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The Straits Times 9 Aug 05
Coast guard
What lifeforms dwell at the shores of Labrador Park?
Chang Ai-Lien hikes there to find out

IF CORAL reefs are sparkling opals in the sea's vast jewellery showcase, then the uneven shores of Labrador Park must surely be a tiny backroom filled with uncut gems.

Thousands of muddy rocks litter the 300-m stretch of shore like so many unremarkable brown nuggets, but hidden in each is the wealth of Singapore's last remaining rocky shore and reef. Like the brilliant ruby reef crab, or the gleaming cowrie, which folds its body like a cloak around its shell to keep it pristine.
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'These are the true natives of Singapore,' said National Parks Board chairman and National Institute of Education director Leo Tan. 'Like us, they have adapted to life here and learnt to thrive under any situation.'

Among the mixture of rocks, sand, mud and patches of coral growth are animals that can survive the most hostile environments. The leather-skinned sea slug, for example, is subjected to 50 deg C temperatures on the hot rocks every day, while the rough periwinkle has its home flooded and dried every six hours for its entire life. There are also the wavy sea grass and green, brown and red algae that come in every shape and form, such as the aptly-named bunches of sea grapes, a delicacy in some countries.

Visitors enjoy free access to the shore area, which is beside the pier, during the day. But while it is fine to lift up the rocks and wade into the shallows to explore the myriad of creatures within, they should try not to touch the delicate sea life, and return overturned rocks to their original positions.

'Singapore's niche is that we have representatives of the entire Indo-Pacific's marine animals and plants, from India to the California coast,' said Professor Tan. There are more species packed in every square metre of shore than in temperate waters, and some 40 species of crabs, comprising a tenth of Singapore crab fauna, are known to occur here. One of them, the 2.5-mm pinhead crab, is probably the world's tiniest, while the spine-wrist swimmer crab, commonly seen on the beach, is one of four animal species discovered in the past decade that are new to science.

Prof Tan, 60, a marine biologist by training, has been exploring the rocky beach for over 50 years, and it still brings out the boy in him. If you happen to be there, look out for the man squatting over the rocks and peering intently at any creature he may unearth.

Explaining his fascination, he said: 'Scientists can't just ignore an animal that has survived 5 million years. There's vast potential to create new medicines and chemicals. 'I say, don't destroy the evidence.' The humble sponge, for example, is home to millions of bacteria, and at least one species has already been used to create a powerful antibiotic. And an enzyme in the sapphire blood of Singapore's own horse-shoe crab has been cloned by researchers here and is used to test for contaminants in drugs and vaccines.

Life on Labrador's rocky shore exists because it is sheltered from strong winds and waves by Sentosa island, yet is right at the edge of the Straits, so it enjoys strong currents and clean water that allows its inhabitants to thrive. That the beach was saved at all is part luck, part persuasion. To its west is a disused power station, which prevented port developments from encroaching on the shores, while a former naval base to the east stopped development from the opposite end.

When the authorities considered clearing it for development, Prof Tan and his colleagues tried to change their minds. They succeeded, and the park has been a gazetted nature reserve since 2002, serving as a living heritage, a living classroom and recreational space for all of us.

'This is the last remaining stretch of natural shore that we have on our port area,' he said. 'Surely, it is worth keeping it for our children, to give them an idea of what our ancestors saw when they set foot here, and how we have risen from humble beginnings to where we are today.'

More about Labrador Park
Related articles on Singapore's biodiversity and Wild shores of Singapore

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