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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Saturday, 31 October 2015

MEET THE MONSTROUS MAKALALA - A TANZANIAN TERROR BIRD?


Reconstruction of the makalala's possible appearance in life (© Markus Bühler)

Here's something suitable for Hallowe'en from the cryptozoological chronicles – a monster bird with a taste for flesh...human flesh.

No one doubts that the tallest species of bird alive today is Struthio camelus, the ostrich - no-one, that is, except for the Wasequa people (most probably an alternative, kiSwahili name for the Zigua - see Pat the Plant's very informative comments posted at the end of this ShukerNature blog article - thanks Pat!), who inhabit an unspecified interior region of mainland Tanzania 8-9 days' journey from the coast of Zanzibar (the Zigua do live directly inland from Zanzibar).

According to a report by a Count Marschall (Bulletin de la Société Philomatique, 1878-9), as recently as the 1870s these people averred that their territory harboured a monstrous bird even taller than the 8-ft-high ostrich, equipped with very long legs, the head and beak of a bird of prey (which it puts to good use when feeding on carrion from animal carcases), and the ability to take to the air in sustained, powerful flight. Also, each of its wingtips bears hard plates composed of a horny, compact substance, and when it strikes its wings together they produce a very loud noise, earning this bird its local name - makalala ('noisy').

Marschall claimed that the makalala is said by the Wasequas to be very fierce, but can be killed if the correct strategy is employed. Engaging upon an extremely hazardous version of 'playing possum', the would-be assassin has to lie on the ground and feign death, until the makalala approaches close enough to seize the supposed human carcase - whereupon the latter must reanimate himself instantly and deliver the fatal blow before the makalala can rectify its mistake!

A second reconstruction of the makalala's possible appearance in life (© Tim Morris)

So far, this could all be discounted as fanciful native folklore - but physical remains of the makalala may have been recorded too. Marschall mentioned a Dr Fischer, who saw in Zanzibar an object that he identified unhesitatingly as a rib from some form of gigantic bird. Narrowing from one end to the other, this alleged rib had a width of 8 in at its widest end, and was just under 1 in at its narrowest end. Unfortunately, Marschall did not record whether Fischer sent it to a scientific institution for conclusive identification and retention.

However, Marschall did record another possible source of makalala remains - because he noted that native chiefs placed makalala skulls on their heads, using them as helmets! Could any of these bizarre examples of protective headgear still be owned today by Wasequa tribesmen?

Thanks to my afore-mentioned correspondent Pat, I now have a copy of a second makalala document from the same time period - namely, the published account by the Dr Fischer alluded to by Marschall in his own report. He was Dr Gustav A. Fischer, and his account of the makalala was part of a much longer report co-authored in German with Dr A. Reichenow, which was published in 1878 within the Journal für Ornithologie. Interestingly, in his own account Fischer described the makalala as being very shy (rather than very fierce as claimed for him by Marschall in his report), and stated that he was reluctant to believe that the rib-like structure came from a bird (whereas Marschall claimed that Fischer readily identified it as such), but otherwise the two descriptions correspond well with one another.

Assuming, against all the odds, that the makalala is real - that the frightening scenario of a carnivorous bird taller than the ostrich surviving into historical times somewhere in mainland Tanzania's interior is not a grotesque fantasy but a sober fact - what could it be? Several interesting, albeit mutually-exclusive lines of speculation compete for attention.

The first of these to be discussed here was kindly brought to my attention by German cryptozoologist Markus Bühler. Breeding throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, sporting an immense wingspan of up to 10.5 ft (even greater spans have been claimed but presently not verified), standing up to 5 ft tall, and weighing as much as 20 lb, the well known marabou stork Leptoptilos crumenifer (syn. crumeniferus) is certainly an extremely impressive, potentially formidable bird. Indeed, when specimens are scavenging from a carcase, they will sometimes even ward off vultures once the latter birds of prey have torn chunks of flesh from the carcase with their hooked beaks (which marabous lack). Even so, it seems unlikely that such a familiar species could have somehow been converted by local myth and superstition into a mystery bird.

