A winged manticore with a decidedly scorpionesque sting-tipped tail, depicted on the front cover of Piers Anthony's novel A Spell For Chameleon – one of my all-time favourite fantasy novels, and the first in Anthony's exceedingly popular, long-running Xanth series (© Del Rey Books – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational purposes only)
Quite apart from its mane in the male, the lion Panthera leo is also set apart morphologically from all other cat species, at least officially, by virtue of a remarkable characteristic of its tail. Not only does it terminate in a hairy tassle-resembling tuft, but sometimes concealed within that tuft is a thorn-like spine that measures just a few millimetres long.
This unexpected structure's function, if indeed it has one, is unknown, as is that of the hairy tuft. Known variously as a thorn, spine, prickle, or caudal claw, it is not present when a lion cub is born, but develops when the cub is around five months old, and is readily visible two months later.
Lion showing the very distinctive tufted tail-tip that is peculiar to this species among felids (© Rufus46/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Click here (then scroll down to the end of this zoo news report) to view a close-up photograph of a leonine caudal claw, normally hidden by the hairy tuft at the tip of the lion's tail. This particular caudal claw is sported by an adult South African lion named Xerxes at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington State, USA.
The most detailed coverage concerning caudal claws in lions that I have ever seen is an article originally published in Part 2 of the volume for 1832 of the now long-bygone journal Proceedings of the Committee of Science and Correspondence of the Zoological Society of London (it was subsequently republished in January 1833 within vol. 2, no. 7, of the third series of the London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science). Not only does this fascinating if nowadays exceedingly little-known report document the then-recent description of one such specimen by H. Woods to the Committee of Science and Correspondence of the Zoological Society of London, it also provides a detailed history of how such oddities were first brought to scientific attention and early thoughts as to what their function may be. In view of its scientific significance, therefore, I am reproducing this hitherto-obscure article in its entirety below:
WOODS, H., 'On the Claw of the Tip of the Tail of the Lion (Felis leo, L.)', Proc. Comm. Sci. and Corres. Zool. Soc. London, pt 2: 146-148 (1832) – please click pages to enlarge them for reading purposes (public domain)
Although caudal claws are widely claimed to be sported only by the lion, I have encountered occasional reports of thorny-tailed tigers and leopards too (indeed, two such examples from leopards are briefly mentioned in the above-reproduced 1832 article). Although I have never seen an illustration of a caudal claw from either of these two latter species, the tail tip of such an animal must look very unusual – for as these species lack the lion's hairy tail tuft, the thorn of a thorny-tailed tiger or leopard would be visible, and may therefore resemble a scorpion-like sting!
In turn, such a bizarre image inevitably inspires speculation and theorising as to whether the sight of so oddly-equipped a big cat may have helped shape the legend of the fearsome if wholly fictitious manticore (click here to access my ShukerNature coverage of the manticore).
If so, then what might surely be dubbed 'the littlest manticore' is a certain domestic cat documented as follows by a Mr R. Trimen within a letter published on 3 March 1908 in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London:
My cat (pale grey with ordinary narrow black stripes much broken up into short streaks and spots) presents the remarkable peculiarity of a long spur or claw-like horny excrescence at the very tip of its tail. This appendage is firmly seated quite at the extremity of the last vertebra; its base appears to be expanded, and is covered all round by an elevation of the skin. It projects posteriorly in the line of the tail, is rather slender, gradually tapering, almost straight for about two-thirds of its length, and thence moderately curved downward to its moderately acute tip. In length it is nearly 7 lines [1 line = 1/12th of 1 inch], and more than a third projects beyond the surrounding fur. The colour of this spine or spur is dull reddish-brown varied with dull ochry-yellowish, here and there crossed by some broken, thin, whitish lines.
The cat in question is a female, small, but rather thick in body; the limbs are all rather short and the feet small, but the tail is noticeably long and broad with long dense fur. I am informed by the donor that it was born at Witney, near Oxford, and is now between seven and eight months old. I have endeavoured, with the kind aid of the donor, to ascertain from the original possessor of the animal whether any kitten of the same litter, or the mother, or other known relation, exhibited the peculiar appendage or any traces of it; but without success.
I may add that I have found the cat unexpectedly sensitive to any handling of the caudal claw, however gentle; she first endeavours to jerk her tail away, then gives a mild vocal remonstrance, and if the handling is continued employs her paws to stop it.
Perhaps this cat's tail thorn or caudal claw was a deformed supernumerary caudal vertebra whose exposed site rendered it vulnerable to being caught against objects as the cat moved, causing the flesh surrounding it to be abnormally sensitive to pain.
Mystery Animals of Ireland by Gary Cunningham and Ronan Coghlan (© Gary Cunningham and Ronan Coghlan/CFZ Press)
What may have been either a large domestic tabby or, more remarkably, a bona fide Irish wildcat (itself a feline cryptid of no little controversy that I documented comprehensively in my very first book, Mystery Cats of the World, 1989), was encountered during the 1940s or 1950s by the uncle and father of Pap Murphy in a shed at the end of the uncle's house on the Mullet, an island in northwest County Mayo, as documented by Gary Cunningham and Ronan Coghlan in their book Mystery Animals of Ireland (2010). Entangled in some fishing nets, the cat had growled at the men, who subsequently killed it. Examining its body, they were surprised to discover that it possessed a very sharp nail-like structure, possibly bony in composition, at the end of its tail.
It would be interesting to discover if any additional cases of 'domestic manticores' have been recorded.
Exquisite vintage engraving of a lion showing its characteristic tufted tail-tip – Plate 81 from General Zoology, or Systematic Natural History, by George Shaw, with plates engraved principally by Mr Heath; published in 1800 (public domain)
Finally: I have succeeded in tracking down a copy of the original article by German naturalist Prof. Johann F. Blumenbach that was extensively referred to in the above-reproduced 1832 article re H. Woods's description of the young Barbary lion's caudal claw. Blumenbach's article had been published in 1823 within the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal.
Accordingly, for the sake of completeness, I am reproducing it in its entirety below:
BLUMENBACH, Johann F., 'Art. VI. – Miscellaneous Notices in Natural History. 4. On the Prickle at the Extremity of the Tail of the Lion', Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, vol. 8, no. 16: 266-268 (1823) – please click pages to enlarge for reading purposes (public domain)
This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and expanded from my book Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery.