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, 18 October 2014

ST PAUL AND THE NON-EXISTENT VIPER OF MALTA – A LONGSTANDING HERPETOLOGICAL MYSTERY

St Paul casts viper into fire, painting by Marten de Vos

It is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (28: 3-6) within the Bible's New Testament that when a ship transporting St Paul and other prisoners to Rome was shipwrecked on the island of Melita (known now as Malta), St Paul was bitten by a viper:

   "And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.
   And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.
   And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.
   Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god."

What makes this incident memorable not only from a theological but also from a herpetological standpoint is that there is no known species of viper living today on Malta. So how can St Paul's ophidian attacker be explained?

St Paul casting viper into fire, 16th-Century woodcut

In their biblical commentary The Acts of the Apostles (1959), Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle suggested that just because there are no vipers on Malta today does not necessarily mean that there were none in St Paul's day. Perhaps they died out due to the expanding human population here in later times. However, American cryptozoologist and scriptures scholar Chad Arment has pointed out that there is no physical evidence to confirm that vipers have ever existed on Malta. Nor does the viper family's zoogeographical distribution in this region of Europe provide much support for such a notion.

Consequently, Chad considers it more plausible that Malta's mystery 'viper' was in reality the cat snake Telescopus fallax - a species of venomous rear-fanged colubrid that usually measures up to 2.5 ft long and is native to Malta. As its mouth is too small for its fangs to be used effectively when biting humans (which it will sometimes do if handled), the cat snake is not deemed to be dangerous. However, in cases where a person is allergic to the proteins contained in its venom, anaphylaxia and various complications can occur if not treated rapidly. Bearing in mind that its preferred habitat includes dry stony areas overgrown with low shrubs in which it can climb, this fairly small, lithe snake could easily be picked up with a bundle of sticks (unlike any of Europe's larger, bulkier vipers).

A Maltese specimen of the European cat snake (© Jeffrey Skiberras/Wikipedia)

Having said that, this particular line of speculation is taking as granted that the snake which bit St Paul was indeed venomous - but was it? Perhaps St Luke (author of the Acts of the Apostles) and/or the native Maltese islanders mistakenly assumed that it was, when in actual fact it was a harmless species. Certainly, in many parts of the world various non-venomous species of snake (and even lizards too) are erroneously deemed to be exceedingly venomous by their human neighbours.

Equally ambiguous is St Luke's description of St Paul's serpentine aggressor as fastening onto and then hanging from his hand. Might this mean that the snake did not actually bite St Paul's hand, but merely coiled around it, and that St Luke and the other observers only assumed that it had bitten him, when in fact it had not done so? Certainly there is no statement anywhere in the verses dealing with this incident in the Acts of the Apostles which claims that St Paul was miraculously cured of snakebite - only an assumption by St Luke and the others that he had been bitten.

St Paul and the supposed viper, engraving by Hendrik Goltzius, c1580

And so, as it has been for many centuries, the non-existent viper of Malta remains a herpetological as well as a biblical mystery – indeed, an enigma. Consequently, any thoughts or opinions concerning it from ShukerNature readers would as always be very greatly appreciated.

This ShukerNature post is adapted from my book Mysteries of Planet Earth.







Saturday, 11 October 2014

NANDI BEARS AND TERROR BIRDS – FIRST SNEAK PREVIEW OF 'THE MENAGERIE OF MARVELS'



Front cover section of the complete wraparound cover artwork for my forthcoming book The Menagerie of Marvels (© Anthony Wallis)

It was way back in 1991 when my second book, Extraordinary Animals Worldwide, was published, by Robert Hale Limited of London. Containing accounts of lesser-known cryptozoological beasts and scarcely-known mainstream creatures, and plentifully supplied with exquisite antiquarian chromolithographs, engravings, and other vintage illustrations wherever possible, it purposefully recalled a bygone generation of natural history books, dating predominantly from the 19th and early 20th Centuries, whose subject matter, generally a deft, eclectic interweaving of speculative zoology, the history of animal discovery, and wildlife mythology of the ancients, was popularly referred to by its authors and readers alike as romantic zoology.

Such was the enduring appeal of my book's modern-day contribution to this now all-but-lost subject – indeed, eventually gaining a cult status among cryptozoological aficionados in particular – that I was encouraged to prepare a much-expanded, updated edition, entitled Extraordinary Animals Revisited, which was published in 2007, this time by CFZ Press. Updating some of the most popular chapters from the original book and also adding many new ones, it went on to attract an even greater following than its predecessor, and remains in print today.

With Extraordinary Animals Revisited at its official launch in August 2007 at the CFZ's Weird Weekend (© Mark North)

By 'mixing and matching' cryptozoology with mainstream zoology, these two books have each enabled me to include within a single volume a much greater diversity of creatures than in other works of mine, and in turn have indulged me in my desire to investigate and write about certain truly obscure animals that have long fascinated me. Consequently, it was only a matter of time before I would give in to temptation and compile a third compendium of extraordinary animals - and now I have done so, via my forthcoming 21st book.

