Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is already considered to be his magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Friday, 28 June 2013

MY TOP TEN NEW AND REDISCOVERED ANIMALS OF MODERN TIMES

A young saola, depicted upon a postage stamp issued by Vietnam in 2000

It is widely known that many remarkable species of animal have become extinct or at least highly endangered in modern times. However, it is far less well known that during this same time period, a startling number of equally spectacular species have been newly discovered (having been previously unknown to science) or rediscovered (after having been written off as extinct by science). Here, then, in no particular order, is my personal Top Ten of our planet's most extraordinary and scientifically significant zoological arrivals and revivals of modern times – with my interest in cryptozoological philately providing the illustrations.


THE OKAPI

Discovered in 1901, the okapi remains one of the most famous and dramatic new animals to have been unveiled for over a century. Back in 1890, explorer Henry Morton Stanley noted that the Wambutti pygmies inhabiting the Ituri Forest in what is nowadays the Democratic Republic of Congo had informed him that they sometimes trapped in concealed pits a kind of 'forest donkey' known to them as the atti. When Ugandan governor Sir Harry Johnston learnt of this, he made enquiries, as a result of which some soldiers from the Congo gave him two strips of vividly striped skin from one such animal. Convinced that this elusive beast, which he learnt was actually known locally as the okapi, was an unknown forest zebra, he sent the skin strips to London's Zoological Society, where they could not be identified with any known species.


In 1901, Sir Harry succeeded in obtaining a complete okapi skin as well as two skulls, and he sent these to London's Natural History Museum, to await the experts' verdict on the okapi's zoological identity. To everyone's amazement, it proved not to be a zebra at all, but something far more extraordinary. It was a giraffe, but no ordinary one. A totally separate species from the familiar long-necked spotted giraffe of the savannahs, the okapi was a relatively short-necked, stripe-rumped species with purple-brown skin, which was adapted for an exclusively forest-dwelling lifestyle. Although similar species were known from the fossil record, it had been assumed that all of these short-necked giraffes had died out millions of years ago, but the okapi's sensational discovery emphatically disproved this. In honour of Sir Harry's successful investigations, the okapi was formally named Okapia johnstoni.



THE CONGO PEACOCK

The okapi wasn't the only modern-day zoological surprise revealed in the Ituri Forest. During a scientific expedition there in 1913, American Museum of Natural History ornithologist Dr James Chapin spied a native head-dress containing an unusual feather that he had never seen before. He was so intrigued that he purchased the head-dress, but after a long, vain attempt to identify the feather's mysterious species he finally placed this perplexing plume in his desk, but he never forgot it.


In 1936, during a visit to the Congo Museum at Tervueren, Belgium, Chapin spotted a pair of shabby, forgotten taxiderm birds on top of a dusty cabinet separated from the museum's principal collection - and was amazed but delighted to see that the female bird had wing quills identical to his mystifying feather. Investigating this fortuitous discovery, Chapin learnt that these birds' species inhabited the Ituri Forest, where it was known as the mbulu.


By mid-1937, he had acquired several fresh specimens of the mbulu for detailed examination, which revealed it to be a species of peacock hitherto unknown to science, and the only one native to Africa. Very primitive in appearance, it lacked the exquisite fan-like train typifying the familiar Asian peacocks. Chapin dubbed this remarkable new bird Afropavo congensis, the Congo peacock, and it is still deemed to be the most significant ornithological discovery of the past 100 years.



THE MOUNTAIN GORILLA

As far back as 1860, the explorer John Speke had collected native reports of a huge, man-eating hairy ogre that inhabited the Virunga Volcano range of mountains constituting the physical border between the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, but science dismissed such stories as mere superstition and folktales.


In 1902, however, a Belgian army officer called Captain Robert 'Oscar' von Beringe actually shot two of these hairy 'ogres', and sent them to Europe, where they were found to constitute a totally new form of gorilla - quite different from lowland versions, with a broader chest, longer, darker fur, and longer jaws with larger teeth. The mountain gorilla had finally been discovered, and is referred to scientifically as Gorilla beringei beringei.


Happily, we now know that far from being a man-eating ogre, it is actually one of the shyest and most gentle of creatures - as revealed via the studies of Dr George Schaller, and those of the late Dian Fossey (whose life was the subject of the film Gorillas in the Mist).



THE COELACANTH

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, curator of the small East London Museum in South Africa, often visited the nearby docks in search of unusual fishes to preserve as specimens for exhibition in the museum, but during a visit in December 1938 she spotted a fish unlike anything that she had ever seen before. Approximately 1.5 m long and steely-blue in colour, what made it so distinctive were its fins, as both the pectoral and the pelvic fins looked just like stubby legs, and, uniquely among all living fishes, its tail fin possessed three lobes instead of just two. Totally baffled by her strange unidentified find, Courtenay-Latimer arranged for it to be transported to the museum and preserved.


She also wrote a letter (containing a sketch of the fish) to a colleague who had assisted her in identifying fishes in the past – world-acclaimed South African ichthyologist Prof. J.L.B. Smith. When he opened it, he was astonished to see that her sketch closely resembled a coelacanth, belonging to an ancient lineage of fishes hitherto believed to have died out over 64 million years ago alongside the dinosaurs! He lost no time in visiting the East London Museum to see this amazing fish himself, and was able to confirm straight away that it was indeed a genuine, modern-day species of coelacanth.


When Prof. Smith formally documented this sensational zoological find, he named its species Latimeria chalumnae, in honour of its discoverer. After a gap of almost 14 years, more coelacanth specimens belonging to this same 'living fossil' species were found, in the waters around the Comoro Islands. And in 1997, a separate, second species of modern-day coelacanth was discovered in the seas around the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. It was christened Latimeria menadoensis, and possessed brown scales instead of blue ones.



THE SAOLA

The most spectacular new species of large mammal to have been discovered in recent times is undoubtedly the saola or Vu Quang ox. While conducting field research in an unexplored forest-covered mountainous region of northern Vietnam called Vu Quang during 1992, American conservationist Dr John MacKinnon observed that various native hunters exhibited as trophies in their homes some very long, pointed horns that were unlike those of any species native to anywhere in Asia. Indeed, the only horns that they resembled were those of certain African and Arabian antelopes known as oryxes. When he asked the hunters what animal these mystifying horns came from, he was told that it was a very shy, rarely-seen ox-like creature referred to by them as the saola.


Further enquiries resulted in the procurement of a near-complete dead specimen, revealing the saola to be a dramatically new species that combined a bovine body with the long horns and slender legs of an antelope. It was formally named Pseudoryx nghetinhensis, emphasising its horns' deceptive similarity to an oryx's, but in reality the saola has no close relatives among other species. The size of a buffalo – the saola is the largest new mammal to have been discovered since the kouprey or Cambodian wild ox Bos sauveli in 1937.


This makes the saola's very belated scientific discovery even more remarkable. A few living specimens have subsequently been observed in the wild, and a few even captured and studied alive for short periods, but it remains little-known and very scarce.



THE KOMODO DRAGON

Komodo is a small island in Indonesia's Lesser Sundas chain, southeast of Java, and was once used as a convict island for prisoners. Pearl fishermen visiting Komodo were told by the prisoners that this island harboured a huge, ferocious species of land crocodile. Scientists, however, dismissed such claims as fantasy, until, in 1910, Major P.A. Ouwens, director of Java’s Botanical Gardens at Buitenzorg, near Batavia (now Jakarta), became sufficiently intrigued by them to send a local amateur naturalist to Komodo in search of the truth. When he returned, he confirmed that such creatures really did exist, but they were not crocodiles. Instead, they constituted a giant species of monitor lizard, and as proof he had brought back the skin of one.


In 1912, this spectacular new species was formally described by Ouwens, who named it Varanus komodoensis, the Komodo dragon. It can grow up to 3 m long and weigh up to 70 kg, making it the world's largest lizard. Komodo dragons will kill and devour anything that they can catch – including other Komodo dragons, and humans!



THE CHACOAN PECCARY

Until the mid-1970s, only two species of pig-like peccary were known to science, but during a visit in 1974 to the semi-arid Gran Chaco region of South America, overlapping Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia, American zoologist Dr Ralph Wetzel obtained skulls and other physical evidence testifying to the existence of a third, somewhat bigger species. What made this discovery even more significant, however, is that when these remains were studied, zoologists realised that their species was already known to science – but only as a fossil form hitherto assumed to have died out at the end of the Ice Ages 10,000 years ago. In reality, however, Wetzel's discovery showed that it had not died out at all, but its modern-day survival had not previously been realised by scientists, even though it was a familiar creature to the Chaco inhabitants. This resurrected species is nowadays known as the Chacoan peccary Catagonus wagneri.


In 2003, an even bigger peccary – the world's largest species – was discovered in Brazil; and in 2007, it was formally recognised and named Pecari maximus, the giant peccary. And back in 1904, the world's largest wild species of true pig, the aptly-named giant forest hog Hylochoerus meinertzhageni, was unveiled in Kenya.



THE MEGAMOUTH SHARK

On 15 November 1976, the crew of an American research vessel situated in the waters off the Hawaiian island of Oahu hauled up one of its anchors at the end of the day – and were astonished to discover that it had been partly swallowed by a huge and wholly-unfamiliar shark, which was hauled up with it as the anchor was wedged inside its exceptionally large mouth. The shark had choked to death, so its bulky 4.25-m-long body was taken to Hawaii's Kaneohe Laboratory for preservation. Following a very extensive study, in 1981 it was proclaimed as an entirely new species of shark, radically dissimilar from any previously recorded.


Formally named the megamouth shark Megachasma pelagios, it was so dramatically different, in fact, that it required the creation of a wholly new zoological family in order to accommodate it within the shark classification system. Since then, a sizeable number of additional specimens have been recorded in seas all around the world, making the late scientific discovery of such a large and distinctive species of fish all the more extraordinary, and confirming that the vast oceans undoubtedly hold many more zoological surprises in store.


THE TAKAHE

New Zealand is home to many species of unusual bird found nowhere else in the world, but one of the most beautiful, and elusive, is a multicoloured, flightless relative of coots and moorhens known as the takahe Porphyrio mantelli. Almost as big as a turkey and surviving only on the South Island, it was originally discovered in 1849, but was only rarely seen, and many years would often pass between successive sightings. After a sighting in 1898, however, no further confirmed reports of the takahe emerged for several decades, and zoologists eventually deemed that this time it must surely be extinct.


In November 1948, however, after learning from local Maoris of a mysterious lake not known to Europeans but around whose shores they claimed takahes could still be found, New Zealand physician Dr Geoffrey Orbell organised an expedition to this lake. On 20 November, while the team was searching there, and without any prior warning, just ahead of them a takahe unexpectedly stepped into view - and into history - as the first living specimen recorded for 50 years! Its species' rediscovery is one of the most significant in modern times, and the takahe is now fully protected.



THE DINGISO

In 1994, while visiting the hitherto scarcely-explored Sudirman mountains of Irian Jaya, the western, Indonesian half of New Guinea, Australian zoologist Dr Tim Flannery encountered a completely unfamiliar yet extremely distinctive species of tree kangaroo, whose eyecatching black and white fur made it look more like a panda! Moreover, in spite of its zoological status, this particular tree kangaroo preferred to spend much of its time on the ground, and was relatively tame, whistling loudly at anyone approaching it. It transpired that the native Moni tribe sharing its forest habitat revere this species as their own ancestor, and thus refrain from hunting it, explaining why it was unafraid of humans.


Known to them as the dingiso, it was totally new to science, and when officially documented and described, it was christened Dendrolagus mbaiso. This delightful panda-lookalike is the most dramatic new species of mammal to have been discovered in Australasia for many years.



And speaking of pandas: the giant panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca was itself only rediscovered in 1928 after having been written off as extinct for several decades after its original discovery by western science in 1868.


 Just over a century ago, zoologists were confidently predicting that all of the world's major animal forms had been found and catalogued. How wrong they were. Even today, very notable new species of animal are still being discovered, and species long believed extinct are still being rediscovered, as documented in my recent book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals (Coachwhip Books: Landisville, 2012). This is why the conservation of existing wildlife habitats worldwide remains so imperative, in order to preserve biodiversity and avoid the horrifying prospect of remarkable animal species becoming extinct without their existence ever having been discovered. What a terrible tragedy that would be.


My sincere thanks to Pib Burns for kindly permitting me to include in my article a selection of postage stamp illustrations from his excellent cryptozoological philately site (together with illustrations of stamps from my own collection) - please click here to visit Pib's site and see more postage stamps depicting new, rediscovered, and still-undiscovered animals.


And for lots more information on every major new and rediscovered animal from 1900 to the present day, check out my recent book, The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals - the definitive book on all such creatures.






Wednesday, 26 June 2013

REMEMBERING THE HUIA – HISTORY AND MYSTERIES OF THE BIRD WITH TWO BEAKS


The most famous huia painting, prepared by celebrated bird artist Johannes G. Keulemans for the 2nd edition (1888) of Sir Walter Buller's A History of the Birds of New Zealand

Deriving its name from its distinctive melodious call, the huia Heteralocha acutirostris was a member of a small family of birds found only in New Zealand and referred to as wattlebirds. A crow-sized species whose glossy black plumage disclosed a deep green sheen when viewed at certain angles in sunlight, it was instantly characterized by its pair of bright orange facial wattles, its elegant tail plumes with broad tips decorated by a wide band of sparkling white (tinged with rufous in young birds), and - above all else - by the truly exceptional, extraordinary nature of its ivory-coloured beak, for unlike virtually all other birds (see below) the huia had not one beak but two.

Female (top) and male (bottom) huia heads, by John Gould, 1837-1838

Indeed, when first scientifically described in 1836, by eminent ornithologist and bird painter John Gould, the male and female huias appeared so dissimilar in form that he mistakenly named and designated them as two separate species – Neomorpha crassirostris (the male huia) and Neomorpha acutirostris (the female huia)

A pair of huias – the male with a straight beak, the female with a curved beak; colour plate from 1860, based upon John Gould's original painting of 1848

This is not as surprising as it might otherwise seem, because whereas the male huia’s beak was short and straight, used for chiselling out grubs (especially those of Prionoplus reticularis, a longhorn beetle commonly called the huhu) from decayed wood as a woodpecker does, the female’s was long and curved gracefully downward, enabling her to secure grubs from deep woody crevices that her mate’s short beak could not reach.

Huhu grubs (Charlotte Simmonds/Wikipedia)

Many animal species exhibit some degree of sexual dimorphism, but in birds this usually involves plumage or body size. The huia’s drastic departure from that tradition, by possessing a sexually dimorphic beak, established it as a species of immense scientific worth, which made its extinction all the more tragic. (Recently, it has been shown that a second vanished species of bird, the Réunion crested starling Fregilupus varius, extinct since 1837, also sported a sexually dimorphic beak, but not to such a pronounced degree as in the huia.)

Keulemans's painting of the Réunion crested starling

Never the most common of birds, the huia inhabited beech and podocarp forests, and was apparently confined to North Island’s Ruahine, Tararua, Rimutaka, and Kaimanawa mountain ranges, with occasional reports from the Wairarapa Valley too. (Supposed sightings of huias from the woody country near Massacre Bay in South Island’s Province of Nelson were never substantiated.) Yet although it had been hunted for generations by the Maoris, who greatly prized its attractive tail feathers for their chiefs’ head-dresses, its numbers seemingly did not suffer unduly until the coming of the Europeans.

Their arrival, however, was accompanied by all manner of serious threats to the huia's survival. These included: the accompanying introduction of Western species that endangered the huia by preying upon it, competing with it for food, and exposing it to various diseases hitherto unknown there; large-scale procurement of huia specimens for museums and private collections; destruction of its forest homelands for cultivation and grazing; and ultimately the widespread wearing of huia plumes by all Maoris (regardless of status) and by members of European high society.

A pair of mounted huias at Germany's Museum für Naturkunde (Haplochromis/Wikipedia)

There could be only one outcome. The last fully verified sighting of this species was made on 28 December 1907, when W.W. Smith spotted two males and a female. Since then, the huia has been officially categorised as extinct – but is it? We'll return to this tantalizing subject a little later.

Meanwhile:


ALBINO HUIAS, RED-TAILED HUIAS, AND THE FORGOTTEN HUIA-ARIKI

It is not widely known that the familiar glossy-black huia with a white-banded tail is not the only variety of huia on record.

For instance, several beautiful albinistic specimens are preserved in various museums, their snowy plumage and pale wattles rendering them almost as a photographic negative of their typical ebony-plumed counterparts. One such specimen, an adult female, was painted in the company of a pair of normal adult huias by celebrated bird artist Johannes G. Keulemans. This beautiful water colour was published in c.1900.

Keulemans's painting of an albinistic female huia and a normal pair

It is well documented that immature huias sometimes exhibited a rufous tinge to their tail's white band. However, Maoris sometimes specifically referred to a 'red-tailed huia' in the adult state too, by which they may have been alluding to specimens retaining this rufous tinge of the white tail band into maturity.

Far more intriguing, however, is the so-called huia-ariki (translated as 'chiefly huia') – a nowadays-forgotten yet extremely distinctive huia variant, whose plumage was decidedly different from that of the normal form. The principal source of information concerning the huia-ariki is Sir Walter Lowry Buller's magnificent and still-definitive work A History of the Birds of New Zealand. Here is what he wrote about it in the 2nd edition (1888):

The most remarkable variety, however, is that known to the Maoris as a Huia-ariki. I have never seen but one of these birds, of which I have already published the following notice*:—

[* = Trans. New-Zealand Instit. 1878, vol. xi. p. 370.]

“I have received from Captain Mair some feathers which, in colour, have much the appearance of the soft grey plumage of Apteryx oweni [nowadays termed Apteryx owenii, the little-spotted kiwi], but which are in reality from the body of a Huia, being of extremely soft texture. I hope to receive the skin for examination, but in the meantime I will give a quotation from the letter forwarding the feathers:—Old Hapuku, on his death-bed, sent for Mr. F. E. Hamlin, and presented him with a great taonga. This has just been shown to me. It is the skin of a very peculiar Huia, an albino I suppose, called by the Hawke’s Bay natives ‘Te Ariki.’ I send you a few feathers. The whole skin is of the same soft dappled colour, but the feathers are longer and softer. The bill is nearly straight, strong, and of full length. The wattles are of a pale canary-colour. The centre tail-feather is the usual black and white, while the others on each side are of a beautiful grey colour. These birds are well known to the Huia-hunting natives of Hawke’s Bay; and to possess an ‘Ariki’ skin one must be a great chief. The specimen I have described was obtained in the Ruahine mountains.”

