Tuesday 29 September 2020

A Press Cutting from 1932: Burgess Barnett, Lord Moyne and Galapagos Marine Iguanas at London Zoo

 


This photograph I came across connects three topics I have written about before:

  1. Dr Burgess Barnett shortly after taking over as Curator of Reptiles at London Zoo. I have found it difficult to find photographs of him and I will add this to the article on his life and works. The article here on Barnett, incidentally, is one of the most popular on this site.
  2. Lord Moyne (Walter Edward Guinness, 1880-1944) back from an earlier expedition cruise than the one in 1934-35 in which he brought back Komodo dragons. That trip was well documented but the earlier one was not. Article can be found here.
  3. Galapagos Marine Iguanas. Four collected by the Moyne Expedition being handed over to London Zoo. Article on Marine Iguanas in captivity here.


I have been unable to find find the name of the yacht Moyne used in 1932 since he seemed to have owned two at the time, both were converted passenger vehicles. My guess it was the MY Roussalka since she had tanks fitted during conversion to hold sufficient diesel fuel to cross the Pacific. Many of Moyne’s records were lost when the vessel sank after striking a rock in Killary Bay, Ireland, in 1933. That may account for the lack of information. All the passengers and crew, including Moyne, escaped.


Four Marine Iguanas were brought back by Moyne. A discussion on the ZooChat forum some time ago, notes that they were mentioned in the 1933 Zoo Guide with the statement that seaweed was brought up from Cornwall to feed them. One only was noted in 1934 and all mention had disappeared by 1935. So far I have found no description of how the Marine Iguanas were kept at the Zoo. Clearly, they did not do well, as was the case with many reptiles until the last thirty years or so.


Moyne also brought a Flightless Cormorant (Phalacrocorax or Nannopterum harrisi) and five Galapagos Doves (Zenaida galapagoensis). David Seth-Smith wrote of their arrival, the first in Britain in the case of the cormorant, in Avicultural Magazine. He provides no further information though on the expedition itself. We can though deduce that Moyne visited the west coast of Isabela (Albemarle) and/or Fernandina (Narborough) since that is the only place in the Galapagos the endemic Flightless Cormorant can be found.


Finally, a few observations in the photograph. I have not been able to identify the publication. It was obviously taken in the public area of the Reptile House—the barriers remain unchanged today. It would appear though that the fronts of some of cages were of wire mesh and not glass. The photograph has an odd appearance and only after looking at it for some time did I realise that Moyne’s hands and arms seem out of place. His right hand is grasping the lizard’s tail but the one shown apparently as the left hand seems to be coming out of thin air. Has there been some heavy retouching, or even the merging of two negatives?


Sunday 27 September 2020

The Way Things Were: Two Dead Gorillas, One Live Gorilla…and One Dead Hunter

 On 4 August 1919 The Times reported under the headline 'New Creatures at the Zoo' reported how things were going at London Zoo a year after the end of the First World War. It contained this statement:


The regular visitor and the sedulous zoologist will still see many gaps in the collection. It cannot be expected that these will be filled until the conditions of transport are more normal, and the desire to “profiteer” had disappeared from the tropical jungle. None the less there is now a good collection at Regent’s Park, more representative and richer in rare animals than any other menagerie in Europe…



A riposte came in a letter published 8 December that year, the gap of four months reflecting the time it had taken for the copy of The Times to reach East Africa and for a letter to reach London in return.


Sir,—Re your article published in The Times of August 4th 1919, under the heading of "New Creatures at the Zoo.” The statement that "it is not expected that the gaps in the collection of animals in the Zoological Gardens will be filled until the desire to profiteer has disappeared from the tropical jungle” is of considerable interest to us, as until recently we were five brothers (now four) who are engaged in big game hunting in Uganda and Central Africa, chiefly for ivory and skins, but always with on eye to obtaining some rare live animal which might be sold to the highest bidder, either the Royal Zoological Society or a similar society on the Continent or in America. 

