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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Monday, 10 October 2011


My unicorn wall rug, based upon 'Unicorn' - a painting by Johfra Bosschart (Dr Karl Shuker)

Not all unicorns are of the equine or cervine varieties beloved by poets, painters, storytellers, and other purveyors of literature and art. Following on from the unicorn rabbit of County Durham that I recently documented in a previous ShukerNature post (click here to view it), I now have pleasure in presenting a singularly eclectic selection of extraordinary unicorns from the past, the present, reality, fantasy, and somewhere in between.

Originally native to southern India, the yale or yali was somewhat of a contradiction in terms – a unicorn with two horns. Moreover, unlike the fixed horn of the true unicorn, the paired horns of the yale could be rotated in different directions, enabling it to aim them at any attacker approaching from any direction. Quite apart from its mobile horns, the yale was nothing if not memorable morphologically. The size of a horse, it sported the tusks of a boar, the tail of an elephant, and the body spotting of a leopard. Not surprisingly, this startling beast was reputedly kept inside Indian temples to ward off evil spirits, and, perhaps rather more surprisingly, it ultimately entered British heraldry as one of the four heraldic beasts of the monarch.

The yale, in Jonathan Hunt's Bestiary

An earlier version of the yale was the eale, which shared the yale’s Indian provenance, boar-like tusks, elephant tail, and moveable horns (though the eale’s were far longer than the yale’s). However, it was black or tawny all over, was much bigger than the yale, attaining the size of a hippopotamus, and was amphibious, able to live in the water as well as on land.

Medieval engraving depicting the eale (bottom right)

Even more amphibious than the eale, however, was the camphor or champhur. For this was a single-horned Ethiopian unicorn whose hind feet were webbed like a duck’s, not hoofed.

Engraving of the camphor

Less familiar than the yale and eale is yet another double-horned unicorn, the pirassoipi. Illustrated in a number of bestiaries down through the ages, and native to the Arabian lands bordering the Red Sea, it was normally depicted with two seemingly-fixed, forward-pointing horns, and, most distinctive of all, an extremely woolly, curly coat – giving this creature the appearance of a large ibex-like goat, upon which it may well have been based.

Engraving of the pirassoipi

One of the most bizarre yet least-known unicorns, due to its very limited distribution, was the baiste-na-scoghaigh, confined entirely to the Isle of Skye in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. This one-horned creature was more like the monoceros than the unicorn, as it has been variously likened to a huge lumbering ram, shire horse, or even a rhinoceros. According to a communication penned by Donald Finlay (Daily Mail, 16 June 2010), however, every baiste-na-scoghaigh was male, so in order to perpetuate their race each one would shape-shift into a man and copulate with women, who gave birth only to sons. Moreover, a baiste-na-scoghaigh would not hesitate to dispatch with its great horn any man that it considered to be weak and take his place, in order to sire a stronger, worthier son.

By far the most unusual mammalian unicorn of all, however, must surely be the bjarndýrakóngur of Iceland, because this extraordinary beast is said to be a polar bear of gigantic size that bears a long glowing horn projecting forward from the centre of its brow. As revealed by Glen Vaudrey in a CFZ blog post of 2 August 2009, the bjarndýrakóngur supposedly results from a mating between a polar bear and either a walrus or a bull, and in addition to its size and horn is also distinguished from normal polar bears by virtue of its red cheeks.

The most recent report of a bjarndýrakóngur that Glen was able to uncover during his researches dated from the 1700s and took place as follows on the island of Grímsey:

"Just before a Whitsun church service a group of a dozen bears were seen to be approaching the island led by a bjarndýrakóngur with its glowing horn. Unused to such a sight, the congregation stood outside watching the bears walk past towards the south of the island. As the creatures drew level with the crowd the clergyman bowed to the bjarndýrakóngur and in turn had the bow return; clever things these unicorn bears.

"The bears then headed off into the distance but before they disappeared from view, the last polar bear in the line ate a passing sheep. It appears that the bjarndýrakóngur did not approve of such uncivilised action and promptly, fatally ran the bear through with his glowing horn, so putting an end to such murderous action. After that the bears headed off into the sea and once again were hidden from view."

As nothing more seems to have been heard of the bjarndýrakóngur, we can only assume that this truly unique unicorn, or at least the tradition of it, has died out. After all, if anything as memorable as a gargantuan polar bear with ruddy cheeks and a long glowing brow-horn were still being reported, I’m sure that it would be hitting the headlines, even if only in Iceland!

The extraordinary Icelandic bjarndýrakóngur or unicorn bear (Pat Burroughs)

Real-life unicorns but known only from the distant past were the several very large, long-legged species of prehistoric pig belonging to the genus Kubanochoerus. Known from fossils found throughout Eurasia (ranging from Greece to China), and living during the Miocene epoch (23-5.3 million years ago), what made these pigs so distinctive was not just the small pair of horns protruding up from their eyebrows but also the much larger, single horn projecting forward and upwards from the centre of the brow in male individuals, and probably used in competitive jousting with one another.

Reconstruction of Kubanochoerus gigas (Apokryltaros-Wikipedia)

Not all unicorns are mammalian in identity. One of the world's weirdest birds bears more than a passing resemblance to a feathered unicorn! Native to marshy grasslands of South America and the size of a turkey, the horned screamer Anhima cornuta has an extraordinary horn, long and curved, that grows out of its skull between its eyes. Present in both sexes, composed of cartilage (gristle), and originating as an unbranched feather shaft, it can measure up to 15 cm long, but is so thin, curved, and delicate that the screamer certainly couldn't use it as a weapon, for defending itself or for attacking other creatures. So what is the purpose of this unique structure? No-one knows - the best suggestion is that it is simply for decoration, but if so, why should this particular bird be the only one out of the many thousands of bird species alive today to grow such an outlandish ornament?

The horned screamer's unicorned head

However, this is not the only bizarre feature of the horned screamer. Between its unusually thick skin and its muscles are lots of tiny airsacs that are extensions of its lungs, and whenever it opens its wings to take flight these airsacs make a very strange crackling noise, as if someone is squeezing a large bag of crisps! It also has an incredibly loud cry, giving voice over and over again to ear-splitting screams that can be heard up to 3 km away!

Most amazing of all, however, is the fact that this weird bird is most closely related to waterfowl - ducks, geese, and swans. For anything less like a waterfowl in external appearance and behaviour than a screamer - which doesn't even swim unless it really has to - would be difficult to imagine!

Painting from 1864 of a pair of horned screamers

In general form, the horned screamer looks more like a turkey than any waterfowl. Also, it has a pointed chicken-like beak rather than the familiar duck bill of waterfowl, it has very long stork-like legs instead of shorter waterfowl-like ones, broad wings that each bears a pair of sharp peculiar spurs at its edge, and feet that have only the smallest amount of webbing between their toes. Yet anatomical and biochemical studies indicate that unlikely as it may seem, the horned screamer really is a cousin of the waterfowl - proving once again that you should never judge anything by its outward appearance!

19th-Century engraving of a horned screamer

Finally: two further, very different (but equally remarkable) categories of non-mammalian unicorn, yet rarely if ever documented nowadays, are unicorn snakes and unicorn snails.

Unicorn snakes can themselves be split into two very distinct, dissimilar categories. The first consists of a bona fide unicorn snake from southeast Asia – Rhynchophis boulengeri, known variously as the green unicorn snake or rhinoceros rat snake on account of the prominent scaled protrusion on the front of this bright green species’ snout.

Rhynchophis boulengeri (Vladimír Motyčka)

The second category consists of fake unicorn snakes - created from normal snakes into whose brow a spine has been skilfully inserted in order to create the illusion of a unicorn snake. The ‘horn’ borne by these deceptive serpents was usually either a cut-down porcupine spine or a spine extracted from the fin of a ray or some other spiny-finned fish, and these fraudulent unicorn snakes were sold by canny Eastern vendors to gullible Western tourists or travellers (click here for more details).

As I documented in my book Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), unicorn snails are freak, teratological individuals in which the normal pair of laterally-sited stalks with an eye at the tip of each stalk is replaced by a single centrally located stalk bearing two eyes side by side at its tip. Two such specimens, both of which were Roman (edible) snails Helix pomatia discovered in France, were documented in 1959 within the Journal de Conchyliogie by E. Fischer-Piette.

'The Woman With the Unicorn' (1505) - Raphael

For many more remarkable types of unicorn, see my book Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008).

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