Translation of Berita Harian article on Dr Francis Seow (7 April 2013) by Martyn Low.
STICK AND LEAF INSECTS
Because of a deep interest, a colorectal specialist is willing to frequently enter forests to look for his favourite insects
By FARID HAMZAH
It is only to be expected that insects will engender feelings of revulsion in people, what more insects that look strange.
Nevertheless, for a nature lover like Dr Francis Seow, insects are like old friends. He is always delighted when he chances upon one of his favourite insects—the leaf and stick insects.
He is always ready to explore forests, and not to just those in Singapore, in search of insects that are unique and possess their own characteristics.
What is interesting is that he is not a full-time entomologist, his real job is as a colorectal specialist.
His interest is so great that this 55-year old physician has written three books on the stick and leaf insects. His fourth book scheduled for later this year.
“Since I was young, I was exposed to all kinds of insects around our neighbourhood near Sungai Kallang. My Mother never once frightened us or shown any revulsion when holding insects,” says Dr Seow.
As it so happens, during this time, many locals, including Malays and Chinese, were fond of collecting the faeces of stick insects to brew a tea drink as cure for asthma. This induced Dr Seow to research on stick insects, but there was very little related literature.
Dr Seow attempted to carry out research orally by asking various parties but the answers were often did not make sense and were not based on scientific principles.
“I was told that there were only three or four species of stick and leaf insects in Singapore. That was all I knew,” said Dr Seow.
Because of this, he resolved to produce books on the subject.
His first book was published in 1997, followed by a second in 2000, and another in 2005.
The source material for his books came as a result of his field trips in the forest of several of the countries in the region. He has also visited forests in Hong Kong, India, New Zealand, Canada and Africa.
The result: his research shows that there are about 41 species of stick and leaf insects in Singapore alone.
And worldwide, there are an estimated 4,000 species of stick and leave insects.
“All kinds of forms and life habits have been found in this group of insects. For example, some species are composed purely of female individuals.
“Other have limbs that can regenerate when broken off. And all these different species feed on different types of leaves,” explains Dr. Seow, who rears more than 20 species of stick and leaf insects in his bungalow home in Seletar.
Besides this, Dr Seow has also been informed by a friend working in the field of biomedical research in a university in England that his research has shown that the faeces of stick and leaf insects is high in vitamin E.
“My friend’s research has also shown that if the insects feeds on large amounts of guava leaves, as an example, he tea made from the faeces of that insect also tastes of guava,” adds Dr Seow.
In the course of exploring forests all over the world, has Dr Seow ever experienced any issues?
“Usually… we come across animals like elephants, pigs, orang utans, monkeys and snakes, as well as leeches.
“I often spend 12 hours in a forest just looking for stick and leaf insects… there is nothing that needs to be feared.
“As long as they are left alone, wild animals will not attack us,” explains Dr Seow, who has to date found a stick insect which was about five centimetres in length.
In fact, when his children were younger, Dr Seow would bring them with him on excursions to forest in Singapore and overseas.
Now, not a single one of them is scared of holding any kind of insect—dangerous or not.
For Dr Seow, this a means by which children can be exposed to nature so that they become interested in knowing more and better understanding the interrelatedness of flora and fauna.
“What is important is that there is contact between humans and these insects.
“Only then can children respect and understand nature,” adds Dr Seow who goes on to explain that stick and leaf insects are not dangerous and do not feed on human skin.
For Dr Seow many lessons and important information can be gained from the research and can benefit humanity in the long term.
As an example, research can shed more light on the process of limb regeneration in certain species; the declining ‘health’ of a forest and the reduction in leaves is signalled by a decline in the population of these insects; and how one species produces eggs with males.
“All these aspects should researched for comprehensively to see how they can be applied to humans.
“The important thing is that our children continue to learn about the importance of caring and respecting the natural environment,” says Dr Seow.
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ANOTHER ABOUT TO BE PUBLISHED:
Dr Seow shows three books written by him on the subject of stick and leaf insects. A fourth is due later this year.
– Photo M. O. Salleh
One species of stick and leaf insect with a colouration that mimics a dried leaf.
So unique is this insect’s appearance that it resembles a dried and shrivelled leaf at first glance.
A kind of stick and leaf insect named ‘Dajaca monilicornis’ which has a long body which is green with yellow.
Look at how unique the species called ‘Epidares noligmetangere’ looks.
GREEN AND SHAPED LIKE A LEAF:
This species of stick and leaf insect is known as the ‘Malayan Jungle Nymph’ and is being reared in Dr Seow at his home.
There needs to be contact between humans and animals and insects so that we lose our fear of them, says Dr Seow, here holding a snake in a forest in the Philippines.
– Photo courtesy of Dr FRANCIS SEOW
AMONGST THOSE ENCOUNTERED:
This orang utan is amongst the animals encountered by Dr Soew during this visit to a forest in Sabah, Malaysia.
(c) 2013 Singapore Press Holdings Limited