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.

ShukerNature - http://www.karlshuker.blogspot.com

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

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my ShukerNature blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Eclectarium blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Starsteeds blog's poetry and other lyrical writings (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

Search This Blog

Loading...

Monday, 25 April 2011

THE ROBIN AND THE CROSSBILL - TWO EASTER-THEMED BIRD LEGENDS IN VERSE



There are many traditional, quite often poignant religious folktales featuring animals, some of which are well known, others less so. In the following poem, which appears in my published poetry collection Star Steeds and Other Dreams (CFZ Press, 2009), I have combined two of these age-old stories, both of which are Easter-themed - the famous legend of how the robin gained its red breast, and the less familiar legend of how the crossbill acquired its twisted beak.

THE ROBIN AND THE CROSSBILL

A tall wooden Cross cast its pitiless shadow
Across a green hill ‘neath the grey, leaden sky.
For mankind had crucified Jesus, its Saviour,
And left Him there helpless to suffer and die.

But two tiny birds came to visit Lord Jesus,
Two small humble creatures with hearts full of love.
The little brown robin and bright crimson crossbill,
Each blessed by the Light of their Father Above.

When Jesus looked down and beheld the small robin,
He smiled at him softly, and down from His breast
His blood trickled slowly like deep scarlet teardrops,
And falling below stained the robin’s white chest.

The crossbill in vain used his bill to remove the
Cruel nails that impaled Jesus’ hands and His feet,
But prised with such force that his bill crossed and twisted
‘Ere, strength being spent, he conceded defeat.

And e’er since that day when they visited Jesus,
The bill of each crossbill is twisted and curled,
While Jesus’ red blood on each robin’s chest lingers,
Reminding us just how much God loves our world.

Monday, 18 April 2011

GOBLIN ELEPHANTS AND WERE-SPIDERS - SURVEYING THE EYE-POPPING YOKAI IMAGERY OF GOJIN ISHIHARA


Kappas (Gojin Ishihara, in Illustrated Book of Japanese Monsters, 1972)


Not long ago, graphics artist Andy Paciorek alerted me to a truly extraordinary Japanese book on the subject of yokai - the traditional monsters of Japanese legend and folklore. Published in 1972, it was authored by Sato Arifumi, and its title, Nihon Youkai Zukan (日本妖怪図鑑), translates into English as Illustrated Book of Japanese Monsters. Yet although it was ostensibly written for children, its extremely dramatic full-colour and half-tone pictures, drawn by celebrated Manga artist Gojin Ishihara, are often so terrifying and grotesque that I can only assume that kids in Japan are made of very stern stuff indeed!

Nevertheless, slotted among the bloodcurdling images of horrific female entities with hyperextensible necks, maniacally-grinning strangler demons, bizarre ceiling-dwelling scare-ghouls, and numerous other equally macabre monstrosities in human or semi-human form, are representations of various animal yokai too. Some of these mythological creatures are fairly well known outside Japan, but many of them are not.

So here is a concise account from me for each in a brief but diverse selection of examples that appear within Arifumi’s remarkable book (which, sadly, is now long since out of print), together with Ishihara’s original, unforgettable illustrations (collected online by Pink Tentacle at: http://pinktentacle.com/2010/07/macabre-kids-book-art-by-gojin-ishihara/).

THE KAPPA

As pictured in the Ishihara illustration opening this present ShukerNature blog article, the kappa is a freshwater sprite generally likened to a bipedal humanoid frog the size of a child but bearing a tortoise’s shell on its back, and, most striking of all, an open water-containing cavity (shaped like a lily pad) on top of its head. Probably the most internationally famous representative of Japan’s vast array of animal yokai, the kappa is usually considered to be merely mischievous, but it can be much more malicious, pulling humans underwater to rape or even drown them.

Yet in spite of this dark side to its nature, the kappa is, incongruously, well known for being inordinately polite – a weakness that humans often capitalise upon if confronted by one of these web-footed, scaly-skinned, carapace-bearing man-frogs. Its magical powers emanate from its head’s cavity, which contains water obtained from its own home river or lake. Consequently, if a human encounters a kappa, he should perform with great ostentation a very deep, respectful bow. Not wishing to seem disrespectful, the kappa will return the bow, with equal ostentation – but as it does so the water in its head cavity will of course pour out, thereby rendering the kappa powerless until it can refill it. If, however, the human scoops up some water from the kappa’s aquatic domain and refills its cavity before it has chance to do so itself, from then on the kappa must serve the human faithfully for all eternity.

THE BAKU

My own particular favourite animal yokai (though it actually originated in Chinese folklore before becoming part of Japan’s pantheon of monsters), the baku looks quite ferocious - combining the tail of an ox and the body and paws of a tiger with the eyes of a rhinoceros and the head, trunk, and tusks of an elephant (as well as, occasionally, the wings of a dragon). Although it is sometimes referred to colloquially as a goblin elephant, this extraordinary mammalian composite is a very benevolent beast (unlike most yokai), and performs an extremely useful service to humans. For when it appears at night, it devours a person’s bad dreams, before they have chance to transform into fully-fledged nightmares.


In modern times, depictions of the baku have gradually changed, so that nowadays it is no longer portrayed as a chimaera sporting features drawn from several different beasts, but instead as a recognisable tapir - one species of which, the Malayan tapir Tapirus indicus, is already a well known creature in Asia.

THE WAIRA

Another veritable chimaera among Japan’s heterogeneous array of animal yokai is the waira. This mountain-frequenting monster has the head of a ferocious dog, an ursine body the size of a cow, a pair of very large feathered eagle wings as well as impressively-clawed eagle-like feet, and a long bushy-tipped tail.


The male waira’s dense hairy pelage is usually very dark in colour, whereas the female’s is reddish. It generally uses its scythe-shaped claws to dig up rodents and other earth-dwelling creatures that it feeds upon, but will not hesitate to attack and devour any human mountaineer unfortunate enough to encounter it.

THE NEKOMATA

If a domestic cat attains a venerable age, or grows above a certain size, or its tail attains too great a length, it may transform into a nekomata. This formidable animal yokai still superficially resembles a domestic cat (albeit one the size of a leopard), but is instantly distinguished from all normal cats by its tail, which has split longitudinally into two completely separate tails, and also by its ability to walk upright on its hind legs.


Other strange but highly undesirable talents of this feline monster include the capability to reanimate and take control of fresh human corpses merely by leaping over them, to generate fireballs inside the house in which it dwells, and even to kill its owner and then shape-shift into their likeness in order to replace them. Not surprisingly, perhaps, in earlier times many Japanese cat-owners would have their cat’s tail docked, in order to prevent it from splitting into two and their cat thereby becoming a nekomata.

THE ONMORAKI

This demonic bird with glowing eyes and the ability to spurt flames from its beak is believed to be the transformed soul of a newly-dead person, and is commonly depicted as a black crane-like entity – though as seen here, Ishihara has chosen to portray it as a hairy-headed eagle.


Yet despite its seemingly-malevolent form, the onmoraki is actually an upholder of religious propriety, chastising with loud shrieks of abuse anyone that it finds sleeping inside the sermon hall of a temple, or any priest who fails to read his sutras.

THE NURE-ONNA

Often encountered on a wild expanse of coastline combing her long black hair and submerged from the waist down in the sea, seen like this the nure-onna resembles a beautiful naked young woman. And placed beside her is a bundle wrapped in rags that a human observer is likely to mistake for a baby. But if the human offers to hold this ‘baby’, and the nure-onna hands it over, the human will soon discover that it is nothing more than a very large stone, which instantly becomes so heavy that the human is rooted to the spot.


As soon as the nure-onna sees this, she rises up out of the water, revealing that in reality she is an enormous snake-woman, with her body from the waist down consisting of an almost limitless extent of scaly serpentine coils, measuring up to 1000 ft long. And as the trapped human gazes helplessly into her lidless ophidian eyes, the nure-onna opens her jaws, her long scarlet tongue flicks out, enwrapping her victim, and proceeds to suck every last drop of blood from the human’s body, until all that is left is a shrivelled, etiolated corpse.

THE JOROGUMO

Perhaps the most dangerous and evil animal yokai of any documented here is the jorogumo. This foul shape-shifting entity appears at night in the guise of a beautiful maiden, seeking to entice an unsuspecting man into some lonely, secluded location where rescue or escape is unlikely. As soon as she has trapped him there, often by hypnotising him with seductive music played by her on a type of Japanese lute known as a biwa, the jorogumo transforms into its real form – that of an enormous bloodthirsty spider.


