Category Archives: biology

Toddycats @ Pesta Ubin 2016 (Part I): A Celebration of Singapore’s Marine Biodiversity and a plea to Reduce our Plastic Footprint

As in previous years, we’ve come together and contributed to a couple of events for the Pesta Ubin 2016 calendar!

This year Ubin Day has morphed from one weekend of short-lived fun into a month-long festival from 14 May to 12 June (Pesta means Festival in Malay). It was designed to celebrate Ubin’s kampong lifestyle, the Ubin Way, and its value as a nature refuge and to offer the public a glimpse of our past heritage.

Despite the rain, the booths from various local NGOs received a strong showing from the public. About 3000 visitors came to soak in the festive mood by participating in the myriad of events and informative booths. The celebratory atmosphere was buoyed by kampong games such as capteh and hopscotch. Activities such as cycling, kayaking and coastal clean-ups were made available too.

It was a delight to educate and raise awareness of the importance of conserving our local marine biodiversity in Singapore. Ten specimens on loan from the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum were chosen to highlight some examples of marine life found on our shores and the disastrous after-effects of littering, boat crashes, illegal fishing and the importance of conserving our local biodiversity.

Our specimens from LKCNHM included a baby dugong, a dog-faced water snake, a giant mudskipper, an Asian small-clawed otter, shells from various local marine clams and snails, a black-tipped reef shark, a tree-climbing crab, a hawksbill turtle and seahorses. Pictures of our sperm whale, Jubilee, were also on display to highlight the imminent threat that plastics can have on sea creatures, even on large ones like whales. Our local marine biodiversity too is not immune to this global crisis of plastic waste.

There are four ways in which marine life is impacted by plastic littering:  strangulation of animals from entanglement, ingestion of plastics when animals mistake it for food, bioaccumulation when young fish or crustaceans eat micro-plastics (microbeads found in face-wash products) and the leakage of toxic pollutants into the ocean as plastics slowly degrade.

Minister for National Development, Mr Lawrence Wong, and Senior Minister of State, Mr Desmond Lee, graced the event as our guests of honour. Mr Wong announced that by mid 2017, the National Parks Board (NParks) would take on the role of central management agency and be in sole charge of managing Ubin.

In his speech, Mr Wong also highlighted several books launched in celebration of Ubin such as “Footprints on an Island: Rediscovering Pulau Ubin” by Chua Ee Kiam, Choo Mui Eng and Wong Tuan Wah and “Hunt for the Green Boomerang” by Neil Humphreys.

Apart from the humans, other living creatures such as the oriental-pied hornbills and green imperial pigeons were also in attendance during the event. Their presence further illustrates that Ubin continues to be a birdwatcher’s paradise and an important refuge for threatened species. Even Ubin’s friendly resident stray dogs came to pay a visit and provided great company.

The children had their fair share of activities to take part in and be excited about as well! We organised a badge-making session which kept the children thoroughly entertained in creating their very own badges, giving them a colourful experience and a sense of pride in putting their creativity to good use.

To conclude, Pesta Ubin was a celebration of all things nature and our kampong roots. If our heritage in Pulau Ubin is lost, we would not only lose our window into the past, but something more significant – our identity with nature. Our local biodiversity may be resilient but if we are not mindful to reduce our carbon footprint and protect our environment, we may stand to lose much of our precious Earth.

For more pictures, view our Flickr album!

 

BoSS IV planning now under way! First Subcommittee meeting – 20 Mar 2015, 6.30pm

Preparations are now under way for our FOURTH Biodiversity of Singapore Symposium (BoSS) which will be happening on 1 Aug 2015 (Sat)! 

Held once every four years, the BoSS is a great opportunity for the local biodiversity community to gather, socialise, and find out more about each other’s on-going projects!

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15 of us enthusiastically came together last Friday evening to kick-start the planning of the BoSS IV!

Over two hours, we looked through the general timeline, explained everyone’s roles and responsibilities, and discussed ideas and ideals over cake (courtesy of Dr. Joelle Lai, thank you!). With the dates and venue now decided, each sub-committee will now dedicate their time to making BoSS IV a huge success!

To know what to expect, do check out the webpages for our past BoSS here:

Update: We have a BoSS IV blog! Check it out here!

More exciting details will come really soon so do keep a look out!

Toddycat

Capacity building of our youth in NUS Toddycats, volunteers with the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, is part of SG50 celebrations.

BirdBlitz – young greenies learn all about birds!

Last Saturday, on 15 Nov 2014, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (SBWR) was buzzing with the excitement of some 40 young champions of nature and nominees for this year’s Green Carpet Awards (GCA). “BirdBlitz”, organized by World Edu Corp, brought together representatives of the birding community from Nature Society (Singapore) (NSS), Nature Photographic Society, Singapore (NPSS) and NUS to allow the students to experience bird conservation and research, first hand. The NSS birders and their young assistants did a count of migratory birds, NPSS photographers learned about bird behaviour while snapping away, and the NUS researchers hiked through the mangrove forest to understand its ecology, its role as habitat for birds, as well as conservation challenges.

Little binoculars for the little birders!

Little binoculars for the little birders!

Six Toddycats and friends from the department were present for the event – Kok Oi Yee (Toddycats), Alvin Wong (Toddycats), David Tan (Toddycats, Avian Genetics Lab), Keren Sadanandan (RA, Avian Genetics Lab), Chloe Tan (Toddycats, RA, Applied Plant Ecology Lab), Vivien Lee (RA, Applied Plant Ecology Lab). Ng Wen Qing from the Freshwater and Invasion Biology Lab was unwell to join us.

David, Keren, Vivien and Alvin all ready for action.

David, Keren, Vivien and Alvin all ready for action!

Oi Yee and Alvin starting the ball rolling.

Oi Yee and Alvin starting the ball rolling.

The young researchers were just getting acquainted with their new binoculars when our first bird sighting for the day – a noisy White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus), sent them peering across the pond.

"I see it, I see it!"

“I see it, I see it!”

White-breasted Waterhen.

White-breasted Waterhen.

When we ventured onto the Main Bridge, the students could barely contain their excitement with all the birds flying around and fishes swimming under the bridge. Here, they tried their hands at identifying shorebirds (very challenging!) for the first time, using the field guide issued by the organizers. We also spent some time orientating them and explaining how SBWR’s geographical position on the northern coast of Singapore contributes to the habitat here. Some of the students were surprised at how narrow the Johor Strait is, such that they could see Johor Bahru from here! Singapore is also part of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, one of the major flyways of the world, which birds use to travel from their breeding grounds in the higher latitudes to their wintering grounds here in the tropics and southern hemisphere. SBWR lies along this flyway, serving as a crucial feeding and resting stop for migrating birds.

"What bird is that?"

“What bird is that?”

"I think it's a Great Egret!"

“I think it’s a Great Egret!”

Halfbeaks.

Halfbeaks under the Main Bridge.

Things got even more exciting when we approached the mudflats – the perfect stage for students to learn how the diversity in form of the birds (e.g. bill and leg length) allows different species to come together to feed in the same place. Using Alvin’s drinking straw analogy, if you have a short straw you can only drink the foam of your Coke; if you have a longer straw, you can drink from deeper in the cup. Here, we saw several species of migratory shorebirds including the Common Sandpiper (Tringa hypoleucos) and Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus). A Milky Stork (Mycteria cinerea) was also seen hunting for fish. David intrigued the older students when he shared about the hybridization between Milky and Painted Storks, both of which are free-ranging birds from the zoo or bird park. Of course, he also went on to talk about how he has been collecting samples from birds, dead or alive, for genetic studies.

Common Sandpiper.

Common Sandpiper.

Whimbrels.

Whimbrels.

Milky Stork.

Milky Stork.

David sharing how to tell if a stork is a hybrid.

David sharing how to tell if a stork is a hybrid.

David showing a picture of a  dead Yellow-rumped Flycatcher (Ficedula zanthopygia) he recently collected.

David showing a picture of a dead Yellow-rumped Flycatcher (Ficedula zanthopygia) he recently collected.

Further along the trail, we touched on the various aspects of mangrove ecology. The Sea Hibiscus (Talipariti tiliaceum) with its distinctive leaf shape and symbiotic relationship with ants left a strong impression among the students. They whipped out their smartphones synchronously when we spotted some other critters like a mating pair of stink bugs, St. Andrew’s cross spiders, Plantain Squirrels (Callosciurus notatus) and Malayan Water Monitors (Varanus salvator)!

Alvin talking about the Sea Hibiscus

Alvin talking about the Sea Hibiscus

A mating pair of stink bugs.

A mating pair of stink bugs.

St. Andrew's cross spider.

St. Andrew’s cross spider.

Plantain Squirrel holding a twig, possibly to build its nest.

Plantain Squirrel holding a twig, possibly to build its nest.

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Malayan Water Monitor

Tuning in to the sounds of the mangrove, Oi Yee took out a canister containing a dead cicada and a molt, fascinating us all!

Oi Yee with her cicada specimens.

Oi Yee with her cicada specimens.

The mangrove may seem well and alive, but it is constantly under threat by human impacts such as littering and high boat traffic that hastens erosion. We saw a Rhizophora tree that had fallen, despite its well-developed network of prop roots.

A discarded styrofoam box.

A discarded styrofoam box.

A fallen Rhizophora tree demonstrates the damage caused by erosion.

A fallen Rhizophora tree demonstrated the damage caused by erosion.

