Answering siren call of orthopterans

15 August 2017 | Education
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Ming Kai searching for “straight wing” insects at Mandai Reserve

Tan Ming Kai is no stranger to creepy crawlies — in fact, insects, orthopterans in particular, hold a special fascination for the NUS Biological Sciences PhD student.

Orthopterans, whose name is derived from Greek for “straight wing”, include insects such as crickets, grasshoppers, katydids (or bush crickets) and locusts.

An only child, the affable young man spent much of his childhood outdoors, which he attributes as the reason for his interest in insects. His parents helped to nurture his love for nature and are very supportive of his unusual interest. “My parents brought me to natural areas, both in Singapore and overseas, and allowed me to explore nature. When I decided to study orthopterans, they did not object to that, albeit being a non-conventional job that a Singaporean would not typically go for,” Ming Kai said.

Each species is unique in its own ways and that diversity of uniqueness captivates me more than any one particular species.

Equipped with a butterfly net and a camera, Ming Kai spends at least three days a week observing insects in their natural habitat, hoping to snag a new or rare species of orthopterans. To date, he has discovered 55 species of orthopterans, 28 from Singapore and 27 from Southeast Asia. His first discovery, made in 2011, was a katydid which he named Asiophlugis temasek. Another katydid which he unearthed in Thailand — Arnobia tinae — was named after his mother. Prominent entomologists, among them Ms Lua Hui Kheng, former curator at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, now known as the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, have had crickets and katydids named after them as well.

Ming Kai’s research has brought him to diverse locations in Singapore and the region. “I visit different kinds of forests in various parts of Southeast Asia, grasslands, mangroves and even beaches, wherever there are orthopterans. I have surveyed in Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei Darussalam, in addition to Singapore,” he said.

Locally, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Central Catchment Nature Reserve are popular sites for spotting insects. Ming Kai said that as dusk falls in the two reserves, the melodious harmonies of crickets and katydids take over from the songs composed by cicadas and birds. The range of sounds produced by crickets and katydids is incredibly wide, ranging from high-pitched trills and low-pitched hums to strident calls and gentle murmurs.

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Ming Kai’s first discovery in 2011 — a katydid which he named Asiophlugis temasek

Ming Kai added that orthopterans exhibit great diversity in morphology and behaviours. “Mole crickets have modified arms for subterranean life; some katydids have armed legs for active hunting of prey; and many species have unique wing structures to produce distinctive calling songs to attract mates, some of which are beyond our hearing range,” he shared enthusiastically.

As to whether the orthopteran lover has a personal favourite, he said, “Each species is unique in its own ways and that diversity of uniqueness captivates me more than any one particular species.”

Ming Kai’s current research focuses on the visiting and feeding of flowers and pollination by orthoptera in Southeast Asia. Upon completion of his PhD, he aims to seek a post-doctoral position and continue studying orthopterans.