Anemone haven in waters off Singapore

Island hosts over 50 species of the marine critter, including some possibly new to science
Grace Chua Straits Times 23 Jun 11;

SINGAPORE is hardly ever mentioned in the same breath as marine wonderlands such as the Great Barrier Reef or those in the seas off the Philippines.

But the waters off this island play host to more species of anemones than the entire west coast of North America.

Of the 1,000-odd known species of these flower-like predatory marine animals, more than 50 are found in Singapore - even in mangrove swamps, previously thought to be inhospitable habitats.

The world's smallest anemone, at a mere 1mm across, is found on seagrass here, as is the world's largest, at more than 1m in height and diameter.

These critters, which have stinging cells on their tentacles to paralyse prey for food, have been the subject of Dr Daphne Fautin's fascination.

Since 2007, the American taxonomist from the University of Kansas has helped researchers here find, classify and describe a dozen species of sea anemones that have never been seen here before, including a couple that could be new to science.

This week, she was here again to train participants in a comprehensive survey of marine biodiversity here. On Tuesday evening, she gave a public lecture on anemones to about 300 people at the National University of Singapore.

Asked why Singapore has so many anemone species, she said she believes it could be that this island sits on a sort of biological crossroads: Currents carry anemone larvae here from both eastern and western waters.

Last weekend, she and 20 or so researchers and volunteers were at the mangrove mudflats at the end of Lim Chu Kang Road. The area, along with Sungei Buloh and other sites, is being studied in an ongoing, three-year biodiversity survey of marine habitats here. And it has turned out that anemones are thriving in the knee-deep mud there, as there is plenty of food to go around.

Dr Fautin said: 'Perhaps it's not that they prefer this habitat, but that nothing else can thrive here, so that's why they thrive.'

Last Saturday, a type of anemone with bumps along its column-like body excited the researchers, who said it could be new to science, or at least a new sighting here. Dr Fautin said it has not been identified, and she will study it further.

Already, research into the compounds of sea anemone venom has uncovered their ability to fight rheumatoid arthritis. But here and elsewhere, sea anemones are being threatened by development.

The marine environment in Marina East, for example, has been lost to land reclamation and undersea dredging carried out to build the Marina Coastal Expressway.

Ocean warming and acidification, both effects of climate change, could also harm the ecology of sea anemone habitats, Dr Fautin said.

More about Dr Daphne Fauntin's work in Singapore on the wild shores of singapore blog