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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Wednesday, 18 November 2015

THE NAKED TRUTH ABOUT HAIRLESS HYAENAS, AND THE CHUPACABRA CONNECTION


The original version of the Charles Hamilton Smith/William Home Lizars illustration of the Nubian naked hyaena that appeared as Plate 27 in Volume II of The Natural History of Dogs...Including Also the Genera Hyaena and Proteles, published in 1840 (public domain)

Four species of modern-day hyaena are presently recognised by science – the spotted hyaena Crocuta crocuta, the striped hyaena Hyaena hyaena, the brown hyaena Hyaena brunnea, and the aardwolf Proteles cristatus – all four of which possess a respectable (and sometimes notably shaggy) pelage. This is why a very unexpected discovery of mine has left me decidedly perplexed.

Serendipity has played a significant part in several of my cryptozoological finds, and this one is no exception. While perusing the internet in search of some 19th-Century engravings depicting a totally different type of animal, I happened upon the truly remarkable engraving opening this present ShukerNature blog article. As can be seen, the animal in question is labelled in it as a "naked hyaena of the desert Africa", and apart from sporting a dorsal mane, a tail tuft, some cheek fur, and some short hair running under its chin and along its throat, it does indeed appear to be naked. Yet as far as I am aware, no animal matching its bizarre appearance is known today.

Eager to learn more about this bald enigma, I scoured the internet in search of the engraving's original, published source, and was pleased to uncover it quite readily. The artwork for the engraving had been prepared by a 19th-Century naturalist and artist called Charles Hamilton Smith, which was then engraved by William Home Lizars, a celebrated Scottish engraver. It appeared as Plate XXVII in Volume II of The Natural History of Dogs...Including Also the Genera Hyaena and Proteles, published in 1840, authored by Hamilton Smith, and part of a major series of animal tomes edited by Sir William Jardine and entitled The Naturalist's Library. I was also able to trace online the relevant text concerning this mysterious hyaena from that volume, in which it had been categorised as a form of the striped hyaena. On page 278, its description then read as follows:

THE NAKED HYAENA OF THE DESERTS OF NUBIA

Hyaena vulgaris [a commonly-used synonym of Hyaena hyaena]

This race is small and gaunt, entirely destitute of hair, excepting the mane on the ridge of the neck and back. The bare skin is of a purplish black, the body is short, and the tip of the tail is furnished with a small brush.

I would have expected an animal as visually arresting as this to be extensively documented. Yet despite a diligent search online and through every relevant publication in my not-inconsiderable personal zoological library, I have so far been unable to uncover any additional information concerning it, not even the briefest of mentions. It is as if it never existed. So how can Nubia's anomalous naked desert hyaena be explained, and what has happened to it?

As Jardine classed it as a form of the striped hyaena, the naked desert hyaena presumably belonged to the latter species' Nubian subspecies, Hyaena hyaena dubbah, which does inhabit desert fringes (though not the interiors of true deserts) and sub-desert terrain. However, this subspecies possesses a normal, uniformly fully-furred pelage, not just a dorsal mane, tail tuft, and a few very restricted areas of hair elsewhere.

Normal striped hyaena, sketch from 1902 (public domain)

Could it be, therefore, that the naked desert hyaena was based upon some freak, near-hairless individuals, yielding a local non-taxonomic variety? Or (as a less plausible but more zoologically-intriguing alternative option) did it constitute a discrete race, distinct from the typical Nubian striped hyaena, which may have bred true? If the latter were correct, then the naked desert hyaena would surely have represented a valid subspecies in its own right.

Yet as I am not aware of any evidence suggesting that this extraordinary form still survives today, the prospect of the naked desert hyaena being a non-taxonomic freak variety of the Nubian striped hyaena seems the more rational of these two options, with its limited number of specimens simply dying out without perpetuating their strain. After all, bare skin is hardly an advantageous feature for a surface-dwelling desert mammal's successful existence beneath an unrelenting blazing sun, and is unlikely, therefore, to be actively selected for via evolution's 'survival of the fittest' modus operandi.

The cause of a freak hairless variety's nakedness would surely be the expression of some form of mutant gene allele. Such a situation is responsible for hairlessness in a number of other mammalian species, though different mutant alleles cause hairlessness in different species (i.e. this condition is not caused by one and the same allele across the entire spectrum of species known to exhibit freak hairlessness).

A second version of the Charles Hamilton Smith/William Home Lizars illustration of the Nubian naked hyaena (public domain)

Having considered genetic options, there are also some externally-induced possibilities to consider. Foremost of these is that in reality, Nubia's naked desert hyaena consisted of individuals suffering from some form of skin ailment, such as mange (caused by tiny parasitic mites), whose debilitating effects may also explain their small body size and gaunt appearance. In other words, these creatures' growth may have been stunted, due to their ill health reducing their ability to find food. Having said that, on first sight the distribution of hair on the animal depicted in Smith's engraved artwork seems far too regular to be explained in this way. Mange-infected animals often have irregular, inconsistently-distributed patches of hairlessness.

In the most severe cases of mange, however, sometimes the only fur remaining on an infected animal is a prominent line of hair running down its neck and along its back, a ruff around its neck extending from behind its ears and over its cheeks down to its chin and throat, and sometimes a tuft at the end of its tail. This description perfectly corresponds with the distribution of hair described by Jardine for Nubia's naked desert hyaena and depicted in Smith's representation of it.

Consequently, I consider it most likely that this latter mystery beast, long banished from the annals of natural history, was merely based upon one or more specimens of mange-ridden, under-nourished hyaena that had been out-competed by bigger, fitter, healthier hyaenas in the less environmentally-adverse areas at the fringes of Nubia's desert, and had thus been forced to seek sanctuary amid this desert's more arid, less hospitable interior instead.

The Cuero specimen of Texas blue hairless dog, preserved as a taxiderm specimen (© CFZ)

Support for this theory comes from an ostensibly unexpected cryptozoological source – the chupacabra. Or, to be more precise, from the so-called hairless blue dogs of Texas that have been frequently if erroneously identified as blood-sucking chupacabras (especially in media reports). The most famous example is the specimen that rancher Phylis Canion found dead just in front of her ranch outside the small Texas town of Cuero on 14 July 2007. DNA samples were taken, which identified it as a coyote, albeit one that apparently possessed at least a smidgen of Mexican wolf ancestry too, thereby suggesting that a degree of hybridisation had occurred between these two species at some stage in this creature's family tree.

Media reports regularly state that its blue-grey skin was completely hairless when it was discovered. However, as he disclosed when investigating this intriguing animal, chupacabra researcher Ben Radford noted that photographs taken of it by Canion on the day that she found it outside her home clearly showed a conspicuous line of hair running from behind its ears down its neck and along the centre of its back. This is of course a classic indication of the presence of mange, and other 'hairless blue dogs' on record have presented a similar appearance.

Also very pertinent to this subject is the so-called 'Isle of Wight Monster' that had been scaring people there since early autumn 1939, and was said by eyewitnesses to possess the head of a lion. When it was finally snared and shot on 16 February 1940, however, the IOW Monster proved to be nothing more exotic than an old fox with very advanced mange that had left a ruff of hair around its neck, resembling a lion's mane, but very little fur elsewhere on its body.

Mexican hairless dogs or xolos (public domain)

Providing a useful contrast, in January 2010 a completely hairless raccoon was found dead on the Runaway golf course in Wise County, Texas, where it had quite likely frozen to death in the wintry weather. Originally, it was assumed to have been suffering from mange, but when examined by biologists it was shown not to have been after all. Hence its highly unusual condition was most probably congenital (as is also true with the xolo, Mexico's famous hairless dog breed), emphasising well that mange does not generally reduce an individual to a state of total hairlessness.

Another interesting specimen of relevance here is the horse with soft velvet-like skin of a lilac-blue shade and totally lacking not only hair but also hair follicles that was discovered in South Africa by a merchant called Lashmar during 1860 (and which I've documented here on ShukerNature). He spied it among a herd of quagga Equus quagga quagga (the semi-striped subspecies of plains zebra that became extinct in 1883), successfully captured it, and brought it back to England in 1863, where it was exhibited in London's Crystal Palace during February 1868.

What has never been determined, however, is whether this remarkable animal was truly a domestic horse – for if so, where had it come from? Alternatively, and much more logically, might it have been a freak hairless quagga, thereby explaining why it was associating with quaggas?

Illustration of a blue horse produced by digital photo-manipulation that compares well with the description of the South African/Crystal Palace hairless blue horse (© Daisiem/worth1000 reproduced here via the Fair Use convention on a strictly non-commercial, educational use only basis)

Irrespective of its precise taxonomic identity, it was the first of many hairless equine individuals to be publicly displayed down through the years. Others of prominence include Caoutchouc - a black, entirely hairless feral horse (even lacking eyelashes) with skin resembling India-rubber that had been captured in Australia and was displayed widely around the world during the 1870s; and two individuals from the 1890s. One of these was Wild Nell, dubbed the 'India-rubber skinned mare'. The other was Bluebell, the $25,000 'hairless wonder'. As with the totally hairless raccoon from Texas and the Mexican hairless dog, these horses' complete absence of hair was due to the expression of a mutant gene allele, not to any external skin complaint.

A fourth explanation for freak hairlessness is influence by non-pathological external factors, such as climate and diet – and this is the explanation favoured by experts for the gradual but ultimately near-total loss of hair suffered by three female Andean spectacled bears housed at Germany's Leipzig Zoo and previously fully-furred. Their plight and grotesque appearance hit media headlines worldwide during late 2009, but it transpired that a similar phenomenon had struck a number of other, unrelated spectacled bears in captivity elsewhere around the world too - thereby eliminating a common source of infection or a shared genetic fault from consideration.

One of the three hairless spectacled bears from Leipzig Zoo (© EPA – reproduced here via the Fair Use convention on a strictly non-commercial, educational use only basis)

In short, hairlessness in mammals can be caused by a number of different factors, but judging from its specific appearance I still favour mange or some comparable skin infection as the most reasonable explanation for the naked desert hyaena of Nubia. To my knowledge, this is the first case of hairlessness in hyaenas that has ever been brought to cryptozoological attention, and does not even appear to have featured in any mainstream zoological works since Jardine's tome.

Indeed, it is this very state of being conspicuous only by its absence that lends further support to the likelihood that this hyaena is – or was - a short-lived, unrepeated, pathologically-induced curiosity rather than a genetically-engendered, non-taxonomic curiosity or local variety, or a distinct taxonomic race. For if any of the latter possibilities were correct, I am certain that something not only as morphologically memorable as a near-hairless hyaena but also of such potential genetic and evolutionary significance would have attracted ongoing scientific interest, leading to this beast's continued documentation in the zoological literature.

Instead, like so many other wildlife oddities, Nubia's naked desert hyaena was only of brief, passing interest, and no doubt vanished from existence soon afterwards anyway, thereafter to be forgotten for generations until I happened by chance to uncover what seems to be the only illustration ever prepared of this fascinating creature, and realised that here was a forgotten treasure from the dark vaults of unnatural history that richly deserved to be retrieved and redisplayed. It was ever thus.

A third version of the Charles Hamilton Smith/William Home Lizars illustration of the Nubian naked hyaena (public domain)







Sunday, 8 November 2015

SHOOTING DOWN A PTERODACTYLIAN THUNDERBIRD – OR AT LEAST A SUPPOSED PHOTOGRAPH OF ONE!


Sourced at last – this oft-posted online photograph of a supposed pterodactylian thunderbird shot by hunters (© Chris Smith, all rights reserved by him; NB – this picture is reproduced here on a strictly Fair Use non-commercial educational basis only)

The missing thunderbird photograph is among the most famous of all cryptozoological mysteries, and one that I have already documented in detail on ShukerNature (click here). As a result of its fame, over the years it has inspired the creation of many hoax photos purporting to be the real thing, and also many non-hoax pastiches of it – but unfortunately, when such photos appear online and become widely circulated there, it is not always apparent which is which, especially as all too many websites post such photos with credulous claims that they depict real creatures, thereby blurring further an already nebulous situation.

One supposed thunderbird photograph that has been circulated on numerous sites is the very striking illustration opening this present ShukerNature blog article, and which has intrigued me for some time. Looking at the pterosaur in it, it was evident to me that it was a model of a Pteranodon (but based upon a fruit bat's wings instead of a pterosaur's, hence the difference in finger count) that had been added via some form of photo-manipulation process to a possibly genuine, vintage photograph of hunters, thereby creating the oft-described scene that the real missing thunderbird photo allegedly depicts (always assuming, of course, that such a photo itself ever existed!).

Tracing this pterodactylian thunderbird photo from one website to another, the earliest appearances that I've been able to find for it online are from 2012 – but tonight, following yet another online search, inspired by having been alerted by a correspondent to its appearance in the newly-published December 2015 issue of the monthly magazine True West, I finally discovered both its origin and its creator!

A model of Pteranodon in flight (© Dr Karl Shuker)

It turns out that the photo is not a hoax but rather an affectionate homage in pastiche form to the original missing thunderbird photograph, and once you know where to look online it is openly identified as having been created by highly-acclaimed digital illustration artist Chris Smith from Croydon in London, England, who has also created an equally wonderful digital image of a pair of mokele-mbembes encountered by some pygmies in the Congolese swamplands. Click here to view both of these excellent artworks, which were posted on the Vividvisuals website's blog by Chris on 15 April 2013, and where I discovered them tonight.

