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

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Friday, 28 February 2014

TEN OF MY FAVOURITE CRYPTOZOOLOGY-LINKED LOCATIONS IN BRITAIN

Nessie and family ((c) Richard Svensson)

What do Cannock Chase, Renwick, Exmoor, Drummans, Falmouth Bay, and Bala Lake all have in common? If I added Loch Ness to the list, I'm sure that you'd guess much more readily. Yes indeed, they are all locations in Britain linked to sightings of mystery creatures. I recently wrote an online article for Enterprise Magazine, presenting ten of my favourite weird and (very) wonderful British crypto-locations, which can be accessed by clicking here.

Cockatrice (Friedrich Justin Bertuch)

So if you fancy travelling around the country in search of lake monsters and sea serpents, mermaids and master otters, owlmen, cockatrices, werewolves, alien big cats, and even a British bigfoot or two, now you know just where to go. Have fun!

Cornish owlman ((c) Richard Svensson)




Monday, 24 February 2014

THE SHAMIR AND THE STONE WORM

The first of two engravings of a medieval and highly mysterious stone worm contained within a late 17th-Century book by Eberhard Werner Happel

There are a number of mysterious and controversial biblical creatures with potential relevance to cryptozoology, of which the most famous examples are undoubtedly Leviathan and Behemoth (click here and here to see my ShukerNature investigations of them). Much less famous but no less remarkable than those two, however, is the small yet highly intriguing subject of this present ShukerNature post - the shamir.

Also spelled 'samir' or 'schamir', this is the Hebrew name given to a tiny worm-like creature referred to in certain Jewish holy books, including the Midrashim and the Talmud (particularly the Gemara – the component of the Talmud that consists of rabbinical analysis of, and commentary upon, an earlier work known as the Mishnah).

The shamir as depicted within the Rosslyn Missal (an Irish manuscript dating from the late 13th or early 14th Century)

According to Jewish tradition contained within these and other sources, the shamir was one of ten miraculous items created by God at twilight upon the Sixth Day of the Hexameron (the six days of Creation). Although it was only the size of a single grain of barley corn, the shamir was so incredibly powerful that merely its gaze was sufficient to cut through any material with ease, even through diamond itself, the hardest substance on Earth. Such a wondrous creature needed to be safeguarded, so God entrusted the shamir to the hoopoe (or woodcock or moorhen, depending upon which version of the legend is consulted), commanding this bird to protect the shamir from all harm.

In order to contain this mighty if minuscule worm, the hoopoe placed it among a quantity of barley corns, then wrapped them all up together in a woollen cloth, which in turn was placed inside a box fashioned from lead – the only material strong enough to contain the shamir effectively but without disintegrating from the intensity of its laser-like gaze. So here, safely and comfortably ensconced within its leaden domicile, which was retained by the hoopoe in the Garden of Eden, it passed through all the ages that followed.

Hand-coloured engraving of a hoopoe from 1840

Only once did the shamir emerge – during the time of Aaron and Moses, when God commanded the hoopoe to lend this worm to Him for the etching of the names of the 12 tribes of Israel upon the precious stones on 12 special priestly breastplates (the Hoshen), one breastplate for each of the tribes and each breastplate composed of a different stone. The task was a very difficult one, but when these stones were shown in turn to the shamir this astonishing creature accomplished it so expertly that not a single atom of precious stone was lost or destroyed.

After this, the shamir was placed back inside its lead casket, entrusted once more to the hoopoe's care, and there it remained, in undisturbed obscurity – until the time of King Solomon the Wise. Solomon wished to erect a glorious temple, but he was very mindful of God's instructions, laid down long ago to Moses, that no place of worship, not even an altar (let alone a temple), should be constructed using any tool made from iron - because iron was a substance of war, and that if anything related to war should ever touch a place of worship, it would be instantly and irrevocably defiled. But if Solomon could not use iron tools, how could the stones needed for constructing his temple be hewn?

An etching of the famous and much-exhibited model of Solomon's Temple created during the 1600s by Rabbi Jacob Jehudah Leon, which measured 80 ft in circumference and 13 ft high, and was based upon information contained within the Bible's Book of Kings, Book of Samuel, and Book of Chronicles

In an attempt to solve this riddle, Solomon enquired far and wide, and eventually he learnt about the incredible stone-searing shamir. Determined to utilise its extraordinary power, Solomon dispatched a servant to seek out this wonderful creature and bring it back to him. After a long search, the servant succeeded, and Solomon duly employed the shamir to cut the rocks required for building his celebrated temple – the First Temple in Jerusalem. But that is where the story ends abruptly – because after this magnificent edifice was completed, the shamir allegedly lost its power, then vanished, and has never been heard of again…or has it?

In his engrossing book Sacred Monsters (2nd edit., 2011), Rabbi Natan Slifkin wondered if the shamir might have been based upon a real but not particularly well known creature native to the Negev Desert - the rock-eating snail Euchondrus, represented there by three closely-related species, E. albulus, E. desertorum, and E. ramonensis. Less than half an inch long, these mini-molluscs eat lichens that grow beneath the surface of rocks, and use a toothed tongue-like organ known as the radula to rasp away the intervening rock with great ease and rapidity. However, if such snails were indeed the identity of the shamir, surely the holy books and scriptures would have alluded to their shells? Yet no mention of any such structure possessed by the shamir exists. Also, these sources state categorically that the shamir does not destroy any portion of the rocks or precious stones that it cuts through, unlike the activity of these snails.



Intriguingly, there is an alternative school of thought postulating that the shamir was not a living creature at all, but rather a mineral itself, specifically an exceptionally hard green stone, which could cut through all other substances. Yet this identification fails to explain how the stones needing to be cut could be by merely being shown to the shamir, i.e. without the shamir making any direct contact with the stones, using only its gaze to achieve its appointed task. As noted by Rabbi Slifkin, however, one maverick scientist proposed an extremely ingenious, and plausible, solution to this dilemma. Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979) is best-remembered for his highly controversial theories of global catastrophic events producing profoundly revised datings of major events in ancient history, as propounded in bestselling books such as Worlds in Collision (1950) and Earth in Upheaval (1955). Turning his attention to the shamir enigma, Velikovsky suggested that perhaps it was a radioactive substance, which could certainly explain some of the most notable riddles encompassing it.

For instance: such a substance could produce its effects upon other substances merely by having them placed near (or shown) to it, not requiring direct contact with them. Also, what better container for a radioactive substance to be housed safely inside than a casket of lead, which would very effectively shield its potent effects? And as its radioactivity would diminish with time (i.e. its half-life), this could explain why the shamir's potency had ultimately faded away by the time that King Solomon's temple had been completed. If it were truly a living creature, however, the shamir's abilities could not be explained by any such theory.

In any event, I had always assumed that this incredible entity was entirely mythical – until 28 November 2013, that is, when Facebook friend Robert Schneck very kindly brought to my attention an astonishing but hitherto exceedingly obscure mystery beast that seemed at least on first sight to be a veritable shamir of the Middle Ages. Robert revealed to me two engravings of bizarre-looking beasts known as vermes lapidum or stone worms, and which had appeared in a hefty German tome authored by Eberhard Werner Happel and entitled Relationes Curiosae, oder Denckwürdigkeiten der Welt, which was originally published in five volumes between 1683 and 1691.

Two engravings of alleged stone worms from Happel's Relationes Curiosae, oder Denckwürdigkeiten der Welt

According to Happel, the stone worms had originally been brought to public attention by a 17th-Century monk called de la Voye, from a Normandy monastery, who in 1666 had written a letter to a Lord Auzout describing his remarkable discovery. One day, de la Voye had found some of these very small, decidedly odd-looking creatures moving about incessantly inside some holes of their own making in an old wall, much of whose rocky composition had allegedly been eaten away and converted into dust by the devouring nature of the worms. When he pulled out some of them and examined them under a magnifying glass, the monk observed that they were each the size of a single barley corn (the very same description, intriguingly, as used in the Jewish holy books for the shamir) and enclosed in a grey shell, as depicted in the first (labelled Fig. 1) of the two engravings presented above. As quoted by Happel in his book, the monk continued his account of the stone worms in his letter to Lord Azout as follows:

"…on the tip [of the worm's body] there is a hole, through which the excrements can be excreted. On the other end there is a larger hole, trough which the head can be protruded.

They are entirely black, the body shows various segments, near the head there are three legs, each has two joints, not dissimilar to these of a flea.

When they move their body is suspended in air, the mouth but is still oriented to the rock. The head is bulky, a bit smooth, similar in shape and colour to the shell of a snail...also the mouth is similar large, with four kinds of teeth disposed in cross like manner."

The second engraving (Fig. 2) presumably shows the stone worm in a more advanced state of development than in Fig. 1, as it is now equipped with three pairs of legs. However, both forms seem only to possess small, primitive, laterally-sited ocellus-like eyes (round and black, according to de la Voye), rather than large, compound eyes, thereby indicating that if the stone worm is an insect, as seems at least remotely possible, it is a larval form rather than an adult (larval insects do not possess compound eyes, only ocelli).

Tegenaria domestica, a common species of funnel-weaving spider

Conversely, some authors have sought to discount the stone worms as (very) fanciful representations of funnel-weaving spiders, three pairs of legs rather than four notwithstanding and the stone worms' reputed rock-devouring proclivities discounted as apocryphal. Perhaps the presence of multiple ocelli, a characteristic of many spiders (which never possess compound eyes like most adult insects do), influenced their choice of an arachnid identity for these creatures, as there seems little else that would have done so? Certainly, the heavily segmented abdomen of the creature in the second engraving, and the seemingly limbless, shelled form of the creature in the first one, present major problems in reconciling them with any spider.

To be honest, however, the creatures depicted in these two engravings are so bizarre that it is impossible to identify them confidently with any known animal form. If they were indeed real, and not a hoax perpetrated by de la Voye, we can only assume that these engravings are exceedingly fanciful representations, so much so that the worms' true morphology has been enshrouded in exaggeration or error.

As for their stone-devouring diet, this too is baffling in the extreme. Perhaps de la Joye saw these creatures amid the wall's crumbling masonry and wrongly presumed that they were responsible? Who can say? All that can be stated is that except for a couple of brief mentions in some early 18th-Century dictionaries of natural science, the stone worm rapidly faded into total scientific oblivion shortly after Happel's book was published.

Happel's Relationes Curiosae, 1683

Could it be that, as a monk, de la Voye was well-read across a wide spectrum of religious tracts, was therefore familiar with the mythical shamir from Jewish holy books, and had mistakenly thought that the creatures that he had discovered were similar? In reality, however, even his stone worms' ostensible comparability to the shamir does not stand up to close scrutiny. For whereas the latter beast disintegrated and annihilated rocks using its formidable, basiliskian gaze, the stone worm actually devoured rocks and stones, at least according to de la Voye's testimony.

Almost 350 years have passed since de la Voye wrote his intriguing letter documenting the stone worms, but its subjects remain as mystifying and as unsatisfactorily 'explained' today as they were then. Unless the entire episode of their discovery was indeed a hoax and a nonsense, the stone worms must have been something – but what?

The second of two engravings of a medieval and highly mysterious stone worm contained within a late 17th-Century book by Eberhard Werner Happel




Sunday, 23 February 2014

DOMINICA'S DEAD PARROT - A PERFECT PICTURE OF MYSTERY?

Close-up of the mystery parrot in Bartholomeus van Bassen's famous painting 'Renaissance Interior With Banqueters' (1618-1620) (this high-res image supplied to me courtesy of Michael Klauke, Associate Registrar for Collections at the North Carolina Museum of Art)

In various of my books, magazine articles, and ShukerNature blog posts, I have documented a number of mystery birds that have appeared in paintings by famous artists and which may conceivably represent lost species undescribed by science. In recent times, several additional examples have come to my attention, but perhaps the most significant of these is the following one, which may feature a hitherto-unrecognised depiction of a long-extinct bird officially known only from a single verbal description.

Bartholomeus van Bassen (1590-1652) was a celebrated Dutch architect and painter. Perhaps his most famous painting was 'Renaissance Interior With Banqueters' - an extremely detailed, sophisticated work of art that took from 1618 to 1620 to complete. Having said that, although I naturally cannot help but be highly impressed by its scale and by the architectural splendours and opulence that it depicts, the most fascinating aspect of it for me is an ostensibly insignificant bird perching upon a chair in this painting's bottom left-hand corner. Closer examination of this bird reveals it to be a parrot, but it does not appear to correspond with any species known to be living today. What could it be?

Bartholomeus van Bassen's famous painting 'Renaissance Interior With Banqueters' (1618-1620) (this high-res image supplied to me courtesy of Michael Klauke, Associate Registrar for Collections at the North Carolina Museum of Art)
Please click painting to view it in greatly-enlarged form.

Whenever an identification of a mystifying bird in a painting is attempted, it should always be borne in mind that artists have often included entirely fictitious examples in their works, simply to enhance their visual appeal. In this particular case, conversely, van Bassen's painting is so meticulously executed and so accurate in all other details, including those of other creatures included in it, that it seems highly unlikely that he would have added a made-up bird.

This fascinating case was first brought to my attention during spring 2012 ago by pet expert and fellow author David Alderton, with whom I have since corresponded in some detail concerning this mystery parrot. With regard to the possibility that it is an ornithological invention on van Bassen's part, David shares my own view that this is improbable:

"What I would say is that the other animals in the scene are very clearly recognisable. Based on its position in the painting, and its perch on rare/expensive material, this tends to suggest that this parrot is significant. It would have been rare and exotic of course - representing a flamboyant display of wealth in a very clear visual way, and I can't see it would have been a "fictional" bird."

So if we assume that the parrot represents a bona fide species, are there any that resemble it in some way?

On first glance, it recalls the Carolina parakeet Conuropsis carolinensis, a predominantly green-plumaged species with a bright yellow head marked with red. Once common in North America, it suffered greatly from habitat destruction, from being captured for the pet trade, and by being heavily persecuted due to its fondness for farmers' crops, until the last confirmed specimen died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1918. Closer observation, however, reveals a number of marked differences between this now-demised species and van Bassen's painted parrot.

John James Audubon's famous painting of Carolina parakeets (eastern subspecies)

The latter has golden-yellow underparts, whereas the Carolina parakeet's were green; it also has yellow lateral tail feathers whereas all of the Carolina's tail feathers were green; its wing primaries are red, not green like the Carolina's; the red markings on its head are more extensive than the Carolina's; and its relative proportions are very different from the Carolina's. Van Bassen's parrot has a much longer tail, a more powerful beak, and, judging scale from the chair upon which it is perched, a much larger overall body size. Indeed, in general appearance, the category of parrots that it most closely agrees with is the macaws.

Consequently, attempts to liken it to various small species of South American conure parakeet, such as the sun conure Aratinga solstitialis and the jenday conure A. jandaya, are not satisfactory either, unless of course the bird has been badly painted, with incorrect plumage and/or dimensions. For all of the reasons already discussed in relation to the prospect of its being a fictitious species, however, this notion seems untenable.

Two jenday conures (left and middle) and a sun conure (right) ((c) Chris Gladis/Wikipedia)

However closely one studies images of a painting, even close-up ones of a specific section of it, there can be no substitute for viewing the painting itself directly. Happily, David Alderton was able to do precisely this, when 'Renaissance Interior With Banqueters' was on display several years ago at the National Gallery in London. As a result, he noticed various features of the parrot not readily visible even in close-up images of it. These include the presence of a white brow line above its eye, and, of particular interest, the extensive amount of bare white facial skin – a feature that is characteristic of macaws. Usually this area is limited to the sides of the face around the eyes, and at the beak's base, but in van Bassen's bird it also extends onto the top of the head.

