Look At All This Global Warming

The other day I stumbled upon this on my twitter feed:

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Ironically, she’s making quite a good statement about climate change!

While I strongly believe that climate change deniers constitute a very vocal minority with an oversized internet megaphone, I still physically cringed when I saw that tweet. Fortunately, there is an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community that global warming is a real issue which can manifest itself in many ways (including more intense weather conditions like the blizzard the girl is posing in). In fact, there is an entire international group dedicated to quantifying climate change and its implications on the world – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The IPCC is UN’s massive team of scientists dedicated to conducting research on climate change; their main goal is to churn out reports that can inform governments on the ‘what’s, ‘why’s and ‘how’s of everything related to climate change. Just last year, they published SR15, a report which was honestly quite scary for someone like me who had only just begun to learn about the environment in depth.

Essentially, the report concluded that we must limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C instead of 2°C by 2030 (at the very latest) or we risk causing too much irreversible damage. The entire report itself is way too comprehensive and detailed for any average person to fully read through, which means that even their executive summary is 30 pages long!

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From the official IPCC website (click to be directed)

For Singapore and the SEA region in general, the main concerns include climate change’s impact on marine biodiversity and ecosystems. To put things into perspective, it is predicted that by 2050, a global temperature rise of 1.5°C will drive the decline of 70% to 90% of all coral reefs; with a rise of 2°C or more, more than 99% are at risk! It is indeed quite disheartening to think that it is possible see the loss of such large ecosystems in our lifetimes.

Beyond the risk of species extinction and shrinking marine populations, this may also affect our local food supply. With increasing ocean acidification and rising sea levels, global warming has already been observed to cause declines in the productivity of fisheries and aquaculture; considering the fact that crop yields and the nutritional value of these crops are also expected to diminish, this spells some trouble for global food security.

Apart from affecting marine resources, SR15 studied over 10,000 species and found that among them, 18% of insects, 16% of plants and 8% of vertebrates will lose more than half of their habitat ranges. This is definitely not surprising when you look at the spate of recent extinctions and a growing list of endangered species.

There are other implications as mentioned in SR15, of course, and I would recommend anyone truly interested to read the executive summary. Otherwise, here are some pretty neat infographics by WWF:

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Source: WWF at COP24

Fortunately, Singapore takes climate change quite seriously. In fact, the recent Singapore Budget 2019 addressed a bit of how our country has and will continue to adapt and mitigate. Quite in tandem with what SR15 suggests, we have a mix of adaptation and mitigation strategies in response to global warming. For instance, the budget includes how we have some infrastructural adaptations to rising sea levels and also some mitigation measures like restructuring diesel taxes. Notably, last year’s plan to implement a carbon tax has finally been implemented at the start of 2019.

As average Singaporeans, there’s so much we can do to contribute to the cause! Besides the usual advice of going vegetarian or using less disposables, it is also important to be open minded and help spread the good word to those that are not aware of the pressing issues surrounding climate change. Perhaps this is best done by inspiring a love for nature in them first, and perhaps this can be done by inviting them for a nature walk with us!

Written by: Afiq Sulaiman

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Finding Samurai

They can’t say for sure how old he is, or how healthy he is. They’re not certain which trees he sleeps in at night. But they know he is alone, and that’s how they knew to call him Samurai.

The Raffles’ Banded Langur Working Group couldn’t exist without pure optimism. Deforestation and urbanization have pushed the native critically endangered Raffles’ Banded Langur population further and further into the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, where they have dwindled down to fifty individuals. On top of that, the working group discovered in early 2018 that a male individual had been separated from his troop, and was wandering an isolated patch of forest alone. During my brief time as an intern at the Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore), I stumbled over roots and pricked my fingers on thorns as I followed the volunteers, combing the forest patch, mornings and afternoons, day after day, for the slightest sign of him.

Here’s what it all comes down to: we need every single Raffles’ Banded Langur out there; every individual that carries the genes of the Presbytis femoralis femoralis is precious. A lost male is a lost parent is a lost generation. Samurai has to be taken out of that isolated forest patch where no one but a troop of wary macaques even remotely looks like him, and returned to his own troop.

