natural history museum

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/)

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!

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.

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

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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.

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!

 

 

 

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

 

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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.

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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

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

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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.

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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!