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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Wednesday, 23 April 2014

SOME FISHY FINDINGS REGARDING THE MONSTERS OF RUSSIA'S LAKE LABYNKYR


The burbot – does this unusual fish hold the key to the monsters of Lake Labynkyr?

Almost 9 miles long, 2.5 miles wide, and up to 260 ft deep in one particular section, Lake Labynkyr in far-eastern Russia's Yakutia (Sakha) Republic is not only a large but also a very remote body of icy-cold freshwater. It is not frequently visited by outsiders, but those hardy local hunters that have braved its location's inhospitable climate have sometimes returned home with stories of formidable aquatic monsters inhabiting its chilly depths - stories that date back as far as the 19th Century but which have received increasing public and scientific attention since the 1950s.

Lake Labynkyr (© LosApos.com)

Some tell of a dark-grey beast with an enormous mouth that has allegedly devoured their dogs when they have leapt into the lake to retrieve shot ducks. Others speak of a black, long-necked, snorting creature with a snake-like head that preys upon geese and reindeer. In my book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), I noted that according to Anatoly Pankov, a chronicler of mysterious happenings in this part of the world, sometime during the 1950s one such creature supposedly raised its neck above the lake's surface in full view of a team of geologists and lunged upwards to snare a flying bird between its jaws while also being watched by a number of astonished reindeer hunters.

In 1962, Dr Sergei Klumov suggested that an unknown species of amphibian may exist here - a possibility also contemplated by Soviet geologist Dr Viktor Tverdokhlebov, who visited Lake Labynkyr during Russia's Stalinist era. A relict reptile was an alternative candidate proffered by Tverdokhlebov, but he was unable to put either option to the test, as he did not report any sightings of monsters there. Nor did any team members from a Russian expedition that visited in 1963, or an Estonian team in 1964. Yet the legend of mystery beasts lurking beneath its water surface continues.

Modern reconstruction of Mastodonsaurus - a very big and notably large-mouthed amphibian from the Middle Triassic Period (public domain)

Thanks to the intriguing findings of a team that visited this mysterious lake last month, however, the true nature of its supposed monsters may be very different from the accounts and theories noted above, but no less interesting either.

The team in question was composed of divers from the Russian Geographic Society and the Diving Sport Federation of Russia. Their mission had three separate goals – to collect samples for formal scrutiny and analysis by scientists investigating the long-suspected possibility that an underwater link exists between Lake Labynkyr and the equally mysterious Lake Vorota, almost 20 miles away; to break the world record for the deepest under-ice dive; and to look out for Labynkyr's fabled monsters. By the end of their visit, the team had accomplished both of their first two goals, and had also obtained some thought-provoking findings of great relevance to their third.

As documented by the Siberian Times on 21 April 2014, team member Lyudmila Emeliyanova, an Associate Professor of Biogeography, revealed that during a previous visit here (in 2009):

"It was our fourth or fifth day at the lake when our echo sounding device registered a huge object in the water under our boat.

"The object was very dense, of homogeneous structure, surely not a fish nor a shoal of fish, and it was above the bottom. I was very surprised but not scared and not shocked, after all we did not see this animal, we only registered a strange object in the water. But I can clearly say - at the moment, as a scientist, I cannot offer you any explanation of what this object might be."

And that was not all - further sonar readings of this same kind were subsequently recorded by her equipment:

"I can't say we literally found and touched something unusual there but we did register with our echo sounding device several seriously big underwater objects, bigger than a fish, bigger than even a group of fish."

In contrast, the largest life forms detected in the lake during this latest visit, and which were photographed by team member Alexander Gubin, were fishes up to 4 ft long that the team referred to as dogfishes – which is something of a mystery in itself.

Two photographs of 'dogfishes' encountered during the Russian team's visit to Lake Labynkyr in March 2014 (© Alexander Gubin/Siberian Times)

For whereas the term 'dogfish' is normally applied to various relatives of sharks, I was readily able to identify the fishes in Gubin's photographs as being something totally different.

Namely, a cod-related freshwater species known as the burbot Lota lota. So, could 'dogfish' be a colloquial name used in Russia for the burbot?

(Top) A burbot (© Achim R Schloeffel/Wikipedia); (Bottom) One of the Russian team's 'dogfishes' (© Alexander Gubin/Siberian Times)

Carnivorous by nature, this very distinctive species – the world's only freshwater gadiform - is known to attain a total length of up to 4 ft. However, larger specimens may conceivably exist in this large but little-disturbed lake.

