Tag Archives: biodiversity

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

 

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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

 

Meat Lovers: Pitcher Plants

You’ve probably seen pitcher plants around. After all, they are a common sight in nurseries and at pasar malam markets. They are well known for being carnivorous, trapping small insects inside fluid-filled jugs where they unfortunately meet their sorry end. But what exactly are pitcher plants and why are they so different from normal plants?

The term “pitcher plant” generally refers to any carnivorous plant with pitchers that trap insects. This includes several families of organisms such as Nepenthaceae and Sarraceniaceae .

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Image: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090804081545.htm

So, how do these plants catch their prey? Basically, insects make a beeline for the pitchers, attracted by their colour or the smell they emit. However, when they stand on the peristome, also known as the edge of the pitcher, they fall in, landing in a pool of enzyme-containing fluids where they are slowly broken down into simpler nutrients such as amino acids [2] [3].

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Image: https://www.sciencesource.com/archive/-SS2521889.html

Pitcher fluid contains more than just insect-digesting enzymes. In fact, the components that make up the fluid of different types of pitcher plants vary. While generally acidic, the fluid in certain species are mostly made up of rainwater that collects in the pitcher, while those in other species contain more secretions from the plant itself. Pitchers also have an operculum, or lid. In some species, the operculum prevents rainwater from entering the pitcher diluting its fluids.

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Image: https://www.bhg.com/gardening/flowers/perennials/growing-pitcher-plants/

Pitcher plants generally live in areas where the soil does not have enough nutrients for typical plants to thrive. Therefore, they rely on insects to obtain sufficient amounts of what they are unable to get from the ground. However, pitcher plants still photosynthesise to produce glucose. Insects are only a replacement for substances they would otherwise have absorbed from the soil.

It is interesting to note that many species of pitcher plants are not closely related to one another, suggesting convergent evolution – different organisms independently evolved to have this particular appearance and insect-trapping ability. For example, the Australian pitcher plant is more closely related to starfruit than to other species of pitchers [7]. It’s pretty amazing how all these different pitcher plants adapted to their situation in similar ways.

So the next time you see one of these protein-guzzling plants around, do remember that they’re simply doing what they can to live their life to the fullest, just like you and me.

References:

[1]: https://www.britannica.com/plant/pitcher-plant

[2]: https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/pitcher_plant.htm

[3]: https://www.botany.one/2013/10/adapted-kill-pitcher-plant-traps-prey/

[4]: https://academic-oup-com.libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/aob/article/107/2/181/188441

[5]: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150420-the-giant-plants-that-eat-meat

[6]: https://www.thenakedscientists.com/articles/questions/carnivorous-plants-can-photosynthesise-so-why-eat-flies

[7]: https://www.nature.com/news/how-plants-evolved-into-carnivores-1.21425

 

 

Hidden Treasures of the LKC Natural History Museum – Part 4: The Vertebrate Wet Collection

Warning: This article contains pictures of dead animals. They are super dead.

What is the difference between the vertebrate and invertebrate wet collections, you ask? Not much, they’re all… wet. But perhaps one of the striking things about the vertebrate wet collection is that many of the specimens tend to be bigger. We’re reaching the territory of mammals, birds, fish, snakes and more.

IMG_5564andmore.jpgMiddle row, left: Notice those flaps on the side of its body? That’s a Javanese flying squirrel, which can glide through the air by stretching out that loose skin.

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IMG_5553.jpgOh, this is from that movie! Finding… what was it, Fabio? Finding Chico?

You’ll notice that some of these animals could also be found in the dry collection. As mentioned, whether a specimen is preserved dry or wet depends on the researcher or collector’s aim. Though a wet specimen may be more likely to discolour over time, this won’t happen for animals like birds, as their colours mostly come not from pigments, but from microscopic structures (structural colour) in their feathers that absorb and reflect light.

IMG_5575.jpgThat’s how this bird from the 1960s is still killing it.

IMG_5568.jpgThis bat is dubbed ‘Yoda’ because, look at that serene little face. This bat is saying, “Relax. You can do it.”

IMG_5600.jpgSpecimens like this native leopard cat are generally the work of local taxidermists.

Apart from the compactors, the wet collection also has a store of steel tanks for the animals too big to fit into jars.

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What are those big black contraptions that look like the things they put over your head at the hair salon? Like the jars, the steel tanks are filled with large amounts of preserving alcohol, and boy is it nasty when you open the lid. To protect the people working with these specimens, those flexible fume hoods suck up the evaporated alcohol escaping from the tanks, and no one has to breathe them.

