Monday 23 December 2019

The King’s Tibetan Mastiffs in 1820s London. An interesting paper in Archives of Natural History

Long gone are the days when a zoo would welcome an exotic breed of dog to exhibit. But that is what the then new London Zoo had to do in 1828; had to do twice in fact because the animals in question were given to the Zoo, then taken away again because, it was said, they were intended as a gift for King George IV, and then given back to the Zoo by the King. The dogs were a pair of Tibetan Mastiffs.

Having seen Tibetan Mastiffs guarding domestic yaks from wolves on the Tibetan Plateau in the midst of a snowstorm, and having been warned to give them a wide berth—a very wide berth—because of their size and ferocity, I can understand why the keepers of the King’s animals at Windsor were perhaps keen to pass them on to the Zoo.

Recently, David Lowther (Durham University), Ann Sylph (Librarian of the Zoological Society of London) and Mark Watson (Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh) published an account of the Tibetan Mastiffs in Archives of Natural History*. The dogs were part of a collection sent from Nepal by the famous diplomat/naturalist Brian Hodgson. Only the mastiffs arrived alive in Calcutta, and they, along with thousands of plant and some (dead) animal specimens were taken to London by Nathaniel Wallich (1785-1854). On 20 July 1828, he delivered the dogs to the Zoo. Three days later the dogs were returned to Wallich, ‘having been sent to the Society by mistake’.

The authors speculate as to whether it was Hodgson or Wallich who wanted the mastiffs delivered to the King. Hodgson was building a case for his election as a Corresponding Member of the Society (CMZS). Wallich, who was Superintendent of the East India Company’s botanical garden, had, by contrast, much to be gained by currying favour with the King, including gaining a royal patron and subscriber to his illustrated book on the plants of Asia.

Whatever the motive, the mastiffs were back at the Zoo four months later, this time presented ‘by His Majesty’. There they did not last long—both were dead by 9 January 1829. the highly contagious viral disease, canine distemper, spread rapidly through the Zoo’s dogs on numerous occasions, and this was one of them.

Hodgson had paintings of birds and mammals done by native artists in Nepal. From Lowther et al (see below)

Twenty-years later, a Tibetan Mastiff was given to Queen Victoria by the Governor-General of India. It lived in the kennels at Windsor Castle from 1847 until 1856. 

*Published by the Society for the History of Natural History Membership is highly recommended.

Lowther D, Sylph A, Watson MF. 2019. Brian Hodgson’s Tibetan Mastiffs: twice presented to the Zoological Society of London. Archives of Natural History 46, 220-229.

Monday 16 December 2019

Neville Chamberlain: Prime Minister and Amateur Entomologist

Arthur Neville Chamberlain
by Walter Stoneman in 1921
NPG x166506
©National Portrait Gallery
In the aftermath of last week’s General Election I was reminded of the degree of ignorance of the natural world displayed by the politicians of my lifetime. Not that any dare display such a knowledge since the half-educated ignoramuses employed by the news media would soon have them labelled as nerds unsuitable for public office.

I did learn though that one British Prime Minister who was derided for other reasons was a very keen amateur entomologist and a member of the Royal Entomological Society. That was Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940), PM from May 1937 until May 1940. In the April 1940 issue of Animal & Zoo Magazine, published shortly before he resigned in the fallout from the disastrous Norwegian Campaign and was replaced by Winston Churchill, Chamberlain was said to have collected ‘one of the finest series of moths in the country’. The article continued:

Young Mr. Chamberlain was an authority on the groups of little moths known as pugs. He had selected them for his special branch of investigation, and he used to collect specimens exhibiting a very wide range of colour-form in order to camouflage with their surroundings.

The biographies of Chamberlain also note that his interest in insects began at Rugby School. He continued to study and collect insects when he was sent by his father to set up a sisal plantation in the Bahamas. After six years and failure of the business he returned to Birmingham where he had success in business, local and then national politics.

During his time in business and in government Chamberlain was a keen birdwatcher, contributing to the annual reports on birds in London’s Royal Parks. He was of course catching the tail-end of the huge interest in natural history, with a plethora of local natural history societies catering for all aspects, that gripped mid and late Victorian Britain.

But Chamberlain will never be remembered for his interest in natural history. His holding the ill-fated Munich Agreement aloft on his return from the meeting with Hitler in September 1938 and uttering ‘Peace In Our Time’ will forever be in the national psyche even though that delay to armed conflict with Germany allowed Britain to rebuild its forces and replace its biplane fighters with Hawker’s Hurricane and Supermarine’s Spitfire, the sound of which—to those of us born to the resonance of, and Doppler effect on, the Merlin engines overhead—is imprinted in our brains.

