Tag Archives: nature

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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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

 

 

Award-winning video game is a dream for the nature lover

Diving. It looks so good, and costs so bad. If you’ve ever dreamed of being surrounded by colourful fishes and accidentally kicking corals (a painful memory of mine), but have been unable to for whatever reason, you still have the next best thing: a $20 video game on the Playstation 4, Microsoft Windows and Xbox One. A simple image search of the game will flood you with the happy chaos and bright colours of a thriving ocean – and you haven’t even played it yet. Players experience diving freely through pristine waters, unencumbered by oxygen tanks and ear-popping pressure. You can explore caves and swim through seagrass. You can – yes – grab hold of a dolphin and let it take you on a ride, all while the joyful calls of its pod surround you.

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Released in 2016 by developer Giant Squid, Abzû is hailed for its awe-inspiring beauty and breath-taking soundtrack, but it’s not just another pretty game for virtual tourism. It carries a message. A game like that, at a time like this, when human society is struggling to catch up with its own waste and consumption, when the environment is at breaking point, couldn’t not. Anyone who reads the news – who lives on earth – would notice the lack of trash bobbing in the water, the missing smokestacks on the horizon, and they’d get to experience what marine life would be like without human influence. That is, briefly – the game has a story to tell.

Without spoiling too much, Abzû is adamant about our duty to preserve and return life back to the oceans. But it doesn’t execute this message through guilt and blame in the way many environmental news articles and stories (deliberately or not) do. So few of us now have the privilege of meeting nature face to face, and that affects the way we see ourselves in relation to the environment. There’s no denying the awkwardness in trying to get a city dweller to care about some blue whale a million miles away that they’ve never seen. Abzû gives you a chance to fall in love with the ocean. The game features species of marine creatures from real life, telling us the names of each animal as we swim alongside it. The profound intimacy that the player gets is beyond statistics and reports and academic journals. It’s emotional.

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https://www.trustedreviews.com/reviews/abzu

Another aspect of the game that many environmentalists will appreciate is its rejection of anthropocentrism – seeing humans as the centre of the world. Neither does it swing in the other extreme. There’s a deliberate emphasis on togetherness, on the harmony between creatures that vary as dramatically as each colour of the rainbow. And that diversity includes our four-limbed, finless protagonist. At the same time, the player is constantly reminded of their staggering insignificance compared to the leviathans of the deep. Some have raised the player’s lack of control over the game as a flaw (the gameplay mechanisms are simple and repetitive), but maybe it’s the perfect metaphor for our relationship with nature. As the protagonist dives alongside a whale, looking into its eye that’s as big as her torso, it’s difficult not to think about how tiny she is. Her speed of travel underwater is frustratingly slow compared to all the marine creatures gliding effortlessly past. When she grabs hold of a fish to ride it, she goes faster, but loses all control over her direction. This all contributes to the timely reminder that we’re small, but not alone.

Whether you enter this game as an environmentalist, a marine expert or somebody who’s never been to the ocean, the story and experience are one of a kind, so don’t let anyone’s solemn analysis of its real-life relevance stop you from picking it up. That said, I highly doubt that anyone could complete this game and go on without having an extra tenderness for the ocean in their heart. Everyone’s tired of hearing and reading about environmentalism. It’s time they felt it.

Watch the official trailer here.

Source: I played the game and it was incredible.

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!

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).

Going vegetarian for the environment

Personally, I’m an omnivore and my only concern for food is how good it tastes. Although I have always heard about how environmentally damaging eating meat is, I never put much thought into the situation. This led me to picking up this topic to learn more about the nitty gritty of meat production. It turns out the problem was worse than I expected. My steak probably didn’t come from a cow who frolicked in the clovers. It was probably confined in small cages and rested on a cold, hard cement floor. Similarly, my chicken was probably confined into small cages known as battery cages.

Such is the reality for the meat we eat. In fact, the majority of meat we eat comes from animals bred and confined in a place called an AFO (Animal Feeding Operation) (Worldwatch Institute, n.d.). According to American standards, AFOs are facilities where animals are confined and fed for at least 45 days in any 12-month period, and their feed is delivered from outside to the mouths of the animals (EPA, n.d.). AFO’s elder brother, Concentrated AFO (CAFO), has an additional criterion of having at least 450,000 kg worth of livestock in it (USDA, n.d.).

1.pngAs they say, a picture speaks a thousand words… or cows

(Picture taken from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sustainabletable/2950338558/in/photostream/)

Squeezing so many animals into tight conditions is not only unethical, but also poses serious environmental problems. At such high densities, the resulting quantities of manure (aka poop) can range from 3 to 20 times that of human waste produced in America (Hribar, 2010). In addition, CAFO owners typically add monstrous amounts of water to the manure before placing them in a pool. In this manure lagoon, bacteria guzzle on the nutritious meal and generate huge amounts of gas; greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxides as well as foul smelling ones like hydrogen sulfide (with a rotten egg smell) and other Volatile Fatty Acids (with a manure smell). 1 kg of methane and nitrous oxide can trap as much heat as 25kg and 298kg of carbon dioxide respectively – that’s how potent they are.

Given that there are so many AFOs nowadays, the combined greenhouse gas emissions are astronomical. In events of high rainfall or flooding, the contents of the lagoon can overflow and pollute the environment. The two main concerns are the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria and eutrophication. I shall stop here before I turn this into an essay, but bear this in mind – what I’ve just said is the tip of the iceberg.

Energy wise, eating meat is not a very efficient method. According to the ecological pyramid, only 10% of the energy is transferred from one tropic level to the next. This means that a cow would only receive 10 units of energy from a plant with 100 units of energy; a human would then only receive 1 unit of energy from that plant, should they eat the cow. However, they would be able to receive 10 units of energy if they eat the plant directly. This makes eating meat more energetically inefficient than eating plants. Given that mechanization has replaced much manpower in the crop and meat production, we are also wasting the resources used to produce the meat itself.

As we can see, while delicious, meat may not be the greenest food. However, crops are not all that good either. There are flaws in the way farmers are farming, which causes problems like loss of topsoil and leaching of nutrients. However, we can’t live without food! If we want to both survive and stay green, eating vegetables seems like the lesser of two evils. If you are indeed concerned about the environment, I would recommend you going vegetarian. Start small! One meal a week, followed by 1 day a week, then 2 days a week and so on.

At this point, you may have given up the thought of eating meat. Sorry to disappoint you, but I foresee a future where eating meat may be more common than eating vegetables. This is due to the rise of insects and lab-grown meat as alternative sources of protein. Once they become commercially viable, we may be eating them in the future! Who knows? Perhaps 10 or 20 years down the road my juniors will be critiquing my post for advocating the consumption of vegetables (especially broccoli L).

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(Picture taken from: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/07/lab-grown-meat/565049/)

That’s all from me for now. Personally, reading up on this topic has made me more conscious of eating as much meat as I did.

Be green, eat green!

Written by: Lee Yang

References:

Worldwatch Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved from Worldwatch: http://www.worldwatch.org/rising-number-farm-animals-poses-environmental-and-public-health-risks-0

EPA. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/npdes/animal-feeding-operations-afos

USDA. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/plantsanimals/livestock/afo/

Hribar, C. (2010). https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/docs/understanding_cafos_nalboh.pdf.