Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

ShukerNature - http://www.karlshuker.blogspot.com

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

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my ShukerNature blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Eclectarium blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

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

Loading...

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

GIANT SPIDERS – MONSTROUS MYTH, OR TERRIFYING TRUTH?

Model of Shelob from Tolkien's classic trilogy of fantasy novels The Lord of the Rings (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Monstrous spiders of gargantuan size are perennially popular subjects in science fiction 'B' movies as well as in classic fantasy novels such as J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit, but could such beasts exist in reality? The current record-holder for the title of world's largest spider is Rosi - a 12-year-old captive female specimen of South America's goliath bird-eating spider Theraphosa blondi (click here for a separate ShukerNature blog article revealing the outcome when T. blondi was formally challenged recently for its title as world's largest spider species by a near-legendary competitor). Rosi boasted a leg-span of 11.25 in (big enough to cover a dinner plate), a body weighing 6.17 oz (which is as heavy as six house sparrows Passer domesticus) and as big as a tennis ball, plus a total body length of 4.75 in.

An adult female Theraphosa blondi (public domain)

Although these are impressive statistics, they are far from monstrous. In contrast, as I reveal in this present ShukerNature blog article, there are some remarkable yet currently-unresolved modern-day reports on file hinting that certain truly astonishing arachnids whose size very dramatically surpasses this latter species' stature lurk in shadowy zoological anonymity within various regions of our world.

A PUPPY-SIZED SPIDER IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA
The Kokoda Track (or Trail) is a predominantly straight, single-file foot thoroughfare running 60 miles through inhospitable terrain across the Owen Stanley mountain range of Papua New Guinea, and from July 1942 to January 1943 it was the site of a series of World War II battles between Australian and Japanese forces known as the Kokoda Track Campaign. In 2001, Australian cryptozoologists Peter and Debbie Hynes revealed that it was also here, while serving as a soldier in the Australian Army, that the father of one of Debbie's friends had a brief but unforgettable encounter with a mystery mega-spider:

"One day he had to take himself off into the scrub in answer to a call of nature. While thus engaged he noticed he was crouched down next to a very large cobweb - not the classic "fishing-net" sort but the fine, snow-white cottony stuff that spread all over the ground and tree trunk etc. His eye followed it one way and then the other - seems it was very extensive, like 10 to 15 ft either way. Then he noticed the spider itself, only a foot or so away from his face. It was a real horror - the body, i.e. thorax+abdomen, he described as the "size of a small dog or puppy", it was coloured jet black, the legs were thick and hairy but not as long as the classic "dinner plate tarantula" type spider that owes its size to the spread of its legs. This thing had more body bulk than spread. Needless to say he backed out of there very slowly and carefully."

In spiders, the 'body' is actually just the abdomen (opisthosoma), not the thorax plus abdomen (although it can look like that to laymen unfamiliar with spider anatomy), because the thorax section is combined with the head, yielding the prosoma or cephalothorax. So, judging from the above description, the Papuan 'puppy spider' must have been at least the size of an adult chihuahua!

With a model of a giant spider (© Dr Karl Shuker)

This is not the only report of a giant mystery spider encountered in New Guinea during World War II. During an interview with cryptozoologist Rob Morphy of AmericanMonsters.com on the U.S. radio show 'Coast To Coast AM' a couple of years ago, a telephone caller named Craig recounted how his grandfather, while serving in New Guinea during WW2, encountered a monstrous spider in a web that scared him so much he hacked it to death with his machete. According to Craig's grandfather, the spider measured an immense 3 ft from tip to tip, and, unexpectedly, was not hairy like many big spiders are. Instead, it was shiny, and was emerald green in colour. This nightmarish arachnid was encountered near Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea.

J'BA FOFI – 'GREAT SPIDER' OF THE CONGO
Yet even this monster pales into insignificance alongside the horrifying j'ba fofi ('great spider') claimed by the Baka pygmy tribe and also the local Bantu hunters to exist amid the central African jungles of Cameroon and also the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly the Belgian Congo). This eight-legged terror was first brought to attention in 2001, when cryptozoological explorer Bill Gibbons told me of a very frightening close encounter that had occurred one day back in 1938.

This was when explorers Reginald and Margurite Lloyd were driving along a jungle path in the Belgian Congo's interior. Suddenly, a figure stepped out onto the path just ahead of them, resembling a monkey or a small, stooped human. Reginald Lloyd stopped the car to let the figure pass, and was astonished to see that it was a huge brown tarantula-like spider, with a leg-span of 3-4-ft! As he turned to grab his camera, however, the giant spider scuttled into the undergrowth and disappeared.

