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

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Thursday, 24 May 2012

GOOSEBERRY WIFE - OR CATERPILLAR COLLECTIVE?


A beautiful colour plate from 1884 depicting a varied selection of caterpillars - hairy and otherwise!

The quaintly-named gooseberry wife is a giant hairy caterpillar said to lurk amid gooseberry bushes on the Isle of Wight (situated off Hampshire, southern England), lying in wait to devour unruly children hoping to steal the berries. Having said that, you will no doubt be relieved to learn that this daunting creature is no more real than any other imaginary bugbear invented by exasperated parents to deter their errant offspring from doing what they shouldn’t.

Gooseberries

Nevertheless, I confess to being intrigued as to how such a distinctive bugbear, seemingly confined entirely to the folklore of the Isle of Wight, originated. So if there are any IOW inhabitants who could shed any light on this mystery for me, please let me know – especially as what seems to have been a smaller but real-life version was actually spied elsewhere in southeastern England as recently as the mid-1970s.


If it were real, could the gooseberry wife look something like this?

In a Fortean Times letter (FT #225, 2007), Neil Powney recalled that his girlfriend Lyn, when aged 7-8 and living in the Corringham area of Essex three decades ago, was once startled to see a huge furry caterpillar crawling up a lavender tree less than 5 ft away from her in her parents’ back garden. She estimates that it was about 1 ft long, as thick as a rolling pin, and covered in 4-in-long hairs, dark brown-green in colour. As she watched, this extraordinary creature made its way up the tree’s trunk, and then across onto a panel of the adjacent fence, which it crawled along until it came to a gap that it squeezed through into the neighbouring garden. When Lyn looked over the fence, she could see the caterpillar making its way across the neighbour’s lawn. Lyn then ran inside her own house and fetched her mother, but when they came outside it had vanished. I wonder whether Lyn, as a child, may have mistaken for a single giant entity a colony of caterpillars moving together in formation, yielding a column or procession (which those of the processionary moths and certain other species do). Yet her view of it was at such close range that this does not seem a very satisfactory explanation. Thoughts, anyone?

Pine processionary caterpillars Thaumetopea pityocampa photographed in their typical single-file procession (Elveoflight/Wikipedia)

No less intriguing, or perplexing, is the following report, which appeared in London's Observer newspaper during January 1852:

"In the Algerian paper we read that a hairy viper was seen a few days ago near Drariah, coiled round a tree. It resembled an enormous caterpillar, and was of a brownish-red colour; its length was about twenty-two inches. The moment it saw that it was observed, it glided into the brushwood, and all attempts to discover it were unavailing. The authorities of the Museum of Natural History of Paris have sent off orders to their agents in Algiers to get a specimen of this viper."

Orders or no orders, their agents clearly failed in their appointed task, because no-one seems to have heard anything more about Algeria's uniquely hirsute vipers. Interestingly, Central Africa is home to an unusual species known as the hairy bush viper Atheris hispida on account of its extremely keeled scales, whose long spiny projections give it a bristly, almost hairy appearance, but no such snake is known from North Africa.


Hairy bush viper (Soulsurvivor08/Flickr)

Perhaps, therefore, it really was nothing more than an enormous caterpillar, but, if so, I can only presume that estimates of its size were greatly exaggerated.

At least I hope that they were - any butterfly or moth metamorphosing from a 22-in-long caterpillar would be a fearsome sight! Something more akin, in fact, to a Wonderland caterpillar than anything expected from Algeria, or even, indeed, the Isle of Wight.



Sunday, 20 May 2012

SAT-KALAUK - A BURMESE BLOODSUCKER



I have been collecting animal-themed stamps ever since my mother and grandmother introduced me to this fascinating hobby when I was still a small child in the mid-1960s. One of the first sets that they bought for me was one from North Vietnam, issued in 1965, which featured a selection of six unusual Asian mammals, and included the very striking species featured above. I had never previously heard of it, but its exotic image on that stamp has remained in my mind ever since I first saw it all those years ago. Little did I know, however, that one day I'd be writing about this selfsame species, and that it would prove to be the identity of a very sinister-sounding beast of the East.

One of mythology's most famous bloodsucking monsters is the evil vampire cat of Japan, a feline ghoul that drains the blood of its sleeping victims at night. Less well known is that there is a real-life equivalent of sorts. This is the sat-kalauk or nabashing of Myanmar (formerly Burma) - a strange cat-like creature that allegedly leaps onto the necks of sambur deer and sucks their blood.

According to the Annual Report on Game Preservation in Burma for the year ending 31 March 1938, one such beast, fixed firmly onto the throat of a sambur, was spied by a villager in the forests below the Maymyo Hills, but no-one appeared certain of its identity. Not long afterwards, however, the mystery was solved, following the capture of a sat-kalauk in the Indawgyi Forests of Myitkyina, northeastern Myanmar. In 1954, its species was formally identified in a Burmese Forester article by U Tun Yin as a yellow-throated marten Martes flavigula. This is a very large, strikingly coloured relative of the European pine marten M. martes and the American fisher M. pennanti, and is known to prey upon young deer. It also happens to be the species that appears in the Vietnamese stamp opening this ShukerNature post. Another cryptozoological creature was cryptic no more.

Yellow-throated marten (Altaileopard/Wikipedia)

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

EBONY ENCOUNTERS OF THE SERPENTINE KIND


Melanistic specimen of the Patagonian green snake Philodryas patagoniensis (Laurie J. Vitt)

Whereas some mysteries become less mystifying once investigated, others only become even more so – and the herpetological example under consideration here definitely belongs to the latter category.

As a child, I was bought a wonderful anthology entitled Animal Stories, published in 1967, whose contents had been chosen by Alan C. Jenkins. Within its covers, he had compiled a splendid collection of animal-themed fiction and non-fiction, including chapters extracted from a number of classic books, such as Gerald Durrell's The Bafut Beagles (1954), Jim Corbett's Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1944), Ernest Thompson Seton's Lives of the Hunted (1901), and W.H. Hudson's Far Away and Long Ago (1918).



My favourite story in the entire anthology was a chapter entitled 'A Serpent Mystery', from the above-mentioned book by W.H. Hudson (in which he recalled his early life in the Quilmes, a borough in Argentina's Buenos Aires Province). Reading it, the mystery in question, namely the identity of a very remarkable snake that he had encountered on three separate occasions, seemed to have been solved by him at the end of the chapter. However, after returning to this story recently and investigating his claims concerning the snake, I have realised that the mystery may still be far from solved.



Hudson's 'Serpent Mystery' chapter can be summarised as follows.

Even as a boy, Hudson was familiar with the various ophidian species native to his home region, none of which exceeded 4 ft long, and he spent many hours exploring a weed-infested piece of waste ground at the far end of his family's plantation. One hot December day, while standing amid this wilderness, he heard a soft rustling sound near his feet, and, looking down, was startled to see a very long, slender, coal-black snake moving very slowly past him. He estimated its total length to be at least 6 ft, probably more, and he stared at it intently, remaining motionless until it finally vanished from sight among some long grass. What could it have been? Neither its colour nor its size matched that of any species that he had ever known or heard of existing in this area.

Initially, Hudson vowed never to return to this dangerous site, but his fascination with its unexpected inhabitant ultimately won the day, compelling him to venture back – and after numerous days of failure, he finally caught sight of the mysterious ebony-scaled serpent again, gliding languorously through the weeds in the very same spot as before. This time, however, Hudson was able to spy its destination – a hole in the ground, into which it passed until it was totally hidden from view. On many subsequent visits to the waste ground, he deliberately stood quietly near to this hole in the hope that sooner or later he would once more see its enigmatic owner, but the long black mystery snake never made an appearance.


Did Hudson's ebony-scaled mystery snake look like this Eastern indigo snake?

Then one day, after having stood there yet again, and for some considerable time, but still without success, Hudson became bored, and chose instead to interest himself in observing a bat hanging from a twig just overhead. Concentrating upon the bat, he at first paid no heed to a sensation of pressure upon the instep of his right foot, but when the pressure increased, until it seemed as if a heavy metal bar were resting upon it, he casually glanced down to see what was responsible for this sensation – and was shocked to discover that it was none other than his long-sought-after black mystery snake, which was actually drawing its lengthy inky-black coils leisurely across his foot!

By standing in his present position, Hudson's foot was inadvertently blocking the snake's passage to its hole, and so rather than moving around the offending obstacle it had decided simply to take the shorter course, and pass directly over it! Thrilled, terrified, and tantalised in equal measures, Hudson remained immobile as coil after coil rippled like a sable stream across his foot, until at last their sinuous owner had re-entered its den undisturbed and unalarmed.


W.H. Hudson (1841-1922)

Although Hudson returned many times afterwards, he never saw the snake again, and no-one whom he questioned about it had ever seen or heard of anything like it in that area of Argentina either. Subsequent investigations, however, led him to believe that it was a melanistic (all-black) specimen of a species that he referred to as Philodryas scotti. He claimed that this was a not uncommon Argentinian species, though not in his home region, and that it did indeed grow to 6 ft or more.

In addition, Hudson noted that two years before his three meetings with the black snake, a normal-coloured P. scotti specimen – one that he described as "a pale greenish-grey, with numerous dull black mottlings and small spots" - had been encountered by his sister as a small child (and swiftly dispatched by their horrified father), but until now had not been identified.

As noted earlier, one might assume from the above account that Hudson had duly solved the mystery of his black snake – but in fact nothing could be further from the truth.


Patagonian green snake Philodryas patagoniensis (Kemi Ksas)

To begin with: when googling Philodryas scotti, I discovered that only a single publication referred to it – and that publication was none other than Hudson's own book, Far Away and Long Ago. Could it be, therefore, that the name given by Hudson had been incorrect? Pursuing this possibility, I soon discovered that there was indeed an Argentinian species mentioned in numerous sources whose name differed by only a single letter – namely, Philodryas schotti (sometimes given as schottii). A species of venomous, rear-fanged colubrid, its common name is the Patagonian green snake, and nowadays it is referred to by many authorities as Philodryas patagoniensis.

Was this the true identity of Hudson's 'Philodryas scotti'? Certainly, photographs of P. patagoniensis correspond closely with Hudson's description of the snake encountered by his baby sister. Moreover, there are also a number of photographs online of melanistic specimens that readily recall Hudson's black mystery snake. However, P. patagoniensis does not normally exceed 5 ft.


Melanistic specimen of Patagonian green snake Philodryas patagoniensis (Axel Kwet)

Consequently, if the two snakes reported by Hudson did indeed belong to this species, either they were unusually lengthy or their size had been over-estimated by him. Some mutant gene alleles responsible for melanism are known to increase body size too, so assuming that Hudson had not over-estimated its length, this could explain the black snake's extra-large size, but not the normally-coloured specimen's.

So were these two snakes truly P. patagoniensis, or did they belong to a different species – and, if they did, which one? Perhaps, more than 90 years after the publication of Far Away and Long Ago, the last word has still to be said on the subject of W.H. Hudson's intriguing serpent mystery.


Colour engraving from 1858 of Patagonian green snake Philodryas patagoniensis