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

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

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

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my published books (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

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

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

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

Search This Blog



Wednesday 24 October 2012


Freaks of Nature, featuring an ajolote on its front cover (Dr Karl Shuker)

As a child in the late 1960s, I owned several of the animal editions in a series of tiny but fascinating books, each barely 3 inches long and containing just 32 pages, which were published by Bancroft and were aptly entitled 'Bancroft Tiddlers'. Sadly, most of mine are now long gone, having either fallen apart from over-enthusiastic use or been cut up for their pictures to paste in my numerous animal scrapbooks that I used to prepare with great zeal back in those far-distant days.

One 'Bancroft Tiddler' dealt with beetles (and I still own this today), others dealt with prehistoric animals, rare animals, tropical birds, etc. However, the one that I still recall most readily, #13 in the series, was entitled Freaks of Nature, and the reason why it made such an impression upon me was its front cover picture - which featured one of the most extraordinary creatures that I had ever seen.

As shown in this present ShukerNature blog post's opening illustration, the creature in question resembled a long, pink, segmented, coiled-up earthworm, except for its small but well-differentiated head (possessing a mouth and a pair of tiny dark eyes) – and, most dramatic of all, for the even smaller, single pair of clawed limbs visible just a little way back from its head, which looked rather like a pair of ears!

The ajolote spread from Freaks of Nature

This vermiform 'freak of nature' (which one might be forgiven nowadays for dismissing as an imaginative Photoshopped creation!) also appeared inside the book. There, it was revealed to be something called an ajolote, with the generic name Bipes (translating as 'two-footed'), which was a worm-lizard from Mexico. As can be seen from the above image, little else was said about it inside my 'Bancroft Tiddler', but it was enough to fire my interest and imagination, and stimulate me to seek out additional information concerning this astonishing little animal.

I discovered that the ajolote (of which there are four, very similar species, the best known being Bipes biporus, all approximately 6-9 inches long, confined exclusively to Mexico, and also known as mole lizards), was a very special type of amphisbaenian or worm-lizard. These latter reptiles are related to but taxonomically separate from both true lizards and snakes.

19th-Century sepia engraving of a limbless amphisbaenian

They are known as worm-lizards because superficially they do greatly resemble earthworms, both morphologically and behaviourally - spending much of their time in subterranean seclusion, moving via peristaltic locomotion, devouring real earthworms and other invertebrates, and often only emerging above-ground at night or when flushed out during heavy rain. Moreover, their tails are so similar in form to their heads that it is often difficult to decide which end of an amphisbaenian is which (their name is directly derived from the mythical amphisbaena - a worm-like monster with a head at each end of its body).

Amphisbaenians are native to tropical Africa, Morocco, the Middle East, southern Europe (Iberia and Anatolia), Florida, Mexico, the West Indies, and South America, and the vast majority are entirely limbless. The only exceptions are the four ajolote species, thanks to their tiny forelimbs.

19th-Century engraving of an ajolote (in the days when only a single species was recognised, and was referred to scientifically as Chirotes caniculatus)

Like other amphisbaenians, however, ajolotes are predominantly subterranean, fossorial species, feeding upon insects, worms, and very small lizards. They even breed underground, the female laying 1-4 eggs in July, which take 2 months to hatch. Sadly, however, ajolotes only live for 1-2 years.

Recently, I discovered online the eyecatching photograph below of an ajolote, and it seems evident that the drawing in Freaks of Nature was based upon it, but I have been unable to find any credit for this photograph, so any information regarding it would be greatly welcomed.

Online photograph of an ajolote (Photo owner unknown to me)

Interestingly, the ajolote has also cropped up as a possible identity in relation to two entirely separate creatures of cryptozoology – the European tatzelworm, and the Mongolian death worm.

One of the most tenaciously elusive mystery beasts has been reported for centuries from the Alps mountain range, extending through Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and Bavaria. It remains unknown to science, but is well known locally as the tatzelworm ('clawed worm'), stollenworm ('hole-dwelling worm'), or springworm ('jumping worm').

Tatzelworm model ((Markus Bühler)

Many eyewitness accounts of tatzelworms have been documented, some containing conflicting morphological details. Generally, however, this enigmatic beast can be described as follows.

Measuring 2-4 ft long, with light-coloured skin usually appearing smooth or surfaced with tiny scales, the tatzelworm is very elongate in shape, with a short and surprisingly cat-like head, a long worm-like body, and a blunt tail. Some observers claim that it has a pair of short clawed limbs at the front of its body; a few state that it also has a second, hind pair of limbs; and some allege that it has no limbs at all (although they may simply have been overlooked). It reputedly lives mainly in holes or burrows, but is sometimes encountered basking in alpine meadows on sunny days. If approached, it will usually vanish swiftly into its hole, but there are reports of decidedly belligerent tatzelworms that have leapt towards their startled eyewitnesses, usually causing them to flee rather than continue their observations!

Although the existence of such a sizeable creature still undiscovered by science in the Alps may seem unlikely to outsiders, the tatzelworm's reality to these mountains' inhabitants is such that in the 1800s it was even featured in three major alpine guides. According to one of them, Swiss naturalist Friedrich von Tschudi's Das Thierleben der Alpenwelt (1861):

"In the Bernese Oberland and the Jura the belief is widespread that there exists a sort of 'cave-worm' which is thick, 30 to 90 cm long, and has two short legs; it appears at the approach of storms after a long dry spell."