Reginald and Margurite Lloyd, Congolese giant spider observers (public domain)

In November 2003, during an expedition to Cameroon seeking a mysterious long-necked water beast called the mokele-mbembe, Gibbons mentioned to the Baka pygmies the Lloyds' sighting (originally recounted to him by their daughter, Margaret). They were familiar with such creatures and provided him with additional information.

The Baka claimed that these colossal spiders were once quite common in this area but are rarer now (due to modern deforestation here?), although one was reputedly sighted by them as recently as June 2003. They used to construct hut-like lairs from leaves near to the pygmies' villages, and by spinning mighty webs between adjacent trees, with trip lines running across game trails, they ensnared and devoured victims as sizeable as duiker (small antelopes). Moreover, they were said by the Baka to be powerful and venomous enough to kill humans too, but are themselves killed by the pygmies if encountered by them. The j'ba fofi supposedly lays white peanut-sized eggs, from which yellow spiderlings with purple opisthosomas emerge, turning brown as they mature.

SOUTH AMERICAN MEGA-SPIDERS
Reports of comparably massive spiders have also been recorded from the rainforests of Venezuela in South America. In 2008, the American television series 'MonsterQuest' sent tarantula expert Rick C. West to investigate such stories in the field via a short, filmed expedition to some Venezuelan jungle villages near to the Orinoco River and the border with Colombia. During his three-day foray, he was accompanied by a team of local helpers and an experienced Amazon guide, Juan Carlos Ramirez, who has worked here for over 20 years.

West began his quest by visiting the village of San Rafael de Manuare. Here, one villager attested that as a child he had seen a giant tarantula-like spider capture a small dog from the village and drag it off into the jungle. Its opisthosoma was as big as a basketball, and when it reared up it was the size of a human. If such a gigantic spider existed, and its fangs (chelicerae) were in proportion to the rest of its body, they would probably measure 6-9 in long. Although such claims would incite considerable scientific scepticism, Ramirez was convinced of the villagers' veracity, stating that they know the local fauna very well, and would not mistake something familiar, such as a monkey or a sloth on the ground, for a giant spider.

Don't look now, but… (© Dr Karl Shuker)

West and his team also visited Pandari, a village deeper in the mountains. Here, two inhabitants, Antonio and his son Simoni, spoke of a small child who had disappeared, never to return – which had been blamed upon giant spiders. In addition, so real is the Pandari villagers' fear of such creatures that they even engineer their huts specifically to keep them out, building thatched roofs that extend all the way down to the ground, thus yielding dense tightly-interwoven barricades.

On the third day of West's expedition, they headed back into the jungle and found an extremely large spider lair in the ground, inside which they placed a videoscope. This revealed the presence there of a very big tarantula, which they captured alive. Although nothing like as sizeable as the reputed chicken-killing, dog-devouring, child-abducting specimens feared by the villagers, it was roughly the same size as the biggest tarantulas on record and was 2 oz when weighed inside a plastic specimen bag.

Sadly, West's expedition ended without finding conclusive evidence for Venezuela's fabled giant spiders. However, he was sufficiently impressed by the size of their captured spider to consider it possible that bigger ones did exist in the jungle, and stated that he planned on returning to continue the search for one.

Bird-eating spider, illustrated by Louis Prang in 1885

In 2011, British cinematographer Richard Terry sought horse-killing, child-abducting giant spiders in Colombia's rainforest, for the television series 'Man v Monster'. He didn't find any either, but villagers claimed that these dreaded beasts inhabited subterranean lairs opening onto the forest floor via huge holes.

MONSTER SPIDERS IN VIETNAM
On 8 April 2013, American cryptozoologist Craig Woolheater posted on the Cryptomundo website a fascinating communication that he'd lately received from an American correspondent publicly identified only by their Cryptomundo user name, mrmaxima. This person stated that their father-in-law claims that while serving in the jungles of Vietnam during the Vietnam War as part of a five-man unit conducting scout work there, he encountered spiders with bodies the size of dinner plates, and, with their legs, yielding a total span of 20-30 in. These terrifying arachnids were always spied near to creeks or other water sources, and were so tough that even after being shot by him and the other men with their M16s and unloaded full magazines, they were still moving around.

Weird Tales magazine cover, June 1925 issue

GIANT SPIDERS IN SUBURBIA
One of the most startling giant spider reports comes from Leesville in Louisiana, USA. According to William Slaydon, it was here, while walking northwards along Highway 171 to church one cool night in 1948, that he, his wife, and their three young grandsons had spied a gigantic spider - hairy, black, and memorably described as "the size of a washtub". It emerged from a ditch just ahead of them and crossed the road before disappearing into some brush on the other side. Not surprisingly, the family never again walked along that particular route to church at night!

