Sunday 21 December 2014

Extinction of Pollinating Insects and the History of Agricultural Improvement

There were numerous papers of interest in 12 December issue of Science. Amongst them was one on the history of the disappearance of pollinating insects from the British countryside by Jeff Ollerton, Hilary Erenler, Mike Edwards and Robin Crockett of the University of Northampton*. They used 494,117 records held by the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS) and defined locally extinct species as those not recorded for at least 20 years, despite extensive efforts by naturalists. Twenty-three bee and flower-visiting wasp species have become extinct in Britain since the mid-19th century including ones that were widespread. 

The analysis shows clearly that the most rapid phase of local extinction began in the 1920s, suggesting that changes agricultural practices that were or had been taking place were responsible. The authors suggest the import of guano in the latter half of the 19th century hit bee and wasp populations in two ways, firstly by increasing grass growth at the expense of wild flowers and, secondly, by obviating the need for strict rotational cropping. Rotational cropping à la ‘Turnip’ Townshend involved a fallow year—good for nectar-rich ‘weeds’—and a legume year—good for long-tongued bees.

From Science 12 December 2014
The proportion of permanent grassland also increased dramatically during the late 19th and early 20th century. Even before the massive effort of the 2nd World War to make Britain self-sufficient in food, lessons from the 1st World War were being applied in the 1920s and 30s to increase productivity on British farms. The authors point out that the Haber process (always called the Haber-Bosch process in my day and a favourite question in chemistry exams) allowed the industrial manufacture of nitrogen fertilisers and led to the further decline of wild flowers.

One statement, I was somewhat surprised about is: …beginning in the 1920s, before the agricultural intensification prompted by the Second World War, often cited as the most important driver of biodiversity loss in Britain. I think those who were aware of the history of agricultural development in Britain would have known that the changes were already well under way in the 1920s and 1930s, not just the 1940s. 

The chapter ‘Grassland Research’** by Frank Raymond (1922-2012) describes the changes that occurred in grassland from the 1800s to the 1970s. The records used by Ollerton and his colleagues begin during the agricultural depression of the last quarter of the 19th century when the productivity of British grasslands deteriorated until the 1914-18 War. So pollinating insects would never have had it so good. A great deal of land was ploughed up for arable farming during the War. After the war, the drive to adapt the system of ley farming (a period of grass-growing in a rotation of crops) to the establishment of more persistent and productive grasses really took off. This drive was led by Sir George Stapledon FRS and his Welsh Plant Breeding Station. Because of the close links maintained with leading farmers the new practices and varieties of grass spread quickly since productivity was so markedly increased. However, this is where there appears to be a dichotomy between grassland productivity and the results of the study on pollinating insects. There was another Depression in the 1930s and the improvements that were available could not be adopted. Stapledon’s survey of 1937/38 showed only a small percentage of grassland was fully productive, huge areas had reverted to scrub and much of the land went untenanted. It could be argued that this should also have been a boom time for pollinating insects. However, according to the results obtained, extinction continued apace. One explanation is that there is a delay between the introduction of new practice and extinction. Indeed, the paper includes this cautionary note:

Our study adds to a debate on the rates and causes of regional and country-wide extinctions of British biodiversity (including invertebrates, vertebrates, and plants) and the limitations imposed by data quality. The available data for bee and flower-visiting wasp extinctions within Britain show that there are deep historical roots to this loss in pollinator diversity that correlate with transformations of land management related to changes in agricultural policy and practice, a conclusion also drawn by these other studies. Agriculture accounts for 70% of British land use, strongly suggesting that this relationship is causal, though the exact drivers of extinctions are clearly multifactorial and complex. For example, for some species there may have been a mismatch in the timing of extinctions in relation to specific agricultural changes (an “extinction debt”) that we cannot currently identify.

Notwithstanding the outstanding questions on timing, and ignoring the major changes in arable farming and the loss of hedgerows, there is no doubt that the system we ended up with in Britain—intensive grassland production, geared to the output of milk and meat and based on rye grass monocultures, must have had an effect on the abundance of pollinating insects and on the survival of species that depend on plants that were eliminated by such systems. I had that same sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach when I looked at our fields at the Hannah as I do when looking at agricultural monocultures throughout the world—oil palm, rubber, tea, coffee, wheat, maize etc. etc. My question to my former and late colleagues, Malcolm Castle and David Reid, was always whether we could incorporate more traditional grassland plants. The answer in the 1980s was ‘No’ as they explained why. Would the answer in 2014 still be ‘No’ and if so, are the present conservation measures on farms sufficient not only to prevent further loss of biodiversity but also to enable the recolonisation by pollinating species that have become locally extinct over the past 100 years or so?


*Extinctions of aculeate pollinators in Britain and the role of large-scale agricultural changes. 
Ollerton et al. Science 346, 1360 (2014); DOI: 10.1126/science.1257259 

**Raymond, WF. 1981. Grassland Research. In Agricultural Research 1931-1981, ed Cooke GW. pp 311-323. London: Agricultural Research Council.

Friday 19 December 2014

Update on Guy Aylmer (Donors of Reptiles to London Zoo 1915)

Thanks to Professor Bryan Tyson I have am able to provide more information on Guy Aylmer about whom I wrote under the heading Donors of Reptiles to London Zoo 1915: 3. Guy Aylmer on 10 April 2013.

In order to keep all the information in one place I have amended the original post; it can be seen here.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Giant Salamanders

The arrival of a 1.3 metre Chinese Giant Salamander at London Zoo reminds me that I found two very useful papers that pulls together what is known about these species. They were published in the online and freely-accessible publication, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, in 2012*.

The first giant salamander I saw was a Japanese which lived in the entrance of the London Zoo aquarium, seemingly for ever. I never saw it move a muscle in all the times I looked at it.

Whn we arrived in Hong Kong in 1965 we found that the Chinese Giant Salamander was used for class dissection; they had to be ordered from China but were freely available for the food market. The following photographs show one we took onto the roof of the old Northcote Science Building (now demolished) in 1967. My wife, chief salamander wrangler, soon learnt to keep her fingers away from its jaws since it was, perhaps not surprisingly, of a snappy disposition. Indeed, in one of the photographs its jaws are preparing to make another lunge.

Then, this species was known as Megalobatrachus davidianus, a much more descriptive generic name than Andrias.

Classed as 'critically endangered' by IUCN, they are eaten as a luxury item in China. There is great doubt expressed as to whether the salamander farms in China can possibly meet the demand and prevent draining further the wild population, also under pressure because of changing land use and the alteration in river courses. Number Two son was taken aback this year when 'the fish that walks' appeared at a banquet somewhere in central China. He was unimpressed in terms both of palatability and of eating a critically endangered species. There do appear to be serious attempts in progress to conserve this species in situ. Will such efforts will be successful and will the demand for giant salamanders as a luxury food decline or be met entirely from farmed stock?

*Browne RK, Li H, Wang Z, Hime PM, McMillan A, Wu M, Diaz R, Hongxing Z, McGinnity D, Briggler JT. 2012. The giant salamanders (Crypto- branchidae): Part A. palaeontology, phylogeny, genetics, and morphology. Amphibian and Reptile Conservation 5(4):17-29(e54); Browne RK, Li H, Wang Z, Okada S, Hime P, McMillan A, Wu M, Diaz R, McGinnity D, Briggler JT. 2013. The giant salamanders (Cryptobranchidae): Part B. Biogeography, ecology and reproduction. Amphibian and Reptile Conservation 5(4): 30-50. 

Saturday 13 December 2014

Bird Genomes, Bird Phylogeny—and Mesites

Science this week (12 December) carries a series of articles and eight papers on a major bird genome project. The  whole genomes of 48 species of have been sequenced by a very large and international group of authors. Using massive computing power they have obtained a new phylogenetic tree that completely destroys some traditional groupings while throwing up or confirming interesting relationships between modern species.

An example of the latter is the close relationship between the mesites—the very peculiar birds endemic to Madagascar—and the sandgrouse, the common ancestor of which, according to the results, split from the doves. In turn, the closest relations of this entire group (Columbimorphae) are  the flamingos and grebes (Phoenicopteromorphae).

Another confirmation of earlier findings on smaller parts of the genomes is that Birds-of-prey—the old Falconiformes—are blown asunder. That other strange bird, the hoatzin that is shown on the cover, emerges as most closely related to the plovers and cranes.

This is the summary of the phylogeny from the paper:

The origins of the work lie in trying to find the genes responsible for vocal learning in birds but the study so far, as I have just touched the surface of, has far wider implications for all that we know about birds. The radiation of modern birds, now grouped as the Neoaves, which occurred from nearly 70 until 50 million years ago, is really only now being revealed.

However, there is still some uncertainty, as might be expected from the number of species in which the genome has been sequenced; where the owls fit in is one example. The genomes of other species are apparently on the way to join the original findings in another round of number crunching.

I cannot resist moving from the general to the particular by showing a photograph—albeit a poor one—of a mesite. The mesites in their appearance and behaviour are some of the strangest birds I have seen; designed by a committee of civil servants doesn’t even start to describe the Brown Mesite (Mesitornis unicolor). We saw all three species in Madagascar in 2003. The commentary that accompanies the papers in Science describes the mesites as flightless. They are not flightless, they can fly but just do not often fly. They live, feed and nest within a hop of the ground. The Subdesert Mesite (Mesitornis benschi) only really flies when it feels threatened. Then it flies up onto the top of a low tree, puts its head down and tail up while fluffing out its breast feathers. For all the world it looks like a fruit. The photograph, a screen grab from a video, shows the bird just coming out of this position, slowly raising its head and lowering its tail before slipping to the ground. It only occurs in a small area of south-west Madagascar in spiny forest. The Moussa family were, and apparently still are, the expert guides in Ifaty. When we were there the forest was being cut back at an alarming rate so it is good to know that at least some of it remains.

Subdesert Mesite, Ifaty, 4 November 2003

Friday 12 December 2014

Hong Kong Newt

I wrote about Asian salamanders, a new chytrid fungus, the amateur herpetologist and the pet trade (the last two being bulked to ‘pet’ trade) in an earlier post (8 November 2014). One of the species that used to loom large as a pet in the area in which it occurs is the Hong Kong Newt (Paramesotriton hongkongensis). It is the only species of urodele that occurs in Hong Kong.

Herklots, writing in the Hong Kong Naturalist in the 1930s, noted that this species was offered for sale on goldfish stalls at the Chinese New Year Fair. Street stalls also had them for sale during the winter months in the 1960s. This photograph, taken in 1966 shows the underside of a male that came from a stall.

The name is a slight misnomer since the species occurs in adjacent coastal regions of Guangdong Province. 

