Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Thursday, 13 September 2012


Leguatia gigantea, as painted by Frederick W. Frohawk in 1905 for Lord Walter Rothschild's book Extinct Birds (1907)

For many years, there was much debate within geographical and zoological circles concerning whether the famous Indian Ocean voyage of Huguenot refugee François Leguat during 1690-1698 did actually take place - and, indeed, whether Leguat himself ever existed. Some researchers claimed that Leguat and his travelogue Voyage et Avantures de François Leguat et de Ses Compagnons en Deux Isles Désertes des Indes Orientales (1708), translated into English as New Voyage to the East Indies, were as fraudulent as those of Baron Münchausen and the fictitious Sir John Mandeville, and that his visits to the Mascarene islands of Mauritius and Rodrigues occurred only in someone's imagination.

In 1926, however, two Paris librarians, J. Vivielle and Henri Dehérain, uncovered much new data substantiating the reality of Leguat and his voyage. Nevertheless, considerable controversy still surrounds this enigmatic explorer (now known to have been born in 1637-1639 and to have died in September 1735), not least of which concerns the identity of a very tall, long-vanished, and extremely mysterious Mauritius bird named after him.

Referred to by Leguat as 'Le Géant' ('the giant'), Leguatia gigantea was so christened by German zoologist Prof. Hermann Schlegel in 1858, and is usually deemed to have been a giant species of rail. A marsh-dweller, it was reputedly abundant at the time of Leguat's visit to Mauritius (and he also spied it on the smaller Mascarene island of Rodrigues), but had entirely vanished shortly afterwards, judging from the fact that no other explorer has reported seeing it since. Having said that, the Marquis du Quesne, a contemporary of Leguat, did briefly refer in one of his own publications to a giant marsh-bird formerly inhabiting the Mascarene island of Réunion (then called Bourbon) that may have been Leguatia.

Two engravings are known (which have inspired a number of much more recent paintings). One, entitled 'Le Géant', is by Leguat himself and appeared in his travelogue.

Leguat's own depiction of what he termed 'Le Géant'

However, this illustration seems to have been based upon an earlier engraving - of a bird simply dubbed 'Avis Indica', which featured in an early 17th-Century tome of illustrations by Adriaan Collaert, entitled Avium Vivae Icones. Both engravings depict a long-necked, squat-bodied, long-limbed bird with enormous toes, a short white-edged tail, small wings, and a fairly long, straight, pointed beak.

The enigmatic 'Avis Indica'

Leguat, meanwhile, described 'Le Géant' (i.e. Leguatia) as follows:

"...and many of these birds called giants, because they are six feet high. They are extremely high mounted, and have very long necks. Their bodies are not bigger than that of a goose. They are all white, except a little place under their wings, which is reddish. They have a goose's bill, only a little sharper; their claws are very long and divided."

And this is Prof. Schlegel's own account of its morphology in his formal description of Leguatia gigantea:

"Stature, six feet high. Body not heavier than that of a Goose. Wings pretty short, but fit for flight. Feathers of the tibia reaching pretty close to the tarsus. Toes long and quite free, those in front about as long as the tarsus. Upper mandible extended in a plate reaching beyond the eye. General colour white, with a reddish spot under the wing. Colour of the feet and bill unknown, but probably not very remarkable, as the description does not mention it."

As can be readily perceived, Schlegel had incorporated into his own description various features not included in Leguat's written description but which had appeared in his engraving (despite the worrying fact that the latter seemed to be little more than a version of the obscure 'Avis Indica' engraving, and was therefore hardly the most reliable image to use as the basis for describing Leguatia). Moreover, in the belief that Leguatia was a giant species of gallinule (the taxonomic group of rails containing moorhens, coots, swamphens, and the takahe), Schlegel produced a modified version of Leguat's engraving in which Leguatia had been duly transformed into a giant gallinule, and published it alongside Leguat's original for comparison purposes.

Leguat's engraving (left) alongside Schlegel's giant gallinule equivalent

Ingenious and intriguing though it may have been, how justified, scientifically speaking, Schlegel's visual interpretation could be (based as it was upon an engraving that was itself derived from a very ambiguous original) is another matter entirely!

Modern-day representations of Leguatia have suffered from varying degrees of extrapolation and elaboration too. When documenting this mysterious bird in his book Extinct Birds (1907), Lord Walter Rothschild described it as follows:

"Body no larger than that of a goose; wings rather short but still fitted for flight; feathers of the legs reaching down almost to the top of the tarso-metatarsus; toes long and completely free, middle toe almost as long as tarso-metatarsus. Bill with a naked shield reaching back beyond the eye. Height about 6 feet."

Rothschild's description is simply a slightly paraphrased version of Schlegel's. Consequently, when acclaimed bird artist Frederick W. Frohawk was painting Leguatia in 1905 for inclusion within Rothschild's Extinct Birds two years later - see the painting heading this present ShukerNature blog post – he was evidently inspired by Schlegel's reconstruction of Leguatia as a giant gallinule, because he drew its beak and feet like those of a gigantic moorhen. Frohawk also gave Leguatia's beak the red colour associated with the common European moorhen's, because no beak colour had been stated by Leguat. No leg or foot colour had been stated by him either, so for reasons that remain unclear, Frohawk painted these red too (rather than the less striking yellow shade of the moorhen's).

The European moorhen Gallinula chloropus (J.M. Garg-Wikipedia)

Equally perplexing is why Frohawk added black wing-tips to his illustration of Leguatia, because neither Leguat's description nor his engraving contained any suggestion of such a feature. This seemingly invented characteristic was also incorporated into the specially-commissioned illustration of Leguatia that appeared in Masauji Hachisuka's book The Dodo and Kindred Birds, or the Extinct Birds of the Mascarene Islands (1953), for which Hachisuka duly apologised in a footnote.

Moreover, it is also unclear why a number of modern-day works documenting Leguatia refer to it as being flightless, because Leguat's account contains no such statement. Only the very short wings of the bird in his engraving indicate the possibility of such a condition. However, as already emphasised, this is far from being a reliable image. Worth noting is that Schlegel stated in his formal description of Leguatia that he considered its wings "fit for flight" - a statement reiterated ("fitted for flight") by Rothschild in his own description.

A little-known depiction of Leguatia features on Card #3 of Series 2 in the two-series set of chromo-lithographic cards entitled Tiere der Urwelt ('Creatures of the Primitive World'), which were issued by the Reichardt Cacao Company in Germany during the first decade of the 20th Century. These cards were illustrated by an artist named Francis John, and for the most part depicted prehistoric creatures, plus some historically-extinct forms. As can be seen here, John's illustration of Leguatia was clearly influenced by Leguat's engraving.

Leguatia, as portrayed by Francis John on a chromo-lithographic card from the early 1900s

Incidentally, Leguatia gigantea, or Leguat's giant rail (to give it its rarely-used common name), should not be confused – though it often is – with Leguat's rail Erythromachus (=Aphanapteryx) leguati. This was a much smaller, chicken-sized species of rail native to Rodrigues. First described by Leguat, it became extinct during the mid-1700s.

Leguat's rail, illustrated by Frederick W. Frohawk for Lord Rothschild's Extinct Birds (1907)

Its closest relative was another now-demised Mascarene species, the similar-sized Mauritius red rail Aphanapteryx bonasia, which is believed to have died out around 1700.

Mauritius red rail portrayed on a Mauritius postage stamp from 1965 in the author's collection (Dr Karl Shuker)

As for Leguatia: Faced with such a highly distinctive bird, yet one that bore no convincing resemblance to any known species, three schools of ornithological opinion ultimately arose.

One claimed that Leguatia was indeed an unknown species, most probably a gigantic gallinule (and therefore a member of the rail family, Rallidae), which had tragically died out long ago. Supporters of this possibility included Lord Rothschild and Masauji Hachisuka.

A second proposed that Leguat was mistaken over what he saw and that the two engravings were simply ill-drawn, inaccurate representations of some familiar species, of which the two most favoured contenders are a gallinule or a flamingo (most probably the greater flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus, bones of which have been found on Mauritius). This theory was supported by 19th-Century ornithologist Alfred Newton, Paul Carié (in his 1930 paper investigating Leguatia), and Anthony S. Cheke and Julian P. Hume (authors of Lost Land of the Dodo (2008), among others.

And the third brusquely dismissed Leguatia (like its human namesake) as wholly fictitious – an invented, "dreamed-up" bird, to quote German ornithologist Dr Kálmán Lambrecht, writing about it in 1933. James C. Greenway Jr (author of Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World, 1967) also favoured this explanation.

Comparing Leguatia gigantea with the greater flamingo (flamingo photograph © Biodiversityexplorer.org)

Even today, these factions are no nearer reaching an agreement concerning the status and validity (or otherwise) of Leguatia. It certainly seems strange that none of the many explorers visiting Mauritius before or since Leguat has referred to Leguatia; surely it would be difficult to overlook or fail to mention such a sizeable, eyecatching bird. Yet perhaps at least two explorers did see it - after all, we still have Collaert's enigmatic 'Avis Indica' to explain, plus the Marquis du Quesne's mention of giant marsh-dwelling birds on Réunion.

As for misidentification based upon poor portrayals: flamingo bones have indeed been discovered on Mauritius, but if Collaert's 'Avis Indica' is truly meant to be a depiction of a flamingo, then it must surely rate as one of the worst, most outlandishly inaccurate animal illustrations of all time! Equally, it hardly need be stated that flamingos are not short-winged.

A major critic of the misidentified flamingo explanation for Leguatia was none other than Prof. Schlegel, who had formally described and christened it in 1858. In an English translation of that paper, published in 1866 by the ornithological journal The Ibis, Schlegel provided no less than eight separate refutations of the flamingo explanation, which can be summarised as follows:

1) The physiognomy of Leguatia is quite different from that of the flamingo.

2) Its beak as depicted and described by Leguat bears no resemblance to the flamingo's uniquely-shaped beak.

3) The flamingo's neck is much longer and thinner than Leguatia's

4) The flamingo's tail is much shorter, has a different shape, and is never carried erect.

5) The flamingo's legs are much longer than the flamingo and are for the greater part bare, whereas in Leguatia they are covered with feathers almost as far as the tarsus.

6) The flamingo has much shorter fore-toes, connected by webbing, and an extremely small hind toe, whereas in Leguatia the toes are extraordinarily long and not webbed.

7) The flamingo's plumage colour is grey in the young and more or less generally red in older specimens, but never white like Leguatia.

8) Leguat was familiar with the morphology of the flamingo, so surely he would not mistake some other, very different bird (i.e. Leguatia) for a flamingo.

Yet if we accept the validity of Leguatia as a discrete species in its own right, and that its morphology was accurately described and depicted in Leguat's text and the two engravings, why did what Leguat claimed to have been a common species die out so rapidly after his Mauritius visit? And why are there no specimens or preserved remains? Not a single bone referable to such a large, distinctive bird has ever been discovered among the countless subfossil remains retrieved from various sites on Mauritius.

Until answers to such questions as these are forthcoming, Leguatia seems fated to remain in this ornithological limbo of the lost occupied by it for the past three centuries.


Today, at a car boot sale in England, I purchased for just £1 this lovely wood-carved bird figurine, standing almost 1 ft tall and with the wood's natural imperfections and colour shadings left intact. It is clearly a rail of some kind, but it does not seem to correspond with any European or North American species, and as these types of carving tend to originate from Asia and Australasia, I am assuming therefore that the species of bird represented by it is a native of this region of the world, but can anyone identify it more precisely?

My mystery rail figurine (Dr Karl Shuker)

The colour print below of a Tasmanian native-hen or wood hen Tribonyx mortierii (a rail species, in spite of its name!) is very reminiscent of this figurine, which also reminds me somewhat of Leguatia gigantea, though the latter's neck was somewhat longer in the various depictions of it. All suggestions concerning my figurine's putative species are greatly welcomed as ever!

Hand-coloured lithograph, 1850, of a Tasmanian wood hen

1 comment:

  1. You have provided an interesting elaboration on this subject. You might want to trace the original account, as it was written in French, and look for discrepancies in the translation.

    Leguat seems to be writing of something superficially like the flamingo, which he would have observed only from a distance. I am given to concur with your second argument (Newton and others). Leguat may not have seen closely to write about its webbed feet, as his comment only describes the claws. The overall white plumage, with a small amount of red, and the comparison to the beak of a goose (which brings to mind the likes of the bean or the white-fronted) gives me reason to disagree with Schlegel's points, including the one relating to the beak and especially his arguments about the neck.

    The illustration cannot be taken literally. Well into the previous century, experts on the oceanic, tube-nosed swimmers of the Procellariiformes believed that those birds typically supported themselves on their two legs, and many fine illustrations (Godman's 'Monograph') perpetuated this flaw. In the case of the "avis indica," the tail was incorporated in that position for the artist's sake of accounting for it.

    The greater flamingo does occur on Mauritius.