Category Archives: biodiversity

Our Splendid Swamps

In the summer of the last academic year, I joined the Department of Biological Sciences as a part time research assistant helping with surveys in Nee Soon Swamp Forest. While it may sound mundane for most people, it was like dream come true for me. I had always heard about the ecological significance of this area but never had I ever thought that I would have a chance of working in it.

The job scope involved surveying different tree species in the swamp forest for flowers and fruits in order to determine patterns and trends. The forest was divided into different plots which could be broadly categorised into wet and dry plots. Dry plots tend to be located on hillslopes and ridges while wet plots are situated in the valleys. On the first day of the job, armed with binoculars, my colleague and I excitedly made our way to our first wet plot. There, what I saw was vastly different from any of the forests I had seen before. The entire area was flooded and waterlogged, with trees forming a mosaic of small islands.

Flooded swamp forest with a patchwork of trees forming small islands. Source: Me

Some of the trees had unique morphological characteristics and produced massive pneumatophores which were almost a meter in height. Other trees had stilt roots, much like trees from our mangrove forests. The water was very slow flowing and stained brown due to the presence of tannins from decaying vegetation.

Pneumatophores of Lophopetalum multinervium to aid with oxygen intake in anaerobic mud. Source: Me

Stilt roots of an unidentified tree species. Source: Me

After the initial excitement, we got down to work. Using our binoculars, we looked at the crown of the trees for signs of flowers and fruits. After that, the data would be recorded on a data sheet. At times, when the trees were ambiguously labelled, the diameter-at-breast-height (dbh) would be taken and then compared against the value on the data sheet to ensure that the correct tree was being surveyed. While these may sound easy enough, it was more challenging than I had expected. For a start, the swampy terrain and lack of solid ground made navigation a chore as time was spent trudging through the mud. Secondly, some of the tree species such as Lophopetalum multinervium had inconspicuous fruits which made it challenging to spot from the ground, especially when the crown is heavily backlit due to the bright sky above. Lastly, the large number of spiny plants in the plots meant that we were almost always left with small bruises and cuts after every fieldwork session.

The green fruit of Lophopetalum multinervium was difficult to differentiate from green leaves when viewed from afar. Source: Me

Huge spiny Pandanus artrocarpus which can cause cuts and tear clothing! Source: Me

Through the weeks, I started to understand the importance of Nee Soon Swamp Forest. Since the 19th century, freshwater swamps in Singapore have progressively been cleared for agriculture and reservoir construction. [1] Nee Soon Swamp Forest which is a tributary of Sungai Seletar is the last of its kind and was likely preserved through the gazettement of Chan Chu Kang Forest Reserve in 1885. To the north of Nee Soon lies the other tributary of Sungai Seletar which contained freshwater swamps in the past. However, the entire valley and swamp was flooded and consumed during the expansion of Upper Seletar Reservoir between 1940 and 1967. [2]

Although the remaining freshwater swamp occupies a much smaller land area compared to mangroves, it contains over 200 species of plants compared to 30 species found in mangroves. Unlike mangroves, the plants and animals are also exclusively freshwater dwelling, with no adaptations for saltwater. Moreover, many of the flora and fauna found in Nee Soon cannot be found elsewhere on the island. [2] I have included pictures of some interesting flora and fauna spotted during my fieldwork sessions. Nee Soon Swamp Forest is of great ecological significance, with many threatened freshwater creatures confined solely in that area. In fact, it is the only place in the world where the swamp forest crab (Parathelphusa reticulata) is found. [3] As such, I do hope that it can continue being preserved while degraded swamp forests in places like Sime Road and Admiralty Park can be restored, using the methods outlined in a paper by the Nature Society. [2]

Curved Spiny Spider (Marcracantha arcuata). Source: Me

Copper-cheeked Frog (Hydrophylanx raniceps). Source: Me

White Back Giant Flat Millipede (Platyrhacus lineatus). Source: Me

Aquatic aroid Cryptocoryne griffithii growing in a slow-moving stream

Stick insect, most likely Necroscia confusa. Source: Me

While I do not have any specific advice for research assistant positions, I think that for any fieldwork related tasks or jobs, it would be good to be mentally prepared to work under challenging conditions and push yourself. Many of the skills and techniques must be learnt out in the field where conditions may not be the most favourable given the hot and humid weather and tough terrain. Of course, it would help greatly to invest in some outdoor gear such as long pants or boots to make the fieldwork more comfortable for yourself. On a whole, this job was fulfilling, and I finally understood why Nee Soon Swamp Forest is so precious and why we should conserve it for posterity.

