Tag Archives: natural history

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).

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Hidden Treasures of the LKC Natural History Museum – Part 6 Bonus: The Visionary Digital Lab

Hi there! This article is the final part of a series featuring the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in Singapore. If you’d like to learn more, why not start at the beginning? Otherwise, enjoy the second bonus of our feature!

While visiting the Cryogenic Collection, I was blessed with an unexpected discovery. Adjacent to the collection is a humble office used by resident scientists. At first glance, it looks like an ordinary science lab – computers, boxes of gloves, pipettes – but step in a little further and you’ll witness this impressive contraption:

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This device, known as the Visionary Digital Lab, transforms an ordinary DSLR camera into a high powered camera suited for photographing tiny insects in extraordinary detail. And when I say extraordinary, I mean this:

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See the thin black line in the bottom left? That represents 1mm. This stunning capture of a Nemopoda speiseri fly is constructed by combining several brightly lit, high resolution images, each focusing on a particular spot on the specimen, to create a composite image that brings every nook and cranny of this miniscule insect into sharp detail. Some of these images are in fact uploaded to an online archive managed by the Museum at the Biodiversity of Singapore Online, where researchers from all over the world can use it as a reference.

Still not impressed? Here’s another version of the same device in one of the museum’s dedicated labs:

IMG_5386.jpgI promise you there’s a specimen on that dish. Just keep squinting. Or look over here:

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There it is! From the slimmest bristle to the thinnest wing, our little friend has appeared. As mentioned, you can peruse other photos like this courtesy of the museum and its partners at Museum at the Biodiversity of Singapore Online , which also features Southeast Asian birds, mammals, reptiles and more in exquisite quality.

Hidden Treasures of the LKC Natural History Museum – Part 5 Bonus: Insect research

Pinning and sorting

On the way to the dry collection, I passed through a lab that was bustling with activity. This is one of the preparation labs where specimens acquired by the museum are put through the preservation process. In particular, I got to see a few insect specimens that were in the middle of get preserved dry.

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If you’ve been to the museum, you’ll know that dry insect specimens are beautifully arranged – wings spread, legs in position, perky antennas – but that isn’t quite what they look like in the wild. For example, some butterflies usually close their wings when they’re resting, so you’d seldom see the upper side of their wings on display. When these insects die, they don’t get really get any better at modelling. They shrivel up, and their legs bunch together due to rigor mortis – you’ve had dead insects on your bathroom floor, you know it. So, what you see in the museum displays is no accident. Thank goodness for insect pinning.

Before a dead insect is irreversibly taken over by the jaws of rigor mortis, its form and structure can be rescued by pinning. Tiny needles are used to hold different parts of the insect: legs, wings, even the fine antennas, to keep them in place.

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The pinning board is then covered with cellophane paper to flatten and straighten out the wings, and the specimen is left to dry in a fume hood or a drying cabinet, which helps keep the moisture away. As time passes, the insect hardens into its intended shape. This process requires little to no chemicals; in fact, everything revolves around keeping the specimen as dry as possible, because moisture and humidity facilitate decomposition. You might be wondering about the insides of the insects – don’t they contain blood? Wet blood, and organs? You’re absolutely right. For small insects, their insides are so tiny in amount that they can dry out all by themselves after death. Larger insects, however, need to be gutted – a small incision is made in the side, from which their innards are scooped out or squeezed out. Sounds surgical, doesn’t it? That’s why the curator has an impressive array of instruments specially made for handling these fragile specimens – except maybe for that plastic spoon that looks like it was stolen from a Starbucks.

IMG_5404.jpgThis article is brought to you by entosupplies.com – I wish.

The pinning method is also used for other animals like spiders and even small crabs.

IMG_5398.jpgMore legs, more work.

Pinning isn’t the only thing going on in this lab. There’s also an ongoing project aiming to document all the insects in Singapore – a daunting task. This involves the collection of a huge plethora of insects… which then need to be sorted.

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Spencer, a student at the National University of Singapore (NUS), is painstakingly examining each tiny bug under a microscope, to determine their species and classification. Sitting between piles of reference books and jars filled with insects, it certainly looks like he’s got his work cut out for him. Salute.

11,12,14,19.jpgLet’s all pray for Spencer’s eyes.

 

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 3: The Invertebrate Wet Collection

Warning: this article contains pictures of dead animals – but mostly the kinds that you’re used to seeing. You know, on dinner plates.

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Here we come to the specimens preserved in fluid. This entire floor is dedicated to the invertebrates: insects, crabs, snails, octopuses, all your classic crawly pals. While some of these animals could also be preserved dry, soft-bodied creatures like aphids and several types of insect larvae would shrivel up if they were to be left dry. Otherwise, it depends on the aims of the researchers themselves.

