Tag Archives: Singapore

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!

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Reusable straws: It’s time to walk the walk

Do you see those colourful pieces “decorations” on the beach? Do you notice that smell wafting from the HDB garbage chute that doesn’t smell quite like dinner?

Almost 7 million tonnes of solid waste is produced is Singapore every year and only a meagre 6% is being recycled. While Singapore does have well-developed waste treatment, trash can still be found polluting our natural environment and residential areas.

That, is the result of improper waste disposal.

It is easy to say that we can solve this problem by urging waste disposal companies to be more mindful in transporting waste, or by punishing litterbugs to deter such behaviours. However, these strategies can never reduce the amount of waste we’re generating.

As consumers, we play a pivotal role in environmental protection.

It has always been a challenge to start a green movement in Singapore. While other Asian countries are actively advocating practices like phasing out Styrofoam containers, charging for disposable plastic bags and improving recycling efforts, Singapore’s progress in green consumerism remained stagnant.

The situation seems to have improved with the increasing hype over reusable straws.

 

Images from: https://www.lazada.sg/ and https://www.seastainable.co/

I bet many of you own one of these straws which can be made of metal, glass or bamboo. They come in different colours, textures and even sizes, catering to Singaporean’s demand of 2.2 million plastic straws a day. But are we really using them because we are aware of the positive impact this habit can bring, or did we just order a set of straws because it’s the newest trend?

Ask any sustainable living advocate and they will tell you that in order to make a difference, you need your reusable items in one hand and commitment in another.

Many critics question the true practicality of reusable items, and one common issue identified is the inevitable generation of carbon footprint in the production of reusable products. According to an article on Asia One, a reusable bag needs to be used for more than 100 times before it can offset whatever degradation the production of this bag done to the environment.

This shows that in order to truly make a difference, one must be persistent about this change instead of abandoning this habit once the trend dies down.

Lauren Singer, an environmental activist, mentioned in a video with Vox that consumers should not be the only ones responsible for reducing the piles of trash we have accumulated; the producers should be made accountable for the disposal of their products as well. She mentioned that once corporations start bearing the responsibilities of excessive waste generation, they would be compelled to adopt more eco-friendly business strategies.

Fortunately, many corporations are on board with the new plastic straw free movement. KFC, Starbucks and some food courts around Singapore have stopped providing plastic straws at the counter and this encourages patrons to purchase a reusable straw or simply stop using a straw. This joint effort between businesses and consumers have greatly reshaped Singapore’s image when it comes to environmental consciousness, and I believe the growing popularity of Seastainable metal straw plays a great part in this movement.

It is heartening to see that young people, often stereotyped as stubborn and indifferent, are the ones leading this straw-free movement, drawing from their social influence to make a difference for the environment.

Think of the view of Singapore’s polluted coastline, the stench coming from the ground floor of your HDB blocks and remember why you got on board with this straw-free movement. One day, we will all look back and be glad that we are free from these eyesores.

 

Written by: Andrea Law

 

References:

Ong, L. (2018). Metal straws and reusable bags may not be as eco-friendly as you think. Retrieved from http://www.asiaone.com/singapore/metal-straws-and-reusable-bags-may-not-be-eco-friendly-you-think

Koh, H. (2018). 80% of Singapore consumers ready to ditch plastic straws. Retrieved from https://www.eco-business.com/news/80-of-singapore-consumers-ready-to-ditch-plastic-straws/

Chan, M. (2018). This S’porean Wants To Save Our Oceans With Her Metal Straws – Sold 3,500 Sets In Just 6 Months. Retrieved from https://vulcanpost.com/642438/seastainable-metal-straws-singapore/

NG, C. (2018). All 84 KFC outlets to stop providing plastic straws and lids for drinks. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/food/all-84-kfc-outlets-to-stop-providing-plastic-straws-and-using-plastic-caps-for-drinks

Langone, A. (2018). http://time.com. Retrieved from http://time.com/money/5333715/starbucks-hyatt-ban-plastic-straws/

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

 

 

International Biodiversity Day 2018

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Happy International Biodiversity Day! Today, 22 May 2018, marks the 25th anniversary of the day the Convention on Biological Diversity came into effect. Why not celebrate by donating a tree or two in support of our planet?

The Trillion Tree Campaign has allowed people around the world to pledge and donate to plant trees since its 2006 launch by the United Nations Environment Programme. As of 2016, more than 14.2 billion trees have been planted by people who care about the earth. Last year, the campaign set a new goal of a trillion trees. A 2015 study by Yale found that there are about 3.04 trillion trees on earth. However, we lose about 15 billion trees each year – imagine what a difference we could make with a trillion trees! You could become a part of that movement with just a few clicks.

