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Book Review: Of Scientists and Salamanders by Victor Twitty

Otterwoman

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Victor Chandler Twitty, Of Scientists and Salamanders (San Francisco: WH Freeman &Co., 1966) 178 pp.

Twitty sets out to trace the path of his career and the events that shaped it. So much is just chance, he notes. He started as an embryologist, and ended up studying the natural history of Taricha spp. “t can be more exciting, and often more productive, to adapt one’s course to new avenues opened up by unexpected observations in studies originally directed toward quite different goals” (p. viii).
Written to interest both the layman and the professional, he summarizes his work chronologically. It is an interesting story

I got this book because Kentwood Wells referred to it in his The Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians (review about half finished). Wells referred to the “delightful account of the excitement and frustration of fieldwork” (Wells, p. 267) in “The Pepperwood Creek Affair”, which is chapter 5 of Twitty’s book. That brief mention intrigued me enough so that when I found the book online for about $5, I had to get it. Plus, I love Tarichas.

The book is divided into five chapters, each detailing one stage of his career. After completing his undergraduate study at Butler College in Indiana, he studied embryology at Yale as a graduate student. They did, among other things, embryonic surgical experiments to determine the characteristics of embryonic cells by grafting tails, limbs, etc. to different parts of the salamander body, and even between species to see how they would grow. (See first two pictures below). They used what was then called Amblystoma punctatum (now Ambystoma maculatum), A. tigrinum, and later even did frog-salamander experiments. These experiments could not be pursued on “more advanced” animals due to their more advanced immune systems rejecting such graft attempts.

After Yale, he spent a year in Berlin (1931-2), and then moved to Stanford (CA). He believed his choice of Stanford University fortuitous because he would come to believe the newts of CA to be “unrivalled anywhere in the world” (p. 54). (At that time they were called “Triturus torosus.”)

In Stanford, their discovery of the toxicity of torosus added a new dimension to their experiments. His observations of larvae also led to the splitting of the genus into various Triturus species (four): T. torosus (the original), rivularis, similans [later granulosa], and sierrae. He said he loved the species which became known as rivularis (which he named) best. For a brief time there was even a T. twittyi (named by Sherman Bishop), but it did “not [survive] the tests of time and more rigorous systematic appraisal” (p. 68). At Stanford, Twitty also began experimenting with the pigment cells (which originate in the neural crest).

Twitty thanks the newt for the outdoor recreational opportunities that study of the animal provided. He made friends, went on vacations, and shared drinks with people whom newts brought into his life (methinks caudrama did not begin with us!).

And finally we come to the long-awaited Chapter 5, “The Pepperwood Creek Affair.” Twitty slowly moved from the lab to the outdoors (trading “wading boots and the four-wheel-drive Jeep…[for] iris shears and dissecting scope” - p.101). In his own words: “[w]here newts beckon, their follower must go, and if this exposes him and students who share his distaste for the barbecue pit and other Spartan features of a well-equipped field station—well, this is the price he must pay with all the fortitude he can muster” (p. 103).

Twitty describes creating Taricha hybrids in the labs to study, and releasing them to grow up in nature, since they were unable to keep them alive themselves in the lab long enough to raise them (though later they learned how). So on a 14,000 acre private ranch in CA full of “rivularis-ridden streams,” he decided to conduct a hybrid planting program (p. 105). They began in 1953. They fertilized rivularis-torosa hybrid eggs in the lab, and also sierrae.

OMG, could you even think of getting away with this today??? Did this not raise any ecological worries? Well, they did at least think about it, becoming concerned about their possible dispersal. Before the hybridization experiments, they conducted a series of homing experiments (which were very, but not 100%, successful). And then they released the hybrid eggs into the wild.
This aspect of the book rather horrified me, including the vast numbers of newts which were sacrificed to his experiments (he said, between 1953 and 1959, they removed over 24,000 rivularis females—and today nobody can get one). :( And I will not dwell on the amputations they used to identify individual animals. The homing experiments they performed by blinding newts---I am too saddened even to mention. What did they teach you in Germany, man?
Sometimes I regret wasting most of my education on the useless field of literature when I could have become a scientist. But at times like this, I am glad that the only things I had to dissect in my graduate studies were poems.

I was torn about this book—the author was personable and humorous at times, and I liked him. I liked him for liking Tarichas and devoting himself to them. But I did not like some aspects of the methods and nature of his experiments.
Twitty admits that “we are messing up Nature rather badly in Pepperwood Creek” (p. 151) but he offers no apology or plan to clean it up when the experiments are over (they were not over by the time he wrote this memoir).
Rather, he admits that while at first he assumed his hybrids could not establish themselves well enough to have a “major impact on natural parental populations”, he was wrong about that. And further: "[w]hatever the eventual outcome of the hybrid planting program,” he does not seem concerned, but in fact, he sees it as an “opportunity for a new period of evolutionary flowering” (p. 158).

The hair on my furry otter tail stands on end.
.
.

Available used as an import on Amazon starting at $4.60.
 

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Otterwoman

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Hmmm...I really thought that this review would engender some discussion...
 

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monkeyfrogman28

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Just reading and skimming through, I am speechless. The guy sounded crazy. Did he recieve jail time for trying to screw up a eco system? Blinding Newts? Hello , animal cruelty ? I doubt he had the governments permission.
 

Otterwoman

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A lot of salamander texts refer to his research. People had different ideas back then about what animal cruelty consists of. I know there's a lot of things that go on in labs I don't want to know about. You know how often you'll read in an animal text about what this or that species eats? You know how they find that out? By killing the animal and examining the stomach contents. That's bad enough, but I think it's worse when you release those unfortunates into nature. This guy is really respected, I think. But releasing hybrids into nature, with just an "oh well, I guess they WILL survive"? Did he lack foresight or were people really that cavalier back then? I don't think he needed the government's permission. Maybe it's things like this that have tightened regulations over time. I wish some of the professional herpetologists would weigh in. I am curious to know what Twitty's reputation is among them currently.
 
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tylototriton

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I personally have not read this book nor am I familiar with Twitty. For the sake of discussion though, I will defend him, kind of. I cannot speak to his experiment or his methods or anything specific pertaining to him because I am not familiar with his work. I can say though that Dawn is correct, much of our knowledge is gleaned from experiments that some people would consider "inhumane" and from specimens that were collected and euthanized to study. Without these experiments and specimens we would know almost nothing. Beyond that, at least now, experimentation is strictly regulated to keep the trauma to a minimum, specifically to decrease the suffering of the studied organisms. Now, like I said before, I can't speak to Twitty's experiment, but the important thing to consider is that he wasn't some Dr. Kevorkian, he did contribute to the scientific community.

Also, i'm looking forward to your review of Kent's book. I love it but I can't bring myself to read straight through it.

Alex
 

michael

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Most of the stuff in this book happened in the first half of the 1900s. I have it on my shelf but have only briefly looked through it. Releasing the hybrids does seem odd but not out of the norm for back then. Once I read the whole book I'll have a better perspective.

I live in a state where people talk about restoring the pheasant population for better hunting. In Penna. we talk about increasing harvestable deer herds and call it conservation. That is science that is out of wack.
 

Abrahm

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Unfortunately animals must be sacrificed if we want to learn more about them. Thankfully over the years we have become more adept at non-invasive methods of pursuing knowledge. Stomach contents are now often analyzed by washing out the contents, if I remember correctly. We can analyze fecal matter for DNA too instead of drugging animals and pulling their blood.

As for the ecological impacts of releasing hybrids, it's really just a show of how much we've learned about ecosystems. Hybrids are bad, but they are not quite up there with the horrible invasive species like zebra mussels, round gobies, American bullfrogs, cane toads, rusty crayfish or Eurasion milfoil that we've introduced by accident or to solve problems. Hell, we exterminated both passenger pigeons and the only US parrot (Carolina parakeet) in a very short period of time.

Not that it excuses Twitty. He very much sounds like a person that is in this for knowledge and science, not animals.
 
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Jennewt

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I've had this book on the shelf for several years. When I got it, I set out to read it, but I was so bored by the embryology that I put it back on the shelf for quite a while. This is saying something, as I was at one time an aspiring developmental biologist (which includes embryology). But the level of detail in Twitty's descriptions was too much, even for me.

At a later time, I picked up the book and started reading a later chapter about his experiments on the homing ability of Taricha. This part was quite interesting, and I think it would be of interest to anyone who is interested in Taricha, or who likes to read about the incredible feats of small animals.

Overall, I recommend the book. But feel free to pick and choose the chapters that interest you. Read it in its historical context; people didn't give much thought to the impacts of releasing hybrids back then. Animal experiments were conducted with a lot less thought about the loss of animals' lives.
 

Maxorz

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Thanks for the review!

What a coincidence... A few hours ago while reading Kentwood's book I got to where he mentioned "The Pepperwood Creek Affair”, and I got interested on it. However, I tried a quick googlescholar search and I couldn't find anything about it!

I am certainly going to read this book! It looks very exciting!
 
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