Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Ornithologists in cartoons

From: The Graphic. 25 April 1874.
It is said that the modern version of badminton evolved from a game played in Poona (some sources name the game itself as Poona). When I saw this picture from 1874 about five years ago, I gave little thought to it. Revisiting it after five years after some research on one of A.O. Hume's ornithological collaborators, I have a strong hunch that one of the people depicted in the picture is recognizable although it is not going to be easy to confirm this.

I recently created a Wikipedia entry for a British administrator who worked in the Bombay Presidency, G.W. Vidal, when I came across a genealogy website (whose maintainer unfortunately was uncontactable by email) with notes on his life that included a photograph in profile and a cartoon. The photograph was apparently taken by Vidal himself, a keen amateur photographer apart from being a snake and bird enthusiast. Like naturalists of that epoch, many of his specimens were shot, skinned or pickled and sent off to museums or specialists. He was an active collaborator of Hume and contributed a long note in Stray Feathers on the birds of Ratnagiri District, where he was a senior ICS official. He continued to contribute notes after the ornithological exit of Hume, to the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. This gives further support for an idea I have suggested before that a key stimulus for the formation of the BNHS was the end of Stray Feathers. Vidal's mother has the claim for being the first women novelist of Australia. Interestingly one of his daughters married Major R.M. Betham, another keen amateur ornithologist born in Dapoli, who is well-known in Bangalore birding circles for being the first to note Lesser Floricans in the region. Now Vidal was involved in popularizing badminton in India, apparently creating some of the rules that allowed matches to be played. The man at the left in the sketch in the 1874 edition of The Graphic looks quite like Vidal, but who knows! What do you think?

PS: Vidal sent bird specimens to Hume, and at least two subspecies have been named from his specimens after him - Perdicula asiatica vidali and Todiramphus chloris vidali.

For more information on Vidal, do take a look at the Wikipedia entry. More information from readers is welcome as usual.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Some little-known bird books from India - M.R.N. Holmer

A fair number of books have been written on the birds of India. Many colonial-era books have been taken out of the clutches of antique book sellers and wealthy hoarders and made available to researchers at large by the Biodiversity Heritage Library but there are still many extremely rare books that few have read or written about. Here is a small sampling of them which I hope to produce as a series of short entries.

One of these is by M.R.N. Homer (Mary Rebekah Norris Holmer - 6 June 1875 - 2 September 1957) - a professor of physiology at Lady Hardinge Medical College who was also the first woman board member in the Senate of Punjab University and a first for any university in India. Educated at Cambridge and Dublin University she worked in India from 1915 to 1922 and then returned to England. She wrote several bits on the methods of teaching nature study, and seems to have been very particular about these ideas. From a small fragment, it would appear that she emphasized the use of local and easily available plants as teaching aids and she deplored the use of the word "weed". Her sole book on birds was first published in 1923 as Indian Bird Life and then revised in 1926 as Bird Study in India. The second edition includes very neat black-and-white  illustrations by Kay Nixon, a very talented artist who illustrated some Enid Blyton books and apparently designed posters for the Indian Railways.

A rather sparse Wikipedia entry has been created at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M.R.N._Holmer - more information is welcome!

A scanned version of her bird book can now be found on the Internet Archive - https://archive.org/details/Holmer Holmer came from a Christian Sunday School approach to natural history which shows up in places in the book. Her book includes many literary references, several especially to R.L.S. (R.L.Stevenson). In another part of the series we will look at more "evangelical" bird books.

John Stephenson, the writer of the preface, was a zoologist and a specialist on the oligochaetes. He wrote the Fauna of British India volume on the oligochaetes and was the series editor for the Fauna of British India from 1927 following the death of the editor A.E. Shipley.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

On a germ trail

Hidden away in the little Himalayan town of Mukteshwar is a fascinating bit of science history. Cattle and livestock really mattered a lot in the pre-engine past, especially for transport and power,  on farms and in cities but also and especially for people in power. Hyder Ali and Tipu were famed and feared for their ability to move their guns rapidly, most famously, making use of bullocks, of the Amrut Mahal and Hallikar breeds. The subsequent British conquerors saw the value and maintained large numbers of them, at the Commissariat farm in Hunsur for instance.
The Commissariat Farm, Hunsur
Photo by Wiele & Klein, from: The Queen's Empire. A pictorial and descriptive record. Volume 2.
Cassell and Co. London (1899). [p. 261]
The original photo caption given below, while being racy, was most definitely inaccurate,
these were not maintained for beef :

It is said that the Turkish soldier will live and fight upon a handful of dates and a cup of water, the Greek upon a few olives and a pound of bread—an excellent thing for the commissariats of the two armies concerned, no doubt! But though Turk and Greek will be satisfied with this Spartan fare, the British soldier will not—not if he can help it, that is to say. Sometimes he cannot help it, and then it is only just to him to admit that he bears himself at a pinch as a soldier should, and is satisfied with what he can get. But what the British soldier wants is beef, and plenty of it : and he is a wise and provident commander who will contrive that his men shall get what they want. Here we see that the Indian Government has realised this truth. The picture represents the great Commissariat Farm at Hunsur in Mysore, where the shapely long-horned bullocks are kept for the use of the army.
Report of the cattle plague commission
led by J.H.B. Hallen (1871)

Imagine the situation when cattle die off in their millions - the estimated deaths of cows and buffaloes in 1870 was 1 million. Around 1871, it rang alarm bells high enough to have a committee examining the situation. Britain had had a major "cattle plague" outbreak in 1865 and so the matter was not unknown to the public. The generic term for the mass deaths was "murrain", a rather old-fashioned word that refers to an epidemic disease in sheep and cattle derived from the French word morine, or "pestilence," with roots in Latin mori "to die." A commission headed by Staff Veterinary Surgeon J.H.B. Hallen went across what would best be called the "cow belt" of India and noted among other things that the cattle in the hills were doing better and that rivers helped isolate the disease. Remarkably there were two little-known Indians members - Mirza Mahomed Ali Jan (a deputy collector) and Hem Chunder Kerr (a magistrate and collector). The report includes 6 maps with spots where the outbreaks occurred in each year from 1860 to 1866 and the spatial approach to epidemiology is dominant. This is perhaps unsurprising given that the work of John Snow would have been fresh in medical minds. One point in the report that caught my eye was "Increasing civilization, which means in India clearing of jungle, making of roads, extended agriculture, more communication with other parts, buying and selling, &c, provides greater facilities for the spread of contagious diseases of stock." The committee identified the largest number of deaths to be caused by rinderpest. Rinderpest has a very long history and the its attacks in Europe are quite well documented. There had been two veterinary congresses in Europe that looked at rinderpest. One of the early researchers was John Burdon Sanderson (a maternal grand-uncle of J.B.S. Haldane) who noted that the blood of infected cattle was capable of infecting others even before the source individual showed any symptoms of the disease. He also examined the relationship to smallpox and cowpox through cross-vaccination and examination for resistance. C.A. Spinage in his brilliant book (but with a European focus) on The Cattle Plague - A History (2003) notes that rinderpest belongs to the Paramyxoviruses, a morbillivirus which probably existed in Pleistocene Bovids and perhaps the first relative that jumped to humans was measles, and was associated with the domestication of cattle. The English believed that the origin of rinderpest lay in Russia. The Russians believed it came from the Mongols.
Gods slaandehand over Nederland, door de pest-siekte onder het rund vee
[God's lashing hand over the Netherlands, due to the plague disease among cattle]
Woodcut by Jan Smits (1745) - cattle epidemics evoked theological explanations
The British government made a grant of £5,000 in 1865 for research into rinderpest which was apparently the biggest ever investment in medical research upto that point of time. This was also a period when there was epidemic cholera epidemic, mainly affecting the working class, and it was noted that hardly any money was spent on it. (Spinage:328) The result of the rewards was that a very wide variety of cures were proffered and Spinage provides an amusing overview. One cure claim came from a Mr. M. Worms of Ceylon and involved garlic, onion, and asafoetida. Worms was somehow related to Baron Rothschild and the cure was apparently tested on some of Rothschild's cattle with some surprising recoveries. Inoculation as in small pox treatments were tried by many and they often resulted in infection and death of the animals.

As for the India scene, it appears that the British government did not do much based on the Hallen committee report. There were attempts to regulate the movement of cattle but it seems that the idea that it could be prevented through inoculation or vaccination had to wait. In the 1865 outbreak in Britain, one of the control measures was the killing and destruction of infected cattle at the point of import. This finally brought an end to outbreaks in 1867. Several physicians in India tried experiments in inoculation. In India natural immunity was noted and animals that overcame the disease were valued by their owners. In India natural immunity was noted and animals that overcame the disease were valued by their owners. In 1890 Robert Koch was called into service in the Cape region on the suggestion of Dr J. Beck. In 1897 Koch announced that bile from infected animals could induce resistance on inoculation. Koch was then sent on to India to examine the plague leaving behind a William Kolle to continue experiments in a disused mine building at Kimberley belonging to the De Beers. Around the same time experiments were conducted by Herbert Watkins-Pitchford and Arnold Theiler who found that serum from cattle that recovered worked as an effective inoculation. They however failed to publish and received little credit. Koch, a German, beating the English researchers was a cause of hurt pride.

The Brown Institution was destroyed in 1944
by German bombing
Interesting to see how much national pride was involved in all this. The French had established an Imperial Bacteriological Institute at Constantinople with Louis Pasteur as their leading light. This was mostly headed by Pasteur Institute Alumni. Maurice Nicolle and Adil-Bey were involved in rinderpest research. They demonstrated that the causal agent was small enough to pass through bacterial filters. In India, Alfred Lingard was chosen in 1890 to examine the problems of livestock diseases and to find solutions. Lingard had gained his research experience at the Brown Animal Sanatory Institution - whose workers included John Burdon Sanderson. About six years earlier, Robert Koch, had caused more embarrassment to the British establishment by identifying the cholera causing bacteria in Calcutta. Koch had however not demonstrated that his bacteria isolate could cause disease in uninfected animals - thereby failing one of the required tests for causality that now goes by the name of Koch's postulates. There were several critiques by British researchers who had been working for a while on cholera in India - these included David Douglas Cunningham (who was also a keen naturalist and wrote a couple of general natural history books as well) and T.R. Lewis (who had spent some time with German researchers).  The British government (the bureaucrats were especially worried about quarantine measures for cholera and had a preference for old-fashioned miasma theories of disease) felt the need for a committee to examine the conflict between the English and German claims - and they presumably chose someone with a knowledge of German for it -  Emanuel Edward Klein assisted by Heneage Gibbes. Klein was also from the Brown Animal Sanatory Institution and had worked with Burdon Sanderson. Now Klein, the Brown Institution, Burdon Sanderson and many of the British physiologists had come under the attack of the anti-vivisection movement. During the court proceedings that examined claims of cruelty to animals by the anti-vivisectionists, Klein, an east European (of Jewish descent) with his poor knowledge of English had made rather shocking statements that served as fodder for some science fiction written in that period with evil characters bearing a close resemblance to Klein! Even Lingard had been accused of cruelty, feeding chickens with the lungs of tuberculosis patients, to examine if the disease could be transmitted. E.H. Hankin, the man behind the Ganges bacteriophages had also been associated with the vivisection-researchers and the British Indian press had even called him a vivisector who had escaped to India.

Lingard initially worked in Pune but he found the climate unsatisfactory for working on anti-rinderpest sera. In 1893 he moved the laboratory in the then remote mountain town of Mukteshwar (or Muktesar as the British records have it) and his first lab burnt down in a fire. In 1897 Lingard invited Koch and others to visit and Koch's bile method was demonstrated. The institution, then given the grand name of Imperial Bacteriological Laboratory was rebuilt and it continues to exist as a unit of the Indian Veterinary Research Institute. Lingard was able to produce rinderpest serum in this facility - producing 468,853 doses between 1900 and 1905 and the mortality of inoculated cattle was as low as 0.43%. The institute grew to produce 1,388,560 doses by 1914-15. Remarkably, several countries joined hands in 1921 to attack rinderpest and other livestock diseases and it is claimed that rinderpest is now the second virus (after smallpox) to have been eradicated. The Muktesar institution and its surroundings were also greatly modified with dense plantations of deodar and other conifers. Today this quiet little village centered around a temple to Shiva is visited by waves of tourists and all along the route one can see the horrifying effects of land being converted for housing and apartments.

The Imperial Bacteriological Laboratory c. 1912 (rebuilt after the fire)
In 2019, the commemorative column can be seen.
Upper corridor
A large autoclave made by Manlove & Alliott, Nottingham.
Stone marker
A cold storage room built into the hillside
Koch in 1897 at Muktesar
Seated: Lingard, Koch, Pfeiffer, Gaffky

The habitat c. 1910. One of the parasitologists, a Dr Bhalerao,
described parasites from king cobras shot in the area.

The crags behind the Mukteshwar institute, Chauli-ki-Jhali, a hole in a jutting sheet of rock (behind and not visible)
is a local tourist attraction.
Here then are portraits of three scientists who were tainted in the vivisection debate in Britain, but who were able to work in India without much trouble.
E.H. Hankin

Alfred Lingard

Emanuel Edward Klein

The cattle plague period coincides nicely with some of the largest reported numbers of Greater Adjutant storks and perhaps also a period when vultures prospered, feeding on the dead cattle. We have already seen that Hankin was quite interested in vultures. Cunningham notes the decline in adjutants in his Some Indian Friends and Acquaintances (1903). The anti-vivisection movement, like other minority British movements such as the vegetarian movement, found friends among many educated Indians, and we know of the participation of such people as Dr Pranjivan Mehta in it thanks to the work of the late Dr. S. R. Mehrotra. There was also an anti-vaccination movement, and we know it caused (and continues to cause) enough conflict in the case of humans but there appears to be little literature related to opposition to their use on livestock in India.

Further reading
Thanks are due to Dr Muthuchelvan and his colleague for an impromptu guided tour of IVRI, Mukteshwar.
The Imperial Bacteriologist - Alfred Lingard in this case in 1906 - was apparently made "Conservator" for the "Muktesar Reserve Forest" and the 10 members of the "Muktesar Shikar Club" were given exemption from fees to shoot carnivores on their land in 1928. See National Archives of India document.
Klein, Gibbes and D.D. Cunningham were also joined by H.V. Carter (who contributed illustrations to Gray's Anatomy - more here).

Monday, April 29, 2019

Lost to development - Coromandel critters

I recently visited Puducherry (or Pondicherry), an area I had never been to. I chose to go in summer, an unpopular time for tourism, given the heat. A reason was to speculate and imagine what the place might have looked like in the past in the light of some enigmatic species known from the region.

Apteroessa grossa (Fabricius, 1781)
Lost to ignorance and
probably driven to extinction
by non-violent means

And the reason for that is an enigmatic little beetle that has not been seen for more than 200 years. Given that there is a major ecology school, numerous naturalists, and the French Institute, one would imagine that whatever I had to learn was well-known. On a visit to the Natural History Museum in London in 2014, I had happened to meet a brilliant curator of beetles and in the course of casual conversation he mentioned how he had been interviewed for his job. He had been asked what he would do if there was a fire in the museum and he had declared that he would grab one of the oldest beetle specimens in the collection,  a species of which only three specimens exist in the entire world, a species that has never been seen again where it had been collected - somewhere on the Coromandel Coast. This large (more than an inch long) flightless tiger beetle, Apteroessa grossa, had been collected by the Danish colonialists, from the region of Tranquebar (Tharangambadi) and had been described and given a binomial name by Johan Christian Fabricius in 1781. Nobody quite knows exactly where the specimens came from, that is, there is no information on the habitat.

Here is what Fabio Cassola (died 2016) wrote on this beetle:
"... the enigmatic nocturnal Apteroessa grossa, described long ago by Fabricius (1781) from the Coromandel coast (Tranquebar), present-day Tamil Nadu state. A second locality (Mayanayakanur, Ammayanayakanur Madura) is also known in the entomological literature (Wiesner 1992). The species was isolated, in modern taxonomy, because of its aberrant characters, in a special subtribe of its own (Apteroessina) (Rivalier 1971). My late friend and colleague Karl Werner, who visited India and the type locality several times, tried repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, to collect it. He related (pers. comm.) that the environment is probably much changed, that the area is presently overcrowded and that he feared that the species could well have disappeared in the wild. "

Having very little knowledge of the Coromandel region, my interest was in understanding what kinds of habitats might have existed in Pondicherry and the Coromandel region that could have been greatly altered.

A 1919 map overlaid on Google Earth to examine change. The original map can be found on Wikimedia Commons, click here for an interactive overlay or a downloadable kml file.
It is clear that development and the pressure on land has gone up enormously. Many of the alterations of the land are thanks to engineered solutions. One of the first victims, it would seem are small water bodies. These are filled in and pipes drawn from long distances from larger waterbodies, which are often deepened and the streams and canals are straightened out and made to flow in concrete channels. I found that Rue Petit Canal in Pondicherry was once an actual unlined stream course.
The old canal in 1716. Also note the sand spits. Image can be found here and the overlay can be explored here.
This shows Fort St. Louis which was destroyed by the English in 1761.
The canal as modified by engineers. 2019

I never quite managed to explore the actual Tranquebar region but it would seem that this was an extensive delta zone with a lot of sand deposits. Perhaps Apteroessa lived on sandy dunes, as some flightless African Dromica species live. Sandy beaches have been destroyed along the coast by engineers or contractors with what can only be called "commonplace thinking" - which could be defined as knowledge claims that could be easily (and incorrectly) explained to the masses and the people in power - trying to explain sea dynamics and geology is perhaps considered too hard - for some contrast see how this is taught in California. The typical engineering solution is to produce hard boundaries with rocks or concrete and these are well known to cause sand deposition to shift.

Coromandel region with Tranquebar c. 1758 (the vegetation marked is not characterized)
Image can be found here / here and the overlay can be found here
The Coromandel zone is remarkable perhaps for the number of species that have gone quietly extinct or out of common knowledge. There is a near endangered Pondicherry shark (Carcharhinus hemiodon), an enigmatic species of shrew that has never actually been seen - Sonnerat's shrew - and there is a thorny Acacia-like plant, Vachellia bolei, from further south that was described in 1985, that has been declared extinct recently. And these are just a few species that we know about.
Sonnerat's shrew - original reconstruction courtesy of Tatiana Petrova (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

Coming back to our tiger beetle, there is a suggestion that flightlessness is associated with stable habitats, where there is no need for dispersing out of. What could these be, mangroves, coastal sands? I did not manage to examine the Pichavaram mangroves, perhaps these need to be carefully watched. One wonders if perhaps the beetles lived further inland of Tranquebar amid the galleries of the boulder strewn hills in that area. A second locality has been suggested from near Sirumalai which is not entirely certain but that area has some patches under protection, so who knows, they may still exist somewhere! Perhaps interested people living in this zone should keep an eye.

Further reading

Saturday, March 16, 2019

From the Biligiris to the Bahamas


The text of a telegram in 1956 sent by OSS operative Ivar Felix Bryce to his friend Ian Fleming. Fleming joined Arthur Vernay to the remote island of Inagua where the silence of the vast sea would inspire Crab Key, the base of his villain Dr No and Fleming used Bryce's middle-name Felix for his CIA operative. Photographs of the group by the ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy survive in archives. James Bond, of course, was named after the ornithologist who wrote the Birds of the West Indies.
From Raymond Benson (2012). The James Bond Bedside Companion. Crossroad Press. [ Fair Use ]

Arthur Vernay had then retired to Nassau and was involved in flamingo conservation in the Bahamas in 1956. Surprisingly, he had never been interested in birds or wildlife until 1921. He had moved from England to New York, and starting as an elevator operator, began an antique store and rose to wealth and power - an unbelievable rags to riches story. His interest in the wild was, rather surprisingly, sparked off by a visit to the Biligirirangan Hills, to the estate of R.C. Morris in 1921.

Vernay with J.C. Faunthorpe of UP (the United Provinces) in 1923
Morris, in an obituary, notes that Vernay had never seen wild animals in their habitat before and that he left very impressed. Impressed enough to begin a series of expeditions the next year into India which was followed by more. It appears that Vernay got in touch with Morris via  J.C. Faunthorpe, a BNHS member (like Morris) and big-game hunter who worked briefly with the British mission in the United States. When Vernay made his first trip to India with Faunthorpe, he visited the Biligirirangans with Morris as host. They shot elephants - later exhibited in the Vernay-Faunthorpe Hall of the AMNH.

Taxidermic mount in the Vernay-Faunthorpe Hall at the AMNH
Jonas, Louis. 1930. The mounting of an elephant group. Proceedings of the American Association of Museums, New Series, no. 11, Washington, DC.
A (not recommended for the sensitive) video showing the preparation of it can be found here
Vernay would later fund in entirety, a survey of the Eastern Ghats. In those days a survey meant making collections of plants, and animals along the way, shooting, skinning, bottling, and otherwise preserving specimens that would then be examined by experts (often even decades later). The team that went into the field consisted of trained collectors armed with guns, and the ability to prepare specimens with labels. In the Eastern Ghats, the collectors were N.A. Baptista (a Goan skinner in the BNHS) and V.S. LaPersonne (an assistant curator at the BNHS) about whom little is known.

The Goan skinner in this is not N.A. Baptista but a certain Fernandez (right)
with Charles McCann during the Vernay Hopwood Expedition

R.C. Morris also accompanied the group - see BNHS note
Vernay became a trustee at the American Museum of Natural History in 1935 and a Vice Patron of the Bombay Natural History Society in 1928. Through his travels, he sent specimens, mostly to the former but some to the latter too. Morris joined the Vernay-Hopwood Upper Chindwin Expedition of 1935. There are pictures of him in the archives of H.C. Raven.
Major Guy Rowley, Arthur S.
Vernay, and Colonel Randolph C. Morris. “Singkaling Hkamti
to Hahti, Mar. 1935.” Photograph by H. C. Raven. Image
VHC-M16, American Museum of Natural History Library
Here is a view of Morris' home in the Biligiris, Attikan from 2019.
And a view from Honnematti rock beside the hill on which their estate stands.
View from Honnametti, the Honnametti rock is at the left

A diorama in the Vernay-Faunthorpe Hall - probably inspired by a scene from the Biligirirangans.

Vernay went on several other expeditions, one with another wealthy explorer Charles Suydam Cutting. The Vernay-Cutting expedition was aided by British intelligence officer and amateur botanist F.M. Bailey. In Africa, he was joined by another ornithologist who also worked as an OSS operative - Rudyerd Boulton.

Vernay, unknown Tibetan and Suydam Cutting in Tibet from Cutting's The Fire Ox and Other Years (1940)
Another photo in the Smithsonian Archives shows them in Lhasa with a Lhasa Apso at their feet.
Cutting would introduce Lhasa Apsos into the United States. He gifted dachshunds to the Dalai Lama in return.

While all these images capture the age of expeditions and unknown frontiers, one wonders if modern field biologists sometimes, and in vain, try and relive the same. Worse still, are conservation projects, funded by wealthy corporates, utilized to post so-called experts into wilderness areas where the local people themselves are treated the way the so-called "natives" were treated in colonial times. Wildlife movies often dwell on the romance of travel - showing how the wildernesses were reached by helicopters, 4-wheel drives or by hacking their way through jungle while glossing over the fact that local people live right near those locations without much ado.

With government funding drying up in many science fields, will biologists go to the billionaires again?

As usual the writing of this note is a byproduct of improving Wikipedia entries - in this case - for references and more details do look up