Best of our wild blogs: 3 Sep 13

Our Partnership Continues
from mndsingapore

Save MacRitchie Forest: 18. Night birds
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Butterflies Galore! : Horsfield's Baron
from Butterflies of Singapore

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Get on with it - global warming is real

Straits Times editorial 3 Sep 13;

THE science of predicting global warming has its sceptics, among them vested interests like big industry. An update on rising sea levels by the United Nations climate panel, which forecasts up to a metre's rise by 2100, may not win new converts. But a graphic presentation of how coastal flooding could gut the economic assets of low-lying cities should persuade laggard governments that taking timely preventive measures is not a matter of choice. Climate doubters can challenge the science, but not the visceral evidence of extreme weather phenomena. This is why a new climate study, which places 13 of the 20 most vulnerable cities in Asia alone, should concentrate minds.

Singapore is spared the dubious distinction, but its planners will want to evaluate the impact on the economy of flood damage to Guangzhou and Shenzhen in China, and Mumbai and Kolkata in India - besides Jakarta, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. Shanghai, Tianjin and Xiamen are also at risk. These are cities Singapore does business with. The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, calculates that flood damage to the 139 coastal cities assessed worldwide could reach US$1 trillion (S$1.27 trillion) annually by mid-century if mitigating steps are not taken.

Building and strengthening defences like levees and storm barriers go beyond preparing for an apocalyptic event by the end of the century, when island chains in the Pacific could vanish. Coastal flooding as a result of storm surges, land subsidence from groundwater depletion and urban growth will wreak havoc on an ascending scale well before sea levels rise.

Flood defences are not a recent invention. Tokyo has had them going back 400 years. But with typical technological acuity, the authorities are building an underground reservoir carved into rock to receive excess runoff. San Francisco is mulling a massive flood wall near the Golden Gate Bridge to save the bay area's multi-billion dollar technology economy from going underwater. New York worries about its logistical operations.

Singapore has had the benefit of advice from the Dutch - reassuring as countless studies credit Holland with having the world's best flood defences. But the frequency of inner-city flooding would have alerted the authorities to the adequacy of its primary defences - stone embankments, the Marina Barrage and a requirement that new reclamations be raised in elevation.

These are periodic infrastructural works which governments plan for and execute as a matter of course. The "scientific" notion of countering the effects of climate change through treaty-mandated reductions in carbon emissions is on the other hand fraught with problems. It is clear what governments should focus on.

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'Tax' slashes use of plastic bags in NUS shops and canteens

Mandatory 10-cent levy per bag sees usage falling by 70% since 2009
David Ee Straits Times 3 Sep 13;

A QUIET campus war against plastic bags is being waged and won in the National University of Singapore, with usage in its canteens and bookstores dropping by 70 per cent since 2009.

A student-inspired "eco-tax" of 10 cents per bag, mandated by the university, has done the trick.

Those who insist on a bag for takeaways or purchases at NUS' seven canteens and four co-op stores must deposit this in coin boxes at the till.

With surveys showing wide backing from students - 87 per cent of them now support charging for plastic bag use, up from 71 per cent in 2009 - larger vendors on campus such as Food Junction and 7-Eleven are considering taking part.

The eco-tax does not add to vendor's profits, but enters a sustainability fund NUS maintains for other student eco-projects. But vendors save costs by supplying fewer bags.

"(Ten cents) might be a small barrier, but it is one that will force people to re-think: Do they really need that bag?" said student Woon Wei Seng, 23, vice-president of NUS Students Against Violation of the Earth (Save), the group behind the effort.

He said that the university's experience could hold lessons for how to curb wider plastic bag use in Singapore, an endeavour that large retailers and supermarkets, apart from furniture giant Ikea, have so far remained resistant to.

Many say that shoppers still expect to be provided free plastic bags.

Ikea ended plastic bag use altogether in March. Supermarket chain FairPrice offers customers who bring their own grocery bag a 10-cent rebate if they spend more than $10.

"You probably need some kind of legislation," he said. "Customers would become more compliant over time as they more or less accept the fact."

NUS' plastic bag eco-tax is understood to be the only scheme of its kind in universities here. A spokesman for Food Junction, which has nine stalls on campus, told The Straits Times it would support the scheme; 7-Eleven, which has one outlet, said it will "certainly consider" taking part.

Director of NUS' Office of Environmental Sustainability Amy Ho said that NUS backed the initiative once surveys revealed wide ground-level support from the student body.

Undergraduate Ng Boon Hong, 24, said that for many NUS students, the 10-cent charge may just be an "added" incentive, as young people readily choose to cut down on plastics as they get more knowledgeable about how they impact the environment.

"It's not just NUS students; it's happening throughout Singapore and the world," he said.

Mr Woon added: "There are definitely concerned youth out there. Now it's about the adults."

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Malaysia: In search of herps

Natalie Heng The Star 3 Sep 13;

World-reknowned herpetologist finds paradise in Malaysia.

FOR SOMEONE whose earliest memory is trying to catch a lizard by the family swimming pool at aged two, it’s no wonder Dr Lee Grismer grew up to be one of the world’s most respected and intrepid herpetologists. He’s as tough as nails, with an insatiable appetite for discovery, and – based on numerous photos on-line – has a penchant for Hawaiian holiday shorts.

A professor of biology from La Sierra University in California, Grismer has spent a quarter century doing fieldwork on the Baja peninsula, studying and describing just about every kind of snake, frog and lizard imaginable over there. However, the year 1996 opened up an entirely new world for him. He remembers picking up the phone, a former student furthering his studies in distant Malaysia was on the other end of the line. The student told Grismer: “You gotta get over here, this place is crazy.”

So he booked his flight, and his trip to Malaysia turned out to be life-changing. “It was like starting over. I had all those exciting feelings, like I was a boy catching lizards again. Except this time, the lizards could fly, and so could the snakes, and even the frogs.”

After just six weeks on his first trip here in 1996, Grismer saw 128 species that he had never encountered before – and that was just at the field station in Gombak, Selangor. At 40, Grismer rediscovered himself as a herpetologist. He says he thought he knew a lot about science and the world, “but then I came here, and realised I didn’t know s**t!”

South-East Asia makes up 14% of the world’s land mass, but is thought to contain about 25% of the world’s biodiversity. Malaysia’s upland regions harbour some of the rarest animals on earth, whilst our diverse landscapes create all kinds of geographically distinct micro-climates, home to a mind-blowing number of species adapted to each and every niche.

Yet, Grismer points out, there is so much more to discover. In a recent expedition to the Merapoh caves in Pahang, his team found three new species of geckos. It was part of a stock-taking exercise to find out what kinds of flora and fauna a planned cement production project, which will involve blasting 300 million years old karst formations, will be putting at stake. It is a perfect example of why people like Grismer, who are constantly on the lookout for new species, are so important.

“There is a real urgency to publish taxonomies and inventories, so that we can better plan for, and understand, the impact of development in certain areas. Whenever someone does look into the areas in Johor that are still intact, they seem to discover something amazing.” Which is why he encourages scientists and naturalists to publish their inventories in a timely fashion. “So we can say, at this point in time, this particular species existed here.”

Home away from home

Malaysia has become Grismer’s second home. He comes here about four times a year – sometimes staying just a week, sometimes as long as three months. He has made friends with local scientists, and together they have formed a “herp coalition” of sorts.

Grismer often joins Dr Norhayati Ahmad and Shahrul Anuar Mohd Sah, associate professors with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Universiti Sains Malaysia respectively, visiting national parks throughout the country to see what new species they can discover.

“Until the 2000s, we didn’t even know we didn’t know enough,” says Grismer, adding that diversity is tremendously underestimated, especially in the upland regions.

In the last 10 years, more new species of lizards have been discovered in the Malaysian peninsula than in the whole of the previous century.

And despite complaints that the field is underfunded and in trouble, taxonomy – the discipline of classifying new species – has become quite vibrant when it comes to herpetology, according to Grismer.

“More people have been acknowledging its importance to ecology and conservation. Much of this progress is linked to huge advances in the field of molecular biology.”

Lower costs and greater accessibility to genetic sequencing technologies have led to many new developments in the field. For example, what scientists always thought to be the banded juvenile of Asthenodipsas vertebralis, a member of the Asian slug snake family, turns out to be a different species entirely.

After DNA analysis indicated distinct groupings on the phylogenetic tree, the researchers looked back at where the specimens were collected from, which led to an astonishing discovery. Despite a broader geographical overlap, all the banded specimens were collected from the ground and the unbanded specimens, from trees – signifying two separate micro-habitats for two different species.

“Exploring unknown regions of the genome is just as important as exploring unknown regions of the planet, we need a two-pronged approach,” says Grismer.

He strongly believes that the old adage “take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints” should not apply to scientists. “In my opinion, that’s a recipe for extinction. To save a species, you need to collect a few individuals. You can’t lobby for conservation without data, and the real threat, above all else, is habitat destruction.”


In June, an entire room of nature-lovers got to jump into Grismer’s world, where no leaf stays unturned and possibilities lurk behind every boulder. (Grismer has a knack for making science sounds fun.) At a talk at the Malaysian Nature Society’s headquarters in Jalan Kelantan, he spoke about how he discovered Colubridae gongylosoma when out for a walk on Tioman Island.

With five students in tow, he spotted it being eaten by a ratsnake just along the path. He went to grab it but it scooted during the commotion. The whole team then spent half an hour turning over leaves until they found it again.

“Which is just as well, because it turned out to be a new species,” says Grismer.

Then there’s the business of naming things once you’ve found them.

This time, Grismer and his team were in Langkawi, Kedah, during the month of Ramadan, thinking of a suitable name for a freshly discovered gecko that was new to science.

“The only food we could find on the island at the time was roti canai. Someone said, ‘Hey, roti canai sounds Latin’.”

So, there is a lizard out there now known as Cnemaspis roticanai. And if you Google it, there is a nicely orchestrated picture of it sitting on a piece of, well, roti canai.

Grismer is famous for his stunningly composed herps-in-habitat shots. He has even had photographers from National Geographic inviting him on trips to show them how it is done.

But Grismer always has too much work and too little time.

The level of dedication he puts into each shot is telling of his passion for his job. Take the stunning portrait of a Robinson’s angle-headed lizard taken in Cameron Highlands, Pahang.

“I knew exactly what I wanted … to be able to say (that) this species lives in a cloud forest covered with moss.”

First, Grismer had to catch the lizard. Then, he walked around looking for a good spot to set up the shot. And then he waited there for a day, to figure out when the light was best, and what time clouds come in.

“When I was finally ready to take the shot, it was too sunny. But then suddenly the clouds started rolling in, and I just went Bam Bam Bam! This is like, one of my favourite shots,” he says proudly.

Indeed, it is shots like these that offer a poster picture of the potential that Malaysia has to become a flagship for conservation in the region.

Grismer also works in places like Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, but he is concentrating on Malaysia because he believes this is the best place to set an example to South-East Asian nations on how to safeguard the environment.

For now, he is focusing on gathering data on the upland forests in Malaysia’s north-east because much of that area is a black hole.

By documenting the unique and wonderful array of flora and fauna there, scientists will be better able to set priorities for conservation.

“Malaysia has so much good habitat left,” says Grismer. “And that’s why I’m working so hard here.”

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Climate change 'driving spread of crop pests'

Rebecca Morelle BBC World Service 2 Sep 13;

Climate change is helping pests and diseases that attack crops to spread around the world, a study suggests.

Researchers from the universities of Exeter and Oxford have found crop pests are moving at an average of two miles (3km) a year.

The team said they were heading towards the north and south poles, and were establishing in areas that were once too cold for them to live in.

The research is published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Currently, it is estimated that between 10% and 16% of the world's crops are lost to disease outbreaks. The researchers warn that rising global temperatures could make the problem worse.

Dr Dan Bebber, the lead author of the study from the University of Exeter, said: "Global food security is one of the major challenges we are going to face over the next few decades.

"We really don't want to be losing any more of our crops than is absolutely necessary to pests and pathogens."
Trade transport

To investigate the problem, the researchers looked at the records of 612 crop pests and pathogens from around the world that had been collected over the past 50 years.

These included fungi, such as wheat rust, which is devastating harvests in Africa, the Middle East and Asia; insects like the mountain pine beetle that is destroying trees in the US; as well as bacteria, viruses and microscopic nematode worms.

Each organism's distribution was different - some butterflies and insects were shifting quickly, at about 12 miles (20km) a year; other bacterium species had hardly moved. On average, however, the pests had been spreading by two miles each year since 1960.

"We detect a shift in their distribution away form the equator and towards the poles," explained Dr Bebber,

The researchers believe that the global trade in crops is mainly responsible for the movement of pests and pathogens from country to country.

However, the organisms can only take hold in new areas if the conditions are suitable, and the researchers believe that warming temperatures have enabled the creature to survive at higher latitudes.

Dr Bebber said: "The most convincing hypothesis is that global warming has caused this shift.

"One example is the Colorado potato beetle. Warming appears to have allowed it to move northwards through Europe to into Finland and Norway where the cold winters would normally knock the beetle back."

The researchers said that better information about where the pests and pathogens were and where they were moving was needed to fully assess the scale of the problem.

"We also need to protect our borders, we have to quarantine plants to reduce the chances that pests and pathogens are able to get into our agricultural systems," added Dr Bebber.

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