Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Burgess Barnett (1888-1944) in Peru: A Magazine Account

The account I wrote of Dr Burgess Barnett (1888-1944) on 29 January 2014 created a a great deal of interest. Those who read it will recall that he spent over ten years up to 1932 working as a medical practitioner for Lobitos Oilfields Ltd, a British company in Peru.

I found the following article by him, describing one of his expeditions from Lobitos, in the March 1939 issue of Animal and Zoo Magazine. For ease of reading, I have used OCR software to extract the text.

The Fox who Rode on a Mule
by Dr Burgess Barnett
Curator of the Rangoon Zoo

The hero of this story is Santiago el Zorro, and, as he cannot read even his own language, I am fairly safe in not altering his name for publication. Santi the Fox, as we will call him, is a Cholo; that is to say he is a Spanish-Indian half-breed with his home between the Andes of North'Peru and the Pacific Ocean.
  When I knew him he earned his bread, with sufficient left over for a rather indeterminate family, as a labourer on an oil well. But the butter to sweeten the bread was come by-through his remarkable knowledge of the wild life around him.
  I used to go to him if I wanted some unusual animal to send to the London Zoo and, were it beast, bird or reptile, he could infallibly lead me to it. If another cholo were ill and had no faith in new-fangled hospital treatment, he would disappear for a day or so and return to sell him whatever remedy native lore prescribed as appropriate. It might be a rare cactus from over the mountains to be made into a lotion for erysipelas, or the bitter roots of a plant like our garden zinnias, to stew into a potion for malaria. More often it would be the " in'ards " of some animal, maybe a grey fox or a skunk, for no one knew better than Santi how to obtain unorthodox "medicines" from the pampa.
I have heard it said of him that Santi was an indifferent workman and a worse husband and father, but I can make excuses for him. His spiritual home, so to speak, was not in his little clap-board house with its earthen floor and packing case furniture. Here he was wont to sit of an evening gossiping and ultimately hiccoughing over home-brewed chicha. The part of him I admired reached its highest development out of doors, during week ends. Then, as soon as he knocked off work, he would take his rifle and his burro—his two most valued possessions—and ride all through the night to the Amotape Mountains, where the country is green. As often as not he would be treasuring only a single cartridge—the limit of his purse. The early hours of Monday morning would see him home again, dirty and bleary-eyed, but happy, with a brocket deer slung over the withers of his little steed.
One day, when a little bother with the police had deprived him of the wherewithal to buy even one cartridge, he came shamefacedly on to my veranda to beg one. Instead of complying, I suggested that I should "make it all right" with his employers and that we should wander off together for a full week in the wild. The old ruffian's weathered face crinkled into a beam of delight and in a few minutes it was arranged.
Santi on his little donkey, and I on a tall, raw-boned mule might have suggested Sancho Panza and Don Quixote as we rode off side by side on our adventure. First we followed a well-worn donkey track across the near-desert, which, a few years ago, had been subjected to heavy rains. The trail was marked by a lane of gaunt, dead algorrobo seedlings which had sprung up from the dung of passing donkeys when the ground had been moist.
In the valleys and gullies there is usually a little vegetation, a few scattered plants with thick, juicy leaves and woody stems, which seem to thrive on the dew which is their only-moisture. It is here that animal life really begins. Beetles with black, ribbed elytra, sand-coloured scorpions, goggle-eyed geckos and two or three other kinds of lizards are the most obvious inhabitants. And there are many others less easily discovered. Wherever there is an inch or so of space between the powdery sand and an overhanging boulder one finds the footprints of mice. The tiny spoor is never seen in the open, and I soon had proof that the mice have to keep to sheltered runs because of the multitude of foxes.
We set "catch-'em-alive" mouse traps in these situations and scarcely a trap was unsprung by morning; but the wood and wire of the traps were usually crunched to pieces by foxes and the mice eaten. In parenthesis, I can recommend a bait of rolled oats and cheese, fried to a stiff paste with bacon fat, with a pinch of salycilic acid to preserve it. It is irresistible to nearly every rodent.
Soon we discovered that there were two species of mice. One was the leaf-eared mouse, with relatively large, conch-like ears, which one imagines must be important to it for picking up the distant padding of foxes, Later, I sent one to the Zoo, the first to be seen there, and it lived in the Rodent House for many years. The other species proved to be new to science—a bigger animal, with the longest tail I ever remember seeing on any mouse. Now, I am afraid, it is lost again to science. The year after some skins and skulls reached the National Museum, a torrent rushed through the only gorge I knew the mice to occupy and swept it bare of every living thing.
By day culebras de sol—sand-coloured, fang-less snakes—are continuously taking toll, and even before sundown owls take up vantage points on hillocks, scanning the ground below for movement. One seriously poisonous snake is found there, as I discovered very nearly to my cost. Thrusting my arm up to the elbow into what I thought was a lizard's hole, I drew out a desert fer-de-lance, which was lying in it —happily head inwards!
Though the proof may not be sufficient for anyone else, that snake convinced me that snakes are not immune to their own venom. Hoping to get it home to the Zoo, I put it, quite uninjured, into a cotton bag which I placed in my saddle-bag. Barely an hour later, when we had made camp for the night, it was stone dead, with its long fangs buried in its own body. Since then, at the Zoo, there has been proof that king cobras can kill each other with their venom, but this is the only case I know of what looks like a reptilian suicide.
Beyond the coastal zone, we climbed to a tableland, a height of some 800 feet, where although the ground is just as dry, a different flora and fauna exist. It is a country of tree cactuses, of a red-barked shrub called palo santo, which yields a sweet, incense-like resin, and of a deciduous tree which feeds a remarkable processional caterpillar.
Santi was full of native beliefs concerning this tree, which he called guattaco. Should its flowers open before the leaf-buds burst, one prophecies that rare phenomenon which, tradition has it, occurs but once in thirty years— rain! When the blossoms colour the bare branches, the natives rush to cover the still thirsty soil with little pits, in each of which they sow a few seeds of maize or water-melons in the hopes of a catch-crop. Or they even plant cotton, and it is recorded that after one deluge they gathered a harvest of cotton for three successive years.
He told me, too, on no account to sleep under a guattaco tree. All the world knew, he said, that the leaves exuded "poisonous airs" which produce boils and blotches on the skin of unwary travellers. Soon afterwards I unwittingly discovered the origin of the belief. Nearly every leaf was acrawl with the processional caterpillars mentioned above. Roughly speaking, they were "woolly bears," and as I was stowing some of them into chip boxes, I realized that the "poisonous airs" were really "poisonous hairs." When a leaf was shaken myriads of little hairs floated away to settle on exposed parts of the skin, where they set up an intensely irritating rash.
We began to cross the tableland on a sweltering afternoon. A carrion hawk rose with a snake in its talons giving vent to a mournful call, "Wah-O, Wah-O.” Santi named it a guarguao. Presently we started a pair of stone curlews, which ran away ahead of us uttering their sharp, staccato cry of alarm, "Keh, keh, keh."
The two native names are pronounced, roughly, warra-wah-o and ivarra-keh-keh. He could not suggest their derivations, but I guessed at some long dead, pre-Inca language in which warra meant a bird, with onomatopoetic suffixes to specify the species.
Two other birds of the district are worth mentioning, for though I failed to get either of them home to the Zoo, they both exhibit habits  worth recording.
Firstly there is a flycatcher of which the male is bright scarlet and black, answering very nearly to the description Darwin gives of a flycatcher on the Galapagos Islands. The nest is built in situations similar to those chosen by chaffinches in England.
The other bird is not unlike a wren and it is known locally by the Spanish name for a nightingale. When I made to explore its nest, Santi called to me to take care not to be stung. He explained that the ruisehores frequently built their nests within a yard or so of new wasps' nests, which hang from the branches like inverted umbrellas. By the time the young birds are hatched, he said, the wasp grubs are of a size to feed them, so that the parents have a regular supply of insect food to hand. Although I cannot claim to have seen the wasp grubs being filched, it is certain that the birds' and wasps' nests are usually to be found close together.
Our week in the wilds finished beyond the tableland in the Amotape Mountains. And on the last day we had a misunderstanding. I mouched away on foot after breakfast, with a camera and a rifle and let Santi go off on his own after deer, arranging that we should meet again at sunset. The shadows of the cactus trees had spread long over the mountain slopes when I returned to within a mile of camp and I had nothing to show for a tiring day except a roll of exposed films.
Suddenly, as I topped a rise I came upon three deer, a fine buck with two does, in a perfect situation for a shot. Thinking, I am afraid, less of our dinner than of displaying my prowess to the experienced old hunter, I promptly dropped the buck. But quickly as an echo a second shot rang and a doe fell. Santi sorrowfully emerged from the bosque and hoisted his quarry on to his shoulders, unutterable reproach in his attitude.
"Too soon, senor," was all he said. He was driving them towards our camp before shooting them to save himself the labour of carrying them there.

