Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Darwin's Finches. Experiences in the Galapagos Islands

While the search goes on for the genes involved in the evolutionary divergence of Darwin’s finches*, together with the molecular mechanisms involved in morphogenesis of the beak and how those mechanisms are controlled, the Galapagos are visited by those keen to see these finches and how they live. But even experienced birdwatchers can have difficulty in identifying what they are seeing. Some species are easy to recognise, the Warbler Finch, for example. But for the Ground finches in particular identification can be puzzling. Colour is of no help. The beak is the key feature together with body size. When you think you have it worked out on one island, the move to a new island the next day can leave one bewildered. That is because a large member of a small species on island A can be very similar to a small individual of a larger species on island B. We found the Small and Medium Ground Finches on Santa Cruz could produce very puzzled observers. Peter and Rosemary Grant explain why: …medium ground finches on Santa Cruz are larger on average and vary much more than elsewhere. The beak is the key distinguishing feature but the variation within a single species can be so great that there can be overlap with another species. It is not impossible that you may be looking at a hybrid. Hybridisation is said to be rare but the offspring are fertile.

During our trip to the Galapagos we saw 10 of the 13 recognised species (ignoring the split of the Warbler Finch). The only real site for the really rare Mangrove Finch is closed to visitors (although the odd party has been lucky with a sighting elsewhere). We did not go high enough on Floreana for a Medium Tree Finch, the only island on which it occurs. We did go to places where we might have seen Large Tree Finches but on the days with the best chances and good access the weather closed in.


Sighting is one thing, video photography is another. I managed to get some footage of six species, especially those that seem to have no fear. This footage is shown here but is better seen by pressing the view in YouTube option:




I see that very recently published field guides are getting better reviews than their predecessors, especially when it comes to how they deal with Darwin’s finches. The books available up to a short time ago were really not very good. The human guides are excellent but they are not close to hand all the time to witness the fleeting appearance of a bird.

What I had not realised until we got there is just how tough and subject to changes in weather and climate some of the island environments are. Variations in rainfall, for example, affect the plants and invertebrates that provide the food for the finches. Droughts produce population crashes as well as marked selection for beak size with the outcome depending on which other species are present on a particular island competing for seed of the same size. This appreciation of the ecological factors in the evolution of Darwin’s finches is why I now suggest that visitors to the Galapagos should read the Grants’ book that summarises their research before going rather than after, like I did.

Equally as fascinating as Darwin’s finches are the human visitors to the Galapagos. Despite all the vessels having excellent naturalist guides on board the level of ignorance is astonishing. The problem seems to be that the Galapagos is sold as a destination for adventure holidays, particularly by travel agents in the USA, and hordes pour onto the popular islands seemingly immune to the acquisition of knowledge or interest in the natural world.

People watching is, therefore, in small doses also an educational experience not to be missed. Some of the conversations would form great lines for a sitcom. How can anybody in the western world escape knowing the existence of Darwin’s finches and why they are important? Even creationists have heard of Darwin’s finches. Well, there are lots of visitors to the Galapagos who have escaped knowing.

http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2164/14/95
† I cannot recommend the Grants' book more strongly. It is clear they succeeded in achieving the goal they set out in the preface: Our goal, like [David] Lack's, was to capture the essentials and the highlights for an intended audience of students. Grant, P.R. & Grant, B.R. 2008. How and Why Species Multiply. The Radiation of Darwin's Finches. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Hong Kong Naturalist: A journal and an original subscriber - R.A.C. North


A few years ago I was pleased to buy a complete bound set of Hong Kong Naturalist. Founded by G.A.C. Herklots, it was published from 1930 until the Japanese invasion of 1941. I was pleased to find that the colour plates were intact except, strangely, in the last two volumes (bound differently and of a larger page size than the others) where they had been crudely torn out. They were bought on eBay from a bookseller in the south of England for much less than the price of postage. Each volume is signed inside the cover and I was surprised when I recognised the owner from the signature, R.A.C. North.

Roland Arthur Charles North CMG was Secretary of Chinese Affairs in the Hong Kong Government from 1936 until the surrender of Hong Kong to the Japanese invaders on Christmas Day 1941. He was a key figure in a controversy that occupied the Government of Hong Kong and the British Government after Japan unconditionally surrendered on 14 August 1945 and the re-establishment of British administration by the brilliant Colonial Secretary (two higher than North in the civil service hierarchy), Franklin Gimson, who had only arrived in Hong Kong a couple of days before the Japanese invasion. After the arrival of Admiral Harcourt with ships from the Pacific Fleet, British sovereignty was re-established in September 1945.

The controversy centred on the role of leading figures in the Chinese community during the Japanese occupation. Collaboration beyond the point of necessity was the charge. Some gave a dinner for the departing Japanese Governor after the surrender. Badly-nourished internees emerging from Stanley were enraged by seeing individuals who “had shouted ‘Banzai!’ yesterday singing ‘God Save the King’ today”1. North, operating from the old French Mission Building [now housing the Orwellian-titled Court of Final Appeal], put out a press statement on 2 October to counter the public outrage at the acceptance of these leaders back into the fold of the new  administration saying that he had asked these individuals in January 1942, ‘to take upon themselves what should have been my duty in working with the Japanese’. The new Government crushed the view that one or more individuals should be put on trial and the leaders moved back into a position of influence with the government. The feeling though persisted amongst both the wartime Chinese residents who had been extremely badly treated by the Japanese and the British. I remember driving along a road in Hong Kong with a policeman friend in 1967. He suddenly exploded with ‘That road [named after one of the Chinese gentry involved] should be re-named. We don’t want collaborators like that being commemorated.’ But they were.

North, with the rest of the internees, was repatriated to UK after issuing his statement in October 1945; he arrived in Southampton on 9 November on the Royal Mail Lines ship Highland Monarch. He was appointed CMG (Supplement to London Gazette, 13 June 1946).

Thanks to a family website on ancestry.com and websites centred on his father, the artist John William North ARA (1842-1924), I have pieced the following account together.

