Monday, August 31, 2009

Hunting Seeking @ Semakau - 22 Aug

Once again, we gathered at Marine South pier in the wee hours for a hunting-seeking survey at Semakau on the 22 Aug. We were quite short of volunteers that day, and some of us had to complete the survey on our own. On days like this, I really wish I have 8 arms like the Octopus. Its no mean feat to manage the ID chart, data recording sheet, chopsticks, camera and bottles, all at the same time. Halfway through the survey, I was really on the verge of pulling out my hair.

On the way to my survey column, which was pretty near the southern point (although far, I really like this area actually), a sandfish sea cucumber (Holothuria scabra) stood in my tracks. This is the sea cucumber that is served on our tables, although it needs to be processed before it is edible.

I stood by the rocks for a long time, trying to decide whether this false limpet is Siphonaria javanica or Siphonaria guamensis. Because of the thinner ribs, I guess its the Siphonaria guamensis. A false limpet, it breathes through lungs instead of gills. It is a mollusc which is cone shaped, flattened and has a very mascular foot that allow the animal to clamp the shells tightly against the substrate.

The entrance to the Turban shell (Turbo intercostalis) was completely sealed by its smooth trap door, also known as the operculum. This dome-shaped door protects the occupant from unwanted guests, and has pretty coloration, looking just like a cat's eye! This is also why the operculum is also called a cat's eye.

Among the seagrass meadow, many Fan Shells (Family Pinnidae) were spotted. The Fan Shell has a thin but strong shell and most of the shell is buried, pointed-end down. The razor sharp edge sticks out above the ground, so never walk barefooted across such meadows else risk getting cut by the unnoticed Fan Shell. This bivalve is a filter feeder and opens their shell a little at high tide.

I was eagerly looking out for money in the seagrass lagoon as as we were pre-empted that many can be found in our area. Not surprisingly, my not-so-keen eyes only saw 1 Sand dollar (Arachnoides placenta) which looks quite dead as it is smooth without any spines. This flat animal which got its name from its resemblance to the dollar coin, is related to the sea stars and other enchinoderms. They are deposit feeders and have tiny soft spines that it uses to burrow or move around. Similar to the sea stars, it is symmetrical along 5 axis and has a hydraulic water vascular system. It can even regenerate itself if a small part of it breaks.

There were lots of sand-sifting seastars (Archaster typicus), including one with 4 arms, and another with 6. Seems like its the mating season, as many of them were in pairs, in the pseudocopulation position. Although there is close physical contact between the 2 seastars, their eggs are actually externally fertilized. When the tide rises, the male on top with arms alternating that of the female, releases the sperms while the female releases the eggs.

This swimming crab had every reason to be aggressive to me. He probably thought it was very rude of me to intrude in his privacy while he was enjoying a hearty meal.

The Ovum Cowrie  (Cypraea ovum) has an elegant, glossy and smooth shell, often with beautiful patterns. Before SK2 masks were invented, Cowries long knew the method of using its mantle to cover the shell's entire surface, thus keeping the surface smooth and glossy - exactly what ladies want for their face. In the olden days, cowries were used as currencies and more recently, over-collected for its beautiful shells. Sadly, I remember playing Congkak when I was small, at my Grandma's place, using cowrie shells! =(

A trip to Semakau is never complete without seeing the Knobbly Sea Star (Protoreaster nodosus). This sea star that I stumbled upon towards the end of the column startled me as I wasnt expecting to see it at all. The Knobbly is one of the largest sea star on our shores, and is now threatened by collection and habitat losses.

The Sentinel Crab (Macrophthalmus sp.) kept very still to pose for photo-taking. This inconsipicuous little crab, barely 3cm big, has a somewhat flattened, and rectangular body. It has eyes on long stalks which probably gave them their common name.

As usual, all of us left the intertidal area reluctantly, hoping for more time for the survey. Hopefully, we will have more volunteers on the next trip. =)

Leisure morning at SBWR 1 Aug 09

*Updated, courtesy of LK - Thanks!

It was an impromptu idea to explore Sungei Buloh leisurely, and 3 other GVs gamely agreed to join me on this trip. One of my key objectives for this trip was to see the Smooth Otters! Its too much for me to keep hearing stories about them, without any personal encounters. The closest I got was seeing the bobbing heads from a (far far far) distance. =(

Bearing lots of hope, I reached the visitor's centre at 7+, and was very very pleasantly surprised that its free entry before 830am!!! (very cheapskate I know, but every dollar counts, you know!). So, if you have never been there, wait no more.

Anyway, sigh, I didnt see the Smooth Otters again. BUT, we still saw lots of amazing insects, animals and reptiles! In addition, it is such a blessing to be able to enjoy nature, without the need to shout/ scream at accompany a group of highly energetic children.

At the main hide, the Ashy Tailorbird (Orthotomus ruficeps) lifted our moods with its chirps early in the morning, whilst its enjoying a good bath in the morning dew.

We saw this spider in a dark hole of a fallen log. Reminds me of Aragog, the leader of spiders that Hagrid raised in Harry Potter. Don't know what species it is, though.

I always thought that the grasshoppers at SBWR are exceptionally cooperative, clearly they know the need to remain perfectly still and pose, in order for me to take a shot of it. =)

Another spider, perching nicely on a tattered leaf.

No idea what butterfly/ moth this fuzzy caterpillar will turn into, but it certainly looked like it might cause one to itch if touched. If I can named it, I'll call it the electrocuted caterpillar.. heehee. Perhaps its appearance that made it look poisonous and bigger in size, are means of defenses to repel predators.

On our way to the less explored (and mossie infested) route 2, we saw 3 wasps (appears to be) hard at work. Only brave S dared to walk really close to them (yes, anything for a good macro shot), while the rest of us watched from a distance.

While the Sea Holly (Acanthus ebracteatus) bears resemblance to the Christmas Holly, they have no relation to each other. The leaves of Sea Holy are usually oblong with serrated sides. The ones we saw along this route has more pronounced spiny edges as compared to those we see at the mangrove boardwalk, probably because they receive more sunlight. The plant survives the mangrove habitat by secreting salt through its leaves.

The Giant Mudskipper (Periophthalmodon schlosseri), though a fish, has an amphibious behavior. It retains water in its enlarged gill chambers to keep their gills moist while on land. It can also 'breathe' through its skin but to do so, it needs to keep its skin wet by jumping into their personal swimming pool (puddles in the mudflats) occasionally. The 2 big bulging eyes works like periscopes of submarines, allowing it a 360 degree view above  water. The mudskipper moves on land with the help of clutches - their pectoral fins. Amazingly, these mudskippers can also climb by using their pelvic fins (which act like suckers) to hold them against the surface. They then, use their pectoral fins to pull themselves up.

As we walked along the boardwalk, M shouted, "Mangrove snake!". I think we were really lucky to see not 1, but 3 nocturnal Dog-faced Water Snakes (Cerberus rynchops) in broad daylight. These mildly poisonous snakes all appeared to be hunting for food.

At the exit of the mangrove boardwalk, the male Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker (Dicaeum cruentatum) was hopping back and forth on a branch, enjoying its morning snack - the fruit of Indian Cherry Tree (Muntingia calabura).

Typically, I would have counted  myself lucky to see 1 snake on a trip to SBWR. That day, apart from the Dog-faced Water Snake, we also saw the Oriental Whip Snake (Ahaetulla prasine) thanks to another group of visitors. The last time I saw this snake was at MacRitchie. It was so well camouflaged that I took really long to spot it, even though my friends were repeatedly pointing it out to me (M got so frustrated with me, she even hit me my arm.. =(  ).
Early that morning, H was still exclaiming that she half suspect that the nest near the main bridge is artificial and a fluke, because the owner is perpetually there. The owner perhaps took offence and decided to prove her wrong! On our way back to the visitor centre, we witness how the Olive-backed Sunbird (Nectarina jugularis) made its way home. It hopped around the branches and entered its home in a flash - very much real! 

The Sun Skink (Mabuya mutlifasciata) never fails to make an appearance in all my trips to SBWR. Like other cold-blooded animals, this skink was charging its battery by basking in the sun since it cannot produce its own bodyheat.

More often than not, the seeds in the pink star-shaped fruit of the Simpoh Ayer (Dillenia suffruticosa) are usually missing as the seeds are relished by many fruit-eating birds. Soon enough, I'm sure they will empty this fruit of the Simpoh Ayer tree found near the entrance of the visitor centre.

Though my objective was not fulfilled, it was still good time spent. In fact, we enjoyed the walk so much that we made a pact to visit a nature spot every 1st weekend of the month! =)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Storytelling with Gabriel and Janell

I agreed to a storytelling session after a bribe over lunch (darn! should have asked for a more expensive one!), primarily because it was a new and interesting concept. While I've told a couple of stories at Read-with-me, those sessions were never accompanied by music, much less music by the Youth Excellence Award Winners! While excited, I was also apprehensive because I've always had a SCS coordinator and 20 other volunteers to help with crowd control. This time round, I have a much smaller (but later, I realised, very much powerful) army.

The first session was with Gabriel Ng on 15 Aug at Little Arts Academy. We told 2 stories - Prince Bear & Pauper Bear (PB&PB), and The Runaway Pancake.

While I had props (with some tinge of creativity, my childhood toys finally came into good use!) for PB&PB, we had so much more fun with TRP. Refusing to embarrass myself (although Aida, together with Gabriel's family were sweet enough to offer their companionship), I made the children sing instead! As it is more participative, its more engaging too.

Some interesting anecdoctes during the sessions, showcasing how children really say and do the darnest things:

1)Gabriel was introduced as a 14 yr old, thus not too much older than the children. One boy pointed to me and asked, when the room was in total silence, what my age was. Kua kua kua... to that I replied (since everyone was staring at me for an answer).. I'm not too much older than you too!

2)Midway through the story when I was really engrossed in the story, a cute little boy came up to me and tapped my arms gently. Innocently, he asked ' can I go to the toilet?' ..... ?!?!

3) I quickly said yes, and continued with the story. But, to my amusement, the boy went back to his seat! He must be waiting for me to BRING him to the toilet!

Presenting.... The runaway pancake.....

I had a fun time, gives me the best excuse to be a child again, to be dramatic and yet not be laughed at! (ok fine, that Gabriel kept laughing at me during our rehearsal).

The second session with Janell Yeo was on 22 Aug with the stories, Gilbert the Great, and Splat the Cat!

It was heartening to know that the kids still remembered Gabriel and my name. And the moment they sat down, they went 'No no no no No..."...... And this, really made my day.

This session was a little more nerve-wreaking for me though. Apart from the lack of sleep due to the 4am Semakau trip, I had to cope with my read-with-me child who decided to be uncooperative of all days! Really a test of my patience I must say. Immediately after read-with-me, I had to rush to LAA. In addition, the presence of media and videocams made the atmosphere a lot more tensed.

Nonetheless, I certainly hope the children enjoyed it as much as I do.

I was particularly pleased to be approached by a member of the public to storytell part-time at her private school after the session. Soon enough, I'll make this my second career. Ha! So Aida, if you are reading this, lets work hard ok!

A day in the life of Showy, the Octopus

Showy, the Octopus woke up on a Sunday morning, to flashes of lightning and the sound of thunder.

'ARGH! What a waste, on a Sunday morning!' Showy thought. He continued to snooze in his comforable hiding place. Many minutes later, the rain stopped. With a relatively short life span, Showy is always determined to enjoy his life to the fullest. He stretched his 8 arms and left his territory to start a day of adventure.

As he moved, his excellent eyesight caught sight of several figures spread out sparsely in the intertidal area.

'Could it be them??' Showy wondered. He had heard stories of the many encounters from his fellow friends that a group of like-minded human beings have been visiting his home for some years now, with the aim of researching on the biodiversity in the area, as well as create awareness on its conservation. Showy had long wished to meet them.

Showy ventured cautiously towards the human beings. He was fearful that they could be the irritating fishermen instead.

Suddenly, Showy froze. Standing right in front of him, appearing from nowhere was one of them. She, also froze. After what seems like eternity, she finally fished out a small metallic box and aimed it at Showy.

Being the smartest invertebrate, Showy the Octopus immediately knew what it was, and that the camera was not a harmful tool. He learnt it from Octopus School, which also taught him how to open jars and recognise his tracks.