A very erudite arachnid of the extra-large variety? (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Nor is that the only report of a giant spider in suburbia. On 11 February 2013, Adam Bird from Nottingham, England, shared the following remarkable, never-before-publicised account on Facebook. It was related to him by a local librarian, Sheila, who had encountered the spider in question about 12 years earlier. One evening, Sheila was driving along Nottingham's Stone Bridge Road, on one side of which was a farm (still there today) and on the other side a disused factory (now demolished). As she approached the factory, her car's headlights lit up what she thought at first was a hedgehog, crawling towards the factory site. As she drove nearer, however, she realised to her horror that it was a huge, hairy, tarantula-like spider. Sheila estimated that its body alone was the size of a large dinner plate, and when the length of its legs were added, she deemed its total width to be about 2 ft. She continued to watch as it scuttled across the road and through the fence into the factory, then she quickly drove away, but, not surprisingly, the memory of this spine-chilling encounter has remained with her ever since.

PHYSIOLOGICAL SIZE LIMITATIONS
But what about the other monsters reported here – could immense spiders truly exist? Other than Leesville and Nottingham, the areas where they have been reported are all sufficiently impenetrable, inhospitable, and little-explored to be potentially capable of hiding some notable zoological surprises. However, the fundamental problem when considering giant spiders is not one of zoogeography but rather one of physiology.

Their tracheal respiratory system (consisting of a network of minute tubes carrying oxygen to every cell in the body) prevents insects from attaining huge sizes in the modern world, because the tracheae could not transport oxygen efficiently enough inside insects of giant stature. During the late Carboniferous and early Permian Periods, 300 million years ago, huge dragonflies existed, but back in those primeval ages the atmosphere's oxygen level was far greater than it is today, thereby compensating for the tracheal system's inefficiency. 

Indeed, until quite recently prehistory offered a truly spectacular, fully-confirmed super-spider - the aptly dubbed Megarachne servinei, formally described in 1980 from a 300-million-year old Upper Carboniferous fossil specimen discovered by Argentine palaeontologist Mario Hünicken in the Bajo de Veliz Formation at San Luis, Argentina. Its body measured roughly 16 in long, and is estimated to have possessed a leg span of some 20 in. In 2005, conversely, the identity of Megarachne as a mega-spider was challenged in a Biology Letters of the Royal Society paper by Manchester University zoologist Dr Paul Selden and Hünicken, who proposed that it had actually been a very different chelicerate creature – not a spider but rather a sea scorpion or eurypterid. This identity has since been confirmed – exit Megarachne as a giant spider! 
 
Megarachne model constructed when Megarachne was thought to have been a giant spider (© Markus Bühler)
 
Some of the modern world's largest known spiders utilise a tracheal respiratory system, whereas smaller spiders employ flattened organs of passive respiration called book lungs. Yet neither system is sufficiently competent to enable spiders to attain enormous sizes, based upon current knowledge at least. So if a giant spider does thrive in some secluded, far-off realm, it must have evolved a radically different, much more advanced respiratory system, not just a greatly enlarged body.

All of this, however, is sheer speculation, and is likely to remain so – unless, for instance, in the not-too-distant future a Baka pygmy should happen not only to kill a j'ba fofi but also to preserve its body afterwards, and duly alert scientific attention to it. Then at last we might have the long-awaited solution to this fascinating mystery – although arachnophobes might be more than happy for it to remain unsolved indefinitely!

This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted from an entire and exceedingly extensive chapter on giant mystery spiders – indeed, the most comprehensive coverage of such cryptids ever compiled and published – in my book Mirabilis: ACarnival of Cryptozoology anf Unnatural History (Anomalist Books: New York, 2013), which contains several additional examples. So be sure to check it out (unless of course you're seriously arachnophobic, in which case it may not be a good idea to do so!).





Monday, 28 July 2014

THE MPISIMBI – AN UNDISCOVERED BUT NOW-EXTINCT KING CHEETAH STRAIN IN EAST AFRICA?

Painting of the king cheetah's type specimen as imagined in life, from PZSL, 1927 (public domain)


How tragic it is that such wonderful creatures have no concept, no awareness, of just how beautiful and magical they are.
Then again, perhaps they do - after all, they are cats...

Karl Shuker - Re king cheetahs, posted on his Facebook wall, 31 July 2010


Many mysterious African animals once thought to be legendary or wholly imaginary monsters solely confined to the realms of native folklore and superstition have ultimately been found to be real (albeit elusive) creatures that have successfully eluded formal scientific recognition until modern times. The mountain gorilla, okapi, giant forest hog, and pygmy hippopotamus were all dismissed as myths by Western science until the 20th Century. So too was another bizarre beast - the leopard-hyaena or nsui-fisi...until 1926.


UNMASKING THE NSUI-FISI

This was when a short letter penned by Major A.C. Cooper from Salisbury (now Harare) in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was published by The Field, alongside his photograph of an extraordinary cat skin. Cooper believed the skin to be from a crossbreed of leopard and cheetah, which had been trapped at Macheke, about 62 miles southeast of Salisbury, but he was astonished by the exceptionally ornate markings adorning its golden-yellow coat, which were unlike those of any cat previously recorded by science. Upon its flanks and upper limbs they consisted of graceful curved stripes and abstract blotches, whereas a series of longitudinal stripes ran from its neck and shoulders along the entire length of its back to the upper portion of its tail, and a succession of thick black stripes encircled the remainder of its tail. Also of note were its non-retractile claws (a cheetah characteristic), and a mane-like ruff round its neck.

Back view of a king cheetah, revealing its very eyecatching longitudinal dorsal stripes (© Steve Jurvetson-Wikipedia-Flickr)

This wonderful creature matched traditional tribal descriptions of a strange monster termed the nsui-fisi (‘leopard-hyaena’), which was fervently claimed by Rhodesian natives to be the rare, exotic progeny of liaisons between leopards and hyaenas, as it was said by them to be as lithe, swift, and cunning as a leopard but boldly barred like the striped hyaena Hyaena hyaena. Such an identity was zoologically impossible, of course, but the fact remained that Cooper's mysterious big cat was still unexplained.

Not surprisingly, it soon attracted the attention of felid specialist Reginald Pocock, from the British Museum (Natural History), who identified it from Cooper's photograph as an aberrant leopard. (Interestingly, during the early years of the 20th Century, cats just like it had apparently been well known to locals in the Mazoe area of Rhodesia's northern region, where they were referred to as Mazoe leopards.) Once he was able to examine the skin itself, however, he swiftly changed his mind, recognising it to be from a cheetah - albeit one with dramatically different coat markings from the familiar polka-dot pelage of the normal cheetah Acinonyx jubatus. In 1927, Pocock announced that the skin represented a new species, which, due to its regal appearance and vaguely leonine mane, he dubbed Acinonyx rex - the king cheetah.

King cheetah (© Steve Jurvetson-Wikipedia-Flickr)

During the next few years, several other king cheetah skins were obtained - all from a triangle of terrain enclosing eastern and southern Zimbabwe, northern South Africa, and eastern Botswana - but as the number of skins increased, it became evident that some of these were intermediate in appearance between normal cheetahs and the first king cheetah, documented by Major Cooper. In other words, there was no longer a clear morphological demarcation line between spotted cheetahs and the striped king cheetah. This could mean only one thing - the king cheetah was not a distinct species in its own right after all. Instead, it was merely a freak mutant variety of the normal cheetah - which Pocock conceded in 1939.

As a result, interest in the king cheetah waned, and after a time reports of such specimens rarely emerged. Indeed, by the 1970s some zoologists had begun to fear that this handsome striped strain had died out, but during the 1970s a king was filmed living with normal cheetahs in the Kruger National Park.

The 1970s Kruger-inhabiting king cheetah individual, as featured on the front cover of leading king cheetah researcher Lena Bottriell's definitive book, King Cheetah (1987)

Today, there is no doubt that the king cheetah is indeed alive and well, with several specimens having been born within litters of normal spotted cheetahs in captivity in South Africa.


THE GENETICS OF A KING

Since its scientific discovery, there has been a great deal of conflict concerning the king cheetah's taxonomic status. At first it was believed to be a hybrid of leopard and cheetah, then a valid species, and ultimately a mutant form of the normal cheetah. In May 1981, however, the de Wildt Cheetah Breeding and Research Centre of Pretoria's National Zoological Gardens was able to examine this issue in a thorough manner, when a king cheetah was unexpectedly born to a pair of normal cheetahs here. A few days later, moreover, a second king was born, this time to the sister of the first king's mother.

Two normal spotted cheetahs

These fortuitous events duly initiated a programme of monitored breeding conducted at the centre, in order to determine the genetic basis of the king cheetah phenotype. By 1986, it had become clear that a recessive mutant allele was responsible, equivalent to the recessive allele producing the blotched tabby coat pattern in domestic cats. In other words, only cheetahs with two copies of the 'king' allele are kings. Cheetahs with one copy of the king allele and one of the normal (wild-type) spotted allele, or cheetahs with two copies of the spotted allele and none of the king allele, are normal spotted cheetahs.

Moreover, in a paper published by the journal Science in September 2012, a team of American genetics researchers from several different institutes revealed that they had identified the specific gene responsible for the king cheetah's striped coat pattern and the blotched coat pattern in domestic tabby cats. Both are caused by a recessive mutation in a gene dubbed Taqpep by the researchers.

Close-up of a king cheetah's fur, revealing its blotched-tabby-homologous pelage markings (© Wegmann/Wikipedia)

And so, one mystery concerning the king cheetah is a mystery no more - but there are others that still await a solution, and none is more fascinating than the following example.


UNMASKING THE MPISIMBI?

What makes the king cheetah so memorable in addition to its incredibly beautiful coat is its extremely limited distribution. Many freak mutations of coat colour or patterning in mammals are spontaneous, i.e. they can arise abruptly in any population of a given species, regardless of geographical location. Yet whereas the typical spotted cheetah occurs in southern, eastern, central, northern, and western Africa, king cheetahs have never been reported conclusively outside southern Africa – or have they?

There are two possible and potentially extremely significant exceptions to this widely-assumed rule (and three, if we consider some remarkable evidence that I lately uncovered for the erstwhile presence of at least one king cheetah specimen in the wild not anywhere in Africa, but instead in Asia, and which in 2013 I formally documented in Vol. 2 of the Journal of Cryptozoology, whose logo, very aptly, is a king cheetah – click here for further details).

A young king cheetah (© DannyBlue/Deviantart)

The first possible exception to the king cheetah's strict zoogeographical limitation to southern Africa is a king cheetah skin that in 1988 turned up in the West African country of Burkina Faso. It supposedly came from a specimen that had been shot by a poacher in the northern end of the Singou Total Fauna Reserve. Some researchers wonder whether this mystifying skin is one that in reality originated in southern Africa but which later travelled northwest via itinerant poachers or other skin traders. Alternatively, however, could a 'king' strain of cheetah have spontaneously arisen in West Africa?

As for the second putative exception to the rule of the king cheetah being exclusively southern African in distribution, this is one that has never been publicly revealed – until now. It features an extremely obscure East/Central African mystery beast known as the mpisimbi

King cheetah head (above) and normal spotted cheetah head (below)

In 1927, Chambers’s Journal published a fascinating article on East and Central African mystery beasts entitled ‘On the Trail of the Brontosaurus and Co.’. It was written by ‘Fulahn’, the pen-name of Captain William Hichens - a man whose name should already be familiar to mystery cat aficionados. For he was none other than the Native Magistrate at Lindi, Tanzania, during the 1920s and 1930s who investigated a succession of particularly gruesome murders there attributed by the local people to a giant brindled mystery cat known as the nunda or mngwa (click here for a ShukerNature blog post devoted to this feline cryptid).

Most of the cryptids documented by Hichens in his Chambers's Journal article are relatively famous ones, with one notable exception. Contained within his account are a couple of tantalising lines that have fascinated and frustrated me in equal measures for many years:

"But such are the mystery animals. There are others – the mpisimbi, the leopard-hyaena, which eats sugar-cane, and which I have hunted many a weary night without success;"

Despite numerous searches, I have never been able to uncover any additional information concerning this enigmatic creature. So what exactly is the mpisimbi?

King cheetahs (© David Pepper-Edwards)

The above-quoted lines offer no morphological description whatsoever of the mpisimbi. Conversely, its name’s English translation – ‘leopard-hyaena’ - is very intriguing, because it corresponds precisely with the English translation of the king cheetah’s native South African name, nsui-fisi. Moreover, Hichens’s unusual claim that the mpisimbi eats sugar-cane adds further to a putative link between the mpisimbi and the king cheetah, because in a second article, published under his own name a year later in Wide World Magazine, Hichens stated: “The Nsuifisi, or striped cheetah...was also reputed to be a raider of grain and sugar-cane”.

Of course, as Hichens went on to discuss, because cheetahs are carnivores it seems improbable that they would raid grain-plots. And even though hyaenas are notorious scavengers with an extremely catholic diet, they are not known to attack standing crops, but they will certainly devour cooked grain, vegetables, and even boiled flour.

King cheetah (© AKovacs23/Photobucket)

Such considerations and qualifications, however, are not significant with regard to the cryptozoological mystery under review here. What is significant is that both the mpisingi and the nsui-fisi were claimed, rightly or wrongly, by the native tribes in their respective, separate areas of Africa to consume the very same unexpected foodstuff – sugar-cane.

Is it conceivable, therefore, that the mpisimbi and the nsui-fisi are indeed one and the same creature – namely, the king cheetah? If so, it suggests that at some time in the distant past, striped cheetahs did exist in East and/or Central Africa – although, with no modern-day reports of such beasts on file, even if they once did exist there they seemingly no longer do. Put another way: whatever it may have been, tragically the mpisimbi is now apparently extinct.

