Goniopora colony, Cyrene Reef.
Four and twenty arms
with no room to go but up
'tis reason to pout
Two genera of scleractinarians distinguish themselves from their closeted kin on the shallow flats that still rise from the southern shores on moonlit nights in the middlings of the year. Whereas most colonies display in prominence their compound form, be it irregular columns, patchy boulders, stout bushes or simply a thin layer of corallites on a slab of otherwise bare rubble, Goniopora and Galaxea are loathe to retreat into their skeletons, even when exposed to the lukewarm air of a low spring tide.
Not uncommonly seen on the plateaus of patch reefs or the lagoons that line reclaimed isles, Goniopora usually form loose shelves or low columns dotted by a dense population of corallites, which are more often than not obscured by a swaying mass of polyps with long bodies and feeble tentacles. The colonies are allied to another hardy intertidal genus, Porites, but can be told apart by their comparatively larger corallites and the presence of 24 septa (and correspondingly, two dozen tentacles) as opposed to 12 or less. Close inspection and a 'head' count may also be required to determine if a cluster of soft brown bodies clings to a solid foundation or rises from a softer matrix. Fleshy pink, violet lip and jadeite green are typical colours if the polyps are not bleaching, and the wave-led motions of substantial colonies provide not unpleasing counterpoints to the bare and bony hearts of large exposed flats.
Similar exuberance oozes from colonies of Galaxea, a distinctive group of hard corals with corallites that project from a common base with the viciousness of a Macedonian phalanx. Dead or inactive colonies offer a forbidding scene of thin-walled columns, each terminating in a crown of pointy ends. Within each porous tower dwells a polyp that, when active, obscures its septa with fleshy tissue and bright-tipped tentacles.
The brittle corallites are a danger only to careless fingers, but their builders harbour a meaner streak in a tendency to launch pre-emptive strikes against nearby colonies before the latter have a chance to compete with the stars for space and sun. Even, or especially, in the reef, there is no quarter given in the contest for survival between creatures anchored by their bones but which bear arms of supple strength and the ability to reach deep into hostile territory and deliver a punch of endless stings.
In local circles, the words 'hairy crab' usually stirs up savoury notions of twine-bound varunids in chilled stupor before a steamy end. The oriental beasts, which have in their homeland inspired innovations as diverse as vending machines and music videos, are a seasonal delicacy in these parts, though no threat as yet to the culinary pole position of estuarine portunids cooked with chilli or black pepper. Elsewhere, the discovery of errant mittens far from their lakes of origin have aroused fears of ecological havoc arising from their penchant for destructive burrowing and high dispersal capabilities.
The catholic habits of Eriocheir sinensis, which fortunately do not appear to embrace intemperate latitudes (despite the feistiness of an individual discovered at Sembawang Beach in 2010), is mirrored in part by its regional cousin, an unassuming creature equally at home in artificial pools and coastal waters where shady specimens can be spotted paddling over murky beds or hitching a ride on flotsam. Despite having somewhat hirsute limbs, Varuna yui must hand over the title to a different family of crabs occupying a firmer niche.
Benthopanope eucratoides, Cyrene Reef.
Not all pilumnids warrant their popular moniker, but the most common species encountered on intertidal flats is by all reckonings a setose creature. Shaggy in hide and generally unwelcoming of visitors to their turfs of overgrown rubble, Pilumnus verspertilio usually responds to approaching shadows with a half-hearted scurry towards a handy crack or the overhang of a small rock. The crab's diet, which is said to include toxic cnidarians and quite assuredly other noxious inhabitants of local reefs, should be enough to discourage attempts to add the animal to local menus, its paltry dimensions notwithstanding.
Most other members of the family, which can be distinguished from xanthids and eriphids by the male's ability to move his 3rd to 5th abdominal segments, probably dwell in deeper waters or lurk within the branches of inaccessible corals and cryptic feather stars. Not a few face the possibility, if not the fait accompli, of local extinction as a result of the usual assortment of threats that loom over much of Singapore's marine ecosystems, a state occasioned less by need than dire neglect and discriminatory ignorance. Other pilumnids continue to peck at the meiofauna of sandy beds that cling to survival in a pen of floating manufactories. It's a shame that a mere hour or two is all we have each spring tide to survey these ephemeral flats and sample the richness of spongey fields where layers of seagrass and colourful associates conspire to keep their brachyuran secrets far from prying eyes and safe from inquiries that yield nothing but questions and little but names.
Damselflies, especially teneral individuals lacking in colour and full flight capabilities, not infrequently fall prey to asilids, spiders, small birds and other odonates, including fellow zygopterans and conspecifics of near equal size but greater voracity. Dragonflies, by virtue of their superior bulk and speed, face a different class of foes: large robber flies, predatory wasps, swallows, bee-eaters, rollers and agile small raptors are among the few aerial predators with the power and agility to outmanœuvre a mature anisopteran and make a meal out of the devil's darning needle. Early bats might also snare hawkers and crepuscular libellulids as they swarm over marshes to chase down the night's first wave of long-legged flies. Frogs, lizards and insectivorous fish presumably reap their share when a stiff-winged morsel lands within range.
Again, no quarter is given to members of the same order who fail to recognise the danger posed by ravenous kinsmen or suffer the ill fortune of coming across another dragonfly in a period or position of weakness. A few species, such as the aptly named dragonhunter, make a habit out of devouring fellow beastlets of prey. In Indo-Pacific wetlands, the variegated green skimmer is known to be fond of feeding on others of its family, a trait shared by at least two close relatives endemic to Sub-Saharan Africa. Robust in build and rather larger than the average libellulid, Orthetrum sabina is often mistaken by amateurs for a gomphid, a misdeduction aided by its somewhat pronounced terminal segments and markings that resemble those of the older group.
The most abundant clubtail in the region, the common flangetail easily dwarfs its more advanced pretender by about a third. Though at times encountered far from breeding grounds, the latter also maintains a lower profile in suitable habitat, clinging to reeds and low rushes where their dark and grass green pattern offers quite effective camouflage. The gomphid has little need to hide, though, and can usually be spotted clutching the end of a prominent branch from which he surveys his territory for prey and rivals. They are adept at detecting the deliberate approach of large primates, which triggers a vanishing act into invisible trajectories long before one reaches sniping range.
Individuals untroubled by still observers make regular patrols to uphold the integrity of their patch of swamp and harry the occupants of adjacent homesteads who might be tempted to expand their borders. Favouring open water unlike most other gomphids, Ictinogomphus decoratus has prospered from the widespread creation of reservoirs that line suburban parks. A fair number dwell by an artificial lake built at the Maliau Basin Studies Centre, where they dominate the heat of the day before a company of aeshnids stirs the evening shift. Further afield, one tiger frequented a roadside brook where dozens of complex parasols, blue dashers and sapphire flutterers vied for mating rights whenever the sun struck the stream with undiffused strength. Their usual acuity dulled by the demands of courtship, many of these small, shiny dragonflies paid scant attention to the wolf in their midst. It was only a matter of time before a worn suitor or unwary dancer slipped into the grasp of a more primitive killer and ends his days in jaws on wings.
A wasp stung me in Sabah on the way to the Maliau Basin Conservation Area. The attack was not entirely unprovoked. I was minding my own business when a nook in my neck felt a light tarsal brush. Instinct trumped intelligence as a clumsy fingers sought to fondle the offending segments, which promptly inserted a pointy end through my skin to repay the manhandling of a vespid somewhat larger and darker than the common local species depicted above.
For a couple of days, the site of the sting swelled to obscene proportions and throbbed with priapic zeal. But the sensation of numbness and wrangled nerves did little to hinder regular movements or obstruct essential passages down trails haunted by fraying blue dragons and banded bodies that bounce through the undergrowth with kittenish spirit. The pain lost its bite after a while and the venom its mark, making a fool out of the molehill that regards every non-formicid hymenopteran as a mortal and insufferable foe of humanity.
Fortunately, only hornets and honeybees tend to bear the huffy wrath of people who fear the power of unfriendly pollinators but fail to recognise or even detect the presence of smaller wasps that thrive under (or above) their noses. The wispy hives of ropalidines, for one, are not uncommon constructions on urban structures such as lamp posts and traffic lights. These tiny vespids often build twig-like nests that consist of a string of cells bound by organic glue, which probably ring no bells in minds that know only the risk of massive swarms.
Five doors away, one such colony dangles from the verandah of a 14-storey block surrounded by car parks and conservative values. For some reason, the residents seldom traverse the corridor to invade their neighbours' balconies or borrow faster lifts, so the twine-like nest has endured at least two moons of accidental benignity. Safe from terrestrial predators and seemingly unaffected by seasonal storms, the fibrous nursery enjoys the regular attentions of minute sisters who sip from wayside blooms and snare caterpillars to fuel their grubby siblings. The ladies present a seductive scene, but the temptation to paper their walls has so far been fended off by an irresistable bug and the thought that these superorganisms deserve no better than a visible attempt to court their ire and draw the hostility of hifalutin flatliners.
It's a five-hour drive from the frontier town of Tawau to the gateway of the Maliau Basin Conservation Area and another hour of muddy tracks and momentary encounters with passing wildlife before one reaches the study centre near the foot of the bowl. The suburban patchwork of tropical woodland and weary terraces soon gives way to a landscape of palms: crests, valleys, slopes and dull plains of trunks each topped with a spray of dark fronds and the promise of biofuelled profit. Ferns maintain a footing on the fibrous skin of mature trees, while a monoculture of broad-leaved creepers occupies the spaces between saplings not yet tall enough to steal their light.
The drivers, who proffered a running commentary on rivers that once ran clean and vales of unshorn woods, break the pace at a junction where estate workers linger and smoke by a shack with no lavatories. A timberyard lies just beyond the dust, welcoming the felled hearts of Borneo on flatbeds of diesel. It's the last chance to throw small water into the bushes and stock up on sweet goods before a week of small comforts. It must have been a slow day, for the purchase of a beverage that cost a little less than two ringgit resulted in a bashful handful of mints. "Tak ada duit kecil!" declared the makcik who manned the sundry facility with a pair of mates.
Eight days later, the ladies endured another pitstop of empty tummies and full bladders as two filthy four-wheel drives rolled in from the interior. This time, a flock of hens and cockerels patrolled the perimeter of the shed, worrying more about fowl pecking orders and a playful ginger than their place in the rural value chain. The half-grown kitten stretched and sauntered from the floor planks to the table wares with a face of grubby bemusement. On the wall nearby hung a retail display for sachets of coffee blended with lolsome herbs. Each pack cost a pretty song, enough to satisfy the whims of curiosity without killing the cat. Scratch that, I thought of the opportunity to pass up the concoction. Powder in pocket and head in pain, there was nothing left to do but watch the moggy prance on the gallery and wish that the hours ran short of a sign between this crossroad and two flights of delayed agony.