Friday, 28 February 2014

Charles Waterton’s encounter with an orangutan

Charles Waterton, a popular Natural Historian in the Nineteenth Century, had no academic training in Zoology and wrote about his observations of the animals he saw around him wherever he travelled. Although regarded by Charles Darwin as “an amusing strange fellow” after a visit to Waterton’s stately home, Walton Hall, near Wakefield (when Squire Waterton “ran down and caught a leveret in a turnip field”), Darwin nevertheless had a high regard for the detail described in Waterton’s Essays on Natural History. 1

Waterton was a devout Roman Catholic, having been strongly influenced by the Jesuit teaching at his boarding school, Stonyhurst College.  He was a Creationist and recognised that humans are unique in their ability to be rational and in being able to use clothing, fire, manufacturing, etc. An excellent example of Waterton’s writing and approach comes in his observations on an orangutan; not in its native Borneo, but in London Zoo. He was on good terms with the Zoo Superintendent of the time and, in 1851, a keeper allowed Charles to enter the ape’s cage to become more closely acquainted. Only someone with the personality of Charles Waterton would have attempted such a thing, although David Attenborough’s contact with gorillas recorded in Life on Earth may be equivalent, although that was in the wild. Of course, Waterton recognised that he was meeting a captive ape and these are his observations: 2

As I approached the orang-outang, he met me about half way, and we soon entered into an examination of each other’s persons. Nothing struck me more forcibly than the uncommon softness of the inside of his hands. Those of a delicate lady, could not have shewn a finer texture. He took hold of my wrist and fingered the blue veins therein contained; whilst I myself was lost in admiration at the protuberance of his enormous mouth. He most obligingly let me open it, and thus, I had the best opportunity of examining his two fine rows of teeth. We then placed our hands around each other’s necks; and we kept them there awhile, as though we had really been excited by an impulse of fraternal affection.. ..This great ape from Borneo, exhibited a kind and gentle demeanour, and he appeared pleased with my familiarity. Having fully satisfied myself, how completely the natural propensities of a wild animal from the forest, may be mollified, and ultimately subdued by art, and by gentleness of the part of rational man, I took my leave of this interesting prisoner, scraping and bowing, with affected gravity as I retired from his apartment.

The writing suggests a meeting of two individuals with equal levels of curiosity. Charles Waterton is showing us that an orangutan almost has friendly human characteristics, yet he knows that this is unlikely to be the case. He was reminded of this fact shortly after he left the cage and the tone of his writing now changes: 2

..I was most egregiously deceived in the good opinion which I had entertained of him; for scarcely had I retired half a dozen paces from the late scene of action, when an affair occurred which beggars all description. In truth, I cannot describe it: I don’t know how to describe it: my pen refuses to describe it. I can only give an outline, and leave the rest to be imagined. This interesting son of Borneo, advanced with slow and solemn gravity to the bars of his prison, and took up a position exactly in front of the assembled spectators. The ground upon which he stood was dry; but immediately it became a pool of water, by no means from a pure source. Ladies blushed and hid their faces;- whilst gentleman laughed outright. I was scandalised beyond measure, at this manifest want of good breeding on the part of this shaggy gentleman from the forests of Borneo. He confirmed for ever, my early opinion, that, although apes naturally possess uncommon powers of mimicry;- and that these powers can be improved to a surprising degree, under the tutelary hand of man;- nevertheless, neither time, nor teaching, nor treatment, can ever raise apes even to the shadow of an equality with the intellect of rational man.

It is tempting to suggest that the second passage of description is a dashing of the warm anthropomorphic sentiments expressed in the first.

Humans are unique in needing explanations and there is no evidence that any other animal has this capacity, although we know that they can solve problems and create tools to aid their feeding. We also have strong evidence that many higher animals express emotion and young orang-utans, for example, appear to have temper tantrums when not allowed a treat from a keeper, and these seem identical to the tantrums thrown by a human infant when deprived of something they want. It is easy to project human emotions on to animals, just as Charles Waterton did with the “gentleman from Borneo” and this leads eventually to a sentimentalising of animals that can become absurd. As an example, just think of Babe (what a wonderful film that was, by the way - I was carried along with the sentiment just like everyone else). 

