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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Monday, 2 March 2015

SPIDERS WITH WINGS? IMPLAUSIBLE THINGS!



Never in the long and very diverse history of spiders – a very significant arachnid order (Araneae) whose lineage dates back more than 300 million years according to the known fossil record – has there ever been a spider with wings. And why should there be? Virtually all spiders display a lifestyle that has no place or need in it for wings, relying upon stealth and ambush to survive and to capture their prey, not flamboyant aerial activity like some bizarre eight-legged dragonfly. Nevertheless, this has not prevented flying spiders from winging their way every so often through both hard-copy and online media reports – to the delight of connoisseurs of the strange and uncanny, and to the despair of hardcore arachnophobes! So here are three of the most entertaining and engrossing accounts that I have seen which showcase these faux yet fabulous fliers of the spider kind.


A WINGED TERROR ON TUMBLR

During 2012, several users of the website Tumblr posted online what initially looked like a bona fide but unidentified newspaper clipping of a supposedly newly-discovered species of winged spider. The clipping consisted of a b/w photograph of the spider in question, entitled 'Scientist discovers winged spider', but with no accompanying details concerning it or its discovery. A close look at the photo, however, soon revealed that it was a not-especially efficient exercise in image manipulation of the photoshopped variety. The spider depicted was in fact a common (and wingless!) species of fishing (aka raft) spider belonging to the genus Dolomedes.

The fake report of a winged spider featuring a photoshopped image of an ordinary wolf spider (creator/s unknown)

In addition, as later revealed on the famous hoax-busting Snopes website as well as on several others too, the original photograph of it that had subsequently been manipulated by person(s) unknown to yield the winged spider is one that had been snapped on 23 September 2007 at Durham in North Carolina by Will Cook from Duke University in Durham, and had appeared (it still does in fact) on the website North Carolina Spider Photos (here is a direct link to this photo on the latter website).

Will Cook's original, undoctored photograph of a Dolomedes wolf spider (© Will Cook)

On 10 March 2014, the fake clipping and photo were revisited by the website of a UK computer services company, Digital Plumbing, which provided an extensive report about them, including details of how the winged spider, which in this report was unscientifically named Volat-Araneus (it should have been the other way around and italicised, of course, i.e. Araneus volat, if the aim was for it to resemble a genuine taxonomic binomial), preyed upon the poisonous (and real) false widow spider Steatoda nobilis.

A false widow spider Steatoda nobilis (public domain)

However, the report was peppered with clues that it was a hoax, and indeed, halfway through it its (unnamed) writer confessed this openly, explaining that the report's sole purpose had been to attract the attention of readers, who would now, the writer hoped, take note that this website was that of a company offering technology repairs and other services, as detailed in the remainder of the report.  In short, Digital Plumbing's report was a very novel marketing ploy, quite possibly the first one ever to utilise a non-existent winged spider to attract potential customers.


A WINGED SPIDER VIDEO AND A WINGLESS MISNOMER

Flying spider #2 has only appeared once (to my knowledge) – as an even less convincing photoshopped image presented in an extremely brief YouTube video uploaded on 15 October 2013 by Brian Griffin under the title 'Have Scientists Discovered a Winged Spider?' (click here to watch it).

In it, mention is made of the fact that a species called the long-winged kite spider is already known to science. This is perfectly true, the species in question being a forest-dweller known formally as Gasteracantha versicolor, which is native to the subtropics and tropics of eastern, central, and southern Africa, as well as Madagascar. However, 'long-winged' is something of a misnomer, because its 'wings' are not of the membranous, flight-producing variety. Instead, they are a pair of immobile sclerotised spines, borne laterally upon the opisthosoma or abdominal section of this spider's body in the adult female.

Gasteracantha versicolor, female, in South Africa's Krantzkloof Natuurreservaat (© JMK/Wikipedia)


THE ITALIAN TOMB SPIDER – ENCOUNTERED IN THE CATACOMBS

Far older and also far more intriguing than the previous two examples is the third member of this trio of winged wonders – albeit this time a truly grotesque Lovecraftian horror, a cryptic cryptid from the crypts in fact, known as the Italian tomb spider.

I first learnt of this macabre entity courtesy of British cryptozoological archive peruser Richard Muirhead, who sent me an unlabelled review report of an article that had originally appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette. Happily, I was soon able to trace the original source of this review report – namely, the San Francisco Call, which had published it on 29 November 1896. The report makes such compelling if unnerving reading that I am reproducing it in its entirety below – the first time, as far as I am aware, that it has ever appeared in an online cryptozoological article:

San Francisco Call, Volume 80, Number 182, 29 November 1896

ITALY'S TOMB SPIDER

A Thing So Odd That It is Believed to Exist Only in Imagination.

The people of Italy believe in the existence of a wonderful creature which, for the want of a better name, is called the tomb spider. The entomologists know nothing of this queer beast, and declare that it only exists in the fancy of the superstitious persons and those whose curiosity or business makes it necessary for them to explore old ruins, tombs, catacombs, etc. According to the popular account the tomb spider is of a pure white color, has wings like those of a bat, a dozen horrid crooked legs and a body three or four times the size of the largest tropical American tarantula.

The accounts of this queer insect and his out-of-the-way places of abode are by no means common, and on that account the information concerning him which we will be able to give the "curious" is very meager. Any Italian will tell you that such a creature exists, however, and that he is occasionally met with in old mines and caverns, as well as in tombs and subterranean ruins. The London Saturday Review has an article from a correspondent who was present when some Roman workmen unearthed a church of the fifth century. He says: "We were standing by one of the heavy pillars that had originally supported the roof, when something flashed down from the pitchy darkness overhead and paused full in the candle-light beside us, at about a level with our eyes. It was distinctly as visible as a thing could be at a distance of three feet, and appeared to be an insect about half the size of a man's fist, white as wax and with its many long legs gathered in a bunch as it crouched on the stone.

"Our guide had seen, or at least heard of this uncanny insect of ill omen before, but was by no means reconciled to its presence, as his notions proved. He glanced around uncomfortably for a moment and then moved away, we following. It seems really a bit queer, but it is said that the strongest nerves give way in the presence of this insect of such ghostly mien. Even today this uncanny apparition is said to be an unclassified monster — an eternal mystery. When the grave spider is encountered by those opening tombs and vaults it is thought to be a 'sign' of death to one of the workmen or some member of his family." - Pall Mall Gazette.

An almost identical account also appeared in another American newspaper, the Sausalito News, on 23 January 1897.

Vintage engraving of catacombs

What can we say about such a bizarre report? The spider, if indeed we can apply such a name to a creature sporting wings and a dozen legs, is unlike any life form known either upon or beneath the surface of Planet Earth, even if we generously assume that it may be a grossly exaggerated or embroidered description of a pallid form of bat or an exceptionally large moth.

Interestingly, as I documented in my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals (2012), a dramatically new species of large cavernicolous spider with a pure white abdomen (opithosoma) was discovered by science in quite recent times, amid the deeper regions of Koloa Cave on the Hawaiian island of Kauai and a few others on this same island's southeastern coast, yielding six populations in total. Formally dubbed Adelocosa anops in 1973, this spelaean spider (sole member of its genus) delights in a very contradictory common name - the no-eyed big-eyed wolf spider! The reason for this stems from Adelocosa's membership of a taxonomic family of wolf spiders whose species are generally typified by very large, well-developed eyes, and are thus called big-eyed wolf spiders. In the case of Adelocosa, however, its ancestors apparently abandoned a traditional above-ground lifestyle in favour of a highly-specialised subterranean one instead - in which eyes were superfluous. Consequently, during the resulting evolution of this much-modified cave-dwelling species, they were eventually lost, thus explaining the apparent paradox of a no-eyed big-eyed spider.

