Friday 29 April 2022

1950s Weekends at Romney Marsh. The Medics, Zoologists and a Spycatcher in Search of Marsh Frogs - and the Pub

When ‘Amo’ was in expansive mode the conversation at tea time was wide ranging, from what he was writing to the people (mostly old colleagues at the Royal Veterinary College) he loathed. One afternoon in the early 1970s he described how in the early 1950s he and a party had been to visit Romney Marsh each year to see and hear the introduced Marsh Frogs. I remember that he mentioned some of the people who were with him (Leo Harrison Matthews was one), that they were from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the British Herpetological Society (BHS) and that I had later read about the trips and the people who went on them. But where had I read it and who were his other companions?

By chance I was looking through an old Bulletin of the BHS when I came across an article by John Francis Deryk Frazer (1916-2008) describing the activities of the BHS in the early years. He wrote:

At this time, parties of members used to go to see the Edible Frogs at Ham gravel pits and the Marsh Frogs in Romney Marsh. One particular group which contained Malcolm Smith, Max Knight, Jack Lester and Dr. (later Professor) E.C. Amoroso, used to have an annual trip to the Marsh to see how the frogs were getting on, which so far as I can gather was a glorified pub crawl in which Marsh Frogs were included.

Whether this was the whole group I do not know but Frazer’s recollection is wrong in one detail. Amo was already Professor of Physiology at the RVC. All the trippers were well known in the scientific and herpetological world:

Malcolm Arthur Smith (1875-1958), formerly physician to the royal household of Siam had been retired since 1925 but worked in London at the Natural History Museum; he wrote the volume on British amphibians and reptiles for the New Naturalist series in 1951 and was founding president of the BHS.

Charles Henry Maxwell Knight OBE (1887-1968) was still working for the Security Service MI5 but also becoming established as a naturalist and broadcaster.

John ‘Jack’ Withers Lester (1908-1956) was Curator of Reptiles at London Zoo and leader of the televised ‘Zoo Quest’ expeditions filmed for the BBC. In an obituary, Matthews wrote:

For several years after 1950 he and a group of friends including the late F.J.F. Barrington made one or two week-end trips to Romney Marsh to study and collect the Marsh Frog Rana ridibunda, a gathering that became known facetiously as the ‘‘Ribi Bund”. Even on these  comparatively tame expeditions Jack’s splendid qualities were conspicuous—his patience and tenacity, his skill in finding and capturing the quarry, his equanimity on falling headlong into a marsh ditch in the small hours of a frosty March morning, and his good companionship on at last reaching the snug inn parlour to discuss the restoratives left out against our return.

Leonard Harrison Matthews FRS (1901-1986) was Scientific Director of ZSL from 1951.

Amo was of course Emmanuel Ciprian Amoroso, CBE, FRCS, FRCOG, FRCP, FRCPath, FRS (1901–1982).

The reader will note that a new name has now appeared in addition to those recalled by Deryk Frazer:

Frederick James Fitzmaurice ‘Snorker’ Barrington (1884-1956) was a surgeon at University College Hospital. Sir Charles Lovatt Evans, the physiologist, in an obituary wrote:

He was widely read in many directions, but especially in the biological sciences; natural history was his hobby, and he was often to be seen on Sunday mornings at the Zoological Gardens with which he became intimately familiar. Much of his spare time was occupied with research work, for which he had the gifts of penetrating observation, manual dexterity, and infinite patience. He was working in the laboratories of the Royal Veterinary College at the time of his death. His work on the neurological control of micturition, published in a series of papers from 1914 to 193, was outstanding, and, although it did not at first receive the recognition it deserved, it has stood the test of time. [Barrington is known for the eponymous structure in the brainstem, Barrington’s nucleus or the Pontine Micturition Centre.]

That pub looms large again and indeed fits the definition of ecology we propounded in the 1960s as the only useful knowledge to emerge from botany field trips: 

Ecology is the study of plants and animals in warm, dry weather and within 100 yards of a public house.

For those unfamiliar with the British herpetofauna the non-native Marsh Frog (now Pelophylax ridibundus) was introduced into a garden pond on Romney Marsh in February 1935 by Edward Percy Smith (1891-1968). That Smith, not to be confused with Malcolm Smith) wrote an account of their introduction in the Journal of Animal Ecology in 1939 while Malcolm Smith in his New Naturalist volume provided further details. In the 1930s and, indeed, until the genetics of European water frogs was sorted out in the 1960s, Marsh Frogs were often called Edible Frogs, and vice versa. Water frogs (Pelophylax) of whatever species were imported to supplement the many tens of thousands of Common Frogs (Rana temporaria) caught in Britain each year for class dissections and, when pithed, for practical physiology classes. The twelve Marsh Frogs were obtained from University College London (UCL). Edward Smith states that they had been kept in cold storage and without food for 18 months. Malcolm Smith wrote that they had just arrived at UCL from Debreczen (Debrecen) in Hungary when Edward Smith obtained them.

At the time he put the  frogs in his pond Edward Percy Smith was a company director and playwright, an occupation he continued into films (The Brides of Dracula, 1960, for example) and television, usually under the name of Edward Percy. He was elected Member of Parliament for Ashford in Kent at a 1943 by-election and held the seat until 1950 when he stood down. He clearly got more than he bargained for when spring arrived. ‘For weeks on end’, he wrote, ‘nobody could sleep on the pond side of the house, and the frogs were becoming a first-class nuisance’. In June two of the largest males had moved out of the garden and into a mere about half a mile away and began calling. By October all the frogs were in the mere. A year later (1936) the mere was full of young Marsh Frogs and individuals were found three miles away. By May 1937 in what E.P. Smith described as the ‘Great Year’ there was ‘an enormous amount of spawn, and tadpoles and minute frogs were to be seen everywhere’. Frogs were seen up to 14 miles away in both directions.

Over the years the spread of the Marsh Frog has been well documented and I think it must have been the large number of frogs, their large size, their rapid expansion in number and in range as well as the incredible noise that the males make in the breeding season that drew those distinguished scientists and naturalists to Romney Marsh in the early 1950s—as well as the thought of the local hostelry.

Monitoring the population and range of the Marsh Frogs in southern England has of course continued as the range has expanded northwards and other, possibly unrelated, colonies have been discovered. It did not go unnoticed that with such a small founder population a loss of genetic diversity and therefore the deleterious effects of inbreeding might have been expected. However, Inga Zeisset and Trevor Beebee found a similar degree of genetic diversity in the Kent population to that in Hungary and just as in other introduced species throughout the world whose populations boomed immediately there was no sign of a genetic bottleneck.

Two schools of thought emerged on the introduction of non-native amphibians and reptiles. The first was that the last Ice Age and the formation of the English Channel left the British Isles so impoverished in number of species that species found in continental Europe bounded by the North Sea and the English Channel should be given a helping hand to fill what were presumed to be empty ecological niches. Deliberate release was not involved in many cases because just as with the Marsh Frog colonies of escaped animals became established sometimes for a short period but others that persist to the present day. The view that we should allow the presumed empty niches to be refilled still persists but release has been illegal since 1981. The opposite view invokes the precautionary principle: that all non-native animals are potentially invasive and damaging to the native fauna and flora. The latter group has the accommodationists and the eradicators, the latter advocating the extermination of introduced species regardless of a demonstration of ecological damage. Whatever the views, and whatever the evidence of possible competition with Common Frogs or predation of other wildlife, there is no doubt that the descendants of  Edward Percy Smith’s Marsh Frogs are here to stay. By sheer chance they found themselves in an ideal habitat.

