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!

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Sunday, 8 January 2017

AN INTERVIEW WITH THE CURIOUS FORTEAN


Wearing my Fortean Times-sponsored 'Operation Congo 1985' mokele-mbembe expedition t-shirt, whose wonderful m-m logo was created by FT's very own Hunt Emerson (© Dr Karl Shuker)

I was recently interviewed by Matt Cook from The Curious Fortean on a wide range of interesting subjects – from classic cryptids such as Nessie and the Congolese mokele-mbembe to the little loriciferan that was named after me, the prestigious Golden Yeti awards bestowed upon me a month ago for my contributions to cryptozoology, and much else besides. You can read the interview in full here, on The Curious Fortean's blog, and also be sure to check out the official Facebook group for The Curious Fortean here.

My sincere thanks to Matt for interviewing me and for posing such a fascinating series of thoughtful, insightful questions.

Also, be sure to check out my two most recent books – Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors and Here's Nessie! A Monstrous Compendium From Loch Ness – both of which are referred to in this interview.








Sunday, 1 January 2017

ARE GIANT FLIGHTLESS RAVENS SOMETHING TO CROW ABOUT IN CANADA?


Representation of the possible appearance of British Columbia's alleged red-tailed giant ravens (© Dr Karl Shuker)

What better way for ShukerNature to begin 2017 than with a hitherto little-known mystery beast – so here is one right now!

On 28 March 2012, French cryptozoological correspondent Raphaël Marlière kindly brought to my attention the following intriguing report that he'd recently seen on the Cryptodominion website (click here). It may well be mere folklore - then again, it just might be something more.

Normal ravens (public domain)

According to Cryptodominion, loggers who have worked in the interior of British Columbia, Canada, assert that an isolated, timber-rich valley exists here that is inhabited by huge ravens, bigger even than golden eagles, but virtually flightless, and further distinguished from normal ravens Corvus corax by their tail plumage, which exhibits a noticeable amount of red pigmentation. Apparently, these mystery red-tailed mega-corvids are very dangerous and opportunistic, not hesitating to wreck a campsite.

Lumberjack folklore is renowned in North America for its tall tales of exotic fauna (variously dubbed fierce or fearsome critters) – everything from fur-bearing trout to spiky-furred cactus cats – so this may simply be a less familiar variant. Nevertheless, if anyone out there has any additional information concerning such birds, I'd be very interested to receive details.

Elegant raven sculpture at the Raveleijn theatre in Efteling, a fantasy-based theme park at Kaatsheuvel, in the Netherlands (public domain)








Wednesday, 28 December 2016

DUPLICATING THE DIRE WOLF AS A DOMESTIC DOG?


Life-sized dire wolf statue at Dinosaur Valley, Wookey Hole, in Somerset, England (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Larger than today’s grey wolf Canis lupus, the formidable North American dire wolf C. dirus is famous for the numerous specimens discovered in California’s La Brea Tar Pits, but it had become extinct around 10,000 years ago. However, there is a remarkable ongoing project dedicated to achieving a dramatic dire wolf resurrection...of sorts.

Woodward's eagle Amplibuteo woodwardi (a giant North American raptor from the late Pleistocene) vs the dire wolf (© Hodari Nundu aka Justin Case)

A fascinating breeding program that has been attracting plenty of media attention lately is the Dire Wolf Project (click here to visit its official website), launched by the National American Alsatian Breeder’s Association, because it aims to recreate within a domestic breed of companion dog the basic dire wolf body, size, and bone structure. In short, not a true, genetically-restored dire wolf, but rather a domestic dog that mirrors the dire wolf’s phenotype (external morphology) as closely as possible.

Alongside dire wolf statue at Dinosaur Valley, Wookey Hole, in Somerset, England, on 29 August 2010 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

The American Alsatian, first created in 1987 from matings between original Alsatians (German Shepherd Dogs) and Alaskan Malamutes and initially referred to as the North American Shepalute, is itself the first product of this selective breeding project. However, the project’s continuing long-term plan is to refine its morphology still further, ever increasing its outward similarity to the genuine dire wolf, having subsequently introduced Anatolian Shepherd Dogs, English Mastiffs, and the Great Pyrenees into the breeding mix, because each of these possesses certain morphological attributes recalling those of the dire wolf.

Artistic representation of a dire wolf (© Hodari Nundu aka Justin Case)

Conversely, no dogs with any recent bona fide lupine ancestry have been used, because the goal is to restore or reconstitute the dire wolf in phenotype only – breeding back the large, round bones, the massive feet, and the broad head found in the skeletal structure of dire wolves studied by American palaeontologists – and not this wild prehistoric species’ behaviour or exact genetic composition. Nevertheless, a domestic dog duplicating the outward morphology of a bona fide dire wolf will still be a very impressive creature, to say the least. Of course, there can be no certainty that certain phenotypic aspects, such as fur colouration, density, and texture, will be comparable to those of the dire wolf, because as far as I am aware there are no preserved dire wolf specimens in toto (as there are with woolly mammoths, conversely), only their skeletal components. Even so, it will be most interesting to monitor the progress of such a novel project - watch this space!

My mother Mary Shuker alongside a very realistic replica of a dire wolf, at Dinosaur Valley, Wookey Hole, in Somerset, England, on 29 August 2010 (© Dr Karl Shuker)




Tuesday, 27 December 2016

ROSE HILL DAWGIE BLUES - THE PHANTOM BLUE MASTIFF OF MARYLAND

Does a huge phantom mastiff emitting an eerie blue phosphorescent glow haunt Rose Hill in the vicinity of Port Tobacco, Maryland, USA? (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Telling ghost stories during the Christmas season is a longstanding Yuletide festive tradition, so here is ShukerNature's contribution for Christmas 2016. But what makes this particular story very special is that its phantom protagonist may actually be real! The apparition in question is the blue ghost dog of Rose Hill, just outside Port Tobacco, a once-thriving seaport in Charles County, Maryland, USA.

According to local tradition, during the political unrest leading up to the American Civil War (or leading up to the American War of Independence, a century earlier, in some versions), a Yankee soldier-peddler called Charles Thomas Sims, accompanied by a huge mastiff-like tick hound with unusual blue-grey fur, sought warmth and shelter one very wintry 8 February at the St Charles Inn, one of many waterfront taverns in Port Tobacco at that time.

Rose Hill Manor (public domain)

Once inside, however, he soon became so intoxicated that he clumsily spilled a number of gold coins out of his purse. This attracted the keen attention of a gang of rough youths, led by a ne'er-do-well named Henry Hanos, who lost no time in luring him out of the inn and the town, leading him instead along Rose Hill Road and up to the vast grounds of Rose Hill Manor atop a lonely hill just outside Port Tobacco.

Here, securely out of sight of the town's populace, Hanos and his mob clubbed the hapless Sims and his dog to death on a big rock in the manor's grounds, near the roadside, and then stole his gold, burying it under a holly tree alongside the road on the hill for safekeeping, but planning to return later and retrieve it. When they did return, however, they were horrified to see a monstrous dog surrounded by an eerie blue phosphorescence howling on the rock, the site of its master's murder and its own  too - and as soon as they tried to draw nearer, the dog raced towards them in hellish fury!

Artistic representation of the phantom blue mastiff of Rose Hill (© Unknown artist/All About Dogs, January-February 1998, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial, educational/review Fair Use basis only)

Screaming with terror, the youths fled, never coming back, and Hanos swiftly fell ill, dying abruptly soon afterwards. Since then, several others have boldly ventured to Rose Hill to seek Sims's gold, including some troops of General Joseph Hooker fighting near here in the Civil War - but when confronted by the unearthly luminous blue dog, they have swiftly departed this accursed spot, leaving the gold untouched. Moreover, the former owner of Rose Hill Manor in whose grounds the killings allegedly took place, Olivia Floyd, an erstwhile Confederacy spy during the Civil War, claimed in an interview with the Port Tobacco Times newspaper in 1897 to have once seen the great glowing hound there herself – the earliest written documentation of it.

Today, the blue ghost dog is very much a local celebrity in Port Tobacco, which is home to an ornate sign depicting it and even boasts a Blue Dog Saloon containing a huge and very beautiful oil painting by local artist Don Zimmer portraying the tragic scene of the slain Sims lying dead amid a desolate snowy landscape and the teary-eyed ghost of his faithful dog lying close by. Moreover, prints of this magnificent painting can actually be purchased, with all proceeds going towards the Nanjemoy Neighbors Water Project (click here to visit the official website at which to buy a print of the painting).

