Friday 23 October 2020

I know who that is! J.B.S. Haldane—a new biography—and the editor of Water Life magazine

I was reading the new biography of J.B.S. Haldane by Samanth Subramanian to see if it could tell me anything important I did not know already. In brief, it did not (and I would take issue with some of the author’s interpretations of modern biological thought but that’s by the by). Feeling slightly irritated by the prose I came across a photograph on page 223 of Haldane with his first wife at a meeting of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1939. On the left is an almost complete face of a woman. She is not identified there or by the picture agency which supplied the photograph. I realised it was Margery Elwin, editor of Water Life magazine. I scanned the page to compare it with a photograph of Margery Elwin taken in 1937/38. I then asked others to judge if it was the same person; all agreed it was.

The photograph in Subramanian's book on Haldane

Left, Margery Elwin in 1937/38

I have written about Margery Elwin and Haldane previously here. The photograph puzzled  me because although they had been in contact in 1937 and 1938 by letter, she wrote to Haldane in 1946 as if they had not met previously. She explained that she was a member of the Communist Party and an avid supporter of the Daily Worker which she need not have done had they previously met. My guess is she sat near the Haldanes in 1939 but perhaps could not get round to introducing herself to the great man. 

In the 1950s both she and her husband, Louis C. Mandeville, worked for Haldane, she keeping stocks of drosophila and he newts with both working on fish. A link with Haldane was evident when she took his line in an article for amateur fishkeepers in defence of Lysenko when the latter had become utterly indefensible. Lysenko, a favourite of Stalin, destroyed the pursuit of proper genetics and caused the death of Vavilov, its leading proponent, in the USSR. The take home message is that then—and now—even the most distinguished scientists could be political activist first and scientist second. Subramanian argues, as have others, that in Haldane’s mind marxism and science were united, with the USSR as its faultless exemplar.

Subramanian S. 2020. A Dominant Character. London: Atlantic Books

Tuesday 20 October 2020

How good at keeping and breeding animals was London Zoo in the 1950s? The fellows’ rebellion and the search for historical data

In my last post I described how data had been gathered to investigate the breeding record, survival of young and rates of mortality at London Zoo up to 1957. What is not apparent from the bland title of the paper is the political battle that was being waged in public within the membership of the Zoological Society of London, and that the data presented were part of the defensive ammunition in that battle.

The Zoological Society of London is unusual in that its ordinary members were—and are—called ‘Fellows’. One of the privileges enjoyed by Fellows was exclusive access along with their guests to London Zoo on Sunday mornings. However for this and other privileges the subscription was only £3 a year and in the mid-1950s had not been raised since 1832. The soon-to-be Sir Solly Zuckerman became Secretary in 1955, having been assured that troubles earlier in the 1950s had gone away. He soon discovered that all was not well. He found that ‘many fellows simply regarded the Zoo as a convenient, if unusual social club’ and that the subscriptions did not make up the loss of gate money from the public on Sunday mornings. In short, the fellows were being subsidised by the Society which was contrary to the Society’s status as a charity. To put the figures into some sort of perspective, the annual subscription would, in 2021, be the equivalent of two adult entry tickets to London Zoo. Given that entry to fellows and a guest was virtually unlimited and that the full economic cost of providing a restaurant and grounds for the exclusive use of fellows had not been taken into account, the force of the Zuckerman case is blindingly obvious.

The rebellion by some fellows was one of a number of the years against its own administration. It was brought about by the decision to open the Zoo to the public on Sunday mornings from 3 November 1957. The following months saw a rebel group formed and a long legal action against the Council of the Society. The details have been explained a number of times and I will not go into detail except to note that an initial ruling against the Society by an ancient judge which seemed crazy at the time and even crazier now was overturned by the Court of Appeal. Council and Zuckerman had won; the rebels were routed.