Monday 9 December 2019

The Bear Pits of Bern in 1955. How not to keep bears

The coat-of-arms of Bern
The current issue of Keeper Contact deals with bears in zoos with particular emphasis on the changes in housing and husbandry over recent decades that have made it possible to keep and breed bears successfully without the inmates suffering the psychological consequences of boredom in captivity. Also included is a history of the famous bears and the bear pits of Bern in Switzerland—the epitome of old-school bear husbandry. Bern, apparently, still has its Brown Bears but housed close to—and incorporating—the modified pits in a modern artificial habitat.

As I read the article I remembered that I had taken photographs of the bear pits during a school trip to Switzerland in August 1955…and here they are, a reminder of how poorly bears were kept in the 19th and 20th centuries, this iteration of the pits having been constructed in 1857:

The bear pits shown in a painting from 1880


...and we did see other things in Bern on this very  brief visit but this is all I remember:

Sunday 8 December 2019

The Unintentional Free-Range Homing Hamster

The first and only Golden Hamster I kept was installed in a cage in a converted greenhouse. The cage, made by my father nearly 60 years ago, had a slanting front and could either have a glass slide for reptiles or a wire cage front for mammals or small birds. The type of cage front was of a particular type designed for housing budgerigars. The wire door swung outwards from side hinges and was fastened by an omega loop which fitted between the wires on the opposite side. One morning I went to feed the hamster or change its drinking water and noticed the door was not fastened. It was shut but not fastened as would happen by gravity with the front slanting inwards. I thought it odd and thought my father had perhaps fed the hamster and forgotten to close the door properly. About a week later he was feeding the hamster and noticed the door was not fastened, thinking I had not done the job properly.

A few days later I stepped off the central walkway onto the bare earth on the opposite side to the hamster’s cage. My foot disappeared into a hole. I excavated and found a tunnel about 10 cm bellow the surface going right round the bare earth with several interconnecting tunnels. I then realised that the hamster must have been leaving its cage at night, excavating the tunnels and then going back to the cage to eat, drink and sleep. The cage incidentally was about 120 cm from the ground. When the hamster managed to push open its door, overcoming the resistance of the omega loop, and set forth on its excursions, the door must have swung shut. The wanderer must have managed to pull back the door in some way in order to return to the cage and its sleeping place.

There are many reports of escaped animals trying to return to their cages but this was not so much an escape but an extension of the hamster’s home range. 

Domestic variety of Golden Hamster
Photo by Antony Colton on Flickr

Saturday 7 December 2019

Why are Powerpoint slides so poor at scientific meetings again? Remember P.C. Williams!

Those of us of a certain age enjoy the wry amusement of seeing topics emerge time and time again as if nobody had considered the problem previously. Trying to stop methane production by farm animals is a prime example.

I was at a scientific meeting a few weeks ago. I was immediately struck by the very poor quality of the Powerpoint ‘slides’. Crammed with data of garish illegibility was the rule rather than the exception. The people in the audience popping up and down to take photographs of the slides with their phones must have had a hard time deciphering the resultant image. I groaned audibly as I realised that all the effort in improving standards of audio-visual presentation over the past fifty-odd years had been wasted. The organisers of the conference cannot be blamed. Speakers received instructions on best practice such as the maximum number of lines of type, font size and colour combinations. Nor can young scientists be blamed; the worst I saw were from the professoriate firmly, it seems, stuck with the notion that quantity of data is what is required to impress an audience.

Some people blame Microsoft’s ubiquitous Powerpoint software package, with its capacity to cram easily any amount of information onto a slide, but the problem is much older. When slides really were slides, with hand-drawn graphs and stencilled lettering, standards of presentation and legibility were so low that scientific societies in Britain decided to do something about it. The result was an article in 1965, later published as a pamphlet by the Biological Council (representing the various societies). The problem was regarded as so important that institutions bought copies by the hundred to distribute. I got my copy, along with everybody else, some time after a batch arrived at what is now the Babraham Institute.

The author of the article and pamphlet, Suggestions for Speakers and Standards for Slides, was Peter Claringbould Williams (1913-1991). I knew him as a regular attender of Zoological Club dinners in the 1970s. At that time he worked at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (later merged into Cancer U.K.). He was an endocrinologist working mainly on oestrogens but also had something to do with running the animal house. Earlier, I now find, he had worked at the Courtauld Institute of Biochemistry at the Middlesex Hospital. In the 1939 Register he is shown as a ‘research physiologist’. Like many British scientists of his day, he had no Ph.D. degree—the ‘German degree’ so often derided by many, including Williams.

His other publication for the Biological Council was a list of abbreviations of the titles of biological journals. However, he argued that such an approach should be abandoned (an enormous amount of time was wasted by authors and editors finding the correct abbreviations for their list of references at the end of a paper) with journals publishing the titles in full. That suggestion was taken up by some journals but seems to have been abandoned again for some reason that defies logic. The really lengthy journal titles which were abbreviated to reduce the cost of type-setting, Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l'Académie des sciences, for example, seem to have been abandoned anyway.

The pamphlet was extremely successful in raising standards. So successful I heard one young speaker (after describing at length the methods used to reach his conclusions) announce to the audience that he had prepared his slides, 'according to the method of P.C. Willams'.

Metal 'frog' clickers
I remember Peter Williams actually giving a paper. He, of course, followed his guidelines for slides. Before the days of remote control of the slide projector, speakers used a variety of methods to ask the projectionist for the next slide. Actually asking for the next slide was one method which sometimes had to be repeated if the projectionist’s mind had wandered. Some lecture theatres had buttons installed on the podium which when pressed lit a bulb in the projection box. But Peter Williams used a method he also recommended: a metal ‘frog’ clicker of the sort that used to appear in Christmas crackers and made famous by U.S. paratroops who used them to locate their fellows after landing in the dark. Peter Williams and his ‘frog’ certainly kept the projectionist—and his audience—awake.

Note the oval shape of Peter Williams's brand
of cigarette
The other abiding memory is his brand of cigarette. He always smoked the oval-shaped Passing Clouds. He did so, he argued, because they contained the most nicotine and nicotine acted to increase the rate of coronary blood flow. He had already suffered one heart attack and did not wish to have another. Contrary to all medical opinion (nicotine is a coronary vasoconstrictor but increases coronary blood flow by raising cardiac output), perhaps, but he did reach the age of 78.

Great efforts were made to adhere to Peter Williams’s standards for slides in the 1970s and 80s but we do seem to back to to the sort of things this reviewer of the pamphlet wrote about in 1974:

At some time or other, we probably all have been annoyed by a speaker showing slides which were unintelligible—perhaps a slide showing a full-page table taken from a recent paper in which the values of, say, fifteen parameters are compared for thirty organisms. Even if we had brought opera glasses and could read the micro-letterpress, who could hope to assess the significance of 450 facts in the few seconds the slide was projected? Equally useless may be a slide showing profiles of several hundred fractions eluted from a column, all superimposed on each other like criss crossing craggy mountain peaks and intended to represent concentrations, radioactivity, enzyme activity, pH changes and so on. 
One of the first lessons a lecturer should learn is not to insult his audience with low quality slides. If this is how he treats his colleagues, what hope for his students in a less public place? It seems worth while to draw attention to a useful article by Dr. P.C. Williams, although nine years old, since it contains some valuable and forthright advice. Never, he says, never take a slide from a printed paper—the print is too small and there will be too much unnecessary detail. Label lines on your graphs instead of using a symbol code. 

Perhaps scientific societies need to take draconian measures to ensure the legibility of slides because at the moment the overall standard is an insult to the audience. Either that or opera glasses for all.

Williams PC. 1965. Suggestions for speakers and standards for slides. Journal of the Institute of Biology 12, 65-70

Sunday 1 December 2019

The Journalist and the Giraffe. Chapman Pincher’s paper in Nature

There cannot be many journalists who still have a scientific paper they published in the 1940s quoted in current discussions on an old evolutionary problem. There is though one—Chapman Pincher†. He suggested a different interpretation to that then current on the evolution of the long neck of the giraffe, that exemplar used to enlighten schoolchildren on the difference between Lamarckian and Darwinian mechanisms of evolution.

I have previously covered Chapman Pincher’s early career as a biologist before he hit the big time as a science and defence correspondent for the Daily Express. It was only when I read further into his autobiography which he wrote shortly before his death in 2014 aged 100 (finding on the way the sources of his leaks of government information) that I learnt of his paper in Nature.

One of his sources for science stories was the joint-editor of Nature, Jack Brimble*. Brimble showed the content of each issue to Pincher before publication  and it was Brimble who in 1949 published his paper (then always as a ‘letter’ to Nature) on the origins of the long neck of the giraffe.

