Thursday 27 April 2023

John Romer discovered other animals in Hong Kong: his eponymous chiggers, harvest-mites, scrub-typhus or itch mites

From Wikipedia
by Bugboy52.40

Until I received copies of gleanings from the ZSL Library archives by Jack Greatrex I had no knowledge of John Romer’s discovery of other animal species in Hong Kong. A copy of his curriculum vitae prepared about a year before his death in 1982 showed he had discovered what were then three new species of something entirely different from, his interests in amphibians and reptiles but connected with his work first as rodent control officer and then, more widely, as pest control officer for the Hong Kong Government.

Rats have parasites and as well as collecting fleas found on rats, he also collected other possible vectors of human disease, the tiny mites called chiggers or harvest mites—the  Trombiculidae, a family of arachnids. After an encounter with the microscopic chigger larvae in Guyana the very thought of them makes me itch.

Herbert Womersley

Romer sent the mites collected from rats to Herbert Womersley (1889-1962) at the South Australian Museum in Adelaide. Womersley—more on him in a future article—was the established world expert on the Acarina, mites and ticks, and continued to build a major collection at the Museum. He named three species from the specimens Romer supplied: Garhliepia romeri, Helenicula hongkongensis, Acomatacarus romeri.

What has happened more recently? Do they still stand as ‘good’ species or were they synonyms of previously described species? Fortunately I found a recent checklist of world Trombiculids. As a whole they go under a number of common names in addition to chiggers and harvest mites which some reflecting their effect on the human population or as vectors of human diseases: scrub-typhus mites, scrub-itch mites, red mites, sand mites.

The present state of play

The first named, Garhliepia romeri Womersley 1952 is now Gateria romeri and still a recognised species. The larva was collected by Romer from a rat stated to be Rattus rattus* in 1950. 

Womersley's figure showing the scutum of
Gahrliepia romeri

Womersley H. 1952. The scrub-typhus and scrub-itch mites (Trombiculidae, Acarina) of the asiatic-pacific region. Records of the South Australian Museum 10. Adelaide: South Australian Museum.

The second, Helenicula hongkongensis is now regarded as a synonymous with the earlier named Helenicula kohlsi, and therefore invalid. It was collected from Rattus rattus with the location provided by Romer: The Peak, Middle Gap Road. I wonder how the current owners of properties there—some of the most expensive in the world—view their purchases being recorded in perpetuity as the habitat of rats carrying scrub-typhus mite larvae?

Womersley H. 1957. Malaysian Parasites—XXI. A small collection of larval mites (Acarina, Trombiculidae and Leeuwenhoekiidae) from rats in Hong Kong. Studies from the Institute for Medical Research, Federation of Malaya, 28, 105-112.

The third and the other eponymous species, named by Womersley in the same publication, still stands as Odontacarus romeri.


In summary John Dudley Romer has three currently recognised species named for him, one frog and two mites, all of which he discovered in Hong Kong in the 1950s.

…and I am still itching.

*I have written previously of trying to sort out the rats of Hong Kong. The mite larvae that Romer found were described as from from Rattus rattus. Given the current state of knowledge, it is not possible to state which of the currently recognised species in Hong Kong the mite larvae were obtained from. The choice is between Rattus tanezumi, more likely in the roof of buildings, and Rattus andamanensis, the free-living species on the hillsides.

Nielsen DH, Robbins RG, Rueda LM. 2021. Annotated world checklist of the Trombiculidae and Leeuwenhoekiidae (1758– 2021) (Acari: Trombiculoidea), with notes on nomenclature, taxonomy, and distribution. Zootaxa 4967, 1-243. 

Monday 24 April 2023

There's a Goldcrest in the garage

This Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) was spotted in the garage last week, trying to leave by flying though the glass and not by the door at either end. It was soon caught and sent on its way. A common breeding bird in these parts we sometimes spot them in the garden searching shrubs, door and window frames for the small invertebrates on which they depend. At their size and relatively large surface area they have to catch prodigious quantitites of small inverrberates just to survive the day. The smallest European bird, averaging around 6 g—less than a two-pence piece—their weight depends on the time of day and the temperature. They lay down fat during the day and then burn if off at night to maintain their body temperature. Unlike some other small birds, they do not, when adequately fed, allow their temperature to fall during the night. 

Sunday 23 April 2023

John Romer and the new species of amphibians he discovered in Hong Kong

John Romer discovered three new species of amphibian in Hong Kong, and all three still stand as ‘good’ species.

Amolops hongkongensis
From Flickr. Photo by Thomas Brown in 2011

Taking them in order of date of collection the first was described as Staurois hongkongensis. Now known as Amolops hongkongensis, the Hong Kong Cascade Frog or Hong Kong Torrent Frog, lives along mountain streams and lays its eggs on rocks being splashed by the cascading water. Romer found the first specimens in August 1950 on the mountain, Tai Mo Shan. It is known to occur over much of Hong Kong and there are also reports from nearby regions. In Hong Kong it is relatively common but it is classified by IUCN as ‘Endangered’. Given his contacts in London I always found it rather odd that the description of the new species was with Clifford Hillhouse Pope (1899-1974) of the Chicago Natural History Museum as senior author. Pope was well established as an expert on the herpetofauna of China with his book on amphibians, a companion to his The Reptiles of China still unpublished. Pope was also beginning well known for his semi-popular books. His 1955 book The Reptile World appeared in British school and public libraries. The paper by Pope and Romer, 1951, appeared in Fieldiana Zoology, a house journal of the museum.

Boulenophrys brachykolos
From Flickr. Photo by Thomas Brown in 2011

A small frog found on The Peak, Hong Kong Island in August 1952, was next to be described as a new species. Again the specimen was sent to Chicago. Although the frog was found in 1952, the paper did not appear until 1961. The senior author this time was another well-known herpetologist Robert Frederick Inger (1920-2019) who had succeeded Pope in Chicago. Inger wrote the popular Living Reptiles of the World in 1957 with his and Pope’s former boss, Karl Patterson Schmidt (18890-1957). Megophrys (now Boulenophrys) brachykolos or Short-legged Toad also occurs over the border in Guangdong. It is classified as ‘Endangered’.

Romerus romerus
From Flickr. Photo by Thomas Brown in 2011

The third species, the eponymous Romer’s Frog, was also discovered in August 1952—in a cave beside the sea on the island of Lamma. But instead of Chicago he sent specimens to the Natural History Museum in London where in 1953 they were described and named for Romer, Philautus romeri by Malcolm Arthur Smith (1875-1958) who worked in a voluntary capacity at the Museum.

Romer would have known Smith personally because he was a driving force behind the formation of the British Herpetological Society and would have become its first Secretary had he not got a job as pest control officer in the Hong Kong government. Smith was slated as first President. I have written before on Smith who was keen on amphibians and reptiles as a child but knew the only way he could pursue that activity was by earning a living as a doctor. After qualifying at Charing Cross Hospital and practice in London he went off to Bangkok as medical officer to the British Legation. That job was then extended to physician to the royal household of Siam (now Thailand). During his time there he was active in natural history, collecting specimens and writing accounts of the herpetofauna of south-east Asia. In 1925 at the age of 50 he retired to London where he was given space at the Natural History Museum. From there until his death he published extensively particularly on the reptiles of Asia.

Romer’s Frog has carried a succession of generic names. The most recent move has been to put it along with several others species from China into a new genus, Romerus. Thus we have John commemorated by both genus and species, Romerus romerus. I also much prefer the simple common name to others that have come into use like Romer's Treefrog and Romer's Bubble-nest Frog. Romerus romerus is also classified by IUCN as ‘Endangered’.

I do not know why he chose to send specimens where he did. Did he take advice from Smith, for example, on where the most expertise lay? He certainly sent a snake to a leading expert in that particular group of snakes when he found or received the first specimen in 1966 on the side of Tai Mo Shan. The expert was Edmiund Virgil Malnate (1916-2003) an interesting character who by profession was a graphic artist but combined that work with being a volunteer curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. The paper by Malnate and Romer on the occurrence of the Mountain Keelback, Amphiesma (now Hebius) atemporalis, in Hong Kong was published in 1969. Until he collaborated with Jean-Paul Risch in debunking the newt that never was, his only co-authors were Pope, Inger and Malnate.

The People

John Romer in Stuttgart, 1977

Clifford H Pope                         Robert F Inger

Anon. 2014. Pope, Clifford H (1899-1974). In Contributions to the History of Herpetology (Volume 1, revised and expanded), Edited by Kraig Adler, p 94. Society for the Study of Reptiles and Amphibians.

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.

Inger RF, Romer JD. 1961. A new pelobatid frog of the genus Megophrys from Hong Kong. Fieldiana—Zoology 39, 533-538

Malnate EV, Romer JD. 1969. A snake new to the fauna of Hong Kong and China: Amphiesma atemporalis (Bourret). Notulae naturae of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia  No 424, 1–8.

Pope CH, Romer, JD. 1951 A new ranid frog (Staurois) from the Colony of Hongkong. Fieldiana—Zoology 31, 609-6l2.

Smith M. 1953. Description of a new species of frog of the genus Philautus, Annals and Magazine of Natural History 6, 477-478.

Friday 21 April 2023

The White Scarab Beetle of Hong Kong. All done without pigment

No. This beetle has not found itself too close to a brush full of brilliant white emulsion paint. It is that white or, more precisely, looks that white but, is in fact, black. This was one was photographed recently in Hong Kong by AJP.

Beetles of the genus Cyphochilus occur in south-east Asia. The species that occurs in Hong Kong has been identified as Cyphochilus apicalis. All are white and it is that whiteness that has attracted research by physicists. The whiteness is achieved not by pigment but by the optical properties of a layer of cuticle proteins only around 5 microns or μ (micrometres) thick—less than half the thickness of the finest human hair. The filaments in the layer are arranged in a manner such that they scatter incoming light of all wavelengths equally to produce white light.

Once the mechanism and structural characteristics of the protein filaments had been identified the race was on to mimic the process and produce an extremely thin material with such properties. In short, thin materials with these properties have now been made.

The advantage of appearing white has been attributed to camouflage of the beetles against a background of white fungi.

Monday 17 April 2023

New Zealand Tomtit: 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 6th 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 North Island form of the New Zealand Tomtit (Petroica macrocephala). The South Island form has yellow band between the black and white on the breast. The bird has enjoyed a number of common names over the years including Pied Tit as it was described in Avicultural Magazine. 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.

Avicultural Magazine 67, 1961

Thursday 13 April 2023

OUCH. Now that’s a book review. Bryan Clarke on ‘Of Moths and Men’ in 2003

Bryan Campbell Clarke FRS (1932-2014) was, from 1971, Professor of Genetics at the University of Nottingham. I only met him once. We fell into conversation at an evening meeting at the Royal Society in the late 1990s and found ourselves in such violent agreement that we were the last to leave. The only problem in recounting that story is that I cannot remember what we were in agreement about.

When the disgraceful book by Judith Hooper, Of Moths and Men: An Evolutionary Tale, was published in 2002, it was Bryan Clarke who reviewed it for the journal Heredity. For those not in the know, the late Michael Majerus (1954-2009) shot down Hooper’s insinuations in flames by producing direct confirmatory evidence of the research done on industrial melanism in the Peppered Moth, Biston betularia, by the people she had so viciously attacked.

Bryan Clarke’s object lesson in delivering brickbats began:

It is something of a shock to discover that the events of one's youth have become material for the history of science. It is more of a shock when the characters in that history bear only a superficial resemblance to the real ones.

In the 1950s, the Department of Zoology at Oxford was an exciting place to be. Niko Tinbergen was carrying out the behavioural work that led to his Nobel Prize. Michael Fischberg and John Gurdon were, for the first time, successfully cloning a vertebrate from its somatic cells. Arthur Cain and Philip Sheppard were involved in their classic studies of natural selection in Cepaea, and Bernard Kettlewell was organising his big experiments on peppered moths. There was an atmosphere of ferment and sharp questioning that kept everyone on their toes. Judith Hooper has written a book about it, but the department she describes is not the one I remember, and the people in it seem to be caricatures.

She writes about the origins of ecological genetics, and particularly about Kettlewell's experiments on the evolution of industrial melanism in peppered moths. She writes well, but the tone of her book suggests that she has purposefully set out to cast doubt on the evidence for natural selection. In doing so, she forsakes the prime responsibility of historians and biographers, which is to be fair to their subjects. Her talents as a writer make this failure the more regrettable. She repeatedly implies, but never quite states outright, that Bernard Kettlewell and his colleagues fabricated their data, and argues that they were, at the least, fatally careless.

Hooper has talked to most of the surviving people who worked at Oxford during the heyday of ecological genetics. They must have told her about the virtues and the vices of the dramatis personae, but somehow the vices are emphasised and the virtues are neglected. The cumulative effect is powerfully slanted. Hooper deals in the same way with the scientific evidence. Experiments and observations casting doubt on natural selection are highlighted, and supportive evidence is either ignored or disparaged.

She starts off as she means to go on. In the introduction, she describes EB Ford as a ‘megalomaniac’ who ‘headed a scientific coterie’. The experiments on peppered moths were ‘establishing the Oxford biologists as masters of their world’, but at their core lay ‘flawed science, dubious methodology and wishful thinking’, round which clustered ‘a swarm of human ambitions, and self-delusions’. When she gets into her stride, people working in ecological genetics are described as Ford's ‘disciples’, ‘acolytes’, ‘underlings’ or ‘protégés’, and those reporting evidence of natural selection were ‘exulting’, ‘declaiming’, ‘raving’, or ‘arrogant’. Fellows of the Royal Society from the Oxford department were ‘strutting’. In truth, of the four Fellows concerned, Alistair Hardy, Niko Tinbergen and Philip Sheppard were notably free of pomposity. EB Ford was eccentric and often unpleasant, but he never strutted. His mode of progress more closely resembled an insinuation. There was not a strut in the place...

He ended the review with:

By emphasising Kettlewell's insecurity as an amateur among the academics, Hooper insinuates further motives for slackness or fraud. Indeed, her whole book is a treasury of insinuations worthy of an unscrupulous newspaper. It is all a great pity, because a genuine talent for writing occasionally shines through the fog. There is a good tale to be told about the origin of ecological genetics, and about the extraordinary people involved in it. Kettlewell's life was a chequerboard of triumph and tragedy, and a more sympathetic writer could have made the story into an epic. As it is, Hooper's need to favour a particular viewpoint has got in the way, and history has been rewritten to accord with the prejudices of the author.

If you want to know about industrial melanism, you should read the book by Michael Majerus. If you want to know about the people concerned, you should wait, and hope, for an account that is balanced.

Bryan Clarke
from Brookfield 2023

Clarke B. 2003. The art of innuendo. Heredity 90, 279–280.

Brookfield J. 2023. Bryan Campbell Clarke. 24 June 1932—27 February 2014. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 74, 109-121.

Tuesday 4 April 2023

Mr Fortune of the Chinese Warty Newt, Garden Plants and Tea

Robert Fortune

In my last article I explained how John Edward Gray FRS (1800-1875) of the British Museum (Natural History) in London obtained the two specimens he described in 1859 as a then new species, Cynops (now Paramesotriton) chinensis, the Chinese Warty Newt. They were in a bottle, along with a leech and two fancy goldfish, received from a Mr Fortune who collected them ‘inland from Ningpo’ (Ningbo).

The collector was not a name usually associated with zoological adventures, for the Mr Fortune was Robert Fortune (1812-1880), the famous plant hunter and horticulturalist who was an exponent of industrial espionage before the activity had a name. He travelled extensively in China, sometimes incognito, in search of plants and information on how to convert the leaves of the tea plant into the tea sold as a drink. Books and a film have described how he worked for the East India Company and of how the knowledge he gained was put to use in tea production in Assam and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and thereby ensure that British India supplied the insatiable British market for tea. The article on Wikipedia states that he worked in China from 1843 to 1861. His first expedition was for the Horticultural Society in London.

I must now put the kettle on.

The Blue Plaque for Robert Fortune
9 Gliston Road, Kensingron, London
(Simon Harriyott photograph)

Chinese Warty Newt
Showing the reason for its common name
Photograph by Firedreams on Wikipedia

Distribution of Paramesotriton chinensis
from the IUCN Red List
Classified as 'Least Concern'