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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: 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 Zachary 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!

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.

Visit by Tony Wu, Underwater Photographer & Naturalist

April has been a busy month for us at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. We have had many special visitors and exciting happenings such as the repository of the wooden whale sculpture and the donation of a false killer whale jaw from Underwater World Singapore.

One such guest was Mr Tony Wu. Mr Wu is a freelance photo-naturalist who specialises in underwater photography. His assignments have taken him to many exotic locations and wonderfully unexpected encounters with nature. Mr Wu also contributed some excellent photos showcasing various deadly threats that whales face all over the world  to the information panels of our new sperm whale exhibit, Jubilee, which are featured below.

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Featured in this photograph and flanking Mr Wu are his long-time friends, Dr Tan Heok Hui (Operations Officer) and Dr Tan Swee Hee (Facilities Manager) posing against the beautiful backdrop of our wall mural. Mr Wu was guided by both Drs Tan in the gallery, and in his own words, ‘geeked out many times’.

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Besides being an underwater photographer by profession, Mr Wu is an avid traveller who organises trips for visitors to places that are off the beaten track to experience the wonders of the marine world. These include sessions of marine photography and up-close encounters with whales!

For Mr Wu, photography is not just a career but also a purposeful medium in which he hopes that it will convey positive and lasting experiences of oceanic marvels to his audiences.  He hopes that his viewers will gain a deeper appreciation of the world and better realisation of ourselves in the process, just as he himself experienced when he embarked on this path of diving into the deep blue.

More details on his visit to the museum and about himself can be found here:

http://www.tonywublog.com/journal/jubilee-the-sperm-whale-singapore-natural-history-museum

http://www.tonywublog.com/profile/background-information-about-underwater-photographer-tony-wu/

Whale of a time at the Museum

Willy’s Tale

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False Killer Whale (Pseudorca crassidens). Source: Protected Resources Division, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, La Jolla, California, Public Domain, U.S National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

The whale theme continues at the museum this week!

On 13 April 2016, we received a donation of the remains of a false killer whale from Underwater World Singapore (UWS). We are thankful for this generous donation and the support from UWS.

While news of the Singapore sperm whale has dominated the press since last July, little is known about Willy, the false killer whale that was stranded in Singapore more than two decades ago.

On 23 January 1994, two men who went crab hunting off Tuas spotted the whale, which they initially mistook for a shark. They alerted Underwater World Singapore (UWS) and the animal was identified as a false killer whale by UWS divers despatched to the site.

Screenshot of Newspaper article on Willy

The Straits Times article about Willy’s stranding back in January 27 1994. 

News of the whale stranding spread and captured the nation’s imagination. The whale was dubbed ‘Willy’ by the press after the highly popular 1990s film “Free Willy”, a stirring story about a boy who befriends a killer whale or orca called Willy—which was captured from the wild—and sets him free.

Rescue attempts to move the whale into deeper waters spanned a week but were ultimately unsuccessful. Willy later went missing on 29 January 1994 and was found dead the next day by some fishermen. The UWS then collected the body to conduct a post-mortem and solve some of the mysteries surrounding her arrival and death.

Autopsy and Preservation at Underwater World

As the autopsy was underway, it turned out that Willy was an old adult female, and not a young adult male as first presumed. The cause of death was also identified as a combination of infectious injuries, old age and severe trauma as a result of being trapped in the bay.

Separated from her group, with numerous puncture wounds on the left side of her body, these were probable factors that caused Willy to seek shelter at Tuas. Willy was also found with an empty stomach, indicating that she was highly stressed at that point in time.

Willy’s body was later buried at Lorong Halus in Tampines. Her lower jaw with ten intact teeth was salvaged and preserved and used as an educational display at UWS.

Willy's remains

Willy’s remains consisting of ten teeth and a lower jaw. Photo by Jeremy Yeo.

Significant donation

What does this represent for us at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM)?

The donation represents another important and key addition to the mammal collection at LKCNHM. With the accession of this false killer whale specimen found locally, the mammal collection has been further expanded and we believe, would add to our knowledge of cetaceans in Singapore waters.

We hope that the evidence of the wonderful marine life in our waters will further serve as a reminder for future generations to treasure the rich marine biodiversity that surrounds our little red dot.

For more information on the story of Willy, you can find it at the Nature Society Singapore’s newsletter, The Pangolin, Volume 7, 1994.

Sketch of False Killer Whale Skull

Sketch of Pseudorca crassidens head. 1866. Source: Recent memoirs on the Cetacea. Author: W.W.

Swimming Ashore

Oceanic Inspirations

Whale Picture on Lawn

The wooden whale on the lawn near LKCNHM. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

Have you visited us recently?  For those who have, you may have noticed a whale sculpture on the lawn near the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) signage just before you enter the museum.

Ever wondered what the story is behind the sculpture?   

When news of the dead sperm whale emerged last July, a team from LKCNHM was dispatched to salvage its remains. The sperm whale came to be known as Jubilee as she was found on Singapore’s golden jubilee year, SG50.The carcass of the female sperm whale from Jurong Island was to trigger a flurry of actions ranging from tributes, features and pledges of support for the whale to become a major exhibit within LKCNHM. 

Older generations of visitors to the old National Museum may remember the awesome baleen whale exhibit hanging from the ceiling.This whale was stranded at Malacca in June 1892 and was given to Malaysia in 1974. When the new natural history museum was mooted,  there were plans to bring the whale back to Singapore. But in an ironic twist of fate, news of Jubilee’s stranding was to change the course of Singapore’s natural history forever.  

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Sculptor Ms Aileen Toh with her masterpiece during the repository on 11 April 2016. Photo by Chia Han Shen.

Upon hearing the news, Aileen Toh, a self-taught wood sculptor from the Sculpture Society of Singapore (SSS) decided to craft a beautiful and fitting tribute to Jubilee.  Ms Toh constructed a whale sculpture titled “Swim Ashore” using recycled wood from an old saga tree in Fort Canning Park. Her source of inspiration and admiration for the whale came from a sense of intrigue. As she pondered, “why would a large sea creature be found in the shallow waters of Jurong Island”, let alone Singapore?

Asked to describe what feelings she expresses when she sculpts. She says it depends on what she wants to raise awareness for. Ms Toh loves to sculpt things related to our natural environment. With “Swim Ashore”, she hopes to inspire people to be “loving and protecting the environment so that sea creatures have a lovely habitat to live in”.

Constructing the Whale

This collaboration between the National Parks Board (NParks) and SSS took place at the Wood Sculpture Symposium 2016 from 21 – 25 January 2016, where sculptors participated in transforming dead trees into beautiful sculptures. In nature nothing goes to waste, and that is where the beauty of nature lies.

Working tirelessly from 9-5, Ms Toh put in more than 40 hours of work into the creation of the sculpture, including preparing the wood block from a 30 m Saga tree that was removed from Fort Canning as it was old, termite infested, and posed a risk to park users. 

It was an arduous task, but she was thankfully supported by dedicated NParks staff, SSS members, students, and volunteers.   

Ms Toh was grateful that “NParks could arrange for people to assist in separating parts from the larger chunks of wood”. A strenuous effort that required manpower to firstly turn over the whale and a larger chain saw to “carve out the belly”.  A final coat of lacquer was painted to protect the sculpture from the elements and to give it a shiny finish.

At the end of the symposium, Ms Toh was happy for all the support that she received from sculpture students and for NPark’s support during the event. But that was not to be the end or the final resting place for the wooden whale. The guest of honour at the Symposium, Paul Tan, deputy CEO of the National Arts Council, then made the suggestion that the sculpture should be offered to LKCNHM.

 

The Move to LKCNHM

Preparations for the move then were made after Ms Toh contacted Professor Peter Ng, the head of LKCNHM, to donate her artwork to the museum. It was a mammoth task, but made light thanks to the movers from Rhema.  Heavy machinery such as the lorry crane was used to seamlessly and safely move the wooden whale to its new home . The sculpture was unveiled on the lawn of the LKCNHM on 19 February 2016.

Ms Toh still has a sense of excitement, and is “glad and honoured to have her masterpiece in the museum” alongside Jubilee. Delightedly, she exclaims “the museum is the best place this sculpture can be placed at”.

Although the whale was placed on the museum’s lawn, concerns were later raised that termites could destroy the sculpture and that the wood would decompose faster if it were left on the soil. A decision was made to move the model once more, this time onto the paved walkway. This provided Ms Toh a chance to trim, sand, and varnish the belly.

 

On 11 April 2016, the same team from Rhema helped out with the repository of the whale. The move took 5.5 hours of reshuffling and adjustments as it was at risk of being damaged should people mishandle it. The solution was to set cement to adhere and hold the sculpture to prevent further movement.

Despite the difficulties that beset the wooden whale, Toh’s message remains the same.  The sculpture’s plaque captures the undeterred optimism for us to appreciate and protect the fragile marine biological environment. “How did a deep sea creature end up near our offshore island? In my opinion, the marine biological environment and human activities are closely related. Ergo, the causes of their death are food for thought.”