The key is the sleeping tree. When a volunteer spots him resting on a tree, a ribbon goes around that trunk. Sometimes the trees are so old that it takes two of us on either side, giving its wide girth as tight a bear hug as we can manage, so that our outstretched fingers can meet each other just long enough to pass the ribbon over. We do this over and over, because we’re not sure which ones he sleeps in at night, which ones he naps in, and which ones he just plain sits and takes a dump in. Most shifts, we don’t even see him, just the bounce in the canopy as he bolts from our sight, leaving us with a heavy rustling. But once the all-important tree is identified, a team of specialists will sneak into the forest before dawn and gather around it. They will scan the overhead boughs for Samurai’s sleeping form. They will aim and shoot a tranquilizing dart, and if all goes well, he will be falling into a net and whisked away before he even begins to understand that something’s out of the ordinary.

Once he’s determined to be healthy, he will be reunited with his troop. That is, if all goes well. If they ever find his sleeping tree. If he doesn’t get spooked and abandon his usual haunts. It would all be so much easier if they could just read his mind, but you don’t try to get into the head of a wild animal the way you invent gadgets to translate dog barks. You observe and take notes and do what you can, because you weren’t evolved to be best buddies or to gently place your hands palm to palm like in Tarzan. You’re just two components of the same world. In Singapore, not many of us become close friends with our neighbours. But we sweep the corridor and press the lift button for each other and turn down the music at night.

On my last ever shift, I was re-entering the forest for a second round, and a silhouette leapt from a disturbance in the canopy and landed on a branch just a few metres from me, low enough that I only had to raise my head a little to see. My eyes were caught off guard and unfocused, but I remember that our gazes met. I turned to softly call my companion, and then he was already nothing more than the sound of branches crashing in the distance. You must have seen the ubiquitous Long-tailed Macaque before, so imagine this: twice as large, black hair instead of brown, tinged very slightly with purple. Limbs somehow stockier. Tail always longer than you expect; white smudges on the abdomen and the inner sides of the arms and legs. Quiet, inscrutable.

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Photo: Sabrina Jabbar

Written by: Qiu Jiahui

 

Crocodiles Uncovered: Read this if you have a fear of reptiles

The Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum is always a wondrous place to visit. A typical museum can seem rather boring, what with things and people that have negligible relevance to one’s present day life. It is hard to say the same, however, of the LKCNHM, which has on display three towering dinosaur skeletons that inevitably humbles oneself, not to mention a wide array of curious creatures one would otherwise have no luck or guts to witness alive. The “Air Tenang: Tale of a Giant Crocodile” exhibit is one such example.

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(Source: LKCNHM)

Translated from Bahasa Melayu, “Air Tenang” means “calm water”. At first glance, one might think that this is a reference to a crocodile’s sinister ability to create the illusion of calm waters before sniping their prey in a split horrific second. Many artefacts on display help bring that visual imagery to life, including a 3-footed crocodile skull that belonged to one of the largest crocodiles in history, projected to be more than six metres long. The stuffed carcass of Kaiser, an expired resident of the Singapore Zoo, is surrounded by an abundant spill of red, blue and white fabric previously used to taxidermise him.

 

Kaiser the Crocodile (Photo: Rachel Teng)

Somehow, even without their essence, the skeletal and hollow remnants of these creatures still manage to invoke some sort of primal fear in us. It is thus hard to imagine that a human being can approach a live, wild crocodile without consternation and the instinctive need to either run or defend. Perhaps, then, crocodile farmers, hunters, and the likes of Steve Irwin may be seen as heroes that have faced the wild.

The problem arises when we let this fear get the better of us.

Herpetophobia is the fear of reptiles, and it is also commonly associated with ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes. About one third of adult humans are ophidiophobic/herpetophobic, making it one of the most commonly reported phobias in the world.

There are many theorized reasons for herpetophobia, and you might be surprised to know that there may actually be a very practical reason for it. According to evolutionary biologists, reptiles were already around when the first mammals evolved 100 million years ago, while other threats such as birds and other mammals evolved long after. The sheer number of venomous reptiles that were co-evolving with us created an evolutionary arms race, and our primate ancestors’ main defence mechanism was our increasingly sophisticated eye for sensing colour, detail and movement. Being able to spot reptiles and having an instinctive fear trigger thus became a valuable survival asset to primates, and subsequently, to us humans.

This would reasonably explain the disproportionately large percentage of people fearing reptiles much more compared to other animals we might encounter on a day-to-day basis, or other equally fearful predatory animals such as lions and tigers. A National Geographic study conducted on babies also showed that this fear is highly intrinsic; their pupils dilate when shown pictures of snakes and spiders in contrast with flowers and fish, wherein pupil size is directly correlated with a variety of mental and emotional stresses.

Yet, any kind of phobia is classified as a mental disorder; an irrational fear that goes beyond protecting oneself from danger. Fear developed for a purely evolutionary purpose can therefore only go so far as to explain such a prevalent phobia.

