Making Waves for the Future of Marine Life

Enhancing Mariculture Capabilities in Singapore

Giant clams are reef builders, food factories, shelters for shrimps and crabs, and water filters all rolled into one. When they start to disappear from the reefs, it is a clear indicator that their reef habitats are in trouble."

“Did you know that the biggest giant clam is about one and a half metres long? That’s as big and tall as me!” Dr Neo Mei Lin commented excitedly, gesturing with her hands to show just how big that is.

A marine biologist and conservationist, Dr Neo has been studying giant clams for more than 10 years, and is probably their biggest advocate. Her passion for these large marine shellfish has even earned her
the nickname – ‘The Giant Clam Girl’.

“Giant clams are reef builders, food factories, shelters for shrimps and crabs, and water filters all rolled into one,” shared Dr Neo. “When they start to disappear from the reefs, it is a clear indicator that their reef habitats are in trouble.”

The giant clam and many other marine invertebrate organisms are rapidly and unsustainably caught as either seafood or to support the global aquarium trade. In some instances, the intense pressures of exploitation have caused population collapses in commercially valuable marine species such as the sea cucumbers. As the global demands for certain marine species continue to grow, we face the possibility that none of them will be left to supplement our purposes.

Since October 2020, Dr Neo and a team of researchers from the Tropical Marine Science Institute and Department of Biological Sciences, under the National University of Singapore, have been leading a three-year mariculture research project supported by Temasek Foundation.

There are two major goals that we have for this project. The first one is to improve the current culture protocols of three groups of marine animals – several species of the hard corals, one species of giant clam, and one species of cowrie. The second is to improve tracking and traceability of individual animals.”

Coral fragments mounted on colourful building blocks for propagation in the aquaria

Interestingly, their research to study these endangered, colourful corals has led them to something that is equally colourful – toy building blocks. But what do the much-loved toy blocks have to do with the cultivation of these marine animals?

“Hard corals are a fundamental framework of coral reef ecosystems, and we’ve always been finding ways to make coral propagation less invasive so that we don’t disturb the animals per se,” said Dr Neo. This has led the team to develop a novel method of using building blocks, like Lego, to grow coral fragments. They are hung on fishing lines to create vertical nurseries that maximise tank space in an aquarium environment.

Just as the team is looking at propagating corals in a sustainable and less invasive manner, they are also investigating feasible ways to reproduce giant clams – specifically, the native boring giant clam – and the lesser known cowries.

Both these animals are highly sought for their ornamental value; the boring giant clams for their petite sizes and colourful tissues, and the cowries, for their beautiful and enigmatic shells. However, knowledge of their biology remains little known. The team has been building up their research on understanding these animals such as their living habits and behaviour, their diets and even the optimal water and temperature conditions they thrive in before they can successfully induce spawning and begin the process of cultivating their babies in captivity.

“We would really like to see how our research outcomes can be fitted for the industry; in this case, the aquarium trade industry. As a start, we want to engage them by talking about the importance of choosing sustainable supplies of marine organisms in their practices, and discussing how our research can help to locally develop the infrastructure and capacity-building to support a sustainable trade,” Dr Neo said earnestly.

Dr Neo also hopes that more can be done to educate and raise environmental awareness such as incorporating environmental biology knowledge into the core education syllabus to spur future generations to have a deeper appreciation of local biodiversity.

“For me, our lives and well-being are very closely linked to Nature – the clean air we breathe and the fresh seafood we eat. I hope through the work I do, I can leave my daughter a better ocean, so that when she’s older, she will still be able to see some of these places that I enjoyed in my youth”.

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Mariculture Research Project by the National University of Singapore

What is the study about: To study and explore ways on enhancing mariculture capabilities of three marine organisms – hard corals, giant clams and cowries that will lend support in research, conservation and aquarium trade, including traceability of species.

Traceability of marine species allows traders to estimate the source localities of organism stocks, as well as how they are sourced and handled, all the way until they reach the import country. Furthermore, when the source is authenticated (e.g. comes from a sustainable supplier), the value of the imported animals will likely increase. Some of the tracing methods that the team are examining include techniques such as radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags and genome subsampling-based sequencing.

