Best of our wild blogs: 15 Jul 12

Wet day at Chek Jawa Guided Walk
from Peiyan.Photography and Adventures with the Naked Hermit Crabs

Hornbill family at Changi beach eating Sterculia sp. fruits
from Psychedelic Nature

Lesser Whistling-ducks at the Singapore Botanic Gardens
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Pink necked green pigeon chicks 红颈绿鸠小鸟
from PurpleMangrove

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Singapore remains well prepared against coastal erosion: experts

Tan Qiuyi Channel NewsAsia 14 Jul 12;

SINGAPORE: A new US study said global sea levels could rise two to three times higher over the next century than was previously estimated.

But experts and authorities here said Singapore remains well prepared against coastal flooding.

Flash floods in Singapore's central shopping district in recent years were caused by heavy rain.

But experts said the effect of a coastal flood is similar.

Wetland Scientist at the National University of Singapore Dr Daniel Friess said: "A coastal flood is basically an unexpected high tide. You've got elevated tides, elevated waves. They're all going to contribute to a surge of water in low lying areas by the coast. The impact of a coastal flood is in many respects similar to an inland flood where you have a large body of water flooding shops and businesses and residences, you also often experience a lot of erosion on the coast."

With new data on the melting of polar ice caps, a new US National Research Council study predicts global sea levels could rise between 50 and 140 centimetres by the turn of the century.

That's higher than the 2007 UN estimate of between 18 and 59 centimetres.

The National Environment Agency's study that same year had predicted that the mean sea level around Singapore would rise slightly more - between 24 and 65 centimetres by 2100.

Local experts said there's no need to panic.

Principal Project Manager, Coastal Management, Building & Construction Authority, Ho Chai Teck, said: "About 70 per cent of the coast line is already protected by hard structures like sea walls or stone embankments, which help protect against coastal erosion. For these structures we're cautiously optimistic that they will continue to function well and protect us against any phenomena in the near term."

Since 1991, all reclaimed land on the island had to be built at least 1.25 metres above the highest tide level.

In 2011, this was raised to 2.25 metres.

Dr Daniel Friess said: "Certainly all new reclamations are going to be more resilient to sea level rise, so there we need to focus our efforts on reclamations conducted previous to 1991. I'm sure those are well protected with other adaptations. Not just how high you build your reclamations but also adequate drainage, pumps, things that help you react very quickly to a coastal flood."

Ho Chai Teck, said: "Those areas that could be at risk, would be the unprotected areas like the sandy beaches, mangrove areas or other natural coastal jungles or forest where further understanding and analysis will be required."

Mr Ho's team is closely monitoring beaches like East Coast Park, and adding to its defences.

Two years ago, they added "geo bags" to one eroded stretch of the beach, near the Road Safety Park.

Geo bags are a type of sandbag made of a special sticky material that sand can adhere to.

Apart from successfully building up beach two years on, the sandy surface of the bags also help them blend naturally into the beach front.

At another stretch of beach not far from the Bedok Jetty, the situation two years ago had called for a more drastic measure.

Proximity to the road makes the stretch of beach particularly narrow, which explains why it's especially prone to the ravages of the water, which just two years ago had washed away a significant part of the beach. Today, the beach is protected by a stepped sea wall.

Apart from protecting the beach, the steps of the sea wall have also become an effective resting spot for park users today.

With the "hard" structures already in place, experts are closely monitoring the impact of rising sea levels on the most bio-diverse of Singapore's "soft" coastlines - its mangrove forests.

The Building and Construction Authority said it has started risk-mapping in 2010.

The aim is to identify coastal areas at risk of erosion or flooding, and the damage that could come with it - including the loss of biodiversity.

Results are expected in 2013.

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No need to go hog wild

There is a time to conserve and protect animals, and a time to manage their numbers
Chua Mui Hoong 15 Jul 12;

My heart broke the weekend they felled the trees at Bishan Park.

This was about two years ago. I lived facing the park, right in front of a row of mature trees that shaded my flat from the direct morning sun.

