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.

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Thursday, 24 February 2011

NEVER TANGLE WITH A TYGOMELIA - OR TANGO WITH A TOKANDIA!

Tygomelia (Tim Morris)


Having taken many years to summon up enough courage to air in public this particular post's alliterative extravaganza of a title, I now have to justify it - so here goes!

For every Nessie, bigfoot, Beast of Exmoor, yeti, or Mongolian death worm, there is a veritable host of other, far less familiar mystery beasts on record - elusive creatures that have been all but forgotten even by the cryptozoological cognoscenti, let alone by mainstream scientists. Consequently, I am using this post to spotlight three of my particular favourites from this forgotten company of cryptids - a unique trio of weird but very wonderful examples that appear somehow to have slipped through the cracks between the paving stones of cryptozoological prominence, and have descended ignominiously into the dark realms of scientific obscurity.


TYGOMELIA – A GIRAFFE IN MOOSE’S ANTLERS?

One of the most incredible of putative crypto-crossbreeds made its media debut in an Ottawa Times newspaper article of 22 November 1870, after which it vanished from the headlines as swiftly as it had entered them:

"Sir John E. Packenham, an officer in the English army, who has been spending the last year in her Majesty's northern provinces, arrived at Fort Buford [in North Dakota] with an animal of rare beauty, and never before caught on this continent, nor has it been known till late years that the species existed in this country. It is of the same family as the giraffe, or camelopard, of Africa, and is known to naturalists as the tygomelia. They are known to inhabit the high table lands of Cashmere and Hindoo Kush, but are more frequently seen on the high peaks of the Himalaya Mountains. The animal was taken when quite young, and is thoroughly domesticated, and follows its keeper like a dog. It is only four months old, and ordinarily stands about five feet high, but is capable of raising its head two feet, which makes the animal seven feet when standing erect. It is of a dark brown mouse color, large projecting eyes, with slight indications of horns growing out. The wonderful animal was caught north of Lake Athabasca, on the water of the McKenzie's River. It has a craw similar to the pelican, by which means it can carry subsistence for several days. It was very fleet, being able to outfoot the fastest horse in the country. The black dapper spots on the rich brown color make it one of the most beautiful animals in existence, more beautiful than the leopard of the Chinese jungle. Sir John did not consider it safe to transport this pet by water down the Mississippi River, fearing the uncertain navigation and the great change of climate from the Manitoba to the sunny south. He has, therefore, wisely concluded to go by way of St. Paul, Minnesota. The commander of Fort Buford furnishes him with an escort for the trip. He will then proceed through Canada to Montreal, where he will ship his cargo to England. "

In reality, no such beast is known from India or North America (or, indeed, from anywhere else!). Moreover, the only plausible suggestion regarding its identity that has been offered to date (always assuming, of course, that the report was not a journalistic spoof) is one suggested by Edmonton-based cryptid investigator Kevin Stewart. Namely, that this ‘tygomelia’ was a young, freakishly-mottled moose Alces alces (such specimens have occasionally been documented in the wild). But with no images or further accounts of it known to exist, there is little likelihood that we shall ever know for sure.


The rose-horned, claw-footed cryptid of Fredericksburg (Tim Morris)



A ROSE-HORNED, CLAW-FOOTED ENIGMA

A comparably curious mystery beast was the snowy-furred, rose-horned, goat-like creature constantly seen in the company of a Comanche woman visiting the town of Fredericksburg, Texas, during the first half of the 19th Century. What made it much more intriguing, zoologically speaking, than any goat, however, was its size – no bigger than a cat – and, remarkably, the fact that its feet were clawed, not hoofed.

According to the Abbé Emanuel Domenech, a Texas missionary who documented this walking wonder in his book Missionary Adventures in Texas and Mexico (1858), an American officer, who had told him about the woman’s strange pet, had offered her 500 francs for it. However, she would not sell it to him or to others who had also offered riches, stating that she knew of a wood where these animals lived in abundance. She promised that if she ever returned she would catch some for them, but apparently she never did return.

As this odd little animal inexplicably combines the horns of an ungulate (hoofed) mammal with the claws of a non-ungulate, its identity is certainly mystifying. True, a few fossil ungulate forms with claws instead of hooves are known from the palaeontological record, including chalicotheres and certain notoungulates, but these all died out long ago – didn’t they?


TOKANDIA – A LOST GIANT FROM MADAGASCAR

Madagascar is unquestionably the kingdom of the lemurs, with approximately 100 species currently known and new ones still being discovered here on a regular basis. A mere millennium ago, however, there were even more – and some of them were quite enormous, far bigger than any species known to exist today. Officially, these mega-lemurs are long extinct, but native Malagasy folklore and superstition include accounts of various monsters that bear more than a passing resemblance to certain of these ‘lost’ giants. A case in point is the tokandia.

According to local legends, this supposedly mythical, largely terrestrial beast was as big as a bear, and moved on the ground via a dancing series of bounding leaps, but would also on occasion jump into the trees and spend time there. Although not man-like in form, it was said to utter very man-like cries. Is it just a coincidence that the only known fossil creature recorded anywhere in the world that closely resembles the tokandia’s description both in form and in predicted behaviour just so happens to be the koala lemur Megaladapis edwardsi - a huge semi-terrestrial Madagascan species weighing around 75 kg, and known to have still existed here as recently as 1500 AD? Perhaps a few reclusive individuals survived even later, inspiring the legends of the tangoing tokandia.



A 19th-Century engraving of Megaladapis - identity of the tokandia?

A MYSTERY PAINTING NO LONGER.

The former mystery painting of Canzanella, depicting two enigmatic animals (credit: Canzanella)


Remember this painting, created by a mysterious artist known only as Canzanella, depicting two equally mystifying creatures, and sold as a 'cryptozoological painting' back in September 2002 on eBay? Reviving my investigations into it, I blogged about it here on ShukerNature twice in October 2009 after having first introduced it to the cryptozoological community via an Alien Zoo column back in the December 2002 issue of Fortean Times? What were the animals, and who is/was Canzanella?

Now, after a long history of bafflement, this mystery painting is a mystery no longer. Over the years, I had sent a number of enquiries via eBay’s communication system to the painting’s seller, but I had never received a response. In early April 2010, however, I succeeded in tracing the seller’s email address (not visible on eBay), so I then tried emailing this person directly - and, to my great delight, on 10 April I finally received a reply! The seller proved to be a lady artist from Florida called Stephanie Sparkman, and in just a few lines she successfully cleared up all of the longstanding mysteries surrounding this painting and its subjects:

"I painted the picture over 28 years ago myself. It is a representation of what I felt the porpoise of today used to look like as a land animal. First the fur stage, then to smooth skin as shown in the beast behind the one in the foreground. I have NO recall of how much I got for the picture (for sure not enough as it was exceedingly detailed with hairs on the hairs [and] with several different colours on each hair) and didn't even recall what had become of it as I was looking for it not too long ago and forgot what I had done!!! Thanks to you I know what happened to it LOL.

"...[Canzanella] was my maiden name as I kept the name of my late husband which is Sparkman but always painted under my maiden name to give credit where credit was due."

So the seller and the artist were one and the same person, and the animals were her own concept of what the porpoise’s erstwhile land ancestors may have looked like. It had taken almost eight years but Canzanella’s perfect picture of mystery had finally been solved, thanks to none other than the hitherto-elusive Canzanella herself!

