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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Wednesday, 11 July 2012

SOLVING THE MYSTERY OF SCHOMBURGK'S MISSING MICRO-SQUIRRELS - AND REVISITING TANZANIA'S FLYING JACKAL

Large-eared flying mouse Idiurus macrotis (Jonathan Kingdon - Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals)


It's often been said that good things come in small packages, and this is certainly true of the following cryptozoological case, in which the cryptid in question may be minuscule but is definitely no less memorable for that.

The German explorer/naturalist/film-maker Hans Schomburgk (1880-1967) earned a lasting, well-deserved place in zoological and cryptozoological history by rediscovering on 13 June 1911 the pygmy hippopotamus Choeropsis liberiensis, alive and well in Liberia – where it had long been known to the native people as the nigbwe, yet had been ignored by scientists.

Pygmy hippopotamus (Cliff1066/Wikipedia)

Indeed, until then this enigmatic species had generally been discounted as nothing more than a freak of nature, consisting merely of dwarf, stunted specimens of the larger, common hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius, or even as a juvenile form of the latter – despite American zoologist Dr Samuel G. Morton having officially named and described it as a valid, second species of hippo more than half a century earlier in 1849. Following its rediscovery by Schomburgk, however, studies confirmed its status as a valid and very distinct species in its own right. (For full details concerning the pygmy hippo's controversial history, see my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals (Coachwhip: Landisville, 2012).)

These were the first live pygmy hippos that I ever saw, at Bristol Zoo during the late 1960s/early 1970s (Maurice Beere)

Yet whereas Schomburgk became famous for refinding this erstwhile cryptid, it was by no means the only creature of cryptozoology that he had heard about during his numerous African expeditions. In his book Zelte in Afrika ('Tents in Africa'), published in 1957 but looking back upon his explorations and researches from the past six decades, he documented a number of very interesting mystery beasts, some of which were new to me when they were brought to my attention recently by German cryptozoological investigator Markus Bühler.



Although I'd heard of Schomburgk's book, and had read a little concerning his cryptozoological accounts in other publications, I'd never seen a copy of it. Nor had I received any excerpts or summaries from it, until Markus very kindly provided me with the following information:

"There are so many cryptids in Schomburgk´s "Zelte in Afrika", including some he has seen himself, which were nowhere else documented...

"He wrote for example he once encountered several small mammals which looked like tiny squirrels, and which were extremely tame. They were so cute he didn't want to kill one for his collection, and later he learned these animals were never seen before (and never again)...

"There were also some stories which he heard from natives, but without further information, about a giant hyaena, a "jungle tiger" and I think also a mokele-mbembe-like animal. If I remember correctly he also brought a sculpture of some kind of water monster back to Germany, which was in the archives of the ethnological museum at Hamburg, but later given back (but there is still a copy I think). It's already been some time ago since I read the book the last time, but there are really a whole lot of great stories, and a lot of information about water elephants."

As I was so intrigued by the tantalising snippets above, Markus checked through his copy of Zelte in Afrika for further details, and this is what he found:

"Luckily I have put a bookmark at the pages which mention some cryptids.

"So here are some animals which are sadly only mentioned: the lion-tiger (not jungle tiger as I thought) of Senegal, the giant hyaena, the water-leopard [of] Mafue [near Zambia's Lukanga Swamp] which is depicted in the sculpture he discovered.

"He also heard reports about chimpekwe [aka chipekwe] at Lake Bangweulu [in Zambia].

"He mentions also a creature called koo-be-eng, some kind of giant snake-like reptile with a horn on its head, which lives in the water and eats big animals. He wrote that there is a depiction of such a beast in a cave at Brackfontein [in South Africa].

"There is also kou-teign-koo-rou - lord of the water, which was said to be bigger and stronger than a hippo and also living in swamps.

"Bushmen caught it with very strong traps, and he mentions also depictions.

"He also heard tales about the animal tu from the upper part of Morfi River [in Liberia], which was said to be as big as a goat, with teeth of a dog, black fur, and to be quite vicious.

"And a giant ape from Vey-Land which was like a huge greyish yellowish chimp with long fur, which kills or mutilates humans."

Although all of these beasts sounded very interesting (I was already aware of the tu, chipekwe, and water leopard, but not the others), the one that fascinated me most was the Liberian micro-squirrel. For although Schomburgk had stated that these delightful little creatures had never been seen again since his encounter with them, they instantly reminded me of an obscure but formally-described and definitely still-surviving species that I had read about somewhere else. So I asked Markus if he could provide me with a translation into English from Schomburgk's book of the entire passage describing them, and here it is: (Thanks, Markus!)

"During my search for Choeropsis liberiensis I found a bush which was full of lovely small animals. Full of beans, they were. They were grey-brown coloured, reminiscent of tiny squirrels. I put my hand in the bush. The tiny cute beasts whizzed on my palm, stood upright like small rabbits and jumped from finger to finger. Noticeable was the long tail, with feather-like erected hairs. When I tried to hold one on it, it broke off. I repeated this experiment, but always with the same result, so brittle was this, with a thin skin-covered chain of tiniest vertebrae. Surely they were some kind of pygmy mouse. As I was on a hunt, I had no vessel with me, in which I could have caught one of the beasties alive. Only the spirit jar, which one of my native helpers carried. I let him uncap it, to include at least one or two of these beings in my collection. But at this moment the tiny mice looked at me with their big wide eyes in such a clever trusting way, I had not the heart to exploit their trust in the giant who was so mysterious to them. It doesn't have to be today, I thought. I will come back tomorrow or the day after tomorrow and incorporate the lovely bush pygmy mouse into my menagerie. But never again, neither back then nor later, have I or any other explorer found any sign of this odd little animal. And what grieves me most: since then, I have learned that I'd had an animal in my hand that had never been seen in my homeland and which was unknown to science. I have enriched zoology with some discoveries: the Bubalus schomburgki (a type of Liberian buffalo), the already mentioned shell Mutela hargeri schomburgki, five species of earthworm, from which two have my name as well. However, my lively little mouse belongs to those animals that exist yet which have still not been secured for science."

After reading this account, conversely, I was even more convinced that I knew the identity of Schomburgk's mystifying little mammal, because many years earlier I had read about another famous naturalist not only seeking but successfully encountering what seemed to be an identical mini-beast elsewhere in West Africa. The book in which this search appeared was The Bafut Beagles (Rupert Hart Davis: London, 1954), recounting the author's many adventures during a private expedition to Cameroon in 1949, collecting wild animals to sell to zoos. And the name of that author? None other than Gerald Durrell.

My much-treasured Penguin paperback edition of The Bafut Beagles (the very first Gerald Durrell book that I ever read, and which swiftly led to my devouring each and every other book written by him!)

One creature that Durrell was particularly anxious to find and collect while in Cameroon belonged to a fascinating but scarcely-known genus of rodents – Idiurus, the flying mice (a somewhat unfortunate name, as they are not mice, and they glide rather than fly!). And the species of Idiurus that he was seeking was I. kivuensis (which, as will be seen, has a somewhat convoluted taxonomic history).

Idiurus kivuensis as depicted in The Bafut Beagles (Ralph Thompson)

Idiurus is one of three genera of squirrel-like rodents belonging to the taxonomic family Anomaluridae. Exclusively African, this family's members are known collectively as anomalures ('strange tails') or, more colloquially, as scaly-tails, because they are all characterised by two rows of overlapping keeled scales on the underside of their tail near the base. Moreover, all but one species also possess a pair of gliding membranes, linking their front and hind limbs on each side of their body.

Three species of scaly-tail, including both species of flying mouse (Jonathan Kingdon - Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals)

Consequently, scaly-tails superficially resemble true flying squirrels or petauristids, but their cranial structure is very different, so they are only distantly related to those latter rodents. Instead, their outward similarity is due to convergent evolution (so too is that of the even more distantly related flying phalangers - a group of squirrel-like gliding marsupials native to Australia).

The smallest scaly-tails are the so-called flying mice or pygmy scaly-tails, belonging to the genus Idiurus. Today, only two species are recognised – I. macrotis, the long-eared flying mouse (formally described in 1898, and native to western and central Africa, ranging from Sierra Leone to the Democratic Republic of Congo); and I. zenkeri, Zenker's flying mouse (formally described in 1894, and native to central and central-west Africa, ranging from Cameroon to the Democratic Republic of Congo).

Zenker's flying mouse (Eveha/Wikipedia)

At the time of Durrell's expedition, however, a third species was also recognised – I. kivuensis, the Kivu flying mouse. When this was originally described in 1917 by Swedish mammalogist Dr Einar Lönnberg, he had categorised it as a subspecies of I. zenkeri, but in 1946 mammalogist Robert W. Hayman from London's Natural History Museum had elevated it to the level of species. Thus it remained until 1963, when it was reclassified by Belgian mammalogist Prof. Walter N. Verheyen as a subspecies of I. macrotis, a status that it has retained ever since.

So the Idiurus that Durrell encountered in Cameroon during his 1949 expedition there - and documented in a charmingly entitled chapter 'The Forest of Flying Mice' within his book - is nowadays deemed to be a subspecies of Idiurus macrotis, the long-eared flying mouse.

Long-eared flying mouse Idiurus macrotis (Ed Stauffacher/Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopaedia)

And here is Durrell's description of the very first specimen that he succeeded in capturing:

"He was about the size of a common House Mouse, and very similar to it in general shape. The first thing that caught your attention was his tail: it was very long (almost twice as long as his body), and down each side of it grew a fringe of long, wavy hairs, so the whole tail looked like a bedraggled feather. His head was large, and rather domed, with small, pixie-pointed ears. His eyes were pitch black, small, and rather prominent. His rodent teeth, a pair of great bright orange incisors, protruded from his mouth in a gentle curve, so that from the side it gave him a most extraordinarily supercilious expression. Perhaps the most curious part about him was the 'flying' membrane, which stretched along each side of his body. This was a long, fine flap of skin, which was attached to his ankles, and to a long, slightly curved, cartilaginous shaft that grew out from his arm, just behind the elbow. When at rest, his membrane was curled and rucked along the side of his body like a curtain pelmet; when he launched himself into the air, however, the legs were stretched out straight, and the membrane thus drawn taut, so that it acted like the wings of a glider."

Later on, by smoking a tree containing more Idiurus specimens in the hope of capturing some without harming them, Durrell was able to see these tiny creatures take to the air, and what a remarkable sight it was:

"I have seen some extraordinary sights at one time and another, but the flight of the flying mice I shall remember until my dying day. The great tree was bound round with shifting columns of grey smoke that turned to the most ethereal blue where the great bars of sunlight stabbed through it. Into this the Idiurus launched themselves. They left the trunk of the tree without any apparent effort at jumping; one minute they were clinging spread-eagled to the bark, the next they were in the air. Their tiny legs were stretched out, and the membranes along their sides were taut. They swooped and drifted through the tumbling clouds of smoke with all the assurance and skill of hawking swallows, twisting and banking with incredible skill and apparently little or no movement of the body. This was pure gliding, and what they achieved was astonishing. I saw one leave the trunk of the tree at a height of about thirty feet. He glided across the dell in a straight and steady swoop, and landed on a tree about a hundred and fifty feet away, losing little, if any, height in the process. Others left the trunk of the smoke-enveloped tree and glided round it in a series of diminishing spirals, to land on a portion of the trunk lower down. Some patrolled the tree in a series of S-shaped patterns, doubling back on their tracks with great smoothness and efficiency. Their wonderful ability in the air amazed me, for there was no breeze in the forest to set up the air currents I should have thought essential for such intricate manoeuvring."

Idiurus airborne, as depicted in The Bafut Beagles (Ralph Thompson)

As its common name suggests, a flying mouse does indeed look very murine in general form, because when at rest its gliding membranes are folded up tightly and thus are not readily noticeable (which would explain why Schomburgk never mentioned them). What is noticeable, conversely, as mentioned by Durrell, is its very lengthy, plumed tail, which is so fragile that it could certainly be snapped off if not handled with great care.

Moreover, whereas most scaly-tail species are solitary, those of Idiurus are colonial; indeed, the two Idiurus species have even been found associating together. In 1940, for instance, veteran American cryptozoologist and animal collector Ivan T. Sanderson recorded finding approximately 100 individuals of both Idiurus species living together in the same tree during his participation in the Percy Sladen Expedition to the Mamfe Division of Cameroon.

Idiurus ahoy! (Illustration source unknown)

Due to their primarily nocturnal lifestyle and highly elusive nature, however, even today the Idiurus scaly-tails remain virtually unknown not only to science but even to local hunters – as Durrell discovered during his Idiurus searches in Cameroon.

In conclusion: as can clearly be seen from the above accounts, the long-eared 'flying mouse' scaly-tail I. macrotis, whose zoogeographical range includes Liberia, so greatly resembles Schomburgk's description of his mysterious Liberian micro-squirrel that there can be little doubt the two mammals are indeed one and the same species – an opinion shared by Markus after I'd informed him of my thoughts concerning this case. Another longstanding if hitherto little-known cryptozoological mystery is duly solved, but many others documented by Schomburgk remain unresolved – for now!

Interestingly, this is not the first time that a scaly-tail has been at the core of a cryptozoological mystery, as ably demonstrated by the remarkable case of Tanzania's flying jackal - which I originally investigated in my book Extraordinary Animals Worldwide (1991) and returned to in its updated edition, Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007).

Late 19th-Century engraving of a large Anomalurus scaly-tail

As reported by Captain William Hichens in the December 1937 issue of a monthly magazine entitled Discovery, kraalsmen in what was then Tanganyika (now Tanzania) affirmed that an amazing beast known to them as the mlularuka or flying jackal, yet wholly unknown to science at that time, would frequently raid their mango trees and pomegranates during its flights at dusk, and would give voice to loud cries while on the wing. Not surprisingly, their reports were totally disbelieved and dismissed as arrant fantasy - until the ‘flying jackal’ was discovered!

A selection of scaly-tails (Clifford Lees, in A.H. Booth's Small Mammals of West Africa)


As I learnt from Dr Maria E. Rutzmoser of Harvard University’s Agassiz Museum, in 1926 zoologist Arthur Loveridge was in Tanganyika, collecting specimens for the museum, and at Vituri he succeeded in tracking down the mlularuka, but it was not a flying jackal. Instead, it was a large (2.5-ft-long) form of scaly-tail.

Although well-known in West and Central Africa at that time, their existence in East Africa had not previously been suspected. Consequently, the mlularuka was initially believed to be a new species, but was later shown to be a subspecies of an already wide-ranging species variously called Lord Derby's or Fraser’s scaly-tail Anomalurus derbianus. Hence it is now referred to as A. d. orientalis - a mythical flying jackal that was ultimately unmasked as an aerial squirrel-impersonator!

Lord Derby's (aka Fraser's) scaly-tail (Eveha/Wikipedia)

My sincere thanks to Markus Bühler for so generously sharing information from Schomburgk's book with me and also for very kindly supplying me with an English translation of the relevant passage from it concerning the Liberian micro-squirrels.

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