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.

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Monday, 31 July 2017

A PICTURE OF MONKEY BUSINESS - OR, HOW A SMALL FURRY PET BECAME A GIANT MYSTERY APE. PART 2: THE TRUE HISTORY OF AMERANTHROPOIDES LOYSI


The uncropped version of Dr François de Loys's photograph of the supposed South American ape Ameranthropoides loysi – one of the most controversial cryptozoological images of all time (public domain)

Welcome to my 600th post on ShukerNature! Befitting of such a momentous occasion, the subject documented by me in this post is of profound cryptozoological significance – revealing how one of the most infamous mystery beast frauds of all time was finally exposed. In Part 1 (click here) of this two-part ShukerNature article, I documented the 'official' history of a truly extraordinary mystery creature - a supposedly genuine, tailless, bipedal South American ape, reputedly encountered and killed in the Venezuelan jungle almost exactly a century ago by a team of geologists led by one Dr François de Loys, and subsequently dubbed Ameranthropoides loysi ('Loys's American ape') by a radical French zoologist called Prof. George Montandon who held very extreme, controversial views concerning human evolution. Now it's time to document this creature's true history, by presenting the crucial yet all-too-long-overlooked information that conclusively exposed the entire Ameranthropoides episode as a blatant, deliberate hoax.

The 'official' history of Ameranthropoides loysi began to unravel on 16 July 1962. This was when the Caracas, Venezuela, newspaper El Universal's historian Guillermo José Schael published in the paper a telegram lately received from the village of Casigua, in the Tarra River region of Venezuela, concerning a supposed giant spider that had allegedly strangled to death a ranch worker named Juancho. Not surprisingly, this dramatic news attracted considerable interest from readers, and elicited a letter from a hunter named Jerónimo Martínez-Mendoza, which was published on 17 July by El Universal.

In it, Martínez-Mendoza suggested that the report was mistaken, that it had probably been a giant spider monkey which had attacked and killed Juancho, and he drew comparisons in his letter with the Ameranthropoides incident. This letter was in turn read by Dr Enrique Tejera Guevara (1899-1980), a Venezuelan-born friend of de Loys in the field (as well as a decorated tropical physician and pathologist, ambassador, and minister in the Venezuelan government), who lost no time in replying via a letter of his own, but which contained a truly sensational disclosure.

Enrique Tejera Guevara (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0 licence)

Published in El Universal on 19 July 1962, Dr Tejera's letter revealed that back on 11 March 1929 (mistakenly given as 1919 in the newspaper-published version of his letter) he had attended a lecture at the Academy of Sciences in Paris, France, given by Montandon concerning Ameranthropoides, but that he had been very surprised to hear Montandon's claims about the creature being a very tall, bipedal, tailless South American ape. Consequently, at the end of the lecture Tejera had stood up, and, to a hushed audience, had brusquely dismissed Montandon's claims as nonsense.

Tejera informed them that he had actually been in the company of de Loys in 1917 when the famous encounter with the two apes and the shooting of one of them had supposedly taken place – but affirmed that no such encounter or shooting had in fact occurred. Instead, the creature in the photograph was nothing more than de Loys's own normal-sized pet marimonda spider monkey, which he had dubbed 'the monkey-man', and whose tail had been amputated after it had become infected. Moreover, after his pet spider monkey had later died, and again in the presence of Tejera, de Loys had decided, as a joke, to take a photo of its body propped upright and sitting on a crate.

And as the climax of his dramatic exposé, Tejera proclaimed that it was this joke picture that had subsequently become known as the now-infamous Ameranthropoides 'ape' photograph, thanks to Montandon, and which with Frankensteinian vigour had swiftly raged out of its creator's control - until in order to preserve his reputation as a serious scientist, a highly embarrassed de Loys, seeing no way of extricating himself from this most unwelcome situation without looking very foolish indeed, had thereby found himself unable to confess the truth.

Banana trees (public domain)

But that was not all. Far from being in an area of wild, uncharted jungle in peril from attacks by Motilone Indians at the time when the photograph was taken as claimed by de Loys, he and his party were actually in an oil exploration camp very close to civilisation. Furthermore, there was vital, conclusive proof of this statement contained in the uncropped version of the Ameranthropoides photograph, yet which had been overlooked by everyone for decades, even after Tejera's earth-shattering announcement in front of a shocked and stunned Montandon back in 1929.

The proof was the presence in this picture of a banana crop on the opposite side of the river from where the dead spider monkey was propped up and photographed. Banana trees are of Asian and Australasian origin, they are not native to the New World, having been introduced there by humans, and they can only grow near civilisation, not in the wild jungle region of South America where de Loys had averred that the photograph had been snapped. So the presence of banana trees in that picture verified that it had been snapped in the former location, not in the latter one that de Loys had alleged. This in turn also negates a claim made by him that whilst supposedly in the remote jungle, no fewer than 17 of his men had died due to the inhospitable conditions and the hostile Motilone Indians (in reality, there is no independent confirmation of this). In addition, Tejera revealed that rather than de Loys having led a single 4-year expedition to the Tarra River region as so frequently claimed in subsequent accounts of the Ameranthropoides case, he had instead led several much shorter ones (Tejera even provided their respective specific dates), and rarely beyond the perimeter of civilisation, as demonstrated, for instance, by the presence of banana trees in the Ameranthropoides photo.

Having said that, the portion of the photograph showing these trees is sufficiently blurred for their conclusive identification to be somewhat tricky. Tejera was there when the photo was taken, so obviously he could clearly discern their true nature, but the evidence for them from the photo alone is less certain. Happily, however, there is one additional aspect of this image that vindicates his statement. In the lower right quadrant of the photo, alongside the monkey in the foreground, a leafy shoot is present that is identifiable as a chopped-down but now-regenerating banana tree (I have shown this to various friends who have kept banana trees, and they have all affirmed that this shoot is indeed one). I have arrowed it in the uncropped photo reproduced below.

De Loys's full, uncropped Ameranthropoides photograph with the banana tree shoot in the foreground arrowed (public domain)

In addition, an aspect that, very surprisingly, seems not to have been considered previously is that for a creature supposedly killed by a hail of bullets, it seems in the photograph to be remarkably free of bullet holes or wounds, especially as it was supposedly shot from the front, not from the back or side. This of course is readily explained by the fact that, thanks to Tejera, we now know that the creature wasn't an attacking ape that had been shot, it was merely a pet monkey that had died of natural causes.

Equally, as the photographed 'ape' specimen was merely a marimonda spider monkey after all, de Loys's allegation that its dentition was different from that of spider monkeys was clearly yet another falsehood. And no doubt his so-convenient explanation of why the skull had not been retained for formal scientific examination (he claimed that the camp cook had converted it into a salt container and that it had then fallen apart), which of course would have readily identified its true taxonomic nature and exposed his dentition claim as false, was also a blatant lie. Little wonder, then, why de Loys was not able to escape from the web of deceit that he had spun when carrying out his joke, and which had ultimately and inextricably enveloped him.

But that was still not everything. At least two years before penning to El Universal his devastating letter outing and condemning Montandon and the entire Ameranthropoides charade, Tejera had actually revealed all of this to fellow medical practitioner Dr Raymond Fiasson, who had documented it in his book Des Indiens et des Mouches: Dans les Llanos du Vénézuela (1960). Yet this too had escaped attention from cryptozoologists and zoologists alike. So also had a section included by American primatologist Prof. Earnest Hooton in his book Man's Poor Relations (1946) – a significant but hitherto-overlooked snippet until French cryptozoologist Michel Raynal had rediscovered it in 2007 (during that same year, Michel had also been instrumental in bringing Fiasson's documentation to public notice). Prof. Hooter had revealed that in late 1932, American geologist A. James Durlacher had written to him announcing that in 1927 he had spoken to various former members of de Loys's expeditions and had learnt from them that Ameranthropoides had indeed merely been a marimonda spider monkey. Even more frustrating, in 2001 Spanish researchers Bernardo Urbani, Dr Ángel L. Viloria, and Franco Urbani had presented much of this key information in a paper published by the Spanish journal Anartia, Publicaciones Ocasionales del Museo de Biologia de La Universidad del Zulia, in which they had concluded that the Ameranthropoides saga was certainly a hoax – but yet again, this revelation had somehow evaded widespread attention! (It is even possible that Tejera's dramatic intervention at the end of Montandon's lecture back in 1929 was subsequently documented in some French newspaper(s) and/or periodical(s), but if so these too failed to attract any public notice and still await rediscovery.)

The revelatory book by Bernardo Urbani and Dr Ángel L. ViloriaAmeranthropoides loysi Montandon 1929: The History of a Primatological FraudBernardo Urbani and Dr Ángel L. Viloria/Editorial LibrosEnRed – reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

Happily, however, their skilful detective work uncovering this hoax was at last given its long-deserved international attention when, in 2008, Bernardo Urbani and Dr Viloria published all of their findings in book form – Ameranthropoides loysi Montandon 1929: The History of a Primatological Fraud. The book's text was presented in two separate languages, English and Spanish, and was fully referenced, thus constituting the most comprehensive, and now-definitive, study and exposé of the whole sorry Ameranthropoides saga.

One final point to consider here, which I haven't seen mentioned before but which has intrigued me for some time, is whether de Loys was at least partly inspired when setting up his hoax photo by a very distinctive illustration that was still famous back then, although much less so today.

In 1758, eminent English naturalist and wildlife painter George Edwards wrote and illustrated Gleanings of Natural History, an authoritative tome that would remain a major work on that subject for well over a century. One of its illustrations was a hand-coloured copper engraving by Edwards of a young orang utan, among the first pictures ever prepared of this great ape, in which the orang utan was portrayed sitting upright on a wooden bench holding a long tall wooden stick in one hand. If this illustration is compared with the iconic Ameranthropoides photo, a number of striking similarities can be seen, including the orientation and/or form of the feet, limbs, facial expression, and even the stick (albeit utilised for different purposes).

Comparison of the Ameranthropoides loysi photograph with the George Edwards illustration of an orang utan (public domain)

Consequently, as Gleanings of Natural History was still well known during the early 20th Century, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that de Loys had seen Edwards's orang utan illustration in it and had elected to reconstruct it using the dead spider monkey, but for practical purposes had transformed the stick into a supporting prop in his photo.

Ameranthropoides loysi RIP...? Although this specific case was a fraud from beginning to end, it should be noted that mystery animal researchers are well aware that large ape-like creatures, walking bipedally and lacking tails, have been frequently reported by natives and Western explorers alike from many parts of Central and South America, where they are referred to locally and variously by such names as the sisimite (in Belize), xipe (Nicaragua), shiru (Colombia), vasitri (Venezuela), didi (Guyana), tarma (Peru), mono rey (Bolivia), caipora and curupira (Brazil), and others too. Detailed documentation of such sightings lies outside the scope of this present article, but one extremely noteworthy, representative encounter occurred as recently as 1987, so is deserving of inclusion here.

That was when New York Botanical Gardens mycologist Gary Samuels was crouching down on the forest floor in Guyana, investigating fungi. Looking up, he was very startled to see a 5-ft-tall hairy ape-man, walking by at close range on its hind legs but seemingly unaware of him as he stayed kneeling, concealed on the ground. This remarkable entity, which uttered an occasional "hoo" cry as it passed by him, was presumably a didi.

O Curupira, by Brazilian painter Manoel Santiago, produced in 1926 and depicting the mythical(?) red-haired man-beast of Brazil known as the curupira (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0 licence)

Explorer Simon Chapman's book, The Monster of the Madidi: Searching For the Giant Ape of the Bolivian Jungle (2001), documented his search in Bolivia's Madidi region for the mono rey. Although he failed to find it, his book does contain a couple of tantalising snippets that were new to me. One was his claim that until recently, a local Bolivian actually owned a pelt from a mono rey, which was then purchased by "a gringo" (European) who took it home and sent it (or samples from it) off for DNA analysis, but the results (if any) were never revealed. No details were given in his book as to who the "gringo" was, where he came from, or where he sent the pelt/samples. The other snippet, which Chapman had apparently attempted unsuccessfully to substantiate, was that a living mono rey had allegedly once been exhibited at Bolivia's Santa Cruz Zoo! (This zoo is known in full as the Santa Cruz de la Sierra Municipal Zoo to distinguish it from others.)

Also worthy of note here is the existence of centuries-old carvings and statues depicting large, tailless, ape-like beasts, found among the crumbling relics from long-gone civilisations in various South American (and also Mexican) localities. Just coincidence – or representations of genuine creatures? There is even an unequivocally ape-like mask preserved at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, which had been carved in stone by Costa Rica's Guetar Indians and dates from 1200 to 1500 AD.

At one time, a major zoological stumbling block to accepting the possibility that any such entities actually do exist today in Latin America was the absence of fossil precedents. That all changed in 1995, however, with the publication of a paper by American anthropologist Dr Walter Hartwig in the Journal of Human Evolution, which documented the remains of a very sizeable Pleistocene monkey discovered in the Lagoa Santa cave system of Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil. In fact, this large-bodied species had originally been described as long ago as 1838, by Danish naturalist Peter Wilhelm Lund, who had named the extinct species Protopithecus brasiliensis. However, later publications concerning it had not examined the original fossils and had underestimated this species' actual size. In his paper, however, Hartwig rectified that error, and estimated that P. brasiliensis may well have been more than twice as massive as any living New World monkey.

Reconstruction of Cartelles coimbrafilhoi (© Hodari Nundu)

Just a year later, on 23 May 1996, Hartwig published a second Protopithecus paper, this time in Nature and co-authored with Brazilian palaeontologist Dr Castor Cartelle. In it, they described a near-complete skeleton, which had been found in 1992 within Pleistocene cave deposits in Brazil's 60-mile-long Toca da Boa Vista, the longest cave in the Southern Hemisphere, located in the Brazilian state of Bahia. Intriguingly, this skeleton combined a howler monkey-like vocal sac with a spider monkey-like cranium, and sported a robust body with limbs adapted for brachiation (arm-swinging locomotion), similar to both spider monkeys and woolly monkeys (and also Old World gibbons).

The giant species represented by it, which would have weighed around 50 lb, is now housed within the spider monkey subfamily, Atelinae. Moreover, after detailed studies it was considered sufficiently distinct from the earlier Protopithecus material to warrant its reclassification as a new species (and genus) in its own right, which in 2013 was formally christened Cartelles coimbrafilhoi in a Journal of Human Evolution paper written by Drs Lauren B. Halenar and Alfred L. Rosenberger.

Also found in that same cave and at the same time was a near-complete skeleton of another, hitherto-unknown, species of giant Pleistocene ateline monkey. In a Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA paper published on 25 June 1996, this new species was duly christened Caipora bambuiorum (after the caipora, a small, peccary-riding humanoid entity in Brazilian Tupi-Guarani mythology), and would have weighed around 45 lb in life. And in 2000, after co-leading a palaeontological expedition to Toca de Boa Vista, Hartwig announced that thousands of fossils, mostly from extinct mammals, had been unearthed there – including the skull of a 55-lb giant spider monkey, over twice the size of any species alive today.