Magnificent oil painting portraying the tragic death scene from the legend of the Rose Hill blue ghost dog (© Don Zimmer/TheBayNet.Com 2016 – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial, educational/review Fair Use basis only)

The legend of the blue ghost dog of Rose Hill is often stated to be the oldest ghost story in the entire USA, but is it more than just a local folktale? And, if so, are sightings of this terrifying canine apparition still occurring today? (I've read claims that sightings have reputedly occurred as recently as the 1970s, and most frequently during the month of February, but with no details supplied.)

I have no idea of the answers to these questions, so what I'm going to do now is what I always do in situations like this. Namely, request that if anyone reading my present ShukerNature article has further information concerning its subject, and especially any details regarding possible modern-day encounters with the phantom dog itself, please do post them here, as I'd be very interested indeed to receive and read them. Thanks very much!

Could the phantom blue mastiff of Rose Hill look something like this? (© Dr Karl Shuker)




Monday, 26 December 2016

ENTER THE ELEPHANT RAT - A SHUKERNATURE PICTURE OF THE DAY


The elephant rat portrayed in the Hours of Joanna the Mad (public domain)

It's been quite a while since I last presented a ShukerNature Picture of the Day, but what better way to reintroduce this intermittent feature than with a creature so exotic in form that even though it doesn't exist, it should do!

I am referring to an extraordinary mini-beast of the medieval marginalia, i.e. one of the innumerable creatures of curiosity and composite nature (variously dubbed grotesques if strange or drolleries if humorous) that populate and decorate the edges of illuminated manuscripts prepared many centuries ago by monks and other theological scholars or chroniclers. In a previous ShukerNature blog article (click here), I documented one particularly intriguing example that has appeared in several such works – the snail-cat. Now, here is another, which for obvious reasons I am herewith officially dubbing the elephant rat.

A snail-cat, depicted in the Maastricht Hours – an illuminated devotional manuscript produced in the Netherlands during the early 1300s (public domain)

As can be seen from the illustration opening this present ShukerNature article and which, to my knowledge, is the only example of such a bizarre composite, the elephant rat deftly combines the head and body of a typical rat with the long trunk and tusks of an elephant, plus a series of odd, knobbly protuberances all over its back that seem entirely peculiar to itself. And as if all of that were not distinctive enough, this remarkable rodent also sports an exceptionally fine set of white bushy side-whiskers.

The illustration in question is from folio 203r ('r' referring to the folio's recto side) of an illuminated manuscript known variously as the Hours of Joanna the Mad or, more formally, as the Hours of Joanna I of Castile. This particular folio is part of a section of the Hours that deals with the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Joanna the Mad, Queen of Castile (from 1504) and Aragon (from 1516); portrait by Juan de Flandes, c.1500 (public domain)

Quoting from my earlier snail-cat article:

The Hours of Joanna the Mad is an illuminated book of hours manuscript that had originally been owned by Joanna of Castile (1479-1555), the (controversially) mentally-ill consort of Philip the Handsome, king of Castile. It had been produced for her in the city of Bruges (in what is now Belgium) some time between 1486 and 1506, but is now held as Add. MS 18852 in the British Library. As with so many others of its kind, this illuminated manuscript's margins are plentifully supplied with grotesques and drolleries.

The elephant rat is unquestionably among the most memorable of these, and serves as a good example of both categories by being both strange and humorous.

The complete folio 203r from the Hours of Joanna the Mad containing the elephant rat depiction (public domain)

And while on the subject of humour, it is widely believed by researchers of medieval manuscripts that a considerable number of these marginalia monsters arose as nothing more significant or symbolic than attempts by the manuscripts' illuminators and copiers to stave off the boredom induced by very long, tedious hours working upon them by slyly inserting these fantasy creatures as subversive jokes and mockery of the deadly serious nature of the manuscripts' official, devotional content. Or, to put it another way, they are merely medieval doodles, but delightful ones nonetheless, well worth documenting and celebrating in their own right.

Speaking of which: as noted earlier, I am presently aware of only a single elephant rat representation in illuminated manuscripts – the one documented by me here. But as with snail-cats, there may be additional examples tucked away in the margins of others. So if anyone reading this ShukerNature article is aware of such examples, I'd greatly welcome details!

The Hispaniolan solenodon Solenodon paradoxus. Solenodons are quite large but exceedingly-endangered West Indian insectivores that are probably the only modern-day, real-life creatures offering even the remotest outward resemblance to the medieval, imaginary elephant rat (© Sandstein/Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)





Saturday, 24 December 2016

THE HORNED JACKAL AND THE NARRI-COMBOO - A HORN OF CANINE CONTENTION


Sri Lankan golden jackal in Yala National Park (© Thimindu/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0 licence)

It is nothing if not fitting that one of the world's most exotic islands should also lay claim to one of the world's most exotic mystery beasts. The island in question is Sri Lanka (formerly called Ceylon), which is home to an exceedingly curious enigma of the canine kind, known as the horned jackal.

THAT’S WHY THEY CALL HIM THE LEADER OF THE PACK!
It was in 1980, when Arthur C. Clarke very briefly alluded to it (together with Sri Lanka's equally contentious devil bird - click here) in a cryptozoological episode from his television series Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, that I first learned of the horned jackal. I began at once to seek out and amass more information – which included data kindly supplied to me by Arthur C. Clarke himself after I wrote to him explaining my desire to uncover material regarding it – and I was surprised to find that quite a lot of relevant details had indeed been documented, but had hitherto received scant publicity, concerning this remarkable mystery beast.

Sir James Emerson Tennent (public domain)

One of the most detailed accounts, complete with illustrations, featured in Sir James Emerson Tennent's excellent book Sketches of the Natural History of Ceylon (1861). Tennent revealed that there is a widespread belief among the Singhalese and Tamil people of Sri Lanka that the leader of each pack of common or golden jackals Canis aureus naria on this island bears a small horn on its skull. Widely referred to as the narri-comboo or narric-comboo, and generally hidden from view by a tuft of fur, this unexpected horn measures about half an inch long.

According to Tennent, it protrudes from the back of the jackal leader's skull - as depicted by a diagram in his book of a horned jackal's skull formerly preserved at London's Museum of the College of Surgeons. Nevertheless, in certain other books that I have consulted, there have been claims that a horned jackal's narri-comboo protrudes from its brow. Perhaps, therefore, its precise position on the skull varies between individuals. Tennent's book also described and illustrated a specimen of the horny sheath from a narri-comboo that had been presented to him by the then district judge of Kandy, a man called Lavalliere.

Diagram of a horned jackal's skull (including a drawing of the horny sheath from a jackal horn), appearing in Tennent's book (public domain)

HORNING IN ON THE LETTER OF THE LAW
One aspect of the narri-comboo that does not vary, however, is the fervent belief shared by Sri Lankan inhabitants throughout the island that this insignificant cranial curiosity is somehow bestowed with extraordinary magical powers - powers that render invincible in all lawsuits anyone fortunate enough to own one of these strange objects.

Moreover, if placed alongside a person's jewellery, a narri-comboo is said to prevent the jewellery from being stolen. And if this horn should somehow be lost it has the very obliging ability to return magically, of its own accord, to its owner. Clearly, no home should be without one!

Head and shoulders portrait of Sir James Emerson Tennent (public domain)

One of the most entertaining accounts of a narri-comboo's magical (and highly devious) legal machinations appeared in Tennent's book (and should perhaps be borne in mind by anyone with plans to practise law in Sri Lanka!):

A gentlemen connected with the Supreme Court of Colombo has repeated to me a circumstance, within his own knowledge, of a plaintiff who, after numerous defeats, eventually succeeded against his opponent by the timely acquisition of this invaluable charm. Before the final hearing of the cause, the mysterious horn was duly exhibited to his friends; and the consequence was, that the adverse witnesses, appalled by the belief that no one could possibly give judgement against a person so endowed, suddenly modified their previous evidence, and secured an unforeseen victory for the happy owner of the narric-comboo!

Even today, a narri-comboo is greatly prized as a lucky talisman by Sri Lankans, though whether the jackals killed for their horns would share this view is another matter entirely.

Pair of Sri Lankan golden jackals Canis aureus naria and egrets in Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka (© Christina Xu/Flickr/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)

THE HORN OF A DILEMMA
Specimens such as the erstwhile skull at the College of Surgeons' Museum and the horny sheath given by Lavalliere to Tennent readily confirm the reality of horned jackals, and jackal horns. What has yet to be confirmed, conversely, is the reason why these peculiar structures develop, and whether they are indeed unique to pack leaders.

Logic dictates that the latter aspect of narri-comboo lore must surely owe more to legend than fact, because as pack leadership is not inherited in a predetermined manner from father to one specific male offspring, it is not possible to offer any genetically-based explanation for the supposed restriction of horn development to pack leaders. Similarly, if horn growth occurs in response to some external influence, i.e. stimulated perhaps by a physical blow or injury, one would expect other jackal individuals, not just the leader, to develop horns.

