A Field Guide to Common Marine Fishes of Singapore

Fish index (by name)
Fish families (by picture)
Parts of a fish
Kelvin K P Lim and Jeffrey K Y Low
Map of Singapore's coastal areas

There are a variety of distinct coastal marine habitats around Singapore, all of them inhabited by fish. These are discussed here as individual entities such as coral reef, rocky shore, mangrove and mudflats, although they often merge into one another, or one may even occur within the other. Some fish species have specific habitat preferences. For instance, the clownfishes are found only in coral reefs while some gobies are restricted to mangrove pools. However, many species, such as the mojarras, occur over a wide variety of habitats.

It should also be noted that many local ecosystems have been created by man. Examples include granite breakwaters, reclaimed beaches and concretised canals. Generally the biodiversity in such artificial environments tends to be poorer, but many species are still to be found.

The Johor Straits is that narrow channel which separates Singapore from the southern end of Peninsular Malaysia. It meets the South China Sea at the eastern end, and the Malacca Straits at the western end. In this sheltered area, mangroves and mudflats feature prominently along Singapore's northern coastline.
view of concretised estuary
Concretised estuary along
the south-east coast

photo: Tan Koh Siang

view of granite breakwaters
Granite breakwaters
at Marina South

photo: Tan Koh Siang

The southern coastline in contrast, is exposed to stronger currents in the Singapore Straits. There is more water circulation, less sedimentation and thus, cleaner water with higher salinity in this area, allowing reef-building corals to thrive. Coral reefs and sandy beaches are mainly found in this area.

Coral reefs support a complex ecosystem of a high diversity of marine organisms. Reef-building corals require conditions like those found in the Singapore Straits in order to thrive. Therefore coral reefs are usually found fringing islands (e.g., St. John's, Kusu, Hantu, Sudong, Pawai, Senang, Seringat and Semakau) or in isolated patches (e.g., Terumbu
view of reef flat
Reef flat at low tide,
Pulau Seringat

photo: N Sivasothi
Pempang Laut, Terumbu Pempang Tengah, Terumbu Selegi and Cyrene Reefs) off the southern coast of Singapore. Many of these islands have been set aside for recreational purposes, but a number are also used to house oil refineries, and a few for conducting military exercises. Recent economic development saw extensive land reclamation on these islands which has caused many reefs to be buried and others to be covered with silt. See 'A Guide to the Coral Reef Life of Singapore' in the Science Centre series for further information.

The rocky shore habitat is often found in close vicinity of coral reefs and usually set against a steep slope on the landward side. It is characterised by the ubiquitous large sedimentary boulders and rock pools exposed during low tides. Examples may be found at Labrador Beach and the western side of St. John's Island. The rocks provide numerous shelters and many reef-dwelling animals are also found there. Granite breakwaters constructed along reclaimed land can probably be considered an artificial equivalent.

Rocky shore of
St. John's island

photo: Kelvin Lim

Sandy shores like those along the East Coast Parkway have been created by man through reclamation. This habitat is relatively exposed and offers little shelter. Many benthic creatures that live here often bury themselves in the substrate. Patches of seagrass found in some areas support their own unique ecosystem.

The mangrove habitat is located in the intertidal zone, usually along estuaries. It is characterised by trees adapted to saltwater with air-breathing roots lending support on the largely anaerobic muddy substrate. Among the root systems pools of water may be found during low tide. Many gobies are found specifically in these pools. Although much of the original mangroves have given way to coastal development, remaining patches may be found along the northern coastlines and on the islands of Ubin and Tekong. Small patches like those in the Sungei Buloh Nature Park and the Pasir Ris Park have been specially set aside for preservation.
view of mangrove forest
Mangrove forest of
Lim Chu Kang end

photo: N Sivasothi
Additional small patches of mangrove can be found in the southern islands (e.g., Pulau Semakau and St. John's Island).

Mudflats, also associated with estuaries, are usually found adjacent to stretches of mangrove. Mudflats tend to be exposed to the air during low tide and they are important feeding grounds for migratory wading birds. Numerous burrowing creatures find shelter and food in the richly organic but oxygen deficient substrate. Mudskippers are a common and very visible fish in this habitat. An easily accessible mudflat can be seen off Pasir Ris Park.
view of mudflat
Mudflat off Sungei Buloh
exposed at low tide

photo: N Sivasothi
Coastal Marine Habitats
Fishy Trivia
Dangerous Fishes
Fishes and Man
About the guidebook
From A Guide to Common Marine Fishes of Singapore by Kelvin K P Lim and Jeffrey K Y Low
Published by the Singapore Science Centre and sponsored by BP

©Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research and Singapore Science Centre