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

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Tuesday, 31 May 2011

A REAL-LIFE CROCODILE-FROG FROM BORNEO?

A Photoshopped crocodile frog


Earlier this month, I posted here on ShukerNature a series of photographs discovered by me online that portray some truly wonderful - albeit entirely fictitious - composite beasts created using Photoshop. Little did I realise at the time, however, that shortly afterwards I would be receiving some fascinating information concerning a hitherto little-publicised cryptid that closely resembles one of those computer-generated creatures but which is even more extraordinary – all of which only goes to show yet again that fact (if that is indeed what this cryptid turns out to be) is definitely far stranger than fiction.

This information was contained in a book by Czech cryptozoologist Jaroslav Mareš entitled Detektivem v Říši Zvířat (‘A Detective in the Animal Kingdom’) and published in Prague in 1995, but has never previously appeared in any English-language cryptozoological account. Consequently, I am greatly indebted to Czech cryptozoological enthusiast and friend Miroslav Fišmeister for kindly bringing it to my attention and translating it for me.

Mareš learnt about this cryptid from the Seluks, a river-dwelling Dusun tribe in the Malaysian state of Sabah in northern Borneo, while he was leading two expeditions, during 1976 and 1985, in search of a giant specimen of saltwater crocodile nicknamed the Devil’s Father. The relevant sections, edited to concentrate solely upon the cryptid, read as follows:

"I wanted to examine the claim of the Seluks from the kampong [village] which I had just left that less than one day by boat there lives a giant, 3-m-long, enormously dangerous frog with a crocodile head, on the left bank of the river [Segama River]. It was ridiculous, it was nonsense. Such a frog cannot exist, I was saying to myself. Yet I had uncertainty too. There were giant amphibians in prehistory – and who knows what lives in the deep Borneo jungles that has never been searched for?

"One of my guides was one of the Dusuns from Lahad Dat...and two Seluks from the previously-visited kampong who both claimed to have seen the crocodile frog themselves and that they knew exactly where it dwells. We got there in the evening...

"As soon as we finished our breakfast the following day and set off, we heard the shrieks of a hornbill, which sounded terrifying in the jungle silence. The bird shrieked four times and stopped. We could not see it anywhere.

"The reaction of both of the Dusuns from the kampong was immediate. We’re not going anywhere today. The sacred black bird predicts a disaster [the spectacular, black-plumed rhinoceros hornbill Buceros rhinoceros is venerated by the Dusuns]. A horrible disaster for each of us. How many of us are there? Four. And how many shrieks did we hear?

"I could not make them change their mind with the help of the Dusun from Lahad Dat who spoke average English; they would not believe that it was just a superstition and pure chance. Nothing could make them change their mind. If we set off today, the giant frog will eat us all. “We saw it ambush the wild pigs from a hiding place,” they explained. “It would attack us the same way.”

"Even the Dusun from Lahad Dat agreed with them at last: “Sir, that sacred bird really predicted a disaster!”

"I gave up. And so we spent the whole day in the camp. The Dusuns lay down in hammocks and I prepared an improvised bait and observed the river...

"We set off in the early morning. This time the hornbills and all the other birds were silent. In a forest glade, about 400 m from our camp, we found a mummified head with the skeleton of a wild pig. To find remains of a dead animal is nothing uncommon in the jungle. But in the nasal area there were clearly-visible holes – deep and in a row, from a crocodile attack.

"“That’s the crocodile frog’s prey,” the kampong Seluks assured me. “We are in its territory.”

"Yet we walked the whole day without seeing anything. It was not until we were coming back via the opposite part of that forest glade that our attention was captured by a strange sound that kept reappearing at certain intervals. At first it sounded as if someone were breaking tree branches there, but the mysterious sound was much deeper. It was more like stone crushing than tree breaking. And then I saw it. On the edge of bushes there stood – its back turned towards us – possibly the strangest animal I have ever seen. It had no tail, its body covered with brown scales with black spots ended in an arc right behind strong, muscled hind legs. The scales, placed evenly over the back of the animal and forming a symmetrical black pattern, were proof that the creature never had a tail. The hind legs – at that moment we could not see the front ones – were very bulky and relatively long. They were raised high and the whole body was bent forward markedly. The body was paunchy, flabby, and gave us the impression of cumbersomeness and lethargy. It was clear that the animal was just consuming its prey. At that moment we could not see anything more; both the animal’s position and the thick brushwood on the edge of the bushes prevented us from seeing more. Only the cracking of the crunched meat and the crushing of the bones proved that the mouth of the mysterious creature must be horrible.

"My guides were shaking with horror. They did not expect to see their giant frog so unexpectedly and from such a short distance. But it was evidently no frog. I was determined that I must see the head.

"I walked through the plants to the side. But the thick vegetation covered its secret perfectly. Then I saw part of the dorsum and shortly afterwards almost the whole animal. Only the head was covered by the prey – again a wild pig. The life of a Bearded Pig is not easy here, I thought.

"The surface of the body resembled a crocodile. Suddenly the animal rose on its front legs as well. A giant crocodile head appeared. The mysterious animal was huge with paunchy sides and nearly two metres long. For a while it towered above the vegetation like a stone statue, but then it started to move towards me.

"I did not wait for more. I started to retreat towards my guides who already had a good head start. The camp was topsy-turvy and disarrayed. Would it chase us all the way to there?

"At first I thought that we had encountered a new, as yet undiscovered species of land-living, tailless crocodile. In prehistory, there existed several dangerous land-living crocodiles with long legs, but they all had a tail. A tailless crocodile is completely unknown even among palaeontologists. The following day, I wanted to go there again, but my guides considered this idea pure madness. They thoroughly prepared everything for sailing away in the morning and I faced a choice: if I wanted to stay, I naturally could, but on my own. Furthermore, the hornbill shrieked again. And so we sailed on early in the morning.

"The more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that a tailless crocodile is really a strange thing. Yet I absolutely ruled out the possibility that this was a crocodile that once had a tail and lost it in a fight with another crocodile. Giant specimens of saltwater crocodiles – including one notorious maneater - whose tails were partly missing have been shot. But as I have already mentioned, in this case it was evident straight away that this animal could never have had any tail. And to be honest, I thought that the hind legs were too large and strong for a crocodile. I did not see the front legs properly. Later, when I conversed about several problems concerning crocodiles in Australia with Graham Webb, a noted specialist, I was told that among baby crocodiles hatched in one nest there can be several ones that lack a tail. The reasons are either genetic or perhaps there is too high a temperature during incubation. Could the mysterious “Crocodile frog” be one of these babies that overcame its handicap due to other extraordinary qualities and its strength and survived, specialising in hunting on the ground where the prey was easier for it to catch? Did it grow to maturity and attack the pigs in the same way that its tailed brothers do from the water, by gripping their mouths, while hiding on the forest clearances? It sounds fantastic, but still more realistic than to consider the tailless monster to be a new, as yet unknown species. It will never stop haunting me anyway."

It may be sheer coincidence, but the famously tailless Manx cats are also known for their unusually well-developed hind legs. Could there be a rare homologous mutant gene in crocodiles whose expression results in this same linked phenotypic effect?

Further evidence for the existence of tailless crocodiles can be found in a second Czech cryptozoology book, written this time by Vojtìch Sláma, entitled Hon na Vodní Pøíšery (‘The Hunt For Water Monsters’), and published in 2002. Kindly translated for me once again by Miroslav Fišmeister (thanks, Mirek!), the relevant information from this book is as follows:

"The north Borneo river Segama looks like a normal jungle river. But unlike the rest, her stream is inhabited by mysterious creatures that cannot be seen anywhere else in the world. I was told about them during my one-week voyage by an 80-year-old Kadazan [=Dusun] fisherman, Bateig Labi. This patriarch of the Bugit Balachon kampong does not tell tall tales. People around him respect him deeply and greatly value his advice and experience.

"He saw the roughly 3-m-long monster called appropriately the “Crocodile frog” by the local Kadazans several times in the jungles around Segama. He said that it had a giant crocodile head and a large slimy body of an amphibian. The scary creature gave Bateig a look with its bulging eyes and then disappeared in the impenetrable undergrowth with a big noise.

"It certainly could not be any known amphibian...

"In this situation I can think of two hypotheses – the first, albeit very improbable, would be the survival of the large amphibians well known among palaeontologists. For example the species of the Mastodonsaurus genus, which looked like monstrous frogs, were more than 4 m long and they were feared predators. As we know from fossils, the skulls themselves were longer than 1 m! Yet their survival is highly improbable due to their known general sensitivity to any changes of habitat.

Mastodonsaurus on postage stamps


"I thought of another hypothesis while visiting a crocodile farm near the north Borneo town of Sandakan. In the concrete tanks there also live – next to fully grown 5-m-long specimens – deformed crocodiles that lack a tail and whose crippled bodies with which they were born really look a bit like frogs.

"Is it possible that the legends of the mysterious frog phantom are based on the observing of these tailless specimens, which by a miracle overcame their handicap and specialised in hunting the land animals rather than fish? That is a possible solution to the Segama mystery too.

"Yet the idea of surviving mastodonsaurs that still hunt in the jungles of today is undoubtedly more inviting."

In his book, Sláma included the following photograph of one of the tailless crocodiles that he encountered at the Sandakan crocodile farm, and there is little doubt that a freak specimen of this nature might well indeed have inspired native legends of giant ‘crocodile frogs’ in the jungles fringing the river Segama.


A tailless crocodile at Sabah's Sandakan crocodile farm (Vojtìch Sláma)


Of course, just like Sláma, I’d be delighted for there to be an undiscovered modern-day species of mastodonsaur out there, but just the knowledge that a creature I’d hitherto discounted as an entirely fictitious Photoshop creation actually has a cryptozoological precedent is delight, and discovery, enough...at least for now!

Mastodonsaurus (Zdeněk Burian)



UPDATE: 31 May 2011

German cryptozoological researcher Markus Bühler has found five additional photos of tailless crocodilians. The first three of these are of Bob, an alligator with a missing tail, at:

http://shoutaboutcarolina.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/everybody-loves-bob-alligator-without-tail.jpg

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_9ogZle5EgG8/SwWJ23paBbI/AAAAAAAAAoE/maHRZ7Y_s6s/s1600/bob-alligator-with-no-tail-300x225.jpg

http://www.zoochat.com/gallery/data/1397/Bob_Tailess_A_Alligator-_AA_JUN08_II.JPG

And the other two are of a tailless crocodile, at:

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_k8VvKL9Z14o/SSiYrDcXrjI/AAAAAAAAAqk/GENrlPbTEVE/s320/DSC00760.JPG

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_gWXe4-mLLuM/SxC96uivIWI/AAAAAAAABfo/cvKM2BCavIk/s1600/Image0257.jpg

Thanks, Markus! He also notes that recent reconstructions of Mastodonsaurus have tended to move away from the traditional 'giant frog' form favoured by Burian and others, stating:

"For many decades it was portrayed as some kind of giant frog, a bizarre and somehow ridiculous appearance. But in fact Mastodonsaurus was much more elongated and had even a tail of considerable length. I once wrote about it at Bestiarium:

http://www.facebook.com/l/98a1e_pxQmC7Sp4tHnWKHdI8srw/bestiarium.kryptozoologie.net/artikel/mastodonsaurus-giganteus-eines-der-grosten-amphibien-aller-zeiten/

"You can see a photo of an articulated and nearly complete skeleton, a new life-sized reconstruction (sadly it´s not easy to see the whole body) as well as an old outdated model, which looks very similar to the description of the croc-frog. All photos are from the "Museum am Löwentor" at Stuttgart, one of the largest paleontology museums of the world. Most of the fossils there, including giant amphibians like Mastodonsaurus, were found in the region around Stuttgart. The only photo which is not from Stuttgart, is that which shows the bony armour plate of Mastodonsaurus, it´s from the great Museum of Natural history at Vienna. Mastodonsaurus was really an extremely large animal, some isolated fossils indicate specimens of at least 6 or probably even 7 m."

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

LANDSEER AND THE HORSE-DEER

'The Monarch of the Glen' - Sir Edwin Landseer


Among the perissodactyls (odd-toed ungulates), there are many fully-attested cases of interspecific hybridisation, the most familiar examples being the mules and hinnies that result from successful matings between the domestic horse Equus ferus caballus and the domestic donkey E. africanus asinus. Many verified interspecific hybrids have been documented among the artiodactyls (even-toed ungulates) too, as well as some confirmed intergeneric hybrids. Moreover, I even have a few controversial reports on file of artiodactyls specimens that have been claimed at one time or another to constitute interfamilial hybrids.

Perhaps the ultimate in ungulate hybrids, however, is an extraordinary specimen that, if genuine, links two entirely separate taxonomic orders - the perissodactyls with the artiodactyls!

The English artist Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) is rightly celebrated for his many magnificent paintings and drawings of animals, one of the most famous being ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ – see this ShukerNature post’s opening illustration – portraying a handsome red deer Cervus elaphus stag. Much less familiar, yet exceptionally intriguing from a zoological standpoint, conversely, is his drawing of a seven-month-old animal reputed to be a cross between a New Forest pony and a red deer!

According to a note on this amazing creature by naturalist Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald in the British monthly magazine Animal Life (December 1963), its identity as a bona fide horse-deer was supported by many people who examined it while alive, and its mare mother was seen running with red deer for several months prior to the birth of her highly contentious offspring. Nonetheless, Vesey-Fitzgerald remained highly sceptical of its reputed hybrid status, which is hardly surprising. The genetics of species belonging to two separate mammalian orders are so different from one another that the chances of a viable offspring being produced naturally by such species are exceedingly slim.

In these days of instant information access, I naturally anticipated little if any problem in locating an online image of this very thought-provoking drawing by Landseer, but all attempts by me to do so have failed. Not even the might of Google has been able to assist me in my quest. Consequently, as I would very much like to view it and thus decide for myself whether the depicted creature may indeed be a veritable horse-deer, I would be exceedingly grateful for any information as to where images of this drawing exist online, and also for any additional details regarding the animal itself.

Curiously, Google did throw up one tantalising reference that may (or may not) have some bearing upon this subject. Namely, Queen Victoria’s precise instructions to Landseer concerning the content of a painting that she was commissioning him to prepare in 1850 of herself and her consort Prince Albert at Royal Deeside in the Scottish Highlands. They read as follows:

“It is to be thus: I, stepping out of the boat at Loch Muich, Albert in his Highland dress, assisting me out, and I am looking at a stag which he is supposed to have just killed. Bertie [their son, the future King Edward VII] is on the deer pony with McDonald...standing behind, with rifles and plaids on his shoulder. In the water, holding the boat, are several of the men in their kilts, - salmon are also lying on the ground. The picture is meant to represent me meeting Albert, who has been stalking, whilst I have been fishing, and the whole is quite consonant with the truth. The solitude, the sport, the Highlanders and the water, etc will be...a beautiful exemplification of peaceful times, and of the independent life we lead in the dear Highlands. It is quite a new conception...It will tell a great deal, and it is beautiful.”

The resulting painting was “Royal Sports on Hill and Loch”, which first appeared at the Royal Academy in 1854, and is reproduced below. Yet the animal upon which Bertie is sitting clearly resembles a normal pony in every way, as opposed to a bona fide intergeneric deer pony.

'Royal Sports on Hill and Loch' - Sir Edwin Landseer


Having said that, could it be that the term “deer pony” as used by Victoria with regard to Bertie’s steed merely signified that it was a pony that regularly featured in deer hunts at Royal Deeside, rather than having any taxonomic implication or significance? In other words, if you’ll forgive the zoological mixing of metaphors, is this simply a red herring, with no relevance to Landseer’s elusive drawing of an alleged horse-deer hybrid?

Once again, if you have any views, information, or pertinent image links, please do post them here on ShukerNature. Thanks very much!


Saturday, 21 May 2011

FROM PARRODILES TO OCTOPHANTS - THE FABULOUS FAUNA OF PHOTOSHOP



During the past week, I've posted on Facebook an album of truly incredible Photoshopped animal hybrids encountered by me online, and which have attracted enormous interest (click here to view the entire album of over 90 extraordinary CGI crossbreeds). Consequently, I've decided to share some of my particular favourites, and my comments concerning them, with you now on ShukerNature. Our planet is surely a sadder place for lacking these extraordinary creatures! Happily, however, thanks to the wonderful world of worth1000.com and various other superb websites - their (un)natural habitats - they add diversity and delight in equal measure to the surrealiverse of cyberspace. So here, in no particular order, for your amusement and astonishment, are my Top Twenty Photoshopped fauna.


Beware the Hippocrab, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

(With apologies to Lewis Carroll!)


Everyone has seen caterpillars, so now - behold, the tigerpillar!


Zebroceros?
Of course-eros!


I don't care what all the other dragons do, you're too young to smoke!


The octophant is a curious fellow,
Beneath the waves he glows bright yellow!


How doth the little parrodile
Improve his feathered tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every pea-green scale.

How cheerfully he seems to cough,
How neatly spreads his claws,
Then bites his owner's fingers off
With wide voracious jaws!

(With more apologies to Lewis Carroll!)


Meet the friglet - the love child of Kermit and Miss Piggy?


Trunko lives!! (Not really)


Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the lily pond!
Here's the frogillator - or could it be a croakodile?


Haven't you ever seen fruit bats before?!!


Jurassic Park was never like this - it's a Rhinoceratops!


Aaaawwwwwwwww!!
I always wondered what the Everly Brothers' song 'Bird Dog' was all about - now I know!


When the lorikeets are away, the mice - and cats - will play!
Who are pretty boys, then?


You lookin' at me?


The pitbull frog - its croak is worse than its bite!


Punkaburra lives in an old gum tree,
Merry merry punk of the bush is he.


For some things, there are simply no words - and this is one of them!


Hop to it! - It's the hippofrogamus!


A roaring success? A dande-lion clock from Planet Photoshop


I'll never touch another drop, ever again!!

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

FROM THE HOUND OF THE HEDGES TO CHIA DOGS!

This delightful example of a Chia dog was photographed in Williamsburg, Virginia
(photo: http://www.livinginwilliamsburgvirginia.blogspot.com/)


Just over a month ago, on 12 April, I documented the wonderful Hound of the Hedges (click here for this ShukerNature post of mine), a unique (albeit fictitious) zoobotanical crossbred canid that featured in Charles Finney's surreal science fantasy novel The Circus of Dr Lao (1935).

Confirming that, as ever, fact is stranger than fiction, American correspondent Marc Gaglione has now brought to my attention the extraordinary real-life world of Chia Pets, which are common in the USA but which I haven't encountered here in the UK and hadn't even heard of before.