Written by: Ke Yao

References

[1]: Corner, E. J. H. (1978). The freshwater swamp-forest of South Johore and Singapore. Singapore: Botanic Parks & Recreation Department.

[2]: O’Dempsey, T., & Chew, P. T. (2011). THE FRESHWATER SWAMP FORESTS OF SUNGEI SELETAR CATCHMENT: A STATUS REPORT, 1–46. Retrieved from https://www.nss.org.sg/documents/Pages 121 – 166 Tony OD & Chew PT THE FRESHWATER SWAMP FORESTS OF SUNGEI SELETAR CATCHMENT.pdf

[3] Clews, E., Corlette, R., Ho, J., Kim, D., Koh, C., Liong, S., . . . Ziegler, A. (2018). The biological, ecological and conservation significance of freshwater swamp forest in Singapore. Gardens’ Bulletin Singapore Hydrology and Biodiversity of Nee Soon Freshwater Swamp Forest, 70(1), 9-31. doi:10.26492/gbs70(suppl.1).2018-02

Singapore’s Elusive and Peculiar Insects

Creepy-crawlies? Eek!

Would that be your reaction if you saw a beetle on your wall, a mosquito on your arm, or a cockroach in your kitchen? If so, you’re not alone. To this day, I’m still fighting my fear of insects. To help me with that, I’ve decided to get curious about insects in Singapore – in particular, 5 of the more peculiar ones.

The insect species I’ll be writing about, however, are a mere fraction of the 1.5 million insect species that have been discovered. Despite the amount of biodiversity they give to our Earth, insects are not at all in the spotlight when it comes to animal conservation efforts. This could be due to their small size that makes them less noticeable, as well as a lack of understanding regarding their role in our ecosystems. 
Insects are pivotal to all of Earth’s ecosystems – they pollinate (without which, reproduction of many plant species cannot occur), help in decomposition processes, aid in population control of other species, and are of course, necessary in maintaining food chains. In this post, we’ll explore other reasons why  insects are so special, and crucial for the environment.

1. The Trilobite Beetle

This might be the most bizarre beetle you’ve seen. Just as the name suggests, its appearance is reminiscent of the Trilobites, a group of extinct arthropods (found in many fossils) that dominated oceans until about 251 million years ago. Its body is separated into distinct lobes of hard armour.

Apart from its already extraordinary appearance, however, the trilobite beetle still boasts a number of interesting features. 

Firstly, females are ten times the size of a male, and they look worlds apart. Females are the ones with the distinct shell-like appearance described above, and this is because females stay in their larval form for life. Secondly, juvenile females seem dead (for several days) when curling up to molt into their adult form. A sexual opening is formed after this process, and the female then exposes her abdomen (where the opening is) to indicate that she is ready to mate. Thirdly, they have the ability to retract their heads, just like tortoises! Lastly, they come in several different colours – black with orange dots, green, and purple.

However, despite their unique and sometimes colourful appearance, spotting them in our forests won’t be easy. These beetles, unsurprisingly, are a rare sight. 1925 and 1993 were the only two instances mating pairs were observed, and there is still much to learn about this extraordinary beetle. 

2. Lace Bug

Corythucha spinosa. Photograph by Alice Abela (2014). [URL]

The second peculiar insect we’ll be spotlighting is none other than the lace bug! It is part of the Tingidae family, a group of insects that range from 2 to 8 mm in length

Again, just like its name, the lace bug has wings with rims and transparent sheaths in between them that resemble lace patterns. The upward-facing surface of its body also has the same texture and appearance (pictured above). Its young, however, are spiny, smaller and dark in colour – they do not, in the least, look like adult lace bugs.

