Africa, Birds & Birding

Birdwatching Old-Style

‘Of all birds there are few which excite so much admiration as the Resplendent Trogon.’

‘Its skin is so singularly thin and the plumage has so light a hold upon the skin that when the bird is shot the feathers are plentifully struck from their sockets by its fall and the blows which it receives from the branches as it comes to the ground.’

Aah! Nothing like a bird in the hand . . even if it is missing a lot of feathers. This description is from an 1897 book, Birds Illustrated by Color Photograph found on gutenberg.org

But that was centuries ago, right? Well, this happened in 2015:

A scientist found a bird that hadn’t been seen in half a century. Locals led him up into the forest in the remote highlands of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, where he and his team set up mist nets and secured a male Moustached Kingfisher with a “magnificent all-blue back” and a bright orange face. He exclaimed in delight, ‘Oh my god, the kingfisher,’ and he likened it to ‘a creature of myth come to life.’

And then he killed it — or, in the parlance of scientists, “collected” it.

When he was criticised for that crazy-ass terminal action he suddenly decided there were ‘thousands of them’ they were ‘not in danger.’ Ri-ight . . two’s company, one in fifty years is a crowd.

~~~oo0oo~~~

Right here in Natal in the 1980’s controversy also surrounded a collector shooting a rare white-winged flufftail for a museum collection.

There are other ways – alternatives; maybe better alternatives. A few years ago I read about a scientist who caught a rare bird, took careful photos, took blood and tissue samples and released it. I’m looking for the case – haven’t found it yet. That has to be a better way of doing things – at least initially, until one can work out just how fragile a remaining population is. Some collector scientists came back very strongly against a suggestion like this, and that seemed dodgy to me. Why not discuss new ways? Change will not come overnight, but less destructive alternatives should at least be explored, not dismissed.

~~~oo0oo~~~

Back around 1780 French-Dutch explorer Francois le Vaillant was begged by his local guide Piet not to shoot a bird he, Piet, had discovered for him. le Vaillant shot it and its mate. He then at least named the bird after Piet, based on its call: ‘Piet-me-wrouw’, the familiar three-note call of the Piet-My-Vrou Red-chested Cuckoo, Cuculus solitarius.

~~~oo0oo~~~

Life

C. elegans’ colleague dies

One of my heroes died! Sydney Brenner, Germiston boykie, Witsie and a real mensch, died. Always a heavy smoker, he only lived one thousand five hundred and ninety five C. elegans life cycles. Or 92 years. He was amazing. Some colleagues called him “the funniest scientist who ever lived.”

So what was he famous for? For his research fellow Caenorhabditis elegans, who is pictured below. And also for RNA. Syd was short, but this colleague was only 1mm long – and transparent. Syd could see right through him . .

Syd Brenner realized he needed a simpler animal to study than the fruit fly, a standard organism used in laboratories. He settled on Caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans, a tiny, transparent roundworm that dwells in the soil, eats bacteria and completes its life cycle in three weeks. That worm has spun off many developments, starting with the decoding of the human genome.

The worm is, of course, an invertebrate, but Syd said as it was a hermaphrodite worm with occasional males he would call it a PERVERT-ebrate. Using the worm, Dr. Brenner and his colleagues first worked out methods for breaking a genome into fragments, multiplying each fragment in a colony of bacteria, and then decoding each cloned fragment with DNA sequencing machines. His colleagues John Sulston and Robert Waterston completed the worm’s genome in 1998, and they and others used the same methods to decode the human genome in 2003.

Another major project, made possible because of the worm’s transparency, was to track the lineage of all 959 cells in the adult worm’s body, starting from the single egg cell. This feat, accomplished so far for no other animal, made clear that many cells are programmatically killed during development, leading to the discovery by H. Robert Horvitz of the phenomenon of programmed cell death. The topic assumed an importance that transcended worm biology when it emerged that programmed cell death is supposed to occur in damaged human cells, and when that process is thwarted, we call it cancer! The humble worm’s DNA has turned out to be surprisingly similar to our own, helping us understand how our cells grow uncontrollably to cause cancer and why they sometimes die in excess.

For their work on programmed cell death, Dr. Brenner, Dr. Sulston (who died last year) and Dr. Horvitz were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. So the worm was good for him and colleagues would teasingly call him “the father of the worm.” In his Nobel lecture, Syd remarked, “Without doubt, the fourth winner of the Nobel Prize this year is Caenorhabditis elegans; it deserves all of the honor but, of course, it will not be able to share the monetary award.”

Long before he got the Nobel Prize, Dr. Brenner had been the first to conclude that there must be some means for copying the information in DNA and conveying it to the cellular organelles that manufacture proteins. That intermediary, now known as messenger RNA, was discovered in 1960 in an experiment devised by Dr. Brenner and others. Many people, including Dr. Brenner himself, believed he should have been awarded a Nobel Prize for his and Dr. Crick’s work on the genetic code. About his Nobel Prize he said, “In fact, to me this is my second Nobel prize. I just failed to get the first one.”

For years he wrote a tongue-in-cheek column called Loose Ends and later False Starts in which he’d offer advice and comment on matters scientific. To busy scientists seeking a polite way to turn down time-consuming invitations to meetings, he suggested the following reply: “Dear X, I regret I am unable to accept your invitation as I find I cannot attend your meeting. Yours sincerely.”

He held positions at Cambridge and at the Salk Institute in San Diego, where he was appointed, as he termed it, “extinguished professor.”

Insights into the nature of the cell would alternate with his playful scientific inventions, like Occam’s broom — “to sweep under the carpet what you must to leave your hypotheses consistent” — or Avocado’s number, “the number of atoms in a guacamole.” **

For a short time he had been director of the Cambridge Laboratory of Molecular Biology, but he did not much enjoy working as an administrator: “You become a mediator between two impossible groups,” he said, “the monsters above and the idiots below.”

In his last column he decided he’d need another job, writing When one stops doing a job, one should immediately go and look for another one, if only to provide an excuse for not doing all the mundane things one has promised to attend to after retirement, so he wrote a personal service ad: Elderly, white, male, column writer, seven years experience, self-employed scientist, explorer, adventurer, inventor and entrepreneur seeks young, naive, preferably female editor of newly formed scientific journal with a view to obtaining un-refereed access to as wide an audience as possible. Has good title for a column: ‘The Well-deserved Rest.’ Please write, quoting circulation and impact factor.

As well as a good writer he was a great talker, it was hard for any listener not to fall under his spell. He spoke slowly and precisely in a lingering South African accent, his sentences long and perfectly constructed and often ending with a joke.

He tells of abandoning religion when very young on his way to Hebrew school when he had to walk through a rough part of town in Germiston. He got beaten up by a gang. “As I stood there, I said Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Ehad, but nothing came. I got beaten up, nobody helped me and I said forget it. That sort of thing stuck in my mind. To me it was just a lot of nonsense, basically.

——————————————–

https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(00)00853-8

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sydney_Brenner#cite_note-66

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/apr/05/sydney-brenner-obituary

**see Occam’s razor and Avogadro’s number for the real things.

~~~~~ooo000ooo~~~~~

Before he died Wits Review gave him a lovely write-up – and gave the worm nice coverage, too.

Brenner Wits Review
Brenner Wits Review 2