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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Tuesday, 1 March 2011

THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE - REMEMBERING MOTTY

Motty (photo courtesy of Derek G. Lyon/Chester Zoo)


Over the years, I have documented a vast array of animal reports that contain a truly remarkable element of surprise. In this present example, the element was an elephant – and his name was Motty.

Thirty-three years ago, he was a creature that the zoological world had previously deemed impossible. Yet for just over 10 days back in 1978, by virtue of his mere existence, Motty defied every scientific pronouncement. Had he lived further, ultimately reaching maturity, he may well have become one of the most famous animals on the planet. Sadly, however, it was not to be, and because of his tragically short life, Motty soon slipped into obscurity. Today, conversely, more than three decades on, it is high time that this truly singular animal should be remembered and returned to the spotlight, for Motty was indeed unique – the only intergeneric hybrid elephant that has ever been and probably will ever be.

Today, long after the demise of such notable prehistoric pachyderms as mammoths, mastodonts, and deinotheres, there are just two living genera of proboscideans. These are: Elephas, housing the single Asian species of elephant, E. maximus; and Loxodonta, housing the two closely-related species of African elephant (until recently deemed merely to be subspecies of a single species), the savannah elephant L. africana and the forest elephant L. cyclotis. There have been well-attested cases of hybridisation between the two African species, and also between various subspecies of the Asian elephant. Conversely, for reasons not only of basic zoogeography in the wild state but also of fundamental genetics, it was not thought possible, even in captivity, for Asian and African elephants to be able to produce viable young.

Consequently, even when, in early 1978, one of Chester Zoo’s female Asian elephants, Sheba, started showing signs of a pregnancy, zoo staff initially dismissed the prospect out of hand, because the only male elephant there at that time was Jumbolino, an African elephant. True, Jumbolino had been seen mating with her in the past, but the genetic differences between the two genera that Sheba and Jumbolino represented were such that no significance was attributed to these occurrences.

Motty taking a rest with his mother close by (photo courtesy of Derek G. Lyon/Chester Zoo)

The first physical sign that something more than mere sex may have taken place was the development of a noticeable fluid-filled sac, midway between her two pairs of legs, on the ventral surface of Sheba’s abdomen in February 1978, which proceeded to swell, until by May it was roughly 60 cm long and 10 cm wide. Yet still not suspecting a pregnancy was responsible, zoo staff treated it with an oral diuretic (Vetidrex), and by July it had disappeared. However, a new symptom had appeared by then – pronounced enlargement of the left-hand-side of Sheba’s abdomen, culminating on 10 July by the onset of parturition. Genetic differences or not, Sheba was pregnant.

Although her condition, once recognised, had been closely monitored, the climax still took everyone by surprise. On the morning of 11 July, Sheba walked out of the elephant house as usual with the other elephants, and then at 9.20 am, without warning, and in full view of her keepers, she casually gave birth to a small male calf. His size, weakness, and lack of hair clearly indicated that he was premature, probably by 6 weeks or so. Moreover, as this was her first surviving calf, Sheba seemed very unsure how to treat the new arrival, and gently but firmly pushed him down whenever he attempted to stand. At this point, the keepers moved in, leading the other elephants back into the elephant house, and because Sheba had no milk due to her calf’s premature arrival they proceeded to bottle-feed him hourly with cow’s milk, a vitamin supplement, and plenty of glucose for energy, coupled with colostrum obtained from Sheba.

By the end of 12 July, the calf – subsequently dubbed Motty after Chester Zoo’s founder, George Mottershead who had died just 2 months earlier – had become stronger, and after some assistance from the staff had succeeded in standing. He was also being aided by Sheba, whose maternal instinct by now had awakened, and he even managed to walk a few faltering steps. And by Day 5 (15 July) she was also allowing him to suckle fully, after initially pushing him away.

Whatever doubts had been entertained in the past that an intergeneric elephant hybrid was possible were emphatically swept away by this living, breathing refutation, because Motty’s entire morphology was a complex and thoroughly fascinating composite of maternal Elephas and paternal Loxodonta characteristics. To begin with, whereas the back of Elephas is arched and that of Loxodonta is concave, Motty’s back was both – possessing a central hump but also a pelvic one. His head exhibited a similar ambiguity, for although his brow was sloping with a single frontal dome like Loxodonta, he also sported the smaller paired posterior skull domes characteristic of Elephas. Even his trunk was an intergeneric compromise – heavily wrinkled like that of Loxodonta, but with only a single digit at its tip like Elephas (Loxodonta has two trunk digits). Adding to his Elephas features were his feet, as they bore five toenails on each front foot and four on each hind foot (more than in savannah Loxodonta elephants), but his Loxodonta heritage reasserted itself in his longer slimmer legs and his larger pointed ears.

Motty with his mother, readily revealing his complex intergeneric combination of features (photo courtesy of Derek G. Lyon/Chester Zoo)

By the end of his first week, Motty seemed to be doing just fine, suckling enthusiastically and sleeping well, receiving care and protection from his mother, and gentle interest from the other elephants. Testing a sample of his faeces suggested that he had a mild bowel infection, but as all else seemed so satisfactory, the decision was made not to treat it because his own immune defences would most probably be more than adequate to deal with it.

On Day 8 (18 July), Motty seemed restless and troubled, and when examined it was found that his umbilical scar had become infected, so this was treated at once with a course of antibiotics, and his condition soon showed an improvement. This was sustained throughout Day 10 (20 July), and was enhanced by supplementary feeds of cow’s milk containing added vitamins. By now, it looked likely that the world’s most extraordinary elephant had won his earlier fitness battle, and would go on from strength to strength. Sadly, however, sometimes appearances can only too readily deceive.

At 9 am on Day 11 (21 July), the keepers arrived to start work at the elephant house as usual – only to discover to their horror that Motty was comatose and dying. Immediately, the zoo’s vets began emergency heart massage and artificial respiration, and also injected a cardiac stimulant as well as providing him with extra warmth, but all to no avail. Less than an hour later, little Motty the miracle elephant was dead. A full autopsy discovered that he had been suffering from an unsuspected outbreak of necrotic enterocolitis – parts of the large intestine’s wall possessed dead tissue, becoming almost perforated – plus E. coli septicaemia. It seems likely that Motty’s weakened immune system – due in turn not only to his premature birth but also to his hybrid identity – had been insufficient to combat these conditions.

Motty with his mother and Chester Zoo's other female Asian elephants (photo courtesy of Derek G. Lyon/Chester Zoo)

Yet even though, tragically, Motty was no more, the very fact that he had indeed once existed was surely enough to have immortalised him not just in the media – which covered his all-too-brief life with considerable enthusiasm – but also in the scientific literature, for he was, after all, truly unique. In reality, conversely, nothing could have been further from the truth. Indeed, the lack of formal zoological interest in Motty was in its way every bit as surprising as Motty himself. To quote an extensive online history of Motty by Sam Whitbread:

"…the coverage by scientific journals was significant by its absence. Here was an animal the like of which had never been seen before and, it is almost certain, will never be seen again. Indeed, it was almost as though the world of science had chosen to turn its back on this unique event and ignore that the impossible had occurred. Specialist elephant journals and publications did recognise the birth for what it was but the International Zoo Yearbook merely made a casual mention of the birth in their reference section and IZN only carried a brief note."

Nor was that all. Following the autopsy, Motty’s skin was professionally mounted by a London taxidermist and after a short time in storage back at Chester Zoo was taken by Michael Brambell, the zoo’s director, to the British Museum (Natural History), where the zoo hoped that Motty would be placed on permanent display to be seen by as many people as possible. To date, however, he is still in storage, preserved securely for posterity but still unseen by the general public. How fitting it would now be, therefore, more than 30 years after his birth, for the zoological marvel that was once Motty to be commemorated and celebrated at last in a public exhibition, restoring to prominence a too-long-forgotten wonder who spent all too little time in our world.

I wish to offer my sincere thanks to Derek G. Lyon, who was chief veterinary surgeon at Chester Zoo during Motty's time there, for kindly making available to me his veterinary report identifying the cause of Motty's death, and also the images included here.


UPDATE - 14 February 2015

Exciting news! Very few images of Motty exist, due to his all-too-short existence. Just over a month ago, however, a correspondent sent me a series of colour photographs of Motty, snapped in mid-July 1978 by his father during a visit to Chester Zoo by him, my correspondent (then aged 6), and my correspondent's brother. These photos have never been released publicly, but my correspondent and his father have very kindly permitted me to use them in any of my publications. And so it is with great pleasure that I now officially unveil these previously-unseen, hitherto-unknown pictures of Motty as a ShukerNature world-exclusive! Click here to see them!


UPDATE - 16 February 2015

I have always thought how sad it is that we shall never know what Motty would have looked like had he survived into adulthood, only that whatever form his appearance may have taken, it would certainly have been unique, marvellous, and magnificent. But now, in another ShukerNature world-exclusive, thanks to a couple of amazing illustrations we may finally have an idea after all of just what the mature Motty could have looked like. And as if that were not extraordinary enough, what makes this new insight even more astonishing is a totally unexpected similarity to one of the world's most spectacular prehistoric mammals. Intrigued? Confused? Excited? Click here, and all will be revealed!


Motty, resting at his mother's feet (photo courtesy of Derek G. Lyon/Chester Zoo)






13 comments:

  1. What a a thought-provoking and emotive post! I'm not sure if my natural 'anthropomorphism motor' added from the reading...or detracted from it.

    My thoughts wandered towards how the elephants felt seeing this little guy faltering. How did they view the valiant efforts of their 'keepers' as they strove to keep him alive? Elephants have been filmed apparently mourning their dead; I wonder if they felt sadness at Motty's passing too?

    Moreso, did they somehow recognise the 'limbo' status of his undefined ancestry? Was there a scent of death or some subtle recognition that he wasn't 'one of them?'

    I appreciate the overlooked importance to science and how an orchestra of natural selection and mutations can express a life that shouldn't be. Nevertheless, the images and your narrative have put my emotional focus on the little guy's abbreviated life.

    Although you've pitched the article at a greater scientific importance than I, it's hit my heart more than my mind and left me feeling quite sad.

    It's an excellent post.

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  2. Thank you much for your very kind words, and I'm delighted that you like my post re Motty so much. I'd long been interested in this remarkable animal, but was surprised that so little had ever been written about him. So I finally decided to compile into a single detailed report everything that I'd managed to uncover over the years, as a testament to and celebration of a genuinely unique, fascinating individual.

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  3. I did not notice the original interesting event of 1978 but became aware of it a few years ago when the BBC mentioned it in a programme, possibly about the Beast of Bardia or maybe about cloning a mammoth.
    At that time I took advantage of a service provided by the BBC to answer telephone queries about the programme. In my question I mentioned that an asian and african elephant had bred, but to my chagrin the imformant had no knowlege of the fact. I pointed out it was in the very film we were discussing and the lady said she was unaware of it and would have to check and get back to me. Subsequently she said the birth was not a valid example because the calf had not survived. I do not agree with this and next time-I think there will be a next time-the pregnancy will receive better treatment.
    Thank you Dr Shuker for your enjoyable and richly imformative article,

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  4. Didn't the same thing come up with American bison/cattle crosses? The first one died at birth, but they cross them now? I might be mistaken.
    Donna, from Indiana

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  5. Thanks, Norman, for your kind words and informative post. Obviously Motty was a valid example, as he would have clearly survived if he had not succumbed to infection, so the televison woman's attitude seems bizarre to say the least.
    Yes, bison x cattle hybrids regularly occur nowadays, and are known as cattalo (as the American bison is often termed the buffalo).

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  6. Motty should be recognized!!!!!! It is a tragic but expectable reaction on the part of the scientific community to ignore this miracle. But that's why
    there are imaginative, open-minded cryptozoologists like you, Dr. Shuker. May Motty someday be resurrected! This miracle will someday return to the headlines!!! RIP Motty. You taught us a lot. And maybe you will be accepted by the scientific world someday.

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  7. I just read this.Thanks Dr Shuker for educating us on Motty. The story of Motty is heart breaking.Is there any new Motty/ties now?This article is from 2011 and I am sure there might be more news on this front.

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  8. As of the present time, Motty remains unique. Hi Juhi, Hybridisation is not encouraged in many zoos, so no deliberate attempt would be made to mate an African elephant with an Indian one in captivity - Motty only occurred because it was thought impossible at that time for the two species to mate and produce any offspring. So, no, no further news on this subject to date. Glad you enjoyed my article. All the best, Karl

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  9. I saw Motty at Chester zoo when I was 6 years old. My father took some colour photos that day which I could scan if you are interested. Chris

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  10. Hi Chris, Yes please, definitely! Thanks very much. If you could email the scans to me at karlshuker@aol.com that would be excellent!

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  11. Hi Dr Karl. Sorry for the delayed response. I'll definitely scan the Motty pics next time I'm at my parents' home, although I'm afraid it may be a few months. On one of the pics Stuart Hall (yes THAT Stuart Hall) is pretending to feed Motty Champagne!
    Cheers, Chris

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  12. I wonder what Motty would look like if he had became a fully grown adult.

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  13. Sadly, however, it was not to be, and because of his tragically short life, ... amenshybridshorts.blogspot.com

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