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), The Unexplained (1996), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), 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), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is already considered to be his magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016), 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, 14 July 2018


Beautiful 19th-Century chromolithograph of the remarkable phenomenon nowadays believed by zoologists to be the true explanation for bygone reports of the hazelworm (public domain)

One of the most extraordinary creatures to straddle the boundaries of mythology and reality must surely be the European hazelworm, and yet its fascinating history is all but forgotten today. High time, therefore, to resurrect it from centuries of zoological neglect and present its very curious credentials to a modern-day audience at last.

Back in the Middle Ages, the Germanic folklore of Central Europe's alpine regions contained many tales of a terrifying dragon of the huge, limbless, serpent-like variety known as the worm. But this particular worm was set apart from others by its sometimes hairy rather than scaly outer surface, and above all else by its proclivity for inhabiting areas containing a plenitude of hazel bushes. Consequently, it duly became known as the hazelworm (aka Heerwurm and Haselwurm in German, but not to be confused with a known species of legless lizard, the slow worm Anguis fragilis, which is also sometimes referred to as the hazelworm).

The slow worm, a familiar species of European legless lizard sometimes referred to as the hazelworm (© Wildfeuer/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Additionally, Leander Petzoldt reported in his Kleines Lexikon der Dämonen und Elementargeister (2003) that according to some traditional beliefs, the hazelworm was nothing less than the Serpent that had tempted Adam and Eve with fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, and was therefore also accorded such alternative names as the Paradise Snake and the Worm of Knowledge.

After God had cursed it and banished it for its treachery, however, the Serpent supposedly sought sanctuary in hazel bushes outside Eden, where it feeds to this day upon their foliage, and winds its elongated body around their roots. Moreover, it subsequently became passive in nature, and can readily be recognised by its whitish colouration, thus yielding for it yet another name – the white worm or Weisser Wurm. And because it is said to surface just before the onset of a war, a further name given to this contentious creature is war worm.

Painting by William Blake depicting Eve with an inordinately lengthy Eden Serpent, reminiscent of medieval reports of the hazelworm (public domain)

Early retellings of its legends ascribed to the hazelworm an immense body length. Perhaps the most famous example is a local account penned by Rector and Pastor Heinrich Eckstorm (1557-1622) that appeared in Chronicon Walkenredense. Printed in 1617, this was the Latin chronicle of his monastery, Walkenried Abbey, situated in what is today Lower Saxony, Germany. Here is what he wrote.

One day in July 1597, a woman hailing from Holbach ventured into Lower Saxony's Harz mountain range to collect blueberries, but as she ascended she encountered an enormous hazelworm, which scared her so much that she promptly abandoned her basket of diligently-picked berries and fled to the village of Zorge. There she met a woodcutter named Old William, and pleaded with him to give her shelter, which he did, although he and his wife laughed heartily and disbelievingly when the woman told them about the hazelworm.

From the Chronicon Walkenredense (public domain)

Eight days later, however, when inadvertently finding himself in the vicinity of where she had claimed to have seen the monster, Old William himself encountered it, lying across the road up ahead, and so big that he had initially mistaken it for a fallen oak tree – until it began to move, and raise its hitherto-concealed head from out of some nearby hazel bushes. He too duly fled to Zorge, where he told everyone what he had seen.

Old William estimated that the hazelworm had been around 18 ft long, was as thick as a man's thigh, was green and yellow in colour, and, of particular interest, possessed feet on its underparts, rather than being limbless. Several notable personages were present to hear his testimony, including lawyers Mitzschefal from Stöckei and Joachim Götz from Olenhusen, and doctors Johannes Stromer and Philipp Ratzenberg.

Medieval illustration of a hazelworm depicted atypically with wings (public domain)

Two centuries later, in 1790, Blankenburg-based chronicler Johann Christophe Stübner, a major sceptic of hazelworm reports, nonetheless recorded that the skeleton of a charred hazelworm was supposedly discovered in Wurmberg, a Lower Saxony forestry village near Braunlage. He also noted that in 1782 a lengthy hazelworm could apparently still be found in Allröder Forest.

Conversely, as noted by renowned South Tyrolean folklorist Hans Fink in his book Verzaubertes Land: Volkskult und Ahnenbrauch in Südtirol [Enchanted Land: Folk Art and Alpine Life in South Tyrol] (1969), stories concerning the hazelworm that still abound today in the autonomous South Tyrol (occupying a region formerly part of Austria-Hungary but annexed by Italy in 1919) aver that it is no bigger than a cradle-fitting child in swaddling clothes. (This in turn has led to some confusion with another herpetological alpine cryptid, the tatzelworm – click here to read my ShukerNature article concerning this creature.) There are even claims that it has the head of a child too and can howl like a baby crying.

Model of tatzelworm created by Markus Bühler (© Markus Bühler)

Also, it was once greatly sought after. As documented by Claudia Liath in Der Grüne Hain [The Green Grove] (2012), this was because anyone eating the flesh of a hazelworm would supposedly become immortal, remaining forever young, handsome, and healthy, and would also gain all manner of other ostensibly desirable but otherwise unobtainable benefits, such as the ability to talk to and understand the speech of animals, to discover hidden treasures, and to be fully versed in the healing properties of plants. Indeed, some of his envious, less gifted contemporaries actually avowed that the extraordinary scholarly abilities of Swiss physician, alchemist, and astrologer Theophrastus Paracelsus (1493/4-1541) must surely be due to his having secretly consumed the meat of a hazelworm.

In Hexenwahn: Schicksale und Hintergründe. Die Tiroler Hexenprozesse [The Witch Delusion: Fates and Backgrounds. The Tyrolean Witch Trials] (2018), Hansjörg Rabanser recorded that during one such trial – that of the alleged sorcerer Mathaus Niderjocher, held at the Sonnenburg district court in 1650/51 - the defendant claimed that he and a locksmith named Andreas had once hunted a hazelworm by magical means. After consulting a book of sorcery, they had drawn a magical circle around a hazel bush, then dug out the bush itself, and found at knee-deep level in the earth a stony plate, beneath which was a hazelworm that was very long, thick, and white in colour. Despite recourse to evocation spells from the book of sorcery, however, they were unable to control or capture the hazelworm, which bit Andreas in the hand before disappearing.

Portrait of Theophrastus Paracelsus, painted by Quentin Massys (public domain)

If such claims as those presented above were factual, there may even be opportunities to repeat them in the present day, judging at least from some tantalising reports of hazelworms having been killed in modern times, as collected and presented in an extensive German-language article on this subject by Swiss chronicler Markus Kappeler (click here to read it).

For example, not far from Ilfeld monastery in Honstein county at the foot of the Harz Mountains are the ruins of a castle named Harzburg, where a hazelworm was reputedly seen for three consecutive years around half a century ago, until killed by two woodcutters there, after which its body was hung from a tree, attracting many interested viewers coming from near and far. It was said to be 12 ft long, with a head reminiscent of a pike's in general form. (Back in 1712, within his major opus Hercynia Curiosa oder Curiöser Hartz-Wald, Dr Georg H. Behrens had claimed that very large, hideous-looking hazelworms inhabited these very same castle ruins.) The skin of another slain hazelworm was allegedly exhibited at one time in Schleusingen, a city in Thuringia, Germany.

A hazel bush of the common hazel Corylus avellana, around whose roots the hazelworm is traditionally believed in alpine folklore to entwine its very lengthy, elongate body (© H. Zell/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Even today, locals inhabiting what was formerly the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg in northwestern Germany (now the Kingdom of Hanover and Duchy of Brunswick) claim that this rangy reptile is still quite common, that it sucks the milk from the udders of cows and poisons the meadows, and that they therefore still go out at certain times of the year to hunt young specimens measuring 3-4.5 ft. Make of that what you will!

For in reality, the mysterious hazelworm has long since ceased to be a mystery, at least for zoologists. Indeed, as far back as the 1770s, physician August C. Kühn documented that sightings of supposed hazelworms were actually based upon observations of long moving columns of army worms – a popular name given to the black-headed, white-bodied larva of Sciara (=Lycoria) militaris and several other dark-winged species of fungus gnat. Subsequent studies by other naturalists swiftly confirmed his statement. The exquisite 19th-Century chromolithograph heading this ShukerNature article and presented again below depicts one such procession (and click here to view a short video of one on YouTube).

