Friday, September 21, 2012

Mammals (Phylum Chordata: Class Mammalia) of Singapore

Mammals are my favourite group of animals, and thanks to a few really nice people, I had the opportunity to tag along mammal surveys or educational trips, and got to see and photograph many of our mammals. I longed to blog about our native mammals, but as most of these trips are research trips, I could not publish the photos online. And then one day, it suddenly dawned on me that the Zoo actually has many of our native animals, so why not I blog with photos taken in the zoo? Together with photos taken in Malaysia and other photos taken in Singapore but on non-research trips, I now finally have enough photos to put up a blog post! Shouldn't be difficult for you to tell which are the zoo photos, but these are definitely animals that you can find in in the wild in Singapore...

Mammals (phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, superclass Tetrapoda, class Mammalia) are air-breathing vertebrates (animals with a backbone and a hollow tube of nervous tissue called a spinal cord) characterised by the possession of hair on their body; the ability to produce milk in females to feed their young; the ability to generate body heat and maintain it within a narrow range, i.e. they are endothermic; and the possession of three middle ear bones.

Most mammals give birth to live young, though  a few species of extant mammals still produce water-tight egg. Other vertebrates which produce water-tight eggs include the birds and many of the reptiles, and they are usually referred to as "amniotes". They are descended from four-limbed ancestors (hence the superclass Tetrepoda which means "four legs").

Here are some of the native mammals of Singapore.

Order Pholidota

Sunda Pangolin (Manis javanica)
Okay, I know this is a really lousy photo, but unfortunately, I did not managed to get any better shots of the Sunda Pangolin (Manis javanica) at the Night Safari, and I have to blog about this since this is my favourite native animal of Singapore! I am still hoping very hard that I will see a live pangolin during my own trips instead of during a survey trip, so that I can share the photo online. From the family Manidae, this animal has a robust body covered with scales (which are actually modified hair), short legs, strong claws and a prehensile tail. Pangolins feed on ants and termites by ripping their nests apart with their fore-claws, and lapping them up with their long and sticky tongues. They are largely nocturnal, and sleep in burrows underground in the day, though some have been observed to climb up and sleep on trees. They can swim well. When threatened, they usually curl up into a ball. The young pangolin follows its mother and rides on her tail.

Order Carnivora

Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis)
The Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) is the only native species from the Cat Family (family Felidae) that still can be found in Singapore. It got its common name from its spots, resembling a leopard's spots. It is about the size of a domestic cat and feed on small animals, such as rodents, amphibians and birds. While they move around both in the day and at night, they mostly hunt when it's dark. They live alone except during the breeding season.

Common Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus)
The Common Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), locally called the Musang, is a from the family Viverridae. It is NOT a cat, so please don't call it a civet "cat" - civet is good enough. Common Palm civets can be found both in the forest and also in residential areas with plenty of trees. In Singapore, they are known to live in the roof spaces of houses, but they mostly nest in hollow trees. They are largely nocturnal, though the urban civets in Singapore can sometimes be seen playing in the day as well. They feed mostly on fruits (including those of palms, and hence the common name) and sometimes insects. For defence, they have anal scent glands which emit a nauseating secretion when threatened. Some people actually keep it for the production of a very expensive coffee - Kopi Luwak, which is prepared using partially digested coffee cherries eaten by the animal, harvested from its feces. This civet is also called the Toddy Cat, as it appears to like drinking the palm sap collected in vessels placed in palms that is used for making toddy (palm wine) or palm sugar.

Malayan Civet (Viverra tangalunga)
The Malayan Civet (Viverra tangalunga) is only determined to be a native species recently. Like the Common Palm Civet, they are nocturnal and feed on both fruits and small animals. In other countries in the region, they can be found in a variety of habitats, ranging from forest to outskirts of villages. In Singapore, they have only been seen in one of the nature reserves.

Smooth Otter (Lutrogale perspicillata)

The Smooth Otter (Lutrogale perspicillata) is the bigger of the two species of otters (family Mustelidae) found in Singapore, reaching a length of more than one metre. It feeds mainly on fish, and sometimes molluscs and crustaceans. The digits are fully webbed, allowing them to swim efficiently. Smooth Otters are diurnal, and usually seen in pairs or small families in our mangrove forests, in tidal rivers and reservoirs near the sea.

Oriental Small-clawed Otter (Aonyx cinerea)
The Oriental Small-clawed Otter (Aonyx cinerea) can be active both day and night, and unlike the Smooth Otter, the digits are only partially webbed. They are also smaller, and feeds mainly on molluscs and crustaceans - their last two upper teeth are larger for crushing the shells. They sometime feed on other smaller animals such as fishes, amphibians and snakes. They are often seen in family groups.

Order Artiodactyla

Lesser Mouse Deer (Tragulus kanchil)
The Lesser Mouse Deer (Tragulus kanchil) is a small, deer-like animal from the family Tragulidae found in our forests. Despite the name, it is not a deer, but is more closely related to pigs. It does not have horns or antlers, but instead has elongated canine teeth which are especially prominent in the males. It is active periodically both day and night, and feed on fallen fruits, shoots and fungi.

Greater Mouse Deer (Tragulus napu)
The Greater Mouse Deer (Tragulus napu) was thought to be extinct in Singapore until it was rediscovered in recent years on Pulau Ubin. The sub-species found in Singapore is more brownish than orange, unlike the one shown above. It is mainly nocturnal, but is known to be active during the day sometimes. It feeds on fallen fruits, leaf shoots and other vegetation.

Sambar (Rusa unicolor)
The Sambar (Rusa unicolor) is a large deer from the true deer family Cervidae, and can get longer than 2m. The native deer is believed to be extinct in Singapore, and the current population in our forests is thought to be unintentionally introduced (zoo escapees). It feeds on grasses, herbs, fruits and leaves of shrubs and small trees. They are mainly nocturnal, and hence despite their big sizes, they are not often seen. They are good swimmers. Only the males have antlers.

Wild Boar (Sus scrofa)
The Wild Boar (Sus scrofa), also known as Wild Pig, is the wild ancestor of the domestic pig. Interestingly, the term "boar" is often used to describe only the males for other pig species from the family Suidae, but for the Wild Boar, it applies to the whole species, i.e. both sexes. According to the "Wild Animals of Singapore", they were believed to be locally extinct, and the current population is descended from individuals which swam over from Malaysia. They are active both day and night, feeding on fallen fruits and digging for roots and worms. As they lack a natural predator in Singapore (with the tiger and other big cats being extinct), the authorities have decided to cull them to control the population. While any ecologist will agree with that, it was unfortunate, however, that some people claimed that the Wild Boars had caused the population of mouse deer at Lower Pierce to decrease, stating that they used to see mouse deer 7 or 8 times out of 10 trips, but they hardly see them in recent years. This is, of course, rubbish, since I have been seeing mouse deer on almost all my trips to Lower Pierce for the past one year, and in fact, saw 4 of them during one trip.

Order Primates

Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis)
Singapore has two native species of monkeys, and the Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis) is one of them. It got its common name from its long tail, which can be longer than its body, distinguishing it from the other macaques in the region. Long-tailed Macaques, from the family Cercopithecidae, can be found in a wide variety of habitats, from inland forest to mangroves. They are opportunistic omnivores, eating a variety of animals and plants, including crabs if they live in the mangroves (and hence they are sometimes also called Crab-eating Macaques). They live in groups, and are a lot more daring compared to the locally much rarer Banded Leaf Monkeys (Presbytis femoralis), which are very shy. Unfortunately, some people fed the Long-tailed Macaques with human food, and as a result, many of them started associating human with food. There were cases of monkeys snatching food from human, or even attacking them if they were carrying food. For these monkeys to go back to their old ways of finding their own food in the forest and stop harassing human, people will have to stop feeding them and stop carrying their food out in the open when they visit nature areas. Eventually, the monkeys will stop associating human with food.

Sunda Slow Loris (Nycticebus coucang)
The Sunda Slow Loris (Nycticebus coucang), from the family Lorisidae, is a small nocturnal and arboreal primate. Apologies that you can't see the face in the picture above, as it was sleeping since it's day time. It is believed that its slow lifestyle could be due to the energy costs of detoxifying the poisonous plants in their diet. They feed mostly on plant sap, nectar and fruits, though some have been observed to feed on insects and snails. The slow loris is among the few venomous mammals in the world. They can produce a toxin in glands on the insides of their elbows, which they lick and mix with their saliva.

Order Rodentia

Malayan Porcupine (Hystrix brachyura)
The Malayan Porcupine (Hystrix brachyura) is a species of rodent from the family Hystricidae. The hairs on its back are modified into sharp spines to deter predators. It is mainly nocturnal, and stays in deep burrows in the day. They feed on fallen fruits, roots, and sometimes insects and carrion. Once thought to be extinct in Singapore, it has been rediscovered on the northern islands and also on mainland Singapore.

Rats (family Muridae)
Several species of rats (family Muridae) can be found in Singapore. While the urban species are often associated with diseases and garbage, the forest species are generally rather clean, feeding on insects and fruits. They are mostly nocturnal, but I have personally seen many rats in the day as well, including the forest species. Many live in burrows, while others may live in holes in buildings and trees.

Plantain Squirrel (Callosciurus notatus)
The Plantain Squirrel (Callosciurus notatus) is a squirrel (family Sciuridae) commonly seen in our forests and parks. The genus name "Callosciurus" means "beautiful squirrel", as most of the squirrels from this genus have pretty colours/patterns. Plantain Squirrels are diurnal, and feed mostly on fruits and nuts, though they sometimes eat insects and eggs as well. They usually nest on tree by building a spherical arrangement of twigs and leaves, lined with fur.

Slender Squirrel (Sundasciurus tenuis)
The Slender Squirrel (Sundasciurus tenuis) is smaller, and feeds on soft tree bark, fruits and insects. It is not as widespread as the Plantain Squirrel, but can still be easily seen in the Central Nature Reserves and the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Horsfield's Flying Squirrel (Iomys horsfieldi)
Apart from the diurnal squirrels, we have nocturnal ones too! The Horsfield's Flying Squirrel (Iomys horsfieldi), despite the name, can glide (not fly) from tree to tree. It has a large flap of skin on each side of its body between the limbs, which it will stretch and open up so that it can glide like a kite for long distances. It feeds on fruits and insects. Another flying squirrel found in our forests is the Red-cheeked Flying Squirrel (Hylopetes spadiceus).

Order Scandentia

Common Treeshrew (Tupaia glis)
The Common Treeshrew (Tupaia glis) is sometimes mistaken to be a rat, shrew or squirrel due to its pointed nose and bushy tail, but it is in fact from a different order (Scandentia) and family (Tupaiidae) altogether. Despite the name, treeshrews are commonly seen on the forest floor in the day, hunting for small insects and lizards. They also feed on fruits and seeds. They live in permanent pairs and are very fateful to their mates. Researchers sometimes use treeshrews as animal models for human diseases due to their close relationship to primates and well-developed senses of sight and hearing.

Order Dermoptera

Malayan Colugo (Galeopterus variegatus)
The Malayan Colugo (Galeopterus variegatus) is a gliding mammal that can be found in our forests. From the family Cynocephalidae, it has a thin membrane stretching all the way from its neck to the fore limbs, across the fingers, along its body to the hind limbs and eventually to the tail, allowing it to glide for long distances. Colugos are nocturnal and feed largely on leaves. In the day, they cling on to the sides of tree trunks or branches. The baby colugo usually follows the mother, clinging on to its underside. Studies have shown that male colugos in Singapore are mostly brownish, while the females are greyish in colour.

Order Chiroptera

Fruit Bat (Cynopterus sp.)
The only mammals that can fly are the bats (order Chiroptera), and unfortunately I only have the photo of a Fruit Bat (Cynopterus sp.) here. Fruit bats feed on fruits and nectar, and contrary to the saying "as blind as a bat", it actually has good eyesight. Most fruit bats lack echolocation and move around using their eyesight and smell - it the first place you cannot locate a fruit (which does move) just by echolocation. Bats that feed on insects, however, will use echolocation to locate their prey. You may have noticed that all these mammals which glide or fly are nocturnal, possibly to avoid competition and predation from the better flyers - the birds.

Order Cetacea

Indo-Pacific hump-backed dolphin (Sousa chinensis)
We have marine mammals too, such as dolphins, porpoises and dugongs (yes, they are not fishes!). The Indo-Pacific Hump-backed Dolphin (Sousa chinensis) and Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops aduncus) are regularly seen in our waters. Occasionally, the Irrawaddy Dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) and the Finless Porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides) are also seen. Being mammals, they do not have gills and hence have to breathe air. As such, they have to surface regularly to breathe. Apart from good eyesight, they generally are able to echolocate, i.e. they can emit calls to the surrounding and listen to the echoes to determine to some extend what is around them, such as their prey or non-prey.

Order Sirenia

Dugong (Dugong dugon) feeding trail
And while the Dugong (Dugong dugon) is only occasionally seen in our waters, their feeding trails can be seen among the seagrass meadows on both our northern and southern shores! Being rather big eaters, they create little bulldozer trails as they munch up the root systems (or rhizomes) and leaves.

Protecting our Native Mammals

Rather sadly, many of our mammals are affected by the lost of habitat. Our forest is getting smaller and smaller, despite our green space getting bigger with the parks replacing the forests. Many of our terrestrial mammals require good forest to survive. And also, our forests are becoming more fragmented and disconnected with other forest patches. This resulted in animals not being able to exchange genes and hence inbreeding, which may cause genetic illnesses and animals dying out.

The introduction of alien species has also affected our native mammals - an example can be seen with the introduction of the Variable Squirrel (Callosciurus finlaysonii) in Bidadari and Woodleigh, which is competing with our native Plantain Squirrels.

There are also poachers around, and I have personally seen poachers setting up traps to trap monkeys and squirrels, and they keep their traps only after they saw me calling the authorities using my mobile phone. Irresponsible forest users, such as mountain bikers who created new trails in the forest and cut down trees ad shrubs, have also cause much stress to the more shy animals.

Hence, in my opinion, it is important that the public are educated on how vulnerable our native mammals are, such that we can better protect them. The authorities probably also need to plan future developments more carefully, and perhaps to maintain strips of forest as green connectors instead of destroying everything - if they can have park connectors, why not have forest connectors as well? Joggers will then be able to enjoy the shade as they jog, and animals can also use these connecting greenery to travel around and exchange genes.

  • Baker, N. & K. Lim, (Vertebrate Study Group, Nature Society Singapore), 2008. Wild animals of Singapore. Draco Publishing and Distribution Pte. Ltd.
  • Baker, N. (2012). Ecology Asia. Retrieved September 20, 2012, from
  • Francis, C.M., 2008. A field guide to the mammals of South-east Asia. New Holland.


richi said...

I´m from Chile, South América, a scientific and naturalist journalist, and trough your blogspot was possible to know something about the exotic (for me) fauna from your beautiful contry.

Ron Yeo said...

Thanks for visiting my blog! :)

Anonymous said...

Very informative! Thank you and I agree that green corridors should be incorporated into planning. We (try) to do that in Australia and where it is done it works!

Clara Turner said...

That is very interesting! Thanks for sharing, I am part of the Singapore national animal conservative and study.

Ra'uf Azman said...

Wow thanks you so much for the awesome information, i didn't knew such animals exist in Singapore. I'm glad I found your blog thank you!