If the tides are high
It never will appear,
That little winking island
Not very far from here;
But if the tides are low
And mud-flats stretch a mile,
The little island rises
To take the sun awhile;
If the tides are high
It never will appear,
That little winking island
Not very far from here;
But if the tides are low
And mud-flats stretch a mile,
The little island rises
To take the sun awhile;
I used to imagine that whip snakes were named after some obscure godlet from ancient Egypt, perhaps a minor scion of Apep who evaded the claws of Bastet, or a cousin of Wadjet, whose visage rose from the crowns of pharaohs, a rearing expression of the right to rule and the rule of Ra, in whose name and blood temples, tombs and four-sided towers were erected by royal decree in a valley of dreams. Or an impotent worm allied to the beast that saved Cleopatra from shame, the bosom fiend whose bite was blessed by the bard. Another hypothetical progenitor was the serpent, Ouroboros, who secures in her jaws the tip of her tail and the fate of mittel earth, which in a moment of ophiophagous slackness would abandon its futile loops and enter a spiral of cosmic decay.
Linnaeus was probably the first Westerner to bestow the name Ahaetulla to a snake, but in a time when labels were sloppy and sources credulous, the moniker was given to a colubrid originating from the New World. The Swede also offered no description to accompany his summary dispatching of Coluber ahaetulla as a species from "Asia America" – the latter region a result of misbundled specimens – an omission that befuddled later herpetologists who variously applied the binomial to the snake now known as Leptophis as well as a far flung creature that underwent rounds of taxonomical confusion before emerging as Dendrelaphis pictus.
A German biologist, Johann Heinrich Friedrich Link, then elevated Ahaetulla to a rank that included the painted bronzeback as well as the Malayan whip snake, but these reptiles were rightly regarded as sufficiently different to warrant a further split that assigned mycterizans to Dryophis (literally 'tree snake), until the gods of zoological nomenclature decreed that Dryophis, being a junior synonym to Link's coinage, should be ditched for Ahaetulla. Meanwhile, Dendrelaphis, being the oldest available genus, would apply to arboreal serpents with bright eyes, not overly slender torsos, polished dorsa and swift dispositions. Linnaeus' holotype retained its specific name, but the parrot snakes of Latin America had long diverged, in lineage and title, from Asian colubrids.
Linnaeus offered little explanation as to the inspiration for his missnake, but one of the bodies in his original bag may have arrived from an island that was a major pitstop for traders between Europe and the Far East, and which became a byword for discoveries of a not unpleasant nature. In Sinhalese, 'ahatulla' or 'ehetulla' is used to denote a legless creature with the purported ability to pluck out one's eyes. This impression, more imagined than effected, may stem from the snakes' habit of basking at the fringes of dense forests, draped over foliage at or slightly above chest level. Confronted by naked apes, some individuals choose not to bravely retreat – coils wound, forequarters dilated and exhibiting a patchwork of chequered excitement, the snake may feint a strike or two, which are likely to be aimed at facial features that draw a blink and prompt a recoil from onlookers who prize their peepers. Lacking lids, the ehetulla can only mock the gaze of its beholders, following their stares with a stereoscopic rejoinder, the binocular upshot of horizontal pupils and a rut that runs from the eyes to the tapered snout, and forked overtures that suggest peril to some but serve simply to give the snake a taste of its perimeter and a sense of what's to come. It's unclear if the eyebiters fare better in Ceylon, but in isles of unquestioning minds and coarser appetites, every emerald serpent is deemed a mortal threat and dispatched with summary strokes.
Sri Lanka is home to two species of whip snakes: Ahaetulla nasuta, which is commonly encountered on low bushes and ranges in colour from green to brown to buff to pink, and Ahaetulla pulverulentes, an uncommon brownish creature known locally as 'hena kandaya', whose very shadow causes lameness or paralysis. The former, which is reported to include fish in its diet, used to share its name with a congener from Sundaland, but mycterizans now refers to a smallish ehetulla restricted to Java, Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, including Singapore. Possessing eyes of extraordinary power, Ahaetulla mycterizans is a much rarer beast than prasina, which occurs in a diversity of habitats from unruly gardens to mangrove woods. Even compared to the latter, the optics of mycterizans dominate the face, reaching the ridge of the brow and leaving little space for the cheek, while its snout is markedly convex rather than flat or depressed and the throat is cream or white instead of green, yellow or buff. Confined to mature forests in the vicinity of shaded streams, the big-eye green whip snake remains safely out of sight for the most part, but there is little it can do to flee the danger zone of lines that seek to run under the law and rip through what remains of Singapore's primeval heartland to spare naught, suffer every room for error and save a minute or two.
Green metalwing, near Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The last time a major infrastructural project took place close to MacRitchie Reservoir, at least one native species became extinct. Neurobasis chinensis is a damselfly that vanished from Singapore following the construction of the Pan-Island Expressway in 1972, right by a portion of the Upper MacRitchie Basin, some distance from the western tip of the reservoir proper. The roadworks presumably led to the discharge of earth and other debris into a stream near the exit to Eng Neo Avenue, which was the final refuge of the metalwings on the island. According to entomologist D.H. Murphy, a "stand of mature riparian swamp forest in the upper reach of that stream died out at that time."
In the following decades, the streamside vegetation grew back and welcomed fresh recruits of Amphicnemis gracilis and Coeliccia, zygopterans confined to well-shaded wetlands. But this recovery was choked, literally, by a widening of the highway in 1990, which smothered the waterway with fresh layers of silt. Both Amphicnemis and Coeliccia died out in this locality, and even species tolerant of more exposed conditions, such as Onychargia atrocyana and Agriocnemis nana, disappeared from the lower portions of the stream. Only crimson dropwings, a "weedy" species not formerly present, could be found at the site.
The green metalwing, however, never returned, having lost its only remaining habitat of swift, shallow forest streams with a generous bed of weathered boulders and rich patches of riparian greenery. These insects, which still occur in mainland Southeast Asia and Sumatra, present a visual spectacle that cannot but fail to bewitch; M.A. Lieftinck, one of the first early entomologists to see the damselflies in their natural state, as opposed to illustrated pages and faded specimens, called them the "Birds of Paradise amongst Odonata". Males, their bodies and much of the hindwings clad in a "lustre of polished metal", patrol stretches of fast-flowing streams, cruising just above the water with their hindwings often held stiff and still, emitting under direct sunlight flashes of emerald intensity that signal his presence to rivals and mates. At times, they perch briefly on a low pebble, wings closed but still clapping regularly, before resuming flight, which may also take the form of a slow flutter, with the hindwings half-open and a rocking pattern that amplifies the span of their broadcast. Females, which have clear wings with prominent pseudostigmas, typically lurk on streamside vegetation, where they evaluate suitors, form hearts with worthy ones, and submerge themselves fully, sometimes with the mate in tow, to lay their eggs in the stems of aquatic plants or root mats subject to moderately strong currents.
Forest stream, Durian Loop
For Neurobasis, underwater oviposition presents the risk of aquatic predators, violent ripples and drowning. But it also offers the eggs a greater certainty of dissolved oxygen and protection from dipping water levels, as well as refuge from terrestrial parasitoids. Still, long before reaching maturity, each brood must run a gauntlet of foes. Some tiny wasps, whose grubs feast on odonate eggs, have learnt to follow their hosts, using their legs as oars to help them reach buried treats. Water mites insert their rostrums into plant tissue to feast on unhatched embryos.
Young nymphs, if they survive the emphemeral prolarval stage, must evade insectivorous fish, water beetles and their older siblings. Many fall victim to gregarines, protozoans that infest nymphal guts until the passages are fatally blocked or rupture, or succumb to flukes and hairworms that use the insects as intermediate hosts. The survivors must deal with the constant challenge of capturing enough prey to reach the next instar while keeping their heads in favourable conditions, namely waters that are cool, shaded and clean. Towards the end of each cycle, only a handful of naiads, just or barely enough to replace their parents, emerge long before dawn, to crack their shells and rise with the sun.
Neurobasis is known to tolerate disturbed environments, but it seems that what damage took place by the PIE in 1972, be it the runoff of unmitigated roadworks, chemical spills, the removal of larval microhabitats or a combination of these and more, was enough to draw a curtain on this species in Singapore, with the last local individuals seen in 1970. Odonate larva, as noted by Corbet (2004), are far more sensitive to pollution than other aquatic macroinvertebrates, and take a much longer time than their prey to recover from catastrophic incidents. These traits, along with the often fastidious abiotic requirements of species limited to more or less pristine habitats, heap onto the order the thankless status of biological indicator, which the island's last, beleagured population of green metalwings performed to mortal perfection.
Tyriobapta torrida, Venus Drive
The odonates that remain by the streams around MacRitchie Resevoir, from the western upper basin to an unsecured buffer zone in the east, now face a larger threat, one that literally wrecks the foundation of their existence and cuts through the heart of a reserve that is the final stronghold of habitats and creatures at the edge of local existence. Murphy, who explored these invisible wetlands in the 1970s and 80s, characterises higher parts of the basin as "step swamps", as they consist of "uneroded streams" that "alternate between fast flowing reaches and level swampy reaches," a topographical feature of uncertain provenance. Some of the lower regions closer to the resevoir inlets are described as long and narrow "ribbon swamps" that support species associated with swamp forests. There are also "convergence streams and pools" in the Upper MacRitchie basin which provide breeding sites for treehuggers (Tyriobapta torrida) and variable sentinels (Orchithemis pulcherrima), dragonflies regarded as common, but only in such swampy woods, as well as damselflies not, or only rarely, seen elsewhere, such as Argiocnemis rubescens and Teinobasis ruficolis. Also restricted to this zone, on grassy fringes by open streams, is the island's smallest odonate, Agriocnemis nana.
Marshy clearings provide territories for libellulids of open country that fail to thrive in urban pools, such as the red dwarf Nannophya pygmaea, bronze-winged Rhyothemis obsolescens and black-tipped Diplacodes nebulosa. Ceriagrion cerinorubellum, Pseudagrion microcephalum and the latter's scarcer cousin, Pseudagrion australasiae, abound by the reservoir margins and shady inlets, but still rely on bankside vegetation for high roosts. Meanwhile, Cratilla metallica watches over the trails that lead to and through these habitats, guarding its preferred oviposition sites of isolated pools and elevated holes.
Close to the lawns of an anti-country club are flooded terraces criss-crossed by shrubs and trees happy to have their feet wet, on which corduliids such as Epophthalmia vittigera and the much rarer Macromia cincta hang in between forays for small flying insects. These patches of alluvial forest, along with their feeder streams, also harbour species alien and inimical to town parks: Coeliccia octogesima, Archibasis viola, Drepanosticta quadrata, Onychargia atrocyana, Podolestes orientalis, Prodasineura notostigma, Prodasineura collaris, Euphaea impar and Vestalis amethystina – the last two, not unlike their now-extirpated kin, favour water courses of moderately high energy with dirty beds and dense margins, habitats where the hydrology is particularly threatened by invasive infrastructural investigations and downstream developments.
Lestes praemorsus, MacRitchie Reservoir.
MacRitchie Reservoir and its surrounding brooks are also the only known inland locality of Chalybeothemis fluviatilis and Archibasis melanocyana, and where Lestes praemorsus, a delicate, powder-blue spreadwing, was first recorded in Singapore. These and other odonates lacking the adaptations for life in hot, bare waters will not likely survive the physical disruption and erosive trauma to their nurseries caused by investigation machinery or the pressures of subsurface work that may lead to unsustainable fragments as swamps cave in and streams dry up.
As with the ill-fated tributary by the Pan-Island Expressway, new or altered waterways or wetlands may appear over time, but given damage on an infrastructural scale, it is likely that few, if any, of the species lost to months or years of antisocial engineering will return to colonise their old haunts. Instead, those that arrive will consist of more adventurous, almost pelagic, dragonflies such as Rhyothemis phyllis, Trithemis aurora and Pantala flavescens, which already gather at knolls and ridges that rise between the swamps, as well as hunters of exposed parts such as Urothemis signata, Neurothemis fluctuans, Tramea transmarina, Brachydiplax chalybea, Aethriamanta gracilis, Ictinogomphus decoratus and the five species of Orthetrum that roam the still, stewing waters of the reservoir proper.
Murphy, in lamenting the last of Singapore's metalwings in 1999, pointed out the "deteriorating conditions in the Upper MacRitchie Basin" where odonates were concerned, adding that "periods of drought may cause smaller water bodies to dry out entirely with possible long term consequences for species with poor dispersal." Dry spells, or outright destruction of once intact streams and swamps, have already claimed three other victims, Dysphaea dimidiata, Libellago stigmatizans and Orolestes wallacei, which died out between the mid-19th century and the birth of a modern city. The dragons and damsels that remain in the reserves today, whose fate lies on a line of careless underpinnings, are similarly species of mainly stenotopic families: calopterygoids, spreadwings, featherlegs, threadtails and flatwings. These zygopterans, remarked A.G. Orr et al (2004), "move little from their breeding sites and clearing of waterside vegetation may contribute directly to their demise by denying them a source of adult nutrition." Orr, echoing Murphy in observations that probably apply throughout the region, added, "Both stenotopic and eurytopic species show promise as indicators of environmental disturbance as the latter tend to invade pristine forest areas following perturbation, while the former disappear."
The prospects are likewise bleak for other freshwater taxa. Two palaeomonid shrimp, Macrobrachium neglectum and Macrobrachium idae, are reported to have been common in streams outside the Nee Soon Swamp Forest until the 1980s, but have since become very rare owing to the loss or modification of downstream habitats, which are required for their larval development. Their eventual, if not effected, extinction is hence predicted, conservation efforts notwithstanding, in the wake of what befell a larger prawn, whose catadromous life-cycle was cut short by canals that hindered its reproductive movements. Stenotopic water beetles, even populations in primary habitats, are "on the verge of local extinction", while swamp forest-dependent aquatic hemipterans, having lost three species to the taming of Sungei Seletar, face the triple threats of "change, loss or pollution" to jungle streams. Paradise, be it a bird or merely a beauty on the wing, may not surrender to a parking lot. It is far easier, in a country with little hindsight and fewer regrets, to plan for a future with no room for error and every possibility of mistakes that can never be paved over.
The present neighbourhood, having acquired a patina of maturity wholly absent from fancier estates, has in its midst a park of sensory proportions, where tiled paths wind by planters filled with fragrant shrubs and forbidden herblore. In the near-centre of this garden, as if to mock the history of a town built upon a hilly swamp, stands a long water feature consisting of an artificial waterfall which spills over into two lower terraces. The cascade has long ceased, though, and some of the ceramic pieces that once covered the waist-high decks have vanished, exposing beneath a sizeable pool with a bed of deceased pumps.
Kind souls have since deemed the water feature intolerably devoid of life. A population of mongrel guppies and unidentified cyprinids now resides in the depths of the terraces, racing from one end of the pool to the other under the safety of the remaining tiles and diving into mechanical bowels of its elevated foundation. There is enough volume to keep the water cool even on the hottest of days, when scarlet skimmers and crimson dropwings, probable refugees from a larger park two blocks to the south, swoop down from the canopy to stake their claims over this body of fresh pickings.
This miniature wetland gained a dash of the macabre today, when it served as the playground of a trio of prepubescent children, who rightly spent the evening away from the captivity of violent games. Displaying a bent for creative destruction, they had removed from the terraces an extra measure of tiles, which lay on the path, awaiting unwatchful feet. We came across the playmates by the waterfall, where two fish were visibly dead and the air was filled with grotesque excitement. The ringleader, a girl too young to be innocent, welcomed us by thrusting in our faces a slender hand with a well-dunked Javan myna in its grip. The bird glowered at its tormentors with cold dead eyes, its body a mop of dark, drenched feathers. The boys squealed, the girl swung her prize about with audible glee and we fled the scene, lest other horrors emerge from the imaginations of minds unleashed, be it via neglect or juvenile supervision, and unrestrained by the fear of wild, winged creatures.
Keppel Island, which serves as a handy launchpad to the southern reefs, is now linked to the mainland by a sleek plank, on which privileged drivers and perplexed cabbies coast toward a club of fine dining and fancy yachts. The restaurants overlook a small marina where some degree of fouling is tolerated, as least on the pontoons and seawalls which suffer the stain of corals, gorgonians and sea anemones, and thus lure a scoundrous horde of fish that run rings around the boats and refuse to pay for their board. Behind the establishment runs a jogging track, by which manicured shrubbery obscures the native vegetation of an islet that provided refuge to green pigeons and guarded the passage through the dragon's gate into the docks of what used to be called New Harbour.
The island's former name, which invited confusion with namesakes further to the southwest, is admirably haunting, however. One account of its origin tells of an encounter between a domiciled fisherman and a decapod he had snared, a brachyuran of colossal proportions with whom he struck up a dubious acquaintance. This friendship came with strange benefits, including nocturnal companionship and, presumably, intimate strokes by the creature's maxillipeds and shell-shocked aftermaths. The crustacean was strangely non-plussed by its bedmate's marital status, an oversight that led to its downfall in the hands of a jealous wife, who reduced her rival to dismembered portions and invited her kin to a seafood feast. Thanks to unsanitary food handling or/and the dying curse of a crabby end, the villagers couldn't quite swallow their meal and soon died in loco motion. Upon returning to find his lover half-digested and his relatives well-disposed of, the fisherman was said to have mourned his leggy catch more than his legal spouse, and in the ways of nameless myths, "news of the crab's death spread rapidly across the ocean bed and piscatorial demolition parties were organised" to assail the island and render it unfit for habitation. The moral of the lesson, it seems, is that a prized catch can lead to a ménage with possessive spirits and wild affairs with no exit clawses.
For about a century, the phosphate mines of Christmas Island welcomed labourers from China and Southeast Asia, in particular Malaya and Singapore, who journeyed to this craggy isle, a solitary rock on the eastern reaches of the Indian Ocean, to dig, ship and die for the profits of colonial overlords. Aiding them in their, often final, tour of duty were chandlers such as Ong Sam Leong – Baba man about town, amateur mariner and tycoon extraordinaire – who rounded up recent, mostly Cantonese-speaking, migrants, ferried them to this coralline outpost and granted them all the rights of indentured men, coolies bound to the service of mining concessionaires and marked by a tattoo on their hand, who worked 74 hours a week to repay the debt of their passage and survived on little more than rice, salted fish and a dash of vegetables, for which they were charged a princely sum. Armed foremen caned laggarts, beri-beri culled the lame and those who had cash to spare sank into opiate dreams or plunged themselves into the flesh of painted ladies at a house of distant repute.
The settlement grew rather more complacent after the Second World War, though life on the island retained much of the social stratification of more glorious eras. Workers from Malaya and Singapore continued to drain the island's natural reserves, earning for their efforts the discrimination of second-hand employers and later, a battle of Conradian proportions that turned the colonists into citizens of a luckier state. There were, presumably, lots of coming and going, by steamer or flying boat, between the mines and Singapore in those decades, and it's possible that some of these commutes included the occasional free rider, oceanic wanderers that had reined in their pleopodal segments and would have never reached these parts on their own. Some probably perished in backyard kitchens, while a few may have eluded their handlers to roam local coasts until they ambled within sight of curious crowds, to which they almost certainly responded with backward lunges and the threat of stabby feet.
Widely dispersed in the Indo-West Pacific, Birgus latro is absent from the South China Sea, a biogeographical trait that may stem from a zoeal aversion to near-shore flavours or exist as a relict of once unhindered currents. Native fans of terrestrial decapods, who might fancy stumbling upon a beast in blue in ill-maintained coconut groves, must therefore content themselves with the rustlings of Coenobita, good-sized but markedly smaller anomurans that prowl unswept beaches and steal little more than the coils of dead snails. Young robber crabs also strap on – with the likely aid of their strongly chelate fourth pereiopods – empty shells, broken husks or film canisters, but as they grow, their naked abdomens deposit chitin to withstand danger and dessication, while layers of fat accumulate under the telson, the reserves of a diet of rich fruit, carrion and organic scraps. On Christmas Island, in the absence of now-extinct native rats, Birgus rule the slopes as the dominant non-bipedal predator, though this counts for little against the wheels of vehicles driven by dutiful visitors, which now squash a thousand or more crabs each year. In this age of climatic change and economic miracles, even the toughest of robbers must cede privilege to the laws of asylum, which offer a far more humane, though perhaps no less hopeless, end to desperate souls than that rendered to dispensable minions by long-dead barons and their heirs, now asleep and awaiting their fate in tombs on a hill.