An extremely lengthy procession of fungus gnat larvae, nowadays deemed to be the identity of the very long, white-bodied hazelworm of traditional alpine lore (public domain)

Columns or processions of these insect larvae moving in a nose-to-tail manner, i.e. each larva following immediately behind another, can measure up to 30 ft long and several inches in diameter (as such columns can each be many larvae abreast). Accordingly, such a procession might well be mistaken for a single enormously lengthy, elongate snake-like entity if seen only briefly or during poor viewing conditions (e.g. at twilight, during mist or fog), and especially if unexpectedly encountered by a layman too terrified to stay around for a closer look!

Similarly, sightings of noticeably hairy hazelworms were ultimately discounted as columns of hairy caterpillars walking in single file and belonging to the pine processionary moth Thaumetopoea pityocampa. The hazelworm was no more, merely a closely-knit procession of insect larvae, not a single, uniform entity in its own right after all.

A single-file procession of processionary moth caterpillars, whose hairy bodies should never be touched as the hairs cause extreme irritation (public domain)

Of course, the above identification does beg the question: if this is truly all that the hazelworm ever was, how can we explain the reports of exhibited hazelworm skins, a charred hazelworm skeleton, and other physical evidence purportedly originating from this officially non-existent creature?

Nothing more than tall tales and baseless folklore – or a bona fide cryptozoological conundrum still awaiting a satisfactory solution?

From Iconographia Zoologica, the larva, adult, and pupa of Sciara militaris – the minute origin of a monstrous mystery…? (public domain)

Thursday, 5 July 2018


Contemporary picture postcard depicting the infamous Hexham (Allendale) wolf, from my personal collection (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Whereas Britain's unofficial feline fauna has attracted immense attention from the media and the general public (albeit rather less so from the scientific community) for several decades now, its equally unrecognised canine contingent has received far less notice, yet is no less intriguing and controversial. To redress the balance somewhat, therefore, here is a selection of UK crypto-canid cases that I have investigated and documented down through the years.

Quite a variety of British mystery dogs have been reported, including some extremely large beasts with decidedly Baskervillian overtones (comparable to the controversial Beast of Gévaudan that terrorised France during the mid-18th Century – click here for my extensive analysis of this highly contentious case). They have often blamed for savage killings of sheep or other livestock.

Reference print for Hound of the Baskervilles (Collection of the National Media Museum, no restrictions)

These are surely nothing more unusual than run-wild hounds, or crossbreeds with various of the larger well-established breeds (e.g. mastiff, great dane) in their ancestry. Typical examples reported include an enormous black creature with a howl like a foghorn, hailing from Edale, Derbyshire (Daily Express, 14 October 1925); a beast the size of a small pony sighted on Dartmoor by Police Constable John Duckworth in 1969 and again in 1972 (Sunday Mirror, 22 October 1972); and a sheep-slaughtering marauder stalking the Welsh hamlet of Clyro, Powys (Sunday Express, 10 September 1989). Notably, Clyro is actually the locality of the real Baskerville Hall – its name was borrowed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for his fictional, Dartmoor-relocated equivalent.

Even today, some remarkably lupine mystery beasts are sighted spasmodically in Staffordshire’s wooded Cannock Chase (e.g. Stafford Post, 30 May 2007). Some have opined that these mystery dogs are wolves. However, according to many authorities, the last verified wolf of mainland Britain died in Scotland during either the late 17th or the early 18th Century (opinions differ as to the precise year, but 1680 and 1743 are two popular suggestions).

The murderous Hound of the Baskervilles as depicted upon the cover of a book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (public domain)

Incidentally, long after the last Irish wolf was killed, in County Carlow around 1786, there were rumours that small wolves existed on the Isle of Achill, just off Ireland’s western coast. Traditionally, these have been assumed to be wholly mythical, but in a letter to me of 21 February 1998, British zoologist Clinton Keeling provided a fascinating snippet of information on this subject - revealing that as comparatively recently as c.1904, the alleged Achill Island wolves were stated to be “common” by no less a person that okapi discoverer Sir Harry Johnston.

