Petai Trail with the BES Drongos (6 May 2017)

The wind grew stronger as the dark clouds loomed. The meeting point was crowded with people from the approaching rain. Even the resident long-tailed macaques were indoors to seek shelter. It was a quarter to nine when our guides started to worry. Will the trail carry on or will it be cancelled? Just as the clock struck nine, the clouds started to part and the sun shone brightly on MacRitchie Reservoir Park. It was time to commence the trail!

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The trail begins! We take a short journey back in time to talk about MacRitchie’s history (Photo by Nicholas Lim)

Our five nature guides and six participants made their way to the start of Petai Trail for the Bachelor of Environmental Studies (BES) Drongos guided walk. As they began, the team spotted the native red jungle fowl from its distinctive call. Who would have known that such a brightly-coloured and loud animal could be found in our forests?

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Red Junglefowl (Photo by Pang Hui En)

As our guides shared about the history of Macritchie Reservoir Park as a plantation and a kampong¸ they pointed out distinctive plants that have remained through the ages. They included the tall and majestic chewing gum tree (also known as the Jelutong), and the twirling rattan tree.

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Participants and guides under the majestic Jelutong tree! (Photo by Nicholas Lim)

The trail was filled with the sights and sounds of many of Singapore’s native wildlife. Thanks to our nature guides, our team was able to spot and identify a wide diversity of animals such as the pin striped-tit babbler, long-tailed macaques and common sun skink.

As the trail came to an end, the group was greeted by a cool breeze along the reservoir. It had been an exciting and informative trail, with both the participants and nature guides learning more about Macritchie Reservoir Park from each other.

If you are interested to learn more about the wildlife in Macritchie, then join us for a free guided walk at Petai Trail by signing up here. Our friendly nature guides would love to take you on a trail you will not forget!

Words by: Joeline Lim

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Nature’s Workers

Stand up for workers all over the world because it’s International Workers’ Day (a.k.a. Labour Day)! It’s a day to pay tribute to everyone who has worked hard in their fields for the success and well-being of our nation: architects, designers, engineers, cleaners and many, many more. In the natural world, working is also part and parcel of animals’ lives for their families and their survival. Ants and bees are perhaps the most widely known hardworking animals. But, do you know of other animals that perform similar jobs as people do? As we celebrate this holiday with our family and friends, let’s take a moment to appreciate and applaud some of the most industrious animals in the natural world!

Beavers

One of nature’s greatest engineers, the beaver is the only animal capable of changing their environment after man! These large rodents work diligently to construct dams in rivers or streams to transform fields and forests into large, nice and cosy ponds as their homes for winter. Preparation for this massive construction project starts all the way from late summer to fall. With the help of their strong teeth and powerful jaws, the beavers are able to chip away at tree trunks to acquire logs and branches for construction. After being broken down into smaller pieces, the beavers would carry the materials to the construction site and start building the dam by laying sticks and stacking branches in the mud.

Satin Bowerbirds

The male Satin Bowerbird is perhaps the most accomplished interior designer in the animal kingdom. The males spend lots of hard work and time to build and decorate nests to attract females’ attentions. Pebbles, shells and flowers are among some of the artistic objects the males use in their creative nest design.

Cleaner Wrasse

Just like how we pay great attention on public health and hygiene, cleanliness is also an important concern in the marine world. And this heavy responsibility lies on the Cleaner Wrasse. These tiny fishes work 24/7 scrubbing off unwanted parasites and dead scales on the fins, tails and even mouths of other reef fishes. The reward of their hard work is the feast of parasites! The Cleaner Wrasse has a long list of clients, including larger fishes which might be potential predators!

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The Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse (Source: http://www.marinelifephotography.com/fishes/wrasses/labroides-phthirophagus.htm)

Aren’t all these creatures amazing?! Not only do animals work long days and nights to survive, they also work hard in maintaining our ecosystem with their irreplaceable skill sets, such as acting as pollinators and decomposers. On this Labour Day, let’s also celebrate the contributions animals have made!

Happy Labour Day!

References:

National Geographic. (n.d.). Beaver. Retrieved from: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/b/beaver/

Animal Planet. (n.d.) The Beauticians. Retrieved from: http://www.animalplanet.com/wild-animals/5-the-beauticians/

Animal Planet. (n.d.) The Builders. Retrieved from: http://www.animalplanet.com/wild-animals/9-the-builders/

Animal Planet. (n.d.) Interior Decorators. Retrieved from: http://www.animalplanet.com/wild-animals/6-interior-decorators/

Words by: Ho Lijean

Tricksters of the Animal World

Hello friends, it’s April Fools’ Day! You know what that means: tricks and jokes galore! But if you are here on this blog, reading this post, then you may have been on the internet researching about cool pranks to pull on your friends (of course). Since you’re already here, how about a quick post to brighten your day? On this day of fun and games, let’s take a look at the amazing tricksters of the animal world, who may trick their way around to stay alive, or just to have a good time.

First in line is a relative of our namesake, the drongo. Specifically the Fork-tailed Drongo, hailed as the Kalahari desert’s greatest trickster. Almost 23 percent of their daily intake is stolen food, but for the animals that they steal from, the drongo is essentially a friendly watchbird, until he pulls a quick prank on them.

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Fork-tailed Drongo (Source: https://africageographic.com/blog/feisty-fearless-clever-fork-tailed-drongo/)

When a predator is near, the drongo calls out in alarm to warn its friends, such as the meerkats, sending them scurrying away for cover. That’s pretty helpful, except the drongo swoops down and steals the food the meerkats left in their quest for a hiding spot.

The drongo tries this a few times, although the meerkats learn and eventually the gig is up. But here’s something cool: as a final trick, the drongo mimics the meerkat’s own alarm call, and this time, the meerkats fall for it, scattering away as the drongo cackles internally and steals their food once again.

But what are words when there are videos? There’s a cool clip that you may enjoy, complete with dramatic music and professional videography.

Next, we have the Leaf Fish. Granted, it’s not as cute as the Fork-tailed Drongo, but there’s a reason. This freshwater fish looks and acts like a dead leaf, held up in a ‘floating’ position by its small, transparent fins. They’ll casually float close enough to their prey, and everyone’s having a good time until it strikes at the last moment, consuming smaller fishes with its projectile mouth.

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Leaf Fish (Source: https://philliplynda.wordpress.com/2013/12/14/another-first-spiny-leaf-fish-at-cook-island-marine-reserve/)

The attack lasts a quarter of a second, so blink and you’ll miss it.

Then we have the Virginia opossum. The term ‘playing possum’ originates from this little guy, as when its frightened, the animal involuntarily drops ‘dead’, during which it stiffens with its mouth open and drooling and releases a stench of decay. The opossum’s drool also causes predators to steer clear of them, as drooling usually indicates sickness.

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Virginia Opossum (Source: Cody Pope – Wikipedia:User:Cody.pope, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1705724)

It’s not a very graceful defence, although playing dead never is. What’s that? You want a video? Sure, now’s as good a time as any to watch a live opossum being dead for three minutes.

Next, we have the Spider-tailed Horned Viper, a species belonging to a genus of venomous vipers, who are so tricky it’s evil. As you can tell from its name, the end of its tail resembles a spider, which it uses as a lure for insectivorous birds. The resemblance is so similar that the bird may perch on the snake itself, landing it well within the snake’s striking range.

Spider-tailed Horned Viper (Source: Omid Mozaffari – http://calphotos.berkeley.edu/cgi/img_query?enlarge=0000+0000+0811+3699, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25942622)

This is an incredible evolutionary adaptation that’s honed a remarkable hunting technique. Here’s the first ever video taken of the viper in action. Watch it with caution, as the narrator’s voice may scare you a little more than the viper itself.

Last but not least, we definitely can’t leave out one of the most intelligent tricksters in the animal kingdom, the Mimic Octopus. This sea creature can easily mimic up to 15 different species (and counting), although only it’s mimicry of the lion fish, banded sole and sea snake are caught on video. It has been reported that it can also copy the stingray, jellyfish and starfish.

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Mimic Octopus (Source: http://thehigherlearning.com/2014/06/19/the-indonesian-mimic-octopus-is-the-animal-kingdoms-master-of-disguise-video/)

Pretty cool stuff.

We’ve reached the end of this post, but before I finish up, I’d like to encourage fellow readers to go ahead and learn about the other tricky animals that deserve equal attention. It’s all very entertaining content, I promise you.

Have a happy April Fools’!

References:

Basham, Jessica. “Scared To Death: Opossums Play Possum”. Welcome to Walton Outdoors. N.p., 2010. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.

Morell, Virginia. “African Bird Shouts False Alarms To Deceive And Steal, Study Shows”. News.nationalgeographic.com. N.p., 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.

Words by: Gwyneth Cheng

Giants in our waters

Biodiversity is found everywhere,

and good places must be shared,

Sharing our knowledge is caring with courage,

so go and be brave, explore there!

While the BES Drongos guide at Macritchie’s Petai Trail, our guides are equally passionate about helping others learn more about biodiversity in other parts of Singapore as well!

Last month, 2 BES Drongos guides joined participants from NUS’s University Scholars Programme on a trip to St John’s Island, located a short 25 minute ferry away from Marina South Pier. St John’s Island forms part of Singapore’s Southern Islands, a planning area comprising of other islands like Kusu Island and the Sisters’ Islands. Geographically, all of them are found just south of Sentosa (see map below).

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Singapore’s outlying islands. The Southern Islands are demarcated by the red border (Image source: https://cdn-az.allevents.in/banners/fa153bd9789f5ec5cdo21d3f528d9c42)

There, students visited St John’s Island National Marine Laboratory, which houses the Marine Park Outreach and Education Centre, and listened to both Dr Serena Teo and Dr Neo Mei Lin who are key staff based at the facility. Students then got to tour the grounds, with the highlight being the Giant Clam Hatchery, which breeds 2 species of giant clams, the Fluted Giant Clam (Tridacna squamosa) and the Boring Giant Clam (T. crocea).

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Dr Neo giving students a tour of the Giant Clam Hatchery (Photo by Angela Chan)

For those who don’t know, Dr Neo is one of the world’s leading scientists in researching giant clams, and was recently named a TED Fellow. Part of her research is to maintain the Giant Clam Hatchery, which grows giant clams until they are large enough to be re-introduced into Singapore waters. In a similar fashion to animal rehabilitation, a hatchery relies on the genetic material of giant clams in the wild to produce offspring, and protect these new clams from predators and other threats, allowing them to grow without interference until they are old enough to defend for themselves.

Why focus on giant clams then? Giant clams worldwide currently play an important role for the coral reef ecosystem, being sources of food with for other marine animals because of its large primary productivity, shelter for a mixture of coral reef fish and epibionts (creatures that live on the clam’s shell) as well as having reef scale contributions by contributing carbonate and regulating eutrophication (acting as a nutrient filter) (Neo et al., 2015). Furthermore, their long lifespans spanning around a hundred years mean they are bioindicators to help scientists understand the health of the coral reef they reside in (“Giant Clam”, n.d.).

However, giant clams are being threatened by multiple drivers, including coral reef degradation, harvesting and aquarium trade, such that might become locally extinct if marine biologists do not intervene (Neo & Todd, 2013). Thankfully with passionate individuals like Dr Neo, and the infrastructure of St John’s Marine Laboratory, giant clams here may just be spared a fate of doom, and we hope that giant clams can soon be found thriving once again!

All in all, I personally enjoyed myself at the facility. Seeing and learning about giant clams for the first time was a good reminder that biodiversity is diverse, beautiful and needs to be shown respect and care for by humans. The island itself also has a pleasant, tranquil feel to it, offering several recreational spaces, many furry felines, and even a beach (on adjacent Lazarus Island) should you want to get yourself ready for the June holidays! The Marine Park Outreach and Education Centre is open 7 days a week and St John’s Island is assessable by ferry 2 times a day on weekdays and up to 5 times a day on weekends.

That’s all for now, stay tuned to our blog for more updates as we talk about biodiversity in other parts of Singapore too!!!

Bibliography

Neo, M. L., Eckman, W., Vicentuan, K., Teo, S. L. M., & Todd, P. A. (2015). The ecological significance of giant clams in coral reef ecosystems. Biological Conservation181, 111-123.

Neo, M. L., & Todd, P. A. (2013). Conservation status reassessment of giant clams (Mollusca: Bivalvia: Tridacninae) in Singapore. Nature in Singapore6, 125-133.

Giant Clam. (n.d.). Oceana. Retrieved 15 March 2017, from http://oceana.org/marine-life/corals-and-other-invertebrates/giant-clam

Words by: Chow Tak Wei

Whither water?

The 22nd of March is just around the corner, and we all know what a special day that is!

No, you schmuck, I don’t mean International Goof Off Day, though I am glad something like that exists. I’m talking about World Water Day, a day where we celebrate, oh, just the fluid of life that runs through our veins and blesses us with health, wealth, beauty, and all things good on this planet… not a big deal, right?

Of course it’s a big deal. World Water Day was first brought into the world through Agenda 21 of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Then, in 1993, the United Nations General Assembly gave World Water Day its first theme for celebration. This year, the theme for World Water Day is: wastewater! Amazing! Okay, I admit that it’s not a very sexy topic. It is, nonetheless, a topic worth talking about; the management of wastewater is a major environmental challenge, and geniuses all over the world are cracking their heads open to come up with sustainable solutions to wastewater management.

Some of these geniuses have come up with something so astounding that I’m surprised people aren’t running down the streets shouting about it: poop water. Poop. Faeces, converted into fresh drinking water. Fine, NEWater already does it. What if I told you it also produces electricity? That’s right, folks, your humble little Hershey’s Kisses have the potential to nourish a thirsty family AND power their home. The future is here and it’s one hell of a ride. If you think I’m exaggerating, just take a look at that video where Bill Gates literally drinks water that, moments, before, had been a pile of tepid turds, and then writes “I would happily drink it every day” on his blog. Sublime. If you’re miserably using mobile data on the bus, let me summarise it for you:

Sewage sludge is fed into the Janicki Omniprocessor, where it is first boiled to release water vapour, which is collected to make fresh water. The remaining dry solid is then transferred to a furnace. Hot steam is made from the burning of the solids, and this steam is moved to a steam engine, which creates electricity via a generator. This provides the power needed to work the entire machine, plus a little left over that can be delivered back to the community. The true beauty of this system is that it’s simple and self-sufficient. It is a feasible addition to needy communities with poor sanitation – the owner of this processor would earn from the collection of the sewage, the production of water and electricity.

It turns out that one man’s trash is also that same man’s treasure. Thank you, Peter Janicki.

So we can’t all be like Peter Janicki. That’s okay. The value in the World Water Day campaigns around the world is that everybody can take part in them. In 2014, the UNICEF Tap Project created an app that encouraged participants to go without using their phone for as long as possible. For every 15 minutes spent away from your phone, you contributed a day’s worth of potable water to those in need. In Canada, over a hundred non-profit organisations carried out rain barrel sales across the country. Having a rain barrel in your home means an added source of water, which you can use to maintain gardens, lawns and house plants.

In Singapore, schools, grassroots, corporate and non-governmental organisations launched special events in support of World Water Day. Walks, tours, carnivals, even, yes, yoga class discounts. There really is something for everyone. You can check them out on the official Singapore World Water Day website.

Have a happy World Water Day, and don’t forget to watch the city turn blue this coming Wednesday! Oh, you’ll figure out what I mean.

Words by: Qiu Jiahui

New team, new guides, new initiatives!

It’s just been slightly more than two months into 2017 but we’ve had so much going on! Three walks have already been concluded, and we’ve also had a booth at the Biodiversity Roadshow in NUS. But apart from all the guiding action, BES Drongos has also undergone several revamps!

Our flock has expanded!

As with every new semester, BES Drongos has recruited new members to join our flock. This time, we have a record addition of 15 new Dronglets into our BES Drongos family!

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The 2017 BES Drongos family (Photo by Nicholas Lim)

Our new guides have been all trained up, and are ready to put up a good show for you. Do join us in our remaining walks to catch both them and our more senior guides in action!

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Research and Training Head Xiao Tong giving an introduction on guiding to our new guides (Photo by Angela Chan)
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New guide Dillen honing his skills in front of other new guides (Photo by Angela Chan)

Besides guides, we have also formed up a new writing team and photography team to bring you more insights into our biodiversity and all the action happening at our walks, so stay tuned!

A brand new committee

Just like ecological succession in our forests, change in leadership is also a natural progression for us here at BES Drongos. With committee handovers completed, a new team is born! We have a diverse team comprised of Drongos from Year 1 all the way to Year 3, and we sure hope this diversity will give BES Drongos a breath of fresh air!

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BES Drongos Committee 2017/18 (from left): Nicholas, Angela, Ashley, Sandra, Juin Bin, Sara, Ying Zhi, Tak Wei and Xiao Tong (Photo by Nicholas Lim)

Presenting, the BES Drongos Committee 2017/18:

President: Lee Juin Bin
Vice President: Sandra Chia
Secretary: Chow Tak Wei
Volunteer Manager(s): Sara Choo & Chua Ying Zhi
Research and Training Head: Quek Xiao Tong
Publicity Officer(s): Angela Chan, Ashley Tan and Nicholas Lim

With new blood and a new team, we are definitely stoked for what’s ahead, and we hope you are too!

It is the Rooster Year

2017 CNY post.jpgCock-a-doodle-doo~ The year of the rooster is here! In certain parts of Singapore, you can still see the ancestors of the domesticated chicken, which are the Red Junglefowls! For those who have joined us on our walks, you might recall seeing or hearing this bird near the start of our trail. And yes, it is a bird, that CAN fly! Many people think that they can’t fly, but when the Red Junglefowls are disturbed, they can very well fly. They even roosts in the tree.

While the numbers of the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) may appear to be on the rise in Singapore, not every ‘chicken’ that you see may be it! Many are the domestic chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus); some are hybrids. The Red Junglefowl is the wild ancestor of the domestic chicken, and can be distinguished by its white ear patches, white rump patch and grey legs. While its call may initially sound like the familiar ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’, listen carefully, and you will realise that it actually ends abruptly (versus the trailing end note of the domestic chicken)! It is believed that the Red Junglefowls on Pulau Ubin are of pure stock, and while individuals (probably) do occur on the mainland together with their domestic counterparts, it is difficult to tell for sure as hybrids can look very similar. One thing’s for certain though, the Year of the Rooster is upon us, and we’d like to wish all a Happy Lunar New Year (else happy holidays)!