After viewing the bird directly in the painting, David wondered whether it may be a Cuban red macaw Ara tricolor, whose last confirmed wild specimen was shot in 1864, since when this species has been deemed to be extinct. However, in a short account of van Bassen's mystery parrot that he posted on his Pet Info Club website (http://www.petinfoclub.com/Collectibles/Painting_portrays_extinct_parrot.aspx), he conceded that the Cuban macaw's plumage exhibited certain noticeable differences from the latter's, which indeed it does. The most significant of these are the Cuban red macaw's blue wing primaries, its red cheeks, neck, and underparts, its red and blue tail feathers, and the much less extensive area of white facial skin. Exit the Cuban red macaw from further consideration.

Cuban red macaw (from Walter Rothschild's book Extinct Birds, 1907)

However, the Cuban red macaw is not the only extinct Caribbean macaw on record. Several additional species from a number of different West Indian islands – including Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Dominica, Hispaniola, and Martinique - have also been described and named (click here for a detailed ShukerNature article of mine investigating these mystery macaws). Yet whereas the Cuban is physically represented in various museums by a number of preserved specimens, these others are known only from eyewitness descriptions (plus some paintings based solely upon them, not directly upon living specimens). And some of those descriptions are so vague that ornithologists have dismissed certain of the Caribbean's 'lost' macaws as hypothetical species - originating from confusion with known parrots, or even based upon specimens of various South American species of macaw introduced into the West Indies as pets that may have subsequently escaped.

One of the most interesting of these Caribbean mystery macaws is the Dominican green and yellow macaw Ara atwoodi, named after traveller Thomas Atwood, whose History of the Island of Dominica (1791) contains the following informative account of it:

"The mackaw [sic] is of the parrot kind, but larger than the common parrot [this latter parrot actually constituting two separate but closely-related species of much smaller Amazon parrot], and makes a more disagreeable, harsh noise. They are in great plenty, as are also parrots in this island; have both of them a delightful green and yellow plumage, with a scarlet-coloured fleshy substance from the ears to the root of the bill, of which colour is likewise the chief feathers of the wings and tails. They breed on the tops of the highest trees, where they feed on the berries in great numbers together; and are easily discovered by their loud chattering noise, which at a distance resembles human voices. The mackaws cannot be taught to articulate words; but the parrots of this country may, by taking pains with them when caught young. The flesh of both is eat [sic = edible], but being very very fat, it wastes in roasting, and eats dry and insipid; for which reason, they are chiefly used to make soup of, which is accounted very nutritive."

It certainly must have been, because however plentiful these macaws were in Atwood's day, their numbers must have swiftly diminished thereafter, because his description is all that remains to suggest that they ever existed at all. No other reports of them, and no preserved specimens or paintings of living specimens, are known – unless...

A photoshop-created representation of the Dominican green and yellow macaw's possible appearance in life ((c) Rafael Silva do Nascimento)

There is no doubt that Atwood's description of the Dominican green and yellow macaw accords well with the parrot in van Bassen's painting - incorporating the precise configuration of its head's red colouration, its red wing feathers, and obviously its predominantly green and yellow plumage. True, Atwood did not mention any area of white on the Dominican macaws' faces, but it is worth noting that in some species of macaw this region turns red if the bird becomes excited, so perhaps he simply didn't observe any macaws when in a quiescent state, only when they were squawking animatedly while feeding.

Consequently, the only inconsistency in appearance between van Bassen's bird and Atwood's Dominican macaws is the mention of red tail feathers in his description, whereas the central tail feathers of van Bassen's parrot are green and the lateral ones are yellow. Perhaps, however, there was a slight degree of variation in the plumage colouration of the Dominican macaw (sexual dimorphism, for instance?) that could account for this discrepancy? In all other respects, the match is much closer than for any other species, living or extinct.

In 2011, a year before I made known to him the mystery parrot in van Bassen's painting, Brazilian bird artist Rafael Silva do Nascimento had prepared a beautiful painting of his, own reconstructing the likely appearance of the Dominican green and yellow macaw as based upon Atwood's description of it, which is reproduced here with Rafael's kind permission. As you can see, his macaw and van Bassen's parrot, prepared entirely independently of one another, accord very closely indeed, providing further confirmation of just how well Atwood's verbal description compares with van Bassen's painted bird.

Rafael Silva do Nascimento's painting of the Dominican green and yellow macaw ((c) Rafael Silva do Nascimento)

So could it be that the enigmatic parrot perched in this highly-renowned Dutch artist's early 17th-Century painting was a living Dominican green and yellow macaw, brought back to Europe as an eyecatching pet by (or for) a wealthy Dutch citizen? During that period, all manner of rare and extremely exotic fauna were being transported here from every known corner of the globe, many of which had never before been seen in Europe. Consequently, a colourful macaw would be nothing special or unexpected on that score.

What would be very special, and extremely unexpected, conversely, is if the macaw species in question subsequently became extinct but its exquisite appearance was preserved under the very nose of every art-lover in an extremely famous, spectacular painting, yet without its identity or zoological significance being recognised – until now?

If true, this is a great tragedy. After all, to paraphrase a certain classic comedy sketch from the golden age of British television, it may be an ex-parrot, but it had lovely plumage.


I wish to offer my sincere thanks to David Alderton for bringing this extremely intriguing crypto-ornithological mystery to my attention and for kindly sharing his thoughts and information concerning it with me; to Michael Klauke, Associate Registrar for Collections at the North Carolina Museum of Art, for most generously making available to me some high-resolution and close-up images of van Bassen's painting and its mystifying parrot; to Rafael Silva do Nascimento for very kindly permitting me to include his Dominican macaw painting here and also for providing me with a copy of Atwood's original description of Dominica's macaws; and to all of my Facebook friends who offered opinions and suggestions regarding this painted bird's possible identity when I posted an enquiry regarding it on my FB Wall in April 2012.

Reconstructions of the likely appearance of the various extinct species of West Indian macaw that have been reported by various travellers and subsequently named by scientists ((c) Rafael Silva do Nascimento)




Tuesday, 18 February 2014

BIRD-EATING DEER AND FLESH-EATING SHEEP – A GRUESOME SELECTION OF UNEXPECTED HOOFED CARNIVORES

Red deer - not always strictly vegetarian

Originally uploaded onto YouTube on 16 May 2010, but currently going viral again, is a short wildlife video by Linda Ford from the USA that films in her own front yard the macabre scene of a subadult buck deer casually picking up a young bird off the ground with its teeth, chewing the helpless creature in its jaws, and then swallowing it, while the two parent birds flap desperately but impotently in the devouring deer's face. Click here to watch Linda's astonishing but genuine video on YouTube.

A bird-eating deer? Incredible – impossible, surely? – yet perfectly true. Nor is it a unique case. Back in 1997, I included a section on sinister, unexpected carnivores of the hoofed - and normally strictly herbivorous, vegetarian - variety in my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings. Here is what I wrote:

The Inner Hebrides are a group of islands situated off the western coast of Scotland. One of their southernmost members, Rhum, is home to more than 300 red deer Cervus elaphus. On small islands like this, the vegetation is often deficient in minerals - minerals that are required by large herbivorous animals. Faced with this situation, deer normally resort to chewing their own shed antlers, or even old bones, in order to obtain the missing substances, including calcium and phosphorus. But on an island like Rhum, which is also home to large colonies of ground-nesting seabirds, there is a much more sinister method available to the deer for sustaining a balanced diet.

Quite simply, they decapitate the chicks of the seabirds, particularly those of an albatross-related species known as the Manx shearwater Puffinus puffinus - and thence obtain from the chicks' bones the minerals that they lack in their normal vegetarian diet.

Manx shearwater (left) plus sooty shearwater (right)

The researcher responsible for exposing this dark and previously unrealized secret in the history of Britain's largest and most noble species of native wild mammal is biologist Dr Robert Furness, from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. However, his deer disclosures, first formally documented in the Journal of Zoology (March 1988), were only the beginning. When he visited another group of Scottish islands, the Shetlands, he uncovered an even more amazing example of carnivores of the cryptic kind.

During the 1990s, Furness has been studying a herd of primitive sheep on the small Shetland island of Foula, the most westerly member of this group. These animals are direct descendants of sheep introduced here long ago by the Vikings, and in order to obtain adequate supplies of minerals - notably phosphorus - present in insufficient quantities within Foula's sparse vegetation, the sheep have evolved a merciless modus operandi that closely parallels the grisly dietary deviation exhibited by the red deer of Rhum. The Arctic tern Sterna paradisaea is an abundant seabird nesting on Foula - and the sheep prey upon their fledglings. Unlike the deer, however, they rarely amputate the heads of the young birds. Instead, they prefer to bite off their victims' wings and legs, often leaving the helpless fledglings still alive but lethally crippled. The sheep then procure the required minerals by chewing the bones in the birds' severed limbs.

As is so often true when investigating cases of anomalous animal behaviour, it transpired that the crofters who live on Foula have always known that this island's sheep were bird killers, but until the first-hand observations and studies by Furness vindicated them, their claims had been dismissed by science as nothing more than quaint folklore.

Arctic tern fledgling

Since I wrote the above account, many additional cases of what appears to be opportunistic but quite possibly natural (albeit hitherto little-realised) carnivorous behaviour among typically herbivorous mammalian species have been documented and formally confirmed - including white-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus in North America eating songbirds and small mammals snared in mist nets, various domestic cows in India eating live chickens, a goose-eating rhinoceros, and even a rabbit-devouring deer (check YouTube for several videos featuring some such examples). But perhaps the most gruesome case of a flesh-eating herbivore ever recorded featured a captive elephant that killed and ate a human! And yes, I did document this grotesque event in my book:

Rather more mundane incidents, involving cattle and even hippopotamuses eating the bones of dead brethren to boost their dietary intake of minerals, have also been recorded over the years - but nothing, surely, can compare with the astounding, yet fully verified case of World War II's woman-eating elephant.

This dramatic episode was revealed by internationally renowned zoovet Dr David Taylor. During the final years of World War II, Germany was suffering from severe food shortages, and its zoo animals could not always be given the balanced diets that they had customarily received in peacetime. However, a male elephant in Berlin Zoo apparently succeeded in solving its mineral deficiency problems, albeit in a singularly horrific manner.

A lady called Bertha Walt, who worked at an office near to the zoo, made a habit of spending her lunchtime in the zoo and feeding the remains of her sandwiches to this elephant. One day, she learned upon her arrival at the elephant's enclosure that he was unwell. Saddened by her pachyderm friend's illness, Walt unhesitatingly volunteered to stay with him overnight, in order to nurse him and to provide reassuring company for him.

Given permission to do this, she duly spent the evening inside the elephant's enclosure - but when the animal's keeper arrived the next morning to take over, his unbelieving eyes registered a terrible sight. Walt was still there - or, to be more precise, parts of her were still there. The rest of her had been devoured by the elephant!

All of which assuredly gives a whole new depth of meaning to the popular old saying "All flesh is grass"


UPDATE - 19 February 2014

After reading my post today, retired zookeeper-manager David Pepper-Edwards informed me of a truly remarkable giraffe that displayed the decidedly grisly habit of stamping on sparrows and then eating them - not the kind of behaviour that one would normally associate with these typically gentle - and herbivorous - giants. Here are more details of this fascinating case, kindly made available to me by David for inclusion here - thanks, David!

 "I am now a retired Zookeeper/Manager. Used to work at Auckland Zoo New Zealand and at Taronga Park Zoo Sydney, Australia. The giraffe in question was a male named "John" at Auckland Zoo during the 1960/70s. The sparrows would fly in and eat the seed in the oaten hay used as bedding in his night house. He would actually sort of stalk them (first you have to imagine a giraffe trying to stalk!) and then with a quick stamp he would flatten them with one of his fore hooves. Then eat them. He was quite good at it. The sparrows on the other hand never caught onto it." 

Clearly, the phenomenon of carnivorous vegetarians in the ungulate world is more widespread than one might initially assume!




Sunday, 16 February 2014

CONTEMPLATING THE CON RIT


Tim Morris's excellent reconstruction of the con rit as a giant marine crustacean, based upon my proposed identity for it in my 1995 book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (© Tim Morris)

When it debuted in his classic tome In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents (1968), Dr Bernard Heuvelmans's bold classification of sea serpents into no less than nine well-defined types was widely hailed within the cryptozoological community as a milestone in cryptid research, and it is still widely referred to today. However, the validity of certain of those sea serpent types has subsequently been challenged by various other researchers, due to revelations that cast doubt upon or totally discredit those types' proposed taxonomic identities.

Perhaps the most controversial of Heuvelmans's nine sea serpent types is his many-finned sea serpent Cetioscolopendra aeliani, for which he nominated a living species of armoured, scaly archaeocete as its identity. Unfortunately, however, long before he had even categorised his types, palaeontologists had already revealed that scales found in association with certain specimens of fossil archaeocete (a primitive group of prehistoric cetaceans) did not originate from them (as had initially been assumed following their discovery, and which had inspired Heuvelmans's identification of the many-finned as an armoured, scaly archaeocete), but belonged instead to various other creatures. In other words, there are no verified specimens of armoured archaeocete in the fossil record, thereby greatly reducing the likelihood of any modern-day species existing.

But if many-finned sea serpents truly exist, what else could they be? In my 1995 book, In Search of Prehistoric Survivors, I proposed a very different identity, one that I still consider plausible, but regarding which, sadly, certain incorrect claims have been made in various subsequent online and hard-copy sources of cryptozoological data. Consequently, I felt that it was high time to refute these erroneous claims once and for all, by revealing online precisely what I did propose regarding this sea serpent type's identity in my Prehistoric Survivors book. So here is the relevant section, quoted below in full:

Another mystery beast that has been linked to the concept of surviving eurypterids [the section of my book immediately preceding this one had presented various cryptids that had been proposed by some investigators as living eurypterids – sea scorpions] is the so-called 'sea millipede'. In 1883, the headless, putrefying carcass of a remarkable, armour-plated sea monster was found washed ashore at Hongay in Vietnam's Along Bay. It was observed by several local Annamites, including an 18-year-old youth called Tran Van Con, who actually touched the body. Thirty-eight years later, he recalled this incident to Dr A. Krempf, Director of Indochina's Oceanographic and Fisheries Service.

The carcase was 60 ft long and 3 ft wide, and was composed of numerous identical segments - so hard in texture that they rang like sheet metal when one of the locals hit them with a stick. Each segment was dark-brown dorsally, light-yellow ventrally, measured 2 ft long and 3 ft wide, and bore a pair of 2 ft 4 in lateral spines. The terminal segment bore two additional spines, directed backwards like a pair of spiny tails. The stench from the decomposing carcass was so intense that the locals soon towed it out to sea where it sank, and they referred to the creature itself as con rit - 'millipede'.

When contemplating this animal's possible identity in his book In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents (1968), Heuvelmans briefly considered and rejected the sea scorpions as a candidate, together with crustaceans - favouring instead a hypothetical, highly-specialized form of evolved armoured archaeocete, which he dubbed Cetioscolopendra aeliani ('Aelian's centipede whale'), the many-finned sea serpent. A number of sightings are on file describing elongate sea monsters seemingly bearing numerous lateral fins or projections, which the ancient writer Aelian referred to as marine centipedes. I agree entirely with Heuvelmans that the con rit is unrelated to the sea scorpions, but I also have grave doubts that it is an archaeocete.

As already noted, the concept of armoured archaeocetes is no longer in favour [I had included in an earlier section of my book the pertinent revelation that I refer to at the beginning of this ShukerNature post]; and in any case, even within his own selection of 'many-fins' Heuvelmans includes examples that simply cannot be mammalian. The most prominent of these is the 150-ft-long monster spied for about 30 minutes by a number of sailors on deck aboard HMS Narcissus on 21 May 1899, after the ship had rounded Algeria's Cape Falcon. In an interview concerning their sighting, a signal man made the following telling statement:

"The monster seemed to be propelled by an immense number of fins. You could see the fins propelling it along at about the same rate as the ship was going. The fins were on both sides, and appeared to be turning over and over. There were fins right down to the tail. Another curious thing was that it spouted up water like a whale, only the spouts were very small and came from various parts of the body."

Unless the numerous fins are in reality a pair of undulating lateral membranes extending the entire length of the creature's body - which does not seem likely from the above description - then the Narcissus sea serpent is neither a mammal nor any other form of vertebrate. Clearly, its fins were locomotory organs (creating by their propulsive movements the spouts of water noted by the signal man), not rigid spines like those reported from the carcass of the con rit. Consequently, my own feeling is that, in life, each pair of the con rit's spines had sheltered a pair of soft-bodied limbs beneath - but which, together with the remainder of this beast's soft tissues, had rotted away during decomposition, leaving behind only the hard dorsal cuticle. All of which is totally in accord with what one would expect from a crustacean: multiple locomotory limbs, hard dorsal armour that does not rot once the creature has died, and a soft body that very rapidly (and odiferously!) rots upon death.

The only major problem is the con rit's immense length - far beyond anything recorded so far by science from a known modern-day (or fossil) crustacean. It is well-known that the spiracular system of respiration utilized by insects (involving a vast internal ramification of minute breathing tubes) prevents them from attaining the gigantic proportions beloved by directors of science-fiction movies. However, crustaceans breathe via gills, and their bodies are buoyed by the surrounding water. Hence the evolution of a giant aquatic crustacean is not wholly beyond the realms of possibility and, to my mind, offers the only remotely feasible explanation to Vietnam's anomalous con rit or sea millipede.

Many years ago, in a report describing a new 3-ft-long species of Mixopterus sea scorpion, Norwegian palaeontologist Professor Johan Kiaer recalled the thrill of its discovery:

"I shall never forget the moment when the first excellently preserved specimen of the new giant eurypterid was found. My workmen had lifted up a large slab, and when they turned it over, we suddenly saw the huge animal, with its marvelously shaped feet, stretched out in natural position. There was something so lifelike about it, gleaming darkly in the stone, that we almost expected to see it slowly rise from the bed where it had rested in peace for millions of years and crawl down to the lake that glittered close below us."

No doubt cryptozoologists share a similarly dramatic dream - to haul up a living eurypterid from the depths of the oceans or even from the muddy bottom of a large freshwater lake. And somewhere out there, perhaps there really are some post-Permian, present-day sea scorpions, indolently lurking in scientific anonymity. Based upon the evidence offered up so far, however, this prospect seems no more likely than the resurrection of Kiaer's fossilized specimen from its rocky bed of Silurian sandstone.

It is perfectly clear from my above account that 'sea millipede' and 'sea centipede' are merely colloquial, non-taxonomic names for this cryptid, and that the identity for the con rit that I proposed in my Prehistoric Survivors book was a crustacean - and NOT either a marine centipede (as wrongly claimed re my book in a number of websites), or a marine millipede (as wrongly claimed re my book in some other websites, as well as in an otherwise well-researched recent book – happily, its author has very kindly promised to include a correction in the book's forthcoming second volume).

To my mind, the con rit is one of the most fascinating if enigmatic marine cryptids on record, but with no modern-day sightings on file (at least not to my knowledge), whether it still does – or indeed ever did – exist remains as much a mystery today as the creature itself.



Thursday, 13 February 2014

HALF-HUMAN HALF-RABBIT HYBRID – THE TRAGIC TRUTH?


Over the years, certain online photos of bizarre but allegedly real entities have surfaced and resurfaced with monotonous regularity, in spite of repeated discrediting as hoaxes or misidentifications by cryptozoological researchers. I recently exposed ten of the most persistent offenders (click here), but at least most such photos are at worst tedious and at best somewhat amusing. However, there are certain others that are anything but amusing – on the contrary, they are both tragic and disturbing on account of what they truly depict, and are therefore in particular need of serious investigation and exposure. The photograph that is the subject of this present ShukerNature blog post is, I believe, a prime example of that latter category, which is why I feel it necessary to assess its credentials and credibility herewith.

As far as I have been able to discover, the photograph first began to attract serious online attention during November 2011, when it was circulated widely on Facebook and other social networking sites. The story accompanying it was that the depicted entity originated in Haiti (situated on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola), and that people there were actually fleeing their homes in terror because it apparently resembled a malign supernatural Haitian being known as a buck. Moreover, suggested/claimed identities by posters to the sites presenting it ranged wildly - from an aborted human foetus with developmental abnormalities, some form of grotesque mutation, or a photo-manipulated creation, to such bizarre notions as an alien baby, the aforementioned demonic buck, or a human-rabbit hybrid of either natural or artificial propagation.

(Worth noting, incidentally, is that in 2003 a team of Chinese scientists in Shanghai did succeed in creating human-rabbit chimaera cells in the laboratory by fusing human skin cells (contributing human nuclear DNA) with the egg cells of rabbits (contributing rabbit mitochondrial DNA), but these chimaeras were killed a few days later in order to retrieve embryonic stem cells, though it is not believed that viable foetuses would have resulted anyway, as humans and rabbits are far too distantly related taxonomically.)

After a few months, interest died down, then in November 2012 the photograph resurfaced and was recirculated widely online, but this time with a new back-story and an entirely different supposed provenance. It was even featured in serious, highly-respected media, such as Australia's Daily Telegraph, which reproduced the photo in an article released on 19 November 2012 (click here to access it).  According to this source, the entity had been photographed not in Haiti but in the southwest African country of Namibia. Moreover, according to the story, a shooting party had encountered it foraging for food in dense jungle, and one of the party had shot but only wounded it, causing it to flee away into thick brush. However, the party succeeded in tracking it back to its nearby lair, where they found three other beings of the same kind. The wounded entity then attempted to attack the party, who shot it dead, but the other three beings escaped into the brush. The corpse of the dead entity was then taken back to the party's camp, and police took it away for a full forensic investigation. Needless to say, no follow-up reports revealing what this supposed investigation had discovered have been made public (at least not to my knowledge).

In February 2013 and also in October/November 2013, the photograph resurfaced yet again online, in sites such as Reddit and Triggspot, but now the provenance of its depicted entity had switched back to Haiti, though stories concerning it incorporated variations upon the Namibian plotline as well as the earlier lines of speculation from posters re human-rabbit hybrids or aliens.

And earlier this month (February 2014), a friend informed me that he had recently seen the photo being reported online with a third provenance - New Guinea.

So what is the truth about this contentious photograph and, most of all, what precisely does it portray? If we ignore for the time being the entity's bizarre head, and concentrate upon the rest of its body and what we can see of the person holding it, I think it most plausible that what we are looking at is either a newborn male human infant (possibly delivered by caesarean) or an extremely late aborted male human infant. The streaks of blood on its body would be normal and expected in either case, and the white waxy substance also present on its body would thus be vernix caseosa – a substance composed primarily of sebum, which begins to form upon the human foetus from around the eighteenth week of pregnancy. The infant's umbilical cord is readily visible hanging down the left side of its body (and thus seen on the right side in the photo, in which we are viewing the infant from the front), and using the size of the hand of the person holding it as a scale, the infant is the correct size for a newborn or late abort. In addition, the blue attire of the person holding the infant corresponds with hospital attire, as does the blue surgical glove worn by the person's hand.

So far, so straight forward. When examining the infant's head, however, matters become rather more complex. The infant's face is very distorted and/or mis-shaped, leading to two possibilities. This is either the result of photo-manipulation, i.e. a deliberate attempt to create a monstrous visage by computer-generated trickery; or, tragically, the infant's face is truly deformed, with maldeveloped eyes, nose, and mouth (fellow Fortean researcher Bob Skinner has opined that its mouth may be exhibiting a bilateral hare-lip condition, and I agree with him). One of its ears is also clearly visible, but apart from seeming a little large, this appears quite normal – in stark contrast to the grotesque length of what seems to be fleshy tissue emerging just above it and hanging downwards in a gross parody of a rabbit's ear. It is of course this grotesque structure that is responsible for the 'human-rabbit hybrid' claims – made by persons who evidently hadn’t noticed the infant's real, normal human ear!

What could this long fleshy expanse of tissue be? It is possible that it is not actually part of the infant's head at all, but is merely a section of the detached placenta that subsequently became attached to the infant's head during its delivery/abortion. Alternatively, it may be a portion of the infant's cranial tissue or even a portion of its brain if the cranium has been damaged during embryonic development and/or the brain has not developed correctly. There is a condition known as anencephaly, in which a sizeable portion of the brain, cranium, and skull cap do not develop, due to the rostral (anterior) neuropore - the temporary opening at the embryonic forebrain's extreme cephalic (rostral) pole - not closing during early embryogenesis (at approximately Day 25 in humans). Consequently, the portion of the brain that does develop is exposed and thus can theoretically emerge from the open, unprotected top of the skull, together with associated nervous tissue. However, the amount of flesh visible in the photograph seems more than might be expected if this were the case. Conversely, it is of course conceivable that part or all of this flesh is merely the product of photo-manipulation, to yield something reminiscent of a rabbit ear.

Finally, but most tragic of all: the positions of the infant's limbs (its right hand, incidentally, seems to have malformed digits), and also the expression on its face (if not added by photo-manipulation), are highly suggestive of the prospect that it was alive when the photograph was taken. This in turn makes the extremely rough, callous way in which it is being held even more heart-breaking.

Still requiring assessment is the location portrayed in the photograph. Might the latter have been snapped at a makeshift, impromptu field hospital in some remote tropical zone, which could also explain the presence of the bottle on the ground in the foreground? If not, then what else but photo-manipulation can plausibly reconcile the apparent presence of a correctly-attired hospital worker holding a newborn/late aborted infant in the middle of a jungle? (In the latter scenario, the bottle could have also been added via some deft, digital manipulation.) In any event, the stories of encountering this and similar entities in the jungle are obviously complete, nonsensical inventions that have been supplied to the media by person(s) unknown, as indeed has the photograph itself. I have been unsuccessful in tracing this controversial photograph's origin, and also in tracing any photos online that contain either the precise jungle scene in this photograph or the person standing behind the infant in it. So if, as seems most likely, these aspects of the photograph have indeed been incorporated into it from other sources, their origins currently remain unknown too.

However, I do feel it likely that the identity offered here by me for the entity is the correct one – a probably deformed newborn/aborted male human infant, alive when delivered but likely to have died from its condition shortly afterwards. I have no idea who could possibly have thought it novel or amusing to have created such a disturbing image, but I wholeheartedly believe it high time that this photograph be seen by all for what it truly is - a terrible indictment of humanity's inhumanity.

Consequently, I pray that this too-long-perused image's tragic little subject will now be left in peace, spared from any further attention of the freak-show variety, and granted the dignity in death that it was denied during its sad and all-too-brief span of life.

"Have pity on them all, for it is we who are the real monsters."

Dr Bernard Heuvelmans – On the Track of Unknown Animals