King cheetahs (© David Pepper-Edwards)

Of course, sceptics may well claim that this is all supposition, but the presence of those brief lines regarding the mpisimbi in Hichens’s article means that the possibility of mpisimbi and king cheetah synonymity, however remote it may seem, cannot be discounted.

Moreover, who can say whether, in the future, a king cheetah or two will not spontaneously arise in the East African population of the normal spotted cheetah? That is, after all, what spontaneous mutations do!

At present, however, the mystery of the mpisimbi's zoological identity remains yet another enigma in the eventful history of Africa's extraordinary striped cheetah - the once (and future?) king.

Diagrammatic representation of the king cheetah's ornate pelage patterning (© Tim Morris)

For plenty of fascinating additional information concerning king cheetahs and other exotic cheetah varieties (including woolly cheetahs, blue-spotted cheetahs, black cheetahs, and unspotted cheetahs or cheetalines, be sure to check out my two dedicated crypto-cat books – Mystery Cats of the World (Robert Hale: London, 1989) and  Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2012).




Saturday, 26 July 2014

THE DEADLY DODU OF CAMEROON – A BELLIGERENT GRUB-EATING BIGFOOT?

Artistic representation of the dodu (© William Rebsamen)

Veteran cryptozoological explorer Bill Gibbons has searched for a number of notable mystery beasts in the field over the years, such as the Congo's mokele-mbembe (click here) and emela-ntouka (click here for some remarkable new finds re this cryptid). He has also brought several hitherto-obscure examples to widespread cryptozoological attention, including Nepal's crocodile-jawed limbless 'dragons' (click here), the New Guinea pterodactyl-like ropen (click here), and the giant Congolese spider or j'ba fofi (comprehensively documented in my book Mirabilis, 2013). What must surely be among the most unusual , however, is of the man-beast variety.

While exploring southern Cameroon, in western Africa, seeking reports of mokele-mbembe-type cryptids during April 2000, Bill was informed by the Baka pygmies and Bantus there of a dangerous primate known to them as the dodu. They claimed that it is dark grey in colour, stands up to 6 ft tall, is mostly bipedal but will sometimes knuckle-walk on all fours, and, of particular note, has only three fingers on each hand and just three clawed toes on each foot. This last-mentioned feature provides an unexpected parallel with the puzzling reports of three-toed bigfoot or sasquatch prints sometimes encountered in North America.

Painting of Bill Gibbons with mokele-mbembe (© William Rebsamen)

Highly aggressive, a dodu will attack gorillas, but has an extremely unusual dietary predilection. After killing an antelope or some other sizeable prey, it does not touch the carcase. Instead, the dodu abandons it for a while, leaving the rotting carcase to fill with maggots, after which the dodu returns, scoops the grubs out, and eats them in quantity. It is also well known for leaving piles of sticks on the forest floor, which, as Bill speculates, may be a form of territorial marking behaviour.

Bill has collected several native reports of encounters with dodus, but by far the most remarkable was one that he heard when returning to Cameroon in 2001. While visiting the lower Boumba region, he was informed that a few months earlier, a group of white men, accompanied by pygmy trackers, had allegedly captured a live dodu, which was seen by residents of a town called Moloundou. Bill suspects that its captors were loggers, but what happened to this unique specimen following its capture (assuming that the report given to Bill was genuine) is unknown.

Vintage photograph depicting a dead Bili ape, from a German journal published in 1912

The prospect of such an entity still existing uncatalogued and unclassified by science in modern times might well seem highly implausible, but then again, that is precisely what sceptics thought about the lost giant apes of Bili too - until they were rediscovered in 1996 (click here).

This ShukerNature blog post is excerpted from my book Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2010).






Sunday, 20 July 2014

PUMAPARDS AND LEPUMAS – UNUSUAL FELINE HYBRIDS OF HAGENBECK

Carl Hagenbeck's terrier-reared pumapard preserved as a taxiderm specimen at Tring Natural History Museum (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Although it can often equal or even exceed the leopard Panthera pardus in overall size, the puma Puma concolor is not a 'big cat' in the strict scientific sense - its throat structure, for example, is quite different from that of true big cats (i.e. belonging to the genus Panthera). It is particularly surprising, therefore, that successful matings between pumas and some of the Panthera species have occurred - the resulting hybrids thereby being intergeneric rather than merely interspecific.

Probably the most famous of these were the several litters of puma x leopard hybrids bred in 1898 at German animal dealer Carl Hagenbeck's Tierpark (which moved premises to Hamburg's Stellingen quarter in 1907). One of these was a pumapard (male puma x leopardess hybrid) raised by a fox terrier bitch that was displayed at Hagenbeck's Tierpark during the first decade of the 20th Century. This specimen resembled a puma in overall form but was noticeably smaller in size than either of its progenitor species and was marked with pronounced rosettes and blotches. It also had a very long tail.

