Nature

Visiting Scientist Feature: Dr. Jan-Frits Veldkamp

Recently, we hosted Dr. Jan-Frits Veldkamp from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden. Dr. Veldkamp is a botanist with a research focus on the grasses of Southeast Asia, with a career that has spanned over 50 years.

He was here to examine grass specimens in the Singapore University Herbarium (SINU), as part of the research for a book about the herbaceous grasses of Singapore that he is working on, under the Flora of Singapore project by the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

This was Dr. Veldkamp’s second visit this year; he was at the museum for a few days in April for the Flora of Singapore project. This second visit was for him to finish examining all the grass specimens in the SINU, and over the course of his two-week visit, he examined around 1,000 herbaceous grass specimens.

A Whole New World

His interest in botany started after a biology lesson in high school, where he was taught to identify different plants.

“After the lesson, I realised that I could identify the different types of plants that were around me, plants that the average person will not take a second look at,” he said.

“It felt like the world was different,” he added.

A Botanist’s Eye

Dr. Veldkamp keeps a lookout for plants everywhere he goes—during his visit, he spotted an uncommon type of grass (Panicum laxum) while on his way to lunch, at a grass patch near the museum.

The patch of grass, located off a walkway, is nondescript; most people walking by would not even notice it. However, Dr. Veldkamp noticed a few plants located in a far corner, and discovered the uncommon grass growing there. He then collected a few specimens, and deposited them in SINU.

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Dr. Veldkamp examining Panicum laxum grasses near LKCNHM. Photo by Clarisse Tan.

During his visit here, a previously unknown grass specimen in the SINU was also identified by Dr. Veldkamp to be Acroceras tonkinense. This finding greatly excited him, as the last known specimen of the grass found in Singapore is dated all the way back to the year 1822, whereas the newly identified specimen was collected in 1999—a gap of 177 years.

We wish Dr. Veldkamp all the best in his research, and hope to see him again soon.

Visiting Scientist Feature: Dr. Evan Quah

A while back, we hosted Dr. Evan Quah from Universiti Sains Malaysia, who was here to examine snake specimens in the Zoological Reference Collection (ZRC).

Dr. Quah is a herpetologist with a research focus on the systematics and biogeography of Malaysian herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles). He is also an Associate Editor (Herpetology) for the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology, a peer-reviewed, open access journal published by LKCNHM. During his visit here, he examined about 60 snake specimens in the ZRC, as part of his ongoing research on snake diversity in Peninsular Malaysia.

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Dr. Quah at his workstation in the LKCNHM research lab. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

Childhood Passion

Dr. Quah’s interest in snakes and reptiles began from childhood, where he was “somehow drawn” to the creatures, and even kept reptiles as pets in his home.

His research takes him places far and wide for field work—such as camping out in the Cambodian wilderness for a week looking for snakes.

Due to their speed and ability to camouflage amongst vegetation, snakes are rather difficult to spot, especially to the untrained eye. However, years of experience in the field, as well as a “natural instinct” have made it easier for Dr. Quah to spot snakes while out on field work.

Poisonous Misunderstanding

In general, snakes are commonly perceived to be dangerous animals. However, Dr. Quah asserts that the “highly interesting” creatures are more than just their bad reputation.

“They have no limbs, but yet are capable of living in every single habitat, except for the extreme polar regions,” he said.

Some species of snakes also possess the ability to ‘fly’. In Singapore, Chrysopelea paradisi—also known as the paradise tree snake or flying tree snake—is able to glide from tree to tree by flattening its body and launching in the air like a parachute.

Snakes too play an important role in the ecosystem. They act as a natural form of pest control by preying on harmful insects, as well as pests such as mice and rats.

Unanswered Questions

This is not Dr. Quah’s first visit to the museum, having visited back when the museum was at its old premises. He said that his 8-day visit here was highly fruitful.

However, Dr. Quah also mentioned that while there is plenty of research on snake taxonomy, still not much is known about the behaviour and ecology of snakes in Southeast Asia.

“There are still lots of questions that have yet to be answered,” he said.

We look forward to the interesting findings on snakes that come from Dr. Quah’s research, as well as that from any (current and future) herpetologists!

Research Highlights – August 2017

We feature some new research from our resident carcinologists, published recently in August.

