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

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Sunday 30 September 2012


Testament to the skills of an extremely accomplished taxidermist, the two-headed kestrel that is lost no longer (© Dr Karl Shuker)

When I encountered the above taxiderm specimen of a European kestrel Falco tinnunculus with two heads while browsing in a local market on 28 September 2012 (click here to read my ShukerNature blog post concerning it), I was very surprised to SEE it, but not at all surprised BY it. And if that in itself sounds surprising – and possibly even a little confusing! – please allow me to explain, via the following sequel, which in reality is a prequel.

Freak shows and travelling circuses usually display at least one two-headed lamb or pig amidst their panorama of curiosities and caprices, so such entities are far from uncommon. The same can certainly not be said, however, for the erstwhile prize exhibit of a private natural history collection amassed some years ago by a friend of mine whom I shall refer to as Nigel F, from the West Midlands. Among his array of fossils and stuffed animals was a winged wonder unlike no other – dating from Victorian times, it was a perfectly preserved taxiderm kestrel, with two heads.

Silent testimony to the art of the expert taxidermist, it astonished and entranced all who viewed it, until eventually, along with most of his other specimens, Nigel sold it several years ago. Only then did he confess the truth to me – it was a fraud, albeit a truly amazing one. The left head was from another specimen entirely, which the taxidermist had meticulously attached to an already-prepared stuffed kestrel from Victorian times, to create this twin-headed falcon.

Nigel's photograph of his two-headed kestrel (© Nigel F.)

So superb was the artifice, however, as seen in this photograph which he had snapped of his dicephalous marvel some time before selling it (and which, amusingly, depicts the kestrel wearing a gold medallion and chain around its necks!), that even though Nigel knew which head was fake, he had great difficulty in detecting the zone of attachment, artfully concealed beneath its neck feathers. Indeed, to quote the famous words spoken by British television comedian Eric Morecambe concerning his comedy partner Ernie Wise’s alleged wig: “You can’t see the join!”.

Close-up of the kestrel's two heads (© Dr Karl Shuker)

After Nigel sold his two-headed kestrel, however, the whereabouts of this wonderful specimen were no longer known, and there seemed little hope of ever tracing it again. Until 28 September 2012, that is, when I was extremely shocked, but delighted, to discover it for sale on a stall in the very same town where Nigel had sold it all those years previously! In any case, I recognised it instantly from Nigel's photograph (a copy of which he had given to me some time ago) – its pose, tree branch mount, and base were all identical, as can be readily confirmed here by comparing Nigel's photo of it with one of mine, snapped on 28 September.

Nigel's photo (top) and one of mine (bottom) (© Nigel F. and Dr Karl Shuker)

Clearly, therefore, the kestrel had been sold either directly to the stall holder by whoever had owned it after having purchased it from Nigel, or via one or more intermediary purchasers/owners if such existed. Whatever the explanation, I certainly had no intention of allowing such an astonishing (un)natural history exhibit to disappear into obscurity again – as would almost certainly have happened if someone else had purchased it. So I duly bought it myself.

And once I inform him of its current whereabouts, Nigel will be happy knowing not only that his unique kestrel has resurfaced after all this time but also that it has found a good home again! Result!!

With my two-headed taxiderm kestrel (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Friday 28 September 2012


With my newly-acquired two-headed kestrel (© Dr Karl Shuker)

I may be a cryptozoologist and animal anomalist, but even I have to admit that it's not every day I go into town to buy some groceries and return home with a two-headed kestrel – but today was one such day!

Browsing in a local market that contains a number of antique/collectors' stalls, I came upon one stall that I hadn't seen before. And there, directly before me, was this truly extraordinary exhibit – a two-headed taxiderm specimen of the European kestrel Falco tinnunculus.

Two heads are certainly more eyecatching than one! (© Dr Karl Shuker)

To cut an extremely short story even shorter: reader, I purchased it! It is an adult female specimen (judging from its brown heads), is in excellent condition; and although I have seen various dicephalous chickens and ducks in the past, this is certainly the very first bicephalic bird of prey that I have ever encountered.

Did this bird get ahead by having two heads? (© Karl Shuker)

But is it genuine, a bona fide teratological raptor, or – to use a very apt falconry term - has it been created in order to hoodwink its observers? That is a very good question!

What do you think?

UPDATE: 30 September 2012

Okay - I've kept you all in suspense long enough! Click here for the answer to this double-headed riddle!

Not quite what I expected when shopping for my groceries! (© Dr Karl Shuker)


Reconstruction of Eosimias, the dawn monkey - responsible for the Chinese ink monkey's erroneous resurrection? (Nancy Perkins/Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

The Vu Quang ox or saola Pseudoryx nghetinhensis, the giant muntjac Muntiacus (=Megamuntiacus) vuquangensis, and the Panay cloud rat Crateromys heaneyi are just a few of the remarkable number of major new mammals that were described from Asia during the 1990s. Yet none has a more controversial pedigree than the very mysterious mini-mammal that was supposedly rediscovered during the mid-1990s in southeastern China.