Jack Brimble
Pincher argued that a much better explanation for the long neck was not the selective advantage suggested by Darwin of being able to reach leaves in tall trees but because of the advantage of long legs in providing a longer stride and therefore a greater speed to escape predators. The neck had then to be concomitantly long in order for the head to be brought to ground level for drinking. Pincher wrote:

So, I suggested that, as with the evolution of so many animals, it was the predator-prey relationship which had been responsible, not occasional food dearths.

Frederic Wood Jones FRS (1879-1954) a classical anatomist, who had worked on all sorts of biological problems and phenomena from the formation of coral reefs to the lesions caused by judicial hanging, with very strange views on evolution and the value of genetics, wrote to the editor in reply to Pincher. Wood Jones pointed out that he and Robert Broom FRS (1866-1951)—the famous primate palaeontologist and anatomist also possessed of very strange views on evolution by ‘spiritual agencies’—had come up with the same idea as Pincher. The publications quoted were obscure: a book by Broom, Darwin and the Giraffe, published in South Africa in 1945, and an article by Wood Jones in the Manchester University Medical School Gazette of 1946. In post-war Britain it is not surprising that Pincher had not been aware of them.

Pincher’s paper is still discussed along with the original and more recent ideas on how the Giraffe acquired its long neck. A long paper argued it was the result of sexual selection while another disputed that claim. The giraffe continues to intrigue those seeking to determine the single or multiple selective advantages provided by an ever longer neck while at the same time providing false hope to the creationists whose beliefs infest the internet.

Me? Having watched Giraffes feeding in trees the wild numerous times, I’m still with Darwin for the initial selective advantage.

…and the take-home message for Chapman Pincher’s success:

his ‘Who knows wins’.

Reticulated Giraffe. Northern Kenya 1991

†Henry ('Harry') Chapman Pincher (1914-2014)

*Lionel John Farnham Brimble (1904-1965) 

Mitchell G, Sittert S van, Skinner JD. 2009. Sexual selection is not the origin of long necks in giraffes. Journal of Zoology 278, 281-286

Pincher C. 1949. Evolution of the giraffe. Nature 164, 29-30

Pincher C. 2014. Dangerous to Know. London: Biteback

Simmons RE, Scheepers L. 1996. Winning by a neck: sexual selection in the evolution of giraffe. American Naturalist 148, 771-78

Wood Jones F. 1949. Evolution of the giraffe. Nature 164, 323

Wednesday 27 November 2019

Golden Hamsters in the wild are diurnal but in captivity are nocturnal. Do we know why?

in a previous article about Golden Hamsters, I wrote

After Rolf Gattermann’s death from cancer in 2006 at the age of 57, his team of collaborators, who had made Halle a centre of small rodent research, continued publishing their work and started new strands, including field work on the Golden Hamster in southern Turkey. One interesting paper, begun while Gattermann was still alive, reported that while in the laboratory male and female hamsters (whether derived from old line or from newly-caught individuals) are nocturnal, in the wild female hamsters are diurnal. They speculated that a balance in the environment whereby nocturnal predators (owls and foxes) are a more potent threat than diurnal ones (birds-of-prey and snakes) may be responsible.

Since then there have been a number of studies attempting to identify the stimuli which turn hamsters from diurnal in the wild to nocturnal in captivity. As far as I can see there has been no success. However, some smaller effects evoked by potential predators have been recorded. For example, hamsters exposed to the odour of domestic ferrets spent less time out of a simulated burrow. In another species, the pattern of activity was affected by the rodent community in which the hamster was living, the time out and about was shortened when there were aggressive gerbils around.

I wonder whether the nature of the housing has an effect, being reminded of the marked changes in thermoregulatory behaviour observed by Roger Avery, then in Bristol, and also by me, in lizards given different sorts of cage furnishings. The deep and dark burrow system in the wild is very different from the accommodation afforded to pet and laboratory hamsters. Sleeping quarters are not necessarily completely dark and the Golden Hamster in the wild is subject to a very different regime of light/dark periods to that in a cage. Some simple experiments could be done.

In the meantime we still do not know if the presence and perception of predators is responsible for the basic activity pattern in the wild of Golden Hamsters.