Artistic representation of a caipora riding a peccary (© Jakared/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

So perhaps it is premature after all to dismiss entirely the prospect that the Neotropical (platyrrhine) primate lineage may indeed have evolved a larger, ape-like representative via convergent evolution, one that occupies some of the ecological niches filled in the Old World by the apes, and which still awaits formal zoological discovery and recognition.

A very exciting possibility if true, that's for sure!

Further information concerning the history of Ameranthropoides loysi (including evidence supporting the intriguing prospect that some additional photographs taken by de Loys of his spider monkey in Ameranthropoides pose may also exist) can be found in my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited. It also features on its front cover a colourised version of de Loys's notorious yet never-to-be-forgotten South American 'ape' photograph – truly a cryptozoological icon, albeit for all the wrong reasons.




Sunday, 30 July 2017

A PICTURE OF MONKEY BUSINESS - OR, HOW A SMALL FURRY PET BECAME A GIANT MYSTERY APE. PART 1: THE 'OFFICIAL' HISTORY OF AMERANTHROPOIDES LOYSI


Cropped version of Dr François de Loys's photograph of the supposed South American ape Ameranthropoides loysi – one of the most controversial cryptozoological images of all time (public domain)

There will never be a more appropriate time than right now to document the following case here on ShukerNature, because this year, 2017, is its centennial – the hundredth anniversary of one of the most contentious zoological events in modern times. Namely, the alleged discovery of a hitherto-unrecognised species of ape in South America - a continent not known to possess any ape forms. This enigmatic episode thereafter remained a unique controversy in the annals of zoology for many decades before finally being resolved only in recent years. I have not previously documented on ShukerNature what became known as Ameranthropoides loysi, Loys's South American ape, so here's my take on it.

But let us begin at the very beginning of this truly exceptional case, by first of all presenting herewith its 'official' version of events, which was faithfully reiterated time and time again by cryptozoological chroniclers and commentators for many decades before the true but very different version eventually emerged.

From 1917 to 1920, Swiss geologist Dr François de Loys (1892-1935) and a team of colleagues had supposedly been conducting a scientific expedition through a little-explored forest-covered range of mountains called the Sierra de Perijá, straddling the border between Venezuela's Zulia State and Colombia's Cesar Department. It was said to be a forbidding, inhospitable region, with the hapless party reputedly beset by virulent tropical diseases, threatened by all manner of venomous fauna, and perpetually in fear of the hostile Motilone Indians with their deadly poison-tipped arrows.

Dr François de Loys (public domain)

Yet even when de Loys and his party returned to civilisation in 1920, however, their ordeal was far from over. Before the close of the 1920s, the expedition, and de Loys in particular, would be accused by many of perpetrating a deliberate, elaborate hoax - and all because of one very remarkable photograph.

According to an article written by de Loys that was published on 15 June 1929 by the Illustrated London News, in an unspecified year (but later revealed to have been 1917) his party had been exploring previously untrodden forests along the Tarra River, a tributary of the Rio Catatumbo, in southwestern Lake Maracaibo, Zulia State, Venezuela. Suddenly, near a bend in one of the Tarra's own, western tributaries, two strange creatures strode into view just ahead, resembling tall, hairy, tailless apes walking on their hind legs.

De Loys's Illustrated London News article for 15 June 1929 - click image to enlarge it for reading purposes (public domain)

Approaching the party, they became increasingly violent, screaming wildly and ripping branches and foliage off nearby vegetation in anger. As a further gesture of their barely contained fury, they even defaecated into their hands and threw their excrement at the explorers - who by then were not only astonished at the sight of such totally unfamiliar creatures, but were also thoroughly alarmed, fearing for their own safety. Consequently, when what seemed to be the male member of the pair, leading its mate towards them, drew even closer, de Loys and party opened fire at it with their guns. Just as they did so, however, the male moved to one side, in order for his mate to approach alongside him. As a result, he escaped the majority of the shots, which hit the female instead, killing her instantly - whereupon the male turned and fled.

The female's body was closely examined by the explorers, who were all completely mystified by its singular appearance. So, once back at camp, they sat the body upright on a packing case in their possession there, keeping it erect by propping it up with a long stick placed underneath its chin, then they measured it, and photographed it from the front (but seemingly not from the back - a critical component of this saga). According to de Loys, most of those b/w photographs were tragically lost a little later, when their boat capsized in a river, but one superb photograph was saved. This is reproduced here, not only in its well known background-cropped form that opens this present two-part ShukerNature article, but also in its less familiar uncropped form, reproduced below, because the latter version contains a key feature whose immense significance was entirely unnoticed by scientists for several decades (as will be revealed later in this article of mine).

The uncropped version of Dr François de Loys's photograph of the supposed South American ape Ameranthropoides loysi (public domain)

The surviving photograph plus the measurements recorded by de Loys implied a truly extraordinary creature. Fundamentally, it was most similar to the Ateles spider monkeys, possessing a number of features characterising these familiar South American primates.

For example: each of its eyes was encircled by a prominent ridge of bone; its genital organs were very large; its thumbs were extremely small; its hands and feet were shaped like those of spider monkeys; the triangular patch of pale pigment on its forehead compared closely with that of the long-haired or white-bellied spider monkey Ateles belzebuth (a species itself known from the Rio Tarra valley, and referred to locally as the marimonda); and, like all New World primates, not just spider monkeys, its nostrils opened sideways and were separated from one another by a thick division of cartilage (the platyrrhine - 'flat-nosed' - condition). Also, its clitoris was very large, yet another spider monkey characteristic, but one that has fooled quite a few people down through the years into mistakenly assuming that it was a male.

Marimonda spider monkey (© Ewa-Flickr/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0 licence)

Yet in stark contrast to spider monkeys, the largest of which never attain a total height much in excess of 3.5 ft, de Loys's paradoxical primate allegedly measured a mighty 5 ft 1.75 in - equalling all but the loftiest of chimpanzees. Also, its limbs appeared sturdier than those of spider monkeys - species specifically famed, and named, for their limbs' noticeably gracile, arachnine appearance. Similarly, its body seemed stockier, with broader shoulders. In his classic book On the Track of Unknown Animals (1958), veteran cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans opined that its thorax also seemed longer and flatter, more like that of an Old World ape than like that of a New World spider monkey. Most significant of all: according to de Loys's testimony, it was tailless (unlike any known species of South American primate), and only possessed 32 teeth (all known South American primates have 36, occasionally more).

Following his return to Europe, de Loys consulted Swiss-born French zoologist Prof. George Montandon, and provided him with much information concerning his party's baffling discovery, plus the precious photograph, but was unable to offer any physical remains - although this is not as surprising as it may initially seem. After all, the appalling conditions that the expedition had supposedly faced during its jungle forays had been more than enough to deal with, surely, without the additional problems that would have been posed by attempting to transport a hulking 5 ft carcase all too soon to transform into a stinking mass of putrefaction. Allegedly, they did salvage the skull, but their party's cook ill-advisedly used it as a salt container. As a result it had completely disintegrated before their departure for Europe. (And a comparably regrettable fate reputedly befell the specimen's skin of greyish-brown fur too.)

Prof. George Montandon (public domain)

Nevertheless, de Loys's testimony and the striking photograph sufficiently convinced Montandon that the creature had been something totally new and significant for him to publish a formal paper in the renowned French scientific journal Comptes Rendus de l'Académie des Sciences on 11 March 1929, introducing it to the scientific world. Moreover, so certain was Montandon that it represented a South American counterpart to the Old World apes, i.e. a New World species of comparable evolutionary status to the gibbons, gorillas, orang utans, and chimpanzees, that he named its species Ameranthropoides loysi - 'Loys's American ape'. Thus ends the 'official' version of events surrounding the discovery and scientific description of this anomalous entity (as will be seen later, however, the real, true version turned out to be very different indeed...).

Scientists throughout the world were astounded - the concept of a New World ape seemed so alien to zoological tradition (in which apes were strictly confined to the Old World) that most found it impossible to accept. So it was not long before a variety of published opposition to Montandon's views materialised. Among these was the uncompromising contribution by British primatologist Sir Arthur Keith, who sternly pronounced in August 1929 within the periodical Man that Ameranthropoides was nothing more than an ordinary spider monkey (he personally favoured Ateles paniscus, the black spider monkey). Keith was particularly sceptical about its alleged absence of tail, great size, and depauperate dentition. Consequently, he felt that at most it should merely have been named Ateles loysi, thereby allying it with the spider monkeys, and flatly rejecting Montandon's views that it was the Americas' answer to an ape.

Sir Arthur Keith (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0 licence)

Similar and sometimes even stronger views were expressed by many other zoologists too. One aspect that again attracted much adverse criticism and suspicion was the supposed taillessness of de Loys's 'ape'. Some authorities clearly felt that it appeared tailless in the photograph only because its tail had been deliberately cut off, or hidden from view. Certain others, like Francis Ashley-Montague, writing in Scientific Monthly in September 1929, seemed willing to accept that its taillessness was genuine, but suggested that this may not have been a natural feature. Instead, it could have resulted from an accident at early infancy (adult male monkeys have often been known to bite off the tails of their offspring).

Also engendering much heated discussion and dissension was the creature's impressive height. Once again, some suspected a hoax. And certainly, Montandon noticeably changed his mind several times between various publications before finally claiming that the standard size for petrol crates of the type supporting its body in the photograph was 18 in. If true, this would provide a standard measurement that could be used to estimate accurately the creature's total height from the photograph alone (i.e. independent of de Loys's measurements taken directly from the creature itself).

Montandon's assistant sitting on what Montandon claimed to be a similar type of crate to the one in the Ameranthropoides photo – but was it? (public domain)

Using this method and Montandon's claimed dimension for the crate, a total height of 5 ft was obtained for the creature, which agreed very closely with de Loys's statement. To emphasise further the notable size of Ameranthropoides, and using what he claimed to be equivalent crates to the example in de Loys's picture, Montandon even published a series of comparative photographs that showed a man (his assistant) and a spider monkey sitting on the crates in the same pose as that of Ameranthropoides in the original photo. His critics, however, remained unconvinced - and ultimately they won the day.

In 1930, as a final attempt to silence and satisfy his opponents, Montandon's full scientific treatment of the ambiguous Ameranthropoides was published, in the journal Archivio Zoologico Italiano, complete with a formidable list of pertinent references. It certainly silenced them, after a fashion - because it attracted no response at all. Instead, Ameranthropoides was summarily dismissed as at best a monster of misidentification, based upon a specimen of the marimonda (which is the most robust species of spider monkey), or at worst as assuredly a fraud (even though no actual evidence for this proposal had been offered up for examination at that time).

Ivan T. Sanderson's classic book Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come To Life (© Chilton Book Company, Philadelphia – reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

In the opinion of renowned American cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson (who was also, like Heuvelmans, a qualified zoologist), which he outlined tersely in his book Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come To Life (1961), the creature's very burly form was not the product of anatomical design at all. Instead, this was the outcome of advanced decomposition inside its carcase - which had correspondingly swollen or 'blown' to yield a bloated body that would bear little resemblance to its form in the living state. Sanderson did not believe that it was naturally tailless either, and he revealed that the type of petrol crate upon which it had been sat propped up and then photographed was not 18 in high, but only 15.5 in, thereby decreasing the creature's estimated height to within the marimonda spider monkey's range.

Primate researcher Don Cousins also questioned the crate's size, and in an April 1982 article published by the British monthly magazine Wildlife he too selected the marimonda as the likeliest identity for Ameranthropoides. Indeed, he even included a photograph of one that had been killed in the Tarra River region by American engineer/geologist A. James Durlacher while working there with the Shell Oil Company in 1927, and had then been posed in an upright sitting position to be photographed. Had its long tail not been readily visible, one might well be forgiven for assuming that this creature was a second Ameranthropoides specimen, so similar to the latter does it look, as seen here in Durlacher's 1936-published photo of it. (Incidentally, please keep Durlacher in mind, because he reappears in a very significant manner within Part 2 of this ShukerNature article.)

A. James Durlacher's 1936-published photograph of the dead marimonda spider monkey, posed in an upright sitting position (public domain)

Even so, as recently as 1981 Heuvelmans did not agree with Sanderson concerning this subject, still favouring instead the absolute authenticity of Ameranthropoides, as revealed in the following never-before-published passage excerpted from a letter concerning several different cryptids that Heuvelmans had written on 30 November of that year to English cryptozoological enthusiast Michael Playfair:

LOYS' [sic] APE; All I can is that Ivan is wrong. The calculations by M. Cintract are undoubtedly accurate. Loys' [sic] ape is possibly not an unknown ape, but certainly a gigantic spider monkey, possibly an over-sized specimen, but much more probably a representative of an unknown species.

Mr Cintract was a photographer whose attempts to calculate the likely height of the Ameranthropoides specimen, which he ultimately estimated to be between 5 ft and 5 ft 3 in, were cited by Montandon in his Comptes Rendus paper of 11 March 1929.

Painting from 1867 of a marimonda spider monkey, seen from the side and therefore readily revealing its long tail (public domain)

Conversely, in subsequent years a very sinister, previously-unpublicised ulterior motive for Montandon's desire to acquire scientific recognition for Ameranthropoides as a bona fide South American ape came to light, courtesy of research by American cryptozoologist Loren Coleman and French cryptozoologist Michel Raynal. In a revelatory article, published by The Anomalist in autumn 1996, they brought to attention that Montandon had proposed and actively promoted an extreme, racist theory of human evolution called hologenesis.

Put simply, this theory claimed that instead of the modern-day multi-racial human species Homo sapiens having arisen from a single common ancestor, its various races had sprung up simultaneously but independently of one another, and with non-white races having evolved according to Montandon from various different species of ape.

Front cover of The Anomalist #4, containing the Coleman-Raynal paper concerning Montandon and the Ameranthropoides photograph (© The Anomalist)

For example, Montandon believed that Africa's black nations had arisen from the gorilla, whereas Asia's oriental nations had arisen from the orang utan. However, a major flaw for him was that he could offer no suitable ape ancestor for the Native American nations – until, that is, Ameranthropoides had come along. Suddenly, Montandon had been presented with an opportunity to plug what for him had hitherto been a gaping hole in his hologenesis theory, thus explaining why he was so insistent in supporting the claim of Ameranthropoides as a legitimate ape rather than a mere monkey (and also why he had therefore increased his claim regarding the crate's dimensions – namely, to ensure that Ameranthropoides was physically big enough to be accommodated within his hologenesis theory).

Towards the end of World War II, however, Montandon was apparently shot by the French as a traitor, and, with him, his objectionable, ludicrous theory of hologenesis died too. The controversy regarding the zoological identity of Ameranthropoides, conversely, persisted – until 2007, when Michel Raynal made a remarkable announcement on the website Cryptomundo. Namely, he had discovered to his amazement that the true nature of Ameranthropoides – that in reality it was a blatant, deliberate hoax – had actually been made public as far back as the early 1960s. Moreover, it had been publicly reiterated three decades later too - but, incredibly, none of these crucial revelations had previously attracted any attention from either the cryptozoological community or the mainstream zoological world!

In Part 2 of this ShukerNature article, I shall be unfurling the vital yet long-overlooked information that unequivocally exposed the entire Ameranthropoides episode as a blatant, deliberate hoax. Don't miss it - click here!

