SINGAPORE might be a highly urbanised city state, but it still has green spaces that hum with life. A 1ha plot within Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, possibly the world's most ancient small rainforest reserve, contains more tree species than the whole of North America.
It is home to more than 400 native bird species, as well as at least 40 mammal, 120 reptile, 25 amphibian, 60 freshwater fish and 380 butterfly species, all squeezed within a relatively tiny 716 sq km.
Its blue spaces do not come up short either.
Located just outside the coral triangle - an area widely considered as the world's richest underwater wilderness - the country is also a prime gateway for research into the region's marine ecosystems.
On top of that, the Republic is a case study on the impact humans have on nature and what can be done about it.
That is why the world- famous Smithsonian Institution, making its first formal research agreement in Asia, has chosen Singapore.
The Smithsonian, a complex of 19 museums and galleries, a zoo and nine research facilities in the United States, is partnering Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to do tropical ecology research.
Its interim under secretary for science John Kress noted that that although the tropics are biologically diverse, the ecosystems there are under threat from human activities.
Yet, the region is one of the least understood habitats, due to a lack of academic and scientific infrastructure.
"For our scientists, the tropics are a priority area," he said.
"We are here in the temperate zone, so partnering someone in the tropics is important," he added.
A deal was sealed on Monday afternoon in the Smithsonian Castle Commons in Washington DC, between Dr Kress and NTU provost Freddy Boey.
It will rope in scientists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, who will work with their counterparts from NTU's new Asian School of the Environment on research projects in biodiversity, forest and marine ecology, climate change, human-environment interactions and genomics.
School chair Associate Professor Charles Martin Rubin said one potential project could look at coral reef resilience by studying how urban reefs in an area with heavy maritime traffic like Singapore, compares to pristine reefs in countries like Indonesia.
NTU will also be established as the Asian scientific hub for the Smithsonian's Forest Global Earth Observatories programme (ForestGEO) - a network of more than 60 tropical and temperate forest plots in 24 countries in which scientists examine function and diversity.
A 4ha patch of primary rainforest in Bukit Timah is one of the sites being studied under the programme.
ForestGEO director Stuart Davies said that more plots could be looked at under the new partnership with NTU, including those in the neighbouring Central Catchment Nature Reserve.
Even though Singapore's nature areas are fragmented and sparse compared to its neighbours, it still has a big role to play in tropical ecology research.
As NTU's Prof Boey pointed out: "We never do things merely nationally. Ecology does not respect political boundaries... what adversely happens elsewhere affects us.
"The discovery of such knowledge will allow scientists to tackle the huge challenges we have today, such as climate change and environmental degradation."
This article was first published on Mar 18, 2015.
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