Dr KARL SHUKER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Search This Blog

PLEASE COME IN, I'VE BEEN EXPECTING YOU...

PLEASE COME IN, I'VE BEEN EXPECTING YOU...
WELCOME TO SHUKERNATURE - ENJOY YOUR VISIT - BEWARE OF THE RAPTOR!

Tuesday, 30 March 2021

SINGING THE PRAISES OF OUR NATIONS' FEATHERED AMBASSADORS

 
A male doctor bird, Jamaica's national bird, in Philip Henry Gosse's book The Birds of Jamaica, 1849 (public domain) / Doctor birds (two males, one female), in John Gould's tome A Monograph of the Trochilidae, or Family of Humming-birds, Vol. 2, 1861 (public domain)

Despite being a nation intimately associated with birdwatching and a love of all things ornithological in general, the United Kingdom, most surprisingly, is one of the very few nations on Earth that does not have an official national bird. True, several years ago a countrywide poll was held to decide which species should serve as our own representative, and revealed as its winner the robin Erithacus rubecula – a friendly, familiar species beloved of gardeners and Christmas card illustrators, and which has traditionally if unofficially occupied that very same role for untold years anyway. However, even this newsworthy poll failed to convince the powers-that-be to elect the robin formally as our nation's feathered ambassador, and so, at least for now, the wait continues. Elsewhere around the world, conversely, is a vast array of national birds, chosen for many different reasons as their respective country's much-loved avian symbol – from its links to its country's beliefs or culture, or as an eyecatching example of its rich biodiversity, to the longstanding admiration that it has inspired among those people sharing its homeland, or even as a means of highlighting its modern-day rarity and need for conservation. So here, to demonstrate this eclectic variety, is a global twitching tour, highlighting some of the most distinctive national birds with fascinating facts explaining why they are so memorable.

 
European robin, painted by Frederick W Frohawk, 1907 (public domain)

Birds of prey have always been greatly admired as symbols of power, strength, intelligence, wisdom, and keen vision, so it is hardly surprising that they have also been popular choices as national birds. Perhaps the most famous example in this capacity is the bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus, the national bird of the USA. One of the world's several species of fish-eating eagle, and named after the adult bird's characteristic white-plumed head (it is brown in juveniles), the bald eagle was officially adopted as the USA's feathered representative on 20 June 1782, when the design of the Great Seal of the United States portraying a bald eagle grasping in its talons 13 arrows representing the 13 founding states plus an olive branch signifying peace was formally adopted by the Continental (Philadelphia) Congress, containing delegates from those states.

 
Bald eagle, hand-coloured engraving, 1840 (public domain)

Another country with a tradition of eagle imagery is Germany, and it too has an eagle as its generally-recognised national bird, but this time the golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos. Indeed, the magnificent plumage and stately poise of this species is so imposing that several other countries have also adopted it in this role, including Afghanistan, Armenia, Egypt, Mexico, and Scotland, although in Egypt and Scotland it is presently still in an unofficial capacity, rather like our robin. Moreover, the African fish eagle Haliaeetus vocifer, a close Old World relative of the bald eagle and sporting a very striking brown and white plumage, is so well-regarded on its native African continent that it is the official national bird of no fewer than four different nations – Namibia, South Sudan, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

 
Golden eagles (Wikipedia – public domain)

One of the most spectacular yet also one of the rarest of all eagles is the Philippine eagle Pithecophaga jefferyi. Originally dubbed the monkey-eating eagle as it is large and powerful enough to prey upon sizeable monkeys here, it was subsequently renamed the Philippine eagle and formally installed as its country's national bird on 4 July 1995 by the then president Fidel V. Vamos. This was done in a bid to raise awareness regarding its critically endangered status, a result of longstanding habitat destruction, especially via widespread deforestation. Less than 1,000 individuals are currently thought to exist.

 
Philippine eagle, by Henrik Grönvold, 1910 (public domain)

Other powerful birds of prey declared as national birds include the harpy eagle Harpia harpyja in Panama, the white-tailed sea eagle or erne Haliaeetus albicilla (Poland), and the gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus (Iceland). Vultures may not seem the most photogenic or behaviourally refined of species to serve as national birds, yet they too clearly have their supporters, because the griffon vulture Gyps fulvus is the national bird of Serbia, and the mighty-pinioned Andean condor Vultur gryphus serves in this role for a quartet of major South American nations (Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador). Smaller raptorial species are not overlooked either, with the peregrine Falco peregrinus representing Angola and the United Arab Emirates, the European kestrel F. tinnunculus Belgium, and the saker falcon F. cherrug Hungary and Mongolia.

 
Andean condor, 1800s engraving (public domain)

As for owls, back in classical times the little owl Athene noctua was the sacred bird of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, so in modern-day times it is the national bird of Greece. And the Aruba burrowing owl A. cunicularia arubensis represents the Caribbean island of Aruba. Perhaps the strangest of all birds of prey is the secretary bird Sagittarius serpentarius, named after its straggly crest that has been fancifully likened to an untidy sheaf of quills that a secretary from bygone times might have placed behind one of his ears. This bizarre-looking species somewhat incongruously combines a hawk-like body with the lengthy legs of a stork, and is famed for its snake-killing abilities in its native Sudan where it is commemorated as that country's national bird.

 
19th-Century painting of a secretary bird, from Dictionnaire Histoire Naturelle by Charles Orbigny (public domain)

Waterbirds are another popular choice for national birds. The mute swan Cygnus olor represents Denmark, and the whooper swan C. cygnus Finland, whereas more colourful feathered symbols include the American flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber for the Bahamas, the scarlet ibis Eudocimus ruber for Trinidad and Tobago, and the magnificent frigate bird Fregata magnificens (noted for the breeding male's vivid scarlet, greatly-inflatable throat pouch) for not only the Pacific island nation of Kiribati but also the twin-island Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda. Its smaller but no less distinctive relative the great frigate bird F. minor does the honours for Nauru, and on account of their extraordinarily prehistoric appearance when seen high overhead in flight, frigate birds are regularly mistaken by unknowledgeable observers for living pterodactyls!

 
Adult male magnificent frigate bird, painting from The Birds of North America, 1903 (public domain)

Their impressive, imposing stature and noble mien no doubt explains why cranes and storks also include several national birds among their assemblage. Most celebrated of these is the blue crane Grus paradisea (aka the paradise or Stanley crane), representing South Africa. Its cultural links to this country include a longstanding tradition among the Xhosa people here, whereby the honour bestowed upon a man who had distinguished himself in battle was to be decorated with blue crane plumes placed in his hair by a chief during a special ceremony known as ukundzabela. Other African nations with a crane as their official symbol include Uganda (its national bird is the grey crowned crane Balearica regulorum) and Nigeria (the black crowned crane B. pavonina). The white stork Ciconia ciconia, a species beloved throughout Europe as the traditional bringer of babies according to fairytales and folklore, is the national bird in both Belarus and Lithuania, whereas the hammerhead or hamerkop Scopus umbretta, an odd stork-like but pelican-related species native to much of sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar, is the national bird of Gambia, and is widely if erroneously claimed to induce lightning. And speaking of pelicans: the brown pelican Pelecanus occidentalis represents the Caribbean nation of St Kitts and Nevis.

 
Blue, paradise, or Stanley crane, from A Monograph of the Cranes, 1897, by Frans Ernst Blaauw (public domain)

Many species of tropical bird have dazzling, multicoloured plumage exhibiting truly extravagant displays of feathered flamboyance, so it is little wonder that some of the most beautiful examples have been adopted by their homelands as national birds. Count Raggi's bird of paradise Paradisaea raggiana, for instance, in which the adult male boasts a fiery explosion of long scarlet plumes with which to tempt and entreat dowdy brown females to mate with him when he dances before them during the breeding season, is the national bird of Papua New Guinea, whose tropical rainforests are home to many of the world's 40-odd bird of paradise species.

 
19th-Century painting of an adult male Count Raggi's bird of paradise, by John Gould (public domain)

Another series of bird species with feathers of the fantastically fabulous kind constitutes the peafowl and pheasants. The blue peacock's famous eye-spotted tail-train when unfurled and held vertically to entice what he hopes are suitably bedazzled peahens is said to owe its distinctive ocellated patterning to the Greek goddess Hera (or Juno in equivalent Roman retellings). Distraught when the messenger god Hermes slew her loyal hundred-eyed watchman Argus at the behest of Zeus, she placed Argus's eyes in the train of the peacock, and adopted it thereafter as her sacred bird. No doubt, therefore, she would be pleased to know that this very familiar species, Pavo cristatus, is honoured as India's national bird. Turning to pheasants, the green pheasant Phasianus versicolor claims comparable prestige in Asia as Japan's national bird, as does the Himalayan monal Lophophorus impejanus for Nepal, the Siamese fireback Lophura diardi for Thailand, and the confusingly-named grey peacock-pheasant Polyplectron bicalcaratum for Myanmar (the last-mentioned species is so-called because although it is a pheasant, it has spotted plumage whose markings recall the ocelli in the peacock's train).

 
Himalayan monal, from A Century of Birds From the Himalaya Mountains, 1831 (public domain)

Parrots were always going to be sought after as national birds by tropical countries fortunate enough to be home to these vividly-plumed perennial favourites among aviculturalists and ornithologists alike, and sure enough, several species have indeed gained that exalted status. The largest, and gaudiest, is undoubtedly the scarlet macaw Ara macao, an animate tricolor of red, blue, and gold, representing Honduras but native to much of northern South America too. Several Caribbean island nations have their very own endemic amazon parrot species – large, brightly-coloured, and found nowhere else – so for reasons of national pride in their avifauna and also to highlight that these species are endangered in many cases, they have duly declared them as their national birds, as with the St Lucia parrot Amazona versicolor for St Lucia, the St Vincent parrot A. guildingii for St Vincent and the Grenadines, and the imperial parrot A. imperialis for Dominica. Nor should we forget the near-threatened Grand Cayman parrot A. leucocephala, the national bird of the Cayman Islands but also found in Cuba and the Bahamas.

