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7 November 2018updated 03 Aug 2021 6:12am

Watching the mudskipper, with its periscope eyes, is like looking back to when life first emerged from the water

These strangely beguiling amphibious fish are fascinating for reasons that are hard to spell out.

By John Burnside

At the northern tip of Singapore island, Sungei Buloh Wetlands Reserve is a haven for birds, mudskippers, archer fish, monitor lizards and long-tailed macaques, not to mention pythons, pit vipers and estuarine crocodiles. Formerly a series of prawn and fish farms, much of the land here is now part of the reserve, though the mangrove itself is ringed with low impact agro-industries based on hydroponics (where there are still fish-farms, they specialise in decorative koi, which can sell for thousands of dollars each).

This non-invasive industry is good for the wetlands, where local people stroll amid the native trees, hoping for a glimpse of hawks, sunbirds and, from October until early spring, the wide range of migrating birds, some from as far away as Siberia, who haunt the mudflats and silt pools.

At one time Singapore was ringed with mangrove, a key ecosystem in which a variety of adapted trees colonise intertidal areas where salt and fresh waters meet, binding the land to the water and, so, preventing fatal erosion. Development has stripped much of that away; in recent years, however, concerned individuals and environmental groups have set out to restore places such as Sungei Buloh – and their success is immediately clear. A few yards past the entrance, my friends and I encounter a decent-sized Malaysian water monitor – at a metre and a half, this is impressive, though water monitors can grow up to three metres in length.

Some yards further on, a tailorbird alights on a slender branch over our heads and lingers a moment to study us. Usually a rather shy creature, it gets its name from the way it stitches leaves together into a cup-shaped nest before lining it with soft down and lint; however, this one is not shy at all, so we are able to study its subtly beautiful plumage (leaf green on the back and tail, with a red-brown crown to the head) and long, needle-like beak. This is just a taster, however; as we move on, we see a pink-necked green pigeon; the elegant collared kingfisher, dandyish in his Beau Brummel blue coat and headgear; various egrets and herons; milky and yellow-billed storks; a pair of brahminy kites; finally, a massive white-bellied eagle dips suddenly out of the sky and swoops on something in the water, which it carries away, triumphant, before we are altogether sure of what has happened.

Perhaps the most mysterious creatures at Sungei Buloh, however, are the mudskippers. We have not come at the ideal time for viewing these strangely beguiling amphibious fish: at low tide there might be hundreds in the damp silt under the mangrove trees. We see a few, and they are fascinating for reasons that are hard to spell out: close to invisible until they move, they use their pelvic and pectoral fins to walk across the wet mud, reserving the high dorsal fin for aggressive displays when, encountering another skipper, they fight to establish territory.

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What is most striking about these evolutionary anomalies, however, is the periscope-like arrangement of the eyes, which stand high above the head, allowing for an extraordinary range of all-around vision. There is something uncanny about these creatures; I cannot tear myself away and, as I watch them wander across the mud, it is like seeing into some past age, when life emerged from the water at the very beginning of a privileged narrative that, spawning all manner of beasts on the way, culminates (miraculously, though only for the moment) in the human. 

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This article appears in the 07 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state