There is little mention in Zuckerman’s memoirs of the leading rebels but both the initial and final leader are worthy of a mention because their backgrounds in some respects are similar. The instigator was Henry Cobden Turner (1888-1970), usually referred to as a retired Manchester businessman. He was an electrical engineer and head of Salford Electronic Instruments (SEI). He and his team there either invented or co-invented the proximity fuse which proved invaluable against such targets as the V1 flying bomb; they were also involved in the development of radar. Turner was known to fight for what he thought were his rights. In the 1950s he formed a professional and personal friendship with Professor R.V. Jones CH FRS (1911-1997), then Professor of Physics in Aberdeen but earlier the key player in the ‘battle of the beams’, as described in his book Most Secret War. Turner’s letter to British and U.S. governments seeking financial recognition for the proximity fuse are held in various archives. Jones in a 1972 book review described what happened:

In a few cases, further research will be required before a definitive account can be given; for example, one of the principal originating teams of the proximity fuse, that at Salford Electrical Instruments under the late H. Cobden Turner, is not mentioned. This is a pity because Cobden Turner, as unrewarded a patriot as any I know, could have told a remarkable story (he did in fact receive a modest share of the proximity-fuse award made by the Royal Commission on Inventions; but in the expectation of receiving more had already over-committed it to the presentation of a stained-glass window to his minister-son-in-law's church).

In one of those infuriating ‘I wish I’d asked him that if only I’d known’ moments I corresponded with R.V. Jones and had lengthy conversations by telephone in the couple of years before he died. I would really like to have known if Turner had discussed his role in the Zoo rebellion with him.

Because Turner, having started the rebellion at the Zoo, lived in the north of England and was not on hand to lead the attack, leadership passed to another head of an engineering company, this time based in London. Reginald John Knowles (1898-1962) was awarded the Military Medal as a private soldier in the East Surrey Regiment in 1917; he had also been Mayor of the London Borough of Hendon in 1951-52. It was Knowles who took the ultimately doomed legal action against the council of the society and it was Knowles who was ordered by the court to pay half the costs; he apparently failed to do so. Israel Sieff and his brother-in-law Simon Marks then running Marks & Spencers picked up the hefty bill.

The gripe of many of the fifty or so rebel fellows was I noted earlier about their loss of privileges, especially Sunday-morning opening. However, there was another complaint not about privileges for fellows but about the performance of London Zoo as a zoo. The Times of 5 December 1957 reported on the meeting of the rebels:

     …during which several Fellows, in­cluding a former councillor of the society and Mr. George Cansdale, ex-Superintendent of the Zoo spoke regretfully of what they called a *grave deterioration" in standards. 

     Mr. Cansdale. who was asked to resign from his post as superintendent in 1953. and who is now associated with two com­mercial zoos emphasized at the outset that he had no ulterior motive in attending the meeting. 

     He went on: “The London Zoo, which was regarded as outstanding not many years ago, is to-day regarded with contempt by some of the foremost zoologists in the world. The management is grossly inefficient, breeding results are appal­ling, and in general conditions have sadly deteriorated.” 

     By Continental standards, Mr. Cansdale declared. “the London Zoo is very heavily overstaffed at all levels, from keepers right to the top. The council could achieve a saving of not less than £20,000 a year by proper economies.” 

     Mr. Turner, who said he had last year gone round the world inspecting zoos in India. Africa, and Australia, described the London Zoo as “now in the eighth or ninth place," instead of being, as it was once, the best in the world. The condition of the gardens and animal houses should be improved, he said, by spending the money raised, first, on the animals them­selves; secondly, on those who looked after them; thirdly, on the layout of the gardens: and fourth, on the secretariat.
     Mrs. D. Pinto-Leite, who said she had worked for more than 11 years in the zoo. began by genially informing the company “I only know about apes.” She had been a Fellow since 1910. The condition of the zoo now compared with those days was *appalling." she said. “I have no confidence in anyone there, from the management downwards, except a few of the keepers—and the animals."
     She was followed by Mr. A. Tabelin, who said he had visited the zoological gardens for 10 years. You go there todav and you find empty cages and animals in the wrong cages," he said.

