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.