Sunday, 20 February 2011

THE IRISH MASTER OTTER IN SCOTLAND?


Is that an otter I see behind me? (Dr Karl Shuker)


In my book The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), I devoted an extensive chapter to the master otter or dobhar-chú of Ireland, which was the very first comprehensive cryptozoological examination of this enigmatic mystery beast. I have also included coverage of it in other publications since then. So in case you haven’t previously encountered the master otter in the cryptozoological literature, here is the concise entry on it that I wrote for Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained (2007) in my capacity as this fact-filled tome’s cryptozoological contributor:

"Dobhar-chú
Savage otter-like lake monster from Ireland, depicted on the gravestone of an alleged victim.
Congbháil (Conwall) Cemetery in the town of Drumáin (Drummans), forming part of the approach to the Valley of Glenade in Ireland’s County Sligo, contains a grave of considerable cryptozoological interest. The grave is that of Grace Connolly, who was allegedly killed one morning in September 1722 by a very large and savage otter-like lake monster known as the dobhar-chú (‘water hound’) or master otter. According to local lore, it had emerged from Glenade Lake (just inside County Leitrim’s border with Sligo) while Grace was nearby, and fiercely attacked her. Her husband, Terence, later found her dead, bloodstained body at the lakeside, with the dobhar-chú lying across her. Enraged, he shot the beast dead, but before it died the creature let out a shrill scream and moments later a second dobhar-chú, presumably its mate, rose up from the lake’s depths and chased after Terence, who fled on horseback. Finally, however, Terence succeeded in stabbing the vengeful dobhar-chú to death – and depicted on Grace’s tombstone is the very act of the dobhar-chú being mortally stabbed in the chest by Terence, with its head thrown backwards in its death throes.


Grace Connolly's gravestone, depicting the dobhar-chú (Dave Walsh)


"This tombstone portays the dobhar-chú as being decidedly canine in overall form (thus explaining its Gaelic name’s derivation), with long limbs, muscular haunches, deep chest, and a long tufted tail, but combined with these features are others that are undeniably otter-like, such as its tiny ears, very large paws, short head, and fairly long heavy neck – hence ‘master otter’. Collectively, they yield an animal unlike anything known to contemporary zoology. Intriguingly, however, cryptozoology can offer a very comparable, recent version.

"On 1 May 1968, John Cooney and Michael McNulty witnessed an extremely strange creature run across the road just in front of their vehicle and vanish into some undergrowth, as they were driving home past Sraheens Lough – a lake on Achill Island, off the western coast of County Mayo, which is in the same region of Ireland as Counties Leitrim and Sligo. They later described this animal as having four well-developed legs on which it rocked from side to side as it ran, a long sturdy tail, small head, and lengthy neck. Shiny dark-brown in colour, it measured 2.4-3.0 m in total length. During the next few weeks, several similar reports were made in this vicinity by others too. Could this cryptid have been a dobhar-chú?

"There have been many claims of lake monsters inhabiting various of Ireland’s loughs, but as many of these bodies of water are very small, sceptics have dismissed such a possibility by claiming that the loughs could not sustain such creatures. If, however, they have the ability to move from one lough to another, rather than residing permanently in any single body of water, lough size would not be a problem – and perhaps that is what the Sraheens Lough creature was doing when sighted. The nature of its zoological identity, meanwhile, and that of Glenade Lake’s morphologically-reminiscent dobhar-chú too remain a complete mystery."

Reports of a creature similar to Ireland’s master otter have also emerged occasionally from mainland Scotland, but these have attracted scant cryptozoological attention. One such report is a very noteworthy but little-publicised excerpt from The History of the Scots From Their First Origin by Hector Boece (1575), which was very kindly brought to my attention yesterday by correspondent Leslie Thomson. (A somewhat different version of it, oddly, was published in Peter Costello's book In Search of Lake Monsters, 1974, but without comment, and only in relation to Nessie.) This excerpt reads as follows:

"...on the summer solstice of the year 1510 some kind of beast the size of a mastiff emerged at dawn from one of those lochs, named Gairloch, having feet like a goose, that without any difficulty knocked down great oak trees with the lashings of its tail. It quickly ran up to the huntsmen and laid low three of them with three blows, the remainder making their escape among the trees. Then, without any hesitation, it immediately returned into the loch. Men think that when this monster appears it portends great evil for the realm, for otherwise it is rarely seen."


Loch Gairloch (David Crocker)


Loch Gairloch is a sea loch on Scotland’s northwest coast; it measures approximately 6 miles long by 1.5 miles wide. As for the creature that emerged from it, I think it safe to assume that its tail’s oak-felling prowess owes more to literary exaggeration than to anatomical accuracy. Conversely, the likening of its feet to those of a goose probably indicated merely that they were webbed. Overall, therefore, the mastiff-sized, web-toed, fleet-footed, quadrupedal water monster of Gairloch does recall the master otter of Glenade Lake, but its taxonomic identity, as with the latter beast’s, remains unresolved.

Could the explanation simply be an extra-large version of the common otter Lutra lutra? Or are the master otter’s lengthier limbs and other morphological differences evidence that it was – or is - an entirely separate, zoologically-undescribed otter species? Interestingly, back in the early 1960s this latter identity was suggested for an even more famous aquatic mystery beast of Scotland, the Loch Ness monster, by zoologist Dr Maurice Burton within his book The Elusive Monster (1961).

As an intriguing digression, Leslie also sent me a second, equally remarkable excerpt from Boece’s book:

"In this estuary there sometimes appear some ill-omened phantoms with human faces, wearing monks’ cowls, as it seems, which rise out of the water as far as their waists, and these are called bassinats in our native language."

Rising up out of the water as far as their waists is an activity that readily calls to mind inquisitive seals, but seals do not wear cowls or possess human faces, so what could the bassinats be? I have been unable to locate any definition or information relating to this term – but is it familiar to someone reading this post? If so, please write in with details – thanks!

Finally, returning to the Irish master otter: an excellent source of information concerning this cryptid is a recently-published book entitled Mystery Animals of Ireland (CFZ Press, 2010), written by Gary Cunningham and Ronan Coghlan. Here is a review of it that I recently penned for Amazon.co.uk:

"As someone with a lifelong interest in the Emerald Isle's diverse assortment of cryptozoological and mythological beasts, I have been waiting for a very long time for someone to produce an extensive survey of these extraordinary creatures. Now, at last, I'm delighted to say that my wait is over, thanks to this fascinating and extremely comprehensive volume.

"Written by two well-known names in the field of Irish cryptids, all of the major, and many equally remarkable minor, examples are here - the master otter or dobhar-chú, Achill Island dwarf wolf, pork badger, wandering walruses, horse eels, Irish wildcat, mer-folk, pooka, Irish stoats, sea serpents aplenty, fairy foals, werewolves, polycephalids, leprechauns, even a few snakes seemingly overlooked by St Patrick, and lots more besides. The scholarship of this volume cannot be faulted, with the chapters on the dobhar-chú and the horse eels in particular being packed throughout with outstanding original research.

"I could go on and on, but you don't want to read my description, you want to read this book for yourself! I can recommend it to anyone with an interest in cryptozoology, and if, like they are for me, Irish cryptids are a particular passion of yours, you are in for a rare treat indeed!

