Thursday, 3 July 2014

In Search of a Penguin’s Egg. Why?...What happened to Nelson Norman's 1959 embryos?

Following on from my earlier posts of 8 April and 26 June, I have to make it clear that this is an interim account of what I have been able to find on this story as it extends into the 1950s and 60s. This is because I do not have ready access to some of the reports which are in libraries a long way away from where I live. However, I can certainly lay down the bones of the story and then follow up with more detail, if the original sources do not confirm the second-hand accounts, when I am next in London.

If you have read my first post on this topic you will see that my curiosity was aroused by reading Nelson Norman’s 2009 book, In Search of a Penguin’s Egg. Nelson Norman makes it clear that he was not only miffed by the reception he received on taking the Emperor Penguin embryos gathered with great difficulty and not a little danger during the antarctic winter of 1959 to Professor Glenister at Charing Cross Hospital but also by the fact that he had not been able to find out what happened to them:
I enquired several times over the years and was persistently told by FIDS that the embryos were being worked on…Nearly fifteen years later when I was in a position to consider the matter further and was a research director myself I went to the British Antarctic Survey (as FIDS was known by that time), expressed my concern, and asked for my embryos back saying that I would find an interested embryologist and we would work them up between us. This was agreed but when it asked for the embryos, the Survey was told that a technician had accidentally disposed of them!
It is now evident from the literature that the embryos were worked on and a report written. However we need to take a step backwards in order to take the story forwards.

Bernard Stonehouse collected a series of Emperor Penguin embryos in 1949; these Glenister examined. A short account of his findings is Nature in 1953. He also wrote a report for FIDS which was published in 1954. I have not yet seen the latter. His letter to Nature contains little of real substance (not unusual for Nature in those days). He wrote:
…comparison of the development of the external form of the Emperor penguin with that of the chick and with that of other penguins already described, namely, Gentoo and Ring penguins by Parsons and Gentoo and Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adelia [sic]) by Waterston and Geddes, reveals a fact not yet recorded and worthy of note. In the earlier embryos the head region is relatively smaller, the neck and tail regions relatively longer, and the curvatures less well marked in penguin than in chick embryos. These features are more marked in Emperor penguin embryos and result in early penguin embryos resembling early reptilian embryos more closely than do chick embryos.
To which, I am afraid, my response is a very loud So What?

In his full report for FIDS (which I repeat I have not seen), C.Herbert, in his 1967 report on embryonic development in the Adélie, states:
More recently, Glenister (1954) investigated a series of 16 embryos of A. forsteri. Nine of the youngest were sectioned serially and a number of features which he considered primitive were listed. Glenister concluded that penguins are the most primitive birds, and that A.forsteri is the most primitive penguin.

How Glenister came to the conclusion that penguins are the most primitive birds I do not know.

That embryology could provide the answer was still being peddled in the 1960s. For example, the Committee on Polar Research of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA produced a report in 1961 stating:
Wilson and others made an extremely hazardous winter journey to collect emperor penguin embryos, hoping they would show reptilian features (Cherry-Garrard 1922), but the features were not found (Parsons 1934). Glenister (1954) describes eight features of the emperor embryo which suggest that penguins are primitive birds, and the emperor the most primitive of all…A study of a series of Antarctic penguin embryos of known ages is still awaited.
In view of Nelson Norman’s experience, I was surprised to find Herbert’s report of his work on the Adélie contains the information on what happened to the Emperor embryos Norman had collected:
The most recent description of embryos of the emperor penguin was by O’Gorman (1964) on embryos collected during the Royal Society International Geophysical Year Antarctic Expedition, 1955-59. He used the unpublished notes of J. [Nelson] Norman to calculate the ages of these embryos. Norman’s timed series of embryos, although in poor condition and small in number, enabled O’Gorman to adopt a multiplication factor of 2.9 to calculate the ages of the penguin embryos from the equivalent chick stages described by Hamburger and Hamilton (1951).
Both Glenister and O’Gorman expressed the need for an accurately timed series of developmental stages of a representative penguin. To fulfil this need a timed series of embryonic stages of P. adeliae, P. antarctica and P. papua was collected at Signy Island, South Orkney Islands, during the period January 1965 to February 1966.
So Nelson Norman had been incorrectly informed when he made his enquiries. Not only had his embryos been used but a report had been written and published in 1964.

I then found that Fergus O’Gorman had also been in the Antarctic at the same time as Norman as a zoologist with FIDS/British Antarctic Survey from 1957 to 1960 (working with my old dining companion, the late Nigel Bonner, in 1958). Half of O’Gorman’s entry can be seen in the online Google extract from the 2001 (3rd) edition of The Environment Encyclopedia and Directory and shows that he was a researcher at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School between 1960 and 1962; in other words he was working with Glenister on the embryos collected by Norman during this time.

Why nobody told Norman what had happened to his embryos seems an extraordinary oversight.

But the idea that the penguin embryo was going to reveal the origin of birds lingered on. The September 1968 issue of Antarctic, a news bulletin published by the New Zealand Antarctic Society, contained the following (my underlining):
American Programme for 1968-69
On June 28 the following ambitious 1968-69 United States Antarctic Research Programme was announced by the National Science Foundation in Washington
Iowa State University — Early Embryology of the Adelie Penguin
Dr. J. R. Baker and a field assistant from the Iowa State University, Ames, will continue the study of the early stages of the Adelie penguin embryology. The research will again be conducted at Hallett Station and Dr. Baker will seek to determine the effect of climate on incubation and how the Adelie embryo is formed. It is hoped that these studies may provide information on the evolutionary origin of penguins, whether from flying birds or reptiles. Following the Antarctic field work additional work will be carried out at the Iowa State University laboratories.
John R.Baker (1930-2012) did not publish on the evolutionary origin of penguins, whether from flying birds or reptiles. He did, however, follow up earlier observations that the rate of embryonic development is slow in penguins compared to other birds and that incubation period and the temperature of eggs in the nest vary in this species. In other words, he turned embryology into a study in physiological ecology to determine the effects of incubating Adélie penguin eggs at different temperatures.
I find it remarkable that the Edward Wilson’s big ‘thing’—getting embryos of the Emperor Penguin—was still being quoted as the justification for research on penguin embryos nearly 70 years after the discovery of the Cape Crozier rookery. Haekel’s recapitulation theory was dead in the water; all the evidence pointed to flying birds being the ancestors of penguins, and yet the idea, by now it seems a meme, ran on and on in the Antarctic exploration community.

Nelson Norman’s book led me to read the classics from the period of Antarctic exploration, including the superb Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s, The Worst Journey in the World. That led me off in other directions…but I cannot end this series without showing Edward Wilson's Sunset on Mount Erebus.


Baker J R. 1969. Studies of the rate of development of the Adélie Penguin embryo. Antarctic Journal 4, 116
Committee on Polar Research of the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council (1961). Science in Antarctica. Part 1. The Life Sciences in Antarctica.
Glenister, T W. 1953. Embryology of the emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri). Nature 171, 357.
Glenister, T W. 1954. The Emperor penguin Aptenodytes forsteri Gray: II. Embryology. Falkland Islands Dependency Survey Scientific Reports No. 10. London: HMSO
Herbert C. 1967. British Antarctic Bulletin 14, 45-67
O’Gorman F. 1964. Observations on emperor penguin embryos. In The Royal Society International Geophysical Year Antarctic Expedition, Halley Bay, Coats Land, Falkland Islands Dependencies, 1955-59. IV. Meteorology, glaciology, appendixes. pp 353-363. Ed Blunt D. London: Royal Society.
Weinrich J A, Baker J R 1978. Adélie Penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) embryonic development at different temperatures. Auk 95, 569-576