Untroubled by any large-scale threat of predation by other animals or persecution by humans, and encouraged to attain an exceptionally large size by the lake's chilling temperature in the same way that fishes and invertebrates famously do in the freezing waters off Antarctica, perhaps undiscovered mega-burbots are the real monsters of Labynkyr.


For more information on Russian lake monsters, check out my book Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2010).






Monday, 21 April 2014

WHITHER THE LOST WHITE EAGLES OF EUROPE AND AMERICA?


On Easter Monday 2013, 
my dear mother, Mary Shuker, passed away. 
So today, on Easter Monday 2014, 
I am dedicating this ShukerNature blog post to her.
God bless you, little Mom - 
I shall always love you, miss you, 
and wish that you were here with me still.



Computer-created representation of a white eagle in mountain darkness 
(© Dr Karl Shuker)


To misquote Oscar Wilde: To lose one white eagle may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.

In the annals of ornithology, only two types of white eagle have been reported – one in Europe, and one in North America. Both, however, are long vanished, not only from our planet but also from contemporary records. Indeed, even their erstwhile existence is known from only the most sparse and fragmentary details, and has been largely forgotten for centuries - until now. I first learned of these birds from their tantalisingly short entries in Extinct Birds (2012) by Julian P. Hume and Michael Walters, and was determined to find out more about them. Consequently, after having spent much time painstakingly tracing and collating it, I now have pleasure in documenting here the very scattered, disparate history of what appear to have once been a pair of real and extremely impressive but highly mysterious raptors, of unconfirmed taxonomic status, which were lost to the world before any physical trace of their former presence had been obtained for scientific examination.

The earliest documentation of the European white eagle appears to occur in the writings of the 13th-Century German Dominican friar and Catholic bishop Albertus Magnus. His words were reiterated three centuries later in a couple of brief references in the year 1555.  The first of these was by Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner (1516-1565), who documented it on p. 199 of his Avium Natura (1555), the bird tome in his celebrated five-volume, 45,000-plus-page encyclopaedia Historiae Animalium (published 1551-1558). He referred to it as Aquila alba sive Cygne ('the white or swan eagle'), and Aquila alba subsequently became its official binomial name in taxonomic nomenclature. Similarly, French naturalist Pierre Belon (1517-1564) referred to this bird as the 'aigle toute blanche' ('all-white eagle') on p. 89 of his L'Histoire de la Nature des Oyseaux (1555). Following Gesner's lead, Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) termed it Aquila alba seu cycnea on p. 231 of his Ornithologiae, hoc est de Avibus Historia (1599).

An illustration of the European white eagle from 1790

On p. 63 of his Onomasticon Zoicon: Plerorumque Animalium Differentias et Nomina Propria Pluribus Linguis Exponens (1668), Somerset-born natural history writer Walter Charleton (1619-1707) called it the white eagle. And it was Aquila alba to Poland's Reverend Gabriel Rzaczynski (1664-1737) on p. 299 of his tome Historia Naturalis Curiosa Regni Poloniae (1721), who also referred to it as Aquila Cygnea Aldrovandi in a subsequent publication of 1745 entitled Auctarium Historiae Naturalis Regni Poloniae Magnique Ducatus Lituaniae Annexarumque Provinciarum in Puncta. Five years later, Jacob T. Klein summarised it on p. 42 of his Historiae Avium Prodromus cum Praefatione de Ordine Animalium in Genere (1750). In 1760, French zoologist Mathurin J. Brisson (1723-1806) documented Aquila alba on p. 424 of his tome Ornithologia, sive Synopsis Methodica Sistens Avium Divisionem in Ordines, Sectiones, Genera, Species, Ipsarumque Varietates. Acclaimed French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) also alluded to white eagles in his multi-volume magnum opus Histoire Naturelle (1749-1788).

English ornithologist John Latham (1740-1837) documented this raptor in three separate publications – calling it the white eagle on p. 36 of his famous treatise A General Synopsis of Birds (1781), applying to it the taxonomic binomial name Falco cygneus on p. 14 of his Index Ornithologicus (1790), and commenting upon what he believed its status to be in his General History of Birds (1822). Meanwhile, on p. 257 of his own version (published in 1788) of Linnaeus's pioneering taxonomic work Systema Naturae, German naturalist Johann F. Gmelin (1748-1804) had christened it Falco albus (but as the genus Falco was subsequently limited to falcons, this was later reverted to Aquila alba by other writers).  In 1809, English zoologist George Shaw (1751-1813) dubbed it Falco cygneus after Latham on p. 76 of the bird volume in his sixteen-volume series General Zoology (1809-1826).

