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Why Conservation Is Rubbish

*This article was published in the 2012 edition of The Mudskipper, the official publication of the NUS Life Sciences Society*

Environmental conservation is a good thing, or so we are often told. In this day and age following decades of environmental neglect and in light of ominous portents of impending environmental catastrophe, we are often reminded by our friends, family, teachers, and even the media that environmental conservation is fundamentally good and of utmost importance. As a consequence, we are constantly subjected to a ceaseless barrage of polemic exhorting that we reduce our carbon footprint, recycle our waste and avoid consuming endangered animals, among other lifestyle-changing adjustments. The conservation agenda, it seems, is one that currently holds the distinction of having permeated the entirety of public consciousness and awareness. It would appear, however, that while the arguments advocating conservation-mindedness might on the surface be compelling, these arguments are more often than not all too easily accepted by us without question. For how many of us actually take the time to think through these issues instead of blindly accepting (or defiantly ignoring) these admonishments and exhortations?

The reason why I began thinking about this issue was due in part to a conversation I had with a particularly enlightened acquaintance of mine, a freshman in the Life Sciences at the time, in which he tried to explain to me his argument for why conservation is rubbish. During that brief exchange, he argued that conservation was unnecessary for two main reasons: That conservation is a form of human interference with the natural processes of evolution and extinction; and that conservation is irrelevant since, biochemically speaking, a species is merely an assemblage of molecules that can be stored as digital information, making the actual preservation of a species and its environment a redundant and overly complex approach. Suffice it to say, while I was thoroughly appalled by his dangerously misguided views on conservation, what terrified me even more was the thought that there were likely to be many other people who shared his line of thinking and that those who would uncritically accept the ‘goodness’ of conservation would just as unhesitatingly accept the impoverished, if ostensibly compelling, arguments that seek to convince otherwise. It was through this realisation that I felt compelled to pen this piece in the hopes that I may not only redress the fallacies being promulgated as legitimate anti-conservation arguments, but also provoke those who would read this piece to question the bases for their opinions on conservation.


Conservation is Unnatural

The first anti-conservation argument we encounter is based on the premise that evolution and extinction are both natural processes that occur regardless of human activity. Indeed, the story of life on Earth is primarily an account of the success stories of species that were best able to adapt to environmental conditions, as well as the failures of species that were unable to compete in a world where the prevailing philosophy is more commonly known as ‘survival of the fittest’. Adaptation, natural selection and extinction are therefore intrinsic elements of life as we know it. As such, in seeking to preserve certain species and the environments they live in, conservation is by extension going against the very essence of life itself – it is preserving species that are unable to adapt to prevailing environmental conditions and defying the laws that govern the natural world. This need to conserve, it is argued, is due to the fact that human impacts on the environment are often perceived as being unnatural, which is absurd since humans are as much a part of the biosphere as any other organism. Consequently, rather than treat human impacts such as habitat degradation or the introduction of exotic species as unnatural acts, we ought to embrace these impacts as we would any other natural process and let nature take care of the consequences. If a native species were to go extinct due to competition from a non-native species, so be it – natural selection and the doctrine of ‘survival of the fittest’ prevails. Likewise, species extinctions due to habitat loss would be nothing to worry about since all this is merely natural selection at work and our knowledge of the fossil record demonstrates that organisms as great as the dinosaurs have themselves gone extinct due to their inability to cope with altered environmental conditions – why then should human modifications to the natural environment be treated any differently?


If at this point you find yourself nodding in agreement, then I suggest you take a step back and reconsider this position because this argument is, at its core, fundamentally incomplete. In seeking to recontextualise human actions as being natural and therefore a part of the larger body of environmental processes, this argument only accounts for the impact of human actions but fails to consider the cyclical and consequent impact of nature on humanity. While this seemingly high-minded unification of man with nature is a noble ideal, it is, at its core, fundamentally incomplete because it asserts on the one hand that human actions are natural processes while at the same time refusing to acknowledge that nature herself will have an impact on humans too. The extinction of, say, a species of tree-climbing crab due to pollution or overharvesting may indeed be an example of natural selection at work, but to only consider this aspect is to ignore the fact that a species such as a tree-climbing crab also plays a role in the larger environment and that humans are dependent on this environment as well. In the case of the tree-climbing crab, extinction may lead to the loss of an essential component of the mangrove nutrient cycle since these crabs are responsible for transporting nutrients locked in dead leaves back into the mangrove mud, thereby leading to the thinning of mangrove forests and the loss of habitat for several other mangrove associated species that humans depend on such as fish and mollusc species, not to mention the fact that tree-climbing crabs are also an important food source for many bird species, which are in turn vectors of seed dispersal. To argue that human actions are natural while at the same time assuming that humans can live independently of nature is therefore a contradiction in terms and only serves to divest humanity of accountability for our actions. Conservation therefore functions not to alter or go against the laws of nature, but to mitigate the excessive and unsustainable impact of man on his immediate environment since these impacts are likely to have downstream effects on the livelihoods of various peoples. Rather than viewing man as an entity separate from his environment, conservation is precisely about the relationship between man and his environment and the ways in which human actions may result in a feedback reaction from the environment that would doubtless have an impact on humanity in turn. Conservation is only ‘unnatural’ if you assume that man can live independently of his external environment.


There is, however, an even more cardinal and dire flaw that underlies this argument over what a natural process really is – that being the folly of deterministic thinking. Taken to its logical extreme, since evolution and extinction are both natural processes and, by extension, all species will eventually go extinct or evolve into one or more new species, perhaps there is no point in conserving anything at all since all organisms are unlikely to remain the same or continue to persist. Conservation is therefore a futile effort at freezing time in a dynamically evolving world and, if a species were destined to die out anyway, would conserving it therefore be a waste of money? The problem with deterministic arguments is that there exists an implicit assumption that the final state is completely known and of primary importance while the intermediate stages in between matter little, if at all. In the case of conservation, the deterministic argument essentially asserts that the entire life history of an organism and the roles it may play in interacting with other organisms and the environment are meaningless and that a species exists only for the sake of achieving its final state of extinction or evolution. In the same way, all medicine is worthless since all humans are destined to die anyway and the application of medicine only serves to forestall the inevitable.