We know that humans are unique among living things and yet we don’t always feel comfortable about that. Is that why we anthropomorphise and need to invent theistic explanations for things we do not understand?

1 Julia Blackburn (1989) Charles Waterton 1782-1865: Traveller and Conservationist. London, The Bodley Head.
2 Charles Waterton (1857) Essays on Natural History: Third Series. London, Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Mushrooms - tasty, hallucinogenic and deadly

Black (Périgord) and white truffles are prized by gourmets and high prices are paid for the best specimens collected. The truffle we eat is, of course, the underground fruiting body of a fungus and the bulk of the organism consists of the subterranean mycelium of hyphae (threads) that spread over the roots of trees, having a symbiotic relationship with the trees in these two types. The mycelium of most edible fungi spreads widely and enzymes produced by the fungus break down vegetable matter, transforming it into materials used in growth of fungal tissue. Above-ground fruiting bodies are the means of producing millions of spores that are then spread by wind, or animals, to ensure dispersal and the growth of new hyphae. The mycelium remains below ground, or hidden within decaying organic material, and it is the fruiting bodies - mushrooms - that most of us recognise.

One of the pleasures of autumn is to go mushroom collecting and then preparing various types in the collection by sautéing in very hot butter. Some are delicious to eat, some less so. I have always enjoyed collecting mushrooms, although not all members of my family join me in the feast that usually follows. I think they miss out, as the fruiting bodies of Parasols (Macrolepiota procera, left below), Field Mushrooms (Agaricus campestris, centre below) and Wood Blewits (Clitocybe nuda, right below), for example, are excellent. The hesitation comes from fear that my collections may contain some toxic types, as there are several mushrooms that are lethal to humans and I am, after all, an amateur collector.  

The most notorious mushroom is the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides, left below) that causes very unpleasant symptoms of nausea, vomiting and much else, followed by a partial recovery and then terminal damage to the liver, with death resulting in three to twelve days. Two other species of Amanita are also deadly - the Panther Cap (A. pantherina, centre below) and the wonderfully-named Destroying Angel (A. virosa, right below) - and these both contain similar lethal compounds (amanitoxins and phallotoxins) to the Death Cap, to which they are closely related. 1 There are many other poisonous fungi, some of which are lethal and others producing symptoms that are merely unpleasant. Some of the compounds they contain may produce effects when mixed, for example, with alcohol and yet others are destroyed by cooking (but, unfortunately, that is not the case with the toxins produced by the deadly Amanita spp.). 2

Hallucinogenic compounds are found in the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria, left below) and in several species of Psilocybe, known colloquially as “magic mushrooms” or “shrooms” (right below). Muscimol from A. muscaria induces mild hallucinations, but the toxins in these mushrooms also cause unpleasant effects. This has led to the legendary practice of drinking urine from humans and other animals that have been eating Fly Agaric mushrooms as a way of getting the “high” without the nasty side effects. 3 Psilocybe spp. have been used in many countries as a part of religious ceremonies and the hallucinogenic chemical psilocybin has certainly been important in youth culture and is used as a recreational drug of choice by some people.

I will not dwell further on these effects, but instead pose a question - why do some mushrooms contain deadly poisons for humans, or compounds that give us hallucinations, while we know that others are delicious? To answer the last part of the question first, our knowledge of all foods comes from trial and error. Our distant ancestors tried all manner of mushrooms and selected those that are best to eat, as well as discovering those that are poisonous. The ingenuity of early collectors shows in their searching for buried fungi such as truffles, as well as the more obvious fruiting bodies. The first part of the question is more difficult to answer.

To a Creationist, the poisons, or hallucinogens, were devised by God and must have some purpose, although it is difficult to know what that is. There are no references to fungi in the King James’ Bible, so this part of Creation is something made for a purpose by a Supreme Intelligence and we must just accept that. As Philip Henry Gosse, the avid Creationist, wrote, “...the praise of the all-glorious God lies latent in all his creatures, whether man educe it or not.” 4 To an Evolutionist, the likely explanation is that the chemical compounds resulted from changes in metabolic processes and the toxins were a by-product of these changes. While they may have some deterrent effect on grazing animals, the lethal, or hallucinogenic, effects on humans are coincidental.

Whether mushrooms are considered valuable, or threatening, is affected by cultural attitudes and these vary in different parts of the World. Have you noticed how many mushrooms growing alongside paths are kicked over in countries where mushroom collecting is not popular? Is that because the kicker feels that the mushrooms are a threat, or is it just fun to destroy them? If mushrooms are considered threatening, their reputation was not enhanced by the images of the mushroom clouds resulting from explosions of nuclear bombs. Certainly, those who lived through the 1950s and 1960s are only too familiar with the hideous threat provided by those images. Yet, whatever our views, we must recognise that fungi of all sorts are essential in breaking down plant and animal material and transforming it into usable energy. We must also remember that the fruiting bodies are only part of the whole. And that raises another question for Evolutionists. How did the fruiting body develop from a mass of hyphae?

1 Stefan Buczacki (1992) Mushrooms and Toadstools of Britain and Europe.London, HarperCollins.
4 Philip Henry Gosse (1865) A Year at the Shore. London, Alexander Strahan.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Impressive sea foams

Ten years ago, I had a holiday in Denmark with my wife and daughter and we spent a few days in the wonderful city of Copenhagen. As we wandered along the waterfront, I noticed that there were large amounts of foam accumulated at one end of a dock and I started explaining (how typical of an academic) that this was the result of natural processes and not pollution. We were surprised to then turn round and find a TV crew just behind us. The reporter had been sent to cover the appearance of the foam and she had overheard my comments and asked me to talk about the origins of the foam to camera. I explained that, although the accumulations look unpleasant, they disperse and do not usually create a bad odour.

In contrast to this small accumulation in Copenhagen, sea foams can be of much larger dimension, creating banks of foam over a metre deep on shore, with winds carrying the flocs inland. One genus of algae is well-known as the origin of foams - Phaeocystis. These algae are found as single cells or, commonly, in large groups embedded in a globe of transparent mucus (see below). When nutrients are plentiful, and when day length increases, the excellent conditions for algal growth result in blooms. Excess carbohydrate, resulting from photosynthesis, is exuded from the cells to form a field of exopolymers 1 around each cell and, in Phaeocystis, the exudates from cells combine and a globe of mucus results, in which individual algae become embedded. The globe protects individual cells from capture by herbivores and acts as a means of retaining nutrients close to each cell. As the mucus consists largely of water bound within a matrix of carbohydrate to give structure, it is energetically cheap to produce. 1

So, how does Phaeocystis contribute to masses of sea foam? Let’s begin with an analogy. When we make meringue, we whip transparent egg whites (mainly protein in water) to include air, and the masses of tiny bubbles that we create are trapped within the developing meringue, each coated by some of the protein. The trapped bubbles then give the whole its white appearance. Now back to Phaeocystis. When huge numbers of globes at, or near, the surface of the sea are whipped up by waves, the mucilaginous colonies are broken up and their organic matter covers bubbles, so the whole becomes whisked into foam. The more algae, the more foam, and it is easy to see how this light, floating mass can then be blown ashore. Like all foams, it consists largely of gas and is white because of all the bubbles that are included, although green or brown colouration sometimes occurs. This is because algae or brown organic compounds are also bound into the mass, or become stuck to its surface.

All surf creates foams because bubbles are covered with the organic matter that accumulates at the water surface and this means bubbles do not collapse instantly, like those produced by shaking tap water vigorously, for example. We’ve all seen the white masses of coated bubbles that form when waves break, but the huge accumulations that can occur after Phaeocystis blooms are in a different league.

1 Roger S Wotton (2005) The essential role of exopolymers (EPS) in aquatic systems. Oceanography and Marine Biology: An Annual Review 42: 57-94.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Sea anemones in ice?

Sea anemones are primitive animals that capture their food using tentacles. Many of us are familiar with beadlet anemones of the sea shore that retract when the tide goes out and then look like red, slimy blobs. When viewed in an aquarium, or rock pool, the tentacles extend and the anemones appear quite different - and some find them attractive.

Philip Henry Gosse was an expert on sea anemones and he published Actinologia Britannica 1 in 1860, giving a description of the wide range of species found around the coasts of Great Britain. One of the anemones he described was Edwardsia carnea [the name was changed to Edwardsiella carnea in the 1880s], of which he made the first description in 1856. 2 It is an unusual sea anemone that often lives in cavities in rocks and Gosse gave it the common name of The Crimson Pufflet. This is what Gosse wrote about a population he found in a sea cave in South Devon: 1

The roof and sides of this cave are studded with the pretty little Crimson Pufflet.. ..The tide having receded, they are readily discovered by their crimson columns projecting an eighth of an inch from the dark floccose rock. The limestone is much eroded by Saxicavae [burrowing bivalves]; and it is in the old burrows of these Mollusca that the Edwardsia dwells..

As Gosse was such a talented artist, he provides us with an illustration of what he saw as part of a larger picture and this is reproduced below. We know then, that this species lives in burrows created by other animals, but Gosse also describes them as having a covering of mucus, dead cells, diatoms and other matter to form an “epidermic tube” in which the sea anemone lives (see the magnified diagram of the two specimens also given below).

Species of Edwardsiella are found widely, but the most astonishing habit is that reported from the newly-described Edwardsiella andrillae. These translucent sea anemones live buried under Antarctic ice and this new species was first described in a research paper by Marymegan Daly, Frank Rack and Robert Zook that was published in PLOS ONE in December 2013. 3 Their paper mentions E. carnea (Gosse 1856), demonstrating that the great Naturalist’s work is still of value today.

Daly et al. were not searching for this new sea anemone; coming across it after using a hot water drill to penetrate through the Ross Ice Shelf to allow a submersible with imaging equipment to be deployed. They wrote:

This provided an unexpected and astonishing glimpse into this subsurface world, discovering an unusual and likely unique marine biological community dominated by anemones living inside burrows in the lower surface of the ice shelf.

The anemones will be feeding on passing small animals carried by currents under the ice, but the questions remain of how they arrived there and how they manage to burrow into the ice. As all other species of Edwardsiella are found around coasts, the first question provides a puzzle, but that may be because the oceans are so little explored and there is much yet to be discovered. As to the burrowing, we know that Edwardsiella characteristically uses a burrow and it is conceivable that they can erode the surface of the ice by movements of the body, but that, too, must remain a mystery for now. However, the production of a mucus envelope will protect the body from freezing, especially as the mucus contains polysaccharides, likely to have some “anti-freeze” characteristics. 

The discovery of E. andrillae, and its location, amazes me and I’m sure that Henry Gosse would have been fascinated and excited, having written about life on snow (and with chapters on “The Unknown” and “The Great Unknown”) in The Romance of Natural History. 4 He would have been very keen to find out more, but would not be faced with the question of how E. andrillae came to inhabit the underside of ice sheets. As a profound Creationist he would find this another amazing example of God’s design and would marvel at it for that reason.

For those of us that believe in evolution, however, many questions remain as a result of the fascinating discovery of this new sea anemone. Evolution is like that: it fills one with wonder and an eagerness for answers that are difficult to obtain.

1 Philip Henry Gosse (1860). Actinologia Britannica. A history of the British sea-anemones and corals. London, John Van Voorst.
2 Philip H. Gosse (1856) On Edwardsia carnea, a new British Zoophyte. The Annals and Magazine of Natural History XVIII: 219-221.
3 Marymegan Daly, Frank Rack and Robert Zook (2013) Edwardsiella andrillae, A New Species of Sea Anemone from Antarctic Ice. PLOS ONE 8: 1-8.
4 Philip Henry Gosse (1860) The Romance of Natural History. London, J. Nisbet and Co.

I would like to thank Matt Coors for alerting me to the remarkable story of Edwardsiella andrillae by posting a news story on Facebook.