The original version of the Charles Hamilton Smith/William Home Lizars illustration of the Nubian naked hyaena that appeared as Plate 27 in Volume II of The Natural History of Dogs...Including Also the Genera Hyaena and Proteles, published in 1840 (public domain)
Four species of modern-day hyaena are presently recognised by science – the spotted hyaena Crocuta crocuta, the striped hyaena Hyaena hyaena, the brown hyaena Hyaena brunnea, and the aardwolf Proteles cristatus – all four of which possess a respectable (and sometimes notably shaggy) pelage. This is why a very unexpected discovery of mine has left me decidedly perplexed.
Serendipity has played a significant part in several of my cryptozoological finds, and this one is no exception. While perusing the internet in search of some 19th-Century engravings depicting a totally different type of animal, I happened upon the truly remarkable engraving opening this present ShukerNature blog article. As can be seen, the animal in question is labelled in it as a "naked hyaena of the desert Africa", and apart from sporting a dorsal mane, a tail tuft, some cheek fur, and some short hair running under its chin and along its throat, it does indeed appear to be naked. Yet as far as I am aware, no animal matching its bizarre appearance is known today.
Eager to learn more about this bald enigma, I scoured the internet in search of the engraving's original, published source, and was pleased to uncover it quite readily. The artwork for the engraving had been prepared by a 19th-Century naturalist and artist called Charles Hamilton Smith, which was then engraved by William Home Lizars, a celebrated Scottish engraver. It appeared as Plate XXVII in Volume II of The Natural History of Dogs...Including Also the Genera Hyaena and Proteles, published in 1840, authored by Hamilton Smith, and part of a major series of animal tomes edited by Sir William Jardine and entitled The Naturalist's Library. I was also able to trace online the relevant text concerning this mysterious hyaena from that volume, in which it had been categorised as a form of the striped hyaena. On page 278, its description then read as follows:
THE NAKED HYAENA OF THE DESERTS OF NUBIA
Hyaena vulgaris [a commonly-used synonym of Hyaena hyaena]
This race is small and gaunt, entirely destitute of hair, excepting the mane on the ridge of the neck and back. The bare skin is of a purplish black, the body is short, and the tip of the tail is furnished with a small brush.
I would have expected an animal as visually arresting as this to be extensively documented. Yet despite a diligent search online and through every relevant publication in my not-inconsiderable personal zoological library, I have so far been unable to uncover any additional information concerning it, not even the briefest of mentions. It is as if it never existed. So how can Nubia's anomalous naked desert hyaena be explained, and what has happened to it?
As Jardine classed it as a form of the striped hyaena, the naked desert hyaena presumably belonged to the latter species' Nubian subspecies, Hyaena hyaena dubbah, which does inhabit desert fringes (though not the interiors of true deserts) and sub-desert terrain. However, this subspecies possesses a normal, uniformly fully-furred pelage, not just a dorsal mane, tail tuft, and a few very restricted areas of hair elsewhere.
Could it be, therefore, that the naked desert hyaena was based upon some freak, near-hairless individuals, yielding a local non-taxonomic variety? Or (as a less plausible but more zoologically-intriguing alternative option) did it constitute a discrete race, distinct from the typical Nubian striped hyaena, which may have bred true? If the latter were correct, then the naked desert hyaena would surely have represented a valid subspecies in its own right.
Yet as I am not aware of any evidence suggesting that this extraordinary form still survives today, the prospect of the naked desert hyaena being a non-taxonomic freak variety of the Nubian striped hyaena seems the more rational of these two options, with its limited number of specimens simply dying out without perpetuating their strain. After all, bare skin is hardly an advantageous feature for a surface-dwelling desert mammal's successful existence beneath an unrelenting blazing sun, and is unlikely, therefore, to be actively selected for via evolution's 'survival of the fittest' modus operandi.
The cause of a freak hairless variety's nakedness would surely be the expression of some form of mutant gene allele. Such a situation is responsible for hairlessness in a number of other mammalian species, though different mutant alleles cause hairlessness in different species (i.e. this condition is not caused by one and the same allele across the entire spectrum of species known to exhibit freak hairlessness).
A second version of the Charles Hamilton Smith/William Home Lizars illustration of the Nubian naked hyaena (public domain)
Having considered genetic options, there are also some externally-induced possibilities to consider. Foremost of these is that in reality, Nubia's naked desert hyaena consisted of individuals suffering from some form of skin ailment, such as mange (caused by tiny parasitic mites), whose debilitating effects may also explain their small body size and gaunt appearance. In other words, these creatures' growth may have been stunted, due to their ill health reducing their ability to find food. Having said that, on first sight the distribution of hair on the animal depicted in Smith's engraved artwork seems far too regular to be explained in this way. Mange-infected animals often have irregular, inconsistently-distributed patches of hairlessness.
In the most severe cases of mange, however, sometimes the only fur remaining on an infected animal is a prominent line of hair running down its neck and along its back, a ruff around its neck extending from behind its ears and over its cheeks down to its chin and throat, and sometimes a tuft at the end of its tail. This description perfectly corresponds with the distribution of hair described by Jardine for Nubia's naked desert hyaena and depicted in Smith's representation of it.
Consequently, I consider it most likely that this latter mystery beast, long banished from the annals of natural history, was merely based upon one or more specimens of mange-ridden, under-nourished hyaena that had been out-competed by bigger, fitter, healthier hyaenas in the less environmentally-adverse areas at the fringes of Nubia's desert, and had thus been forced to seek sanctuary amid this desert's more arid, less hospitable interior instead.
Support for this theory comes from an ostensibly unexpected cryptozoological source – the chupacabra. Or, to be more precise, from the so-called hairless blue dogs of Texas that have been frequently if erroneously identified as blood-sucking chupacabras (especially in media reports). The most famous example is the specimen that rancher Phylis Canion found dead just in front of her ranch outside the small Texas town of Cuero on 14 July 2007. DNA samples were taken, which identified it as a coyote, albeit one that apparently possessed at least a smidgen of Mexican wolf ancestry too, thereby suggesting that a degree of hybridisation had occurred between these two species at some stage in this creature's family tree.
Media reports regularly state that its blue-grey skin was completely hairless when it was discovered. However, as he disclosed when investigating this intriguing animal, chupacabra researcher Ben Radford noted that photographs taken of it by Canion on the day that she found it outside her home clearly showed a conspicuous line of hair running from behind its ears down its neck and along the centre of its back. This is of course a classic indication of the presence of mange, and other 'hairless blue dogs' on record have presented a similar appearance.
Also very pertinent to this subject is the so-called 'Isle of Wight Monster' that had been scaring people there since early autumn 1939, and was said by eyewitnesses to possess the head of a lion. When it was finally snared and shot on 16 February 1940, however, the IOW Monster proved to be nothing more exotic than an old fox with very advanced mange that had left a ruff of hair around its neck, resembling a lion's mane, but very little fur elsewhere on its body.
Providing a useful contrast, in January 2010 a completely hairless raccoon was found dead on the Runaway golf course in Wise County, Texas, where it had quite likely frozen to death in the wintry weather. Originally, it was assumed to have been suffering from mange, but when examined by biologists it was shown not to have been after all. Hence its highly unusual condition was most probably congenital (as is also true with the xolo, Mexico's famous hairless dog breed), emphasising well that mange does not generally reduce an individual to a state of total hairlessness.
Another interesting specimen of relevance here is the horse with soft velvet-like skin of a lilac-blue shade and totally lacking not only hair but also hair follicles that was discovered in South Africa by a merchant called Lashmar during 1860 (and which I've documented here on ShukerNature). He spied it among a herd of quagga Equus quagga quagga (the semi-striped subspecies of plains zebra that became extinct in 1883), successfully captured it, and brought it back to England in 1863, where it was exhibited in London's Crystal Palace during February 1868.
What has never been determined, however, is whether this remarkable animal was truly a domestic horse – for if so, where had it come from? Alternatively, and much more logically, might it have been a freak hairless quagga, thereby explaining why it was associating with quaggas?
Illustration of a blue horse produced by digital photo-manipulation that compares well with the description of the South African/Crystal Palace hairless blue horse (© Daisiem/worth1000 – reproduced here via the Fair Use convention on a strictly non-commercial, educational use only basis)
Irrespective of its precise taxonomic identity, it was the first of many hairless equine individuals to be publicly displayed down through the years. Others of prominence include Caoutchouc - a black, entirely hairless feral horse (even lacking eyelashes) with skin resembling India-rubber that had been captured in Australia and was displayed widely around the world during the 1870s; and two individuals from the 1890s. One of these was Wild Nell, dubbed the 'India-rubber skinned mare'. The other was Bluebell, the $25,000 'hairless wonder'. As with the totally hairless raccoon from Texas and the Mexican hairless dog, these horses' complete absence of hair was due to the expression of a mutant gene allele, not to any external skin complaint.
A fourth explanation for freak hairlessness is influence by non-pathological external factors, such as climate and diet – and this is the explanation favoured by experts for the gradual but ultimately near-total loss of hair suffered by three female Andean spectacled bears housed at Germany's Leipzig Zoo and previously fully-furred. Their plight and grotesque appearance hit media headlines worldwide during late 2009, but it transpired that a similar phenomenon had struck a number of other, unrelated spectacled bears in captivity elsewhere around the world too - thereby eliminating a common source of infection or a shared genetic fault from consideration.
One of the three hairless spectacled bears from Leipzig Zoo (© EPA – reproduced here via the Fair Use convention on a strictly non-commercial, educational use only basis)
In short, hairlessness in mammals can be caused by a number of different factors, but judging from its specific appearance I still favour mange or some comparable skin infection as the most reasonable explanation for the naked desert hyaena of Nubia. To my knowledge, this is the first case of hairlessness in hyaenas that has ever been brought to cryptozoological attention, and does not even appear to have featured in any mainstream zoological works since Jardine's tome.
Indeed, it is this very state of being conspicuous only by its absence that lends further support to the likelihood that this hyaena is – or was - a short-lived, unrepeated, pathologically-induced curiosity rather than a genetically-engendered, non-taxonomic curiosity or local variety, or a distinct taxonomic race. For if any of the latter possibilities were correct, I am certain that something not only as morphologically memorable as a near-hairless hyaena but also of such potential genetic and evolutionary significance would have attracted ongoing scientific interest, leading to this beast's continued documentation in the zoological literature.
Instead, like so many other wildlife oddities, Nubia's naked desert hyaena was only of brief, passing interest, and no doubt vanished from existence soon afterwards anyway, thereafter to be forgotten for generations until I happened by chance to uncover what seems to be the only illustration ever prepared of this fascinating creature, and realised that here was a forgotten treasure from the dark vaults of unnatural history that richly deserved to be retrieved and redisplayed. It was ever thus.
A third version of the Charles Hamilton Smith/William Home Lizars illustration of the Nubian naked hyaena (public domain)