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.

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Wednesday, 24 March 2010

THE HAIRLESS BLUE HORSE OF SOUTH AFRICA

One of the astonishingly beautiful Blue Horse series of paintings by Franz Marc (1880-1916).


Long before the hairless blue dogs of Texas were even a twinkle in the eyes of their controversial canine progenitors, another equally strange creature of unfurry skin and cyanescent hue had briefly gained headlines of its own - but this creature, long-forgotten until its remarkable history was recalled in my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), was not a dog...

A HORSE OF A VERY DIFFERENT COLOUR

Mystery animals come in all shapes, sizes - and shades. Certainly, the following hitherto-obscure example is a particularly dramatic case in point - one that could be aptly described as a horse of a different color, in every sense of the phrase!

While in South Africa during 1860, a merchant by the name of Lashmar encountered a feeding herd of quaggas - those odd-looking relatives of zebras that were striped only on the front half of their body and which became extinct in 1883. As subsequently reported by C.O.G. Napier in the long-vanished English magazine Land and Water (February 22 1868), while observing them Lashmar suddenly spotted in their midst a strange-looking creature that was drastically dissimilar in appearance from the others, and discovered to his astonishment that it was not a quagga at all, but was instead a hairless blue horse!

Once he had convinced himself that this ethereal entity was indeed real, he was quick to recognize its great worth as an outstanding novelty for exhibition purposes, and thus lost no time in successfully capturing it - after which he was able to study its extraordinary appearance closely, recording the following details.

Its skin was smooth and delicate in texture, feeling to the touch like india-rubber, and very warm, and forming curious wrinkles when the animal moved - recalling to mind the more ornate, ostentatious creases and loose folds of skin sported by that increasingly popular breed of mastiff-related dog known as the shar-pei. Unlike the latter, however, the horse was wholly hairless, not even possessing any hair roots. In color, its skin was blue-mauve over most of its body, but with a buff face and a large patch of the same color extending over half of its back with numerous blotches. Its tail resembled that of a pig. In overall appearance and when seen at a distance, this singular steed looked as if it had been sculpted from some rare variety of oriental blue marble.

After capturing it, Lashmar sent it to South Africa's Cape Colony, from where it was brought over to England in 1863. There, it was broken in at Astley's, and ridden for three parts of the season with Lord Stamford's hounds. It was also examined by Professor Spooner of the Veterinary College, London, who delivered a lecture concerning its unique appearance to his students. Purchased by a MrÁMoffat, in February 1868 it was exhibited in London's famous Crystal Palace, but its original blue coloration had been gradually fading ever since its capture, transforming into a rather more nondescript isabelline-grey. According to Moffat, the horse stood 14.2 hands high (i.e. just under five feet tall), was symmetrically shaped, and performed well in harness, but required warm clothing on account of its hairless nature. Moffat washed it each day, to keep it in good health.

Since its Crystal Palace days, nothing more seems to have been documented regarding this strange animal - its ultimate fate, therefore, is unknown, and prior to this present account its very existence had long since been forgotten.

As an inevitable consequence of its many decades of obscurity, the reason for its bizarre appearance has never been explained. However, the creature with which it seems to correspond most closely with regard to its curious skin is the Chinese crested dog - a superficially chihuahua-like breed that is without hair over much of its body, and which has portions of blue skin coloration. This breed's hairless state is caused by the possession of a mutant form of one of the genes controlling hair development, whereas its blue shading arises via the presence of the pigment eumelanin in its skin. Comparable conditions in a horse could yield the type of specimen captured by Lashmar.

Needless to say, nothing like it has ever been reported since. Perhaps the only example in any way reminiscent is a mare owned by Harold T. Sills of Prospect, Dordrecht, in South Africa's Cape Colony. Unlike Lashmar's specimen, it possessed a normal coat of hair, but the hair itself was blue. Sills wrote about this animal to English naturalist William T. Tegetmeier, who published in The Field (August 31 1901) the following extract from Sills's letter to him:

"I have a colonial-bred mare that is a very light blue; that is, she is nearly white, with the exception of mane, tail, and legs, which are bluish, and a black star on her forehead. The mare is about 7 years old now, and was born with this black star. It is the only case I have ever seen or heard of."

Freakish blue animals have occasionally been reported from other mammalian species, notably various wild cats - with pelts of blue lynxes and bobcats occasionally obtained by the fur trade. In southeastern China's Fujian Province, an elusive strain of blue-furred tiger allegedly existed at one time (and may still do so today). During September 1910, the renowned Methodist missionary Harry Caldwell actually encountered one of these extraordinary creatures at close range, and attempted to shoot it to provide unequivocal proof of its reality - but was unable to do so because of the possibility that he might have injured two children collecting vegetation a little further away, who were in direct line of his planned shot. And an exotic white cheetah with remarkable blue spots was once brought to the Mogul naturalist Jahangir at Agra.

Nevertheless, the mystery of Lashmar's blue horse remains unsolved - and not only on account of its color and hairlessness. There is one final anomaly that seems never to have attracted attention even during this animal's brief period of celebrity status. Namely, how can we possibly explain its presence amid a herd of quaggas? Where had such a bizarre beast originally come from, and why was it now associating with a herd of creatures belonging to a wild species only distantly related to its own? Is it even conceivable that this abnormal creature was not a domestic horse at all, but was in reality a freakish mutant specimen of quagga - a sport of nature set apart from its brethren morphologically, but nevertheless recognized by them as being one of their own kind and hence permitted to feed and associate with them? Who can say?

Just like the quaggas that were themselves destined to be lost forever, there is little doubt that the secret of this strangest of all steeds died with its originator - yet another mystery beast to be reported, recorded, and afterwards conveniently forgotten like so many before, and so many since.

Excerpted from my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (Llewellyn: St Paul, 1997.

7 comments:

  1. Karl, baby, you may just've identified the inspiration for Franz Marc's Blue Horse paintings!

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  2. We must remember these examples as science unravels the properties of the genome. The mechanism may be revealed in time if only someone is looking. Any quagga remains out there to sample for DNA?

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  3. Hi Alan, To my eternal shame, I must confess that I hadn't known about these paintings before, but I've checked them out now and they are certainly very striking. In fact, I've placed one of them here.
    Hi Delaiah, Yes, DNA samples have been taken from various museum specimens of quagga, some of which confirmed that this was not a separate species in its own right, but rather a morphologically well-delineated subspecies of the plains (Burchell's) zebra. So yes, there could well be more surprises in store from quagga DNA. All the best, Karl

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  4. Of course, it's more likely that Marc's paintings represent Fauvist concepts rather than direct representationalism. :-D As for the Quagga then, does that mean that, in essence, this subspecies still exists with Burchell's Zebras?

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  5. If you will Google "Hairless Horse" you'll see there are more than I expected in the world..
    Native Americans painted green and horses.

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  6. Thanks very much for this suggestion, which I've followed up, and, yes, some very interesting links to hairless horses in history. Not a breed, just freak individuals of various different breeds. None seems to be as blue in colour as the individual documented by me in the above blog post, however, and in view of the circumstances of its discovery I cannot help but wonder whether it was not a freak hairless horse at all, but rather a freak hairless quagga - explaining why it was found directly associating with these latter, now-extinct semi-striped zebras.

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  7. Perhaps a Quagga.. They did seem to be more "horseish" in disposition than Zebra. Shame people are so stupid and distructive.

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