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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Monday, 31 October 2011

VAMPIRE CATS AND DEVIL CATS - FELINE FIENDS FOR HALLOWE'EN!

With my very own - but totally unfiendish! - Hallowe'en cat (Dr Karl Shuker)


In Asia, belief in vampire cats is still very much apparent. One of the most feared examples is the Bengalese chordewa, the bane of a hill-frequenting tribe known as the Oraons. According to their traditional lore, the chordewa is a witch whose soul can temporarily leave her body and assume the guise of a black-furred vampire cat. While in this form, it seeks out victims among the tribe's sick and dying, and lays claim to them by licking their lips or consuming their food. The chordewa's power will be assuaged, however, if her feline-shaped soul can be captured, thereby preventing it from re-entering her body, which sinks into a coma and remains in this state until (if ever) her soul returns to it.

Even more deceptive but equally deadly is the Japanese vampire cat. This feline demon can assume the form of a beautiful maiden to seduce an unsuspecting man and drain him of his life, imperceptibly but inexorably, night after night - until he eventually becomes an inanimate husk. Happily, this dire spirit-beast can be recognised when spied in its true state, for a vampire cat cannot disguise the fact that it possesses not one tail but two.

Japanese vampire cat

One famous Japanese legend tells of how the Prince of Hizen's favourite concubine, the lady O Toyo, was secretly strangled by a vampire cat who then assumed her form, and took her place at the unsuspecting prince's side. In the weeks that followed this surreptitious substitution, however, his friends and courtiers became alarmed to see that the prince was becoming ever paler and and weaker, especially at night, as if his very life-force was somehow being drained away. But how - and by whom?

Finally, one of the prince's most loyal soldiers kept watch over his master's bed chamber, and spied the false O Toyo approach the sleeping man - ready to change back into a vampire cat and imbibe his blood, as it had been doing each night since it had killed the real O Toyo. Sensing the soldier's presence, however, this feline female paused, but the soldier had accurately guessed her evil intent and leapt forward to slay her. Instantly, the false O Toyo became a vampire cat again, and fled away into the mountains. Some say that it was later killed there, but others believe that it survived, and will one day have its revenge. There have even been claimed sightings of this vampire cat; the most recent was in 1929.

Rather less easy to espy is the Indian devil cat, which can haunt homes like a feline poltergeist, for this creature is normally invisible. However, its presence can be readily detected, due to its spine-chilling shrieks, likened to a bloodcurdling fusion of a cat's yowling cry with the ear-splitting scream of a peacock! One or more of these evil entities will sometimes invade a house, much to the consternation and despair of its inhabitants, or will take up residence on its roof and regale the people below with hideous eldritch screeching. Fortunately, if a house troubled by a devil cat is sprinkled with holy water and blessed by a priest, its shrill sounds will be heard there no more.

This post is excerpted from my forthcoming book Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery

Friday, 21 October 2011

WHO'S A PRETTY MYSTERIOUS POLLY, THEN?

'Dodo and Red Parakeet' - c.1773, attributed to William Hodges


What is it with paintings of dodos and red parrots? In a previous ShukerNature post, I investigated the still-unidentified red mystery macaw depicted in a famous painting of the dodo by Flemish artist Roelandt Savery in 1626. Now, I've just discovered a contentious painting popularly assumed (but not confirmed) to be by English painter William Hodges (1744-1797) portraying a dodo, and what do I find also depicted in that painting? You've guessed it – another unidentified red mystery parrot!

William Hodges took part in Captain James Cook's second Pacific Ocean voyage (1772-1775), and is chiefly remembered today for the various paintings and sketches that he produced during that voyage, which visited a number of exotic Pacific locations, including Tahiti, Easter Island, and the sub-Antarctic, as well as South Africa's Table Bay in the south Atlantic.

Consequently, it came as something of a surprise to me recently when I came upon a certain painting, unsigned but generally attributed to Hodges, that portrayed a dodo Raphus cucullatus - a species native to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean until its extinction there around 1681, i.e. several decades before Hodges was even born. Clearly, therefore, assuming that he is indeed the artist who produced this work, Hodges cannot have painted his dodo from life, so he must have drawn his inspiration for it from depictions by other, earlier artists. And indeed, it does closely resemble dodos portrayed in various previous works (particularly Roelandt Savery's afore-mentioned dodo painting from 1626).

Roelandt Savery's 1626 dodo painting, featuring a red mystery macaw to the left, and an equally mysterious green and yellow macaw at top right

Entitled 'Dodo and Red Parakeet', and measuring 23 x 27.5 cm, this alleged Hodges oil on academy board painting is believed to have been produced in c.1773, and is part of the Rex Nan Kivell Collection, housed at the National Library of Australia. Indeed, it was Rex Nan Kivell who provided the controversial attribution of this painting to Hodges. Yet until now, it has seemingly attracted little zoological interest, and does not even feature in acclaimed bird painter-author Errol Fuller's very comprehensive book Dodo: From Extinction to Icon (2002).

In reality, however, it deserves very serious attention, not only on account of the question mark regarding the artist responsible for its creation but also due to the parakeet that it portrays – because this remarkable bird does not appear to resemble any known species alive today or extinct in historic times.

There is no indication of whether this parakeet and the dodo were painted to the same scale, so the parakeet's absolute size cannot be estimated from the painting. Incidentally, due to its long tail I refer to it as a parakeet rather than a parrot. Moreover, although in terms of relative proportions its slender, long-tailed form also recalls that of a macaw, it lacks the distinctive match of bare facial skin characterising all of these large or very large species, and it seems to possess a crest (albeit a somewhat wispy one), which no known species of macaw does. As for its highly distinctive colour combination of bright red head, back, underparts and tail coupled with deep bronze-green wings: when added to its body shape and crest, this collectively delineates it from all other parrots on record.

Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice - who famously encountered a dodo and a parakeet when visiting Wonderland - might well have said!

Sir Arthur Tenniel's famous illustration of Alice and the dodo (with the parakeet among the crowd of animals in the background); incidentally, Tenniel's dodo also seems to have been inspired by Savery's version

So what exactly is the alleged Hodges painting's mystifying crested red parakeet (is it even real, or just an invention of the artist?), where did it originate, and where did whoever the painting's artist is see it? So far, I have been unable to answer any of these telling questions – which is where, gentle readers, you come in!

If any of you have information relating to this intriguing painting, the identity of its artist, or, in particular, the enigmatic parakeet depicted in it, I would very greatly welcome any details that you could post here on ShukerNature or on my Facebook wall, or could email to me at karlshuker@aol.com – many thanks indeed!

UPDATE - 25 October 2011

After posting the above account on ShukerNature four days ago, I contacted two dodo authorities for their opinions concerning the alleged Hodges painting and, in particular, the enigmatic red parakeet depicted in it. One of these authorities was the afore-mentioned dodo author Errol Fuller, who emailed me his thoughts just a few hours after my blog post had appeared, and also kindly gave me permission to quote them. So here they are:

"The dodo element to the painting is clearly a derivative from the famous picture by Roelandt Savery that is now in The Natural History Museum. Whether it was copied directly from that picture or from a copy of it I can't, of course, tell. However, the parrot is another matter. In the Savery painting there is a parrot in the same place, but it is a macaw. My own suspicion is that this is just an invented parrot, just put in for decorative purposes - however, I could be wrong, and would be happy to be proved so. It certainly doesn't match any parrot that I know of, so if it is a genuine portrait of a bird, rather than a made up image, then it is something unknown.

"As far as the Hodges attribution is concerned, I can see nothing to stylistically link this with Hodges. My feeling is that it has nothing to do with him. Therefore there is no real reason to necessarily give the parrot a Pacific origin. There are, of course, a number of parrots from Mauritius known only by skeletal material, so if this is a genuine attempt to show Mauritian birds, it could be one of these. This is something of a conceptual leap, however."

This accords well with my own views, but it would be wonderful if some additional, physical evidence could be uncovered that might tilt the balance one way or the other, i.e. either towards the parakeet being an invention or towards it being a genuine, but seemingly unknown species. Just four days later, that elusive evidence arrived, in the form of a fascinating engraving.

Today, 25 October 2011, I received an email from the second dodo authority contacted by me, Jolyon ('Joe') C. Parish, whose own dodo book is due to be published soon; he is also in the process of establishing an accompanying website, 'The Dodologist's Miscellany'. Not only was he already familiar with the alleged Hodges painting, he had also encountered a pertinent engraving that I had not seen before, and which he kindly emailed to me with his reply, which was as follows:

"Strangely enough, I was just looking at the very same picture on the NLA website only a matter of hours before I got your message (what a coincidence!) There is an engraving in Broderip (1833)* [William J. Broderip, Vice-President of the Zoological Society of London at that time], which shows the dodo and parrot (albeit sans crest), taken from Savery’s British Museum painting (see attached). As Broderip does not mention Hodges, or indeed any painting with a dodo and red parakeet, in the article (or in his subsequent articles), it might indicate that the engraving was the original (taken from Savery’s painting, albeit with modification) and that the red parakeet picture was made afterwards, based on this. I don’t know the reasons for the attribution of the painting to Hodges.

"If the painting was made from the engraving, rather than vice versa, then the colouring would probably be imaginary (as with the parrot’s/parakeet’s head crest). It would be interesting to find out the reasons behind the attribution of the picture to Hodges and its date to decide the matter."

The dodo and parrot engraving in Broderip's article

What is so remarkable, and telling, about this engraving (which, incidentally, is an early one, long pre-dating Broderip's 1833 article) is that it is tantalisingly intermediate between Savery's dodo painting and the version attributed to Hodges. I have reproduced this engraving here, and as can be readily seen, not only is the dodo in it clearly based upon Savery's, but it also includes the macaw present in the top-right section of Savery's painting. However, in the engraving it has been transformed somewhat, so that although there are still sufficient similarities between the two parrots for there to be no question that the engraved version was indeed inspired by Savery's macaw, it has a number of noticeable differences too - differences, moreover, which the Hodges parakeet also exhibits and, in some cases, enhances even further, as with the crest.

The three images together, for direct comparison purposes (click pic to enlarge)

In my opinion, therefore, it seems likely that the engraving in Broderip's article was inspired by Savery's painting, and that the alleged Hodges painting was inspired by the engraving in Broderip's article, because the right-hand parrot exhibits a clearly visible transition in transformation from Savery's macaw to the Broderip engraving's parrot to the Hodges parakeet. Moreover, whereas both the engraving's dodo and the Hodges dodo are similar to Savery's, the Hodges dodo is virtually identical to the engraving's, thus providing further evidence that the alleged Hodges painting was inspired directly by the engraving, rather than directly by Savery's painting.

As a result, I now believe it unlikely that the Hodges mystery parakeet is anything other than an invention...or at least I did until 16 November 2011!

SECOND UPDATE - 16 November 2011

Today I received a greatly-welcomed email from David Alderton, an acclaimed authority on parrots and other cage-birds and webmaster of http://www.petinfoclub.com/ who had just read this present ShukerNature blog. Here are his thoughts:

"My immediate impression on seeing the William Hodges painting, which I hadn't seen before - was that the parakeet is actually a cardinal lory (Chalopsitta cardinalis) - see below - which ranges from eastern parts of Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Islands. These birds don't have a crest as such, but they can raise the feathers on their foreheads to some extent when excited, aggressive etc.. Their colouring is highly distinctive."

Indeed it is, as seen here:

Cardinal lory

There is no doubt that, crest notwithstanding (or simply artistic licence?), the Hodges red mystery parakeet does indeed closely recall the cardinal lory, though, if this is the correct identification, why the painting's artist should combine a Mauritius dodo with an Australasian parrot is unclear. Yet even if this is true, the fact that in general pose and outline the Hodges parakeet readily mirrors the Broderip engraving's parrot still suggests that the engraving directly inspired the painting. In short, it may well be that the latter's artist used a cardinal lory as his subject, but painted it in the same pose as the engraving's parrot.

Cardinal lories, painted by John Keulemans

Having said that, however, certain noteworthy morphological differences are definitely apparent between the cardinal lory and the Hodges red mystery parakeet, such as the lory's patch of white bare facial skin, its shorter tail, and of course its lack of a crest (to my mind, the crest of the mystery red parakeet seems more pronounced than I'd expect from merely some raised brow feathers). Echoing my sentiments are those also received by me today from Errol Fuller:

"I can see no real reason to associate the bird in the picture with the lory. Certainly they are both red with a darker colour on the wings - but so what? This isn't enough to make a match. The parrot in the engraving also has a darker colour on the wing so the painter may have got his inspiration from that. Also, you can't just ignore the crest and the fact that the painted image has a long tail - unlike the lory. So to sum up I don't think this putative identification gets us anywhere.

I still think the most likely solution is that this is just a parrot made up for decorative purposes. Otherwise, this is a hitherto unknown species. But this seems highly - very highly - unlikely to me."

In his email, Errol - who, remember, is not only an author but also a highly accomplished bird painter himself - went on to point out that artists cannot always be relied upon to "get things right", because it is not always their intention to paint true to life:

"Artists have all sorts of reasons for doing what they do. They aren't necessarily trying to tell the absolute truth. Some of them aren't actually capable of it!

"What could be interesting would be to know the date at which the print made its first appearance. If we knew this we could perhaps rule Hodges out of the equation. Incidentally, in my mind he's already ruled out!"

So although the cardinal lory provides the closest match among real species to the Hodges mystery red parakeet, it may be that whoever painted it was merely inspired by this lory, rather than seeking to prepare a true-to-life depiction of it.

I have the feeling somehow that this cryptozoological conundrum is going to run and run - or should that be fly and fly?!

*BRODERIP, William J. (1833). Dodo. Penny Mag. Soc. Diffus. Useful Knowl., 75: 209–211. [reprinted in 1837 within The Penny Cyclopaedia, 9: 47.]

My sincere thanks go to Errol Fuller, Joe Parish, and David Alderton for their much-valued comments and thoughts.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

ROTHSCHILD'S MYNAH - THE FIRST HUNDRED YEARS.

Rothschild's mynah (Brian Jelonek/Wikipedia)

Continuing my series of ShukerNature posts concerning species featuring in my forthcoming book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals that are celebrating major anniversaries in 2011, here's Bali's only endemic species of bird, which was discovered by science exactly 100 years ago.


ROTHSCHILD'S MYNAH

On 24 March 1911, while participating in the second Freiburger expedition to the Moluccas, avian expert Dr Erwin Stresemann collected an adult female of a quite exquisite species of crested starling at Bubunan, on the northern coast of Bali. Except for the black edge to its tail and its black wing tips, its plumage was an immaculate snowy white. In contrast, its unfeathered legs and feet were pale grey, its bill was brownish-yellow, and a conspicuous patch of bright blue skin encircled each eye. A new species, related most closely to the mynahs, it was unique to Bali - moreover, it is this island's only endemic bird.

In 1912 it was officially described by Stresemann, who created a new genus for it, and named it Leucopsar rothschildi, as a token of his gratitude to Lord Rothschild for permitting him to spend such a considerable time during his ornithological researches at the magnificent natural history museum at Tring, founded and owned at that time by Rothschild.

The highly attractive appearance of Rothschild's mynah ensured its rapid rise to fame as a popular cage bird, but by being restricted to such a tiny island as Bali (no more than about 2000 square miles in area, of which only the Bubunan portion is inhabited by the mynahs) it is, unavoidably, a species with a small population size. As a result, the depletion of its numbers in the wild by local trappers supplying birds to zoos, aviculturalists, etc, ultimately transformed it into an endangered species – so much so that in 2001 the wild population had reached an all-time low of just six birds and is categorised as critically endangered by the IUCN.

Happily, however, it breeds well in captivity, enabling its numbers to be built up. At Jersey Zoo, for instance, 185 mynahs had been bred by mid-1990 from an original group of just four. Conservationists hope that captive-bred specimens released onto Bali will boost the wild population to its former level, before this mynah became a popular aviary species.

Rothschild's mynah (Dr Karl Shuker)

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A CENTURY OF OWSTON'S BANDED CIVET

Owston's banded civet (Chris Brack)


To promote my soon-to-be-published Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals - the fully-revised, thoroughly-updated, and greatly-expanded third incarnation of what began as The Lost Ark in 1993, and then became The New Zoo in 2002 - during the next few weeks I shall be excerpting from this latest book of mine as a series of ShukerNature exclusives some of the remarkable animals whose discoveries or rediscoveries are celebrating notable anniversaries in 2011. Here's one of them.


OWSTON'S BANDED CIVET

Owston's banded civet Chrotogale owstoni is an obscure Asian species, measuring up to 3.5 ft in total length. Named after Alan Owston, whose native collector procured its type specimen on 16 September 1911 at Yen-bay, on Tonkin's Song-koi River in southern China, it was officially described in 1912 by Oldfield Thomas, who designated it as the sole member of a new genus. The visually arresting pattern created by contrasting light and dark, transverse bands on its body and the basal portion of its tail closely resembles that of the banded palm civet Hemigalus derbianus, but the latter species lacks the dark spots visible on the neck, shoulders, flanks, and thighs of Chrotogale.

Owston's banded civet depicted upon a Vietnamese postage stamp from 1966

Furthermore, anatomical comparisons uncovered distinct differences in cranial structure and dentition between the two species, differences sufficiently marked to warrant these civets' respective residence in separate genera. Most remarkable of these contrasts were the very slender muzzle of Chrotogale, and its incongruous incisors - these latter teeth are surprisingly broad and close-set, and arranged almost in a semi-circle, a condition more comparable to that of certain insectivorous marsupials than to any species of viverrid.

Owston's banded civet depicted upon a set of Vietnamese postage stamps from 2005

Whether Chrotogale too is predominantly insectivorous, however, remains uncertain, as even today it is still a very mysterious animal, known from less than two dozen preserved specimens originating variously from northern Vietnam, Laos, and from Tonkin and Yunnan in China. A live individual was captured in Vietnam in 1991, followed by others more recently. These latter include (in 1999) three males and seven females at Hanoi Zoo, six males and four females at Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) Zoo, four of each sex at Pittsboro Zoo in North Carolina, and one female at Frankfurt Zoo. More recently, an international conservation and breeding programme for them was established in co-operation with Vietnam’s Cuc Phuong National Park working with various zoos including Newquay Zoo.

My scraperboard illustration of Owston's banded civet (Dr Karl Shuker)

Monday, 10 October 2011

AN UNCOMMONNESS OF UNICORNS

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

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


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

The yale, in Jonathan Hunt's Bestiary

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


Medieval engraving depicting the eale (bottom right)

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

Engraving of the camphor

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

Engraving of the pirassoipi

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


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

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

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

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


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

The extraordinary Icelandic bjarndýrakóngur or unicorn bear (Pat Burroughs)

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

Reconstruction of Kubanochoerus gigas (Apokryltaros-Wikipedia)

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

The horned screamer's unicorned head

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

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

Painting from 1864 of a pair of horned screamers

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

19th-Century engraving of a horned screamer

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

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

Rhynchophis boulengeri (Vladimír Motyčka)

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

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


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


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





Monday, 3 October 2011

A UNICORN RABBIT FROM COUNTY DURHAM


Unicorn, the aptly-named unicorn rabbit of County Durham


Last week, it was all about Frank and Louie - the record-breaking, 12-year-old Janus cat, a cat with two faces. This week, I have pleasure in introducing another furry wonder - a bona fide unicorn rabbit!

As someone passionately interested in unicorns, I have documented many different types over the years, ranging from the familiar equine version to rather more exotic counterparts - including a lethal carnivorous desert-dweller with a musical flute-like horn, an ostensibly semi-aquatic form with webbed feet, an extremely bellicose bovine or even rhinocerine equivalent from Persia that could be soothed only by the calming cooing of a turtle dove, and a small hare-like but extremely malign entity from an unnamed tropical island. However, there is one particular example, which I investigated a fair few years ago but have never previously documented, that I find especially intriguing - for the simple reason that whereas most unicorns of whatever type they may be are fictitious, this one was real.

On 29 September 1982, writer Paul Screeton at the Hartlepool Mail published a report (subsequently picked up by other media sources, and also reproduced in his own magazine, The Shaman – see photo) documenting a most extraordinary pet rabbit that its owner, 9-year-old Kathy Lister of Trimdon Grange in County Durham, England, had very aptly named Unicorn. Due to a genetic fluke, Unicorn had been born with just a single ear. Yet whereas there are numerous reports on file of individual mammals of many different species in which one or other ear is missing, Unicorn’s condition was rather more special. For unlike typical one-eared individuals, her single ear was not laterally positioned, but arose instead from the centre of her head, standing upright like a long furry horn!

Holding my copy of Paul Screeton's article re Unicorn in The Shaman

Intrigued by this highly unusual condition (even today, I have never encountered any additional ‘median-ear’ instances), I decided to pursue the case personally. So after first discussing it with Paul Screeton, in July 1988 I contacted Kathy (then aged 15) and her father James, requesting further details, and am most grateful for the following information that they very kindly sent to me.

Born in spring 1981, Unicorn was a Flemish Giant doe bred on James’s farm, and she subsequently became the much-loved pet of his daughter Kathy. In more than 35 years of rabbit breeding, this was the only one-eared rabbit that James had ever observed. In autumn 1984, Unicorn escaped from her pen, but three days later she was found, recaptured, and placed in a new hutch. Over the next month, she grew steadily fatter, and 31 days after her original escape Unicorn gave birth to a litter of five offspring. As she had never been introduced to any of the farm rabbits, it is clear, therefore, that during her brief period of freedom Unicorn had encountered and mated with a wild rabbit.

Of her five offspring, four were normal, but the fifth displayed its mother’s remarkable median-ear condition. Regrettably, however, all five offspring died shortly afterwards during a very severe thunderstorm, so no details of their sex are known. Happily, Unicorn survived, and lived for a further two years, but she did not give birth to any further litters, so the unidentified mutant gene presumably responsible for her median ear and that of one of her offspring was lost forever when she died in November 1986.

Kathy Lister and Unicorn

Judging from the 4:1 normal:mutant ratio of offspring, it is likely that the median-ear condition was induced by a recessive allele (gene form), and that Unicorn was homozygous for it (i.e. possessing two copies), thereby enabling the condition to be expressed by her. If so, then it must also be assumed that her wild mate was at least heterozygous (possessing one copy) for this same mutant allele, in order to explain the birth of the single median-eared offspring in her litter. Yet if this mutant allele is indeed present in the wild population, one might have expected it to have been expressed far more frequently (especially in animals that are famous for breeding...well, like rabbits!). Could it, therefore, be associated with some debilitating trait too, so that individuals expressing it are more vulnerable in some way to predation?

The most obvious affliction to be expected that may prove detrimental to survival in the wild is some form of hearing impairment – an occurrence that normally accompanies most ear-related mutations. Yet Kathy had observed that when Unicorn was called, she would turn towards the direction of the voice, thus suggesting that her hearing was not severely impeded (although by having only one ear, it meant – inevitably - that Unicorn’s hearing could only be monoaural, not stereo).

Tragically, however, in the absence of further litters from Unicorn upon which to base breeding observations, little more can be said of her apparently unique mutation. So it is likely that its identity will remain undiscovered, unless this remarkable ‘unicorn ear’ condition reappears one day in some other rabbit farm.

Thanks very much to Paul Screeton for kindly making available to me the photos included here.

UPDATE - 19 October 2011

Today, while browsing through the newly-published 2012 edition of Ripley's Believe It Or Not, I discovered a second unicorn rabbit. Owned by rabbit breeder Franz-Xaver Noemmer, from Egglham, Germany, it was born in February 2010, and has snow-white fur.

This post is extracted from The Anomalarium of Doctor Shuker, one of my current books-in-progress.