Much of the research within the biodiversity group has the ultimate aim of helping to conserve the biodiversity of Singapore and South East Asia through an understanding of the ecology of threatened species (selected plants and invertebrates such as fish, pangolins, mouse deer, hornbills) and communities.
South East Asia supports 15 to 25 per cent of total global biodiversity. It is also a region with accelerating habitat loss, massive over-exploitation of natural resources, and increasing threats from environmental degradation, pollution, and climate change.
Understanding the biodiversity of the region and contributing to its conservation and sustainable utilization is therefore a key focus of the research program in the department which has research collaborations from Madagascar to Hawaii and French Polynesia. The current research program is broad-based and can be divided into several major components. from Madagascar to Hawaii andFrench Polynesia.
Systematics is the study of the diversity of life and how species are related to each other. Systematics forms the foundation of any biodiversity program, and is of particular importance in South East Asia, with its exceptionally high species diversity and comparatively short history of species discovery. In turn, systematics provides the essential raw data on which many related disciplines are based. It is also important for servicing bioprospecting, biotechnology and other life science disciplines in the university and its associated institutes. Studies within the biodiversity group encompass a wide range of organisms, from flowering plants to corals, worms, crustaceans, insects, fishes, frogs, reptiles and birds. Phylogeography, which takes a phylogenetic perspective on biogeography and attempts to understand contemporary distributions in terms of historical processes, is currently a growth area within systematics. South East Asia is an ideal test bed for theories of evolutionary diversification so this growth is set to continue. Several projects are also looking at interactions between phylogeny and biogeography on a regional and global scale.
Expertise in community ecology within the department is focused on the two most diverse communities in the region: tropical forests and coral reefs. In both cases, research has benefitted from the presence of study sites with high diversity within Singapore itself, as well as collaborations throughout the region. Current work on tropical forests includes studies on recovery from natural and human disturbances, invasive species, the impacts of hunting on key ecological processes, and the role of rural people in protecting forests. Major areas in coral reef ecology include coral biology, phenotypic plasticity, ecotoxicology, the ecology of giant clams, benthic ecology, reef restoration, management indices and rehabilitation of modified habitats. There are also projects in mangroves and peat swamp forests―a major global carbon store. Urban ecologists and microbiologists are studying the effects of rain-caused perturbations and of urban land-use types on sediment microbiomes in waterways and their role in self-purification of surface water in low energy regimes. In Indonesia, they are studying the microbial basis of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from land-use change by drainage and deforestation of peatlands for agriculture.
Much of the research within the biodiversity group has the ultimate aim of helping to conserve the biodiversity of Singapore and South East Asia through an understanding of the ecology of threatened species (selected plants and invertebrates such as fish, pangolins, mousedeer, hornbills, banded-leaf monkeys) and communities. There has also been an increasing focus on the practice of conservation, including the identification of areas and species in need of protection, the design of effective conservation strategies for protected areas and species, and the testing of potential management interventions for the matrix between these areas. The restoration of degraded forests and coral reefs has also received attention, and a major new project is looking at ways to conserve and enhance the native biodiversity in urban areas. The recent publication of the Singapore Red Data Book, in collaboration with the National Parks Board and the Nature Society (Singapore), is an example of how basic research is contributing to practical conservation. Members of the department’s biodiversity group also play an increasingly important role in public education on conservation issues.
Behavioral ecology is one of the key areas of research within the department, reflecting its importance in understanding the ecology and evolutionary diversification of animals. Focal study organisms include birds, frogs, spiders and flies, with on-going studies on the importance of sexual selection for speciation, communication (including social and mating behavior) and predator-prey interactions. Other studies involve the behavior of crabs, fish, frogs and a range of other organisms. The department has considerable expertise in functional morphology which is a related area about the relationship between form and function in organisms.
The biodiversity expertise within the department is increasingly being applied to local, regional and global environmental problems. These include water and air pollution, as well as the impacts of global climate change. Much of this work is done in collaboration with other institutions, within NUS, the Singapore Government, including National Environment Agency, National Parks Board and Public Utilities Board, various regional bodies, and international organizations like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, International Maritime Organization, United Nations Development Program, United Nations Environment Program, and Food and Agricultural Organization.
No one has had greater influence on the study of biology than Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. An outline of their remarkably similar theories was first published in 1858 and Darwin’s revolutionary Origin of species appeared the following year. Within 15 to 20 years, the international scientific community had accepted that evolution was a fact, both at the present and stretching back into the ancient history of life. Studying, interpreting and communicating about these pioneering naturalists is an important part of the history of science. Two important research projects are based at DBS: Darwin Online and Wallace Online. Each one provides, for the first time, the complete works of both men – allowing their voluminous writings to be electronically searched in seconds. The projects continue at the forefront of research and regularly publish books, articles and new discoveries.