Thursday 29 March 2018

Recent fossil evidence for supraorbital salt glands in early birds: did other early birds and dinosaurs also have salt glands?

The skulls of marine or estuarine birds often show a depression above the orbit. Instantly, it is possible to recognise where a supraorbital nasal salt gland was present on each side in life. The glands secrete a concentrated salt solution and thus enabled the bird to drink sea or estuarine water and/or to eat salt-rich invertebrate prey.

Even before the function of the nasal glands was discovered by Knut Schmidt-Nielsen in the late 1950s, the comparative anatomists and palaeontologists had been at work. Brian John Marples (1907-1997) in 1932 examined the skulls of the extinct birds Hesperornis and Ichthyornis. He found large depressions above the eye indicating the presence of supraorbital nasal glands. Hesperornis was a large flightless bird that lived in a marine environment; Ichthyornis was also a sea bird about the size of a pigeon*. Both are from the Late Cretaceous (63.5-78 million years ago).

A very recent paper from workers in China and the USA describes the finding of supraorbital depressions in the skull of Iteravis, a bird from the 40 million years earlier, i.e of the Early Cretaceous. The fossil is from Liaoning in north-eastern China.

From Wang et al. 2018

The authors studied even earlier fossils than Iteravis on the dinosaur-bird line and could find no evidence for the presence of supraorbital glands. However, I cannot agree with the authors in accepting the lack of supraorbital glands as evidence for the absence of salt glands in very early birds, their dinosaurs ancestors or other contemporary early birds. Yes, many modern birds with salt glands have them in the supraorbital position: but many do not.

Gerhard Technau in Berlin made an extensive comparative study of the nasal glands of birds. His paper, published in 1936, is over 100 pages long. When, in 1975, we compared Technau’s findings with a list of birds known to have functional salt glands, we found that salt glands are not always in the supraorbital position. These early studies have been confirmed more recently. The salt gland in gannets, boobies, cormorants, shags, and pelicans, for example, are situated within the roof of the orbit; depressions in the bone are found there.

We used Technau's diagram for our book in 1975. We stuck with Technau's
nomenclature but the sharp-eyed will notice his terminology is incorrect.
His 'interorbital' (i.e. between the orbits) should be 'intraorbital' (within
the orbit).

Thus it is entirely possible that other early birds, as well as their dinosaur ancestors, had salt glands as well as those leaving evidence of supraorbital nasal glands in their fossilised remains.

The new paper is:

Wang X, Huang J, Hu Y,  Liu X, Peteya J, Clarke JA. 2018. The earliest evidence for a supraorbital salt gland in dinosaurs in new Early Cretaceous ornithurines. Scientific Reports 8:3969 | DOI:10.1038/s41598-018-22412-8. Note - two - and I have only checked two - of the references given in this paper are incorrect.

Other references

Technau G. 1936. Die Nasendrüse der Vögel. Zugleich ein Beitrag zur Morphologie der Nasenhöhle. Journal für Ornithologie 84, 511-617.
( I have been able to find nothing about Technau nor his other work.)

Siegel-Causey D. 1990. Phylogenetic patterns of size and shape of the nasal gland depression in Phalacrocoridae. The Auk 107, 110-118.

Marples BJ. Structure and development of nasal glands in birds. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1932), 829-844.

Peaker M, Linzell JL. 1975. Salt Glands in Birds and Reptiles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

*Relevant here is the recent work on using knowledge of the structure of nasal salt glands to infer what was happening in extinct birds has appeared so far only as an abstract:
Caggiano EG, Cerio D, Porter R, Ridgely RC, Witmer LM. 2017. The nasal salt gland of extant birds: anatomical structure and its relevance for inferring the behavior and habitat preferences of extinct birds. FASEB Journal 81, Abstract 579.5. 

Tuesday 27 March 2018

Not a Giant Snake - Just a Broken Mollusc Shell. Sir John Graham Kerr’s Howler: How was the Misidentification Perpetuated?

Sir John Graham Kerr
A couple of weeks ago I was in the Graham Kerr Building at Glasgow University for a meeting. Still known to the old lags as ‘Zoology’, it is named for Sir John Graham Kerr FRS, Professor of Natural History and then, when the department was split, of Zoology from 1902 until 1935. The 1920s zoology building was very much his building and his empire.

A natural historian of the old school he is perhaps better known now for a horrendous misidentification of a specimen than remembered for his research, on lungfish, for example, for his wrong-headed—but not unusual for the time—views on evolutionary pathways, for his antipathy to experimental biology, for disruptive camouflage of ships, for his political life as a Member of Parliament for the Scottish Universities before such seats were abolished and for his pugnacity.

The misidentification arose from a find among a mass of bones obtained from the Gran Chaco of South America by his friend, the missionary Andrew Pride. Kerr identified the specimen as the fang of a snake and, given its size—nearly 6.5 cm measured on the outside of the curve—a giant snake to which he gave the name Bothrodon pridii which translates to Pride’s Furrow-toothed Snake. The paper was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1927.

From Kerr's 1927 paper

Kerr interpreted his fang as being from an opisthoglyphous snake like the Boomslang with the tooth serving to grasp the prey while the poison worked its way down the furrow and into the wound. He then calculated that the fang’s owner must have been about 60 feet long or more. A true piece of deduction from a single part of the anatomy that Richard Owen would have been proud of. Or would he?

Only after a cast of the ‘fang’ was sent to Dr Werner Quenstedt (1893-1960) in Berlin did it become apparent that far from being the tooth of a snake, Kerr’s specimen was the broken off projection from the shell of a Chiragra Spider Conch, now known as Harpago chiragra, from the Indo-Pacific. Oh dear.

Chiragra Spider Conch
from Wikipedia. Photograph by H. Zell

Quenstedt’s correction to Kerr’s identification was published in 1939. However, something odd in the what-happened-next category was noted in a blog post by Dr Karl Shuker. Graham Kerr continued to refer to the discovery of the tooth and to Bothrodon in his book published in 1950, A Naturalist in Gran Chaco. Shuker wonders whether Kerr simple did not accept that he was wrong.

The ‘Bothrodon pridii fang’ was clearly Kerr’s pride (if you will forgive the pun) and joy. Even after Quenstedt’s publication in 1939 Kerr demonstrated the specimen at a Royal Society Club dinner in 1943 (mistakenly reported as 1940 by others). But what is even odder is that Kerr’s successor (and relation by marriage) at Glasgow, Edward Hindle FRS (1886-1973) in a biographical memoir for the Royal Society written shortly after Kerr’s death in 1957 refers to the fact that the specimen was one of Kerr’s favourite exhibits in his departmental museum and praises Kerr for its identification. Hindle continued:
Unfortunately no other part of the skeleton has ever been found but comparing the size of this fang with that of a modern poisonous snake, it is estimated that this monster may well have been some 60 feet long, surely one of the most formidable animals that ever lived.

It is possible that Kerr did not accept Quenstedt’s debunking of his pet specimen as a misidentification. Or is there another explanation?

From Allibone (a book printed by early camera-ready technology)

The Holborn Restaurant at the corner of High Holborn and Kingsway.
Now demolished, this famous London restaurantwas used by the
Royal Society Club for dinners between 1942 and 1944.

Graham Kerr left Glasgow in 1935 for the political arena and scientific retirement. Is it just possible that nobody told him, nor dared tell him, what had happened in Berlin?

It is also possible that Quenstedt’s work was more widely known in the U.S.A. than in Britain. Even by 1939 standards the publication looks pretty obscure†. The outbreak of war 1939 saw contacts cut between German and British scientists. But until the U.S.A. eventually, as W.S. Churchill might have phrased it, declared war on Germany in 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, some contact was maintained and publications exchanged.

Edward Hindle’s ignorance is harder to explain. During the 1940s and 50s Hindle was very much the man-about-town gentleman scientist in London. Even though no palaeontologist nor herpetologist it seems odd that he seemed unaware of what had happened as he flitted from this scientific society dinner to that learned society event while ensconced at London Zoo from 1943 until 1951 and the during his retirement. Even had he known of the misidentification and had wished to avoid Kerr, his late first wife’s cousin as well as his predecessor in Glasgow, being remembered for it he surely would have simply ignored the topic in the biographical memoir rather than listing it as an achievement.

Allibone TE. 1976. The Royal Society and its Dining Clubs. Oxford: Pergamon.

Hindle E. 1958. John Graham Kerr, 1869-1957. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 4, 155-166.

Kerr JG. 1927. Bothrodon pridii, an extinct serpent of gigantic dimensions. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 46, 314-315. A number of sources quote this paper as being published in 1926.

Kerr JG. 1950. A Naturalist in the Gran Chaco. Cambridge University Press.

†The reference is given as Quenstedt in Kuhn, Oskar. 1939. This must be: Kuhn O. 1939. Squamata : Lacertilia et Ophidia. Fossilium catalogus, 1 . Animalia / editus a W. Quenstedt ; pars 86. W. Junk.

Sunday 25 March 2018

Porcupines in Hong Kong: Letters to the South China Morning Post in 1930

Further to my previous post on our night safari to see porcupines in Hong Kong, these are letters on the subject I found in the South China Morning Post of 21 November 1930.

(To the Editor. S. C. M Post.) 
Sir,—In reply to the query by "A.B.". I hasten to assure him (or her) that porcupines are definitely among the native mammals of Hongkong island. Whether they are descendants of escaped animals brought from the mainland may be open to discussion but as long ago (or as recently) as 1927 it was established that they were breeding in the Shek-O neighbourhood, when one of them, in crossing the road, was run into by a motor-car.
     Late in 1928, while exploring the neighbourhood of the hillside above Tytam Tuk with a companion, we found definite traces of porcupines there.

Sir,—In this morning's (Thursday's) issue of your paper "A.B.' mentions that he had seen, last week, a large porcupine on High West and asks whether these animals are natives of the Colony.
     Porcupines are native here and may occasionally be seen on the Peak, at Shekko, or in the New Territories.
     About 10 days ago, I purchased a porcupine which had been caught at Sha Tin; the animal had been raiding sweet-potato plantations and an all night watch had been set for it on three successive nights before its capture. This porcupine was a large healthy fellow but many of its quills had been shed, possibly during the excitement of its capture. Unfortunately, it escaped after only one night's sojourn in the University, and, after consuming various flowers and digging sundry holes, made off up the hillside.. Possibly, the fellow seen by “A.B.” is my porcupine.
     If anyone else sees "Fido," will they please treat the animal kindly, put some salt on his or her tail and lead him or her gently back to the University.
G. A. C. Herklots.
Herklots’s battles with porcupines raiding his garden in Pokfulam in 1947 were described in his The Hong Kong Countryside published in 1951, together with the problems caused by the quills removed from his garden raiders after their extermination:
The quills, distributed by my small daughter to her friends at school, proved popular at first but alas, the small boys finding from experience that they were very sharp used them with good effect on the small girls to their pain and discomfiture. Evidently porcupine quills should not be distributed in a co-educational school. D[epartment] of E[ducation] please note and instruct heads accordingly…

Malayan Porcupine in Hong Kong                                                                                                        [AJP Photo

Porcupines in Hong Kong: Our Night Safari

The Malayan or East-Asian Porcupine (Hystrix brachyura) is native to Hong Kong and has become much more common in recent decades than they were in the 1960s.

The paths of Hong Kong island are frequented by joggers in the evening. The joggers can get a surprise when a porcupine or sometimes a whole family appears in front of them.

Here is the result of our night safari at a location on Hong Kong island last November:

Friday 23 March 2018

Monkey Hill at London: Monkey Temple at Bristol Zoo

There has been a great deal of recent interest in my article on Monkey Hill at London Zoo. In its postwar state it housed, for a time, Rhesus Macaques. Tuberculosis was blamed for the large number of deaths*. It was demolished in 1955.

Demolition of Monkey Hill
London Zoo
Children's Newspaper
2 April 1955

There were, though, other zoos in which groups of Rhesus Macaques were kept, apparently successfully. I can—just—remember going to Bristol Zoo at the age of three and seeing the Monkey Temple. I went there again around Easter 1963 and took this photograph. Bristol opened the Monkey Temple in 1928. It was apparently inspired by the Cold Lairs, an abandoned city inhabited by monkeys, in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

Monkey Temple, Bristol Zoo. My photograph from 1963

The years passed and such exhibits were—and still are—condemned by social and architectural historians with a political axe to grind as ‘colonial’, ’unnaturalistic’ or even ‘exotic’. 

I was highly amused when on my first visit to an Indian temple—in India—to see Rhesus Macaques disporting themselves on its walls and roof just as they did in Bristol. Far from being a colonial view of their natural habitat, that was their natural habitat!

The Monkey Temple in Bristol is now apparently used to house an exhibit on plants.

Postcard: Monkey Temple, Bristol (Clifton) Zoo

Monday 19 March 2018

Arapaima ‘Milk’: Reflections on big fish and a big biological problem

Since the discovery of ‘lactation’ in discus fish, the production of mucus by a number of other species to feed their young has been described. Somewhat different has been the description of what happens in the Giant Arapaima (Arapaima gigas)—an endangered species of the Amazon basin and one that can reach a length of three metres. Locals had observed the gathering of young around the head of the male and the release from the head of a milky fluid into the water. Some work has been done on the phenomenon because these fish are bred and reared for human consumption.

Arapaima gigas captivity
Giant Arapaima (Credit: Citron / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The fluid comes from the cephalic canals of the lateral line system. The eggs, larvae and young are in close contact with this secretion, even when the male is leading the offspring to water rich in plankton for feeding. Parental care last for three months. There are numerous possibilities for the function of “arapaima milk”. A paper published late last year* describes an attempt to set the ball rolling in this respect by taking a proteomic approach to the composition of the fluid.

The fluids from the cephalic canals breeding and non-breeding males and females were analysed since any additional substances present in the former could indicate a particular adaptation that benefits the young. To cut a long story short, the total protein content of the fluid was low, suggesting that the fluid is not important in nutrition, even if the young were to eat it. There were a number of antimicrobial agents in the vast array of peptides present. Two hormones, prolactin and stanniocalcin were detected in females.

The great problem, as with substances in mammalian milk, is to identify which, if any, substances of the hundreds present have a physiological rôle in the offspring. Fluid from the cephalic canals is bound to reflect cellular and protective systems within that system. They may be in the fluid for no other reason than they are disposable elements and have no function at all in the offspring. But protection for the cephalic canals against infection, which are open to the surrounding water, could simply being extended to provide some degree of protection to the offspring, from contact with the skin and gills and/or by ingestion.

The question of biological signals from parent to offspring through hormones or other biologically active substances has also been raised in discussions of skin or, in this case, cephalic secretions, of fish. For example, it might be tempting to speculate on whether the prolactin detected in female arapaima milk has any effect on the offspring. However, it is a hormone that one would expect to be present given its function in mediating aspects of maternal care in vertebrates and its presence in fluid could simply reflect an action on the tissues of the cephalic canals rather than any significance to the offspring.

Mammalian milk contains a large number of hormones, growth factors and the like which could have an effect on the young. So many people were—and still are—assuming that presence in milk indicates a function in the young mammal ingesting the milk that Peggy Neville and I warned against making such assumptions and published a list of criteria that would need to be met in order to demonstrate that such an effect was taking place:

  1. An effect in the offspring must be obtained in response to exposure to the substance in milk.
  2. The effect in the offspring must be abolished by removal of the substance from milk and restored when that specific component is restored.
  3. Th substance must be shown to be present and active in milk.
  4. The substance must be shown to retain its biological activity in the offspring to the point at which it is postulated to act or to be activated by partial digestion within the digestive tract.

Shortly after we wrote that commentary in 1991 only two series of studies satisfied those criteria.

The criteria for demonstrating an effect of a substance in milk on the offspring are tough to fulfil. But they have to be in order to prevent the proliferation of just-so stories masquerading as science. It would be a simple matter to modify those criteria to parental care in fish and any potential chemical communication between parent and offspring through skin or cephalic secretions.

The only clue I have seen so far for the importance of arapaima milk is: ‘Previous work suggested fingerlings raised under parental care condition would have higher survival rates and enhanced growth performance compared to in-door reared ones’*.

I also wondered—and have not seen discussed (although I have not looked that hard)—whether arapaima milk had some chemoattractant function, keeping the offspring concentrated around the head of the male when he finds plankton-rich but possibly murky water in which they can feed. But like every other suggestion that is a just-so story that ‘ain’t necessarily so’.

*Torati LS, Migaud H, Doherty MK, Siwy J, Mullen W, Mesquita PEC, Albalat A. 2017. Comparative proteome and peptidome analysis of the cephalic fluid secreted by Arapaima gigas (Teleostei: Osteoglossidae) during and outside parental care. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0186692. 10.1371/journal.pone.0186692

Peaker M, Neville MC. 1991. Hormones in milk: chemical signals to the offspring? Journal of Endocrinology 131, 1-3.

Saturday 17 March 2018

Yellow-crested Cockatoo: critically endangered but still being traded illegally

In February 2017 I wrote a series of posts on the critically endangered Yellow-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea) of Indonesia and East Timor. News this week from TRAFFIC shows that this cockatoo is still being caught and traded for the pet trade in south-east Asia. An illegal shipment of animals, including a hundred cockatoos of three species, was seized in the Philippines last week.

Wednesday 14 March 2018

On a Hong Kong beach: Precious Wentletrap

Our Hong Kong correspondent found this shell on a Lantau beach. It is a Precious Wentletrap (Epitonium scalare) and the first he has found.

This find a few hundred years ago would have made him rich, especially if the shell had been bigger. Collectors paid a fortune for them including Francis I (1708-1765), Holy Roman Emperor, as well as Empresses and Queens of European houses from a period of history of which my knowledge is zero. The shell was so coveted that it is not at all surprising to find that Chinese workers made fakes using rice flour.

The shell is unusual in that the whorls of the spiral are not fused, as in, say, a whelk. The rigid external latticework of varices which give the mollusc its distinctive appearance hold the whorls together. The descriptive name of wentletrap is derived from the Dutch for spiral staircase.

These animals are said to prey on anemones and corals.

Tuesday 13 March 2018

I am not counting—but just how many cats have I seen in the wild?

I do not make consolidated lists of mammals, birds, reptiles or amphibians we  have seen in different parts of the world. Listing, especially world listing, can become addictive and, ultimately, pointless. Our aim is at seeing and experiencing where animals live and their various modes of life. However, a few weeks ago I was reading the recent revised taxonomy of the cats and I thought, how many cats have we actually seen in the wild, with the two recently added in China?

Well, here is the list. It began in Kenya in 1991:

Scientific NameCommon Nme
Felis chausJungle Cat
Felis bieti
Chinese Mountain Cat
Felis silvestrisEuropean Wildcat
Felis lybicaAfrican Wildcat
Otocolobus manulPallas's Cat
Prionailurus bengalensisLeopard Cat
Prionailurus javanensisSunda Leopard Cat
Acinonyx jubatusCheetah
Herpailurus yagouaroundiJaguarundi
Leopardus pardalisOcelot
Panthera tigrisTiger
Panthera oncaJaguar
Panthera leoLion
Panthera pardusLeopard

Leopard. Kenya 1991

Cheetahs. Botswana 2001

Lion. Zambia 2007

Asiatic Lion. India 2015
Jaguar. Brazil 2017

Sunday 11 March 2018

Takins and Tufted Deer at Tangjiahe, Sichuan

We saw the last of China’s strange to-us ruminants at Tangjiahe National Nature Reserve during our trip with Naturetrek and with Sid Francis as our guide last November. Takin (Budorcas taxicolor) were all along the valley and a small group appeared at dusk around the hotel, eventually moving off as the car got close and passengers began to get out. Their movement, with, like the serow, short hind legs, can best be described as a lollop. Some we saw feeding on the flat ground; other on the wooded hillsides up which, again like the Chinese Serow, they can move at considerable speed. The closest we got to one during the day (there were lots around at night too) was one feeding on fallen ripe, persimmons* which look like discarded orange peel and that one is the star of the video.

Takin smell of an oily sebum that is secreted all over the body†. Once considered related to the muskox on grounds of their similar appearance, molecular evidence has placed them with the goats and sheep. We heard their strange alarm call (we were not there at the right time to hear the call made by males in the mating season); a very loud, short cough best describes it.

During early winter, the large herds that occupy the alpine meadows at the edge of the tree line break up and individuals or small group move into the valleys—which is where we found them.

It is apparently wise not to creep up and catch a Takin unawares. They will charge and have been known to kill human hunters and perhaps even the odd tourist.

Also in the valley were Tufted Deer (Elaphodus cephalophus). As well as the tuft on the head present in both sexes, males have long canine teeth that protrude from the mouth. We had a particularly good view of a female or possibly a young male—also a star of the video—which was close to the road in the middle of the morning and seemed unconcerned by the presence of human contact or camera shutters. It clearly had not read the book stating that they are secretive and crepuscular.

You can see that this Tufted Deer also had skin lesions along its back. Had she escaped from a large predator or was it a parasitic infestation?

Finally, the tuft of the anatomically eponymous deer? I can find no attempted explanation for the presence for the ‘bushy, dark tuft of hair on the forehead’. So I end with the question, Why?

*a few days later persimmons with fish roe were highly appreciated in a Hong Kong restaurant.

†There is a misleading statement in a field guide on the overall absence of skin glands.

Frey R, Hofmann RR. Larynx and vocalization of the Takin (Budorcas taxicolor Hodgson, 1850-Mammalia, Bovidae). Journal of Comparative Zoology 239, 197-214.

Saturday 10 March 2018

Captive breeding of water frogs

There have been enormous advances since I started to keep amphibians sixty years ago. Recently, I was pleased to see further evidence of progress in a paper describing scientifically-based methods for the captive breeding of water frogs.

Even developing the methodology for common species to breed under controlled conditions gives a pretty good idea of where to start with the rescue of an endangered related species should that be necessary. In addition, of course, it tells you a lot about the physiological requirements and the conditions that trigger reproduction or, if conditions are not right, that inhibit it. 

This paper in the BHS’s Herpetological Bulletin by Christopher Michaels (now at the Zoological Society of London) and Kristofer Försäter working in England and Sweden describes the breeding of four species of water frog, Pelophylax. This is how they began the Discussion section of the paper:

Pelophylax sp. rely on well warmed, sunny areas of relatively still water with rafts of  floating vegetation and rarely stray far from water. They are heliophiles and actively bask, exposing themselves to the heat and UVB irradiation of direct sunlight (Michaels & Preziosi, 2013). Historically, indoors enclosures for amphibians were typically lacking in UVB provision and thermal gradients. With increasing understanding of amphibian lighting requirements and the availability of technology to meet them, indoors husbandry for water frogs is now much more easily achievable. Our captive enclosures were designed to recreate the UVB rich, brightly lit and warm environments inhabited by water frogs in nature and these conditions proved successful in maintaining and breeding this genus indoors.

Michaels CJ, Försäter K. 2017. Captive breeding of Pelophylax water frogs under controlled conditions indoors. Herpetological Bulletin  142, 29-34.

Friday 9 March 2018

Balang Mountain and its ‘Cloud Ocean’ in Sichuan, China

Wildlife trips often have spectacular scenery to view and not all birdwatching is done at sewage farms around the world. Sichuan, in November, was no exception. We set off from from Wolong* at altitude 6,360 feet (1940 metres) in the dark. we headed west and then started to climb. The mist tuned into fog, and the car went round the first of many hairpin bends. Eventually we emerged above the cloud as the sun was appearing over the mountains. The cloud of the temperature inversion is often present and is a local tourist attraction called ‘Balang Cloud Ocean’. Onwards and upwards we reached the top of the pass, Balang Shan, at 14,700 feet (4480 metres). There we could see the sharp-peaked mountains to the north. After driving that way and down into a valley we had lunch at Rilong and eventually headed back.

On the way there we had seen Blue Sheep (Pseudois nayaur) high on an alpine meadow. They were still there when we stopped to look on the way back.

This is the video I took:

Attractive and unusual as the ‘Cloud Ocean’ is, birdwatchers of all persuasions, hate it since it scuppers completely any chance of seeing the pheasants for which the area is renowned. We did stop on the way up at a site where the Chinese Monal (Lophophorus lhuysii), a spectacular pheasant is often seen but the cloud was so thick we could see nothing.

We were in Sichuan in November—the best time to see Red Pandas—but in Spring with more birds about, the alpine meadows green and the plants in flower, the scenery must be even more attractive and not quite so cold. The effect of nearly a halving in the oxygen concentration compared with sea-level on the rate of breathing while walking uphill or even holding binoculars would, however, still be the same.

Here are some still photographs:

It is obvious why the phenomenon is called a 'Cloud Ocean'

Güldenstädt's Redstart (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus)

*Wolong was the site of the first captive breeding centre for Giant Pandas. It was closed to the public after the 2008 earthquake which devastated the town. There are still Giant Pandas there—we saw one from the road in a tree. The research is now on releasing captive-bred pandas in the wild.

Tuesday 6 March 2018

Native and Introduced Frogs in Britain: Evidence from the historical record

A great deal of effort was expended abour fifteen years ago in determining that the Pool Frog, Peloyphylax or Rana lessonae, is a native British species as well as one introduced from time to time. A recent paper now shows that a species of water frog, distinct from the Common Frog, Rana temporaria, was recognised by writers between, at least, the 15th and 18th Centuries.

The trawl through the historical record also showed the presence of populations of tree frogs, Hyla arborea, between the 16th and 18th Centuries. Introduction for medicinal purposes—nothing like the heart of a tree frog in a little wine and wormwood juice for treating one’s anal fistulas—seems the most likely explanation with over-collection (as with the medicinal leach) possibly accounting for its decline.

Difficult as the old accounts are to interpret in terms of separating facts from supposition, myths and legends, the author, Lee Raye (website here) has pulled together a fascinating account that links medieval natural history with medical practice and trade.

Full marks also to the Herpetological Journal (which in times not quite so ancient as those described in the paper, I edited under its former name of the British Journal of Herpetology) for publishing Raye’s paper.

Raye L. 2017. Frogs in pre-industrial Britain. Herpetological Journal 27, 368-378.

Beebee TJC, Buckley J, Evans I, Foster JP, Gent AH, Gleed-Owen CP, Kelly G, Rowe G, Snell C, Wycherley JT, Zeisset I. 2005. Neglected native or undesirable alien? Resolution of a conservation dilemma concerning the pool frog Rana lessonae. Biodiversity and Conservation 14 1607-1626.

Monday 5 March 2018

The Complex-Toothed Flying Squirrel: Spotted in Sichuan, China

Surely having the most unhelpful common name for the casual observer of any mammal, the Complex-toothed Flying Squirrel suffers two other great disadvantages—it is, well its faeces are, used in Chinese medicine and it is also hunted for human consumption. Although no figures on population are available because studies have not been made, loss of habitat and pressure from hunting have led it to be classified as ‘Near Threatened’ by IUCN.

Over three evenings out with the spotlights at Labahe in Sichuan, we had 32 sightings of the huge Red and White Giant Flying Squirrels (Petaurista alborufus) on the rock faces and high trees along the valley walls. The next most common squirrel was the Complex-toothed (Trogopterus xanthipes). We also saw a Grey-headed Flying Squirrel (Petaurista caniceps). We were at an altitude of about 1,800 metres.

Two Complex-toothed Flying Squirrels were highly co-operative. The first was in the road while the second was on a rock face next to the road. This is the video:

But why complex-toothed? The name refers to the ‘complicated and wrinkled dental ridge’ of the crowns of the upper and lower cheek teeth. Now as all of you who have read Roy Lewis’s Evolution Man know, ‘…there is nothing that an evolving animal worries about more than how his teeth are getting along’. So why does this squirrel have ‘complex’ teeth when others do not. It is not stretching too much into the realms of a just-so story to suggest there must be something special about its diet. Indeed, that does seem to be the case since the diet is stated to be primarily oak leaves—hardly the most digestible material to live on. An efficient chew to grind the leaves must get the digestive process off to a good start. By contrast, the diet of the larger—huge in fact—Red and White Flying Squirrel is said to be ‘acorns, other nuts, fruit and leafy vegetation, as well as insects, larvae and, perhaps, bird’s [sic] eggs’.

Whether this diet and what must, even with fermentation in the hind-gut, involve a large intake—and output—of material, is connected with the use of the faeces in Chinese medicine and the keeping of these squirrels in captivity for that purpose might also be worthy of speculation. I read there are reports of studies to look at biologically-active substances in faecal extracts but of course there is huge gap between demonstrating an effect on isolated cells and there being any effect in vivo. But I am still left wondering: who on earth would have thought of turning to the faeces of a particular squirrel to cure anything?

But no, since you ask, we did not see one of the flying squirrels in flight. That would be just greedy.

