Wednesday, 25 March 2020

How a great auk “flew” from Durham to Glasgow

Fifty years ago, I travelled to Durham University to be interviewed for a PhD studentship to work with Dr Lewis Davies on the blackly larvae (Simuliidae) living in streams in Upper Teesdale. I had always liked moorland and the project involved regular sampling of streams on the Pennines, to collect larvae and then analyse the life histories and production of the populations. Among the questions I was asked at the interview were whether I was prepared to work on my own on the fells and whether I had a driver’s licence, as the studentship came with a short wheelbase Land Rover that would allow access to some of the rougher tracks that I would need to use. I was positive about the first, but I hadn’t passed my driving test and would need to do so. Despite this answer, I was offered the post and accepted readily.

I then needed to take an intensive course of driving lessons that resulted in a pass in what was a very high-pressure test. It was such a relief as I was very keen to go to Durham and I had been impressed by the wonderful city and, especially, the people whom I had met in the Department of Zoology. It wasn’t only the people that impressed – so did the stuffed great auk that had a prominent position at the foot of the staircase in the Zoology Building. I knew that these birds had become extinct but had never before seen a museum specimen and I found it fascinating.

When I moved to Durham, the great auk became a “friend” as I had to pass it as I made my way upstairs to the common room, where we took coffee. Recently, I was intrigued to read about its history, and current location, in a paper by R.A.Baker  in the Archives of Natural History [1]. It is worth quoting from his paper:

The ”Durham” Great Auk had a long association with the University of Durham, from about 1834 to 1977 – a span of over 140 years.. ..Canon Thomas Gisborne (1758-1846), a Prebend at Durham and early benefactor, bought and presented the Great Auk to the new university.. .. When science was re-established at Durham in 1924, the Great Auk was transferred to the newly-built Dawson building and insured against fire and theft. J.J.O.Mason, the Head of Science at the time, recalled “When I came, I begged it for the new department (Science), remarking that some day we should have a Zoology department, which would be glad of it.”.. ..By the late 1970s the Head of the Department of Zoology at Durham, Professor David Barker, decided to sell the specimen.. ..Some disquiet was expressed after the sale was agreed. The sale went ahead on the agreement that the money raised would be placed in a fund “to make purchases to maintain the quality of the zoological specimens teaching collection”.. .. The auction of the “Durham” Great Auk took place at Sotheby’s in London on Wednesday 21 September 1977 and was sold to a Michael Pilkington for £4200.. .Mr Pilkington eventually decided to sell the Auk, and gave the museum [the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, where it had been on loan] the first option on it. The Glasgow Great Auk Appeal, launched the day before the 150th anniversary of its extinction, helped to raise sufficient funds for the museum to purchase the specimen for £30,000 in 1994.

It continues to be exhibited at the Kelvingrove Museum (see below), although I have not been to visit my old “friend”

What is the attraction of extinct animals? We are all familiar with the enthusiasm that many have for dinosaurs and the ammonite fossils of the Jurassic Coast, and these animals became extinct millions of years ago, overtaken by evolution and climate change. Those factors may also explain the much more recent demise of mammoths (like dinosaurs, strong favourites with the public), but very recent extinctions, like that of the great auk and some other flightless birds, were the result of human exploitation. We know that Ole Worm (1588-1654) had a live specimen from the Faroe Islands that he fed on herrings and he also had at least one stuffed great auk in his private museum [2]. With the rise of interest by collectors in rarities, and with little defence against humans, great auks didn’t stand a chance, having already been taken as food and for their feathers [3,4]. Perhaps our fascination with them results from a sense of loss and a recognition that we have been responsible for their being wiped out - and knowing that we will never see one alive? 

It is all a long way from collecting blackfly larvae in Upper Teesdale, but the Durham great auk certainly had, and continues to have, a strong appeal for me. I think it is a pity that it was sold (at what appears a knockdown price), but good to know it “lives on” in Glasgow.

[1] R.A.Baker (1999) Going, going, gone – the “Durham” Great Auk. Archives of Natural History 26:113-119.

[2] A.V.DeLozoya, D.G.García and J.Parish (2016) A great auk for the Sun King. Archives of Natural History 43:41-56.

[3] W.R.P.Bourne (1993) The story of the Great Auk Pinguinis impennis. Archives of Natural History 20: 257-278.

[4] T.R.Birkhead (1994) How collectors killed… New Scientist Issue 1227 May 28th 1994.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

COVID 19 – and more bad press for bats

In an earlier blog post [1], I asked the question “What’s not to like about bats?”. Accepting that bats are not universally popular, I pointed out that, for many, they are associated with unpleasantness and feature in several stories about witches. This is illustrated in the frightening image of Goya’s Witches’ Sabbath, where bats fly over the witches’ heads as they worship the devil in the form of a goat (see below, with detail).

Further in the blog post [1], I wrote:

This association with the “dark world” stems from the crepuscular and nocturnal habits of bats, and our nervousness about what happens during darkness – a “fear of the night” and anxiety about the possible presence of evil spirits. There is also something about the rapid flight of bats that some find disturbing and one belief is that they can become entangled in hair. ..A further prominent feature of folklore is that bat blood, or other extracts from the animals, cure eye diseases; arising, no doubt, from the ability of bats to be active in darkness.

We can now add another negative to the reputation of these fascinating mammals with the discovery that bats may be the source of the COVID19 global pandemic. In a paper published in The Lancet [2], Lu et al. write:

..on the basis of current data, it seems likely that the 2019-nCoV causing the Wuhan outbreak might also be initially hosted by bats, and might have been transmitted to humans via currently unknown wild animal(s) sold at the Huanan seafood markets.

One suggested intermediary is the pangolin, but other animals present in the market are more likely. But then, what if some of the Huanan stallholders knew of the folklore that bat blood aids the cure of eye diseases and rubbed infected bat blood into their eyes? This practice was known from Ancient Egypt, but mythologies travel. We will probably never know if this happened, but I hope that one of the solutions to our problems with this coronavirus is not the attempted extermination of bats, when the pandemic almost certainly results from the activities of humans.

[2] Roujian Lu + 34 co-authors (2020) Genomic characterisation and epidemiology of 2019 novel coronavirus: implications for virus origins and receptor binding. The Lancet 395:565-574.

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

The zoology of Bruegel’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels

Pieter Bruegel the Elder is best known for scenes of everyday life and he can be regarded as the first well-known exponent of genre painting. The Fall of the Rebel Angels shows a quite different topic: the expulsion of Lucifer from Heaven by St Michael and a group of angels loyal to God. Bruegel shows us St Michael (with his shield bearing the cross of the resurrection), but it is difficult to make out Lucifer in his many-headed form. Heavenly light shines from the top of the picture, through the blue sky, and we then move down to the darkness of the abyss of Hell. Some animals are present in the sky, together with angels, and most are descending into Hell, which is not fiery, as it is described in The Holy Bible and as it is usually shown in paintings. The only hint of fire in Bruegel’s work turns out to be a feathery headdress.

An excellent commentary on the painting has been provided by the Royal Museums of Fine Art in Brussels, where the painting is exhibited [1]. As mentioned in this commentary, several of the animals shown are based on those from collections of curiosities, which were becoming popular as sources of wonder at the unfamiliar.

I would like to make some additional comments on some of the animals shown in the painting.

The puffer fish

Bruegel shows a puffer fish with the body distended. One defence mechanism used by these fish is to rapidly take water into the stomach to “inflate” the body and make spines stand out: the same mechanism is used when the fish gulp air should they be caught out of the water. In this state, puffer fish have been preserved by drying and it is likely that Bruegel saw a preserved specimen displayed in a collection of curiosities. While the eyes look unnatural, he shows the fused teeth that are used by the living fish to bite into their prey [2].

Interestingly, some puffer fish have another defence mechanism in the production of chemicals within the liver that are highly toxic to humans. So much so, that raw fugu – a delicacy in some parts of the world – requires preparation by specially-trained chefs. It tempts us to think that the inflation of the body, and the production of toxins, evolved to prevent predation by humans, but both must have existed long before the evolution of humans.

Two dead fish and bloated frogs

The fish are shown with their mouths open as if gasping, an indication of distress that Bruegel clearly wished to convey. The same intention of providing images that cause us to become frightened comes in the bloated frog, whether bloating was caused by decomposition or, should the frog be female, by being filled with eggs that will now not be laid. A second frog-like creature is shown with the abdomen split open to show what appears to be spawn, but this animal is different to Bruegel’s frog (having what looks like the “parson’s nose” of a chicken at the end of the abdomen). I have no idea what Bruegel was trying to show here.

Mussels + a crustacean

In this image we see two open mussel shells containing the body of each mollusc. The two mussels, each shown inside one of their shell valves, have clearly been cooked as, in life, the mantle (the pink/yellow fold) is closely applied to the shell for almost all of its length. Lying between the two mussels is what appears to be a crustacean, blue in colour like a lobster when alive, and the whole reminds us of a flying creature, with the mussel shells forming “wings”.

The stenogastrine wasp

Although stylised, the stenogastrine wasp is probably included as a threat and also as a bizarre creature that would also have occurred in a collection of curiosities. These wasps, like other social insects, are likely to be female and possessed of a mild sting. However, they are not usually aggressive and their appearance more frightening than reality, especially when shown at such a large size relative to other recognisable animals in the painting.

The falling birds

Two birds are shown falling into the abyss. One appears to be laying an egg, but it is impossible to identify what type of bird it might be: the other resembles a great auk, now extinct. Interestingly, Ole Worm (1588-1654), the Danish natural historian and physician, kept a great auk as a pet and, after its death and preservation, it might have found its way into his splendid cabinet of curiosities [3].

We can spend much time in speculating on what Bruegel intended in his use of images of animals, both real and imaginary. His view of the expulsion of Lucifer is certainly unique and is based on his imagination, with no attempt made to show the realistic scale of the different components. Dead terrestrial and aquatic animals are present in all parts of the painting, together with images that are supernatural and were likely to have been strongly influenced by the earlier works of Hieronymus Bosch (as mentioned in the commentary).

It is an extraordinary painting.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Eating live animals

The reality TV show I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here is justifiably popular in the UK. Set in Australia, the contestants live in a basic camp and we viewers see edited versions of their conversations and other interactions. To boost their diet of rice and beans, selected individuals compete in “Bushtucker Trials” that involve something very unpleasant, like having large numbers of cockroaches, mealworms etc. thrown over them in a confined space (see below). Until the last series, the trials most popular with the viewing public were those involving the eating of animal body parts and also live insects. The latter torture has now been banned as it is perceived by some as being cruel; yet eating live animals is encouraged elsewhere – take the case of oysters.

Oysters are bivalve molluscs that produce a feeding current using enormous numbers of tiny hairs, or cilia, that are present on the gills. This current has a dual function as it evolved from the respiratory current, particles trapped on the surface of the gill then being transferred to the mouth by other tracts of cilia. To aid retention, oysters, like other bivalves, produce mucus, or slime, on the gills and particles captured are thus bundled up into packages from which nutritious material can be selected by an ingenious sorting mechanism using the lips (labial palps) around the mouth.

The two shell valves are joined by a hinge and a muscle runs from one shell valve to the other and this serves to close the oyster if it is exposed to the atmosphere, when attacked, or not feeling. Sea water is trapped when the shell valves are closed and this prevents damage to the soft body tissues. When we buy oysters, they have frequently been out of water for hours, so the content of the water is changed by the addition of mucus and excreta, although not at levels that poison the mollusc.

The classic way to open oysters is to shuck them and this is shown in the video [1]. Note that both the hinge and adductor muscle (between the shell valves) are cut, but no reference is made to the oyster being alive and that the water + excreta are referred to as the liquor. The flavour of the liquor is an important part of eating oysters and there are debates over whether one should chew the animals or crush them against the palate using the tongue. Fortunately, the molluscs are often served on a bed of ice so, at least, their metabolism is reduced, even if they are sometimes sprayed with dilute acid (lemon juice).

For those who do not like the idea of eating live animals, there are many recipes for cooking, and preserving, oysters and that is not a surprise, when they were such a common food, and not the luxuries that they have become today. Cooking also serves to kill bacteria that might otherwise cause intestinal disorders in those eating them: something that may have been common when oysters were collected from areas where there was a high level of pollution.

Lovell [2] gives many recipes for cooking oysters and they can be listed. Some involved rapid killing of the molluscs, others did not:

Oyster soup (7 recipes)
Oyster sauce (4 recipes)
Oyster atlets – with sweetbreads
Curried oyster atlets
Curried oysters
Stewed ousters (6 recipes)
Dutch oysters – coated in breadcrumbs and fried
Fried oysters (6 recipes)
Oyster ragout (2 recipes)
Grilled oysters
Oysters broiled the Dutch way
Roast oysters (3 recipes)
Ostras á la Pollada
Boiled oysters
Oyster sausages (2 recipes)
Minced oysters
Oyster forcemeat
Oysters and chestnuts
Oyster steak
Scalloped oysters (3 recipes)
Oyster fritters
Oyster loaf
Oysters and macaroni
Oyster pie (3 recipes)
Oyster and eel pie
Oyster and parsnip pie
Pickled oysters (4 recipes)
Oyster powder (2 recipes)
Oysters on toast (2 recipes)
Oyster ketchup
Oysters au gratin

An impressive list, and gourmets among you should refer to Lovell [2] for descriptions of how to prepare oysters for each dish. Its length is a reflection on the importance of these molluscs in the diet of many European nations (and beyond) in earlier centuries.

Arguably, the most interesting way of preparing oysters is described thus by Lovell [2]:

The oldest way of cooking an oyster, of which we have any mention, is that recorded by Evelyn, who, in the year 1672, saw Richardson, “the famous fire-eater”, perform wondrous feats, one of which was, “taking a live coal on his tongue, he put on it a raw oyster; the coal was blown on with bellows, till it flam’d and sparkl’d in his mouth, and so remained till the oyster gaped, and was quite boil’d.” Who ate the oyster thus cooked, we are not informed.

Anyone fancy trying that?

[2] M.S.Lovell (1884) The Edible Mollusca of Great Britain and Ireland, with Recipes for Cooking them (Second Edition). London, L.Reeve & Co.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

School Biology

Many arguments can be put forward against the continued existence of Public Schools in the UK, especially their encouragement of a sense of entitlement. Having said that, the facilities that the top schools provide are often excellent and so is the standard of teaching. Many schools also select students for their academic ability and this results in classes where there is a strong sense of curiosity, contributing to a good atmosphere for learning.

I have given talks in Public Schools and among the most memorable was a visit to Winchester College. The Times had taken up an article that I had written about The Great Plagues of Egypt [1,2] and I was asked to give a lecture on the subject. Not only that, I was also entertained to dinner by the scholars (an elite, elite group) and conversation was wide-ranging and interesting. Earlier, I noticed that there was a display outside the lecture theatre and this consisted of a description of the platypus genome that had just been published in the journal Nature and there was also a stuffed platypus and much general information about the animal. All very impressive, given that the paper was so recent and one felt that the students of Biology were lucky to have this stimulating input.

The most impressive example of the good fortune that students in the major Public Schools receive comes from a school that I have not visited, but which has an excellent website. The web page for Biology at Sevenoaks School [3] gives a brief description of teaching in the subject and ends with this quote from Robert Preston:

In Biology, nothing is clear, everything is too complicated, everything is a mess, and just when you think you understand something, you peel off a layer and find deeper complications beneath. Nature is anything but simple.

It comes from Preston’s book The Hot Zone, The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus and his sentiments have a wide application in Biology. In my own research, I rapidly became aware that the more I found out about life in water the less I understood how aquatic ecosystems worked. I gave up practical research, as there were far too many questions and I ceased to have the energy, or ability, to pursue them. That was not depressing, but liberating, as I could then read widely and venture into other fields, while retaining a sense of wonder about Nature, something that all students of Biology develop. For some, this wonder finds an answer in religious beliefs; for others in a deep respect for the world around us and thus a sense that humans are just a small part of something much bigger.

I’m sure that Biology students at Sevenoaks School, in addition to achieving excellent results in examinations (that we all know are important), will leave with a much broader understanding than the content of a syllabus provides. Whether they become lawyers, bankers, politicians, etc., their sense of wonder when thinking about the natural world will be invaluable in the roles they play in planning for the future. Do all schools encourage this approach?


Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Brixham, Turner and Gosse

The great artist J.M.W.Turner travelled widely throughout Great Britain, making sketches as he went. Two pages from his notebook of 1811 show Brixham harbour on the southern coast of Torbay, with its two piers and a number of boats, for this was a busy fishing port (see above). It was a time when the northern shores of Torbay were becoming fashionable, leading to the construction of many villas in Torquay in the middle of the nineteenth century. New residents were reminded of the French Riviera, enjoyed the favourable climate that was thought to be good for the health, and many were fascinated by the Natural History of the shoreline.

Philip Henry Gosse had this to say in 1853 about a visit he made to Brixham (he became a Torquay resident in 1857) [1]:

The little town of Brixham, pretty as it appears when viewed from Torquay, is but a sordid affair when you see it at hand. The lower town particularly is close, mean, and dirty; indeed, truth to tell, I saw refinements in filth here, which I had never the fortune to see paralleled in all my wanderings..

..The scenery on either hand, when once clear of the harbour, is bold and magnificent. The coast is rocky and precipitous, (the town itself appears strangely stuck upon precipices, reaching from top to bottom) and is indented with little coves, the most picturesque imaginable. Berry Head, a noble promontory of compact limestone, rears its lofty head abruptly out of the sea not far from the town, and forms a commanding boundary of the prospect, conspicuous all around..

..I did not obtain much in the way of natural history on the shore, except what I was already familiar with at Petit Tor [his favourite collecting spot north of Torbay]..

..I came home with little desire to see Brixham again.

Not kind words. It was the busy fishing harbour and the surrounding cottages that appalled Gosse and one surmises that he was complaining about the remains of fish and a lack of regard for surroundings that characterised fishing villages of the time. They were not genteel. In addition, decomposition of anything marine produces a very strong smell and that must also have affected his senses

Brixham is very different now. The two piers that Turner drew are still in place (see above), but the outer pier has been extended. Beyond that on the western shore is the modern fish market complex and to the east the breakwater that was begun after Turner’s time and completed in the early 20th Century. Also noticeable is the marina and that has promoted marinafication – an influx of wealth also found in other local ports, such as Salcombe and Dartmouth. Brixham seems “on the up” and I’m sure that Gosse would not find it as unpleasant should he visit today, although he may have something to say about the tourist attractions and tourist shops that also bring money into the town.

As to Natural History, visitors and residents like to see seals and occasional cetaceans, but there is a lack of awareness of most marine life. That is also quite a contrast to earlier times.

[1] Philip Henry Gosse (1853) A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast. London, John Van Voorst.

Turner’s sketches are from the website
The aerial view of Brixham is from website

Thursday, 24 October 2019

“Don’t judge a book by its cover”

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a phrase that originated in the mid-Nineteenth Century and we have all been surprised when the content of books bears little relation to the illustrations that appear on their covers. A good example is provided by the illustrations for Father and Son [1], an autobiography by Edmund Gosse that leaves readers with a feeling of empathy for its author, as he faced the challenges of a strict religious upbringing in Torquay in the 1850s and 1860s. Among these readers is Sarah Perry who wrote an article in The Daily Telegraph [2] drawing parallels between Edmund’s experience of the constraints of a religious straitjacket with her own upbringing as a Baptist. She acknowledges the power of his writing in describing his father, the great Natural Historian Philip Henry Gosse, a creationist and member of the Brethren.

Father and Son had a long gestation. Edmund published the first biography of his father in 1890, two years after Henry died, and it is a largely factual account that also includes an appreciation by Eliza Gosse, Henry’s second wife and Edmund’s stepmother. Ann Thwaite remarks [3] that the biography was “extremely well received” and various of Edmund’s friends, such as John Addington Symonds and George Moore, saw another book in the story of Henry and Edmund, to be told from Edmund’s side. That book was Father and Son, and the germ of the idea took years to grow.

Like Ann Thwaite, Sarah Perry recognises that Edmund was not renowned for accuracy and Father and Son, published anonymously, and with the names of some key characters altered, may contain some exaggerated stories. However, it is a powerful work of literature and has done much to colour the reputation of Henry Gosse that we have today. Almost everyone comes to the Gosse family through reading works by Edmund (including Ann Thwaite, who followed up her biography of Edmund with her delightful biography of Henry, Glimpses of the Wonderful [4]). In contrast, I came to Edmund through reading Henry’s books and scientific writings and he was a fascinating and warm man. However, my admiration does not extend to his religious beliefs and this is recounted in Walking with Gosse [5] and numerous posts on this blog [6].

Considering the the way we select books set me thinking about how many people first chose to read Father and Son from the art work on the cover. But how true is the illustration to the content? Let’s look at some of the covers that have adorned Edmund Gosse’s book. The first I show (above) has the famous picture of Henry and Edmund that was used as the frontispiece for the first edition of Father and Son. The photograph was taken in Torquay in 1857; the year when they had moved to St Marychurch after the death of Henry’s first wife Emily. It is touching and clearly meant much to Edmund.

The next cover features the wonderfully sensitive portrait of Edmund by John Singer Sargent (above).

We then go on to see covers from various editions (above) that show the shore where Henry and Edmund collected specimens or the countryside through which they walked. They provide a general background, but they are not recognisable as being from Torbay.

The final series of cover illustrations (above) appear to have been created by artists who had little inkling of the content of the book and some of them are decidedly strange. As stated earlier, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.

[1] Edmund Gosse (1907) Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments. London, William Heinemann.

[2] Sarah Perry (2018) Like meeting the gaze of a friend in a room of strangers. The Daily Telegraph 24th November pp. 14-16.

[3] Ann Thwaite (1984) Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape. London, Martin Secker and Warburg.

[4] Ann Thwaite (2002) Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810-1888. London, Faber and Faber.

[5] Roger S Wotton (2012) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. Southampton, Clio Publishing.

[6] (numerous entries).

It should also be stated that various editions of Father and Son have covers based on designs (see below).

I am grateful to Greg Peakin for pointing out the article by Sarah Perry.