The Council and Zuckerman clearly interpreted George Cansdale’s intervention as a continuation of the war with Leo Harrison Matthews FRS, who was not only Scientific Director but also running the Zoo with the help of just a secretary. It appears that it was Matthews who delivered the earlier ultimatum to council that Cansdale must be removed from office—a topic I will return to in a future post.

At the AGM of the society on 15 January 1958, Zuckerman launched attacks on Turner and Cansdale, neither of whom was present. He dealt with the question of Sunday opening and indicated that the subscription would be raised to £10. However, I suspect that after two years in post, Zuckerman was aware that the Zoo was in the doldrums but was not prepared to admit it to the rebels. Indeed Zuckerman’s proposals were the first steps in his plans for recovery. The gulf between the interests of fellows who were scientists and those who were later categorised as ordinary fellows was exposed by letters to The Times. The big guns came out in force in support of Zuckerman’s changes. One letter was signed by Sir Gavin de Beer FRS, director of the Natural History Museum, Carl Pantin FRS in Cambridge, Peter (later Sir Peter) Medawar FRS and John Zachary Young FRS, both of University College London, on behalf of over 150 zoologists who were fellows of the society.

Zuckerman did take Cansdale’s claims about breeding results and mortality seriously. It seems inconceivable that these performance indicators had not been a matter of regular report. Although Cansdale complained about the competence of the figures on mortality notified to fellows after Zuckerman’s blast at the AGM, he himself does not seem to have improved the collection of data while Superintendent. Nevertheless, two people were given the job of extracting as much meaningful data as was possible from the historical records. The first was Eric Hayton Ashton (1926-1985) a member of Zuckerman’s department of anatomy in Birmingham and one of his first B.Sc. students there.  The second was Gwynne Vevers, Zuckerman’s pre-war student at Oxford and since 1955 curator of the aquarium at the Zoo. They sifted through the records and came up with a series of tables and graphs. Figures on breeding on mortality are difficult to interpret because it depends not only on the quality of care but also on the balance of naturally long-lived and short-lived animals in a collection. However, the general trends were clear and their paper was published in early 1959. The main conclusions can be quoted from the summary:

  • Apart from the period during the Second World War when the numbers of vertebrates dropped sharply, the collections have, since the mid-1930s, fluctuated around a level of some 5000 exhibits. The numbers of species and subspecies have, during the past seven years, varied slightly around an average of approximately 1200.
  • Mammals now account for some 30 per cent of the total exhibits, birds for 60 per cent while reptiles and amphibians comprise 10 per cent. Approximately 90 per cent of the mammals and birds exhibited are from wild species.
  • The birth rate in the collections as a whole now stands at 14 per 100 exhibits. The corresponding value for wild species is 11.8. These figures are among the highest attained during the periods for which records are available.
  • More than 90 per cent of the animals born in the menagerie during 1957 survived to the end of the year. The average survival rate for the past three years is higher than at any time since the opening of Whipsnade Park in 1931.
  • The mortality rate for the entire vertebrate collections stood, during 1957, at 21. This figure is less than at any time either before or after the Second World War. 

Zuckerman clearly could not resist adding a foreword which explained the reason for the study and stressed its main conclusions:

When trying to discover what substance there was to a number of state­ments about mortality and birth rates in the Society’s collections, to which wide publicity was given in the National Press, I made a preliminary analysis of the vital statistics of Regent’s Park and VVhipsnade. The results of this analysis, which were incorporated in the Report of the Council of the Society for 1957, showed that, contrary to view that mortality rates are now rising and birth rates falling in the Regent’s Park Gardens, the reverse is the case. Since this was only a preliminary analysis, I suggested to Dr Ashton and Dr Vevers that they might undertake a more detailed study of the Society’s vital statistics. The results are incorporated in the present paper…

