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.

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

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Friday, 4 September 2015

CRYPTO-SELFIES! IN THE PICTURE WITH SOME SERIOUSLY WEIRD – BUT WONDERFUL – WILDLIFE


With E.T. – how could I not take pity on this errant extraterrestrial and bring him back home with me? In any case, he must be happy here – he hasn't phoned home once, which is just as well, bearing in mind the cost of intergalactic telephone calls these days! (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Over the years, I've found myself sharing space in photographs – selfies, as they'd be called nowadays – with some exceedingly strange entities (and those are just my friends!). But seriously, browsing through my albums recently I came upon a considerable number featuring me alongside some truly weird – but indisputably wonderful – wildlife. So here, as one of my more light-hearted ShukerNature contributions, and the first of an occasional series, is a dozen of my most memorable crypto-selfies, annotated with a bountiful abundance of decidedly (ir)relevant information…

Alongside a black cheetah statue at Colchester Zoo, in Essex, England, which I visited in 2013; as noted in my books Mystery Cats of the World and Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery, a few records of all-black (melanistic) cheetahs are indeed on file, including a specimen spied in the company of a normal cheetah by Lesley D.E.F. Vesey-Fitzgerald in Zambia during the first half of the 20th Century, and another one sighted in Kenya's Trans-Nzoia District by H.F. Stoneham in 1925 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

With one of the famous 19th-Century dinosaur statues at Crystal Palace Park in Bromley, London, which I visited in 2009; created by famous sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894) and totally outdated now, this one is meant to be a Megalosaurus, but its reconstruction was guided by the popular yet erroneous belief current at that time that dinosaurs resembled giant lizards (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Holding a Brazilian were-pig skull – hailing from Rio de Janeiro, this is the skull of a wild boar that has been intricately decorated to resemble the supposed appearance of a Brazilian were-pig's head (© Dr Karl Shuker)

At Drayton Manor Park and Zoo, in Staffordshire, England, standing somewhat warily alongside a disconcertingly life-like, life-sized replica of North America's late Pliocene/early Pleistocene terror bird Titanis walleri, which may have stood up to 8 ft tall – check out my book The Menagerie of Marvels for an extensive chapter documenting the history of these flightless but fleet-footed and sometimes truly gargantuan carnivorous birds (© Dr Karl Shuker)

With an acklay – when I purchased this model at a market a few years ago, I had no idea what the creature was that it represented, but thanks to some knowledgeable sci-fi enthusiast friends on Facebook I soon learnt that it was an acklay, a huge non-sentient carnivore up to 11.5 ft tall, hailing from the planet Vendaxa in the Star Wars canon's universe (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Alongside a life-sized animatronic model of the feathered dinosaur Citipati at Bristol Zoo, England, in 2013; an oviraptorid theropod from Mongolia's Late Cretaceous period, Citipati was named after a pair of murdered meditating monks from Tibetan Buddhist folklore, it possessed a large toothless beak, and it stood as large as a present-day emu; in this particular reconstruction, it looks decidedly cassowary-like (© Dr Karl Shuker)

There I was, minding my own business walking round the small West Midlands, England, town of Cradley Heath, when, happening to step inside a sci-fi/comic shop, who should I encounter there but the Predator! I can only assume that my trusty leather biker jacket helped to conceal me from its thermal imaging capability long enough for me to get this photo snapped of me alongside it; if you're wondering why the photo is a little blurry, it's because the (ex) person taking it for me suddenly realised that unlike me he wasn't wearing anything to cloak his thermal image – I won't tell you what happened to him next, as I don't want to give you nightmares – suffice it to say that at least it kept the Predator occupied long enough for me to make my excuses and exit stage right! (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Face to face with a life-sized Tyrannosaurus rex model at a dedicated T. rex exhibition held at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery in the West Midlands, England, during 2010 – it's not often that you get the chance to stare down a T. rex, although in this particular instance the only thing that I seemed to be staring down was its nostrils; Jurassic Park claimed that as long as you stood perfectly still, a T. rex would be unable to detect you, so what better time to put this claim to the test?? © Dr Karl Shuker)

