Stories > A Clam State Of Mind

2023 • Issue 1

A Clam State Of Mind

Globally acclaimed Singaporean marine biologist Dr Neo Mei Lin shares why cross-border collaboration underpinned by cultural cognisance is key to conserving biodiversity in our oceans.



iant clams are nowhere near as majestic as whales, or as vivacious as dolphins. Despite being known as the largest living mollusc in the world, these creatures are not even that large in the grander scheme of things: The biggest giant clam ever found measured only 1.37 metres. Still, there is a lot we need to learn about them when it comes to marine conservation — which is why I have been studying them for the most part of my career as a marine biologist.

Despite its ostensibly inert demeanour, for instance, the mollusc is an important part of the marine ecosystem. Apart from being a food source, it also provides refuge for other creatures looking to escape their predators, while serving as a nursery for fishes. Its faeces contain a type of microalgae that aids the growth of the coral reef ecosystem.

Giant clams also serve as “alarm bells” — their disappearance from the sea could indicate deteriorating water conditions. Hypothetically speaking, should the giant clam vanish tomorrow, we will be faced with profound ramifications that would severely impact the marine ecosystem, as well as affect human lives. A diminished marine ecosystem leads to less availability of fish, which in turn affects human consumption.

As such, there is an urgent need to protect these clams in Singapore as they have been slowly but steadily disappearing from our waters. Some of the reasons behind this is the highly sedimented and turbid waters that obscure the penetration of sunlight into the areas where these clams live; improper disposal of trash into our waters; and illegal harvesting.

For the past 15 years, Dr Neo Mei Lin has been studying and championing the giant clams and their significance to the fragile marine ecosystem. 

Singapore’s marine environment is unique as we have coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangroves living in a shipping port. Our immediate sea is heavily used for maritime activities, and past decades of heavy sedimentation has led to an impacted marine environment. In fact, we have lost nearly 60 per cent of our coral reefs during the intensive period of our coastal development, and our marginal reefs can only live within a narrow range of depths.

Despite such human impact, the coastal environment still supports some coral reefs, seagrasses and mangroves. This affords us the opportunity to study how giant clams can thrive under stress. This data can, in turn, be used to develop conservation initiatives. In fact, our neighbouring nations also face a similar extent of coastal development.

“International collaboration is an important means to achieving greater protection of the marine world. I have been fortunate enough to work with peers from different countries, and these exchanges have always provided new perspectives and insights.”

It is heartening to see a recent growth in research exchanges between these countries and Singapore that aim to potentially alleviate the damage while pursuing development sustainably.

While environmental conservation awareness has improved over the years and I do sense a greater appreciation within society for all nature-related things, marine conservationists continue to face an uphill task because unlike forests, oceans are substantially more difficult to explore. While there is an ongoing movement to educate the public on marine conservation, the means of communicating such information needs to be tweaked to be more relatable to the average Singaporean.

For instance, curiosity can be an effective force multiplier when it helps towards developing an interest in nature and conservation practices. This is exactly why I would like to see environmental education being included in the school curriculum instead of being limited to being an extracurricular activity. This will help groom the next generation of environmental stewards.

When it comes to exploring marine life, I also like to think of the sea as a stranger’s home — it would be utterly disrespectful to simply waltz in and grab whatever one feels is shiny and pretty. Yet hundreds of families have been seen doing this along local beaches. The seemingly innocuous act of picking up tiny creatures during low tides is in fact detrimental to the marine ecosystem.

Dr Neo Mei Lin with a container holding a cowrie snail that will be taken back to the lab for studies.

Besides education, international collaboration is another important means to achieving greater protection of the marine world. I have been fortunate enough to work with peers from countries including Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. These exchanges have always provided new perspectives and insights into solving difficult marine conservation problems. 

Between 2016 and 2017, I supervised two master’s research students from the Philippines who were investigating the impact of temperature and salinity on the early larval life development of the True Giant Clam (Tridacna gigas). Though I was their supervisor, I walked away with learnings of my own. For instance, I discovered that the results of their experiments could be used to improve the environmental conditions in a laboratory to enhance the growth of these creatures. Inspired by these findings, I am now working on growing clams in the lab before transplanting them into the sea. 

Indeed, the most memorable exchanges I have had are with Filipino marine experts, who can be considered pioneers in the field of giant-clam studies and research in the region.

Many of the early papers about giant clams came from Filipino researchers, including the late Edgardo Gomez, a former professor emeritus for marine biology at the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines.

I had the honour of meeting Prof Gomez many years ago during a youth environmental conference held in Manila. I still recall being starstruck when I realised that this luminary would be seated next to me in my lab office a few years later. Despite being such a prominent figure in the field, he was a genial person who did not hesitate to break the ice.

I have met many Filipino researchers in my line of work. Besides research matters, we also share about our lives, countries and cultures. Many of them have invited me to their homes and introduced me to their children. Whenever I am in the Philippines on exchange, I feel at home.

Singapore’s Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum houses a diverse collection of marine biodiversity from around the region.  

Being a fellow of the prestigious Pew Charitable Trust’s Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation has also been a boon to my work and allowed me to gain insights from esteemed global researchers. This fellowship has enabled me to learn from the experiences of my international peers, while tapping on their expansive network of contacts for stakeholders that may be interested in my research. 

Over the years, I have learnt to become more socially and culturally aware of the different communities I work with, and the importance of integrating locals into the conservation narrative. One such way is by empowering them to become local ocean champions. For instance, a student of mine has recently become a local expert on giant clams in Malaysia. I first met him in 2016 when visiting a marine research station, where he was working on another project. He became so interested in giant clams that he decided to pursue a PhD programme on the subject. 

Today, he is finishing up his doctorate research on the population status and genetic structures of giant clams in Peninsular Malaysia. It has been extremely helpful to have him serve as a local ocean champion for the species across the Causeway.

“I have learnt to become more socially and culturally aware of the different communities I work with, and the importance of integrating locals into the conservation narrative.” 

Dr Neo recently authored a book titled A Field Guide to Giant Clams of the Indo-Pacific.

Conversely, my foreign peers have also managed to find out more about Singapore’s marine ecosystem through our exchanges. During a recent trip I organised to the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, I observed how astonished my counterparts from Malaysia and Vietnam were to learn about the biodiversity living on our sea walls — an uncommon sight that requires immense effort to maintain. They also appreciated our marine conservation efforts, and the numerous specimens in the museum that are from the seas around Southeast Asia. 

This, to me, is the beauty of international exchanges. Collaborative relationships that span borders can often evolve into friendships that subsequently beget even greater collaboration. Ultimately, everyone wins, because we all gain perspectives that would probably never have come to light if we were to work in silos.  


Dr Neo Mei Lin is the first Singaporean to be the recipient of the prestigious Pew Charitable Trust’s Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation. As a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Tropical Marine Science Institute, she has been studying giant clams since 2006. Apart from her research work, she gives talks to various schools and organisations, as well as volunteers with grassroots groups to raise awareness about marine conservation, and educate fellow volunteers.

This May Also Interest You