New parasite exhibition opens at Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Leeches, worms and lice are just a few of the specimens on display at the Body Snatchers exhibition. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Dr. Jose Christopher Mendoza (facing camera) at the Body Snatchers exhibition launch at Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum on Oct 29, 2021. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Ms Kate Pocklington, curator of the Body Snatchers exhibition at Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum on Oct 29, 2021. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - A new exhibition at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum wants to dispel the notion that parasites are nothing but pests.

Parasitism is a relationship between two organisms where the parasite lives in or on the host and whose existence is harmful to the host.

"Parasites play an important role in promoting biodiversity in an ecosystem, and they help to keep things in balance," said the exhibit's curator, Ms Kate Pocklington, a senior conservator at the museum.

"It's about population control, so that certain species are kept in check."

Leeches, worms and lice are just a few of the specimens on display at the exhibition, Body Snatchers, which opened Saturday (Oct 30).

Work on the exhibition started last year during the circuit breaker period, said Ms Pocklington.

While the museum already had most of the specimens in its collection, Ms Pocklington realised it did not have any samples of head lice, one of the most common parasites found on humans.

"It was quite ironic that we don't have head lice in the collection, so I had to think about how to acquire a specimen.

"I reached out to a local nit-picking service and it directed me to a recent case of lice infestation that could pass some live samples to me," she said with a laugh.

Specimens of human remains showing the effects of parasites were borrowed from the National University of Singapore's Department of Pathology.

Launching the exhibit on Friday, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin described the experience as intriguing and said viewers could learn some lessons with regards to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Tan said: "Parasites are very resilient and we see that also with the virus. It keeps adapting and evolving and we can draw many parallels to what we as humans have had to do during the pandemic in order to survive."

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin (centre) touring the Body Snatchers exhibition at its launch at Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum on Oct 29, 2021. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Body Snatchers features an array of local parasites such as the three species of buffalo leeches found in reservoirs around Singapore and a variety of barnacles found growing on a crab's body in Changi Beach.

Dr Jose Christophe Mendoza, a colleague of Ms Pocklington and fellow conservator at the museum, said he once found, while shopping in a wet market, a species of isopod - a crustacean - that lives in the mouth of a fish by first eating the fish's tongue and then taking its place.

Dr Mendoza said many parasites are often host-specific - with certain species being able to live on specific host organisms.

Microscopic images of the head of an Armillifer moniliformis anthropod (left) and a head louse that lives on humans. PHOTOS: LEE KONG CHIAN NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM

Ms Pocklington added that because so many parasites are highly specialised and able to survive only in their chosen ecosystem on a host, it is often in their interest to have the host survive.

She cited the example of a tapeworm, which can only live in the intestinal tract of various mammals.

Horsehair worms (left and centre) with its host, the stick insect, and a specimen (right) of the horsehair worm. PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

"It's quite happy to just take enough nutrients for itself because if it grows too big and ruptures the intestine, then its host dies and the tapeworm dies along with it.

"The perfect parasite is the kind that doesn't kill its host," she said.

Body Snatchers is located at the mezzanine level of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, located on NUS' Kent Ridge campus. The museum opens on Tuesdays to Sundays from 10am to 6pm, with the last admission at 4.30pm.


Correction note: An earlier version of this story said that Body Snatchers was a permanent exhibition at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. This is incorrect. It is only a temporary exhibition but it currently has no end date yet.

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