Category Archives: research

Mangrove Dollies! By Patrick Grootaert & Igor Shamsev

Long-legged flies (Order Diptera, Family Dolichopodidae) are the passion of Belgian entomologist Patrick Grootaert.

In Feb 2005, we announced his stay with the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research. Patrick, who is Head of the Department of Entomology at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, was on sabbatical leave here from 1st March 2005 to 28th February 2006. Explaining then that his research interest was the taxonomy, systematics and sexual behaviour of Empidoid flies, we had no idea of the limelight he would cast onto this group!

Photos of dollies | Marcus Ng

As a warm-up of what lay ahead, his paper with Igor Shamsev was published shortly after in April 2005. There he had described two new species – C. nigripennis was based on a holotype collected from Sungei Buloh and C. singaporensis, from a holotype caught in Chek Jawa.

Almost a year later, we had exciting news. But we saved a “little” titbit for the newspapers and on 6th February 2006, The Straits Times (Singapore) ran a story that screamed “150 new species of flies found.”

Two weeks later at his farewell seminar, he revealed that he lay awake at night wondering how he would finish describing all those new species and that within his insect traps there were probably more species in other groups waiting to be discovered! I remember feeling thrilled that even more mangrove insects were being described and dismayed that we could lose many to extinction.

Patrick went from reverence to amusement, cracking the crowd up when he revealed the names he had provided for new species – he had named dollies after various members of the research community and some had very interesting etymology!

By now, in the biodiversity community in Singapore at least, the term “dollies” was firmly etched in our minds as dipterans in the family Dolichopodidae. This was no mean feat, for the flies had to supplant the otherwise popular Dim Sum Dollies!

In late May 2007, the latest in a series of papers was published. It is the “Revision of the genus Elaphropeza Macquart (Diptera: Hybotidae) from the Oriental Region, with a special attention to the fauna of Singapore,” by I. V. Shamsev & P. Grootaert. Zootaxa, 1488: 164 pp., 31 May 2007 [pdf]. In this monograph, 59 new species of hybotid flies in the genus Elaphropeza are described – remarkable since only 79 were known of this group before!

‘Of the 51 new species only 43 have been given a name.’ And amongst the names of new species are names of familiar places and people that Patrick had energetically proclaimed, at that seminar in February 2006! They include:

  • Places – E. sime, E. neesoonensis, E. chekjawa, E. bulohensis, E. temasek and E. ubinensis.
  • People – E. yangi, E. yeoi, E. benitotani, E. luanae, E. darrenyeoi, E. murphyi, E. meieri. E. ngi, E. riatanae and E. sivasothii.

Marcus Ng gets lyrical and pens “Names on the fly,” The annotated budak, 14 Jun 2007.

“The Belgian entomologist Patrick Grootaert has been busy surveying habitats in Singapore and Southeast Asia in recent years, seeking tiny flies that mostly thrive only in moist, muddy and mangrove-infested swamps. Little is known about them other than their existence and until Grootaert came along, many lacked names. Often, their presence is indicative of habitats that are pristine and consequently most at risk of degradation from human activities.

Fourteen of these new species are found only in mangroves and the bulk of samples were collected right here in Singapore over a year. Grootaert notes that despite the extensive sampling, a third of local species are known only from singletons and doubletons, suggesting that “a large number of species still remain undiscovered.”

“The obvious message for conservation from Grootaert’s paper is that a vast mountain of unknowns lies within the borders ofÊ this tiny island, which prides itself in biotechnology leadership but seems loathe to protect the unique and irreplaceable genotypic wealth that yet dwell in its diminished ecosystems. “

“Names on the fly,” by Marcus Ng. The annotated budak, 14 Jun 2007.
Notes on Patrick Grootaert in Raffles Museum news.


On the trail of Gibson-Hill

30 Jan 2007 – Bonny Tan, Eunice Low and Timothy Pwee of the National Library Board dropped by two weeks ago to examine some of Gibson-Hill’s bird specimens. Carl Alexander Gibson-Hill was Curator of the Raffles Museum in 1947 and Director in 1957.

Eunice had visited us earlier in October 2004 in preparation for an internal talk at NLB and now Bonny is working on the Gibson-Hill Collection Catalogue.

“His collection was purchased by Mrs Loke Yew, mother of Dato Loke Wan Tho (1915-1964), who presented it to the National Library in June 1965, in fulfilment of her late son’s wish.” See NLB’s webpage on Donor’s Collections.

