New project to digitise natural specimens found in Singapore in last 200 years

The type specimen of the mangrove pit viper at the Natural History Museum in London. PHOTO: SIGNIFY SPECIMEN

SINGAPORE - Modern Singapore was born when it achieved independence in 1965, but the island and its surrounding areas have been rich in wildlife for millions of years.

Now, a group of researchers have embarked on a project that aims to preserve - in digital form - about 10,000 key natural specimens found in Singapore in the last 200 years.

On Wednesday (Aug 10), the five-year project digitising all significant natural specimens from Singapore was officially launched in London and Singapore.

Scientists from the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) at the National University of Singapore, with partners like the Natural History Museum of London - will digitally catalogue, for instance, the first snake in Singapore to be given a scientific name, the mangrove pit viper, and the first primate, the famous Raffles' banded langur.

The project marks the first attempt globally at making a country's biodiversity data freely available online to the world.

Associate Professor Darren Yeo, head of LKCNHM, said: "For the past 150 years, thousands of specimens... have journeyed between the Raffles Museum in Singapore - the predecessor of the current Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum - and the Natural History Museum in London."

With most of Singapore's specimens prior to independence housed in Britain due to its colonial legacy, Prof Yeo added: "This landmark endeavour aims to bring together digitisation and research on as many of Singapore's native animals as possible."

Known as Signify, which stands for Singapore in Global Natural History Museums Information Facility, the project will document all historically significant specimens and type specimens from Singapore in both museums.

Type specimens are physical examples of any species that serve as a reference point for when a species is first named. Historical specimens include the first animals from Singapore that were given scientific names, among other things.

The project will produce high-resolution digital specimens starting with material from both museums and, where possible, contextualise them with information about who, where, when and how the specimen was collected.

Mr Martyn Low, research associate at LKCNHM and manager of this project, said these specimens will be invaluable for studying the original biodiversity of Singapore and crucial in directing research and conservation priorities, both locally and regionally.

He added: "These early specimens can also help us better understand the original fauna of Singapore and therefore, the natural heritage of the island... These specimens and their data are no different from the equally rich heritage of artefacts and documents that compose the rich historical tapestry of our island home."

Associate Professor Darren Yeo, head of LKCNHM, at the launch of the Signify project on Aug 10, 2022. PHOTO: IFFAH LESA

Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin said learning the stories of how countries are connected through the study of natural history would be critical to constructing a shared future.

Mr Tan, who is also chairman of the Advisory Committee of LKCNHM and attended the launch event as a guest of honour, said: "The challenges facing both our countries are immense and will require more than just collecting more of what has come before."

He added: "This project is a step towards (solving) this by fostering a deeper conversation between history and science - between the past and the present; and by bringing the scientists of both museums - and both countries - together."

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