Marine study in Singapore digs up 100 species

Some are new to the island or to science; project one-third done
Grace Chua Straits Times 30 Jan 12;

BURROWED deep into the mudflats of Lim Chu Kang is a bumpy, warty sea anemone so new to science, it does not even have a scientific name yet.

Its finders have fondly nicknamed it Bill.

It is one of the new findings scientists have made, just a year into the most comprehensive study of marine life here.

In the first phase of the three-year Comprehensive Marine Biodiversity Survey, researchers looking at coastal mudflat and intertidal areas have already found a hundred species, some of which are new for Singapore or new to science altogether.

Some never-before-seen finds include a nondescript, 2cm-long mangrove goby and a shore shrimp that looks just like its East Asian relatives, but is in fact genetically very different. Others, such as a mangrove stonefish and a hairy mangrove crab, have not been seen in Singapore before.

The next two years will involve two major expeditions and studying as much of Singapore's reefs and seabed as possible.

Past ad hoc studies have shown Singapore to be rich in marine life. For instance, the island nation has some 250 species of hard corals, a third of the world's known species.

Now, new finds are catalogued for a database to help conserve marine biodiversity amid development pressure.

Singapore is one of the busiest ports in the world, and reclamation continues at industrial areas like Jurong Island and the Pasir Panjang container terminal, even as nearby offshore reefs cling to survival.

Dr Ng Heok Hee of the National University of Singapore explained the importance of knowing the species Singapore has.

'If you understand them, you can actually use them for ecological monitoring,' said Dr Ng, a fish expert who is part of the study.

If populations go out of balance, that could be an early warning of pollution, or that the ecosystem has changed, he said.

'But you need to know the baseline first.'

The survey is led by the National Parks Board (NParks), with the support of universities, non-governmental organisations and a small army of volunteers.

It also aims to get ordinary members of the public interested and engaged in marine science.

Some 400 volunteers have signed up with NParks to slog through mudflats, collect samples, take photos, and sort specimens in the lab.

Mr Edward Francis de Souza, 58, rediscovered his interest in nature this way.

The scheduler with Shell said: 'During my scouting days, we used to go to the Punggol river and improvise cooking ovens with mud... Once I started working, there was less time for all that and it was just forgotten until now.'

Now, he is also a volunteer with the Central Nature Reserve, and helps out at insect surveys and forest walks.

Companies are also doing their bit. For example, an initial $300,000 grant from Shell Singapore has helped fund programmes by international experts like the Brazilian Institute of Marine Science's Arthur Anker, who is helping to identify the new shore shrimp,

Thanks to the $250,000 from HSBC's Care-for-Nature trust, equipment needed for the study is also covered.

Dr Lena Chan, deputy director of the National Biodiversity Centre at NParks, said that even when the three-year survey is complete, more can still be done.

She said: 'We will continue to engage the community to help us in long-term monitoring of key marine habitats to keep track of biological trends and changes, and to raise awareness of our marine heritage.'

This relatively common intertidal rocky shore shrimp has generally been called Palaemon serrifer. Although it looks just like its East Asian relatives, it is genetically very different. -- PHOTO: NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE

This mangrove crab, found in two locations in Singapore, was previously reported being seen only in Malaysia and Australia. The first year of the three-year Comprehensive Marine Biodiversity Survey has so far yielded 100 species. The next two years will involve two major expeditions and studying as much of Singapore's reefs and seabed as possible. -- PHOTO: NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE

This sea anemone was found in mudflats in Lim Chu Kang. It is so new to science that it does not have a scientific name yet and has been nicknamed Bill. -- PHOTO: NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE

Found on one of the beaches near Changi, this frog crab, measuring about 30mm, is notable because members of this family are rarely reported in continental South-east Asia. Most members are oceanic in habitat. Its presence shows that Singapore's waters are still relatively healthy and still hold many important discoveries. -- PHOTO: NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE

This mangrove stonefish (Leptosynanceia asteroblepa), a highly venomous fish, was never recorded in Singapore waters before. -- PHOTO: NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE