Shedding new light on Singapore's nature areas

Audrey Tan The Straits Times AsiaOne 3 May 15;

Singapore might be known around the world for its towering skyscrapers and shopping malls, but its nature areas are also fast coming under focus. The Smithsonian Institution - a complex of 19 museums and galleries, a zoo and nine research facilities in the United States - has tied up with Nanyang Technological University to advance tropical ecology research in the region. The Sunday Times looks at how this collaboration will throw light on one of the world's least understood habitats.

Singapore might not have hectares of pristine rainforests, or waters that top a scuba diver's bucket list.

But it does have pockets of nature that are thriving.

Researchers recently discovered two snake species new to Singapore - a blackwater mud snake in the Nee Soon Swamp Forest and a smooth slug snake, which had unfortunately ended up as roadkill at Old Upper Thomson Road.

And even though the waters surrounding the island are murky and heavily sedimented, marine biologists have twice - last year and in 2011 - uncovered a Neptune's Cup sponge, a rare creature thought to have been extinct since 1908.

The recent partnership between the Smithsonian Institution in the United States and Nanyang Technological University here aims to use Singapore as a centre for research into the region's biodiversity and how best to protect the many areas that are under threat from human activities.

The tie-up will also provide the scientific community with a regional perspective in understanding data collected from Asian forests and oceans.

"The Smithsonian has been studying plots of forests in the region for the past 20 years. But until now, all the information has gone back to Washington," said Professor Alexander Zehnder, a member of NTU's board of trustees.

"There was no local or regional centre to analyse it critically... NTU will bring this Asian perspective to the network."

The Smithsonian's interim undersecretary for science, Dr John Kress, pointed out that top-notch scientists here and a strong research infrastructure would ensure that good science could be done.

"Partnering with NTU as a portal into Asia, through Singapore, is ideal for us," he said.

The effort will rope in scientists from both sides to carry out research on tropical forest and marine ecology, biodiversity, climate change, genomics, human-environment interactions and environmental change in Asia.

For instance, scientists could learn more about coral reef resilience by studying how urban reefs in an area with heavy maritime traffic, such as Singapore, compare with pristine reefs in countries such as Indonesia.

The data could be used to determine how to make coral reefs more sustainable, said Associate Professor Charles Martin Rubin, the chair of NTU's new Asian School of the Environment.

The school - a research institute that trains students in areas such as ecology, and earth and environmental life sciences - is the Smithsonian's main partner.

The collaboration will also be supported by the Earth Observatory of Singapore, a research centre run by NTU that studies geological phenomena such as earthquakes, and by the Singapore Centre on Environmental Life Sciences Engineering, an NTU facility that looks at microbes, tiny living particles invisible to the naked eye.

The landmark alliance was brokered by NTU's Prof Zehnder, who is also the chair of its Sustainable Earth Office and a visiting professor at its school of biological sciences.

He told The Sunday Times that the partnership had its beginnings in 2012, when he was visiting the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, in Latin America.

While there, he learnt about the ForestGEO programme - a network of more than 60 tropical and temperate forest plots in 24 countries being studied for function and diversity.

"The network was working very well, but they had some difficulties getting leading personalities in Asia to run their Asia hub," Prof Zehnder said.

At that time, NTU was also in discussions to set up the Asian School of Environment, which includes an ecology department, he added.

"So the idea to work together was born in Panama city - we can profit from the Smithsonian's know-how in ecology, and they can profit from our position in South-east Asia."

While broad in scope, the research projects will relate more to forest and marine ecology - important areas of study for Singapore, said NTU president Bertil Andersson.

The study of green spaces is important so the Republic can avoid becoming a "desert of houses", he said.

Marine ecology research is critical as well, considering Singapore's vibrant maritime industry.

Noted Prof Andersson: "Singapore, with all its shipping, could change the vegetation in the sea dramatically, and this could have an influence on our economy."