Sunday 28 February 2016

Natasha du Breuil and Valentine Rodolph Burkhardt. Hong Kong Naturalists. Part 1. Natasha

The original article has been modified thanks to information including a photograph from Peter Burkhardt, Valentine Burkhardt's grandson.

In two recent posts I referred to Madame Natasha du Breuil who was active in Hong Kong in the 1950s writing about aquaria and local reptiles**. Thanks to the archives of the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the London Gazette, Wikipedia in Russian and Google Translate, I have been able to find something about her and her remarkable history. In doing so, I uncovered black deeds in China between the two world wars, and her later life in Hong Kong with a retired British army officer who operated in intelligence and special operations in China in the 1930s and early 1940s.

I initially tracked Natasha from a Google search which showed the address of a member of the Lepidopterists’ Society in December 1952. V.R. Burkhardt’s address was shown as: c/o Mme Natasha du Breuil, 6 Basilea, Lyttelton Road, Hong Kong. I recognised Burkhardt as the author of articles on Hong Kong butterflies and soon found that the two lived together and collaborated on publications until their deaths three-months apart in the mid-1960s.

I will start with Madame du Breuil. She was a White Russian antiques dealer who was said by the newspapers to have lived in Peking (Beijing) from 1918. The SCMP of 23 October 1966 contained a notice that she had died, the ‘widow of Le Marquis du Breuil d’Echappere’ on 16 October, aged 75, giving a presumed date of birth of the last quarter of 1890 or 1891. I have been unable to find any information on her early life, maiden name or when she was married. However, her name was not Natasha, as she clearly was known by, but Natalia. As we shall see later, I do have more information on her husband.

From a 1936 Shopping Guide to Peking
By the late 1940s, she was resident in Hong Kong, probably one of first of many thousands of White Russians to move from China through Hong Kong as the communists took control and before exit visas were required. However, she was also in Hong Kong in 1937, possibly temporarily, as the Japanese invasion of China and the continuing civil war made life in Peking difficult. She announced in the SCMP:  Travel to Peking now being difficult Madame Du Breuil has brought down the entire stock of Old Cathay from 22 Legation Street, Opening shortly. 6 December 1937. In 1936, her shop was listed in The Peiping (Peking) Shopping Guide (Peiying Press, Yientsin).

I have found no evidence that she was or was not in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation of 1941-45.

On 9 January 1947 the SCMP contained the statutory notice that she, Natalia du Breuil, had applied to the Governor of Hong Kong for naturalization as a British Subject. Her address was 6 Basilea, Lyttelton Road, that used by Burkhardt in 1952. Basilea, a terrace of six two-storied houses, with Number 1 shown here on Gwulo, was demolished by developers in 1954.

On 17 April 1947 the SCMP reported that she had donated HK$100 to the British Flood Relief Fund launched to provide relief after the floods that devastated Britain after months of hard frost. The cynic in me cannot resist thinking that could have done her application for naturalization no harm.

Natasha du Breuil was clearly a learned, highly intelligent and socially active newcomer to the Hong Kong scene and, one suspects, someone who was seen as a little exotic, but very much as socially superior, with her French name, to most other White Russians who in pre-war China were at the very bottom of the European social scale. Burkhardt family tradition has it that she daughter of the last Tsar's Master of Horse.

Madame du Breuil in 1953.
I have blacked out the wife of
the Chief Justice
The only photograph I have found in SCMP was taken on 11 November 1953 at an event at the YWCA when she would have been 62.

Her activities reflecting her wide interests in the culture and history of China to natural history, in Hong Kong included the YWCA, Biological Circle (Committee, 1952) and later the Royal Asiatic Society (RAS) as a member of council of the Hong Kong branch after it had been resurrected in 1959. For example in May 1950 she gave a talk at the YWCA on Chinese silk; in 1953 she gave talks for children at the same venue on ‘Fish, newts and tortoises’ and on ‘Preparing an aquarium’. In the same series, Burkhardt spoke on butterflies and J.D. Romer on snakes.

Her, and Colonel Burkhardt’s, address by 1956 was 86 Main Street, Stanley (now a restaurant).

Natasha du Breuil and Valentine Burkhardt at the Luk Kwok Hotel, Wanchai, Hong Hong.
For a companion photograph (with the name of the restaurant on a table cloth) see the article on
Burkhardt. Photograph probably circa 1965

In his report for 1966, the President of the Hong Kong branch of the RAS, J.R. Jones* wrote: ‘Towards the end of the year we lost one of our most faithful members, Madam du Breuil, who was always an inspiration and a most zealous supporter of the Society. We feel her loss very deeply.’ The next year he added that the Society’s collection of books had been enhanced by the addition of ‘about 100 books from the library of the late Colonel Burkhardt and Madame du Breuil generously presented by Colonel Burkhardt's daughter’.

Echoes of Natasha du Briel collection of antiques appear in the sale rooms. Thus, in November 2012 at Christie’s in London four jade figures from her collection were sold at auction, a Ming Dynasty hat finial for £2,750, a lion for £23,750, a duck for £5,250 and a mythical beast with cubs for £30,000. The provenance stated: ‘From an old English private collection, acquired in Hong Kong in the 1950s and thence by descent. By repute, from the Mme. du Breuil Collection, Hong Kong’. As a collector and former dealer, she clearly knew what she was about.

Some of the jade items from Natasha du Breuil's
collection sold at Christie's in 2012
There was also a jade box sold at Christie's in 2013 for £10,000. The lot was accompanied by an old letter to Lady Winifred Cecil (1903-1992) stating that the box had been sent to her by N. Du Breuil, Old Cathay, Legation Street, Peking. Since Lady Winifred Cecil was married in December 1937, the letter must have been sent at some time earlier.