Although made known to science only fairly recently, this distinctive spider has long been familiar to Kauai's indigenous people, who call it pe'e pe'e maka'ole. It is easily identified not only by its lack of eyes but also by its long and semi-transparent, orange-coloured legs (the normal complement of eight in number), its orange-brown cephalothorax (combined head-and-body section), and its ghostly white opisthosoma. Needless to say, however, it does not possess wings!

The Hawaiian no-eyed big-eyed spider (public domain)

As for the Italian tomb spider that does allegedly possess wings, conversely: during the 19th Century, gruesome, highly fanciful yarns of this nature were a popular genre of journalistic reportage, invented purely for entertainment purposes and never meant to be taken seriously, although they sometimes were – especially by the more credulous and less perspicacious of readers. In my opinion, this San Francisco Call report from 1896 is clearly a prime example from such a genre.

Having said that, however, I'd still be interested to read the article from the London Saturday Review referred to in the latter report (always assuming that such an article does exist), just in case its telling of the tale of Italy's dreaded tomb or grave spider is any less lurid and rather more believable. After all, even an account of a wingless spider sporting only the standard octet of legs typical for its kind but which is unusually large in size, is ghostly-white in colour, and exclusively inhabits crypts, catacombs, and other subterranean residences of the deceased would be sufficiently distinct from all recognised spider species to warrant more than passing interest from arachnologists and cryptozoologists alike.

'Spider's Room' (© Minhee-Kim/Deviantart)

So if anyone reading this present ShukerNature blog article can trace and send to me a copy of the relevant Saturday Review article, I'd very much like to see it – thanks very much!


BALLOONING SPIDERS AND ANGEL HAIR

Finally: although spiders, being wingless, cannot actively fly, some species can and do practise a type of passive gliding known as ballooning, which is often linked directly to a semi-mysterious phenomenon known as angel hair.

Angel hair is the name given to long, white, gossamer-like filaments that descend earthward often in vast quantities, cloaking meadows, streets, houses, or anything else that they land upon with their ethereal, silken strands. But what is angel hair - and where does it come from? Many eyewitnesses describe angel hair as resembling spider webs, and in most (though not all) cases this is indeed what it probably is (but see my book Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008) for some angel hair reports that clearly do not involve spider gossamer).

A sheet web composed of gossamer and woven by Linyphia hortensis, a species of money spider (Wikipedia)

Very few reports of angel hair actually mention the presence of spiders amid the shroud-like sheets and threads drifting downwards or discovered festooning the ground. Yet there is little doubt that this gauzy, filamentous material is merely an aggregation of threads produced by congregations of tiny money spiders (belonging to the family Linyphiidae) in order to become airborne by a process known as ballooning.

A money spider (public domain)

Silken threads drawn out of their spinnerets when the spiders face a strong wind are lifted, together with the attached spiders, into the air by the wind and carried aloft, the spiders sometimes travelling great distances before finally gliding back to earth. Once there, they simply abandon their threads, yielding spiderless, gossamer-like sheets called angel hair - as confirmed on several occasions by analysis of samples collected.


In short: apart from ballooning spiders, these eight-legged arachnids are reassuringly earthbound, and all are indefatigably wingless – unless you live in Italy and are well-versed in folklore appertaining to grim subterranean realms, and featuring encounters with monstrous creatures that never penetrate up into the light of day, something for which we can all be very thankful, especially if the tomb spider is a typical respresentative of this shadowy fauna of the catacombs and crypts.






Monday, 16 February 2015

MOTTY AS AN ADULT? – IS THIS WHAT THE WORLD'S ONLY INTERGENERIC HYBRID ELEPHANT WOULD HAVE LOOKED LIKE HAD HE SURVIVED TO MATURITY?