An albino golden jackal (public domain)

However, externally-induced horn growth may resolve current uncertainty regarding the precise point of origin of the horn on a jackal skull. This is because such a structure might develop from any cranial region that suffered a severe blow. Adventitious horn development via this mechanism has been reliably recorded from other mammal species on occasion.

Possibly the biggest mystery of all, however, is why horned jackals do not seem to have attracted the same degree of attention elsewhere. Canis aureus is distributed widely in Asia and Africa, and has even been reported in eastern Europe, so why do there appear to be far fewer details of horned specimens recorded from outside Sri Lanka? (I am aware only of some sparse information from Bengal and Nepal.) Perhaps there are such records on file somewhere, but they simply haven't been publicised. So if any readers do happen to come across any horned jackal accounts emanating from beyond the shores of former Ceylon, I'd love to hear from you! Meanwhile, further details concerning Sri Lanka's perplexing horned jackal and devil bird can be found in my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings.

Exquisite engraving constituting the frontispiece to Tennent's above-cited book (public domain)




Friday, 23 December 2016

THE BASILISK AND THE COCKATRICE - MONSTROUS MYTHOLOGY OR REPTILIAN REALITY?



The basilisk (above left) and the cockatrice (right), depictions from medieval bestiaries (public domain)

Two of classical mythology's most feared reptilian monsters were the basilisk and the cockatrice. But were they really nothing more than legends and fables – or could they have been inspired by various real-life creatures?


THE BASILISK

Today, the only basilisks known to herpetologists are those very eyecatching but totally harmless Latin American iguanid lizards of the genus Basiliscus, famous for their remarkable ability to sprint bipedally across the surface of ponds – hence their lesser-known alternative name of Jesus Christ lizards. However, they derive their more familiar name from a very different, allegedly lethal reptile from the Old World, and which supposedly existed there during medieval times – the original basilisk.

The harmless real-life basilisk lizard (© Markus Bühler)

One of the earliest references to it appeared in Pliny the Elder's magnum opus Natural History (c.77-79 AD). On first sight, this inconspicuous serpent dragon, just 3 ft or so long, simply resembled a slender brown snake. On closer inspection, however, it could be seen to bear a regal crown of gold upon its head (hence 'basiliskos' - Greek for 'little king'). And when it moved, it raised much of its body vertically upwards in a proud, fearless stance, eschewing the lowly belly-crawling mode of locomotion typifying ordinary serpents.

The basilisk had every reason to be fearless. According to popular lore, its merest glance was enough to kill almost any living creature instantly – including another basilisk (and even itself if it somehow caught sight of its own reflection). The tiniest drop of venom dribbling from its jaws was ample to poison the earth upon which it fell, or the water into which it dripped. And the faintest breath that it exhaled was sufficient to transform the land for many miles in every direction from fertile pastures into arid desert. Indeed, the very existence of the deserts where the basilisk lived, in North Africa and Arabia, was said to have been directly caused by its baleful presence.

In short, the basilisk was virtually invulnerable. Thankfully, however, it was also very uncommon, and could be warded off with a sprig of the rue plant. Moreover, it could be killed outright by the rank odour of urine from a weasel – an aspect of the basilisk legend that may have been inspired at least in part by tales emanating from the Orient of cobras confronted and dispatched by mongooses.

Basilisk, in Conrad Gesner's Historiae Animalium, vol 5, 1587 (public domain)

The basilisk's origin was just as uncanny as its appearance and capabilities, and explained why this diminutive but much-dreaded monster was so rare. A basilisk was only created if the egg of a serpent were hatched by a rooster (cockerel) – a bizarre event which (thankfully!) was hardly likely to happen very frequently.

Despite its formidable nature, medieval alchemists were very keen to possess the ashes of a dead basilisk, because they believed that this scarce, precious matter could transmute silver into gold. Some scholars, such as Theophilus Presbyter (fl. c.1070-1125), even believed that a basilisk could be magically created via a detailed recipe of ingredients and reactions, and that the resulting creature would convert copper into Spanish gold.

Although traditionally said to inhabit the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East, the basilisk could claim a number of counterparts elsewhere in the world too. For example, in bygone ages the town of Baunei in the province of Ogliastra on the Italian island of Sardinia was terrorised by a basilisk-like monster that lived in the bushes there and was known as the scultone or ascultone. Just like the basilisk, its gaze was sufficient to kill anyone or anything that looked directly at it, but unlike the basilisk it was immortal. Nevertheless, Peter the Apostle finally managed to rid Baunei of this menace using a mirror, though the precise manner in which he accomplished the feat remains unclear.

Scultone (public domain)

In Gambia, Senegal, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, traditional lore tells of a greatly-feared serpent dragon known as the ninki-nanka. Not only did it possess supernatural powers, it also concealed a precious diamond inside its head, from which it drew these powers. Moreover, echoing the odd manner in which a basilisk was created, a ninki-nanka was only hatched from an egg that was present in the very centre of a clutch of normal python eggs.

South America's basilisk equivalent, the basilisco, was toad-like rather than serpentine, and could only be hatched from a black egg. Accounts of this creature come from Santiago del Estero, the Mapuche area, and the northwestern region of Argentina.

Is it conceivable, however, that belief in such bizarre, fictitious monsters as the basilisk and its cohorts elsewhere around the world was derived at least in part from sightings of unusual but genuine creatures?

Ringhals spitting cobra Hemachatus haemachatus (© Lee R. Berger/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.5 licence)

The original basilisk, supposedly inhabiting North Africa's deserts, and whose merest glance could kill, may have been inspired by a very specific and unusual type of real-life snake – the spitting cobra. Several species are recognised (some of which are native to North Africa), and all of them incapacitate their prey or potential aggressors by spitting accurately, and from some distance away, a stream of corrosive venom into their eyes (click here to watch a short YouTube video of a spitting cobra doing precisely this to a snake handler - happily, the handler is wearing protective glasses!). Early travellers' tales of this remarkable ability could have been elaborated over generations of retelling into the basilisk's fatal glance.

In addition, the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East are home to a small, harmless species of colubrid snake known as the awl-headed sand snake Lytorhynchus diadema. The diadem-like markings upon its head and its yellowish-brown body colouration recall traditional descriptions of the basilisk's appearance and may therefore have helped to inspire belief in the latter.

Incidentally, a spitting cobra brought to England during the early 1600s as an exotic pet or exhibit that later escaped into the countryside could provide a plausible identity for a 10-ft-long serpent dragon reported from St Leonard's Forest, near Horsham, West Sussex, in August 1614. According to a pamphlet circulated at that time (which is the original source of this report and was subsequently republished in the Harleian Miscellany, 1744-1753), it killed two people, two dogs, and several cattle by spitting venom at them, but did not try to devour them.

Illustration of the St Leonard's Forest dragon from the original pamphlet of 1614 (public domain)

Nor are spitting cobras the only potential link between the basilisk of folklore and certain unexpected creatures of fact. Chickens are often infected with parasitic gut-inhabiting worms, including the ascarid roundworm Ascaris lineata, a nematode species that can grow to a few inches in length (a related giant species in humans can grow to over 1 ft in length!). They are often passed out of the bird's gut when it defaecates. Unlike in mammals, however, the bird's gut and its reproductive system share a common external passageway and opening – the cloaca. Sometimes, therefore, an ascarid worm ejected from the gut finds its way into the bird's reproductive system rather than being excreted into the outside world, and moves into the oviduct. Once here, however, it becomes incorporated into the albumen of an egg, inside which it remains alive yet trapped when the egg is laid. But as soon as the egg is broken open to eat by some unsuspecting diner, the worm wriggles its way out of it to freedom, scaring the diner and perpetuating the myth of the basilisk in the process!

On 3 March 2012, Copenhagen University zoologist Lars Thomas left a message below a short basilisk post of mine (click here) on my Eclectarium of Doctor Shuker blog, informing me of his own direct experience with this fascinating phenomenon:

I suppose you know, that some legends say young basilisk "worms" could sometimes be found in chicken eggs. Indeed if you found a worm in an egg, not so very long ago, old folks would tell you it was a basilisk, and tell you how to get rid of it. When I was 8 years old, I was on holiday at my aunt who had a small farm. One day I was helping her in the kitchen cracking eggs, and in one of them was a worm. Auntie told me it was a young basilisk, and that I should very carefully take it out in her garden and bury it, and then walk three times around the filled up hole. So I did, but not before making a drawing of the egg and the worm. I still got the drawing.

Ascaris, a parasitic nematode or roundworm (public domain)

Judging from this telling little vignette, burying traditional belief in basilisks is clearly much harder to do than burying the supposed basilisk itself!


