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  Straits Times 1 Jun 07
35 new plant, animal species found in big wildlife survey
2-year NParks project unearths another 7 thought extinct
By Chang Ai-Lien, Science Correspondent

THE most ambitious wildlife survey here to date has unearthed 35 plant and animal species never before seen in Singapore, and another seven thought to have been wiped out forever.

The two-year National Parks Board (NParks) initiative had researchers combing the forests, mangroves and coral reefs at 32 sites in and around this island. Five biologists and a geographer spent days waist-deep in mud, perched precariously on mangrove roots or trudging through thick undergrowth during the study. They were backed up by dozens of other 'expert volunteers' - people with expertise and interest in various species - who gave up their nights and weekends to be part of the project.

Explaining the ambitious endeavour, Dr Lena Chan, deputy director of the NParks Biodiversity Centre, told The Straits Times: 'We can only perfect our delicate balancing act between development, which is unavoidable, and protecting what we can - if we know what we have out there.'

The Natural Areas Survey Team, as the explorers were called, was part of the first concerted effort to take a systematic look at the various ecosystems in Singapore, and to fill in the gaps in less-studied areas and species such as worms, for example.

Worms may not have the same 'star-quality' appeal of dewy-eyed baby monkeys, but they are no less critical in the scheme of things, stressed Dr Nigel Goh, assistant director (marine) of the Biodiversity Centre.

Marine worms, for instance, may be seen as lowly critters living in sea mud, but they are the food of choice for the many migrating birds passing through Singapore. In other words, if the worms go, the birds will too.

These worms are also unsung heroes: They are known to 'clean up' pollution by ingesting and passing vast quantities of mud through their digestive systems.

Singapore's wild treasure troves were not restricted to secluded islands and virgin trails. A new worm was found in the Woodlands Town Garden, for example, and new algae species were found thriving on Pulau Semakau.

The material collected by the explorers is still being sorted and classified, even though one species - a sea creature resembling a sabre-toothed centipede - could defy classification because it may be new to science.

The collection adds to the biodiversity already on record here. Singapore has lost 95 per cent of its original forests and about half its animal species, but it remains home to more than 8,000 known plant and animal species.

There are between five million and 10 million species the world over.

The significance of this study also lies in the fact that it will enable NParks to make inputs during urban planning.

Said NParks director for conservation Wong Tuan Wah: 'It is heartening that after 40 years of unfettered development, there is still so much to be discovered.'

Dr Chan added that Singapore was now at a stage where conservation could complement development: 'Sometimes, it could just be a matter of moving a site a few feet to save something really important.'

Professor Peter Ng, director of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, said that the finds came as wonderful news in a world which was losing 50 to 100 species every day.

'Each year, we keep discovering new species, new records and pull a few out of the 'extinct' waste paper basket, and each discovery is a bit of good news for Singapore,' he said. 'It is great that NParks, the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and non-governmental organisations are all pushing in the same direction - to conserve Singapore's natural heritage as best as possible in the challenging world we live in.'

Wild and wonderful

Researchers and volunteers braved contact with poisonous plants, viscous mud and ravenous mosquitoes in their quest to uncover fresh data on Singapore's non-human inhabitants.

Chang Ai-Lien takes a look at the creatures which made it into the log books of the Natural Areas Survey Team

Asian leaf terrapin NParks assistant director (Pulau Ubin) Robert Teo was with a group walking along a stream in the Western Catchment area on mainland Singapore when he saw this terrapin. Thinking it was the common black marsh terrapin, he took some shots of it anyway and continued on his trek.

A closer inspection later told him the creature was an Asian leaf terrapin--not seen here since 1951. Native to Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo and India, this threatened species lives in small streams in forests, feeding on plants and small creatures. Its wide, flattened shell looks like a leaf, a perfect camouflage in its forest home.

Bean tree with thick woody pods This small bean tree with thick woody pods was rediscovered on Pulau Pawai with help from experts from the Singapore Herbarium at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. It was last collected in the wild here more than 50 years ago. A species is considered extinct if it has not been spotted for at least 50 years.

New species? This 15cm-long marine creature found in the waters off a northern offshore island looks like a large centipede. Researchers are still ascertaining whether it is new to science.

Spiders new to Singapore These two spiders have never been spotted here before. The Mauge's crab spider, with its beautifully patterned body, is a slow-moving creature found among leaves of trees. The Kuhl's orb-web spider, with its black body and orange legs, differs from another orb-web spider commonly seen in forests and wayside trees here. That one has a yellow body and black legs.

Pink marine worm The project put the little-studied intertidal landscape under the microscope. Among the team's discoveries was this brilliant pink marine worm, which is found in the mangroves and mudflats on the northern Singapore coast. Sexually mature females of this species turn emerald green, while males develop a yellow hue on their pink bodies. Such worms are ecosystem engineers which eat, digest and 'clean up' pollutants in the sediment where they live, making it more habitable to their neighbours. This under-studied species is an important food source to birds, crabs and fish.

New plants and animals

THE National Parks Board survey team has discovered 35 new plant and animal species. These include:
# 7 species of algae
# 10 species of worms
# 5 species of molluscs
# 5 species of plants
# 8 species of spiders.

It also found seven plant and animal species previously thought extinct here - five plant species, a snail and a turtle.

Wild Singapore

SINGAPORE is still a wildlife paradise. It is home to, among others:
# More than 2,900 species of plants
# 360 species of birds
# 270 species of butterflies
# 120 species of reptiles
# 75 species of mammals
# 25 species of amphibians
# 200 species of hard coral
# 111 species of reef fish.

Nature reserves

ABOUT 5 per cent of the land here, or 3,350ha, has been set aside as nature reserves, with four such protected areas:
# The Bukit Timah Nature Reserve
# The Central Catchment Nature Reserve
# The Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve
# The Labrador Nature Reserve.

The 164ha Bukit Timah Nature Reserve includes Singapore's highest hill, which stands at 163.63m. There are more tree species in a single hectare here than in the entire North American continent.

National Biodiversity Reference Centre check lists and other info about our biodiversity

Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research
our natural history museum with lots of info about our biodiversity

More about our wild places

Related articles on Singapore: biodiversity
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