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 25 March 2019


Steller's sea-cows with Kotick the white seal – an 1895 engraving for 'The White Seal', from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (public domain)

"By the Great Combers of Magellan!" he said, beneath his moustache. "Who in the Deep Sea are these people?"

They were like no walrus, sea-lion, seal, bear, whale, shark, fish, squid, or scallop that Kotick [the white seal] had ever seen before. They were between twenty and thirty feet long, and they had no hind flippers, but a shovel-like tail that looked as if it had been whittled out of wet leather. Their heads were the most foolish-looking things you ever saw, and they balanced on the ends of their tails in deep water when they weren't grazing, bowing solemnly to each other and waving their front flippers as a fat man waves his arm.

"Ahem!" said Kotick. "Good sport, gentlemen?" The big things answered by bowing and waving their flippers like the Frog-Footman [from Alice's Adventures In Wonderland]. When they began feeding again Kotick saw that their upper lip was split into two pieces that they could twitch apart about a foot and bring together again with a whole bushel of seaweed between the splits. They tucked the stuff into their mouths and chumped solemnly…

"Well!" said Kotick. "You're the only people I've ever met uglier than Sea Vitch – and with worse manners."

Then he remembered in a flash what the Burgomaster gull had screamed to him when he was a little yearling at Walrus Islet, and he tumbled backward in the water, for he knew that he had found Sea Cow at last.

   Rudyard Kipling – 'The White Seal', from The Jungle Book

Back in the 1800s, naturalists were much more open to zoological anomalies, mysteries, and curiosities, including those of the cryptozoological kind, than they are today. Never was this openness more readily visible, however, than in the pages of a fascinating British monthly periodical entitled The Zoologist (published 1843-1916), which was packed throughout with contributions from amateur wildlife enthusiasts and eminent biologists alike on every conceivable (and inconceivable!) aspect of natural and, especially, unnatural history.

Today, conversely, such oddities that cannot be readily pigeon-holed into 'acceptable', mainstream zoological categories rarely receive widespread hard-copy coverage outside of newspapers and Fortean publications – which is why Flying Snake, a periodical founded, published, edited, and lovingly compiled every 4-6 months by the indefatigable, inestimable cryptozoological and animal anomalies researcher Richard Muirhead is such an absolute delight, a veritable diamond among so much modern-day dross, especially online.

Steller's sea-cow, depicted on a local postage stamp issued for Russia's Commander (=Komandorski) Islands, a 17-strong group situated in the Bering Sea (east of the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East), and around which this huge sea mammal once lived (public domain)

A natural, very worthy successor to The Zoologist, this wonderful little journal contains so much extraordinary, non-conventional Nature, the kind that cannot be readily found in any other present-day publication, that whenever I receive the latest issue I know full well that once I have opened it I shall find it impossible to put down until I have read it from cover to cover.

In the April 2014 issue (vol. 3, #7), however, Richard surpassed even his superlative ability to surprise me with his researches, by virtue of this issue's front cover-highlighted lead article. It consisted of an investigation conducted by Richard that quite simply took my breath away – by featuring the history and two vintage photographs (one of which appeared on the front cover) of what has seemingly long been claimed to be a bona fide torso skin (i.e. lacking the head, flippers, and tail) of Hydrodamalis [=Rhytina] gigas, the long-extinct Steller's sea-cow!

The front cover of Flying Snake, April 2014, showcasing one of the two vintage photographs uncovered by Richard that allegedly depict a preserved Steller's sea-cow skin (© Richard Muirhead/Flying Snake – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

As I have documented in greater detail within an earlier ShukerNature article (click here to read it), at up to 30 ft long Steller's sea-cow was by far the largest modern-day species of sirenian ever to have existed, very significantly bigger than the dugong and any of the manatees that still survive today. It was discovered in shallow waters around the Commander (aka Komandorski) Islands in what was later dubbed the Bering Sea, separating Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula from Alaska, by Arctic explorer Dr Georg W. Steller in 1741, during Danish explorer Vitus Bering's Russian expeditions there. Tragically, however, the inoffensive, unafraid behaviour of this huge herbivorous marine mammal, coupled with the abundance and very tasty nature of its meat, swiftly proved to be its undoing, dooming it to a rapid extinction despite its great numbers. For it was mercilessly, relentlessly slaughtered by hungry mariners penetrating its icy, inhospitable domain.

By 1768, Steller's sea-cow was no more, exterminated from the Commander Islands' coastal waters that had been its home since time immemorial. Having said that, there have been infrequent subsequent reports from various remote Arctic outposts of extremely large, mystifying sea beasts that may – just may – be surviving sea-cows, but none has ever been confirmed.

Reconstruction of Dr Georg W. Steller measuring a Steller's sea cow on Bering Island, 12 July 1742 (public domain)

As for preserved physical remains of this veritable behemoth: a number of museums around the world have skeletons (complete, partial, or composite), skulls (ditto), or isolated bones (limb bones, vertebrae, ribs, etc) from Steller's sea-cows (click here to access an extensive listing of such specimens).

In addition, there are a few scraps of preserved skin on record that have been claimed to be from this lost species, but there are also counterclaims averring that they are actually from seals or cetaceans. According to the above listing of specimens, one such scrap is present in the Überseemuseum at Bremen, Germany (a photograph of it snapped on 29 January 2011 by Flickriver user MareCrisium can be viewed here). A second is (or was) held by Germany's Hamburg Zoological Museum (it may have been destroyed by bombing during World War II, and the above listing presumes that it is/was a misinterpreted whale skin anyway). And a third is held by the Zoological Institute of the Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg, Russia (queried in the listing as a probable whale skin fragment again, and originally discovered in the Institute's collections by an A. Brandt). However, no museum or scientific institution anywhere in the world lays claim of any kind to possessing an entire torso skin from such a creature – which is why Richard's report and accompanying photographs were of such profound interest to me.

Skeleton of a Steller's sea-cow at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France (© FunkMonk/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

I strongly recommend everyone interested in this case to read Richard's original article, but in the meantime here is a summary of what he uncovered.

It all began with a local newspaper article. On 6 April 1956, the Kansas City Star in the U.S.A. published the photograph that appears on the above-reproduced front cover of Flying Snake for April 2014, together with the following details. The person holding the torso skin, and pictured with it in her East Tenth Street, Intercity District, Kansas home's living room, was Mrs Faye Keyton, who had inherited it jointly with her brother, W.L. Shafer, from their aunt, Miss Myrtle Shafer, who had died in May 1955. It was normally kept rolled up inside a long cardboard tube, was quite stiff, and according to Mrs Keyton it was an Alaskan Indian burial robe that had been made from the skin of a Steller's sea-cow. But how did she know this?

Vintage photograph from the late 1800s/very early 1900s depicting Prof. Willoughby with the burial robe (public domain)

Keyton revealed that her aunt had herself inherited it, from Jim Willoughby, a distant relative, who in turn had received it from his father, a certain Prof. Richard ('Dick') D. Willoughby (1832-1902), who had lived in Alaska for half a century, where he had been made an Indian chief and spoke their language. The robe was one of his possessions that he had acquired there during that period, and when he died in 1902 it was placed over him during his funeral as part of a native Alaskan Indian burial ceremony.

Reading this intriguing little history, I was immediately struck by the curious fact that there was no explanation as to why or how this robe was ever deemed to be the skin of a Steller's sea-cow. All that I can assume is that it had been labelled as such by Prof. Willoughby himself, with that identity having subsequently been accepted unquestioningly by, and duly passed on down through, the generations of the robe's inheritors. Unfortunately, however, this in turn leads to a major problem in accepting such an identification. For as revealed by Richard Muirhead in his Flying Snake article, Willoughby was a notorious practical joker and had a longstanding reputation as a teller of exceedingly tall tales. He was also known for attaching highly imaginative and often decidedly lurid back-stories to the many curios contained in his house that he had gathered from different parts of the Alaskan coast, many of which were of native Alaskan Indian origin. Taking all of this into account, it is by no means certain, therefore, that the robe really was a Steller's sea-cow skin – this could just as easily have been yet another fanciful yarn spun by Willoughby.

Steller's sea-cow model at London's Natural History Museum (© Emöke Dénes/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

But that is not all. Based upon direct eyewitness descriptions and sketches of Steller's sea-cow by Steller himself and other maritime travellers during the all-too-brief period of time spanning this species' discovery and destruction, the robe doesn't look at all like the skin of this officially extinct species. For whereas the latter's skin was said to be rough and spotted, this robe is smooth and bears two very distinctive, highly conspicuous white rings upon it as well as an upper and a lower white band. True, the robe's leather may have been tanned, making it smooth, but those very large white rings and bands are unlike anything ever recorded for Steller's sea-cow. In addition, judging from the photographs and allowing for forced perspective (in both photos, the skin was closer to the camera than the person was, thereby making the former appear bigger than it actually was), the skin was far smaller than any but the youngest of juvenile sea-cows would have been.

One of Richard's correspondents, regular Flying Snake contributor Richard George, opined that he was certain that these distinctive markings had been painted on the skin. Bearing in mind that it was used as a ceremonial burial robe, adding such decorations to it as some form of symbolic representation would not be at all beyond the realms of possibility. If only the robe could be examined directly, however – this would soon determine whether they were a natural component of it or had been artificially added. Moreover, with today's advances in DNA analyses, a sample of tissue taken from it would readily reveal the true taxonomic nature of the species from which the skin had been obtained. But therein lies a fundamental problem – its current whereabouts are presently unknown.

Exquisite engraving from 1898 depicting mature and juvenile Steller's sea-cows (public domain)

After reading Richard's article, I did consider attempting to trace the robe, by pursuing the current whereabouts of Mrs Keyton, her brother, or any children that either of them may have had. However, as so often happens, other matters diverted my attention, and eventually I forgot about this mysterious object – until this week, that is.

After having read with my usual enthusiasm the latest, newly-published issue (#14, January 2019) of Flying Snake a few days ago, I was about to place it with the other 13 issues on their allotted shelf in my study's cryptozoological section when, while idly flicking through them, I noticed the front cover of the April 2014 issue once more, the first time that I'd looked at it in a very long while – but this time something suddenly clicked inside my mind. I know that ringed patterning on the robe! I've seen it somewhere before, somewhere else.

Steller's sea-cow (right) with a Steller's sea lion and a northern fur seal, from a map of the Commander Islands drawn by Sven Waxell in 1891 (public domain)

Sitting there in thought, I recalled the above-linked listing of Steller's sea-cow material held by various museums around the world, and in particular I remembered those controversial fragments of skin that a few of the museums possessed, claimed by some to be genuine Steller's sea-cow relics but by others to be derived from whales or seals.

And then, without warning, an image flashed into my mind – an image of an extremely distinctive species of sea mammal, one that, uniquely, possessed exactly the same ringed pelage as was so visibly present on the Alaskan burial robe, but a species that unlike Steller's sea-cow was still very much alive today. Suddenly, I knew exactly what the Alaskan burial robe had been obtained from – and it most definitely was not a Steller's sea-cow!

The ribbon or banded seal – an absolutely unmistakeable species (public domain)

Instead, it was from an exceptionally beautiful, exquisitely marked species of phocid (earless) seal – namely, Histriophoca fasciata, the ribbon or banded seal. Up to 5 ft long, it is native to the Arctic and subarctic regions of the northern Pacific Ocean, but especially the Bering Sea…separating Russia from Alaska! Moreover, it is immediately distinguished from all other seal species (and all other species of any kind of mammal, for that matter) by virtue of the two very large white circles on its body (one on each side) and also the two wide white bands encircling its neck and tail respectively that collectively decorate very strikingly its otherwise uniformly dark-brown or black pelage.

All that I needed to do now in order to be absolutely certain was to uncover if I could a photograph of a torso skin of a ribbon seal to compare it directly with the Alaskan burial robe, and once I was on the trail it didn't take me long to find an excellent example. Comparing the two side by side, they were virtually identical, as shown below. Consequently, there could be absolutely no doubt whatsoever – just like so many other examples of his yarns on record, Willoughby's Steller's sea-cow skin was nothing but a tall tale. It was in reality the skin of a ribbon seal. Case closed.

Comparing Willoughby's Alaskan burial skin (left) with the skin of a ribbon seal (right) (© Kansas  City Star, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only / public domain)

I am delighted that Richard Muirhead brought this fascinating but hitherto little-publicised case to cryptozoological attention with his customary investigative zeal via his Flying Snake article, and that I in turn have been able to provide the solution to the longstanding riddle that its subject posed.

For anyone seeking more information concerning Flying Snake, a publication that I thoroughly recommend to everyone interested in the more unusual, unexpected facets of natural history, please click here.

Finally: although the following flying snake illustration has nothing to do whatsoever either with Richard's periodical or with Steller's sea-cow, its fictional subject is nonetheless cryptozoological in nature and is such an extraordinary image in its own right that it deserves to be included here, especially as at least to my knowledge it has never before been featured in any cryptozoological article. So here it is, from the front cover of an issue of an American men's magazine entitled Man's Conquest:

Front cover of the March 1967 issue of Man's Conquest, depicting an attack of flying snakes, the subject of a fiction short story contained inside (© Man's Conquest – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Friday 22 March 2019


Tom the water-baby meeting the last of the great auks or garefowl – an exquisite painting by Warwick Goble for an illustrated 1909 edition of Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies, which is one of my all-time favourite children's novels (public domain)

And there he saw the last of the Gairfowl, standing up on the Allalonestone, all alone. And a very grand old lady she was, full three feet high, and bolt upright, like some old Highland chieftainess. She had on a black velvet gown, and a white pinner and apron, and a very high bridge to her nose (which is a sure mark of high breeding), and a large pair of white spectacles on it, which made her look rather odd: but it was the ancient fashion of her house.

   Charles Kingsley – The Water-Babies: A Fairy-Tale For a Land-Baby

As fondly commemorated above in Charles Kingsley's classic children's novel The Water-Babies: A Fairy-Tale For a Land-Baby (1863), one of the most famous extinct species of modern-day bird is the great auk Pinguinus impennis, also known as the garefowl, gairfowl, or geirfugl. Almost 3 ft tall (the only taller auk was the prehistoric Howard's Lucas auk Miomancalla howardi), this sturdy flightless black-and-white seabird from the northern hemisphere was superficially reminiscent of the southern hemisphere’s familiar penguins, but its link with them does not end there – because the great auk was the original penguin, the latter name having been initially bestowed upon this puffin-allied species. Only later was it applied by those European sailors first penetrating Antarctic waters to the wholly-unrelated birds that they encountered there and which retain it today, long after the original northern penguin’s extermination.

The great auk once existed in tens of millions, nesting on the rocky coastal areas of islands on both sides of the North Atlantic, but it was in America that it first met its end. Its feathers were prized for use in eider-downs and feather beds, its flesh was tasty and therefore much sought-after by sailing vessels, and collectors coveted its eggs, and so this imposing but helpless bird was massacred in countless numbers. On Funk Island off Newfoundland, for example, its precious nesting grounds were frequently raided and mercilessly desecrated. Thousands of auks were captured alive and cooped together in great enclosures like domestic fowl until it was their time to be slaughtered en masse by being clubbed to death and then thrown into furnaces, enabling their feathers to be more readily removed from their bodies. By the second decade of the 19th Century, the great auk was merely a memory in North America.

In Europe, its major stronghold was the Icelandic coast, but great auks even existed around the more northerly islands of Scotland, most notably St Kilda but also visiting the Orkneys, with one particularly famous Orcadian pair being nicknamed the King and Queen. Sadly, however, they were no safer from hunting here than they had been in the New World. Moreover, it was especially ironic that as this species became rarer, it became ever more persecuted by museum collectors - anxious to add specimens and eggs to their collections before it died out! The last known pair of great auks constituted a couple that were clubbed to death (and their egg smashed) on the Icelandic island of Eldey on 3 June 1844, since when the species has long been deemed extinct (but see below). A particularly moving novel reconstructing this terrible, shameful event, entitled The Last Great Auk and first published in 1964, was written by Allan Eckert, and was reviewed by me here in an earlier ShukerNature post.

The Last Great Auk by Allan Eckert – Collins hardback 1st edition, 1964 (© Allan Eckert/HarperCollins, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

For some decades thereafter, however, various quite convincing reports of lone living specimens emerged from various remote far-northern European localities, and it is with these little-mentioned, 'post-extinction' reports of great auks that this present ShukerNature article is concerned.

Perhaps the most (in)famous of these is also the most recent one. On 19 April 1986, London’s Daily Telegraph carried the remarkable news that an expedition was to set sail for Papa Westray, a tiny islet in Scotland’s Orkney group, in response to reputed sightings of a living great auk there. Unhappily for cryptozoology as well as for mainstream zoology, however, it proved to be more of a canard than an auk! For as documented in the International Society of Cryptozoology's ISC Newsletter for spring 1987, it turned out to be nothing more than an imaginative advertising promotion for a certain brand of whisky, using a robotic auk!

This is not the first false alarm for this long-lost species. Reports of great auks in the Lofoten Islands, an archipelago off Norway's northwestern coast, emerged every so often during the late 1930s. When finally investigated, however, the birds proved to be genuine penguins – namely, nine king penguins Aptenodytes patagonicus, which had been brought from sub-Antarctica as pets by whalers and had been released on the Lofotens in August 1936 when no longer wanted. The last two died there in 1944.

King penguins in a delightful illustration from 1910 (public domain)

Nevertheless there are a number of more promising reports of post-1844 survival too. Indeed, a sighting of a single living specimen on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in December 1852, made by eminent field naturalist and ornithologist Colonel Henry Maurice Drummond-Hay with the aid of binoculars, and at a distance of only 30 yards or so away while he was traveling aboard a steamer, has lately been formally accepted by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources). It was first brought to mainstream attention in 1979 by T.R. Halliday in a paper on the great auk published by the periodical Oceans. Moreover, in 1853 a dead great auk was supposedly found on the shore of Trinity Bay on Newfoundland's eastern side, and three years later another one was reputedly caught on its western shore, but neither specimen was submitted to scientists for confirmation (or otherwise).

Most of the others report, conversely, are buried in Norwegian journals and newspapers of the 1800s, but a good example from a 19th-Century English publication was contained in Dr Isaac J. Hayes’s The Land of Desolation (1871), which describes his adventures in Greenland during summer 1869. The auk-related account concerns a conversation that Hayes had with a naturalist called Hansen:

The great auk, long since supposed to be entirely extinct, he told me had been recently seen on one of the Whale-fish Islands. Two years before [in 1867] one had been actually captured by a native, who, being very hungry, and wholly ignorant of the great value of the prize he had secured, proceeded at once to eat it, much to the disgust of Mr. Hansen, who did not learn of it until too late to come to the rescue. How little the poor savage thought of the great fortune he had just missed by hastily indulging his appetite!

The great auk – when did it really die out? (public domain)

On 10 November 2004, Dr Alan Gauld of Nottingham, England, kindly brought to my attention the following account. Published in the autumn 1929 issue of Bird Notes and News, it was reported by H.A.A. Dombrain, a manager for an English concern in Norway’s Lofoten Islands. Dombrain noted that one of his boatmen, a Finn called Jodas, who was an experienced hunter and amateur naturalist, had told him that earlier that day (presumably the same day that Gauld wrote his account to Bird Notes and News) he and Dombrain’s shipwright, a man called Evenson, had seen a bird under the wharf that, in spite of their experience, they were wholly unable to identify.

Intrigued, Dombrain showed them separately a series of bird illustrations, including all of the likely (and unlikely) species that it could be. To his great surprise, both of them, independently of each other, selected an image of the great auk as the species that matched their mystery bird.

Prior to its extinction almost a century earlier, the great auk had indeed inhabited the wild, sparsely-inhabited coasts of these islands. Moreover, the earlier-noted release there of sub-Antarctic king penguins was several years after the sighting of Evenson, so these birds could not explain it. Consequently, is it possible that he had truly seen a lone, elusive great auk from some small colony that had somehow persisted beyond their species’ official extinction date in this remote locality?

A great northern diver, from Cassell's Book of Birds, 1875 (public domain)

Equally enigmatic is the taxonomic identity of the mysterious Arran auk – the name given by the elderly pilot of a boat carrying the Reverend G.C. Green around Scotland's western coast to a strange seabird as large as a goose or turkey and with a large sharp beak, but with such short wings that it never flew, only paddled, and was black in colour dorsally, white ventrally. As the Rev. Green noted in an article by him that was published on 27 March 1880 in The Field magazine, when he showed the pilot an illustrated book of birds the latter readily identified the picture of a great auk as portraying the Arran auk. He also stated that it only appeared on the coast of western Scotland's Isle of Arran in March each year, that he had shot three specimens, and that he would obtain one for Green the following March.

Tragically, however, the pilot, who was an old man, passed away not long after taking Green in the boat, but his sons vowed that they would obtain a specimen of this bird in his stead. Sure enough, they did subsequently present Green with what they claimed to be an Arran auk, but it proved to be merely a great northern diver Gavia immer (aka the common loon in North America). However, Green pointed out that their father the pilot had readily distinguished between divers and the Arran auk when talking with him during their boat journey, so Green suspected that if he had been alive the pilot would not have sent him a diver.

A few additional cases of putative post-1844 survival for the great auk can be found within a short chapter entitled ‘Late Records, Anomalous Sightings and Cryptozoology’ in Errol Fuller’s definitive book The Great Auk (1999).

Errol Fuller's authoritative tome The Great Auk (© Errol Fuller – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

For example, he notes that in 1971 the famous English nature-writer and broadcaster J. Wentworth Day recalled how back in 1927 he was informed by an acquaintance from his youth named Edward Valpy, whom he deemed to be a first-rate naturalist and explorer of unimpeachable truth, that while spending some time on one of the Lofotens he had spied a great auk slipping off a rock near the local boat-builder's yard and quay. Day also stated that when Valpy had informed the boat-builder of what he had seen, the builder confirmed that it had been around for some time, that his sons had often seen it, and that once it had even dived beneath the boat on which he had been sailing. Note again that this was several years before the king penguins had been released here, so they cannot explain this report of multiple sightings.

Also of interest is the much-disputed claim by a Norwegian named Brodtkorb that he had shot a great auk, one of four supposedly encountered by him one day in April 1848 while he was rowing with some companions in a little strait constituting an arm of the sea separating Vardö from the islets of Hornö and Renö in Norway. The four birds were paddling in the water, and continued to do so, not flying away, even after he had shot one of them. As far as he could remember, its back, head, and neck were all completely black, except for a white spot at the eye on the side of the neck. Its wings were extremely small, and in shape it resembled those familiar auks the razorbills and guillemots.

Sadly, Brodtkorb threw the dead bird's carcase on the beach when he landed, then later regretted doing so, but when he returned to the beach the following day to retrieve it, it had gone, carried away by the tide. Brodtkorb's mystery bird has since been discounted by various sceptical naturalists as having merely been a diver or some familiar auk species, but those who knew him personally vouched for his knowledge of wildlife, stating that if this is really all that it had been, as an experienced sportsman he would have readily recognised it as such.

John Gould's exquisite 19th-Century great auk painting (public domain)

Problematically, as Errol pointed out in his book, Vardö is much further north than any currently-known locality for great auk occurrence in historical times, but its remains in prehistoric middens from this region confirm that in earlier ages it did indeed occur there. Errol's book also contains other post-1844 claimed sightings of this species in Norwegian and Greenland localities further north than would be expected, based at least upon its confirmed historical distribution and irrespective of the sightings' dates.

Might it just be possible, however, that in such far-north localities, out of the ready reach of hunters, some few great auks did indeed survive beyond, possibly even well beyond, their species' official extinction dates (1844/1852) – and might some even be lingering there today?

It would be a very bold person indeed to state with any degree of confidence that the great auk is not a lost auk after all. Then again, it would be a very bold person indeed to attempt spending the extensive period of time that would be required to seek with any degree of proficiency this iconic bird in such inhospitable, inaccessible Arctic terrain. So who can truly say for certain?

Two famous taxiderm specimens of the great auk: (left) the Leipzig Museum great auk; and (right) the great auk and replica egg at Kelvingrove, Glasgow (© Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence / © Mike Pennington/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

Finally: Here is my two-page review of Errol's superb great auk book that was published in the autumn 2000 issue (#21) of the late Mark Chorvinsky's Strange Magazine (please click its pages to enlarge for reading purposes):

And here is a scraperboard illustration – the very first scraperboard picture that I ever attempted – of a great auk that I prepared more than 30 years ago, its black and white plumage making it an ideal subject to depict via this very striking medium:

My scraperboard illustration of a great auk (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Wednesday 13 March 2019


Life-sized statue representing the postulated appearance in life of Therizinosaurus (© Dr Karl Shuker)

North of Australia is the extremely large island of New Guinea, still plentifully supplied with little-explored expanses of rainforest and mountainland. Might it be hiding some modern-day non-avian dinosaurs, living neodinosaurs, no less? Over the years, a number of searches for such creatures have been made there, inspired by local testimony of elusive cryptids bearing varying degrees of resemblance to dinosaurian reptiles, as will now be revealed.

Having said that, we begin our quest for surviving prehistoric Papuans with what must surely be one of the most bizarre episodes in the entire history of cryptozoology.

Political map of New Guinea, showing its division into Indonesia-owned Papua (left) and the independent sovereign state Papua New Guinea (right) (Wikipedia)

During the late 1930s, Java-born explorer/camera-man Charles C. Miller and his newly-married wife, former American society girl Leona Jay, spent their honeymoon visiting the Sterren Mountains in what was then Dutch New Guinea (the western half of New Guinea, now known variously, and confusingly, as Western New Guinea, Papua, Western Papua, Irian Jaya, or Indonesian New Guinea). Here they allegedly encountered not only a hitherto-unknown tribe of cannibals called the Kirrirri but also what Miller believed to be a living dinosaur. Their introduction to this latter beast came about in a somewhat unusual manner - courtesy of a coconut de-husker used by one of the native women.

Leona noticed that the tool in question, roughly 18 in long and 20 lb in weight, resembled the distal portion of an elephant tusk or rhino horn, but as there are no elephants or rhinos in New Guinea she was very perplexed as to its true identity and origin. When she told her husband, he made some enquiries and was shown several of these curious objects, which were made of a horn-like substance present in cone-shaped layers - i.e. resembling a stacked pile of paper drinking cups, one cup inside another. When pressed for more details, some of the natives drew a strange lizard-like creature in the sand, whose tail terminated in one of these horns. They called this beast the row (after its loud cry), and said that it was 40 ft long,

Although Miller was initially sceptical of their claims, he could not deny the evidence of the horns and could offer no alternative explanation for their origin, and so when he learned that the hills to the northwest of the Kirrirri camp reputedly harboured these gigantic beasts, he set out with his wife and a native party in the hope of filming them. After a couple of days' journey, they reached a triangular swamp situated between two plateaux and occupying an area of roughly 40 acres. As Miller sat there, looking at a bed of tall reeds a quarter of a mile away, the reeds suddenly moved. Something was behind them. Hardly daring to breathe, Miller waited for them to move again, camera in hand - and when they did, the result was so shocking that Leona collapsed to the ground, almost fainting with fear.

A long thin neck bearing a small head fringed with a flaring bony hood had risen up through the reeds, followed by a sturdy elephantine body bearing a series of huge triangular plates running along its backbone, and a lengthy tapering tail bearing at its tip one of the mysterious horns that Miller had come to know so well. Its front limbs were shorter than its hind limbs, and while Miller was filming it, the row unexpectedly paused, raised itself up onto its hind limbs, and peered in the party's direction, almost as if it sensed the presence of these human interlopers within its private, prehistoric domain. In colour, it was precisely the same shade of light yellow-brown as the surrounding reeds, no doubt affording it excellent camouflage should it seek anonymity, but it was presently intent upon more extrovert behaviour - rearing up on two further occasions before disappearing from sight behind a clump of dwarf eucalyptus trees, just as Miller's film ran out.

My copy of the 1951 Travel Book Club reprint of Cannibal Caravan (© Travel Book Club, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

In 1939, his extraordinary adventure was first published in book form - Cannibal Caravan. Yet despite containing many interesting pictures, there was none of his most spectacular discovery, the row. There was not even a photograph of one of the tail horns. Similarly, although Miller claimed to have shown the film to various (unnamed) authorities, nothing more has ever emerged regarding it, or the Kirrirri either, for that matter, as this tribe has apparently never been encountered again by any other explorer.

Equally odd was that in Cannibals and Orchids (1941), Leona Miller's own book recalling their ostensibly highly eventful New Guinea honeymoon, she relegated the row episode to just a few short paragraphs (of which only a single half-paragraph directly documented their actual supposed sighting of it), and which contained none of the descriptive details given by her husband in his book (indeed, her entire description of it was confined to a single sentence, concerning its length). Needless to say, this is hardly what one might expect from someone who had supposedly encountered (and been thoroughly unnerved by) a living dinosaur!

Nevertheless, because I am unaware of any previous cryptozoological document ever having quoted her account of the row (as opposed to his), I am doing so now for its historical (if not its descriptive) value:

In the village we found the horny tail-tip of the row. It looked like a rhinoceros horn, except that one side had been worn flat and smooth from dragging across the ground. The Kirrirri women, undaunted by the battleship proportions of the creature that supplied it, used the point for husking coconuts.

Having seen the tip of the tail, Charles had to see the row. The Kirrirris, mightily impressed by Charles’s guns, were agreeable. They were just crazy enough to see what would happen when Charles popped at a monster with a gun, and Charles was just crazy enough to show them. I went along because I wouldn’t have been any better off if I stayed behind, and I also had an idea that if there really was such a thing as the creature described – I didn’t believe it for a minute – I wanted to be where I could yank Charles out before he did something he wouldn’t have time to regret.

We went, we saw the darn thing, and we came back. Charles got motion pictures of it, but it was his reflexes, trained in Hollywood, that started the camera. His brain was just as frozen as mine. In fact of the two of us, he was more scared than I. I was just scared blank and couldn’t get any more frightened. Charles had been in so many tight spots before, he could appreciate the various shadings of danger. This was the blackest shade he had ever encountered, so he hit a new high in fright. He says it really takes an expert to be as scared as he was, though I later encountered moments when I came awfully close to it.

Artistic representation of the row (© Tim Morris)

The row was the real thing. In a radio broadcast on a nation-wide hook-up I ventured to describe it over the air. The resulting fan-mail indicated the public was still interested in prehistoric monsters. It has long been known to science that Dutch New Guinea harbors some sort of monster on the order of, but much larger, than the Varanus Komodoensis. Other explores have found additional evidence, but Charles and I believe we are the first white people actually to see one alive and to have found its lair.

The giant reptile we saw was somewhere between thirty and forty feet long, which is not big considering that some of the crocodiles grow thirty feet long in the Merauke River. It was its bulk that made it so tremendous. But every tiny detail was impressed upon my mind, to be recalled bit by bit as the first shock wore off. Many a night after that I lay awake staring through the clouds of mosquitoes humming around my net and seeing only this monster smashing its casual way through what should have been an impenetrable quagmire of thorn brush and barbed wire marsh grass.

Charles took no shots at it. He recalled suddenly that he owed it to civilization to photograph in full the various details of the lost tribe. We hastened back to resume our travelogue where we left off. It was strangely restful to get in back of a tripod again, with nothing more alarming in front of the lens than a few dozen cannibals.

Perhaps the most paradoxical aspect of this entire episode, however, concerns the row itself. For although palaeontologists currently recognise the former existence of many hundreds of different dinosaur species, collectively yielding a myriad of shapes, sizes, and forms, not one compares even superficially with the row - and for very good reason. As Dr Bernard Heuvelmans pointed out in On the Track of Unknown Animals (1958), the row's morphology is truly surrealistic - because it combines the characteristics of several wholly unrelated dinosaur groups.

Little wonder, then, why cryptozoologists are reluctant to countenance any likelihood of this morphologically composite creature's reality. Of course, their denunciation could be premature - but as long as Miller's film remains as elusive as the beast that it allegedly depicts, how can we blame them for remaining unconvinced?

Intriguingly, however, as documented in Rex and Heather Gilroy's fascinating Australian cryptozoology tome Out of the Dreamtime (2006), reports of a neodinosaurian cryptid with the similar-sounding local name of rahruh have apparently been emerging elsewhere in New Guinea, but especially Papua New Guinea, for at least a century.

Out of the Dreamtime (© Rex and Heather Gilroy/URU Publications – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

The reports describe an extremely large bipedal reptile with a very long neck, long tail, and predominantly frugivorous diet, but one that will also readily encompass the consumption of any Highland tribespeople who attempt to confront it. There have been many reports and sightings here of gigantic monitor lizards or varanids known as the artrellia, far longer than the accepted maximum length of 15 ft accorded to this island's native Salvadori's monitor Varanus salvadorii, and monitors can walk bipedally for a short time or distance, but the rahruh is supposedly very distinct from any such lizard.

Over the years, moreover, alleged sightings of sauropod-like mystery beasts have been reported from various tiny islets off the southwestern coast of the much larger island of New Britain (and also from New Britain itself), situated in the Bismarck Archipelago to the east of New Guinea, but little information concerning their precise appearance has been recorded. Conversely, I know of at least one reputed encounter with a very different type of supposed living dinosaur on one of these specks of land for which a detailed description is indeed on file, and which has been likened to a highly distinctive if decidedly surprising fossil form.

Brian Irwin on West New Britain's Ursula River (© Brian Irwin and Todd Jurasek)

In January 2008, Australian cryptozoologist Brian Irwin visited the island of Ambungi (aka Umbungi), and while there he interviewed one of two eyewitnesses who claim to have seen an extraordinary animal in 2005/2006, and which has apparently been sighted here and on a neighbouring isle called Alage at least nine times since the early 1990s. Robert, whom Brian interviewed (the absent eyewitness was named Tony Avil), stated that the creature was approximately 30-45 ft long, possessed smooth brown shiny skin, a long tail, and also a long neck, but was bipedal, and resembled a huge wallaby in overall appearance, except for its head, which was turtle-like.

When walking slowly on its hind legs, the top of this creature's head was estimated to be "as high as a house", and the vertical distance from its underbelly to the ground was estimated to be equal to the height of an adult man. It was observed from a distance of around 150 ft in the late afternoon, and for some considerable time, while it ate vegetation before eventually walking away, entering into some water, followed cautiously at a distance by its eyewitnesses.

Another view of a life-sized statue representing the postulated appearance in life of Therizinosaurus (© Dr Karl Shuker)

When shown pictures of creatures, Robert selected a restoration of the possible appearance in life of the theropod dinosaur Therizinosaurus as most closely resembling what he and Avil had seen that day – except for the head, which was depicted as horse-like in the illustration. As Brian has commented, however, the head's morphology in that picture was entirely speculative, because no skull identified as being from a Therizinosaurus has ever been documented, so the appearance of its head is currently unknown. Indeed, the only portions of this very large theropod from the late Cretaceous that are known from fossil evidence are its limbs and some ribs, so much of its likely appearance is merely deduced from related forms.

Ironically, however, its most famous confirmed attributes, and which must have been truly spectacular in life, are conspicuous only by their absence from Roger's description of the cryptid seen by him and Avil – because Therizinosaurus possessed incredibly long claws on its hands, probably up to 3 ft long (only incomplete versions are currently on record). In short, combining this startling absence from Roger's description with the relatively undetermined appearance of Therizinosaurus as a whole anyway, his identification of the latter dinosaur's illustration as being most similar to the cryptid that he saw clearly cannot be taken literally in any sense (although it has been on some websites), and can do no more than offer a basic idea of the latter beast's general form.

Todd Jurasek and Brian Irwin (© Brian Irwin and Todd Jurasek)

During late December 2015 through early January 2016, Brian was in New Britain, accompanied by American cryptid investigator Todd Jurasek, to continue Brian's earlier researches. Todd's summary of what they learnt while there (plus a selection of their photographs) is included exclusively here as follows, with his kind permission:

1) Ambungi Island - We visited Ambungi Island examining the caves reportedly used by a sauropod in recent years. Brian and I and [a] large group [of] islanders went to the caves at night. Conflicting reports from the native divers led me to suspect it wasn't really a deep one. I went back and physically examined the cave the next day in daylight. The water surrounding the entrance was maybe 15 ft at its deepest point, the cave maybe about 10 ft wide and deep. I placed a trail camera for a week above a secondary purported cave with no success. The last reported dinosaur sighting around the island was back in July of 2015 by an adult male who wished to remain anonymous. He watched a brown long necked creature with a saw like ridge on his back moving in the open ocean in the afternoon while in a canoe. Ambungi Island appears to be visited at times by these creatures but I saw no surface caves capable of hiding an animal larger than an adult human. The island is comprised of pocketed limestone that has the appearance of Swiss cheese or iron/steel slag discard from an iron or steel mill. (I'm guessing most of the islands in New Britain if not all appear this way.) Just like Swiss cheese there are no real continual holes to be found, just many odd-shaped pot-marked ones of various sizes. The only sizable holes on the island that I saw were along the shores where water erosion has occurred on [a] consistent basis creating small bluffs or overhangs.

Main cave, next to boat, on Ambungi Island reputedly used by sauropod-like creature (© Brian Irwin and Todd Jurasek)

2) Aiu Island (nearest island to Ambungi, also owned by the Ambungi people). According to [an eyewitness called] Davis who lives on the island, he and others had been chased out of the sea on multiple occasions at night by something emanating a bright white light. They were spearfishing at night when a bright white light would come out of the horizon and chase them to shore. Davis couldn't tell if the light was an animal or not. After chasing the group to shore the light would then fly away to heights of the island. The men and boys spearfish at night off canoes. My guess is whatever the light was [it] was attracted to their flashlights maybe even more so than their presence or movement. (Flashlights are used to both guide their boats and underwater for spotting fish and predators.) The light fits the descriptions of the New Guinea pterosaur-like cryptids known as ropen. Flying brightly-lit nocturnal creatures were also reported to have been seen in Karadian in the past; one such story was told to me by [local missionary] Bryan Girard's son, Rist. Another person in Karadian told me about an encounter with lights there at night. No planes fly in PNG [Papua New Guinea] at night so they couldn't have been aircraft. As Brian and I travelled to Karadian along the Armio road I met a young ex-school teacher from the island of Bali, PNG (not Indonesia) whose name I forget (have picture of him). He told me of similar creatures on his island. He said a bright light flew over the ocean or travelled partially submerged in the water like an octopus with its head sticking out from Bali at night to another nearby island. He was familiar with the subject of living pterosaurs and brought up Umboi Island to me as well as Roy Mackal's famous New Britain lake cryptid [already known for his mokele-mbembe expeditions, Prof. Roy Mackal also investigated the migo of New Britain's Lake Dakataua during the 1990s].

