by Dr. Teodora Uy Bagarinao
Pop quiz, hot shots! It is the centennial of the USS Albatross Philippine Expedition, there are no bombs on board, what do you do? What do you do? You travel back in time and get on board!
Well, a Filipino is doing just that. Round-trip ticket and accommodations courtesy of the Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program of the US Department of State. To live at the Nation’s Capital no less! And work at the Smithsonian Institution, too, with some of the world’s finest biodiversity experts!
Now the time travel begins. Just over a hundred years ago, relations between the Philippines and the United States started with a bloody war, but in 1907-1910, the United States accomplished something the Philippines should forever be thankful for—the USS Albatross Philippine Expedition. The USS Albatross was the world’s first large deep-sea oceanographic and fisheries research vessel, and the Philippine Expedition became the first scientific exploration of the archipelago and the largest biodiversity collection from Philippine waters.
At the start of the American occupation, a surgeon working with the US Army sent samples of the tiny but abundant goby `sinarapan’ from Lake Buhi, Camarines to Hugh McCormick Smith at the US Bureau of Fisheries, then based at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. Smith described `sinarapan’ as Mistichthys luzonensis in 1902. After the Philippine-American War, the US Bureau of Fisheries sent the steamer USS Albatross on an expedition under the direction of HM Smith to survey and assess the aquatic resources of the Philippines. The ship sailed from San Francisco on 16 October 1907 and steamed into Manila Bay on 28 November 1907. Over the next two years, the Albatross made nine cruises around the Philippines and a cruise around Indonesia, and finally left Manila in late January 1910.
The USS Albatross Philippine Expedition collected about 100,000 fish specimens, as well as countless invertebrates, reptiles, birds, and mammals, along with fisheries and oceanographic data. Most of the materials were deposited in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. The alcohol-preserved specimens are in excellent condition, 100 years on, and they are accessible to all people (with prior arrangement, of course) and for posterity.
The fishes and mollusks were promptly studied and many publications soon came out. Many of the collections were described in the United States National Museum Bulletin 100, issued in 14 volumes (38 separate titles) between 1917 and 1950, under the general title Contributions to the Biology of the Philippine Archipelago and Adjacent Region, including reports on diatoms, foraminiferans, sponges, coelenterates, bryozoans, mollusks, polychaetes, chaetognaths, copepods, echinoderms, tunicates, and fishes. Hundreds of beautiful color paintings of fishes and invertebrates from the Philippine expedition were produced by the Japanese artist Kumataro Ito. Publications on the USS Albatross collections have continued to come out over the years, including several on cephalopods, crustaceans, and ahermatypic corals.
The USS Albatross expedition is highly significant for the Philippines. The Philippines’ reputation as a megadiversity country may well be because marine biodiversity was so well documented by the USS Albatross expedition. The Albatross explored waters that had never been sampled before and, in many cases, have never been sampled again. Some of the fishes taken by the Albatross have never been collected since. Many of the Philippine species deposited at the Smithsonian are not even found in the Philippine National Museum. The USS Albatross Philippine expedition was colonial science a hundred years ago, but already it was a demonstration of good research practice— a well-planned expedition; proper processing, documentation, and disposition of samples; and publication in permanent form. The Smithsonian scientists produced scientific papers that underpin much of taxonomy in the Philippines and the entire Indo-Pacific. The taxonomy and the scientific names may have changed with further research and the necessary revisions over the years, but the original specimens and descriptions still exist for verification.
The centennial of the USS Albatross Philippine Expedition provides an opportunity for me to collaborate with Smithsonian scientists on a research project of mutual interest and benefit. During the next five months, I will study the biological collections, the research publications, and the history of the USS Albatross Philippine Expedition, and write a book that informs both the American and Filipino general public about the enormous biodiversity in the Philippines and the great scientific achievements of that expedition.
As part of the project, I will share my experiences and findings during the time travel, so you will hear from me every month. Please join me. ALL ABOARD!!! Visit the USS Albatross website (www.nmnh.si.edu/vert/albatross).
Dr. Teodora Uy Bagarinao is affiliated with the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC) in Tigbauan, Iloilo, Philippines. She is now conducting a Fulbright-funded research project at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC entitled “The USS Albatross Philippine Expedition of 1907-1910: biodiversity collections, research publications, and exploration history”.
Dr. Bagarinao obtained her Ph.D. (Marine Biology) from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego in 1991 on fellowship from the Fulbright-Hayes Foundation (USA), her M.Sc. (Marine Biology) from the same institute in 1982 on fellowship from the International Development Research Centre (Canada), and her B.Sc. (Biology), magna cum laude, from the University of San Carlos in 1977.