The newts are found in and around the pools of hill streams and we saw them in the stream that runs through Tai Po Kau Forest Reserve in October 2009.

Hong Kong Newt can be seen in this pool in Tai Po Kau
In Hong Kong the species has legal protection. You can read about research on this species, published from David Dudgeon’s group at the University of Hong Kong, here.

Saturday 6 December 2014

Galapagos: Does the Charles Darwin Foundation have a future?

There may be more between the lines to the story that has hit the newspapers these past few weeks on the threatened closure of the Charles Darwin Foundation in the Galapagos. It was obvious when we visited as tourists in 2012 that the premises in Puerto Ayora were in a poor physical state. The tortoise breeding facilities were not so impressive as those on other islands and we felt that visitors were tolerated rather than welcomed.

The proximate cause of the financial collapse is reported as being the closure by the local authorities of the gift shop that was opened by the Foundation to secure an element of reliable income. The local souvenir shops that line the road to the Foundation’s premises apparently objected to the opening of what they saw as a rival business. The fact that the local shops would lose virtually all of their trade if the Foundation closed down seems not to have entered the minds of their proprietors. The road lined by souvenir shops only leads to the Foundation.

This road in Puerto Ayora leads to the Charles Darwin Foundation
There have been many reports over the years of clashes between local inhabitants and immigrants from the mainland on the one side and the conservation agencies on the other. Where the Ecuadorian government and its agencies lie in all this is not clear. The Foundation itself, in terms of activities, has the scientifically unglamorous but important role in trying to eliminate invasive species and in trying to prevent the extinction of the Mangrove Finch, for example. Having looked at the accounts for 2012 (the latest available) it is evident that grants from charities are insufficient to do very much, let alone improve or even save the physical infrastructure.

In terms of the organisation of science and conservation it is also clear that the one essential is core funding and even if a deal is stitched together to keep the Foundation going, only substantial core funding will attract charitable project funding from North America, Europe and Japan. On that note I see that the Foundation has made an urgent appeal:
Running an independent scientific research station in a remote place like Galapagos, now costs upward of $3 million annually.  50% of our annual budget comes from successful funding proposals, supported by international donors. However, indirect costs such as preserving our world famous collections and running our research station account for 50% of our annual budget. The increasing difficulty in funding for ongoing indirect costs, could bring CDF to breaking point very soon.
The only point I would disagree on is the amount; $3 million dollars is not enough. My guess is that $6 million per annum is needed, with $3 million as core funding.

So who should provide the infrastructure for conservation and research in the Galapagos. Well, I am afraid to say that it should be the government of Ecuador. The tourist industry in the Galapagos is vast and a small percentage of that tourist income would put conservation on a firm footing. The government already controls, in a probably necessarily authoritarian manner, access to defined sites and one has to ask the question of how important the government sees the work of the Charles Darwin Foundation. Sadly, I suspect, the government sees the Galapagos mainly as a tourist destination with animal attractions. That is how the Galapagos are marketed in the USA by travel agents and one only has to walk along the road in Puerto Ayora to realise that a lot of tourists arrive expecting simply a beach and water sports resort. The marine iguanas that disport themselves along the edges of the road come as a revelation to many and as a shock to some. Puerto Ayora is a great place for people watching and overhearing.

All those involved in supporting the Foundation are agreed that it would be a tragedy if the organisation were to founder and for its role to disappear.

Finally, a press release of 25 November states:

The General Assembly saw strong participation and support from a large number of Government entities: Galapagos National Park Directorate, Ministry of Environment, Technical Secretariat for International Cooperation (SETECI), Ministry for Foreign Relations, Provincial Government of Galapagos, Ministry of Agriculture. 
At the meeting, it was agreed that the CDF is to form a work group with several governmental entities working towards 2016, which is the year that the current contract between CDF and the Government needs to be reviewed. This committee will then start a dialogue to strengthen the longer-term cooperation between the CDF and the government, and to strategically secure the operation of the research station. 
The Foundation has been identified by the Government as essential for Ecuador. There is a need and a desire to further strengthen the collaboration between the CDF and the Government, e.g. with regards to proposing major initiatives to international funding sources; and linking Ecuadorian research initiatives. 
The Director of the Park made the following statement: “We need the Foundation. We need the link to the scientific community that provides us with first class scientific advice. We thank you for that.” 
The Board of the CDF is in permanent dialogue with the Municipality of Santa Cruz to find a mutually beneficial solution for the souvenir store of the CDRS. 
The General Assembly reconfirmed that the Charles Darwin Research Station has to remain open and in operation. The focus of the Board, the Executive Director and the entire team is to find a solution for the short-term financial difficulties. Today's General Assembly did not bring an immediate solution to these problems, but progress was made towards carrying out successful fundraising activities in the very foreseeable future.
The world is holding its breath and hoping that unlike its famous inhabitant, Lonesome George, the Charles Darwin Foundation not only survives but thrives.


Conservation of the Land Iguana was one of the early success stories of the Foundation:

Friday 5 December 2014

Cell Signalling: Signals Within or Between Cells?

When somebody tells me they work on cell signalling I have to ask them what they mean. They look shocked. That is because those who work on signals within cells usurped the phrase to mean just that—intracellular signalling. To me and to those who had anything to do with endocrinology (when that subject was a science and not a clinical speciality with science attached) or neurophysiology, the term meant signalling between cells—intercellular.

The usurpation of the term has been partially redressed by Science who I see have extended the scope of the journal Science Signaling (with the American single ‘l’ which does not look right to a Brit) to cover signalling between cells and indeed to between organisms. I read:
While Science Signaling continues to publish the leading research regarding intracellular signaling pathways, the journal’s expanded scope includes research into the mechanisms and effects of intercellular communication and interspecies [interspecific] communication in processes regulating cellular behavior, physiology, and disease in cross-disciplinary fields of biology.
Apart from apparently bulking interspecific signalling with intraspecific signalling between individual organisms, it seems clear that Science Signaling is at last recognising that the intracellular signalling pathway chasers are only part of the story in biological signalling as a whole, a subject on which I wrote a commentary, Chemical signalling systems: the rules of the game in the Journal of Endocrinology, which, I am pleased to say, is available online.

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Chinchilla in Britain in 1849: HMS Constance, valuable cargo and a naval cover-up?

In my post of 16 November, I noted that live chinchillas had been brought to Britain for rich men's menageries decades before the get-rich-quick fur-breeding bubble of the 1950s. It is difficult to search old newspaper archives because references to chinchillas are usually to their fur and what items of clothing their fur had been made into. However, I did find this early snippet:
Norfolk News 8 December 1849. 
Several very fine eagles, a splendid bear, a lama, and a chinchilla were landed on Monday at Portsmouth from the Constance frigate, and conveyed to London for the Earl of Derby.
(The use of the Oxford comma is also interesting[,] and informative.)

Lord Derby was of course the 13th Earl, Edward Smith-Stanley (1775-1851) who kept a large menagerie at Knowsley in Lancashire and after whom a number of mammals and birds were named including Lord Derby’s Eland, the Derbyan Parakeet and the Stanley Rosella.

Incidentally, the ship that carried the chinchilla was HMS Constance, a 50-gun frigate of the fourth rate. She would have been returning from Valparaiso in Chile, then the base for the British pacific station. However, Constance was not a happy ship as this letter from the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of the same date as the above newspaper report indicates:
H.M.S. “Constance”.—The following letter has appeared in one of the London papers:—“Sir,—The public mind has been painfully interested by naval courts-martial and rumours of others that were ordered or about to be ordered. That fine frigate Constance has just arrived from those distant regions California and the Colombia river, and all the papers, both daily and weekly, have been teeming with complaints as to the state of discipline this ship is in. One paper recommends that she should be paid off immediately, as continuing here any longer in commission would be a disgrace to the service. You, sir, have always stood prominently forward to assert the rights of superior officers, but you have not the less ready to defend and support those of the juniors. I therefore venture, through your medium, to ask the Admiralty if it be true that they, annoyed with the exposure caused by the “Pitmanic Case,” and fearful that a parliamentary inquiry may be called for and insisted upon to ascertain the exact nature of the powers intrusted to naval captains, have made use of the influence which they can so well command to induce the sufferers on board the Constance to withdraw their requests for an inquiry into their conduct, which, if granted, must at once have powerfully attracted the attention of the whole nation, which has only just recovered from the shock occasioned by the infamous affair I have already alluded to. I will not disguise from you that I am an interested party. I have friends on board whose future career may be seriously affected by the treatment they have received, but if they and their connections perceive that my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty refuse to turn a deaf ear to the complaints that must have reached them, they may yet hope to rise in the service, but with which the commencement of their career has almost tended to disgust them.
“I am, Sir, your obedient servant,“A COUNTRY CLERGYMAN,“St. Sidwell’s, Exeter, Nov. 27.”
The Times reported from Plymouth:
Her Majesty’s frigate Constance, 50 [guns]. Captain G.W.C. Courtenay, is to be unmasted to-morrow, and paid off on Saturday [8 December]. Considerable restriction has been put on the liberty of the officers and crew of this ship since her arrival. Three seamen have been sent for a month to Exeter Gaol, for going ashore without leave; the cost of their maintenance while confined will be deducted from their sea wages.
The reason for Courtenay’s behaviour and A Country Clergyman’s complaint was that Constance was carrying commercial cargo (probably a nice little earner for a captain) valued at $1,750,000. She sailed from Valparaiso on 28 August (The Times, 5 November 1849). That sum is reckoned to be worth $55 million in today’s money.

HMS Constance in 1848 by Julian Tunstall Haverfield
Haverfield was Lieutenant of Marines on Constance

George William Conway Courtenay’s (1793-1863) private notes are now in the Courtenay & District Museum on Vancouver Island. The area was named after the captain of Constance. He proclaimed the land on Vancouver island to the Crown from the Hudson’s Bay Company. The extraordinary disciplinary measures he instigated on Constance to protect his cargo including flogging any lookout who failed to see a sail before he did, insisting officers went ashore only in full uniform, and going to great lengths to prevent his crew deserting in order to join the gold rush in California. Clearly, his junior officers thought him paranoid but in these days of patronage, Courtenay was very well connected and after Constance was paid off he was promoted to Rear Admiral and finally to Vice Admiral. The Country Clergyman from Exeter seems to have been ignored.

The mammals and birds bought back for Lord Derby—to curry favour with a powerful patron or for profit? Were they all South American, like the chinchilla and llama, and taken aboard at Valaparaiso, en route from Canada and around Cape Horn) If so, the bear would have been a Spectacled Bear. Or were some collected in North America as well?

