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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Monday, 12 October 2015

DEEPLY DIPPY OVER DIPLOCAULUS


Traditional boomerang-headed restoration of Diplocaulus (public domain)

Up to 3 ft long, superficially salamander-like in basic form, but belonging to the long-extinct nectridean taxonomic order within the equally erstwhile subclass of archaic amphibians known as lepospondyls, one of my favourite creatures from pre-dinosaurian prehistory has always been Diplocaulus – famous for its huge inverted V-shaped or boomerang-shaped head, as exhibited by several species (plus a very close relative, the lesser-known but near-identical Diploceratus burkei). The reason for its head's bizarre shape is its skull's pair of enormous but dorsoventrally flat, lateral bony projections known as tabular horns. These remarkable structures may have enabled its head to serve as a hydrofoil when this amphibian was swimming, or may even have prevented it from being swallowed by predators, by increasing its head's width beyond the gape of any carnivorous creature alive at that time that shared its zoogeographical distribution range.

Restoration of Diploceraspis burkei (© Dmitry Bogdanov/Wikipedia CC BY 3.0)

Arising in North America, this extraordinary creature lived during the Permian Period (approximately 300-250 million years ago), although only D. minimus, currently the only known non-American representative (native to Morocco), occurred during the late Permian. Consequently, this makes various photographs and videos of alleged living Diplocaulus specimens that have surfaced online and elsewhere in the media during recent years nothing if not intriguing…


DIPLOCAULUS IN A DISH (DIAD)

The first of these reputed resurrectées is one that I shall refer to hereafter as DIAD (short for Diplocaulus in a dish). As I documented in my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), in September 2004 Fortean Times forwarded to me a short note from reader Stuart Pike enquiring about a photograph that had been circulating online and which depicted a bizarre-looking mystery beast labelled in accompanying internet reports as a hammerhead lizard. Here is the photograph in question:

The 'hammerhead lizard', or, as I have since dubbed it, the DIAD (© source unknown to me)

Not long afterwards, Maltese journalist Tonio Galea independently contacted me, requesting details about this same photo (still of unknown origin), whose creature, according to local Maltese rumour, had lately been discovered alive on a rocky beach at Il-Maghluq, Marsascala, in the south of the island. I subsequently received several more enquiries from other correspondents, and so too, it transpired, did various other scientists, including Malta University biologist Prof. Patrick J. Schembri, who wrote about it in a letter published on 21 November 2004 in Malta's Sunday Times newspaper (click here).

In reality, however, what this intriguing photo depicts is a gypsum/non-urethane foam-based model of a Diplocaulus. Investigations of mine eventually revealed via a Japanese model-making website (click here) that this DIAD had been manufactured back in 1992 by an amateur Japanese model maker in response to a magazine competition. I have still not succeeded in discovering the model maker's name, but I did manage to uncover a second photograph of the DIAD itself, which is this one:

Second photograph of the DIAD (© source unknown to me)


DIPLOCAULUS ON VIDEO

YouTube contains several videos purporting to show living specimens of Diplocaulus (with at least two totally different specimens featured – one pink, one green), but all of them have been filmed and uploaded by the same person – which means that either he/she is unaccountably successful at locating living specimens of an amphibian deemed extinct for at least 250 million years by palaeontologists; or, all is not as it seems.

The person in question has the YouTube username SouldierTVSP, and has loaded three separate videos of what is claimed to be the same specimen, which can be viewed in sequence of their filming here, here, and here; plus a much shorter video montage here; and a video of a visibly different specimen here.

The first of the three videos allegedly showing the same specimen was filmed on 22 July 2011 (according to an on-screen caption). The second video consisted of three separate segments, filmed respectively (according to on-screen captions) on 26 July 2011, 1 August 2011, and 8 August 2011. No on-screen date was given for the third video, but as all three videos were uploaded by SouldierTVSP on 8 August 2011, this third video was clearly a continuation of the second one's ending section. Each of the three videos was accompanied by the following interestingly worded request: "Someone, please teach me this strange creature's true colors", beneath which for the third video was this additional, rather more forthright statement: "Diplocaulus Still Alive!! Paranormal Creature".

As will be seen when viewed, these three videos show what looks like a pink toy Diplocaulus amidst some vegetation debris floating in a current of water, seemingly a stream or river. There is nothing in the videos that can be used as an effective up-close scale to provide an estimate of size for the object (but unless the surrounding debris is very substantial, it would seem to be small). The object is moving entirely passively, drifting and buffeted by the current, with just an occasional slight movement of its tail or head, as might be expected, for instance, of a toy with a jointed tail and head, but no sign of any independent animate movements. In contrast, palaeontologists believe that in life, Diplocaulus would have probably swum by vertical undulations of its body, as its small weak legs and relatively short tail would not have been of much locomotory assistance. Of course, the object in the videos just might be a recently dead animal as opposed to a living one, but to my eyes the object looks as if it has never lived. Also, these three videos were filmed over an 18-day period, and yet the object's appearance does not change at all (in 18 days, a dead animal, conversely, would have shown considerable signs of decomposition, assuming that it hadn't already been devoured by a predator).

Diplocaulus magnicornis, fossil skull, in Journal of Morphology, 1912 (public domain)

On 16 November 2012, SouldierTVSP uploaded a very short video montage entitled 'Diplocaulus Still Alive! Cryptid Exist [sic]'. It began with a brief clip of a still photograph depicting someone holding a large creature to the camera, its somewhat salamander-like head pointing forward as it looks directly into the camera. The head bears a pair of fleshy flap-like lateral projections, but these are nowhere near as large or boomerang-shaped as those of Diplocaulus. The rest of the creature cannot be readily seen; indeed, based upon that photo alone, I'm not entirely convinced that the creature is an amphibian (not even a deformed one), rather than some unusual wide-mouthed fish. Nevertheless, an on-screen caption states in English and Japanese that as soon as its identity as Diplocaulus is confirmed, the full footage will be released (but as far as I'm aware, no such release has occurred so far). The remainder of the video shows what seems to be the earlier pink apparent toy Diplocaulus resting on some vegetation (with a live wild duck of similar size close by, thus providing a useful size scale), then ending with a four-second clip of what looks like this same object floating in the water with its tail swishing from side to side, but very plausibly caused simply by the water current moving a jointed tail on a toy.

The final alleged Diplocaulus video by SouldierTVSP, uploaded on 11 January 2012, has the somewhat unpromising title of 'Kinky Cryptid Sightings', and showcases an iridescent green Diplocaulus with an enormous head moving across a pond (located near a waterfall) at the water surface in a seemingly active manner before its huge boomerang-shaped head becomes entangled in what looks worryingly like an item of female undergarment floating there (which presumably explains the title of the video!). For these reasons alone (not to mention the wide variety of anything-but-serious videos on other cryptozoological subjects that this person has also uploaded onto YouTube), I personally find it difficult to take this video seriously. In my view, some form of self-propelled model has been filmed here – but I would love to be proved wrong!


OH, DIPLOCAULUS, WHAT CAN THE MATAMATA BE?

On 10 October 2015, the following photograph was tweeted to me by The Anomalist @anomalistnews, stating: "Is this a better diplocaulus hoax, or a previously unknown animal?" and "Only details on this photo is it was taken in "Asia" and was posted on Facebook".

Online photograph tweeted to me of an unequivocally Diplocaulus-like creature – but was it alive? (see later in this ShukerNature article for subsequently-discovered copyright credit)

Needless to say, it certainly looked like a Diplocaulus, no question about that, and the degree of morphological detail visible in the photograph was extensive – but was it a living animal, or was it either a very realistic model or a very skilfully photo-manipulated image?

Not surprisingly, this mystery photograph attracted considerable interest and comments on Twitter, including this thought-provoking suggestion by Facebook friend Paul Willison: "IMO, a photoshop of a hellbender or giant salamander and baby mata mata turtle", who also attached some photographs of these species in support of his opinion.

A hellbender (© Brian Gratwicke/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0)

The hellbender Cryptobranchus alleganiensis is North America's giant salamander, beaten in size only by the giant salamanders of China and Japan; and the mata mata or matamata Chelus fimbriata is a very bizarre-looking species of South American freshwater turtle.

And there is no doubt that the ostensible Diplocaulus in the mystery photo does embody features from both of these species, so could that be the answer – a photographic montage or composite created by some ingenious morphing of matamata and hellbender images by person(s) unknown?

A matamata (© Stahlkocher/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

Spurred on by Paul's suggestion, I spent some time Google-imaging matamata turtles, hellbenders, and giant salamanders in general, in search of corresponding photos or portions of photos, as well as Diplocaulus, in search of matching photos of models and restorations – but nothing turned up, until…

After scrolling down to the very bottom of the umpteenth Google-image search page using the above and similar animal names as search words, suddenly the mystery photograph itself appeared!

It proved to be a photo of an exceedingly life-like Diplocaulus model created by expert Japanese model maker Goro Furuta. What's more, it was just one of several photos (all copyrighted to Goro) of this wonderful model that were present in a publicly-viewable album on Goro's Facebook page. This album can be viewed here, and includes the following close-up photo of the model resting on someone's hand and arm:

Second photograph of Goro Furuta's excellent Diplocaulus model (© Goro Furuta)

Goro has prepared many additional, equally spectacular animal models, and as I swiftly became a massive fan of his work after browsing pictures of them in his several albums on Facebook depicting his work, I am delighted that he is now a Facebook friend of mine.

Incidentally, I'd like to stress here that at no point has Goro ever claimed or sought to suggest that his Diplocaulus model was anything other than a model - the online confusion as to whether or not the photograph of it currently doing the internet rounds portrayed a living Diplocaulus is due entirely to misinformed speculation by people seeing the photo (copied from Goro's FB album and circulated online by person/s unknown) but not knowing its origin and incorrectly assuming the model to be a real animal. (Having said that, I suppose it can be viewed as a backhanded compliment to Goro's model-making expertise that his Diplocaulus model is so realistic that people have assumed that it was a living creature!)

The mystery of the most life-like non-living Diplocaulus reported online so far was a mystery no longer. In a tweet of 10 October 2015 replying to the original one by The Anomalist and to those of Paul Willison, I stated: "It's a Diplocaulus model, by Japanese model-maker Goro Furuta: [and then I included the link to Goro's relevant Facebook album]".

Skull and vertebrae of Diplocaulus magnicornis unearthed in Willbarger County, Texas; displayed at the University of Michigan's Natural History Museum (public domain)


Sadly, however, it means that this boomerang-headed amphibian remains interred within the long-vanished Permian Period, but even back there it has offered up a startling surprise. Trace fossils have been found showing a pair of flaps or membranes linking the tips of its head's tabular horns to its body – in other words, Diplocaulus may not have been outwardly boomerang-headed as traditionally assumed, but might well instead have resembled in life the restoration depicted at the end of this ShukerNature blog article, on display at the University of Michigan's Natural History Museum.

If so, then any videos or future photos of purported living Diplocaulus specimens that possess a boomerang-shaped head can swiftly be discounted (always assuming, of course, that an evolved modern-day Diplocaulus did not develop one during its 250-million-year continued evolution since the Permian?).

For now, however, all of this is academic, because Diplocaulus is still defunct, but it remains one of my favourite prehistoric creatures too – even if it has lost its boomerang!

Modern reconstruction of Diplocaulus magnicornis, exhibiting membranes enclosing its tabular horns; displayed at the University of Michigan's Natural History Museum (public domain)




5 comments:

  1. Definitely one of the most bizarre looking amphibians that ever evolved!

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  2. Great post.
    I like how Goro Furuta's model seemed reminiscent of a mata-mata turtle. An interesting reconstruction.

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  3. Great post Karl. I'd heard of Diplocaulus before, but didn't really know that much about it. Interesting stuff!

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  4. I love the diplocaulus, it's my favourite ancient amphibian in the world and would be extremely happy to see one alive, even if it's not a hammerhead anymore. Great article Doctor.

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  5. This explains a pic that one of my FB friends posted on my wall. It looked prehistoric and hard to believe it to be alive still. When I shared it my daughter, like I, searched and came across your article. Which, I might add, was very interesting as well as educational. Thank you for sharing your findings and info with others.

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