Tuesday 18 January 2022

The worm in the toad in the washing machine. Not the usual method of discovering a new species

Don’t leave your clothes on the floor in the tropics is a good maxim. It only takes a few cockroaches or venomous centipedes to run out in order to make the point. A couple returning to UK from Mauritius discovered they had a fellow traveller in their baggage. After emptying the contents of their suitcase into the washing machine and washing the clothes at what must have been a modest temperature, a toad—very much still alive—was found. Local herpetologists identified and housed the accidental migrant. It was a common African species, the Guttural Toad, Sclerophrys gutturalis, introduced into Mauritius in 1922 in an attempt to control the cane beetle.

A few days later, parasitic worms were found dead in the vivarium’s water bath, the ejection of which may have followed the shock of motion in the machine and/or the ingestion of detergent. The worms were preserved and were later identified as a new species of acanthocephalan. Acanthocephalans are gut parasites. They have a spiny proboscis which is used to pierce and hold the gut wall. Their life cycles are complex involving at least two hosts. The new species was named Pseudoacanthocephalus goodmani after one of the authors of the report who collected the toad from its accidental transcontinental carriers.

The toad, incidentally, grew and lived for another four years.

Oh…and tap your shoes or boots out before putting them on. That habit was instilled, as a necessary precaution against scorpions, into my wife as a young girl in Venezuela to the extent she still did it over a decade later in the depths of the 1963 freeze in Sheffield.

Allain SJR, Goodman MJ, Wilkinson JW. 2021. A series of unlikely events: from washing machine to new species. Herpetological Bulletin 156, 47-48 doi.org/10.33256/hb156.4748 

Thursday 13 January 2022

Were the ancestors of mammals, birds and crocodylians warm-blooded? A new paper argues they were

Claud Bernard’s dictum, La fixité du milieu intérieur est la condition de la vie libre et indépendante…, developed in the latter half of the 19th century has dominated thinking on the importance of constancy of the internal environment and of the mechanisms used, homeostasis, to maintain it. The corollary in evolutionary terms is that in terms of temperature regulation mammals and birds are at the peak of physiological efficiency. They generate heat from metabolic processes and keep their body temperature within fine limits.

Anything less than the mammalian and avian perfection of maintaining a stable body temperature has been viewed as a liability. After all it is self evident that at lower temperatures the ‘cold-blooded’ or poikilothermic vertebrates which do not generate sufficient heat internally cannot move so quickly and avoid predation, for example. That is all a simple matter of the effects of temperature on chemical reactions. Therefore, extant reptiles and amphibians have been looked on as relics of an inferior system of temperature generation and control with many of them using behavioural means to garner heat from the sun.

The view that reptiles had never developed the ability to generate heat was challenged fifty years ago by the suggestion that dinosaurs were warm-blooded in that they could generate heat internally (endothermy) rather than rely on heat from the environment (exothermy). Arguments have continued on whether new bits of evidence from the fossil record supports ectothermy, endothermy or something in between.

The generally accepted view of the mechanism of endothermy is that it must have arisen independently in the the evolutionary lines that ended up as mammals and birds and involved different biochemical mechanisms and tissues; indeed it is often referred to as an example of parallel evolution. The new paper turns that view on its head. In their scheme the authors suggest that the precursors of mammals and birds, as well as other reptile groups, had developed endothermy and that mammals and birds generate heat by a similar ancestral mechanism.

I will not go further into the extensive arguments the authors have mustered in support of their hypothesis but it does extend to take into account the structure and function of the circulatory system in mammals, birds and reptiles, for example.

If endothermy was, as the authors suggest, the ancestral condition, the question that arises is why animals like modern crocodilians have become cold-blooded animals more recently. Ectothermy (poikilothermy in old money) is highly efficient in metabolic terms. Reptiles have much lower metabolic rates than mammals of the same size and therefore require much less food. For ambush predators with an intermittent food supply that could be of great selective advantage.

A Mugger (Crocodylus palustris) basking in the sun at Sigiriya, Sri Lanka in 2013

Another Mugger in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka, 2013

Again if the authors are correct, we have to stop thinking of reptiles as losers in the race to develop endothermy and therefore enjoy Claud Bernard’s la vie libre et indépendante. You need a lot of energy from food or fat stores to be an endotherm and when the going is tough, loss of endothermy and la vie libre could well have been the evolutionary trade-off.

The paper by Gordon Grigg, Julia Nowack, José Eduardo Pereira Wilken Bicudo, Naresh Chandra Bal, Holly N. Woodward and Roger S. Seymour from universities in Australia, UK, India and the USA will promote a great deal of discussion across a wide range of disciplines. I think it is a case of watch this space.

Grigg G, Nowack J, Bicudo JEPW, Bal NC, Woodward HN, Seymour RS. 2021. Whole-body endothermy: ancient, homologous and widespread among the ancestors of mammals, birds and crocodylians. Biological Reviews  doi.org/10.1111/brv.12822

Wednesday 5 January 2022

Joan Procter and Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell at London Zoo: Barbary Apes and Innuendo

The relationship between Joan Beauchamp Procter, Curator of Reptiles at London Zoo until her death in 1931 and her boss, Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell has intrigued historians as well as past fellows and employees of the Zoo.  I wrote in a previous article:

Rumours that Mitchell, who was at least distant and perhaps estranged from his wife for a time, and Procter were lovers were rife in the 1920s and 1930s; indeed they persisted at least until the 1990s whenever his name came up in conversation with people to whom the story had been passed down the line from the 1920s. But were the rumours based on fact?