Determined to impress the human being, Showy wanted to perform his ability to catch its prey using its arms that bears powerful suction cups. Just one bite, the prey would be paralysed, as Showy's saliva is toxic (not known to be harmful to human beings). He thought this performance would be too gory, and decided otherwise. He is also unable to showcase his 3 hearts that pumps blood through each of its 2 gills, and through its body (it would be even gorier!)

An idea came to Showy's mind, and he smiled.

Another skill he learnt was the art of camouflaging. Octopus not only changes their body colour to camouflage/ warn or communicate with other friends, they can do it at the snap of the finger too! This is due to the presence of specialised skin cells called Chromatophores, which changes the colour, opacity and reflectiveness of the skin. They can also use their muscles to change the texture of their mantle to resemble a rock or seaweed.

So heres what Showy did:

Showy beamed upon seeing how impressed the human being is.

After a minute of the camouflaging showmanship, Showy also demostrated its ability to escape. Instead of zooming off using jet impulsion, or releasing a cloud of ink to disorientate the human intended for its easy getaway in the clouded water, he decided to showcase its flexibility to move into any crevices (due to its missing skeleton) by crawling away slowly......

Beaming with pride, Showy hid quietly amongst the algae, as he watched the girl walked away.

以上故事 纯属虚构 如有雷同 纯属巧合


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Hunting Seeking & Overnight stay @ Semakau - 25 & 26 Jul

We were back in Semakau on 25th July for hunting-seeking survey. My partner-in-crime and I were upgraded to survey sponges and corals, in addition to algae. I must have gotten addicted to them because its the first time I emptied my camera battery after taking more than 150 photos of corals, sponges and algae! Nonetheless, I will not blog about them now because it will take me a very long time to figure out the species (and I might turn into stone in the process of identifying them)!
So for now, let the limelight be the overnight stay and the exclusive walk of a less explored part of the intertidal area.

After our hunting-seeking survey, we had a great time flying kites in the afternoon at the southern point. Less enjoyable was the jog back to NEA office (yes, don't remind me that its my silly idea), the sun was so scorching that we all turned into cooked lobsters! At night, our spirits were also not dampened by the non-existent fireworks (which was supposed to be one of the highlights of the stay!), because replacing the fireworks were stunning trees lit by fireflies - up close and personal.

We woke up early the next morning (26 Jul) for another intertidal walk. Once again, the weather was not cooperative and it started raining cats and dogs. Good thing we were only delayed by 15mins and we could proceed as planned!

My first encounter with the Cryptic rock star (Cryptasterina sp.)! I never knew it was so tiny, this one was probably only 2-3cm wide. Interestingly, this rock star has 6 arms, instead of the more common 5-armed.

Its been sometime since I last saw this fierce predator of other bivalves and snails. The Moon Snail (Polinices mammilla) are not often seen in the day (and thus makes this sight all the more precious) as they are more active at night and remained buried in the sand during the day.

This fierce predator obtains its food by wrapping its foot around its prey to suffocate it. If all else fails, it secretes an acid to soften the victim's shell, creates a hole with its radula and sucks out the contents! How cruel and ferocious can one get?

Its my first time seeing the Hell's Fire Anemone (Actinodendron sp), after hearing so much about its very painful stings. 真是久仰大名. This anemone is often mistaken with the Upside-down Jellyfish (by me!), because of its similar appearances (see both pictures for comparison). A clear distinction is the white stripes radiating from the anemone's mouth (though not clearly depicted in this photo), as well as the distinct trigular-shaped branches.

Hell's Fire Anemone

Upside down Jellyfish

A pair of keen eyes (not mine definitely) spotted these squid egg capsules.

Before I could even finish taking a good shot of the egg capsules, there were shouts from some volunteers a distance away asking us to avoid a particular area. Instead of heeding their advice, our curiousity drew us to them. The perpetually grouchy and frowning, highly venomous Stone Fish (Synanceja horrida) was found! Do not underestimate this fish whose ugly look aids in its camouflaging, a careless step (esp since its camouflaged as a stone!) on its spines can be lethal.

Another volunteer spotted the harmless (to human beings at least) Banded File Snake (Acrochordus granulatus). This is a noctoral snake, mostly spotted at night or in the early mornings. They feed mainly on small fishes, and appararently gives birth to live young!

I saw a couple of nudibranchs on this trip, including the Phyllidiella Pustulosa. Nudibranchs , which means naked gills in latin, are a type of sea slug. They are named after their exposed gills on the back of its body. These slugs are born with shells, but loses them as they become adults. To protect themselves, they develop toxic or bad tasting glands on its body and warns predators via its bright colours. Rule of thumb in the animal kingdom - avoid the brightly coloured!

Another slug, the Blue Dragon (Pteraeolidia Iantina) was also found.

The area is fairly rich with corals and as I walked on, I saw several Sunflower Mushroom Coral (Heliofungia actiniformis). While each hard coral is a colony made of many polyps (akin to a condominium), the Sunflower mushroom coral is a single polyp (akin to a landed bungalow) instead. This free-living coral does not attached itself to any surface and has fat, white-tipped tentacles. It is often mistaken as an anemone, but its hard skeleton disk would be the sure give-away.

Also in abundance is the Gigantic carpet anemone (Stichodactyla gigantea). Anemones have stinging cells that affects most animals except for the anemone fish, which has a symbiotic relationship with the anemone. The fish protects the anemone from predators such as the butterfly fish, and in turn obtains shelter from the anemone. Disappointedly, I was uanble to spot find any nemos, unlike the other volunteers.

Fan worms (Sabellastarte indica) were also easy to spot. Fan worms are segmented worms that feed on detritus in the water. They live in a flexible tude that is made of sand, saliva and mucus. If only we have this skill of building our houses in this manner, then we will not be affected by the current mad scaling property prices! Apart from providing a hiding place whenever the worm senses danger, the tubes also keeps them moist and safe, if they happen to be exposed at low tide.

I had to battle (and of course, none were hurt in the process) a few fierce Red Swimming Crabs (Thalamita Spinimala) as they wave their pincers in an attempt to intimidate me, when all I really wanted to do, was to take a pretty photo of it. Such ingrates! Swimming crabs are agile swimmers due to their last pair of paddle-liked legs. Although blessed with this skill, they are often bottom dwellers. Their long pincers are used to catch prey eg fish (and also to intimidate people like me!).

A few steps away from the Red Swimming Crab, I noticed a fish lurking in the shadows. On a closer look, it appeared to be a very well camouflaged stingray. This was soon confirmed, as it quickly dart out of the sand, as I inched closer to it. Famed by its distant relative who killed Steve Irwin, it is known that they fend off predators with the flick of its tail which has venomous spines, especially when they are caught off guard. So don't startle them unless you are feeling very brave!

As the tide started to rise, we made our way back. Along the way we saw 2 Upside-down jellyfishes side by side. The Upside-down jellyfish (cassiopea sp) got its name because its usually in the upside-down position. This is to allow the zooxanthella (which has a symbiotic relationship with the jellyfish) to get sunlight to photosynthsize. The algae seeks shelter from the jellyfish and pays rental by sharing food with the jellyfish.

video of Upside-down jelly fish - obviously uncomfortable when they are right-side-up!

My last find of the day was an Onch Slug (Family Onchididae) which was blending in rather well with a rock, in colour and in texture! These slugs have modified gills on their backs to breathe air. During high tide, they trap an airbubble for them to breathe from.

Happy smiles were on everyone's faces as we all had good harvest in this pristine part of Semakau. Hope to have more chances of exploring this area of this amazing island!

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Guiding - 11 July 09

Its been a long while since I guided in Semakau. The last time was in Nov 08 at the launch of Project Semakau. So on the eve of 11 Jul, I had to stay up to 恶补 even though I had to wake up in the wee hours. Even at the pier, I was still reading through notes, really 临时抱佛脚.

Together with my partner, EF, we were the guides for the Noble Volutes. They were really a joy to be with, because they were such a fun and attentive group!

The hunters and seekers were fantastic that day, and brought us many interesting finds. Unfortunately I was so engrossed in guiding that I totally forgot to take many photos!

As it was too early in the morning, there were no NEA vans so we could take a nice leisure walk to the start-point, sharing our experiences with mother nature along the way. To ensure that we do not overfeed the mossies, we stopped at the wash-up point to apply insect repellent. The guides also took the chance to give the do's and dont's briefing to our group members.

(Photo courtesy of my partner)

One of the first animals of the day was the Haddon's Carpet Anemone (Stichodactyla haddoni).

Spreading out nicely like a carpet, the carpet anemone has stinging cells in their tentacles, for purpose of self defense and preying. These stingers can inject a toxin that affects small animals. The anemone does not have an anus and has to spit out any indigestible food before swallowing the next one (quite inefficient, isnt it?) !

An anemone shrimp was also found together with this anemone. Anemone shrimps (Periclimenes brevicarpalis) usually look for food among the tentacles of the anemone, and protect themselves from the stinging cells by coating their bodies with mucus.
The visitors were awed by the cute juvenile cushion star (Culcita novaeguineae). Like its other relatives, the cushion star has tube feet and is symmetrical along 5 axis along its body, and lies on their mouth. Unlike human beings who circulates blood through our body, water is circulated through the seastar's body. This is referred to as the hydraulic water vascular system. Thus, the visitors are reminded not to lift them from the water for too long a time.
In the same family as seastars, the Synaptid sea cucumber (Family Synaptidae) is the longest sea cucumber, that can grown up to 3m long! Due to its thin body wall, the Synaptid sea cucumber is therefore very delicate. It has no tube feet unlike other sea cucumbers. Instead, they have hooked spicules that acts somewhat like the velcro and feeds by lashing its tentacles in the water for detritus.

I particular love the expressions and reactions of the visitors when I introduced the Spider conch (Lambis lambis). Named after its long spider-like spines, the spider conch is very well camouflaged by that thick layer of algae. In contrast, the lovely smooth underside never fails to bowl the visitors over, esp in comparison with the 'ugly' upperside.
The spider conch has 2 large pretty eyes at the end of the tentacles and a thick siphon. Like other conch snails, the animal is a champion pole-vaulter, with the help of a strong operculum.
see how attentive they are to the Spider conch's pretty underside! (photo courtesy of my partner)

As we were walking to the next station, one of the visitors spotted a Flatworm (Pseudoceros sp.). Flatworms are called flatworms for obvious reasons - they are really flat! This helps them weave easily into any space. They do not have a respiratory nor blood circulatory system, thus oxygen diffuses quickly across its skin. Most flatworms are carnivorous, and preys on tiny animals by injecting digestive juices into the prey. An interesting fact about this animal is its possession of both male and female reproductive organs. Some species of this hermaphrodite thus tries to impregnate each other (because its never easy to be a mum!) through 'penis-fencing'.

Before we could proceed further, dark clouds loomed the sky, and for safety reasons, we had to scamper back to the shelter. All of us were crossing our fingers for the rain to stop.

Thankfully, the rain stopped after 15mins or so. Although we could be running behind schedule, we continued the intertidal walk as all the visitors were eager to see more.
Once again, we tracked through the secondary forest, and crossed the largest seagrass meadow in Singapore.

Certainly very glad to have continued on the journey, otherwise we would have missed the icons of Semakau - the Knobbly sea star (Protoreaster nodosus) ! Although the one we saw was probably only 15cm wide, the knobbly can grow up to 30cm wide! Named after the knobs on their bodies, they also have tube feet under their arms and prefers to eat clams/ snails. I've seen one of them in an aquarium shop in Plaza Sing  ='(  - such collection and the lost of habitat have threatened the survival of these pretty sea stars, so remember not to support the trade!

We also saw one of what is considered delicacy to us Chinese - the sandfish sea cucumber (Holothuria scabra). While it is edible, it needs to be processed first as it is mildly poisonous. They belong to the same family as sea stars but instead of lying on their mouths, the sea cucumber lies on its side, has a mouth at one end and anus on the other. They also have a hydraulic water vascular system and cannot be out of water for a long period of time as they might disintegrate. When stressed, the sea cucumber ejects water, some species may eject a stick latex or even internal organs! While they can regenerate themselves, I can imagine how painful the process will be!
The group photo with the Knobbly sea star marks the end of the trip (photo to be uploaded soon!). The guides had a fantastic time, and silently hoped that the visitors had the same sentiments too! =)