But what of Madame du Breuil’s husband? Well, that’s where the black deeds come in. He was the grandson of Diego Y Eshappar or Dubreuil-Eshappar or Dubreuille-Echappare or Dubreuil-Echappare (1816-1867). The grandfather was born in Spain of French descent. He came to be a famous Russian naval engineering officer. His father was Governor of Manila in the Phillipines and after his wife died his new wife, a member of a local tribe, ignored his children. Therefore, he asked  the Russian explorer Fyodor Litke to take on his sons as ship’s boys and take them to St Petersburg for a good education. Diego joined the navy and became the pioneer of steam power in the Russian fleet. His son produced Vladimir N. Dubreuil-Echappare who graduated from the top military academy Corps des Pages (cadets had to do a turn as a page to members of the imperial family) in 1909. By the time of the Russian Revolution he was a Colonel of the Life Guards’ 3rd Rifle Regiment. Life Guards officers enjoyed a one or two rank upgrade over the rest of the Russian forces and so he was probably the equivalent of Major. As a White Russian on the eastern front, he withdrew from Omsk to the east with the American mission. In China, first in Harbin and then Tienstsin (Tianjin) he worked for "Our Way”, the newspaper of the Russian Fascist Party, as a translator. That party was founded in 1931 but there was a forerunner founded in Harbin in 1925.

It was from Tientsin that the extraordinary story of Dubreuil-Echappare reached the SCMP.  On 7 June 1927 the newspaper reported:

Boys Kidnapped
Sensational Affair in Tientsin
Russians Arrested
     Tientsin was startles recently by the news of an extraordinary kidnapping story.
     It appears that on Friday, on a charge of attempting the abduction of Anastasius and Alexander, two of the four sons of Mr N. Kulayeff, a wealthy Russian financier, of Villa Margherita, Woodrow Wilson Street, Tientsin, the police of the First Special Administrative Area [the old German concession, administered after the First World War by the Chinese government] arrested two Russians, named Unuzhnikoff and Sokolovski, in the cellar of some empty premises at No 74, Taku Road
    It is alleged that these two men were concerned in demanding from the father of the two young men a sum of $150,000 in ransom money and that the two young men themselves were found in the cellar with them when the police arrived.
Arrest of Mr Echapparre
     About 9 p.m. on Friday evening, the British Municipal Police, acting upon information received from the Chinese authorities, arrested Mr W [sic] Du Breuil d’Echapparre, a well-known former officer in the Russian army, while on his way home from his office, on a charge of being a fellow conspirator in the alleged offence.
     On Saturday morning, Mr D’Ehapparre was handed over by British Police to the police of the No 1 Special Area. A fourth man, an unidentified Russian, is now being searched for by the Chinese police. This man drove the automobile in which the lads were taken to the house in Taku Road.
     According to the police evidence, the two Kulayeff brothers went on the Thursday evening to a cinema and afterwards proceeded to Kiessling’s Cafe in Woodrow Wilson Street. At about one o’clock they started to accompany two girls to their homes in the Ex-Russian Concession.
Taken in Car
     On the Bund, it is alleged, they met Mr Du Breuil d’Echapparre, who asked if he might walk with the party. The five persons then crossed the Russian Ferry and the girls were seen home.
     The two Kulayeff brothers and Mr d’Echapparre then returned to the ferry and on reaching the city side, the latter said he would like to take them home in his car, which was waiting near-by, at the corner of Council Road.
     The young men, who had previously been slightly acquainted with Mr d’Echapparre, consented. Unuzhnikoff and Sokolovski were, it is alleged, inside the car, while another Russian was acting as chauffeur.
At the Point of the Pistol
     The car was driven first to the French Concession and then in a roundabout way to the ex-German Concession in the neighbourhood where the lads’ father lives. Here, it is alleged, d’Echapparre produced a pistol and told the lads they would be held to ransom. Masks were placed over their faces, the blinds of the car were drawn down and at the point of the pistol, their captors took the two lads to the cellar of the premises at No 74 Taku Road.
     Two men kept watch while the others took a demand to the father for ransom money. The police state that Mt Kulayeff was presented with a letter demanding the sum of $150,000. Mr Kulayeff rejected the demand but, apparently fearing for the well-being of his sons, he did not inform the police of what had occurred, and tried to deal with the matter himself.
     The detectives of the First Special Area, however, had already learned of the disappearance of the young men and they set to work smartly to ferret them out. It was a quick piece of work. which reflects great credit on the police, for within a few hours, the young men and the Russians, Unuzhnikoff and Sokolovski were discovered in the cellar in Taku Road.

The kidnapping is also reported in the Russian Wikipedia page on the family but as told by the business man I.B. Kulaev (i.e. Kulayeff) in an autobiographical memoir Under a Lucky Star published in Russian in 2006. Kulaev went on to found the Antonia & Vladimer Kulaev Cultural Heritage Fund in California†.

The story was followed up by the SCMP on 4 August 1927:

     It is understood that the two Russians, Du Breuil d’Echappare and Ugujnikoff, who were committed for trial in connection with the Kulayeff kidnapping affair in Tientsin recently have been sentenced to four years’ imprisonment.

The most amateur sleuth will find this incompetent kidnapping puzzling. Did du Breuil d’Echapparre, who was known by those kidnapped, intend to take the money and disappear abroad? What happened to the other kidnapper, Sokolovski? Did he do the Chinese law equivalent of turning King’s evidence? And how did the police get to know of the kidnapping?  In the introductory biographical note on the auction catalogue for the sale of Valentine Burkhardt's stamp collection contains the sentence: ‘When they first met Madam[e] de [sic] Breuil was helping Russians escape the Bolsheviks’. On re-reading my earlier post on Natasha, I am still intrigued by her late husband’s failed attempt at kidnap. Was this some part of White Russian political cloak and daggery or just an attempt to get money for a life in South America?

From a book on the lives of Russian guards officers, the Wikipedia article states that du Breuil d’Echappere went to Argentina and was killed in Buenos Aires on 14 October 1935.

Nowhere have I been able to find any reference to Natasha but from the information on all the du Breuil d’Echappere family, there seems no doubt that this was her husband. There may be information in Russian publications including the book on guards officers referred to above. I know that a number of Russians read this blog. Could they help in providing further information including finding out the pre-du Breuil history of Natasha (Natalia) and how she became interested in natural history.

She had no other family since Colonel Burkhardt’s daughter gave the RAS library her books.

A question that springs to mind is, was she in Tientsin in 1927 at the time of the kidnapping? The question is pertinent because the then Major Burkhardt was Brigade Major (i.e. chief of staff) for the Tientsin Area of China Command (I read that the British Army kept two battalions at Tientsin). Did they first meet then or when both were in Peking in the 1930s?


**Her letters as part of a correspondence group, Aquarists' Internationale, were reported in Water Life magazine. In previous posts are recorded her interests in fish and reptiles. Further extracts on her keeping marine fish and geckos were reported in Water Life June-July 1953 (volume 8, No 3), February-March (volume 10, No 1) and June-July 1955 (10, No 3), June-July 1956 (11 No 3). She also wrote about breeding White Cloud Mountain Minnows (April 1952). The earliest record I have is from the August issue of 1948. It was reported she had written to a friend asking for her subscription to the magazine to be paid (she had seen an advertisement for it in an American magazine). She said she was looking forward to the revival of the Hong Kong Aquarium Society and wrote: 'I hope that by now you know that I am among your constant readers and that Water Life is coming to Hong Kong regularly'. He correspondent in U.K. was R.W. Andrews, an aquarist whose name appears regularly in Water Life and was a fellow member of Gene Wolfsheimer's Aquarists' Internationale but of whom I know nothing else other that in 1948 he was living at 42 Endymion Road, Harringay, London.

*J. R. Jones CBE MC (1887-1976) was legal adviser to the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC). He seemed always to have been known by his initials and was the leading light of the Welsh expatriates in Hong Kong. He appeared to have been responsible for the art collection of the Bank. People found him friendly but mysterious; as did I on the one occasion I was introduced to him.  Only on a website describing his gift of a Chinese chair as a prize for the National Eisteddfod in 1933 have I found his names (John Robert Jones) and the fact that he went to Shanghai in 1924 where he was a barrister.

†The translated blurb from the book: The amazing life and the fate of Ivan Kulaeva can serve as a model for the true entrepreneur. Sixteen year old boy, the son of exiled to a Siberian penal servitude of the peasant, after his father's death, managed to become the owner of a number of commercial enterprises. Fate did not indulge self-taught entrepreneur. Defiant, he tries luck on the goldfields in the tundra, drowned beneath the ice of the Yenisei, survived the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, Russian-Japanese and First World War, revolution, nationalization of property, kidnapping bandit. Every time starting from zero, he believed in his good fortune, in his lucky star. The book recreates the real life environment, the economy and industry of Siberia. In 1930 in San Francisco, he created Kulaev Awareness and Charity Foundation, whose extensive work continues to this day.

Last updated 5 February 2018

Wednesday 24 February 2016

The Big-headed Terrapin, Platysternon megacephalum, can climb

A note I found in Water Life of August 1957, brought back memories of ten years later in Hong Kong:

     Mme Natasha du Breuil of Hong Kong, wrote recently to Aquarists’ Internationale colleague Henry Nicholls to tell him she had acquired a ferocious tree-climbing turtle, Platysternum [sic] megacephalum. Mr Nichols writes, “In town shopping she saw a Chinese man hurrying by in the opposite direction with a basketful of turtles. She took a few seconds to realise they looked cold, then reversed direction to catch him up. They were indeed tree-climbing turtles, so she bought one for the equivalent of 2/6d, and popped it into her market basket and sped for home before the beast could devour her leg of lamb, pound of cheese and pound and a half of bird seed. He is now enjoying a recuperative nap!”
     Later news from Mme Du Breuil herself is that the turtle has settled down well to vivarium life. She says, “In spite of the bad reputation they have mine has not shown any desire to bite me when handles, but it can open its jaws more like a snake than a turtle. It attacks food in a most realistic hunting style. I have never seen it come out on the rock provided in its tank but, when I put it in the yard, it showed most astonishing speed, making a sudden dash for cover, very much as a lizard would do.”

That snippet was accompanied by a photograph by A. de la Moussaye.

Our experience in the late 1960s of this species, Platysternon megacephalum, the Big-headed Terrapin, now classified as Endangered by IUCN, provided a more powerful demonstration of its climbing abilities. In amongst the other terrapins, we rescued one from Central Market before it made somebody’s dinner. Before taking it into the lab the next day to put it into an aquarium before release, we put it on the balcony of our flat on Conduit Road in a bowl of water. The balcony was surrounded by a wall of smooth, painted concrete about four feet high. The next morning there was no sign of the terrapin. Had a kite taken it in the early hours? We looked up and down Conduit Road but then turned to see the two caretakers staring at something in the garages under the block of flats. There in a puddle of water was the terrapin. She (see later) must somehow have climbed the wall possibly in one corner.

The rule shows inches
She fed voraciously on pieces of meat and fish and a few days later produced a single egg. Our departure from Hong Kong was brought forward and we did not have the time to find a mountain stream in which to release her. Instead, she went into one of the goldfish ponds then in the university compound. There was a nearby nullah and our guess was that if she survived at all, she could have made her way up the nullah to the more gentle streams that flow from the Peak. As Madame du Breuil noted these terrapins can really move at speed on land.

On the roof of the now demolished Northcote Science
Building at the University of Hong Kong, the Big-head
needed to be tethered

The head, which cannot be fully withdrawn, appears
to have an armoured exoskeleton

Incidentally, I have found a single reference to Aquarists Internationale. It was apparently a society founded by Gene Wolfsheimer, a well-known and innovative aquarist of the time. He loomed large in my recent posts  on ‘lactation’ in discus fish.

But who was Madame Du Breuil? In finding out I discovered a great deal about two amateur naturalists active in Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s. They will the subject of a future post.

Sunday 21 February 2016

‘Lactation’ in Discus Fish: Water Life magazine follows up

In the final months before Water Life (renamed Fishkeeping and Water Life for its final year) was closed down, it followed up on its articles on breeding discus fish.

In July 1958, Professor Clifford Emmens wrote an article, Hormones and reproduction in fishes, which contained a photograph by Roy Skipper of an adult discus with young. In that article, he suggested that the production of mucus for feeding the young was most likely under the control of the pituitary hormone, prolactin, rather than the sex hormones, oestrogen and androgen. This prediction was upheld by work in Japan and Germany that was published in 1962 and 1965.

Clifford Walter Emmens (1913-99) was then Professor of Veterinary Physiology in the University of Sydney but also a well-known aquarist. A man of ‘incandescent temper’, he was well known in London because he had worked at the National Institute of Medical Research on reproductive physiology. He had a distinguished record in the Second World War, working in Zuckerman’s team that became the Bombing Survey Unit; he became an accomplished statistician, writing a book on bioassay.

In the final issue of December 1958, Roy and Gwen Skipper had another article, Breeding Pompadour fish, What the microscope reveals. This shows the sections of scales taken from parental and non-parental fish by Hildemann. I think they are the figures from Hildemann’s paper but which are missing from the rather badly scanned online version of the latter. I have scanned them from the article and arranged them so that they clearly demonstrate the thickened outer epidermis and the enlarged mucus-producing cells in those fish with young:


Photomicrographs of sections of scales taken by W.H. Hildemann from
the Skippers' non-parental and parental discus fish. Note the enlarged
mucus-producing cells and the hypertrophied epidermis

Meanwhile, in the August 1958 issue, it was reported that Roy Skipper had given up fishkeeping because of increased  business commitments and that his entire stock of fish (including breeding pairs of discus), plants, equipment, books and photographs had been advertised for sale in the previous issue (July 1958). Also shown was a photograph (reproduced) of Roy Skipper collecting daphnia from a pond. That looked like the end but the Skippers later  returned to fishkeeping with a retail shop, The House of Fishes in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire.


Emmens CW. 1958. Hormones and reproduction in fishes. Fishkeeping and Water Life 13 (9 new issue, July 1958) 441-443.

Skipper R, Skipper G. 1958 Breeding Pompadour fish. What the microscope reveals. Fishkeeping and Water Life 13 (14 new issue, December 1958) 700.

Friday 19 February 2016

Who discovered ‘lactation’ in Discus fish?

While I was scanning issues of the old Water Life magazine for articles on herpetology for my other blog, I came across an article from April 1957 that drew my attention. It was on the successful breeding of the Discus fish by Roy and Gwen Skipper and contained a description of the fry feeding on the side of the body of the adults.

A slide of a discus (Symphysodon) appeared in many of the lectures that I gave on lactation. It was there to remind the audience that while the possession of mammary glands is the defining characteristic of mammals, other vertebrates also feed their offspring from a secretion of one or both parents. The other classic example is the crop ‘milk’ of pigeons. It was known that lactation in mammals and the production of pigeon crop milk are induced by the hormone prolactin. Therefore, there was a frisson of excitement in the mid-1960s when it was discovered that prolactin also induced the formation of mucus on which the young discus fish feed.

It is very difficult to determine who first saw young discus fish feeding off their parents and who first recorded the phenomenon. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, These fish were highly sought after by amateur aquarists and therefore expensive. Both amateur and professional aquarists were trying to breed them in captivity, the latter to cash in on the high prices. Some professional and some amateur aquarists did not reveal the methods they used, the former for commercial reasons and the latter for the admiration of their wet-fingered trade secrets by fellow amateurs, an inability or unwillingness to write of their findings or simply for admiring their own handiwork in complete privacy. Secondly, the efforts to breed discus were going on all over the world in the countries into which adults had been imported. Language barriers and the local circulation of magazines and club newsletters meant that aquarists in the USA might be completely unaware of progress in Germany, for example. Just to add a further complication, the Second World War and its aftermath prevented free communication and, unlike in the scientific world where abstracting journals helped bring published knowledge from all parts of the world, there was no such gathering of information from aquarium magazines and societies.

It is not then surprising that efforts to describe the history of discus fish breeding have led to acrimonious online discussions, such as the one shown here, about who did what, when and in which country. Only now, as such exchanges occur between countries do letters, memories of old conversations and obscure publications, emerge. To cut a long story short, it would seem that the Germans, as so often with the keeping and breeding of wild animals in captivity, got there first in describing how young feed from the the parents, in the form of a Hermann Härtel from Dresden in 1936. (According to an article in Water Life published in 1955, the first live discus fish were imported to Hamburg in 1923.) A correspondent to the forum referred to above, provided a translation of what Härtel had written (although the source of the publication is not given): “…now it became clear to me that the larvae are dependent on the parents completely. It is probable that the adults secret[e] food from the skin sucked by the young.”

