Tropical field work in a metropolis

When I’ve told some friends I’m travelling to do field work in Singapore, they’ve said, “Huh?”. They pictured Singapore as a densely populated modern international metropolis, a 21st century human hive of tall buildings and precision infrastructure. I turns out, though, that Singapore has a good system of parks and reserves holding natural spider habitat of various kinds: tropical forest, swamp forest, mangrove, beach-side woodland. For a place so full of humans, it’s rather remarkable what Singapore has managed to preserve.

I have two scientific motivations to come to Singapore, and they are represented by the two arachnologists in Singapore with whom I’m working: Joseph Koh and Daiqin Li. I’ll explain my connections to both in separate blog posts, starting here, as did my visit, with Joseph.

Joseph Koh’s career has been to serve in government and NGOs by offering expertise and leadership, but I know him as a biologist, one of the world’s experts on southeast Asian spiders. He has worked for years to document and photograph the spiders of Singapore. You might think that all the spiders of Singapore would already be known, but just a taxi ride away from the hawkers’ markets there are several, probably many, species of jumping spider new to science. I’m here to help join Joseph reveal the jumping spider diversity of Singapore.

In the few days I’ve been in Singapore, Joseph and I have had a wonderful time talking spiders, along with his young assistant Paul Ng. We visited both nature reserves (Bukit Timah) and bits of urban nature. Joseph was wonderfully generous of his time and facilities (including his research lab and collection). After a few days, Joseph needed to leave to travel to a conference. Here is our farewell photo:

Myself (left) and Joseph Koh (right)

My student Kiran Marathe has since joined me for two more days of sampling. The initial explorations with Joseph, Paul and Kiran did indeed increase our knowledge of Singapore’s biodiversity, as we found the first females of Mintonia protuberans, and at least three undescribed species. We also learned more about the habitats of some classic southeast Asian jumping spiders, including these here:

Some familiar southeast Asian jumping spiders we’ve found so far in our visit to Singapore. The arrow by Thorelliola’s face shows the spike sticking forward like a unicorn’s horn on the face of the male.

A great start from a spider perspective, but also heartening with respect to conservation. I learned of Joseph’s decades-long efforts to build a relationship between Singaporeans and nature. Such a relationship was visible in the beautiful Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. On a holiday, we saw hundreds of people walking and running up the steep but well maintained trails, enjoying nature while getting exercise. You might think such a mass of people endangers the well-preserved forest, but the visitors take great care not to go off trail. In fact, we biologists felt like we were the transgressors, going off trail, as we needed to for our work. We much appreciated the respect shown to nature by those passing by as we poked about in the forest.

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