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, 31 December 2018


There stood a foul thing, a great, black beast, shaped like a hound, yet larger than any hound that ever mortal eye has rested upon. And even as they looked the thing tore the throat out of Hugo Baskerville, on which, as it turned its blazing eyes and dripping jaws upon them, the three [men] shrieked with fear and rode for dear life, still screaming, across the moor.

   Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Hound of the Baskervilles

Monstrous black dog statue in New Zealand (public domain)

In many lands around the world, the week spanning Christmas Day and New Year's Day is often deemed to be an uncanny even preternatural period of time, during which all manner of strange events may occur or surreal entities be seen. So when better than now to present as my final ShukerNature article for 2018, an examination of the truly mystifying phenomenon of phantom Black Dogs.

The monstrous canine star of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous Sherlock Holmes novel would be terrifying enough if it were wholly fictitious. Incredibly, however, Conan Doyle's inspiration came from reality – generations of sightings and lore concerning a black-furred phantom dog known locally as the Black Dog of Hergest on the English-Welsh border. Moreover, many people do not realise that there really is a Baskerville Hall, near the Welsh border village of Clyro, to be precise – at which Conan Doyle stayed, and where he heard tales of the ominous Black Dog.

It was only to preserve the privacy of the Baskerville family that when Conan Doyle decided to use their name and the Black Dog legend as the basis for a forthcoming Sherlock Holmes novel, he relocated it from Wales to Dartmoor. Yet here too there are a number of legends of spectral, ebony-hued hounds with fiery eyes (of which Conan Doyle was also aware), just as there are in many other British localities, as well as in mainland Europe, and even in regions as far-flung as North America and Australia. Collectively, these canine apparitions are variously referred to as Black Dogs or Hell Hounds, and are among the most perplexing, and, quite often, sinister, zooform (animal-assuming, paranormal) entities on record.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sidney Paget (public domain)

Many sightings are associated with certain country lanes or paths, and there is more than one inn and public house in England named 'The Black Dog' on account of Black Dog legends linked to nearby walkways. Churchyards are another frequently-reported location for Black Dog sightings (these Black Dogs are termed Church Grims or Kirkgrims), as are localities close to stretches of water, and even certain urban roads and streets are reputedly haunted by these eerie entities.

So commonly spied are certain regional Black Dog manifestations that they have their own names, such as Black Shuck in Norfolk, Padfoot in Staffordshire, Barguest in Yorkshire, Hooter in Warwickshire, Hairy Jack in Lincolnshire, Gwyllgi (Welsh for 'dog of darkness') on the Welsh coast, Mauthe Doog in the Isle of Man, Skriker ('howler') or Trask in Lancashire, Muckle Black Tyke in parts of Scotland, and Tchico in Jersey.

'Church Grim', painted by Inès Lee and commissioned by Sir John Das (© Wikipedia/ Inès Lee – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)


Of course, there are all manner of comfortingly corporeal, perfectly prosaic canine beasties running loose in our towns and countryside, having absconded from or been let off the lead by their owners. So how can we tell these 'normal' black dogs from the 'real' Black Dogs? There are, in fact, several very important signs to look out for.


First and foremost: Black Dogs often exhibit the alarming ability to vanish into thin air, in full view of their astonished eyewitnesses. One excellent example of this occurred on 19 April 1972 at Gorleston, in Norfolk. It was about 4.45 am, when coastguard Graham Grant caught sight of a very big, jet-black hound-like creature running along the beach. Grant stood watching it for a few moments until suddenly, as he continued to look at it, the animal disappeared! One second it was there, the next – gone!

Across 'the pond', 16-year-old Mark Chester from Atlanta, Georgia, and a friend, Jeff, were driving one evening in 1979 along the aptly-named North Druid Hills Road when, about 75 yards ahead on his side, Mark saw what looked like a black labrador retriever trot out into the road. As it was not yet dark and the road was well lit by streetlights, this animal was perfectly visible, despite its dark coat. To the teenager's amazement, however, just as the 'dog' was approximately three-quarters of the way across the road, it simply vanished. Jeff saw it vanish too. Recalling the incident 15 years later, Mark was still certain of what he had seen: "I know what I saw. There is no doubt in my mind that something was in the road that night and then it wasn't".

In 1981, Irene Cole and her husband were driving along the Stanner Road in Herefordshire, and were just a mile or so from Kington, when they saw an immense Black Dog sitting motionless in the road, at the bottom of a hill. Her husband swerved to miss it, there was no impact, and the dog simply vanished, without a trace.

The main road that the Wednesbury-Darlaston Brown Dog has often been seen crossing, only for it to vanish before reaching the other side (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Intriguingly, there is a main road situated little more than a mile from where I live in the West Midlands, linking the urban towns of Wednesbury and Darlaston, that has a longstanding history of evanescent Black Dog occurrences – though the term 'Black Dog' is applied somewhat loosely here...bearing in mind that this particular Black Dog is actually brown! Be that as it may, in best Black Dog tradition this Brown Dog is allegedly seen crossing the road, only to vanish from sight before reaching the other side. So far, I have never seen it myself, but as it is supposed to be an ill omen, this is probably no bad thing! (Having said that, my surname is actually linked to Black Dogs – click here for my ShukerNature coverage of this intriguing fact.)


Certainly, a notable characteristic of Black Dogs according to legend, lore, and also modern-day testimony is that they are said to be harbingers of doom, their appearance often foretelling death or impending bad luck – and which is almost always guaranteed if anyone is unwise enough to touch such a creature, especially if done in a violent, threatening manner.