Water Life in its final issue
congratulated Gene Wolfsheimer
on his marriage and printed a

But none of this was known when aquarists in the USA and UK were attempting to breed these fish, then known by the common name of Pompadours, as imports from South America began after the Second World War. What caught my eye in the Water Life article was the first description I had seen of the discovery of  how these fish feed their young in Britain and of how some scientific muscle had been pulled in to help describe what was going on. But earlier in 1957, Water Life had published an article by Gene Wolfsheimer of California under the title, Pompadour Fish Spawning—the American Way. In 1956 he had obtained eight tank-bred young discus. Note ‘tank-bred’ because these fish were being raised in small numbers by aquarists who were trying to find an acceptable food for the fry from hatching. Eggs were separated from the parents and rearing on all sorts of potential food items was attempted. Most aquarists failed to rear the young but a few succeeded. Wolfsheimer raised the fish to adulthood and they bred. He wrote:

     Three days after hatching, the little fry began to drop from their final pre-swimming site and in a matter of minutes they started swimming. Immediately they seemed able to discern the huge forms of their ever-watchful parents and swam up to one or the other to cling to their sides. Feeding from the sides of the parents also began at this time and was carried through until the young fish were placed by themselves in another aquarium.
     Much has now been written about this wonderful natural phenomenon of the fry obtaining their first food from the bodies of the parents that little more need be added. It has been noted by myself and two other local fishkeepers who have also spawned Pompadours (only one was successful in raising a few young). Mr Richard Haas, President of the Los Angeles Aquarium Society, and Mr Charles Wall, of Whittier, California, that prior to and during the spawning and caring for the young fish, the parents seem to manufacture a heavier amount of body slime than normal. At times, when carefully studied, they seem to be covered, almost frostlike in appearance, with an over-abundance of this secretion. We can only theorize that during the excitement and activity of the spawning, certain estrogen hormones are made active and induced to over-produce excessive body slime, providing ample nourishment for the fry.

From the 1957 article by Roy and Gwen Skipper
At the same time, In 1956, Roy (1921-2001) and Gwen (1923-2012) Skipper in Britain had observed the fry feeding from the sides of their parents. However, they interpreted this behaviour as the young feeding on micro-organisms which were living commensally on the skin. They, therefore, tried to raise the fry on Vorticella, collected from a local pond, having previously tried a number of potential food items. The Vorticella were ignored and the fry died. However, the adults then bred again and the young again fed from the sides of the parents. They describe what happened next:

     A few days later were were talking to Dr H.G. Vevers, M.B.E., Curator of the Aquarium at London Zoo, about this phenomenon and invited him along to witness the unusual behaviour. About the same time we had the good fortune to meet Dr W.H. Hildemann, an American scientist working at University College, London.  Dr Hildemann was fully conversant with the anaesthetizing of fishes and suggested that he be allowed to anaesthetize one of the adults that were bringing up the brood and examine the skin of this fish under a microscope. This would be a certain way of finding the nature of the food that the fry were feeding on.

Their article goes on to report what Hildemann found. However, he wrote up the observations in a paper published in American Naturalist in 1959, together with what he knew of the earlier attempts to breed discus, and so I will quote from his paper rather from that of the Skippers. This is what he wrote on the mucus:

     The skin and scales of non-breeding adults revealed nothing extraordinary…Adult breeders in process of rearing young, however, presented an entirely different appearance. Even to the unaided eye, it was apparent that both parents possessed an abundant whitish material over the entire surface of the body. Under the microscope no algae, protozoans, rotifers, or crustaceans were observed on the parents, but a copious mucous secretion with a granular composition covered the entire body including the fins. The secretion was more concentrated dorsally and, when rubbed gently with the finger, it became filamentous. Clumps and filaments of this mucus were readily dislodged into the surrounding water by rubbing the skin. The mucus had considerable cohesiveness and even the larger young had to tug and jerk to remove it from the parents.
     When placed on a glass slide and examined at 430x the mucus was observed to be acellular and amorphous and, therefore, undoubtedly a secretion. Several scales with attached skin were carefully removed with a fine curved forceps from the female parent and a non-parental adult and fixed in Heidenhain’s SUSA fluid. It should be mentioned that all of these large specimens survived the experimental manipulations without ill effect. The scales were embedded in paraffin and sectioned at 10mu. The difference between the skins of the parental and non-parental fish is at once evident.
     Numerous, large mucous cells are seen in the epidermis of the parental adult, whereas smaller mucous cells are just visible in the non-parental fish. Moreover, the parental skin is much hypertrophied in comparison with the non-parental skin.
Hildemann also dealt with the early attempts in the USA to breed discus. He stated that the first clue to ‘normal nurture’ came in 1949 when W.T. Dodd reported to the Oregon Aquarium Society, “the babies hung against the sides of the parents, receiving free rides—using the breeders as landing fields”. He continued:

     But since discus are usually difficult to breed and very expensive (even now a pair of adult breeders is worth about $350*), other aquarists were unwilling to risk leaving the young with the parents. Yet even in the presence of an abundance of various aquatic microorganisms few or no fry survived for more than a week in the absence of parents.

He then noted that some young had been reared in the absence of parents but that other experienced aquarists, including Roy Skipper, had been unable to induce the fry to eat any kind of live food. He then described what he describes as the normal parent-offspring relationship:

     Both parents take turns guarding, fanning, and mouthing the eggs. The parents pick up the newly-hatched fish with their mouths and transfer them to together to various surfaces where each remains attached, wriggling violently at the end of a short thread. The fry become freeswimming four days after hatching and promptly move to the parents’ sides where they begin to feed from their skin. Although both parents are capable of feeding the young, both take rest periods and, by a flick of the body, are proficient at transferring all the fry to the other parent. Alternatively, when there appears to be a scarcity of food on one of the parents, the fry will move to the other. After a week or more feeding off the parents the fry will ingest other food such as newly-hatched Artemia or sifted nauplii of Cyclops. The young continue to feed on the parental skin for at least five weeks, even though an abundance of live food is available…

Hildemann included a photograph (shown on the right) by Wolfsheimer showing fry on the sides of a parent.

So who was W.H. Hildemann? William H. Hildemann (1927-1983) was a well-known immunologist†. When he met the Skippers he was a Research Fellow of the U.S. National Cancer Institute working on transplantation with Medawar in the Department of Zoology at University College, London. He was the right man in the right place at the right time because one of his main research topics was in transplantation immunology in fish which involved transplanting scales from one fish to another. He later returned to the USA as we shall see next.

Reference in online fora is made to an article in National Geographic in 1960. I have found and read this article and I can see why readers of it have become confused. It was written by Wolfsheimer, illustrated with his own photographs, and begins with what is essentially a reprise of his article in Water Life. But then he describes Hildemann’s findings without stating that they were made on the Skippers’ fish in UK! Having described his own experiences throughout the article Wolfsheimer leaves the impression that Hildemann had studied the scales of his (i.e. Wolfsheimer's) fish in California. 

The first pages of Wolfsheimer's article in
National Geographic
These two paragraphs show the two paragraphs (separated by a sub-heading, Fish secrete mysterious “milk”) that give the wrong impression:

     Since they grew fatter and more vigorous each day, I could only conclude that they were somehow being nourished by the parents. Close inspection just before breeding had revealed that the slimy protective coating on he scales of the adults had thickened considerably. I felt that the babies were feeding upon this substance. But what was it?
     Dr William H. Hildemann, currently of the University of California at Los Angelel’s School of Medicine, investigated the problem. Anaesthetizing both breeding and nonbreeding adult discus…

I am left with a nasty taste in the mouth, as I can imagine, were Roy and Gwen Skipper at the time.

I also have the strong impression that aquarists in Hong Kong were also aware of the breeding habits of discus. After the Blum & Fiedler paper on the effects of exogenous prolactin in discus, a few pairs were installed in the aquarium tanks at the back of the teaching lab in Zoology at the University of Hong Kong. I was demonstrating one day in 1966 or 1967 and a student told me that there was not a cat in hell’s chance of their breeding in those conditions. He said that his father had bred discus for many years and described the method which I carefully wrote down (in writing this post I thought I knew where the piece of paper was but I now cannot find it). Confirmation of breeding by dealers in Hong Kong is confirmed by a snippet in the same issue (page 90) of Water Life from 1957 as the Skippers’ final article appears:

     Mme. N. du Breuil (Hong Kong) writes:-….Yesterday I had to go to Kowloon, across the harbour, and I always stop at George Bing’s place. He told me, and showed a photograph, of tanks swarming with baby Pompadour fish. He managed to bring up a swarming of over 100 to inch-diameter size, and them sold them to Australia or New Zealand. In the next spawning the eggs were all fungused.

New information on who did what and when is emerging all the time, including while I was researching this post. Thus, in response to the posting on the Facebook Discus Study Group of the Skippers’ earlier article in Water Life of November 1956, in which the feeding off the skin was described, on 9 January 2016 Tommy Saville posted a comment:

     This was the first publication of the fact that discus fry fed off their parents. Prior to that, they were treated like Angel [fish] fry. I made the discovery 2 years before but kept it a secret (I was in the aquatic trade!).

This comment triggered a nostalgia trip because my first fish tank and goldfish were bought from Tom C. Saville’s shop which was in Beeston, near Nottingham. 

Shortly after the publications I have mentioned, the breeding of discus became routine; artificial diets that fry would accept were devised (the fish equivalent of formula feeding rather than breast feeding) and the discus fancy craze began with the artificial selection for various colour varieties—the sort of animal breeding activity I utterly loathe. Breeding fancy discus is now big business. Indeed I was shocked to find that the websites of two discus dealers in U.K. listed no wild-type discus at all. Discus fish have been reduced to ornaments.

I should end this post by pointing out that the taxonomy of these fish is confused, and having read something of the information available I am not convinced by any of the arguments on whether there are one, two or three species in the genus Symphysodon.

Finally, something that was not possible in 1967, a YouTube video of discus fry feeding on their parents (albeit of a colour variety).


*about $3000 or £2000 today.

†Obituary in Journal of Immunology, 1964 volume 132.

Hildemann WH. 1959. A cichlid fish, Symphysodon, with unique nurture habits. American Naturalist 93, 27-34.

Skipper R, Skipper G. 1956. Pompadours successfully bred in Britain. Water Life and Aquaria World 11 (3 new issue, June-July 1956) 126-129.

Skipper R, Skipper G. 1957. Those British-bred Pompadours—the story completed. Water Life and Aquaria World 12 (2 new issue, April-May 1957) 63-64.

Wolfsheimer G. 1957. Pompadour fish spawning—the American way. Water Life and Aquarium World  12 (1 new issue, February-March 1957) 14-16.

Wolfsheimer G. 1960, The Discus fish yields a secret. National Geographic 117 (5, May 1960) 674-681.

