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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!

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

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!