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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).

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.

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

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!

Visiting scientist feature: Arlo Hinckley Boned

Earlier this week, we hosted a research visit by Mr. Arlo Hinckley Boned, who came to collect data from the mammals in the Zoological Reference Collection.

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Arlo and a red giant flying squirrel collected by Charles Hose.

Arlo hails from the Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics Group of the Doñana Biological Station in Spain, and is working on the diversity of shrews and gymnures across biogeographical realms for his Phd thesis.

He recently completed four months of fieldwork in Borneo, sampling areas in Sabah, Malaysia, for small mammals. During this period, he shared that he lost a total of 9 kg from the intense fieldwork, but gained interesting insights on the distribution and diversity of the mammals there. Arlo maintains the Small Mammals of Borneo blog with his colleagues where they share about small mammals and their field experience.

As his research group is particularly interested in the diversity of vertebrates in the Sunda shelf, Arlo also examined specimens of the red giant flying squirrel (Petaurista petaurista) in addition to gymnures and moonrats. On his last day, Arlo was particularly excited to come across a red giant flying squirrel specimen collected by Charles Hose, a prominent zoologist and British colonial administrator.

We wish Arlo all the best for the rest of his work in the region.

A tribute to Mr. S.R. Nathan—a patron we will remember

We extend our deepest condolences to the family of our former President, Mr. S.R. Nathan, who was an important benefactor to NUS and the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM). We remember him fondly as a champion for Singapore’s natural environment and education, and his crucial role in supporting the museum’s transformation to what it is today. He was also a patron to the museum’s tome, Singapore Biodiversity: An Encyclopedia of the Natural Environment and Sustainable Development, and helped kick start the fund raising effort to set up the Leo Tan Professorship in Biodiversity for the museum to honour Professor Leo Tan.

Head of LKCNHM, Prof Peter Ng penned the following tribute to the late Mr. S.R. Nathan:

He was just a man. Like all of us. But what a man he was. A people’s president in his tenure… not just in name, but in deeds, and most importantly, in heart. A soft-spoken man with a sage’s temperament and a resolve of steel. A man who instinctively knew what was right or wrong, and lived by these basic principles… even when the world he lived in rarely cared. He was a man who made any man or woman proud to be a Singaporean. And we were proud he was our President.

NUS and the Lee Kong Chian Natural History owe him a debt we cannot repay. As our patron, he shared his wisdom whenever we needed it. Encouraged and helped us to reach heights we thought were impossible. And when we succeeded in spite of everything, he reminded us that success was not an endgame. He counseled that it must be tempered with humility—that we who have succeeded must help those who have not, have less, or have a harder time. That we must endeavour and continue to engage Singaporeans. All Singaporeans.

He will be missed. He is already missed. Thank you sir and rest well. We will remember.

LKCNHM Ground Breaking

LKCNHM Ground Breaking ceremony on 11 Jan 2013. Mr. S.R. Nathan is seated second from left.

Visit from old friends: the Orchards

We begin this month with another crustacean themed post — a report on the visit of Max and Beverly Orchard on their first visit to our new building!

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The Orchards during their recent visit. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

Max was the Chief Ranger of Christmas Island National Park prior to retirement, and author of ‘Crabs of Christmas Island‘. Given his fondness of crabs, it was only natural that he and Prof. Peter Ng forged a strong collaboration. The Orchards have been a focal part of the Museum’s expeditions to Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands from 2010 to 2012, culminating in a supplement in the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology highlighting the Biodiversity and Management Challenges of both islands. It yielded many new discoveries of crustacean species both on land and out at sea. See more examples from our old blog here.

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The Christmas Island/Cocos Keeling 2012 Team. From left: J.C. Mendoza, Tan Siong Kiat, Naruse Tohru, Joelle Lai, Tan Heok Hui, Peter Ng, Leo Tan, Fujita Yoshihisa with Christmas Islands Parks Officer, Max Orchard (third from right).

Amongst the discoveries in the anchialine caves on Christmas Island, were two new species, named Orcovita orchardorum  and Orcovita hicksi. These two crabs were the first record Orcovita in the Indian Ocean and Australia.

It was a good afternoon of catching up, and planning future research trips to Christmas Island. We miss Christmas Island very much, and hope to be back soon!

Orcovita orchardorum was named in honour of the Orchards who have been dedicated their lives spearheading conservation initiatives to safeguard the island’s unique biodiversity.

red crab Max orchard

Christmas Island’s world famous red crabs (Gecarcoidea natalis). Photo by Max Orchard.

A Crabby Acquisition

Here at the museum, most of our specimens are collected from the research field, received through donations from other museums, or via reports of dead animals by the public.

In some instances, we also collect specimens through more ‘conventional’ means — the market! In fact, we often make it a point to visit local markets in our various field sites across Southeast Asia, as you never know what interesting critter will pop up. After all, the Sulawesi Coelacanth (Latimeria menadoensis), was discovered by Dr. Mark Erdmann in a Manado fish market while on his honeymoon!

Recently, Prof Peter Ng, LKCNHM head, collected an interesting specimen through similar means. He was having dinner at Turf City one evening when he came across an interesting live crab in one of the aquariums, and promptly bought the crab from the seafood joint. Saved from a certain fate of ending up on a dinner plate, the specimen was instead destined for the collection shelves at the museum.

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Top, bottom and close up views of the Golden King Crab. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

This crab was later identified as a Golden King Crab (Lithodes aequispinus). According to Prof Ng, adults of this species can be as large, if not larger than their more famous counterparts, the Alaskan King Crab (Paralithodes camtschaticus).

Even though it looks crab-like, it is not a ‘true’ crab but actually related to hermit crabs. If you are confused, count the number of legs seen in this crab, and compare it with the mangrove mud crab, Scylla spp.  🙂

The crab’s origins were even more of a surprise as it was said to be from Korea, and if so, may be the first record of the species there.

Golden king crabs are not only found in East Asian waters which includes countries like South Korea, but can also be found in the Northern Pacific Ocean ranging from British Columbia in Canada all the way to Japan.

The crab is now awaiting final preparations at our laboratory before it is added to our wet collections along with other crustacean specimens. It will be invaluable as a future research specimen for comparative work and DNA studies.

The next time you visit a market, keep your eyes peeled out for interesting and unusual animals — they may be right under your nose!

Scientist Feature: The Malaysian Cave Rat Mystery

Ms Islahuda Hani Sahak & Mr Mohammad Amin Abdul Aziz

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Husband and wife team during their visit to LKCNHM. Photo by Chia Han Shen.

What do rats and mice have in common with guinea pigs and hamsters?

They belong to a group of animals known as rodents. Rodents contain some of the biggest families within the animal kingdom.

In this edition we feature PhD candidate from the University of Malaya (UM), Ms Islahuda Hani Sahak, who is working to identify rodent skulls in Malaysian caves. She hails from the Department of Geology, Faculty of Science at UM.

Assisting her in this trip is Mr Mohammad Amin Abdul Aziz, who is her husband, and also a trained geologist. For this research trip, the goal is to investigate differences between collected skulls to aid in species recognition.

This study is the first comprehensive survey in Malaysia of how the Muridae fossil group plays an important ecological role in the Quarternary geological time period.

Understanding the paleo-environment

Their visit to Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in April 2016 involved comparisons between full-bodied specimens found in our collection and Ms Islahuda’s rodent skull fragments.

This is a bonus as Ms Islahuda often only has dentition to go by, as it is rare to get a complete skull of fossilised rodents with their teeth intact. Differences are often minute as there are many similarities in morphology (form).

They are now one step closer to determining the identities of their subjects. Ms Islahuda managed to narrow it down to four confirmed genera: Niviventer, Rattus, Maxomys and Chiropodomys. On an even better note, she has established one of the species as the Indomalayan pencil-tailed tree mouse (Chiropodomys glirodes).

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Often Ms Islahuda only has dentition to work with such as this isolated tooth sample. Photo by Ms Islahuda.

There are many aspects that both Mr Aziz and Ms Islahuda find interesting about rodents. For example, the skulls of rodents can be used to determine their age and even their diet, which gives insights to how each species differs and how adaptable they can be.

Ms Islahuda explains that geologists try to reconstruct the paleo-environment to get a glimpse of what life was like millions of years ago. Clues such as fossilised remains of animals found in river sediments often indicate what living conditions were like millions of years ago. Rodents are the perfect study subjects as they do not migrate and live in specialised regions.

Raising the flag for environmental conservation

Their reasons for conducting this research are based on a conservation mantra.

They hope to raise awareness of cave fossil conservation by creating an environmental value for cave ecosystems to protect them from threats such as the construction of temples and collection of bat guano or poop for plant fertiliser.

They attempt to educate people in appreciating this often-misunderstood group of animals. Pest such as brown rats and house mice are only a tiny minority within rodents which cause harm to humans. On the other hand, hundreds of other species play important roles in their ecosystems around the world.

For example, did you know that jungle rats such as the Rajah’s spiny rat – found in our region – help in the seed dispersal of trees which promote the health of the forest? Rodents are also the favourite prey for animals such as snakes and owls!

This was Ms Islahuda’s and Mr Aziz’s first visit to LKCNHM. As part of their investigation they will also head to the natural history museums in Indonesia, Thailand, China and London to seek more answers in solving the identities of their specimens.

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Specimens of Malaysian House rats from LKCNHM. Photo by Ms Islahuda.

LKCNHM is honoured to host researchers and regional experts who contribute to our knowledge and understanding of Southeast Asian biodiversity. These scientists play an integral part in spearheading environmental conservation initiatives that protect native ecosystems.

We wish Ms Islahuda and Mr Aziz success as they continue in their search to determine the mysteries of the elusive rodents of Peninsular Malaysian caves.

