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.

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

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Tuesday, 3 September 2019


Assuming that they do exist, just what ARE the terrifying blood-drinking 'death birds' of Ethiopia (© Ben Male)

The little-known cryptozoological case of the Ethiopian 'death bird' is unremittingly macabre and horrific, more akin to the gothic outpourings of Poe and Le Fanu than to anything from the dispassionate, sober chronicles of zoology. Yet in spite of this, it is only too real; at the present time, moreover, it is also unsolved. I am most grateful to Queensland zoologist Malcolm Smith for bringing this chilling but hitherto unexamined case to my attention, and for kindly supplying me with a copy of the original source of information concerning it.

It was during an archaeological expedition to Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) during the early 1930s, before the country was invaded by Italian troops prior to World War II, that Hungarian/American amateur archaeologist and anthropologist 'Count' Byron Khun de Prorok (1896-1954) first learnt of Devil's Cave, whose grisly secret he subsequently documented in his travelogue Dead Men Do Tell Tales (1933).

Journeying through the province of Walaga, he resided for a time at the home of its governor, Dajjazmac Mariam, and while there he was approached by one of the servants, a young boy who began to tell him about a secret cave situated roughly an hour's horseback-ride away, near a place called Lekempti. It was known to the local people as Devil's Cave, and was widely held to be an abode of evil and horror - plagued by devil-men who prowled its darkened recesses in the guise of ferocious hyaenas, and by flocks of a greatly-feared form of bat referred to as the death bird.

No-one had ever dared to penetrate this mysterious cavern, but de Prorok decided to defy its forbidding reputation, because he thought it possible that there would be prehistoric rock paintings inside (especially as its notoriety would have served well in warding off potential trespassers, who might have desecrated any artwork preserved within its stygian gloom).

'Count' Byron Khun de Prorok (public domain)

When de Prorok told his young informant of his decision to visit Devil's Cave, the boy was terrified, but after being bribed with a plentiful supply of gifts he agreed very reluctantly to act as de Prorok's guide - though only on the strict understanding that he would not be held responsible for anything that happened!

The cave was situated high among rocky pinnacles and jungle foliage, but de Prorok succeeded in scrambling up to it, and in removing the several heavy boulders blocking its entrance. Armed with a gun, and leaving his guide trembling with fear outside, he cautiously stepped inside - and was almost bowled over a few minutes later by a panic-stricken pack of hyaenas hurtling down one of the passages to the newly-unsealed entrance. Seeking to defend himself against a possible attack by them, he shot one that approached a little too close for comfort, and the echoes from the blast reverberated far and wide, ultimately reaching the ears of two goatherds who came to the cave mouth to find out what was happening. Here they were met by de Prorok, who had followed the hyaenas at a respectful distance during their shambolic exit, and was greatly shocked by the men's pitiful state - they seemed little more than animated skeletons, upon which were hung a few tattered rags.

When, with the boy as interpreter, they learnt that de Prorok planned to go back inside the cave, they implored him to change his mind, warning him of the death birds. De Prorok, however, was not afraid of bats and made his way once more through the cave's sombre corridors, until he suddenly heard a loud whirring sound overhead. This proved to be a huge cloud of bats, which flew rapidly towards the cave mouth when he fired off a shot in alarm. These, he presumed, must be the dreaded death birds, a line of speculation speedily confirmed when only moments later a rain of bat excrement, dislodged by the shot, began to pelt down upon him from the cave roof, accompanied by an asphyxiating stench that drove him back almost at once to the entrance in search of breathable air.

Outside, he enquired why everyone was so afraid of these bats, to which the two goatherds and the boy all replied that they were blood-suckers - that night after night they came to drink the blood of anyone living near the cave until eventually their unfortunate victims died. This was why the only people living here now were the goatherds (who were forced to do so by the goats' owners), and was the reason for their emaciated state. The death birds' vampiresque activities ensured that none of the goatherds lived very long, but they were always replaced by others, thereby providing the goats with constant supervision - and the death birds with a constant supply of their ghoulish nutriment.

Dead Men Do Tell Tales (public domain)

To provide him with additional proof of their statements, the two goatherds took de Prorok to their camp nearby; all of the herders there were equally skeletal - and one was close to death. Little more than a pile of bones scarcely held together by a shroud of ashen skin, this living corpse of a man lay huddled in a cot, with blood-stained rags and clothes on either side, and was so weakened by the nightly depredations of the visiting death birds that he was unable to stand, capable only of extending a wraith-like arm. The goatherds told de Prorok that the death birds settled upon their bodies while they were asleep, so softly that they did not even wake; and that they were sizeable beasts, with wingspans of 12-18 in.

As for physical evidence of the death birds' sanguinivorous nature, the goatherds showed him their arms, which clearly bore a number of small wounds - the puncture marks left behind by these winged leeches once they had gorged themselves upon their hapless hosts?

Nothing more has emerged concerning this gruesome affair, but for zoologists it would have some significant repercussions if de Prorok's account could be shown to be accurate. Only three modern-day species of blood-drinking bat are currently known to science - and all three of these are confined exclusively to the Americas!