A tatzelworm drawing matching the above description had appeared 20 years earlier in a Swiss almanac, Alpenrosen.

The tatzelworm as depicted in Alpenrosen

However, perhaps the most famous tatzelworm illustration is the sketch of a 'scaly log' with a toothy grin, plus front and rear limbs, featuring in a Bavarian handbook, Neues Taschenbuch für Natur-, Forst- und Jagdfreunde auf das Jahr 1836, and based upon the description given by someone claiming to have shot one of these creatures.

The tatzelworm as depicted in the above-cited handbook

Over the years, some fascinating tatzelworm sightings have been recorded. One of the most dramatic, however, must surely have been the decidedly close encounter of the scary kind experienced one day in summer 1921 by a poacher and a herdsman while hunting on Austria's Hochfilzenalm Mountain, near Rauris. Suddenly, they became aware of a very strange animal, lying on a rock close by, watching them. Measuring 2-3 ft long, it was grey in colour, as thick as a human arm, with a feline, fist-sized head, and a thick tail. Alarmed, the poacher raised his rifle and shot at this bizarre beast - but as he did so, the creature, living up to its alternative name of 'springworm', abruptly jumped up through the air towards them, revealing two small front limbs but no rear limbs. Unsurprisingly, the men raced away.

A pallid smooth-skinned specimen measuring approximately 18 in long with two stub-like front limbs and noticeably large eyes was encountered in April 1929 by a teacher seeking the entrance to a cave on Austria's Mount Landsberg. The creature, which may have been a juvenile specimen in view of its small size, was lying in wet mouldy leaves, but swiftly vanished into a hole close by when the teacher tried to capture it.

Tatzelworm model (Markus Bühler)

Intriguingly, together with a number of snakes, an apparent tatzelworm was discovered in 1933 concealed inside a hollow space behind a stone wall being removed by some workmen at Spittal an der Drau in Austria. According to their description, it was 3 ft long, dirty white in colour with a yellowish tinge, and cylindrical in shape, with a cat-like head, big eyes, and two short front legs. The workmen gingerly manoeuvred this peculiar animal onto a shovel and, along with its serpentine companions, tossed it into the nearby Lieser river - across which it rapidly swam, until it disappeared from sight on the far-side bank.

Another noteworthy sighting took place near St Pankraz, Austria, in 1922, when a 12-year-old girl playing in a wooded area ran to see why her sister, playing close by, had suddenly begun to cry. When she reached her, the girl was terrified to spy, no more than 4 yards away, a grey-coloured creature with transverse grooves across its body, crawling between some stones. Measuring at least 1 ft long, it resembled a giant worm, but sported a pair of paws behind its head. Too shocked to move, the two sisters gazed at it in fascinated horror for a time before summoning up enough courage to run away.

A number of identities have been suggested in relation to the tatzelworm, including an unknown species of reduced-limbed lizard (several skinks, for instance, possess only a single pair of limbs), or even a legless lizard, as typified by the familiar slow worm Anguis fragilis and the larger European glass snake or scheltopusik Pseudopus apodus.

19th-Century colour engraving of a scheltopusik

As noted in my book The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), however, by far the closest correspondence to the tatzelworm's reported morphology is provided by the ajolotes. Yet, frustratingly, these are unknown outside Mexico. However, there are several species of limbless amphisbaenian native to southern Europe. So is it conceivable that a large, highly elusive, undescribed species of two-legged, ajolote-lookalike amphisbaenian still awaits formal scientific discovery in central Europe?

The second cryptid that has been compared with the ajolote is a little-known mystery beast that I learnt about from veteran Mongolian death worm seeker Ivan Mackerle. Here is what I wrote about it in my extensive Fortean Studies paper (vol. 4, 1997) on the death worm that was later updated and republished as a chapter in my book The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003).

The Beasts That Hide From Man, depicting a reconstruction of the Mongolian death worm by Ivan Mackerle on its front cover (Dr Karl Shuker)

It was documented by Mongolian author S. Dzhambaldorzh in his book Mongol Nuucyn Chelchee ('Braid of Mongolian Secrets') (1990), which contains a section regarding the death worm, entitled 'The most interesting rare worm in the world'.

In that section, Dzhambaldorzh includes a report concerning an obscure cryptid that may or may not be one and the same as the death worm. Derived from geographer B. Avirmed of the Mongolian Geographical Institute, this report had first appeared in 1981, within a Mongolian newspaper. It featured the eyewitness testimony of a Mongolian shepherd:

"Shepherd L. Chorloo (Khorlaw) from Chongor Gobi in the south Gobi aimak (country) stated: "Here we see an interesting creature. Its body looks like salami, half of which is taken up by the head, and on the rear it has wings. I have seen it twice. On both occasions it was lying dead at the well."

