More Nature Please, We’re Singaporean

Nature finds a way to thrive, even in the concrete jungle of Singapore.

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AsianScientist (Aug. 19, 2015) – I remember visiting Singapore’s National Museum for the first time, back when my brother and I were kids. We had one aim and one aim only—to see the dinosaur skeletons. After all, every museum we’d seen in books or on television had one, so our infallible kiddie logic assumed that ours did too.

Of course, we found out very quickly that the National Museum, while excellent in its own right, is just not that kind of museum—but not before our very optimistic father gamely walked up to the security guard to ask if they by any chance had a Tyrannosaurus rex hiding somewhere.

Parents with similarly misguided kids, you are now spared the embarrassment of looking for dinosaurs in all the wrong places. At the recently-opened Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, three near-complete sauropod skeletons tower over the viewing gallery: Prince (the largest at 25 metres long), Apollonia, and Twinky last walked the earth roughly 150 million years ago, and were discovered in a Wyoming quarry between 2007 and 2010.

Museums, not malls

In addition to this star attraction, a large part of the museum is dedicated to showcasing local and Southeast Asian biodiversity, of which there is plenty. The hundreds of locally-collected marine, plant, insect, and mammalian specimens on display (and the thousands more in the museum’s archives) challenge the common misconception of Singapore as a concrete jungle, where there is nothing to do but stroll through mall after air-conditioned mall. And of late, it seems that the opening of the museum is just one of a growing number of opportunities we’ve had to take a step back and marvel at our natural surroundings.

Normally, the only biodiversity I encounter on a daily basis consists of my cat and maybe a handful of sparrows; if it’s a good day, I might run into the odd house lizard or two. This is about average for most Singaporeans, so you can imagine how excited everyone got when a dead sperm whale was discovered floating off the coast of Jurong Island in July.

Since recovering the carcass, staff at the Natural History Museum have been busy with the gargantuan task of preserving the whale skeleton for display. They’ve also been busy documenting the process on social media, resulting in some wonderfully macabre Facebook updates:

“Day 3: We were working against time and decomposition to retrieve the sperm whale’s gut contents for research, while taxidermists peeled blubber off the dead whale’s back.”

“Day 5: The heart is roughly the size of an armchair…”

“Day 9: The heat has cooked some of the flesh, making it difficult to separate.”

Perhaps not the best material for light reading over breakfast, but it’s hard not to be fascinated by our own Singapore Whale, which some have already named Jubi Lee, in honor of our 50th year of independence.

Getting in touch with Nature

Also to our collective surprise, we have somehow acquired an urban wild otter population—otters are native to Singapore, but sightings in urban areas have been rare until recently. The Marina Bay otters cruised in, liked what they saw, and decided to stay and raise a family right in the heart of the city; we now display Otter Crossing signs and report sightings on OtterWatch.

Not to be outdone, the Bishan Park otters have become such a fixture that they have been assigned a constituency—Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, if you must know—although presumably they are otterly too late to register to vote in the upcoming election.

To top it off, the 156-year-old Singapore Botanic Gardens was recognized last month as a UNESCO World Heritage site. One of my favorite places on the island, the Gardens is very much woven into the fabric of daily life—children totter around the lawns and terrorize the swans, runners loop round and round, couples pose for wedding photographs, and retirees take leisurely strolls.

At the same time, it also harbors great historical and biological significance—key methods of rubber cultivation were developed here, hundred-year-old heritage trees dot the grounds, and the National Orchid Garden is a world leader in orchid research.

Learning about nature and conservation from books or documentaries is well and good, but having the opportunity to celebrate, cherish, and engage with our own natural heritage takes the message to a whole other level—one that may even keep us out of the malls. So happy 50th, Singapore, and let’s hope it’s a wild one.

This article is from a monthly column called The Bug Report. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Sim Shuzhen.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Shuzhen received a PhD degree from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, USA, where she studied the immune response of mosquito vectors to dengue virus.

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