visitors

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.

Dr. Alexey 1.jpg

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.

Klutiana sp. 2.png

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.

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.

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!

Max and Bev Orchard-LKCNHM-27May2016-2

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.

christmas-cocos-team-2012-17feb2012

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.

Scientist Feature: The Malaysian Cave Rat Mystery

Ms Islahuda Hani Sahak & Mr Mohammad Amin Abdul Aziz

20160405_151835

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).

IMG_20151215_162545

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.

20160407_171647

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.

NUS OHS’ Night at the Museum – 27 & 28 May 2016

We had our very own “Night at the Museum” at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) just a week ago! We at LKCNHM were proud to host this event on behalf of NUS’ Office of Housing Services (OHS). We would like to thank the staff at OHS and the families of Kent Vale Faculty Residences for their enthusiastic participation and we hope to continue to play host to these occasions in the future.

Kent Vale Night at the Museum 1

A total of 77 children from the Kent Vale community and 8 OHS staff stayed overnight. Photo by Rajavarman Matchichandran.

The purpose of the event was to invoke a communitarian spirit and build a closer Kent Vale Community of all ages, especially with the aim of engaging the children of Kent Vale Faculty Staff ranging from the ages of 7 and 15. A total of 77 children accompanied by 8 OHS staff members from Kent Vale stayed overnight at the museum as part of this event.

Events at the museum that night kick-started with a guided tour followed by a Treasure Hunt and a Dinosaur Light Show to end the night with a bang! The family breakfast during the following morning was also a great opportunity for parents to get together and mingle.

Treasure Hunt

Kids hard at work during the Treasure Hunt!  Photo by Rajavarman Matchichandran.

Families expressed their gratitude for all the fun they experienced:

“I would like thank you and your team from OHS for the excellent job done. Our kids really enjoyed the event. Thank you for organising this unique event. I am aware that it is a lot of responsibility on you and your team who have worked tirelessly to make sure it is a success.” – Dr Satish, Dept. of Anatomy, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine

“My kids loved it and are asking what the next one will be!” Prof Kumaralingam, Faculty of Law.

Family 2

Smiles all around after breakfast and being back together again after a wonderful night at the museum! Photo by Rajavarman Matchichandran.

OHS Staff

OHS Staff group photo! Photo by Rajavarman Matchichandran.

We end this post with a quote from the Director of OHS, Mr Koh Yan Leng:

“As management of Kent Vale Residences, which accommodates our foreign faculty members and their families, we do not just wish to provide them with a place to stay, but a community that allows them to learn, bond and do great things together. As part of this vision, we organise monthly activities/events for our residents that cater to different family profile, singles, couples and family with kids. For the “Night at the Museum”, we are glad to partner with our esteemed LKCNHM to organise this great event for our residents’ children. The programme created by LKCNHM not only create much fun, but at the same time it is educational for them, which left many of them still talking about it after the event. As such, we deeply appreciate the effort put in by both the LKCNHM staff and our OHS colleagues to make this happen for the kids”.

We look forward to hosting future events such as these for our NUS community.

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.                

 

Chavalit Vidthayanon-LKCNHM-08April2016-03

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.

Basa fish vietnam market

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.

 

Swee Hee and Charles Leh-LKCNHM-11April2016-2

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.

Plotosus lineatus Wikipedia Image

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.

Dr Charles Leh and architects

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.

Visit by Tony Wu, Underwater Photographer & Naturalist

April has been a busy month for us at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. We have had many special visitors and exciting happenings such as the repository of the wooden whale sculpture and the donation of a false killer whale jaw from Underwater World Singapore.

One such guest was Mr Tony Wu. Mr Wu is a freelance photo-naturalist who specialises in underwater photography. His assignments have taken him to many exotic locations and wonderfully unexpected encounters with nature. Mr Wu also contributed some excellent photos showcasing various deadly threats that whales face all over the world  to the information panels of our new sperm whale exhibit, Jubilee, which are featured below.

DSC_2019 (edit)

Featured in this photograph and flanking Mr Wu are his long-time friends, Dr Tan Heok Hui (Operations Officer) and Dr Tan Swee Hee (Facilities Manager) posing against the beautiful backdrop of our wall mural. Mr Wu was guided by both Drs Tan in the gallery, and in his own words, ‘geeked out many times’.

THH-Tony Wu-TSH-LKCNHM-06April2016 edit

Besides being an underwater photographer by profession, Mr Wu is an avid traveller who organises trips for visitors to places that are off the beaten track to experience the wonders of the marine world. These include sessions of marine photography and up-close encounters with whales!

For Mr Wu, photography is not just a career but also a purposeful medium in which he hopes that it will convey positive and lasting experiences of oceanic marvels to his audiences.  He hopes that his viewers will gain a deeper appreciation of the world and better realisation of ourselves in the process, just as he himself experienced when he embarked on this path of diving into the deep blue.

More details on his visit to the museum and about himself can be found here:

http://www.tonywublog.com/journal/jubilee-the-sperm-whale-singapore-natural-history-museum

http://www.tonywublog.com/profile/background-information-about-underwater-photographer-tony-wu/

Swimming Ashore

Oceanic Inspirations

Whale Picture on Lawn

The wooden whale on the lawn near LKCNHM. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

Have you visited us recently?  For those who have, you may have noticed a whale sculpture on the lawn near the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) signage just before you enter the museum.

Ever wondered what the story is behind the sculpture?   

When news of the dead sperm whale emerged last July, a team from LKCNHM was dispatched to salvage its remains. The sperm whale came to be known as Jubilee as she was found on Singapore’s golden jubilee year, SG50.The carcass of the female sperm whale from Jurong Island was to trigger a flurry of actions ranging from tributes, features and pledges of support for the whale to become a major exhibit within LKCNHM. 

Older generations of visitors to the old National Museum may remember the awesome baleen whale exhibit hanging from the ceiling.This whale was stranded at Malacca in June 1892 and was given to Malaysia in 1974. When the new natural history museum was mooted,  there were plans to bring the whale back to Singapore. But in an ironic twist of fate, news of Jubilee’s stranding was to change the course of Singapore’s natural history forever.  

Aileen

Sculptor Ms Aileen Toh with her masterpiece during the repository on 11 April 2016. Photo by Chia Han Shen.

Upon hearing the news, Aileen Toh, a self-taught wood sculptor from the Sculpture Society of Singapore (SSS) decided to craft a beautiful and fitting tribute to Jubilee.  Ms Toh constructed a whale sculpture titled “Swim Ashore” using recycled wood from an old saga tree in Fort Canning Park. Her source of inspiration and admiration for the whale came from a sense of intrigue. As she pondered, “why would a large sea creature be found in the shallow waters of Jurong Island”, let alone Singapore?

Asked to describe what feelings she expresses when she sculpts. She says it depends on what she wants to raise awareness for. Ms Toh loves to sculpt things related to our natural environment. With “Swim Ashore”, she hopes to inspire people to be “loving and protecting the environment so that sea creatures have a lovely habitat to live in”.

Constructing the Whale

This collaboration between the National Parks Board (NParks) and SSS took place at the Wood Sculpture Symposium 2016 from 21 – 25 January 2016, where sculptors participated in transforming dead trees into beautiful sculptures. In nature nothing goes to waste, and that is where the beauty of nature lies.

Working tirelessly from 9-5, Ms Toh put in more than 40 hours of work into the creation of the sculpture, including preparing the wood block from a 30 m Saga tree that was removed from Fort Canning as it was old, termite infested, and posed a risk to park users. 

It was an arduous task, but she was thankfully supported by dedicated NParks staff, SSS members, students, and volunteers.   

Ms Toh was grateful that “NParks could arrange for people to assist in separating parts from the larger chunks of wood”. A strenuous effort that required manpower to firstly turn over the whale and a larger chain saw to “carve out the belly”.  A final coat of lacquer was painted to protect the sculpture from the elements and to give it a shiny finish.

At the end of the symposium, Ms Toh was happy for all the support that she received from sculpture students and for NPark’s support during the event. But that was not to be the end or the final resting place for the wooden whale. The guest of honour at the Symposium, Paul Tan, deputy CEO of the National Arts Council, then made the suggestion that the sculpture should be offered to LKCNHM.

 

The Move to LKCNHM

Preparations for the move then were made after Ms Toh contacted Professor Peter Ng, the head of LKCNHM, to donate her artwork to the museum. It was a mammoth task, but made light thanks to the movers from Rhema.  Heavy machinery such as the lorry crane was used to seamlessly and safely move the wooden whale to its new home . The sculpture was unveiled on the lawn of the LKCNHM on 19 February 2016.

Ms Toh still has a sense of excitement, and is “glad and honoured to have her masterpiece in the museum” alongside Jubilee. Delightedly, she exclaims “the museum is the best place this sculpture can be placed at”.

Although the whale was placed on the museum’s lawn, concerns were later raised that termites could destroy the sculpture and that the wood would decompose faster if it were left on the soil. A decision was made to move the model once more, this time onto the paved walkway. This provided Ms Toh a chance to trim, sand, and varnish the belly.

 

On 11 April 2016, the same team from Rhema helped out with the repository of the whale. The move took 5.5 hours of reshuffling and adjustments as it was at risk of being damaged should people mishandle it. The solution was to set cement to adhere and hold the sculpture to prevent further movement.

Despite the difficulties that beset the wooden whale, Toh’s message remains the same.  The sculpture’s plaque captures the undeterred optimism for us to appreciate and protect the fragile marine biological environment. “How did a deep sea creature end up near our offshore island? In my opinion, the marine biological environment and human activities are closely related. Ergo, the causes of their death are food for thought.”

Scientist Feature: Dr Tohru Naruse

 

20160401_152654
Dr Tohru Naruse at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM). Photo by Chia Han Shen. 

 

“Crabby” Research

When we think crustaceans, we think chilli or black pepper crab and how to satisfy our palates. There are, however, some who think crabs not to fill their appetites but to feed their curiosity.

Ever heard of tree-climbing crabs? Ever wondered just how many crustacean species there are?

Much of what we know about marine biodiversity and oceanic life come from the life work of scientists such as Dr Tohru Naruse, an Associate Professor from the Tropical Biosphere Research Center at the University of the Ryukyus, Japan.

Dr Naruse is a specialist in the study of brachyurans. Brachyurans are a suborder of crustaceans that are referred to as true crabs. These crabs—characterised by a short tail and a reduced abdomen—are amongst Dr Naruse’s passion.

His current project at Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) to document and examine crabs of the genus Labuanium (Family Sesarmidae) is evidence of this. These nocturnal tree-climbing crab species which consume plant and animal matter are found in mangrove forests all over Southeast Asia. To date 13 species have been discovered and described.

DSC_9576a

Labuanium trapezoideum (H.Milne Edwards, 1837), a tree-climbing crab specimen being examined by Dr Naruse. Photo by Dr Tohru Naruse.

Dr Naruse’s first visit to Singapore was the day before 11 Sept 2001. Since then, he has been a frequent and well-known visitor to LKCNHM with at least a visit once a year.

His collaboration with the head of LKCNHM, Professor Peter Ng—also an expert in crab taxonomy and biology—has borne much fruit.

This included a 6-month stay studying brachyurans in the museum’s collection, and later as a research fellow at the Department of Biological Sciences from October 2006 to December 2008.

Boyhood Passion

Dr Naruse’s interest in nature stems from a boyhood passion. In his youth, he explored the picturesque mountains and rivers that surrounded his home in Seto City, Aichi Prefecture, on the main island of Honshu, Japan. Here, he would encounter a myriad of insects, freshwater shrimps and fish.

It was only later in his university days that he would discover a genuine passion and deeper appreciation of brachyurans. As an undergraduate student about twenty years ago, Dr Naruse became interested in life found in freshwater and coral reef environments—particularly the crabs and prawns—as he waded through the islands collecting specimens.

Okinawa, an island in Japan’s south, is a tropical island that hosts Pacific coral reefs and is one of the nation’s hotspots for biodiversity. The proximity of the sea to the University of the Ryukyus made it an ideal oceanic research lab right at the doorstep of the university for Dr Naruse.

An independent researcher with the University of the Ryukyus, he enjoys collecting crab specimens from scuba diving around Okinawan waters. More importantly, he enjoys lending his expertise on crab specimens in both Japanese and international partnerships.

When asked about what he liked about the museum he said he “enjoys the company of international researchers” that the museum draws. This builds ties with them and “encourages the exchange of knowledge, information and data collection methods”.

In comparison to crustacean specimens collected from the Ryukyus and the surrounding Japanese maritime waters, Dr Naruse observes that there is “more diversity with crustaceans in Southeast Asia and discoveries in more tropical regions of the Pacific Ocean”.

His most memorable discovery was on an expedition to Christmas Island, Australia, where Professor Ng invited him to join the team from LKCNHM. There the team found a totally new species of crab, Christmaplax mirabillis. The finding on 15 February 2012 led to the team classifying this cave-dwelling species under a new family and genus. It is these finds that inspire Dr Naruse to continue with his research in brachyurans.

Research in brachyurans has taken him to places such as mesophotic zones, which are middle oceanic zones that have low light penetration. This zone ranges from 30-100 m below the ocean surface. Meso means middle and photic means light in Greek.

This research is conducted through technological advances in rebreathers and special diving equipment. With these technological breakthroughs, the opportunities to further understand the deeper depths of the oceans and the inhabitants of these zones have now been opened.

These avenues have made scientific exploration and research all the more tantalising. What exciting discoveries await Dr Naruse! Time can only tell. But what is clear is that this would not be the last time we see him at LKCNHM. We look forward to his return and whetting our appetite with his invaluable contribution in crab research.

 

Scientist Feature: Earl of Cranbrook

Unlikely Birds of a Feather

House swift LKCNHM

House swift (Apus nipalensis) in flight at LKCNHM gallery. Photo by Chia Han Shen.

Earl Recent visit

The Earl of Cranbrook on his recent visit to LKCNHM. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

What do Southeast Asian birds have in common with an Earl? Are they birds of the same feather? That is the question in which this feature will seek to uncover.

Born in 1933, the current and fifth Earl of Cranbrook, Gathorne Gathorne-Hardy, is an ardent naturalist. He has made many regional scientific endeavours particularly in the field of ornithology and mammalogy, which are the study of birds and mammals respectively.

His enthusiasm in birds began when he was conscripted in the army during his posting in Germany in 1961. In his free time or periods of leave he would then embark on “country pursuits, which included birding”.

The Earl’s main ornithological passion is swiftlets. Swiftlets are small birds that masterfully catch insects on the wing and are famously known for their nest-building abilities using their unique saliva! These nests are harvested in large quantities and are a loved ingredient in traditional medicine and cuisine.

In Asia, harvesting of these nests is traditionally done in caves or on cliff clefts. But recently, efforts have been made to cultivate and harvest nests using artificial structures or ‘bird-houses’. These buildings are designed to simulate caves, which are located in or near town centres to attract passing swiftlets to roost.

This harvesting has led to a burgeoning industry in ‘farming’ swiftlets. The global bird’s nest industry is now worth $5 billion annually. There is widespread growth in this sector and Malaysia is one of the largest producers after Indonesia.

In addition to these famed attributes the Earl has made some pioneering discoveries on swiftlet behaviour! He was the first person to demonstrate echolocation by Malaysian swiftlets in 1956 and to test the swiftlets’ use of this faculty in avoiding obstacles in darkness whilst in Indonesia during the 1960s.

The Earl has written many Southeast Asian publications such as the Mammals of South-East Asia (1988) and Wonders of Nature in South-East Asia (1997). He has co-authored books Birds of the Malay Peninsula Vol 5 (1976) and the Swiftlets of Borneo: builders of edible nests (2002), with a second edition in 2014 reporting on specialised swiftlet studies of the 1990s.

His prolific discoveries and publications of the world of swiftlets show no sign of stopping. He was invited in 2005 by the Malaysian Federal Veterinary Department (MFVD) to investigate the genetic sequencing of the domestication and origins of house farm swiftlets in Malaysia.

However, problems arose when the MFVD at that time did not have the capability to extract DNA from feathers. Added to this complication was “that superior instructions” were given to withdraw the offer of jointly working together on this project.

Nonetheless, the Earl continued to gather information on the external appearance of house-farm swiftlets. He became a co-author of the first paper combining morphology and genetics in collaboration with Malaysian biologists from Universiti Tengku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) and Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) in 2013.

In recognition of his conservation efforts to the nature of South-East Asia he received a Merdeka Award in 2014, which is the greatest honour conferred to foreigners for outstanding contributions in Malaysia. The Earl resolved to dedicate a proportion of this award to further the studies of swiftlets.

Earl examining swiftlets

The Earl of Cranbrook on his recent visit to LKCNHM. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

His appointment as an International Associate of UTAR and his generosity have made the present phase of the study possible by contributing to the field expenses of UTAR colleagues, including staff member Dr Goh Wei Lim and MSc graduate student Mr Vincent Siew.

As part of the continuation of the study, the Earl was here briefly to look at the swiftlet specimens at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) during a four-week visit to the region.

At the LKCNHM, the Earl was examining swiftlet specimens that still provided good genetic samples and comparisons, which may prove timely and helpful in formulating development strategies for the expanding bird nest industry.

Assisting him on this research project has been Dr Sian Davies from Micropathology Ltd, UK and Assistant Professor Frank Rheindt from the Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

He considers himself to be “doubly fortunate” to be appointed Honorary Research Associate of Micropathology Ltd, and grateful for the additional funding provided that included the support of Dr Davies on this trip.

A frequent visitor of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research (RMBR) before it became the LKCNHM, the Earl of Cranbrook remarks at how much has changed since his first visit in 1956.

He regards the new museum as “fascinating and a brilliant display of biodiversity of Singapore and elsewhere”. Of particular interest to him at the LKCNHM is the joy of “seeing school children interacting with the exhibits”. We look forward to seeing more of him soon!