This hideous monster swiftly ensnares and enshrouds its helpless human victim with thick strands of gossamer as strong as cords of steel, before injecting his web-trussed body with potent venom, and then devouring his paralysed form while he is still alive. If, however, he is carrying a weapon, suspects quickly that the maiden luring him away is in fact a jorogumo, and can mortally wound her, she will betray her true were-spider identity by transforming into her arachnid alter-ego before dying.

Much as I am intrigued and quite fascinated by them as an adult, I am nonetheless grateful that, whereas children in Japan are seemingly brought up quite routinely on stories featuring their nation’s multifarious and quite frequently murderous assemblage of yokai, as a child in England I was reared on the decidedly less bloodthirsty exploits of Doctor Dolittle!

Saturday, 16 April 2011

'FLYING SNAKE' - A NEW CRYPTOZOOLOGICAL JOURNAL


It’s always great to see a new cryptozoological periodical, especially one in hard-copy form, with pages that you can touch and turn with your fingers instead of with an impersonal, intangible tap of a stylus – call me old-fashioned, but for all their promise of instant access, e-books to me are nothing more than soulless text, whereas a real book is also an experience, even a friend, to enjoy and rejoice in. So I welcome with unadulterated enthusiasm the long-awaited, much-anticipated first issue (April 2011) of Flying Snake - fellow cryptozoological investigator Richard Muirhead’s brand-new hard-copy journal of cryptozoology, folklore, and forteana. (Having said that, Richard does plan to publish a pdf version in due course, but he will continue with the hard-copy version too.)

Like me, Richard has a particular interest in unearthing very unusual and obscure reports from the literature and in collecting hitherto-unpublicised accounts from correspondents, and Flying Snake certainly does not disappoint. Within its professionally-produced 68 pages, it covers a veritable crypto-cornucopia of extraordinary subjects from around the globe – including reports of flying snakes (naturally!) from Wales, as well as unidentified flying lizards in Australia, pink-tusked elephants from China, the devil crabs of South Shields, a mermaid from Israel, a couple of fascinating Nandi bear reports that were new to me, giant centipedes in Hong Kong, an article by me concerning a previously obscure equine cryptid from Iberia, and lots more!

With a planned publication schedule of 3 issues per year, at a cost of just £3 per issue or £9 per annum, Flying Snake promises to be a very worthy investment for anyone interested in cryptozoology and wider animal-related mysteries or anomalies.

Issues of Flying Snake can be purchased from: Flying Snake Press, 112 High Street, Macclesfield, Cheshire SK11 7QQ, UK.

Cheques and postal orders should be made out to Richard Muirhead; or for online PayPal payments, visit:
http://homepage.ntlworld.com/richmuirhead/cryptozoology/

For further details, visit the Flying Snake Press website, at:

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

GOING WILD OVER THE WILD AMERICAN HOUND – YOUR ASSISTANCE IS REQUESTED!

Johann Daniel Meyer’s mysterious ‘wild American hound’

Here’s an odd little conundrum for you to cogitate upon at your leisure, should you be so inclined. During an online surfing session a few days ago, I happened upon the curious illustration presented above.

Details concerning it are sparse in the extreme, but here is what I have been able to uncover so far. Measuring 12 inches by 8 inches, the image has a German title that translates as ‘wild American hound’, and is a hand-coloured copperplate engraving by Johann Daniel Meyer that appeared in his Angenehmer und nützlicher Zeit-Vertreib mit Betrachtung curioser Vorstellungen allerhand kriechender, fliegender und schwimmender, auf dem Land und im Wasser sich befindender und nährender Thiere etc - a three-volume wildlife tome published between 1748 and 1756 in Nuremberg, Germany.

As can be readily perceived from this engraving, however, whatever the creature depicted by it may be, it is certainly not a hound, nor, indeed, a canid, of any kind (wild and/or American notwithstanding!). So what is it?

When I first looked at it, I initially thought of the Virginia opossum Didelphis virginiana, because the engraved creature does bear a degree of overall resemblance to this largest and most famous of modern-day New World marsupials. I even found an online photo of the Virginia opossum, reproduced here, that vaguely recalls it.

Virginia opossum

Even so, Meyer’s mystery beast can be readily differentiated by its wholly brown colouration, in particular its dark face and its body’s extremely short, uniformly brown fur – in stark contrast to the white face and the longer, shaggy, grey body fur of the Virginia opossum. Meyer’s beast may have a bare tail, which, if so, likens it to the latter species, but, equally, it may simply have very short fur – the engraving does not make this clear.


Engraving of kinkajou

In addition to the Virginia opossum, I have also considered those uniformly brown-furred, Neotropical raccoon cousins known respectively as the kinkajou Potos flavus and the olingos (a quintet of Bassaricyon species). Again, as shown here, superficially these are somewhat similar to Meyer’s beast, but none of them is native to North America.


Olingo (Fiona Reid – Field Guide to Mammals of Central America)

So unless the ‘American’ in ‘wild American hound’ was being used in its very broadest sense, i.e. appertaining to anywhere within the entire New World, rather than its much more common and more specific usage as a contraction of the United States of America, I have once again come to a halt in my search for this mystifying mammal’s taxonomic identity – unless, gentle readers, you could offer any suggestions or additional information? If so, please post details here, as I’d very greatly welcome them!


MAJOR UPDATE: 3 April 2014

I recently purchased a copy of the 2011 reprint of German publisher Taschen's modern-day (2001) reproduction compendium of all of the sumptuous colour plates that originally appeared in a gloriously-illustrated tome first published in four volumes from 1734 to 1765. Commissioned by Albertus Seba, one of the most celebrated collectors of natural history specimens ever (click here for more details regarding Seba in a separate ShukerNature blog post), this tome, or Thesaurus as it was entitled, was basically a lavish catalogue of his two internationally-renowned collections' specimens, each of which was described in Latin by Seba and supplemented by footnotes in French (the text from his Thesaurus is not included in the Taschen plates compendium).

Browsing through the Taschen compendium of the Seba Thesaurus's innumerable pictures, and marvelling at their detail, colour, and precision, I was startled to discover that one of the plates (specifically Plate 30 in what was Vol. 1 of Seba's Thesaurus) contained what was evidently the original illustration upon which the version from Johann Daniel Meyer's tome that opens this present ShukerNature blog post was based (and then reproduced in mirror-image format). For not only is the Seba version of this illustration much more detailed, but Vol. 1 of his Thesaurus (i.e. the volume that contained it) was published in 1734, more than a decade before the first volume of Meyer's tome. Here, then, was the original wild American hound, and the plate in question is duly reproduced below:


Plate 30 of Vol. 1 of Albertus Seba's Thesaurus - the wild American hound is positioned directly beneath the long tail plumes of the paradise flycatcher above it

Surely, therefore, Seba's historic tome would provide me with the long-awaited solution to the mystery of this enigmatic mammal's taxonomic identity? In reality, the mystery only deepened. In Taschen's modern reprint of Seba's Thesaurus, the compilers have valiantly attempted to identify all of the many species depicted in it, and have included these proposed identities beneath each plate. Many are recognisably correct.

When I looked to see their identity for the wild American hound, however, I was nothing if not startled to discover that they had labelled it as a mongoose, and had even included these creatures' taxonomic family name, Herpestidae, albeit with visible trepidation (a question mark had been added directly after it in parentheses). Yet if this individual had truly originated in America, it was highly unlikely to have been a mongoose, because these mammals are confined entirely to the Old World, True, mongooses have been deliberately introduced to several Caribbean islands, where they still thrive today. However, this misguided course of action (they prey upon many of the islands' rare, indigenous species) was only initiated during the early 1870s, i.e. over a century after the wild American hound had appeared in Seba's Thesaurus.

But that was not the end of the riddles and revelations exposed in Seba's Thesaurus. Turning to the Taschen plates compendium's specially-written introduction by its compilers, I discovered that the same illustration of the wild American hound was included there too, but this time unencumbered by the other creatures that were present alongside it in Plate 30, and reproduced in slightly larger size too. Here is this version:

The wild American hound, in Albertus Seba's Thesaurus

What made this especially interesting, however, was that the compilers had included beneath the illustration here Seba's own original description of what it was. Namely, "Wild dog from America with a very long tail". Obviously no mongoose, therefore, and clearly the origin of the name that Meyer had used for this animal in his own tome. Sadly, however, this does not assist in the latter's identification. However, perusing the Seba Thesaurus's better-quality illustration of it I realised that its overall body form, coupled with its long snout and extremely long tail, was reminiscent of the common coati Nasua narica, which is native to certain of the southernmost states of the USA, and lacks the vivid tail banding that is such a characteristic feature of its familiar South American relative, the aptly-named ring-tailed coati N. nasua.

Although the images in Seba's Thesaurus are very pleasing aesthetically, not all of them are especially accurate zoologically. So could the wild American hound illustration simply be a not overtly-accurate representation of the common coati? Interestingly, when moving about on the ground on all fours, coatis sometimes hold their lengthy tails up vertically or semi-vertically, corresponding well with the pose portrayed by the wild American hound in the Seba Thesaurus's illustration.


A common coati with its long tail held up semi-vertically ((c) Joseph C. Boone/Wikipedia)

The only way to be certain, however, is if the specimen that this bemusing picture depicts could be traced and examined. Many of the specimens from Seba's first collection are housed in the present-day Russian Academy of Sciences, and several (but by no means all) specimens from his second collection are also housed there (the remainder were sold off to a wide range of buyers, so may now be untraceable, always assuming that they have survived to the present day anyway). Perhaps somewhere among those many exhibits is Seba's wild American hound, still awaiting a conclusive taxonomic identification?

Cabinet of Natural Curiosities - the Taschen 2001 compendium of the Seba Thesaurus's illustration plates


SECOND UPDATE: 4 April 2014

Today I succeeded in tracking down online a pdf of the original, complete Seba's Thesaurus, containing not just the plates but also Seba's bilingual (Latin and French) descriptions of the animals depicted in the plates. Seeking out his description of the wild American hound in the hope that now I would finally discover exactly what it was, I was disappointed to find that Seba's description was only very short and consisted almost entirely of just a verbal morphological description of what can be readily observed in the plate's portrayal of this animal, e.g. its tail is very long, its fur is brown, its ears are small and erect, its eyes are large, etc.

Seba's description in French of the wild American hound, from Vol. 1 of his Thesaurus (1734)

However, it did also contain two tantalising but mystifying snippets. Seba stated that he had been sent his specimen of the wild American hound from what he referred to as the Promontory of Tiburon on the island of Martinique, and that it plundered in the forests ("il vit de rapine dans les forêts"). Did this phrase mean that it raided other animals' dens or birds' nests? As for its provenance, I have been unable to locate any Promontory of Tiburon present on the Caribbean island of Martinique, and none of the sparse number of mammalian species known to have inhabited it during the 18th Century (when Seba prepared his Thesaurus) matches the appearance of the wild hound of America (mongooses, as already noted, were not introduced into any Caribbean islands until the 1870s). Intriguingly, however, there is a forested region in California, USA, known as the Promontory of Tiburon. So could Seba have somehow mistaken the location of this promontory, wrongly claiming it to be on Martinique, so that in reality his wild hound of America specimen derived from California instead? This mystery becomes ever more mysterious! Stay tuned for further installments as my investigations into this very curious cryptid continue.



Tuesday, 12 April 2011

THE HOUND OF THE HEDGES - A FASCINATING FUSION OF FAUNA AND FLORA IN FICTION AND FACT!

The hound of the hedges – Tim Morris

What could a remarkable new discovery revealing that the zoological and botanical worlds are sometimes more intimately linked than ever before realised and my all-time #1 fictitious crypto-beast possibly have in common? Read on, and – extending my previous ShukerNature article’s theme of extraordinary green animals (click here to read it) - all will be disclosed!

A CHLOROPHYLLIC CANID

If I were asked to name my favourite real-life animal, I may need a couple of lifetimes to consider the myriad of diverse species populating this fertile planet of ours. If I were asked to name my favourite beast of legend, I might need a similar time-span to scour the far reaches of the human imagination in search of its most exotic examples, though I confess that the rare, evanescent unicorn may ultimately claim that prize. But if I were asked to name my favourite cryptozoological creature of literary fiction, I could do so in an instant – the hound of the hedges.

Where could you possibly encounter a dream-like dog whose fine green fur is composed of rich sweet-scented grass, its sharp teeth an array of prickly rose thorns, its curved claws a series of scratchy burrs, its viridescent blood a heady concoction of chlorophyll, and its long plumed tail an elegantly-woven plait of curling leafy ferns? Only in a circus, surely, and no ordinary circus at that – nothing less, in fact, than The Circus of Dr Lao, a truly weird but very wondrous novel first published in 1935 and conceived by the extraordinary imagination of fantasy writer Charles G. Finney. Here, frolicking amid the heterogeneous assemblage of sideshow marvels and misfits that include a werewolf, a satyr, a unicorn, the gorgon Medusa, a sea serpent, a sphinx, a roc’s egg ready to hatch, a mermaid, a chimaera, and a golden ass, can we find this unique and elusive canine cross-fertilisation of the animal and plant kingdoms – or, as it is known there, the hound of the hedges.

The Circus of Dr Lao by Charles G. Finney

But where and how did such a phytozoological wonder evolve? These and other important questions were answered as follows in his usual eloquent and informative manner by the circus’s enigmatic Chinese ringmaster-of-ceremonies, the eponymous Dr Lao:

“Possibly the strangest of all the animals in this menagerie, and certainly one which none of you should miss seeing, is that most unique of all beasts, the hound of the hedges. Evolved among the hedgerows and grassplots of North China this animal is the living, breathing symbol of greenness, of fecund, perennial plant life, of the transitional stage between vegetable and animal. The greatest scientists of the world have studied this hound and cannot decide whether he is fauna or flora. Your guess, ladies and gentlemen, is as good as the next. When you examine him, you will notice that, although his form is that of the usual dog, his various bodily parts are those of plants. His teeth, for instance, are stiff, thick thorns; his tail is a plait of ferns; his fur is grass; his claws are burrs; his blood is chlorophyll. Surely this is the weirdest beast under the casual canopy of heaven. We feed him hedge apples and green walnuts. Sometimes, too, though not often, he will eat persimmons. Let me advise you, good people, to see the hound of the hedges even though you must forgo seeing the mermaid or the werewolf. The hound is unique.”

The hound of the hedges – an exquisite gouache by William Lucius Appaloosius Steinmayer (http://www.elfwood.com/)

To a subsequent audience, Dr Lao expounded further on this astounding beast’s origin and singular attributes:

“Epitomising the fragrance of grassplots, lawns, and hedgy, thickset places, this behemoth of hounds stands unique in the mysterious lexicon of life. Most of the other curiosities of this circus, I regret to say, have a taint of evil or hysteria about them, but not this magnificent hound. He is as sweet as hay new mown with clover blossoms still unshrivelled lying in it. He is as sunny as the dewy mornings his parent grasses so much love. He is a grand beast, if beast he may be called. Also, though I refer to him in the masculine gender, such designation is very loose; for, as a matter of fact, this hound has sex only as a water lily might have sex. He is alone of his kind throughout the world; no mate and no sire; no dam and no brood. This hound is no more masculine than a horse radish, no more feminine than a cabbage, less carnal than a tiger lily, and as little lustful as a rose bush.

“We found him in North China along the canals where the ricefields flourish and where grasses and little stunted hedges grow. For a long, long time that land had been nothing but so much parched dust with no green thing growing upon it anywhere. Then the canals were constructed and brought water to it, and over its dry skin lovely green things commenced to grow. That which had seemed dead quickened into life. That which had seemed sterile glistened with fertility. And as a symbol and embodiment of that exuberant fecundity, the grasses and the weeds and the flowers and hedges and bushes each gave a little of themselves and created this hound, truly an unparalleled achievement in the annals of horticulture.

“We saw him first at dusk playing about the hedgerows, leaping, gambolling, biting at the hedge apples, pawing little holes in the ground and nosing fugitive seeds into them. Alarmed by us he romped about in great tearing circles, flitting through the grasses and disappearing behind hedges so swiftly the eye could hardly follow him. His beautiful greenness entranced us. We had never seen so wonderful a hound in all the world.”

Capturing the hound of the hedges – Boris Artzybasheff (1899-1965)

Mindful that such a miraculous creature would prove an irresistible attraction within their circus, Dr Lao and his companions lost no time in deciding the hound of the hedges’ fate:

“So we caught him. Out of his strange eyes he looked at us – eyes that were like green unripened pods. He was perfectly gentle. His tail of ferns wagged a little, switching his sides of green, green grass. From his panting mouth chlorophyll slavered. Around his neck a thin grass snake was curled, and his leafy ears harboured green katydids and tiny black crickets.

“In the meshes of our nooses he stood there regarding us. And, oh, that first close view of his great green glorious head! He was standing in the grasses, shoulder deep among the fresh green grasses; his parent grasses, the grasses that he loved. With their slim green fingers they caressed him and sought to shield him from us. They sought with their greenness to reabsorb his greenness, to hide him, to protect him; this their son. I tell you, nothing in the world has ever thrilled me as much as did the first sight of the hound of the hedges, and I have adored and studied animals for more than a hundred years.” I said: ‘Here is the masterwork of all life, here in this superb living body that is neither plant nor animal but a perfect balance of both. Here is a mass of living cells so complete in itself that it even demands no outlet for reproduction, content to know that, though it did reproduce its form a thousand times, it could never through that or through the evolutionary changes of a thousand generations improve upon its own victorious completeness.’

