Saturday, September 29, 2007

Semakau Walk with Dunman High

This evening we finally had our very first evening walk at Semakau Landfill for the season! It's certainly great that I didn't have to wake up like 4 or 5 am in the morning for a change :)

I had a group of enthusiastic Sec 4 girls with me from Dunman High. Our group name was supposed to be mudskipper initially, but Luan Keng decided to change it to clownfish instead.

I was thinking, shucks, seemed unlikely that we would see the animal that gave us our group name this time round. I was pretty sure that I would have better chances finding a mudskipper rather than a clownfish.

True enough, one of the first animals we saw was this mudskipper (Family Gobiidae). While they could stay out of water, mudskippers are not amphibians, but fish! So how do they manage to stay out of water then? Like the way we carry an air tank when we go for scuba diving, they carry "water tanks" instead. The "water tanks" I'm referring to are their gill chambers and mouth. Mudskippers thus can't stay too far from water so that when the oxygen in the "water tanks" run out, they can replace the used water with fresh sea water.

Thought this was a rather cute photo and thus decided to snap it :)

We were keeping really still, waiting for the fiddler crabs (Uca sp.) to come out of their holes.

Near the crab holes, I found this little land hermit crab (Coenobita cavipes). Unlike the crabs that we normally eat, hermit crabs are not true crabs, and have a soft abdomen. Thus, they need to find shells to tuck their butts in for protection. So if you are out there on the shores, please don't pick up any shells, or you may be depriving some hermit crabs of their protective shells, and they will have to run around naked! That makes them very vulnerable to predators.

Talking about hermit crabs always reminds me of pet shops selling them as pets. These pet hermit crabs are collected from the wild, and Singapore alone imported thousands and thousands of them every years! Imagine if these goes on, they may actually be gone from the wild in future at their places of origin! While I have no issue with people keeping pets, I certainly hope that the sales of pets collected from the wild should be minimised, if not prohibited, because it will severely affect the ecosystem, and drive a wild species to extinction!

We also saw a number of living sea snails (meaning, with no hermit crab attached, at least while they are alive...). On the left is a spiral melongena (Pugilina cochlidium). There was a clam attached to its foot. Could it be feeding on it? Hmm... On the right is a noble volute (Cymbiola nobilis) laying eggs! It's always encouraging to see animals feeding and reproducing, because that just shows that our shores are very much alive!

Before we crossed the sea grass lagoon, we also saw several sand-sifting sea stars (Archaster typicus). Sea stars move around on their little tube feet. As a sea star uses sea water to support its body and move its little tube feet, it is thus very stressful for them if you take them out of sea water for too long. Amazingly, if a sea star loses its arms to a predator, it can actually regenerate it, as long as the central disc is not damaged.

And here's a group shot of my group crossing the seagrass lagoon! Seagrasses are like the forests in the sea! While many animals live in the forest on land, many sea creatures live among the seagrasses because there are lots of food and hiding places there. That makes it an excellent nursery ground for many animals too! Do you know that many of the fishes that were served on our dining tables live at least part of their lives among seagrasses?

As we walk on, we encountered several species of sea cucumbers. From top-right clockwise, we have the dragonfish (Stichopus horrens), sandfish (Holothuria scabra), a synaptid sea cucumber (Family Synaptidae) and ocellated sea cucumber (Stichopus ocellatus).

Sea cucumbers are made of a tissue called catch connective tissue which allow them to keep their body soft when they are moving around, but yet in an instance, they can turn rock hard to protect themselves when they feel threatened. And do you know that a sea cucumber actually breathes through its anus?

Along the way, we also saw a gigantic carpet anemone (Stichodactyla gigantea). An anemone is actually an animal! It has a mouth in the middle, and it has stinging tentacles to paralyse little fish and other animals that get close to it. Now, will we find a nemo among the tentacles?

And YES we did! The clownfish group managed to spot a tiny clownfish! Can you see it some where near the middle? Sorry for the poor quality of the photo, but I could not spend too much time trying to get a good photo like my other non-guiding trips. This is actually an ocellated clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris). Actually, it is not really the same species as the one you see in "Finding Nemo", but a close relative.

Semakau was a great place to see corals, and we saw lots of beautiful hard corals. On top, we have the corals that live alone, a mushroom coral (Fungia sp.) on the left and a sunflower mushroom coral (Heliofungia actiniformis) on the right. At the bottom, we have the ones that live in a colony. Think of each huge coral like an apartment building, and each hole on the coral has a little coral animal (also known as a polyp). And these animals build their apartment themselves with calcium carbonate, unlike most of us who need other people using machines to build our houses for us! On the left, we have a boulder coral (probably Favia sp.), and the other is an anemone coral (Goniopora sp.). Each little flower-like thing is a polyp!

Semakau also has huge patches of soft corals. On the left is what we called the dead men's fingers (Sinularia sp.), and on the right is the omelette leathery soft coral (Sacrophyton sp.) These corals have lots of little polyps living together in a shared leathery tissue.

Our hunter-seekers were really good today, and they found many interesting animals for us, including the colourful flatworms (Pseudoceros sp.) on the left and the little octopus (Order Octopoda) on the right. A flatworm has a very simple but well-defined brain, and several studies have been conducted on some species to better understand how brains work! The octopus, on the other hand, is believed to be the brainiest invertebrates! Experiments have shown that they can be trained to distinguish between different shapes and patterns.

This piece of dirt-like thing is no dirt, but a little seahorse (Hippocampus sp.)! I've seen seahorses many times, but I still get excited whenever I see one. Imagine this little seahorse hiding among seaweeds covered with silt - it will be almost impossible to spot! What a master of camouflage!

Our hunter-seekers also found us a blue-spotted fantail ray (Taeniura lymma). These rays have a spine on their tails, which can easily puncture your skin and inject venom inside, causing great pain. So when you are out there on the shores, do watch your step, because these rays often hide under the sand and will give you a nasty jab if you accidentally step onto them!

At this point in time, it was turning dark, and we had to head back soon. I quickly brought my group to yet another of my favourite animals.

This is a fluted giant clam (Tridacna squamosa)! These huge clams have tiny little algae living in them. The clam will provide carbon dioxide for the algae, while the latter will photosynthesise when there is sunlight, and provide oxygen and food for the clam.

It was really unfortunate that it was turning quite dark already, and we had to head back. There are still so many things to see! Actually, even though I have been to Semakau Landfill so many times, there are still many places which I haven't explored yet. Semakau Landfill is just too big to be explored within a few days, and we still see new things every now and then!

In fact, the best way to explore it is probably to become a nature guide, and I do hope some of the visitors in my group today will be keen to become nature guides in future :)

Updates:My DHS visitors have sent me the group photos!

Here's my group - Clownfish!

And here are all the participants from DHS!

See also:
- July's entry at his Where Discovery Begins blog.
- Kah Chine, our hunter-seeker's entry at her Walking Loka blog.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Treading on a Sensory Trail

The Naked Hermit Crabs brought a group of scouts to the Chek Jawa Boardwalk today. As I'm waiting for some of the participants to send me the photos to blog on the NHC blog, thought I'll blog about the Sensory Trail first :)

Chay Hoon and I decided to walk over to the Sensory Trail to take a look after the guided walk. Due to my commitments in other nature volunteer work, I haven't guided at Sensory Trail for a while (pai seh, Adelle) and kind of miss it.

The trail was originally designed for the visually-handicapped to experience nature through various other senses. Plants along this trail can either be touched, smelled or tasted.

As we were heading towards the trail, I noticed that the fig tree near the Ubin Visitor Centre was figging like nobody's business. Figs are very interesting plants, as their flowers are concealed within the fig! So it is actually wrong to say that they do not flower, because they do!

On a coconut tree near the coastal police station, a lovely wild orchid was blooming.

I always like to take photos of banana plants, as they display such a refreshing shade of green. Mind you, banana plants are not trees, since they do not have a tree trunk. The so-called "trunk" is actually made from leaves stack upon one another.

I was really excited to so many fruits on the mulberry bush.

Some of the fruits are so ripe that they look black in colour, though if you squeeze out the juice you will realised it's just a very dark red.

And I ended up happily popping the ripe ones into my mouth. Really reminded me of my kampong days.

Chay Hoon told me later that she'd seen worms in one of the really ripe ones before. I wonder if that's why some of the mulberries tasted especially juicy...

There were lots of cute little insects along the Sensory Trail too.

Here's a little bug on a mulberry leaf.

On a blooming hibiscus, there were several mating insects. Have no idea what they are though :P

The flower of the toothache plant, which was sometimes chewed by people to relief toothaches, also has a little fly on it. Again, have no idea what species it is. Actually, I only saw this tiny fly just now when I was processing my photos. Didn't notice it when I took the photo :P

There were also a few grasshoppers on the Lady's finger plants.

This one seems to be saying - Don't mess around with me!

We also found a lonely caterpillar on a leaf. Where are its siblings, I wonder?

On the Job's tears plant, there was an insect which I thought looked like a cricket, or perhaps its close relative. Not sure if I'm right though, since I'm no insect experts.

As I was on my way out, I suddenly noticed this strange looking insect on a mulberry leaf. Is it some kind of moth? I really have no idea.

One of the greatest pleasure of using my compact pentax camera was the macro - it was simply fantastic once you get the hang of it! Have to say that while sometimes you may experience problem focusing when the subject is too small or when it is too dark, the results were just amazing when you got it right!

Apart from the little insects, I also saw a much bigger monitor lizard, or rather, it saw me first and started dashing across the path.

Why did the monitor lizard cross the road?


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Animals in My Blog Template

Here are the animals used in my top banner :)

1 & 2. Ocellaris Clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris) & Gigantic Carpet Anemone (Stichodactyla gigantea).

The above photo was taken on Big Sisters Island. Not sure why, but have been seeing more nemos at our intertidal areas recently. The nemo enjoys a very special relationship with the anemone. The anemone has stinging cells in its tentacles, which it uses to sting it preys that happen to wander near it. Thus, the anemone is also able to protect the nemo from predators, and provides it with left-over food. The nemo, being very territorial, also protects the anemone from anemone-feeding fishes and cleans it up by eating the left-overs.

3. Knobbly Sea Star (Protoreaster nodosus)

The above knobbly sea star was one of the "regulars" on Semakau Landfill. Knobbly sea stars are among the biggest sea stars that can be found in our waters! A sea star uses sea water instead of blood to support its body and to move around, so don’t take them out of water too long, as it is very stressful for them. Sea stars are also able to regenerate broken arms, provided that the central disc is not damaged.

4. Spider Conch (Lambis lambis)

We found this lovely spider conch on St John's Island. This pretty snail is less common these days, probably because many were collected for the cooking pot previously. Can you see two stalks sticking out on the right side? Those are its eyes! A spider conch will usually look around to check for possible dangers before it exposes it meaty foot. It also has a long trap door and it uses it like a pole-vaulter for hopping around!

5. Fanworm (Sabellastarte indica)

I saw the above fanworm on Semakau Landfill. Fanworms live in tubes, and have feathery fans stuck on their heads. The fan is used to filter edible particles in the water so that the worm can feed on them.

6. Sunflower Mushroom Coral (Heliofungia actiniformis)

Also found the above on Semakau Landfill, this is a free-living coral and is not attached to the substrate! Furthermore, the above coral is one single animal, unlike most corals that live in a colony. Corals get their colours from the symbiotic algae (called zooxanthallae) that live in them. The algae also provide the coral with additional nutrients from photosynthesis.

7. Seahorse (Hippocampus kuda)

We found this cute little yellow seahorse at Changi beach. Do you know that a seahorse is actually a fish? Male seahorses have a pouch, and the female seahorse will lay her eggs in it. Thus, if you see a seahorse that looks like it’s pregnant, it is probably the papa!

8. Orange Fiddler Crab (Uca vocans)

This orange fiddler crab photo was taken at Chek Jawa. It's a male fiddler crab, and they normally have one enlarged pincer, which was mainly used to attract females and to intimidate rival males. They feed with their small pincers on edible particles on the sand.

9. Flatworm (Acanthozoon sp.)

A flatworm is so-named because it is very flat! We found the above on Semakau Landfill as well. Being so flat, flatworms can easily get into tiny crevices to find preys and also to escape from predators.

10. Land Hermit Crab (probably Coenobita rugosus)

I found the above land hermit crab on my very first trip to Little Sisters Island. Had initially thought it's a C. cavipes, but after double-checking on one of the online ID guides, it's more likely to be C. rugosus instead. Guess the next time I'll have to really check on the spot to confirm instead of trying to ID using photos.

Unlike the crabs we eat which have a hard shell over their entire bodies, hermit crabs have a long soft abdomen. Only the front part of the hermit crab's body is protected by a hard shell. To protect its soft butt, a hermit crab needs to tuck it into an empty snail shell. As they grow older, they will need to find bigger shells. So don't pick up shells when you are at the beach! For every shell you pick, you could be depriving a hermit crab of a home, and they will have to run around naked, thus becoming easy meals for their predators!

But sadly, land hermit crabs are getting rarer these days. Am really worried that there may be poachers who are poaching them, and eventually, our future generations will not get to see wild hermit crabs on our shores again...

11. Orange-spotted Nudibranch (Gymnodoris rubropapulosa)

The above photo was also taken at Semakau Landfill. This nudibranch feeds on other slugs, including their potential mating partners! Nudibranchs are hermaphrodites, and thus they have both male and female reproductive organs. They normally try to fertilise each other as they mate. In the case of this species of nudibranch, they will attempt to eat each other as well! The survivor will become the mother, and it usually dies soon after the eggs are laid.

12. Featherstar (Class Crinoidea)

Can you find the featherstar in the banner? It was actually used as the background, and thus you will be able to see some feathery thing in the background. This particular featherstar was found on my first predawn trip to Chek Jawa. This is also a filter feeder, and it will wave its "feathery" arms to catch any edible particles floating in the water!

And so, the above are the 12 animals I used in my banner.

On my side bar, 3 other animals were used for the background as well.

1. Juvenile Biscuit Star (Goniodiscaster scaber)

Found the above on Beting Bronok, stranded on the sand.

2. Heart Cockle (Corculum cardissa)

Found this on Semakau Landfill. While most other clams have their valves flatten like plates, this clam has its opening of the valves cutting across the centre of the 'heart'! Some people collect this shell while it is still alive, kill it and make the shells into little gifts. It's just so ironical that the so-called "token of love" was made in such a cruel manner.

3. Brown Egg Crab (Atergatis floridus)

While the above crab can be easily found in Singapore, the above photo was taken on Pulau Tioman. this crab is poisonous, and you may die from eating it!

And so, these are all the animal featured in my blog template! :)

They are some of the animals that we get to see on our local shores every now and then. But due to diminishing habitats, poaching, and irresponsible fishing, many of them are facing extinction. In say another 20 years time, will we still be able to find them on our shores?

I certainly hope that more Singaporeans will be better educated in environmental and conservation issues, and will play a more active role in helping to ensure that these wonderful wildlife stay on our shores!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Queen of the Night

There is a Chinese saying - "昙花一现", which is used to describe things that only exist for a short while. "昙花" refers to Epiphyllum oxypetalum, a lovely flower which only blooms at night, thus giving it its common name, Queen of the Night.

The last time I saw this flower was more than 10 years ago, when the plant at my place had four flowers. And yesterday, I finally got to see it again.

We were really excited when my brother's epiphyllum produced 4 flower buds more than a week ago.

Sadly, two of the buds just wilted and dropped off, but fortunately the other survived! For the past one week, we had been speculating when the flowers will blossom.

Yesterday, my brother (who lives in the same block), called my mum and said that it looked like one of the flower buds was blooming!

Still feeling rather excited, I went down to my brother's place around 10pm.

It was BEAUTIFUL! I could smell the sweet fragrance in the air. Forgot to bring down a torch, and had to borrow from my brother in order to take a good photo of it. My camera couldn't focus well in low light conditions.

Here's the side view. It's in full blossom yet, probably about 70 percent.

So why does Epiphyllum oxypetalum blooms at night? The epiphyllum is actually a cactus, supposedly originated from the deserts in Central and South America. As the deserts are very hot and dry in the day, it is believed that the epiphyllum blooms at night as it is cooler and will reduce water loss. There are, however, some species of epiphyllums that bloom in the day, especially the hybrids which produce brightly coloured flowers.

After taking a few photos, I went back home. Just after midnight, I went down again. This time round, I remembered my torch :)

It was almost in full bloom now. The word epiphyllum in Greek means "upon the leaf", and you can see from the photo above that the flower did appear to bloom directly on the leave.

Taking a closer look, you can see the pretty starry stigma, and the yellow pollens on the anthers.

Lots of tiny insects were attracted by the sweet smell, and many had gathered within the flower. These were the potential pollinators that might carry the pollens to other blossoming epiphyllum.

I went down about 2am again to take another look.

The outer petals were now stretching all the way back.

Just behind the flower, another bud was quietly waiting for its turn to be the queen.

And tonite, I'm going down again to witness the crowning of this new queen, who will also rule for just one night...


Just went down to my brother's place around 8pm.

The one which bloomed last night (front) has already withered.

The one at the back looked like it's all ready for a spectacular bloom later tonite!

Indeed, when I went down around 11pm, it has started blooming.

However, the process seems to be slower than the previous one, which was like 70 percent opened when I saw it around 10pm plus.

This one probably only about 65 percent at 11pm.

Anyway, I went down again after midnight.

While the petals still hadn't opened fully like the one in the previous night, it's still spectacular!

But I know that by morning, it will wither like the previous flower in the background.

Still, it was the queen, for tonight.... Even if it's only one night....