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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Tuesday, 31 May 2016

GIANT BIRDS FROM THE TOMBS OF THE PHARAOHS


Depiction of the bennu (© Jeff Dahl/Wikipedia GFDL licence)

The phoenix may be the most famous feathered mystery associated with ancient Egypt - but it is not the only one. Equally mystifying is the bennu bird, which frequently appeared in the Books of the Dead - the hieroglyphic texts that accompanied the deceased in their coffins during the Fifth Dynasty (c.2466-2322 BC) at Heliopolis. Each text was a long roll of papyrus, summarising in picture writing the life of the deceased person alongside whose corpse it had been placed within the coffin. It also offered advice on gaining acceptance for entry into the next world, and revealed that upon acceptance the person would encounter the holy bennu bird, which would bear his or her soul to Ra, the supreme god.

Within the picture text, the bennu is unambiguously depicted as a gigantic heron - taller than a man, with long legs and pointed bill, a slender curved neck, and a pair of very elongate plumes on its head - resembling those of the Eurasian grey heron Ardea cinerea.

The Eurasian grey heron (public domain)

Archaeologist Dr Ella Hoch, from Copenhagen University's Geological Museum, became curious to discover the inspiration for the noble bennu. Perhaps it had originally been based upon the grey heron (which does exist in Egypt), but had been enlarged in the depictions to emphasise its sacred status and significant role?

Alternatively, it might have been inspired by travellers' reports of the genuinely lofty goliath heron A. goliath, standing up to 5 ft tall, from the Arabian peninsula and sub-Saharan Africa. By far the most compelling possibility, however, had still to be disclosed.

The goliath heron, 1838 painting (public domain)

In 1958, extensive archaeological studies began on the island of Umm an-Nar (aka Umm al-Nar), which lies adjacent to Abu Dhabi of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in the lagoon complex off the Trucial Coast. Great quantities of animal remains were eventually unearthed, which Hoch documented during the late 1970s in her museum's Contributions to Palaeontology journal. To her surprise but delight, these included some fragments constituting the distal end of the left tibiotarsus (lower leg bone) of an enormous heron - one that was probably even taller than the goliath heron, the world's tallest living species. Indeed, some estimates give its height as having been up to almost 7 ft, i.e. taller than an average human, and with a wingspan approaching 9 ft. Other remains from this newly-revealed colossus were later found, some from separate sites in the Umm an-Nar settlement, and one fragment from Failaka Island, offshore from Kuwait.

The Umm an-Nar material dates from 2,600 BC to 2,000 BC (i.e. the third millennium BC), whereas the Kuwait bone is more recent, from c.1,800 BC, thereby collectively yielding a span of time that wholly encompasses the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt (c.2,494-2,345 BC) - during which period the bennu appeared in Books of the Dead illustrations. The model for the bennu may therefore have been this now-extinct giant heron - a possibility not lost upon Hoch, who christened its species Ardea bennuides.

Bennu depicted on ancient Egyptian papyrus (Wikipedia/Public domain)

However, there is also evidence to suggest an even more startling prospect - that this giant heron was still alive as recently as 200 years ago.

In an American Journal of Science report from 1845, its author, a Mr Bonomi, disclosed that between 1821 and 1823 traveller James Burton had chanced upon three enormous conical nests, all within the space of a mile, at a place called Gebel ez Zeit (aka Gebel Zeit), situated on the Red Sea's Egyptian coast, opposite the Mount Sinai peninsula. They had been constructed from all manner of materials, ranging from sticks, weeds, and fish bones to fragments from what had apparently been a very recent shipwreck, and which included a shoe, strands of woollen cloth, a silver watch, and the ribcage of a man - a victim of the shipwreck, whose remaining bones and tattered clothing were spotted by Burton a little further along the coast.

Modern-day, multicoloured depiction of the bennu on a tablecloth purchased by me in Cairo, Egypt, in 2006 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

The nests were colossal in size, with an estimated height (and also a basal diameter) of about 15 ft, and an apical diameter of 2.5-3 ft.

Understandably, Burton was thoroughly bemused concerning their origin - until he began to question the local Arabs. They stated that the nests were those of a huge type of stork-like bird that had deserted the area not long before his arrival there.

Facsimile of a vignette from the Egyptian Book of the Dead of Ani – the bennu is pictured midway along the second row of depictions (public domain)

No such bird is known here today; but as his curiosity had been aroused by this episode, Bonomi undertook some investigations of his own, and uncovered persuasive, independent evidence in support of the Arabs' claim.

Delving through the documents of early writers describing Egypt in the far-off days of the pharaohs, he came upon the description of a giant stork once native to the Nile Delta region, and which, in the form of a painted bas-relief, is sculptured upon the wall within the tomb of an officer belonging to the household of Pharaoh Cheops (also called Khufu or Shufu), from the Fourth Dynasty.

Grey heron and Oriental white stork, showing the principal morphological differences between typical heron and typical stork (© Cory/Wikipedia CC BY2.1 jp)

According to these sources, it was a bird of gregarious habits, with white plumage, long tail feathers, and a long straight bill; the male additionally bore a tuft on the back of its head, and another upon its breast. However, these features all more readily recall a heron, an egret or even certain cranes rather than a stork, and they compare well with representations of the bennu. Is it plausible, therefore, that this 'stork' was actually Ardea bennuides?

