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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!

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!

Visiting Scientist Feature: Dr. Lu Yao

Last month, we hosted Dr. Lu Yao from the American Museum of Natural History, who was here to examine gibbon specimens from the museum’s Zoological Reference Collection (ZRC).

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Dr. Lu Yao at her work station in the LKCNHM research lab.

Dr. Lu is currently looking into hybridisation in gibbons by studying their morphology and DNA.

To do so, she scanned gibbon skulls from the ZRC using a 3D scanner for comparison with images of other specimens, and took tissue samples from the specimens in order to test the DNA for hybridisation.

If it is found that hybridisation can be observed in gibbons just from their skull morphology, similar research on old fossil gibbons may become a possibility as DNA tests cannot be carried out on fossils that are too old.

Unusual Beginnings

Dr. Lu started off as a biology major with a plan to pursue medicine upon graduation, but that plan soon changed.

The reason? She started watching the American crime drama ‘Bones’, a show based on forensic anthropology and archaeology, and was intrigued by the storyline.

“I was watching the show and I couldn’t believe that people actually do all that for a living, it was really cool,” she said with a laugh.

She then decided to pursue a PhD in Evolutionary Biology, basing her research on gibbons due to prior interest in the “really cute” creatures.

However, she warns that monkeys also have their not-so-cute side – when she visited Ubud Monkey Forest in Bali, the monkeys there jumped around, climbed onto her head and even tugged out a few strands of her hair!

Thrill Seeker

Dr. Lu’s research takes her all over the world, on trips to various natural history museums to study specimens. However, she also likes to travel during her free time.

Once, she skiied at the top of the Alps in just a tank top and jeans! According to Dr. Lu, despite there being snow on the ground at that time, it was surprisingly warm at the top.

On another trip to South Africa, she came face to face with a huge venomous black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) in the safari, but thankfully came away unscathed. However, she was not so lucky and was bitten in the knee by a vulture on the same trip while in an endangered animal enclosure.

During her visit here, she took some time to visit the Singapore Zoo, which she really liked, as there is a lot of space in the enclosures for the animals to roam about, and most importantly, because she was able to see many gibbons.

It was also her first visit to our new museum premises, having previously visited our old premises back when we were still known as the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research.

We wish Dr. Lu all the best in her research, and hope to see her 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!

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!

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.

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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.

A tribute to Mr. S.R. Nathan—a patron we will remember

We extend our deepest condolences to the family of our former President, Mr. S.R. Nathan, who was an important benefactor to NUS and the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM). We remember him fondly as a champion for Singapore’s natural environment and education, and his crucial role in supporting the museum’s transformation to what it is today. He was also a patron to the museum’s tome, Singapore Biodiversity: An Encyclopedia of the Natural Environment and Sustainable Development, and helped kick start the fund raising effort to set up the Leo Tan Professorship in Biodiversity for the museum to honour Professor Leo Tan.

Head of LKCNHM, Prof Peter Ng penned the following tribute to the late Mr. S.R. Nathan:

He was just a man. Like all of us. But what a man he was. A people’s president in his tenure… not just in name, but in deeds, and most importantly, in heart. A soft-spoken man with a sage’s temperament and a resolve of steel. A man who instinctively knew what was right or wrong, and lived by these basic principles… even when the world he lived in rarely cared. He was a man who made any man or woman proud to be a Singaporean. And we were proud he was our President.

NUS and the Lee Kong Chian Natural History owe him a debt we cannot repay. As our patron, he shared his wisdom whenever we needed it. Encouraged and helped us to reach heights we thought were impossible. And when we succeeded in spite of everything, he reminded us that success was not an endgame. He counseled that it must be tempered with humility—that we who have succeeded must help those who have not, have less, or have a harder time. That we must endeavour and continue to engage Singaporeans. All Singaporeans.

He will be missed. He is already missed. Thank you sir and rest well. We will remember.

LKCNHM Ground Breaking

LKCNHM Ground Breaking ceremony on 11 Jan 2013. Mr. S.R. Nathan is seated second from left.