     …The index which stands out most clearly as a mark of the Society’s progress in the field of animal husbandry, which we can justly claim is subject to stricter and stricter scientific control as every year passes, is clearly that of mortality, which gives a measure of the health of our animals. This index fell steadily from the beginning of the century until the early 1930’s, and then showed a tendency to rise through the Second World War, and the post-war years. To-day it is declining steeply, a change which reflects not only the value of the new hospital and pathological services which we brought into operation three years ago, but also the increasing use of modern clinical methods in the care of our animals. We do not know, and it is possible we shall never know, the natural longevity of most of the animals in our collection. We can only go on hoping, therefore, that this index will continue to fall. 

The results were further publicised by an article in New Scientist.

Below is the graph from the paper showing mortality rates. However, the figures were open to several interpretations. For non-domestic animals at London, the mortality rate for mammals had in general fallen since the Second World War to 29%, for birds it had fallen slightly to 21% but for reptiles and amphibians it had risen sharply to 67%. It was only when data from wild and domestic species were combined and figures for Whipsnade (with an entirely different balance in the collection) were included that the mortality rate in 1957 was calculated at 21%. For non-domestic species at London Zoo it was 29% and had changed little since 1946-48.


Any propaganda value to be derived from the paper by Ashton and Vevers was not needed. It was published around the same time, and the article in New Scientist a few weeks after, the Court of Appeal gave its judgement in favour of the council.

Those reading this article will have realised by now that while this longitudinal study showed a bumpy but steady improvement with time, there was no comparison made with other zoological collections in Britain or the rest of the world. In management speak there was no benchmarking.

Finally I add the wry note that while George Cansdale was concerned about the competence of the figures on mortality he should try finding the figures now. The anti-zoo lobby together with the news media always on the lookout for bad news have caused zoos to stop publishing these figures in their annual reports. In the zoos of the 21st century, oozing with political correctness and sickening anthropomorphism, animals must be seen as dying at a ripe old age or of some incurable condition. After the great advances in husbandry and veterinary care from the 1960s, I feel sure that performance has increased markedly in the best zoos of the world but I can find no data to confirm or refute that view.

…And if you think that was the end of the Society’s troubles you would be wrong. Zuckerman’s continuation and reinforcement of the practice of packing its council with powerful friends and supporters from the great and the good backfired spectacularly after his long spell as Secretary and then as President.

Ashton EH, Vevers HG. 1959. The numbers of exhibits, births and deaths in the menagerie at Regent’s Park: 1835-1957, and in Whipsnade Park 1931-1957. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1959, 489-514.

Ashton EH, Vevers HG. 1959. The vital statistics of zoo populations. New Scientist 5 (26, 16 April 1959), 

Donovan B. 2005. Zuckerman: Scientist Extraordinary. Bristol: Bioscientifica

Jones RV. 1972. Review of The Challenge of War by Guy Hartcup. Electronics & Power, October 1972, 366.

Zuckerman S. 1988. Monkeys, Men and Missiles. London: Collins.

Wednesday 14 October 2020

Primates at the Zoo in Victorian London: Matters of Life and Death

On 10 September I wrote (here) about the astonishing number of primates (1,300 individuals of 166 species) that arrived at London Zoo in the years 1883 and 1895 and indicated that the death rate must also have been high since the available accommodation would have been filled many times over. I then remembered that some time in the 1950s Gwynne Vevers had been involved in a survey to see how the Zoo was then doing compared with the past, over a large part of which his father, Geoffrey Marr Vevers had been Superintendent of the Zoo. I found the paper—more on the reasons why this was done will be in a subsequent post—and found the most relevant figures. Although data for primates alone could not be extracted the mortality rate for all vertebrates (both wild and domestic) except fish was approximately 45% in the 1880s-90s. In other words, given a stock of 100 animals at the start of the year, 55 would be left at the end. We also know that primates were a particular concern when Chalmers Mitchell took over as Secretary in 1903 because of the high incidence of tuberculosis. The chances of an individual primate surviving for five years after arrival were very low indeed.