 
St Lucia parrot, painted by Joseph Smit, Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1875 (public domain)

The pink-plumaged hoopoe Upupa epops with huge black-and-white wings that bestow upon it the extraordinary guise of a giant butterfly when seen in flight is Israel's national bird, and is intimately linked with biblical lore and legends. According to one such story, hoopoes once bore crests of solid gold, but they were so persecuted by hunters seeking their precious head plumes that they beseeched King Solomon to save them. So in response to their plea, he very kindly transformed their crests into normal feathers, which of course were of no interest to the hunters, and which they have thus borne ever since.

 
A family of hoopoes, painted by John Gould, 1837 (public domain)

Hoopoes are closely related to kingfishers, rollers, hornbills, and motmots, many of which are brilliantly-plumaged and as a consequence include several national birds among their number, such as the lilac-breasted roller Coracias caudatus for Botswana (and also unofficially for Kenya), the rhinoceros hornbill Buceros rhinoceros for Malaysia, the turquoise-browed motmot Eumomota superciliosa for El Salvador and Nicaragua, and the grey-headed kingfisher Halcyon leucocephala for Cape Verde. Superficially similar to the Old World hornbills due to their comparably top-heavy beaks, but less closely related to them zoologically speaking, are the New World toucans, with the keel-billed toucan Rhamphastos sulfuratus serving Belize as its national bird.

 
Rhinoceros hornbills, in Daniel Giraud Elliot's A Monograph of the Bucerotidæ, or Family of the Hornbills, 1882 (public domain)

However, the epitome of tropical birds as far as breathtakingly gorgeous plumage is concerned must surely be the trogons. Again distantly related to kingfishers, rollers, and hoopoes, and native to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, these typically thrush-sized birds resemble living jewels when spot-lit by shafts of bright sunlight filtering through the leafy canopy in their jungle domain. Inevitably, therefore, several of them have been adopted as national birds, such as the Hispaniolan trogon Priotelus roseigaster in Haiti, the Cuban trogon P. temnurus in Cuba itself, and the bar-tailed trogon Apaloderma vittatum in Malawi. However, the trogon par excellence – indeed, a leading contender for the world's most beautiful species of bird – is the aptly-named resplendent quetzal Pharomachrus mocinno of Guatemala, whose history, both natural and national, makes fascinating reading.

 
Bar-tailed trogon, by John G. Keulemans, 1892 (public domain)

According to the ancient traditions of the Aztec nation, which formerly inhabited what is today Mexico (and which in turn formerly included present-day Guatemala within its borders), one of their principal deities, the sky god Quetzalcoatl, would sometimes appear to them in the form of a great airborne feathered serpent with bright emerald-coloured plumes. Today, it is believed that this curious legend arose from real-life observations by the Aztecs of the resplendent quetzal, because during the breeding season the green-plumaged male, which is normally no more than 1 ft long, grows a pair of exceptionally lengthy, elongate tail plumes, also green, but each measuring up to 3 ft long – and when it flies, these two streamer-like feathers extend horizontally behind it and undulate, so that it bears more than a passing resemblance to an extraordinary plumed snake in flight. Such a famous bird of legend has made an immense cultural impact upon Guatemala, one of several Central American countries where this spectacular bird exists (as well as in present-day Mexico) – so much so, in fact, that not only is it Guatemala's national bird but it has given its name to this country's currency too (100 centavos = 1 quetzal since the year 1925), as well as appearing upon both its national flag and its official coat of arms, and also upon its bank notes and many of its postage stamps.

 
Late 1800s chromolithograph portraying a pair of quetzals (public domain)

Also deserving of mention here is a veritable 'quetzal in miniature' that is itself a national bird – the doctor bird Trochilus polytmus, hailing from Jamaica. Indigenous to that island nation, this iridescent green-plumaged hummingbird is characterised by the male's pair of extremely long ribbon-like tail feathers, which make a humming sound as it flies. There is speculation that because these feathers resemble the long silk tail-coats worn by doctors in olden days, this is why the species is called the doctor bird.