Apart from being found in Singapore, it is also found all around the world, especially throughout North America. Its diet consists of leaves from various trees and shrubs. Usually, the leaves of plants that have been fed on by lace bugs appear to have yellowish spots, followed by browning and sometimes, the death of the leaves.

3. The Lanternfly

Photograph from Wildcreatures Hong Kong [URL]

This Pinocchio-looking lanternfly (family: Fulgoridae) is a plant hopper that can be found in tropical and sub-tropical regions. It is quite large (6 to 9 cm including its protrusion) and usually colourful

The long protrusion from its head serves a digestive function; It is used to extract sap from more than 70 species of plants, especially grapevines, birch, maple trees, willow, and black walnut. While feeding, the lanternbug excretes a sugary substance that attracts bees and other insects.

Precisely because of its diverse diet and intrinsic ability to adapt, however, this bug has become a well-known invasive species, especially in Pennsylvania. It is native to Asian countries, however, where it likes to feed on fruit trees such as the longgan and lychee.

Being named the lanternbug, it is no surprise that the elongated structure on its head can light up. However, this is a rare occurrence that may be a sign of being ready to mate

4. Scale Insect

Armoured scale insect. Photograph by Jon Sullivan. [URL]

Scale insects are indeed peculiar-looking. They appear to have circular and flat bodies, making them look similar to fungi. Their superfamily (Coccoidea) is made up of 8000 different species and are split into soft and armoured scale insects. They are relatively small, ranging from 0.16 to 0.95 cm in length.

Young scale insects are very mobile (hence, they are also called “crawlers”) and not armoured. Adult females, on the other hand, do not have wings and have shorter antennae and legs, making them more immobile. Males have wings and legs and antennae of normal length.

They can be found all across the globe, and feed on a great diversity of food crops, grasses, trees and ornamental plants (aided by long mouthpieces) – making them another well-known pest. 

Although the picture above wasn’t taken in Singapore, rest assured you can find these in our forests!

5. Dead Leaf Mantis

The Dead Leaf Mantis. [URL]

The Dead leaf mantis (Deroplatys Dessicata) is home to Southeast Asian countries, such as Malaysia, Borneo, Indonesia, and of course, Singapore. The dessicata, out of the Deroplatys genus, is the largest sub-species, reaching a maximum of 9cm.

It goes without saying that this mantis is a master of camouflage, looking like dead leaves or decomposing matter. They thrive in high humidity and temperature (80% and around 30oC respectively), and feed on many large insects, such as locusts, crickets and mealworms. They also feed on flying insects. Just like other praying mantises, they are great predators who stay still and wait patiently for their prey. Surprisingly, the Dead leaf mantis can even feed on amphibians, birds and reptiles.

The males and females can be told apart from their relative sizes. The male is smaller and more slender than the female Dead leaf mantis – this aids the females in eating their male mating partners after mating.

That’s all for now. Can you believe that these beautiful bugs can all be found in Singapore? Furthermore, there’s a countless amount that we haven’t learned about. Learning more about these 5 special bugs while doing my research for this post, to be honest, has helped me develop a newfound appreciation for our creepy-crawly friends. It certainly will make me think twice about running away from insects the next time I see them. 

More importantly, this has made me more concerned about insect conservation, because I now see how beautiful and intrinsically valuable each and every insect species is. With that, I carry a small hope that conservation efforts will, as much as they can, be more inclusive of the biodiversity of insects that is so crucial to our natural ecosystems.

Written by: Hope

Fantastic Fungi

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Fairy Inkcaps, Coprinellus disseminatus in Singapore1

What are they?

Fungi are an extremely diverse group of single or multicellular organisms that play many crucial roles in the ecosystem. Once thought to belong to the kingdom of plants, recent developments in phylogenetic studies have shown that they are in fact more closely related to animals as they share a common protist ancestor2. Multicellular fungi consists mainly of threadlike networks of cells known as hyphae that are typically hidden from view3. The “mushroom” that we commonly see in supermarkets is actually the fruiting body of the fungus that is used to disperse the spores during reproduction. A generalised overview of the fungal lifecycle and different growth forms can be found in the diagram below.

