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.

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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.