Specimens are kept in jars filled with formalin, denatured ethanol, or unmethylated ethanol. This is somewhat similar to how animals like snakes have been infused in wine and enjoyed by Chinese, Vietnamese and Southeast Asians for thousands of years. That is strictly a fun fact and NOT an endorsement of you breaking into the museum to get drunk off funky isopod liquor. Please, don’t.

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IMG_5523.jpgDon’t panic, those are just unfortunately placed barnacles.

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With the constant use of the specimens for research, the preservative liquid will evaporate, so the the curators top up the jars from time to time. These specimens can’t survive long without their booze.

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IMG_5595.jpgI stole this and it looks great on my coffee table. Just kidding.

Most of the specimens are from Southeast Asia, including specimens collected on expeditions. In fact, some of the museum’s scientists recently embarked on a two-week long deep sea expedition called the South Java Deep Sea Biodiversity Expedition (SJADES 2018). It was led by the head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, Professor Peter Ng, as well as Professor Dwi Listyo Rahayu, Senior Research Scientist of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). With their ship hovering over relatively unexplored deep seas, they collected over 12 000 deep sea animals, including over a dozen new species of hermit crabs, lobsters and prawns. Some of those specimens are now sitting in compactors specially labelled “Expeditions/Trips”, awaiting our scientists’ groundbreaking research.

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Next up is the vertebrates. See you in part 4!

 

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!

 

Hidden Treasures of the LKC Natural History Museum – Part 1: The Cryogenic Collection

The Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum is an oft recommended destination for family day trips and romantic dates, with its awe-inspiring displays of towering dinosaur skeletons and quaint collections of delicately shimmering insects. What most visitors don’t know about is the vast archives containing hundreds of thousands of specimens hidden only a few floors above. The collections of natural history museums are rarely limited to what visitors can see. Dedicated to cutting edge research, they also serve as a storage space for specimens collected, and as a research facility for the scientists studying them. In this six-part feature, we’ll take you on a virtual tour of what goes on behind those closed doors. Let’s take a look at the hoard!

The first stop is the Cryogenic Collection, located not within the museum’s main building, but in an unassuming office beneath the old Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research (RMBR), just underneath the Science Library in the Faculty of Science, within the National University of Singapore (NUS) campus.

You’ll probably recognise the term “cryo” from science fiction stories, like Interstellar, where the astronauts preserve their bodies by entering long term “cryosleep”. Stemming from Greek origins, the term “cryo” means “cold”, while “genic” means “having to do with production”. Calling the cryogenic collection “cold” would be a gross understatement, though.

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These giant vats are filled with liquid nitrogen, which as you may know, is very, very cold. In fact, liquid nitrogen boils at 77.09 Kelvin, or -196 degrees Celsius. The contents of the cryogenic collection themselves are kept in a cloud of evaporated nitrogen vapour at around -178 to -190 degrees Celsius.

Much in the same way the dinosaur embryos were preserved in Jurassic Park, the nitrogen vats (affectionately nicknamed Humpty and Dumpty) protect the blood and tissue samples stored within them from degrading – pretty much forever. These samples are not completely submerged in liquid nitrogen. Instead, they are stored in little tubes and racks, which are then stacked in neat little towers within the vats. A pool of liquid nitrogen at the bottom of the vat evaporates, which produces a cooling effect that keeps the environment extremely cold.

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Those cute strawberry shaved ice colours? Yup, it’s blood.

Now, what’s so precious about some bits of blood and tissue? We can keep the bodies of specimens in cupboards and jars to study their physical appearance, but the preservation process sometimes involves the use of formalin and denatured ethanol, chemicals which aren’t great for preserving the DNA within. Tiny amounts of blood and tissue are enough to serve as a record of the genetic makeup of the organisms we need to study. The museum’s cryogenic collection mostly contains genetic records of species found in Southeast Asia, including some from Singapore, such as Sunda pangolins, Smooth-coated otters, and the locally endangered Raffles’ Banded Langur. With more genetic data from these animals, we can compare how certain aspects of their DNA vary from individual to individual, or how they change over time. This can ultimately inform future conservation efforts.

animals.jpgRight to left: Sunda Pangolin, Smooth-coated otter, Raffles’ Banded Langur, all native to Singapore.

Each blue tray contains about a hundred specimens, and each tower contains twelve trays. That adds up to over twenty thousand samples, and the vat isn’t even full yet! (By the way, Humpty is still empty.) The future is indeed bright for these cold boys. Oh, and I also had the pleasure of meeting their roommates Fat Boy, Skinny Girl, Olaf, Jack Frost, and Freya, who are all freezers. It’s a full house in here.

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With so many friends, the curator never gets lonely.

Keep reading to continue our tour of the natural history museum!