Besides its applications in research, the ability to tag and track sustainably cultured stocks is crucial in implementing and enforcing sustainable practices that allows management of demands in the booming aquarium trade industry.

The industry may also involve government agencies such as the National Parks Board (NParks) that is presently responsible for enhancing and managing Singapore’s urban ecosystems, including the regulation and enforcement of wildlife trade as the Scientific and Management Authority of CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna).

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Mariculture Research Project by the National University of Singapore

Why these three organisms and what have been done so far?
Hard Corals
  • Builders of reefs, often used by hobbyists to decorate their marine tanks.
  • Commonly seen fringing the southern islands of Singapore.
  • Corals are like the trees in the rainforest – they provide shelter for small animals, a nursery for ocean-going creatures and protect the shorelines from strong waves, storms and erosion.
  • NUS researchers are exploring new methods to nurture more hard corals, such as a vertical coral nursery where they suspend multiple layers of coral fragments mounted on building blocks to maximise the use of the whole water column.
  • If the coral nursery technique is successful, the process can be replicated to sustainably mass produce the organism and restock populations.
Giant Clams
  • Endangered animal that is vital to ensuring biodiversity of the coral reefs ecosystems.
  • Harvested by collectors for their bright coloured mantle and ornamental shells.
  • Research focused on boring giant clam species, to improve and innovate current culture protocols and raise production efficacy in laboratory settings in order to conserve the species.
  • Also known as sea snails.
  • Vulnerable creatures are found in the aquarium trade and often killed for their beautiful shells by collectors.
  • Limited information available so research is primarily focused on understanding the behaviour and living conditions of the animal, key in developing protocols for their culture.
How are building blocks (like Lego) being used in coral propagation?

Building blocks are used as substrates for the attachment of coral fragments, and then hung using strong fishing lines to create, literally, an underwater hanging coral nursery. This novel method combining building blocks and vertical farming maximises tank spaces at the marine station and allows for scaling up of coral production. The modularity of the building blocks also allows ease of transfer of the coral fragments into other tanks or sea-based nurseries once they have grown larger.

What is a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag?

RFID tag is a physical tag that can be placed on the animal, and functions like the barcodes in a supermarket, providing information such as where it comes from.

What is genetic fingerprinting?

Similar to the concept of PCR testing with a swab, genetic fingerprinting is basically going into the genes of the animals, and finding unique sequences that are like fingerprints to discover their origin.

Research team behind the project:

Dr Neo Mei Lin
Lead investigator of the overall project, and overseeing the giant clam and cowrie culture component.

Dr Jani Tanzil
Co-lead investigator, and overseeing the coral culture component.

Dr Huang Danwei
Co-lead investigator, and overseeing the genetic traceability component.

Dr Lionel Ng
Research fellow, and leading the ground works on the coral tagging and tracing protocols, including aquarium and field aspects.

Dr Randolph Quek
Research fellow, and leading the genetic research on corals for traceability studies, including the development and testing of protocols for tracing clonal individuals.

Mr Ow Yong Wei Long
Research assistant, and leading the ground works on scaling coral propagation, as well as the innovator of using the building blocks for vertical hanging culture of corals.

Ms Teresa Tay
Research assistant, and leading the ground works on giant clam and cowrie culture, including aquarium and field aspects.

Ms Yip Zhi Ting
Research assistant, and assisting the genetic research on corals for traceability studies, including the development and testing of protocols for tracing clonal individuals.

Commissioned and Arrangement Works with Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Over the years, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) has been bringing melodic tunes to audiences not just in Singapore, but globally. As Singapore’s national Chinese orchestra, it is renowned for incorporating local and regional elements in its music, establishing a unique identity that showcases Singapore’s culture.

With Temasek Foundation’s support, SCO was able to produce unique repertoires with Chinese orchestra tunes with distinctive Singaporean sound. The commissioned range of arrangement works included traditional and classical, pop to western adaptations and Nanyang-themed music pieces. These compositions were performed at various events locally and overseas, including Germany, Italy, and Prague during SCO’s Europe Concert Tour in 2019.

Some 149 works were born from this effort between 2016 and 2018.

Take a listen to two of the works here.