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.

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com/index.htm

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my ShukerNature blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my published books (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Eclectarium blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Starsteeds blog's poetry and other lyrical writings (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

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Monday, 28 October 2013

BONES OF THE THUNDER HORSE

A magnificent model by Jeff Johnson of Brontotherium (=Brontops, =Megacerops) (© Jeff Johnson)

One of the most spectacular beasts from Amerindian mythology must surely be a huge, terrifying creature known as the thunder horse. According to Sioux legends emanating from Nebraska and South Dakota, thunder is the sound produced by the impact of its hooves when it leaps down from the skies to the ground during violent storms, and while on Earth it also uses its hooves to slay bison. Needless to say, it would be tempting to postulate that this extraordinary story was inspired by eyewitness accounts of some mysterious living creature - accounts perhaps passed down verbally from one generation to another for many centuries and subjected to much elaboration and exaggeration, but nonetheless derived ultimately from original encounters with a modern-day animal. In fact, the true solution is very different.

The thunder horse legend actually arose from occasional discoveries by the Sioux Nation of huge fossilised bones - which usually came to light by being washed up out of the ground during heavy rainstorms. Unable to explain their origin, but aware of their appearances' coincidence with rain, the Sioux assumed that they were the earthbound remains of some immense, storm-engendered sky beast - and thus was the legend born.

The Sioux thunder horse, aka Brontotherium (© Jeff Johnson)

In reality, the bones were from an enormous rhinoceros-like ungulate, standing 8 ft tall at the shoulder and belonging to an extinct family of horse-related perissodactyls aptly called titanotheres. The type responsible for the thunder horse legend had existed roughly 35 million years ago, during the late Eocene epoch, and it had borne upon its nasal bones a massive V-shaped projection most closely resembling the horn-like structures (ossicones) of the giraffes. When this creature's remains were examined during the 1870s by the celebrated American palaeontologist Prof. Othniel Charles Marsh, its intimately-associated thunder horse myth inspired him to christen it Brontotherium - 'thunder beast'.

NB - In recent years, the genus Brontotherium (along with Brontops and several other brontothere genera of titanothere) has been synonymised with Megacerops by some researchers, but as far as its legendary past is concerned, this spectacular beast will always be the thunder horse – a monumental physical embodiment of the thunderstorm's awesome power and terror.

Brontotherium (© Jeff Johnson)

To read online a poem of mine, 'Behold The Thunder Horse', inspired by the Sioux Nation's thunder horse legend and contained in my self-penned poetry book Star Steeds and Other Dreams (2009), click here.

This ShukerNature post is excerpted and updated from my book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), which is to be re-issued in the not-too-distant future due to popular demand, so be sure to keep a lookout for it!

Restoration of a pair of Brontotherium titanotheres (Dmitry Bogdanov/Wikipedia)




Sunday, 27 October 2013

MY VERY OWN CRYPTO-BIRD? - QUAILING AT THE POTENTIAL REDISCOVERY OF A LONG-LOST SPECIES

 
The New Zealand quail or koreke

In November 2006, I visited the island bird sanctuary of Tiritiri Matangi, off Auckland, New Zealand, home to some of this country’s rarest birds, including the famous takahe Porphyrio mantelli, the saddleback or tieke Philesturnus carunculatus, the North Island wattled crow or kokako Callaeas cinerea wilsoni, and the stitchbird Notiomystis cincta, all of which I was fortunate enough to espy in the wild state here. Walking back down from the island’s summit at the end of my visit, en route towards the ferry that would return me to Auckland, I noticed on the path up ahead two brown quail-like birds. They seemed rather large for Australian brown quails Coturnix ypsilophora, a non-native species that I knew had been introduced here long ago (as elsewhere in New Zealand), but they were otherwise similar and were definitely quails, as I readily confirmed with my binoculars before they scurried away into the undergrowth.

I thought no more of my sighting until May 2007. That was when I was startled to learn that this tiny island may still be home to a species hitherto thought to have become extinct everywhere as far back in time as 1875. And the species in question? The New Zealand quail or koreke Coturnix novaezealandiae. Larger than the Australian brown quail and once common throughout New Zealand, by 1840 the koreke had become much less so, due to habitat destruction for farming. By 1870, it had been exterminated on North Island, and by 1875 it had also disappeared on South Island, since when the koreke has been regarded as extinct.

The Australian brown quail (Peripitus/Wikipedia)

In May 2007, however, I read a report stating that Massey University ornithological researcher Mark Seabrook-Davison had begun conducting DNA tests upon the quails on Tiritiri, because various researchers suspected that at least some of these birds might not be Australian quails at all, but may instead be surviving specimens of the koreke! If this were true, it meant that back in November 2006 I could well have seen an officially long-extinct, still formally undiscovered species.

Sadly, however, Seabrook-Davison's tests subsequently revealed that the Tiritiri birds, although indeed larger, were genetically identical to the Australian brown quail. So New Zealand’s own vanished species had not been resurrected after all. But for a few precious months, I had experienced the magic of what it must be like to encounter a cryptid. And in any case, I had also seen, at very close range, a celebrated former cryptid – the spectacular takahe. So my visit to Tiritiri Matangi was still a notable success for me, and will always remain one of my fondest memories of my travels around the globe.

