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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Monday 16 February 2015


Motty as a calf (above) and a photo-manipulated image (below) of what he may have looked like had he survived to adulthood (photo courtesy of Derek G. Lyon/Chester Zoo; photo-manipulation by Paul Willison of public-domain photograph of adult bull African elephant)

For 11 days, a little elephant calf called Motty was the world's first (and remains its only) intergeneric hybrid elephant, resulting from an unanticipated mating between a male African elephant Loxodonta africana and a female Asian elephant Elephas maximus at Chester Zoo, England, in July 1978. In my previous ShukerNature article (click here), the second of two documenting this truly unique animal (click here for my first one), I mentioned that I had often wondered what Motty would have looked like if he had survived to maturity, and I mourned the fact that we shall never know. This is of course perfectly true, we can only speculate – but now, I'm delighted to reveal that such speculation has acquired an astonishing and thoroughly fascinating visual form.

Facebook friend and computer art enthusiast Paul Willison shares my interest in what the adult appearance of Motty might have been. Consequently, after reading both of my Motty articles and noting that in overall body form (especially with regard to his long slimmer legs and large triangular, pointed ears) Motty seemed somewhat closer to Loxodonta than Elephas, Paul used his photoshop skills to transform the adult bull African elephant present in each of two public-domain photographs into what may conceivably be accurate images of Motty as a fully-mature elephant. Paul utilised as his morphological guides the photographs of Motty as a calf that appear in my articles, plus my detailed verbal description of him, which was based in turn upon an official account of Motty prepared by Derek G. Lyon, who was Chester Zoo's chief veterinary surgeon at the time of this remarkable little elephant's existence there.

And here they are.

Photoshopped adult bull African elephant #1, now exhibiting the unique complement of morphological characteristics possessed by Motty as a calf (public domain image photo-manipulated by Paul Willison)


Photoshopped adult bull African elephant #2, now exhibiting the unique complement of morphological characteristics possessed by Motty as a calf (public domain image photo-manipulated by Paul Willison)

If these two photographs are directly compared with their respective original, non-photoshopped versions (see below), it can be readily seen how Motty's composite, intergeneric morphology might well have yielded when translated into adult form an elephant that looked dramatically different from any that had ever been seen before, one that was singularly imposing and impressive.

For although he is likely to have retained the overall stature and body proportions of his African elephant father as well as his single large frontal skull dome, Motty would also most probably have retained his paired posterior skull domes inherited from his Asian elephant mother, as well as her species' very distinctive convex back, greater number of toes per foot, and her single trunk-tip digit – features that do not occur in African elephants (the latter possess two trunk-tip digits).

Original, unmodified African elephant photo #1 (above), and the 'Motty-fied' version (below) (public domain; public domain image photo-manipulated by Paul Willison)


Original, unmodified African elephant photo #2 (above), and the 'Motty-fied' version (below) (public domain; public domain image photo-manipulated by Paul Willison)

Nor is this the end of the story. As Paul swiftly recognised and brought to my own attention after completing his photo-manipulations, the resulting images predicting the possible adult appearance of Motty bear more than a passing resemblance (aside from shorter tusks and larger ears) to a certain proboscidean that is spectacularly different from anything alive today – nothing less, in fact, than the gargantuan Columbian mammoth Mammuthus columbi, one of the most awe-inspiring prehistoric mammals of all time.

Native to North America and traditionally believed to have become extinct around 12,500 years ago (but possibly a few millennia later, due to the existence of certain contentious fossil remains that have yielded more recent dates), adult males of this stupendous creature stood 13 ft tall at the shoulder, even overshadowing all but the most exceptional of today's African elephants. It also sported enormous tusks, almost 14 ft long in some instances.

Yet due to this species' very close taxonomic affinity to the woolly mammoth M. primigenius (indeed, DNA evidence suggests that the Jefferson mammoth M. jeffersonii of North America might actually have been a naturally-occurring hybrid of the Columbian mammoth and woolly mammoth), it may well have possessed characteristics recalling Elephas, because the woolly mammoth is certainly more closely related to the modern-day Asian elephant genus than to the African one.