“Most immaculate of all was his conception among the humble weeds and grasses. All things trample them, devour them, plough them under and destroy them. But they endure and are beautiful and retain their gentleness and harbour no rancour. Yet once a great passion came to them, a pure passion not ever to be clearly understood; revolt was in it, and other things foreign to grasses; and out of that strange passion of the plants the hound of the hedges was conceived and born.”

A cover for Le Cirque du Dr Lao prepared by Philippe Caza (the hound of the hedges is present directly below the muzzle of the unicorn)

Pondering further upon the exceptional manner in which this verdurous canine entity had been generated, Dr Lao came to a no less remarkable conclusion:

“And I wondered, too, for it had always been my belief that beauty was a modification of sex. Life sings a song of sex. Sex is the scream of life. Rutting and spawning the dance of life. Breed, breed, breed. Fill and refill the wombs of the world. Tumescence and ejaculation. Flinging out spore and seed and egg and bud. Quickening and birth. Sterility and death. That was life, I thought, and that was life’s means to the end that finally, after almost infinite centuries of trial and error, there might be produced the perfect living thing.

“But here was this hound, product of no trial and error process, lacking lust, unhampered by ancestral fears and instincts. And I wondered if in this hound of the hedges were not to be found the apogee of all that life could ever promise. For here were beauty and gentleness and grace; only ferocity and sex and guile were lacking.

“And I wondered: ‘Is this a hint of the goal of life?’”

Doctor Lao reached in the cage and patted the hound’s head. The beast soughed like the murmur of wind in sycamore leaves.

And what effect did Dr Lao’s articulate, lyrical outpouring of considered reflection concerning the truly astonishing hound of the hedges have upon its audience?

“What the hell is [he] talking about?” asked Quarantine Inspector Number One.

“I’ll be damned if I know,” said Quarantine Inspector Number Two. “Let’s go see the mermaid. That goddam dog looks like a fake to me, somehow.”

There’s a lesson for cryptozoology in there somewhere! Of course, they do say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder – but even then, the eye has to be open first, along with the mind.

THE CU SITH – GREEN FAIRY HOUND OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS


Intriguingly, green-furred hounds are not entirely confined to Dr Lao’s circus. True, its pelage may not be plant-derived, but a very large Celtic fairy hound with noticeably leafy-hued fur exists in the mythology of the Scottish Highlands, where it is referred to as the cu sith.


Moreover, there have even been claims that a real-life green dog exists in this region too. Here is what I’ve written about them in a book of mine on canine curiosities currently under preparation:

In the traditional folklore and legends of the Scottish Highlands, the cu sith is a magical dog as large as a year-old bullock and is further distinguished from all other dogs by its shaggy dark green fur. Other characteristic features include its huge paws, and its long tail, which is normally held in a tight coil or flat plait upon its back. Unlike most supernatural canids, when running through snow or mud the cu sith actually leaves behind footprints, which are as broad as those of a man, but its movements are totally silent - except for its triple-sounding bark, which can even be heard far out at sea by sailors aboard their ships.

Whereas the cu sith is merely mythological, however, a remarkably similar creature has been soberly reported in modern times by a number of eyewitnesses in Banffshire, who have commented not only upon its green fur but also upon its disproportionately small head - or, in some cases, its startling absence of a head! According to John Harries's Ghost Hunter's Road Book, if you should take the A939 from Grantown-on-Spey, and travel along the B9008, running past the Glenlivet Forest, you will reach the favourite haunt of this green-coated pony-sized ghost dog. Having said that, however, those who may be anxious to seek its acquaintance should do so with care - bearing in mind that the mere sight of Banffshire's green dog is said to portend imminent death, devastating storms, and other misfortunes.

Perhaps the most curious detail concerning this ominous entity is that when seen, it appears to be wholly oblivious of its eyewitnesses, never interacting with them in any way (unlike many cases featuring phantom black dogs and white dogs), but simply running ahead in a straight line almost like a projected three-dimensional film image. Accordingly, although the sight of this creature reputedly brings doom, it never physically causes anyone harm.

Is this what the green ghost dog of Banffshire looks like?

But what have green-coated supernatural hounds of the Highlands (in passing) and Dr Lao’s grassy-furred hound of the hedges (in particular) to do with the recent zoological discovery that I briefly alluded to at the very beginning of this present article of mine? Quite a lot, as will now be seen.

THE AMPHIBIAN AND THE ALGA


As so often happens, while I was browsing the internet a few days ago for something totally different the Muse of Serendipity (or was it the Library Angel?) drew my attention to a fascinating report by Brandon Keim, posted here by the online science news service Wired Science on 4 April 2011. It summarised the eye-opening findings of a team of Canadian biologists as contained in the following recently-published paper:

KERNEY, Ryan; KIM, Eunsoo; HANGARTER, Roger P.; HEISS, Aaron A.; BISHOP, Cory D.; & HALL, Brian K. (2011). Intracellular invasion of green algae in a salamander host. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 108 (no 14; 5 April).

The spotted salamander - Scott Camazine-Wikipedia

As long ago as the 19th Century, researchers had known that the eggs of eastern North America’s spotted salamander Ambystoma maculatum contain a certain species of unicellular green alga, Oophila amblystomatis (the so-called salamander alga), and it was later shown that this was a true symbiotic relationship. The salamander’s eggs provide a nitrogen-rich environment in which the algae grow very efficiently, and the algae oxygenate the salamander embryo inside each egg (the algae release the oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis fuelled by the carbon dioxide produced by the embryo), which in turn prevents the embryo from developing deformities.

However, this latest research has discovered that the salamander-alga bond is even more intimate than that. When the Canadian team examined the algae within the salamander’s eggs using a combination of chlorophyll autofluorescence and algal 18S rDNA amplification techniques, they found that the algae are not merely inside the eggs, but are actually present within the cells of the embryos themselves - having invaded their cells while the embryos were still at a very early developmental stage, and soon suffusing throughout their bodies but remaining in greatest concentrations along their gut. The purpose and benefits of such extraordinarily close and early algal association with this particular amphibian are currently undetermined.

True, it hardly compares to Dr Lao’s supremely foliaceous if wholly fictitious hound of the hedges, but this endosymbiotic union between salamander and alga is, nevertheless, more complete than any previous animal-plant relationship uncovered in vertebrates – yielding an ostensibly unlikely yet evidently mutually beneficial alliance between two of this planet’s most significant biological kingdoms.

Another front cover for The Circus of Dr Lao

NB – During the past week I have attempted several times to contact William Lucius Appaloosius Steinmayer at www.elfwood.com in order to request permission from him to include in this article of mine his beautiful gouache artwork of the hound of the hedges, but on every occasion the website has been down. On 9 April 2011, however, I was finally able to access the site, so I duly sent him a request, but as I have not received any response at present, I am unsure as to whether it has reached him. Consequently, if you are reading this, Lucius, please send me details of how I can contact you directly by email; and if you have any objection to my including your artwork here, please do let me know and I’ll remove it at once. Thanks very much.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

HOW GREEN WAS MY POLAR BEAR?

Green polar bear at Singapore Zoo in 2004 (Singapore Zoo)


Although very commonly exhibited by birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, and an immense variety of invertebrates, green as a predominant colour is only very rarely displayed by mammals. Bearing in mind that many mammalian species live (or spend at least part of their time) in trees, or remain hidden amid bushes or dense undergrowth foliage from predators, one might have expected a substantial number of green mammals to exist, having evolved green fur for effective camouflage. Yet, strangely, this particular adaptation for survival has seldom occurred.

IT’S NOT EASY BEING GREEN...

One of the most notable of the few exceptions to this odd rule is West Africa’s green bush squirrel Paraxerus poensis. Its distinctive olive-green upperparts and greenish-yellow underparts do indeed provide it with efficient camouflage within its savannah and woodland habitat, protecting it in particular from predation by airborne squirrel-devouring eagles.

Green bush squirrel (Studio Creazioni Dami)

A marsupial counterpart of sorts is the green ringtail possum or toollah Pseudochirops archeri of northern Queensland, Australia. On 20 May 1961, a detailed analysis of the greenish-yellow colouration of this species’ fur was published by zoologists Drs Hobart M. Van Deusen and E.L. Stearns in the Journal of Mammalogy. This study revealed that its fur’s colour was due to a mingling of yellow, white, and black colours, produced in turn by the effects of varying amounts of melanism and xanthin (a yellow pigment) within individual hairs in combination with reflection of white light from the fur. Much the same effect is also responsible for the olive-tinted fur of the green (vervet) monkey Chlorocebus pygerythrus.

ALGAL ASSOCIATIONS AND INFESTATIONS

In addition to these naturally-green species, however, green colouration can also occur in mammals via botanical intervention. The most familiar example of this phenomenon is the green hue of sloths’ fur. The outer surface of each hair bears a number of diagonal ridges, and each of these ridges contains unicellular Cyanoderma and Trichophilus blue-green algae or cyanophytes. These thrive in the moist, warm climate of the sloth’s Neotropical rainforest habitat, and the sloth benefits from the effective camouflage that it gains from its alga-impregnated pelage. Consequently, the alga-sloth association is truly symbiotic, because both partners benefit from it.

Sloth on ground, revealing its fur’s green colouration

So far, therefore, all of the examples of green mammals presented here have involved species in which such colouration is, for one reason or another, a normal occurrence – nothing special or aberrant. Conversely, there are various other cases on record in which this particular hue’s occurrence is anything but normal, resulting in some decidedly strange and spectacular outcomes.

During the late 1970s, for instance, Canadian fur trappers were a source of considerable bewilderment to the international zoological community – because they insisted that they often encountered polar bears Ursus maritimus with bright green fur! Needless to say, such claims initially received short shrift from science, but the reports persisted – and eventually a green polar bear was actually captured!

At much the same time, and once again to the great surprise of zoologists everywhere, news emerged that polar bears in at least two California zoos (San Diego and Fresno) had turned green too. Detailed fur examinations took place, utilising hair samples not only from the captured green polar bear but also from the verdurous zoo specimens. The answer obtained from all of these specimens was the same, and involved a very curious twist to the trichological tale already documented here for the green sloths.

As published on 29 March 1979 in the scientific journal Nature by San Diego-based researchers Drs Ralph A Lewin and Phillip T. Robinson, it transpired that just as with sloths, the polar bears’ green colouration was due to attached cyanophyte algae - but there the similarity ended. For whereas the sloths’ algae were sited externally upon their fur, those of the polar bears were located internally. That is, they were actually present within the medulla (the hollow tubular section) of certain hairs in the bears’ pelage – predominantly the wider, stiffer guard hairs of the bears’ outer coat.

On initial consideration, one might imagine that the bright green hue bestowed upon them by this algal infestation would put the affected polar bears at a very considerable disadvantage, by making them extremely conspicuous against their snowy-white Arctic surroundings. With the exception of humans, however, the polar bear, being the top predator in this region, is not preyed upon or killed by any other species (though they will sometimes attack one another and even resort to cannibalism). Consequently, the enhanced visibility caused by the algae is less deleterious than would otherwise be the case. As for the California zoos’ green polar bears, a salt solution was applied to rid them of their unwanted algae.

A similar outbreak of green polar bears took place at Singapore Zoo in 2004, but this time they were cured of their algae by bleaching their fur with a hydrogen peroxide solution. In addition, three polar bears at Japan’s Higashiyama Zoo became stained with green during July 2008 after swimming in a pond overgrown with algae. A YouTube video of one of these Japanese green polar bears showing its unusual condition can be accessed here.

Alga-stained green polar bear at Higashiyama Zoo, Japan (Higashiyama Zoo)

As it happens, scientists should not have been too surprised about reports concerning green polar bears. A decade earlier, they had already been baffled by comparable stories of green seals, which by coincidence also emerged from Canada. The species in question was the grey seal Halichoerus grypus, and subsequent investigations revealed that algae were indeed involved (specifically, Enteromorpha groenlandica), but this time growing among the hairs present on the seals’ backs. Moreover, various currently-unidentified green algae may sometimes colour the pelage of monk seals Monachus spp.

A COUPLE OF PEPPERMINT PUPPIES...

Very occasionally, reports of green dogs and cats appear in the media. Usually, of course, there is a perfectly straightforward explanation – often involving an unfortunate interaction with a pot of green paint! Much more mysterious, conversely, was a case highlighted by several newspapers during April 1984 (but not on 1 April, I hasten to add!), concerning the alleged birth in northern Italy of a puppy with green fur. Apparently it was one of six puppies born to a farmer’s gun dog, yet the other five puppies were all normally-coloured.

Bearing in mind the considerable novelty of this occurrence if found to be genuine, the zoological world was surprisingly uninterested and unwilling to investigate it, though some unnamed scientists did suggest rather non-specifically that it may be due to a spontaneous mutation. More memorable was the opinion proffered by an equally nameless vet that it may be a form of dandruff. Any pet owner faced with the dilemma of a dog with green dandruff could perhaps be forgiven for wondering momentarily whether they should treat their unfortunate pet’s fur with shampoo or with weedkiller!

After being alerted to its existence by a report in the local Middlesbrough Evening Gazette newspaper on 29 January 1987, English cryptozoological researcher Richard Muirhead was able to view a week-old green puppy when he visited the home of its owners. The peppermint-tinted individual in question was one of nine puppies born to a three-year-old Labrador x collie bitch. As with the Italian green puppy, however, all of its siblings were of wholly unremarkable colour. A vet suggested that the extraordinary hue of the Middlesbrough individual may be due to ‘utera verdi’ [sic], i.e. uteroverdin.

First documented back in 1830, this is a thick, dark-green discharge (lochia) released by the placenta into the womb (uterus), staining anything with which it comes into contact, and can be observed passing from the vulva at the time of parturition, indicating placental separation for one or more puppies, and reliably signalling that whelping should begin within a few hours for a term bitch. However, as Richard rightly pointed out, if uteroverdin were responsible for the green colouration of this puppy’s fur, why hadn’t it also stained the fur of the puppy’s eight siblings? All nine of the puppies had shared their mother’s womb at the same time, so all nine should have exhibited at least some degree of staining. Moreover, if uteroverdin were indeed responsible here, there should be numerous reports on file of other green newborn puppies, because uteroverdin secretion is a common, typical occurrence.

AND A CUPRINOUS KITTEN FROM DENMARK

A no less extraordinary case, but this time featuring a bright green kitten, hit the news headlines in autumn 1995, just in time for me to prepare and include the following box feature concerning it in my book The Unexplained (1996):

‘Denmark’s Green Kitten’ (click the above box feature to read it directly in greatly-enlarged format)

During this viridescent kitten’s all-too-short time in the limelight (pun definitely intended!), I was kept up to speed regarding it by fellow zoologist and anomalous animals enthusiast Lars Thomas from Copenhagen University. By early February 1996, however, the remarkable saga itself was all but over, yet the mystery surrounding it remained unresolved, as noted by Lars in the last of various letters on this subject that I’d received from him during the previous weeks:

“Alas, the green cat is no longer green. Its colour has been fading all the time, and now you can only just, if the lighting is good, make out a weak greenish tinge on the legs and the stomach. And even that will probably disappear in a few weeks as well.

“No one has been able to ascertain the reason for the cat’s rather strange colour. At first it looked like the colour was purely structural, i.e. it was caused by the light being reflected in a certain way from the uneven surface of the hairs. But further studies showed that it was the actual hairs being green.

“The general theory is that the colour is the result of something the kitten has eaten or drunk. And the reason the colour is now fading is because the cat is now a pet, drinking clean water and milk, and getting food from a tin. But as to the substance that caused the colour, no-one has the faintest idea. The forensic laboratory in the State Hospital in Copenhagen has been studying hair samples of the cat for several months now, but has not come to any conclusion yet...

“I did manage to get one of the doctors at the laboratory talking, and he suggested that the colour might be caused by some form of mild copper-poisoning. This is very difficult to believe, as the cat has always been very healthy. A few cases of humans developing greenish hair from drinking copper-polluted water are known, but they had white [i.e. blonde] hair, and even then, the [green] colour was very weak. This kitten’s natural colour is bluish-grey, and the green colour was very strong.

“So, as you can see, the mystery has still not been solved.”

And as far as I’m aware, the same is true even today – but just in case I am mistaken about this, over to you Lars...!

A GREENER SHADE OF LION, THE EMERALD ISLE’S PHANTOM GREEN CAT, AND MR GREEN GENES – THE WORLD’S FIRST TRANSGENIC GLOWING GREEN CAT

Finally, three green felids of differing yet equally exotic form. In his book Simba: The Life of the Lion (1962), C.A.W. Guggisberg briefly mentioned that a prospector had once claimed to have spied a green lion in the forests of western Uganda. Whether the said green lion was stalking pink elephants at the time is not recorded!

Exquisite painting of a green lion (Felipe Soltero, at www.redbubble.com/people/SolteroArt)

As an interesting (albeit wholly unconnected!) aside, in alchemy the symbol representing Nature’s green raw energy was a green lion. This was also used to symbolise aqua regis – a greenish-tinged liquid created by mixing nitric acid with hydrochloric acid, and so corrosive that it could even dissolve gold - the noblest of all metals to the alchemist. This chemical process was often illustrated in alchemical manuscripts by images of a green lion devouring the golden sun.

Green lion devouring the sun, from the Rosarium Philosophorum (1550), an important alchemical treatise

In 1996, residents of Balbriggan, a town in County Dublin, Ireland, were claiming that a glowing green phantom cat had been seen there. Bearing in mind that a popular nickname for Ireland is the Emerald Isle, any reports of a green-hued spectre there – feline or otherwise - are nothing if not appropriate!

Nor should we – or, indeed, could we – forget the transgenic glowing green cats (not to mention mice, rabbits, pigs, and even monkeys) that have been created by various scientific teams during the past two decades by introducing genes controlling bioluminescence in certain animal species into the DNA of feline and several other mammalian embryos. In October 2008, the world’s first transgenic glowing green cat – created by scientists at New Orleans’s Audubon Centre for Research of Endangered Species - was introduced to the media. Named Mr Green Genes, in ordinary light he looked just like any other six-month-old cat, but when viewed in ultraviolet light his eyes, gums, and tongue glowed a vivid lime green. The gene responsible for this uncanny effect was derived from a jellyfish.

Moreover, in 1995 the world’s first transgenic glowing mammals were produced by a Japanese research team from Osaka University’s Microbiology Disease Research Institute. They created mice that glowed green under artificial light by taking a gene controlling the production of a luminous protein called aequorin in Aequorea victoria, a species of Pacific jellyfish, and incorporating it into mouse embryos.

Happily, these luminescent mammals’ weird-looking ability to glow like jellyfishes has not been accompanied by a similar ability to sting like them too! Firefly genes controlling the production of luminous enzymes called luciferases have also been incorporated into various transgenic mammals to induce glowing.

Continuing this theme of exotic and unexpected green fauna, in the very next ShukerNature blog post I’ll be examining my all-time favourite mystery beast from classic cryptofiction, surveying some Celtic canids of the supernatural variety, and reporting an extraordinary new discovery in the real world that represents the most intimate phytozoological association currently known that involves a vertebrate species – so don’t miss it!


This present article is excerpted from one of my in-progress books, The Anomalarium of Doctor Shuker, scheduled for completion and publication in 2012.

Friday, 8 April 2011

THE NUNG-GUAMA AND THE NYAMATSANE – A COUPLE OF OBSCURE CRYPTO-PRIMATES FROM ONCE LONG AGO?

The nung-guama (Vojtěch Kubašta)

Right from early childhood, I have always greatly enjoyed reading myths, folktales, and legends from around the globe – attracted at least in part, no doubt, to the fact that they often included a wide assortment of fantastical fauna – and even as a youngster I rapidly acquired a sizeable collection of books retelling the most famous and also many not-so-famous stories from world folklore.

One of my favourites, bought for me during the mid-1960s but which I still own today, was a wonderful volume entitled Once Long Ago: Folk and Fairy Tales of the World. First published in 1962 by Golden Pleasure Books Ltd (London), it contained no less than 70 folktales, drawn from cultures throughout the world, which were skilfully retold by eminent fantasy writer Roger Lancelyn Green (1918-1987), and beautifully illustrated by Czech artist Vojtěch Kubašta.

Many marvellous beasts of legend and lore appeared in them, including a diverse array of dragons, magical birds, mermaids, a formidable griffin, and Australia’s mighty bunyip. In addition to those familiar mythical creatures, however, were two that I had never previously heard of - and, over 40 years after first reading that book, I have still never encountered any notable additional details regarding either of them in any other publication.


Flicking through my much-treasured (if rather careworn) copy of Once Long Ago again recently, I was reminded of these twin enigmas, so I’ve decided to present what little I know of them here, in case anyone else can add to my scant knowledge.

THE NUNG-GUAMA – A MONSTROUS CHINESE MYSTERY

Featuring in a Chinese folktale entitled ‘The Nung-Guama’, which told of how a series of kind passers-by helped a poor widow woman to defeat all attempts by this eponymous monster to devour her, it was succinctly described by its intended victim in the story as follows:

“His body was like a bull, and its head was as big as a wine-jar. His feet were big and soft and floppy: I could hear them going ‘Flap-flosh’ as he walked. And he had dirty hair and horrid hands with big, sharp claws.”

It was also said to enjoy the taste of human flesh above all other food but was an infamously messy eater, it had a howling “squelchy” speaking voice, it was apparently nocturnal (as it told the widow that it would come back that night to devour her), and it first emerged from out of a clump of bamboo directly in front of the terrified woman. The story was illustrated with several pictures by Kubašta, including two of the nung-guama, one of which opens this present blog post of mine. These images suggest some form of man-beast, perhaps even the Chinese yeren, or at least an ape-like primate.

Several other retellings of this tale are known to me, including an entire 32-page children’s reading book, The Nung-Guama, written again by Green, and republished in 1991 by BBC Books with delightful illustrations by Aileen Raistrick. These latter pictures portray it as a savage green biped with tusks and horns – which, at least in my fevered imagination, calls to mind an extraordinary hybrid of Shrek and the Gruffalo!

All of the versions of this folktale that I have seen tell much the same story, but apart from sometimes mentioning that it crunches bones, they offer precious little descriptive details regarding the mystifying nung-guama (or nung-gwama, as spelt in one retelling).

The defeated nung-guama (Vojtěch Kubašta)

So what is this seemingly-obscure creature? A wholly imaginary Chinese equivalent of Western ogres, hobgoblins, demons, or suchlike? Alternatively, could it be a mythicised form of some known animal species – or even a bona fide cryptid? With so little information to hand, it is extremely risky to attempt any kind of formal identification for the nung-guama – unless there are readers out there who have additional information or can shed further light upon this subject...?

THE NYAMATSANE – A BASUTO MEGA-BABOON OR MINI MAN-BEAST?

The second mysterious entity from Once Long Ago was another eponymous being, featuring in a Basuto folktale entitled ‘The Nyamatsanes’. In this story, the wife of a brave warrior living in an unnamed arid land (but presumably within Lesotho, formerly known as Basutoland) suddenly developed an insatiable craving for the liver of a nyamatsane. Eventually, the warrior agreed to go out and kill one, and bring back its liver for her to eat. When he reached the place where these creatures lived, however, they had all gone off hunting, except for their very old, feeble grandmother, whom the warrior promptly killed and skinned, after which he cut out her liver. Before he could depart, however, the nyamatsanes returned, so he disguised himself as their grandmother, and succeeded in fooling them, even though they were convinced that they could smell human flesh. When they fell asleep that night, he fled, but as soon as they discovered their dead grandmother’s body the next morning they chased after him in fury, but he eventually eluded them.

Strangely, however, although the nyamatsanes featured extensively throughout this story, Green’s version of it contained no morphological details whatsoever concerning them. Even Kubašta’s illustraton, included here, depicted them only in the most basic, minimalist manner – namely, as dark-coloured, tailless, superficially monkey-like entities with featureless faces, predominantly quadrupedal in gait yet also capable of standing and even cavorting bipedally, but shorter in stature than the human warrior. The only details of note that can be gleaned from Green’s retelling are that these beings are carnivorous (they were out hunting when the warrior arrived in their domain, plus they are very attuned to the scent of human flesh), and, very oddly, that they are extremely partial to eating pebbles (to aid digestion, perhaps?).

The nyamatsanes’ folktale appears in similar form within various compendia of African legends, sometimes as the opening section of a much longer story featuring the hare as a trickster, but – as with the nung-guama – extra details concerning them are conspicuous only by their absence.

Indeed, the only attempt to categorise the nyamatsane in any way at all that I have so far encountered appears in Jan Knappert’s book Myths and Legends of Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland (1985). Included as folktale #43 within a section entitled ‘The Oldest Tales’, during this story’s retelling Knappert briefly states:

“Although the Nyamatsane are supposed to speak fluent if funny Sesotho [the national, Bantu language of Lesotho] they are rather pictured as a sort of baboon or man-ape.”

This verbal description accords well with Kubašta’s depiction of them in Once Long Ago – the only illustration of nyamatsanes that I have ever seen. So what could they be?

