BiodiverCITY: Why hello, I didn’t see you!

Believe it or not, Singapore’s landscape used to be covered by lush green forests! Now, more than 95% of these natural habitats have been lost. Our urban landscape consists of concrete buildings and paved roads, which have replaced these natural habitats with environments that humans find comfortable; which may not be very favourable to animals resulting in a decline in biodiversity. But there are animals that are capable of surviving the urban jungle! Humans are the top of the food chain, as kings and queens of this environment. Somewhere in between the nooks and crannies of our high-rise living quarters, industrial spaces and green parks are flora and fauna that have adapted to survive and infiltrate our world, living amongst us – sometimes so sneaky that we miss them for their obvious presence! These include the Javan mynas (Acridotheres javanicus) and rock pigeons (Columba livia).

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The Javan myna: a non-native bird so common we couldn’t miss it even if we tried! Photo credit: Nicholas Lim
Changeable Lizard Emmanuel Goh
The changeable lizard (non-native) Photo credit: Emmanuel Goh
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The green-crested lizard (native) Photo credit: Sean Yap

Another non-native that is commonly seen in our parks and gardens is the changeable lizard (Calotes versicolor) (left picture); it is suspected to have out-competed the native green crested lizard (Brochela cristatella) (on the right), causing the latter to be absent from our urban areas. 2. Despite this, some native species have managed to adapt to our hostile concrete jungle, and can be found in some of our parks and gardens. Keep an eye out for them the next time you walk through a park, and if you happen to spot them please pictures with us on our Facebook page hereYellow-vented bulbul (Pycononotus goiavier)

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A yellow-vented bulbul surveys its built-up surroundings from its perch on a Tembusu tree in the Education Resource Centre at University Town, NUS. Photo credit: Nicholas Lim

The yellow-vented bulbul is a very common perching bird often seen in our parks and gardens. It can be easily recognized by the black band around its eyes, the yellow patch of feathers under its tail and its loud bubbling calls. Yellow-vented bulbuls feed on a  wide variety of food ranging from fruits like figs to nectar to insects, a possible reason for their success in living in our concrete jungle. That’s right folks: being non-picky at meal times is a strategy to living in a city. More than that, they are extremely resourceful, foraging for insects and seeds in bushes and trees, and even the ground from our roads and pavements.

Pink-necked green pigeon (Treron vernans)

Pink-necked green pigeon_Nicholas Lim
Photo credit: Nicholas Lim

The pink-necked green pigeon is the only species of green pigeon in Singapore that is commonly seen outside of our forests2. Like all green pigeons, they are arboreal – which means they like to stay on tall trees for a safe perch, so look up if you’re trying to spot them! The picture above is a male bird. How do we know? Look at the colours! Males of this species have a grey head, a pink neck and an orange breast while females have a uniform green plumage. Many species of birds display this kind of difference between the sexes where the male is more colourful and attractive than the female. The reason for this difference is that in the animal kingdom, it is often the female that chooses the mate. As such, the male has to be able to stand out and attract the female’s attention.  Paradise tree snake (Chrysopelea paradisi) The paradise tree snake could be found in parks and gardens, in forests and in mangroves2. However, snakes can be hard to spot as they would usually avoid humans. The paradise tree snake is a gliding snake (Chrysopelea spp.)2. These snakes are so named because of their ability to flatten their body to form a concave surface which traps air allowing them to glide from tree to tree. To see how this is movement can be compared to James Bond’s ejector seat, check out this short documentary clip (with awesome playback): Lesser dog-faced fruit bat (Cynopterus brachyotis)

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This little guy was found and photographed in someone’s house! If you ever do see one in your house, do not panic, you could call ACRES to have them remove it and relocate it to the wild. Photo credit: Sean Yap

Contrary to the phrase “blind as a bat”, fruit bats like the lesser dog-faced fruit bat (also known as the common fruit bat) have excellent night vision which they use to find fruits2. Fruit bats are very important to the ecosystem as they serve as pollinators and seed dispersers for many plants, including the very popular durian2.