And this seems to be the full (or at the very least the major) extent of the European white eagle's formal documentation in the scientific literature – but what did these various accounts actually say about it? Sadly, the answer to that question is…very little indeed. Moreover, as was typical back in those far-distant days, each work did little (if anything) more than simply regurgitate what had been published in the previous ones. So here is a summary of the sparse, salient details gathered from these sources.

Gesner's illustration of the golden eagle

Albertus Magnus stated that the European white eagle preys upon rabbits, hares, and sometimes fishes too, and that it inhabits the Alps, as well as the rocks bordering the Rhine, where, according to the Rev. Gabriel Rzaczynski, it builds its nests. Brisson stated that it is as large as the familiar golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos, but is entirely white - as white as snow. Rzaczynski noted that it has a 9-ft wingspan, and likened its white plumage to that of a swan. He also claimed that a specimen had been killed in Poland and its body shown to the country's monarch, John II Casimir Vasa ((but its subsequent fate is apparently unknown). Due to its fish-eating proclivities, Aldrovandi suggested that it may be more closely related to the osprey than to any eagle (but there are a number of eagle species famed for their piscivorous behaviour).

All of the European white eagle's early chroniclers presumed it to be a valid, distinct race in its own right. However, Buffon deemed all white eagles to be nothing more than varieties of the golden eagle. Conversely, although he included Buffon's opinion in his own coverage of the European white eagle within his 1781 publication, Latham decided to follow Brisson's stance in categorising it as a separate species – but by 1822 he had changed his mind, labelling it as merely a colour variety of the golden eagle after all.

Not that it mattered much by then anyway, except in a strictly academic sense, because sightings of the European white eagle were no longer being reported. Indeed, in his 1809 bird volume, Shaw had already noted that "it does not appear to be known to modern naturalists". Tragically, this pallid-plumed, winged prince of the alpine mountains had gone, forever. No records exist regarding the reason for its disappearance, but such a spectacular bird would unquestionably have been a major target for hunters, seeking to add its immaculate form to their trophies (a comparable fate befell the white tiger in India). If, as does seem likely, it existed as a discrete, self-perpetuating population of a distinct colour morph of the golden eagle, presumably either albinistic or (more probably) leucistic, and therefore the physical expression of a recessive mutant allele, it would not have been common to begin with, so would have been unable to withstand persecution for any notable length of time. Occasionally, a freak partially-white specimen of the golden eagle is reported today, usually in North America, but not from any self-perpetuating white population.

A partially-white (leucistic) golden eagle sighted in Colorado in July 2008 
(© Constance Hass)

I am not aware of any preserved specimens of the European white eagle, and the present ShukerNature post is the most comprehensive documentation of this hitherto all-but-forgotten mystery bird ever written.

As for America's equivalent: This is – or was – the Louisiana white eagle Aquila candidus, also known as the conciliating eagle. It was originally documented by Antoine-Simon le Page du Pratz (1695?-1775) in his tome Histoire de la Louisiane (1758). Although born in Europe, this noted ethnographer, historian, and naturalist had lived in Louisiana from 1718 to 1734, where he had befriended the leaders of the Natchez nation there and had also learned their language. On p. 75 of his work, he referred to a white eagle that was smaller and rarer than the golden eagle, but more handsome, being almost entirely white – only the tips of its wings' quills were black. These quills were purchased at high prices by the Natchez people, who valued them greatly and apparently used them to compose the fan section of their symbol of peace, known as the calumet or pipe of peace (a very long reed ornamented with feathers).

On p. 197 of the second (bird) volume in his two-volume treatise Arctic Zoology (1785), documenting the mammals and birds of North America, Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant (1726-1798) merely paraphrased Du Pratz's documentation of the Louisiana white eagle. So too did Latham in his 1781 tome. On p. 258 of his version of Linnaeus's Systema Naturae, Gmelin accorded this raptor the taxonomic binomial name Falco candidus, whereas in 1809 George Shaw dubbed it Falco conciliator on p. 77 of the bird volume in his General Zoology.

Hand-coloured engraving from 1840 of an adult bald eagle

But what was this enigmatic bird, which, just like its European equivalent, has long since disappeared, both physically and figuratively? Its last notable mention was by English ornithologist Hugh E. Strickland (1811-1853), who included it in his posthumously-published book Ornithological Synonyms (1855). Here he listed its name as a synonym of the bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus, and questioned the accuracy of du Pratz's original account of it. Yet other zoological descriptions included by du Pratz in his book were accurate, so why shouldn’t his account of the Louisiana white eagle have been too? French naturalist Charles-Nicholas-Sigisbert Sonnini de Manoncourt (1751-1812) speculated that the Louisiana white eagle and the European white eagle were one and the same form, but du Pratz claimed that the former raptor was smaller than the golden eagle, whereas according to Brisson the European white eagle was the same size as the golden eagle. If these claims were correct, this indicates that the two white eagles were distinct from one another.