As biologists, one of our objectives for the event was to show the young ones how scientific studies on wildlife are conducted. We came across a camera trap along the trail and explained to the curious kids how the device is useful for studying mammals. Turning back from Platform 1, we noticed an unusual bunch of sticks tied to a tree. Upon a closer look, there was a tag which read “Research in progress. DO NOT DISTURB”, and the name of our colleague from the department who studies bees. Eunice Soh must have installed this stick nest to study the bees in the Reserve!

You shoot me, I shoot you!

You shoot me, I shoot you! Little Christine taking a photo of a camera trap.

A stick nest bundle used for bee research.

A stick nest bundle used for bee research.

One of the major threats to conservation is habitat modification by humans. SBWR was largely used for prawn farming in the past, and the sluice gates enclosing the mudflats are an evidence of its history. Oi Yee showed us how the sluice gates can be operated to control water level in the prawn ponds. Now that the area has been returned to nature, these gates are used still used to control water levels. For example, water can be kept out of the ponds even during high tide to allow migratory shorebirds to feed on the mudflats.

Oi Yee explaining how the sluice gate works.

Oi Yee explaining how the sluice gate works.

On the way back to the visitor centre, many other creatures made their appearance. There were a Little Heron (Butorides striata), Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), mudskippers and crabs.

A Little Heron ready to snag its prey.

A Little Heron ready to snag its prey.

Little Egret.

Little Egret.

Mudskipper.

A mudskipper.

A crab.

A crab.

Back at the visitor centre, the students gathered to complete their handouts, putting together what they had learned during the walk.

Completing their handouts with the help of the guides.

Completing their handouts with the help of the guides.

Sea Hibiscus!

Sea Hibiscus!

Rounding off the event were two prominent figures from National Geographic – Dr. Greg Marshall, a Nat Geo Fellow, and Dr. Francis Downey, Vice-president and Publisher of Nat Geo Learning. The biologists in us related well with Dr. Marshall, who invented Crittercam, as he shared about his past work and upcoming project on cheetahs in Botswana!

The guides chatting with Dr. Greg Marshall (in white) and Dr. Francis Downey (in black).

The guides chatting with Dr. Greg Marshall (in white) and Dr. Francis Downey (in black).

A couple of the young environmental advocates attended a press conference on Monday (17 Nov 2014) to share their experiences during this programme. We hope that they are inspired to keep up their good work as voices for nature!

Researchers and their apprentices.

Researchers and their apprentices.

Group photo with the NSS and NPSS teams.

Group photo with the NSS and NPSS teams.

Come join us at the Festival of Biodiversity (26 & 27 May 2012)

Calling all nature lovers! Whether you are an avid animal or plant enthusiast, or simply looking for an enriching way to spend the weekends with your family, you are in for a fabulous treat! Next weekend, the inaugural Festival of Biodiversity will bring you a whole line-up of exciting programmes and activities that feature the best of Singapore’s biodiversity.

The Festival of Biodiversity will be held at the Botany Centre, Singapore Botanic Gardens on 26 & 27 May 2012 from 9.00am to 6.00pm.  This event marks a major milestone for biodiversity conservation in Singapore and is jointly organized by NParks and the Biodiversity Roundtable. The theme of this event is to create awareness and promote efforts in conserving and enhancing our local biodiversity.

© 2012 NParks

You may not be aware that Singapore is home to more than 400 species of marine fishes, 250 species of hard corals,  as well as native species such as the smooth-coated otter and the banded leaf monkey. Fret not, as the line-up of programmes are certainly able to facilitate your learning journey of Singapore’s rich biodiversity!

There will be a myriad of activities targeted at different age groups during the festival. Families can revel in the plethora of specimens and informative exhibits featured at more than 14 interactive booths set up by schools, corporate groups, non-governmental organisations, nature-interest groups, volunteers and public agencies. Besides the wealth of information displayed at the booths, children can also participate by exercising their creativity at the various hands-on art and craft workshops such as painting and creating origami animals or their very own bookmarks! Alternatively, they can find joy by listening to the wonderful  stories of “The Giving Tree”, “The Lorax” and more at the storytelling sessions. These eye-opening activities will certainly leave you and your family enthralled.

Let your children’s creative juices and imagination flow at the Art and Craft Workshops.

The fun continues at the Function Hall as a wide range of talks, featuring unusual topics, such as animal forensics and biodiversity iPhone applications, are open to you! The ‘Conserving our Biodiversity’ Symposium also promises a deeply insightful experience. This symposium will take place from 9.00am to 12 noon at the Function Hall of the Botany Centre and is ideal for school teachers, principals, community leaders, corporate groups and NGOs. Alternatively, you can attend the various thrilling film screening sessions to broaden your perspectives of the importance of biodiversity conservation.

Enjoy “The Return of the King”, a film featuring the return of the Oriental Pied Hornbills to our urban landscape.

Interested in wildlife photography? Then rejoice at the sight of flora and fauna as you explore the guided rainforest tour or simply visit the “BiodiverCity” Photography Exhibition.

With so many exciting activities in store for all at the festival, the event is not to be missed! By participating in the vivacious festival, you will be rewarded with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Singapore’s rich biodiversity, its benefits and relevance to us in Singapore. So join us this weekend at the Festival of Biodiversity; we look forward to seeing you!

Getting to the Botany Centre at Singapore Botanic Gardens

Map of Singapore Botanic Gardens © 2012 NParks
Click image for larger view.

By Foot:
Entrance to the Gardens is easy through the Gardens’ major entrances: Tanglin Gate, Burkill Gate, Nassim Gate and Cluny Park Gate, and through the Bukit Timah Entrance.

By Car:
Car Parking Facilities are available at the Singapore Botanic Gardens’ Visitor Centre, Bukit Timah Car Park at Bukit Timah Core, Botany Centre, Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden and Public Parking along Tyersall Avenue.

For more information on the Festival of Biodiversity, please visit:
http://festivalofbiodiversitysingapore.wordpress.com/ or
http://www.nparks.gov.sg/festivalofbiodiversity/

Meeting the biology students

Yesterday evening, I met 14 undergraduates from biology with an interest to learn more about the subject and who want to make some contribution to conservation. Exhausted from two weeks of preparing the honours students for their oral exams on top of everything else, I was quite exhausted. Still this had been a long time coming and the Toddycats Manpower Captain (3rd year undergraduate) Grace Lo, would be relieved we were finally gathering after extensive procastination!

I asked them to arrange themselves into a circle which they did quite speedily – so that was promising! During introductions, I interjected comments and began to feel hopeful. The students, who were all in their 1st and 2nd year of biology, came from a diversity of interests – some are more research-inclined, others have an interest in communication while others look to be happy generalists who can apply themselves in any situation.

I talked about what we could do;

[1] Learning through interaction – [Toddycats Engage!]
There is a lot of information on the internet but nothing beats hearing news face to face. This is meant to be a conversation rather thana lecture so there will have to be a preliminary agenda at least so we can read up briefly. This will also be a good opportunity to invite people down for a conversation or to share movies we can never show in class for lack of time or talk about things we have encountered or read about in the month that has passed.

[2] Learning through discovery – [Toddycats Discovery]
Students can organise field trips based on suggestion and invite the grad students or lecturers along – e.g. bird watching on the Southern Ridges, listening for bats and looking for other fauna on Kent Ridge, the Lower Peirce boardwalk at night and horseshose crab rescue in Mandai mangroves (potentially a project on its own). This is the sort of field exposure that allowed us to help our seniors and phrase research questions easily in our senior years as undergraduates. This is also intended to get them to organise.

This group will begin with an evening field trip to Kent Ridge to listen to bats with the new bat detectors – we can figure if my earlier recces of the best spots pan out under their scrutiny. They can next plot wildlife sightings in NUS as a guide for other students. After all, not even all of them could say they have seen a changeable lizard on campus before (Calotes versicolor), let alone figure out its ecology. So that will make discovery easy and enjoyable – a fun stage in their journey to be in.

[3] Action – [See Dugongs]
An obvious beginning to quick and immediate action is to form a team of five to guide – at the Raffles Museum’s Public Gallery (which one of them called a white elephant after seeing it empty when he visited one day) and at public exhibitions, using specimens from the museum and department.

Each person is to begin with just two specimens for a combined total of 10 specimens explained/team. I will have to train and asses the teams but I can ask their seniors for help. They will get a chance to apply their new talents at a few occasions:

  • The after-term lunch-time tours for NUS staff are to be revivved.
  • Support for specific events like International Museum Day
  • Collaborate with NUSSU SAVE to showcase local biodiversity during their Green Carnival
  • A beginning of term exhibition at Science and/or Central Libraries. In future to liase with clubs and societies during orientation week.

[4] Action – International Coastal Cleanup Singapore
Site Captains are desperately needed! This work requires email interaction with organisers and a site visit or two. They will have a Zone Captain for backup so there is safety net.

[5] Action – regional help
Second year student Ong Say Lin and friends will be volunteering with sun bear researcher Wong Siew Te. We hope to suggest dependable students to Siew Te annually to provide dependable, volunteer support. Toddycats with field experience and exposure to issues could be helpful.

I rounded up the session by sharing about the project-based nature of our work – we avoid crippling demands on a person’s time but require communication, reliability and sustainability. That did not faze all of them. By the time I reached home, one of them had already posted enthusiastically on facebook.

I started out in conservation like this, at their age, through the Biological Science Society. Those experiences imbued with me with skills I have applied in a variety of crises for the better. Let’s hope they get a kick start too.

– N. Sivasothi a.k.a. Otterman