Is it possible that this 'winged salami' is actually a worm-like reptile with only a single pair of legs, which, in a desert terrain, would probably be splayed or spatulate in shape for digging, and might therefore resemble wings? Needless to say, the ajolotes once again come readily to mind. Morphologically speaking, an extra-large ajolote would certainly provide a very plausible explanation for the legged/winged mystery worm of Chongor Gobi. Or at least it would if we are willing to assume that, because amphisbaenians' heads and tails are very similar in appearance - and because he had only ever seen dead specimens of his 'salami' cryptid - the shepherd may have mistakenly thought that his mystery beast's 'wings' (i.e. its spade-shaped legs) were at its body's rear end instead of its front end.

Photograph of a captive specimen of ajolote (at El Serpentario, La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico), showing one of its tiny forelegs (Marlin Harms/Wikipedia)

Even so, as ajolotes constitute an exclusively New World quartet, as with the tatzelworm this identification is zoogeographically unsatisfactory. Of course, as again noted earlier with the tatzelworm, it is conceivable that an Old World amphisbaenian lineage could have given rise to an undiscovered ajolote counterpart by convergent evolution. Yet aside from the account of the Chongor Gobi mystery beast, there is not a scrap of death worm related evidence to suggest this. Moreover, there is not even a single known species of amphisbaenian on record from the Far East anyway. Alternatively, the Chongor Gobi cryptid could be a species of two-legged lizard - of which a number of species are already known to science.

Yet regardless of its morphological similarity or otherwise to various species already known to science, it is still unclear whether or not this legged mystery beast from the Chongor Gobi is indeed one and the same as the seemingly limbless death worm reported elsewhere in the Gobi. Bearing in mind, however, that nomads prefer to keep as great a distance as feasible between themselves and any death worm that they encounter, it is not impossible that the latter cryptid really does possess a small, inconspicuous pair of limbs - but which can only be discerned if viewed at extremely close range or in dead specimens, and whose presence is therefore not widely realised, even among the nomads.

Finally: just in case you're wondering how I've been able to include photos here of both the cover and the ajolote spread from Freaks of Nature, bearing in mind that my childhood copy no longer exists, the answer is simple – a few days ago I was delighted to discover a copy for sale on ebay, so I duly bought it, for £2.50 plus p&p. And as you can see from the photo below of its front cover, to which its original price label was still affixed before I carefully removed it, book prices have certainly risen in the years since this little 'Bancroft Tiddler', first published in 1966 and written by Nicky Tulissio, was available in the shops! 2½p for a brand-new book! Those were the days!

Front cover of Freaks of Nature with its original price label still affixed (Dr Karl Shuker)

Monday 22 October 2012


Artistic representation of the zebro's possible appearance ((c) ejbeneite.blogspot.co.uk)

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, several Spanish hunting treatises alluded to a mysterious, now-vanished equine creature known as the zebro (or encebro, in Aragon), living wild in the Iberian Peninsula. In one of these works, it was described as “an animal resembling a mare, of grey colour with a black band running along the spine and a dark muzzle". Others likened it to a donkey but louder, stronger, and much faster, with a notable temper, and whose hair was streaked with grey and white on its back and legs. What could it have been?

Although largely forgotten nowadays, the zebro experienced a brief revival of interest from science in 1992. That was when archaeologists Carlos Nores and Corina von Lettow-Vorbeck Liesau published a very thought-provoking article in the Spanish scientific magazine Archaeofauna, in which they boldly proposed that the zebro may have been one and the same as an equally enigmatic fossil species – Equus hydruntinus, the European wild ass.

Artistic representation of the European wild ass Equus hydruntinus (Francesco Gabelione, (c) 2009, IBAM ITLab)

The precise taxonomic affinities of this latter equid have yet to be satisfactorily resolved, for although genetic and morphological analyses suggest that it was very closely related to the onager E. hemionus, one of several species of Asiatic wild ass, it can apparently be differentiated from these and also from African wild asses by way of its distinctive molars and its relatively short nares (nasal passages). Arising during the mid-Pleistocene epoch, approximately 300,000 years Before Present, the European wild ass persisted into the early Holocene before finally becoming extinct. During the late Pleistocene, its zoogeographical distribution in western Eurasia stretched from Iran in the Middle East into much of Europe, reaching as far north as Germany, and it was particularly abundant along the Mediterranean, with fossil remains having been recovered from Turkey, Sicily, Spain, Portugal, and France.

According to Nores and Liesau, moreover, this species may have survived in southernmost Spain and certain remote parts of Portugal until as late as the 16th Century (they consider its disappearance to represent the Iberian Peninsula’s last megafaunal extinction), where, they suggest, it became known locally as the zebro. More recently, their theory gained support from the discovery of E. hydruntinus remains at Cerro de la Virgen, Granada, dating from as late as the 9th Century.

A sorraia stallion (Selona/Wikipedia)

Some researchers have also suggested that before dying out, the zebro gave rise at least in part to a primitive, nowadays-endangered Iberian breed of donkey-like domestic horse called the sorraia (which was once itself referred to as the zebro). Furthermore, many believe that it was from the term ‘zebro’ that ‘zebra’ originated as the almost universally-used common name for Africa’s familiar striped equids.

Even today, many Iberian place-names still exist in which the mysterious but now-obscure zebro’s name is preserved. These include Ribeira do Zebro in Portugal; and Valdencebro (in Teruel), Cebreros (Ávila), Encebras (Alicante), and Las Encebras (Murcia) in Spain.

