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What’s in the Lab?

From casual conversations, I get the impression that people’s perceptions of becoming marine biologist are that you need to be passionate on a topic or an animal, or be very field-capable. Hmm – that’s not entirely true! When I first approached my supervisor to do a marine biology project, I was neither a SCUBA diver nor do I have any relevant experience and knowledge on marine biology! But I did know that I wanted to ‘try’ being a marine biologist for the duration of my project. And well, the rest is history… 🙂

My early research comprised mainly experiments in tanks and the other big component of my work is desk-based literature reviews. You may not realise now but literature review is a HUGE part of research. It is where you learn to glean information on the topics, animals, ecological processes, etc…, as well as ask questions and develop hypotheses. Literature reviews also appear in the Introductions of many publications to provide the basis of studies and surveys. In a sense, such reviews stimulate research questions and curiosity for marine science.

Just like Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective who solves murder mysteries, I too ‘hunt down’ clues to get answers. The main difference is that I use the information to help connect the dots to modern-day natural history. And the best parts about literature reviews are the (unforetold) stories that come out of it! 🙂

To give you an example, I was working on the stories of the giant clam shells in China over two parts: Part 1 and Part 2. In order to present a balanced view, I made sure to refer to both English-based and Chinese-based media reports to extract information to support my story-telling. This Chinese article (below) is one of those gems I found, but alas, I am blocked from re-entering the website – haha! Fortunately, I screen captured it and it is presented herein. The article mentions the historical background of giant clams in ancient China, and highlights the fluctuating value of this resource. See my brief translation after each section of the article.

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Headline: One piece of giant clam in ancient China is actually equivalent to 10 plots of farm land? From shell currency to today’s giant clam. The original article was published on kknews.cn.
News1
Everyone knows what is a giant clam, and its name was derived since the Han Dynasty. Because of its shell patterns (looking as though the wheels passes through drains, and similar to car tracks), hence they were named Che Qu. And because the shells are hard, the Chinese characters for Che Qu has the word stone in them. In the history, giant clam played many important roles, but they are best known for being most value for money.
News2
In ancient China, giant clams are recognised as a priceless treasure. There was a story recorded in the Shang Shu Da Chuan, where the King Zhou Wen’s random was paid using giant clams. Also in the Qing Dynasty, the second grade officials wore beads made out of giant clams. In the Tibetan secret religion, the high priests Lama used prayer beads made with giant clam shells.
News3
We know that neither transportation was convenient nor technology was advanced in ancient times, so seashells are a very precious resource, thus useful as a long-term currency. Towards the end of Xia Dynasty, shells became a currency exchange media. In businesses, a type of ‘toothed’ seashells were used in transactions and called Huo Bei. So, what is the value of the largest shell – giant clams – worth in ancient times? Below, we will share with everyone the validation. As the value and worth of seashells vary between different historical periods, we chose the more stable rates as the rough estimation of giant clams’ value.
News4
In brief: Cowries were commonly used as currency media. It is said that 40-80 shell currency could buy one plot of farm land.
News5
Note that the seashell currency in the image consist of smaller pieces, which are less valued compared to whole pieces of giant clam shells (almost 100-500x more, and because of the rarity of transporting whole shells). It was estimated that a single complete giant clam shell was worth 200-1000 shell currency, and could buy 5-10 plots of farmlands! In fact, giant clams came up as a shell currency but not well-established as a major currency yet. Its pricelessness was recounted in the stories of being used to pay the random to save King Zhou Wen.
News6
By the Qin-Han Dynasty, modes of transportation improved and shell currency was slowly phased out, thus the value of giant clams and other seashells dropped. At the same time, the immersion of Buddhism quickly raised the value of giant clams again, as one of the 7 treasures of Buddhism, and it became popular amongst the Buddhist followers.
News7
By the Qing Dynasty, the value of giant clams peaked once again. It was used to distinguish the ranks of their officials and used as one of the gems for their attires. It was assumed that the value of giant clams versus crystals were comparable then. Approximately 300 RMB could buy 2-5 g of crystals, which tells the similar value for giant clams.

Lastly, here are some examples of the literature reviews that I’m very proud of, and one of which took a grand total of 3 years to complete! These papers are all OpenAccess and that means you can download them for FREE at these links.

  • Neo, ML, CCC Wabnitz, RD Braley, GA Heslinga, C Fauvelot, S Van Wynsberge, S Andréfouët, C Waters, AS-H Tan, ED Gomez, MJ Costello & PA Todd (2017) Chapter 4. Giant clams (Bivalvia: Cardiidae: Tridacninae): A comprehensive update of species and their distribution, current threats and conservation status. Oceanography and Marine Biology: An Annual Review, Volume 55. Pp. 87-388.
  • Neo, ML, W Eckman, K Vicentuan-Cabaitan, SL-M Teo & PA Todd (2015) The ecological significance of giant clams in coral reef ecosystems. Biological Conservation181: 111–123.
  • Neo, ML (2012) A review of three alien parrots in Singapore. Nature in Singapore 5: 241–248.
  • Neo, ML & PA Todd (2012) Giant clams (Mollusca: Bivalvia: Tridacninae) in Singapore: History, Research and Conservation. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology 25: 67–78.
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