Entitled The Menagerie of Marvels (and employing the aforementioned phrase A Third Compendium of Extraordinary Animals as its subtitle in order to confirm its inclusion within the Extraordinary Animals canon of works), it is due to be published in good time for Christmas, and once again by CFZ Press. So here, to tease and tantalise, is a first sneak-preview, consisting of the truly spectacular artwork that longstanding friend and superb artist Anthony Wallis has kindly prepared for its wraparound cover – thanks Ant!

The complete wraparound cover artwork for The Menagerie of Marvels (© Anthony Wallis)

Demonstrating the diversity of this book's plentiful contents (running to over 20 chapters and more than 260 pages), it features a woolly mammoth, a Nandi bear in giant baboon mode, and, taking centre-stage in all their rapacious glory, a very formidable pair of terror birds or phorusrhacids.

Further details concerning the numerous subjects appearing within The Menagerie of Marvels will be released in future ShukerNature sneak previews between now and its publication – so watch this space!

The first two volumes in my series of Extraordinary Animals compendia (© Dr Karl Shuker)








Sunday, 5 October 2014

THUNDERBIRD FEATHERS AND PIASA PORTRAYALS

Northwest Coast styled Kwakwaka'wakw totem pole with thunderbird perched on top (© Dr Haggis/Wikipedia GFDL)

Cryptozoologists are familiar with the longstanding mystery of the missing thunderbird photograph, but what about an alleged thunderbird feather?

Interviewed recently by Tucson-based freelance writer Craig S. Baker for an online article on unsolved mysteries of the Wild West (click here), veteran Wild West author/investigator W.C. Jameson made a claim of considerable potential significance to cryptozoology regarding the legendary thunderbirds.

Jameson stated that a Cherokee treasure hunter he once knew told him that while looking for a long-lost cache of Spanish silver in a Utah cave, he had dug up several huge feathers, each one over 18 in long and with a quill of comparable diameter to one of his fingers. Above the cave’s mouth, moreover, was an ancient pictograph of an enormous horned bird. Could this have been a piasa?

For anyone unfamiliar with the piasa, here is what I wrote about this extraordinary monster of North American mythology in my book Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013):


"In August 1673, Jesuit priest Father Jacques Marquette was travelling along the Mississippi while journeying through Illinois when, looking up at the cliffs towering above both sides of this mighty river at Alton, he was both horrified and fascinated by some huge, extraordinary petroglyphs carved into the face of one of the cliffs.

"They depicted a truly astonishing monster, which the local Indians informed him was known as the piasa. In overall appearance, it closely compared with the famous winged classical dragon of European mythology. Boldly adorned in black and red scales all over its body, the piasa had four limbs whose feet were equipped with huge talons. It bore a pair of long antler-like horns upon its head, it sported an extremely long tail with a forked tip, and two enormous bat-like wings with vein-like markings were raised above its body. But what set the piasa entirely apart from other classical dragons was its bearded face – for in spite of its snarling grimace of fang-bearing teeth, broad nose, and flaming eyes, it was nonetheless the face of a man!

"According to the Indians, the piasa had lived in a huge cave in the cliff face and was once friendly to humans – until it acquired the taste for their flesh. Afterwards, it became a bloodthirsty, insatiable killer, but was finally lured within range of the tribe's best marksmen, who severely wounded it with a barrage of arrows, then finished it off with their tomahawks.

"Tragically, in c.1856 these wonderful ancient petroglyphs were destroyed accidentally during some quarry work nearby, which caused the petroglyphs to crack and shatter, falling off the cliff face into the river."

Piasa - a modern-day depiction at Alton, Illinois (© Burfalcy/Wikipedia)

Returning to the thunderbird feathers: Jameson has also claimed that he actually owns the stem (i.e. quill) of one of these remarkable mega-plumes, albeit broken and incomplete, thus 'only' measuring 18 in long, and that its species had not been positively identified by any of the several (unnamed) ornithologists who had seen it. Click here to see an online photograph of Jameson's alleged thunderbird feather quill on Mark Turner's Mysterious World blog.

Assuming that Jameson’s story is accurate, could this giant feather be a bona fide thunderbird plume? Tangible, physical evidence for cryptids is, by definition, a rare commodity, so such a specimen could be of great scientific worth, thanks to the considerable power of modern-day DNA analysis in ascertaining taxonomic identity or kinship.

For by subjecting the feather to such analysis (using samples of dried blood if present at its base, or viable cells collected from the calimus - the portion of the quill that had previously been imbedded underneath the bird’s skin), biotechnologists might succeed where the ornithologists have reputedly failed, and duly unveil the hitherto-cryptic nature of its avian originator.