     In conjunction with coffee planting in Uganda, we always made a living out of this in pre-war days, and in June last, when we were demobilised, two of us proceeded to the Belgian Congo on a hunting expedition. During this trip some ivory and lion skins were obtained, and we were also fortunate enough to secure a newly born female gorilla on Mount Mikeno at an altitude of 10,000ft; this animal is now three months old, and is in the best of health, and we have decided to sell her to the highest bidder, and have already invited an offer from the Royal Zoological Society; we also secured the skins and complete skeletons of a full-grown male and female gorilla, for which we.also intend inviting offers from various museums and from any private collectors with whom we can get in touch. 

     Unfortunately this otherwise successful expedition was marred by the death of one of the two “profiteers,” who was killed by a lion near Rutsburu, in the Belgian Congo, during the return, journey, they having camped there tor a few days in order to secure some lion skins and cubs if possible before leaving the Congo. 

     Possibly profiteering is carried on in connexion with buying and selling animals, but to describe this as "profiteering in the tropical jungle” tends to give the public the idea that the man who actually hunts the animals is the profiteer, whereas the hunter merely sells his specimens to the highest bidder.
     There are various agents in every country who buy up animals from natives and others in order to sell them again to zoological societies and collectors, but these gentlemen are not to be found in the jungle, but in the towns in close proximity thereto, and, whether or not their dealings can be described as profiteering is not for us to say, but we would remind the writer of your article that prices out here for all necessities have gone up enormously since the Armistice, and there is no doubt that this is due to a great extent to profiteering at home, and would suggest to him that he would be making better use of his pen if he left us in the jungles alone and turned his attention to those well-fed and well-housed profiteers at his own doorstep, who by their dealings are doing the country incalculable harm. , 

                                                                       We are. Sir, yours, &c.,

                                                                       FOUR JUNGLE PROFITEERS? 



There is nothing to add other than that the writer of the report in The Times would have been Peter Chalmers Mitchell. He continued as correspondent for that newspaper while Secretary of the Zoological Society. It is no surprise that this great self-publicist found himself responsible for propaganda at the War Office in the First World War. I do not know who the ‘Four Jungle Profiteers’ were but they must have been known to the dealers of the time since John D. Hamlyn, the major London animal dealer after the war, reproduced their letter in his house publication, Hamlyn’s Menagerie Magazine published in the same month as their letter to The Times.


I assume, since the original article was about London Zoo, that the Royal Zoological Society referred to was the Zoological Society of London which operated then as now under a Royal Charter but which never included ‘Royal’ in its title. The other but unlikely possibility is that the ‘profiteers’ were referring to the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, i.e. Edinburgh Zoo, which did then and still does use the Royal title.


Finally, the gorillas would have been Mountain or Eastern Gorillas, Gorilla beringei. I wonder what happened to the baby gorilla and, indeed, to the remains of the ones, one of which was presumably the mother, that were shot. Does a museum somewhere in the world have them?


Friday 25 September 2020

De Brazza’s Monkey: an encounter in the Republic of Congo


The cover of the latest edition of the Bartlett Society’s Newsletter shows a De Brazza’s Monkey, Cercopithecus neglectus, now common in zoos but in the past considered one of the more unusual monkeys to be seen in captivity; according to the Society’s checklist the first breeding in Britain was at Paignton Zoo in 1957. A question the leapt into my head: who was it that said a better name for the animal would be the Sir Thomas Beecham Monkey given the remarkable facial resemblance—complete with goatee beard—to the famous conductor? I then remembered. It was the late Clin Keeling, founder of the Bartlett Society, at one of my first visits to Pan’s Garden, the Keelings’ ill-fated collection at Ashover in Derbyshire in 1960. How the esoteric topic of De Brazzas’s Monkey came up I cannot remember but since the name Molly Badham came up whenever monkeys were being discussed I wonder if she, in the days before Twycross Zoo, had acquired some.

I was delighted to see De Brazza’s Monkey in the wild in 2014 in the Republic of Congo. Indeed there is no more appropriate place in which to do so since the capital to which we had flown from Paris is Brazzaville. The monkey is named after one Italian-born Frenchman, Jacques Camille Savorgnan de Brazza (1859–1888); the capital after his elder brother, Pierre Paul Fran├žois Camille Savorgnan de Brazza (1852-1905). Jacques was responsible for the collection of natural history specimens in West Africa which were sent to France. As a result, in 1886 Henri Milne-Edwards, the half-English French zoologist, named the species Cercopithecus brazzae. Later it was realised that the species had been described ten years earlier by Hermann Schlegel and it is his name, C. neglectus, that was adopted because it had priority. Some then some began using the common name Schlegel’s Guenon or Monkey as the common name but it is as De Brazza’s that the monkey is now known. It is then a case of mismatch between the origins of the scientific name and the common name. It is a pity that the word guenon has fallen out of use for cercopithecine monkeys. Guenon, as in De Brazza’s Guenon gives an indication of geographical origin in the common name; monkey does not.



Distribution Map from the IUCN website



















 

In the Congo


We were drifting with the current down the Lekoli River when we saw the De Brazza’s Monkeys high in the trees. We were staying at the nearby Lango Camp in the Odzala-Kokoua National Park. The monkeys were behaving as described in the book: a small group in dense vegetation; close to a river; not associating with other monkeys. While I had a good view through the binoculars of 2-3 individuals, I had insufficient time to take any video. They soon scampered behind the vegetation at the end of a thick branch.


De Brazza’s were not the only primates we saw in the Republic of Congo. As well as the the Western Lowland Gorillas I have described in earlier posts, there were: Grey-cheeked Mangabey (Lophocebus albigena); Moustached Monkey (Cercopithecus cebus); Putty-nosed Monkey (Cercopithecus nictitans); Guereza (Colobus guereza); Southern Needle-clawed Galago (Euoticus elegantulus).


None of the monkeys we saw, except the Guereza Colobus around the camp, hung around to be admired or came close to us, although I did get good footage of the Putty-nosed. Whether their apparent timidity was related to the fact that they are on the local menu as bushmeat I do not know.


Here are a couple of photographs of the Lekoli River. They are stills taken from video footage, hence the poor quality. 








Wednesday 16 September 2020

What on earth was the Bald-headed Chimpanzee?

When I was looking through the numbers of individuals and of species of primate that arrived at London Zoo between 1883 and 1895, I came across an animal I had never heard of. It was listed as the Bald-headed Chimpanzee, Anthropopithecus calvus Du Chaillu; Habitat Gaboon, West Africa. Reference was given to three papers in Proceedings of the Zoological Society and to one in Nature. The Zoo had purchased two of these animals, one in 1883, the other in 1888.

I knew that only two species of Pan (which replaced Anthropopithecus) have been recognised for many years and that since the Bonobo does not occur in Gabon (Gaboon) the Bald-headed Chimpanzee must have been lumped into Pan troglodytes, the Chimpanzee. But why did the Zoo think it had specimens of a different species?


I found the answer in the paper in Nature written by Philip Lutley Sclater (1829-1913), the Society’s Secretary. After discussing other possible species of chimpanzee described by earlier authors, he wrote: 



In 1860 the well-known traveller Mr. P. B. Du Chaillu gave his account of the anthropoid apes of the Gaboon to the Boston Society of Natural History (see Proceedings of that Society, vol. vii. p. 296). Mr. Du Chaillu described, as a new species of chimpanzee, Troglodytes calvus, “with the head entirely bald to the level of the middle of the ears behind” and “having large ears” while he identified the N'tchego of Dr. Franquet as being nothing but the adult chimpanzee (T. niger). In a second communication to the same Society [op. cit. p. 358), he described another new species of chimpanzee, with a black face, but the forehead not bald, which he called Troglodytes kooloo-kamba, from its peculiar cry. 