One evening in 1927, a friend of the famous Manx author Walter Gill was walking along a road close to Ramsey when he came upon a typical phantasmal Black Dog – jet-furred and fiery-eyed – standing directly in his path so that he was unable to pass, and staring resolutely into his face. Mindful of the danger of making physical contact with a Black Dog, Gill's friend made no attempt to push by it, but stood his ground and waited, until eventually the Black Dog moved to one side, allowing him to pass. Nevertheless, its very presence had seemingly been dire enough, for not long afterwards the father of Gill's friend died, and he was convinced that the Black Dog's appearance had been a warning of this.

Fiery glowing eyes are a recurring characteristic of Black Dog reports (public domain)

Back in 1893, two men driving a cart along a Norfolk lane had similarly encountered a blaze-eyed Black Dog blocking their path. Unlike Gill's friend, however, they had shown far less patience and wisdom, because the driver aggressively ran their cart directly at the creature! As soon as the cart hit it, however, the Black Dog vanished in a brilliant ball of fire, filling the air with a vile sulphurous stench, and just a few days later the driver died.

Judging from that, the Dartmoor farmer who struck with a poker a red-eyed Black Dog that had appeared outside his and his wife's bedroom door one early winter morning in 1972 was lucky indeed to escape with his life. Just as in the Norfolk incident, the Black Dog instantly vanished in a blinding, exploding flash of light, but the farmer and his wife experienced no ill effects. The same, however, could not be said for their house, whose entire electrical circuitry was destroyed, along with every window, and even a number of tiles on the roof were dislodged, such was the power of the explosion.

Sometimes, those few who have been brave, or foolish, enough to touch a Black Dog and have survived the experience have reported a very eerie characteristic of their close encounters. Stretching out to stroke or pat the Black Dog, they have found to their amazement that their hand has passed straight through it, as if the creature were no more than an illusion, or ghost, and also that the Black Dog has not even reacted to their action – just as if it were not even aware of their presence.

Statuette of a Black Dog (© Dr Karl Shuker)


As already noticeable from the reports documented so far, a readily visible feature immediately distinguishing Black Dogs from black dogs is the blazing, scarlet appearance of the former entities' eyes. "Like live coals inside the monstrous head" is how one terrified Black Dog eyewitness, a student from Trinity College, Dublin, described them after seeing a huge Black Dog walking towards him one spring day in 1928, as he was fishing in a river close to his Londonderry home during the Easter holiday. So petrified was the student by this rapidly-approaching apparition that he abandoned his fishing and clambered for safety into the branches of a tree close by, from where, still shaking with fright, he gazed down as the Black Dog walked underneath and looked up at him, baring its teeth, before passing on by.

Eye-shine in normal, flesh-and-blood dogs is a greenish-yellow glow. Having said that, during some investigations of mine into eye-shine in animals I discovered that certain eye conditions, such as cataracts and keratitis, can create an abnormal reddish eye glow or bloom in dogs (click here for more information). So it is possible that at least a few cases of red-eyed Black Dogs were actually nothing more than normal, flesh-and-blood black dogs with eye ailments. However, this cannot explain all Black Dog reports with glowing red eyes – there are far too many on record.

Rough, shaggy fur is another frequently-described facet of Black Dog morphology, as well as caliginous, and sometimes fiery, sulphurous breath - more distinct than the normal panting breath of a dog rendered visible on a cold morning.

A rough-furred, labrador-lookalike Black Dog pub sign (© Dr Karl Shuker)


In the vast majority of reported cases, Black Dogs are said to be entirely silent, padding alongside or near to their eyewitness in a spookily soundless manner. Curiously, however, one or two of these ghostly creatures are associated with the sound of rattling chains, and there are also a handful of reports describing splashing noises, as if the creature were wading through or emerging from water.

A famous Black Dog associated with chains is the Newgate Monster, reported and depicted in a broadside from as long ago as 1638. This sinister Black Dog apparently was often seen gliding up and down the streets adjacent to the ivy-covered wall at the end of Amen Court, and sometimes crawling along the top of the wall itself, dragging a heavy chain, just before an execution was due to take place at the original Newgate Prison nearby (the new Newgate Prison was built there in 1783).

Moreover, in traditional lore, some of the diabolical Hell Hounds are given to voicing ferocious, spine-chilling howls and bays, terrifying their onlookers.

Two engraving depicting the Newgate Black Dog and its chain (public domain)


An extremely noticeable physical characteristic of Black Dogs is their very large size. For whereas some have been likened to labradors, others have been compared in size with calves and even small horses! Take, for instance, the red-eyed Irish Black Dog seen lying in the road early one evening in the 1930s by a person walking her dog close to County Mayo's Pontoon Bridge Hotel – so huge did it appear that she had initially assumed it to be a donkey! Similarly, the fiery-eyed, shaggy-furred Black Dog that haunts a lane in Uplyme, Devon – so regularly, in fact, that this route is actually named Dog Lane (there is also a Black Dog hotel there) – was said by a local woman who saw it in 1856 to be as big as a calf.

Intriguingly, in October 1972 Tavistock police constable John Duckworth spied an enormous canine mystery beast on Dartmoor – resembling a black hound the size of a small pony, it had been seen by him once before, three years earlier. As recently as 1995, James Sanderson and three friends were driving home from Smarden, Kent, when they stopped in some fog, and were astonished to see a Black Dog walk by that was as big as their car. In 1986, after hearing a scratching sound in his yard, Robert Harman of South Tuckswood, Suffolk, decided to investigate, and was very startled to see a huge dog with red eyes leap over his wall.

In 2001, Danish theologian Lars Munk encountered the famous Black Dog of Viborg, Denmark, one evening just after midnight at the ley-linked location within Viborg where this canine entity has been sighted many times down through the centuries. Sporting pointed ears and a ridge of harsh hairs along its back, it walked under a street light and looked directly at Munk, shimmering with a weird flickering fluorescent-green light before abruptly disappearing into the darkness. Clearly, Black Dogs are still very much around!

A Black Dog ridden by a witch, from La Vie Execrable de Guillemette Babin, Sorciere, 1926 (public domain)


There can be little doubt, judging from the sizeable archive of reports on file, that Black Dogs do exist – but what they actually are is much less easy to determine. Their ability to vanish in full view of their observer and their apparent insubstantial nature confirm that unlike their feline counterparts, Britain's motley assortment of mystery cats, Black Dogs are more than merely elusive creatures of cryptozoology. Instead, they are non-physical, preternatural entities, of superficially canine appearance but exhibiting some unequivocally non-canine attributes, both morphological and behavioural.

Based upon their definite attachment to certain specific physical localities, especially certain lanes, streams or rivers, churchyards, and even some ancient sites (many researchers have noted links between Black Dog appearances and the presence of ley lines, which are in turn associated with these types of locality), a popular identity proffered by investigators is that Black Dogs are a form of preserved image from the past – somehow preserved within a locality's geological composition, and which can be activated if precise meteorological conditions are met. Similar notions have also been proposed to explain other spectral phenomena, such as ghosts, and disembodied voices.

It would be as if a film projector loaded with a loop of film had suddenly been switched on, and its film had been allowed to run its course. This theory would certainly help to explain various anomalous Black Dog reports in which the Black Dog has not interacted with its observer in any way, instead behaving in a manner seemingly oblivious to the observer's presence. In contrast, however, most Black Dog cases involve direct interaction between observer and Black Dog, which could not occur if the latter entity were, in essence, nothing more than a preserved, meteorologically-triggered, moving image from the past.

Are Black Dogs hallucinations? (© Jane Cooper)

A related hypothesis is that certain meteorological conditions, especially those associated with electrical phenomena, may induce hallucinations in people susceptible to such stimuli. There is also the analogous possibility that some Black Dog experiences are temporal lobe apparitions – damage or malfunctions in this particular paired region of the brain are known to generate hallucinations during epileptic seizures, including ones that have the appearance (to the subject experiencing them) of external paranormal phenomena, including unearthly entities. Yet another psychologically-grounded theory is that certain people are actively generating these canine apparitions using the power, consciously or otherwise, of their own mind, yielding tulpoid Black Dogs that can fully interact with their creators and even other people.

In some cases, they may even be hallucinations brought about by fatigue. For example, crypto-colleague George Warren Shank mentioned to me in September 2012 that in the USA truckers and other long-distance drivers are so familiar with spying non-existent black dogs induced by sleep deprivation and tiredness that they refer to them as dodgers, and on more than one occasion have nearly swerved off the road in order to avoid hitting such creatures, only to discover that there was nothing there.

Perhaps the most popular idea is that Black Dogs are archetypal guardians of their respective localities, and, by extension in some cases, of people passing through these localities. There are several cases on file, for instance, of women walking alone at night along some lonely, potentially dangerous road, only to find themselves abruptly accompanied by a large Black Dog, walking silently beside them, and staying in their company until they are close or within sight of their destination, whereupon the dog vanishes as mysteriously and suddenly as it had appeared.

The Black Dog – an aloof anomaly in canine guise (public domain)


Whereas most Black Dogs are of the traditional, quasi-labrador kind described above, notwithstanding their fiery eyes and often-intangible nature, some far more exotic, even downright bizarre variations on this canine theme have also been reported.

Black Shuck of Norfolk usually assumes the 'normal' Black Dog form, but on occasion has been reported as a terrifying hound totally lacking a head! Moreover, sometimes his head is missing but his blazing eyes are still present, floating in a decidedly unnerving, disembodied manner above his body at the level at which they would be if his head were present!

And speaking of headless hounds: the spectral Wish Hounds of Dartmoor (also termed Yeth Hounds or Yell Hounds) are also said to lack heads, whereas the unique Black Dog that traditionally haunts the environs of Suffolk's Clopton Hall is human-headed – specifically, it sports the head of a cowled monk.

Hell Hounds pursuing a human victim during the Wild Hunt (public domain)

Most terrifying of all are the Devil's Dandy Dogs. Hailing from Cornwall, these huge jet-black diabolical Hell Hounds have saucer-sized blazing eyes, tongues of fire dart from their mouth, and on their head is a pair of horns! They are said to accompany the devil when he hunts on horseback across the Cornish moors, in search of human souls.

Incidentally, whenever I read about such creatures having saucer-sized eyes, I am irresistibly reminded of the trio of giant black huge-eyed dogs encountered by the soldier in Hans Christian Andersen's famous fairy tale 'The Tinder Box'. Might this story have been inspired by real-life reports of phantom Black Dogs in his native Denmark?

One of the three huge-eyed black dogs encountered by the soldier when opening the magic tinder box in Hans Christian Andersen's beloved fairy tale – illustrated by H.J. Ford for Andrew Lang's Yellow Fairy Book, 1894 (public domain)


One of the most terrifying Black Dog appearances ever recorded allegedly took place on the morning of 4 August 1577 in the small Suffolk town of Bungay. During a fierce electrical storm, a ferocious, malevolent Black Dog materialised inside St Mary's Church, and ran amok through it, attacking the terrified parishioners and leaving havoc and horror in its wake. According to records dating from that time, this "strange and terrible wunder [sic]" tore the throats out of its victims, and scorched one hapless man as if he were a piece of leather burnt in a hot fire. Nor was that all.

Other records claim that on that same day, during the electrical storm, what was presumably the same Black Dog appeared 10 miles away inside another Suffolk church, this time the splendorous Holy Trinity Church at Blythburgh, where similar devastation ensued, with at least three people being slain by the beast, and even the church steeple collapsing, causing the deaths of several more parishioners inside. Moreover, when this Hell Hound finally exited the church, it left the marks of its great claws gouged into the church's door, which can still be seen today (a modern-day photo of them is contained in Graham McEwan's book Mystery Animals of Britain and Ireland, 1986).

Pamphlet from 1577 recording the incredible case of the Bungay Black Dog (public domain)

In reality, all of this may have been nothing more dramatic than a massive lightning strike, or even a fireball, transformed by imaginative chroniclers into a supernatural canine visitation. Then again, as revealed here, Black Dog appearances are far from uncommon or unusual events. And something definitely left behind those claw-like marks on the church door at Blythburgh.

Worth noting is that possibly the earliest Black Dog appearance on record (chronicled in 856 AD by Bertin in the Annales Francorum Regum) featured a red-eyed Black Dog materialising inside a village church during a service, this time in France, where it ran around the altar for a time, seemingly looking for someone, before abruptly vanishing into thin air.

Another early manifestation of a Black Dog allegedly took place one evening in 1552, while Cardinal Crescentius, the papal ambassador to the Council of Trent and infamous for his merciless persecution of supposed wrong-doers, was sitting in his chamber writing a missive to Pope Julius III. Suddenly, a huge flaming-eyed Black Dog with long ears dangling down to the ground materialised before him and moved towards him under the great table at which he was sitting. Both amazed and alarmed, the Cardinal cried out to his servants to enter his chamber and rid him of this foul creature, but to his even greater amazement when they did enter they were unable to see the Black Dog. This shocked him so much that he fell ill, but to his dying day he swore that he could definitely see it, and even claimed that it was climbing onto his bed.

Engraving depicting the glowing-eyed Black Dog that reputedly appeared inside the chamber of Cardinal Crescentius (public domain)

In today's ultra-technological world, governed by logic and science at every turn, Black Dogs and other incorporeal canine entities seem sorely out of place, just anachronistic superstitions and shadowy dreams from earlier, magical ages that have no business in the mundane modern-day era. And yet still they persist, legends come to life, doggedly(!) continuing to be reported even today – subtle proof, perhaps, if proof be needed, that the present and the past may well remain intertwined by far more than mere memory.

And finally: from the world of fiction but definitely deserving of inclusion in any coverage of hell hounds and other paranormal pooches, I give you Zoltan - Hound of Dracula!

At length, the creature lifted its head, letting the limp, rag-doll torso of the soldier slump disjointedly back to the ground. Its ears rose up, satanic and pointed. Its eyes blazed with an unnatural, greenish light. Its enormous jaws, flanked on either side by abnormally huge canine fangs, were drenched in blood that dripped in great gobs to the dusty floor, as a great swathe of a tongue lashed obscenely from side to side with relish.

A hound from hell itself had returned...and was now satiated, renewed with warm, youthful blood.

   Ken Johnson – Zoltan – Hound of Dracula

Front cover of Zoltan – Hound of Dracula, by Ken Johnson, originally published in 1977 as Hounds of Dracula, and upon which the 1978 American horror movie Dracula's Dog (vt Zoltan - Hound of Dracula in the UK) was based (© Ken Johnson/Everest Books – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Saturday, 1 December 2018


Something has crept, or has been driven out of dark waters under the mountains...Far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things.

   J.R.R. Tolkien - The Lord of the Rings

Could the Bodalog Beast have been a large snake species living in Britain and readily able to swim, such as the grass snake, as depicted here in a beautiful illustration by Heinrich Harder from 1912? (public domain)

Thirty years ago, one of the strangest, eeriest cryptozoological cases ever reported from the British Isles was making headlines nationally and even internationally, and three decades later it has still never been satisfactorily resolved. So here is my contribution to its very intriguing history, by way of an article of mine that was subsequently converted into a chapter within my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997) and serves now in updated form as a fitting ShukerNature retrospective to, and reminder of, this macabre yet nowadays all-but-forgotten saga.

To describe one of Britain's most bizarre mystery beasts as a water vampire may not be as melodramatic as one would first suppose - especially after considering its unique characteristics. According to media reports, during September to December 1988 its home was seemingly a lengthy river, the River Wye, situated close to the town of Rhayader in mid-Wales, from which it apparently emerged at night to kill sheep on a nearby 2000-acre farm called Bodalog, owned by the Pugh family. Unlike those of foxes and dogs, however, its victims' carcasses were not ripped or torn in any way. Instead, the only sign of their mystifying marauder's attack was a small but deep, penetrating bite just below the neck, close to the sternum or breast-bone (and which duly earned it the memorable monicker of water vampire in some media accounts). No evidence of the creature feeding upon the carcasses was found either, thus making its predatory behaviour even more weird and difficult to understand.

Nevertheless, by the middle of October 1988 this mysterious beast had killed at least 35 sheep. Its scent had been trailed back and forth to the river by foxhounds, but it was never seen or identified, and no recognisable pawprints were found either. As noted by London's Daily Mail newspaper on 10 October 1988, many suggestions regarding its possible identity had been offered, ranging from otter and dog, to mink and even to some form of snake. University scientists had examined the carcasses and admitted to being thoroughly perplexed.

Their bewilderment is not surprising, as the Bodalog beast clearly poses some singular problems, with none of the more conservative explanations satisfying the facts available.

Could it have been a native European otter (above) or a naturalised American mink (below) (public domain / © Cephas/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Its aquatic habitat immediately rules out a fox, cat (even an escapee big cat), or stray dog as the culprit - as well as a human hunter using a crossbow, which had also been suggested by some authorities. European otters Lutra lutra are relatively large creatures, but are certainly not sheep killers. They are known to take small mammals in their diet from time to time, but nothing approaching the size of a sheep. In any event, their principal sources of food are fishes and aquatic crustaceans - and, needless to say, they do eat prey killed by them and they do leave tell-tale spoor behind.

Mink, although much smaller than otters, are far more bloodthirsty by nature. Not native to the British Isles, they now exist in a naturalised state in many parts of the country - descendants of fur-farm escapees belonging to the American species, Neovison vison. Mink have wide tastes, ranging from fishes to birds as large as moorhens, and mammals as large as young rabbits (reports even exist of mink having killed pet cats and dogs!). Nevertheless, sheep would surely be far too large for any mink to tackle successfully.

One suggestion, from an unnamed 'expert', was that some form of giant mink was responsible! Mink, however, do not normally attain a total length greater than about 26 inches in the wild, and there is no evidence whatsoever that mink of a size commensurate for sheep killing have ever existed in Britain.

A little-known species called the sea mink N. macrodon once inhabited the coastal waters of New England and the Canadian maritime provinces, and was indeed somewhat larger than other mink species, but it became extinct in the early 1880s, and is totally unknown either in living or in fossil form in the Old World.

Artistic representation of the sea mink's likely appearance in life (© Tim Morris)

Britain only has three native species of snake. [NB - herpetological researchers revealed in 2017 that there were actually two taxonomically distinct species of grass snake living here, not just one, but only one of them is native, namely Natrix helvetica; unfortunately, various media reports confusingly and erroneously claimed at the time that both of them were native and that there were therefore four native snake species existing here.] The sole venomous species is the European viper or adder Vipera berus, which is predominantly ground-living, diurnal, and feeds on nothing larger than lizards and small mammals.

Relatively more aquatic by nature are the non-venomous and diurnal eastern grass snake Natrix natrix (represented in Britain via various small, introduced, non-native populations) and its close relative the western or barred grass snake N. helvetica, the new name for Britain's native grass snake species. The preferred prey species of these two species are amphibians and fishes, though nestling birds and small mammals are also occasionally taken.

In addition, Britain has a small number of the smooth snake Coronella austriaca, again native but confined to southern England. This is another non-venomous, diurnal species whose diet consists mainly of lizards and small mammals.

Also worthy of note is the aesculapian snake Zamenis longissimus, which is a mainland European species that has established a couple of small but seemingly thriving naturalised population in Great Britain – one in central London, England, and the other in Colwyn Bay, Wales. Both populations originally arose from escapee/released specimens surviving and mating in the wild in these locations. So might the Beast of Bodalog have been an aesculapian snake, derived from the Welsh contingent? At up to 7 ft long, this species is certainly lengthier than any of Britain's native species, but just like all of them it is diurnal, and it is not venomous. Clearly, therefore, none of these five species constitutes a very convincing candidate for the Welsh sheep killer.

Vintage chromolithograph from 1909 of the aesculapian snake (public domain)

It has never been formally ascertained whether the Pughs' sheep were actually poisoned by their attacker, but if tests were to reveal that this did occur, then it is possible that a non-native and evidently sizeable, aquatic venomous snake was on the loose at that time. It could have been a pet that either escaped or, for some reason, was released, as in the above-noted London and Welsh instances featuring the aesculapian snake. Yet if this were true, then it could have potentially posed a very real, severe dilemma - for there are few animals on Earth as elusive as snakes, especially those species that are adept at travelling not only across the land but also through the water.

Perhaps, then, it is not too surprising that the sinister 'water vampire' of Wales was never seen, let alone tracked down. Its killing spree abruptly ended in early December 1988, and nothing like it has ever been reported since from Bodalog (or anywhere else, for that matter, at least as far as I am aware), so presumably it simply died (see below) - always assuming, of course, that it didn't move elsewhere. Yet if it had indeed been some form of very large, powerful snake, why did it kill so many sheep but never make any attempt to feed upon their carcasses afterwards?

Moreover, how could such a creature have survived for at least two months in the distinctly chilly climate present in mid-Wales during late autumn/early winter? After all, snakes are poikilothermic (cold-blooded) and therefore rely upon warm external, environmental temperatures to maintain their own body heat. Like all others associated with this decidedly strange saga, these questions are likely to remain unanswered indefinitely.

This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and expanded from my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018


Front cover of Lofty Abodes by Philippa Foster (Text and cover artwork © Philippa Foster)

Over the years, I have been very fortunate and privileged that a number of my cryptozoological articles and books have contained exquisite illustrations by the extremely talented artist Philippa Foster. One of her most beautiful and, indeed, spectacular artworks, featuring a pair of ethereal sky medusae, even featured on the front cover of one of my books, Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008).

Knowing of and sharing Philippa's abiding love of the countryside and all of nature's endearing, enduring works, as well as her interest in magical realms, I have wondered on more than one occasion whether one day she may venture beyond the art world and into the written word too during her depictions of these mutually fascinating subjects, and I'm delighted to say that recently she did indeed do so.

Front cover of Dr Shuker's Casebook featuring sky medusae backdrop by Philippa Foster (© Dr Karl Shuker/CFZ Press; front cover artwork © Philippa Foster)

The result is an absolutely charming story for children entitled Lofty Abodes, written and published by Philippa, which I read a while ago and thoroughly enjoyed.

Set in the Brecon Beacons of Wales, and unfurling under the watchful eyes of the Red Sandstone Guardians, it weaves a magical, enchanted tale featuring both the familiar and also various cryptozoological creatures that make their home in this famously spectacular realm in Great Britain, from lonely trolls and friendly red kites to a glow worm city, rollicking rabbits, and a tantalising assortment of teasing puzzles and riddles too.

Back cover of Lofty Abodes by Philippa Foster (Text and cover artwork © Philippa Foster)

Significantly, it also includes something that Philippa (and I) consider very important (but sadly all too rare nowadays) in books for youngsters – a happy ending. Why do children's authors seem obliged lately to include some gritty, heartless denouement to their stories? The real world is gritty and heartless enough – surely the whole point of fiction, especially children's fiction, is escapism, to flee from the hardships of existence if only for a little while by seeking the warm, comforting, uplifting solace of a story in which the world is a finer, happier place, where worries can be forgotten and dreams of a better land and life can be born, nurtured, and, who knows, possibly even retained and given substance to when their dreamers have returned to grim reality.

With Christmas rapidly approaching, it gives me great pleasure to introduce Lofty Abodes here on ShukerNature, as I am certain that it would make a delightful and much-treasured gift for children, and not just young ones but children of all ages, for anyone, in fact, who carries in their heart the joy and unadulterated love of nature and wild things that they first experienced as children. Copies can be purchased directly from Philippa via her website, and also here on Amazon's UK website when available there.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018


Magnificent painting portraying William Beebe's striped manta ray (© William M. Rebsamen)

In 1999, my book Mysteries of Planet Earth became the first cryptozoologically-oriented book to include a specific section on what must surely be one of the most strikingly beautiful mystery beasts ever reported, and its coverage was greatly enhanced by the inclusion of a spectacular full-colour painting of this animal - another first for it - prepared specially for my book by renowned cryptozoological artist William M. Rebsamen (and which also opens this present ShukerNature blog article). Neither of us realised at that time, however, that only a few years later I would actually witness just such an animal, and in a wholly unexpected manner. The following article – the most detailed that I have ever prepared on this particular subject and constituting a ShukerNature exclusive – contains not only all of the information that I included in my 1999 book but also various additional cases uncovered by me since then, including my own afore-mentioned observation. So where better to begin it than with that observation – and here it is.

On 20 July 2005, I was sitting in front of the television at home in the UK, flicking idly between channels, when I happened to click onto Channel 5, and within a few seconds beheld an extraordinary sight. The programme being screened was a documentary entitled 'Whale Shark: Journey of the Biggest Fish in the World'. However, the fish that I was staring at in amazement was anything but a whale shark. It was a giant manta ray Manta birostris - a huge, superficially nightmarish beast popularly dubbed a devil-fish (see also here) due to its mouth's pair of demonic, horn-resembling, laterally-sited cephalic fins, and its huge batwing-like pectoral fins, uniformly dark on top, white below...except that this particular manta's pectorals were most definitely not uniformly dark on top. Instead, they were dramatically adorned by a longitudinal series of white v-shaped chevrons, and also sported pure white wing tips. This spectacular vision soared gracefully through its underwater domain for a few moments before the camera moved on to other subaqueous delights, and it did not appear again.

Not having tuned in to this programme from the beginning, I had no idea where the striped manta had been filmed, but the very next section of the documentary stated that the whale shark star of the show had now reached the Mozambique Channel, apparently having travelled there from the Seychelles region of the Indian Ocean. So this may have been where the manta footage had been shot.

A typical, non-striped specimen of the giant manta ray, as depicted in an 18th/19th-Century illustration from Iconographia Zoologica (public domain)

What made this serendipitous sighting so notable was that for a great many years (right up to the time when I viewed the above-cited TV programme, in fact), mainstream zoology had tended not to recognise the existence of mantas other than the mundanely standard dark-dorsal, pale-ventral version. Yet there on screen was positive proof that at least one manta of a decidedly more flamboyant variety was indeed real. Nor was it unique. Several other specimens have been documented down through the decades, exhibiting a range of patterns, and spied in many different oceanic localities.

The earliest one that I have on record, and which remains the most famous (it was the subject of William Rebsamen's magnificent painting), was witnessed on 27 April 1923 by American naturalist William Beebe and several others while aboard his expedition vessel Noma, as it approached Tower Island in the Pacific Ocean's Galapagos archipelago. The manta ray briefly struck the side of the vessel and then sped swiftly away along the surface, providing its observers with an excellent view. According to Beebe, who later sketched it:

From tip to tip of wings it was at least ten feet, of somewhat the usual manta or devil-fish shape, except that the wings were not noticeably concave behind, and the lateral angles were not acute. The cephalic horn-like structures were conspicuous and more straight than incurved. In general the back was dark brown, faintly mottled, while the most conspicuous character was a pair of broad, pure white bands extending halfway down the back from each side of the head. The wing tips also shaded abruptly into pure white.

Documenting this dorsally-bicoloured manta in his book Galapagos: World's End (1924), Beebe considered that it may represent an unknown species.

Beebe's sketch of the striped manta ray observed by him off the Galapagos archipelago's Tower Island in 1923 (public domain)

In Vol. 12 of the now-defunct International Society of Cryptozoology's scientific journal Cryptozoology (covering the period 1993-1996), German researcher Gunter G. Sehm's paper on striped manta rays surveyed some other specimens. In 1924, fr example, a small manta was harpooned off the shore reef at Kiribati's Fanning Island (renamed Tabuaeran). Its dorsal surface was blue-black but also bore two large ash-coloured v-shaped chevrons that spanned the entire dorsum from left pectoral edge to right. In 1934 this specimen was deemed a new species and dubbed Manta fowleri, but its separate taxonomic status is no longer recognised.

In 1975, British Museum ichthyologist Alwyne Wheeler's book Fishes of the World contained a colour photograph of a manta ray that appeared to have some white striping on its right shoulder, although few details can be discerned because the picture had been taken side-on. A year later, a book by Pierre Fourmanoir and Pierre Laboute detailing the fishes native to the waters around New Caledonia and the New Hebrides included a colour photo of a manta ornately adorned with dorsal white banding and cephalic fins. In his paper, Sehm also included three hitherto-unpublished stills from a 30-second footage of film showing a manta with a pair of striking, laterally-sited, v-shaped dorsal markings, filmed off the coast of Mexico's Baja California by Sigurd Tesche, which had been broadcast by German TV on 28 December 1989 within a programme entitled 'Sharks: Hunters of the Seas'.

Correspondent Alan Pringle contacted me shortly after watching, on 7 November 1999, a BBC1 television programme 'Holiday Guide to Australia', to inform me that it had contained a snippet of film depicting a manta with two converging longitudinal dorsal white bands, filmed from above by a helicopter, as it swam above a reef in Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

A striped giant manta ray at Hin Daeng, Thailand, on 30 November 2005 (© Jon Hanson/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

I learnt from fellow crypto-enthusiast Matt Bille that on 19 September 2003, yet another striped manta made an unexpected television appearance, this time in the American reality game show 'Survivor', when a manta ray sporting a very prominent pair of white shoulder markings, resembling filled-in triangles along the body, cruised fleetingly just under the clear waters off Panama's Pacific coast.

Not long after my own television sighting in July 2005, I was informed of two separate webpages each containing a colour photograph of a striped manta. One of these, which still appears here, shows a manta with symmetrical lateral chevrons resembling those of the Baja California individual, but it also has white rings around its cephalic fins, a pale patch at the dorsal tip of its left pectoral fin (its right cannot be seen dorsally), and what looks like a white dorsal tail surface. More photos of it have since appeared on Wikipedia and elsewhere online, confirming that it does have a white patch at the dorsal tip of its right pectoral fin too. It was photographed at Hin Daeng, off Thailand.

The other page (no longer directly online at http://www.accessnoaa.noaa.gov/images/monitor1.jpg but still accessible here - thanks to the Wayback Machine Internet Archive) – in a website run by America's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) - showed an ornately-marked specimen with very extensive white wing tips linked posteriorly by a pair of white converging arcs, as well as white cephalic fins. No details of where this photo was taken were given.

The striped manta ray photograph formerly directly visible online in America's NOAA site (© NOAA – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational and review purposes only)

In short, a diverse spectrum of striped mantas is on record, with no two alike, but collectively confirming that dorsally bicoloured individuals do indeed exist. So how can they be explained? Interestingly, some of them, notably Beebe's specimen, the Fanning Island manta, and the Baja California example, have conspicuously shorter-than-typical tails, and also the shape of their pectorals do not exhibit such marked convexity of the front edge and concavity of the trailing edge as those of 'normal' mantas do, leading Sehm to consider the possibility that these represent a separate taxonomic form. Equally, however, sometimes genes linked to colour or body pattern also influence the size or shape of an individual (pleiotropic genes), so there is no guarantee that these morphological differences have independent significance.

Moreover, it is known that attacks by other fishes can leave white marks on the dark dorsal surface of a manta. In fact, its dark pigment can even be removed merely by rubbing the surface, creating pale patches. And the elasmodiver website's manta page states that the wing tips often fade to white. Worth noting, incidentally, is that back in the early 2000s this latter site was one of the very few mainstream sources that openly acknowledged the existence of striped mantas, stating at that time: "Dorsum black or dark often with symmetrical white patches forming a chevron across the shoulders".

Intriguingly, Sehm attempted to explain away the white wing tips of Beebe's specimen as an illusion, claiming that what Beebe and his colleagues saw was the white undersurface of the wing tips upraised, fooling the observers into thinking that the dorsal wing tips were white. However, I do not believe this interpretation - the NOAA website's manta unequivocally possesses white dorsal wing tips, as did the specimen that I watched in the whale shark film. Instead, judging from the elasmodiver website's comments, it may be that white-tipped mantas are aged specimens. However, so precise is the symmetry of the white markings on all specimens of striped manta, whether they be wing tip markings, shoulder markings, or chevrons, that this seems unlikely - as do, for the same reason, explanations invoking injury or rubbing as the source of such markings.

A striped manta ray at Hin Muang, Thailand on 30 November 2005 (© Jon Hanson/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

In 2005, within a Fortean Times article of mine devoted to these mystery mantas, I expressed the view is that a mutant gene allele was most probably responsible, engendering on rare occasions these stunning and sometimes quite elaborate patterns in mantas - analogous, perhaps, to black-and-white specimens of blackbirds, black bears, crows, and other normally monochromatic species, and creating an additional vision of wonder and mystery amid the breathtaking splendour present beneath the surface of our planet's mighty seas.

Sure enough, thanks to observations and photographs taken of many additional specimens since then, the existence of striped manta specimens is nowadays not only universally accepted among ichthyologists but also, far from constituting a separate species, is deemed to be nothing more than an expression of individual non-taxonomic variation within the long-recognised giant manta species Manta birostris.

Unrelated to such considerations but still worth noting, however, is that in 2009, a second, somewhat smaller, and non-migratory manta ray species, the reef manta M. alfredi, was officially distinguished, named, and formally described – see my Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals, 2012, for more details.

A reef manta ray at Manta Alley, near Komodo, Indonesia, in September 2010 (© Alexander Vasenin/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

But this is not all. In autumn 2014, a mainstream ichthyological discovery was made public via a scientific paper that revealed an exceedingly significant but hitherto entirely unsuspected aspect concerning the true nature of striped mantas. Ironically, however, this crucial find has attracted relatively little attention, especially in cryptozoological circles. Indeed, as far as I am aware, the following documentation of it by me is the first time that this remarkable discovery has ever been referred to in such a capacity, even though it holds the key to these distinctive fishes' very existence.

Published by the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society on 1 September 2014, the paper in question (click here to read it in its entirety) was authored by Csilla Ari, from the University of South Florida's Hyperbaric Biomedical Research Laboratory, and revealed for the very first time that giant manta rays possess the ability to change colour and pattern at will. Ari's study showed that a manta's typical (or, as termed in the study, its baseline) colouration state (i.e. its dark dorsal surface) can change rapidly at feeding times, or if it encounters another manta ray in close proximity to itself, or during intense social interaction between itself and another manta ray. And the precise nature of this colour change is a very noticeable increase in the brightness of hitherto pale, inconspicuous shoulder and pectoral wing tip markings.

In other words, when faced with any of the situations listed above, a typical dorsally-dark manta can transform directly into a striped manta!

A striped manta ray encountered at South Point, Pulau Sipadan, off the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo, in February 2010 (© Bernard Dupont/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

Here is the principal Results paragraph excerpted from Ari's paper, detailing this extraordinary manta metamorphosis with reference to various 'before' and 'after' photographs of the mantas (these photos can be viewed directly if the paper is accessed using the above link):

Captive manta rays were observed to undergo rapid changes (within a few minutes) in their body coloration. Specifically, white markings appeared and changed intensity on certain body regions (Fig. 1, 2, 3, 4; the two most representative specimens from each species are shown). The intensity of the white markings would increase rapidly to the ‘intense coloration state’ (Fig. 1D, E, F, G, H, 2D, E, F) more times during the day within a few minutes, and then return to the normal ‘baseline coloration state’. Changes in coloration were observed to occur in temporal proximity to a variety of situations, including at feeding times (Fig. 1H), whenever a new manta ray was introduced to the tank, and during intense social interaction between the two manta rays (Fig. 1G). Feeding occurred twice a day and the rapid coloration changes started shortly (5–10 min) before each feeding on both specimens. The ‘intense coloration state’ was most intense during feeding and slowly returned to the ‘baseline coloration state’ over a period of 20–30 min after the end of the feedings. In addition, rapid coloration changes were observed in association with intense social interaction; for example, when Manta 2 was introduced into the tank or when mantas were chasing each other rapidly and closely, which appeared to comprise courtship behaviour.

In short, the striped manta state was not even a permanent one. Consequently, it would appear that in most if not all cases, such mantas that have been reported and photographed in the past were nothing more than normal mantas exhibiting the temporary pattern and colour transformation ability that had been discovered for their species by Ari. (Incidentally, Ari also revealed that reef mantas possess this same ability.)

The mystery of the striped mantas is a mystery no longer. True, there may be occasional specimens that do exhibit such markings on a permanent basis as an expression of individual non-taxonomic variation, but in most cases such markings would seem to be merely a temporary feature, induced on a non-permanent basis by various fluctuating external stimuli.

Finally: even though we now know the secret of the striped mantas, it is still thrilling when one of these spectacular creatures turns up unexpectedly – and that is precisely what happened to me a second time just last night. I had been watching the 2016 Disney cartoon film Moana, whose storyline was inspired by traditional Polynesian mythology and featured the famous demi-god Maui, when suddenly, in a split-second segment right at the end of the film, an animated striped manta sporting a vivid pair of white shoulder bars and pectoral wing tips soared majestically through the water just beneath the surface. A fitting finale, assuredly, for a movie of magic and mythology to feature a maritime denizen so long associated with mystery and mystification.

My very own striped manta ray – a model of one that I purchased at London Zoo in September 2014 (© Dr Karl Shuker/London Zoo)