Tuesday 19 December 2023

Newting in Hong Kong

Nearly three weeks ago we had a walk through Tai Po Kau Nature Reserve in Hong Kong. On our usual walk (starting on the Yellow and ending on the Red routes) we were noticing the damage to the paths and rails done by the massive downpour caused by the remnants of Typhoon Haikui in September. Essentially that route goes up one side of a hillstream and down the other. We noticed a side pond off the main stream. A quick look showed a Hong Kong Newt (Paramesotriton hongkongensis) on a submerged branch. And then we realised there were around eight newts in there, clambering in the roots and branches, resting on the gravel or walking across the floor. It is in the winter months that the newts can be seen in the streams and ponds. They breed there, laying their eggs singly on submerged plants, and it may be that is what some of the newts we could see were doing. I fact, is that an egg I can see half-encirciled by the tail in the first photograph?

Totally hidden was their ventral coloration of orange-red blotches. Previously, including our time in Hong Kong they were collected and sold on roadside goldfish stalls (which is how we obtained the one I photographed in 1966). They are now protected.

Curious passers by were told what we were doing staring with binoculars into the bottom of pond as the newts went about being newts. Could we have started newting as a trendy fashion?. ‘Birding is soo over’, said AJP, as we carried on and the mixed flocks of birds failed to materialise.

Looks like a newt egg to me

Finally one from 1966 to show the ventral coloration:

Sunday 17 December 2023

Manakins from Ecuador: a colour plate from 1969

In the days when colour printing was extremely expensive, the Avicultural Society had special appeals for funds to support the appearance in Avicultural Magazine of the occasional colour plate. A well-known bird artist was then commissioned. Although the whole run of the Society’s magazines can be found online, the plates rarely see the light of day. Therefore I decided to show one, now and again, on this site. This is the 15th in the series.

– – – – – – – – – –

The plate was the work of John Raymond Quinn (1938-2012). He was staff artist at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

The article accompanying this plate was written by Jan Roger van Ooosten (1934-2005) who described his efforts to keep the two species of manakin in captivity after trapping them in Ecuador. An amateur aviculturalist he became director of Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle in 1971-1974 after working for Texaco. He developed a particular interest in Amazon parrots.

The Golden-headed manakin (now Ceratopipra erythrocephala) and Golden-winged Manakin (Masius chrysopterus), like the rest of the family, are known for their displays during lekking. We saw around five males of the former species in Guyana in 2006, making some effort at a display but not the full-blown spectacle.

Avicultural Magazine Vol 75, 1969 

Sunday 10 December 2023

The Sex Ratio at Birth. A new reminder of who described the ‘rarer-sex effect’ in evolutionary biology: John Austin Cobb

Everybody knows it was Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher (1890 –1962) who explained the basis of the 1:1 sex ratio at birth. The account came from his book on natural selection written in 1930. If males are produced in excess then females become more desirable; if females are produced in excess then it pays for parents to produce males, all things being equal. Over time the sex ratio must settle at 1:1. What I will not deal with here are circumstances in which all other things are not equal and the sex ratio may be modified in some species between conception and birth.

Fisher’s explanation of the sex ratio, the ‘rarer-sex effect’ is a famous principle of evolutionary biology. Except it was not Fisher’s. Andy Gardner of the University of St Andrews has recently published reminders that the first person to get the explanation right was John Austin Cobb in 1914. Gardner has also demonstrated that Fisher knew of Cobb’s earlier work and quoted it in another publication but did not name Cobb in his 1930 book. In those days scientific books were far more personal commentaries on the state of play in a particular field rather than the annotated bibliographies that many have become. Fisher wrote his book in the manner of the time, as an advanced textbook, stating his views across the whole field. Cobb was not omitted by design or oversight for the simple reason that there are very few references to the work of others—or to Fisher himself—anywhere in the book.

That Cobb and not Fisher was responsible for the ‘rarer-sex effect’ was uncovered in the late 1990s by A.W.F. Edwards in Cambridge. However, major reviews and books published since then have continued to overlook Cobb, continuing to credit Fisher for the insight.

In his paper Cobb clearly lays out the argument:

If we take the sex-ratio at birth it appears at first sight that the numbers of the sexes born will become equal. For if there are more born of one sex, say, the male, a female will have a greater chance of finding a mate than a male. There will be more matings, therefore, among the descendants of mothers of females than amongst the descendant of mothers of males. The mothers of females will therefore be better тергеsented in the third generation, and as their characteristic is assumed to be inherited, there will be a tendency for the sex-ratio to diminish until it reaches equality in numbers between the sexes at birth.

But who was John Austin Cobb? Cobb was a man in that enviable category of ‘gentleman scientist’. He had sufficient money not to have to work for a living. Edwards and Gardner found something of Cobb and his life, and I have managed to add a little more but we only have an outline of his life and the papers he wrote but little else to explain how he became interested in statistics and the mathematical treatment of evolution and other matters.

John Austin Cobb was born in the village of Sheldwich, Kent on 27 November 1866, the son of a farmer. He was educated at Haileybury (1879-1884) taking the intermediate examination for admission as a solicitor in 1884. In January 1885 he matriculated in the University of London but there appears to be no indication that he completed his studies, nor of for how long he was a member of the university or the subjects he took. In 1889 he qualified as a solicitor. In 1891 he married Helen Isabel Marrs in Minneapolis. Why he had gone to the USA and what he did while there are not known but the family appeared to move between England and the USA for a time in the 1890s. For example, the first child was born in Surrey in 1892, the second in Minneapolis in 1896 and the third and fourth in Surrey in 1898 and 1899. From Minneapolis in 1896 he published a paper in Nature.

Only photographs of John Austin Cobb
as a boy appear to be in circulation.
The one shown here taken in 1880
at the age of 14 is also in Gardner's paper

The family lived at 108 Church Road, Richmond, including, in the 1901 Census, Cobb’s American mother-in-law. The house (which can be seen on Google Earth) is a substantial one, now divided into flats and he is shown as employing four domestic servants. He is shown in the 1901 and 1911 censuses as living on ‘private means’ which indicates he was not working for a living in any capacity.

I do not know whether Cobb ever worked. In the marriage certificate of one daughter he is described as ‘manufacturer (deceased)’ but since that was the occupation of the groom’s father, it is possible there was some confusion. In a translation from the German of his daughter’s death certificate he is described as a ‘barrister’, a misinterpretation of the word for lawyer in German.

John Austin Cobb died on 23 October 1920, aged 53, at ‘Hotel Messena, 11 Rue Bachaumont, France’ (an address in Paris). His address in London was given as Portland Hotel, Great Portland Street, formerly of Richmond.

Gardner lists the following publications by Cobb:

Cobb JA. 1896. Measurement of crabs. Nature 55, 155. doi:10.1038/055155b0

Cobb JA. 1905. Halation. Nature 73, 54. doi:10.1038/073054c0 [an exploration of the phenomenon caused by light reflecting back through a film layer onto photographic emulsion, suggesting Cobb had an interest in photography.]

Cobb JA. 1908. The effect of errors of observation upon the correlation coefficient. Biometrika 6, 109 doi:10.2307/2331561

Cobb JA. 1913. Human fertility. Eugenics Review 4, 379–382.

Cobb JA.. 1914. The problem of the sex-ratio. Eugenics Review 6, 157–163. 

Cobb JA. 1914. Sex ratio. Review of Reviews 50, 128.

Cobb JA. 1914. The alleged inferiority of the first-born. Eugenics Review 5, 357-359.

Cobb became well-known in the eugenics world for his paper on differences in fertility (actually fecundity) between classes and its implications for future generations. It all made perfect sense but only if fecundity and intelligence were determined entirely genetically—the downfall of eugenics in most of its many manifestations. Poor Cobb would now have been ‘cancelled’ by the misguided zealots who bathe in wilful ignorance.

I have been unable to find any publications by Cobb after 1914. He suffered two family disasters around this time. His daughter, Sybil Josephine, died while at school in Dresden, Germany, in 1913, aged 14. His son, John Eldridge, an observer in 21 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, was killed near Ypres in 1917 when his aircraft suffered engine failure on take off.

Cobb had two other children. Mildred Isabel (1892-1981) married an American lawyer in England and then lived in the U.S.A. They had three daughters. Roland Marrs Cobb (1898-1948) was a Royal Navy officer who served at the Battle of Jutland; he retired as a Commander. He married in 1930 and had a son, Dudley Marrs Cobb in 1931.

There is a chance that more information on Cobb will emerge and shed light on how he acquired his interests and statistical expertise. In the latter respect, he impressed Karl Pearson, by his note showing how errors in x and y affect the correlation coefficient—a point I heard discussed at a symposium just before covid.

In conclusion, Andy Gardner writes highly of Cobb’s contributions to the ‘rarer-sex effect’. It is certainly time to recognise the seminal contributions of this unaffiliated gifted amateur of the early 20th century.

Edwards AWF. 1997. The Galton Lecture: The Eugenics Society and the development of biometry. In Essays in the history of eugenics (ed. RA Peel), pp. 156–172. London: Galton Institute. 

Edwards AWF. 1998. Natural selection and the sex ratio: Fisher’s sources. American Naturalist 151, 564–569 doi:10.1086/286141

Fisher RA. 1930. The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Gardner A. 2023. The rarer-sex effect. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 378, 20210500. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2021.0500

Gardner A. 2023. R.A. Fisher on J.A. Cobb’s The Problem of the Sex Ratio. Notes and Records of the Royal Society doi:10.1098/rsnr.2023.0067 

Thursday 7 December 2023

TADPOLE HUNTER by Arnold Cooke

Tadpole Hunter: A Personal History of Amphibian Conservation and Research by Arnold Cooke. Lodon: Pelagic Publishing. 2023.

I have enjoyed reading this book. Arnold Cooke describes his own work in studying amphibians and their conservation in the wild over the decades from the late 1960s. In doing so he draws in the people he has met and worked with on the way. He pioneered methods to study local amphibian populations and stuck at it in his spare time as he moved from job to job in Britain’s ever-shifting landscape of official conservation bodies and of his responsibilities for different species. His accounts of studies and their conclusions are well illustrated by graphs, tables, charts, maps and photographs.

His long-term monitoring, observations and conservation measures were started at a time when amphibian populations were in serious decline and while dealing with species like the Natterjack Toad which have particular requirements, most of his work was on the more common species that inhabit or did inhabit broad swathes of the country. And that is where my enjoyment of the book and admiration for the author was tinged by sadness. He describes ponds and wet areas of eastern England as study sites that have simply disappeared or have become so overgrown and degraded that they no longer support populations of frogs, toads or newts; even habitats established for amphibian conservation and had thriving populations have since been neglected. The pressures of ‘development’ to house an increasing human population, rather than—but in some cases as well as—agricultural practices, are still causing loss of natural habitat. He found that the simple garden pond is an important resource in urban areas.

It is also clear that we still do not understand the ecophysiological factors that determine whether, for example, a Common Frog will choose to breed in a particular pond and what external factors determine the timing of egg laying. There are some clues in relation to temperature and rainfall but few definitive answers. One personal example is that until local yobs destroyed the lining of the pond in our front garden a few years ago, the healthy population of Common Frogs first produced eggs on or up to 2 days before 15 March for over 20 years despite the vagaries of the weather and possible changes in climate on the Ayrshire coast.

My reading was also tinged by anger at the changes which destroyed and balkanised institutions involved in understanding and conserving the natural environment. Arnold Cooke started work at Monks Wood Experimental Station in 1968: ‘There was a great deal of freedom afforded to scientists at Monks Wood in the heady days of the 1960s and early 1970s’. Subsequent reorganisations involving the splitting of research from practical conservation in the field were devastatingly bad for the environment, for science and the scientists involved. Arnold, whom I met while he was involved in research on eggshell thinning by pesticides in 1973, moved over to the Nature Conservancy side, the organisation given the job of practical conservation until further reorganisation, balkanisation and retitling.

Arnold Cooke touches on some of the difficulties that he observed between the individuals and organisations involved in the conservation of reptiles and amphibians in Britain during the 1970s and 80s. Interest and enthusiasm developed in some cases into zealotry and the personality clashes I saw from a distance while editing the British Journal of Herpetology (now the Herpetological Journal) in the late 1970s. He seems to have sailed through, possibly, as he says, as the only professional and official conservationist in the room, making friends and colleagues in the process.

The text, divided into case studies for particular species and particular sites, shows how knowledge and practical conservation the field have developed over the past 50-odd years—a valuable and important source for anybody entering the field as a professional or amateur. In addition, the extensive list of references provides a valuable resource for all those interested in the life of amphibians and their conservation.

Highly recommended.

Thursday 16 November 2023

A Daurian Redstart -Winter Visitor in Hong Kong

The Daurian Redstart (Phoenicurus auroreus) is a common winter visitor to Hong Kong. AJP photographed this one recenty on the island of Lantau. This is a male.

Tuesday 14 November 2023

The Tawny Rajah in Hong Kong

AJP sent these photographs from Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago. The Tawny Rajah (Charaxes bernardus) is a large and fast flying butterfly. Uncommon in Hong Kong, he saw a number flitting around behind Pak Lap Wan beach on High Island. A female actually settled very close for a frame-filling photograph.

Monday 13 November 2023

Red-necked Keelback. A snake caught in the act of being venomous AND poisonous in Hong Kong

My daughter-in-law and grand-daughter were treated to this sighting in the ladies’ lavatory of an outdoor play centre in the New Territories of Hong Kong last weekend. This a is a Red-necked Keelback, a snake that is both venomous and poisonous, but one which was thought to be neither for decades.

The species, now  Rhabdophis subminiatus, was lumped in with our Grass Snake in the genus Natrix as harmless colubrid snakes. It is now known that it is a rear-fanged, venomous snake. There has been at least one fatality and a number of cases of severe haemorrhage after people have been bitten. Then it was discovered that the snake is not only venomous, it is, like all members of the genus, poisonous too. It accumulates toxins from the toads it eats and stores them in glands in the neck, the nuchal glands. Any attack or approach by a predator is met by the snake adopting one of three defensive posture in which the neck is pointed towards or moved to contact the predator. For example, the mouth is pointed downwards with the neck arched upwards.

The nuchal glands were discovered in a Japanese species of the genus by Nakamura in 1935. Nakamura also realised the glands, which lie just under the skin, produce something noxious. He was sprayed in the eye with yellow droplets as he decapitated the snake. He could not fail to notice the great pain. Others, previously, had noticed sore eyes after handling these snakes. Malcolm Smith (1875-1958), after he retired as house physician to the royal household of Siam, studied the nuchal glands in a number of species. They are paired structures which in some species extend the length of the back as well as the neck.

The glands are unusual in that they have no lumen for secretion to accumulate nor a duct to the exterior. The yellow, foul-smelling secretion is formed by breakdown of the secretory cells and also contains lymphatic and pigment cells. It is easy to see how a predatory bird grasping the snake by the neck break the skin and be confronted, in effect, by toad toxins. However, breaking the skin and damaging the nuchal glands may not be the only way for the secretion to be released.

In 2011 Kevin Messenger, Daniel Rosenberg, Kevin Caldwell and William Sargent came across a Red-necked Keelback in a hole on the side of a water catchment on Lantau island in Hong Kong. The snake after it had been caught, but not by the neck, arched its neck against a glove and then secretion began to ooze from the region of the nuchal glands. How, without ducts to the exterior this was accomplished is not known. Would contraction of the neck muscles suffice? Is there a myoepithelium surrounding the glands which might contract? Is there a mechanically weak pathway to the exterior for the secretion to reach the surface? What are the mechanisms providing defence against, and transport from the gut to the glands, of toad toxins? Much remains to be discovered about the Red-necked Keelback and others of its genus.

My grand-daughter was very lucky to see the scenario of killing, feeding and getting hold of defensive toxins. The toad, Duttaphrynus melanostictus, was not so lucky.

Messenger KR, Rosenberg D, Caldwell KK, Sargent WL. 2012. Rhabdophis subminiatus helleri (Red-necked Keelback). Defensive Behavior. Herpetological Review 43, 497.

Mori A, Burghardt GM, Savitzky AH, Roberts KA, Hutchinson DA, Goris RC. 2012. Nuchal glands: a novel defensive system in snakes. Chemoecology 22, 187-198 DOI 10.1007/s00049-011-0086-2 


Sunday 5 November 2023

Buff-Throated Sunbird: a colour plate from 1969

In the days when colour printing was extremely expensive, the Avicultural Society had special appeals for funds to support the appearance in Avicultural Magazine of the occasional colour plate. A well-known bird artist was then commissioned. Although the whole run of the Society’s magazines can be found online, the plates rarely see the light of day. Therefore I decided to show one, now and again, on this site. This is the 14th in the series.

– – – – – – – – – –

The artist for this plate was Chloe Elizabeth Talbot Kelly (born 1927) who went on to illustrate a number of field guides. Her paintings of birds appear in art sales. She began painting in 1945 at the Natural History Museum in London.

The article accompanying this plate was written by Arthur Alfred Prestwich (1903-1987) who was for many years Secretary of the Avicultural Society.

The Buff-Throated Sunbird, Chalcomitra adelberti, is a West African species. It was first collected by and named for Vice-Admiral Marie-Charles Adelbert le Barbier de Tinan (1803-1876). 

Avicultural Magazine Vol 75, 1969

Tuesday 31 October 2023

How Female Frogs Get Rid of Unwanted Male Attention. Shades of Maxwell Savage 90 years on

What a surprise it was to see behaviour I had seen in frogs around 1959 described in the news media a couple of weeks ago. And what a delight when I looked up the original paper that the same behaviour had first been recorded by Ronald Henry Maxwell Savage (1900-1985) (see my earlier articles here and here) in 1934.

The recent paper which attracted media attention reiterated Savage’s observations on female Common Frogs, Rana temporaria. In to order to escape amplexus, which can sometimes, or often, involve more than one male in the female-grabbing frenzy of what the authors term ‘explosive’ breeders, the female uses a numbers of tactics. Grunting (thought to be ‘I have already laid my eggs so you are wasting your time’ signal is one such tactic. Others are rolling sideways and playing dead for sufficiently long for the males to lose interest. Different tactics were employed by female frogs of different size. Larger ones mainly grunted and rolled; smaller ones did the same but were more likely to appear dead. 

Amplexus of a single female with a number of males is known to be a dangerous activity for the female which can lead to drowning. So keen are the males that even goldfish in the same pond may not escape the clutches of a male frog.

These tactics of mate avoidance can be interpreted in two ways. First, they enable a female to select a mate, perhaps on the basis of who can kick away their rivals. Second, the female while having arrived at the breeding pond may not be physiologically ready to ovulate and lay eggs, and having males hanging on for longer than necessary may be a dangerous encumbrance. In other words, on a particular occasion, are females ridding themselves of particular males or all males.

I saw and heard all the tactics described in Common Frogs I was keeping around 1959. For some reason I cannot now remember I had them in a large container in my grandfather’s greenhouse. I recall there was only one female with about four males. After all the mating ball activity, things settled down with just one male in amplexus. The female did not lay her eggs until about a week later which always led me to suppose that there was some physiological process occurring leading to ovulation. By contrast in our garden pond (until it was ruined by local vandals) I have seen females join males and lay their eggs during the first night of amplexus.

Dittrich C, Rödel M-O. 2023. Drop dead! Female mate avoidance in an explosively breeding frog . Royal Society Open Science 10, 230742 DOI: 10.1098/rsos.230742 

Savage RM. 1934. The breeding behaviour of the common frog, Rana temporaria temporaria Linn., and of the common toad, Bufo bufo bufo Linn. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 104, 55-70.

Monday 30 October 2023

A Painted Jezebel in Hong Kong - a butterfly that is

Whoever gave this butterfly—common throughout much of Asia—its English name must have had a sense of humour.  Lepidoptery was in the past a favoured pastime of members of the clergy and the embarassment of having to say or write the name must caused a shudder to those narrow-minded nonconformists who reserved the title for 'fallen' women or even those spotted in the street wearing lipstick. The strictures of the clergy were adopted by the 'respectable' man in the street. Indeed, fathers of my mother's generation were adamant that their daughters were not going out in the street wearing make up, 'like a painted jezebal'.

This Painted Jezebel (Delias hyparete) sat still long enough to be photographed by AJP north of Tai Po in the New Territories of Hong Kong last week.

Friday 20 October 2023

Richardson’s Ground Squirrel

Richardson's Ground Squirrel aka Flickertail

I have lost count of the number of times I have been to Grasmere in the Lake District for Rank Prize Funds symposia. Not all that long ago the only place in the village it was possible to get a mobile phone signal was by the church tower. I did not know until today that the grave of Sir John Richardson FRS FRSE (1787-1865) lies only a few yards from where I struggled with my Nokia. Indeed, in June were were in North Dakota watching this eponymous Ground Squirrel harvest the grass seeds and leaves from around it burrow; in July I was back in Grasmere—but not in the churchyard.

It also took me years to discover that a ground squirrel I kept in the early 1960s was of this species. They were listed by animal dealers of the time as Flickertails. It was only when I got a hold of Walker’s Mammals of the World that I found there other common and scientific names. So common is the ground squirrel that North Dakota has the nickname, Flickertail State. The tail which is small really does flick but in long grass the movement is difficult to see. My Flickertail became tame, up to a point. It would take food from the hand but any closer movement meant a rapid retreat to a cave I had arranged on a thick substratum of dried earth and sand in which it could dig.

Sir John Richardson was born in Dumfries, and a graduate of Edinburgh medical school. He served as a naval surgeon and arctic explorer. He was a friend of Sir John Franklin and a member of the latter’s expeditions of 1819-1822 and 1825-1827. He was also involved in the vain search for Franklin and his team in 1847. Joseph Sabine FRS (1770-1837) lawyer, turned horticulturalist, botanist and zoologist named the ground squirrel after Richardson in 1822.

Richardson’s Ground Squirrel has been assigned to several genera over the years. For decades it was known as Spermophilus richardsonii but in 2009 that genus was split into eight and S. richardsonii became Urocitellus richardsonii.

Seeing these ground squirrels involved nothing more than walking out of the hotel door in Minot, North Dakota and looking over an area of mown grass between the hotel and the main road. There these ground squirrels popped up and down into their burrows, not concerned at all by vehicular traffic but soon disappearing when humans walked by.

Tuesday 10 October 2023

Swinhoe’s Pheasant: a colour plate from 1961

In the days when colour printing was extremely expensive, the Avicultural Society had special appeals for funds to support the appearance in Avicultural Magazine of the occasional colour plate. A well-known bird artist was then commissioned. Although the whole run of the Society’s magazines can be found online, the plates rarely see the light of day. Therefore I decided to show one, now and again, on this site. This is the 13th in the series.

– – – – – – – – – –

The artist was John Cyril Harrison (1898-1985). For most of his life he lived in Norfolk. He trained at the Slade after the First World War and became well known for his wildlife paintings, especially birds. He was a regular visitor to Scotland, parts of Africa and Iceland. He was prolific and his work often appears in auctions.

The short article accompanying this plate was written by Philip Wayre (1921-2014) who in 1959 had founded the Ornamental Pheasant Trust. He also had a small zoo at Great Witchingham, the Norfolk Wildlife Park.

Philip Wayre wrote:

In 1958 two pairs of wild-caught Swinhoe’s were obtained from Formosa [Taiwan] by Dr K.C. Searle of Hong Kong. These were sent to England and were presented to the Ornamental Pheasant Trust, then in the process of formation, by Miss Kay Bonner and Mr A.A. Prestwich. From these birds two young cocks were reared that year and these have since been mated to home-bred birds. The Trust has, therefore, a much-needed change of blood with which to work.

Swinhoe’s Pheasant (Lophura swinhoii) is a Taiwan endemic. Robert Swinhoe (1836-1877) was of course responsible for its collection. It was named for him by Robert Gould in 1863. Guild insisted that he should describe and paint the entire collection that Swinhoe had brought back to London, or none at all.

Avicultural Magazine Vol 67, 1961

Friday 6 October 2023

Nick Arnold (1940-2023). Herpetologist at the Natural History Museum

Sad news in The Times this week. Nick Arnold former curator of herpetology at the Natural History Museum died on 23 September, aged 82. An obituary in today’s edition followed the announcement from the family earlier in the week.

Well known for his work on lacertid lizards, he will be most familiar to most as the author of the Collins Field Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Britain and Europe. The 1st edition in 1978 was written with John Burton; of the 2nd edition in 2002 he was the sole author. Denys Ovenden (1922-2019) illustrated both superbly.

Announcement in The Times

An obituary in The Times from today (6 October 2023)

Snake Soup and Snake Shops in Hong Kong - and a bit of science

On 11 July 2018 an article in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that a a long-established snake restaurant in Hong Kong was to close. That was She Wong Lam, then located in Hillier Street, Sheung Wan. The restaurant, certainly in business by 1910, was in the fourth generation of Lo family ownership. The manager, in the business since 1948, having reached his late 80s, wished to retire. The family, having emigrated to Canada, decided to sell up.

The SCMP was accompanied by a video that can be seen on YouTube.

What people reading that article would not have realised was that the then head of the family firm had provided very useful information to John Romer on where Chinese Cobras (Naja atra, but then regarded as a subspecies of the Indian Cobra, N. naja) were being imported from and on the magnitude of the trade. In addition, She Wong Lam was also been the source of specimens used to study the reproductive biology of the cobra at the University of Hong Kong in the 1960s.

Snake soup is famous in Hong Kong as a winter ‘warming’ food and we were taken to She Wong Lam in early 1966 as newcomers to the zoology department in the University of Hong Kong. The SCMP reported that She Wong Lam had moved around Sheung Wan during its long history. In the late 1970s it was at 82 Jervois Street. However, I recall it being on one of the streets at right angles to, rather than parallel with, Des Voeux Road on Hong Kong Island. It could have been Hillier Street, the site in the 2000s but not in the late 1970s. The restaurant not only provided snake soup but snake gall bladder as well. We watched from the pavement outside as a snake, alive of course, was pulled from a wooden cabinet. With the head firmly grasped in one hand, the other hand, holding a small knife, was run down the ventral scales. That hand came to a sudden halt and with a tiny movement a small slit was made in the skin and body wall. The body was then pressed with the fingers and out popped the gall bladder which was nipped off and dropped into a small glass of Chinese wine. Gently rotated the gall bladder could be seen shedding the green biliverdin into the wine. The snake minus gall bladder was returned to a drawer, probably next in line for sale in soup. I am pretty certain that the snake handler was the manager in his late 80s, Mak Dai-kong, shown in the SCMP article.

We were fascinated by how the handler located the precise location of the gall bladder. We could not decide whether he felt and counted the number of ventral scales back from the head to the precise location or whether he felt for other structures in the body cavity to guide him. Whatever the method it was an impressive piece of precision surgery to witness, if not for the unfortunate snake. The SCMP stated that the knife used was devised by each handler. My best comparison is a Swann-Morton scalpel blade No.12—the one with the hooked end

Snake in soup we found indistinguishable from good chicken in consistency and flavour. In those days though She Wong Lam also served civet ‘cat’—the Masked Palm Civet, Paguma larvata, a species also traded throughout China but also native to Hong Kong. Coronaviruses had not then been discovered! Civet meat proved to be dense with a peculiar but not wholly unpleasant sweet, aromatic flavour. But that it another story.

A page from John Romer's Notebook held in the
Zoological Society of London Library

She Wong Lam appears in John Romer’s notebooks (preserved in the Zoological Society of London’s library). Romer clearly kept in touch with the then owner, Lo Shu Fai, and bought from him, for HK$24, an extremely pale-coloured Chinese Cobra on 16 October 1978. Lo told Romer that the snake probably originated in Kwangsi [Guangxi] and that he believed that only 1 in 100,000 received were of that pale coloration. One Romer had from Lo in 1958 was the only other he had seen in 20 years. Those numbers would imply that over a period of 20 years Lo had imported and sold 200,000 Chinese Cobras, or 10,000 a year. That is a lot of cobras going from the wild to just the one business in Hong Kong.

Romer asked Lo for his opinion of two other unusually but differently coloured cobras. The live snakes had been confiscated from an unlicensed hawker on 17 December 1979 and passed to Romer’s Pest Control Unit for disposal. When asked by Romer to examine the live cobras, Lo ‘seemed confident in his opinion that these these snakes had originated in Burma, having been sold by Burmese to Thai collectors in a Burma-Thai border area and then exported from Thailand to Hong Kong’.

With such a ready supply it is not surprising that cobras were used in a study of seasonal changes in the testis and the control of androgen and sperm production. They were brought to the lab in distinctive circular wire cages with a door in the centre of the top. I found a photograph on that most excellent website on the history of Hong Kong, GWULO. Cobras unfortunate to be caught for the food trade had their fangs pulled out at some stage on their way to the soup bowl. I do not know if that was the case in those sold by She Wong Lam to the university but nobody was taking any chances. Gauntlets (of the thickest imaginable leather) and long tongs were in evidence as Mr Leung, the senior animal technician and later chief technician in the department, despatched the snakes for their tissues to be collected. The bodies apparently did not go to waste but made their way to the cooking pot.

From Gwulo

Cobras were not of course the only snakes on sale. I bought a python now known as the Burmese Python, Python bivittatus, on 14 March 1967. Mr Mak, chief technician and general fixer of the zoology department, arranged it all and the python came complete with receipt bearing the legally required stamp duty of 15 HK cents from She Wong Lam’s shop in Kowloon (another branch of the restaurant). I reimbursed the departmental petty cash the sum of HK$29.40. The receipt though answers the question of where the restaurant in Kowloon was situated. According to the SCMP article in 2018, nobody a local historian asked could remember. It was at 117 Tung Choi Street in Mongkok. Another branch was in Wanchai, on the corner of Hennessy and Fleming Roads.

More recent videos and photographs from Hong Kong snake restaurants show mainly the non-venomous Beauty Rat Snake found over much of south and east Asia. It shuffles between being called Elaphe taeniura and Orthriophis taeniurus. In Hong Kong this snake has been found only in recent years in localised pockets on Hong Kong Island. Although Hong Kong is within the natural range of the species, there is the possibility or even strong probability that the populations have become established by escapes or releases from the food and/or pet trades.

The story of She Wong Lam does not end there. The restaurant on Hillier Street, complete with the old wooden cabinets to hold the snakes, can be seen in a video taken recently in Hong Kong by a ‘vlogger’ seeking snake soup. Indeed the shop can be seen on Google Earth still with Chinese characters for She Wong Lam. Perhaps the Lo family did not sell out after all or, if they did, the new owners kept the same name and the same line of business.

The SCMP article in 2018 makes the point that there are a number of other snake restaurants in Hong Kong, particularly in the Sham Shui Po and Yau Ma Tei areas in Kowloon (there are recent YouTube videos). However, it was Mr Lo (of whichever generation he was) of She Wong Lam who left his mark in the notebook of John Romer and in research in comparative endocrinology.

We should be in Hong Kong in November. I might go and have a look at Hillier Street and the old snake cabinets.

Saturday 30 September 2023

Spotted in North Dakota: White-tailed Jackrabbit

Spotted by one of our party on a large patch of grass between blocks of housing this White-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii) caused great excitement. We were driving into Minot, North Dakota, in the late afternoon. This species is almost entirely nocturnal, solitary and sparsely distributed; our luck was in on that day in late May. It leapt across the grass and then stood stock still before eventually moving off again.

This photograph is a still from video.

Monday 25 September 2023

A Hong Kong Butterfly: the Lemon Emigrant

 From Hong Kong last week came this photograph of a Lemon Emigrant (Catopsilia pomona), a common species over much of south-east Asia and Australia. As its names implies it is migratory.

Tuesday 19 September 2023

A Hong Kong Bush-Cricket or Katydid - Disguised as a leaf

From Hong Kong last week came this photograph of a grasshopper bush-cricket or katydid. And no, we don't know which species it is.

Thanks all those who responded to say that this is a katydid or bush-cricket, genus Eimaea of the family Tettigoniidae. But, as an excuse for those us from a school of zoology where everything below a fish was a plant, they are also sometimes called long-horned grasshoppers.

Wednesday 13 September 2023

John Romer’s Cobra Bite in Hong Kong 65 Years Ago

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) of 23 May 1958 reported:

At the time the Chinese Cobra (Naja atra) was considered a subspecies of the Indian Cobra (Naja naja).

In his entry in Contributions to the History of Herpetology Romer’s family had provided the circumstances of the bite: ‘a supposedly dead Chinese cobra brought in for identification bit Romer on a finger, which required skin grafts and he needed months of recovery’.

In his notebook, Romer later recorded:

An adult male, caught at Tai Po Kau in the New Territories and received from Dr. P. A. M. Van de Linde* on 21st May 1958, bit me on the middle finger of the right hand shortly after its receipt the same day. Only the right fang penetrated the finger. Scales in 21 rows at mid-body. Ventrals 171. Anal 1. Subcaudals 50. Total length 1,330, tail 210 mm. (Scale-counts  made and checked by Miss Lo Shum Chung Ngok) Specimen subsequently prepared as complete skeleton. The hood marking was of the binocellate type but incomplete (i.e. interrupted at base).

Three days later, readers of the SCMP were assured by better news :

At the time he was bitten, Romer was in correspondence with Hugh Alistair Reid (1913-1983) about the coverage and advice on snake bite to be included in his guide to the venomous snakes of Hong Kong. Alistair Reid was then at the General Hospital in Penang, Malaya and establishing himself as a world expert on snake venoms and the treatment of those bitten. 

On 9 June he wrote to Reid:

I am at present in hospital, having been bitten by a large Naja naja in the middle finger of my right hand. Although only the right fang penetrated my finger, it was a deliberate and forceful bite and probably involved a fair quantity of venom. You will be interested to hear that there was a complete absence of neurotoxic effects but a very great deal of local reaction and tissue damage. There was tremendous swelling Involving the entire hand and arm up to the shoulder. The finger itself 1s very badly affected, and there is a hard black necrotic area starting behind the nail and extending right along the upper surface. There are also two fairly large scars on the dorsum of the hand where two blisters were cut. The future of the bitten finger is still uncertain, and apparently depends on its condition after sloughing and of of the damage. Regarding treatment, I applied a rubber tourniquet within a minute or two of the bite and was given Haffkine polyvalent serum within about half an hour. I believe I had in all between 60 and 80 c.c. of this serum, but am very doubtful that it had any beneficial effect. It was necessary for multiple punctures to be made on the dorsum of the hand to relieve swelling. They also gave me cortisone or hydrocortisone (sorry I do not know which). I am afraid that, not being a medical man, the above information is not very specific but trust that it will of some interest.

Local necrosis is recognised as a major effect of being bitten by a Chinese Cobra. The extent of the damage and the resulting scars were still obvious when John Romer showed me his hand over seven years later. His office, as well as the live Bamboo Pit Viper, had the prepared skeleton of the offending but unfortunate Chinese Cobra.

Juvenile Chinese Cobra, Lantau, Hong Kong, 2011
Photograph by Thomas Brown on Flickr

*Patrick van de Linde was a government medical officer who went on to study the cholera outbreaks of 1961 and 1963. He is remembered as a medical officer in the British Army Aid Group (BAAG) which operated in China to assist those escaping from occupied Hong Kong and to gather intelligence. Commanded by Lindsay Ride, Professor of Physiology in the University of Hong Kong, who had been in charge of a field ambulance during the battle of Hong Kong and who had escaped captivity, the BAAG provided medical services to the civilian population and Chinese guerillas operating against the Japanese. Colonel Ride, later Vice-Chancellor of HKU and knighted, wrote:

This officer was posted as MO i/c Advanced HQs in Nov 1943 and remained there from that time till the Japanese surrender. The Chinese forces in that area were notoriously badly off for any sort of medical service and Major Van De Linde readily put all his energy into setting up a scheme to supply their needs; medical posts were established and staffed in guerilla areas and two hospitals were run in Waichow. To these hospitals - the only ones in that area - came all the Chinese sick and wounded from the East River forces as well as all the civilian air raid casualties. In addition to this Major Van de Linde undertook the intensive work necessitated by a cholera epidemic and a famine. Working long hours under most primitive conditions he was responsible for saving the lives of scores of Chinese, both soldiers and civilians.

For 2 years without a rest of any sort Major Van de Linde gave the whole of his time and unbounded energy for the benefit of the needy and the suffering and in order to increase the value of his services he, at the same time, mastered the Cantonese language. This exemplary devotion to duty not only saved many lives but it paved the way towards the successful conclusion of many intricate negotiations with the Chinese concerning BAG operations.

See Gwulo.

Anon. 2007. Romer, J.D. (1920-1982). In Contributions to the History of Herpetology (Volume 2), Edited by Kraig Adler, p 212. Society for the Study of Reptiles and Amphibians.

Sunday 10 September 2023

Tui or Parson Bird: a colour plate from 1962

In the days when colour printing was extremely expensive, the Avicultural Society had special appeals for funds to support the appearance in Avicultural Magazine of the occasional colour plate. A well-known bird artist was then commissioned. Although the whole run of the Society’s magazines can be found online, the plates rarely see the light of day. Therefore I decided to show one, now and again, on this site. This is the 12th in the series.

– – – – – – – – – –

The artist for this plate was Chloe Elizabeth Talbot Kelly (born 1927) who went on to illustrate a number of field guides. Her paintings of birds appear in art sales. She began painting in 1945 at the Natural History Museum in London.

The plate shows the Tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae), a New Zealand endemic and one of three honeyeaters that occur there. The article accompanying the plate was written by Alan Reece Longhurst (born 1925). He is a well-known oceanographer and expert on plankton communities who spent a short time working in fisheries in New Zealand. He was born in Plymouth and after four years in the army he returned to London and university life. He graduated in entomology and then proceeded to a PhD on the ecology of notostracans. Fisheries research in West Africa then followed (with the short period in New Zealand in the middle). Spells in Plymouth and the USA were followed by a career in Canada. He became Director-General of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia.

Longhurst pointed out that the Tui survived successive human invasions of New Zealand the best of the three honeyeaters and is the one most likely to be encountered by visitors to the country. Its song and calls have a loud and distinctive song, quite unlike anything those from other parts of the world are likely to encounter. 

Avicultural Magazine Vol 68, 1962

Friday 8 September 2023

John Romer’s Specimens of King Cobra: A Fatal Case of Snake-Bite in 1950s Hong Kong

My eye was taken when looking through JOHN DUDLEY ROMER’s (1920-1982) notebook* on snake specimens he had collected or been given in Hong Kong. Under notes on the King Cobra or Hamadryad (Ophiophagus hannah) he wrote:

Specimen from Lan Tao Island (Fatal Snake-bite Case)

A specimen (still alive) which had killed a man on Lan Tao Island [now Lantau or Lantao] was received from Marine Police on 8th August 1957. It was retained alive until 10th August 1957, then killed and returned to Marine Police.

After noting data from its scales (important features for taxonomy and identification) and sex (female), Romer founds its length was 2,135 mm immediately after death, 2½ cm shorter than when alive. In short this King Cobra was 7 ft 1 inch.

The China Mail of Friday 9 August 1957 reported the case but were waiting confirmation that the man had died. Romer told the newspaper that the snake is very rare in Hong Kong.

While snake-bite fatalities were rare in Hong Kong, those working in the countryside were at the greatest risk from this and other venomous snakes. With the virtual end of agriculture in Hong Kong that risk has probably shifted largely to those clearing vegetation or jogging/walking for pleasure.

The King Cobra is still uncommon in Hong Kong but, as shown in the YouTube video below, some herpetologists have been lucky enough to see one. Newspaper reports, such as the one shown from 2018, show that King Cobras turn up where they are not made welcome.

The King Cobra, which is not a cobra at all, is the longest venomous snake, sometimes in excess of 5 metres, in parts of its range, and thus able to strike from a considerable greater distance than the much more common Chinese Cobra (Naja atra) for example. The venom is mainly neotoxic; human deaths can occur in 30 minutes. As its generic name suggests, it is an important predator of snakes but not averse, apparently, to making a meal of other vertebrates, sometimes I read constricting its prey. 

In 1957 there was no publication in Hong Kong which enabled the recognition and identification of the venomous snakes that occur there or of what to do if bitten. Romer prepared such a guide for the Hong Kong Government in 1959. That was updated a a fully-illustrated booklet in 1965. Romer’s hobby and job, as the head of pest control, came, for once, into symbiosis.

*After Romer’s death his papers were deposited in the library of the Zoological Society of London. The last time I was there I did not have time to see what that Romer archive held. Then Jack Greatrex of the Department of History in the University of Hong Kong contacted me. As part of his research on the history of pest control he was going to be in London and offered to send me his gleanings from the ZSL library. I of course accepted gratefully and Jack, now at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore, sent me photographs of the various pages.

Saturday 26 August 2023

Red-tailed Amazon Parrot: a colour plate from 1960 and article by ‘Pat’ Maxwell

In the days when colour printing was extremely expensive, the Avicultural Society had special appeals for funds to support the appearance in Avicultural Magazine of the occasional colour plate. A well-known bird artist was then commissioned. Although the whole run of the Society’s magazines can be found online, the plates rarely see the light of day. Therefore I decided to show one, now and again, on this site. This is the 11th in the series.

– – – – – – – – – –

The artist is not mentioned in the text of the accompanying article and I cannot make out the signature in the corner. The picture has been seen by some as a photograph rather than as a painting but the signature and composition, even allowing for the reproduction, seem to point to it being on canvas. As pointed out by Mike Curzon when he reported breeding this species at a now-closed bird garden in Rode, Somerset, it was a poor representation of the coloration. There are modern photographs of this species here.

The bird was unusual in captivity at the time because it is found in the Atlantic forest of Brazil which was not then the site of major collecting for the live parrot trade. Having later been subjected to the usual problems and habitat loss and over-collection, the population of the Red-tailed Amazon (Amazona brasiliensis) is now said to be increasing again. It is classified in the IUCN Red List as ‘Near Threatened’. 

The article was written by Patrick ‘Pat’ Hall Maxwell who was well known in avicultural circles of the the 20th century.

A very short account of Maxwell’s life is given in The Eponym Dictionary of Birds (EDB). The reason his name appears there will become apparent below.

Patrick Hall Maxwell was born on 31 May 1912 in London. He was a son of the Raj. In 1912 his father, Percy Alexander Maxwell (1883-1951), who was born in Darjeeling, was a Captain in the Indian Army. Before transferring to the Indian Army’s 3rd Brahmans in 1903, after passing out of Sandhurst in 1902 Percy Maxwell served in the South Lancashire Regiment. During the First World War he served in the 3rd Brahmans and in 94th Russell's Infantry in the Mesopotamia Campaign, being promoted to Major in 1917. In 1919 he was appointed OBE (military) for services in Mesopotamia; he was then with the 1st Brahmans.. He retired as a Lieutenant-Colonel but I have been unable to fund the date when he finally returned to UK. The London Gazette though shows that he finally retired, from the Indian Army Reserve, on reaching the statuary age in 1938, i.e. at 55.

Patrick Maxwell’s mother was Mary Beatrice Game, the daughter of a farmer. She married Percy in Evesham, Worcestershire in 1909. In 1921 Major and Mrs Maxwell, presumably on leave from India, were staying with her parents in Evesham. Patrick was boarding at Eastacre, a preparatory school in Winchester.

Patrick Maxwell  joined the Avicultural Society in 1929. His address is shown in membership lists as that of his parents: Ebberley Hill, St. Giles, near Torrington, Devon, until the 1944-45 volume of Avicultural Magazine.

It is clear that during the 1930s Maxwell kept birds in Devon, presumably at Ebberley Hill. Given his job as an assistant librarian in 1939 and his enormous support for the Royal Albert Museum in Exeter (see below) I do wonder if he was employed at the Central Library in Exeter after leaving school (which would have been around 1928). The library and museum were essentially the same institution and were located one opposite the other on the same street. Where else but a museum would a bird-mad young man spend his spare time during the working week?

In the 1939 Register, the emergency census, he was living in London, at 2 Queensway Place, Kensington; his occupation was ‘assistant librarian’. Notes in Avicultural Magazine over the wartime period show a variety of addresses in addition to the parental home. In 1941 came Palmer’s Dairy, Queen Street, Lynton, Devon—was he staying there on holiday? In 1942 the address was the  National Central Library in London (later incorporated into the British Library). I think it is safe to conclude that in the war years up to 1944, Maxwell was employed as an assistant librarian in London. His notes indicate that his birds were ‘on deposit’ at Paignton Zoo and at London Zoo by 1940, suggesting his collection had been broken up by his move to London.

The EDB states that he worked as a keeper at Paignton Zoo. When this was and how it fitted into the rest of his life I do not know and have been unable to find out.

In 1944-45 he worked at London Zoo and provided notes on new arrivals to Avicultural Magazine. He then moved his postal address from that of his parents to The Salvation Army Red Shield Club, 28 Euston Square. He also donated birds and kept some of his own birds at the Zoo.

How he came to get the job at the Zoo is an interesting question. He was already well connected with the inner circle of the Avicultural Society. He was proposed for membership in 1929 by a fellow parrot fanatic Miss Emily Maud Knobel, of whom I have written previously and who, along with other members, were either employed by or had deep connections with London Zoo. Maxwell was sufficiently well known to be a founder member of the inner circle, the British Aviculturists’ Club, which met for the first time on 10 April 1946 at the Rembrandt Hotel in London.

In 1946 he moved to Whipsnade where he ran and probably set up the Parrot House (until its removal in 1958) which housed the zoo’s own birds, birds he had donated and others of his own. The Parrot House was a new addition to Whipsnade. The wooden building had been the Fellows' Tea Pavilion before the Second World War and then an Air Raid Wardens’ lookout post over the surrounding countryside. Maxwell’s parrots were a far cry from the building’s role in entertaining King George V, Queen Mary, the Duke of York (the future George VI) and Princess Elizabeth (QE II) on 23 April 1934, on the first royal visit to the zoo.

It is on Maxwell’s period at Whipsnade that there is more information recalled in 2021 by Bernard Sayers, another noted aviculturist, in a series of articles in Keeper Contact, the excellent and informative newsletter published by Paul Irven. Bernard Sayers wrote:

Patrick (Pat) Hall Maxwell (1912-1991) used to regularly attend meetings of the Avicultural Society and it was there that I met him. He was a small, intensely shy gentleman who was invariably sitting alone in a corner. I felt rather sorry for this seemingly lonely man and made a point of sitting alongside of him and engaging him in conversation, and I am very pleased I did because not only was he a lovely person, but he had enjoyed a very interesting life. 

Pat came from a very wealthy family who owned extensive properties in London. Judging by his cultured accent and impeccable manners I deduced that he went to a public school. He always insisted on calling me Mr Sayers although I repeatedly urged him to call me Bernard. Being of independent means he spent his life working as a zoo keeper at Paignton, London (1944) and at Whipsnade (1946-1966) [Information from EDB]

Pat had a particular interest in the parrot family and with his considerable wealth, he would buy many of the rare species which came onto market. Yet, since he had no settled home or garden of his own, he could not keep them himself. Instead he loaned his birds to zoos and several went to Len Hill`s Birdland at Bourton-on-the-Water. These included the two female Lear`s macaws which, for many years, were the only examples of this species in this country. The only exception was a red-tailed Amazon parrot (Amazona brasiliensis) which he kept as a pet. At that time the National Exhibition of Cage Birds was held at Olympia around Christmas of each year. The exotic birds were exhibited on the balcony and for several years Pat showed his red-tailed Amazon parrot there. It created considerable interest because it was thought to be the only example of this species outside its native Brazil. Pat acquired this bird in the 1950s and it died in 1968.  [It is his Red-tailed Amazon that was the subject of the article and plate in Avicultural Magazine.]

When I used to meet Pat Maxwell he was retired and living in a London hotel. I often regret that I did not get to know him better so I could have learnt more details of his remarkable life. 

Half the parrots in the parrot house belonged to London Zoo (having been brought over from Regent`s Park) and the remainder were the property of Pat Maxwell. Pat was the keeper in charge of the parrot house and when it closed he wanted to continue on the bird section. Unfortunately, for some reason, Pat had an uneasy relationship with Harold Tong, Whipsnade`s Director, who instead transferred him to the camel section which did not please him.

Ernest Harold Tong (1908-1992), Superintendent of Whipsnade from 1947 was a land agent. The derision in which managers of zoos with little experience with, or a deep, even obsessive, interest in animals, are held by keepers continues to the present day. Maxwell was also a fish out of water. In the Zoological Society of London’s zoos, there was a strict hierarchy just like that in the armed services: Keepers were the private soldiers, Head Keepers the NCOs, Overseers the Sergeant Majors, Curators and Superintendents the Officers. Maxwell, of the officer class, was working as a keeper.

I was told by Clin Keeling (and may even have read somewhere) that Pat Maxwell was well connected with senior figures in ZSL in the 1940s and was part of the communist or extreme left-leaning and pro-Soviet cabal that existed at Whipsnade.

Between 1939 and 1951 he presented specimens—the EDB states over 300—to the Royal Albert Museum in Exeter, about 35 miles from his parents’ house in north Devon.  The present catalogue of the museum shows that they now have 15: 12 birds and 3 mammals (see here). The birds range from a Rhea, Cassowary and Andean Corner to a Gouldian Finch and a Hummingbird.; the mammals are a Maned Wolf, a Saki and a Springhaas. Many are on public display. Some were professionally mounted by taxidermists; others were skins. 

What I cannot determine is whether he actually collected any of the specimens from the wild. Although the catalogue has a few in which he is shown as the collector, I suspect there has been confusion as to whether he was donating birds of his or of others that had died in captivity. The Kea he presented falls into that category. Similarly, Maxwell recorded that he bought live birds brought to this country by the collector/dealer Wilfred Frost. Dead ones from the Frost and other collectors may have been bought by Maxwell and handed on to the museum. He certainly bought birds from other collections, possibly from salerooms or dealers; the original labels are still attached.

The EDB states that he travelled from the 1940s to 1970s to ‘Africa, Samoa and the Solomon Islands’. I do not know where this information came from but if inferred from the Exeter museum catalogue then that information could be wrong. I have failed to find any shipping records to indicate the dates of Maxwell’s travels or any record of their existence. The only mention he gave to travel was a note in Avicultural Magazine in 1967 about a trip to Jamaica, shortly after he retired from Whipsnade at the age of 54. He may, of course, have travelled more extensively by air after that. The only clue I have of his other travels is that in the letter to Avicultural Magazine reporting the death of the parrot in 1968 he ended with ‘I have travelled over a great part of the world’.

Maxwell as a member of the British Ornithologists’ Union and although there is no mention of his death in Avicultural Magazine there may be in its journal. Since there is no proper index to the minor items published in The Ibis and the relevant back issues are behind an expensive paywall it would cost a fortune to check in there online. A visit to a library with a full run on the shelves is needed.

Before moving on to his entry in the EDB it is interesting to note that his donations to the Exeter museum ceased in 1951. He had sent specimens, including his eponymous one, from London Zoo. It was around this time there was a great hoo-ha about the distribution of dead material from ZSL and of who had priority in getting their hands on it. In the ZSL there is an exchange of letters in 1949 between Maxwell and George Cansdale, then Superintendent at London Zoo, about sending dead snakes to Exeter.

I suspect Maxwell spent many hours as a young man in the Exeter Museum. Willoughby Prescott Lowe (1872-1949) was from the 1930s the honorary curator. In the 1939 Register, Lowe, living in Exmouth, described himself as ‘naturalist, working free for Exeter Museum). He was a famous collector for the Natural History Museum in London who in ‘retirement’ set out to improve the Exeter collection. That is where Maxwell played his part in donating specimens. It was Lowe who named a specimen provided by Maxwell after Maxwell. Under the title, A New Banded Rail from the Philippines, Lowe ended his note to the British Ornithologists’ Club with:

The Exeter Museum has recently received from P. H. Maxwell, Esq., this new Rail, which died in the London Zoo on February 29, 1944. It was obtained in Manila by the Hon. Anthony Chaplin, on the way back from Lord Moyne's expedition to New Guinea. It gives me pleasure to name this bird after Mr. Maxwell, who has generously presented to the Exeter Museum so many rare and valuable specimens.

The rail was named as a new subspecies Hypotaenidia torquata maxwelli.

The type specimen was given to the Natural History Museum in London in 1952. That catalogue has a different date for the bird’s death (31 March 1944) and Anthony Chaplin was then the 3rd Viscount Chaplin (1906-1981) who was Secretary of ZSL from 1952 until 1955. The fact that the Exeter Museum was giving specimens he had presented away (Lowe had died in 1949) may also have soured the atmosphere for future donations from Maxwell.

Sadly, but having read Lowe’s description, not surprisingly, Maxwell’s subspecies is no longer recognised as valid. It has been lumped into what is now Gallirallus torquatus torquatus.

After Maxwell left Whipsnade he is shown as living as a flat in London where he kept the parrot shown in the plate. After 1970 he lived in a variety of hotels, guest houses and care homes.

Patrick Hall Maxwell died on 17 October 1991 in a care home in Tunbridge Wells.

Beolens B, Watkins M, Grayson M. 2014. The Eponym Dictionary of Birds. London: Bloomsbury.

Curzon M. 1995. Breeding the Red-tailed Amazon at the Tropical Bird Gardens. Avicultural Magazine 101, 49-51.

Lowe WP. 1944. A new Banded Rail from the Philippines. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club 65, 5.

Maxwell PH. 1960. The Blue-faced or Red-tailed Amazon Parrot (Amazona brasiliensis (Linn.)) Avicultural Magazine 66, 1-2.

Sayers B. 2021. Whipsnade`s Parrot House, Pat Maxwell and the Blue Macaws (Part one). Keeper Contact  Number 177 (November 2021), 13-16.