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 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 again visited the Biligirirangans. 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. 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 in colonial times. Wildlife movies often dwell on the romance of travel - showing how the wildernesses were reached by helicopters, 4-wheel drives and by hacking their way through jungle and gloss over the fact that 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 them up

Thursday, March 14, 2019

A buggy history

—I suppose you are an entomologist?—I said with a note of interrogation.
—Not quite so ambitious as that, sir. I should like to put my eyes on the individual entitled to that name! A society may call itself an Entomological Society, but the man who arrogates such a broad title as that to himself, in the present state of science, is a pretender, sir, a dilettante, an impostor! No man can be truly called an entomologist, sir; the subject is too vast for any single human intelligence to grasp.
The Poet at the Breakfast Table (1872) by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. 
A collection of biographies
with surprising gaps (ex. A.D. Imms)
The history of interest in Indian insects has been approached by many writers and there are several bits and pieces available in journals and there are various insights distributed across books. There are numerous ways of looking at how people historically viewed insects. One attempt is a collection of biographies, some of which are uncited verbatim (and not even within quotation marks) accounts  from obituaries, by B.R. Subba Rao who also provides something of a historical thread connecting the biographies. Keeping Indian expectations in view, Subba Rao and M.A. Husain play to the crowd. Husain was writing in pre-Independence times where there was a genuine conflict between Indian intellectuals and their colonial masters. They begin with interpretations of mentions of insects in old Indian writings. As can be expected there are mentions of honey, shellac, bees, ants, and a few nuisance insects in old texts. Husain takes the fact that the term Satpada षट्पद or six-legs existed in the 1st century Amarakosa to suggest that Indians were far ahead of time because Latreille's Hexapoda, the supposed analogy, was proposed only in 1825. Such histories gloss over the structures on which science and one can only assume that they failed to find the development of such structures in the ancient texts that they examined. The identification of species mentioned in old texts are often based on ambiguous translations should leave one wondering what the value of claiming Indian priority in identifying a few insects is. For instance K.N. Dave translates a verse from the Atharva-veda and suggests an early date for knowledge of shellac. This interpretation looks dubious and sure enough, Dave has been critiqued by Mahdihassan.  The indragopa (Indra's cowherd) is supposedly something that appears after the rains. Sanskrit scholars have identified it variously as the cochineal insect (the species Dactylopius coccus is South American!), the lac insect, a firefly(!) and as Trombidium (red velvet mite) - the last matches the blood red colour mentioned in a text attributed to Susrutha. To be fair, ambiguities resulting from translation are not limited to those that deal with Indian writing. Dikairon (Δικαιρον), supposedly a highly-valued and potent poison from India was mentioned in the work Indika by Ctesias 398 - 397 BC. One writer said it was the droppings of a bird. Valentine Ball thought it was derived from a scarab beetle. Jeffrey Lockwood claimed that it came from the rove beetles Paederus sp. And finally a Spanish scholar states that all this was a misunderstanding and that Dikairon was not a poison, and believe it or not, was a masticated mix of betel leaves, arecanut, and lime! One gets a far more reliable idea of ancient knowledge and traditions from practitioners, forest dwellers, the traditional honey harvesting tribes, and similar people that have been gathering materials such as shellac and beeswax. Unfortunately, many of these traditions and their practitioners are threatened by modern laws, economics, and culture. These practitioners are being driven out of the forests where they live, and their knowledge was hardly ever captured in writing. The writers of the ancient Sanskrit texts were probably associated with temple-towns and other semi-urban clusters and it seems like the knowledge of forest dwellers was not considered merit-worthy.

A more meaningful overview of entomology may be gained by reading and synthesizing a large number of historical bits, of which there are a growing number. The 1973 book published by the Annual Reviews Inc. should be of some interest. I have appended a selection of sources that I have found useful in adding bits and pieces to form a historic view of entomology in India. It helps however to have a broader skeleton on which to attach these bits and minutiae. Here, there area also truly verbose and terminology-filled systems developed by historians of science (for example, see ANT). I prefer an approach that is free of a jargon overload and like to look at entomology and its growth along three lines of action - cataloguing with the main product being collection of artefacts and the assignment of names, communication and vocabulary-building are social actions involving groups of interested people who work together with the products being scholarly societies and journals, and pattern-finding where hypotheses are made, and predictions tested. I like to think that anyone learning entomology also goes through these activities, often in this sequence. With professionalization there appears to be a need for people to step faster and faster into the pattern-finding way which also means that less time is spent on the other two streams of activity. The fast stepping often is achieved by having comprehensive texts, keys, identification guides and manuals. The skills involved in the production of those works - ways to prepare specimens, observe, illustrate, or describe are often not captured by the books themselves.


The cataloguing phase of knowledge gathering, especially of the (larger and more conspicuous) insect species of India grew rapidly thanks to the craze for natural history cabinets of the wealthy (made socially meritorious by the idea that appreciating the works of the Creator was as good as attending church)  in Britain and Europe and their ability to tap into networks of collectors working within the colonial enterprise. The cataloguing phase can be divided into the non-scientific cabinet-of-curiosity style especially followed before Darwin and the more scientific forms. The idea that insects could be preserved by drying and kept for reference by pinning, [See Barnard 2018] the system of binomial names, the idea of designating type specimens that could be inspected by anyone describing new species, the system of priority in assigning names were some of the innovations and cultural rules created to aid cataloguing. These rules were enforced by scholarly societies, their members (which would later lead to such things as codes of nomenclature suggested by rule makers like Strickland, now dealt with by committees that oversee the  ICZN Code) and their journals. It would be wrong to assume that the cataloguing phase is purely historic and no longer needed. It is a phase that is constantly involved in the creation of new knowledge. Labels, catalogues, and referencing whether in science or librarianship are essential for all subsequent work to be discovered and are essential to science based on building on the work of others, climbing the shoulders of giants to see further. Cataloguing was probably what the physicists derided as "stamp-collecting".

Communication and vocabulary building

The other phase involves social activities, the creation of specialist language, groups, and "culture". The methods and tools adopted by specialists also helps in producing associations and the identification of boundaries that could spawn new associations. The formation of groups of people based on interests is something that ethnographers and sociologists have examined in the context of science. Textbooks, taxonomic monographs, and major syntheses also help in building community - they make it possible for new entrants to rapidly move on to joining the earlier formed groups of experts. Whereas some of the early learned societies were spawned by people with wealth and leisure, some of the later societies have had other economic forces in their support.

Like species, interest groups too specialize and split to cover more specific niches, such as those that deal with applied areas such as agriculture, medicine, veterinary science and forensics. There can also be interest in behaviour, and evolution which, though having applications, are often do not find economic support.

Pattern finding
Eleanor Ormerod, an unexpected influence
in the rise of economic entomology in India

The pattern finding phase when reached allows a field to become professional - with paid services offered by practitioners. It is the phase in which science flexes its muscle, specialists gain social status, and are able to make livelihoods out of their interest. Lefroy (1904) cites economic entomology as starting with E.C. Cotes [Cotes' career in entomology was short, after marrying the famous Canadian journalist Sara Duncan in 1889 he too moved to writing] in the Indian Museum in 1888. But he surprisingly does not mention any earlier attempts, and one finds that Edward Balfour, that encyclopaedic-surgeon of Madras collated a list of insect pests in 1887 and drew inspiration from Eleanor Ormerod who hints at the idea of getting government support, noting that it would cost very little given that she herself worked with no remuneration to provide a service for agriculture in England. Her letters were also forwarded to the Secretary of State for India and it is quite possible that Cotes' appointment was a result.

As can be imagined, economics, society, and the way science is supported - royal patronage, family, state, "free markets", crowd-sourcing, or mixes of these - impact the way an individual or a field progresses. Entomology was among the first fields of zoology that managed to gain economic value with the possibility of paid employment. David Lack, who later became an influential ornithologist, was wisely guided by his father to pursue entomology as it was the only field of zoology where jobs existed. Lack however found his apprenticeship (in Germany, 1929!) involving pinning specimens "extremely boring".