 
Delightful short video of two male doctor birds boldly perching on visitors' fingers as they drink sugar water from bottles (© Conley Salmon/YouTube – inserted here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Of course, not all national birds are chosen for their dramatic appearance or links to mythology. Quite a few have been specifically selected for their basic 'everyman' appeal and popularity, familiar to everyone and loved by all. Italy has as its national bird the Italian sparrow, a cheeky little upstart that is abundant and instantly recognisable everywhere here. Long the subject of controversy as to its precise taxonomic status because it appears intermediate in form between the Spanish sparrow Passer hispaniolensis and the house sparrow P. domesticus, it was formerly thought to be a hybrid of these two. Nowadays, however, it is often deemed to be a separate, valid species in its own right, albeit one that may indeed have originated via hybridisation between the two afore-mentioned species, and has been dubbed P. italiae, because this is where it predominantly occurs.

 
A pair of Italian sparrows, by John Gould, from The Birds of Europe, 1837 (public domain)

Other well known but visually modest avian groups with national birds among their membership are the wagtails (the white wagtail Motacilla alba being Latvia's national bird), the crows (Bhutan's is the common raven Corvus corax), swallows (the European or barn swallow Hirundo rustica represents both Austria and Estonia), thrushes (the common blackbird Turdus merula for Sweden, the redwing T. iliacus for Turkey), doves (mourning dove Zenaida macroura for the British Virgin Islands, zenaida dove Z. aurita for Anguilla, Grenada dove Leptotila wellsi for Grenada), and finches (Sinai rosefinch Carpodacus synoicus for Jordan).

 
Adult male Sinai rosefinch, painted by Nicolas Huet, 1838 (public domain)

But perhaps the last word on national birds should be reserved for the most poignant example – namely, the species that represents the Mascarene nation of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. For alone of all such birds, it is no longer in existence, having been slaughtered for its meat more than three centuries ago, only for it afterwards to become an icon in its former island homeland. Today, its instantly recognisable form can be seen everywhere in Mauritius – decorating picture postcards, appearing in advertisements, reproduced as toys of every conceivable composition, and serving as the number one choice for countless visually-inspired souvenirs. And the name of this extinct, exterminated superstar? What else could it be? Raphus cucullatus – the dodo.

 
Dodo, 17th-Century Dutch illustration, colour-corrected (public domain)

 

Monday, 29 March 2021

CENTROPSAR AND SCLATER - THE CAUTIONARY TALE OF A NON-EXISTENT BIRD

 
A hand-coloured lithograph from the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London for 3 March 1874 by Joseph Smit, depicting the likely appearance in life of Centropsar mirus – if it had ever existed, that is… (public domain)

During the Victorian era in Britain, Dr Philip Lutley Sclater FRS (1829-1913) was one of the great and the good within the zoological community, having described countless new species (especially birds), and serving for no fewer than 42 years (1860-1902) as Secretary of the pre-eminent Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Yet not even the great and the good are immune from error or misjudgment on occasion, and Sclater was no exception to this merciless rule – as a pretty little bird from Mexico would emphatically demonstrate in 1874.

That was the year when Sclater officially described and named a new species (and genus) of very distinctive passerine (perching bird) on pp. 175-176 in the 3 March issue of the ZSL's Proceedings. He dubbed it Centropsar mirus, and, as was the custom back in those days, listed its diagnostic morphological characteristics in Latin. His account was accompanied by a b/w sketch of the bird's head, wing, and foot (see below), plus the beautiful full-colour plate that opens this present ShukerNature blog article, which had been produced by renowned Dutch zoological artist Joseph Smit and depicted the likely appearance in life of this eye-catching avian novelty.

 
The b/w sketch of the head, wing, and foot of C. mirus that was included within Sclater's formal scientific description and naming of this ostensibly new species (public domain)

It had been brought to Sclater's attention by much-travelled English ornithologist and zoological specimen collector Edward Bartlett, who had obtained a large collection of bird skins whose species had variously originated from western Mexico and Australia. Based upon the structure of its beak (slender, elongated, tapering to a point) and the specific nature of its short, rounded wings' remiges or flight feathers (the third, fourth, and fifth of its primaries being the longest), Sclater readily recognized that the skin designated by him as the type (and only known) specimen of C. mirus was from an icterid.

Icterids constitute a morphologically diverse taxonomic family of birds wholly endemic to the New World, and include such familiar American species as the bobolink, meadowlarks, red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds, Baltimore and other orioles, troupial, and oropendolas (despite their common names, these meadowlarks, blackbirds, and orioles are unrelated to their respective Old World namesakes). Consequently, this meant that the C. mirus specimen must have originated in western Mexico, because there are no icterids of any kind in Australia.

 
Dr Philip Lutley Sclater (public domain)

Yet although this intriguing bird appeared to be an icterid, when its above-described icterid features were added to its small, weak, slender feet, straight elongated hind claw on each foot, and stiffened retrices (tail feathers) with attrite tips, these characteristics collectively differentiated it from all known icterid genera. This is why Sclater created a brand-new one in order to accommodate it. It is also why he chose mirus – 'wonder' – as its species name, to signify how surprised he had been by this bemusing little bird's unheralded combination of features. So far, so good – until, that is, the newly-described Centropsar mirus came by virtue of Sclater's PZSL account to the attention of a certain Dr Jean Cabanis (1816-1906), who was arguably Germany's foremost ornithological expert at that time.

In 1853, Cabanis had personally founded one of the scientific world's most prestigious periodicals devoted to birds, the Journal für Ornithologie, which he also edited for the next 41 years. Consequently, in 1874, published within Vol. 22, pp. 457-458, of his journal as a succinct but very revealing response to Sclater's earlier pronouncement in the PZSL, Cabanis presented his own opinion regarding Centropsar. Although couched in studiously polite terms, his cloaked comments made uncomfortable reading, especially for Sclater.

 
Dr Jean Cabanis (public domain)

Translating from the German, Cabanis's non-technical remarks were a triumph of silky suspicion:

Dr. Sclater has chosen the species name mirus very aptly; that the bird which arouses the most lively interest is in fact "wonderful" and difficult to reconcile with our concepts of "natural" systematics. If it were not brought to science by such an eminently experienced ornithologist as Dr Sclater, one would be entitled to regard it as an artefact. From the description and the illustrations, however, no final judgment could be made, since an error could possibly also have been made.

Ouch!

Cabanis then considered the technical minutiae of its morphology, which evidently and understandably perplexed him, because Centropsar uniquely embodied characteristics drawn from two entirely separate taxonomic groups of bird. Clearly something was drastically amiss here, and Cabanis knew it. Yet as he had not examined this bird personally, he felt unable to say more, but his doubts had been clearly expressed for all to see. He ended his comments with a final, singularly prophetic one: "Surely the wonderful Centropsar will get its natural solution".

 
A pair of adult Audubon's orioles – belonging to the New World icterid family, and therefore unrelated to the Old World orioles (public domain)

It will come as no surprise to learn that once Sclater had read Cabanis's ill-concealed challenge to his identification of the unique, taxonomically impossible Centropsar specimen, he lost no time in re-examining it, but now in much closer detail, only to uncover the awful if inevitable truth. To his credit, however, Sclater put on a brave face and confessed all at a meeting of the Zoological Society of London shortly afterwards, with his mea culpa duly documented in the 1 June 1874 issue of the PZSL:

Mr. Sclater laid on the table the typical [i.e. type] specimen of his Centropsar mirus (P.Z.S. 1874, p. 176, pl. xxvi.), and made the following remarks:-

"My suspicions having been awakened as to this specimen by information received from Mr. E. Bartlett and by the criticisms of Dr. Cabanis ('Journ. für Orn.' vol. xxii, 1874, p. 458 [although Cabanis's comments actually began on p. 457]), I have made a thorough reexamination of it.

"The result arrived at is that the supposed novelty is undoubtedly composed of parts of three other birds. The head, wings, and body are those of a female or immature Icterus, possibly I. auduboni [Audubon's oriole, nowadays reclassified as a subspecies of the black-headed oriole I. graduacauda], though I have no specimen quite agreeing with it. To this have been added the worn tail of an Agelaeus gubernator [nowadays reclassified as Agelaius phoeniceus gubernator] or A. phoeniceus [the red-winged blackbird], and the legs of an Otocorys [nowadays renamed Eremophila, consisting of two species of Old World horned lark].

"Centropsar mirus may therefore be removed from the ornithological category. Mr. E. Bartlett tells me that there were other fictitious specimens in the same collection."

"Now he tells me!" may well have been the unspoken thought running through Sclater's mind when he uttered that last confessional comment at the ZSL meeting!

 
A red-winged blackbird, belonging to the New World icterid family, and therefore unrelated to the Old World blackbirds (public domain)

So, the wonderful Centropsar had been unmasked not as a wonder at all, but merely as a heterogeneous humbug. It was a feathered Frankensteinian creation subtly stitched together with body parts from two different species of New World icterid plus an alaudid or true lark, i.e. collectively representing two entirely separate taxonomic families!

Yet to be fair, this composite skin must have been prepared with no small amount of skill in order for it to have fooled, at least on first sight, even as immensely experienced an ornithologist as Sclater, so we shouldn't be too hard upon him. He wasn't the first to have been tricked by a fine-feathered fraud, and he certainly won't be the last!

 
Painted in 1891 by another acclaimed Dutch bird artist John G. Keulemans, and native to much of the northern hemisphere, this is a horned (shore) lark – a species of alaudid or true lark, and therefore unrelated to the icterids (public domain)

 

Saturday, 27 March 2021

RAT KINGS – A TANGLED TALE OF TANGLED TAILS

 
Vintage sepia photograph of a black rat, the species almost uniquely responsible for the surprising number of perplexing, tangle-tailed rat kings on record (public domain)

Among the most unusual but prized museum specimens are preserved aggregations of black rats Rattus rattus inextricably linked to one another by their tails - which are so thoroughly entangled that the rats have been unable to disentangle themselves and escape. A grotesque, tail-entwined aggregation of this type is termed a rat king or 'roi de rats'. This is possibly a corruption of the French 'rouet de rats' - 'rat wheel' – as the tails when straightened out radiate outwards from the central uniting knot like the spokes of a wheel radiating out from the wheel's central hub. Yet despite centuries of reports and occasional captures, the mystery of how their tails become so intertwined remains unsolved.

 

MORE THAN FOUR CENTURIES OF RAT KINGS

The earliest currently-documented record of a rat king dates from 1564, more than four centuries ago. It takes the form of a woodcut illustrating a poem in the monumental emblem book authored by renowned Hungarian scholar-historian Johannes Sambucus, entitled Emblemata cum aliquot nummis antiqui operis, Ioannis Sambuci Tirnaviensis Pannonii. The poem tells of a rodent-plagued man whose servant discovers seven rats with their tails inextricably tangled together, and this rat king (though not referred to by that term in the poem) is depicted as alive and in some detail within the engraving. The accuracy of the depiction shows that rat kings were known as far back as the 1500s, and suggests that it was based upon a specific example, though no written documentation of this example apparently exists.

 
The 1564 woodcut illustrating a living rat king composed of 7 specimens (public domain)

Since then, more than 60 specimens have been recorded, spanning the time period 1612-2005, though at least 18 of them are of dubious authenticity (some rat kings have been fraudulently created as unusual - and expensive! - souvenirs for the unwary traveller or curio collector). Furthermore, despite being associated with superstitions that their discovery is a portent of the plague and other evils, several rat kings are greatly-prized exhibits in various museums.

 
Rat king, diagrammatic representation (© Di (they-them)/Wikipedia – CC BY 4.0 licence)

Intriguingly, most reported rat kings are of German origin, though why this should be is unclear (unless German writers took greater pains to chronicle any such anomalous finds in their own country than writers of other nationalities have done regarding rat kings found in theirs?). The single most comprehensive source of rat king information is Martin Hart's book Rats, which devotes an entire and very extensive chapter to the subject (once again, moreover, Hart is German, and his book was originally published in German, with an English translation appearing in 1982).

 
Rat king, early 1700s engraving (public domain)

Space considerations obviously prevent me from covering within this present ShukerNature blog article every single rat king on record, but a representative selection, including the most dramatic and unusual cases, appear in the following review.

 

A RAT KING REVIEW

The first on the total list of specimens on record is a nine-rat example that was discovered on 20 March 1612 behind a partition in a loft in Danzig (now Gdansk), Poland, by a local professor. All of the rats were adult, appeared well-fed, and were alive when found. Its details were included in a letter from the professor to a colleague in Basle, Switzerland. This was followed 71 years later by the finding of a six-rat king in Strasbourg on 4 July 1683; these rats were all juveniles.

 
Strasbourg rat king from 1683 (public domain)

A very remarkable example was the 18-rat king discovered on 12 or 13 July 1748 by miller Johann Heinrich Jäger at Grossballhausen (also spelt 'Gross Ballheiser') in Germany, when it fell from between two stones underneath his mill's cogwheels. Strangely, a famous, beautifully-executed copper engraving of this very noteworthy rat king depicts it with only nine rats present (unless, perhaps, the other nine are hidden beneath the nine portrayed?).

 
Copper engraving depicting a 9-rat version of the 18-rat Gross Ballheiser rat king from July 1748 (public domain)

Also controversial in terms of its visual portrayal is the rat king discovered in Erfurt, Germany, in 1772. For whereas in his book Hart lists it as a 12-rat king, a detailed engraving of this example dating back to the early 1800s portrays it as containing only ten rats - but also with a very stylised, unnatural-looking knot. Consequently, this picture may have been intended merely as a general rat king representation, rather than as a specific depiction of the Erfurt example.

 
Illustration depicting a 10-rat version of the 12-rat Erfurt rat king from 1772 (public domain)

On 11/12 January 1774, an amazing 16-rat king was found in a windmill at Lindenau, Germany, with all of its rats still alive. After they had been killed, the king was subsequently displayed in Leipzig, and it proved to be a very popular attraction.

 
Illustration of the Lindenau rat king from January 1774 (public domain)

Even more extraordinary was the discovery made during December 1822 at the village of Döllstadt in eastern Germany, when some threshers on a farm found two separate rat kings within a hollow beam in a barn roof attic. In both of these kings, the rats were all adult, alive, and apparently healthy. One of the kings consisted of 28 rats, the other consisted of 14 rats. The threshers killed all of them with their threshing flails and then, after great difficulty, the rats in each king were separated. Of particular interest, as originally noted by a forester who witnessed the rats' separation, is that the tail of each freed rat clearly bore the impression of the tails of the other rats in its king, thus demonstrating how tightly their tails had been entwined.

