Friday, 18 December 2009

More on ornithologist cliques

In thinking about the origins of the World Wildlife Fund in 1961, I pondered whether there was something to be said about the ornithological background of most of the founding members of the charity.

On an excellent website dedicated to Max Nicholson (who Sir Peter Scott acknowledged as the “architect” of WWF), I have just come across the transcript of his appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1995. And it seems that Sue Lawley had a similar idea.

“Has birdwatching got you on in your career - do you suddenly find very distinguished chaps suddenly turn out to have this hobby in common,” she asked him.

“Well sometimes,” replied Nicholson, “but it would be wrong to say that its ever given me a leg up in my career."

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Podcasting pandas for Nature

On Monday this week, I popped into Nature's offices in London to talk about the panda genome paper for the podcast. I talk about enzymes for carnivores and herbivores, gut microbes and the interesting umami receptor. When podcast presenter Adam Rutherford posed the usual old anthropocentric stuff about panda sex, I put up my best defense for pandas being brilliant at it, though in getting wound up I fear that perhaps I started to sound a bit panda crazy. It was fun anyway.

Meat-eating pandas

I have finally got round to emailing George Schaller, a major figure in 20th century field biology, who carried out pioneering work on most of the world’s striking megafauna, including gorillas, lions, clouded leopards and, yes, pandas to cherry-pick just a few. His position in the history of panda research is pivotal and his books on pandas – both scientific and popular – are very well written and exceedingly thorough. It is therefore very important that I should talk to him.

Dr Schaller responded immediately and positively and I am hoping to talk to him tomorrow about how he now sees pandas – almost 25 years after he finished up his work on this species. The Last Panda, a popular autobiographical look at his panda years published in 1993, was very gloomy about the future for China’s national treasure but a lot has changed since then and I wonder how he feels now.

He took a look at my blog entry on the panda genome research, from which scientists have found that the panda has all the meat-digesting enzymes one would expect for a carnivore and none of the enzymes that would be useful for digesting its bamboo-dominated diet. In his email back to me, Schaller points out that “pandas love meat and in the wild will happily scavenge.” Indeed, he and his colleagues used meat to entice pandas in traps so they could radiocollar them and there are lots and lots of stories of pandas getting their teeth into meaty remains. So those meat-eating enzymes encoded into their genome are still used. “But in their habitat and given their body build it’s tough to find meat” says Schaller. “A more interesting question,” he says, “is why they mostly stick to bamboo, rather than eat a great variety of plants like the black bear inhabiting the same areas.”

I now realise that I’d been putting off contacting Dr Schaller, reasoning that I had not read enough. But as I’ll never have read enough, I figured the time had come to make my approach. I find myself breathing more calmly now that I have. I remain slightly anxious over how it will go but mainly I am looking forward the interview.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Panda genome!

As if out of nowhere, a long list of Chinese scientists and a handful of collaborators elsewhere have managed to sequence the entire genome of the giant panda.

Genome sequencing projects usually use a combination of sequencing technologies to build up to the complete genome. The more traditional sequencing methods are expensive and time consuming but generate longer stretches of sequence, which are easier to arrange into the correct order. The newer or “next-generation sequencing” technologies are quick and relatively cheap but churn out short sequences from which it’s a much tougher task to assemble big genomes. But these researchers have arrived at a draft genome of the giant panda using next-generation sequencing technology alone, they report in Nature today.

It’s a remarkable achievement, though I have to confess the paper is a bit dull. It is a sequencing paper after all. But there are several things that are worthy of note.
  1. The panda genome is estimated at 2.40 Gb, which is kind of comparable to the only other carnivore – the dog – that has received the genome treatment.
  2. The panda genome appears to have a low divergence rate compared to the dog or humans. Basically, things have been ticking along pretty slowly along the panda branch.
  3. With the genome in the bag, the researchers have attempted a commendable bit of functional genomics. Pandas, they discover, have all the genes encoding meat-digesting enzymes. So from a genetic perspective, they look totally carnivorous even though they don’t eat meat.
  4. Conversely, they have none of the genes typical of herbivores that are needed to digest plant matter. This is not particularly surprising, but it does lead them to the rather interesting conclusion that “the bamboo diet of the panda is unlikely to be dictated by its own genetic composition, and may instead be more dependent on its gut microbiome.” This brings to mind the winners of the 2009 IgNobel Biology Prize – Japanese scientists who managed to harness the digestive power of panda gut microbes. Here’s the link to their original 2001 article.
  5. But why did the panda switch from a carnivorous diet – which their ancestors once presumably had – to near total herbivory? Intriguingly, the panda genome reveals a messed up gene that means perhaps pandas suddenly lost the taste for meat. It’s hard to imagine a single genetic change leading to a complete ecological shift, but it’s very interesting nonetheless.
This achievement, of which a lot of people should be rightfully proud, will surely be useful for panda conservation. We wait and see...

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Failed fertilization for Lonesome George

The Galapagos National Park has announced that a clutch of eggs laid in Lonesome George’s enclosure 120 days ago is not fertile. This photograph supplied by the Park is the rather unsightly and pretty convincing evidence.

George, you’ll remember, is the only surviving giant tortoise from Pinta, a small island in the north of the archipelago. The clutch of eggs in question had been laid by Female 107, one of two females that joined George from Isabela island in the early 1990s.

There is one other clutch still in the incubator, laid a little later by the other female. The signs are not good for these either. Wardens have already detected that they have lost weight, usually a sign of infertility. But of course, they are not saying for sure. There’s another press release – and more mileage in this latest George-related saga – yet to come.

Though it’s likely the other clutch is also going to be infertile, there will surely be another cycle of reproduction next year and more “George is going to be a dad”-type stories. When the time comes, I’ll be more than happy to write them...

On Galapagos matters, I’ve just been commissioning articles for the next issue of Galapagos News (which I edit). I am hoping there will be three main features, each taking one particular human-inhabited island as its focus: Isabela, San Cristobal and Floreana. It should make an interesting comparison.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Fu Long update

I sent an email to Eveline Dungl, a zoologist at Vienna Zoo who has been caring for the pandas there. I want to get an update on her experimental work on panda cognition, which is starting to reveal just how smart these animals are.

She is currently in China with Fu Long the 2-year-old male. She witnessed his birth in Vienna in 2007, the first panda born in a European Zoo by natural mating. I went to Vienna to interview Eveline and meet Fu Long for a BBC Radio 4 feature I wrote and presented earlier this year. I remember asking her how she’d feel if Fu Long were to be “recalled” to China. She admitted how sad she’d be – so how sad she probably is right now – but it was clear she could see the bigger picture. As wild pandas leave their parents after a couple of years, this branching out from his parents is probably quite important for his development.

She tells me, in reply to my email, that she’s coming back tomorrow. “Fu Long is doing fine,” she reports. “After some difficult days during the transport and arrival Fu Long is adapting to his new environment very well. He is still in the quarantine area but as soon as the quarantine period is over he will join a group of two-year-old pandas. He might enjoy playing with his new friends then.”

Thursday, 3 December 2009

More panda sounds

Yet another paper on panda vocalizations to add to the string of other papers that have appeared throughout the year. The very media-friendly Ben Charlton of Atlanta Zoo is doing very well out of panda sounds.

This time, he and his colleagues have built upon research from the 1980s that showed female pandas change their vocalizations when fertile. It makes sense that they should advertise this fact, as the window of peak panda fertility is terribly tight, just a couple of days a year.

Working with the “Nixon pandas” at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. in the 1970s, Devra Kleiman, an expert on the behaviour of mammals in captivity, quickly realised that vocalisations were going to be the quickest way to work out when the female Ling-Ling was entering her oestrus period. “It’s a really good clue to the behavioural reproductive condition of both the male and the female,” she told me in an interview earlier this year. Kleiman brought in German ethologist Gustav Peters to make recordings of panda calls and describe how they changed with fertility. In spite of this work, published in 1982, this very useful cue to female reproductive condition has not been exploited to the max, she says. “I think even now folks are not sensitive enough to the sounds and the changes in them in trying to make management decisions.”

