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, 30 January 2013

FROM BLACK LIONS TO LIVING SABRE-TOOTHS - MY TOP TEN MYSTERY CATS

Photoshopped  photograph of a black lion ((PAulie-SVK/deviantART.com)

As I have revealed in my very first book, Mystery Cats of the World (1989), and also in my very latest book, Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), among mammalian cryptids there is an unrivalled diversity of mystery cats on file. Some of these, the so-called alien big cats (ABCs) of black pantheresque or brown puma-like form frequently reported in particular from Britain, Continental Europe, North America, and Australasia, are most probably nothing more than escapee/released specimens of known but non-native species (or out-of-place native species in the case of pumas in the eastern USA). Much more exotic and intriguing are those crypto-cats that may be unconfirmed mutant forms of known species, entirely new but still-undescribed species, or even bona fide prehistoric survivors. So here, in no particular order, are my own personal Top Ten mystery cats of these more exotic varieties – check them out and decide for yourself what they might, or might not, be!


BLACK LION

Judging from the unprecedented amount of online interest in this particular mystery cat as well as various impressive but confirmed fake (i.e. photoshopped) photographs of such creatures that have been circulating on the Net for some time (one ShukerNature post of mine on this subject – click here – has so far notched up more than three quarters of a million hits in just a few months!), the black lion may well lay claim to being the most fascinating of all feline cryptids. Moreover, several sightings have been reported over the years, but none has ever been confirmed.

For instance, in his autobiography My Pride and Joy (1986), George Adamson of 'Born Free' fame briefly referred to "an almost entirely black lion" allegedly having been spied in Tanzania, but he provided no additional details. Six years earlier, wild cats author C.A.W. Guggisberg, writing to American cryptozoologist Loren Coleman, mentioned that black lion cubs had lately been reported from western Tanzania, but their existence had not been verified. In her book Okavango, June Kay included an account of a black lioness having been sighted at very close range; and at the end of the 19th Century archaeologist Sir Henry Layard apparently observed the body of a very dark brown lion killed by soldiers of the Luristan regiment. Most dramatic of all, however, was the claim made in 1940 by W.L. Speight that an experienced game warden had once stated that he had spied an entire pride of pitch-black lions in the Kruger National Park.

A second photoshopped photograph of a black lion (tumblr.com)

I cannot help but wonder whether such creatures as those were nothing more than ordinary lions that had rolled in thick black mud – photos of mud-caked lions show that they can indeed appear black in colour. Equally, however, melanism is a fully-confirmed phenomenon among several other species of wild cat, including the leopard, jaguar, serval, clouded leopard, and Temminck's golden cat, to name but a few. So perhaps a few genuine specimens of melanistic lion have indeed occurred from time to time – but until the existence of one is scientifically verified, the black lion must remain a cat of cryptozoology.


ONZA

On the evening of 1 January 1986, Andres Rodriguez encountered a very large form of cat near his home in Sinaloa, Mexico. Fearing that it was about to attack him, Rodriguez was forced to shoot it dead. He expected it to be either a puma Puma concolor or a jaguar Panthera onca, Mexico’s two largest species of cat, and was very surprised, therefore, to discover that it differed from both of them.

Although it resembled a puma in colour, the creature’s legs were longer and its body was much slimmer, so that in basic outline it seemed more like a cheetah. When a local naturalist examined it, he announced at once that it was an onza – Mexico’s legendary, third type of big cat.

The Rodriguez onza (International Society of Cryptozoology)

For over three centuries, Mexicans had been reporting sightings of a very distinctive form of long-limbed, tan-furred cat that they referred to as an onza, but scientists had always assumed that such accounts were merely based upon poorly-observed pumas. Now that a complete onza specimen had finally been obtained, however, it seemed that the Mexicans had been correct after all. But what is the onza? Several identities have been offered, including a starved puma, a crossbreed of puma and jaguar, a new puma subspecies, and a completely new species in its own right. Perhaps the most intriguing suggestion was that it is a bona fide living fossil. Twelve thousand years ago, the New World still housed a native species of puma-like cheetah (sometimes considered, conversely, to be a cheetah-like puma) known as Truman's cheetah Miracinonyx trumani, so could the onza be a direct descendant of this species?

The Rodriguez onza’s body was transported to a scientific laboratory in Mexico, where it became the subject of detailed research. Early studies showed that it contained adequate amounts of body fat, proving that it was not merely an emaciated puma, and further research ruled out the crossbreed option and also the living fossil possibility. Indeed, when the full studies were eventually published in the late 1990s, they revealed that no genetic differences had been found between this specimen and specimens of the puma, suggesting that despite its distinctive appearance the Rodriguez onza was nothing more than a puma after all. This find corresponded with the predictions made by me in 1998 when I opined in an article documenting this mystery cat that the onza as a whole was most probably no more than a somewhat gracile (long-limbed) mutant version of the puma (and hence would be extremely similar genetically to normal pumas), and that the Rodriguez specimen may not even be a genuine onza, but merely an infirm, malformed puma.


NUNDA

Judging from an appreciable amount of intriguing, reliable anecdotal evidence currently on record, Africa may house several types of large cat still eluding scientific detection. The most formidable of these is assuredly the nunda (‘fierce animal’) or mngwa (‘strange one’ in Swahili), reported from Tanzania's coastal forests. It is described by native hunters as a huge, terrifying man-eating cat, with tabby-striped fur, and great claw-bearing paws that leave behind tracks resembling a leopard's in shape, but comparable in size to those of the very largest lions.

Reconstruction of a nunda attack (William Rebsamen)

Victims of alleged attacks by nundas, as well as nunda fur and tracks, have been examined by animal experts, who are convinced that such a creature does exist. It has been suggested by some cryptozoologists that the ferocious nunda, which has occasionally been heard to purr but never roar, may be a gigantic version of the African golden cat Profelis aurata. This is a medium-sized species with an extraordinarily variable coat, which inhabits many parts of tropical Africa, and is greatly feared by its human neighbours, but is very elusive and rarely seen.


FUJIAN BLUE TIGER

In September 1910, while hunting in southeastern China’s Fukien (now Fujian) Province, American missionary Harry R. Caldwell was watching a goat when one of his native helpers directed his attention towards something else, moving nearby. Caldwell thought at first that it was another native, dressed in the familiar blue garment worn by many in that region, but when he peered more closely he realised to his great surprise that he was actually looking at the chest and belly of a very large tiger. However, this was no ordinary tiger, because its black-striped fur was not orange-brown in colour as in normal specimens, but was instead a very distinctive shade of blue.

Caldwell decided to shoot this extraordinary creature, in order to prove that it really did exist, but the tiger was watching two children gathering vegetation in a ravine nearby, and he knew that if he tried to shoot it from where he was sitting he might injure the children too. Consequently, he moved a little to one side, to alter the direction of his planned shot, but while he was doing this the tiger disappeared into the forest and was not seen by him again that day. Nevertheless, he knew that blue tigers had been spied several times here (Caldwell himself had sighted such a creature once before, in spring 1910), and others have been seen since, but none has ever been shot or captured, though a few tantalising blue hairs have been observed on their trails.

Painting of a Fujian blue tiger based upon Caldwell's description (William Rebsamen)

Although a blue tiger may seem impossible, in reality it is quite easily explained. Such tigers almost certainly possess two mutant gene forms that in combination are responsible for the smoky blue-mauve fur colouration (termed ‘blue dilution’) characterising the Maltese breed of domestic cat (as well as a few freak specimens of blue lynx and blue bobcat obtained over the years). As for its black stripes, these may well be a polygenic creation, i.e. they are due to the action of modifying genes functioning independently of the combined effect of the non-agouti and dilute alleles.

Indian white tigers are well known nowadays, and a black tiger was born at an Oklahoma zoo during the 1970s. So perhaps one day a Fujian blue tiger will be captured, finally confirming the reality of these beautiful if highly unusual, ethereal animals too.


DINGONEK

One of tropical Africa’s most extraordinary cryptids is an unexpectedly walrus-like water beast known to the Wa-Ndorobo tribe as the dingonek. Its most famous western eyewitness was an explorer called John Alfred Jordan, who in 1907 spied and unsuccessfully shot at one in the River Maggori (Migori), which runs into Lake Victoria. He described it as being 4.6-5.5 m long, covered in scales, with a spotted back as wide as a male hippo’s, hippo-sized footprints too but also possessing long claws, a broad tail, and a massive head whose jaws sported a huge pair of projecting walrus-like upper tusks. If the scales were merely clumps of wet fur, as some cryptozoologists have suggested, then the dingonek is probably mammalian and bears a close resemblance to similar mystery beasts reported elsewhere in Africa, such as the mourou n’gou (‘water leopard’) in the Central African Republic, the coje ya menia (‘water lion’) in Angola, and the simba ya mail (‘water lion’) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire).

Brackfontein Ridge cave painting of a walrus-like mystery beast

Veteran cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans boldly speculated that such creatures may represent living sabre-tooths that have become secondarily aquatic. Intriguingly, there is an ancient cave painting at Brackfontein Ridge in South Africa’s Orange Free State that depicts a still-unidentified creature bearing a remarkable resemblance to a walrus, including its long downward-curving tusks, lengthy elongated body, and paddle-like limbs. Moreover, unlike a true walrus but like the mystery beasts noted here, it also possesses a long tail. Could this be an early portrait of a dingonek-type cryptid?


QUEENSLAND TIGER

Since the mid-1800s, reports have regularly emerged from the forested areas of northern Queensland, Australia, that tell of confrontations by aboriginals and Western settlers with a large, tiger-like creature. Reportedly the size and shape of a leopard, but bearing black/dark grey and white bands around its body, with a distinctly cat-like head, and with very prominent, peculiarly tusk-like teeth at the front of its mouth, this unidentified feline animal has become known as the Queensland tiger or yarri (an aboriginal name for it, meaning ‘attack’ or ‘threaten’).

Due to its extremely aggressive nature, this cryptid has generally been avoided by eyewitnesses who have encountered it, but occasionally a specimen has been shot and killed. Ironically, however, not realising its scientific significance, on each occasion that this has happened its carcase has been discarded, rather than made available for scientific study. In one instance, the carcase was simply left outside, where its head and body were soon devoured by wild pigs, and its pelt rotted away.

The Queensland tiger, based upon eyewitness accounts (Dami Editore s.r.l.)

As almost all of Australia's native mammals are marsupials (pouched mammals), this mysterious beast is probably a marsupial too, but it does not resemble any living species discovered by science so far. A mere 10,000 years ago, however, many more Australian marsupials existed, including a sizeable cat-like species known as the marsupial lion Thylacoleo carnifex, whose fossil remains have been found in Queensland.

Very significantly, reconstructions of its likely appearance when alive, based upon studies of its remains, portray a creature bearing a remarkable resemblance to eyewitness descriptions of the Queensland tiger - sharing its size, shape, and even its strange tusk-like teeth (in Thylacoleo, its tusks were incisors, not canines, and were thus located at the front of its mouth, just like the Queensland tiger's tusks). As the marsupial lion is believed to have been a tree-climbing, forest-dwelling species, it was probably striped too, for effective camouflage.

Accordingly, some cryptozoologists have postulated that the Queensland tiger may turn out be a modern-day species of marsupial lion. Whether it proves to be a living species, conversely, is another matter; there have been very few reports of Queensland tigers in recent years, leading to speculation that this remarkable beast may have lately died out, before science was even able to confirm its reality, let alone its identity.


TSHENKUTSHEN

According to the Shuar Indians in the Macas region of Ecuador, this locality is home to a rare but very remarkable mystery cat known as the tshenkutshen or rainbow tiger – for good reason. Reputed to be the size of a jaguar, it is predominantly black in colour, but is ornately decorated with several stripes of different colours – black, white, red, and yellow – on its chest, “just like a rainbow”, in the words of one native hunter interviewed by Spanish cryptozoologist Angel Morant Forés during a visit to southern Ecuador in July 1999. Said to inhabit the Trans-Cutucú region, Sierra de Cutucú, and the Sangay volcano area near Chiguaza, Ecuador’s mystifying rainbow tiger is described by the Shuar as having monkey-like forepaws and being an exceptionally good tree-climber, leaping from tree-trunk to tree-trunk at great speed, and greatly feared as an extremely dangerous animal.

Representation of the tshenkutshen (Tim Morris)

One such cat may well have been killed in 1959 by Policarpio Rivadeneira, a Macas settler, while walking through the rainforest of Cerro Kilamo, a low mountain near the Abanico River. He had seen the creature leaping from tree to tree and, scared that it would attack him, shot it. When he examined it, he discovered that it was a jaguar-sized cat, but instantly distinguishable from all cats that he had ever seen by virtue of the series of multicoloured stripes running across its chest, as well as by a hump on its back, and also by its clawed but otherwise remarkably simian forepaws. Sadly, Rivadeneira does not appear to have retained the creature’s carcase, or even its pelt, so as yet there is no physical evidence available to verify this extraordinary felid’s existence.

I find it difficult to believe that any felid would exhibit such a dramatic pelt. Conversely, its arboreal adeptness calls to mind the southeast Asian clouded leopards, so I have less problem accepting this aspect of the rainbow tiger.


MOUNTAIN TIGER

The Zagaoua tribe of Ennedi in northern Chad, West Africa, believe in the existence of a remarkable mystery cat known as the mountain tiger or tigre de montagne. According to their testimony, this unidentified animal is as large as a lion, with red fur and white stripes, no tail, and a huge pair of fangs that project conspicuously from its mouth. When an old native game tracker was shown pictures of various animals, living and extinct, by Christian Le Noel, a French hunting guide, in the 1960s, he positively identified the mysterious mountain tiger as Machairodus – the African sabre-toothed tiger, officially believed to have died out over a million years ago.

The mountain tiger, based upon eyewitness accounts (Tim Morris)

A very similar creature to Chad’s mountain tiger has also been reported from the Central African Republic, where it is referred to variously as the gassingram and vassoko. The mountain ranges of these countries are extremely remote and little-explored, making it difficult to rule out the possibility that a large unknown species of cat does indeed exist here.

Moreover, comparable beasts have been documented from certain South American countries too, including Colombia and Peru, where they are said to be striped and extremely elusive, as well as from Mexico.


MAROZI

Kenya’s Aberdares Mountains are believed by local hunters as well as some western naturalists to harbour small maneless lions that retain their juvenile spots throughout their lives, instead of losing them when mature. Skins of this strange form of lion, referred to by native people here as the marozi (‘solitary lion’ – it does not live in prides like savannah lions do), have occasionally been obtained. One pair of skins – a male and female - received favourable attention and interest from carnivofre expert Reginald Pocock at London’s Natural History Museum, where they are still preserved.

A pair of marozis (William Rebsamen)

Sceptics dismiss marozis as merely freak specimens of the normal lion, but it is interesting to note that they are only reported from shady mountain forests, where their mottled coat, smaller body size, and near-absence in the male of a mane would all be favourable traits for a feline predator here, aiding camouflage and movement in this particular terrain. Perhaps the lion has evolved a distinct montane version, specifically adapted for success in this very different habitat from the lion’s more typical savannah home.

Supporting this possibility is the apparent existence of comparable mystery cats in other mountain ranges in East and Central Africa. Here they are referred to variously as the ntarargo (in Uganda), ikimizi (in Rwanda), bung bung (Cameroon), and abasambo (Ethiopia).


WINGED CATS

The concept of domestic cats with wings would normally be confined to fantasy books and ‘silly season’ tabloid stories, were it not for the remarkable fact that such creatures are unquestionably real. As the world’s leading investigator of winged cats, I have revealed and documented dozens of verified cases from around the world. One of the earliest, and still among the most famous, cases was that of a kitten from Wiveliscombe in Somerset, which was photographed in the Strand Magazine in November 1899, clearly revealing a pair of large fluffy wing-like extensions arising from its back.

Other noteworthy examples include: a black-and-white cat with a very sizeable pair of ‘flappable’ furry dorsal ‘wings’ that was captured in some stables at Summerstown, Oxford, in 1933 and later photographed for news reports and exhibited at the local zoo; a record-breaking Swedish example from 1949 with a wingspan of almost 30 cm; a beautiful winged Angora cat called Angolina, owned by a porter living near Spain’s Houses of Parliament, which entranced Madrid’s media in 1959; also in 1959, a specimen of confused sex from Pineville, West Virginia, known in press reports as Thomas-Mitzi that was the subject of an ownership case but shed its wings while being exhibited in court; another densely-furred winged cat photographed sometime prior to the 1970s that made a home for itself in a Manchester builder’s yard; a fluffy-winged tabby spied in April 1995 in Backbarrow, Cumbria, and owned by the village’s retired postman; a Japanese specimen stroked by Rebecca Hough while staying in Kumamoto, Kyushu, on 23 May 1998; and even a historical report of a winged cat encountered in some woods at Walden, in Concord, Massachusetts, by writer Henry David Thoreau and later documented by him in his book Walden; Or Life in the Woods (1854).

The Anglesey winged cat (Wyn Williams)

Yet despite the relative abundance of winged cat reports and photos, any explanation for these extraordinary animals remained conspicuous only by its absence, until in the early 1990s I uncovered the long-awaited answer while researching for clues in various obscure tracts of veterinary literature. I discovered that true winged cats (as opposed to ones whose wings are merely clumps of matted fur) exhibit a rare, little-known genetic disorder known as feline cutaneous asthenia (FCA), in which the skin is extremely stretchable, especially on the back, haunches, and shoulders – so much so that even if a cat with FCA merely rubs itself against something, or grooms itself with its paws, this can be enough to stretch its skin outwards in long, furry, wing-like extensions. And because these extensions often contain muscle fibres, they can sometimes even be gently raised or lowered, exactly as reported by certain winged cat eyewitnesses. Moreover, because the skin of FCA cats is so fragile, occasionally the wings are stretched out too far, and they will then simply peel away from the rest of the cat’s skin, falling off as if moulted and without any bleeding occurring, which would therefore explain Thomas-Mitzi’s dramatic loss of wings in the courtroom. After countless years of baffling their startled observers, the mystery of the winged cats was finally solved.


Some of the above accounts are excerpted or adapted from those that I wrote for Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained (2009). For additional information concerning all of the mystery cats documented here, and many others too, don't miss my latest book, Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2012).





7 comments:

  1. Cats of Magic, Mythology and Mystery (which I'm reading currently) is enjoyable, extensive in scope, scholarly and as beautiful as the creatures it examines.

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  2. Is it possible that people see cryptid cats (even if they might not be there) because we are evolutionarily predisposed to spot them? Big cats are top predators for woods and savannahs, and are ambush hunters mostly. Any silly hominid that didn't spot a cat, or suspect a cat soon was kibble; so humans probably have a sense. And false positives in this case would be less fatal than a false negative.

    I'll tell you from experience it is an eerie feeling to be kicking through the woods in cougar country and get the hair standing up on the back of your neck for no apparent reason. And, you know, if you don't see a cougar, well they are sneaky, and it might not be there, they rarely attack humans, even for fun, but why not take some care, hey?

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    1. If this kind of genetic memory does account for anomalous big cat sightings, it might also account for anomalous hominid sightings. Our ancestors shared the Earth's wild places with various other species of human, as well as other tribes of its own species. It would have been prudent to "see" a hominids in random forms, movements and sounds, just in case. Come to think of it, some of our early vertebrate ancestors may have spent significant portions of their lives concerned about predators swimming above them, and later flying above them, and having to see all manner of significance in random forms above. UFOs, anyone?

      All very off topic (you need a forum, Dr Shuker), so to reel it back, some of the more unusual anomalous felines could I suppose be viverids or related creatures which have evolved to be larger and more cat like, in the manner of the fossa.

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  3. Fascinating article, it's a shame though that in the past, killing such unique and rare creatures (as Mr. Calder tried to do with the Blue Tiger)was the method for obtaining specimins and "proof". I hope one day to read that Queensland Tiger (and other 'thought to be extinct' species like the Thylacine) not only truly exists, but has a thriving population.

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  4. Btw, practically NO reports of Queensland tiger/yarri sightings describe anything resembling tusk-like front teeth. The only reports I know of that mention that detail are much more recent, and not necessarily from Queensland (ie. New South Wales). I'm not saying that dental feature is not present in this cryptid, just that it is definitely not a commonly reported feature, and is entirely absent from older reports. It's likely that most witnesses don't notice unusual teeth because most people are atrocious at describing what they see in nature.

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  5. I find the rainbow tiger to be very interesting, particularly the detail of the monkey-like hands.

    Would you think it's possible that its not a felid, or even a carnivoran at all, instead being a relict metatherian, a relative to say, Dukecynus, which was a wolf-sized predator with tree-climbing capabilities more related to marsupials than to carnivorans?
    It did live a LONG time ago but then, South America is filled with representants of ancient linneages...

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  6. Karl, are there any reports of bipedal cats?

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