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

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 published books (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!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Starsteeds blog's poetry and other lyrical writings (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

Search This Blog

PLEASE COME IN, I'VE BEEN EXPECTING YOU...

PLEASE COME IN, I'VE BEEN EXPECTING YOU...
WELCOME TO SHUKERNATURE - ENJOY YOUR VISIT - BEWARE OF THE RAPTOR!

Monday, 28 March 2016

WHITE MICE, BUMBLEBEES, AND ALIEN WORMS? UNEXPECTED MINI-MONSTERLINGS IN LOCH NESS


White mice on the bottom of Loch Ness? Surely not… lol (public domain)

On 20 September 1981, an article penned by George Rosie on the subject of some very intriguing mystery beasts in miniature that had lately been filmed in Loch Ness appeared in no less august a publication than the Sunday Times. During July of that year, Mike Carrie and Jim Hogan had been scouring the loch bottom seeking the 29-year-old wreck of British racing driver John Cobb's jet speedboat, Crusader. (Tragically, Cobb had met his death on the loch after hitting at over 200 mph an unexplained wake - deemed by some to have actually been the LNM - while attempting to break the world water speed record on 29 September 1952 in Crusader, which had then sunk.)

They had been using a specialised underwater television camera that amplified light 2,500 times (essential in the peaty waters of Loch Ness) and was from Carrie's own company, Submersible Television Surveys Ltd. For some time, nothing but barren mud and rocks could be seen, then suddenly some small white life-forms flitted into view, which Carrie and Hogan videoed. According to Carrie:

I can best describe then as giant white tadpoles. They were about two or three inches long, white or pale grey in colour, seemed to have tails and swam just above the bottom.

Hogan, conversely, considered that they more closely resembled "wee white mice" with long tails and legs:

They propelled themselves along the bottom in a jerky way. We knew what size they were because there was an extension to the camera to measure them against.

Greatly intrigued by these highly unexpected and very baffling yet seemingly uncommon mini-monsterlings (they only saw a handful during 3 weeks of filming), Carrie and Hogan submitted their videotape of them to Dr P. Humphrey Greenwood, an ichthyologist at London's Natural History Museum (NHM), for his opinion as to what they may be. Equally fascinated, Dr Greenwood arranged for some computer-enhanced outlines of the mystery beasties to be prepared, which in turn revealed that they seemed to have three pairs of limbs or limb-like protuberances.

Joseph W. Zarzynski's 1986 book containing a chapter dealing with the 'white mice' of Loch Ness (© Joseph W. Zarzynski - reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

In a letter dated 18 April 1985 sent to veteran Lake Champlain monster investigator Joseph W. Zarzynski, who had written to him enquiring about this mystifying species, Greenwood stated:

On the subject of that object I am certainly prepared to say that the information on its size, and from what I could determine of its form and locomotion in the videotape, I would suggest that it was a small crustacean, and certainly it was no vertebrate animal that I could identify as being part of the fauna of Loch Ness.

Zarzynski reproduced the above quote in a short chapter devoted to these entities (and also to Tullimonstrum – see more about this enigmatic creature here on ShukerNature) in his book Monster Wrecks from Loch Ness and Lake Champlain (1986).

Additionally, Rose had noted that Greenwood's best guess was that (in Rose's words): "it could be some kind of bottom-dwelling crustacean, hitherto unknown in Loch Ness, similar to some found in other deep-water lakes such as Lake Baikal in Siberia".

An amphipod (public domain)

When I read Rose's account in the Sunday Times, I thought straight away of amphipods, which are usually very small, superficially shrimp-like crustaceans represented by both marine and freshwater species. Some of these do have long tails and are often pale in colour, but they sport more than three pairs of legs (though some are only very small and slender, and thus may not have been rendered visible even by the computer-enhancement techniques that the NHM applied to the Carrie-Hogan videotape). So could these loch-bottom mini-monsterlings constitute a new species? Quite possibly - but without a specimen to examine, their taxonomic identity presently remains unresolved.

Interestingly, however, the latter videotape was not the first evidence for the existence of Loch Ness's 'white mice' (the name by which these still-unidentified life-forms are most commonly known nowadays), or at least something like them. As far back as 1972, at around the same time that they obtained their famous underwater 'flipper' photographs in the loch, longstanding Nessie seeker Dr Robert Rines and his team from the Academy of Applied Science (AAS) also filmed what may be the same 'white mouse' species, or possibly a smaller, related version, or even a juvenile version.

A photographic still from that film, which appeared in the AAS's 1972 publication, Underwater Search at Loch Ness, depicted a pale mystery monsterling tha was somewhat bumblebee-like in shape (hence Rines and his team nicknamed such creatures 'bumblebees'). However, it sported a pair of long appendages stretched out horizontally that made it look surprisingly similar to those familiar surface-dwelling freshwater hemipteran insects known as water boatmen (genus Corixa) and backswimmers (genus Notonecta). I am greatly indebted to American lake monster researcher Scott Mardis for kindly sharing with me several additional stills from the AAS's 'bumblebee' film, made available in turn to him by LNM investigator Dick Raynor, which corroborate this mystery creature's morphology as seen in the photograph contained in the AAS's above-noted 1972 publication.

Basic outline of a Loch Ness 'bumblebee' - a sketch based upon the image of one such creature in a photographic still from the 1972 AAS film (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Scott has likened the 'bumblebee' form to a veliger (the larva of gastropod molluscs), whereas Canadian cryptozoologist Sebastian Wang has compared it with tiny shelled crustaceans known as ostracods, and Loch Ness veteran Adrian Shine has suggested a cladoceran crustacean (aka water flea) from the genus Bythotrephes. Some mystery beast investigators have even speculated that perhaps it is a larval form of Nessie itself, but unless the latter is an invertebrate, as these 'white mice' and 'bumblebees' must surely be, this notion is untenable.

However, such a huge body mass as possessed by the adult Nessie (judging at least from eyewitness accounts) would surely require an internal skeleton in order to support it and give it shape, which thereby argues against an invertebrate identity for the LNM. This telling point was noted by American college student Jay Cooney in an interesting article dealing with Loch Ness's monsterlings, which he uploaded onto his Bizarre Zoology blog on 30 March 2014. (Unfortunately, however, this particular article later developed image-corruption problems, so Jay subsequently removed it from his blog.)

Line diagram of a well-developed veliger (public domain)

'White mice' and 'bumblebees' are not the only unexplained life forms discovered in Loch Ness. Once again in 1981, but this time in April via a scientific paper written by Dr T.B. Reynoldson and two fellow University College of North Wales zoologists, and published in the Journal of Zoology, the remarkable news was made public that a creature which could legitimately be described as an alien worm had been discovered here too, and in some numbers. More specifically, it was Phagocata woodworthi, a species of North American triclad turbellarian flatworm not native to Europe and never previously recorded from anywhere outside the New World.

Up to 1.2 in long and 0.2 in wide, dark grey, brown, or almost black dorsally, paler ventrally, dorsoventrally flattened, and sporting a truncate head, this out-of-place (o-o-p) invertebrate (o-o-p species are often referred to loosely as alien species) is known to attach its cocoons with limpet-like efficiency to the bottoms of maritime vessels. However, the likelihood that these could remain in situ during an entire transatlantic crossing seems unlikely – plus, few vessels traversing the Caledonian Canal have come from America anyway. So how did this species reach Loch Ness?

A related species of Phagocata (public domain)

With ultimate irony, researchers have concluded that the likeliest sources of these worms are none other than the various monster-hunting vessels that have been transported down through the years from North America directly to the loch, in particular a mini-submarine imported here in 1977.

