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High-Impact Biodiversity Research
A change of mindset and an adjusted research approach has paid off for a biodiversity group in Singapore.
by Lay Leng TAN

oft-science study such as biodiversity not only appeals to the non-specialist reader but also cross disciplines, asserts a Singaporean biologist, Peter Ng. The director of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at the National University of Singapore (NUS) proudly reveals that members of the Department of Biological Sciences biodiversity group have succeeded in getting six submissions over the last three years published in highly regarded science publications such as Nature and Science.

The group's first significant discovery focused on the humble mangrove snake. Working with two American snake experts from the University of Cincinnati and the Chicago Field Museum, the team wondered how the snake Gerarda prevostiana managed to ingest crabs larger than its jaw mechanics would seem to accommodate. Detailed observation revealed that the reptile actually reduces its prey to bite-size pieces before swallowing them, completely turning the hitherto cast-in-stone belief that "snakes always swallow their food whole" on its head.

Encouraged, the group decided to adopt a fresh research approach. Unlike their Western counterparts, many Asian researchers have traditionally resisted analysing or synthesising existing data to derive an overview or new hypothesis; they preferred to collect novel data and/or study new materials. Ng and his colleague Navjot Sodhi shifted their mindsets by ploughing through biodiversity information on Singapore's species known and lost since the 19th century to better comprehend the regional extinction picture. To start off, Ng used a book he co-authored with Y C Wee (an NUS retired fern expert) entitled The Singapore Red Book, which documents known and extinct local species. The two biologists, with the help of an Australian modeller, set about crunching and synthesising the huge amounts of available data.

They managed to verify the 90:50 rule of Western theoreticians: observation in America led to the hypothesis that 90% of lost forest area contributes to half its resident species' extinction. The NUS study showed the validity of this rule. The testing of such an important hypothesis using empirical data constituted a major milestone for conservation biologists. The paper also predicted that 42% of the species now existing in Southeast Asia's forests face extinction within the next 100 years -- a depressing prediction indeed.

Excited by the knowledge that they could perform scientific synthesis if they wished, group members expanded on their strategy. Sodhi collaborated with staff from Princeton University, the University of Tennessee, and the University of Connecticut on project about species co-existence. The joint findings warn of the potential extinction of not just 12,200 endangered fl ora and fauna but also some 6,300 other closely affiliated species that have, through evolution, adapted to and rely on their hosts for survival. Using mathematical models, the researchers extrapolated worst-case scenarios for these extinctions and identified the main culprit -- deforestation. The report cautions that such extinction could also mean loss of potential human benefit, and many key media worldwide picked up the story due to its implications. Sodhi won the NUS Outstanding Researcher Award in 2004 for this and other related work.

Conservation has clearly become a field of growing significance and importance. The biodiversity group participates in another large study that looks at predicted biodiversity hotspots. Collaborators from Sri Lanka, Belgium, the US, and England jointly conducted sweeping molecular and morphological study of Sri Lankan amphibians, lizards, fish, crabs, and shrimps. Ng, who with his students had been working on the island's crab and prawn fauna over the preceding 15 years, has compiled extensive datasets. They showed the island's fauna to be unique and very different from that of the rest of southern India, with which it had previously been lumped.

At about the same time, Ng's graduate student Ngan Kee discovered and named a crab living among the sulphur-covered hydrothermal vents in the shallow waters off northern Taiwan. This crab not only proved to be sulphur tolerant but also exhibited one of the strangest feeding behaviours in the animal kingdom. The researchers, working with colleagues from Taiwan's Academia Sinica, demonstrated that the crabs waited until the occurrence of relatively still water in between tides to feed on the plankton killed by the vents' toxic fumes.

Ng, a member of the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature (an international group of 25 scientists who oversee the naming of animals), co-authored a commentary in 2005 arguing for an electronic register of scientific names to take systematic science to the next level. Scientists from eight countries worked together to outline the workings and purpose of such a register. By developing a global network of collaborators and peers, the Singapore biologists seek to remain competitive and relevant. Their international partnerships have resulted in high-impact and credible outcomes.

The NUS group also looks at natural habitats most biologists shun the oft-perceived dead zones. Peat swamps and coral rubble may look uninhabitable (and have long been regarded as species-poor and non-conservation-worthy), but intrepid staff and students have nevertheless plunged into these environments and hit pay dirt. They discovered that the inhospitable ecosystems support a diversity of species, many new to science. Like those gone and lost forever, their habitats are vanishing quickly. The work emphasises documentation and the conservation imperative.

According to Ng, the willingness to venture into the unknown and a why-not/just-do-it mentality can earn big dividends. It teaches a researcher not to make assumptions and to keep an open mind to seemingly unlikely possibilities. He feels that researchers should be given the freedom to make mistakes so that they learn from experience and build on it. A fine line exists between foolishness and brilliance, and sometimes looking at a problem with a naive eye and asking so-called silly questions may lead to success. This attitude is especially necessary to survive in a fastchanging and competitive world in which the operative words are change and globalisation. His group members thus hone their individual skills to become regional, if not international, niche players, ready when expertise is sought. "Follow your passion but keep your eye on the big picture," he maintains.

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