I see that the Amotape mountains are now a National Park—the Amotape Hills National Park—set up to protect an area of dry equatorial forest.

In addition, in the October 1939 issue (the first after the start of World War II) of the same magazine, David Seth-Smith in the New from the Zoos section, reported:

Our old friend, Dr. Burgess Barnett, who was formerly curator of reptiles at the London Zoo, and is now in charge of the Rangoon Zoo, has sent us some Burmese tortoises.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

More on Mongooses Employed in Britain as Rodent Catchers

After writing the previous post on a mongoose and of these animals being used as mousers in the bakeries of the west of Scotland in the early decades of the 20th Century, I came across this snippet in the December 1938 issue of Animal and Zoo Magazine:

     Mongooses are used in London warehouses to keep down the rats. One big pet shop reports that they sell at least six of these animals every month for this purpose.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The Isle of Bute Mongoose of December 1900

Bute, an island in the north of the Firth of Clyde, is the last place one would expect to see a mongoose. But while looking for something else I came across this report of a mongoose found on the Isle of Bute in 1900 and even more remarkably of their employment in bakeries in Scotland as mousers.

This is an extract from an article by Dr J.A. Gibson, published in 2004.

MONGOOSE Herpestes ichneumon
An old record of a possible Mongoose on the Island of Bute has recently been discovered and reported (Gibson, 2000). Searching the columns of any local newspaper in the hope of discovering some interesting natural history items is a wearisome and usually unrewarding task, but just occasionally one finds something unusual, and in the Buteman for Friday 5th December 1900 I was fortunate enough to discover the undernoted paragraph:
     "That well-known trapper, Mr. Robert Morrison, had the luck to trap on Saturday last, at Plan Farm, south end of Bute, an animal certainly not native of this country. It is believed to be a mongoose, and was caught in a trap set in a rabbit hole".
     So far I have been unable to trace any later reference to this occurrence, but the Mongoose is a fairly distinctive creature and there is no real reason to doubt the identification, even although no confirmatory details were given. At first, it might reasonably be assumed that this occurrence resulted from another introduction, as yet unrecorded, by the Bute family, but the Bute family Archives were very thoroughly searched by the late Marquess and myself when we were endeavouring to obtain as much information as possible about the Wallaby and Beaver introductions, and nowhere in the Archives did we find any indication at all that the Mongoose was ever introduced.
     There is, however, a much more likely explanation. In my 1976 account of the land mammals of the Clyde area (Gibson, 1976a) I reported the old records of an adult Mongoose trapped at Blanefield, West Stirlingshire, on 1st June 1928, and five weeks later a barely half-grown specimen trapped at Duntocher, Dunbartonshire. At that time, the origin of these animals was unknown, but eight years later, by the time of the publication of my separate account of the mammals of Dunbartonshire (Gibson, 1984), my colleague Mr. John Mitchell had discovered that "in the 1920s Mongooses were kept by at least one Dunbartonshire bakery, since their mousing ability was considered to be greatly superior to that of cats" (Mitchell, 1983). Later investigation showed that this practice was more widespread, in several parts of the country, than had previously been realised.
     It seems most likely, therefore, that the 1900 Bute Mongoose was an escape from a local bakery or some other establishment, but it is clearly desirable to draw attention to this occurrence in the hope that some other records may come to light, and needless to say, I shall be most grateful to receive any additional information.