The nyamatsanes (Vojtěch Kubašta)

As suggested for the nung-guama in relation to Chinese myths, they are quite probably nothing more than non-existent entities of African legend, akin to the goblins and other quasi-humanoids of our own traditional folklore. Then again, southern Africa is replete with reports and alleged sightings of diminutive man-beasts likened by Dr Bernard Heuvelmans and various other cryptozoologists to surviving australopithecines, as well as claims of fierce, extra-large monkeys that have been compared with certain species of supposedly extinct giant baboon. Should we therefore be adding the nyamatsanes to the Dark Continent’s already-lengthy list of crypto-primates?

Personally, I consider it imperative that before even the most desultory consideration of these beings’ possible taxonomic identity is attempted, we obtain substantially more descriptive information concerning them, especially with regard to their morphology and behaviour.

Consequently, as with the nung-guama yet again, if there is anyone out there with such data to hand, I’d very much like to hear from you and see it posted here – so that the nung-guama and the nyamatsane may ultimately become more than just memories from once long ago.

UPDATE: 26 August 2012

In view of the considerable interest and conjectures stimulated by the content of this ShukerNature post, I am presenting below scans of the original pages from my copy of Once Long Ago in which Roger Lancelyn Green told the Chinese folktale of the nung-guama and the Basuto folktale of the nyamatsanes, with illustrations by Vojtěch Kubašta, so that you can read the full stories. Please note that these are © Golden Pleasure Books Ltd (London), Roger Lancelyn Green, and Vojtěch Kubašta.














Thursday, 7 April 2011

A MEMORIAL TO THE PASSENGER PIGEON


Martha Washington, the last passenger pigeon, photographed shortly before her death in 1914, which marked the extinction of what had once been the world's most abundant species of wild bird


When Martha Washington, a small grey dove-like bird, died in a cage at Cincinnati Zoo on 1 September 1914, her passing marked one of the most shameful episodes in the history of humankind – the extinction of the passenger pigeon Ectopistes migratorius, which, incredibly, had been just a century earlier the most abundant species of wild bird in the world, whose vast numbers as witnessed in enormous flocks migrating each year through the North American skies could be counted in the billions, until they were decimated by hunters. This poem, which appears in my poetry book Star Steeds and Other Dreams (CFZ Press, 2009), is a tribute to that lost bird, and a stark reminder of the inconceivable wickedness responsible for its extermination. The final verse’s last word, ‘fly’, deliberately breaks the tradition set throughout the poem of ‘sky’ being the last word in each verse, in order to underline a change of direction in the poem, from realism to mysticism.

A MEMORIAL TO THE PASSENGER PIGEON

Each year, across the New World sky,
Would flocks of birds in millions fly –
Unending flights eclipsing light
While travelling through the sky.

Known as passenger pigeons, they –
The birds that hid the sun’s bright ray
For days and nights while endless flights
Migrated through the sky.

But hunters saw this awesome sight
As food for sport in wild delight,
And shot to kill as ever still
More birds passed through the sky.

Huge raucous clouds of birds in flight,
All unsuspecting of their plight,
Were seen and shot, then left to rot,
As more soared through the sky.

The heavens filled with countless birds,
And through the lands their cries were heard,
As they flew past, upon their last
Migration through the sky.

The pigeons’ flocks were soon reduced
When men with savage guns were loosed –
Who aimed and fired, and ne’er grew tired
Of shooting at the sky.

Dead birds grew greater every day,
But mankind’s greed was swift to pay,
For soon, as feared, they disappeared –
No birds flew through the sky.

Then parties searched for any few
Survivors of those flocks that flew
Across the lands in mighty bands,
A-flying through the sky.

But none did any human find,
The victims of his brutal mind.
Extinct at last – the days were past
When flocks whirred through the sky.

At Cincinnati Zoo one day,
Poor lonely Martha passed away.
The last was dead, her soul was led
Across that boundless sky.

And only then did mankind weep,
A bitter harvest would he reap
For many years, as futile tears
Fell flooding from the sky.

But though their mortal days are done,
The pigeons’ spirits linger on.
For up in Space, beyond man’s face,
On silent wings they fly.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

SEEKING THE LOST BIRDS OF PARADISE

The King of Holland's bird of paradise - a confirmed hybrid (John Gould)

Few branches of natural history have been so exhaustively documented as ornithology, which is why any study devoted to a hitherto-uninvestigated ornithological subject is rare indeed. However, celebrated bird artist and researcher Errol Fuller has devoted more than 30 years to a thoroughly fascinating, ongoing study of a series of once long-forgotten but potentially highly-significant birds of paradise – which he has documented not only in various articles but also in a truly magnificent book, The Lost Birds of Paradise (Swan Hill Press, 1995).


CONTROVERSIAL CROSSBREEDS


Ethereal, gloriously-plumed cousins of the crow family, the aptly-named birds of paradise are native to New Guinea, various of its outlying islands, the Moluccas, and eastern Australia. In addition to the 40 species currently recognised by science, there are a further 24 forms that were once classified as genuine species but which have since been discounted as hybrids. Most of these, moreover, are known from only a handful of examples, and some from just a single specimen, often collected many years ago and never seen again - hence Errol's 'lost' appellation for them is doubly appropriate.

The Lost Birds of Paradise by Errol Fuller


The majority of these erstwhile species were stripped of their taxonomic significance and reduced in rank to the lowly level of hybrids in a scientific paper published in the journal Novitates Zoologicae by avian expert Prof. Erwin Stresemann in 1930 (since then, six others have been discovered and duly demoted too). Surprisingly, for over 60 years these dramatic assessments were never seriously investigated or challenged, but have been rigorously re-examined in Errol's investigations.

Some 'lost birds of paradise' are certainly nothing more than exotic crossbreeds. In each of these cases, the composite nature of its plumage is very apparent and readily exposes the identities of the bird's parental species. The King of Holland's bird of paradise Diphyllodes gulielmi-tertii, known from several specimens obtained in various regions of lowland New Guinea, is a good example. Described in 1875, it is evidently a hybrid of the magnificent bird of paradise D. magnificus and the little king bird of paradise Cicinnurus regius - gorgeously combining the former species' erectile cape and lyrate central tail feathers with the emerald-tipped, breast-flanking feather fans characterising the little king.

Captain Blood's bird of paradise Paradisea bloodi is known from a unique specimen taken during jungle patrol in the northern end of Papua's Wahgi Valley on 20 September 1944 by the wonderfully-named Captain Neptune Blood. However, its identity as the pulchritudinous product of an illicit liaison between Prince Rudolph's indescribably beautiful blue bird of paradise P. rudolphi and Count Raggi's fiery-plumed P. raggiana is again betrayed by the visible intermingling of these two species' respective characteristics in its exquisite plumage.

Certain other 'lost birds of paradise', conversely, cannot be reconciled very convincingly with the hybrid identities proposed by Stresemann. A case in point is Bensbach's bird of paradise, an extremely distinctive, purple-plumed form that was dubbed Janthothorax bensbachi in 1894. It is still known only from the single specimen obtained in the Arfak Mountains of northwest New Guinea and presented to the Leiden Museum by J. Bensbach.

Bensbach's bird of paradise


As argued by Errol, its current status as a hybrid is highly unsatisfactory - based entirely upon a very cryptic, terse statement by Stresemann that offered no explanation why he deemed this specimen to be a crossbreed between the lesser bird of paradise P. minor and the magnificent riflebird Ptiloris magnificus. It seems most unlikely that these markedly dissimilar species would interbreed, and they share few similarities with J. bensbachi. Hence Errol considers it possible that Bensbach's bird of paradise is a valid species after all, but one that may now be extinct, bearing in mind that it has never been recorded since 1894.

Equally mystifying is Rothschild's lobe-billed bird of paradise, christened Loborhamphus nobilis in 1901 and known only from two specimens reputedly originating from somewhere in Dutch New Guinea. Its lengthened breast and neck feathers were sufficient for Stresemann to nominate the superb bird of paradise Lophorina superba as one of its progenitors, and the bare flaps of skin on its face presumably inspired him to propose a wattle-faced species called the long-tailed paradigalla Paradigalla carunculata as the other one.

Rothschild's lobe-billed bird of paradise


In reality, however, the complement of features exhibited by Loborhamphus nobilis is so complex, recalling so many different species, that its identification seemingly defies solution. Having said that, the correct solution in any mystery is usually the simplest one that covers all of the known facts - which, in this particular case, is the proposal that Rothschild's lobe-billed bird of paradise was indeed a genuine species, but is probably lost for ever.

