Saturday, 17 March 2018

Yellow-crested Cockatoo: critically endangered but still being traded illegally

In February 2017 I wrote a series of posts on the critically endangered Yellow-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea) of Indonesia and East Timor. News this week from TRAFFIC shows that this cockatoo is still being caught and traded for the pet trade in south-east Asia. An illegal shipment of animals, including a hundred cockatoos of three species, was seized in the Philippines last week.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

On a Hong Kong beach: Precious Wentletrap

Our Hong Kong correspondent found this shell on a Lantau beach. It is a Precious Wentletrap (Epitonium scalare) and the first he has found.

This find a few hundred years ago would have made him rich, especially if the shell had been bigger. Collectors paid a fortune for them including Francis I (1708-1765), Holy Roman Emperor, as well as Empresses and Queens of European houses from a period of history of which my knowledge is zero. The shell was so coveted that it is not at all surprising to find that Chinese workers made fakes using rice flour.

The shell is unusual in that the whorls of the spiral are not fused, as in, say, a whelk. The rigid external latticework of varices which give the mollusc its distinctive appearance hold the whorls together. The descriptive name of wentletrap is derived from the Dutch for spiral staircase.

These animals are said to prey on anemones and corals.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

I am not counting—but just how many cats have I seen in the wild?

I do not make consolidated lists of mammals, birds, reptiles or amphibians we  have seen in different parts of the world. Listing, especially world listing, can become addictive and, ultimately, pointless. Our aim is at seeing and experiencing where animals live and their various modes of life. However, a few weeks ago I was reading the recent revised taxonomy of the cats and I thought, how many cats have we actually seen in the wild, with the two recently added in China?

Well, here is the list. It began in Kenya in 1991:

Scientific NameCommon Nme
Felis chausJungle Cat
Felis bieti
Chinese Mountain Cat
Felis silvestrisEuropean Wildcat
Felis lybicaAfrican Wildcat
Otocolobus manulPallas's Cat
Prionailurus bengalensisLeopard Cat
Prionailurus javanensisSunda Leopard Cat
Acinonyx jubatusCheetah
Herpailurus yagouaroundiJaguarundi
Leopardus pardalisOcelot
Panthera tigrisTiger
Panthera oncaJaguar
Panthera leoLion
Panthera pardusLeopard

Leopard. Kenya 1991

Cheetahs. Botswana 2001

Lion. Zambia 2007

Asiatic Lion. India 2015
Jaguar. Brazil 2017

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Takins and Tufted Deer at Tangjiahe, Sichuan

We saw the last of China’s strange to-us ruminants at Tangjiahe National Nature Reserve during our trip with Naturetrek and with Sid Francis as our guide last November. Takin (Budorcas taxicolor) were all along the valley and a small group appeared at dusk around the hotel, eventually moving off as the car got close and passengers began to get out. Their movement, with, like the serow, short hind legs, can best be described as a lollop. Some we saw feeding on the flat ground; other on the wooded hillsides up which, again like the Chinese Serow, they can move at considerable speed. The closest we got to one during the day (there were lots around at night too) was one feeding on fallen ripe, persimmons* which look like discarded orange peel and that one is the star of the video.

Takin smell of an oily sebum that is secreted all over the body†. Once considered related to the muskox on grounds of their similar appearance, molecular evidence has placed them with the goats and sheep. We heard their strange alarm call (we were not there at the right time to hear the call made by males in the mating season); a very loud, short cough best describes it.

During early winter, the large herds that occupy the alpine meadows at the edge of the tree line break up and individuals or small group move into the valleys—which is where we found them.

It is apparently wise not to creep up and catch a Takin unawares. They will charge and have been known to kill human hunters and perhaps even the odd tourist.

Also in the valley were Tufted Deer (Elaphodus cephalophus). As well as the tuft on the head present in both sexes, males have long canine teeth that protrude from the mouth. We had a particularly good view of a female or possibly a young male—also a star of the video—which was close to the road in the middle of the morning and seemed unconcerned by the presence of human contact or camera shutters. It clearly had not read the book stating that they are secretive and crepuscular.

You can see that this Tufted Deer also had skin lesions along its back. Had she escaped from a large predator or was it a parasitic infestation?

Finally, the tuft of the anatomically eponymous deer? I can find no attempted explanation for the presence for the ‘bushy, dark tuft of hair on the forehead’. So I end with the question, Why?

*a few days later persimmons with fish roe were highly appreciated in a Hong Kong restaurant.

†There is a misleading statement in a field guide on the overall absence of skin glands.

Frey R, Hofmann RR. Larynx and vocalization of the Takin (Budorcas taxicolor Hodgson, 1850-Mammalia, Bovidae). Journal of Comparative Zoology 239, 197-214.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Captive breeding of water frogs

There have been enormous advances since I started to keep amphibians sixty years ago. Recently, I was pleased to see further evidence of progress in a paper describing scientifically-based methods for the captive breeding of water frogs.

