Dr KARL SHUKER

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

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

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Monday, 6 July 2015

THE LAST OF THE IRISH ELKS? - INVESTIGATING SOME MEGALOCEROS MYSTERIES


Spectacular Megaloceros painting (© Zdenek Burian)

One of the most spectacular members of the Eurasian Pleistocene megafauna was the Irish elk Megaloceros giganteus. Formally described in 1799, it is also aptly known as the giant deer, as its largest known representatives were only marginally under 7 ft tall at the shoulder and bore massive antlers spanning up to 12 ft, but did this magnificent species linger on into historic times?

Below is an account of mine devoted to this tantalising subject and dating back to 1995, when it appeared in my book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors. It is followed by various fascinating updates, including some significant palaeontological discoveries made since my book's publication but of great pertinence to the question of post-Pleistocene survival for this species.

But first – here is the relevant excerpt from my book:


The Irish elk Megaloceros giganteus was one of the largest species of deer that ever lived. It was also one of the most famous - on account of the male's enormous antlers, attaining a stupendous span of 12 ft and a weight of over 100 lb in some specimens. Sadly, its common name is misleading, as this impressive species is only very distantly related to the true elk (moose), and, far from being an Irish speciality, was prevalent throughout the Palaearctic Region, from Great Britain to Siberia and China.

Nonetheless, it is to Ireland that we must turn for the majority of clues regarding Megaloceros - because in contradiction to the accepted view that it died out here 10,600-11,000 years ago (just prior to the Holocene's commencement), certain accounts and discoveries from the Emerald Isle have tempted researchers to speculate that this giant deer may still have been alive here a mere millennium ago.

Restoration of the Irish elk, prepared in 1906 by Charles R. Knight (public domain)

According to accounts documented by H.D. Richardson in 1846, and reiterated by Edward Newman in the pages of The Zoologist, the ancient Irish used to hunt an extremely large form of black deer, utilising its skin for clothing, its flesh for food, and its milk for the same purposes that cow milk is used today. Supporting that remarkable claim is a series of bronze tablets discovered by Sir William Betham; inscribed upon them are details of how the ancient Irish fed upon the flesh and drank the milk of a great black deer.

These accounts resurfaced two decades later within an examination of the Irish elk's possible survival here into historic times by naturalist Philip Henry Gosse, in which he also documented an intriguing letter written by the Countess of Moira. Published in the Archaeologia Britannica, this letter recorded the finding of a centuries-old human body in a peat bog; the well-preserved body was completely clothed in garments composed of deer hair, which was conjectured to be that of the Irish elk.

Most interesting of all, however, was the discovery in 1846 by Dublin researchers Glennon and Nolan of a huge collection of animal bones surrounding an island in the middle of Lough Gûr - a small lake near Limerick. Among the species represented in it was the Irish elk, but of particular note was the condition of this species' skulls. Those lacking antlers each bore a gaping hole in the forehead, which seemed to have been made by some heavy, blunt instrument - recalling the manner of slaughtering cattle and other meat-yielding domestic animals with pole-axes, still practised by butchers in the mid-to-late 1800s. Conversely, this species' antlered skulls (one equipped with immensely large antlers) were undamaged.

Irish elk skeleton (Wikipedia/GNU General Public License)

Did this mean that the antler-less (i.e. female) Irish elks had actually been maintained in a domestic state by man in Ireland, as an important addition to his retinue of meat-producing species? Prof. Richard Owen sought to discount such speculation by stating that the mutilated skulls were in reality those of males, not females, and that the holes had resulted from their human killers wrenching the antlers from the skulls.

However, this was swiftly refuted by Richardson, whose experiments with fully-intact skulls of male Irish elks showed that when the antlers were wrenched off they either snapped at their bases, thereby leaving the skulls undamaged, or (if gripped at their bases when wrenched) ripped the skulls in half. On no occasion could he obtain the curious medially-sited holes exhibited by the Lough Gûr specimens. Clearly, therefore, these latter skulls were from female deer after all, explaining their lack of antlers - but what of the holes?

Irish elk depicted on a postage stamp issued by France in 2008 (© French Philatelic Bureau)

As Gosse noted in his coverage of Richardson's researches, it is significant that the skulls of certain known meat-yielding mammals present alongside the Megaloceros skulls at Lough Gûr had corresponding holes - and as Gosse very reasonably argued: "As it is evident that their demolition was produced by the butcher's pole-ax, why not that of the elk skulls?".

After presenting these and other accounts, Gosse offered the following conclusion:

"From all these testimonies combined, can we hesitate a moment in believing that the Giant Deer was an inhabitant of Ireland since its colonisation by man? It seems to me that its extinction cannot have taken place more than a thousand years ago. Perhaps at the very time that Caesar invaded Britain, the Celts in the sister isle were milking and slaughtering their female elks, domesticated in their cattle-pens of granite, and hunting the proud-antlered male with their flint arrows and lances. It would appear that the mode of hunting him was to chase and terrify him into pools and swamps, such as the marl-pits then were; that, having thus disabled him in the yielding bogs, and slain him, the head was cut off, as of too little value to be worth the trouble of dragging home...and that frequently the entire carcase was disjointed on the spot, the best parts only being removed. This would account for the so frequent occurrence of separate portions of the skeleton, and especially of skulls, in the bog-earth."