Whatever its taxonomic identity, however, at the time of Pharaoh Cheops (c.2,600 BC) it still survived in the vicinity of the Delta, because specimens were occasionally trapped by the region's peasantry. The nests spied by Burton were probably the product of several generations of these birds (thereby explaining their immense size) rather than just a single pair - and their most recent contributors may have been this species' last representatives.

Heron/bennu hieroglyph in temple of Luxor, Egypt (© Dr Karl Shuker)

How tragic, and how ironic, if the bennu, the bird that bore the souls of humans to Heaven, ultimately met its own death at the hand of humans.


This ShukerNature blog post is excerpted from my forthcoming book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors.







Tuesday, 10 May 2016

A FROG AS BIG AS A GOAT - THE MOST MYSTIFYING LOCH NESS MONSTER SIGHTING EVER?


Might the bizarre-sounding cryptid allegedly encountered by diver Duncan Macdonald while underwater in Loch Ness during the late 19th Century have looked something like this? (© Richard Svensson)

Of all of the many Nessie-related subjects documented by me down through the years (and now collected together in my forthcoming book Here's Nessie: A Monstrous Compendium From Loch Ness), few have attracted so many enquiries from readers and correspondents as the extraordinary 'frog as big as a goat' supposedly sighted one day by diver Duncan Macdonald while underwater in Loch Ness during the late 1800s (click here for an earlier mention of this cryptid by me on ShukerNature). The incident was first reported almost half a century later, in Inverness's Northern Chronicle newspaper (by an unnamed writer) on 31 January 1934, and this report has in turn been referred to by a number of subsequent publications, but (as far as I am aware) it has never been republished anywhere in full – until now!

Courtesy of the indefatigable research skills of fellow cryptozoological investigator Richard Muirhead (thanks Richard!), earlier today I was delighted to receive a copy of the original Northern Chronicle article, which actually consisted of several different Nessie-themed items linked together. Here is the quite short but very intriguing one concerning Macdonald's alleged encounter:

A DIVER'S EXPERIENCE

Many stories have been circulated by those who go down to the depths inside a diving-bell. Some of them are, doubtless, true; others, of course, must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. But the truth of any story can very often be guaranteed by a little careful investigation.

Here is such a story, and, as it concerns Loch Ness, and the experience which befell a well-known diver, it might, by reason of its uniqueness, act as a spur to those whose training has fitted them to probe the mysteries of marine zoology, for, in the opinion of the writer, it is but another aspect of the case of the Loch Ness "monster."

Some forty-five to fifty years ago a small sailing vessel carrying a cargo of guano, when making the passage through Loch Ness, struck a submerged reef known as "Johnnie's Point," and sank, fortunately without loss of life.

The mishap occurred during the night, and when dawn broke it was seen that the tops of the masts were still above water.

Realising that the vessel might be raised, a squad of men was quickly on the scene, and chains were passed underneath the hulk.

But ere the job was completed the action of the water suddenly dislodged the craft, and she vanished into the depths.

Still hoping to salve the wreck, the owner secured the services of Mr Duncan Macdonald, a noted diving expert, who was at the time employed at the Crinan Canal.

Mr Macdonald duly arrived, and it was from the Caledonian Canal Company's diving-barge that he carried out operations.

A STRANGE CREATURE

After having made a descent of thirty feet, Mr Macdonald signalled that he wished to come up, and, on being questioned as to whether there was any sign of the ship, he said there was none.

From this it was obvious that further attempts would be useless, so he was undressed, and the party prepared to make for Fort-Augustus, their headquarters.

Now one man in the party, having heard stories of a strange creature which was said to live in the loch, began to question the diver. The latter, however, was at first rather diffident about taking any part in the conversation.

Yet, since the others knew that anything he might tell them would be perfectly true, they persisted, and finally the diver said that he saw a strange creature that day.

It lay, he said, on a ledge of rock, on the self-same ledge, apparently, on which the keel of the wrecked vessel had rested, about thirty feet down.

There, he continued, lay a queer-looking beast, which he described as something in the nature of a huge frog.

It stared at him, but, as it showed neither ferocity nor fear, he did not disturb it. In his own words he "saw that the beast made no effort to interfere with me, and I did not interfere with it." As to size, the diver said the creature was "as big as a goat, or a good wedder [Scots dialect word for a castrated male sheep]."

The story, exactly as given, was told by Mr Donald Fraser, lock-keeper, Fort Augustus, who often heard the diver (his own grand-uncle) tell it many years ago.

STRANGE CREATURES

Naturally, this incident raises some very important questions, and the first is – Is the frog-like creature related in any way to the "monster" or "monsters" which inhabit Loch Ness?

Or does the diver's story show that such creatures are entirely different from the present "monster"?

If this be so, it is not unreasonable to presume that they might prove to be the form, or perhaps one of the forms[,] of life with which – who can tell? – Loch Ness abounds, and on which the "monster" sustains itself.