The marabou stork (© DickDaniels/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

However, as Markus pointed out, during the Pliocene, Africa was also home to an even bigger species of marabou stork, L. falconeri, Falconer's marabou. Like L. crumenifer, it was widespread across northern and eastern Africa but stood around 6.5 ft tall (taller than an adult human of average height) and weighed up to 44 lb (as heavy as a small child). In comparison to L. crumenifer, Falconer's marabou exhibited a slight reduction in wing size, therefore possibly being more terrestrial than its modern-day relative, but it was still fully able to fly. As birds often look much bigger than they actually are, due to their plumage and pneumatic internal system adding substantial volume to their forms, this already-huge species would have been truly monstrous in appearance, added to which its possibly greater terrestrial lifestyle means that it may possibly have been able to kill and eat bigger creatures than L. crumenifer.

Based upon fossil evidence, Falconer's marabou stork had become extinct by the end of the Pliocene 2.5 million years ago, but if it had somehow survived into historical times (with what would be its more recent fossils not having been uncovered so far), there is no doubt that it could have been a thought-provoking makalala candidate (albeit one lacking the raptorial beak claimed by the Wasequas for the makalala). Even the latter's supposed wing-clapping sounds might in reality have been a confused memory of the beak-clapping sounds often produced by storks, and which would have been very loud if made by Falconer's marabou. However, there is currently no scientific evidence that the latter species did survive into historical times.

Another very large and intriguing species of bird that once inhabited Africa is Eremopezus eocaenus, which, as its name indicates, lived during the Eocene (specifically the late Eocene, between 36 and 33 million years ago). Its fossil remains, which have been obtained from Jebel Qatrani Formation deposits around the Qasr el Sagha escarpment, north of the Birket Qarun lake near Faiyum in Egypt, indicate that this was a very large, flightless, and quite possibly predatory bird, probably as tall as a small emu or large rhea but bulkier in form. Its taxonomic position has incited much debate, and it has yet to be confidently allied with any existing avian lineage, but the enigmatic Eremopezus does possess certain interesting and quite specific anatomical similarities with the secretary bird – a highly distinctive African species that will feature a little later in this discussion of potential makalala identities.

Could Eremopezus itself, however, be linked to the latter mystery bird? It seems implausible that this species could have lingered on into the present day or given rise to modern-day descendants without some geographically intervening remains have been found somewhere between Egypt and Tanzania's portion of East Africa. Then again, the fossil record is famously incomplete.

Height comparison of Homo sapiens alongside a selection of terror bird species (from left to right) Kelenken guillermoi, Phorusrhacos longissimus, and Titanis walleri, plus the diatrymid Gastornis parisiensis (public domain)

With flagrant disregard for zoogeographical dictates, the makalala readily recalls the phorusrhacids or terror birds. These were an aptly-named taxonomic group of huge flesh-eating birds known predominantly (but not exclusively) from the New World, and which attained their awesome zenith with a truly gigantic, spectacular species from Argentina's Patagonia region called Kelenken guillermoi.

Sporting a massive 28-inch-skull armed with an enormous hooked beak, this 10-12-ft-tall horror died out approximately 15 million years ago during the mid-Miocene, whereas Titanis walleri (originally thought to have been 10-12 ft tall too until further finds led it to be downsized to a still-daunting 5-6 ft) not only reached North America but lived there in Texas and Florida until as least as recently as 2.5 million years ago, making it the youngest terror bird species currently known. However, these fearful birds were flightless, as their wings were vestigial. Moreover, although confirmed terror bird fossils have been discovered in the Americas and also Antarctica, the only known fossil evidence for their erstwhile existence in Africa is a single femur from an individual that had lived during the early or early-to-mid-Eocene (i.e. between 52 million years and 46 million years ago) in what is today southwestern Algeria. In 2011, this mysterious species was named Lavocatavis africana.

Red-legged seriema Cariama cristata (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Even so, could the makalala be an undiscovered modern-day species? There is one notable precedent for such speculation, because some zoologists consider it plausible that a living, flying species of phorusrhacid-related bird is already known from Africa – namely, that strange, stork-like bird of prey called the secretary bird Sagittarius serpentarius. Although it is commonly classed as an aberrant accipitrid based upon molecular analyses, egg albumen comparisons have suggested in the past a closer taxonomic allegiance between this species and a pair of South American birds known as seriemas - which constitute the last surviving members of a phorusrhacid-allied taxonomic family.