The inherent problem here, therefore, is twofold – we have on the one hand the misconception of conservation as being a quest to freeze the environment in a fixed state in perpetuity and on the other hand, the issue now centres not on whether species conservation is natural, but whether a species has sufficient value to render it worth conserving since the assumption that a species exists only for the sake of going extinct implies that a species is in itself devoid of any intrinsic value whatsoever. While the first misconception is a problem born out of ignorance and is of little consequence, the second issue is far more distressing because it is this concept of value that serves as the basis for asserting that conservation is both unnatural and futile. By assuming, as the deterministic argument does, that a species has no intrinsic value to speak of beyond its ability to go extinct, to save something that is both worthless and doomed would therefore appear to be both unnatural and futile. On the contrary, as described earlier, an organism is more than just an entity that eats, breathes, excretes and dies – it is also a contributory element within a larger ecosystem, an ecosystem that in turn provides ecological services that ensure continued habitability and productivity and in both these cases, humans stand to benefit – an ideal case for intrinsic value if there ever was one. In understanding the imperatives of conservation, it is therefore important to comprehend that a species is not merely a lone entity in itself, but is instead a part of a much larger network of relationships that collectively form an ecosystem. This is by no means a novel concept since it is embodied in the very essence of the food web itself – a concept once thought so simple as to be taught in Primary school and one that has since been forgotten by so many, consigned to the intellectual garbage-heap of trivial ideas when it is in fact extremely powerful in explaining the interdependent nature of communities and the devastating impact of species extinctions. No organism exists for its own sake – every species that ever existed is the result of having evolved to occupy a particular niche within a particular space at a particular point in time, and every organism therefore assumes one or more roles and functions within its immediate environment. There is no such thing as a useless, worthless or valueless species. Only in a world where living creatures are nothing more than mysterious conjurations at the caprice of a mad, mystical beardy man in the sky can life forms seemingly exist for no purpose other than to go extinct, and what a cruel and heartless being that must be. Conservation is therefore not about preserving individual species in isolation, nor is it about fixing a population in time as a static entity owing to some peculiarities of ideology – it is instead related to understanding how multiple species could have evolved in tandem over millions of years to become part of the ecosystem we see today and to elucidate the precise nature of these interactions so that measures can be taken to forestall the collapse of the ecosystems that are so essential for the continued survival of humanity.


Conservation is Irrelevant

Having established that a species is more than just a population of organisms living in isolation from their environment and that individual species possess their own intrinsic value depending on the contexts within which they are located, the question of conservation’s importance now shifts to that of the means by which conservation is undertaken, which leads us to our second anti-conservation argument. In this instance, it is argued that while the preservation of natural environments and their associated species makes sense from a systems-level perspective of an ecological approach, the objectives of conservation start to fall apart when examined through the lens of biochemistry and molecular biology. With the rise of molecular techniques for probing the very basis of life itself, and given how most of us Life Science students are likely to end up pursuing a specialisation in molecular biology or biomedical science, it is clear that molecular approaches have fast become one of the most, if not already the most powerful and objective means by which the natural world is understood. Far beyond the realm of mere observation and conjecture, molecular techniques allow us to digitise and endlessly reproduce nucleic acid and peptide sequences – the chemical ‘building blocks’ of life – in an effort to catalogue and illuminate the splendour of the natural world we live in. With such great strides having been made in the field of molecular biology, it is now possible to preserve whole organisms as lines of DNA code on a hard drive, as cDNA libraries in a petri dish and as vials of purified proteins in a freezer without having to deal with the organism in the first place – altogether a much more clean, efficient and space-saving solution indeed. From the perspective of molecular biology, it is therefore incongruous that so much effort would have to be devoted toward the conservation of various animal species and their environments when it would be so much simpler instead to have these species immortalised in a gene bank. Given the importance and effectiveness of molecular biology in reshaping our understanding of life, evolution and the environment, perhaps it is time that molecular perspectives on conservation be accorded greater priority and importance in shaping the conservation agenda – that species may be preserved in a far more objective and efficient manner as DNA sequences and the like rather than resorting to the outmoded and painfully inefficient methods of conserving organisms and environments as they are since, from the perspective of molecular biology, a species is no more than a complex assemblage of interacting biomolecules.