That simple chinchilla story after a bit more digging provided a fascinating glimpse of the early Victorian Royal Navy and its system of favouritism and patronage. The system bears more than a passing resemblance to life in research in the 2010s.

Saturday 29 November 2014

Anthrax in Africa, in Britain and in the lab

Two interesting recent papers reminded me of being woken in the night by a clattering on the door, people being roused and muffled voices. The next morning my bleary-eyed mother and grandmother told me it was the police who came knocking. An animal had died of anthrax on a local farm occupied by a cattle dealer and they had come to requisition coal, then strictly rationed, in order for the carcass to be incinerated without delay. They had to burn it, my grandmother told me, as I probably asked too many ‘why’ questions, because anthrax got into the soil and could infect and kill animals and farm workers years later. That would be in the late 1940s when I see from DEFRA that there were 119-344 outbreaks per year between 1945 and 1950 (anthrax is almost unknown on British farms now; the last, isolated, outbreak was in 2006).

The first paper† I read was on how some hoofed herbivores are attracted to anthrax-infected carcass sites in Etosha National Park in Namibia, thereby enabling anthrax to infect new victims. Despite the rapid removal of soft tissues by scavenging birds and mammals, a carcass was found to improve the soil and vegetation around it. The overall finding was that, initially, herbivores avoided carcass sites, then were attracted to them and finally showed no preference. Bacillus anthracis spores were found in the grass from these sites for up to two years after the animal’s death.

In the authors’ words:

The results suggest that for zebra, springbok or wildebeest encountering a site where a zebra has died within the last year, an animal is up to four times more likely to graze at the potentially infectious carcass patch than at a random grassland patch nearby…Carcass and control patches seemingly became indistinguishable again for grazers from 1.5 to 2.5 years after death of the focal animal. This seems to match the time scale of carcass effects detected in grass biomass and nitrogen, and early preference for grazing at carcass sites would significantly increase the odds of anthrax transmission from grazing in the first year after death.

There were, however, interesting differences between the herbivore species that are found in Etosha. Gemsbok showed no clear foraging preferences; this species also had a low incidence of confirmed anthrax cases (1.3% of cases between 1968 and 2011) while constituting 13.5% of the herbivore population as estimated by aerial survey in 2012.

A paper* from the same stable adds another level of operation of anthrax. When the grass preferred as forage by the zebra was grown from seed in an experimental plot, the addition of anthrax spores enhanced the establishment of grass seedlings by about 50%. When very small amounts of blood were added, the height of the grass was increased. Anthrax had no effect on height and blood had no effect on the establishment of seedlings. (No other carcass constituent was tested and it is possible, of course, that body fluids in general seeping into the soil could contain the constituent(s) responsible for the effect of blood.) Therefore it seems that anthrax in the soil acts to secure the rapid regeneration of grasses and the attraction of herbivores to carcass sites. Some constituent of blood then makes the grass crop more luxuriant and even more attractive to grazing herbivores. Natural selection has really equipped B. anthracis to exploit its hosts.

The other paper I read was the Biographical Memoir on Harry Smith FRS (1921-2011) by Alan Rickinson FRS‡. Harry Smith was always direct, to the point, of rapid judgement and, therefore, a delight to sit with at dinners. The last conversation I had with him, as he headed off to Birmingham, was about a scientific institution. ‘That place has gone down hill badly’, he said as he shot off into the night. However, I digress. Harry solved how anthrax kills. No lethal toxin had been identified in vitro. Only by working in vivo was he and his colleagues able to determine the mechanisms. Even then the toxin was not simple. There were three components, all non-toxic when tested separately, but together responsible for the devastating effects of anthrax on the body. Rickinson writes:

The discovery of the anthrax toxin was a significant advance that, with the benefit of hindsight, marked a turning point in the field of microbial pathogenesis.

And all that has been done since I was awoken during the night and introduced to the lethal world of anthrax.

Bacillus anthracis

These Plains or Burchell's Zebra (Equus quagga) are in the shade, not long before sunset, in Botswana in 2001

 Turner WC, Kausrud, KL, Krishnappa YS, Cromsigt JPGM, Ganz HH, Mapaure I, Cloete CC, Havarua Z, Küsters, M, Getz WM, Stenseth NC. 2014. Fatal attraction: vegetation responses to nutrient inputs attract herbivores to infectious anthrax carcass sites. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281: 20141785. 

*Ganz HH, Turner WC, Brodie EL, Kusters M, Shi Y, Sibanda H, Torok T, Getz WM. 2014. Interactions between Bacillus anthracis and plants may promote anthrax transmission. PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases Jun 2014; 8(6): e2903. Published online Jun 5, 2014. doi:  10.1371/journal.pntd.0002903

‡Rickinson, A. Harry Smith CBE. 7 August 1921-10 December 2011. 2014. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 60, 399-411

Monday 24 November 2014

Newts in Britain: This is What Happened

I wrote the other week of protection of the Great-crested Newt (Triturus cristatus) in Britain as a result of habitat loss, and, for habitat loss, read the filling-in and building-over of suitable ponds. The local Common or Smooth Newts (now Lissotriton vulgaris, then Triturus vulgaris which in the breeding season were abundant in local ponds, slow-moving streams and ditches, got me interested in zoology. To illustrate what has happened to those habitats since 1960, I show the following two images from Google Earth of places I used to find newts. In one, the slow-moving stream has been culverted and, in places, built over. In the second, the pond has disappeared and the area is covered in football pitches. Local authorities just loved to 'tidy' remaining wild places, even if a habitat was not actually built over, and as a result ponds, streams and ditches which were ideal for children to explore have gone.