 
The veritable rat emperor discovered at Buchheim, Germany, in May 1828, now preserved in the Mauritanium at Altenburg, Germany (© Altenburg Mauritanium/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

The most spectacular, monstrous rat king on record, however, was discovered inside the chimney of a miller named Steinbruck at Buchheim, Germany, in May 1828. Incredibly, it contained no less than 32 rats, although they were probably not adults, which were hairless, desiccated, and inescapably bound to one another by their Gordian-knotted tails. This exceptional rat king - indeed, a veritable rat emperor! - is today a much-valued specimen in the Mauritianum, a natural history museum in Altenburg, Germany.

 
Close-up of the rat king found in 1894 (1895 in some accounts) at Dellfeld, Germany, housed in Musée zoologique de la ville de Strasbourg, France (© Edelseider/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

Another preserved rat king can be found in Strasbourg Museum. This is a ten-rat example, whose rats were all juveniles and discovered in a frozen condition under a bale of hay during April 1894 in Dellfeld, Germany. Three of the rats had bite marks, indicating that they may have been bitten by others in the king, or had been attacked in their defenceless state by free rats.

 
Rat king from Ruderhausen, found in 1907 (© Markoz/Wikipedia – copyrighted free use)

Yet another, more recent preserved example is the rat king discovered in 1907 at Ruderhausen, near Germany's Harz Mountains. It resides today in the collections of Göttingen's Zoological Institute. Indeed, this institute may once have possessed a second rat king too, obtained in the very same year, because a number of sources of rat king information list a specimen formerly held at this establishment that was reputedly found in January 1907 at the village of Capelle, near Hamm, Westphalia, in Germany, and brought to scientific attention by the local pastor, called Wigger. If these sources are correct, however, it must have since been lost, as no such specimen exists today.

 
Exquisite depiction of the New Zealand rat king (© Andy Paciorek)

A rat king consisting of eight juveniles has been on public display for several decades in a jar of preserving fluid at New Zealand's Otago Museum. Sometime during the 1930s, it fell down onto the ground, alive, from the rafters of the company shed of Keith Ramsey Ltd on Birch Street, Otago – followed swiftly by a parent rat that defended them vigorously. The rats' tails were bound together not only by one another but also by horse hair, which is used as nesting material by rats.

 
Rat king found at Vendée, France, in 1986, now preserved at the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle de Nantes, France (© Selbymay/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

In February 1963, a seven-rat king was found by farmer P. van Nijnatten partly concealed under a pile of bean sticks in his barn at Rucphen, in North Brabant, Holland. In the hope of uncovering its secret, after its rats (all adults) had been killed this king was x-rayed, revealing some tail fractures and signs of a callus formation - all indicating that the knot of tails had occurred quite some time ago.

 
Rat king from Châteaudun, France, found in November 1889; now housed at Châteaudun Museum (© Selbymay-Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

More recent still is the rat king found by some gamebird rearers on 10 April 1986 in the municipality of Mache near Aizenay Vendée, France, and now preserved in alcohol at the natural history museum at Nantes. This king was originally composed of 12 rats, but three subsequently became detached, and it is the resulting 9-rat version that is preserved. The only other preserved French rat king is one that was discovered in November 1889 at Châteaudun and duly presented to its museum where it is still retained today; photographs of it show that it contains six rats, but I have read reports testifying that there were seven originally.

 
Rat king from Saru, Estonia, found in 2005, now housed at the University of Tartu's Natural History Museum (© Ivo Kruusamägi/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

Most recent of all, however, is an Estonian rat king, consisting of 16 rats, nine or so of which were still alive when the king was discovered alive by farmer Rein Kõiv on 16 January 2005, squeaking loudly upon the sandy floor of his shed in the village of Saru. Kõiv killed them all, and on 10 March 2005 the king was taken to the Natural History (Zoological) Museum at the University of Tartu, where it was preserved in alcohol and is now on display. Prior to this, however, two of the rats had been eaten by a predator and a third had been thrown away by Kõiv himself. Two other Estonian rat kings have been reported, both during the 20th Century, but neither of them was preserved.

 

A KNOTTY PROBLEM

A number of explanations for the formation of rat kings have been offered. One of the most popular is that if rats huddle together for warmth in damp or freezing surroundings, with their tails pressed against one another, their tails become sticky and soon adhere to or become frozen against one another, becoming ever more entangled and fixed as the rats thereafter strive to pull free. However, if this were indeed the correct explanation, being such a frequent, commonplace scenario it would surely engender far more examples of rat kings than have been documented so far?

 
Rat king from Limburg, Netherlands, found in unknown circumstances during 1955, now housed at the Natural History Museum of Maastricht, Netherlands (Vassil - public domain)

Another notion is that a rat king is actually a single litter whose members' tails became entangled while the rats were still in their mother's uterus. If this were true, however, it seems highly unlikely that they would survive to adulthood, as they would be unable to obtain much food, yoked together in this manner. Yet most rat kings on record feature adult specimens, and ones that are often healthy when found.

 
A 10-specimen rat king at the Strasbourg Museum (public domain)

Equally intriguing is why all but three of these murine kings feature black rats Rattus rattus. There is none involving the much more common brown rat R. norvegicus, but this may be due to the fact that the brown rat's tail is shorter, thicker, and less flexible than that of the black rat. Indeed, the only rat exception to the black rat rule is an Indonesian king consisting of ten young Asian field rats R. brevicaudatus, discovered on 23 March 1918 in Buitenzorg (aka Bogor), Java. In addition, a single king composed of house mice Mus musculus has been recorded (documented in a Russian book dealing with mice and rats). So too has one field mouse king, consisting of several juvenile long-tailed field mice Apodemus sylvaticus, found at Holstein, Germany, in April 1929.

 

SQUIRREL KINGS

However, not all rodent kings involve rats or mice. At least 17 naturally-occurring squirrel kings have also been recorded (certain cruel, vile cases of squirrels having been forcibly tied together via their tails by human sadists are also known, tragically). Yet the concept of bushy-tailed squirrels becoming entwined together in this way seems even more incongruous than that of rats.

A seven-squirrel king was discovered in a South Carolina zoo on 31 December 1951. Tragically, however, two of its members were dead, a third was dying, and its four other members could only be separated by cutting off their tails above the knot. Curiously, two other squirrel kings have been found here over the years, and all during cold snowy weather, implying that the squirrels had huddled together for warmth.

 
Video of the successful rescue and separation of five juvenile squirrels constituting a living squirrel king, their tails having become stuck together via tree sap (© Guillaume Dutilh/YouTube)

A king containing six young squirrels was spotted by schoolgirl Crystal Cresseveur in a hedge outside her home in Easton, Pennsylvania, on 24 September 1989. Although they were eventually rescued, their tails could not be disentangled. A five-squirrel king (two members of which were albinos) fell out of a tree by Reisterstown Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland, on 18 September 1991, but these were successfully separated as their tails were linked to one another only indirectly, with sticky tree sap, tangled hair, and nest debris. In Europe, at least two kings of red squirrels Sciurus vulgaris have been recorded - one in August 1921, the other on 20 October 1951 (which was later preserved).

In July 1997, what looked at first like a huge hairy spider was spotted under a tree in Brantford, in Ontario, Canada, but a closer look revealed that it was actually a squirrel king, composed of five young squirrels whose tails were braided together right up to their bases. They were taken to a vet, Cathy Séguin, who freed them, but she feared that the loss of circulation that their tails had suffered would result in part of each tail dying.

 

CAT KINGS

Analogous to rat kings, mouse kings, and squirrel kings is the even more obscure phenomenon of cat kings. Here, however, it is the umbilical cords of kittens in newborn litters that are tangled and intertwined, not their tails. Such curiosities are extremely rare, but at least a dozen have been documented in the scientific literature.

 
The Rennes cat king from 1937 (public domain)

Perhaps the best known is the cat king recorded in October 1937 at Rennes, in Brittany, northwestern France. It consisted of a litter of eight small kittens, seven of which (males and females) were held closely together via their entangled umbilical cords. Indeed, the entanglement was so complex that even the left hind legs of two of the kittens had become bound up to one another. The kittens in this cat king were discovered dead, but it is not known whether their cords' complicated intertwining had occurred before the litter's birth or afterwards.

 
Engraving of the cat king reported in 1841 (public domain)

A cat king recorded in 1841 consisted of five unborn kittens whose entwined umbilical cords were still fixed to their mother's placenta. This shows that such entanglement can indeed occur while the kittens are still in the womb. The earliest cat king known to me is a five-kitten specimen from 1683, found in Strasbourg, France.

 
Report of the Strasbourg cat king from 1683 - click to enlarge for reading purposes (public domain)

Today, the mystery of how rat kings are formed remains exactly that – an unresolved anomaly whose reality has spanned centuries but whose secret still awaits disclosure. Some sceptics have cynically suggested that the phenomenon is simply a hoax, that the knotting together of the tails of rats in a king is clearly the result of deliberate human activity.

The Dellfeld rat king, on display at the Musée zoologique de la ville de Strasbourg, France (© Edelseider/Wikipedia –
CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

Bearing in mind, however, that most of the rat kings on record were discovered when their rats were very much alive and often still in good health (albeit hungry and frightened), and that the tail knots were exceedingly complex, all that I can say in response to these sceptics is that they have certainly never attempted to tie the tails together of several (not to mention 18 or 32!) live, healthy rats. If they were ever brave (or foolish) enough to try to do so, their cynicism would very swiftly vanish – along, quite possibly, with several of their fingers!

 
Report of the Strasbourg rat king from 1683 - click to enlarge for reading purposes (public domain)

 

This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted from my book A Manifestation of Monsters.