One of the takahes that I encountered on Tiritiri Matangi (Dr Karl Shuker)



Friday, 25 October 2013

HORNED HORSES AND HORSES WITH HORNS – DECIDEDLY DIFFERENT FROM HEAD TO TOE(S)

Photograph from c.1870 depicting a very spectacular horned horse

Horned horses and horses with horns – they may sound anomalous (and indeed they are!), but such creatures are certainly one and the same thing, surely? Not at all – in fact, it is true in every sense to say that they are different from head to toe(s) !!


HORSES WITH HORNS

During the 19th Century, eminent French zoologist Baron Georges Cuvier loftily denounced that most mystical and magical of legendary beasts, the unicorn, as a zoological impossibility - claiming that a single median horn could never arise and develop from the paired frontal (brow) bones of a mammal's skull. Since Cuvier's damning pronouncement, the unicorn has received short shrift from science. Yet this attitude may be both unjust and unjustified.

The classical unicorn of equine form (Edward Topsell)

To begin with: in 1934, Maine University biologist Dr William Franklin Dove successfully, and spectacularly, refuted Cuvier's claim concerning the growth of a single median horn from the frontal bones - by creating a bovine unicorn. He achieved this remarkable feat by removing the embryonic horn buds from a day-old Ayrshire bull calf, trimming their edges flat, then transplanting them side by side onto the centre of the calf's brow. Growing in close contact with one another, the transplanted buds yielded a massive single horn, which proved so successful a weapon that its owner soon became the undisputed leader of an entire herd of cattle. Yet despite his dominance, this unicorn bull was a very placid beast, thus resembling the legendary unicorn not only morphologically but also behaviourally. Just a coincidence?

Dr Dove's remarkable bovine unicorn (Dr William Franklin Dove)

Some researchers have since speculated that perhaps ancient people knew of this simple technique, and had created single-horned herd leaders, whose imposing appearance and noble temperament thereafter became incorporated into the evolving unicorn legend.

Thus, the development of a single median horn is not an impossibility after all - at least not in cattle, that is. Horses, however, must surely be a very different matter, bearing in mind that they do not even grow paired horns (let alone median ones) - or do they?

In fact, records of horses with horns, though rare, are by no means unknown. In 1929, for instance, German zoologists P.P. Winogradow and A.L. Frolow published a short account within the journal Anatomische Anzeiger concerning a horse that had exhibited lateral horn development on its brow, accompanied by a photograph of the horse's skull.

Moreover, in an American Museum Novitates paper of 17 August 1934, S. Harmsted Chubb documented several horses each exhibiting a small pair of lateral skin-ensheathed frontal protuberances just above the eyes. In the photos of some such horses contained in Chubb's paper, however, these 'horns' can be seen to be tightly pressed against the side of the horse's skull, not projecting outward, away from the skull.

A work horse from Sheffield exhibiting a small pair of frontal protuberances, from Chubb's paper

Far more intriguing, conversely, is the following excerpt, from South American explorer Felix de Azara's Natural History of the Quadrupeds of Paraguay and the River La Plata (1837):

I have heard for a fact, that, a short time ago, a horse was born in Santa Fé de la Vera Cruz, which had two horns like a bull, four inches long, sharp and erect, growing close to the ears; and that another from Chili was brought to Don John Augustin Videla, a native of Buenos Ayres [sic], with strong horns, three inches high. This horse, they tell me, was remarkably gentle; but, when offended, he attacked like a bull. Videla sent the horse to some of his relatives in Mendoza, who gave it to an inhabitant of Cordova in Tucuman, who intended, as it was a stallion, to endeavour to form a race of horned horses. I am not aware of the results, which may probably have been favorable.

Thus, if horses can occasionally develop paired frontal horns and a median horn can be induced to grow from the frontal bones of cattle, then surely in this unrivalled age of biological modification, where sophisticated techniques yielding cloned, transgenic, and other man-made life forms are already commonplace, it would not be difficult to conduct a slightly modified version of Dove's experiments - using equine-derived horn (or horn-substitute) tissue, and a foal, instead of a calf, as the recipient?

Engineering a genuine equine unicorn would make a fascinating project for any zoological team capable of ignoring the sound of Cuvier turning loudly in his grave. After all, it isn't every day that science is granted the opportunity to create a living legend.

But if that is what constitutes a horse with horns, what, then, is a horned horse? I'm glad you asked!


HORNED HORSES

One of the most frequently reported and familiar of teratological conditions exhibited by humans is the possession of extra fingers and/or toes - polydactyly. However, this genetically-induced phenomenon has also been widely recorded among many domestic animals (e.g. dogs, cats, horses, pigs, chickens, pet rats and mice, guineapigs), as well as from wild species as diverse as bats, salamanders, leopards, llamas, and even the Malaysian flying lemur. Moreover, it can take several different forms, each under the control of a different mutant allele (gene form).

