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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: Dr. Daniel Edison M. Husana

Recently, we hosted Dr. Daniel Edison M. Husana, associate professor from the University of the Philippines Los Baños, who was here to examine freshwater crab specimens in the Zoological Reference Collection (ZRC). Dr. Husana’s research focuses on animals that reside in caves, such as cave crabs and cave fish.

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

Adventurous Spirit

Why cave animals (troglobites/stygobites)?

According to Dr. Husana, it is due to a love for adventure that sparked from childhood. Growing up, he has always loved thrill-seeking activities such as climbing mountains, and cave exploration brings about this sense of adventure within him.

“You don’t know what you’re going to find,” said Dr. Husana, “it’s a mystery each time.”

However, fieldwork can be very tough. Dr. Husana said that sometimes, he has to hike for a few hours just to get to the entrance of the cave, before spending another few hours inside. Once, he spent three days inside a cave, sleeping on mats that he placed on the cave floor.

The temperature inside the cave is also cold, and at times, they have to wade in icy cold water or crawl through narrow spaces just to navigate within the cave.

Nonetheless, fieldwork is also rewarding, as there are many discoveries to be found within the cave. Also, the scenery on the hike up can also be very beautiful, with views of nature and waterfalls along the way.

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Dr. Husana doing fieldwork in a cave. Photo by Daniel Edison M. Husana.

Living in the Dark

Within the cave, however, lies a different view. Deep and dark, there is no way of seeing anything without wearing a headlamp.

As animals residing in caves (e.g., the false spider crab) can be very small, a keen sense of sight is required to be able to spot them.

Due to the darkness within the cave, cave crabs have evolved a heightened sense of smell and touch giving rise to long antennae and walking legs. They also have smaller or missing eyes as they have little to no use of their sight while living in the dark.

As there is hardly any food inside the cave, some cave crabs survive on a diet of guano, or bat faeces, which is rich in organic matter. Incidentally, guano is also a precious commodity for farmers, who use it as fertiliser for their crops.

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False spider crab, Samarplax principe, discovered from a cave in the Philippines. Photo by Daniel Edison M. Husana.

New Discoveries

Dr. Husana is no stranger to the museum, with this visit being his third. It is, however, his first time visiting the new museum premises.

Dr. Husana was invited by crustacean curator (Dr. JCE Mendoza) to work on Philippine freshwater crab taxonomy, particularly the genus Sundathelphusa. During his month-long stay here funded by a LKCNHM research fellowship, Dr. Husana examined freshwater crab specimens in the ZRC, and compared them to the specimens collected during his fieldwork in the Philippines.

He said that the visit had been fruitful, having discovered a few species that are new to science. He added that he had also gained a better understanding of the freshwater crab fauna of the Philippines as a result of the visit.

We look forward to the results of Dr. Husana’s research, and hope to see him again!

 

Zootaxa paper by Dr. Husana, Dr. Tan Swee Hee from LKCNHM, as well as Dr. Tomoki Kase, on a new genus and species of stygobitic crab found in the Philippines: http://www.mapress.com/zootaxa/2011/f/zt03109p059.pdf

Visiting Scientist(s) Feature: Mammalogist Edition

In this feature, we give a short summary of the work of two mammalogists that have visited the museum a while back.

Mr. Lim Tze Tshen

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Mr. Lim at his workstation in the LKCNHM research lab. Photo by Clarisse Tan.

Mr. Lim Tze Tshen is a research associate at the University of Malaysia, focusing on biodiversity conservation and vertebrate palaeontology.

As a palaeontologist, Mr. Lim studies fossils, from common ones such as the fossils of wild pigs, to rare ones like gibbon fossils.

Last year, a gibbon fossil that is estimated to be around half a million years old was found in Peninsula Malaysia. It was initially difficult to identify, but they were able to identify it as a gibbon fossil by comparing one intact tooth present in the fossil with existing gibbon dental records.

But there is another question – what species of gibbon is it?

In order to answer this question, Mr. Lim was here to examine the morphology of gibbon skulls in the Zoological Reference Collection (ZRC), and compare it to the gibbon fossil, in order to identify its species. During his 4-day visit, Mr. Lim examined around 120 gibbon skulls from the ZRC, and found the answer to the mystery. We wish Mr. Lim all the best for his next fossil adventure.

 

Dr. Alexander Balakirev

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Dr. Balakirev at his workstation in the LKCNHM research lab. Photo by Clarisse Tan.

Dr. Alexander Balakirev is a mammalogist from the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences, with a research focus on small mammals such as treeshrews and rodents.

Why small mammals in particular? Dr. Balakirev jokes that as he does not have the sharp eyesight to peer at tiny insects and extremely good physical endurance to chase after large animals such as wolves, research on small mammals is just the right fit for him.

During his visit here, Dr. Balakirev examined the morphology of over 100 treeshrew specimens from the Zoological Reference Collection (ZRC), as part of his research on treeshrew specimens from Vietnam. Dr. Balakirev mentioned plans to return to do more work on our mammal collection, and we certainly look forward to hosting him again.

 

P.S. Dr. Balakirev, along with two other co-authors, recently published a research paper in the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology, describing a new species of marmoset rat from southern Vietnam (click here to read).

An Eye-Popping Discovery in Southeast Asian Assassin Bug Biodiversity

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Physoderes fuliginosa (left), dorsal view; with Physoderes minime (right). Photo by Hwang Wei Song.

Two pop culture characters, Popeye the Sailor and Mini-Me from the Austin Powers comedy movie series, are now linked in eternity in circumstances most unusual – having assassin bugs named after them.

Paraphysoderes popeye and Physoderes minime are two new assassin bug species that were named by LKCNHM Museum Officer Dr. Hwang Wei Song, together with Prof. Christiane Weirauch from the University of California, Riverside, in a recently published European Journal of Taxonomy research article.

The quirky names were given to describe the odd morphology of the bugs — Paraphysoderes popeye has enlarged fore-arms, similar to its namesake, while Physoderes minime looks like a miniature version of a larger known species — Physoderes fuliginosa.

“These names popped up naturally as perfect descriptors of how they look,” said Dr. Hwang, the lead author of the paper.

These two pop-culturally referenced names are among the 15 new assassin bug species named in the monographic piece of work published last week. Not only did the paper reveal the species richness found in the eastern hemisphere, spanning from Madagascar to the Fiji Islands, it also introduced a revised classification of these assassin bugs that more accurately reflects the rich diversity.

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Paraphysoderes popeye, dorsal view. Photo by Hwang Wei Song.

Decade-long Quest

The task of clarifying and sorting out the taxonomy of this group of tiny, “rather unassuming-looking” assassin bugs known as physoderines, has been a long and arduous journey, starting 10 years ago in 2007, when Dr. Hwang began his PhD studies.

It required the consolidation of over 900 assassin bug specimens from various natural history museums across the world for side-by-side comparisons, visiting museums to check on type specimens, and a detailed computational analysis of their characteristics to determine their evolutionary relationships.

The fact that all 15 new species were discovered from specimens in natural history museum collections highlights the value and relevance of such historical collections to better understand our natural environment.

“These physoderine assassin bugs are miniscule, no bigger than a fingernail, well camouflaged in their natural habitat among vegetation and rotting logs, and extremely difficult to find in the wild,” said Dr. Hwang.

“It would have required my entire lifetime, and probably more, to be able to amass the same number of individuals to study, across such varied landscapes, from the foothills of the Western Ghats in India, across the whole of Southeast Asia, to the tip of Papua New Guinea and beyond.”

Dr. Hwang credits the strong support extended to him by the natural history museum curators and the helpful information shared among assassin bug researchers worldwide in helping to solve the many “taxonomic mysteries and riddles” peppered within this group.

Previously, Madagascar was regarded as an exceptional place for physoderine assassin bugs as they have radiated on the island similar to how lemur diversity flourished there, while the rest of the eastern hemisphere was regarded as rather uneventful. The new study shows that much of the diversity in Southeast Asia is still awaiting discovery, with Borneo and Papua New Guinea islands being hotspots for more species yet known.

To wrap the story up, Dr. Hwang did finally get to come face to face with a live physoderine assassin bug when he encountered Physoderes minime during field work in the Philippines late last year, on top of a dormant volcano.

“It was just hanging around on the base of a tree beside the forest trail, on a rather dreary late afternoon,” he said.

But to him, the thrill of the find was indescribable.

“I will never forget that moment.”

Original paper: Hwang, W.S., Weirauch, C. 2017. Uncovering hidden biodiversity: phylogeny and taxonomy of Physoderinae (Reduviidae, Heteroptera), with emphasis on Physoderes Westwood in the Oriental and Australasian regions. European Journal of Taxonomy 341: 1–118.

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!

Next time you’re at St. John’s or the Sisters’ Islands, check out the plants

The following is a guest post by Dr. Chong Kwek Yan, on a recent series of papers in Nature in Singapore that arose from the work of a student that he supervised. Kwek Yan received the NUS Overseas Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2015 and has since been based at the Centre for Excellence for Environmental Decisions, The University of Queensland. This October, he will be returning to the Department of Biological Sciences at NUS.


Three years ago, early in 2014, Associate Professor Hugh Tan whom I was working for told me an earnest student keen on botany had approached him for a UROPS project, and asked me if I had any ideas. Back then, the plan to establish Singapore’s first marine park around some of the southern islands had just been announced, so I casually suggested that she could map out the natural vegetation on those islands and compile checklists of the islands’ flora, in the same spirit as Teo et al.’s (2011) checklist and map for Pulau Semakau.