Some have argued that her severe illness and series of operations would have prevented close contact but their travels together and sojourn in Spain certainly had tongues wagging in London. Procter, who was described by Mitchell as his 'dear friend, ward and colleague’, was seen by some (Mitchell and his friends on the Council of the Zoo) as a person who could do no wrong but to others, Solly Zuckerman for example, as a person who had a beguiling influence on some men but could do little right.

In 1950, nearly twenty years after Joan Procter’s death at the age of 34 and five years after the death of Mitchell, an article on Barbary Apes appeared in Zoo Life, the house magazine of the Zoological Society of London. The author, on whom more later, had in 1928 been the British army officer charged with the welfare of the apes on Gibraltar and their feeding from Colonial Office funds of £3 per month; an NCO had the job of recording happenings in the life of the apes on the Rock. These matters were taken seriously given the legend that if the apes die out Britain will lose Gibraltar.

One male ape went ape during the author’s tenure. ‘Jacko’ broke into Government House, broke crockery and removed the Governor’s hair brushes which were never recovered. The order was given for the animal to be shot but the ape avoided that fate by never presenting himself as a clear target. Impasse. The author continued:

It happened just at this time that the lady curator of the Reptile House of the London Zoological Gardens [i.e. Joan Procter] was staying at Malaga in the south of Spain, and was related to a certain Gunner captain then stationed at Gibraltar. The latter, thinking it would be of interest, wrote and told her the story, which she passed on to the Secretary of the Zoological Society [Mitchell]. He immediately wrote to the Governor saying that they had no Barbary Ape in the Society's collection and would be very grateful if the delinquent in question could be caught and sent to them instead of being killed. The Governor therefore caused an amendment to be issued to his first instruction, the gist of which, boiled down, said “for ‘shoot' read ‘catch’”…

After a considerable time of trying to entice Jacko into a trap and then to a cage for transport by sea, involving it would seem just about every member of the Royal Artillery in Gibraltar, the ape eventually arrived in London where he lived to the age of 21.

In the meantime, the author of the article moved on, was captured at the fall of Singapore and decided to write his part in the story of the apes on the Rock while a prisoner-of-war. However, he had to contact the keepers after the war to catch up with the story of Barbary Apes at the Zoo and with what had happened to Jacko:

"Joan" and "Peter," the two present incumbents, arrived at the Gardens from Gibraltar in 1942 and 1944 respectively. "Joan" was then four years old and twice the size of "Peter" who was only two and a half. In due course they were introduced and by virtue of her superior years and size “Joan"' for a time, the dominant female and “Peter” noticeably henpecked. Since then "Peter" has gradually outgrown his partner and is now twice her weight. With vivid recollections of earlier indignities, he has been able to pay back with interest all the chastisement he received until, eventually, the brow-beaten and lacerated "Joan"had, not long ago, to be removed to the sanitorium. While there she succeeded in opening her cage door and can thus claim the distinction of being one of the few animals to escape from the Gardens. She remained at large in the near vicinity for three days, was eventually enveloped in a coat on some scaffolding by a workman, netted and ignominiously returned to convalescence.

The author noted that ‘Joan’ and ‘Peter’ had failed to breed.

I think we can safely assume that the keepers at the Zoo, many of whom served for decades, had made their minds up on the nature of the Procter-Mitchell relationship. It is, therefore, of interest that the author added:

Author’s note.—None of the characters in this story is fictitious.

While the author was pointing out that he was well aware who the apes were named after, was he aware of the more salacious innuendo?

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Who was Colonel Cecil Hunt, the author of the article and former subaltern i/c apes in Gibraltar?

Cecil Hunt (1899-1985) was a regular army officer, first, as during his time in Gibraltar, in the Royal Artillery and then, from 1934, in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. He had the misfortune of being posted to Singapore as an Acting Colonel and Deputy Director of Ordnance Supply eleven weeks before the Japanese invasion in February 1942. A prisoner until the end of the war with Japan, his daughter recalled that he reached Southampton on 5 November 1945 on board R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth. In 1955 and by then a Brigadier, Cecil Hunt was ADC to the Queen until his retirement and appointment as CBE in 1956. In retirement he lived with his wife in Camberley, Surrey. In 1966 he is shown as attending the memorial service for Lieutenant-General Percival, the much but possibly unfairly criticised GOC Singapore at the time of its capture. Percival served as president of the Far East Prisoners of War Association and I suspect we can take it that Hunt approved of the actions of his former GOC in both rôles.

The ‘Gunner captain’ in Gibraltar with Hunt must have been Joan Procter’s cousin, John Ralph Willoughby Curtois (1897-1972). Awarded the Military Cross as a Lieutenant in the Royal Filed Artillery in the First World War, by the time he retired from the army in 1944 he had risen to Lieutenant-Colonel. His mother and Joan Procter’s father were siblings.

Hunt C. 1950. A Mediterranean Memory…Barbary Ape. Zoo Life 5 2( Summer 1950), 56-58.