Archive for February, 2009

Nature, Man Included


A short update, courtesy of Luan Keng, on a photography exhibition that you might want to drop by to have a look at.

When? 27th Feb to 26th April 2009
Where? NUS Museum, University Cultural Centre

Alternatively, wait for it to come closer to your faculty if you are in NUS:

When? 19th May – 2nd June 2009
Where? Arts Buzz, NUS Central Library

Reflections on the role of Man in nature through a medium of photography, explorations of the intricate relationships between self, community and nature, including a dynamic play of political, socio-cultural and environmental conditions will be showcased in this exhibition.

Boundaries separating the urban and the developed, whether present or undiscovered will also be explored.


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[This post has been edited in RED]

So the other day, we were assigned to find out about the problems faced by Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (BTNR) in Tropical Conservation (tropcon)’s class.

For those unaware, BTNR is ‘a mere 12km from the city centre’, and one of the few spots offering primary rainforest in Singapore. 164m in height and occupying 164 hectares, this, from a bird’s eye view (courtesy of google), is how it looks like.


Well that little jigsaw puzzle piece shaped islet of forested area is the nature reserve boundary of BTNR. Another aerial view reveals the actual forested area over there:


So why the difference? We actually don’t know why, but that’s a question to pose!

Nature areas in Singapore have three main levels of protection. In order of priority, are nature Areas, nature Parks and lastly, nature Reserves. Nature areas and parks occupy a land space that is seemingly ephemeral – meaning that it can be taken away and used for development any time the authorities deem fit.

Nature reserves, on the other hand, have a better lifespan and protection. But then again, I’m not entirely sure.

Our question is, why not extend the nature reserve boundaries to the entire forested area – why not simply accord to the entire patch of land a level of protection that the reserve provides?

And then we realised, most people don’t even know that the BTNR boundaries don’t extend to what we see in the reserve. After all, it is a social construct – but this social construct confers protection for the land and its inhabitants, both flora and fauna.

Also, if you’re not already aware of the situation BTNR is in – look at the surrounding areas of the nature reserve. The Bukit Timah Expressway (BKE) cuts through and separates the connection between BTNR and Central Catchment (CCNR), ensuring a permanent scar in the forest that prevents animals from crossing over and seed dispersal to take place – thus effectively sealing the populations of flora and fauna into smaller prisons, rather than big open ground that belongs to them.

Surrounding BTNR on other areas are tarred roads, quarries, buildings and residential areas – add this to the trails in the forest that fragment the area into smaller bite-sized jigsaw bits, one cannot help but wonder about the state this nature reserve is in.

With the road noise, the escalating number of visitors that come every day, week and year, and the noisy excursions that see kids running around and screaming at every squirrel they see, it really begs the question:

Is this really an area reserved for nature – or a leisurely recreational park that we use like any other park we have: cherished only for its convenience, tarred roads and streetlights that allow us to plunder its richness for our gain – a win-lose situation?

Something for you to think about.

On the other hand, BTNR’s many trees and plants are going to flower very soon, in a phenomenon called ‘mast flowering‘, which simply means that there’ll be mass flowering! (:

We went yesterday, and the Bat Lilies have already started flowering. It’s rained yesterday and it is raining again today, for an extended period of time, so between the next few months there should be mass flowering. Keep your eyes peeled!

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Have you ever heard of Shai Agassi? What about the Better Place?

If you’ve never heard of those two, you’ll probably never have heard of the revolutionary idea of electric cars taking over the oil powered ones we have on the roads today. Cars with zero emissions that break the dependence on oil, creating a sustainable mode of transport that is not detrimentally fateful to our environment as it is to the stability of our economy, and lifestyles.

Say what? Electric cars? Isn’t that a fad already proven inefficient and unpopular? Zero emissions – are you nuts?!

Don’t take it just on my word, check it out yourself. Visit the Better Place. Find out more about the guy who’s creating all these new possibilities, read Shai’s blog. Even better, keep up to date with the latest information and videos by fantastic speakers spreading revolutionary ideas from ted.com. Wired.com was the one that spread the message of electric cars to me (Thanks Ella for the link!), and I say, keep up-to-date with all this information.

Still can’t believe this is happening right as we speak?


Israel was the first to jump on the bandwagon in January 2008, and in the same year, Denmark came into the picture in March, and in October and December, Australia and Japan joined in respectively. California, Hawaii and Canada have also committed to this vision. Thanks to sites like greenprophet.com and wecansolveit.org, we can all keep up with this rapid tidal wave of change.

So where is Singapore on this chart?

For the record, Better Place Asia actually came to an Energy Carta meeting held here in Singapore in 2008, but whether there are updates or even any plans to take up this radical scheme is unknown. Anyone with info is welcome to contribute here!