McPhee ME, Segal A, Johnston RE. 2010. Hamsters use predator odors as indirect cues of predation risk. Ethology 116, 517-523

McPhee ME, Ribbeck AE, Johnston RE. 2009. Male golden hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus) are more reactive than females to a visual predator cue. Journal of Ethology 27, 137-141

Scheibler E, Wollnik F, Brodbeck D, Hummel E, Yuan S, Zhang, F-S, Zhang X-D, Fu H-P, Wu X-D. 2013. Species composition and interspecific behavior affects activity pattern of free-living desert hamsters in the Alashan Desert. Journal of Mammalogy 94, 448-458. (Note—not on the Golden Hamster)

Saturday 23 November 2019

Chinese Giant Salamanders: More information on those we had in the lab in 1960s Hong Kong

In the last post I noted how Edward George Boulenger had, in his description of a new species in 1924, noted: ‘Head…very much depressed’. I have found some photographs and videos of Chinese giant salamanders which show a similar appearance to that described by Boulenger but many which do not. Boulenger’s species (which had been regarded as synonymous with Andrias davidianus), Andrias sligoi, has been resurrected as a result of molecular phylogenetic analysis published this year. One can argue whether the species rank is warranted but there seems no doubt that the classic lineage, davidianus is different from sligoi and that they are geographically isolated. All sorts of questions then spring to mind: Is the ‘very much depressed’ head characteristic of the sligoi lineage? Or is it only in that state at a certain stage of growth? Are there other tissues present beneath the skin and bone that give a non-depressed appearance, changed by nutritional state, for example?

I have also looked at photographs of giant salamander skulls and replicas online, and again there do seem to be that remain flat posterior to the eyes while other show a rise in the region of the junction between the frontal and parietal bones.

I remembered that a very flat head described by Boulenger was not a feature of the Chinese giant salamanders bought in alive for class dissection at the University of Hong Kong in the 1960s. I took several photographs (and previously discussed some of them here) and they are shown below. To me the head seems more bulldog-like with a short ‘muzzle’ and, to continue the canine analogy, a ‘stop’— the rise in the skull beginning at the line of the eyes; in other words, the heads of these animals bought from the human food chain did not resemble Boulenger’s sligoi or some of the photographs of live specimens in circulation.

This one had lunged at my wife's hand with mouth open, and is ready to take on all comers

The bulldog-like shape of the head is particularly evident here

In the last post I noted the distance between the nostrils in Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders. I did a rough calculation from the photograph above (it had to be rough given the perspective). The distance between the nostrils was approximately 24% of head width, close to 21.5, the mean of five specimens in U.S. museums, detailed by Liu in his book published in 1950.

The pattern of tubercles on the head of our lab specimens is similar to that shown in a drawing in Liu’s book for A. davidianus but not that of sligoi shown in a drawing by or for Boulenger published on the ZSL website.

Is it, therefore, likely that the 1960s Hong Kong specimens were not from the sligoi genetic lineage but one of the other lineages from the mountain ranges of north-western China?

The question is interesting because it would suggest the main source for the trade in live salamanders going through Guangzhow (Canton), said to be the centre of the trade, was not the closer Nanling mountains but the mountains on the edge of the Tibetan plateau to the north and west.

In the old zoology store in the now-demolished Northcote Science Building there were some preserved specimens. My recollection is that there were several giant salamanders of modest size in jars of spirit rather than formalin. Did they survive the grand clear out when the department moved out and then moved on again to the Kadoorie Biological Sciences building? I was told a lot of stuff had been thrown out when I was external examiner in the department in the late 1990s but would somebody please have a look. If they still exist they could add something to the molecular phylogeny research and the pattern of trade for the human food market.

I have been fascinated by giant salamanders ever since seeing my first, the large Japanese one that lived in the vestibule of the aquarium at London Zoo. I never saw it move. The dozen or so for class use in the vertebrate course in Hong Kong were fascinating during the short time they were there. They were decidedly feisty; my wife had to move quickly as salamander wrangler when they made a lunge for her fingers during the photoshoot on the roof of the Northcote Science Building. I know they had to be ordered, with notice when they were needed. Food/Chinese medicinal items often came into Kong Hong from Chinese provinces like Yunnan and Sichuan far to the west in the1960s. There was a shelf of bear paws in the Chinese Merchandise Emporium on Queen’s Road.

We went through giant salamander country in Sichuan two years ago, with roads descending alongside the rocky streams and the slacker water in flatter valleys. Unfortunately, because many of us would like to have seen the set-up, the only salamander farm we saw was deserted, with overgrown or empty outdoor tanks.

Reading about what is known about giant salamanders I am struck by the need for more basic biology, particularly their reproductive biology. A major research facility, aimed at multigenerational captive breeding, could, alongside further studies in the wild, well be justified. If the Giant Panda deserved such a major effort, surely the Giant Salamander does as well. Given the massive increase in internal tourism in China, a well-designed centre with stunning exhibits could be a major attraction and a useful source of income.

I can only hope that the conservation measures being supported by ZSL and partners in China are successful and the survival of the giant salamanders in the wild and throughout their range can be assured.

References are in previous post.