Scientist Feature: Double Edition

This week we feature two scientists – Dr Chavalit Vidtahayanon, a fisheries expert from Thailand, and Dr Charles Leh, the deputy director of the Sarawak Museum – who visited our diverse collections last month at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM).

What do they have in common?

They are catfish specialists who have 40 years of shared experience and valuable expertise between them.                

 

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Dr Chavalit Vidthayanon on his recent visit to LKCNHM. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

Dr Chavalit Vidthayanon

Dr Chavalit Vidthayanon is an expert in many biological fields such as ichthyology, malacology, carcinology and palaeontology.

As an ichthyologist (fish scientist) he studies and monitors the diversity of freshwater fish in Southeast Asia.

This fishy fascination began at a young age, followed by tertiary studies in marine science, culminating in his 1993 PhD in fisheries on the taxonomic revision of Pangasiid catfish at the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology.

Pangasius catfish are medium to large shark catfish that can only be found in India and Southeast Asia. Some species are commercially important food items such as basa and sutchi. These delectable fish products are exported and sold as frozen and fresh fillets worldwide.

Live sutchi

(Pangasinodium hypophthalmus) sutchi catfish from aquarium trade. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

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Basa fish being sold in Vinh Long Market, Vietnam. Sourced from Flickr: Basa fish – Vinh Long Market. Photo by Alpha.

 

Since then he has published four informative papers involving the discovery and naming of new species of catfish, and describing crucial differences amongst catfish families.

Dr Vidthayanon’s first job was as a fisheries technician in the Department of Fisheries in the National Museum of Thailand. His subsequent professional experiences include working with Thailand’s branch of the World Wildlife Fund, the Khorat Fossil Museum and the Mekong River Commission.

With his professional expertise and wealth of accumulated experiences, he is now an independent consultant on river biodiversity within the Indo-Chinese region.

Over the years he has collaborated with the head of LKCNHM, Prof Peter Ng, particularly in carcinology, which is the study of crustaceans. Together they published a 2013 scientific report on the discovery of a new cave dwelling crab species and genus, Thampramon tonvuthi, found only in Thailand.

Since his first visit to the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity and Research in 1997, Dr Vidthayanon has been impressed by the transformation of the museum. He still remembers its humble beginnings as a small public gallery at the Department of Biological Sciences during his initial visit.

He marvels at what it has become today – a full-fledged natural history institution equipped with modern research facilities, a brand new name and regionally-renown scientific reputation. This was his second visit to the museum and accompanied by his wife of 27 years.

 

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From left to right: Dr Tan Swee Hee from LKCNHM with Dr Charles Leh from the Sarawak Museum. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

Dr Charles Leh

Dr Charles Leh is a deputy director of Sarawak Museum. Dr Leh, a trained zoologist, has been with the institution for the past 20 years. He holds many important roles in the museum, not merely as deputy director, but also as curator of zoology and co-editor of the Sarawak Museum Journal.

He is known primarily for his 1990 PhD study and his 2012 publications on the eel tailed catfish species, Plotosus canius. It is considered to be the largest member of the Plotosus family in Singapore and is a common inhabitant in coastal waters.

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A shoal of striped eel-tailed catfish, (Plotosus lineatus), in Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo by Jens Petersen.

All Plotosus catfish have venomous spines on their fins, an eel-like tail and are characterised by their shoaling behaviour during their juvenile stage. Fish often shoal or bunch together to reduce the risk of predation and improve their chances of survival.

The purpose of Dr Leh’s trip was to obtain ideas for his plans to renovate the Sarawak Museum. In particular, he was here studying the container facilities of the LKCNHM and how we store our specimens using compactors and racks. This was why he came accompanied by his team of architects.

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Dr Charles Leh and his team of architects during their visit to LKCNHM with our beautiful wall mural. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

We are delighted to have top scientists visit LKCNHM regularly. Dr Vidthayanon and Dr Leh have made valuable contributions to fish conservation within Southeast Asia. Their knowledge has proven helpful in building our regional database and updating vital information on specimens that have been collected over many years.

Launch of Dr Seow-Choen’s latest book: A Taxonomic Guide to the Stick Insects of Borneo

Dr Seow Stick Insect

We have a new book launch happening in the month of June!

Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) is proud to present a new book on stick insects of Borneo by Dr Francis Seow-Choen.

Dr Seow-Choen is a well-known local colorectal surgeon and is also a Honorary Research affiliate with us at the museum. He will be launching his latest book “A Taxonomic Guide to the Stick Insects of Borneo” at the Singapore Botanic Gardens Function Hall at the Botany Centre on 1st June 2016 at 12 noon.

The book includes 337 species of stick and leaf insects from Borneo, as well as details the author’s discovery of 15 new genera and 52 new species from the largest tropical island in the world.

The book launch is jointly hosted by the museum and the National Parks Board and books will be available for sale at the launch!

The book is now available at our very own LKCNHM bookshop and Co-Op bookstores at NUS!