Indian reflections on the history of entomology

Kunhikannan died at the rather young age of 47
A rather interesting analysis of Indian science is made by the first native Indian entomologist to work with the official title of "entomologist" in the state of Mysore - K. Kunhikannan. Kunhikannan was deputed to pursue a Ph.D. at Stanford (for some unknown reason many of the pre-Independence Indian entomologists trained in Stanford rather than England - see postscript) through his superior Leslie Coleman. At Stanford, Kunhikannan gave a talk on Science in India. He noted in his 1923 talk :

In the field of natural sciences the Hindus did not make any progress. The classifications of animals and plants are very crude. It seems to me possible that this singular lack of interest in this branch of knowledge was due to the love of animal life. It is difficult for Westerners to realise how deep it is among Indians. The observant traveller will come across people trailing sugar as they walk along streets so that ants may have a supply, and there are priests in certain sects who veil that face while reading sacred books that they may avoid drawing in with their breath and killing any small unwary insects. [Note: Salim Ali expressed a similar view ]
He then examines science sponsored by state institutions, by universities and then by individuals. About the last he writes:
Though I deal with it last it is the first in importance. Under it has to be included all the work done by individuals who are not in Government employment or who being government servants devote their leisure hours to science. A number of missionaries come under this category. They have done considerable work mainly in the natural sciences. There are also medical men who devote their leisure hours to science. The discovery of the transmission of malaria was made not during the course of Government work. These men have not received much encouragement for research or reward for research, but they deserve the highest praise., European officials in other walks of life have made signal contributions to science. The fascinating volumes of E. H. Aitken and Douglas Dewar are the result of observations made in the field of natural history in the course of official duties. Men like these have formed themselves into an association, and a journal is published by the Bombay Natural History Association[sic], in which valuable observations are recorded from time to time. That publication has been running for over a quarter of a century, and its volumes are a mine of interesting information with regard to the natural history of India.
This then is a brief survey of the work done in India. As you will see it is very little, regard being had to the extent of the country and the size of her population. I have tried to explain why Indians' contribution is as yet so little, how education has been defective and how opportunities have been few. Men do not go after scientific research when reward is so little and facilities so few. But there are those who will say that science must be pursued for its own sake. That view is narrow and does not take into account the origin and course of scientific research. Men began to pursue science for the sake of material progress. The Arab alchemists started chemistry in the hope of discovering a method of making gold. So it has been all along and even now in the 20th century the cry is often heard that scientific research is pursued with too little regard for its immediate usefulness to man. The passion for science for its own sake has developed largely as a result of the enormous growth of each of the sciences beyond the grasp of individual minds so that a division between pure and applied science has become necessary. The charge therefore that Indians have failed to pursue science for its own sake is not justified. Science flourishes where the application of its results makes possible the advancement of the individual and the community as a whole. It requires a leisured class free from anxieties of obtaining livelihood or capable of appreciating the value of scientific work. Such a class does not exist in India. The leisured classes in India are not yet educated sufficiently to honour scientific men.
It is interesting that leisure is noted as important for scientific advance. Edward Balfour, mentioned earlier, also made a similar comment that Indians were too close to subsistence to reflect accurately on their environment!  (apparently in The Vydian and the Hakim, what do they know of medicine? (1875) which unfortunately is not available online)

