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



Monday 26 December 2016


The elephant rat portrayed in the Hours of Joanna the Mad (public domain)

It's been quite a while since I last presented a ShukerNature Picture of the Day, but what better way to reintroduce this intermittent feature than with a creature so exotic in form that even though it doesn't exist, it should do!

I am referring to an extraordinary mini-beast of the medieval marginalia, i.e. one of the innumerable creatures of curiosity and composite nature (variously dubbed grotesques if strange or drolleries if humorous) that populate and decorate the edges of illuminated manuscripts prepared many centuries ago by monks and other theological scholars or chroniclers. In a previous ShukerNature blog article (click here), I documented one particularly intriguing example that has appeared in several such works – the snail-cat. Now, here is another, which for obvious reasons I am herewith officially dubbing the elephant rat.

A snail-cat, depicted in the Maastricht Hours – an illuminated devotional manuscript produced in the Netherlands during the early 1300s (public domain)

As can be seen from the illustration opening this present ShukerNature article and which, to my knowledge, is the only example of such a bizarre composite, the elephant rat deftly combines the head and body of a typical rat with the long trunk and tusks of an elephant, plus a series of odd, knobbly protuberances all over its back that seem entirely peculiar to itself. And as if all of that were not distinctive enough, this remarkable rodent also sports an exceptionally fine set of white bushy side-whiskers.

The illustration in question is from folio 203r ('r' referring to the folio's recto side) of an illuminated manuscript known variously as the Hours of Joanna the Mad or, more formally, as the Hours of Joanna I of Castile. This particular folio is part of a section of the Hours that deals with the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Joanna the Mad, Queen of Castile (from 1504) and Aragon (from 1516); portrait by Juan de Flandes, c.1500 (public domain)

Quoting from my earlier snail-cat article:

The Hours of Joanna the Mad is an illuminated book of hours manuscript that had originally been owned by Joanna of Castile (1479-1555), the (controversially) mentally-ill consort of Philip the Handsome, king of Castile. It had been produced for her in the city of Bruges (in what is now Belgium) some time between 1486 and 1506, but is now held as Add. MS 18852 in the British Library. As with so many others of its kind, this illuminated manuscript's margins are plentifully supplied with grotesques and drolleries.

The elephant rat is unquestionably among the most memorable of these, and serves as a good example of both categories by being both strange and humorous.

The complete folio 203r from the Hours of Joanna the Mad containing the elephant rat depiction (public domain)

And while on the subject of humour, it is widely believed by researchers of medieval manuscripts that a considerable number of these marginalia monsters arose as nothing more significant or symbolic than attempts by the manuscripts' illuminators and copiers to stave off the boredom induced by very long, tedious hours working upon them by slyly inserting these fantasy creatures as subversive jokes and mockery of the deadly serious nature of the manuscripts' official, devotional content. Or, to put it another way, they are merely medieval doodles, but delightful ones nonetheless, well worth documenting and celebrating in their own right.

Speaking of which: as noted earlier, I am presently aware of only a single elephant rat representation in illuminated manuscripts – the one documented by me here. But as with snail-cats, there may be additional examples tucked away in the margins of others. So if anyone reading this ShukerNature article is aware of such examples, I'd greatly welcome details!

The Hispaniolan solenodon Solenodon paradoxus. Solenodons are quite large but exceedingly-endangered West Indian insectivores that are probably the only modern-day, real-life creatures offering even the remotest outward resemblance to the medieval, imaginary elephant rat (© Sandstein/Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)


  1. When I was little I was shown a dead Elephant Shrew, and then decided to draw it later from memory.

    When I drew the whiskers, I remember wondering if it had tusks (I couldn't remember)! Assuming it had tusks, because it was after all an Elephant Shrew, I drew the tusks in - and made a bit of a mess as I could not figure out where the whiskers and tusks went!

    1. I think that this elephant rat originated in much the same way, as either a very erroneous attempt to illustrate a real creature, or, more likely, a deliberately humorous invention created by some bored medieval illuminator.

  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephant_shrew

    1. Yes,I thought about elephant shrews - or sengis as they are nowadays termed - in relation to this creature, but they bear no resemblance at all, less even than the solenodons. My feeling is that this was simply a humorous invention by some bored illuminator, much the same as the snail-cats and suchlike, combining an elephant's head with the body of a rodent most likely.