Sporting a colossal wingspan estimated at 23-24 ft, the giant Argentinian teratorn Argentavis magnificens; teratorns were huge prehistoric relatives of today's New World vultures, and some cryptozoologists believe that the thunderbirds of Amerindian mythology may be based upon late-surviving or even still-undiscovered present-day North American teratorns (© Justin Case aka Hodari Nundu/Deviantart.com)

Let us hope, therefore, that someone will be able to persuade Jameson to submit his giant mystery feather for formal DNA testing - always assuming of course that it really is a feather...

After all: during medieval times, crusaders returning home to Europe from the Middle East often brought back with them as unusual souvenirs what they had been told by unscrupulous traders were feathers from an immense fabled bird known as the roc or rukh – said to be so enormous that it could carry off elephants in its huge talons. Even its plumes were gigantic, up to 3 ft long. In reality, however, when examined by naturalists these were swiftly exposed as the deceptively feather-like leaves of the raffia palm tree (for further details, click here).

A raffia palm tree leaf masquerading as a roc feather – one of several that I purchased several years ago as cryptozoological curios (© Dr Karl Shuker)





Saturday, 4 October 2014

A TRIO OF NEW MYSTERY MACAW CASES



Jan Steen's red mystery macaw (on left) and Roelandt Savery's red mystery macaw (on right)

In five previous ShukerNature posts (click here, here, here, here, and here), I have drawn attention to a number of mystifying forms of macaw, all of which may potentially involve either now-vanished or still-undiscovered species. Now, here are two additional cases, plus a personal encounter with a macaw of undetermined identity.

JAN STEEN AND A MYSTERY MACAW

Certain of my previous mystery macaw investigations featured classical works of art depicting specimens that do not correspond to any species currently known to science from the present day. Yet another example of this kind has lately been brought to my attention, courtesy of Brazilian bird artist and crypto-ornithological researcher Rafael Nascimento.

The bird in question is a large red macaw, depicted sitting on a perch in the top-left corner of an oil painting from c.1665 by Dutch artist Jan Steen, entitled 'The Way You Hear It, Is The Way You Sing It'.

Jan Steen's oil painting, 'The Way You Hear It, Is The Way You Sing It' (click picture to enlarge it)

Although several living species of macaw are partly red, none is almost exclusively so, like the specimen in this painting.

Conversely, as I soon realised when viewing it, this bird does closely resemble another red mystery macaw – one which appears on the left-hand-side in Flemish artist Roelandt Savery's celebrated painting from 1626 of Mauritius's famously-demised flightless icon, the dodo Raphus cucullatus.

Roelandt Savery's 1626 dodo painting, featuring the red mystery macaw on the left (click picture to enlarge it)

Both macaws have pale wing plumes but otherwise uniformly red plumage. Yet although no living species of macaw corresponds with such birds, they readily recall an account penned during the 1650s by French missionary Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre of a very large, almost entirely red parrot native to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.

Close-up comparison of the red mystery macaw in Jan Steen's painting (on left) and the red mystery macaw in Roelandt Savery's dodo painting (on right)

A century and a half earlier, this still-unidentified but now long-vanished parrot form had also been observed there by Christopher Columbus's landing party, who claimed that it was as big as a chicken (which certain species of macaw are indeed). Could some specimens of Guadeloupe's red parrots have been brought back to Holland by travellers sometime after Columbus's time, upon which the mystery red parrots in the paintings by Savery and Steen were duly based, either independently or with Steen's being inspired by Savery's? Who can say for certain?

Nevertheless, for there now to be two classical works of art depicting what is clearly one and the same variety of mystery red macaw certainly suggests that the transportation of some such parrots into Europe from Guadeloupe might indeed be the case, and also that continued examination of such works may well reveal other cryptozoological surprises. Nor is this the only hitherto-unpublicised mystery macaw to have been brought to my attention lately…


GUYANA'S BLUE MYSTERY MACAW

Just four species of predominantly blue-plumaged macaw are recognised by science. These are: the hyacinthine macaw Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus, Lear's macaw A. leari (endangered in the wild), glaucous macaw A. glaucus (probably extinct), and Spix's macaw Cyanopsitta spixii (extinct in the wild), all of which are only on record from central South America, predominantly Brazil.

Brazilian postage stamp from 1993, depicting the hyacinthine macaw (on left), glaucous macaw (centre), and Lear's macaw (right)

On 28 October 2013, however, I received an email from pets expert/author David Alderton that contained the following very interesting news:

"I was going through some old papers last week, and I came across some notes that I'd made at a CITES meeting…I discussed this with the Guyanese representative - a vet called Mrs Pilgrim, and a parrot enthusiast who lived in Guyana - Louis Martin. They both independently told me of reports of a rare, large blue macaw that inhabited the hinterland forests of Guyana. Louis confirmed that it was not a hyacinthine macaw, but believed it to be a new species.  I wondered whether you'd ever come across reports of this type? It was the fact that two experienced parrot observers told me independently that made me think these sightings could be more than just hearsay. According to Louis, it was completely blue, but not as big as a hyacinthine. (It had initially struck me that these reports might possibly refer to blue & gold (Ara ararauna) macaws missing their gold plumage, which is then replaced by white, based on the range of this species.  Individuals of this type have been recorded in the wild, and I think there is one in a zoo in France, but this seems unlikely)."

I agree that it is unlikely that a mutant of this nature would be responsible, because it would be blue and white, not completely blue.

Apart from two highly controversial blue-type macaws – the so-called purple macaw and the black macaw – that may (or may not) have once existed on certain Caribbean islands but which are now long-extinct (click here for my ShukerNature article on these two enigmatic forms) – I have not encountered reports of mystery all-blue macaws before.

Spix's macaw, the fourth, and smallest, known species of blue macaw, depicted in a painting from 1878 by Joseph Smit

Consequently, David's disclosure is most interesting, especially as Louis Martin discounted the possibility that the unidentified Guyanan form was a hyacinthine macaw – the only common species of blue macaw in the wild.

If any parrot enthusiasts are reading this, and have any additional information, Id love to hear from you!


A MYSTERY MACAW OF MY OWN

Finally, while on the subject of unidentified macaws, I have a little mystery of my own.

In 2004, while visiting the Mandalay Bay Hotel (since renamed the Delano Las Vegas) on the Strip in Las Vegas, Nevada, I saw and photographed a very beautiful macaw (with its equally glamorous handler!). It reminded me of various hybrid macaws that I had previously seen in photos in books, so I naturally assumed that I'd soon be able to identify it once I was back home (when photographing the macaw with its handler, it never occurred to me to enquire about the identity of her macaw, as my concentration seemed to be a little distracted - can't think why!! lol).

Unidentified hybrid macaw observed by me at the Mandalay Bay Hotel, Las Vegas, in 2004 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Anyway, when I did eventually get around to investigating this macaw back home, I discovered to my surprise that it corresponded closely to several different hybrid forms - in particular, the harlequin macaw and the Catalina macaw, even though these are derived from different pairs of progenitor species (the harlequin macaw is a blue-and-yellow macaw Ara ararauna x red-and-green macaw aka green-winged macaw Ara chloroptera hybrid, whereas the Catalina macaw is a blue-and-yellow macaw Ara ararauna x scarlet macw Ara macao hybrid).

Close-up of the Mandalay Bay Hotel hybrid macaw (© Dr Karl Shuker)

So now, 10 years later, I still have no conclusive identity for it, and once again therefore would greatly welcome any opinions offered here.

Harlequin macaw (left) and Catalina macaw (right) (© Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden, click here)





Tuesday, 30 September 2014

A WHITE SABRE-TOOTH ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN CHINA?


Could Shennongjia's white mega-fanged mystery cat look something like this? (© Dr Karl Shuker)

The only form of tiger traditionally known to inhabit China in modern times is the exceedingly rare South China tiger subspecies, Panthera tigris amoyensis, and even this may now be extinct in the wild. According to a fascinating article (click here) published in Chinese on the tieba.baidu.com website, however, which was kindly summarised in English for me by Canadian cryptozoologist Sebastian Wang after alerting me to its existence (he had in turn been made aware of it by British cryptozoological researcher Richard Muirhead), a very different and extremely mysterious tigerine felid may also exist here.

As recently as May 1994, in the Shennongjia region of China's northwestern Hubei Province, the article's author allegedly spied a giant cat measuring 4-5 m long (and therefore much larger than any normal tiger), with white fur bearing vertical yellow stripes. An extreme white-furred variant of the tiger, known as the snow tiger (click here for a detailed account), does possess only very pale, yellowish stripes (indeed, some specimens bear no or virtually no markings at all), but it does not measure 4-5 m long. Moreover, both the snow tiger variant and the more familiar white tiger variant with brown or dark grey/black stripes have only ever been recorded from the Bengal tiger P. tigris tigris, not from the South China subspecies or any other.

A snow tiger (a colour variant of the Bengal tiger), bearing only very faint, pale yellow stripes (© Justin Case aka Hodari Nundu)

In any case, the Shennongjia mystery cat also reputedly sported a pair of huge canine teeth up to 23 cm long and therefore reminiscent of a prehistoric sabre-toothed tiger's (worth noting, however, is that sabre-toothed tigers were not related to true tigers, belonging instead to a separate taxonomic subfamily, Machairodontinae).

The sighting's precise location was on the tallest peak of the eastern Shennongjia region, at an altitude of 2800 m. The article's author subsequently learnt that a few such cats had previously been killed by local hunters. If only a pelt or skull had been preserved for scientific examination – but perhaps some hunter does possess such objects, as trophies displayed proudly in his home. If so, he may own specimens of immense cryptozoological significance.

For information on lots of other equally fascinating mystery cats, check out my books Mystery Cats of the World and Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery.







Tuesday, 23 September 2014

EXPOSING THE INDONESIAN GIGA-GECKO – A HOAX OF MONSTROUS PROPORTIONS!

The (in)famous photo of Indonesia's deceptive giga-gecko as widely present online (© Arbin)

In recent times, a very striking photograph has attracted appreciable attention on the Net, due to the fact that it ostensibly depicts a gecko of truly gargantuan proportions - not so much a mega-gecko as a veritable giga-gecko! In reality, however, as I swiftly realised when observing it, what this photograph truly depicts is something very different from what it may initially seem to do.

After conducting some online research, I was able to trace the photo back to a news article posted in May 2010 by a Rudy Hartono on a website entitled 'My Funny' (which didn't bode well for the article's contents having a sound scientific basis; click here to access the article). That in turn was based upon a couple of reports appearing in the Tribun Kaltim newspaper on 5 and 6 May 2010 (click here to see their contents reproduced on Promo Spektakuler's blog). These sources claimed that the gigantic gecko, supposedly weighing a colossal 64 kg, had been captured in a forest by a teenager in Nunukan, just inside Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) on the border with the Malaysian state of Sabah on the southeast Asian island of Borneo, and, after many people had shown great interest in purchasing it, had finally been sold for the eye-watering sum of 64 million Malaysian ringgits (approximately 20 million US dollars) to an Indonesian businessman. He in turn had promptly exited Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan) with his purchase, taking it instead to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Since then, nothing more has been heard about this incredible creature – for a very good reason. The entire story was fictitious, and the photograph (claimed in a brief Jakarta Post report of 5 May 2010 to have been snapped by someone identified only as Arbin) was an excellent example of optical trickery. Clearly, the giga-gecko was a hoax, but who had perpetrated it? That remains a mystery.

Giga-gecko photograph published in the Tribun-Kaltim newspaper on 5 May 2010 (© Arbin/Tribun-Kaltim)

The gecko specimen in question is actually a very familiar, widely-distributed Asian species known as the tokay gecko Gekko gecko, which is instantly recognisable by virtue of its bluish-grey body liberally patterned with bright red or yellow spots. Although the second largest species of gecko alive today, its maximum total length is a mere 20 in and its maximum weight no more than 0.4 kg. The reason why the specimen in the photograph seems so enormous is that it is sited very much closer to the camera than are the man and the cat sitting on (and under) the railing. This is a classic example of an optical illusion known as forced perspective, often seen in photographs and which, as effectively demonstrated here, can generate some very dramatic (as well as potentially deceiving) images when purposefully engineered.

A tokay gecko (© Jnguyen327/Wikipedia)

The final nail in the coffin of this reptilian riddle was supplied when an inquisitive blogger named Abdul Wahid downloaded the gecko photograph directly from the Tribun Kaltim newspaper report. For as Abdul revealed in a blog post for 15 May 2010 (click here), he duly discovered that the photo was encoded with information detailing that it had been edited using Adobe Photoshop software. In short, this image was not only an example of forced perspective but had also been photo-manipulated on a computer.

Exit the elusive – and definitely illusive – Indonesian giga-gecko!

Incidentally, while investigating the latter photograph I also discovered online a second, totally separate, but equally striking picture of a normal tokay gecko rendered immense via forced perspective, though in this case there was no attendant claim that it was a genuine giant specimen. It was present on the International Gecko and Antique Buyer's website (click here), contained in a post for 15 August 2012, and is reproduced below for comparison purposes with the Indonesian giga-gecko image:

Photo of a normal tokay gecko rendered immense via forced perspective (© International Gecko and Antique Buyer)


DELCOURT'S GIANT GECKO AND THE KAWEKAWEAU

Whereas the Indonesian giga-gecko is merely a monster of photo-manipulation, out-sized wholly by optical trickery as opposed to natural selection, there really is a recently-discovered, bona fide giant gecko – one that although is (relatively speaking) of much more modest dimensions, can boast a history of discovery and abiding mystery that is much more fascinating and significant than any fake or fraud.

Perhaps the most surprising, and belated, herpetological discovery of modern times was that of Delcourt's giant gecko during the early 1980s. For over a century, a stuffed specimen of a most unusual and exceptionally big gecko, yellow-brown in colour with red longitudinal stripes, had been on public display in the Marseilles Natural History Museum, France. Yet in all that time no scientist had ever taken notice of it – until 1979, when the museum's herpetology curator, Alain Delcourt, was sufficiently curious about this 2-ft-long taxiderm lizard to send photographs of it to several reptile experts worldwide.

Alain Delcourt holding the type (and only known) specimen of his reptilian namesake, Delcourt's giant gecko - a taxiderm specimen at Marseilles Natural History Museum (© Prof. Aaron Bauer)

No-one, however, could identify it, and when this unique specimen was formally examined, it was found to represent a wholly unknown species, which in 1986 was officially named Hoplodactylus delcourti. It is by far the largest species of modern-day gecko known to science, making its apparent extinction all the more tragic, as no additional specimens, preserved or living, are on record.

Indeed, there was not even any record of where this enigmatic species' only known specimen – the Marseilles taxiderm individual - had originated. However, because it most closely resembled certain smaller geckos native to New Zealand, scientists assume that this was its provenance.

Delcourt's giant gecko visualised in life (© Markus Bühler)

Moreover, the traditional lore of New Zealand's Maori people refers to a large, supposedly mythical lizard called the kawekaweau. Said to measure around 2 ft long, and pale brown in colour with red longitudinal stripes, its description compares very closely to H. delcourti, strongly suggesting that the two are one and the same.

Artistic representation of the kawekaweau chomping a New Zealand giant cricket or weta (© Justin Case aka Hodari Nundu/Deviantart.com)

And in recent years, there have even been some unconfirmed reports of living specimens on North Island. So perhaps one day Delcourt's giant gecko will be rediscovered alive after all.

For a comprehensive account of Delcourt's giant gecko, check out my Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals.











Tuesday, 16 September 2014

AT LAST - MY VERY OWN MYSTERY ANIMAL SIGHTING!

Did I see a wallaby (i.e. like this specimen photographed elsewhere by me a year or so ago) on the loose tonight in the wilds of Walsall, England - or something far stranger? (© Dr Karl Shuker)

I dimly remember reading somewhere, a long time ago, veteran cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans stating something along the lines of how pleased in one sense he was that he had never personally seen a mystery animal, because if ever he did do so, it would destroy his objectivity when attempting to assess future anecdotal cryptozoological evidence. (Since writing this, I have been informed by Australian correspondent Malcolm Smith that it appeared in Heuvelmans's 1968 book, In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, and that he was referring specifically to the Loch Ness monster - thanks for looking this up for me, Malcolm!). I know how Heuvelmans felt, because apart from encountering an anomalously large praying mantis in South Africa a few years ago (click here for full details) and an unusually sizeable curly-coated taxiderm mole in junior school (click here), I had never seen a mystery animal myself – until tonight, that is. For this is when I had two close-up (albeit very fleeting) observations of a creature that in spite of my decades of field observations of wildlife throughout the world coupled with my professional training as a fully-qualified zoologist and my lifelong fascination with animals of every kind (the more exotic and unusual the better), I was (and remain) completely unable to identify.

So now, gentle reader, in the hope that you may have better luck in doing so, based upon the information that I shall provide, here is my account (while the details are still fresh in my mind) of what I saw a mere 4 hours ago – i.e. a few minutes before midnight on the evening of Monday 15 September 2014.

T'was a dark and stormy night…  Sorry, couldn't resist that! Seriously, however, it was indeed a dark night, and it had been raining heavily earlier too, but the rain had now stopped. I had been to a quiz in a pub on Lichfield Road (A461) just outside the town of Walsall in the West Midlands, England – and no, I hadn't drunk anything alcoholic! – and was now driving back home along Lichfield Road heading towards Walsall town centre.

Just before midnight, I was approaching a series of small side-roads on the left-hand side of Lichfield Road, with a petrol station a little further along on the right-hand side, and a crossroads just beyond that with a large side-road branching off to the right, leading to the Walsall suburb of Pelsall (if fellow Fortean writer Nick Redfern is reading this, he will know exactly where I am describing, as he once lived only a mile or so away, in Pelsall itself.)

A brown hare Lepus europaeus, native to England (public domain)

As I was coming up to the left-hand side-roads as mentioned above, travelling at no more than 30 mph, my headlights lit up a stationary object positioned on the centre-line markings of Lichfield Road. I thought at first that it may be a large rock or even possibly a cardboard box or something that had fallen from a car or lorry. As I drew up to it, however, just a few feet away, the 'thing' suddenly moved, away from my car, and heading across the right-hand side of the road to the kerb.

In the fleeting moments when it was fully illuminated by my headlights (my sighting only lasted about 5 seconds at most), I was able to observe that it was a creature about the size of a wallaby or a large hare (why I am using these particular animals as size comparisons will become clear shortly), it was light/medium-grey in colour (or at least it appeared so in the headlights' beam), and it had long shaggy hair (this feature was very visible). Its head was long, but I didn’t spot any ears (hence I am assuming that they were not large or otherwise distinctive). Similarly, I do not recall seeing a tail, so possibly this was not of conspicuous size either?

In any case, by far its most distinctive feature was not morphological but rather locomotory, because when it moved away from me across the road, it did so in a very distinctive, eye-catching manner. Instead of simply running or scurrying, it moved via a series of low, hunched, quadrupedal bounds, revealing that its hind limbs were powerful and seemed larger than its forelimbs. This mode of locomotion resembled that of various Australian wallabies seen by me close-up in various zoos, bounding around on all fours, and seen at greater distance in the wild Down Under too. It also called to mind the movements of hares that I have encountered in the wild here in Britain, though these bounded in a much faster, more active manner than this creature did. Moreover, although hares only sport very short tails, they have very large noticeable ears, and they do not have long grey shaggy fur. Wallabies, conversely, do have grey fur in some species, but it is not long and shaggy, their ears are quite large, and they have very long, conspicuous tails.

An Australian Bennett's wallaby in quadrupedal stance (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Furthermore, even if this mystery beast were indeed some species of escapee wallaby on the loose (long shaggy fur notwithstanding!), where had it come from? Over the years, a sizeable number of wallabies have absconded from captivity throughout Britain, and some have even established naturalised colonies here, but there are no zoos or wildlife parks in the specific area where I saw the animal documented by me here.

Another possibility is an escapee mara or Patagonian cavy Dolichotis patagonum, a fairly large South American rodent with big ears and long legs that looks superficially hare-like, has brown-grey (but not long and shaggy) fur, is commonly maintained in captivity in Britain, and has been known to abscond from time to time. Again, however, there is no likely origin for such a creature in this specific location. Reeves's muntjac deer Muntiacus reevesi, native to China but existing in naturalised form in many parts of Britain, are known to live in the wild in this vicinity, and are around the same size as the creature that I encountered, but they do not have long shaggy fur and do not move in this manner. I even wondered whether it might be an injured or deformed dog or fox (it bore no resemblance whatsoever to a cat), but it did not seem ill or in pain, and its mode of locomotion, although unusual, did not appear abnormal or forced in any way. Instead, it seemed a totally normal facet of its behaviour, and enabled the creature to move swiftly and easily.

A mara, hare-like in superficial form (© Jagvar/Wikipedia)

After registering my initial sighting of this mystery creature, I naturally wanted to stop the car, get out, and pursue it on foot, but I couldn't do so because, frustratingly, I had a car tailgating me – had I braked and stopped dead in my tracks, this car was so close behind me that it would very probably have driven straight into the back of mine. So I was forced to drive on for a little way until, just past the garage on the right, I was able to find a left-hand side road to turn into and shake off the car behind, which duly carried on along Lichfield Road. So I was then able to perform a u-turn on that road and head back along it to where I had seen the creature.

When I approached the spot, I caught sight of it again, now standing stationary on the grass verge on the right-hand side of the road. This of course had been the left-hand side when I had been driving along the road earlier and had originally spied the creature squatting in the middle of the road. Consequently, for it to be where it was now, it had evidently re-crossed the road during my brief journey onwards when attempting to shake off the car behind me.

A male Reeves's muntjac – a naturalised Chinese species in much of England nowadays, including the West Midlands, but not possessing long grey shaggy fur (© Margoz/Wikipedia)

I stopped the car and watched it from the opposite side of the road (which is only a single carriageway), hoping to get a better look at it this time, and although my car's headlights were now not trained upon it, I could clearly perceive its long shaggy fur, which even without headlight illumination still appeared grey in colour, thereby indicating that this was indeed its pelage's true colour. Within just a few moments, however, the animal began moving along the verge, via the same low, hunched, quadrupedal bounding movements, until it came to a small side road named Wilsford Close, and disappeared into it. I started the car again at once, and was able to drive straight across Lichfield Road into this side road without having to pause for any traffic. Wilsford Close proved to be a very short cul-de-sac (blind-ending road, with no exit at its far end), consisting of a high wall running along the length of its left-hand side and a series of front gardens fringing the length of its right-hand side. All of the gardens led up to houses and were open, i.e. none was closed-off with gates, and there was no sign of the creature, which meant that it must have concealed itself in one of these gardens, but which one, and where? As they were all large, and as it was additionally concealed by the cover of darkness, the creature could have been anywhere.

Needless to say, it did not seem the most sensible option from a legal perspective to commit trespassing by stalking around other peoples' gardens with a torch but without asking permission. Equally, it would have wasted far too much time knocking on their doors to ask each home owner in turn if I could explore their garden. In addition, the chances are that they wouldn't have allowed me to do so anyway – after all, a complete stranger claiming to be looking for a mystery animal in a person's garden during the dead of night is unlikely to receive the most cordial of receptions from said garden's owner! Consequently, albeit with great reluctance, I had no option but to abandon the chase for 'my' elusive cryptid. True, I did drive back out of Wilsford Close and wait in my car near its entrance for a while, just in case the creature did re-emerge, but it didn't.

So here is where my story ends, in unsatisfyingly inconclusive manner – an all-too-familiar feature in cryptozoological encounters but no less frustrating for that. Any thoughts concerning the animal's possible identity would be welcomed here. As someone who normally has no problem whatsoever in identifying living mammals (or birds), if not always to the precise species then at least to their basic taxonomic grouping (genus or family), the fact that I am unable to do so with this creature (even when taking into account that I only saw it very fleetingly and at night) is nothing if not surprising and, indeed, very disconcerting for me – especially as I have seen foxes, a badger, all manner of dogs and domestic cats running around at night and have always readily identified them. If pressed to say what it reminded me of most closely, I would have to say a huge, wallaby-sized (but not wallaby-resembling), very shaggy-furred (and possibly tail-less or only very short-tailed) rat, yet which moved with the gait of a wallaby, albeit one less given to vertical bounds than a typical wallaby. I would also greatly appreciate receiving news regarding any other sightings of a similar beast that may have been reported lately from this locality. Thanks very much indeed!

Google map showing Wilsford Close (arrowed), just off Lichfield Road or A461 (© Google, 2014)


STOP PRESS 19 September 2014 - A SOLUTION TO THE MYSTERY?

As I have already noted, if I had to say what my mystery beast most resembled I'd nominate a huge rat but which moved somewhat like a wallaby, via a series of short crouching bounds. Sitting here at home tonight, reminiscing about my sighting, I suddenly remembered a thought that had momentarily popped into my head when I saw it the first time as it moved away from my car, but which I had promptly forgotten afterwards. Namely: "That looks like a coypu!". My surprise at seeing the creature must have consigned this thought to the back of my mind ever since, until tonight. As soon as I recalled it, however, I started researching the coypu, paying particular attention to the appearance and described gait of this very large, notable species of non-native rodent.

Known in the fur trade as the nutria, the coypu Myocastor coypus is a species of large-bodied, short-tailed, semi-aquatic rodent that superficially resembles a giant rat (it averages around 3ft in total length), but is sufficiently distinct taxonomically from rats and indeed from all other rodents to require housing within a taxonomic family all to itself. It sports brown bristly guard hairs that protect its very dense grey under-fur (much prized in the fur trade), and although native to South America, it has been maintained and bred in fur farms in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa for its valuable pelt. During the early 1960s, however, a number of specimens escaped in the East Anglia region of England, where they found this region's marshy freshwater wetlands very much to their liking, and soon began breeding very prolifically, becoming a major invasive pest species due to destructive herbivory and profound burrowing behaviour. After reaching a peak population of around 200,000 individuals, the coypu was subjected to an intensive government-sponsored eradication programme, and was officially declared exterminated within the UK in 1989. However, a number of unconfirmed sightings have been reported since then, and very occasionally a specimen has actually been obtained - leading to speculation by some researchers as to whether there might possibly be a small but viable population still out there.


A coypu with wet fur, making it look greyer than it would do when dry (© Petar Milosevic/Wikipedia - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3-0 Unported Licence) 

Checking out images of the coypu online, there is little doubt that this species resembles my mystery beast more closely than anything else that I know of. True, its grey dense under-fur is normally concealed by its bristly brown guard hairs, but pictures of it newly-emerged from water show that it appears greyish (and very shaggy) in such circumstances, because the wet guard hairs are matted together in clumps, thus exposing portions of the under-fur beneath, which appears shaggy due to its soaking in water.

What makes this trait even more interesting and pertinent is that after doing some more research concerning the area where I saw the creature, I discovered that it contains not only fields, open spaces, and even a small nature reserve (the Lime Pits Nature Reserve), but also some very large pools and the Rushall Canal. If the creature is indeed a coypu, such a location as this offers a very compatible habitat for its continued survival. But that is still not all.


A coypu with drier fur, but still readily showing it to be long-haired (© Silverije/Wikipedia)

Checking up the coypu's gait, I found consistent descriptions online stating that under normal conditions this species moves slowly on land with "a crouching gait", but if disturbed it will "bound rapidly away". This is of course a perfect description of the mystery creature's movements as witnessed by me. Moreover, the coypu normally emerges from its burrow and becomes active just before sunset, and returns to its burrow just before sunrise, thus corresponding with the time that I saw it.

Taking all of the above into account, I therefore offer a coypu as a tentative but plausible contender for my mystery beast in terms of both morphology and movements. But if this is truly its identity, one major mystery still requires a solution - where has the coypu originated? Coypus have certainly been maintained in zoos here in England in modern times, as well as in fur farms. Has there been a recent escape locally in the Midlands, or might such an event have occurred elsewhere but with the coypu subsequently making its way here, possibly following the canal system in its search for the river plants upon which it feeds? Obviously, all of this is highly speculative, but for the first time since Monday night, I feel somewhat less disconcerted regarding my failure to identify straight away this most unexpected mystery beast.

A fair-furred coypu in captivity - not relevant to my sighting but still interesting in its own right (© Norbert Nagel/Wikipedia)

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