Kunhikannan may be among the few Indian scientists who dabbled in cultural history, and political theorizing. He wrote two rather interesting books The West (1927) and A Civilization at Bay (1931, posthumously published) which defended Indian cultural norms while also suggesting areas for reform. While reading these works one has to remind oneself that he was working under and with Europeans and would not have been able to have many conversations on these topics with Indians. An anonymous writer who penned the memoir of his life in his posthumous work notes that he was reserved and had only a small number of people to talk to outside of his professional work.
Entomologists meeting at Pusa in 1919
Third row: C.C. Ghosh, Ram Saran, Gupta, P.V. Isaac, Y. Ramachandra Rao, Afzal Husain, Ojha, A. Haq
Second row: M. Zaharuddin, C.S. Misra, D. Naoroji, Harchand Singh, G.R. Dutt, E.S. David, K. Kunhi Kannan, Ramrao S. Kasergode, J.L.Khare, Jhaveri, V.G.Deshpande, R. Madhavan Pillai, Patel, A. Mujtaba, P.C. Sen
First row: Capt. Froilano de Mello, Robertson-Brown, S. Higginbotham, C.M. Inglis, C.F.C. Beeson, Gough, Bainbrigge Fletcher, Bentley, Senior-White, T.V. Rama Krishna Ayyar, C.M. Hutchinson, Andrews, H.L.Dutt

Entmologists meeting at Pusa in 1923
Fifth row (standing) Mukerjee, G.D.Ojha, Bashir, Torabaz Khan, D.P. Singh
Fourth row (standing) M.O.T. Iyengar, R.N. Singh, S. Sultan Ahmad, G.D. Misra, Sharma,Ahmad Mujtaba, Mohammad Shaffi
Third row (standing) Rao Sahib Y Rama Chandra Rao, D Naoroji, G.R.Dutt, Rai Bahadur C.S. Misra, SCJ Bennett (bacteriologist, Muktesar), P.V. Isaac, T.M. Timoney, Harchand Singh, S.K.Sen
Second row (seated) Mr M. Afzal Husain, Major RWG Hingston, Dr C F C Beeson, T. Bainbrigge Fletcher, P.B. Richards, J.T. Edwards, Major J.A. Sinton
First row (seated) Rai Sahib PN Das, B B Bose, Ram Saran, R.V. Pillai, M.B. Menon, V.R. Phadke (veterinary college, Bombay)

Note: As usual, these notes are spin-offs from researching and writing Wikipedia entries, in this case on several pioneering Indian entomologists. It is remarkable that even some people in high offices, such as P.V. Isaac, the last Imperial Entomologist, and grandfather of noted writer Arundhati Roy, is largely unknown (except as the near-fictional Pappachi in Roy's God of Small Things)

An index to entomologists who worked in India or described a significant number of species from India - with links to Wikipedia links (where possible - the gaps are huge)
(woefully incomplete - feel free to let me know of additional candidates)

Carl Linnaeus - Johan Christian Fabricius - Edward Donovan - John Gerard Koenig - John Obadiah Westwood - Frederick William Hope - George Alexander James Rothney - Thomas de Grey Walsingham - Henry John Elwes - Victor Motschulsky - Charles Swinhoe - John William Yerbury - Edward Yerbury Watson - Peter Cameron - Charles George Nurse - H.C. Tytler - Arthur Henry Eyre Mosse - W.H. Evans - Frederic Moore - John Henry Leech - Charles Augustus de Niceville - Thomas Nelson Annandale - R.C. WroughtonT.R.D. Bell - Francis Buchanan-Hamilton - James Wood-Mason - Frederic Charles Fraser  - R.W. Hingston - Auguste Forel - James Davidson - E.H. Aitken -  O.C. Ollenbach - Frank Hannyngton - Martin Ephraim Mosley - Hamilton J. Druce  - Thomas Vincent Campbell - Gilbert Edward James Nixon - Malcolm Cameron - G.F. Hampson - Martin Jacoby - W.F. Kirby - W.L. DistantC.T. Bingham - G.J. Arrow - Claude Morley - Malcolm Burr - Samarendra Maulik - Guy Marshall
Edward Percy Stebbing - T.B. Fletcher - Edward Ernest Green - E.C. Cotes - Harold Maxwell Lefroy - Frank Milburn Howlett - S.R. Christophers - Leslie C. Coleman - T.V. Ramakrishna Ayyar - Yelsetti Ramachandra Rao - Magadi Puttarudriah - Hem Singh Pruthi - Shyam Sunder Lal Pradhan - James Molesworth Gardner - Vakittur Prabhakar Rao - D.N. Raychoudhary - C.F.W. Muesebeck  - Mithan Lal Roonwal - Ennapada S. Narayanan - M.S. Mani - T.N. Ananthakrishnan - K. Kunhikannan - Muhammad Afzal Husain

Not included by Rao -   F.H. Gravely - P.V. Isaac - M. Afzal Husain - A.D. Imms - C.F.C. Beeson
 - C. Brooke Worth - Kumar Krishna -

PS: Thanks to Prof C.A. Viraktamath, I became aware of a new book-  Gunathilagaraj, K.; Chitra, N.; Kuttalam, S.; Ramaraju, K. (2018). Dr. T.V. Ramakrishna Ayyar: The Entomologist. Coimbatore: Tamil Nadu Agricultural University. - this suggests that TVRA went to Stanford on the suggestion of Kunhikannan.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

A forgotten upheaval

Among the many amazing stories from India that went into the pages of science is that of Sindri fort. It is hardly mentioned in India anymore but it was of interest to Charles Lyell and whose work was significant also for Charles Darwin. This fort sank along with a large area around it on 16 January 1819 around 6.45 PM when the region was struck by an earthquake that also caused a tsunami. While this region sank, the northern edges a few kilometers away rose up. It formed a feature that was named as Allah Bund. It apparently became, for a while, a standard textbook example demonstrating a dynamic earth, one that was no longer God's static creation but one where sudden and catastrophic changes could occur. Some years ago, when I learned about the significance of this location in the history of geology and evolutionary thought, I decided that it needed a bit more coverage and began an entry in Wikipedia at Sindri Fort. When referring to geographical entities, Wikipedia articles can also be marked by coordinates (so as to show up on maps) but I had a lot of trouble figuring out where this fort stood, and having never been anywhere near Gujarat, I had set it aside after some fruitless searches across the largely featureless Rann of Kutch on Google Earth. Today, I happened to look up the work of a geologist A.B. Wynne and found that he had mapped the region in 1869 (along with the very meticulous people from the Survey of India). Fortunately, the Memoirs of the Geological Survey have recently been scanned by the Biodiversity Heritage Library and are readily available online. I downloaded the four map pages and stitched them into one large map which I then uploaded the map to Wikimedia Commons (the shared image repository of Wikipedias in various languages) at and then altered the metadata template from one for information to "map" instead - this then allowed the image to be transferred to the MapWarper (an open-source system) installation at - finding a few corresponding points on the old map and the base map allowed me to overlay the image atop Google Earth by exporting a kml file of the alignment.
Wynne's 1869 map of the region (stitched)

I then looked up Google Earth to see what lay under the location of the ruins of the Sindri Fort indicated on the old map from 1869 and not very far (within a kilometer) from the marked location, lo and behold, there were faint traces of a structure which would be right where Sindri Fort stood. So here it is for anyone interested. It is quite possible that the location is well-known to locals, but it was still quite thrilling that one could work this out from afar thanks to the accessibility of information. It would not have been possible but for a combination of Wikipedia, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, the Internet Archive, Google Earth, the Warper project, and the numerous people behind all these who are working not just as researchers but as research enablers.

It would seem that this was not visible until the imagery of 2013.

More information

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Funding ornithology (and science) for fun and profit

I believe with Thomas Jefferson that one of the chief duties of a citizen is to be a nuisance to the government of his state. - J.B.S. Haldane, 1962
After years of editing Wikipedia entries on the biographies of ornithologists, naturalists, and examining topics in Indian natural history, it strikes me that modern scientists do not reflect enough on the history of institutionalized research. Perhaps the growth of unemployment, particularly among the highly educated will have at least one positive effect, by pushing more people to understand why history, economics, politics matters, and more importantly, how being a better citizen matters to science. The trouble with "citizen science" (especially in India) is that it is hard to get scientists to be good citizens.