These figures can also be used to back calculate the approximate number of primates housed by the Zoo at any one time.  If we assume that the death rate for primates was 50% and that the number in the Zoo did not change from year to year then it does not need much arithmetic to show that the number of primates kept in the various houses was somewhere between 150 and 200, towards the lower end of the estimate if some of the monkeys that arrived were passed on to other owners. It is also possible to calculate a holding of 155 individual primates in 1946-48, lending some credence to a figure of around 175 in 1883-1895. In 1957 the mortality rate for primates was 25%. The great advances in wild animal husbandry and veterinary knowledge of later decades were still yet to come.

It does not saying that the odds of a primate surviving for 10 years (perhaps half its maximum lifespan) in the late Victorian zoo was very low indeed. However, the figures would have been highly skewed with the majority living only a short time after arrival while a few would have made it into old age.

The two man houses for primates were replaced as soon as possible during the Mitchell regime, plans being interrupted by the First World War. These photographs show the old Monkey House and the Ape House. The Ape House had just been completed ‘at great cost’ when Mitchell was successful in his campaign to become Secretary in 1903. He disapproved of it mightily as, ‘A supreme example of the belief that anthropoid apes, like other denizens of the tropics, required, above all, protection from cold’. He had it demolished as soon as he could and by 1927 it had been replaced by the present Reptile House; the new Monkey House was opened in the same year, only to be replaced in the early 1970s as yet another example of how primates should not be kept.

This postcard of London Zoo has an Aerofilms photograph from 1921
The old Monkey house is indicated on the left, the Ape House (opened in 1903) on the right
Both were demolished later in the 1920s

This postcard of the Mappin Terraces shows the Ape House beyond
From the fashion and the sparse vegetationmy guess is this is photograph was taken shortly after the terraces opened in 1913


Ashton EH, Vevers HG. 1959. The numbers of exhibits, births and deaths in the menagerie at Regent’s Park: 1835-1957, and in Whipsnade Park 1931-1957. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1959, 489-514.

Mitchell PC. 1929. Centenary History of the Zoological Society of London. London: Zoological Society of London

Friday 9 October 2020

William Harvey and the Circulation of the Blood. Learn how science is done from a classic film

First-year students confined to their living quarters and online teaching by the resurgence of covid-19 would do well to watch the film, William Harvey and the Circulation of the Blood. This classic, filmed in 1971-72 for the Royal College of Physicians, was itself a third remake of the same title; the original version was made in 1928 to celebrate the publication of Harvey’s De Motu Cordis three hundred years earlier with another version in 1957 for the tercentenary of Harvey’s death. The history of the three versions is explained in the third version, with the first being the idea of Sir Thomas Lewis FRS (1881-1945) and Sir Henry Dale FRS (1875-1968).

In overthrowing the teachings of the ancient anatomists he had been fed while studying at the University of Padua, William Harvey established the circulation of the blood and the working of the heart not simply by positing from anatomical observations but by experiment. But, as the film shows, he used ways of thought that are still essential for knowledge to advance today.

The student or anybody else watching this film learns the importance of:

  • Experiments that are simple, direct and, therefore, elegant
  • The value of taking a comparative approach—gaining knowledge from a variety of organisms in order to test a generality
  • Armchair physiology—using simple quantitative data to test competing hypotheses
  • Using a mechanical analogy—the heart as a fire engine pump is an example
  • Knowing the  historical literature in detail
  • Travel to see and hear current thinking in different centres of excellence

The full version can be found HERE on the Wellcome Foundation website. The Wellcome provided the financial support needed to make the film. There are somewhat shorter versions also online but the few extra minutes are well worth watching.