Having read the above article concerning Ameranthropoides loysi and viewed its iconic photograph snapped in 1917, does this intriguing illustration from 1758 look in any way familiar to you...? (public domain) – Find out more in Part 2 - click here on ShukerNature!



Friday, 28 July 2017

HOW A GIANT SNAKE BECAME A SPIKY SEASHELL – WELCOME TO THE MAUSOLEUM OF MONSTERS


One of several artworks by Swiss painter Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) with a cryptozoological connection – Reiter Von Riesenschlange Überfallen ('Horseman Attacked By A Giant Snake'); watercolour, painted in c.1800 (public domain)

In contrast to insidious and infamous zoological frauds such as Piltdown Man and the stuffed mermaids of Oriental origin, many cases of confused taxonomic classification have occurred not through deliberate, predetermined intentions to create non-existent creatures or to lure scientists along false trails, but instead via simple misidentifications. Nonetheless, the results have often been both unexpected and spectacular, but few more so than in the case of the giant venomous serpent of South America's Gran Chaco region. After all, how can such an ostensibly monstrous reptile transform into a spiky seashell of far more modest proportions and far less dangerous attributes?

As I now reveal here in ShukerNature, the story of this astonishing metamorphosis, though largely forgotten today, must surely rate as one of the most extraordinary (and embarrassing) incidents in the entire history of 20th-Century zoology.

Gran Chaco location on map (public domain)

Deep within the most secluded realms of the mystery beast investigator's mind lies a dark and mournful cemetery, whose gates are for the most part firmly chained and heavily barred. Whenever his speculations and theories aspire to the grandiose and gothic, however, he is forced to tread the shadowy pathway leading to this most dreaded and dreadful of destinations - the mausoleum of monsters.

In this forsaken spot – within this cryptic catacomb of mythological mammalia, apocalyptic archosauria, and other fabulous fauna of every type - no ordinary assemblage of skeletons is ensconced. No, indeed. Here, amongst shattered dreams and mocking illusions, lie the hastily-jettisoned remains of those great zoological discoveries that were subsequently exposed as sorry misidentifications. A faux-pas phantasmagoria, whose forbidding presence within the annals of zoology serves as a stern warning to all cryptozoologists of the perils of premature pronouncement or imprudent identification. Let us tarry a while here, and examine one of its most dramatic examples.

A veritable mausoleum of monsters – an exquisite 19th-Century engraving depicting some of the Victorian-age prehistoric animal sculptures of Crystal Palace created by English sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894) (public domain)

In 1926, the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh published a paper by Prof. Sir John Graham Kerr, at that time Regius Professor of Zoology at the University of Glasgow, in which he described a huge, curved poison fang belonging to a hitherto unknown genus and species of giant snake - which he formally named Bothrodon pridii (with Bothrodon translating as 'furrow-tooth').

Approximately 2.5 in long as measured along the outside of the curve, this fang was truly enormous.

Bothrodon pridii 'fang', pictured in 1926; scale in mm (public domain)

Indeed, as noted by now-retired mollusc expert David Heppell from the Royal Museum of Scotland who documented this specimen in The Conchologist's Newsletter (March 1966), it was roughly nine times longer than that of a 6-ft-long boomslang Dispholidus typus - one of the world's deadliest snakes.

Moreover, it even dwarfed the fangs of the Gaboon viper Bitis gabonica. Native to much of sub-Saharan Africa, this formidable serpent not only is the largest member of the genus Bitis and the world's heaviest species of any type of viperid, but also holds the record for the longest fangs of any known species of snake alive today – up to 2 in long.

Gaboon viper showing its huge fangs (© Brimac the 2nd/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0 licence)

Accordingly, judging from the relative size of the fang, Prof. Kerr estimated that the total length of its venomous owner, Bothrodon pridii, could have approached 60 ft or so.

Truly a monster, in every sense of the word!

Prof. Sir John Graham Kerr (© T & R Annan & Sons Ltd/Wikipedia CC BY 4.0 licence)

The poison fang had been obtained by one of Kerr's friends, missionary Andrew Pride (after whom Kerr had named this outsized ophidian) from the Gran Chaco's silt-like deposits, which dated back no further than the Pleistocene epoch (2.5 million to 11,700 years ago). Despite a prolonged, thorough search of this locality by Pride for this mega-snake's skeletal remains, however, none were found.

In his paper Kerr concisely described the fang's appearance, including the prominent poison groove running all along its apparent external face, as well as the two narrow parallel stripes, dark-brown in colour, that lay along the distal (terminal) portion of its length. He also discussed the possible phylogenetic relationships of Bothrodon pridii itself, by comparing its fang's morphology with that of contemporary snake species.

The boomslang, an opisthoglyphan snake, depicted in 1838 (public domain)

From these studies, Kerr concluded that the fang most closely resembled those of the opisthoglyphans. This is a group of rear-fanged colubrid snakes that include the boomslang, and which point the way towards the more highly-evolved present-day venomous snakes. In addition, Kerr deduced from the fang's peculiar hook-like shape that, rather than functioning as a striking fang, it most probably served to hold the prey stationary whilst its poison entered the wounds produced by the snake's other teeth in the prey's flesh.

