Monday, December 25, 2017

Biogeography in popular culture 2 - Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

With the new movie Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle out to capture a slice of the year-end box office pie, we have a movie featuring lots of animals, and another chance to figure out the biodiversity and biogeography of the setting.

I counted at least 16 species of animals featured in the film, and there is a constant reference to the jaguar. So is Jumanji somewhere in the Americas?

As the accuracy of biogeography depicted in popular culture such as television commercials and Katy Perry's music video is rather suspect, lets see about this one.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Africa: 1. hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius), 2. black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis), 3. Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) (?), 4. white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum), 5. African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana).

South America: 6. vulture (Cathartidae), 7. jaguar (Panthera onca)

North America: 8. Mexican red knee tarantula (Brachypelma sp.), 9. grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Unknown/unidentified (too fleeting or unfamiliar to ID): 10. eagle, 11. fruit bat (Pteropodidae), 12. centipede, 13. scorpion, 14. mosquito, 15. rat

Missing from original: lion, monkey, zebra, pelican

Based on the overwhelming number of animals (at least 4) from one continent, the new Jumanji movie is probably set somewhere in Africa. However, the presence of some species from North and South America makes this another flawed depiction of biogeography in the media industry.

I am not sure if it there is a biodiversity crisis in Jumanji that mirrors the real world, because some species from the original movie such as the zebras and lion are obviously missing from this movie.

One thing has not changed though. Just like the original, the CGI animals in the new movie look rather unnatural.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Old Spice's Sperm Whale Can't Blow Like That

Old Spice has a new ad out—another one that involves the protagonist being on top of another animal. But this time it is a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus). However, in order to not run afoul of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and for the sheer impossibility of the shot, they had to create one using CGI. But how accurate is it? Not too bad, but there are a few obvious mistakes:

1. Blow hole
The blowhole of the sperm whale is located at the dorsal tip of the snout and directed to the left, and not so far back in the middle of the dorsal surface of the animal. While the nasal passage may be big enough to fit a tennis ball (assuming the animal does not suffocate), any object that is ejected when it blows will shoot out towards the left and slightly ahead of the animal.
Position of the blowhole on the Old Spice ad.
Location of sperm whale blowhole. Photo by Vilmo Vinza

2. Whale song
The sound used at 0:46 is not of a sperm whale. Sperm whales hunt, navigate, and communicate using clicks. The song-like vocalisation in the ad belongs to a baleen whale, possibly a humpback whale.

3. Swimming dynamics
The swimming dynamics of the sperm whale is simply not convincing. It is impossible for a sperm whale to swim continuously at the surface with the front part of its body still and only its fluke in motion at speed depicted. Some degree of undulation would inevitably occur.

All in all, perhaps a B for the model (the whale, not the human).

Just last night, a colleague was musing that it would be great fun to have an annual competition between animators and biologists. The former will try to produce highly realistic CGI animals, while the latter would try to guess if they are real or fake. Judging from the pretty good non-human CGI organisms in recent films like The Revenant, The Jungle Book, and the upcoming War for the Planet of the Apes, this hypothetical CGI vs. biologists competition could actually get quite interesting.

PS. This ad gets an F for littering the ocean with trash, this also pointed out by Southern Fried Science. Marine trash such as the tennis balls in the ad can pollute the sea and cause the death of animals if swallowed.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Line and Love Our MacRitchie Forest

"Without the environment, there will be no platform for the arts, sports, businesses, jobs and economy.
All members of this House should be concerned and ask why something as inviolate as our nature reserve, on which we draw free eco-services that make our very existence that much more meaningful, is to be desecrated in the name of infrastructure."
This said by Faizah Jamal during her parliamentary speech as NMP in 2014.
Environmental issues are not restricted to "greenies", that is why when other segments of society speak regarding the environment, they are an important voice as they cannot be dismissed as niche interests from green groups.

This wonderful original song (The Line) by Rani Singam, joins the Love Our Macritchie Forest song in highlighting civil society's concern about the environmental impact of the Cross Island Line (CRL) on the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

I am proud of the fact that these artists have raised their concerns through song.
"Not just about some ole tree
It defines us, you and me"
It then falls on the usually silent majority to share the videos if the principles of where we draw the line bugs them too.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Biogeography in popular culture - Katy Perry's Roar & Transitions Optical TVC

Popular culture usually has an interesting (and often unscientific) depiction of biodiversity. Most of the time, producers tend to take the kitchen-sink approach, where more species or the more iconic species, the better.

Unfortunately, accuracy in biogeography suffers in most cases. Biological communities and species typically vary across geographic space (e.g., continents). The media often depict organisms belonging to more than one biologically distinct geographical regions in the same space. I wonder how this has an impact in shaping people's perception of nature.

This post developed from a rather short twitter post and is meant to take a fun, non-critical look at two memorable examples, one old and one current:

Transitions Optical TVC

This eyewear lens ad depicts a day's work by wildlife cinematographer where a tiger (Panthera tigris) from Asia, scarlet macaws (Ara macao) from South America, an orangutan (Pongo sp.) from Southeast Asia, and a Raggiana bird-of-paradise (Paradisaea raggiana) from New Guinea are seen. Such an assemblage is impossible in the wild in a single forest.

If 4 species of animals of at least 3 different biographic regions are a stretch, the next one stretches reality even further.

Katy Perry - Roar

The forest in Katy Perry's new music video for Roar has a minimum of 12 species of animals from at least 4 continents.

Image: Katy Perry / Columbia Records / Twitter
Asia: 1. Tiger (Panthera tigris), 2. great hornbill (Buceros bicornis), 3. Alexandrine or rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula sp.).

Africa: 4. African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana), 5. baboon (Papio sp.).

Australia: 6. Eclectus parrot (Eclectus roratus), 

South America: 7. white-headed capuchin (Cebus capucinus), 8. blue and gold macaw (Ara ararauna ) & hybrid (Ara ararauna x Ara macao), 9. Toco toucan (Ramphastos toco).

Unknown: 10. crocodilian, 11. tarantula, 12. firefly.

This is really quite an impressive list of animals from at least 4 different ecoregions. A lot of it must have depended on what captive animals were available for the production.

And that is just for the animals. Botanists can surely come up with a list of the motley assemblage of plants as well.

Update: Inkfish also noticed and wrote about the video.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Singpore Biodiversity Zodiac - Year of the Snake

The Lunar New Year for the year of the snake is approaching, and many people are reading the traditional zodiac predictions on how their fortunes would turn and what lucky colours to wear.

That and recent proposed land use plan of Singapore inspired this zodiac featuring animals in Singapore to highlight what challenges some of them may face in the year of the snake and beyond. Some of these threats to their survival may be things that people may be able to change, perhaps, though feedback to authorities or personal change in attitudes and mindsets. 

Much thanks to friends who have given feedback on this. Happy Lunar New Year!

Singapore Biodiversity Zodiac. Click for larger version.

[Rat] - Oriental house rat (Rattus tanezumi)

This human commensal rodent can be found in scrubland, plantations and urban areas. It is nocturnal, omnivorous and is a good climber. As it sometimes enters human dwelling, it is persecuted as a pest. Read more.

[Bull] - Banded bullfrog (Kaloula pulchra)

An introduced frog that can be found living around built up areas. Males can be heard calling before and after rain, sounding like a bellow of cattle. Feeds on insects. Read more.

[Tiger] - Leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis)

Singapore's last remaining wild cat. Nocturnal, feeding mainly on rodents, birds and small animals. A small population can be found on the forest and scrubland on the offshore island of Pulau Tekong and in the Western Catchment. Threatened by habitat loss. National status: Critically endangered. Read more.

[Rabbit] - Orange-spotted rabbitfish (Siganus guttatus)

A marine reef fish which can be also be found near mangroves. Feeds on algae. It has a row of sharp, venomous spines on the dorsal fin. These spines occasionally gets the fish trapped in driftnets and crab traps. Read more.

[Dragon] - Black-bearded flying dragon (Draco melanopogon)

A slender forest-dwelling gliding lizard. A pair of skin flaps on the sides of its body allows it to glide from tree to tree. Males have black and orange throat flaps which are used for signaling.  Read more.

[Snake] - Equatorial spitting cobra (Naja sumatrana)

Highly venomous black snake named from its ability to spray venom when defending themselves. Feeds on small animals including rats, frogs and lizards. Occurs in forest, scrubland, mangroves and suburban areas. Read more.

[Horse] - Tiger tail seahorse (Hippocampus comes)

Tropical marine fish found in reefs and other benthic habitat. Males carry the eggs in a brood pouch on the chest. Threatened by collection for traditional medicine and habitat loss from land reclamation. National status: Vulnerable. Read more.

[Goat] - Lesser mousedeer (Tragulus kanchil)

One of the smallest hooved animals in the world. The genus Tragulus means "little goat", but it is neither a goat or a true deer. Feeds on fallen fruit and other vegetable matter found in the forest floor. In Singapore, restricted to Bukit Timah and Central Catchment Nature reserves. Threatened by habitat loss and poaching. National status: Critically endangered. Read more.

[Monkey] - Long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis)

This is the most common wild primate in Singapore. Forages for plant and animals both in trees and on the ground in forests, mangroves and parkland. Human-wildlife conflict with this species often results from food association with human due to human provisioning of food. Macaques regarded as problem animals are often trapped and put down. Read more.

[Rooster] - Red junglefowl (Gallus gallus)

Wild ancestor of the domestic chicken identified by a white ear patch and grey legs. Roosts in trees at night. The genetic purity of wild populations are threatened interbreeding with domestic fowls that have yellow legs. Read more.

[Dog] - Domestic dog (Canis familiaris)

Thousands of dogs are abandoned by their owners every year in Singapore. Feral population are sometimes rounded up when complaints are received by the authorities. Some are put up for adoption, while many are eventually put down. Read more.

[Pig] - Wild pig (Sus scrofa)

Singapore's largest resident land mammal. Omnivorous and active both by day and night. Once thought to be nationally extinct, populations in the Central Catchment Nature reserve were thought to be too numerous and destructive, leading to some calling for a cull, while others calling for more studies to be done. Read more.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Split Identity: The Flower Crab is Now Four and Other Stories

Life has changed slightly now that I am a full-time graduate student. This allows me a little time during 'office hours' for some research blogging to resurrect this space.

Hot off the press today with lots of interesting new findings is the latest issue of the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology published by the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research. I'll highlight two that papers that are closest to my heart.

Male crabs formerly known as Portunus pelagicus. Photo J. Lai.

The first, A Revision of the Portunus pelagicus (Linnaeus, 1758) species complex (Crustacea: Brachyura: Portunidae), with the recognition of four species by Lai et al. found that the crab formerly known as the swimming (or more commonly known in markets as 'flower') crab, P. pelagicus actually has a split identity - it is made up of four similar-looking species.

A species complex is a group of closely related species where scientists are unable to clearly differentiate. Traditionally, taxonomist use a selection of form or appearance to identify and classify organisms. This however, becomes increasingly tricky with very similar looking specimens. Using newer techniques such as molecular phylogenetics to complement morphology, scientist are now able to analyse characters and differences at genetic level and thus shed more light on species within a complex.

Based on morphology and DNA characters, the authors split the original flower crab into 4 species: P. pelagicus from Southeast and East Asia to Northern Australia; P. armatus circum Australia; and P. reticulatus and P. segnis slightly separated in the Eastern and Western Indian Ocean respectively.

It is interesting is that the original P. pelagicus was first described by Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern day scientific classification, and what Linnaeus did not have at that time is the sophisticated DNA analysis technology and know-how that is available today. We have come a long way since then. Now, what would this finding hold in the commercial realm...

Banded leaf monkey carrying infant. Photo A. Ang.

The next paper by Ang et al. records the Reproduction and Infant Pelage Colouration of the Banded Leaf Monkey (Mammalia: Primates: Cercopithecidae) in Singapore.

Prior to the study, little was known about the ecology of the banded leaf monkey (Presbytis femoralis) in Singapore. There were also reports of orange-coloured infants by scientists and veteran naturalists which is not characteristic of the species.

The authors spent 843 hours in the field and confirmed from at least 6 births that infant monkeys are born white, with black markings on the back (dorsum). This is consistent with the same species in Johor, Malaysia.

I had the pleasure of following the first author during their field trips and found that these monkeys were indeed difficult to study and follow due to their shyness and the forebodingly thick, spiky vegetation and boggy terrain. Despite this, Andie has been doggedly following them for the past one and a half years to collect these important natural history information about our local monkeys.

In addition, she collected data on their diet, genetic information from their feces and population size. All of which would contribute to the conservation of the species which now looks more optimistic for one which was formerly said to be doomed to extinction here.


  1. Lai, J. C. Y., P. K. L. Ng, P. J. F. Davie. 2010. A Revision of the Portunus pelagicus (Linnaeus, 1758) species complex (Crustacea: Brachyura: Portunidae), with the recognition of four species. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology 58(2): 199-237.
  2. Ang, A., M. R. B. Ismail, R. Meier. 2010. Reproduction and Infant Pelage Colouration of the Banded Leaf Monkey (Mammalia: Primates: Cercopithecidae) in Singapore. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology 58(2): 411-415.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Onch Slugfest

Onch slugs (family Onchidiidae) are a group of shell-less gastropod molluscs in the same class as the more familiar snails and slugs. However, they are mostly found in coastal habitats or in the inter-tidal area.

Like snails, onch slugs have a pair of simple eyes on stalks that are only good for detecting light. Most of them look like shell-less snails or a bumpy brownish lump - the word "onch" literally means lump. They are not the prettiest of organisms, but their humble appearance grants them excellent camouflage. It definitely follows the wise adage that if you do not want to be eaten, do not look like food!

One unique characteristic of onchs is that they breath air using a simple lung, unlike marine slugs such as nudibranchs that get oxygen via feathery gills. Hence, onchs are considered pulmonates (from the Latin word pulmonarius, meaning of the lung). In this aspect, onchs are more similar to land snails and slugs.

Since onchs need to breath air, they are usually found above the water level on rocks, tree trunks or even man-made surfaces and in the inter-tidal area during low tide where they feed on algae and organic detritus. They scrape bits of algae off the surface with a rough rasp-like mouthpart called a radula.

Coupling in onchs is a strange affair. These slugs are hermaphrodites bearing both male and female organs. When they get together, they jab each other with hard and sharp love darts in a courtship ritual prior to mating where sperm is exchanged.

A soft-bodied animal living out of water will often face 2 major problems that is dangerous to its health - drying out and predators. Onch slugs are extremely well suited to their habitats and combat desiccation and predators with both structural and behavioural adaptations.

A thick mucus is secreted, covering the skin of the animal to prevent desiccation. In addition, the mucus is also thought to be foul tasting, and any predator attempting to swallow an onch will get a mouthful of a yucky gooey lump. In some species, the mucus leaves a trail for the onch to follow back to their own home.

Some onch can also burrow into the substrate to avoid heat, strong currents and predators. This one below burrowed into the mud within seconds upon sensing danger. Couple excellent camouflage, multi-purpose mucus and a nifty burrowing behaviour, onchs have a lot going for them where survival is concerned.

Unfortunately, on the whole, these charming creatures remain a poorly studied group and little is known about the biology of onch slugs in Singapore. Hopefully, more work can be done in this area to demystify these amazing little slugs.

Further reading:

  1. McFaruume, I. D. 1980. Trail-following and trail-searching behavior in homing of the intertidal gastropod mollusc, Onchidium verruculatum. Marine and Freshwater Behaviour and Physiology 7(1): 95-108.
  2. Ng, P. K. L. and Sivasothi. N. 1991. Mangrove slugs (Onchidiidae)A Guide to the Mangroves of Singapore Volume 2. Singapore Science Centre.