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Lifecycle of a typical fungus4

Importance

Just like the plants that supply Earth with the life-giving oxygen, Fungi also play critical roles in sustaining life on Earth. Fungi are heterotrophs. This means that, like you and me, they cannot make their own food and must consume other plants or animals for nutrients5. The key difference is that they consume decaying matter and release the essential nutrients back into the natural environment. Without them, important nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus will remain locked up in the bodies of dead plants and animals and denied from future generations of organisms6. Furthermore, non-toxic species of fungi are important food sources for humans. Examples that we know and love include button mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms and even truffles!

Additionally, some fungi also form symbiotic relationships with plants and animals. This means that the fungal organism and its plant or animal partner perform complementary roles that are beneficial to the survival of each other. A cool example of this relationship can be found in the Fungi from the phylum Glomeromycota. Members of this phylum form tree-like structures known as arbuscular mycorrhizae within the roots of plants6. These structures allow the fungus to exchange mineral and organic nutrients with the plant host which enhances the survival of both organisms.

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Cool tree-like hyphae of Glomeromycetes within the roots of plants7

Enough of the Science Lesson, What About Our Local Fungi?

Our hot and humid climate provides ideal conditions for fungi to thrive. Although not well studied, it has been estimated that the Little Red Dot is home to more than 100 species8! These range from more common species that can be spotted along our roadsides during the wet season to extremely exotic and cool looking species that are found within our rich nature reserves.

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Roadside Parasol mushrooms9

The ring-like formation of the Parasol mushrooms sure brings to mind the fairy tales of childhood!

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Bridal Veil Stinkhorn, Phallus indusiatus10

This particularly striking mushroom can be spotted around our local forests and gardens. The cap of the fruiting body produces a pungent and sticky sweet liquid to attract insects to aid in spore dispersal3.

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Common Puffball, Calvatia spp.3

The Common Puffball has a very interesting method of spore dispersal. While the spores of most mushrooms fall from gills on the underside of their caps, the puffball holds it’s spores within the fruiting body itself and explodes when disturbed by passing animals or falling branches3!

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Bio luminescent species, Singapore8

Other cool mushrooms that can be found include species that bio luminesce as they produce a molecule known as “luciferin”11. Scientists hypothesize that this is to attract insects at night for enhanced spore dispersal! This striking phenomenon can be seen in the picture below.

These are just a small sample of the myriad of interesting fungal species that can be found in Singapore. With the rainy season coming up, I urge you to keep an eye out for these little fellas as you go about your daily activities. However, do enjoy them from a distance and do not pick them as some of them might be toxic! Until next time!

Written by: Noel

References:

  1. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/out-to-identify-and-photograph-fungi-of-singapore
  2. https://www.cliffsnotes.com/study-guides/biology/plant-biology/fungi-not-plants/a-kingdom-separate-from-plants.
  3. https://www.nparks.gov.sg/nparksbuzz/issue-38-vol-3-2018/conservation/wild-about-mushrooms
  4. https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/2664-fungal-life-cycles-spores-and-more
  5. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/heterotrophs/
  6. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-biology/chapter/ecology-of-fungi/
  7. https://www.studyblue.com/notes/note/n/fungus-diversity-flashcards/deck/13608129
  8. https://bugsandinsects.wordpress.com/2015/06/09/singapore-wild-mushrooms/
  9. https://www.reddit.com/r/singapore/comments/ebek36/another_fairy_ring/
  10. https://www.reddit.com/r/BotanicalPorn/comments/fhya2l/the_veiled_lady_phallus_indusiatus_also_known_as/
  11. https://mashable.com/2017/04/26/glow-in-the-dark-mushrooms-discovery/

 

 

 

Sorry, this is not available in your region.

Have you ever been on a video streaming platform and saw this error message? I’ve always wondered if those who can see the video get a similar message like  “This is only available in your region”. Often, we do not appreciate the little things that only we have. What makes Singapore unique? Is it using tissue packets to chope seats, our special chicken rice, or systems like the CPF? Well, some animal species can only be found in Singapore!

In the previous blog post, it was mentioned that invasive species can cause harm to native ones. But what exactly are native species, and how about endemic species? 

