Member of International Primate Protection League advisory board since 1975
CANBERRA, Australia––Colin Groves, 75, called “The Ultimate Classifier” by the Society of Conservation Biology, a member of the International Primate Protection League advisory board since 1975, and a cofounder of the anti-pseudoscience organization Canberra Skeptics, died in Canberra, Australia, on November 30, 2017.
Born in England on June 14, 1942, a day remembered as the date of the first entry in The Diary of Anne Frank, Groves recalled in an interview with Society of Conservation Biology members three weeks before his death that, “When I was five, my grandfather gave me a book on mammals, and I never looked back. From my teens, I would go to the Natural History Museum in London,” where resident scientists “would let me look at the collection and introduced me to the literature.”
Swung through many trees before finding home
Groves at age 19 in 1963 completed his Bachelor of Science at University College London, and earned his Ph.D. from the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine in 1966, but had difficulty finding a permanent academic position.
Groves taught for two years at the University of California in Berkeley, then returned to Britain to teach at Queen Elizabeth College and the University of Cambridge, before emigrating to Australia in 1973 to take a post at Australian National University in Canberra. Promoted to full Professor in 2000, Groves remained on the faculty as an Emeritus Professor until his death.
From monkeys to humans
Between teaching stints, Groves “became interested in colobus monkeys,” he recalled to the Society of Conservation Biology members, “and wanted to make some brief observations on an unstudied species, Colobus angolensis. To visit sites at which this species occurred, in Tanzania, in 1971 I travelled by 4-wheel drive vehicle through many wildlife areas. In company with a professional photographer I took a one-day trip to the Tana River in Kenya, and saw the endemic red colobus and mangabey species.
“The following year I organized a small expedition, with Peter Andrews and Jenny Horne, to survey the habitat of these two species, estimate their numbers and distribution, and generate interest in their conservation. But in 1971, after my colobus surveys, I went to Dian Fossey’s camp in Rwanda to see mountain gorillas and study collected skeletons.”
Identified a “missing link”
Also during his two Kenya visits, Groves and Czech colleague Vratislav Mazák controversially identified a jawbone fossil from Koobi Fora as a new species they called Homo ergaster, annoying anthropologist and conservationist Richard Leakey, among others, who believed Groves and Mazåk had named the species prematurely.
“Today,” Groves told his Society of Conservation Biology interviewers, “specialists seem to be about evenly divided between those who regard it as ‘African erectus’ and those who recognize the species as valid.”
Pursuing further studies in the fields of human and primate evolution, other aspects of mammalian taxonomy, ethnobiology, cryptozoology, and biogeography, Groves later did research in Rwanda, India, Iran, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Project Bangkok Airport
Groves’ long association with the International Primate Protection League began about two years after Shirley McGreal founded the organization in Thailand to campaign against the capture and export of monkeys and gibbons.
“I met some students at a nature club meeting,” McGreal recalled, “and asked them to ask if they would like to work as student observers for the summer at the Bangkok airport. Katherine Buri,” who had helped to form IPPL, “Christine Stevens of the Animal Welfare Institute, the Fauna Preservation Society, the International (now World) Society for the Protection of Animals, and the New York Zoological Society financed the project.
“Project Bangkok Airport began on March 31, 1975, and continued until June 6, 1975. Teams of students from Chulalongkorn, Mahidol, and Kasetsart Universities recorded over 100,000 animals leaving Thailand and logged each shipment for compliance with animal shipping standards established by the International Air Transport Association,” finding frequent gross violations.
Skeletons in an art store
“Around that time,” McGreal continued, “Groves was visiting Bangkok. I set up an evening party for him to meet the students. They all brought along their reports, and Colin had individual meetings with each of them, asking about specific things he noticed and giving them all quality time.”
Thereafter, McGreal remembered, “Over the years when I needed an identification of a primate caught in trade, I always sent the pictures to Colin and got a prompt response,” including on occasion when ANIMALS 24-7 asked McGreal for help identifying species.
