Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the 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), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), 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), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Saturday, 19 December 2020

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MIGO? REVISITING THE MONSTER OF LAKE DAKATAUA. PART 2: A CROCODILIAN CONUNDRUM!

Saltwater crocodile at Australia Z00 (© Sheba/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

The island of New Britain is the largest member of the Bismarck Archipelago, situated east of Papua New Guinea (PNG), the latter country in turn occupying the eastern half of the mini-island continent of New Guinea and owning this archipelago. As documented in Part 1 of this 2-part ShukerNature blog article (click here to access Part 1), New Britain contains several large bodies of freshwater, one of which is named Lake Dakataua.

From the early 1970s to the late 1990s, this lake attracted considerable media attention worldwide due to its alleged aquatic monster, the migo, described by local eyewitnesses as being extremely slender and lengthy (estimated to be up to 50 ft long). During 1994, a Japanese TV production company launched two expeditions to the lake, their crew accompanied on both occasions by renowned Chicago University biologist and cryptozoologist Prof. Roy P. Mackal, in the capacity of their scientific advisor. Roy was also a longstanding correspondent and friend of mine for many years and kept me fully informed of proceedings regarding the migo.

Map of Papua New Guinea. including New Britain (arrowed red) and the location on it of Lake Dakataua (arrowed green) - please click to enlarge for viewing purposes (© NordNordWest/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Moreover, the crew actually succeeded in obtaining some segments of film footage purportedly showing the migo. One of these segments, obtained during the first expedition, duly appeared in a documentary later screened on Japanese TV.

Back then, the two most notable identities that had been offered for the migo both constituted prehistoric survivors – either a surviving wholly aquatic lizard known as a mosasaur (favoured by the documentary makers) or a surviving elongate whale known as an archaeocete (initially favoured by Roy, but see later for his dramatic change of opinion). Yet according to the current fossil record, archaeocetes became extinct around 25 million years ago, and mosasaurs even earlier, around 65 million years ago.

Modern-day life restorations of the mosasaur Tylosaurus (left) and the basilosaurid (aka zeuglodontine) archaeocete Basilosaurus (right) – not to scale (public domain / © Dmitry Bogdanov/Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)

But what about known modern-day animal species? Are there any that could explain the migo?

In September 1983, Japanese explorer/writer Atsuo Tanaka had stayed in the native village of Blumuri not far from Lake Dakataua, and claimed that many of the villagers did not believe that anyone had seen a monster there, or even that it existed. Moreover, after personally observing some 6-10-ft-long crocodiles in this lake, his own opinion was that any 'monster' sightings that may have been made there were of a dugong or a crocodile, perhaps even belonging to an unknown crocodile species, but more probably either the New Guinea crocodile Crocodylus novaeguineae or the larger saltwater (aka Indopacific) crocodile C. porosus. Such a situation if correct would be far from unprecedented.

A saltwater (aka Indopacific) crocodile C. porosus (public domain)

As far back as 1956, Wilfred T. Neill reported in a Herpetologica article that while serving with the US Army Air Forces in the Pacific during World War II he once flew over New Britain and that from the air:

…I observed a number of crocodiles, the largest about eight or nine feet long, around the margins of upland lakes. Circumstances rendered it impossible to spend any time in investigation; but at one point the plane passed so low over a lake that a crocodile was frightened into the water, and I could see it plainly.

Neill then stated that some weeks later he attended a lecture on jungle survival given by an officer who had been forced down into the interior of New Britain. While making his way to safety, this officer had similarly seen crocodiles about its lakes, but claimed that they were shy, fleeing into the water at his approach. So, although no specific lake, including Dakataua itself, was named in these reports, they demonstrate that crocodiles are indeed known from lakes in New Britain. Weill later opined in his article:

…whilst a positive statement is not justified, I feel that the New Britain lake crocodiles probably are not C. porosus; they are much more apt to be either C. n. novaeguineae or an undescribed relative thereof.

New Guinea crocodile Crocodylus novaeguineae (© Wilfried Berns/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

Even so, New Britain certainly falls within the overall geographical range spanned by the known distribution of C. porosus. Also of note is that in a limnological study of Lake Dakataua conducted in 1974 by PNG-based wildlife biologists E.E. Ball and J. Glucksman and published six years later by the scientific journal Freshwater Biology, they stated that crocodiles were indeed present there. Moreover, in a Journal of Tropical Ecology article from February 1987, presenting an inventory and limnological review of PNG's freshwater lakes, M.R. Chambers reported that both of the two known species of crocodile mentioned by Neill in his 1956 account can be found in PNG's lowland lakes (of which Dakataua is one).

Further to Neill's comment about a possible undescribed species, it is worth noting that as recently as July 2020, an extensive study of mainland New Guinea's southern population of C. novaeguineae, geographically isolated from its northern population by this huge island's central ridge of highland mountains, revealed its members to be so genetically, morphologically, and behaviourally discrete from the those of the northern one that the southern population clearly constituted a valid species in its own right. So in a paper documenting this study, published by the journal Copeia, it has been formally named C. halli, Hall's crocodile. This name honours University of Florida zoologist Dr Philip Hall, who had speculated back in the 1980s that these two populations may constitute entirely separate species, but sadly passed away before any formal scientific study to evaluate his suggestion was conducted.

Dr Bernard Heuvelmans (Wikipedia – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Also of note, it was Neill's Herpetologica article that veteran Belgian cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans cited as his reference source when including the migo in his famous annotated checklist of apparently unknown animals with which cryptozoology is concerned, published in 1986 by the now-defunct International Society of Cryptozoology's well-respected peer-reviewed scientific journal Cryptozoology. In his checklist, Heuvelmans suggested that the migo may be:

An unknown species of crocodile (or is it, as has been suggested, a surviving mosasaur?) known as migo, in Lake Dakataua, on the island of New Britain, in the Bismarck Archipelago (Neill 1956).

Bearing in mind, however, that Neill's article makes no suggestion whatsoever of a mosasaur, unequivocally referring to the New Britain lake creatures under consideration by him as crocodiles, from where did Heuvelmans obtain his mosasaur information? Apparently he was aware of a Japanese newspaper report from February 1972 referred to by me in Part 1 of this present ShukerNature article, in which Shohei Shirai, then head of the Pacific Ocean Resources Research Institute, had aired his view that the migo may be an undiscovered modern-day species of mosasaur.

No longer palaeontologically-accurate but still aesthetically-exquisite, a vintage illustration of a mosasaur and two ichthyosaurs by Heinrich Harder (public domain)

In addition to Prof. Roy Mackal and myself, another Western scientist with a longstanding interest in cryptozoological creatures who became intrigued with the mystery of the migo was British palaeontologist Dr Darren Naish, who in the mid-1990s was fortunate enough to view the better-quality (albeit still very pixellated) 1st-generation copy video (of the two copy videos available in Britain back then) of the original Japanese documentary. (Unfortunately, conversely, as fully described in Part 1, I was only able to view the other, notably inferior and incomplete 2nd-generation copy video, so my efforts at making sense of what I was looking at were greatly hampered.)

In a couple of articles published during the mid/late 1990s (TCR, autumn 1996; CFZ 1997 Yearbook, 1997), followed up a decade later by a short recap article posted on his Tetrapod Zoology internet blog on 26 October 2008, Darren painstakingly analysed frame by frame, feature by feature, what could be discerned in the 1st-generation copy video's migo footage, and he concluded that the creature in this footage was surely a crocodile, specifically a saltwater crocodile C. porosus. However, there are ostensibly two major problems with this identity, as Darren acknowledged.

Saltwater crocodile foraging in surf (© R Brown et al.-ZooKeys/Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)

Firstly: the creature's huge size as claimed for it by Roy, who had initially stated that it was 33 ft long but later upsized his estimate to 50 ft. For even though C. porosus is the largest living species of crocodile, it rarely exceeds 20 ft long. Consequently, in his analysis of the migo footage as seen by him in the 1st-generation copy video, Darren queried whether even Roy's lower size estimate of 33 ft was accurate, and used the presence of birds flying in front of and behind the creature in an attempt to introduce scale into the migo segment, which in turn indicated a smaller size for the creature.

However, he also emphasized the poor quality of even this superior of the two available copy videos, noting how pixellated, jerky, out-of-focus, and amalgamated with the water surface the creature appeared. In my opinion, this negates any perceived scale-related significance of the birds, because they too are insufficiently clear.

Darren and I engaged in deep, meaningful cryptozoological conversation at the CFZ's Weird Weekend 2007 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Moreover, in his 1997 article Darren also stated: "If, however, Mackal's observations are the result of sightings in the field, rather than later viewing of the video footage, they are harder to dismiss". During his communications with me, Roy revealed that his estimates were based both upon his analysis of the original migo footage (as opposed to inferior copy videos of it) and upon binocular-assisted migo observations made directly in the field (see also later).

Secondly: the series of vertical undulations seemingly performed by the creature, which is a mammalian not a reptilian characteristic, thus explaining why Roy had initially favoured an archaeocete identity for it. In Darren's opinion, conversely, these undulations were not actually real, but merely an optical illusion, a distortion artifact caused by the pixellation present in the film footage. Significantly, moreover, during the late 1990s Roy changed his mind concerning what he considered the taxonomic identity of the migo to be – from an archaeocete to a crocodile. But why exactly had he changed his mind? And did this mean that he now agreed with Darren's thoughts?


A very recent reconstruction of the basilosaurid archaeocete Basilosaurus (© Markus Bühler)

The simple answer to both of those latter questions lies in a fact that has been almost entirely overlooked in the cryptozoological literature, until now – namely, that Roy did not participate in only one expedition seeking the migo. In fact, he took part in two – the second migo expedition taking place just a few months after the first one, yet receiving little or no international coverage. Nevertheless, during this second expedition some noteworthy observations were made, and this time at close range. Furthermore, some additional film footage of the migo was obtained, again at close range this time, which Roy was able to view but has never been publicly released as far as I am aware.

In other words, Roy was the only cryptozoologist to have viewed both the much clearer original (as opposed to inferior copy-video quality) migo footage included in the documentary of the first expedition and also those various additional segments of footage (some shot at close range) collectively filmed during the two expeditions yet which even today still remain unseen by anyone not associated with the documentary and expeditions. Needless to say, therefore, this gave him a huge advantage over those of us who had only seen one or other of the two very imperfect copy videos of the single segment of migo footage shown in the documentary. Moreover, unlike any of us he had also been able to view the migo directly and at close range in the field.

Saltwater crocodile swimming (© Thinboyfatter/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

During his conversations with me, Roy stated categorically that based upon what he had thus seen in the infinitely superior footage selection exclusively available to him for viewing, plus his own close-range observations in the field, there was no optical illusion present – the creature that was the migo was definitely undulating vertically. Or, to be precise, the creatures.

For although he now shared Darren's view that the migo was crocodilian in identity, Roy informed me that at least one of the extremely lengthy (and therefore hitherto very puzzling) examples of this mystery creature captured on film was not a single crocodile specimen. Instead, it was actually three separate crocodile specimens in very close, vigorous contact with each other – two seeking to mate and a third one intimately associating with them, thereby yielding a composite mega-beast. Furthermore, the energetic body-twisting activity featuring in such behaviour explained the hitherto-perplexing vertical undulations seen in the segments of film footage.

Prof. Roy P. Mackal (public domain)

But don't take my word for it – happily, I am able to present here Roy's very own publicly-revealed words on this contentious cryptozoological subject. In 1998, I prepared and conducted an interview with Roy concerning his fascinating cryptozoological investigations down through the decades. This was then written up by me and forwarded with his permission to a British partwork magazine entitled The X Factor, which was devoted to mysteries (including cryptozoological ones) and the unexplained (and was no relation, incidentally, to the later TV pop star talent show of the same title!). Although it accepted the interview for future publication, The X Factor sadly came to the end of its run before it was able to do so. As I have retained the original transcript, however, I have since published the interview myself on ShukerNature (click here to access it). Below is the relevant section from it concerning the migo:

Q3: Since first spying it in 1994, your opinion has changed concerning the likely identity of the migo, the monster of Lake Dakataua in New Britain. Why is this, and what do you now believe the migo to be?

 

A3: Our original video recordings of the migo clearly established that there were animals, or animal, at least 50 ft or about 14 m in overall length present in the lake from time to time. Lake Dakataua is a freshwater lake, completely isolated from the sea by only 400-500 ft. It is freshwater without any fish in it, due primarily to the salts spewed out by the active volcano at its edge. Images of the serrated back and the contours of the migo that we obtained on the videos in the Japanese expedition suggested that its zoological identity might involve reptiles, or even primitive whales known as archaeocetes.

 

During the second expedition a few months later, additional video sequences and observations were made at close range, establishing that the 50 ft creature was in fact three specimens of the saltwater or estuarine crocodile Crocodylus porosus - a female in heat being tracked by two males. One of the males was clasping the female's tail, and the other male was clasping the tail of the first male. Altogether this produced a composite 'creature' possessing what had seemed to be a head, neck, and two humps, and measuring in the order of 50 ft or so in total length.

In various of his letters to me concerning the migo, Roy stated that he was planning to write both a scientific paper documenting the migo and an expedition report covering the two migo expeditions and their findings. These publications presumably would include full details of (and possibly even photographic stills from) the additional, hitherto-unreleased segments of film footage, as well as the close-range observations, plus a rigorous explanation of the migo constituting a crocodilian composite 'creature'. He added that they would be submitted to the International Society of Cryptozoology's scientific journal Cryptozoology. Tragically, however, not long afterwards the Society folded, with no further volumes of its journal appearing; and as far as I am aware, even if Roy did complete his paper and expedition report they have never been published anywhere. Sadly, Roy passed away in 2013, so except for the precious details presented in this ShukerNature article of mine, it seems very unlikely now that his unique, invaluable knowledge and insights regarding the migo that he obtained during the two Japanese expeditions and the documentary's preparation will ever be made known.

Saltwater crocodile - key to the migo mystery? (© Bernard Dupont/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

And on that unhappy note, this is where the history of the migo mystery ends, at least for now. There seems no longer any question that the nature of the beast is crocodilian, but as to the precise species involved, the proportion of sightings based upon single crocodile specimens, and the proportion based upon closely-associating multiple specimens, who can say? And how can we explain, as documented in Part 1, the multiple-eyewitness sighting from 1971 of a migo reputedly sporting a covering of short black hair?

Having said that: to my mind, the most logical, parsimonious explanation is that saltwater crocodiles do exist here, especially given how close this lowland lake is to the sea, with sightings of single specimens having been conflated with rarer but much more visually dramatic sightings of collective, energetic crocodile mating behaviour – basically, some conga-contorting crocodiles in heat, linked closely to one another in a line. And it is these latter 'composite creatures' that have given rise to mistaken claims of extra-long, slender, vertically-undulating mystery beasts, which have been dubbed the migo. In short, as a creature of cryptozoology the migo probably does not actually exist.

Composite crocodile created by two saltwater crocodiles swimming in a line (© Jim Bendon/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

As for the supposed sighting of a hairy migo, I can only assume that this is based either upon an alga-covered crocodile (Lake Dakataua does contain algae – various species belonging to the genus Chara) or even upon an entirely different, mammalian animal that once again has been erroneously added to the migo mixture. Also, as I noted in Part 1, some New Britain villagers use the term 'migo' in relation to monitor lizards, thereby muddying the already murky waters of the migo mystery even further!

Certainly, it would not be the first time that an ostensibly single mystery beast type has proved likely to consist in reality of several taxonomically discrete animal types all mistakenly lumped together by observers and/or investigators. Judging from the vast range of descriptions given by eyewitnesses, the Loch Ness monster, for instance, is far too diverse morphologically to be just a single animal type (i.e. it has probably been 'created' by the erroneous lumping together of sightings of otters, big eels and other types of large fish, water birds, and occasional seals, as well as some unusual wave formations and misidentified boats – plus, conceivably, even a genuine cryptozoological creature). Ditto for the great sea serpent, the East African Nandi bear, North America's modern-day thunderbirds, and Britain's mystery cats.

A montage of Nessie morphologies, based upon differing eyewitness descriptions (© Richard Svensson)

A quarter of a century has passed since the last cryptozoological quest in search of a solution to the riddle of the migo took place. Perhaps, therefore, it is time now for another one, to determine unequivocally just what does lurk in Lake Dakataua, and to release for full public and scientific scrutiny more than just a single brief, blurry segment of film footage as evidence?

 

I wish to dedicate this article to the late Prof. Roy P. Mackal, whose longstanding friendship, encouragement, and shared interest in cryptozoology will always mean so much to me, including his kindness in writing a magnificent foreword to my 1995 book In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors, which was reprinted in its greatly-expanded, fully-updated successor, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016).

My two books investigating the possible existence of prehistoric survivors (© Dr Karl Shuker/Blandford Press/Coachwhip Publications)

 

 

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