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.