Representative sequence of evolutionary decrease in equine toe number (Mcy jerry/Wikipedia)

Probably the most famous non-human examples of extra-toed mammals can be found among the records of polydactylous horses. One of the classic examples of evolution is the gradual disappearance over millions of years of all but one of the horse's functional toes. The horse lineage began with the Eocene epoch's 'dawn horse' Hyracotherium (formerly called Eohippus), with four functional toes on each forefoot; leading on to Mesohippus of the Oligocene epoch, with three toes; to Merychippus of the Miocene, in which the two lateral toes were greatly reduced in size so that they no longer touched the ground; and to Pliohippus of the Pliocene, whose two lateral toes were merely insignificant splints whereas its central toe was massively enlarged, with its single hoof (modified toenail) bearing the animal's entire body weight. This same condition is present in normal specimens of all modern-day horses too, belonging to the genus Equus. (It should be noted, however, that this is not a direct, straight-line evolutionary series, one genus leading directly to the next, even though it is commonly if erroneously presented as such, because several other genera of horses also appeared and disappeared during equine evolution, exhibiting varying numbers of toes.)

Nevertheless, the teratological literature contains numerous well-documented cases of abnormal modern-day horses (notably of the Shire horse breed) that possess one or more well-developed lateral toes, often bearing their own hooves and sometimes even touching the ground alongside the normal, massive central toe's hoof - as if determined to reverse the course of their own evolution! The spontaneous occurrence in an individual of a trait like this that constitutes an evolutionary throwback is known as atavism.

One such horse was an extraordinary 19th-Century specimen from Texas, which possessed a pair of well-developed lateral toes on each hind foot, curving downwards on either side of the central one like horns - as a result of which this specimen became known as the horned horse. In contrast, only one such toe, positioned on the central toe's inner side, was present on each forefoot. It was from this specimen that other polydactylous horses also became known as horned horses, a term used in particular with specimens exhibited in sideshows, carnivals, circuses, etc.

Line drawing of the original horned horse, from Texas

These very distinctive-looking horses have a long history, and include among their number a renowned steed of Julius Caesar. According to Suetonius in de Vita Caesaria (vol. LXVI):

[Caesar] used to ride a remarkable horse, which had feet that were almost human, the hoofs being cleft like toes. It was born in his own stables, and as the soothsayers declared that it showed the owner would be lord of the world, he reared it with great care, and was the first to mount it; it would allow no other rider.

This account and many others were included within a major paper on the subject by Prof. Othniel C. Marsh, published during April 1892 in the American Journal of Science. As Marsh noted, the extent of polydactyly exhibited by horses varies greatly. Some such specimens merely exhibit a small extra toe (often barely visible externally) on the inner side of one or both forefeet. In more notable cases, two such toes, one on each side of the normal central toe, may be present, plus one or a comparable pair on one or both hind feet (although these latter are usually smaller than their counterparts on the forefeet). In much rarer cases, however, these various supernumerary toes may be much more highly developed, to the extent that the affected feet compare favourably with the normal feet of the Miocene horse Merychippus, and even occasionally with the Oligocene's Mesohippus. Most dramatic of all are the extremely rare examples that not only mirror the Mesohippus condition but also possess a tiny fourth toe, representing the ancestral pollex (thumb) or hallux (big toe).

Line drawing of Clique

The most celebrated example of this last-mentioned and very extreme equine polydactylous state is the so-called 'six-footed' horse owned by Theodore F. Wood of New Jersey and named Clique, who was exhibited at shows for many years in the U.S.A. and elsewhere. Clique died at an advanced age in January 1891, whereupon his owner presented his body to Prof. Marsh for the Yale Museum. Marsh observed that whereas his hind feet were basically normal, each of Clique's forefeet sported a well-developed toe on the central toe's inner side. For much of its length, this extra toe was separate from the central toe, bore its own long hoof, and actually made contact with the ground, so that each forefoot appeared double. This explained Clique's 'six-footed' appellation, because on first sight he seemed to possess two hind feet and four forefeet. In addition, close observations revealed that another supernumerary toe was represented by a splint-like structure on the outer side of the central toe on each of Clique's forefeet, whereas just under the skin in the locality of the ancestral pollex a similar splint could be felt that corresponded to a fourth toe!

Even more remarkable than Clique, however, though less famous, was a so-called 'eight-footed' Cuban horse depicted in Marsh's paper and reproduced below here in the present ShukerNature post, which gained its name from the fact that all four of its feet each bore a well-developed second toe on the inner side of the normal central toe, one again bearing its own hoof and making contact with the ground alongside the latter.

Line drawing of the 'eight-footed' Cuban horse examined by Prof. Othniel C. Marsh

This horse, a male, was on exhibition in New Orleans during spring 1878, and it was Dr Sanford E. Chaillé from that city who drew Prof. Marsh's attention to it. The horse was subsequently brought to the North, and a few days later was displayed at New Haven, Connecticut, where Marsh closely examined it.

As with the occasional reappearance of dew-claws on the hind feet of dogs, polydactyly in horses involves the redevelopment of toes normally absent in modern-day species but present in ancestral ones (rather than simply involving the duplication of existing toes, as occurring, for example, in polydactylous humans and cats). A plausible explanation for this type of polydactyly is that during the evolution of the horse, the genes responsible for the formation of all toes other than the central one became increasingly repressed by other genes, whereas those responsible for the central toe actually intensified their activity, so that eventually the latter was the only toe that was 'permitted' to form. Applying this theory to modern-day polydactylous horses, it could be argued that during their embryonic development something goes wrong with the repression mechanism acting upon the genes responsible for the formation of those ancestral toes, so that it fails to operate, with the result that these ostensibly 'lost' toes reappear - conjured forth as if by magic from their prehistoric past.