"In fact, it's so enjoyable a read that I strongly advise you not to take your eyes off it for too long, just in case, like the leprechauns that it documents, this delightful book vanishes - into the pocket of some other avid reader anxious to acquaint themselves with its captivating contents!".


Wednesday, 16 February 2011

WITCHIE WOLVES, MEDICINE WOLVES, AND THE WAHEELA


Alongside a life-sized reconstruction of a dire wolf at Dinosaur Valley, Wookey Hole, Somerset (Dr Karl Shuker)


One of many in-progress projects of mine is a canine companion of sorts to my very first book, Mystery Cats of the World, though the dog version will also document paranormal canine entities, whereas the cat book concentrated entirely on cryptozoological beasts. Here are some of the intriguing North American examples that will appear in the dog book, and if anyone has additional information on these or any others like them, I'd love to receive details!

The Omer Plains constitute a wild, uninhabited area of swampland and scrubby pines, situated just a few km west of the small Michigan town of Omer. Since time immemorial, native Chippewa legend has claimed that this locality is haunted by a pack of invisible but highly aggressive spirit dogs known as witchie wolves, said to guard ferociously the graves of ancient warriors. In more recent times, however, it has become the focus of a teenage rite of passage, in which youths from the local high school drive out at night in their cars to the Omer Plains, and, if brave enough, step outside to confront its zooform inhabitants. According to David Kulczyk, who first brought the witchie wolves to widespread attention during the mid-1990s, he has spoken to several ‘tough-guy’ youths who have wept out loud when recalling their experiences there – telling of how they were knocked violently to the ground and assailed by what seemed to be an invisible wolf or dog snarling and snapping at their heads. Kulczyk also claims to have seen scratches and dents in cars alleged by their frightened owners to be the result of an attack in the Omer Plains area by witchie wolves.

Very different, but no less preternatural, it would seem, is the medicine wolf of New Mexico. According to cryptozoological investigator Nick Sucik, this is a very large, all-white wolf with long shaggy fur, plus a very large chest, and a somewhat long snout and body. The local Apache people claim that the medicine wolf is very special, so much so that it can only be seen by certain gifted persons, remaining invisible to everyone else. It might be easy to dismiss this as wholly mythical – except for the remarkable fact that late one evening during the summer of 1979, a trucker driving along the road leading to a small valley near Dulce, New Mexico, saw a mysterious creature that precisely fitted the above description of the medicine wolf. Lit by his truck’s headlights, the animal came quickly out of some brush and paused briefly in the middle of the road, before swiftly moving away again and vanishing into the darkness on the other side. When the trucker recounted his sighting to the local Apaches, they had no doubt whatsoever about what he had encountered, and he remains adamant that he did indeed see the creature.

Speaking of great white wolves: this is an alternative name for a very mystifying, and formidable, canine cryptid also called the waheela, which is reputed to exist in the snow-covered tundra terrain of northern Michigan, northern Alaska, and the Northwest Territories of Canada. First brought to attention by American cryptozoologist Ivan Sanderson during the mid-1970s, it is said to resemble a huge all-white wolf, but with extremely dense, shaggy fur; proportionately shorter limbs than those of normal wolves (but with longer forelimbs than hind limbs); feet that are noticeably splayed, yielding wolf-shaped tracks but much bigger than those generally left by wolves; a markedly large, broad head, but only tiny ears; and a very thick tail. Moreover, whereas typical wolves hunt in packs, the waheela allegedly hunts alone.

According to Sanderson, one of his hunter friends shot twice at just such a creature encountered while tracking in the Nahanni Valley of Canada’s Northwest Territories during the 1940s or 1950s, but such was the thickness of the animal’s fur that his shots had no effect, and it simply moved away. There have also been claims that waheelas may explain the grisly discoveries of various headless bodies of prospectors in this same region down through the years.

Sanderson boldly speculated that perhaps the waheela was more than just an unusual wolf with solitary behaviour, proposing that it might actually be a surviving amphicyonid (though, confusingly, he referred to it as a dire wolf Canis dirus, which was not an amphicyonid but a true canid, from the Pleistocene, related to but larger than the present-day grey wolf C. lupus). Also known as dog-bears, these huge burly carnivores, distinct from both dogs and bears, officially became extinct around 5 million years ago in North America, and eventually died out everywhere else too, not persisting into the modern age. Could it be, however, as hypothesised by Sanderson, that in the bleak arctic wastelands of northernmost North America, an amphicyonid lineage has indeed survived, only rarely encountered by humans and therefore seldom threatened by hunters? A more recent, less dramatic, but no less interesting suggestion is that the waheela may be a thriving representative of a supposedly-extinct, local wolf form native to Alaska that belonged to the modern-day wolf species, C. lupus, but displayed certain morphological differences from other wolves – differences that just so happen to correspond well with descriptions of the waheela.

Interestingly, huge white wolf-like beasts have also been reported from Greenland, where they are known as the amarok. Zoologists traditionally dismissed such accounts as Inuit folklore, until an amarok was shot during the 19th Century and found to be a truly immense pure-white wolf. Its magnificent pelt was subsequently sent to Denmark’s Copenhagen Museum.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

BEEBE'S BATHYSPHERE FISH - AN 'UNTOUCHABLE' DEEPSEA RIDDLE

Beebe's bathysphere fishes (William M. Rebsamen)


One of the 20th Century's most mysterious ichthyological discoveries was a remarkable deepsea fish that was officially described and named in 1932, yet which has never been examined in the flesh and has no known representative in any of the world's museums.

On 22 November 1932, Bermuda-based zoologist Dr William Beebe was 2100 ft beneath the surface of the sea in a bathysphere, sited 5 miles southeast of Bermuda's Nonsuch Island. While he was observing the denizens of the deep passing by the bathysphere's windows, two very unusual fishes became illuminated in the craft's electric beam of light as they twice swam past it, no more than 8 ft away. Their long slender bodies, each of which was at least 6 ft long with strongly undershot jaws housing numerous teeth, reminded Beebe of barracudas, but running along either side of each fish was a single, laterally-sited, horizontal row of luminous organs (photophores), little short of twenty in total, and every one emitting a powerful pale blue light.

Equally striking were the two twitching, tentacle-like structures that hung down beneath each fish - one arising from its lower jaw, the other from the beginning of its short anal fin. Once again, each of these structures emitted light, by virtue of a pair of organs at its tip; the organ attached directly to the tentacle shone red, the other one (attached to the red organ) shone blue. Also noteworthy was their vertical dorsal fin, positioned well back towards the tail-end of the body. Beebe was unable to discern any pectoral fins or pelvic fins.

From these fishes' general morphology, Beebe concluded that their species was most probably allied to the melanostomiatids, popularly known as the scaleless black dragon fishes. However, its single line of lateral photophores, not to mention its pair of ventral tentacles with light-emitting terminal organs, unequivocally distinguished it from any known species within that family. As a result, Beebe christened his mystifying discovery Bathysphaera intacta ('untouchable bathysphere fish'), sole member of a new genus.

Postage stamp from Bermuda depicting the bathysphere fish and also the five-lined constellation fish (Dr Karl Shuker)


Bathysphaera was not the only hitherto unknown species of deepsea fish that Beebe discovered and named, but was unable to capture, during his Bermudan bathysphere observations in the early 1930s. He spied a mysterious, 2-ft-long, torpedo-shaped fish at depths of 1500 ft and 2500 ft, and named this grey-coloured species the pallid sailfin Bathyembrix istiophasma. He also described the three-starred angler fish Bathyceratias trilychnus, a 6-in-long species sighted at 2470 ft, bearing three 'fishing rod' structures (illicia) on its head, and clearly allied to the deepsea angler fishes (ceratioids); as well as the five-lined constellation fish Bathysidus pentagrammus, spotted at a depth of 1900 ft and resembling a Chaetodon butterfly fish or an Acanthurus surgeon fish, but exquisitely decorated with five glowing lines of yellow and purple photophores on each side of its roundish body.

Just as beautiful was a long-beaked multicoloured fish with scarlet head, blue body, and yellow tail that Beebe informally named the abyssal rainbow gar - four of which he observed swimming together in a stiff, almost upright posture at a depth of 2500 ft.

No specimens of any of these 'untouchable' species have so far been obtained. Consequently, as with Bathysphaera, and assuming that Beebe's testimony was truthful, they are secrets of the sea that were revealed to humanity only briefly before disappearing back into its depths' dark and alien anonymity.

The bathysphere fish, depicted in William Beebe's book, Half Mile Down (1934)


This is an excerpt from my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals (Coachwhip: Landisville, 2012), which is the fully-updated, thoroughly-revised, and greatly-expanded third edition of The Lost Ark.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

MESMERISING MUSTELIDS AND THE DANCE OF DEATH

Stoat (public domain)



I was recently asked whether stoats perform a kind of dance to mesmerise rabbits so that they can approach for the kill. This subject has long interested me, so much so that I included the following section on it in my book The Hidden Powers of Animals (Marshall Editions: London, 2001):

"Certain carnivorous mammals, notably mustelids (such as stoats, weasels, and martens), but also foxes, have been observed indulging in a bizarre activity known as the dance of death. In March 2000, for example, David Speight from Bakewell, Derbyshire, reported encountering a stoat Mustela erminea following a squirrel during a spring hailstorm. But instead of pursuing it normally, the stoat was engaging in an extraordinary display of chasing its tail and performing several sideways leaps, before finally disappearing into a hedge. As noted by mammalogist Nigel Dunstone, this strange behaviour seemingly mesmerises a potential prey victim, and during the dance the stoat edges ever closer to it until it suddenly seizes its unwary victim - though in the case recalled by Speight, the squirrel apparently proved immune to the stoat's dance.

"Not so, however, on the occasion of 3 February 1919, when Albert Rowland of West Green, Hampshire, observed a weasel Mustela nivalis capering and circling in the snow while a rook sat nearby and watched. Throughout its giddy performance, the weasel was gradually moving closer and closer to the rook, until it abruptly sprang at the bird. It missed, but, undaunted, it repeated the procedure several times. Yet, remarkably, the rook never attempted to fly off, and eventually the weasel succeeded in grasping it by the throat.

"Foxes have frequently been spied engaging in similar activity with rabbits and rodents - a phenomenon popularly referred to as fox charming. As with mustelids, the fox performs a frenetic dance around its intended prey, which sits passively, seemingly stupefied and unaware of the danger - until, without warning, the fox pounces upon it.

"Scientific opinion remains divided as to whether the death dance is a voluntary or involuntary performance. It is now well known that the nasal sinuses of stoats and related mustelids are often infested with a parasitic nematode worm Skrjabingylus nasicola, which causes skull deformities and can severely irritate the host by inflicting appreciable pressure upon its brain. Some researchers suggest that this may in turn induce the stoat to perform the frenetic dance of death, noting that these animals will even dance in the absence of any potential victims. Other researchers, conversely, claim that the dance is a deliberate ploy to fix the victim's attention, enabling the stoat to approach it stealthily, and even to attract the attention of a potential victim some distance away - hence explaining why a stoat will perform the death dance even when there are no victims close by.

"Supporting the theory that this dance is executed purposefully is a compelling, fully-authenticated report documented by Drs Maurice and Robert Burton in their book Inside the Animal World (1977), in which a pair of predators clearly utilised the dance as a decoy. A crow was observed watching with keen interest a Himalayan marten frolicking close by, somersaulting and rolling around on the ground. What it didn't see, however, was the marten's mate, cautiously approaching it from the rear. When finally close enough, this second marten made a sudden dash towards the unsuspecting crow and seized it. As soon as that happened, the dancing marten ended its performance, and joined its mate to share in devouring the crow that it had just killed."


Stuffed stoat at Bristol City Museum (public domain)

Monday, 7 February 2011

WHEN THE MAMMOTHS CAME TO TOWN

A mammoth discovery in Shropshire! (Dr Karl Shuker)


[I wrote the original version of this article - one of my earliest publications - in March 1987, and it appeared later that year in a now long-defunct British monthly magazine called The Unknown. In order to maintain its then-current, now-historical flavour, I am republishing it here in largely unchanged form (except where newer information and discoveries have required some minor updating of material). I wish to thank the Shropshire Star newspaper most sincerely for very kindly supplying me with a photograph of some of the mammoths’ remains for inclusion in this article.]


When (if?) the good weather returns, I plan to visit the Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre at Craven Arms, near Ludlow, ensconced in some of England’s most beautiful countryside, in order to see the life-sized replica of a certain, very special Ice Age mammal – and, in so doing, revisit an extraordinary discovery that I first documented way back in 1987. Allow me to explain.

One of the most remarkable yet unexpected palaeontological finds of modern times in England took place in the county of Shropshire, and involved a discovery of truly mammoth proportions.

The Shropshire saga began inauspiciously at the end of September 1986 during a session of excavations by contractors working in an ARC Western-owned sand and gravel quarry at Condover, a small village just north of Shrewsbury. Quarryman Maurice Baddeley was using a dragline to scoop up clay and peat sediment from the quarry’s upper surface in order to reach the gravel underneath, piling the removed sediment into a towering pinnacle for subsequent levelling. During this activity, his dragline’s bucket drew up from a muddy pond a long, stiff object that Mr Baddeley initially dismissed as a metal or wooden post, probably a telegraph pole, and tipped onto the sediment pile. Upon later, closer observation, however, just prior to the pile being demolished, he realised that this ‘pole’ was actually a gigantic bone – measuring 4-5 ft long!

At this same time, Eve and Glyn Roberts of nearby Bayston Hill were walking their dogs here and saw the bone. Realising that it might be something important, Eve lost no time in telephoning the Shropshire Museums Service, and relayed what they had seen to the County Museums Officer, Geoff McCabe, who promptly sent out a team to investigate. To their great surprise and delight, the team discovered that the intriguing object was nothing less than a limb bone from a woolly mammoth Mammuthus primigenius – that hairy elephantine epitome of the Ice Ages.

Naturally the scientists immediately combined forces with the contractors to monitor future digging in the hope of disinterring further remains - with deserved success. For during the next week, 18 more specimens were obtained, including various vertebrae and a jawbone bearing two enormous teeth.

Fossil remains, even when as massive as those of mammoths, are unexpectedly fragile when unearthed. Hence to ensure their continued survival, the precious Shropshire specimens were swiftly transferred to nearby Ludlow Museum, where they could not only be more precisely identified and age-determined but also be carefully cleaned of debris, shielded from harmful sunlight, and allowed to dry very slowly to prevent distortion.

Meanwhile, the regular media reports concerning the mammoth's discovery, as featured in the Shropshire Star in particular, had incited very considerable public interest - resulting in the brief unveiling of these remains for a press conference and photo-session held at the local Acton Scott Farm Museum on 7 October.


FORMAL SCIENTIFIC EXCAVATION
 Among the scientific representatives present at the conference was Dr Russell Coope - Reader in Palaeontological Sciences at the University of Birmingham. On the morning of 9 October (and subsequently working in conjunction with mammoth expert Dr Adrian Lister of the University of Cambridge), Dr Coope led the first formal scientific excavation at the quarry seeking more mammoth remains. Moreover, news of this most significant search had already travelled beyond Shropshire, because the BBC’s long-running children's television show ‘Blue Peter’ was represented on site by presenter Mark Curry and an attendant film crew, recording the excavation for inclusion within a future episode (which was screened on 30 October).

The four-day dig (financed by ARC and the Shropshire County Council) brought together a team of scientists from the University of Birmingham and the Shropshire Museums Service plus numerous enthusiastic local volunteers. Their principal focus of attention was the 20-ft-high sediment pile already hewn out of the quarry by the draglines, because it was this sediment that had originally contained the mammoth's skeleton - and from which, therefore, the team hoped to disinter and disentangle it, piece by piece.


AN OVERWHELMING SUCCESS
By the end of Day 1, even the most optimistic expectations had been exceeded, because a tally of more than 50 specimens - ranging from tiny wafers of tusk fragments to entire limb bones - had been unearthed! These were lightened by removing loose debris, and each specimen was then delicately packed separately within an opaque, fully-labelled bag for direct transportation to Ludlow Museum for identification and preservation. Deer and insect remains, as well as pollen samples, were also collected.



Remains from the Shropshire mammoths (courtesy of the Shropshire Star)


The search ended on 13 October, and proved to have been an overwhelming success, because with more than 200 separate bags of fossilised remains, it seemed certain that almost the entire mammoth skeleton had been obtained. Pride of place within the collection, however, was surely the pelvic girdle, because part of it was obtained intact as a single, massive, and substantially heavy portion bearing one complete acetabulum (the socket for femur articulation) and obturator foramen (a large gap between the pubis and ischium bones on each side of the pelvic girdle in mammals). Nevertheless, there was even more exciting news to be disclosed.


NOT ONE, BUT FIVE!
Put quite simply, scientific examination of the collection obtained at that point (as well as during three subsequent excavations, the last one spanning 15 June to 3 July 1987) ultimately revealed the presence of not one but five mammoths! One was an adult (originally thought to be a female, but confirmed by Russian scientist Vac Garutt at the Leningrad Museum of Science in 1988 to be a male), believed to have been 30-32 years old when it died. The other four were juveniles. Three were each represented by a largely complete lower jaw and various other remains. Two of these latter three juveniles were 3-4 years old, and appeared to be of opposite sexes. The third was larger, and was aged 5-6 years old. One of the 3-4-year-olds was found during the first dig, as was the 5-6-year-old, whereas the other 3-4-year-old came to light during the summer 1987 dig, as did the fourth juvenile, thought to be 4-5 years old and represented by a single rib.

Prior to continued scrutiny, however, it was imperative that their fossilised remains be cleaned thoroughly to remove as much tenacious debris as possible. So to ensure effective washing, an outdooor area normally reserved for the cleaning of public transport vehicles was utilised! Not surprisingly, on 1 November this singular event attracted a large crowd of spectators.

The scientific team estimated that approximately 80 per cent of the total skeletal content of the mammoths had been obtained during the recent excavation. Nevertheless, one major item was stil1 missing - the adult mammoth's skull. Undaunted, the team decided to instigate a second search, and once again, following a public appeal for local volunteers, a sizeable party was assembled, wielding a formidable armoury of shovels and spades. Yet sadly, despite a most valiant and determined effort sustained throughout the weekend of 15-16 November, the skull was not located, although several additional minor bones were unearthed. A third excavation took place not long afterwards, with a fourth, final dig taking place the following summer, but the skull was never found. As suggested by Geoffrey McCabe, it may have been removed soon after the adult’s death by human contemporaries.


FUTURE DESTINATION
Even without the skull, however, the Shropshire specimens still constituted one of the most comprehensive collections of mammoth skeletons ever discovered. Indeed, the County Museums Service hoped to retain them to form the centre-piece of an extensive educational exhibition, depicting the appearance of Shropshire during the Ice Ages when inhabited by mammoths. In turn, this would also greatly benefit local tourism. Conversely, in view of their national scientific significance, it was equally possible that they may be taken for permanent display in London. Thus in December 1986, a local conference was held to discuss the mammoths' future destination, attended by Shropshire Council members, ARC representatives, and Drs Coope and Lister.

To the Shropshire community’s delight, it was decided that the collection should be retained locally, for the planned Ice Age exhibition. Furthermore, ARC gave permission for future digging in 1987 in pursuit of any further remains (including the adult mammoth’s elusive skull), and pledged financial participation in subsequent scientific studies upon the bones already obtained. Moreover, in March 1987 the entire collection was transported to the University of Birmingham for research purposes.




The Shropshire mammoths' scientific debut - via a formal paper written by Coope and Lister and published in the scientific journal Nature on 3 December 1987 - was certainly one of the most thrilling episodes in British palaeontology for very many years, supplemented by continuing detailed studies. Even so, although certainly not the types of fossil to be found every day of the week, mammoth remains have been uncovered in the UK before - so why were the Shropshire mammoths of especial importance? This can be readily answered as follows.


PHENOMENAL COLLECTION
 British remains of mammoths and other fossil elephants almost invariably consist of a few bones, teeth, or fragments. Furthermore, a large proportion of these originate from the London region, although a notable find took place in Nottinghamshire during summer 1986, when two huge proboscidean (probably mammoth) limb bones were hauled up by an excavator during the construction of a car-park at Worksop's Bassetlaw Hospital. Consequently, the discovery together of a largely complete adult mammoth skeleton and no less than four partially complete juveniles is truly phenomenal.

Indeed, possibly the only British find in any way comparable to this within modern times was the unearthing in the early 1960s during excavations at an Aveley quarry in Essex of a virtually entire mammoth skeleton. Beneath this was a similarly near-complete skeleton of a straight-tusked elephant Palaeoloxodon antiquus, which by sheer coincidence had died on the very same spot (but undoubtedly several millennia before the mammoth - for the two species were not contemporaries). Needless to say, this unexpected but very remarkable find quickly brought a team from the British Museum (Natural History) to the site to remove the collection for preservation and study.


YOUNGEST BRITISH MAMMOTHS
During the last Ice Age (Weichsel/Würm glaciation), spanning the period 80,000-10,000 years BP (Before Present Day) when M. primigenius still roamed Britain, Shropshire was a birch-dominated tundra interspersed with sparse vegetation and clay-walled marsh-like pools created by melting subterranean ice left stranded by retreating glaciers. Dr Coope opined that the Shropshire mammoths may have wandered into one such pool while seeking vegetation. Although all elephants can swim, they cannot climb steep inclines such as the pool's walls. Consequently, the mammoths would have perished - a tragic end for such majestic creatures.

Coope explained that their remains were discovered between an upper layer of peat (shown to have been deposited 10,000 years ago) and a lower layer of glacial gravel (deposited 18,000 years ago) - another clue to the Shropshire mammoths' especial importance. More precise analysis of the bones themselves, via carbon-dating techniques, yielded an age of approximately 12,800 years BP. Hence, as Coope announced to the media, the Shropshire mammoths were not only the most complete but also, by around 5000 years, the youngest mammoths so far discovered in Britain and had survived beyond the coldest stage of the last Ice Age. In June 2009, Lister revealed that a new, even more accurate method of radiocarbon dating applied to the remains by researchers from the British Museum (Natural History) had yielded a date of 14,000 BP, but this still meant that they were Britain’s youngest mammoths.

In addition, it was suggested that they might even participate at some future stage in one of the most remarkable fields of mammoth-related zoological research currently in progress - the cloning of mammoth DNA. The raw materials (muscles, soft tissues) for this revolutionary work are normally obtained from ice-entombed specimens obtained in Siberia. However, Prof. Alan Wilson of the University of California suggested that the Shropshire specimens may be sufficiently well-preserved to possess samples of soft tissue capable of being used for DNA cloning purposes, and he duly made contact with the Shropshire team to discover more concerning this exciting possibility. In short, the mammoths of Shrewsbury certainly appear set to occupy a prominent position within future scientific research for some considerable time to come.

During 1988, I visited the temporary but exciting exhibition of the Shropshire mammoth remains (which also included an excellent full-sized replica of a woolly mammoth, created by Roby Braun) that was held at Cosford Aerospace Museum, just outside Wolverhampton, from 1 April to 30 October of that year. The exhibition was subsequently staged in Derbyshire, Lancashire, and Newcastle upon Tyne, before closing in August 1991. The replica mammoth now resides within the Secret Hills exhibition at the Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre in Craven Arms, whereas the Shropshire mammoth bones are ensconced in Ludlow Museum and Resource Centre, and are recognised to be the third most complete remains of woolly mammoths to have been discovered anywhere in Europe. Not a bad outcome for a ‘telegraph pole’ that had been dug up by chance and then tipped unceremoniously onto a pile of sediment.




Life-sized reconstruction of a woolly mammoth (Dr Karl Shuker)


UPDATE - 21 February 2014

Life-sized replica skeleton of the adult Shropshire woolly mammoth, exhibited at the Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre in Craven Arms, near Ludlow, Shropshire (Dr Karl Shuker)

Yes indeed - today I visited the Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre and saw for myself at last the splendid life-sized replica skeleton of the adult Shropshire woolly mammoth. Well worth the wait, as you can see:

Meeting the mammoth (Dr Karl Shuker)





Thursday, 3 February 2011

GABRIEL’S FEATHER - A PLUME FROM THE WING OF AN ARCHANGEL?

Resplendent quetzal - male in breeding plumage (painting by John Gould)


El Escorial, also known as the Escurial, is a palatial architectural masterpiece of such splendour that its countless admirers refer to it as the 8th Wonder of the World. Commissioned by King Philip II, constructed from 1563 to 1584, and situated in Madrid, Spain, it houses the monastery of San Lorenzo (St Lawrence), a basilica, a library, the Royal Pantheon, the palaces of the Bourbons and Austrians, and a magnificent collection of fine art by such masters as Titian, Tintoretto, Velasquez, El Greco, Rubens, Dürer, and Bosch.

El Escorial also contains 515 reliquaries, containing no fewer than 7421 holy relics. One of these relics forms the subject of this article, because it is of particular cryptozoological interest - and for good reason. Constituting a single, but very singular, feather of extraordinary beauty, it lays claim to an even more extraordinary identity - for according to traditional belief, it originated from one of the wings of the archangel Gabriel.

A few centuries ago, this remarkable plume was a celebrated religious treasure, famous throughout Europe, but today its existence - if indeed it still exists - is largely unknown. Indeed, when I wrote in January 2001 to the monastery of San Lorenzo, housed within El Escorial, requesting information concerning the Gabriel feather, the monastery’s Keeper of National Heritage, Carmen Garcia-Frias Checa, wrote back denying all knowledge of it. Nevertheless, it definitely existed at one time. Perhaps its best-known observer was William T. Beckford (1759-1844), an exceedingly wealthy English author-traveller, who set forth on several extensive forays around Europe, visiting sites and buildings of religious significance in Spain, Italy, and Portugal.

During one such excursion, in 1787, Beckford journeyed to El Escorial, where he was privileged to see Gabriel's feather, and he subsequently documented it in one of his travelogues, Italy, With Sketches of Spain and Portugal, vol. 2 (1834). The publication of this work is of especial note, because it followed closely upon the formal description of a truly exceptional new species of bird that initially influenced scientific speculation concerning possible ornithological origins for the Gabriel feather.


The archangel Gabriel (artist unknown, Byzantine painting, late 1300s)


The quetzal is indisputably one of the world’s most beautiful species of bird. It is native to Central America, including Mexico and Guatemala, where it was deemed sacred by the Toltecs, Mayans, and Aztecs. Indeed, it is the national symbol of Guatemala even today, and this country’s unit of currency is named after it too. Moreover, if a person stands in front of the mighty 1100-year-old Mayan pyramid of Kukulkan (El Castillo) at Chichén Itzá near Cancún, Mexico, at the base of its staircase, and claps their hands, the pyramid will emit a distinctive chirping echo - but not just any chirp. In 2002, Californian acoustical engineer David Lubman and a team of Mexican researchers revealed that it constituted a precise phonic replica of the quetzal’s call (National Geographic Today, 6 December)! Some researchers, such as Ghent University mechanical construction specialist Dr Nico F. Declercq, have since questioned whether this acoustical anomaly was intentional on the part of the pyramid’s Mayan designers and architects (Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, December 2004), but if not it is surely a formidable coincidence.

Belonging to an exclusively tropical taxonomic order of brightly-plumaged species known as trogons, and sporting a shimmering emerald-green plumage complemented by scarlet underparts, the quetzal is instantly distinguished from all other birds during the breeding season. This is when the male, whose body measures a mere 18 in, grows a quartet of extremely elongate tail plumes, 2-3 ft in length. These undulate as it flies, affording it the appearance of a feathery snake, and inspiring the Aztecs to associate it with their sky god Quetzalcoatl, often portrayed as a green plumed serpent.

Yet despite its flamboyant plumage, the quetzal's debut within the ornithological literature of the Western world was unexpectedly belated, and controversial too. In 1831, after receiving a description of the quetzal from Duke Paul of Würtemberg, the eminent French zoologist Baron Georges Cuvier stated that in his opinion this bird's astonishing tail plumes could not be genuine. Instead, they must have been created artificially, i.e. they were composite feathers, composed of several individual plumes artfully combined together. Interestingly, a skilfully-constructed composite feather is one identity that had already been aired by some naturalists as an explanation for the celebrated feather of Gabriel.

However, ornithologist Dr Pablo de la Llave was well aware of the quetzal's authenticity, because he had first become acquainted with this spectacular species prior to 1810, from examining over a dozen specimens obtained by natural history expeditions in Central America and maintained in the palace of the Retiro near Madrid. Accordingly, in 1832 he formally christened it Pharomachrus mocinno in the Registro Trimestre (a Mexican journal), honouring Mexican naturalist Dr J.M. Mociño.

Once the quetzal became known in scientific circles, it was inevitable that this species (now known specifically as the resplendent quetzal, thereby distinguishing it from five other, less spectacular quetzal species that lack the long tail feathers of breeding male P. mocinno) would be mooted as a possible explanation for the Gabriel feather. Certainly the breeding male quetzal's tail plumes are exquisite enough to have inspired speculation, perhaps, by non-zoological theologians as to whether they might conceivably be of divine rather than merely mortal origin.

Moreover, in view of this species' eyecatching appearance, it is also possible that during the 1500s the Spanish conquistadors brought some preserved quetzal skins or plumes back home with them when they returned to Spain after conquering Mexico (which in those days incorporated Guatemala too). Needless to say, if one of these should thence have found its way into the collections of the newly-built Escorial, then surely we would not need to look any further for an explanation of the Gabriel feather – or would we?

Unfortunately, this elegant solution has a fatal flaw, as ornithologists reading Beckford's travelogue, published two years after Llave's description of the quetzal, would soon discover. For in his account of the Gabriel feather, Beckford revealed that it was not green, but was in fact rose-coloured. Exit the quetzal from further consideration!

Yet if not a quetzal plume, from which bird could the Gabriel feather have originated? (Worth noting here, incidentally, is that the concept of angels possessing feathered wings is a relatively recent one, nurtured largely by Renaissance artists and hence dating back only a few centuries, with no foundation in early theological lore.)

'Rose-coloured' conjures up images of flamingos, but it is difficult to believe that feathers from species so familiar to European ornithologists as these leggy waterbirds could be lauded as holy, sacred plumes derived from the wings of archangels. In my opinion, there is a much more convincing identity for the Gabriel feather - and one which, if not truly divine, does at least sound heavenly.

New Guinea's extravagantly-plumaged birds of paradise first came to European notice in 1522, when the survivors of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan's once-mighty fleet returned home to Europe, docking in Seville, Spain. On board were many feathery skins from these beautiful birds, bought from New Guinea tribesmen, but preserved minus their feet - so that for more than three centuries, scientists erroneously assumed that these avian wonders really were footless, spending their entire lives in unending flight amid the sky's cloud-dappled realms.

In reality, during the breeding season the males of some species possess gaudy bunches of long gauzy plumes that cascade in eyecatching fountains of colour from beneath their wings and tail. Males of Count Raggi’s bird of paradise Paradisea raggiana in particular are sumptuously adorned with vivid sprays of bright red or rose-coloured plumes - thus corresponding closely with the appearance of the Gabriel feather. Could it be, therefore, that this is the true identity of the Escorial's enigmatic plume - a lone feather derived from a male P. raggiana skin brought back from New Guinea to Spain by Magellan's fleet a mere four decades before work began upon the Escorial's construction?

How very appropriate it would be if a feather once thought to be from an archangel of Heaven ultimately proved to be from a bird of paradise.


NB - For the most comprehensive investigation ever published concerning this and other supposed archangel feathers, see my book Karl Shuker’s Alien Zoo (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2010).


Count Raggi's bird of paradise - male in breeding plumage

THE GAME OF THE NAME!



THE EPONYM DICTIONARY OF MAMMALS
BY BO BEOLENS, MICHAEL WATKINS, AND MICHAEL GRAYSON

Reviewed by Dr Karl P.N. Shuker


The Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2009. Hb, dustjacket, 574 pp, appendices, bibliography, ISBN 978-0-8018-9304-9 £34


Anyone with a decent knowledge of natural history will know something of Przewalski’s horse, Père David’s deer, De Brazza’s monkey, Grevy’s zebra, Grant’s gazelle, Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo, and Daubenton’s bat. But have you ever wondered who, exactly, were the people commemorated in these creatures’ names? I know I have – but not any longer. Now, thanks to this thoroughly absorbing, extremely informative, and eminently readable book, the identities and histories of these disparate and often-forgotten figures united by nomenclatural immortality are fully revealed at last.

In what must have been an exhausting as well as an exhaustive amount of research, Beolens, Watkins, and Grayson have compiled an alphabetically-arranged and assuredly-definitive listing of every person (even including fictitious entities such as mythological deities) whose own name has been linked to that of a mammalian species or subspecies, either via the latter creature’s vernacular name or via its scientific binomial name. Over 2000 different mammalian species names are covered in total, and in addition there are two extensive appendices of vernacular names and scientific names. But that is still not all.

For each person documented in this book, a list of the mammals bearing their name is provided (which includes the authors and publication years of the papers in which those mammals were formally described), plus a concise biography containing the person’s years of birth and death, and details of their major scientific contributions, as well as the respective zoogeographical distributions of their eponymous mammals.

So now I know, for instance, that de Brazza was Jacques (aka Giacomo) C. Savorgnan de Brazza (1859-1888) - the younger brother of an Italian count, and that together they explored what was then the French Congo, amassing important collections of natural history specimens; that Przewalkski was General Nikolai Mikhailovitch Przewalkski (1839-1888) - a highly successful Russian Cossack explorer whose expeditions charted great swathes of Central Asia for the very first time; and that Daubenton was Dr Louis Jean-Marie d’Aubenton (1716-1800) – a French naturalist who was something of a biological Renaissance man, so diverse and numerous were his fields of expertise in the natural sciences.

What I found particularly enjoyable, however, is that in addition to these worthy, mainstream items of data, this comprehensive book is generously peppered with all manner of tantalising, fascinating trivia unlikely to be encountered so readily anywhere else. Who could have ever suspected, for example, that English mammalogist Oldfield Thomas described no fewer than 2900 (!) genera, species, and races of mammals, then, sadly, committed suicide while still in the prime of his career? How many more new mammals might he have gone on to describe, one wonders, had his life not ended so abruptly and tragically? Did you know that Xantippe’s shrew Crocidura xantippe was not so named in order to honour Socrates’s wife, but rather because she was reputed to be of very shrewish temperament! Or that Russian zoologist Peter Simon Pallas, after whom Pallas’s cat Felis manul and six other mammals are named, also discovered a new type of meteorite, which was duly dubbed pallasite in his honour? And yes, Cleese’s woolly lemur Avahi cleesei, scientifically described as recently as 2005, is indeed named after British comedy actor John Cleese, most famous for his ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’ sketch in the anarchic Monty Python’s Flying Circus television series (though as far as I am aware, this lemur’s own mode of locomotion is reassuringly normal!).

It is often looked upon as de rigueur for a reviewer to find something – anything - however trivial, to criticise when perusing a major new contribution to the relevant literature, which this present book definitely is as far as zoology is concerned. In all honesty, however, I cannot find any fault worthy of mention here. The book is scrupulously well-written, researched, and presented. Moreover, its contents guarantee that never again will a mammalian eponym pose a mystery, and will also provide countless hours of entertaining, educational browsing. What more could one ask for? Perhaps, just one little thing...

One of the world’s largest yet most bizarre rodents is the African crested rat Lophiomys imhausi, whose affinities to all other rodents are so contentious that many mammalogists prefer to house it in its own taxonomic family. But who was Imhaus, after whom this decidedly strange creature was named? Many years ago, while researching the history of its scientific discovery for one of my own books, I sought long and hard for information concerning the shadowy Imhaus, but was unable to uncover anything. Now, armed with this present volume, I felt certain that my quest for his identity would finally be over – but no! Not even the indefatigable Beolens, Watkins, and Grayson have been able to trace this most elusive of eponym originators. Instead, leaving his dates of birth and death blank, and providing no first names for him either, they confess that apart from the fact that Imhaus had purchased a specimen of this rat’s skull, “...nothing more seems to be known about him”.

What a strange – and rather sad - epitaph for a life, surely, to be remembered only for having once encountered an odd-looking rat.

African crested rat Lophiomys imhausi

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

FEELING BLUE ABOUT SHUKERNATURE! REVIEWING THE TOP TEN POSTS

Trunko in blue (Lance Bradshaw)



Let me confirm immediately that my blog is NOT making me feel depressed! On the contrary, thanks to the interest and comments that my posts here continue to generate from their readers, and the prospect of compiling an entire book based upon them, I have never felt more buoyant about ShukerNature since its inception just over two years ago. No, the reason for this post's blue-headed title stems from a quite remarkable, wholly unexpected, and (at least to me) truly inexplicable discovery that I have just made after reviewing the statistics for ShukerNature.

Several sets of stats concerning a person's blog are available for inspection by him/her on Blogger, and perhaps the most interesting set is the Top 10 posts of all time for that blog. In the case of ShukerNature (on which I have uploaded well over 100 posts of mine so far), I was extremely intrigued by the result - so much so, in fact, that I felt it warranted a blog post of its own!

So here is the Top Ten ShukerNature posts of all time - be prepared for some surprises!


#1: The mystery blue spider of Yorkshire (25 August 2010)

#2: Behold, Trunko!! (Trunko exclusive #1) (6 September 2010)

#3: Trunko, two more photographs (Trunko exclusive #2) (9 September 2010)

#4: South Africa's hairless blue horse (24 March 2010)

#5: Dragons of Babylon and dinosaurs of the Bible (18 January 2011)

#6: Smethwick devil (4 September 2010)

#7: Orang pendek (24 November 2010)

#8: Blue tigers (17 May 2009)

#9: The last Harpagornis (14 July 2010)

#10: A diversity of devil-fishes (6 March 2009)


And as if this listing were not already surreal enough, the post at #1 has been viewed more times than all of the next nine posts combined - but why?!

As far as I can see, the evident (and only?) moral that can be drawn from this entertaining little exercise in blog analysis is that from now on I should clearly concentrate all of my efforts on writing about blue animals!

And if I really want to maximise my readership, the ideal subject to write about would be a blue-furred devilish version of Trunko! So if anyone ever happens to encounter such an entity out there, please do let me know!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

STRANGE LANDS - A MAGICAL NEW BOOK, IN EVERY SENSE!



Every so often - but not nearly often enough - a new book appears that instantly becomes not only a classic work but also a standard work. One such literary rarity is Strange Lands: A Field-Guide to the Celtic Otherworld, written and illustrated by Andy Paciorek, a highly-renowned graphics artist, and now in print at last after having previously existed exclusively as a website. After reading the original manuscript and marvelling at the imaginative, intricate beauty of its artwork, depicting a vast array of mythical and magical Celtic entities, I was more than happy to pen a foreword to Andy's spectacular volume - which is now available to purchase online at:

http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/1957828?ce=blurb_ew


Meanwhile, as an appetiser, here is my Strange Lands foreword:


Think of any major stage or screen musical, and the chances are that it will have been written by a composer/lyricist partnership – Rice & Lloyd Webber, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Gershwin & Gershwin, Lerner & Loewe, Sherman & Sherman, Schoenberg & Boublil, to name for a few. There is, however, one very significant exception – Cole Porter, a uniquely gifted individual whose talent for composing wonderful, melodious music was matched equally by his ability to pen complex, witty lyrics. But Cole Porters are few and far between.

The same principle applies in the world of books. There are countless talented writers, and countless talented illustrators, but individuals able to accomplish both to a suitably high standard are an extreme rarity, to be treasured and appreciated like a Renaissance Old Master or an exceptionally fine vintage of wine – which is why I am so impressed by this book and, most of all, by its creator.

I first came to know Andy Paciorek through Facebook, and was immediately captivated (mesmerised, even) by his extraordinarily detailed, imaginative artwork – and also by the prodigious quantities of it. Andy seems able to create his spectacular illustrations as easily as the rest of us draw breath, and yet every single one is as meticulously crafted as all of the others. Indeed, when viewing his numerous albums of artwork on his Facebook page and his various art websites, I have often been reminded of the famous quote by Edward Bulwer-Lytton:


“Talent does what it can; genius does what it must”.


Unquestionably, Andy is a man whose life is driven by a passion for creating art – but when he sent me the manuscript for Strange Lands to read through, I was shocked to discover that his art was just one side of a coin whose very existence I had not even suspected before.

Long before I had finished reading it, I had discovered that Andy is not only a supremely talented artist, he is also a remarkably adept writer and researcher! Right from a child, I have always been fascinated by mythology and folklore, especially the rich corpus originating in the British Isles, and I have read very extensively on the subject. However, I can say in all honesty that Strange Lands is one of the most comprehensive single volumes on British mythological entities that I have ever encountered. Even Dr Katharine M. Briggs’s essential tome, A Dictionary of Fairies, universally acclaimed as the standard work on such beings, now has a rival in terms of the sheer diversity of examples documented.

And where Strange Lands effortlessly outpoints even that classic work is of course in its illustrations, which are truly breathtaking in their beauty, intricacy, and vibrancy. Moreover, especially with regard to the more obscure examples, Andy’s may well be the first illustrations of such entities ever executed. Certainly, in addition to all of the well known examples of British (and Breton) supernatural being, there are numerous far less familiar ones included and illustrated here too – everything, in fact, from muryans, hyter sprites, the Lob, bwbachs, the Coranied, duergars, fir darrig, foidin seachrain, and the memorably-named wag by the way to the lunatishee, brown men, the dark men of dreams, hobyahs, bull beggars, merrows, gwrach-y-rhibyn, grugach, and many more!

Strange Lands has been available online at its very own website - http://www.batcow.co.uk/strangelands/ - for quite some time, but if ever there was a manuscript crying out to be produced in book form, with its spectacular illustrations reproduced in large format, this was the one. So I am absolutely delighted that Andy has now done so, and I am very honoured to have received the opportunity to pen for it this foreword – or, as I see it, a well-deserved paean of praise for what will unquestionably become a standard work of reference as well as a true thing of beauty that will indeed be a joy forever.

On his Facebook ‘Like’ (formerly Fan) Page, Andy includes the following quote from Charles Baudelaire:


"A frenzied passion for art is a canker that devours everything else."


Much as I hesitate to question the viewpoint or tamper with the words of such an esteemed literary figure as Baudelaire, in Andy’s case I feel that a more apposite wording of that quote would be something along the lines of:


"A heartfelt passion for art is a fire that warms, nourishes, and sustains the life that it feeds above all else."


Certainly, I cannot ever imagine Andy existing even for a moment without his eternal fervour for art coursing through his veins like divine, fiery ichor. And long may it continue to do so – I for one am already eagerly awaiting his next published art project!

UPDATE: 25 October 2011

Strange Lands is now available now available to purchase as an e-book for i-pad /i-phone. Just go to: http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/1957828