While this argument might sound absolutely ridiculous to many, it is perhaps unsurprising to find that there are people who believe with absolute certainty that molecular perspectives are the superior, if not the only way by which the natural world can be understood, and this misconception might potentially be especially acute here in Singapore given the educational thrust toward emphasising molecular biology over other aspects of the biological sciences and the sheer majority of NUS Life Science students who do eventually end up in the molecular and biomedical sciences. The problem with this argument is not that molecular perspectives are necessarily wrong or misguided, but that to assert that conservation can be seen or driven by a single ‘perspective’ is to oversimplify the nature of conservation and to do injustice to the multifaceted issue that conservation truly is. To argue that conservation and the natural environment can be seen purely in terms of molecular interactions is to fall prey to the fallacy of reductionism – where the whole is assumed to be no more than the sum of its constituent parts. In this particular instance, while it is undoubtedly true that the fundamental basis for all life stems from the interactions of molecules at the cellular level and that all biological phenomena can be reduced to chains of events that ultimately lead back to molecular interactions, to assert that every aspect of life can therefore be understood on a purely biochemical basis is to ignore the fact that biological interactions occur at various spatial scales – from the molecular to the macroscopic – and that each higher spatial scale brings with it complexities and emergent phenomena that cannot be explained from the first principles of biochemistry alone. While the molecular bases for cancer are understood to some extent, for instance, it is nonetheless impossible to accurately predict if a person with a mutation in, say, his or her BRCA1 gene will definitely contract breast cancer because a whole multitude of factors exist between the genomic spatial scale and the spatial scale of the individual person. Whether or not a person will or will not contract cancer, as in this example, cannot simply be reduced to effects of the individual’s genotype because a host of environmental factors exist that interact at various spatial scales – from the cytosolic environment to the extracellular matrix environment to the organ-level environment to the individual’s external surroundings – the conditions governing interactions at each of these spatial scales change due to factors that cannot be predicted from the genotype level alone. Even at macroscopic scales, the biological interactions that occur within a forest comprising several populations of different species cannot be reduced to the interactions that occur within a single population of a single species since novel interactions such as interspecies competition, symbiosis and parasitism may emerge as the result of interactions between different species. Moreover, not only is it impossible to predict macro-scale phenomena from micro-scale events, the exponential increase in stochasticity from one level of spatial organisation to another means that, if two parallel experiments were run with the same initial starting conditions, the final outcomes would nonetheless be drastically different. This is why twins, for all their genetic and socio-economic similarities, rarely ever end up as exact mirrors of one another. Complexity and stochasticity are what confound attempts at reductionistic thinking and in a world as complex as the one we live in, it is simply impossible to assert that all life can be understood from a purely molecular basis. Although this does not, I must reiterate, mean that molecular explanations for biological phenomena are wrong, it does mean that molecular explanations are only effective to a certain extent depending on the spatial scale involved. This is why biomolecular interactions are not further reduced to the quantum-level interactions of subatomic particles – to use quantum physics to try to explain signal transduction would tell you absolutely nothing about signal transduction even though the process of cell signalling can ultimately be reduced to the probabilistic mechanisms of the wave function and the Schrödinger Equation.


To say, therefore, that a biomolecular perspective renders conservation as we know it irrelevant is in itself a meaningless statement because to do so would be to apply a needlessly reductionistic explanation that can do naught but confound the matter even further. More importantly, however, to even argue that conservation can be understood in its entirety through the lens of a single ‘perspective’ is to ignore the fact that conservation is an issue that spans across a wide variety of disciplines and domains. While it is common to assume that conservation involves arriving at a deep understanding of the biological interactions between organisms and their environment (both molecular and ecological), it is important to realise that conservation also cuts across social, economic and even legal concerns as well. Whether or not actions ought to be taken to conserve a specific habitat (e.g. Bukit Brown) or species (e.g. the Gurney’s Pitta) depends also on the political will, economic impetus and even the legal feasibility for conservation. For an issue as complex as this, asserting that conservation can be understood in its entirely from a biomolecular perspective is just as meaningless as arguing that conservation can be completely understood from an exclusively legal, economic or even geographical perspective. Rather than try to understand conservation through the lens of a single discipline or field, it would instead be more productive to adopt a holistic perspective that tries to integrate the various disciplines and domains involved. Only by adopting a multidisciplinary approach can the true nature of our natural heritage be understood, and only then can effective solutions be proposed and undertaken.


Final Thoughts

Conservation is not a simple issue. It is an issue as complex as it is pressing and it is an issue that spans across a broad array of disciplines and domains of knowledge. In this sense, conservation is not an issue that is easily understood and as the concerns of environmental conservation become increasingly prominent in public discourse, so too will the danger of misconceptions arising from apathy or purposeful deception become more acute. Indeed, as the cacophony of voices purporting to speak for conservation and the environment continue to grow ever louder and more pervasive, it becomes increasingly more tempting and convenient to sit back and simply accept what we are being told instead of critically examining the ideas and arguments being bandied about. And although a vast majority of these voices do indeed speak truthfully, the fact of the matter is that it is now all too easy to pay lip service to an idea we do not understand, for the cause of the environment and our natural heritage to be rendered as nothing more than the high-minded platitudes of the modern day wet liberal. To adopt this sense of unthinking conviction would therefore make us just as susceptible to the insidious depredations of those lesser minds who, for ideological reasons or otherwise, would seek to detract from the importance of environmental conservation with their fallacious, if seemingly convincing arguments. The argument that conservation is rubbish is at its most persuasive only when we are too ignorant to even question its basic premises. While this does not mean that pro-conservation arguments are themselves infallible, it does mean that we must be mindful of the ideas we accept as truth and think critically about the ideas that are presented to us as truth. Conservation is only rubbish when we advocate it without truly knowing what it is.

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Owls on Campus – Yale and NUS

For those of you who have been following the news lately, you would doubtless be aware that Yale and the National University of Singapore (NUS) have both been receiving no small amount of attention, mostly because of the collaboration between Yale and NUS over a brand new liberal arts college set to open during the next academic year.

yale-nus

But while most of the press coverage surrounding Yale and NUS has largely been aimed at explaining why Yale and NUS are so different as to be incompatible for one another, I want to spend some time talking about one of the striking similarities between Yale and NUS instead.

Now, if at this point you’re anticipating some sort of politically-charged, anarcho–liberal treatise or some sniveling nationalist-apologist (I see you, Jim Sleeper) piece on why Yale can learn from NUS or vice versa, I’m afraid you’re going to be sorely disappointed because the similarity I want to talk about is something far less ideological.

So what’s the similarity between Yale and NUS? The answer is Owls. No highfalutin metaphorical double meaning here. By owls I actually mean the wide-eyed nocturnal birds that have become the subject of many an internet meme.

Yarly!

