Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is already considered to be his magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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

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Saturday, 16 November 2019

THE SIX-LEGGED SEA SERPENT OF STRONSAY - STILL BASKING IN CRYPTOZOOLOGICAL CONTROVERSY?


Modern-day artistic representation of what the Stronsay beast might have looked like if it had literally resembled in life the eyewitness descriptions of it in death (© Tim Morris)

Down through the centuries, countless reports of mysterious sea ‘monsters’ have been reported, often grouped together within that infamously heterogeneous cryptozoological conglomerate popularly known collectively as the Great Sea Serpent. In most cases, such reports consist entirely of eyewitness sightings, unsubstantiated by anything tangible that can be directly examined afterwards by interested researchers. Occasionally, however, physical evidence IS obtained…

Perhaps the most famous of such cases occurred at Stronsay, one of the Orkney Islands off northern Scotland. On 26 September 1808, farmer John Peace was fishing east of Rothiesholm Point when he saw what seemed to be the carcase of a whale, cast up onto the rocks, above which were flocks of circling seabirds. He rowed up to it in his boat and examined it, and found that it was a very peculiar-looking creature, which did not resemble anything known to him. At that same time, another farmer, George Sherar, was watching Peace from the shore, and was able to confirm all of this. About 10 days later, moreover, he was able to see it for himself, because it was washed ashore on Stronsay, lying on its belly just below the high tide mark.

When Sherar discovered it there, he measured it, and found it to be 55 ft long. At least two other eyewitnesses (the afore-mentioned Peace and carpenter Thomas Fotheringhame) also measured it, and they obtained the same result. It was very serpentine, almost eel-like in general build, but possessed a 15-ft neck, a small head, and a long mane running along its back to the end of its tail. Most bizarre of all, however, was that it seemed to have three pairs of legs, and each foot had five or six toes. Sherar salvaged some vertebrae and the skull of this extraordinary creature – duly dubbed the Stronsay beast.

From the Wernerian Natural History Society's memoirs for 1808-1810, published in 1811, a sketch of the Stronsay sea serpent based upon eyewitness George Sherar's description and agreed by Sherar to be "an exact resemblance" of what he saw (public domain)

Details of its discovery and description ultimately reached Patrick Neill, secretary of Edinburgh's Wernerian Natural History Society, and at a meeting of the society on 19 November 1808 Neill released some details on this subject. At the next meeting, on 14 January 1809, he gave the Stronsay beast a formal scientific name - Halsydrus pontoppidani *, 'Pontoppidan's water snake of the sea' (after Erik Pontoppidan, an 18th-Century Norwegian bishop who had collected many sea serpent reports).

Erik Pontoppidan (public domain)

At that same meeting, Scottish anatomist Dr John Barclay, who had examined some of the beast's remains in Orkney, presented a paper in which he described the vertebrae, skull, and one of the creature's legs. His paper, accompanied with detailed diagrams, was published in 1811, within the society's memoirs, and attracted a great deal of attention. The vertebrae were very striking, resembling cotton reels, and were cartilaginous, but with calcification that radiated from the centre of each vertebra in a star-like pattern. The leg was also cartilaginous, but was not a real, jointed leg at all; it was merely a fin.

Dr John Barclay, 1820 portrait (public domain)

To many people, these features meant little, but they meant a great deal to the eminent naturalist Sir Everard Home, who was working at that time upon an exhaustive study of the basking shark Cetorhinus maximus - the world's second largest species of shark, but generally harmless, living on plankton. When Home heard about the Stronsay beast, he felt sure that it must have been a shark. This is because the only creatures to have cartilaginous vertebrae are sharks and rays, and the only creatures to have cartilaginous vertebrae with star-shaped calcification are sharks. Furthermore, when he compared the Stronsay beast's vertebrae, skull, and other salvaged remains with the corresponding portions of a known specimen of basking shark, they matched very closely.

Sir Everard Home (public domain)

Yet the long-necked, six-legged, mane-bearing Stronsay beast looked nothing like a basking shark - so how could this drastic difference in appearance be resolved? In fact, it was quite simple.

Stronsay beast vertebrae, an engraving from Barclay's 1811 paper (public domain)

When basking shark carcases begin to decompose, the entire gill apparatus falls away, taking with it the shark's characteristic jaws, and leaving behind only its small cranium and its exposed backbone, which have the appearance of a small head and a long neck. The triangular dorsal fin also rots away, sometimes leaving behind the rays, which can look a little like a mane - especially when the fish's skin also decays, allowing the underlying muscle fibres and connective tissue to break up into hair-like growth.

Additionally, the end of the backbone only runs into the top fluke of the tail, which means that during decomposition the lower tail fluke falls off, leaving behind what looks like a long slender tail. The pectoral and sometimes the pelvic fins remain attached, but become distorted, so that they can (with a little imagination!) look like legs with feet and toes. The resulting deceptively plesiosaur-like carcase is popularly (and fittingly) dubbed a pseudo-plesiosaur.

Finally, male sharks have a pair of leg-like copulatory organs called claspers, which would yield a third pair of 'legs', as happened with the Stronsay beast. Suddenly, a male basking shark has become a hairy six-legged long-necked sea serpent!