Common vampire bat Desmodus rotundus (© Uwe Schmidt/Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

These are the notorious vampire bats, of which the best-known is the common vampire Desmodus rotundus, whose range extends from northern Mexico to central Chile, northern Argentina, Uruguay, and Trinidad; its numbers have dramatically increased since the introduction of sheep and other livestock to these areas with the coming of the Europeans, serving to expand the diversity and numbers of potential prey victims for it. The other two species are the white-winged vampire Diaemus youngi, recorded from northeastern Mexico to eastern Peru, northern Argentina, Brazil, and Trinidad; and the hairy-legged vampire Diphylla ecaudata, ranging from southern Texas to eastern Peru and southern Brazil.

(As a thought-provoking digression, there may also be a fourth, giant vampire bat in existence. Within the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington for 7 December 1988, researchers Drs Gary S. Morgan, Omar J. Linares, and Clayton E. Ray formally described a new species of vampire, 25% larger in size than Desmodus rotundus, based upon two incomplete skulls and skeletal remains found in Venezuela's famous Cueva del Guácharo - home of the extraordinary radar-emitting oilbird Steatornis caripensis. Dubbed D. draculae, this giant vampire bat's remains date from the Pleistocene. However, Brazilian zoologists Drs E. Trajano and M. de Vivo, in a Mammalia paper from 1991, noted that there are reports of local inhabitants in southeastern Brazil's Ribeira Valley referring to attacks upon cattle and horses by large bats that could suggest the continuing survival here of D. draculae, although despite extensive recent searches of caves in this area none has been found...so far?)

Over the years, a great deal of misinformation has been dissipated concerning this nocturnal, terror-inducing trio of micro-bats - including the persistent fallacy that they actively suck blood out of wounds; and the equally tenacious, fanciful misconception that they are enormous beasts with gigantic wings into which they are only too eager to enfold their stricken victims while draining them of their precious scarlet fluid. In contrast, the truth is (as always) far less exotic and extravagant.

Any creature that can subsist entirely upon a diet of blood (sanginivory) must obviously be highly specialised, and the vampire bats are no exception; Canadian biologist Dr Brock Fenton from Young University in Ontario has suggested that they evolved from bats that originally consumed blood-sucking insects attracted to wounds on large animals, but which eventually acquired a taste for the animals' blood themselves. Yet in overall external appearance these nefarious species are disappointingly mundane - with an unimpressive total length of only 2-3.5 in, a very modest wingspan of 5-6 in, and a covering of unmemorably brown, short fur. Only when they open their mouth to reveal a distinctive pair of shear-like upper incisors do they display the first intimation of their sinister lifestyle.

Head and face of a common vampire bat, revealing its specialised dentition (© Uwe Schmidt/Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

These incisors terminate in a central point and have long, scalpel-sharp edges, perfectly adapted for surreptitiously shaving a thin sliver of skin from the body or neck of an unsuspecting (usually sleeping) victim - detected by the vampire's ultrasonic echo-location faculties. The wound that is produced is sufficiently deep to slice through the skin's capillaries, but not deep enough to disturb the victim and thereby waken it (or arouse its attention if already awake) - stealth is the byword of the vampire's lifestyle. Aiding the furtive creation of this finely-engineered wound are the bat's canine teeth, shorter than the incisors but just as sharp.

Once the wound begins to seep blood in a steady flow, the vampire, delicately clinging to the flank or back of its victim with its wings and hook-like thumbs (not with its sharp claws - yet another fallacy), avidly laps the escaping fluid with its grooved, muscular tongue. It can also suck it up by folding its tongue over a notch in its lower lip to yield a tube, but it only sucks blood that has already flowed out of the wound. In addition, its saliva contains anticoagulants, preventing the blood from clotting, and thereby providing the bat with an ample supply (but causing its victim to lose more than would have been the case if the wound had been inflicted by some other type of sharp cutting implement).

Indeed, one of these anticoagulants, plasminogen activator (Bat-PA for short), shows promise as a powerful drug in the prevention of the severe physiological damage caused by heart attacks in humans, according to a study of its effects by research fellow Dr Stephen Gardell at Merck Sharp & Dohme Research Laboratories in West Point, Pennsylvania.

The vampire's teeth, tongue, and thumbs are not the only specialised facets of its anatomy - its gut also exhibits some important modifications. Enabling the bat to gorge itself thoroughly before bidding its victim a silent adieu, its stomach has an enormous extra compartment - a tubular, blind-ending diverticulum unattached to the rest of the digestive tract and capable of prodigious distension, rendering it able to hold a voluminous quantity of blood. Sometimes the bat can scarcely fly after feeding, because it is so heavy with freshly ingested blood. Also, its oesophagus is specialised for efficient water absorption, a necessity for any obligate sanguinivore because blood contains an appreciable proportion of water.

Exclusively sanguinivorous bats, like this common vampire, are known to science only from the New World, not from the Old World as well (© Desmodus/Wikipedia - CC BY SA 3.0 licence)

What all of this means in relation to the Ethiopian death bird is that any bat thriving solely or even predominantly upon a diet of blood is inevitably a much-modified species, rigorously adapted for such a lifestyle - rather than a mere opportunist species that in certain localities has switched (through some unusual set of circumstances) from its normal diet to a sanguinivorous existence. In other words, if de Prorok's account is a truthful one, then surely the death bird must be a species new to science? After all, there is currently no known species of Old World bat that is a confirmed dedicated blood-drinker. This, then, is plainly one plausible answer to the death bird mystery - but it is not the only such answer.

I am exceedingly grateful to the late John Edwards Hill, bat specialist and formerly Principal Scientific Officer at London's Natural History Museum, who presented me with a great deal of information that offers a completely different outlook upon this perplexing case. It is well known that the New World vampire bats transmit livestock diseases from one animal victim to another, in a manner paralleling the activities of mosquitoes and other sanguinivorous insect vectors. They also carry rabies to humans, although this is a much rarer occurrence than the more lurid reports in the popular press would have us believe. Moreover, bats of many species all around the world are known to contract many different types of bacterial, viral, and protozoan diseases, which can be spread to other organisms via parasites such as body lice and ticks that live upon the bats' skin or fur. Relapsing fever in humans, for example, is caused by the bacterium Borrelia recurrentis, carried by lice and ticks that have in turn derived it from former rodent or bat hosts.

Accordingly, during communications concerning the death bird, Hill suggested to me that it is possible that humans venturing in or near a cave heavily infested with bats (like Devil's Cave, for instance) would become infected with such diseases - if lice or ticks, dropping from the bats as they flew overhead, bit the unfortunate humans upon which they landed. A parasite-borne infection of this nature would account for the bite-like wounds of the goatherds observed by de Prorok; and, depending upon the precise type of infection, could ultimately give rise to the emaciated condition exhibited by these afflicted persons.

Additionally, native superstition and a deep-rooted fear of bats might be sufficient, when coupled with the distressing effects of a parasite-borne infection, to nurture the belief among such poorly-educated people as these that they were the victims of blood-sucking bats - the notion of vampirism is very ancient and widespread in human cultures worldwide (the Maya of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica even worshipped the vampire bat as a god - Camazotz).           

Camazotz, as conceived by Hodari Nundu (© Hodari Nundu/Deviantart)

Two other medical explanations for the death bird case were also raised by Hill during our correspondence (although he rated both of these as being less plausible than the likelihood of a parasite-borne disease's involvement). These are as follows.

As Devil's Cave contained large quantities of bat excrement, perhaps these droppings harboured the spores of the soil fungus Histoplasma capsulatum (even though this is more usually associated with bird guano). If inhaled, these spores can cause an infection of the lungs known as histoplasmosis, which can prove fatal (but severe cases are not common).

Alternatively, an illness called Weil's disease again offers some notable parallels with the 'death bird syndrome'. Also referred to as epidemic spirochaetal jaundice and as leptospirosis icterohaemorrhagica, Weil's disease is caused by spirochaete bacteria of the genus Leptospira, and is usually spread by rodents, but the bacteria have been found in a few species of bat too. Infection generally occurs through infected drinking water, and among the ensuing symptoms of contraction is the appearance of small haemorrhages in the skin, which could be mistaken for bites. Also, the accompanying damage to the kidneys and liver, jaundice, and overall malaise experienced by sufferers could explain the goatherds' haggard, wasted form.

Clearly, then, the case of the dreaded death bird and the stricken herders is far from being as straightforward as it seemed on first sight, and may involve any one, or perhaps even more than one, of the above solutions. Also well worth noting is that de Prorok was (in)famous for gross exaggeration and imaginative narratives, so it is by no means evident how much of his testimony concerning his visit and experiences relating to Devil's Cave can be taken as fact.

Micrograph showing histoplasmosis. Liver biopsy. Periodic acid-Schiff diastase (PAS-D) stain. Histoplasma = clumps of small bright red circles (© Nephron/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

One aspect of the case that is evident, however, is the necessity for a specimen of the death bird to be collected and formally studied. Only then might the resolution of this mystifying and macabre cryptozoological riddle be finally achieved.

Yet in view of the perennially uncertain political climate associated with Ethiopia in modern times, even this is unlikely to prove an easy task to accomplish.

Until then, the secret of this purportedly deadly, unidentified creature will remain as dark and impenetrable as the grim cave from which its winged minions allegedly issue forth each night to perform their vile abominations upon the latest tragic campful of doomed, defenceless goatherds.

This ShukerNature article is excerpted and updated from my book The Beasts That Hide From Man.

Saturday, 20 July 2019


Alongside a manatee statue at Sea World in San Diego, California (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Those highly-modified aquatic mammals known as the sirenians or sea-cows, represented today by the manatees and dugongs, are already well known in cryptozoological circles by virtue of the extensively documented (yet incompletely verified) claim that they are responsible for many mermaid or siren sightings reported from around the world (hence the sea-cows' zoological name - 'sirenian').

Other sirenian claims upon the cryptozoologist's attention include: the possibility that the largest of all modern-day species, the supposedly extinct Steller's sea-cow Hydrodamalis gigas, still survives; the unmasking in 1985 of the ri (an aquatic mystery beast from New Guinea) as the dugong Dugong dugon; the one-time disputed existence of the dugong in Chinese waters; and the likelihood that an unidentified creature reported from various West African lakes and another such animal from eastern South America's Lake Titicaca may constitute unknown species of sirenian. In addition, there is the case presented here, one that had not been previously documented by cryptozoologists until my own writings on this subject were published.

There are three known species of present-day manatee. The Amazon manatee Trichechus inunguis inhabits the estuaries of the Orinoco and the Amazon; the Caribbean manatee T. manatus is distributed from the coasts of Virginia in the southeastern United States to the West Indies and the northern coasts of Brazil; and the African manatee T. senegalensis frequents the coasts and rivers of West Africa from Senegal to Angola. At one time, moreover, there were also persistent reports of putative manatees around the coasts of St Helena, a small south Atlantic island, almost equidistant from South America and Africa.

In view of the fact that there is a region on the southwestern coast of St Helena that is actually named Manatee Bay (sometimes spelt 'Manati'), one could be forgiven for assuming that there was never any uncertainty about these creatures' identity. In reality, however, this entire matter has never been unequivocally resolved, as evinced by the following selection of reports and the highly contradictory opinions that they have elicited.

A melange of manatees exhibiting their varied poses and movements in a vintage engraving (public domain)

As documented in a Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London article from 1935, Cornish traveller Peter Mundy journeyed in 1655 to India on the Aleppo Merchant, and during his return voyage the following year on the same vessel he paid a brief visit to St Helena. While walking along the beach near Chappell Valley, he saw a strange creature lying ashore and apparently severely injured. Mundy went nearer to examine it:

However, when I touched it, [it] raised his forepart, gaping on mee with his wide and terrible jawes. It had the coullor (yellowish) and terrible countenance of a lion, with four greatt teeth, besides smalle, long, bigge smelling hairs or mustaches.

The creature attempted to make its way back to the sea, but Mundy dispatched it with stones. It was evidently very large:

...in length aboutt ten foote and five foote aboutt the middle. Some say it was a seale, others notte. I terme itt a sealionesse, beeing a femall.

In his journal, Mundy included a sketch of this animal (reproduced in Fraser's account), which leaves no doubt that it was indeed a species of pinniped (seals, sea-lions, walruses).

Peter Mundy: Merchant Adventurer – a modern-day history of Mundy, edited by R.E. Pritchard (© Bodleian Library/R.E. Pritchard, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

As uncovered by St Helena resident G.C. Kitching, the Public Records of Jamestown (this island's capital) contain many allusions to alleged manatees or sea-cows (including what appears to be the first usage of the name 'Manatee Bay', which occurred on 27 January 1679). For example, one such record, for 28 August 1682, listed the capture of "several sea-cows"; and on 20 March 1690, another record noted the following incident:

Tuesday, Goodwin and Coales brought up for killing a Sea-Cow, and not paying the Company's Royalty. They desire pardon, and say the Sea-Cow was very small; the oyle would not amount to above four or five gallons.

On 11 May 1691, a record mentioned that a sea-cow had appeared on shore at Windward, just a month before traveller William Dampier visited St Helena. Dampier became most intrigued by the alleged existence of manatees around the island's coasts:

I was also informed that they get Manatee or Sea Cows here, which seemed very strange to me. Therefore inquiring more strictly into the matter, I found the Santa Hellena Manatee to be, by their shapes, and manner of lying ashore on the Rocks, those Creatures called Sea-lyons: for the Manatee never come ashore, neither are they found near any rocky Shores, as this Island is, there being no feeding for them in such places. Besides, in this Island there is no River for them to drink at, tho' there is a small Brook runs into the Sea, out of the Valley by the Fort.

Returning to the records, on 29 August 1716 they reported that 400 lb of ambergris was found in Manatee Bay, and on 11 September 1739 "A Sea-Cow [was] killed upon Old Woman's Valley beach, as it was lying asleep, by Warrall and Greentree".

Steller's sea-lion bull, exhibiting its characteristically leonine mane (© Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

John Barnes's A Tour Through the Island of St. Helena (1817) contains a detailed account of these supposed sirenians as described by reliable observer and St Helena resident Lieutenant Thomas Leech, who identified them as sea-lions. Yet in complete contrast, another equally proficient observer, Dr Walter Henry, just as confidently identified them as manatees, stating in the second volume of his Events of a Military Life (1843):

We had sea-cows at St. Helena, the Trichechus Dugong, but they were not common. When shooting near Buttermilk Point with another officer one calm evening, we stumbled on one lying on a low rock close to the water's edge, and a hideous ugly brute it was, shaped like a large calf, with bright green eyes as big as saucers. We only caught a glimpse of it for a few seconds, for as soon as it noticed us, it jumped into the sea, in the most awkward and sprawling manner.

Note that Henry couched his references to these creatures' existence around St Helena in the past tense. This is because the last recorded appearance of such animals here took place in 1810, when one came ashore at Stone Top Valley beach, and was duly shot by a Mr Burnham. It measured 7 ft long, and 10 gallons of oil were obtained from it. Another of these creatures was also reported in 1810, this time from Manatee Bay.

Since then, St Helena's purported manatee appears to have been extinct, and as is so often the case it was only then that science began to take an interest in it. After reading an account of this creature in J.C. Melliss's St. Helena: A Physical, Historical, and Topographical Description of the Island (1875), in which Melliss claimed that it belonged either to the African or to the Caribbean species of manatee, on 20 June 1899 English zoologist Dr Richard Lydekker published a short review of the subject in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, which contained a number of the accounts given above in this present ShukerNature article. Although stating categorically that he did not wish to express a definite opinion concerning whether or not the animal could truly be some form of sirenian, Lydekker nonetheless ventured to speculate that if this were indeed its identity, it probably constituted a distinct species (perhaps even requiring a separate genus), as he felt unable to believe that it belonged to either of the manatee species nominated by Melliss.

Cape (brown) fur seal (© Karelj/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

In 1933, the entire matter was the subject of an extensive examination by Dr Theodor Mortensen of Copenhagen's Zoological Museum, as published in the journal Videnskabelige Meddelelser fra Dansk Naturhistorisk Forening. After careful consideration of the varied and often conflicting reports that he had succeeded in gathering, Mortensen came out in support of the views of Mundy and Leech - that the St Helena manatee was in reality a sea-lion.

Moreover, Mortensen even boldly identified its species - the Cape (brown) fur seal Arctocephalus pusillus (=antarcticus) - and believed the matter to be closed, reviving it briefly on 17 March 1934 in Nature merely to include mention of Dampier's account, which he had not seen when preparing his detailed paper. Certain other records, given in this present article of mine but again not seen by Mortensen, were presented as a response to his Nature note in Kitching's own Nature report, published on 4 July 1936, but Kitching did not express any opinion regarding the creature's identity.

By way of contrast, as outlined within his report of Mundy's sighting, in 1935 F.C. Fraser had leaned very heavily in favour of one specific identity - once again involving a pinniped, but not a sea-lion this time. Instead, Fraser nominated a true (i.e. earless) seal - namely, a young male specimen of the southern elephant seal Mirounga leonina. As its scientific name suggests, this creature does bear a fancied resemblance to a lion-like beast, and is therefore more reminiscent of a sea-lion (albeit one of massive proportions) than are most other true seals. Even so, it bears rather less resemblance to the beast depicted in Mundy's illustration. Moreover, as revealed in 2005 via a Latin American Journal of Aquatic Mammals paper jointly authored by Juan José Alava and Raúl Carvajal, this species did historically breed on St Helena, but equally they were readily recognised for what they were.

Since the 1930s, the St Helena manatee - or sea-lion, or elephant seal - seems to have been forgotten, like so many other 'inconvenient' animals, but could it really have been a sirenian? Sadly, the reports on file are not sufficient in themselves to provide an unequivocal answer - all that they can do is offer certain important clues.

Male southern elephant seal (© B. Navez/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

For instance, as manatees measure up to 15 ft long the St Helena beasts were evidently large enough, and their description as calf-shaped by Henry also conforms with that identity. Conversely, the saucer-shaped eyes of Henry's beast conflict markedly with the small, relatively insignificant versions sported by the generally myopic manatees. Large eyes are characteristic of pinnipeds, as are the fearsome jaws and teeth of Mundy's animal. The same can also be said of the latter's moustaches - but as manatees have a bristly upper lip too, this feature is less discriminatory.

If the St Helena beasts were sirenians, their presence around this island indicates that they may truly have constituted a species in their own right. After all, as Lydekker pointed out in defence of his belief that they belonged neither to the African nor to the Caribbean species of manatee, although it is conceivable that a specimen or two may occasionally be carried from Africa or America to St Helena this surely could not occur regularly.

As it happens, there is one notable feature mentioned in a number of the reports cited in this chapter and elsewhere that on first sight greatly decreases the likelihood that these animals belonged to any species of manatee - known or unknown. Although they will rest on the surface of the water in shallow stretches when not feeding, manatees do not generally come ashore. Yet according to several independent accounts, the St Helena beasts have frequently been seen resting (even sleeping) on the sands or on rocks, completely out of the water, after the fashion of pinnipeds. Also, the large amount of oil obtained from their carcases is more suggestive of seals than of sirenians.

So are we to conclude that they were not sirenians after all, instead merely large seals or sea-lions? Yet if this is indeed all that they were, why did the islanders refer to them so deliberately as manatees or sea-cows? It is extremely rare for pinnipeds to be referred to anywhere by such names. In addition, as Lydekker judiciously pointed out, just because known sirenians do not normally come ashore voluntarily, this does not mean that there could not be an unknown distinctive species of sirenian that does (or did) come ashore under certain circumstances.

An early and very charming but thoroughly inaccurate, seal-like portrayal of manatees, from De Nieuwe en onbekende weereld - of Beschryving van America en 't zuid-land, by Arnoldus Montanus, 1671, clearly showing a definite confusion back then between sirenians and pinnipeds (public domain)

And this is where we must leave the mystery of St Helena's sirenians-that-might-be-seals - still unsolved, and quite likely to remain that way indefinitely, due to the tragic probability that its subject is extinct, lost to science before its identity had even been established.

Finally, there is at least one case on record that constitutes the exact reverse of this one, because it involves some supposed seals that were ultimately revealed to be sirenians. Sea mammals assumed to be seals had been reported from the Red Sea island of Shadwan - but as recorded in 1939 by Paul Budker, when the animals featured in these reports were finally investigated they proved to be dugongs, which are indeed native to the Red Sea.

This ShukerNature article is excerpted and updated from my book The Beasts That Hide From Man.

Friday, 28 June 2019


Exquisite illustration of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi the mongoose and an unspecified Indian snake, from a 1924 French edition of The Jungle Book (public domain)

…when Teddy came running down the path, Rikki-tikki was ready to be petted.

But just as Teddy was stooping, something flinched a little in the dust, and a tiny voice said: 'Be careful. I am death!' It was Karait, the dusty brown snakeling that lies for choice on the dusty earth; and his bite is as dangerous as the cobra's. But he is so small that nobody thinks of him, and so he does the more harm to people.

…Karait struck out. Rikki jumped sideways and tried to run in, but the wicked little dusty grey head lashed within a fraction of his shoulder, and he had to jump over the body, and the head followed his heels close…[but] Karait had lunged out once too far, and Rikki-tikki had sprung, jumped on the snake's back, dropped his head far between his fore-legs, bitten as high up the back as he could get hold, and rolled away. That bite paralysed Karait [killing him].

        Rudyard Kipling – 'Rikki-Tikki-Tavi', in The Jungle Book

Two of my best-loved books as a child (and still today, for that matter) were The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895), both authored by Rudyard Kipling, which I first read at much the same time that Disney's classic animated movie version was first screened in cinemas (1967), and which I also adored despite its many liberties taken with Kipling's source material. Although they are most famous for their Mowgli stories, these two books also contained a number of others that did not feature him and were not set in the Indian jungle.

Of these non-Mowgli tales, my own personal favourite was 'Rikki-Tikki-Tavi', which was included in the first of Kipling's two Jungle Books. Its eponymous mongoose star (henceforth referred to here simply as RTT for brevity) successfully and successively saved from a series of potentially lethal attacks by Nag and Nagaina – a malign pair of garden-inhabiting Indian (spectacled) cobras Naja naja – the human family that he had 'adopted' after their young son Teddy had rescued him from almost drowning in a flood.

The front cover and spine (the latter depicting RTT confronting a cobra) from the hardback first edition of The Jungle Book (1894) (public domain)

However, cobras were not the only snakes that RTT dispatched. He also killed a much smaller but seemingly no less deadly serpentine threat to Teddy and family – namely, the "dusty brown snakeling" Karait, whose meagre description provided by Kipling is quoted in full at the beginning of this present ShukerNature blog article. Even as a child (and nascent cryptozoologist), I was fascinated by Karait, for whereas cobras were readily familiar to me, Karait remained mysterious, because no formal identification of his species was provided by Kipling.

So what was Karait – possibly an inaccurately-described known living species (i.e. a veritable bungle in The Jungle Book), or an entirely fictitious one that Kipling had specifically invented for his RTT story, or conceivably even a real species but one that was either now long-extinct or had still to be formally described and named by science? There was only one way to deal with these and other options on offer. So after watching a cartoon version of it and then re-reading the original story a few months ago, I conducted some investigations into Kipling's minute but highly mystifying Karait, and here is what I found out.

Adult specimen of the common Indian krait Bungarus caeruleus (© Jayendra Chiplunkar/Wikipedia  CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Naturally, the name 'Karait' instantly calls to mind the very similar name 'krait', applied both colloquially and scientifically to a number of species of venomous elapid snake native to India and elsewhere in Asia, and belonging to the genus Bungarus – which is why as a child I had simply assumed from his name that Karait had indeed merely been a krait. However, my fascination with Kipling's diminutive yet deadly dust serpent increased during subsequent years, in tandem with my burgeoning ophidian knowledge, when I realised that what little morphological and behavioural information concerning Karait had been given by Kipling did not accord with any krait species (either in its adult or in its juvenile form) that was known to exist anywhere within or even beyond the Indian Subcontinent.

The most familiar krait species, and also the most abundant, widely distributed one in India, is the common Indian krait B. caeruleus. When adult, however, it can attain a total length of up to 5.75 ft (3 ft on average, but still very much longer than Kipling's Karait), and its body is handsomely marked with a characteristic banded pattern of light and dark stripes (often black and white, but famously black and gold in the closely-related banded krait B. fasciatus, also native to India and up to 7 ft long). Moreover, when it is a juvenile and therefore much smaller (hence much more comparable in size to Karait than the adult is), its stripes are even more distinct than they are in the adult snake and its background colouration is bluish, not brown.

The banded krait Bungarus fasciatus as depicted in Joseph Ewart's book The Poisonous Snakes of India (1878) (public domain)

Most other krait species also exhibit striping, albeit of different degrees of vividness. Needless to say, however, any mention of such markings in Kipling's description of Karait is conspicuous only by its absence, which would be highly unusual for Kipling if he had indeed intended Karait to be a krait, because his knowledge and descriptions of other Indian fauna was always very skilled. True, a few krait species do not possess stripes, but these still tend to have a very bold background body colour, such as shiny brown, glossy black, or even deep blue with a bright red head in one species (B. flaviceps from southeast Asia), so once again they differ substantially from the nondescript appearance ascribed by Kipling to Karait.

It is odd, therefore, that Wikipedia's entry for the genus Bungarus refers to Kipling's Karait as "a small sand-colored krait", apparently unaware of the fundamental morphological flaws in such an identification that I have enumerated above. Similarly unaware, it would seem, is the Kipling Society, because on its official website its brief entry for Karait states: "karait (or krait) A small highly poisonous snake, known to Kipling and common in India". Common in India it may be (and, indeed, is), but small it certainly is not.

Red-headed krait Bungarus flaviceps (© Touchthestove/Wikipedia – CC BY 4.0 licence)

No less damaging to a krait identity claim for Karait than incompatible morphology is the notable reluctance of these snakes to bite or strike out at a potential aggressor, preferring to coil up and hide their head within their coils, exposing and lifting up their tail tip instead. This behaviour does not correspond at all with the much more active, antagonistic striking behaviour of Karait, plus their predominantly nocturnal lifestyle means that kraits rarely encounter humans during the daytime anyway, which is when Karait encountered Teddy. Consequently, as the only link between the kraits and Karait is a shared colloquial name, it would seem most parsimonious to assume that Kipling simply selected the name Karait for its sound or familiarity, rather than to indicate any taxonomic affinity between his story's snake and the genuine kraits.

The website Litcharts offers a very different ophidian identity from a krait for Karait – nothing less, in fact, than an infant cobra. In its list of minor characters that appear in Kipling's story 'Rikki-Tikki-Tavi', it describes Karait as:

The young cobra hatchling, implied to be a child of Nag and Nagaina, whom Rikki-tikki battles in the garden early in the story. His small size in fact makes him more dangerous than the older snakes, as he is quicker and harder to catch, but Rikki-tikki defeats him nonetheless.

This entry's claim baffles me, because nowhere in Kipling's coverage of Karait and his unsuccessful attack upon RTT can I spot any implication that Karait was a young cobra hatchling, other than perhaps the term 'snakeling', which may imply a young snake. Equally, however, it may imply a small adult snake. In any case, even the smallest Indian cobra hatchlings, which still measure a respectable 10 in long, possess their species' characteristic hood yet which, just like the stripes of kraits, is again conspicuous only by its absence in Kipling's description of Karait. Furthermore, by specifically stating that Karait's bite "is as dangerous as the cobra's", surely Kipling is actually delineating Karait from the cobra, rather than assimilating it with the latter snake? Certainly, that is how this statement reads to me.

A young Indian cobra Naja naja exhibiting its species' characteristic hood (© Muhammad Sharif Khan/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.5 licence)

A third snake identity, and one that I feel has much greater plausibility than either of the previous two discussed here, is a species of saw-scaled viper, belonging to the genus Echis, which includes among its number the Indian saw-scaled viper E. carinatus, the best-known representative. Just like Karait, these snakes are small, predominantly brown with only faint patterning sometimes, extremely venomous, notoriously irascible, and often found in dry, dusty, arid terrain, where they are very inconspicuous, frequently burying themselves in sand or dirt until only their head is visible, thereby enabling them to ambush unsuspecting approaching prey. Is it just a coincidence, therefore, that Kipling specifically states that Karait "lies for choice on the dusty earth"?

Moreover, these snakes readily strike out aggressively if threatened, just as Karait did, and so potent is their venom (as was Karait's) that saw-scaled vipers are one of the most significant snake-bite threats throughout their zoogeographical range, killing many people every year. Yet some such species are no more than 1 ft long even as adults. Clearly, therefore, this type of snake corresponds very closely with Karait across a wide range of different characteristics – morphological, behavioural, and ecological. Also worthy of note here is the hump-nosed viper Hypnale hypnale, which is native to India, greyish-brown in colour with a double row of large black spots, and no more than around 2 ft long (averages 12-15 in). However, it generally frequents dense jungles and hilly coffee plantations, rather than the more arid, dusty terrain favoured by Echis, and spends the day hidden in thick bushes and leaf litter.

Indian saw-scaled viper Echis carinatus (© Saleem Hameed/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.5 licence)

The fourth identity to be considered here is fundamentally different from the others inasmuch as it is based not upon factual similarities but rather upon fallacious ones. Superstitious, non-scientific traditional native lore in many regions of the world often ascribes all manner of fanciful, often highly venomous attributes to various animal species that in reality are entirely harmless. For instance, there is an Indian lizard known locally as the bis-cobra that for untold ages has been deemed by fearful villagers in rural areas to be totally lethal in every way, yet as confirmed by scientific examination of specimens it is in reality completely innocuous (click here to read my ShukerNature blog article concerning this unfairly-maligned saurian). Various geckos and chameleons are viewed with comparable yet wholly unwarranted native dread too. Certain equally inoffensive species of worm-like limbless amphibian known as caecilians, various worm-like limbless reptiles called amphisbaenians, and some reclusive fossorial snakes like sand boas and blind (thread) snakes have also suffered persecution due to similarly erroneous layman beliefs.

While investigating the possible taxonomic identity of Karait, I communicated with Mark O'Shea, the internationally-renowned snake researcher and handler from the West Midlands Safari Park, based not very far from where I live, and Mark echoed my own thoughts regarding this identity option, stating: "People fear what they think are dangerous even if they aren't, i.e. blue-tongued skink or large geckos". Could it be, therefore, that Karait belongs to one such species, i.e. a very small and thoroughly harmless dust-dwelling serpent (or serpentine herp of some other kind) that has been wrongly deemed to be venomous? But why would Kipling continue to perpetrate such a fallacy? Surely as a keen amateur naturalist he would have preferred to expose it in his story as being nonsensical folklore with no foundation in fact?