This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted from my forthcoming book, Here's Nessie! A Monstrous Compendium From Loch Ness – out soon!

An illustration from 1886 of the common European backswimmer Notonecta glauca (public domain)







Sunday, 20 March 2016

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE HUEQUE? SEEKING THE LOST LLAMA OF CHILE


Vidaurre's engraving from 1776 depicting four of the five South American camelids once recognised – llama (top left), hueque aka Chilihueque (top right), vicuna (bottom left), guanaco (bottom right) (public domain)

Llamas are very familiar animals to science and the general public alike. As will now be revealed in this ShukerNature blog article, however, they may well have once shared their native Andean homelands with a highly unfamiliar, all-but-forgotten close relative whose zoological identity and disappearance have remained unexplained for well over 300 years.


ASIAN CAMELS AND SOUTH AMERICAN LLAMAS – THE LAST OF THEIR DYNASTY

Back in prehistoric times, the camelids were a very diverse taxonomic family of artiodactyl (even-toed) ungulates, distributed widely across the globe and represented by small, large, humped, humpless, short, tall, and sometimes very tall forms (such as North America's prairie-inhabiting giraffe camel Aepycamelus, aka Alticamelus).

Early restoration of Aepycamelus the giraffe camel by Heinrich Harder in 1920 (public domain)

Today, however, this once-mighty and extremely diverse dynasty is reduced to just six representatives – the two species of humped camel (one-humped dromedary Camelus dromedarius and two-humped Bactrian C. bactrianus) native to Asia (plus feral populations variously established in parts of Europe and Australia); and the four humpless species native to South America. These latter four species are the vicuna, alpaca, llama, and guanaco.

Following the discovery and conquest of South America by the Spanish during the 1500s, its humpless camelids attracted great interest from Western naturalists, with the llama in particular featuring in a number of bestiaries (such as Edward Topsell's famous work The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents, 1658), in which it was generally referred to as the allocamelus.

The llama or allocamelus as depicted in Edward Topsell's bestiary The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents (1658) (public domain)

It even entered European heraldry, where it was sometimes dubbed the ass-camel, and was duly represented with the head of an ass and the body of a short-legged, convex-backed camel.

The New World's camelid quartet also incited much confusion as to how they were related to one another. For whereas the vicuna and guanaco are wild species, the llama and alpaca are entirely domesticated.

Llama (© Dr Karl Shuker)

And to make matters even worse, the term 'llama' eventually established itself colloquially as a term not just specific to its own particular single species but also as a general term covering all four South American species.

Vicunas (© Haplochromis/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Eventually, the consensus was that the small goat-like vicuna was not just a valid species but one so distinct from the others that it deserved its own genus, and was duly dubbed Vicugna vicugna. The remaining trio were housed together in a second genus, Lama, and were formally christened Lama guanicoe (=huanacos) (the guanaco), L. glama (the llama), and L. pacos (the alpaca), with both the llama and the alpaca being deemed to be domesticated descendants of the guanaco.

Guanaco (public domain)

DNA studies published in 2001, however, revealed that the alpaca is in fact most closely related to the vicuna, and is believed to have descended from this latter species, not from the guanaco after all. Consequently, the alpaca is now housed with the vicuna in the genus Vicugna, as Vicugna pacos.

Alpacas (public domain)

In addition, there are two non-taxonomic breeds or varieties of alpaca – the rare Suri alpaca, sporting a long, shiny, very soft, slightly-curled fleece, which is very expensive; and the more common Huacaya alpaca, sporting a shorter, fluffier fleece, which is far less expensive.


CAMELID HYBRIDS – THE HUARIZO AND THE CAMA

Yet even though they are now split into separate genera, the alpaca and the llama are sufficiently closely related genetically to yield viable crossbred offspring– a hybrid resulting from interbreeding between a male llama and a female alpaca is known as a huarizo. Much smaller than llamas, it is greatly valued for its very lengthy fleece and gentle disposition, but is usually sterile. Remarkably, moreover, there have even been cases of successful intergeneric hybridisation in captivity between male dromedaries and female llamas, the resulting camel x llama crossbreed being referred to as a cama.