Thursday 11 February 2016

It Won’t Be Long Now. The war diary of Hong Kong meteorologist and naturalist, Graham Heywood

Graham Scudamore Percival Heywood’s name appears as a regular contributor to, and as assistant editor of, The Hong Kong Naturalist, published from 1930 until the Japanese invasion in 1941.

Graham Heywood has appeared in print again recently with the publication of his diary as a prisoner of war from December1941 until the capitulation of Japan in August 1945 and his return to U.K.

Heywood was a meteorologist. From 1932 until 1941 he was Professional Assistant at the Royal Observatory, Hong Kong. Educated at Winchester and Oxford, he was awarded that rare Oxford degree, the B.Sc. No longer awarded, and unlike the B.Sc. from other universities, it was a postgraduate research degree, the equivalent of an M.Sc. It should be borne in mind that a Ph.D. or D.Phil. was then not a popular route to a higher degree and often derided as ‘the German degree’.

G.S.P. Heywood
Meteorology has played a vital part in the life of Hong Kong since 1883 when the Observatory was established by the Hong Kong Government in response to a proposal by the Royal Society “for the study of meteorology in general and typhoons in particular”. Its first job was to provide early warning of typhoons to local mariners. This was not meteorology for deciding whether tomorrow will be too wet for fair-weather golfers but as a matter of life and death. Gwulo, that excellent website on old Hong Kong, recently showed photographs and reproduced articles on the typhoon of September 1874. I count about 35 vessels sunk, wrecked, run aground or missing in the early press reports, with about 2000 people killed. Warnings of approaching typhoons have been and still are taken very seriously in Kong Kong.

Heywood’s articles in The Hong Kong Naturalist cover weather observations, meteorological and astronomical phenomena, as well as accounts of hill walks, geographical features and of birds seen. Describing the passage of a typhoon on 23 November 1939, the eye of which passed directly over the Observatory, he wrote:

The calm centre of “eye of the storm” lasted from 4.05 to 4.20 p.m. at the Observatory [then, as now, just along from the Peninsula Hotel at the tip of Kowloon]. Though most people would not consider it particularly pleasant to find themselves in the centre of a typhoon, for a meteorologist it is a chance of a lifetime. Some extremely interesting observations were made…

Earlier he wrote:

Just before sunset on November 30th [1934] the interesting phenomenon of a red rainbow was seen. Some drizzle was falling at the time, and the rainbow appeared as a reddish arc without any trace of the other colours of the spectrum. The sun was close to the horizon and red in colour, consequently the light which fell on the raindrops lacked the blue and violet part of the spectrum.

His book, Rambles in Hong Kong, was published in 1938.

The story of how the diary came to be published as It Won’t Be Long Now in 2015 by Blacksmith Books is told in a Foreword by the present Director of the Observatory, Shun Chi Ming, who was shown a copy of the manuscript by one of his predecessors, John Peacock, on a visit to U.K. Thanks to Heywood’s daughter, Veronica and the widower of his elder daughter, Susan, and then with the help of Geoffrey Emerson, author of a book on the civilian internment camp at Stanley, as editor, and a number of volunteers, photographs were gathered to illustrate a publication. Then in early February 2015, a meeting with Pete Spurrier of Blacksmith Books was held. He agreed there and then to publish the book and with the speed that so characterises the way things are done in Hong Kong it was published—within just a few months.

Secret orders were opened at the Observatory as the Japanese invasion began. The magnetic station at Au Tau, a village deep in the New Territories was to be dismantled and the equipment brought back to Kowloon. He and a colleague, Leonard Starbuck, set off in two cars, crossing the British defence positions, Gin Drinkers’ Line, to reach the northern New Territories. As they were preparing to leave after dismantling the equipment they were surprised and captured by Japanese soldiers who had crossed the Shum Chun (Shenzen) River. They were treated as Prisoners of War, i.e. military prisoners, rather than being interned as the civilians they were. The diary describes the years spent imprisonment in Sham Shui Po Camp, the effects of undernutrition and malnutrition, and the effects of incarceration on the inhabitants, as well as of the attitudes of the Japanese guards. It adds considerably to the history of the occupation of Hong Kong and the events between surrender and the arrival of Rear-Admiral Harcourt’s fleet (which Heywood saw as he travelled to see the civilian internees at Stanley) on 30 September 1945. When the war ended, Heywood, after suffering malaria and malnutrition, had been working as a batman to a blind officer in the military hospital housed in the Central British School, which post-war became the King George V School.

Within a few days, as Kowloon came under British control, he was back working at the Observatory, trying ,with his colleagues Starbuck and  B.D.Evans, the Director who had been interned at Stanley, to sort out the mess. Two weeks later, Heywood was on board HMS Glengyle, which had brought 3 Commando to Hong Kong, bound for Colombo and home.

Meanwhile, Mrs Heywood and daughters had been on the move. Under the threat of Japanese invasion, the Hong Kong Government arranged the evacuation of wives and children. Heywood escorted his wife and daughter to Australia and then returned to the Observatory. Hearing of the attack on Darwin in February 1942, Mrs Heywood decided she would be better returning to U.K. than facing a Japanese invasion of Australia. She was therefore there to meet her husband as he returned from Hong Kong. By then he was on board RMS Maloja. He received a cable at Port Said telling him to look out for a bunch of yellow chrysanthemums on the quay at Southampton. This brilliant signal enabled him to spot his wife as thousands of men crowded the rail on one side of the ship.

He remained an employee of the Observatory (his wife had received his pay throughout) and like many of those evacuated, he returned to Hong Kong in 1946, this time as Director. There he remained until he retired in 1955. His book, Hongkong Typhoons, was published in 19501.