J.W. North was a member of the Idyllic School of painters of Victorian England. A website which records his activities is maintained by his great-grandson by ‘his mistress, muse and model Maria Milton’2. R.A.C. North was born to Selina Weetch, J.W. North’s wife, on 28 January 1989 at Beggearnhuish House, Nettlecombe, Somerset. Educated at Oxford, he joined the colonial service in 1912 as a Cadet 2nd Class. He married Leo Catherine Greening, a New Zealander, in 1928 in Hong Kong. According to one report, he offered to return to Hong Kong after his recovery from Hong Kong but was considered too old and retired in 1947 after working for a short time in the ‘Empire’ Office, presumably the Colonial Office. He was then 58. I seem to remember that normal retirement age from the colonial service was 55. He did return to Hong Kong, with his wife and daughter, in 1947 on his way to live in Australia; they left Southampton on P&O's Strathmore on 4 March 1947. From then until he died in 1961, aged 72, he lived with his family at Katoomba, New South Wales. After his death, his widow Leo (died 1976) and daughter, Philippa, returned to live in Somerset. Philippa died in 2005.

My guess is that what are now my copies of Hong Kong Naturalist were sold after Philippa’s death. But what had happened to them during the war. Had they been sent by North to safe keeping along with his family as the threat of war in the Far East grew? Had they been kept by him at Stanley during internment? The possibility of their being left in a ‘safe’ place in Hong Kong can be discounted since there was no such thing. From their appearance and binding (the last two non-matching volumes were bound by the Bookbinding Department, St Louis Ind. School, Hong Kong) they do not seem to have been stored in Hong Kong for long. The cockroaches then rife in houses and offices made short work of the glue in the bindings. The last two volumes are varnished to prevent attack and there are only slight signs of cockroach damage to the first eight. My guess is that the last two volumes were bound and then sent away from Hong Kong after the final part of volume X was published in February 1941.

Why is North interesting in terms of the biological sciences in Hong Kong. I think he is an illustration of the all-round civil administrator, now disappeared, with wide interests. The Hong Kong Naturalist represents the phenomenon, characteristic of a its age, of a journal that interested professional biologists, geologists, meteorologists and archaeologists as well as amateur natural historians and those interested in the natural world.

My volumes are in my bookshelf. However, other would-be purchasers of the Hong Kong Naturalist need no longer look for the uncommon printed and bound volumes. It can be viewed online at the website, Hong Kong Journals Online in its entirety:

http://hkjo.lib.hku.hk/exhibits/show/hkjo/home

R.A.C. North's volumes of The Hong Kong Naturalist
on my bookshelves


Snow, Philip. 2003. The Fall of Hong Kong. New Haven and London: Yale

http://www.southwilts.com/site/The-Idyllists/index.htm


Modified on 21 September 2015

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Who was Marples, B.J. (1932)?


Twenty-five years before Knut Schmidt-Nielsen discovered salt glands in birds, the structure and development of the nasal or supraorbital glands – that turned out to be the salt glands – were studied by B.J. Marples at the University of  Manchester1. The late Jim Linzell and I quoted his work in our monograph on salt glands2. However, his name was unfamiliar to us and we had no idea what had become of him. I always wanted to ask Marples why had worked on the nasal glands. Nothing of their remarkable function was known and the only function anybody could think of was to wash seawater out of the nostrils. Wrong!

Only when reading Whose Bird?3 last year did I find the answer. Brian John Marples (1907-1997) was, from 1937 until 1966, Professor of Zoology at Otago University in New Zealand. Like so many zoologists of that era, his interests were wide-ranging, if firmly grounded in the Oxford school of comparative anatomy of Goodrich and de Beer. An obituary in the Yearbook of the Royal Society of New Zealand4 provides an excellent account of his interests and achievements in ornithology, arachnology and vertebrate palaeontology (particularly the fossil penguins of the Oligocene).

Marples’ (Marples’s when I did O-level English) Penguin (Palaeeudyptes marplesi Brodkorb, 1963) from the Late Eocene was named in his honour. The extinct birds in this genus start at the size of the Emperor Penguin5.

Again, like so many of his British contemporaries, it is reported that his lecture delivery was in the languid style with diagrams drawn on the blackboard. It seems that he retired early because the university thought his department needed an infusion of experimental biology. He returned to Woodstock, near Oxford.

So, while we were writing the monograph, Marples was living near Oxford and, had we known that, I could have asked him how he came to work on nasal glands and whether or not he had an inkling that they could prove to be more important than was thought at the time.

1Marples, B. J. 1932. The structure and development of the nasal glands of birds. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 102, 829 – 844.
2Peaker, M. & Linzell, J.L. 1975. Salt Glands in Birds and Reptiles. Cambridge University Press (ISBN 0 521 20629 4).
3Beolens, B. & Watkins, M. 2003. Whose Bird? London: Christopher Helm (ISBN 0-300-10359-X)
4 http://www.royalsociety.org.nz/publications/reports/yearbooks/year2000/obituaries/brian-marples/
5 http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/species/marples-penguin


Monday, 16 September 2013

BBC: Losing the Plot


Last year I met somebody who had worked at the BBC’s Natural History Unit in Bristol. I enquired how a producer with whom I had worked on a programme in the 1990s was. ‘Oh, she was made redundant’, came the reply. Now I need not tell you that the Natural History Unit has been and remains to be singularly successful. But then we read that in addition to the massive pay-offs to top BBC executives (I have, incidentally, never discovered what ‘executives’ actually do) the Head of Human Resources (i.e. the Personnel Officer) has been paid £320,000 per annum. Need I say more by way of explaining why the BBC is imploding.

And do not risk mentioning the science coverage to me. An explosion of expletives is the likely outcome. The last Horizon I managed to watch the whole way through was a really awful programme on dinosaurs and the extraction of ancient DNA. I pitied the scientists who had taken part in this repetitive, dumbed down coverage with a story that flew off at every available tangent. The science flagship was holed below the water line some years ago. The original producers who launched the series in 1964 must be watching from somewhere the BBC’s treatment of science with horror.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Human Pregnancy: Gestation Period Variation Compared with Nanny Goats


One of the stories running during this year’s ‘silly season’, when news media are desperately trying to fill newspapers, radio, television and websites, was one highlighting research1 which showed, in the words of the BBC News website, Pregnancy length “varies naturally by up to five weeks”.

Great surprise was expressed about this range of variation (14% of the mean ovulation to delivery period of 268 days). In practical terms the sheer stupidity of giving expectant mothers a ‘due date’ (with the implication that being ‘overdue’ is abnormal) was highlighted. In these days where education in biological systems has declined to the extent that the public expect certainty in all things biological and medical, the reports helped to highlight that variation and uncertainty are to be expected.

Reading of the extent of the variation, I tried to remember the variation I had found in the goat. In 1978 I collected all the data from the then goat herd at what is now the Babraham Institute that had been recorded between 1954 and 1977, a total of 374 cases2. The mean time between mating and delivery was 150 days (as also found by Sydney Arthur Asdell in 1929). Although 90% of births occurred between 146 and 154 days, the full range was 135-159 days (24 days). The percentage variation (24/150) of 16 is very similar to the latest human data.

