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).

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com/index.htm

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my ShukerNature blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

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IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Starsteeds blog's poetry and other lyrical writings (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

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Monday 19 February 2024

THE ISABELLA QUAGGA - A LONG-LOST, LONG-FORGOTTEN EQUINE ENIGMA

 
A beautiful vintage (1800s) full-colour illustration of the unique isabella quagga (public domain)

The quagga Equus quagga quagga is nowadays famous for two very different reasons. Firstly: it is – or was – the only semi-striped form of zebra, its striping being confined to its foreparts. Secondly: although once common in its South African veldt habitat, it was hunted into extinction there during the second half of the 19th Century, with the very last captive specimen's death in Amsterdam Zoo on 12 August 1883 marking the tragic disappearance of this highly distinctive equid from the face of our planet – though The Quagga Project continues its aim to recreate this vanished creature's characteristic phenotype (external appearance) via back-breeding, using striping-deplete specimens of other Equus quagga subspecies to produce quagga facsimiles.

Speaking of which: today, the quagga is classed as a subspecies of the plains zebra Equus quagga, but back in the mid-1800s when still very much alive it was deemed to be a valid, distinct species in its own right, and was dubbed Hippotigris quacka (hippotigris being the name given to zebras by ancient scholars who believed these exotic-looking striped equids to be the product of matings between horses and tigers!) – see later for further taxonomic details. But that is not all.

 
One of five precious photographs of an adult quagga mare living at London Zoo from 15 March 1851 until her death there on 15 July 1872 – these are the only known photos of a live quagga (click here for more details concerning this quagga quintet)

For a time during that same period, a second, very remarkable quagga species was also recognized, despite being known from just a single specimen – a poorly-preserved skin formerly held at the British Museum in London. This unique, extraordinary-looking animal became known as the isabella quagga, but today the skin is long lost and the isabella quagga itself is long forgotten. Consequently, I felt that what (very) little is known about this beautiful if baffling enigma of an equid richly deserved to be collated and presented in article form in order for modern-day readers to become aware of its erstwhile existence. So here is the hitherto-obscure history of the long-overlooked isabella quagga – a ShukerNature exclusive.

I first learned of the isabella quagga Hippotigris isabellinus many years ago, when I chanced upon the following previously-obscure yet fascinating excerpt from a quagga-themed communication by famous British zoologist Richard Lydekker that had been published by the scientific journal Nature on 10 January 1901. The excerpt alluded to a supposedly separate, second species of quagga, again extinct:

...the British Museum formerly had the skin of a young quagga, in very bad condition, which was presented by the traveller William Burchell [after whom Burchell's zebra is named], and was subsequently described by Hamilton Smith as a distinct species, under the name of Hippotigris isabellinus.

Two points to note here. Firstly: the above-mentioned Hamilton Smith was Charles Hamilton Smith (1776–1859), a lieutenant-colonel in the British Army. He was also a naturalist who scientifically described and named several equine species and subspecies. In two 1841-published tomes referred to later here, he dubbed this enigmatic animal the isabella quagga. Secondly: whereas all zebra species and subspecies are nowadays housed in the genus Equus (alongside horses and asses), back in Lt-Col. Hamilton Smith's time several were housed in their own separate genus, Hippotigris, including the normal quagga, which was formally deemed back them to be a valid species in its own right (rather than merely a subspecies of the plains sebra, as it is classified today) and was duly known as Hippotigris quacka.

Lydekker's communication then continued with the following text, but it is unclear whether this text was still referring to the isabella quagga or (as I suspect) had returned to the communication's primary subject, the normal quagga:

Apparently London museums possess no other relics of this lost species, of which, however, we believe there is a specimen in the museum at Edinburgh. As the animal yielded no trophies worthy the attention of the sportsman, it is unlikely that there are any specimens in private collections, unless, perchance, a skull or two may be in existence.

The remaining text in Lydekker's communication unequivocally referred to the normal quagga, so it needn't be quoted here.

What exactly was the isabella quagga, I wondered, when I first began researching this curious creature, and what did it even look like, bearing in mind that Lydekker provided no description of it in his communication and the British Museum no longer has it?

Back in pre-internet times, it was by no means easy to research anything as unimaginably obscure as the isabella quagga, so after various attemptss to solicit more information concerning it all proved futile, I placed Lydekker's intriguing communication on file and directed my attention to other subjects. Notwithstanding these failures, however, I never forgot about it, so when I was checking some details recently while completing some other researches and noticed it again, still on file, I decided to reinvestigate its elusive subject, but now assisted enormously by the vast wealth of data readily accessible online. And this time, finally, I was successful, as now revealed.

Originally, my only clue had lain in its moniker. For in this instance, isabella refers not to a woman's name but instead to a colour, known in full as isabelline, and which constitutes this mystery quagga's species name, isabellinus. It is variously defined as pale grey-yellow, pale fawn, pale cream-brown or parchment colour, and is primarily utilised in relation to mammalian coat colour and bird plumage.

Presumably, therefore, I mused, this shade was the background colouration of the coat of this unique specimen (a male, incidentally), meaning, if so, that it was paler in appearance than normal quaggas and probably with fainter stripes too. Whether such a difference warranted Hamilton Smith naming it as a separate species, however, when it was surely nothing more than an aberrantly pallid (possibly leucistic?) specimen of the normal quagga (see later), was another matter.

 
The pale-coloured engraving of the isabella quagga from Hamilton Smith's two 1841 tomes (public domain)

During my recent researches, I uncovered two beautiful vintage illustrations depicting the isabella quagga, both of which represent it in the living state. One of these illustrations is a hand-coloured engraving in very pale shades with minimal background colouration. The other illustration is in full-colour, so it is much more vibrant.

I traced the pale engraving back to a couple of tomes from 1841, which upon close examination turned out to be identical in content but bearing different titles. One is entitled Horses, and constitutes Volume 20 of the massive 40-volume series edited by Sir William Jardine and entitled The Naturalist's Library. The other tome is exactly the same but is retitled as The Natural History of the Horse and constitutes a stand-alone volume. In both tomes, the author is given as Charles Hamilton Smith, and a concise section documenting what he specifically refers to as the isabella quagga is included, containing the pale engraving of this specimen. In both tomes, it is designated as Plate 25, and is credited to Hamilton Smith.

In his duplicated 1841 tomes, Hamilton Smith began his brief coverage of the isabella quagga (pp. 332-334, and which constitutes this claimed species' formal scientific description and naming) by stating that although this animal's body shape (including its head) compared closely with that of the normal quagga, he had separated it from the latter equid because it differed by virtue of its smaller size (barely 10 hands, i.e. 40 in, tall) and even more so by the forms and colour of its stripes.

He then referred to an unidentified equid seen by travelling French naturalist François Le Vaillant (1753-1824), presumably in South Africa's Cape as this is where he had spent time collecting animal specimens, and which he'd named the zebre but was apparently different from those zebras already known from there. Some zoological authorities, including Dutch zoologist Coenraad Temminck (whose father was Le Vaillant's employer) had considered the isabella quagga to be Le Vaillant's zebre, but Hamilton Smith disagreed with their opinion.

The remainder of Hamilton Smith's account consisted of a verbal description of the isabella quagga skin (augmenting the engraving of this animal portrayed in the living state), which included his belief that it was an adult rather than a juvenile specimen despite its small size, and was not albinistic. Conversely, when concluding his account by mentioning that a Dr Leach had believed the skin (which still existed at the British Museum at this time) to have originally come from the Cape, he conceded that Leach had considered its pale colouration, especially its white stripes, to be due to the animal's 'nonage' (young age).

Moreover, it should be noted here that back in Hamilton Smith's time, there was a somewhat naïve but very prevalent tendency among taxonomists to over-emphasise the significance of individual variation within species, leading to the splitting off and naming of many spurious animal species that in reality were nothing more than freakishly-coloured/patterned individuals of already known, confirmed species. Eventually, however, such shortcomings were rectified by lumping these unsubstantiated species back together – as happened with the isabella quagga, subsequently being subsumed by zoologists into the normal quagga species (now subspecies).

 
Hamilton Smith's undated full-colour wtarcolour painting of the isabella quagga (public domain)

As for the full-colour isabella quagga illustration: it is an undated watercolour painting, again by Hamilton Smith, and is contained with various others of his watercolours in an unpublished manuscript by him held in the library and archives of London's Natural History Museum. Moreover, this beautiful painting remained unpublished until as recently as 2010, when it appeared in a Zeitschrift des Kolner Zoos article on quaggas by Lothar Schwahle and Wolfgang Wozniak.

Hamilton Smith's two illustrations readily confirm my early deductions as to the isabella quagga's likely appearance – namely, an aberrantly pale, isabelline-coloured quagga with only very faint, white striping.

Having viewed several comprehensive lists of quagga material currently housed in museums worldwide, I can confirm Lydekker's statement that the isabella quagga skin deposited by Burchell at what is now London's Natural History Museum is no longer there, and is therefore lost. Presumably it was discarded due to its very poor condition, but a tragic loss nonetheless of such an exceptional, unique specimen, and which nowadays might well have yielded much useful information via DNA tests conducte3d upon samples of this skin's tissues.

Yet despite the isabella quagga having long since been reduced in status from a taxonomically-discrete species to a non-taxonomic mutant oddity, its delicate pallid beauty deserves to be remembered and celebrated. So I am very glad that I discovered this elegant animal hidden away as the briefest of footnotes within the dusty archives of the past, and have been able to revive it, even if only in words and pictures, within this present article, written up at last.

 
Alongside a mounted quagga specimen at Tring Natural History Museum, England (© Dr Karl Shuker)

 

Wednesday 24 January 2024

THE HORN SNAKE AND THE HOOP SNAKE - FEARSOME CRITTERS OF THE SERPENTINE KIND

 
Hoop snake in hot pursuit! (© Richard Svensson)

Following on from my previous ShukerNature blog article chronicling what may well be North America's most familiar folkloric Fearsome Critter of any kind, the truly monstrous hodag (click here to access my article), I am now documenting the most (in)famous Fearsome Critters of the serpentine kind – namely, the horn snake and the hoop snake.

I must not forget, in these random sketches, my old friend and neighbour, Uncle Davy Lane...Nothing could move him out of a slow, horse-mill gait but snakes, of which "creeturs he was monstrous 'fraid." The reader shall soon have abundant evidence of the truth of this admission in his numerous and rapid flights from "sarpunts."...He became quite a proverb in the line of big story-telling. True, he had many obstinate competitors, but he distanced them all farther than he did the numerous snakes that "run arter him."...

"But at last I ventured to go into the face uv the Round Peak one day a-huntin.' I were skinnin' my eyes fur old bucks, with my head up, not thinkin' about sarpunts, when, by Zucks! I cum right plum upon one uv the cuiousest snakes I uver seen in all my borned days.

"Fur a spell I were spellbound in three foot uv it. There it lay on the side uv a steep presserpis, head big as a sasser, right toards me, eyes red as forked lightnin,' lickin' out his forked tongue, and I could no more move than the Ball Rock on Fisher's Peak. But when I seen the stinger in his tail, six inches long and sharp as a needle, stickin' out like a cock's spur, I thought I'd a drapped in my tracks. I'd ruther a hard uvry coachwhip [snake] on Round Hill arter me en full chase than to a bin in that drefful siteation.

"Thar I stood, petterfied with relarm — couldn't budge a peg - couldn't even take old Bucksmasher off uv my shoulder to shoot the infarnul thing. Nyther uv us moved nor bolted 'ur eyes fur fifteen minits.

"At last, as good luck would have it, a rabbit run close by, and the snake turned its eyes to look what it were, and that broke the charm, and I jumped forty foot down the mounting, and dashed behind a big white oak five foot in diamatur. The snake he cotched the eend uv his tail in his mouth, he did, and come rollin' down the mounting arter me just like a hoop, and jist as I landed behind the tree he struck t'other side with his stinger, and stuv it up, clean to his tail, smack in the tree. He were fast.

"Of all the hissin' and blowin' that uver you hearn sense you seen day­light, it tuck the lead. Ef there'd a bin forty-nine forges all a-blowin' at once, it couldn't a beat it. He rared and charged, lapped round the tree, spread his mouf and grinned at me orful, puked and spit quarts an' quarts of green pisen at me, an' made the ar stink with his nasty breath.

"I seen thar were no time to lose; I cotched up old Bucksmasher from whar I'd dashed him down, and tried to shoot the tarnil thing; but he kep' sich a movin' about and sich a splutteration that I couldn't git a bead at his head, for I know'd it warn't wuth while to shoot him any whar else. So I kep' my distunce tell he wore hisself out, then I put a ball right be­tween his eyes, and he gin up the ghost.

"Soon as he were dead I happened to look up inter the tree, and what do you think? Why, sir, it were dead as a herrin'; all the leaves was wilted like a fire had gone through its branches.

"I left the old feller with his stinger in the tree, thinkin' it were the best place fur him, and moseyed home, 'tarmined not to go out again soon..."

   H.E. TaliaFerro ('Skitt') – 'Uncle Davy Lane'

Over the years, the annals of zoology have received and dutifully logged various reports of some truly remarkable pseudo-serpents, i.e. false snakes once deemed to be genuine species but subsequently exposed as imaginative folktales, deceiving hoaxes, or monstrous misidentifications. One of the most intriguing examples is the North American horn snake – not least because it is actually two pseudo-serpents in one! Moreover, as noted above, both of them are derived from the rich Fearsome Critters folklore of this New World continent's early lumberjacks and other rural pioneers.

The earliest notable account of the horn snake appeared in American explorer John Lawson's important work A New Voyage to Carolina (1709; retitled The History of Carolina in later editions), whose description succinctly includes all of the principal characteristics of this singular, highly controversial reptile:

Of the Horn Snake, I never saw but two that I remember. They are like the Rattlesnake in Colour, but rather lighter. They hiss exactly like a Goose when anything approaches them. They strike at their Enemy with their Tail, and kill whatsoever they wound with it, which is armed at the End with a Horny Substance like a Cock's Spur. This is their Weapon. I have heard it credibly reported by those who said they were Eye-Witnesses, that a small Locust Tree, about the Thickness of a Man's Arm, being struck by one of these Snakes at Ten o'clock in the Morning, then verdant and flourishing, at Four in the Afternoon was dead, and the Leaves dead and withered. Doubtless, be it how it will, they are very venomous. I think the Indians do not pretend to cure their wound.

 
Front cover of John Lawson's 1709 book A New Voyage to Carolina (public domain)

In the 1722 self-revised edition of his 1705 tome History and Present State of Virginia, Virginia historian and government official Colonel Robert Beverley emphasised the nature of the horn snake's stinging tail as a formidable weapon:

There is likewise a Horn Snake, so called from a Sharp Horn it carries in its Tail, with which it assaults anything that offends it, with that Force that, as it is said, it will strike its Tail into the Butt End of a Musket, from whence it is not able to disengage itself.

The first naturalist to document the horn snake in detail was Mark Catesby, in the first volume of his major work The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1731), summarising the descriptions provided previously by Lawson and Beverley, but discounting its tail's deadly nature as outrageous fiction and identifying its species as a 'water viper', to which he gave the formal name Vipera aquatica. According to Catesby, the horn snake's tail-sting or spine was merely a blunt, horny, and completely innocuous structure about half an inch long.

 
Water moccasin, threat display (public domain)

Curiously, however, the species that he dubbed Vipera aquatica and labelled as the horn snake is traditionally believed to have been the water moccasin Agkistrodon piscivorus - the world's only species of semi-aquatic viper. Yet although it does possess a short, thick, blunt-ended tail, the latter does not bear a spine at its tip. Consequently, some modern-day herpetologists dispute that Catesby's so-called 'water viper' (and thence his horn snake) was indeed the water moccasin.

Notwithstanding Catesby's scepticism regarding the venomous nature of the horn snake's tail spine, this feature was steadfastly reiterated in subsequent accounts elsewhere (so too was the claim that this species was reddish or at least partly reddish in colour). And to complicate matters still further, a second, even more fantastic, zoologically-implausible characteristic was soon attributed to this already much-muddled mystery snake – the supposed ability to turn itself into a vertical hoop by grasping its tail in its jaws just like the mythical ouroboros, thereby enabling it to roll along the ground at great speed like a living tyre. When carrying out this bizarre mode of locomotion, the horn snake thus became known as the hoop snake.

 
Ouroboros drawing from a late medieval Byzantine Greek alchemical manuscript (public domain)

An early hoop snake account was penned by American traveller J.F.D. Smyth in 1784, following a stay in western North Carolina, and was published in Volume 1 of his multi-tome travelogue Tour in the United States of America. After describing the by now familiar morphological characteristics of the horn snake, Smyth added the following very remarkable behavioural information:

As other serpents crawl upon their bellies, so can this; but he has another method of moving peculiar to his own species, which he always adopts when he is in eager pursuit of his prey; he throws himself into a circle, running rapidly around, advancing like a hoop, with his tail arising and pointed forward in the circle, by which he is always in the ready position of striking.

It is observed that they only make use of this method in attacking; for when they fly from their enemy they go upon their bellies, like other serpents.

From the above circumstance, peculiar to themselves, they have also derived the appellation of hoop snakes.

The next couple of centuries saw many published reports of hoop-rolling horn snakes – hailing from a wide geographical spread, including the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, North Carolina, and British Columbia in Canada - despite their self-evident improbability. A typical example, which concisely contains all of the intrinsic horn/hoop snake motifs, is the following account, published on 8 November 1884 by an Australian newspaper entitled the Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser but documenting an alleged incident that took place in Virginia, USA:

One day last week a little girl, whose name slipped the correspondent's usually retentive memory, was chased by a monster hoop snake nearly a mile. Just as it seemed that it was about to strike her, she dodged behind a large apple tree. The rapidly whirling snake turned to follow and struck the tree with such force as to drive the horn-spike into the hard wood over two inches. The child was so frightened that she sank down, her heart thumping as though it would burst out of her body.

One of her brothers, who had seen her flying down the hill, went to see what was the matter. When he reached the tree it was quaking like an aspen and its leaves and fruit falling to the ground in a perfect shower, the prostrate girl being almost buried beneath them. As soon as he got her restored to consciousness he took a fence rail and killed the venomous reptile, which was eleven feet two and a half inches in length and eight inches in circumference. The horn point on the tail was six and a half inches long, and so deeply imbedded in the hard wood that it could not extricate itself. This all happened near South Mountain, Va [Virginia].

With the girl's name conveniently forgotten, the correspondent responsible for the account not named, and the eminently unlikely nature of the entire incident, the most reasonable assumption is that this incident, like so many others of its kind involving extraordinary, unbelievable beasts, was a journalistic invention. Yet even today, supposedly serious reports of hoop-rolling horn snakes are still being documented, thus sitting uncomfortably alongside unequivocally tongue-in-cheek, light-hearted versions, cartoons, and other jokey representations of this classic pseudo-serpent.

 
Raymond Ditmars (public domain)

Moreover, it is nothing if not telling that although celebrated American snake expert Raymond Ditmars (1876-1942) placed 10,000 dollars in trust at a New York bank to be awarded to the first person who provided him with conclusive evidence for the reality of the hoop snake, this very substantial prize was never claimed.

But are reports of horn and hoop snakes absolutely fictional, or could there be at least a kernel of truth at the heart of such ostensibly unfeasible tales? Quite apart from the fact that there are many fully-attested sightings of snakes grasping their tails in their mouths (albeit while lying on the ground, and therefore yielding horizontal circles rather than the hoop snake's vertical ones), there are certain fully-recognised species of North American snake that do bear a spiny structure at the tip of their tail. So it may be that some of these latter species have helped inspire and shape the legend of the horn snake.

 
Mud snake (© John Sullivan/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

One of the leading candidates for this role is the mud snake Farancia abacura, a semi-aquatic, non-venomous species of colubrid native to the southeastern USA. Up to 6 ft long, black dorsally, black and orange ventrally (with the orange sections extending upwards laterally, thereby corresponding with certain horn snake accounts referring to reddish-orange sides), this distinctive snake has only a short tail, but it bears a noticeable spine at its tip, which in reality is a greatly-enlarged terminal scale of hard, horny constituency and quite sharp at its tip. Of course, the spine is not venomous, but this species shares a sufficient number of other characteristics with the legendary horn snake – both the tail spine and the shortness of the tail itself, a tendency to prod prey with its tail spine, plus orange flanks, and a water-frequenting preference – for there to be little doubt that it has actively influenced traditional, non-scientific belief in sting-tailed horn snakes.

Certainly, eminent American herpetologist Dr Karl P. Schmidt (1890-1957) favoured this identity for the latter pseudo-serpent when documenting the horn/hoop snake saga in an article published in the January/February 1925 issue of the American periodical Natural History. This theory has also been championed much more recently, by another American herpetologist, Dr J.D. Wilson, in a mud snake article published by the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory in 2006, and not only for the horn snake specifically but also for its locomotory hoop snake alter ego. A closely-related species, the rainbow snake F. erytrogramma, which again is semi-aquatic, non-venomous, native to the southeastern USA, and very similar to the mud snake by virtue of its body colouration, short tail, and readily-visible tail spine, is actually referred to colloquially as the hoop snake across much of its geographical range.

 
Coachwhip snake (public domain)

Yet another North American non-venomous colubrid that has been implicated with the hoop snake legend is the coachwhip snake Masticophis flagellum, endemic to the southern USA and also northern Mexico. Up to 6.5 ft long, this species is sometimes reddish-pink in colour, recalling once again descriptions of the horn snake.

Moreover, although it does not possess a tail spine, it is a fast-moving, very agile species, and Schmidt, among others, has suggested that the hoop snake component of the horn snake myth may have originated from sightings of species like this one (as well as fellow non-venomous North American colubrid the common black snake Coluber constrictor – and in particular its most distinctive subspecies, the blue racer C. c . foxii) gliding along at great speed and in an undulating manner over the tops of bushes without descending to the ground, thus recalling the hoop snake's supposed rolling mode of progression.

 
Common black snake (public domain)

Interestingly, horn and hoop snake traditions are not exclusive to North America. Comparable tales have been recorded from Australia too. This island continent is home to the highly venomous death adders – a genus (Acanthophis) of viper-impersonating elapids whose several species are all famed for their very conspicuous tail spine.

Central and West Africa are also sources of sting-tailed horn/hoop snake reports, which in this case appear to have been inspired by harmless blind burrowing snakes of the genus Typhlops, which possess very prominent tail spines. Moreover, Schmidt suggested that slaves brought to North America from these regions of Africa may have contributed to the New World horn snake folklore by recalling stories of African burrowing snakes that subsequently became transferred to America's own equivalent species (though not of the genus Typhlops, as this is confined to Central and South America in the New World).

 
An Australian death adder (public domain)

Yet regardless of the varied scientific explanations documented and discussed that discount the horn and hoop snake as being wholly fictitious, belief in the reality and lethal nature of these pseudo-serpents is still deeply ingrained among great swathes of the general public across North America and elsewhere. So much so, in fact, that it seems likely that their origins will forever remain controversial, and with any investigations of scientifically-untrained eyewitness reports destined merely to go round and round in circles – just like the hoop snake itself!

Having said that, however, no article on hoop snakes could possibly close without mentioning a truly remarkable somersaulting snake from the Philippines. Courtesy of a fascinating video produced by a longstanding cryptozoological friend, Tony Gerard, there is conclusive proof of at least one species of snake's extraordinary ability to make dramatic somersaulting leaps through the air when fleeing a perceived threat.

 
Northern triangle-spotted snake (© R. Brown et al., 2013/Wikipedia CC BY 3.0 licence)

The species in question is the northern triangle-spotted snake Cyclocorus lineatus, a small, non-venomous member of the very diverse, elapid-related taxonomic family Lamprophiidae and endemic to the Philippines. The video (posted here on YouTube by American herpetologist/cryptozoologist Chad Arment as StrangeArk on 19 May 2019) shows Tony with one of these snakes held briefly under a bowl. When Tony lifts up the bowl and gently prods the snake, it rapidly flees via a series of very dramatic somersaulting leaps through the air and across the ground, so that it bears more than a passing resemblance to the fabled hoop snake.

Indeed, the only reason why I am including it here, rather than in an article dealing with jumping snakes, is that whereas the hoop snake was said to turn itself into a hoop by gripping its tail in its mouth and then rolling along like a vertical hoop or wheel, this Philippines snake engenders its superficially hoop-like appearance by way of repeated somersaulting leaps, without ever grasping its tail in its mouth.

 
Vintage sketch of a hoop snake by Margaret R. Tryon (public domain)

Nevertheless, the overall visual effect is similar enough to make me wonder if other snakes can also accomplish such somersaults and, in turn, whether the hoop snake tales originated from sightings of snakes performing this acrobatic ability, with the tail-in-mouth detail being subsequently added in elaborated retellings. From such are myths, legends, and folktales born.

This ShukerNature article is excerpted and adapted from my book Secret Snakes and Serpent Surprises, published by Coachwhip Publications.



Saturday 20 January 2024

THE HIDEOUS HODAG - HISTORY OF A HOAX

 
Fibre-glass hodag statue in front of the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce (© Gourami Watcher/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Back in the pioneering days of North America, when European settlers were attempting to tame the vast wildernesses full of unfamiliar creatures in what to them was the new and very strange, even somewhat frightening continent of North America, rural workers such as lumberjacks and loggers would often spend appreciable periods of time away from their families and homesteads.

Consequently, for company and to keep safe, they would bond together by gathering around fires in their campsites at night, deep within the dark, forbidding forests, and while away the hours by telling tall tales to amuse and play-scare each other, seeing who could spin the most outlandish, spine-chilling yarns, full of daring feats and terrifying monsters – the latter often being inspired by sightings and sounds of what to them were still very mysterious, potentially dangerous native creatures inhabiting this immense New World.

 
A 1932 hodag-depicting commemorative medallion from Rhinelander (public domain)

These largely made-up monstrosities became known collectively as 'Fearsome Critters' or 'Fierce Critters', and took many different forms. Some were fantastical mammals, birds, reptiles, or amphibians, others were colossal fishes, creepy-crawlies, or totally bizarre unclassifiables. Today (which just so happens to be ShukerNature's 15th anniversary!), I am documenting possibly the most famous one of all, Wisconsin's truly horrific, horrible and unequivocally hideous hodag – an allegedly ferocious terror beast that has long fascinated folklorists and even a few cryptozoologists.

With many Fearsome Critters, their origins have been lost in the mists of time, which makes the hodag's history particularly memorable, in every sense, because this is one whose origin in its modern-day form is known very specifically, thanks to a certain Eugene Simeon Shepard.

 
Eugene Shepard as a young man (public domain)

Born on 22 March 1854 in Old Fort Howard (later renamed Green Bay), Wisconsin, Shepard moved with his family shortly afterwards to this US state's New London area, where he worked on his father's farm for a time after leaving school before moving further afield when his father died to work on other, larger farms in wilder, more remote regions. At 16, he became an apprentice timber cruiser, in Wisconsin's Northwoods, where he learnt how to assess tracts of forested land for their lumber value.

And it was here, working for years alongside the lumberjacks and loggers who did the physical toiling required to convert the tracts assessed by him into timber, and listening at night to their humorous, highly imaginative stories of Fearsome Critters, that embryonic visions of what would become the fearsome hodag in the form by which it is so well known today began to stir inside Shepard's singularly inventive mind – a mind that proved more than capable of outdoing even the lumberjacks and loggers for weaving yarns. In short, Shepard had a serious talent for tall tales, and practical jokes too, so he decided to put this talent to good, financially-sound use.

 
Ever the showman, Eugene Shepard in a cart pulled by a moose (public domain)

For although timber cruising had made him rich over the years, Shepard could see that the timber and logging industry, for such a long time a highly profitable one, was now beginning, slowly yet surely, to die, due in no small way to the wholesale denuding by unceasing logging of great swathes of land once profusely covered in trees. So if he wanted to stay wealthy, he needed to look elsewhere to make money.

Since 1882, Shepard had lived in the Northwoods town (now small city) of Rhinelander, within northern Wisconsin's Oneida County, where in addition to timber cruising he had made good money buying and selling property, including areas of tree-cleared land for use in farming. Consequently, this is what he saw as his – and Rhinelander's – future, turning the town into a renowned, famous centre for land speculation, property development, and farming. But in order for this to succeed, Rhinelander needed to be placed fairly and squarely on the map – the media map, that is. In other words, it needed an attraction, one that would serve to draw in from far and wide as many prospective land buyers and farmers interested in settling here as possible.

 
Vintage hodag illustration by Margaret R. Tryon (public domain)

And this was when the enterprising Shepard remembered those folksy fireside lumberjack tales of monsters, in particular the then only vaguely-defined hodag, and decided to put them to good, practical use – by bringing the hodag to life, literally!

Shepard recalled that the lumberjacks had claimed the hodag to be the demonic, vengeful spawn engendered by all the tortured souls of dead cremated oxen that when alive had been cruelly abused as beasts of burden by these selfsame loggers. Yet apart from stating that like its bovine progenitors it possessed a fearsome pair of long curved horns, they gave little consistent indications of what this malevolent monster actually looked like.

 
Phineas T. Barnum (public domain)

Consequently, if he wanted to employ the hodag as his media magnet, Shepard needed to provide it with a well-defined form, which is something that his inordinately creative imagination had little problem in conjuring forth. He then needed to transform this newly-rendered manifestation from a bogey beast of tall tales and yarns into a bona fide physical, tangible reality – and once again, his entrepreneurial skills soon showed him the way to achieve this. Not for nothing has Shepard been popularly compared to that most famous of all 19th-Century American showmen and shysters, the great Phineas T. Barnum himself!

So it was that via a sensational article written by himself and published in an October 1893 issue of a Rhinelander newspaper entitled the Near North, Shepard claimed in his well-honed flair for melodramatic monologues that he and some fellow workers had lately encountered – and killed – an actual hodag in Rhinelander's very own forests. He described it as "a terrible brute [that] assumes the strength of an ox, the ferocity of a bear, the cunning of a fox and the sagacity of a hindoo [Hindu] snake, and is truly the most feared animal the lumbermen come in contact with".

 
Artistic representation of the hodag (© Richard Svensson)

As for its physical appearance: Shepard claimed that the hodag sported the scaly body of a dragon (and breathed fire like one too), plus the head of a huge bull-horned frog, a terrifying elephantine face that snarled with a fanged grin-like grimace, a row of thick curved spines running along its back, four short but sturdy legs with razor-sharp claws on their feet, and a lengthy tail that bore spear-like spines at its tip.

In short, this hodag sounded more than a little reminiscent of certain non-avian dinosaurs (and was subsequently likened to such by some chroniclers), in particular certain spine-bearing stegosaurs armed with thrashing thagomizers, like Kentrosaurus and Huayangosaurus, for instance – overlooking of course its carnivore-consistent fangs, which were conspicuously lacked by these strictly herbivorous prehistoric reptiles!

 
Top: Kentrosaurus, life restoration (© Connor Ashbridge/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence); Bottom: Huayangosaurus, life restoration (© Nobu Tamura/Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)

Speaking of the hodag's meat-eating proclivities: perhaps the most surprising, offbeat characteristic attributed to it by Shepard was its supposed fondness for devouring an extremely singular, highly specific item of prey – pure-white bulldogs, but only on Sundays! During the remainder of the week, it satiated its hunger pangs by consuming cattle, mud turtles, water snakes, and large freshwater fishes.

Shepard also added somewhat histrionically that this revolting hodag stank of "buzzard meat and skunk perfume" (a distinctive characteristic that he would return to in a subsequent hodag-themed escapade – see later), and that despite shooting it with "heavy rifles and large-bore squirt guns loaded with poisonous water", the creature withstood all of their efforts to dispatch it. In addition, it had already torn apart the hunting dogs that he and his companions had used to corner it after having encountered this monster in the forests.

 
Reconstruction of the hodag based directly upon the specimen in Shepard's 1893 hodag photograph – see below for details re this latter photo (public domain)

Continuing his febrile fable, Shepard asserted that finally, after hours of fruitless, futile struggle against it, in desperation he and the other men resorted to a very extreme measure – blowing up the hodag using dynamite! Not surprisingly, this certainly worked, reducing it to a mass of charred, unidentifiable remains.

Fortunately (or conveniently, depending upon your point of view!), however, prior to annihilating their aggressor they had been able to photograph it alive – the resulting picture revealing the hodag in all its savage (albeit unexpectedly diminutive) splendour (and despite its pose being decidedly wooden, in every sense!). This photo was reproduced alongside Shepard's account within his published article, and here it is now in mine:

 
Shepard's 1893 hodag photograph (public domain)

Although this hair-raising tale certainly achieved Shepard's aim of attracting some much-needed publicity for, and interest in, Rhinelander, he was not content to put aside his prankster predilection just yet. Three years later, the hodag reappeared in Rhinelander, courtesy once again of Shepard, who went one stage better this second time round than he'd previously done. For instead of a mere photograph and some charred cinders, he now chose to present the genuine item – a living, breathing hodag!

The year 1896 saw the very first Oneida County Fair, organized to promote Rhinelander as a prospective location for future business and farming developments, and just a few days before it opened another hodag-themed article by Shepard appeared in the Near North newspaper. Once again it related in stirring fashion how he and some companions had supposedly encountered a hodag in Rhinelander's neighbouring forests – but this time they didn't kill it. Instead, after trapping it inside its den with stones so that it couldn't escape, they successfully chloroformed the creature, enabling them to capture it alive – and now, at the forthcoming Oneida County Fair, it would be on display, still very much living and breathing, for the fair's visitors to see for themselves!

 
Eugene Shepard's Rhinelander home, with its hodag-holding shed on the right (public domain)

And sure enough, held captive within a shanty yet sturdily-built shed attached to Shepard's own house in Rhinelander, was a real-life hodag – or, to be precise, something that its nervous observers believed to be a real-life hodag. Partially concealed by shadows and a curtain, and held some distance back from its fee-paying public (who were only permitted to glance upon it through a small knot-hole), something seemingly resembling Shepard's famous 1893 description did indeed lurk, measuring 7.5 ft long, 2.5 ft tall, pitch black in colour and bristly, armed with 12 lengthy spines along its back, moving jerkily on its short but formidably clawed limbs, and growling. Also, of particular note, it gave off a putrid stink, just like Shepard had described for it in his original 1893 article.

Confronted by such a menacing entity, its visitors did not stay long enough or approach close enough to obtain a good view of it, which was just as well, at least as far as Shepard was concerned. For, needless to say, the hodag was a hoax – a large model sculpted from wooden logs with fine wires attached to make it move. It had been skilfully constructed by Luke Kearney, one of Shepard's friends (who, years later, went on to write the very informative book The Hodag and Other Tales of the Logging Camps), and was deftly manipulated by Shepard's sons Claude and Layton, acting like puppeteers (with a hidden dog giving voice to the supposed hodag's belligerent moans, groans, and growls when prodded by a small boy). As for its stench, this derived from rank, discarded animal hides obtained from the local tannery that were used to cover the hodag model's wooden framework.

 
Artistic reconstruction of Shepard's captive hodag of 1896, in Wide World Magazine, May 1915 (public domain)

Whether Shepard would have ever owned up of his own volition to committing this fraud, or whether he would have continued with it, will never be known, because in the event he had no option but to confess. For he learned that some scientists from the Smithsonian Institution were so intrigued by media reports of this astonishing animal that they were planning to visit Rhinelander and observe it directly. The game was definitely over, and so was the hodag marionette, which performed no more.

Nevertheless, Shepard's promotion-serving pranks had achieved all that he had hoped for, and more. Rhinelander was indeed on the map now, and the hodag duly entered local folklore on a permanent basis. Yet ironically, Shepard's success actually worked against him on a personal level, because his hodag hoaxes turned him into an infamous, despised figure locally, who became shunned both within and even beyond his Rhinelander homeland. Tragically, on 26 March 1923 aged 69, Shepard died alone, of kidney failure, still estranged from his family and former friends. In modern times, conversely, his reputation has been largely regained and his contributions to Rhinelander's thriving success repatriated, due in no small way to the hodag's fame and lasting legacy in Rhinelander, and Wisconsin in general, for that matter.

 
Eugene Shepard in c.1915 (public domain)

Indeed, like all the best local legends, down through the decades since Shepard's time the hodag's mythology has continued to evolve and expand. Nowadays, for example, several different types of hodag are recognized.

These include the self-explanatory shovel-nosed hodag, which also has longer limbs than the standard variety, and the highly-specialised cave-dwelling hodag, distinguished by its complement of three eyes, enabling it to see clearly within its realm's stygian darkness.

 
Shovel-nosed hodag (top) and cave hodag (bottom) (© Richard Svensson)

Also, some of the more free-thinking members of today's cryptozoological community actually harbor suspicions that the hodag may be more than a fanciful fabrication.

Such speculation posits that there could in fact be a real, still-undiscovered animal species evading scientific detection amid the more remote regions of Wisconsin that inspired Shepard's morphology musings when creating his hoax specimens.

 
Traditional Native American pictograph of Mishibeshu at Lake Superior Provincial Park (© D Gordon E Robertson/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

It has even been tentatively linked to a superficially similar-looking mythical entity known as Mishipeshu ('great lynx'), also dubbed the water panther, and traditionally claimed by a number of different indigenous peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands and Great Lakes region to inhabit Lake Superior.

Oral descriptions as well as petroglyphs of Mishipeshu that date back as far as 400 years ago portray a lengthy reptilian water monster covered with scales but sporting a pair of large cow-like horns on its head, plus a snarling feline face with prominent fangs, four stout clawed limbs, and a series of long spines running down its back and lengthy tail. Might Shepard have conceivably been inspired by folk-stories of this legendary aquatic beast when fleshing out his hodag specimens?

 
Image of water panther, from the National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye Center library (public domain)

Notwithstanding any such hypothetical real-life or legendary water-dwelling hodag precursors, what is unquestionably a fact is that today Wisconsin's most exceptional, unexpected representative is commemorated in all manner of different cultural ways here. Several Rhinelander organizations and businesses incorporate the hodag in their formal names, for instance, plus this city's annual music festival is known officially as the Hodag County Festival, its high school embraces the hodag as its official mascot, and many shops here sell a wide range of hodag souvenirs, including friendly hodag cuddly toys.

In autumn 1959, the then-Senator John F. Kennedy was even presented with a miniature hodag figurine when he visited Rhinelander during a political campaign, this unusual gift impressing and delighting him so much that he placed it on display at his home afterwards for guests to talk about. He also specifically referred to it himself in a subsequent press interview (Rhinelander Daily News, 16 July 1960).

 
Fibre-glass hodag statue in front of the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce (© redlegsfan21/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

Most impressive of all, however, are a number of spectacular hodag statues dotted around this city. Perhaps the most famous one is the larger than life-size, bright green, fibre-glass example created by local artist Tracy Goberville that stands proudly in the grounds of the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, with another two on display at Rhinelander's Ice Arena (one of which even blows out smoke from its nostrils as its red eyes light up!).

These and other eyecatching replica hodags attract countless tourists visiting Rhinelander every year. Were he here to see them himself, I feel certain that Eugene Shepard would have approved!

 
'All Eyes on the Hodag' statue by artist Linda Gilbert-Ferzatta in Rhinelander (© Corey Coyle/Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)

Last, but by no means least: from where is the name 'hodag' derived? It certainly didn't originate with Shepard, because this term existed long before his hoax specimens did. In fact, there is no common consensus as to its etymological origin.

However, the most popular explanation on offer, and favoured by leading hodag historian Kurt Kortenhof (author of the definitive 2006 book Long Live the Hodag: The Life and Legacy of Eugene Simeon Shepard) is that 'hodag' derives from lumberjack slang for one of the implements that they used in their work. The two likeliest possibilities are a type of heavy-duty hoe known technically as a grub hoe, or a type of flat-faced pickaxe known technically as a maddox. So now we know…sort of!

 
Top: Photograph of a re-creation of Shepard's 1893 hodag capture scene for a 1950 Rhinelander pageant (public domain); Bottom: Vintage picture postcard presenting Shepard's 1893 hodag photograph in close-up (public domain)