Natural history goes digital with the launch of SIGNIFY

The project aims to bring together a digitally curated archive of Singapore’s historical biodiversity collected over the last 200 years

Singapore’s biodiversity has a rich history that dates back as far as the 18th century. Many explorers and naturalists have passed through Singapore during that time, collecting samples of plants and animals and bringing them back to their country to study them. Now, with power of digitisation, these samples that are scattered across the world can be consolidated in a digital archive.

Officially launched on 10 August 2022, the Singapore in Global Natural History Museums Information Facility (SIGNIFY) project is a five-year endeavour initiated by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) at NUS. The project is supported by Mr Terence Anthony McNeice (in honour of Sir Percy McNeice), the Lee Foundation and Mr Goh Geok Khim.

SIGNIFY aims to digitally catalogue over 10,000 historical specimens of Singapore’s biodiversity collected over the last 200 years. These specimens are currently housed in museums and research institutions across the world. Through this initiative, LKCNHM hopes to foster collaborations with these institutions to digitise Singapore's historical biodiversity specimens for future research. For a start, LKCNHM has partnered with the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London to digitise natural history specimens located there that were collected from Singapore through the years.

An event was held at NHM in London to launch the project, with participants from LKCNHM in Singapore attending virtually.

“This landmark endeavour aims to bring together digitisation and research on as many of Singapore’s native plants and animals as possible. We are aiming high, but the potential returns are well worth it,” said Associate Professor Darren Yeo, Head of LKCNHM.

Speaking at the launch event, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Speaker of the Parliament of Singapore and Chairman of the Advisory Committee of LKCNHM, highlighted the importance of the stories that these historical specimens can provide by preserving them digitally.

He said, “The United Kingdom and Singapore have a very rich shared heritage in terms of language, parliamentary and legal systems, education, scientific research and on many other fronts. Today we celebrate another, one which we hope will increase in the years to come, one that of natural history and heritage.”

Strengthening research on Singapore’s natural history

SIGNIFY will be the first international endeavour to make Singapore's historical biodiversity data freely available online to the world. The digital archive will also serve to bridge data gaps in the understanding of Singapore’s historical biodiversity. Working with counterparts from NHM in London, the project hopes to facilitate and strengthen research collaboration between scientists from Singapore and the United Kingdom in areas such as biodiversity, conservation, and ecology.

“I believe at the end of this project, besides getting a huge digital archive of Singapore’s historical biodiversity, we will reinforce and strengthen the collaboration and shared history that goes back hundreds of years ago,” said Professor Peter Ng, Principal Investigator of SIGNIFY.

"Our two museums will combine our expertise and strengths to better study, understand, and contextualise natural history material from Singapore to answer scientific questions - both big and small - on biodiversity, conservation, ecology, population genetics, and paleoenvironments. Some of the knowledge gaps we will be filling use historical material that only older collections from overseas like the one in NHM can provide,” said Assoc Prof Yeo.

First steps towards the digitisation of natural history

To kick off SIGNIFY, the team has made an impressive achievement in documenting and digitising some of Singapore’s oldest animal specimens. These specimens include the green broadbill, the Singapore Longhorn beetle, and Raffles’ banded langur. Stories of each of these specimens were succinctly described by Prof Ng at the SIGNIFY launch event.

The green broadbill – a bird previously known to be extinct in Singapore – was first described by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1822. Through the digitisation of the green broadbill specimen, the LKCNHM team hopes to be able to understand how to conserve this species of bird that once graced the skies of Singapore. Since its recent sighting on Pulau Ubin in 2014 and 2021, Prof Ng shared that the green broadbill is “one of the animals that we are very keen to conserve and hopefully bring back to the main island.”

Another specimen that has been digitised is the Singapore Longhorn beetle, first described in 1835. This beetle was commonly found in Singapore as described by Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) in his observations that “insects were exceedingly abundant and very interesting, and every day furnished scores of new and curious forms.”

A prominent specimen from 1838 that was collected by Sir Stamford Raffles from Singapore is Raffles’ banded langur. It is a species of monkey known to be endemic to Singapore and Southern Peninsular Malaysia. Raffles' banded langur is highly threatened to be extinct with only a small population left in Singapore.

Prof Ng was heartened to find out that the first original specimen of this monkey is still residing at NHM.

“Digitising the specimen by scanning it to obtain the highest resolution possible will allow scientists studying the taxonomy and biology of this monkey to use the data to expand their research,” he added.