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.