Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The evolution of our diet

As a Natural Historian, I am fascinated by plants and animals, their interactions and evolution. One animal stands out as being different from the rest - the Natural History of Homo sapiens shows how far humans are removed from the factors controlling all other animals and that is certainly demonstrated in our choice of diet.

Our ancestors sampled many plants and animals as food before settling on those that were either readily available, tasted good, or filled them up. As omnivores, we had a wide choice and the development of cooking also changed the character of foods, making some edible that were unpalatable, or poisonous, in the raw state. To add another complication, foods were available at different times of year, or were difficult to capture, and this further affected our choice. We can only speculate on the extent of trial and error that occurred before each group settled on their favoured diet.

Our food preferences then dictated the plants and animals that we farmed, or reared, in plots adjacent to our ancestral settlements. We also transported them during migrations to colonise new regions, although not all plants and animals could be reared successfully under changed climatic conditions. Among the plants grown were those that have now become staple crops, forming the basis of many meals and, as these are largely of carbohydrate, they also satisfy hunger as well as providing nutrition. There are two broad groups of staple crops: tubers and roots - such as potatoes, yams and cassava; and grains - such as wheat, barley, rye, oats, rice and millet. In turn, grains can be prepared into other forms that themselves provide dietary staples, such as bread and pasta. Like all human foods, there has been an export from the original site of crop planting and some of these staples are now found worldwide. For example, cassava was used originally in South America, having been bred from natural stocks in the North East of the continent. It is now used throughout the Tropics, either as a tuber or prepared into tapioca. Yams from West Africa have also spread widely and are similarly used in many tropical countries around the World. Grains like wheat and rice are grown extensively and probably form the most abundant staple crops, together with potatoes which may dominate in temperate regions. While they form the basis of many meals, staples are rarely eaten on their own, and we add to them other essential components of our diet, including meat, fish and vegetables.

Modern humans in the Developed World, unlike our ancestors, are able to choose foods from a myriad of sources, both local and imported. Exploration of the World over the last few thousand years has resulted in introductions of foods that are grown commonly in countries where they were not found before, adding to those that were brought through prehistoric migrations. Our interest in World Cuisine and Fusion Cuisine also makes further exotic foods available and these then become assimilated into our everyday choices. With the increased ease of transport, we now have the extraordinary, and unnatural, situation (in terms of Natural History) that foods of one origin are grown in a quite different part of the World and consumed in yet another region (just look at the labelling on produce for the place where a particular food is grown). We rarely, if ever, consider the ancestral origin of the food but it is fun to do so. Here are three examples of meals, with a list of their ingredients and the origins of each:

Fish, Chips and Peas

Batter (wheat) - W. Asia, N. Africa
Chipped potatoes - N.W. South America
Peas - Mediterranean Europe, W. Asia
Tomato ketchup - Central America (via Pittsburgh)

Christmas Dinner

Turkey - North America
Roast potatoes - N.W. South America
Brussels sprouts - Cultivars
Bread sauce with cloves - W. Asia, N. Africa (wheat) + S. Asia (cloves)
Cranberries - N. North America, N. Europe, N. Asia
ParsnipsEurope, Asia
Carrots - Europe, Asia
Sage and onion stuffing - S. Europe (sage) + Asia (onions)
Salt - Local
Pepper - S. Asia

Mixed Fruit Salad

Grapes - W. Asia
Orange - S.E. Asia
Banana - S. and S.E. Asia
Mango - S. Asia
Apple - Central Asia
Cherries - Europe, W. Asia, N. Africa
Strawberries - North and South America
Kiwi fruit - North China
Sugar (syrup) - S. and S.E. Asia

Fish, chips and peas has become identified with the cuisine of Great Britain, although no part is from a plant or animal indigenous to those islands (cod being found offshore). Christmas Dinner, typical of North America and Great Britain (other countries with Christian traditions have their own variants of the above), and Mixed Fruit Salad (for which there is no set recipe) show similar variations in the origins of the ingredients, although some are indigenous.