The skin was afterwards sent to me, for examination, and was exhibited at a Meeting of the Wellington Philosophical Society. It is that of a male bird of the first-year. The whole of the body-plumage is brownish black, obscurely banded or transversely rayed with grey; on the head and neck the plumage is darker, shading into the normal glossy black on the forehead, face, and throat. The tail-feathers are very prettily marked: with the exception of the middle one, which is of the normal character in its apical portion, they are blackish brown, irregularly barred and fasciated with different shades of grey, and with a terminal band of white; the under tail-coverts, also, are largely tipped with white, indicating adolescence.

I have on file a number of examples of freak brown specimens belonging to species whose plumage is normally black, such as crows and certain other corvids. And in some cases, these brown specimens also exhibit a degree of banding or fasciation. This aberrant colouration and patterning was genetically induced in those birds, so presumably the huia-ariki arose from the expression of an analogous – or even homologous - mutant allele in the huia. However, the softer, longer nature of the feathers themselves in the huia-ariki suggests that another mutant allele may also have been involved, unless there was a single, pleiotropic (i.e. multi-potent) allele responsible, affecting separate aspects of this variant's phenotype. I wonder if there is an illustration of the huia-ariki? It would be fascinating to see what this remarkable form looked like, rather than having to rely only upon a verbal description.

A sketch from 1888 of a huia with an aberrant upper mandible

Also on record are a few huia specimens with distorted beaks, such as the bizarre example illustrated above.


POST-1907 SURVIVAL OF THE HUIA?

The huia’s morphology is unique. No other bird in New Zealand, whether native or introduced, can be readily confused with it - which is why the sizeable number of alleged post-1907 huia sightings has attracted notable scientific interest. Their most detailed documentation is presented in William I. Phillipps’s The Book of the Huia (1963). A noted expert on New Zealand’s avifauna, Phillipps listed 23 such sightings, and learnt that as recently as the 1920s eyewitness reports of black birds with orange wattles and white-tipped tails regularly emerged from the huia’s former haunts.

The Book of the Huia, by William I. Phillipps

Although none were by professional ornithologists, a number of these sightings are sufficiently convincing to give cautious cause for optimism that this unmistakeable species still survived at that time. An official huia search was carried out in 1924, and although no huia were seen, signs of this species’ existence were observed. Moreover, a much more recent event, one that greatly impressed Phillipps, occurred on 12 October 1961, featuring Margaret Hutchinson.

As I learnt from Ron Scarlett of South Island’s Canterbury Museum, when Hutchinson arrived for a six-month stay in New Zealand in 1961 she visited the museum first of all, before travelling on to North Island; she interviewed at length its then Assistant Director, Graham Turbott, regarding the huia, as she seemed most interested in this species. After reaching North Island, she spent October at the Lake House Hotel, Waikaremoana, in the Urewera State Forest, where she was studying the native bush (forest).

On 12 October, Hutchinson spent the day at a smaller lake called Waikareiti, three miles further on from her hotel, and set amidst New Zealand beech woodland. She had been sitting by the track leading to the lake, watching some large, red-and-green native parrots called kakas pecking dead wood off a tree, when suddenly, as she was looking across a small valley nearby, she saw a bird fly up the middle of it, and disappear into some beeches. It was of similar size to the kaka (17-19 in) but was of slighter build, and its plumage was black, except for the white-banded tip of its tail. In the field-guide that she later consulted, the picture most closely matching her bird was the huia’s.

19th-Century engraving depicting a pair of huias

As she noted in an article published in the RSPB’s Birds magazine (September-October 1970), Hutchinson recounted her sighting not only to William Phillipps but also to Dr R.A. Falla (then Director of Wellington’s Dominion Museum), another major authority on New Zealand birds. Both men were sufficiently impressed to deem it likely that she had genuinely seen a huia; in The Book of the Huia, Phillipps goes so far as to conclude: “...there appears to be little doubt she did see a huia”.

However, we must also consider the possibility that Hutchinson’s evident interest in this species actually conspired against her. Could a combination of excitement and surprise at the bird’s brief and unexpected debut have ‘transformed’ it (albeit unconsciously) in her eyes from its true identity (some still-surviving species, such as a tui) into a huia? In short, could her huia have been an illusion, created unconsciously by an innate desire to see one? The human brain can play some quite extraordinary tricks on our eyes, often ‘filling in’ details that are not actually there, or modifying the appearance of an object to accord with some subconscious thought or memory - and all without the person concerned even realising what is happening.

A mounted female huia (Fritz Geller/Grimm,Wikipedia)

More recently, in 1991, Copenhagen University zoologist Lars Thomas, who has a longstanding interest in cryptozoology, also claimed to have seen a huia, while visiting North Island’s Pureora Forest.

Yet if the huia really does still survive, why has it not been formally rediscovered by now? In a foreword to Phillipps’s book, Falla noted that even at best, New Zealand’s bush is not overly conducive to easy birdwatching, requiring such a sustained effort to explore the multitude of potential hideaways for birds that there is rarely enough time to carry out detailed observations at any one given spot, so that all-too-many of its birds are not sighted at all. Having spent quite some time birdwatching in New Zealand during 2006, I can certainly vouch for this.

A New Zealand postage stamp issued in 1898 featuring a pair of huias

If the huia is alive, it has probably retreated into areas that even by the bush’s standards are quite inaccessible, and thus less readily disturbed. Indeed, over the years a number of people have informed Ron Scarlett of possible huia sightings in the remoter regions of the Kaimanawa range, so that he deems it possible that the species still survives here. Moreover, as Hutchinson revealed in her article, careful analysis of the post-1907 reports documented by Phillipps do seem to indicate a movement northwards — away from the huia’s most favoured former provenance, the Tarawera Range (now divided up by agricultural cultivation), and into a wilder, mountainous forest region (much less accessible to humans), perhaps as far as the Urewera State Forest after all.

Equally, Ron Scarlett has identified subfossil huia bones from moa-hunter middens on the Taranaki coast, and from limestone caves in the Mahoenui area, lying on the border of North Taranaki and South Auckland, and much further north than the huia’s known modern-day distribution. Could this region’s more remote portions be another putative retreat of surviving huias?

Perhaps some huias took refuge in certain northern areas less readily reached by humans during their species’ last stand in its favoured territory. In addition, there might be areas that have always housed a resident huia population, wholly unknown to the Europeans, so that this truly unique species - New Zealand’s handsome and quite astonishing bird with two beaks - still survives after all.


RESURRECTING THE HUIA? SEND IN THE CLONES!

The extraordinary ingenuity of practical techniques employed in the field of molecular biology may eventually render superfluous searches in the field for officially extinct species in the hope of rediscovering them. Some scientists are already anticipating a time when extinct species may be resurrected in the laboratory instead - by cloning, using DNA extracted from preserved tissues. Indeed, the huia is one 'classic' extinct bird that may well become the focus of just such an attempt in the not-too-distant future.

Keulemans's painting of a huia pair within the 1st edition (1873) of Sir Walter Buller's A History of the Birds of New Zealand

In July 1999, a conference attended by biologists, bioethicists, and Maori representatives was held in New Zealand to discuss the exciting possibility of reviving the huia by cloning, using DNA samples retained in museums' taxiderm specimens. Cyberuni, a firm based in New Zealand and California, is offering to help fund the project if suitable DNA samples can be found. Even so, some researchers have objected to the plan, claiming that the huia's extinction was a natural process demonstrating its unviability as a species.

In reality, however, a major part of this bird's decline was due to over-hunting for its prized tail plumes, to diseases carried by non-native species introduced to New Zealand by Europeans, and to stuffed specimens being too zealously sought by museums and private collectors. Consequently, if the huia could be restored, humanity would merely be redressing the balance.

A New Zealand postage stamp issued in 1996 featuring a pair of huias





Monday, 24 June 2013

DISCOVERING THE DACRE BEASTS

The Dacre black griffin – one of the four Dacre Beasts (© Victoria & Albert Museum)

Yesterday, Facebook friend Robert Schneck uploaded some photographs onto my Photogenic Fauna and Flora group page that greatly intrigued me. They portrayed a quartet of very spectacular animal statues – a black-painted griffin with gilded beak and fore-claws, a white ram (albeit one that, curiously, lacked horns), a crown-bearing white salmon (although sometimes referred to as a dolphin!), and a red bull with a gilded crown around its neck - each of which was wielding its own unique standard. He stated that these were known as the Dacre Beasts, but as no additional information was present, and as I had never heard of them before, my interest was seriously piqued.

Following an intense Googling session, however, I finally uncovered their remarkable story. So here it is – for the first time on ShukerNature, the fascinating history of the Dacre Beasts.

