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), 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), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), 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.

ShukerNature - http://www.karlshuker.blogspot.com

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com

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Saturday, 26 July 2014

THE DEADLY DODU OF CAMEROON – A BELLIGERENT GRUB-EATING BIGFOOT?

Artistic representation of the dodu (© William Rebsamen)

Veteran cryptozoological explorer Bill Gibbons has searched for a number of notable mystery beasts in the field over the years, such as the Congo's mokele-mbembe (click here) and emela-ntouka (click here for some remarkable new finds re this cryptid). He has also brought several hitherto-obscure examples to widespread cryptozoological attention, including Nepal's crocodile-jawed limbless 'dragons' (click here), the New Guinea pterodactyl-like ropen (click here), and the giant Congolese spider or j'ba fofi (comprehensively documented in my book Mirabilis, 2013). What must surely be among the most unusual , however, is of the man-beast variety.

While exploring southern Cameroon, in western Africa, seeking reports of mokele-mbembe-type cryptids during April 2000, Bill was informed by the Baka pygmies and Bantus there of a dangerous primate known to them as the dodu. They claimed that it is dark grey in colour, stands up to 6 ft tall, is mostly bipedal but will sometimes knuckle-walk on all fours, and, of particular note, has only three fingers on each hand and just three clawed toes on each foot. This last-mentioned feature provides an unexpected parallel with the puzzling reports of three-toed bigfoot or sasquatch prints sometimes encountered in North America.

Painting of Bill Gibbons with mokele-mbembe (© William Rebsamen)

Highly aggressive, a dodu will attack gorillas, but has an extremely unusual dietary predilection. After killing an antelope or some other sizeable prey, it does not touch the carcase. Instead, the dodu abandons it for a while, leaving the rotting carcase to fill with maggots, after which the dodu returns, scoops the grubs out, and eats them in quantity. It is also well known for leaving piles of sticks on the forest floor, which, as Bill speculates, may be a form of territorial marking behaviour.

Bill has collected several native reports of encounters with dodus, but by far the most remarkable was one that he heard when returning to Cameroon in 2001. While visiting the lower Boumba region, he was informed that a few months earlier, a group of white men, accompanied by pygmy trackers, had allegedly captured a live dodu, which was seen by residents of a town called Moloundou. Bill suspects that its captors were loggers, but what happened to this unique specimen following its capture (assuming that the report given to Bill was genuine) is unknown.

Vintage photograph depicting a dead Bili ape, from a German journal published in 1912

The prospect of such an entity still existing uncatalogued and unclassified by science in modern times might well seem highly implausible, but then again, that is precisely what sceptics thought about the lost giant apes of Bili too - until they were rediscovered in 1996 (click here).

This ShukerNature blog post is excerpted from my book Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2010).






Sunday, 20 July 2014

PUMAPARDS AND LEPUMAS – UNUSUAL FELINE HYBRIDS OF HAGENBECK

Carl Hagenbeck's terrier-reared pumapard preserved as a taxiderm specimen at Tring Natural History Museum (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Although it can often equal or even exceed the leopard Panthera pardus in overall size, the puma Puma concolor is not a 'big cat' in the strict scientific sense - its throat structure, for example, is quite different from that of true big cats (i.e. belonging to the genus Panthera). It is particularly surprising, therefore, that successful matings between pumas and some of the Panthera species have occurred - the resulting hybrids thereby being intergeneric rather than merely interspecific.

Probably the most famous of these were the several litters of puma x leopard hybrids bred in 1898 at German animal dealer Carl Hagenbeck's Tierpark (which moved premises to Hamburg's Stellingen quarter in 1907). One of these was a pumapard (male puma x leopardess hybrid) raised by a fox terrier bitch that was displayed at Hagenbeck's Tierpark during the first decade of the 20th Century. This specimen resembled a puma in overall form but was noticeably smaller in size than either of its progenitor species and was marked with pronounced rosettes and blotches. It also had a very long tail.

The familiar cropped version of the only known photograph taken of Hagenbeck's terrier-reared pumapard when alive (public domain)

One of Hagenbeck's pumapards is preserved as a taxiderm specimen at Tring's Natural History Museum in Hertfordshire (as seen by me when I visited this wonderful museum as a birthday treat in December 2012), which was originally the personal zoological museum of Lord Walter Rothschild. There is some confusion in various online accounts as to whether this specimen, small in size, is one and the same as Hagenbeck's pumapard reared by a fox terrier. However, in The Living Animals of the World, a two-volume multi-contributor animal encyclopedia from 1901, the above photograph of the terrier-reared pumapard was published with a caption stating that the animal was now dead: "...and may be seen stuffed in Mr. Rothschild's Museum at Tring" - which would seem to confirm that they are indeed one and the same individual.

Hagenbeck's terrier-reared pumapard preserved at Tring (© Dr Karl Shuker)

A comparable cat, yet derived from the reciprocal cross (male leopard x female puma), thereby making it a lepuma, was purchased from Hagenbeck by Berlin Zoo in 1898, and was said at the time by the zoo's director, German zoologist Dr Ludwig Heck, to resemble "a little grey puma with large brown rosettes". Documenting this same animal in 1968, German cat expert Dr Helmut Hemmer described it as being fairly small with somewhat faded rosettes present upon a background pelage colour resembling that of a puma. Puma x leopard hybrids obtained by artificial insemination are also on record.

A photocopy of the original yet rarely-seen uncropped version of the only known photo of Hagenbeck's terrier-reared pumapard taken when alive, revealing that it was photographed whilst sitting alongside its fox terrier foster-mother (public domain)

This ShukerNature blog article was excerpted from my book Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2012), which contains further details regarding many fascinating examples of feline hybrids – check it out!







Saturday, 19 July 2014

THE CLIFDEN NONPAREIL – BEWITCHED BY NABOKOV'S ELUSIVE BLUE UNDERWING

Suitably named – the truly unparalleled, peerless clifden nonpareil, gorgeously portrayed in Dr F. Nemos's book Europas bekannteste Schmetterlinge. Beschreibung der wichtigsten Arten und Anleitung zur Kenntnis und zum Sammeln der Schmetterlinge und Raupen (c.1895)

In a previous ShukerNature blog article (click here), I reminisced about my lifelong ambition (finally fulfilled after 48 years of ongoing frustration!) to see the bird above all others that had bewitched me from my earliest days – that cerise-plumed, butterfly-winged wonder known as the hoopoe, which is a rare but annual visitor to Great Britain.

So too is another species – one that to me is the hoopoe of the moth world, because the thought of seeing this spectacular creature one day fills me with just as much enthusiasm and passion as I felt for so long and so earnestly in relation to the hoopoe. Yet whereas the latter is finally on my list of observed species, its equally charismatic lepidopteran counterpart remains resolutely unseen, still unencountered by me more than 54 years on from when I made my debut on the planet that I share with it.

Clifden nonpareil depicted upon a postage stamp issued in 1974 by Hungary

So what is this peerless, unparalleled species? None other than the fittingly-named clifden nonpareil Catocala fraxini ('nonpareil' translates from the French as 'without equal'). One of Britain's largest species of moth, it is also known, again appropriately albeit somewhat less romantically, as the blue underwing.

Indeed, so noteworthy is this moth's appearance that it even attracted the attention of eminent Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Well known for his passion for Lepidoptera, he immortalised the clifden nonpareil in his novel The Gift (1938, English translation 1963): "Your blue stripe, Catocalid, shows from under its gray lid".

Clifden nonpareil (© Harald Süpfle/Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0)

This celebrated species belongs to the taxonomic family Noctuidae, the owlet moths, which is the largest family of moths, is of worldwide distribution, and contains over 35,000 species. Within this family is the genus Catocala, containing over 250 species, native to Eurasia and North America, which are popularly termed underwings or underwing moths (Catocala is Greek for 'beautiful hind ones'). This name refers to the usually bright stripes of colour present on the upper side of their hindwings. At rest, an underwing moth's hindwings are concealed beneath its larger but very drab, grey-brown, cryptically-patterned forewings, allowing it to remain hidden from predators when resting in the open on the trunks of trees, etc. Should its presence be detected, however, in order to startle the predator momentarily and thus provide valuable escape time the moth will flash its brightly-coloured hindwings, abruptly revealing their colours. Due to the semi-circular shape of the stripes, moreover, it has been speculated that they may look like owl eyes to smaller birds, which would therefore frighten them away, saving the moth.

These stripes occur in a wide range of colours, varying between species, and many Catocala species are named accordingly. Thus there are red underwings, crimson underwings, rosy underwings, scarlet underwings, pink underwings, and so forth. Moreover, certain members of related genera that possess comparable hindwings are also referred to as underwings, such as the copper underwings Amphipyra spp., yellow underwings Noctua spp., and the brown underwing Minucia lunaris. In addition, there are two species of orange underwing Archlearis spp., but these belong to a separate taxonomic family, Geometridae.

A red underwing Catocala nupta (top) and a clifden nonpareil (bottom), pictured in The Natural History of British Moths (1836), by J. Duncan

Yet despite the difference in specific colours, these many species' hindwing stripes all occur in the red portion of the colour spectrum – all except the stripes of one very singular, special species, that is. Lone among all underwings, the stripes of the clifden nonpareil are blue, and not just some nondescript grey-blue shade either, but instead a bright, truly spectacular blue, which must be genuinely dazzling if suddenly flashed in the face of an inquisitive, too-close-for-comfort avian observer.

Blue has always been far and away my all-time favourite colour – so much so in fact that I sometimes wonder whether my wardrobe would have been so plentifully packed with Levis and other jeans, not to mention trucker jackets and shirts, had the predominant dye for denim been anything other than blue! Hence it was inevitable that a blue underwing – and especially when it is the only blue underwing – would attract my enduring interest and attention once I'd learnt of such an exotic creature's existence, and thus has it proved.

Clifden nonpareil in grass (public domain)

Moreover, boasting a 4-inch wingspan the clifden nonpareil is set apart from all other underwings not only by its blue hindwing stripes but also by its very large size – indeed, it is the world's largest species of Catocala underwing. It was scientifically named by none other than Linnaeus, in 1758, who dubbed it Phalaena fraxini (noting its sometime occurrence on ash trees, Fraxinus spp.) but it was subsequently rehoused in the genus Catocala after the latter was coined in 1802 by German entomologist Franz von Paula Schrank. It has a wide Old World distribution, being found as a resident in deciduous woodlands (especially near water) of northern and central Europe (and as a migrant in eastern and southern Europe), as well as in northern Asia, and in temperate eastern Asia as far as Japan. However, it is its famed rarity in Britain that has earned it its reputation as a near-legendary species - one that was prized above all others by moth collectors during the Victorian era.

The first published reference to the clifden nonpareil's occurrence in Britain was by Benjamin Wilkes in his book The English Moths and Butterflies (1749), in which he recorded a specimen lately collected by a Mr Davenport on an ash tree near Clifden (now known as Cliveden) in Buckinghamshire – the location which, together with its unrivalled beauty, earned this species its common name. However, it had been known in Britain since at least 1740 – the year in which a specimen now in the Dale Collection within Oxford's Hope Museum was collected in Dorset. Since then, usually single specimens have been reported in a number of English counties spasmodically up until the 1940s and 1950s, during which period sightings increased as its range temporarily expanded due to favourable climatic conditions, even giving brief hope that this evanescent species had permanently established itself as a resident in Kent and the Norfolk Broads. Sadly, however, that hope was not fulfilled, because sightings fell again following the return of less favourable climate by the early 1960s, and it once more became merely an irregular immigrant.

Clifden nonpareil – extracted from Duncan's above-reproduced 1836 colour print

Favouring the aspen as its larval foodplant (though also selecting other poplar species if aspen are not present, and sometimes found on ash trees too), the clifden nonpareil is most commonly sighted in September, particularly in southern and southeastern England. In recent years, however, there have been well-publicised records from the Westcountry counties too (one specimen turned up at Cornwall's Lost Gardens of Heligan in autumn 2010), and there is even a faint possibility that small colonies are establishing themselves in Suffolk. The recolonisation of southern England by this exquisite species would be a wonderful occurrence, so we can but hope that prevailing climatic conditions continue to encourage this most welcome trend. And who knows – if this does occur, one day the clifden nonpareil might expand its range even further, taking in my home county of the West Midlands. In 1872, there was a record from the neighbouring county of Shropshire, plus there are several 19th-Century records from northern England, and even Scotland and Ireland too, so it was clearly not a confirmed southerner back then.

What a marvellous, magical experience it would be if, finally, some day in the not-too-distant future I could encounter a large grey moth that suddenly flashed its hindwings at me to reveal a dazzling stripe of bright blue. For me, such an event would definitely be peerless, truly unparalleled – just like the clifden nonpareil itself.

19th-Century colour plate featuring a clifden nonpareil







Friday, 18 July 2014

NURE-ONNA AND USHI-ONI – TWIN TERRORS FROM THE LAND OF THE YOKAI

Nure-onna, by Sawaki Suushi, 1737

Imagine a land infested with rapacious shape-shifting spider-maidens, hideous blood-sucking hags with razor-sharp talons, gigantic fire-breathing roosters, green-skinned rubbery ghost-turtles, enormous disembodied skyborne heads foretelling thunderstorms, and innumerable other monstrosities of mayhem. For what is, geographically-speaking, a relatively small, insular nation, Japan has an extraordinarily diverse pantheon of traditional mythological monsters, many of which are known collectively as yokai. These exist in every form imaginable – and, in some cases, wholly unimaginable! – but are united in their frequently nightmarish appearance and ferocious behaviour.

Think of every conceivable way in which a human can be captured, torn apart, and bloodily devoured, and the chances are that there is a yokai designed specifically for that role. Clearly, ancient Japanese culture had an inordinately febrile collective imagination (either that or there was something very strange in the sake!), but rarely has this been more effectively demonstrated than in the folklore appertaining to two of the yokai clan’s most fiendish members – the nure-onna and the ushi-oni. And to make matters even worse, whereas even a single yokai is usually more than sufficiently horrifying for all but the bravest of persons to confront, the nure-onna and the ushi-oni often join forces to create a terrifying partnership designed specifically to ensnare and engulf anyone unfortunate enough to chance upon these foul entities.

Now, drawing upon traditional yokai lore, here is how I envisage such a fearful encounter may unfold. So, be warned – if you have a loathing for serpents, a horror of spiders, or, even worse, a terror of both, this is definitely not the place to be!


It was a warm summer’s afternoon when the young fisherman took his new bride for a walk along the coastline of Shimane Prefec-ture in western Japan. Having lived her entire life in the city, where they’d met and fallen instantly in love with one another during his very first visit there just a few months earlier, she had never before even seen the sea, and was delighting in the gentle roar of its distant waves, the raucous cries of the gulls overhead, and the soft caressing foam that lapped around her feet as she stepped over stones and seashells at the very edge of its fluid turquoise domain.

Her husband, walking behind her, smiled at her laughter and child-like enjoyment of this totally new experience, and even the clouds that had threatened earlier to overshadow their afternoon had drifted apart, welcoming the golden sunlight that flooded the scene and danced in dazzling glee upon the sea’s shimmering surface. It was an idyllic scene – too idyllic, perhaps.

Rounding a corner, the two walkers were startled to see what looked like a young naked woman, submerged from her waist down, leaning upon a rocky outcrop just ahead of them as she combed with great care and attention her long, luxuriant hair that flowed all about her, rippling in the cool sea breeze, and as black as ebony. Again and again she combed these dark locks, until they gleamed like rivulets of Night. And next to her, placed precariously upon one of the rocks, was a bundle, wrapped roughly in rags – but which looked suspiciously as if it may contain a baby.

Yet the young woman paid no attention to it whatsoever, devoting herself entirely to the obsessive combing of her sable tresses. The fisherman’s bride was fascinated by this incongruous scene, so much so that she failed to see the expression of absolute horror that had frozen her new husband’s face into a silent, rigid mask. Indeed, so transfixed was he by what he was seeing that he was unable even to scream out to his bride as she moved closer to the young woman.

Suddenly, the woman looked up, and saw the bride approaching. Concerned that the bundle, which she felt sure was indeed a baby, may topple off the rock and fall into the sea, the bride was walking towards it. As soon as she realised this, the woman picked up the bundle, held it close to her breasts for a moment, and then, gazing directly at the bride and smiling, offered it to her in outstretched arms.

Nure-onna, by Toriyama Sekien 1781

Finding his voice at last, the petrified young fisherman opened his mouth and let out a single desperate shriek of warning – but it was too late! His bride, smiling back at the strange woman with the long black hair, had stretched out her own arms and had taken the bundle in them, gently and welcomingly.

She bent her head down, to look at the face of the baby that she expected to see looking back out at her from the humble bundle of rags that she was cradling – but her frantic husband knew only too well what she would see, and it wouldn’t be a baby.

Raised in a small coastal fishing village nearby, he knew all about the horrors that lurked in the ocean depths and occasionally came ashore – the evil maritime yokai that sometimes assumed human form to tempt and terrorise the mortals who shared their coastal domain. Varied indeed were their forms, but few were more horrific, and deadly, than the nure-onna. As lethal as an iceberg, this malevolent entity further resembled one inasmuch as most of her immense form remained hidden beneath the surface of the sea, with only a small proportion appearing above it - which invariably assumed the innocent guise of a coy young woman combing her long inky-black hair, with a bundle of rags placed beside her.

And if anyone should be unfortunate enough to encounter her, and to approach her little bundle, the woman would offer it – but never, never, should it be accepted!

If only he could have put this wisdom to good use, but his unsuspecting bride had already taken the bundle in her arms, and even now, as he watched, he saw her head jerk back in shock at what she had seen concealed amid the rags.

There was no baby! True, the rags had been artfully arranged to give the impression that they contained an infant, but what they really contained was nothing more than a very large, heavy rock!

Startled, and totally perplexed, the bride looked at the young woman, and as she did the woman grinned back at her, a malign, vicious grin that exposed a formidable array of sharp teeth, including a pair of long curved fangs that dripped with amber venom. At the same time, the waves behind her began to froth and surge, as if something enormous had risen from their dark, sequestered depths and was about to break forth through their mirrored surface – which is precisely what was about to happen.

Suddenly, a series of enormous scaly coils, seemingly limitless in length, appeared, thrashing wildly as they sent great showers of spume and seawater cascading in all directions. And as the bride gazed at this blood-chilling scene, the young woman began to rise up in front of her, revealing that she was only semi-human. Below the waist she was entirely reptilian, or, to be more specific, serpentine - for the remainder of her form consisted of those vast ophidian coils, which in total measured at least 300 metres, stretching back as far as the eye could see as they undulated madly in a ceaseless frenzy above the whip-lashed sea surface.

Nure-onna (© Gojin Ishihara, 1972)

There could be no doubt – just as the fisherman had feared, the marine demon confronting his doomed bride was none other than a nure-onna, the gargantuan, merciless snake-woman of the sea. Surely, then, there could be no escape for his beloved, or, indeed, for himself. For as if the scene facing them were not already horrifying enough, the fisherman knew that worse was still to come – because the nure-onna rarely appeared alone. Waiting to participate in its inevitable feast of human flesh was, assuredly, an equally voracious sea-monster – the ushi-oni.