THE COCKATRICE

During the Middle Ages, the small yet deadly basilisk underwent a very dramatic transformation in mythology, metamorphosing into a much bigger, truly grotesque type of two-legged, wyvern-like dragon known as a cockatrice, However, there is much confusion and terminological interchange relating to this, with many unequivocal cockatrices often being referred to incorrectly as basilisks.

Cockatrice statue at Trsat Castle in Rijeka, Croatia (© Georges Jansoone/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Muddying the mythological waters even further, moreover, an intriguing, seemingly intermediate version with multiple limb pairs and a horizontal body but a wattled, cockerel-like head (yet still bearing a regal crown) was also popularly illustrated in bestiaries during that time, and was variously referred to as a basilisk or as a cockatrice, depending upon the chronicler in question.

Swedish artist and film-maker Richard Svenson's vibrant, colourful representation of the intermediate, multi-limbed stage in the basilisk-to-cockatrice transformation (above), inspired by bestiary depictions of it (e.g. below, from Serpentum et Draconum Historiae by Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1640) (© Richard Svensson / public domain)

During its transformation from the basilisk, the cockatrice gained a pair of large bat-like wings, a long coiled tail (still covered in scales but often terminating in a sharp sagittal tip), and a single pair of sturdy rooster-like legs that enabled it to walk upright. Furthering its cockerel parallels, however, it also sported a coxcomb on its head, a pair of pendulous facial wattles, a pointed horny beak, sometimes a covering of feathers upon its body, and even the ability to crow like a farmyard rooster too.

Cockatrice fleeing from a weasel wrapped in rue, illustrated by Wenceslaus Hollar, 1600s (public domain)

Even so, this weird avian reptile (or reptilian bird?) retained the basilisk's deadly gaze, its dread of weasels and rue, and also, albeit in a reversed version, its bizarre mode of creation. Now, one of these monstrous entities would only arise if a round leathery shell-less egg laid by a seven-year-old cockerel when the dog star Sirius was in the ascendant was hatched by a toad in a dung heap. Although such an occurrence may seem highly unlikely, cockatrices were reported not just in North Africa and Arabia like their basilisk antecedent but also widely through Europe, including several examples from Britain.

Cockatrice in Raoul Lefèvre's tome Histoires de Troyes Belgique, 1400s (public domain)

One of the most recent of these was the Renwick cockatrice - or was it? Crowing loudly, this bat-winged horror, black in colour but sporting facial wattles and a coxcomb, reputedly emerged from the foundations of a church being demolished by workmen in the Cumbrian village of Renwick in 1733. Happily, the monster was dispatched by local hero John Tallantine (sometimes given as Tallantire) with a sturdy wooden lance hewn from a rowan tree - famed for its magical, evil-repelling properties. This is the most commonly-recounted version of the alleged incident. However, it is well worth noting that in the earliest-known written record of it, appearing as a brief mention in his tome The History of the County of Cumberland, Vol 1 (1794), historian William Hutchinson stated that it had actually taken place "about 200 years ago", i.e. some time during the late 1500s. Regardless of its precise date, however, if such an event did truly occur, might the offending creature have been merely a large bat, whose proportions were duly exaggerated and elaborated in subsequent retellings of the incident?

Is this what the so-called Renwick cockatrice looked like? (public domain)

Iceland is not a country well known for dragon legends, but its traditional lore does lay claim to its own version of the cockatrice – a deadly creature called the skoffin. It has a very curious origin – the highly unlikely outcome of a liaison between a male fox and a female cat (the offspring of the reverse pairing – between a tom cat and a vixen – is called a skuggabaldur, and is just as ferocious as a skoffin). Similar in form to the cockatrice, albeit furry rather than feathery, the skoffin also shared the latter's lethal gaze - and could even kill another skoffin simply by looking it in the eye. Otherwise, it was virtually invincible, unless shot with a silver button upon which the sign of the Cross had been inscribed (click here to see a depiction of a skoffin as featured on an Icelandic postage stamp).

Cockatrice in German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher's Mundus Subterraneus, 1665 (public domain)

Continuing this intriguing link between cockatrices and Christianity, it may come as a surprise to learn that the cockatrice was formerly mentioned no less than four times within the Old Testament of the Bible, three of these mentions occurring in the Book of Isaiah, and the fourth in the Book of Jeremiah. The Hebrew terms that were once translated as 'cockatrice' were 'Tsepha' and 'Tsiphoni', but in modern-day versions they are translated as 'viper' or 'adder' instead, thus explaining the cockatrice's disappearance from this holy book.