Equally worthy of attention is Elliot’s sicklebill Epimachus ellioti – a long-tailed, silky-plumed bird of paradise of which the type specimen arrived in London during 1872 from an unrecorded New Guinea locality. In an attempt to explain this individual as a hybrid, Stresemann postulated that its parent species were the black sicklebill E. fastuosus and the Arfak astrapia Astrapia nigra. In short, Stresemann proposed that Elliot’s sicklebill was of intergeneric origin.

Elliot's sicklebill


Yet although by no means unknown amongst birds, intergeneric hybrids are much rarer than interspecific ones. And as Errol has pointed out, Elliot’s sicklebill possesses certain noticeable characteristics not exhibited by either of its supposed parent species. These include: a distinct lobing of the mouth, a green breast with a wash colouration rather than a metallic one, and its diminutive body size – Elliot’s sicklebill is notably smaller than any accepted species of sicklebill or astrapia. Yet in stark contrast, bona fide hybrids are often larger than both or at least one of their parent species. Yet again, therefore, it is not inconceivable that this enigmatic bird is yet another distinct, valid species.

Ultimately, only DNA analyses are likely to solve the taxonomic tribulations engendered by such mystifying birds as these. Yet in view of the fact that they are represented only by (at most) a very few precious museum specimens which in some cases are over 200 years old - and therefore exceedingly fragile and/or not well-preserved – it may never be possible to conduct this necessary research anyway. In short, at least some of the lost birds of paradise are destined to remain exactly that, their secrets locked forever within a handful of desiccated, dead-eyed skins – sombre mementoes of what may once have been vibrant, valid species but which have now disappeared and are all-but-forgotten by science today.

Containing 40 full-colour plates, and a thorough review of every controversial species on record, The Lost Birds of Paradise remains the definitive work on this engrossing subject, and is an engrossing work of ornithological detection guaranteed to excite and entertain everyone with a passion for investigating mysteries and anomalies within the ever-surprising realms of natural history.

Moreover, in 2004 Errol announced that he had uncovered further evidence to support his thesis, in the form of certain 18th-Century bird paintings by French artist Jacques Barraband. Known for the accuracy of his avian illustrations, most of Barraband's subjects (which include several birds of paradise) can be readily identified with known species - but there are a few enigmatic, mystery birds of paradise painted by him that do not resemble any recorded species. One of these paintings, published by New Scientist in its 15 May 2004 issue, shows a black-breasted 12-wired bird of paradise, whereas the typical version has a yellow breast. Could Barraband's paintings thus include depictions of unknown species, or at least a further selection of controversial crossbreeds?

Barraband's mystery black-breasted 12-wired bird of paradise


UNDISCOVERED AND REDISCOVERED BIRDS OF PARADISE


Returning to the subject of paradigallas – a possible undiscovered species of these superficially crow-like birds of paradise was sighted in 1992 by David Gibbs while exploring the uninhabited Fakfak Mountains in southwestern Irian Jaya, New Guinea. Indeed, the late Dr E. Thomas Gilliard, a leading bird of paradise expert and author of the authoritative work Birds of Paradise and Bower Birds (1969), was optimistic that unrecognised new species did still exist in remote New Guinea localities. And it should be remembered that one of this avian family’s most striking representatives, the ribbon-tailed bird of paradise Astrapia mayeri (whose male possesses a pair of white tail feathers measuring up to 3 ft long, i.e. three-and-a-half times as long as its combined head and body length!) was unnamed and undescribed by science until 1939.

The long-tailed paradigalla


Furthermore, what may be yet another undiscovered bird of paradise has been reported several times on Goodenough Island, one of the three large D’Entrecasteaux Islands situated just off southeastern New Guinea. Here is what I wrote about it in my book Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999):

“In 1953, Goodenough was visited by the Fourth Archbold Expedition (named after Richard Archbold, a millionaire explorer from the U.S.A.), and while there one of its members spied a curious bird, documented as follows three years later in the expedition's official report:

'In the forest one morning I saw a black bird the size of a small crow which seemed to be a bird of paradise but not Manucodia comrii [curl-crested manucode] or Manucodia keraudrenii [trumpet manucode], the only members of the family reported from the island. Our native hunter...described...a small black bird with a long tail, which dances in the treetops in the mountain forests of Goodenough, a description that suggests an Astrapia [long-tailed bird of paradise].'

“The next report appertaining to this unidentified species that I have on file appeared in the March 1976 issue of the New Guinea Bird Society's newsletter, and describes a sighting made by James Menzies, a renowned expert on New Guinea wildlife:

'On Mt. Oiamadawa'a, Goodenough Island 28 December 1975. Altitude about 1600 m, moss forest of Castanopsis, pandanus and tall bamboo. At dawn - a group of medium-sized black birds with long tails moving about in the forest canopy. Observed against the rising sun, without binoculars. Call a short explosive rattle.'

“Shortly afterwards, these two reports came to the attention of Australian ornithologist Bruce M. Beehler, who resolved to search for this elusive species when visiting Goodenough in 1976, and again in 1980. Unfortunately, he was unable either to observe or to obtain a specimen, so the Goodenough Island mystery bird currently remains just that - a mystery.

“Beehler documented his search in his book A Naturalist In New Guinea (1991), and, as he noted, there are quite a number of possible identities on offer. For instance, it may not even be a bird of paradise. Instead, it might be a species, known or unknown, of drongo (predominantly black, long-tailed crow-like bird), long-tailed starling, or honeyeater (meliphagid). Yet the Archbold report's author seemed quite convinced that it was a bird of paradise.

“For many people, the mere mention of these famous New Guinea denizens readily conjures up images of highly exotic, multi-hued, flamboyantly-plumed birds - which is why the extremely showy, ornately-arrayed astrapias, despite their long tails, do not yield a very plausible identity for the Goodenough bird. However, not all birds of paradise fit this popular image. Some of the smaller ones, such as the manucodes, are far less colourful, sporting dark metallic plumages instead of dramatic flourishes of vivid, ostentatious plumes. Certain manucodes have fairly long tails too, increasing their resemblance to this cryptic species.

“There is also one further candidate - for which we need to look towards the least known, and least spectacular, bird of paradise species. Indeed, so demure is its plumage that its English name has relegated it to a position midway between its more spectacular relatives and the decidedly dowdy species from which the birds of paradise are believed to have evolved.

“I am referring to the paradise crow Lycocorax pyrrhopterus, inhabiting the islands of the Moluccan archipelago, lying to the west of New Guinea. Measuring 14-17 in long and crimson-eyed, this bird of paradise is indeed outwardly corvine in appearance, its silky blackish-brown plumage relieved only by a faint greenish gloss on its body and a blue-black sheen on its long tail when viewed at close range, plus a buffish-white tinge on its inner flight feathers. Frequenting the hill forests of its Moluccan homeland, despite being quite a common species the paradise crow is very shy, and hence is rarely observed.

The paradise crow (Richard Bowdler Sharpe)


“Quite apart from its cry, which resembles a terse bark from a somewhat hoarse dog rather than the explosive rattle described by Menzies, its marked zoogeographical separation from Goodenough Island indicates that the paradise crow is not likely to be one and the same as the latter's black-plumed mystery bird. However, an allied, still-undescribed species of paradise crow with similar habitat preference and reclusive nature indigenous to Goodenough would yield a very satisfactory identity for this island's avian anomaly.”

Certainly, it is not impossible that long-vanished birds of paradise may one day be refound. Indeed, this is precisely what happened as recently as 2005. Just as evanescent as any of Errol’s examples was - until now - a beautiful species of six-wired bird of paradise known variously as the bronze parotia or Berlepsch's parotia Parotia berlepschi (but sometimes classed as a subspecies of Queen Carola's parotia Parotia carolae). Formally described in 1897 and named after German ornithologist Hans von Berlepsch who had chanced upon some taxiderm museum specimens, all male, it was a classic 'homeless' New Guinea enigma - its stuffed specimens had definitely originated somewhere in this huge island, but where?

A male Berlepsch's parotia (Bruce Beehler)


Eminent American ornithologist Dr Jared Diamond had helped to fill in a gap, when in 1979 he had encountered what he considered to be some female specimens of this rarity, alive and well and living in the remote Foja Mountains of Irian Jaya (Indonesian New Guinea). In December 2005, however, a scientific team visiting these scarcely-explored mountains (and led by the afore-mentioned Australian ornithologist Bruce Beehler) achieved a notable first. When a male and female flew into their camp, their startled observers duly became the first scientists to observe a living male Berlepsch's parotia - its throat adorned in gleaming metallic plumage, its head sporting a striking crest of six disc-tipped, wire-like plumes, and giving voice to an unsettlingly raptorial growl, far removed indeed from the dulcet tones that one might expect to emerge from the throat of a paradise bird!


Review of The Lost Birds of Paradise in The Guardian (1 February 1996)