Gibson-Hill had a keen interest in birds and a sample of his collection was brought out for examination by the library staff. This was to provide Bonny with an idea of what to expect when she begins her detailed examination scheduled later this year. We also brought out an old photo of Gibson-Hill that used to hang on the walls of the museum, along with the other former directors.

I often wish we had decent photos of the other museum staff that worked in the various entities that gave rise to and were derived from the Raffles Library and Museum.

Bonny had worked with Raffles Museum curator HK Lua in 2005 during preparation for NLB’s “From Books to Bytes” exhibition. This exhibition is still on display and certainly worth a visit to the National Library. Also, see the wonderful resource presentation of the material on display at NLB’s Virtual Exhibitions.

L – Bonny Tan chatting with HK Lua in the Dry Collection Room. R – Examining and photographing Gibson-Hill’s specimens.

Timothy and Eunice are also keen naturalists and enjoyed the opportunity to examine this historical collection. The well-preserved specimens are kept out of light when not being examined by researchers. For general photos like these, no flash is used.

Juvenile Red-tailed Tropic-bird (Phaethon rubricauda)

Crabman and a crab – poster boys for the Panglao “turn-over” ceremony

My Google alerts for “Raffles Museum” alerted me about a news article early this morning, revealing the whereabouts of museum director Peter Ng’s foray into Manila earlier this week – in Happy News!

It wasn’t for fieldwork this time. Instead, he and a large crab were poster boys at the “Turnover ceremony” for the holotypes from the Panglao expedition.

More later, in the meantime, see new reports via Yahoo.

Blue Malayan Coral snake preservation

Herpetologist-at-large, Leong Tzi Ming injecting a roadkill specimen of Calliophis bivirgatus in the Wet Collection of the Raffles Museum.

The specimen was found by Tay Soon Lian of Central Nature Reserves. Benjamin Lee brought it in when he dropped by to examine mammal specimens.

Webpages for the Blue Malayan Coral Snake – Developed by our very own naturalists, these wonderful web pages are from sites dedicated to vertebrates!
Ecology Asia
Wildlife Singapore

Ming was cataloguing the herptile specimens that were put aside during the renovations.

It’s really good to see these specimens get tagged with a museum number and safely recorded into a catalogue book before being assigned to shelves in the phylogenetic order.

Every 6 months, the written records are databased by students and integrated into the main herptile database.

Expedition Santo 2006 – Straits Times report

“Expedition Santo 2006: Global Biodiversity Survey from sea bottom to ridge crests” – Tan Heok Hui, Tan Swee Hee, Jose Christopher Mendoza and Peter Ng participated in the Santos 2006 expedition in September 2006.

In late October, they were interviewed by the local broadsheet, The Straits Times and an article appeared a couple of weeks later. I inserted photos Swee Hee sent me and Li Ling obligingly sent me her photo of a living robber crab (not from this expedition).

“NUS staff help unearth 10 new crab species.”

By Jessica Lim. The Straits Times, 10 Nov 2006.
The four were part of a global team which combed Pacific islands in the major expedition.

CHILLI crab eaters need not apply. Four National University of Singapore (NUS) researchers did. Crab lovers in the academic sense, they joined a global research team which spent six weeks scouring the seabeds off Vanuatu, a pristine group of islands in the South Pacific. The team braved 6m swells to dredge buckets of debris from depths of up to 300m, eel bites and 12-hour days sifting through debris using tweezers.

The result: About 650 species of crabs were unearthed with at least 10 species new to science waiting to be sorted, named and photographed. The 80-strong research group from 22 countries can lay claim to being the largest marine biodiversity expedition in modern times. New species found included a furry crab with red-tipped claws, and five types of box crabs which have special shell-cutting teeth.

The islands – such as Espiritu Santo, which is the largest in the Vanuatu chain – are home to many unique species not found elsewhere. “The islands are not well explored, and they have a wide variety of pristine habitats,” said Professor Peter Ng, director of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at NUS, who was on the trip.

Up to 30 million species of organisms remain undiscovered and about 1,800 new species are discovered each year. The crabs found on the recent trip will reach Singapore in the next two months. They will then be identified and catalogued. The results will be presented to the Vanuatu government to help it decide which parts of the islands it wants to conserve.

Marine species are known to be of value to pharmaceutical researchers. For example, copper-based blood from the horseshoe crab is purified and made into test kits to detect small amounts of bacteria. Identifying species also helps point out the poisonous ones. Expedition member Tan Heok Hui, a researcher at Raffles Museum, said: “People catch poisonous crabs and eat them unknowingly. The poison attacks the nervous system and can lead to death within a day.”