“When I did a lecture tour of Australia,” McGreal recalled, “[Primates for Primates founder] Lynette Shanley and I walked around the streets of Sydney and found some skeletons of animals on sale in an art store. Colin determined their species and complained to the authorities. He also protested the use of gibbons at a California laboratory, which led to the suspension of the grant funding the experiments, as the virus under study had never been found in humans.”
Nominated McGreal for OBE
It was Ann Koros who in 2010 successfully nominated McGreal to receive the Order of the British Empire.
Wrote Groves after the OBE was presented, “It is more than 30 years ago that Shirley McGreal founded IPPL, and back then she really was isolated. But she persisted; over the years, she never ceased her fight. Perhaps what began to make a difference was the unerring accuracy of her information; the smugglers and traffickers of primates might be frightened at the threat to their businesses, and the end users might be annoyed at having their very rationales questioned, but without exception they had respect for the quality of her sources of information, and this generated a sort of sneaking admiration for her persistence.
“This award is the most public, the most “mainstream” recognition of what Shirley has done, what her work has come to mean for so many people, and what she has accomplished. Far from isolated, far from the lonely figure she once was — everybody knows now, if they didn’t know before, of the enormous achievements of Dr. Shirley McGreal, OBE.”
The case of the unknown pig
By then Groves was already well on his way toward recognition as the “father of primate taxonomy,” as he was often called later in life. “That said,” observed the Society of Conservation Biology, “Colin’s book Ungulate Taxonomy is no less important than his Primate Taxonomy.”
Groves’ expertise in ungulate taxonomy in March 1997 enabled him to confirm the continuing existence of a wild pig, S. buccolentus, first described by French missionary Pierre-Marie Heude circa 1892, for whom the rare pig is colloquially called Heude’s pig.
Obtaining the skull of a pig he didn’t recognize from native hunters in the Annamite forest of Laos, Groves then located one of Heude’s two skull specimens, obtained from a trophy hunter, at the Institute of Zoology in Beijing, which had inherited the Heude scientific archives after his death in 1905. The three skulls continue to represent the sum of scientific knowledge about Heude’s pig.
The case of the underage elephant
Groves’ ungulate expertise also figured in a controversial case in which the Taronga Zoo, in Sydney, Australia, in 2006 traded two koalas to the Chiang Mai Night Safari in Bangkok, Thailand, in exchange for nine Asian elephants.
Whether the deal was legal under Thai law was questioned from the beginning.
Then, in 2008, the Taronga Zoo revised the estimated age of one of the elephants, Thong Dee, upward from eight to 12 years of age, after she became pregnant while supposedly too young to breed.
Groves confirmed from the zoo’s own data about her teeth that Thong Dee was indeed only about eight years old. Her calf, Luk Chai, in 2009 became the first elephant born in Australia, and in July 2007 celebrated his own eighth birthday.
Mostly, though, Groves was known for his work on primates, sometimes turning forensic detective.
In 2005, for instance, Malaysian wildlife officials tried to sidestep their duty to prosecute two Malaysian zoos that were found in possession of seven Sumatran orangutans smuggled from Indonesia, contending that the seven were merely a subspecies of the Bornean orangutan. Groves established that the orangutans were indeed of the “critically endangered” Sumatran species. At least six of the seven orangutans were later repatriated to Indonesia.
Five years later, in 2010, Groves helped researchers to confirm that while orangutans have only been studied in recent times as a relatively sparsely distributed species, with a largely solitary way of life, this was not true before firearms were introduced to orangutan habitat.
“There were large numbers of orangutans shot by our forebears, not to mention obtained for zoos,” Groves explained, “and then, given their extremely slow rate of reproduction, it is very likely indeed that they could not have recovered anything like their former population densities.”
On October 21, 2017, just nine days before Groves’ death, the Nepal Central Investigation Bureau arrested six alleged wildlife traffickers in possession of two chimpanzees, eight monkeys, seven golden pheasants, two ringneck pheasants, 38 pigeons and 65 parrots. Groves overnight identified the chimpanzees from newspaper photos as juveniles of the West African subspecies, and the monkeys as patas monkeys plus a vervet.