The familiar cropped version of the only known photograph taken of Hagenbeck's terrier-reared pumapard when alive (public domain)

One of Hagenbeck's pumapards is preserved as a taxiderm specimen at Tring's Natural History Museum in Hertfordshire (as seen by me when I visited this wonderful museum as a birthday treat in December 2012), which was originally the personal zoological museum of Lord Walter Rothschild. There is some confusion in various online accounts as to whether this specimen, small in size, is one and the same as Hagenbeck's pumapard reared by a fox terrier. However, in The Living Animals of the World, a two-volume multi-contributor animal encyclopedia from 1901, the above photograph of the terrier-reared pumapard was published with a caption stating that the animal was now dead: "...and may be seen stuffed in Mr. Rothschild's Museum at Tring" - which would seem to confirm that they are indeed one and the same individual.

Hagenbeck's terrier-reared pumapard preserved at Tring (© Dr Karl Shuker)

A comparable cat, yet derived from the reciprocal cross (male leopard x female puma), thereby making it a lepuma, was purchased from Hagenbeck by Berlin Zoo in 1898, and was said at the time by the zoo's director, German zoologist Dr Ludwig Heck, to resemble "a little grey puma with large brown rosettes". Documenting this same animal in 1968, German cat expert Dr Helmut Hemmer described it as being fairly small with somewhat faded rosettes present upon a background pelage colour resembling that of a puma. Puma x leopard hybrids obtained by artificial insemination are also on record.

A photocopy of the original yet rarely-seen uncropped version of the only known photo of Hagenbeck's terrier-reared pumapard taken when alive, revealing that it was photographed whilst sitting alongside its fox terrier foster-mother (public domain)

This ShukerNature blog article was excerpted from my book Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2012), which contains further details regarding many fascinating examples of feline hybrids – check it out!







Saturday, 19 July 2014

THE CLIFDEN NONPAREIL – BEWITCHED BY NABOKOV'S ELUSIVE BLUE UNDERWING

Suitably named – the truly unparalleled, peerless clifden nonpareil, gorgeously portrayed in Dr F. Nemos's book Europas bekannteste Schmetterlinge. Beschreibung der wichtigsten Arten und Anleitung zur Kenntnis und zum Sammeln der Schmetterlinge und Raupen (c.1895)

In a previous ShukerNature blog article (click here), I reminisced about my lifelong ambition (finally fulfilled after 48 years of ongoing frustration!) to see the bird above all others that had bewitched me from my earliest days – that cerise-plumed, butterfly-winged wonder known as the hoopoe, which is a rare but annual visitor to Great Britain.

So too is another species – one that to me is the hoopoe of the moth world, because the thought of seeing this spectacular creature one day fills me with just as much enthusiasm and passion as I felt for so long and so earnestly in relation to the hoopoe. Yet whereas the latter is finally on my list of observed species, its equally charismatic lepidopteran counterpart remains resolutely unseen, still unencountered by me more than 54 years on from when I made my debut on the planet that I share with it.

Clifden nonpareil depicted upon a postage stamp issued in 1974 by Hungary

So what is this peerless, unparalleled species? None other than the fittingly-named clifden nonpareil Catocala fraxini ('nonpareil' translates from the French as 'without equal'). One of Britain's largest species of moth, it is also known, again appropriately albeit somewhat less romantically, as the blue underwing.

Indeed, so noteworthy is this moth's appearance that it even attracted the attention of eminent Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Well known for his passion for Lepidoptera, he immortalised the clifden nonpareil in his novel The Gift (1938, English translation 1963): "Your blue stripe, Catocalid, shows from under its gray lid".

Clifden nonpareil (© Harald Süpfle/Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0)

This celebrated species belongs to the taxonomic family Noctuidae, the owlet moths, which is the largest family of moths, is of worldwide distribution, and contains over 35,000 species. Within this family is the genus Catocala, containing over 250 species, native to Eurasia and North America, which are popularly termed underwings or underwing moths (Catocala is Greek for 'beautiful hind ones'). This name refers to the usually bright stripes of colour present on the upper side of their hindwings. At rest, an underwing moth's hindwings are concealed beneath its larger but very drab, grey-brown, cryptically-patterned forewings, allowing it to remain hidden from predators when resting in the open on the trunks of trees, etc. Should its presence be detected, however, in order to startle the predator momentarily and thus provide valuable escape time the moth will flash its brightly-coloured hindwings, abruptly revealing their colours. Due to the semi-circular shape of the stripes, moreover, it has been speculated that they may look like owl eyes to smaller birds, which would therefore frighten them away, saving the moth.