This is what Wikipedia says about them:

"Chia Pets are American styled animal-shaped terracotta figurines used to sprout chia, where the chia sprouts resemble the animal's fur.

"Produced by San Francisco, California-based company Joseph Enterprises Inc., Chia Pets achieved popularity in the 1980s following the 1982 release of a ram, the first Chia Pet. The catch phrase sung in the TV commercial as the plant grows in time lapse is "Ch-ch-ch-chia!". Moistened seeds of chia (Salvia hispanica) are applied to the grooved terra cotta figurine body.

"A range of generic animals has been produced, including a turtle, pig, puppy, kitten, frog, and hippopotamus, but cartoon characters including: Garfield, Scooby-Doo, Looney Tunes, Shrek, The Simpsons, and SpongeBob have also been licensed. Additionally, there are Chia Pets depicting presidents, including Barack Obama."


The Hippo of the Hedges? Now that's a cryptid I'd pay good money to see!


Chia ram or photoshopped Ram of the Hedges? You decide!

Friday, 6 May 2011

THE TOP TEN SHUKERNATURE POSTS OF ALL TIME AS OF MAY 2011



Time, I think, for another look at the Top Ten ShukerNature posts of all time. I didn’t post a listing last month (April 2011) because, remarkably, not only did that listing contain exactly the same ten posts as the previous month’s (March 2011), but even the relative rankings of those ten posts were the same too. But what a difference a further month has made!


This latest, May 2011 listing contains no fewer than four new entries, and all are recent posts. Clearly, therefore, there must be particular interest out there in movie mystery cats, winged cats, and explanations for belief in the Little People. Even certain of the fictitious cryptids featuring in the Doctor Dolittle novels of Hugh Lofting (namely, the great pink sea snail, a living dinosaur, and a gargantuan freshwater turtle) make an appearance at #10. So here, to baffle and amuse you, is the latest ShukerNature Top Ten (with rankings from the previous listing in red brackets). And if anyone can spot a subtle trend or pattern in it, please do let me know, as I’ve long since given up trying to find one!


#1: The mystery blue spider of Yorkshire (25 August 2010) (1)

#2: Behold, Trunko!! (Trunko exclusive #1) (6 September 2010) (2)

#3: South Africa's hairless blue horse (24 March 2010) (4)

#4: Archangel feathers (3 February 2011) (3)

#5: Enchanted by the enchantress (16 March 2011) (-)

#6: The genetics of fairies (10 March 2011) (-)

#7: Two more Trunko photos (Trunko exclusive #2) (9 September 2010) (5)

#8: The wings of a winged cat (5 April 2011) (-)

#9: Dragons of Babylon and dinosaurs of the Bible (18 January 2011) (6)

#10: The cryptozoological world of Doctor Dolittle, Part 2 (21 March 2011) (-)

Thursday, 5 May 2011

TWO FRENCH MYSTERIES OF THE ARACHNOLOGICAL KIND



Here are two arachnological anomalies - one very old but only very recently solved by me, the other very new and currently still unsolved. Both hail from France, and each involves a species of unusual or unexpected colouration, given its location. Neither of them has previously been documented in the cryptozoological literature, so any opinions and additional information would be most welcome.

THE WHITE SCORPION OF CETTE MOUNTAIN

That was the title of a short article penned by Emile Bonnet MPNS, which was published in June 1884 within a journal entitled The Naturalist’s World (vol. 1, no. 6, pp. 94-95). As I happen to own a copy of this particular volume, purchased by me during the late 1980s, I have scanned the relevant pages, which are reproduced below (please click scan in order to enlarge to readable size):



As can be seen, the scorpion in question is referred to by Bonnet as Scorpio montis sete (translating as ‘scorpion of Sete’s mountain’), but no such trinomial name exists today. Nor does any binomial, not even one that links monte and sete to yield montesete (in earlier days, some faux trinomials were created by splitting names that were subsequently joined back together to yield binomials).

Sete, or, precisely, Sète, is a seaside town within the Hérault department in Languedoc-Roussillon, southern France; it changed its name from Cette to Sète on 20 January 1928, and is built upon and around the mountain of Mont St Clair.

Over the years that have passed since purchasing the volume containing Bonnet’s article, I have made several attempts to track down any additional details regarding this mountain’s pallid but reputedly dangerous scorpion, and have contacted a number of arachnological experts concerning it, but all to no avail – until very recently.

Prior to then, the most informative response to my enquiries had come from Prof. John L. Cloudsley-Thompson, Professor Emeritus at London’s University College, who is a renowned authority on arachnids, as well as desert organisms and a range of other zoological specialities. Writing to me on 7 April 1990 after reading the copy of Bonnet’s article that I had sent to him earlier, Prof. Cloudsley-Thompson offered the following thoughts:

“Re Scorpio montis sete. This species is not cited in modern literature and is clearly not valid. The illustration shows a species of Buthus not Scorpio (slender claws), so B. occitanus must be the answer since it is the only buthid in France. It is venomous like all Buthidae but the same species in N. Africa is said to be much more dangerous. M. Bonnet was clearly exaggerating. I wonder whether the ‘white’ scorpion was actually a newly moulted individual whose cuticle had not yet hardened? I was once asked about a white earwig in a BBC nature programme and that must have been the answer in that case.”

Buthus occitanus (Álvaro Rodríguez Alberich – Wikipedia)

Buthus occitanus is known as the common yellow scorpion, on account of its widespread distribution in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, and its predominant colour. I agree entirely that a newly-moulted individual would be the likeliest explanation for a single specimen, but Bonnet described the Cette mountain scorpion as a discrete species rather than an individual, and referred to its colour as “a reddish white” rather than entirely white (or yellow, for that matter). What always baffled me most of all regarding this case, however, was Bonnet’s allegation that this scorpion “has been studied for a long time and numerous experiments have been made on its venom”, bearing in mind that there seemed to be no mention of it in the modern-day zoological literature.

The best chance of solving this mystery was to track down a copy of the publication by Dr Ange Maccary that was cited by Bonnet in his article. Unfortunately, Bonnet gave no bibliographical details other than the title, and, for a long time at least, Googling that did not call up any details.

Inevitably, with new crypto reports coming along on a regular basis, the baffling case of the white scorpion of Cette Mountain eventually slipped from my mind. But when, just a few days ago, I received the information that constitutes the second arachnological case documented here, I suddenly recalled Bonnet’s article, and decided to try yet another online search for information – and this time, finally, I achieved success!

Googling the first part of the title of Maccory’s publication was sufficient on this latest occasion not only to locate the full bibliographical reference to it, which is:

MACCORY, Ange (1810). Mémoire sur le scorpion qui se trouve sur la montagne de Cette, département de l’Hérault, son venin, et l’usage qu’on pourrait en faire en médecine. Froullé (Paris), Gabon ed. 48 pages

but also to confirm, via the following online source:

http://www.onem-france.org/scorpion/wakka.php?wiki=RegimeAlimentaire

that the Cette white scorpion, as suspected by Prof. Cloudsley-Thompson back in 1990, does indeed belong to the Languedoc-occurring species Buthus occitanus.

But one mystery surrounding this scorpion still awaits a solution – the unusual reddish-white colouration claimed by Bonnet for the Cette Mountain specimens, which is very different from the typical yellow hue for B. occitanus. Could it be, therefore, that Mont St Clair harbours a distinct colour variant of this species, which is confined to this specific location – and which, additionally, is more venomous than its normal-coloured congeners elsewhere in Languedoc?

THE YELLOW STOWAWAY SPIDER OF BRUGES

The second of this ShukerNature article’s two mystery arachnids was brought to my attention on 30 April 2011 by 18-year-old Raphaël Marliere of Bordeaux. Here is Raphaël’s eyewitness account, reproduced here with his kind permission:

“My sighting took place approximately 8 years ago in Bruges, a northwestern suburb of Bordeaux.

“A foggy winter morning, my mother was driving me to school in her old Citroen car, when all of a sudden a big yellow spider came out of the right side ventilator, on my mother's side, that is. She was kind of surprised but kept on driving as the spider went down and disappeared under the dashboard, as mysteriously as she had appeared.

“The spider in question was bright yellow, somewhat reminiscent of a banana - even though true banana spiders aren't yellow at all - and had a legspan of about 3-4 cm. I thought it may have been a freak Olios argelasius or Cheiracanthium punctorium, because of its size, but Cheiracanthium has distinctive fangs that this spider didn't have and Olios possesses markings on the legs and abdomen that were not present on the spider I saw.

“I have been breeding native spiders for several years now and I've never seen anything like this again. The only other yellow European spider that I know of is Misumena vatia, but I have an adult female in my collection and it doesn't approach the size of the car's weirdo.

“What I thought was strange at the time was the fact that the spider actually came from the ventilator and didn't get out of the car or at least seek out an exit. I guess she might have entered the car via the outside ventilator just under the windshield, but if she took the same way to go out or died trapped in the car I'll never know, for we didn't find any - yellow or otherwise - dead spider in the car.”



Olios argelasius (http://digilander.libero.it/)

After reading Raphaël’s account, I conducted an online perusal of European yellow-coloured spiders, but I was unable to match his mystery spider with any native species. O. argelasius is a huntsman spider, but as noted by Raphaël, its description does not correspond with that of his spider. Also known as the yellow sac spider, C. punctorium has very prominent chelicerae that give a venomous bite similar in potency to a wasp sting, but it only measures 15 mm or so. Misumena vatia, a crab spider, is even smaller, with a maximum length of only 10 mm. Yellow specimens of the European garden or cross spider Araneus diadematus (which is up to 20 mm long) are sometimes encountered, but they always bear this species’ characteristic cross marking upon their opisthosoma (abdomen).

Cheiracanthium punctorium (www.biolib.cz)

Consequently, I can only conclude that it was a specimen of some non-native species that had somehow found its way into the car after having earlier escaped from captivity (a private collection, perhaps, or a local zoo, nature centre, or even a pet shop?), or from some produce container originating from overseas – large (and usually decidedly hairy!) spiders emerging from bunches of imported bananas in a supermarket are regularly reported in the media.

Nevertheless, it would be excellent to obtain a conclusive taxonomic identification of this spider, so I’d greatly value any suggestions.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

DO BLACK RATELS AND ORANGE HYAENAS MAKETH THE NANDI BEAR?

The Ituri black ratel (1906 engraving)


Albinism is a deficiency or complete absence of the pigment eumelanin, but the condition known as melanism is the presence of an excessive amount of eumelanin. Animals exhibiting this condition are said to be melanistic, and appear abnormally dark in comparison with normal-coloured specimens of their species. True melanism does not affect animals' body markings, targeting their background colouration instead.

One of the most interesting cases of melanism is of profound cryptozoological pertinence and concerns the ratel Mellivora capensis, also known as the honey badger. Although alluded to by Dr Bernard Heuvelmans in his book On the Track of Unknown Animals (1958), this is the first time that the true complexity of this case has been aired cryptozoologically.

Widely distributed in Africa and also found in India, the ratel is a pugnacious species of mustelid, which can attain an impressive total length of 3.5 ft - equivalent to a small bear. Its pelage colouration is very striking - laterally and ventrally its fur is jet black, but dorsally it sports a wide band of silver-grey fur that stretches from its brow along the entire length of its back to its hindquarters.

Today, only a single species of ratel is recognised, but this was not always the case. Just over a century ago, zoologists still distinguished several different ratel species. These differed from one another with regard to the relative proportion of pelage taken up by the silver-grey band, but all conformed to the basic ratel colour scheme - pale dorsally, jet black elsewhere - until 1906, that is.

During the early years of the 20th Century, while animal collecting in Central Africa, Major Powell-Cotton obtained two specimens of a ratel form dramatically different from all others on record, which he had discovered on the eastern fringe of the Ituri Forest, in what is now the Democratic Congo. The reason for the Ituri ratel's distinctiveness, however, was due not to its provenance but rather to its colouration. For with the exception of just a few grizzled hairs on the upper region of its head, it was totally black - exhibiting no trace of the familiar dorsal silver-grey band characterising all other ratels.

Powell-Cotton's two Ituri specimens soon came to the attention of noted British zoologist Dr Richard Lydekker, who documented them in a short paper published on 6 February 1906 by the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. Comparing the marked differences in habitat between the open or bush-clad country inhabited by typical ratels and the dense shadowed seclusion of the Ituri Forest, Lydekker suggested that the latter's all-black ratels may conceivably constitute something more significant than simply a melanistic mutant form (morph) of the normal ratel. Indeed, he felt that they may actually represent a separate species, one in which the conspicuous silver band had been replaced during evolution by a uniformly black pelage in order to provide effective camouflage within the Ituri Forest's unlit interior. Honouring its discoverer, Lydekker named the new ratel Mellivora cottoni - but its status as a distinct species would be short-lived.

The first hint of this came 0n 6 April 1909, with the description of yet another new ratel species, this time by carnivore specialist Reginald Pocock, which was formally christened Mellivora signata in a paper published by the Zoological Society of London's Proceedings.


Significantly, the single specimen upon which this latest species was based, which had been obtained in Sierra Leone, was somewhat intermediate in colouration between M. cottoni and the typical ratel. Although it possessed a light-coloured upper band like other ratels, in this single M. signata specimen the band was not of uniform shading throughout its length. On the specimen's brow it was silver-grey, but it became ever darker as it extended backwards across its shoulders and along its spine towards its hindquarters. Thus its shoulders and anterior back portion were speckled grey, whereas its posterior back and hindquarters were virtually black.

Shortly afterwards, yet another ratel paper (written this time by Dr F.D. Welch) appeared in the Zoological Society's Proceedings, but this was one that had considerable bearing upon the Ituri black ratel and upon the whole thorny issue of ratel classification. The subject of the paper was a former inmate of London Zoo - a ratel that had been obtained in some unrecorded African locality. When it arrived at the zoo in 1890, it was already fully-grown, and displayed the usual ratel colour scheme. During the next 12 years, however, Welch observed that its silver band gradually darkened, and by the time of the ratel's death its body's dorsal surface was coloured "black merely sprinkled with grey"; even its head, whose silver colour had suffered rather less darkening, lacked a clear demarcation line between upper and lower pelage colouration.

