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

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my ShukerNature blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Eclectarium blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Starsteeds blog's poetry and other lyrical writings (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

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Tuesday, 27 July 2010

COAST OF SKELETONS, DESERT OF DREAMS


Welwitschia mirabilis engraving


Imagine a cold, barren, ghostly desertland whose fog-enshrouded coastline is littered with the sun-bleached wrecks of beached ships and the skeletons of dead sailors, whose sandy dunes not only move stealthily like stalking lions but also roar like them, whose pebbles unexpectedly split apart to reveal bright jewel-like flowers, whose ancient bizarre trees grow not upwards but lengthwise, extending enormous leathery leaves across the ground like alien ribbons, where elephants surf the sand dunes, and where slinking jackals and menacing hyaenas flit like sinister shadows around a long-abandoned oil rig that time and the elements have transformed into a towering edifice of rust and decay. This eerie, surrealistic vista may seem like the bleak landscape of a disturbed dream, but in fact it is an accurate portrayal of one of the world's most amazing regions - the Skeleton Coast, in southwest Africa.

Stretching over 400 km along the edge of northwestern Namibia and occupying more than 1.6 million hectares in area, the Skeleton Coast is bounded to the north by the Kunene River, to the south by the Ugab River, and is bisected horizontally by the Hoanib River. This remote, inhospitable territory was officially proclaimed a National Park in 1971, and in 1998 travel through it by tourists was formally permitted for the first time. Having said that, access to the northern half is still highly restricted, as this area is designated a natural wilderness, and adjoins Kaokoland, home to the nomadic, traditionalist Himba people. However, the southern half has swiftly become a very popular tourist attraction - for good reason. The Skeleton Coast offers strange, sometimes uncanny sights unique in the world.

Sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Namib Desert, it is chilled by the Benguela Current, travelling north from the frozen wastelands of Antarctica. Further cooling is provided by a dense night mist, which rolls 80 km or more inland every 10 days or so and condenses into a thick dew - but whose opaque treachery has lured many an unwary maritime vessel to its doom. Bearing silent testimony to this are the numerous disintegrating hulks of wrecked ships, fishing boats, even a downed bomber aircraft, and the whitened skeletons of their dead crew, resting for all eternity amid the sand - which earned this region its memorable name, coined by a local journalist during the 1930s.

Perhaps the most famous of such sights is the rotting fuel tank of the Dunedin Star, a British cargo vessel that was beached here in November 1942, and whose rescue resulted in a tugboat called the Sir Charles Elliott running onto the rocks and a Ventura bomber that dropped supplies subsequently nose-diving into the sea (its engine can still be seen here too). Other victims of the Skeleton Coast down through the years include the Montrose (wrecked here in 1973), the Suiderkus (beached in 1976), the Benguela Eagle (1975), and the steamer Eduard Bohlen (1909), as well as the fishing vessels Winston, Karimona, and Atlantic Pride. And long before any of these set sail, untold numbers of diamond seekers, anxious to gather the sparkling gems littering the sands of this ghostly terrain, paid with their lives when their boats were wrecked here.

Yet had they succeeded in landing safely, diamonds would not have been the only wonders to dazzle their senses. Had they explored the Hoarusib Canyon, for instance, they would have encountered an array of yellow-white, clay-constituting formations that resemble ethereal fairytale castles or weird exotic temples. They would also have marvelled at the 'living, talking' sand dunes known as barchans. Crescent in shape, and created by southwesterly winds in locations where there is little sand, these geological anomalies can travel up to 3 m a year, and as they move, they emit a rumbling basso-profundo roar.

But however spectacular its geological idiosyncrasies may be, they are no more so than its biological surprises. Bearing in mind that the Skeleton Coast embodies a veritable contradiction in terms, comprising a cold desert, it is little wonder that its wildlife is very definitely weird as well as wonderful. Take, for instance, its flowering 'pebbles'.

Look on the ground here, and you may well see what seem at first to be small, round, greyish-white rocks or stones, virtually covered in sand. A closer inspection, however, will reveal that these 'rocks' are actually pairs of succulent leaves - the water-storing leaves of Lithops, an amazing plant aptly dubbed the living stone. Expertly camouflaged, it escapes the attention of herbivorous animals during the dry season, but when the rainy season comes an incredible transformation occurs. Suddenly, the 'stone' seems to split apart - in reality, a stalk has grown up between its two leaves - and a large, bright, daisy-like flower blossoms. All too soon, however, the rainy season ends, the flower dies, and Lithops once more assumes its alter ego, as a pseudo-pebble amid a barren land of real ones.