The tangled tale of the Chinese ink monkey (also called the pen monkey) hit the media headlines on 22 April 1996 when the People's Daily newspaper published an account based upon information supplied to it by the official New China News Agency (Xinhua). According to these sources, this amazing little animal was no larger than a mouse, weighed only 7 oz, and had recently been discovered alive in the Wuyi Mountains of Fujian Province after having been dismissed as extinct by Chinese scientists for several centuries. Strangely, however, no additional details concerning its resurrection - precisely when, by whom, the number of specimens recorded, whether any had been photographed or collected, etc - were given. Nor was its zoological species identified, or any extensive morphological description supplied.

In contrast, details of its 'pre-extinction' history were as profuse as they were perplexing. Supposedly known in China since at least 2000 BC, the ink monkey was so-named because it was the traditional pet of scholars and scribes - and for good reason. Despite its tiny size, the ink monkey was very highly intelligent - so much so that a writer would frequently train one to prepare his ink for him, turn the pages of a manuscript that he was working on or reading, and pass brushes to him as required. Ever the practical, diligent pet, a writer's ink monkey would even sleep in his master's desk drawer or brush pot. Zhu Xi (AD 1130-1200), a famous Neo-Confucian philosopher, allegedly owned one of these obliging little helpers, yet sometime later the species seemed to have become extinct (an unexpected occurrence for so useful a beast, I would have thought) until its belated reappearance during the mid-1990s.

Those, then, were the 'facts' of a very odd cryptozoological case - but they served only to enhance rather than to elucidate the mysteries encompassing this extraordinary animal.

An Eosimias-inspired Chinese ink monkey, as visualised by artist Monkeyink (click here to view a selection of products bearing Monkeyink's wonderful artwork)

First and foremost of these was its identity - what exactly was - or is - the ink monkey? The world's second smallest known living primate is itself a fairly recent revival - the western rufous mouse lemur Microcebus myoxinus of Madagascar, measuring a mere 7.75 in long, and weighing just over 1 oz. This tiny species was first described by science back in 1852, but was subsequently believed to have died out until its rediscovery in 1993. Could it be that the ink monkey report was a confused retelling of this lemur's reappearance? In view of the historical background details presented above, this seemed highly unlikely. (In 2000, an even smaller species, Madame Berthe's mouse lemur M. berthae, was formally named and described, and now holds the record of the world's smallest living primate species.)

Western rufous mouse lemur (Wikipedia)

Turning from lemurs to monkeys, however, shed little light on the problem either. The world's smallest formally recognised species of monkey is the pygmy marmoset Cebuella pygmaea of the Upper Amazon Basin, with a total length of around 10 in. Yet mainstream zoology knows of no species of Chinese monkey as small as a mouse - nor, as far as I am aware, are there any reports of such a beast in the cryptozoological literature either. Nevertheless, the ink monkey is not entirely unknown to Westerners.

Two baby pygmy marmosets (FactZoo.com)

I am greatly indebted to Steve Moore, a renowned specialist in Oriental Fortean-related literature, for bringing the following excerpt to my attention, which appeared in a book of Chinese lore by E.D. Edwards entitled The Dragon Book (1938), p. 149:


"This creature is common in the northern regions and is about four or five inches long; it is endowed with an unusual instinct; its eyes are like cornelian stones, and its hair is jet black, sleek and flexible, as soft as a pillow. It is very fond of eating thick Chinese ink, and whenever people write, it sits with folded hands and crossed legs, waiting till the writing is finished, when it drinks up the remainder of the ink; which done, it squats down as before, and does not frisk about unnecessarily."

Edwards obtained these engrossing snippets from a Chinese author called Wang Ta-Hai, writing in 1791, whose work was translated into English as a two-volume tome entitled The Chinese Miscellany (1845, 1849).

Whereas Edwards's description may initially conjure forth bizarre images of a red-eyed pixie with an insatiable ink lust, it also calls to mind certain real-life creatures, such as the bushbabies or galagos, and, especially, those real-life goblins of the golden eyes - the tarsiers. These tiny arboreal primates weigh only a few ounces and have brown or grey bodies measuring no more than 6 in. Tarsiers are distantly related to bushbabies and lemurs, and are characterised by their large ears, enormous orb-like eyes, very long tarsal bones, flattened sucker-like discs at the tips of their fingers and toes, and a long thin tail.