NUS contributed $30,000 towards the 1.2 million euros (S$2.4 million) project. The team has been on two other similar large-scale expeditions and uncovered more than 2,000 species so far.

Asked if he eats crabs, NUS researcher and team member Tan Swee Hee said he has been allergic to them since 1990. “I have killed too many crabs in my lifetime, and this is payback. I can’t eat them!”

Copyright © 2006 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.

Creatures found in South Pacific seabeds

Crabby long legs is a cave dweller

Photo by J. C. Mendoza

The Discoplax longipes (long legs in Latin) is a land crab that can grow up to half a metre in leg span. Like most other land crabs, it has sensory hairs on its legs which it uses to ‘taste’ chemicals in the air, directing it to food. The nocturnal crab is commonly found in caves near the coast, but returns to the water periodically to re-wet its gills and lay eggs.

Hermit’s a feisty food thief

Photo by Koh Li Ling, from Christmas Island, September 2006.

For food, this 2.5kg hermit crab scales coconut trees, cuts the fruits down with its claws and pries them open to get to the fleshy bits. The world’s largest arthropod, it can grow up to 35cm in width, inclusive of its pincers. Commonly referred to as the robber crab, it is known to creep into villagers’ homes to steal food and attack people with its claws. The species is a delicacy in the islands of Vanuatu.

Tiny sand lover is easy to miss

Photo by J. C. Mendoza

Can you spot its pincers? Embedding itself in the soggy sands on the seashore is the sand grain crab.

This species is just 2mm or 3mm larger than a grain of sand.

It survives on organic matter like algae which it picks up using its small pincers.

Santo 2006 expedition participants interviewed

26 Oct 2006 – Straits Times reporter, Jessica Lim, dropped by the Raffles Museum to interview Raffles Museum participants of Expedition Santo 2006.

The four, Tan Heok Hui, Tan Swee Hee, Jose Christopher Mendoza and Peter Ng were on the island of Santo in Vanuatu between 8 Sep – 22 Oct 2006.

It was an interesting trip full of pleasant surprises and members only suffered delayed luggage, one sprained ankle, one strained back and one moray eel bite!

We’ve been too busy to blog about it but promise to catch up in the days ahead…

Freshwater crab research in Jiangxi, China

As part of preliminary collaborative research efforts with Zhou Xianmin (Medical School, Nanchang University, Jiangxi, China) and Shih Hsi-Te (National Chung-Hsing University, Taiwan), Darren Yeo and Tohru Naruse of the Systematics and Ecology Lab, DBS, NUS, recently made a short trip to Jiangxi, China (19-25 April 2006).

The collaborations focus mainly on the systematics, taxonomy, and biogeography of freshwater crabs (Potamidae and Parathelphusidae) and associated parasitic lung flukes (Paragonimus) from the Wuyi Mountain Range on the eastern border of Jiangxi Province. Fieldwork and sampling were carried out in the foothill regions of southwestern Wuyi mountains (Ningdu and Ruijing counties), while laboratory work on collections of freshwater crab specimens was conducted at the laboratories of Medical School, Nanchang University.

Preliminary findings from our work there already suggest that we may be dealing with some species of freshwater crabs that may be new to science; these are currently being investigated and, if confirmed, will be described in upcoming publications. Initiatives for continued and additional research collaborations among and between the individual researchers and institutes were also discussed.

In addition to the research work carried out during this trip, one afternoon was also set aside for a seminar session in which the visiting researchers introduced various topics to the staff and students of the Medical School, Nanchang University.

Fig. 1 (L-R): Tohru Naruse, Zhou Xianmin, Shih Hsi-Te, and Darren Yeo.
Fig. 2. Fieldwork in Ningdu County, Jiangxi.

By Darren Yeo. Thanks to Shih Hsi-Te for the photos.

Of long-legged flies and false gharials

Mr Budak (a.k.a. Marcus Ng) reflects on a paper and a seminar. He penned “A tale of two-pteras” based on Patrick Grotaert’s celebratory seminar:

“Dr. Grootaert is no maverick flyboy but he certainly buzzes with enthusiasm when he speaks about his favourite little animals with unreasonably long names. The highlight of his talk, in which he presents an overview of a productive annus mirabilis far from Belgium’s gloomy dunes, was dolichopodid or long-legged (dolicho being Greek for long) flies. …

Grootaert’s fascination with Singapore’s dolichopodid flies stems not only from his discovery of some 150 new species (including 4 new genera) over his year-long exploration of the island’s habitats. There are also many findings that shed new light as well as cast wider shadows on the phylogeny and biogeography of dolichopodids and allied fly families in relation to the geological history of Southeast Asia.

