Wednesday 28 November 2018

Edward Belcher of the Royal Navy: Zoological collector, Hong Kong surveyor—and how to behave like an absolute ….

Captain Edward Belcher
(National Maritime Museum)
Invigilating practical examinations was a bore. School pupils came to the University of Hong Kong for their practical biology ‘A’ levels in the 1960s. Once the ID of each pupil had been checked (including fingerprints) to prevent personation, there was little to do but to wander round, stare again at the museum specimens in their cases, be thankful that you had an easy dissection in your own A-level practical and then look out of the window at the bustle of Hong Kong and its harbour below. The Northcote Science Building of the University of Hong Kong, which survived the Japanese Occupation and looting but not road-widening in the 1980s, looked over a mass of housing on the downward slope towards Kennedy Town. The housing blocks to the left (also now demolished) were called Belcher Gardens. That whole area once contained Belcher’s Fort and Belcher’s Battery and commanded a view over the western half of the harbour. Land reclamation schemes have obliterated the original coastline but the bay beneath the two batteries was called Belcher’s Bay, while the narrow passage between Hong Kong Island and Green Island was, and still is, Sulphur Channel named after Belcher’s ship, H.M.S. Sulphur.

By an accident of history, Belcher had become involved in the First Opium War and the occupation of Hong Kong in January 1841.

Belcher, who became Admiral Sir Edward Belcher KCB (1799-1877), was in many ways admirable but in others he was a Grade A Shit. He became an embarrassment to the Royal Navy but, as I discovered long after staring out of the window, he was a major player in the collection of zoological specimens for London Zoo and its then museum.

Edward Belcher was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His family returned to England and he joined the Navy. He studied surveying and natural history. He was, therefore, ideally placed to join the famous Admiralty surveys. As Assistant Surveyor on H.M.S. Blossom he sailed to the Bering Strait. His first command was Aetna in 1830 for a survey of the West African coast. That’s when the trouble started. On the ship’s return, his officers complained about his treatment of the crew. Charge followed countercharge but Belcher was acquitted of abuse and again took command during a twenty-month voyage. The crew laid further charges of abuse and this time the Admiralty took action. He was posted to H.M.S. Lightning to survey the Irish Sea. That was disgrace number one.

Well, not quite number one, since his wife whom he had married in 1830 announced in 1833 she would not live with him again on the grounds that he had twice infected her with venereal disease. A protracted legal struggle for formal separation followed which Belcher apparently prolonged out of spite. Despite her wish to be rid of him, his wife was content, as one biographer has noted, to call herself Lady Belcher after Belcher was knighted a decade later. 

But Belcher had a powerful backer—Francis Beaufort FRS, Hydrographer of the Navy and inventor of the eponymous wind-speed scale. Reading between the lines it seems that Beaufort was impressed by Belcher’s professional abilities. Beaufort persuaded the Admiralty to give Belcher the command of the survey ship, Sulphur. In 1836 he set sail to Panama to take over command of Sulphur after the captain was invalided home. He was to survey the west coasts of North and South America. In 1838, he had one officer arrested plus the ship’s surgeon; they had complained on behalf of the crew about the lack of provisions. A court of inquiry set up by the Admiral stationed in Lima, Peru, exonerated Belcher and had the arrested officer sent home. The surgeon apologised for his conduct and was kept on. The Times of 22 November 1838 reported, ’The evidence of the parties proved that the captain had been kind and humane in the exercise of his duty. The court honourably acquitted him, and the commander-in-chief issued his public order to the squadron, to be read on board each ship, fully exonerating him. These facts are stated in a letter from Captain Belcher himself, which we have seen.’ Accusations of hard treatment of his crew—and officers—were, to put it kindly, becoming something of a habit.

Some account of Belcher’s less endearing behaviour to members of his crew during the exploration off the coast of California are outlined by Richard Beidleman in his book, California’s Frontier Naturalists.

Belcher was actually casting a Nelsonian eye to his orders from the Admiralty: ‘large collections of natural history cannot be expected, nor any connected account of the structure or geological arrangement of the great continent which you are to coast; nor indeed would minute enquiries on these subjects be at all consistent with the true objects of the survey’. His own interests though were firmly on ‘minute enquiries’ in natural history, especially in mollusc shells, and very large collections were amassed during the voyage. As the Summary of the first volume on the zoological collections states:

The arrival of Commander Belcher, by the isthmus of Panama, to take the command, gave a new impulse to affairs, particularly as he was much attached to certain departments of Natural History. His cabin was henceforth applied as a museum, and the dredge now began to be frequently in use.

Conchology, to reiterate was Belcher’s great interest. The volume on those species collected during the voyage begins:

The voyage of H. M. S. Sulphur proved eminently prolific in shells, and a very considerable acquisition has been made to science. The very careful search which was unceasingly made on all the shores visited throughout the voyage, and the constant use of the dredge and trawl, whenever circumstances permitted, have contributed to this; but, above all, the close examination of the proceeds of the dredge, by siftings and diligent washings, brought into notice a great number of small but very interesting species, the great majority of which was previously unknown.

On Sulphur Belcher had collecting assistance: Assistant Surgeon Richard Brinsley Hinds (1811-1846) as well as a civilian botanical collector from Kew. Hinds collected the first botanical specimens from Hong Kong. There was rivalry and resentment, with the botanical collections going to different recipients. Barclay, the Kew collector, obviously sent his specimens there; Hinds sent his to George Bentham’s private herbarium. Hinds was invalided home from the China Coast in April 1941. However, he was kept on by the navy to work on the natural history collections and the publications (they are his words from the zoology volumes above) arising from Belcher’s voyage on Sulphur. For his work Hinds was highly praised by the Admiralty. Their Lordships contributed £500 towards his expenses in editing the publications and promoted him Surgeon. He was proposed by the head of the medical services for the Navy for election to Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons. But he was ill (‘phthisis’, usually meaning in today’s terminology, tuberculosis). He was placed on the unfit list and travelled to Western Australia. Hinds died there in 1847.

After the survey of the Americas, Belcher took Sulphur across the Pacific. While at Singapore he received orders to proceed to the China coast to take part in the First Opium War. During the attack up the Pearl River by naval ships and the secretly-built East India Company’s steamship, Nemesis, Belcher was in charge of the ships and he used the six guns of Nemesis, the first steamship to be used in action by Britain and of very shallow draught, to devastating effect.


Nemesis and boats of Sulphur, Calliope, Larne and Starling destroying the
Chinese war junks on 7 January 1841
(from Allom & Wright, The Chinese Empire Illustrated, 1858


As a result of these actions, Hong Kong was ceded by China. Belcher landed on Hong Kong Island on 25 January 1841. The formal possession of Hong Kong took place the next day. Belcher in Sulphur then surveyed the new possession and its surrounding waters and islands. However, fighting continued and after further actions Sulphur was only released to return to Singapore in late November.





Belcher won high praise from his Commander-in-Chief, Commodore (later Rear-Admiral) Sir James John Gordon Bremer (1786-1850), who described him as ‘that able and intelligent officer’ in a despatch published in The Times on 11 October 1841. Others on the scene were less impressed and there were disputatious exchanges in print.

For his actions, Belcher was promoted Captain and appointed Companion of the Bath. Further survey work and collection of specimens followed on the voyage back to Britain. He arrived home in July 1842 after six years away and was knighted in January 1843. He was given command, as Captain Sir Edward Belcher, of another vessel, H.M.S. Samarang, to survey the South China Sea and the East Indies. He returned after nearly four years, in December 1846.






No naval job followed until 1852 when he was given command of five ships to search for the ships and men of the Franklin expedition to the Canadian arctic who had not been seen since 1845. The fact that the remains of those famous ships, Erebus and Terror, were not discovered until 2014 and 2016 respectively is an indication that Belcher’s mission was a failure. But it was more than that; it ended in debacle.

The summer ice conditions were not kind but Belcher apparently refused to take the advice of experienced navigators in the Arctic and found himself trapped in the heaviest ice. He had split his ships; his other division was also stuck. Instead of waiting to see if they would eventually be freed, Belcher ordered all the ships to be abandoned. The crews found their way back to Beechey Island where transport ships were waiting. An automatic court-martial for losing the ships followed but Belcher, to everybody’s surprise, was acquitted since his orders had given him complete discretion over his actions. Belcher’s sword though was returned to him 'without observation’ i.e. in silence. By contrast, the other captains who had lost their ships (under Belcher’s orders) were acquitted with honour and warm words of praise.

Belcher’s active naval career was over. To add insult to injury, one of the ships, H.M.S. Resolute, commanded by Henry Kellett* (1806-1875) broke free of the ice and drifted off to sea. An American whaler spotted her and towed her to New London, Connecticut. The U.S. Congress bought the salvaged vessel and returned her to the U.K. As a mark of gratitude timber was taken from the ship when she was being broken up and made into a desk as a gift from Queen Victoria to the President of the U.S.A. The desk is still used in the Oval Office of the White House.


Belcher's illustration of the winter quarters dubbed 'Crystal Palace' during
the search for the Franklin Expeditiion

The naval historian Sir John Knox Laughton (1830-1915) wrote of Belcher’s appointment to the expedition in the Dictionary of National Biography:

The appointment was unfortunate, for though an able and experienced surveyor he had neither the temper nor tact for a commanding officer under circumstances of peculiar difficulty. Perhaps no officer of equal ability has ever succeeded in inspiring so much personal dislike, and the customary exercise of his authority did not make Arctic service less trying. Nor did any happy success make amends for much discomfort and annoyance, and his expedition is distinguished from all other Arctic expeditions as the one in which the commanding officer showed an undue haste to abandon his ships when in difficulties, and in which one of the ships so abandoned rescued herself from the ice and was picked up floating freely in the open Atlantic.

Belcher in 1861, the year of his
promotion to Rear-Admiral
Carte-de-visite by Camille Silvy
The end of Belcher’s active career did not stop his automatic upward progression from Captain to flag officer as those higher in seniority died or retired. It is difficult to conceive that such a system ever operated but operate it did and Belcher became a Rear-Admiral in 1861, Vice-Admiral in 1866 and Admiral in 1872—at the age of 73!

Belcher was a prolific writer and illustrator; a book was written about each voyage. Even on his failed Arctic expedition he collected specimens vigorously and the book contained notes by luminaries such as Richard Owen. He even wrote a novel.

Basil Stuart-Stubbs !1930-2012) summed up Belcher in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography:

During his career, Belcher was one of the most controversial figures in the Royal Navy. As an officer he had many desirable attributes: scientific curiosity, technical competence, inventiveness, physical energy, and sometimes reckless bravery. However, he suffered from an irritable, quarrelsome, and hypercritical nature which made relations with superiors and subordinates alike extremely difficult. Although he was in many ways a capable officer, his record remains blighted by his ignominious failure as commander in chief of the Franklin search expedition, an appointment which has been described as “unfortunate” since Belcher’s temperament did not enable him to function as the situation demanded.

Anybody reading the story now would conclude that Belcher was in the wrong job. The description of his attributes temperament would fit many a university professor of the 20th Century.

In the volume celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Zoological Society of London, its librarian, Mr R. Fish, and the occasional zoologist, film maker, promoter of table tennis, journalist, communist and Soviet (GRU) spy, Ivor Montagu (1904-1984) wrote of Belcher:

He might almost have had a subsidiary profession as animal collector. From everywhere that Belcher went, specimens were sure to go. Skins to the museum, live animals to the menagerie. Remember the conditions on board in that era, the tiny working space available, the problems of live transport. Yet he was one of the most prolific donors the Society was ever privileged to have. He contributed four papers to PZS [Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, now Journal of Zoology] and wrote a book about every voyage.

Belcher had a number of species named after him including the sea-snake Hydrophis belcheri, the gull Larus belcheri, the prion Pachyptila belcheri, the Chinese amphioxus Branchiostoma belcheri, the fish Psettodes belcheri, the pipefish Phoxocampus belcheri and the sea star Nepanthia belcheri.


Larus belcheri at Arica, Chile
Photographed by Alastair Rae (Flickr)


Belcher’s name lives on in Hong Kong. Belcher Gardens was demolished but a collection of  six residential tower blocks was built on the site as The Belchers. Belcher street remains in the newly trendy Kennedy Town along with the nearby Belcher Bay Park.


†The officer who fell foul of Belcher appears not to have suffered from his arrest and dismissal. He became Admiral Sir Richard Collinson (1811-1883). He too was involved as Captain of H.M.S. Plover, along with Kellett, in the survey of Hong Kong (hence Plover Cove) and in naval actions during the First Opium War. He was appointed surveying officer to the China fleet, to the intense annoyance of Belcher who had had him dismissed from Sulphur in Peru. His surveys of the China Coast (1842-1846) form the basis of subsequent Admiralty charts. Like Belcher, he was unsuccessful in a search for Franklin and his ships, a result that did not impress the Admiralty. He resented the lack of appreciation and refused further appointments, nevertheless being promoted to Admiral on the retired list in 1875, three years after, but considerably younger than, Belcher. His brother, Thomas, was a military surveyor in Hong Kong after whom Cape Collinson is named.

*Kellett was one of the captains acquitted with honour and warm words and who had protested at Belcher’s order to abandon his ship in the ice. Kellett had been in command of another survey ship, H.M.S. Starling, which accompanied Sulphur on its long voyage and in the First Opium War (hence Starling Inlet in Hong Kong). He became Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Kellett and Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s China Station in 1869 (Kellett Island, Mount Kellett in Hong Kong).

Video footage of Belcher's Sea Snake:


UPDATED: 14 December 2018

Thursday 22 November 2018

Joan Procter, Arthur Loveridge and the Pancake Tortoise. 1. Arthur Loveridge in Tanganyika

To complete what I have to say about Joan Procter, I want to turn to what was then—and still is—regarded as her most important scientific investigation.

Deemed too chronically ill to be a university student, Joan Procter came to the attention of George Albert Boulenger at the Natural History Museum because of her enquiries about reptiles. He invited her to join him as an unpaid assistant when she left school in 1916. At the Museum she soon established a reputation for her work and when Boulenger retired in 1920 she took charge of the reptiles and received ‘a small stipend’; she was then 23.

She worked and published on a wide range of species as well as producing drawings, paintings and models for display cases. Her best known scientific work was that on the Pancake Tortoise published in 1922. She was able to do this work because Arthur Loveridge was sending specimens to the Museum from Tanganyika. His account of how he got the tortoises and why they were so sensational was published in his book, Many Happy Days I’ve Squandered first published in 1944 in USA and 1949 in UK.

     From Tabora I went to Dodoma, in central Tanganyika, the chief town of arid and desiccated Ugogo. It is a region that has always had a fascination for me. You never know what you will encounter on the leopard-haunted kopjes which relieve the flat monotony of the thorn-bush plain on which the township lies. 
     It was while scrambling over a kopje one evening that I came upon a strange-looking tortoise. The reptile was lying dead at the foot of a precipitous rock, some forty feet in height, near the summit of the hill which rose at least five hundred feet above the plain. From the flattened and fragmentary remains I concluded that the tortoise had been crushed by a falling rock and was of a species unknown to me. As Salimu and I examined it together we discussed its appearance, and I urged him to be on the lookout for more since he was free all day whereas I had only two hours each evening in which to go hunting. When a few days later he returned triumphant with a living example, I was much elated, for I recognized it as similar to the dead one and rightly assumed that it was a Tornier’s tortoise (Testudo tornieri), then considered the rarest of East African species and about the only one which I had not found. During succeeding evenings we located two further batches of the reptiles in crevices or beneath rocks but despite redoubled efforts found no more during the three weeks in which I was stationed at Dodoma. 
     The reason for the flattened appearance of these tortoises was now apparent; they could squeeze beneath rocks or into fissures which afforded them greater protection from hyenas and other carnivores than a strong shell could. Not only is their shell reduced to the thinness of stout paper but it is full of holes or fenestrations. Of these the largest is a great diamond-shaped opening that occupies most of the central portion of the lower shell or plastron. In such areas the creature is protected only by its handsomely patterned black and yellow, “tortoise-shell” shields. So soft and thin are the fenestrated bony plates forming the shell that it is a simple matter to squeeze the tortoise between finger and thumb. 
     The tortoise takes full advantage of this flexibility, as I soon found on trying to remove one from beneath a boulder. It inflated its lungs sufficiently to obtain additional purchase against the roof and floor of its retreat and, bracing its strongly clawed feet—some of the claws were over half an inch long—used them as struts so as to render its extraction extremely difficult. This can be accomplished eventually by gently and persistently working the reptile to and fro when you happen to be able to get a grip. I spent an hour, Salimu helping me, in dislodging three of the tortoises from a fissure into which they had clambered. Their flattened shells have a further asset; they enable them to right themselves quickly when they fall upon their backs, as must happen fairly frequently to tortoises living on rocky kopjes. Several times I have come across an unfortunate leopard tortoise (Testudo pardalis babcocki) which had slipped as it climbed some rock and fallen back so that the deep and convex shell lodged between two boulders. The poor tortoise, being unable to turn over, had perished miserably. 
     The agility of these light and long-clawed pancake tortoises was revealed when I put them in an enclosure surrounded by wire netting; about six inches of the wire was buried in the ground, leaving a fence two and a half feet high. While this was adequate to restrain Bell’s box tortoises (Kinixys belliana belliana), my pancake friends scoffed at it; they clambered up the netting to the top, where they balanced precariously for a fateful moment before toppling over to one side or the other. Nothing daunted if it was the wrong side, they would try again with such persistence that several succeeded in escaping. It was the same when they were put in a deep box; again and again, despite frequent falls, they climbed up in the corners in an almost incredible fashion. To my surprise I found that these tortoises from Dodoma could swim, though opportunities to practise the art must be rare in so arid a region as Ugogo. Had they been water tortoises like the familiar leathery flapjacks (Amyda spp) of the southern lakes and rivers or the fossilized Archelon of the Upper Cretaceous of North America, one would have explained their shell reduction as an adaptation to an aquatic life where a measure of lightness might facilitate swimming. 
     Duly labelling each of my half dozen tortoises Testudo tornieri, I shipped them off to the British Museum, where they arrived some months before I did. When at last I walked into Dr. G. A. Boulenger’s office, almost his first question was an inquiry as to what treatment or preservative I had employed to soften my tortoises and render them flat for packing! When I explained that they were naturally soft and that I had brought a pair back alive as a present for the London Zoological Gardens, he was amazed, declaring that they were the most interesting reptiles that had reached him during a lifetime devoted to herpetology. “What is this name Testudo tornieri?” he asked as he turned one of the reptiles over and over and glanced at its label. I gave him the reference and then and there he compared my series with the figures and description of Tornier’s tortoise. Finding them different in several minor respects, he asked if he might describe them as a new species (Testudo loveridgii) before the Academy of Science in Paris, of which he was president that year. 
     The announcement received considerable attention and the late Lord Rothschild urged me to get him a pair upon my return to East Africa. There seemed little likelihood at that time of my ever being within many hundred miles of Dodoma, but a year later the opportunity occurred for me to send Salimu. I told him not to spend more than a month and, whether successful or not, promised him his wages in addition to a bonus equivalent to one shilling for each tortoise he could find. Of course I was to pay his fare to and fro. He bargained for his wife’s fare also, and I conceded that. From our previous experiences both of us thought that these tortoises were extremely rare, so I was not surprised to learn that when he presented my letter of introduction to the provincial commissioner at Dodoma, the latter guffawed on reading it and said to Salimu: “So you’ve come to look for tortoises. Well, you’ll not find any here, for I haven’t heard of or seen one in all the years I’ve been here.” 
     Ten days or so later Salimu was back at Kilosa with a broad smile and sixty tortoises. Naturally he was pleased at making nearly two months’ extra pay in so short a time. “However did you manage to find so many?” I inquired. It had taken him the best part of three days to find the first, he said; then he showed it to the local tribesmen, offering them a few cents for any they brought him. Obviously the assumed rarity of the species was due largely to its secretive ways, for who would think of looking for tortoises beneath rocks? Yet it is there that they spend most of their time, emerging to feed only in the early morning. 
     It was in January that Salimu made this journey and found eleven under a single flattish boulder, where it is not unreasonable to assume that they were ├Žstivating, for January and February are the hottest months in central Tanganyika. Yet it was in late January and February that mating took place among my captives, and the single egg was laid in July or August; one of these eggs was buried beneath a rockery in the enclosure. The fact that only a single egg is laid, an observation corroborated at the Philadelphia Zoo by Messrs. Conant and Downs, is eloquent testimony to the success of the adaptations which have rendered life so secure for the pancake tortoise that it has no need to lay a large number as do so many members of the order Chelonia. The eggshell is very thin and brittle and unusually elongate, for though it is only an inch or so in width it is from if to i| inches in length. 
     The hardiness of the pancake tortoise is attested to by the fact that, though it was midwinter when I took the first pair to Europe and they had to live in unheated trains and houses for over a week, one of them survived in the London Zoo for eight and a half years. During much of the journey they subsisted on bread and jam, for I had nothing else to offer them. Salimu’s numerous captives throve on lettuce or tender cabbage leaves, and one that I surprised on a kopje at Tabora was busily engaged in nibbling grass. 
     The sequel to the capture of the big series, intensively studied first by the late Dr. Joan Procter and in part by Dr. Otto Wettstein, was the latter’s discovery that Tornier’s original specimen was abnormal but might be matched by individuals in my series. Thus all represent one highly variable species now known as Malacochersus tornieri, for its many peculiarities justified the creation of a new genus for its reception.

Arthur Loveridge (1891-1980) at the outbreak of the First World War had just been appointed at the age of 23 as Curator of a new museum in Nairobi, Kenya. He was born in Penarth, near Cardiff, in Wales. His father was an ‘Ironmonger and Ship Furnisher’ who had been born in England; he mother was born in Ireland. Keen on natural history he had always wanted to be a museum curator. He had done a year as a student at University College Cardiff before getting a job at the University Museum in Manchester. He moved to the National Museum of Wales when he seized on the opportunity of the job in East Africa.

Carl Gans (1923-2009), who new Loveridge and who appears again as an important player in Part 2 of this story, wrote a splendid obituary on Loveridge. In it, he wrote:

The spectacular difference between Loveridge and other enthusiastic boy-naturalists was his total commitment to the pursuit of natural history as a career. In 1914, at the age of 24, he applied for the curatorship of the Nairobi Museum, advising in the application that he had over 300 cases of natural history and anthropological specimens and over 250 jars of “spirit-preserved” reptiles. He noted proudly that he was prepared to handle techniques of mounting and preserving all of his captures, described his complex system of registration and collecting numbers, and referred to an 80-page catalog, with short descriptions of all specimens, all typed by himself. Even his handwriting was small and meticulously formed with little change between top and bottom of pages or successive sheets. Field notes and labels (as well as his many letters) alike were beautifully readable.

The reason he was in that part of German East Africa first called Tanganyika after it was ceded to British control and now part of Tanzania is that he joined the East African Mounted Rifles and fought the German troops there. He collected specimens throughout this period, sometimes even while under fire. Specimens were stored in jars and bottles ‘liberated’ (in the British Army’s sense of the word) from the enemy. The war ended and after a time back in Nairobi he became Assistant Game Warden of Tanganyika in 1921. However, his location soon shifted.

As well as the British Museum and London Zoo, Loveridge sent specimens to the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, as well as amassing his own private collection. In 1924, Thomas Barbour, of that museum and with a very large private income, bought Loveridge’s collection for Harvard with one stipulation—Loveridge should come too. That he did and for 33 years he was at first assistant to Barbour and then Curator. He is said to have written his popular books because the pay was meagre for a curator who was not also a Harvard professor.

Stories of Loveridge’s curatorial habits abound, of a drawer labelled ‘string too short to use’, of books and specimens having to be returned to their particular place each night and chairs left properly arranged. Alfred Sherwood Romer (1894-1973) at the Museum from 1934 and Director from 1946 labelled Loveridge the “Demon Curator”.

Loveridge made five expeditions to East Africa, each lasting for a year, between 1926 and 1949. When he retired in 1957 he and his wife moved to a spot about as remote as anywhere in the world, St Helena in the South Atlantic. He made other expeditions, had trips to London and carried on working, and corresponding—slowly via the St Helena mail ships. He died there in 1980, aged 88.

I found this press photograph of Arthur Loveridge with his wife,
Mary, taken on his retirement from Harvard


Part 2 to follow considers what Joan Procter did with Loveridge’s specimens and the question of ‘inflation’.

Anon. Loveridge, Arthur (1891-1980). 2014. In, Contributions to the History of Herpetology, Volume 1, revised and expanded. Edited by Kraig Adler, pp 111-112. (Contributions to Herpetology 30, Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles).

Gans C. 1981. In Memoriam: Arthur Loveridge. Herpetologica 37, 117-121.

Loveridge A. 1949. Many Happy Days I’ve Squandered. London: Scientific Book Club.

Williams EE. 1982. Arthur Loveridge—A life in retrospect. Breviora No 471, 1-12.



Friday 16 November 2018

London Zoo’s Aquarium: The End

The news came in an email to Fellows: announcement of the inevitable end—after 96 years—of London Zoo’s Aquarium. Opened in 1924, it was then state of the art but for decades now it has been realised that the aquarium had reached the end of its useful life. It has been ‘refreshed’ a number of times, sometimes cosmetically—the entrance for example—sometimes structurally. The original large tanks were made of slate which sometimes split to spectacular and dangerous effect. Their concrete replacements were slowly affected by movement of the ground. The huge storage and filtration system for sea water (bought by ship and road tanker) has aged and better systems are now used. Forty years ago or more, Gwynne Vevers, Curator of the Aquarium (among the many jobs he did at the Zoo) told me the Aquarium needed to be replaced.

Edward George Boulenger (1888-1946) then Curator of Reptiles, prepared the outline plan after visits to large aquaria in continental Europe and became Director of the Aquarium when it was finished. John James Joass was the architect, as he was for the Mappin Terraces. The engineering of the water circulation, filtration and electrical systems was the key to success and was undertaken by Alexander Gibb and Partners. There was no plastic then and the piping for the sea water system was lined with glass since copper is lethal to marine invertebrates.

The Society failed to raise enough money to build a new Aquarium outside the Zoo but in London, while the commercial large aquarium opened in the old County Hall and in an ideal spot to attract tourists. I see the plan is now to have some sort of coral reef exhibit in the relatively new insect house and a freshwater exhibit at Whipsnade.

Even when the Aquarium was new there were others, around the coast of Britain attracting visitors However, the number of large public aquaria worldwide, most in the private sector, has led traditional zoos unable to compete. Huge heavily stocked tanks and underwater tunnels have been, and are, the order of the day for exhibition purposes, even if unsuitable for many of the inhabitants.

For those readers who have never been to London Zoo, the Aquarium was incorporated into the bottom of the Mappin Terraces, a naturalistic Hagenbeck-inspired, artificial rock edifice that rises 21 metres above Regent’s Park. When the Mappins were built in 1913-14, space was left for an aquarium underneath. Unable to proceed with the work because of the First World War, construction of the aquarium had to be delayed until the 1920s.

The whole arrangement of storage tanks high under the peaks of the Mappins, filtration system and access to the tanks for servicing was all very cleverly arranged. The only signs of the overlying structure are the wide columns in the public area. There are three halls within the structure; one freshwater; one sea water and one tropical. extending curvilinearly for 136 metres. A corner tank in the tropical hall once housed a manatee.

The famous diagram of the Aquarium showing how it fits beneath the Mappin Terraces

In the 1950s the Aquarium was often quiet with few visitors. This is because there was a charge to enter; the zoo ticket did not include access to the Aquarium. The public space was very dark and even the light from the tanks did not reach all corners. When considering the future of the Aquarium in the early 1990s I was told there were those who visited the Aquarium for activities other than making the acquaintance of its non-human inhabitants.

The type of animal accommodation provided on the lower and middle ranges of the Mappin Terraces (for bears, for example) have long been out of favour. The structure, like so many of the obsolete buildings are Grade II listed and efforts have been made to give it some use in housing animals. It is not generally realised that the concrete structure is a skin formed on wire-netting held in place and stretched between reinforced concrete framework. Erosion of the skin, particularly on the peaks, has needed costly repairs. Now, with the Aquarium gone, the Zoo has a considerable problem on its hands, one that has recurred since the 1980s—what to do with Mappins, underneath as well as on top.

I took this photograph of the Mappin Terraces in 1958


Guillery P. 1993. The Buildings of London Zoo. London: Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England.

Vevers HG. 1976. Management of a public aquarium. Symposia of the Zoological Society of London 40, 105-108.

Monday 12 November 2018

Hong Kong Rodents: Huang’s Rat or Niviventer is back on the list

In my post of 2 May 2013, I considered what had happened to the name of a beautiful species of rat that occurs in Hong Kong. For decades it was known as Huang’s Rat, Rattus huang but it came to be lumped into what was Rattus fulvescens and is now Niviventer fulvescens.

The genus Niviventer was erected by Joe Truesdell Marshall (1918-205) for a group of Asian rodents previously included in Rattus. They can be distinguished by their white belly (niveus—snowy white in Latin).

Generous to a fault, I bought my wife a copy of a volume in that remarkable series The Handbook of Mammals of the World. It is the volume, Rodents II, which covers, as superbly as ever, with information up-to-date at the time of going to press, rats and mice. Having been granted access I found that Niviventer huang has been resurrected as a result of phylogenetic research in China and has been given the common name of South China White-bellied Rat.

As has been said many times, the rats and mice of China are confusing to say the least. Researchers find that specimens have been wrongly identified in museums throughout the world and one only has to look at maps of where specimens have been collected from to realise that whole regions have been missed.

Modern phylogenetics are way above my pay grade and I am not entirely sympathetic to drawing conclusions on whether a species thus defined constitutes a ‘good’ biological species reproductively isolated (or with very limited gene flow) from its near relative. I have looked up the references given in the Handbook. The main work seems to have been done with two genes, one mitochondrial and one nuclear on, in some cases, very small samples. Whether that number of genes and that number of individual samples, together with the statistical methods used, would satisfy all phylogeneticists I do not know. The authors, most of whom are based in Beijing, do make the point that more work is needed on N. huang since, on their reckoning, it may comprise more than one species.

More recently than the press date of the book, another group, based in Kunming, also examined niviventers using one mitochondrial and three nuclear genes. They found less strong evidence for the existence of N. huang as a species separate from N. fulvescens

Are there any morphological differences between the two species? The Beijing group found that N. huang could be differentiated from N. fulvescens by head and body length.


I have combined the maps in the Handbook to show the
current views on the distribution of the two species


Clearly, much more work with an extensive sampling of niviventers right across the distribution of these two and other species in China is needed but for the time being at least Huang’s Rat or Niviventer is back on the list of Hong Kong mammals, while N. fulvescens is out.

The only recent photograph I have been able to find of Niviventer huang
is this one from a website in Russian which Google Translate says in the
Russian-Vietnamese Research and Technology Centre


Wilson DE, Lacher TE, Mittermeier RA (editors). 2017. Handbook of Mammals of the World. Volume 7. Rodents II. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions.

Lu L, Ge D, Chesters D, Ho SYW, Ma Y, Li G, Wen Z, Wu Y, Wang J, Xia L, Liu J, Guo T, Zhang X, Zhu C, Yang Q, Liu Q. 2015. Molecular phylogeny and the underestimated species diversity of the endemic white-bellied rat (Rodentia: Muridae: Niviventer) in Southeast Asia and China. Zoologica Scripta 44 475-494. doi:10.1111/zsc.12117 

Zhang B, He K, Wan T, Chen P, Sun G, Liu S, Nguyen TS, Lin L, Jiang X. 2016. Multi-locus phylogeny using topotype specimens sheds light on the systematics of Niviventer (Rodentia, Muridae) in China. BMC Evolutionary Biology16, 261-272. doi 10.1186/s12862-016-0832-8 


Friday 9 November 2018

Sea snakes and burrowing eels

Sea snakes are fascinating animals. There were a number of dead ones pickled in jars in the old Northcote Science Building of the University of Hong Kong. They had been gathered from the nets of the fishing fleet or the fishery research vessels. It was difficult to make out the form and original coloration of the pickled specimens. The most interesting, of which there were photographs, was one with a tiny head, thin neck but wider body. I now realise it was the Slender Sea Snake, Hydrophis, now Microcephalophis, gracilis, and could well have been the same preserved specimen used as an illustration in Hong Kong Amphibians and Reptiles. The timing is right since it was the only specimen caught in Hong Kong waters—in 1963 in Deep Bay.

The preserved specimen of the Slender Sea Snake used in
Hong Kong Reptiles and Amphibians. I have added the
red ellipse to show the very small head and thin neck

But why the small head and thin neck in many species of sea snake? The old idea, which turned out to be a ‘just-so’ story, was included on the short section on sea snakes (there was not a single photograph) in Schmidt & Inger’s 1957 book, Living Reptiles of the World:

It is remarkable that some of the longest of the sea snakes have a small head and slender neck and anterior half of the body, with a bulky abdominal portion that is very much larger in diameter. This curious body form, which recalls that of the extinct marine plesiosaurs, seems to be associated with the mechanical requirements for striking at prey in the water. Without any fixed fulcrum from which to launch its stroke, the free-swimming venomous snake makes use of the inertia of the heavy abdomen, while the great resistance of the water is made less by the slenderness of the head and neck…

Later, Harold and Helen Voris of the Field Museum in Chicago examined data on what species of fish the various sea snakes prey. They found that a large number of species eat eels. Subsequently it was found that the snakes with a small head feed on burrowing eels and gobies, and those with a very small head feed virtually exclusively on burrowing eels. Divers have also reported seeing some species of sea snake with their heads in a burrow. Therefore, it has become clear that the small-head-thin-neck type of sea snake is adapted to entering the long burrows of eels and emerging with a meal.

Along with their various physiological adaptations to life at sea, which I will not go into further here,  and the specialized feeding habits—including species which feed exclusively on fish eggs—a significant feature of sea snakes is the number of species within a relatively small geographical area. A recent paper* relates feeding on burrowing eels to the rapid increase in the number of species. The pursuit of a previously untapped food source has been well established in other animals as a trait that would be favourably selected and, therefore, act as a driver of speciation.




From*. I have added a red ellipse to highlight the differences in the width of the head and neck

There are more than 60 species of sea snake. A rapid speciation, accounting for 60% of known species—the fastest known amongst reptiles—occurred from about 7.5 million years ago. The change in body form associated with feeding on burrowing eels appears to have occurred in six or seven of the lineages determined by genomic analysis. In other words, there is strong evidence of convergent evolution.

The authors conclude:

Our study has revealed that trophic specialization has had a strong influence on body morphology in sea snakes, and this relationship is predominantly driven by the convergent evolution of microcephalic burrowing eel specialists. Dietary specialization appears to invoke strong selective pressures that manifest as predictable and rapid morphological changes. Future studies are needed to examine the genetic and developmental mechanisms underlying these dramatic body shape changes and address their role in speciation. 

Then I started to think about implications for how the small-headed sea snakes feed. Let’s assume the diameter of the neck equals the diameter of the eel’s burrow. If the snake swallows the eel (the diameter of the burrow) while in the burrow its neck will be twice the diameter of the burrow and it could get stuck. Therefore, is it perhaps more likely that the snake pulls the eel out of the burrow before swallowing it? But, if alive, the eel would stand a chance of escaping, so is that why the venom of these sea snakes is so powerful? To ensure that the eel is dead before being pulled from its burrow and to enable a quick kill by a snake that must swim to the surface in order to breathe? Alternatively, perhaps the snake only enters burrows that are wider than its neck. Then it could, perhaps ingest its prey without getting stuck. But a large eel in a large hole might then be too big to be swallowed by the small head (the maximum width of prey has been found to 1.5 times that of the neck)? Divers or remote cameras watching how these small-headed sea snakes feed may be the only ways of providing an answer.

The dangers of a snake swallowing its prey with its neck in a confined space was brought home to us on Boxing Day 1966 in Hong Kong. We were walking along Conduit Path a short distance from the top of University Drive when we found a dead rat snake with its head in a small hole in the bank. A good pull was needed to extract the snake. It was in process of swallowing a toad and the swollen throat had jammed the snake plus toad in the entrance to the hole. We could only assume that the oxygen within the small hole had run out and the snake had asphyxiated itself as it tried to retreat. Unwisely, with hindsight, we left the snake plus toad on the bank of earth, intending to pick it up on the way back from our walk and preserve it in the lab. But it had gone; some scavenger had made off with it.

*Sherratt E, Rasmussen AR, Sanders KL. 2018. Trophic specialization drives morphological evolution in sea snakes. Royal Society Open Science 5, 172141. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.172141 

Karsen SJ, Lau M W-N, Bogadek A. 1998. Hong Kong Amphibians and Reptiles. Second Edition. Hong Kong: Provisional Urban Council.

Peaker M, Peaker SJ. 1968. Death of a snake while swallowing prey. British Journal of Herpetology 4, 38-39. 

Schmidt KP, Inger RF. 1957. Living Reptiles of the World. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Voris HK, Voris HH. 1983. Feeding strategies in marine snakes: an analysis of evolutionary, morphological, behavioral and ecological relationships. American Zoologist 23, 411-425.