A star is born (Pariphiculus stellatus Ng & Jeng, 2017)

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This new species of crab possesses peculiar star-shaped tubercles on its body—which is why it was given the epithet, stellatus, which means ‘star-like’ or ‘starry’ in Latin. The new crab species was described in a paper written by Prof. Peter K. L. Ng (Head, LKCNHM) and Dr. Ming-Shiou Jeng (Biodiversity Research Center, Academia Sinica, Taiwan), and published in the journal, ZooKeys.

The crab was collected from a seamount near Peng-Chia-Yu Island, in northern Taiwan, in a regulated fishing zone for red corals [Note: The skeletons of red corals (Anthozoa: Coralliidae) are highly prized and are used to make jewelry.]

The new species has also been found previously in Japan and the Philippines, but the specimens from those places were either not identified to species or were misidentified as a similar-looking species, P. agariciferus. It was only recently, after close comparison with a larger set of specimens from different areas in the western Pacific region, that the differences came to light. Besides the peculiarly shaped tubercles, P. stellatus can be distinguished from P. agariciferus by its larger size and by differences in the form of the carapace, pincers and male genitalia.

Interestingly, all the specimens of P. stellatus were collected by fishermen using hand-operated tangle nets. The authors speculate that this may be the reason why it was not discovered previously by conventional marine biodiversity surveys, which tend to use ship-towed trawls and dredges to sample the sea floor.

Read the paper here:

Ng PKL, Jeng M-S (2017) Notes on two crabs (Crustacea, Brachyura, Dynomenidae and Iphiculidae) collected from red coral beds in northern Taiwan, including a new species of Pariphiculus Alcock, 1896. ZooKeys, 694: 135–156.

Michael’s crab (Sundathelphusa miguelito Mendoza & Sy, 2017)

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This new species of freshwater crab, from the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, came to the attention of our curator of crustaceans, Dr. Jose C. E. Mendoza, through a collaboration with Manila-based herpetologist and conservationist, Mr. Emerson Y. Sy (Philippine Center for Terrestrial and Aquatic Research).

Mr. Sy had previously sent some crab specimens to Dr. Mendoza for identification, including some that were purchased from an ambulant fish vendor in the town of Lake Sebu, in South Cotabato Province. Apparently, the crabs were being sold as food by the bagful to locals and to the neighbouring towns. After some comparison with the known species from Mindanao, the crabs were found to be a new species of Sundathelphusa, a freshwater crab genus occurring in the Philippines, East Malaysia and Indonesia.

The new species has been described in a paper published in the journal, Crustaceana, as part of the Michael Türkay Memorial Issue. This special issue is the latest tribute to the late Professor Türkay, the eminent Curator of Crustacea at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Dr. Mendoza and Mr. Sy gave the new species the epithet, miguelito, from a Spanish/Filipino endearment which means “little Michael”.

Sought for comment about this latest addition to the freshwater crab fauna of the Philippines, Dr. Mendoza remarked that he and his colleagues “have barely scratched the surface”, and that there are probably more species “hiding in plain sight” and waiting to be named and described.

Read the abstract here:

Mendoza JCE, Sy EY (2017) Sundathelphusa miguelito, a new species of freshwater crab from the southern Philippines (Brachyura, Gecarcinucidae). Crustaceana, 90(7–10): 1039–1053.

Visiting Scientist Feature: Ms. Emily Hartop

A while back, we hosted Ms. Emily Hartop from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLA), who was here to examine recently collected fly specimens.

Ms. Hartop is an entomologist well versed in phorid flies from the genus Megaselia, a large group consisting of around 1,400 known species. Flies from this genus are known to be difficult to identify, as the differences between the various species are subtle.

How do scientists like Ms. Hartop identify and differentiate between the various species then? Well, mainly by examining their…genitalia. Ms. Hartop examines the flies under the microscope, focusing mostly on their genitalia, and draws sketches of what she sees.

“It’s (sketching fly genitalia) what people know me for,” she said.

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Ms. Hartop at her work station in LKCNHM’s research lab. Photo by Clarisse Tan.

During her visit here, Ms. Hartop examined around 2,000 specimens of phorid flies from the genus Megaselia, as well as other genera. The specimens were pre-sorted into various groups based on genetic analysis.

