Butterfly ‘eyespot’ research by Antónia featured on ScienceDaily

Congratulations to Associate Professor Antónia Monteiro and colleagues on the publication of their latest paper, “Nymphalid eyespot serial homologues originate as a few individualized modules” in the Proceedings of The Royal Society B.

Butterfly spots

Diversity of butterfly eyespot numbers and location in the Family Nymphalidae (Oliver et al., 2014)

The paper was highlighted on ScienceDaily in “Butterfly ‘eyespots’ add detail to story of evolution“. The first author, Jeffrey Oliver, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Integrative Biology of the Oregon State University College of Science stated that the study indicated how continued mutations allowed eyeposts to move to different positions on the wings to perform a different function from its original placement. With the help of butterfly eyespots, we are inching closer to understand the existence of serial homologues and even the fundamentals of evolution.

For full citation: J. C. Oliver, J. M. Beaulieu, L. F. Gall, W. H. Piel, A. Monteiro. Nymphalid eyespot serial homologues originate as a few individualized modules. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2014; 281 (1787): 20133262 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2013.3262


Lynette’s Sea Wall project in the news (Straits Times)

Turning sea walls into ‘housing’ units for marine life
by Jose Hong. The Straits Times, 05 Jun 2012.

SEA walls defend the coast from erosion by waves and currents, but they are also potentially ‘housing developments’ for marine creatures.

These ‘housing developments’, however, are not ideal habitats. This is because the granite blocks making up these sea walls have steeply sloped, even surfaces – not the best for sea life looking for crevices to anchor themselves, feed, breed, or hide.

Research assistant Lynette Loke, a 24-year-old doing her master’s in science at the National University of Singapore (NUS), wants to change that.

Turning sea walls into 'housing' units for marine life
Ms Loke in the middle of mounting specially designed tiles onto sea walls at Pulau Hantu as part of her project in 2009. Designed and created by her, the tiles have ridges and pits which make them a more complex surface than granite for sea life looking for crevices to anchor themselves, feed, breed, or hide. Photo: Peter Todd

Her project now basically ‘renovates’ the sea walls by mounting specially designed tiles onto their surface. Designed and created by her, these tiles are moulded with ridges and pits, making them a more complex surface than just granite alone.

She has been at this for 21/2 years, and will complete an analysis of the effectiveness of the tiles only next year.

But her project has already garnered international praise.

Professor Gee Chapman, a professor of marine ecology at the University of Sydney, was impressed by the project when she visited NUS in March.

She said the research would answer important questions about how plant and animal species that live between the high- and low-tide levels use their habitats.

‘More importantly, the results will provide advice to ecologists, engineers and environmental managers worldwide about ways in which sea walls might be modified or built to reduce their negative effects on local inter-tidal biodiversity,’ she added.

Dr James Reimer, an associate professor at the Molecular Invertebrate Systematics and Ecology Lab of the University of the Ryukyus in Japan, has also come to hear of Ms Loke’s work.

Saying the project fit well with his work of assessing the impact of coastal construction on marine biodiversity, he invited the principal investigator of the project, NUS assistant professor of biology Peter Todd, to give a talk on the project in April.

Dr Reimer, noting the talk was well-received, said: ‘We’re discussing ways to apply their methods to a project here in Okinawa.’

Dr Tjeerd Bouma, a co-principal investigator for Ms Loke’s project, noted that sea walls have been built for decades with little thought to their impact on marine life. Dr Bouma,who is a researcher from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research and Deltares, said learning how to design these walls in the most ecologically friendly way was therefore important.

Ms Loke cannot agree more, adding: ‘We hope one day to see our design on seawalls around the world.’

Sheridan & Bickford (2011) highlight possible effects of climate change on body size

Our former postdoc colleague Jennifer Sheridan, who just recently moved on to a new post at the University of Alabama and resident herpetologist David Bickford have recently published an article in Nature Climate Change entitled “Shrinking body size as an ecological response to climate change”.  

They compiled evidence of how warming temperatures may lead to various taxa becoming smaller.  The article is an interesting read and has been widely covered by the media including CNN, New York Times, Yahoo and hilariously, even The Onion.

David hopes that this perspective piece stimulates discussion and future scientific study in this area. Let’s hope that it does!