3) Akinum. Brian and I visited the [New Britain] village of Akinum where Michael Hoffman filmed the "West New Britain Carcass" video that was posted on YouTube in January of 2014. We were led to believe the rotten carcass was buried by a back hoe at some point after washing ashore; however, it appears the remains may have just washed back into the sea. Michael accompanied us to Akinum as well as to Ambungi Island. A mechanic from Karadian who viewed the decaying remains said it was built like a wallaby with a saw on its back, had small front arms with four fingers on little hands and very large back legs. The legs were so large that two men had [a] hard time lifting and moving one of them. This was reported to me by missionary Bryan Girard, the poster of the YouTube video. There were conflicting reports as to what happened to the remains. Brian Irwin and I went to the village under the impression the remains were buried on the spot due to the stench. We also heard they were picked over by curiosity seekers and that the remains had just washed out slowly back to sea. It is my opinion based from talking to the locals that this is what most likely happened. The natives that we spoke with told us they had never seen the animal before and were adamant it did not live anywhere around there.

4) Crocodile Point. Brian and I looked into a story of a man (Graham Sangeo) who reportedly had fed fish to a small bipedal dinosaur for years near Crocodile Point. The animal turned out to be a male primate of some sort that walked primarily on two legs according to our guide Leo Sangeo, Graham's father. He guided us to the cave which is currently abandoned. Leo described the creature as brown colored, about a meter to a meter and a half tall, big muscular arms and shoulders. The arms were shorter than the legs and its knees and big legs could be seen. The animal's feet were like a dog's hind feet with five toes (I asked Leo repeatedly about this feature to make sure I understood him correctly), it had very small to no tail, and canines like a monkey or ape does. The creature would come down out of the cave at night [and] scrounge around, walking on two legs at least a part of the time. It could be seen at times seemingly staring out to sea as if it was watching the horizon. Leo and Graham and a few others would attach cooked fish to tall branches and lift them up to it. It would then eat the food out [of] its hands. Leo said the animal grew bigger over time. The creature eventually brought two babies. He said he never saw the female. I'm not sure if the others saw the female or not. Graham discovered the creature in 2011, feeding it until he left for school in 2014 or 2015; others continued afterward but eventually stopped and the creature disappeared. Based on the description I'm inclined to believe this was a small ape of some sort or possibly a small bigfoot like creature. I was told by at least one other person along the distant Andru River that wild hairy men could be found in the Whitman range.

The Andru River (© Brian Irwin and Todd Jurasek)

5) Aivet Island. In 1992 John Manlel of Aivet Island had a startling encounter along the mangrove strewn shores of the island with what he described as a bright green dinosaur. He had been canoeing along the shores of the island around 4 pm when he accidentally startled the creature from about 20 or so yards away in open water. The animal attempted to submerge quickly but struggled because of how it was built. John said he watched it for about 5 minutes. He said he knew it lived on land because of the way it was built. The creature had two short hand-like front legs and much bigger back ones. The body was about 12 ft long with a very thick 5 to 6 ft tail that was about 8 in wide. The animal moved its tail back and forth as it moved through the water. John said the head looked like that of a dinosaur, the skin was rough like a crocodile and over-all build was kangaroo in shape. The creature had a small saw like structure on its back that became much bigger from back legs to the end of tail. There may have been an outlying ridge of small saw like structures along its tail like a crocodile has. If I can remember correctly the central ridge originating from the back ran between these. John said he never spoken to anyone but family about this encounter until he told Brian and I. He was frozen terrified by [it] when he sighted the creature and was adamant it was a dinosaur of some sort.

For the most part, the serrated-back water creatures sound very much like large crocodiles, but one would expect the local people to be very familiar with such beasts and not deem them to be anything other than crocodiles. Also, the bright green version reputedly spied by John Manlel, which had much shorter forelegs than hind legs, does not recall any crocodilian species known to exist today. Having viewed the 'West New Britain Carcass' video on YouTube (which can be accessed here), in my opinion it is the highly-decomposed remains of a large whale rather than anything reptilian, and various other zoologists and cryptozoologists who have seen it hold the same opinion, but some others favour a reptilian identity, ranging from a large crocodile or giant lizard to a bona fide dinosaur. Sadly, no physical samples from it were made available for formal scientific analysis, so the video is the only visible testament to this intriguing entity.

Two views of my Therizinosaurus model, reconstructed with feathers fringing its forelimbs (© Dr Karl Shuker)

As for the mysterious bipedal ape-like entity fed by Graham Sangeo: no species of monkey or ape is known from anywhere in New Guinea, but there have long been reports from here of a mysterious miniature bigfoot-like creature known locally as the kayadi. So if such a creature truly exists, perhaps this is what Sangeo had been feeding. Also of note is that Sangeo claimed that the adult female was never seen, i.e. indicating that they believed the adult individual bringing the two babies to have been a male. However, it may be that the latter was actually a female but with a large clitoris that its eyewitnesses had mistaken for a penis (in some primate species, famously including the spider monkeys Ateles spp., the adult female's clitoris is indeed noticeably large and superficially penis-like). After all, it is far more likely to have been an adult female than an adult male that was caring for the babies.

Brian Irwin and Todd Jurasek have asked me to announce that if anyone reading this account here has information concerning any of the mystery beasts sought by them in New Britain and its outlying islets, please contact them via Todd's email address: hunterfox743@gmail.com

This ShukerNature blog article has been excerpted and expanded from my book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors.