Last updates for now…

I’ve added some great new images of large ciliates from a forest stream in MacRitchie Reservoir. Flowing water is generally a bad place to look for protists, compared with standing water (e.g. ponds), but this large Euplotes and another large ciliate are big enough to compare with invertebrate animals and in some ways behave like them too!

A whole bunch of new videos are also online; see my Vimeo account for the full listing.

Come next week I’ll be starting a new chapter of my life. I’ll be leaving Singapore (again) for my postgraduate studies, and so I won’t be able to continue generating new material for this website.

It’ll still stay up, of course, as a resource for people who are interested in protists. I may still tweak the organization and layout of the pages in my free time, and respond to feedback and other comments. If I have some time to spend at the microscope when I’m back for holidays, I’ll definitely share what I see.

Contributions from other enthusiasts are definitely welcome, or if you have your own online media or projects involving protists, do let me know via the contact page and I’ll be glad to link to you from here.

To all my visitors: thanks for all your support and for your interest in the little things which matter!

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Help build the Encyclopedia of Life

[Update 6/09/2011 – Of course I would post this blog entry with screenshots the day before they update their web interface. Have a look at the new version!]

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could go to a single resource and find out everything you want to know about a certain species of organism? The Encyclopedia of Life (EoL) aims to be just that: a “Wikipedia for species”. It does this by aggregating information that’s available on disparate databases and collections that are already online, and soliciting contributions from working scientists and members of the public.

The project kicked off in 2007 after Ed Wilson, the entomologist and evolutionary biologist (known, among other achievements, for building up the field of sociobiology), was awarded the TED Prize. The winner gets to make “One Wish to Change the World”, and his wish (video below) was to see just such an encyclopedia come into being.

It’s been gaining steam since then, partnering with institutions and projects like the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), which aims to digitize classic and out-of-copyright works of natural history and put them online.

At first, I was skeptical about how useful such a website could be, but now that it’s grown and matured, I’m starting to see the possibilities.

For example, let’s say I’m interested in a certain species. I type in its common name or scientific name, and navigate to its page. I can see its classification hierarchy (what family is it in? what other species in the same genus?), there are links to pages in digitized books and journals on BHL which mention this species, if there are molecular sequences or DNA barcodes for this species in GenBank I can directly click on the link, and so on. What’s more, users can contribute their own material which will be put online provisionally before being vetted by expert curators. In short, it’s acting as an aggregator service, with an additional layer of vetting by scientist and naturalists.

Many schools and colleges are assigning “make an EoL species page” as class assignments, which have been useful in expanding the range of information on EoL as well as giving students an opportunity to write something for a public audience.

Amateur (and professional) naturalists can also upload their photographs to Flickr and tag them for automatic harvesting by EoL, so that they’ll show up on the appropriate species page. This was part of the original vision for the encyclopedia, to crowdsource the production of multimedia. Where in the Victorian era, amateur naturalists would give their specimens to local museums and herbaria, today you can simply snap a photo, upload it, and tag it for all the world to see.

The same can be done for video, and that’s why I’m writing this today. I’ve joined the EoL’s Vimeo group and tagged my protist videos, making it possible for me to share this information that I’ve generated freely with anyone who cares to search for it. While my blog and webpage itself may not reach very many people, by linking its content to a widely-used aggregator, I can make it available to potential users who wouldn’t have thought to look on my website when it shows up in the search engine results.

There are many people in the Singapore nature community who’ve put lots of high-quality information, including photographs, videos, and write-ups, online (example, example, example). Since they’re already online, especially if you’re using Flickr to store your photographs, for a little additional effort you could be sharing this with a much wider audience and helping to plug your little bit of Singapore’s natural history into the rest of the World Wide Web. It’s a win-win-win scenario: you get more traffic, the EoL becomes more complete, and those who need the information get connected to it faster. Find out more about how you can contribute to the EoL here.

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New phytoplankton guidebook from Science Centre

The Singapore Science Centre has been publishing compact guidebooks to nature and wildlife in Singapore since 1981, beginning with A Guide to Pond Life. They’re cheap ($5 each), handy to carry around, and fully illustrated in colour, and so were my first companions to learning about the living environment around me.

Thirty years on, the 45th book in the series has been published, A Guide to Freshwater Phytoplankton in Singapore Reservoirs, written by a team of scientists from the Public Utilities Board (PUB), who have been patiently observing and cataloguing the planktonic life in our reservoirs.

It’s a very useful reference and complements this website perfectly. The groups of organisms covered are those traditionally considered algae: cyanobacteria, green algae, diatoms, chrysophytes, and more.

Wong Yueat Tin, one of the authors of the guidebook, will be giving a short talk on the book titled “The Small Things Matter!” at the third Biodiversity of Singapore Symposium (BoSS) on 24 September.

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Swimming jewels

Two days ago I took a pond water sample from the large pond/small lake in Kent Ridge Park. It’s a scenic, restful place: lots of greenery, still water, and if you look closely at the sandy sediment at the margin of the water, there are plenty of little tadpoles there.

I scooped up some water with a bit of scruffy algae, taking care not to accidentally trap any tadpoles. Under the scope I found lots of beautiful golden-brown algae, the chrysophytes. Some were free-swimming, while others were stalked or colonial, like Synura, which looks like a bunch of grapes or colored glass beads.

Synura colony

There are also heliozoans in the water, much larger than those I’ve seen before. These were large enough to see them engulfing their prey, which were mostly small flagellates including some of those chrysophytes.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/28102789]

So do check out the new pages on Chrysophytes, Dinoflagellates, among other updates.

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The Durian Flagellate

Today’s sample came from the Eco-Pond at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, and among the creatures darting about was a peculiar dark and barrel-shaped structure. It was moving so quickly that it took some time to track it down to a spot where it would stay still for long enough to observe and photograph.

Trachelomonas resting? Its flagellum is coiled up like a noodle in the upper right of this image.

Lo and behold it should appear to be like a miniature durian! The scientific name is Trachelomonas. It is an euglenid, and hence a relative of that ubiquitous textbook organism Euglena. Like Euglena it’s got a single thick flagellum which it uses for swimming, but it also has a lorica, or shell, which is decorated with those stubby spikes.

See more at the Other euglenids page.

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We’ve got video too!

I recently embedded quite a few videos in the pages of the Guide. Look in Free-living ciliates especially for some cool ones.

If you want to browse all of them in one place, you can go directly to my user page on Vimeo, which hosts the videos for this project. There are just over a dozen uploaded so far; more are forthcoming!

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Beautiful slime

A selection of really beautiful pictures of slime mould fruiting bodies have been posted in the guide, thanks to Serena Lee of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Despite the icky name, slime moulds can be very elegant in their fruiting state – some look like joss sticks, others like balls of cotton candy, and the range of colours matches the range of shapes. Just look at the delicate sponge-like consistency of the one shown below, and its dark pink hue.

Collected from Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Many slime mould species lurk around in our forests and wooded areas, living off decaying wood and plant matter. A close eye for detail and a handy camera appear to be all that’s needed to find and appreciate them.

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