Wild cinnamon (Cinnamomum iners)

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The wild cinnamon has downward-pointing young leaves which are usually reddish pink!

New leaves of the wild cinnamon are reddish pink in colour, darkening to a dark green over time creating an attractive sight when the tree is growing new leaves. Due to this, the wild cinnamon is planted all over Singapore to beautify our city. The wild cinnamon also has significant ecological roles as its fruits provide a food source for frugivorous birds and mammals and its leaves are food for the caterpillars of some butterfly species like the common mime (Chilasa clytia clytia) and common bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon luctatius) Fishtail palm (Caryota mitis)

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The leaves of the fishtail palm look like battered tail fins of betta fish, right?

The fishtail palm is very easily recognized by its leaves which are shaped like a fish’s tail. The fishtail palm produces flowers and fruits in a cluster that looks like a mop. The fishtail palm is suspected to fruit all year round and as such provides a reliable food source for frugivorous mammals and birds like the pink-necked green pigeon and the common palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). That being said, do not touch the fruits of the fishtail palm or attempt to eat them as they will cause severe itchiness. References

  1. Ng, P. K. L., Brook, B. W., & Sodhi, N. S. (2003). Catastrophic extinctions follow deforestation in Singapore. Nature, 424(6947), 420-426.
  2. Ng, P. K. L., Corlett, R., & Tan T. W. H. (2011). Singapore biodiversity: An encyclopaedia of the natural environment and sustainable development. Singapore: Didier Millet in association with Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research

words by: Lee Juin Bin

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Pangolin Party

To celebrate World Pangolin Day, the BES Drongos are proud to present a special post on pangolins! (so many P words in one sentence.) So first things first: What the heck is a pangolin?

Copyrighted to Wild Singapore

Pangolins, or scaly anteaters, are probably the weirdest and least understood mammals in our tropical forests today. There are a total of eight species of pangolin that can be found from Africa to Asia, and one species, the Sunda pangolin, can be found in Singapore’s forests, including MacRitchie! Unfortunately, these creatures are nocturnal and are very shy, so the likelihood of seeing one as you walk along the trails is very low. In an odd twist of fate though, pangolins have been known to wander into the residence halls of NTU, much to the confusion of resident students.

Copyrighted to Singapore Post

Looking at this creature, a lot of people think that it is a reptile instead of a mammal. And such sentiments are pretty understandable, seeing as this is the only scaly mammal in the world.The pangolin is covered in rather distinctive overlapping scales, making it look like an artichoke on legs. The scales themselves are made of a material called keratin, which makes up a whole bunch of tough things like our fingernails and rhino horns. These scales have to be tough, as the pangolin uses them to protect itself against predators… by curling into a ball.

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Copyright Jac Chua 2015

This is actually a surprisingly effective strategy on the pangolin’s part; it turns out that its scales are so hard, that it can even survive an attack by a hungry lion. In fact, this is such an iconic strategy employed by all pangolins that its name was was derived from the Malayan phrase “Pen Gulling”, which means “Rolling Ball” [1]. Does this sound familiar? Well, it turns out that the pangolin is closely related to the armadillo, who also famously rolls up into a ball to escape danger.

So, if the pangolin rolls up to protect itself, what are those impressive claws on its forelimbs for?

For digging! The pangolin is a great lover of eating ants and termites, and in order to get to its lunch, it has to dig them out. Coupled with its long and sticky tongue, the ants rarely ever stand a chance against the eating machine that the pangolin is. Surprisingly, the pangolin has no teeth, so in order to grind up its dinner it swallows stones to crush its prey within its stomach[2].

Unfortunately for the pangolin, having such large, clumsy claws makes it very hard for it to walk, and as a result pangolins tend to be very slow moving. However, a few species of pangolin, like the Sunda pangolin, have evolved to make the most of it by learning how to climb trees!

Copyrighted to Ecology Asia

Tree-dwelling, or arboreal pnagolins have also evolved to have a prehensile tail, which means that its tail is strong enough to wrap around branches like a fifth limb. This long and muscular tail is also a useful spot for baby pangolins to piggyback on. Baby pangolins, incidentally, are also known as pangopups. Try saying Pangopup Piggybacks on a Pangolin very fast. What a tongue twister!