The present book notes that he and his friend, G.A.C. Herklots, would lead plant-hunting and bird-watching expeditions into the hills. Herklots by that time was Secretary for Development, head of the predecessor office that became the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Herklots also gets a mention in the diary, although not referred to by name. On his trip to Stanley, when he saw the fleet entering the harbour, he recounted:

     Accounts of life in the internment camp differed widely. One friend, an enthusiastic biologist, was full of his doings; he had grown champion vegetables, had seen all sorts of rare birds (including vultures, after the corpses) and had run a successful yeast brewery. Altogether he said, it had been a great experience … a bit long, perhaps, but not bad fun at all.
     Another ended up her account by saying “Oh Mr Heywood, it was hell on earth”.
     It all depended on their point of view.

Graham Heywood died, aged 81, on 23 January1985 in Hampshire.

Sketch by Heywood

1 Heywood’s papers on meteorology in Hong Kong can be found here on the Observatory’s website.

Friday 5 February 2016

Introduced Wall Lizards in England

In my post of 27 February 2015, I considered how introduced Wall Lizards (Podarcis muralis) in England have adapted to colder conditions. In this post I draw attention to the Wall Lizard Project. This website provides information on all the colonies, extinct as well as extant, that have been discovered. This is a screen grab showing where the colonies are or were.

Clicking on the boxes below the map provides a link to a description of all that is known about the introduction and its survival. If the introduction of alien species now seems odd, it is not many decades ago that some individuals considered it their duty to increase the number of species in the herpetologically impoverished British Isles.

You can find there, for example, the information that the 3rd Viscount Chaplin, released Wall Lizards into a walled garden in Devon in 1954; by the late 1970s the numbers had increased to several hundred; the garden overgrew and there are now thought to be none. Viscount Chaplin was the Secretary of the Zoological Society of London from 1952 to 1955.

Anthony Freskyn Charles Hamby Chaplin, 3rd Viscount Chaplin (1906-1981) was Secretary of the Zoological Society of London from 1952 to 1955. He had the job of sacking George Cansdale,as Superintendent of the Zoo in 1953. For an equivalent media furore over Cansdale’s removal, just think forward to Jeremy Clarkson’s removal from Top Gear. For those who cannot remember, Cansdale was a major television personality of the time. In the BBC’s television studios he showed animals from the Zoo on a large table with a concave rear barrier.  The animals were carried and positioned by uniformed keepers from the Zoo.

Tuesday 2 February 2016

The Puff Adder is not a Phew Adder: The case of the odourless snake

Writing about olfaction in English is complicated by the fact that the verb smell is both transitive and intransitive. So, if we say a snake does not smell, the meaning can be either that the snake emits no odour or that the snake cannot detect odours. This post is entirely about the former sense, do particular snakes emit so little odour that they are undetectable by other animals.

Recent research1 in South Africa has shown that dogs and meerkats cannot be trained to detect the Puff Adder (Bitis arietans) by scent. By contrast, dogs and meerkats can be trained to recognise the scent of five other species of snake. The important difference between the snakes is that the Puff Adder is an ambush predator; the others tested are foraging predators.

Puff Adder
by 4028mdk09. Used by Wikipedia

So far, so good. The first question to consider how the Puff Adder achieves an odourless state, as judged by the scenting abilities of dogs. By contrast with the scent from live snakes, dogs could be trained to detect the odour of recently shed skin of the Puff Adder. The authors make the point that Puff Adders are known to move to a new ambush position after shedding their skin and that typically they defaecate at the site of shedding before moving. Questions that spring to mind are: are the outer layers of the skin impermeable to volatile compounds? Is there a period after shedding when Puff Adders are detectable by smell? What is happening in the respiratory tract; an obvious site for the emission of volatile compounds? In this connexion I am not sure I go for the authors’ suggestion that ambush predators may have a lower rate of metabolism and body temperature and, therefore, a lower rate of production of volatiles; I am not convinced that the difference would be sufficient to account for the experimental findings with trained dogs and meerkats as the detector system.

The second question is: given that foraging snakes can be detected by their scent, is there a metabolic cost to being odourless? Is energy needed to use metabolic pathways that do not produce, say, ketones, that appear in the breath of mammals?

The third question is what is the Puff Adder and, probably, the Gaboon Viper using chemical crypsis to hide from. The authors assume throughout that it is to hide from predators. They make the point that their own observational studies suggest that Puff Adders are not easily detected by their known predators: canids, mongooses and genets. In addition, animals from the study population have low (about 50%) annual survival rates. They argue the case for strong positive selection pressure for ‘adaptations that provide even minor reductions to the production of metabolic volatiles (either from the organism itself or its microbiota) or their persistence in the air plume’.

The fourth question I would have asked had I refereed the paper is whether we should also consider any advantages of chemical crypsis to the Puff Adder not as potential prey but as a predator. Does being odourless enable ambush predators an advantage in terms of getting their next meal? If a small rodent could detect a smelly snake in ambush mode might it not stay out of range of the venomous strike? Chemical crypsis could be highly advantageous to the snake lying in ambush. A clue presented but not commented on by the authors in this context is that observational studies indicated that Puff Adders are not easily detected by some rodent species, with rats (Rattus spp.), snake food by any other name, given as one example.

Whatever the proximate and ultimate mechanisms of this particular example of chemical crypsis, the authors have opened up a fascinating field in the evolution of deception.

Miller AK, Maritz B, McKay S, Glaudas X, Alexander GJ. 2015. An ambusher’s arsenal: chemical crypsis in the puff adder (Bitis arietans). Proceedings of the Royal Society B 282: 20152182.