Also, back in Los Angeles, NHMLA launched an initiative called Biodiversity Science: City and Nature (BioSCAN), with the aim to discover the biodiversity in Los Angeles. Under this initiative, Malaise traps were set up in the back yards of citizens living all over the city, and the insects collected were sorted and identified.

After three months of collection, the researchers, which included Ms. Hartop, suspected that they found thirty new species of the genus Megaselia, which was later found to be true. The findings came as a pleasant surprise for the researchers, who did not expect to find so many new species in a large, urbanised city. The findings were later reported in a research paper (click here to read).

Ms. Hartop was also in discussion about holding a BioSCAN project here in Singapore, so keep your eyes peeled! Maybe in time to come, you will see Malaise traps pop up around your neighbourhood!

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(s) Feature: Dr. Stefano Cannicci and students

Just before the Lunar New Year break, we hosted Dr. Stefano Cannicci from the University of Hong Kong, along with his PhD students, Rebekah Butler, Laura Agusto and Pedro Juliao Jimenez, who were here to examine crab specimens in the Zoological Reference Collection (ZRC).

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Dr. Stefano Cannicci at his work station in the LKCNHM research lab.

Having brought over crab specimens they collected from Hong Kong, they came to familiarise themselves with the process of identifying crabs, by comparing their specimens to those in the ZRC.

Their 6-day visit brought along a few surprises, such as finding two new species of crabs among their specimens, a discovery that also excited the head of the museum, Prof. Peter Ng.

Small but Mighty

Dr. Cannicci and his students’ research interests are in marine biology and mangrove ecology, along with a focus on crabs. But why research on crabs in particular?

According to Laura, she became interested in studying crabs after learning how they play an important role in the ecosystem. Despite their small size, these creatures have a mighty effect on ecosystems such as mangroves, so much so that they have been dubbed ‘ecosystem engineers’ by scientists.

In order to seek protection from environmental extremes and predators, crabs dig burrows in the soil – long, winding tunnels in which they can seek refuge. These burrows also help to open up the oxygen-poor soil and allow oxygen to be better absorbed by the mangroves.

Two main groups of crabs that do so are the vinegar crabs (Sesarmidae) and the fiddler crabs (Ocypodidae). They also aid in nutrient cycling within the mangroves by consuming and also burying leaf litter, preventing nutrient loss and encouraging decomposition.

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Mangrove Management

Just like the tiny critters that dig burrows in its soil, mangroves also play an important role in the ecosystem (see more here).

Dr. Cannicci and his students took the opportunity to visit Singapore’s own mangroves, and, with the help of local mangrove champion and LKCNHM research affiliate, Mr. N. Sivasothi, they were able to see Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve, as well as mangroves in Lim Chu Kang and Mandai.

Duly impressed that such sites still remain in Singapore, they, however, lamented the presence of trash brought over from the nearby sea, an all-too-common global phenomenon. They learned from Mr. Sivasothi (who is also the national coordinator for the International Coastal Cleanup in Singapore) that the trash was retrieved through clean ups.

Dr. Cannicci also cited the importance of outreach efforts to educate the public on the importance of mangroves, so that more can be done to preserve them and keep them in good condition.

A Good Example

On a similar note, he mentioned that our museum has done a good job in educating the public on natural history, with the exhibits presented in a way that are both interesting and easy on the eye. He also expressed his wish that there can be a similar natural history museum set up in Hong Kong.

We thank Dr. Cannicci for his kind comments, and look forward to see him and his students 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/)

Mitsubishi Nature Documenting Workshop 2016

Mistubishi Nature Documenting Workshop 2016

Would you like to be inspired by nature? Or be a naturalist for a day? If so, join us for our Documenting Nature Workshop, fully sponsored by Mitsubishi Singapore!

This three hour workshop will begin with a gallery tour focused on Singapore’s biodiversity, pioneer naturalists in Singapore, as well as the vast array of techniques used by them to document nature.

During the hands-on portion, participants will have a chance to try out some of these techniques! These include activities such as writing in a nature journal, making a scientific drawing, and creating a ‘gyotaku’ print on a reusable bag, which can be brought home!

Date: 14 May 2016

Time: 10am-1pm

Minimum age: 9 years

To register for this fully sponsored programme, please email us at nhmlearning@nus.edu.sg with the full name of participants, their ages, and contact details. Limited spots available!

Registration closes 11 May 2016.

Sponsored by:

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