The Dacre white ram and Dacre white salmon (© Greens n cornbread/Flickr)

They derive their name from Thomas Dacre (1467-1525) - a brave soldier from Cumbria who, unfortunately, fought for the losing Yorkist King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 against the victorious Lancastrian Henry Tudor, who duly became King Henry VII, founder of the Tudor Dynasty. Happily, however, Dacre survived (unlike Richard III), became Lord Dacre, and sometime between 1507 and 1525 he commissioned the carving by local Cumbrian craftsmen of the statue quartet bearing his family's name. Unique examples of large-scale free-standing English Renaissance heraldic woodcarving, each Dacre statue stands 7 ft tall, and all of them were created from the trunk of the same oak tree on the estate of Naworth Castle at Brampton, near Carlisle, in Cumbria, which was the Dacre family home at that time. They were repainted shortly after a major fire at the castle in 1844, which, thankfully, they survived, and were restored in 1849 under the supervision of Victorian architect Anthony Salvin. Their standards and tinned copper banners were also added during the 1800s.

But what do the Dacre Beasts represent? According to Ben Le Vay's engrossing book Eccentric London: A Practical Guide to a Curious City (2012), they all have links to the Dacre lineage. The griffin represents Lord Dacre's ancestor, Ranulph de Dacre, who in 1335 fortified Naworth Castle, and founded one of northern England's most powerful families during that period in English history; its banner bears the 19th-Century arms (three rose chaplets) of the Greystoke family (The New Greystoke Arms). Chaplets are bearings representing a garland of leaves with four flowers at equal distances, and they signify great military prowess. Interestingly, the Dacre griffin directly inspired Lewis Carroll's creation of the gryphon in his classic children's book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

The hornless ram represents Ranulph de Dacre's wife – a member of the de Multon family (or Mouton - French for sheep, hence the ram); its arms are borne upon the banner, and include a lion passant gardant with three bars gules (red) upon argent (silver). The salmon (or dolphin?) represents Lord Dacre's wife, Elizabeth de Greystoke (1477-1516), with whom he eloped in 1488 when a young man; the banner displays her arms, which are three cushions of argent. The red bull, with gilded horns, tongue, hooves, and the crown around its neck, was the emblem of the Dacre family; and its banner bears their arms – three white scallops on a red field.

The Dacre red bull (© Victoria & Albert Museum)

So where are the Dacre Beasts today? For over 400 years, they remained ensconced in stately seclusion within the Great Hall of Naworth Castle. In 1999, however, they were donated to the British Government in lieu of inheritance tax by the castle's then owner, Philip Howard (whose family gained it when Sir William Howard married Elizabeth Dacre in 1577).

Since then, they have been held and displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. So here is you should visit if you wish to see for yourself four of the most magnificent animal statues from the annals of English history and heraldry.

The Dacre Beasts (© Victoria & Albert Museum)







Tuesday, 11 June 2013

CRYPTOZOOLOGY IN THE VATICAN

A bizarre, still-unidentified mystery beast depicted in Pietro Candido Decembrio's Animal Book (1460)

A few years ago, a friend bought me a wonderful little book entitled And To Every Beast..., one in a series of beautifully-illustrated thematic mini-volumes collectively entitled Treasures of the Vatican Library. All of them combine biblical quotations with illustrations selected from various tomes or manuscripts held in the vast collection of the Vatican's library (which contains over one million printed books, as well as 150,000 manuscripts and some 100,000 prints).

And To Every Beast... (Millennium Books: Alexandria, NSW, Australia, 1994)

And To Every Beast... focused upon animals, real and mythological, but it greatly intrigued me, because although it contained versions of several famous illustrations present in other bestiaries, it also included some eye-opening pictures that I'd never seen before, of creatures that were so extraordinary as to be scarcely identifiable with anything known either to modern-day zoology or to zoomythology. This made all the more frustrating the fact that it did not state anywhere within its pages the original book or manuscript in the Vatican library that was the source of its pictures.

Happily, however, an online investigation via Google soon uncovered that elusive source publication. It was The Animal Book, written by famous Italian humanist and Renaissance author Pietro Candido Decembrio (1399-1477), commissioned by Ludovico Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, and published in 1460, with its illustrations added during the next century. So now, having solved that little mystery, here are some of this early tome's most fascinating if baffling illustrations, together with some commentary by me on what they may, or may not, depict.


TRUNKO LIVES?

And where better to begin than with the totally bewildering, ostensibly aquatic mystery animal featured in the illustration opening this ShukerNature blog post and reproduced again below.

A hoofed, flippered, long-tailed, short-trunked mystery beast

Scouring the Web, I have found that some sites have sought to identify it as a sea lion, but I see little if any resemblance to those particular pinnipeds. More plausible, even if only for the trunk-like proboscis, is an elephant seal, but the depicted beast's long tail and, especially, its hoofed forelegs, swiftly eliminate this from serious consideration – unless the artist was attempting to illustrate such a creature merely from a verbal description (and quite probably a somewhat less than accurate one at that), rather than a physical specimen, because elephant seals weren't known scientifically until the mid-/late 1600s. Similarly, the aardvark Orycteropus afer, another potential identity (albeit greatly distorted), remained scientifically undescribed until 1766; and the platypus Ornithorhynchus anatinus, which has also been suggested by some, remained unknown to Europeans until 1798.

