Monday, March 13, 2017

The mismeasure of birds


This is a remarkable painting by Henry Stacy Marks (1829-1888). He titled it "Science is Measurement" based on suggestions from his artist and scientist friends. Like a good painting, it is open to interpretation.


According to Stacy Marks, he was inspired to consider the scene when he went to measure some skeletons to draw some accurate illustrations. He thought what he was doing would be interesting to depict and he made this scene for his diploma from the Royal Academy in 1879. The title actually came later - and is probably influenced by the discussions of the day. In 1871, Lord Kelvin in his address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science noted:
Accurate and minute measurement seems to the non-scientific imagination a less lofty and dignified work than looking for something new. But nearly all the grandest discoveries of science have been the rewards of accurate measurement and patient long-continued labour in the minute sifting of numerical results.
 By 1883, Lord Kelvin had repeated the idea enough to make it sound more pompous:
I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.
It is unclear where Stacy Marks and his friends came across the version that seems to differentiate science from art and it appears that Marks and the other artists saw it as being somewhat absurd. His commentary in the elevation of the dead bird (a greater adjutant from Calcutta, incidentally), the "scientist" looking up at the dead bird (while pictures of the living animal lie on the floor), the contrasts of the dark and well dressed man with the light and unfleshed bird all make for an interesting setup.

Now there is something to be said about the measurement of birds - it might looks easy and objective but there are enough pitfalls. Measurement of anything looks easy but getting multiple people to measure in the same way is fraught. There are errors in how things are measured but there are also absolutely horrific things one can do after making measurements. Here is an example of a set of individual birds and their measurements from W.E. Brooks published in Stray Feathers 1875 - the author, a railways engineer, places the measurements of each individual bird in a single row.


What this table does tell us is that the observer recognizes that birds have their parts having proportionate parts. A slightly larger winged bird probably has a slightly longer beak. The proportion may however not be linear during the growth phase of a bird as some parts tend to grow faster than others. Two hundred and twenty five years later, an ordinary reader like me can take this data and put it through a simple Principal Components Analysis and see that the data has internal relationships which allow me to reduce it to a single dimension consisting of a linear combination of the variables that explains 99.8% of the variation among the specimens. The principal component consist of the following variable loadings.

PC1 PC2 PC3 PC4 PC5 PC6
Length -4.93 0.11 -0.01 -0.00 -0.00 -0.00
Wing -0.54 -0.11 0.11 -0.00 0.00 0.00
Tail -0.94 -0.18 -0.08 0.00 -0.00 0.00
Bill 1.89 0.04 -0.02 -0.02 0.00 -0.00
Tarsus 1.34 0.03 0.00 0.01 0.00 -0.00
Mid toe and claw 1.47 0.06 -0.00 0.01 0.01 0.00
Hind toe and claw 1.70 0.05 -0.01 -0.00 -0.01 0.00

This further opens up the possibility of comparing two populations for comparison in meaningful ways. You can even predict missing measurements based on multivariate regression.

The remarkable thing is that this simple approach to documenting bird measurements has been lost subsequently in India. It is unclear how the idea of reducing all data to ranges (maxima and minima) was come upon but a likely reason may have been to reduce space usage. The use of ranges seems to have been introduced by Stuart Baker but surprisingly, with no addition of even simple ideas as means and medians, was continued by Dillon Ripley and Salim Ali in their Handbook - and there was no improvement made to this by later cataloguers like Humayun Abdulali and Saraswathy Unnithan which vastly reduces the value of the work that they published. Reduction of data could have been accomplished through many means, graphical and numerical. This failure to improve upon methodology is especially difficult to understand given that Salim Ali counted J.B.S. Haldane and P.C. Mahalanobis as his friends (Mahalanobis of course pioneered morphometrics in physical anthropology and introduced what is now known as the Mahalanobis distance). Interestingly, I asked a few ringers of the BNHS about the protocols they used for morphometrics and was told that they only thought it worthy to measure waders and that all other birds just showed slight variations that were unworthy of recording!

Typical entry from the Handbook (1978, volume 1. p 10 for Daption capensis)

Meanwhile, ringers in other parts of the world have produced such excellent works as this one from Deutsche Ornithologen-Gesellschaft, this one from South Africa or this one. Even this rather old work from 1931 is worth examining.

I wonder if anyone has ever thought of a global morphometric database for any organism group.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Naturalists in court and courtship

The Bombay Natural History Society offers an interesting case in the history of amateur science in India and there are many little stories hidden away that have not quite been written about, possibly due to the lack of publicly accessible archival material. Interestingly two of the founders of the BNHS were Indians and hardly anything has been written about them even in the pages of the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society where lesser known British members have obituaries. I suspect that the lack of their obituaries can be traced to the political and social turmoil of the period. Even a major historical two-part piece by Salim Ali in 1978 makes no mention of the Indians involved in the founding of the BNHS. Both of the founders were connected with medicine and medical botany and connected to some of the other naturalists not so just because of their interest in plants but perhaps through their participation in social reform movements (markedly liberal). The only colleague who could have written their obituaries was the BNHS member Kanhoba Ranchoddas Kirtikar who probably did not because of his conservative-views and a fall-out with the liberals. This is merely my suspicion and it arises from reading between the lines when I recently started to examine, create and upgrade the relevant entries on them on the English language Wikipedia. There are also some rather interesting connections.

Sakharam Arjun
Dr Sakharam Arjun (Raut) (1839-16 April 1885) - This medical doctor with an interest in botanical remedies was for sometime a teacher of botany at the Grant Medical College - but his name perhaps became more well known after a historic court case dealing with child marriage and women's rights, that of Dadaji vs. Rukhmabai. Rukhmabai had been married off at the age of 11 and stayed with her mother and step-father Sakharam Arjun. When she reached puberty, she was asked by Dadaji to join him. Rukhmabai refused and Sakharam Arjun supported her. It led to a series of court cases, the first of which was in Rukhmabai's favour. This rankled the Hindu conservatives who believed that this was a display of the moral superiority of the English. The judge had in reality found fault with English law and had commented on the patriarchal and unfair system of marriage that had already been questioned back in England. A subsequent appeal was ruled in favour of Dadaji and Rukhmabai was ordered to go to his home or face six months in prison. Rukhmabai was in the meantime writing a series of articles in the Times of India under the pen-name of A Hindoo Lady (wish there was a nice online Indian newspapers archive) and she declared that she would rather take the maximal prison penalty. This led to further worries - with Queen Victoria and the Viceroy jumping into the fray. Max Müller commented on the case, while Behramji Malabari and Allan Octavian Hume (now retired from ornithology; there may be another connection as Sakharam Arjun seems to have been a member of the Theosophical Society, founded by Hume and others before he quit it) debated various aspects. Somewhat surprisingly Hume tended to being less radical about reforms than Malabari.

Dr Edith Pechey
Dr Rukhmabai
Dr Sakharam Arjun did not live to see the judgement, and he probably died early thanks to the stress it created. His step-daughter Rukhmabai became one of the earliest Indian women doctors and was supported in her cause by Dr Edith Pechey, another pioneering English woman doctor, who went on to marry H.M. Phipson. Phipson of course was a more famous founder of the BNHS. Rukhmabai's counsel included the lawyer J.D.Inverarity who was a big-game hunter and BNHS member. To add to the mess of BNHS members in court, there was (later Lt.-Col.) Kanhoba Ranchoddas Kirtikar (1850-9 May 1917), a student of Sakharam Arjun and like him interested in medicinal plants. Kirtikar however became a hostile witness in the Rukhmabai case, and supported Dadaji. Rukhmabai, in her writings as a Hindoo Lady, indicated her interest in studying medicine. Dr Pechey and others set up a fund for supporting her medical education in London. The whole case caused a tremendous upheaval in India with a division across multiple axes -  nationalists, reformists, conservatives, liberals, feminists, Indians, Europeans - everyone seems to have got into the debate. The conservative Indians believed that Rukhmabai's defiance of Hindu customs was the obvious result of a western influence.

J.D.Inverarity, Barrister
and Vice President of BNHS (1897-1923)
Counsel for Rukhmabai.
It is somewhat odd that the BNHS journal carries no obituary whatsoever to this Indian founding member. I suspect that the only one who may have been asked to write an obituary would have been Kirtikar and he may have refused to write given his stance in court. Another of Sakharam Arjun's students was a Gujarati botanist named Jayakrishna Indraji who perhaps wrote India's first non-English botanical treatise (at least the first that seems to have been based on modern scientific tradition). Indraji seems to be rather sadly largely forgotten except in some pockets of Kutch, in Bhuj. I recently discovered that the organization GUIDE in Bhuj have tried to bring back Indraji into modern attention.

Atmaram Pandurang
The other Indian founder of the BNHS was Dr Atmaram Pandurang Tarkhadkar (1823-1898)- This medical doctor was a founder of the Prarthana Samaj in 1867 in Bombay. He and his theistic reform movement were deeply involved in the Age of Consent debates raised by the Rukhmabai case. His organization seems to have taken Max Muller's suggestion that the ills of society could not be cured by laws but by education and social reform. If Sakharam Arjun is not known enough, even lesser is known of Atmaram Pandurang (at least online!) but one can find another natural history connection here - his youngest daughter - Annapurna "Ana" Turkhud tutored Rabindranath Tagore in English and the latter was smitten. Tagore wrote several poems to her where she is referred to as "Nalini". Ana however married Harold Littledale (3 October 1853-11 May 1930), professor of history and English literature, later principal of the Baroda College (Moreshwar Atmaram Turkhud, Ana's older brother, was a vice-principal at Rajkumar College Baroda - another early natural history hub), and if you remember an earlier post where his name occurs - Littledale was the only person from the educational circle to contribute to Allan Octavian Hume's notes on birds! Littledale also documented bird trapping techniques in Gujarat. Sadly, Ana did not live very long and died in her thirties in Edinburgh somewhere around 1891.

It would appear that many others in the legal profession were associated with natural history - we have already seen the case of Courtenay Ilbert, who founded the Simla Natural History Society in 1885. Ilbert lived at Chapslee House in Simla - now still a carefully maintained heritage home (that I had the fortune of visiting recently) owned by the kin of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Ilbert was involved with the eponymous Ilbert Bill which allowed Indian judges to pass resolutions on cases involving Europeans - a step forward in equality that also led to rancour. Other law professionals in the BNHS - included Sir Norman A. Macleod and  S. M. Robinson. We know that at least a few marriages were mediated by associations with the BNHS and these include - Norman Boyd Kinnear married a relative of Walter Samuel Millard (the man who kindly showed a child named Salim Ali around the BNHS); R.C. Morris married Heather, daughter of Angus Kinloch (another BNHS member who lived near Longwood Shola, Kotagiri) - and even before the BNHS, there were other naturalists connected by marriage - Brian Hodgson's brother William was married to Mary Rosa the sister of S.R. Tickell (of Tickell's flowerpecker fame); Sir Walter Elliot (of Anathana fame) was married to Maria Dorothea Hunter Blair while her sister Jane Anne Eliza Hunter Blair was married to Philip Sclater, a leading figure in zoology. The project that led to the Fauna of British India was promoted by Sclater and Jerdon (a good friend of Elliot) - these little family ties may have provided additional impetus.


Someone in London asked me in 2014 if I had heard of an India-born naturalist named E.K. Robinson. At that time I did not know of him but it turned out that Edward Kay Robinson (1857?-1928) born in Naini Tal was the founder of the British (Empire) Naturalists' Association. He fostered a young and promising journalist who would later dedicate a work to him - To E.K.R. from R.K. - Rudyard Kipling. Now E.K.R. had an older brother named Phil Robinson who was also in the newspaper line - and became famous for his brand of Anglo-Indian nature writing - a style that was more prominently demonstrated by E.H. Aitken (Eha) of the BNHS. Now Phil - Philip Stewart Robinson - despite the books he wrote like In my Indian Garden and Noah's ark, or, "Mornings in the zoo." Being a contribution to the study of unnatural history is not a well-known name in Indian natural history writing. One reason for his works being unknown may be the infamy that Phil achieved from affairs aboard ships between India and England that led to a scandalous divorce case and bankruptcy.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Research techniques - Wikipedian ways

Over the years, I have been using Wikipedia, as a kind of public research note book. I sometimes fail to keep careful notes and I regret it. For instance, some years ago I was reading through some scanned materials on an archive and came across a record of the Great Indian Hornbill in the Kolli Hills in Tamil Nadu. It was carefully noted by some British medical officer who was visiting the place and he commented on the presence of the species in the region as part of a report that he submitted on the sanitary and medical conditions of the district. Google searches did not see or index the document and I thought I would find the content when I wanted it but I have never managed since to find it again. Imagine how useful it would have been to me and others if I had put in a reference to it in the Wikipedia article on the hornbill species with a comment on its past distribution. 
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_B._Fairbank

Not long ago, someone on the email list Taxacom-L sought information on Samuel B. Fairbank - a collector of specimens in India. I knew the name as he was one of the collaborators of Allan Octavian Hume (who even named a species after him) and decided that I knew enough to respond to the request for information. I looked around on the Internet and found that there was enough material scattered around to put together a decent biography (I even found a portrait photo whose copyright had thankfully expired) and it led to a Wikipedia entry that should spare anyone else looking for it the effort that I put in. Of course one follows the normal Wikipedia/reseach requirements of adding citations to the original sources so that anyone interested in more information or in verifying the sources can double check it.

These additions to Wikipedia may strike you as something that is not very different from what an ant does when it (actually usually she) goes out foraging - when she finds food, she eats a bit and then returns to the nest leaving behind a trail marker on the ground that says "this way for food". Other ants that are walking by spot the message written on the ground and if interested go on and help harvest the food resource. The ants that find the food again add a trail marker - now the strength of the trail marker chemical indicates veracity and possibly the amount of food available. This kind of one-to-many communication between individuals mediated via environmental cues has a term - stigmergy. Now the ant colony has been termed as a "super organism", a kind of distributed animal, with eyes, legs and even a brain that is distributed across little seemingly independent entities. Now there is a lot of research on how super-organisms work - it is an area of considerable interest in computer science because - the system is extremely resilient to damage - a colony goes on as if nothing has happened if you went and crushed a whole bunch of ants underfoot. How far this metaphor helps in understanding the organic growth of Wikipedia is uncertain but it certainly seems to be a useful way of conveying the idea of how contributors work. From a biomimicry perspective it could even inspire ways of designing the interface and system of Wikipedia - imagine if visitors could mark their attention to specific lines and the links that the followed. Subsequent visitors could perhaps see links that led to particularly useful additional articles or references.

I sometimes run workshops to recruit new people to contribute to Wikipedia and my usual spiel does not include any talk on "how to edit" Wikipedia but deals with why contribute and about how to incorporate Wikipedia into one's normal day-to-day activities. I sometimes take pictures from walks, record bird calls and research topics for my own learning. I compare what I learn with what Wikipedia has to say and where it fails, I try and fix defects. This does not actually come in the way of my learning process or work much but I like to think that it helps others who may come looking for the same kinds of things.

Incorporating Wikipedia into normal learning practice - should only need a small incremental effort.

The real problem in some parts of the world, such as in India, is that not everyone has access to good enough routes to learning - experts are often inaccessible and libraries are often poorly stocked even if they happen to be available. Of course there are privileged contributors who do have access to better information sources than others but these are the people that often look at Wikipedia and complain about its shortcomings - it seems likely therefore that the under-privileged might be better at contributing. In recent times, Russian underground sites like sci-hub have altered the ecosystem in a kind of revolution but there are also legal channels like the Wikipedia Reference Exchange that really go a long way to aiding research.

Of course there are an endless array of ways in which one could contribute - by translating from one language to another - if you are proficient in two languages - there is the gap finder which allows you to find what entries are on one language and missing on another - http://recommend.wmflabs.org/ . If you are interested in challenging your research abilities and want to see how good you are at telling good and reliable resources from websites with "alternative facts and news" then you should try finding references for dubious or uncited content from https://tools.wmflabs.org/citationhunt/en .

One of the real problems with Indian editors on Wikipedia is that a large number of them support their additions with newspaper and media mentions and many of them do not know what reliable sources mean. Information literacy is key and having more scholarly information resources is important. I have therefore tried to compile a list of digital libraries and resources (especially those with India related content).

Here they are in no particular order:
Although all of these are accessible, you may need little tricks like finding the right keywords to search, using the right google operators in some cases and for some people finding references for obscure things is fun. And some of us, like me, will be happy to help others in their research. With this idea, I created a Facebook group where you can seek references or content hidden behind a paywall. This assistance is provided in the hope that you can summarize your research findings on Wikipedia and make life easier for the ants that walk by in the future.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Gin, tonic, and ornithology

The tomb of Willam Graham McIvor in the
St Stephen's Church cemetery in Ooty.
It is widely held that gin and tonic was an invention to get soldiers in British India swallow some bitter quinine to keep away malaria. It might have been an even more bitter pill to swallow for those who believed that miasmas caused disease. The refusal to believe that minute living organisms caused disease was convenient in some ways, it meant you could ward away disease by dressing  in flannel to avoid chilling as cold weather favoured the miasma. It also meant that quarantine (etymologically the Italian root referred to 40 days based on the incubation of plague) delays in (already slow) ship journeys could be avoided.

The story of quinine in India is an interesting one and has some surprising connections to ornithology in India that I was exploring recently on a visit to the Nilgiris.

The story behind malaria, cinchona and quinine is so fascinating that the sheer number of publications on the history of cinchona is staggering (there are several bibliographic compilations on the topic!). Looking at the literature for India suggests that vast changes in landscape have been caused just so that people (at least the ones that did not have sickle cells and other forms of evolved resistance to malaria) could enter new regions and they further altered these habitat by building roads and habitations. "Malarious" regions were probably large pockets of natural protection for biodiversity. Malaria literally means bad air and the theory was that diseases were spread by miasmas (gases or mists) and this partly justified the idea of treating higher elevations as safe sanataria. There was even the field of "medical topography" that dealt with spatial distribution of disease and although they might have erred on causal factors, the practitioners did work on actual evidence. The sheer number of people involved in researching and fighting the problem (often dying in the process) of diseases (particularly malaria, plague and cholera) and the spin-offs to the sciences of botany, entomology, chemistry and oddly ornithology is just incredible. Scientific pursuits that saved human lives earned a halo of nobility. Seen in this light, the public repute of the modern botanist is sadly a lot lower than it was before.

The cinchona introduction program was part of a solution to a problem coming in the way of the colonial quest for conquering more lands. The Spanish had discovered the effectiveness of Cinchona bark in curing malarial fever and their extraction of the bark led to near complete destruction of trees in some regions and then the British Empire saw the problem of being dependent on dwindling South American supplies.

Detail on the tomb of McIvor with Cinchona carvings

Clements Markham is the man who takes a lot of credit for the cinchona program in India. He was knighted for this achievement but the idea that cinchona could be grown in the Nilgiris was first floated by John Forbes Royle. Royle "inferred from a comparison of soil and climate with the geographical distribution of cinchonaceous [=Rubiaceae] plants, that the quinine yielding cinchonas might be cultivated on the slopes of the Neilgherries, and of the Southern Himalayas, in the same way that I had inferred that Chinese tea plants might be cultivated in the Northern Himalayas." (27 June 1852)

Markham, a chronicler, explorer, geographer and writer also attempted to bring back the spelling Chinchona to correctly reflect its etymology - the plant is named after Lady Ana de Osorio, countess of Chinchón, wife of the Viceroy of Peru, who was (according to one version that is not undisputed) in 1638 afflicted with a "tertian" fever while in Lima. Don Francisco Lopez de Canizares, heard of her illness and sent a parcel of bark that was used by the natives around Quito to treat fevers (worth remembering that South America was by and large malaria free, although it may have had one form of malaria, until Columbus and European movement c. 1492). The Countess recovered rather miraculously and word of the drug travelled rapidly. She took back bark to Spain to distribute among the sick there and it soon came to be known as Pulvis Comitissae (the Countess' powder) among the druggists. Linnaeus came to hear of the plant via the French and though he intended to name the genus after the Countess, he spelt it wrong (in the 1767 edition it even got printed as "Cinhona"). The Spanish botanists Ruiz Lopez and José Antonio Pavón Jiménez noted the spelling mistake and described several species in the genus but the spelling stuck and many were upset that it credited "cinchon", a policeman's belt, instead of their dear Countess. Markham's attempts at taxonomic emendation of the spelling were not as successful as his mission to introduce cinchona into India.

Markham's map of the "Chinchona" plantations.
By the 1800s, the Spanish trade in Cinchona had managed to depauperate the forests of South America. Removal of the bark in unsustainable ways by uprooting the tree and strip barking or girdling killed off the trees [Alexander Humboldt noted in 1799 that for obtaining 11,000 Spanish pounds nearly 800 or 900 Cinchona trees were cut down every year]. Meanwhile the front-line warriors of the British Empire were  falling to malaria at an estimated 2 million a year and were at the mercy of Spanish supplies with the few trees left being closely guarded in South America. Markham's main role was to help solve the problem of malaria in British India and this even required covert actors - among them Charles Ledger who managed to smuggle some seeds of Cinchona to Kew. Other explorers were Dr. Spruce and Mr. Robert Cross who went after Loxa bark (Cinchona officinalis Linn.; syn. C. condaminea) and "Red Bark" (C. succirubra Pavon) in Ecuador while Mr. Pritchett searched in northern Peru; and  Markham and John Weir explored  the Calisaya region in Bolivia for Cinchona calisaya.

An illustration from 1862. The European man sitting in the group is Sir William Denison (after whom Francis Day named the pretty fish - "Miss Kerala" (Sahyadria denisonii ). To Denison's left and holding a spade is McIvor. McIvor helped transport trout for Day's project to introduce them into the Nilgiris. Day started off as an ornithologist before taking an interest in fish. He supported Hume's Sind bird survey.
Markham and his team managed to get some plants and these were established at Kew in greenhouses. Wardian cases were then used to transport the plants to India. It was however one thing to grow them inside a controlled environment and entirely another to grow them in a large enough scale. And that was where the skills and experimental approaches of William McIvor paid off. It was another saga to extract the active ingredient and produce concentrated drug that could be stored and transported where it was needed. Botanists, chemists and administrators, all got into action in this project and it is interesting that Sir George King (knighted for the quinine work) who headed the Calcutta botanical gardens and the cinchona project in Darjeeling (Mungpoo) credits A.O. Hume for his role in supporting the project. King was knighted for his role in setting up a system of quinine delivery via the postal system that would work out cheap enough anywhere in India. Markham writes about Hume's role in his 1880 book:

...result was due in no small degree to the action of Mr. A.O.Hume C.B, the Secretary to the Government of India in the Department of Revenue, Agriculture, and Commerce.

...
Mr. Hume saw that two millions of Her Majesty's subjects were annually living in India of low malarious fevers, of which fully half might he saved if we could put the chinchona febrifuge retail into every pansari's shop at 1 rupee per ounce. He calculated that ten tons a year at least should be forthcoming, or, on an average, 100 grains per man. Mr. Hume felt strongly on the subject, because he had had great practical experience of malarious fevers; because he had proved, in thousands of cases, that the chinchona febrifuge is a real remedy; and because we had triumphed over the cultivation difficulty, and could, at comparatively very moderate cost, ensure in ten years a bark crop sufficient to produce the ten tons required. He felt that nothing stood between us and the saving of countless multitudes from death, or grievous suffering, but an economical process of manufacture; and that, rightly considered, this is infinitely more important than any other question before the Government of India. It involves simply the possible saving of a million lives and of an immensity of suffering such as few can adequately realise. He urged that nothing should be allowed to come in the way of this great work, that it should not be paltered with, but that it should be taken in hand at once, in the very best way that could be discovered, and with the ablest instruments money and trouble could procure.