We often overlook the subliminal effect media and culture have on our psyches. Throughout history, reptilians have been vilified. From the biblical snake in the Garden of Eden to the mythical dragon (which is merely a form of extrapolation of reptilian traits), reptiles are most commonly portrayed as symbols of evil and cunning. In language, reptilian terms like “cold-blooded” are unmistakable insults and the modern lingo “snake” has recently evolved to mean “backstabber”. Anthropomorphic reptiles in popular films and fiction novels are conveniently made the villain across age groups and genres.

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“Never Smile At a Crocodile” in Disney’s Peter Pan

♫ Never smile at a crocodile
No, you can’t get friendly with a crocodile
Don’t be taken in by his welcome grin
He’s imagining how well you’d fit within his skin ♫

 

 

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(From left to right: Godzilla, Randall from Monsters Inc., Basilisk from Harry Potter, underground lizard people from Dr Who, and Kaa from Jungle Book, all playing antagonistic roles.)

Even in the news, cases of crocodile attacks are highly sensationalized as a form of public warning, and they are often the inspiration for thriller movies featuring killer crocs.

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Most popular movies involving crocodiles are thriller and horror movies, revealing societal attitudes towards this animal.

For most, these cultural references will be the only interactions one will have with crocodiles and other reptilians. Contrast these with other apex predators like lions or most other mammals that by default assume the protagonist role or are alluded to courage or leadership. It is no wonder that we fear reptiles irrationally.

The question is, does it really matter how we see or portray reptiles? In short, it does. Our current understanding of extinction risks of reptiles is the shallowest as compared to birds, mammals, amphibians and other animals; only 45% of reptile species have been assessed by the IUCN to date. Mankind’s disinclination towards reptiles has created a bias of conservation efforts toward anthropocentric views rather than ecological value or urgency. Even if one might argue that scientific or conservational pursuits should remain objective and unbiased towards these species, experts agree that social and cultural support are vital to approaching conservation holistically. This is dangerous, considering that many reptiles such as crocodiles are apex predators and indicators of health in freshwater and estuarine ecosystems. Being typically opportunistic eaters, they control the population of a variety of prey, and their carcasses are a significant food source for smaller animals.

Here is the hard truth about crocodiles. They have no aversion to the taste of human flesh, are extremely protective and territorial parents and will actively hunt people as a food source. About 1000 people are killed by crocodilians each year, with majority of attacks recorded being in Southeast Asia and Australia. They are consistently high rankers on any site’s “Top 10 most Dangerous Animals” list.

But here is the hard truth about humans. Over 56 billion animals are killed every year for food, and more than 50 million are killed for their pelts for fashion. Crocodiles are no exception to the wrath of humans; visit the exhibition and you will witness old photographs of crocodile farms used to harvest skin and meat, not to mention crocodile duels for pure entertainment. We are, no doubt, the Top Dangerous Animal since we evolved on this earth to be feared more than any Godzilla there is out there.

Fear is purposeful, but we need to understand its origins to make full and proper use of it. Can we still maintain that our fear of crocodiles purely stem from the instinctive need to conquer our evolutionary enemies, at the “cold-blooded” detriment of our ecosystem? Does our fear justify the lack of conservation value we place on these creatures? To triumph our fear is not necessarily to confront a crocodile head-on like Irwin does, but to be able to detach ourselves from our primal biases and confront the complexity and ambivalence of the crocodile-human conflict.

Crocodiles are a hardy species, one of the most ancient and unchanged creatures of natural history from 240 million years ago. They have survived continental breakups and ice ages, seen the rise and fall of dinosaurs and the evolution of mammals and birds. To date, no species has yet to be extinct, but since the human epoch, 44% of crocodiles are threatened, and 17 out of 23 species are endangered.

The “Air Tenang: Tale of the Crocodile” exhibit informs us that presently, crocodiles are contained mostly in wetland reserves like Sungei Buloh, barricaded away from human-frequented waters. There have been no attacks since 1989 since they were hunted to near local extinction during colonisation, and the Singapore Red Data Book (2008) classifies the Saltwater Crocodile as “Critically Endangered”. Perhaps, “Air Tenang” can be more aptly interpreted as the truly unearthly silence of the waters in light of the absence of crocodiles in our waters today.