How a basking shark carcase decomposes into a pseudo-plesiosaur (© Markus Bühler/Journal of Cryptozoology)

Over the years, almost all of the Stronsay beast's preserved remains have been lost or destroyed, but three vertebrae are retained in Edinburgh's Royal Museum of Scotland - the last remnants of Stronsay's world-famous hexapodal sea serpent. Its mystery, conversely, continues to the present day, and for very good reason. The longest conclusively-identified basking shark that has been accurately measured was a truly exceptional specimen caught in 1851 in Canada's Bay of Fundy; whereas the average length for its species is under 26 ft, this veritable monster was a mighty 40 ft 3 in. Yet even that is almost 15 ft less than the length claimed by eyewitnesses for the Stronsay beast. Even the largest scientifically-measured specimen of the world's biggest fish - the whale shark Rhincodon typus - was only(!) 41.5 ft long.

Accordingly, in 2008 archaeogeneticist Dr Yvonne Simpson, who had been studying the Stronsay beast's few preserved remains since 2001, was reported in various media interviews as stating that due to its size she wondered whether it may have been some other species of shark rather than a basking shark, and was hoping to conduct DNA tests upon some newly-recovered bone fragments from this contentious carcase that had been given to her by a private collector (Daily Telegraph, 8 September 2008). However, nothing further seems to have emerged regarding this potentially exciting prospect.

Some cryptozoologists have also questioned whether the 55-ft Stronsay beast really was a basking shark, speculating that it may have belonged to a still-unknown, giant relative. One of the world's largest known sharks, the formidable megamouth Megachasma pelagios, remained wholly unknown to humankind until 15 November 1976, when the first recorded specimen was accidentally hauled up from the sea near the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Consequently, the prospect of undiscovered species of extra-large shark still eluding scientific discovery in modern times is far from being as unlikely as one might otherwise assume.

Megamouth shark (© FLMNH Ichthyology/Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

Alternatively, might the Stronsay beast simply have been an exceptionally large specimen of basking shark after all? In a Facebook comment concerning this classic sea monster carcase posted on 16 October 2019, American cryptozoologist Ken Gerhard offered the following pertinent thoughts:

Of course there were more outsized fish in those days - before population explosions, pollution and aggressive, industrialized fishing took hold. Perhaps the Stronsay Beast represented one of the last monster-sized basking sharks? 

This is the possibility that I personally consider most reasonable.

A third option is that the latter beast's size may have been measured inaccurately by its eyewitnesses – the option favoured by Home, who discounted the claimed 55-ft total length in favour of a more conservative yet still very impressive 36 ft. Yet if so, it seems very strange that three separate people measured it (one of whom, Thomas Fotheringhame, was a carpenter and therefore skilled in accurate measurement) and all obtained the same 55-ft total length for it. As is so often true with cryptozoological cases that date back quite considerably, it is likely that no conclusive answer will ever be obtained, so the controversy surrounding the Stronsay beast seems destined to persist indefinitely.

Having said that: during December 1941, history somewhat repeated itself in the Orkneys when a strange carcase, 25 ft long, was washed ashore at Scapa Flow. Its superficially prehistoric, plesiosaurian appearance was presumably sufficient for Provost J.G. Marwick, who had documented it in detail in a local newspaper account (Orkney Blast, 30 January 1942), to dub this enigma 'Scapasaurus'. Fortunately, a single vertebra from its remains was preserved and retained at London's Natural History Museum, which readily identified it as a basking shark.


* Taxonomic tail-note: Halsydrus pontoppidani Neill, 1809 is currently designated as a junior synonym of the basking shark's officially-recognised binomial name, Cetorhinus maximus Gunnerus, 1765.

Basking shark (public domain)




Thursday, 7 November 2019

FINDING A FOSSIL NANDI BEAR? - OR, SIMBAKUBWA VS CHEMOSIT


Reconstruction of the likely appearance in life of Simbakubwa kutokaafrika (© Mauricio Anton/Ohio University/AFP/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 and also a Wikipedia Commons-available image – but reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)


Heavy breathing and a grunting noise heralded the brute’s emergence into the open of the runway. It had evidently heard them and was bent on making trouble. Scott had never imagined a beast so peculiar; in size, it was as big as a buffalo and stood fully that height at the shoulder: the hind-quarters sloped down like those of a hyena, and it had the hyena’s short, coarse hair, but here all similarity to that cowardly animal ceased. It had an enormous square head and short ears like those of a lion, a long snout with protruding incisors and a small, red-tinged eye. The creature moved like a large ape, its lengthy arms hanging down before it, the paws just touching the ground, and Scott was amazed to see that these paws were like an ape’s: prehensile, and equipped with thumb and fingers. …

‘Ahi…i…e ! the Nandi Bear,’ gasped one of the boys, through chattering teeth.