Native species are organisms that occur in an area without human interference. Endemic species are a subset of native species. However, they can only be found in that area and nowhere else. Endemic species can be generally classified into two categories: paleoendemic or neoendemic. Paleoendemic species are “survivors” of a taxon. While they may have been more widespread in the past, they can only be found in limited areas now because of environmental changes over the centuries. Neoendemic species are those that adapt to geographically isolated environments and evolve into separate species. This means that endemic species (especially paleoendemic ones) are often found in limited environments and more susceptible to climate change and other human activities (Carmona, Ortiz & Musarella 2019).

Species that can be found in Singapore are largely similar to those in Malaysia. Even today, there is evidence that some populations in Singapore originated from Johor or even the Riau islands (Yong 2012). Nonetheless, Singapore does have its own species not found anywhere else in the world. Three such species are the Singapore Freshwater Crab (Johora singaporensis), Hanguana rubinea, and the Brown Peachia Anemone (Synpeachia temasek).

 

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Ong Xin Rui (2014).

The Singapore Freshwater Crab is just 2-3 cm big and is the most active at night (Tan,2013). They help to eat leaf litter, which aids in the nutrient cycle in its environment. Furthermore, they prey on smaller creatures and are prey to larger organisms and as such an important species in the food web (Ng et al, 2015).

The latest research shows that the Singapore Freshwater Crab can only be found in three isolated areas, of which two are not under any legal protection. Worryingly, the population in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is under threat, probably due to acid rain (Ng et al 2014). Hence, conserving endemic species goes beyond just making sure that their habitats are designated as nature reserves. Legal protection is not a panacea to ensuring a species’ survival. We need to be mindful of our actions as a whole and be constantly on the lookout on the effects of our activities.

Due to our limited land area, there will always be difficulty balancing between material progress and conservation. Hopefully, consideration will be given to areas endemic species call home. It is heartening to see the expansion of our nature park networks, which help to protect our nature reserves and link together the various areas of ecological importance (NParks).

Another endemic species in Singapore is the newly discovered Hanguana rubinea.

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Reuben Lim (2018), reproduced with permission.

H. rubinea was first described in 2015. Before this, they were all misidentified as Hanguana malayana. Other than the ruby-red fruits, they all look rather similar. (Škorničková & Boyce 2015).

 H. rubinea can be found in Bukit Timah, Mandai, MacRitchie, and Seletar. They produce red fruits that ooze yellow when damaged. Together with H. triangulata, which produces white fruits, these berries which come in our national colours served as a timely reminder to protect our biodiversity as we celebrated our SG50 Golden Jubilee. (Lee, 2015)

 

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‘Brown’ Peachia anemone (Synpeachia temasek) by Ria Tan(2013) licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Brown Peachia Anemone (Synpeachia temasek) can be found in the waters off Changi, Bedok, and Chek Jawa. As they are often buried in the sand, with only their white “mouth” and tentacles showing, they may be mistaken for the Common Peachia Anemone, which is cream coloured and of a separate genus altogether (Yap et al).

Despite being such a small country, there is still room for us to learn and discover. Even today, it is still possible for us to lose species before it is even discovered. Who knows what treasures lie in our forests and coastal areas waiting to be found?

Written by: Ee Kin

References:

Carmona, Eusebio Cano, et al. “Introductory Chapter: Endemism as a Basic Element for the Conservation of Species and Habitats.” IntechOpen, IntechOpen, 4 Mar. 2019, www.intechopen.com/books/endemic-species/introductory-chapter-endemism-as-a-basic-element-for-the-conservation-of-species-and-habitats.

Yong, Ding Li. “Massive Deforestation in Southern Peninsula Malaysia Driving Ecological Change in Singapore?” Nature in Singapore, vol.5, 2012, p 285-289.

Tan, Sze Peng, and Yixiong Cai. “NParks Buzz.” The Endangered Singapore Crab, www.nparks.gov.sg/nparksbuzz/issue-17-vol-2-2013/conservation/the-endangered-singapore-crab.

 

Ng, Daniel J.j., et al. Conservation Strategy for the Singapore Freshwater Crab Johora Singaporensis , May 2015 Thwportals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/Rep-2015-020.pdf


Ng, Daniel J.j., et al. “Conservation Challenges and Action for the Critically Endangered Singapore Freshwater Crab Johora Singaporensis.” Oryx, vol. 49, no. 2, 2014, pp. 345–351., doi:10.1017/s0030605313000707.

“Nature Park Network.” National Parks Board, 19 Aug. 2020, www.nparks.gov.sg/gardens-parks-and-nature/nature-park-network.

 

Yap, Nicholas Wei Liang, et al. “Sea Anemones of Singapore:Synpeachia Temaseknew Genus, New Species, and Redescription OfMetapeachia Tropica(Cnidaria: Actiniaria: Haloclavidae).” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, vol. 127, no. 3, 2014, pp. 439–454., doi:10.2988/0006-324x-127.3.439.

Leong-Škorničková, J., and P.c. Boyce. “Hanguana in Singapore Demystified: an Overview with Descriptions of Three New Species and a New Record.” Gardens’ Bulletin Singapore, vol. 67, no. 01, 2015, p. 01., doi:10.3850/s2382581215000010.

Lee, Regina Marie. Two New Plant Species Native to Singapore Found Read More at Https://Www.todayonline.com/Singapore/Two-Species-Plants-New-Science-Discovered-Singapore, 5 June 2015, http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/two-species-plants-new-science-discovered-singapore.

 

 

Contextually Invasive

Invasive and Non-native, are these two terms interchangeable? Invasive species generally refer to an introduced species of flora or fauna that harms the native ecosystems. Additionally, invasive species may also have an adverse economic or public health impact. With the introduction of an invasive species, native wildlife might struggle to survive as the demand for resources increases and the rapid increase in the invasive population floods our natural ecosystem. On the other hand, non-native species are introduced species as well, yet these species do not adversely impact the native ecosystem.

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A Variable Squirrel By Donald Davesne

Singapore’s NParks one of the statutory boards under the Ministry of National Development, manages invasive species. Laws like the Animals and Birds Act or the Control of Plants Act are enforced by them. These laws aim to control the exchange of animals and plants with other countries to minimize the possibility of the introduction of non-native species to Singapore. Several species of animals that many of us will recognise have been highlighted as invasive species by NParks. The red-eared slider a common household pet. The American Bullfrogs that sometimes manage to escape their farms or are at times deliberately released or the variable squirrel. Yet what sets these species apart from other non-native species that are not called invasive? Should both invasive and non-native species be seen as inherently bad?

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Baby Red Eared Sliders By Tadpole667

Ecosystems all around the globe vary and thus a species that is labelled invasive in one area, may not be considered “invasive” in other contexts. There are many issues scientists or conservationists face when dealing with invasive species. Among them would be the argument that the food web may be too complex for us humans to adequately judge which introduced species are doing harm and its extent of invasiveness. Context matters– if a non-native species introduced disturbs the ecological balance, then it is called an invasive species. If it has limited impact on local wildlife it would be called non-native and if it is outcompeted in its new environment, it would simply die out.

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Red-whiskered Bulbul By Charles J Sharp

An example of an invasive species would be the red-whiskered bulbul. It was introduced as a caged bird. This bird is part of the 100 of the World’s Worst Invasive Alien Species. Yet its population size in Singapore is relatively small. It is an alien species in Singapore, yet it does not thrive. As the red-whiskered bulbul originates from Asia up till Northern Malaya, this seems to me that as it is not too far from its native land in Singapore and thus this limits its advantages it has over native bird species in Singapore. Thus, is it fair just to label the Red-whiskered Bulbul as invasive when it’s impact on native birds is limited, at least from my point of view? Context matters and as the saying goes one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, in this case, one man’s invasive species is another man’s introduced species.

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Release of ballast water By W.carter

With our globalised world and economy, more occurrences of new invasive species will undoubtedly occur. This is a consequence of trade processes, whereby potential invasive species may be carried onboard cargo or ballast tanks. Singapore’s position as a port city makes us all the more susceptible to the aforementioned implications. What can we do to prevent the spread of invasive species? As of now, NParks spearheads educational initiatives to have the populace recognise the potential damage introduced species will have on our local wildlife. In terms of our response to invasive species, there has to be careful evaluation of the suspect alien species prior to any culling, so resources are used to deal with actual invasive species. What do you think?

Written by: Li Zhe