Written by: Rachel Teng

REFERENCES

Are We Born Fearing Spiders and Snakes? (2017, October 26). Retrieved from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/10/infant-fear-phobia-science-snakes-video-spd/

Ceríaco, Luis MP (2012). “Human attitudes towards herpetofauna: The influence of folklore and negative values on the conservation of amphibians and reptiles in Portugal”. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. 8 (1): 8.

Crocodile attack. (2019, February 03). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crocodile_attack#Species_involved_in_attacks

Fritscher, L. (n.d.). Do I Have Herpetophobia or Am I Just Afraid of Snakes and Lizards? Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/herpetophobia-2671862

Fritscher, L. (n.d.). How Evolutionary Psychology Explains Human Behavior. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/evolutionary-psychology-2671587

Gresh, Lois H.; Weinberg, Robert (21 April 2008). “Why Did It Have To Be Snakes: From Science to the Supernatural, The Many Mysteries of Indiana Jones”. John Wiley & Sons.

Never Smile at a Crocodile. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/NeverSmileAtACrocodile

Of snakes and faces: An evolutionary perspective on the psychology of fear”. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. Wiley. 50 (6): 543–552.

Ophidiophobia. (2018, December 11). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ophidiophobia#cite_note-3

Reptiles Are Abhorrent. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ReptilesAreAbhorrent

Respax. (2017, August 17). Whitsunday Wildlife Tour – About the Crocodiles in Whitsundays. Retrieved from http://crocodilesafari.com.au/about-crocodiles/

Roach, John (4 October 2001). “Fear of Snakes, Spiders Rooted in Evolution, Study Finds”National Geographic NewsNational Geographic Society.

Roll, U., et al. “Using Wikipedia page views to explore the cultural importance of global reptiles.” Biological Conservation (2016)

Than, K. (2006, July 20). Fear of Snakes Drove Pre-Human Evolution. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/4183-fear-snakes-drove-pre-human-evolution.html

Tingley, R., et al. “Addressing knowledge gaps in reptile conservation.” Biological Conservation (2016).

The Not So Common Common Myna

Don’t worry, it’s not a typo error. It is true that Common Myna are not a common sight anymore, sadly. Common Myna are native to Asia, so you might wonder what happened to them. I’ll go into that soon but before that, let me introduce you to them!

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Common Myna (Acridotheres Tristis) by smarko on pixabay https://pixabay.com/en/common-myna-acridotheres-tristis-1367119/

“Wait, isn’t this the bird I see all over Singapore? I’m sure I see some in my neighbourhood. Who says it’s not common?”

Did that thought come to your mind? I honestly won’t be surprised if it did because I thought the same way too, but no! These birds are different from the one you see around which are the Javan Myna.

Let’s spot the differences between the Common Myna and Javan Myna!

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Javan Myna (Acridotheres javanicus) from Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Javan_myna

Have you spotted the stark difference? Take a closer look at its eyes. You would have noticed that the skin near the eyes of the Common Myna is yellow. To me (someone who isn’t a bird person), that is one way to differentiate between these two birds. Or you could take a closer look and realise that the Javan Myna is mainly black in colour while the Common Myna is actually a dark brown. But then again, birds move, and I’m pretty sure black and dark brown are not very easy to tell apart from a distance, so let’s stick with the yellow skin around the eyes.

Now that we have learnt how to tell these 2 birds apart, would you have wondered if these 2 similar looking birds with similar names have a special relationship? Well, yes, they do! But it’s somewhat like a “you go, I stay” kind of relationship. Remember when I said that Common Mynas were actually uncommon in Singapore? Well, they were common once, until the Javan Mynas came and took over, becoming the ‘common’ mynas we see in Singapore today. How did the Javan Mynas do that? They have found ways to adapt to the urban landscape of Singapore where they can build their nests anywhere (Meng, 2011) and feed on not just insects and fruits but also, our leftover food (Yap, 2002).

Such braveness in “hunting” for food and resourcefulness in ways of survival have led Javan Myna to become one of the, if not the most common bird in Singapore. Singapore is indeed a competitive society and we all need the right attitude to survive, be it humans or animals!

Here’s a fun fact: the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed Common Myna to be the 3rd most invasive species in the world (Yangchen, 2016) although the situation in Singapore is the exact opposite!

References

Meng, A. L. (2011, April 21). Lessons from two Mynas. Retrieved from Stir-fried Science: https://blog.science.edu.sg/2011/04/21/lessons-from-two-mynas/

Yangchen, L. (2016, April 22). The javan mynah: Today’s pest, tomorrow’s food? Retrieved from The Straits Times: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/the-javan-mynah-todays-pest-tomorrows-food

Written by: Thang Hui Lin