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.

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com

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Sunday, 30 August 2015

MEDUSA'S MENAGERIE - NAME-CHECKING SOME ZOOLOGICAL GORGONS FROM THE PRESENT AND THE PAST


Photo-bombed by a gorgonopsid – it could only happen to me! © Dr Karl Shuker)

Deriving their name from 'gorgos', an ancient Greek word translating as 'dreadful', the gorgons are undoubtedly among the most infamous, terrifying monsters in classical Greek mythology. A trio of nightmarish sisters born to the ancient sea deities Phorcys and Ceto, each of these three horrific entities was feared for the writhing, seething, sibilant mass of living venomous serpents that composed her hair, and even more so for her hideous visage's dreadful gaze, which was absolutely petrifying, literally – because anyone who looked directly into her face and eyes was instantly and irrevocably turned to stone.

The decapitated head of Medusa, slain by Perseus, as painted by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1617-1618; intriguingly, note that among the snakes breaking free from her hair following her death is an amphisbaena (head at each end of its body) directly below her head, and a very strange-looking fox-headed serpent to the left of the amphisbaena (separating the two is a scorpion) - click to enlarge (public domain)

Ironically, the two immortal gorgons, Stheno and Euryale, scarcely feature at all in Greek mythology and are therefore all but forgotten beyond the cloistered domain of classical scholars, even though one might have expected that their invulnerable, inviolate nature coupled with their lethal power of petrification would surely have set them in good stead indeed as truly daunting opponents for any of the famous Greek heroes to vanquish. However, it is commonly believed that their existence was a later addition to an original myth of just a single, mortal gorgon, because there are so many trinities of female monsters or other entities in Greek mythology (e.g. the Graeae or Grey Sisters, the Furies or Erinyes, the Horae, the Charites or Graces), so this may well explain, their virtual absence from classical legend.

(Interestingly, the premise of a 1964 British horror movie made by Hammer Films, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and entitled The Gorgon was the survival into modern times of one of the two immortal gorgons; but the film's researchers apparently made a major error, because they named her as Megaera, who in Greek mythology wasn't a gorgon at all, but was instead one of the three Furies, together with Tisiphone – erroneously named in this same movie as the second immortal gorgon – and Alecto.)

Poster advertising the 1964 Hammer Films horror movie The Gorgon (© Columbia Pictures/reproduced here on the basis of non-commercial fair use only)

Conversely, it is the third gorgon, that single mortal representative, who has seized virtually all of the public attention afforded to this terrifying trio. Her name? Medusa.

Medusa's horror-laden history has assumed many forms during the countless tellings and retellings by all manner of writers, chroniclers, and narrators down through the ages – even including variants in which she was originally a stunningly beautiful maiden but was transformed into a merciless, embittered monster with deadly gaze after finding disfavour with one or other of the Greek deities.

Perseus and the head of Medusa (© Simon Wyatt)

Irrespective of her origin, however, Medusa was eventually slain by the demigod hero Perseus, who skilfully succeeded in slicing off her head with his sword while only looking at her indirectly, via a reflection in the highly-polished surface of his mirrored shield – a gift to him from his divine protector, the goddess Athena.

Perseus and the gorgons, with Perseus holding up the decapitated head of Medusa; illustrated by Walter Crane for Nathaniel Hawthorne's A Wonder-Book For Girls and Boys, 1893 edition (public domain)

Perseus was the very first of the classical Greek heroes, who went on to become the legendary founder of Mycenae. His father was the god Zeus, his mother Danaë, a daughter of King Acrisius of Argos and his wife Queen Eurydice, whom Zeus famously visited and impregnated in the guise of a shower of golden rain.

In later ages, carvings of Medusa's head were incorporated in a number of classical architectural features, such as columns, arches, door panels, decorative grilles, sarcophagi, fountains, statues, and mosaics, to ward off evil spirits, and the image was also a popular depiction on protective amulets. This visual device is known as a gorgoneion.

