Archive | September 2013

The ghost with trembling wings

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This week I finished reading “The ghost with trembling wings” by Scott Weidensaul. I had no idea what the book would be like before starting it, beyond that it dealt with issues in the rediscovery and recent extinction of birds. As I have at least four volumes on my bookshelf with the title “Extinct Birds” alone, this topic is one of my favourites in non-fiction.  It really is a wonderful read. The authors obvious enthusiasm and ornithological knowledge are always at the forefront and he takes you on a journey from the possibly extinct avifauna of the Lesser Antilles, to the history of the Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) via detours into ancient DNA, ivory-bill woodpeckers (Campephilus principalis) and other icons of extinction. Describing his search for the possibly extinct Semper’s Warbler (Leucopeza semperi), you get an insight into the mundanity of tropical fieldwork, along with the flashes of heart-stopping excitement that come from false starts and serendipitous moments. There are particularly interesting sections on the history of the Aurochsen (Bos primigenius), the wild ancestors of domestic cattle that died out only in 1627, and are known from descriptions by Julius Caesar and the caves of Lascaux and Chauvet. The interplay of science and  ideology that went into the breeding of the infamous Heck cattle by Nazi sympathising zoologists is discussed in detail, and the attempts to restore the Quagga (an extinct subspecies of Plains zebra, Equus quagga) by selective breeding is also covered. The only gripes I had were minor. The author repeatedly discusses the structure of DNA as made from amino acids- however, proteins are made from amino acids while DNA is made from bases, deoxyribose sugars and phosphate. There is also a repeated claim of Madagascar being colonised 2 million years ago (by who? Australopithecines?), rather than the generally accepted 2000 years. The final chapters focus on another search for a possibly extinct bird, the cone-billed tanager (Conothraupis mesoleuca) in the Amazon rainforest. The book ends on a high with the author and colleagues potentially spotting a female of this overlooked species. Happily, it seems that whatever Weidensaul saw, this particular bird is a survivor. The cone-billed tanager has been rediscovered since the book was first published! In 2003, and independently again, in 2004, males (and the never previously collected females) were observed by trained ornithologists and the sighting is currently being written up for scientific publication.

Exotic Aliens

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I recently read the book Exotic Aliens by Valmik Thapar and others about the status of the lion and cheetah in India. It had received some interesting and positive reviews in the literature e.g. Science

I was pleasantly surprised by how readable it was. Often books of a technical nature are drier than a packet of rich tea but this managed to be engaging and is wonderfully illustrated. The plates and figures make it a good purchase for anyone interested in Mughal art and Indian wildlife. The text itself is slightly meandering and I did find myself wondering when the authors would get to the point.

The overarching thesis is that the lions of the Gir forest, and the now extirpated Indian cheetah, are all descendants of escaped “pets” that had been kept in royal enclosures for the purpose of hunting. This is a provocative and interesting question. Many researchers have commented on the apparent tameness of the Indian lion, compared to the African subspecies, and the cheetah seems totally unsuited to most typical Indian habitat. I think the authors make a reasonably compelling case that in certain regions, feral lions and cheetahs were around. However, when we look at the DNA of Indian lions and cheetahs we find that they beautifully match the expected phylogeographic pattern for a natural dispersal. That is, they are most closely related to conspecifics from the Middle East. This contrasts with the hypothesis but forward in Exotic Aliens, where a shipping route direct from the Horn of Africa to India was posited for importing exotic cats. If this had happened we would expect to see Indian lions and cheetahs grouping close to Kenyan/Ethiopian/Somalian members, which we categorically don’t. Overall, a very interesting read, although I disagree with the conclusions.

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