natural history museum

Raffles Bulletin of Zoology – New Year, New Blood

With each new year comes new changes, and this year brings in some significant changes in the editorial team of the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology (RBZ), a peer-reviewed, open-access journal published by our Museum.

The Bulletin has a new Managing Editor – Dr. Jose C. E. Mendoza (a.k.a. “JC”), who had previously served as Associate Editor for Carcinology since 2013. Dr. Mendoza breaks the news to the community in his first RBZ editorial (read more here).

The previous Managing Editor, Dr. Tan Heok Hui, has taken a new portfolio in the Museum, that of Head of Operations, but is also staying on as an Associate Editor for Ichthyology.

Among his notable achievements during his 6-year term is the publication of five volumes (vols. 59–63) and 11 supplements (nos. 24–34), containing 458 articles and monographs – some of which have gone on to be among the most highly cited in the Bulletin’s history. Dr Tan has also ushered the Bulletin into modernity, publishing its first fully electronic volume (vol. 62) in 2014.

Copy & Production Editor, Mr. Jeremy Yeo, who has efficiently performed administrative, copy-editing and production duties since 2013, has also moved over with Dr. Tan to the Operations department of the museum. We thank them for their service and wish them all the best in this new stage of their careers!

Also joining the editorial team are Dr. Hwang Wei Song, as Assistant Managing Editor and concurrent Associate Editor for Entomology; new Associate Editors, Dr. Evan S. H. Quah (Herpetology) and Dr. Toh Tai Chong (Marine ecology & conservation); and new Copy & Production Editor, Ms. Clarisse Tan. Welcome aboard & good luck!

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(From left) Ms. Clarisse Tan, Dr. Hwang Wei Song, Dr. Jose C. E. Mendoza, Dr. Tan Heok Hui, and Mr. Jeremy Yeo. Photo by Cheng Yew Toon.

Visiting Scientist(s) Feature: Dr. Ralf Britz and Dr. Ariane Standing

Recently, we hosted Dr. Ralf Britz and Dr. Ariane Standing from the Natural History Museum, London, who were here in Singapore to collect fish from the Phallostethidae family for their research.

Male fish from the Phallostethidae family have a unique feature – their reproductive organs are under their chins. The male uses the muscular and complex organ, known as the priapium, to get a firm grip of the female during mating and transfer of gametes.

Formed from the modification of the pectoral and pelvic fins, the organ contains a genital pore, anal opening, a rod called the toxactinium, and a serrated saw called the ctenactinium. The toxactinium and cetenactinium enable the male to grab a female’s head during mating, allowing the priapium to deposit sperm in the female’s throat, where her oviduct opening is. Sounds a little…strange right?

The bizarre nature of this fish was precisely what intrigued Dr. Britz to study them in detail.

“I like weird and small stuff,” he said with a laugh.

Also, to aid in mating, the priapium is curved towards one side – either the left or the right. It is still not known what causes the priapium to grow towards either side of the male’s body, and this conundrum forms the basis of Dr. Britz and Dr. Standing’s research.

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Dr. Britz (middle) and Dr. Standing (right) with Dr. Zeehan Jaafar at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve for fieldwork. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

During their 6-day visit here, they collected around 40 fish specimens from the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, to bring back to London for genetic analysis.

We wish Dr. Britz and Dr. Standing all the best in their research, and hope to see them again!

Visiting Scientist Feature: Dr. Tsunemi Kubodera

Three years of planning, and multiple expeditions consisting of sitting in the dark depths of the deep sea for around eight hours, enclosed in a small submersible. It took all these extensive efforts (and more) for Dr. Tsunemi Kubodera to become the first person to photograph and capture footage of the legendary giant squid (Architeuthis dux) in its natural habitat, 900 m underwater.

When asked about his feelings upon seeing the giant squid live in front of him for the first time, Dr. Kubodera said that he remembers being really excited while viewing the giant squid in the dark through a camera monitor, and being so eager to see it for himself.

“I really wanted to see it with my own eyes (and not just through the monitor),” he said.

Thus, he asked the pilot of the submersible he was in to switch on its bright lights, despite knowing that there is a risk that the giant squid may be scared off by the lights. However, the squid did not flee, but instead continued to feed on the bait that they used to lure it in, allowing Dr. Kubodera to watch it live for a total of about 23 minutes.

Dr. Kubodera, a zoologist from the National Museum of Nature and Science, Japan, is currently here on a research visit to help identify squid beaks that were found in the stomach of our sperm whale. Over the past few days, he has been working with our Mammal Curator, Mr. Marcus Chua, to identify around 1,800 squid beaks.

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Dr. Kubodera (left) with Mr. Chua (right) in the LKCNHM research lab. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

Over the weekend, in conjunction with the launch of our new exhibition “Out of the Water” and book “Whale out of Water”, there will be a public talk by Dr. Kubodera, where he will share his journey towards photographing and filming the giant squid. All seats have been filled as of press time.

The new exhibition features displays and stories on the giant squid, sperm whales as well as other marine creatures. The book “Whale out of Water” documents the journey we took from recovering our sperm whale, to putting her skeleton up for display in the gallery.

We look forward to seeing you here!

We also thank Dr. Kubodera for telling us interesting insights about his giant squid journey, and hope to see him again!

Visiting Scientist Feature: Mr. Zachary Emberts

Imagine yourself in a life-threatening situation just like in the film ‘127 Hours’: where amputating your trapped limb is the only way to survive. Will you choose to do so?

Just like how Mr. Aron Ralston (whose incident was the subject of the film) chose to remove his arm, certain insects also possess the ability to lose their limbs in order to escape predators – a behaviour known as autotomy.

Autotomy in insects is a topic that greatly intrigues Mr. Zachary Emberts, who is currently working on his PhD dissertation at the University of Florida, Gainesville (co-advised at Miller lab and St. Mary lab).

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Mr. Emberts at his work station in the LKCNHM research lab.

His study subject is the family of leaf-footed bugs (Coreidae, Heteroptera), where limb loss is known to occur but the hind legs of males are also sometimes enlarged for male-male competition for females.

These additional functions of the hind leg sets up an interesting scenario of whether to lose the leg to escape predation at the cost of not being able to compete successfully for a mate thereafter.

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Dorsal view of a male leaf-footed bug, Mictis longicornis. Photo by Hwang Wei Song.

 

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Lateral view of a male leaf-footed bug, Mictis longicornis. Photo by Hwang Wei Song.

We hosted Mr. Emberts during his research visit to the museum last week. During his one week visit, he collected around 100 sweet potato bugs (Physomerus grossipes), along with other leaf-footed bugs, for his experiment (for reference, an earlier study conducted by Mr. Emberts and other researchers).

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Male sweet potato bug, Physomerus grossipes. Photo by Hwang Wei Song.

His research visit here has been very helpful in discerning the evolutionary pattern of limb loss among the leaf-footed bugs and he was delighted with his fruitful findings.

We had a great time hosting Mr. Emberts, and wish him all the best for his 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).

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

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

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

Globetrotting Scientist

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

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

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

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

A Crabtivating New Find

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.