So, if we have 14% variation for the human gestation period and 16% for the caprine, what about other mammals? A quick look through a UFAW Handbook and elsewhere suggests a similar level of variation (cat 14%, dog 13%, rabbit 22%, guinea pig 11%, rat 14%). Somebody must have noted this before somewhere but if they have I cannot remember it nor can find reference to it.

Is the variation in the length of pregnancy the simple result in differences in the rate of development of the fetus? Or adaptive in that the time of parturition can be controlled? Or both?

As work on the initiation of parturition by activation of the fetal adrenal developed during the 1970s, the talk in the coffee room was that fetal control of the onset could not be the whole story since some herd animals clearly synchronised parturition in addition to synchronising oestrus. Wildebeest were the prime example. The extent of the control is illustrated by Berger’s studies on American Bison3. Gestation was shorter by approximately 6 days in those females that mated after the seasonal peak, thereby ensuring that births were synchronised with the females that had mated at the peak. There was a difference in whether or not the females were in good body condition. Gestation was earlier in those in good condition but not in those in poor condition. Clearly though there is an advantage in ensuring that births are synchronised since delivering early came with a cost. The tradeoff was that the offspring of those females that delivered early were approximately 20 kg lighter when 6 months old. Achieving synchrony, presumably to lessen the chances of predation, is clearly an important reproductive tactic. But are we any the wiser now as to the physiological mechanism of this control than we were in the mid-1970s?

Finally, is there any evidence of adaptive control of the onset of parturition in human mothers? I know of no evidence, only of all sorts of attempts to get things moving. I have seen the exertion of ascending the Peak in Hong Kong along Hatton Road as one try; the eating of a very large roast-beef dinner as another. Did they work? Well, the babies appeared eventually.

1 Jukic, A.M., Baird, D.D., Weinberg, C.R., McConnhaughey, D.R. & Wilcox, A.J. 2013. Length of human pregnancy and contributors to its natural variation. Human Reproduction doi:10.1093/humrep/det297
2 Peaker, M. 1978. Gestation period and litter size in the goat. British Veterinary Journal 134, 379-383.
3 Berger, J. 1992. Facilitation of Reproductive Synchrony by Gestation Adjustment in Gregarious Mammals: A New Hypothesis. Ecology 73, 323-329.

Monday, 12 August 2013

The Eponym Dictionary of Amphibians: Where’s Conrau?


Starting in 2003 with Whose Bird?, the Eponym Dictionary series (mammals following birds, then reptiles and, this year amphibians) has provided interest and amusement in epi-zoology. As the series has gone on, information from earlier volumes is often repeated, as a necessity since collectors, benefactors and museum workers often have birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians named after them. There is particular overlap with reptiles and amphibians and I was often miffed to find I had already read an entry in one of the other volumes. I took three double pages at random and found that a third of entries were repeats from earlier volumes.

I found a few omissions. The most remarkable I noted was the absence of Gustav Conrau who collected in the Cameroons in the closing years of the 19th century. He does appear in the volume on reptiles for the gecko, Lygodactylus conraui. Conrau should appear in the volume on amphibians for the genus Conraua, now comprising six species including that famous amphibian, the Goliath Frog, Conraua goliath. The genus was erected by Fritz Nieden in 1908 for G. robusta (Die Amphibienfauna von Kamerun. Mitteilungen des zoologischen Museums Berlin 3, 489-518) and the Goliath Frog, described by Boulenger in 1906 as Rana goliath, was moved into it by Nieden.

The story of Conrau, a German trader and labour recruiter in Cameroon is told in the Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. He had recruited labour from the Bangwa people for a plantation to the south. When he returned, the Bangwa thought their labourers must have died since they were not with him. The Bangwa held him hostage against their men’s return. He was wounded while trying to escape. He probably killed himself to avoid being captured although he may have been shot by his pursuers. The Germans sent two punitive expeditions as a consequence.

Fritz Nieden (1883-1942), incidentally, does appear – for the caecilian Boulengerula niedeni described in 2005.


The Eponym Dictionary of Amphibians. 2013. Beolens, B., Watkins, M., Grayson, M. Exeter: Pelagic Publishing

Friday, 2 August 2013

Donors of Reptiles to London Zoo 1914/15: 9. C.R. Walker and Mons. de Southoff


I reach the end of this series of posts with failure. I have been unable to find any more information on two donors. This is what Clin Keeling wrote in A Short History of British Reptile Keeping:

First there was one C.R. Walker, F.Z.S., of The Vivarium, West Bromwich, near Birmingham, who during the early days of the war sent, and received on an exchange basis, quite a lot of material to Regent's Park; for example one consignment of his consisted of twenty-five assorted Skinks, Geckos (including the New Zealand species) and Tree Frogs, while during research in another direction I made the fascinating discovery that on 15th October 1913 London's first Soft-shelled Turtles (Trionyx) came from him. As far as we're concerned just who and/or what he was must, pro tem, remain a mystery, although it sounds very much to me as though The Vivarium was a shop that specialised in animals of this kind – in which case it must have been one of the very first in the country and possibly indicative that even at that period there was more demand for them than wenow realise  – or it could even have been some kind of reptile display, or both. As things stand, though, we must leave it there in the shadowy land of speculation.

The only thing I do know is that C.R. Walker was not a Fellow of the Zoological Society in 1910 or 1913. There is a speculative geographical connexion with Herbert Tomlin Pollitt (23 June 1013 post) but that is all I have been able to find. This one needs more work in the Zoo Library because it would be very interesting to shed more light, for the reasons Clin explained, on just who Walker was and what The Vivarium did.

Finally, I have also been unable to find anything about the Mons. de Southoff who donated European salamanders and snakes.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

ITV’s The Zoo: An Own Goal for The Zoo?


ITV’s three-part television series on London and Whipsnade Zoos has just ended. It was, of course, as dumbed down and as superficial as one would expect of ITV at 8.00 pm. However, what the Zoological Society of London (why was it 'Zedessell' with every breath?) clearly saw as an exercise in free publicity seemed to me to backfire.

