Category Archives: nature and technology

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/

 

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To conserve or not to conserve…

It’s officially been the second year since we have begun this venture and it’s has been a great learning adventure. This semester has been especially wild with the media buzz surrounding the Cross Island Line and all the activities surrounding the March for MacRitchie campaign.

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With seven exciting walks along the Petai Trail conducted this semester, we had a great time bringing participants along the Petai Trail and talk about the various inhabitants that share our nature reserve. From creepy-crawlies like the ferocious dragonfly to furry critters like the Slender Squirrel, there were much to explore in our nature reserve! Ecological concepts were also explored and explained using funny examples.

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The leaf litter plant (Agrostistachys indica) or as we like to call it the kiasu plant, is used to explain the concept of an ecological niche. As an understory plant, it uses a different strategy to survive among the towering canopy trees you usually find in our tropical rainforest. Like us Kiasu Singaporeans, this clever little plant has found a way to survive in this competitive environment. It doesn’t just absorb nutrients from the nutrient-poor tropical soil but also from its leaves. How? With its leaves growing in a spiral, it is able to capture the leaves that fall from its taller neighbouring trees. Using the little rootlets growing on the base of its leaves, it can absorb the nutrients directly as these leaves decomposes [1]. Talking about getting the best of both worlds!

2015.10.18 Petai Ruixiang - dragonfly (unidentified)
Just some of the cool creepy crawlers you can find in the CCNR! (Photo by Rui Xiang)

We also held conservation booths at the NUS campus. Lining up the wooden benches, we managed to display an even larger haul of preserved specimens loaned from the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (Thanks again!). Cool jars filled with specimens hovering in ethanol, we were excited to share more about the species that were difficult to spot in the wild and less common to the public eye. The adorable but nocturnal Lesser Bamboo Bat is a prime example. Being one of the smallest bats, it grows only to about 4cm (the size of your thumb)! Usually found roosting in the hollow core of the bamboo, it’s not exactly the easiest creature to find [2].

Students, intrigued by creatures they don’t usually encounter, were eager to learn more about that flora and fauna we can find in our rainforest. Engaging with more than 250 students over those two days, it was encouraging to see the zest our generation had for nature. We hope that students left with a greater appreciation for our nature reserves and a deeper understanding on the Cross Island Line issue. We would like to thank all the participants who came down for our events and we hope that we have managed to incite some passion for our precious nature reserve!

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With the Cross Island Line still lingering at the back of the minds of Singaporeans, there have been many interesting articles that rationalise and reason out why we should conserve what’s left of Singapore’s wildlife. (While it can be argued that nature has no need for humans, that’s a story for another day.) Some might argue that we, nature lovers, tend to preach to the converted, those who are already passionate about the environment. So, here is a attempt to reach out to the stereotypical urban dweller who would rather hang out in a cool air-conditioned shopping mall than trek through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR). Other than the intrinsic value of nature, what other benefits could be used to appeal to the ever-pragmatic Singaporean masses?

With thousands of visitors heading to CCNR annually, water sports and various other recreations activities make the nature reserve a brilliant outlet for stressed-out Singaporeans to take a break from the rat race of work. “Well, Singapore has over 300 parks [3].” you might point out, “I’m sure that there is an entire spectrum of alternative green areas for Singaporeans who want to enjoy fresh air.”

2015.09.20 Petai Crystle - On the trail 2
What can the forest give us? (Photo by Crystle)

What about the ecosystem services that the CCNR provides? As the biggest continuous stretch of forest found in Singapore, it acts as the “green lungs” of our nation among various other valuable services.

“In comparison with the entire of Singapore,”you might object, “the CCNR constitutes a mere 4% of Singapore’s total land area. Does the ecosystem services it provides really make a difference to us?” Well, maybe it doesn’t make as much of an effect to the whole of Singapore but it certainly makes a difference for the residents (both animals and humans) who live near or within the CCNR.

Well, let’s bring up something that hasn’t really been touched upon: the wonder and awe that nature invokes. The natural environment has inspired humanity for centuries. From arts to architecture, natural wonders are so central to our culture and progress that almost every nation in the world has ideas and creations that reflect our awe of nature.

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The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai (Photo by Met Museum)

“Wait!” you might protest, “Art and all this airy fairy stuff might be very interesting but that won’t be able to fill our rice bowls.” Well, as the wise Robbie Williams once said, “medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” But I see your point.

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Birds: The first “planes” (Photo by Sandra)

To them, I say: industries have been built on nature. The Wright Brothers, who are widely credited for inventing the first aircraft capable of sustained flight and the father of the aviation industry, were inspired by the flight of pigeons [4]. You might remain unconvinced, after all biomimetics (field of study of designs inspired by nature) is a relatively new term. Has there really been that many innovations evoked from nature to justify saving our natural environment? Singapore’s uniform and ubiquitous HDB blocks resemble lego bricks more than they do rainforest trees.

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Nature as a “think-tank”? (Photo by Mel)

But there is a whole plethora of nature-inspired products that can be found all around us. From the tiny pieces of velcro strapping across the white shoes of primary school students to the giant artificial “supertrees” towering over the Gardens by the Bay, there are numerous instances of innovations that have found inspiration from nature. This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering how all of us are successes of millions of years of continual R&D process, better known as evolution. We are all “products” that have been ruthlessly and relentlessly refined and prototyped.

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What’s this? Another of nature’s product?

To honour nature, the most experienced designer of us all, we will be releasing a new Nature and Technology series: Biomimicry, bringing the nature to you “innovations” of the forest. These posts will talk about creations that are inspired by the creatures we can find in our very own little island. Look forward to them!

P.S. (We will be conducting walks during the Summer! So, for all those who need a break from the urban jungle, join us at our natural one!)

  1. Wang LK, DCJ Yeo, KKP Lim & SKY Lum. (2012) Private Lives: An Expose of Singapore’s Rainforests. Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, Singapore. 298 pp.
  2. Baker, Nick. (n.d.). Bamboo Bats – Tylonycteris spp. Ecology Asia. Retrieved May 29, 2016, from http://www.ecologyasia.com/verts/bats/bamboo-bats.htm
  3. National Parks Boards (2015, January 5). Parks & Nature Reserves. Retrieved May 29, 2016, from https://www.nparks.gov.sg/gardens-parks-and-nature/parks-and-nature-reserves
  4. The Wright Brothers. (n.d.). Retrieved May 29, 2016, from http://airandspace.si.edu/exhibitions/wright-brothers/online/

Words by: Mel