Monday 23 July 2012

Marine Iguana Lek

We were in the Galapagos in January travelling on the motor yacht Cachalote as part of an excellent Naturetrek tour led by Darwin Alvarez. January is an excellent time to visit the Galapagos — the sea is relatively calm, the daytime temperature not too high, the rains are turning the hillsides green and many animals are breeding.

A basking male Marine Iguana on Fernandina

January is the height of the breeding season for Marine Iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus). I had never seen this species alive before despite writing about its salt gland in the 1970s.
After an early morning landing from a panga at Punta Espinoza on Fernandina (Narborough in the old British nomenclature of the islands), we found the Marine Iguanas in the full swing of displaying and mating. On a flattish, large lava bed tens of males were displaying. Females were coming to this site and some were mating. I suddenly realised that what we were seeing was a lek. I could not recall seeing anything about lekking in the guide books and so had to wait until I could do a Google search to see if lekking had been described in this species. Of course, it had — but not until the 1990s, and was the first species of reptile in which this behaviour had been discovered.
Here are some links to accounts of lekking in the Marine Iguana:

I spent some time taking video of Marine Iguanas on Fernandina as well as on the other islands. You can see the area of the lek about half way through this video of mating marine iguanas, as well as shots of the males displaying.

Fierce territorial disputes were also in progress and the next video, taken a few hundred yards from the scene of the first, shows one such dispute:

Incidentally and surprisingly, despite being a major destination for wildlife and general tourism and the excellence of the local guides, there is no really good field guide to the birds and reptiles of the Galapagos.

Saturday 14 July 2012

Ethiopia Video

Naturetrek have taken my video footage I sent them of our late 2011 trip, The Best of Ethiopia plus the Bale Mountains Extension to see the Simien Wolf (Canis simensis) and have made a short version that can now be seen on YouTube.

If you would like to see some of the footage I uploaded to YouTube and which expands the summary version, follow the links from the following video which shows the Bale Monkey (Cercocebus djamjamensis). This monkey lives on bamboo and we felt both lucky and privileged to see them moving and feeding — in and on bamboo. How does this close relative of the Vervet/Grivet digest bamboo?

Monday 2 July 2012

Howard Bern

I was sorry to read that Howard Bern had died in January aged 91. Howard was probably the last survivor of the heyday of comparative endocrinology that was such a powerful force in university zoology departments from the 1950s to the 80s.
May first introduction to his work was in the first week of the first term at Sheffield when Ian Chester Jones (1916-1996) was Professor (university departments then, wisely, had only one professor). Chester Jones had worked hard to promote comparative endocrinology while working on the adrenal cortex and, for some reason, decided to abandon a classical introductory course and, instead, ran one on comparative endocrinology. This brilliant idea pitched us straight into a leading-edge subject. But that course came at a price: the textbook was £4.14.0d - the most expensive book for any course by far and we felt very hard done by. At today’s prices, it would cost £78 and even more if calculated from the rise in pay over 50 years.
The textbook was, of course, A Textbook of Comparative Endocrinology by Aubrey Gorbman and Howard Bern (Wiley, New York and London, 1962). Printed copies had only just arrived in the UK in time for the new student intake.
The final paragraph of the preface is worth reading, 50 years later:
We feel that endocrinology has advanced beyond the point where its goal is merely the better understanding of physiological mechanisms in a single species, be it man or the classical laboratory rat. Endocrinologic information now may be applied to the elucidation of general biologic problems as they arise in comparative physiology, in embryology and in the study of evolution. Rightly or wrongly this field has become known as “comparative endocrinology” … In this, the first textbook of comparative endocrinology, we hope that the student will recognize the important biologic problems whose solutions may be approached through endocrinologic investigation. This may not always be easy because the abundance of facts in this field sometimes obscures the general principles to which they pertain.
I then met Howard a number of times at Berkeley (where he worked from 1948 until his death) when I was visiting Dorothy Pitelka in what was then the Zoology Department. He also came to Gordon Conferences I attended in New Hampshire in the 70s and early 80s. At any meeting he was a major asset, full of rapid-fire comments.
In those days, the room used for Gordon Conferences at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, NH, had very comfortable easy chairs at the front and hard chairs further back. Howard made sure he got there early. At the 1975 meeting of what is now known as the mammary gland biology conference, Jim Linzell was giving the main invited (Thursday Night) talk. S.J. Folley, the endocrinologist, had recently died and Jim had referred to his work early in the lecture. When he came to a problem to which he didn’t have an answer, he looked towards the sky and said, Perhaps Folley knows. Instantly, Howard turned round to face the audience and proclaimed loudly, He’s looking in the wrong direction!
Then at the 1981 Gordon Conference he was again at the front when Joe Meites (1913-2005), another well-known endocrinologist of the time, rose to ask a question: Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment…. Before he could continue, Howard interrupted with: Don’t be fooled by that. It isn’t an advocate, it’s the Devil himself!

Biology of Milk Gordon Conference, Colby-Sawyer College, New London, New Hampshire, 9-13 June 1975

1975: John Kinsella (1938-1993), Dorothy Pitelka (1920-1994), Howard Bern (1920-2012), Jim Linzell (1921-1975), M.P., R Lee Baldwin (1935-2007)
Mammary Gland Biology Gordon Conference, Colby-Sawyer College, 8-12 June 1981

Howard taught me a lot about the politics of US science in a very short space of time. In public, comments and questions were polite to the point Brits were often asking for the sick bucket. However, Howard had been elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1973 and in 1975 asked Jim Linzell, Dorothy Pitelka and I to join him in choosing a delegation to represent the USA on a visit to Japan (Howard was well know in Japan and had an onsen in his Berkeley back yard). Then the knives came out on who could be 'let out' in the wider world. We soon learnt that the public and private faces of American science were very different.
The last time I spoke to Howard was, I think, in 1986 at the Physiological Congress in Vancouver. He was giving an invited talk early in the morning on the UBC campus and I got to the lecture theatre early, so early that I was the first to arrive. Howard was already in the front arranging his script and slides. ‘Morning Howard I shouted across the theatre. Are you looking forward to giving this lecture at this hour in the morning? The shouted reply was instant: No, !‘m shitting green, shitting green, as the second and visibly shocked member of the audience entered.

Colby-Sawyer College. The meeting room, coffee and the essential frig were through the large doors at the bottom of the hill

Colby-Sawyer College - the original home of the mammary biology Gordon Conferences