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.

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Wednesday, 24 October 2012

'A' IS FOR AJOLOTE - OF TATZELWORMS AND DEATH WORMS

Freaks of Nature, featuring an ajolote on its front cover (Dr Karl Shuker)

As a child in the late 1960s, I owned several of the animal editions in a series of tiny but fascinating books, each barely 3 inches long and containing just 32 pages, which were published by Bancroft and were aptly entitled 'Bancroft Tiddlers'. Sadly, most of mine are now long gone, having either fallen apart from over-enthusiastic use or been cut up for their pictures to paste in my numerous animal scrapbooks that I used to prepare with great zeal back in those far-distant days.

One 'Bancroft Tiddler' dealt with beetles (and I still own this today), others dealt with prehistoric animals, rare animals, tropical birds, etc. However, the one that I still recall most readily, #13 in the series, was entitled Freaks of Nature, and the reason why it made such an impression upon me was its front cover picture - which featured one of the most extraordinary creatures that I had ever seen.

As shown in this present ShukerNature blog post's opening illustration, the creature in question resembled a long, pink, segmented, coiled-up earthworm, except for its small but well-differentiated head (possessing a mouth and a pair of tiny dark eyes) – and, most dramatic of all, for the even smaller, single pair of clawed limbs visible just a little way back from its head, which looked rather like a pair of ears!

The ajolote spread from Freaks of Nature

This vermiform 'freak of nature' (which one might be forgiven nowadays for dismissing as an imaginative Photoshopped creation!) also appeared inside the book. There, it was revealed to be something called an ajolote, with the generic name Bipes (translating as 'two-footed'), which was a worm-lizard from Mexico. As can be seen from the above image, little else was said about it inside my 'Bancroft Tiddler', but it was enough to fire my interest and imagination, and stimulate me to seek out additional information concerning this astonishing little animal.

I discovered that the ajolote (of which there are four, very similar species, the best known being Bipes biporus, all approximately 6-9 inches long, confined exclusively to Mexico, and also known as mole lizards), was a very special type of amphisbaenian or worm-lizard. These latter reptiles are related to but taxonomically separate from both true lizards and snakes.

19th-Century sepia engraving of a limbless amphisbaenian

They are known as worm-lizards because superficially they do greatly resemble earthworms, both morphologically and behaviourally - spending much of their time in subterranean seclusion, moving via peristaltic locomotion, devouring real earthworms and other invertebrates, and often only emerging above-ground at night or when flushed out during heavy rain. Moreover, their tails are so similar in form to their heads that it is often difficult to decide which end of an amphisbaenian is which (their name is directly derived from the mythical amphisbaena - a worm-like monster with a head at each end of its body).

Amphisbaenians are native to tropical Africa, Morocco, the Middle East, southern Europe (Iberia and Anatolia), Florida, Mexico, the West Indies, and South America, and the vast majority are entirely limbless. The only exceptions are the four ajolote species, thanks to their tiny forelimbs.

19th-Century engraving of an ajolote (in the days when only a single species was recognised, and was referred to scientifically as Chirotes caniculatus)

Like other amphisbaenians, however, ajolotes are predominantly subterranean, fossorial species, feeding upon insects, worms, and very small lizards. They even breed underground, the female laying 1-4 eggs in July, which take 2 months to hatch. Sadly, however, ajolotes only live for 1-2 years.

Recently, I discovered online the eyecatching photograph below of an ajolote, and it seems evident that the drawing in Freaks of Nature was based upon it, but I have been unable to find any credit for this photograph, so any information regarding it would be greatly welcomed.

Online photograph of an ajolote (Photo owner unknown to me)

Interestingly, the ajolote has also cropped up as a possible identity in relation to two entirely separate creatures of cryptozoology – the European tatzelworm, and the Mongolian death worm.

One of the most tenaciously elusive mystery beasts has been reported for centuries from the Alps mountain range, extending through Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and Bavaria. It remains unknown to science, but is well known locally as the tatzelworm ('clawed worm'), stollenworm ('hole-dwelling worm'), or springworm ('jumping worm').

Tatzelworm model ((Markus Bühler)


Many eyewitness accounts of tatzelworms have been documented, some containing conflicting morphological details. Generally, however, this enigmatic beast can be described as follows.

Measuring 2-4 ft long, with light-coloured skin usually appearing smooth or surfaced with tiny scales, the tatzelworm is very elongate in shape, with a short and surprisingly cat-like head, a long worm-like body, and a blunt tail. Some observers claim that it has a pair of short clawed limbs at the front of its body; a few state that it also has a second, hind pair of limbs; and some allege that it has no limbs at all (although they may simply have been overlooked). It reputedly lives mainly in holes or burrows, but is sometimes encountered basking in alpine meadows on sunny days. If approached, it will usually vanish swiftly into its hole, but there are reports of decidedly belligerent tatzelworms that have leapt towards their startled eyewitnesses, usually causing them to flee rather than continue their observations!

Although the existence of such a sizeable creature still undiscovered by science in the Alps may seem unlikely to outsiders, the tatzelworm's reality to these mountains' inhabitants is such that in the 1800s it was even featured in three major alpine guides. According to one of them, Swiss naturalist Friedrich von Tschudi's Das Thierleben der Alpenwelt (1861):

"In the Bernese Oberland and the Jura the belief is widespread that there exists a sort of 'cave-worm' which is thick, 30 to 90 cm long, and has two short legs; it appears at the approach of storms after a long dry spell."

A tatzelworm drawing matching the above description had appeared 20 years earlier in a Swiss almanac, Alpenrosen.

The tatzelworm as depicted in Alpenrosen

However, perhaps the most famous tatzelworm illustration is the sketch of a 'scaly log' with a toothy grin, plus front and rear limbs, featuring in a Bavarian handbook, Neues Taschenbuch für Natur-, Forst- und Jagdfreunde auf das Jahr 1836, and based upon the description given by someone claiming to have shot one of these creatures.

The tatzelworm as depicted in the above-cited handbook

Over the years, some fascinating tatzelworm sightings have been recorded. One of the most dramatic, however, must surely have been the decidedly close encounter of the scary kind experienced one day in summer 1921 by a poacher and a herdsman while hunting on Austria's Hochfilzenalm Mountain, near Rauris. Suddenly, they became aware of a very strange animal, lying on a rock close by, watching them. Measuring 2-3 ft long, it was grey in colour, as thick as a human arm, with a feline, fist-sized head, and a thick tail. Alarmed, the poacher raised his rifle and shot at this bizarre beast - but as he did so, the creature, living up to its alternative name of 'springworm', abruptly jumped up through the air towards them, revealing two small front limbs but no rear limbs. Unsurprisingly, the men raced away.

A pallid smooth-skinned specimen measuring approximately 18 in long with two stub-like front limbs and noticeably large eyes was encountered in April 1929 by a teacher seeking the entrance to a cave on Austria's Mount Landsberg. The creature, which may have been a juvenile specimen in view of its small size, was lying in wet mouldy leaves, but swiftly vanished into a hole close by when the teacher tried to capture it.

Tatzelworm model (Markus Bühler)

Intriguingly, together with a number of snakes, an apparent tatzelworm was discovered in 1933 concealed inside a hollow space behind a stone wall being removed by some workmen at Spittal an der Drau in Austria. According to their description, it was 3 ft long, dirty white in colour with a yellowish tinge, and cylindrical in shape, with a cat-like head, big eyes, and two short front legs. The workmen gingerly manoeuvred this peculiar animal onto a shovel and, along with its serpentine companions, tossed it into the nearby Lieser river - across which it rapidly swam, until it disappeared from sight on the far-side bank.