          C.T. Stoneham – ‘The Bear of the Nandi’, in Killers and Their Prey


The above quote is from a short story of fiction, but its subject may be only too real. Also known variously as the chemosit, kerit, koddoelo, gadett, and khodumodumo, Africa's legendary Nandi bear must surely be one of the (if not THE) most formidable, ferocious mammalian cryptids ever documented, judging at least from the horrific experiences claimed by some of those persons who have allegedly encountered it at close range. Having said that, this infamously-aggressive, murderous monster has scarcely been reported for at least 60 years now, leading even the most optimistic mystery beast investigators to suspect that even if it were indeed real, it may have simply died out, quite probably as a result of its once-extensive, dense, rarely-penetrated Nandi and adjacent (once-contiguous) Kakamega Forest domain having been severely cut back and turned into farmland. Irrespective of its terrifying, ultra-dangerous nature, the loss of such a creature before its very existence had been confirmed and its taxonomic identity formally determined would be a profound zoological tragedy.

However, thanks to an ostensibly unrelated yet very significant (albeit extremely belated) palaeontological discovery made public just a short time ago, some decidedly chemosit-shaped shadows have begun to rise and thence flit tellingly through the collective cryptozoological consciousness.

One day in 2013, while conducting postgraduate research at Kenya's Nairobi Museum, palaeontologist Matthew Borths from Ohio University, USA, happened to open a cabinet drawer, and made a truly incredible discovery. Inside the drawer was an enormous fossil lower jawbone bearing some teeth, plus some individual teeth, a heel bone, and some distal toe bones. When enquiring about these mysterious remains, Borths learned that they had originally been collected as far back as 1978-1980 during various scientific excavations at an early Miocene-aged fossil bed named Meswa Bridge, in western Kenya, but had never been formally examined by anyone, lying forgotten and unstudied in that drawer for over 30 years instead. Moreover, he discovered that another Ohio University palaeontological researcher, Nancy Stevens, had also seen them in that same drawer and had puzzled over them when she too had been conducting research at Nairobi Museum.

Skeleton of Hyaenodon horridus, a North American species of hyaenodontid (public domain)

After Barths contacted her, they lost no time in researching these remains comprehensively, and revealed that they belonged to a hitherto-undescribed but quite enormous species of primitive mammalian creodont carnivore known as a hyaenodontid. The hyaenodontid lineage's most recent fossils are around 5-6 million years old (those of the giant new species were some 22 million years old), after which they apparently became extinct. Using three different methods of size estimate, Borths and Stevens obtained estimated total body masses for this very belatedly-recognised species of 280 kg, 1308 kg, and 1554 kg, plus a total length estimated at up to 2.5 m and a height of up to 0.75 m. If the creature had attained the upper estimates of mass, length, and height, it would have been at least as big as the polar bear, today's largest terrestrial mammalian carnivore, but rather less than that if it had only attained the lowest estimates (something not mentioned in media reports).

In a 17 April 2019 Journal of Paleontology paper, they formally named this giant hyaenodontid Simbakubwa kutokaafrika, which is Swahili for 'big lion from Africa'. For although entirely unrelated to it, this huge beast would definitely have been an apex predator in its time, just like the lion is today. All in all, therefore, an exceedingly interesting and significant palaeontological find - but what bearing (if any) does it have upon cryptozoology? Let's rephrase that question as: don't you just love totally random, meaningless coincidences?

Kisumu County in western Kenya contains Meswa Bridge, the site where the long-overlooked remains of a monstrously-huge fossil mammalian carnivore were discovered; and Kisumu County just so happens to be situated immediately below western Kenya's Nandi County, which contains the dense, once-contiguous Nandi Forest where a monstrously-huge mystery mammalian carnivore dubbed the Nandi bear has been reported many times. But what is, or was, the Nandi bear? (Alleged sightings during the past 70 years have been far fewer than back in the early 20th Century, leading to speculation that even if it were real, it may now have died out.)

Maps revealing the very close proximity of western Kenya's Kisumu County (left) and Nandi County (right); maps created by me from Wikipedia maps - please click to enlarge them (public domain)

In fact, this ferocious, greatly-feared cryptid has been described in so many different ways by eyewitnesses down through the years that some cryptozoologists, including Dr Bernard Heuvelmans and myself, have opined in our respective works that the Nandi bear is almost certainly a non-existent composite. That is to say, it has been 'created' via the erroneous lumping together by native traditions and Western investigators alike of sightings of several very different animals, known and unknown.

These may include such disparate species as hyaenas, baboons, large male ratels, and aardvarks. According to some peoples' views, additionally, one or more prehistoric survivors may also be involved, like the giant short-faced hyaena Pachycrocuta brevirostris, the African bear Agriotheriium africanum, the giant baboon Dinopithecus ingens, and/or maybe one of those bizarre claw-footed ungulates known as chalicotheres.

All of these latter creatures were still in existence in Africa as recently as the Pleistocene (2.5 million to 11.7 thousand years ago), as confirmed by fossil finds. (See my book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors for an extensive documentation of the Nandi bear and its preponderance of proposed identities.)


Should a surviving hyaenodontid (not necessarily Simbakubwa itself, but potentially a reclusive modern-day descendant, one whose morphology and gait may have changed somewhat during the 22 million years of evolution occurring from Simbakubwa's time into modern times) now also be added to this list? Who can say?

Everything about the Nandi bear is highly speculative and fiendishly complicated, but my cryptozoological antennae definitely began twitching when I saw how unexpectedly close to one another were the fossil bed where Simbakubwa's remains were found and the Nandi Forest where the Nandi bear was traditionally reported. Like I said earlier, don't you just love totally random, meaningless coincidences??

Just for the record, I have modified my personal opinion recently as to the most likely identity of the Nandi bear, thanks to a truly remarkable and exceedingly exciting but previously obscure report hitherto unknown to me that I only lately obtained, and which I am now very actively investigating. More news concerning this will appear here on ShukerNature if and when I have it. Meanwhile, for previous ShukerNature accounts appertaining to the Nandi bear, please click here, here, here, here, and here.

Size comparison of Simbakubwa and human (© Mauricio Anton/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)



Friday, 27 September 2019

A DECAPITATED UNICORN FROM SOUTH AFRICA - ANOTHER LONG-OVERLOOKED CRYPTOZOOLOGICAL CONUNDRUM RESURRECTED AND RESOLVED


The colour drawing of the creature's head, from Rev. John Campbell's book Travels in South Africa, Undertaken at the Request of the London Missionary Society; Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country, Volume 1 (Francis Westley: London, 1822) (public domain)


One thing I've come particularly to admire about Karl over the years is his dogged persistence in following up a promising cryptozoological tid-bit or intriguing clue in the hopes that it will yield up something more substantial farther down the line. Even when the trail goes cold, Karl will wait until a new lead emerges – whether from a fresh piece of witness testimony, a letter from one of his many correspondents or a bit of evidence turned up in a forgotten book or archive.

Fortean Times editor David Sutton, in his foreword to my book Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo (published in 2010, a compilation of many of my AZ columns and other cryptozoological writings that have appeared in FT down through the years)


From my earliest days, I have always been blessed (or cursed?) with an insatiable fascination for the obscure, the overlooked, and quite frequently the downright outlandish within the diverse realm of natural history, or unnatural history, as I tend to dub those anomalous cases that are of such particular interest to me – a fascination, moreover, that is constantly spurred on by an equally insistent curiosity to uncover the facts behind them. And in his above-quoted words, David Sutton has summarised all of this very succinctly and astutely, because for me there is indeed nothing more exciting in cryptozoological research than serendipitously encountering in some obscure source a tantalising line or two concerning a mysterious creature not only hitherto-unknown to me but which, upon preliminary investigation, appears to have left no further trace in public history and is certainly entirely undocumented in the cryptozoological literature.

When faced with such a case, I always bring to mind those famous Shakespeare-purloined words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective Sherlock Holmes so often spoken with keen delight to his faithful assistant Dr Watson upon finding himself in a similar situation: "The game is afoot!"

Furthermore, just as Holmes could call upon Watson, not to mention his equally loyal gang of Baker Street Irregulars, to assist him in his clue-gathering endeavours, so too have I been equally fortunate for so many years to be able to call upon a veritable army of Watsons and BSIs in my own investigations, albeit of the cryptozoological rather than the criminological kind. These include the noble readers of Fortean Times, and, especially, those steadfast devotees of my long-running Alien Zoo column therein (now in its 22nd consecutive year). And so it was with the case featuring in this present article, once again previously undocumented, unexamined, and unsolved within the cryptozoological world.

As is so often true with cases like this, it all began entirely by chance, while surfing online during the evening of 27 June 2017, and, after an initial investigation by me signally failed to uncover any information or clues whatsoever concerning it, resulted in a plea for assistance from my indefatigable band of FT Watsons and BSIs via a short item included by me in one of my AZ columns – in this particular instance the column that appeared in FT356 (August 2017). Here is what I wrote:

How often have I stumbled upon a hitherto-unsuspected report of great interest while looking for something entirely different, and the following example is no exception. While browsing through Vol. 9 (April-October 1821) of a British periodical entitled The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines in search of an account concerning a giant spider (which I did eventually locate and which formed the basis of a subsequent ShukerNature blog article of mine), I chanced upon a short but fascinating report of a reputed unicorn that had lately been sent to Britain, possibly while still alive, but which I'd never read about anywhere else before. So here it is:

THE UNICORN.
Another animal resembling the description of the unicorn, as given by Pliny, is now on its way to this country from Africa; it nearly resembles the horse in figure, but is much smaller, and the single horn projecting from the fore head is considerably shorter than is given in the real or supposed delineations of that doubtful creature.

What could this very intriguing creature have been? Bearing in mind that it was entirely unknown to me prior to my serendipitous finding of the above report, whatever it was had evidently failed to excite the media once it did arrive in Britain, and yet its description matches nothing familiar to me from Africa. The facts that it was horse-like and bore its single horn upon its brow would seem, if reported correctly, to eliminate a young rhinoceros. For both African species (black rhino and white rhino) have two horns each, but with neither one borne upon the brow, and even as calves they are burly in form, not remotely equine. Might it therefore have been a freak specimen of some antelope species, in which a single central horn had developed instead of the normal pair of lateral horns? Occasional 'unicorn' specimens of goats, sheep, and even deer have been confirmed, so this would not be impossible. Moreover, certain African antelopes are superficially horse-like. Indeed, one in particular, the roan antelope, is sufficiently so for it to have been given the formal binomial name Hippotragus equinus ('horse horse-goat'). Equally ambiguous is the state in which this mystery beast was sent to Britain from Africa, because the report does not make it clear whether the animal was dead or still alive. If it were still alive, however, where is it likely to have been sent? In later years, the premier recipient of exotic live beasts was London Zoo, but this establishment did not open until 27 April 1828. In 1832, the animals contained in the Tower of London's menagerie were transferred to London Zoo's collection, so perhaps, back in 1821, the unicorn, or whatever it was, had been sent to the Tower? Also, whatever happened to its remains? Are they languishing unstudied or even unlabelled in a museum somewhere today? If anyone reading my AZ account has any knowledge concerning this tantalising lost beast, we'd love to hear from you at FT.
The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines, vol. 9 (April-October 1821), p. 486; ShukerNature, http://karlshuker.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/dracula-van-helsing-and-giant-spiders.html 28 June 2017.

Time passed, and it began to look as if even the resourceful readers of FT may have been impaled at least metaphorically upon the sharp horns of the dilemma (if not the horn of the beast itself!) posed by this lately-disinterred crypto-conundrum, for responses came there none. Nor did my own continuing searches succeed in locating any further material relating to it. An inviolate impasse appeared to have been met – but then, on 4 September 2017 I received a short email from FT reader Daniel Frankham that finally shone some much-needed light upon this enshadowed mystery.

In his email, Daniel informed me that after reading my AZ unicorn item and then searching through the British Newspaper Archive's website, he'd obtained scans of two relevant newspaper reports, which he kindly attached with his email to me. One of these was from the Caledonian Mercury of 20 August 1821 that provided an account of the creature's discovery, and the other was from the Cheltenham Chronicle of 4 October 1821 that mentioned the presentation of the latter's horn to the Museum of the London Missionary Society.

They also identified the person responsible for the procurement of this reputed unicorn, but which turned out to have been shot dead rather than captured alive. He was the Reverend John Campbell (1766-1840), a Scottish missionary and traveller, who was sent twice (in 1812 and again in 1819) by the London Missionary Society to South Africa's Cape region to inspect and repair missionary stations there.

Sepia engraving depicting Rev. John Campbell, from Robert Philip's book The Life, Times and Missionary Enterprises of the Rev. John Campbell (John Snow: London, 1841) (public domain)

The relevant section from the Caledonian Mercury's report reads as follows:

THE UNICORN
Mr Campbell has kindly favoured us with the following description of the head of a very singular animal, which he has just brought from the interior of Africa. We also have had an oppor­tunity of seeing it, and fully agree with Mr Campbell, that the animal itself must have answered the description of the Reem or Unicorn, which is frequently mentioned in Scripture. — "The animal," says Mr Campbell, "was killed by my Hottentots in the Mashow country, near the city of Mashow, about two hundred miles N.E. of New Latakoo [now Dithakong, in present-day South Africa's Northern Cape], to the westward of Delagoa Bay. My Hottentots never having seen or heard of an animal with one horn of so great a length, cut off its head, and brought it bleeding to me on the back of an ox. From its great weight, and being about twelve hundred miles from the Cape of Good Hope, I was obliged to reduce it by cutting off the under jaw. The Hottentots cut up the rest of the animal for food, which, with the help of the natives, they brought on the backs of oxen to Mashow. The horn, which is nearly black, is exactly three feet long, project­ing from the forehead, about nine or ten inches above the nose. From the nose to the ears mea­sured three feet. There is a small horny projection of about eight inches immediately be­hind the great horn, designed for keeping fast or steady whatever is penetrated by the great horn. There is neither hair nor wool on the skin, which is the colour of brown snuff. The animal was well known to the natives. It is a species of the rhinoceros; but, if I may judge of its bulk from the size of its head, it must have been much larger than any of the seven rhino­ceroses which my party shot, one of which measured eleven feet from the tip of the nose to the root of the tail. The skull and horn excited great curiosity at the Cape. Most were of opi­nion that it was all we should have for the unicorn. An animal the size of a horse, which the fancied unicorn is supposed to be, would not an­swer the description of the unicorn given by Job, chap. xxxix [39]. verse 9. et seq., but in every other part of the description this animal exactly answers to it." — Pliny's description of the unicorn is a sort of medium between Mr Campbell's account and the animal depicted on the Royal coat of arms.

And here is the relevant section from the Cheltenham Chronicle's report:

Gloucestershire Auxiliary Missionary Society
The Fifth Anniversary of this Society was held in Gloucester on Monday last…The Meeting received a very important detail from the Rev. J. Campbell, who has twice visited the Missionary Stations in South Africa

It appears that Mr. Campbell's visit has been productive of a discovery alike important to Revelation and to science. At a city which he reached beyond Lattakoo, the inhabitants on complaining, that their harvest that year had been defective, urged Mr. C. to request his men to shoot a rhinocerous [sic] for them. His Hottentots accordingly went in pursuit of one, and were providentially directed to an animal which in the Scriptures is called the unicorn. It was long thought that the rhinoceros was the animal there described, but the head of the one shot being brought to Mr. C. he immediately perceived it to be the unicorn of the Scriptures. He has deposited the horn in the Museum of the London Missionary Society and, in the opinion of scientific men, it is pronounced to be that of the unicorn so long sought after.

