Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Scott dies

Lady Phillipa Scott passed away last week at the age of 91. She was a photographer and the wife of Sir Peter Scott, the environmentalist and artist who was a key figure in the founding of the World Wildlife Fund in 1961 and instrumental in getting WWF into China in 1980.

According to a BBC news story, she suffered a fall at the Scott home at Slimbridge on the Bristol Channel (and the home of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) and died last Tuesday night. The Guardian has a more thorough obituary.

I interviewed Lady Scott back in 2008 in an effort to find out about the origins of the World Wildlife Fund logo for a BBC Radio 4 documentary I was writing. OK, we know the logo’s a panda and that her late husband Sir Peter drew it but I wanted to get to the bottom of the discussions that led to the choice of this particular animal. She recalled Gerald Watterson, then secretary general of the IUCN, going to Slimbridge to draw pandas. She also confirmed that Sir Peter was very upset when the World Wildlife Fund rejigged the original logo in 1986. “They took the highlight out if its eye and they altered it slightly, which he was not pleased with,” she told me.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Brown pandas in Nature

I’ve just written a news story about the mysterious brown-and-white panda for Nature’s online news service (see here). From a journalistic perspective, it’s a very nice story indeed. A mystery, a dose of good science, lots of top scientists, potential for debate, a rare photograph of the most recent sighting.

This variety only seems to turn up in the Qinling Mountains, mainly in one reserve and then only rarely. In total, there are seven reliable sightings of this variety since the first was spotted 25 years ago in 1985. To date, there has been relatively little serious discussion about this rare form and hopefully this news story will inspire some.

Several possible explanations exist: Early on, the brown form was written off as a freak mutation that had somehow suddenly appeared in isolated individuals. But it looks to be more complicated, with some gene variants for brownness floating around in the population, possibly interacting with some environmental factor.

Inbreeding would make the appearance of the brown pandas more common but the genetic data suggests this is not occurring. The recent publication of the giant panda genome in Nature (and see my post about it here) should help unpick the genetic basis of the brown morph, which in turn should shed light on whether inbreeding could be part of the explanation.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

An end to panda bashing, for now

Chris Packham, the British wildlife presenter who said some silly things about pandas last September (see here), says he’s going to “lay-off panda bashing for a while”.

This comes towards the end of a somewhat laddish interview that appeared yesterday, but then it was in The Sun where a dose of sexism is par for the journalistic course.

This is an extract:

Look when I picked on the panda I never said I wanted it to become extinct. But extinction is a natural process. Without it we can't have new species.

And because of the large number of humans on the planet it may well be that there's just not enough room any more for pandas and other large animals like tigers.

If Packham really believes that unsustainable logging is a natural process, then fine. But this strikes me as rather silly. Yes humans are animals – so will ultimately be subject to the forces of natural selection like everything else – but we are rather unusual in our ability to influence the planet, both for good and for bad. Does he really think that humans are not smart enough to find a way to make space for both our own species and others? Come on, Packham. You’re a clever guy. Or are you?

The most recent genetic analysis of current panda populations reveals surprisingly high levels of genetic variation and evidence of population decline in parallel with the expansion of human populations across what we now call China. “These data suggest that the panda is not a species at an evolutionary ‘‘dead end,’’ but in common with other large carnivores, has suffered demographically at the hands of human pressure,” wrote Wei Fuwen of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and his colleagues in 2007.

Concluding his latest piece on pandas, Packham says:

A lot of experts didn't agree on what I said, but appreciated the fact I put my head above the parapet to open a debate we need to have.

Can anyone enlighten me about what debate he is supposed to have stimulated? Mr Packham?

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The cunning of conservation genetics

Over in Galapagos, scientists have identified nine giant tortoises in captivity that appear to be descended from the long-extinct Floreana tortoise, a variety assumed to have disappeared more than 150 years ago.

Charles Darwin visited Floreana in 1835 though the island’s tortoises were already so thin on the ground that he didn’t run into any. If not already extinct, this species is thought to have gone that way just a few years after. But a few dozen specimens made it into museums and in 2008 geneticists at Yale University (and elsewhere) recovered ancient DNA from the remains of some 25 animals now housed at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard in Boston and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. This allowed them, in a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, to describe the genetic makeup of this species, making it possible to begin the hunt for Floreana-like genes amongst living animals.

In that study, they identified several tortoises of Floreana ancestry on the Galapagos island of Isabela (though they only have the blood samples from these individuals and not the animals themselves). Now, in a paper out today in PLoS One, the same core team has combed through the DNA records of 156 captive tortoises of undocumented ancestry held at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the central island of Santa Cruz. Amongst them, they found nine individuals – six females and three males – with a good smattering of Floreana genes.

It’s almost a ready-made founder population. There are some snags, however. Not only would it be an expensive initiative, but it would be at least a decade before such a small captive operation began to churn out baby tortoises. By which time there would already be tortoises (of a necessarily different species) on Floreana, introduced to the island in the next few years as a part of the all-embracing Project Floreana.

Whatever happens, it’s another great example of how genetics is able to suggest serious conservation actions to which we would otherwise be completely ignorant.

My mind is on Galapagos matters just now because I am putting together the Spring/Summer issue of Galapagos News, the biannual charitable magazine for the Friends of Galapagos Organisations like the UK's Galapagos Conservation Trust and the US-based Galapagos Conservancy.

Friday, 8 January 2010

The first panda cam

Here’s a question: what was the first panda cam?

This phenomenon has become a remarkably popular, must-have feature of zoos with pandas. It is, after all, a negligible expense compared with the amount that Western zoos are prepared to pay for the privilege of showing off this striking creature not to mention all that bamboo.

I’m thinking about this because Pan Wenshi and colleagues working in the Qinling Mountains in 1994 rigged up an infra-red Minitron MTV-1881 video camera in the den of their “star female” Jiao Jiao and recorded the life of her third cub – a male called Sun – over the course of more than six months. If you want to read their detailed paper on what they found, you'll find it here on the San Diego Zoo's website.

When I did my PhD in the late 1990s, it was still relatively rare for behavioural ecologists to incorporate such gadgetry into their work. I’m wondering if this use of cameras in Qinling was ahead of its time and also whether it stimulated the use of cameras at the centres for captive pandas in China and beyond.

I’d welcome hearing of early instances of panda or other zoo cams.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

China plans

I am starting to plan my trip to China in earnest. I had pencilled it in for the end of February before someone kindly pointed out to me that this is the Chinese New Year and not the most propitious time for a trip. It would be like planning a trip to the UK at Christmas and expecting to find people at their desks. I will now be going in early March, probably for around ten days.

I have now made my first approach to some very important panda researchers in China. I am determined to do everything within my means to have several strong Chinese voices in The Way of the Panda, reflecting the flood of excellent panda-related research that has been pouring out of China over the last decade and more. Most of the popular panda books for a non-Chinese audience have failed to capture the contribution of the Chinese (excepting books like George Schaller’s The Last Panda and Lü Zhi’s Giant Pandas in the Wild). There is so much new and fascinating research that needs to be reported on.

I am looking forward to visiting the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. This will prove invaluable for capturing the work on captive pandas, which will feature in one of the last chapters of my book. While I am there, I also hope to head into the mountains to see the abandoned Catholic Mission where Armand David made his first panda encounter.

In Beijing, I also hope to meet several people and locate some of the places David visited. It would be nice to do things like visit the Nanhaizi Jiaoye Park on the outskirts of the city – this is where they have the reintroduced Pere David’s deer – but I don’t think I’ll have time to drift too far from pandas. When I am in the Beijing region, I also hope to take a 40-minute bullet train to Tianjin, where I may give a talk at a Cafe Scientifique in the city’s Natural History Museum.

I had kind of come to terms with the growing feeling that my travelling days were over for a while; there is a limit to how far afield and how adventurous one can be with two small children. I am thrilled that this is not quite the case and that I am to make it to China after all, a country I have longed to visit but have somehow missed out on.