Grootaert’s fascination with Singapore’s dolichopodid flies stems not only from his discovery of some 150 new species (including 4 new genera) over his year-long exploration of the island’s habitats. There are also many findings that shed new light as well as cast wider shadows on the phylogeny and biogeography of dolichopodids and allied fly families in relation to the geological history of Southeast Asia. …

Malaise traps were set up through the year at the following [several] locales. … The traps yielded the following results:

Bukit Timah: Taban Valley – 16 species

Sime Forest – 42 species

Nee Soon – 84 species

Sungei Buloh – 1 species

Chek Jawa – 59 species

A rather surprisingly low species count was obtained from Taban Valley. Grootaert offers the probably reasons of habitat disturbance, regular fogging at nearby residential areas and degraded streams. The valley has changed significantly in the 10 years since he first visited it. “In the beginning there were a lot of huge trees and not much ground vegetation,” he recalled. But now it has become a secondary forest and some streams have dried up.”

Read more…

And then he writes about “The fate of the false gharial” based on the paper, R. B. Stuebing, M. R. Bezuijen, M. Auliya & H. K. Voris, 2006. The current and historic distribution of Tomistoma schlegelii (The False Gharial) (Môller, 1838) (Crocodylia, Reptilia). The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology, 54(1): 181-197:

“The salties’ cousin, the false gharial (Tomistoma schlegelii), faces a rather less certain future. This crocodilian ranks as another true giant, attaining a length of about 5 metres. … Its relatively slender jaws (which resembles those of the true gharial, Gavialis gangeticus) from India) are built for capturing fish and other aquatic creatures whole, rather than ripping into the flesh of terrestrial vertebrates.

Studies on the ecology and distribution of false gharials are as scarce as the animals themselves, so a newly-published paper by Robert B. Stuebing et al. in the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology offers a valuable status report on this little-known giant. …

In present day Southeast Asia, the species’ populations are fragmented and appear to be largely confined to a region about 5 degrees north and south of the equator. The authors write that populations in Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia are under heavy pressure from burgeoning human populations and land development, leaving Sarawak and Kalimantan as the species’ last stronghold. … Echoing the discoverers of Paedocypris progenetica, the paper highlights the sad plight of the region’s peat swamps. Less than 50% of Borneo’s peatlands, for instance, remain intact, as a result of logging, swamp reclamation and forest fires.””

Read more…

Thanks Marcus!

The Bruguiera (Rhizophoraceae) species of Singapore mangroves

Sheue, c.-R., J. W. H. Yong & Y.-P. Yang, 2005. The Bruguiera (Rhizophoraceae) species in the mangroves of Singapore, especially on the new record and the rediscovery. Taiwania, 50(4): 251-260. [pdf]

Abstract – ‘The authors report a new record of Bruguiera hainesii C. G. Rogers, and the rediscovery of an extinct species, Bruguiera sexangula (Lour.) Poir., in the mangroves of Singapore.

To simplify the process of identifying all the five Bruguiera species in Singapore, a colour plate illustrating the calyx structures (across different development stages) and diagnostic features of the five Bruguiera species are provided.

A diagnostic key to the five Bruguiera species was also provided, with updated descriptions for the two species. In light of the difficulty in identifying the different Bruguiera species solely on the basis of vegetative structures, the authors suggest that the series or numbers of colleters (finger-like glandular structures inside the base of stipules) could be an aid for identifying members of Rhizophoraceae especially in the absence of reproductive structures.’

J. W. H. Yong is from the Natural Sciences and Science Education Academic Group, National Institute of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University.

Thanks to Benito Tan for the alert!

Tooth row impressions of potential bird egg predators

11 Nov 2005 – Mary Rose Posa of the Conservation Ecology Laboratory at the Department of Biological Sciences in NUS, is investigating differences in predation pressure inside and outside forests in Subic Bay, The Philippines.

To help identify potential mammal and reptile predators, she uses artificial eggs made of plasticine to capture teeth marks made when these predators attack the nests. In the museum, she took an impression of the tooth row of potential predators to construct a reference set. The reference set is used to identify her field results. Not all teeth marks are distinct though, especially the many species of rats!

More photos here.