Thursday, January 10, 2013

Collecting Fishes for a Biodiversity Workshop in Singapore

PC and Bill Ludt in Singapore
From October 15th to November 2nd last year my PhD student Bill Ludt and I traveled to be part of the Singapore Jahore Strait Marine Biodiversity Workshop. I had traveled to Singapore in 2007 to collect but mainly spent all my time at markets where I purchased fish that were being sold. (Market collecting can barely be considered fieldwork, the fish are brought to you after all; however, it is an excellent way to get a lot of diversity quickly and cheaply.) In my previous trip to Singapore I had assumed that this tiny island nation was essentially a giant city with little wildlife or remaining forest. That is why I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that the workshop would take place on Pulau Ubin, a small island off the northern coast of “mainland” Singapore. Pulau Ubin is almost completely forested except for a few residents, bike paths for ecotourists, and an OBS (Outward Bound School) camp where we stayed most of the time.  The island is only 10sq km (about an 1/6 the size of Manhattan) but it is so densely forested that it sustains a large wild boar population that we saw frequently.
Fig 1: Anchovy, Coilia
This small island is also the location of the last reported tiger sighting (in the 1980s) on Singapore. (A tiger was famously shot under the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel in 1902, that bar is also the birthplace of the notorious cocktail, the Singapore Sling.) We also saw wild otters a myriad of colorful birds (including an elusive Great Billed Heron), and of course, lots of cool fish. However, unlike my last Singapore trip we collected most of these fish ourselves and ended up collecting nearly 2,000 specimens from 250 species. We collected mostly using 15’ beach seines, but also using dipnets in mangroves, gillnets, and via trawls on a small ocean research vessel.
Fig 2. Stonefish
            This was a different experience than my previous collecting trips. I was invited to collect as the “fish expert” along with international experts in other groups including, bryozoans, anemones, isopods, copepods, etc. In all there were about 20 invited zoologists and dozens of local scientists and volunteers from the Raffles Museum and other local institutions. Each day we would sign up for one of three or four field trips to various parts of the island or mainland. Then we would go on a well-organized trip to that locality and collect alongside other experts for several hours before being returned to the lab at the OBS camp to sort, ID, photograph, tag and tissue the specimens. Bill and I would not only deal with the samples that we collected but also fishes that others collected for us. In the end we ended up having specimens from over 60 field sites in the nearly three weeks we were there.
            The OBS camp was an interesting place. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served there in a regular schedule and in a regular pattern that we quickly grew tired of. The food wasn’t awful but we knew that just over the Serangoon Harbor there was the most delicious food in the world. Mainland Singapore has its own unique cuisine but also serves food from all over Asia. Bill and I savored each Roti Chennai, Chai Tea, and Chili Crab that we could get our hands on.
Fig 3
            In the end the trip was a wonderful success. We collected many species that were new to our LSU collections and that are rare in collections outside of Asia. Among the highlights is a specimen of Coilia, a bioluminescent anchovy (Fig1), a highly venomous and dangerous stonefish (Fig2) and several species of archerfishes (Fig3). The archerfish samples were particularly important. These fish hang out near the surface of the water and spit out a small squirt of water at leaves above them to make insects attached to those leaves fall into the water below. The fish then eat those insects. This unique behavior would make you think they are closely tied to the land but they have a rather wide distribution across several continents. My former labmate at the University of Michigan, Heok Hee Ng, who now works in Singapore and I will be working up the phylogeny of this group in the future.
            Besides establishing this collaboration and meeting many international experts this was also Bill’s first international field trip. He did an excellent job and he and I will be collecting again in Japan this summer. We can only hope that these future trips will be equally successful.


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