science

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.

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/)

[Research highlight] Citation of taxonomic publications: the why, when, what and what not

The museum’s deputy head, Prof. Rudolf Meier, published an opinion article about how the current citation practices in biology are unfavourable to taxonomy.

https://i1.wp.com/lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/nus/images/staffphoto/rudolfmeier.jpg

Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

Citations are important in science because it gives credit to the original authors (scientists) who made and reported a particular discovery or idea. However, authors of species are seldom cited in scientific publications. To address this issue, some journals or publishers require full citation of species descriptions.

Meier opined that citing and using original species descriptions may be inappropriate or lead to wrong conclusions. For example, the original description of the commonly eaten flower crab (Portunus pelagicus) by Carl Linnaeus in 1758, actually comprises four species today.

Instead, he argues that “proper citation credits should instead go to the literature that was used for specimen identification and the publications that contain the most accurate information on the currently accepted species limits of the species under study”.

Read more about his thought on this issue in the original paper.

Original paper:
Meier, R. 2016. Citation of taxonomic publications: the why, when, what and what not. Systematic Entomology: 1-4. doi: 10.1111/syen.12215

[Research highlight] New species of pea crab that lives in date mussel from Solomon Island

This new species of pea crab, Serenotheres janus, is named after the Roman two-faced god, Janus, as it has an unusually-shaped carapace that looks like two sides of a tent when seen from above.

serenotheres-janus

Photo by Zachariah Kobrinsky and David Liittschwager.

The museum’s head, Prof. Peter Ng, and Dr Christopher Meyer from the Smithsonian Natural Museum of Natural History, United States of America described the crab from a large date mussel collected from Solomon Island.

crab-in-situ

Photo by Zachariah Kobrinsky and David Liittschwager.

The crab lives inside (and are parasites of) the date mussel, Leiosolenus obesus, which resemble date seeds. These mussels burrow into coral rock for protection. Thus, the crabs live a doubly protected lifestyle inside a mussel that lives inside a rock.

Currently, only one specimen of Serenotheres janus is known, and it certainly shows that it pays to look into every nook and cranny (and every shell) for undiscovered life!

Original paper:
Ng PKL, Meyer C (2016) A new species of pea crab of the genus Serenotheres Ahyong & Ng, 2005 (Crustacea, Brachyura, Pinnotheridae) from the date mussel Leiosolenus Carpenter, 1857 (Mollusca, Bivalvia, Mytilidae, Lithophaginae) from the Solomon Islands. ZooKeys 623: 31-41. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.623.10272

[Research highlight] Molluscs for Sale: Assessment of Freshwater Gastropods and Bivalves in the Ornamental Pet Trade

Did you know that a large number of snails and clams come into Singapore via the ornamental pet trade?

NUS Phd student, Ng Ting Hui, and researchers from the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum and Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore found a total of 59 species of snails and bivalves had been brought into Singapore via the pet and ornamental animal and plant trade from 2008 to 2014.

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Shells of the 59 species of molluscs found from the ornamental pet trade in Singapore. Photos by Ng Ting Hui and Chan Sow-Yan.

Some of these are known or potentially invasive species which may cause harm to species that are native to Singapore, or to the environment. This study provides an important baseline and reference for future monitoring, and points the direction towards a more sustainable ornamental pet trade.

The findings of the research was featured on the Straits Times by Carolyn Khew on 4 Nov 2016.

Original paper:
Ng, T. H., Tan, S. K., Wong, W. H., Meier, R., Chan, S-Y., Tan, H. H., Yeo, D. C. J. 2016. Molluscs for Sale: Assessment of Freshwater Gastropods and Bivalves in the Ornamental Pet Trade. PLoS ONE 11(8): e0161130. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0161130

Scientist Feature: The Malaysian Cave Rat Mystery

Ms Islahuda Hani Sahak & Mr Mohammad Amin Abdul Aziz

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Husband and wife team during their visit to LKCNHM. Photo by Chia Han Shen.

What do rats and mice have in common with guinea pigs and hamsters?

They belong to a group of animals known as rodents. Rodents contain some of the biggest families within the animal kingdom.

In this edition we feature PhD candidate from the University of Malaya (UM), Ms Islahuda Hani Sahak, who is working to identify rodent skulls in Malaysian caves. She hails from the Department of Geology, Faculty of Science at UM.

Assisting her in this trip is Mr Mohammad Amin Abdul Aziz, who is her husband, and also a trained geologist. For this research trip, the goal is to investigate differences between collected skulls to aid in species recognition.

This study is the first comprehensive survey in Malaysia of how the Muridae fossil group plays an important ecological role in the Quarternary geological time period.

Understanding the paleo-environment

Their visit to Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in April 2016 involved comparisons between full-bodied specimens found in our collection and Ms Islahuda’s rodent skull fragments.