     In 1861 the late Dr. J. E. Gray examined Mr. Du Chaillu's specimens of apes, and came to the conclusion that both his supposed new species were only varieties of the common chimpanzee (see P.Z.S., 1861, p. 273}. Such also, as was stated by Dr. Gray, was my own opinion at that time, and I have remained in a doubtful state of mind on the subject until a recent period. But the acquisition of the fine, female specimen of chimpanzee, generally known by the name of “Sally,” by the Zoological Society in 1883, caused me to change my views very materially. There can be no doubt that this animal, when compared with specimens of the ordinary chimpanzee, presents very essential points of distinction. The uniform black face and nearly naked forehead, which is only covered with very short black hairs, together with the large size of the ears, render “Sally” conspicuously different from the many specimens of the common chimpanzee (at least thirty in number) that the Society has previously re­ceived. I was at first inclined to believe that “Sally” might be referable to the Troglodytes tschego of Duvernoy. But nothing is said, in M. Duvernoy’s description, of the bald forehead; and the small ears attributed to the N'tchego, are directly contrary to this hypothesis, as in “Sally” these organs are exceedingly large and prominent. On the whole, I was inclined to believe that “Sally” might belong to the Troglodytes calvus of Du Chaillu, and she was accordingly entered in the Register of the Society’s Menagerie as the Bald-headed Chimpanzee (Anthropopithecus calvus), which is cer­tainly a very appropriate name, even if it be not technically correct. 

     In the beginning of December we purchased of Mr. Cross, of Liverpool (from whom we had also ob­tained “Sally”) a second specimen of the Bald-headed Chimpanzee, likewise a female, which, although much smaller in size, closely resembles “Sally” in every other respect.



This is the sketch of ‘Sally’ from Sclater’s article in Nature.




The story of the Bald-headed Chimpanzee was taken up by the media throughout the world; Scientific American ran an article in 1889 based on Sclater’s report. The Times (20 December 1888) reported enthusiastically on the arrival of the second specimen that ‘has attracted great attention from naturalists, as being the only example of this distinct form of Chimpanzee known in captivity, and also on account of its remarkable intelligence’.


The reader will have gathered that the criteria for describing and naming a new species were, even with the risk of judging processes and thoughts in the past through 21st-century eyes, not rigorous. It is not then surprising to find that the Bald-headed Chimpanzee came to be lumped, along with other proposed species, into what is simply the Chimpanzee. After a number of changes in taxonomy from a plethora of authors, that species is now known as Pan troglodytes. The chimpanzees from Gabon fall into the Central Chimpanzee subspecies, P. t. troglodytes—the 'Tschego' referred to by Sclater.


The first character Sclater argued was different in the two female chimpanzees were the nearly naked forehead. I see in Handbook of the Mammals of the World that female Chimpanzees ‘in particular, have a tendency to go bald on the crown’. That character, varying between individuals and with age therefore goes by the board. The second character was the size of the ears. I can find nothing in the literature on variation in the size of the ears. However, between childhood and adulthood a clear relative reduction in the size of the ears compared with the head—an example of negative allometry—can be seen. Are there further changes, as in human ears, with age such that the ears become larger? Or is there simply a lot of variation in size and conformation just as, again, in the human population. I suspect, with no quantitative evidence, that this is the case. There is a photograph here of a number of Chimpanzees together and the degree of variation between them in terms of the shape of size of the ears can be seen.


Not only images of ‘Sally’ survive. I found this depiction, described by Finch & Co of London as a ‘rare sculpture’ in bronzed finished plaster by Rowland Ward (1848-1912) better known, perhaps, as a taxidermist.



'Sally'
from Finch & Co website


Sclater PL. (as P.L.S.). 1889. The bald-headed chimpanzee. Nature 39, 254-255.


Saturday 12 September 2020

Hong Kong: What katydid, not What Katy Did

From a Hong Kong garden this week comes a photograph of Elimaea punctifera the Narrow-winged Katydid. This one was around 4" (10 cm) long. Turned the other way its camouflage would have been even more effective.






Thursday 10 September 2020

Monkeys in late Victorian London. An astonishing number arrived at the Zoo

 Although difficult to quantify, anybody who has read Hannah Velten’s Beastly London or Leonard Robert Brightwell’s The Zoo Story, will realise that in the years before the First World War, Britain was awash with exotic animals imported for sale as pets or exhibition by travelling showmen as well as by the comparatively few zoos. For example, Brightwell wrote of London Zoo:
A steadily increasing flow of exhibits poured in from all sources, princes, hunters, dealers and even schoolboys. The animal trade may for one reason or another gradually change its centre of activity. Liverpool has always been one such base of its operations, but in [Abraham Dee] Bartlett’s time the Mecca was in the notorious Ratcliffe Highway, now the eminently respectable St. George’s Road, East, a stone’s-throw from Tower Bridge. The writer has vivid memories of dealers in this quarter, great names that vanished quite suddenly during the Edwardian era. There on the skirts of dockland the great Jamrach and his equally famous rival Hamlyn kept their crowded shops with crazy stable-yards behind, These stables were old warehouses, three stories high and packed with animals of every kind. When a lion roared the whole of one of these aged and rotten buildings rattled in a manner threatening instant collapse. But some spectacular deals were made here, and there are endless stories told of these kings of zoological commerce…

When I totted up some of the numbers of animals that arrived at the Zoo in the 12 years between 1883 and 1895, I was astonished to find over 1,300 individual primates of 166 species (using the identifications and taxonomy of the time). That is a rate of arrival of more than two per day, week in week out, year in year out. Numbers varied from a single Gorilla and one Aye-Aye to over 100 each of Crab-eating Macaques and Rhesus Macaques. The vast majority were presented by private individuals.

With primate arrivals running at over a hundred per year, a demographer is not not needed to point out that the available accommodation would soon be full to the brim and that many of the animals would not have reached their expected lifespan of, in many cases, several decades. Without looking at the records for each year, some will have gone to other collections while some will have been killed as they became unmanageable (the K.B.O. often left unexplained in reports but an abbreviation of Killed By Order). We do though know that the death rate of primates in the indoor accommodation of the time was high. Tuberculosis was, just as in the human population of London, endemic and an improvement in housing and care was the aim of the incoming Secretary in 1903, Peter Chalmers Mitchell.

There was a joke about old-style zoology; a zoo was just a place to keep animals until they could be studied properly—when dead. The Zoological Society’s Prosector throughout the period in question was Frank Evers Beddard FRS (1858-1925). Beddard was Prosector from 1884 until he retired in 1905. He had the responsibility of dissecting suitable specimens and, guided by a set of rules established by a committee, for distributing specimens and parts of animals to interested parties, including university departments, museums and medical schools. He also hosted scientists who wished to work in the prosectorium. Even as late as the 1950s there were disputes as to who was to receive priority in the distribution of specimens. How such matters were decided  on a day-to-day basis when Beddard was in charge is not clear. As well as specimens in whole or in part going to the destinations mentioned some skins went to taxidermists including the famous Edward Gerrard. Details of who got what and when were kept in a book now in the archives at the Zoo.

Important scientists worked in the dead house, as the prosectorium was usually called, and there is a strong case to be made for the view that the only scientific use for an animal in the Zoo was when it was dead. Earlier in the 19th Century, Richard Owen the great anatomist, anti-evolutionist and parasite on royalty, had discovered the parathyroid gland—in an Indian Rhinoceros. Clinicians worked there too. For example, the neurologist Wilfred Harris (1869-1960) applied because he needed to study the brachial plexus of a monkey in order to determine the components of the Vth cranial nerve. His aim was to change surgically the innervation the muscles of a young child who suffered from local paralysis caused by poliomyelitis. After his retirement in 1935 Harris returned to the Zoo to make a systematic study of the brachial plexus throughout the vertebrates, including the Giant Panda. He produced a book on that one topic.