“The chimpanzees come from either west of the Niger in Nigeria, or further west still, as far west as Senegal,” Groves e-mailed to McGreal. “There are very few chimpanzees remaining in Nigeria,” Groves added.
McGreal is now hoping to arrange for the chimps to be repatriated to the Afi Mountain Ranch in Nigeria, “which is home to hundreds of drills and many baboons,” she noted on Facebook.
Who are you calling a Rungwecebus?
Also a cryptozoologist, meaning a scientist who seeks “hidden” species often known only through folklore, Groves had a part in more than 50 species discoveries or rediscoveries––sometimes on the side of doubt.
In 2004, for instance, a scientific team led by Tim Davenport of the Wildlife Conservation Society discovered a new monkey species, the highland mangebey, locally called the kipunji, living at high altitudes in Tanzania.
Davenport et al reported in Science that the highland mangebey appeared to be so unique as to require creating a new genus, Rungwecebus, in order to classify it, the first new genus added to the monkey order since the discovery of Allen’s swamp monkey in the Congo basin in 1923.
Responded Groves, reprising Richard Leakey’s role in his own identification of Homo ergaster 31 years earlier, “I’m not certain if this is a new genus. I’m unsure of the molecular analysis – when I look at the phylogenetic tree (a diagram of the evolutionary relationships of a group of organisms), there are aspects of it that are quite different to those that other people have generated. I would like to see them explore their DNA tree much, much more.”
The Rungwecebus identification has, however, held up.
Discovering the lion-killing giant chimp
Three years later, in 2007, Groves argued that field research by Clive Hicks of the University of Amsterdam, done in the Bili region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, suggested that the chimpanzee family tree should be redesigned to recognize five sub-divisions of Pan troglodytes instead of the four subdivisions currently recognized, along with bonobos (Pan paniscus), which have no subdivisions.
“Deep in the Congolese jungle,” wrote Guardian science correspondent James Randerson of Hicks’ major discovery, “is a band of apes who according to local legend kill lions, catch fish, and even howl at the moon. Local hunters speak of massive creatures that seem to be some sort of hybrid between a chimp and a gorilla.
Their location at the centre of one of the bloodiest conflicts on the planet, the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has meant that the mystery apes have been little studied by western scientists. Speculation that the apes may be some yeti-like new species or a chimp/gorilla hybrid has proved unfounded, but the truth has turned out to be in many ways even more fascinating.
“They are actually a population of super-sized chimps with a unique culture – and it seems, a taste for big cat flesh,” having been observed by Hicks in the act of sharing the remains of a leopard.
Combatting “creation science”
While Groves enjoyed discovering or rediscovering lost or otherwise mysterious species, he had no use for pseudoscience in any packaging.
Recalled Julie McCarron-Benson to journalist Tim Mendham of the anti-pseudoscience organization Australian Skeptics, “Colin Groves inveigled me to join him and William Grey in a fledgling Canberra Skeptics in 1988 or 1989. I best remember Colin’s on-going battle with Queensland’s Creation Science Foundation. They regularly came to Canberra and had public meetings. Ken Ham, the recreator of the Christian tourist Noah’s Ark in Kentucky USA, detested him. Colin was always polite at these presentations, but insistent, asking very gently and quietly questions which had the tendency to have the creationists tongue-tied. The CSF finally called themselves Questions in Genesis and most took themselves off to the USA. A major Australian export product!
“Extremely lucky with his wife Phyl”
“Over many years,” McCarron-Benson continued, “the Canberra Skeptics, with Colin in our midst, picketed psychic fairs, handing out flyers exposing the charlatan stall holders. Later we participated in annual Science Week fairs, and always had to fight off the organizers who thought they should include some of the pseudosciences for balance.
“He was extremely lucky with his wife Phyl, who loved him, cared for him and carted him around various events when she must have been bored out of her mind,” McCarron-Benson finished.
Groves’ books included A theory of human and primate evolution (1989); Primate Taxonomy (2001); and Ungulate Taxonomy (2011), co-authored with Peter Grubb, who died before the project was completed. Groves also contributed to numerous anthologies and scientific journals.