As soon as his bride attempted to flee, by hurling the rag-enveloped rock away or even directly at the snake-woman, she would feel as heavy as the rock itself, rooted to the spot, unable to take even a single step away from the loathsome humanoid serpent rearing up before her. Then this monstrous creature would flick its huge tail forward and coil it around his helpless bride’s paralysed body, lifting her up to its open jaws, out of which its long scarlet tongue would emerge, wrap itself tightly about her in an unyielding vice-like grip, and proceed to drain every last drop of blood from her body until she was nothing more than a shrivelled, etiolated corpse.

But instead, something extraordinary happened. The fisherman’s bride had no knowledge of the sea, its traditions, and the countless monsters that it concealed, but she had not only the innate maternal empathy that all women possess but also the cool-headed, quick-witted confidence that a life spent in the bustling heart of a big city had readily bestowed upon her. Not easily frightened, and reared upon science and logic rather than folklore and superstition, she was well-equipped to deal rationally even with extreme situations far outside her normal limits of experience. Consequently, intuition and innovation now united in the briefest tremor of time to offer her a single chance of escape – if she was brave enough to take it.

The nure-onna’s huge tail had already lifted itself out of the raging waters of the sea and was surging shoreward – within just a few seconds it would be wrapping itself around its victim’s body. But even as it moved forward, so too did the bride’s arms, as, with all due care and reverence, bowing her head respectfully towards the colossal creature - and in spite of her great fear - she offered the wrapped rock back to it.

The nure-onna’s eyes, which only moments before had glowed in unholy, exultant joy, now betrayed visible flickers of surprise and even bewilderment as they glared down upon this slight human form giving back to it as a tribute in unspoken supplication its pseudo-child, still wrapped in its rags, and tenderly handled with evident sincerity.

Never before had this happened! In what seemed like the passing of a single heartbeat that yet spanned eternity, the nure-onna reflected on what course to take, as the bride remained with bowed head before its upraised form, and her husband stood a little way behind, as still and silent as a statue, frightened that even the faintest movement or murmur from him might break this extraordinary spell and bring instant death upon both of them.

And then, slowly, almost hesitantly, the nure-onna stretched out its arms, and took the bundle from those of the bride, and, as before, held it for a moment to its breasts. Its colossal tail, which was still upraised, and by now almost touching the bride - who remained standing with head bowed before this gigantic sea-demon - dropped back into the sea, sending a mighty wave crashing about the shallows, as it sank down beneath the surface. And as the tail sank, so too did the nure-onna’s huge body coils, vanishing one by one back down into the cavernous lightless unknown kingdom far below the sea’s upper levels.

Soon, nothing remained above the surface but the human portion of the nure-onna, who looked once more at the bride and also, momentarily, at her husband, before it too disappeared beneath the waves. Not a trace remained now of the gargantuan monster that only moments before had filled the shore and had stretched back out as far as the very horizon itself.

Snake-woman from Mt Mikasa, resembling the nure-onna, depicted in the Kaikidan Ekotoba (a mid-1800s hand-painted scroll profiling 33 Japanese monsters and human oddities)

As if released from a spell of petrification, the young bride began shaking with hitherto-suppressed fear, and her husband ran up to her, and held her within his arms. He wanted to tell her so much how it was all over now, that they were safe, and that everything would be fine – but he knew with dread certainty that it was far from all over, that they were anything but safe, and that the prospect of everything being fine was slim in the extreme.

And even as these dark thoughts soared through his mind on shadowy wings of panic, the sea before them began to surge again. The nure-onna? Surely it had not returned? The bride opened her mouth to scream, but at the same moment her husband dragged her ashore, and began to run back from its edge with her, pulling her with him as he raced across the pebbly beach, moving as far away from the shoreline as possible. But then came the noise that he had hoped never to hear – an ear-splitting bellow of rage that sounded like the loudest roar ever voiced by the biggest, most ferocious bull that ever lived. And in a sense, that is exactly what it was – except that the bull in question was no ordinary specimen.

When they heard this terrifying noise, the two young people turned round to look back – and saw a creature so horrific that even the nure-onna suddenly seemed a little less frightening than it had previously done! Standing on the very edge of the shore, still wet from having just emerged from the sea, was a monstrous beast that the fisherman immediately recognised as an ushi-oni.

Its massive head was like that of a huge black bull, armed with a pair of mighty horns, but it also had flaming crimson eyes, flaring nostrils that spewed forth dark, caliginous clouds of fiery smoke, and open jaws that betrayed the presence of numerous sharp, unequivocally carnivorous teeth – far removed from the cud-chewing molars of normal cattle. Yet if its head seemed bizarre, the rest of this sea-spawned nightmare was positively surrealistic – for eschewing the typical four-limbed bovine form that might have been expected to complement its head, it instead sported the hideous eight-limbed body of a colossal spider!