Singapore’s native plant species – “know and appreciate our gradually disappearing natural heritage”

Where has all the flora gone?
The Straits Times Forum, 30 Sep 2011.

“MR LIM Poh Seng asks an intriguing question: Is the national flower becoming ‘extinct’ (‘In search of Vanda Miss Joaquim’; Forum Online, Monday)? [see below]

Singapore’s national flower is a sterile hybrid of two orchid species, both of which do not naturally occur in Singapore. It was the result of a cross made by Armenian horticulturist Agnes Joaquim in her garden, as described by pioneer botanist Henry Ridley.

I am not sure if ‘extinction’ seems to be an ecologically relevant concept to apply to it, but as this is our official national flower, Mr Lim’s concerns are understandable.

As conservation scientists, we often ask: How many of Singapore’s native plant species have become extinct? How many are in danger of becoming extinct?

The latest edition of Singapore’s Red Data Book lists some 30 per cent of more than 2,000 plant species native to Singapore as nationally extinct. Many have been rediscovered in the following years, but many others remain rare – only a few of them exist in a few locations.

One particular native species of interest is the Singapore Kopsia. It is found only in the freshwater swamps of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, and its flowers bear the Singapore colours: red and white.

Another species of interest is a climber known to be found only in Singapore and nowhere else, with the scientific name Spatholobus ridleyi.

If this climber becomes extinct in Singapore, it also means that it will disappear permanently from the face of the earth.

Unlike hybrid orchids that require artificial propagation, our native plant species are fully capable of reproducing and surviving on their own – if not for habitat destruction and disturbance by us humans.

Perhaps we should grow more native plants in all schools. This will enable our children to know and appreciate our gradually disappearing natural heritage.

Chong Kwek Yan”

“In search of Vanda Miss Joaquim”
The Straits Times Forum Online, 30 Sep 2011.

IS SINGAPORE’S national flower, the Vanda Miss Joaquim, becoming extinct? Is it difficult to grow?

The only place where I can see the national flower is at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The Singapore Tourism Board or National Parks Board should provide a list of places where we can view the national flower.

We should grow the national flower in all schools. This will enable our children to know and appreciate our national flower.

Lim Poh Seng

Siva the Eco-warrior

On National Day on 9 Aug, Singapore’s very own eco-warrior, Siva, was featured on Today for his tireless work in the mangroves, its conservation and clean up.

Siva is a lecturer, coordinator of the International Coastal Cleanup Singapore (ICCS) and the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research Toddycats!, creator of this blog and supervisor of a posse of research students [yours truly included].

For the report, journalist Tan Weizhen caught up with Siva during a coastal clean up of Pandan mangroves and noted that a clean up in Lim Chu Kang mangroves was carried out [on 6 Aug] to celebrate national day. That day, volunteers removed more than 1,187 kg of trash that could choke, pollute or harm the coastal ecosystems. [link]

Click on the picture below to read the full article.

Horseshoe crabs and other organisms often get trapped in abandoned gill nets. Therefore, other than having a thing about maps and first aid kits, Siva packs a pair of scissors when he heads out to the mangroves to free any unfortunate creatures he comes accross that get trapped in abandoned gill nets.

Here is a video of him in action together with alumni, Theresa Su, and Toddycat, Teo Kah Ming.

“From a Facebook picture to a rare discovery” – Today online

TODAYonline | Singapore | From a Facebook picture to a rare discovery

“From a Facebook picture to a rare discovery,” by Esther Ng. Today online, 16 Apr 2011.

“SINGAPORE – A picture on Facebook was all a group of National University of Singapore (NUS) students had as they began efforts to find the carcass belonging to a rare species of monkey.

The photograph was of a banded leaf monkey – there are only about 40 of these animals here – which had apparently been killed in a road accident. The students were alerted to the photograph by their lecturer and locating the carcass would have enable them to retrieve its DNA for research.

After initial attempts to get a cleaning services contractor to find the carcass turned up short, Ms Andie Ang, 26, and five other graduate students rushed at night to the accident site along Upper Thomson Road.

They combed the area, using the light from their mobile phones. But, alas, the carcass could not be found. Said Ms Ang: “Motorists must have been wondering what we were doing – walking up and down the road with our mobile phones. We could have done more with a carcass … taken measurements, examined its bones. So, we did the next best thing – look for blood.”