A partbred grullo Sorraia colt exhibiting zebra type stripes formed by the lay pattern of the newborn foal hair coat. The dorsal and leg stripes remain, but the lay pattern stripes disappears after several days or weeks when the hair is fully fluffed (Selona/Wikipedia)


NORES, Carlos & LIESAU, Corina (1992). La zoologia historica como complemento de la arqueozoologia. El caso del zebro. Archaeofauna, vol. 1, pp. 61-71.

This ShukerNature blog post was originally published as an article in issue #1 of Flying Snake.

Friday 12 October 2012


Nessie on land?? No, a plesiosaur statue at Drumnadrochit (public domain)

I can scarcely believe that it has been 25 years since I wrote this article, which I re-read recently for the first time in a very long while, recounting the highly significant symposium on the Loch Ness monster organised by the International Society of Cryptozoology and hosted by the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh in 1987. So here it is, presented online for the very first time as a ShukerNature exclusive - a retrospective of a unique event in cryptozoological history, and yes, I was there!

Early Nessie postcard in my collection (Dr Karl Shuker)

In 1982, Cryptozoology took a momentous step forward, with the establishment of the International Society of Cryptozoology (sadly now defunct), which was the world's first scientific society devoted to the investigation of animals whose existence is currently not officially recognised by science. Cryptozoology's further advancement towards full acceptance was greatly assisted by the ISC's policy of staging an Annual Members Meeting, held each year at a different scientific institution and attracting considerable professional and public interest. In 1985, the ISC also sponsored a one-day cryptozoological Symposium contained within the Third International Congress of Systematic and Evolutionary Biology, held at the University of Sussex, Brighton, which marked the ISC's first visit to the British Isles.

Two years later, however, July 1987 saw the first ISC Annual Members Meeting to be staged in the UK. Moreover, this was also the first two-day Members Meeting held by the Society, and the first in which the presentations were grouped thematically. In addition, by special accord the gathering on this particular occasion took the form of a joint meeting - of the ISC and of the Scottish Branch of the SHNH (the Society for the History of Natural History), whose base is the Natural History Museum, London.

Loch Ness - early sepia postcard in my collection (Dr Karl Shuker)

The meeting was held at Edinburgh's auspicious Royal Museum of Scotland. In addition to ISC and SHNH Members, for a nominal fee of £1.00 non-members were also admitted. The symposia were chaired by the Museum's then Curator of Mollusca, Mr David Heppell, who also served at that time on the ISC's Board of Directors.

Day Two’s symposium was devoted to cryptozoological cats, in which, as one of several participating speakers, I presented a paper on the origin and possible zoological identity of the Kellas cat. Other papers dealt with British mystery cats, the king cheetah, the onza, and the Queensland tiger. Day One’s symposium, conversely, which I also attended and is the subject of this article, was devoted entirely to the world’s most famous mystery beast – the Loch Ness monster.

Humorous Nessie postcard in my collection (Dr Karl Shuker)


At 10.00 am on 25 July, Day 1's symposium formally commenced. It was entitled ‘The Search For Nessie in the 1980s’, and was officially initiated by Dr Robert G. Anderson, Director of the National Museums of Scotland, who welcomed the societies and the audience to the museum. He dedicated the meeting to the memory of two persons who were noted for their keen cryptozoological interests - the late David James (Honorary Member of the ISC and co-founder of the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau - LNIB), and the late Ian Lyster (Curator of Ornithology at the Royal Museum of Scotland).

The popular plesiosaurian concept of Nessie (Richard Svensson)

The first paper, entitled ‘The History of the Loch Ness Monster’, was presented by Dr Richard Fitter – then Chairman of the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society (FFPS) and also a co-founder of the LNIB (which functioned from 1962 to 1976). Dr Fitter recounted a concise history of the Loch Ness phenomenon, from the days of St Columba's sightings of the monster during the 6th Century AD, through the resurgence of Loch Ness interest in the early 1930s, onwards to the LNIB's work during the 1960s, and into the 1980s and recent studies, complementing his presentation with a 12-minute film.

St Columba confronting the monster (William M. Rebsamen)

After the fundamental Nessie question: "Is there a Loch Ness monster?", the next most-repeated query must surely be: "What is the Loch Ness monster?" This latter subject was dealt with comprehensively by Prof. Roy Mackal, a prominent biochemist, cryptozoologist (he was the ISC's Vice-President), and longstanding Loch Ness investigator. In his paper, ‘The Biology of the Loch Ness Monster’, Prof. Mackal analysed the morphology and physiology of each group of animals put forward in the past as identities for Nessie. He concluded that mammalian or reptilian identities were the most likely candidates, with amphibian or soft-bodied invertebrate suggestions amongst the least plausible.

Prof. Roy Mackal's Nessie book

Mackal also spoke about a possibility of obtaining evidence that would conclusively identify at least one North American version of Nessie. For he noted that in Canada, fishermen have reported to him that they often see such creatures following the salmon swimming upstream in rivers to spawn. Mackal suggested that if nets were stretched across one such river at the time when the salmon appear, it may actually be possible to snare one of these Nessie-type beasts! Needless to say, such an acquisition would constitute a tremendous zoological discovery, and it is to be hoped that such a promising venture will indeed take place.

