research

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!

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/)

[Research highlight] Citation of taxonomic publications: the why, when, what and what not

The museum’s deputy head, Prof. Rudolf Meier, published an opinion article about how the current citation practices in biology are unfavourable to taxonomy.

https://i1.wp.com/lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/nus/images/staffphoto/rudolfmeier.jpg

Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

Citations are important in science because it gives credit to the original authors (scientists) who made and reported a particular discovery or idea. However, authors of species are seldom cited in scientific publications. To address this issue, some journals or publishers require full citation of species descriptions.

Meier opined that citing and using original species descriptions may be inappropriate or lead to wrong conclusions. For example, the original description of the commonly eaten flower crab (Portunus pelagicus) by Carl Linnaeus in 1758, actually comprises four species today.

Instead, he argues that “proper citation credits should instead go to the literature that was used for specimen identification and the publications that contain the most accurate information on the currently accepted species limits of the species under study”.

Read more about his thought on this issue in the original paper.

Original paper:
Meier, R. 2016. Citation of taxonomic publications: the why, when, what and what not. Systematic Entomology: 1-4. doi: 10.1111/syen.12215

[Research highlight] New species of pea crab that lives in date mussel from Solomon Island

This new species of pea crab, Serenotheres janus, is named after the Roman two-faced god, Janus, as it has an unusually-shaped carapace that looks like two sides of a tent when seen from above.

serenotheres-janus

Photo by Zachariah Kobrinsky and David Liittschwager.

The museum’s head, Prof. Peter Ng, and Dr Christopher Meyer from the Smithsonian Natural Museum of Natural History, United States of America described the crab from a large date mussel collected from Solomon Island.

crab-in-situ

Photo by Zachariah Kobrinsky and David Liittschwager.

The crab lives inside (and are parasites of) the date mussel, Leiosolenus obesus, which resemble date seeds. These mussels burrow into coral rock for protection. Thus, the crabs live a doubly protected lifestyle inside a mussel that lives inside a rock.

Currently, only one specimen of Serenotheres janus is known, and it certainly shows that it pays to look into every nook and cranny (and every shell) for undiscovered life!

Original paper:
Ng PKL, Meyer C (2016) A new species of pea crab of the genus Serenotheres Ahyong & Ng, 2005 (Crustacea, Brachyura, Pinnotheridae) from the date mussel Leiosolenus Carpenter, 1857 (Mollusca, Bivalvia, Mytilidae, Lithophaginae) from the Solomon Islands. ZooKeys 623: 31-41. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.623.10272

[Research highlight] Molluscs for Sale: Assessment of Freshwater Gastropods and Bivalves in the Ornamental Pet Trade

Did you know that a large number of snails and clams come into Singapore via the ornamental pet trade?

NUS Phd student, Ng Ting Hui, and researchers from the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum and Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore found a total of 59 species of snails and bivalves had been brought into Singapore via the pet and ornamental animal and plant trade from 2008 to 2014.

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Shells of the 59 species of molluscs found from the ornamental pet trade in Singapore. Photos by Ng Ting Hui and Chan Sow-Yan.

Some of these are known or potentially invasive species which may cause harm to species that are native to Singapore, or to the environment. This study provides an important baseline and reference for future monitoring, and points the direction towards a more sustainable ornamental pet trade.

The findings of the research was featured on the Straits Times by Carolyn Khew on 4 Nov 2016.

Original paper:
Ng, T. H., Tan, S. K., Wong, W. H., Meier, R., Chan, S-Y., Tan, H. H., Yeo, D. C. J. 2016. Molluscs for Sale: Assessment of Freshwater Gastropods and Bivalves in the Ornamental Pet Trade. PLoS ONE 11(8): e0161130. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0161130

[Research Highlight] Freshwater fishes, terrestrial herpetofauna and mammals of Pulau Tekong, Singapore

While Pulau Tekong is an island familiar to many in Singapore as home to the Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC), what is less known is the island’s importance for wildlife.

Realising this, researchers from the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum and the National Institute of Education compiled a checklist with notes on the freshwater fishes, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals of Singapore’s largest natural offshore island.

tekong-1

Freshwater fish and herpetofauna of Pulau Tekong. Photos by contributors (see paper).

In all, 18 species of freshwater fishes, 15 amphibians species, 45 species of terrestrial reptiles, and 31 species of terrestrial mammals were recorded. Some species such as the Kuhl’s gliding gecko (Ptychozoon kuhli), and brown tube-nosed bat (Murina suilla) are known from Singapore only from Pulau Tekong.

Additionally, several nationally rare and threatened species such as the Jasper’s cat snake (Boiga jaspidea), leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) and Sunda slow loris (Nycticebus coucang) are also present, or are thriving on the island.

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Snakes and mammals of Pulau Tekong. Photos by contributors (see paper).

Pulau Tekong’s use as a restricted military area appears to have also served to conserve wildlife on the island well. It is hoped that substantial areas of natural vegetation is maintained, and that its rich biodiversity is taken into consideration for any development planning. This will help insure the survival of the island’s interesting and nationally threatened fauna.

 

Original paper:
Lim, K. K. P., M. A. H. Chua & N. T-L. Lim, 2016. Freshwater fishes, terrestrial herpetofauna and mammals of Pulau Tekong, Singapore. Nature in Singapore9: 165–198.

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.

arlo-h-boned

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.

[Research highlight] Making its way down the Peninsula: Discovery of the non-native snail Cryptozona siamensis in Singapore

A new discovery by museum scientists and their collaborators of an introduced snail in Singapore was recently published in Occasional Molluscan Papers. We asked them to tell us more about the significance of their findings:


History is repeating itself. Another alien snail—Cryptozona siamensis—has made its way to Singapore. Several months ago, this species, which is native to Thailand, was recently found in Singapore. The snail is believed to have been accidentally introduced through horticultural trade activities. Presently the snails appears to be confined to a single locality in Mandai, which was formerly a plant nursery.

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Cryptozona siamensis at Mandai. Photo by Tan Siong Kiat.

This follows the 2011 discovery of Limicolaria flammea (a native of East Africa), in Singapore. Despite efforts to prevent the spread of that earlier invader, the snail is now found across Singapore.

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Spot the difference: three species of land snails found at Mandai, Sarika sp. (left), Cryptozona siamensis (middle), Quantula striata (right). Photo by Tan Siong Kiat.

The discovery of both species highlights the importance of being able to tell different species apart (also known as taxonomy). Both non-native snails superficially resemble species already known from Singapore. They may have gone unnoticed for much longer if researchers had not been actively studying Singapore’s fauna.

Although the introduction of a snail may seem harmless, it is known among researchers that introduced species can pose a threat to native biodiversity greater than most people realise. Worldwide, many native species are endangered because of the negative impacts brought about by introduced species. Besides being a possible plant pest, studies in Thailand have shown that Cryptozona siamensis can carry parasites that may infect humans; usually occur through ingestion of raw or undercooked snails or contaminated vegetables.

invasive-snail-seasia-360

Limicolaria flammea.
Photo by Tan Siong Kiat.

So far in Singapore, Limicolaria flammea has not done the same damage some of its close relatives have wreaked in other parts of the world, and the situation for Cryptozona siamensis is as yet unknown. While the news of yet another introduced species is typically bad news, there are documented cases of successful eradication of introduced species in other countries, especially if discovered quickly and action is promptly taken. In additional to physical removal and the tightening of measures to prevent accidental importation of non-native species, the public can play a big role by getting to know the local fauna and to keep an eye out for invaders. It is hoped that the relevant authorities will step up efforts to eradicate this snail based on the precautionary principle.

Let us do what we can to prevent history from repeating itself.

Original paper:
Tan, S.K., Chan S.Y., Nguang L.H.S. & Low M.E.Y. (2016). Making its way down the Peninsula: Discovery of the non-native Cryptozona siamensis (L. Pfeiffer, 1856) in Singapore, with a note on its status in Peninsular Malaysia (Helicarionoidea: Ariophantidae). Occasional Molluscan Papers 5: 1–9.

Contribution by Tan Siong Kiat and Martyn E.Y. Low

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.

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