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), The Unexplained (1996), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), 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), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is already considered to be his magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016), 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.

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com/index.htm

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Friday, 27 September 2013

MOTHMEN AND OWLMEN AND MANBATS, OH MY! – WELCOMING KEN GERHARD'S LATEST BOOK, 'ENCOUNTERS WITH FLYING HUMANOIDS'



Ken Gerhard's latest book, Encounters With Flying Humanoids: Mothman, Manbirds, Gargoyles and Other Winged Beasts

Today, I received through the post a copy of Encounters With Flying Humanoids: Mothman, Manbirds, Gargoyles and Other Winged Beasts. This is the latest book by renowned American cryptozoologist Ken Gerhard, who had added a very kind handwritten inscription to my copy before posting it to me – thanks Ken!

Several months ago, Ken had asked me if I'd write a foreword to his book, and after reading its manuscript I was only too happy to do so, as I was very pleased that these extraordinary and extremely diverse entities' reports had finally been compiled and assessed within a single volume, in so expert and enthralling a manner too.

As I wrote in my foreword, I've always been interested in this subject, ever since encountering by chance many years ago a fascinating book that included a number of different examples. But why waste time attempting to summarise what I wrote in my foreword? Far better simply to reproduce it in full here, as my personal, unequivocal recommendation to everyone interested in such beings, such 'things with wings', to purchase Ken's excellent new book without delay!

One afternoon during the early 1980s, I was browsing through the upstairs, second-hand department of Andromeda Books – the once-celebrated but now long-demised science-fiction and fantasy bookshop in Birmingham, England – when I came upon a paperback entitled Earth's Secret Inhabitants, which had been published in 1979. Its front cover illustration was extremely eyecatching – a full-colour depiction of two feathery-winged humanoids flying through the sky in a scene captured within the hulking silhouette of a bigfoot-type man-beast.

Initially, I'd assumed that this book was a sci-fi novel, but then I noticed that its authors were none other than D. Scott Rogo and Jerome Clark – two leading American non-fiction writers specialising in the field of mysterious phenomena. And when I turned to the back cover, the blurb revealed that its contents featured a wide range of surreal entities that apparently share our planet with us but have never been scientifically explained - including a veritable phalanx of winged 'bat-men'. Until then, I'd been largely unaware of these aerial apparitions, but after reading about them in Rogo and Clark's book – because, needless to say, I purchased it immediately! – I was totally captivated by their bizarre histories and extraordinary appearance, and from then on I made a point of collecting as much information concerning them as I could find.

My much-read copy of Earth's Secret Inhabitants (Dr Karl Shuker/Tempo Books)

The most immediate problem that I have always faced whenever doing so, however, is that such material is extremely disparate, scattered loosely among countless publications, yet rarely compiled or assimilated into any kind of lucid or lengthy coverage. This is why I was delighted to learn recently that Ken Gerhard was writing a book-length treatment of these winged wonders, and even more delighted when he very kindly invited me to write a foreword for it.

Reading through his book, Encounters With Flying Humanoids, it is evident that Ken shares my own fascination with the bat-men and man-birds that have haunted our skies for many centuries, continue to be encountered even today, in all parts of the world, and assume a diverse assortment of forms. Moreover, unlike previous writers, he has not been content to limit his coverage to such perennially-chronicled enigmas as mothman, owlman, and the man-bats of Texas, but has cast his gaze like a vast skyborne net far and wide through time and space, encompassing many much more obscure examples that even I, despite having spent years of collecting material myself, had never previously heard of.

Consequently, Encounters With Flying Humanoids very commandingly fills a sizeable, (all-too-)long-present gap in the Fortean and cryptozoological literature, and it also makes enthralling, if not a little disturbing, reading. What are these mysterious flying figures with plumes of bird or pinions of bat, and where have they originated? Do they truly belong somewhere within our planet's grand scheme of things, or are they visitors from the great beyond – from alien worlds, planes, or dimensions, rarefied realms stranger than we can even begin to suspect? And if so, why are they here? What might their purpose be?

A worthy successor to his previous highly-acclaimed volumes on winged mystery beasts and cryptids of Texas, Ken's latest, superb book is a timely reminder of just how outlandish our land can sometimes be, how otherworldly our world may sometimes seem, and that there truly are more things – especially with wings – in heaven and earth, gentle reader, than are dreamt of in anyone's philosophy!

Click here to purchase Ken's book from Amazon.

With my very own flying humanoid! (Dr Karl Shuker)


Friday, 20 September 2013

GIANT ANACONDAS AND OTHER SUPER-SIZED CRYPTOZOOLOGICAL SNAKES


1867 engraving of a giant snake, from The Bestiarium of Aloys Zötl 1831-1887

During the 1920s, Raymond L. Ditmars, Curator of Reptiles at New York's Bronx Zoo, offered US $1000 to anyone who could provide conclusive evidence for the existence of a snake measuring over 40 ft (12.2 m) long. The prize has never been claimed. Yet there are many extraordinary eyewitness accounts on record asserting that gargantuan serpents far greater in length than anything ever confirmed by science are indeed a frightening reality in various regions of the world, as demonstrated by the fascinating selection of examples documented here.


THE GIANT SERPENT OF CARTHAGE AND OTHER OLD WORLD GOLIATHS

During the time of Rome's First Punic War (264-241 BC) with Carthage (which lay near present-day Tunis in Tunisia, North Africa), the Roman army, led by the renowned general Marcus Atilius Regulus, was advancing on Carthage, having reached the River Bagradas (aka Medjerda). As his battalions sought to cross this river, however, an enormous snake rose up before them from the reed beds, with great flattened head and glowing lantern-like eyes glaring malevolently at them as they cowered back at the sight of this monstrous reptile. Coil after coil in seemingly limitless extent emerged, and the soldiers estimated its vast length to be at least 30 m!


18th-Century colour engraving of a rock python, the likely identity of Carthage's giant snake

Deciding that discretion may well be the better part of valour, Regulus's army retreated further down the river bank, hoping to cross far away from its ophidian guardian. And when they looked back, the giant snake had seemingly vanished. Yet no sooner did they attempt to cross at this new location than, without warning, the huge flattened head rose up from below the water surface and seized a nearby soldier in its mighty jaws, enfolding and crushing his body in its vice-like constricting coils, before mercilessly drowning him. And each time another soldier tried to cross, this grisly scene was re-enacted.

In fury, Regulus ordered his men to wheel forward and arm their siege ballistae – massive catapults used for hurling immense rocks at fortresses. Missile after missile was duly fired at the snake, bombarding it unceasingly until, wounded and dazed, the huge creature finally began to retreat into the river. But before it could submerge itself completely, a well-aimed rock hit it squarely between its eyes, shattering its skull and killing outright this veritable leviathan of the serpent world. Afterwards, the soldiers skinned its colossal body, and records preserved from that time claim that its skin measured a tremendous 37 m. This stupendous trophy and also the snake's formidable jaws were eventually brought back to Rome and placed on display inside one of the temples on Capitol Hill. Here these spectacular relics remained until 133 BC, when, towards the end of the Numantine War against the Iberian Celts, they mysteriously disappeared, and were never reported again.

A rock python, southern subspecies

Always assuming that this Carthaginian mega-serpent's size had been recorded accurately, what could it have been? A rock python Python sebae is the most popular identity, but this species is not thought to have existed at any time in that particular area of Africa. And even where it is known to exist, no specimen even remotely as long as Regulus's antagonist has ever been chronicled. The longest confirmed specimen, measuring 9.81 m, was shot in school grounds at Bingerville, Ivory Coast, by Mrs Charles Beart in 1932.

The same applies to an astonishing report from tropical Africa featuring an extremely reliable eyewitness. In 1959, an ostensibly immense python reared up towards a helicopter passing overhead in Katanga (within what is now the Democratic Congo), flown by the highly-acclaimed, much-decorated Belgian pilot and World War II flying ace Colonel Remy van Lierde DFC** (1915-1990). A colleague on board actually managed to snap a photograph of the creature, and using the size of background bushes and other topographical features in the photo as scale determinants, van Lierde estimated that the python appeared to be around 15.5 m long – once again far greater than any scientifically-confirmed specimen. An interview with van Lierde featured in an episode of the early 1980s UK television series 'Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World', and can currently be viewed here (the interview begins at around 7 min 12 sec into the video). Just in case it vanishes, however, here is a verbatim transcript of Van Lierde's testimony from that episode:

"So as we had a camera on board, I decided to make several passes over the hole where the snake was in, in able [sic] to let the man take a picture of it, and I made certainly between four and six passes right over the hole where the snake was in. By then I was already flying for 25 years, so I've a very good experience of measuring things. And I would say the snake I saw there was close to 50 foot, close to 50 feet - I don't know, you say 50 foot, or 50 feet? - but very close to, certainly."

The gargantuan Katanga mystery snake (Colonel Remy van Lierde)

Native to southeast Asia, the world's longest species of snake is the reticulated python Python reticulatus. Its current confirmed record-holder, measuring 10 m, was shot on the north coast of Sulawesi (Celebes) in 1912, and was accurately measured by civil engineers using a surveying tape. In summer 1907, however, a dark cane-coloured python estimated at 70 ft (21.3 m) long had been observed through binoculars swimming in the Celebes Sea by Third Officer S. Clayton of the China Navigation Company's vessel Taiyuan.


THE SUCURIJU GIGANTE – SOUTH AMERICA'S SUPER-SIZED ANACONDA

According to the record books, South America's common or green anaconda Eunectes murinus rarely exceeds 6.25 m. Yet there are numerous reports of specimens far bigger than this. Indeed, such monsters even have their own local names, such as the sucuriju gigante in Brazil and the camoodi in Guyana. Sometimes they are also said to bear a pair of horns on their head.

Exploration Fawcett – front cover depicting Fawcett's encounter with a giant anaconda (Arrow Books)

Perhaps the most (in)famous encounter with a purported sucuriju gigante occurred in 1907, when, while leading an expedition through the Amazonian rainforest in Brazil's Acre State, the celebrated, subsequently-lost explorer Lieutenant-Colonel Percy Fawcett shot a massive anaconda as it began to emerge from the Rio Abuna and onto the bank. In his book Exploration Fawcett, he claimed that as far as it was possible to measure the body, a length of 13.7 m lay out of the water, with a further 5.2 m still in it, yielding a total length of 18.9 m. Even though Fawcett was known for his meticulous observations, this claim is nowadays viewed with scepticism by many zoologists.

Drawing of Fawcett shooting the giant anaconda (source unknown to me)

On 22 May 1922 at around 3 pm, priest Father Victor Heinz witnessed a sucuriju gigante while travelling home by canoe along the Amazon River from Obidos in Brazil's Pará State. He and his petrified crew saw about 27.5 m away in midstream a huge snake, coiled up in two rings, and they gazed in awe as it drifted passively downstream. Fr Heinz estimated its visible length at just under 24.5 m, and stated that its body was as thick as an oil drum.

Sucuriju gigante encountered by Father Heinz and his crew (William Rebsamen)
Moreover, on 29 October 1929 he encountered another specimen, this time while he and his crew were travelling by river to Alenquer in Brazil's Pará State at around midnight. Approaching them in the dark from the opposite direction, its eyes were so large and phosphorescent that he initially mistook them for a pair of blue-green navigation lights on a steamer! Happily, this monstrous serpent paid no attention to its terrified observers!

Illustration of a giant anaconda coming ashore (William Rebsamen)

The following photograph depicts an alleged 40-45-m-long sucuriju gigante that according to Tim Dinsdale's book The Leviathans (1966) was originally captured alive on the banks of the Amazon and towed into Manaos by a river tug before being subsequently dispatched via a round of machine-gun fire – but does the photo depict a genuine giant anaconda, or just a well-executed hoax involving forced perspective? The question remains unanswered.

Old Brazilian postcard from c.1932 depicting an alleged 40-45-m sucuriju gigante, or a clever example of forced perspective?

Equally enigmatic is this second  photo, snapped in 1948, of a supposed 35-m (115-ft) sucuriju gigante, which reputedly came ashore and hid in the old fortifications of Fort Abuna in western Brazil's Guaporé Territory before being machine-gunned to death and pushed into the Abuna River.

Supposed 35-m-long sucuriju gigante floating dead in the Abuna River within Brazil's Guaporé Territory

More recently, on 19 August 1997, a veritable behemoth of a snake, jet-black and supposedly almost 40 m long, reputedly raided Nueva Tacna, a village near the Rio Napo in northern Peru. Its five eyewitnesses were later interviewed by no less eminent a person than Jorge Samuel Chávez Sibina, mayor of the Municipalidad Provincial de Maynas, who, in the company of radio journalist Carlos Villareal, flew over the village and afterwards stated that in his opinion: "There really is something to the villagers' stories". Moreover, a track supposedly left behind by this goliath measured about 488 m long and almost 10 m wide.

Illusive online photograph of a supposed giant black anaconda

The above photograph is one in a series from a project entitled 'Vietnam Army Caught the Giant Snake', created by Vietnam students in 2010, using toy tanks and other vehicles, and clearly in some photos toy soldiers too. The snake corpse may have been real, but was far smaller in reality than it seemed to be to those online viewers mistakenly assuming that the vehicles were real, full-sized ones; in short, the photos were clever optical illusions. Full details can be found here on the Vietnamese site documenting this project. It has also been covered on the Snopes hoax-busting site.


PROPORTIONS AND PREHISTORY

How reliable are such reports as those presented here? Obviously, human estimation of size, especially when dealing with elongate, coiling objects like snakes, is far from perfect, and much given to exaggeration. Preserved skins do not provide reliable evidence for giant snakes either, because it has been ably demonstrated that those obtained from heavy snakes like anacondas can be deliberately stretched by as much as 30 per cent without causing much distortion to their markings.

Researchers have also suggested that their great size could cause giant snakes to experience problems in maintaining caudal blood pressure, and that they would need to remain submerged in water for their immense weight to be effectively buoyed. Furthermore, snake specialist Peter Pritchard has calculated that the maximum length of a snake species is 1.5-2.5 times its shortest adult length – which means that as small adult common anacondas measure 3-3.7 m long, the greatest theoretical length for this species is only marginally above 9 m.

Frontispiece to garrison deserter John Browne's Affecting Narrative book from 1802, depicting an 'ibibaboka' - clearly a grossly-exaggerated anaconda yet supposedly encountered by him in 1799 on St Helena!

Even prehistory – a domain replete with reptilian giants - once offered little support for serpent monsters. Traditionally, the largest species of fossil snake on record has been North Africa's Gigantophis garstini, which existed approximately 40 million years ago and was believed to measure more than 10 m but not to exceed the minimum length needed to claim the Bronx Zoo's longstanding prize. And then along came Titanoboa.

All speculation concerning the impossibility (or at least the very considerable improbability) of giant snakes suffered a major blow in 2009, when scientists announced that 28 specimens of a hitherto-unknown fossil snake of truly gargantuan proportions had been discovered in the Cerrejón Formation within coal mines at La Guajira, Colombia.

Life-size model of Titanoboa at the Smithsonian Institution (© Smithsonian Institution)

This new species, which existed 58-60 million years ago, was christened Titanoboa cerrejonensis. By comparing the sizes and shapes of the vertebrae of its eight largest specimens to those of modern-day snakes, researchers confidently estimated that the aptly-named Titanoboa had attained a maximum length of 12-15 m, weighed around 1135 kg, and boasted a girth of about 1 m at its body's thickest portion. Suddenly, giant snakes were a myth no longer – here was indisputable evidence that at least one such species had genuinely existed.

So could there be others too – still thriving in secluded swamps and rivers, their colossal forms in flagrant disregard of what should or should not be possible according to the laws of biophysics, lurking like primeval serpent dragons amid our planet's remotest, shadow-infested realms? Perhaps one day a future Fawcett will uncover the truth – provided, unlike Fawcett, he lives long enough to bring the required evidence back home with him!

1825 print of warrior Matsui Tamijiro battling a giant snake (Utagawa Kuniyoshi)




Monday, 16 September 2013

MAKING MY DEBUT ON 'COAST TO COAST AM' TO TALK ABOUT MY NEW BOOK 'MIRABILIS' AND CRYPTOZOOLOGY



Today, from 8 am to 10 am UK time, and from midnight to 2 am Pacific Time in the USA, I made my debut on the extremely popular North American radio talk show 'Coast To Coast AM' (click here for more details concerning my appearance), talking to Sundays host George Knapp concerning my new cryptozoology book Mirabilis and cryptozoology in general. I greatly enjoyed it and hope that you did too, but if you missed it you can listen to it in full here, on YouTube.





Monday, 9 September 2013

LUMINESCENT BIRDS OF PARADISE IN BORNEO?



Luminescent fantasy birds (© Takaki / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

On the morning of 5 September 2013, I was browsing through my newly-arrived copy of Flying Snake (vol. 2, #2; July 2013), a copy of which had been kindly sent to me by this periodical's founder/editor Richard Muirhead, when I came upon a very interesting article written by cryptozoology enthusiast Carl Marshall from the Stratford upon Avon Butterfly Farm documenting a visit to Malaysian Borneo by him and Butterfly Farm colleague Andrew Jackson during March 2013 in order to study its ecology and biodiversity.

Meeting Carl Marshall at the Stratford upon Avon Butterfly Farm on 2 June 2013 (Dr Karl Shuker)

In his article, Carl listed several putative cryptids described to them by various inhabitants. Due to my longstanding interest in mystery birds, the entry in this list that attracted my especial interest was the following one:

"Luminous paradise type birds: We were informed by Matthew Lazenby of glowing paradise type birds in the deep forests of Ulu Kamanis."

Ulu Kamanis is situated in Sabah (formerly known as North Borneo), which is one of two Malaysian states present on the island of Borneo; Sarawak is the other one. Sandwiched between Sarawak and Sabah is the independent sultanate of Brunei, with all of the remainder of Borneo being part of Indonesia and generally referred to as Indonesian Borneo or Kalimantan.

By a most fortunate coincidence, Carl and I had already arranged to meet up during the afternoon of this very same day, 5 September, at his home just outside Stratford in order for me to collect the magnificent taxiderm specimen of a horned hare whose preparation he had very kindly arranged as a gift (click here for further details) – thanks Carl!

Carl Marshall (Dr Karl Shuker)

Consequently, while visiting him there, I made a point of asking him whether he could supply me with any further details re Malaysian Borneo's luminescent birds of paradise, and he promised to email me the few details that he had obtained while out there.

True to his word, Carl duly sent me the following email two days ago:


"I thought I would send you a quick email about those luminous birds from Borneo with as much info as I can provide.



"They were described to me as fairly large birds that are are occasionally seen in forest clearings at Ulu Kamanis in Sabah. They are usually seen at dusk and appear not to be truly light emitting, but rather merely possessing a highly elaborate iridescent plumage.



"My theory is that these resplendent birds might be of the family Paradisaeidae, as during conversations with Matthew Lazenby (Jigger) an eye witness who lives in this area described these birds as matching very well with an unknown bird of paradise species.



"Our local guide Innus also reiterates these descriptions from his own experiences and agreed with my theory that these iridescent birds are possibly of this classification.



"I hope this is of interest."

Indeed it is – thanks again Carl!

Currently, 41 species of birds of paradise (family Paradisaeidae) are recognised by ornithologists, of which the vast majority are exclusive to the island of New Guinea or various smaller offlying ones. Two additional species (both belonging to the rifleman genus Ptiloris) are endemic to Australia, however, and a further two (the paradise crow Lycocorax pyrrhopterus and Wallace's standardwing Semioptera wallacii) are endemic to the Moluccas (Maluku) islands of Indonesia.

Two male and one female Wallace's standardwings, painted by Richard Bowdler Sharpe (1847-1909)

As the Moluccas are separated from Sabah in the northernmost portion of Borneo only by the interposition of the Celebes Sea and from the remainder of Borneo only by the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (Celebes), it would not require too dramatic a stretch of zoogeographical imagination to conceive how a species of bird of paradise might exist in Borneo.

Nevertheless, until more precise details concerning their basic form and plumage can be obtained, the iridescent mystery birds of Ulu Kamanis cannot be assigned with any degree of certainty to Paradisaeidae, or indeed to any other avian family. But as Carl and Andrew plan to return to Sabah in 2014, we may not have too long to wait for such details to be forthcoming!

Birds of paradise - three known species depicted in a beautiful contemporary painting (© Mary Thompson / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)



Friday, 6 September 2013

HORNED HARES – A POTTED (OR SHOULD THAT BE JUGGED?) HISTORY!


Two views, using different lighting effects, of my taxiderm horned hare (Dr Karl Shuker)

It is well known that one of North America's most popular legendary icons, the jackalope, originated in traditional lumberjack folklore but was first given a physical reality as recently as the 1930s when the earliest confirmed taxiderm specimen was artfully manufactured from a jack rabbit (technically a species of hare) and some pronghorn antelope horns by Douglas Herrick from Wyomimg, who was subsequently dubbed the 'Father of the Jackalopes'. Less well known, however, is that Europe also has a longstanding tradition of such creatures, but here they are termed horned hares.


Selection of lagomorphs including horned hare (centre), portrayed in 1580 by Joris Hoefnagel in Plate 77 of Animalia Quadrupedia et Reptilia (Terra)

Today, I was delighted to receive as a very generous gift from friend and fellow crypto-enthusiast Carl Marshall a beautiful taxiderm specimen of a horned hare whose creation he had organised specially for me – thanks Carl!

Close up of my horned hare's head, highlighting its antlers (Dr Karl Shuker)

So what better reason could I possibly require for presenting without further ado here on ShukerNature a potted (or even jugged!) history of the horned hare?


With my very own horned hare (Dr Karl Shuker)

Until as recently as the late 18th Century, the authors of many of the early pre-scientific animal encyclopedias, or bestiaries as they were called then, still believed in the existence of fabulous beasts that nowadays have long been dismissed as non-existent fauna of folklore and legend - such as unicorns, dragons, satyrs, and mermaids. Another of these now-discounted creatures, far less dramatic than those listed above, yet no less intriguing, and often depicted in bestiaries, was the horned hare.


Engraving depicting a badger, mole, horned hare, and fox, from Adriaen Collaert's tome Animalium Quadrupedum (1612)

Despite its name, however, illustrations of this remarkable animal usually portrayed it as being much more rabbit-like than hare-like, and its 'horns' were in fact antlers, branched at their tips, and frequently very similar in overall appearance to those of young roe deer Capreolus capreolus. This bizarre mini-beast was widely reported across Europe, but was said to be particularly abundant amid the forests of Bavaria in Germany.

Horned hares engraving, from Theatrum Universale Omnium Animalium (1718)

Indeed, its reality was so readily accepted by naturalists at that time that it even received its own formal Latin name – Lepus cornutus ('horned hare'). A number of highly-prized stuffed specimens also existed, usually proudly displayed in hunting lodges or in private collections of unusual natural history exhibits known as cabinets of curiosities.

Horned hare engraving from the 16th Century

By the 19th Century, conversely, advances in zoological research and scientific knowledge had shown that the horned hare was not only a nonsense but a fraudulent one. Close examination of the taxiderm specimens revealed that they were hoaxes, created by the skilful manipulation of large stuffed rabbits or hares onto whose heads had been craftily grafted pairs of young, short deer antlers, or, more rarely, the trimmed, pointed horns of small African antelopes, particularly duikers.

Horned hare engraving, from Pierre Joseph Bonnaterre's Tableau Encyclopedique et Methodique (1789)

Yet even though its subject's authenticity had been disproved, the cult of the horned hare remained very much alive, so much so that by the mid-1800s a new craze had begun in earnest – the deliberate creation of ever more fanciful and exotic-looking horned hares, sporting not only antlers but even feathered wings, plus huge fangs startlingly similar to those of the prehistoric sabre-tooth tigers! In Bavaria, such incredible composites were referred to as wolpertingers, and were often created specifically as tourist attractions, or as souvenirs to tempt and fool wealthy but gullible visitors. Even today, they appear on t-shirts and postcards, and privately-owned specimens occasionally come up for sale in specialist auctions, where they invariably sell for very appreciable sums. The German Hunting and Fishing Museum at Munich houses a permanent exhibition of wolpertingers.

Two wolpertingers (Markus Bühler)

Equally bizarre is the rabbit-bird. Uniting the furry head of a rabbit with the feathered body of a bird, this highly unlikely hybrid was nonetheless firmly believed to be genuine by none other than the celebrated Roman naturalist-scholar Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), who even documented it in his massive treatise Naturalis Historia - in which he claimed that it inhabited the lofty mountain peaks of the Alps. Needless to say, no such beast did, or does, exist – until 1918, that is.

Pliny's rabbit-bird (© Greyherbert/Flickr)

For that was the year when Swedish taxidermist Rudolf Granberg created a stuffed hare with wings known as a skvader, deftly combining the head, foreparts, and limbs of a hare with the back, wings, and tail of a female capercaillie Tetrao urogallus – a very large species of grouse. Still exhibited today at the museum at Norra Berget in Sundsvall, eastern Sweden, it was inspired by an infamously far-fetched claim by hunter Håkan Dahlmark that he had shot just such a beast back in 1874 while hunting north of Sundsvall. Since then, other taxiderm skvaders have been created and, just like their Bavarian wolpertinger brethren, remain popular today.

The original taxiderm skvader at Norra Berget

Nor should we forget the astonishing al-mi'raj or unicorn hare. According to a number of medieval bestiaries, this enigmatic creature resembled a large yellow hare, but its brow bore a single unicorn-like horn, black in colour. Said to inhabit a mysterious Indian Ocean island, and often featuring in Islamic poetry, this deceptive beast behaved in so placid and tame a manner that many a curious onlookers would approach it for a closer look – whereupon the al-mi'raj would suddenly lower its head and charge directly at its unsuspecting observer, fatally impaling him with its horn, then devouring him entirely!

13th-Century illustration of the al-mi'raj or unicorn hare

Is it possible, however, that Eurasia's horned hares and North America's jackalopes are not entirely the product of folklore and fakery but actually have at least a little basis in fact? The first strong evidence that this might indeed be true came in 1937, with the publication of Volume 4 of Canadian writer-naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton's book Lives of Game Animals. In the section discussing cottontail rabbits, Seton included a page of self-drawn sketches of rabbits bearing a grotesque array of horn-like protrusions from their heads and faces. Some of these recalled the bestiary illustrations of horned hares and the folktale descriptions of jackalopes.


Horned SPV-infected cottontail rabbits (Ernest Thompson Seton, 1937)

But what had caused these freakish horns to develop? Studying cottontails inflicted in this manner, medical biologist Dr Richard E. Shope had discovered just a few years earlier that they had been infected by a specific virus (nowadays known as the Shope papilloma virus). This transforms facial follicle cells into hard tumours called papillomas, which in the most extreme cases give rise to these bizarre horns. One such specimen was found dead in a Minnesota woman's garden in September 2005 after she had called the police in alarm upon finding it there. In addition, there is a YouTube video of an even more recent living specimen.

Dr Shope also discovered a second virus that has similar effects, the Shope fibroma virus. Both are most common in North America. However, in Europe, hares are prone to a virus known as Leporipoxvirus, to which rabbits are also susceptible, and which again causes the production of horny facial nodules and growths.


The CFZ's North American jackalope (CFZ)

It is easy to see how, centuries ago in pre-scientific times, if someone encountered a rabbit or hare in Eurasia or North America suffering from one of these viruses and bearing various horn-like growths on its head or face, belief in the existence of a rare, exotic species of horned hare or jackalope could swiftly develop. And as microbiological knowledge was at best inaccurate and at worst non-existent in those bygone ages, even naturalists might readily have been fooled into assuming that such horns were natural structures rather than the physical effects of a viral infection. Coupling this with the all-too-frequently exaggerated and distorted illustrations of animals present in bestiaries back then, and suddenly a hare with horns, or even a rabbit with antlers, is no longer so surprising and implausible a creature after all.

Coloured engraving of lagomorphs, including a horned hare at bottom right (original source unknown)

This ShukerNature blog post is an adapted excerpt from my latest book, Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (Anomalist Books: New York, 2013).





Tuesday, 3 September 2013

IN SEARCH OF THE ELUSIVE SCARLET VIPER


Computer-generated image of a scarlet viper (Dr Karl Shuker)

It is well known that the adder or European common viper Vipera berus occasionally produces albinistic and melanistic individuals, due to the expression of certain mutant gene alleles. I was fortunate enough to see a bona fide black adder myself (and not of the Rowan Atkinson variety either!) when visiting Woody Bay, North Devon, back in 1993. Of course, these are not separate species, merely genetically-induced colour varieties (morphs) of the common adder.

As recently as the early 1900s, however, many natural history tomes were still soberly stating that Britain was also home to a much more remarkable, additional viperine form, one so distinct in fact that it was classed as a separate species in its own right – Vipera rubra, the scarlet or small red viper. As its names suggest, this eyecatching serpent was bright red in background colour, with a brown rather than a black dorsal zigzag stripe, and was claimed to be somewhat smaller than the normal adder. It was also said to have once been widely distributed across England (as well as certain parts of Scotland), but never common anywhere, except perhaps in southern Dorset - particularly around Corfe Castle, and also Lulworth Cove according to a short Pet Reptiles article from 2001 by CFZ founder Jonathan Downes.

In those latter areas, the scarlet viper was apparently a familiar sight, which makes it all the more surprising that nowadays it is ostensibly long-vanished, and not only from such localities either, but from the natural history literature too, almost as if this enigmatic snake had never existed. Surely that would not have occurred if it were truly a valid species - but was it? Could it simply have been an unusual colour variety of no taxonomic significance?

A normal grey-coloured male adder

It is not as if a scarlet viper would be such an unlikely, improbable herpetological entity. Occurring in a vast range of different animal species, there is a genetically-inherited condition analogous to albinism and melanism that is known as erythrism, and individuals exhibiting it (often referred to colloquially as red phase specimens) are abnormally red in colour. Erythristic iguanas, for instance, are bright orange-red instead of their normal green shade. Consequently, an erythristic adder would make a very plausible scarlet viper. Indeed, I have discovered that red phase individuals have been recorded from certain other viper species too, including the Central African bush viper Athens squamigera (a colour photograph of which, snapped by David A. Barkasy, can be viewed here,  and several photos of a rainforest-encountered specimen snapped by Mark Kostich are available at Getty Images).

Furthermore, body size is often linked to the mutant gene alleles causing these colour morphs. Melanistic leopards and jaguars, for instance, tend to be larger than their normal-coloured spotted counterparts. So the scarlet viper's smaller size could simply be another facet of the mutant erythristic gene allele's phenotypic expression (rather than being an age-related aspect; in the past, some naturalists had proposed that all scarlet vipers were juvenile specimens on account of their small size). Multi-potent alleles are referred to as pleiotropic, effecting changes to more than one facet of an individual's outward appearance (or even its physiology in some cases).

Colour morphs tend to arise spontaneously across the full extent of their species' distribution range, yet are often of only very localised occurrence within any one region of that full distribution range (the latter anomaly being caused by genetic drift). Needless to say, this unusual pattern of distribution corresponds precisely with that of the scarlet viper as reported in Britain. And because of this latter colour variety's rarity both generally and locally, it is very likely that any mutant allele causing its erythristic state is recessive, i.e. expressed only by individuals possessing two copies of it.


A normal brown-coloured female adder

Unlike many snake species, Vipera berus is sexually dimorphic in terms of colouration. Whereas the background colour of normal female adders is typically brown, in normal male adders it is typically grey. However, I have yet to uncover any unequivocal accounts of male scarlet vipers or even of pairs of such snakes, let alone any scarlet viper populations, so this very distinctively-hued serpent's occurrence in Britain may well have been due to a mutant erythrism-inducing gene allelle that was sex-linked - as with the mutant allele responsible for tortoiseshell cats, for instance, which are almost always female, thus meaning that the scarlet viper was based entirely upon sightings of abnormally red female adders.

And indeed: within his book Reptiles and Amphibians in Britain (1983), part of the 'Collins New Naturalist Series' and one of the very few modern-day books even to mention this serpent form, Deryk Frazer stated:

"The 'little red adder' of early herpetologists is a colour phase found in some juvenile females, which eventually become less distinctively coloured."
 
(In fact, I have now traced accounts of confirmed adult female adders that were red, so the "juvenile" reference in Frazer's above-quoted statement regarding the scarlet aka little/small red viper/adder can be disregarded.)

Mystery solved? Very probably - after all, every aspect of the scarlet viper's morphology and widely-scattered but everywhere-localised distribution in Britain is consistent with its identity being that of an erythristic morph of V. berus. And, excitingly, I have even been shown by German correspondent Dr Guntram Deichsel a colour photo snapped by him as recently as 3 May 2006 that depicts a pair of adders in Dorset's New Forest Reptiliary of which the female member is undeniably red, i.e. a bona fide scarlet viper.

So this eyecatching serpent morph is still occurring in Britain after all (and judging from various comments posted below by readers as well as communications received directly by me, such snakes are still arising in Germany and Denmark too).

A normal adder with a white-lipped black adder - yet another interesting colour variety exhibited by V. berus ((c) Guntram Deichsel)