When I first looked at this picture, the identity that came into my mind was that of a desman, especially the Russian desman Desmana moschata - that large aquatic relative of moles, which possesses a proboscis, a long tail, and clawed flipper-like hindfeet. However, this species' forefeet are also clawed and flipper-like, not hoofed (unless, once again, the artist was basing his illustration upon an inaccurate verbal description only?).

A stuffed Russian desman (Didier Descouens/Museum of Toulouse/Wikipedia)

Out of sheer desperation, I might even have considered the dramatic possibility that this was a portrait of the enigmatic Trunko - had I not been personally responsible for the latter entity's conclusive exposure as a non-living globster (click here for the full revelation). Perhaps the most reasonable assumption is that it represents some hoax taxiderm specimen, created via the skilful union of body parts from a variety of different creatures and displayed at sideshows or other public exhibitions, alongside stuffed mermaids, preserved dragons, dried Jenny Hanivers, and other assorted fauna of the fraudulent, fabricated kind.


A SCALY FISH-MAN?

Equally perplexing is this illustration of a humanoid figure completely covered in green scales. One might be forgiven for initially assuming that it was meant to represent a merman. However, it possesses neither a fishtail (sporting instead a normal, fully-formed pair of legs) nor even any webbing between its fingers, in stark contrast to typical mermen – one of which is depicted elsewhere in the same book, thereby emphasising the difference between itself and this weird scaly human.

The scaly fish-man illustration

Conversely, it may constitute an image of a man suffering from ichthyosis – a sometimes-extreme skin disorder in which the sufferer can indeed be covered in thick green scale-like flakes of skin. In the distant past, several unfortunate persons with this unsightly but striking medical condition have been displayed at freak shows and similar exhibitions, usually labelled as 'fish-men'.

The typical merman illustration


OTHER ODDITIES

Much the same problems arise with many of the other creatures depicted in Candido's book, i.e. are they (a) mythical, are they (b) real but sometimes inaccurately represented, or are they (c) potentially cryptozoological?

An oenophilic cynocephalus

Examples clearly belonging to the first of those three categories include a basilisk and a cockatrice, a griffin, an amphisbaena, a manticore, a flying horse, and a pair of onocentaurs; plus a donkey unicorn (or unicorn donkey?); a more typical white unicorn but with a red face and tricoloured horn; a manticore-related, tapir-reminiscent beast of legend known as a leucrocuta; a hairy dog-headed man or cynocephalus scrutinising a goblet of red wine; a peacock-crested, azure-breasted phoenix with crimson wings and rooster-like wattles; and a bat-winged, scaly-bodied, limbless aerial dragon known as an amphiptere.

A many-hued phoenix

Those from the second category, meanwhile, include such familiar beasts as a lion, a lynx, a leopard, an eagle, a lammergeyer, an owl, an elephant, a stag, various hounds and horses, and a pelican, all depicted fairly or very naturally. Also present, but in stark contrast to the above-listed animals in terms of accurate representation, is a brown giraffe patterned only with a light speckling of small white flecks and armed with a pair of long curved antelope-like horns. Nor should (or could!) we overlook a gaudy multicoloured rhinoceros with extraordinary body armour that was clearly based upon the famous rhinoceros engraving of 1515 by Albrecht Dürer.

A sparsely-patterned, antelope-horned giraffe

And creatures from the third (and most intriguing) category not only include the trunked mystery beast and scaly humanoid already discussed here. Also worthy of consideration are such curiosities as a snake bearing a veritable crown of horns around its brow; another one with a pair of lateral cow-like horns; a carnivorous deer (judging from its dentition) with antlers so palmate in shape that they resemble a pair of human hands; an even more mysterious carnivorous mammal with claws but a horse-like mane plus bright red fur mottled with grey and gold patches; and a frog sporting a pair of very long, slender, almost upright horns upon its head.

A lynx and the red mystery carnivore

What could have inspired such zoological oddities? A verbal description of a horned viper may possibly have inspired the bovine snake's depiction, but what of the others?

A frog with horns

Whoever would have guessed that the Vatican was such a rich repository of cryptozoological and zoomythological exotica? And if you can obtain a copy of And To Every Beast..., please do so, because it's a thoroughly delightful, beautiful little book – highly recommended!!!

The multicoloured rhino and red-faced unicorn