#WCMT Citizen Science research trip: Investigating Singapore’s wetlands, butterflies and trees

Panel in one of Singapore’s many underground stations showcasing local biodiversity

The first destination on the 5-week Winston Churchill Memorial Trust-funded research trip was Singapore. It’s a city I’ve been to before – it’s a convenient stop-over en route to Europe. But this time, I experienced this densely populated island through a different lens: as a ‘citizen science tourist!’. 

Sungai Buloh Wetland Reserve

These wetlands to the north east of the island have been on my bucket list for a while. The reserve was gazetted in 2002 after local pressure (see Wee & Hale 2008). An industrial building boom is in full swing placing the remaining open spaces adjacent to the reserve at risk of development. Inside the reserve, two impressive visitor centres provide an overview of the local ecology and draw attention to the site’s strategic mid-point on the East Asian – Australasian flyway. Former prawn farms provide valuable feeding and resting areas for migratory waterbirds travelling from as far afield as NZ and Alaska.

Mangroves are a rare habitat in Singapore with a mere 6.6 km2 remaining today (less than 1% of Singapore’s surface area). Most exciting for a plant geek like me, was seeing the complex architecture of mangrove root systems. Each species has its own adaptation to provide stability in a salty and dynamic environment. These include spiky pneumatophores (‘breathing roots’), complex branching stilt structures, winding buttresses, and colonies of ‘knees’ appearing out of the estuarine muds. While elevated walkways literally offer different perspectives on the tidescapes, they also provide some protection from crocodiles(!).

Convolutions of mangrove roots at Sungai Buloh

Surveying butterflies with NParks   

Engaging citizens in collecting environmental data began in 2015, signalling a new direction for the National Parks Board (NParks). Several programmes are underway to document birds (herons, garden and shore birds), insects (dragonflies and butterflies), plants (seagrass) and environmental health through intertidal and reef surveys and measuring levels of marine ecotoxicity. Biodiversity surveys in schools and through bioblitzes are also supported.

I teamed up with Joy Wong (Biodiversity Manager) at the Upper Seletar Reservoir for butterfly monitoring, part of the twice-yearly Butterfly Watch programme to gain a better understanding of butterfly diversity and location in Singapore. They’re good ecological indicators. They feed on host plant leaves during their larval stages, sup nectar as adults while forming a food source for birds, reptiles and other insects.

Joy Wong from NParks surveying butterflies

It’s tricky identifying butterflies (they can move quickly and unpredictably), so volunteers joining the programme have 3 hours of training before venturing to set locations around the island. Volunteers submit photos to help verify their observations. Confidence plays a big part in whether volunteers return – around three quarters are one-timers. Much support has been provided by the Butterfly Circle, a group of amateur experts and photographers whose long-running checklist programme compliments that of the NParks. A finer-grained study with experienced volunteers is simultaneously underway: monthly surveys take place at selected sites to measure seasonal variability and diversity among butterfly populations.

NParks Butterfly Survey

Infogram (cropped) for participants of NParks Butterfly Watch citizen science programme

Investigating the intertidal zone

I later met Pei Rong Cheo (NParks Biodiversity Manager, Coastal and Marine) who outlined the challenges of designing, running a programme, managing volunteers, collating and cleaning data along with reporting back to participants. Pei Rong runs NParks Intertidal Watch programme. Being heavily modified and under threat from coastal development, Singapore’s intertidal areas are surprisingly species rich. We discussed the complexity of finding the ‘sweet spot’ between science and engagement that takes variables e.g., data robustness, functionality and volunteer ability into consideration. A challenge is that this sweet spot doesn’t remain static – it shifts e.g., according to volunteers’ expertise and willingness to learn, and advances in technology.

Celebrating urban trees

Despite the acute population density (8292 people per km2 compared to New Zealand… at 18 people per km2), Singapore aims to be the ‘world’s greenest city’. It’s immediately apparent on arriving at Changi airport: greenery abounds both indoors and out. Large trees complete with colonies of epiphytic plants line roads, creating shady microclimates in the tropical heat. In recent years, more native species have been planted throughout the city, complimented by interpretative signage. Along with greening architecture, there is a shift toward multi-storied plantings that mimic the habitat layers in forests.

Part of the interpretation panel reads ‘in 1883, the Jelutong was reportedly close to being extinct in Singapore. Its status since then has been restored to common due to conservation efforts.


Wee, Y.C., & Hale, R. 2008. The Nature Society (Singapore) and the Struggle to Conserve Singapore’s Nature Areas. Nature in Singapore 1: 41–49

Thiagarajah, J. et al. 2015. Historical and contemporary cultural ecosystem service values in the rapidly urbanizing city state of Singapore. Ambio 44(7): 666–677

One response to “#WCMT Citizen Science research trip: Investigating Singapore’s wetlands, butterflies and trees

  1. Pingback: #WCMT Citizen Science research trip: #ForumCS 2019, Muenster, Day 1 | monicalogues·

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