I spent hours watching wildlife flit by from my study window. A pair of kingfishers colonised the canal railing nearly every day. A Brahminy kite would regularly perform aerial acrobatics, gleaming golden in the noon day sun. A pair of eagles nested in the large tree in front of my flat, and I watched when the hatchling tried to fly.

On one incredible day, I saw a kingfisher chase a monitor lizard chasing a frog into the innards of the canal. The lizard was larger than the bird. When I googled, I learnt that kingfishers may be tiny but are fearless when hunting lizards, one of their favourite prey.

I loved those trees, that green vista from my window, that front-seat view of creatures in the wild.

And then one day, they sent in the wreckers. I woke to the screech of electric saws and the roar of bulldozers. Men with weapons swarmed round, lassoing the trees with thick ropes. I watched in horror as they were felled.

I had never understood why they call conservationists tree-huggers until that morning. I considered running down to wrap my arms round 'my' trees to protect them. I wanted to round up my neighbours to get a petition up.

But the saws whirred, the bulldozers moved and more trees fell.

I was so upset, I closed all the windows, drew the blinds, left the flat and stayed away for much of the weekend. When I woke up and opened my windows on Monday, the trees were nearly all felled, lying in logs on the ground.

Unfiltered by the leafy branches, bright sunlight streamed into the living room. My flat looked brighter. But at some psychic level, it was no longer home.

Within a year, I had sold that flat and moved to rented digs.

When the new Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park opened to much fanfare, I gave it a miss. I finally made a few trips there recently.

Yes, it is beautiful. I like the way the concrete canal has been turned into a meandering, seemingly natural river with green banks. I'm sure there is wildlife aplenty still. I see more waders and water birds than before.

But I mourn the park as it used to be and 'my' trees, that housed the kingfishers and eagles. I hope over time, I will come to love the park and feel the same lift in spirits every time I walk there.

In a highly built-up city like Singapore, pockets of green areas remain critical repositories of our flora and fauna, and vital sources of energy for stressed-out urbanites.

Human ecologists theorise that humans have spent so much of our early history in hunter-gatherer societies, we feel at ease and are recharged with the vistas of green plains, vegetation and occasional glimpses of wildlife.

Conservation activist Ho Hua Chew wrote in to The Straits Times yesterday arguing for environmental impact assessment studies to be made before developments are allowed to encroach on mature woodlands.

I am no expert in conservation or development. But I do know from experience just how healing it is to spend time in nature areas and the wilderness.

Manicured green areas like parks or the new conservatories in the Gardens by the Bay are Nature 101 - good places to go to, to learn about flora and to open one's green eye.

But there is a special appeal in spending time in the nature reserves, open to wildlife surprises.

There is a special frisson when I see wildlife in its natural habitat: a mix of awe and wonder, a feeling of immense gratitude and privilege, mixed with a healthy dose of fear if the creatures are large or dangerous.

I've felt that shiver down the spine and soul when I spotted a golden-haired orang utan and her baby playing in the jungles on the banks of Sabah's longest river, the Kinabatangan; when a chickadee in Cape Cod landed on my palm to take a melon seed; when I snorkelled on Christmas Island and swam up close to a school of fish that changed direction in a fleeting silver flash before my eyes.

City-bound Singaporeans who have never spent much time wandering its nature areas may find it hard to believe me, but I have felt that frisson in Singapore too: when I saw a kingfisher swoop down on a fish, close-up through the lens of my binoculars; when I saw the slither of a water snake that glided away as I stepped on a bridge near Venus Road; and at the sight of my first starfish on Chek Jawa.

After years of walking in nature areas with nature groups and friends, I've learnt to appreciate both the verdant greenery that is home to wildlife, and the wild creatures themselves.

But I am often aware that danger lurks in nature. Wildlife isn't called wild for no reason.

I respect long-tailed macaques and give them a wide berth. If I'm alone and there's a swarm of them on the path, I walk away or wait till they disperse. That's in part because I'm a scaredy cat; but also because I understand that the forest is their home, and I am a guest.

