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Times 4 Aug
Bumper harvest for anemone hunters
Research mission uncovers many new species in S'pore waters
By Shobana Kesava
SOME gaze into the marine firmament to look for starfish. For Dr Daphne Fautin, sea anemones give her the thrills.
As she peers down a microscope, Dr Fautin, 61, exclaims with excitement: Yet another discovery has been made here in Singapore.
The sea anemone expert has not seen anything quite like it: an anemone with bumps all the way down its throat. Just hours earlier, she and a handful of local naturalists had found one with strawberry spots running down its base.
There are about 1,000 known species of anemone, the smallest and largest of which are found in Singapore.
The tiniest one known to science, just a millimetre across, was uncovered on blades of seagrass here.
The largest, over a metre in height and diameter, makes up a complete ecosystem, supporting clownfish and shrimp.
Dr Fautin's discoveries bring the total number of sea anemone species identified here to 40.
Only 13 were previously known to exist in Singapore, but her trip here has helped to more than triple the number of species identified.
In the past three weeks, Dr Fautin - an American taxonomist from the University of Kansas - and a handful of zoologists and volunteers have been combing the shorelines here at the crack of dawn.
They found the anemones, commonly associated with coral reefs, on every shore - including Sungei Buloh's mangroves (where two new species were spotted in the mud), as well as off Chek Jawa and Pulau Hantu.
The jump in the number of species found in such a short time by Dr Fautin - who has studied anemones for 39 years - reinforces naturalists' convictions about the bio- diversity here.
'This is why studying taxonomy is so important,' said Dr Tan Swee Hee, a research officer at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He invited Dr Fautin here.
'We still don't know a lot of what we have that could be unique,' Dr Tan said.
The discoveries are potentially significant because of the dual nature of sea anemones.
Dr Fautin said they produce the most complex cell secretions. Stinging cells called nematocysts lie on these carnivores' tentacles, paralysing prey and pulling the trapped creature towards their mouths.
'Past studies have found this secretion fights cancer in mice,' Dr Fautin said. New finds could lead to new drug developments.
At the same time, these animals are so simple in structure that developmental biologists can use them to understand how cells divide to become heads, limbs or tails.
While no species of anemone is believed to be endangered, Dr Fautin said that it is possible for some to disappear before they can be identified.
The hantuensis species, once spotted on Pulau Hantu, has eluded the researchers in these last few weeks despite their efforts.
Dr Fautin warns against thinking that the world won't miss what it never knew it had.
'Fishermen have seen crabs and fish go missing. Only later, we found out it was because the mangroves, the habitat of their young, had been destroyed.
'Right now, we don't know what part of the ecosystem will also be affected down the road, because anemones have been removed too,' Dr Fautin said.
She will be co-authoring a book on these unusual Singapore animals with the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at NUS.
More about the anemone hunts on the wildfilms blog and Siva's del.icio.us link on Dr Daphne's trip
More photos of sea anemones of Singapore's shores on wildsingapore flickr
Related articles on Singapore: biodiversity
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