Phillipine tarsier (Wikipedia)

Traditionally constituting a trio of species indigenous to Borneo, Sumatra, the Philippines, and Sulawesi, in recent times several additional species have been recognised from Sulawesi and its offshore islets - including the pygmy tarsier Tarsius pumilus in 1987, Diana's tarsier T. dianae in 1988, and the Sangihe tarsier T. sangirensis in January 1996. Could the ink monkey be yet another lately-revealed tarsier? During a radio interview broadcast on 24 April 1996 concerning the ink monkey in which he expressed the view that it may possibly be a tarsier, veteran British wildlife broadcaster Sir David Attenborough noted that tarsiers did exist in southern China a long time ago, and that such secretive, nocturnal creatures as these might conceivably have succeeded in surviving in small numbers amid this region's thick forests right up to the present day while remaining undetected by science.

Conversely, during the same interview, Cyril Rosen of the International Primate Protection League favoured the slow loris Nycticebus coucang as a plausible contender, whose southeast Asian distribution range may indeed extend into southeastern China.

Slow loris depicted on a postage stamp issued by Vietnam in 1984

Yet even if one or other of these identities were correct, how could such an animal be trained to prepare ink? Back in the centuries when the ink monkey allegedly assisted writers in this manner, ink was normally compounded from a precise array of precious materials, such as sandalwood, musk, gold, pearls, and rare herbs or bark, yielding a stick of ink. Consequently, it was suggested in Western media accounts that perhaps the ink monkey was trained to grind the stick in an inkstone with pure water until the correct shade was obtained. Nevertheless, such valuable constituents as those listed above are hardly the types of material that most people would entrust to a monkey (or tarsier) for handling.

Moreover, aside from Edwards's curious contribution that the ink monkey not only prepares but also consumes ink, there were no details as to its dietary preferences. Tarsiers, unlike most other primates, are entirely carnivorous. So if the ink monkey is indeed a tarsier, what might we expect its favourite food to be? When a colleague's enquiries at the news agency in Xinhua that released the original press information concerning the ink monkey revealed that the agency had no record of where they had actually received their own details(!), I began to suspect that fillet of red herring - or perhaps even a tasty canard? - may well prove to be the answer.

In other words, it seemed likely that the whole episode of the Chinese ink monkey was either a bizarre hoax from start to finish, or, more probably, simply the benighted product of confused reporting. Quite possibly, for instance, a Chinese media report had somehow been erroneously translated by Western journalists so that its true subject, one of China's lesser-known non-existent beasts of fable and folklore, had falsely 'become' a real-life animal that had been rediscovered after several centuries of supposed extinction.

And in case this hypothesis seems too implausible, I recommend readers to peruse an entire chapter devoted to several comparable cases of monstrous misidentification exposed in all their glorious folly, within one of my earlier books, From Flying Toads to Snakes With Wings (1997).

Nevertheless, it would be reassuring if the original source of such confusion could be traced. For a time, I was unable to do this, but eventually, when resurveying zoological reports from April 1996, I came upon a short piece that had not attracted anywhere near as much attention as the Chinese ink monkey story, and which I had not seen before, yet which assuredly presented me with the missing piece of this extraordinary cryptozoological jigsaw.

Life-size reconstruction of Eosimias centennicus (Northern Illinois University)

The report was a short but succinct item published by London's Times newspaper on 5 April 1996 (3 weeks before the ink monkey reports). It recorded the discovery in China's Yellow River basin of fossil jaw remains from a mouse-sized primate dubbed Eosimias centennicus, the dawn monkey, which had lived 40-43 million years ago, and weighed a mere 3-4 oz. Needless to say, this description tantalisingly echoes the sparse details available in the subsequent reports dealing with the Chinese ink monkey.

Consequently, the most reasonable explanation for this entire episode is as follows. Somewhere in the early portion of the chain of journalistic communication ultimately giving rise to the ink monkey media stories in the West, details of the discovery of the Eosimias fossils, documented correctly in The Times, became distorted elsewhere, and were mistakenly combined with the traditional Chinese ink monkey folklore - until the tragi-comical result was the rediscovery of a creature that had never existed.

In other words, a scenario featuring, perhaps fittingly, a classic case of Chinese whispers!

Life-sized model of Eosimias centennicus (Robert Clark/National Geographic)

NB - Four Eosimias species are currently recognised nowadays, with remains of a fifth presently awaiting formal naming.

This ShukerNature blog post began life as a 'Menagerie of Mystery' article of mine published by Strange Magazine in 1996, which I later expanded and updated to yield a chapter in my book The Beasts That Hide From Man: Seeking the World's Last Undiscovered Animals (Paraview: New York, 2003), but it has been extensively plagiarised online since then (like so much of my other writings and researches!). Consequently, I decided it was high time my original, authentic version was made available on the Net, so here it is!