Also of note here is that according to Michael Goss (Fate, September 1986), when foxes became scarce in a given area, hunters would sometimes release foxes imported from abroad - until as recently as the early 1900s, in fact - and that in some cases it seems that these imported ‘foxes’ were really jackals or young wolves.

Second contemporary picture postcard depicting the Hexham (aka Allendale) wolf (public domain)

A supposed grey wolf Canis lupus blamed for numerous livestock killings near Monmouthshire’s Llanover Park in 1868 was never obtained (The Field, 23 May 1868). Conversely, after a long hunt during winter 1904 for an unidentified sheep-killer in Hexham and Allendale, Northumberland, a wolf was finally found - discovered dead, on 29 December 1904, upon a railway line near Carlisle. As John Michell and Robert Rickard discussed in Living Wonders (1982), it was initially thought to have been an escapee belonging to a Captain Bain (sometimes named as Bains) of Shotley Bridge, near Newcastle, which had absconded in October, but his wolf had only been a cub, whereas the dead specimen was fully grown. A visiting American later claimed that the Hexham wolf’s head, preserved by a taxidermist, was actually that of a husky-like dog called a malamute, but several experts strenuously denied this.

When the supposed wolf responsible for several sheep attacks between Sevenoaks and Tonbridge in 1905 was shot by a gamekeeper on 1 March (Times, 2 March 1905), it proved to be a jackal C. aureus. Interestingly, as noted by Alan Richardson of Wiltshire (The Countryman, summer 1975), an entry in the Churchwardens’ Accounts for the village of Lythe, near Whitby, North Yorkshire, recorded that in 1846 the sum of 8 shillings was paid for “One jackall [sic] head”. As this was a high price back in those days, it suggests that whatever the creature was, it was unusual. By comparison, fox heads only commanded the sum of four shillings each at that time.

The common or golden jackal C. aureus (© Thimindu/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

In May 1883, R. Payze met some men travelling to London, who had caught three very young, supposed fox cubs while passing through Epping Forest. Payze bought one, naming it Charlie, but as he grew older it became clear that Charlie was not a fox. When shown by Payze to A.D. Bartlett, London Zoo’s superintendent, Charlie was readily identified by Bartlett as C. latrans, North America’s familiar coyote or prairie wolf.

After receiving Charlie for the zoo, Bartlett investigated his origin, and learnt that a few years earlier four coyote cubs had been brought to England in a ship owned by J.R. Fletcher of the Union Docks. They were kept for a few days at the home of a Colonel Howard of Goldings, Loughton, then taken to Mr Arkwright, formerly Master of the Essex Hunt, and released in Ongar Wood, which joins Epping Forest. Bartlett found that the local people acquainted with this forest well recalled the release of the coyotes, which they termed the ‘strange animals from foreign parts’ (The Naturalist’s World, 1884).

To the untrained eye, some coyotes can look superficially vulpine (© Justin Johnsen/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)

Charlie was clearly a first-generation offspring of two of these original four; and those, or their descendants, no doubt explained the periodic reports thereafter from this region regarding grey fox-like beasts, occasionally spied yet never caught by the hunt - but how did this strange saga end? Did Epping’s coyotes simply die out, or did they establish a thriving lineage? And, if so, could there still be coyotes here today?

Intriguingly, in the Countryman (summer 1958), Doris W. Metcalf recalled having seen some very large, grey-furred wolf-like beasts near Jevington prior to World War II; she had assumed that they must be “the last of an ancient line of hill foxes”, or perhaps some surviving fox-wolf hybrids (but fox-wolf crossbreeding does not occur, and even it if did, it is highly unlikely that any resulting offspring would be viable). In May 1974, a similar animal, said to be 2 ft tall with a distinctly fox-like tail, was spied by Thomas Merrington and others as it slunk around the shores of Hatchmere Lake and the paths in Delamere Forest, Kingsley (Runcorn Weekly News, 30 May 1974).

A grey-coated coyote, the identity of Jevington's 'hill foxes'? (© Dawn Beattie/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)

When the Isle of Wight’s mystifying lion-headed ‘Island Monster’, allegedly maned but otherwise virtually hairless, was finally shot in 1940, it proved to be an old fox in an advanced state of mange; almost all of its fur had been lost, except for some still covering its neck, creating the illusion of a mane (Isle of Wight County Press, 24 February 1940). During the 1980s, Exmoor naturalist Trevor Beer was shown the carcass of a strange grey fox killed at Muddiford; its pelage consisted almost entirely of grey under-fur (hence the fox’s odd colour) - due to disease-induced hair loss, or perhaps a mutant gene? (There is on record a rare mutant morph of the red fox Vulpes vulpes known as the woolly fox in which the harsher outer coat is indeed largely or entirely absent, with only the softer, woollier under-fur present.)

In January 1990, a peculiar fox-like beast with blue-grey fur was spotted seeking food in a snow-covered field at Cynwyd, Corwen, in North Wales, by farmer Trefor Williams; after capturing it with a lasso, he brought it home. His unexpected find, duly christened Samantha, was a blue-phase Arctic fox Alopex lagopus, another species not native to Britain (Daily Post, 2 February 1990). Back in March 1983, an Arctic fox had been killed at Saltaire, West Yorkshire, by David Bottomley’s collie (Sunday Express, 6 March). Their origins are unknown.

Blue fox – i.e. an Arctic fox exhibiting its blue-phase summer coat (public domain)

In February 1994, an Arctic fox was discovered in the courtyard of Dudley Castle, in whose grounds stands Dudley Zoo, but it had not escaped from there. Yet again, its origin remains undetermined (Wolverhampton Express and Star, 15 February 1994).

So too does that of the female Arctic fox shot in the early hours of 13 May 1998 by a farmer from Alnwick, Northumberland, after he discovered it eating one of his lambs; its body was later preserved and mounted by local taxidermist Ralph Robson (Fortean Times, September 1998). Curiously, just three months earlier, a male Arctic fox had been shot less than 30 miles away. Could these have been an absconded pair?

Arctic fox exhibiting its more familiar white-phase winter coat (public domain)

Finally: On the evening of 13 March 2010, cryptozoological correspondent Shaun Histed-Todd was driving a bus along a Dartmoor road when he saw a most unusual creature run down the edge of the moor and stand at the road side, where the bus’s headlights afforded him an excellent view of it for roughly half a minute before it ran back up onto the moors (Shaun has asked me not to make public the precise location, to protect the animal). Shaun contacted me a few days later, as he was unable to identify it, and provided me with a detailed description, whose most notable features were as follows. It resembled a young fox and had a bushy white-tipped tail, but its coat was dark silvery-grey, it had noticeably large ears, white paws, and a black raccoon-like facial mask. Reading this, I was startled to realise that Shaun’s description was an exact verbal portrait of a most unusual yet highly distinctive animal – a young platinum fox. After checking photos of platinum foxes online, Shaun confirmed that this is indeed what he had seen.

Arising in 1933 as a mutant form of the silver fox (itself a mutant form of the red fox), its extraordinarily beautiful and luxuriant fur meant that platinum foxes were soon being bred in quantity on fur farms as their pelts became highly prized. But what was a platinum fox doing on Dartmoor, where, as far as I know, there are no fur farms? The platinum condition results from a dominant mutant allele (gene form), and as it has arisen spontaneously in many unrelated, geographically-scattered fox litters since 1933, perhaps it has done so again, quite recently, in a litter of Dartmoor foxes. Shaun has since learned of other sightings of this animal, with one made only 2 miles away from the site of his own observation.

Platinum fox pelt (public domain)

Clearly, Britain's unofficial canine fauna may have more surprises still in store for us.

This ShukerNature blog article is an expanded version of various extracts from my books Extraordinary Animals Revisited and Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo.

A third contemporary picture postcard depicting the Hexham (Allendale) wolf (public domain)