The secretary bird (© Brian Ralphs/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0 licence; photo cropped)

In any event, the secretary bird affords a compelling correspondence to the makalala's morphology (albeit on a rather more modest scale). Standing up to 4.5 ft tall on notably long, crane-like legs, and endowed with strong wings that support a powerful, soaring flight, plus the head and hooked beak of a bird of prey, the secretary bird constitutes a very acceptable makalala in miniature. Furthermore, when attacking snakes (an important part of its diet) it frequently shields itself from potentially fatal strikes with its outstretched wings, which are equipped with horny tips - i.e. claws on the tips of its 'finger bones' (phalanges), instantly recalling those of the makalala.

This last-mentioned correspondence is particularly telling, because there are very few species of bird alive today that are equipped with these wingtip claws. Indeed, other than the secretary bird, the only ones presently known are the three species of crane-allied birds called finfoots or sun-grebes, plus three vaguely grouse-like relative of waterfowl known as screamers, native to South America, and including the black-necked screamer Chauna chavaria, the cross-sectional shape of whose wing spurs is such that they are particularly noisy when clapped together. In addition, a strange pheasant-like bird known as the hoatzin Opisthocomus hoazin, again from South America, produces curiously reptile-like offspring able to crawl along tree branches by virtue of two large, mobile claws on each wing, but these are lost as the chicks mature. Over the years, the hoatzin has been classified with numerous different avian groups, including the galliforms, cuckoos, touracos, mousebirds, waders, sand-grouses, and many others, but it is currently deemed to represent the oldest living avian lineage, discrete from all others alive today.

Illustration of the black-necked screamer, by Joseph Wolf, 1864 (public domain)

Certain other birds, like the jacanas or lily-trotters, the spur-winged goose Plectropterus gambensis, the spur-winged plover Vanellus spinosus, and a pair of Antarctic endemics called sheathbills, possess horny spurs on their wings, used in combat - but these are variously sited on the 'wrist bones' (carpals) or 'hand bones' (metacarpals), not upon the finger tips.

Out of all of these species, moreover, only one - the secretary bird - is predominantly carnivorous. Could the makalala, therefore, be some form of extra-large secretary bird - not necessarily as tall as the Wasequas state (their fear of it could certainly have inflated their estimate of its height), but much bigger than today's single known species? If so, a suitable scientific name for it, based upon its morphological description given above, would be Megasagittarius clamosus - 'the noisy, giant secretary bird'.

Staying with the secretary bird line of speculation, is it conceivable, alternatively, that the makalala was a false secretary bird, i.e. some other raptorial species, possibly another accipitrid (the eagles, hawks, and Old World vultures), that had assumed via convergent evolution a form outwardly comparable to Sagittarius? Although this is just another suggestion with no tangible evidence to support it directly, there is actually an interesting confirmed precedent for such an ostensibly unlikely premise.

In 1989, Drs Alan Feduccia and Michael R. Voorhies formally described a remarkable new species of North American fossil accipitrid from the late Miocene whose tarsometatarsal structure was nearly identical morphologically to that of the secretary bird. Indeed, the convergence was so striking that they christened this species Apatosagittarius terrenus, which translates as 'terrestrial false secretary bird', because they considered it likely that just like the true secretary bird, it had exhibited a predominantly terrestrial hunting lifestyle. In fact, it was only because the tarsometatarsus bore some attached phalanges whose structure was very different from those of the secretary bird that Feduccia and Voorhies were able to confirm that Apatosagittarius was not a true secretary bird, but was merely an anatomical impersonator.

The shoebill - close-up of its head revealing its immense hooked beak, and a beautiful shoebill illustration from 1901 (© Dr Karl Shuker/public domain)

Finally, a sizeable bird native to western Tanzania but possibly venturing eastward occasionally into the region supposedly inhabited by the makalala is the shoebill Balaeniceps rex. Once deemed to be an aberrant stork but nowadays considered to be more closely related to pelicans, this highly distinctive species stands up to 5 ft tall, sports a very impressive 8.5-ft wingspan, is famed for its enormous hooked beak, and has such a positively prehistoric appearance when seen in flight that it has been proposed by some zoologists as the identity of supposed living pterosaurs spasmodically reported from various regions of East and Central Africa - click here for a ShukerNature blog article on this subject.

However, the shoebill's wings do not possess horny tips, so it could not make the loud wing-claps characterising the makalala. In addition, being principally piscivorous it doesn't scavenge carcases, it is shy of humans, and as its overall appearance is so singular that it seems unlikely the Wasequa would confuse such an unmistakeable species with anything else or convert it into a much larger, quite different mystery bird, this would seem to rule out the shoebill from further consideration concerning the makalala - unless, of course, there is a still-undiscovered species of giant shoebill out there...?

With a life-sized model of the North American terror bird Titanis walleri (© Dr Karl Shuker)

All of the lines of speculation discussed above – with identity contenders ranging from marabou storks, shoebills, and terror birds to secretary birds, false secretary birds, and even the anomalous Eremopezus – are certainly absorbing and thought-provoking, but even if any of them is valid, it is scarcely likely to yield a living makalala, sadly. After all, a bird as large and as visually distinctive as this one would surely be hard-pressed indeed to remain undiscovered by science for long, regardless of the geographical locality involved - yet there do not appear to be any post-19th-Century reports of its existence.

Consequently, even if the makalala was a reality in the 1870s, presumably it no longer survives - but that does not mean that its former existence cannot be verified. As noted earlier, among the valued possessions and relics of present-day Wasequas there may still be one or more of the revered helmets worn by long-departed chiefs. Should one of these tribal heirlooms pass into the hands of an ornithologist, the lucky recipient could well find himself holding a bona fide makalala skull!

The above ShukerNature blog article is excerpted from my long-awaited updated edition of In Search of Prehistoric Survivors – coming soon…

And staying with monstrous birds, be sure to click here to read my ShukerNature article about the seriously scary giant marabou 'stork of doom' pictured below that was still alive in southeast Asia as recently as the late Pleistocene, approximately 18,000 years ago.

Leptoptilos robustus, the spectacular if flightless giant marabou stork of Flores, and one of the diminutive real-life hobbits (Flores Man Homo floresiensis) that lived in its formidable shadow (© Hodari Nundu)


For a comprehensive coverage of the terror birds' evolution and fossil history, check out my book The Menagerie of Marvels, which features on its front and back covers a spectacular pair of terror birds depicted by acclaimed artist Anthony Wallis – thanks Ant!






Wednesday, 28 October 2015

HORNING IN ON THE UNICORN SNAKE


Hoax unicorn snake - photo-manipulation to demonstrate what such an exhibit would have looked like (© Dr Karl Shuker)

During the Middle Ages and even several centuries later, explorers and travellers to exotic far-flung localities around the globe would often return home to Europe with unusual animal specimens as interesting souvenirs. Sadly, however, some of these items were outright fakes (such as the infamous 'Feejee mermaids', which were composite creations deftly manufactured from preserved monkeys and large fishes) or deliberately misidentified objects (such as ibex or antelope horns masquerading as griffin or dragon claws) that had been sold to the unsuspecting voyagers at exorbitant prices by unscrupulous vendors.

An ophidian representative from these shaming cabinets of credulities was the unicorn snake. Generally procured in the East, this usually took the form of a dried, preserved serpent of fairly sizeable proportions but sporting as its most eyecatching characteristic a long spine protruding from the centre of its brow like a veritable herpetological unicorn.

Photo-manipulation close-up demonstrating what a hoax unicorn snake created using an inserted cut-down porcupine quill would have looked like (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Needless to say, however, an examination of such a specimen by an experienced naturalist invariably revealed that its 'horn' was merely a cut-down quill from a porcupine or a spine from a hedgehog or spiny-finned fish that had been carefully inserted and glued inside the serpent's head. I have also read of living specimens of supposed unicorn snakes, though I can't imagine that any snake would live very long if they had been subjected to such a barbaric treatment, because the inserted quill or spine would probably pierce their brain.

Worth noting is that there is a real species of snake that is sometimes dubbed the green unicorn. More commonly termed the rhinoceros rat snake Rhynchophis boulengeri, however, this green-scaled non-venomous colubrid from Vietnam and China earns its rhino and unicorn epithets from the very prominent, pointed, scaly protrusion borne upon the front of its snout like a small horn.

Head of a rhinoceros rat snake, showing its distinctive snout-horn (public domain)




Sunday, 18 October 2015

WALT DISNEY AND THE BLACK PUMA THAT NEVER WAS


What are North America's mystery black panthers – escapee/released melanistic leopards, or native all-black pumas? (© William Rebsamen)

Time to debunk another crypto-controversy, though in this case it's not a deliberate hoax, merely a mixture of confusion and absence of the required facts.

