Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Wednesday 29 December 2010


One of my roc feathers (Dr Karl Shuker)

The main shopping centre of Birmingham, the United Kingdom’s second largest city, is replete with unique shops and market stalls selling all manner of interesting and often quite esoteric items. Even so, the last thing that I expected to find there when casually browsing in a certain large fancy goods shop a couple of years ago was a sheaf of roc feathers! But that is precisely what I did find, much to my astonishment and delight. Allow me to explain.

Two rocs attacking Sinbad's ship

According to Eastern legend and lore, the mighty roc or rukh - featuring as one of Sinbad the Sailor’s most formidable protagonists in the ‘Arabian Nights’ - was said to be a monstrous bird of such prodigious size and strength that it could haul elephants aloft, and carry them away to its gargantuan nest where its brood of hungry super-sized offspring would feed upon these hapless pachyderms. For decades, zoologists and cryptozoologists alike attempted to explain the mythical roc as having been based upon sightings of a gigantic ostrich-like ratite known scientifically as Aepyornis maximus, the great elephant bird, standing 10 ft tall and weighing up to half a ton.

The roc carrying off an elephant

Formerly native to Madagascar, this avian goliath inhabited the extensive marshes and swamps once present on this large island mini-continent, and was known locally as the vouronpatra or vorompatra. It is believed to have survived until at least as recently as the late 1700s, before a lethal combination of over-hunting, introduced avian diseases, and deforestation leading to the drying out of its swampland habitat brought about its demise, but fragments from its enormous eggs can still be commonly found on beaches here.

With an Aepyornis egg and a life-size Aepyornis silhouette (Dr Karl Shuker)

Unfortunately, reconciling the roc with the great elephant bird faced one major problem. Aepyornis was flightless, and therefore wholly incapable of abducting unwary elephants and swooping off into the air with them, gripped tightly in merciless talons of steel as those dusty Arabian legends would have us believe. Nevertheless, on account of its huge size, the great elephant bird remained the closest match – indeed, the only remotely plausible match – for the fabled roc...until 1994, that is.

This was when palaeontologist Dr Stephen M. Goodman published a paper documenting the subfossil remains of a hitherto-unknown species of huge eagle, which he formally christened Stephanoaetus mahery, the Madagascan crowned eagle, and which is believed to have survived on the island until around 1500 AD (both it and its prey were probably hunted into extinction by humans). This spectacular raptor is thought to have preyed not only upon various now-extinct species of giant lemur (subfossil remains show that some weighed up to 26.5 lb) but also quite possibly upon the great elephant bird itself. Clearly, sightings of this mega-eagle made by early European explorers visiting Madagascar and subsequent exaggeration of these sightings during retellings when back home provide a much more likely explanation for the origin of the roc legends than does the flightless elephant bird.

Yet not even Madagascar’s colossal crowned eagle can explain the truly immense plumes that crusaders sometimes purchased in the Middle East to delight and bewilder their families and friends back home in Europe. Claimed by their Arabian vendors to be genuine roc feathers, they sometimes measured 3 ft or more in length, and their vanes’ blades were razor-sharp to the touch.

In reality, of course, these spectacular objects were not feathers at all. They were actually the extremely long leaves of the raffia palm tree Raphia regalis (and related species), but they were certainly convincing enough in their superficial resemblance to gigantic feather to fool the unsuspecting crusaders into spending their hard-earned money on them as exotic souvenirs.

Moreover, when I first came upon the tall vase containing sheafs of these wonderful objects in that Birmingham shop, for just a few moments I too shared the shock and wonder that those crusaders must have experienced when first they saw them. A few of these pseudo-plumes stood nearly half as tall as I am (5’10”), and whereas some were brown, others were an exotic jungle green. Once I’d recovered from my shock, I knew at once what they were, but I still marvelled at finding such cryptozoological curios in such a relatively mundane locality as a high street shop in Birmingham, rather than some mysterious, shadowy souk in the depths of an Arabian kasbah.

Picking a few up – and soon discovering how painful it was when their sharp vanes stabbed into my hands! – I could definitely understand how their wily vendors in those far-distant Middle Eastern lands and times had talked the naïve crusaders into believing that these fantastic objects were roc feathers. Indeed, part of me even wanted to believe it myself!

Instead, however, I satisfied myself with the knowledge that here were some wonderful additions to my collection of zoological esoterica, but I received a final shock when I took half a dozen of the green versions (which looked much more feather-like than the plainer brown ones) to the till to pay for them. Incredibly, all six together totalled less than £2, making them without a doubt the best cryptozoological bargains that I had ever purchased!

A month or so ago, I found myself back inside that very same Birmingham shop, but its remaining roc feathers were long gone - which, I suppose, is no more than one should ever expect when dealing with imaginary monsters!


  1. I don't think you're giving humankind even 1000 years ago enough credit in both their ability to observe and communicate accurately, and that they would confuse a giant flightless bird resembling an Ostrich with that of a giant flying raptor is a stretch.

    Stephanoaetus mahery, the Madagascan crowned eagle... how large a wingspan was this in comparison to a Teratorn I wonder?

    Don't ignore the modern reports of Thunderbirds or the historical lore/accounts handed down by Native Americans which perhaps are tales of an existing (or existing into recent modern times)or related species of Argintavis Magnificences, which lived up to 6 to 8 million years ago, also known at the Teratorn. Teratorns are the largest known flying bird that ever existed, with a wingspan of up to 25 feet.

    Feathers for thought!

  2. Thanks for your comments. Re the suggested link between the roc and Aepyornis: I was merely repeating a longstanding traditional idea mooted in zoological circles for decades, I was not proposing it as a new idea. On the contrary, like you I have always viewed this prospect with doubt, for the same reason as you, which is why the recent discovery of Madagascar's erstwhile giant crowned eagle is of such interest to me.

    As for the North American thunderbirds and their possible link to the teratorns - far from ignoring them, I've devoted a very lengthy, detailed section to this subject in my book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), though for various reasons given there I am not convinced that the two are directly linked.

  3. Good and factual article. Just one little problem...

    The roc is an ARABIAN legend, whereas that eagle was MALAGASY! And as far as I recall, Arabians never went to Madagascar. Did they? I want to be the first person to know the instant somebody finds evidence of Arab expeditions to Madagascar! If these expeditions did not occur, I propose the possibility of an as-yet undiscovered giant eagle from Arabia, long extinct of course. Good theory?

  4. No, because you've missed the whole point here. Yes, the roc appears in the Arabian Knights, but specifically within the Sinbad voyages series, in which Sinbad voyaged to exotic, strange lands well beyond Arabia. So the island of Madagascar, known to have been visited by early sea travellers, could well have been one of them, as the voyage would only have been from Arabia due south down the Indian Ocean coastline of mainland Africa until Madagascar was reached.

  5. Oh. Well, so much for a giant arabian killer eagle. But I guess the one in Madagascar is good enough. Speaking of Madagascar, the reports of giant lemurs, killer trees and Aepyornis in Australia (well, eggs) are quite interesting. Of course, most if not all of these fascinating cryptids will probably be extinct by 2015 or sooner if logging continues at it's current pace. Returning to the Roc, and killer birds, have you heard of a particular film that seems to capture a pair of alleged Thunderbirds? It's on MonsterQuest.

  6. hello good doctor. about the giant bird that lived up till 1500? i was talking about them recently. my question is why hasn't the Argentavis magnificens (.sp) been considered?
    i was trying to remember the name of the eagle you mentioned. if i remember , the eagle is summarized to be a product of niche and island (in this case ironically) dwarfism, from the Argentavis magnificens. though i too find that hard to believe as it surely also adapted a whole new forging strategy. there was an article about how the eagle you mentioned must have flown.
    which, i find does somewhat coincide with the literature descriptions...but still, in the realm of possibilities, why isn't the the earlier species of Argentavis magnificens considered?

  7. Thanks for your comments. Re Argentavis magnificens: this was an exclusively New World species, not an Old World species, and in addition was not an eagle, hawk, or vulture, but was instead a teratorn, which although superficially vulturine in appearance, was actually descended from the storks. Because of this, although they had huge wingspans the teratorns were unable to lift anything remotely heavy because their feet were stork-descended and therefore very weak. So there is no possibility whatsoever that a teratorn, even one that somehow, incredibly, had found its way to Madagascar or thereabouts, could carry any but the smallest, lightest creatures aloft. It certainly couldn't carry even the tiniest of elephants - all of which is why I haven't included Argentavis or teratorns in general in my discussion here of the roc.

  8. brilliant! thank you for your serious consideration of my query.this of course only starts to polish off the realm of possibilities.
    have you heard tell of this Chinese paleontologist that has somehow convinced the world that a common ancestor of flying lizards (therefore the debate began as to why not coa of birds). was biplane in its wing structure?
    the main feature of the fossil was that it had feathers. this brings up a question of the pterosaurs that are purportedly and persistently being reported in new guinea. although also of questionable validity.
    i would like to point out that these were highly successful creatures. that spread across the globe. had advanced behavioral characteristics and even led to questions as to could they fly at birth or were taught.(an interesting article).
    since the main thing that stands in the way, is the ice age. when it comes to reptiles and these lizards more or less may have had hairs and or feathers.
    if we add on the fact that a meteorologist whose name escapes me, had worked out a response against the assertion of the causes of global warming. during his research used the ancient literature and architecture to deduce that there has been mini spells of climatic hot and ice ages. for eg he points that the dark ages had huge sparse well ventilated spaces in the buildings and that there were depictions of really prosperous grape vines years ..etc. which would mean that there must have been a decade or two of hot age.
    which may very well could have spread an animal which for instance would migrate or travel thousands of miles to mate.
    there have been fossils that show what may have been hairs and even feathers on some of these pterosaurs.
    the huge ones certainly were adapted for the dive and grasp strategy , although there were also some species that had their bills adapted for sifting and functions akin to what Darwin would ascribe to his finches.
    (we could also for sake of redundancy? toss in the dragon as it appears in some mythology. but that may be overkill. of note though , it would be interesting to speculate that the dragon as a mythos lived until the dark ages (14th century).

  9. I have just checked the wikipedian article on the Roc bird. It states that an Italian naturalist of the 16th century named Aldrovandi Ulysses included in his book a woodcut of the Roc preying on a pig- like elephant. I wonder if this latter is none other than the Sukotyro and if those two both used to live in Java.For mediaval authors, China seas extended southward into the Sunda Islands.

  10. The Roc carrying an elephant myth may have been caused by a similar looking real life occurance.That would be the giant Crowned Eagle killing a newborn Madagascan Pygmy Hippo which during the first few days after being born would be light enough to be killed and carried away if strayed too far from it's mother.