Even more extraordinary, however, is the living fossil plant exclusive to this outlandish realm. Known formally as Welwitschia mirabilis, this ancient species is technically a conifer tree, but anything less like a tree yet nonetheless a plant would be difficult to imagine. To offset the harsh, inhospitable nature of this region, Welwitschia does not grow vertically to any extent - its trunk rarely exceeds 1 m. Instead, it sends out two enormous leaves that resemble thick leather ribbons, twisting and writhing across the sands, fraying at their edges but never shed and growing up to 5 cm every year, throughout the plant's life - and Welwitschia can live as long as 2000 years!

Never found more than 50 km inland from the Skeleton Coast's shore, Welwitschia utilises numerous tiny rootlets to absorb water stored in stream gravel after storms, and also obtains water from fog, condensing upon its pore-covered leaves. The plant's water and food supplies are all stored in a single massively thick root, up to 3 m long and resembling a gargantuan woody carrot, which anchors it firmly in the desert's soil.

As for its animal life, the Skeleton Coast can and does offer the eco-tourist an unparalleled spectacle of delights. Its mammals include prowling lions, elegant giraffes, burly black rhinoceroses, playful elephants that have been filmed surfing gleefully down the sand dunes, and graceful antelopes such as gemsbok and springbok that frequent the region's gravelly plains alongside stately ostriches. Equally noteworthy are its vivid diversity of waders and waterfowl, its ospreys, flamingos, ghost crabs scuttling sideways over the beaches, nocturnal gecko lizards that obtain water by licking dew off their eyes, and suitably-named headstander beetles that stand on their heads to catch precious drops of condensed fog, which trickle down their wing cases into their gaping mouths.

Perhaps the spookiest sight, however, are the phantoms that lurk in the shadows of a now-derelict oil-drilling rig, sited between the Huab River and the Koichab River. Some of these phantoms periodically take wing, revealing themselves to be cormorants, flying back and forth with fishes in their long beaks. Other, ground-based spectres prove to be jackals and heavily-maned brown hyaenas, scavenging for food. Most eyecatching of all, however, must surely be the Skeleton's Coast enormous breeding colony of Cape fur seals at Cape Cross, said to be the largest such colony in the world, containing 80,000-100,000 seals.

Bleak and barren it may be, but lifeless and dull the Skeleton Coast is certainly not, as testified by the ever-increasing numbers of tourists anxious to explore a land that is like no other on Earth - a land where the ghosts of the past and the wildlife of the present combine to guarantee a plentiful supply of sightseers in the future.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

THE LAST HARPAGORNIS?

Reconstruction of Harpagornis moorei (Markus Bühler)

Weighing 22-33 lb in adult female specimens, Haast’s eagle Harpagornis moorei, formerly native to New Zealand’s South Island, was the largest eagle of all time, and is widely accepted as the origin of traditional Maori legends referring to a monstrous human-killing raptorial bird known variously as the pouakai or hokioi. As it is believed to have preyed upon the very large flightless moas that also once inhabited South Island, it should come as no surprise to learn that this colossal bird of prey’s disappearance seemingly coincided with the demise of the moas (caused in turn by hunting and habitat destruction by humans), with its official extinction date estimated at approximately 1400 AD. Very recently, however, while browsing the Wikipedia entry for this species, I discovered a remarkable snippet of information suggesting that either Harpagornis itself or else another now-extinct but very sizeable bird of prey endemic to New Zealand may have lingered into much more recent times, only to be extinguished in the most demeaning manner:

"A noted explorer, Charles Douglas, claims in his journals that he had an encounter with two raptors of immense size in Landsborough River valley (probably during the 1870s), and that he shot and ate them. These birds might have been a last remnant of the species, but some might argue that there had not been suitable prey for a population of Haast's eagle to maintain itself for about five hundred years before that date, and nineteenth century Maori lore was adamant that the pouakai was a bird not seen in living memory. Still, Douglas'[s] observations on wildlife generally are trustworthy; a more probable explanation, given that the alleged three-metre wingspan described by Douglas is likely to have been a rough estimate, is that the birds were Eyles'[s] harriers [Circus eylesi]. This was the largest known harrier (the size of a small eagle) — and a generalist predator — and although it is also assumed to have become extinct in prehistoric times, its dietary habits alone make it a more likely candidate for late survival."

If, however, these were the last Haast’s eagles, what an ignominious finale for such a spectacular species – slaughtered and served up as dinner by a hungry Westerner, for whom the chilling age-old Maori legends of murderous winged marauders from the ancient skies were nothing more than quaint fables, despite the very substantial evidence to the contrary that his twin kills had presented not only to his eyes but also to his stomach!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT! IT'S MONTYPYTHONOIDES - AND CO.


An oddly-named protist species, Kamera lens.


When Linnaeus introduced his system of binomial nomenclature during the 1730s and 1740s, it revolutionised the naming and formal biological classification of species. Every so often, however, as even scientists are only human, there have been some truly memorable, unexpected deviations from the usual, eminently serious and supposedly strictly accurate, relevant Latin* names bestowed upon the myriad of life forms sharing our planet (*'Latin names' is itself a misnomer, as many are at least partially derived from Greek!). Here, then, in no particular order, are 20 of my all-time favourite - and totally genuine, scientifically accepted - generic, binomial, and trinomial novelties:


Raphus cucullatus - variously translated as 'hooded bustard', 'cuckoo with seams', or (politely!) 'cuckoo's rump', given to the dodo, but why?!!


Polypterus mokelembembe - I kid you not, in 2006, this newly-differentiated species of bichir (an archaic fish lineage currently boasting around 15 modern-day species) was named after cryptozoology's very own Congolese neo-dinosaur, the mokele-mbembe, emphasising the bichirs' own antiquarian affinities.


Agra sasquatch - staying with cryptozoological appellations: in 1982, entomologist Terry Erwin gave this noteworthy name to a new species of carabid (ground beetle) that had big feet; and, clearly a crypto-fan, in the same year he named another new carabid species Agra yeti. Nor can we forget, a year later, Erwin's naming of another new carabid, Agra vation, and yet another, Agra phobia. Honestly!


Draculoides bramstokeri - named in 1995, this is a species of cave-dwelling, light-avoiding schizomid (short-tailed whip scorpion) with fang-like pedipalps, and a positively vampirish proclivity for sucking the body fluids out of its victims, not of course that you'd ever have guessed at any of these characteristics from its binomial!


Dicrotendipes thanatogratus - one for Jon's musical tastes here, as this chironomid (non-biting midge)'s specific name directly and deliberately translates as 'Grateful Dead'. Nor should we forget Zappa, a genus of goby.


Harryhausenia - had I known that the CFZ were going to devote a multi-contributor blog to the amazing Ray Harryhausen a few days ago, I could have blogged about this recently-named genus of fossil sand crab (commemorating Ray's stupendous stop-motion giant crab in the film Mysterious Island), but better late than never! Happy 90th birthday, Ray!


Han solo - not from a galaxy far far away, but rather from a time far far distant, this Chinese species of agnostid trilobite was named in 2005 as a dare, but its Star Wars binomial is perfectly valid.


Godzillius - this monstrously-named genus houses the largest species of Bahamanian remipede - exceedingly small but taxonomically monumental crustaceans first made known to science as recently as the early 1980s.


Pimoa cthulhu - one for Richard Freeman and fellow Lovecraftian devotees, a new spider named in 1994 after the latter writer's sinister fictional deity.


Eeyorius - for lovers of more gentle, inoffensive characters, this genus of Australian fish was named in 1986 after A A Milne's melancholic donkey, because just like him these fishes enjoy living in damp, shadowy, secluded localities.


Phallus daemonicus - I'll leave you to guess what this fungus looks like!


Volva volva volva - ok, Linnaeus, we get the message! Named by the great man himself in 1758, he clearly wanted to emphasise which part of the female anatomy this subspecies of cowry resembles!


Csiromedusa medeopolis - described earlier this year, this new Tasmanian freshwater jellyfish has a generic name that commemorates CSIRO (Australia's eminent Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), and a specific name that translates as 'city of gonads'. Don't ask me - I only blog these things! (Apparently, its gonads resemble a series of skyscrapers.)


Crikey steveirwini - named after the late, great Steve Irwin in 2009, this new Aussie land snail's genus immortalises Steve's most famous catchphrase.


Heerz lukenatcha - had someone been watching too many Humphey Bogart films when they named this new braconid wasp in 1993?


Kamera lens - a snappy little name given to a protist in 1917.


La cucaracha and La paloma - two musically-inspired moths (pyralids, actually) named in 1966.


Vini vidivici - one for our more classically-educated readers! Named in 1987, this is - or was - the conquered lorikeet, a now-extinct parakeet from the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific.


Ytu brutus - And still with Caesar, this is a genuine species of water beetle from Brazil.


Mustela africana - the South American (yes, American) weasel, go figure!


And finally, a couple of truly wonderful zoological monickers that, tragically, have not survived the test of time, or taxonomy:


Montypythonoides riversleighensis - inspirationally christened in 1985 after the famous British TV comedy show, this giant fossil python from Australia has since been rechristened Morelia riversleighensis as it has been shown to be very closely related to various modern-day species belonging to this latter genus, but was this recognition of affinity really so vital as to warrant the loss of such a uniquely-iconic generic name as Montypythonoides ?


Similarly, the once enchantingly-named clam Abra cadabra has now been reclassified in the genus Theoria, but Theoria cadabra just doesn't have the same ring (magical or otherwise!) to it, does it? Shucks! I take it back - scientists don't have a sense of humour after all!