Also, an enlargement of his pterodactylian thunderbird photo can be viewed here on Chris's own Flickr page, which reveals that he created this spectacular image on 27 October 2010. I strongly recommend all fans of fantasy and science-fiction art to visit Chris's Flickr page (click here), because it contains some of the most spectacular digital artwork from these genres that I have ever seen, and even includes some awesome front-cover illustrations that he has prepared for Fortean Times.

Another cryptozoological case solved and closed!

Further details concerning thunderbirds and the missing thunderbird photograph will appear in Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors - the greatly-expanded, massively-updated edition of my 1995 book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors…coming soon.





Saturday, 7 November 2015

AN AWOL ARGUS PHEASANT?


Beautiful painting of a male great argus pheasant by Daniel Giraud Elliot (public domain)

Evidence for the erstwhile reality of the double-banded argus pheasant Argusianus bipunctatus, one of the world's most mysterious crypto-birds, is best described as feather-light - in every sense.

Male great argus pheasant (© Francesco Veronesi/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0)

Truly a giant among pheasants, an adult male specimen of the great argus pheasant Argusianus argus (=giganteus) can measure up to 6.5 ft long. Native to the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and Borneo, it is also instantly recognised by virtue of its extremely long slender tail, and its huge fan-like wings, whose broad feathers are ornately embellished with rows of spectacular ocelli (eye-like markings) with which to capture the attention of female argus pheasants during courtship (and which earned these birds their name too - Argus being the many-eyed watchman from Greek mythology). There is also a lesser-known related species, the crested argus pheasant Rheinardia ocellata, once again native to southeast Asia but housed in a separate genus.

A pair of crested argus pheasants, painted by George Edward Lodge (public domain)

On 8 April 1871, moreover, T.W. Wood published a short report in The Field documenting a singular partial feather of unknown provenance and very unusual appearance. A portion of a male bird's primary from the right wing, on first sight it resembled those of the great argus. Closer observation, however, revealed that this strange plume bore two bands of speckled, chocolate-brown colouration - one on its broad web, and one on its narrow web. In contrast, corresponding plumes from the great argus bear only one such band, on their broad web.

1870s engraving showing a close-up of the unique double-banded argus pheasant feather (top) alongside that of a great argus pheasant feather (bottom) (public domain)

Consequently, Wood deemed that the aberrant feather must have originated from a second, hitherto-unknown species of argus, and he duly dubbed this unseen species Argus [now Argusianus] bipunctatus, the double-banded argus pheasant.

The first three feathers in this illustration are from the crested argus pheasant, the fourth is the single, unique feather from the double-banded argus pheasant (public domain)

The lone feather from Wood's newly-created species was presented by Edward Bartlett in 1891 to the British Museum (Natural History)'s ornithological collection at Tring, where it still resides today as the only tangible evidence for the double-banded argus's reality. No sightings of this most mysterious bird have ever been reported either - which can be explained at least in part by the simple fact that no-one really knows where to begin looking for it.

A pair of Bornean great argus pheasants painted by Archibald Thorburn (public domain)

Pheasant expert Dr Jean Delacour suspected that Java would prove to be the homeland of this cryptic bird, but his several searches for it here all proved unsuccessful. In 1983, ornithologist G.W.H. Davison nominated Tioman, an offshore island of eastern Malaysia, as a more plausible provenance, though not a very promising one. This is because Tioman had been well-explored scientifically during the 20th Century, thereby rendering it unlikely that a bird as sizeable as a species of argus pheasant could still exist there undetected.

A chromolithograph from 1837 of a male specimen of the great argus pheasant (public domain)

In other words, if this speculative species was indeed native to Tioman, it must surely now be extinct. Yet if so, this would be exceptionally tragic, because the aerodynamic properties of its unique feather as determined from its precise physical structure are so poor that this ostensibly lost species might conceivably have been flightless - and, if so, would have constituted the only species of flightless modern-day pheasant known to science.

A pair of Malayan great argus pheasants painted by Archibald Thorburn (public domain)

Having said that, in a Journal of Field Ornithology paper from 1992 K.S. Parkes dismissed this perplexing plume as nothing more than a freak feather from a great argus, in which the normal single band of speckled brown colouration had been duplicated via the expression of a mutant gene. Moreover, following the International Ornithological Congress's removal of the double-banded argus from its list of valid taxa in 2011, a year later the IUCN followed suit by removing it from its list of extinct bird species. Hence the double-banded argus is currently the avian equivalent of a persona non gratis as far as ornithological taxonomy is concerned, and unless any new discovery is made in the future it is likely to remain so.

An 1887 engraving of a male great argus pheasant (public domain)

This ShukerNature blog article is expanded from my book Mysteries of Planet Earth.