Finally, there is so much wrong information on the origins of the Marsh Frogs on Romney Marsh that I can only conclude that even so-called local experts have not read the original descriptions or even noted the correct date. Read at your peril. I did though enjoy this short video by Paul Bunyard:

Beebee TJC, Griffiths RA. 2000. Amphibians and Reptiles. A Natural History of the British Herpetofauna. London: HarperCollins.

Frazer D. 1983. The British Herpetological Society—a reminiscence. British Herpetological Society Bulletin No 8 December 1983, 10-12.

Frazer D. 1983. Reptiles and Amphibians in Britain. London: Collins

Smith EP. 1939. On the Introduction and distribution of Rana esculenta in East Kent. Journal of Animal Ecology 8, 168-170.

Smith M. 1951. The British Amphibians and Reptiles. London: Collins

Zeisset I, Beebee TJC. 2003. Population genetics of a successful invader: the marsh frog Rana ridibunda in Britain. Molecular Ecology 12, 639-646.

Wednesday 27 April 2022

Hire a Walrus? Well you could in 1897

Historians have documented the wide-ranging use of animals in the entertainments industry during the latter half of the 19th century, and even earlier. Travelling menageries for fairs and wakes, circuses, exhibitions and zoos large and small are obvious  players but so too were entertainers with exotic animal acts, often using snakes or crocodilians, who were appearing at the variety theatres throughout Britain. Even so it came as a surprise when I found that the theatrical newspaper of the time carried advertisements for exotic animals placed by the leading importers of the day, William Cross of Liverpool, Jamrach of East London and Carl Hagenbeck of Hamburg who all, to some extent, operated in concert.

The Era newspaper was published weekly from 1838 until 1939. From general coverage The Era became the great theatrical journal to the extent that actors and music hall artistes just had to buy it.

The advertisements give a flavour of the animal dealers’ businesses. They were not just selling animals. Hagenbeck was offering to design and build complete zoological gardens, while Cross was offering his pair of Walruses either for sale or for exhibition in a ‘large city’ for a share of the proceeds.

The advertisements provide snapshots of what animals were being imported and often show that far more were in circulation in Britain and in continental Europe than zoo records would imply. The dealers and showmen were also the source of the skins and skeletons that made their way to the burgeoning collections in university departments of zoology as professors engaged in outdoing others in the game of competitive museuming.

Since the dealers would have not have advertised their animals had they not been obtaining sales as a result, it is clear that the whole wild animal industry, not just those appearing on the stage, was using The Era to acquire stock. The newspaper closed in 1939 and the weekly Cage Birds was the main advertising medium, particularly for birds and mammals but with some reptiles, for the dealers of the 1950s and 60s. In this latter period there were tales of printers being bribed to tip off a well-known bird keeper about what choice specimens were on offer before the paper arrived at the newsagents each week. Perhaps something similar happened in the days of The Era.

And if you did not want the walruses then silk tights at 7s 6d or a switchback with gondola, cars and electric lights were  on offer.

I wonder what happened to the walruses.

The Era 4 September 1897

Tuesday 19 April 2022

A Günther’s Frog in Hong Kong

AJP spotted this frog at Tai Po Kau Forest Reserve last week. It is Günther’s Frog, named after Albert Charles Lewis Gotthilf Günther FRS (1830-1914) of the British Museum, or until he became a naturalized British subject in 1862, Albert K[C]arl Ludwig Gotthilf Günther. The species was described in 1882 by George Albert Boulenger FRS (1858-1937), another naturalized Brit at the same institution.

Günther's Frog

The three specimens of the frog shown in Boulenger’s catalogue (two females and one young) were collected at Amoy and were presented to the museum by Robert Swinhoe FRS who, for some of his time in China, was British Consul at Amoy (now Xiamen* in Fujian Province).

The plate showing Rana guentheri from Boulenger's Catalogue
for the British Museum published in 1882

Günther’s Frog was the second amphibian we saw after we arrived in Hong Kong in 1965. An evening walk to the lily pond in the university compound produced an abundance. They are common in lowland Hong Kong, with breeding starting in late March or early April. The frog is found in central and south China as well as Vietnam. Originally named Rana guentheri by Boulenger, it was known as Hylarana guentheri for many years before becoming Sylvirana guentheri as the result of a major molecular phylogenetic study in 2015.

The name of the frog always reminds me of another member of the Gunther family, Albert’s grand-daughter-in-law who I helped, I hope, in her research in the early 1970s. More on this—and the tragedy which killed a zoologist and left her a widow—in a future article.

The old Lily Pond in the University of Hong Kong
from Mellor B. 1980. The University of Hong Kong,
An Informal History.

*I wondered how the place we knew in English as ‘Amoy’ in the 1960s had become ‘Xiamen’ by the 1990s. The former is apparently the latter’s pronunciation in the Zhangzhou dialect of Hokkien.

Tuesday 12 April 2022

The Orcas we saw of Sri Lanka in 2013. I find we did have a photograph of the attack on a beaked whale

In the post here I described how, on 25 November 2013, we had seen two Orcas off Dondra Head in Sri Lanka while heading out to see Blue Whales. I continued:

Then things got even more interesting. A fellow traveller on the Naturetrek tour whale-watching extension sent us a still photograph which showed the orcas pushing what appeared to be some sort of dolphin with a brownish coloration around the base of a beak. I had missed it on video as I changed positions but could just see the end of the action as I began to film again. Other photographers had sent stills to OPSL [Orca Project Sri Lanka] and they in turn asked experts on marine mammals. Here is an extract from OPSL’s post of 19 December 2013 (the photographs are shown there):

…OPSL in collaboration with Josh McInnes of the The Transient Killer Whale Research Project are currently writing a small paper on a very exciting finding. When OM001 and OK008 visited Mirissa on the 25th of November, they decided to chow down on the local what's on their menu? Turns out they like Beaked whale, deep diving and little-understood cetaceans of the Ziphiidae family…Observation details include the orcas feeding on an unidentified object. In two of the images, a beak or rostrum can be seen with a patchy brown/green colouration to the surrounding skin. OPSL contacted Josh McInnes, who specializes in the study of mammal-eating (transient) killer whales of the Pacific Northwest, to offer his opinion on the ID. After looking at the photos, Josh concluded that the beak shape and brown/green colouration (caused by diatoms) appears to be consistent with that of a Blainville’s beaked whale Mesoplodon densirostris.

A couple of weeks ago I was looking through the still photographs AJP had taken. I was doing so in order to put them through Topaz DeNoise AI—a great piece of software that reduces drmatically the effects of diffraction in cameras with small sensors. When I enlarged one on screen there was the orca and in front of it, the beaked whale. The rostrum of the latter can be seen clearly.

Here is the photograph from the heavily cropped version to the full frame:

I have amended the original article.

OPSL’s site is well worth a visit because it provides links to details of the Orcas that we saw as well as the others spotted off Sri Lanka and where they went next in the world.

Tuesday 5 April 2022

Why do we have an enormous population of feral Ring-necked Parakeets in Britain?

A photograph on Flickr of a Ring-necked Parakeet (aka Rose-ringed Parakeet) (Psittacula krameri) taken near Barnsley in Yorkshire by Tim Melling reminded me that I had not commented on a paper that appeared in Journal of Zoology in 2020 on the origins of the large and spreading feral population in Britain. Tim always provides superb captions for his photographs and in this case noted there was more to the origins than was included in that paper.

Tim Melling's photograph on Flickr showing Ring-necked Parakeets
near Barnsley

The authors of the paper used a statistical technique (‘geographic profiling’) on sighting records to  estimate and compare the likely sites of introduction of the founding population(s) with suggestions that have appeared in the press as to where the original releases/escapes occurred. The technique is used apparently in criminal investigations. Needless to say the fabled points of origin did not coincide with the areas of calculated maximum likelihood. The origins of feral populations are often propagated by urban myths usually spread by tabloid journos in need of a story and the Ring-neck Parakeets in Britain are no exception. Two such stories implicate escapees from the set of the film African Queen in 1951 and/or the release in London by somebody called Jimi Hendrix (I had to look him up to find he was an American pop star) in 1968. More prosaic explanations include escapes from private or zoo aviaries and cages (damaged in storms or by falling debris or with corroded wire netting) and pet shops.

Tim concluded the legend for his photograph with: 

But Paul Dunham told me that he worked in a bird garden in the early to mid 1970s and he met many of the biggest bird importers. In his words "They would import 300/500 Ring-necked Parakeets at a time and would house them in aviaries with wooden frames. Of course the Parakeets would gnaw through the wooden frames and escape. I remember four mass escapes which amounted to more than a thousand birds escaping into the English countryside. There were two mass escapes in the London area, one near Cheltenham and another up north in Lancashire I think. These escapes are not hearsay. I heard it from the owners themselves complaining about their losses. I think these mass escapes are the real origins for the British population of Ring-necked Parakeets and not the result of a few pet caged birds escaping over the years”.

Indeed there was some key information lacking in the paper in Journal of Zoology. Yes, there had been reports of escaped Ring-necked Parakeets in Britain but it wasn’t until 1971 that breeding in the wild was first reported (in Kent). The authors of the paper in Journal of Zoology mentioned that  the import of all psittacines into Britain was banned from 1930 for two decades. However, they do not mention that the ban, which ended on 7 January 1952, was reimposed on 16 February 1953, not this time because of concern for psittacosis in the human population, but as a precaution against the introduction of poultry diseases. Partial exemption for individuals and zoos etc to import very small numbers of parrots came into force in 1959 but not until 1 November 1966 was the ban lifted completely. Then the floodgates opened. At around that time the number of bird importers in England probably also reached its peak. Thus Ring-necked Parakeets were imported in the numbers described above. Can it be a coincidence that breeding was first observed in 1971? But that mass importation did not go on forever. In 1990 India banned the export of its wild birds. By then though the parakeet had established a population in Britain, estimated in 1986 at 500-1000 individuals.

While major escapes from dealers are the likely explanation (and probably also for its presence in 35 countries to which it is not native on 5 continents) this does not mean that any birds which escaped from aviaries did not find mates in the local concentrations and general dispersal.

One question that remains is whether or not individuals of the African subspecies of the Ring-necked Parakeet were also involved in establishing the populations in UK or other countries. The bird trade from West Africa was in full swing throughout much the 20th century. And how genetically diverse is the UK population? An answer to that question would do much to determine the size of the founder population.

Smaller parakeets, like the domesticated Budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus), which have escaped regularly and in fair numbers have not become established in Britain. They easily fall prey to Sparrowhawks. Colonies of the larger Ring-necks are known to mob predators and their large beaks are not to be trifled with. My video taken in Gujarat, below, shows their efforts to see off a nest-raiding rat snake, although the terrific racket they make in doing so falls literally on deaf ears.

And, yes, Ring-necked parakeets have reached deepest Ayrshire. We had one in the garden a few years ago but it did not linger for more than a fe days. Now I read on the Ayrshire Wildlife Facebook page that they are now nesting 20 miles away in a park in Kilmarnock.

Parakeets mob a marauding rat snake

Female and male Ringnecked-Parakeets in the wild in Sri Lanka
Photographed in 2013

...and two males near Delhi, India, in 2016

Heald OJN, Fraticelli C, Cox SE, Stevens MCA, Faulkner SC, Blackburn TM, Le Comber SC. 2020. Understanding the origins of the ring-necked parakeet in the UK. Journal of Zoology 31, 1-11 doi:10.1111/jzo.12753 

Prestwich AA. 1967. The parrot ban. Avicultural Magazine 73 (1, January-February 1967), 25-26.