As I have documented elsewhere on ShukerNature (click here), physical evidence for the reality of melanistic (all-black) pumas Puma concolor (aka cougars, mountain lions, painters, etc) in North America is conspicuous only by its absence. Certainly, large all-black cats often nicknamed panthers or black panthers (names more correctly applied to melanistic specimens of the leopard Panthera pardus) have been frequently reported from many parts of the United States and Canada too, but none has ever been made available for scientific examination resulting in a confirmed identification (even outside North America, I only know of two verified dorsally black, ventrally paler pumas – one shot in Costa Rica, the other in Brazil; I know of no verified all-black pumas from anywhere). So what do we have in the following video clip?

Several times lately, correspondents have drawn my attention to a certain brief clip of film, which keeps appearing, disappearing, and reappearing on YouTube. It's back again at present, so view while you can here. Judging from the comments present beneath it on YouTube, viewers seem to think shows a genuine film of a genuine all-black (melanistic) puma attacking and killing a dog. The reality is very different.

For reasons that I shall give below, this is clearly not a genuine all-black puma, it is simply a normal one that has been dyed black all over in order to resemble North America's elusive mystery black panthers of cryptozoological acclaim. Nor is this a real, non-fiction video either – it is merely a clip from the 1977 'Wonderful World of Disney' television movie entitled The Ghost of Cypress Swamp, starring Jeff East and Vic Morrow.

A computer-generated image of what a melanistic puma may look like (© Dr Karl Shuker)

As a massive life-long Disney fan, I used to watch this series avidly as a youngster, as well as its equally excellent predecessor, 'Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color', and as you'd expect, I can still remember seeing the black puma clips from this particular movie, though I have to confess that prior to re-watching it on YouTube in relation to the black puma segments, the rest of it was somewhat of a haze now, almost 40 years later. Curiously, although shown in England, it has apparently never been released in the USA, its unfamiliarity therefore possibly helping to explain why clips from it featuring the cosmetically-created black puma have been mistakenly assumed by some online viewers to depict real scenes featuring a real black puma.

The whole movie can be viewed on YouTube here, and actually contains two such clips. In the first clip (the one that attracted the online comments by viewers assuming that it was a genuine film), beginning at 2.47 minutes into the film, the cat kills a youth's dog (the youth played by Jeff East); then in the second clip  at 1.24.55, it attacks the youth's new dog, this clip continuing (with a brief break during which the youth runs home for his gun) for the next couple of minutes before the dog is rescued alive and well by the youth who then shoots the cat dead after it attacks his father. There are also several briefer clips of the cat stalking a deer, prowling through the swamp, etc. As for movie's general storyline, here is the plot synopsis accompanying it on YouTube: "Set in swamplands in Georgia his dog is attacked by a panther called Weakfoot. Later he [Jeff East's character] is captured by a wild man living in the swamps and believed to be dead".

So, why do I not think that this all-black puma is genuine? In a few clips in the film, the black dye has seemingly rubbed off or has been licked off by the puma from parts of its face (or had not fully stained to begin with?), especially around the eyes, and on the mouth and nose (most noticeably at 15:41), revealing its normal paler fur. As already noted above, the only confirmed black pumas were dark dorsally but paler ventrally, not uniformly black (i.e. they were not melanistic pumas). And if this cat had truly been a black puma, it would have been so valuable and rare that it would have been one of the biggest, most famous stars in Hollywood in its own right, as famous as Lassie and Rin Tin Tin.

So, as film cops always say at the denouement of a crime case: move on, people - nothing to see here.


UPDATE - 19 October 2015

Continuing with American black mystery panthers in movies: the infamous John Wayne/Susan Hayward movie The Conqueror (1956) also featured what looked like a puma with all-black pelage - so I've now watched the relevant segment from the film to check this out. Moreover, I have since learnt from Facebook friend and fellow crypto-enthusiast Ian C. Thomas that the cat was indeed a puma, but once again dyed black. Here is the relevant information (including a photo), as excerpted from the website Poseidon's Underworld (click here to access it in full). Thanks, Ian!

She [Susan Hayward] was supposed to have a scene involving a black panther (a tiny snippet of which still remains) in which she kicked it in the rear, but there were many issues. The panther was so ill-tempered [but wouldn't you be if someone was trying to kick you in the rear?!] that it went to maul her, then it was replaced with a puma painted black, but the beast kept licking all of the paint off itself!

And here is what an article on this film that appeared here on the London Telegraph newspaper's website had to say about that particular scene's attempt to utilise the original black panther:

At some point a distinctly non-indigenous black panther was shipped in to ‘liven up’ the background of one scene. Except that it then attacked Susan Hayward, attempting to take a bite out of her arm.

Several other corroborating accounts concerning the black panther and the dyed-black puma that replaced it in The Conqueror can be found online.


2ND UPDATE - 1 February 2017

Following up a very welcome lead posted by a reader in the comments below, I checked out the original source material upon which the above Disney movie was based. It proved to be a novel entitled Weakfoot, written by Linda Cline and first published in 1975. It was reprinted a year later, retitled as The Ghost of Cramer's Island. The novel takes place in the early part of the 20th Century, and is set in and around the Okefenokee Swamp, which straddles the Georgia-Florida border in the USA. In the novel, Weakfoot is an adult female black puma who is eventually shot, but her cubs survive, and they too are black.

Futura paperback reprint of Weakfoot by Linda Cline (© Linda Cline/Futura, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)


Further information concerning the likelihood (or otherwise) of black pumas existing can also be found in my two books on mystery cats – Mystery Cats of the World (1989) and Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012).






Monday, 12 October 2015

DEEPLY DIPPY OVER DIPLOCAULUS


Traditional boomerang-headed restoration of Diplocaulus (public domain)

Up to 3 ft long, superficially salamander-like in basic form, but belonging to the long-extinct nectridean taxonomic order within the equally erstwhile subclass of archaic amphibians known as lepospondyls, one of my favourite creatures from pre-dinosaurian prehistory has always been Diplocaulus – famous for its huge inverted V-shaped or boomerang-shaped head, as exhibited by several species (plus a very close relative, the lesser-known but near-identical Diploceratus burkei). The reason for its head's bizarre shape is its skull's pair of enormous but dorsoventrally flat, lateral bony projections known as tabular horns. These remarkable structures may have enabled its head to serve as a hydrofoil when this amphibian was swimming, or may even have prevented it from being swallowed by predators, by increasing its head's width beyond the gape of any carnivorous creature alive at that time that shared its zoogeographical distribution range.

Restoration of Diploceraspis burkei (© Dmitry Bogdanov/Wikipedia CC BY 3.0)

Arising in North America, this extraordinary creature lived during the Permian Period (approximately 300-250 million years ago), although only D. minimus, currently the only known non-American representative (native to Morocco), occurred during the late Permian. Consequently, this makes various photographs and videos of alleged living Diplocaulus specimens that have surfaced online and elsewhere in the media during recent years nothing if not intriguing…


DIPLOCAULUS IN A DISH (DIAD)

The first of these reputed resurrectées is one that I shall refer to hereafter as DIAD (short for Diplocaulus in a dish). As I documented in my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), in September 2004 Fortean Times forwarded to me a short note from reader Stuart Pike enquiring about a photograph that had been circulating online and which depicted a bizarre-looking mystery beast labelled in accompanying internet reports as a hammerhead lizard. Here is the photograph in question:

The 'hammerhead lizard', or, as I have since dubbed it, the DIAD (© source unknown to me)

Not long afterwards, Maltese journalist Tonio Galea independently contacted me, requesting details about this same photo (still of unknown origin), whose creature, according to local Maltese rumour, had lately been discovered alive on a rocky beach at Il-Maghluq, Marsascala, in the south of the island. I subsequently received several more enquiries from other correspondents, and so too, it transpired, did various other scientists, including Malta University biologist Prof. Patrick J. Schembri, who wrote about it in a letter published on 21 November 2004 in Malta's Sunday Times newspaper (click here).

In reality, however, what this intriguing photo depicts is a gypsum/non-urethane foam-based model of a Diplocaulus. Investigations of mine eventually revealed via a Japanese model-making website (click here) that this DIAD had been manufactured back in 1992 by an amateur Japanese model maker in response to a magazine competition. I have still not succeeded in discovering the model maker's name, but I did manage to uncover a second photograph of the DIAD itself, which is this one:

Second photograph of the DIAD (© source unknown to me)


DIPLOCAULUS ON VIDEO

YouTube contains several videos purporting to show living specimens of Diplocaulus (with at least two totally different specimens featured – one pink, one green), but all of them have been filmed and uploaded by the same person – which means that either he/she is unaccountably successful at locating living specimens of an amphibian deemed extinct for at least 250 million years by palaeontologists; or, all is not as it seems.