Reading these two newspaper reports and the Atheneum account, it is only too clear that there is considerable confusion and some notable descriptive discrepancies in relation to the nature of the animal shot by Campbell's men.

According to the Atheneum report, this creature "nearly resembles the horse in figure, but is much smaller", and its "single horn", said to project from its forehead, "is considerably shorter" than that which is normally ascribed to the legendary unicorn. Yet in the Caledonian Mercury report, its horn alone, which again was said to project from the forehead (but now with a much smaller second one behind it), was claimed to have measured 3 ft long, which would be disproportionately lengthy (and therefore highly cumbersome and unwieldy) if the animal were "much smaller" than a horse. And indeed, in the Caledonian Mercury report, the creature was stated by Rev. Campbell to have been "much larger" than any of the seven rhinoceroses shot by his men earlier.

Moreover, in that same report, the creature itself was specifically referred to by Campbell as a rhinoceros, yet there is no known species of rhinoceros that typically possesses a brow-borne horn of any shape or form, let alone one that is 3 ft long (and even has a second, smaller one positioned behind it). And throughout the Cheltenham Chronicle's report, a clear distinction is made between rhinoceroses and the creature killed by Campbell's man, which was identified unequivocally in this report by unnamed "scientific men" as the biblical unicorn, and thereby supplanted longstanding belief that the latter beast was a rhinoceros. (In fact, the biblical unicorn, or re'em, is nowadays popularly deemed to have been the then still-surviving aurochs or European wild ox Bos primigenius, which became extinct in 1627 AD, but that, as they say, is another story!)

Faced with such a mass of contradictions and controversies, it seemed as if the only way in which this truly perplexing mystery might ever be conclusively resolved would be to determine whether the creature's principal horn still existed and, if so, gain sight of it in order to attempt a positive identification of its erstwhile bearer. As it happened, however, this option did not need to be acted upon, because the information already present in the two newspaper reports suggested an alternative line of investigation, one that could be instigated straight away, and which, when I did so, proved to be not only much swifter but also entirely successful.

Colour map showing the locations mentioned here by me (most of whose names have changed since 1822) in relation to more familiar locations (whose names remain the same today as they were back then), from Rev. John Campbell's book Travels in South Africa, Undertaken at the Request of the London Missionary Society; Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country, Volume 1 (Francis Westley: London, 1822) (public domain) (NB - please click map to enlarge for reading purposes)

As noted earlier, these two reports revealed that the person responsible for the so-called unicorn's procurement and the retention of its principal horn was Rev. John Campbell, and when I researched his life history I discovered that he had documented his second visit to the Cape in a two-volume travel memoir entitled Travels in South Africa…Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country. Volume 1 was published in 1822, but a copy of it in pdf form was readily accessible online, so I duly downloaded it, and sure enough, within just a few moments of locating the relevant section within it, the very curious case of Mashow's beheaded unicorn was a mystery no longer.

In an entry for 19 May 1820, Campbell provided his own, first-hand account concerning the killing of this 'unicorn' (which took place in Mashow while he was away) and its morphological appearance. As will now be seen, his account differs in places from the versions in the two above-quoted newspaper reports, and shows the Atheneum account in particular to be woefully ill-informed:

During our absence from Mashow two rhinoceroses came into the town during the night, when the inhabitants assembled and killed them both. The rhinoceroses…having been cut up, were brought, the one in a waggon, the other on pack-oxen…They brought also the head of one of them, which was different from all the others that had been killed. The common African rhinoceros has a crooked horn resembling a cock's spur, which rises about nine or ten inches above the nose and inclines backward; immediately behind this is a short thick horn; but the head they brought had a straight horn projecting three feet from the forehead, about ten inches above the tip of the nose. The projection of this great horn very much resembles that of the fanciful unicorn in the British arms. It has a small thick horny substance, eight inches long, immediately behind it, which can hardly be observed on the animal at the distance of a hundred yards, and seems to be designed for keeping fast that which is penetrated by the long horn; so that this species of rhinoceros must appear really like a unicorn when running in the field. The head resembled in size a nine-gallon cask, and measured three feet from the mouth to the ear, and being much larger than that of the one with the crooked horn, and which measured eleven feet in length, the animal itself must have been still larger and more formidable. From its weight, and the position of the horn, it appears capable of overcoming any creature hitherto known. Hardly any of the natives took the smallest notice of the head, but treated it as a thing familiar to them. As the entire horn is perfectly solid, the natives, I afterwards heard, make from one horn four handles for their battle-axes. Our people wounded another, which they reported to be much larger.

Appended to Campbell's account was the following footnote penned by him, confirming the subsequent destination of the head (including its still-attached principal horn and diminutive second horn):

The head being so weighty; and the distance to the Cape so great, it appeared necessary to cut off the under jaw and leave it behind…The animal is considered by naturalists, since the arrival of the skull in London, to be the unicorn of the ancients, and the same as that which is described in the xxxixth chapter of the book of Job. The part of the head brought to London, may be seen at the Missionary Museum; and, for such as may not have the opportunity of seeing the head itself, the annexed drawing of it has been made.