Brahminy blind snake Indotyphlops braminus (© Jjargoud/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Also well worth considering is that Karait may have been a total invention on Kipling's part, created perhaps to add an unexpected, additional element of danger into a plot that already contained the ever-present threat posed by the malevolent pair of cobras Nag and Nagaina (whose evil plan was to kill RTT and the humans, and then move into their house). There is, after all, a notable literary precedent for the incorporation of a deadly but zoologically non-existent Indian serpent into a work of fiction – none other than the lethal Indian swamp adder or 'speckled band' that confronted the master detective Sherlock Holmes in a famous short story penned by Holmes's creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 'The Adventure of the Speckled Band' was first published in 1892 (by London's Strand Magazine), i.e. just a couple of years before Kipling's Jungle Books were published (click here to see my comprehensive investigation of Conan Doyle's sinister swamp adder on ShukerNature). Who knows, might it even have directly inspired Kipling to dream up a fictitious death-dealing serpent of his own?

Rather less likely, but by no means impossible, is that Karait represented either a valid species that did exist back in Kipling's time but has since become extinct without ever having been formally named and described, or one that still exists but is so elusive that it has yet to be officially discovered and recognised by science. With no supportive evidence known to me for either of these two options, however, they must remain for now entirely speculative.

Artistic representation of the possible morphology of Conan Doyle's fictitious Indian swamp adder (© Tim Morris)

At this stage in my investigation, therefore, the identity for Karait that I personally deemed to be most tenable was that of a saw-scaled viper, but I always greatly value receiving the thoughts, opinions, and possible additional information offered by other interested parties too. Consequently, on 25 March 2019 I posted the following concise summary of the Karait case on my Facebook timeline and also in various snake-relevant FB groups:

Watching the 1974 Chuck Jones cartoon version of Rudyard Kipling's mongoose-starring story Rikki-Tikki-Tavi recently, I was reminded of a mystery that always puzzled me when reading it as a child. To which species did the extremely venomous but tiny dust-inhabiting, "dusty brown snakeling" Karait belong? As a child, I'd simply assumed that it was a species of krait, on account of the similarity in names and the occurrence of kraits in India. but when I learnt more about such snakes I discovered that young Indian kraits Bungarus caeruleus are actually vividly striped and bluish in colour, not unmarked and dusty brown. And even young kraits seem bigger than Karait was. I've since read various alternative suggestions, e.g. that Karait was actually a saw-scaled viper, or even an infant cobra. Or could he have been a wholly fictional species, as apparently the Indian swamp adder that confronted Conan Doyle's detective Sherlock Holmes was? There may even be the possibility that it is a real yet totally harmless small species, like one of the Gerrhopilidae blind snakes of India, but which is erroneously deemed in local folklore to be very venomous. There are many such cases on record, from caecilians to an Indian lizard dubbed the bis-cobra, which I have previously documented. Do any of my herpetological friends or those of Indian heritage have any ideas as to Karait's likely identity? If so, I'd love to read your thoughts! Here is Kipling's all-too-brief description of Karait's morphology: [I then quoted the first major paragraph of the excerpt from Kipling's book that opens this present ShukerNature article.]

The common Indian krait as depicted in Joseph Ewart's book The Poisonous Snakes of India (1878) (public domain)

I then sat back to await any postings that may be forthcoming. In the event, I received quite a number of comments (including a greatly welcomed, detailed evaluation by American biologist Dr Christopher Mallery that closely echoed my own thought processes regarding the case), which revealed that the overriding opinion concerning Karait's likely identity was the same as mine – a saw-scaled viper.

However, there was one nagging problem with this identity that I could neither resolve nor overlook. If Karait had truly been based upon a saw-scaled viper, why did Kipling, who was so knowledgeable concerning Indian fauna, give to it a name that is applied locally to the krait? This made no sense at all – until, that is, Robert Twombley, a longstanding Facebook friend who is passionately interested in both herpetology and cryptozoology, and is also the creator of the reptile/amphibian-specific cryptozoological group Ethnoherpetology, posted a brief but remarkable revelation there on 29 March 2019 that was entirely new to me, but which in my opinion provides the long sought-after missing piece of the perplexing Karait jigsaw puzzle. Here is what he wrote:

Bungarus caeruleus (Schneider, 1801) and Bungarus fasciatus (Schneider, 1801), were once placed in the same genus Pseudoboa (Schneider, 1801) same with Echis carinatus (Schneider, 1801).

Johann G.T. Schneider (public domain)

In other words, back in 1801 the Indian (as well as the banded) krait and the Indian saw-scaled viper had been taxonomically lumped together by German naturalist Johann G.T. Schneider within the very same genus, Pseudoboa (which he had officially coined in his 1801 treatise Historiae Amphibiorum Naturalis et Literariae Fasciculus Secundus Continens Crocodilos, Scincos, Chamaesauras, Boas, Pseudoboas, Elaps, Angues, Amphisbaenas et Caecilias), and were therefore viewed scientifically as closely-related, similar serpents. (It was only in later years that they were eventually shown to be quite distinct, both anatomically and genetically, so were duly split not only into separate genera but also into separate taxonomic families – Elapidae for the kraits as well as the cobras, and Viperidae for the vipers.) So it is not unreasonable to assume that back then the colloquial name 'karait' had been more inclusive too, all of which could in turn explain why Kipling had applied the latter name to a snake that was quite evidently not a krait but a saw-scaled viper.

My sincere thanks to Robert Twombley, Dr Christopher Mallery, Mark O'Shea, and all of the other correspondents who so kindly responded to my FB enquiry with their greatly-valued thoughts and views.

Photographic portrait of Rudyard Kipling (public domain)