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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Sunday, 5 August 2012


African lungfish

After reading an interesting cryptozoology post on the CFZ Bloggo re the buru, which mentioned my theory that this remarkable Asian mystery beast may be a giant lungfish, here is my full coverage of this subject, excerpted from my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007) after it had debuted in my book's original edition Extraordinary Animals Worldwide (1991). (Incidentally, I had originally posted this particular article on ShukerNature back on 31 January 2009, but in attempting to update it yesterday, it somehow was republished in its entirety here, thereby obliterating the earlier version.)

Known scientifically as dipnoans (‘double noses’) because they have external and internal nostrils, lungfishes are undoubtedly among the most unusual of all modern-day fishes, with an air-bladder modified into lungs (either single or paired) richly supplied with blood, paired fleshy fins, an odd but characteristic pointed tail, and an overall appearance reminiscent of some strange hybrid of eel and overgrown newt. Little wonder, then, that they so greatly perturbed zoologists when first discovered.

Although lungfishes have an extensive fossil history, only six modern-day species are known, which exhibit a curiously dispersed distribution. The first species to be brought to scientific notice was the tiny-finned, eel-like garamuru or South American lungfish Lepidosiren paradoxa, when in 1837 Dr Johann Natterer captured two specimens — one in a swamp on the Amazon’s left bank, and the other in a pool near Borba, on an Amazon tributary called the Madeira.

Next to be discovered were the four Protopterus species from Africa - P. aethiopicus, P. amphibius, P. annectens, and P. dolloi — slim-bodied with thin lengthy fins. And in 1870 the most primitive modern-day species was formally described from Queensland — Neoceratodus forsteri, the Australian lungfish. Much more robust than the others, with surprisingly sturdy, limb-like fins, and only a single lung (each of the other living lungfish species has a pair), Neoceratodus is considered sufficiently distinct to warrant its own taxonomic family; moreover, its teeth are so similar to those of the archaic fossil genus Ceratodus that it is thought of as a ‘living fossil’.

These, then, are the known present-day lungfishes — which, seemingly for no good reason, lack any type of Asian representative. Or do they? In fact, it is possible that until quite recently there was an extra species, much larger than the others, inhabiting certain swamplands in the Assam region of the Outer Himalayas.

In 1948, news correspondent Ralph Izzard of the London Daily Mail accompanied explorer Charles Stonor on a unique expedition to an eastern Himalayan swamp valley called Rilo, close to Assam’s Dafla Hills. The object of their expedition was to seek a mysterious creature called the buru, of which Stonor had learned during two trips made at the close of World War II with anthropologist J.P. Mills to another valley, to the north-east of these hills, called Apa Tani. According to the Apa Tani natives, the buru had been exterminated here when their ancestors had drained the valley’s swamplands. In contrast, the Rilo natives maintained that it still existed in their valley’s swamps.

Sadly, however, Stonor and Izzard failed to find any evidence for this assertion. Nevertheless, their searches were not wholly in vain. During the Apa Tani expeditions, Mills had meticulously recorded the detailed, quite matter-of-fact descriptions of the buru recounted by the Apa Tanis, which were based upon accounts passed down from their forefathers; and to those were added the largely comparable Rilo versions collected by Stonor and Izzard during their Rilo search. All of this information was carefully documented by Izzard in his subsequent book The Hunt For the Buru (1951), and the following is a summary of this animal’s description.

The buru was elongate, and roughly 11.5-13.5 ft in length - which included a 20-in head with a greatly extended, flat-tipped snout, behind which were its eyes. Its teeth were flattened, except for a single pair of larger, pointed teeth in both the upper and lower jaws, and its tongue was said to be forked. Its neck was about 3 ft long, and capable of being extruded or retracted. Its body was roundish, as was its tail, which tapered towards the tip, measured about 5 ft, and bore broad lobes running along the entire length of its upper and lower edges. The appearance of the buru’s limbs is somewhat uncertain: some of the natives attested that they were well-formed, roughly 20 in long, with claws; others asserted that they were nothing more than paired, lateral flanges, so that the animal seemed rather snake-like. Its skin was dark blue with white blotches and a wide white band down its body’s underside, and resembled that of a scaleless fish in texture.

As for the buru’s lifestyle, it was reputedly wholly aquatic, rarely venturing on to land even for a short time, but sometimes extending its neck above the water surface to utter a loud, bellowing sound. It did not eat fish. Lastly, but of particular interest, the Rilo natives said that when the swamps dried up during the dry season, the buru remained in the layers of mud and sludge on the swamp bottom.

Izzard believed that the buru might have been a modern-day species of dinosaur. Since his book, few writers have mentioned this mystery beast, and its identity remains very much a matter of controversy. In The Leviathans (revised 1976), the late Tim Dinsdale, the world-renowned Loch Ness monster authority, postulated from its description that it could have been some form of crocodile. Cryptozoologist Dr Roy P. Mackal, though, in Searching For Hidden Animals (1980), favoured a large species of water-dwelling monitor lizard. The riddle of the buru has intrigued me for a long time, and, after having given the matter some considerable thought, in this present book’s original incarnation, Extraordinary Animals Worldwide (1991), I offered a third contender - a giant lungfish. As I revealed, this identity provides a compelling correspondence relative to the buru’s general appearance and behaviour.

African Lungfish

One of the most awkward characteristics to explain when attempting to reconcile the buru with a large reptilian species is its tendency to remain ensconced within the swamp-bottom mud when the waters dry up during the dry season. Certainly it seems unlikely that either crocodiles or monitors would (or could) stay submerged in this manner for extended periods of time. In contrast, it is well known that Lepidosiren and two Protopterus species burrow into the mud when their streams dry out during the hot summer months, and remain duly encased, in a resting state called aestivation, until the water returns. Indeed, the first specimen of P. annectens brought to Europe from its native Gambia, in 1837, was transported here whilst still entombed within its cocoon of mud and secreted slime. If the buru is (or was) a lungfish, comparable behaviour could explain its otherwise anomalous actions during the dry season.

The buru’s head was said to terminate in a great snout, flattened at the tip. This is a fair description of the head of Lepidosiren and Protopterus, whose eyes, moreover, are closely aligned behind the snout - another buru characteristic. The teeth of lungfishes consist of rows that yield connected ridges borne on thickened, fan-shaped plates, flattened in form and thus comparing closely with the flattened teeth described for the buru. In some species, smaller tooth-plates occur that are less flattened and separate - these could explain the pointed pairs of teeth reported for the buru.

Lungfishes do not have long necks. However, a modern-day species with the eel-like body of Protopterus or (especially) Lepidosiren but with pectoral fins positioned further back on its body (thus paralleling the condition present in some extinct lungfish species) could appear to the untrained observer to have a long ‘neck’, as described for the buru. The buru’s round body and tapering tail are features exhibited by modern-day lungfishes, and the lobes of the buru’s tail could be explained as merely a slight elaboration of the normal tail-fin possessed by all living lungfishes (a characteristically primitive, pointed type referred to as being protocercal). Furthermore, the tail-fin of Protopterus is indeed split dorsally into slight flukes.

As for the buru’s limbs, the lungfish identity can provide a close correspondence whether they were true limbs with clawed feet (according to some native reports), or merely paired lateral flanges that made the animal seem snake-like (according to certain other native reports). On the one hand, Australia’s Neoceratodus has sturdy flipper-like pelvic and pectoral fins, with rough spiny edges that do resemble claws. And on the other hand, the fins of Protopterus and Lepidosiren are indeed little more than paired lateral flanges with no real resemblance to limbs, thereby enhancing these fishes’ anguinine appearance - to the extent that they could seem quite serpentine to a casual observer.

In actual fact, it is even possible that the buru had both types of limb (which would resolve the controversy regarding their shape). Like so many fish species, it might have been sexually dimorphic (i.e. possessing morphologically dissimilar sexes), with the limbs of one sex (probably the male) of more robust construction than those of the other.

The buru’s skin allegedly resembled that of a scaleless fish; closely conforming once again, the scales of Protopterus and Lepidosiren are concealed under a soft outer skin, so that they appear superficially scaleless. Also, whereas Lepidosiren and Neoceratodus are mostly brown in colour, Protopterus is pale pinkish-brown with dark blue-black blotches, so that it would not require too drastic a change in colour scheme to produce the buru’s bluish-brown shade and white blotches. Moreover, it is interesting to note that Africa’s Latimeria chalumnae, that celebrated lobe-finned fish known as the coelacanth – one of only two known survivors of an ancient piscean lineage (the other is the recently discovered Indonesian coelacanth L. menadoensis) and classed by some as the lungfishes’ closest living relative - is steely-blue in colour and dappled with numerous white blotches, only fading to a dull brown following its death.

The buru was alleged to be emphatically aquatic, rarely venturing onto land and never spending any length of time there. However, the natives stated that sometimes it had been seen raising its head up out of the water and making a bellowing noise. This scenario is one that has strong lungfish associations for me.

One of the most popular exhibits of the ichthyological practicals during my days as a zoology student at university was a living specimen of an African lungfish Protopterus, which was sometimes placed on display in order that we could observe its behaviour. As it happened, for much of the time there was actually very little that we could observe, because it would spend most of the practical resting motionless at the bottom of its tank. Every so often, however, and usually when everyone’s attention was diverted elsewhere, it would solemnly perform its pièce de resistance. All at once, without any prior warning, it would raise the front part of its large body upwards, until its head just touched the surface of the water. Sometimes it would then simply nudge the tip of its snout above the water surface, but if we were lucky (by now, everyone would have rushed up to its tank to watch its celebrated performance) it would actually raise its entire head, after which it would remain in this position for several minutes, ventilating.

South American lungfish

Although lungfishes have external nostrils, they breathe through their mouth, positioned at the very tip of the snout. This intake of air, readily perceived visually by the movements of its mouth and throat (proving that the lungfish is genuinely swallowing air) can also be very audible. The size of the buru was such that if it were truly a lungfish, the bellowing noise reported when its head was visible above the water might well have been the very audible result of its ventilation period.

According to native testimony, the buru was not piscivorous - in stark contrast to crocodiles and aquatic monitors. But what about lungfishes? It has been demonstrated that the diet of Protopterus depends upon its body size. Up to 1 ft long, it eats only insect larvae; between 1 and 2 ft, its diet is a mixture of insect larvae, snails, and the occasional fish; above 2 ft, it eats only snails. Among the other lungfishes, crustaceans are also popular (as is plant material with Neoceratodus). Thus a diet in which fish is only an insignificant inclusion is typical for lungfishes.

All in all, there would seem to be only one noteworthy discrepancy between the buru’s appearance and that of lungfishes - its forked tongue. This is a feature typical of monitors, certain other lizards, and snakes, but not of lungfishes. In view of the overwhelming degree of correspondence with lungfishes on other morphological grounds, however, it is quite probable that this feature was not a genuine component of the buru’s make-up, but rather a fictional flourish — especially as it is common amongst primitive tribes from many parts of the world to ascribe a forked tongue to a creature (sometimes even to another tribe’s members) that they fear or dislike.

In summary, on virtually every count a lungfish identity corresponds more than adequately with native descriptions of the buru. Overall, it seems to compare most closely with the elongate Lepidosiren or Protopterus, but its much larger size and possible Neoceratodus-like fins imply that it would have probably required a brand-new genus.

Worthy of brief mention is a second putative identity for the buru involving a strange type of freshwater fish (again previously unconsidered), a type which, although totally unrelated to lungfishes, provides some striking parallels with them, and hence with the buru. Last survivors of an ancient line, the bonytongues or osteoglossids have an oddly discontinuous distribution, existing in northern Australia, south-east Asia, West and Central Africa, and eastern South America - thus almost precisely mirroring the distribution of the lungfishes, except, of course, for Asia. Moreover, they are long, cylindrical species, the most famous being the mighty 7-ft-long arapaima or pirarucu Arapaima gigas of South America, with flattened head and snout, oddly shaped fins, and, most intriguing of all, an air-bladder modified as a lung - all features again exhibited by the lungfishes.

Most striking of all in terms of parallel lifestyles, however, is the bonytongues’ method of breathing. For most of the time they remain beneath the water surface, but every so often they raise their body upwards, and poke their mouth up through the surface to gulp air. Sounds familiar? On the other hand, unlike some lungfishes, bonytongues do not aestivate.

Nevertheless, it would require greater morphological changes to reconcile the buru with a bonytongue (even though there are already Asian forms) than with a lungfish. True, opponents of the lungfish identity might argue that the absence of any form of modern-day lungfish from Asia (though various fossil species have been found here) is a major obstacle to overcome. However, there is one final item of information that I have still to offer in favour of the lungfish identity, an item that could effectively provide this theory’s missing segment of credibility.

During my correspondence with Dr Roy Mackal regarding the buru, he informed me that he has collected excellent anecdotal reports that point to the existence in Vietnam of a 6-ft-long species of lungfish. Apart from being a zoological sensation, the discovery of such a creature would provide very considerable support for the identity of the buru as a larger, related species.

Clearly, as was shown in 1930 when the sole specimen of the enigmatic Australian paddle-nosed lungfish Ompax spatuloides was exposed as a hoax (constructed from a Neoceratodus head, mullet body, and platypus beak!), the lungfishes have a continuing potential for inciting violent controversy among scientists.

Australian lungfish


  1. Good article, Shuker!!!
    Ultimately this all depends on whether the natives---
    a) Know what a lungfish is, and
    b) Know about it ENOUGH to distinguish it from descriptions of the Buru.
    c) Like you said---maybe this is a different genus? A "giant lungfish?"

  2. Hi everyone!!. I have read something about the Buru, and it is a real puzzle!! It can be anything...a primitive fish (a sturgeon, a lungfish, but in some accounts, Burus have short legs with large claws...), a reptile (monitor lizard, gharial or any other odd crocodile), or an ancient amphibian, an extinct salamander...some people have said Burus were some kind of dinosaur!!!
    K. Adam

  3. You know, I always thought the Buru was some sort of "Aquasaurus", like an amphibious dino. But a lungfish is neat too!

  4. It's worth noting that despite Ompax being a hoax, there is a duckbilled lungfish, albeit a fossil species.

  5. This is indeed true - Griphognathus whitei, found in Australia's Gogo Formation, which dates back to the late Devonian Era.

  6. Is it possible that two separate animals, perhaps one a lung fish and the other perhaps something like a large monitor lizard could account for some of the differing characteristics of the buru?

  7. Many mystery beasts when investigated turn out to be more than one distinct type of animal whose respective eyewitness accounts have been wrongly combined together to yield a composite beast that doesn't actually exist. The nandi bear and the sea serpent are two famous examples of this, and the buru might well be another. So some accounts may indeed involve monitor lizards, others a giant lungfish, and the two different animal types have then been wrongly assumed to be one and the same mystery beast.

  8. Even though I find the idea interesting, I think a lungfish differs too much from the description. One has too ignore the tongue, the front teeth and the neck. The roundish body and the elongated/retractable neck remind me more of a turtle than of a fish. Even though it has no shell (Leatherskin turtle?). Furthermore, the idea that crocodiles cant remain in torpor in the mud for a long time is a fallacy, because there is a sizeable population of crocodiles in Africa that does exactly that. Lying in the mud till it dries up and then withdrawing into caves and burrows they dug themselves. I guess a monitor would be also capable of doing that. Last but not least, I cant see the threat factor of a giant lungfish. It would have to be gargantuan to seriously threaten humans... and quoting Wikipedia which in turn quotes all sorts of sources:
    "According to the Apatani elders, when their forefathers migrated to Jiro valley, the valley was primarily a marsh which was populated by Burus. The Apatani people decided to settle in the valley because of its fertility and good climate. But every now and then they would have confrontations with burus. So they decided to drain the marsh of its water and thus eliminate the Burus. Most of the Burus died because of the drainage, and many supposedly went underground into the springs.

    The last Buru was said to be reported by a young woman, who sighted it in a spring one night while she was drawing water. The startled lady told her father about the incident. The next day the whole village helped fill the spring with stones and clay." So the indigenous people actively exterminated them due to being threatened by these beasts and not just draining the swamps for farming. My personal guess would be some kind of overgrown salamander or a member of the crocodiliae.
    "Heuvelmans notes similar reported creatures from Western India under the name of "jhoors" where they seem to merge into the Iranian traditional dragon or ahi (Azi Dahaka), which in Iranian art is basically a local stylistic adaptation of the Chinese dragon. George Eberhart notes rumors of a similar creature in the Tigris marshes of Iraq, called the afa, possibly the same thing as ahi. Heuvelmans also notes in his checklist of unknown animals that similar reports to the buru also come from Burma, and they might also relate to a reported lizardlike Meikong River monster."-Wikipedia.
    I find this quote very fascinating, even though I doubt that the afa is the same as the buru but the jhoors and whatever they call it in Burma might be related, and give me hope that there might be still something like a Buru alive in Burma. Something someone should look into someday...

  9. Hi Typhon, I agree that there are certain differences between the buru's description and a lungfish, but one has to allow for a degree of discrepancy and embroidering when dealing with eyewitness accounts, especially those that have been passed down or are at least second-hand. The forked tongue is an attribute commonly applied to beasts that alarm their observers in non-scientific cultures, and if it is a lungfish, it may be somewhat different in any case to those that we know from other zones around the world, just as the African, South American, and Australian forms all differ quite considerably from one another. Plus, as another reader mentions, it is quite possible that the 'buru' is a composite, created from accounts of differing animals having been wrongly amalgamated, as with Nandi bear reports, sea serpent reports, American thunderbird reports, etc. I've never read anything confirming that monitors can remain torpid in mud for any length of time at all, whereas obviously this is well-documented for certain lungfishes. As for the threatening nature (or lack of it) of a giant lungfish: if sufficiently sizeable, it may react aggressively if disturbed, not in a lethal manner but sufficiently belligerent to have acquired a bad reputation. Indeed, there are plenty of animals, especially vermiform ones, such as caecilians, amphisbaenians, giant earthworms, various harmless snakes and legless lizards, etc, that have acquired wholly unjustified bad reputations simply because they look potentially dangerous, not because they are. Like most cryptozoological puzzles, I think that the buru is a complex, multi-species conundrum, which in addition to a giant lungfish has incorporated monitor lizards and perhaps indeed crocodiles too into its scenario, to yield a wholly unreal beast, but which in any case, tragically, has now been exterminated and its habitat destroyed. All the best, and thanks for your very interesting and thought-provoking response to my article, Karl

  10. By the way do you think it could be a "Mekong lungfish" in this Youtube video ?!


  11. Nevermind it might just be a snakehead...