A small stream ran from right to left across this land in the 1950s
The pond that was here is now part of a football pitch

I never found a Great-crested Newt in this same area. However, I was intrigued to find the result of a survey for some building scheme that showed such an animal had been found in the past few years in the garden of a house. A note on the survey said that the site had been cleared in 1991 and the newts moved elsewhere. In other words, the pond had been filled in as houses were built. I never found this pond with its Great-crested Newt when I was looking in the 1950s and early 1960s. It must have been on an area of land that was allotments, nurseries and orchards (and described as such on the 1935 land-use map). I can see the land in my mind's eye now but I can only think it was at behind one of the large houses that stood back from the road and surrounded by orchards. Sadly, my friend at primary school who scrumped apples from these orchards (when not playing cowboys and indians with cap pistols and home-made tomahawks) and who might have been able to remember a pond there died many years ago.

However, moving on from my annoyance at not having found a pond that held Great-crested Newts in the 1950s, I do have a question: Is there any evidence that catching and moving Great-crested Newts from areas chosen for building 'development' have any effect on the size of the population? Or is translocation just 'greenwash', in other words, a load of eyewash that obfuscates conservation and protection and thereby permits builders and public bodies to pay lip service to conservation while filling in another pond?

Friday 21 November 2014

Antarctic Zoology Loses Two Stalwarts: Dick Laws and Bernard Stonehouse

Closely following the news of the death of Dick Laws on 7 October, I saw the notice in The Times this week that Barnard Stonehouse had died on 12 November. Both started out with the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey in the late 1940s and Dick later became Director of the successor body, the British Antarctic Survey. Both were born in 1926.

For followers of this blog, Bernard Stonehouse collected a series of Emperor Penguin embryos in 1949, as I described in In Search of a Penguin’s Egg. Why?...What happened to Nelson Norman's 1959 embryos? on 3 July this year.

FIDS and BAS, to my certain knowledge, exemplifies spirit of scientific collaboration that I hope continues. Workers in Antarctica could not have been more helpful in collecting, storing and bringing back material.

Dick told me that I must go to the Antarctic. I did. He was right.

Heading south to the Lemaire Channel. 30 January 2005

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Salt Glands in Iguana iguana. Somebody got there first

After Knut Schmidt-Nielsen described his discovery of salt glands in marine birds in 1957, other scientists and naturalists realised that they had seen the phenomenon earlier but had no appreciated what they were seeing. In the early 1960s, salt glands were discovered in terrestrial lizards (the salt gland in the Galapagos Marine Iguana was described by Schmidt-Nielsen and his friend Ragnar Fänge in 1958).

In 1963 Knut, with Arieh Borut, Ping Lee and Eugene Crawford in a paper in Science (142, 1300) reported:

A specimen of the tropical lizard Iguana iguana which was kept in the laboratory was occasionally found with white incrustations around the nostrils. The material was water soluble and preliminary analysis showed large amounts of potassium as well as sodium. Closer observation of the lizard while kept in a glass-walled terrarium revealed that the animal had the habit of pushing its nose against the wall thereby leaving a salt deposit on the glass.

A few weeks ago I was looking for information on Mrs Kathleen Pickard Smith for my other blog on the history of keeping reptiles and amphibians. She wrote a popular book on her experiences during the 1950s, Living with Reptiles, which was published by Thomas Nelson & Sons of Edinburgh in 1961. I read the book in 1962 and eventually gave it to the Zoo library. On reading bits again while I was scanning it,  I find she noted the following about her iguana, 'Ig':

Never a fast or a hunger strike to alarm us—true, he sneezes quite a bit in cooler weather, which leaves a chalky deposit on his nostrils and on the glass of his cage, but this is quite natural.

So, again we have an observation of salt glands in action, this time in a terrestrial lizard, before the observer could appreciate what had been observed.

Sunday 16 November 2014

Chinchillas in Zoos, and early import

AJP Photograph
Long-tailed Chinchillas (Chinchilla laniger) appear to be in deep trouble in the wild. However, I have not been able to find any definitive evidence on their status that is not nearly 20 years old. There are, of course, lots of domesticated chinchillas which have their origins in this species (see my earlier post). The few zoos I have visited in recent years seem to show them as domesticated ‘educational’ animals rather than in a nocturnal house setting of naturalistic habitat or in the size of colony that might occur in the wild—in other words, an exhibit that would really play an ambassadorial role in drawing attention to the parlous state of this species in the wild. I thought I had read somewhere that a British Zoo once had such a colony of chinchillas. Then the Bartlett Society Journal dropped on my desk. Russell Tofts in his article on the history of Jersey Zoo (now called, euphemistically in what must be another example of political correctness and focus-group inspired marketing strategy, Wildlife Park) provided what I had been trying to remember, under the year heading 1966:

In Jersey, an airy block building measuring 10 feet by 12 feet, well-lit by natural light, was constructed for an initial colony of twenty-five animals. By the end of a successful breeding season, the colony had risen to thirty-one (including seven animals that had had to be removed).

I would not think the Jersey effort would have been successful as an exhibit. Chinchillas really do sleep all day and a reversed daylight system would be needed to see them on the move. Nor do I underestimate the difficulty of setting up a colony in the first place. Adult chinchillas take very unkindly to being introduced to new potential cagemates; very unkindly is an underestimate.

In the 1950s chinchilla bubble in UK, when gullible individuals thought they were would be able to make their fortunes by breeding chinchillas for fur, and prices of live chinchillas rocketed, pairs of chinchillas were advertised at from £50 in 1957, the equivalent of £875 today. I think these chinchillas were from imported stock that was probably derived from the Chapman collection which was taken to California in 1923.

Advertisement: Cage Birds 21 February 1957
However, Britain had seen chinchillas before then, both in zoos and private collections. I came across this mention in an article by HD Astley in the September 1913 issue of Avicultural Magazine

Mr Goodfellow [Walter Goodfellow, 1866-1953, the renowned collector] brought home from Chili [sic], landing in the first week of July, some birds which were a puzzle to those who had never before seen them. Mrs. Johnston very kindly invited me to go to Burrswood on the day after their arrival. Incidentally, the principal interest was not birds, but Chlnchillas; which I preferred infinitely to see in their skins, rather than the latter made into muffs and boas, etc. As however, they are not birds, I must refrain from studying them too closely, at any rate in the Magazine suffice it to say, they are most fascinating, and a pearly-grey coated Chinchilla, when tame, would make a charming pet. 

I do not know whether any of the chinchillas imported into Britain survived until after the Second World War. It is possible that they did because the super-rich of the day kept extensive collections, particularly of birds, and it is doubtful if records of what many of them had and bred were kept or preserved.

Saturday 15 November 2014

Worst scientific article title of the year?

It used to be an unwritten rule that the title of a scientific paper should inform the reader what the work described and the species or group of animals from which data had been obtained. For some journals, the editorial policy was to insist on the latter. But in these smart-arse title days, I am left wondering what a paper is about. Looking through the contents of Proceedings of the Royal Society B, as I do with each issue, I often find the title actually obscures rather than informs the reader of the content. But this one really takes the biscuit: Parental risk management in relation to offspring defence: bad news for kids. No, it is not about young goats; it is not even about young children. It is about a study of nest defence behaviour in Blue Tits.

I presume the authors, judging by the last sentence of their abstract, are trying to draw attention to possible extrapolation of their findings to ‘living beings, including humans’  but for that claim to form the title through a slang word for human children is a travesty. The work is about the behavioural strategies employed by Blue Tits against threats by predators to them and their offspring. So why not say so? It makes the work no less and no more important.

Sunday 9 November 2014

Bryde's Whale

We have seen Bryde’s Whale in several parts of the world. When one is seen, the Brits shout ‘brides’ across the deck while the hispanophones (in the Galapagos, for example) shout ‘bridies’, pronounced as the Scottish pasty. I now find we are all wrong.

Bryde’s whale is named after the Norwegian, Johan Bryde (1858-1925) who founded the whaling industry in South Africa. The pronunciation is something like ‘brude’s’ or 'brudess' (I can never get my tongue round Scandinavian pronunciation or its rules, despite being born in the old Danelaw part of England where streets are still ‘gates’. So next time you are whale-watching you can smugly shout ‘Brude’s’ across the deck, while the rest of the crowd wonder what on earth you are talking about.

I also had not know, until I started looking it up, how much uncertainty there is on the taxonomy of Bryde’s Whale and how much more needs to be known before more definitive pronouncements can be made. The IUCN Red List has the details of the various forms that go under the heading of Bryde’s.

Balaenoptera edeni (Anderson, 1879) is the scientific name in use because Bryde’s Whale, described from specimens killed off South Africa by Olsen in 1913 and named B. brydei, was considered to be synonymous with the form described by Anderson which was collected just off the shore of Burma. The original edeni (Eden’s Whale) is thought to be smaller at maturity than ‘ordinary’ Bryde’s whale and has been called the ‘pygmy’ version; some have now separated the two into the original two species; some consider them subspecies.

Bryde's Whales off Mirissa, Sri Lanka, 26 November 2013                                                           AJP Photograph

There have been other findings of similar whales that further confuse the issue but the point of mentioning the two forms in the current context is that in the northern Indian Ocean, off the southern tip of Sri Lanka, we saw Bryde’s Whales on both days we were there in November 2013, along with the Blue Whales, Orcas and Spinner Dolphins. I now see that there is a claim, with a video on Youtube and articles in the Sri Lankan press, of a possible sighting of Eden’s Whale, the dwarf or pygmy form or separate species, off Sri Lanka. I saw a number of critical comments as to this identification but they seem to have disappeared when I looked for them again. But this observation illustrates how much there is still to find out about marine mammals and how difficult research is in this field.

Saturday 8 November 2014

But a better week for this newt

Number one son, who lives in England, was walking to his garage last week and nearly trod on this beast on the gravel drive used by a number of residents.

It is, of course, the Great-crested or Warty Newt (Triturus cristatus), a protected species in Britain with habitat loss the major, perhaps sole, cause of its decline in the middle decades of the 20th Century. Ponds were filled in for housing developments and agricultural 'improvements'.

This one was moved from the drive to the adjacent countryside and told to be more careful in future.

A bad week for newts—and the amphibian trade. Time to panic—or not?

Science last week had the latest on the new chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans. This fungus was discovered after it wiped out Fire Salamanders (Salamandra salamandra) on a Dutch nature reserve in 2010. It is distinct from B. dendrobatidis, the species that is devastating frogs and toad populations throughout the world. A multinational team reported in Science the results of their exposing specimens of 35 captive-bred or wild caught amphibian species to the new fungus. The results were clear. The anurans, or, if you prefer, salientians, in other words the frogs and toads, were not affected nor was the one gymnophionan or caecilian tested. But nearly all the urodeles, or caudates, were, and died rapidly after infection. These results were confirmed by looking for the organism’s DNA in the skin of 5391 wild amphibians. It was found only in urodeles and only in ‘East’ Asia (Thailand, Vietnam and Japan) and in those European countries (Netherlands and Belgium) where the severe disease outbreaks were observed.

Salamandra salamandra - this one is in Hungary
The infection experiments indicated that three Asian urodeles tested could act as reservoirs of the disease: Cynops pyrrhogaster, Cynops cyanurus and Paramesotriton deloustali. Seven specimens either limited the effect of the clinical disease or completely eliminated the infection. The authors calculate that the two chytrids diverged about 67 (mean) million years ago and that the potential of the ancestors of modern Asian newts to be a disease reservoir evolved between 55 and 34 million years ago. B. salamandrivorans was also found in a museum specimen of Cynops ensicauda at least 150 years old, supporting the view that the Asian species have greater tolerance to infection and constitute a reservoir through which species in other parts of the world could be fatally infected.

In a survey of wild amphibians, the organism was found only in East Asian urodeles—4% of the specimens of the latter species.

Because of the organisms apparent presence only in Asia, movement of amphibians in trade or for research appears to be responsible for the outbreaks in Europe. However, surveys done of urodeles at exporters, going through Heathrow airport or in pet shops found no infected individuals in the 542 tested. Another survey, this time of individuals established in captivity, found 3 specimens out of 408 infected; all were Tylotriton vietnamensis while 15 of the same species were uninfected. 

These figures suggest to me that the importation of infected animals into Europe or the USA has been relatively uncommon. If the number of infected animals arriving had been greater then might we not have seen an outbreak in Europe earlier than the 21st Century? Vast numbers of East Asian urodeles have entered Europe from at least the early decades of the 20th Century, particularly Cynops pyrrhogaster and, more recently, Cynops orientalis. One out of 116 wild C. pyrrhogaster was found to be infected. Unfortunately no wild specimens of Cynops orientalis, probably the commonest urodele now in the aquarium trade, were tested. Of those in sampled at exporters, at Heathrow or in pet shops (including 11 C. pyrrhogaster and 145 C. orientalis) no infected individuals were found.

In the 1920s to the 1970s at least, C. pyrrhogaster was often kept by amateur herpetologists with native newts in indoor and outdoor vivaria. The opportunities for an infection of B. salamandrivorans to escape into wild newt and salamander populations must have been very great especially since surplus native species were often released into the wild. The authors of the paper in Science state that 2.3 million Cynops orientalis were imported into the USA between 2001 and 2009. Is it not likely that if this species were a common reservoir for B. salamandrivorans that the odds are that there would already have been an outbreak of the disease in the USA? But, however common or uncommon the infective agent is in the wild, in trade, or in specimens established in captivity, it is the fact that it is there at all, with its potential to devastate urodele populations in other parts of the world, that has given rise to great concern.

Given that the Netherlands has always been an epicentre of the amphibian and reptile trade and of expertise in keeping and breeding these animals, could it perhaps be the case that some of the species that became more common in captivity since the 1980s have a higher proportion of carriers than C. pyrrhogaster, for example? The detected occurrence in a species of Tylotriton would support this argument. Therefore, we may have the scenario in which a Dutch urodele enthusiast, passed infection to his or her captive European salamanders, which he then released into the wild. Or, he may have handled his infected individuals and then handled salamanders in the wild. Whatever the scenario, herpetologists, or somebody keeping urodeles as pets, have again unwittingly caused devastation to a wild population that could lead to extinction. Nobody anywhere predicted the presence of pathogenic chytrids.

It is not surprising, given the devastating effects of infection on non-Asian urodeles, that there have been calls to ban the movement of urodeles (as well as anurans because of the effects of mixing strains of B. dendrobatidis) between continents, although it has to be said that the movement of herpetologists and tourists between continents is also hazardous. The authors of the papers in Science conclude:
Our study demonstrates that the process of globalization with its associated human and animal traffic can rapidly erode ancient barriers to pathogen transmission, allowing the infection of hosts that have not had the opportunity to establish resistance. Thus, pathogens, such as those we describe here, have the potential to rapidly pose a threat of extinction.
In a separate commentary in Science this point is stressed in relation to a potential outbreak in the susceptible species of the USA where there is a war of words between the conservation lobby which evokes the precautionary principle to advocate a complete ban on imports and the pet trade (Cynops orientalis is very much part of the aquarium novelty trade). It is also pointed out that the US has no mechanism to control the import or sale of infected amphibians.

Will we continue to see amphibians included in the fancy aquarium fish trade? Will pre-shipment testing, quarantine and prophylactic treatment be sufficient? Eventually, I suspect, the trade in wild, ranched or captive-bred amphibians will be further restricted and very tightly controlled; the risk of doing nothing will be deemed too high. Time will tell if eventually is too late, or if the horse has already bolted.

Here is a very short video of Salamandra salamandra in the wild in Hungary in 2010: