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!

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Monday, 30 April 2012

WOLVERINE, WOLVERINE, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?




It's always a great feeling when the lost is found, when a mystery is solved – and especially so when the lost had been lost, and the mystery concerning it unresolved, for over 40 years.

Right from a very early age, I had always been fascinated by mysterious and mythological creatures, making my eventual cryptozoological career little short of inevitable. And so it was that a certain episode of a Western show that my family and I viewed one Sunday afternoon on British television during the mid-1960s, when I was around six years old, engaged my attention to a far greater degree than might otherwise have been expected, given the fact that, normally, the Western genre held little if any interest for me.

The episode in question concerned the stalking of a family living alone in the American wilds a century or so ago by a mystifying but greatly-feared beast of such rapacious, belligerent, yet elusive nature that it was referred to superstitiously by the local native American people as a devil (a name that, as far as I could recall, also featured in the title of this episode). They also called it by another, more exotic-sounding name, and, as in all the best suspense movies, the creature itself was never seen, until the very end. Instead, the viewer had to be content with savage growls, rustles in the undergrowth, and off-screen activity.

Finally, the 'devil' was lured close enough to be shot, and at the denouement it was revealed to be an unexpectedly large specimen of a creature not generally encountered in those parts. But what exactly was that creature? Only at the end was its English name finally given, and it proved to be a species that, as a young child, I had never heard of before – the wolverine.


The wolverine, painted by John James Audubon


Known scientifically as Gulo gulo, native to boreal forests in northern North America and also northern Europe and northernmost Asia, the wolverine or glutton is the largest living terrestrial member of the mustelid family, growing to the size of a small bear. Moreover, it is infamously ferocious, powerful, intelligent, and tenacious, making it one of the most feared species of mammal throughout its range. Little wonder, then, that in the episode it had been referred to by the native people as a devil.



Beware the wolverine, my son! (with apologies to Lewis Carroll!)


This particular programme had a strong impact on me, as I had been enthralled waiting to discover what the mystery beast in it was, and I can remember watching it avidly a second time a couple of years or so later when the series in which it appeared was repeated on television (even though I now knew the creature's identity beforehand), but after that, nothing. As far as I am aware, neither the entire series nor this particular episode from it was ever broadcast on British television again. But what was the series?


Wolverine postcard from my collection (Norfolk Wildlife Park)


The years passed by, and despite remembering the wolverine episode in great detail, I never could recall the name of the series itself, and whenever memories of the episode periodically came to mind I always promised myself that I'd pursue this intriguing little mystery, but somehow I never did. Eventually, even the wolverine episode faded in my recollection until it became little more than a hazy, half-forgotten dream. And although I would often flick through books on vintage television, I never obtained any clues as to its series' identity.

Just like its subject, however, the wolverine episode was nothing if not tenacious, and recently it came to mind yet again – but now, armed with the vast research power of the internet, I decided that the time had come to track down this cryptozoological tele-phantom once and for all. I began my search on YouTube, in the hope that the episode, or at least an excerpt or two from it, had been posted there. I knew that I could still remember enough details to be able to recognise it, should it be there. But despite using a variety of key words – 'Western', 'television', 'wolverine', 'devil', '1960s' – nothing promising came up.

Wolverine at the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center, Coldfoot, Alaska


So I turned my attention to Google, and used the same key words in its search engine. After a time, I thought I'd discovered it, but it was a false lead. Google had turned up an episode from 1963 called 'The Wolverine' in a Canadian series entitled 'The Forest Rangers', in which a ferocious wolverine turns up in Indian River (the fictional location where this series was set), killing all the livestock there. This plotline certainly compared closely with the programme that I had seen, and the creature was even referred to in it by the same exotic name that I now recalled from 'my' episode – carcajou, an Ojibway name. But when I researched 'The Forest Rangers' series, I discovered that its rangers-focused storylines didn't accord at all with those of the series that I had viewed all those years ago. Exit 'The Forest Rangers'.

Happily, however, my continued Googling did finally achieve the long-awaited success that I had been hoping for, because there, at last, on my computer screen, was the answer. The series, first broadcast in 1966, was entitled 'The Monroes', which was produced by Qualis in association with 20th Century Fox Television, and included Michael Anderson Jr and Barbara Hershey (playing the parent-substitute figures of big brother and sister) among its stars.



It centred around the story of five orphans (aged from 18 down to 6 years of age) trying to survive in 1876 as a family on the frontier in the area around what is now Grand Teton National Park near Jackson, Wyoming, after their father and mother had drowned.



An official story book companion to 'The Monroes' (TheDamnÐœushroom/Flickr)


Running for just a single season, 'The Monroes' consisted of 26 episodes – the fourth of which, entitled 'The Forest Devil', was the wolverine episode that had played such a key role in kindling my interest in cryptozoology as a youngster and had afterwards teased and tantalised my mind for over four decades.

And as if my solving this longstanding mystery from my childhood was not satisfying enough, I then discovered that the entire episode had actually been uploaded on YouTube, in five parts. Needless to say, and for the first time since the mid-1960s, I duly sat back and watched 'The Forest Devil' – an experience made even more memorable this time by being able to view it in colour. For just like so many other families in Britain at that time, we'd only owned a black-and-white television during the 1960s, so until now I'd never seen this programme in colour.

Returning when an adult to a television show, a book, or even a location that had been so appealing as a child does not always live up to expectations, with the memory of it sometimes proving to have been much more special than the reality. However, I'm happy to report that in the case of 'The Forest Devil', it was every bit as thrilling and enjoyable now, even in these jaded 2010s, as it had been for me back in the 1960s, when everything was still bright and fresh and new and exciting.



In terms of cryptozoological significance, rediscovering 'The Forest Devil' hardly compares, for instance, with my recent solving of the long-baffling Trunko case, nor would it rank alongside the refinding of the legendary thunderbird photograph (should this ever happen one day), but, for me, it was just as eventful and satisfying. It also showed me that miracles, even if they are only very minor, personal ones, do indeed still happen in this mundane old world of ours. And that is something else well worth treasuring.


If you'd like to view 'The Forest Devil' on YouTube, here it is in five clickable parts:

'The Forest Devil', Part 1

'The Forest Devil', Part 2

'The Forest Devil', Part 3

'The Forest Devil', Part 4

'The Forest Devil', Part 5


Saturday, 28 April 2012

IN TUNE WITH THE NEW GUINEA SINGING DOG


An 11-month-old female New Guinea singing dog (Oldsingerman20/Wikipedia)


In addition to the many feral (run-wild) domestic dogs of relatively recent origin and varied appearance present throughout New Guinea, there may still exist in the more lofty reaches of its eastern highlands a very primitive canine form of much greater antiquity and well-defined morphology – the New Guinea singing dog.

This interesting animal resembles a short, fairly thickset Australian dingo with a broad vulpine face and varying coat colour (most commonly brown), but with a noticeably bushy tail that it sometimes curls to one side over its rump. It also compares closely with the dingo in relation to certain cranial-dental ratios held to be of significance in canid classification. Recent genetic research has revealed that both singing dog and dingo date back at least 4000 years, making them among the oldest of the ancient domestic dog breeds.


New Guinea singing dog, a very early surviving domestic dog breed (Valerie Abbott)


It was originally made known to the western world as long ago as 1606, when Diego de Prado reported finding specimens in southeastern Papua, while voyaging through the Torres Strait separating Papua from Queensland, Australia. The first specimen examined scientifically, however, was one that had been shot and killed by Sir William MacGregor on Mount Scratchley at 7000 ft in 1897, whose alcohol-preserved skin and skeleton were then sent by MacGregor to the Queensland Museum.

In 1957, Dr Ellis Troughton, Mammal Curator at the Australian Museum, classed it as a distinct species, dubbing it Canis hallstromi, in honour of Sir Edward Hallstrom (President of the Taronga Park Trust), and in an attempt to initiate further studies of this hitherto largely-ignored form that would determine its precise taxonomic status. Troughton based his description of this new species upon a pair housed at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. These had been received by Hallstrom in 1956 as a gift from Assistant District Officer J.P. Sinclair and Medical Assistant Albert Speer, who had obtained them while on patrol in the remote Lavani Valley in Papua's Southern Highlands District.



Long-obscure, the New Guinea singing dog has elicited significant taxonomic controversy (Patti McNeal/Wikipedia)


In 1971 Troughton published another paper treating C. hallstromi as a valid species; but two years earlier, following detailed studies of its breeding and offspring, Dr W. Schultz had proposed that it should be incorporated within the domestic dog’s species (Zoologischer Anzeiger, 1969). This was widely accepted, and today the creature is most commonly considered to be a long-established feral breed of domestic dog (as is the dingo), although a few researchers still favour its delineation as a separate species. Taxonomically, it has been classified variously as Canis familiaris dingo, C. lupus dingo, C. f. hallstromi, C. l. hallstromi, and C. hallstromi.



New Guinea singing dog with rare black-and-tan coat colouration


In any event, Troughton’s paper remains a very important contribution. It contains one of the most detailed accounts of this little-known dog currently available, documents early descriptions, details its relationship with the New Guinea natives (who looked upon it as a valued food item), and, most memorable of all, reveals that it does not bark, but gives vent to a curious howling whine instead. "A sort of whistling-yodelling" is the description given to me by Dr Desmond Morris, who was Curator of Mammals at London Zoo during the period when Sir Malcolm Sargent's pair was living there (see later). This last-mentioned characteristic has earned C. hallstromi its most popular English name, the New Guinea singing dog, and has inspired many unusual myths concerning it.


A New Guinea singing dog...singing! (R.G. Daniel/Wikipedia)


According to some, these animals harbour the souls of dead tribesmen, who communicate with their living relatives via the dogs’ yodelling. Moreover, the natives believe that by listening carefully to the specific tones of a given dog, the identity of the dead tribesman speaking with its voice can be instantly recognized. Also, their vocal abilities have inspired an interesting legend in the mythology of Port Moresby’s Motu tribe, claiming that it was these dogs that brought the gift of speech to humanity. And in the vicinity of eastern New Guinea’s Mount Hagen, the native people imitate this creature’s whistling yodels as an effective means of communicating with one another over great distances.


New Guinea singing dog at San Diego Zoo, California (Asim Bharwani/Wikipedia)

In earlier days, singing dogs were rarely seen beyond their New Guinea homeland, but nowadays they are widely exhibited in zoos around the world and are kept as house pets in North America. Conversely, they may not even exist any longer on a wild-living basis in New Guinea – no confirmed sightings have been documented since the 1970s there. Having said that, in 1988 Australian zoologist Dr Tim Flannery observed a number of possible specimens at Dokfuma (sceptics, however, claim that these may have been hybrids with domestic dogs rather than pure-bred singing dogs).



Murray, a pet New Guinea singing dog


On account of their name’s musical association, a pair of singing dogs was presented during the early 1960s as an undeniably original and delightfully appropriate gift to the eminent conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent, during one of his Australasian concert tours. Although Sir Malcolm became very fond of them, he had nowhere suitable to keep them, so in 1964 he donated the pair to London Zoo, where he visited them on several occasions thereafter, and where they soon became very popular attractions (raising a litter of cubs, containing some dingo blood). I can still readily recall my own first encounter with the London Zoo singing dogs, as it proved to be quite an unforgettable event.


New Guinea singing dog at London Zoo, 1960s (Zoological Society of London)


As a child of about six or seven at the time, I had read all about them in various books and magazines with unbounded fascination, and implored my parents to take me to see these wonderful dogs that could sing. When I reached their enclosure, one of them was at that very moment entertaining an enraptured audience with a thrilling rendition in falsetto fortissimo, so I eagerly thrust my way through the throng to obtain a closer view — a little too close for comfort, as it turned out.

I can only assume that its impromptu concert had proven too demanding for its voice, because just as I reached the front of the crowd, the singing dog stopped singing, turned around, and coughed violently and with unerring accuracy directly into my face! What a way to end its canine concerto! Still in a state of shock, I was swiftly dragged away by my mother, who was convinced that I would surely develop some hideous tropical disease. Needless to say, I did nothing of the kind but, not surprisingly, the whole incident remains one of my more vivid if unusual memories of childhood!


New Guinea singing dog - a yodelling dingo? (Tomcue2/Wikipedia)


Finally, I am greatly indebted to renowned zoologist Dr Desmond Morris, Curator of Mammals at London Zoo during much of the 1960s, for sharing with me the following priceless anecdote concerning these singing dogs. When Spike Milligan visited the zoo one day, Dr Morris showed them to him, and informed him that they belonged to Sir Malcolm Sargent. Spike’s opinion, given by way of reply, was, as always, purest Milliganesque:

“Their Bach is worse than their Bitehoven!”


Still from video of Exmoor Zoo's New Guinea singing dogs (Gillian Abram/Graham Farr)

The following delightful video of Exmoor Zoo's New Guinea singing dogs (the only ones currently on display in the UK) was filmed by Graham Farr and Gilliam Abram. Thanks very much, Graham and Gillian, for kindly permitting me to include your video here!



video


For further information concerning this enigmatic canid, I can heartily recommend the official website of the New Guinea Singing Dog Conservation Society - click here

This ShukerNature post is an expanded, updated version of the relevant section from my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited: From Singing Dogs To Serpent Kings (CFZ Books: Bideford, 2007).

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

WAS THE IZCUINTLIPOTZOTLI A CANINE QUASIMODO?



A 19th-Century engraving of the enigmatic but seemingly extinct izcuintlipotzotli



Sometimes, tragically, by the time that a cryptid attracts mainstream scientific attention, it is too late - the creature in question has already become extinct. Certainly, for example, it may be too late to secure a specimen of a still-unidentified creature formerly reported from Mexico - the unpronounceable izcuintlipotzotli - because it has not been reported for more than 150 years.

This bizarre beast first came to attention in 1780, courtesy of a tome entitled Historia Antigua de Mexico ('Mexico's Ancient History'), penned by Jesuit priest Father Francisco Javier Clavijero, a highly respected New World scholar. Inhabiting the Tarascan region of Michoacán in western Mexico, the izcuintlipotzotli was the size of a maltese terrier, with a small, wolf-like head, extremely short neck, lumpy muzzle, and small pendant ears. Strangely, its forelimbs were notably shorter than the hindlimbs, its skin was mottled with black, brown, and white spots, and - most striking of all - a grotesque hump (but possibly fatty rather than bony in composition) extended the entire length of its back, from its shoulders to its haunches. Indeed, part of its name, 'potzotli', translates as 'hunchback'.



So singular was its appearance that some zoologists questioned the accepted belief that the izcuintlipotzotli was a breed of dog (albeit an emphatically homely one), even speculating that it may be some exotic species of rodent! However, the few known engravings of it that exist (such as the example opening this present ShukerNature blog post) suggest that this idiosyncratic entity was even less like a rodent than a dog.

Whatever it was, however, the izcuintlipotzotli is no more. What appears to be the last documented mention of such a creature occurred in 1843, within Frances Calderón de la Barca's book Life in Mexico, noting a dead specimen that she saw hanging from a hook near the door of an inn visited by her in the valley of Guajimalco. I am not aware of any preserved museum specimens either. If anyone reading this does have any additional information, however, concerning the seemingly demised izcuintlipotzotli, I would greatly welcome receiving it.

This post is excerpted from my book Mysteries of Planet Earth: An Encyclopaedia of the Inexplicable (Carlton: London, 1999).


Monday, 23 April 2012

ST GEORGE AND A VERY POLYMORPHIC DRAGON

St George and the Dragon, painted as a wyvern-like creature by Paris Bordon (Dr Karl Shuker)


Today, 23 April, is St George's Day. So here, by way of celebration, is the never-before-seen unedited version of my retelling of the famous legend of St George and the Dragon that appeared in my book Dragons: A Natural History (1995). Interestingly, as seen from the illustrations included here, down through the ages artists have visualised St George's reptilian foe in an unparalleled diversity of shapes, sizes, colours, and forms – everything, in fact, from a serpent dragon and lindorm to a wyvern and both wingless and winged classical dragons. Verily, a polymorphic dragon forsooth!

Here's one I slew earlier! (Dr Karl Shuker)


ST GEORGE AND THE DRAGON OF SILENE

It was the dawn of the 3rd Century AD - and now it was also the dawn of the doom-laden day that the king of Silene, in Libya, had long been awaiting with icy dread. For today, his beloved, only daughter would be sacrificed to the marsh-dwelling monster that had been terrorising his land for what seemed like an eternity of hope-enveloping horror.

A 15th-Century plaque from Georgia, depicting St George slaying an unusually attractive dragon adorned with multicoloured tesselate scaling

He could still recall with painful clarity this baleful beast's first appearance - a huge winged dragon with long, spiralling tail and olive-green, crocodilian scales, venturing forth from Silene's vast, unpenetrated swamplands many months ago, and choking the countryside with stifling, stench-laden clouds of poisonous vapour that blighted everything it embraced.

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones portrayed St George's reptilian aggressor as a mail-encased crocodilian form of wingless classical dragon

In an attempt to quell its venomous violation of Silene, the local farmers had fed the monster with two sheep each day - a strategy that succeeded until the day came when there were no more sheep, whereupon the reptilian tyrant recommenced its own strategy, of devastation by asphyxiation. That was when, with heavy heart and mortified soul, the king had finally agreed to the daily sacrifice of a child, in the hope of assuaging the dragon's wrath long enough for some miracle to deliver Silene from this animate abomination.

A rare beast indeed – this early depiction of St George and the dragon by an artist unknown (at least to me!) depicts the dragon as a winged lindorm!

The days, and the weeks, had fled by, and no miracle had appeared - until at last, the morning had come when it was now the turn of the king's own daughter, the fair princess Alcyone, to be tied to a stark wooden stake at the swamp's perimeter and surrendered to the loathsome creature concealed within it. No-one suspected that the miracle for which the king and everyone else in Silene had prayed so earnestly and for so long was about to occur.

Yurigor Bachev's dazzlingly spectacular portrayal of St George battling a wyvernesque dragon

Bound upright to the stake, the princess had been standing there for only a few moments when her face grew ashen with fear, for she had heard the sounds of thunderous footsteps approaching ever nearer - assuredly the herald of her impending doom. Suddenly, however, she realised that the sounds were emanating not from the swamp ahead, but from the plains directly behind her, so she craned her neck back to discover what, or who, was responsible - and saw a tall knight, ensheathed in silver-grey armour with a breast-plate of white, upon which was emblazoned a scarlet cross. He had just dismounted from a cream-coated charger, and was carrying a long lance and a white shield, adorned once again with a cross of scarlet, as he walked briskly towards the tethered maiden.

Leonard Porter's beautiful portrayal of the popular, romanticised image of St George and the dragon, with the latter as a small but archetypal winged classical dragon

It did not require much explanation from the princess to acquaint the knight fully with the situation - and he in turn wasted little time in lengthy accounts concerning himself. His name was George, he had grown up in Cappadocia, eastern Turkey, and had been a soldier in the Roman army before becoming converted to Christianity. Now he served under no-one but God, spreading the Lord's word wherever he journeyed.

This wonderful stained-glass window (artist unknown) overlooking the staircase at my home portrays St George's vanquished antagonist as a serpent dragon, sans limbs and wings

A corporeal manifestation of evil, the dragon embodied everything that George had pledged to confront and conquer - and so, heedless of her pleas to save himself while there was still time, George untied the princess and stood in her stead, valiantly prepared for battle with her monstrous foe. He did not have to wait long. Without warning, the dense reed beds fronting a steaming quagmire close by were thrust apart, as a great reptilian head borne upon a powerful neck forced its way through them, followed by a massive body supported on four muscular limbs, and a lithe tail twisting furiously like a living corkscrew.

Carpaggio's breathtaking masterpiece, portraying the dragon in classical four-limbed winged mode

During his travels through many strange lands, George had seen all manner of vile, misbegotten apparitions, but nothing prepared him for the wave of nauseous revulsion that swept over him as he beheld the dragon of Silene. Dripping with bilious, stinking slime that emphasised the livid hue of its scales, the hideous creature resembled a misshapen, obscene pile of rotting meat - green with putrefaction, oozing with decay, and reeking of death.

Portrayed here by Jost Haller, the dragon is disconcertingly mammalian in form - so much so, in fact, that I find myself feeling a distinct pang or two of unease when viewing its demise

Longing to avert his eyes and nose from such a sickening presence but intent upon vanquishing it from the face of the earth, George raised his right arm, and was just about to plunge his lance into the monster's head when two shapeless lumps flanking its neck's broad base suddenly burst into life - and to his bewilderment, George found himself surrounded by a flurry of blazing eyes. Everywhere he looked, they glowed and dazzled him, hypnotising him with their terrible allure - until he raised his arm again, and hurled the lance with all his might into the very heart of this spellbinding vista of unblinking, dancing orbs.

St George and the Dragon, painted as an ocellate-winged wyvern by Paolo Uccello

A terrible scream rent the air, and the eyes vanished. No longer mesmerised by their movement, the knight looked down - and there lay the dragon, still alive but mortally wounded, his great lance protruding through its upper jaw and into its throat. And over its body, like an ornate shroud, lay its immense wings - whose bright ocellated markings, resembling an array of brilliant eyes, had so effectively bewitched George's vision.

George, by George! - St George and a classical winged dragon, as painted by George Scott

Running to him in delight came the princess Alcyone, and once they had tied the girdle of her dress around the subdued dragon's neck they returned on horseback to her father's castle, leading the monster alongside George's mighty steed. There, in return for the knight's promise to slay the dragon, the overjoyed king and subjects of Silene willingly agreed to be baptized by him and thus be converted to the Christian faith. True to his word, George beheaded their onetime oppressor forthwith, and after bidding farewell to Alcyone her valorous deliverer rode away, into a future that would shortly transform him into a Christian martyr, and, many centuries later, into a certain race of medieval Crusaders' patron saint - thereafter to be known forever as St George of England.

St George and the Dragon, painted by Rogier van der Weyden

Of course, if you're wondering how I could have just stood by and allowed such a cryptozoologically-priceless specimen as a dragon be cruelly slain by St George, the answer is that I didn't - and here's the evidence! Cute little guy, isn't he? ;-)

With a fiery little friend! (Dr Karl Shuker)

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

FORTEAN TIMES REVIEWS MY TWO MOST RECENT BOOKS



The following reviews of my latest books - Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2010) and The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals (Coachwhip Publications: Landisville, 2012) - appear in the May 2012 issue of Fortean Times (FT #287), together with competitions to win signed copies of each of them. Check out the reviews below:

Monday, 16 April 2012

A SEA SNAIL WITH ANTLERS...AND PAWS!

The Sarmatian Sea's antlered, paw-footed mega-snail, as depicted in Paré's book (colourised version)


Just when you think that the world, particularly the cryptozoological world, couldn't possibly get any stranger...

Roll up, roll up, ladies and gentlemen – I am proud to present before you, all the way from the Sarmatian Sea, the one and only giant monster sea snail with antlers, and paws!

It's amazing what you find when looking for something completely different. Browsing through some early books recently in search of some relevant illustrations appertaining to mystery cats for my forthcoming second book on magical, mythological, and mysterious felids of many forms, I chanced upon the following astonishing beast from a medieval bestiary cum medical encyclopaedia entitled On Monsters and Marvels, written by Ambroise Paré, a 16th-Century French surgeon.

Citing as his source of information the twentieth volume of Cosmography - which had been authored by one of his contemporaries, André de Thévet (1516-1590), a French Franciscan priest who was also a celebrated writer, explorer, and cosmographer - Paré reported that the Sarmatian or Eastern Germanic Sea (both are early names for the Baltic Sea) is home to a truly monstrous species of sea snail.

As thick as a wine cask, this singular and very sizeable creature is instantly distinguished from all other such molluscs by virtue of its pair of deer-like antlers. These decidedly unsnail-like accoutrements are borne upon the upper region of its head, and at the tip of each branch on each antler is a small, round, lustrous bulb resembling a fine pearl. By contrast, this snail's eyes, which in less exotic gastropods can be found at the tips of a pair of optic tentacles, are laterally sited on its head, just like those of many vertebrates, and glow brightly like candles.

Paré's tale of a very strange snail! Has a creature like this ever truly inhabited the Baltic Sea?

Equally unexpected was Paré's claim that this very odd creature sports a roundish nose reminiscent of a cat's, complete with whisker-like hair all around it, plus a wide slit-like mouth beneath which hangs a fleshy projection of hideous appearance.

And as if antlers and a feline nose are not sufficiently bizarre characteristics for a sea snail (or, indeed, any other type of snail) to boast, eschewing the usual monopodial mode of locomotion common to normal gastropods this extraordinary marine mollusc possesses four fully-differentiated limbs, each with its own wide, hooked paw. It also sports a fairly lengthy tail, bearing a varicoloured tigerine pattern. Moreover, the image accompanying this morphological description in Paré's book shows the Sarmatian Sea's antlered mega-snail to bear a very large and sturdy, heavily annulated, whorled shell upon its back.

This remarkable creature apparently spends much of its time out at high sea on account of its timid nature, but is sufficiently amphibious to be able to venture forth onto the seashore during fine weather in order to graze upon any marine plant life present there. An edible species itself, its flesh is said to be very delicate and tasty to eat, and its blood reputedly has medical properties, ameliorating sufferers afflicted with leprosy.

Needless to say, no snail corresponding with the description communicated in turn by Paré from Thévet's work is known to modern-day science. So could the giant antlered snail of the Sarmatian Sea be as mythical as the web-footed camphurch unicorn, the mer-folk, the winged unipodal humanoids, and certain other unquestionably fabulous entities also documented by these authors, or is it merely a somewhat distorted description of some bona fide animal?

A beautiful colour plate from a 1904 tome by Ernst Haeckel depicting a varied selection of spectacular nudibranchs

Reading it through, I was reminded somewhat of the nudibranchs or sea slugs, many of which are extremely flamboyant in appearance, with all manner of ornate, plume-like embellishments known as cerata arising dorsally and laterally from their body, which may conceivably explain the 'limbs' and 'paws' reported for this creature. Nudibranchs also have a pair of long cephalic (head-borne) tentacles, and if a species existed whose tentacles bore projections they may resemble antlers. Moreover, the two eyes of nudibranchs are sited directly on their body, just behind the head, not on optic tentacles like those of snails, so a pair of laterally sited eyes would not be impossible. And nudibranchs are well documented from the Baltic Sea.

However, such an identity is instantly wrecked by the Sarmatian antlered snail's hefty shell, because nudibranchs are shell-less. In addition, all known nudibranchs are carnivorous, not herbivorous. And even the largest known nudibranchs do not exceed 2 ft long – a far cry from any gastropod as thick as a wine cask.

So what is the likeliest identity of this mystery mollusc? Might it possibly have been an unknown species that became extinct before modern-day science was ever able to confirm its reality and add it to the zoological catalogue of formally-recognised life-forms? Or could such an incredible creature as this never have been anything more than a wholly imaginary beast confined to the pages of early travelogues and compendia of monsters? To be, or not to be? That, indeed, is the question.

A splendid, wholly original representation of the Sarmatian Sea's antlered mystery snail by Avancna (click here to visit Avancna's page on DeviantArt's website)

Monday, 9 April 2012

ZEBRA CROSSINGS - THE DAY I MET A ZORSE, A ZONKEY, AND A ZEEDONK!

Mammalian Hybrids, 2nd edition (1971) – its front cover depicts a young zebronkey at Colchester Zoo


Back in the early 1970s, when still a child, I read with great interest that Colchester Zoo in Essex had on display a remarkable creature known as a zonkey or zebronkey – a hybrid of zebra and donkey. Sadly, however, even though my parents took me to numerous zoos all over Britain during my childhood and teenage years, somehow we never did visit Colchester's, and as there were no such hybrids anywhere else in the country at that time, this meant that I never did see one of these fascinating animals.

All of that changed a mere 40-odd years later, however, when, just over a week ago, on Saturday 31 March 2012, to be exact, I had the great pleasure of visiting Donkey Rescue UK, based just outside Bridgnorth in Shropshire. For here, not only did I finally see a zonkey, I was also fortunate enough to see a zeedonk and a zorse.

Zulu, Donkey Rescue UK's beautiful zorse (Dr Karl Shuker)

But what exactly are zorses, zonkeys, and zeedonks, not to mention zebroids, zebryls, zeehorses, zebrulas, zebrasses, zebrets, zonies, hebras, donkras, quorses, and a host of other equally strange-sounding equids on record, and how do they (or do they) all differ from one another? Let me now explain – or try to!

The terminology for zebra Equus spp. x domestic horse E. caballus, zebra Equus spp. x domestic donkey E. asinus, and the respective reciprocal crosses is nothing if not confusing, to say the very least. For instance: in the past, 'zebroid' was usually applied to zebra x horse crossbreeds in either direction, but is nowadays most commonly used as a generic term for all equid hybrids featuring zebras.

'Zorse' is the term most widely applied to any ♂zebra x ♀horse hybrid (other terms in use for this hybrid type are 'zebrula', 'zebrule', 'zebryl', 'zeehorse', 'zebra mule', and 'golden mule'). The rarer reciprocal cross (♂horse x ♀zebra) is known as a hebra, horbra, zebrinny, or zebret. And the offspring of a ♂zebra and a ♀pony is a zony.

The terms 'zonkey' and 'zeedonk' can be found commonly in use as generic terms for all zebra x donkey hybrids. Moreover, 'zonkey' is also applied more specifically as a term for ♂zebra x ♀donkey hybrids. Other terms for these include 'zebronkey' (aka 'zebonkey'), and 'zebrass'. Similarly, 'zeedonk' is also applied more specifically to the much less common reciprocal cross; another term for this latter hybrid is 'donkra'.


ZULU'S A ZORSE, OF COURSE, OF COURSE!

The first of the three zebroids that I encountered at Donkey Rescue UK was a beautiful zorse, called Zulu. Almost five years old, Zulu is currently the only zorse in the UK, and came here from the USA. His father is a Grant's zebra Equus quagga boehmi (a subspecies of the plains zebra) and his mother is a grey Arab horse. As can be seen in my photos, his black stripes overlay his coat's brown background colouration, and although this will fade to grey in years to come, his stripes will remain black. Apparently his senses are more acute than those of a horse.

Zulu the zorse at Donkey Rescue UK (Dr Karl Shuker)

Zorses are by no means a modern-day creation. On the contrary, they were being bred as long ago as the 19th Century. One notable example from that period was a very handsome male specimen called Romulus, as seen here when photographed as a one-year-old in 1899.

Romulus, a zorse from 1899

Moreover, zonies bred by mating Chapman's zebras E. q. chapmani with ponies were utilised by the Boers during the South African Wars (1879-1915) as transport animals, particularly for hauling heavy guns. One of these zonies, captured by British forces, was presented by Lord Kitchener to King Edward VII, which the king in turn placed in the Zoological Society of London's care on 19 July 1902, by which time it was two years old. The following illustration of this zony appeared in the Society's Proceedings for 1903:

The zony given to the Zoological Society of London by Edward VII

Even so, zorses didn't attract widespread public attention until the late 1940s, following the successful breeding of Grevy's zebra E. grevyi x horse hybrids on the farm of African explorer Raymond Hook, situated near to Nanyuki in Kenya. It all began when Hook captured an 18-month-old male Grevy's zebra in 1944, and introduced it to his farm's herd of horses. The young zebra was soon adopted by one of the herd's mares acting as a foster mother, it grew to adulthood, and from the age of six until its retirement 14 years later it regularly mated with various of the mares to yield a continuing supply of Grevy's zorses. In 1955, the first of these (born in 1949) was sold to an exhibition in Florida called 'Africa USA', where it received notable publicity, so afterwards Hook sold many more Grevy's zorses to zoos and parks worldwide.

In general appearance, a Grevy's zorse possesses its mother's background coat colouration. However, its father's characteristic fine striping is readily apparent upon its face and legs, and to varying extents upon its body too, running down from the dark line along its spine almost as far as its pale underparts.

In contrast, a Grevy's hebra - bred from the reciprocal cross ((♂horse x ♀Grevy's zebra) - exhibits a less pronounced degree of striping.

Zorses and hebras bred from other zebra species have comparable appearances to their respective Grevy's-bred counterparts, although their limbs actually possess more stripes than those of their pure-bred zebra parent if they have been sired by a stallion belonging to any of the subspecies of the plains zebra E. quagga [=burchelli].

If a patterned horse, such as a roan, Apaloosa, pinto, piebald, or skewbald, is mated with a zebra, the hybrid offspring possesses stripes, but usually only on the non-white areas. If the horse was chestnut or bay, some exceptionally beautiful hybrids known as golden zorses or golden zebras can result.

A golden zorse – the exquisite progeny of a zebra and a chestnut/bay horse

Perhaps the most celebrated hebra on account of its extremely unusual, eyecatching coat patterning is Eclyse, born during 2007 at a safari park at Schloss Holte Stukenbrock, Germany, to a ♂horse and a ♀zebra. Her father, a tobiano pinto, has sizeable areas of white coat colouration, and as these result from the expression of a dominant depigmentation gene, Eclyse inherited this same gene and bears comparable white areas on her own coat. As a result, the striping that she inherited from her zebra mother is confined to her coat's pigmented (i.e. non-depigmented) areas, thus creating her exceptional degree of non-continuous patterning.

Eclyse, probably the most eyecatching zebra x horse hybrid ever seen

Grevy's zorses and hebras are invariably sterile, for whereas the horse possesses 64 chromosomes (32 pairs), Grevy's zebra only has 46 chromosomes (23 pairs), with the resulting hybrid possessing 55 chromosomes (27 pairs plus a single unpaired chromosome). The differences in chromosome numbers are also marked between the horse and the other two zebra species. Even so, there is some evidence to suggest that fertile female hybrids bred from horses and Chapman's zebras are occasionally fertile.

In addition to selling Grevy's zorses to zoos, Raymond Hook used some in place of mules (♂donkey x ♀horse hybrids) as pack animals on his farm, and he discovered not only that they were blessed with more agreeable temperaments than pure-bred Grevy's zebras but also that they worked as efficiently as mules. Similarly, zorses bred from Chapman's zebras and again used for pack work in their native lands have proven to be strong, active, and intelligent, as well as being more resistant than horses to sleeping sickness spread by tsetse flies.

In view of such commendable attributes, it is quite likely that in the future zorses will eventually become recognised more for their practical usefulness than for their current popularity as engaging zoo and park exhibits. And indeed, they are currently being bred in Africa for use in trekking on Mount Kenya.


ZAMBI THE ZONKEY

In recent times, the zorse type most frequently displayed in zoos is probably the version bred from Grant's zebra, such as Zulu. Yet even this is far less often on show than zonkeys or zebronkeys, i.e. hybrids bred from ♂zebras and ♀donkeys – of which Zambi at Donkey Rescue UK is a delightful example. Others include the zebra x donkey hybrids bred at Colchester Zoo from the early 1970s onwards, the last of which, a female called Shadow, died at the ripe old age of 34 on 3 April 2009.

Zambi the zonkey at Donkey Rescue UK (Dr Karl Shuker)

Arriving here in December 2011, Zambi has a Grevy's zebra as her father and a Giant Mammoth Jackston donkey as her mother. And as the latter donkey breed is known for its great size, it is possible that when fully grown, Zambi will be the largest zebra x donkey hybrid in existence, or at the very least in Europe, because no other hybrids of her particular parentage are known here at present.

Like all zebronkeys, Zambi is a very handsome, striking animal, due to the marked contrast of such hybrids' donkey-like shape and body colouration with the heavy bands of striping present all down their pale legs. Much fainter stripes are sometimes present upon the body too, as with Zambi.

Zambi has a very striking black-and-white mane (Dr Karl Shuker)

After having finally seen a zebronkey in the flesh, it is easy to understand why more than one writer in the past has labelled this equine hybrid "a donkey in pyjamas"!

Certainly the singularly attractive appearance of zebronkeys, especially when young (as evinced by the incorrigibly cute youngster from Colchester Zoo pictured on the front cover of the 1971 second edition of Annie P. Gray's standard work Mammalian Hybrids – see this present ShukerNature post's opening picture), will guarantee their continuing popularity in zoos, parks, and other wildlife centres. Like zorses, zebronkeys are normally sterile, but fertile female specimens have occasionally been reported.

A zonkey (aka zebronkey) at Colchester Zoo in 2004 (Sannse/Wikipedia)

Some Grant's zebronkeys were used in the past as pack animals in Kenya, and proved to be strong workers, but were apparently less intelligent and more difficult to work with than zorses.


A ZEEDONK NAMED ZEE

Described on Donkey Rescue UK's 'Donkey Mixtures' webpage (click here) as "very much a zebra – disguised as a donkey!" on account of her very strong and bossy zebra-like personality, Zee was bred in the Netherlands and came to the UK in 2011.

Zee the zeedonk at Donkey Rescue UK (Dr Karl Shuker)

She is the rarest member of Donkey Rescue UK's trio of zebroids because she is an example of the much less common reciprocal cross between zebras and donkeys – a zeedonk or donkra - having a standard donkey as her father and a Grant's zebra as her mother.


A TRIPLE ZEBROID

Rarest of all zebroids, however, must surely be the triple hybrid once exhibited at London Zoo and documented as follows by none other than Charles Darwin in his book The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868):

"Many years ago I saw in the Zoological Gardens a curious triple hybrid, from a bay mare, by a hybrid from a male ass and female zebra. This animal when old had hardly any stripes; but I was assured by the superintendent, that when young it had shoulder-stripes, and faint stripes on its flanks and legs. I mention this case more especially as an instance of the stripes being much plainer during youth than in old age."

This triple hybrid's father was thus a fertile male donkra, a great rarity in itself.


QUORSES AND HUAGGAS?

If the above-mentioned triple hybrid is the rarest zebroid, then the most controversial zebroids must surely be ones that allegedly featured as one of their parents the now-extinct quagga E. q. quagga.

A captive female quagga at London Zoo in 1870, which was the only living quagga specimen ever photographed.

The only partially-striped zebra, being fully striped upon its face, neck, and shoulders, but entirely lacking stripes upon its legs and hind regions, and only faintly striped upon the mid-portion of its body, this very distinctive subspecies of the plains zebra was once common on the veldt of South Africa. Following persecution at the guns of hunters for its meat and hide, however, it was eventually wiped out entirely in the wild, and the last surviving captive specimen, at Amsterdam Zoo, died in 1883.

Intriguingly, several decades prior to this tragic end, there were several claims of hybrids having been bred between quaggas and horses.

Standing alongside a taxiderm quagga at Tring Natural History Museum (Dr Karl Shuker)

Not everyone accepts these claims, however, believing that the zebras involved were not quaggas but Burchell's zebra E. q. burchelli. Having said that, this is a controversy within a controversy, because researches have recently revealed that this unusual zebra subspecies - also known as the bontequagga, characterised by distinctive pale-brown shadow stripes present between the normal dark ones, and allegedly becoming extinct approximately 40 years after the quagga - was not a valid subspecies at all.

Taxiderm specimen of Burchell's zebra at Tring Natural History Museum (Dr Karl Shuker)

Instead, it had merely been based upon aberrantly-patterned individuals belonging to the Damara zebra subspecies, E. q. antiquorum, and that some specimens of Damara zebra alive today show precisely the same characteristics as those documented for Burchell's zebra. So even though the latter version never existed as a separate taxonomic form, it is no longer extinct!

Living zebras at Etosha, in Namibia, exhibiting the characteristic appearance of Burchell's zebra

Probably the most famous alleged quagga-derived zebroid is a female hybrid bred in 1815 by Lord Morton (George Douglas, 16th Earl of Morton) from a supposed ♂quagga x ♀chestnut Arab horse mating.

Unlike zebra x horse hybrids, and quite possibly because there is no absolute confirmation that any ever existed, quagga x horse hybrids have never received their own specific terms. Consequently, for ease of reference in future, and utilising the same system of nomenclature employed in relation to other zebroid types, I propose that a ♂quagga x ♀horse hybrid (whether confirmed or alleged) be referred to hereafter as a quorse, and a hybrid from the reciprocal cross as a huagga.


Although there will be no quorses and huaggas on show there, I can guarantee that if you visit Donkey Rescue UK, you will have a thoroughly enjoyable experience, with the chance to see not only its three remarkable zebroids but also a number of other very engaging equids, including Mammoth Jackstock donkeys (the world's largest breed of donkey), an adorable young shaggy-haired Livre A Baudet du Poitou Jack donkey from France, and a Mediterranean miniature donkey, as well as some beautiful horses and ponies. So please check out their website here and pay them a visit one weekend – you won't be disappointed!

My photographs of its zebroids are included here by kind permission of Donkey Rescue UK.

At Tring with a taxiderm quagga (Dr Karl Shuker)