Singapore still has undiscovered marine species, says scientist

Grace Chua Straits Times 31 Jul 12;

SINGAPORE'S biodiversity has been studied only piecemeal till now, and there are still new species to be discovered, said visiting Australian scientist Peter Davie.

Mr Davie, of the public Queensland Museum, has been visiting the Republic for 25 years, first stopping over in 1987.

Here, he is helping local scientists with crustacean research, identifying and comparing crabs from around the region to determine if they are separate species or the same, which has implications for harvesting commercial crabs, for instance.

He was in town last week to give a talk on the challenges and delights of studying marine biodiversity in Australia.

Marine life here had been studied a bit at a time till Singapore started its comprehensive marine biodiversity survey in 2010, said the 57-year-old senior curator. A comprehensive survey establishes a baseline of what is out there, and can sometimes unearth new species, he said.

That Singapore is even doing such a survey is a "drastic change" from a quarter-century ago.

"When I first came here, there was a lot of interest in exploring the science but not much interest in trying to conserve," Mr Davie said. "There was a feeling that Singapore was a small island that had already been exploited and there was not much left to protect... That was the attitude back then."

Today, there is more appreciation for nature, and a stronger conservation ethic and push to create marine parks and terrestrial protection areas, he said. And species thought extinct here have been rediscovered in the past few years, such as the Neptune's Cup, a giant cup-like sponge found off Singapore's southern coast.

The museum veteran of 34 years grew up in Brisbane, snorkelling around coastal estuaries looking at fish. He got his start as a tree-hugger trying to save local mangroves with the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

He said: "We went to the museum and said, 'hey, we've found all these (mangrove) crabs - what are they?' And I ended up getting a job there." He was just 23.

The museum is an apolitical outfit, not a conservation group. It provides information to industry and government to help manage and conserve the environment. It has not shied away from thorny issues, though.

Because Australia requires new developments to do public environmental impact studies, scientists doing one such study on mining giant Rio Tinto's A$900 million (S$1.17 billion) new mine found a previously unknown freshwater crab, which Mr Davie confirmed was likely to be a new species.

But conservation need not curb economic growth, he said. Now, the firm has pledged to safeguard the creek where the new crab was found.

"It might not be a huge impact on the company's bottom line if it has to divert from a small area," Mr Davie pointed out. But firms need to know what the environmental issues are to be able to address them.

In fact, protecting the environment can have economic benefits: The Great Barrier Reef is worth A$2billion in Queensland tourism every year.

In Australia, taxonomists, who help identify and classify species, are starting to help prevent invasive species like zebra mussels from spreading, and catch smugglers of endangered South-east Asian fish species.

These are avenues that such research can take in Singapore, Mr Davie suggested. And there is room for Singapore to conserve its natural environment to set an example in the region, he added.

"It's a great thing for Singapore to say, we are valuing the natural environment. And also, you're a country that can actually afford the luxury of spending a bit on your environment," he said.

"In the end, if we don't look after our habitats and our environment, we as a species aren't going to be sustainable ourselves."