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Symplocos adenophylla, listed as Endangered in the Singapore Red Data Book, found on Big Sister’s Island.

The marine park constitutes the sea around Pulau Subar Darat and Pulau Subar Laut, affectionately called Small Sister’s Island and Big Sister’s Island respectively, as well as the seas off the southwestern coasts of St. John’s Island (also known as Pulau Sakijang Bendera) and Pulau Tekukor. We knew that efforts must have been ongoing to document the marine biodiversity of the islands’ waters and coasts for them to be proposed as part of a marine park, but I thought it might also be useful for the park managers as well as botanically inclined park visitors to know what plants could be found on land. Prof took me seriously and got in contact with Dr. Karenne Tun of the National Biodiversity Centre, whose team was setting up the marine park, and Dr. Tan Koh Siang of the Tropical Marine Science Institute which had a research facility on St. John’s Island. I roped in Alex Yee, who was then a PhD student, to help coach Sherry with making maps.

The rest is (natural) history.

There were working checklists of the flora of these islands from Prof’s earlier expeditions in the 90’s which led to a publication by Koh et al. (2002) in Journal of Biogeography 29: 93–108. These were supplemented by records of collections from each island deposited at the Singapore’s two herbaria. Last and most fun of all, we gathered the young botanists working in Prof’s lab to make several picnic trips to cross-check these lists and map the vegetation and the locations of rare plants on the islands.

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Trying to look (and stay) cool in the shade along the coast of Small Sister’s Island. From left to right: co-authors Reuben, Wei Wei, Jolyn, Louise, Kwek Yan, Sherry; and Jake Gonzales who was an intern with the Botany Lab. Photograph by Alex Yee.

Sherry got a good grade for her UROPS (I can’t remember exactly what grade but it was a good grade [gosh, that sounds like what a well-known, recently elected official from a certain country would say about his own grades back in school]) and worked hard to turn her report into a series of manuscripts for Nature in Singapore titled “The vascular plant flora and vegetation of the islands associated with Singapore’s first Marine Park”.

There’s not much left to say except to encourage everyone to check these papers out. They contain many nice maps and pictures.

I: The Sisters’ Islands

Hung SMX, Chong KY, Yee ATK, Lim RCJ, Loh JW, Neo L, Seah WW, Tan SY, Teo AXY, Tun K, Tong CHY, Koh KS & Tan HTW (2017) The vascular plant flora and vegetation of the islands associated with Singapore’s first Marine Park (I): The Sisters’ Islands. Nature in Singapore, 10: 7–24. [PDF]

II: Pulau Tekukor

Hung SMX, Chong KY, Yee ATK, Lim RCJ, Loh JW, Neo L, Seah WW, Tan SY & Tan HTW (2017) The vascular plant flora and vegetation of the islands associated with Singapore’s first Marine Park (II): Pulau Tekukor. Nature in Singapore, 10: 25–35. [PDF]

III: St. John’s Island

Hung SMX, Chong KY, Yee ATK, Lim RCJ, Loh JW, Neo L, Seah WW, Tan SY & Tan HTW (2017) The vascular plant flora and vegetation of the islands associated with Singapore’s first Marine Park (III): St. John’s Island. Nature in Singapore, 10: 37–48. [PDF]

Launch of the Biodiversity Library of Southeast Asia

Hello everyone! We have exciting news to share with all of you — we have collaborated with NUS Libraries to launch the Biodiversity Library of Southeast Asia (BLSEA).

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BLSEA is an online resource that allows people all over the world to access digitised versions of biodiversity publications that are focused on Southeast Asia. This includes old publications from the museum, such as the Bulletin of the Raffles Museum, as well as many others.

Singapore rocks!

Yes, literally. This LKCNHM book, A Field Guide to the Geology of Singapore by Oliver and Gupta published earlier this year aims to introduce readers to the geology of Singapore by means of field visits to relevant sites of interest.

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It gives an overview of the plate tectonic evolution of Singapore, its geology, and a travel guide book-like excursion compendium to interesting locations such as Pulau Sajahat, Western Catchment, Sembawang Hot Spring, and even Orchard Road!

If you have ever wondered how Singapore looked like in the Late Triassic Period (200 Ma), then do not miss the artist’s impression of the view from the vicinity of Sentosa looking north towards Bukit Timah complete with dinosaurs (pg. 10).

Oliver GJH & Gupta A (2017) A Field Guide to the Geology of Singapore. Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, National University of Singapore, Singapore, 71 pp. Uploaded 4 January 2017.

Read it here: http://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/nus/images/pdfs/lkcnhm_ebooks/GeologyGuideSGP.pdf

More about LKCNHM eBooks: http://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/nus/index.php/nhmpublications/lkcnhmebooks