Monday 26 February 2018

On the Tibetan Plateau, November 2017: Gazelles and Blue Sheep

Tibetan Gazelles (Procapra picticaudata) inhabit the Tibetan Plateau of China, with just a few occurring in India. It was a species I was hoping to see and we did. Small herds appeared some distance away as dawn broke. Although we could see them clearly through binoculars, it was too dark for photography. Later, as we drove across the grassland, a single gazelle was by the road.

Described by Brian Hodgson in 1846, the Tibetan Gazelle is now far less common than it once was owing to hunting and deterioration of its habitat caused by domestic livestock. It is classified as Near Threatened by IUCN.

Another species (also first described by Hodgson) of the mountainsides that surround the Plateau is the Blue Sheep (Pseudois nayour) and it was here that we had our best view of them. A large flock feeding and resting on the steep grassy slope of an alpine meadow was behaving just as it says in the book. Classified of Least Concern by IUCN they are the favoured prey of Snow Leopards. Their range extends into Bhutan, Burma, Nepal, India, Pakistan and the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan.

These two species, as well as some other mammals and birds can be seen in my video taken over three days on the Plateau and ending with a heavy snow fall as we drove south from Ruoergai.

Sunday 25 February 2018

Chapman Pincher, reds-under-the-bed journalist of the Daily Express and his earlier foray into writing about fish

Pincher's Autobiography
To keep my academic interests
in trim, in 1947 I published
A Study of Fishes, a book
intended mainly for anglers
and heavily illustrated with
my own line drawings.
I was surprised while scanning old copies of the Aquarist magazine to find the name of a Fleet Street legend. During the latter half of the 20th Century Chapman Pincher was defence correspondent of the Daily Express at a time when stories—rather like now—of Russian and other Soviet bloc agents embedded in the British government, in the security service and in the secret intelligence service, real or imaginary, were rife. Pincher’s stories mixed leaked facts on defence matters with deliberately planted fake news fed to him from all quarters of the intelligence world together with the conspiracy theories and unproven fixations of spies and spy-catchers. He was a highly successful journalist, concerned only apparently with getting a story, and noted as a thorn in the side of successive governments because of his ability to extract from contacts confidential and often accurate information. Later comments from across the political spectrum have been damning, particularly on the accuracy of many of his stories on intelligence matters. The official and independent historian of MI5 wrote: ‘The stuff he produced on the intelligence services was almost totally inaccurate’†.

What I did not know (I must have been out of the country when he died aged 100 in 2014) was that Henry Chapman Pincher started off with a degree in zoology and botany from King’s College, London, became a school teacher because no university posts were available, and after service in the army became science correspondent of the Daily Express. It was in the 1940s that I found him, ensconced in the Express as a favourite of the proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, in the pages of the Aquarist, where and seemingly presaging his entire career, his writing proved controversial in some circles.

In the March 1947 issue of the Aquarist, A.G. Evans wrote to say that he had complained to the editor of the Daily Express about an article on goldfish that was published on 21 December 1946; the text of the letter was added. The gist of the complaint was that it described research that had later been falsified to the effect that fish can absorb microparticles of food through the skin. Evans also noted but did not expand in the letter to the editor on a claim made in the Express that  ‘the skin of a goldfish secretes a substance beneficial to other goldfish’. Chapman Pincher replied but did not deal with the main complaint only to ‘substance beneficial to other goldfish’ claim. He noted that the work had been published, quoted the reference and informed Evans that he could find the journal in the Zoological Society’s library.

Then Alec Frederick Fraser-Brunner (born 1906), the Editor of the Aquarist, took up the cudgels but in doing so actually scored an own goal. He began by quoting from the original newspaper article and then explained that it was the second claim in Pincher’s article that was wrong since it had been shown that goldfish do not absorb small particles of food through the skin. Fraser-Brunner also asked why Pincher ‘chose this abstruse matter, still in the experimental stage, rather than something simpler and more instructional for the children’ and then criticised the illustration in the Daily Express, saying it was of a Crucian Carp, not a goldfish.

The own goal? Well, Fraser-Brunner quoted the paper that Pincher had suggested Evans read in his reply. The authors he said were Allen, Finkel and Hoskins. But the senior author’s name was not Allen but Allee*. This could not have been a typo because he made the mistake twice.

Looking at Fraser-Brunner’s letter 70 years later, I have some sympathy for Pincher. He was at least trying to pass on the latest information, as he saw it—albeit imperfectly, and was not taking the patronising tone in what appears to have been an article for children that Fraser-Brunner was advocating.

The matter did not end there. In his letter to the Aquarist, Chapman Pincher wrote:
Your correspondent [Evans] states that I must be hard up for what he amusingly calls “piscicultural information”. I would refer him to my “Study of Fishes,” shortly to be published by Messrs. Herbert Jenkins, Ltd.
Shortly afterwards, Alec Fraser-Brunner produced a long, scathing review of Pincher’s book for the Aquarist. It started as it continued:
A journalist steps in where ichthyologists have feared to tread. The task of collecting, collating and interpreting data from the large amount of recent work on fishes is one that would be considered by those who have made a life-study of the subject to be a formidable task. Mr. Pincher has viewed it as a little thing to be tossed off between purveying titbits to “Daily Express” readers, organising exhibitions of atomic power and writing on such matters as livestock breeding. The result, as might be expected, is superficial and undigested.
After criticising the lack of a bibliography, the diagrams, the simplification of terms and the drawings of various species, he concluded:
That it should be left to a journalist to produce this work as a pot-boiler is due to the preoccupation of ichthyologists with discovering new facts, and their realisation that the selection and interpretation of our knowledge takes a great deal more time and experience than has gone into the present work. This is very sad.
US Edition
After that excoriation, I thought it would be worthwhile finding a copy of Pincher’s book to see just what a bad job he had made of it. I found it online and was utterly surprised. It is actually pretty good for its time and its readership. Pincher had drawn his own diagrams from textbook illustrations and there are lots of them; he covered a lot of topics, some very well indeed and I ended up impressed by his breadth of knowledge and the way he had put that knowledge over to a lay readership (‘angler, naturalist, and general reader’).

Having read the snippets from the Aquarist, I can only guess at the motivation for Fraser-Brunner’s carping—(could not resist it)—criticism. That guess is professional jealousy pure and simple. I do not think that Fraser-Brunner could have been aware of Pincher’s biological background since in the review he seems to imply it must have been in general science.

Alec Fraser-Brunner
Fraser-Brunner has an interesting but incomplete history. He appears not to have had a university degree but obviously worked for a long period at the Natural History Museum. He is shown in their archives catalogue as ‘artist, aquarist and ichthyologist’ with his activity as ‘Made models and artwork for new Fish Gallery 1931. Employed part time at the NHM to work on Plectognathi from 1934 (grants supplied periodically until 1955). Worked at Godstone Quarry with evacuated spirit collections during WW2’. It appears—and I have no further information—that he must have shown such an interest in fishes as an amateur that he devoted himself to studying  and becoming accepted in the museum as an ichthyologist. He is listed in the 1939 Register (a special census in preparation for war) as ‘zoologist’. The Plectognathi are a group that includes pufferfishes, boxfishes, triggerfishes, filefishes as well as the enormous sunfishes or molas. I have found eleven papers with Fraser-Brunner as sole author. The Museum archives say he was employed part-time and I do not know what else he did over the same period except as Editor of the Aquarist from its restart in 1946 after the Second World War.

I suspect that Alec Fraser-Brunner, having worked his way up the hard way as a descriptive ichthyologist and taxonomist and as a well-known aquarist and fish fancier, was pretty put out by a stranger on the scene, Chapman Pincher, writing articles and books on what he, Fraser-Brunner, had a proprietorial interest. Pincher was, in fact, very well connected scientifically even at that time. He had produced two papers while still an undergraduate and had befriended the joint editor of Nature, L.J.F. Brimble (1904-1965).

Soon after this spat with Chapman-Pincher, Freser-Brunner got a job with the Colonial Office to survey the fish of the Gulf of Aden. He also worked for the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations on fisheries. He was appointed Director of the Van Kleef Aquarium (now demolished) in Singapore in 1956; in 1970 he became Curator of the Carnegie Aquarium (now also demolished except for a wall) at Edinburgh Zoo. He died in 1986 in Edinburgh.

Alec Fraser-Brunner left a lasting legacy in Singapore. He designed the Merlion logo for the Singapore Tourist Board which has become symbolic of Singapore since a statue of the beast was constructed in 1972.

Fraser-Brunner’s replacement as editor of the Aquarist was Anthony Evans. I assume this was the A.G. Evans who wrote the original criticism of Pincher’s piece in the Express. Evans edited the Aquarist until 1966 when he defected to a new magazine, Pet Fish Monthly.

†I have found anomalies in his autobiography. His birthplace is given there and on websites as Ambala in India. However, the British Armed Forces And Overseas Births And Baptisms Register shows his place of birth as Sabathu, a hill station and military cantonment, 97 km to the north. His autobiography reads as if he was teacher at the Liverpool Institute, a famous grammar school for boys, from 1936 until he was called up in 1940. However, the 1939 Register shows that he was living 79 miles from Liverpool, at 91 Farrar Road, Bangor, North Wales with his first wife, Margaret Stanford, and another couple.

*Warder Clyde Allee (1885-1955) of the University of Chicago. Allee WC, Finkel AJ, Hoskins WH. 1940. The growth of goldfish in homotypically conditioned water; a population study in mass physiology. Journal of Experimental Zoology 84, 417-443.

Evans AG. 1947. Misinformation. Aquarist 11 (12, March 1947), 379.
Pincher C. 1947. [letter]. Aquarist 12 (1, April 1947), 4.
Fraser-Brunner A. 1947. The goldfish and the newspaper. Aquarist 12 (2, May 1947), 40.
Pincher, C. 1948. A Study of Fishes. London: Herbert Jenkins
Pincher C. 1948. A Study of Fish. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce. (U.S. edition of Pincher’s book)
Fraser-Brunner A. 1948. Book Review. A Study of Fishes by Chapman Pincher B.Sc. Aquarist 12 (12, March 1948), 365.

Pincher C.2014. Chapman Pincher. Dangerous to Know. A Life. London: Biteback.

Thursday 22 February 2018

Who was the photographer, Walter S. Pitt?

In my last post I showed a photograph by W.S. Pitt from Smith’s The British Amphibians and Reptiles, first published in 1951. Pitt produced nearly all the photographs for that volume and his name looms large in books and magazines of that era. But who was Walter S. Pitt?

I have found virtually no information on him other than that Walter Pitt was a member of The Zoological Photographic Club. A Walter Pitt was also a member of the Bath Photographic Society in 1888. Was this the same Walter Pitt? A Walter Pitt also appeared in a magazine article on angel fish in the 1920s.

Was he a professional photographer or a keen amateur? I would really like to know.

QUESTION SOLVED - See my post of 19 July 2022 HERE.

Grass Snakes: How good science turned into fake news

Last year new research suggested that the European Grass Snake, Natrix natrix, should be split into two species. The split removed Natrix helvetica, now called the Barred Grass Snake (previously Natrix natrix helvetica) from Natrix natrix, the Common Grass Snake.

The research involved the study of both mitochondrial and nuclear, microsatellite, DNA. The authors showed that there is a division running through western Europe between the two forms. But there was more: evidence that the two forms were separate species rather than merely genetic lineages of the same species. A narrow hybrid zone was found between the two forms, indicating that while there is some mixing of genes, the selection against hybrids is strong and that there are intrinsic reproductive isolating mechanisms. In other words, there is evidence that the two forms are good biological species. An analogous case is that of the Yellow-bellied Toad of Western Europe (Bombina variegata) and the Fire-bellied Toad (B. bombina) of Eastern Europe.

I should point out that the hybrid zone between the two species of snake runs across Germany—where the research was done. That country, therefore, now has two grass snakes rather than one.

The split (or re-split since some earlier taxonomists regarded the species as separate) largely coincides with earlier morphological research done in the 1970s by Roger Thorpe, now of Bangor University in North Wales, who has written a useful comment on the new paper on ResearchGate including the rôle of the Ice Ages in causing the split.

At this stage, it was so far so good.

Anybody in Britain with the slightest knowledge of herpetology would have been surprised by the headlines that appeared in the media in early August. The Times, for example, carried the headline, ‘Snakes alive: new species has been living in England’. It and the rest of the British media, including not surprisingly the BBC, had clearly used a press release intended for the German media, since, while the name of ‘our’ grass snake changed to Natrix helvetica, we still had only the one species and not the two of the British media reports. I fired off a letter to The Times which was published on 12 August.

An article in a recent Herpetological Bulletin (British Herpetological Society) by two of the authors of the original paper gave a splendid explanation of what had happened:

This upheaval resulted from a complete misunderstanding of a press release by the Senckenberg Institution. The press release pointed out that Europe now has one more full snake species, which was misinterpreted as Britain gaining an additional snake species. In Brexit times, we have great sympathies with this approach. However, we have to face reality. Since the Kingdom of Hanover was lost from the United Kingdom in 1837, only one species of grass snake lives within UK borders (excluding a few introduced N. natrix and their offspring identified by our study). Until our paper was published (Kindler et al., 2017), the native British populations were assigned to the subspecies Natrix natrix helvetica, also widely distributed on the continent. Now, the strong evidence we presented indicates that this subspecies should be recognised as a full species, Natrix helvetica. Yet, this did not add another species to the British fauna, the British populations simply changed their identity label, as will all Britons when they leave the European Union. They will no longer be listed as EU citizens, but otherwise they will remain the same.
Finally, a photograph of a British Natrix helvetica. This is from the 2nd (1954) edition of Malcolm Smith's book in the Collins New Naturalist series, The British Amphibians and Reptiles. The photographer was Walter S. Pitt:

Kindler C, Chèvre M, Ursenbacher S, Böhme W, Hille A, Jablonski D, Vamberger M, Fritz U. 2017. Hybridization patterns in two contact zones of grass snakes reveal a new Central European snake species. Scientific Reports 7: 7378. DOI:10.1038/s41598-017-07847-9

Fritz U, Kindler C. 2017. A very European tale – Britain still has only three snake species, but its grass snake is now assigned to another species (Natrix helvetica). Herpetological Bulletin 141, 44-45.

Peaker M. 2017. Snake in the grass. [Letter]. The Times, 10 August 2017.

Monday 19 February 2018

Pika or Pika. You say to-mate-o: I say to-maht-o

I used to pronounce pika, peeka, but then began to wonder since half the world seemed to be saying pike-a.

I read that the word was first used in 1827 and comes from Tunguse, a Siberian language, piika, pronounced peeka, or peaker, if you really like. The Canadians claim the correct pronunciation, with pike-a being very much American, as in United States of.

So, it is definitely peeka from now on.

Plateau Pika and the extensive burrows on the Tibetan Plateau

Thursday 15 February 2018

If we had seen Chinese Mountain Cats, what are these?

When I was looking up photographs of Chinese Mountain Cats before and after travelling to Sichuan last November, I was puzzled. A number of photographs illustrating websites do not really look like the cats we saw by night in Sichuan or photographed during the day by others. The photographs in question were taken in Xining Zoo which is within the Chinese Mountain Cat’s range in Qinghai Province further north from where we were.

Photograph from Xining Zoo used
to illustrate for example the article
on the Chinese Mountain Cat
on Wikipedia
The only explanation I could think of at the time was that there is either considerable change in pelage with season or that there is geographical or wide individual variation in coloration. Then when looking up Pocock’s description of the species in his Catalogue of the Genus Felis, I realised that the animals in these photographs match the description of what he considered a second sub-species. To remind readers that ‘our’ Chinese Mountain Cats fit the description of his first subspecies, Felis bieti bieti. This, from Pocock, on Felis bieti chutuchta:

According to Birula this cat differs from F. pallida (=bieti) in being redder in colour and more distinctly striped transversely. The back has a longitudinal band tawny fuscous and varied with black; the head is marked with short fuscous lines and three stripes on the cheek; the ears behind are reddish grey and spotted with white at the base and apically pencilled; the lips, chin and throat are white, with a wide, reddish band on the throat; the abdomen is white with black spots; the tail is shortish and coloured like the back, with four or five thin black stripes and a black tip at its distal end. All the apparent differences from bieti might be individual, perhaps seasonal.

This cat had been described by A.A. Bialynicky-Birula (1864-1938) of St Petersburg in 1917 as a new species, Felis chutucha, from the Gobi Desert in Southern Mongolia. It was later lumped first into Felis pallida and then when pallida was recognised as a synonym of F. bieti into bieti, with Pocock having it from 1943 as the second subspecies.

However, Pocock noted there was something odd about the skull or at least about the several authors who had described it and used it for taxonomic purposes. Later authors have considered the skull of chutucha to be that of a Wildcat. Indeed some people have included it in the mammalian fauna of Mongolia and have called it the Gobi Cat, Felis silvestris chutucha. These authors include Haltenorth in 1953 and the late Colin Groves in 1980. I have not seen their papers. This view on the skull has been upheld by the observations of A. Abramov reported in the very recent Revised Taxonomy of the Felidae.

The place where the specimen of chutucha were collected from was not the Gobi Desert. The original location was identified by He et al. (2004) as Ningxia in Inner Mongolia, not that far from its known present distribution. I say ‘specimen’ because the Museum in St Petersburg has the skin (the description of which is in Pocock) and a skull. The skin and skull were collected during Pyotr Kozlov’s expedition in 1908—one of those which during The Great Game gave the British the heebie-jeebies about Russian encroachment into India. I know nothing of the circumstances of the collection of those two specimens but given the vicissitudes of collecting and labelling and knowing that skins were traded commercially, is it possible that the skin and the skull are not from the same animal?

Confusing as all this is and hanging on a single skin and a single skull, we now have some intriguing possibilities. If the skin really is indistinguishable from that of those animals collected and kept alive in Xining and if the skull did not belong to the same animal as the skin, then there is clearly some variation in the coloration of F. bieti which would either restore Pocock’s classification in two subspecies or point to a cline from greyish-sandy with faint stripes to more reddish with stronger stripes in the north. However, and again if the skin really is indistinguishable from that of those animals collected and kept alive in Xining, but the skin and skull in St Petersburg are from the same animal, then because the experts consider the skull be be that of a Wildcat and not F. bieti, then those specimens in Xining are/were not Chinese Mountain Cats at all but either a distinctive and undescribed form of the Asian Wildcat or a closely-related but undescribed species.

Chinese Mountain Cat aka Chinese Desert Cat
Caroline Simpson's photograph (from Flickr) of a Chinese Mountain Cat
on the Tibetan Plateau of Sichuan, September 2017, as a reminder of what
Pocock's Felis bieti bieti looks like

Such are the difficulties of dealing with very few specimens of difficult provenance and illustrate why we need to know much more about the small cats of the world in general and of the still wild parts of China in particular.

Still confused about small cats? Then throw in the domestic cat and the possibility of it appearing in a bewildering variety of colour, patterns and shapes and of it hybridising with local wild cat species, then there is plenty of scope to be even more confused. Working out who’s who in the cats of the world has a long way to run.

References are shown in the previous post.

What is the Chinese Mountain Cat aka Steppe Cat, Desert Cat, Felis bieti?

The Chinese Mountain Cats that we saw by spotlight on the Tibetan Plateau in Sichuan have found themselves to be in a state of taxonomic confusion and disagreement. This is not surprising  or unusual for a small cat since there are relatively few specimens in museums and the division of small cats into robust taxons is well known to be difficult. Add to that the differences in species concepts adopted and vigorously defended by different workers with the addition with several possible interpretations of DNA data, it is easy to see why recent papers have pulled the animal in two directions: first it was lumped into the local Wildcat (itself the subject of controversy); then it was restored as a proper species.

In 1892 Alphonse Milne-Edwards described a new species of cat; he named it Felis bieti for Felix Biet (1838–1904) a French missionary. Neither a type specimen nor the locality was noted in the original description but Glover Morrill Allen (1879-1942) in his book explained that Prince Henri d’Orléans (1867-1901) brought back the two specimens to Paris from Tongolo and Tatsienlu in Sichuan. Henri d’Orléans, noted duellist and anglophobe, led an expedition, at the insistence of, and paid for by, his father from Siberia to Indo-China.

Shortly after Milne-Edwards, Eugen Alexander Büchner (1861-1913) of St Petersburg described what turned out to be the same species as Felis pallida, a name actually appropriate to its appearance and one which Allen used for the common name, Pale Desert Cat in his book. A number of other common names have been used for F. bieti: Chinese Mountain Cat; Chinese Steppe Cat; Chinese Desert Cat.

It seems that nobody has found a modern location of Tongola but Tatsienlu is now known as Kangding on what, historically, was the border between China and Tibet (and, incidentally, about 60 km west of where we were watching Red Pandas).

Although my video as well as several other videos available on YouTube were taken at night by spotlight, it can be seen that the appearance of the cats is the same as a still photograph taken by day by Caroline Simpson two months before our visit:

Chinese Mountain Cat aka Chinese Desert Cat
Chinese Mountain Cat on the Tibetan Plateau, September 2017
Photograph by Caroline Simpson (from Flickr)

It is quite clear that all—except, and possibly importantly, one—of the still photographs and videos taken of ‘mountain cats’ on the Tibetan Plateau near Ruoergai in Sichuan conform with the description of the F. bieti. And this is where I went back into the classical descriptive zoology of the early 20th Century.

Reginald Innes Pocock FRS (1863-1947) wrote his Catalogue of the Genus Felis but it had to be edited and published posthumously by the Natural History Museum in 1951. There is a perfect description of ‘our’ cat under the subspecies F. b. bieti (which Pocock himself had proposed earlier to distinguish it from another subspecies that I will return to later and in a subsequent post). I will not repeat the description here other than to point out that he did not specifically mention the tail although he did describe it for his other subspecies; the tails were clearly similar.

I am therefore entirely content with the conclusion that ‘our’ Chinese Mountain Cats on the Tibetan Plateau in Sichuan were what had been originally described as Felis bieti.

As I mentioned earlier the molecular phylogeneticists have not left the difficult problem of small cat taxonomy untackled. Thus we had a paper in Science in 2007 which, in considering the origins of the domestic cat, lumped, amongst other lumpings, Felis bieti into the Wildcat as the subspecies, Felis silvestris bieti. It is this classification that one finds on many current websites. However, I did not find the authors’ argument persuasive (see below for a possible interpretation) since models drawn from mitochondrial DNA (i.e. maternal line) differed from those built from microsatellite (nuclear DNA) data.

One of the authors of the paper described, Andrew Kitchener, of what is now ungrammatically known as National Museums Scotland, then took the opposite view in 2009. After modelling the geographical distribution from 18,000 years ago until the present, he, with E.E. Rees of the University of Alberta at Edmonston, wrote:
The palaeo-DDMs [Deduced Distribution Model] provide no clear support for the redesignation of the Chinese steppe cat Felis bieti as a subspecies of F. silvestris [Wildcat] based on Driscoll et al.’s (2007) phylogeographical analysis, except that the effective loss of the central Asian distribution during the LGM [Last Glacial Maximum] may have resulted in introgression between F. bieti and F. s. ornata, in small isolated habitat fragments. Distinctive morphology and possible sympatry with Asian wildcats suggest that the Chinese steppe cat is a distinct species whether using the BSC or PSC.

The latter argument—that Felis bieti—is a ‘good’ species appears to be holding sway since the species has been retained in the IUCN’s Cat Specialist Group’s Cat Classification Task Force report, Revised Taxonomy of the Felidae published very recently. 

The Task Force was chaired by Andrew Kitchener and comprised a Core Group, an Expert Group and a Review Group. Given the wide membership, backgrounds and adherence to different species concepts, it is not at all surprising that disagreements remain. To complicate matters a little further, the Wildcat of Eurasia has been split/resplit into two species, Felis silvestris, the European Wildcat and Felis lybica, the African and Asian wildcats, so the section on Felis bieti reads:
There has been no recent taxonomic study of this species since Groves* (1980), although Driscoll et al. (2007) showed that Felis bieti was basal to Felis silvestris (sensu lato) according to mtDNA, but a sister taxon to Felis lybica ornata from microsatellites, which suggests that Felis bieti may have an ancient hybrid origin, possibly during the last glaciation when the distribution of F. l. ornata was apparently restricted to a very small area in Central Asia (Kitchener & Rees 2009). F. bieti is morphologically distinct and is supposedly sympatric with F. l. ornata, which would also preclude its recognition as a subspecies of F. silvestris/lybica. However, C. Driscoll (pers. obs.) maintains this species as a subspecies within F. silvestris (sensu lato).
The stated distribution of Felis bieti has tightened over the years, not as a result of habitat loss, but as a result of excluding misidentified specimens. Li He, Rosa García-Perea, Ming Li and Fuwen Wei began their paper of a study made in 2000 and 2001:
One of the problems is the difficulty of identification. This cat is almost unknown to Chinese scientists, and the few specimens kept at Chinese institutions are mostly misidentified. A similar confusion applies to local hunters, who do not know what species they are dealing with when they capture the animal (pers. obs.). Fur traders are probably more familiar with the identification of the species, but they do not have an interest in the geographical origin of any pelts that they receive. Therefore it is common to find incorrect information in the local literature, with the species often confused with manul Otocolobus manul, Asiatic wildcats of the Felis silvestris [lybica] ornata group, or lynx Lynx lynx (e.g. Wang, 1990, 1991). Thus any information on the distribution and occurrence of the species requires careful evaluation of the source.
The authors looked at 45 specimens and living individuals, 168 reports from the literature and 21 records from local hunters. However, I found the criteria for inclusion as F. bieti to be unclear and while some of the records were obviously wrong, I have the suspicion that further studies will reveal a wider distribution, particularly to the west. As a result of this study though, the distribution map below is the one that is currently accepted.

modified from Sanderson et al. 2010

We found it difficult at night to estimate the size of the Chinese Mountain Cats we saw. The Guide to the Mammals of China says about twice the size of a domestic cat but the data given by Pocock do not support such a large difference. The head-body length of skins in museums tend to be longer than in real life and so absolute size is not very informative. Some of the skins are from the fur trade and could well have been stretched. Pocock’s data showed a range of 16-23 inches for the skins of feral domestic cats from various parts of the world compared with 28-33.5 inches for specimens collected as, or assigned to, Felis bieti bieti. Taking the medians of 19.5 inches for the feral cats and 30.3 for F. bieti, the latter are about 1.5 times the length of a feral domestic cat. But given that feral cats tend to be smaller than those kept in the house, about a third larger seems a fair estimate. Indeed, Allen’s description begins, 'About the size of a house cat…'

Ours, and other sightings of Chinese Mountain Cats on the Tibetan Plateau in recent years, have been made possible by the efforts of that indefatigable guide to, and font of knowledge of, the birds and mammals of Sichuan, Sid Francis. There is, though, a fairly recent photograph from one of his trips to the Tibetan Plateau in 2015 of a  cat which does not appear to conform to the others. That cat was seen during and photographed by Yann Muzika; the photograph was shown in Small Wild Cat Conservation News in May 2015:

from Small Wild Cat Conservation News, May 2015

To my untrained eye it looks more like a Wildcat, i.e. Felis silvestris/lybica, even accounting for any possible seasonal shift in pelage. If so, the presence of this species together with F. bieti would demonstrate sympatry (i.e. both occur in the same area) and provide conclusive evidence that Felis bieti is indeed a ‘good’ species. In that respect it is interesting that the distribution map for the Wildcat in A Guide to the Mammals of China (which also has a good painting of F. bieti, if a little angular) has a series of question marks for that area of Sichuan.

I do have one main concern left though. There are photographs of animals, clearly identified as F. bieti that do not really conform with the photographs and videos shown and referred to in this article. I will deal with that question, with some delving into the classical literature and much inadequate knowledge in a subsequent post.

There is very much more to be discovered about the Chinese Mountain Cat and indeed many of the small cats of the world. We just counted ourselves lucky and privileged to have seen Chinese Mountains Cats and Pallas’s Cats on the grasslands of the eastern Tibetan Plateau.

*Colin Groves died on 30 November 2017.

The following will also provide references to other research on the Chinese Mountain Cat

Allen GM. 1938. The mammals of China and Mongolia. New York: American Museum of Natural History.