Cockatrice illustrated in a German manuscript from 1507 (public domain)

Iceland is not unique in boasting its own specific form of cockatrice. So too does Korea – the gye-ryong ('chicken-dragon'). Just as Oriental dragons are generally more benevolent than malevolent, however, so too is this Korean cockatrice, often pulling the chariots of notable legendary heroes or those of their parents.

Cockatrice, by Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch, 1806 (public domain)

Thanks to its rooster-like coxcomb, wattles, feathers, and crowing cry, the cockatrice was a very unusual dragon. And as befitting this, it may well have had a comparably odd origin in the real world.

A very gallinaceous faux cockatrice participating as the Basilisk of Reus in the 2016 Cercavila de les festes del Barri Gòtic, in Barcelona, Spain (© Pere López Brosa/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Sometimes, an otherwise normal hen develops an internal tumour that stimulates the development of male hormones. These in turn induce the development of male secondary sex characteristics – namely, the rooster's coxcomb, wattles, crowing cry, and even on occasion its plumage. Yet it still lays eggs. In bygone, superstition-laden times, the mere sight of such a bizarre curiosity as one of these partial sex-change 'father hens' would have been enough to initiate imaginative fear-laden tales of the dreaded cockatrice.

Bristol Post newspaper report concerning a sex-change chicken - click it to read it (© Bristol Post, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial, educational/review basis only; report's date of publication currently unknown to me – any details would be very welcome, so that I can attribute it fully)


THE BASILISK AND COCKATRICE IN CRYPTOZOOLOGY?

Finally: In modern times, there have been several eyewitness reports emanating from isolated regions of verdant vegetation amid the otherwise arid desert zones of Morocco and Tunisia that tell of very large snakes bearing a crest or long 'hair' on their head. Such reports readily recall the legendary basilisk, in terms of both location and these snakes' morphology, so could they explain this much-dreaded reptile? Assuming that these snakes are themselves real, it has been suggested that they may constitute relict populations of pythons, analogous to isolated populations of desert-dwelling crocodiles, and that their supposed crests or hair are merely segments of incompletely-shed skin.

Crested mystery snakes are even more commonly reported in tropical Africa, where they have a wide variety of local names, of which the most familiar is the inkhomi ('killer'), but in English parlance they are generally referred to as crowing crested cobras (see also a previous ShukerNature blog article of mine surveying these ophidian enigmas – click here). They are said to sport a bright-red rooster-like coxcomb (but pointing forwards rather than back) and facial wattles too, and to crow just like a rooster as well – all of which is very reminiscent of the basilisk's transformed equivalent, the cockatrice. In 1944, Dr J. Shircore from Malawi published a detailed description of what he believed to be the fleshy coxcomb and part of the neck from one of these snakes, but the current whereabouts of this potentially-valuable specimen is not known.

Crowing crested cobra representation, based upon eyewitness reports (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Equally noteworthy is a published report by John Knott from September 1962 in which he recalled how, driving home one evening in late May 1959 from Binga, in the Kariba area of what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), he inadvertently ran over a large, jet-black snake roughly 6 ft long, mortally wounding it. Knott cautiously stepped out of his vehicle to take a closer look at the snake, and was amazed to see that it bore a distinct crest upon its head, perfectly symmetrical in shape, and capable of being erected by way of five internal prop-like structures. This certainly does not sound like a piece of unshed skin but rather like a true crest, yet no known species of snake possesses one.

Remarkably, a very similar but somewhat shorter mystery snake, complete with coxcomb, wattles, and crowing ability, has been reported in modern times, and by native and Western observers alike, on the West Indian islands of Jamaica and Hispaniola. If such snakes as these on record from Africa and the Caribbean are genuine, they may well have assisted in inspiring the cockatrice legend.

A magnificent heraldic cockatrice (public domain)

They may no longer possess the lethal talents originally ascribed to them, but judging from reports such as those noted above, it may be somewhat premature to discount the basilisk and the cockatrice as wholly imaginary after all.

Cockatrice (labelled as as basilisk) and weasel, in Bestiary, Royal MS 12 C XIX, 1200-1210 (public domain)


This ShukerNature blog article is adapted from the relevant sections of my newest, massively-comprehensive dragon book Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture – a must-read for all draconophiles everywhere!