William Harvey was a great scientist before the word was invented and a true exponent of Nullius in Verba thirty years before the Royal Society was founded.

The film was directed, produced and photographed by Douglas Fisher FRPS for the Royal College of Physicians. Douglas Fisher had made films for the Wellcome Foundation and is remembered for his filming for Granada Television’s Zoo Time in the 1950s, and for his later wildlife films.

The writers and researchers for this version were the historian Gweneth Whitteridge (1910-1993), Charles Edward Newman FRCP (1900-1989) and Leonard Maslin Payne (1911-2000), Librarian at the Royal College of Physicians. Harvey’s experiments were reconstructed by Michael de Burgh Daly (1922-2002) who was Professor of Physiology at St. Bartholomew's Hospital medical school and Leonard George Goodwin FRS (1915-2008) then Director of Science at the Zoological Society of London. Len Goodwin also read the words of William Harvey, translated from the Latin, for the soundtrack.

Quaint and redolent of instructional films of the middle decades of the 20th century, this classic is now nearly 50 years old. Shall we see fourth version, this time using video and computer graphic simulations, for the 400th anniversary of De Motu Cordis in 2028?

Wednesday 7 October 2020

Crested Serpent Eagles mobbed by Kites in Hong Kong

AJP reports that while on the island of Lamma last Sunday he heard a noise coming from overhead. A battle was in progress between two Crested Serpent Eagles (Spilornis cheela) and three Black-eared (Black) Kites (Milvus migrans or M. lineatus). Although classed as residents, Crested Serpent Eagles are uncommon in Hong Kong and it was a new tick for him. Although we have seen this species in India and Sri Lanka we have not seen it in Hong Kong.

The eagles are considerably bigger than the kites

Crested Serpent Eagle

Geoffrey Herklots in his book Hong Kong Birds, which mainly records his observations in the 1930s, he indicated the likely fate of many of these birds in earlier years:

A Serpent Eagle was shot in the Lam Tsuen valley in January or February 1940 [Herklots’s records were lost while he was interned during the Japanese Occupation] by a Chinese Farmer. The bird weighed 4 lbs 2½ ounces; it was given to a Chinese friend in Hong Kong who ate it…Both La Touche and Caldwell say that this species has a reputation of preying on domestic poultry and it is probable that this bird was shot by the farmer in defence of his birds.

In the 1960s birds of prey of different sizes were being caught alive in Hong Kong or were being brought over the border from China. They were either for the Chinese medicine or the food market. Enterprising bird dealers brought some to the door of the university’s Zoology Department where they might be bought for release. I photographed this one on the floor of Patricia Marshall’s lab where until it could be released a short time later it was attached by a temporary jess to a lab stool. I wonder if it escaped capture and the live market.

The Crested Serpent Eagle is now protected in Hong Kong.

Sunday 4 October 2020

Eaten Alive—From The Inside. Remarkable new observations of a snake preying on toads

A paper from Thailand has recently hit the herpetological headlines. We all know that snakes swallow their prey whole. They do not dismember their prey in order to swallow pieces, except when pieces, like the limbs of crabs or the tails of lizards fall off. That rule has just found a gruesome exception in the Small-banded Kukri Snake, Oligodon fasciolatus. After sometimes epic battles and the shedding of blood, this snake has been observed to cut a hole into the body cavity of the toad Duttaphrynus melanostictus and then cut out and eat the internal organs. During the attacks, the toads produced copious quantities of toxins from the skin and the parotoid glands on the neck; these caused the snake, when hit in the eye, to break off but then resume its attack.