After an hour of searching, a team member spotted a scratch on the road similar to the one in the photograph posted online.

Ms Amrita Srivathsan, 22, a member of the team, said: “As we were digging, a pebble came loose and we found some liquid blood underneath.”

The challenge, however, was retrieving the DNA from the sample.

Said Ms Ang: “As the blood was two to three days old, it could have degraded or have been contaminated by bacteria or the weather. Moreover, whole blood contains only a tiny amount of DNA, let alone impure samples of blood.” But after two weeks of numerous trials in the lab, they finally succeeded.

The recovery yielded important genetic markers which the team will use to compare with other DNA obtained from faecal samples.

For instance, a low genetic variation indicates a high degree of in-breeding, thus an increased probability of extinction.

Lauding the students’ efforts, Nature Society Singapore president Shawn Lum said such DNA studies should be extended to all animal and plant species here, as it would go towards restoring the “viability and sustainability” of Singapore’s biodiversity.

“It’s a miracle we found a usable blood sample,” Ms Ang said.

Today Online on the new Bachelor of Environmental Studies programme

New degree course to tackle complex environmental issues at the National University of Singapore,” by Neo Chai Chin. Today Online, 25 Feb 2011.

SINGAPORE – In August, the National University of Singapore (NUS) will welcome 50 students whose idea of fun is doing field studies on Christmas Island, or learning the myriad issues behind haze in the region.

The students will form the pioneer batch of the new Bachelor of Environmental Studies programme, a four-year, direct Honours course.

Environmental issues are too urgent and wide-ranging to be tackled in a fragmented way, say the leaders of the taskforce that designed the inter-disciplinary curriculum.

During discussions, “it impressed on me, really, that as a social scientist…I’m only trained to appreciate one fragment of the entire global issue”, said sociologist Paulin Straughan. The taskforce was co-led by NUS Faculty of Science special projects director Professor Leo Tan, a respected conservationist.

The involvement of eight NUS faculties and schools – including the Arts and Social Sciences, Science and Law faculties – in the programme signals just how broad-based it is, said Prof Tan.

In the first two years, modules in biology, chemistry and economics, among others, will be taught. Subsequently, students may opt to specialise in either Environmental Biology or Environmental Geography.

Field studies will be conducted at places where NUS already has research interests – such as Christmas Island and possibly northern Thailand.

On Christmas Island, students will see first-hand the delicate balance between conservation, development, tourism and migration.

Another intriguing issue is the haze. “We always complain that the Indonesians don’t care about haze and they burn, but if you go to places that have been burnt, you find the problems there are very complicated. Some companies there are owned by… multinational corporations,” said Professor Peter Ng, director of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research.

“If you expose students to these real world situations, they begin to see a different angle to this. At the end of the day, environmental challenges in different countries are all inter-connected.”

Prof Tan said NUS hopes to attract “top-notch A Level students” to the course. Students need to have a “good” pass in Maths and either Biology or Chemistry, though exceptions could be made, said Assoc Prof Straughan.


LZB features ex-hons Lynette Loke’s project on artificial substrate in marine environments

Lynette Loke, 2009/10 honours student with Peter Todd in Marine Biology Lab and now a Research Assistant appears in Lianhe Zaobao on 1st August 2010. The article apparently talks about her work on creating artificial substrates for enhancing biodiversity on Singapore’s seawalls.

Lynette and her mini-construction site from Oct 2009

A translated abstract would certainly be welcome! If you can do it, please email me at sivasothi@gmail.com

See also: “Designing innovative coastal protection using ecosystem-based approaches,” by Peter Todd. Hantu Blog, 24 Nov 2009.

Hantu Island an experimental site for costal protection design | Pulau Hantu

Banded Leaf Monkeys, RMBR, mangroves in beMUSE

Get your hands on the latest copy of beMUSE, the quarterly magazine published by the National Heritage Board! There are plenty of interesting articles in this issue, including one written by Andie from our lab, on the banded leaf monkeys of Singapore (Living treasures in the treetops: A fresh look at Singapore’s banded leaf monkeys). In it, she discusses the ecology of the banded leaf monkeys, their natural heritage value and relationship to the greater question of biodiversity conservation in Singapore, as well as the banded leaf monkey’s long term prospects for survival, It’s accompanied by plenty of lush photographs, (as are all the other articles in the magazine). She also discusses the fate of some other charismatic animals of Singapore, including Marcus’ mousedeer, along with a picture he took of the shy, nocturnal creature.

