Saturday 29 June 2019

Feathers Fly in London. Why on earth was Chalmers Mitchell of London Zoo on the wrong side of a conservation battle of the early 1900s?

Peter Chalmers Mitchell
I have never been able to make up my mind about Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell FRS (1864-1945). At the Zoological Society he was treated as a god; icons of his reign as Secretary between 1903 and 1935 were still around the offices in the 1990s. His biographers and obituarists concentrated almost entirely on his work running the Zoo and in his life in Spain during the civil war rather than as a scientist or writer on biological questions of his day.

The more I read about Mitchell (he adopted his second first name, his mother’s surname, to make a non-hyphenated double-barrelled surname in the Scottish style) I realised he was a skilful political manipulator and self-publicist with modest scientific credentials, even by the standards of the times.

What I did not know was his involvement—clearly on the wrong side—in a major bird protection and conservation measure of the early 20th century. Only when I read William T. Stearn’s (1911-2001) 1981 book on the history of the Natural History Museum a few years ago did I come across the story.

Sir William Flower when Director of the Natural History Museum became concerned at the vast numbers of birds being killed around the world to satisfy the fashion of adorning women’s hats with feathers, wings and even the skins of whole birds. A Bill to prohibit the importation of skins and feathers passed through the Lords but was rejected by the House of Commons in 1908. And the numbers really were vast—millions of birds each year.

Six years later, in 1914, the Trustees of the Museum supported another Bill to suppress the plumage trade on the grounds of protection (the killing of adult birds with young left to die in the nest) and conservation. However, the trade was highly profitable and trade organisations galvanised their supporters against the Society of Protection of Birds, formed specifically to lobby for abolition. A major supporter of the trade was, amazingly, the Selborne Society, named for Gilbert White and Britain’s first national conservation organisation, dedicated to the ‘preservation of birds, plants and pleasant places’. Equally amazingly, Mitchell was fielded by the group formed by the trade to oppose the proposed legislation. Instead he and many of the great and good who were members of the Selborne Society argued in favour of the trade and argued it could be supported by captive breeding: 

…to consider and suggest to those interested the best means to protect, maintain and encourage the increase of all useful species including those used in the feather trade, so as to ensure a regular supply without endangering any.

Stearn takes up the story:

The opponents of the Plumage Bill, then before Parliament, accordingly convened a meeting at Burlington House, Piccadilly, against the proposed legislation. At this meeting C.E. Fagan, Assistant Secretary of the Natural History Museum, Sidney Harmer and Ogilvie-Grant represented the Museum’s Trustees in their attempt to prohibit the import of feathers. Rather surprisingly, Dr (later Sir) Peter Chalmers Mitchell (1864-1945), Secretary of the Zoological Society of London, chose to appear on the platform in support of the plumage traders and, by reason of his office, thereby implied that the Zoological Society likewise supported them against the Natural History Museum and the bird protectionists. Fagan therefore requested Mitchell to state publicly before he addressed the meeting whether he was about to speak in his official capacity as representing the views of the Zoological Society’s Council in opposition to the Bill, or whether he was about to express his own personal opinion. Being pressed for a definite and unequivocal reply, he was forced to admit that he had no mandate from the Zoological Society and attended merely in a private capacity. This was all the Museum representatives wanted. An eye-witness recorded that ‘after the meeting Mitchell, livid with rage, stepped down from the platform and, coming up to where we were sitting, stopped in front of Fagan and positively hissed out “I demand of you a public apology!” He got an appropriate reply but no apology, public or private’. Thereafter Mitchell refused to shake hands or even to speak to Fagan. The retirement of Fletcher in 1919 as Director [of the Museum] provided the opportunity of revenge. The Plumage Bill did not, however, receive royal assent until 1921 and not until 1922 did it become operative.

Fellows of the Zoological Society were clearly disturbed by Mitchell’s behaviour and they found a spokesman in Sir Harry Johnston (1858-1927)--of Okapi fame—who wrote several letters to The Times. One, 18 February 1914, concluded:

It was further announced with some emphasis that an address on the economic preservation of birds by Mr. S. L. Bensusan, presided over by the Countess of Warwick and supported by Dr. Chalmers Mitchell, F. R. S., would take place on February 16. From the brief Press notices of the meeting published to-day, I can discern no reason why bird-lovers should abate their hostility to the unreasonable developments of the plumage trade. Dr. Chalmers Mitchell, a very distinguished biologist and the Secretary of the Zoological Society, is president of the Committee for the Economic Preservation of Birds. But unless he disavows the statement made in the pages of the Selborne Magazine that his committee deprecates legislation for tho protection of birds or would postpone it to some vague future period, he is not acting fairly towards the numerous Fellowship of the Zoological Society; for there are, I am convinced, in that society a great many persons besides myself who consider that, if the Zoological Society Is to intervene in the question at all, it should be to range itself on, the side of the Government and of the advisers of tho Government in the Natural History Museum, and assist in bringing forward as soon as possible a measure which shall on behalf of Great Britain close the now open market for the traffic in the skins of rare, beautiful, or useful wild birds.

The Countess of Warwick, incidentally, was Daisy, mistress of the Prince of Wales (Edward VII) and others.

The eventual outcome of the plumage Bill was that the Selborne Society, the first on the scene for conservation in England, was completely eclipsed by the (later Royal) Society for the Protection of Birds which now has more than one million members.

Five years later, in 1919, Mitchell certainly did have his revenge on the staff of the Museum who were sent by the Trustees to oppose him and who challenged his representation of the Zoological Society in 1914. Fagan, an able administrator, had effectively run the Museum under the less than effective efforts of two Directors. However, his pay was low. The Trustees therefore proposed with the the support of scientists in the museum to appoint Fagan as Director for a couple of years until his statutory retirement and the appointment of another scientist to the job. Mitchell organised a protest from the Royal Society and a letter to The Times signed by 20 FRSs. It would have been an easy matter to get them to sign. Here was a proposal to appoint an administrator, who was described as a ‘member of the clerical staff’ to a scientist’s job. The Trustees had to back down but they did appoint Sidney Frederic Harmer—a member of the team opposing Mitchell over the plumage Bill. Harmer, already a strong candidate, had written to Nature in support of Fagan taking over for a few years and had stated that he would not run against him. William Robert Ogilvie-Grant (1863-1924), Curator of Birds at the Museum and the other representative of the Museum who opposed Mitchell wrote to the Times:

[The Trustees] might certainly be supposed to know better what is for the benefit of the Museum than a number of university professors who, however individually able, deal with a side of natural history which has little or no connexion with the making and improvement of museum collections...I served under Owen, Flower, Lankester, and Fletcher, and have had more than thirty years’ experience of Mr Fagan as an enthusiast for the Museum, an encourager of scientific work, and as an administrator, and I should most warmly welcome his promotion to the post of which he has already done so much of the work.

Two hours before he retired the very ill Director, Sir Lazarus Fletcher FRS, in a letter wrote:

The present agitation is probably being stirred by Chalmers Mitchell who is very skilled in the memorialistic method and knows by experience and success all its possibilities. He got his own post by a successful use of the method. Nearly all the signatories have attacked the Trustees in the same way again and again…I have been a Fellow of the Royal Society for thirty years and know the line the Fellows will take.

Despite the open hostility of a number of Fellows of the Zoological Society during the feather war of 1914, Chalmers Mitchell survived as Secretary—he was skilled in packing the Council with supporters—and sailed on. Here indeed was a Scotsman on the make. 

Clarke R. 2005. Informal adult education between the wars. The curious case of the Selborne Lecture Bureau. Birkbeck College, Faculty of Continuing Education Occasional Papers No. 6

Stearn WT. 1981. The Natural History Museum at South Kensington. London: Heinemann

Thursday 27 June 2019

Galapagos Marine Iguanas in Zoos

I put some videos I had taken of Galapagos Marine Iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) on YouTube in 2012. I then had a number of requests from the sort of thick-as-two-short-planks individuals who inhabit that world asking me to tell them where they could buy one.

Export of Galapagos fauna is prohibited by Ecuador and I thought there were none in captivity. Therefore, I was surprised recently to see a Marine Iguana in a video taken by a group of German zoo enthusiasts who were visiting a zoo in Japan in 2016. There have also been reports of some being kept in East Africa.

It would appear that smuggling of Land and Marine Iguanas, if not rife, has been going on. It would be very easy given a small vessel to pick up and ship out Land and Marine Iguanas from many of the islands, just as expedition vessels did in the early decades of the 20th century.

Marine Iguana on Isabella

Marine Iguanas were being traded in the 1960s. A dealer in Florida had some, and small numbers appeared in zoos including Belle Vue in Manchester. Few survived for more than a few weeks, a repeat of attempts to keep them in the 1930s.

However, Brookfield Zoo in Chicago managed to keep four Marine Iguanas for several years, the last dying after being there for over six*. They had been obtained from a dealer in Florida. Re-reading the article by Ray Pawley in the 1966 edition of International Zoo Yearbook on these iguanas I am surprised by this relative success since the conditions in captivity seem very different from those in the wild. They had a small pool with fresh, not sea, water. The humidity was high. However, the key requirements—heat lamps for basking, ultraviolet lamps for vitamin D synthesis—were there. Initially, the iguanas refused all food (as in most zoos up to that time) but Pawley had the idea of putting a Green Iguana into the cage. It settled in and fed immediately, as then did three of the Marine Iguanas on the third day!

Marine iguanas scrape marine algae and any adherent plant and animal life from rocks. Seaweed had been tried in unsuccessful attempts to keep them in captivity. Pawley made up a mixture of chopped vegetables, fruit, meat plus vitamins and minerals. He added some reconstituted kelp. Sea water was sprinkled over this mixture and onto rocks in the cage. This is what the iguanas ate  along with with nibbles at plants growing in the cage and some green algae which grew on the rocks. Those who know how to keep Green Iguanas will realise that this mixture, minus the kelp and salt water, would suit just about any mainly herbivorous iguana.

Illustration from Pawley's article in International Zoo Yearbook

The regime was obviously successful since the animals grew and Pawley later reported a great deal of aggression in what must have been the males.

In the same edition of International Zoo Yearbook, Frankfurt Zoo in Germany is listed as also having four Marine Iguanas. I have no information of how they were kept or what became of them.

*I have found wildly differing reports of longevity in the wild; from 5-12 years up to 60.

Pawley R. 1966. Observations on the care and nutrition of a captive group of Marine Iguanas Amblyrhynchus cristatus. International Zoo Yearbook 6, 107-115.

The full list of Pawley’s papers on these animals in in:
Murphy JB. 2015. Studies on Lizards and Tuataras in Zoos and Aquariums. Part I—Introduction, History, Families Iguanidae, Agamidae, Chamaeleonidae, and Infraorder Gekkota. Herpetological Reviews 46, 464-482.

Saturday 22 June 2019

Frog Hearts and University Politics in 1950s London

When writing about an article in the famous series, New Biology, published by Penguin between 1945 and 1960, I was reminded of another influential article of the time and how its author came to feature—completely unintentionally—in a London academic promotion battle that turned into a loss to Britain and a win for Australia.

The article in New Biology in 1952 was on the working of the frog’s heart which has three chambers, two atria and just one ventricle into which both atria empty. George Eric Howard Foxon (1908-1982*), then Reader in Biology at Guy’s Hospital Medical School, outlined what he called The Old Story, dating from the mid-1800s, of how oxygenated blood from the lungs is preferentially diverted to the rest of the body after it (along with blood from the body) enters the single ventricle. According to this scheme, oxygen-rich and oxygen-poor blood do not mix to an great extent in the ventricle, and blood is pumped sequentially into the three major arteries: blood low in oxygen from the body is the first to leave for oxygenation in the lungs and skin; as the ventricle continues to contract, the next lot goes to the body generally while the blood remaining until the final squeeze of the ventricle, that rich in oxygen having arrived from the lungs, goes to the brain. Mixing of oxygen-rich and oxygen-poor from from the left and right atria was, it was argued, prevented by the trabeculae of the ventricle forming rough compartments.

Over the decades there had been doubt cast on this ‘old story’ notable amongst them the observation that there was no difference in time of movement of the blood into the three main arteries. In other words, the story of a sequential separation of flow into those arteries appeared to be wrong.

Foxon sat himself the task of trying determining if the blood from the right atrium was kept largely separate in the ventricle from that entering from the left atrium. He was following up work published in Paris in 1933 in which it had been found that particles from Indian-ink injected into the pulmonary vein were found in all three arteries; on other words there was mixing. Similar results, using starch grains, from the other side of the heart had also been reported.

This is Foxon's diagram of the frog's heart

Foxon used an X-ray opaque suspension of thorium dioxide to follow its passage through the heart by taking a series of X-ray photographs in rapid succession—pioneering technology in those days. While blood from the lungs via left atrium was found to fill the left side of the ventricle that from the body filled the right side. However, during ventricular contraction the movement was found to be so violent that all the blood was mixed together in the conus arteriosus, from which the major arteries (three on each side of the body) arise, such that there was no separation as the blood was forced into the three arteries.

But that story did not last. Later research using more modern technology showed that deoxygenated blood from the right atrium is directed preferentially to the lungs and skin through the pulmo-cutaneous artery. More and more evidence was produced to indicate Foxon was wrong; the ‘old story’ was right in essence if not in detail. It is that version of events—of partial separation of blood streams from the two atria during ventricular relaxation and contraction and flow through the conus arteriosus—which has entered the textbooks.

However, circulation within the heart and major arteries of the amphibian heart has continued to excite the interest of those exploring what happens in different environmental and physiological conditions, in diving and conditions where concentrations of oxygen in the immediate environment are low for example, as well as in several different species. Technological advances in measuring blood flow and pressures in small blood vessels have meant that physiological measurements can be done in conscious undisturbed animals, in the relatively large Cane Toad (Rhinella marina) for example. In Foxon’s day, ‘pithed’ frogs—those in which the brain has been destroyed—were used perforce. Thus physiological control mechanisms affecting pressures in the various blood vessels may have been disrupted compared with an intact animal in the wild.
The story does not end there. More recent research indicates that there are conditions in which there is a high degree of mixing of the two blood streams within the heart, as claimed by Foxon, and others in which there is a high degree of separation. One example will suffice: in the resting Cane Toad at 10°C mixing was 85% complete but at 30°C mixing was only 17%.

So having been dismissed as anomalous results, Foxon’s conclusions have been supported—in some conditions. The great mistake by a number of authors was to assume that what happens under particular experimental conditions happens under all, as an invariant mechanism for operation of the frog’s heart. Variation in the amount of blood directed to various parts of the body through the three major arteries and variations in mixing of the two streams of venous blood, provide a whole host of different tactics that can be be employed by an individual frog, or by different species, to enable them to adapt to the vicissitudes of life amphibian.

It is, it should be noted, misleading to state that blood arriving into the right side of the heart is, as in mammals, deoxygenated after passing through the tissues of the body. This is because some of it has passed through the skin and skin is an important site of oxygen uptake in amphibians. I have read studies in which the skin in resting animals accounts for a third of all oxygen uptake. The lungs provide a greater proportion during activity or if the oxygen content of the water or the water film over the skin falls. The implication is that blood from the right side of the heart recirculated through the body will still be supplying some oxygen to the tissues in frogs but not, of course, in mammals.