Worth noting is that a few confirmed specimens of white or mostly white bald eagle have been documented in modern times, but not a small, self-perpetuating population of them, which seems to have been true with the Louisiana white eagle. Certainly, Du Pratz did state that this latter raptor was rare; and in view of how valuable its feathers were, it may well have gone the same way as other birds whose handsome plumes attracted similarly unwelcome attention - such as the New Zealand huia (click here for more details) and the Hawaiian mamo, for instance.

Whatever the answer, the world is surely a poorer place without the sight of a magnificent white eagle soaring skyward among the lofty peaks of some stark mountain, like a pale feathered phantom whose mighty pinions bear it ever higher toward that great Empyrean above.

Nor are they the only mystery eagles on record. Remind me, another time, to recall for you the tiger eagle of Latvia, or the fierce eagle of Astrakhan, or the Macarran eagle of South America. And don't forget to click here for my extensive ShukerNature documentation of Washington's eagle – the most controversial lost eagle of all.

Beautiful painting of an adult bald eagle in soaring flight (© William Rebsamen)





Tuesday, 15 April 2014

WRONG-FOOTING A ONE-LEGGED MYSTERY SNAKE FROM CHINA

Close-up photo of China's one-legged mystery snake (© CEN/Europics) - click it to enlarge it

Some zoological photographs are so bizarre that long after they first hit the news headlines, they still continue to circulate online, like restless ghosts doomed to wander forever down the highways and byways of the worldwide web, resisting all attempts to expose them as hoaxes or explain them as grotesque yet nonetheless natural phenomena. One such image that seems to fall into the latter category is the example that opens this present ShukerNature blog post – namely, a supposed one-legged, claw-footed snake from China.

This anomalous serpent made its media debut as far back as mid-September 2009, since when it has been the online focus of various less than credible claims and all manner of decidedly credulous comments, but no rigorous, in-depth assessment. Consequently, I felt that it was high time that this sorry situation was rectified, so here is my own personal appraisal of this very curious case.

The story broke on 14 September 2009, with news reports worldwide presenting the now-(in)famous photograph reproduced above of a dead snake seemingly possessing a single small but perfectly-formed claw-footed leg, and providing the following scant details concerning it. One typical report appeared in the UK's Daily Telegraph newspaper for that particular date, and provides the standard set of details reiterated in all other media accounts that I have seen. It stated that Mrs Duan (aka Dean) Qiongxiu, a 66-year-old woman from Suining in Southwest China, had woken up during the middle of the night, heard a scratching sound, turned on her bedroom's light, and then, in her quoted words, "saw this monster working its way along the wall using his claw". She was so frightened by it that she grabbed one of her shoes and beat the unfortunate if uncanny serpent to death before preserving its battered carcase – measuring 16 in long and as thick as a human little finger - in a bottle of alcohol. It was subsequently forwarded to the Life Sciences Department at China's West Normal University in Nanchang. Snake expert Long Shuai was quoted as saying: "It is truly shocking but we won't know the cause until we've conducted an autopsy".

Those, then, are the facts of this case – such that they are. Not even the snake's species is identified. However, a popular identity nominated in various internet reptile forum/discussion groups is Dinodon rufozonatum, a colubrid with a wide distribution in East Asia, including China. It measures up to 28 in long, but is very slender, with brown background colouration marked with transverse crimson bands dorsally, pearl-coloured ventrally. It preys upon a wide range of small animals, including other snakes, lizards, small birds, fishes, and frogs, but is not believed to be venomous. This species certainly resembles the mystery snake in the photograph.

A Chinese specimen of Dinodon rufozonatum (©Zhangmoon618/Wikipedia)

As for the results of the autopsy, more than four-and-a-half years later the world is apparently still waiting for them, because as far as I am aware, none have ever been made public. All that we do have, therefore, is supposition, and plenty of it, but nothing substantiated by corroborative evidence. So, based solely upon its appearance as portrayed within this photograph, how can the one-legged snake of China be explained?

Four plausible theories exist (i.e. discounting those claiming it to be an unnatural freak created in some secret laboratory, an alien entity, a radiation-induced mutant, or some paranormal aberration of occult origin).

Theory #1 is that it is a hoax. In other words, either the photograph is a fake image created by computerised photo-manipulation, or it is real but depicts a skilfully-manufactured model or comparable artifact. Despite much online research, I have found no evidence to support either of these possibilities, and none of the famous hoaxbusting websites has outed it either.

Theory #2 is that the creature is genuine and represents a striking, extreme example of atavism, i.e. the spontaneous development by an individual of a morphological feature possessed by far-distant ancestral forms or species but normally lost in their present-day descendants. I have many cases of atavism on file, covering a wide range of examples and species (click here for my ShukerNature blog post on atavistic extra toes in horses). Particularly pertinent to this case, however, are those featuring whales and other cetaceans exhibiting rudimentary external hind limbs – normally, cetaceans lack such limbs and even the pelvic girdle itself is very small. A comparable, but even more specialised situation occurs in snakes.

Millions of years ago, the ancestors of snakes possessed four well-formed legs and two limb girdles, but these became ever more reduced in form during ophidian evolution, so that modern-day snakes have entirely lost their forelimbs and pectoral girdle as well as – in most cases - their pelvic girdle and hind limbs. Famously, however, boas and pythons still possess a vestigial pelvic girdle and rudimentary external hind limbs. These latter limbs take the form of a pair of very small spur-like femur bones (known as pelvic or anal spurs) appressed to their body wall (on either side of the vent in males).

Could the claw-footed leg of China's unipodal serpent wonder therefore be an evolutionary, atavistic throwback to the snakes' distant antecedents? If so, a genetic mutation may have occurred during its embryonic development that somehow unlocked the still-preserved but normally-suppressed code in its DNA for creating a well-formed limb, foot, and clawed digits.

The pelvic (anal) spurs on a male albino Burmese python (© Dawson/Wikipedia)

Although the various fully-verified cases of hind-limbed cetaceans demonstrate that such a concept is not beyond the realms of possibility, there are some serious problems to consider when attempting to apply this same scenario to China's legged snake. First and foremost is the anomalous limb's position. Far from being situated in the vicinity of where either the snake's pectoral girdle or its pelvic girdle would be if it too had been recalled into existence via atavism, the leg is located, very oddly, in the middle of the snake's body instead, seeming to emerge from somewhere in the rib-cage. Even in atavism, a recalled appendage normally arises in the anatomically correct location for it, not in some entirely incorrect position. Secondly, the foot's orientation is wrong too, as its sole is facing forward, towards the proximal end of the snake, instead of facing backward, like all animal feet do. Thirdly, the limb, feet, and clawed digits appear to be fully-developed, not rudimentary or at least incompletely formed, like hind limbs in whales and other examples of atavistic appendages normally are. Consequently, I consider it unlikely that the limb of China's legged snake is an atavistic appendage.

Theory #3 is that the leg does not belong to the snake, but rather is from some originally external source that the snake has swallowed, and has burst through its gut and body wall. This could have happened if, for instance, the snake had swallowed whole (as snakes generally do) a seized lizard or toad (both of which are animal types represented in China by species with limbs resembling the snake's ambiguous example), and the still-living victim had kicked out violently while trying to escape from the snake's gut.

Three features of the snake make this prospect a plausible one. Firstly, the region of the snake's body from which the leg is emerging is swollen both fore and aft, which would be consistent with the presence there of the snake victim's ingested body. Click here (and then scroll halfway down the page) to see a photo of a living specimen of D. rufozonatum pictured directly after having swallowed a frog - the size, shape, and position of the swelling inside the snake that is the ingested whole frog look identical to those of the swelling inside China's legged snake. Secondly, at the base of the leg is a swollen, pedicel-like region, which could conceivably be an oedematic swelling (explaining why it has the same markings as the body of the snake) and/or an accumulation of scar tissue resulting from healing of the hole in the snake's body wall that had been created when its victim kicked through it. Thirdly, the fact that the sole of the foot points forward is inconsistent with its being an atavistic limb of the snake but is wholly consistent with its being the foreleg of a prey victim that had been swallowed head-first, as is normal practice by snakes.

Incidentally, confirmed, comparable cases have been recorded from antelope-ingesting pythons whose victims' horns have pierced through their ophidian engulfers' gut and body wall.

Theory #4: There has been some online speculation as to whether such rupturing of the snake's body wall may actually have occurred only when the woman beat it to death (i.e. the leg was not present externally prior to this), and that her description of the snake as being legged beforehand was therefore mistaken or incorrectly reported. If this were correct, however, there would not be any presence of what appears to be scar tissue consistent with healing of the hole. Instead, all that would be present would be just a unhealed hole with the leg protruding directly through it and probably stained at its base with congealed blood that had leaked out through the hole. Yet no such blood is visible there in the photograph.

Obviously, an autopsy, or even a mere x-ray, of the snake's body would readily reveal whether its gut did indeed contain the body of a prey victim and also whether the mysterious leg belonged to that victim. Equally, if the leg was instead an appendage of the snake itself, an autopsy would expose this. So it is a great puzzle why the results of the autopsy – always assuming, of course, that one was ever conducted – seem never to have been publicly released. Riddles like this legged snake need a solution, and the solution needs to be aired, even it is as mundane as a snake whose engulfed prey victim proved to be not just alive but also kicking – and very emphatically so.  Otherwise they are destined to appear and reappear in the freak shows of cyberspace ad infinitum, not to mention ad nauseam.


STOP PRESS

At the time of uploading this article of mine onto ShukerNature earlier today, I was only aware of one photograph depicting China's legged snake. Tonight, however, Facebook correspondent Andrew Webster drew my attention to a website (click here) containing two more , including this one, depicting the dead snake being held by a lady I assume to be Mrs Duan Qiongxiu:

Mrs Duan Qiongxiu(?) holding the dead legged snake (copyright holder unknown to me)

As noted by Andrew, viewed from this angle the limb appears to be that of a toad.

Speaking of which: Also well worthy of inclusion here is the following photograph (copyright owner unknown to me) of a South African night adder Causus sp. that has swallowed a toad which, in keeping with the defence mechanism of such creatures, evidently inflated itself when ingested, forcing two of its limbs through the snake's gut and body wall:




For more mysterious snakes, be sure to check out my book The Beasts That Hide From Man (Paraview: New York, 2003)





Tuesday, 8 April 2014

DID I SEE AN UNDISCOVERED SPECIES OF GIANT PRAYING MANTIS IN SOUTH AFRICA?


19th-Century engraving of a praying mantis

The longest species of praying mantis currently known to science is the giant stick mantis Ischnomantis gigas. Brown in colour, enabling it to blend in with the bushes upon which it lives and lies in wait for unwary prey to approach, this mighty mantid is native to Senegal, southern Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, northern Nigeria, Cameroon, and Sudan. The longest specimen on record is an adult female collected in Kankiya, northern Nigeria, which measured a very impressive 17.2 cm long, and is now preserved in London's Natural History Museum.

Ischnomantis media, a smaller relative of I. gigas (public domain)

Africa is also home to the world's largest mantis species, the aptly-named mega-mantis Plistospilota guineensis, native to Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Liberia, and Ghana. Adult females grow up to 11 cm long, but are bulkier and heavier (weighing up to 10 g) than those of the giant stick mantis. They also have much larger wings; the wings of females belonging to the giant stick mantis I. gigas are so small that the females are rendered flightless.

But could there be even bigger species of mantid still awaiting formal scientific discovery and description? The reason why I ask this question is that a few years ago I had a first-hand encounter with a mysterious giant mantis, one that I was unable to identify and which has puzzled me ever since. So I am now documenting it here – as an online ShukerNature exclusive – in the hope that someone reading this post of mine may be able to offer a solution.

Mantids of many kinds (public domain)

In November 2008, my mother Mary D. Shuker and I spent four days at the private Shamwari Game Reserve, situated just outside Port Elizabeth in South Africa's Eastern Cape. On the last day of our stay there, just a few moments before the car arrived to take us and some other Shamwari guests back to the airport at Port Elizabeth, one of the safari guides walked over towards where we were all waiting, and squatting on the outstretched palm of his right hand was what I can only describe as an absolutely enormous praying mantis.

Brown in colour and very burly, this extraordinary specimen was so big that it was easily the length of his entire hand, and it was very much alive. Its 'praying' front limbs were moving slightly, and its head turned to look at us as we gazed at it in astonishment. As it made no attempt to fly away, however, I am assuming that it was flightless.

Frustratingly, my camera was packed away in one of my cases, so I couldn't take any photographs of this amazing insect. Nor could I question the guide about it, because at that same moment the car arrived to take us to the airport, so the guide walked off, still carrying the huge mantis on his hand.

19th-Century engraving illustrating a selection of mantids

Needless to say, I have never forgotten that spectacular creature, and I have sought ever since to uncover its taxonomic identity, but I have been unable to reconcile it with any mantis species recorded from South Africa (or, indeed, from anywhere else for that matter!).

So what was this mystery mantis of truly monstrous dimensions? If anyone can provide an answer, I'd love to hear from you!

Mom (on right) with a fellow guest in front of Long Lee Manor, our place of residence while staying in Shamwari Private Game Reserve, South Africa, November 2008 (© Dr Karl Shuker)





Saturday, 5 April 2014

WHEN FLYING CATS WERE FLYING LEMURS

Ventral and dorsal view of a Philippines colugo, plus an American false vampire bat (above), depicted in Plate 58 from the first volume of Albertus Seba's Thesaurus (1734)

Colugos must surely be among the most bizarre yet bewitching of all mammals. Native to the tropical forests of southeast Asia, most famous for the extensive gliding membrane (patagium) connecting their limbs, tail, and even the digits of their paws, and as big as a medium-sized possum or very large squirrel, the two modern-day species of colugo are the only surviving members of the mammalian order Dermoptera.

Photograph of a colugo at rest upon a tree trunk (public domain)

The larger and more familiar of these two species is the Philippines colugo Cynocephalus volans, which is endemic to this multi-island southeast Asian nation, and measures up to 17 in long. The second, smaller, and less familiar species is the Malayan or Sunda colugo Galeopterus variegatus, but this colugo has a much wider distribution - occurring in Borneo, Java, Sumatra, Singapore, peninsular Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos.

Widely deemed from the findings of recent molecular phylogenetic studies to be the primates' closest living relatives, these extraordinary yet surprisingly little-known gliding mammals are also called caguans and cobegos, as well as flying lemurs - even though they glide rather than fly and are not lemurs!

Perhaps the most memorable description of a colugo that I've ever read appears in Bill Garnett's book Oddbods! (1984):

"Imagine a floppy shopping bag with an avocado sticking out sideways at the top; hang it by claws beneath a branch; put a huge round eye on the avocado - and cover the lot in a soft furry pelt, mottled fawn and grey. You've now got yourself a colugo."

19th-Century engraving of a colugo gliding, revealing its extensive patagium

But what on earth (or in the air!), I hear you ask, do colugos have to do with flying cats? I'm very glad that you asked me that question!

Let me begin answering it by introducing the grotesque Asian bat-cat depicted in the eminent Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher's tome China Monumentis (1667). Kircher claimed that such creatures (which he referred to as flying cats - 'Catti Volantes' - in his Latin text) existed in the forested mountains of India's Kashmir Province, but that upon closer examination they merely proved to be bats, albeit ones as big as (if not bigger than) chickens or geese.

Athanasius Kircher’s bat-cat engraving

Zoologically speaking, however, the animal in this weird illustration does not resemble a bat, not least because the membranes of its wings are much more extensive than those of bats. Instead, it may conceivably have been an early attempt to portray a colugo, because the bat-cat's wings are actually pictured as a membrane extending from the forelegs to the hind legs and onto the tail, exactly mirroring the gliding membrane of colugos. But it could well be that as someone not trained in zoology, Kircher might simply have considered colugos to be bats anyway

Moreover, a distorted, secondhand (or more) account of a colugo may explain traveller Marco Polo's curious mention of a still-unidentified beast from the Far East known as a cat-a-mountain. This was said to be a predatory cat with the body of a leopard but also with a strange skin that stretched out when it hunted, enabling it to fly in pursuit of its prey.

A somewhat aggressive-looking colugo in an early engraving

A third potential case of cat-into-colugo reared its furry head in the 1990s, because that was when I uncovered the following intriguing but (at that time) previously-unpublicised report, entitled 'Flying Cat', which had been published in the volume for 1868 of a long-forgotten British journal entitled The Naturalist's Note Book:

"A nondescript animal, said to be a flying cat, and called by the Bhells pauca billee, has just been shot by Mr. Alexander Gibson, in the Punch Mehali [India]. The dried skin was exhibited at the last meeting of the Bombay Asiatic Society. It measured 18 inches in length, and was quite as broad when extended in the air. Mr. Gibson, who is well known as a member of the Asiatic Society and a contributor to its journal, believes the animal to be really a cat, and not a bat or a flying-fox [fruit bat], as some contend."

As I pondered in various articles and later in my book Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), could this extraordinary animal have been an early example of a winged cat (click here for more info re these bizarre yet totally bona fide felids, and here for a video of one such individual)? Or was it a large species of bat – or even a colugo?

More than 145 years have now passed by since this strange creature was reported in The Naturalist's Note Book, yet its taxonomic identity remains unclear – or does it? In fact, thanks to a wonderful tome that I acquired only very recently, I have finally solved the tenacious mystery of Gibson's flying cat.

My copy of Taschen's spectacular compendium of the illustration plates from Albertus Seba's Thesaurus (© Taschen)

Entitled Cabinet of Natural Curiosities and first published by Taschen in 2001 (mine is a 2011 reprint of it), the spectacular book in question that I purchased last month is a lavishly reproduced compendium of all of the glorious illustration plates from the four-volume magnum opus of Albertus Seba (1665-1736). An exceedingly wealthy Dutch businessman who was one of the most celebrated collectors of natural history specimens ever, Seba had amassed not one but two immense, internationally-renowned collections (click here to access a separate ShukerNature post containing additional details concerning Seba and his collections), and his four-volume tome, his Thesaurus as he entitled it, was basically a lavishly-illustrated catalogue of his collections' numerous specimens, containing more than 400 colour plates and published from 1734 to 1765.

Portrait of Albertus Seba, by Jacobus Houbraken (1698-1780)

Taschen's compendium of Seba's Thesaurus plates does not include any of his original accompanying text, which was written in both Latin and French and described each specimen in detail, but it does contains a lengthy introduction written by this compendium's German compilers. And it was tucked within this where, with great excitement and delight, I came upon an ostensibly inauspicious yet truly revelationary paragraph - a hitherto-cryptic nugget of knowledge that finally and fully elucidated the longstanding enigma of the flying cats. Contained within a section headed 'Curiosities and Special Attractions in the Thesaurus', this crucial paragraph reads as follows:

"A particular rarity in the Thesaurus are the so-called "Fliegende Katzen" (flying cats) and "Fliegende Hunde" (flying dogs) from tropical regions, although – contrary to what their names imply – they are not related to feline or canine species. Flughund (lit. flying dog) nevertheless remains the German designation for the fruit bat even today (in English it is also called a flying fox). Amongst the animals which Seba describes as "flying dogs" is a true fruit bat (Pteropus sp., I, 57, Figs. 1-2) and a tropical American false vampire bat (Vampyrum spectrum, I, 58, Fig. 1). Among the "flying cats" in the Thesaurus (I, 58, Figs. 2-3) we find the giant flying lemur of the Philippines (Cynocephalus volans), which together with another species forms a separate group of mammals."

Plate 58 is the illustration opening this present ShukerNature blog post, which does indeed portray the American false vampire Vampyrum spectrum (which happens to be the world's largest species of carnivorous bat) plus the ventral and dorsal view of a Philippines colugo. Below is the clearer version of this plate that appears in the Taschen compendium.

Ventral and dorsal view of a Philippines colugo, plus an American false vampire bat (above), depicted in Plate 58 as reproduced within the Taschen compendium of Albertus Seba's Thesaurus plates (© Taschen)

Spurred on by this vital insight, yesterday I tracked down and consulted online a pdf of the original Seba's Thesaurus, which not only contained the plates but also Seba's own descriptions of the specimens depicted in them. And sure enough, the colugo was referred to by Seba in his descriptions as Felis volans ('flying cat'), and the Chat qui volé ('cat that flies'), as revealed here:

The colugo-relevant Latin and French text from the original 1734 edition of Seba's Thesaurus, Vol. 1

So there it is – the mystery laid bare, a mystery no longer. Asia's so-called flying cats were indeed colugos - or flying lemurs, as they are still popularly referred to. Bearing in mind, however, that colugos have very dog-like heads (as indeed have some lemurs, hence 'flying lemur' as a name applied to colugos), it's something of a riddle how they ever came to be dubbed 'flying cats', but at least the suspected connection has now finally been verified.

Only one mysterious aspect of this case remains unsolved. Colugos are southeast Asian species; they are not native to anywhere in India - including the disputed Kashmir territory (remember Kircher's bat-cat?). Perhaps, therefore, the Gibson 'flying cat' was not actually shot in India after all, but had merely been preserved or exhibited there - with the claim that it had originally been shot there too merely being a journalistic error. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that an unusual animal has incited all manner of outlandish, error-ridden reporting by poorly-informed or overly-imaginative hacks.

Far less likely, but by no means impossible, and certainly much more intriguing, is the possibility that there were once (and maybe still are?) colugos belonging to one or other of the two known species– or perhaps even to an entirely-distinct third colugo species – inhabiting regions of Asia such as India and Kashmir that fall outside their currently-confirmed modern-day distribution range, but have remained undiscovered and undescribed by science. Who knows – those erstwhile 'flying cats' may still have the potential to surprise us after all.

19th-Century engraving of a Philippines colugo