This is a bonus as Ms Islahuda often only has dentition to go by, as it is rare to get a complete skull of fossilised rodents with their teeth intact. Differences are often minute as there are many similarities in morphology (form).

They are now one step closer to determining the identities of their subjects. Ms Islahuda managed to narrow it down to four confirmed genera: Niviventer, Rattus, Maxomys and Chiropodomys. On an even better note, she has established one of the species as the Indomalayan pencil-tailed tree mouse (Chiropodomys glirodes).

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Often Ms Islahuda only has dentition to work with such as this isolated tooth sample. Photo by Ms Islahuda.

There are many aspects that both Mr Aziz and Ms Islahuda find interesting about rodents. For example, the skulls of rodents can be used to determine their age and even their diet, which gives insights to how each species differs and how adaptable they can be.

Ms Islahuda explains that geologists try to reconstruct the paleo-environment to get a glimpse of what life was like millions of years ago. Clues such as fossilised remains of animals found in river sediments often indicate what living conditions were like millions of years ago. Rodents are the perfect study subjects as they do not migrate and live in specialised regions.

Raising the flag for environmental conservation

Their reasons for conducting this research are based on a conservation mantra.

They hope to raise awareness of cave fossil conservation by creating an environmental value for cave ecosystems to protect them from threats such as the construction of temples and collection of bat guano or poop for plant fertiliser.

They attempt to educate people in appreciating this often-misunderstood group of animals. Pest such as brown rats and house mice are only a tiny minority within rodents which cause harm to humans. On the other hand, hundreds of other species play important roles in their ecosystems around the world.

For example, did you know that jungle rats such as the Rajah’s spiny rat – found in our region – help in the seed dispersal of trees which promote the health of the forest? Rodents are also the favourite prey for animals such as snakes and owls!

This was Ms Islahuda’s and Mr Aziz’s first visit to LKCNHM. As part of their investigation they will also head to the natural history museums in Indonesia, Thailand, China and London to seek more answers in solving the identities of their specimens.

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Specimens of Malaysian House rats from LKCNHM. Photo by Ms Islahuda.

LKCNHM is honoured to host researchers and regional experts who contribute to our knowledge and understanding of Southeast Asian biodiversity. These scientists play an integral part in spearheading environmental conservation initiatives that protect native ecosystems.

We wish Ms Islahuda and Mr Aziz success as they continue in their search to determine the mysteries of the elusive rodents of Peninsular Malaysian caves.

Raffles Bulletin of Zoology 2016 Supplement No. 33 out: Distribution of and conservation priorities for Bornean small carnivores and cats

The second Raffles Bulletin of Zoology supplement from the 1st Borneo Carnivore Symposium (BCS): Road Towards Conservation Action Plans held at Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia in June 2011 is now available. Supplement No. 33: Distribution of and conservation priorities for Bornean small carnivores and cats follows RBZ Supplement No. 28 published in 2013.

RBZ 33

This supplement provides a road map for better protection of Borneo’s cats and small carnivores that are threatened by habitat loss, illegal hunting and fires. Majority of the papers are multi-author works by a team of international researchers lead by the German Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Species Survival Commission.

Fifteen small carnivoran and five wild cat papers present the predicted distribution of these 20 Bornean small carnivorans and cats from the analysis of collaborative field data. This includes rare and threatened species such as the flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps), Hose’s civet (Diplogale hosei), and otter civet (Cynogale bennettii). Additional papers discuss zooarchaeology and carnivoran conservation planning on Borneo by identifying key carnivoran landscapes, research priorities, and conservation interventions.

Dr. Andreas Wilting, scientist at the IZW and lead editor of this supplement sums up the project, “The goal of the BCS was to understand better the distribution and conservation needs of Bornean cats and small carnivores and subsequently, to enable targeted conservation efforts to those carnivores which are most threatened. We achieved this goal through a collaborative effort of the Borneo Carnivore Consortium, a network of more than 60 national and international scientists, conservationists and naturalists working on Borneo.”

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Binturong from Deramakot Forest Reserve, Sabah. Photo by A. Mohamed / IZW, SFD.

 

 

Scientist Feature: Double Edition

This week we feature two scientists – Dr Chavalit Vidtahayanon, a fisheries expert from Thailand, and Dr Charles Leh, the deputy director of the Sarawak Museum – who visited our diverse collections last month at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM).

What do they have in common?

They are catfish specialists who have 40 years of shared experience and valuable expertise between them.                

 

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Dr Chavalit Vidthayanon on his recent visit to LKCNHM. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

Dr Chavalit Vidthayanon

Dr Chavalit Vidthayanon is an expert in many biological fields such as ichthyology, malacology, carcinology and palaeontology.

