They call me prehistoric | Inquirer Opinion
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They call me prehistoric

/ 05:03 AM December 08, 2022

Three women in their 60s called me “prehistoric” during meetings of our fledgling Philippine Society for Freshwater Science, and during the 3rd Philippine Symposium on Freshwater Biodiversity and Ecosystems at the Ateneo de Manila University in November. Among the hundred or so participants, a dozen were from the highly ranked National University of Singapore (NUS), mostly from the “Invasion Biology Laboratory.”

Only first names are used here to spare anyone from ribbing. I must admit that I started the good-natured name-calling by calling the women “historic ladies”: Adelina, Maria Lourdes, and Teresita. Adelina and Maria Lourdes served as scientists/administrators in two institutions (the Laguna Lake Development Authority and the Southeast Asia Fisheries Development Center-Binangonan Research Station), whose mandate is to study and protect Laguna de Bay, the largest lake in the country, and maybe in Southeast Asia.

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Teresita, who teaches in Ateneo, and I have focused more on Taal Lake. Since January 2020, the lake has been impacted by continuing phreatic explosions, making it one of the world’s most active and deadliest volcanoes.

I had taken hundreds of my University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman undergraduate and graduate classes in ecology, limnology, and aquatic ecology sampling techniques to Taal lake and volcano, whose nooks and crannies are familiar to me. The climax of the weekend trips was a trek across the fumaroles, capped by the climb up Mt. Tabaro (the eruption site in 1965). Dipping in the very acidic Main Crater Lake and ascending along Daang Kastila to the rim of the Main Crater were unforgettable.

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The day when the three historic ladies called me prehistoric became more memorable when an intrepid lady, Inez, an associate professor of communication at the Ateneo and an Inquirer columnist, sought me out and later wrote in her column that as an undergraduate in molecular biology and biotechnology at UP Diliman, she had avoided me as a teacher. Inez graduated cum laude and moved over to science communication in Purdue University.

What, then, made the historic ladies call me prehistoric? Maybe because I have ventured ahead of everybody into lakes that are often overlooked. In Lake Balinsasayao, a cone-shaped volcanic lake in the Negros Oriental highlands, I almost drowned because of my excitement and carelessness.

I have also been to inaccessible perilous freshwaters in Mindanao, such as Lake Maughan and Agusan Marsh. From above, the waterways in the marsh look like the canals in Mars. I’ve made it as well to Lake Mainit, Lake Siloton, and Lake Sebu also in Mindanao, and even small freshwater habitats in Siargao Island (the first time I saw the Pacific Ocean).

Then on to Lake Lanao, the Taj Mahal of Philippine lakes, and hailed as one of the world’s ancient lakes. In the highlands of Lanao del Sur, Lake Lanao was a natural laboratory: Several species of cyprinid fishes evolved in the lake. Alas, most of these endemic cyprinids are going, going, gone.

In northern Luzon, I ventured into Paoay Lake twice. This lake is much smaller and less impressive than the lakes in Mindanao.

Maybe it’s a rare privilege to be called “prehistoric” by the three historic ladies. That might have moved Jose Christopher (JC) of the NUS contingent to surprise me with gifts: a tote bag of past volumes of the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology (where he’s editor in chief), a box of delicious cookies, and two pins of The Crustacean Society. JC obviously didn’t mind my declaring that Darren (the leader of the NUS group) “a legend in his own time,” and JC “a legend in his own mind.” (JC is a fellow Ilocano, a student who survived Taal, and obtained his Ph.D. in the NUS.) A well-published carcinologist, or a scientist who studies crustaceans, JC asked permission to name a possible new species of freshwater crab after me. Wow, a fourth freshwater crustacean that bears my name? Terima kasih, JC.

Being called prehistoric might have been justified by my looks, my osteoarthritis on one knee, and a bothersome prostate. Thank you for the appellation, historic ladies, scientists who in their senior years remain defenders of this archipelago’s fresh waters. The rising sea level due to climate change may aggravate the situation in Taal and Laguna de Bay.

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But thanks to Inez, who is decades younger than the historic ladies, I’m sure of help to keep me going in my twilight years.

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Augustus Mamaril, 76, is a former faculty member of the Department of Zoology at UP Diliman, until his retirement in 2011. Though he was asked to stay on as a professorial lecturer, the pandemic ended his nearly half-century service to the country in March 2020.

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