Motty as a calf (above) and a photo-manipulated image (below) of what he may have looked like had he survived to adulthood (photo courtesy of Derek G. Lyon/Chester Zoo; photo-manipulation by Paul Willison of public-domain photograph of adult bull African elephant)

For 11 days, a little elephant calf called Motty was the world's first (and remains its only) intergeneric hybrid elephant, resulting from an unanticipated mating between a male African elephant Loxodonta africana and a female Asian elephant Elephas maximus at Chester Zoo, England, in July 1978. In my previous ShukerNature article (click here), the second of two documenting this truly unique animal (click here for my first one), I mentioned that I had often wondered what Motty would have looked like if he had survived to maturity, and I mourned the fact that we shall never know. This is of course perfectly true, we can only speculate – but now, I'm delighted to reveal that such speculation has acquired an astonishing and thoroughly fascinating visual form.

Facebook friend and computer art enthusiast Paul Willison shares my interest in what the adult appearance of Motty might have been. Consequently, after reading both of my Motty articles and noting that in overall body form (especially with regard to his long slimmer legs and large triangular, pointed ears) Motty seemed somewhat closer to Loxodonta than Elephas, Paul used his photoshop skills to transform the adult bull African elephant present in each of two public-domain photographs into what may conceivably be accurate images of Motty as a fully-mature elephant. Paul utilised as his morphological guides the photographs of Motty as a calf that appear in my articles, plus my detailed verbal description of him, which was based in turn upon an official account of Motty prepared by Derek G. Lyon, who was Chester Zoo's chief veterinary surgeon at the time of this remarkable little elephant's existence there.

And here they are.

Photoshopped adult bull African elephant #1, now exhibiting the unique complement of morphological characteristics possessed by Motty as a calf (public domain image photo-manipulated by Paul Willison)

And:

Photoshopped adult bull African elephant #2, now exhibiting the unique complement of morphological characteristics possessed by Motty as a calf (public domain image photo-manipulated by Paul Willison)

If these two photographs are directly compared with their respective original, non-photoshopped versions (see below), it can be readily seen how Motty's composite, intergeneric morphology might well have yielded when translated into adult form an elephant that looked dramatically different from any that had ever been seen before, one that was singularly imposing and impressive.

For although he is likely to have retained the overall stature and body proportions of his African elephant father as well as his single large frontal skull dome, Motty would also most probably have retained his paired posterior skull domes inherited from his Asian elephant mother, as well as her species' very distinctive convex back, greater number of toes per foot, and her single trunk-tip digit – features that do not occur in African elephants (the latter possess two trunk-tip digits).

Original, unmodified African elephant photo #1 (above), and the 'Motty-fied' version (below) (public domain; public domain image photo-manipulated by Paul Willison)

And:

Original, unmodified African elephant photo #2 (above), and the 'Motty-fied' version (below) (public domain; public domain image photo-manipulated by Paul Willison)

Nor is this the end of the story. As Paul swiftly recognised and brought to my own attention after completing his photo-manipulations, the resulting images predicting the possible adult appearance of Motty bear more than a passing resemblance (aside from shorter tusks and larger ears) to a certain proboscidean that is spectacularly different from anything alive today – nothing less, in fact, than the gargantuan Columbian mammoth Mammuthus columbi, one of the most awe-inspiring prehistoric mammals of all time.

Native to North America and traditionally believed to have become extinct around 12,500 years ago (but possibly a few millennia later, due to the existence of certain contentious fossil remains that have yielded more recent dates), adult males of this stupendous creature stood 13 ft tall at the shoulder, even overshadowing all but the most exceptional of today's African elephants. It also sported enormous tusks, almost 14 ft long in some instances.

Yet due to this species' very close taxonomic affinity to the woolly mammoth M. primigenius (indeed, DNA evidence suggests that the Jefferson mammoth M. jeffersonii of North America might actually have been a naturally-occurring hybrid of the Columbian mammoth and woolly mammoth), it may well have possessed characteristics recalling Elephas, because the woolly mammoth is certainly more closely related to the modern-day Asian elephant genus than to the African one.