19th-Century engraving of an Irish elk (public domain)

Although undeniably thought-provoking, the case of Megaloceros's persistence into historic times in Ireland as presented by the above-noted 19th Century writers has never succeeded in convincing me - for a variety of different reasons.

For instance, there is no conclusive proof that the large black deer allegedly hunted by the ancient Irish people really were surviving Megaloceros. Coat colour in the red deer Cervus elaphus is far more variable than its common name suggests; and, as is true with many other present-day species of sizeable European mammal, specimens of red deer dating from a few centuries ago or earlier tend to be noticeably larger than their 20th Century counterparts.

Similarly, the Lough Gûr skulls' ostensibly significant contribution to this case rests upon one major, fundamental assumption - that they are truly the skulls of Megaloceros specimens. But are they? Precise identification of fossil remains is by no means the straightforward task that many people commonly believe it to be.

Reconstruction of an Irish elk at Ulster Museum (© Bazonka/Wikipedia)

Perhaps the greatest of all mysteries associated with this case, however, is that subsequent investigations of Megaloceros survival in Holocene Ireland as specifically inspired by the researches of Gosse and company, and formally documented in the scientific literature, are conspicuous only by their absence. (In September 1938, A.W. Stelfox of Ireland's National Museum, in Dublin, did consider this subject, but without reference to any of the above accounts.) Yet if the case for such survival is really so compelling and conclusive, how can this investigative hiatus be accounted for?

Seeking an explanation for these assorted anomalies, I consulted mammalian palaeontologist Dr Adrian Lister [then at Cambridge University, England, now at London's Natural History Museum] - who has a particular interest in Megaloceros. Confirming my own suspicions, Dr Lister informed me that it is not unequivocally established that the female Lough Gûr skulls were from Megaloceros specimens, and he suggested that they might be those of female Alces alces, the true elk or moose, which did exist in Ireland for a time during the Holocene (though it is now extinct there). Certainly in general form and size, female Alces skulls seem similar to the Lough Gûr versions.

In contrast, Lister agreed that the enormous size of the antlers borne by the male Lough Gûr skulls indicated that these were bona fide Megaloceros skulls; but as he also pointed out, although their presence in the same deposits as the remains of known domesticated species is interesting, without careful stratigraphical evidence this presence cannot be accepted as conclusive proof of association between Megaloceros and man.

Irish elk depicted on a postage stamp issued by the Republic of Ireland (Eire) in 1999 (© An Post)

During his Megaloceros account, Gosse included some reports describing discoveries in Ireland of huge limb bones assumed to be from Megaloceros, which were so well-preserved (and hence recent?) that the marrow within them could be set alight, and thereby utilised as fuel by the peasantry, or even boiled to yield soup!

Yet once again, as I learnt from Dr Lister, these were not necessarily Megaloceros bones - especially as the limb bones of red deer, moose, and even cattle are all of comparable shape and form, and can only be readily distinguished from one another by osteological specialists (who do not appear to have been granted the opportunity to examine the bones in those particular 19th Century instances, and the bones were not preserved afterwards). Furthermore, on those occasions when exhumed bones used for fuel purposes have been professionally examined, none has been found to be from Megaloceros.

In conclusion: far from being proven, the case for post-Pleistocene survival of Megaloceros in Ireland is doubtful to say the least. Nevertheless, this is not quite the end of the trail. As noted by zoologist Dr Richard Lydekker, and more recently by palaeontologist Prof. Bjorn Kurten, the word 'Schelk', which occurred in the famous Nibelungenlied (Ring of the Nibelungs) of the 13th Century, has been considered by some authorities to refer to specimens of Megaloceros alive in Austria during historic times; other authorities, conversely, have suggested that a moose or wild stallion is a more plausible candidate.

Irish elk statue at Crystal Palace, London, originally created by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins during the 1850s (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Whatever the answer to the above proves to be, far more compelling evidence for such survival was presented in 1937 by A. Bachofen-Echt of Vienna. He described a series of gold and bronze engravings on plates from Scythian burial sites on the northern coast of the Black Sea. Dating from 600-500 BC and now housed at the Berlin Museum, the engravings are representations of giant deer-like creatures, whose antlers are accurate depictions of Megaloceros antlers! Undeniable evidence at last for Holocene survival?

The enigma of these engravings has perplexed palaeontologists for decades, but now a notable challenge to their potential significance has been put forward by Dr Lister, who has provided a convincing alternative explanation - postulating that the engravings were not based upon living Megaloceros specimens, but rather upon fossil Megaloceros antlers, exhumed by the Bronze Age people. This interpretation is substantiated by the stark reality that out of the hundreds of Holocene sites across Europe from which fossil remains have been disinterred, not a single one has yielded any evidence of Megaloceros.

True, absence of uncovered Holocene remains of Megaloceros does not deny absolutely the possibility of Holocene persistence (after all, there are undoubtedly many European fossil sites of the appropriate period still awaiting detection and study). Yet unless some such finds are excavated, it now seems much more likely that, despite the optimism of Gosse and other Victorian writers, this magnificent member of the Pleistocene megafauna failed to survive that epoch's close after all, like many of its extra-large mammalian contemporaries elsewhere.

That was where the matter stood back in 1995 – but not any longer!

Irish elk lithograph from 1895 (public domain)

On 15 June 2000, a paper published in the scientific journal Nature and co-authored by Dr Lister revealed that a near-complete Megaloceros skeleton uncovered in the Isle of Man (IOM) and a fragmentary antler from southwest Scotland had recently been shown via radiocarbon dating to be only a little over 9000 years old, i.e. dating from just inside the Holocene epoch – the first unequivocal proof that this mighty deer did indeed survive beyond the Pleistocene.

Intriguingly, however, as also disclosed in this paper, the Isle of Man's Holocene specimen's skeleton was statistically smaller (by over two standard deviations from its mean) than all Irish Pleistocene counterparts also measured in this study, indicating a diminution in body size for Megaloceros as it entered the Holocene, at least on the Isle of Man. Conversely, the antlers for this specimen and also the Scottish antler were well within the Irish size range for adult males.

The Isle of Man separated from the British mainland around 10,000 years ago. Consequently, it may be that the decrease in body size recorded for the IOM specimen measured in this study (if typical and not merely a freak specimen) is a result of this island's relatively small size rather than a strictly chronological effect.

Irish elk statue at Berlin's Tierpark (© Markus Bühler)

But that is not all. On 7 October 2004, once again via a Nature paper, a team of researchers that included Dr Lister revealed via radiocarbon dating of uncovered skeletons that Megaloceros survived in western Siberia until at least circa 5000 BC, i.e. some 3000 years after the ice-sheets receded. Age-wise, these are currently the most recent Megaloceros specimens on record, and demonstrate that the Irish elk existed during the Holocene in two widely separate localities.

So who knows? Following these exciting finds, perhaps other Holocene specimens, and possibly some of even younger dates than those presently documented, are still awaiting scientific unfurling?

Also of note is that on 8 June 2015, the journal Science Reports published a paper from a research team co-headed by Dr Johannes Krause revealing that Megaloceros remains recovered from cave sites in the Swabian Jura (Baden-Württemberg, southern Germany) dated to 12,000 years ago. Until now, it had been believed that this giant deer species had become extinct in Central Europe prior to, rather than after, the Ice Age. Moreover, the DNA techniques used in identifying the remains as Megaloceros showed that this species is actually more closely related to the fallow deer Dama dama (as long believed in the past) than the red deer (as more recently assumed).

Early photograph of an Irish elk skeleton (public domain)

One final Megaloceros mystery: On 4 July of this year (2015), Hungarian cryptozoological blogger Orosz István posted a short but very interesting item about a supposed mythological beast that I had never heard of before – the hippocerf (a name combining the Greek for 'horse' with a derivation from the Latin for 'deer'). He stated that it was said to be half horse, half deer (hence its name) and, of particular interest, that some (unnamed) researchers believed that it was based upon a Megaloceros population surviving into historic times. Orosz had obtained his information from a brief entry on this creature that appears on the Cryptidz.Wikia.Com website.

Needless to say, I soon conducted some online research myself concerning this intriguing creature, but I was not exactly cheered by my findings. With the exception of the above-noted Cryptidz Wikia site and a few others giving only the barest information repeated one to another ad nauseam, plus some imaginative illustrations of it created by various artists on the deviantart.com site, the hippocerf seemed to be endemic to fantasy fighting and other fantasy-style game sites. On these sites, some of the fabulous creatures featured are bona fide mythological beasts but others are complete inventions, dreamed up exclusively for the games, with no basis whatsoever in world mythology. Hence I began to suspect that the hippocerf might be in the latter category, i.e. conceived entirely for fantasy fighting games.

Indeed, apart from its very frequent appearances in Final Fantasy and other fantasy game sites and its popularity as a subject for drawing/painting on deviantart, all that I have been able to trace about the hippocerf online is that it supposedly has the hindquarters of a horse and the forequarters, neck, and antlered head of a deer, and that because of its dual nature, in heraldry it represents indecision or confusion. However, I have yet to find any confirmation of this claim from standard sources on heraldry online or elsewhere (I own several major works on this subject, and none contains any mention of the hippocerf). Nor have I uncovered the names of any of the researchers who have purportedly suggested that this distinctive creature may have derived from Megaloceros sightings in historic times. As for a claim repeated on several websites that the last known hippocerf sighting was in around 600 AD by an early archaeologist called Gregor Ishlecoff, I traced this to a book entitled The Destineers' Journal of Fantasy Nations, authored by N.A. Sharpe and Bobby Sharpe, and self-published in 2009, which proved to be a fantasy novel aimed at teenagers! I also own a considerable number of bestiary-type books on mythological beasts, and again not one of them contains any information regarding the hippocerf.

A pair of moose, depicted in an illustration from 1900 (public domain)

In short, not very promising at all for the supposed reality of the hippocerf as a genuine (rather than a made-up) mythological beast. The only hope for its credibility is if a mention can be traced in an authentic bestiary pre-dating the coming of the internet and fantasy gaming (preferably one of the classic works from medieval or Renaissance times), or in some authoritative work on heraldry. If either or both of these possibilities result in positive info emerging, then it may be that the hippocerf was inspired by the imposing and somewhat equine form of the moose (which inhabited much of Central Europe until hunted into extinction in many parts there by the onset of the Middle Ages). To my mind, this seems like a more plausible option than the survival of Megaloceros into historic times in Europe (i.e. into much more recent times than even the circa 7000 BC date currently known for it there).

Having said that: I can't help but recall a certain noteworthy line from the Krause et al. paper of 8 June 2015 regarding the finding of post-Ice Age Megaloceros remains in Germany: "The unexpected presence of Megaloceros giganteus in Southern Germany after the Ice Age suggests a later survival in Central Europe than previously proposed". Interesting…

If anyone reading this present ShukerNature blog article has information on the hippocerf derived directly from heraldic or bestiary-type sources pre-dating the internet and fantasy-type gaming, I'd greatly welcome details.

Male nilghai depicted on a postage stamp issued in 2001 by Moldova (public domain)

Incidentally, the hippocerf should not be confused (but sometimes is - see below) with the hippelaphos (whose name also translates as 'horse-deer', but from the Greek for 'horse' and the Greek for 'deer'), which is a genuine creature of classical mythology.

Attempts to identify it with known animal species have been made down through the ages by many authorities, including Aristotle (whose account of it recalls a gnu), Cuvier (the Asian sambar deer Rusa unicolor), and 19th-Century German zoologist Prof. Arend F.A. Wiegmann (the Indian nilghai Boselaphus tragocamelus).

Another possibility is Africa's roan antelope Hippotragus equinus, a decidedly horse-like species, as emphasised by its taxonomic binomial, as well as by its French name, antilope chevaline ('horse-like antelope').

A very horse-like specimen of the roan antelope (© Dr Karl Shuker)

In the original Latin version of Aristotle's work, the hippelaphos is termed the hippocervus (being renamed the hippelaphos in the English translation version), a name that is sometimes applied to the hippocerf on various internet sites. Indeed, I wonder if the hippocerf may be nothing more than the hippelaphos (aka hippocervus) distorted and exaggerated by online invention, such as the unsourced claim that some researchers believe it may be based upon a Megaloceros population surviving into historic times. Ah well, you know what they say - I read it on the internet, so it must be true!

This ShukerNature blog article is an updated excerpt from my book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors.

'In the Meadows – Pleistocene Age' – an adult male Irish elk taking centre-stage in this stunning painting from 1904 by John Guille Millais (public domain)






Sunday, 5 July 2015

GLOBSTERS ABOUNDING! - PART 2: SEEKING GIANT OCTOPUSES… BUT FINDING ROTTING SPERM WHALES


Vintage illustration of a deepsea octopus, by Ernst Haeckel (public domain)

In Part 1 of this ShukerNature blog article (click here), I surveyed a wide range of globsters, including the celebrated Trunko, and I also chronicled a selection of reports featuring alleged giant octopuses – traditionally, the most popular identity for globsters. As now revealed, however, modern-day studies of these latter anomalous entities have unveiled a very different explanation for them.

UNMASKING THE GLOBSTERS, AND UNVEILING THE QUASI-OCTOPUS
Thanks to the advances in DNA technology during the past two decades, science now has a reliable tool with which to investigate and expose the hitherto-cryptic identity of globsters, and in the past few years this is precisely what has happened, with eye-opening results.

The first notable globster to be unmasked by DNA analyses was the Fortune Bay specimen from Newfoundland. In February 2002, a team of researchers led by Newfoundland molecular systematics expert Dr Steven M. Carr published their findings in the Biological Bulletin scientific journal, summarising them as follows:

"DNA was extracted from the carcass and enzymatically amplified by the polymerase chain reaction (PCR): the mitochondrial NADH2 DNA sequence was identified as that of a sperm whale (Physeter catodon). Amplification and sequencing of cryptozoological DNA with "universal" PCR primers with broad specificity to vertebrate taxa and comparison with species in the GenBank taxonomic database is an effective means of discriminating otherwise unidentifiable large marine creatures."

Effective it has certainly been. One South Florida scientist with a longstanding interest in globsters is Dr Sidney K. Pierce, and in recent years he has led several studies of preserved globster remains, culminating in a detailed Biological Bulletin paper of June 2004 co-authored by Carr and several other researchers, which concentrated upon the Chilean globster but also examined samples from various additional specimens.

Chilean globster (© Dr Elsa Cabrera – Fair Use/Educational Purposes Only)

The team announced:

"Electron microscopy revealed that the remains [of the Chilean globster] are largely composed of an acellular, fibrous network reminiscent of the collagen fiber network in whale blubber. Amino acid analyses of an acid hydrolysate indicated that the fibers are composed of 31% glycine residues and also contain hydroxyproline and hydroxylysine, all diagnostic of collagen. Using primers designed to the mitochondrial gene nad2, an 800-bp product of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) was amplified from DNA that had been purified from the carcass. The DNA sequence of the PCR product was 100% identical to nad2 of sperm whale (Physeter catodon). These results unequivocally demonstrate that the Chilean Blob is the almost completely decomposed remains of the blubber layer of a sperm whale. This identification is the same as those we have obtained before from other relics such as the so-called giant octopus of St. Augustine (Florida), the Tasmanian West Coast Monster, two Bermuda Blobs, and the Nantucket Blob. It is clear now that all of these blobs of popular and cryptozoological interest are, in fact, the decomposed remains of large cetaceans."

Yet how can a decomposed sperm whale transform in shape and texture so dramatically that it becomes a globster, sometimes even equipped with apparent tentacles? As I revealed in my book, Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), the answer is fascinating, and also has a notable precedent:

"There is a notable precedent for such dramatic misidentification when dealing with beached remains, which is known as the pseudo-plesiosaur effect. When a basking shark Cetorhinus maximus dies and its body decomposes, it undergoes a remarkable transformation. The gill apparatus falls away, taking with it the shark's jaws, leaving only its small cranium and exposed backbone, thus resembling a small head and long neck. The end of the shark's backbone only runs into the upper fluke of its tail, so during decomposition the lower fluke falls off, leaving what looks like a long slender tail. And to complete the plesiosaur deception, the shark's pectoral fins, and sometimes its pelvic fins too, remain attached, resembling two pairs of flippers. Little wonder, therefore, why a number of amazingly plesiosaurian carcases have been reported over the years, only for anatomical and biochemical analyses to expose them as sharks.

"Now, moreover, we have confirmation that an analogous transformation is responsible for at least some of the hitherto perplexing globsters that have come to light - a transformation that I propose should hereafter be referred to as the quasi-octopus effect. As detailed by Drs Pierce, Carr, and Letelier, after a whale dies its body can float for months, decomposing, until eventually its heavy backbone and skull dissociate from their encompassing skin-sac of rotting blubber, and sink to the sea bottom, leaving behind a thick gelatinous matrix of collagen - the tough protein found in skin and connective tissue. It is this mass of collagen, still encased in its skin-sac, that washes ashore, as a globster. Furthermore, if a few of the whale's ribs remain within the collagen matrix, and any 'fingers' of fibrous flesh are attached to them, these resemble tentacles [or even a trunk, in the case of Trunko]. And if the whale is a sperm whale, the spermaceti organ gives the resulting globster a bulky shape reminiscent of an octopus."

So does that mean that globsters are a dead-end as far as providing evidence for the reality of giant octopuses is concerned? Not quite, perhaps...

VERRILLY A GIANT OCTOPUS?
The grand-daddy of all globsters was washed ashore near St Augustine, Florida, on 30 November 1896. Its prodigious remains, pinkish-grey and pear-shaped, were over 6 m long, 1.6 m wide, and 1.3 m high, and were estimated to weigh 5 tons. What appeared to be the stumps of five massive tentacles were clearly visible in photographs taken of this monstrous carcase by local physician DeWitt Webb, as was what seemed to be a severed tentacle, measuring 8.7 m long and 20 cm thick. Webb sent a sample of its tough flesh to Yale University cephalopod (squid and octopus) expert Prof. Addison E. Verrill, who announced that the carcase had been a giant octopus, which he formally christened Octopus giganteus. Later, however, Verrill recanted, claiming that it was merely the spermaceti organ of a sperm whale.

St Augustine globster (public domain)

A second sample, sent to the Smithsonian Institution, has been tested on numerous occasions via several different techniques, and has yielded differing results. Whereas Pierce’s studies indicated that it was indeed of sperm whale origin, analyses by eminent Chicago University biochemist and longstanding cryptozoological investigator Prof. Roy P. Mackal strongly supported an octopus identity. However, the sample has been preserved for so long that it has probably been contaminated and rendered useless for detailed study - which would explain the greatly diverging results - unless future advances in technology can overcome this obstacle. If they can, then interested researchers should apply to the Institute of Creation Research (ICR) in El Cajon, California, for it is here that the only surviving sample of tissue from the St Augustine globster can be found, donated by Prof. Mackal in 2003 to the ICR’s Professor of Biology, Dr Kenneth Cummings.

Drawing of St Augustine globster by Prof. Addison E. Verrill (public domain)

How ironic it would be if the existence or otherwise of what would be (if real) one of the largest marine creatures alive today – the elusive giant octopus – is ultimately determined by this tiniest sliver of substance, the last remnant from one of cryptozoology’s most enduring enigmas. For a further picture and details concerning this globster, click here to access my ShukerNature-reprinted interview conducted back in the 1990s with Prof. Mackal.

THE MULTI-LIMBED MONSTER OF ANTIBES
In addition: A truly bizarre sea monster was allegedly sighted between Antibes and Nice in 1562. Oval in shape, with a pig’s head at one end and a trunked elephant-like head at the other, it boasted no less than eleven claw-bearing limbs.

Antibes multi-limbed sea monster (public domain)

Is it possible that this weird entity, depicted in the Paralipomena (supplement) to the second edition of Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium Liber IV: Piscium et Aquatilium Animantium Natura (1604), was a distorted description of a giant octopus?

GIANT OCTOPUS, OR MYSTERY JELLYFISH?
Finally: In 1953, while testing a new type of deep-sea diving suit in the South Pacific, an Australian diver encountered a Lovecraftian horror from the ocean’s unpenetrated depths, which I documented as follows within my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997):

"The diver had been following a shark, and was resting on the edge of a chasm leading down to much deeper depths, still watching the shark, when an immense, dull-brown, shapeless mass rose up out of the chasm, pulsating sluggishly, and flat in general outline with ragged edges.

"Despite appearing devoid of eyes or other instantly-recognizable sensory organs, this malign presence evidently discerned the shark's presence somehow, because it floated upwards until its upper surface made direct contact. The shark instantly gave a convulsive shudder, and was then drawn without resistance into the hideous monster's body. After that, the creature sank back down into the chasm, leaving behind a very frightened diver to ponder what might have happened if that nightmarish, nameless entity had not been attracted towards the shark!"

Cirrothauma murrayi, a species of deepsea cirrate octopus (public domain)

In the past, a deepsea octopus has been offered as a possible identity for this disturbing creature, but as I discussed in detail within my book, a far more satisfactory candidate is a deepsea jellyfish.

Whereas all octopuses have tentacles, some deepsea jellyfishes do not. What they do have, however, are potent stinging cells called nematocysts on their bodies (and tentacles if they possess any), armed with venom that swiftly paralyses their prey. This would readily explain the immediate paralysis of the shark. Moreover, jellyfishes do not possess true eyes but they are equipped with sensory structures responsive to water movements. Consequently, the creature would have learnt of the shark’s presence by detecting its movements in the water. How lucky, then, that the diver had remained stationary!

Artistic representation of the deadly Chilean hide (© Icarito)

Interestingly, Chilean legends tell of a very similar beast called el cuero or the hide, as it is likened in shape and size to a cowhide stretched out flat, with countless eyes around its perimeter, and four larger ones in the centre. As it happens, jellyfishes possess peripheral sensory organs called rhopalia that incorporate simple light-sensitive eyespots or ocelli.

Moreover, some jellyfishes also have four larger, deceptively eye-like organs visible at the centre of their bell, though in reality these organs are not eyes at all. Instead, they are actually portions of the jellyfishes' gut, known as gastric pouches, with the jellyfishes' horseshoe-shaped gonads sited directly underneath these pouches and also very visible (as in the familiar moon jellyfish Aurelia aurita).

Exquisite illustration of various jellyfish species revealing their four centrally-sited gastric pouches, depicted by Ernst Haeckel (public domain)

So perhaps the deadly hide is more than a myth after all, lurking like so many other maritime horrors reported down through the ages in the deep oceans' impenetrable black abyss, but only very rarely encountered by humankind – which in view of the dreadful fate that befell the hapless South Pacific shark in 1953 may be just as well!

A sinister-looking deepsea octopus in a 19th-Century illustration (public domain)

For further details concerning globsters and Trunko, check out my books Extraordinary Animals Revisited and Mirabilis.






Saturday, 4 July 2015

GLOBSTERS ABOUNDING! - PART 1: BLOBS, TRUNKO, LUSCA, AND MORE...


Me with giant octopus model (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Mystery beasts come in all sizes and shapes, but in the case of globsters they are most famous not just for their great size but also for their conspicuous lack of any well-defined shape. Aptly named by American cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson in the early 1960s, globsters (also dubbed blobsters or blobs) are generally huge, amorphous masses of decomposing tissue, usually rubbery and covered in fibrous ‘hair’, lacking any recognisable body parts or skeleton, which are regularly washed ashore on beaches around the world.

GLOBSTERS IN THE NEWS
The first globster to attract international attention, and for which Sanderson coined the term ‘globster’, was discovered on the beach north of Tasmania’s Interview River by three eyewitnesses in August 1960. Measuring about 6 m long, 5.5 m wide, and 1.2 m thick, with an estimated weight of 5-10 tonnes, it was composed of tendon-like threads attached to a fatty substance that did not readily compose. Despite its unusual appearance, it was left uninspected on the beach for over 18 months until some on-site tests were finally conducted on 7 March 1962 by Australia’s CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), which proved inconclusive. A second CSIRO analysis 10 days later revealed protein and in particular the connective tissue protein collagen to be primary constituents.

Newspaper cutting re the Tasmanian globster of 1960 (© Hobart Mercury)

In 1965, another hairy globster, 9 m long, was found on a New Zealand beach, and a smaller one, only 2.5 m long, turned up in November 1970 on a Tasmanian beach. More recently, Tasmania hosted yet another globster stranding when in January 1998 a 6-m, 4-ton specimen drifted ashore on Four Mile Beach. What made this example particularly interesting was that it sported several sturdy, elongate projections resembling tentacles.

Four Mile Beach globster as documented in the globster coverage from my book Mysteries of Planet Earth (© Dr Karl Shuker/Carlton Books/globster photo's copyright owner unknown to me – please post details if known)

Another tentacled enigma was the stranded globster spied by tourist Louise Whipps (not Whitts, as frequently but incorrectly given in media reports) on Benbecula, a small remote Scottish island in the Outer Hebrides. Until now, Benbecula’s claim to cryptozoological fame had been the burying here more than 170 years earlier of a supposed mermaid, but whatever the putrefying entity encountered by Whipps had once been, it had definitely never been a mermaid. A photo of her sitting beside the globster provided a useful scale that confirmed her estimation of its length - a relatively modest 3.5 m.

Louise Whipps with the Benbecula globster (© Louise Whipps – Fair Use/Educational Purposes Only)

What made the Benbecula specimen unexpectedly eyecatching (for a globster!), however, was the series of tentacular flaps that fringed its otherwise flat, elongate form. Staff at Newcastle’s Hancock Museum, shown Whipps’s photo, were unable to offer any positive identification of this globster, and despite the photo later appearing in countless media reports worldwide, it remained unidentified.

Equally well-publicised was the so-called Bermuda blob - a grey 2.5-m rubbery specimen discovered washed up on a beach in Mangrove Bay, Bermuda, by Teddy Tucker during May 1988. Waves subsequently washed it back out to sea, but not before Tucker had removed a chunk of its flesh and preserved it in formalin.

Teddy Tucker with the 1988 Bermuda blob (© Teddy Tucker – Fair Use/Educational Purposes Only)

Tissues samples were also obtained from the globster cast up from the depths in August 2001 at St Bernard’s, Fortune Bay, in Newfoundland, as well as from the most famous globster of modern times – the enormous gelatinous specimen discovered washed ashore on 23 June 2003 by a crowd of perplexed coastal villagers from Los Muermos, southern Chile. Measuring a stupendous 12.5 m long, 5.6 m wide, 1 m high at its tallest point, and estimated to weigh over a tonne, like most globsters it was wholly shapeless in form, leathery in texture, and grey and pink in colour, inspiring some news reports to liken it to a squashed elephant! With such a vast quantity of tissue available, it is heartening to learn that samples were indeed taken for scientific testing.

GLOBSTERISING TRUNKO
Perhaps the most sensational globster revelation of modern times, however, came in 2010, when, following our joint discovery of some remarkable photographs published more than 80 years earlier but which had hitherto remained entirely unknown to the cryptozoological world, I and German cryptozoologist Markus Hemmler exclusively revealed that one of the world's most anomalous and contentious mystery beasts had in fact been a globster. The cryptid in question was none other than Trunko – the huge sea monster sporting a long proboscis-like structure and covered in what eyewitnesses described as snow-white fur that was washed ashore on a South African beach during the early 1920s, remaining there for several days before the tide carried it back out to sea, never to be seen again, or identified – until 2010, that is.

Trunko (© A.C. Jones)

Following a close examination of the excellent, newly-unearthed close-up photos, however, which had been snapped by one of Trunko's eyewitnesses and published shortly afterwards in a magazine article that had, astonishingly, been overlooked completely by cryptozoologists for more than eight decades afterwards, I could see beyond any shadow of doubt that what they depicted was an absolutely typical (indeed, classic) globster. In other words, the Trunko carcase was not that of some extraordinary maritime elephant whose species still eluded science, as had been seriously speculated in the past, but was actually something much more prosaic, the same as all other globsters – whose precise nature will be revealed a little later in this present ShukerNature blog article.

For full details of Trunko's long-awaited identification and resolution, click here, here, and here, and also see my definitive chapter-length account in my book Mirabilis (2013).

Clearly, there is no shortage of globsters on record – but what exactly are they? Resembling no known species, they have been the subject of heated zoological and cryptozoological debate for decades – with identities ranging from some wholly unknown marine species or decomposed whales to rotting shark carcases and, most intriguing of all, the putrefied remains of gargantuan octopuses, far bigger than any currently recognised by science.

TENTACLES OF TERROR
The world’s largest known species of octopus is Enteroctopus dofleini, with a maximum recorded tentacle (or, technically, arm) span of 7.1 m. Having said that, a freakishly large specimen of Haliphron atlanticus was dredged up by a fishing trawler off New Zealand’s Chatham Islands in March 2002 that sported an estimated tentacle span of 10 m (it was an incomplete, badly-damaged individual). However, some truly gigantic octopuses that would put even the latter to shame have been reported from a number of disparate locations over the years, suggesting that science has far from confirmed the upper size limit of these mighty eight-limbed monsters of the deep.

Do giant mystery octopuses exist? (© William Rebsamen)

Hawaii has a longstanding history of giant octopuses. In 1928, for instance, no less than six colossal specimens, each with an estimated tentacle span approaching 12.5 m, were allegedly sighted together off Oahu’s coast by Robert Todd Aiken, who was stationed at Pearl Harbor with the US Navy at that time. A comparable giant, greyish-brown and said to be the size of a car, with suckers as big as dinner plates along each of its 9.3-m tentacles, was seen by diver Madison Rigdon about 200 m off Oahu’s Lahilahi Peninsula one Sunday morning in 1950. The octopus was being attacked by several sharks, but succeeded in warding them off, after which it released a huge quantity of black ink and swiftly sank out of sight.

Amazingly, an even bigger octopus was reported that very same year, this time spotted by fisherman Val Ako as it rested 10 m or so underwater on a reef off Hawaii’s Kona Coast. Ako claimed that its tentacles were around 25 m long, armed with suckers as big as car tyres, and stated that it was still there half an hour after he had first sighted it.

My giant octopus trinket box, inlaid with mother-of-pearl; interestingly, whether by chance or design, some of the octopus's tentacles are bifurcate (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Gargantuan octopuses have sometimes been blamed for disturbing or raiding shellfish traps placed on the seabed. One such case featured Bermudan fisherman Sean Ingham, who lost two very sizeable prawn traps to an elusive underwater plunderer between 29 August and 3 September 1984, the second of which had been snapped from its cable at a depth of 560 m. When laying some more traps 16 days later, however, he had a terrifyingly close encounter with his foe, when without warning something grabbed hold of his boat from below, and effortlessly dragged it along for more than half a kilometre before finally releasing it again. Moreover, the vessel’s sonar equipment revealed that the mysterious underwater boatnapper had been 15.5 m high and pyramidal in shape, i.e. the typical shape of an octopus, but one of gigantic proportions.

On Christmas Eve 1989, a massive octopus - “as huge as an imported cow”, according to one eyewitness, Agapito Caballero - allegedly rose to the surface and attacked a motorised canoe transporting a number of people in waters off the southern Philippines. Twelve survivors were rescued, clinging onto their overturned canoe, by some fishermen on Christmas Day. The survivors claimed that once the octopus had capsized the canoe by grabbing its outriggers, it had simply sunk back beneath the waters, without attempting to harm any of their company.

19th-Century engraving of a giant octopus attacking a ship (public domain)

Famous Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) claimed that a monstrous octopus with a barrel-sized head and tentacles 9 m long would come ashore and raid fish ponds in Rocadillo, Spain (octopuses are indeed known to leave water and cross land if necessary to capture prey). And as far back as classical times, giant octopuses have been reported from the Mediterranean. Indeed, the mythical many-armed, hole-dwelling sea monster Scylla has been claimed by some researchers to have been inspired by sightings of huge octopuses in Italian waters.

During his own investigations of reputed giant octopuses, veteran American marine biologist and amateur cryptozoologist Dr Forrest Wood collected several reports from the Bahamian island of Andros, whose blue holes (vertical underwater caves) are claimed by locals to be frequented by a monster known as the lusca, equipped with “hairy hands” that drag down any unwary human divers or bathers. Certain octopuses, known as cirrate octopuses, are characterised by tentacles bearing hair-like projections (cirri). Consequently, some cryptozoologists have suggested that the lusca may be an unknown species of giant cirrate octopus.

Supporting a link between lusca and giant octopus is a report given to Wood on Andros by an island inspector, who claimed that during a fishing trip off the island with his father, in waters approximately 180 m deep, their line seemed to snag on the sea bottom. When they looked down through the transparent water, however, they were aghast to see that in reality, the line had hooked an enormous octopus, which abruptly released the line and gripped the bottom of their boat instead! Fortunately, however, it soon let go, and sank down far below until it vanished from view.

Giant octopus as conceived by Swedish crypto-artist Richard Svensson (© Richard Svensson)

Clearly, then, there is ample circumstantial evidence on file to suggest the existence of mega-octopuses in various expanses of water around the world – but what about globsters? Do they genuinely constitute physical evidence for these creatures’ existence?

For this and other startling globster revelations, click here to check out Part 2 of this ShukerNature blog article.

Captain Nemo viewing a giant octopus – an illustration from the classic Jules Verne novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (public domain)