Friday, 30 January 2015

Biology of the Reptilia. Carl Gans's Magnum Opus Online

The 22 volumes of Biology of the Reptilia can now be read online, and access is free. The Gans Collections and Charitable Fund, established in the memory of Carl Gans (1923-2009) who ran the whole show from the first volume in 1969 to the final one published in 2010 just after his death, has somehow managed to overcome problems of copyright with five publishers, to scan all the volumes and to present the articles in an accessible form.

Like a number of series, Avian Biology and Lactation, for example, Biology of the Reptilia began as a publication of Academic Press, now sadly part of the Elsevier empire. Much as the effort to make the Biology of the Reptilia available will be appreciated, over the years I have found that the Academic Press series of multi-author books had a certain interest at the time of publication, they soon fell into the category of 'very rarely looked it' —and that includes a long article of mine. I suppose that is because in an active field, a review paper in an edited volume was just a snapshot at a particular time, useful for drawing the old literature together, but soon passing into the category of ephemera as the field moved on. Somewhat paradoxically, I suppose, such volumes will be most useful in fields that are no longer popular or have run out of steam simply because the article will be a more complete statement of knowledge. For those rare beings researching the history of a field of research access to the Gans volumes will be very welcome. All too often publishers (including learned societies) are charging for access to old literature that should be freely available; they have already made their pile from selling books and journals. Charging for access to research decades old and paid for by the taxpayer is outrageous. So the appearance of Biology of the Reptilia online is a case for applause to the Carl Gans charity.

I never met Carl Gans but I did have a correspondence with him over several months. Amphisbaenians were his great interest and he had arranged with the late Harold Fox, the then editor, to have a whole issue of the British Journal of Herpetology (now Herpetological Journal) devoted to that group of lizards, with Gans inviting the authors. When I took over as editor from Harold Fox*, I had a whole issue in the pipeline that required very little editorial work since Carl got the papers in and did what was necessary before sending the whole package to me by airmail. I was extremely grateful because the journal had been printed by Harold Fox's family publishing company and I was establishing a new format with a new printing company to try to bring the journal into the 1970s.

*Harold Fox, 24 October 1922-29 May 2003, worked at University College London from the late 1940s until 1994. The family bequest funds the Harold and Olga Fox Scholarships in Biological Sciences, supporting four students at a cost of £23,000 per annum.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Suicidal Skinks: A Press Howler from 1949

When looking for something in British Newspaper Archives it is possible to be easily diverted as searches throw up all sorts of titbit. Sometimes, a report emerges from the archives that is a complete howler. This is one, from the Derby Daily Telegraph of 10 November 1949.



Under the headline, Mayor Meets the “Star” Python, the reporter describes the opening of the Derby Aquarists’ Society’s annual show by the Mayor of Derby. He continued with the fact that the six-year old python which had appeared in a film, Black Rose, was owned by the Society’s president, a Mr D.R.W. Hobbs who acquired it from his friend, a snake expert in Manchester. You will note that the Mayor and Mayoress have their hands on the snake. That would be pretty unusual at the time, even now, for most local politicians and most Mayoresses would run a mile from a snake. They were clearly of the right stuff—which is rare praise for Derby from a Nottinghamshire man. So far, so good.

The reporter then described what else was on show and owned by Mr Hobbs including a number of lizards. He continued:

The Red Flank skinks* were to have been on show, but the male died yesterday morning, and Mr Hobbs thinks that the female, who is obviously fretting, will commit suicide.
---------------------------
*The report says they were from the 'West African Jungle'. They must have been the Red-flanked or Fire Skink, Lepidothyris fernandi.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Frog for lunch? Which species?

A correspondent in China sent me a photograph taken outside a restaurant with skinned frogs displayed. I would guess these are the Chinese Edible Frog or Bullfrog (Hoplobatrachus rugulosus previously Rana rugulosa). This species is eaten widely and is farmed for the table as well as taken from the wild. Baskets full of live frogs used to abound in Central Market in Hong Kong.



Brits note the uncanny resemblance of skinned frogs to the human body and seem more than willing to leave the frog on the rack rather than have it on the plate. However, physiologists will also note the basis for good sciatic-gastrocnemius preparations and those of a certain age will remember the smoked drum, the kymograph, the varnish and the blackened fingers.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Ancell Stronach: Artist to Artiste (and Amateur Zoologist)

While looking through the  volume 2 of Water Life magazine I came across a report which stated that an Ancell Stronach had given a talk on keeping reptiles to the Scottish Aquarium Society on 3 February 1937. I had a very vague recollection of having seen that unusual name before. A search showed that I had come across it. He was a member of the founding committee of the Zoological Society of Glasgow in 1936 that established the now-defunct Glasgow Zoo. That’s where I had seen the name but the search came up with a fascinating story.

From a group photograph of the
first committee of the Glasgow
Zoological Society

Alexander Ancell Stronach was born in Dundee on 6 December 1901. He trained at the Glasgow School of Art, where he won prizes including a travelling scholarship*, and became a noted painter, church decorator and stained glass designer. He became Professor of Mural Painting in Glasgow and was elected as an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1934. He earned his living at this time mainly as a portrait painter.

Ancell Stronach by Andrew Law (1873-1967)
Glasgow School of Art Archives

Animals must have got into his head because he was known to have a large menagerie. He was also a circus fan, and he resigned from the Glasgow School of Art in 1939 to be a variety performer on the stage. His act involved birds and was billed as Ancell’s 40 Painted Pigeons, and he toured Britain along with his wife (Gwendoline Eleanor Cunningham but known as Joan) who was a professional acrobat. They married in Swindon in 1941.

This is a report from the Glasgow Herald of 3 September 1940:



They lived in south London in the 1950s and then Gillingham in Kent. A former pet-shop owner in Gillingham from whom Ancell Stronach bought supplies reported his great kindness in providing an interest-free loan during hard times for the shop. At that time he kept Barbary Doves (the ‘pigeons’ of his act), several species of stick insect and also bred fancy mice. He continued to paint and gave works to friends and relatives.

As well as portraits and murals he painted religious works and abstract works. Some of his output can be seen here and here. His work is being increasingly appreciated the the prices of his paintings at auction are rising, on reaching £32,000. I particularly admire his abstracts, some of which have a biological character.

Ancell Stronach died in 1981, aged 80; his wife in Kent in 1996, aged 81.



*He travelled to London from Gibraltar arriving on 26 July 1929 as a 2nd class passenger on the P&O Ship Rajputana. His address in Glasgow was 10 Berkeley Terrace.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Water Life Magazine 1936-1958: Part 5. The Final Volume 1957-58

Fishkeeping and Water Life continued its mix of articles each month to the end with an emphasis on keeping fish in aquaria. There was less attention paid to water life in the wild and to animals other than fish, amphibians and reptiles than in the original Water Life. There was less to enthuse the young about the biological sciences. However, writers on reptiles and amphibians included Alfred Leutscher, Robert Bustard and Mary White. John Clegg (author of the Observer’s Book of Pond Life) wrote a few articles on pond life. Included in the writers on fishkeeping were Professor C.W. Emmens and Laurence E. Perkins who became editor of The Aquarist.

The final issue in December 1958 contained the following announcement:


The editor, Leslie W Ashdown, followed up this statement:

     Past and future. In the last issue of “FISHKEEPING AND WATER LIFE” we should like to thank our many thousands of readers who have given this journal their support over the last 13 years [since it was resurrected under this name after the war].
     We believe the hobby to be worthy of a high-class production and have attempted to provide this but costs have outstripped revenue.
     We feel this paper has played a significant part in fostering the hobby and we hope to continue our association through the fish-keeping features which will appear weekly in “Cage Birds”, commencing with the December 11 issue.—L.W.A.


The fishkeeping articles in Cage Birds were very small and soon disappeared. I do not know what happened to the editor. The only clue is that a Leslie W Ashdown died in Essex in 1961 aged 34. Could that have been the last editor of the magazine?

Water Life Magazine 1936-1958: Part 4. The Editor and the Cardinal Tetra

I have a bound volume 13 of Fishkeeping and Water Life, the final successor to Water Life. It comprises 14 monthly issues, from November 1957 to December 1958. The Editor was Leslie W. Ashdown. He gave a talk on BBC radio on 18 March in a programme entitled, Breeding Tropical Fishes.

Ashdown asked for a ruling from the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature on the scientific name of the Cardinal Tetra, now a common aquarium fish but then a newly-imported species. In his letter of 14 May 1956 he explained that there were two names for the species and it was a question of which one had priority: Cheirodon axelrodi Schultz 1956 or Hyphessobrycon cardinalis Myers and Weitzman 1956. He also stated that the issue of Tropical Fish Hobbyist in which the former was described was marked April 1956 but was dated 20 February while the latter was described in Stanford Ichthyological Bulletin was dated 21 February, one day later. He concluded, The fish is likely to become widely used by aquarists, and it is important therefore that the scientific name to be used for it should be determined without delay…

The story from there is well described in a book review by Scott A Schaefer of the American Museum of Natural History in Copeia in 2003:

In addition to the socioeconomics of the ornamental fishery, the history of the discovery and controversy surrounding the original description of the cardinal tetra are almost as colorful as the fish itself. Although not detailed herein, the literature indicates that a small characin similar in color to the neon tetra (Paracheirodon innesi) had been discussed by German biologists and aquarists as early as 1952 (Weitzman, 1956; Geisler and Annibal, 1986). In 1956, specimens were sent independently to L. P. Schultz by Axelrod, who originally acknowledged (Axelrod, 1956) that the specimens had been received from a New Jersey fish dealer on 10—11 February 1956, and to G. S. Myers and S. H. Weitzman by W. T. Innes and Paramount Aquarium (Myers and Weitzman, 1956). Both Schultz (1956) and Myers and Weitzman (1956) published a description of the species in February 1956, and, after a contentious debate and split vote, the International Commission (ICZN) ruled on the priority of the name Cheirodon axelrodi Schultz (ICZN, 1957; Opinion 485). So that the commercial interests of the exporters were protected, these authors were not provided with precise locality information on the specimens provided to them, with Axelrod (1956) contending that they had come from Porto Velho (Rio Madeira), Brazil, and Myers contending that they had come from Manaus.

One has only to read the letters concerning this case to have grave doubts whether the fish should have been named after H.R. Axelrod. As Denys Tucker of the British Natural History Museum noted in a submission to the Commission:

…I can add nothing further to this aspect of the problem, except the expression of a certain curiosity as to why Vol. 4, No. 4 of the Tropical Fish Hobbyist should carry the precise date 20 February 1956, and the succeeding one reverts to the similar form May-June 1956. I feel that the Commission should carefully weigh all the possible implications of this phenomenon.
A factor that I would emphasize in favour of Hyphessobrycon cardinalis Myers & Weitzman is that this name was clearly published as a voluntary act of publication by these authors and in a journal normally serving as a vehicle of taxonomic publication. Cheirodon axelrodi Schultz, on the other hand, does not appear to have been deliberately published by its author.
Dr. Schultz sent a personal letter to Mr. H.R. Axelrod which the latter apparently published on his own responsibility in the Tropical Fish Hobbyist…a lay journal…


The general feeling to this day is that the ICZN had been duped. Some journalists have been more explicit in their accusations. The question is: did Ashdown know the story and deliberately try to expose what had gone on? Axelrod’s Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine and books were, after all, making inroads into the British market at the time and British aquarists in the know must have been aware of what had happened to W.T. Innes and his successful lawsuit against Axelrod.


View image | gettyimages.com   In Fishkeeping and Water Life, Cardinal Tetras were advertised at 17/6d in 1958; £18 in today’s money.

Tigers in India: Would the Census Stand Up to Peer Review?


Monday, 19 January 2015

Water Life Magazine 1936-1958: Part 3. The Editor and J.B.S. Haldane

As I have acquired some copies of Water Life magazine I have also bought batches of The Aquarist, the other British magazine of the period that contained articles on reptiles and amphibians. In 1952, Margery Elwin wrote a series of three articles for The Aquarist which means she must have given up the editorship of Water Life on a date between 1946 (see below) and 1952. The only reason I noticed them was that my eye struck one word: Lysenko, and on reading it through I realised that she was giving serious consideration to Lysenko being right. By 1952, I thought, one had to be something of an apologist for communism Soviet style still to be mentioning Lysenko in a magazine article. And then, that’s when I found the links with J.B.S. Haldane, brilliant polymath, geneticist, evolutionary theorist, marxist and, for a long time, apologist for the Soviet state under Stalin.

I will not dwell on Lysenko here, other than to remind readers of what happened to conventional ‘western’ geneticists as Lysenko’s views that the environment could alter genes were adopted as fact, thereby supporting the Soviet view of how communist organisms ought to behave. Conventional Mendelian geneticists, opponents of Lysenko and his flawed doctrine of inheritance of acquired characteristics were crushed by the state. Nikolai Vavilov, an internationally recognised authority on crop genetics and a Foreign Member of the Royal Society was arrested in 1940 and sentenced to death. That sentence was commuted to imprisonment for 20 years; he died in prison of starvation in 1943.

Incidentally, my guess is that Lysenko, having discovered vernalization of seed, failed to differentiate parental effects, that now come under the heading of epigenetics, from genetic effects in breeding experiments, and got carried away in his interpretation of his own and Michurin’s results. As he rose to political dominance of agricultural science he dismissed ‘pure’ science. To Lysenko, biologists were ‘fly-lovers and people haters’. To non-comrade western biologists Lysenko was a shit.

J.B.S. Haldane’s papers are available online. The first contact with Margery Elwin recorded was in 1937. She wrote to him a year later about the ‘Walthamstow Wonder’, an albino Common Frog: You remember the “Walthamstow Wonder” - that albino frog which I brought to show you last year? It’s owner’s brother has now found a number of real albino tadpoles, four of which I have acquired…She goes on to describe the tadpoles and continued: If you would like any of the tadpoles Dr Fox is trying to dispose of them at 5/- each, I believe. She also asked for a fruit fly culture and the recipe for the culture medium.


She seems to have written another letter shortly after the first to report that the owner had obtained  spawn from crossing the albino with a light-coloured female. She had some of the spawn and sent some of it to Haldane.


Haldane replied on 18 March 1939: Dear Miss Elwin, Thank you very much indeed. We have put the spawn into a tank and will do our best, but you will realise how difficult it is to be sure of rearing a batch of tadpoles. I heartily congratulate the owner on having kept the frog alive during the winter and got it to breed. He also sent recipes for fruit fly culture medium.

The Walthamstow Wonder was described in the 12 July 1938 issue which I have not seen. The follow-up article by F.B. Fox, describing the hibernation conditions, was in the issue of 28 March 1939.

The next correspondence, from 1946, is more revealing and confirms what I had begun to think from the articles from 1952 in The Aquarist. She wrote to Haldane from her home address on 2 June to say that Water Life was being revived as a quarterly magazine, that she was still the editor and asking him to write an article on ‘scientific method’ at three guineas per 1000 words. She continued:

I hope you don’t think this is a great cheek but I always read your articles in the Daily Worker [the official organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain] of with great interest and you have the sort of approach I should like to have. Incidentally I am a member of the Communist Party and an enthusiastic supporter of the D.W. and am going to invest some of my new earnings in shares in the Peoples Press. I haven’t written to you on our official paper because I wanted to tell you this, but if you would be willing to write for us I will then approach you officially.
I must now stop as I am due to go canvassing with the D.W! Hoping I shall hear from you soon.

Haldane replied from University College on 14 June; yes he would write an article but would prefer to have the magazine rather than cash. He said that his wife (then Helen Spurway) was working on newts; that they had some Green Swordtails with pink eyes and asked if anything was known of the genetics. He added that she should get an article from R.A. Lantz of Manchester who ‘has probably the best collection of amphibia in Britain. During the war he was the Fighting French consul in Manchester’. Finally, he invited her to see his wife’s collection and asked her to introduce him to the Guppy Society. He signed off, ‘yours fraternally’.

There is a very good background to the reason so many British scientists of the 1930s and 40s were marxists and communists in Diane Paul’s paper:

     Their major concern, however, was not with Marxism as a guide to scientific practice or to the history of science…their concern was with the social relations of science - with the relation of scientists to the mass public, the government, the schools and universities, the other professions, and the culture in general.They believed that culture to be largely ignorant of, when not actually hostile to, the natural scientific enterprise and they aimed to change things by reforming both science and society. In fact, they saw the reconstruction of science and the scientific reconstruction of society as interdependent tasks. Science they wished to rationalize and to redirect, away from war especially; and society they wished to reorganize in accord with scientific principles and in ways that would support further scientific progress. In general,they thought no one more qualified for the task of scientifically reorganizing society than themselves.

The default of the process that clones British scientists is still set to the left, often the far left, of centre.

There must have been visits by the Mandeville’s to Haldane at UCL because there is a letter in the archive from Haldane on 27 November asking Louis if he could photograph about three more newts in the next 10 days for Helen Spurway in order for her to have slides for her talk in Germany. He added: She apologizes for not asking you earlier, but has been intensively over-worked because of dereliction of duty by a colleague which has nearly killed our Drosophila stocks and kept her on a 14 hour day (sometimes 36 hours at a stretch) for the last month. We have only 1 flash bulb, but several more are on order.

From then, the Mandevilles became involved with genetics research in Haldane’s Biometry Department at UCL. In 1948 Haldane supported their case to the local fuel office for two tons of coal to heat their fish house. In the days of real austerity after the war, coal was rationed, and the amount requested more than doubled that which the household could have bought during a whole year. Temporary emergency exemptions were made for exigencies such as a bedroom that needed to be heated for a sick child. I remember well parents and grandparents coming to see my grandfather at all hours bearing a chit from the fuel office. He ran the local co-operative society’s coal yard and instead of waiting until he was in the office, they tried to ensure that he would arrange for a special delivery of an extra bag as soon as was possible. The bureaucracy entailed by coal rationing was onerous (I helped him even at the age of five or so by stamping the latest updates on delivery notes with a large rubber stamp and a red ink pad). Extra coal was difficult to get and Haldane wrote to the local fuel office: ‘This greenhouse is used to house experimental animals on which scientific research of considerable importance is carried out’. The outcome is not recorded.

Louis Mandeville was appointed an Honorary Research Assistant by UCL in 1949. Haldane wrote: …who is an old student of this College, is a dental surgeon who is doing part-time research in animal genetics in this Department. He has a paper in the press describing original research in the field of human inheritance. I wish to recommend that he be appointed Honorary Lecturer. The paper in press at the time was on the congenital absence of permanent maxillary lateral incisor teeth*. I have not been able to find any further publications on his work at UCL.

Margery Mandeville in a letter in 1957 (see below) states that she was in charge of Drosophila stocks for about 3 three years, and there is a note in the Haldane archive from about 1950, showing the lines she had in culture.

The results of her research in the 1950s, Pathological melanosis in an intergeneric hybrid were published in Nature in 1957. It begins: During the past three years, I have been working on the genetics of an apparent intergeneric cross between two viviparous cyprinodonts, Xiphophorus helleri and Mollienisia sphenops. Some of the results may interest not only geneticists but also those engaged in the fields of endocrinology and cancer research. Her address is given as Zoology Department, Chelsea Polytechnic. She must have had some position at Chelsea, which is now part of King’s College, London but I have not been able to find any records online in which to look for information.

Haldane and Spurway left Britain, lock, stock and barrel, for India on 24 July 1957. The final letter in the UCL collection is from Margery Mandeville to Professor Lionel Penrose FRS then occupying the Galton Chair at UCL. On 29 July she asked if her fish could be housed at UCL now that Helen Spurway had vacated the space for tanks. She explained, Up till now I have kept my fish at home but this is becoming increasingly more difficult as I now have no one to look after my fish or attend to the fish-house fire when I am away from home. I want to continue this work but I am afraid this will be impossible unless I obtain more satisfactory accommodation for animals. Professors Haddow, Horning and Koller of the Chester Beatty Research Institute, are very interested in the results I am obtaining and so is Professor Huxley. At the moment I have an expenses grant from the British Empire Cancer Campaign. This is only £50, but I think I should have no difficulty in getting it increased if necessary.

And that is as much as I know. Lacking most of the post-war copies of Water Life I do not know when Margery Elwin ceased to be editor of Water Life or what happened to her after 1957, if she was successful in getting her fish housed at UCL and what her role was at Chelsea Polytechnic.

What I do know is that she was responsible for a highly informative, science-based magazine that had the key players of the 1930s as contributors. How very different from the magazines of the present century.

Finally, the only photograph I have found of Margery Elwin, taken I think by Louis Mandeville at the Dutch congress of aquarium clubs in late 1937 or early 1938.

From Water Life 22 February 1938. Margery Elwin would then have been 29



The publisher in the 1940s was the Poultry World empire, Iliffe Press. The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook for 1947 shows that Water Life and Aquaria World was published by Iliffe Press, Dorset House, Stamford Street, London. They presumably bought the title after the war from The Marshall Press.

*Mandeville LC. 1950. Congenital absence of permanent maxillary lateral incisor teeth: a preliminary investigation. Ann Eugen, London 15, 1.

†Elwin, MG. 1957. Pathological melanosis in an intergeneric hybrid. Nature 179, 1254-1255.

See:

Clark, R. 1968. J.B.S. The Life and Works of J.B.S. Haldane. London: Hodder and Stoughton

Paul, DB. 1983. A war on two fronts: J. B. S. Haldane and the response to Lysenkoism in Britain

Journal of the History of Biology 16, 1-37

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Water Life Magazine 1936-1958: Part 2. The Editor, Margery Graves Elwin

The editor of the magazine in the 1930s and 40s was Margery Graves Elwin. The magazine covered the whole of aquatic and some terrestrial life. It was not confined to keeping fish, reptiles and amphibians but included ponds and pond life, aquatic plants, invertebrates, birds and mammals. It provided accurate information on this wide range of topics and the fact that I concentrate on articles on amphibians and reptiles and those of general interest does not mean to say that its role in the other areas of natural history should be ignored. In short, Margery Elwin did an excellent job and I am full of admiration that she managed to get an issue out each week.

Margery Graves Elwin was born in Southwark, London, on 5 August 1908 to George Richard Elwin, a medical practitioner, and Eliza Beatrice, née Graves. At the 1911 Census, the family was living at 82 Black Friars Road, Southwark. There was a Dispenser boarding with them, which would suggest George Elwin was a general practitioner, and they employed a housekeeper.

She graduated from the University of London, BSc (Special Honours) in 1932. The records show University College and Birkbeck College, the latter and her age (24) suggesting that for part the degree course she was a part-time student. She was married in 1936 to Louis Caustin Mandeville. They had a son on 5 April 1939 and the following announcement appeared in Water Life:



By then she had given a talk on a BBC London Regional Programme, ‘The Care of Pets’ on 9 July 1938 at 12.45 under the title, ‘Fish and Aquaria’. She also described the then new species, Corydoras arcuatus now called the Skunk Catfish, in a paper in Journal of Natural History in 1939.



During this time, the Water Life series of booklets was launched, the first of which she wrote. The booklets were written by contributors to Water Life.


Louis Mandeville was a major contributor to Water Life and, later, to The Aquarist until the 1960s at least; he was also a lecturer to fishkeeping societies. By profession he was a dentist (L.D.S. R.C.S.). He was born on 27 October 1910, the son of Joseph Louis, a motor cab driver, and Ethel Amy. At the 1911 Census they were living at 1 Millais Buildings, Westminster. He was commissioned in the Army Dental Corps as a Lieutenant on 27 May 1940 but left the army, as Captain, on 13 October 1945 ‘on account of disability’. I then found records that showed he became Principal School Dental Officer for Ealing in London, and retired in 1970/71.

In the 1930s, the Mandevilles lived at 6 Thornberry Court, Isleworth but then moved to 79 Eastcote Road, Ruislip.

Louis died in Bristol in 1983, Margery also in Bristol in 2005, aged 96.

But the story does not end there because of the involvement of J.B.S. Haldane—yes, the ‘inordinate fondness for beetles’ Haldane. His letters are available online and those to, from and about Margery and Louis Mandeville will be the subject of my next post.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Water Life Magazine 1936-1958: Part 1

Cover of Water Life of 14 March 1939
I shall start this story at the end. In the late 1950s, a series of booklets, including Hardy Reptiles and Amphibians by L.G. Payne and Land and Water Tortoises by Amphibius, was being advertised and published as the ‘Water Life’ Series. The publisher was Water Life, Dorset House, Stamford Street, London and was part of the Poultry World publishing empire, until recently the owners of what was Cage Birds and then Cage & Aviary Birds.

Inside the back cover of the booklets, Water Life is described as a periodical produced to foster and cater for the interests of the aquatic hobby all over the world. Publication was described as every alternate month. I searched for the magazine in newsagents and bookstalls without success. Only recently have I discovered that Water Life, by then called Fishkeeping and Water Life ceased publication in December 1958, a few months after I developed a burgeoning interest in amphibians and reptiles. Over the past year or so I have acquired some copies of the magazine but they are difficult to find.

The Zoo library catalogue outlines the stages in the rise and fall of Water Life. It was first published in 1936. From March 1940 until June 1941, presumably as paper restrictions were imposed during the war, it was incorporated in Animal and Zoo Magazine, the official magazine of the Zoological Society of London until publication ceased in 1941. In 1946 it continued as Fishkeeping and Water Life. The catalogue shows the last issue as 1957 but it was in fact December 1958. Sometime, and I suspect in 1946, the publisher changed.

This magazine was clearly an important supplier of information to amateur herpetologists in the 1930s. Although I do not yet have all the information I would like, I do have sufficient to make a start and to show something of the content of the magazine.

So, it’s back to the beginning. The original publishers and printers were The Marshall Press with their works in Milford Lane off The Strand in London. I have not been able to find much about the activities of The Marshall Press but I have found they produced books on cage birds, gardening and small-holding, type faces, biography and religion. On the latter, that by Alexander James Ferris, When Russia Bombs Germany, with the 5th edition published in 1942, claims that the events of the Second World War were foretold in the bible. It is good to know that little matter has been cleared up. However, Wikipedia says that this work sold over 60,000 copies and was very popular amongst those of the christian persuasion. However, George Orwell reviewed the book and considered Ferris to be a ‘religio-patriotic lunatic’. Well, there’s a surprise. However, I digress.

The Marshall Press was liquidated in 1961.

Marshall Press published Water Life every week. I repeat, every week. That must have been quite a job even if each issue comprised only 8-14 pages. Who edited the magazine and who wrote for it I shall consider in the next post.

Incidentally, I am posting this and the more general articles on Water Life in two blogs. Because Water Life must have had a considerable influence of aspiring young biologists in the 1930s and later, the more general posts will be on this site. There will be some downloads of articles on herpetology available later; they will only be on my other blog: Reptiles, Amphibians and Birds: A Historical Perspective of their Care in Captivity.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Cowbirds and Cars; Gulls and Golf Balls

I had a quick look at a paper* in Proc Roy Soc which shows that cowbirds fly away from moving vehicles at a certain distance rather than responding to the speed of approach. At sufficiently high speeds that strategy is fatal, ending in a splat. The birds do not have time to get away and become instant roadkill. Anecdotal observations on the local beaches and in the fields suggest that gulls and pigeons respond similarly. Dogwalkers upset local birdwatchers as their hounds put to flight the large flocks of gulls and waders that gather near the mouth of the Doon. It seems to me that no matter what the speed of the dog is, the birds take flight at a set distance, leaving dogs to the frustration of having missed again. In short, the ‘flight distance’ is just that and the speed of approach does not come into the reckoning. Do they respond differently to aerial predators?

View image | gettyimages.com      Brown-headed Cowbirds and Ford Pickup Trucks were used in the experiments to see how the birds responded to the approach of vehicles at different speeds


A hazard which does not seem to be recognised as such by gulls is the golf ball. I have seen at least three gulls hit by golf balls in circumstances where they seemed to have every opportunity to take avoiding action. The first time was over 30 years ago. My friend and former colleague, an ornithologist of note, hit a less than perfect but long shot straight down the middle of the fairway towards a flock of Black-headed Gulls. The ball flying about a foot above the ground hit one the birds in the nape of the neck. The bird turned head over heels several times and ended up with its feet in the air. We though it must be dead but as we approached it turned over, shook itself and took off to join the rest of the flock. Then again, a couple of years ago, my playing partner, hit a juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull with a low-flying ball. This one was hit side on and bowled over onto its back. This time we approached to within a few yards until, once again, the bird opened it eyes, got to its feet and flew away. Finally, last year, another partner with a very long but, it has to be said, sometimes inaccurate drive pulled his ball into an area of rough well beyond the fairway. Those of us watching saw the ball hit a gull side on. As we hurried to see what had happened to the bird and to see if we could find the ball, we were unsighted from the site of the collision. Thinking the bird would still be on the ground injured if not dead, we searched the whole area. There was no sign of a bird, alive or dead; it must have flown away.

Two of these birds ended up on their backs and appeared dead for a short time. Whether this was ‘tonic immobility’ or ‘playing dead’ or whether the birds were stunned by the impact I do not know but that state is extremely easy to induce in a number of birds. Just turning domestic geese and ducks over while keeping their heads in the shade is often sufficient to induce total quiescence for long periods and stories of bird hypnotists go back hundreds of years.

So not only do the birds not ‘see’ an approaching golf ball, they seem to absorb the impact surprisingly well and live on to face the foxes which, judging by the bones and feathers, kill and eat a good number each year.


*DeVault TL, Blackwell BF, Seamans TW, Lima SL, Fernández-Juricic E. 2015 Speed kills: ineffective avian escape responses to oncoming vehicles. Proc. R. Soc. B 282: 20142188. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.2188 

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Yetis, Polar Bears and Brown Bears: Things are Seldom What They Seem

In my post, Abominable Snowman: Yetis from The Long Walk to Bear mtDNA of 22 July 2014, I reported:

The new properly-published genetic evidence is from mitochondrial DNA extracted from hair samples. Short sequences in a highly conserved gene from two samples of ‘yeti’ hair, one from Ladakh (golden-brown in colour) and one from Bhutan (reddish-brown), showed a 100% match to DNA recovered from a Pleistocene fossil of Ursus maritimus, the Polar Bear, but not with examples of modern polar bears.

This conclusion* has now been challenged successfully by C.J. Edwards (Oxford) and R. Barnett (Copenhagen). They found a 100% match of two Yeti hair sequences with a modern Polar Bear, not the Pleistocene fossil. However, Edwards and Barnett then go on to suggest that the DNA might have been damaged in the Yeti hair and that since only a single-base change is needed to identify the sequence as fitting Polar Bear, an alternative origin for the hair samples from Ladakh and Bhutan can be proposed: Ursus arctos isabellinus, the Himalayan form of the Brown Bear and long associated with the Yeti myth. The authors conclude:

As the two hair samples tested by Sykes et al. were golden-brown (Ladakh, 25025) and reddish-brown (Bhutan, 25191), and as the most parsimonious explanation of the sequences recovered is that they came from brown bear and exhibit DNA degradation, we would contend that the hair samples are, in fact, from Himalayan brown bears and not from ‘a previously unrecognized bear species, colour variants of U. maritimus, or U. arctos/U. maritimus hybrids’ as claimed. 

Three of the original authors responded:

Although the error is certainly unfortunate, it does not change the conclusion that the sequences recovered from the ‘yeti’ hairs connect to U. maritimus nor does it invalidate any of the possible explanations discussed in the paper. Importantly, for the thrust of the paper as a whole, the conclusion that these Himalayan ‘yeti’ samples were certainly not from a hitherto unknown primate is unaffected…We stressed in the original paper that the true identity of this intriguing animal needs to be refined, preferably by sequence data from fresh tissue samples derived from a living specimen where DNA degradation is no longer a concern

Where would I put my money if I had to choose the most likely source of the Yeti hairs? Brown.


View image | gettyimages.com                                                                           Himalayan Brown Bear


*Sykes, BC, Mullis, RA, Hagenmuller, C, Melton TW, Sartori M. 2014. Genetic analysis of hair samples attributed to yeti, bigfoot and other anomalous primates. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281, 20140161

†Edwards CJ, Barnett R. 2015 Himalayan ‘yeti’ DNA: polar bear or DNA degradation? A comment on ‘Genetic analysis of hair samples attributed to yeti’ by Sykes et al. (2014). Proceedings of the Royal Society B 282: 20141712. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.1712 

‡Melton TW, Sartori M, Sykes BC. 2015 Response to Edward and Barnett. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 282: 20142434. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.2434 

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Cancers and Tissue Cell Divisions: Yes…But…

A recent paper in Science* was widely covered in the national and international press. By gathering data on the total number of cell divisions in human tissues (x) and the incidence of cancer in those tissues (lifetime risk)(y), the authors emerged with a correlation coefficient (r) of 0.81 between the variables. In other words, the more renewing cell divisions, the greater the incidence of cancer. These findings then suggest that 65% (i.e. r2) ‘of the differences in cancer risk among different tissues can be explained by the total number of stem cell divisions in those tissues’.

from Tomasetti & Vogelstein. Science 347, 78-81
The authors then go on to suggest that this finding suggests a mainly stochastic effect of DNA replication as the cause of most human cancers. Thus the newspaper headlines: Cancer risk mainly bad luck, etc. To a great extent the findings confirmed my own prejudices, at least for the initiation of an error in replication. However, there is the major consideration of whether that initial error is eliminated and how rapidly and if at all the initial error progresses to a cancerous growth.

The authors also attempted to distinguish the effects of the chance effects of replication from other possible causative agents such as environmental factors and inherited mutations. Essentially their method seems a sophisticated version of looking at those cancers falling above the regression line and classifying them as extra risk. As might be expected the lung of smokers fell into this category.

The authors also suggested that their findings indicate that most cancers, the 65%, do not arise from environmental factors. And then I began to think a bit and then I began to look at their data. On the first point, I thought of the effect of cosmic radiation, and, indeed of a whole-body x-ray. Does not that affect all dividing cells equally? Whether one of your cells gets hit or not is down to chance, bad luck, but it is still an environmental effect that cannot be distinguished from a simple replicative error. With any non-tissue-specific environmental effect, the correlation coefficient could be the same, but the intercept of the regression line with the y-axis would be shifted upwards.

I then realised that data from some key organs of high cancer incidence were missing from the analysis: mammary gland and prostate—not missing because they had been missed out but missing because the necessary data do not exist. But as the following diagram from Cancer Research UK shows, breast and prostate cancer are so important in the overall incidence (the former accounting for 30% of all cancers in women and the latter for 25% in men) that it would be highly informative to see where they fit in the picture (including and excluding the BRCA mutations).

The 20 Most Common Cancers in 2011. Number of New Cases, UK
Interesting as the present data are they are in one species, the only one that counts for most cancer researchers. However, if the relation between number of cell divisions and lifetime incidence of cancer in a tissue is universal then the same correlation should emerge in other species. Can the necessary data be extracted from the current literature for mammals…or birds…or reptiles…?

Finally, my eyebrows started a slight twitch when I read in the paper: Most cells in tissues are partially or fully differentiated cells that are typically short-lived and unlikely to be able to initiate a tumor. Only the stem cells—those that can self-renew and are responsible for the development and maintenance of the tissue's architecture—have this capacity. Well, up to a point Lord Copper, and the general point is taken, but I can never get out of my head Peter Wooding’s electron micrographs showing fully differentiated, secreting mammary cells in the process of division.



*Tomasetti C,  Vogelstein, B. 2015. Variation in cancer risk among tissues can be explained by the number of stem cell divisions. Science 347, 78-81.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Penguins’ Eggs and the Scott Expedition: Cherry-Garrard, Sidney Harmer and Small Worlds

I know this sounds like a I’ve-danced-with-a-man, who’s-danced-with-a-girl, who’s-danced-with-the-Prince-of-Wales story but it actually illustrates how small the scientific world was in Britain in the years before the 1939-1945 War.

In my reading of the antarctic literature and the heroic attempt to obtain embryos of the Emperor Penguin (posts I made throughout 2014 on this site) by Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard in the Antarctic winter of 1911, I came across Cherry-Garrard’s run-in with Sidney Harmer, Keeper of Zoology at the Natural History Museum, or, in those days, the British Museum (Natural History).

Wilson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard after their
return from the Emperor Penguin colony at Cape Crozier
Cherry-Garrard’s animus to the Museum began when Cherry-Garrard delivered the penguins’ eggs to the Museum after Wilson and Bowers died with Scott on their return journey from the South Pole. Then in his book, In The Worst Journey in the World, he pulled no punches. His account begins:

Let us leave the Antarctic for a moment and conceive ourselves in the year 1913 in the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. I had written to say I would being the eggs at this time. Present, myself, C.-G., the sole survivor of the three, with First or Doorstep Custodian of the Sacred Eggs. I did not take a verbatim report of his welcome; but the spirit of it may be dramatized as follows:
FIRST CUSTODIAN. Who are you? What do you want? This ain’t an egg-shop…You’d best speak to Mt Brown: it’s him that varnishes the eggs.
I resort to Mr Brown, who ushers me into the presence of the Chief Custodian, a man of scientific aspect, with two manners: one, affably courteous, for a Person of Importance (I guess a Naturalist Rothschild at least) with whom he is conversing, and the other, extraordinarily offensive even for an official man of science, for myself…

Sara Wheeler in her biography of Cherry-Garrard, Cherry, describes how Harmer, Keeper of Zoology since 1909 and Director of the Museum since 1919—and now Sir Sidney—responded to the attacks on the Museum both to the press and to Cherry-Garrard himself. Harmer also pulled no punches: “the story seems devoid of any semblance to the truth”, and insisted that his staff had been maligned. George Bernard Shaw helped Cherry-Garrard with a series of letters (as he had with the book) and Harmer was left defending the impossible since Grace Scott, Captain Scott’s sister, had accompanied Cherry-Garrard on a subsequent visit to the BM, and confirmed in writing the attitude of the ‘custodians’.

Wheeler says the main culprit at the museum had died and I have not been able to identify him.

Arguments with Harmer had, however, begun earlier. Cherry-Garrard was invalided out of the army early in the 1914-18 War with ulcerative colitis and worked on his notes from the expedition. Those on the Adélie Penguin he submitted to Harmer (who was editing the reports from the Scott expedition) to see if they were publishable (according to him) or to be published (as can be inferred from Harmer’s reply). Harmer stated that the notes were not publishable as they stood. Wheeler says Cherry-Garrard, always fragile mentally as well as physically, exploded in a letter to Harmer and at the end of it raised his treatment at the hands of Harmer’s staff: “I handed over the Cape Crozier embryos, which nearly cost three men their lives, and has cost one man his health, to your museum personally, and . . . your representative never even said ‘thanks’.”

Between these spats, Cherry-Garrard supported Harmer over the slaughter of penguins for oil and meat in a letter to The Times (18 February 1918):

Sir,—May I back Dr. Harmer’s letter pointing out the danger of attacking penguin rookeries? If the slaughter of penguins and seals or the collection of penguin eggs is to be undertaken, the public should insist that it is done under the effective control of the Governments concerned, probably those of Australia and New Zealand. The true Antarctic penguins are fairly safe at present; there is no danger that the rookeries of the Emperor penguin will be harmed unless people want to go bird-nesting in 170deg. of frost; and the Adelie penguin is protected by the pack ice. But there is very great danger for the sub-Antarctic penguins which live in the islands north of the pack ice, and which are therefore more accessible…

Harmer it seems was a difficult man to fall out with. In his Obituary Notice for the Royal Society, W.T. Calman (1871-1952) noted:

…It is related that when the Trustees of the British Museum were considering the appointment of a Director, a very important person who was also a Cambridge man urged his appointment to the vacant post on the grounds that ‘Nobody could possibly quarrel with Harmer’.

Sir Sidney Harmer FRS
Harmer is known for his role in the protection of whales in the southern oceans. Sidney Harmer was one of the old school zoologists who knew the entire Animal Kingdom while specialising in a particular group or groups. He was renowned for his work on what was then the Polyzoa but now often called the Bryozoa. At Cambridge he also became interested in whales, for example, a stranded Sowerby’s Beaked-whale on the Norfolk coast. When he moved to the BM he initiated the scheme under which stranded whales were reported to the Museum. According to his Obituary Notice, he did a great deal of work on whales which was never published and tried to sort out the classification of the dolphins.

His major contribution to the conservation of whales started in 1913. Calman wrote:

It is not clear when the Colonial Office first asked for help from the Museum in connexion with the whaling industry, if, indeed, they did ask for it. All that seems to be recorded is that in 1913 Harmer prepared a ‘Memorandum relating to whales and whaling’ which was printed on Colonial Office paper.

In order to mark whales to study their migration, Harmer supervised the first experiments with a large cross-bow to fire a marker into the body that could be recovered when, rather than if, the whale was killed and cut up by whalers:

At one time he had a large oil-cloth model whale behind the Museum and I seem to remember him in morning coat, striped trousers and bowler hat, excitedly watching the first shots…with this very barbarous-looking mediaeval weapon.

In short, Harmer became a first champion for whales. He analysed the statistics collected by the whaling companies and warned of the rapidly increasing rate of destruction of the whale populations around Antarctica.

To return to the first line of this post, I realised that I had met Sidney Harmer’s daughter, Iris Mary, and indeed that she was known by many of my former colleagues. At an event, I think to mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Institute of Animal Physiology at Babraham (since re-named as the Babraham Institute), Marthe Vogt, who had formally retired from the Institute in 1965 and would have then been 85, brought her former boss’s widow, Lady Gaddum, then aged 94. Shortly afterwards, incidentally, Marthe Vogt moved to live with her sister in California and lived until the age of 100 years and 1 day. Lady Gaddum, née Iris Mary Harmer, married Sir John Gaddum (Director of Babraham from 1958 until shortly before his death in 1965) in 1929.

I now find that Iris Mary Harmer had been involved in an important discovery. She was what would probably now be described as a clinical scientist after graduating with a first from Cambridge and then a London medical degree. She worked with Sir Thomas Lewis at University College, London on the famous ‘triple response’ and provided some of the first evidence, in papers published in 1926 and 1927, for the release of a histamine-like substance (Lewis’s H-substance) in human skin in response to minor injury. She died in 1992, aged 98.

So, there we have it, the very small world of British science in the early years of the 20th century. I talked with a woman—who was the daughter of a man—who upset an explorer—who collected Emperor penguin eggs on Scott’s final expedition. Much more interesting than to have danced-with-a-man, who’s-danced-with-a-girl, who’s-danced-with-the-Prince-of-Wales, don’t you know.