Crabs discoveries put Singapore on the map

NUS scientists' photos of 600 crab species found in Vanuatu get published on National Geographic website
Ng Tze Yong, The New Paper 25 Dec 08;

THE National Geographic Society has published a series of stunning photographs taken by Singaporean scientists working on a remote South Pacific island.
Photograph by Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, National University of Singapore

Shot during a 2006 expedition to the island nation of Vanuatu, the photographs of 600 crab species have astonished both scientists and laymen alike: They showcase the sheer biodiversity that can be found on just one tiny island.

A small selection was published on the National Geographic website last month, in an article titled A World of Crabs from One Tiny Island.

All 600 crab species were found on Espiritu Santo, the largest of 82 volcanic islands that make up the republic of Vanuatu, located 1,750km east of Australia.

Perhaps best remembered for being the location for the ninth season of the reality show Survivor in 2004, Vanuatu is also a magnet for scuba divers, famed for its World War Two shipwrecks.

During a five-month expedition to document the biodiversity on Espiritu Santo, more than 100 researchers from all over the world collected about 10,000 species of flora and fauna, marine and non-marine.

Of these, about 600 were crab species, which fell under the responsibility of the Singapore team.

The team was made up of four researchers from the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, which is part of the National University of Singapore.

To get to Vanuatu, the Singapore team first flew to Sydney, then took a three-hour flight to Port Vila, the capital.

From there, the team hopped onto small, propeller-driven planes to Espiritu Santo.

It wasn't long before the team made their first discovery.

'It was a long trip and we lost our luggage along the way. When we went out to buy new clothes, we discovered to our surprise that the provision shops in Vanuatu were run by Chinese people,' said Dr Tan Swee Hee, a 37-year-old zoologist.

The scientists lived in hotels and college dormitories. Meals consisted mostly of beef, rice and pomelo juice.

They worked seven days a week, off a ship that trawled the seabed for specimens at depths of up to 500m.

Each haul brought up about 100kg of creatures like clams, sponges, sea lilies, sea urchins, snails and starfish, which were then sorted and examined.

Rough seas

'The sea was rough. We had swells of 2m to 3m. There was an excellent French cook on board but unfortunately, the food would all come out afterwards,' said Dr Tan Heok Hui, 37, another zoologist on the team.

During a dive, he was bitten by a moray eel when he was trying to collect shrimps from a coral.

'At first, I thought it was a small bite but when I looked at it, I saw a whole piece of flesh dangling off my finger. There was a lot of blood and there were tiger sharks around, so that was definitely quite a scary experience,' he said.

The wound, which needed five stitches, caused him to cut short his stay.

But the result has been worth it: 10,000 exquisite pictures of the crab species which will take years, if not decades, to sort out.

'We need to study their features carefully and compare them with similar specimens from around the world. It's a tedious process, because nobody wants to make the mistake of declaring a new species when it isn't,' said Dr Tan Swee Hee.

But already, the Singapore team has discovered and named two new crab species never seen before.

One is the Vultocinus anfractus, a fist-size crab that dwells on - and resembles - driftwood. The other is the Liagore pulchella, which resembles a smooth pebble.

'We live on this planet and it is shared with all these different species of animals. A basic question we want to know is: How many are there? It's like putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle,' said Dr Tan Swee Hee.

'But we also want to know: Is there a new species out there we can exploit to help alleviate hunger? Or for medicine? After all, researchers are already studying the possibility of using crab poison for cancer treatment one day.'


Lybia tessellata (BOXING CRAB)

This feisty little fellow likes to carry live sea anemones in its claws, using them as weapons when threatened. Little wonder it's also known as the pom-pom crab

Hoplophrys oatesi (SOFT-CORAL SPIDER CRAB)

Looking like the crest on Spiderman's chest, the spider crab makes its home among soft corals.Its coral-like appearance of soft colours and spikes lends it a cloak of invisibility.

Pseudomicippe (FALSE VELCRO CRAB)

This smart aleck knows how to attach algae to its hooked hairs on its legs (just like velcro) as camouflage.

Vultocinus anfractus (DRIFTWOOD CRAB)

A new species discovered by the Singapore team, it is a fist-size crab that dwells on - and resembles - driftwood.

Pilumnus vespertilio (HAIRY CRAB)

This furball of a crab looks like a broom and behaves like one: As it scuttles along the seabed, sediment gets trapped in its long hair, allowing the slow-moving guy a ready-made camouflage.

Arcania gracilis (GRACEFUL JADE CRAB)

Looking more like an alien mothership, this crab's claws are long and slender, useful for catching those elusive worms. Aunties would be enticed by its shiny shell, which resembles polished jade.