One wild creature in the forest I hope not to cross paths with is a wild boar.

I know how strong they are, because I've seen trees they uproot in the forest. I've already seen a wild boar on the road, a few months ago. It was pulling at shrubs along Bukit Batok Road, a road that slices through forested areas. A primary school and a Housing Board precinct lie farther up that stretch.

I wondered why wild boar were venturing out of the forests into the fringes of residential areas and how long it would be before a serious injury or fatality occurs. When wildlife ventures out of its natural habitat into areas inhabited by humans, conflict will occur. Already, a boy has been injured and a dog killed by wild boar.

Humans have related to animals for millennia. We domesticate some as pets. We cultivate others as livestock. We shoot some for their meat and others as game.

Modern ecology movements have taught us urbanites to learn to respect animals on their own terms. But humans are not just another species on the planet cohabiting with wild creatures. We are also stewards, gifted with the intelligence and compassion to deal humanely but rationally with wild species. We study their habits and habitat in order to help conserve and protect them - but also to help protect ourselves.

I am no wildlife expert. So when the experts, who include folks from the National Parks Board and ardent conservationist groups like the Nature Society, say some wild boar have to be culled, because without natural predators their numbers have exploded beyond their habitat's ability to sustain them, I would certainly not stand in their way.

There is a time to conserve and protect wildlife, and a time to manage and constrain its growth. An ecosystem has a logic of its own. In the old days, tigers would have kept wild boar in their place in the forest and kept down their numbers.

These days, humans have to be the apex predator. By all means, be responsible and humane. But if culling is the best option, do it. Between curbing the wild boar population and letting them explode in numbers so they come into more conflict with and endanger human lives, I know where my preference lies.

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Singapore tops biology olympiad

Team wins four golds to tie for No. 1 spot with the US; RI student is top scorer
Sherri Lee Straits Times 15 Jul 12;

The 23rd International Biology Olympiad (IBO) ended on a high note for Singapore yesterday, with its students coming up tops in the prestigious competition.

The Singapore team won four gold medals, placing first in a field of 236 students from 59 economies along with the United States, which also scored four golds.

China, Taiwan and South Korea tied for second place, with three golds and one silver, and Estonia and Finland tied for third with two golds and two silvers.

Raffles Institution (RI) student Nol Swaddiwudhipong finished as the top scorer of the Olympiad.

It is the first time a Singapore team has taken the top spot, as well as the first time the Republic has won four gold medals in one year. Singapore was third last year.

Singapore was also hosting the event for the first time. Over the last week, promising pre-university biologists put their skills to the test in a series of challenging theoretical and practical tasks at the National Institute of Education.

The competition was keen, especially as the participants had all won their own countries' national biology olympiads to be selected for the international contest.

The other members of the Singapore team were Zhang Hui Ting and Mao Haitong, also from RI, and Lim Yuan Wei from Hwa Chong Institution. They are all 18 years old, and in JC 2.

The four were selected from more than 300 students who took part in the Singapore Biology Olympiad (SBO) last year.

Emotions ran high at the awards ceremony, as participants waited to hear the results. 'It was agonising,' groaned Nol, who waited over 11/2 hours to find out he had won.

The others in the team placed sixth, 11th and 23rd individually.

The tests required teams to apply their thinking skills to original data from research papers.

Competition regulations disallow more than two weeks of intensive preparation, so they had been studying hard since late June.

Nol said they were mentored by professors from the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and the National Institute of Education; SBO and IBO alumni, and their own schoolteachers.

Even though the olympiad has finally come to a close, there will be no rest for the weary - the team's next challenge will be the looming preliminary examinations and the dreaded A-levels.

At least for now, though, the team will take a well-deserved break before hitting the books again. 'We will just revel in the moment first,' said Hui Ting. Haitong laughed, adding: 'I think it will sink in tomorrow... Because school starts again next week!'

4 golds for S'pore in biology Olympiad
Today Online 14 Jul 12;

Singapore obtained its best-ever showing in an International Biology Olympiad, placing first with a win of four golds.