This concludes our tour of the LKC Natural History Museum’s archives. Our natural history museum, together with natural history museums across the globe, is a beacon of scientific progress, conservation and education. So next time you come for a visit, remember to blow a kiss upwards for all the specimens and researchers making the world a better place. And if you’d like to contribute to this endeavour, take your friends and family (and dates) to the museum to learn more about our environment! You can also donate to the museum’s Endowment Fund here.

We’ve done a walkthrough of most of the archives in the museum, but exactly what sort of research do the curators get up to in there? Stay tuned for upcoming bonus posts featuring cool gadgets and even cooler people!

Hidden Treasures of the LKC Natural History Museum – Part 2: The Dry Collection

Warning: this article contains pictures of dead animals. If you’re a little squeamish, maybe give this one a pass.

There are two main ways of preserving specimens – dry and wet. Dry specimens can stay preserved simply by staying in a cool and dry environment. That’s why the temperature and humidity levels are rigidly controlled in the dry collection.

IMG_5430.jpgI’d say this is a good place for an Instagram photoshoot.

The dry collection is located on one of the upper floors of the museum itself. It is a labyrinth of metal cabinets known as compactors, all arranged in straight rows. Each compactor can be moved left and right simply by turning a wheel, so that they can be jam packed together to conserve space. When anyone needs to use a particular cabinet, they can simply move them apart again to open the doors. It’s chicken soup for the neat freak’s soul.

The dry collection hosts a mind-boggling variety of specimens. The pale remains of corals!

IMG_5443.jpgBirds, mammals, sea shells, eggs, even nests! Even poop! Scientists really go for anything, huh?

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ezgif.com-video-to-gif (4).gifObjectively? Probably the coolest drawers you’ll ever pull open.

There’s also a little herbarium, which seems indistinguishable from an ordinary office filing cabinet at first. Plant specimens are dried and pressed, much in the same way you see artists pressing flowers poetically into the pages of books. They’re sealed in Ziploc bags for future reference.

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Because my hands are too crude and clumsy, I didn’t get to open them. But, you know, they’re plants, but flat.

Keep reading to continue our tour at the wet collections!

 

Why boycott Kopi Luwak?

Kopi Luwak is one of the world’s most expensive coffee; one cup can cost about 80USD (109SGD). But what is Kopi Luwak? Simply put, it is coffee made from coffee beans that have been through the digestive system of the Asian palm civet (Luwak in Indonesian).

Brief process of making of Kopi Luwak

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Image from http://www.most-expensive.coffee/

Kopi Luwak was rumoured to originate in the 18th century in Indonesia, which was still under the Dutch colonial rule. At that time, the natives toiling in the coffee industry were not allowed to taste any of the coffee that they have been working to produce.  At the same time, they observed that the wild civets also ate coffee cherries, leaving undigested coffee beans in their excretions. Thus, the farmers collected these seeds, cleaned and roasted them to make their own brew of coffee.

Later, the Dutch discovered this special brew of coffee, and they found that it tasted better than what they had. It is said to be because civets only chose the ripest cherries, so coffee beans found in their faeces are uniformly of the best quality. In addition, the fermentation process and natural enzymes in the civet’s intestines break down some of the proteins in coffee beans. This results in coffee that is more aromatic, less bitter, and smoother (less acidic). Even so, the question of whether it indeed tastes better than other gourmet coffee yields varying opinions. While some say it tastes better, more feel no difference, or even say that it is worse, because it is bland (due to its lower acidity) and does not taste as complex.

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Image from http://nordiccoffeeculture.com/what-kopi-luwak-is-and-why-you-should-avoid-it/

Nevertheless, the popularity of Kopi Luwak grew rapidly, with many wanting to have a taste of this exotic (and expensive) beverage. Yet, it is difficult to find the faeces of the civets in the wild; only about 250-500kg of wild Kopi Luwak beans are produced each year, nowhere near enough for this industry to be commercially viable. As a result, farmers started to cage the civets for their precious droppings, without considering their welfare.

In the worst cases, some farm owners crammed the civets in tiny cages and exclusively fed them coffee cherries. However, wild civets are solitary, territorial animals. When forced so close to each other, especially in such poor living conditions and only allowed a limited diet, gory outcomes result: they fight with each other, chew away their own limbs, start passing blood in their faeces, and eventually die. With only coffee cherries provided to them, eating them is no longer a choice, it is their only option. Essentially, the high quality associated with Kopi Luwak is eroded. To make things worse, these civet farms even became tourist attractions, where many would come to the coffee plantation to see the civets, then enjoy a cup of Kopi Luwak.

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Image by Ulet Ifansasti, Getty Images

After so many years, what propels this industry is the high demand for Kopi Luwak. From a commercial product, it had grown to become a tourist attraction, where tourists are invited to view the captured civets, processing of coffee beans, then have a cup of Kopi Luwak. Apart from the ethicality of this practice, the authenticity of the coffee sold is also questionable. Coffee labelled Kopi Luwak may not have been anywhere close to a civet, or only contains a small percentage of the real deal, but are sold at exorbitant prices (compared to normal coffee). While it may seem fine to drink authentic coffee beans obtained from wild civets, this perception is wrong. There are no certification schemes and it is simply impossible to determine the source of coffee. If the demand does not die down, the conditions of these civets will only get worse.

Now, there is only one effective way to protect these civets: stop drinking Kopi Luwat completely.

By Shenny Goh

References

Kopi Luwak is the most expensive coffee in the world! (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.most-expensive.coffee/ (Accessed 21 Sep, 2018).

Wisotzky, M. (2017, August 1). Kopi Luwak anyone? It’s just $80 a cup. Retrieved from https://coffeewithoutlimits.com/kopi-luwak-anyone-just-80-cup/ (Accessed 21 Sep, 2018).

Animal Coffee (n.d.). The History of Kopi Luwak. Retrieved from http://coffeeroastersdirect.com/the-history-of-kopi-luwak/ (Accessed 21 Sep, 2018).

Kolbu, C. (2015, April 22). What Kopi Luwak is and why you should avoid it. Retrieved from http://nordiccoffeeculture.com/what-kopi-luwak-is-and-why-you-should-avoid-it/ (Accessed 21 Sep, 2018).

Wild, T. (2013, September 13). Civet coffee: Why it’s time to cut the crap. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2013/sep/13/civet-coffee-cut-the-crap (Accessed 21 Sep, 2018).

Bale, R. (2016, April 29). The Disturbing Secret Behind the World’s Most Expensive Coffee. Retrieved from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/04/160429-kopi-luwak-captive-civet-coffee-Indonesia/ (Accessed 21 Sep, 2018).

The Flora of Singapore: Woody Liana

Before we get into anything, what’s a woody liana? Liana (or Liane) is a woody plant that is rooted to the soil but which requires physical support from a neighbouring tree. Its weak stem and branches rely on other plants to reach the light. Since they are not self-supporting, their stems are narrow and flexible.

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Large lianas in a forest indicate that the forest consists of many matured trees and plants.

When a liana reaches the top of its host, it puts out searcher shoots to look for a taller support of suitable diameter. Searcher shoots can extend up to 2m from their last support; if they are not able to find another support, they fall over and will be replaced by another shoot. While most vines climb to the canopy with the help of taller supports, some vines climb up the stems of other vines attached in the canopy.

Once the liana reach the canopy, they begin to grow between the tree crowns. These bridges are very important to animals that cannot fly long distances. Without such bridges between crowns, these animals would have to descend to the ground where they are very vulnerable to predators. However, these connections also increase the possibility of trees pulling their neighbours along with them when they fall.

As liana grow over the trees that provide them physical support, they are the trees’ strong competitors for sunlight. In additional, since barely any resources are invested in making their stems and branches thicker, vines use a large amount of their resources to grow more leaves, and for reproduction. Since lianas grow very fast, it is to their disadvantage if they climb onto trees that are slow in growth.

Although lianas hinder forest regrowth in canopy gaps, many animals rely on them for the nutrition in their leaves, nectar, fruits, sap and pollen.

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Now, you might be wondering if there is any relationship between us and lianas. Indeed, we make use of lianas in a variety of ways; from providing fresh drinking water (vines are usually hollow, transport water through the liana) to producing poisons and drugs (curare, a chemical used for muscle relaxation and in arrow poisons by South American Indians is obtained from a type of liana). Indeed, vines are extremely useful to humans.

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I hope you have enjoyed reading about lianas as much as I enjoyed learning about them! Indeed, there is so much to learn about the flora around us!

 

Writer: Thang Hui Lin

 

 

References

Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2000, December 14). Liana. Retrieved from Encyclopaedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/plant/liana#accordion-article-history

Maheshwari, R. (2009). Structural characteristics of a giant tropical liana and its mode of canopy spread in an alien environment. Current Science , 58.

Putz, F. E. (2012). Vine Ecology. Retrieved from Ecology: http://www.ecology.info/vines.htm