Ushi-oni, by Sawaki Suushi, 1737

Although the ushi-oni was paying close attention to the fisherman and his bride, it also seemed somewhat distracted, its head periodically swinging from side to side as if searching for something. The fisherman realised that it was looking for its fiendish collaborator, the nure-onna, puzzled that it was not here, ready to help seize these puny humans cowering on the beach.

Seeing the monster’s hesitation, the fisherman grabbed his bride’s hand and raced off along the way they had come earlier that afternoon, towards the cliff face and onward to the passage that led back through the steep rocks to their village. But their sudden flight alerted the ushi-oni, who scuttled after them in deadly pursuit, the absent nure-onna now forgotten as it threw back its head and roared again in bellicose fury.

Unaccustomed to running at speed across the uneven pebbles, slippery rocks, and treacherous stones half-hidden beneath the shifting sands, the fisherman’s bride slipped and fell several times, and each time that he stopped to pick her up, the ushi-oni gained ground. Desperate to elude it, the fisherman abruptly changed course, cutting back on his previous route in the hope that they could escape through some rocky crevice large enough for he and his bride to slip through but too small to permit the gargantuan ushi-oni to do the same.

But even as they ran on, his bride was tiring, physically weary from their prolonged flight and mentally exhausted from her earlier terrifying ordeal with the nure-onna. Very soon she would be unable to flee any further, the ushi-oni would catch up with them, and then...

Frantically seeking any possible escape route, the fisherman suddenly spotted a v-shaped high-walled passage opening up ahead between the rocks. Its widest point was its entrance, so if, once inside, they could run along its corridor and exit at its furthest, narrowest end, they would leave the ushi-oni far behind, because the passage’s exit, although hidden in shadow at this distance, would undoubtedly be too small and tight for the ushi-oni to force its way through. With relief buoying their flagging spirits, the two young people ran directly towards the passage, entering its shadowy, narrowing corridor just moments before the ushi-oni arrived behind them.

They ran down the corridor at full pace, towards its furthest end, looking for an opening amid the shadows that would grant them a secure escape from the bloodthirsty spider-bull. Then, a dark aggregation of clouds that had been eclipsing much of the late afternoon’s sunlight finally drew back, enabling the sun to send bright shafts of light down upon the cliff face and into the passage where the fisherman and his bride were anxiously seeking the exit.

Ushi-oni (© Anthony Wallis)

And as it did so, they looked at each other in horror. With the shadows obliterated, they could see only too clearly that there was no exit there after all – the passage was an unbreachable cul-de-sac of solid rock, whose sheer, steep-sided walls offered no means of escape either. They were trapped! And bearing down upon them was the ushi-oni, blocking the entrance and glaring balefully at its imprisoned prey as it attempted to squeeze its repulsive arachnid body ever closer towards them down the narrowing passage.

Faced with certain, horrific death, the shattered mind of the fisherman’s bride abruptly shut down, and she collapsed unconscious at his feet. But even as he knelt to gather up her prone form, he too knew that it was surely over. The monster was now so near, clawing its way as it strove to force its bloated form down those last few metres separating its salivating jaws from its victims, that the fisherman could feel its sulphurous breath burning his face and taste its acrid fumes choking his throat.

And then he remembered his grandfather and their family’s sword. Like so many others living near the coast, the fisherman’s family was poor, but they owned a few precious, closely-guarded heirlooms, passed down through countless generations. One of these was a beautiful sword, whose hilt was ornately decorated with swirling symbols, and whose gleaming blade was razor-sharp and shone with a bright silver sheen even at night. As a small child, the fisherman had been earnestly informed by his grandfather that this was a magical sword, one that would come to the aid of any family member in dire need of its help. Needless to say, just like any curious child would have done, the fisherman had tried his best to entice the sword to come to him, but it had remained resolutely still. His grandfather had explained that it would only come if the need was urgent enough, but as he grew older the fisherman had suspected that this legend owed more to his grandfather’s renowned story-telling prowess than to any genuine magical ability of the sword.

If only it really had been true! Now, surely, more than at any other time in his life, the fisherman’s need for assistance from his family’s enchanted sword was sufficiently urgent. He pictured its intricate hilt, its flashing, sparkling blade, and his mind cried out to it, beseeching it to save him and his bride from the foul monstrosity whose black maw was already open wide, as it struggled unceasingly to haul itself close enough to engulf them.

It was no use. The fisherman held his still-unconscious bride up against himself, hoping to shield her for as long as possible from the ushi-oni’s voracious jaws. He closed his eyes, and prayed that their death would be swift. Then, without warning, he heard an extraordinary sound – a whining hum that was almost like a wordless song, and which, as it grew ever louder, seemed to be cutting directly through the air towards them.

The fisherman opened his eyes in wonder, and just as he did so, he heard what sounded like a single enormous clap of thunder. At that same instant, he saw the ushi-oni open its jaws even further and let forth a truly ear-splitting, bloodcurdling scream that chilled the fisherman to the bone and resounded inside his head until he was almost deafened by its booming echoes. Then, as he watched in mesmerised terror, he saw the fiery eyes of the ushi-oni grow dim, and close, and he watched its octet of scuttling spider legs shiver and buckle, until they could no longer bear the weight of the monster’s enormous body, collapsing beneath it as it dropped to the ground. It gave out one final groan, and a couple of its trapped limbs twitched a few times - then, silence, and stillness. The ushi-oni’s lifeless head swung down, crashing against the rocky ground. It was dead – their would-be destroyer had, instead, been vanquished itself – but by whom, or what?

Ushi-oni, by Toriyama Sekien, 1781

Once he was absolutely certain that the great monster was indeed no more, the fisherman rested his bride’s body gently on the ground, then, gingerly, he stepped around the edge of the fallen ushi-oni’s immense form. And there, buried right up to its richly-ornamented hilt within the creature’s swollen abdomen, was his family’s heirloom sword – the magical sword of his childhood whose power he had, as an adult, scoffed and discounted as a fairy tale – but not any more. Just as his grandfather had always claimed, if the need was sufficiently urgent, it would indeed come to the aid of any family member.

The fisherman leaned closer, grasped the sword’s hilt, and pulled back with all his might, and as he did so, the sword released itself from the ushi-oni’s body, and re-emerged, covered with foul-smelling black blood. Although he was trembling not only with cold but also with fear from all that he and his bride had experienced that day, the fisherman didn’t hesitate to take off his cotton tunic and wipe clean the sword’s blade, until it shone once more in the setting sun of early evening.

Then he walked back to his bride, and as he approached her he could see that she was stirring. He ran to her, placed the sword down, scooped her up in his arms, and kissed her mouth lovingly, feeling his heart leap as she opened her eyes, looked into his face, and smiled.

When she saw the dead ushi-oni lying before them, she jerked back and seemed about to faint again, but her husband comforted her, explained what had happened, and showed her his family’s marvellous sword. She looked at it in wonder, scarcely believing what he had told her, but after he had helped her to her feet, and pointed out the mortal wound that the sword had inflicted upon their seemingly invincible enemy, then she believed, and, like him, gave thanks for the protection afforded them by the sword. Afterwards, holding his bride’s hand in one of his own, and the sword in the other, the fisherman led the way back along the passage’s corridor, now entirely veiled in deep shadows, finally arriving at its wide entrance again, from where they stepped back out onto the beach. From here it was just a fairly short walk to the crevices that did lead through the steep rocks to their village on the other side.

Somehow, inexplicably, they had survived not one but two of the most formidable yokai that anyone could ever encounter, and had been rescued by none other than a magical sword. Their exploits would be celebrated for all time in the fishing community here, and perhaps it would never again be plagued by visitations from the nure-onna or from other ushi-oni. Then again, the yokai should never be underestimated. Even if these had gone, there were countless others ready to take their place.

Moreover, strange monsters are still reported occasionally from the wilder seas and shorelines around Japan today. Could they be unknown or unrecognised zoological species - or is this nation’s preternatural yokai clan very much alive and well even in our prosaic, ultra-scientific 21st Century? 

Ushi-oni (Oda Yoshi, 1832)






Thursday, 17 July 2014

A MYSTERY MOTH FROM FAIRYLAND?



A snowberry clearwing – the identity of this ShukerNature blog article's North American mystery moth?

Occasionally, a mystery animal report so strange and singular comes to light that it defies any serious attempt at explanation.

One such example was forwarded on 26 May 1998 to what later became the cz@yahoogroups.com cryptozoology discussion group (now defunct) by its founder, American cryptozoologist Chad Arment. He had received it from a Tennessee correspondent, and it reads as follows:

"The insect that I saw was humming a song. I was on top of a hill and thought that I was hearing a radio or something like that but I noticed this little bug [and] the closer it got the more like a song it became. This little bug was flying upright like a ...fairy! I was really excited because I thought what I saw was what people in earlier times might have mistaken for real sprites. This bug went from tree to tree and from flower to flower stopping at each one. I didn't see it eat anything but like I said I was excited. It was about 2" long "tall" and white[,] had blue eyes large almond shaped and long antennae that hung like hair. It was really quite intriguing but as I moved to get a better look it saw me and went horizontal and was off like a shot.  Also the humming stopped when it saw me and it just buzzed away."

Could it have been a hummingbird, rather than an insect? Tennessee has records of seven different hummingbird species, of which one (the ruby-throated hummingbird Archilochus colubris) breeds here and a second (the rufous hummingbird Selasphorus rufus) is a regular visitor. Apart from rare albino and leucistic specimens, however, hummingbirds are not white, nor do they possess almond-shaped eyes and/or antennae, and anyone living in an area where they are common is unlikely to mistake them for insects, especially as hummingbirds are such familiar birds in those areas.

Leucistic specimen of the ruby-throated hummingbird (© Marlin Shank)

Conversely, after reading through this extraordinary report, images of hawk moths (aka sphinx moths in the Americas) readily come to mind, in particular something along the lines of the hummingbird hawk moth Macroglossum stellatarum – named after its famously deceptive outward and behavioural similarity to a bona fide hummingbird. Having said that, this insect is an exclusively Old World species, but might there perhaps be an undiscovered New World representative?