Here is a description of the first time the authors observed this behaviour:

A large adult female O. fasciolatus was observed eating parts of an adult D. melanostictus. The toad was dead upon the observers’ arrival, but the soil around the two animals was bloody, indicating there had been a fight which eventually killed the toad. The snake used its enlarged posterior maxillary teeth to slit through the left side of the abdomen just underneath the left front leg. Its head was swung from side to side as it managed to cut through the skin of the toad. Slowly the snake inserted its head into the left side of the toad’s abdomen and subsequently it pulled out organs like liver, heart, lung and part of the gastrointestinal tract (at least the full stomach and full small intestines). During the process of retraction, the head was moved in different directions with a partly open mouth, allowing the teeth to cut the organs into smaller pieces which were then swallowed. 

Cutting a hole to eat the internal organs was not the only way of eating toads because the authors saw a smaller toad being swallowed whole in the conventional manner.

The new paper raises intriguing questions about both predator and prey. For example, is this method only employed against toads with high concentrations of toxin in the skin. In other words, as a way of avoiding the ingestion of toxins? Or is it used more widely against other animals that are too big to swallow?

The snake in question is a member of a genus of about 80 species that range from the Middle East to Indonesia. Do any of the other species employ the same method to prey on toads or other animals? In that respect, it is perhaps important that the Kukri snakes bear that name for a reason: the teeth towards the posterior of the upper jaw are large and shaped like a kukri, the knife carried by and forming the cap badge of the venerated regiment of the British Army, the Royal Gurkha Rifles. As every schoolboy knows the blade is sharp, very sharp. People who have handled kukri snakes have found that bites can be deep and much blood may be shed.

From Coleman et al.

In some species of Oligodon, the large teeth have been implicated in their feeding on the leathery eggs of reptiles which they cut open and then put their head inside to swallow the contents. I don’t think anybody had envisaged that they may use the same technique on live prey.

I am now wondering if the toads of the same species as the one observed being eaten alive in Thailand that are widespread in Hong Kong suffer the same fate in the coils of two species of Oligodon that are found there. One is the Taiwan Kukri Snake, O. formosanus, the species used to study in detail it method of opening eggs. It is said to also eat birds’ egg, frogs, lizards and small rodents. The other is the Golden Kukri Snake, O. cinereus, which is said to eat insects and spiders. I am not sure where that information originally came from but I do now wonder if the one we were lucky enough to find—they are uncommon—in 1968 at about 500 metres altitude just off Route Twisk in the New Territories would turn its nose up at the chance to open up a passing toad and eat it in bits from the inside.

Golden Kukri Snake. Hong Kong early 1968

Bringsøe H, Suthanthangjai M, Suthanthangjai W, Nimnuam K. 2020. Eviscerated alive: novel and macabre feeding strategy in Oligodon fasciolatus (Günther, 1864) eating organs of Duttaphrynus melanostictus (Schneider, 1799) in Thailand. Herpetozoa 33, 157–163 DOI 10.3897/herpetozoa.33.e57096 

Coleman K, Rothfuss LA, Ota H, Kardong KV. 1993. Kinematics of egg-eating by the specialized taiwan snake Oligodon formosanus. Journal of Herpetology 27, 320-327.

Kukris on the cap badge of
the Royal Gurkha Rifles

Friday 2 October 2020

Galapagos Flightless Cormorant. In the wake of the Beagle

One hundred and eighty-five years ago today His Majesty’s Ship Beagle weighed anchor in what is now known as Tagus Cove. She had arrived in the early evening of 30 September and Charles Darwin had spent the day ashore exploring the remarkable volcanic landscape of the island of Albemarle in the west of the Galapagos; there he also saw his first Land Iguanas.

Flightless Cormorant
Drying its short, sparse wing feathers

The waters and shoreline of Tagus Cove on the west coast of what Ecuador renamed Isabela was, when we were there in 2012 a good place to see Flightless Cormorants along with Galapagos Penguins, other birds and the ubiquitous Marine Iguana. Many tourists, even wildlife groups, do not see the cormorants because they live only on the northern half Isabela and the adjacent island of Fernandina (Narborough in Darwin’s day) to the west, and the shorter tours do not go to the landings where tourists are permitted on the west coast of Isabela.

The Flightless Cormorant is the largest cormorant and as can be seen from the photographs and video I made to show just this species, the wings are short with the feathers also reduced in size and number. It is very easy to see how flightlessness could have developed relatively recently; food inshore is abundant; there were no land predators until the arrival of feral dogs and cats; long feathery wings inhibit progress beneath the water. Under these circumstances, flight and the adaptations that go with flight would de disadvantageous. In Tagus Cove we were able to see two sea birds, one, a penguin, which became flightless over 50 million years ago, that uses its wings as flippers to ‘fly’ underwater, the other, a cormorant, which had a flying ancestor 2 million years ago, that uses its feet for propulsion.

For comparison, a Great Cormorant
(Phalacrocorax carbo)
João Manuel Lemos Lima on Wikimedia

It is not surprising that the Flightless Cormorant attracted the attention of comparative anatomists in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and now lends itself to genomic studies that try to determine the changes entailed by flightlessness, that, of course extend beyond the wing itself, in simple structural terms, to the size of the keel of the breastbone and the size of the muscles powering flight. Hans Gadow described the basic differences in 1902. In 1915 there followed a detailed description of the bones of the Flightless Cormorant in the Australian ornithological journal, Emu. It was written by an American surgeon and osteologist who appears to have been, even by the standards of the time, an odious character. Robert Wilson Shufeldt (1850-1934) achieved notoriety over his behaviour towards his second wife, the grand-daughter of John James Audubon. The whole story of how it all came to a judgement by the Supreme Court of the U.S.A. is described here. He also the author of books that promoted anti-black racial policies in that country. There is no doubt that in 2020’s parlance he would be ‘cancelled’.  However, he came to the conclusion that the Flightless Cormorant really was that, a cormorant sharing common ancestry with other living cormorants. He implied that the special genus erected for this one species, Nannopterum, was unnecessary. That conclusion, based on comparative morphology, was supported around a hundred years later by molecular phylogenetic analyses, such that our bird is usually now called Phalacrocorax harrisi. It shares a common ancestry with two extant species of the mainland americas, Double-crested Cormorant, P. auritus and the Neotropic Cormorant, P. brasilianus.

The Flightless Cormorant is found within 200 metres of the shore. Even the populations from Isabela and Fernandina, only 5 km apart at their nearest, are genetically distinct, so there is little mixing between populations, even along the shores of Isabela.

Like many of the animals of the Galapagos, Flightless Cormorants are fearless. None of us noticed for a while that one jumped onto the back of our inflatable panga and sat there ignoring the human passengers. The only reason I do not have a photograph is that it sat too near for the camera to focus. We can hardly be surprised that as recounted in my last post, Lord Moyne caught one and brought it back to London Zoo in 1932.

The population is said to fluctuate, like that of the Marine Iguana, with the El Niño-

Southern Oscillation. Once classified as ‘Endangered’, it is, with more recent estimates of population, classified by IUCN as ‘Vulnerable’. The survival of such a bird with a limited range in a specific and special habitat depends, of course, on avoiding an environmental catastrophe. If that catastrophe were to happen then we really would be in trouble.


Burga A, Wang W, Ben-David E, Wolf PC, Ramey, AM, Verdugo C., Lyons K, Parker PG, Kruglyak L. 2017. A genetic signature of the evolution of loss of flight in the Galapagos cormorant. Science 356 DOI: 10.1126/science.aal3345

Duffie CV, Glenn TC, Vargas FH, Parker PG. 2009. Genetic structure within and between island populations of the flightless cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi). Molecular Ecology 18, 2103-2111.

Kennedy M, Valle CA, Spencer HG. 2009. The phylogenetic position of the Galápagos Cormorant. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 53, 94-98. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2009.06.002 

Shufeldt RW. 1915. Comparative Osteology of Harris’s Flightless Cormorant (Nannopterum harrisi). Emu 15, 86-114.