Holding a cast of a 16-inch-long bigfoot (sasquatch) footprint discovered at Grays Harbor, in Washington State, USA, during 1982; I purchased this particular cast from veteran bigfoot researcher Prof. Grover Krantz during the early 1990s (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Sharing some quality time with a life-sized Moeritherium statue at London's Natural History Museum in 2014; this was a very early genus of proboscidean living during the Eocene epoch 37-35 million years ago in northern and western Africa, but dying out without giving rise to any modern-day elephant lineage; initially I was very puzzled that this statue's trunk seemed to have been rubbed so vigorously that much of its surface had lost its colour – why would this have happened? Then Facebook friend Adam Naworal reminded me that it was traditional to rub elephant statues for good luck, so that may well explain the otherwise anomalous case of the mutilated Moeritherium; fortunately, however, this doesn't seem to have traumatised him, as he seemed happy enough to be with me (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Alongside Singapore's iconic merlion fountain-statue in 2005; the merlion is a legendary lion-headed fish known worldwide as a symbol of Singapore, and it is epitomised by this magnificent 28-ft-tall statue created by sculptor Lim Nang Seng during 1971-1972, and relocated in 2002 to a promontory in Singapore's Merlion Park (© Dr Karl Shuker)

I hope that you've enjoyed this inaugural meander through my collection of crypto-selfies. Look out for further selections in future ShukerNature posts!





Monday, 31 August 2015

PRESENTING THE TSMOK STATUE AT LAKE LEPEL IN BELARUS - AN AQUATIC DRAGON, A FLIPPERED WATER-DEER, OR A LONG-NECKED SEAL?


Lepel Tsmok, the tsmok statue, immediately after its ceremonial unveiling at Lake Lepel in Belarus on 9 November 2013Alexander "Tarantino" Zhdanovich / cmok.budzma.org/node/81 on http://labadzenka.by/?p=25052)

Earlier this month, on 8 August 2015, the city of Lepel in Belarus's Vitebsk Province hosted an international festival of mythology entitled 'On a Visit to Lepel Tsmok' (click here to access its full programme of events). Among the varied array of subjects featured in this festival's talks and presentations was Lepel's very own legendary monster, one that was once virtually unknown to the outside world. Thanks to a wonderful statue here, however, all that is now changing, rapidly. But, as they say, to begin at the beginning…

Publicity poster for Lepel's international festival of mythology, depicting Lepel Tsmok (© 'On a Visit to Lepel Tsmok' international festival)

On 14 September 2013, Lepel celebrated its 574th birthday – and as part of those celebrations, a specially-commissioned statue was officially installed on the shores of Lake Lepel, a large body of freshwater that has always been a popular sight and attraction among visitors and locals alike here, and bordered today by Tract Tsmok, the city's park. Now, however, it is even more special, thanks to this remarkable, unique statue – which, following its ceremonial unveiling on 9 November 2013, swiftly become a veritable magnet for photo opportunities, its success in attracting tourists eager to see it and be photographed alongside it exceeding even the already high expectations held by the city's ruling council when originally sanctioning its creation.

For not only is the Lake Lepel statue both spectacular and highly photogenic, but in addition its subject is certainly no ordinary one. What it portrays is a tsmok – a legendary medieval water dragon of a type scarcely known outside Belarus and Lithuania (until 1793, Lepel was part of Lithuania, lying directly to the west of Belarus), but a few of which are said still to inhabit this lake's mysterious depths, at least according to traditional Lepel lore.

Vladzimir Karatkievich's novel Hrystos Pryzyamlіўsya ¢ Garodnі: Evangelle Іudy Hell ('Christ Has Landed in Grodno: The Gospel of Judas'), published in 1990 (© Vladzimir Karatkevich)

The idea for the statue, which has been formally dubbed Lepel Tsmok, came from ethnographer Vladimir Shushkevich – aka 'Valatsuga' (Valadar) – whose home city is Lepel, where he has lived for many years, and who has a longstanding interest in the mythology of its fabled water beasts. Fellow Belarusian ethnographer Nikolai Nikiforovsky has also written about tsmoks, and they were mentioned by Slavic culture researcher Alexander Afanasyev too.

In particular, however, Shushkevich is well-acquainted with esteemed Belarusian author Vladzimir Karatkievich's historical novel Hrystos Pryzyamlіўsya ¢ Garodnі: Evangelle Іudy Hell ('Christ Has Landed in Grodno: The Gospel of Judas'), published in 1990, which in its first section, 'The Fall of the Fiery Serpent', draws upon Lepel folklore chronicling how 40 tsmoks were allegedly killed overnight in Lake Lepel during the Middle Ages. It also describes their morphological appearance, referring to them as behemoths with the head of a deer or snake and the body of a seal.

After Shushkevich conceived and publicised at various cultural and tourist festivals his proposed project of producing this tsmok statue, it was formally approved by an international jury from the European Union, as were nine other initiatives, all of which focused upon promoting sustainable rural tourism in Russia and Belarus. However, it was Shushkevich's statue project that received the largest EU grant – 2900 euros.

Leo Oganov and Vladimir Shushkevich, with Oganov's plasticine scale model of his tsmok statue (© Lepel.by)

The sculptor selected by the Arts Council in the Regional Executive Committee to produce Lepel Tsmok was Leo Oganov (sometimes spelt Aganov) from Minsk, Belarus's capital, who had already received plaudits for a sculpture honouring a Grand Duchy of Lithuania leader that he had presented to Lepel in 2010, and which stands in the city's main square. (There is also a mermaid statue in Lepel, produced by Igor Golubev a year earlier.) Oganov prepared plasticine scale models of several different reconstructions of the tsmok, one of which resembled a typical fire-breathing, winged, non-aquatic dragon, but after much debate the eventual choice was very different, much more interesting, and extremely eyecatching.

The material that Oganov's Lepel Tsmok would be made from also became an important subject for debate. It was felt that bronze would prove too expensive, but other, more viable options included cast iron or silumin (a silicon-aluminium alloy). Cast iron was the final choice, bestowing upon it a silvery sheen reminiscent of shining fish scales, an appropriate look for an aquatic creature. When the statue was complete, it weighed just over 1 ton, and was 5.5 ft tall.

Rear view of Lepel Tsmok, showing its dorsal ridge Alexander "Tarantino" Zhdanovich / cmok.budzma.org/node/81 on http://labadzenka.by/?p=25052)

Oganov drew inspiration for Lepel Tsmok's morphology from traditional, folkloric descriptions of this water monster, including those contained in Karatkievich's above-cited novel, but certain potentially fragile and therefore breakable features present in his original model of it needed to be amended or omitted entirely, in order to avoid the risk of subsequent damage to the statue once installed. These included a 'moustache' of catfish-like barbels around its mouth (omitted), a crest upon its head (reduced to a bare minimum), and a mane upon its neck (omitted). It was also made more people-friendly than the original tsmok dragons of lore (as well as less expensive to produce) by excluding wings, plus any suggestion of fire-breathing, human-devouring, and general offensiveness, but adding an amiable, friendly expression to its face.

The result is one of the most distinctive cryptid/legendary monster representations that I have ever seen (albeit only online so far). Overall,  Lepel Tsmok resembles a fascinating composite of aquatic dragon, female (antler-lacking) water-deer, and long-necked seal. For whereas the long curling scaly tail is definitely dragonesque, its face and large ears are decidedly cervine (or even equine if its mane had been retained), but its overall body shape and flippers instantly recall those of a seal, particularly a long-necked one (as documented in detail by me here and here on ShukerNature).

Two stills from the 2007 movie The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep, showing this fictional cryptid in its small, juvenile stage (© Columbia Pictures)

It also reminds me a little of the juvenile stage of the eponymous fictional cryptid in the wonderful 2007 fantasy movie The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep, which was based upon British author Dick King-Smith's children's novel The Water Horse (1990).

But just to confirm that Oganov's silvery tsmok is indeed true if not to life then at least to lore, placed alongside its statue in its installed form as an incorporated part of the complete sculpture is a representation in cast iron of an open book, upon whose pages is carved a written description of the tsmok's appearance as excerpted directly from Karatkievich's novel.

Publicity poster for the 2007 movie The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep (© Columbia Pictures)

Today, almost two years on from its ceremonial unveiling, Oganov's Lepel Tsmok is inordinately popular, a veritable Nessie of the East has been born, with souvenirs and other likenesses of it sold nearby, and photos of visitors posing alongside it contained in numerous holiday albums and shared countless times online in social networking sites.

It is especially favoured by visitors about to be wed or newly-wed, however, because according to Lepel legend yet again, if offerings of food and drink from a wedding feast are brought to a tsmok's watery abode and left there, for it to consume at its leisure, the monster will bless the marriage and bestow good fortune upon the bride and groom. Today, such tributes are not normally brought to the tsmok statue, but newly-weds nonetheless derive great joy from posing alongside it, if only on the off-chance that doing so will in itself be sufficient for the magical, elusive creature that this statue portrays to look upon their union benevolently and grant them future happiness together.

From an obscure provincial monster of (very) local fable and fame, the tsmok seems set to acquire international celebrity status before much longer. And when it does, remember that, at least in English, you read it here first!

Leo Oganov's Lepel Tsmok (© Alexander "Tarantino" Zhdanovich / cmok.budzma.org/node/81 on http://labadzenka.by/?p=25052)

Finally: Poland's traditional folklore contains a dragon-related tale that features the similar-sounding Smok. This was the dragon of Wawel Hill in Krakow, Poland, which had terrorised the city until Skuba, a canny cobbler's apprentice, stuffed a baited lamb with sulphur. After eating it, Smok was consumed with such a fiery thirst that he drank without pause from a nearby stream until finally the sulphur reacting with the vast quantity of imbibed water caused the doomed dragon to explode.

Incidentally, in 2011 a very large species of Polish carnivorous archosaurian reptile from the late Triassic Period 205-200 million years that may constitute a species of theropod dinosaur was officially christened Smok wawelski, in honour of this Polish dragon.

A souvenir ornament of Krakow's Smok, obtained from a friend several years ago (© Dr Karl Shuker)


Until my present ShukerNature blog article, virtually no information about the Belarusian tsmok existed in English, so I have relied very extensively upon translations of various Belarusian and Russian accounts as my primary sources. Of these, a detailed online news report in Cyrillic script by Tatiana Matveeva, posted on 15 June 2013, was particularly beneficial to my researches – click here to access it directly.

And to read all about plenty of other unusual and unexpected dragon varieties from around the world, be sure to check out my recent book Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture.







Sunday, 30 August 2015

MEDUSA'S MENAGERIE - NAME-CHECKING SOME ZOOLOGICAL GORGONS FROM THE PRESENT AND THE PAST


Photo-bombed by a gorgonopsid – it could only happen to me! © Dr Karl Shuker)

Deriving their name from 'gorgos', an ancient Greek word translating as 'dreadful', the gorgons are undoubtedly among the most infamous, terrifying monsters in classical Greek mythology. A trio of nightmarish sisters born to the ancient sea deities Phorcys and Ceto, each of these three horrific entities was feared for the writhing, seething, sibilant mass of living venomous serpents that composed her hair, and even more so for her hideous visage's dreadful gaze, which was absolutely petrifying, literally – because anyone who looked directly into her face and eyes was instantly and irrevocably turned to stone.

The decapitated head of Medusa, slain by Perseus, as painted by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1617-1618; intriguingly, note that among the snakes breaking free from her hair following her death is an amphisbaena (head at each end of its body) directly below her head, and a very strange-looking fox-headed serpent to the left of the amphisbaena (separating the two is a scorpion) - click to enlarge (public domain)

Ironically, the two immortal gorgons, Stheno and Euryale, scarcely feature at all in Greek mythology and are therefore all but forgotten beyond the cloistered domain of classical scholars, even though one might have expected that their invulnerable, inviolate nature coupled with their lethal power of petrification would surely have set them in good stead indeed as truly daunting opponents for any of the famous Greek heroes to vanquish. However, it is commonly believed that their existence was a later addition to an original myth of just a single, mortal gorgon, because there are so many trinities of female monsters or other entities in Greek mythology (e.g. the Graeae or Grey Sisters, the Furies or Erinyes, the Horae, the Charites or Graces), so this may well explain, their virtual absence from classical legend.

(Interestingly, the premise of a 1964 British horror movie made by Hammer Films, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and entitled The Gorgon was the survival into modern times of one of the two immortal gorgons; but the film's researchers apparently made a major error, because they named her as Megaera, who in Greek mythology wasn't a gorgon at all, but was instead one of the three Furies, together with Tisiphone – erroneously named in this same movie as the second immortal gorgon – and Alecto.)

Poster advertising the 1964 Hammer Films horror movie The Gorgon (© Columbia Pictures/reproduced here on the basis of non-commercial fair use only)

Conversely, it is the third gorgon, that single mortal representative, who has seized virtually all of the public attention afforded to this terrifying trio. Her name? Medusa.

Medusa's horror-laden history has assumed many forms during the countless tellings and retellings by all manner of writers, chroniclers, and narrators down through the ages – even including variants in which she was originally a stunningly beautiful maiden but was transformed into a merciless, embittered monster with deadly gaze after finding disfavour with one or other of the Greek deities. Irrespective of her origin, however, Medusa was eventually slain by the demigod hero Perseus, who skilfully succeeded in slicing off her head with his sword while only looking at her indirectly, via a reflection in the highly-polished surface of his mirrored shield – a gift to him from his divine protector, the goddess Athena.

Perseus and the gorgons, with Perseus holding up the decapitated head of Medusa; illustrated by Walter Crane for Nathaniel Hawthorne's A Wonder-Book For Girls and Boys, 1893 edition (public domain)

Perseus was the very first of the classical Greek heroes, who went on to become the legendary founder of Mycenae. His father was the god Zeus, his mother Danaë, a daughter of King Acrisius of Argos and his wife Queen Eurydice, whom Zeus famously visited and impregnated in the guise of a shower of golden rain.

In later ages, carvings of Medusa's head were incorporated in a number of classical architectural features, such as columns, arches, door panels, decorative grilles, sarcophagi, fountains, statues, and mosaics, to ward off evil spirits, and the image was also a popular depiction on protective amulets. This visual device is known as a gorgoneion.

A gorgoneion entitled 'Medusa and the Seasons', in a Roman mosaic found at Palencia, Spain, and dated at 167-200 AD (© Luis Garcia/Wikipedia)

Today, Stheno and Euryale remain largely unknown; but despite having been slain, Medusa still lives on, or at least her name and that of her monstrous kind do – which is due not only to the popularity of her memorable legend but also, in turn, because both 'gorgon' and 'Medusa' have been applied to a wide range of very remarkable, entirely real creatures, some living, others once-living. So permit me now to take you all on a brief, ShukerNature-led visit to the extraordinary menagerie of Medusa.


HOW AN AQUATIC GORGON-HEAD BECAME AN INTERNET ALIEN – OR WAS IT THE OTHER WAY ROUND?!

According to a report posted online during late September 2014 by Britain's Sunday Express newspaper and written by Levi Winchester, a 54-year-old Singapore fisherman named Ong Han Boon had recently captured in waters off the southern Singapore island of Sentosa a creature so bizarre in appearance that he seriously wondered whether it might be an alien, an extraterrestrial! Before releasing it back into the sea, he filmed a short video of it that duly appeared in the above-noted newspaper report (click here to view it there), and on 28 September a Singapore-based member of Facebook called Jr Saim publicly shared the video on his FB timeline (click here to view it on Facebook). The video swiftly went viral, soon appearing – and still appearing – on numerous news and video-sharing websites.

Still from the Singapore Gorgonocephalus video (© Ong Han Boon)

But what was the creature that it showed? Those of an ophidiophobic disposition who have not already watched it might choose to avert their eyes from the video, because the entity in it looks disturbingly like a hideous matted wig composed of writhing, twisting, curling and uncurling serpentine tresses – a veritable Medusa scalp, in fact. And nomenclaturally, if not taxonomically, that is precisely what it is, because its scientific binomial name is Gorgonocephalus caputmedusae – 'gorgon-headed Medusa head'.

Happily, however, this grotesque entity lacks the petrifying power of its namesake, and it isn't of extraterrestrial origin either, because in reality it is nothing more startling than a sea-dwelling starfish, or, more specifically, a basket star. These particular invertebrates belong to a taxonomic class of echinoderms known as ophiuroids, whose most famous members are the notably long-limbed brittle stars.

Gorgonocephalus arborescens, from Alfred Edmund Brehm's famous multi-volume animal encyclopaedia Tierleben ('Animal Life'), which was originally published in 6 volumes during the 1860s and then republished as an expanded 10-volume second edition during the 1870s (public domain)

In a Gorgonocephalus basket star, however, of which there are several species, each of the five arms radiating from its central disc repeatedly divides and subdivides, yielding the somewhat disturbing, wriggling mass of miniature snake-like 'armlets' so vividly captured in the above video, and whose serpentine resemblance is heightened by their fleshy covering of pink rubbery skin. For a much more appealing, stationary representation of a Gorgonocephalus basket star, here is German biologist and artist Prof. Ernst Haeckel's exquisite rendition:

Gorgonocephalus basket star, appearing in Prof. Ernst Haeckel's gorgeously-illustrated, 2-volume tome Kunstformen der Natur ('Art Forms in Nature'), published in 1904 (public domain)

And here's an illustration of a reddish-coloured species named after the famous 19th-Century American zoologist and geologist Prof. Louis Agassiz – Gorgonocephalus agassizi:

Gorgonocephalus agassizi, 1800s rendition (public domain)

When seeking prey, Gorgoncephalus takes up a stationary position and then spreads out its innumerable tiny armlets like a basket. Each of these small but highly dexterous armlets is equipped with hooks and spines to seize and hold prey, normally krill or other planktonic forms, which they then convey to the mouth on the underside of the animal's central disc with the added assistance of a series of suctioned tube-feet.


A GORGON-GUTTED RIBBON WORM

No less grotesque and slightly stomach-churning than the Gorgonocephalus video of 2014 was a more recent one, seemingly first aired in May 2015 but again swiftly going viral and appearing on numerous websites, but featuring, as it turned out, another gorgon-dubbed creature with equally discomforting behaviour. The video (whose original ownership is presently unknown to me) can be viewed here, and shows a long blood-red worm-like creature originating in the seas off Thailand but resting on someone's hand that suddenly releases from its mouth a long thick white tube from which an intricate mass of white filaments shoot forth and which momentarily writhe about before sticking to the person's hand – almost as if this mini-monster has disgorged a gorgon's head of serpentine hair! Nor is that my own peculiar impression – the same notion clearly occurred to others too, because the generic name of the vermiform creature in question is none other than Gorgonorhynchus. This roughly translates as 'gorgon-beaked', though the beak in this instance is actually a proboscis.

Still from the video of the Thai Gorgonorhynchus nemertean everting its proboscis on a person's hand (copyright owner currently unknown to me)

As someone who studied such creatures during a university project, I was very familiar with this animal's behaviour, repulsive though it evidently seemed to many other viewers of the video, judging from various comments posted concerning it. The creature is a nemertean, or ribbon worm, Nemertea (aka Rhynchocoela) being a phylum of invertebrates whose members are characterised by their often very long slender bodies and in particular by their possession of a lengthy prey-capturing proboscis. This distinctive organ is normally held inside the worm's mouth within its own sheath (the rhynchocoel) and in an inverted, inside-out conformation, but when the worm encounters a potential prey victim, it is instantly and quite explosively shot out through the worm's mouth in everted form. The proboscis usually bears hooks at its tip that seize the prey, and sometimes inject it with venom too, after which the prey is swiftly hauled back inside the worm's body via the proboscis's immediate muscle-powered retraction through the mouth in inverted form once more.

Illustration of Gorgonorhynchus reptens everting its branched proboscis after feeling threatened from being touched (© Rachel Koning/Wikipedia)

In most nemerteans, the proboscis is a long, simple tube, but in certain species, including those of the genus Gorgonorhynchus, the tube possesses many branching sticky filaments that divide and subdivide in a manner analogous to the armlets of the basket star Gorgonocephalus, and which, again like the latter's armlets, wriggle and writhe as if they were a multitude of tiny snakes, before wrapping themselves around the prey, encapsulating it in an adhesive mass from which it cannot pull out, almost like the gossamer produced by a spider. In effect, therefore, when the nemertean everted its proboscis all over the person's hand, it was either stressed or feeling threatened from being handled or it was reacting as if the hand were prey, and hence was vainly attempting to wrap it up in its proboscis's sticky filaments.


GORGONS FROM PREHISTORY

Moving now from the present back to the (very) far-distant past: in the mid to late Permian Period (265 to 252 million years ago), when dinosaurs were still merely a future twinkle in the eye of evolution, a reptile-originating lineage existed whose members were so genuinely monstrous in form and size that in 1876 the great 19th-Century palaeontologist Prof. Sir Richard Owen fittingly named them after Greek mythology's own historical (albeit not prehistorical!) horrors, the gorgons. For he christened their type genus and species Gorgonops torvus, after which genus their entire taxonomic group (currently deemed a suborder) duly derived its name – Gorgonopsia – in 1895, as dubbed by British palaeontologist Prof. Harry G. Seeley.

Also called gorgonopsians, the gorgonopsids belong to the taxonomic order of synapsid reptiles known as Therapsida, whose members are often referred to colloquially as the mammal reptiles or mammal-like reptiles, and do indeed belong to the same taxonomic clade, Theriodontia, as do true mammals.

A life-sized animatronic gorgonopsid on exhibition at the West Midlands Safari Park in England, August 2015 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Gorgonopsids were among the largest of all carnivorous vertebrates alive at that time (the biggest, Inostrancevia from northern Russia, was up to 11.5 ft long, the size of a large bear or small rhinoceros, with the aptly-named Titanogorgan maximus from Tanzania only slightly smaller), and they were certainly the dominant ones. Even so, in genera such as Gorgonops itself, native to what is now Africa, their most memorable features were their enormous sabre-like canine teeth – so large that they almost projected below their lower jaw.

Gorgonopsids also had pillar-like legs that arose from underneath their bodies like those of mammals rather than splaying from their sides like reptiles. This important anatomical feature enabled them to move more swiftly and energy-efficiently than their lumbering herbivorous prey, which included some very large, hefty plant-eating reptiles known as pareiasaurs, some of which, like Scutosaurus, were armoured for protection.

The gorgonopsid Inostrancevia alexandri attacking the pareiasaur Scutosaurus karpinski (© Dmitry Bogdanov/Wikipedia)

The gorgonopsids perished entirely during the mass extinction at the end of the Permian, the only theriodont lineage to become extinct during that catastrophic event, but they were sensationally resurrected in CGI if not in life itself during the early 2000s by Britain's highly popular ITV sci-fi television show Primeval. In the very first episode, originally screened in Britain on 10 February 2007, a marauding gorgonopsid of the genus Gorgonops equipped with a monstrously large pair of upper canines confidently stepped forth from out of the Permian and into the present day via a temporary gateway through time known as an anomaly, wreaking havoc in Gloucestershire's Forest of Dean, tenaciously stalking the perplexed scientists sent to deal with this ferocious anachronistic therapsid, and vibrantly demonstrating to enthralled viewers everywhere that carnivorous dinosaurs were not the only prehistoric predators that oozed charisma and exuded terror in equal proportions. Moreover, another Gorgonops featured in the final episode of this first series of Primeval.

A gorgonopsid on the prowl in Episode 1, Series 1 of Primeval (© ITV Studios/ProSieben/Impossible Pictures/Treasure Entertainment/M6 Films)

Nevertheless, bearing in mind that prior to Primeval coming along, gorgonopsids were scarcely known beyond the palaeontological community, to utilise one as the star monster in the opening episode of a brand-new, potentially major new sci-fi show rather than going for the safer tried-and-trusted option of a rampaging dinosaur was not only inspired but also very brave – and yet, as it turned out, highly successful too. All of which only goes to show that, clearly, you can't keep a good gorgon, or gorgonopsid, down!

Two African therapsids - the gorgonopsid Rubidgea battling a dicynodont Oudenodon, as depicted on a postage stamp issued in 1973 by Zambia, from my personal collection (© Zambia postal service)


THE FRAGILE, STINGING SEA-FLOWERS OF MEDUSA

Needless to say, no documentation of real-life gorgon namesakes could be complete without considering the most famous example of all, named specifically after the most famous gorgon of all – Medusa herself.

In the phylum Cnidaria, there are two basic body forms, both of which are produced by many species, but only one or the other by some. The two body forms are the sessile, stalk-bodied, tentacle-headed, hydra-like polyp; and the free-swimming, umbrella-shaped, often (but not always) tentacle-fringed, jellyfish-like medusa. The principal taxonomic classes of cnidarian are Hydrozoa (the hydrozoans, including the hydras, freshwater jellyfishes, and siphonophores), Staurozoa (the stalked jellyfishes), Scyphozoa (the true jellyfishes), Cubomedusae (the box jellyfishes), and Anthozoa (the sea anemones and corals). Certain hydrozoans, scyphozoans, and cubomedusans all produce a medusa form, many of which are usually equipped with long stinging tentacles that fancifully resemble the living snakelock hair fringing the dread face of Medusa, thereby earning the cnidarian medusa form its name, as coined for it in 1752 by none other than Linnaeus himself.

And so, what better way to bring to a memorable close our visit to Medusa's menagerie than to savour some of the most extravagantly exquisite illustrations ever produced of the varied types of cnidarian medusae, often resembling bizarre, exotic sea-flowers, as contained within Hackel's artistic masterpiece Kunstformen der Natur ('Art Forms in Nature'), published in 1904. Please click the images to enlarge them.

Three species of Discomedusae, true jellyfishes belonging to the class Scythozoa (public domain)

More Discomedusae (public domain)

Various species of Narcomedusae, a hydrozoan order whose species normally lack a polyp stage (public domain)

Various species of Trachymedusae, another hydrozoan order whose species never produce a polyp stage, only reproducing sexually via medusae (public domain)

Various species of Leptomedusae or thecate hydroids, a hydrozoan order whose species produce ensheathed polyp colonies (the protective sheath is known as a theca or perisarc), as well as sexually-reproducing medusae (public domain)

Views of the siphonophore Physophora hydrostatica – like all siphonophores, what looks like a single large complex organism equipped with bell, tentacles, etc, is in reality a super-organism, consisting of an entire colony of highly-specialised individual organisms, each of which is one of the super-organism's organs, e.g. one organism is the bell, another organism is one of the tentacles, yet another is another of the tentacles, etc (public domain)

More siphonophores (public domain)

Views of the helmet jellyfish Periphylla periphylla, a deepsea species of true jellyfish or scyphozoan (public domain)

Various species of Anthomedusae, the athecate hydroids, a hydrozoan order whose species produce polyp colonies not ensheathed in a protective sheath (the theca or perisarc), as well as sexually-reproducing medusae (public domain)

Various species of Stauromedusae, the stalked jellyfishes, sole members of the taxonomic class Staurozoa, whose medusae are attached rather than free-swimming (public domain)

Various species of Cubomedusae, the box jellyfishes, which include Flecker's sea wasp Chironex fleckeri, the world's most venomous jellyfish, yet still-undiscovered by science in Haeckel's time, and remaining so until the mid-1950s (public domain)

More Discomedusae, true jellyfishes belonging to the class Scyphozoa (public domain)

Various species of rhizostome Discomedusae, true jellyfishes belonging to Scyphozoa (public domain)

More siphonophores (public domain)

More species of Discomedusae, including the medusa of the familiar moon jellyfish Aurelia aurita (top centre) (public domain)

Still more siphonophores (public domain)

Also commemorating Medusa, incidentally, are Medusaceratops lokii (also commemorating Loki, the Norse god of evil), a late Cretaceous species of ceratopsian horned dinosaur, which inhabited what is now Montana, USA, and was formally named in 2010; and Medusagyne oppositifolia, the critically-endangered Seychelles jellyfish tree, earning its genus name from the fancied resemblance of its flower's gynoecium to Medusa's head, plus its common name from the distinctive jellyfish-like shape of its dehisced fruit, and believed extinct until some individuals were discovered on the island of Mahé during the 1970s.

The front cover of Prof. Ernst Haeckel's truly beautiful book, Kunstformen der Natur (1904) (public domain)

And speaking of jellyfishes: how ironic it is that in certain instances, creatures as beautiful as cnidarian medusae are also potentially lethal, due to the potency of the venom produced by their tentacles' nematocysts or stinging cells. Then again, how can we really expect anything else from organisms that are, after all, specifically named after a legendary figure feared not only for her thanatic eyes but also for the deadly nature of her living tresses?

Me and my mate the gorgonopsid (© Dr Karl Shuker)


UPDATE - 31 August 2015

Today, I received a scan of this very different, highly original, and totally delightful Medusa illustration, drawn by crypto-enthusiast and friend Jane Cooper. Hidden amongst Medusa's traditional serpentine hair strands are several that are inspired by all manner of other creatures, including some notable cryptozoological ones, such as Nessie, the Mongolian death worm, and the Dover demon, as well as a very imposing terror bird. How many can you spot and identify? Thanks Jane!!

 Medusa goes crypto!! - click to enlarge (©  Jane Cooper)