representation of Tubbataha Reefs, with at least one sample replicated by three different types to ensure the accuracy of the data that will represent the diversity that can be found, particularly in reef areas.

Alarcon also said that through the eDNA sequencing and analysis, there is a big possibility that new species of marine life might be found in Tubbataha.

“That’s why this study is important because what we do usually is just monitor our reef fish visually. So the eDNA represents the kinds of species here, including those possibly not yet identified,” he said.

UNESCO explained in a press statement that the study dubbed as Environmental DNA (eDNA) Expeditions is a global, citizen science initiative that will help measure marine biodiversity and the impacts climate change might have on the distribution patterns of marine life across World Heritage marine sites.

The eDNA sampling campaign started in September 2022, which will run until April 2023, after which results are expected to “provide a one-off biodiversity snapshot, with focus on fish and megavertebrates of which several are on the IUCN Red List vulnerable and endangered species.”

“Analysis of these samples will help us understand how biodiversity hotspots are shifting due to climate change and where to focus conservation efforts in the future,” the statement read.

Meanwhile, TRNP superintendent Angelique Songco expressed gratitude to UNESCO for including the park as one of the sites for the eDNA expedition, saying it will boost the conservation and protection of Tubbataha.

“Science is really amazing because what it’s going to do is, from the water samples we got, scientists will be able to find out what species are present in this water. Some of them we probably don’t even know because we haven’t seen them, or our research hasn’t revealed or recorded, but the eDNA tests will tell us that we have these kinds of species,” Songco stated.

“So it’s a revolutionary way of understanding better our protected area, and it will also help us respond to the impact of climate change and what is happening in our coral reefs because we better understand what is there that we need to protect,” she added.