As an aside, a dangerous side effect of the study of ‘types’ as the main part of courses in biology was the impression created in the student that as one moved from the type fish to the type amphibian and so on to the type mammal, there was a progress from a primitive to an advanced organism. It was, therefore, easy to get the impression or to be told that the poor old frog having just three chambers in its heart was in some way inferior to the mammal or bird which had evolved four and had achieved the perfect double circulation, i.e. complete separation of blood streams through the body and through the lungs. Foxon was quick to dispel this line of thinking:

..the heart of the frog does not represent an unsuccessful attempt at the division of the heart into arterial and venous sides. It seems we must regard the frog not as any form of intermediate stage between fish and higher vertebrates but as an animal suited par excellence for a true amphibious made of life…

Foxon appeared in the biography A.J. ‘Jock’ Marshall (1911-1967), his opposite number at St Bartholomew’s Hospital School. Both schools fell under the aegis of the University of London. Foxon and Marshall were Readers and heads of their respective departments. The biology departments within the old medical school were, even by the standards of the day, very small with formally a lowly rôle; their teaching consisted of instilling a knowledge of elementary biology in very junior medical students who had taken on the study of medicine never having studied a biological subject at school. They had no honours students but could ,of course, do research and supervise postgraduate students. Through the latter route they could be promoted to Professor. Indeed Mr Foxon (he did not have a Ph.D. just like many British academics of the time) became Professor Foxon in 1955.

In 1957 Jock Marshall was put forward to the University by his medical school for promotion. Foxon encouraged Marshall, thinking the whole matter a formality for one so clearly qualified. But Marshall’s case was blocked by one external member and one internal member of the committee, as explained in detail by his widow here. Marshall was incandescent with anger at his treatment. The Cambridge mafia he blamed; the formerly supportive internal member was reliant on the external member for supporting his candidature for the Royal Society. The treatment Marshall received in London appears to have been the main reason for his looking for a job in his native Australia. He left to become the first Professor of Zoology at Monash University in Melbourne in 1960. However, he managed a parting shot at the internal member of the committee (who was elected FRS in 1958) who later approached him in a friendly manner: 'I told him to "Piss off you little bastard". He pissed off.’

Foxon, a Cambridge graduate who had previously worked in Glasgow University in the unenviable job of Assistant in Zoology (essentially the Professor’s dogsbody in a Scottish university) and at University College, Cardiff before, being appointed to Guy’s, continued his research on the heart and circulation in vertebrates.

Günther's Golden-backed Frog (Indosylvirana temporalis)
Sri Lanka, 2013
How was its heart working?

*Date of death is incorrect in the archives here

†The world seems to have adopted the Australian name for this South American species, introduced into the cane fields with a devastating impact on the wildlife. Until recently it was also and inaccurately called the Marine Toad (Bufo marinus).

Foxon GEH. 1952. The mode of action of the heart in the frog. New Biology 12, 113-126

The following can be referred to for some idea of the amount of work that has gone into determining how the frog heart and circulation work:

Gamperl AK, Milsom WK, Farrell AP, Wang T. 1999. Cardiorespiratory responses of the toad (Bufo marinus) to hypoxia at two different temperatures.

Graaf AR de. 1957. Investigations into the distribution of blood in the hear and aortic arches of Xenopus laevis (Daud.). Journal of Experimental Biology 34 143-172

Hedrick MS, Palioca WB, Hillman SS. 1999. Effects of temperature and physical activity of blood flow shunts and intracardiac mixing in the toad Bufo marinus. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 72, 509-519

Hillman SS, Hedrick MS, Kohl ZF. 2014. Net cardiac shunts in anuran amphibians: physiology or physics? Journal of Experimental Biology 217, 2844-2847

Langille BL, Jones DR. 1977. Dynamics of blood flow through the hearts and arterial systems of anuran amphibians. Journal of Experimental Biology 68, 1-17

Pinder AW, Burggren WW. 1986. Ventilation and partitioning of oxygen uptake in the frog Rana pipiens: effects of hypoxia and activity. Journal of Experimental Biology 126, 453-468

Sunday 16 June 2019

How Birds Survive at Sea. The (incorrect) view from the 1930s in a popular article from a renowned ecologist

Occasionally I see a paper or article that I wish had had seen earlier. This is one of them.