Painting of the supposed eight-footed horse owned by Mark Sittich von Hohenems, Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg (© Curious Expeditions/Flickr)

According to a very beautiful colour painting portraying it (above), a bona fide eight-footed horse (i.e. one that possessed two entirely separate feet on each leg, not just supernumerary toes) was owned by Mark Sittich von Hohenems, Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg (1574-1619), who was renowed for his collection of rare and unusual animals. The horse had been obtained in Arabia, each of its alleged eight feet possessed its own horseshoe in the painting, and the painting itself is on public display at the Palace Helbrunn (now a museum), situated between Salzburg and Untersberg, Austria. Whether or not the horse was truly eight-footed, however, or whether the painting is merely a very imaginative depiction of a horned horse comparable to the Cuban specimen documented earlier here, is unknown.

Whenever talking about eight-footed horses, one cannot help but be tempted to think of Norse mythology and Odin's famous eight-footed steed, Sleipnir – but there was one fundamental difference between Sleipnir and the horned horses documented here. Not only did Sleipnir have eight fully-formed feet (not just extra toes that looked a little like extra feet), he also had eight legs!

Odin riding Sleipnir (W.G. Collingwood)

One last comment, just to add a further level of confusion to horses with horns and horned horses: sometimes, again most especially in sideshows, circuses, and suchlike, 'horned horse' is a term that has been applied to a gnu or wildebeest – this large African antelope (which actually constitutes two very closely-related species) does look superficially equine but possesses a pair of very noticeable horns.

A white-tailed (aka black) gnu Connochaetes gnou, one of two antelopine 'horned horses' (public domain)




Sunday, 20 October 2013

TWO YETI CORPSES – MUMMIFIED BUT MISSING?

A full-scale animatronic yeti (Dr Karl Shuker)

I’m always pleased to receive an update of an ostensibly long-forgotten cryptozoological story, especially when it’s a personal favourite of mine, like this one.

As reported by Heuvelmans, myself, and others, back in 1953 a Tibetan lama called Chemed Rigdzin Dorje Lopu announced that he had personally examined the mummified bodies of two yetis – one at the monastery at Riwoche in the Tibetan province of Kham, the other in the monastery at Sakya, southern Tibet.

Reconstruction of the yeti (Michael Playfair)

According to Heuvelmans’s account of this lama’s very interesting claim:

They were enormous monkeys about 2.40 m high. They had thick flat skulls and their bodies were covered with dark brown hair about 3 to 5 cm long. Their tails were extremely short.

The thought that such extraordinarily significant cryptozoological relics (if genuine) may still survive today has long intrigued me. Consequently, I was delighted when on 13 February 2010 I was contacted by correspondent Peter Pesavento who informed me that he had been actively pursuing this mystery himself, and had emailed both monasteries. Unfortunately, he did not receive a reply from Sakya, but Samten O’Sullivan had very recently replied to him on behalf of Riwoche.

Reconstruction of the yeti (Richard Svensson)

Samten informed Peter that, tragically, the monastery had been razed to the ground following China’s annexing of Tibet and all of its precious contents had been looted or burnt. Consequently, although the monastery was subsequently rebuilt (and as an exact replica of the original), any yeti mummy that may have been in the original building is certainly not present in the new one. Whether it was removed and taken elsewhere or simply destroyed, however, is another matter, which seems unlikely ever to be resolved.

Yeti footprint cast, based upon the Shipton yeti footprint photos of 1951 (Dr Karl Shuker)

Nevertheless, even knowing where something is not (namely, in the new Riwoche monastery) is still better than knowing nothing about it at all.

Reconstruction of the yeti (Tim Morris)

And if they have survived and are one day rediscovered, how fascinating it would be (judging at least from his revelation on tonight's Channel 4 television programme 'Bigfoot Files' regarding yeti hair DNA) if DNA could be extracted from them and examined by expert geneticist Prof. Bryan Sykes from Oxford University. Then at last we would finally know what these mysterious 'mega-monkey' mummies really were.

Reconstruction of the yeti (LeCire/Wikipedia, public domain)

This ShukerNature blog is excerpted from my book Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo (2010), soon to be available from CFZ Press as an e-book!







Thursday, 10 October 2013

THE GIANT RAT OF SUMATRA – ZOOLOGICAL FACT, NOT SHERLOCK HOLMES FICTION




"Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson,” said Holmes, in a reminiscent voice. “It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared..." 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle –
‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’, 
from The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927)


Contrary to the assumption by many aficionados of the Sherlock Holmes stories that it was wholly fictional, there really is a giant rat of Sumatra. Yet despite having been scientifically described as long ago as 1888 (by eminent mammalogist Oldfield Thomas of London's Natural History Museum), until as recently as the 1980s it had remained largely a mystery, even to zoologists.

In 1983, however, following an in-depth study of this mighty 2-ft-long rodent, Dr Guy G. Musser (Curator of Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History) and museum research student Cameron Newcomb attempted to disperse the longstanding veil of obscurity surrounding it by publishing its very first full scientific description. Their paper appeared in the museum’s Bulletin.