Meanwhile, all we can do now is, I suppose, keep catching up.

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Where and what in the world is Mandai Mangroves and Mudflats?

Located in between Woodlands Road and the Straits of Johor, it sits adjacent to the Malaysian owned railway that transverses through Singapore, and has two rivers (and streamlets and tributaries) cutting through it.


According to the Asean Regional Centre for Biodiversity Conservation (ARCBC), the area is approximately 10 hectares in total. Sungei Mandai Besar and Sungei Mandai Kechil are two rivers that run through the mangrove area, leading out to the mudflats and finally ending in the straits.


Here in this zoomed in photograph, you can see the two rivers and major streamlets, the mudflat area, the straight-as-a-needle railway track and the built-up areas around Mandai Mangroves and Mudflats (MMM).

We’ll be heading there on Monday!

So just an update, Backyard Biology has sent a few people, and some other non-biology concentration students are coming too – but take note, these people are so into biology you wouldn’t be able to tell!

Anne, Holly, Evelyn, Yea Tian, Grace, Wincent, Kim, Daniel and I are heading there with Siva, and we’re going to get thrown into the deep end – and navigate our way out ourselves too! (: Good stuff.

Do take note though, don’t head there yourself or bring an entire battalion of friends, always bear in mind the impact an outing might have on a particular nature site, and please be good to the environment. Don’t even be friendly – be GOOD.

Here’s a quote we got from Siva’s video clip today:

A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.
– John James Audubon

More updates after our trip on Monday. (:

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Thanks to Sandra Tan’s reference, I now know about this film to be played at the NUS Arts Festival, called Energy Crossroads – a burning need to change course. By Christophe Fauchere, its a 54min long documentary following the global population increase and drastic need for energy.

As our global population and its appetite for energy rise drastically, resource depletion and global warming have become the most pressing issues facing humanity…when demand exceeds supply…within the next 15 years..how can we avoid an energy crisis and a possible collapse of our economy?


In addition to increasing geopolitical conflicts, the process of extracting and using these crucial resources is endangering the very own habitat that we depend on to prosper as a species … for us to survive our modern self-destructive societies, we will have to change course drastically and as fast as possible.

This award-winning documentary exposes the problems associated with our energy consumption. It also offers concrete solutions for those who want to educate themselves and be part of the solutions in this decisive era. The film features passionate individuals, entrepreneurs, experts and scientists at the forefront of their field bringing legitimacy and expertise to the core message of the piece.

FREE at the UCC courtyard, catch this show at 8pm on 7th March.

The other film that Tiroir A Films created was The Great Squeeze, and you can check it out through the link here. Reflecting similar issues, it is another award winning film by the same company. Won’t be shown at the Arts Festival though, for this one.


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Born 200 years ago today..

It’s Charles Darwin’s birthday today! Check this out:


Cool stuff, no?

Seems like many events related to science (especially conferences and symposiums) are going on overseas today – on the day of Darwin’s 200th birthday, which, in fancy terms, is called his bicentennial. Learn more at Darwin Day Website. Places like Australia are even having an event called Ozzie Darwin Pow-Wow :D Thanks to Siva, there’s also a video of Darwin’s Legacy. (:

Even though there are separate camps supporting the theories he came up with wayyy back in 1800s, I think we all have to acknowledge the fact that he was one of the pioneers of the schools of thought in today’s evolutionary biology. (:

Today, his birthday marks a day where science and our discoveries are celebrated in all magnified glory. Good chance to raise awareness!

Happy Birthday Darwin!

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So we headed off from NUS this time, carrying containers and all sorts of stuff to be used in activities with the MGS girls at Changi Beach. Arriving earlier than expected, we settled down at a small sheltered ‘hut’, and we noticed..


Ladybug! Henrietta, Kok Sheng and I got all excited wanting to snap shots of this tiny cute ladybug that was on the floor behind us. KS then put it on a leaf, attempting to take a more natural-looking shot :D


Slightly more ominously though, was a dead Mynah about two metres away from us. Poor thing already had ants all over it. Robert arrived shortly, bringing with him a moult from a Flower Crab, and two Sea Urchin tests.

Sea Urchins leave behind a calcerous test that is akin to a skeleton that an animal leaves behind as the soft tissue decomposes.

mgsThen the MGS girls arrived for their two hour workshop. Here’s a picture of Robert with his group – the Knobbly Seastars! A quick safety brief and off we went to the intertidal area!

A short introduction to tides led to a discussion on how intertidal creatures live in an environment where ranging temperatures, salinity and moisture all pose a challenge for survival.

