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Marine survey reveals surprising sea life
Like much of Asia, Singapore is on a trajectory of rapid development that brings potential environmental impact. But until recently scientists had only patchy information about local marine life. Now an international marine biodiversity study is gathering important knowledge that will help inform policymakers and businesses planning further development.
Scientists from 11 countries are working on a groundbreaking marine biodiversity survey in Singapore. The survey has already revealed entirely new sea animals and plants, as well as mangrove worm and snail species not usually found here.
The information they are gathering will allow the city-state of some 5 million people and the companies operating there to assess and reduce the impact that development activities might have on sea life. It could help protect important habitat, and add to a growing body of knowledge about biodiversity in Asia in a period of tremendous change and development.
“We provide the threads that help make the big fabric for policymakers, urban planners and businesses,” said Professor Peter Ng, the survey’s chief scientist who heads the Tropical Marine Science Institute and the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, both at the National University of Singapore.
This is the first marine survey of this scale undertaken in Singapore, an equatorial city-state built on 63 islands, including some 200 square kilometres (around 77 square miles) of land reclaimed from the sea in the past few decades. Ten Singapore-based scientists are working on the project, as well as 20 international scientists whose participation Shell funded. Some come from other Asian countries, including Thailand, Malaysia, China and Japan, ensuring that the knowledge and skills gained will be available for future marine surveys in the region.
The researchers have canvassed mudflats and conducted sea dredges in shallow waters along Singapore’s coast. They believe they have discovered at least six new species, and around 30 that may have travelled from other parts of the world. They have also found four previously thought to have been wiped out by the impact of urban development.
One discovery has been a type of seaweed-feeding snail first found in Japan in 1959. Similar species were later found in Australia, India and the Philippines, but this is the first time scientists have seen them in Singapore, said Kathe Jensen, a sea-snail expert from Denmark. These snails and their relatives, the sap-sucking sea-slugs, eat only a specific type of seaweed. They grow only where this seaweed flourishes.
As scientists worked in a temporary lab, each arrival of new specimens caused a buzz of excitement. When a volunteer brought in a starfish called a Basket Star, colleagues crowded round. About the size of the palm of an adult hand and normally found in deep waters, it had been dredged up in that morning’s shallow-water catch.
The survey also discovered 6-centimetre mangrove worms rarely seen in South-east Asia and zebra-patterned crabs, among other finds. The survey and associated research will take four to five years to complete before the findings will be published, including for use by governments and companies. In 2013 the researchers ventured beyond mudflats and shorelines to deeper waters, where entirely different animals thrive.