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Field Lab: Examining Evolution in Singapore

Professor John Kastendiek explains the day’s assignment to his Evolution class after arriving at the National Orchid Garden at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The garden holds over 1000 orchid species and 2000 hybrids.

“Pretend that you are Charles Darwin and you’ve been dropped into Southeast Asia,” Professor Jon Kastendiek¬†recommended to his students on the morning of the MV Explorer‘s arrival into Singapore. Kastendiek, a professor from James Madison University, took his Evolution class to the National Orchid Garden at the Singapore Botanic Gardens and to the Singapore Zoo. Their assignment in the field was to list examples of adaptation and convergence in the plant and animal species they would be observing.

Adaptations are traits that allow an organism to survive and reproduce in a particular environment. Convergence is when organisms that are not related to one another evolve similar adaptations because they live in the same environments. An example of convergent evolution can be seen by looking at how sharks, dolphins, and tuna all have adapted to a rounded shape because of the marine environment in which they live. Kastendiek tells the class, “This is not about knowing what the adaptive function is, it is about thinking about it. I want you to start thinking like an evolutionary biologist.” At the end of the field lab, the goal was for the students bring back their research to the classroom and form testable hypotheses about their observations.

Students examined the various plants on display and were encouraged to use critical thinking to determine how the plants had adapted to thrive in their environment. The National Orchid Garden is known for its Golden Shower, or Dancing Lady, orchids (right).
Brooke Dolega, Joshua Gray, Sarakida Toy, and Sonya Park observe, photograph, and take notes while at the Singapore Botanic Gardens to later be used in the classroom to come up with hypotheses about the adaptation and convergence of plants.
Many orchids in the gardens are named after famous people like Margaret Thatcher and Jackie Chan. This bright violet orchid was named after King Letsie III, the King of Lesotho, after his visit to the National Orchid Garden in 2010 (left). Ryan Krouse from the University of Dayton takes notes on his observations of adaptation and convergence (right).
Danielle DeSalvo from Coastal Carolina University and Allegra Rumbough from Colorado College walk past elaborate landscaping and under archways covered in Golden Shower, or Dancing Lady, orchids.
The Singapore Zoo is known for its innovative “open concept” layout which allows for close interaction with many species including the white-faced saki monkeys. The females are brown and the males are black with a white mask.
In the “Fragile Forest” exhibit at the Singapore Zoo, ring-tailed lemurs roam free alongside sloths, flying foxes, and mousedeer.
Omar, one of the zoo’s two white tigers, is said to be descended from Mohan, the first white tiger to have been captured from the wild. White tigers lack the pigmentation that gives Bengal tigers their orange coloring.
Brooke Dolega from Florida Atlantic University has a face-to-face moment with a Sumatran orangutan named Charlie. One of the examples of convergent evolution Brooke will test in class is her observation of how the similar hair growth of orangutans and sloths aids in protecting them from the elements in their rain forest environments.
Brooke Dolega, a zoology major, was thrilled to see a chimpanzee showing her young how to use sticks to retrieve fruit from an enrichment box (left). Brooke explained, “Jane Goodall was the first person to discover that chimpanzees use tools. When she was at the Gombe Reserve in Africa she first observed chimpanzees stripping pieces of sticks, lick them, and then put them into termite mounds to withdraw termites from the mound instead of destroying the whole thing.” Joshua Gray from California Lutheran University noticed convergent evolution between the false gavial (right) and the alligator gar fish; both have the similar shaped snouts to feed on the same kind of fish.
The Singapore Zoo is home to two subspecies of giraffe, the Angolan and Rothschild’s.¬†Kaize Bey-Keys from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore feeds the Angolan giraffe, distinguished by their lighter coloring.
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