Sherlock Holmes would certainly have approved - because Kerr's paper demonstrated most effectively the considerable amount of information concerning an entire organism (be it serpent or sapient!) that could be obtained by meticulous analysis of only a single component of that organism. Or so it seemed...

Reconstruction of the giant ground sloth Megatherium (public domain) alongside a fossil skeleton of it at London's Natural History Museum (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Kerr duly presented this unique fang to the Hunterian Museum of the University of Glasgow, and in 1933 a cast of it was displayed alongside a label stating that Bothrodon may have fed upon cumbersome plains-dwelling creatures such as the giant ground sloth Megatherium.

Conversely, noted herpetologist Dr Raymond Ditmars suggested small mammals as likely prey in his classic book Snakes of the World (1931).

Dr Raymond Ditmars (public domain)

Nevertheless, Ditmars was palpably impressed by Kerr's discovery and documentation of Bothrodon, exclaiming in his snake book:

It was during the preparation of this manuscript that the author received the greatest surprise in the many years he has studied the serpent clan – and it related to a rear-fanged snake.

Its possible stature also greatly excited Ditmars:

As the poison-conducting teeth of the rear-fanged snakes are short in proportion to the body length, the size of this monster is open to thrilling conjecture...Indeed the thought it inspires rather dulls the conjectural image of that dinosaurian star, Tyrannosaurus, whose races passed away ages before this mammoth Bothrodon prowled the soil.

I'm not quite sure how a limbless creature can be said to prowl; but in any event, as a serpent of substance Bothrodon remained unchallenged – until 1939, that is, when it was unceremoniously dethroned, disgraced, and, worst of all, exposed as nothing more than a snail in snake's similitude!

Chiragra spider conch's shell, underside (© Udo Schmidt/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

For Dr W. Quenstedt, after closely examining a coloured cast of the fang sent to the University of Berlin's Paleontological Museum by Prof. Kerr, recognised the specimen's true identity. It was one of those six curved projections, long and groove-bearing, that fringe the large shell aperture of Lambis [now Harpago] chiragra, the Chiragra spider conch - a large and ornate, modern-day species of Indo-Pacific gastropod mollusc! Every feature of the 'fang' confirmed this identity – its size, shape, long groove, brown stripes. There could be no mistake – Bothrodon pridii was no more.

To be fair, however, Kerr's misidentification is not as surprising as it may seem on first sight. After all, he could hardly have been expected to anticipate the discovery within the deposits of Paraguay's Gran Chaco of a shell fragment from a gastropod normally inhabiting the Indo-Pacific oceans.

Bothrodon 'fang' and shell projection from Chiragra spider conch's shell (public domain)

Indeed, this one aspect of Bothrodon's bizarre history remains totally unexplained and seemingly inexplicable even today. How could a section of shell from a modern-day Indo-Pacific mollusc have been obtained in Gran Chaco? David Heppell noted that there is no question that Gran Chaco was the locality involved. Thus, as he remarked, the discovery can be explained only by way of some human introduction.

Notwithstanding this, the survival of Bothrodon pridii within the zoological literature on taxonomic synonyms serves as a stark reminder of just how easily and how far one can travel along the wrong track after having once set foot upon it. Certainly, although many weird metamorphoses have been documented from the animal kingdom, few can surely compare with the transformation of a giant snake into a spiky seashell!

Chiragra spider conch's shell, upper side (© James St John/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0 licence)

As a curious footnote (assuming of course that anything concerning snakes can possess a foot!): even though the re-identification of the Bothrodon 'fang' as a prong from the shell of a Chiragra spider conch was swiftly and fully accepted by the herpetological community following Quenstedt's dramatic denouement in 1939, it is possible that Kerr himself was not so quick to accept this embarrassing revelation.

The reason why I suggest this is that while browsing very recently through Kerr's book A Naturalist in Gran Chaco, first published in 1950 and chronicling the zoological expedition that he mounted during the late 1890s to this vast semi-arid region of southern South America (overlapping northwestern Bolivia, western Paraguay, northern Argentina, and a small portion of southwestern Brazil), I was very surprised to find that although he included just over a page devoted to the Bothrodon specimen's discovery and his studies of it, he made no mention whatsoever of its molluscan re-identification. Equally, however, I can find no mention anywhere of his ever having publicly discounted or disputed this latter taxonomic reassignment of it.

Hardback first edition of Sir John Graham Kerr's book A Naturalist in Gran Chaco (© Sir John Graham Kerr estate/Cambridge University Press – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only, for educational/review purposes)

So how can we explain this very curious, and conspicuous, absence in Kerr's book, which was first published more than a decade after Quenstedt's fateful, published declaration? As Kerr died just seven years later, in 1957, it is likely that we shall never be able to answer this highly intriguing question with any degree of certainty.

Taxonomically speaking, therefore, Bothrodon pridii may indeed be long dead and buried within the mausoleum of monsters, but perhaps its mystery is not entirely extinguished after all.

My own close encounter with a giant snake… - a magnificent life-sized sculpture by Tim Johnman of a reticulated python at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, which I visited in 2006 (© Dr Karl Shuker)