Driscoll CA, Menotti-Raymond M, Roca AL, Hupe K, Johnson WE, Geffen E, Harley EH, Delibes M, Pontier D, Kitchener AC, Yamaguchi N, O’Brien SJ, Macdonald DW. 2007. The near eastern origin of cat domestication. Science 317, 519-523. doi:10.1126/science.1139518

He L, Garcia-Perea R, Li M, Wei F. 2004. Distribution and conservation status of the endemic Chinese Mountain Cat Felis bieti. Oryx 38, 55-61.

Kitchener AC, Rees E. 2009. Modelling the dynamic biogeography of the wildcat: implications for taxonomy and conservation. Journal of Zoology 279, 144-155.

Kitchener AC, Breitenmoser-Würsten C, Eizirik E, Gentry A, Werdelin L, Wilting A, Yamaguchi N, Abramov AV, Christiansen P, Driscoll CA, Duckworth JW, Johnson WE, Luo SJ, Meijaard E, O’Donoghue P, Sanderson J, Seymour K, Bruford MW, Groves C, Hoffmann M, Nowell K, Timmons Z, Tobe SS. 2017. A revised taxonomy of the Felidae. The final report of the Cat Classification Task Force of the IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group. Cat News Special Issue (11). ISSN 1027-2992

Pocock RI. 1951. Catalogue of the genus Felis. London: British Museum

Sanderson J, Yufeng Y, Naktsang D. 2010. Of the only endemic cat species of China.

Wozencraft WC. 2008 In, Smith AT, Xie Y. editors, A Guide to the Mammals of China. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Thursday 8 February 2018

Conservation Trusts and Charities: How good are they?

When travelling abroad I often see or hear of the work of some non-governmental conservation body or other working on a particular species, group of species or habitat. Sometimes they are big organisations and sometimes they are small, even one-man bands running on money provided by sponsors. The cynic in me, though, asks: How do we know that the work they are doing needs to be done? How effective are they at doing what they say they are doing? How efficient are they in doing what they are doing? Are some doing more harm than good, or having no effect?

I do not know the answers. There is competition for funding from private and corporate sponsors, government agencies and non-governmental organisations. Therefore the websites and written material of organisations are there to say how bad the problem they are are working on is and what a great job they are doing in tackling it—advertising puff in other words, just like that put out by British universities and so-called universities.

My impression—and I have no evidence to back it up—is that many organisations do a very good job in difficult conditions but I have the lingering suspicion some are there to provide their founders with an income to enjoy the lifestyle.

My very limited Latin prevents me from adapting Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? to Who watches the conservationists? 

Monday 5 February 2018

Encounters with the Chinese Mountain Cat (and other nocturnal mammals) on the Tibetan Plateau in China

No sooner had we turned off the main road south of Ruoergai on the Tibetan Plateau in Sichuan and turned on the spotlights to scan the grasslands than a Chinese Mountain Cat was spotted by its eye shine. It was a good distance away but our track and its path were converging. Then the cat turned towards us as it hunted for rodents and I was able to take some video footage by torchlight. My camera was at the limit and the footage at these very low light levels is grainy but the salient features of this little-known cat that we could see through binoculars can just be discerned.

The late evening turned out to be one of those night-spotting classics that make spotlighting or lamping such a worthwhile experience. None of the mammals were close enough to be filmed but all could be seen through binoculars. After that Mountain Cat (Felis bieti) we saw another two plus Woolly Hares (Lepus oiostolus), a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), an Asian Badger (Meles leucurus), a Steppe Polecat (Mustela eversmannii) which was searching pika burrows for prey but then disappeared from view, and three Wolves (Canis lupus). The wolves were stopping, listening and then moving on to stop and listen again. Domestic yak herds are kept on the grasslands and it is hardly surprising that the yak herders have the enormous and fierce Tibetan Mastiff as guard dogs.

The following night Tibetan Foxes (Vulpes ferrilata) abounded; we saw ten, as well as a Mountain Cat and a Red Fox. On a final night it was Red Foxes, six this time, a Mountain Cat and an Asian Badger.

It was the density of the predators that surprised us, especially the numbers of Tibetan and Red Foxes in a relatively small area. The grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau are really productive in terms of producing large rodent and lagomorph populations which together with the odd dead yak must provide rich pickings for the carnivores.

I will return to the Chinese Mountain Cat in a later post.