Maybe this latest work from Charlton and friends, published online in the Journal of the Royal Society of London, Series B this week, will change all that. The researchers mapped changes in female vocalisations onto changes in female fertility (worked out by making regular check on hormone levels) and made a very detailed acoustic analysis of exactly how that change occurs. “In particular, female giant panda chirps signalling fertile callers were of longer duration and characterized by higher jitter and harshness,” they write.

They then made the important experimental verification of playing back different calls to male pandas to see what they made of them. When the calls were those of fertile females, males showed significantly greater movement, were more likely to approach the speaker and spent much more time near it than when the calls were from non-fertile females. “The results of this study indicate that female giant panda chirps have the potential to provide males with precise information about the timing of the caller’s fertile stage,” write Charlton and colleagues. Since they now know exactly what kinds of calls they are looking for when a female is fertile, it should help them to improve further still on the coordination of natural matings and artificial insemination of captive pandas.

I’ve been wanting to interview Charlton for my book and I feel now is the time to contact him. I’m hoping he’ll let me post some pre-fertile and fertile vocalizations here. It would be nice to know just how dramatic the change is.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Ornithologists shall inherit the earth

Onithologists, like the birds they love, tend to flock together. This is understandable, as there are few things more pitiful than watching a twitcher waxing lyrical to a non-twitcher about spotted flycatchers, lilac-breasted rollers or little bustards. If you’ve no interest in our feathered friends, not only will the conversation fly clean over your head but you’ll probably look on the ornithologist as some kind of loon. Most twitchers, being nothing of the sort, can detect this (a keen eye for observation being one of their strong-points) and quickly learn to confine their enthusiasm for birds to company that shares their interest.

I speak from personal experience, as I did my PhD in the bird group at Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences. It was a great, great group and with the exception of me was absolutely rammed with great, great students who were birders through and through. Like them, I studied bird behaviour, but unlike them I could not recognise a sparrow when I saw one and could not understand their passion. I have a fondness for birds now that I would never have had were it not for those brilliant years, but I don’t and can’t get twitchy about rare or interesting migrants. I do not and will never have a list of birds I am trying to tick off. I have no hope of mastering the mysterious field-based art of binocular or telescope use.

I bring all this up because I’ve been pondering the origins of the World Wildlife Fund and many of those credited with getting the whole thing going all had an ornithological bent. I spent several hours yesterday at the Linnean Society of London, where they have a treasure trove of archival material handed over by the late Max Nicholson. This reveals four central figures and several dozen others behind the foundations of this organization.

At the tender age of nine, Nicholson had started a record of birds he’d seen. He wrote Birds in England in 1926, kick-started the Oxford Ornithological Society in 1927-8, penned The Art of Birdwatching in 1931 and was instrumental in the foundation of the British Trust for Ornithology in 1932, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1948, the British Nature Conservancy in 1949 and WWF in 1961. Not bad going. Nicholson was founding conservation organizations as though he were ticking birds off a list.

Julian Huxley presumably had natural history drummed into him from an early age by his grandfather T.H. and developed a taste for ornithology at Eton under the guiding hand of science master W.D. 'Piggy' Hill. "Piggy was a genius as a teacher... I have always been grateful to him," he wrote in his 1970 autobiography Memories. Later, at Oxford University, he got interested in bird behaviour, wrote a monograph on the great crested grebe and played a mentoring role for ornithological giants Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen.

Peter Scott was also there, and in his autobiography The Eye of the Wind, he remembered how, at preparatory school his fondness for birds had already become apparent. “I had a copy of T.A. Coward’s British Birds...jammed into the slightly split pocket of my blazer,” he wrote. He had an inordinate fondness for geese and went on to found the Severn Wildfowl Trust in 1946 (roping in Nicholson to sit on the council). It’s now known as the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and touts itself as “the birthplace of modern conservation”.

Guy Mountfort was “a businessman and an ornithologist of international repute”, as Elspeth Huxley describes him in her biography of Peter Scott. Indeed, he was the author of A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, published in 1954 and in 1970 received an OBE for his services to ornithology.

Outside this birdy foursome there were several other key players who could tell their marsh from their willow tit: 1st Baron Hurcomb (one-time President of the RSPB), Lord Buxton of Alsa (took up birdwatching during summer holidays in Norfolk), Phyllis Barclay-Smith (executive board of the International Wildfowl Research Bureau and the author of numerous bird books), Prince Philip (Birds of Britannica in 1962) and Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands (popped in on Scott at his lighthouse in Norfolk to watch and film, yes you guessed it, birds).

Birds are at the centre of all this because they attract bright human minds whose owners come together to discuss their obsession with feathers. Birds combine the intellectual challenge of seeking, spotting and identifying with the satisfaction of being able to collect good data on attractive species with not inconsiderable popular appeal. So I’m not really surprised to find so many birders at the heart organizations like WWF nor so many birdy organizations (like the BTO, RSPB, Birdlife International, the American Bird Conservancy, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) at the heart of the conservation movement.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

More social networking for pandas

Though olfaction is probably the most advanced of the panda’s senses, recent work on acoustic communication reveals just how important sounds are for successful social networking in a complex bamboo-based world.

A really thorough scrutiny of the acoustic structure of calls from individual pandas has just appeared in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America and it shows them to be highly distinct. Furthermore, two particular features of a vocalization – its pitch and rapid variation in its volume – seem to be the factors that can best explain that distinctiveness. This computer-based analysis of panda acoustics also made a very interesting parting-shot. By comparing calls from related individuals, it appears as though certain acoustic features have a strongly heritable component. Vocal cues, suggested Ben Charlton and his co-workers in the abstract, “could be used as a measure of genetic relatedness.” I haven’t yet got to look at the entire paper, so I’m not sure whether they mean pandas, researchers or both might be using calls to assess relatedness.

OK, so there are fuzzy bits on graphs that humans can use to distinguish one panda from the next. But do pandas pay attention to these features of sound? In an experiment that mirrored one on olfaction carried out by Ronald Swaisgood and his colleagues more than a decade ago, Charlton and friends (including Swaisgood as a matter of fact) habituated female pandas at the Chengdu panda base to the recorded calls of a single male before switching to the bleats of another. The sudden increase in attentiveness on hearing the novel call demonstrates quite clearly that females are able to distinguish males on the basis of sound alone.

In a couple of follow-up experiments, the researchers manipulated aspects of the male vocalization to see what that did to females’ reactions. With the frequency normalized, females still perked up at the change from male A to male B but with volume variation under control they were not responsive to the switch. So volume variations seem crucial to the ability to distinguish between individuals. “Although giant panda bleats are low amplitude and features of amplitude modulation would be particularly susceptible to attenuation in the densely forested natural habitat that giant pandas inhabit…, these vocalizations could be used for close-range signalling of identity in direct encounters,” suggest Charlton and colleagues in Biology Letters.

A further paper, published in Animal Behaviour, revealed that there are clear differences in the bleats emitted by males and females, useful if you’re a solitary animal living in a dense bamboo forest. A male’s vocalization also appears to give an indication of his size and a female’s call appears to give away her age.

Next up. Panda vision.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Smelly pandas

I had a good day last Friday reading and writing about smelly pandas. From the earliest fieldwork on giant pandas during the 1970s and ’80s it was clear that these creatures have a complex system of olfactory communication. The “scent posts” that George Schaller and his Chinese colleagues discovered in the field in the Wolong National Nature Reserve appeared to be like “community bulletin boards” on which individual pandas would post all sorts of different messages, some of them alongside, some overlapping and some completely covering others.

A brilliant series of experiments on captive pandas at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong in the late 1990s began to reveal just how rich this olfactory world is. Males leave smells by urinating and marking using an anal gland and females leave smells mainly through urine alone, but another panda taking a sniff at these calling cards can probably work out the individual identity of the animal, its sex, reproductive status and get a feel for how far away it is.

In 2003, chemists identified almost 1000 different compounds in these panda secretions and excretions. Male markings contained much higher levels of short-chain fatty acids than did female markings, reported San Diego-based chemists Lee Hagey and Edith MacDonald in the Journal of Chemical Ecology. More than that, each individual had a pretty unique chemical signature such that given a sample at random, the researchers could, in the majority of cases, identify the individual it had come from. Though they needed a pretty sophisticated analytical tool to do this – gas chromatography-mass spectrometry – pandas have been living with these smells for many millions of years so one imagines have evolved the ability to make sense of them.

In a lovely bit of lateral thinking, Hagey and MacDonald then set about swabbing down a panda’s body to see if the mix of volatile chemicals varied from place to place. The resulting olfactory map is quite remarkable. I emailed Hagey to ask him a few questions about it and he very kindly gave permission for me to post it here (above). Basically, wherever the panda is black – on its four legs, its back, its ears and around its eyes – there is a complex mix of volatile chemicals.

“A panda’s forearms, legs and back don’t carry many smelly messages,” Hagey informed me, denoted by yellow in his map. Their ears, however, are heavily scented with urine, as are the undersides of their forepaws, which presumably act to ferry the stuff from their genitals to their ears (orange). Intriguingly, the black rings around a panda’s eyes, which get rubbed a lot, have a completely unique smell and are completely free of urine (turquoise). This is achieved by the panda being careful to use the back of a paw rather than the urine-scented underside (also turquoise). The dark blue represents the odour from the anal glad, which has been daubed on a nearby tree.

“The body of the giant panda is shown to be a kaleidoscope of scent patches and zones, each with a unique chemical makeup,” Hagey and MacDonald wrote in Giant Pandas: Biology and Conservation. They went on to propose that the urine scented ears act like miniature beacons, allowing these secretive smells to be caught by and spread on the wind.

I love this, though I’m only left wanting to know more. As far as I can tell nobody has yet had a go at manipulating this kaleidoscope to see how it works.

Image © Lee Hagey.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Selling compromise in conservation

This, I’m guessing, is rather hard. At the Linnean Society of London yesterday, I was one of (as it turned out) seven guest speakers at a day-long symposium about Galapagos. One of the presentations in particular stood out for me – that by Mark Gardener (below) of the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) in Galapagos.

His field of expertise is invasive plants, of which there are now around 700 in Galapagos. In his talk, Gardener laid out some stark figures: between 2001 and 2007, CDF carried out 29 plant eradication projects, covering 23 different invasive species and mostly focused on those still limited to a small area. Only four of these succeeded in their eradication goal and none of them involved areas greater than 1 hectare. His message was basically that eradicating plants is a practical impossibility.

It was not one that went down well with the well-healed London-based audience, or at least that was how I saw it. The dream of transforming these still relatively pristine islands back to a pre-human-like state is one that’s hard to give up. Without this rather straight-forward restoration ideal, it’s much harder to know what conservation means.

Gardener had a few ideas. He talked about “transformers”, those invasive plants that seem able to dominate the landscape and in so doing radically alter the availability of resources, the trophic structure and productivity. Understanding such species would be key.

Instead of removing them though – an impossible task for established transformers like the guava Psidium guajava - Gardener envisages “the maintenance of resilient novel or hybrid ecosystems rather than trying to return systems to their pre-Darwin state.” These novel ecosystems then would be “composed of mixtures of native and exotic elements that would never have occurred naturally” and would “concentrate on ecosystem function instead of iconic species.”

It sounded like a lot of sense to me, but ironically I imagine a compromise like this - which has a fair chance of succeeding – is harder to sell to the public and hence funding agencies than a purist ideal that has no hope in Hades of working.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Galapagos at the Linnean Society

Next week I have the privilege of speaking in the meeting room of the Linnean Society of London in Burlington House, Piccadilly. It is, of course, the same place in which the papers on natural selection by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were read out in May 1858.

The day-long event is entitled The Galapagos Archipelago: A living laboratory and has been organised by Sandy Knapp, a botanist at the Natural History Museum, and Sarah Darwin and it’s a privilege to be included as one of the eight “highly respected speakers”.

I’ll be talking about tortoises and the title for my presentation is “The Galapagos tortoise: an evolutionary journey”. This is going to touch on several of things: there’ll be a dose of Galapagos history (in which early visitors came, saw and ate tortoise); I’ll cover the early tortoise conservation successes from the 1960s onwards; the very exciting genetic research that has really improved what we know about these creatures; and of course the very important flagship role they play. Lonesome George will probably get a mention.

It will be very nice to hear the other talks (see here for the full programme) and in particular to meet several people. I have not met Danish botanist Ole Hamann, but interviewed him for my book on Lonesome George and he very kindly let me use some of his photographs. He happened to turn up on George’s island Pinta just after the tortoise was discovered in 1972 and he took some great photos of him just before he (George) got taken off to Santa Cruz.

Paquita Hoeck is also speaking. She is doing some great genetic work on the Floreana Mockingbird, which has required extracting DNA from the individual bird that Darwin shot on the island 180-odd years ago. Her father Hendrik Hoeck is a former director of the Charles Darwin Foundation and Paquita, now at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, spent her early years in Galapagos.

So whilst I crack on with my panda book, I am also writing my talk for the Linnean Society meeting, giving me the weekend to get it slick.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Fictional facts

Last week, I received a copy of a new panda publication - 100 Facts About Pandas by Claudia O’Doherty, David O’Doherty and Mike Ahern.

It is an extraordinary little book. It has no introduction, no preface, no prologue, no epilogue and draws no conclusion. It is a couple of hundred pages – a double-page spread for each “fact”. These play off just one joke: pandas.

According to its product description on Amazon, 100 Facts “chronicles for the very first time the amazing social, cultural and natural history of the panda, fully illustrated with photographic evidence, drawings and scientific diagrams and shocking case-studies.” That sounds a little like the blurb I might have put on my book. The difference is that 100 Facts About Pandas is completely devoid of facts about pandas. Not one.

Instead, Irish comedian David O’Doherty and his coauthors’ “facts” play around established scientific truths, historical figures or past events that have little or nothing to do with the giant panda. These in themselves are not funny, but the surprise insertion of a panda or two is remarkably effective at triggering a guffaw. I’m not sure another creature could sustain this format so successfully for so long, but the panda manages it.

O’Doherty and his co-authors will no doubt be amused that I struggled with their flamboyant disregard for fact. Take Fact 34, for example: “Owing to a bureaucratic mix up in registration by naturalist Dr Joseph Banks in 1831, the panda bear is officially classified not as a mammal, but as a nut.” The panda then appears in a rather pretty woodcut engraving alongside a shelled walnut.

Surprisingly, I was fine with the panda being a nut, but had a problem with the idea that species might get “registered”, that Banks had a doctorate (‘cos I don’t think he did) and that he could have carried out this taxonomic miscarriage from beyond the grave (he died in 1820).

It’s a cheerful stocking-filler, but it’s not for non-fiction nerds like me.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The afterlife of animals

I have been busy this week reworking one of my chapters into a paper for an academic workshop that’ll take place at the University of Manchester in December.

The meeting – The Afterlife of Animals – has been organised by historian of museums Sam Alberti, who is “seeking to promote a wider understanding of the preservation and provenances of specimens and to suggest new ways to develop collections as both natural and cultural heritage.” It was a somewhat daunting honour for me – a writer rather than a bona fide academic – to contribute a paper on what happened to Chi-Chi the giant panda after her death in 1972.

This, in Sam’s words circulated to the dozen-or-so contributors, is the premise of the project.

Animals travel through sites for display in the modern world, acquiring meanings as they go. It is the contention of these papers that this accrual continues post-mortem; that they are mobile, flexible entities in death as they were in life. Animals and their remains connect museums and the menagerie, the exhibition and the wild. They were and are at once natural and cultural, the material embodiment of what historians of science dub ‘knowledge in transit’.

Sam has divided the workshop into five sessions – primates, hunter/hunted, behemoths, personalities and pachyderms. There will be two papers in each and my contribution on Chi-Chi will appear in the “personality” session along a paper by Manchester historian of natural history Chris Plumb who will reveal everything about “The Queen’s Ass” (a zebra gifted to King George III’s wife Charlotte as a belated wedding present, which took Georgian London by storm). It’s going to be great and is expected to result in an edited book.

What with tidying up this paper, writing a new epilogue for a reprint of Lonesome George and half-term, I didn’t quite make my rather woolly target of two more chapters to my editor by the end of October. I have one of them ready (on Armand David and the discovery of the giant panda), the second is close and am on the way with several more.

Friday, 30 October 2009

I heart Zotero

I made a mistake when researching and writing my first book Lonesome George. I didn’t keep a detailed record of sources as I went along. If you’re writing non-fiction, this is very silly. I think perhaps I was overcome by the excitement of writing and neglected to plan. What it meant was several troubling days of trying to remember where I got all my facts from and then attempting to revisit them to double-check.

Get Zotero This time, I’ve done things differently. I used Endnote for my doctorate and liked it. I would have used it again had I been able to afford the hefty cost of the software. So I looked for a Freeware alternative and found one in the shape of Zotero. I’m not sure what the latest versions of Endnote and other reference managers are capable of these days, but Zotero is seriously impressive.

It works within the Firefox web-browser. So first, I had to switch over from Internet Explorer. Firefox has lots of great features of its own and it’s also one of the names of the lesser panda, which makes me happy. Having the application within a browser is brilliant. “Zotero is a free, easy-to-use Firefox extension to help you collect, manage, and cite your research sources. It lives right where you do your work—in the web browser itself,” the website explains. There is so much guff on the web that it’s terrific to have found an application with which it is easy to record exactly where I got which fact from.

It opens not as a web-page like Connotea but as a mini window (which you can maximise if you want) within the web page you’re browsing. This makes it really simple to pull data from the web – often just a single click of the mouse – and then add notes to the reference without toggling between different pages or applications. You can take snapshots of web pages so can easily keep track of photos. It’s a cinch to add books. You just key in the ISBN and all the details are sucked from the web. Registering with Zotero gives you an online master that’s regularly synchronised. This means you have a backup but crucially also allows you to work from different computers without losing track of the definitive version of your database. Zotero's designers have made a conscious decision to keep things simple, so you're not bamboozled by dozens of tabs with long lists of features you'll never hope to understand. There are about six buttons and they provide all the features I need. I had a query that I plugged into the Zotero forum and it was answered immediately.

I feel in control of my sources – a sentence that might not be out of place in a shampoo ad. But for a subject like pandas, where I need to keep track of books, journal articles, radio interviews, TV broadcasts, artwork, popular news stories, it is perfect.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

When is the giant panda not a panda?

When it’s a bear.

I’ve been writing the second chapter of my book. In this instalment, I will tackle the mystery of where the giant panda sits on the tree of life. Armand David, who “discovered” the panda, thought it a bear. Alphonse Milne-Edwards, who wrote up the formal description a few years later, considered it more like a lesser panda.

For almost 100 years, opinion was evenly divided. Some experts considered it a bear, others a raccoon and a few fence-sitters suggested it should lodge in an entirely separate group somewhere in-between. A stonking great monograph published in the 1960s by Chicago anatomist Dwight D. Davis seemed to settle matters in favour of the bears.

Except that there was no let up in the number of studies addressing the apparent puzzle. The reason, I suspect, lies in the availability of new data – notably molecular data – and the invention of new methods to analyse it. The temptation to use these data and methods to take a peek at a crowd-pleaser like the panda was just too great for successive generations of researchers to resist.

The first molecular-level analysis of the giant panda came in the 1950s, when a couple of biologists from Kansas University requested a sample of giant panda serum (blood minus the red-blood cells) from the Serological Museum at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

You didn’t know there was such a thing did you? Coincidentally, an article on this intriguing institution appears in the September issue of Endeavour, the history-of-science journal that I edit. The Serological Museum’s raison-d’ĂȘtre, according to a report in Nature in 1948, was “for the collection, preservation and study of the proteins of the the belief that such proteins are as characteristic as other constituents and are as worthy of preservation and comparison as skins and skeletons.”

The Kansas researchers used an immunological method to assess the closeness of bears, giant pandas and lesser pandas, and concluded that “[t]he serological affinities of the giant panda are with the bears rather than with the raccoons.”

But the studies still kept on coming. Last Saturday, I interviewed Dr Stephen O’Brien of the National Cancer Institute, who was the lead author of perhaps the most thorough molecular analysis of the panda’s position published in 1985. Normally O’Brien works on the role that genes can play in complex human infections, but he found himself drawn into the panda question in the early 1980s. “I could not resist this one, a century-old debate, unsettled and looking for a new approach,” he wrote in his 2003 book Tears of the Cheetah: and Other Tales from the Genetic Frontier.

The giant panda’s a bear, he and his colleagues concluded. So David, who rooted for bears, was almost certainly right and Milne-Edwards, in siding with the lesser panda, was probably off the mark. What his misdiagnosis did give us, however, was a cracking common name for this species. You’ve got to admit it – the “black-and-white bear” is not half as good as the “giant panda”.

Monday, 26 October 2009

New epilogue for Lonesome George

I had some good news last week. The Charles Darwin Foundation, which supports scientific research in Galapagos, has asked to buy up 2000 copies of my first book Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon.

The book works on lots of levels – or it’s supposed to. At its simplest, it’s a gripping story of a Galapagos giant tortoise called George. NO. It’s not children’s fiction. If you haven’t heard of Lonesome George, shame on you he is the sole-surviving giant tortoise from one of the Galapagos Islands. All his immediate relatives got eaten by whalers and sailors in the 18th and 19th centuries or collected by scientists in the 19th and early 20th. Since 1971, when he was first spotted, he has worked away steadfastly to become the most famous Galapagos resident and a poster-boy for the conservation operation in the archipelago.

George’s personal journey is a terrific way to explore the Galapagos. You need to understand its geology to figure how tortoises reached the islands, ecology to appreciate where they fit in and evolutionary biology to make sense of the diversity of tortoises. Galapagos also gives easy access to a rich history of exploration and history of science (notably Charles Darwin).

Galapagos is like a crucible right now, where tensions are being played out between a will to conserve it, a desire to visit it and a wish to live there. Similar thorny tussles are being played out all around the world in just about every eco-tourist destination you care to name. So Lonesome George is a story about a tortoise, a rather special group of islands and the challenges facing global conservation in the 21st century.

It’s very gratifying to know that the Charles Darwin Foundation wants the book in their shop on the island of Santa Cruz (near where Lonesome George has been in captivity since the early 1970s). There will, of course, be a small royalty that will eventually come my way, but more importantly I see this is a seal of approval for the book.

My publishers Macmillan Science asked me to update the ending. I’m quite happy to do this as lots of things have happened to Lonesome George since the paperback came out in 2007. This shouldn’t take me too long as I’ve already written them up elsewhere: the discovery of Lonesome George-like genes on Isabela for New Scientist; the appearance of eggs in his enclosure in 2008 and the follow-up news of their infertility for Nature News; and the laying of yet more eggs this year in The Times. Meanwhile, an expedition has been launched to Isabela to see if there are more Lonesome George-like tortoises out there.

The thing is that in exchange for putting this together, I would quite like Macmillan to give me something in return: a commitment to publish more than the 2000 copies. You see, the paperback version of my book has been “out of print” – or as I prefer to put it “sold out” – for more than a year. I could personally have shifted several hundred copies had I had any to sell. Amazon could presumably have done more. But Macmillan, for some completely inexplicable reason, refused to reprint or to revert the rights to me (which would have allowed me or a more switched-on publisher to do so). Now the Charles Darwin Foundation order is triggering a reprint, they should take the opportunity to make some more copies.

So I asked them how many more. They didn’t know and were finding out but in the meantime could I get on and rewrite the epilogue. I said not until I had an idea of how many extra. They hazarded 500, but could I get on and write. Not so much as a please. I will, but I’m coming away from all this feeling like I am little more than an unavoidable nuisance. With any luck though I will have some books to take to my ongoing string of tortoise-related gigs...

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The evolution of the political panda

So when did pandas become political animals?

Since my last blog post, in which I discovered the British Cartoon Archive (BCA), I’ve had a chance to consider panda cartoons in more detail. This is what I’m thinking:

Satirising, sending up and poking fun at pandas did not really start in earnest until the 1960s, when the “British” panda Chi-Chi got together with the “Soviet” panda An-An. To flesh this out a bit, I’ve gone through all the panda-related cartoons in the BCA – all 192 of them – and curated a selection on the BCA’s nifty website to illustrate my argument.

During early 1939, the Evening Standard published a series of children’s cartoons that followed the antics of “Pindar the Panda”. As far as I can tell, the first of these appeared on 2 March and introduced a huntsman in “the wild plains of Tibet”. He was “looking for something to shoot”, when he came across a sobbing panda called Mr. Pindar ” The huntsman, who “really had a kind heart and hated to shoot anything” took pity on Pindar the Panda and brought him back to London. And so the adventures begin. It’s simple, sweet and wholly innocent.

The arrival of Lein-Ho in 1946 triggered a couple of rather more edgy panda cartoons but still nothing in the least political. This one, published in the Evening News in May, depicted London Zoo’s newcomer Lein-Ho. Unlike his popular predecessor Ming, Lein-Ho was prone to bouts of aggression and in this cartoon, he is throwing a tantrum because he “Hasn’t had [his] picture in the paper...” It’s fairly standard anthropomorphism but nothing more.

Chi-Chi’s arrival in the late 1950s triggered a few more cartoons and the first I’ve come across with explicitly political overtones. In this draft, the famous cartoonist Ronald Carl Giles has Nikki (a Russian bear that Nikita Khrushchev gave to Princess Anne during his visit to Britain in 1956) writing a letter to his new “Comrade Chi-Chi”. In the final version, which was published in the Daily Express on 25 September 1958, Nikki asks: “Well, how do you "like life under the bourgeois capitalist beasts?”

There was another spate of panda cartoons in 1964, when rumours first began to circulate about the possibility a Chi-Chi/An-An match. But when this finally came off in 1966, there were dozens – no fewer than 31 in the BCA. All of them are humourous and many of them tie in with political events. Like this one, which appeared in the Daily Mirror on 29 September before the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool. The leader of the opposition Ted Heath is depicted as an anxious An-An and the “disgruntled Tory party” as Chi-Chi. The forthcoming conference is billed as their “last chance to mate”.

There are a further 18 panda cartoons in the BCA from 1968. This one is representative. It appeared in the Evening News on 23 January to coincide with Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s diplomatic visit to the Soviet Union. He sits on one sofa, chained to Chi-Chi. Opposite them are their Soviet counterparts Premier Alexei Kosygin and An-An. The caption reads “Agreed, then – enough politics and down to serious matters..."

After the failed affair between Chi-Chi and An-An, there are more cartoons, notably in 1974 when the Chinese gave Ted Heath two replacement pandas for Chi-Chi. This, from the Daily Express is nice. In everything that appears from the 1960s onwards, pandas are figures of fun.

If anyone knows of any pre-1958 panda cartoons of a humourous or political nature or any post-1968 panda cartoons with no gags or political content, I’d like to know. Nicholas Hiley, the extremely helpful head of the BCA, informs me that there may be other panda cartoons that aren’t coming up on a search for “pandas” or that haven’t yet been digitized. And obviously it would be good to broaden this out beyond Britain. Have the Chinese gone in for panda cartoons? I’d love to know.

Monday, 19 October 2009

No sex please, we’re pandas

Why do pandas find themselves the butt of so many jokes?

I think I’ve come up with the answer. On Friday, I spent the entire day at the Zoological Society of London’s library on the edge of Regent’s Park, where I pored over scrapbooks of press cuttings from the 1960s that mention Chi Chi, London Zoo’s most famous panda.

If – like me – you were not alive in the mid-1960s, it’s very hard to imagine just what a massive phenomenon Chi-Chi was at this time. These scrapbooks bring it home. There are three of them, they are A3 in size and their brittle pages are absolutely filled to the brim with these cuttings. There are snippets from an extraordinary range of British publications with marvellous names, like the Northampton Evening Telegraph, Swindon Advertiser, Worcester Evening News, Newcastle Evening Chronicle and the Yorkshire Evening Press.

There are at least three impressive things about these thudding great scrapbooks:
  1. It's amazing that anyone should have gone to these lengths to clip out all this stuff. It would be hard enough to do such a thorough job today, even with the internet and applications like Google Alerts. I’ve absolutely no idea how, in the 1960s, you’d have begun such a task.
  2. The press cuttings are taken almost exclusively from British newspapers, when this incident went global. So the scrapbooks represent merely a small fraction of the coverage this story got.
  3. The cuttings are taken over the course of just two years, from 1966 to 1968. The focus was on Chi-Chi’s relationship with the “Soviet” panda An-An. “No Czar on the evening of nation-uniting nuptials ever gained more publicity,” wrote John Hillaby in New Scientist in 1966 as Chi-Chi flew out to Moscow. What’s clear from the deluge of news stories about this unproductive fling is that the headline writers, columnists and particularly cartoonists had an absolute field day. The opportunity to satirise the affair was so tempting that the two pandas soon became the butt of many, very excellent jokes.
My favourite cartoon appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 10 November 1968 just before An-An returned from London to Moscow Zoo after another unsuccessful liason. A thuggish looking man sits in a cage. He is wearing a panda suit, has removed the head and is speaking into a walkie-talkie. The caption reads: “Hello Moscow, this is An-An. They’re sending me home. I have failed on my mission but I’ve contacted two gorillas who could be useful to the organisation.” This and dozens of other gems, reveal what a farce these two pandas became. This was the first really high-profile instance of what we now know so well – that captive pandas are extremely unenthusiastic breeders.

The level of coverage of Chi-Chi and An-An, I believe, embedded the giant panda deeply in public’s psyche as a faintly ridiculous species that is fair game. This is not to say that comedians like Ricky Gervais would not have made panda gags without this historical episode, because of course they would.

But maybe sending up pandas would not have been strong or so coherent a tradition.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Troubleshooting the title

I need your help. I’ll give a copy of my forthcoming book to anyone who can come up with the right subtitle...

This, in a paragraph, is what it’s about:

The many, many ways that we humans have seen, revered, laughed at, championed, exploited, pitied the giant panda as it made its way from obscurity to celebrity in just 140 years. In parallel, I will argue, China’s rise as a global political and economic force has tracked a remarkably similar course. It’ll be a fascinating blend of history, politics, economics and cutting edge science. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

In my pitch to Profile Books (who will be publishing my book next year), I proposed calling it Political Animal, where the political animal is both the panda and modern China. Clever heh?

But my editor emailed me this morning. He gave me feedback on the first chapter I sent in – it’s up to standard, which is nice to know – and took the opportunity to appraise me of the latest thinking in the office regarding the title. “There is a strong feeling,” he wrote, “that the book should be called The Way of the Panda, like your blog,” I’m delighted someone’s reading it. The suggestion is that “political animal” should then appear somewhere in the subtitle. The rationale for this seems to be that it’s pandas that will sell the book and not some smart-arse play on words that takes an entire blog post to explain. On reflection, I think this makes a lot of sense.

So if The Way of the Panda is the main title, I now need to come up with a subtitle that contains the words “political animal”. Here are a few possibilities:

  1. The Way of the Panda: the incredible story of a political animal
  2. The Way of the Panda: the meteoric rise of a political animal
  3. The Way of the Panda: the fraught journey of a political animal
  4. The Way of the Panda: the trials of a political animal
  5. The Way of the Panda: a political animal’s journey from obscurity to global domination
  6. The Way of the Panda: how a political animal took on the world

I don’t really like any of them, but you get the idea. So I now solicit all feedback and suggestions, serious or not. If someone gives me a subtitle that ends up on the jacket, I will sign and send them one of my gratis copies. Wow, now there’s an incentive.

Members of my family or employees of Profile Books need not be excluded from taking part. In fact, I demand that they let their views be known.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

From collecting box to collectors’ item

Some arty pandas are up for auction at Selfridges in London on Monday.

Just over a month ago, the famous Oxford Street department store opened an exhibition entitled Pandamonium at Selfridges on its ground floor. Pandamonium is such a well-worn play on words that I am determined to keep it out of my book Political Animal (except to point out how frequently editors and producers have been unimaginative enough to resort to it).

Thankfully, the panda-inspired artwork in the exhibition is really rather original. It’s all come about through a collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund-UK, who were scratching their heads over what to do with a whole load of decommissioned collecting boxes. Together with contemporary art curators and consultants Artwise, the conservation charity challenged 16 leading British artists to work some magic. They have turned the collecting boxes into collectors’ items.

The results – by the likes of Sir Peter Blake, Paul Smith, Tracy Emin and Rachel Whiteread – are rather nice. Just flipping through the online catalogue, I particularly like Smith’s “Cheerful Stripy Panda”, but am saddened to see it is already sold. I’d like to know who bought it and how much they stumped up to take it out of the auction? So frustrating, as I would surely have offered more.

This gives me an idea I might weave into my chapter on the origins and history of WWF. When did charities hit on the idea of fundraising auctions like this one? In its very early years, WWF certainly came up with some very innovative ways of loosening banknotes from the wallets of the public that were copied by other charities. The artwork auction is now a common and very successful fundraising tool. It certainly was last month at the Galapagos Conservation Trust’s Galapagos Day.

I’d like to go along to the Selfridges event, but with half-term looming I have to use every available hour to push on with my book. I had a good day on Friday, pretty-much wrapping up the opening chapter (on Armand David and the extraordinarily violence that beset China during the 19th century) and mapping out the second (on the niggling question of whether a panda is a bear).

The arty pandas will be on show Selfridges until 28 October.

Photo by The Style PA. Reproduced under the Creative Commons License.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Jumping the good ship Endeavour

As of 1 January 2010, I will no longer be the editor-in-chief of Endeavour, a quarterly history of science journal. This is of some sadness to me as it is a publication that has given me a lot of joy over the last eight years.

By my reckoning my first issue was June 2002, since when I have seen through 31 issues, each carrying an average of 6.5 articles, each of which comprised of about three illustrations around 3250 words. That’s more than 200 articles and almost as many authors, 600 illustrations and 650,000 words.

At the beginning and end of my stint in charge, I oversaw the publication of these articles with minimal assistance – editing, copyediting the text and sourcing images myself. In the halcyon middle years, however, I had the pleasure of working with the excellent and invincible Arthur Wadsworth. Whilst I’ve always been a fan of Endeavour, Arthur was possibly more enthusiastic about the enterprise than me and potential authors would frequently assume he was the editor. It’s been a struggle without him and now, as Endeavour floats towards its next incarnation as a peer-reviewed academic history of science journal, I’ve decided it’s time to jump ship. It needs an academic editor not a journalist and writer like me.

Poring over back issues of the journal that I've seen to press, there are many highlights, most of which Arthur was involved with. I’ve produced here a shortlist of articles all of which have a lovely structure, are beautifully written and are strikingly illustrated.

I particularly liked the structure of Janet Browne and Sharon Messenger’s Victorian spectacle: Julia Pastrana, the bearded and hairy female. The authors looked at the public reaction to the “freak” Pastrana as she toured exhibition halls before, during and after the “Darwinian moment” of 1859. This allowed them to consider how thinking changed in the light of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. In Relics, replicas and commemorations, Soraya de Chadarevian marked the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA in a completely original way – tracing the story of one of the metal base pairs used in original Watson-Crick model from its conception and manufacture to its neglect and ultimate apotheosis. There is another coming in my last issue - December 2009 - by D. Graham Burnett with a really fresh take on the apparent analogy Darwin set up between artificial and natural selection. Burnett argues, extremely persuasively I think, that it isn’t an analogy at all.

There were several authors who could really write, for whom I had to do virtually no editing at all. For example: Mary Anne Andrei wrote with consummate ease about The accidental conservationist: William T. Hornaday, the Smithsonian bison expeditions and the US National Zoo; John C. Waller created a wonderfully accomplished article on Parents and children: ideas of heredity in the 19th century; James Delbourgo’s Underwater-works: voyages and visions of the submarine was a treat from beginning to end; and all 30 articles delivered by Patricia Fara were pretty much word-perfect.

was rather special for the room it gave to illustrations. In recent years, the budget for sourcing images has been tightening and I wouldn’t be surprised if the stream of illustrations gradually dries up in the coming years. But while it lasted, there were plenty of visually arresting pieces. Robert A. Jones’ article ‘How many female scientists do you know?’ had some super stills from British films from the 1950s and 1960s that had some of the earliest portrayals of female scientists. In Sherlock Holmes: scientific detective, Laura J. Snyder reproduced some lovely cover images and engravings from Arthur Conan Doyle’s books. And Kristian Hvidtfelt Nielsen brought us some marvellous unpublished satirical cartoons as he went In search of the sea monster.

I have a longlist of articles that's too long to list, but looking down it exposes my bias for the history of biology and more specifically the history of natural history. If I’d been a better editor, I would have resisted indulging my own interests. Then Endeavour might have had more history of chemistry, physics, technology and medicine. I expect the new editor – whoever it is – will be able to put this right. I just hope they also manage to maintain the journal's relative readability.

Moving on, sad as it is, now frees me up to concentrate on writing Political Animal and then, I hope, other books. But I am determined to stay in close contact with the history of science community I have got to know and like so well. I have met many hundred super people and enjoyed working with all of them.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Am I on target?

I have just completed the first chapter of my book Political Animal, which will chart the joint fortunes of pandas and China over the last 140 years. I am supposed to have a further 11 with my editor at Profile Books by the end of January. Am I on target?

I can’t say. This is not because my editor will be reading this and I’m having to be all secretive, but because none of my chapters is a straight narrative that I can simply knock-off in a day or two. Each involves at least a dozen different asides that I will weave around the central panda-related story. A chapter then becomes like a jigsaw. I start with the outline of a chapter, which is like having the picture on the jigsaw box. But as I set out I have at most three of the actual pieces and must locate the rest (some of which I don’t even know I need until I get writing) before I can even begin to think about jiggling them into place.

So, for example, the chapter I’ve just written mainly tells the post-mortem story of Chi Chi, the famous panda bear that lived at London Zoo between 1958 and 1972 and was the inspiration for the World Wildlife Fund’s logo. In addition to reconstructing this museum-based story, I have embellished it with several asides. And finding out about the history of London Zoo, the stories of famous zoo animals, reading up on methods of taxidermy, looking at dioramas, tracking down a retired mammalologist, sourcing material from the Foreign Office archives and dipping into a biography of Conservative politician Ted Heath all take time.

I am pleased with what I’ve produced, though it was not without a stab of anxiety that I emailed the chapter off to my editor last week. However many intriguing layers I have moulded onto Chi Chi’s carcass, there’s no getting away from it: this is a chapter about a dead animal and some people might find that odd. I am hoping my editor is not one of them.

So back to the original question. Am I on target for submitting the complete 80,000-word manuscript by the end of January? Doing the math, I have four months to produce another 10 chapters. Or to put it another way, I must write a chapter every 12 days. The problem with such calculations is that it’s going to take a long a lot longer to assemble all the pieces I need for each jigsaw-like one of them.

Charting my progress with this book then is a frustratingly imprecise exercise. Like I think I’ll have to have another couple of chapters in the bag by the end of October and I’m guessing I should have made a start on a further three. There, at least, is something I can work towards, but what will it mean if I miss it? Will I be behind or was it just a target that was poorly conceived?

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

New life to an old history

Armand David “discovered” the giant panda.

The scare quotes are there because of course the Chinese knew about this animal before David rocked up in Sichuan in 1869. But they didn’t know much. As far as most panda authorities are concerned, the Chinese have not developed a desire for skinning pandas, a taste for its flesh or a medicinal lust for panda penis. Few people wrote about the panda (see Hunting pandas) and even fewer thought about drawing it.

So it was French missionary David, collecting specimens on behalf of the Museum d’Histore Naturelle in Paris, who really put the panda on the map. And David’s story is therefore a good place to start my book on the parallel paths that pandas and China took towards global domination.

Of course, David gets a mention in just about every article, book or broadcast on giant pandas. But the things that get said are always the same. This is because there’s just one main source with which to retrace his steps, his wonderful diaries. Between 1866 and 1874, David made three expeditions into the heart of China in search of natural history treasures and he filled pages with details of his colourful adventures. It was on the second of these trips that he “discovered” the panda.

The entries in his diary are well worth quoting from. I have just acquired a second-hand copy of a translation of David’s first and second expedition diaries from Amazon at a pretty good price. It’s so nice to have the books to hand when writing as I find myself needing to go back to them many, many times. But beyond the diaries, I’m also trying to think of ways to inject this somewhat well-worn story with a burst of originality.

Here are my ideas so far:

  • I thought I’d begin with a little narrative non-fiction. One kind reviewer of my first book Lonesome George praised my use of this literary style, which was the first I’d heard of it. I guess it’s something I just do naturally – take a few established facts and then write them like a novel (though if you asked how that’s done I couldn’t tell you). So I’ll have dear ol’ Armand scratching his armpit, rearranging his ethnic garb and politely swallowing some dishwater-flavoured tea in the home of a local landowner, a hut halfway up a mountain where he first saw the skin of the “famous black-and-white bear” in March 1869. This will be fun and should bring a bit more colour – albeit imagined colour – to the “discovery” of the panda.
  • I am planning a trip to France to see the actual specimen – the type specimen on which the scientific description of the species is based – that David collected and posted back to his man in Paris Alphonse Milne-Edwards. That’ll give me a chance to flip from the past to the present and then back again, adding to the drama and importance of the discovery. I am just about to begin my gentle approach on the curators at the museum, sounding out the possibility of visiting this natural history treasure.

  • I discover that in August this year, some 20 hikers set out on a 10-day, 350-km climb from Chengdu to the Ya'an Bifengxia Breeding Base, retracing the route that David took to "discover" his panda exactly 140 years ago. I wish I’d known about this expedition; I’d have loved to have been a part of it. Though I’ve missed it, interviewing someone who didn’t would, I think, be a lovely new angle to the David story. What was the journey like, what sorts of wildlife did they see, how much do they think things have changed? From a Xinhua news report on the expedition, I have the names of three hikers: Liu Wanying from Beijing, Zhu Tong from Hubei and Li Guoqing from Y’an. Using a cunning combination of the internet, Facebook and Twitter, I think I may have identified one of them. Don’t laugh. China’s population is only 1.3 billion. I fired off an email last night.
I have a few other ideas of things to weave into this chapter, but if you have a snip of underreported David-related gossip I’d love to hear it.

Friday, 25 September 2009

US creationists to witness Creation

For a moment there, it looked like the all-mighty Christian fundamentalist lobby in the United States would prevent the distribution of Creation, a new film about the life and work of Charles Darwin. Thankfully, I learn today from an article in The Hollywood Reporter, one bold independent distributor Newmarket Films is up for a challenge.

I had a sneak preview of Creation before it opened in UK cinemas today. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a special screening at the Science Museum hosted by Nature (a journal I am occasionally lucky enough to write for). It was an event thought up by Adam Rutherford (that most debonair and witty presenter of BBC4’s recent three-part series The Cell). He ushered on John Amiel as “the director of Creation” to tell us about his movie.

Amiel sensibly took the opportunity to flag up several historical inaccuracies in the film that he knew could upset the packed house of Darwin fans (including the ever-present Sir David Attenborough). “There will be nay-sayers saying nay and nit-pickers picking nits. I’d love to say ‘Guys, it’s only a movie; get a life’,” he teased. “What we were struggling to bring to you was in a sense an imaginative truth instead of a factual and literal truth.”

I tried hard to “get a life” but I’ll confess that I struggled. I found myself disappointed that the location for most of the movie’s “action” was not the real Down House in Kent. The substitute, as pretty as it was, just didn’t seem right. I missed the presence of geologist Charles Lyell. I noticed things Darwin would not have said and did not write. And I know of no evidence that Darwin had such frequent and terrifying hallucinations that he came close to insanity. Because he does in the film.

Creation is an adaptation of Annie’s Box, a book by Darwin scholar (and descendent) Randal Keynes. John Murray (Darwin’s publisher) has just brought out a jazzed-up new edition to coincide with the movie. This places the death of Darwin’s eldest daughter Annie as a key moment in the naturalist’s loss of religious faith. Amiel’s “imaginative truth” also pushes the idea that Darwin worried his marriage to his cousin Emma Wedgewood might have had something to do with Annie’s death.

Darwin historians are starting to query this notion. I was in Leicester over the summer for the British Society for the History of Science’s annual meeting and there Kathryn C. Tabb of the University of Pittsburgh poured not inconsiderable amounts of cold water on it. I’m quoting from the abstract of her paper here:

“Darwin, aided by his cousin Francis Galton and his son George, applied the new statistical methods of the day to the quantification of consanguinity’s associated risks. I argue that Darwin’s views on cousin marriage were more sophisticated than those frequently ascribed to him in the literature. Whist incest evidently fascinated Darwin, his empirical work failed to demonstrate that a single generation of cousin-crossing was detrimental to the resulting offspring.”

But if, as Amiel recommends, I “get a life” for a moment, there was lots I did like about the film. Whoever was responsible for casting deserves a pat on the back. Real-life couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelley make a super Charles and Emma and Martha West is a sparkling Annie. I’d also like to hear a Creationist reflecting on a mesmerizing time-lapse sequence of death and decay. That's one helluva sick God. There are also lots of pigeons and I wrote an essay and presented a podcast for Nature earlier this year about the importance of these feathered friends to Darwin.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Newmarket Films will be aiming for a December release. “While Darwin’s name has come to symbolize one side of a debate between the scientific and the theological, Creation depicts the man as the debate in total, with both sides contending, sometimes violently, within him,” says Chris Ball on Newmarket Film’s website. “In that sense, we believe that the film will appeal to people of faith and people of science.”

It’ll be interesting to see if he’s right.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Packham or pandas?

“Aren’t pandas ridiculous? If they only eat bamboo and don’t like sex, don’t they deserve to go extinct?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this kind of argument over the past few years and now we have to put up with a BBC natural history presenter spouting something similar.

"Here's a species that, of its own accord, has gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac,” BBC presenter Chris Packham told the Radio Times in a blog posted earlier this week. “It's not a strong species,” he said.

This pisses me off, not because I’ve been living and breathing pandas for the last few months as I research and write a book on them, but because it’s the worst kind of evolutionary imperialism. More than that, it’s quite simply poorly reasoned twaddle.

I’ve thought about this quite a bit. If you live in a mountainous forest where 95% of the vegetation is bamboo, it makes abundant sense to find a way to eat the stuff. In fact, I would argue, it is a phenomenal behavioural and physiological achievement that these carnivores – for that is what they are – have turned away from a meat-eating lifestyle and found a way to extract what they need from this single, sinewy food source.

When it comes to reproduction, the same goes. Pandas are really rather good at it, so long as humans leave them to it. So good in fact that a female, who is fertile for just a couple of days a year, rarely fails to become pregnant in the wild. What they are not so good at is sex in zoos, but then it’s rather unfair to expect them to perform so far out of their geographical comfort zone.

What Packham doesn’t appear to realise is that pandas are on the verge of extinction not because they are fussy eaters or shit at sex but because Homo sapiens has destroyed all but a few tiny pockets of their bamboo landscape. The good news – and there is a bit – is that the protection afforded the remaining 1600 pandas is pretty good and their imminent extinction is, I believe, by no means inevitable.

Packham’s main point in the blog is not quite so irritating. "We pour millions of pounds into panda conservation," he said. "I reckon we should pull the plug. Let them go, with a degree of dignity.” It’s worth thinking about but not for long as the World Wildlife Fund’s chief scientist Mark Wright explains in today’s Guardian.

If Packham imagines that the disappearance of pandas will free up more money for conservation, he’s probably wrong. In suggesting as much, he shows a profound ignorance of human nature. If we don’t have pandas to clutch onto, we’ll find something else that’s cute and cuddly. It’s just the way that human brains are wired. WWF knows this only too well and use the panda (and other species icons) to trigger an emotional response, then use the money for conservation of habitats, ecosystems and the biggest problem of our age – global warming.

Not only do most people disagree with Packham’s views (at the latest count a Guardian poll had almost 80% in favour of keeping pandas) but the flagship role of pandas is of immense value.

So if it came to Packham or pandas, I know which one I’d let go. The only thing I’m still undecided on is whether it would be with or without dignity.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

From Regent’s Park to South Kensington

Where do famous London Zoo animals go when they die?

For Chi Chi, London’s famous giant panda, the answer was the Natural History Museum. This set me thinking about other animals that have made the same postmortem journey across town from Regent’s Park to South Kensington. Here are a few I can think of, though I’d really appreciate any other suggestions.

For a start, there’s Brutus a circus lion who had killed his keeper and whose man-eating reputation made him a serious draw with the British public during the 1890s. According to a superstition, the death of a lion portends the death of a monarch and spookily Brutus died just days before Queen Victoria in January 1901. His bust is to be found – though not seen – in the zoological storehouse of the Natural History Museum.

Then there’s Winnipeg the black bear (right), a mascot of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade. In 1915, when they went off to Europe to fight in the First World War, a lieutenant in the regiment dropped her off at London Zoo for safe keeping. It’s there that Winnipeg won over a young boy called Christopher Robin Milne who decided he’d call his own teddy Winnie. By the time Winnipeg died in 1934 and made her way to the Natural History Museum, Christopher Robin was 14 years old and his father Alan Alexander (A.A.) Milne had given the world the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

Finally, take Brumas, a baby polar bear born in Regent’s Park in 1949, a first for any British zoo. She was so popular with the public that 1950 saw record attendance with more than three million visitors, a figure that has not been surpassed since. Fortunately for the Zoo, after Brumas died in 1958 and went to South Kensington for preservation, there was only a lull of a few months before Chi Chi reached London take over her crowd-pleasing duties at the zoo.

All this raises the interesting question of about how this connection between the zoo and the Natural History Museum came about. It might sound like the relationship is so self-evident that no explanation is needed, except that it wasn’t always the case. When it was founded in 1826, the Zoological Society of London set about landscaping Regent’s Park to house a collection of live animals but also established a museum in Bruton Street in Mayfair. So any of the exotic creatures that passed away at the zoo went straight to the Society’s museum rather than to the Natural History Museum (or the British Museum (Natural History) as it was then known).

In fact, at this period of the 19th century, most naturalists considered the Zoological Society’s museum superior to the British Museum. As Charles Darwin wrote to a colleague upon his return from the Beagle voyage in 1836, “The Zoological Museum is nearly full & upward of a thousand specimens remain unmounted. I daresay the British Museum, would receive them, but I cannot feel, from all I hear, any great respect even for the present state of that establishment.”

That changed in 1855 when the Zoological Society decided to close its museum and disperse its massive wealth of animal material. As far as I can tell from dipping into a couple of histories of the Society, their reasoning was twofold. First they had so much material that their accommodation – by now on the West side of Leicester Square – was wholly inadequate. More importantly, perhaps, the Keeper of Zoology John Edward Gray had done wonders at the British Museum, which had by this time come to be considered Europe’s preeminent zoological repository. So the Zoological Society sold its most important specimens to the British Museum for £500. By my reckoning, this is the rather circuitous route that the Natural History Museum came to have first dibs of any ex-Zoo animals. But if anyone knows any different, please get in touch.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Gordon the mammalologist

I had a coup today. Sort of. There are several people I’d like to talk to who were at the Natural History Museum when Chi Chi the giant panda arrived from London Zoo in the summer of 1972. I have the archival material from the museum that is helping me piece together how the museum came to its decision to taxidermise this famous panda and the media’s interest in the process. But there is nothing to beat talking to the people who were really there.

Unfortunately then director Frank Claringbull died in 1990. One tier beneath him was the Keeper of Zoology Gordon Sheals, though he also took his version of events with him when he passed away in 1989. One rung further down the hierarchy was Gordon Corbet, the Curator of Mammals.

In Dry Store Room No. 1 (a very reader-friendly institutional history of the Natural History Museum), former museum paleontologist Richard Fortey describes Corbet as “a diminutive Scotsman with a hesitant manner and a nervous way of speaking” who reminded him of a vole “the way these animals pause momentarily, whiskers twitching.”

I pulled up British Telecom's online telephone directory on the computer and plugged in Corbet. You need to specify a town before it’ll search. His most recent scientific publications give an indication of where he retired to, so I added a likely town. Hey presto, there was a Corbet with the relevant initials so I phoned the number.

A quiet and possibly elderly voice answered the phone, which sounded promising.

“Gordon?” I asked. It was most impolite of me but seemed the best way to establish whether I’d found my man.
“Yes,” he said.
“Gordon the mammalologist,” I suggested.
“Yes?” came the reply.

I explained my predicament and Dr Corbet was most willing to help, though as I had not really expected to succeed so quickly I had to ring off, think through everything I wanted to ask him and call back.

We talked for half an hour about the way the museum was organised back then, his responsibilities (over and above his own research interests) and of course what he remembered about Chi Chi.

I said at the outset of this post that I had a sort of coup. The reason being, Dr Corbet couldn’t provide me with the detailed first-hand recollection I’d been hoping for. What did I expect? After all, he’d just received a call from a complete stranger asking about a relatively minor episode that took place over 35 years ago.

Nevertheless, I’m pleased I found him. If I hadn’t I’d have been left with a niggling feeling that I should have done more to track him down. And he did have – apparently just beside the telephone – a dossier on a controversy about the Loch Ness Monster that erupted in 1975. It sounded most interesting and maybe I’ll look into it one day. If I do, I’ll be calling on Dr Corbet again.

Stuffing pandas, stuffing gorillas

I spent yesterday at the wonderful library of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, where I’d ordered up several interesting-looking folders from the archives. I’ve seen one of them before – a ream of correspondence relating to the taxidermy of Chi Chi, the famous panda that lived at London Zoo from 1958 until 1972. There are several fun things in there, including clear evidence of the public’s keenness to watch over the shoulder of the Museum’s taxidermist as he prepared her body for exhibition. The Museum had not anticipated this and decided to give the press a chance to see Chi Chi in mid-stuffing.

This interest in taxidermy differs quite markedly from events just a few years later when, in 1978, Guy the Gorilla died after more than 30 years at London Zoo. Word got out that he was to receive the same treatment as Chi Chi and the public was outraged. The archivists at the Natural History Museum have a wonderful folder on Guy that charts the whole troubled affair in a flurry of internal memos.

Best of all, there are letters from the public expressing their disgust at the proposed use of his mortal remains. Easily the best comes from a former Honorary Secretary of the Zoological Society of London. He was “utterly revolted” at the idea of stuffing his old friend and asked his incumbent: “Are all future Hon. Secs, Presidents etc. of the Society to be stuffed and exhibited in a museum?" The Zoo, irritated that they had to deal with such explosive stuff, wrote to express their disappointment at the Natural History Museum’s poor handling of such sensitive information (which is how it comes to be in the Guy dossier).

The Museum’s handling of Chi Chi and Guy are two wonderful stories that I’m planning to tell briefly in my chapter on Chi Chi’s post-mortem that will appear in Political Animal. I’m also working it up in more detail for an exciting meeting that will take place at Manchester University in December. I imagine I’ll reveal more about this nearer the time, but briefly it’s a project to explore the “Afterlife of Animals”, the fascinating tales that zoological specimens have to tell as curators made decisions about their preservation and presentation to the public. It says a lot about attitudes towards animals and how much these have changed.

At the moment, I’m uncertain what to make of the differences between public reaction to the stuffing of Chi Chi and Guy. I’d like to argue that as the 1970s unfolded something changed in the public’s attitudes towards animals and that come 1978 stuffing a famous animal was no longer acceptable practice as it had been in Chi Chi’s day. But of course, Chi Chi was a panda and Guy a gorilla and as anthropomorphised as Chi Chi (and pandas in general) undoubtedly are, Guy (and gorillas) are that much more like us Homo sapiens so stuffing is a more touchy subject. I need to think about what the reaction would have been like had roles been reversed and Guy died in 1972 and Chi Chi in 1978.