Our diet is so different from that of our distant ancestors, who only had the foods of their surroundings to provide for their needs. Their use of resources was similar to that of other animals, although humans had the advantage of being able to cook, of course. The changes that have occurred in our Natural History since the earliest times in our evolution are extraordinary and we have become free of many of the restraints that control other animal populations. Is that a good thing?

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Being inspired by Frank Buckland.... ....with ideas for controlling Grey Squirrels and Canada Geese

Frank Buckland (1826-1880) was a free spirit in the World of Victorian Natural History. He was the eldest son of William Buckland, the Canon of Christ Church Oxford and later Dean of Westminster, and both his father and mother had a passion for plants and animals. This was a strong influence on Frank as he grew up and his love of Natural History did not abate during his career as a surgeon in The Life Guards. While in the Army, he became a popular lecturer and writer of articles for the general public, including regular descriptions of recent arrivals at London Zoo, and, after failing in his bid to become the senior surgeon of his regiment, resigned his commission to continue a new career as a professional Natural Historian. 1

Frank Buckland was certainly unconventional and this is highlighted by his biographers. The US version of G.H.O.Burgess’ book The Curious World of Frank Buckland  is titled The Eccentric Ark 2 to emphasise the nature of Frank’s home surroundings, and Lynn Barber 3 describes Frank as “The Pioneer of Zoophagy”. From a child, through adulthood, he was surrounded by a menagerie of animals and Frank was an enthusiastic sampler of all new types of food put before him, a trait that he had early in life - having tried crocodile as a young child and several kinds of native food caught on foraging excursions during his time at Winchester College. 2 Frank Buckland’s brother-in-law, George C. Bompas, records: 1

Buckland emulated [Gilbert] White and [Charles] Waterton in never stating anything as a fact, of which he had not satisfied himself by actual experiment. I once found him cooking a piece of a dead kelt [a salmon that has spawned]. “Good gracious!” I said, “how can you eat anything so abominably nasty?” “No doubt,” he said, “it is nasty enough, but how can I say so unless I have tried it?”

A channel for Frank’s interests came in the mid nineteenth century. In 1854, the Société Impériale Zoologique d’Acclimatation was founded in Paris and thus began a movement that was close to Frank’s heart. The Acclimatisation Society was formed in London in 1860 (a full description of the movement in Great Britain and elsewhere is given in Christopher Lever’s book They Dined On Eland: The Story of the Acclimatisation Societies 4) and this brought many of Frank’s interests in Natural History together, especially the collecting and eating of animals and plants, of a range that was quite unfamiliar to most. He seized on the chance to further “The art of discovering animals, beasts, birds, fishes, insects, plants and other natural products, and utilizing them in places where they were unknown before” 2 In Acclimatisation, Frank had found a cause and, together with other Society members, he suggested a whole new series of immigrations and domestications. Bompas 1 quotes Frank as saying:

On January 21, 1859, I had the good fortune to be invited to a dinner, which will, I trust, hereafter form the date of an epoch in natural history; I mean the now celebrated eland dinner, when, for the first time, the freshly killed haunch of this African antelope was placed on the table of the London tavern. The savoury smell of the roasted beast seemed to have pervaded the naturalist world, for a goodly company were assembled, all eager for the experiment. At the head of the table sat Professor Owen himself, his scalpel turned into a carving knife, and his gustatory apparatus in full working order. It was, indeed, a zoological dinner to which each of the four points of the compass had sent its contribution. We had a large pike from the east; American partridges shot but a few days ago in the dense woods of the Transatlantic West; a wild goose, probably a young bean goose, from the North; and an eland from the South.. ..The gastronomic trial over, we next enjoyed an intellectual treat in hearing from the professor his satisfaction at having been present at a new epoch in natural history. He put forth the benefits which would accrue to us by naturalising animals from foreign parts, animals good for food as well as ornamental to the parks.

One of the features of The Acclimatisation Society was their Dinners. For example, the Society Dinner on 12th July 1862 included bird’s nest soup; tripang (a sea cucumber that required much cooking as the specimens had been dried); kangaroo; soup made from the tendons of Axis Deer; Chinese lamb; wild boar; pintail duck; Canada Duck; Curassow (a South American bird); Guan (a Central and South American game bird); rabbit; Honduras Turkey; and sweet potatoes. Bompas goes on to describe the rest of the offerings: Digby herring salad; Botargo (“the roe of the red mullet, dried and used as caviar by the gourmets of the Ionian islands”); and a series of fruits from Réunion, Dominica and also from Australia. Opinions were expressed on the various courses and there was much discussion of the animals and plants likely to be imported, and reared, in Britain. 1

Frank Buckland would certainly have also been interested in the Acclimatisation Societies that were formed in other countries 4 and would not have been daunted by the size of the Dinner mounted by the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria, Australia, on 6th July 1864. 5 This is a summary of the menu:

- Oysters

- Soups (5 dishes, including Kangaroo Tail Soup)

- Fish (13 dishes, including Yan Yean Eels)

- Entrees (10 dishes, including Fricandeau of Wombat and Curried Bandicoot)

- Cold (9 dishes, including Galantine of Turkey)

- Boiled (2 dishes, including Boiled Rabbits)

- Roasts (11 dishes, including Saddle of Kangaroo and Wood Duck)

- Game (14 dishes, including Hare and Teal)

- Vegetables (3 dishes, including Jerusalem Artichokes)

- Sweets (20 dishes)

The dinner not only shows the preparedness of those present to sample a wide range of native foods, but also introduced types. Of course, introductions escape and we are now very familiar with the problems created, for example, by rabbits in Australia and by Grey Squirrels and Canada Geese in Great Britain, and in other countries. However, we could follow the Acclimatisation Societies and regard them as valuable sources of food. For example, Grey Squirrels and Canada Geese are good to eat and are already being promoted on a small scale 6,7 It would only require a celebrity chef to use these animals in a cooking show on TV to ensure wide-scale demand. Many of us seem reluctant to experiment with unfamiliar foods, unless given a lead by someone in the media; someone who could take on the mantle of Frank Buckland. 

The killing of Grey Squirrels and Canada Geese would certainly cause an upset, as groups of both animals are fed readily by members of the public, especially those with young children. Yet, the same people love to see pigs, sheep, cows, etc., in fields, while trying to forget that they are taken from farms to markets and from markets to abattoirs. Grey Squirrels and Canada Geese, in contrast, would be culled in their natural surroundings and that is surely more acceptable?

1 George C. Bompas (1885) Life of Frank Buckland. London, Smith, Elder & Co..

2 G.H.O.Burgess (1967) The Eccentric Ark: The Curious World of Frank Buckland. New York, Horizon Press.

3 Lynn Barber (1980) The Heyday of Natural History 1820-1870. London, Jonathan Cape.

4 Christopher Lever Bt. (1992) They Dined on Eland: The Story of the Acclimatisation Societies. London, Quiller Press.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Where science meets art - the usefulness and beauty of nature printing

Today, there are a large number of guides and web sites that help us to identify plants and animals. These may contain accurate printed illustrations, photographs, or video clips and, taken with the descriptions in the text, notes on habits etc., we can usually come up with a name. We are not always correct in our identification, as some organisms look very similar to others, but we can certainly get close.

The Victorian followers of the “craze” for Marine Biology had far fewer sources to help them. There were the beautiful illustrations in books by Philip Henry Gosse of many types of marine animals, and illustrations of seaweeds by William Henry Harvey (produced from 1846-1851) 1 and Margaret Gatty (1863), 2 largely the result of prints made from water colour paintings. Some seaweed collectors also had other sources, should they be able to obtain copies of rare books. Those fortunate to gain a copy of Algae Danmonienses by Mary Wyatt (aided by Amelia Griffiths) 3 will have had the opportunity to see mounted herbarium specimens. These have the advantage of allowing the surface of the algae to be examined, albeit in dried form, and this can be helpful when looking at diagnostic features. However, there were, of necessity, rather few copies and they would not be used by the general followers of the “craze”.

Shortly after the appearance of Algae Danmonienses, Anna Atkins produced a wonderful series of illustrations of algae in her Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, produced from 1843-1853. 4 The process of cyanotyping is described by Roderick Cave in his fascinating and attractive book Impressions of Nature: a History of Nature Printing. 5 Atkins’ illustrations are outlines of seaweeds, so lack the fine detail required for identification, but they are among the first biological illustrations that use photographic techniques and they have a magical quality. To make each illustration, a seaweed was placed on to paper which had been treated with iron salts (potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate) and kept in the dark until needed. On exposure to sunlight, the iron salts darken to a deep blue colour, leaving the outline of the seaweed, with its densest parts the lightest colour as the iron salts were not transformed. Washing off the remaining salts ensured that no further colour change occurred and each illustration could then be dried and made ready for incorporation into a collection. Cave tells us “It was published in an edition consisting of at least thirteen copies, calling for a total of over 5000 prints to be made.” 5 Although Anna received help, it was a formidable achievement and must have seemed extraordinary at the time - her prints certainly retain their great beauty.

Another method of nature printing was that developed by Alois Auer, and this was applied to seaweeds by Henry Bradbury. Auer was appointed the Director of the Austrian National Printing Office in 1842 and he was an “unusual, gifted and energetic man”. 5 With a colleague, he experiment in pressing lace between two plates, one of lead and one of steel, with the result that the former received an impression from the lace that could be used in printing a copy. If the lead was coated with copper using an electrolytic process, several prints could be made from one plate, and the results were so convincing that observers believed that they were looking at lace rather than prints (two examples are shown below). This technique was then used to make impressions and prints of botanical specimens and Auer demonstrated this to a visiting Englishman, Henry Bradbury, whose father was the senior partner in the Publishing House responsible for printing Punch and The Field, as well as newspapers. 5

On return to England, Bradbury set about making nature prints and, after a series was used in Thomas Moore’s book on ferns, produced illustrations of seaweeds for The Nature Printed British Sea Weeds: Nature Printed by Henry Bradbury published by Johnston and Croall in 1858-1860 and printed by the family firm of Bradbury and Evans. 6 As the specimens used had been pressed, there was inevitably some distortion in the width of some parts, but the impressions were almost as good as herbarium specimens and certainly more useful than cyanotypes. If they were coloured effectively, it could be argued that they were even better than the illustrations produced from prints of paintings, as they conveyed the dried texture more accurately. The prints by Bradbury also had the advantage over cyanotypes and herbarium material in allowing large numbers of copies to be produced once the lead plates had been copper-coated. However, The Nature Printed British Seaweeds was not as successful as the book on ferns and Cave suggests this was because Johnston and Croall were not as well known as Moore (then, as now, names count). 5

No-one looking at the nature prints of Atkins and Bradbury will fail to be impressed by their techniques. In her review of the book Ocean Flowers: Impressions from Nature, Sandra Knapp writes: 7

The art of nature printing, using modern versions of cyanotypes or other techniques, is still very much alive. For example, the British artist Angela Easterling [see below] works with scientists from the Eden Project, The Royal Botanic gardens at Kew and the Natural History Museum to make amazing cyanotype images of threatened plants in threatened habitats. Her images.. ..are wonderful, contributing both to art and science.

I became aware of nature printing when looking at the work of Merrin in making preparations of the scales of butterfly wings ( and was amazed at the results he achieved. Nature printing using cyanotypes and the Auer method provided me with a further eye-opener and I revel in the idea that the images are of value both to science and art. Using the expression coined by Henry Gosse in the Preface to the The Romance of Natural History, 8 I was trained to be a “Dr Dryasdust”; although I retained a child-like amazement at the beauty of animals I collected and then observed under the microscope. It’s the way we interpret our impressions of plants and animals that makes Natural History so fulfilling and something that we can all share - from the most dedicated taxonomist to those inspired by the visual arts.

1 William H. Harvey (1846-1851) Phycologia Britannica: or History of British Sea-Weeds, containing coloured figures, generic and specific characters, synonymes and descriptions of all the species of algae inhabiting the shores of the British Islands. London, Reeve Brothers.

2 Mrs Alfred Gatty (1872) British Sea-Weeds drawn from Professor Harvey’s “Phycologia Britannica”; with descriptions, an amateur’s synopsis, rules for laying out sea-weeds, an order for arranging them in the herbarium, and an Appendix of new species. London, Bell and Daldy.

3 Mary Wyatt (?1833-1840) Algae Danmoniensis, or dried specimens of marine plants, principally collected in Devonshire; carefully named according to Dr Hooker’s British Flora. Published privately.

4 Anna Atkins (1843-1853) Photographs of British Algae : Cyanotype Impressions. Published privately.

5 Roderick Cave (2010) Impressions of Nature: A History of Nature Printing. London, The British Library.

6 William Grosart Johnston and Alexander Croall (1858-1860) The Nature Printed British Sea Weeds: Nature Printed by Henry Bradbury. London, Bradbury and Evans.

7 Sandra Knapp (2004) Book review of Ocean Flowers: Impressions from Nature (eds. Carol Armstrong and Catherine de Zegher). American Scientist 92 (

8 Philip Henry Gosse (1860) The Romance of Natural History. London, J.Nisbet and Co.

For those interested, the web site for the Nature Printing Society is:

Monday, 6 January 2014

What to wear on the shore

Many of us have enjoyed looking at algae and animals in rock pools during visits to the seaside. That is especially true for families with young children, happy to see the organisms in their natural surroundings, rather than as video clips or in TV programmes.

In the Nineteenth Century, the “craze” for Marine Biology drew many adults to the coast, both to examine algae and animals in situ and also to collect organisms for their aquarium tanks. Then, parlour aquaria were a relatively common feature in middle class homes and these allowed close observation, something that was not always possible on the shore, as many features only became apparent once individuals were under water.

A striking difference between the contemporary and the Nineteenth Century collector was in the way each dressed. Now, we wear shorts, jeans and T-shirts during summer visits to rock pools, perhaps with flip-flops to provide protection for the feet from sharp coatings of barnacles, or to reduce the chance of slipping on slimy seaweeds. If we wish to wade in pools we may wear boots and, in deeper water, thigh waders or chest waders. Then we have the option of looking underwater using snorkelling or SCUBA diving, perhaps with a wet suit for protection. All this would have been alien to those involved with the “craze” when it was at its height in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. At that time, collections in deep water were made by trawling, or dredging, from small boats, so there was no chance of making in situ observations. It was also a matter of luck as to what appeared when the net, or dredge, was emptied on board.

Whether collecting from boats, or on the shore, men wore everyday outdoor clothing, but obviously not the newest, and soakings were a common feature. Henry Gosse, whose books did much to encourage the “craze”, was certainly adventurous as his son, Edmund, describes:

The way in which my father worked, in his most desperate escapades, was to wade breast-high into one of the huge pools, and examine the worm-eaten surface of the rock above and below the brim.. ..My Father would search for the roughest and most corroded points of rock, those offering the best refuge for a variety of creatures, and would then chisel off fragments as low down in the water as he could. These pieces of rock were instantly plunged in the salt water of jars which we had brought for the purpose. When as much had been collected as we could carry away - my Father always dragged about an immense square basket, the creak of whose handles I can still fancy that I hear - we turned to trudge up the long climb home. 1

Collecting was not a casual pastime for Henry, but a mission to find out as much as possible about the organisms of the shore. His industry was most impressive, especially when compared to the more passive approach of today. As to his selection of clothes, Edmund writes:

Even as a little child I was conscious that my father’s appearance on these excursions [collecting trips] was eccentric. He had a penchant for an enormous felt hat, which had once been black, but was now grey and rusty with age and salt. For some reason or other, he seldom could be persuaded to wear clothes of such a light colour and material as other sportsmen affect. Black broadcloth, reduced to an extreme seediness, and cut in ancient forms, was the favourite attire for the shore, and after being soaked many times, and dried in the sun on his somewhat portly person, it grew to look as if it might have been bequeathed to him by some ancient missionary long marooned, with no other garments, upon a coral island. His ample boots, reaching to mid-thigh, completed his profession garb, and when he was seen, in full sunlight, skimming the rising tide upon the sands, he might have been easily mistaken for a superannuated working shrimper. 2

So, a good covering of clothes, but with accumulated grime (also typically seen in pictures of working men of the time). Nevertheless, this scruffy costume allowed a great deal of freedom of movement and permitted excursions into pools and into the shallow sea. Clearly, there were more challenges for women collectors, especially with Victorian decorum demanding that most of the body was covered in a long-sleeved and long-skirted dress (an example of a mid-Century outdoor dress is shown below).

Although women made notable contributions to the development of Marine Biology in the Nineteenth Century, their clothing had to conform to the sensibilities of the time and they could not be as adventurous as Henry Gosse in plunging into pools. However, there was a shared need to clamber over rocks and sand and one of the leading authorities on seaweeds, Margaret Gatty, the wife of a vicar, gives the following advice:

About this shore-hunting, however, as regards my own sex (so many of whom, I know, are interested in the pursuit), many difficulties are apt to arise; among the foremost of which must be mentioned the risk of cold and destruction of clothes. The best pair of single-soled kid Balmoral boots that ever were made will not stand salt water many days - indeed would scarcely “come on” after being thoroughly wetted two or three times in succession - and the sea-weed collector who has to pick her way to save her boots will never be a loving disciple as long as she lives! Any one, therefore, really intending to work in the matter, must lay aside for a time all thought of conventional appearances, and be content to support the weight of a pair of boy’s shooting boots, which, furthermore, should be rendered as far water-proof as possible by receiving a thin coat of neat’s foot oil, such as is used by fishermen.. ..Next to boots comes the question of petticoats; and if anything could excuse a woman for imitating the costume of a man, it would be what she suffers as a sea-weed collector from those necessary draperies! But to make the best of a bad matter, let woollen be in the ascendant as much as possible; and let the petticoats never come below the ankle. A ladies’ yatching [sic] costume has come into fashion of late, which is, perhaps, as near perfection for shore-work as anything that could be devised. It is a suit consisting of a full short skirt of blue flannel or serge (like very fine bathing-gown material), with waistcoat and jacket to match [see 3 for an example]. Cloaks and shawls, which necessarily hamper the arms, besides having long ends and corners which cannot fail to get soaked, are, of course, very inconvenient, and should be as much avoided as possible.. ..In conclusion, a hat is preferable to a bonnet, merino stockings to cotton ones, and a strong pair of gloves is indispensible. All millinery work - silks, satins, lace, bracelets, and other jewellery, &c. must, and will, be laid aside by every rational being who attempts to shore-hunt. 4

Nineteenth Century women thus needed to overcome the restrictions provided by the dress mores of the day. It was easier for men, but followers of the “craze” of both sexes showed an application and enthusiasm for discovery that is unusual today, except perhaps in young children. However, the attention span and stamina of children means they are unlikely to spend hours each day on collecting, followed by hours more observation and research once the catch is returned home. That was the norm for the adult enthusiasts of Marine Biology in Victorian times.

1 Edmund Gosse (1907) Father and Son. London, William Heinemann.

2 Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-Shore: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

3 This is an example of a boating costume contemporary with Margaret Gatty’s description from 4 below:

4 Mrs Alfred Gatty (1872) British Sea-Weeds drawn from Professor Harvey’s “Phycologia Britannica”; with descriptions, an amateur’s synopsis, rules for laying out sea-weeds, an order for arranging them in the herbarium, and an Appendix of new species. London, Bell and Daldy.