Even developing the methodology for common species to breed under controlled conditions gives a pretty good idea of where to start with the rescue of an endangered related species should that be necessary. In addition, of course, it tells you a lot about the physiological requirements and the conditions that trigger reproduction or, if conditions are not right, that inhibit it. 

This paper in the BHS’s Herpetological Bulletin by Christopher Michaels (now at the Zoological Society of London) and Kristofer Försäter working in England and Sweden describes the breeding of four species of water frog, Pelophylax. This is how they began the Discussion section of the paper:

Pelophylax sp. rely on well warmed, sunny areas of relatively still water with rafts of  floating vegetation and rarely stray far from water. They are heliophiles and actively bask, exposing themselves to the heat and UVB irradiation of direct sunlight (Michaels & Preziosi, 2013). Historically, indoors enclosures for amphibians were typically lacking in UVB provision and thermal gradients. With increasing understanding of amphibian lighting requirements and the availability of technology to meet them, indoors husbandry for water frogs is now much more easily achievable. Our captive enclosures were designed to recreate the UVB rich, brightly lit and warm environments inhabited by water frogs in nature and these conditions proved successful in maintaining and breeding this genus indoors.

Michaels CJ, Försäter K. 2017. Captive breeding of Pelophylax water frogs under controlled conditions indoors. Herpetological Bulletin  142, 29-34.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Balang Mountain and its ‘Cloud Ocean’ in Sichuan, China

Wildlife trips often have spectacular scenery to view and not all birdwatching is done at sewage farms around the world. Sichuan, in November, was no exception. We set off from from Wolong* at altitude 6,360 feet (1940 metres) in the dark. we headed west and then started to climb. The mist tuned into fog, and the car went round the first of many hairpin bends. Eventually we emerged above the cloud as the sun was appearing over the mountains. The cloud of the temperature inversion is often present and is a local tourist attraction called ‘Balang Cloud Ocean’. Onwards and upwards we reached the top of the pass, Balang Shan, at 14,700 feet (4480 metres). There we could see the sharp-peaked mountains to the north. After driving that way and down into a valley we had lunch at Rilong and eventually headed back.

On the way there we had seen Blue Sheep (Pseudois nayaur) high on an alpine meadow. They were still there when we stopped to look on the way back.

This is the video I took:

Attractive and unusual as the ‘Cloud Ocean’ is, birdwatchers of all persuasions, hate it since it scuppers completely any chance of seeing the pheasants for which the area is renowned. We did stop on the way up at a site where the Chinese Monal (Lophophorus lhuysii), a spectacular pheasant is often seen but the cloud was so thick we could see nothing.

We were in Sichuan in November—the best time to see Red Pandas—but in Spring with more birds about, the alpine meadows green and the plants in flower, the scenery must be even more attractive and not quite so cold. The effect of nearly a halving in the oxygen concentration compared with sea-level on the rate of breathing while walking uphill or even holding binoculars would, however, still be the same.

Here are some still photographs:

It is obvious why the phenomenon is called a 'Cloud Ocean'

Güldenstädt's Redstart (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus)

*Wolong was the site of the first captive breeding centre for Giant Pandas. It was closed to the public after the 2008 earthquake which devastated the town. There are still Giant Pandas there—we saw one from the road in a tree. The research is now on releasing captive-bred pandas in the wild.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Native and Introduced Frogs in Britain: Evidence from the historical record

A great deal of effort was expended abour fifteen years ago in determining that the Pool Frog, Peloyphylax or Rana lessonae, is a native British species as well as one introduced from time to time. A recent paper now shows that a species of water frog, distinct from the Common Frog, Rana temporaria, was recognised by writers between, at least, the 15th and 18th Centuries.

The trawl through the historical record also showed the presence of populations of tree frogs, Hyla arborea, between the 16th and 18th Centuries. Introduction for medicinal purposes—nothing like the heart of a tree frog in a little wine and wormwood juice for treating one’s anal fistulas—seems the most likely explanation with over-collection (as with the medicinal leach) possibly accounting for its decline.

Difficult as the old accounts are to interpret in terms of separating facts from supposition, myths and legends, the author, Lee Raye (website here) has pulled together a fascinating account that links medieval natural history with medical practice and trade.

Full marks also to the Herpetological Journal (which in times not quite so ancient as those described in the paper, I edited under its former name of the British Journal of Herpetology) for publishing Raye’s paper.

Raye L. 2017. Frogs in pre-industrial Britain. Herpetological Journal 27, 368-378.

Beebee TJC, Buckley J, Evans I, Foster JP, Gent AH, Gleed-Owen CP, Kelly G, Rowe G, Snell C, Wycherley JT, Zeisset I. 2005. Neglected native or undesirable alien? Resolution of a conservation dilemma concerning the pool frog Rana lessonae. Biodiversity and Conservation 14 1607-1626.