The person in question has the YouTube username SouldierTVSP, and has loaded three separate videos of what is claimed to be the same specimen, which can be viewed in sequence of their filming here, here, and here; plus a much shorter video montage here; and a video of a visibly different specimen here.

The first of the three videos allegedly showing the same specimen was filmed on 22 July 2011 (according to an on-screen caption). The second video consisted of three separate segments, filmed respectively (according to on-screen captions) on 26 July 2011, 1 August 2011, and 8 August 2011. No on-screen date was given for the third video, but as all three videos were uploaded by SouldierTVSP on 8 August 2011, this third video was clearly a continuation of the second one's ending section. Each of the three videos was accompanied by the following interestingly worded request: "Someone, please teach me this strange creature's true colors", beneath which for the third video was this additional, rather more forthright statement: "Diplocaulus Still Alive!! Paranormal Creature".

As will be seen when viewed, these three videos show what looks like a pink toy Diplocaulus amidst some vegetation debris floating in a current of water, seemingly a stream or river. There is nothing in the videos that can be used as an effective up-close scale to provide an estimate of size for the object (but unless the surrounding debris is very substantial, it would seem to be small). The object is moving entirely passively, drifting and buffeted by the current, with just an occasional slight movement of its tail or head, as might be expected, for instance, of a toy with a jointed tail and head, but no sign of any independent animate movements. In contrast, palaeontologists believe that in life, Diplocaulus would have probably swum by vertical undulations of its body, as its small weak legs and relatively short tail would not have been of much locomotory assistance. Of course, the object in the videos just might be a recently dead animal as opposed to a living one, but to my eyes the object looks as if it has never lived. Also, these three videos were filmed over an 18-day period, and yet the object's appearance does not change at all (in 18 days, a dead animal, conversely, would have shown considerable signs of decomposition, assuming that it hadn't already been devoured by a predator).

Diplocaulus magnicornis, fossil skull, in Journal of Morphology, 1912 (public domain)

On 16 November 2012, SouldierTVSP uploaded a very short video montage entitled 'Diplocaulus Still Alive! Cryptid Exist [sic]'. It began with a brief clip of a still photograph depicting someone holding a large creature to the camera, its somewhat salamander-like head pointing forward as it looks directly into the camera. The head bears a pair of fleshy flap-like lateral projections, but these are nowhere near as large or boomerang-shaped as those of Diplocaulus. The rest of the creature cannot be readily seen; indeed, based upon that photo alone, I'm not entirely convinced that the creature is an amphibian (not even a deformed one), rather than some unusual wide-mouthed fish. Nevertheless, an on-screen caption states in English and Japanese that as soon as its identity as Diplocaulus is confirmed, the full footage will be released (but as far as I'm aware, no such release has occurred so far). The remainder of the video shows what seems to be the earlier pink apparent toy Diplocaulus resting on some vegetation (with a live wild duck of similar size close by, thus providing a useful size scale), then ending with a four-second clip of what looks like this same object floating in the water with its tail swishing from side to side, but very plausibly caused simply by the water current moving a jointed tail on a toy.

The final alleged Diplocaulus video by SouldierTVSP, uploaded on 11 January 2012, has the somewhat unpromising title of 'Kinky Cryptid Sightings', and showcases an iridescent green Diplocaulus with an enormous head moving across a pond (located near a waterfall) at the water surface in a seemingly active manner before its huge boomerang-shaped head becomes entangled in what looks worryingly like an item of female undergarment floating there (which presumably explains the title of the video!). For these reasons alone (not to mention the wide variety of anything-but-serious videos on other cryptozoological subjects that this person has also uploaded onto YouTube), I personally find it difficult to take this video seriously. In my view, some form of self-propelled model has been filmed here – but I would love to be proved wrong!


OH, DIPLOCAULUS, WHAT CAN THE MATAMATA BE?

On 10 October 2015, the following photograph was tweeted to me by The Anomalist @anomalistnews, stating: "Is this a better diplocaulus hoax, or a previously unknown animal?" and "Only details on this photo is it was taken in "Asia" and was posted on Facebook".

Online photograph tweeted to me of an unequivocally Diplocaulus-like creature – but was it alive? (see later in this ShukerNature article for subsequently-discovered copyright credit)

Needless to say, it certainly looked like a Diplocaulus, no question about that, and the degree of morphological detail visible in the photograph was extensive – but was it a living animal, or was it either a very realistic model or a very skilfully photo-manipulated image?

Not surprisingly, this mystery photograph attracted considerable interest and comments on Twitter, including this thought-provoking suggestion by Facebook friend Paul Willison: "IMO, a photoshop of a hellbender or giant salamander and baby mata mata turtle", who also attached some photographs of these species in support of his opinion.

A hellbender (© Brian Gratwicke/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0)

The hellbender Cryptobranchus alleganiensis is North America's giant salamander, beaten in size only by the giant salamanders of China and Japan; and the mata mata or matamata Chelus fimbriata is a very bizarre-looking species of South American freshwater turtle.

And there is no doubt that the ostensible Diplocaulus in the mystery photo does embody features from both of these species, so could that be the answer – a photographic montage or composite created by some ingenious morphing of matamata and hellbender images by person(s) unknown?

A matamata (© Stahlkocher/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

Spurred on by Paul's suggestion, I spent some time Google-imaging matamata turtles, hellbenders, and giant salamanders in general, in search of corresponding photos or portions of photos, as well as Diplocaulus, in search of matching photos of models and restorations – but nothing turned up, until…

After scrolling down to the very bottom of the umpteenth Google-image search page using the above and similar animal names as search words, suddenly the mystery photograph itself appeared!

It proved to be a photo of an exceedingly life-like Diplocaulus model created by expert Japanese model maker Goro Furuta. What's more, it was just one of several photos (all copyrighted to Goro) of this wonderful model that were present in a publicly-viewable album on Goro's Facebook page. This album can be viewed here, and includes the following close-up photo of the model resting on someone's hand and arm:

Second photograph of Goro Furuta's excellent Diplocaulus model (© Goro Furuta)

Goro has prepared many additional, equally spectacular animal models, and as I swiftly became a massive fan of his work after browsing pictures of them in his several albums on Facebook depicting his work, I am delighted that he is now a Facebook friend of mine.

Incidentally, I'd like to stress here that at no point has Goro ever claimed or sought to suggest that his Diplocaulus model was anything other than a model - the online confusion as to whether or not the photograph of it currently doing the internet rounds portrayed a living Diplocaulus is due entirely to misinformed speculation by people seeing the photo (copied from Goro's FB album and circulated online by person/s unknown) but not knowing its origin and incorrectly assuming the model to be a real animal. (Having said that, I suppose it can be viewed as a backhanded compliment to Goro's model-making expertise that his Diplocaulus model is so realistic that people have assumed that it was a living creature!)

The mystery of the most life-like non-living Diplocaulus reported online so far was a mystery no longer. In a tweet of 10 October 2015 replying to the original one by The Anomalist and to those of Paul Willison, I stated: "It's a Diplocaulus model, by Japanese model-maker Goro Furuta: [and then I included the link to Goro's relevant Facebook album]".

Skull and vertebrae of Diplocaulus magnicornis unearthed in Willbarger County, Texas; displayed at the University of Michigan's Natural History Museum (public domain)


Sadly, however, it means that this boomerang-headed amphibian remains interred within the long-vanished Permian Period, but even back there it has offered up a startling surprise. Trace fossils have been found showing a pair of flaps or membranes linking the tips of its head's tabular horns to its body – in other words, Diplocaulus may not have been outwardly boomerang-headed as traditionally assumed, but might well instead have resembled in life the restoration depicted at the end of this ShukerNature blog article, on display at the University of Michigan's Natural History Museum.

If so, then any videos or future photos of purported living Diplocaulus specimens that possess a boomerang-shaped head can swiftly be discounted (always assuming, of course, that an evolved modern-day Diplocaulus did not develop one during its 250-million-year continued evolution since the Permian?).

For now, however, all of this is academic, because Diplocaulus is still defunct, but it remains one of my favourite prehistoric creatures too – even if it has lost its boomerang!

Modern reconstruction of Diplocaulus magnicornis, exhibiting membranes enclosing its tabular horns; displayed at the University of Michigan's Natural History Museum (public domain)