The real Sumatran giant rat, Sundamys infraluteus (© hgeorge/Hong Kong Bird Watching Society)

A very large, mountain forest-dwelling species with dense, woolly, dark-brown fur (characterised by extremely lengthy guard hairs) and powerful jaws, the Sumatran giant rat had traditionally been categorised as a typical, Rattus rat. After a meticulous investigation of its anatomy, however, one that surely would have met with Holmes’s own approval, Musser and Newcomb recognized that its aural, nasal, and dental characteristics fully justified separation of this legendary form from the Rattus horde. As a result, they officially rehoused it in a new genus, Sundamys, along with two other Asian species.

The Sumatran giant rat (© Karen Phillipps)

The Sumatran giant rat is now known formally as Sundamys infraluteus, and is not deemed to be endangered, being recorded not only from a sizeable area of Sumatra but also from both Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo. Its two congeners are Bartels's rat S. maxi, and Müller's giant Sunda rat S. muelleri.

Formally described in 1931 as a valid species but later classified merely as a subspecies of the Sumatran giant rat until re-elevated to the rank of a species in its own right by Musser and Newcomb in their 1983 paper, Bartels's rat remains scarcely-known even today. It is represented only by 21 specimens collected between 1932 and 1935 from two locations on Java by Max Bartels Jr, and is categorized as Endangered by the IUCN.

Muller's giant Sunda rat (© asiakarsts.wordpress.com)

As for Müller's giant Sunda rat: originally described in 1879, this species has the widest distribution of the Sundamys trio, being recorded from Indonesia (including Borneo's Indonesian region and Sumatra, but not Java), Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand, and is not deemed to be endangered. It is a primarily terrestrial, lowland species.

My Sherlock Holmes toby jug confronting the giant rat of Sumatra! (Dr Karl Shuker)

As a longstanding Sherlock Holmes fan, I'm aware that although the giant rat of Sumatra's case was never documented by Dr Watson within the original, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle canon of Sherlock Holmes fiction, it has inspired several pastiches penned by other authors, yielding an extremely diverse range of identities for it.

Richard L. Boyer's giant rat of Sumatra novel

These include such memorable candidates as a tapir, in Richard L. Boyer's novel The Giant Rat of Sumatra (1976); a monstrous mega-rat called Harat who rules a nation of sub-humans in Alan Vanneman's novel Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra (2003) (not to be confused with an entirely different but identically-titled novel by Paul D. Gilbert, published in 2010); and, perhaps most bizarrely of all, a preternatural maritime horror, in a story penned by none other than H.P. Lovecraft!

Alan Vanneman's giant rat of Sumatra novel

The mega-murid also appears in a novel featuring what must be the most extraordinary literary pairing ever – Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula! These two iconic if diametrically dissimilar figures reluctantly join forces to confront a nefarious plot to destroy London using plague-bearing rats in Fred Saberhagen's The Holmes-Dracula File (1978), with the giant rat of Sumatra being the principal vector.

Paul D. Gilbert's giant rat of Sumatra novel

This rangy rodent has even left its mark in the theatre, with a number of plays having featured it over the years. Notable among these are the Fossick Valley Fumblers theatre group's production, 'Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra', written by Bob Bishop, and debuting at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 1995; and an entirely separate but identically-titled comedy musical with music and lyrics by Jack Sharkey and book by Tim Kelly, which was first performed on 31 December 1986, by the Magnificent Moorpark Melodrama & Vaudeville Theatre, Moorpark, California, USA.

The Fossick Valley Fumblers 1990s play

Moreover, Wikipedia has an entire 'Giant Rat of Sumatra' page (click here) containing a very lengthy listing of other literary works (plus some music and TV productions) inspired by this evocative furry entity, as can readily be seen in the screenshot below of that listing.

Giant rat of Sumatra literary, music, and TV spin-offs - click to enlarge (Wikipedia)

All in all, a pretty impressive modern-day C.V. for a quasi-cryptid originally only mentioned very briefly in passing by a fictitious detective almost a century ago.








Monday, 7 October 2013

I THOUGHT I SAW A TERROR SAUR! - DO PREHISTORIC FLYING REPTILES STILL EXIST?



Are there living pterosaurs in Zambia's swamplands?

Those iconic winged reptiles of prehistory known as the pterosaurs died out alongside the last dinosaurs over 60 million years ago…didn’t they? Most mainstream zoologists would say that they did. Then again, most mainstream zoologists have probably never heard of the kongamato, the ropen, the duah, or a veritable phalanx of other winged mystery beasts reported from around the world that bear a disconcerting resemblance to those supposedly long-vanished rulers of the ancient skies. Could these cryptozoological creatures possibly be surviving pterosaurs? Read their histories here, and judge for yourself.


THE KONGAMATO – AN AFRICAN ANOMALY

The Jiundu marshes of western Zambia’s Mwinilunga District comprise a huge but remote expanse of densely-foliaged, forbidding, near-impenetrable swampland rarely visited even by the native people, let alone Westerners. This is due in no small way to the persistent local belief that this foetid morass is home to a frightening horror of a creature whose very name strikes terror among the neighbouring populace – the kongamato. It first attracted popular attention in 1923, when documented in traveller Frank H. Melland’s book In Witchbound Africa. Discussing it with the local Kaondé people, Melland learnt that this greatly-feared entity allegedly resembles a reddish-coloured lizard with membranous bat-like wings measuring 1-2 m across, a long beak crammed with teeth, and no fur or feathers on its body, just bare skin. When shown books filled with pictures of animals living and extinct, every native present immediately selected pictures of pterosaurs and identified them as representations of the kongamato. And indeed, there is no doubt that the above description of a kongamato bears a startling similarity to that of certain early, medium-sized pterosaurs known as rhamphorhynchoids, typified by their toothy beaks, as well as their long tails (the later pterodactyloids lacked teeth and tails). Nor were reports of such an animal limited to Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia).

Kongamatos attacking boats (William Rebsamen)

At much the same time, accounts of an identical mystery beast were also emanating from a comparably dense, inhospitable swamp in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and during the 1940s game warden Captain Charles R.S. Pitman referred to the reputed existence of a pterodactyl-like creature amid swamp forests near the border of Angola and the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Congo). So-called flying dragons were even mentioned by celebrated South African ichthyologist Prof. J.L.B. Smith – immortalised as the co-discoverer of another prehistoric survivor, the lobe-finned coelacanth fish back in 1938. In his book Old Fourlegs (documenting the coelacanth’s discovery), he noted that the descendants of a missionary who had lived near Mount Kilimanjaro in East Africa had long heard reports and claimed sightings of such beasts from the local people. Prof. Smith was even bold enough to state: “I did not and do not dispute at least the possibility that some such creature may still exist” – and, as someone who had recently resurrected another prehistoric lineage from many millions of ‘official’ extinction, his opinion could not be readily discounted.

My Pan paperback first edition of Old Fourlegs (Pan Books)

During the 1950s, there was much correspondence in Rhodesian newspapers on the subject of living pterosaurs, in which several zoologists, but most notably Dr Reay Smithers – director of Southern Rhodesia’s National Museum – attempted to dismiss such a notion by offering various modern-day candidates as the identity of these winged wonders. The most popular one was the shoebill Balaeniceps rex - a large superficially stork-like bird with an enormous beak, and a very impressive wingspan, which can indeed appear deceptively prehistoric when seen in flight, especially by someone not familiar with this unusual species. However, also on file are reports of natives claiming to have been attacked and severely wounded by the kongamato when it has stabbed them with its long beak - something that the shy shoebill, whose beak is in any case the wrong shape to accomplish such a deed, is unlikely to do.

The shoebill (Wikipedia)

In one instance from the 1920s, a native boldly decided to penetrate a vast Southern Rhodesian swamp traditionally deemed by his tribe to be the abode of demons, from which no-one who entered it ever returned alive, and see for himself just what did inhabit this accursed realm. Happily, he did return alive – but only just, having been badly injured, resulting in a major chest wound. When a civil servant for the region asked him what had happened, the native told him that he had encountered a huge bird of a type that he had never seen before, with a long sharp beak. Shown a book of animal pictures, he flicked through it in a desultory manner – until he came to an illustration of a pterodactyl, whereupon he let out a terrified shriek and ran out of the civil servant’s house. A comparable incident was reported from Zambia’s Lake Bangweulu swamps during the 1950s, and when the wounded native, who was taken to a Fort Rosebery hospital, was given some paper and a crayon to sketch the creature that had attacked him, the result was a silhouette that corresponded precisely with that of a pterodactyl.

Moreover, at much the same time, while working in the Zambezi Valley, Daily Telegraph correspondent Ian Colvin not only saw but actually photographed what was later claimed by one observer to be a pterodactyl. Zoologists disagreed, some stating that it was a shoebill, others a saddle-backed stork Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis – a tall bird with a very long beak that could certainly cause the kind of chest injuries noted above but which bears no resemblance to a pterosaur (or, incidentally, to a shoebill). Nor can a mammalian identity, such as a bat or gliding rodent, provide a convincing answer.

Saddle-billed stork (hyper7pro/Flickr/Wikipedia)

Attempts have also been made to explain away native beliefs in pterosaurian monsters as the result of cross-cultural contamination – their beliefs influenced by the discovery in those African regions of pterosaur fossils. However, cryptozoological researches have shown that such beliefs considerably predate any palaeontological discoveries made there.

Today, Africa’s neo-pterosaurs have been largely forgotten in the wake of other, newer cryptozoological stars, but the Jiundu swamps and similar ‘monster-haunted’ terrain still exist, awaiting exploration by anyone enthusiastic, and brave, enough to venture into their shadowy realms in search of their mysterious, potentially deadly inhabitants.


WINGING ACROSS THE AMERICAS

Amazing as it may seem, some of the most compellingly pterosaurian mystery beasts on record have been reported not from the remote wildernesses of tropical Africa but from the supposedly well-explored heartlands of North America, with Texas as the epicentre of such sightings.

Perhaps the single most dramatic modern-day pterosaur report from the New World is that of ambulance technician James Thompson, who was driving along Highway 100 to Harlingen, midway between Raymondville and Brownsville (two Texas towns that had both previously hosted pterosaur reports), on 14 September 1983 when an extraordinary creature flew across the road about 50 m ahead of him with distinct flapping wingbeats. He was so amazed by what he had seen that he stopped his ambulance and got out to get a better look at it. In his subsequent description, Thompson stated that the creature was 2.5-3-m long, with a thin body and a long tail that ended in a fin, a wingspan at least equal to the ambulance’s width (roughly 2 m), a virtually non-existent neck, but a hump on the back of its head, a pouch-like structure close to its throat, and a rough, featherless, blackish-grey skin

Attempts by others to identify what Thompson had seen with mainstream identities such as a pelican (suggested by its throat pouch but not explaining its tail fin or lack of feathers) and even an ultralight aircraft (since when have these been able to flap their wings?!) failed miserably. The only creature living or extinct that resembles it is a rhamphorhynchoid pterosaur, known to have possessed a long tail terminating in a fin.

Modern-day reconstruction of a rhamphorhynchoid pterosaur (public domain)

A remarkably similar beast was sighted during much the same time period, flying roughly 40 m away at a height of about 16 m off the ground, by Richard Guzman and a friend, Rudy, one early evening in Houston. A sketch produced by Guzman appears in Ken Gerhard’s book Big Bird! (2007), and depicts an indisputably pterosaurian entity – complete with a prominent bony head crest and a long finned tail (crests are traditionally a pterodactyloid characteristic, but at least two fossil rhamphorhynchoids are now known to have been crested too).

Ken Gerhard (CFZ)

In his book, Ken notes how, after interviewing Guzman personally (on 9 October 2003), he then read out loud from his copy of my own book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995) my documentation of Thompson’s sighting to an enthralled Guzman who, inexplicably, had not seen my book before (what?!!), and had not previously known about Thompson’s encounter.

Another notable Texan sighting had taken place back on 24 February 1976, when three school teachers driving along a lonely road southwest of San Antonio saw a huge shadow fall across the road, and when they looked up were shocked to spy a monstrous flying creature soaring overhead with a wingspan estimated by them to be 5-6 m. Its body was encased in a grey skin and its wings were membranous, seeming to them to be distinctly bat-like. They were unable to name what they had seen until, after perusing several encyclopedias, they finally came upon a creature that resembled it – America’s giant Cretaceous pterosaur, Pteranodon.

Reconstruction of Pteranodon in flight (Dr Karl Shuker)

Perhaps the most controversial case involving a reputed modern-day American pterosaur was supposedly reported by the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper on 26 April 1890, six days after the event in question had occurred. Two ranchers riding through the Huachuca desert not far from Tombstone had allegedly encountered a gigantic monster stranded on the ground and flapping its leathery featherless wings frantically as it attempted to become airborne. With a gargantuan total length of 30 m and a colossal wingspan of around 50 m, not to mention a massive beak filled with teeth, this terrifying entity petrified the ranchers – until, that is, they opened fire with their Winchester rifles, killing it outright. To confirm their story, they cut off one of the creature’s wingtips and took it back home with them, but what became of it is a mystery – just like the story itself, because no-one has so far succeeded in tracing the elusive newspaper report describing it.

However, in 1969, an elderly man called Harry McClure read about this alleged incident in a magazine, and announced that he had actually known the ranchers in question as a young man, and remembered the incident well. Even so, he claimed that it had been greatly exaggerated, stating that the beast had ‘only’ been 6.5-9 m long, possessed a single pair of sturdy legs and very large eyes, and had twice tried to become airborne before being shot at (but not killed) by the ranchers, who finally abandoned it, still attempting to take flight.

This representation of an alleged desert-stranded Tombstone pterosaur is more like a winged crocodile! (Orbis Publishing)

Pterosaur reports have also emerged from Mexico, and from South America. The late J. Richard Greenwell, onetime secretary of the International Society of Cryptozoology, had a Mexican correspondent who claimed that there are living pterosaurs in Mexico's eastern portion and was (still is?) determined to capture one, to prove beyond any shadow of doubt that they do exist. Worthy of note is that certain depictions of deities, demons, and strange beasts from ancient Mexican mythology are decidedly pterodactylian in appearance. One particularly intriguing example is the mysterious 'serpent-bird' portrayed in relief sculpture amid the Mayan ruins of Tajin, in Veracruz's northeastern portion - noted in 1968 by visiting Mexican archaeologist Dr José Diaz-Bolio, and dating from a mere 1000-5000 years ago. Yet all pterosaurs had officially become extinct at least 64 million years ago. So how do we explain the Mayan serpent-bird - a non-existent, imaginary beast, or a creature lingering long after its formal date of demise? Although neither solution would be unprecedented, only one is correct - but which one?

Around February 1947, J.A. Harrison from Liverpool was on a boat navigating an estuary of the Amazon river when he and some others aboard spied a flock of five huge birds flying overhead in V-formation, with long necks and beaks, and each with a wingspan of about 3.75 m. According to Harrison, however, their wings resembled brown leather and appeared to be featherless. As they soared down the river, he could see that their heads were flat on top, and the wings seemed to be ribbed. Judging from the sketch that he prepared, however, they bore little resemblance to pterosaurs, and were far more reminiscent of a large stork - three of which, the jabiru Jabiru mycteria, maguari Ciconia maguari, and wood ibis (aka wood stork) Mycteria americana, are native here.

Wood ibis in flight (Dennis Hawkins/Wikipedia)

In any case, it is North America, which was once home to such prehistoric giant versions as Pteranodon and Quetzalcoatlus, where most alleged pterosaur sightings have been claimed within the New World, leading some cryptozoologists to speculate whether these latter forms have undiscovered descendants existing here. It seems exceedingly unlikely, but the sightings remain on file to tantalise and bemuse, with conservative identities such as pelicans and condors failing to match eyewitnesses’ descriptions.

Having said that: one early evening in 2007, I was standing at the top of Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when, looking upwards, I was startled to see a number of superficially pterosaurian creatures circling high above in the sky overhead. Raising my trusty birdwatching binoculars to my eyes, however, swiftly dispersed the illusion, as these putative prehistoric survivors were instantly exposed as frigate birds (specifically the magnificent frigate bird Fregata magnificens).

Magnificent frigate birds in flight (David Adam Kess/Wikipedia)

These long, angular-winged relatives of pelicans do appear positively primeval on first sight, and might well deceive ornithologically-untrained eyes into believing that they had truly witnessed a phalanx of flying reptiles from the ancient past.


NOT IN NEW ZEALAND, SURELY…?

New Zealand, a land of many indigenous birds but few reptiles and even fewer mammals, is surely the last place one might expect to encounter any kind of 20th-Century pterosaur, let alone a multicoloured one. Nevertheless, according to Whangarei resident Phyllis Hall, some time prior to the early 1980s she had been walking along a new motorway, not yet opened to traffic, when a strange creature that looked to her like a pterodactyl flew “out of nowhere”. Its under-wings were blue, but the rest of it was red, and it flew with an undulating motion. This description does not fit anything known to exist anywhere in New Zealand.

A delightful late 1800s/early 1900s illustration of pterodactyls (Heinrich Harder)


CRYPTO-CRETE

Greek mythology tells of many winged monsters, including the harpies and the Stymphalian birds, but I don’t recall any mention of pterodactyls. Nevertheless, Crete was the setting for the appearance of just such a creature, it would seem, when, one morning in summer 1986, three young hikers passing by a river in the Asterousia Mountains saw a bizarre creature flying overhead. They described it as resembling a giant dark-grey bird but with bat-like wings that sported finger-like projections at their tips, long sharp talons, and a pelicanesque beak. It reminded all three of them of a pterodactyl (though it is true that boys do tend to be more clued-up regarding dinosaurs and other prehistoric monsters than birds), and certainly their description sounds more pterosaurian than avian. Conversely, it hardly need be said that a colony of modern-day pterosaurs on Crete would surely have been uncovered by science long ago.


NEWS FROM NEW GUINEA

The most recent pterosaur-lookalike to attract attention is not one mystery beast but two. During the late 1990s, stories of a gigantic luminous pterodactylian creature termed the ropen emerged from missionaries based in Papua New Guinea. With a 6-7-m wingspan, a Pteranodon-like bony crest on its head, and a glowing underside (highly-reflective scales?), it had been seen circling over a lake, and resting in a mountain cave.

Could highly-reflective scales explain reports of glowing pterodactylian cryptids in Papua New Guinea? (Tim Morris)

However, when field cryptozoologist Bill Gibbons later contacted me with full details, he revealed that this beast was actually known as the duah, and that a second, much smaller mystery pterosaur was the true ropen, which was found only on two small offshore New Guinea islands – Rambutyo and Umboi. Sporting a 1-m wingspan, a slender tail tipped with a diamond-shaped fin, and a long beak brimming with teeth, this ropen seems much closer in appearance to the rhamphorhynchoids. It is said to inhabit caves, but is greatly attracted by the smell of rotting flesh – so much so that it has been known to attack funeral gatherings – and will also snatch fish out of the boats of native fishermen (a trait reported for the Zambian kongamato too).

The ventrally-aglow duah (William Rebsamen)

Investigator Bruce Irwin visited Papua New Guinea in summer 2001 and interviewed several native eyewitnesses, who confirmed that back in the 1970s the duah had been much more common and used to be seen flying together in small groups at night, but nowadays only solitary specimens were observed. Visiting the nearby island of Umboi to investigate ropen sightings there, Irwin interviewed a policeman and other locals who had seen it, and on nearby Manaus Island he spoke to a school headmaster who saw one in a tree on Goodenough Island, but he did not succeed in doing so himself. Fellow investigator Jonathan Whitcomb also interviewed eyewitnesses on Umboi, including some who claimed to have spotted a huge specimen (a duah?) while hiking near Lake Pung as boys in or around 1994, - as revealed in Jonathan’s book Searching For Ropens: Living Pterosaurs In Papua New Guinea (2006), which is the first of several authored by him on the subject of living pterosaurs there and elsewhere around the world.

Searching For Ropens

There seems little doubt that something very unusual, which cannot be readily dismissed as either a bird or a mammal, is being seen in various far-flung regions of the world. Whether it is truly a living pterosaur is another matter entirely. After all, there are no pterosaur fossils on record from beyond the end of the Cretaceous Period, 64 million years ago. Then again, many modern-day reports come from areas such as tropical forests where fossilisation is rare, or from inaccessible mountain ranges where fossils have not been sought. Ultimately, only physical evidence can confirm just what these winged wonders are, but in view of what happened to the brave native investigator who sought one such creature amid Southern Rhodesia’s nightmarish swamplands, only to re-emerge with a serious chest injury, such an undertaking is clearly not for the fainthearted.

As veteran cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans once wrote: “The trail of unknown animals sometimes leads to Hell”.

For more information on putative living pterosaurs, check out my book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995).

Keeping my distance from a life-sized, unnervingly animatronic Quetzalcoatlus (Dr Karl Shuker)