New Species

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.

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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.

Research Highlights – August 2017

We feature some new research from our resident carcinologists, published recently in August.

A star is born (Pariphiculus stellatus Ng & Jeng, 2017)

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This new species of crab possesses peculiar star-shaped tubercles on its body—which is why it was given the epithet, stellatus, which means ‘star-like’ or ‘starry’ in Latin. The new crab species was described in a paper written by Prof. Peter K. L. Ng (Head, LKCNHM) and Dr. Ming-Shiou Jeng (Biodiversity Research Center, Academia Sinica, Taiwan), and published in the journal, ZooKeys.

The crab was collected from a seamount near Peng-Chia-Yu Island, in northern Taiwan, in a regulated fishing zone for red corals [Note: The skeletons of red corals (Anthozoa: Coralliidae) are highly prized and are used to make jewelry.]

The new species has also been found previously in Japan and the Philippines, but the specimens from those places were either not identified to species or were misidentified as a similar-looking species, P. agariciferus. It was only recently, after close comparison with a larger set of specimens from different areas in the western Pacific region, that the differences came to light. Besides the peculiarly shaped tubercles, P. stellatus can be distinguished from P. agariciferus by its larger size and by differences in the form of the carapace, pincers and male genitalia.

Interestingly, all the specimens of P. stellatus were collected by fishermen using hand-operated tangle nets. The authors speculate that this may be the reason why it was not discovered previously by conventional marine biodiversity surveys, which tend to use ship-towed trawls and dredges to sample the sea floor.

Read the paper here:

Ng PKL, Jeng M-S (2017) Notes on two crabs (Crustacea, Brachyura, Dynomenidae and Iphiculidae) collected from red coral beds in northern Taiwan, including a new species of Pariphiculus Alcock, 1896. ZooKeys, 694: 135–156.

Michael’s crab (Sundathelphusa miguelito Mendoza & Sy, 2017)

Sundathelphusa_miguelito_JCEM

This new species of freshwater crab, from the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, came to the attention of our curator of crustaceans, Dr. Jose C. E. Mendoza, through a collaboration with Manila-based herpetologist and conservationist, Mr. Emerson Y. Sy (Philippine Center for Terrestrial and Aquatic Research).

Mr. Sy had previously sent some crab specimens to Dr. Mendoza for identification, including some that were purchased from an ambulant fish vendor in the town of Lake Sebu, in South Cotabato Province. Apparently, the crabs were being sold as food by the bagful to locals and to the neighbouring towns. After some comparison with the known species from Mindanao, the crabs were found to be a new species of Sundathelphusa, a freshwater crab genus occurring in the Philippines, East Malaysia and Indonesia.

The new species has been described in a paper published in the journal, Crustaceana, as part of the Michael Türkay Memorial Issue. This special issue is the latest tribute to the late Professor Türkay, the eminent Curator of Crustacea at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Dr. Mendoza and Mr. Sy gave the new species the epithet, miguelito, from a Spanish/Filipino endearment which means “little Michael”.

Sought for comment about this latest addition to the freshwater crab fauna of the Philippines, Dr. Mendoza remarked that he and his colleagues “have barely scratched the surface”, and that there are probably more species “hiding in plain sight” and waiting to be named and described.

Read the abstract here:

Mendoza JCE, Sy EY (2017) Sundathelphusa miguelito, a new species of freshwater crab from the southern Philippines (Brachyura, Gecarcinucidae). Crustaceana, 90(7–10): 1039–1053.

An Eye-Popping Discovery in Southeast Asian Assassin Bug Biodiversity

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Physoderes fuliginosa (left), dorsal view; with Physoderes minime (right). Photo by Hwang Wei Song.

Two pop culture characters, Popeye the Sailor and Mini-Me from the Austin Powers comedy movie series, are now linked in eternity in circumstances most unusual – having assassin bugs named after them.

Paraphysoderes popeye and Physoderes minime are two new assassin bug species that were named by LKCNHM Museum Officer Dr. Hwang Wei Song, together with Prof. Christiane Weirauch from the University of California, Riverside, in a recently published European Journal of Taxonomy research article.

The quirky names were given to describe the odd morphology of the bugs — Paraphysoderes popeye has enlarged fore-arms, similar to its namesake, while Physoderes minime looks like a miniature version of a larger known species — Physoderes fuliginosa.

“These names popped up naturally as perfect descriptors of how they look,” said Dr. Hwang, the lead author of the paper.

These two pop-culturally referenced names are among the 15 new assassin bug species named in the monographic piece of work published last week. Not only did the paper reveal the species richness found in the eastern hemisphere, spanning from Madagascar to the Fiji Islands, it also introduced a revised classification of these assassin bugs that more accurately reflects the rich diversity.

Paraphysoderes popeye UCR_ENT 52315 m BPBH dorsal

Paraphysoderes popeye, dorsal view. Photo by Hwang Wei Song.

Decade-long Quest

The task of clarifying and sorting out the taxonomy of this group of tiny, “rather unassuming-looking” assassin bugs known as physoderines, has been a long and arduous journey, starting 10 years ago in 2007, when Dr. Hwang began his PhD studies.

It required the consolidation of over 900 assassin bug specimens from various natural history museums across the world for side-by-side comparisons, visiting museums to check on type specimens, and a detailed computational analysis of their characteristics to determine their evolutionary relationships.

The fact that all 15 new species were discovered from specimens in natural history museum collections highlights the value and relevance of such historical collections to better understand our natural environment.

“These physoderine assassin bugs are miniscule, no bigger than a fingernail, well camouflaged in their natural habitat among vegetation and rotting logs, and extremely difficult to find in the wild,” said Dr. Hwang.

“It would have required my entire lifetime, and probably more, to be able to amass the same number of individuals to study, across such varied landscapes, from the foothills of the Western Ghats in India, across the whole of Southeast Asia, to the tip of Papua New Guinea and beyond.”

Dr. Hwang credits the strong support extended to him by the natural history museum curators and the helpful information shared among assassin bug researchers worldwide in helping to solve the many “taxonomic mysteries and riddles” peppered within this group.

Previously, Madagascar was regarded as an exceptional place for physoderine assassin bugs as they have radiated on the island similar to how lemur diversity flourished there, while the rest of the eastern hemisphere was regarded as rather uneventful. The new study shows that much of the diversity in Southeast Asia is still awaiting discovery, with Borneo and Papua New Guinea islands being hotspots for more species yet known.

To wrap the story up, Dr. Hwang did finally get to come face to face with a live physoderine assassin bug when he encountered Physoderes minime during field work in the Philippines late last year, on top of a dormant volcano.

“It was just hanging around on the base of a tree beside the forest trail, on a rather dreary late afternoon,” he said.

But to him, the thrill of the find was indescribable.

“I will never forget that moment.”

Original paper: Hwang, W.S., Weirauch, C. 2017. Uncovering hidden biodiversity: phylogeny and taxonomy of Physoderinae (Reduviidae, Heteroptera), with emphasis on Physoderes Westwood in the Oriental and Australasian regions. European Journal of Taxonomy 341: 1–118.

Harryplax severus and the Twenty-year-old Secret

A secret that evaded detection for almost 20 years has finally been uncovered with the discovery of Harryplax severus.

Sorry to disappoint all the ‘Potterheads’ out there, but this is not a synopsis of a new Harry Potter spin-off. Rather, it is a tale of how a new species of crab was discovered by LKCNHM researchers, Dr. Jose C. E. Mendoza and Prof. Peter K. L. Ng, almost twenty years since it was initially collected.

Harryplax_severus_frontal_male paratype PR.jpgFrontal view; male paratype of Harryplax severus.

The new crab species (also in a new genus) was described in a scientific article, which was published in the journal Zookeys and made available to the public last Tuesday (24 Jan. 2017, local time). [see: https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.647.11455]

Seaside Exploration

The crab was found in the late 1990’s in the coral reef rubble on the Pacific island of Guam by Harry Conley, a former US marine. Mr. Conley started to frequent this western Pacific island in the 1980’s in search of seashells, but his forays into the reefs yielded not only seashells, but also crabs and other creatures, which formed a sizeable personal collection.

After Harry Conley’s death in 2002, his crab collection was presented to Prof. Ng by Dr. Gustav Paulay (then with the University of Guam) for further study. Many of these specimens were eventually shown to be new or rare species, with several resulting scientific publications.

Two small specimens, however, were somehow overlooked and would remain in the collection of the LKCNHM until they were re-examined in early 2015 by the museum’s crustacean curator, Dr. Mendoza. Together with Prof. Ng, they determined that the crabs belonged to a new genus and species based on several unique characteristics in their anatomy.

harryplax_severus_male-paratype-prDorsal view; male paratype of Harryplax severus.

This tiny crab (7.62 mm long by 5.08 mm wide) has adaptations such as small eyes, well-developed antennae, and long, slender legs, which help it feel quite at home in the dark cavities amidst the reef rubble.

Potterhead’s Wish

Why the name Harryplax severus, then?

Well, the genus name, Harryplax, was primarily chosen in honour of the crab’s original collector, Mr. Harry Conley, whose collection of ‘critters’ found in the rubble beds of Guam have contributed greatly to the field of marine science.

The name also alludes to a famous pop culture namesake, Harry Potter, the main protagonist of the fantasy novel series by J. K. Rowling, whose magical skills are likened to Mr. Conley’s ability to find rare and fascinating creatures.

The species name, severus (Latin for ‘harsh’, ‘rough’ and ‘rigorous’), highlights the tough and strenuous steps undertaken to collect the crab. Furthermore, it alludes to yet another namesake from the Harry Potter series, Professor Severus Snape, a character described by Dr. Mendoza as “notorious and misunderstood”. Just like how Professor Snape managed to conceal one of the most important secrets in the story, the new species of crab has also been able to evade discovery for almost 20 years since its initial collection.

peter_jc_lkcnhmLKCNHM Researchers; Prof. Peter Ng (left) and Dr. Mendoza (right).

A self-confessed ‘Potterhead’, Dr. Mendoza could not pass up the opportunity to name the new discovery after characters from the popular series, a move gamely accepted by Prof. Ng, who knew Mr. Conley personally and felt that he would have appreciated the connection.

We look forward to more interesting discoveries by Dr. Mendoza and Prof. Ng in the future!

Original article:

Mendoza JCE, Ng PKL (2017) Harryplax severus, a new genus and species of an unusual coral rubble-inhabiting crab from Guam (Crustacea, Brachyura, Christmaplacidae). Zookeys, 647: 23–35.

Visiting Scientist Feature: Dr. Alexey Reshchikov

Just before Christmas, we hosted Dr. Alexey Reshchikov, Senior Associate Researcher at Sun Yat-Sen University, who was here to examine recently collected wasp specimens.

Dr. Reshchikov is a taxonomist that specialises in the study of wasps from the family Ichneumonidae, also known as ichneumon wasps. The name ‘ichneumon’ is derived from Greek words that mean ‘tracker’ and ‘footstep’, which aptly describes the way these insects live and reproduce.

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Dr. Reshchikov at his work station in the LKCNHM research lab. Photo by Clarisse Tan.

Savvy Killers

As they are parasitoids (organisms that develop inside a ‘host’ organism, eventually killing the host), female ichneumon wasps are highly skilled at tracking down suitable hosts. As the larvae grows, the host is slowly devoured, with its vital organs often left intact till near the end. In some cases, when the larvae are ready to emerge, chemicals are released to further paralyse the host, as the larvae gnaw their way out. Sounds…a little morbid, doesn’t it?

However, it was this exact trait that attracted Dr. Reshchikov to study the ichneumon wasps in greater detail, as he found it fascinating that they ‘attack’ many other different groups of insects. Also, as many of their hosts are pests of agricultural crops and forest plants, ichneumon wasps are useful as beneficial pest control agents (example here).

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Lateral view of a female ichneumon wasp, Klutiana sp. Photo by Ang Yuchen.

Ichneumon wasps are commonly found in various habitats, and are also arguably one of the largest animal family, with about 24,000 species known and an estimated 100,000 species worldwide. Clearly, there are still many more species of ichneumon wasps in the wild that have not been discovered. As our museum researchers have accumulated a substantial amount of ichneumon wasps from recent survey efforts, we invited Dr. Reshchikov to the museum on his first visit to provide his expertise on sorting and identifying these specimens.

During his two-week visit, Dr. Reshchikov examined around 2,000 specimens of ichneumon wasps that have been pre-sorted into various groups based on DNA analysis. After meticulously sorting and identifying the wasps, he has found three species of ichneumon wasps new to science to start with, with many more to follow, a finding that greatly excites him.

Globetrotting Scientist

The study of insects has been his life-long passion, first discovered as a child on a summer vacation trip to the Russian countryside, where he got closer to nature and became intrigued by insects. This scientific passion takes him to places far and wide—he once spontaneously turned back en route to a wasp conference in Budapest, Hungary to join an expedition to remote corners of Mongolia for a month searching for his favourite group of wasps!

However, he doesn’t devote all his trips overseas to insect explorations, of course. An avid traveller, Dr. Reshchikov has been to places such as Estonia, India, Thailand and Nepal. He also enjoys snorkelling in Southern Thailand, and skiing in Norway and Russia. When asked which place he would like to travel next, he mentioned the Indonesian resort island of Bali, for a “nice relaxing trip”.

How does this seasoned traveller find Singapore then? For one, he really loves the large variety of food available here, as he is a fan of different types of cuisine, ranging from spicy Thai food to delicate Cantonese dim sum. Also, despite it being his first trip here, the weather does not faze him at all, as he has been to other tropical countries. In addition, he mentioned that he really enjoyed his time at the museum, and would love to come back to visit.

Likewise, it was wonderful having Dr. Reshchikov here, and we look forward to seeing him again!

A Crabtivating New Find

A new baoyu (Chinese term for abalone) has been discovered by the Head of the Museum, Prof. Peter Ng, along with Dr. Ho Ping-Ho from the National Taiwan Ocean University, in the South China Sea.

Now, before you get too excited about trying a new type of abalone at your Chinese New Year reunion dinner next January, the aforementioned baoyu refers to a pea crab named Orthotheres baoyu. The new species of pea crab, named after the Chinese name for abalone, was found in an 8.5 cm large abalone obtained from the waters of the Tungsha islands in the South China Sea.

Orthotheres baoyu - edited.jpg

Pea crabs, just as their name suggests, are soft-bodied crabs that are about the size of a pea. The tiny critters are also commonly referred to as oyster crabs, as they can be often found residing inside the shells of oysters, as well as other mollusks such as mussels and abalone.

As they are kleptoparasites, the adult pea crabs live within their ‘host’ and feed on food that trickles in. Due to their reliance on their hosts for both food and protection, pea crabs do not leave their hosts very often. In fact, the females never leave their hosts, while the males do leave occasionally in order to find a mate.

While the process of how a male pea crab finds a mate have been puzzling scientists for a long time, a study from the University of Auckland have found that they ‘tickle’ the opening of a host housing a potential mate, until it lets them enter. Video footage from infrared cameras in the lab showed that the pea crabs spent up to four hours tickling away at the hosts containing female pea crabs. Wow, that is indeed a lot of effort and dedication!