Another noteworthy sighting took place near St Pankraz, Austria, in 1922, when a 12-year-old girl playing in a wooded area ran to see why her sister, playing close by, had suddenly begun to cry. When she reached her, the girl was terrified to spy, no more than 4 yards away, a grey-coloured creature with transverse grooves across its body, crawling between some stones. Measuring at least 1 ft long, it resembled a giant worm, but sported a pair of paws behind its head. Too shocked to move, the two sisters gazed at it in fascinated horror for a time before summoning up enough courage to run away.

A number of identities have been suggested in relation to the tatzelworm, including an unknown species of reduced-limbed lizard (several skinks, for instance, possess only a single pair of limbs), or even a legless lizard, as typified by the familiar slow worm Anguis fragilis and the larger European glass snake or scheltopusik Pseudopus apodus.

19th-Century colour engraving of a scheltopusik

As noted in my book The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), however, by far the closest correspondence to the tatzelworm's reported morphology is provided by the ajolotes. Yet, frustratingly, these are unknown outside Mexico. However, there are several species of limbless amphisbaenian native to southern Europe. So is it conceivable that a large, highly elusive, undescribed species of two-legged, ajolote-lookalike amphisbaenian still awaits formal scientific discovery in central Europe?

The second cryptid that has been compared with the ajolote is a little-known mystery beast that I learnt about from veteran Mongolian death worm seeker Ivan Mackerle. Here is what I wrote about it in my extensive Fortean Studies paper (vol. 4, 1997) on the death worm that was later updated and republished as a chapter in my book The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003).

The Beasts That Hide From Man, depicting a reconstruction of the Mongolian death worm by Ivan Mackerle on its front cover (Dr Karl Shuker)

It was documented by Mongolian author S. Dzhambaldorzh in his book Mongol Nuucyn Chelchee ('Braid of Mongolian Secrets') (1990), which contains a section regarding the death worm, entitled 'The most interesting rare worm in the world'.

In that section, Dzhambaldorzh includes a report concerning an obscure cryptid that may or may not be one and the same as the death worm. Derived from geographer B. Avirmed of the Mongolian Geographical Institute, this report had first appeared in 1981, within a Mongolian newspaper. It featured the eyewitness testimony of a Mongolian shepherd:

"Shepherd L. Chorloo (Khorlaw) from Chongor Gobi in the south Gobi aimak (country) stated: "Here we see an interesting creature. Its body looks like salami, half of which is taken up by the head, and on the rear it has wings. I have seen it twice. On both occasions it was lying dead at the well."

Is it possible that this 'winged salami' is actually a worm-like reptile with only a single pair of legs, which, in a desert terrain, would probably be splayed or spatulate in shape for digging, and might therefore resemble wings? Needless to say, the ajolotes once again come readily to mind. Morphologically speaking, an extra-large ajolote would certainly provide a very plausible explanation for the legged/winged mystery worm of Chongor Gobi. Or at least it would if we are willing to assume that, because amphisbaenians' heads and tails are very similar in appearance - and because he had only ever seen dead specimens of his 'salami' cryptid - the shepherd may have mistakenly thought that his mystery beast's 'wings' (i.e. its spade-shaped legs) were at its body's rear end instead of its front end.

Photograph of a captive specimen of ajolote (at El Serpentario, La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico), showing one of its tiny forelegs (Marlin Harms/Wikipedia)

Even so, as ajolotes constitute an exclusively New World quartet, as with the tatzelworm this identification is zoogeographically unsatisfactory. Of course, as again noted earlier with the tatzelworm, it is conceivable that an Old World amphisbaenian lineage could have given rise to an undiscovered ajolote counterpart by convergent evolution. Yet aside from the account of the Chongor Gobi mystery beast, there is not a scrap of death worm related evidence to suggest this. Moreover, there is not even a single known species of amphisbaenian on record from the Far East anyway. Alternatively, the Chongor Gobi cryptid could be a species of two-legged lizard - of which a number of species are already known to science.

Yet regardless of its morphological similarity or otherwise to various species already known to science, it is still unclear whether or not this legged mystery beast from the Chongor Gobi is indeed one and the same as the seemingly limbless death worm reported elsewhere in the Gobi. Bearing in mind, however, that nomads prefer to keep as great a distance as feasible between themselves and any death worm that they encounter, it is not impossible that the latter cryptid really does possess a small, inconspicuous pair of limbs - but which can only be discerned if viewed at extremely close range or in dead specimens, and whose presence is therefore not widely realised, even among the nomads.

Finally: just in case you're wondering how I've been able to include photos here of both the cover and the ajolote spread from Freaks of Nature, bearing in mind that my childhood copy no longer exists, the answer is simple – a few days ago I was delighted to discover a copy for sale on ebay, so I duly bought it, for £2.50 plus p&p. And as you can see from the photo below of its front cover, to which its original price label was still affixed before I carefully removed it, book prices have certainly risen in the years since this little 'Bancroft Tiddler', first published in 1966 and written by Nicky Tulissio, was available in the shops! 2½p for a brand-new book! Those were the days!

Front cover of Freaks of Nature with its original price label still affixed (Dr Karl Shuker)



Monday, 22 October 2012

THE ZEBRO - AN EQUINE MYSTERY FROM IBERIA

Artistic representation of the zebro's possible appearance ((c) ejbeneite.blogspot.co.uk)

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, several Spanish hunting treatises alluded to a mysterious, now-vanished equine creature known as the zebro (or encebro, in Aragon), living wild in the Iberian Peninsula. In one of these works, it was described as “an animal resembling a mare, of grey colour with a black band running along the spine and a dark muzzle". Others likened it to a donkey but louder, stronger, and much faster, with a notable temper, and whose hair was streaked with grey and white on its back and legs. What could it have been?

Although largely forgotten nowadays, the zebro experienced a brief revival of interest from science in 1992. That was when archaeologists Carlos Nores and Corina von Lettow-Vorbeck Liesau published a very thought-provoking article in the Spanish scientific magazine Archaeofauna, in which they boldly proposed that the zebro may have been one and the same as an equally enigmatic fossil species – Equus hydruntinus, the European wild ass.

Artistic representation of the European wild ass Equus hydruntinus (Francesco Gabelione, (c) 2009, IBAM ITLab)

The precise taxonomic affinities of this latter equid have yet to be satisfactorily resolved, for although genetic and morphological analyses suggest that it was very closely related to the onager E. hemionus, one of several species of Asiatic wild ass, it can apparently be differentiated from these and also from African wild asses by way of its distinctive molars and its relatively short nares (nasal passages). Arising during the mid-Pleistocene epoch, approximately 300,000 years Before Present, the European wild ass persisted into the early Holocene before finally becoming extinct. During the late Pleistocene, its zoogeographical distribution in western Eurasia stretched from Iran in the Middle East into much of Europe, reaching as far north as Germany, and it was particularly abundant along the Mediterranean, with fossil remains having been recovered from Turkey, Sicily, Spain, Portugal, and France.

According to Nores and Liesau, moreover, this species may have survived in southernmost Spain and certain remote parts of Portugal until as late as the 16th Century (they consider its disappearance to represent the Iberian Peninsula’s last megafaunal extinction), where, they suggest, it became known locally as the zebro. More recently, their theory gained support from the discovery of E. hydruntinus remains at Cerro de la Virgen, Granada, dating from as late as the 9th Century.

A sorraia stallion (Selona/Wikipedia)

Some researchers have also suggested that before dying out, the zebro gave rise at least in part to a primitive, nowadays-endangered Iberian breed of donkey-like domestic horse called the sorraia (which was once itself referred to as the zebro). Furthermore, many believe that it was from the term ‘zebro’ that ‘zebra’ originated as the almost universally-used common name for Africa’s familiar striped equids.

Even today, many Iberian place-names still exist in which the mysterious but now-obscure zebro’s name is preserved. These include Ribeira do Zebro in Portugal; and Valdencebro (in Teruel), Cebreros (Ávila), Encebras (Alicante), and Las Encebras (Murcia) in Spain.

A partbred grullo Sorraia colt exhibiting zebra type stripes formed by the lay pattern of the newborn foal hair coat. The dorsal and leg stripes remain, but the lay pattern stripes disappears after several days or weeks when the hair is fully fluffed (Selona/Wikipedia)


FURTHER READING:

NORES, Carlos & LIESAU, Corina (1992). La zoologia historica como complemento de la arqueozoologia. El caso del zebro. Archaeofauna, vol. 1, pp. 61-71.


This ShukerNature blog post was originally published as an article in issue #1 of Flying Snake.

Friday, 12 October 2012

IN CONFERENCE WITH NESSIE AT EDINBURGH 25 YEARS AGO - A RETROSPECTIVE

Loch Ness monster (Richard Pullen)


I can scarcely believe that it has been 25 years since I wrote this article, which I re-read recently for the first time in a very long while, recounting the highly significant symposium on the Loch Ness monster organised by the International Society of Cryptozoology and hosted by the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh in 1987. So here it is, presented online for the very first time as a ShukerNature exclusive - a retrospective of a unique event in cryptozoological history, and yes, I was there!

Early Nessie postcard in my collection (Dr Karl Shuker)

In 1982, Cryptozoology took a momentous step forward, with the establishment of the International Society of Cryptozoology (sadly now defunct), which was the world's first scientific society devoted to the investigation of animals whose existence is currently not officially recognised by science. Cryptozoology's further advancement towards full acceptance was greatly assisted by the ISC's policy of staging an Annual Members Meeting, held each year at a different scientific institution and attracting considerable professional and public interest. In 1985, the ISC also sponsored a one-day cryptozoological Symposium contained within the Third International Congress of Systematic and Evolutionary Biology, held at the University of Sussex, Brighton, which marked the ISC's first visit to the British Isles.

Two years later, however, July 1987 saw the first ISC Annual Members Meeting to be staged in the UK. Moreover, this was also the first two-day Members Meeting held by the Society, and the first in which the presentations were grouped thematically. In addition, by special accord the gathering on this particular occasion took the form of a joint meeting - of the ISC and of the Scottish Branch of the SHNH (the Society for the History of Natural History), whose base is the Natural History Museum, London.

Loch Ness - early sepia postcard in my collection (Dr Karl Shuker)

The meeting was held at Edinburgh's auspicious Royal Museum of Scotland. In addition to ISC and SHNH Members, for a nominal fee of £1.00 non-members were also admitted. The symposia were chaired by the Museum's then Curator of Mollusca, Mr David Heppell, who also served at that time on the ISC's Board of Directors.

Day Two’s symposium was devoted to cryptozoological cats, in which, as one of several participating speakers, I presented a paper on the origin and possible zoological identity of the Kellas cat. Other papers dealt with British mystery cats, the king cheetah, the onza, and the Queensland tiger. Day One’s symposium, conversely, which I also attended and is the subject of this article, was devoted entirely to the world’s most famous mystery beast – the Loch Ness monster.


Humorous Nessie postcard in my collection (Dr Karl Shuker)


SEARCH FOR NESSIE

At 10.00 am on 25 July, Day 1's symposium formally commenced. It was entitled ‘The Search For Nessie in the 1980s’, and was officially initiated by Dr Robert G. Anderson, Director of the National Museums of Scotland, who welcomed the societies and the audience to the museum. He dedicated the meeting to the memory of two persons who were noted for their keen cryptozoological interests - the late David James (Honorary Member of the ISC and co-founder of the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau - LNIB), and the late Ian Lyster (Curator of Ornithology at the Royal Museum of Scotland).

The popular plesiosaurian concept of Nessie (Richard Svensson)

The first paper, entitled ‘The History of the Loch Ness Monster’, was presented by Dr Richard Fitter – then Chairman of the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society (FFPS) and also a co-founder of the LNIB (which functioned from 1962 to 1976). Dr Fitter recounted a concise history of the Loch Ness phenomenon, from the days of St Columba's sightings of the monster during the 6th Century AD, through the resurgence of Loch Ness interest in the early 1930s, onwards to the LNIB's work during the 1960s, and into the 1980s and recent studies, complementing his presentation with a 12-minute film.

St Columba confronting the monster (William M. Rebsamen)

After the fundamental Nessie question: "Is there a Loch Ness monster?", the next most-repeated query must surely be: "What is the Loch Ness monster?" This latter subject was dealt with comprehensively by Prof. Roy Mackal, a prominent biochemist, cryptozoologist (he was the ISC's Vice-President), and longstanding Loch Ness investigator. In his paper, ‘The Biology of the Loch Ness Monster’, Prof. Mackal analysed the morphology and physiology of each group of animals put forward in the past as identities for Nessie. He concluded that mammalian or reptilian identities were the most likely candidates, with amphibian or soft-bodied invertebrate suggestions amongst the least plausible.

Prof. Roy Mackal's Nessie book

Mackal also spoke about a possibility of obtaining evidence that would conclusively identify at least one North American version of Nessie. For he noted that in Canada, fishermen have reported to him that they often see such creatures following the salmon swimming upstream in rivers to spawn. Mackal suggested that if nets were stretched across one such river at the time when the salmon appear, it may actually be possible to snare one of these Nessie-type beasts! Needless to say, such an acquisition would constitute a tremendous zoological discovery, and it is to be hoped that such a promising venture will indeed take place.

Look what I found at Loch Ness! (Dr Karl Shuker)

The next paper, ‘Public Perceptions of the Loch Ness Monster’, was presented by Dr Henry Bauer, Professor of Chemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Dr Bauer focussed his attention not upon the monster itself or monster research findings, but instead upon the sociological, philosophical, and psychological components of these subjects. The result was a most thought-provoking presentation, discussing the nature and features of belief and disbelief using Nessie as the example, and examining the ways in which these have varied during the long history of Loch Ness reports and investigations.

'Nessie Mystery Solved' postcard in my collection (Roger Latham, 1986)


IMPRESSIVE EVIDENCE

The most famous and contentious photo purportedly of Nessie ever obtained is certainly the popularly-termed 'Surgeon's Photograph', taken in April 1934 by London gynaecologist Robert Kenneth Wilson, and depicting a black object resembling a slender neck surmounted by a small head extending above the rippled water surface. In his paper entitled ‘The Wilson Nessie Photo: A Size Determination Based on Physical Principles’, Prof. Paul LeBlond, an oceanographer at the University of British Columbia, demonstrated that a size estimate of the object in Wilson's photograph can be obtained by relating the appearance (in terms of surface disturbance and wave formation depicted in the photo) of Loch Ness's surface to wind speed and thence to wind waves' lengths. This is a principle which Prof. LeBlond had already applied to the equally controversial Mansi photograph of a creature-like object on Lake Champlain, and will be of great benefit it to future aquatic monster research.

The 'Surgeon's Photograph' (Robert Kenneth Wilson/Daily Mail)

Following lunch, the presentations continued with a paper entitled ‘Recent Fieldwork by the Loch Ness and Morar Project’, presented by Mr Adrian Shine, the Project's Field Leader. In 1974, the British-instigated Loch Morar Expeditions began, and were succeeded by the Project, which concentrated thereafter upon Loch Ness. Much of its efforts were directed towards sonar/echo-sounding investigations, and Mr Shine described the more recent work in this line carried out by the Project, plus a new survey involving an extensive multi-craft, underwater sonar sweep along the Loch, in an attempt to detect the presence of any large creatures which may exist there.

Morag, the Loch Morar monster (Michael Playfair)

Certainly the most visually impressive (but again highly controversial) evidence for the existence of such beasts to have been procured via underwater photography consists of the "flipper" photographs. These were obtained in 1972 by the Loch Ness research team from the USA’s Academy of Applied Science, headed by its president Dr Robert H. Rines. Consequently, in his paper ‘A Review of Research Contributions to Date of the Academy of Applied Science at Loch Ness’, Dr Rines discussed in detail these photographs (and the criticisms which have been levelled at them by various armchair Nessie sceptics), together with the further, equally intriguing, underwater pictures obtained by the Academy team in 1975. One of these latter pictures was thought by some to feature the head and neck of a large creature, another resembled a close-up of a creature's head. Moreover, he ended his paper with the tantalising statement that his team now had access to recently-declassified equipment that should render the loch transparent (figuratively-speaking, that is) as far as future searches and observations appertaining to Loch Ness's mysterious denizens were concerned.

One of the AAS's 1972 'flipper' photographs (Dr Robert H. Rines/Academy of Applied Science)


CLASSIC FILM

In a special announcement following Dr Rines's presentation, the ISC formally honoured the final speaker at this symposium - aero-engineer, author, and world-renowned Loch Ness investigator Mr Tim Dinsdale - for his most distinguished and significant contributions to Loch Ness monster research. This was well-deserved recognition for the sterling work of this most diligent, courteous, and respected cryptozoological researcher. (Tragically, less than five months after attending this conference, Tim Dinsdale suffered a major heart attack and died.)

In his paper, entitled ‘Three Decades of Nessie Hunting: A Personal Odyssey’, Mr Dinsdale traversed through his many memorable years of very impressive and fascinating personal investigations of the Loch Ness phenomenon, which began in earnest with what was most probably the most exhilarating moment in his entire three-decade quest. This occurred on 23 April 1960, when he obtained his classic film of a huge creature-like object, partially visible above the water surface, swimming rapidly across the loch. This electrifying event served as a source of great motivation for him during his subsequent researches, detailed within his presentation, which continued each year since then. Also referred to alongside these were his involvements with many of the investigations that had at some stage or another been carried out by other researchers at the Loch from 1960 onwards, plus the wide diversity of equipment, techniques, and vehicles that he has utilised in his examination and exploration of one of cryptozoology's most endearing and enduring of enigmas.

The first Nessie book that I ever read was this one, by Tim Dinsdale, purchased for me as a child by my mother

Following Mr Dinsdale's presentation, a panel debate took place, during which an interesting exchange of questions, replies, and opinions took place between the audience and the panel – consisting of all of the Loch Ness symposium’s speakers.

At the end of Day Two, following David Heppell's final remarks as Chairman the joint meeting of the ISC and SHNH was formally adjourned - but all was not completely over. A small party of us set off for a day trip to Loch Ness itself. Sadly Nessie did not make an appearance, but we were able to visit the notable Loch Ness Exhibition Centre at Drumnadrochit.

View across Loch Ness (Dr Karl Shuker)

This contained a veritable cornucopia of Nessie information and exhibits - ranging from analyses of all of the major surface and underwater monster photographs obtained to date, selections of sonar evidence recorded, and models of the Loch itself plus the various animal forms that have been offered as possible Nessie identities, to living examples of some of the Loch's more modestly-sized inhabitants, exhibits of various vehicles and pieces of scientific equipment used in Loch Ness researches, and much more. It even boasted a monstrously-large plesiosaurian Nessie replica gazing intently at the Centre's visitors from its very own adjacent pool (see photo below) - just in case the real star failed to give a performance.

The Nessie replica (StaraBlazkova/Czech Wikipedia)


NOTABLE SUCCESS

From the size of the audience and the considerable interest that it engendered amongst the general public and the media, as well as amongst the scientific fraternity, this Sixth ISC Annual Members Meeting had evidently been more than just a notable success in itself. It had also constituted a most favourable and significant contribution to cryptozoology's continuing emergence as a respectable and respected scientific discipline. Moreover, its presentations had underlined very effectively the tremendous impact upon science that cryptozoological discoveries do (and will continue to) make.

'Pair o' Handies Nessie Catcher' postcard in my collection (Roger Latham)

And who knows? Dr Robert Rines's declassified equipment may one day provide the first unequivocal proof for the existence of a freshwater animal of the Nessie type - unless of course some carefully-aligned nets stretched across certain Canadian rivers during a future salmon spawning season scoop up (literally!) the elusive evidence first!

Newspaper cartoon by Mac from London's Daily Mail for 17 February 2012, offering a wonderfully original, cryptozoologically-themed take on the prospect of Scotland becoming independent from the United Kingdom (Mac/Daily Mail)

Twenty-five years have passed since this symposium took place and, sadly, some of its participants are no longer with us. But the interest generated globally by the LNM phenomenon shows no sign of abating, and perhaps, in the safe hands of new and future generations of Nessie seekers, cryptozoology may yet unveil a major surprise within the dark, secret waters of the world's most famous monster-linked lake.


Another delightfully light-hearted Nessie postcard from my collection (Dr Karl Shuker)

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

KINKIMAVO AND BRISTLE-HEAD - A COUPLE OF MAINSTREAM MYSTERY BIRDS

The kinkimavo (top) and bristle-head (bottom)


Just because a species has been formally named and described doesn't mean to say that it is no longer mysterious. Both of the birds documented in this present ShukerNature blog post were scientifically recognised during the 1800s, yet remain as ornithologically controversial and generally obscure today as they were back then – but they have fascinated and tantalised me ever since childhood.

I owe my abiding love and knowledge of birdlife to two truly wonderful books that were bought for me by my family when I was a child, and which I still own today. Both were very big and both were exquisitely illustrated throughout in full colour. The first of these life-changing volumes, which I received when I was around 5 years old, was The Colourful World of Birds, written by Jean Dorst, filled with lavish paintings by Pierre Probst, and published in 1963 by Paul Hamlyn of London. Its many chapters were themed around habitat, behaviour, nesting and breeding, migration, and interactions with humans. Although aimed primarily at older children, its contents were detailed and highly informative, and introduced me to such avian marvels as the quetzal, dodo, megapodes, birds of paradise, hummingbirds, and which kinds of birds were to be found in which types of habitat.

My much-treasured copy of The Colourful World of Birds (Dr Karl Shuker)

When I was about 8 years old, I received the second epochal bird book, which was a truly magnificent, sumptuously-illustrated tome entitled Birds of the World. First published in 1961 and once again by Paul Hamlyn of London, it was written by Oliver L. Austin Jr, and was packed with countless spectacular paintings by Arthur Singer. Even today, it remains one of the most beautiful bird books ever published, as well as a classic, milestone work within the ornithological literature – and for me, this enormous book (which seemed almost as big as I was on that fateful day when I first laid eyes upon it in Beatties department store in Wolverhampton, West Midlands) was love at first sight! When my mother took pity on my forlorn face after we discovered that this wondrous publication was priced at what was in those days a veritable king's ransom for a book – 5 guineas!! (£5.25 in decimal currency) – and bought it for me anyway, I was rendered speechless with delight, and hugged it closely to me throughout our journey back home on the bus.

Birds of the World, the magnificent book that opened my eyes to the equally sumptuous diversity of bird life sharing our planet (Dr Karl Shuker)

It is no exaggeration to say that Birds of the World transformed and expanded my knowledge concerning the taxonomy and diversity of birds to a degree not even remotely approached by any other publication that I have ever read since. For whereas the contents of The Colourful World of Birds were divided into the various thematic categories noted above, Birds of the World was a comprehensive taxonomic survey of our world's avifauna, presenting each taxonomic order in turn and within it each family, accompanied by gorgeous illustrations of representative species from every one, with over 700 species illustrated in total. Moreover, whereas The Colourful World of Birds only included common names, Birds of the World also presented the scientific binomial name for every species illustrated (as well as for many that were only referred to in the text).