Later records provided similar findings. Accordingly, it became clear that all of the silver-backed ratel types formerly allocated the status of separate species, as well as M. signata, were nothing more than individual colour variations of a single species - M. capensis. And as for the all-black Ituri species, M. cottoni, this appeared to be merely an age-related artefact, for scientists now recognised that the possession of a melanistic pelage by ratels was linked not to taxonomic distinction but simply to senility. The older the ratel, the blacker it became. Exit M. cottoni from the zoological catalogue!

What makes all of this so intriguing from a cryptozoological standpoint is that in many parts of tropical Africa, native tribes live in great fear of a mysterious and exceedingly savage carnivore known by a variety of native names, but referred to by westerners, especially in Kenya, as the Nandi bear. Reports concerning this creature (still adamantly unrecognised and undescribed by science) seem to refer to several different types of creature - but three in particular. Two of these appear to be an abnormally-coloured strain of hyaena (see below) and an exceptionally large form of baboon. The third could well be the ratel - except (at least on first sight) for two discrepancies. Firstly, those Nandi bear reports that describe ratel-like beasts affirm that the animals in question are uniformly dark; and secondly, these animals are somewhat larger than normal ratels. In reality, however, neither of these supposed discrepancies raises problems in reconciling such reports with the ratel.

As already noted here, very old ratels can be wholly black in colour. In addition, examination of preserved ratel pelts reveals that such ratels are frequently notably larger than the average size for their species. Nor should we overlook the fact that the ratel is ferocious out of all proportion to its size - authentic reports exist of a single ratel chasing a pride of lions away from their kill, with the lions not daring to approach again until the ratel had finished its meal and departed! Consequently, although Nandi bear reports describing distinctly hyaena-like or baboon-like beasts cannot be explained in this way, a number of other Nandi bear accounts may well be attributable to certain belligerent ratels that had attained a large size and had acquired a melanistic pelage due to advanced age.

Do some Nandi bear sightings involve erythristic spotted hyaenas? (Computer-generated image by Dr Karl Shuker)

Eumelanin is the most familiar form of the pigment melanin, but it is not the only one. Two other forms are phaeomelanin, which is responsible for light brown and yellow pigmentation, and erythromelanin, responsible for the rich reddish-orange hue characterising the pelage of such creatures as the red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris and the red fox Vulpes vulpes. In mammals, phaeomelanin is responsible for a wide range of different fur colours, ranging from light brown and dull red through to golden-orange, yellow, and even cream. The greater the number of phaeomelanin pigment granules present per given area of body surface, the darker the colour of the fur borne upon that surface. Sometimes, however, genetic mutations in mammals result in an abnormal increase in phaeomelanin, but often at the expense of the darker pigment, eumelanin, so that their pelage appears paler than normal. This condition is known as erythrism, and mammals exhibiting it are said to be erythristic.

Erythristic animals are certainly very striking in appearance - so much so, in fact, that several were once considered to be separate species in their own right, rather than mere colour morphs of no taxonomic significance. In 1927, for instance, zoologist Dr Ernst Schwarz revealed that a number of enigmatic African guenon monkeys formerly classed as full species were in reality nothing more than rare erythristic specimens of certain other species. These false species included Cercopithecus inobservatus (merely an erythristic morph of the moustached monkey C. cephus), C. insignis (merely a red morph of Kandt's subspecies of Sykes's monkey, i.e. C. albogularis kandti), and C. insolitus (simply an erythristic specimen of the greater white-nosed monkey C. nictitans).

Those monkeys are now ex-cryptozoological creatures. However, it is possible that erythrism is also an intrinsic component of an ongoing mystery beast saga - the afore-mentioned Nandi bear. For whereas some reports of this beast may well have been based upon large, all-black ratels, others appear to have derived from highly abnormal hyaenas. In June 1926, for instance, Arthur J. Stent trapped at Vizara in Nyasaland (now Malawi) a very strange-looking animal that seemed to be a specimen of the elusive Nandi bear. Stent considered it to be some form of hyaena, but was unable to identify it fully, and so he sent its distinctive red-furred skin to the British Museum (Natural History) for formal categorisation. It was closely examined there by the notable carnivore expert Reginald Pocock, who subsequently announced that it had come from an erythristic specimen of the spotted hyaena Crocuta crocuta - hence its extremely unusual appearance.

Although known from arid regions of Sudan and Somaliland, erythristic spotted hyaenas are very much rarer in Central Africa. Consequently, in view of the striking colouration of Stent’s beast - so different from its species' typical morphology - plus the great rarity of erythristic hyaenas in this region, it can readily be understood why native eyewitnesses spying such a creature (especially if only for a very brief period of time) might consider it to comprise a totally different type of animal from the normal spotted hyaena. A veritable Nandi bear, in fact.