Pulau Hantu - A celebration of marine life

Secret lives and secret worlds hidden in Singapore's most popular coral reef.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Bumper harvest for anemone hunters

Research mission uncovers many new species in S'pore waters
By Shobana Kesava Straits Times 4 Aug 07

SOME gaze into the marine firmament to look for starfish. For Dr Daphne Fautin, sea anemones give her the thrills.

As she peers down a microscope, Dr Fautin, 61, exclaims with excitement: Yet another discovery has been made here in Singapore.

The sea anemone expert has not seen anything quite like it: an anemone with bumps all the way down its throat. Just hours earlier, she and a handful of local naturalists had found one with strawberry spots running down its base.

There are about 1,000 known species of anemone, the smallest and largest of which are found in Singapore.

The tiniest one known to science, just a millimetre across, was uncovered on blades of seagrass here.

The largest, over a metre in height and diameter, makes up a complete ecosystem, supporting clownfish and shrimp.

Dr Fautin's discoveries bring the total number of sea anemone species identified here to 40.

The discoveries are potentially significant because of the dual nature of sea anemones.

Dr Fautin said they produce the most complex cell secretions. Stinging cells called nematocysts lie on these carnivores' tentacles, paralysing prey and pulling the trapped creature towards their mouths.

'Past studies have found this secretion fights cancer in mice,' Dr Fautin said. New finds could lead to new drug developments.

At the same time, these animals are so simple in structure that developmental biologists can use them to understand how cells divide to become heads, limbs or tails.

While no species of anemone is believed to be endangered, Dr Fautin said that it is possible for some to disappear before they can be identified.

The hantuensis species, once spotted on Pulau Hantu, has eluded the researchers in these last few weeks despite their efforts.

Dr Fautin warns against thinking that the world won't miss what it never knew it had.

'Fishermen have seen crabs and fish go missing. Only later, we found out it was because the mangroves, the habitat of their young, had been destroyed.

'Right now, we don't know what part of the ecosystem will also be affected down the road, because anemones have been removed too,' Dr Fautin said.

Siva's del.icio.us link on Dr Daphne's trip

More photos of sea anemones of Singapore's shores on wildsingapore flickr