Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Watching starfish move

All of us who enjoy looking in coastal rock pools are pleased when we find a starfish sheltering under a stone, or under fronds of algae. When we pick up our specimen, we see that the undersides of its arms bear many tube feet that are used both in locomotion and also as a means of obtaining food. Their use is explained in the following video clip [1]:

In the Nineteenth Century, our knowledge of starfish locomotion was dependent on written accounts, aided by illustrations, and no-one was better at describing the animals of the shore than Philip Henry Gosse. In Land and Sea, Gosse writes of a visit to Meadfoot Beach in Torquay to explore the rock pools there (see below), a collecting site within easy walking distance of his home [2].

Gosse found a large starfish in the Meadfoot rock pools and moved it to another pool that provided a better chance of detailed study, as the animal was too large to take back to his aquarium. His description in Land and Sea [2] of its locomotion provides an interesting comparison with the video recording above. In reading it, we can admire Henry Gosse’s ability as a writer and it is easy to see how he was such an important figure in the development of the “Marine Biology Craze” of the Victorian era:

I mark it gliding smoothly, and with a moderate rapidity, over the unevenness of the rocky bottom, and notice the mechanism by which its progression is effected, I see at once that I have before me one of the great types of animal locomotion; a series of contrivances, by which a given end, that of voluntary change of place, is accomplished, which are quite sui generis; admirable in their adaptation to the prescribed end, but totally unlike the arrangements by which the same object is attained in higher forms of life..

..Each of the five thick and bluntly-pointed arms, or rays, of this star-like animal is seen to be indented on its underside by a rather wide and deep furrow, which extends from the hollow in the centre, where the mouth is seated, throughout its length, to the point. Along the floor of this groove we should see in the dead and dried animal four rows of minute perforations, running lengthwise. We cannot discern them directly during the living activity of the starfish, because the crowding sucker-feet conceal them. Each of these suckers is a tube of delicate membrane, a continuation of the common skin; and its interior accurately corresponds with one of these perforations in the skeleton..

..If we were to dissect this animal, we should find, on the interior surface of the semi-crustaceous integument of the arm, a little globular bag of similar transparent membrane, on each aperture, which opens into the cavity of the globe, just as on the outer side it opens into the tube. Thus there is a free intercommunication between the globose sac on the inside and the sucker-tube on the outside, through the tiny perforation in the crust. The interior is filled with a clear fluid, scarcely differing in its nature from sea-water. The globular sac within and the tube without are both composed of highly contractile tissue, under the control of the animal will.

Gosse goes on to describe the stepping motion of the tube feet, but does not describe the complete water vascular system, its connection to the surrounding sea water via the madreporite (the porous plate shown in the video), or the nervous system by which the movement of the tube feet is controlled. Being a devout Christian, he does, however, state:

Here we have one of the multitudinous results of the infinite Wisdom and almighty Power combined in creation. The problem is to endow with the faculty of voluntary locomotion a sentient creature which has no internal skeleton, and no limbs. It is solved in many ways in the invertebrate classes, and this is one example.

While writing this, Gosse was aware that there was a growing acceptance of the theory of evolution (Darwin having published On the Origin of Species in 1859), something which he vehemently opposed, as he believed in a literal interpretation of the story of Creation in the Book of Genesis. He looked upon the wonderful complexities of the natural world as the work of an all-powerful God.

I, too, am filled with amazement when looking at specimens of the same animals and plants that Gosse observed and this always presents a challenge. Coming back to the example of locomotion in starfish, I find myself trying to answer questions on how the water vascular system evolved – what were the various stages required and did they occur near-simultaneously, or gradually? Isn't the sense of wonder posed by such questions very similar to that Gosse felt about God's Creation?

[2] Philip Henry Gosse (1865) Land and Sea. London, James Nisbet & Co..

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Pufflets, pimplets and muzzlets – Gosse and the common names of sea anemones

Philip Henry Gosse (above), together with his young son Edmund, moved to a new house in St Marychurch, Torquay in 1857. It was a tough year for him, as his wife, Emily, died of breast cancer and Omphalos, his book that attempted to resolve the conflict between Creation and the contemporary view of the geological record, was published to a hostile reception from all quarters. Against this background, Henry busied himself with collecting on the shore and working on describing the British sea anemones and corals. He published what was to become Actinologia Brittanica in 12 parts from 1858 to 1860 and the parts were gathered into a book that was published in 1860 [1,2]. I am fortunate to own a first edition of the book and I have also seen many of the original paintings by Gosse on which its illustrations are based [3].

To many, sea anemones and corals may seem an odd subject for study, yet these primitive animals fascinated many Victorian collectors and they gain their name because of their bright colours and the way they superficially resemble flowers. While those of scientific bent used a Latin binomial classification, others used the common names that are found in the book and which provide a splendid example of the richness of the English language. Gosse himself was aware of the colour provided by these names and, in the Preface of The Romance of Natural History [4], he wrote:  

In my many years’ wanderings through the wide field of natural history, I have always felt towards it something of a poet’s heart, though destitute of a poet’s genius.

That’s not to suggest that Gosse was not a good scientist (he was a Fellow of the Royal Society), but he recognised the value of popularising the subject. Here is a list of the common names of most British sea anemones and corals, as given by Gosse (the definite article has been omitted in each case) [1]:

Plumose anemone *
Daisy anemone *
Scarlet-fringed anemone *
Rosy anemone *
Ornate anemone
Fish-mouth anemone (*)
Orange-disked anemone *
Snowy anemone *
Sandalled anemone
Pallid anemone
Translucent anemone
Eyed anemone
Cave-dwelling anemone *
Snake-locked anemone *
Parasitic anemone *
Gold-spangled anemone
Cloak anemone *
Walled corklet *
Warted corklet
Painted corklet
Opelet *
Beadlet *
Gem pimplet *
Glaucous pimplet
Red-specked pimplet *
Diadem pimplet *
Marigold wartlet
Dahlia wartlet
Scottish pearlet
Scarlet pearlet
Arrow muzzlet *
Waved muzzlet
Trefoil muzzlet
Sand pintlet
Rock pintlet *
Painted pufflet
Crimson pufflet *
Crimson Imperial
Yellow Imperial
Globehorn *
Sandy creeplet
Furrowed creeplet *
Wrinkled creeplet
Devonshire cup-coral *
Moray cup-coral
Shetland cup-coral
Winged cup-coral
Smooth-ribbed wedge-coral
Knotted wedge-coral
Scarlet crisp-coral
Weymouth carpet-coral
Scarlet and gold star-coral

* = collected by Gosse from the shores around Torquay
(*) = sent to Gosse, having been collected by others from the shores around Torquay

Of the 61 types of sea anemone and coral in this list, 22 (36%) were collected by Gosse from the coast around Torquay. Although an excellent area for discovering these fascinating creatures, the high number reflects Gosse’s industry rather than this coast being a mecca for the animals. As an example of his industry, he remarks that the area shown in the image below was an especially good one for sea anemones, if one ventured by small boat to explore the cracks and fissures during low spring tides.

Anyone reading the list, and who wishes to escape the superficiality of the modern world, will be struck by the beauty of the names. My favourites are the red-specked pimplet, the dahlia wartlet, and the crimson pufflet: Gosse’s illustrations of these sea anemones, scanned from my copy of Actinologia Britannica, are shown below (in order).

I’m sure you will have your own favourites and, like Gosse, be stimulated to find examples during visits to the British coast.

[1] Philip Henry Gosse (1860) Actinologia Britannica: a history of the British sea-anemones and corals. London, John Van Voorst.

[2] R.B.Freeman and Douglas Wertheimer (1980) Philip Henry Gosse: A bibliography. Folkestone, Wm. Dawson & Sons Ltd..

[4] Philip Henry Gosse (1860) The Romance of Natural History. London, J.Nisbet & Co.

Friday, 30 August 2019

The Corbyn's Head Stack

When growing up in Torbay, I was fascinated by all the creatures that lived in rock pools. In addition to fish – blennies, gobies, butterfish, pipefish – there were many invertebrates. Limpets and barnacles could not easily be removed, as their defence against being swept away by waves, and attack by predators, also deterred human collectors. However, a wide variety of crabs, snails, worms, sea anemones, and many other creatures were collectable and I took some to observe in an aquarium tank. This was the early 1960s and I don’t know whether I would have spent hours on the shore had I been a young teenager today, with a mobile ‘phone, computer games, etc.. I like to think that I would, as I have never grown out of a child-like enthusiasm for “rock-pooling” and am only prevented from this pleasure today by living 100 miles from the sea.

One of the richest collecting spots (see above) was the rocky coast just to the north of a promontory called Corbyn’s Head (or Corbyn Head). At low tide, there are wide stretches of flattish sandstone rock, with many pools that contain easily-lifted boulders and large stones. Perfect for those interested in the creatures of the shore, but I was so fixated on the hunt that I never asked myself where the boulders came from, although I knew that they must be the result of erosion somewhere. I now know that they were likely to come from the promontory and that Corbyn’s Head has changed considerably over the last 200 years. Going much further back, we know that sea level rise after the Ice Age swamped a forest that filled much of what is now Torbay [1] and the rise in water level, together with storms, then eroded the Head.

As recently as 100 years ago, there was a stack off the headland and this was first formed into an arch before the whole collapsed. In the first photographs above, we see the appearance of the stack in 1928 and this can be compared to the contemporary appearance of the headland (above, lower). In an earlier engraving, taken from Gosse’s Land and Sea [2], we see a tall stack that is almost the height of the rest of the promontory and without the hole of the arch. Of course, there may be some artistic licence here, but this image (see below), from the mid-1850s, shows how Corbyn’s Head (referred to by its old name of Corbons Head) must have looked 150 years ago.

Anyone brought up in South Devon will feel an affinity for the red soils of the area and these derive from sandstones that were, in turn, formed by the compression of ancient sands and muds. It is a soft rock and is easily eroded, as I knew well as a child. Our house was faced with sandstone blocks and one of my household jobs was to sweep up the red dust that accumulated on the tiles of our verandah. On a much larger scale, there were also cliff falls; the most recent of which [3] was caused by sandstone rock becoming saturated and then collapsing under its own weight, as cracks widened and the whole became unstable. 

Sandstone may also contain pebbles washed by some ancient dramatic flood and this composite is called breccia. At Corbyn’s Head we have layers of sandstone overlain by breccia and a full description is given in the excellent, well-illustrated review of the local geology by West and Csorvasi [4]. 

I wonder what the coast of South Devon will look like in a few hundred years’ time, when global warming will bring further increases in sea level and when climate change may bring more violent storms? Will generations to come look at images from their holiday at the coast and remember fondly walking by cliffs and headlands that are then very different in appearance?

[2] Philip Henry Gosse (1865) Land and Sea. London, James Nisbet & Co.

Monday, 19 August 2019

How the Devil has changed through time

Paintings allow us to see the visions of individual artists and they provide an insight into the way perceptions change through the centuries. Recently, I taught a course on “Angels and Demons” at the National Gallery in London and, while preparing the lectures, I was struck by the difference in the way that the Devil (Satan, Lucifer, etc.) was portrayed over the last 800 years. In contrast, angels were portrayed consistently as being androgynous, clothed in a loose full-length robe, and having large bird wings attached somewhere near the shoulder blade.

Here are some examples, with brief notes, of how the Devil has changed (all are details: for URLs to images of the complete works, see the end of this essay):

Duccio (1308/11) shows the Devil as being hairy and having bat wings (bats being regarded in folklore as sinister creatures of the night) and large pointed ears (below, upper) and Fra Angelico (c.1431) also portrays the Devil as being hairy, with tufted, pointed ears and small horns. It (I use “it” and not “he” or “she”) is seen eating humans, so is clearly very large, and appears to have near-human dentition (below, lower).

In Stefan Lochner’s (c.1435) vision of Hell, it is difficult to pick out the Devil as there are so many demonic figures of different kinds (and remember that this work was painted before the well-known works of Hieronymus Bosch). If the figure in the lower right is the Devil, it is noticeable for appearing hairy, with two horns, pointed ears, a non-human face and pronounced canine teeth. Interestingly, a second visage is present in the groin region and this appears to be a replica of the “proper” head (below).

The Devil in Bermejo’s (1468) painting has many sharp teeth, a prominent tongue, pointed ears and horns. It also has three-fingered hands emerging from serpent arms and bright, jewel-like nipples that resemble the eyes. The wings are part bat-like and part like those of a butterfly; the one leg that is clearly visible emerges from the mouth of a serpent; and the abdomen has a second, toothed mouth from which a snake is slithering (below).

Pacher’s (1471-75) Devil has bat-like wings anchored at the shoulder blade and its legs bear cloven hooves. Most of the body is human-like, as are the arms and hands, but the head is grotesque, with prominent teeth, an upturned snout, horns and large ears. Interestingly, a second face is shown, with prominent eyes and mouth and having the tail for a nose. The presence of this second visage is something shred with the previous two examples (below, and compare to the images above).

In Crivelli’s (c.1476) painting, the Devil is dark-coloured but humanoid, except for the feet, hands, bat wings and the presence on the head of horns and long, pointed ears (below).

Apart from black bird’s wings, claws instead of feet, and small horns on the head, d’Oggiono’s (c.1510) Devil has a human form, as does Bonifacio Veronese’s (c.1530) Devil, although it clearly has human feet as well as dark brown bird wings, pointed ears, and appears to be breathing fire (both are shown below).

Guido Reni (1635) paints the Devil as a muscular man, with thinning hair and a beard; the only distinguishing feature being the presence of small bat wings on the back (below, upper). de Ries (1640s) also presents the Devil as being a human figure, but the wings are large and, unusually, those of a bird (below, lower).

Further examples of the Devil taking human form come in the painting of Delacroix (1854-61), where wings are carried on a helmet (below, upper), while Epstein’s famous sculpture at Coventry Cathedral (below, lower) shows a human form with no wings, but with horns just above the ears.

The earliest images are thus of a hairy monster, capable of ingesting people, and occasionally of quite macabre appearance, developing through time into a nude human-like figure with devilish features (sharp teeth, long and pointed ears, horns, bat’s wings, claws) and then to an often powerful-looking nude human male that has only a few of these features.

Several explanations can be put forward for the transformation of the image of the Devil through time:

1. I may have been selective in my choice of paintings and sculpture, although I tried not to be.

2. 800+ years ago we had a highly developed folklore, many superstitions and myths about creatures around us, and a fear of many things in brought into Christianity from paganism, witchcraft, etc. We retain some of these fears but, as humans became increasingly able to control the environment and gain some understanding of it, we became more and more confident in our abilities as humans. This resulted in the increasingly human form taken by images of the Devil.

3. By portraying the Devil as being human (like other angels) it shows viewers that he represents the worst side of human nature, while angels show the best side (music, protection, kindness, etc.). It is a distasteful naked human male, unlike angels who are clothed, sexless, and of universal appeal. We must watch out for the Devil at all times.

Of course, there are other possible explanations, but I wanted to keep this article short. The lectures at the National Gallery were much more detailed and wide-ranging, and they promoted lively discussions, so I hope this blog post brings a similar response..

The works of art discussed:

Duccio (1308/11) The Resurrection Duomo, Siena [sometimes labelled Descent into Hell]: https://www.wikiart.org/en/duccio/descent-into-hell-1311

Fra Angelico (c.1431) Last Judgement San Marco, Florence: https://www.wikiart.org/en/fra-angelico/last-judgment

Bartolomé Bermejo (1468) St Michael Triumphs over the Devil National Gallery: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/bartolome-bermejo-saint-michael-triumphs-over-the-devil

Michael Pacher (1471-75) ?Saint Augustine and the Devil Bavarian State Collection, Munich: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michael_Pacher_004.jpg

Carlo Crivelli (c.1476) Saint Michael National Gallery: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/carlo-crivelli-saint-michael

Marco d’Oggiono (c.1510) The Archangels triumphing over Lucifer Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan: http://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_229178/Marco-D%27Oggiono/The-Archangels-triumphing-over-Lucifer

Guido Reni (1635) The Archangel Michael defeating Satan Santa Maria della Concezione, Rome: https://www.wikiart.org/en/guido-reni/the-archangel-michael-defeating-satan-1635

Ignacio de Ries (1640s) Saint Michael the Archangel The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NewYork: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437729

Eugène Delacroix (1854-61) St Michael defeats the Devil Saint-Sulpice, Paris: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eug%C3%A8ne_Delacroix_-_St_Michael_defeats_the_Devil_-_WGA06220.jpg

Jacob Epstein (1958) Saint Michael’s Victory over the Devil Coventry Cathedral: https://www.flickr.com/photos/amthomson/5686639646

Monday, 12 August 2019

“Great leaps often need eccentric thought”.

As I cook at week-ends, Saturday mornings are spent shopping for groceries and, when these are packed away, I make a jug of good coffee and we settle to read the newspapers. It is a relaxing, and informative, way to start the week-end and there are occasions when a particular story stands out. That happened on Saturday 10th August when an interview with Hugh Montgomery, Professor of Intensive Care at UCL, was published in the FT Weekend Magazine. The whole article is shown below, together with a highlighted section, and it started me thinking.

Of course, I agree with Hugh Montgomery’s sentiments about UCL, as I taught, and carried out research, there for 23 years. I have also taught in other leading UK Universities, and been a student at others, so have some basis for supporting the view that Montgomery expresses.

There is increasing pressure from high-fee-paying students that courses should be relevant to the workplace and that extends beyond vocational training, like that in medicine, law, architecture etc. However, one of the greatest experiences that a student can enjoy, and benefit from, are enthusiastic teachers with vision and creativity who introduce eccentric thought (to quote Montgomery). The same qualities are also important in research. Unfortunately, the pressures of student needs, and the unimaginative world of research funding, mean that there are fewer and fewer “eccentrics” being appointed to University posts and those that are may be encouraged to conform to certain mores.

I make no claim to be an able teacher and researcher, but I was fortunate in being allowed to do my own thing at UCL. After several years of rather dull research, I decided to branch out and look outside my narrow discipline. That took me further and further into scholarship and away from practical science, so I gained black marks for not having much research funding (a conventional measure of being any good…). Having worked on the biology of streams and rivers, I became fascinated by many other aspects of aquatic science and ended up publishing a book and several review papers. I felt excited by my discoveries, especially in the role of exopolymers: ubiquitous compounds that are very important to all living organisms, including humans.

I devised a course in aquatic biology (freshwater, marine, coastal and oceanographic approaches being integrated) that started from first principles and then followed through to looking at the metabolism of life in all water bodies. It was a big task, but was eventually reduced to just 20 lectures and an accompanying web book entitled “Life in Water” that had live web links kept up to date until seven years ago, when I retired. Many of the students who took Aquatic Biology had taken a course with me in their second year, based largely on old-fashioned zoology that has certainly now gone out of favour in the current world. Some students were expecting more of the same, but all engaged with what I was trying to say about aquatic biology and we had good fun – well, I certainly did.

The question then arises as to whether my “eccentric” approach was of value to the students. I like to think so, but I have no way of knowing. The course was designed to show the results of scholarship and to convey my enthusiasm for an unconventional approach. If that is something that students took on board, they may be able to contribute to some of the great leaps that Montgomery describes in his interview. Who knows? They were certainly excellent students.

Friday, 2 August 2019

The sad story of John the Gorilla

Our ancient ancestors were familiar with the animals that shared their surroundings: some were used as food; some were threatening; and others were of little consequence. As we moved from a hunter-gatherer culture to an agrarian one, we began to domesticate animals that could be used as food; a means of providing transport; as an aid to our hunting; or for companionship as pets. During this process we began to anthropomorphise and earlier folklore about animals became increasingly humanised.

In modem times (over the past several millennia) we explored areas of the World that were distant, and the development of trade brought many imports of plants and animals that we could grow, or rear, for food (this was something that occupied the mind of Frank Buckland and others in Victorian times [1]). Creatures could also be for ornament and pleasure (think peacocks, for example). The anthropomorphic interest became highly developed when we discovered apes and, while our dogs had long been considered “honorary humans”, apes looked a bit like us and had a wide range of expressions and habits with which we could identify: for example, Chimps Tea Parties (extended to advertisements for brands of tea) were held in zoological gardens for our amusement, although this practice has now thankfully disappeared.

In addition to their capture for zoos, there was, and is still, a profitable market in capturing baby apes (often after killing their protective mothers) and these are traded to those who want this type of “baby” to live with them – Michael Jackson’s “Bubbles” being a good example (see below, showing Bubbles with Mr Jackson in one of his early identities). Of course, the cute babies grow into powerful, and potentially dangerous adults, and then they must be taken to a centre that can look after them, a return to the wild being out of the question unless the apes can be trained at “schools” to teach them how to survive before their release into their natural habitat.

A well-known case of an ape that was humanised is that of John the Gorilla. He lived with Alyse Cunningham in Sloane Street in London and his story is recounted by E Ray Lankester in his popular Great and Small Things [2]. He describes how John (see below) was traded from Gabon by a French officer who sold him to a London dealer in July 1918, and from whom he was acquired by Major Rupert Penny (Ms Cunningham’s nephew). John came to live in Sloane Street in December 1918 and Ms Cunningham describes his life there [3]:

I was getting to like John, and to take a great interest in him. I fed him, washed his hands, face and feet twice a day, and brushed and combed his hair – which he would try and do himself whenever he got hold of the brush or comb. He soon got to like all this. My next idea was to teach him to be strictly clean in his habits..

..we took him out of his cage and allowed him the freedom of the house. Thereafter he would run upstairs to the bathroom of his own accord, turning the door knob of whichever room he was in and also opening the door of the bathroom..

..John loved to have people come to see him in his home.. ..Whenever people came to see him, he would show off like a child. It was his custom to take them by the hand and lead them round and round the room. If he saw that a person was at all nervous about him, he loved running past them, and give them a smack on the leg – and you could see him grin as he did so..

..His table manners were really very good. He always sat at the table, and whenever a meal was ready, would pull his own chair up to his place.. ..He always took afternoon tea – of which he was very fond – and a thin piece of bread with plenty of jam; and he always liked coffee after dinner..

..He was especially fond on my little niece, three years old, who loved to come with her father to stay. John and she used to play together for hours and he seemed to understand what she wanted him to do.

An excellent illustration of the two is given in the article (see above), although the little girl seems far from delighted.

Ms Cunningham goes on to report that John was taken by train “as an ordinary passenger, without even a chain around his neck” to the family’s country cottage; something that must have surprised other passengers. The cottage was in the village of Uley, where John also visited the local school and was something of a celebrity [4].

Eventually, he grew too big and Lankester describes his fate [2]:

I regret to have to state that, owing to the expense involved in keeping John in a private house and the natural anxiety as to whether he could be kept at all in such conditions when he reached maturity, his owner was induced to sell him, in the belief that he was to be specially cared for in a warm climate. He was taken by his new proprietor to the United States, and became very ill owing to his separation from the friend who had hitherto cared for him and loved him.. ..This novel and complete exile utterly prostrated him; it deprived him of all spirit and appetite. An attack of pneumonia killed him soon after his arrival in America.

Contemplating this tragedy, Lankester concludes that “no one should adopt a young gorilla who is not possessed of a large income and able to pay for skilled attendants and courageous companions for him when he is grown up.”

Far better then to leave gorillas, and other great apes, where they are and, if absolutely necessary, visit them to have experiences like those enjoyed by David Attenborough in Life on Earth (easily the best remembered scene in the whole of the excellent series of programmes). Such ecotourism needs strict controls to avoid exploitation, but it is not the main threat to the great apes; that comes from competition for space. As we are the superior species, we win in these encounters and the majority of us do not care. We are so keen to think that we can make the apes like humans, yet we cannot teach them about the rapacious needs of consumer capitalism.

If we turn our approach on its head, what can we learn from the great apes? Asking that question may mean that we have to concede that we are not the best at everything.

[1] Christopher Lever (1992) They Dined on Eland. London, Quiller Press.

[2] Ray Lankester (1923) Great and Small Things. London, Methuen & Co.

[3] Alyse Cunningham (1921) A Gorilla’s Life in Civilization. Bulletin of the Zoological Society of New York, September 1921 pp.118-124.

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Land and Sea

Philip Henry Gosse, the famous Victorian naturalist and populariser of marine biology, published Land and Sea in 1865 and, in his first biography of his father [1], Edmund Gosse writes of the book:

..some of the sketches were rather trivial and diffusely told, besides possessing the disadvantage that they seemed like discarded chapters from other books, which indeed they were..

However, one chapter – “Meadfoot and the Starfish” - shows the writing of Henry Gosse at its best. He describes a walk from his home in St Marychurch, Torquay, to a local landmark called Daddyhole Plain and then onwards to the beach at Meadfoot (shown below in an image from the BritishBeaches website).

Gosse rested here, writing [2]:

The exertion of walking and collecting had given just enough of fatigue to the muscular system to make the dolce far niente a luxury. Under the shadow of a great angular block, I reclined, enjoying the beauty and exhilaration of the sunlight, while relieved from its oppression. Most brilliant was the flood of light with which very object was suffused in the unclouded blaze of that summer noon. How fine was the interchange of broad light and deep dark shadow, on those angular limestone cliffs! How glowing the coloured breadths of golden furze and purple-sheeted heath, expanded sea and vaulted sky!

His attention then turned to the rock pools at Meadfoot and the algae that were abundant here, one being Delesseria sanguinea, an herbarium specimen of which is shown below (image from Wikimedia Commons).

 He writes:

This very fine species is not uncommon all along the coast hereabouts, but is never seen except at the lowest level of the tide, where it grows often in considerable quantity, large leafy tufts springing out of the basal angles of the perpendicular masses of rock, or in persistent tide-pools hollowed in the rock itself. It will not bear exposure to the air with impunity, as many of our sea-weeds will; for if left uncovered but a short period, a quarter of an hour or even less, the delicate rose-crimson membrane becomes defiled with large blotches of a dull orange-colour, which shew that its texture is irrevocably injured, decomposition having already set in.

Thus, Henry Gosse introduces his readers to organisms of deeper water and the alien world that represents for us: the passage also conjuring up the pleasure of investigating the sea shore, which became a passion for many Victorians. As I sit writing this piece in my study in Hertfordshire on a very sunny June day, I certainly feel the pull of Meadfoot, just as many readers of Land and Sea must have done. All the more so, as I was brought up in Torbay and walked over the same shores that so beguiled Gosse.

Quite something for a chapter written more than 150 years ago.

[1] Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-shore: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

[2] Philip Henry Gosse (1865) Land and Sea. London, James Nisbet & Co.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Monster jellyfish

A newspaper headline in April 2019 read: “Invasion of the monster jellyfish! British resort harbour is inundated by swarm of huge sea creatures the size of dustbin lids” [1]. This sensationalist journalism described an influx of barrel jellyfish (Rhizostoma pulmo) into Torquay harbour, where their appearance caused quite a stir on social media.

R. pulmo (see above for a photoshopped image by Ales Kladnik) commonly “swarms” in the Mediterranean and north-eastern Atlantic coast and their appearance en masse often results in much curiosity and many subsequent questions:

(i) Why do these jellyfish form swarms?
(ii) Why do they come into shallow water?
(iii) Do they sting [humans] and what do they eat?
(iv) What feeds on them?
(v) Do humans eat jellyfish?

It isn’t easy to get answers, but a bit of searching gave me some information:

(i) Whatever the primary cause of swarming, it usually results in increased breeding success and the start of another cycle in the fascinating life history of these animals. Male barrel jellyfish release sperm into the water where they fertilise eggs that have been released by females. The resulting larvae are called planulae and they are very small (just a few mm in length) and covered with cilia (hair-like extensions of the body wall) that enable them to swim in the plankton, along with the larvae and adults of many other animals. Each planula transforms into a polyp when it encounters the sea bed and these polyps may produce new polyps by budding, or they may form a strobila. The process of strobilation produces mini-jellyfish (ephyrae) that, when sufficiently formed, break away and begin a free-swimming life, eventually growing into the jellyfish with which we are so familiar.

The life cycle of the barrel jellyfish, so little known to most of us, is described in detail in a research paper by Fuentes et al. [2] that contains this summary figure (individuals not drawn to scale):

(ii) Migration into shallow water increases the chances of planulae being able to locate a substratum to begin their transformation into polyps and it may also serve to concentrate adult jellyfish prior to reproduction. It seems improbable that they can perceive when water is shallow (they are very primitive animals with nerve fibres but no nervous system [3]) and their location in shallow water may be a consequence solely of currents. It is also likely that shallow water promotes the concentration of their planktonic food; this, too, being effected by water currents.

(iii) Some jellyfish are very harmful to humans, with long trailing tentacles bearing stinging cells that discharge barbs loaded with toxin. This adaptation was present for hundreds of millions of years before humans appeared on the scene and these “poisonous jellyfish” use their stings to capture animals, especially fish, that are then drawn to the mouth by the tentacles. Barrel jellyfish are quite different and they feed on plankton which are captured by small stinging cells and also by mucus, cilia then being used to transfer bound food packages (largely from the bell) to the mouth. Their stings are not strong enough to penetrate human skin.

(iv) Barrel jellyfish are eaten in large numbers by leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) - this is one of the reasons why floating plastic bags are such a menace to these animals, as they perceive them to be food. Some R. pulmo are taken by other animals, but they are not subject to human “fisheries”, as are other types of jellyfish, especially in the East.

(v) Methods of preparing jellyfish are described by Hsieh et al. [4] and the process takes time and is labour intensive. The first stage involves separating the bell from the oral arms and both are washed in sea water. They are then sprinkled liberally with salt and with alum; the former to reduce the high water content of the jelly between the two tissue layers of the body (there are only two, most animals have three [3]), and the latter to act as an anti-bacterial agent. The drying jellyfish are turned every few days and eventually become “crunchy and crispy” [4]. The finished product can be kept for up to one year and strips are commonly cooked as a stir-fry with sesame (see below).

Jellyfish could become a major food in the future. They are abundant, tolerant of low oxygen tension and high temperatures, and can be scooped up when they from swarms. However, not all jellyfish are likely to be edible and some method of reducing the labour-intensive drying process will be needed before we get commercial production. When that is achieved, maybe we will all be eating jellyfish?

[2] Fuentes, V., Straehler-Pohl, I., Atienza, D., Franco, I., Tilves, U., Gentile, M., Acevedo, M., Olariaga, A. and Gili, J.-M. (2011) Life cycle of the jellyfish Rhizostoma pulmo (Scyphozoa: Rhizostomeae) and its distribution, seasonality and inter-annual variability along the Catalan coast and the Mar Menor (Spain, NW Mediterranean). Marine Biology 158: 2247-2266.

[3] Ruppert, E. E. and Barnes, R.D. (1994) Invertberate Zoology. Sixth Edition. Fort Worth, Saunders College Publishing.

[4] Hsieh, Y.-H. P., Leong, F.-M. and Rudloe, J. (2001) Jellyfish as food. Hydrobiologia 451: 11-17.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Remembering Troyte – Edward Elgar’s dependable friend

A stone monument was erected at the summit of the Worcestershire Beacon (the highest point in the Malvern Hills) to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. It features a toposcope, which allows visitors to identify the hills, and other features, that they can observe from this point (see above). The current toposcope is an exact replacement of the original, which was stolen (but subsequently recovered), and it was designed by Arthur Troyte Griffith (1864-1942), a well-known Malvern architect of the time (see below).

Troyte was educated at Harrow (where his father was a master) and at Oriel College Oxford. Percy M Young [1] describes him as “an all-round scholar, with special interests in art and literature”, who loved nature and painted water colours, played chess to a high level, and who was also an enthusiast for crossword puzzles. After Oxford, his interest in buildings led him to architecture and he moved to Malvern to set up a practice. 

In 1896, Troyte became friends with Edward Elgar, who was seven years older and who, at that time, was living in “Forli”, a house in Alexandra Road, Malvern Link. Elgar was well-known locally as a teacher, musician, and composer of pieces for various instruments and ensembles, but he was a difficult man [2], with a strong need for recognition and praise; sinking into self-pitying gloom when he felt things were not going well for him. A contrasting side of Elgar’s personality was his love of “japes” and the exhilaration provided by being outdoors in the natural world, and these were both traits that Troyte shared. He was later celebrated by Elgar in Variation VII of the Enigma Variations, where the composer highlights his friend’s lack of skill as a musician. Michael Kennedy writes [3]:

The variation is not a portrait. It merely records “maladroit essays to play the pianoforte; later the strong rhythm suggests the attempts of the instructor [Elgar] to make something like order out of the chaos, and the final despairing ‘slam’ records that the effort proved to be [in] vain.”   

As music was so important to Elgar, and he had the facility to play several instruments well, one can imagine his frustration. It is not unusual for musicians to have a low tolerance of the performance of those less gifted than themselves, but the strong bond of affection, and shared interests, between the two men overcame Elgar’s likely intolerance. Indeed, Troyte remained one of Elgar’s most valued friends for the rest of his life; many letters being written between the two [1] that show Troyte’s dependability and support in all manner of practical matters, including interior design [4]. He was also a valued guest at dinner parties and other social events, where the two could enjoy their love of what we now call banter.

If Troyte’s contribution to Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was the toposcope on Worcestershire Beacon, Elgar’s was his Imperial March, a composition that impressed London audiences [3] and which began the progress to world-wide recognition. In 1897, the two men had been friends for a year and it was in 1899 that Troyte was celebrated in the Enigma Variations, the piece that cemented Elgar’s fame and which remains so popular today.

I wrote earlier about my recent walk on the Malvern Hills [5] and I began my stroll close to Troyte’s old house in Lower Wyche Road on the flanks of the Worcestershire Beacon. On reaching the top of the Beacon, I had the reminder of Troyte on the Silver Jubilee monument and, in addition to being surrounded “by a feeling of Elgar”, it was also good to remember one of Elgar’s most valued friends. We know that Elgar had generous musical support from Augustus Jaeger (of Novello and Company - fondly recalled as Nimrod in Variation IX of the Enigma Variations) and from many others, but Troyte provided a substantial “anchoring role” in the gifted composer’s life. Those of us who are moved by Elgar’s music probably owe Troyte a good deal.

[1] Percy M Young (ed.) (1956) Letters of Edward Elgar, and other writings. London, Geoffrey Bles.

[2] Michael De-la-Noy (1983) Elgar: the man. London, Allen Lane.

[3] Michael Kennedy (1968) Portrait of Elgar. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[4] Michael Kennedy (2004) The Life of Elgar. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

For a recording of Variotion VII of the Enigma Variations, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugeTgWjIt6c

For a biography of Arthur Troyte Griffith, see http://www.troytegriffith.org/

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Elgar’s inspiration

I have loved Elgar’s orchestral music since I was a child. There is something about it that brings a connection with Nature and the outdoors, summed up by Jerrold Northrop Moore [1]:

The country had filled Elgar’s music as it had filled the greatest English art. It is a pastoral vision reaching back through Samuel Palmer and Turner and Constable, through Keats and Coleridge and Wordsworth.. ..This was the heritage that shaped Elgar and his music, and that touches his music’s audience still.

It wasn’t until I watched Ken Russell’s BBC documentary [2] that I knew much about Elgar the man, but that programme set me off reading biographies and articles. For some reason, I came to view Elgar as a person whose love of the countryside was similar to my own, although I have no skill in communicating that love in music, or in any other way for that matter. 

In crude terms, his music “touched my soul” (whatever that means), and it is difficult for me to listen to some pieces without feeling strong emotions. I’m not frightened by that, but for many years I put off visiting the Malvern Hills, an important source of inspiration for Elgar, because I thought I might be disappointed. Last week, however, I walked up to the top of the Worcestershire Beacon from the woods surrounding the Hills.

Moore [1] relates a story about Elgar at the end of his life:

It was the music of the Cello Concerto that remained with him then. As he lay dying early in 1934, he “rather feebly” whistled the 9/8 sequence of up-and-down to the friend who had tried to provide his opera libretto: “If ever you’re walking on the Malvern Hills and hear that, don’t be afraid. It’s only me.”

I carried this thought with me on my walk and found myself humming the 9/8 theme, so I was carrying Elgar with me. The walk began with leafy paths and it then became more open as I climbed, admiring the views all the while. This is a brief photographic record of the day:

It was exhilarating to stroll up to the Beacon and I can see how it provided inspiration for the beautiful pastoral music of a great Romantic like Elgar. At the risk of gaining an entry in “Pseuds Corner”, there was a sense of being on Earth, but also looking out from above it, at the wide vista on either side. It was a joyous experience and I can’t understand why I hesitated walking on the Malvern Hills for so many years. 

I’m already looking forward to going back and the 9/8 theme of the Cello Concerto now brings new memories.

[1] Jerrold Northrop Moore (2004) Elgar: Child of Dreams. London, Faber and Faber.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Giant sea scorpions.. ..and other foods

In his book Why Not Eat Insects? Vincent M. Holt [1] does not confine himself to this group of invertebrates. In addition to remarks about slugs and snails, he also has this to say:

..Spiders have been relished as tid-bits, not only by uncivilized nations, but by Europeans of cultivation. For Reaumur tells of a young lady who was so fond of spiders that she never saw one without catching and eating it. Lalande, the French astronomer, had similar tastes; and Rosel speaks of a German who was in the habit of spreading spiders, like butter, upon his bread.

Spiders are chelicerates and, had Holt travelled to China, Thailand or Vietnam he would have been aware of other chelicerates, scorpions, being eaten, often as “street food”. Scorpions have a sting that is used to inject venom but, when cooked, the venom becomes denatured and the whole animal can be eaten. A common method of preparation is to line scorpions on skewers that can then be grilled (see below), or they can be stir fried. Those who eat scorpions compare their flavour to
that of crabs, or shrimps, and scorpions are rich in protein, so provide a readily available and nutritious food [2].

The largest chelicerates, the eurypterids, became extinct about 250 million years ago, so there is no possibility that they co-existed with humans, or close human ancestors. However, just as we like to imagine co-existing with reptilian dinosaurs (equally impossible), it is fun to think what our attitude to eurypterids would be should they still be present today.

In the image above, adapted from an illustration in a paper by Braddy, Poschmann and Tetlie [3] we see the body form of the eurypterid Jaekelopterus.  It is typical of the “sea scorpions” in having four pairs of walking legs, chelicerae (limbs with claws), a pair of paddles and a segmented body ending in a flattened extension. Two compound eyes are present and, in a comparative study of the fossilised remains of eurypterids of several types, it is concluded that Jaekelopterus was likely to be an active predator and that competition with more successful vertebrate types led to its extinction [4], alongside all the other eurypterids.

The location of fossils shows that Jaekelopterus lived in “marginal marine environments” [3] so, had these creatures survived to modern times, they would have been easily accessible to humans and, no doubt, would have been made extinct by human hunting. At this point, we need to consider the size of the animals: the scale bar in the illustration shows 1 metre, so specimens of Jaekelopterus were up to 2 metres long and thus substantially longer than the average human (2 metres being equivalent to 6 feet 6 inches). If their chelicerae were disabled, they would be easy to catch and they did not have the defensive sting present in today’s scorpions (they are not closely related).

Letting our imagination free, we can fantasise that Jaekelopterus, with its long and muscular body, would be good to eat, especially when prepared using the cooking skills of modern humans – “eurypterid thermidor” anyone? Nonsense of course, but what fascinating creatures they must have been, had we been able to observe them.

[1] Vincent M. Holt (1885) Why Not Eat Insects? Faringdon, E.W.Classey Ltd.

[3] S. J. Braddy, M. Poschmann and O. E. Tetlie (2008) Giant claw reveals the largest ever arthropod. Biology Letters 4: 106-109.

[4] V. E. McCoy, J. C. Lamsdell, M. Poschmann, R. P. Anderson and D. E. G. Briggs (2015) All the better to see you with: eyes and claws reveal the evolution of divergent ecological roles in giant pterygotid eurypterids. Biology Letters 11: 2015.0564.