Original Paper:

Ng PKL & Ho P-H (2016) Orthotheres baoyu, a new species of pea crab (Crustacea: Brachyura: Pinnotheridae) associated with abalones from Tungsha Island, Taiwan; with notes on the genus. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology, 64: 229–241 (http://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/nus/images/data/raffles_bulletin_of_zoology/vol64/64rbz229-241.pdf)

Other References:

Trottier O & Jeffs AG (2015) Mate locating and access behavior of the parasitic pea crab, Nepinnotheres novaezelandiae, an important parasite of the mussel Perna canaliculus. Parasite, 22: 13. (http://www.parasite-journal.org/articles/parasite/pdf/2015/01/parasite140113.pdf)

Crab Tickles Shellfish for Hours to Find Love. National Geographic (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/05/150508-crabs-tickle-shellfish-science-animals-new-Zealand/)

Actaea grimaldii: A Crab of Royal Status

Actaea grimaldii

This heavily ornamented yet vibrantly coloured crab was recently described by Professor Peter Ng, the head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, together with Professor Phillipe Bouchet from the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle.

Actaea grimaldii, as it is now named, is named in honour of the Prince of Monaco, His Serene Highness Albert II, and the red and white colour pattern of the new species also alludes to the colours associated with the armorial of the Grimaldi family.

Colourful as it is, the bright colours that adorn the crab help ‘advertise’ for the crab, not for a partner, but instead, something much more sinister. Belonging to the family Xanthidae, they possess a toxin similar to tetrodotoxin found in pufferfish, the core and only ingredient for the Japanese delicacy ‘Fugu’. These toxins are not only highly toxic, they are also heat-resistant and cannot be destroyed by cooking!

Two specimens courtesy of Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle are now deposited in the museum and are part of the Zoological Reference Collection for research and education.

Here’s a news coverage in France about the description of this new species: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJ395AQHEHk [In French]

Something special in the mail: scaly footed iron armoured snails (Crysomallon squamiferum)

A very special snail mail arrived recently!

ZRC MOL 5793 Chrysomellon squamiferum lkcnhm newsOur mollusc curator, Tan Siong Kiat, alerted us of a pair of scaly footed iron armoured snails (Crysomallon squamiferum) sent to us from the RRS James Cook Expedition of the Indian Ocean collected by JT Copley. They were found some 2,700 m deep!

These snail have a shell coated with iron sulfide and also have iron sulfide coated petals protecting their soft foot. Only a peek beneath the foot reveals their organic nature.

Scientist studying them found that they probably do not need to eat. Instead, they probably rely on symbiotic bacteria found in their guts for food production. Amazing!

The snails have been catalogued and are now part of the Zoological Reference Collection for research and education.

Indopinnixa shellorum, A new species of crab described from Singapore!

A new crab species described from Singapore by our resident crab taxonomist, Professor Peter Ng (Head, Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum)!

Figure 1 Indopinnixa (FB)

Described as Indopinnixa shellorum, they live in close association with sipunculan worms. This crab is also tiny, measuring only 4 mm across! It is no wonder why they have evaded detection for years, even with frequent and intensive biological surveys.

This species is named after the employees of Shell Singapore Private Limited for their strong support for many of our local science and biodiversity programs such as the Raffles Museum Visiting Scientist Program. They also contributed greatly towards the Comprehensive Marine Biodiversity Survey Project, organised by National Parks Board (Singapore) to document the marine plants and animals on the island.

Indopinnixa shellorum was one of the new species collected during the Comprehensive Marine Biodiversity Survey Project.

The CEO of Shell Mr Ben van Beurden presented a model of this crab to PM Lee Hsien Loong (Prime Minister of Singapore) as a memento to PM Lee while receiving the Honorary Partner in Progress Award from EDB Singapore. Shell also commemorated the occasion with Indopinnixa shellorum ties!

 indopinnixa shellorum tie