Join in the effort at https://www.plant-for-the-planet.org/en/treecounter/billion-tree-campaign-2, and spread the word!

World Water Day 2018

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Psst, World Water Day is coming up soon! Here’s a little tip for you to celebrate the upcoming World Water Day on March 22nd:

Go on down to one of the Singapore World Water Day (SWWD) roadshows with your latest Singapore Power (SP) bill, and if the folks at the roadshow see that you’ve been a diligent water saver, you’ll be able to receive an exclusive premium. This sweet opportunity will be waiting for you during the entirety of March, but limited stocks are available (just like one other precious, precious resource).

Find your nearest roadshow here: https://www.pub.gov.sg/getinvolved/singaporeworldwaterday

The above link is also where you can find SWWD’s official partners, including Ben & Jerry’s and oBike, who are eager to offer you a steal of a deal for the right water-saving attitude.

Here’s something to think about this World Water Day: wetlands. Sure, we need to do all we can to keep that fresh, clean, thirst-quenching clear water running out of our taps. But is that enough? Nature needs water too, and we need nature.

Urbanising cities have a common trend of gradually encroaching on natural spaces like wetlands. These cities will only expand and multiply as time passes, and it may seem a waste to preserve a wetland when it could be a bustling hub. The truth is, however, that wetlands are important to us, even to those of us who live highly urbanised environments. Wetlands provide a wide array of ecosystem services, such as absorbing excess rainfall during storms and helping to reduce the risk of flooding. Now, that’s relevant.

In particular, Singapore boasts a sprawling Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, which is not only a site teeming with heritage, but also with birds of every shape and size. Native birds, exotic birds that have travelled from across the world to spend the winter in sunny Singapore – our very own wetlands are a key stopping point in the East Asian Australasian Shorebird Site Network, which include Kakadu National Park in Australia, Mai Po in Hong Kong and the Yatsu Tidal Flats in Japan.

This World Water Day, maybe leave a little room in your thoughts for the wetlands around the world and in our own garden city, while you’re taking a short shower.

 

Hello from the otterside!

We’ve reached the end of May, and what better way to say goodbye to this month than to celebrate World Otter Day? This year, World Otter Day falls on the 31st of May, and we hope that you’ll be motivated to learn more about these otterly adorable creatures after reading this post. World Otter Day was created with the intention of raising global awareness on these river-loving animals. This is due to the myriad of threats that otters increasingly face such as habitat destruction, hunting and road deaths. Before we talk more about otters, let’s start off with a joke:

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I hope you didn’t cringe too much (I tried my best). (Source: Tumblr)

Otters are carnivorous mammals that belong to the weasel family, which includes animals like the badger and wolverine, and there are 13 otter species which can be found all over the world. In North America, you can find the charismatic sea otters, who are often seen relaxing while floating on water. They even hold hands with one another while they’re sleeping to prevent themselves from floating away! In South and Southeast Asia, you can find the Oriental Small-Clawed otter, which is the smallest but one of the more social species among all the otter species.

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Hold on tight! (Source: Tumblr)

In our own island home, we’ve become enamoured with the otter families that elicit squeals of excitement whenever they are spotted. These families comprise of smooth-coated otters, which as the name suggests, have smoother and shorter fur as compared to other otter species. These adventurous otters have been seen exploring places such as St Andrew’s Junior College and the i Light festival at Marina Bay, proving themselves to be highly adept in navigating our urban landscape.

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Having some fun in the sun (Source: ART-ZOO Facebook)

Other than providing us with an overwhelming amount of cuteness, otters also play significant roles in their ecosystems as well. In the case of sea otters, they significantly influence sea urchin and kelp populations. Sea otters munch on sea urchins which consume kelp. By eating the sea urchins, sea otters keep the populations in check, which prevents kelp forests from being overgrazed on by sea urchins. It’s important to maintain healthy kelp forests as they are rich sources of nutrients to fish and other marine organisms.

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Without sea otters, kelp forests would be devastated 😦 (Source: Seaotters.com)

Sadly, most otter species are facing falling population numbers and this can be attributed to a few reasons. One major reason would be pollution which contaminates water bodies where otters are mostly found. Harmful chemicals from the run-offs can accumulate in the otters and their prey are affected by the pollution as well, jeopardising the food sources of the otters.

You may be wondering, how can I contribute to World Otter Day? Well, even a small action is pretty significant! You could aim to spread the message about otters to people around you and raise awareness on their situation. Another simple way of contributing would be being considerate towards our local otters (and all other wildlife in fact!). Some tips include giving the otters adequate space upon encountering them and keeping our waterways clean to give them optimal habitats to thrive in. With that, happy World Otter Day and enjoy the rest of this week 🙂

References:

Asian small-clawed otter | Animal Fact Sheet – Woodland Park Zoo Seattle WA. (2017). Zoo.org. Retrieved 21 May 2017, from https://www.zoo.org/page.aspx?pid=2549#.WSGHxGh942w

Sea Otter | National Geographic. (2010). Nationalgeographic.com. Retrieved 21 May 2017, from http://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/s/sea-otter/

SEAOTTERS.COM – POWERED BY CUTENESS™. (2017). SEAOTTERS.COM – POWERED BY CUTENESS™. Retrieved 21 May 2017, from http://seaotters.com/2013/05/why-are-sea-otters-important-no-sea-otters-no-kelp-forests/

Threats to Sea Otters. (2012). Defenders of Wildlife. Retrieved 21 May 2017, from http://www.defenders.org/sea-otter/threats

Words by: Tan Hui Xin

Mercy Release…or not?

It’s mid-week already, but this time it’s not just any typical Wednesday, but Vesak day! So, you may ask, what exactly is Vesak Day about? And why are we even writing about a religious festival on a website dedicated to Singapore’s biodiversity? Well, Vesak Day is observed by Buddhists to celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of Siddharta Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha. Buddhists would refrain from killing and many times carry out ‘Mercy Release’.

Firstly, what is mercy release? Basically, mercy release involves the release of animals kept in captivity such as the pets sold in pet stores and live fishes kept in restaurants. While at first glance, such acts may truly be benevolent and liberating, a deeper analysis proves otherwise. In fact, statistics released by NParks show that about 80-90% of the animals freed into the wild perish within a day (Heng, 2016). Doesn’t sound very liberating, unless death is your idea of liberation (instead of the conventional concept where animals are returned to their proper home – the great wilderness).

In fact, this tradition of mercy release has spurned off a darker side taking advantage of an activity borne out kindness for animals. In some places where the animals are bought from vendors specialising in this ‘trade’, the animals are recaptured after being released, thereby continuing a vicious cycle of catch and release. That’s not all. The animals that do survive being suddenly freed into the wild compete with native species for resources, upsetting the already delicate balance of Singapore’s wildlife. Common examples of non-native species include the Red-eared Slider and the American Bullfrog.

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The non-native Red-eared Slider in MacRitchie Reservoir (Photo by: BES Drongos)

However, you can help put an end to this! For one, you could start by telling your friends and family about the consequences of mercy release. If people are not deterred by the ecological harm brought about by this activity, one should also note that animal abandonment is a crime under the Singaporean Law. Under the Parks and Trees Act, one could be fined up to $50,000, jailed for up to half a year or even both if caught releasing animals for the first time (National Parks, 2015). Also, if you wish to know more, NParks is currently holding Operation No Release this weekend in the various parks and nature reserves where they reach out to the public on this issue. Alternatively, after being armed with the knowledge listed above, you could sign up to volunteer with NParks to engage the public about mercy release and animal abandonment! 🙂

In conclusion, we need to realise that not all actions borne out of virtuous intentions have good results. In the case of mercy release, such acts may in fact do more harm than good. However, we can still do our part to help animals on this Vesak day through actions such as being vegetarian or donating to animal groups that fight illegal wildlife trade (Actman, 2017).

References:

A Buddhist Tradition to Save Animals Has Taken an Ugly Turn. (2017, Jan 23). Retrieved May 09, 2017, from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/01/wildlife-watch-mercy-release-buddhist-china-illegal-trade/

Do not release animals into the wild. (2015, May 13). Retrieved May 09, 2017, from https://www.nparks.gov.sg/news/2015/5/do-not-release-animals-into-the-wild

Heng, L. (2016, May 22). 80-90% of animals ‘released’ on Vesak Day die within a day. Retrieved May 09, 2017, from http://www.asiaone.com/singapore/80-90-animals-released-vesak-day-die-within-day

Vesak Day: 5 things you should know about this Buddhist celebration. (2015, May 25). Retrieved May 09, 2017, from http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/vesak-day-5-things-you-should-know-about-this-buddhist-celebration

Words by: Choo Min