Monday, November 9, 2009

030. 4 ‘Kids’ & 1 Huge ‘Playground’ – Semakau Land Survey Pt.1

IMG_2052-2It was a trip down our childhood years as 8 of us literally bashed through the wild grassland that grew with abundance in the landfill cells. Never mind that the Mimosa stood tall and overshadowed the smallest of us (approx. 150cm in height), all thoughts of prickly burrs from the Love-in-the-Mist (Passiflora foetida) and thorny abrasions flew as Jia Yi and I exclaimed excitedly over our finds. Spiders, grasshoppers, butterflies, dragonflies etc were all part of our treasure trove as we swept figure-of-eights over the heads of the swaying lalangs. With Robert as boss of our team (and Ed as leader of the other), us 3 girls slowly became acquainted with the microfauna that made up the inhabitants of Semakau’s unexplored grassland.

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(left): Getting ready the equipment with butterfly nets as the main gear…

(right): .. before we entered the tall, thick overgrowth. The cells that we entered are the ones that have already been packed to the brim with ash (rubbish-incinerated produce). None of the plants found here are human-introduced but were instead dispersed by the wind and creatures like birds. Notice the irony of the situation? :) (of course, we are there for a purpose, hence it’s a-ok!) But before moving on, let’s introduce the intrepid ‘pioneers’ of the insect-team!

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(left): The youngest and the most bubbly of this surveying team is Jiayi. Though many a times she got overshadowed by the tall, prickly Mimosas, she made her way through slowly. And her ‘haul’ of the day included a rather thug-like hornet, several dragonflies and tons of spiders (none were hurt in the process). =)

(middle): With a concentrated look, Meiyi made sure she didn’t miss out any potential microfauna that will be useful in mapping out the inhabitants of the grassland-cum-ash-filled cells ecosystem of Semakau. 

(right): Halfway through the sweeping-checking-transferring-releasing process, Ying Wei got side-tracked and ended up in our group. :) Transferring the many-legged creatures into containers require full attention as we wouldn’t want them escaping. Also, we had to be careful that neither us nor the animals get hurt in the process (we might get stung while the latter might lose a limb).

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And last but not least, we had Robert as our Columbus to pave a way through ‘unchartered’ territory. It ain’t easy being the first man at the front since the grasses proved to be quite the formidable wall. Roots and the snaking rhizomes could easily cause a trip if not careful. Also, the thick and dry turf that we stepped on were so uneven that a slight imbalance could cause one to fall down and kneel over. With an impish grin, Robert said that he didn’t mind the ‘royal’ treatment … –.–”’

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1st: Testing out skills before meeting the grassland head-on. Once entering the bushy overgrowth…

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2nd: … it’s time to sweep, sweep and sweep!! Leave no stone unturned as they say. :)

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3rd: Once a small patch is explored, stop awhile to check on the insects captured. Seek advice to avoid containing the same creatures. All that was needed was 2-3 of each species.

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4th: Transfer creatures into appropriate containers. Butterflies and dragonflies went into the larger ones while tiny spiders can be sufficiently enclosed in one of those slender tubes (right pic).

IMG_2043-1Time for a short water break before carrying on. Since we only had 3 nets per team, I was in-charge of carrying the containers that temporarily housed the specimens. Also, if in need of an empty container?  Just give me a holler~ =)

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We were given 2 hours to net as many creatures as possible. By the time we near the end, I had a bagful of containers that were a-buzzing with life. Quite a haul too and we didn’t even had to walk all the way through one end of the cell to the other end. We knew we had reached the road when the refineries came into sight (right pic). 


Against the setting sun as backdrop, Robert can be seen sweeping for the last time before we packed up our equipment and called it a day.

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(left): As we were busy sweeping for insects and spiders, the bird team set up mist nets nearby to catch birds for identification. The ones that faced sideways can be easily seen while the ones that faced frontwards blended easily against the background.

IMG_2088-1And the haul from the 2 combined teams, with 2 bottles of alcohol standing-by for preservation purposes. Later, the organisms were sorted out via generalised categories like ‘Spider’, ‘Dragonfly’, ‘Bee’ etc.

IMG_2105Taking images of the arachnids were not an easy job as still focus and lively spiders don’t usually go hand-in-hand. 

IMG_2163One of the captures of the day – a robber fly (aka ‘Robert’ fly) from the family Asilidae. The dense moustache on its face helps protect its head and face from preys that just don’t give up easily. Its short but strong proboscis is used to stab and inject its victims with saliva that paralyzes and digest the innards, before it all gets sucked up. The adults attack other creatures that range from other flies to to the predatory spiders. It’s cool but damn, this sure is one vicious fly. *nods*

Thursday, November 5, 2009

029. Around the World in 14 days

Collecting dust, that’s what this blog’s been doing. What can I say, I took more than I could handle this semester and now my plate’s overflowing. Spilling even. Compared to having read through 13 pages of some bloke et al. going on about epigenetics, rDNA, episome etc (yawns), blogging about my adventure yesterday with Miss Woo might perk me up a bit.

Now then, here’s a little something. Can you guess what this lovely creature (bottom) might be? With its feathery antennae and fur-like covering, it looks somewhat like a rabbit. It’s a matter of imagination of course. IMG_1990

Weather’s been cold and damp these past few days. Add in a dash of thunder and gusts of cold breeze, and you have a perfect day to snuggle warm against your blankets. After the rain stopped pouring somewhat, Hen and I walked around campus in search for Dillenia sp. patches. They are going to be spots where she will spend at least 2 hours of her time (per observation) to note down the birds that make the red Dillenia fruits part of their diet. As we were just about to call it a day (and head down to Business Fac’s dessert stall), the above creature caught my eye.

What caught my breath weren’t its colours but its sheer size as it held still against a large Dillenia suffruticosa leaf. And yeap, as some of you might have guessed already, it’s the giant Atlas Moth (Attacus atlas). Measuring against my notebook, its wingspan was at least 25cm while its vertical length (from head to wing tip at the bottom) was approximately 15cm. Named after the Titan in Greek mythology, its wings’ patterns are said to look like maps. Again, it’s all up to eyes’ of the beholder. IMG_1965

This, I assumed, is a male as males are said to have bushier antennae to seek out the pheromones released by their female counterparts. Hence, any of the chemicals that carried downwind can be easily detected by his large, feathery antennae. But in comparison, females are noted to be even larger in size. However, neither sex possessed fully-formed mouth parts and hence do not feed. The 10-14 days they have on Earth is spent mating and reproducing. And throughout this period, they survive on nothing more but their larval fat reserves which they had accumulated while they were in their caterpillar stage. IMG_1985

And this leads me to a question, what ecological role do these moths have on the stage which Mother Nature runs as director? And by role, I am not referring to the silk which they are known to be cultivated for. Compared to the Silkworm moth (Bombyx mori), the silk of the Atlas moth is secreted as broken strands. Known also as fagara, its brown, wool-like silk is thought to be longer-lasting.  Anyway, they can’t be doing nothing but mating and spawning… right? I couldn’t come up with anything substantial via Google though…

Generally, Atlas moths are tawny to maroon in colour with roughly triangular, see-through "eyes" on both forewing and hindwing that’s bordered in black (bottom picture, right). Their reason of existence is still rather vague, but they are thought to be important in avoiding predators (small mammals and birds). The bodies of these moths are rather hairy and disproportionately small compared to their wings.

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The moth in its full glory…IMG_1998

..but I wonder, why the need for these red streaks at the side of its wings? Is it suppose to bear resemblance to a mouth? (since it’s noted that the hooked wingtips are said to look somewhat like a snake's head (complete with eye), to scare off predators)

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And here’s a look on what’s at the front.. caught this as the moth started to beat its wings softly… (but looking from behind, the hooked wingtips look somewhat like a parrot’s head). =) Common as it might be (especially from November to January), it can’t be denied that this creature is truly a majestic beauty. 

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Okie, okie… back to hitting the books.. looks like it’s gonna be a long night. >_>