Look what I found at Loch Ness! (Dr Karl Shuker)

The next paper, ‘Public Perceptions of the Loch Ness Monster’, was presented by Dr Henry Bauer, Professor of Chemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Dr Bauer focussed his attention not upon the monster itself or monster research findings, but instead upon the sociological, philosophical, and psychological components of these subjects. The result was a most thought-provoking presentation, discussing the nature and features of belief and disbelief using Nessie as the example, and examining the ways in which these have varied during the long history of Loch Ness reports and investigations.

'Nessie Mystery Solved' postcard in my collection (Roger Latham, 1986)


The most famous and contentious photo purportedly of Nessie ever obtained is certainly the popularly-termed 'Surgeon's Photograph', taken in April 1934 by London gynaecologist Robert Kenneth Wilson, and depicting a black object resembling a slender neck surmounted by a small head extending above the rippled water surface. In his paper entitled ‘The Wilson Nessie Photo: A Size Determination Based on Physical Principles’, Prof. Paul LeBlond, an oceanographer at the University of British Columbia, demonstrated that a size estimate of the object in Wilson's photograph can be obtained by relating the appearance (in terms of surface disturbance and wave formation depicted in the photo) of Loch Ness's surface to wind speed and thence to wind waves' lengths. This is a principle which Prof. LeBlond had already applied to the equally controversial Mansi photograph of a creature-like object on Lake Champlain, and will be of great benefit it to future aquatic monster research.

The 'Surgeon's Photograph' (Robert Kenneth Wilson/Daily Mail)

Following lunch, the presentations continued with a paper entitled ‘Recent Fieldwork by the Loch Ness and Morar Project’, presented by Mr Adrian Shine, the Project's Field Leader. In 1974, the British-instigated Loch Morar Expeditions began, and were succeeded by the Project, which concentrated thereafter upon Loch Ness. Much of its efforts were directed towards sonar/echo-sounding investigations, and Mr Shine described the more recent work in this line carried out by the Project, plus a new survey involving an extensive multi-craft, underwater sonar sweep along the Loch, in an attempt to detect the presence of any large creatures which may exist there.

Morag, the Loch Morar monster (Michael Playfair)

Certainly the most visually impressive (but again highly controversial) evidence for the existence of such beasts to have been procured via underwater photography consists of the "flipper" photographs. These were obtained in 1972 by the Loch Ness research team from the USA’s Academy of Applied Science, headed by its president Dr Robert H. Rines. Consequently, in his paper ‘A Review of Research Contributions to Date of the Academy of Applied Science at Loch Ness’, Dr Rines discussed in detail these photographs (and the criticisms which have been levelled at them by various armchair Nessie sceptics), together with the further, equally intriguing, underwater pictures obtained by the Academy team in 1975. One of these latter pictures was thought by some to feature the head and neck of a large creature, another resembled a close-up of a creature's head. Moreover, he ended his paper with the tantalising statement that his team now had access to recently-declassified equipment that should render the loch transparent (figuratively-speaking, that is) as far as future searches and observations appertaining to Loch Ness's mysterious denizens were concerned.

One of the AAS's 1972 'flipper' photographs (Dr Robert H. Rines/Academy of Applied Science)


In a special announcement following Dr Rines's presentation, the ISC formally honoured the final speaker at this symposium - aero-engineer, author, and world-renowned Loch Ness investigator Mr Tim Dinsdale - for his most distinguished and significant contributions to Loch Ness monster research. This was well-deserved recognition for the sterling work of this most diligent, courteous, and respected cryptozoological researcher. (Tragically, less than five months after attending this conference, Tim Dinsdale suffered a major heart attack and died.)

In his paper, entitled ‘Three Decades of Nessie Hunting: A Personal Odyssey’, Mr Dinsdale traversed through his many memorable years of very impressive and fascinating personal investigations of the Loch Ness phenomenon, which began in earnest with what was most probably the most exhilarating moment in his entire three-decade quest. This occurred on 23 April 1960, when he obtained his classic film of a huge creature-like object, partially visible above the water surface, swimming rapidly across the loch. This electrifying event served as a source of great motivation for him during his subsequent researches, detailed within his presentation, which continued each year since then. Also referred to alongside these were his involvements with many of the investigations that had at some stage or another been carried out by other researchers at the Loch from 1960 onwards, plus the wide diversity of equipment, techniques, and vehicles that he has utilised in his examination and exploration of one of cryptozoology's most endearing and enduring of enigmas.

The first Nessie book that I ever read was this one, by Tim Dinsdale, purchased for me as a child by my mother

Following Mr Dinsdale's presentation, a panel debate took place, during which an interesting exchange of questions, replies, and opinions took place between the audience and the panel – consisting of all of the Loch Ness symposium’s speakers.

At the end of Day Two, following David Heppell's final remarks as Chairman the joint meeting of the ISC and SHNH was formally adjourned - but all was not completely over. A small party of us set off for a day trip to Loch Ness itself. Sadly Nessie did not make an appearance, but we were able to visit the notable Loch Ness Exhibition Centre at Drumnadrochit.

View across Loch Ness (Dr Karl Shuker)

This contained a veritable cornucopia of Nessie information and exhibits - ranging from analyses of all of the major surface and underwater monster photographs obtained to date, selections of sonar evidence recorded, and models of the Loch itself plus the various animal forms that have been offered as possible Nessie identities, to living examples of some of the Loch's more modestly-sized inhabitants, exhibits of various vehicles and pieces of scientific equipment used in Loch Ness researches, and much more. It even boasted a monstrously-large plesiosaurian Nessie replica gazing intently at the Centre's visitors from its very own adjacent pool (see photo below) - just in case the real star failed to give a performance.

The Nessie replica (StaraBlazkova/Czech Wikipedia)


From the size of the audience and the considerable interest that it engendered amongst the general public and the media, as well as amongst the scientific fraternity, this Sixth ISC Annual Members Meeting had evidently been more than just a notable success in itself. It had also constituted a most favourable and significant contribution to cryptozoology's continuing emergence as a respectable and respected scientific discipline. Moreover, its presentations had underlined very effectively the tremendous impact upon science that cryptozoological discoveries do (and will continue to) make.

'Pair o' Handies Nessie Catcher' postcard in my collection (Roger Latham)

And who knows? Dr Robert Rines's declassified equipment may one day provide the first unequivocal proof for the existence of a freshwater animal of the Nessie type - unless of course some carefully-aligned nets stretched across certain Canadian rivers during a future salmon spawning season scoop up (literally!) the elusive evidence first!

Newspaper cartoon by Mac from London's Daily Mail for 17 February 2012, offering a wonderfully original, cryptozoologically-themed take on the prospect of Scotland becoming independent from the United Kingdom (Mac/Daily Mail)

Twenty-five years have passed since this symposium took place and, sadly, some of its participants are no longer with us. But the interest generated globally by the LNM phenomenon shows no sign of abating, and perhaps, in the safe hands of new and future generations of Nessie seekers, cryptozoology may yet unveil a major surprise within the dark, secret waters of the world's most famous monster-linked lake.

Another delightfully light-hearted Nessie postcard from my collection (Dr Karl Shuker)

Wednesday 3 October 2012


The kinkimavo (top) and bristle-head (bottom)

Just because a species has been formally named and described doesn't mean to say that it is no longer mysterious. Both of the birds documented in this present ShukerNature blog post were scientifically recognised during the 1800s, yet remain as ornithologically controversial and generally obscure today as they were back then – but they have fascinated and tantalised me ever since childhood.

I owe my abiding love and knowledge of birdlife to two truly wonderful books that were bought for me by my family when I was a child, and which I still own today. Both were very big and both were exquisitely illustrated throughout in full colour. The first of these life-changing volumes, which I received when I was around 5 years old, was The Colourful World of Birds, written by Jean Dorst, filled with lavish paintings by Pierre Probst, and published in 1963 by Paul Hamlyn of London. Its many chapters were themed around habitat, behaviour, nesting and breeding, migration, and interactions with humans. Although aimed primarily at older children, its contents were detailed and highly informative, and introduced me to such avian marvels as the quetzal, dodo, megapodes, birds of paradise, hummingbirds, and which kinds of birds were to be found in which types of habitat.

My much-treasured copy of The Colourful World of Birds (Dr Karl Shuker/Paul Hamlyn)

When I was about 8 years old, I received the second epochal bird book, which was a truly magnificent, sumptuously-illustrated tome entitled Birds of the World. First published in 1961 and once again by Paul Hamlyn of London, it was written by Oliver L. Austin Jr, and was packed with countless spectacular paintings by Arthur Singer. Even today, it remains one of the most beautiful bird books ever published, as well as a classic, milestone work within the ornithological literature – and for me, this enormous book (which seemed almost as big as I was on that fateful day when I first laid eyes upon it in Beatties department store in Wolverhampton, West Midlands) was love at first sight! When my mother took pity on my forlorn face after we discovered that this wondrous publication was priced at what was in those days a veritable king's ransom for a book – 5 guineas!! (£5.25 in decimal currency) – and bought it for me anyway, I was rendered speechless with delight, and hugged it closely to me throughout our journey back home on the bus.

Birds of the World, the magnificent book that opened my eyes to the equally sumptuous diversity of bird life sharing our planet (Paul Hamlyn)

It is no exaggeration to say that Birds of the World transformed and expanded my knowledge concerning the taxonomy and diversity of birds to a degree not even remotely approached by any other publication that I have ever read since. For whereas the contents of The Colourful World of Birds were divided into the various thematic categories noted above, Birds of the World was a comprehensive taxonomic survey of our world's avifauna, presenting each taxonomic order in turn and within it each family, accompanied by gorgeous illustrations of representative species from every one, with over 700 species illustrated in total. Moreover, whereas The Colourful World of Birds only included common names, Birds of the World also presented the scientific binomial name for every species illustrated (as well as for many that were only referred to in the text).

Suddenly, my young brain was ablaze with images and facts concerning previously unfamiliar, highly exotic, and frequently multicoloured birds from every corner of the globe, often with strange names and even stranger life histories. Over countless re-readings of this magical book, I familiarised myself with the likes of peppershrikes and bellmagpies, tyrant flycatchers and false sunbirds, currawongs and curassows, todies and tropic-birds, ioras and o-os, tinamous and tapaculos, jacamars, frogmouths, puffbirds, vangas, spiderhunters, umbrellabirds, kagus, greenlets, drongos, phainopeplas, hemipodes, mesites, and much much more – including the kinkimavo and the bristle-head.

Their odd-sounding names alone would have been enough to incite my curiosity, but this curiosity was heightened by the facts that little seemed to be known about either of them, that both of them had long perplexed ornithologists concerning their taxonomic affinities, and that neither of them was illustrated nor even described morphologically in what had become my veritable bible of ornithology, Birds of the World.

Today, I could have readily sought information and illustrations concerning these birds online. Back in the 1960s and right up to the late 1990s, conversely, the pre-Internet world in which I lived presented much greater difficulties in obtaining data concerning two such obscure species, especially during my childhood and teenage pre-university years. And so, for a long time I remained tantalised and tormented in equal measures by the sparse details provided by Birds of the World in relation to the kinkimavo and the bristle-head.

Arthur Singer's glorious painting of three Old World oriole species, from Birds of the World (Arthur Singer/Paul Hamlyn)

Indeed, its account of the kinkimavo was no more than a single line at the bottom of p. 222, ending the section devoted to Oriolidae, the passerine family housing the Old World orioles and figbirds. It read as follows:

"Also classified tentatively with the orioles is the little-known Kinkimavo (Tylas) of the Madagascan forests."

And this is what it stated on p. 275 concerning the bristle-head, constituting the final paragraph in the section on Sturnidae, the starling family:

"Placed tentatively with the starlings as a third subfamily, the Pityriasinae, is the rare and little-studied Bristle-head of Southern Borneo forests. Although it had long been classified with the helmet shrikes (p. 270) because of its peculiar head feathering, and sometimes placed in a family by itself, what little is known of the Bristle-head's behaviour and habits has led most students today to regard it as a highly aberrant starling."

During the decades that have passed since the publication of Birds of the World, avian taxonomy has experienced many revolutions, not least the dramatic changes postulated by genetic studies. These have, for instance, revealed hitherto-concealed affinities between such externally-dissimilar taxa as the New World birds of prey or cathartids and the storks, and led to the reclassification as flycatchers of a number of familiar species traditionally deemed to be thrushes (such as the European robin, nightingale, redstarts, and chats). Inevitably, such studies have also continued to engender speculation and dissension concerning the true taxonomic affinities of the kinkimavo and the bristle-head.

Thanks to the internet and access to all manner of specialist works during and since my university days, I was eventually able to flesh out the bare bones of information provided by Birds of the World for these twin birds of mystery, as well as to track down images of them. At last, the kinkimavo and bristle-head have emerged from the shadows of ornithological obscurity, unveiled for me in all their quirky but no less compelling glory. So here is what they look like, and what I have learnt about them.

1880s chromolithograph of the kinkimavo by celebrated Dutch bird artist John G. Keulemans, appearing in Histoire Physique, Naturelle et Politique de Madagascar, written by Alfred Grandidier and Alphonse Milne-Edwards (John G. Keulemans)

Let's begin with the kinkimavo, which was scientifically described on 13 May 1862 by German ornithologist Dr Gustav Hartlaub within the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (pp. 152-153). He formally dubbed it Tylas eduardi, in honour of its discoverer, Sir Edward Newton, who was, in Hartlaub's own words: "...a gentleman who has recently visited Madagascar, and whose zealous efforts have very materially forwarded our knowledge of the ornithology of the East-African archipelago". (For trivia fans: during his time as a colonial administrator in Mauritius from 1859 to 1877, Sir Edward was also the person who sent to England what became the type specimen of the dodo!) Its generic name, Tylas, was derived, somewhat oddly, from the Greek word 'Tulas', referring to a kind of thrush mentioned by ancient scholar Alexander Myndios, even though the kinkimavo bears scant (if any) resemblance to one. As for its unusual common name, this is one of several local names given to it by tribes sharing its Madagascan homeland.

Roughly 8 inches long, and the only member of its genus, the kinkimavo is a sedentary, insectivorous species that exists as two readily-distinguished subspecies. The nominative T. e. eduardi is the much more common form, and occurs in primary rainforest and sometimes adjacent second growth too in eastern Madagascar. However, T. e. albogularis, named after its characteristic white throat (and deemed by some researchers to warrant reclassification as a separate species in its own right), is much rarer, found only in certain local areas of dry forest and mangroves in western Madagascar.

The kinkimavo (Joseph Wolf, PZSL 1862)

As can be see from the above painting by acclaimed bird artist Joseph Wolf, which accompanied Hartlaub's original scientific description of its species in 1862, the kinkimavo is primarily very dark brown/black and white in colour, but with an orange tinge to its underparts and a grey-green tinge to its upperparts, upper wings, and tail. There is no notable sexual dimorphism, the breeding season extends through autumn, and into as far as January in the nominative subspecies, after which a small cup-shaped nest of leaves and moss is constructed high in a tree, and two eggs are laid in it.