Monday 24 September 2012


Amphisbaena portrayed in a mediaeval bestiary

As documented in a previous ShukerNature blog article (click here to read it), freak two-headed (aka bicephalic or dicephalous) snakes, although rare, are by no means unknown. In some examples, the two heads each emerge directly from the body; in certain others, they each possess their own neck that emerges independently from the body; and in a few instances, one head emerges directly from the body whereas the other emerges via a neck. However, what they all have in common is that both heads occur at the same end of the body, the front (anterior) end, with a tail at the posterior end.

This is why the freak specimen of rough earth snake Virginia striatula (a small, non-venomous, fossorial colubrid) discovered three weeks ago by workmen at the home of the Logan family in South Carolina (and cared for since then by the grandfather of the two Logan children, Preston and Savanna) is so very special – because this remarkable little snake's two heads are located at opposite ends of its body! Instead of possessing a tail, it sports a head at the posterior end of its body, plus a head at the anterior end as normal. This extraordinary teratological condition is known as amphicephaly, and, as will be seen a little later here, is so rare that the Logans' new pet may be the only modern-day example ever confirmed – always assuming, however, that it really is amphicephalous.

The Logan family's putative amphicephalous snake (© Foxcarolina.com)

On 24 September 2012, America's Fox News released a short video of the snake as part of an interview with the Logan family concerning it (click here to view it), and their report claims that the snake definitely has two heads, each with its own pair of eyes, a mouth, and a tongue, but that one head is more dominant than the other, though each head will take control of the body's movements. Having watched the video closely, I have been unable to spot a tongue emerging from the mouth of the subordinate head, in contrast to the constant tongue-flicking behaviour of the dominant head. However, the subordinate head does appear to possess a pair of eyes (or eye-like markings?). So, could the Logans' snake truly be amphicephalous, and, if so, are there any verified precedents? Or is there some other, more orthodox, conservative explanation?

A normal rough earth snake (Jscottkelley/Wikipedia)

Quite a number of snake species (especially fossorial ones) and also lizard species (ditto) have a tail that closely resembles their head both in shape and in colouration, and they often move their tail in a manner that deftly mimics the head's movements. The purpose of this deceptive duplication is to confuse predators so that if they do attack, they seize the least important body end (the tail, which can often be regenerated later), rather than the head. This condition thereby constitutes 'pseudo-amphicephaly'. Such species include southeast Asia's red-tailed pipe snake Cylindrophis ruffus, the Indian sand boa Eryx johnii, the Australian stump-tailed lizard Trachydosaurus rugosus (=Tiliqua rugosa), and in particular the so-called worm-lizards or amphisbaenians.

Two Iberian amphisbaenians or worm-lizards Blanus cinereus (Richard Avery/Wikipedia)

In contrast, genuine amphicephalous individuals are rarely if ever recorded (until now?). Probably the best modern-day review of such animals was a paper by Prof. Bert Cunningham of Duke University, published by Scientific Monthly in 1933. His paper considered a selection of reptilian examples of potentially genuine amphicephali.

What an amphicephalous lizard might well look like if such a creature could truly exist  ((c) Dr Karl Shuker)

However, these were mostly collected from medieval bestiaries and other antiquarian writings, which tend not to be the most reliable or scientifically accurate of sources. And certainly, the vast majority of those examples seemed to be either misidentifications of pseudo-amphicephalous species or deliberate fakes. Two, conversely, may well have been the genuine article.

One of these was a supposed amphicephalous snake specimen catalogued in 1679 within the famous natural history collection of the eminent Dutch biologist Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680). Moreover, it was personally observed a year later by another prominent scientist, Dutch physician-entomologist Steven Blankaart (1650-1704) – all of which lends a degree of veracity to this specimen's authenticity.

Jan Swammerdam's reputed amphicephalous snake, drawn by Blankaart and published in 1680

The second example was a lizard with a head at each end, represented by an illustration in Historia Serpentum et Draconum by Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), published posthumously in 1640. Aldrovandi is said to have made his drawing from the living animal, which, if true, increases the likelihood of this specimen having been truly amphicephalous.

Aldrovandi's drawing of an alleged amphicephalous lizard

Also worth recording here is a pair of conjoined (i.e. 'Siamese') terrapin twins reported in 1928 by C.H. Townsend. For whereas conjoined terrapins (a fair number of which have been documented down through the years) are generally linked to one another laterally (i.e. side by side) or ventrally (belly to belly), these two individuals were joined to each other posteriorly (rear-to-rear). This yielded a double animal that approached the genuine amphicephalous state. Other, more recent examples of this semi-amphicephalous version of conjoined terrapins are also known.