Model of the Columbian mammoth on exhibition last year at the Natural History Museum, London (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Also worthy of note here is that some mammalian hybrids, ligers (lion x tigress hybrids) being a well-known example, actually attain dimensions exceeding those achieved by both of their progenitor species. Is it possible, therefore, that an adult Motty might have surpassed even his African elephant father in stature, thereby providing yet another parallel with the mighty Columbian mammoth?

Of course, all of this is speculation – entertaining, certainly, but completely speculative nonetheless. Even so, perhaps we should not be too surprised after all to discover that Motty, a hybrid deftly combining the African elephant's basic build and proportions with the more specific idiosyncrasies of the Asian elephant, may in adulthood have superficially recalled the Columbian mammoth – a fascinating outcome that, if correct, makes his demise even more tragic than ever, our modern-day world possibly having lost the nearest morphological evocation of the majestic but long-bygone Columbian mammoth that anyone will ever see.

My sincere thanks to Paul Willison for so kindly preparing and making available to me for inclusion here the photo-manipulated images of Motty's possible adult appearace.

Life-sized model of the Columbian mammoth on exhibition last year at the Natural History Museum, London (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Saturday 14 February 2015


Motty and his mother at Chester Zoo, July 1978 (© Mike Poustie, c/o Chris Poustie)

In an earlier ShukerNature article (click here). I documented the birth and tragically-short but zoologically-immortal, never-to-be-forgotten life of a truly unique animal – a little elephant called Motty. He has been referred to as the miracle elephant, and for good reason, because he was something that science had previously rejected as an outright impossibility – a hybrid between an African elephant Loxodonta africana (Motty's father) and an Asian elephant Elephas maximus (Motty's mother). No intergeneric elephant hybrid had ever been recorded before, and none has since, and almost certainly never will be ever again.

Motty was born at Chester Zoo, England, on 11 July 1978, but his arrival was totally unanticipated by everyone at the zoo, because although a male African elephant was being maintained together with some female Asian elephants there and had been seen mating with them, no-one had expected any offspring to result from such liaisons, because the genetic differences between the two genera that the African and Asian elephants respectively represent were deemed too great for such an event to occur. But somehow, incredibly, an offspring did result – Motty. Sadly, however, just 10 days after his zoologically historic birth, little Motty died, and a post-mortem revealed that he had been suffering from an unsuspected outbreak of necrotic enterocolitis plus E. coli septicaemia.

Motty was subsequently preserved as a taxiderm specimen and has been held ever since in the vast stores of London's Natural History Museum, but he has never been publicly displayed, which is a great shame, because such an extraordinary animal would surely attract considerable attention and interest.

Head-and-back view of Motty with his mother (© Mike Poustie, c/o Chris Poustie)

Due to his all-too-brief existence, very few images of Motty exist. However, he was photographed by Derek G. Lyon, who was Chester Zoo's chief veterinary surgeon at that time, and Derek has very kindly made his photos of Motty available to me to incorporate in any of my writings. Some of these pictures were duly included, therefore, in my previous Motty article on ShukerNature. As seen when viewing them (click here), they readily reveal the complex intermingling of morphological characteristics drawn from Motty's two very different progenitor species and embodied in his own singular appearance.

Now, moreover, I am delighted and very excited to announce that some additional Motty photographs have been brought to my attention – photos that have never previously been seen in public, but which, once again, have very kindly been made available to me by their owner for inclusion in my writings.

On 24 May 2013, a reader who identified himself only as Chris posted a short message beneath my original Motty article on ShukerNature informing me that he had actually seen Motty alive during a visit to Chester Zoo in mid-July 1978 with his father and brother when he was 6 years old, and that his father had snapped some colour photos of Motty. Chris promised to scan and email the photos to me if I'd like to see them. I swiftly confirmed that I would definitely like to see them, and on 3 January 2015 Chris sent them to me, revealing that his full name was Chris Poustie and his father's was Mike Poustie. Moreover, in a follow-up email, he stated that both of them were happy for me to utilise the photos as I wished in my publications and researches.

So now, officially unveiling them as a ShukerNature world-exclusive, here are some of the Poustie photos of Motty, interspersed throughout this present ShukerNature article – thanks very much, Mike and Chris!

Detailed view of Motty with his mother (© Mike Poustie, c/o Chris Poustie)

Once again, as with Derek's photos, they perfectly capture for all time Motty's fascinating intergeneric morphology, a composite creation unlike any other, and proof that whatever the odds, however implausible the prospect, somehow life will always find a way to express itself.

Whenever I think of Motty, I always wonder what he would have looked like had he survived to maturity. Would he have retained his unique combination of characters from both species, or would those inherited by him from one species have largely obliterated those inherited by him from the other? Might he have attained the huge size of his father – indeed, might he have even surpassed it, just like ligers (lion x tigress hybrids) often exceed the dimensions of both of their progenitor species?

Sadly, we will never know, and can only ever speculate. However, I feel sure that whatever appearance Motty would have assumed as an adult, it could not have been anything other than magnificent and marvellous – just as marvellous, in fact, as his very existence had been, and always will be.

UPDATE - 16 February 2015

I mentioned earlier in this present ShukerNature article how sad it was that we shall never know what Motty would have looked like had he survived into adulthood, only that whatever form his appearance may have taken, it would certainly have been unique, marvellous, and magnificent. But now, in another ShukerNature world-exclusive, thanks to a couple of amazing illustrations we may finally have an idea after all of just what the mature Motty could have looked like. And as if that were not extraordinary enough, what makes this new insight even more astonishing is a totally unexpected similarity to one of the world's most spectacular prehistoric mammals. Intrigued? Confused? Excited? Click here, and all will be revealed!

Full view of Motty with his mother (© Mike Poustie, c/o Chris Poustie)

Friday 13 February 2015


Aldabra giant tortoise (left) and hololissa (right) at Cotswolds Wildlife Park, showing shell differences (© Dr Karl Shuker)

The New World giant tortoises famously inhabiting the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean were once rivalled for size by several huge Old World species native to the Indian Ocean's granitic Seychelles group, the coral atoll of Aldabra, the Mascarene islands, and Madagascar. Of these, only the Aldabra giant tortoise Aldabrachelys [=Dipsochelys] gigantea [=dussumieri, =elephantina] is traditionally thought to have survived into the present day, the remainder having been killed for their meat during the 1700s and 1800s - or so it was thought, until Arnold's giant tortoise and the hololissa unexpectedly reappeared in modern times.

There has been much debate concerning the precise number of giant tortoise species native to the Seychelles. Four are currently recognised (although some researchers deem them merely to be subspecies of a single species), one of which was formally described in September 1982, by Dr Roger Bour from France's National Museum of Natural History. He based his description upon three old taxiderm specimens (two at the above museum, the third at the British Museum). They possessed various skeletal modifications that seemed to be adaptations to browsing, and originated from the granitic Seychelles islands. Bour named their species Dipsochelys [now Aldabrachelys] arnoldi, but as there did not seem to be any giant tortoises (other than Aldabra's) in the Seychelles today, he naturally assumed that it was extinct - belatedly recognised as a distinct species, yet irretrievably deceased.

Aldabra giant tortoises (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Imagine, then, his surprise when, while still preparing his paper, Bour was shown some photos by film producer Claud Pavard (who had taken them in August 1981) depicting two living giant tortoises that seemed to belong to his supposedly extinct species A. arnoldi. Nor was this the only surprise. The tortoises, males and very old, were living in semi-captivity at a sugar estate, but not in the Seychelles - instead, on Mauritius! Naturally, Bour hoped to visit Mauritius, to ascertain conclusively these potentially significant specimens' identity.

And that is where this most promising saga seemed to come to an abrupt end. During my preparation of my book The Lost Ark, published in 1993 and the first in my trilogy of volumes documenting new and rediscovered animals from 1900 onwards, I was unable to locate a single publication carrying any further news regarding these tortoises, and none of my zoological colleagues and correspondents had any details (sadly, I never succeeded in eliciting a reply from Dr Bour himself), though they were all as intrigued by it as I was. Happily, however, the mystery was finally solved in May 1992, when I learnt from British Museum herpetologist Dr Nick Arnold (after whom A. arnoldi had been named) that Dr Bour had indeed visited the two Mauritius specimens, but had found that they were not representatives of A. arnoldi after all.

The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (HarperCollins: London, 1993) (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Moreover, Dr Ian Swingland, Founding and Research Director of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), informed me that giant tortoises reared in captivity sometimes have shells that have become distorted in shape, due to the way in which these animals have been fed. In some cases, therefore, it is possible that they may even resemble the shells of quite unrelated species, and this is presumably what had happened in the case of the two Mauritius specimens, which were probably individuals originating from Aldabra. Captivity-induced distortion of shell shape can cause problems for tortoise taxonomists too, especially if they are dealing with specimens whose life histories are unknown (and which, therefore, may have been reared in captivity).

Of course, one objection that could immediately have been raised in relation to this entire episode is the fact that supposed specimens of A. arnoldi were discovered not in the Seychelles, but instead in Mauritius. As it happens, however, this objection can be effectively countered - because a number of giant tortoises from the Seychelles are known to have been introduced there after that island's own indigenous species had been exterminated during the 1700s. In particular, the French explorer Marion de Fresne transported five such specimens in 1776 from the Seychelles to his military barracks on Mauritius. What was assumed to be the last of this quintet died there in 1918, but there may have been others too, whose records have failed to survive to the present day.

A pair of Aldabra giant tortoises mating - intriguingly, the top specimen has a markedly flat-backed shell, resembling the saddle-backed shell of Arnold's giant tortoise (public domain)  

In any event, what did seem clear at the time of writing The Lost Ark was that none of the long-lost species of Seychelles giant tortoise had been resurrected after all. During 1995, however, another discovery was made - one that added a new and much more dramatic chapter to this long-running saga of mistaken and incognito identities.

In January of that year, the Nature Protection Trust of Seychelles (NPTS) learnt of two very large, and very old, male tortoises living in the garden of a Seychelles hotel. When examined by Dr Justin Gerlach and K. Laura Canning, chief scientists with the NPTS, they were found to exhibit pronounced flaring, flattening, and scalloping of the carapace, especially over the hind legs - characteristics that distinguished them from the Aldabra giant tortoise but corresponded closely with those of Arnold's supposedly long-extinct species.

Arnold's giant tortoise (© Editha@emys-home.de /Wikipedia)

Enquiries revealed that these and one other male specimen had been purchased in 1994 from an old local man, in whose family they had been throughout living memory. The third had died in December 1994, but its skeleton was preserved and donated to the NPTS's scientific collections. Cranial studies subsequently determined that it was indeed distinct from the Aldabra species. Genetic studies were also set in motion, to bypass any possible misclassification based solely upon morphological characteristics - which can, as already ably demonstrated with the earlier episode of the Mauritius specimens, be very deceptive.

By early 1997, several additional specimens of unusual giant tortoise had been discovered in various Seychelles localities and examined by Gerlach. Moreover, whereas some of these resembled Arnold's giant tortoise, eight others closely recalled a second supposedly long-vanished species - the hololissa Dipsochelys [now Aldabrachelys] hololissa. Previously, this latter species had been known only from two shells found in 1810, described in 1877, and destroyed in the 1940s by German bombing raids during the London Blitz. It formerly inhabited various granitic islands of the Seychelles, where it grazed vegetation on the edges of streams and marshes, but had vanished in the wild by 1840.

Hololissa at Prague Zoo (© travelviaitaly/Wikipedia)

In March 1997, Dr Les Noble conducted genetic tests at Aberdeen University on blood samples taken by Gerlach from a large selection of live Seychelles giant tortoises, including the controversial ones. These tests showed that three distinct groups could be identified, revealing that eight of the specimens were hololissas, two were Arnold's giant tortoises, and the remainder were Aldabra giants. But this was still not the end of the story.

A year later, Blackpool Zoo in England announced that Darwin, the Aldabra giant tortoise that had been living there for the past 25 years, was not a member of the Aldabra species after all. While closely scrutinising photos of recently-discovered living specimens of the hololissa, staff at the zoo were astonished to discover that they looked just like Darwin. Anxious to learn more, they duly contacted Gerlach, who visited the zoo, examined Darwin, and confirmed that he was indeed a living hololissa. This presumably explains why he has never successfully mated with Beagle, the female Aldabra giant tortoise that accompanied him when he arrived at Blackpool in 1972 - because they belong to separate species.

Hololissa at Cotswolds Wildlife Park (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Similarly, I subsequently learnt from the Cotswold Wildlife Park, also in England, that one of their supposed Aldabra giant tortoises had also been unmasked as a hololissa. Moreover, by the end of 1999 at least 12 living hololissa individuals and 18 living individuals of Arnold's giant tortoise had been revealed in various locations around the world, including a very impressive specimen at Prague Zoo in the Czech Republic.

Snapped in 1905 when its subject was still alive on Mauritius, a vintage black-and-white photograph still exists of what is now believed by some researchers to have been a hololissa, taken there from its native Seychelles homeland in 1764. Living in the Court House Garden on Mauritius, this venerable individual was therefore at least 140 years old at the time of being photographed, but was probably much older, because no-one knows how old it already was at the time of its transportation there from the Seychelles.

Possible hololissa on Mauritius, vintage 1905 photograph (public domain)

All of which invites speculation as to how many other incognito specimens of hololissa and Arnold's giant tortoise may still be awaiting identification elsewhere. By the end of 1997, the NPTS had introduced several specimens of hololissa and Arnold's giant tortoise to Silhouette Island (third largest of the central Seychelles islands) in order to initiate captive breeding programmes for both of these recently-revived species and thus ensure their continuing survival, and it continues to search for more possible examples in captive collections worldwide.

Officially known as the NPTS Seychelles Giant Tortoise Conservation Project, its patron is veteran wildlife film maker and broadcaster David Attenborough. Its long-term goal is to increase the numbers of both species in order to permit reintroduction to secure reserve sites within the Seychelles group - thereby restoring in viable form two remarkable endemics to their native island homeland after more than 150 years of 'official' non-existence.

Child riding Aldabra giant tortoise at Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, readily demonstrating just how large these tortoises are (Wikipedia/public domain)

All that now remains to be accomplished in order for this tale of tortoise resurrection to be complete is for the fourth species of Seychelles giant tortoise – D. [now Aldabrachelys] daudinii, Daudin's giant tortoise – to be rediscovered. Known only from the Seychelles island of Mahé and named in honour of French zoologist François Marie Daudin (1776-1803), it was formally described and named in 1835, but officially became extinct in 1850.

Judging from the recent success in revealing hitherto-unrecognised living specimens of the hololissa and Arnold's giant tortoise, however, who can say with absolute certainty that there are no incognito A. daudinii individuals out there somewhere too, alive and well but in blissful ignorance of the fact that their species is officially long-extinct?! To be continued…?

This ShukerNature article is expanded and updated from my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals (2012).

Tuesday 10 February 2015


Engraving of an extraordinary triple-bodied, single-headed lamb that reputedly existed in Hungary in 1620

Many years ago, a correspondent sent me a photocopy of the remarkable engraving that opens this present ShukerNature article. It depicts what was allegedly a living lamb with three fully-formed bodies united by a single head. According to the caption included in the engraving, this extreme developmental monstrosity (the study of such freaks is known as teratology, which translates as 'the study of monsters') had been seen in Klausenburg, Hungary, during July 1620. (Incidentally, I have never been able to trace the original source of this engraving, so if anyone reading my article has any information concerning it, I'd welcome all details. Also: Klausenburg was technically part of Transylvania during the 1600s, which in turn was assimilated into Hungary before eventually becoming part of present-day Romania.)

A developmental monstrosity born with a single head but two bodies is known technically as a syncephalus or monocephalus, and is basically a pair of incompletely-separated (conjoined) twins in which, during embrogeny, the head (cephalic) portion of the originally-single embryo has not differentiated into two separate heads but has instead remained as a solitary undivided unit, thus developing into only a single head, whereas the body portion of the originally-single embryo has split into two halves with each half developing into a body. (Less common and more deleterious to survival is the reverse derivation of a syncephalus, in which a pair of separate twins originally develop but the heads of the two twins subsequently fuse during embryogeny with one head becoming reabsorbed into the other.) There is, however, a great deal of variation on record with regard to the degree of body-portion splitting occurring, so that in some cases the two bodies remain joined together rather than separating from each other – as seen with the following syncephalic lamb, illustrated in an early engraving of unknown origin (at least to me).

Engraving of a syncephalic lamb displaying incomplete separation of its two bodies

Examples of syncephaly have been recorded from many different animal species, including our own Homo sapiens. However, because of internal anatomical complications, not to mention the physiological strain of a single head attempting to maintain full neurological control and metabolic functioning of two bodies, syncephalic individuals possessing totally discrete bodies rarely survive for very long following birth. (In contrast, bicephalic or dicephalous individuals, possessing a single body but two heads, do sometimes survive to maturity, especially in certain creatures such as terrapins and snakes – click here for more information concerning two-headed snakes.)

Consequently, the concept of a surviving syncephalic lamb that possessed not just two but three completely separated bodies seemed too surreal, let alone too implausible, to warrant even the most cursory of considerations. So I simply filed away the engraving in one of my folders of teratological material and forgot all about it – until last Friday, 6 February 2015. For that was when I paid a visit to a very special attraction and saw something there that totally challenged my previous assumptions concerning syncephalic animals and their likelihood of surviving for any notable length of time following birth – and, in turn, made me think again about that anomalous triplicate lamb from Hungary.

Robert Ripley, founder of the Ripley's Believe It Or Not! franchise (public domain/Wikipedia)

The attraction in question was Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium London (click here to visit its official website). Situated on the corner of London's Piccadilly Circus, this is a spectacular six-storey exhibition centre that is packed throughout with bizarre curiosities and interactive displays celebrating the famous books, TV shows, and newspaper strips documenting all manner of incredibly weird yet wonderful people, animals, buildings, creations, and much much more that were originally compiled, collected, and drawn by entrepreneur-cartoonist Robert Ripley (1890-1949) for his countless publications.

Experiencing some Mesozoic mayhem at Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium London (© Dr Karl Shuker)

As a zoologist, it was obviously the various –and extremely varied – animal attractions that particularly interested me, and I was certainly not disappointed in the array on display. There are many Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditoriums worldwide, especially in the USA (but with London's being the largest one of all), and they have become synonymous with teratological animals. There was certainly a goodly selection here in London (some of which were actual taxiderm specimens, others models of real specimens), including several two-headed creatures, animals with extra (supernumerary) limbs (a condition known as polymelia), and other equally curious caprices.

One such creature was a rooster with three separate legs that had been found in 1998 in England (exact location not specified), and was on display alongside a five-legged lamb (its right hind limb was a double leg), again from England and found during the early 1990s.

A three-legged rooster and a five-legged lamb – two polymelic animals at Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium London (© Dr Karl Shuker)

The two-headed lamb standing close by had been born in Shandong, China, in 2006, and both of its heads were fully functioning, with separate personalities.

Ripley's two-headed lamb from Shandong, China (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Just behind it was a pair of conjoined ('Siamese') piglets, joined back-to-back but with separate necks and heads (thus constituting a lesser version of the controversial rachipagus condition, in which conjoined twins are joined dorsally from the back of their heads down the entire length of their backs). These conjoined piglet twins were apparently similar in form to a pair possessed by the eminent Russian tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725), who famously owned a sizeable collection of scientific curiosities (click here for more information concerning this).

The conjoined piglets at Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium London (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Just inside the entrance to the odditorium was a taxiderm specimen of an adult black-and-white Friesian cow, which looked totally normal – until I realised that a fully-formed fifth leg complete with hoofed foot was growing outwards and upwards from between its shoulders! This bizarre teratological condition is called notomelia, and indicates that during this cow's embryogeny a supernumerary, aberrantly-located limb bud had developed. Alternatively, but more dramatically, as an example of what could be termed pseudonotomelia it is possible that the cow had originated as a pair of twins but that one of these two twins had subsequently degenerated and had been almost totally reabsorbed into the other one during their embryonic development, with only the single limb providing external evidence of the absorbed twin's former existence as a separate entity. (A very similar instance of notomelia, featuring a male Friesian calf, was published in the July 2014 issue of the Canadian Veterinary Journal.)

Ripley's notomelic Friesian cow possessing a dorsally-sited supernumerary leg, plus the heads and forequarters of a small white two-headed calf (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Here's another two-headed calf that was on display:

Two-headed calf at Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium London (© Dr Karl Shuker)

And here's an albino alligator, complete with ruby-red eyes:

Albino alligator at Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium London (© Dr Karl Shuker)

There were also a number of life-sized models of famous human curiosities. At one extreme was a model of Alypius, a dwarf from Alexandria during ancient Egyptian times, who was only 43 cm (17 in) tall, and whose fitting punishment for committing treason was imprisonment inside a parrot cage!

Model of Alypius at Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium London (© Dr Karl Shuker)

And at the other extreme, standing in front of a full-sized American mastodon skeleton that only served to emphasise his truly exceptional stature, was a full-sized model of Robert Wadlow (1918-1940), immortalised in the record books as the world's tallest man. Suffering from pituitary-induced gigantism, when he died aged just 22 years old he was already a little over 8 ft 11 in tall, and was still growing. Indeed, had he grown just under one inch more, he would have been the only confirmed 9-ft-tall human ever recorded. Standing alongside this real-life giant's model, even at a respectable 5 ft 10 in tall I still felt totally overshadowed by him, and overawed too.

Standing alongside the life-sized model of Robert Wadlow at Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium London (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Equally eyecatching was a full-sized bust of a man exhibiting hypertrichosis, also known as werewolf syndrome as persons displaying this condition of extreme hairiness were once believed by the superstitious to be lycanthropes.

Bust of a man exhibiting hypertrichosis at Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium London (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Also well worthy of attention was the conical, elongated skull of an ancient Peruvian, its extreme shape having resulted from the practice prevalent then and there of using tightly-wrapped cloth, boards, and rope to distort the shape of a child's growing skull via rigorous binding.

Manually-distorted conical skull of an ancient Peruvian at Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium London (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Yet despite all of these wonders and marvels, the specimen that startled me most at Ripley's Believe It Or Not Odditorium London was not actually on physical display there. Instead, it appeared – and even then only very fleetingly – on  a video being played in loop format on a screen close to most of the teratological animal specimens. The video showed a selection of teratological animals that were on display at various odditoriums around the world, and also included some footage of certain of these animals when they were still alive. Watching this video, I was astonished when a couple of seconds of film was shown of a living, seemingly adult, and clearly perfectly healthy syncephalic donkey, which consisted of a single head to which were connected two completely separated, fully-formed bodies!

By the time that my mind had registered this astonishing image, the video had moved on to showing other specimens, so I waited until it looped back to the beginning and then looked out for the donkey footage. After studying it intently when it reappeared, there was no doubt in my mind about what I had seen. It was indeed as I'd thought it to be on first viewing, both in form and in condition, though even now I struggle to comprehend how such a creature could survive to maturity – two independent four-legged bodies linked to a single controlling head.

After then waiting for the footage to come round a third time, when it did so I snapped a photo of this amazing donkey-in-duplicate, which although of poor quality would serve as a visual record of it for my files, and I vowed to investigate the matter further when I returned home. After all, if such a creature could truly exist and survive to adulthood, even the ostensibly impossible triplicate-bodied syncephalic lamb of Hungary suddenly seemed less implausible.

My photographic record of the syncephalic donkey as featured in the video shown at Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium London (© Dr Karl Shuker/Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium London)

And sure enough, my online researches have indeed confirmed the donkey's reality. Named Rascal, he was a miniature donkey owned by farmer Paul Springer whose farm is situated near Mineral Point, Wisconsin, USA. Paul's longstanding interest in teratological livestock has led him over the years to purchase a number of specimens that exhibit some anatomical peculiarity but are otherwise healthy and not suffering in any way, and allow them to live out a full, happy life on his farm instead of being slaughtered by their original owners either for their meat or simply because they were different.

Paul's first purchase was a six-legged calf called Boldegard during the 1970s, who went on to enjoy a long 14-year life on Paul's farm, followed by a range of other animals with extra legs, additional horns, two heads, or, in Rascal's case, one head and two bodies. Following their eventual deaths, half a dozen of the most striking individuals have been sold by Paul to the Ripley's Believe It Or Not! franchise for exhibition in various of their odditoriums. So it is possible that Rascal is on display in one of them, somewhere in the world. Consequently, if any of my readers have seen him, and can send me details, I'd very much like to receive them here – many thanks indeed in advance!

How uplifting it is to read of Paul Springer's compassion for all of the out-of-the-ordinary creatures that he has rescued from certain premature death. When asked in a media interview (WSAW.com 15 November 2009) what compelled him to rescue and care for animals with abnormalities, his answer was as inspirational as it was direct:

"There's something about them that maybe I feel sorry for. I give them a life. Most people will put them down and sell them. I am proud of them. People who see them, it gives them a chance to realize that everything isn't [normal], whether it be human beings or pigs or people or cats or dogs, we're not all born normal. Just because somebody has a handicap, they shouldn't be shunned. They should be given every chance, and love and attention that's possible."

Amen to that!

Rascal when alive (© Paul Springer)