Triumphing over a field of 236 students from 59 countries were gold medallists Mr Nol Swaddiwudhipong, Ms Zhang Hui Ting and Ms Mao Haitong from Raffles Institution, and Mr Lim Yuan Wei from Hwa Chong Institution.

Mr Swaddiwudhipong was also the top gold medalist in this, the 23rd edition of the Olympiad, which was held in Singapore from July 8 to 15.

They were mentored by a team of professors from NUS, NTU, NIE and former Biology Olympiad participants. Singapore placed third in last year's Olympiad.

Also receiving four gold medals this year was the team from the United States.

The International Olympiads for Science bring together the best and brightest students from around the world. Through rigorous tests of theoretical knowledge, students are expected to demonstrate their mastery of scientific concepts. Their experimental skills are also put to the test.

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The Ecology of Disease

Jim Robbins New York Times 15 Jul 12;

THERE’S a term biologists and economists use these days — ecosystem services — which refers to the many ways nature supports the human endeavor. Forests filter the water we drink, for example, and birds and bees pollinate crops, both of which have substantial economic as well as biological value.

If we fail to understand and take care of the natural world, it can cause a breakdown of these systems and come back to haunt us in ways we know little about. A critical example is a developing model of infectious disease that shows that most epidemics — AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more that have occurred over the last several decades — don’t just happen. They are a result of things people do to nature.

Disease, it turns out, is largely an environmental issue. Sixty percent of emerging infectious diseases that affect humans are zoonotic — they originate in animals. And more than two-thirds of those originate in wildlife.

Teams of veterinarians and conservation biologists are in the midst of a global effort with medical doctors and epidemiologists to understand the “ecology of disease.” It is part of a project called Predict, which is financed by the United States Agency for International Development. Experts are trying to figure out, based on how people alter the landscape — with a new farm or road, for example — where the next diseases are likely to spill over into humans and how to spot them when they do emerge, before they can spread. They are gathering blood, saliva and other samples from high-risk wildlife species to create a library of viruses so that if one does infect humans, it can be more quickly identified. And they are studying ways of managing forests, wildlife and livestock to prevent diseases from leaving the woods and becoming the next pandemic.

It isn’t only a public health issue, but an economic one. The World Bank has estimated that a severe influenza pandemic, for example, could cost the world economy $3 trillion.

The problem is exacerbated by how livestock are kept in poor countries, which can magnify diseases borne by wild animals. A study released earlier this month by the International Livestock Research Institute found that more than two million people a year are killed by diseases that spread to humans from wild and domestic animals.

The Nipah virus in South Asia, and the closely related Hendra virus in Australia, both in the genus of henipah viruses, are the most urgent examples of how disrupting an ecosystem can cause disease. The viruses originated with flying foxes, Pteropus vampyrus, also known as fruit bats. They are messy eaters, no small matter in this scenario. They often hang upside down, looking like Dracula wrapped tightly in their membranous wings, and eat fruit by masticating the pulp and then spitting out the juices and seeds.

The bats have evolved with henipah over millions of years, and because of this co-evolution, they experience little more from it than the fruit bat equivalent of a cold. But once the virus breaks out of the bats and into species that haven’t evolved with it, a horror show can occur, as one did in 1999 in rural Malaysia. It is likely that a bat dropped a piece of chewed fruit into a piggery in a forest. The pigs became infected with the virus, and amplified it, and it jumped to humans. It was startling in its lethality. Out of 276 people infected in Malaysia, 106 died, and many others suffered permanent and crippling neurological disorders. There is no cure or vaccine. Since then there have been 12 smaller outbreaks in South Asia.

In Australia, where four people and dozens of horses have died of Hendra, the scenario was different: suburbanization lured infected bats that were once forest-dwellers into backyards and pastures. If a henipah virus evolves to be transmitted readily through casual contact, the concern is that it could leave the jungle and spread throughout Asia or the world. “Nipah is spilling over, and we are observing these small clusters of cases — and it’s a matter of time that the right strain will come along and efficiently spread among people,” says Jonathan Epstein, a veterinarian with EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based organization that studies the ecological causes of disease.

That’s why experts say it’s critical to understand underlying causes. “Any emerging disease in the last 30 or 40 years has come about as a result of encroachment into wild lands and changes in demography,” says Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist and the president of EcoHealth.

Emerging infectious diseases are either new types of pathogens or old ones that have mutated to become novel, as the flu does every year. AIDS, for example, crossed into humans from chimpanzees in the 1920s when bush-meat hunters in Africa killed and butchered them.

Diseases have always come out of the woods and wildlife and found their way into human populations — the plague and malaria are two examples. But emerging diseases have quadrupled in the last half-century, experts say, largely because of increasing human encroachment into habitat, especially in disease “hot spots” around the globe, mostly in tropical regions. And with modern air travel and a robust market in wildlife trafficking, the potential for a serious outbreak in large population centers is enormous.

The key to forecasting and preventing the next pandemic, experts say, is understanding what they call the “protective effects” of nature intact. In the Amazon, for example, one study showed an increase in deforestation by some 4 percent increased the incidence of malaria by nearly 50 percent, because mosquitoes, which transmit the disease, thrive in the right mix of sunlight and water in recently deforested areas. Developing the forest in the wrong way can be like opening Pandora’s box. These are the kinds of connections the new teams are unraveling.

Public health experts have begun to factor ecology into their models. Australia, for example, has just announced a multimillion-dollar effort to understand the ecology of the Hendra virus and bats.

IT’S not just the invasion of intact tropical landscapes that can cause disease. The West Nile virus came to the United States from Africa but spread here because one of its favored hosts is the American robin, which thrives in a world of lawns and agricultural fields. And mosquitoes, which spread the disease, find robins especially appealing. “The virus has had an important impact on human health in the United States because it took advantage of species that do well around people,” says Marm Kilpatrick, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The pivotal role of the robin in West Nile has earned it the title “super spreader.”

And Lyme disease, the East Coast scourge, is very much a product of human changes to the environment: the reduction and fragmentation of large contiguous forests. Development chased off predators — wolves, foxes, owls and hawks. That has resulted in a fivefold increase in white-footed mice, which are great “reservoirs” for the Lyme bacteria, probably because they have poor immune systems. And they are terrible groomers. When possums or gray squirrels groom, they remove 90 percent of the larval ticks that spread the disease, while mice kill just half. “So mice are producing huge numbers of infected nymphs,” says the Lyme disease researcher Richard Ostfeld.

“When we do things in an ecosystem that erode biodiversity — we chop forests into bits or replace habitat with agricultural fields — we tend to get rid of species that serve a protective role,” Dr. Ostfeld told me. “There are a few species that are reservoirs and a lot of species that are not. The ones we encourage are the ones that play reservoir roles.”

Dr. Ostfeld has seen two emerging diseases — babesiosis and anaplasmosis — that affect humans in the ticks he studies, and he has raised the alarm about the possibility of their spread.

The best way to prevent the next outbreak in humans, specialists say, is with what they call the One Health Initiative — a worldwide program, involving more than 600 scientists and other professionals, that advances the idea that human, animal and ecological health are inextricably linked and need to be studied and managed holistically.

“It’s not about keeping pristine forest pristine and free of people,” says Simon Anthony, a molecular virologist at EcoHealth. “It’s learning how to do things sustainably. If you can get a handle on what it is that drives the emergence of a disease, then you can learn to modify environments sustainably.”

The scope of the problem is huge and complex. Just an estimated 1 percent of wildlife viruses are known. Another major factor is the immunology of wildlife, a science in its infancy. Raina K. Plowright, a biologist at Pennsylvania State University who studies the ecology of disease, found that outbreaks of the Hendra virus in flying foxes in rural areas were rare but were much higher in urban and suburban animals. She hypothesizes that urbanized bats are sedentary and miss the frequent exposure to the virus they used to get in the wild, which kept the infection at low levels. That means more bats — whether from poor nutrition, loss of habitat or other factors — become infected and shed more of the virus into backyards.

THE fate of the next pandemic may be riding on the work of Predict. EcoHealth and its partners — the University of California at Davis, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Smithsonian Institution and Global Viral Forecasting — are looking at wildlife-borne viruses across the tropics, building a virus library. Most of the work focuses on primates, rats and bats, which are most likely to carry diseases that affect people.

Most critically, Predict researchers are watching the interface where deadly viruses are known to exist and where people are breaking open the forest, as they are along the new highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific across the Andes in Brazil and Peru. “By mapping encroachment into the forest you can predict where the next disease could emerge,” Dr. Daszak, EcoHealth’s president, says. “So we’re going to the edge of villages, we’re going to places where mines have just opened up, areas where new roads are being built. We are going to talk to people who live within these zones and saying, ‘what you are doing is potentially a risk.’ ”

It might mean talking to people about how they butcher and eat bush meat or to those who are building a feed lot in bat habitat. In Bangladesh, where Nipah broke out several times, the disease was traced to bats that were raiding containers that collected date palm sap, which people drank. The disease source was eliminated by placing bamboo screens (which cost 8 cents each) over the collectors.

EcoHealth also scans luggage and packages at airports, looking for imported wildlife likely to be carrying deadly viruses. And they have a program called PetWatch to warn consumers about exotic pets that are pulled out of the forest in disease hot spots and shipped to market.

All in all, the knowledge gained in the last couple of years about emerging diseases should allow us to sleep a little easier, says Dr. Epstein, the EcoHealth veterinarian. “For the first time,” he said, “there is a coordinated effort in 20 countries to develop an early warning system for emerging zoonotic outbreaks.”

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Vietnam: New fauna and floral species discovered in Lam Dong

VietNamNet Bridge 14 Jul 12;

Several new fauna and floral species have been discovered in the Bidoup Nui Ba National Park in the central highland province of Lam Dong in recent years.

Australian, American and Vietnamese scientists announced their discovery of a new vampire flying frog species - Rhacophorus vampyrus - in this national park on the Zootaxa scientific journal last year.

This unusual frog has adapted for life in trees, using webbed fingers and toes for moving from great heights and gliding, hence the ‘flying frog’ name. But it’s the strange black ‘fangs’ the species’ tadpoles display which have earned it a place in the vampire world.

The new species is known only to inhabit a high-elevation area of forest in southern Vietnam, breeding in holes in trees. In place of a normal set of mouthparts (usually similar to a beak), the tadpole of the Vampire Flying Frog has a pair of hard, black ‘fangs’ protruding from the underside of its mouth.

This is the 17th tree frog species discovered in Vietnam.

Recently, American, Australian and Vietnamese scientists found out a new species of toad in the Bidoup Nui Ba national park - Leptobrachium leucops.

This is a species of amphibian in the Megophryidae family. Leptobrachium leucops was found at the altitude of around 1500-1900 m above sea level.

Leptobrachium leucops is nocturnal, has a length of 4.5 cm and have partly white pupils, ridges on their skin and several stripes on their four limbs.

Most recently, a Vietnamese and a Chinese scientist discovered a new magnolia species in the Bidoup – Nui Ba national park.

Dr. Vu Quang Nam, a researcher from the Forestry University, found this magnolia species on Hon Giao Mount in the Bidoup – Nui Ba national park. The species, therefore, is named Magnolia bidoupensis Q.N. Vu.

Magnolia bidoupensis is morphologically close to M. odoratissima and M. albosericea, from which it differs chiefly by having a thickly leathery, broadly elliptic or ovate leaf blade with a broadly rounded base and an obtuse apex, smaller flowers, clavate stamens with an obtuse apex, and irregularly 3-winged ovules.

Magnolia bidoupensis grow in tropical evergreen forest, at the height of 1,650 to 1,910m over the sea.

The discovery was published on the Annales Botanici Fennici in Finland in December 2011.

Compiled by Na Son

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