You can enjoy more of his photography in the following article on mangroves (Rainforests by the sea: Celebrating Singapore’s mangrove forests), written by Jean Yong, Joanne Khew (from Plant lab) & Ng Yan Fei, which includes an useful comparative mangrove guide sheet. Last but not least, there is also an article on RMBR (Learning from looking: The natural history collection of the former Raffles library and museum). Written by Clement Onn from the Asian Civilisations Museum, it not only offers a good read, but also includes a very useful timeline of the RMBR’s history.

Follow up article on Weiting’s honours project: Threats to the Siglap Civets

Weiting just finished her exams. Before that, however, she presented her poster, submitted her thesis and delivered her first public talk to some 300 people during the during the “Zoological Explorations of Singapore” on 16th April 2010.

Relieved of all that pressure, I am quite sure Weiting looks like this these days:

Of course she’s not done yet. There are debts to pay. One of which is public education. Well, I suppose she has bought some time now, as she has just had some help.

Update (06 May 2010) – Ria Tan has blogged about Weiting’s lovely public talk, see: “Celebrating Singapore’s Biodiversity“.

The Straits Times has followed up on the results of Weiting’s honours year project on the civets of Siglap, which they first reported on last November, (“The great ‘musang’ stakeout“) (30 Nov 2009). Read on…

“‘Musang’ facing threat from annoyed residents,” by Ang Yiying. The Straits Times, 04 May 2010.

WRS photo - civet project
The musang, believed to be the last small wild carnivore in Singapore, has made its home in the east. A study team puts its population in Siglap and Opera estates at between 20 and 30. — PHOTOS: WILDLIFE RESERVES SINGAPORE

THE musang, or Asian palm civet, is clinging on as a species in the urban environment of Singapore. It is believed to be the last small wild carnivore here.

A study of its presence in the Siglap and Opera estates shows that the animals are breeding, which bodes well for its preservation. But this delicate balance is being threatened by residents snaring them and possible changes to housing developments.

Weighing about 3.2kg, with grey, coarse shaggy hair and a tail about the same length as its body, the musang, also known as the toddy cat, is common to the region.

While their numbers in Singapore are not available, these nocturnal creatures have been sighted in the east. The Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) and National University of Singapore’s biological sciences department put the musang population in the Siglap and Opera estates at between 20 and 30.

The estimates are based on sightings in the area and photographs taken by the study team and remote camera traps that are triggered by motion.

About five offspring were caught on camera, a sign that the musangs are breeding and could be a sustainable population. Their food sources include small birds and fruits.

But residents say more of the musangs are being snared by those who consider them a nuisance. The animals are known to patter on rooftops and eat fruits from trees grown in residents’ gardens.

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) said the number of musangs it received went up from 23 in 2007 to 31 last year. Almost all came from the Siglap and Opera estates. So far this year, seven have been turned over to the agency, all from that area.

Musangs handed to the AVA are released into nature areas. Those that are weaker may be sent to the zoo.

The Night Safari’s acting assistant curator of zoology Abdul Razak Jaffar, who is part of the study team, thinks the musangs should be left alone in their urban stronghold. ‘Right now, we’re not sure how these animals are doing in the nature reserve,’ he said.

‘So, if we keep pushing them there, there may be a point of time when the resources are not enough to sustain the introduced population or they may not adapt well because they are from a different location.’

WRS is looking into organising night walks in the area to allay people’s fears about the harmless wild animal which also eats pests such as rats.

Dr Vilma D’Rozario of environmental group Cicada Tree Eco-Place, which teaches children about local flora and fauna, has another concern.

The musang, which likes to stay under the eaves of old houses, may have nowhere to go as new buildings may have sealed rooftops that they cannot get into. ‘I feel that as old homes get torn down, there won’t be many musangs left,’ said Dr D’Rozario.

Thanks to WildSingapore for the alert – as usual!