In any case[,] past reports of strange creatures having been seen in the loch show conclusively that they and their kind have had their homes there for centuries, and, this being so, it would seem that were they living on fish life, i.e., salmon and trout, to the extent that some people think they do, the whole or at least most of the salmon kind – still fairly plentiful – would long since have been decimated.

Thus, there being no reason at all why the above statements should be doubted, it will surely be granted that the time is ripe for some competent body to conduct an investigation into the under-water life of Loch Ness.

This remarkable report does indeed raise some very important questions, though not necessarily the ones posed in it by its anonymous author.

First and foremost: as Loch Ness is famous for the blackness of its waters due to their high concentration of peat, how could Macdonald have perceived this goat-sized 'frog' – or indeed anything else, for that matter – while diving at a depth of 30 ft? Having said that, the very fact that he went down there at all, in search of the sunken guano vessel, suggests that some degree of underwater vision must be possible at such depths in this loch. Perhaps, however, the viewing conditions were not sufficient for him to obtain a clear picture of the creature's form, so, who knows, maybe it wasn't genuinely frog-like after all, but actually was simply a typical Nessie longneck viewed at an angle at which its neck was not visible to him.

Alternatively, there is even the possibility that in reality it was some very large form of vaguely frog-like fish – an extremely big wels catfish Siluris glanis, perhaps, whose wide mouth would certainly call to mind that of a frog if encountered face-on in poor visibility. The wels is not native to Britain, it was introduced to various lakes here from Germany during the 1870s and 1880s, but Loch Ness is not one of the lakes featured in documented introductions. Of course, as so many illegal introductions/releases of non-native species across Britain during the past two centuries readily testify, however, just because no documented introductions of wels specimens into Loch Ness are on record, this doesn't necessarily mean that none has taken place...

Is this what Macdonald really saw? (© William M. Rebsamen)

Moving on, it is well worth noting that the Northern Chronicle's telling of this incident is very matter-of-fact, in stark contrast to modern-day retellings, which generally claim that Macdonald was terror-stricken, refused to speak about his sighting for days afterwards, etc, etc. Consequently, these would appear to be melodramatic embellishments added subsequently by person(s) unknown.

The notion aired by the above report's author that perhaps this creature was not itself Nessie but was instead some second, entirely different species of monster – and one, moreover, that may actually constitute the prey of the 'real' Nessie – offers a fascinating if implausible prospect to say the least, doubling the quandary of whether any type of large cryptid inhabits this vast expanse of freshwater.

Loch Ness is BIG!! (public domain)

Equally thought-provoking is the author's claim that "...past reports of strange creatures having been seen in the loch show conclusively that they and their kind have had their homes there for centuries". On the contrary, because cryptozoological sceptics in particular habitually discount traditional stories of water-horses and water-bulls existing here, for instance, as nothing more than folk-tales, with no factual basis.

Moreover, in a very extensive Fortean Studies paper published in 2001 that surveyed no fewer than 87 cases of mysterious beasts allegedly spied in or on the shores of Loch Ness prior to 1933 (the year that marked the beginning the modern age of Nessie sightings), German cryptozoological investigator Ulrich Magin dismissed all of them as featuring mere legends, unsubstantiated rumours, or creatures that were unrelated to the long-necked Nessie-type cryptids reported from this loch from 1933 onwards. He concluded that there was no pre-1930s tradition of monsters inhabiting Loch Ness, only the possibility that some marine creature had somehow entered it during the early 1930s and that this is what had given rise to subsequent sightings of monsters there. This prospect is one that had been contemplated by the likes of early LNM chroniclers Lieutenant Commander Rupert T. Gould and Dr Anthonie C. Oudemans too.

An engraving of Dr Anthonie C. Oudemans (public domain)

But what did Magin think about Macdonald's 'giant frog'? In his listing, this was Case #32, but, interestingly, he was apparently unaware of its original Northern Chronicle source, because he stated: "This is a story which appears in most books about Nessie but always without reference", and he cited one such book, Peter Costello's In Search of Lake Monsters (1974), as the source that he had consulted.

After quoting Costello's brief version of Macdonald's own description of this underwater mystery beast's appearance, Magin concluded "...the description is unlikely to refer to a long-necked animal or any other animal known in the loch". Or indeed elsewhere, in fact, as I am certainly not aware of any living species of frog-like creature the size of a goat that is currently known to science in the living state (there are of course various extremely large amphibians known from the fossil record).

At present, therefore, the goat-sized 'frog' of Loch Ness remains a major enigma in the Nessie chronicles. Nevertheless, now that its original published source has been resurrected and reproduced here, one of the most mystifying and paradoxical LNM-associated reports – ostensibly unlikely, yet supplied by a very experienced and seemingly highly-reliable eyewitness - is finally readily available for scrutiny and further investigation by future Nessie researchers.


This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted exclusively from my forthcoming book Here's Nessie: A Monstrous Compendium From Loch Ness.

You never know what you may encounter when diving underwater in Loch Ness! (© William M. Rebsamen)