The New Moon and the Full Moon are all times to take note of – thats when the tides are the lowest or highest in a month. Here’s more on Spring and Neap tides.

sea-cucumber-unknownSea Cucumber, unknown. This little critter was completely buried in the sand, and even without close inspection you can see the many thorn-like structures on its skin! Colour is drab brown to blend in with the sand where it usually lives.

sea-cucumber-thornyThorny Sea Cucumber (Colochirus quadrangularis) [Thanks Ron for the ID!] again, this time with its filter-feeding apparatus out for all to see. Looks like fireworks to me. Sea cucumbers are part of a group called Echinoderms, and these include the very popular seastars, sea urchins that people fear (coz of the spines), and sand dollars that most don’t know about.

Echinoderm means ‘spiny-skin’ in Greek, and this prickly nature is what most echinoderms have. Hard spines are clearly visible in sea urchins, smaller, less distinguished ones are present in sand dollars and seastars, and  most sea cucumbers lack hard calcerous spines.


The Striped Hermit Crab (Clibanarius infraspinatus) here is beautifully striped, and quite big too. This one got quite irritated with Robert and gave him a strong nip on the palm. As a hermit crab grows bigger, it also outgrows its shell – because of this, it needs to keep changing shells to accomodate its size. Refrain from picking shells at the beach because you could just be depriving a hermit crab of a home!


I nearly stepped on this Hairy Sea Hare (Bursatella leachii) – but thanks to Hen’s and KS’ shouting I froze in time. Some sea hares have internal shells, most have a pear-like body shape, and they seem to also be seasonal – sometimes you see many of them and sometimes even spotting one is difficult. This sea hare feeds on cyanobacteria and swallows large amounts of sand in the process, much like an earthworm!


Dragonet, (likely Callionymus schaapii). Don’t know anything about this fish, and finding on the web isn’t very conclusive. Anyone know anything about this one? There was some debate on whether it was a flathead or not. Thoughts? [Edit]

According to Ron, that’s likely the species name for this fish, and flatheads generally have a longer head, and dragonets have a shorter one.


Cake Sand Dollar. In the background photograph you can see tracks laid by a Sand Dollar, that is moving constantly through a thin layer of sand, feeding on organic debris as it does so. They are pretty common on our beaches, and quite brittle/fragile too! Do take note of where you step on when you are at the beach.


Spider Crab. Notice the pointed ends of the Spider Crab‘s legs, and how well camouflaged it is with its odd shape, and drab colouring (mostly sediment on its body here). An elusive creature, the Spider Crab is often difficult to spot as it minimises movement to avoid detection by other creatures.


Razor Clams, also known as Bamboo Clams, are able to ‘swim’ and bury into the sand if they’re needed to very fast, despite its elongated appearance that intuitively seems like its hard to burrow or swim efficiently. Siphons at the end of the soft body (the striped part you see here) jet water out, and are also part of an inward/outward flow of water from which they filter feed from.


Mantis Shrimps are not shrimps! They are even less closely related to shrimps than crabs are. Usually growing up to a length of barely 10cm, the largest specimens found could easily reach 30cm! Mantis shrimps got their common names from their strong and powerful front pincers – and so are largely grouped as Spearer or Smasher Mantis Shrimps. Some Smasher mantis shrimps have even been known to be able to smash their way through aquarium tanks that have not been reinforced!


Helmet Snail, (Semicassis bisulcatum). This pretty Gastropod was moving around when Henrietta spotted it – causing quite a frenzy where Ron and KS were jostling around to get a good picture of this unidentified species. As you can see from the border photographs, thats a sequence snapshot of the movement of the snail. (:


The MGS girls were exclaiming when this horseshoe crab was brought into the scene by Robert, who found it nearby. Already dead, there was a slight decomposing smell if you went too close.

This Coastal Horseshoe Crab (Tachypleus gigas) can be identified from its relatives through its triangular shaped tail (in cross section). The other HSC, the Mangrove HSC, has a conical shaped tail. The name HSC is actually a misnomer, as these ‘crabs’ are actually more closely related to spiders than crabs!

HSCs are very fragile creatures – and Robert was demonstrating the way HSCs flip themselves back up if they become overturned. Biotechnologies have recently discovered that the blood of a HSC can detect gram-negative bacteria (e.g. Samonella spp., E. coli, STD-causing bacteria), and because of this HSC numbers have dwindled as pharmaceutical companies who practice unsustainable harvesting of these creatures suck them dry of blood (pun unintended).


Certainly my first time seeing an outdoor workshop with secondary school students – it’s very heartening to see that our younger generations are still open to this kind of education: hands-on and traditional biology, the one that always captures people’s attention, and hearts.

Also keeps reminding me that knowledge really, shows us the extent of our own ignorance. Great trip!

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