Tuesday, 12 January 2016

NSS Kids’ Fun with Forest Wildlife at Venus Drive (Singapore)

By Alastair Liew (10 years old) & Ryan Liew (8 years old)

It was a breezy Sunday morning on 1 December 2013. We came armed with binoculars, insect repellent and umbrellas. Right at the entrance to the Venus Drive trail (off Upper Thomson Road in Singapore) stood a cool bamboo grove inlaid with a wasp nest no less! Next to this were conspicuously bright orange flowers high above in a tree. Auntie Gloria identified the tree as the African Tulip (Spathodea campanulata), named for its orange tulip-like flowers. It was introduced to Singapore around the 1910s. This was the first inkling that we were in for more interesting sights.

The Liew brothers and other NSS kids being briefed by our guide Uncle Si Guim near a bamboo grove.
Down below, in a little hidey hole on the ground, my youngest brother Jake discovered a colony of Velvet Ants. Beware, looks can be deceiving – the Velvet ‘Ants’ are actually wasps! The wingless female has a stinger that delivers a painful jab. Despite its reputation as a cow killer, it is not venomous and less aggressive than the honey bee.

As we kept our eyes trained on the ground, we found tiny figs scattered underfoot. These are an important food source for many animals including monkeys, squirrels and birds. The nooks and crevices of the majestic fig tree provide a sanctuary for jumping spiders, amongst other wildlife.

Next, we saw delicious-looking Rambutans, Starfruits and Durians. Little green lumps on the ground turned out to be Betel Nut from the Areca Palm (Areca catechu). The Betel Nut is actually a seed. Historically, it is chewed with betel leaf, mineral lime, tobacco and spices for its mild narcotic effect, popular amongst Peranakans, Indians, Malays, Taiwanese and in many parts of Asia. It stains the lips and teeth red.

Clear freshwater streams ran through the reserve. In them were Pond Skaters swimming determinedly against the current. Typically, their bodies are coated with microhair (hydrofuge hairpiles) that repel water, helping them stay afloat. Although the waters ran clear, there were plastic bags and cans littering the banks. We hope that people will stop polluting and start taking care of our natural resources.

We spied many Pond Skaters walking on water.
Ornamental plants such as Dumbcane, Money Plant, wild Pandan and the Heliconia flower flourished in abundance along the trail. The towering trees were a perfect umbrella against the light morning drizzle. However at times, we had mischievous monkeys cavorting above our heads, showering us with huge drops of accumulated rain water.

Funky patterns of bracket fungi decomposing a fallen log.
We hurried along as the rain grew stronger, but our spirits were not dampened. We observed bracket fungi in beautiful geometric patterns. As nature’s recycler, they break down fallen trees into precious nutrients, renewing the cycle of life. Our highlight was seeing rubber seeds for the first time! These are housed in tri-compartmental chambers. The design of the triple lobe allows cracks to develop as the outer husk dries in sunlight. Eventually, the fruit splits open with explosive force, scattering the rubber seeds in all directions. Uncle Si Guim explained how latex was tapped by cutting a ‘V’ groove in the bark of the rubber tree.

We will definitely be back to revisit this beautiful trail. Next time round, we intend to hike all the way to the Treetop Walk!

This empty triple-lobed shell formerly housed rubber seeds that had scattered by explosion.

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