Animal and Zoo Magazine, under its earliest title, Zoo, had the great advantage Julian Huxley as its advisory editor and backer with the Zoological Society of London. He could get former colleagues and students from Oxford—very often the leading zoologists of the 1930s—to write articles describing for the general public their research in a wider context.

The sixth issue of the magazine in November 1936 contained an article on seabirds. It is one I wish I had seen in the 1960s or early 70s since I would have quoted it in our book on salt glands for the then current view of how seabirds survive at sea, before, that is, Knut Schmidt-Nielsen discovered salt glands in the 1950s and really explained how they did it.

The title was ‘Wings Over the Sea’ and the author was Vero Copner Wynne-Edwards (1906-1997). He was then at McGill University in Canada, formerly at Oxford, the marine laboratory in Plymouth and Bristol University. He described very well what was then known of the natural history of seabirds. He included some of his own research on their distribution nearer or farther from land, which contributed to his election to the Royal Society in 1970, and stressed the differences between, say, gulls, which never move far from a source of freshwater to others from far out in the oceans which appeared to survive without freshwater. He explained the prevailing view: ‘As a group, birds are no more able to drink salt-water than mammals, and a diet of salt water instead of fresh is quickly fatal to those land birds with which experiment has been made’ and ‘In the ordinary combustion of food substances, the principal end-products are carbon dioxide and water; and it is possible that by exercising the most rigorous control of water excretion, other birds and mammals which live permanently out of reach of fresh water manage to make do with what they derive from this internal source. They may also, however, be able to manufacture fresh from salt water in their kidneys and cloaca’.

Later, after salt glands had been discovered, a general relationship emerged between the size of the salt glands and Wynne-Edwards’s ecological classification of seabirds and their habitat. Thus those that occur inshore have smaller salt glands than those that range to the edge of the continental shelf which in turn have smaller glands than the truly pelagic species, like albatrosses. What is important to remember is that all seabirds have salt glands that can be activated within minutes of having to ingest sea or estuarine water or invertebrate prey high in salt. Ecological questions though do remain. For example, removing excess salt via the salt glands is energetically expensive, and so what is the trade-off in inshore birds between flying back to land and a source of fresh water (which Wynne-Edwards described in gulls) or staying out at sea and letting the salt glands operate?

V.C. Wynne-Edwards
(from Newton - see below)
Wynne-Edwards who, in this popular article, was quoting the views of physiologists of the time was a renowned practitioner of the observational natural history approach to ecology rather than the experimental or quantitative. Nearly 25 years after writing this article he was Professor of Zoology at Aberdeen. There he wrote his book, Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behaviour, which was published in 1962, a book that contained a revolutionary idea in evolutionary biology that was to be shot down in flames and to remain shot down. Wynne-Edwards proposed the idea of ‘group selection’ from his work on birds—that animal populations collectively regulate their own numbers in order to prevent the overexploitation of their resources. The gatherings of birds from whole areas in communal gatherings he interpreted as means of assessing the size of the population by its members. A group breeding to excess and therefore profligate with its resources would be selected against while one that regulated its numbers would have, in the long-term, greater success.

The idea of natural selection operating on a group, rather than on an individual, was, of course, contrary to accepted Darwinian views and it was not long before the killer flaw in Wynne-Edwards’s hypothesis was spotted: a group of animals behaving in the restrained, conforming way that he proposed would be unable to resist invasion by a selfish genotype, i.e. one that did not conform. In short, the selfish would outbreed the selfless social conformer.

Despite being shot down, the book was very influential and more biologists than would later admit to were rather attracted to its tenets since the cosy social organisation it implied often matched the political world view of the readers as to how human beings should behave.

Wynne-Edwards stuck to his ideas throughout his life, in print that is. He was reluctant to discuss his views with others, even refusing to take questions at the end of an invited lecture or seminar. Sadly, his obituarists concluded, group selection had become an article of faith.

In the 1980s I met Wynne-Edwards in Aberdeen a couple of times. I was also struck by his aloof demeanour and unwillingness to engage on any topic, even after a glass or two. My impression was that he actually had rather a hard time as head of a university department and Regius Professor—and he was known to stand on ceremony—whose big idea had been so publicly and so effectively pooh-poohed. So I actually felt rather sorry for him. It seemed to me, from reading the hoo-ha over his book in the 1960s and later, that he had taken the interpretation of his observations too far and that instead of publishing his hypothesis in a fully-formed book he should have first explored his developing ideas more openly at conferences and with others interested in the overall problem.

But then, finally, I got another impression of Wynne-Edwards. My late assistant was visiting her mother-in-law in a care home in Banchory. There she had tea with her mother-in-law’s new-found friends—the Wynne-Edwards. She told me of this the next day and of how welcoming and friendly they were. In later visits (I had told her the history of group selection) he explained something of his earlier work on seabird distribution and on fisheries, the human management of which, of course, parallels his ideas on the natural control of populations.

Wynne-Edwards VC. 1936. Wings over the sea. Zoo [Magazine] 1 (6, November 1936), 18-21.

Paul Racey’s obituary for the Royal Society of Edinburgh can be found here.

Newton I. 1998. Vero Copner Wynne-Edwards, C.B.E. 4 July 1906–5 January 1997. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 44, 473-484.

Thursday 13 June 2019

Hinge-backed Tortoises: Bushmeat and Snails

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. It had not entered my head that the hinge-backed tortoises of the West and Central African forests loom large in the bushmeat trade until I read a paper published last year in Herpetological Journal. Numbers of both species involved, Forest Hinge-backed Tortoise, Kinixys erosa, and Home’s Hinge-backed Tortoise, K. homeana, have decreased markedly in recent decades. Habitat loss, collection for human food and for collection for the inaccurately titled ‘pet’ trade have all been blamed for the decline.

The paper reported interviews with people in Côte d’Ivoire, Togo and Nigeria. Confirmation of major declines in population were obtained in Togo and Nigeria. The interesting point to emerge is that these tortoises are collected from the forest by gatherers of snails—also for human consumption. Thus one might expect the number of wild snails for sale in a shop to be positively correlated with the number tortoises on sale. That prediction was confirmed.

The authors made the point that snail gatherers pose more of a danger to tortoises than ordinary hunters for bushmeat. Snails and tortoises occupy the same microhabitat and searches for one are bound to reveal the other.

More about Kinixys tortoises here.

Embed from Getty Images

Kinixys homeana

Luiselli L, Dendi D, Pacini N, Amadi N, Akani GC, Eniang EA, Ségniagbeto GH. 2018. Interviews on the status of West African forest tortoises (genus Kinixys), including preliminary data on the effect of snail gatherers on their trade. Herpetological Journal 28, 171-177.

Tuesday 11 June 2019

Animals Names: a Capital idea?

In introducing the new edition of Clinton Keeling’s book, Where the Lion Trod, the editor made the point that Clin had a set of rules on names and abbreviations that he followed and expected everybody else to do so too: ‘These include starting all animal names with a capital letter’. This rule was not just for the common name of a species or the scientific name of a formal group but everything. I just pulled these out of the book at random: Monkeys, Antelopes, Opossums, Marmosets, Doves, Macaws. Modern usage would be: monkeys, antelopes, opossums, marmosets, doves, macaws.

But where did Clin get the idea that such names should be capitalised. Well, he was the complete autodidact and read anything on animals that he could get hold of in his early years. The style he acquired and kept for life was actually the one used by Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Thus we have Oldfield Thomas describing in 1911 the results of the Duke of Bedford’s Exploration by Malcolm Playfair Anderson and his colleagues:

He has been especially fortunate in discovering novelties among the Shews and Voles, while the peculiar little Insectivores…

I do not know when the change to modern usage occurred in that Journal (now Journal of Zoology) but anybody in the Zoo Library could quickly find out.