A semi-amphicephalous example of conjoined terrapins (Matt Rourke)

Returning to the medieval bestiary sources consulted by Prof. Cunningham, these would certainly have referred to the most famous amphicephalous beast of all, albeit one that is entirely mythical – the amphisbaena. Generally categorised as a serpent dragon, i.e. limbless like a snake but dragon-headed (though occasionally portrayed as legged), the amphisbaena had a head at each end of its body, and could therefore move in either direction – sometimes accomplished by grasping one head in the jaws of the other so that its body became a hoop that could roll rapidly over the ground.

An amphisbaena was almost impossible to approach unseen, because only one head slept at a time, the other one staying awake, particularly when this creature was laying eggs. And if an amphisbaena were cut in half, the two segments would promptly rejoin.

Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens's famous painting 'The Head of Medusa' (c.1617-1618), in which an amphisbaena can be seen (directly below Medusa's head and directly above some leaves at bottom mid-centre of painting) among the diversity of snakes breaking free from Medusa's hair following her death by decapitation - click painting to enlarge it (public domain)

According to Greek mythology, the amphisbaena was spontaneously generated from drops of blood falling onto the desert sands from the severed head of the gorgon Medusa when her slayer, the hero Perseus, flew over Libya with it on his journey back home to the Greek island of Seriphos. Although the amphisbaena's principal diet was ants, it was claimed by some writers to be extremely venomous, and one was blamed for the subsequent death of Mopsus, a seer who was also one of the famed Argonauts that accompanied Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece.

Amphisbaena reported from Mexico, depicted in Johannes Faber's Thesaurus (1651), but suspiciously similar in form to the amphisbaena depicted by Rubens in his Medusa painting (public domain)

Yet despite its deadly nature, the dual-headed amphisbaena was often cited by early scholars for its medicinal qualities. Sometimes a living specimen was needed, otherwise the skin of one was sufficient. Among the assorted ailments that it reputedly eased were arthritis, chilblains, and the common cold, as well as assuring a safe pregnancy, and keeping warm during the winter if working outside. Eating the meat of an amphisbaena could even attract lovers, and killing one during a full moon would imbue its slayer with great power provided that he was pure of heart and mind.

Amphisbaenas often featured in Mesoamerican and Inca cultures too, frequently depicted with a vertically undulating body, and symbolised eternity. Some of the most spectacular renditions are composed of turquoise mosaic, a stone believed by the Aztecs to emit smoke, and therefore a very fitting mineral for portraying a dragon, especially in versions representing Xiuhcoatl - known variously as the fire serpent or the turquoise serpent. In these New World versions, one head was sometimes much larger than the other, rather than always being identical as in the original Old World amphisbaena.

The turquoise serpent, sculpted from turquoise and pine resin, 15th-16th-Century, Mexico, housed at the British Museum (Sarah Branch/Wikipedia)

In Chile, the oral traditions of the Elqui villagers tell of a 6-ft-long spotted amphisbaena known as the culebrón. During the day, it crawled very slowly upon the ground, but at night it took flight, because, uniquely among amphisbaenas, this version sported a pair of wings

Perhaps the strangest South American amphisbaena, however, was the manora, whose basic form resembled a giant earthworm. Its head and tail ends were indistinguishable from one another, but its body was covered all over with sharp feather-like quills.

Today, the legendary amphisbaena gives its name to a group of real-life reptiles, the amphisbaenians, which are also known as worm-lizards. Their heads are so similar in appearance to their tails that it can be difficult to distinguish which end is which, thus recalling the two-headed amphisbaena of legend.

19th-Century engraving of a spotted amphisbaenian Amphisbaena fuliginosa from Trinidad

Having said that, the legendary amphisbaena underwent a profound transformation during medieval times. It gained not only a pair of legs but also a pair of wings, as well as a clearly-delineated tail – at the end of which was its second head. It also acquired the literally petrifying, gorgonesque ability to turn anyone who looked at it to stone with just a single glance. This advanced version of the amphisbaena is known as the amphisien, and commonly occurs in heraldry.

The amphisien version of the amphisbaena, as depicted in the Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen University Library MS 24)

In modern-day fiction, the most famous amphicephalous creature must surely be the pushmi-pullyu, featuring in Hugh Lofting's beloved series of 'Doctor Dolittle' novels for children (click here for a ShukerNature post devoted to this twin-headed wonder beast). In reality, however, no such animal could exist, because as mammals have a head at one end of their body and an anus at the other, an amphicephalous mammal would lack an anus and therefore be unable to defaecate.

My very own pushmi-pullyu ((c) Dr Karl Shuker)

Surely, therefore, this same argument negates the plausibility of the Logan family's alleged amphicephalous snake too? Not necessarily - because in snakes, being limbless and proportionately very long and slender, the end of the abdominal body region merges entirely into the tail (in mammals, conversely, outwardly the tail appears merely as a slender offshoot from the much broader, limbed abdominal body region). Consequently, the external excretory orifice in snakes (which is actually a cloaca, as it also functions as a genital orifice) is situated not at their posterior pole but about a quarter of the way up from this. Theoretically, therefore, an amphicephalous snake could actually have two cloacae, each positioned some distance away from the opposite head.

What an amphicephalous grass snake Natrix natrix might look like if such a creature could exist ((c) Dr Karl Shuker)

But how might an amphicephalous snake arise in the first place? If due to some developmental malfunction an early snake embryo were to split laterally from the head downwards to nearly the end of the tail, this would yield two almost completely separate snakes. However, they would remain permanently attached to one another because of their undivided (and hence shared) terminal tail portion. Nevertheless, each snake would possess its own fully-formed cloaca-containing abdominal body section. Consequently, this would then be an amphicephalus, and possibly even a viable one (always assuming, of course that such a specimen survived up to birth/hatching).

No mention of cloacal presence has been reported for the Logans' snake, but it will be very interesting to see whether further reports, containing additional details or confirmation of its dual anatomy, emerge in due course. After all, it's not every day that a veritable resurrected beast of classical mythology hits the news headlines around the world.

The amphisbaena awakes? Let's wait and see...so watch this space!

An ornament portraying the amphisbaena of classical mythology (Dr Karl Shuker)

Saturday 22 September 2012


A recently-discovered 17th-Century Dutch illustration of the dodo

One of the most (in)famous stories in zoological museum history is how the world’s only stuffed specimen of the dodo Raphus cucullatus - Mauritius's best-known species of extinct bird - was allegedly discarded and burnt on 8 January 1755 on the orders of a committee of trustees at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum because they considered it looked tatty, and how an assistant had the foresight to rescue its head and one of its feet before the flames reached them. As will be revealed later however, this story is spurious. What is true, conversely, is that those precious relics were later transferred to the University Museum of Zoology, where they are now among its most prized specimens.

Plaster casts of the preserved Oxford dodo head and a now-lost preserved dodo foot formerly held at Brighton's Booth Museum of Natural History (Ed Schipul/Wikipedia)

Being well aware of this, I was nothing if not startled by an email published on 16 March 2008 in the Sunday Mirror newspaper’s ‘Treasure Hunters’ column, compiled by TV antiques and collectables expert James Breese. The email in question was from a Ray Holmes (no address or location details given), in which he asked Breese to tell him the likely worth of what he described as a stuffed dodo in near-perfect condition, owned by him and preserved inside a domed glass case, which had originally been acquired by an ancestor of his sometime during the mid-1600s.

In reply, Breese rightly pointed out that if a genuine stuffed dodo did indeed exist anywhere, it would be priceless both in value and in scientific importance. However, he also revealed that fake dodos have been produced by taxidermists (notably Rowland Ward Taxidermy Studios of London, who manufactured several during the early 1900s), created by using feathers and tissues from other birds, and opined that this is very probably the explanation for Holmes’s dodo.

Nevertheless, the fact that the latter specimen apparently dated from the mid-1600s – a period when the dodo was still alive (this species’ official extinction date is traditionally given as 1681, though recently a slightly later date has also been proposed) – was significant enough in Breese’s view for him to suggest that Holmes should take his dodo to a museum for a closer inspection.

Facsimile taxiderm specimens of the Reunion white dodo (a species now known never to have existed!) and the Mauritius dodo at Tring Natural History Museum (Dr Karl Shuker)

Although I strongly suspected it was a fake, I certainly agreed with Breese's suggestion that it should be professionally examined. After all, albeit highly unlikely, if by any chance it actually was the real thing, a complete, near-perfect, genuine stuffed dodo would be one of the greatest zoological finds of modern times – almost as amazing as discovering a living, breathing dodo! Consequently, after documenting this intriguing episode in one of my Alien Zoo columns for Fortean Times a few months after the Sunday Mirror's original report, I requested anyone with additional information concerning this or other stuffed dodos to contact me.

As a result, I received several communications from dodo author-historian Anthony Cheke, who not only supported my suggestion that it was a fake but also provided further insights into this intriguing subject, and which he has kindly permitted me to document here.

Flemish artist Roelandt Savery's famous dodo painting from 1626 (which also features two mystery macaws – click HERE for details)

Most significantly, the methods of preservation available during the 17th Century were so poor that there are no stuffed birds from that time period still in existence anywhere – they have all long since rotted away or been eaten by insects. As stated by Anthony to me:

"In the 17thC (i.e. 1600s) skins were just cleaned and dried (rarely stuffed) without preservative - or any they used was short-lived. So the specimens simply over time succumbed to moths and mites, only the hard bits generally surviving (i.e. beaks, bones, antlers, carapaces etc.). Very few survived as far as the mid-18thC, the decaying dodo [at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum] was a late survivor, and the Ashmolean dumped ALL their remaining 17thC specimens at the same time as the dodo [1755]... - [museums/cabinets of curiosities] didn't even invent pickling specimens in alcohol until the mid-1660s! As far as I know there are NO 17thC specimens intact anywhere, and very few that pre-date the mid-1700s - most of the huge (former) royal collection in Paris (including almost all of Brisson and Buffon's types) was destroyed around 1800 when they tried to save it by fumigation, but the sulphur fumes damaged the specimens more than the bugs they were trying to kill!...The stuffed dodo in Prague was at some point reduced to just a skull and some bones that still survive. Two more in Oxford's Anatomy School disappeared around 1750."

Further details can be found in Anthony’s authoritative book Lost Land of the Dodo: The Ecological History of Mauritius, Reunion and Rodrigues (2007), co-authored by Dr Julian Hume.

In short, as suspected from the beginning, the dodo owned by Ray Holmes is undoubtedly a later, facsimile dodo, constructed from the skin and feathers of other, non-dodo species of bird (goose feathers is a popular choice).

Dodo portrayed on a postage stamp issued by Mauritius in 1965 (Dr Karl Shuker)

Anthony also provided some little-known but interesting mitigating evidence in relation to what has traditionally been portrayed as a rash act by the Ashmolean Museum's trustees in discarding its dodo:

"On the Oxford specimen, you have to remember that in 1755 they didn't know they had the only specimen, and equally didn't know it was extinct (that wasn't first mooted until 1784 - in France)."

Moreover, even the oft-reported account of how it was wilfully destroyed seems now to have been at the very least an exaggeration or distortion of the true facts, and at most a downright lie. Here is what Dr Julian Hume and two co-workers wrote on this delicate subject in a 2006 dodo paper published in the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists Club:

"There was a long-held belief that this, by then unique, stuffed Dodo was thrown onto a fire in 1755, and that only the head and a foot were rescued from the flames...In fact, its removal from exhibition was a curatorial decision made to preserve what was left of the by then highly degraded specimen (Ovenell 1992). The salvaged remains included the skin of the head, some feathers and a foot."

The final nail in this now-clearly-suspect account's coffin was provided by another dodo researcher, Jolyon Parish, who disclosed the following information in an email to me of 2 December 2010:

"Regarding the Oxford dodo, the head and left foot were saved by the same person as removed it from display (George Huddesford). There is no evidence that the specimen was burned and it is only recorded that they were removed from display, as decreed by Ashmole’s statute, following a meeting of the Vice-Chancellor (Huddesford, who was also Keeper of the Museum) and the Visitors in January 1755."

And so another favourite story from the history of zoology proves to have been just that – a fable that had tenaciously persisted into the present day, unlike, tragically, its long-demised subject, the dodo.

Some of my dodo figures (Dr Karl Shuker)

And finally: The last preserved dodo may be long gone, but thanks to coelacanth discoverer Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer's great-aunt Lavinia, there may still be one surviving dodo egg. Lavinia had received it from a family friend who worked as a sea captain and frequently travelled between South Africa and Mauritius, where he claimed to have found the egg in a swamp. In 1915, she in turn gave it to her grand-niece Marjorie, who later became the curator of South Africa's East London museum - to where she famously returned from the docks one December afternoon in 1938 with the very oily but zoologically priceless body of the first scientifically-recorded specimen of a living species of coelacanth.

In August 2010, the museum's present curator, Mcebisi Magadla, announced plans for a tiny sample to be removed from the egg in order for its DNA to be tested, and thus determine conclusively whether it truly is a dodo egg – or whether, as several dodo researchers have suggested or suspected, it is nothing more exciting than an ostrich egg.

As yet, however, I have not learnt whether such a test has been conducted, or, if it has been, the result. So if any reader does have information concerning this, I'd be very pleased to hear from you!

Not a dodo egg but rather an egg-dish in the shape of a dodo! (Dr Karl Shuker)

Thursday 20 September 2012


The nominate black-furred subspecies, E. g. gymnura, of the moonrat (Constance Warner)

As a child, animals with unusual names always held an intense fascination for me. So it was inevitable that I would want to learn more about the moonrat!

Sadly, I soon discovered that in spite of its exotic appellation, this wonderful creature, known scientifically as Echinosorex gymnura, does not actually come from the moon, but it is such an amazing-looking animal that anybody could be forgiven for wondering whether it may do! In fact, the marvellous moonrat is from southeastern Asia (specifically the Thai-Malay Peninsula and the islands of Sumatra and Borneo).

The marvellous moonrat (Dr David Kirshner)

It was first brought to scientific attention in 1821, by Sir Stamford Raffles, who discovered it in Sumatra and mistakenly deemed it to be a new species of civet, duly dubbing it Viverra gymnura. Certain other early investigators of this mysterious mammal were equally confused by it, categorising it as a marsupial!

In reality, however, the moonrat is the largest of several species of insectivore that are known as gymnures ('naked tails'). This is because their very long slender tails are almost hairless and covered in scales, rather like snakes! Equally ophidian is the loud, threatening hiss that the moonrat gives voice to if confronted by predators or by other moonrats invading its territory.

Moonrat postage stamp, Malaysia 2008

With a head and body length of 13-16 in, a tail of 8-12 in, and weighing up to 2.75 lb, the moonrat looks very like a gigantic rat - a rat wearing a black mask, and as big as a domestic cat! (In Borneo, moonrats lack the mask because here, uniquely, they are predominantly white all over in colour.) It even occupies a similar ecological niche to true rats. Taxonomically, however, this deceptive animal is something very different, because its closest relatives are not the rodents but the hedgehogs.

For although, outwardly, it doesn't look anything like one, when its anatomy is examined the moonrat is swiftly revealed to be a kind of extra-large, long-tailed hedgehog - but one that is covered in long coarse hair instead of spines.

The moonrat's very distinctive, predominantly white Bornean subspecies, E. g. alba (FactZoo.com)

The moonrat's external appearance has some other surprises too. Its very lengthy, mobile snout is plentifully supplied with exceptionally long, bristly whiskers - as are its eyebrows. These whiskers are extremely sensitive to touch, and probably help the moonrat to gauge in the dark whether it is thin enough to pick its way through tight crevices while active at night. Also assisting it do this is the remarkable shape of its body, which although looking very burly from the side, is actually surprisingly narrow, allowing it to squeeze through gaps that seem scarcely wide enough to let it pass. So too do its very short legs.

The moonrat inhabits dense forests and swamps, usually near water. A good swimmer, it is fond of eating fishes, frogs, crabs, clams, and other aquatic creatures, as well as worms and insects. Despite its size and eyecatching appearance, however, as well as the facts that it was first documented scientifically as long ago as 1821 (by Sir Stamford Raffles no less, who named it a year later) and has a lifespan of up to 5 years in its native habitat, the moonrat remains one of the world's most mysterious mammals. This is because it is incredibly shy and hence is rarely seen in the wild.

19th-Century engraving of a moonrat

One peculiar thing that we do know about its wild habits, however, is that when the female moonrat makes a nest in which she subsequently gives birth to two babies, the fluid that she secretes from a pair of glands under her tail to mark the nest's entrance possesses a strong ammonia content and has a potent smell that closely resembles rotten onions or garlic! (The male also secretes this same fluid when marking his territory.) So even if our eyes are unsuccessful in catching sight of moonrats, our nose should have far less trouble locating their nests!

The moonrat's memorable name has assisted it in becoming an unlikely villain in a delightful children's book written by Helen Ward. Entitled The Moonrat and the White Turtle and originally published in 1990, it also contains Ward's beautiful full-colour illustrations. Moonrat is the greatly-feared leader of a rascally band of pirate rats, and is driven by one unquenchable ambition – to steal the moon out of the sky and add it to his vast glittering trove of ill-gotten treasure! But does he succeed with his nefarious plot, and who or what is the White Turtle? I'll leave you to discover this excellent book and find out for yourself!

There is also a Los Angeles-based rock group called The Moonrats, but I'm unsure whether their name was gymnure-inspired, or just inspired!

Finally: all that remains to be answered is where the moonrat itself obtained its noteworthy name. However, this appears to be one mystery that is destined to remain unanswered, because in spite of considerable research, I have so far been unable to trace any explanation of its origin. So if anyone can enlighten me concerning this, I'd love to hear from you!

UPDATE: 23 March 2014

While discussing the moonrat with Australian naturalist Dr David Kirschner (who also kindly permitted me to include his moonrat illustration here), David offered up a very thought-provoking potential explanation for the origin of this species' very unusual common name, moonrat, which again he has permitted me to include here:

"As for the common name, if I had to guess it would have probably originated with the Bornean subspecies, E. gymnura alba, as I would imagine an all white, nocturnal mammal would be quite visible on a bright moonlit night."

Indeed, taking this line of thought even further, such an animal would be so eyecatching and unearthly in appearance if viewed upon a bright moonlit night that the more fanciful of observers may even have imagined it (albeit only in jest) to have originated directly from the moon itself - hence 'moonrat'!

Sheet of moonrat-depicting postage stamps issued by Malaysia in 2008