A gorgoneion entitled 'Medusa and the Seasons', in a Roman mosaic found at Palencia, Spain, and dated at 167-200 AD (© Luis Garcia/Wikipedia)

Today, Stheno and Euryale remain largely unknown; but despite having been slain, Medusa still lives on, or at least her name and that of her monstrous kind do – which is due not only to the popularity of her memorable legend but also, in turn, because both 'gorgon' and 'Medusa' have been applied to a wide range of very remarkable, entirely real creatures, some living, others once-living. So permit me now to take you all on a brief, ShukerNature-led visit to the extraordinary menagerie of Medusa.


HOW AN AQUATIC GORGON-HEAD BECAME AN INTERNET ALIEN – OR WAS IT THE OTHER WAY ROUND?!

According to a report posted online during late September 2014 by Britain's Sunday Express newspaper and written by Levi Winchester, a 54-year-old Singapore fisherman named Ong Han Boon had recently captured in waters off the southern Singapore island of Sentosa a creature so bizarre in appearance that he seriously wondered whether it might be an alien, an extraterrestrial! Before releasing it back into the sea, he filmed a short video of it that duly appeared in the above-noted newspaper report (click here to view it there), and on 28 September a Singapore-based member of Facebook called Jr Saim publicly shared the video on his FB timeline (click here to view it on Facebook). The video swiftly went viral, soon appearing – and still appearing – on numerous news and video-sharing websites.

Still from the Singapore Gorgonocephalus video (© Ong Han Boon / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

But what was the creature that it showed? Those of an ophidiophobic disposition who have not already watched it might choose to avert their eyes from the video, because the entity in it looks disturbingly like a hideous matted wig composed of writhing, twisting, curling and uncurling serpentine tresses – a veritable Medusa scalp, in fact. And nomenclaturally, if not taxonomically, that is precisely what it is, because its scientific binomial name is Gorgonocephalus caputmedusae – 'gorgon-headed Medusa head'.

Happily, however, this grotesque entity lacks the petrifying power of its namesake, and it isn't of extraterrestrial origin either, because in reality it is nothing more startling than a sea-dwelling starfish, or, more specifically, a basket star. These particular invertebrates belong to a taxonomic class of echinoderms known as ophiuroids, whose most famous members are the notably long-limbed brittle stars.

Gorgonocephalus arborescens, from Alfred Edmund Brehm's famous multi-volume animal encyclopaedia Tierleben ('Animal Life'), which was originally published in 6 volumes during the 1860s and then republished as an expanded 10-volume second edition during the 1870s (public domain)

In a Gorgonocephalus basket star, however, of which there are several species, each of the five arms radiating from its central disc repeatedly divides and subdivides, yielding the somewhat disturbing, wriggling mass of miniature snake-like 'armlets' so vividly captured in the above video, and whose serpentine resemblance is heightened by their fleshy covering of pink rubbery skin. For a much more appealing, stationary representation of a Gorgonocephalus basket star, here is German biologist and artist Prof. Ernst Haeckel's exquisite rendition:

Gorgonocephalus basket star, appearing in Prof. Ernst Haeckel's gorgeously-illustrated, 2-volume tome Kunstformen der Natur ('Art Forms in Nature'), published in 1904 (public domain)

And here's an illustration of a reddish-coloured species named after the famous 19th-Century American zoologist and geologist Prof. Louis Agassiz – Gorgonocephalus agassizi:

Gorgonocephalus agassizi, 1800s rendition (public domain)

When seeking prey, Gorgoncephalus takes up a stationary position and then spreads out its innumerable tiny armlets like a basket. Each of these small but highly dexterous armlets is equipped with hooks and spines to seize and hold prey, normally krill or other planktonic forms, which they then convey to the mouth on the underside of the animal's central disc with the added assistance of a series of suctioned tube-feet.


A GORGON-GUTTED RIBBON WORM

No less grotesque and slightly stomach-churning than the Gorgonocephalus video of 2014 was a more recent one, seemingly first aired in May 2015 but again swiftly going viral and appearing on numerous websites, but featuring, as it turned out, another gorgon-dubbed creature with equally discomforting behaviour. The video (whose original ownership is presently unknown to me) can be viewed here, and shows a long blood-red worm-like creature originating in the seas off Thailand but resting on someone's hand that suddenly releases from its mouth a long thick white tube from which an intricate mass of white filaments shoot forth and which momentarily writhe about before sticking to the person's hand – almost as if this mini-monster has disgorged a gorgon's head of serpentine hair! Nor is that my own peculiar impression – the same notion clearly occurred to others too, because the generic name of the vermiform creature in question is none other than Gorgonorhynchus. This roughly translates as 'gorgon-beaked', though the beak in this instance is actually a proboscis.

Still from the video of the Thai Gorgonorhynchus nemertean everting its proboscis on a person's hand (copyright owner currently unknown to me / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

As someone who studied such creatures during a university project, I was very familiar with this animal's behaviour, repulsive though it evidently seemed to many other viewers of the video, judging from various comments posted concerning it. The creature is a nemertean, or ribbon worm, Nemertea (aka Rhynchocoela) being a phylum of invertebrates whose members are characterised by their often very long slender bodies and in particular by their possession of a lengthy prey-capturing proboscis. This distinctive organ is normally held inside the worm's mouth within its own sheath (the rhynchocoel) and in an inverted, inside-out conformation, but when the worm encounters a potential prey victim, it is instantly and quite explosively shot out through the worm's mouth in everted form. The proboscis usually bears hooks at its tip that seize the prey, and sometimes inject it with venom too, after which the prey is swiftly hauled back inside the worm's body via the proboscis's immediate muscle-powered retraction through the mouth in inverted form once more.

Illustration of Gorgonorhynchus reptens everting its branched proboscis after feeling threatened from being touched (© Rachel Koning/Wikipedia)

In most nemerteans, the proboscis is a long, simple tube, but in certain species, including those of the genus Gorgonorhynchus, the tube possesses many branching sticky filaments that divide and subdivide in a manner analogous to the armlets of the basket star Gorgonocephalus, and which, again like the latter's armlets, wriggle and writhe as if they were a multitude of tiny snakes, before wrapping themselves around the prey, encapsulating it in an adhesive mass from which it cannot pull out, almost like the gossamer produced by a spider. In effect, therefore, when the nemertean everted its proboscis all over the person's hand, it was either stressed or feeling threatened from being handled or it was reacting as if the hand were prey, and hence was vainly attempting to wrap it up in its proboscis's sticky filaments.


GORGONS FROM PREHISTORY

Moving now from the present back to the (very) far-distant past: in the mid to late Permian Period (265 to 252 million years ago), when dinosaurs were still merely a future twinkle in the eye of evolution, a reptile-originating lineage existed whose members were so genuinely monstrous in form and size that in 1876 the great 19th-Century palaeontologist Prof. Sir Richard Owen fittingly named them after Greek mythology's own historical (albeit not prehistorical!) horrors, the gorgons. For he christened their type genus and species Gorgonops torvus, after which genus their entire taxonomic group (currently deemed a suborder) duly derived its name – Gorgonopsia – in 1895, as dubbed by British palaeontologist Prof. Harry G. Seeley.

Also called gorgonopsians, the gorgonopsids belong to the taxonomic order of synapsid reptiles known as Therapsida, whose members are often referred to colloquially as the mammal reptiles or mammal-like reptiles, and do indeed belong to the same taxonomic clade, Theriodontia, as do true mammals.

A life-sized animatronic gorgonopsid on exhibition at the West Midlands Safari Park in England, August 2015 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Gorgonopsids were among the largest of all carnivorous vertebrates alive at that time (the biggest, Inostrancevia from northern Russia, was up to 11.5 ft long, the size of a large bear or small rhinoceros, with the aptly-named Titanogorgan maximus from Tanzania only slightly smaller), and they were certainly the dominant ones. Even so, in genera such as Gorgonops itself, native to what is now Africa, their most memorable features were their enormous sabre-like canine teeth – so large that they almost projected below their lower jaw.

Gorgonopsids also had pillar-like legs that arose from underneath their bodies like those of mammals rather than splaying from their sides like reptiles. This important anatomical feature enabled them to move more swiftly and energy-efficiently than their lumbering herbivorous prey, which included some very large, hefty plant-eating reptiles known as pareiasaurs, some of which, like Scutosaurus, were armoured for protection.

The gorgonopsid Inostrancevia alexandri attacking the pareiasaur Scutosaurus karpinski (© Dmitry Bogdanov/Wikipedia)

The gorgonopsids perished entirely during the mass extinction at the end of the Permian, the only theriodont lineage to become extinct during that catastrophic event, but they were sensationally resurrected in CGI if not in life itself during the early 2000s by Britain's highly popular ITV sci-fi television show Primeval. In the very first episode, originally screened in Britain on 10 February 2007, a marauding gorgonopsid of the genus Gorgonops equipped with a monstrously large pair of upper canines confidently stepped forth from out of the Permian and into the present day via a temporary gateway through time known as an anomaly, wreaking havoc in Gloucestershire's Forest of Dean, tenaciously stalking the perplexed scientists sent to deal with this ferocious anachronistic therapsid, and vibrantly demonstrating to enthralled viewers everywhere that carnivorous dinosaurs were not the only prehistoric predators that oozed charisma and exuded terror in equal proportions. Moreover, another Gorgonops featured in the final episode of this first series of Primeval.

A gorgonopsid on the prowl in Episode 1, Series 1 of Primeval (© ITV Studios/ProSieben/Impossible Pictures/Treasure Entertainment/M6 Films / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

Nevertheless, bearing in mind that prior to Primeval coming along, gorgonopsids were scarcely known beyond the palaeontological community, to utilise one as the star monster in the opening episode of a brand-new, potentially major new sci-fi show rather than going for the safer tried-and-trusted option of a rampaging dinosaur was not only inspired but also very brave – and yet, as it turned out, highly successful too. All of which only goes to show that, clearly, you can't keep a good gorgon, or gorgonopsid, down!

Two African therapsids - the gorgonopsid Rubidgea battling a dicynodont Oudenodon, as depicted on a postage stamp issued in 1973 by Zambia, from my personal collection (© Zambia postal service / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)


THE FRAGILE, STINGING SEA-FLOWERS OF MEDUSA

Needless to say, no documentation of real-life gorgon namesakes could be complete without considering the most famous example of all, named specifically after the most famous gorgon of all – Medusa herself.

In the phylum Cnidaria, there are two basic body forms, both of which are produced by many species, but only one or the other by some. The two body forms are the sessile, stalk-bodied, tentacle-headed, hydra-like polyp; and the free-swimming, umbrella-shaped, often (but not always) tentacle-fringed, jellyfish-like medusa. The principal taxonomic classes of cnidarian are Hydrozoa (the hydrozoans, including the hydras, freshwater jellyfishes, and siphonophores), Staurozoa (the stalked jellyfishes), Scyphozoa (the true jellyfishes), Cubomedusae (the box jellyfishes), and Anthozoa (the sea anemones and corals). Certain hydrozoans, scyphozoans, and cubomedusans all produce a medusa form, many of which are usually equipped with long stinging tentacles that fancifully resemble the living snakelock hair fringing the dread face of Medusa, thereby earning the cnidarian medusa form its name, as coined for it in 1752 by none other than Linnaeus himself.

And so, what better way to bring to a memorable close our visit to Medusa's menagerie than to savour some of the most extravagantly exquisite illustrations ever produced of the varied types of cnidarian medusae, often resembling bizarre, exotic sea-flowers, as contained within Hackel's artistic masterpiece Kunstformen der Natur ('Art Forms in Nature'), published in 1904. Please click the images to enlarge them.

Three species of Discomedusae, true jellyfishes belonging to the class Scythozoa (public domain)

More Discomedusae (public domain)

Various species of Narcomedusae, a hydrozoan order whose species normally lack a polyp stage (public domain)

Various species of Trachymedusae, another hydrozoan order whose species never produce a polyp stage, only reproducing sexually via medusae (public domain)

Various species of Leptomedusae or thecate hydroids, a hydrozoan order whose species produce ensheathed polyp colonies (the protective sheath is known as a theca or perisarc), as well as sexually-reproducing medusae (public domain)

Views of the siphonophore Physophora hydrostatica – like all siphonophores, what looks like a single large complex organism equipped with bell, tentacles, etc, is in reality a super-organism, consisting of an entire colony of highly-specialised individual organisms, each of which is one of the super-organism's organs, e.g. one organism is the bell, another organism is one of the tentacles, yet another is another of the tentacles, etc (public domain)

More siphonophores (public domain)

Views of the helmet jellyfish Periphylla periphylla, a deepsea species of true jellyfish or scyphozoan (public domain)

Various species of Anthomedusae, the athecate hydroids, a hydrozoan order whose species produce polyp colonies not ensheathed in a protective sheath (the theca or perisarc), as well as sexually-reproducing medusae (public domain)

Various species of Stauromedusae, the stalked jellyfishes, sole members of the taxonomic class Staurozoa, whose medusae are attached rather than free-swimming (public domain)

Various species of Cubomedusae, the box jellyfishes, which include Flecker's sea wasp Chironex fleckeri, the world's most venomous jellyfish, yet still-undiscovered by science in Haeckel's time, and remaining so until the mid-1950s (public domain)

More Discomedusae, true jellyfishes belonging to the class Scyphozoa (public domain)

Various species of rhizostome Discomedusae, true jellyfishes belonging to Scyphozoa (public domain)

More siphonophores (public domain)

More species of Discomedusae, including the medusa of the familiar moon jellyfish Aurelia aurita (top centre) (public domain)

Still more siphonophores (public domain)

Also commemorating Medusa, incidentally, are Medusaceratops lokii (also commemorating Loki, the Norse god of evil), a late Cretaceous species of ceratopsian horned dinosaur, which inhabited what is now Montana, USA, and was formally named in 2010; and Medusagyne oppositifolia, the critically-endangered Seychelles jellyfish tree, earning its genus name from the fancied resemblance of its flower's gynoecium to Medusa's head, plus its common name from the distinctive jellyfish-like shape of its dehisced fruit, and believed extinct until some individuals were discovered on the island of Mahé during the 1970s.

The front cover of Prof. Ernst Haeckel's truly beautiful book, Kunstformen der Natur (1904) (public domain)

And speaking of jellyfishes: how ironic it is that in certain instances, creatures as beautiful as cnidarian medusae are also potentially lethal, due to the potency of the venom produced by their tentacles' nematocysts or stinging cells. Then again, how can we really expect anything else from organisms that are, after all, specifically named after a legendary figure feared not only for her thanatic eyes but also for the deadly nature of her living tresses?

Me and my mate the gorgonopsid (© Dr Karl Shuker)


UPDATE - 31 August 2015

Today, I received a scan of this very different, highly original, and totally delightful Medusa illustration, drawn by crypto-enthusiast and friend Jane Cooper. Hidden amongst Medusa's traditional serpentine hair strands are several that are inspired by all manner of other creatures, including some notable cryptozoological ones, such as Nessie, the Mongolian death worm, and the Dover demon, as well as a very imposing terror bird. How many can you spot and identify? Thanks Jane!!

 Medusa goes crypto!! - click to enlarge (©  Jane Cooper)





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