As an ichthyologist (fish scientist) he studies and monitors the diversity of freshwater fish in Southeast Asia.

This fishy fascination began at a young age, followed by tertiary studies in marine science, culminating in his 1993 PhD in fisheries on the taxonomic revision of Pangasiid catfish at the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology.

Pangasius catfish are medium to large shark catfish that can only be found in India and Southeast Asia. Some species are commercially important food items such as basa and sutchi. These delectable fish products are exported and sold as frozen and fresh fillets worldwide.

Live sutchi

(Pangasinodium hypophthalmus) sutchi catfish from aquarium trade. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

Basa fish vietnam market

Basa fish being sold in Vinh Long Market, Vietnam. Sourced from Flickr: Basa fish – Vinh Long Market. Photo by Alpha.

 

Since then he has published four informative papers involving the discovery and naming of new species of catfish, and describing crucial differences amongst catfish families.

Dr Vidthayanon’s first job was as a fisheries technician in the Department of Fisheries in the National Museum of Thailand. His subsequent professional experiences include working with Thailand’s branch of the World Wildlife Fund, the Khorat Fossil Museum and the Mekong River Commission.

With his professional expertise and wealth of accumulated experiences, he is now an independent consultant on river biodiversity within the Indo-Chinese region.

Over the years he has collaborated with the head of LKCNHM, Prof Peter Ng, particularly in carcinology, which is the study of crustaceans. Together they published a 2013 scientific report on the discovery of a new cave dwelling crab species and genus, Thampramon tonvuthi, found only in Thailand.

Since his first visit to the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity and Research in 1997, Dr Vidthayanon has been impressed by the transformation of the museum. He still remembers its humble beginnings as a small public gallery at the Department of Biological Sciences during his initial visit.

He marvels at what it has become today – a full-fledged natural history institution equipped with modern research facilities, a brand new name and regionally-renown scientific reputation. This was his second visit to the museum and accompanied by his wife of 27 years.

 

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From left to right: Dr Tan Swee Hee from LKCNHM with Dr Charles Leh from the Sarawak Museum. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

Dr Charles Leh

Dr Charles Leh is a deputy director of Sarawak Museum. Dr Leh, a trained zoologist, has been with the institution for the past 20 years. He holds many important roles in the museum, not merely as deputy director, but also as curator of zoology and co-editor of the Sarawak Museum Journal.

He is known primarily for his 1990 PhD study and his 2012 publications on the eel tailed catfish species, Plotosus canius. It is considered to be the largest member of the Plotosus family in Singapore and is a common inhabitant in coastal waters.

Plotosus lineatus Wikipedia Image

A shoal of striped eel-tailed catfish, (Plotosus lineatus), in Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo by Jens Petersen.

All Plotosus catfish have venomous spines on their fins, an eel-like tail and are characterised by their shoaling behaviour during their juvenile stage. Fish often shoal or bunch together to reduce the risk of predation and improve their chances of survival.

The purpose of Dr Leh’s trip was to obtain ideas for his plans to renovate the Sarawak Museum. In particular, he was here studying the container facilities of the LKCNHM and how we store our specimens using compactors and racks. This was why he came accompanied by his team of architects.

Dr Charles Leh and architects

Dr Charles Leh and his team of architects during their visit to LKCNHM with our beautiful wall mural. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

We are delighted to have top scientists visit LKCNHM regularly. Dr Vidthayanon and Dr Leh have made valuable contributions to fish conservation within Southeast Asia. Their knowledge has proven helpful in building our regional database and updating vital information on specimens that have been collected over many years.

Indopinnixa shellorum, A new species of crab described from Singapore!

A new crab species described from Singapore by our resident crab taxonomist, Professor Peter Ng (Head, Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum)!

Figure 1 Indopinnixa (FB)

Described as Indopinnixa shellorum, they live in close association with sipunculan worms. This crab is also tiny, measuring only 4 mm across! It is no wonder why they have evaded detection for years, even with frequent and intensive biological surveys.

This species is named after the employees of Shell Singapore Private Limited for their strong support for many of our local science and biodiversity programs such as the Raffles Museum Visiting Scientist Program. They also contributed greatly towards the Comprehensive Marine Biodiversity Survey Project, organised by National Parks Board (Singapore) to document the marine plants and animals on the island.

Indopinnixa shellorum was one of the new species collected during the Comprehensive Marine Biodiversity Survey Project.

The CEO of Shell Mr Ben van Beurden presented a model of this crab to PM Lee Hsien Loong (Prime Minister of Singapore) as a memento to PM Lee while receiving the Honorary Partner in Progress Award from EDB Singapore. Shell also commemorated the occasion with Indopinnixa shellorum ties!

 indopinnixa shellorum tie