As for the kinkimavo's taxonomic position: originally, it had been placed by Hartlaub within the bulbul family, Pycnonotidae, but it was subsequently reassigned to the orioles, as noted in Birds of the World. However, the current consensus is that like a number of other mystifying passerine species endemic to Madagascar, the kinkimavo is actually a vanga. Apart from one species that has extended its range into the nearby Comoro Islands, the vangas are found only in Madagascar, and constitute a little-known taxonomic family, Vangidae, that contains an extremely diverse assortment of species (which number twenty-two or thereabouts in total, depending upon which researcher is consulted!). The more conservative members are outwardly shrike-like, and in earlier days the vangas were deemed to be shrikes and thus were referred to as vanga-shrikes (as in Birds of the World). Certain others resemble and behave like warblers or babblers. However, they also include some much more extreme species.

1880s chromolithograph depicting a pair of sickle-billed vangas (John G. Keulemans)

Most notable among these are the sickle-billed vanga Falculea palliata, whose long curved beak is reminiscent of a wood-hoopoe's; and the extraordinary helmet vanga Euryceros prevostii, which sports a huge casque-bearing arched beak.

Helmet vanga portrayed on a Malagasy Republic postage stamp

Much less distinctive externally but extremely deceptive is what was once known as the coral-billed nuthatch but is now called the nuthatch vanga Hypositta corallirostris. On account of its great outward similarity to the nuthatches, this small grey bird with the bright red beak was long deemed to be one itself, but later studies exposed it as a vanga in disguise. And now the kinkimavo appears to be yet another member of this surprising bird family, and is thus frequently referred to lately as the tylas vanga (although to my mind this is a much clumsier, less memorable name than the infinitely more euphonious kinkimavo).

The vanga family's members, revealing their extreme morphological diversity  (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

The vangas constitute an excellent example of adaptive radiation. They appear to have evolved from a single ancestral form that, after reaching Madagascar several million years ago, rapidly diversified in form to occupy via segregated speciation a number of vacant ecological niches present there. So dramatic is the degree of morphological radiation exhibited by the vangas (and especially by their range of beak shapes, mirroring their wide range of feeding preferences), in fact, that if Charles Darwin had chosen to visit Madagascar rather than the Galapagos islands, he would have encountered a far more elaborate example of evolutionary diversity with the vangas than the version exhibited by the Galapagos finches that inspired and shaped his Theory of Evolution.

And now to the second member of this ShukerNature post's pair of mainstream mystery birds: the Bornean bristle-head. This distinctive species was formally described even earlier than the kinkimavo, in 1835 by eminent Dutch zoologist Coenraad Jacob Temminck, who named it Barita gymnocephala. Four years later, it was assigned its own genus by French ornithologist René Primevère Lesson, and is now known formally as Pityriasis gymnocephala. Its generic name is actually a skin disease of the scalp, characterised by warts upon a bald head, and its specific name translates as 'bald-headed'; both names refer to this bird's partly-naked, warty-skinned head and the unusual but characteristic bristles borne upon it (see below).

Whereas the kinkimavo is demurely monochrome, the bristle-head is unabashedly gaudy. Roughly 10 inches long and sporting a massive hooked black beak, its sombre black/dark grey wings and body plumage contrasts markedly with the bright red hue of its head, neck, throat, and thighs, and its white wing patches, plus the very odd-looking skin projections or bristles, pale yellow in colour, that are present upon its naked, warty crown. These earn this species its common name, and resemble bare feather shafts.

A painting of the Bornean bristle-head from 1838

Endemic to the island of Borneo, the bristle-head is an uncommon species, categorised as Near Threatened by the IUCN, and is sparsely distributed throughout its lowland forests (primary and secondary) and mangrove swamps. It feeds upon large invertebrates, small vertebrates, and fruit, and often associates within the forest canopy in mixed flocks with a range of other bird species (as does the kinkimavo). Breeding behaviour is largely unknown, and only a single oviduct egg has ever been recorded with certainty from this mysterious bird.

As with the kinkimavo, the bristle-head's taxonomic status has generated much contention ever since its scientific description, but unlike the former bird's it still does so today. Over the years, it has been variously assigned to the helmet shrike family (Prionopidae), the woodswallow family (Artamidae), the crow family (Corvidae), the starling family (Sturnidae), and the Australian butcherbird and currawong family (Cracticidae). In 1951, Drs Ernst Mayr and Dean A. Amadon created a brand-new family especially for it, Pityriaseidae, in which most researchers still house it, albeit as much a placing of convenience than one of certainty. Most recently, however, there have been suggestions that this baffling bird should be rehoused in a new family, Tephrodornithidae, which contains the equally perplexing flycatcher-shrikes (genus Hemipus) and the woodshrikes (genus Tephrodornis).

Bearing in mind that the woodshrikes are also deemed to be closely allied to the vangas, this could actually mean that the bristle-head and the kinkimavo are themselves related – one final unexpected twist to the much-tangled taxonomy of these two little-known yet abidingly-fascinating avian enigmas.

Incidentally: as a teenager fired with enthusiasm for investigating all manner of cryptozoological and neo-cryptozoological subjects, I was rash enough one day to mention the kinkimavo to a group of friends. Its name caused much merriment and no shortage of ribald comments, not least of which was the enquiry from one friend as to who this kinky Mavo was, and where could he meet up with her? In view of this, I was thankful that I'd had the good sense not to mention the bristle-head!!

A slightly faded taxiderm specimen of the Bornean bristle-head (public domain)