Yarly! (Source: knowyourmeme.com)

Being a birdwatcher, I happened to be wandering around the Yale campus with my binoculars and camera (as you normally would) after struggling with a particularly intractable essay. The time was approximately 4:30pm and because days get shorter as winter approaches, it was already getting dark by then. As I was walking down Hillhouse Avenue, near the Yale Economics Department, a couple of grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) suddenly broke into a frantic scamper even though there wasn’t any sort of noticeable disturbance. Curious, I decided to investigate, and that was when I saw this dark blob-like shadow about the size of a teddy bear perched on a branch midway up a tree. This was what I saw:

Barred Owl_1This bird is a Barred Owl (Strix varia) a fairly large owl that can be found all over the east coast of the United States, and there it was, sitting right there less than 10 metres away from my face! Imagine the excitement of being able to get so close to such a beautiful and majestic bird. It’s like winning the lottery AND meeting Sir David Attenborough in person at the same time!

This was a particularly exciting find because Barred Owls aren’t often sighted deep in urban areas, generally preferring to stay within forested areas and marshland. Seeing a bird of prey as large as this so deep within an urban area was quite the shock indeed.

But this wasn’t my only sighting of the Barred Owl. Two weeks after my initial sighting, the Barred Owl showed up again! This time right in the heart of the Yale campus at 2:30pm in the afternoon just outside the William L. Harkness Hall.

IMG_7190

Because the bird was in such a conspicuous location, it naturally attracted quite a lot of attention from passers-by, many of whom would pause for a couple of minutes to admire the bird and snap a couple of pictures with their iphones.

But how does this actually relate to NUS? Coincidentally enough, NUS also has its very own urban owl. And even more coincidentally, the resident NUS owl is a closely related species to the Barred Owl of New Haven.

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This owl is the Spotted Wood Owl (Strix seloputo), a similarly large and wide-eyed bird of prey that comes from the same genus as the Barred Owl – if you look at the scientific names of the two birds, you’ll notice that they share the same first name – the genus StrixStrix owls, also commonly known as ‘wood owls’, are very distinctive birds because unlike other owl species, they have rounded heads with no ‘eyebrows’. This makes them easy to distinguish in the wild because in the darkness sometimes all you’ll be able to see is a silhouette, and being able to distinguish the head shape is a very important part of identifying owl species. 

strix_1

Like the Barred Owl, the Spotted Wood Owl is also more often found in wooded areas and is less commonly found hanging around in urban areas, so why these two owls would venture out into the highly urbanised campuses of Yale and NUS remains a mystery.

spotted-wood-owl

There are some possible explanations for this coincidental co-occurrence, though. One of the reasons why both the Yale and NUS campuses might be appealing to large Strix owls like the Barred and the Spotted Wood Owls is the prevalence of tall, old trees.

New Haven, also known as the ‘Elm City’, was one of the first cities in America to have a public tree planting programme and today many tall Elm (Ulmus spp.) and oak (Quercus spp.) trees continue to thrive in New Haven, providing an ideal habitat for Barred Owls. Likewise in NUS, the many small patches of tall Tembusu (Fagrea fragrans) and Rain Trees (Albizia saman) provide ideal roosting spots for large birds of prey like the Spotted Wood Owl.

IMG_7200Another possible explanation for the sudden appearance of large owls in the urban campuses of Yale and NUS could be the abundance of viable prey animals, especially small rodents such as squirrels and rats. Both Yale and NUS have large populations of native squirrels, the Grey Squirrel and the Plantain Squirrel (Callosciurus notatus) respectively, and as with most urban areas, rats and other assorted vermin also have a strong presence in both places. This in turn provides more than ample food supply to large birds of prey like owls and might account for why these nocturnal birds might find the campus environment so attractive.

spotted-wood-owl_2

What all this points to is the importance of having mature groves of tall trees in urban areas and how this can serve as remarkably productive habitats for all manner of wild animals. While we generally think of urban areas as species depauperate landscapes dominated by only a handful of extremely abundant species, the presence of large, mature trees gives rise to a variety of microhabitats and resources that provide an avenue for animals not usually associated with urban centres to slowly establish their presence.

So there you have it, a quick introduction to a pair of charismatic birds that call the urban campuses of Yale and NUS home. If you happen to belong to either one of these two institutions, you might want to keep a look out the next time you walk through the campus in the evening. Who knows, you might just have a close encounter with one of these beautiful birds.

*Note: Unless otherwise stated, all photos are my own. Please feel free to use them for non-commercial purposes but I would greatly appreciate it if you could credit the image to me if you should use it. Thanks.

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Greetings from New Haven!!

Greetings, salutations, and hello from not-quite-so-sunny New Haven! As many of you may already know, I’m currently spending a year abroad in Yale University and so far this have been Absolutely Fantastic!

So, what have I been doing for the past 6 weeks? Far too much to cover in a single blog post, that’s for sure. This does also mean that I’ve got plenty of material to write about so do stay tuned to this space and I’ll keep you all posted about what I’ve been up to. Here, though, are some first impressions of life in Yale.

Timothy Dwight College

This is Timothy Dwight College, one of 12 undergraduate residential colleges here in Yale and where I will be living for the next 2 semesters or so.

In addition to being the most amazing college in Yale, TD is also one of the most out-of-the-way colleges in Yale. We’re just special that way.

Gingko Tree in TD Quad

One of the things that make TD special (to me, at least) is the huge Gingko biloba tree growing in the quad (yes, the very species that produces the highly-prized gingko nuts). Gingkos are fascinating trees because they are essentially living fossils, with some gingko fossils dating back approximately 270 million years (according to wikipedia) and this is the first time I’ve ever come face-to-bark with a gingko tree.

Dixie!!

This is Dixie. Dixie is a linguistics major here at Yale and is a member of the small but growing canine student population in Yale.

I’m kidding, of course.

Dixie is actually a beautiful and very friendly golden retriever who lives in TD with her ‘mummy and daddy’, who are both residential fellows living in TD. Cute, isn’t she?

The TD Dining Hall

The best shot I’ve got so far of the TD dining hall, all rigged up in preparation for TD’s music night. I thought the cardboard podium was a nice touch.

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

And what’s a blogpost from me without a picture of a bird? To round off this post, here’s a picture of the state bird of Connecticut, the American Robin (Turdus migratorius), also the state bird of Michigan and Wisconsin – creative, eh?

Okay, so that’s all the time I’ve got for now. Do check back frequently for more updates on the kinds of shenanigans I’ll be getting myself up to.

Till then, Cheerio!

*This post was adapted (read: copied and pasted with minor edits) from my original post over at the NUS Yale – Visiting International Student Programme blog.*

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Singapore Got Wildlife, Meh?

Short answer: Of course lah!

Just finished tidying up and redubbing this nature documentary I’ve been working on with a few other people for the past few months. Feels good to finally be able to cross this off my ever expanding list of things to do.

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Common Tailorbird Gathering Nesting Material

While I was walking through NUS’s newly-opened University Town back in February 2012, I came across a tiny Common Tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius) clinging on to the bark of a relatively young Pulai (Alstonia scholaris) tree with some white fibres in its beak.

As the tree was quite newly planted, it still had support struts tied to the trunk, with a cloth-like material (looks similar to the one in an earlier BESG article featuring an olive-backed sunbird) wrapped around the tree to cushion the trunk against the pressure of the support struts and the rope used to tie the struts to the tree.

Clinging tightly to the vertical face of the trunk, the tailorbird proceeded to repeatedly reach out and grab clumps of fibre from the from the fraying cloth material, repeating this process several times before flying off, presumably to use the fibres for building its nest.

 

It’s also quite interesting to see how the tailorbird is able to balance itself on the sheer vertical face of the trunk in spite of its body shape, its upward-pointing tail, and the fact that its anisodactyl feet are more suitable for perching than clinging, which is very unlike the stiff tail feathers and the zygodactyl toe arrangement that allows woodpeckers to cling effectively onto vertical surfaces. Perhaps its low body mass makes such a balancing act easier for the common tailorbird.

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Celebrating the Durian Season

Every year, the onset of the months of June, July and August herald the arrival of the durian season – a time when the veritable King of Fruits weighs heavily on the branches of the Durio zibethinus tree. For many Singaporeans, this is a time of great joy and celebration and although I personally detest durians with a passion, it would appear that some birds are also rather quite fond of that most prickly and indeed, most noxious of fruits as well.

This encounter in particular occurred a couple of weeks ago while I was conducting a nature walk for the Ground Up Initiative’s Kampung Heritage Festival at the Bottle Tree Park. A former fruit plantation owned by Lim Nee Soon, the Bottle Tree Park is mainly planted with fruit trees that produce some of our favourite tropical fruits such as mango, jackfruit, dragonfruit and of course, the durian.

While most of the durian trees planted around the park looked to be in a pretty poorly state (I suspect it might be due to some sort of beetle infestation of sorts), one of the trees growing by the freshwater stream seemed to be doing quite well, producing large clumps of spiky durian fruits, of which one seems to have attracted the attention of this female Laced Woodpecker (Picus vittatus).

Like many other woodpeckers, the Laced Woodpecker is primarily an insect-feeder (or insectivore) and uses its long tongue (which in some woodpecker species is so long it wraps around the bird’s brain) to probe in crevices or holes in tree bark to detect and extract any insects it may find. In this case, the Laced Woodpecker was busy using its tongue to repeatedly probe a hole in a durian fruit, although it’s not clear if the hole was drilled by the woodpecker or if it was made by another animal such as a squirrel.

Every few seconds of probing or so, the bird would perk its head up to check that the coast was clear before proceeding to resume with using its tongue to probe the durian’s malodorous orifice (hurr hurr).

After a few minutes or so, the woodpecker eventually lost interest in the durian and flew off, which provided an excellent opportunity for me to grab a quick shot of the underside of its wing

One thing remains unclear, however, and that is whether or not the woodpecker was feeding on insects inside the durian fruit or whether it was feasting on the supposedly buttery flesh that surrounds the durian seed (I wouldn’t know, I’ve never tried durian before). Based on the photograph below, taken about 30 mins later when the fruit seller cut down the durian fruit to sell, it would appear that there were tiny ants inside the durian shell, which suggests that the woodpecker may have been feeding on these, although the woodpecker might also have been feeding on the durian flesh as well since woodpeckers do sometimes also feed on fruit, as was mentioned in a BESG article some years back documenting bird activity around durian fruits.

Suggested links:

1. Woodpecker Biology and Behaviour by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

http://www.birds.cornell.edu/wp_about/biology.html

2. Durians and Birds, by the Bird Ecology Study Group (BESG)

http://www.besgroup.org/2006/09/04/durians-and-birds/

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Cyberbullshit in NUS

Over the past week or so, an article written by Ms Koh Choon Hwee appeared in the kent ridge commons (KRC) purporting to bring to light the issue of ‘cyberbullying’ in NUS and in particular, within the University Scholars Programme (USP). These claims were based on the responses made by various members of the USP community to a separate article written in October 2011 by Ms Keira Chen about the lack of financial aid avenues within the USP, with some comments focusing on how Ms Keira Chen comes across in her article as being stupid or at the very least, not very bright. Naturally, the charge of ‘cyberbullying’ was leveled at those who made such comments, described by the KRC as a ‘violent act of verbal abuse’. While it has since transpired over the past week that the KRC has been willfully complicit in misrepresenting the issue by deliberately cherrypicking certain comments over others, there remains a very glaring pink elephant in the room that people either ignore or seemingly take for granted – that being the very charge of ‘cyberbullying’ itself. It seems that most of the respondents to this matter have by and large accepted the notion that the comments so carefully reproduced by the KRC are truly indicative of some sort of online attack at work based on the fact that allegations of intellectual inferiority were made and most of these respondents have been quick to condemn these words as being fundamentally unacceptable  without actually examining them within the context of the original article that sparked off this fracas in the first place. For how many of us would diligently labour through Ms Keira Chen’s own words in an attempt at seeking proper context?

Fortunately for all of us, I decided to take up that challenge and while I found that her article dealt by and large with the highly pertinent issue of the lack of adequate financial support for less well-off students within the USP, it became plainly clear that one segment of her piece looked very much out of place. In a dramatic switch from talking about the plight of students in general, here Ms Keira Chen shifts the focus to herself and how, as a self-professed ‘B student’, paying for university expenses by teaching tuition is not feasible because it takes up too much time and it is to this notion of being less intellectually capable than others that many of her critics have latched on to – and rightfully so. The reason why I say this, and a reason that has been repeatedly pointed out in various forms by the same people who have been accused of ‘cyberbullying’, is that Ms Keira Chen’s argument here is not an argument at all, but is instead a fallacious appeal to sympathy and one that detracts very fundamentally from the ultimate direction of the issue she is trying to argue for. While many people have been riled up by the comment that Ms Keira Chen here “isn’t the brightest crayon in the box”, a quick look at the original article reveals that the comment is rooted not in some form of malicious attack, but in the way Ms Keira Chen has clearly portrayed herself. By offering herself up as a counterpoint to ‘bright students’ and by describing herself has having to spend 3.5 hours reading a text where others would ordinarily take 2, Ms Keira Chen is clearly portraying herself as the intellectual inferior, a circumstance that is meant to elicit sympathy from the reader when it is revealed that she has to work extra hard to make ends meet by teaching tuition. The relevance of this most unfortunate of intellectual circumstances to the issue of financial aid for less well-off students is nonexistent at best. By wallowing in her own intellectual self-pity, Ms Keira Chen is conflating her own self-professed intellectual ineptitude with her socio-economic state and using this to argue that the available financial aid options for disadvantaged students are inadequate.

While this does not in any way mean that financial aid options are adequate, or that teaching tuition is a viable means by which a university education in USP can be paid for, it does mean that this argument by reference to one’s own intellectual lack-of-ability does nothing to prove the point. Rather, it runs the risk of further misrepresenting the issue by making the problem of financial assistance one unique to Ms Keira Chen rather than an issue that applies to a broad range of needy students. This, of course, was in no small part fuelled by the heavily melodramatised account of Ms Keira Chen’s plight in an article by Ms Koh Choon Hwee published 2 weeks earlier, in which Ms Keira Chen was described as having to give tuition 6 times a week in addition to helping her siblings, all while having to sometimes sleep over in the student lounge or in a friend’s room due to her financial state. This little litany of woe, while not untrue, detracts from the issue of financial assistance since it presents Ms Keira Chen as the gold standard of the needy student, one who has to suffer the injustice of a system that does not care, rather than looking at the state of financial assistance schemes in the first place.

To come back to the comments alleged as being examples of ‘cyberbullying’, then, it would appear that these comments are in fact pointing out the impoverished (no pun intended) nature of the argument being made based on how Ms Keira Chen has been portrayed by both herself and Ms Koh Choon Hwee rather than being attacks aimed at besmirching the character of Ms Keira Chen. To take perhaps one of the bluntest comments amongst the ones chosen, it seems that people immediately fixate on the part that goes “YOU ARE VEH STUPID” and immediately cry foul while very conveniently ignoring the part that goes “okay keira chen we get it.”. The latter quote is of far greater importance because it very clearly establishes that this notion of stupidity arises not from the writer’s own malice but from the subtext of Ms Keira Chen’s original piece. That this commenter would then go on to allege that she seems “SO PROUD OF IT” is clearly a response to how Ms Keira Chen seemingly revels in her relative intellectual inferiority as the basis for critiquing NUS’s financial aid policy. By pointing out with unambiguous clarity how Ms Keira Chen portrays herself as an idiot in an attempt at milking the sympathy of others, those who would call out this fallacious form of making a point find themselves being accused of being unsympathetic, even vicious. That Ms Keira Chen’s self-portrayal is ‘begging to be parodied’ is without doubt because to leave it be would be to tacitly buy into the emotional blackmail of her own self-pity and those who would rally under the standard of being anti-‘cyberbullying’, both students and staff alike, are culpable of falling hook, line and sinker for this base sentimentality that seemingly pits the heartless, unsympathetic ‘cyberbullies’ against the poor, defenseless Ms Keira Chen.

Nothing could be further from the truth, especially since it is clear that in representing the issue, Ms Koh Choon Hwee has attempted to divest it from as much context as possible as well as to bank on our natural propensity to empathise rather than rationalise. Therein lies the power of the appeal to pity and its ability to distort and misrepresent since, to refuse to accept the premises of such a fallacy would be to reject the supposed sympathy it is supposed to evoke and to thereby be unsympathetic, cold and cruel. It is therefore our susceptibility to this sort of emotional blackmail that makes it exceedingly easy for morally impoverished writers like Ms Koh Choon Hwee to manipulate the direction of public discourse and to cast aspersions on the nature of individuals and organisations alike.  This is not to deny that cyberbullying exists, but only to assert that in this instance, no such thing has taken place.

More fundamentally, however, the onus is also on us to rid ourselves of this overwhelming compulsion to be politically correct – to avoid recoiling in disgust every time an inconvenient truth is mentioned, no matter how valid the truth may be. Perhaps it is a conditioned reflex that serves as a panacea for having to face issues that make us uncomfortable, but to instinctively apply this childish lens of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, to see matters as being exclusively ‘black’ or ‘white’, is to do a great injustice to the nuances of matters at hand and allows us to play right into the hands of those who would manipulate this instinct for their own ends. With the charge of ‘cyberbullying’ having been made, the issue very quickly became a matter of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’, with many responses desperately trying to prove that USP, for all the so-called ‘black sheep’ that it possesses, remains virtuous at heart. This swift condemnation of those who have instead responded far more rationally than the rest of us represents a capitulation to the obviously skewed morality that Ms Koh Choon Hwee seeks to impose on the issue at hand and to be complicit in the misrepresentation that she seeks to achieve. Were we to buy into this notion wholesale, we will perhaps learn to be far more censorious of ourselves, to place a preemptive muzzle over our thoughts, to practice a radical form of doublethink that requires our conformity to some hitherto unspoken of social dynamic even if it means being intellectually dishonest to ourselves. Perhaps this is what some people desire, but to me, this is precisely the antithesis of what it means to be part of a thinking community.

Full disclosure: I am a member of USP, though not one of the people implicated by the commons as being part of the ‘cyberbully’ brigade.

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Birders Behaving Badly

Singapore has no small number of rare bird species, but few are quite as rare and as beautiful as the Mangrove Pitta (Pitta megarhyncha), a colourful little bird that is found specifically in mangrove habitats in Singapore.

Mangrove Pitta (Pitta megarhyncha)

Spotting such a scarce and exquisite bird therefore tends to generate an incredible amount of excitement among bird enthusiasts and photographers alike, all of whom want the chance to observe and photograph the bird in its natural habitat. This level of excitement, however, leads some people to do things that may end up being detrimental to the livelihood of the bird in general and although I’ve heard many stories of such incidents happening, today was my first time witnessing this appalling behaviour in the flesh.

Mangrove Pitta (Pitta megarhyncha)

In this instance, the mangrove pitta was reportedly spotted somewhere in the East and the appearance of the pitta near the boardwalk sparked off a flurry of activity among the 10-odd bird photographers present with their unfeasibly large and expensive camera setups. With everyone focused on capturing a clear shot of the bird, things were remarkably calm and civilised, at least until one birder began making squeaking noises (known as ‘pishing’) to try to draw the bird closer to where the cameras were. As I found out to my surprise during my LSM2251 Ecology module, although pishing does have the effect of luring birds closer, doing so disrupts the natural behaviour of the birds and is therefore not recommended as a birding practice as it places unnecessary stress on the bird. In this case, with the pitta already so close to the cacophony of clicking cameras, pishing the pitta was entirely unnecessary and unwarranted since the bird was largely in plain view, albeit not directly facing the cameras, and that alone should be no reason for having to resort to disrupting the natural behaviour of the bird. In spite of this, however, not one of the birders present said a word and most of us were too engrossed with photographing the bird.

Mangrove Pitta (Pitta megarhyncha)

The last straw came, however, when the pitta finally flew off deeper into the mangrove, whereupon several of the birders present took the opportunity to leap off the boardwalk and onto the sandy mangrove substrate to chase after the bird. In addition to that, our erstwhile pisher whipped out his iPhone and began playing back a recording of the mangrove pitta’s call in an attempt to draw the bird out of the dense mangrove forest and out into the open. Like pishing, call playback also has the effect of luring out birds, though in this case it’s mainly due to the fact that birds tend to be territorial and playing back the call of another individual of the same species fools the bird into thinking another individual is present and is contesting its territory. This, too, has the unwanted side effect of placing the bird under unnecessary amounts of stress and duress since defending one’s territory is quite a taxing task for the bird and may lead to birds abandoning their territories if they lose the challenge. Indeed, if the bird happens to be nesting, playing back the call of another individual may sometimes lead to birds abandoning their nests and aborting their breeding cycles if the bird thinks the playback is a more dominant or aggressive individual. This is particularly problematic for slow-breeding species like the pittas and using call playbacks to draw pittas out may have the opposite effect of chasing the bird away from the site. All this, of course, on top of the fact that members of the public are generally not supposed to stray off the boardwalk in the mangrove areas for fear that their trampling may accidentally damage the mangrove trees or negatively affect the mangrove fauna.

Having seen and heard enough, I decided to approach the man behind these highly disruptive activities and his birding companion (see below) and very politely told them that they ought not to be using recorded calls and pishing to draw out the birds, whereupon the man simply paid no attention to what I said and his companion claimed to not have pished or played back any calls at all, an excuse which I found to be completely preposterous since he was clearly a party complicit in his friend’s needlessly disruptive actions.

Badly Behaved Birder (centre) and his companion (left)

Badly Behaved Birder

Badly Behaved Birder using his iPhone to playback pitta calls

Badly Behaving Birder's Companion

Badly Behaving Birder's Companion

Another couple who came along much later and tried the same tactic of using call playbacks to lure the pitta out were much more receptive and when informed of the disruptive effects of call playbacks, claimed that they were unaware of the potential detrimental effects of playbacks and that they were simply following what other birders were doing (I have a very low res video of them which I’ll upload later).

At the end of the day, what this whole episode demonstrates is the dangers of over-enthusiasm and the problem of the o’erweening sense of self-entitlement that some birders and bird photographers possess toward their subjects. Having sunk tens of thousands of dollars into amassing ever longer lenses most certainly does not give one the right to disturb nature for one’s own selfish purposes and, as birders, we all have a responsibility toward treating our subjects with respect to ensure that their lives and the environments they live in are not unnecessarily impacted by human disturbance. More than that, however, it would appear that the root causes of this behaviour is sometimes selfish but also sometimes unintentional and may stem from imitating the practices of others. As such, it is just as important for us as birders to inform and educate, and maybe even sometimes admonish, those who would exhibit such errant behaviour in the hopes that misconceptions and unintentional disturbances can be minimised. All this, so that we may preserve and protect the birds we profess to love so very much.

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A Whole Week’s Worth of Walking and Watching Birds

After spending the entire week running around various parks in Singapore looking for birds and counting trees, I think I’m finally getting the hang of plant identification (doesn’t make plant ID any less painful, though).

In any case, here are some of the highlights from the parks I’ve been conducting my fieldwork at:

1. Pasir Ris Park and the Botanic Gardens (2 Oct)

Funny story, this one. I started the morning off with a pretty uneventful survey at Pasir Ris Park in the middle of a light drizzle, though there was a very active pair of Collared Kingfishers (Todiramphus chloris) hanging around the Calophyllum inophyllum trees.

Collared Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris)

Immediately after the survey, though, it turned out that another friend of mine was in the vicinity (at East Coast Park) and that we both wanted to give the Circle Line open house a go so we both ended up at Kent Ridge MRT station after making a detour to Harbourfront MRT station, at which point we both decided that we ought to pay a visit to the Botanic Gardens since the Circle Line passes through that place. All of which explains why a good three hours later, the two of us were still in the middle of the Botanic Gardens despite having originally intended on making only a short visit before popping back to Kent Ridge to get some work done.

And as with any trip to the Botanic Gardens, the highlight is always the eco lake at the Bukit Timah end, which supports a remarkable number of waterbirds and the like, such as these Lesser Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna javanica), who are regularly fed by park visitors that bring along with them bags and bags of white bread.

Lesser Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna javanica)

This population of Lesser Whistling Ducks is also one of the last few sustainable populations of ducks found in Singapore due largely to habitat loss since this species favours relatively pristine freshwater wetlands such as Lorong Halus and the former Marina South Park.

Another bird caught milling about was this White-breasted Waterhen (Amauornis phoenicurus) that came out to steal some of the breadcrumbs being thrown around.

White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus)

The fact that this bird, which normally gives humans a wide berth, allowed me to get so close to it possibly attests to the impact of human disturbance on birdlife since human feeding results in these birds becoming ever more dependent on humans for food (as is the case with the Long-tailed Macaques at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve). Hopefully this won’t have too adverse an effect on their behaviour.
2. Kent Ridge Park (8 Oct)
Ok, not as many things to say about this trip aside from the fact that a really beautiful Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatela) and a triplet of Straw-headed Bulbuls (Pycnonotus zeylanicus) happened to turn up as I was counting trees. Totally made my day.

Bronchocela cristatela

Juvenile Straw-headed Bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus)

Straw-headed Bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus)

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Fieldwork at Bishan Park – Updated!

So I’ve always been itching to start blogging again and now that I’ve been bitten by the fieldwork bug, I suppose there’s no better place to start than right here and right now!

So! Welcome back for yet another dose of my ramblings, musings, and general mumblings on and about anything that strikes my fancy. Today’s post, however, is about my recent trip to Bishan Park for my ecology fieldwork to study the effect of native/non-native vegetation composition on native/non-native bird composition, though not everything is as it seems (yes, this post and subsequent ones to come bear some degree of ulterior motive as well, heh heh heh…).

For as long as I can remember, I have never had occasion to visit Bishan Park before though I have recently heard some pretty cool things about the place in light of the PUB’s recent ABC project to spruce up the Kallang River beside the park and boy, was I amazed when I was greeted by the sight of this on arrival:

The Kallang River looks like an actual river!

Never before have I seen the Kallang River look more gorgeous than this, especially after having spent 4 years of secondary school life seeing the concrete canal banks of the river further downstream near the McDonald’s at Kallang.

Can you spot the heron in this picture?

With the river, too, come the exquisitely beautiful waterbirds that hang around catching fish in the river. This Striated Heron (Butorides striatus), for instance, was fishing near one of the bridges when an old lady came by with some bread to feed the fishes. The clever little fellow was intelligent enough to observe that the pieces of bread were attracting loads of fishes and so stalked over for a quick meal or two (I think the fish were green chromides).

There were many other birds over by the grassy and landscaped areas, though the only ones I could capture with my camera were this Paddyfield Pipit (Anthus rufulus) hanging out in an open field

Paddyfield Pipit (Anthus rufulus)

and this Scaly-breasted Munia (Lonchura punctulata) with its mate in a tree near the river.

Scaly-breasted Munia (Lonchura punctulata)

Birds, however, were not the most important part of my field trip as one major component of my survey was to study the vegetation composition in Bishan Park and that means having to identify the trees within the survey area, shown in the map below.

All of which conveniently segues into the true motive of my most recent return to blogging: crowd-sourcing plant identification. While I may love all things nature, the one thing I find really difficult and am still trying to get my head around is plant identification. As such, I’d like to seek the assistance of the wider world of the internets to help identify some of the particularly puzzling plants found within my survey area (cheeky, eh?). As far as possible, I’ll try to guess the species of the plant but should I be completely wrong, please do not hesitate to let me know and disabuse me of my misconceptions. Here goes:

Plant #1: Suspected Andira inermis tree

Shot of the entire tree (with the crown)

Bark

Leaves

Fruit

Plant #2: Suspected Anthurium plowmanii

Anthurium plowmanii (?)

Plant #3: Semi-confirmed Xanthostemon chrysanthus

Crown

Leaf clumping pattern

Leaves

Plant #4: Kopsia flavida – Confirmed (Silly me)

Crown and trunk

Leaves

Plant #5: Salix babylonica – Semi confirmed

Full tree

Leaf detail

So there you have it! If you should know what these trees/shrubs are or are able to confirm some of my suspicions, do let me know by dropping a comment in the comments box at the bottom.

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