I do not know whether Dr Gibson did receive more information but is I think it more likely that the mongooses brought to Scotland would have been the Indian Grey (Herpestes edwardsii) rather than the Egyptian (Herpestes ichneumon) since the former were commonly imported up to the time quarantine for rabies was introduced for a wide variety of mammals in 1974.

Mongooses were also often brought back by sailors as pets and it is no coincidence that the major animal dealers were located in seaports like London, Liverpool and Glasgow. The Indian Grey (and, I read, the Egyptian) become extremely tame very quickly. I had one for several years that was completely trustworthy when being handled; its delight in life was being given an egg. Usually it would remove the shell from one end before licking out the contents. Less frequently it would throw the egg down onto the ground until the shell shattered and the contents could be licked up.

Indian Grey Mongooses introduced into the West Indies and Hawaii have had a devastating effect on the native wildlife. I wonder if the mongooses kept in bakeries ever bred. Mongooses had the reputation of needing to be be kept warm in Britain, so it is perhaps unlikely that they would breed, or even survive for very long, when feral in the cold, damp winters of the West of Scotland.

Another possible source of a escaped mongoose on Bute could have been the Royal Aquarium in Rothesay. They advertised  a menagerie in addition to aquatic exhibits.

But there is nothing to beat seeing mongooses in the wild, from seeing them walking in pairs along the footpaths in a hotel grounds in Goa to their pottering about the forest in Gir Forest.


Gibson, JA. 2004. Supplementary notes on Bute vertebrates - mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, freshwater fishes. Transactions of the Buteshire Natural History Society 26, 99-107.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Animal Cells: Size Matters

A recent short review in Science drew attention to a question that must have been the subject over the years of many a discussion in lab coffee rooms, during those long minutes hanging around between taking samples, or even while staring down a microscope where the phenomenon is so evident: why and how do particular cell types maintain a particular size?

Such conversations I recall ranged from the utilitarian (‘for student practicals always get sections from x* the cells are much bigger) to the theoretical, with the latter being based on the scaling of volume and surface area, and the length of diffusion pathways. Some even recall being asked at university entrance interviews in the 1950s and early 1960s the question: Why are protozoa not bigger?

For those of us who have tried to unravel what happens to the cell population in the mammary gland during pregnancy, lactation and involution, the question of what controls the size of cells has always been at the back of our minds.

Miriam Ginzberg, Ran Kafri and Marc Kirschner, echo the famous J.B.S Haldane essay, ‘On being the right size’ , in the title of their review, ‘On being the right (cell) size’. In their own words, they set out what they tried to achieve:

Different animal cell types have distinctive and characteristic sizes. How a particular cell size is specified by differentiation programs and physiology remains one of the fundamental unknowns in cell biology. In this Review, we explore the evidence that individual cells autonomously sense and specify their own size. We discuss possible mechanisms by which size-sensing and size-specification may take place. Last, we explore the physiological implications of size control: Why is it important that particular cell types maintain a particular size? We develop these questions through examination of the current literature and pose the questions that we anticipate will guide this field in the upcoming years.