Also worth recalling here is a second footnote, this time appended to a concise summary of Campbell's 'unicorn' incident that appeared in an extensive biography of Campbell written by Robert, Philip, entitled The Life, Times and Missionary Enterprises of the Rev. John Campbell, and published in 1841. This second footnote expanded upon the details provided in Campbell's, by mentioning that one notable scientific figure holding the view that this creature was indeed the identity of the biblical unicorn described in the book of Job had been Sir Everard Home FRS (1756-1832). He was a British surgeon and prolific author on animal anatomy, who had written an essay about the creature, which he had read to the Royal Society. I also have on file the concise summary of Campbell's account from his book that appeared in issue #362 of the Monthly Magazine, published on 1 January 1822.

Painting of Sir Everard Home (public domain)

As for the oft-cited biblical unicorn account contained in verses 9-12 from the 39th chapter of the Book of Job (which evidently refers to a very powerful animal, yet provides no descriptive information concerning any aspect of its actual form, not even its celebrated horn), here it is:

Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?
Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?
Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him?
Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?

In addition, while in the process of preparing this article I uncovered a further, highly illuminating reference in the form of another book penned by Campbell, entitled African Light Thrown on a Selection of Scripture Texts, and published in 1835. In it, Campbell proffered a much more detailed account of the creature's principal horn than given by him in his earlier work from 1822, and also divulged more details regarding the opinion of Home and others concerning the creature's nature. The pertinent extract is as follows:

About twelve hundred miles up, in the interior of Africa, from the Cape of Good Hope, we shot a large animal, evidently a species of rhinoceros, with a strong horn projecting from its forehead about three feet. Its horn is not like that of the cow, which is hollow within, but is, to the very heart, composed of a solid, horny substance, and is capable, from its own strength, and the great weight of the animal, (perhaps two tons) with facility to pierce through the most powerful animal known, yea even a brick wall. I brought home the creature's skull, with the horn and massy [masticating?] teeth in it.

The skull, &c. was thrice examined by the late Sir Everard Home, who was reckoned one of the first [i.e. foremost] naturalists in Britain, to whom I gave all the information in my power concerning the animal. He afterwards composed an essay on it, which he read to the Royal Society, which they printed [but a copy of which I have yet to trace]. He, in the first place, considered all the animals found in a fossil state that approached to the unicorn; then those that were known; and last, the skull I had brought from a latitude in Africa where no European had been before, except one party who were all murdered a little higher up.

After stating various arguments, and particularly attending to the description given of the unicorn in the thirty-ninth chapter of the book of Job, Sir Everard gave it as his opinion, "That this animal was the unicorn of the Bible."

A party of gentlemen, from India, when viewing the skull at the Cape of Good Hope, compared its horn, as an offensive weapon, with the offensive weapons of all the animals they were acquainted with in India, and likewise with such as they had read of; after much conversation, they were unanimously of opinion, that this animal had the most powerful offensive weapon of any animal at present known in the world.

His skin is about an inch in thickness, like that of the African rhinoceros, which cannot be penetrated by a musket ball, except immediately behind the ear, or above the head of the foreleg, where the skin is thinner than in the other parts of the body.

As shown earlier, the 39th chapter of the Book of Job contains no descriptive details whatsoever concerning the biblical unicorn's form, so I remain unclear as to how that passage could have convinced Home that Campbell's creature was the biblical unicorn's identity. Campbell, conversely, had provided a very accurate description of the nature and form of a rhinoceros horn, which in reality constitutes an extremely dense, solid, keratinous mass, but which exhibits a deceptively horn-like external appearance. Equally, there is no doubt from his two separate accounts quoted here that Campbell did consider this 'unicorn' to be a rhinoceros, and a very large one at that, albeit with a highly aberrant horn complement – or was it highly aberrant? It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, so it was with a mixture of delight but also initial bewilderment that I beheld the full-page colour drawing of this animal's head that accompanied his original, 1822 account, and which I have already reproduced at the beginning of this present ShukerNature article of mine but for ease of access will reproduce again herewith:

Head of decapitated 'unicorn' as documented and depicted in Campbell's 1822 book (public domain)

First and foremost it has to be said that this is certainly not one of the most accurate renditions of a rhinoceros head that I have ever seen. Nevertheless, it clearly reveals that in spite of Campbell's claim to the contrary (and faithfully reiterated in the subsequent media versions presented by me here), the long, slender, principal horn was not borne upon the creature's brow at all, but just behind its nose. True, in the drawing it was positioned a little further back than is typical for modern-day rhinos, but even so it is still borne upon the nasal bones, with the much smaller second horn sited just behind it, exactly as in all African rhinos, whether of the black (aka hook-lipped) species Diceros bicornis or of the white (aka square-lipped) species Ceratotherium simum (some taxonomists split the latter into two species, northern and southern, but this does not have bearing upon the case under consideration here). Consequently, any comparisons to unicorns are instantly discredited, because the fabled unicorn's single horn characteristically arises directly from the centre of its brow, i.e. from its frontal bones.

Having said this, one might conceivably argue that as the drawing was far from being an exact depiction of a rhinoceros head, perhaps its placement of the long principal horn upon the nasal bones was in fact another manifestation of its inaccuracy, and that it should have depicted this horn arising from the frontal bones instead, in accordance with Campbell's verbal description of it projecting "from the forehead". Yet if this were true, surely Campbell would either have not included the drawing in his book at all or, at the very least, would have appended to it a comment highlighting its error.

Consequently, to my mind the likeliest explanation for this specific but significant inconsistency between drawing and description is that it was in fact Campbell who was less than precise, when describing the long principal horn's location on the creature's head, but that as he apparently had no issue with the drawing, its depiction of this horn's location was indeed a faithful representation of what he had seen and had tried (albeit ineffectively) to convey verbally. This explanation in turn meant that yet another line of speculation that I had considered – namely, that perhaps this particular individual really had possessed a freak, teratological horn projecting from its brow – was also unnecessary. Interestingly, as I mentioned in a chapter reviewing contentious rhinoceroses contained in my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), towards the end of the 19th Century London Zoo exhibited a female great Indian rhino Rhinoceros unicornis (a species normally possessing only a single horn) that bore a rudimentary second horn upon her forehead – but this minor excrescence was far-removed indeed from the formidable 3-ft-long primary horn under consideration here.

Back in Campbell's time, both the black rhinoceros and the white rhinoceros still existed throughout South Africa, but the species referred to above by him as the common African rhinoceros was the black rhino, whose principal horn tends to be shorter, more curved, and burlier than that of the white rhino, which in contrast is sometimes extremely long, straighter, but slender – thereby corresponding well with both the drawing and Campbell's verbal description. Similarly, the white rhino's second horn is often extremely small, again corresponding with drawing and description alike.

Colour photograph of the head of a living South African white rhinoceros that has a notably long, slender principal horn recalling that of Campbell's specimen from 1820 (public domain)

Lastly, but of crucial significance, is that whereas the black rhinoceros had been formally described and taxonomically named as long ago as 1758 (by none other than Linnaeus himself), the white rhinoceros remained scientifically unrecognised until 1817. While exploring South Africa from 1810 to 1815, English explorer-naturalist William J. Burchell had heard tell from the Boer settlers of a mysterious giant rhinoceros, bigger than the black species. After finally confirming its existence when encountering it at Chue Springs on 16 October 1812 and collecting some teeth, horns, and epinasal skin, in 1817 Burchell dubbed this newly-revealed, extra-large species the white rhinoceros Rhinoceros simus - 'white' actually being a mistranslation of the Afrikaans word for 'wide', referring to its broad lips. (In 1867, British zoologist John E. Gray transferred it into its own genus, Ceratotherium, and changed its species name to simum.) In short, the white rhinoceros was still largely unknown outside zoological circles in 1820 when Campbell encountered it, which undoubtedly increased still further his confusion regarding it at that time.

Taking all of the above-discussed aspects into consideration, it is evident that the decapitated unicorn from South Africa was simply a white rhinoceros, incompletely recognised by Campbell (though entirely familiar to the natives, as noted by him), inaccurately reported by the media (plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!), and implausibly transmuted by scholars of Scripture and science alike into the zoological identity of a biblical mystery beast (but one that in reality was most probably something very different indeed).


My sincere thanks to Daniel Frankham for his much-appreciated assistance in my resurrection and unmasking of this fascinating but long-overlooked denizen of the Dark Continent, and also for confirming yet again that I can always rely upon my diligent detachment of Fortean Watsons and FT Irregulars to seek out clues and track down evidence upon my behalf whenever the cryptozoological game is afoot!


SELECTED REFERENCES

ANON., 'The Unicorn', Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh), 20 August (1821).
ANON., 'Gloucestershire Auxiliary Missionary Society', Cheltenham Chronicle (Cheltenham), 4 October (1821).
ANON., 'The Unicorn', The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines, 9 (April-October): 486 (1821).
ANON., 'Africa', Monthly Magazine, 52(6) (no. 362; 1 January): 543 (1822).
CAMPBELL, John, Travels in South Africa, Undertaken at the Request of the London Missionary Society; Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country, Volume 1 (Francis Westley: London, 1822).
CAMPBELL, John, African Light Thrown on a Selection of Scripture Texts (Waugh & Innes: Edinburgh, 1835).
FRANKHAM, Daniel, 'Personal communication', 4 September (2017).
PHILIP, Robert, The Life, Times and Missionary Enterprises of the Rev. John Campbell (John Snow: London, 1841).
PICKERING, Jane, 'William J. Burchell's South African Mammal Collection, 1810-1815', Archives of Natural History, 24(3): 311-326 (1997).
SHUKER, Karl P.N., Extraordinary Animals Revisited (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2007).
SHUKER, Karl P.N., 'Whither the Unicorn?', in Alien Zoo, Fortean Times, no. 356 (August): 25 (2017).
WENDT, Herbert, Out of Noah's Ark: The Story of Man's Discovery of the Animal Kingdom (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London, 1956).


For more details concerning unusual or unexpected forms of rhinoceros, please see my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited.