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!

Search This Blog

Loading...

Saturday, 16 July 2011

THE HOBBIT ACTOR AND A REAL-LIFE SHELOB – OR SOMETHING PRETTY DARN CLOSE?

With my very own Shelob! (credit: Dr Karl Shuker)

British actor Dominic Monaghan has starred in many films and TV series, but is probably best-known for his role as the hobbit Merry in Peter Jackson’s spectacular ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (LOTR) trilogy of movies, based upon J.R.R. Tolkien’s monumental fantasy epic.

However, following a tip-off from a member of my regular pub quiz team (thanks Mark!; who said that pub quizzes aren’t educational?!), earlier this year I came upon a very intriguing online report previously unknown to me that suggested Dominic might have been taking his LOTR role even more seriously than expected. In LOTR, two of Merry’s fellow hobbits, Frodo and Sam, experience a life-threatening encounter with Shelob – a colossal spider. Yet whereas Shelob was fictional, the media report, which was reproduced on several websites, claimed that Dominic was planning to launch a 12-man expedition in search of a real-life mega-spider that, if proven to exist, would be the world’s largest.

Dominic Monaghan in his LOTR role as the hobbit Merry (credit: New Line Cinema Productions)

According to this report (click here to view it), which was written by Alexandru Stan and published on InOut Star’s website on 12 March 2008, the spider in question was called the hercules baboon spider, measured 14-15 inches across, and, of particular interest, was known only from a single specimen obtained in Nigeria during the early 1900s, which is now preserved in alcohol at London’s Natural History Museum.

As the Life Sciences Consultant for Guinness World Records (formerly known as The Guinness Book of Records), I am naturally well aware that the current record-holder as the world’s largest species of spider by mass is the goliath bird-eating spider Theraphosa blondi. This nocturnal burrowing species, native to wet swamps and marshy areas in the mountain rainforests of northeastern South America, boasts a leg span of up to 11 in (the diameter of a dinner plate!), and can weigh over 6 oz.

Indeed, the biggest specimen of this species on record was a 12-year-old captive female called Rosi, which sported a body length alone of 119.4 mm (4.7 in), i.e. not including its leg length, and weighed an astonishing 175 g (6.17 oz) – which is almost as heavy as six house sparrows! Consequently, any spider that allegedly exceeds these dramatic dimensions, and, as a bonus, is also virtually unknown to science, is definitely going to attract my undivided attention!

An adult female specimen of the goliath bird-eating spider Theraphosa blondi

Eager to learn more, in case Guinness’s existing record for the largest spider species by mass needed to be amended, I lost no time in researching this subject personally and also contacting a number of likely sources of further information, including the Natural History Museum itself, as well as a number of other institutions, organisations, and individuals. Over the next few weeks, a welter of information came my way, the most informative of which can be summarised as follows.

Firstly, I discovered to my surprise that in spite of the report’s claim that only a single specimen of hercules baboon spider existed, there seemed to be a veritable embarrassment of specimens out there in the pet trade, and there was even a plentiful supply of videos posted on YouTube of what were claimed to be hercules baboon spiders. Something, clearly, was amiss here – but what?

After learning of my desire to discover as much as I could regarding this enigmatic species, palaeontologist Dr Darren Naish, who shares my own interest in cryptozoological matters, sent me the following illuminating email on 16 March 2011:

"It is implicated by spider people that the things now being called 'hercules baboon spiders' are actually nothing of the sort (they're actually king baboon spiders), and that the animal that really should go with this name is indeed only known from the type specimen."

Pursuing this promising lead, I discovered that the ‘real’ hercules baboon spider is Hysterocrates hercules, which is genuinely known only from its type specimen or holotype – a female collected by a Lieutenant Abadie at Jebba in what was then Upper Niger, now Nigeria. Characterised by a black cuticle covered with a thick coating of dark olive-brown hairs, and shining with a greyish silky sheen under reflected light, as well as by having the fourth leg unthickened, this unique specimen is held at the Natural History Museum, and its species was formally described in the 14 November 1899 issue of the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London by none other than renowned British zoologist Reginald I. Pocock.

As for the so-called hercules baboon spider specimens in the pet trade and on YouTube, these pretenders to the throne of H. hercules are indeed specimens of the related but smaller king baboon spider Pelinobius muticus (aka Citharischius crawshayi, a junior synonym), which is an East African species with a leg span of up to 8 in. So there was the first riddle concerning the hercules baboon spider duly solved.

The hercules imposter – a king baboon spider Pelinobius muticus

On 21 April, I received another very insightful email, this time from Richard Gallon, the administrator of the British Tarantula Society Study Group:

"I can confidently state that Pocock’s holotype specimen of Hysterocrates hercules (which I have measured and examined for forthcoming taxonomic papers) does not even come close to members of the genus Theraphosa in terms of leg-span or body mass.

"Pelinobius muticus females are large and bulky, but not as large as H. hercules or any Theraphosa. Indeed there are several South American genera (e.g. Pamphobeteus, Sericopelma, Lasiodora etc.) which are bigger than these African taxa."

Judging from this, Dominic’s notion that H. hercules may well be the world’s biggest spider appeared to be in error – an assumption comprehensively confirmed when I received on 21 May an email from Dr George Beccaloni of the Natural History Museum containing the following crucial details:

"With regard to the West African baboon spider Hysterocrates hercules, it is certainly very large, but the heaviest spider known is undoubtedly the 175 gram [6.17 oz] female Theraphosa blondi listed by Guinness, and the largest in terms of legspan is the giant huntsman Heteropoda maxima, from caves in Laos, which has an accurately measured maximum legspan of 300 mm [12 in]...Any claims of larger spider specimens remain to be proven - and I don't think that any baboon spider is likely to displace the current champions!"

On 3 June, Jan Beccaloni, the museum’s arachnid curator, also emailed me, kindly enclosing some information received from fellow arachnologist and theraphosid specialist Ray Gabriel from the British Tarantula Society, who stated that H. hercules is only about two-thirds the size of T. blondi.

So there it was – everyone was agreed that H. hercules was neither the heaviest species of spider nor even the species with the greatest leg span. And that seemed to be the end of the matter, until, in a subsequent email, Dr Beccaloni suggested a highly entertaining means of publicising this former controversy – by staging at the Natural History Museum a filmed comparison by volume of the type specimen of H. hercules with a suitably sizeable specimen of T. blondi, supervised by a member of the Guinness World Records (GWR) team. Needless to say, I considered this to be an excellent idea, and passed it on at once to the editor of GWR, Craig Glenday, who thought so too, and was happy to act personally in the capacity of official adjudicator.

And so it was that my original investigation of H. hercules ultimately led to a filmed ‘Battle of the Spiders’ weigh-in at the Natural History Museum later last month (June 2011), conducted by Dr George Beccaloni and witnessed by Craig Glenday for GWR. Utilising Archimedes’ Principle of liquid displacement as a means of accurately determining the volume of the challenger (the H. hercules holotype) and the defender (a hefty adult female T. blondi called Tracy, a long-deceased pet of Jan Beccaloni) as both were preserved in alcohol, the two species’ rival claims to the title of the world’s heaviest spider were finally put to the test.

The Natural History Museum’s online press release, containing a video of this historic arachnological bout, can be viewed here.

And the result? Tracy’s volume was found to be more than double that of the H. hercules holotype. In short, a straight knock-out, with T. blondi the undisputed heavyweight spider champion, retaining its title with ease.

Even so, as a nonetheless respectably (albeit not superlatively) large species yet still known only from a single specimen, H. hercules retains an air of mystique. Moreover, Dominic Monaghan never did succeed in launching an expedition to look for it. Consequently, an excellent way to bring this investigation to a satisfactory close would be for an intrepid spider seeker to pursue the hercules baboon spider in the field, as the rediscovery of this long-lost semi-Shelob is certainly long overdue! Any takers?

A model of the LOTR’s mega-spider, Shelob (credit: Dr Karl Shuker)

I wish to thank everyone who assisted me during my researches into this fascinating case, in particular Dr George and Jan Beccaloni of the Natural History Museum, Ray Gabriel and Richard Gallon from the British Tarantula Society, Craig Glenday at Guinness World Records, and Dr Darren Naish for their most welcome expertise and interest.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

SEEKING THE SANDEWAN - ON THE TRAIL OF A TRAIL...OF BLOOD!

A trail of blood

Cryptozoology - the study of mystery animals - has a seemingly infinite capacity for springing surprises, by unfurling accounts of extraordinary beasts of the most unexpected nature, met with at the most unexpected times. So it was that when English zoologist Carina Norris, arrived in southern Africa during the late 1990s for a well-earned vacation, she little realised that she would soon be pursuing the unique trail of a bizarre creature that apparently had never been documented before in the cryptozoological chronicles (my book Mysteries of Planet Earth, 1999, became the very first to do so). Nevertheless, trail it she did, so here is the strange history of the elusive sandewan.

It was in northern Zimbabwe's Chizarira National Park where their white guide showed Carina and fellow members of her trekking party the sandewan's sinister but diagnostic trail - for whereas other beasts leave behind footprints, the sandewan always yields a trail of blood. Carina's guide claimed that this creature was very much a legend of the local native trackers, and was not spoken of by the country's white inhabitants. Nevertheless, the characteristic sign of the sandewan's recent presence here was undeniably visible for all to see. It occurred on an area of rocky ground, and consisted of a series of large red spots, each an inch or two across, which led towards a cliff face, where they simply petered out.

The guide commented that various 'orthodox' explanations for such enigmatic trails as these had been proposed in the past, such as spots of fruit juice left behind by frugivorous monkeys, or simply bird droppings. However, in Carina's opinion the spots certainly looked like blood, thus indicating that it was the trail left behind by a wounded animal. Moreover, as the trail consisted of discrete spots, it seemed more likely that the animal was running and therefore not badly wounded, rather than being an extensively wounded animal that might be expected to drag itself along the ground, and thus leave a smeared trail instead.

Needless to say, however, nothing in cryptozoology is quite so straightforward as this, and the sandewan is no exception. From the amount of blood present in the trail, it seemed reasonable to assume that the creature in question was fairly large. Yet when Carina and her party followed its sanguineous progression, they discovered that it passed under low branches and through narrow crevices, where only a very small animal could move. And how could it simply vanish when it reached the cliff face - unless, as in all the best lemming legends, it hurled itself over the edge; or simply flew away, on unsuspected wings?

According to local lore, if anyone is fortunate enough to capture a sandewan and presents it to the tribal chief, he will receive great riches. Unfortunately, however, there does not appear to be any record of what a sandewan actually looks like, so unless you are successful in following its bloodied trail and can stealthily pounce upon it, your chances of gaining such wealth are somewhat on par with winning the Lottery jackpot

Yellow-spotted rock hyrax (D. Gordon E. Robertson/Wikipedia

It has been suggested, on account of its preference for rocky terrain, that the sandewan may be a hyrax, a very small hoofed mammal superficially resembling a burly guinea-pig yet taxonomically akin to the elephants (I saw rock hyraces Procavia capensis when I visited Table Mountain and the Shamwari Private Game Reserve in South Africa during 2008). However, these mammals are herbivorous, whereas the sandewan's trail of blood (assuming of course that the substance in question is genuinely blood) implies a carnivore.

Although the biochemical nature of the sandewan's trail may be unique in cryptozoology, there are many other cases on record of mysterious tracks left behind by elusive beasts of wholly unknown morphology. One of the most peculiar of these is the amazing pe de garrafa ('bottle foot'), said to inhabit the dense verdant rainforests of Brazil. It is named after its extraordinary trail, which comprises a single line of deep prints resembling the circular holes that would be created by repeatedly pressing the bottom of a bottle into the ground!

Pe de garrafa (© Tio Merka


Among the various unsatisfactory identities that have been offered over the years for the mysterious maker of these tracks are an unknown form of bipedal South American ape, or even a deer with a broken leg. To quote the wry words of veteran cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans, however, in On the Track of Unknown Animals (1958):

"...it is hard to see how a limping animal could have left such a regular track, or indeed how anything short of a race of three-legged deer could have accounted for all the tracks of the pe de garrafa seen in the Amazon jungle."

Much closer to home, during the early snowy morning of 9 February 1855 a series of baffling tracks mysteriously appeared over a considerable area encompassing the Devon towns of Topsham, Lympstone, Exmouth, Teignmouth, and Dawlish. According to a detailed account published in The Times on 16 February, the track looked more like a biped's than a quadruped's. Each print was generally placed 8 in ahead of the one before, resembled a donkey's shoe, and measured 1.5-2.5 inches across. Moreover, these prints appeared in the most unexpected locations, running across the tops of houses and narrow walls, through gardens and courtyards enclosed by high walls, and even vanishing in the middle of open fields.

Painting of devil's hoofprints from 1855


Due to their mystifying nature and origin, Devon's eerie tracks became known as the devil's hoofprints. The most popular solution for them is they were made by fieldmice, but just like the sandewan's trail they have never been conclusively explained. A similar incidence of mystery tracks occurred during March 2009 in the Devon village of Woolsery.

As for the sandewan: unless someone can track it successfully to its lair, this bewildering beast's identity will doubtlessly remain unrevealed indefinitely. And as there are few things deemed by native hunters to be more dangerous than a wounded, bleeding animal - particularly one whose identity is not even known - how many hunters are likely to be brave (or foolhardy?) enough to attempt pursuing such a creature anyway?


UPDATE: 24 September 2012

Today, I was delighted to receive from Facebook friend Andrew D. Gable the following newspaper report concerning the sandewan, but this time from South Africa, showing that belief in this mystifying entity is not confined to Zimbabwe. Thanks, Andrew!

Sandewan newspaper report, Middlesboro (Kentucky) Daily News, 5 May 1939