I once spent a fascinating afternoon with typographic designers while on the editorial board of a journal undergoing a revamp. Because capitals stop the eye from moving freely down the page they are an impediment to speed reading. The message was to keep capitals to a minimum. However, some book and journals styles take that too far and use lower case letters for names of species, arctic fox instead of Arctic Fox. Such usage can cause confusion; common toad can be a toad that is common or a Common Toad. When faced with such house rules the sub-editor can usually be made to change them by pointing out that old-saw of the bird-watcher being asked to identify the birds in a beginner’s telescope. ‘You, madam, have a pair of Great Tits’ can have an entirely different meaning from ‘You, madam, have a pair of great tits’.

Sunday 9 June 2019

Who was Dr J.A.C. Smith of his eponymous Chinese mammals? Update

On 15 May I posted a draft of this article because I was trying to obtain a copy of a privately-published book by Margaret Johnson on Dr Smith. I could no find trace of Mrs Johnson’s book in mainstream publishing. I then contacted the three outlets around mentioned in the newspaper article from 2011; they had no copies. I therefore wrote a letter to the editor of the Spalding Guardian, the publication of which brought me an offer of a book and a contact with her family. I am most grateful to Jane Cooke for sending me her copy of the superbly produced book and for telling me that Mrs Johnson, who she knew, had died.

I have now re-written the article, incorporating the late Mrs Johnson’s work which also provided clues for further research. The revised version can be found here.

Monday 3 June 2019

Animal and Zoo Magazine 1936-41. Part 3. Margaret Shaw interviewed F. Shaw Mayer on collecting birds-of-paradise in New Guinea

My eye was drawn to an article in the first issue because it described Fergusson, an island in the d’Entrecasteux group north west of New Guinea which we visited in 2014.

MARGARET SHAW worked on the magazine and in this, her first article, she interviewed Frederick Shaw Mayer (1889-1989), the Australlian collector, ornithologist and aviculturist
who has famous for his work with birds-of-paradise. Mayer supplied zoos and rich private
collectors in Britain with live birds and museum with dead ones (failures of the former making specimens for the latter) and he had arrived in London in 1936 with a Grey-breasted, now known as Goldie’s, Bird-of-Paradise (Paradisaea decora). Then known only from a skin collected in 1882 by Andrew Goldie, Mayer spent four months waiting for accessible trees to bear fruit on which these birds feed before getting his local assistants to set snares. The birds-of-paradise have been and still are killed for ceremonial dress, and the natives of Fergusson, Mayer reported, killed them with spears or set hand-pulled snares.

Mayer based himself at the village of Taibutu (later called Saibutu, on the southern slope of Mount Maybole) at a height of 1000 feet. The first adult male caught and brought to him was killed by a snake (its skin is in the Natural History Museum). It was the only other adult male caught that he brought to London.

He also collected the Curl-crested Manucode, Manucodia comrii (then called Comrie’s Manucode), the bird we saw and heard while walking back to the village from the hot springs during our morning in the lowlands of Fergusson.

Goldie's Bird-of-Paradise
Found only on Fergusson and Normanby

From Fergusson, Mayer made further collections in the mountains of Papua New Guinea (including the Blue Bird-of-Paradise, Paradisaea rudolphi, Princess Stephanie’s Astrapia, Astrapia stephaniae), and one of the sicklebills. He travelled to London with his specimens by porter to the coast and then by ship. He left New Guinea with with over 70 live birds and he arrived in London with the same number. He also had specimens of birds and mammals for the British Museum. An attack of malaria left him so weak that he had to cable the Zoo for a keeper to be sent out to Port Said to help him care for the birds on the rest of the journey.

But then he was, as Margaret Shaw reported, off again.

Indeed, the South China Morning Post of 26 March 1937 had an article on Mayer. He and another collection of birds destined for London and Paignton zoos were occupying two rooms and verandahs at the Great Eastern Hotel in Hong Kong awaiting passage on P&O’s Soudan. This time he had been in New Guinea for six months and it was his ninth collecting trip there. G.A.C. Herklots was invited to see the birds while they were at the hotel.

Approaching Fergusson in 2014. The low clouds are steam from the
hot springs