Adult cama (© unknown to me – all information would be welcomed; photographs included on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

This surprising feat was first achieved in 1998, via artificial insemination, at the Camel Reproduction Centre in Dubai, the aim being to create an animal with the size, patience, and stamina of a camel but with a fleece at least as good as (if not better than) a llama's. The first cama, a male, born in 1998, was named Rama; a second cama, a female, was born in 2002, and was named Kamilah. In each case, it looked like a large version of its llama mother in overall appearance, and lacked its camel father's hump, but it did possess his small ears and short tail.


A HISTORY OF THE HUEQUE, CHILE'S MISSING MINI-LLAMA

Hybrids notwithstanding, what is not widely known nowadays is that in addition to the vicuna, alpaca, guanaco, and llama, not so very long ago there may also have been a fifth New World camelid species, or at least a well-defined variety of one of the still-existing quartet. Formerly found in Chile, this seemingly-lost and certainly long-forgotten llama was known as the hueque, or the chilihueque in full.

Between the 16th and 17th Centuries, Spanish-speaking travellers who visited the central and south-central valleys of Chile reported the presence in territories owned by the Araucanians (i.e. the Mapuches peoples known here as the Moluche) of a small, distinctive type of llama not seen anywhere else. Moreover, the travellers learnt that its existence here pre-dated the Hispanic conquest, and it may well have been adopted by the Moluche from the Inca culture. This intriguing creature was the hueque, which was generally bred not as a beast of burden (like the llama is in other South American countries) but for its meat and in particular for its fleece, which was extremely soft, luxuriant, and so long that it dragged on the ground as the animal walked.

Having said that, Chilean Jesuit priest and naturalist Father Juan Ignacio Molina noted in his 2-volume magnum opus The Geographical, Natural and Civil History of Chili (1782) that when the Dutch sea captain Admiral Joris van Spilbergen had landed on Chile's small Mocha Island in 1614, he had observed hueques being used to pull small carts by Mapuches living there. Confusingly, however, further on in his book Molina contradicted himself by stating that what van Spilbergen had seen hueques being used for on Mocha Island was pulling ploughs.

Father Juan Ignacio Molina (public domain)

Writing in 1550 after having conquered southern Chile, the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia stated that the hueque was very abundant in this region, and that not only were the inhabitants dressed exuberantly in the most elegant woollen clothes but even their houses were stocked full of wool. Also present here was a second camelid, known as the luan, but it was the fleece of the hueque that was always used to manufacture the most prized, sought-after woollen garments. Indeed, the Spaniards were so impressed by this animal's superior fleece that they dubbed it 'the sheep of the land',

The luan was generally identified as the guanaco, but what exactly was the hueque? There was no doubt that it too was some type of llama (using this term in its general sense here), but its precise nature incited much controversy among early naturalists. Two conflicting schools of thought eventually arose. One asserted that it was a local (semi-)domesticated variety of the guanaco distinct from the llama, the other claimed that it was one and the same as the llama and that it had been introduced here from further north, but neither option garnered a significant majority of support. This remains true today.

Guanaco photographed in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park (public domain)

The few illustrations of the hueque that were produced while it still existed generally depicted it as being similar to the llama but somewhat smaller in overall size, with a slightly shorter neck and legs, but sporting a thicker fleece. However, these were based merely upon verbal accounts received from others, rather than upon first-hand observations made by the engravers themselves, so they may not be wholly accurate representations of this lost form. Written accounts of the hueque by Molina and others claimed that it occurred in several different colours – white, brown, black, and grey. Molina also stated that it was approximately 6 ft long, and stood about 4 ft tall.

Perhaps the most natural-looking representation of an alleged hueque, depicted alongside a llama, is the one reproduced below:

An engraving from a book by Amédée-François Frézier, published in 1716, depicting a llama (on the left) and an alleged hueque (on the right) (public domain)

It appeared as Plate 22 in A Voyage to the South-Sea and Along the Coasts of Chili and Peru in the Years 1712, 1713 and 1714, which was written by French explorer Amédée-François Frézier and published in 1716. Unfortunately, however, whereas the alleged hueque was portrayed in side view, the llama was merely depicted standing face-on, thereby preventing direct morphological comparisons of these two camelid types to be readily made.


WHY DID THE HUEQUE DIE OUT, AND WHAT EXACTLY WAS IT?

The reason why the hueque had vanished by the end of the 17th Century, possibly even earlier, remains unclear. However, its extinction coincided with a major influx of domestic cattle into this region of Chile, brought here from elsewhere for their meat, milk, leather, and as sturdy beasts of burden, as well as European sheep introduced for their wool and meat. Consequently, it has been surmised that not only did they render the hueque superfluous, but these non-native livestock beasts may also have carried with them diseases hitherto unknown here and to which the hueque had no resistance, thus wiping it out.

As for the hueque's identity, that is still unresolved too – or is it? Although, as noted earlier, attempts have been made by various researchers to link the hueque to either the guanaco or the llama, I personally favour a third candidate – the alpaca. So too did English writer and alpaca authority William Walton when describing the alpaca of Peru in his book An Historical and Descriptive Account of the Peruvian Sheep, Called Carneros de la Tierra (1811), though his contribution to the debate concerning the hueque's identity had long been forgotten until I encountered his book recently.

A guanaco with a Peruvian warrior, from Walton's above-cited book (public domain)

Of the four still-extant South American camelids, it is unquestionably the alpaca that offers the closest correspondence to the hueque. After all, both the hueque and the alpaca were/are bred predominantly for their fleece; both of them yielded/yield wool so profuse and luxuriant that it could/can reach the ground (especially in Suri alpacas); and both of them were/are smaller and more compact than the larger, longer-necked, longer-limbed llama and guanaco.

Could it be, therefore, that a variety of alpaca was either raised within or introduced into central and southern Chile from northern Chile or Peru (where the alpaca occurs naturally), and it was this alpaca form that was in reality the mysterious, now-vanished hueque? If nothing else, it is interesting to note that in an engraving from Gómez de Vidaurre's Compendio della Storia Geografica, Naturale e Civile del Regno del Chile (1776), depicting four South American camelids and opening this present ShukerNature blog article, the hueque is included, but the alpaca is absent. Is this strange omission of such a well known relative in favour of the much more obscure hueque an indication that these two forms were actually one and the same creature?

Llama pattern on a Chilean alpaca-wool jumper that was owned by my mother Mary Shuker (© Dr Karl Shuker)

After all, if the hueque were actually a separate, distinct species in its own right and was once abundant in southern Chile, plentiful remains of this creature would surely have existed and would have been readily delineated by scientific scrutiny from those of the four known South American camelids. Yet no formal scrutiny and osteological differentiation seems to have been documented, thereby indicating that the hueque was indeed conspecific with one of the pre-existing quartet of species.

Consequently, I conclude that the hueque was most likely to have been a breed or variety of alpaca. Sadly, however, we may well be more than 300 years too late to ever know for sure.

And finally, on a much lighter note, straight from a famous if fictitious animal linguist's circus of exotic creatures, here is the rarest llama-inspired cryptid of all:

Courtesy of Doctor John Dolittle, my very own pushmi-pullyu (© Dr Karl Shuker)





Thursday, 17 March 2016

PROF. HENRY BAUER REVIEWS A MANIFESTATION OF MONSTERS IN THE JOURNAL OF SCIENTIFIC EXPLORATION



Below is a very positive review of my recent book A Manifestation of Monsters, which has just appeared in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 133-134, 2016), and was penned by Prof. Henry H. Bauer, whose Loch Ness monster book, The Enigma of Loch Ness, remains one of the standard works on this cryptozoological subject.

As can be seen from my book's front cover (the spectacular artwork is by Michael J. Smith), it contains a vast diversity of subjects, including such cryptozoological stalwarts as Nessie, mokele-mbembe, Jersey devil, thylacine, bigfoot, Mongolian death worm, chupacabra, and coelacanths, as well as many much less familiar, much more obscure mystery beasts too that will not be found in any other crypto-book. So be sure to check it out (published by Anomalist Books, it is available in both paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon and elsewhere, and contains a foreword by Ken Gerhard). Here is Prof. Bauer's review:

Click the above image to enlarge it for reading purposes (© Journal of Scientific Exploration/Prof. Henry H. Bauer)









Tuesday, 8 March 2016

THE YUKON BEAVER EATER, AND GROUND SLOTHS IN NEW ZEALAND?


Restoration of Megatherium (Wikipedia/Public domain)

When we think of sloths, we generally picture those famously sluggish, dog-sized, tree-dwelling beasts that spend much of their time hanging upside-down from branches in modern-day Central and South America. Millions of years ago, however, there were several additional, very different morphological types – of which the most famous and dramatic were the ground sloths.

Most of these were primarily terrestrial, some were rather bovine in appearance but with shaggy fur, and many were considerably larger than their arboreal relatives. Although principally quadrupedal, ground sloths were capable of squatting erect on their hind legs to browse upon high-level foliage, and their distribution range included not only tropical mainland Latin America, but also North America as well as various of the Caribbean islands.

There were four separate taxonomic families containing ground sloths. The largest species were the megatheriids, typified by Megatherium ('big beast') from the Pleistocene of Patagonia, which attained the size of an elephant (recently split from the megatheriids into their own taxonomic family are the nothrotheriids). At the other extreme were the megalonychids, some being the smallest of all ground sloths, but also including the ox-sized Megalonyx ('big claw'), which earned its name from the huge claw on the third toe of each of its hind feet. This latter family also contains today's two-toed tree sloths.

Skeleton of Megatherium (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Intermediate in size between the above groups of ground sloth were the mylodontids - which are of particular cryptozoological interest. For although the last representatives of all types of ground sloth officially died out several millennia ago, reports of mysterious creatures resembling these supposedly bygone beasts have emerged from several different Neotropical locations in modern times - including in particular some compelling evidence to suggest that Brazil may harbour a species of living mylodontid, eluding scientific discovery yet well known to the native people sharing its secluded jungle domain, referring to this cryptid as the mapinguary.

Moreover, certain putative ground sloths living in modern times have been reported from localities outside the Neotropics, including the following pair of hitherto little-known examples.


THE SAYTOECHIN OR YUKON BEAVER EATER

In September 1989, the then recently-formed British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club (BCSCC) was contacted by a Canadian First Nation member named Dawn Charlie concerning a mysterious beast featuring in their oral traditions relating to Yukon's wildlife. The beast in question was referred to as the saytoechin (which translates as 'beaver eater'), and was described as being bigger than even the biggest grizzly bear, and feeding principally upon beavers, which it apparently captured by flipping up their lodges and then seizing the exposed beavers inside. When Native Americans living in the area were shown a book of extinct mammals, they selected an illustration of a ground sloth as the saytoechin, and the most recent reported sighting of one dates from the mid-1980s. As documented in 1990 by BCSCC co-founder Prof. Paul LeBlond in #4 of the Club's newsletter after interviewing Dawn Charlie, the details given by her concerning this sighting are as follows:

The latest report was from Violet Johny, my husband’s sister, who was fishing with her husband and her mother at the head of Tatchun Lake 4 or 5 years ago.  An animal came out of the woods, 8 or 9 feet high, bigger than a grizzly bear.  It was a “saytoechin” and it was coming towards them.  They panicked, fired a few shots over its head and finally managed to get the motor going and took off.  There are other reports.  There is also a report that a white man shot one in a small lake in that area.  Beaver eaters are supposed to live in the mountainous area east of Frenchman Lake.

Although ground sloths are generally thought of as tropical Latin (particularly South) American creatures, before their official extinction at the end of the Pleistocene some species had migrated northwards and had indeed established themselves in parts of North America. At least five genera are currently represented by fossils discovered in various locations here, including a single species, Megaloynx jeffersonii, in Yukon.

Life-sized restoration of Megalonyx jeffersonii in life, at the Iowa Museum of Natural History (© Bill Whittaker/Wikipedia)

So in terms of zoogeography alone, a Yukon ground sloth is already known, but obviously a living one is another matter entirely – as is the saytoechin's apparent dietary proclivity for beavers. This is because according to traditional palaeontological belief, all forms of terrestrial non-aquatic ground sloth were exclusively herbivorous. Having said that: in 1996, Drs Richard Fariña and Ernesto Blanco from the Universidad de la República in Montevideo, Uruguay, published a thought-provoking if controversial paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, in which they proposed that Megatherium could have used its fearsome claws to overturn, stab, and kill glyptodonts as prey.

From analysing a Megatherium skeleton, Fariña and Blanco discovered that its olecranon (the elbow portion to which the triceps muscle attaches) was very short. This adaptation is found in carnivores, and optimises speed rather than strength. These researchers opined that this would have enabled Megatherium to use its claws like daggers, and they suggested that it may have commandeered kills made by the sabre-tooth Smilodon in order to add nutrients to its diet (such behaviour is known as kleptoparasitic). Moreover, based upon the estimated strength and mechanical advantage of its biceps, they proposed that Megatherium could have overturned adult glyptodonts as a means of scavenging or hunting them.

However, this proposal has not gained widespread acceptance. In particular, palaeontologist Dr Paul S. Martin considers it "fanciful", noting that in terms of their dentition, ground sloths lack the carnassials that characterise predators, and that to suggest even that they were scavengers (let alone predators) is a reach. In addition, ground sloth dung deposits studied by him in Arizona's Grand Canyon and also in caves in Nevada, New Mexico, and western Texas contained no traces of bone. So far, therefore, at least as far as the palaeontological world is concerned, the case for carnivorous ground sloths in the past (not to mention in the present) has yet to be convincingly made.

Exquisite vintage illustration of Megatherium, from Extinct Monsters - A Popular Account of Some of the Larger Forms of Ancient Animal Life, 4th ed., 1896, Reverend H.N. Hutchinson (public domain)

As for the saytoechin: as discussed by Canadian cryptozoologist Sebastian Wang in a BCSCC Newsletter article (fall 2006) documenting this little-known cryptid, although the Native Americans selected a ground sloth from a book of extinct mammals as resembling it there is little else that actually links the two creatures directly. Other, less dramatic identities for it include an unusually large grizzly bear or black bear, plus some cryptozoological ones, such as a bigfoot, or even a surviving short-faced bear Arctodus or giant beaver Castoroides, although the idea of a giant beaver habitually preying upon normal beavers does not seem very likely. As far as I am aware, no specific search has ever been made for the mystifying Yukon beaver eater, so it is surely time for someone to rectify this oversight.


GROUNDS SLOTHS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN NEW ZEALAND?!

It was cryptozoological archivist Richard Muirhead who kindly brought to my attention what must surely be the most unexpected claim ever made regarding alleged living ground sloths, which can be found in British retired submarine officer Gavin Menzies's book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World (2002). In it, he claims that from 1421 to 1423, during China's Ming dynasty under the Yongle Emperor, the fleets of Admiral Zheng He, commanded by the captains Zhou Wen, Zhou Man, Yang Qing, and Hong Bao, discovered the Northeast Passage, the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and Antarctica; circumnavigated Greenland; attempted to reach the North and South Poles; and circumnavigated the world a century before before Ferdinand Magellan carried out the first officially-recognised circumnavigation. Not too surprisingly, mainstream historians do not agree with his claims, but such matters lie outside the scope of this present book of mine.

Megatherium statue in Bautzen, Germany (© Frank Vincentz/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

What does lie within its scope, however, is Menzies's suggestion in his own book that on one of their ships the Chinese took aboard some mylodontids captured in Patagonia but that upon reaching New Zealand in c.1421 a pair escaped when the ship was wrecked in Dusky Sound in Fjordland at the southwestern tip of South Island. Moreover, in 1831 a ship from Sydney, Australia, visited Dusky Sound, where two sailors from the ship saw an animal that according to Menzies fitted the description of a ground sloth.

If so, this would indicate that the escaped mylodontids from the 1400s had not only survived in New Zealand but must also have established a population that was still in existence there four centuries later – always assuming of course that the beast seen was indeed a ground sloth, which is a massive assumption to say the least, and even more so when an independent source of information concerning this latter cryptid is examined (see below). Also, the wrecked ship was not Chinese, but an English vessel called the Endeavour, and was wrecked in 1795, not 1421.

A mylodontid depicted on a postage stamp issued by Cambodia in 1994 (public domain)

Further information concerning this very strange state of affairs was presented in Robyn Jenkin's fascinating book New Zealand Mysteries (1970), which contained the following detailed account of the sailors' mystery beast sighting:

Even more bizarre was a story, also reported to the Collector of Customs in Sydney when the Sydney Packet returned home in 1831. One of the ship's gangs which had been stationed at Dusky Sound told of the discovery of an enormous animal of the kangaroo species.

The men had been boating in a cove in some quiet part of the inlet where the rocks shelved from the water's edge up to the bushline. Looking up they saw a strange animal perching at the edge of the bush nibbling the foliage. It stood on its hind legs, the lower part of its body curving into a thick pointed tail, and when they took note of the height it reached against the trees, allowing five feet for the tail, they estimated it stood nearly thirty feet in height!

The men were to windward of the animal and were able to watch it feeding for some time before it spotted them. They watched it pull down a heavy branch with comparative ease, turn it over and tilt it up to reach the leaves it wanted. When it finally saw them, the animal stood watching the men for a short time, then made one almighty leap from the edge of the bush towards the water's edge. There it landed on all fours but immediately stood erect before making another great leap into the water. The men were able to measure the first jump and found it covered
twenty yards. They watched the animal plough its way down the Sound at tremendous speed, its wake extending from one side of the Sound to the other.

Here again one is tempted to think the rum was talking, and for an Australian going away from home for months on end, what other animal would stir the imagination but a kangaroo? But how much more romantic to think that perhaps they really had seen some prehistoric animal living out its days in the remote fastnesses of the West Coast Sounds.

Romantic it may be, but the mundane reality is that no ground sloth is suspected to have behaved in the highly dramatic manner ascribed to the creature described above, or to have attained its colossal dimensions, which even dwarf those of the mighty Megatherium. In any case, as no comparable accounts appear to have been filed in this dual-island country since that one, it is surely safe to say that if a living ground sloth is indeed discovered one day, it will not be anywhere in New Zealand!

My late mother, Mary Shuker, alongside a life-sized Megatherium statue by Victorian sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins in London's Crystal Palace Park, photographed in 2010 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

My sincere thanks to Sebastian Wang for making available to me his detailed BCSCC Newsletter article on the Yukon beaver eater, and to Richard Muirhead for bringing to my attention the remarkable history of New Zealand's alleged ground sloths.

This ShukerNature article is excerpted from my forthcoming book, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors.

19th-Century engraving depicting the creation of the Crystal Palace Megatherium (public domain)