It is very easy to find examples of differences in cell size. I turned and pulled down the first book I could find with anything on histology in it. It was the Chester Jones classic monograph, The Adrenal Cortex and I soon found note of a difference in cell size:

Zona reticularis…The cells themselves are smaller than those of the rest of the cortex… And here are his micrographs that illustrate the difference:

Photomicrographs taken at the same magnification of
cells of three zones of the adrenal cortex of the adult
female rat. Rearranged from Plate I of Chester Jones's
The Adrenal Cortex (1957)

I will not deal with the observations and evidence they considered but conclude with the questions the authors ask:

How is the mean cell size established for each lineage? How do cells adapt to external stimuli to change the set point for their size? How does each cell measure its size and assess its deviation from the mean? By what mechanism do proliferating cells alter their rates of growth or passage through the cell cycle to prevent the natural accumulation of size variability? How do size changes affect cell function, and do certain cells function best at a given size? What role does cell size play in pathology and senescence?

The final question is raised because malignant cancer cells are larger and more variable in size than normal cells.


†M. B. Ginzberg et al., Science 348, 1245075 (2015). DOI: 10.1126/science.1245075

*I do not remember the species!

‡Chester Jones, I. 1957. The Adrenal Cortex. Cambridge University Press

Friday, 5 June 2015

The Rhinoceros That Died in Nottinghamshire in 1754

Each issue of Archives of Natural History produced by the Society for the History of Natural History usually contains much that is interesting and informative. The current issue is no exception. As I was leafing through it, my eye fell on the account a rhinoceros in Nottingham in the 1700s.  A rhinoceros in Nottingham—and Derby—and even Edinburgh—in the 1700s? I was soon reading the whole article.

By searching in digitised newspaper archives Caroline Grigson of the Institute of Archaeology at University College London has added to what was already known of the import and display of Indian rhinoceroses in Britain in the 18th Century1. The first, a female, arrived from Calcutta on 1 October 1737 (a male had died en route); the second, a male, in 1739; the third, a female, probably in 1756.

There is a long tradition of curiosities being taken around the country to be exhibited at fairs and at inns and public houses by showmen, either as individual animals or in the larger menageries seen at fairs, wakes and circuses. But the toting of an adult rhinoceros around Britain must have presented a considerable logistical challenge. Grigson, shows that the first animal was in London in 1740 and 1741 when she was “upwards of five foot high” and “twelve feet two inches from the nose to the rump”, Derby in 1742 (112 miles from London) then Burton-on-Trent and Lichfield before returning to Derby. She is recorded in Norwich in 1744 and then in 1747 in Edinburgh (over 400 miles from London). In 1749 she was back in England, at Nottingham. By the end of 1751 the female rhino was in London, housed in several inns in succession (one presumes in the stables); at this time she weighed 80 cwt or, whatever the definition of hundredweight being used, 4 tonnes or so. Somebody else can do the calculation of how many horses were needed to pull such a load along the turnpikes.

The paragraph which caught my eye initially was on the demise of the rhinoceros:

     The noble rhinoceros took to the road again and died shortly before 8 March 1754 when it was reported in the Derby Mercury that
The famous rhinoceros which was about four Years ago shewn in the White-Hart in this Town…was taken ill upon the Road from Mansfield to Nottingham, and died upon the Forest, near Red-Hill, on Thursday, to the great Loss of the Proprietor, Mr Pinchbeck. Who purchased it of Mrs Parsons some time since…
Redhill is four miles north of Nottingham on the road (now the A60) to Mansfield. In the 1700s and beyond a guide could be hired to ensure that the traveller did not get lost in Sherwood Forest, the southern limit of which was Redhill.

So, there is a conversation stopper for the pubs of Nottingham tonight. If you are tired of the endless discussion of the performance of County and Forest on the football field or the less than perfect start to the cricket season for the county side at Trent Bridge, just ask the question: Did you know an Indian rhino died at Redhill in 1754? You could also muse on what happened to the beast after it died and whether its skin and skeleton were preserved somewhere in the hope of making a profit after its loss as a live exhibit to the proprietor. Finally, as your friends’ eyes glaze over you could point out that the first rhino to reach Nottingham was not the first rhino to reach London. That one arrived in 1684 on the East Indiaman Herbert under a Captain Udall2.

