Nature in Singapore

Visiting Scientist Feature: Dr. Jan-Frits Veldkamp

Recently, we hosted Dr. Jan-Frits Veldkamp from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden. Dr. Veldkamp is a botanist with a research focus on the grasses of Southeast Asia, with a career that has spanned over 50 years.

He was here to examine grass specimens in the Singapore University Herbarium (SINU), as part of the research for a book about the herbaceous grasses of Singapore that he is working on, under the Flora of Singapore project by the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

This was Dr. Veldkamp’s second visit this year; he was at the museum for a few days in April for the Flora of Singapore project. This second visit was for him to finish examining all the grass specimens in the SINU, and over the course of his two-week visit, he examined around 1,000 herbaceous grass specimens.

A Whole New World

His interest in botany started after a biology lesson in high school, where he was taught to identify different plants.

“After the lesson, I realised that I could identify the different types of plants that were around me, plants that the average person will not take a second look at,” he said.

“It felt like the world was different,” he added.

A Botanist’s Eye

Dr. Veldkamp keeps a lookout for plants everywhere he goes—during his visit, he spotted an uncommon type of grass (Panicum laxum) while on his way to lunch, at a grass patch near the museum.

The patch of grass, located off a walkway, is nondescript; most people walking by would not even notice it. However, Dr. Veldkamp noticed a few plants located in a far corner, and discovered the uncommon grass growing there. He then collected a few specimens, and deposited them in SINU.

Dr. Veldkamp 2-2.jpg

Dr. Veldkamp examining Panicum laxum grasses near LKCNHM. Photo by Clarisse Tan.

During his visit here, a previously unknown grass specimen in the SINU was also identified by Dr. Veldkamp to be Acroceras tonkinense. This finding greatly excited him, as the last known specimen of the grass found in Singapore is dated all the way back to the year 1822, whereas the newly identified specimen was collected in 1999—a gap of 177 years.

We wish Dr. Veldkamp all the best in his research, and hope to see him again soon.

Next time you’re at St. John’s or the Sisters’ Islands, check out the plants

The following is a guest post by Dr. Chong Kwek Yan, on a recent series of papers in Nature in Singapore that arose from the work of a student that he supervised. Kwek Yan received the NUS Overseas Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2015 and has since been based at the Centre for Excellence for Environmental Decisions, The University of Queensland. This October, he will be returning to the Department of Biological Sciences at NUS.


Three years ago, early in 2014, Associate Professor Hugh Tan whom I was working for told me an earnest student keen on botany had approached him for a UROPS project, and asked me if I had any ideas. Back then, the plan to establish Singapore’s first marine park around some of the southern islands had just been announced, so I casually suggested that she could map out the natural vegetation on those islands and compile checklists of the islands’ flora, in the same spirit as Teo et al.’s (2011) checklist and map for Pulau Semakau.

Symplocos adenophylla

Symplocos adenophylla, listed as Endangered in the Singapore Red Data Book, found on Big Sister’s Island.

The marine park constitutes the sea around Pulau Subar Darat and Pulau Subar Laut, affectionately called Small Sister’s Island and Big Sister’s Island respectively, as well as the seas off the southwestern coasts of St. John’s Island (also known as Pulau Sakijang Bendera) and Pulau Tekukor. We knew that efforts must have been ongoing to document the marine biodiversity of the islands’ waters and coasts for them to be proposed as part of a marine park, but I thought it might also be useful for the park managers as well as botanically inclined park visitors to know what plants could be found on land. Prof took me seriously and got in contact with Dr. Karenne Tun of the National Biodiversity Centre, whose team was setting up the marine park, and Dr. Tan Koh Siang of the Tropical Marine Science Institute which had a research facility on St. John’s Island. I roped in Alex Yee, who was then a PhD student, to help coach Sherry with making maps.

The rest is (natural) history.

There were working checklists of the flora of these islands from Prof’s earlier expeditions in the 90’s which led to a publication by Koh et al. (2002) in Journal of Biogeography 29: 93–108. These were supplemented by records of collections from each island deposited at the Singapore’s two herbaria. Last and most fun of all, we gathered the young botanists working in Prof’s lab to make several picnic trips to cross-check these lists and map the vegetation and the locations of rare plants on the islands.

Botanists

Trying to look (and stay) cool in the shade along the coast of Small Sister’s Island. From left to right: co-authors Reuben, Wei Wei, Jolyn, Louise, Kwek Yan, Sherry; and Jake Gonzales who was an intern with the Botany Lab. Photograph by Alex Yee.

Sherry got a good grade for her UROPS (I can’t remember exactly what grade but it was a good grade [gosh, that sounds like what a well-known, recently elected official from a certain country would say about his own grades back in school]) and worked hard to turn her report into a series of manuscripts for Nature in Singapore titled “The vascular plant flora and vegetation of the islands associated with Singapore’s first Marine Park”.

There’s not much left to say except to encourage everyone to check these papers out. They contain many nice maps and pictures.

I: The Sisters’ Islands

Hung SMX, Chong KY, Yee ATK, Lim RCJ, Loh JW, Neo L, Seah WW, Tan SY, Teo AXY, Tun K, Tong CHY, Koh KS & Tan HTW (2017) The vascular plant flora and vegetation of the islands associated with Singapore’s first Marine Park (I): The Sisters’ Islands. Nature in Singapore, 10: 7–24. [PDF]

II: Pulau Tekukor

Hung SMX, Chong KY, Yee ATK, Lim RCJ, Loh JW, Neo L, Seah WW, Tan SY & Tan HTW (2017) The vascular plant flora and vegetation of the islands associated with Singapore’s first Marine Park (II): Pulau Tekukor. Nature in Singapore, 10: 25–35. [PDF]

III: St. John’s Island

Hung SMX, Chong KY, Yee ATK, Lim RCJ, Loh JW, Neo L, Seah WW, Tan SY & Tan HTW (2017) The vascular plant flora and vegetation of the islands associated with Singapore’s first Marine Park (III): St. John’s Island. Nature in Singapore, 10: 37–48. [PDF]