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.

† 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:


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


Modified on 21 September 2015