Historically, individual achievement in ornithology has been a function of available leisure which in turn depends on wealth and financial security. It plays out in so many ways, the ability to travel, publish, read, be members of scholarly societies, and in the past to hold private collections. Institutionalizing scientific pursuits began in the Victorian age - and it is a situation that has perhaps not had enough reflection among the powers-that-be. Even in colonial India, the ability to institutionalize scientific pursuits depended on the kind of returns offered to the higher powers - sometimes the justifications were pretty devious - the Archaeological Survey of India (founded in 1861) was established by one enthusiastic digger, Alexander Cunningham who wrote in 1851 to W.H.Sykes (of Sykes' lark and warbler fame who had become a director in the English East India Company):
..would be an undertaking of vast importance to the Indian Government politically, and to the British public religiously. To the first body it would show that India had generally been divided into numerous petty chiefships, which had invariably been the case upon every successful invasion; while, whenever she had been under one ruler, she had always repelled foreign conquest with determined resolution. To the other body it would show that Brahmanism, instead of being an unchanged and unchangeable religion which had subsisted for ages, was of comparatively modern origin, and had been constantly receiving additions and alterations; facts which prove that the establishment of the Christian religion in India must ultimately succeed...
Knowing the land was an obvious requirement for colonial control and the surveys of land through the establishment of the Survey of India began quite early in 1767. Establishing botanical gardens (Calcutta botanical garden at Sibpur founded in 1786), the study of botany, and setting up the Botanical Survey of India (founded in 1890) was also somewhat easy considering the obvious economic value of plants and their produce. Geology, with the importance of coal for shipping and for the railways was also of obvious value and the Geological Survey of India (founded in 1851) was one of the oldest research enterprises in India. The Forest Department was established essentially to manage timber supplies for the massive needs of the railways. Medical research, sanitation and public health was something that became institutionalized thanks to rampant disease. Building scholarly societies, managing communications, creating institutional collections/museums, and printing journals were often initiated by groups of individuals. Government support usually came later, after  demonstrating longevity - as with the Asiatic Society of Bengal (founded 1784) (and the Indian Museum established in 1814). Institutions enabled the participation of people from outside the wealthy strata - a notable example in zoology being Edward Blyth although the Indian Museum's primary focus at the time of his recruitment was on antiquities - indeed Blyth lamented that he was "accused" of being an ornithologist! Entomologists managed to make a profession within applied fields relating to health and agriculture but demonstrating the utility of general zoology was hard. The Zoological Survey of India thus was only established in 1916. Their early research clearly indicates a struggle to appear to be utilitarian, with studies on such topics as the damage caused by molluscs to ships or termites to wood. Under these circumstances it seems that early pioneers of bird study in India like Allan Octavian Hume (and older ones like T.C.Jerdon, Hodgson and W.H. Sykes), who knew colonial governance intimately, probably knew that schemes to find monetary support for ornithology would not fly. They knew that they had to rely on their own funds for their hobby.

Salim Ali came from a reasonably well-to-do family and was able to make ornithology into a profession for himself, but it definitely was not easy. A document available in the National Archives of India (and happily now available online) shows how a 1934 proposal for economic ornithology, seeking funds from the government, met its end. In his proposal Ali notes "the Bureau of Biological Survey is a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture which employs at great expense a permanent staff of experts to investigate, among other things, the life-histories of birds with special reference to their economic aspect... over many years, a great deal of information has accumulated which is now proving of inestimable value to Agriculture, Forestry and Horticulture, besides being of the greatest importance to pure Science." [underlined emphasis mine] Ali's proposal is fully endorsed and supported by the director of Zoological Survey of India - Baini Prashad. C.G. Trevor of the Forest Research Institute notes that the proposal is restricted in scope to agriculture and that the "entomological branch of the Forest Research Institute has full information on all that has been published on the economic ornithology of India and analysis reveals that it amounts to very little of practical importance." Ali's proposal essentially sought to work along the lines of a 1912 study by Mason and Lefroy which involved the examination of gut contents of birds. This required specialists capable of identifying insects and plant material in the gut and the skills required for this was noted by Trevor as being hard to find. The proposal was also examined by F.J.F. Shaw, the director of the Imperial Institute of Agricultural Research (now Indian Agricultural Research Institute) who forwarded it to the Imperial Entomologist (in 1935 that would have been Hem Singh Pruthi but the document is not signed). Pruthi declares that the principal investigator needs to be an entomologist and generally hints that Salim Ali was unfit to conduct the research. Shaw died of a heat stroke in 1936 and it would be safe to assume that the proposal did not get any further. Ali finally found sponsors for his research through the patronage of the Princely States - which is almost a throwback to medieval times when art and culture could only flourish under royal patronage. In the mid-1960's the ICAR finally began an all-India coordinated research project on birds but it would seem like Ali was not very closely involved. With the growth of aviation and the risk of bird-hits Ali found a new sponsor for bird research.

The only socialist / government institution in India to deal specifically with ornithology was/is the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) at Coimbatore. But it turns out that establishing institutions is the easier part. Staffing, nurturing long-term research, collaborating, communicating, demonstrating value, and building institutional values that are independent of government and personal tenure are all skills that are undocumented, intangible and ones that Indian academics seem to fail in. Rigid rules for personnel selection, qualifications, and a general lack of vision that does not see a need for a multi-disciplinarity approach ensure that such specialised government-controlled organizations fare badly or are driven into ruts.

Most of the Survey institutions were established in colonial times when universities were more for teaching than research. With the growth of universities for research, ornithological research in India did briefly do well but revolving around key personnel and often these research groups dissolved - thus there have been spurts of research on physiology, parasitology, behavioural and ecological study. How much of the funds for these studies came from the tax-payer is hard to establish but one can be safe to assume that it was insignificant as far as funds for research go. 

With the growth of neo-liberalism - the idea that the free-market will "sensibly" decide what needs to be funded it is clear that research on birds will be further threatened. Indeed it would be hard to discover what good do birds from the point of view of any potential funding industry. When most bird habitats are threatened by industry, the only potential purpose in funding would be for green-washing. Birds and the threats they face through pollution, fragmentation of habitats by roads, railways, logging, fires, human disturbances are definitely not what industrialists would like to learn about or fund.

It is in this light that calls for "citizen science", especially from private players but also those run by governments, need to be evaluated more carefully than ever before. Whether citizen science projects can help evaluate the impact of the threats to birds such as fragmentation by roads, rails and other projects is largely undemonstrated (in most cases, the systems and the databases are outright unsuited for carefully tailored data gathering) and yet these are precisely the kinds of issues where government- and industry-funded research cannot be trusted. These are the kinds of issues that ought to be examined by good "nuisance-creating" citizens.

Collecting information that directly impinges on ecosystem health cannot be left to people with leisure - indeed people with leisure are probably the ones that distance themselves most from  habitats at risk. So who are the powers that are promoting citizen-science and is it really empowering citizens? Food for thought hopefully.

  • The part on utilitarian roots of institutionalized science in India and the problem of doing ornithology in India is largely drawn from the scheme of a talk I gave at the South London Botanical Institute, London on 11 August 2014.
  • Some years ago I tried to examine what one could learn from Victorian science in a talk at the Regional Museum of Natural History, Mysore on 7 October 2016. [Slides]
  • Salim Ali's 1935 proposal can be found online on the National Archives of India (Registration required) 
    • Identifier: PR_000003020572 
    • File number: Education And Health_Agriculture_1935_Na_F-37-6_35A
A 2017 book looks at how government support altered the field of paleontology. 
"In the 19th and early 20th centuries, North American and European governments generously funded the discoveries of such famous paleontologists and geologists as Henry de la Beche, William Buckland, Richard Owen, Thomas Hawkins, Edward Drinker Cope, O. C. Marsh, and Charles W. Gilmore. In Patrons of Paleontology, Jane Davidson explores the motivation behind this rush to fund exploration, arguing that eagerness to discover strategic resources like coal deposits was further fueled by patrons who had a genuine passion for paleontology and the fascinating creatures that were being unearthed. These early decades of government support shaped the way the discipline grew, creating practices and enabling discoveries that continue to affect paleontology today."