Engraving of an extraordinary triple-bodied, single-headed lamb that reputedly existed in Hungary in 1620
Many years ago, a correspondent sent me a photocopy of the remarkable engraving that opens this present ShukerNature article. It depicts what was allegedly a living lamb with three fully-formed bodies united by a single head. According to the caption included in the engraving, this extreme developmental monstrosity (the study of such freaks is known as teratology, which translates as 'the study of monsters') had been seen in Klausenburg, Hungary, during July 1620. (Incidentally, I have never been able to trace the original source of this engraving, so if anyone reading my article has any information concerning it, I'd welcome all details. Also: Klausenburg was technically part of Transylvania during the 1600s, which in turn was assimilated into Hungary before eventually becoming part of present-day Romania.)
A developmental monstrosity born with a single head but two bodies is known technically as a syncephalus or monocephalus, and is basically a pair of incompletely-separated (conjoined) twins in which, during embrogeny, the head (cephalic) portion of the originally-single embryo has not differentiated into two separate heads but has instead remained as a solitary undivided unit, thus developing into only a single head, whereas the body portion of the originally-single embryo has split into two halves with each half developing into a body. (Less common and more deleterious to survival is the reverse derivation of a syncephalus, in which a pair of separate twins originally develop but the heads of the two twins subsequently fuse during embryogeny with one head becoming reabsorbed into the other.) There is, however, a great deal of variation on record with regard to the degree of body-portion splitting occurring, so that in some cases the two bodies remain joined together rather than separating from each other – as seen with the following syncephalic lamb, illustrated in an early engraving of unknown origin (at least to me).
Examples of syncephaly have been recorded from many different animal species, including our own Homo sapiens. However, because of internal anatomical complications, not to mention the physiological strain of a single head attempting to maintain full neurological control and metabolic functioning of two bodies, syncephalic individuals possessing totally discrete bodies rarely survive for very long following birth. (In contrast, bicephalic or dicephalous individuals, possessing a single body but two heads, do sometimes survive to maturity, especially in certain creatures such as terrapins and snakes – click here for more information concerning two-headed snakes.)
Consequently, the concept of a surviving syncephalic lamb that possessed not just two but three completely separated bodies seemed too surreal, let alone too implausible, to warrant even the most cursory of considerations. So I simply filed away the engraving in one of my folders of teratological material and forgot all about it – until last Friday, 6 February 2015. For that was when I paid a visit to a very special attraction and saw something there that totally challenged my previous assumptions concerning syncephalic animals and their likelihood of surviving for any notable length of time following birth – and, in turn, made me think again about that anomalous triplicate lamb from Hungary.
The attraction in question was Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium London (click here to visit its official website). Situated on the corner of London's Piccadilly Circus, this is a spectacular six-storey exhibition centre that is packed throughout with bizarre curiosities and interactive displays celebrating the famous books, TV shows, and newspaper strips documenting all manner of incredibly weird yet wonderful people, animals, buildings, creations, and much much more that were originally compiled, collected, and drawn by entrepreneur-cartoonist Robert Ripley (1890-1949) for his countless publications.
Experiencing some Mesozoic mayhem at Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium London (© Dr Karl Shuker)
As a zoologist, it was obviously the various –and extremely varied – animal attractions that particularly interested me, and I was certainly not disappointed in the array on display. There are many Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditoriums worldwide, especially in the USA (but with London's being the largest one of all), and they have become synonymous with teratological animals. There was certainly a goodly selection here in London (some of which were actual taxiderm specimens, others models of real specimens), including several two-headed creatures, animals with extra (supernumerary) limbs (a condition known as polymelia), and other equally curious caprices.
One such creature was a rooster with three separate legs that had been found in 1998 in England (exact location not specified), and was on display alongside a five-legged lamb (its right hind limb was a double leg), again from England and found during the early 1990s.
A three-legged rooster and a five-legged lamb – two polymelic animals at Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium London (© Dr Karl Shuker)
The two-headed lamb standing close by had been born in Shandong, China, in 2006, and both of its heads were fully functioning, with separate personalities.
Just behind it was a pair of conjoined ('Siamese') piglets, joined back-to-back but with separate necks and heads (thus constituting a lesser version of the controversial rachipagus condition, in which conjoined twins are joined dorsally from the back of their heads down the entire length of their backs). These conjoined piglet twins were apparently similar in form to a pair possessed by the eminent Russian tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725), who famously owned a sizeable collection of scientific curiosities (click here for more information concerning this).
Just inside the entrance to the odditorium was a taxiderm specimen of an adult black-and-white Friesian cow, which looked totally normal – until I realised that a fully-formed fifth leg complete with hoofed foot was growing outwards and upwards from between its shoulders! This bizarre teratological condition is called notomelia, and indicates that during this cow's embryogeny a supernumerary, aberrantly-located limb bud had developed. Alternatively, but more dramatically, as an example of what could be termed pseudonotomelia it is possible that the cow had originated as a pair of twins but that one of these two twins had subsequently degenerated and had been almost totally reabsorbed into the other one during their embryonic development, with only the single limb providing external evidence of the absorbed twin's former existence as a separate entity. (A very similar instance of notomelia, featuring a male Friesian calf, was published in the July 2014 issue of the Canadian Veterinary Journal.)
Ripley's notomelic Friesian cow possessing a dorsally-sited supernumerary leg, plus the heads and forequarters of a small white two-headed calf (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Here's another two-headed calf that was on display:
And here's an albino alligator, complete with ruby-red eyes:
There were also a number of life-sized models of famous human curiosities. At one extreme was a model of Alypius, a dwarf from Alexandria during ancient Egyptian times, who was only 43 cm (17 in) tall, and whose fitting punishment for committing treason was imprisonment inside a parrot cage!
And at the other extreme, standing in front of a full-sized American mastodon skeleton that only served to emphasise his truly exceptional stature, was a full-sized model of Robert Wadlow (1918-1940), immortalised in the record books as the world's tallest man. Suffering from pituitary-induced gigantism, when he died aged just 22 years old he was already a little over 8 ft 11 in tall, and was still growing. Indeed, had he grown just under one inch more, he would have been the only confirmed 9-ft-tall human ever recorded. Standing alongside this real-life giant's model, even at a respectable 5 ft 10 in tall I still felt totally overshadowed by him, and overawed too.
Standing alongside the life-sized model of Robert Wadlow at Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium London (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Equally eyecatching was a full-sized bust of a man exhibiting hypertrichosis, also known as werewolf syndrome as persons displaying this condition of extreme hairiness were once believed by the superstitious to be lycanthropes.
Bust of a man exhibiting hypertrichosis at Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium London (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Also well worthy of attention was the conical, elongated skull of an ancient Peruvian, its extreme shape having resulted from the practice prevalent then and there of using tightly-wrapped cloth, boards, and rope to distort the shape of a child's growing skull via rigorous binding.
Manually-distorted conical skull of an ancient Peruvian at Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium London (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Yet despite all of these wonders and marvels, the specimen that startled me most at Ripley's Believe It Or Not Odditorium London was not actually on physical display there. Instead, it appeared – and even then only very fleetingly – on a video being played in loop format on a screen close to most of the teratological animal specimens. The video showed a selection of teratological animals that were on display at various odditoriums around the world, and also included some footage of certain of these animals when they were still alive. Watching this video, I was astonished when a couple of seconds of film was shown of a living, seemingly adult, and clearly perfectly healthy syncephalic donkey, which consisted of a single head to which were connected two completely separated, fully-formed bodies!
By the time that my mind had registered this astonishing image, the video had moved on to showing other specimens, so I waited until it looped back to the beginning and then looked out for the donkey footage. After studying it intently when it reappeared, there was no doubt in my mind about what I had seen. It was indeed as I'd thought it to be on first viewing, both in form and in condition, though even now I struggle to comprehend how such a creature could survive to maturity – two independent four-legged bodies linked to a single controlling head.
After then waiting for the footage to come round a third time, when it did so I snapped a photo of this amazing donkey-in-duplicate, which although of poor quality would serve as a visual record of it for my files, and I vowed to investigate the matter further when I returned home. After all, if such a creature could truly exist and survive to adulthood, even the ostensibly impossible triplicate-bodied syncephalic lamb of Hungary suddenly seemed less implausible.
My photographic record of the syncephalic donkey as featured in the video shown at Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium London (© Dr Karl Shuker/Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium London)
And sure enough, my online researches have indeed confirmed the donkey's reality. Named Rascal, he was a miniature donkey owned by farmer Paul Springer whose farm is situated near Mineral Point, Wisconsin, USA. Paul's longstanding interest in teratological livestock has led him over the years to purchase a number of specimens that exhibit some anatomical peculiarity but are otherwise healthy and not suffering in any way, and allow them to live out a full, happy life on his farm instead of being slaughtered by their original owners either for their meat or simply because they were different.
Paul's first purchase was a six-legged calf called Boldegard during the 1970s, who went on to enjoy a long 14-year life on Paul's farm, followed by a range of other animals with extra legs, additional horns, two heads, or, in Rascal's case, one head and two bodies. Following their eventual deaths, half a dozen of the most striking individuals have been sold by Paul to the Ripley's Believe It Or Not! franchise for exhibition in various of their odditoriums. So it is possible that Rascal is on display in one of them, somewhere in the world. Consequently, if any of my readers have seen him, and can send me details, I'd very much like to receive them here – many thanks indeed in advance!
How uplifting it is to read of Paul Springer's compassion for all of the out-of-the-ordinary creatures that he has rescued from certain premature death. When asked in a media interview (WSAW.com 15 November 2009) what compelled him to rescue and care for animals with abnormalities, his answer was as inspirational as it was direct:
"There's something about them that maybe I feel sorry for. I give them a life. Most people will put them down and sell them. I am proud of them. People who see them, it gives them a chance to realize that everything isn't [normal], whether it be human beings or pigs or people or cats or dogs, we're not all born normal. Just because somebody has a handicap, they shouldn't be shunned. They should be given every chance, and love and attention that's possible."
Amen to that!