AsianScientist (Nov. 26, 2021) – Against a dark sky, tiny lights flicker in a rhythm, as if dancing to a melody. While not quite as intense as the flashing lights that enliven night parties, these bright patches come from fireflies.
Such brilliant displays are a common sight in Singapore, which is home to about 10 different firefly species found flittering around mangrove forests in Pasir Ris Park and the country’s other nature reserves. But in March 2021, a team unveiled a surprising finding of a new firefly species named Luciola singapura—marking the first such discovery in the city-state in over a century.
Led by Dr. Wan Faridah Akmal Jusoh, Research Fellow at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM), the researchers found that L. singapura uniquely inhabits a freshwater swamp forest unlike the saltwater conditions of mangrove ecosystems.
By studying such characteristics and analyzing the specimen’s DNA, Jusoh and colleagues can identify new species or potentially reclassify existing insect lineages based on how closely related they are to one another.
“When I see new species for the first time, I feel hopeful,” she expressed. “It sparks my curiosity to explore what we have now and inspires me to think about the future—now that we know this species exists, what can we do for its protection?”
Our firefly friends are indicators of a healthy ecosystem, precisely because they are so sensitive to changes in their environment, Jusoh shared. From urban development to pesticide use, human activities can threaten these glimmering insects, destroying their habitats or seeping toxic chemicals into the mud where their prey live.
Jusoh added that another manmade peril comes in the form of artificial lighting, with Singapore responsible for the biggest light pollution worldwide according to a 2016 study. Fireflies tend to avoid coming out in brightly lit settings, even during full moon evenings, as it could interfere with the blinking lights that serve as their mode of communication and mating signals.
Thankfully, L. singapura’s discovery helped stir awareness about these luminescent insects and taking initiative to prevent population numbers from plummeting. Scientists like Jusoh are turning the spotlight on the best practices to allow activities like firefly watching while crucially engaging the local community to mitigate tourism’s impact on their natural habitats.
For Jusoh, species discovery goes hand in hand with her larger advocacy: conservation, both of the wildlife and of their scientific records. Researchers can only establish a specimen as new by distinguishing it from other known species, but data gaps often impede these classification efforts.
“When inspecting recently collected specimens, we have to revisit the past before confirming a new discovery,” Jusoh said. “To do so, we have to look at previous descriptions of species from Singapore, but currently we don’t have access to this data.”
Such data is part of Singapore’s natural heritage, one that is threatened to be lost without proper record-keeping. At LKCNHM, Jusoh is steering a large-scale virtual repatriation project, building a database of digital images and catalogues detailing original specimens in museums around the country and across Southeast Asia.
Through this digital collection, Jusoh hopes to accelerate research efforts into Singapore’s fauna. But beyond producing fascinating finds to captivate curious minds, detailed species records also support the movement to urge protection of biodiversity.
Only with extensive and persistent documentation can scientists grasp the changes that ecosystems have endured and track the species that have thrived and gone extinct over time. By weaving snapshots of natural history, Jusoh is helping immortalize species from the past, present and even future in Singapore and the broader Asian region.
“Natural history collections and discovery are important for species conservation in every country,” Jusoh concluded. “We cannot tell what we have lost now, or what we might lose in the future, unless we already know what we had in the past.”
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
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