Another visiting worker in the Prosectorium was Peter Chalmers Mitchell. In 1903 he was appointed lecturer in zoology and botany at the Charing Cross Hospital Medical School. His research at the zoo was on the anatomy of birds, particularly of the alimentary canal. Again, he had plenty of specimens at his disposal. I will return to the Beddard-Mitchell relationship in a future article.

Monkeys were still coming into London in considerable numbers in the decades after the First World War. Hamlyn’s Menageries Magazine, published by the importer and dealer John Hamlyn, make fascinating reading since the issues show the numbers of animals he, and sometimes his remaining rivals, had in stock or were being shipped. For example, in January-June 1919, he received 426 primates (some just described as ‘monkeys’). By then Jamrach’s had ceased trading but other dealers were on the scene. George Chapman, with premises on Tottenham Court Road, apparently bought out the Hamlyn business after John Hamlyn’s death in 1922. Chapman was a major supplier of primates and other animals (a final Thylacine, for example) to London Zoo including the  >100 Hamadryas Baboons for Monkey Hill in 1925.

The old records also show why the breeding records were so poor and why self-destructive behaviours were so common in zoo monkeys. Many, perhaps most, had been hand-reared in their country of origin, kept as house pets and then passed on when their owners could not cope with them. They did not know what they were when they arrived. They were simply crazy, mixed-up monkeys who may not even have recognised others of their species. Psychopathies, poor nutrition and infectious diseases were the norm in these unfortunate animals kept in the 19th and much of the 20th century.


The old Monkey House at London Zoo demolished early 1920s
There was no outdoor accommodation















































Opened in 1903 this house was replaced by present Reptile House in the mid-1920s



Brightwell LR. 1952. The Zoo Story. London: Museum Press.

Felger EA, Zeiger MA. 2010. The death of an Indian Rhinoceros. World Journal of Surgery. DOI 10.1007/s00268-010-0603-4 

Nieman, E. 2001. Wilfred Harris (1859-1960). In, Twentieth Century Neurology: The British Contribution, edited by FC Rose. Singapore: World Scientific

Velten H. 2013. Beastly London.  London: Reaktion.

Zoological Society of London. 1896. The Vertebrated Animals Now or Lately Living in the Gardens of the Zoological Society of London. Ninth Edition. London: Longmans Green.

Tuesday 1 September 2020

Hong Kong Cattle: Remnants of a Unique Genetic Lineage?

I have been posting photographs taken in the 1960s on the Facebook Group, Hong Kong in the 1960s. Recently I added several taken on a walk from what was then the town of Tai Po east along the northern shore of Tolo Harbour in the New Territories. The next one in the series is of an ox tethered in the corner of a field but before posting it I realised that I knew nothing of the cattle, other than the dairy cows, of Hong Kong. A Google search found a paper published this year which throws some light on their origin.


A photograph I took in early 1966 near Tai Po in the
New Territories of Hong Kong


In the years up to the 1980s, when Hong Kong had an active agricultural economy, local farmers used cattle and water buffalo as draught animals; a single ox* pulling a plough or parked on the edge of a holding to graze was a common sight throughout the rural areas. They were not kept nor bred for milk or meat. As agriculture virtually died out in the face of a massive building programme, some of the remaining draught animals became feral often to the still-continuing inconvenience and annoyance of the human population as they wander through the country side and country parks, into towns and onto roads. Estimates of the current cattle population exceed 1,200. Official reports described them in the 1960s as ‘local brown cattle’ with local used in the sense of local to south-east China. Other reports describe them as ‘Chinese brown cattle’.


Ploughing paddy fields in Hong Kong in the 1960s
From Rob Taylor's family collection and posted in the Facebook Group:
Hong Kong in the 1960s

Completely separate and isolated populations of cattle also existed until relatively recently. They provided milk for the European population. Not surprisingly, these dairy farms held dairy breeds originally from Europe. In the 1960s, the dairy farms in Hong Kong had mainly Friesians. The study raises interesting points on the history of dairying in Hong Kong but that topic will have to wait for a future article, suffice it to say that what started as a plan by the father of tropical medicine grew into something very big indeed.

Given the presence of dairy cows in Hong Kong for many decades it is not surprising that when the genomes of cattle sampled from the feral Hong Kong population were compared with those of other breeds, evidence of genes from European breeds was found. At some time in the past cattle from the dairy farms must have bred with ‘local’ animals albeit in small numbers.

Another unsurprising finding was that the feral Hong Kong cattle, not having been selectively bred for milk or beef, were genetically diverse. However, the main finding from the research described in the paper was that the population is genetically distinct ‘from other taurine, indicine and crossbred cattle populations’, and showed evidence of a significant contribution of wild bovine species to their genomes.

Given the morphological characteristics of a shoulder hump and a large dewlap, the lack of a match to taurine breeds (essentially breeds derived from the aurochs and referred to as Bos taurus or Bos taurus taurus, of western and northern Eurasia) would be expected. However, the lack of genetic similarity to any breeds of indicine cattle (domesticated from Bos taurus indicus or Bos indicus in southern Asia) does seem more unexpected. The authors of the paper concluded:

We showed that Hong Kong feral cattle, are distinct from Bos taurus and Bos indicus breeds. Our results highlight the distinctiveness of Hong Kong feral cattle and stress the conservation value of this indigenous breed that is likely to harbour adaptive genetic variation, which is a fundamental livestock resource in the face of climate change and diversifying market demands.

There is, as the authors also suggest, the possibility that the Hong Kong cattle represent a separate domestication to that or those which occurred in India, for example, from a wild indicine ancestor at some time in the past.

I have some qualms about this paper. I am unqualified to comment on the molecular genetics but I do wonder if the Hong Kong cattle (minus the small contribution of genes from European dairy animals) are simply representative of a type of beast found throughout south-eastern China as a draught animal. Agricultural practice does not stop at political borders and there was free flow of supplies and livestock between Hong Kong and the ‘mainland’. It seems inconceivable to me that the Hong Kong feral cattle are something special to Hong Kong. Surely they are the remnants of a much more widely distributed domestic animal? Are there any draught animals still used in southern China, or any feral populations that could be studied?

This paper then opens the door to further research using additional techniques. The authors end with:

While showing that the H[ongK[ongF[eral] are genetically different from other cattle populations, additional unbiased data, including mtDNA, Y chromosome and whole genome sequences are necessary to better define the origins of the HKF cattle and explore whether they may be traced to an independent domestication event.

Do Hongkongers now have to recognise their pesky feral cattle as a rare breed worthy of preservation both as a cultural memento and as possessing a unique set of genes?


New Territories, Hong Kong, late 1967/early 1968



*I am using ox here in the wide sense, not that of a castrated male used for draught purposes. Other than ox and its plural oxen there is no singular noun in English to describe male and female, young and old cattle.

†In supplementary material published alongside the main paper, the authors appear to be confused not only on the history of agriculture in Hong Kong in the latter half of the 20th century (it went on later than the 1950s, and still does in a very small way) but also on trade. They suggest that the flow of livestock into Hong Kong from mainland China ceased when the UN imposed an embargo in 1951 during the Korean War. That is incorrect. Britain and therefore Hong Kong only imposed a ban on the export to China of militarily strategic goods. Only the U.S.A. imposed an embargo on the import of Chinese goods—one that was maintained until 1972. Goods made in Hong Kong in during that period had a certificate of origin that had to be presented to U.S. customs in order for souvenirs to be imported by returning tourists. Brits in Hong Kong viewed with great amusement the absence of American tourists from stores selling mainland Chinese goods and the efforts of some to get the purchases they did make into the U.S.A.


Barbato M, Reichel MP, Passamonti M, Low WY, Colli L, Tearle R, Williams JL, Marsan PA. 2020 A genetically unique Chinese cattle population shows evidence of common ancestry with wild species when analysed with a reduced ascertainment bias SNP panel. PLoS ONE 15(4): e0231162. https:// doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0231162