Model of the Columbian mammoth on exhibition last year at the Natural History Museum, London (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Also worthy of note here is that some mammalian hybrids, ligers (lion x tigress hybrids) being a well-known example, actually attain dimensions exceeding those achieved by both of their progenitor species. Is it possible, therefore, that an adult Motty might have surpassed even his African elephant father in stature, thereby providing yet another parallel with the mighty Columbian mammoth?

Of course, all of this is speculation – entertaining, certainly, but completely speculative nonetheless. Even so, perhaps we should not be too surprised after all to discover that Motty, a hybrid deftly combining the African elephant's basic build and proportions with the more specific idiosyncrasies of the Asian elephant, may in adulthood have superficially recalled the Columbian mammoth – a fascinating outcome that, if correct, makes his demise even more tragic than ever, our modern-day world possibly having lost the nearest morphological evocation of the majestic but long-bygone Columbian mammoth that anyone will ever see.

My sincere thanks to Paul Willison for so kindly preparing and making available to me for inclusion here the photo-manipulated images of Motty's possible adult appearace.

Life-sized model of the Columbian mammoth on exhibition last year at the Natural History Museum, London (© Dr Karl Shuker)







Saturday, 14 February 2015

THE RETURN OF MOTTY, THE MIRACLE HYBRID ELEPHANT - UNVEILING SOME NEVER-BEFORE-SEEN PHOTOGRAPHS OF HIM!


Motty and his mother at Chester Zoo, July 1978 (© Mike Poustie, c/o Chris Poustie)

In an earlier ShukerNature article (click here). I documented the birth and tragically-short but zoologically-immortal, never-to-be-forgotten life of a truly unique animal – a little elephant called Motty. He has been referred to as the miracle elephant, and for good reason, because he was something that science had previously rejected as an outright impossibility – a hybrid between an African elephant Loxodonta africana (Motty's father) and an Asian elephant Elephas maximus (Motty's mother). No intergeneric elephant hybrid had ever been recorded before, and none has since, and almost certainly never will be ever again.

Motty was born at Chester Zoo, England, on 11 July 1978, but his arrival was totally unanticipated by everyone at the zoo, because although a male African elephant was being maintained together with some female Asian elephants there and had been seen mating with them, no-one had expected any offspring to result from such liaisons, because the genetic differences between the two genera that the African and Asian elephants respectively represent were deemed too great for such an event to occur. But somehow, incredibly, an offspring did result – Motty. Sadly, however, just 10 days after his zoologically historic birth, little Motty died, and a post-mortem revealed that he had been suffering from an unsuspected outbreak of necrotic enterocolitis plus E. coli septicaemia.

Motty was subsequently preserved as a taxiderm specimen and has been held ever since in the vast stores of London's Natural History Museum, but he has never been publicly displayed, which is a great shame, because such an extraordinary animal would surely attract considerable attention and interest.

Head-and-back view of Motty with his mother (© Mike Poustie, c/o Chris Poustie)

Due to his all-too-brief existence, very few images of Motty exist. However, he was photographed by Derek G. Lyon, who was Chester Zoo's chief veterinary surgeon at that time, and Derek has very kindly made his photos of Motty available to me to incorporate in any of my writings. Some of these pictures were duly included, therefore, in my previous Motty article on ShukerNature. As seen when viewing them (click here), they readily reveal the complex intermingling of morphological characteristics drawn from Motty's two very different progenitor species and embodied in his own singular appearance.

Now, moreover, I am delighted and very excited to announce that some additional Motty photographs have been brought to my attention – photos that have never previously been seen in public, but which, once again, have very kindly been made available to me by their owner for inclusion in my writings.

On 24 May 2013, a reader who identified himself only as Chris posted a short message beneath my original Motty article on ShukerNature informing me that he had actually seen Motty alive during a visit to Chester Zoo in mid-July 1978 with his father and brother when he was 6 years old, and that his father had snapped some colour photos of Motty. Chris promised to scan and email the photos to me if I'd like to see them. I swiftly confirmed that I would definitely like to see them, and on 3 January 2015 Chris sent them to me, revealing that his full name was Chris Poustie and his father's was Mike Poustie. Moreover, in a follow-up email, he stated that both of them were happy for me to utilise the photos as I wished in my publications and researches.

So now, officially unveiling them as a ShukerNature world-exclusive, here are some of the Poustie photos of Motty, interspersed throughout this present ShukerNature article – thanks very much, Mike and Chris!

Detailed view of Motty with his mother (© Mike Poustie, c/o Chris Poustie)

Once again, as with Derek's photos, they perfectly capture for all time Motty's fascinating intergeneric morphology, a composite creation unlike any other, and proof that whatever the odds, however implausible the prospect, somehow life will always find a way to express itself.

Whenever I think of Motty, I always wonder what he would have looked like had he survived to maturity. Would he have retained his unique combination of characters from both species, or would those inherited by him from one species have largely obliterated those inherited by him from the other? Might he have attained the huge size of his father – indeed, might he have even surpassed it, just like ligers (lion x tigress hybrids) often exceed the dimensions of both of their progenitor species?

Sadly, we will never know, and can only ever speculate. However, I feel sure that whatever appearance Motty would have assumed as an adult, it could not have been anything other than magnificent and marvellous – just as marvellous, in fact, as his very existence had been, and always will be.


UPDATE - 16 February 2015

I mentioned earlier in this present ShukerNature article how sad it was that we shall never know what Motty would have looked like had he survived into adulthood, only that whatever form his appearance may have taken, it would certainly have been unique, marvellous, and magnificent. But now, in another ShukerNature world-exclusive, thanks to a couple of amazing illustrations we may finally have an idea after all of just what the mature Motty could have looked like. And as if that were not extraordinary enough, what makes this new insight even more astonishing is a totally unexpected similarity to one of the world's most spectacular prehistoric mammals. Intrigued? Confused? Excited? Click here, and all will be revealed!

Full view of Motty with his mother (© Mike Poustie, c/o Chris Poustie)








Friday, 13 February 2015

ARNOLD'S GIANT TORTOISE AND THE HOLOLISSA OF SEYCHELLES - LONG FORGOTTEN, BUT NO LONGER GONE


Aldabra giant tortoise (left) and hololissa (right) at Cotswolds Wildlife Park, showing shell differences (© Dr Karl Shuker)

The New World giant tortoises famously inhabiting the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean were once rivalled for size by several huge Old World species native to the Indian Ocean's granitic Seychelles group, the coral atoll of Aldabra, the Mascarene islands, and Madagascar. Of these, only the Aldabra giant tortoise Aldabrachelys [=Dipsochelys] gigantea [=dussumieri, =elephantina] is traditionally thought to have survived into the present day, the remainder having been killed for their meat during the 1700s and 1800s - or so it was thought, until Arnold's giant tortoise and the hololissa unexpectedly reappeared in modern times.

There has been much debate concerning the precise number of giant tortoise species native to the Seychelles. Four are currently recognised (although some researchers deem them merely to be subspecies of a single species), one of which was formally described in September 1982, by Dr Roger Bour from France's National Museum of Natural History. He based his description upon three old taxiderm specimens (two at the above museum, the third at the British Museum). They possessed various skeletal modifications that seemed to be adaptations to browsing, and originated from the granitic Seychelles islands. Bour named their species Dipsochelys [now Aldabrachelys] arnoldi, but as there did not seem to be any giant tortoises (other than Aldabra's) in the Seychelles today, he naturally assumed that it was extinct - belatedly recognised as a distinct species, yet irretrievably deceased.

Aldabra giant tortoises (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Imagine, then, his surprise when, while still preparing his paper, Bour was shown some photos by film producer Claud Pavard (who had taken them in August 1981) depicting two living giant tortoises that seemed to belong to his supposedly extinct species A. arnoldi. Nor was this the only surprise. The tortoises, males and very old, were living in semi-captivity at a sugar estate, but not in the Seychelles - instead, on Mauritius! Naturally, Bour hoped to visit Mauritius, to ascertain conclusively these potentially significant specimens' identity.

And that is where this most promising saga seemed to come to an abrupt end. During my preparation of my book The Lost Ark, published in 1993 and the first in my trilogy of volumes documenting new and rediscovered animals from 1900 onwards, I was unable to locate a single publication carrying any further news regarding these tortoises, and none of my zoological colleagues and correspondents had any details (sadly, I never succeeded in eliciting a reply from Dr Bour himself), though they were all as intrigued by it as I was. Happily, however, the mystery was finally solved in May 1992, when I learnt from British Museum herpetologist Dr Nick Arnold (after whom A. arnoldi had been named) that Dr Bour had indeed visited the two Mauritius specimens, but had found that they were not representatives of A. arnoldi after all.

The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (HarperCollins: London, 1993) (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Moreover, Dr Ian Swingland, Founding and Research Director of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), informed me that giant tortoises reared in captivity sometimes have shells that have become distorted in shape, due to the way in which these animals have been fed. In some cases, therefore, it is possible that they may even resemble the shells of quite unrelated species, and this is presumably what had happened in the case of the two Mauritius specimens, which were probably individuals originating from Aldabra. Captivity-induced distortion of shell shape can cause problems for tortoise taxonomists too, especially if they are dealing with specimens whose life histories are unknown (and which, therefore, may have been reared in captivity).

Of course, one objection that could immediately have been raised in relation to this entire episode is the fact that supposed specimens of A. arnoldi were discovered not in the Seychelles, but instead in Mauritius. As it happens, however, this objection can be effectively countered - because a number of giant tortoises from the Seychelles are known to have been introduced there after that island's own indigenous species had been exterminated during the 1700s. In particular, the French explorer Marion de Fresne transported five such specimens in 1776 from the Seychelles to his military barracks on Mauritius. What was assumed to be the last of this quintet died there in 1918, but there may have been others too, whose records have failed to survive to the present day.

A pair of Aldabra giant tortoises mating - intriguingly, the top specimen has a markedly flat-backed shell, resembling the saddle-backed shell of Arnold's giant tortoise (public domain)  

In any event, what did seem clear at the time of writing The Lost Ark was that none of the long-lost species of Seychelles giant tortoise had been resurrected after all. During 1995, however, another discovery was made - one that added a new and much more dramatic chapter to this long-running saga of mistaken and incognito identities.

In January of that year, the Nature Protection Trust of Seychelles (NPTS) learnt of two very large, and very old, male tortoises living in the garden of a Seychelles hotel. When examined by Dr Justin Gerlach and K. Laura Canning, chief scientists with the NPTS, they were found to exhibit pronounced flaring, flattening, and scalloping of the carapace, especially over the hind legs - characteristics that distinguished them from the Aldabra giant tortoise but corresponded closely with those of Arnold's supposedly long-extinct species.

Arnold's giant tortoise (© Editha@emys-home.de /Wikipedia)

Enquiries revealed that these and one other male specimen had been purchased in 1994 from an old local man, in whose family they had been throughout living memory. The third had died in December 1994, but its skeleton was preserved and donated to the NPTS's scientific collections. Cranial studies subsequently determined that it was indeed distinct from the Aldabra species. Genetic studies were also set in motion, to bypass any possible misclassification based solely upon morphological characteristics - which can, as already ably demonstrated with the earlier episode of the Mauritius specimens, be very deceptive.

By early 1997, several additional specimens of unusual giant tortoise had been discovered in various Seychelles localities and examined by Gerlach. Moreover, whereas some of these resembled Arnold's giant tortoise, eight others closely recalled a second supposedly long-vanished species - the hololissa Dipsochelys [now Aldabrachelys] hololissa. Previously, this latter species had been known only from two shells found in 1810, described in 1877, and destroyed in the 1940s by German bombing raids during the London Blitz. It formerly inhabited various granitic islands of the Seychelles, where it grazed vegetation on the edges of streams and marshes, but had vanished in the wild by 1840.

Hololissa at Prague Zoo (© travelviaitaly/Wikipedia)

In March 1997, Dr Les Noble conducted genetic tests at Aberdeen University on blood samples taken by Gerlach from a large selection of live Seychelles giant tortoises, including the controversial ones. These tests showed that three distinct groups could be identified, revealing that eight of the specimens were hololissas, two were Arnold's giant tortoises, and the remainder were Aldabra giants. But this was still not the end of the story.

A year later, Blackpool Zoo in England announced that Darwin, the Aldabra giant tortoise that had been living there for the past 25 years, was not a member of the Aldabra species after all. While closely scrutinising photos of recently-discovered living specimens of the hololissa, staff at the zoo were astonished to discover that they looked just like Darwin. Anxious to learn more, they duly contacted Gerlach, who visited the zoo, examined Darwin, and confirmed that he was indeed a living hololissa. This presumably explains why he has never successfully mated with Beagle, the female Aldabra giant tortoise that accompanied him when he arrived at Blackpool in 1972 - because they belong to separate species.

Hololissa at Cotswolds Wildlife Park (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Similarly, I subsequently learnt from the Cotswold Wildlife Park, also in England, that one of their supposed Aldabra giant tortoises had also been unmasked as a hololissa. Moreover, by the end of 1999 at least 12 living hololissa individuals and 18 living individuals of Arnold's giant tortoise had been revealed in various locations around the world, including a very impressive specimen at Prague Zoo in the Czech Republic.

Snapped in 1905 when its subject was still alive on Mauritius, a vintage black-and-white photograph still exists of what is now believed by some researchers to have been a hololissa, taken there from its native Seychelles homeland in 1764. Living in the Court House Garden on Mauritius, this venerable individual was therefore at least 140 years old at the time of being photographed, but was probably much older, because no-one knows how old it already was at the time of its transportation there from the Seychelles.

Possible hololissa on Mauritius, vintage 1905 photograph (public domain)

All of which invites speculation as to how many other incognito specimens of hololissa and Arnold's giant tortoise may still be awaiting identification elsewhere. By the end of 1997, the NPTS had introduced several specimens of hololissa and Arnold's giant tortoise to Silhouette Island (third largest of the central Seychelles islands) in order to initiate captive breeding programmes for both of these recently-revived species and thus ensure their continuing survival, and it continues to search for more possible examples in captive collections worldwide.

Officially known as the NPTS Seychelles Giant Tortoise Conservation Project, its patron is veteran wildlife film maker and broadcaster David Attenborough. Its long-term goal is to increase the numbers of both species in order to permit reintroduction to secure reserve sites within the Seychelles group - thereby restoring in viable form two remarkable endemics to their native island homeland after more than 150 years of 'official' non-existence.

Child riding Aldabra giant tortoise at Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, readily demonstrating just how large these tortoises are (Wikipedia/public domain)

All that now remains to be accomplished in order for this tale of tortoise resurrection to be complete is for the fourth species of Seychelles giant tortoise – D. [now Aldabrachelys] daudinii, Daudin's giant tortoise – to be rediscovered. Known only from the Seychelles island of Mahé and named in honour of French zoologist François Marie Daudin (1776-1803), it was formally described and named in 1835, but officially became extinct in 1850.

Judging from the recent success in revealing hitherto-unrecognised living specimens of the hololissa and Arnold's giant tortoise, however, who can say with absolute certainty that there are no incognito A. daudinii individuals out there somewhere too, alive and well but in blissful ignorance of the fact that their species is officially long-extinct?! To be continued…?

This ShukerNature article is expanded and updated from my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals (2012).