Suddenly, my young brain was ablaze with images and facts concerning previously unfamiliar, highly exotic, and frequently multicoloured birds from every corner of the globe, often with strange names and even stranger life histories. Over countless re-readings of this magical book, I familiarised myself with the likes of peppershrikes and bellmagpies, tyrant flycatchers and false sunbirds, currawongs and curassows, todies and tropic-birds, ioras and o-os, tinamous and tapaculos, jacamars, frogmouths, puffbirds, vangas, spiderhunters, umbrellabirds, kagus, greenlets, drongos, phainopeplas, hemipodes, mesites, and much much more – including the kinkimavo and the bristle-head.

Their odd-sounding names alone would have been enough to incite my curiosity, but this curiosity was heightened by the facts that little seemed to be known about either of them, that both of them had long perplexed ornithologists concerning their taxonomic affinities, and that neither of them was illustrated nor even described morphologically in what had become my veritable bible of ornithology, Birds of the World.

Today, I could have readily sought information and illustrations concerning these birds online. Back in the 1960s and right up to the late 1990s, conversely, the pre-Internet world in which I lived presented much greater difficulties in obtaining data concerning two such obscure species, especially during my childhood and teenage pre-university years. And so, for a long time I remained tantalised and tormented in equal measures by the sparse details provided by Birds of the World in relation to the kinkimavo and the bristle-head.

Arthur Singer's glorious painting of three Old World oriole species, from Birds of the World (Arthur Singer)

Indeed, its account of the kinkimavo was no more than a single line at the bottom of p. 222, ending the section devoted to Oriolidae, the passerine family housing the Old World orioles and figbirds. It read as follows:

"Also classified tentatively with the orioles is the little-known Kinkimavo (Tylas) of the Madagascan forests."

And this is what it stated on p. 275 concerning the bristle-head, constituting the final paragraph in the section on Sturnidae, the starling family:

"Placed tentatively with the starlings as a third subfamily, the Pityriasinae, is the rare and little-studied Bristle-head of Southern Borneo forests. Although it had long been classified with the helmet shrikes (p. 270) because of its peculiar head feathering, and sometimes placed in a family by itself, what little is known of the Bristle-head's behaviour and habits has led most students today to regard it as a highly aberrant starling."

During the decades that have passed since the publication of Birds of the World, avian taxonomy has experienced many revolutions, not least the dramatic changes postulated by genetic studies. These have, for instance, revealed hitherto-concealed affinities between such externally-dissimilar taxa as the New World birds of prey or cathartids and the storks, and led to the reclassification as flycatchers of a number of familiar species traditionally deemed to be thrushes (such as the European robin, nightingale, redstarts, and chats). Inevitably, such studies have also continued to engender speculation and dissension concerning the true taxonomic affinities of the kinkimavo and the bristle-head.

Thanks to the internet and access to all manner of specialist works during and since my university days, I was eventually able to flesh out the bare bones of information provided by Birds of the World for these twin birds of mystery, as well as to track down images of them. At last, the kinkimavo and bristle-head have emerged from the shadows of ornithological obscurity, unveiled for me in all their quirky but no less compelling glory. So here is what they look like, and what I have learnt about them.

1880s chromolithograph of the kinkimavo by celebrated Dutch bird artist John G. Keulemans, appearing in Histoire Physique, Naturelle et Politique de Madagascar, written by Alfred Grandidier and Alphonse Milne-Edwards (John G. Keulemans)

Let's begin with the kinkimavo, which was scientifically described on 13 May 1862 by German ornithologist Dr Gustav Hartlaub within the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (pp. 152-153). He formally dubbed it Tylas eduardi, in honour of its discoverer, Sir Edward Newton, who was, in Hartlaub's own words: "...a gentleman who has recently visited Madagascar, and whose zealous efforts have very materially forwarded our knowledge of the ornithology of the East-African archipelago". (For trivia fans: during his time as a colonial administrator in Mauritius from 1859 to 1877, Sir Edward was also the person who sent to England what became the type specimen of the dodo!) Its generic name, Tylas, was derived, somewhat oddly, from the Greek word 'Tulas', referring to a kind of thrush mentioned by ancient scholar Alexander Myndios, even though the kinkimavo bears scant (if any) resemblance to one. As for its unusual common name, this is one of several local names given to it by tribes sharing its Madagascan homeland.

Roughly 8 inches long, and the only member of its genus, the kinkimavo is a sedentary, insectivorous species that exists as two readily-distinguished subspecies. The nominative T. e. eduardi is the much more common form, and occurs in primary rainforest and sometimes adjacent second growth too in eastern Madagascar. However, T. e. albogularis, named after its characteristic white throat (and deemed by some researchers to warrant reclassification as a separate species in its own right), is much rarer, found only in certain local areas of dry forest and mangroves in western Madagascar.

The kinkimavo (Joseph Wolf, PZSL 1862)

As can be see from the above painting by acclaimed bird artist Joseph Wolf, which accompanied Hartlaub's original scientific description of its species in 1862, the kinkimavo is primarily very dark brown/black and white in colour, but with an orange tinge to its underparts and a grey-green tinge to its upperparts, upper wings, and tail. There is no notable sexual dimorphism, the breeding season extends through autumn, and into as far as January in the nominative subspecies, after which a small cup-shaped nest of leaves and moss is constructed high in a tree, and two eggs are laid in it.

As for the kinkimavo's taxonomic position: originally, it had been placed by Hartlaub within the bulbul family, Pycnogonidae, but it was subsequently reassigned to the orioles, as noted in Birds of the World. However, the current consensus is that like a number of other mystifying passerine species endemic to Madagascar, the kinkimavo is actually a vanga. Apart from one species that has extended its range into the nearby Comoro Islands, the vangas are found only in Madagascar, and constitute a little-known taxonomic family, Vangidae, that contains an extremely diverse assortment of species (which number twenty-two or thereabouts in total, depending upon which researcher is consulted!). The more conservative members are outwardly shrike-like, and in earlier days the vangas were deemed to be shrikes and thus were referred to as vanga-shrikes (as in Birds of the World). Certain others resemble and behave like warblers or babblers. However, they also include some much more extreme species.

1880s chromolithograph depicting a pair of sickle-billed vangas (John G. Keulemans)

Most notable among these are the sickle-billed vanga Falculea palliata, whose long curved beak is reminiscent of a wood-hoopoe's; and the extraordinary helmet vanga Euryceros prevostii, which sports a huge casque-bearing arched beak.

Helmet vanga portrayed on a Malagasy Republic postage stamp

Much less distinctive externally but extremely deceptive is what was once known as the coral-billed nuthatch but is now called the nuthatch vanga Hypositta corallirostris. On account of its great outward similarity to the nuthatches, this small grey bird with the bright red beak was long deemed to be one itself, but later studies exposed it as a vanga in disguise. And now the kinkimavo appears to be yet another member of this surprising bird family, and is thus frequently referred to lately as the tylas vanga (although to my mind this is a much clumsier, less memorable name than the infinitely more euphonious kinkimavo).

The vanga family's members, revealing their extreme morphological diversity  (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

The vangas constitute an excellent example of adaptive radiation. They appear to have evolved from a single ancestral form that, after reaching Madagascar several million years ago, rapidly diversified in form to occupy via segregated speciation a number of vacant ecological niches present there. So dramatic is the degree of morphological radiation exhibited by the vangas (and especially by their range of beak shapes, mirroring their wide range of feeding preferences), in fact, that if Charles Darwin had chosen to visit Madagascar rather than the Galapagos islands, he would have encountered a far more elaborate example of evolutionary diversity with the vangas than the version exhibited by the Galapagos finches that inspired and shaped his Theory of Evolution.

And now to the second member of this ShukerNature post's pair of mainstream mystery birds: the Bornean bristle-head. This distinctive species was formally described even earlier than the kinkimavo, in 1835 by eminent Dutch zoologist Coenraad Jacob Temminck, who named it Barita gymnocephala. Four years later, it was assigned its own genus by French ornithologist René Primevère Lesson, and is now known formally as Pityriasis gymnocephala. Its generic name is actually a skin disease of the scalp, characterised by warts upon a bald head, and its specific name translates as 'bald-headed'; both names refer to this bird's partly-naked, warty-skinned head and the unusual but characteristic bristles borne upon it (see below).

Whereas the kinkimavo is demurely monochrome, the bristle-head is unabashedly gaudy. Roughly 10 inches long and sporting a massive hooked black beak, its sombre black/dark grey wings and body plumage contrasts markedly with the bright red hue of its head, neck, throat, and thighs, and its white wing patches, plus the very odd-looking skin projections or bristles, pale yellow in colour, that are present upon its naked, warty crown. These earn this species its common name, and resemble bare feather shafts.

A painting of the Bornean bristle-head from 1838

Endemic to the island of Borneo, the bristle-head is an uncommon species, categorised as Near Threatened by the IUCN, and is sparsely distributed throughout its lowland forests (primary and secondary) and mangrove swamps. It feeds upon large invertebrates, small vertebrates, and fruit, and often associates within the forest canopy in mixed flocks with a range of other bird species (as does the kinkimavo). Breeding behaviour is largely unknown, and only a single oviduct egg has ever been recorded with certainty from this mysterious bird.

As with the kinkimavo, the bristle-head's taxonomic status has generated much contention ever since its scientific description, but unlike the former bird's it still does so today. Over the years, it has been variously assigned to the helmet shrike family (Prionopidae), the woodswallow family (Artamidae), the crow family (Corvidae), the starling family (Sturnidae), and the Australian butcherbird and currawong family (Cracticidae). In 1951, Drs Ernst Mayr and Dean A. Amadon created a brand-new family especially for it, Pityriaseidae, in which most researchers still house it, albeit as much a placing of convenience than one of certainty. Most recently, however, there have been suggestions that this baffling bird should be rehoused in a new family, Tephrodornithidae, which contains the equally perplexing flycatcher-shrikes (genus Hemipus) and the woodshrikes (genus Tephrodornis).

Bearing in mind that the woodshrikes are also deemed to be closely allied to the vangas, this could actually mean that the bristle-head and the kinkimavo are themselves related – one final unexpected twist to the much-tangled taxonomy of these two little-known yet abidingly-fascinating avian enigmas.

Incidentally: as a teenager fired with enthusiasm for investigating all manner of cryptozoological and neo-cryptozoological subjects, I was rash enough one day to mention the kinkimavo to a group of friends. Its name caused much merriment and no shortage of ribald comments, not least of which was the enquiry from one friend as to who this kinky Mavo was, and where could he meet up with her? In view of this, I was thankful that I'd had the good sense not to mention the bristle-head!!

A slightly faded taxiderm specimen of the Bornean bristle-head (public domain)




Tuesday, 2 October 2012

MY TOP TEN STRANGEST ALIENS - CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE BIZARRE KIND!

West Virginia's bizarre 'Vegetable Man' entity (John A. Short, Alien Encounters, August 1997)

Exobiology - the study of life on other worlds, featuring speculation upon the morphological forms that such life may take, based upon their worlds' environmental constraints - has always fascinated me. So here, just for a change from considering cryptozoological topics and other subjects appertaining to life on our own planet, here is a look at what else may be sharing our universe and even visiting us from time to time...

The Gray or Grey may well be the most familiar form of alleged alien visitor on record, but it is by no means the only one. As revealed in Patrick Huyghe's invaluable Field Guide to Extraterrestrials (1997) and elsewhere, ETs apparently come in all shapes and sizes, yet most receive far less attention from researchers than the Gray. Consequently, here in no particular order is my personal top ten of the strangest alleged extraterrestrial life forms reported, all of which are truly alien - in every sense of the word!


UNIPODAL ALIEN ROBOTS?

One of the least humanoid categories of ETs ever reported must surely be the astonishing version reputedly encountered by Brazilian bus driver Antonio La Rubia at 2.20 am one morning in September 1977 while driving to work in Paciencia, Rio de Janeiro. After spying a huge hat-shaped vessel exceeding 200 ft in diameter hovering above a football field, La Rubia was abruptly immobilised by a beam of blue light, and then saw three decidedly futuristic robotic entities, who transported him inside the vessel. Here, he was subjected not only to the customary alien examination but also to a slide show of sorts, before being somewhat rudely ejected back into the street again, after which the craft disappeared.

Sketch by Antonio La Rubia of one of the unipodal entities that he claims to have encountered (APRO Bulletin)

This scenario may be a common one to ufologists, but La Rubia's abductors were decidedly uncommon in appearance. Each was about 4 ft tall, excluding the vertical antenna on top of a featureless head shaped like a rugby ball standing erect on its tip, and equipped with a horizontal belt of blue mirror-like structures encircling its diameter. Beneath its head, which had no neck, was a sturdy ovoid body covered in scales resembling dull aluminium. It also had a waist-high belt bearing a series of hooks holding syringe-like objects, plus two arm-like appendages that curved downwards but terminated in a point, lacking hands. Its body was borne upon a tall, slim, central pedestal, with a circular base at its tip.

 
THE DISEMBODIED BRAINS AT PALOS VERDES

Bodiless brains are not the most appetising of sights at the best of times, and certainly not when they float towards you and begin communicating telepathically as you sit in your car on a lonely Californian road at 2 am in the morning! Nevertheless, this bizarre scenario was supposedly experienced by two men in their early 20s, known pseudonymously as John Hodges and Peter Rodriguez, sometime in August 1971 at Palos Verdes Estates, California.

While walking towards their car, they had seen a diffuse white beam close by, and once inside the car their headlights had revealed two grotesque brain-resembling entities hovering in the air outside. Both were blue in colour, but whereas one was only the size of a softball, the other was about 18 in high, and bore a large bright red spot on its surface.

The two men lost no time in driving away, and Hodges took Rodriguez home, but in the classic abduction tradition, after reaching his own home Hodges discovered that he had mysteriously 'lost' two hours. Later, he recalled experiencing a dream-like state while in his car, during which he seemed to be in a room containing not only the larger of the two levitating brains but also several tall, grey, six-fingered, humanoid (yet non-human) entities. The brain informed him that Earth was being monitored because of its nuclear power; the humanoid entities claimed that they were from Zeta Reticulii, and that the brains were translators. They also voiced a number of prophecies, but these proved to be inaccurate.


THE CRAZY CRITTER OF BALD MOUNTAIN

This was the name applied by the local media to the incredible beast confronted by several shocked motorists during the evening of 17 November 1974 on Bald Mountain, situated approximately 20 miles east of Chehalis, in Washington State, USA. Three nights earlier, and only about 5 miles away, a UFO of the unidentified fiery object kind plummeted to earth, but this had attracted little publicity - until Seattle grocer Ernest Smith saw the 'crazy critter'.

According to Smith's description, cited in Jim Brandon's book Weird America (1978):

"...it was horse-sized, covered with scales and standing on four rubbery legs with suckers like octopus tentacles. Its head was football-shaped with an antenna sticking up...The thing gave off this green, iridescent light."

That glow was also spied by Mr and Mrs Roger Ramsbaugh from Tacoma, as they were driving by, and when they went closer to investigate, they were confronted with the same weird wonder, complete with antenna and suckered legs, that Smith had seen earlier.

Such reports as these soon attracted the attention of the local authorities, headed by Lewis County Sheriff William Wister, but some accounts claim that he was instructed by airforce and NASA officials not to continue his investigations, and his own team of county officials was replaced by what Brandon refers to as "a special NASA team, including a heavily armed military unit wearing uniforms with no insignia". Sounds familiar?

The green-glowing Crazy Critter (Tim Morris)

As for the crazy critter itself: this episode reminds me of a storyline greatly favoured by newspaper cartoonists (and as also imagined by Malcolm Smith in Bunyips and Bigfoots, (1996), in which the captain of a flying saucer is angrily reprimanding one of his crew members: "You fool! You know darned well that you should always keep the ship's mascot on a leash when you take it for a walk!".


THE FLYING SAUCER FAIRIES

Some researchers deem ETs to be fairies or other Little People who, keeping abreast of modern times, have traded in their traditional image of dancing merrily in elfin glades and hollow hills in favour of a more technologically-compatible lifestyle, flitting through the skies aboard flying saucers sporting a nifty turn of speed. Judging from the following incident, documented by Alfred Budden (Fortean Times, summer 1988), they may well have a point!

Standing in her garden at Rowley Regis, near Birmingham in the West Midlands, on the morning of 4 January 1979 after waving her husband off to work, Jean Hingley saw a large orange sphere hovering close to their garage's roof and emanating an appreciable amount of heat. As she watched, it turned white and floated nearer, hovering over her back garden.

Suddenly, she was shocked to see that her pet dog, Hobo, standing by her, had become paralysed (happily, he later recovered) - and was even more shocked when three small fairy-like beings quite literally, and audibly, 'buzzed' by her and into her house through the doorway. According to Budden's account, Hingley claimed that her unwonted (and unwanted!) visitors were each:

...about 3.5 ft tall, and dressed in a silvery tunic with six silver buttons down the front. They had large eyes like 'black diamonds' with a glittering lustre, set into wide white faces with no nose to speak of and a simple line for the mouth. Their heads were covered by transparent helmets like 'goldfish bowls', surmounted by small lights. Their limbs were silvery-green, ending in simple tapering points with no apparent hands or feet. They had large oval 'wings' which looked as if they were made of thin, transparent paper covered with dozens of glittering multi-coloured dots, like 'braille dots'. Each 'being' was surrounded by a halo, and numerous very thin streamers hung down from their shoulders. They hovered and flew about the room with their 'arms' clasped in front of their chests, while their 'legs' hung down stiffly. Their wings didn't flap like those of birds, but seemed to be for display and merely fluttered gently or occasionally folded inwards like a concertina. Their expression - "like a dead person's face" - never changed during the encounter, which lasted for about an hour.

During that hour, these 'space-age fairies' occasionally spoke to Hingley, but always in unison, and via a guttural, masculine voice. Often, however, when she attempted to speak with them, they would emit a very thin laser-like beam from their helmets' lights, directed onto her brow, which dazzled and paralysed her, and produced an intense burning sensation at first. They behaved in a mischievous manner, shaking her Christmas tree and jumping up and down on the sofa, but showed great curiosity about her newspapers, cassettes, and a picture of Jesus, and they often picked up small objects or simply touched them. Oddly, however, whenever they found themselves unable to do something, such as drinking water from a glass or answering certain questions, they chose to disable Hingley with their beam.

Drawing of one of the alien fairy entities that visited Jean Hingley (artist unknown)

Eventually, a very loud electronic beeping noise resounded from her back garden, and when Hingley looked she could see an orange-glowing craft there, oval in shape and about 8 ft long, with two luminescent portholes and an external antenna bearing a series of spokes arranged in a wheel-like shape. The space-fairies floated out of her house, each carrying a mince pie(!), and into their craft, which promptly took off, emitting as it did so a blue light from its antenna. As soon as they had gone, however, Hingley became convulsed with pain, and remained in a very distressed state for a number of hours, before becoming well enough to call her husband, a neighbour, and the police. Moreover, the burning mark left upon on her forehead by the entities' beam remained there for several months.

It is possible, as speculated by Budden, that this exceedingly bizarre encounter was really a hallucination, triggered somehow by the UFO, but the UFO was no hallucination - because her human visitors could clearly see a peculiar impression in the snow covering her back garden's lawn that closely resembled a tank's caterpillar track, about 8 ft long and symmetrical. In addition, several electrical gadgets in her house had stopped working, as if affected by an intense magnetic field, and the cassettes handled by the entities were now useless.


THE FLATWOODS MONSTER

For inducing sheer terror in its eyewitnesses, few ETs have matched the fearsome reputation of the 'Flatwoods monster', famously encountered by a party of children and adults while investigating a UFO report on 12 September 1952 at Flatwoods, West Virginia.

Likened by some of its eyewitnesses, a group of youngsters, to a meteor, the UFO had landed on top of a hill near Flatwoods, and some of them set off in its direction, to see if they could find it. Along the way, they were joined by a matron called Kathleen May (or Hill, in some accounts), her two sons, and a teenage National Guardsman, Gene Lemon.

As this amassed company drew nearer, they spied a huge pulsating globe or sphere, about 20 ft in diameter, and one of the eyewitnesses also noticed what he thought to be a pair of animal eyes, staring down at them from the branches of a tree close by. Shining his torch in the direction of these eyes, he and everyone else in the company were horrified to see an enormous figure, standing just beneath the tree's lower branches.

The Flatwoods Monster, based upon an eyewitness's drawing (Taishiro Kiya)

This macabre entity was 10-15 ft tall, and according to Mrs May it seemed to be dressed in a long cloak-like garb with a pointed hood, thus resembling the habit of a monk - but the face that stared out at them from inside the hood was certainly not that of any monk!

Instead, it was round in shape and blood-red in colour, with a pair of bulbous eyes that glowed with an eerie greenish-orange hue. And as the terrified group of UFO-seekers gazed at it, this weird apparition began to float slowly down the hill towards them, hissing!

Needless to say, everyone fled at once, and such was the horror of this experience that a number of the eyewitnesses were hysterical and violently sick for several hours afterwards. During the following day, the local newspaper's editor and a team of other investigators scoured the area where the 'monster' and the giant globe had been encountered, but both had disappeared. However, they did find some odd tracks on the ground, a patch of flattened grass, and a peculiar, irritating odour persisting just above ground level.


MUMMIES FROM SPACE!

Imagine a 5-ft-tall, neck-less, humanoid figure resembling an Egyptian mummy, with grey wrinkled skin of elephantine appearance and texture, a pair of disproportionately long arms whose hands resembled mittens (i.e. with a single thumb but no differentiated fingers), a pair of legs held together like a pedestal and terminating in two bulbous elephant-like feet, and a seemingly eyeless face sporting a pair of pointed retractile ears, a conical nose-like structure, a short slit of a mouth that never opens, and a terrifyingly blank expression.

Multiply this grim-looking apparition by three, then add the domed football-shaped buzzing craft, with two windows, two blue lights, an invisible door, and a highly-illuminated interior, from which they emerged - and the result is the living nightmare experienced by two terrified Mississippi fishermen, Charles Hickson and Calvin Parker, at the Pascagoula River, on the night of 11 October 1973. And their sighting of these sinister entities was only the beginning of their ordeal. For as the two men stood there, prisoners of the combined fear and fascination aroused by their incredible encounter, the 'mummies' floated up to them, seized hold of them, and physically immobilised them before carrying them into their craft.

Pascagoula monster, based upon eyewitness description

Once inside, the mummies subjected their human captives to a close physical examination, after which they returned them to the spot from where they had abducted them, then soared away through the sky inside their blue-lit vessel.


LOOK OUT - IT'S VEGETABLE MAN!

Never trust anyone whose body resembles the green, slender stalk of a plant, and who sucks out your blood through three 7-in-long fingers with needle-like tips and suction cups - that's what I always say! And Jennings Frederick would certainly agree, because he allegedly met just such a being while hunting one day in a West Virginia woodland during July 1968.

According to American paranormal researcher Brad Steiger, Frederick suddenly became aware of what he later described as "...a high-pitched jabbering, much like that of a recording running at exaggerated speed", yet which he could somehow understand, and which was informing him that it came in peace but needed medical assistance.

At the same moment, Frederick saw beside him the extraordinary quasi-botanical entity described above, with a semi-human face, long ears, yellow slanted eyes, and two stick-like arms. Before he had time to be surprised, however, he felt a pricking sensation in one of his hands, as if it had become entangled in some thorns - but when he looked, he discovered to his horror that the entity was draining blood from it, through its own fingers. Moreover, its eyes suddenly changed colour, becoming bright red and yielding a rotating, hypnotic effect that rendered its blood-sucking operation painless.

West Virginia’s Vegetable Man (Tim Morris)

A minute later, Frederick's enforced transfusion was over, and his mesmerising recipient fled, bounding away rapidly up a hill, each leap covering a distance exceeding 25 ft. Unfortunately for Frederick, however, once the entity had disappeared, the pain in his hand reappeared. And as he set off back home, he heard a strange humming sound, which he believed to be the entity's craft, transporting it back from whence it had come.

Frederick was so disturbed by his grotesque experience that he did not speak about it for several months. Some researchers have speculated that it may be a hoax, but those who have spoken to him seemed convinced that his account, albeit highly unusual, is genuine.


FLYING JELLY BAGS AHOY!

Not everyone can claim the dubious honour of having been abducted by a trio of flying jelly bags - an honour that Stig Rydberg and Hans Gustaffson would be more than happy to relinquish if they could somehow relive 20 December 1958 and arrange to be somewhere far away from the Swedish forest that they were driving through on that fateful day.

It was 3 am when they noticed a strange glow and then spotted a mysterious tripodal craft, over 12 ft long, resting nearby on the ground. Just in front of it were four extraordinary entities, each about 3 ft long, blue-grey in colour, and virtually amorphous, with no visible limbs, head, or any other recognisable features.

Likened to jelly bags, they were leaping around their craft at first, but when they somehow perceived the two men, three of these animate blobs swiftly approached them and attached their shapeless forms to them, yielding a powerful suction force as they strove to haul their frightened human hostages back towards their craft. In the ensuing struggle, the men could smell a vile stench emanating from their eerie antagonists, combining the overpowering odour of ether with the nauseating stink of burned sausage.

During Rydberg's frantic attempts to escape, one of his arms forced itself deep within the body of a blob, yet with no detrimental effect, either to him or to the blob. Nonetheless, his struggle eventually succeeded, and he raced back to the car, where he sounded the horn loudly, which so startled the blobs that they released Gustafsson, and fled back into their vessel, which duly rose up into the sky with a high-pitched noise and sped away. The most bizarre five minutes of the two men's lives were over.


THE TRIPODAL TERROR OF WABASH RIVER VALLEY

It was roughly 9.00 pm on 25 April 1972 near Enfield, in Indiana's Wabash River Valley - the scene of several reports around that time concerning strange lights observed in the sky, and, more recently, of some very peculiar tracks discovered by local war veteran Henry McDaniel in a nearby wood. These tracks each measured 3-5 in across, and contained six toe impressions, with a small hoof-like mark in the centre.

Consequently, when McDaniel's family heard a strange scratching sound on the outside of their home's back door, he cautiously looked out of a window, to find out what manner of animal was responsible. Even so, he did not really expect to see anything more remarkable than a stray dog, a neighbour's cat, or perhaps an inquisitive raccoon. In reality, however, what he did see was so incredible, and alarming, that he immediately grabbed hold of his shotgun and fired four rounds directly at it.

There, no more than 3 ft away from him, was a surrealistic entity, 4-5 ft tall, with a hairy dirty-grey body and disproportionately large head, staring at him through two pink reflective eyes, and standing upright like a human, but on three legs!

The alien 'Jake the Peg' that visited Henry McDaniel (John A. Short, Alien Encounters, August 1997)

Although one of McDaniel's shots hit this tripodal terror, it merely hissed and leapt away along a railway track close by, clearing 75 ft in three huge bounds - but it would be back.

A few days later, at around 3.00 am, McDaniel was woken up by his dogs, who were barking uncontrollably. Carefully opening his door, he looked out, and spied this intergalactic Jake the Peg standing by the railway line, looking at him. Now, however, it made no attempt to approach, and was not seen by McDaniel (or anyone else) again.


THE VENEZUELAN LITTLEFOOTS

It is well known that a number of ufological reports on file concern sightings of shaggy bipedal entities resembling North America's famous mystery man-beast, the bigfoot or sasquatch, in association with alleged UFOs and landed extraterrestrial spacecraft. However, the seemingly invulnerable troll-like category of alien encountered by Gustavo Gonzales and José Ponce while driving their truck from Caracas to Petare, Venezuela, during the early morning of 28 November 1954 could more aptly be referred to as a littlefoot.

Before reaching Petare, they encountered a huge glowing globe, hovering about 6 ft above the ground, which was virtually blocking the entire road ahead. Consequently, the two men got out of their truck to investigate, and as they approached the globe a furry bipedal being appeared, and began to approach them. Standing no more than 3 ft high, it was covered with stiff, bristly hair, and had large clawed hands and feet. Gonzales seized hold of this hirsute 'littlefoot', in order to take it to the police, and was surprised to find that the creature was exceedingly light. He was even more surprised, however, to discover how powerful it was - for with a single push from one of its paws, it effortlessly propelled Gonzales through the air, sending him sprawling onto the ground about 5 yards away.

Reconstruction of one of the Venezuelan littlefoots (Tim Morris)

By now, Ponce was running back down the road, towards the local police station, and as he did so he spied another two of these littlefoots, gathering rocks and carrying them aboard the sphere. The first littlefoot, however, angered by Gonzales's action, began savagely clawing him, but when Gonzales tried to defend himself by stabbing this creature with his knife, the blade made no impression on its body. Suddenly, a fourth littlefoot appeared, emerging from the sphere, and stunned Gonzales with a beam of light, enabling the others to go aboard and depart.

When the police had established that neither Ponce nor Gonzales were drunk, they gave them sedatives, and also confirmed that Gonzales bore a long red scratch on his side. Furthermore, several days later, a medical doctor came forward to announce that he had actually witnessed from a distance the attack upon Gonzales by the littlefoots, but had not intervened because he did not want to be the focus of publicity.

How can such an amazing diversity of alien forms as these – and the many others also on record – be explained? The initial assumption is that if any or all of them are indeed real (a big assumption in itself, of course), they clearly originate from totally different worlds, whether those worlds be planets or dimensions.

However, as Huyghe and other researchers have pointed out, these entities’ morphological differences may owe more to psychology than anatomy. Could it be, for instance, that the image that an alien eyewitness sees is not the true form of the alien in question but rather a false image placed in the eyewitness’s mind by the alien, thereby concealing the latter’s true self? An equally thought-provoking, obverse explanation is that the eyewitness is not seeing the alien as it actually is but rather as the eyewitness subconsciously chooses it to be.

It is often said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but who knows, perhaps the same is also true of alien morphology.

Head of the sinister 'Vegetable Man' alien (Tim Morris)
 
This ShukerNature blog post is excerpted from my book Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), the chapter in question from which was in turn an expanded, updated version of an original article of mine published in the August 1997 issue of the now-defunct British magazine Alien Encounters and illustrated by John A. Short.