Copyrighted to Firdia Lisnawati 2014

Unfortunately, it turns out that this wonderful creature is one of the most illegally trafficked in the world. It is a common belief across most of China and Southeast Asia that pangolin meat and scales have medicinal properties for a whole range of ailments from asthma to acne, and as a result they sell for ridiculously high prices on the blackmarket. Even though all pangolin species are protected under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna), which means they cannot be legally traded, entire stretches of Southeast Asian forests have been emptied of this animal, and as a result poachers have turned to Africa to satisfy the demand for pangolin meat and scales here in Asia. In an ironic twist, because pangolin products are becoming so valuable, it has eating pangolins have become akin to a status symbol in certain parts of Asia, driving the demand even higher[3]. Warning; do not click this link if you don’t think you can stomach the sight of pangolin fetus soup.

Copyrighted to National Geographic

So what can we do? Well, for starters, we can all raise awareness about this curious, fantastic animal through social media, and never support the consumption of pangolin products, be they in the form of medicine or food. If you are on holiday and you see pangolins for sale, you can also use the Tangaroa Illegal Wildlife trade reporting app to notify the authorities.

Well, we hope that you have enjoyed this post about pangolins as much as we enjoyed writing it! If you are interested in finding out more about pangolins, please visit our friends over at The Pangolin Story to find out about local pangolin conservation efforts, and check out Save Pangolins for even more resources. Together, we all can save the precious pangolin from peril too!

References:

  1. Chakkaravarthy Q. A. (2012) Research and Conservation Needs of the Indian Pangolin (Manis crassicaudata). Proceedings of the Third Seminar on Small Mammal Conservation Issues 2012: 50-55
  2. Forestry administration of Cambodia and Conservation International-Cambodia (2008) Pangolin conservation stakeholders workshop. 8–10.
  3. Chin S.Y and Pantel S. (2008) Pangolin Capture and Trade in Malaysia. Proceedings of the Workshop on Trade and Conservation of Pangolins Native to South and Southeast Asia: 143-160

Words by: Jacqueline Chua

A Guided Walk with Tony & Subaraj at CCNR: Aw, that poor puddy tat! (and other cool birds)  

We managed to snag a walk with super-experienced guides Tony and Subaraj and it was awesome! They were incredibly knowledgeable and we learnt an incredible amount from them.

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They gave us so much interesting information that we can’t possibly cover it one post. So, here’s the first part of the three part series of our guided walk at the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR).

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We’re off on an adventure!

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This colourful Blue-crowned Hanging parrot (Loriculus galgulus) was spotted perching high up on this Casuarina tree (Casuarina equisetifolia). As you can guess from its name, this adorable bird, like bats, can be seen hanging upside down. In fact, they are one of the three native parrots that can be found in Singapore.

These fascinating birds usually roost high up in trees and can be tricky to spot. One way to identify it is by observing its flight. Parrots, like finches, have an undulating flight pattern: fly and drop, fly and drop. They almost seem to fly in a vertical zig-zag pattern. Weird right?

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Guess who else we found on the same tree? The Common Iora (Aegithina tiphia). Despite its bright yellow plumage and widespread population across our island, people usually do not spot this bird as it hunts high up in the canopy.

Though you might not think so, we actually do share quite a few characteristics with these birds. Like humans, they are one of the few species (less than 10% in the animal kingdom) that are monogamous, meaning that they only have a one partner. While humans have our Grand Romantic Gestures, the Common Iora have elaborate courtship displays. Though we might never know (unless one day a universal translator is invented) if these birds feel and love as we do, they still “date” and “marry”. We might have more in common with these birds than we think.

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This pair of Scaly-breasted Munia (Ionchura punctulata) was found resting on a branch. The one in the foreground is the male, bearing his namesake “scaly” breast.

Their beaks might look unusually large and conical-shaped, as compared to the pointed bills of mynas. Like Darwin’s famous finches, their beaks have evolved to feed from a certain niche of food. Their short and powerful beaks are shaped to pluck and crush grass seeds and small grains. Because of their particular diet, farmers who own paddy fields and other grain crops consider them as pests. This is just one example of the many wildlife conflicts that exist in the spaces when humans and wildlife coexist.

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We also saw a Collared kingfisher (Halcyon chloris), roosting on a tree, which was easily recognized by its distinctive turquoise head and back with a black streak bordering its white collar – which makes it look like it is wearing a bright blue jacket!

They are one of the few birds that have successfully adapted to an urban environment and have done so in two main ways: their diet and their breeding sites. These are perhaps the main reasons why they are the most common genus of kingfishers found in Singapore.

Firstly, they don’t just feed on fish. They feed on a wide range of organisms ranging from lizards to prawns to earthworms. This has allowed them to survive beyond water sources.

Fun fact: the name kingfisher is somewhat a misnomer as majority of the kingfisher species don’t even feed on fish. Instead, they feed on small invertebrates. Not exactly what you thought a “typical” kingfisher is like, is it?

Secondly, they have adapted to nesting in rather unconventional ways. They have been spotted building their nest in a Styrofoam box or in nest holes along the walls of our ‘long kang’ (the colloquial term for canals).

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Other than the Collared Kingfisher, we also managed to spot this Stork-billed Kingfisher (Halcyon capensis)! Despite being the largest Kingfisher in Singapore and brightly coloured, they are less commonly sighted than the Collared Kingfisher. These colorful birds, with their large coral-red bill, orange-yellow under parts and bright blue wings, are more shy and less noisy than other kingfishers, making them more difficult to spot. There is something to be said about being quiet and stoic.

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Speaking of Storks and other large shorebirds, this white medium-sized wader was seen stalking along the water bank. It is the Intermediate Egret (Mesophoyx/Egretta intermedia)! They are less common than the Little or Great Egrets (as you can tell, Zoologists are really creative people). As you can probably tell from the name, the Intermediate Egret is smaller than the Great Egret and bigger than the Little Egret.

Fun fact 2: Egrets are actually just white herons. Both Herons and Egrets come from the same Family Ardeidae. The word Egret comes form the French word “aigrette”, meaning silver heron, referring to the lacy breeding plumes of white herons. The distinction between Egrets and Herons seem to depend more on appearance than any morphological differences and this differentiation arose due to the huge market for white feathers in the past. Why? Find out more about plume hunting.

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Another heron spotted with its neck stretched high was the Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea). It is one of our more colorful herons with its purplish-brown plumage (again, zoologist and their penchant for creative names). Though it might not seem so, its plumage acts as a great camouflage and keeps its well-hidden among the reeds.

Though it is a common resident bird (meaning that it resides in Singapore throughout the year), like the Stork-billed Kingfisher, it is a shy one. They are crepuscular, which means that they enjoy hunting along the riverbanks at dawn and dusk. Unfortunately, they seldom perch, making it difficult for them to be spotted. So the next time you go for a walk at dawn or dusk, keep an eye out for these shy birds!

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This pair of White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) was seen, wings spread riding thermals high up in the sky. It is the largest raptor found in Singapore and like the Common Iora, appear to be monogamous. Once mated, they remain with the same partner for life and are often seen in pairs, just like the picture above.

These cool birds have an odd call that sounds like a loud goose-like honking. The Brahminy Kite (Haliatur indus), another common bird of prey found in Singapore also has a strange call, described like a baby crying. Not exactly the spine-chilling shriek that you would expect from such fearsome raptors.

Now you know that Singapore, a veritable concrete jungle, is populated by birds other than mynas, pigeons, sparrows and crows. However, many of these birds are dependent, to different extents and in a variety of ways, on our Nature Reserves. This highlights the importance of preserving what’s left of our nature reserves as they serve as vital “strongholds” (Game of Thrones reference anyone?) for these beautiful birds.

Many thanks to Tony & Subaraj for the wonderful guided walk:)

If you want to learn more about our natural heritage, do sign up for our guided walks and we hope to see you soon!

Words by: Melissa Wong