Thursday, 19 September 2013

Who was Marples, B.J. (1932)?

Twenty-five years before Knut Schmidt-Nielsen discovered salt glands in birds, the structure and development of the nasal or supraorbital glands – that turned out to be the salt glands – were studied by B.J. Marples at the University of  Manchester1. The late Jim Linzell and I quoted his work in our monograph on salt glands2. However, his name was unfamiliar to us and we had no idea what had become of him. I always wanted to ask Marples why had worked on the nasal glands. Nothing of their remarkable function was known and the only function anybody could think of was to wash seawater out of the nostrils. Wrong!

Only when reading Whose Bird?3 last year did I find the answer. Brian John Marples (1907-1997) was, from 1937 until 1966, Professor of Zoology at Otago University in New Zealand. Like so many zoologists of that era, his interests were wide-ranging, if firmly grounded in the Oxford school of comparative anatomy of Goodrich and de Beer. An obituary in the Yearbook of the Royal Society of New Zealand4 provides an excellent account of his interests and achievements in ornithology, arachnology and vertebrate palaeontology (particularly the fossil penguins of the Oligocene).

Marples’ (Marples’s when I did O-level English) Penguin (Palaeeudyptes marplesi Brodkorb, 1963) from the Late Eocene was named in his honour. The extinct birds in this genus start at the size of the Emperor Penguin5.

Again, like so many of his British contemporaries, it is reported that his lecture delivery was in the languid style with diagrams drawn on the blackboard. It seems that he retired early because the university thought his department needed an infusion of experimental biology. He returned to Woodstock, near Oxford.

So, while we were writing the monograph, Marples was living near Oxford and, had we known that, I could have asked him how he came to work on nasal glands and whether or not he had an inkling that they could prove to be more important than was thought at the time.

1Marples, B. J. 1932. The structure and development of the nasal glands of birds. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 102, 829 – 844.
2Peaker, M. & Linzell, J.L. 1975. Salt Glands in Birds and Reptiles. Cambridge University Press (ISBN 0 521 20629 4).
3Beolens, B. & Watkins, M. 2003. Whose Bird? London: Christopher Helm (ISBN 0-300-10359-X)

Monday, 16 September 2013

BBC: Losing the Plot

Last year I met somebody who had worked at the BBC’s Natural History Unit in Bristol. I enquired how a producer with whom I had worked on a programme in the 1990s was. ‘Oh, she was made redundant’, came the reply. Now I need not tell you that the Natural History Unit has been and remains to be singularly successful. But then we read that in addition to the massive pay-offs to top BBC executives (I have, incidentally, never discovered what ‘executives’ actually do) the Head of Human Resources (i.e. the Personnel Officer) has been paid £320,000 per annum. Need I say more by way of explaining why the BBC is imploding.

And do not risk mentioning the science coverage to me. An explosion of expletives is the likely outcome. The last Horizon I managed to watch the whole way through was a really awful programme on dinosaurs and the extraction of ancient DNA. I pitied the scientists who had taken part in this repetitive, dumbed down coverage with a story that flew off at every available tangent. The science flagship was holed below the water line some years ago. The original producers who launched the series in 1964 must be watching from somewhere the BBC’s treatment of science with horror.