A still grabbed from video of the Red and White Giant Flying Squirrel (Petaurista alborufus).
These flying squirrels are over a metre in length. This one is on a rock face above the river.

Smith AT, Xie Y. (Editors). 2008. A Guide to the Mammals of China. Princeton University Press.

Wilson DE, Lacher TE, Mittermeier RA. 2016. Handbook of Mammals of the World. Volume 6. Lagomorphs and Rodents I. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions.

Sunday 4 March 2018

George Gammon: Artist at London Zoo with his own cricket team

There was a strange comment in the Bartlett Society’s Newsletter (152, February 2018). In discussing the twin brothers who went on insect and small reptile collecting trips and then presented their finds to London Zoo, John and George Newmark, the artist George Gammon, who illustrated their book, To the Zoo in a Plastic Box, is mentioned. The author of the piece in the Newsletter could find no record of Gammon. However, a simple Google search for the name soon reveals what George Gammon’s rôle was at the Zoo and some old magazines also provide information.

George Gammon was I supposed what one might call a commercial artist who was employed by the zoo to paint scenes on the back of cages, identification pictures for cage labels and the like. He also, as the photograph below shows, was roped into painting an Indian-style pattern on the head of an elephant for a parade.

Embed from Getty Images

The April 1956 issue of Water Life magazine shows a photograph of Gammon painting the back of a lizard cage and states that he had worked at the zoo for 32 years, i.e. he started in 1922. Similar photographs appeared in the newspapers at the same time from what was clearly a Zoo publicity exercise.

Water Life, April 1956

Then on 10 January 1959, the Children’s Newspaper has a photograph of him with Chi-Chi, the Giant Panda. Gammon, it stated was making a ‘tapestry portrait’ of ’35,000 stitches’.

There is also mention, again from a Zoo press release, in an American newspaper of his having painted a panorama of the Nile on the wall of the crocodile enclosure—with the crocodiles for company.

And then I discovered he had his own cricket team, the Gammon XI:

I have not been able to find anything of George Gammon beyond this but the archives in the ZSL Library should have the information.

Saturday 3 March 2018

J.D. Romer, Hong Kong herpetologist, in 1940s London and then Hong Kong

Recently I found a few popular articles by John Romer (1920-82). Two were written in the months before he left U.K. for Hong Kong in August 1947.

The first was an article on monitors for the Aquarist magazine of June 1947 while the second was a letter on the longevity of the Natterjack Toad, also in the Aquarist, written in reply to an article by Eric Hardy. Romer reported that he had kept an adult for ten years and that it ‘died an unnatural’ death.

Then, from Hong Kong, he wrote an article on geckos for the Aquarist. That included his observations on what happens to the common house gecko of Hong Kong in winter together with notes on the importation of the Tokay into Hong Kong during the winter for human consumption.

Although, I lack a few copies of the Aquarist of the late 1940s and early 1950s, the final article, as far as I have information, appeared in 1951. This was an account of his visit to the snake temple in Penang in September 1950 while the ship taking him on long leave to U.K. was briefly in the port. 

You can read these articles on the Downloads page of my other blog site here.

I met John Romer a few times. The first time, early 1966 I think, we went to see him in his office in the Central Government Office, West Wing, through the entrance on Queen’s Road Central. The office, with its dark furniture, was immaculate with not a loose sheet of paper to be seen. On one side desk was a lighted tall cabinet. It was vivarium and in it was a superb White-lipped Pit Viper.

We had been warned by colleagues in the zoology department that John could seem diffident and unsure of himself with people from the university. I suspect that in his past he may have suffered from the condescending attitude then all too common of those who had university degrees to those who did not. I also saw him at the Hong Kong Natural History Society when I gave a talk in 1967. I think the last time I saw him was in the corridor of the old Zoology Department of HKU as he was heading out of the building.

John Romer died shortly after his retirement, before he could write a comprehensive book. His papers are in ZSL's Library. But what happened to all the preserved specimens he collected over the years, some of which are referred to in his published work?

Romer JD. 1947. Notes on the monitors. Aquarist 12 (3, June 1947), 70-71.
Romer JD. 1947. Longevity of Natterjack toads. Aquarist 12 (5, August 1947), 137.
Romer JD. 1948. Notes on the geckos. Aquarist 13 (3, June 1948), 86-87.

Romer JD. 1951. A temple of snakes. Aquarist 16 (7, October 1951), 150.

Friday 2 March 2018

Forktails, Dippers, other birds and Tibetan Macaques in the mountain valleys of Sichuan

Forktails comprise seven species of bird. They live along fast-moving rivers and streams in the mountain forests of Asia.

We had previously seen the Little Forktail (Enicurus scouleri) in Bhutan. The next time we saw this species was in the mountains Sichuan, China along the rivers at Labahe (altitude 1,900 m) and Tangjiahe (1500 m). I was close enough to take some video of the species feeding on the rocks in the river, searching the algal growths for small invertebrates. Although forktails are known to enter the water, this one kept moving out of the way of large splashes of water that seemingly could have swept it downstream. The Little Forktail differs from the others in that its tail—which is raised then lowered and splayed constantly—is short. Particularly noticeable were the white, smooth legs. I suppose it is not surprising that the legs are so smooth since any protrusion of scales would catch the water flowing past and, therefore, require more energy expenditure in order simply to stand on a rock.

We saw a second, larger, species, at Tangjiahe, the White-crowned Forktail (Enicurus leschenaulti) but they did not linger and were soon out of sight.

Another species along the rivers was the Brown or Pallas’s Dipper (Cinclus pallasii). I caught it diving under the water. Also in the area were White-throated Dipper (C. cinclus), a species I can see at home any day of the week.

As we walked downstream we met a troupe of Tibetan Macaques (Macaca thibetana). We saw lots of them in Sichuan especially where they can hang around to pester tourists for food. The fur is incredibly thick and the species must rank as one of the more attractive species of macaque.

I have made a video of the two walks we had along the river at Labahe which shows these as well as other species.

Thursday 1 March 2018

J.D. Romer, Hong Kong herpetologist, and the founding of the British Herpetological Society

J.D Romer handling Wagler's Pit Viper at the
Snake Temple in Penang, September 1950.
(Aquarist, October 1951)
John Romer (1920-1982) is rightly remembered as Hong Kong’s first proper herpetologist. From 1947 until the 1970s he recorded and described, with a characteristic punctiliousness, what he had seen or what had been brought to him. He described new species, had a new species of frog he discovered, Philautus romeri, named after him and produced checklists of the Hong Kong fauna. He did all this in his spare time while employed as the head of pest control for the Hong Kong Government.

His excellent biography, published with the help of his family in Contributions to the History of Herpetology in 2007, does not mention something about him that I only uncovered recently. Before moving on to that I should explain what an important job his was in Hong Kong.

His section dealt with rats, mice, cockroaches, ants, fleas, bed-bugs, midges and mosquitoes. In terms of public health, the most important ones were rats and mosquitoes. After the outbreak of plague in 1894, with 24,000 cases and a 90% mortality over 35 years, and the identification of rat fleas as the vector by the Indian Plague Commission in 1905-06, every effort was made in Hong Kong to kill urban rats and to examine the corpses bacteriologically. Rats and mice were also important causes of food wastage. Anti-malarial measures in urban areas involved altering the bed of streams to prevent stagnation and spraying standing water with oil to prevent the larvae breathing. In the 1960s when Romer’s section was handed responsibility, 80% of the population was kept free from exposure to malarial mosquitoes. Visible reminders of the pest control section (500 people were employed) were the rat bins attached to lamp posts for corpses to be gathered and a prohibition of standing water as in, say, a plant-pot holder, on private premises.

Romer had been involved in pest control in the army during the war. He served in the Ordnance Corps in Assam from 1942 until 1945 where he was responsible for measures to control rats and mosquitoes during the Burma Campaign. It would appear that he was not demobbed until 1947 since (see below) he appeared as Captain Romer. It is also likely that it was in the army when he advised the Hong Kong Government (military administration from the Japanese surrender until 1 May; civilian thereafter) on rodent control in 1946.

Besides his day job, John Romer also founded Hong Kong Natural History Society (as the Hong Kong Biological Circle) and it is in this connexion, of his involvement in founding societies, that I found further information—but this time in London in 1947.

The Aquarist magazine of January 1947 had this announcement:

Captain J.D. Re[sic]mer, 96 Mortlake Road, Kew, Surrey, is desirous to contact anyone residing in the British Isles who is interested in the study of life histories and habits of Reptilia and Amphibia.

Then in May 1947 the Aquarist announced ‘Proposed Reptile Society for Britain’:

It was clearly Romer who was drumming up support for the new society since he was the point of contact for prospective members. Then in July 1947 issue, it was announced that the new Society had been inaugurated on 11 July. But Romer’s name had gone and the inaugural secretary was Alfred Leutscher. What happened, of course, was that Romer must have been appointed to the pest control job in Hong Kong after his initial approaches to form a herpetological society. The August issue of the Aquarist stated that he would be leaving shortly for Hong Kong. Indeed he left Liverpool on 13 August on board the P&O’s Empress of Scotland with his wife Raymonde and nine-month old son.

Although John Romer had left for Hong Kong, there seems little doubt that he had a key rôle in the formation of the British Herpetological Society, which last year had its 70th anniversary. Indeed, in the late Mike Lambert's history of the Society he is shown as the first Secretary/Treasurer in 1947, with Alfred Leutscher being the second.

Contributions to the History of Herpetology, Volume 2, Edited by Kraig Adler. 2007. Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles. Romer, J.D. (1920-1982), p 212.

Lambert MRK. 1997. The British Herpetological Society. The first 50 years, 1947-1997. Herpetological Journal 7, 129-141.

UPDATED 20 July 2018