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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Thursday, 21 February 2013

TRAILING THE MITLA – A DOG-LIKE CAT, OR A CAT-LIKE DOG?


Flash card illustration of the mitla prepared by Jeremy Mallinson for showing locals during his search for this mysterious mammal in Bolivia (© Jeremy Mallinson)

Certain of South America's alleged mystery cats may in reality be of canine rather than feline identity. One of these ambiguous animals is the mitla, which was first brought to western attention by the famous lost explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett. In Exploration Fawcett (1953), while referring to the Madidi region of Bolivia, he noted:

"In the forests were various beasts still unfamiliar to zoologists, such as the mitla, which I have seen twice, a black doglike cat about the size of a foxhound."

American zoologist and cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson claimed that during an animal collecting trip to South America, he had unsuccessfully attempted on several occasions to shoot one of these creatures, but had obtained a legless native skin of one, which he likened to that of a huge black serval with pricked ears and tiny lynx-like tail. Regrettably, however, he did not mention what happened to this cryptozoologically priceless skin afterwards.

The dark/black phase of the jaguarundi – one suggested identity for the mitla (Bodina/Wikipedia)

In September 1965, Jersey Zoo director Jeremy Mallinson set off on a one-man, two-month-long expedition to Bolivia in search of the mystifying mitla, but did not uncover the secret of its identity:

"By the time we paddled our way across the confluence of the Abuna with the Madeira...I recognised that I had not thrown any further light on the question of whether Colonel Fawcett’s legendary animal had ever existed or not. Perhaps the mitla had been nothing more than a melanistic form of one of the several species of South American tiger cats or, as has been suggested, the black form of the jaguarundi which can grow to about the size of a foxhound and could, to a non-zoologist, appear to be half-dog, half-cat. Both Señor Carlos and Professor Gaston Bejarano had confirmed that the black form of the jaguarundi occasionally occurred in the north-eastern regions of Bolivia. However, I had learnt one important fact from my travels in this great integrated region of rivers and forests: that while these remoter areas of the Amazon basin still remain in existence, the forests could well harbour such animals as the mitla that are still strange to science, but it would only be by chance if their presence ever came to light."

Jeremy Mallinson – Travels in Search of Endangered Species (1989)

Some reports may indeed involve dark individuals of the jaguarundi Puma yagouaroundi, or even a strange sometimes-black relative of weasels called the tayra Eira barbara.

The tayra, a large South American mustelid (copyright owner's name inset in photo)

However, retired Chicago University biologist and spare-time cryptozoologist Dr Roy P. Mackal favours the South American bush dog Speothos venaticus as a likely identity – thus proposing that the mitla may not be a dog-like cat, but rather a cat-like dog. This species is a savage, pack-hunting canid, native to Guyana, Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Panama. Having said that, however, the bush dog is reddish-brown in colour, not black, as described for the mitla (though juvenile bush dogs are indeed uniformly black). Moreover, it is relatively short-legged, not recalling the foxhound comparison given by Fawcett for the mitla.

South American bush dogs

In any case, if the mitla is truly a feline canid rather than a canine felid, in my view there is an even better candidate for it, as I first proposed in my book Mystery Cats of the World (1989). Namely, the small-eared dog Atelocynus microtis, also called the zorro. This little-known, dark-furred species has occasionally been exhibited in captivity, and is characterised by its remarkably gracile, feline gait - far-removed indeed from the more boisterous, less agile movements of most dogs.

A small-eared dog or zorro recently photographed in the wild by a concealed camera in Ecuador (© Tiputini Biodiversity Station)

Until recently, the zorro had not been reported from Bolivia itself, but was known to occur in various of Bolivia's neighbouring countries. And as it has never been well-studied in the wild, it would not be too surprising if the zorro were formally discovered in Bolivia too at some stage in the future - a prediction supported by this species' compelling correspondence to descriptions of the mitla.

And sure enough, a reliable observation of the zorro in northern Bolivia at 14°25'47.9994"S, 63°13' 47.9994"W by biologist R. Wallace has lately been recorded. This constitutes its species' most southerly record, in fact, and is in close proximity, moreover, to the Madidi where Fawcett reported the mitla – thereby enhancing the prospect that zorro and mitla are one and the same creature.

Early photograph of a captive zorro, exhibited at London Zoo in 1913

This ShukerNature blog post is an expanded, adapted excerpt from my latest book, Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2012).








10 comments:

  1. Your description of a mitla reminds me of a creature my brother and I saw in Amarillo, TX about 6 years ago. His apartment complex is near the edge of town where there are cow pastures being cleared for development. We were pulling out of his parking lot when I saw this very weird dog like creature. It looked like a dog or coyote on the front end but the tail was felid about the length a mountain lions tail would be in proportion to the body. It carried the tail low to the ground with the tip curved up exactly like a mountain lion. The tail wasn't bushy like the zorro's tail. The ears stood up like a coyotes. I asked my brother if he had seen it and he did. We agreed it was not like anything we had ever seen before. The creature trotted into a space between two buildings but was gone by the time we drove by. I think it moved more like a felid than a canid but I was so shocked by its appearance that I don't clearly remember how it moved. It had to have either jumped over a seven foot picket fence or gone under the fence to get out of the area it ran into.

    I can't describe much else to you but I've always wondered about the animal.

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  2. Le, your description of the animal you saw in Texas sounds like a coatimundi or perhaps a cacomistle ('ring-tailed cat', though my money is on the coati as it sometimes lacks a mask. Neither of these animals are cats or dogs but unusual members of the raccoon family.

    Karl, the mitla description you gave stated that it had a short tail, something none of your candidates have. If it was found further north I would say it was simply the bobcat. Some bobcats in Florida are black and have unusually long dog-like (or serval-like) legs. As it is it's a mystery, unless science has overlooked a tropical subspecies of bobcat

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  3. Hi Tamara, Thanks for your interesting comments. Re the mitla's short tail: this feature was not given in Fawcett's own description of it, it only featured in relation to the alleged mitla skin obtained by Ivan Sanderson, which may, or may not, have been an actual mitla skin. Also, I hate to say it but I do worry somewhat about Sanderson's extraordinary ability to encounter (at least according to his own claims) living specimens of unknown species (e.g. olitiau, an unidentified giant Cameroon bat; an African living dinosaur; a giant pink salamander on his own farm in North America; a fish that could make itself invisible in Trinidad) and skins or dead specimens of unknown animals(e.g. Bolivian mitla; Mexican ruffed cat; Minnesota iceman). If all of these claims were true, it would make him the most successful cryptozoologist of all time, yet they all share a common fundamental feature - there is no physical evidence to support any of them. Even skins that he claims to have obtained are always mysteriously lost (ruffed cat) or subsequently unaccounted for (mitla). So I tend to view his claims of such encounters with some scepticism. As for a melanistic bobcat as the mitla's identity: the most southerly extent of the bobcat's known distribution is only northern Mexico, so for any strain of bobcat to be existing so much further south as Bolivia yet without any specimens recorded from anywhere in the intervening region (i.e. anywhere throughout Central America or northern South America) seems rather unlikely. Hence I still favour a canine identity for it, and one with a normal tail (note that Jeremy Mallinson's flashcard of a mitla includes a normal rather than shortened tail too). All the best, Karl

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  4. Tamara, Thank you for your suggestions it was definitely neither of those. The creature we saw carried its head up like a dog and had a straight back unlike the coati. It was dog/coyote in the front and cat in the back. Maybe it was just an extraordinarily long-tailed dog with a really smooth gait.

    Also, Amarillo is in the Texas Panhandle. We get less than 14 inches of precipitation a year.

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    1. Interesting, Les. I think I know what you've seen. Is there any body of water near your sighting ? It sounds like a cryptid.

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    2. Maybe ponds or stock tanks in the area. The Texas Panhandle is semiarid, no forests, just rolling grass land and canyons.

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  5. Thanks. Well I was thinking about the Mexican Ahuizotl, a supposedly legendary creature from the Aztec mythology, do you think it fits quite well ?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahuizotl_(creature)

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    1. No, this animal was about the size of a cougar.

      The Ahuizotl is an interesting creature though.

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    2. Oh...I see. I inadvertently skipped the size . Looks something similar then to France's Beast of Gévaudan or Beast of Dartmoor, the former was given the scientific name Lycopardus, which translates to "wolf-panther".I don't see any other possible candidate.

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  6. I would like to add that this animal is known as Glawackus in North America and its description made me think of yours in a convincing way :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glawackus

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