Meat Lovers: Pitcher Plants

You’ve probably seen pitcher plants around. After all, they are a common sight in nurseries and at pasar malam markets. They are well known for being carnivorous, trapping small insects inside fluid-filled jugs where they unfortunately meet their sorry end. But what exactly are pitcher plants and why are they so different from normal plants?

The term “pitcher plant” generally refers to any carnivorous plant with pitchers that trap insects. This includes several families of organisms such as Nepenthaceae and Sarraceniaceae .

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Image: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090804081545.htm

So, how do these plants catch their prey? Basically, insects make a beeline for the pitchers, attracted by their colour or the smell they emit. However, when they stand on the peristome, also known as the edge of the pitcher, they fall in, landing in a pool of enzyme-containing fluids where they are slowly broken down into simpler nutrients such as amino acids [2] [3].

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Image: https://www.sciencesource.com/archive/-SS2521889.html

Pitcher fluid contains more than just insect-digesting enzymes. In fact, the components that make up the fluid of different types of pitcher plants vary. While generally acidic, the fluid in certain species are mostly made up of rainwater that collects in the pitcher, while those in other species contain more secretions from the plant itself. Pitchers also have an operculum, or lid. In some species, the operculum prevents rainwater from entering the pitcher diluting its fluids.

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Image: https://www.bhg.com/gardening/flowers/perennials/growing-pitcher-plants/

Pitcher plants generally live in areas where the soil does not have enough nutrients for typical plants to thrive. Therefore, they rely on insects to obtain sufficient amounts of what they are unable to get from the ground. However, pitcher plants still photosynthesise to produce glucose. Insects are only a replacement for substances they would otherwise have absorbed from the soil.

It is interesting to note that many species of pitcher plants are not closely related to one another, suggesting convergent evolution – different organisms independently evolved to have this particular appearance and insect-trapping ability. For example, the Australian pitcher plant is more closely related to starfruit than to other species of pitchers [7]. It’s pretty amazing how all these different pitcher plants adapted to their situation in similar ways.

So the next time you see one of these protein-guzzling plants around, do remember that they’re simply doing what they can to live their life to the fullest, just like you and me.

References:

[1]: https://www.britannica.com/plant/pitcher-plant

[2]: https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/pitcher_plant.htm

[3]: https://www.botany.one/2013/10/adapted-kill-pitcher-plant-traps-prey/

[4]: https://academic-oup-com.libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/aob/article/107/2/181/188441

[5]: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150420-the-giant-plants-that-eat-meat

[6]: https://www.thenakedscientists.com/articles/questions/carnivorous-plants-can-photosynthesise-so-why-eat-flies

[7]: https://www.nature.com/news/how-plants-evolved-into-carnivores-1.21425

 

 

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Award-winning video game is a dream for the nature lover

Diving. It looks so good, and costs so bad. If you’ve ever dreamed of being surrounded by colourful fishes and accidentally kicking corals (a painful memory of mine), but have been unable to for whatever reason, you still have the next best thing: a $20 video game on the Playstation 4, Microsoft Windows and Xbox One. A simple image search of the game will flood you with the happy chaos and bright colours of a thriving ocean – and you haven’t even played it yet. Players experience diving freely through pristine waters, unencumbered by oxygen tanks and ear-popping pressure. You can explore caves and swim through seagrass. You can – yes – grab hold of a dolphin and let it take you on a ride, all while the joyful calls of its pod surround you.

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Released in 2016 by developer Giant Squid, Abzû is hailed for its awe-inspiring beauty and breath-taking soundtrack, but it’s not just another pretty game for virtual tourism. It carries a message. A game like that, at a time like this, when human society is struggling to catch up with its own waste and consumption, when the environment is at breaking point, couldn’t not. Anyone who reads the news – who lives on earth – would notice the lack of trash bobbing in the water, the missing smokestacks on the horizon, and they’d get to experience what marine life would be like without human influence. That is, briefly – the game has a story to tell.

Without spoiling too much, Abzû is adamant about our duty to preserve and return life back to the oceans. But it doesn’t execute this message through guilt and blame in the way many environmental news articles and stories (deliberately or not) do. So few of us now have the privilege of meeting nature face to face, and that affects the way we see ourselves in relation to the environment. There’s no denying the awkwardness in trying to get a city dweller to care about some blue whale a million miles away that they’ve never seen. Abzû gives you a chance to fall in love with the ocean. The game features species of marine creatures from real life, telling us the names of each animal as we swim alongside it. The profound intimacy that the player gets is beyond statistics and reports and academic journals. It’s emotional.

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https://www.trustedreviews.com/reviews/abzu

Another aspect of the game that many environmentalists will appreciate is its rejection of anthropocentrism – seeing humans as the centre of the world. Neither does it swing in the other extreme. There’s a deliberate emphasis on togetherness, on the harmony between creatures that vary as dramatically as each colour of the rainbow. And that diversity includes our four-limbed, finless protagonist. At the same time, the player is constantly reminded of their staggering insignificance compared to the leviathans of the deep. Some have raised the player’s lack of control over the game as a flaw (the gameplay mechanisms are simple and repetitive), but maybe it’s the perfect metaphor for our relationship with nature. As the protagonist dives alongside a whale, looking into its eye that’s as big as her torso, it’s difficult not to think about how tiny she is. Her speed of travel underwater is frustratingly slow compared to all the marine creatures gliding effortlessly past. When she grabs hold of a fish to ride it, she goes faster, but loses all control over her direction. This all contributes to the timely reminder that we’re small, but not alone.

Whether you enter this game as an environmentalist, a marine expert or somebody who’s never been to the ocean, the story and experience are one of a kind, so don’t let anyone’s solemn analysis of its real-life relevance stop you from picking it up. That said, I highly doubt that anyone could complete this game and go on without having an extra tenderness for the ocean in their heart. Everyone’s tired of hearing and reading about environmentalism. It’s time they felt it.

Watch the official trailer here.

Source: I played the game and it was incredible.

Let’s talk about animal relationships in film

Back in June, we talked about how accurately animals are being portrayed in Disney films. This time, let’s move on from individual characters and talk about the interesting relationships between animals portrayed in different animated films and how they are like in real life.

  1. Musophobia

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Credit: http://www.cartoonswallpapers.net/dumbo/timothy-mouse-dumbo-walt-disney-characters-hd-wallpaper-image-phone/

In Disney’s “Dumbo”, Dumbo the elephant was seen hiding in a haystack avoiding Timothy the mouse after it has tickled his trunk. Timothy told Dumbo that this fear came from the primordial reversed sizes of elephants and mice, which elephants in “present time” still couldn’t forget.

There has always been a misconception that elephants are afraid of mice due to the fear of them running up their trunk, or that their small and agile movements make their movements unpredictable. How true is this in real life?

A popular Discovery series “Mythbusters” tested out the hypothesis of elephants being afraid of mice in one of their episodes and they concluded that elephants are indeed afraid of mice.

Josh Plotnik, a researcher of elephant behaviour and intelligence, posits otherwise. He debunked this myth by arguing that elephants react the way they do when they see a mouse not because of fear, but more of an element of surprise. He proceeded to explain that anything that runs or slither can likely startle elephants in the wild and induce a similar reaction.

Looks like elephants’ specific fear of mice is indeed a myth, but aren’t we all glad that Dumbo overcame his fear and became friends with Timothy in the end?

  1. Mutualism

Some of the greatest examples of animal mutualism are found in the sea. And what better movie to watch than Disney’s Finding Nemo for a good idea of the life under the sea?

Mutualism refers to a relationship where two species of organisms both benefit from the presence of one another.

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Credit: https://nypost.com/2017/07/17/finding-nemo-is-a-hermaphroditic-lie-says-science/

In Finding Nemo’s opening scene, Nemo’s first day of school, he was seen waking his dad up in the centre of a sea anemone. Why was Marlin able to sleep so soundly within the poisonous arms of an anemone? The mutualistic relationship between these two organisms shall explain this.

Most clownfish, or anemonefish, species are resistant to the toxins generated by sea anemone. For certain species that are not resistant, the mucus membrane on their skin protects them from the toxins. This resistance allow them to hide and camouflage themselves within the arms of a sea anemone, protecting them from predators which are not resistant to the toxins. While protecting the anemonefishes, the sea anemone derive benefits from them too. The anemonefish help to get rid of parasites in the sea anemones and provide them with nutrients by excretion.

Though only one side of this relationship was clearly portrayed in the film, Disney surely drew more attention to these special interactions between animals among the general public!

  1. Predator-prey relationships

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Credit: https://dettoldisney.wordpress.com/2013/08/17/disney-vs-nature-3-the-lion-king/

This relationship is rather accurately portrayed in the circle of life of The Lion King.

The bottom of the food chain is trees, shrubs and grass in the savanna, which are fed on by zebras and elephants. They’re in turn preyed on by cheetahs, hyenas and lions. This was explained by Mufasa to Simba as they overlooked Pride Rock. In The Lion King, the lions were not seen interacting with gazelles and zebras the way different species of animals do in other anthropomorphized films.

On the flip side, in the recent popular film Zootopia, predators and preys live in a community together in the city of Zootopia. The rabbit Judy Hoops and the fox Nick Wilde even became best buddies at the end of the story. While the threat of predators pouncing onto their prey out of “animal instincts” still remains, it is social stigmatised rather than recognised as natural behaviour. This shows that in the attempt to reflect societal issues by personifying animals in their films, Disney has inevitably compromised the biological relationships between certain species.

With the animation industry’s fondness towards non-human characters, the element of anthropormorphism in films has definitely been significantly amplified. From simply giving the animals linguistic speech and humanistic emotions, animals in recent films have increasingly human behaviours and cultures. Perhaps from now onwards, we can all pay a little more attention to the details that filmmakers have purposefully incorporated into the films!

References

Aquaviews. (2018, October 05). 5 Symbiotic Relationships in the Ocean – AquaViews. Retrieved from https://www.leisurepro.com/blog/explore-the-blue/5-marine-symbiotic-relationships/

Extreme Science. (n.d.). Are elephants really afraid of mice? Retrieved from http://www.extremescience.com/elephants-afraid-of-mice.htm

Mebs, D. (1994). Anemonefish symbiosis: vulnerability and resistance of fish to the toxin of the sea anemone. Toxicon, 32(9), 1059-1068.

Melina, R. (2016, June 01). Are Elephants Really Afraid of Mice? Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/33261-elephants-afraid-of-mice-.html

Yin, C. (2013, May 20). Lion King-Biology Project. Retrieved from https://prezi.com/l39zl1itkw_c/lion-king-biology-project/

 

Not the Right Cull – Monkey Culling vs Monkey Guarding

Cute and tenacious, one of the most well-known and prevalent animals in Singapore is none other than the Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fasicularis). Also known as the Crab-eating Macaque, these intelligent creatures have even been observed to make and use tools for foraging. While we at Drongos love and appreciate Singapore’s resident monkeys, some Singaporeans have had less positive experiences with these macaques.

Untitled.pngThe Long-tailed Macaque!
https://www.flickr.com/photos/bernardoh/3480056606)

Along with their intelligence, long-tailed macaques have also been associated with mischief and trouble, especially among those that live near their natural habitats. Residential areas bordering forest fringes where these macaques live (like near Bukit Timah Nature Reserve) are prone to macaque “intrusion”. There have been reports of food being stolen from houses or even cases of macaques causing damage to property. In fact, ever since Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) opened their a 24-hour hotline for animal-related issues, there has been an increase in the number of complaints on macaques specifically. Unfortunately, the only response to these complaints is to simply cull these macaques who are merely acting on instinct.

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I’m sure most nature enthusiasts are familiar with such signs!
Top – https://lynchmenow.wordpress.com/2012/07/08/hiking-in-the-jungle-i-mean-city/
Bottom – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DoNotFeedtheMonkeysSign-BukitTimahHill-Singapore-20080509.jpg

In 2015 alone, AVA reported (and we note that these are only the reported numbers) that over 2,500 animals were euthanised including 623 monkeys. Riley, Jayasri and Gumert (2015) found that there exists at most only 1,900 wild long-tailed macaques in Singapore and this translates to over 30% of the macaque population being culled! Not only is this cruel, but according to MP Louis Ng, such widespread culling does not target the root cause, and other measures need to be considered to tackle the issue. Specifically, it is highlighted that because only young and inexperienced macaques are caught and killed, more young macaques will continue to be born to “disturb” residents or parkgoers. From this, it is clear that culling is not only futile, but it has been argued that it also hinders progress by preventing the necessary discourse to promote human-macaque co-existence (Yeo & Neo, 2010).

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Taken from the AVA website.
https://www.ava.gov.sg/docs/default-source/tools-and-resources/resources-for-businesses/nparks_monkeybrochure_path_31oct2017.pdf?sfvrsn=2

As seen by the guide above, AVA and NParks have provided ways to reduce this human-macaque conflict in households. In addition to these measures, we also propose another method as a peaceful and sustainable alternative to culling – monkey guarding! Our friends over at the Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore) provide “Monkey Guards” training which teaches the security officers to peacefully guide the macaques away or scare them off. We also highlight that this extends to affected home-owners (and even the general public) so that they too can learn how to deter macaques safely and effectively should they need to. The last training date was 15th September 2018, and though they have yet to update the website for the next one, do keep a lookout if you are interested!

Educating the public on how to interact with wildlife is indeed a better solution for human-wildlife conflict in Singapore. On the other hand, culling is a quick and easy method to seemingly deal with the problem but, as mentioned, it is also one that can actually hinder the promotion of co-existence. By understanding that it is natural for animals like the long-tailed macaques to be resourceful in finding food and even more so in aggressively defending themselves if they feel threatened, monkey guarding serves as a great first step to general human-wildlife conflicts. We believe that this is a crucial part of learning to co-exist with the wildlife in Singapore, especially if we consider the fact that our growing urban areas constantly encroach natural habitats, causing such conflicts.

For a highly developed island, Singapore’s natural landscape is limited yet vibrant – this is as good a reason as any for us to cherish and protect it together with all the animals that support and sustain it. As such, it is incredibly important that we be mindful of our actions and interactions with the wildlife that we live alongside. As NParks is slated to take over AVA’s role in managing such animal-related issues, perhaps it is also a good opportunity to reconsider our policies, initiatives and responses to animal conflicts.

 

References:

Riley, C. M., Jayasri, S. L., & Gumert, M. D. (2015). Results of a nationwide census of the long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis) population of Singapore.

Yeo, J. H., & Neo, H. (2010). Monkey business: human–animal conflicts in urban Singapore. Social & Cultural Geography11(7), 681-699.

Hidden Treasures of the LKC Natural History Museum – Part 6 Bonus: The Visionary Digital Lab

Hi there! This article is the final part of a series featuring the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in Singapore. If you’d like to learn more, why not start at the beginning? Otherwise, enjoy the second bonus of our feature!

While visiting the Cryogenic Collection, I was blessed with an unexpected discovery. Adjacent to the collection is a humble office used by resident scientists. At first glance, it looks like an ordinary science lab – computers, boxes of gloves, pipettes – but step in a little further and you’ll witness this impressive contraption:

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This device, known as the Visionary Digital Lab, transforms an ordinary DSLR camera into a high powered camera suited for photographing tiny insects in extraordinary detail. And when I say extraordinary, I mean this:

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See the thin black line in the bottom left? That represents 1mm. This stunning capture of a Nemopoda speiseri fly is constructed by combining several brightly lit, high resolution images, each focusing on a particular spot on the specimen, to create a composite image that brings every nook and cranny of this miniscule insect into sharp detail. Some of these images are in fact uploaded to an online archive managed by the Museum at the Biodiversity of Singapore Online, where researchers from all over the world can use it as a reference.

Still not impressed? Here’s another version of the same device in one of the museum’s dedicated labs:

IMG_5386.jpgI promise you there’s a specimen on that dish. Just keep squinting. Or look over here:

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There it is! From the slimmest bristle to the thinnest wing, our little friend has appeared. As mentioned, you can peruse other photos like this courtesy of the museum and its partners at Museum at the Biodiversity of Singapore Online , which also features Southeast Asian birds, mammals, reptiles and more in exquisite quality.

Hidden Treasures of the LKC Natural History Museum – Part 5 Bonus: Insect research

Pinning and sorting

On the way to the dry collection, I passed through a lab that was bustling with activity. This is one of the preparation labs where specimens acquired by the museum are put through the preservation process. In particular, I got to see a few insect specimens that were in the middle of get preserved dry.

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If you’ve been to the museum, you’ll know that dry insect specimens are beautifully arranged – wings spread, legs in position, perky antennas – but that isn’t quite what they look like in the wild. For example, some butterflies usually close their wings when they’re resting, so you’d seldom see the upper side of their wings on display. When these insects die, they don’t get really get any better at modelling. They shrivel up, and their legs bunch together due to rigor mortis – you’ve had dead insects on your bathroom floor, you know it. So, what you see in the museum displays is no accident. Thank goodness for insect pinning.

Before a dead insect is irreversibly taken over by the jaws of rigor mortis, its form and structure can be rescued by pinning. Tiny needles are used to hold different parts of the insect: legs, wings, even the fine antennas, to keep them in place.

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The pinning board is then covered with cellophane paper to flatten and straighten out the wings, and the specimen is left to dry in a fume hood or a drying cabinet, which helps keep the moisture away. As time passes, the insect hardens into its intended shape. This process requires little to no chemicals; in fact, everything revolves around keeping the specimen as dry as possible, because moisture and humidity facilitate decomposition. You might be wondering about the insides of the insects – don’t they contain blood? Wet blood, and organs? You’re absolutely right. For small insects, their insides are so tiny in amount that they can dry out all by themselves after death. Larger insects, however, need to be gutted – a small incision is made in the side, from which their innards are scooped out or squeezed out. Sounds surgical, doesn’t it? That’s why the curator has an impressive array of instruments specially made for handling these fragile specimens – except maybe for that plastic spoon that looks like it was stolen from a Starbucks.

IMG_5404.jpgThis article is brought to you by entosupplies.com – I wish.

The pinning method is also used for other animals like spiders and even small crabs.

IMG_5398.jpgMore legs, more work.

Pinning isn’t the only thing going on in this lab. There’s also an ongoing project aiming to document all the insects in Singapore – a daunting task. This involves the collection of a huge plethora of insects… which then need to be sorted.

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Spencer, a student at the National University of Singapore (NUS), is painstakingly examining each tiny bug under a microscope, to determine their species and classification. Sitting between piles of reference books and jars filled with insects, it certainly looks like he’s got his work cut out for him. Salute.

11,12,14,19.jpgLet’s all pray for Spencer’s eyes.

 

Hidden Treasures of the LKC Natural History Museum – Part 4: The Vertebrate Wet Collection

Warning: This article contains pictures of dead animals. They are super dead.

What is the difference between the vertebrate and invertebrate wet collections, you ask? Not much, they’re all… wet. But perhaps one of the striking things about the vertebrate wet collection is that many of the specimens tend to be bigger. We’re reaching the territory of mammals, birds, fish, snakes and more.

IMG_5564andmore.jpgMiddle row, left: Notice those flaps on the side of its body? That’s a Javanese flying squirrel, which can glide through the air by stretching out that loose skin.

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IMG_5553.jpgOh, this is from that movie! Finding… what was it, Fabio? Finding Chico?

You’ll notice that some of these animals could also be found in the dry collection. As mentioned, whether a specimen is preserved dry or wet depends on the researcher or collector’s aim. Though a wet specimen may be more likely to discolour over time, this won’t happen for animals like birds, as their colours mostly come not from pigments, but from microscopic structures (structural colour) in their feathers that absorb and reflect light.

IMG_5575.jpgThat’s how this bird from the 1960s is still killing it.

IMG_5568.jpgThis bat is dubbed ‘Yoda’ because, look at that serene little face. This bat is saying, “Relax. You can do it.”

IMG_5600.jpgSpecimens like this native leopard cat are generally the work of local taxidermists.

Apart from the compactors, the wet collection also has a store of steel tanks for the animals too big to fit into jars.

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What are those big black contraptions that look like the things they put over your head at the hair salon? Like the jars, the steel tanks are filled with large amounts of preserving alcohol, and boy is it nasty when you open the lid. To protect the people working with these specimens, those flexible fume hoods suck up the evaporated alcohol escaping from the tanks, and no one has to breathe them.

This concludes our tour of the LKC Natural History Museum’s archives. Our natural history museum, together with natural history museums across the globe, is a beacon of scientific progress, conservation and education. So next time you come for a visit, remember to blow a kiss upwards for all the specimens and researchers making the world a better place. And if you’d like to contribute to this endeavour, take your friends and family (and dates) to the museum to learn more about our environment! You can also donate to the museum’s Endowment Fund here.

We’ve done a walkthrough of most of the archives in the museum, but exactly what sort of research do the curators get up to in there? Stay tuned for upcoming bonus posts featuring cool gadgets and even cooler people!