Archive for September, 2011

Hopping on the BoSSIII reflection bandwagon!

Seems like bandwagon hopping is pretty popular, what with the “Singapore got <insert habitat/ecosystem/species>, meh?” theme going on at BoSSIII (which by the way stands for Biodiversity of Singapore Symposium III which was held yesterday), and so since some of my peers have written about their takeaways from what was undoubtedly a fruitful and insightful session, i feel compelled inclined to do the same! I’m just gonna reflect on a few of the stuff brought up that i found interesting and/or thought-provoking, and well in a non-chronological order.

thoughts i had..

First off, a quote – “When we take students to Bukit Timah, and we ask who’s ever been here, it’s the exchange student who enthusiastically raises his hand” – Sivasothi N.
Sadly, this kinda reflects something about Singaporeans. Maybe because we are born and raised in tropical Singapore, many of us are perhaps used to and therefore unimpressed by our large variety of non-human citizens in the country (and also many PRs), and thus do not appreciate the individual species nor the diversity itself. In contrast people from temperate regions, with nature areas of larger expanse but not necessarily larger diversity, are usually more impressed and thus may better understand the value of what we have. OMG idiom opportunity! “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure“! Case study –  a Belgian scientist comes all the way down here to tell us that “Hey, I was working in your forests and found like 150 new species of long-legged flies, which is like more than triple the number previously recorded. Cool shit. I’ll leave you the specimens.” Also he actually gushes about how awesome our nature is, and i’ll quote him for reals this time.

‘This is really a large number, especially for such a small country. For a biologist, it’s a dream come true.’ 

‘I was so surprised to find so many species here, with different communities living in microhabitats just 500m apart. We are just scratching the surface and the information is already overwhelming.’

‘Singapore is like an open laboratory. All you need is a short drive and you get to see insects in their natural habitats, displaying and feeding.’

Do we really need foreign scientists to tell us what we have and to appreciate it (i have to qualify that not many people would wanna study flies so this may not be a clear representation of our lacking effort)? Clearly there’s a lot more left to learn about or local biodiversity, and hopefully more interest can be generated and more locals can contribute to the local knowledge and literature.

Second point – Are alien species always bad? Can they come in peace? If i’m not wrong this question was raised by Dr. Darren Yeo, clarifying that invasive species may not always be detrimental to our ecosystems, clearing a common assumption that I was, until then, also guilty of. He raised an example of migratory birds feasting on non-native tilapia during their stopovers and some others that i have problems remembering. This is definitely a new insight for me, i suppose observations are necessary to prevent jumping to conclusions. Since quite a number or “natural” habitats in Singapore are artificial or have have been heavily modified, introduced species may not actually be bad for those particular habitats, and if action is taken on these invasives without first checking on their impact and how they fit into the web, there may be unnecessary spending of resources and effort and the place may even be worse off after. Before dealing with an issue, check if it’s an issue in the first place beforehand!

Third point – just saying that i agree very much with what ms Ria Tan said about actively speaking up and expressing ourselves when we feel things are just right. I suppose humans are rather negative in that aspect, we are quick to criticize, but rarely give praise. Using her example, say just one person feels that a nature area is unsatisfactory and should be say paved over or cleared to give way to a mall, and everyone else is fine and prefers the place as it is but do not write in to say how pleased they are with the place, the relevant agencies do not have actual physical support to conserve the place even if they wanted to, which would be a terrible shame. So yes, we should all speak up more and make ourselves heard! Chek Jawa’s conservation was by sheer luck (that it was stumbled upon and so much media hype was created), but we should now be more pro-active and make conservation efforts even before a place is threatened by development.

Okay so a number of us were lamenting the absence of ecology and biodiversity in our secondary and tertiary curriculum/syllabus (even the little bit of evolution taught was about the molecular clock and was more about genes than relationships). As a kid i used to memorise names of organisms (both common and scientific, and till an extent that i earned the nicknames little prof and walking ecyclopedia) simply because i was so fascinated (and almost obssessed) with animals and plants. It also helped that ecology and the food chain etc were covered back in primary school. However upon entering secondary school, I was caught in a flurry of assignments and responsibilities and since the syllabus did not include ecology, I had little time to expand on this interest, and during this time there was a lull in passion. The passion was rekindled in JC, though it was mainly because of research projects and opportunities like enrichment programs provided. However even these had to be done mostly in our own time and it was hard to balance my study workload with this passion, so there were quite a number of others who had to pull out from their projects/programs. I continued doing what i loved, but my results were kinda lousy :/ (no excuse i know ><). Perhaps because of biopolis and an expanding field and increasing opporunities in biotech, genetics and microbio, MOE, together with cambridge i think decided to focus the curriculum more on those subjects, thus giving ecology and biodiversity less air time, which is sad. To illustrate how sad it is, during one of Dr Adrian Loo’s evolution lectures, one of his slides showed a picture of a sea turtle. This conversation was heard:
” wait, sea turtles are mammals right?”
“no! they’re amphibians!”
Well i suppose (hope) most people would know sea turtles are of course, reptiles. In this case I am not lamenting the lack of education in local biodiversity, but an education in biodiversity at all (it has to start somewhere!).. How can some people live till 18 without knowing sea turles are reptiles, or that seashells are living creatures? It’s quite terribly sad.
On the bright side.. it seems ecology will be making a comeback in the secondary curriculum, so that’s definitely a start. There’s hope yet! (:

So it seems the overarching theme of the symposium was “Singapore got <insert habitat/ecosystem/species>, meh?” Well a large proportion of our population either witnessed the rapid development of our nation, or were born and raised with it already largely developed. Thus since most of their lives are spent in urban areas, especially if they have no inclination or reason to head into the outdoors, it would be understandable that what they know of Singapore is what they see in their everyday lives (which are rather hectic so they may not even observe diversity found in urban areas), and thus do not know how rich a diversity we have. This trend may be increasing, withe the new generations born digital natives, an indoor generation.  Interest has to start young, outreach is important! i can’t think of anything else to say aaah.

During his talk, Marcus Chua spoke of numerous discoveries and rediscoveries of mammals and big things, which i am still astounded by. If we could miss all these big things (like the Sambar Deer o.o), imagine how many of the smaller things we could have missed and can be missing out on! There could be so much left to discover, and that gives me hope (:

This is more of a personal thing for me, to find a balance between academia and education. I realised that passionate teachers and educators  are extremely important in planting the seeds of interest in the younger generation, and hopefully infect them with the same amount of passion present in themselves. For people who love biodiversity, they could either go with academia, doing their own research and contributing the the body of science, or they could go on the outreach and convert educate others. I suppose both are important and necessary.

kinda sleepy now, apologise for the incoherence and i’m sure there were lots more discussed during the symposium which i cannot recall at the moment, but for now these are just some things that got me thinking yep. ah i do miss thinking. dang NS.