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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Saturday, 23 January 2016


A 19th-Century painting of some aquatic shrews (public domain)

In an earlier ShukerNature blog article, I documented a quite small and little-known but thoroughly fascinating if somewhat macabre mystery beast from Scotland known as the earth hound (click here) – and now, here is a second one, the lavellan.

According to local lore in Caithness and Sutherland, apparently the stronghold of this cryptid, the lavellan is – or was – a rodent with flashing eyes, a disproportionately-large mouse-like or rat-like head, and similar body colouration too. However, it was larger than a rat, had an exceedingly venomous bite, was also a blood-sucker, and inhabited marshes as well as deep water-filled hollows in rivers.

A water vole - one identity that has been proposed for the lavellan (© public domain)

Any cattle drinking from a body of water containing a lavellan would invariably die, and, bizarrely, this creature could inflict lethal injuries upon livestock from a distance too, from as far away in fact as approximately 100 ft, though the precise mechanism responsible for this fatal activity is never elucidated in such reports. Yet, paradoxically, if farmers had sick animals, they could be cured if they drank water in which the pelt from a dead lavellan had been dipped.

Interestingly, its name in Scottish Gaelic is also applied to the water shrew Neomys fodiens (which, interestingly, does have a weakly venomous bite) and the water vole Arvicola amphibius, both species having been identified as the lavellan by various authors. Yet the latter creature was supposedly much larger than either of them. Conversely, in John Fleming's book History of British Animals (1828), he claimed that it was likely to be the stoat Mustela erminea, because in early highland lore the stoat supposedly exuded some kind of "foul matter" that was toxic to horses and other animals.

A stoat - another identity proposed for the lavellan (public domain)

The lavellan's most diligent modern-day investigator is naturalist Raymond Bell, who has memorably dubbed it a 'giant vampire shrew' in various talks and writings that he has prepared on this subject. He has speculated that it may have been at least in part nothing more than a fictitious bogey-beast invented by parents to ward their children away from deep water, or even an attempt to explain away mysterious diseases arising in livestock. However, he also concedes that some bona fide creature might have been at the core of the lavellan legend too, but what that creature was may never be determined.

(As an entertaining digression, 1959 saw the release of a Ray Kellogg-directed science-fiction film that went on to become a highly popular cult movie - The Killer Shrews, in which visitors to a remote island are terrorised by giant mutant shrews. The most famous aspect of the film is that whereas close-ups of the shrews utilise hand-puppets, wider shots of the entire creatures feature coonhounds dressed up to look like shrews! A sequel, Return of the Killer Shrews, was produced in 2012. Both films starred James Best.)

Promotional poster for The Killer Shrews (© McLendon-Radio Pictures Distributing Company – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use educational/review basis only)

Incidentally, a real-life creature that has been colloquially dubbed a giant killer shrew is Deinogalerix koenigswaldi, which lived during the late Miocene Epoch (11.3-5.6 million years ago) on what was then the Italian island of Gargano, now the Gargano Peninsula. With a skull length of 8 in and a total body length of 2 ft, it occupied the ecological niche filled today by dogs and cats. Yet in spite of its generic name (Deinogalerix translates as 'terror shrew'), it was actually a giant species of gymnure or hairy hedgehog, a group of eulipotyphlan insectivores whose largest modern-day representative is the wonderfully-named moonrat Echinosorex gymnura (click here for a ShukerNature article devoted to this very distinctive mammal).

It is fascinating to consider that the ostensible familiarity of Great Britain's extensively-studied, exhaustively-documented natural history can nevertheless still harbour such riddles as the lavellan and the earth hound. But will their mysteries ever be solved? Perhaps someone reading this present article of mine has the answer to that question and, if so, I very much look forward to hearing from you!

Artistic restoration of Deinogalerix koenigswaldi in life (© Stanton Fink (aka Apokryltaros)/Wikipedia CC BY 3.0 licence)

This ShukerNature blog article was excerpted and expanded from my book The Menagerie of Marvels – further information has been collected by Raymond Bell, who may in due course submit a formal paper on this cryptid to the Journal of Cryptozoology, the world's only peer-reviewed scientific journal devoted to mystery animals, published annually. Look out for Vol. 4, coming soon!


  1. Could a hitherto unknown, large species of desman been the kernel of the myth? I've always been fascinated by how widely separated the two species of desman are, and wondered whether they formally inhabited the whole of Europe. In relative isolation in remote Scottish locations, perhaps one evolved larger, but maybe being rare, accumulated mythical attributes.

  2. Here I intended to foreward the idea, that the stories about a creature named Lavellan, could perhaps be based om some species of Desman. But was too late to be first.

    Who knows enough about Desmans to refute this far-flung idea?


    1. Well then, if I'm mad, I have company.:-) It's a problematic identity to be sure, but then any identity for the lavellan is problematic.

  3. It's entertaining to see a poster that I know from the "Atomic Monsters" site (that comical "Killer Shrews" poster) here on this one. Obviously monster movies and actual cryptids go together perfectly well.