Nearly every sequence (ignoring the endless repeated cutaways and fill-in shots) involved some kind interventions by vets or the hand-rearing of mammals and birds by keepers. Notwithstanding the fact that advances in veterinary practice have had an enormous impact on our ability to care for wild animals in captivity and the Zoo itself has been in part responsible for the impressive array of technology now available, the truth is that just about every veterinary intervention that is necessary in a zoo reflects a failure of animal husbandry of some kind. In the same way, hand-rearing reflects a failure to provide the physiological or psychological requirements of the mother. Calling in the vet or having to hand rear are indicative of failure — not success — in zoo practice.

I presume that so much emphasis was placed on the team of vets because operations on animals provide ‘good’ television for the great British public to gawp at, but some of the ‘health checks’ seemed more likely to prevent breeding (through the physiological axis that links stress with reproductive success) than enable it. Cute hand-reared mammals and stroppy, fluffy penguins fall into the same category of ‘good’ television but failed husbandry. I really do hope that the emphasis the producers of the programmes chose does not reflect the balance of activity at the two zoos in the 2010s. Surely, wild animal husbandry has advanced more than that in the past thirty years even if some of the housing at the Zoo hasn’t. We in this house may not be alone in thinking that we saw more interventions by the vets at the Zoo than interventions by the Blair-Brown government.

On one redeeming note, the baby Malay Tapir and its mother did appear in the final episode without an anaesthetic dart in sight. But The Zoo was not The Ark and Molly Dineen it was not.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Biological Systems: Is Redundancy Redundant?


The term redundancy is often used to describe two or more processes in biological systems that appear to do the same job. The term has been borrowed from Information Theory. The definition in Wikipedia is as useful as any:
Redundancy in information theory is the number of bits used to transmit a message minus the number of bits of actual information in the message. Informally, it is the amount of wasted "space" used to transmit certain data.
I have never been comfortable with the term in biological systems except in discussions on signalling systems (endocrine, autocrine, paracrine, intracrine) where it can be used in its proper, Information Theory, sense. My qualms on using it for biochemical pathways and membrane transport systems, for example, are that it has implications of a mechanism being present but not needed. I have argued in the past that parallel pathways and different transport mechanisms carrying the same substrate are better described as safety mechanisms (belt-and-braces adaptations) or as systems that may be used in some circumstances and not others.

The other problem in using the term is that it can be confused with redundancy in the evolutionary sense, a vestigial character for example. I sometimes think we should leave the term in its more usual English meaning of superfluous in the hands of human resource departments, those parasitic forms of life, to apply to themselves. Auto-redundancy in these anti-personnel departments would do more than a little to aid economic recovery — and benefit science, technology and engineering.

The twitching of my ears and muscular contractions in other parts of my anatomy at hearing the term (along with ‘model organism’, ‘model system’ and the like) appear more and more to be justified as mechanisms are investigated in greater depth than the appearance of blots on gels.

A recent paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society* by Zoe Dumas, Adin Ross-Gillespie and Rolf K├╝mmerli sums up in its title the dangers of using the term willy-nilly: Switching between apparently redundant iron-uptake mechanisms benefit bacteria in changeable environments. I can do no better than to quote from the abstract:
Bacteria often possess multiple siderophore-based iron uptake systems for scavenging this vital resource from their environment. However, some siderophores seem redundant, because they have limited iron-binding efficiency and are seldom expressed under iron limitation. Here, we investigate the conundrum of why selection does not eliminate this apparent redundancy. We focus on Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterium that can produce two siderophores—the highly efficient but metabolically expensive pyoverdine, and the inefficient but metabolically cheap pyochelin. We found that the bacteria possess molecular mechanisms to phenotypically switch from mainly producing pyoverdine under severe iron limitation to mainly producing pyochelin when iron is only moderately limited. We further show that strains exclusively producing pyochelin grew significantly better than strains exclusively producing pyoverdine under moderate iron limitation, whereas the inverse was seen under severe iron limitation. This suggests that pyochelin is not redundant, but that switching between siderophore strategies might be beneficial to trade off efficiencies versus costs of siderophores…
So, how many apparently redundant mechanisms can really be described as such? Perhaps we really should confine it to its proper use in signalling systems where redundancy in the message decreases the error in transmission.


Peaker, M. 1992. Chemical signalling systems: the rules of the game. Journal of Endocrinology 135 1-4
Proceedings of the Royal Society B 7 August 2013 vol. 280 no. 1764 20131055
Sir Barry Cross’s loudly whispered description in the early 1980s of the personnel department of the old Agricultural Research Council (later AFRC, now BBSRC)

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Donors of Reptiles to London Zoo 1914/15: 8. Herbert Tomlin Pollitt


Again, and nearing the end of this series of posts, this is what Clin Keeling wrote in A Short History of British Reptile Keeping:

H. Pollit of 7 Grosvenor Road, Handsworth, Birmingham, gave an Alligator, an Eyed Lizard and a European Pond Tortoise…

Thanks to a search of the 1911 Census, a family history on ancestry.co.uk and the keeper of that history, Any Pollitt, I have identified this ‘H. Pollit’ as Herbert Tomlin Pollitt. He was born in 1897 in Irlam, Lancashire. In 1911, aged 13, he was living at the address shown in the Zoo’s records. His father, a chemist, was manager of a soap works; he worked for Lever Brothers (now Unilever).

Herbert had ‘a very colourful life’. In 1917 he was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant from the Indian Army’s Cadet College at Quetta (now in Pakistan). The Cadet College occupied the buildings of the famous Staff College which was closed for the duration of the war. By the end of the war it appears he was with 20th Deccan Horse, an Indian Army cavalry regiment (renowned for its charge on the Somme in 1916) on the western front.

He became a garage owner (authorised Morris dealer) in Birmingham, and is shown as living on a farm near Droitwich. Thrice-married, he was killed, along with a son from his second marriage and a son from his third marriage, in November 1965, aged 68.

So here we do seem to have somebody who may have given his reptiles to London Zoo before joining the army. We do not know if he retained any interest in animals after the war or at the farm where he lived near Droitwich.

We also do not know where he got his reptiles in the first place. It seems unlikely that they come from his father’s travels For Lever Brothers since one was North American and the others European. However, I cannot help wondering if they came from a local source. Clin Keeling mentions C.R. Walker from “The Vivarium”, West Bromwich (I will deal with him in a later post) as a donor of reptiles to London Zoo over this period. Handsworth is adjacent to West Bromwich. Was there a connexion?

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Blue Poison-Dart Frog: The Times Gets It All Wrong


The Times really should check its sources and material before publication. Today’s edition has a short article that states:

British scientists have successfully bred a rare species of frog that contains enough poison to kill up to ten adults. The blue poison dart frog, which is 2.5cm long, is found in the tropical forests of Costa Rica and Brazil. Experts at Walford and North Shropshire College have successfully bred one in their laboratory…

What a load of cock. Where did The Times get such an inaccurate story?

The blue poison dart frog was originally described as Dendrobates azureus. It was discovered in 1968 in mountainous island in the Sipaliwini savanna of Suriname. It was named by its discoverer (Hoogmoed) in 1969. He writes:

In 1970 I returned to the Sipaliwini savanna on another expedition and at that time I collected 10 specimens of D. azureus from the Vier Gebroeders forest island, and transported them alive to Holland, where they formed the basis of the first, and only legal, breeding colony of D. azureus. All other colonies were established with smuggled specimens, from which the present specimens in captivity are descendants1.

Private breeders in the Netherlands and Germany soon began to breed these frogs and they entered the open market. Some zoos (Edinburgh was one) were also keen to breed them because of reports that their habitat was threatened by fire. In short, D. azureus was, for a short time, treated as an endangered species.

I bought adults and tadpoles from Dutch breeders in the early 1990s and the late Bob Davies and I bred them. They are now commonly kept and bred in captivity throughout the world and there is no justification whatsoever in the claim published in The Times. Indeed, an quick search shows them available at £60 each from a British dealer. As the IUCN website3 says:

This species breeds easily in captivity, and is found in zoos around the world.

Having seen these frogs alongside coloured forms of Dendrobates tinctorius, the thought of many of us was that they were a local form of D. tinctorius. Other than in colour they resembled D. tinctorius and there was no evidence that tinctorius and azureus were sympatric. This suspicion was confirmed in 2006: D. azureus was demoted to a junior synonym of D. tinctorius (summary in 2).

All the information anybody needs, from taxonomy to distribution, is readily available from the IUCN website where D.tinctorius rates ‘least concern’3.

So, here’s one we bred earlier:




The reason for my writing about this claim here is to highlight a common and growing problem. Zoos and wildlife collections are forever putting out press statements that they have bred such-and-such and that it is ‘endangered’. Such claims are rarely true and even when it is correct that the species in question is endangered, or in some other less than safe category in the wild, there are often so many in captivity that zoos do not know what to do with them. Not only do such silly or trivial claims play straight into the hands of members the anti-zoo lobby who know a false claim when they see one but detract from the hard-earned achievements of those involved in ex-situ conservation.

I now expect to see reports that such and such an organisation has bred axolotls — critically endangered in the wild. I shall probably read the report while drinking coffee in Dobbie’s Garden Centre, yards away from tanks containing axolotls at £22 each.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Donors of Reptiles to London Zoo 1914/15: 7. Bernard Tucker and William Waldegrave


Again, in this series of posts, this is what Clin Keeling wrote in A Short History of British Reptile Keeping:

Mr. W.B. Tucker of Hillside, Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, got rid of a Brazilian Tortoise, a Spanish Terrapin and a Scorpion Mud Turtle (this latter one of the Box Turtles), and I was intrigued to discover that a few months later he sent, from Chewton House, Chewton Mendip, near Bath, two Radiated Tortoises, a Rough Terrapin (!) and three more Scorpion Muds on behalf of Lord Chewton. Was the latter, I cannot help wondering, an earlybut self-effacing practical herpetologist who had persuaded Mr. Tucker, who he knew to be similarly-minded, to come westwards in order to look after his collection - some surplus of which he decided to donate to the Zoological Society of London?

A few searches soon showed that somewhere there has occurred a transposition in the initials. W.B. Tucker is, in fact, B.W. Tucker — Bernard Tucker (1901-1950), the renowned ornithologist and lecturer in Zoology at Oxford. All the facts fit: educated at Harrow (Hillside was, apparently, one of the smaller houses at Harrow); family connexion with Chewton Mendip; a keeper of reptiles and amphibians in his rooms at Oxford.


Bernard Tucker

An account of Bernard William Tucker’s life was written by David Lack. Originally published in Ibis in 1951 it was reproduced in his book, Enjoying Ornithology (Methuen, 1965). I can do no better than to quote from it:

With the death of Bernard William Tucker on 19th December 1950 after a long illness, British ornithology loses it central figure. This position Tucker had come to fill, in characteristically unobtrusive fashion, partly through the width of his interests, which ranged from the identification of rare waders to the physiology of feather-growth, and particularly through his varied services to ornithology. He was Reader in Ornithology at Oxford University, Editor of British Birds, a former Vice-President of the British Ornithologists’ Union, and Vice-Chairman of the British Trust for Ornithology. 
Born on 22nd January 1901, at Northaw in Hertfordshire, Tucker spent most of his boyhood at Chewton Mendip in Somerset; and his first publication was on the birds round Chewton Mendip in the report of the Wells Natural History and Archaeological Society in 1918. He was educated at Harrow School, where he won the Lord Claud Hamilton Biology Prize in 1918 and the William Roundell Leaving Scholarship in 1919. He went up to Oxford in 1919 with a demyship (senior scholarship) at Magdalen College, and obtained 1st class honours in Zoology in 1923. He then obtained the Oxford scholarship to the Stazione Zoologica at Naples, where he worked on parasitism in crustacea for a year, paying later brief visits to Naples in 1925, 1927 and 1928. At Naples, also, he met his future wife, Gladys Allen, whom he married in July 1925. In the same year he was appointed a Demonstrator in the Zoological Laboratory at Cambridge, Professor Stanley Gardiner’s intention being that he should fill Gadow’s place as lecturer in vertebrate anatomy. When Gadow unexpectedly postponed his retirement, Tucker in 1926 returned to Oxford under Professor Goodrich, and he became a University Demonstrator and Lecturer in Zoology and Comparative Anatomy in the following year. This post he held for the rest of his life, becoming Browne Research Fellow of the Queen’s College 1944-47 and Reader in Ornithology in 1946.
Tucker once told me that he differed from most ornithologists in that he did not develop an overriding interest in birds until unusually late, about his eighteenth year. At school, botany had been a major interest, and as an undergraduate he was noted for the variety of reptiles and amphibia which he kept in vivaria in his rooms…. 
In the zoology department at Oxford, Tucker lectured mainly on the vertebrates, including of course the birds, and he was one of the first in Britain to supplement the orthodox lectures on anatomy with others on habits, including migration. He was noted for his skill both in dissection and in anatomical diagrams, some of the latter being published in De Beer’s Vertebrate Zoology, which became a standard textbook for students… 
Tucker has had an extremely important influence on British ornithology in three different ways, through his work with local ornithological societies, through his work on field characters, particularly as published in the Handbook of British Birds, and through his work for the Edward Grey Institute at Oxford… 
In B.T.O. affairs, however, Tucker’s greatest service was at Oxford, for he, more than anyone else, was responsible for getting University support for the Institute…

In the obituary, Lack states that Tucker’s original publications on birds are few and unimportant. He does not mention that Tucker dissected the head of London Zoo’s last Thylacine after its death in 1931*. Typically, I suspect, he did not publish this study but his notes and the head are in the university’s museum at Oxford.


Tucker would have been 13 when his gave his chelonians to London Zoo. Were they too difficult to keep at school?

Viscount Chewton then was William Edward Seymour Waldegrave (1882-1933). He later succeeded to the title, 10th Earl Waldegrave. He was the son of the 9th Earl (William Frederick Waldegrave) and Mary Dorothea Palmer. The family seat is at Chewton Mendip, where Bernard Tucker spent his boyhood. Waldegrave died, unmarried, at the age of 50. He became a Fellow of the Zoological Society in 1913 (aged 31). One can only assume that Tucker and Waldegrave developed a common interest in reptiles, especially chelonians, at Chewton Mendip. Whether Waldegrave continued his interest beyond the 1st World War, I do not know.

*http://bit.ly/17GJmex




Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Birds and Light Pollution: Hong Kong at Night

A correspondent in Hong Kong writes:
If you are in the centre of Causeway Bay at the Sogo crossing around 9pm it is dark, but swallows are still feeding by hunting insects that are attracted to the large illuminated advertising hoardings. So yes they are still feeding and getting the extra food while their less urbanised relatives sleep.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Blackbirds and Light Pollution. A Man and his iPhone App at Dusk and Dawn


Passers by may have thought it a little odd. It is not every day they see a man crouched under bushes in the garden at dusk clutching an iphone. The reason for this madness was that I was intrigued by a paper* in Proc. Roy. Soc. on the effect of artificial light at night on reproduction in birds.

When I first saw the title my immediate thought was that there was nothing new. Since Rowan described what happened to starlings under London street lights in 1938, I thought I would be reading of something very similar. However, this new paper is concerned not with the typical levels of light that are known to advance reproduction in photoperiodic birds but with what happens with the low light intensities present in urban environments at night. First of all, they measured the intensity of light at night in urban and rural environments and then exposed blackbirds (Turdus merula) from cities or forests to either darkness or the low intensities typical of an urban environment at night. In short, the reproductive system developed earlier, and moulting occurred sooner, in birds exposed to low-intensity light (only 0.3 lux) at night. The authors concluded that light pollution is having an effect.

But then I began to worry. Is there something special about the blackbird? On those very early mornings when I had to set up for the airport with virtually no light in the sky, I often disturbed blackbirds already up and looking for worms in the garden. No other birds were active at that time. So, is the whole array of garden birds affected by the light pollution: chaffinches, house sparrows, greenfinches, starlings etc?

Then I began to wonder how is the low intensity of light perceived. Most birds here sleep with the heads tucked under their wings, some, the wren for example, in opaque nests. Would even extraocular light receptors be exposed? Do the birds wake at intervals to see if it is light enough to feed? And does even the low light then act through the usual photoperiodic channels?

That’s why I have crawling around the garden with my iphone. It has the LuxMeter app and that is showing me what the light intensities are when birds are active. But then I realised that in large parts of the northern hemisphere, including here in the West of Scotland, it never really gets dark in the summer, so that any effect of artificial light pollution could only be exerted in the short winter nights.

My (nearly) final thought was what happens to birds that are classically considered to be non-photoperiodic (like the estrildids in the tropics) in light-polluted cities. Do birds in the cities there have longer periods of activity and feeding and is there any other physiological effect?

And, really finally, is there any effect of the moon (0.25 lux on a clear night at full moon)?

*Artificial light at night advances avian reproductive physiology. Dominoni, D, Quetting, M Partecke, J. 2013. Proc. R. Soc. B 280, 20123017.


Thursday, 30 May 2013

Donors of Reptiles to London Zoo 1914/15: 6. Charles Edward Colston Frost


Again, in this series of posts, this is what Clin Keeling wrote in A Short History of British Reptile Keeping:

...while C. Frost, who lived at 213 Bexley Road, Northumberland Heath, Bexley, Kent, made a handsome gift of no less than eight long-nosed Crocodiles which, it was recorded, had come from the Great Kwa River in Nigeria.

I searched the 1911 Census and found that the occupier of 213 Bexley Road was Charles E.C. Frost, aged 37, a gun fitter working for a gun manufacturer. Could be him but how did he come to have eight crocodiles from Nigeria? Or was it another Frost, a father or brother perhaps? Only very recently have I found the answer. On the offchance a Google search might show up something, I typed in Charles E C Frost. On the first page of results I found the solution. A family history website showed that Charles Edward Colston Frost of the above address had ‘worked in Africa for Crown Agents’. So that’s how he got the crocodiles. He was born in Bristol in 1873 and died in 1942 in Bexley, aged 69.

Unfortunately, the e-mail link to the compiler of the family history is dead so I do not know if the family has any more information on when he worked in Africa and why, or of his job with the Crown Agents. A search of the Zoo’s records would also show if he was a regular donor of Nigerian animals.
-------------------------
NOTE ADDED 23 January 2016
I was contacted by a friend of his daughter, Betty, who was able to provide further information. Charles Edward Colston Frost was an engineer who worked for Vickers in Erith (now part of London); Vickers sent him to Africa. He later became a Crown Agent. When World War I started, he joined the army in Africa and was eventually invalided home with malaria. Betty, who was born years after the war ended, says that her father loved Africa and lived there for seven years.

I have been able to find something about his goings to Nigeria. Shipping records show his departure from Liverpool to Lagos on 17 May 1911 on the SS Mendi; he is shown as a Government Servant (i.e. he worked for Crown Agents). He is to be found leaving Liverpool for Lagos again on 20 September 1916 on board the SS Elmina; he is shown as an Armourer Sergeant. Army medal record show that he was an Acting Sergeant in the 3rd Nigeria Regiment. I presume he fought with the 3rd Nigerians in the East Africa Campaign to which they were transported by sea. I wonder if he was the 'armourer-sergeant' referred to in With the Nigerians in German East Africa by W.C. Downes (London: Methuen, 1919):

     Sleep in the afternoon was often a little difficult at the after end of the good ship "Berwick Castle", owing to rifle fire being carried out on one side, machine-gun fire on the other, and bugle practice by all the buglers of both battalions in the centre. These were the main disturbing elements, but there were lesser troubles to compete with, such as the armourer-sergeant hammering on what sounded like a tin tray...


Tigers in Hong Kong: More Information


In a brilliant book, Southern District Officer Reports. Islands and Villages in Rural Hong Kong, 1910-1960 (edited by John Strickland, Hong Kong University Press, 2010), I came across this extract (pages 13-14) from Hong Kong: Around and About written by S.H. Peplow and M .Barker published, it appears, in 1931. Peplow was land bailiff in 1927 and district officer in 1930 for the Southern District of the New Territories:

Tigers. There are well authenticated cases in which tigers have visited portions of the New Territory and even the Island of Hong Kong. Two tigers were knifed by Chinese in a cave in the hills near Sham Shui Po. Cattle have been killed in large numbers, especially on Lantao Island, where some 60 or 70 were killed during 1911, apparently by some beast with claws and tracks similar to a tiger or panther. It was reported by one native living in a hut on Lantao that a tiger was seen by him dragging a chain, and it is not impossible that the beast in question might be a tiger escaped from a local menagerie. It would live mostly on deer, but occasionally pounce on isolated herds of cattle; nor is there any reason to doubt that it could swim over from one island to another. In one case in May 1931, a number of cattle had been killed in the south of Lantao, and the remainder of the herd, thirty in number, were sent over for safety to a small island half a mile away; but within two days 16 of them had been killed or badly wounded. An expedition went out there three days later, but by that time the beast had probably returned to the thick cover afforded by the Lantao hills. It was said to have been seen again early in 1912, both on Hong Kong Island and Lantao.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Donors of Reptiles to London Zoo 1914/15: 5. M.C. Myres


Following up this series of posts, this is what Clin Keeling wrote in A Short History of British Reptile Keeping:

For instance, there was one M.C. Myres of The School House, Sherborne, Dorset, who presented two Horned Toads (as ninety-nine out of a hundred readers will know, these are Lizards actually) and an Undulated Lizard on 27th October 1914 — I imagine before going into the Army…

I am pretty sure M.C. Myres was Miles Claude Myres, the son of Professor Sir John Linton Myres, the archaeologist and Wykeham Professor of Ancient History at Oxford. Earlier in 1914 we find him, aged 14, accompanying his father plus a large portion of the British scientific establishment, on the Orient Line’s Orvieto en route to Australia for the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held throughout August. The ship left England on 3 July. Also on board were the incoming president, Sir Oliver Lodge FRS, the physicist and spiritualist (well, he was a physicist) who, at the time, was the first principal of the University of Birmingham. There was also the former president, Sir Edward Schafer (later Sharpey-Schafer) FRS (1850-1935), physiologist and author of Essentials of Histology which was used as a textbook into the 1960s [first year physiology students at Sheffield in 1962 were recommended to buy Hewer’s histology textbook instead, although a number of us had used Sharpey-Schafer at school].

Myres must have donated the lizards to London Zoo soon after his return from Australia. From the address given, it would appear that he had them at school. Horned ‘toads’ (Phyrnosoma) were not known for their longevity in captivity. Was he given them on his return from Australia but then decided not to keep them? Since these lizards are from North and Central America, it is likely that the ‘Undulated Lizard’ was Sceloporus undulatus.

Shipping records show that Miles C. Myres became a farmer in Southern Rhodesia, paralleling the life of John C Dendy, who featured in this series (see my post of 27 October 2012). Both Myres and Dendy were sons of professors; both kept reptiles; both gave the reptiles to London Zoo; both became farmers in Southern Africa. 

Miles Claude Myres, according to a family history website, died in 1931. He was married with children. Shipping records show his widow and children travelling from Liverpool to Montreal in 1940. It appears that some of his descendants are in Australia.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

More on Hong Kong Rats


In the previous posts, I referred to the two hillside rats of Hong Kong, Niviventer fulvescens (Chestnut Spiny Rat) and Rattus andamanensis (Indochinese Forest Rat), to use their current nomenclature.

I also made reference to the Roof or Black Rat, Rattus rattus flavipectus, known as the Buff-breasted Rat. Well, things are not that simple with that rat now. The native house rat R.r.flavipectus is now considered to be included in Rattus tanezumi, the wide-ranging Oriental or Asiatic House Rat. The Black or Roof Rat proper, Rattus rattus, also seems to be present, introduced, like the Brown or Norway Rat (Rattus norvegicus) by ship.

Now, in a delicious twist, not only has R.r. flavipectus been included in R. tanezumi but so has Sladen’s rat — the true Sladen’s rat (R.r. sladeni) — not, please note, the form to which the name was misapplied in Hong Kong. So, in Hong Kong, the misnaming of what is now Rattus andamanensis was doubly wrong; Sladen’s rat could, more correctly, been assigned to R.r.flavipectus.

I now wonder whether somebody in Hong Kong realised the affinity between Sladen’s rat, R.r.sladeni) and R.r.flavipectus (all the Rattus rattus subspecies in fact) and lumped them as Sladen’s rat as a common name. Then, when it was realised that there were two forms of what was then Rattus rattus, was the Sladen’s name applied to the wrong one? In this respect, it is interesting that there is no mention of Sladen's Rat in Herklots’s book, The Hong Kong Countryside published in 1951. He thanks John Romer (who I think arrived as Pest Control Officer in 1946) for information on the rats. Ignoring the bandicoot rat, he provides notes only on Rattus norvegicus and Rattus rattus. However, he draws a distinction between Rattus rattus and R.r.flavipectus and goes on to note:

It (R.r.flavipectus) is a house-rat and is a serious pest but it is also abundant as a free-living species on the hillsides and in the fields [my italics] for it is native to South China.

My interpretation of that is what are now Rattus tanezumi and Rattus andamanensis (the free-living species on the hillsides) were not recognised as separate species. It is therefore possible that when they were, the wrong name was applied to our old friend in the lab roof.

The misnaming of species as well as changes in taxonomy has other consequences. It would appear that papers that reported research on Rattus sladeni or Rattus rattus sladeni could be interpreted as work on either Rattus tanezumi or Rattus andamanensis. If the animals were from Yunnan or surrounding areas, it would be the former; if Hong Kong, the latter.

I found an example of trying to update old information on Sladen’s Rat. My acquaintance with this species, like Huang’s Rat in an earlier post, began when I was given the offspring of some that had bred at London Zoo, in about 1963. Then in the website of the Bartlett Society (concerned with the history of zoos), I found a list, First and early breeding records for mammals in the UK and Eire. In the list is Sladen's Rat, Rattus tanezumi Temminck, 1844, bred, London Zoo 1967 (they bred there earlier as I noted). A note for the entry reads:

Zoological Society of London Annual Report 1967, p39 as R. rattus sladeni. The subspecies sladeni is no longer considered valid.

However, these rats, like (from the same source): 

Yellow-breasted Rat Rattus tanezumi Temminck, 1844 (bred London 1962) International Zoo Yearbook, Vol. 4 (1963) p227, as Rattus rattus flavipectus

and:

Chestnut Spiny Rat Niviventer fulvescens (Gray, 1847) (bred London 1964) International Zoo Yearbook, Vol. 6 (1966) p392, as Rattus huang. This species is also known as Huang's Rat.

were all sent from Hong Kong. Therefore, the record for Sladen’s Rat, has been incorrectly updated in this instance to Rattus tanezumi

Incidentally, I do not know who sent the three rats to London. It could have been PM Marshall, or John Romer or Ken Searle or one of the first two via the last. I, or somebody, needs to look that up because it might provide a clue to what names were in use in Hong Kong then compared with what they were called in London.

The List of Mammals of Hong Kong on Wikipedia has the list of ‘ratty’ rats as I have described their current status in the last three posts. But taxonomy changes, and changes again with new evidence, new interpretations and with new fashions. So watch out to see what happens next.


Links

Bartlett Society link to breeding records: http://www.zoohistory.co.uk/projects/first_breedings/rodentia

Rattus tanezumi:
http://www.ceropath.org/rdbsea/species/rattus%20tanezumi
http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/biblio/19366/0
http://www.bucknell.edu/msw3/browse.asp?id=13001785

List of Hong Kong mammals: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mammals_of_Hong_Kong



What Happened to Hong Kong’s Sladen’s Rat


The second non-urban or hillside rat in Hong Kong was called Sladen’s Rat in the 1960s with the scientific name of Rattus rattus sladeni. However, it was evident even then that there was something very wrong with the taxonomy and/or identity of the rats in Hong Kong. One of the urban rats is the Black or Roof Rat (Rattus rattus), then assigned to the subspecies flavipectus. This form was thought to be native to southern China but it could, of course, have been a population derived from the native form and others brought in by ship as Hong Kong developed into a massive port from the 1840s.

The presence of two sympatric sub-species occurring as two distinct populations was clearly nonsensical. They did not appear to interbreed and sometimes their habitats overlapped. Chung Ka Bun, in his work on the two hillside rats, noted that the Buff-breasted (Rattus rattus flavipectus) occasionally strayed into the main study area, i.e. the one occupied by the so-called Sladen’s.

I have not been able to find who identified the form that occurs in Kong Kong as Sladen’s Rat. The authority usually referred to were Allen (1938) and Ellerman (1941) but they do not refer to Hong Kong or that region of China.

More recently, for reasons that will become apparent below, I found Richard Corlett’s 2001 article in Porcupine entitled, The Naming of Rats. He began his article by writing:

Whoever said "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread" was surely thinking of rat taxonomy. I am therefore approaching this topic with some trepidation, but also, I hope, more as an unusually brave angel than a complete fool.

It seems that the Hong Kong rat we knew as Sladen’s Rat never was Sladen’s Rat or what became of it in the taxonomic reshuffles. From the British Museum, Corbet & Hill (1992) said it was Rattus remotus while Musser at the American Museum of Natural History called it Rattus sikkimensis. Corlett wrote that these names seemed to be complete synonyms, referring to the same species that occurs from Nepal to South China, and south to Thailand. Sikkim Rat was used as the common name on the Smithsonian Institution website but in Hong Kong there was no common name.

Rattus sikkimensis seems to have been adopted as the scientific name by those working in the University of Hong Kong. However, there is a further twist in the story. While remotus  (named by Robinson & Kloss in 1914) has priority over sikkimensis (Hinton, 1919), both names fall since they are both now included in Rattus andamanensis (Blyth, 1860) which has priority. Full details of the current nomenclature together with a bibliography (including Hong Kong) are given in the IUCN website. There, the common name is shown as Indochinese Forest Rat or Sikkim Rat. The former seems appropriate for Hong Kong usage.

The reason I looked up ‘Sladen’s Rat’ was because I was telling somebody about a very bright individual of this species and wondered if anything had been done to sort out the anomalous taxonomy. The University of Hong Kong in the 1960s would not pay for air conditioning for people but it would pay for air conditioning for equipment or animals. Therefore, if one could contrive laboratory/office space in an equipment or animal room, it was actually possible to get some work done during summer afternoons when the outdoor temperature would be in excess of 90°F (36°C) and the relative humidity higher than 90%.

We set up shop in an old animal room vacated by the medical school and taken over by Zoology. We knew a few Sladen’s rats had escaped from one of the rooms while being moved. I had my desk (a grotty old table covered in brown paper) under a window; my wife had her desk under another. Having worked all morning on salt glands, we had our lunch at our desks in the same room. I leant back to stretch and noticed a small hole in the corner of the ceiling above me. The next day the whole was a little larger; the next day larger still. Then, one day, a rat’s nose appeared in the hole. After a week or so the hole was about 40 cm in diameter and by this time the rat could put its head through the hole. Each morning our friend appeared and there it slept during the day, inhaling cool air from the room while ignoring all the activity below. One cool rat.

Further Reading and Links

Marshall, P 1967 Wild Mammals of Hong Hong. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.
Chung, Ka-bun 1971 An ecological study of two species of hillside rats in Hong Kong.
PhD Thesis, University of Hong Kong http://hub.hku.hk/handle/10722/65335
Allen, GM 1938 The Mammals of China and Mongolia. Natural History of Central Asia Series, Vol. XI, American Museum of Natural History, New York http://bit.ly/10cXBmf
Ellerman, JR 1941 The Families and Genera of Living Rodents. Vol. II. British Museum (Natural History), London http://bit.ly/15s3W1Z
Corlett, R 2001 The naming of rats. Porcupine No 23, July 2001 http://bit.ly/15s481m
Corbet, GB & Hill, JE 1992 The Mammals of the Indomalayan Region: a Systematic Review. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chung, K 2003 Hong Kong’s common rat species. Porcupine No 29, August 2003 http://bit.ly/12gkp4A
IUCN - Rattus andamanensis (with bibliography of taxonomy) http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/summary/19361/0