These stripes occur in a wide range of colours, varying between species, and many Catocala species are named accordingly. Thus there are red underwings, crimson underwings, rosy underwings, scarlet underwings, pink underwings, and so forth. Moreover, certain members of related genera that possess comparable hindwings are also referred to as underwings, such as the copper underwings Amphipyra spp., yellow underwings Noctua spp., and the brown underwing Minucia lunaris. In addition, there are two species of orange underwing Archlearis spp., but these belong to a separate taxonomic family, Geometridae.

A red underwing Catocala nupta (top) and a clifden nonpareil (bottom), pictured in The Natural History of British Moths (1836), by J. Duncan

Yet despite the difference in specific colours, these many species' hindwing stripes all occur in the red portion of the colour spectrum – all except the stripes of one very singular, special species, that is. Lone among all underwings, the stripes of the clifden nonpareil are blue, and not just some nondescript grey-blue shade either, but instead a bright, truly spectacular blue, which must be genuinely dazzling if suddenly flashed in the face of an inquisitive, too-close-for-comfort avian observer.

Blue has always been far and away my all-time favourite colour – so much so in fact that I sometimes wonder whether my wardrobe would have been so plentifully packed with Levis and other jeans, not to mention trucker jackets and shirts, had the predominant dye for denim been anything other than blue! Hence it was inevitable that a blue underwing – and especially when it is the only blue underwing – would attract my enduring interest and attention once I'd learnt of such an exotic creature's existence, and thus has it proved.

Clifden nonpareil in grass (public domain)

Moreover, boasting a 4-inch wingspan the clifden nonpareil is set apart from all other underwings not only by its blue hindwing stripes but also by its very large size – indeed, it is the world's largest species of Catocala underwing. It was scientifically named by none other than Linnaeus, in 1758, who dubbed it Phalaena fraxini (noting its sometime occurrence on ash trees, Fraxinus spp.) but it was subsequently rehoused in the genus Catocala after the latter was coined in 1802 by German entomologist Franz von Paula Schrank. It has a wide Old World distribution, being found as a resident in deciduous woodlands (especially near water) of northern and central Europe (and as a migrant in eastern and southern Europe), as well as in northern Asia, and in temperate eastern Asia as far as Japan. However, it is its famed rarity in Britain that has earned it its reputation as a near-legendary species - one that was prized above all others by moth collectors during the Victorian era.

The first published reference to the clifden nonpareil's occurrence in Britain was by Benjamin Wilkes in his book The English Moths and Butterflies (1749), in which he recorded a specimen lately collected by a Mr Davenport on an ash tree near Clifden (now known as Cliveden) in Buckinghamshire – the location which, together with its unrivalled beauty, earned this species its common name. However, it had been known in Britain since at least 1740 – the year in which a specimen now in the Dale Collection within Oxford's Hope Museum was collected in Dorset. Since then, usually single specimens have been reported in a number of English counties spasmodically up until the 1940s and 1950s, during which period sightings increased as its range temporarily expanded due to favourable climatic conditions, even giving brief hope that this evanescent species had permanently established itself as a resident in Kent and the Norfolk Broads. Sadly, however, that hope was not fulfilled, because sightings fell again following the return of less favourable climate by the early 1960s, and it once more became merely an irregular immigrant.

Clifden nonpareil – extracted from Duncan's above-reproduced 1836 colour print

Favouring the aspen as its larval foodplant (though also selecting other poplar species if aspen are not present, and sometimes found on ash trees too), the clifden nonpareil is most commonly sighted in September, particularly in southern and southeastern England. In recent years, however, there have been well-publicised records from the Westcountry counties too (one specimen turned up at Cornwall's Lost Gardens of Heligan in autumn 2010), and there is even a faint possibility that small colonies are establishing themselves in Suffolk. The recolonisation of southern England by this exquisite species would be a wonderful occurrence, so we can but hope that prevailing climatic conditions continue to encourage this most welcome trend. And who knows – if this does occur, one day the clifden nonpareil might expand its range even further, taking in my home county of the West Midlands. In 1872, there was a record from the neighbouring county of Shropshire, plus there are several 19th-Century records from northern England, and even Scotland and Ireland too, so it was clearly not a confirmed southerner back then.

What a marvellous, magical experience it would be if, finally, some day in the not-too-distant future I could encounter a large grey moth that suddenly flashed its hindwings at me to reveal a dazzling stripe of bright blue. For me, such an event would definitely be peerless, truly unparalleled – just like the clifden nonpareil itself.

19th-Century colour plate featuring a clifden nonpareil