1840s colour illustration of the hummingbird hawk moth, from John Curtis's British Entomology

More plausible is that it was a specimen of what is commonly termed a hummingbird hawk moth in the Americas but known in the Old World as a bee hawk moth. Four species belonging to the genus Hemaris are known from North and South America.

The common clearwing (© Mdf/Wikipedia)

Day-flying, they do resemble hummingbirds, but with transparent wings (earning them the alternative name of clearwing moths) that make them look somewhat ethereal too. Moreover, I have seen photos of these fascinating little insects in which their shiny compound eyes appear blue in colour, and at least two species, the snowberry clearwing Hemaris diffinis and common clearwing H. thysbe, are indeed native to Tennessee. Many thanks also to Indian naturalist Javed Ahmed for bringing to my attention an online page (click here) of photos of American moths that depict these latter two species in many in-flight poses, including vertical ones corresponding to the Tennessee eyewitness's above-quoted description of the mystery moth.

Sadly, however, with only a single report on file, there seems little chance of ever obtaining a conclusive identification for Tennessee's entomological fairy (for my ShukerNature investigation of another enigmatic lepidopteran - the Venezuelan poodle moth - click here).

Vintage illustration of a moth-winged fairy (public domain)





Monday, 14 July 2014

CREEPY CREATIONS AND CRYPTOZOOLOGY – MONSTROUSLY-AWESOME ARTWORK FROM SHIVER AND SHAKE

The Turkish Turn-Eyed Twitter – one of my favourite Creepy Creations (© Kevin Reid/IPC)

Unless, like me, you were a child or early teenager in Britain during the 1970s, the title of this present ShukerNature blog post will very probably leave you totally bemused – so let me explain what it's all about. One of the many British weekly comics that I used to read during that period was published by IPC and entitled Shiver and Shake – actually two comics in one, with Shake enclosed in the centre of Shiver. Starting with issue #1 (published 10 March 1973), every week the back cover of Shiver showcased a wonderful series of monster artwork known as Creepy Creations, which were mostly drawn by cartoonist Ken Reid.

The One-Eyed Wonk of Wigan – the very first Creepy Creation (© Kevin Reid/IPC)

The first few were created specifically by Ken, but then the series became the focus of a long-running competition, whereby readers would be invited to send in sketches of their own monster creations, and the best entry each week as selected by the comic's editor would be redrawn professionally by Ken and then appear on the back cover; the winner would also receive a modest monetary prize - £1 - plus (if memory serves me correctly) Ken's original artwork of their monster.

The Boggle-Eyed Butty-Biter of Sandwich – not just a Creepy Creation but also a jam-devouring relation, perhaps, of the honey-loving Winnie the Pooh? (© Kevin Reid/IPC)

In total, 79 winning Creepy Creations entries appeared in the comic itself (as well as a number of runners-up, plus additional examples in the various Shiver and Shake Holiday Specials and Shiver and Shake Annuals), and they were all given titles that were hilariously alliterative and outrageously contrived, thus adding immensely to the fun.

The Trumpington Trumpeter – is this where Rothschild's mystery tusk came from?  :-)  (© Kevin Reid/IPC)

I used to love this series – especially the more cryptozoological examples, naturally - and I still have a few that I cut out way back then and have kept ever since, some of which I've scanned and included in this post. All of which goes to show that it was not only the serious works of Heuevelmans et al. that inspired, encouraged, and nurtured my fascination with monsters and mystery beasts!

Dripula, the Monster from the Swamp – not a cryptozoologically-themed Creepy Creation but still a favourite of mine because I always felt that it would have made a very successful movie monster (© Kevin Reid/IPC)

If you'd like to learn a lot more about Creepy Creations, click here for a very informative page concerning them, including illustrations of several of the best examples plus a complete itemised listing; and click here for an extremely comprehensive series of Creepy Creations illustrations, showcasing many if not all of them.

The Long-Haired Luvvaduck From Liverpool – Little Jimmy Osmond was in the pop charts at the time! (© Kevin Reid/IPC)

Now, if only some enterprising publisher could issue a compilation edition…

The Hooter-Hiker of Harrogate – weirdly wonderful, or wonderfully weird? (© Kevin Reid/IPC)

But to think that Creepy Creations began over 40 years ago – where does the time go?! And how sad that the once-thriving, burgeoning array of British comics - in their heyday when I was young - have long since vanished. Today, just a single example, The Beano, survives, with even its longstanding sidekick The Dandy lately relegated to an online-only presence. Ah well, at least I still have my good memories of them (together with a few yellowing copies and some hardback annuals). Good memories indeed, of happy bygone days.

The Fanatical Fungus-Grower of Frogpool – is there really a place called Frogpool?? (© Kevin Reid/IPC)