Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Guided Walk at Sungei Buloh

Bryan and I have been to Sungei Buloh quite a few times now, and we always enjoy it. We've taught ourselves a lot about the nature of Singapore, but when an opportunity came along to go on a guided walk at the wetland reserve, we thought it might be a chance to learn something new, so we took it. The walk was organized through the National Population and Talent Division. The agency organizes events for foreigners living in Singapore, and sometimes we get kind of random things from them. We got invited on this nature walk, and they also sent Bryan a $5 Starbucks gift card in the mail for no apparent reason.

We met everyone else who signed up bright and early on a Saturday morning. Then the organizers gave us free notebooks, little motorized fans, and sandwiches in big plastic containers. It was a nice gesture, but I feel like every time I go to an organized, supposedly environmentally-friendly event around here, I get handed a bunch of plastic crap I don't need. It's kind of counter to the intended message. Anyway, once everyone was all signed in, we loaded onto a big private bus and had a smooth ride up to the reserve.

As soon as we got there, guess what I spotted just inside the visitor center?!?! BATS! Lesser dog-faced fruit bats, to be exact. Two of them, hanging upside down from the roof beams. The NParks attendant at the front counter said they just kept sticking around after all the other bats left. Aren't they neat?! I know bats are associated with creepy things, but I think they're amazing. I mean, seriously, echolocation is sweet. You just wish you could do it.
Also known as the short-nosed or common fruit bat.
(Insert cheesy vampire joke here).

When we were done craning our necks to ogle the bats, we met our guides, who coincidentally were from the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, where I just went last week! Our busload split into two groups, and our guide spent some time telling us a lot of stuff that we already knew about Singaporean nature. Bryan entertained himself by taking pictures of some little tadpoles we found nearby.

Pretty soon our group set off on the mangrove boardwalk just next to the Visitor Center. As we walked along, our guide told us about some of the plants we were passing. I don't know as much about Singapore's flora as I do about its fauna, so I was enthusiastic to learn. For example, did you know that the fish-tail palm is covered in little needle-like spines that can cause reactions if you touch it? But if handled properly, it can be tapped for its sap! Just don't rub yourself all over it.
Fish tail palm
Our knowledgeable guide

Crabs were all over the place, especially tree-climbing crabs. We stopped a couple of times to admire spots where a whole bunch of crabs had congregated together.
Crab party!
Way more happening crab party!
Tree-climbing crab

About 15 minutes into our walk, Bryan had a great sighting. A SNAKE! In the water! It was a dog-faced water snake (our second "dog-faced" sighting of the day!). We'd seen this type of snake one other time, also at Sungei Buloh, and Bryan had been the one to spot it then too. I think he has superpowers when it comes to seeing snakes in the water.
This snake's diet consists mostly of fish

As our group stood, peering over the edge of the boardwalk at the water snake, another guided walk came by. Their guide told our guide there was another snake up ahead. We moved on, and before long, we found it! It was another species that Bryan and I have seen at Sungei Buloh in the past (actually, on the same day we saw the dog-faced water snake). The snake was a mangrove pit viper, which is, in my opinion, one of the most awesome snakes in all of Singapore. They have RED EYES and they're venomous and aggressive, but tend to be less active during the day. This one looked like it was probably still a juvenile.
Mangrove pit vipers are also called shore pit vipers

I was interested in what our guide had to say about the plants around us, but it was all a little more dull after the excitement of seeing two snakes in one day. Anyway, she introduced us to the fish poison tree. Apparently Malay fishermen used to use the fruits of the tree to poison fish in the water. The fish would float to the top, and the fishermen would collect them up. Makes fishing sound a lot easier than what my dad showed me how to do, which involved hooks, hot dogs, and a LOT of waiting!
The fruit of the fish poison tree

We also saw these really funky roots, which I thought looked like something out of a Salvador Dali painting.
Trippy mangrove roots
Picturesque canopy

Another plant also had unique fruits, but I don't think they had any poisonous properties. It's kind of like a star, but I guess "starfruit" was taken.
Star-shaped fruit

We also saw some insects, but unfortunately I'm no good at identifying them. I liked this bright red one though!
Cool bug. I guess it's obvious I'm not an entomologist!

Of course, no trip to Sungei Buloh is complete without the mighty water monitor! We saw plenty, and our guide informed us of something I didn't know. These guys are poisonous! Apparently their bite is mildly poisonous, which is problematic for smaller animals (although if they're in the jaws of a water monitor, I'm guessing their day is pretty much ruined anyway), but isn't too threatening to humans. I had no idea.
The water monitor should be the official mascot of Singapore's wetlands.

So, a two-snake day at Sungei Buloh. Not bad! And if you have an opportunity to take a guided nature walk at any of the reserves in Singapore, I recommend taking it. You might not cover a lot of ground (we sure didn't go very far), but you'll probably learn something!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research

I've been dying to go to the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research. Maybe that's a nerdy thing to say, but it's true. It's a whole museum devoted to one of my most keen interests- nature and wildlife in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, the opening hours are incredibly inconvenient: from 9-5 Monday-Friday, in the middle of when I have to work. But since I'll be switching jobs soon (back to NTU to work with the monkeys!) and have some vacation days to use up, I went ahead and took a Monday off for my museum trip.

The museum is located at NUS, which is right near Bryan's work, so I met him for lunch at Fusionopolis then took the bus to the campus. It turned out to be super easy to get there from the bus stop (there are signs to lead the way), and I was there in no time. The museum is up on the third floor of the Biology building, and admission is free. Hooray!

The museum was cool and quiet. I was the only person there in the middle of the day. At first it was really cool, but after a while, I'll admit that the dim lighting and animal carcasses gave me a little case of the willies. I felt like I was in Night at the Museum.
Cool! But also kind of freaky... a sun bear, a dhole, some kind of goat thing, a leathery turtle,
a tiger, a leopard, a pangolin, a water monitor, and a wild pig

I took it slow around the small one-room museum. There were lots of preserved specimens, many of them from Singapore's earlier days. Some of the specimens were labeled as from the 1890's or early 1900's. Many of the animals had been collected in Singapore, while others were animals that were native to S'pore but the specimens had been collected elsewhere. A lot of the animals that were listed as native were ones that I've never seen here, but would love to get lucky enough to spot.
Oriental small-clawed otter, currently endangered in S'pore
Dugong skull, collected off the coast of S'pore
A HUGE Asian softshell turtle
A rather rabid-looking specimen of the greater mousedeer

The animal I'm most keen to see in Singapore is the banded leaf monkey. They're the only type of monkey other than the macaque that still exists here. My super monkey researcher buddy Andie Ang studied them and found that there are more still living here than the 30 that were estimated to still be surviving. Way to go, Andie!
The rare banded leaf monkey

I would also very much enjoy seeing the pangolin. They're still around the island here and there, but apparently they're pretty elusive. They kind of kick butt. A lot of people mistakenly think that they're reptiles because they appear to be covered in scales, but the scales are actually made up of fused together fur. Pretty cool, huh?
One of the country's stranger residents

The pigs were interesting. Bryan and I have seen them in the wild at Pulau Ubin, but I didn't know much about them. Information posted at the museum said that the pigs were thought to be locally extinct, but they repopulated Singapore when some individuals found their way across the Johor Straits. They're now common not only on Pulau Ubin, but on the main island too, including in the Central Nature Reserves.
Wild piglets

I had known that tigers once ran wild in Singapore, and several times have heard AR Wallace's quote that Singaporean tigers were responsible for killing approximately "a Chinaman a day." However, I never knew that leopards were also local in the early 1900's, although, due to their secretive nature, they were not seen nearly as frequently as the more conspicuous tigers. While a lot of the specimens looked a little freaky or weird, the leopard had maintained its beauty even post-mortem.
Beautiful and intimidating

The Raffles Museum has chosen the common palm civet as their mascot. The plaque next to the mascot said "This animal was chosen because it is one of the few large native species in Singapore that is capable of thriving in man-made environments." That may be true, but what about the long-tailed macaque?! They're the masters of thriving in man-made environments!! If I was choosing a personal mascot, I would choose the macaque. They're resilient, adaptable, fun-loving, cute, and super smart. Civets are cool too, but I'm a macaque girl all the way.
RMBR mascot

Are you ready for something seriously creepy? Prepare yourself, because when you close your eyes to go to sleep tonight, this image may haunt you. I admit, I was all alone in that museum and when I saw this guy I started having all sorts of frantic thoughts about zombified monkeys, thirsty for human blood. It freaked me out, and I'm pretty sure this specimen could have starred in the movie Blood Monkey.
AHHH! Seriously. What. The. Heck.
Creepy specimen, compared with what a real live macaque actually looks like. Very little resemblance.

In the middle of the museum was a display of Southeast Asian animals that live outside of Singapore. There was a sweet little family of proboscis monkeys from Borneo. They were cool, but, much like the detached rhino head in the corner, it made me sad to think about how all these dead animals had met their demise (even though many of them had been dead for about a century).
Less creepy monkey specimens
A Sumatran rhino, missing a rather significant proportion of himself
I love these weird guys!! A juvenile tapir.

After spending an inordinate amount of time ogling Southeast Asia's interesting mammals, I moved on to inspect some of the local specimens of birds, fish, and reptiles.
King cobra...another one I've never seen! Maybe that's lucky!
Keeled rat snake
Black & red broadbill in front, green broadbills in back
That's a LOT of dead birds!
Massive orange-spotted grouper

It was pretty neat to see the crabs. I've had trouble identifying some of the ones that we've seen in mangrove areas and along the beach, and there they all were, laid out neatly with orderly labels under each one. Perfect!
Coolest name = Dana's Eyes-Wide-Apart Crab
Coolest crab is definitely the hairy crab!!!

You know what else was pretty fascinating? The collection of insects! We'd seen some of them before, most memorably the giant forest scorpion (Pulau Ubin), the giant millipede (Bukit Timah), and the atlas moth (Sungei Buloh). Have you heard that the atlas moths wing tips supposedly look like snake heads in order to ward off predators? Look closely and you'll see the similarity.

Despite scaring myself silly by thinking about all the animals coming to life and attacking, I really enjoyed my time at the museum. I highly recommend checking it out for yourself. If you're a nature buff I'm sure you'll love it and even if you're not, you don't have much to lose - admission is free!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Singapore Books: Singapore Biodiversity

When I got back from my long trip to the US, Bryan had a surprise awaiting me - a GIANT book! The 10-pound monster was the recently published Singapore Biodiversity: An Encyclopedia of the Natural Environment and Sustainable Development. The book has a number of contributors, with much of the content provided by the editors: Peter K.L. Ng, Richard T. Corlett, and Hugh T.W. Tan. I was thrilled to see that such a comprehensive book had been published on a topic that I've come to care so much about. Perusal of the book further impressed me - it's chockablock with fantastic color photos of Singapore's flora and fauna, full of interesting factoids about wildlife and natural history, and sprinkled with useful maps. If you're looking to find out something about Singapore's nature or wildlife, this is the place to look.
Now, I don't want to undermine my own praise of the book - the huge project was clearly a herculean effort, but I do have a criticism. Singapore's most visible non-human animal, the long-tailed macaque, was definitely given short shrift in this book. While the elusive and uncommon banded leaf monkey got a photo on the cover and a special one-page write-up, the long-tailed macaque just got a standard entry in the encyclopedia section. To make matters worse, some of the information provided is actually incorrect, for example the statement that "It lives in social groups of up to about 30 individuals." It's true that 30 is a reasonable size for a macaque group, but here in Singapore, there are many known groups larger than that, including the highly visible Hindhede monkeys, a group of about 60 that always hangs out at the Bukit Timah Visitor Centre, and another group of at least 60 at MacRitchie. I think it's a shame that this huge book so obviously undervalued the long-tailed macaque. Singapore already treats the common monkey as a pest instead of an integral part of an eco-system. This book could have done something to help their reputation, but instead it glossed over one of the only large mammals remaining in the country as though they don't matter. I found that very disappointing.

Despite my misgivings about the coverage of macaques, the Singapore Biodiversity encyclopedia is still an invaluable resource for anyone interested in nature in Singapore, and I highly recommend it. However, if you're interested in learning more about long-tailed macaques, I direct you instead to this article about Singapore's long-tailed macaques, or this primate factsheet about long-tailed macaques in Asia in general.