A very much alive Indian Rhinoceros
Kaziranga National Park, Assam, 2007

1Grigson C. 2015. New information on Indian rhinoceroses (Rhinoceros unicornis) in Britain in the mid-eighteenth century. Archives of Natural History 42, 76-84.

2Rookmaaker LC, Jones ML, Klös H-G, Reynolds RJ. 1998. The Rhinoceros in Captivity. A list of 2439 Rhinoceroses Kept from Roman Times to 1994. The Hague: Kluger.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Aquarists and Fish-keeping in the 20th Century. Part 6: Charles Schiller and the Hispaniola at Scarborough

British seaside towns in the 1950s were in the business of attracting holidaymakers and animal exhibits of one kind or another often filled the bill. Aquariums were (and still are popular) especially on wet days in towns where boarding house landladies turfed their inmates out after breakfast and locked the door until 'tea' time, sometime after 5 pm. Scarborough, a Yorkshire town on the east coast of England, always competed hard to attract the holiday pound. In 1949, the town corporation had built a boat with a pirate crew to sail across the freshwater mere to an islet covered in sand from the beach. Once there the children carried with their parents could dig for buried treasure. How do I know this? Well, I was one of the children but I apparently refused to dig for treasure; I was not going to be shouted at by some piratical slavedriver and join a bunch of thugs throwing sand everywhere. So, with the full dignity of a five-year old I withdrew my labour. The whole venture was an enormous success for Scarborough, if not for me, and ran in the holiday season for many years. The pirate 'ship' was called the Hispaniola. However, Scarborough then acquired another Hispaniola, an ocean-going vessel built in the 1880s and named Ryelands that had starred in the 1950 Disney film Treasure Island. This one was moored in the harbour and this is where Charles Schiller appears in the story.

Charles Schiller's company, Aquarium Supplies, built a public aquarium in this second Scarborough Hispaniola in 1950. This is from Water Life and Aquaria World of August-September 1950:

...Internally, the ship's structure has been considerably altered to accommodate the large tanks in which fish from all parts can be seen in surroundings made to represent as near as is possible their natural haunts.
     Largely responsible for the co-ordination of the work of setting up the tanks is Miss Joyce Noble who comes from Durban, South Africa and who, with the advice given by technologists from laboratories and research stations, took steps to ensure that the correct effect was achieved in each separate section. The photograph below shows her on the deck of the vessel where only a short while ago fierce mock fights and walking the plank episodes were undertaken. Miss Noble was carrying out the more peaceful task of selecting samples of rockwork and is seen holding a particularly fine piece of pure white coral from the Great Barrier Reef, presented by the local museum. The other picture shows that Miss Noble herself gets into appropriate dress to seek out suitable material from stretches of the coast.
     From what I hear of the project, I think that the Scarborough authorities are to be congratulated on the venture and Aquarium Supplies, Ltd, on the way they have made a first-class job of the conversion and setting-up. I have no doubt that aquarist's [sic] societies from all over the country will be keen to arrange day outings to this well-known Yorkshire seaside resort and to make a visit to the Hispaniola the chief event of the day.
     For those unable to make a trip there for the time being, I am hoping to be able to give a description of the aquarium in a later issue, detailing the construction of the tanks and listing the creatures to be seen.
     Incidentally, whilst mentioning Aquarium Supplies, Ltd. it was this firm which set up the aquarium in the Ideal Homes Exhibition, Berg House illustrated in the last issue.
     Mr. Schiller, assisted by Miss Joyce Noble, was responsible for designing the layout of aquariums in the homes of a number of well-known people, including Lord Rothermere, Miss Gracie Fields, and the Western Brothers. Another achievement of the firm was to secure the commission to install a tank in Buckingham Palace.

It is not surprising that Charles Schiller had a full-page back-cover advertisement in the same issue:

The floating aquarium was called the Hispanioquarium. The ship then apparently soon moved to appear as Moby Dick to Morecambe, another town trying to attract holidaymakers, but was destroyed by fire in 1970. There is no mention of the aquarium still being present.