Davison could speak Tamil, "Burmese",
Malay and Hindi!
One of George King's assistants was a lad named William Ruxton Davison. King noticed that he had an eye for natural history and although Davison had trained in a bit of chemistry in the Nilgiris, he had moved into botany at Calcutta. Davison was born in Myanmar but after his father's death, he grew up as a boy in Ootacamund, schooled briefly under "Pope Iyer" (at his own school although he gave it up later and moved to Bishop Cotton's in Bangalore). King recommended Davison to Hume, and under Hume's training, he became one of the foremost ornithological observers of his time - although his method was in the old collection tradition - indeed much of Hume's collection was in fact made by Davison (while Hume was away on official work). Davison seems to have had a keen eye for ferns as well and he made collections of these for Hume's little-known botanical collection (now apparently with the BSI). Hume's botanical interest would be rekindled when Hume retired to London. After Hume's retirement from ornithology, Davison moved to Singapore (then called the Straits settlement) to head the Raffle's Museum. Davison seems to have done well here but after his wife's sudden death which occurred while he was out on an expedition, his mental health took a downturn. Suffering from depression, he is thought to have committed suicide (or in any case died) from an overdose of opium. This tragic story has only recently been unravelled by historian Kevin Tan in his book on the Singapore Natural History Museum (2015).

Apart from Davison, Hume had another major ornithological correspondent in J. Gammie at Mungpoo, Darjeeling who was in charge of the cinchona plantations. It appears that Gammie was a major collector of fauna and specimens from Mungpoo have gotten around the world since. (Some years ago there was a query for locality information for a specimen of Bengalia (a kleptoparasitic fly) from Mungpoo). There is very little known about J. A. Gammie though his son, George Alexander Gammie (1864-1935) is a better known botanist.

An odd cinchona tree
(presumably C. succirubra) in Ooty
being admired by Henry Noltie.

The cinchona project was obviously not a complete success as malaria managed to keep a grip (as still does today with the potential to save some wilderness areas) and the next big wave of work on the disease was by the surgeons and physicians of the Indian Medical Service. Many of them, with a completely new level of training in biology, contributed to the study of natural curiosities and contributed beyond their professional area of research.

The cinchona project had its impact well beyond India - even in its ornithology spin-offs. Imagine my surprise when I found that a comprehensive bibliography of cinchona cultivation was compiled in 1945 by R.E. Moreau, the brilliant ornithologist who worked in Africa as an accountant.

Note: Please note that tonic water today does not have the quinine levels needed for therapeutic use, so no it is not beneficial to your health! You can however have some fun by shining ultraviolet light on tonic-water and watch it fluoresce.

Further reading

Friday, November 4, 2016

Birds and landscape histories

Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I would not change it. 

Most traditional historians do not see much use for science but there are now growing branches of science that are essentially about determining histories. These include histories of climate, land connectivities, and the evolution of organisms. The field of phylogeography attempts to look at the distributions and evolutionary relationships of a cluster of inter-related species to see patterns in their diversification and examine timing and relationship to environmental or climatic changes. Past vegetation  can be guessed by the signs left by plants through pollen deposits in certain kinds of preserving environments like peat bogs. A cylindrical core can then be extracted from the bog and the deeper layers tell us something about the vegetation of the older period, the time itself can be established by carbon dating. Every organism has a book in the form of DNA and the lines in this book are constantly being edited with copy pasting as the organisms reproduce and accumulate mutations. By looking at the edit history of specific sections of DNA across sample individuals, it is possible to reconstruct a chronological sequence of the edits (the way to establish what is recent versus what is older requires a trick that requires prior knowledge of a script that is decidedly older - an individual known as an outgroup). In addition to regular nuclear DNA, there is DNA in the mitochondria which passes from mother to offspring and this is generally conserved with occassional changes caused by mutations. The history of these mutations can also be examined to reconstruct chronologies. There are of course little problems with these sources including possibly corrupt histories resulting from the possibility of DNA being inserted by viruses or bacteria that break the linearity. Histories of human movements have been found by examining DNA across peoples.

Histories at different scales and for varying epochs can be read from diverse sources. Igneous rocks tell the pressure, temperature and rate of cooling around them by the sizes of the crystals formed within them and their mineral compositions. Sedimentary rocks hold fossils in the leaves of their pages. Trees keep note of fires and environmental conditions in the rings. Bubbles trapped in polar ice have been the source of atmospheric composition history.

The sources for history therefore go well beyond what archaeologists and traditional historians would want to preserve. It is a pity however that these other sources get so little attention.
Few can read the significance of this specimen from Antharasanthe near H.D. Kote, Karnataka

I recently visited the Regional Museum of Natural History at Mysore along with Dr Robert Prys-Jones of the Natural History Museum at Tring and thanks to his presence, I was, reluctantly, allowed to go behind the scenes and take a peek at some bird specimens that Salim Ali had collected in the late 1930s. [I had been at the RMNH many years ago with the late S.A. Hussain when this collection was moved there and I have since always been irritated by the way government officials prevent access to such collections across India.] One of the specimens that caught my attention was of a black-headed babbler / dark-fronted babbler (Rhophocichla atriceps). It was collected by Salim Ali in 1939 from Antharasanthe. I have passed through Antharasanthe many times in recent years and for someone who knows the bird and the kind of location in which it is normally found, it is simply mind-boggling to realize that Antharasanthe once held dense forests with a dark and dense undergrowth. This is something that few can appreciate and it requires that they know something about the bird in question.

Clearly not all sources of history can be appreciated or understood by traditionally trained historians. There is a classic example of such ineptitude provided by Delhi-based historians Romila Thapar and Valmik Thapar who, in their book Exotic Aliens – The Lion and Cheetah in India, claim that lions and cheetahs in India were introduced from Africa in fairly recent times by local rulers. This of course can easily be dismissed by looking at DNA evidence and the book of course has since been dismissed by scientists.

In April 2016 I had the privilege of walking along a Himalayan hillside with Emmanuel Theophilus and S. Subramanya and we came across trees with curious rings on their trunks. Observing them closely showed that there were series of punctures made over these rings by woodpeckers. There are a group of woodpeckers in North America that are called sapsuckers - they all belong to the genus Sphyrapicus and have the habit of making punctures on trees and waiting for sweet sap to fill them up. They revisit these holes and sip the sap that collects. Now there is just one species in Asia that has the same habit - the rufous-bellied woodpecker and even called the rufous-bellied sapsucker (Dendrocopos hyperythrus) - and it evidently leaves a trace on the trees. Not a single individual but evidently generations of them. The trees which are at least a century old have rings that are tapped repeatedly and the calluses grow quite wide due to the repeated injury. Not all trees seem to respond to the damage in the same way and the most significant callusing was found in karsu oak and rhododendrons (they are massive trees here, worth mentioning for readers familiar only with rhododendrons from higher latitudes). Interestingly Green-tailed sunbirds (Aethopyga nipalensis) seem to be secondary sapsuckers and they hover and steal sips of sap.

Emmanuel Theophilus points to calluses on karsu oak Quercus semecarpifolia

Callus rings on a Rhododendron


Rings seen at a distance.
Close up of a ring showing a fresh line of punctures.


Perhaps there are places in the Himalayas where the woodpeckers have left their traces in the trees and vanished since and these are the histories that are lost perhaps to the timber trade.

There is then a case for historians to learn a bit of ornithology and there is of course a case to be made for ornithologists to know a little bit of history. The latter is probably harder considering that hordes of them can contribute to such systems a ebird but not put any effort to standardizing the recording of habitat conditions. Since such a standard that can be analyzed quantitatively has to be evolved locally, it involves democratizing citizen science websites and therein lies the problem. Perhaps history, even of humans, is important for the software designers.