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

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Thursday, 30 September 2021

LAOCOÖN, HIS SONS, AND POSEIDON'S CRESTED SERPENTS FROM THE SEA

 
The famous ancient Greek marble statue, 'Laocoön and His Sons', unearthed within an Italian vineyard in 1506, depicting the Trojan priest Laocoön and his twin sons being slain by a pair of huge serpents (public domain/Wikipedia)

In February 1506, a magnificent, mostly-intact marble statue in the Hellenistic baroque style was unearthed within the grounds of a vineyard owned by a Felice de Fredis, near Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy. As his great interest in classical works was well known, Pope Julius II was duly informed of the statue's discovery, and he in turn swiftly sent a team of experts to the vineyard in order to evaluate it personally and report back to him; the team included a young Michelangelo.

The statue consisted of three human figures, of which the central, adult male figure was approximately life-sized, whereas the two male youths flanking him were slightly less so, thereby enhancing the central figure's dramatic appearance. The faces and bodies of all three figures were contorted and twisted with tortured agony and fear – and for good reason. Two huge snakes were coiled around this unfortunate human trio, savagely attacking them with lethal intent. The statue was taken to the Vatican, where it has remained on public display ever since in one of its museums.

There has been much controversy as to whether this very dynamic work of art is one and the same as a certain statue written about in ancient works, and which dated back to the 2nd Century BC; or whether it is a somewhat later copy of that early statue (which some believe may actually have been created from bronze, not marble); or whether it is a much later, original work, possibly inspired by but not a direct copy of the 2nd-Century BC statue. One or other of the last two options is now deemed the most likely identity.

 
A vintage engraving of the statue 'Laocoön and His Sons', in which the illustrator has restored the missing portions to portray how the statue may have originally appeared when complete and unbroken (public domain)

The time period of this vineyard-unearthed statue's creation has also attracted dissension, with proffered dates ranging from c.200 BC to the 70s AD, with an approximate time-span of 27-BC-68 AD being the most favoured nowadays. Moreover, it is believed to have spent some time adorning the palace of the Roman Emperor Titus (reigned 79-81 AD). Its creators may have been a trio of Greek sculptors from Rhodes – namely, Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus.

One aspect concerning the vineyard statue for which there is absolutely no controversy, however, is who and what it depicts, because the fraught scene in question is one of the most famous in all of classical Graeco-Trojan mythology. The central figure is the Trojan priest Laocoön, and the two youths are his twin sons Antiphantes (aka Antiphas) and Thymbraeus. Accordingly, the title by which this statue is officially known in the art world is 'Laocoön and His Sons'.

But what is of particular interest and relevance to this present ShukerNature article is the zoological nature of the giant serpents lethally encircling the doomed trio's bodies, which are named Porces and Chariboea (aka Curissia or Periboea). Based upon the statue alone, they simply look like muscular, constricting snakes, quite possibly inspired by the African rock python Python sebae, often kept as a pet in ancient Greece and Rome too. Consequently, they have been readily accepted as such by some authors. Conversely, ancient written accounts of their morphology and origin suggest something rather more exotic.

 
An African rock python (public domain)

As with the specific identity and age of the statue, there is contention regarding the precise background of Laocoön and why the snakes – or whatever they are – were attacking him and his sons, with different ancient sources making differing claims. As this is not the relevant place to examine and discuss in detail each of these sources and claims, suffice it to say therefore that the three major claims are that Laocoön was:

A Trojan priest who warned the Trojans not to trust the huge wooden horse offered to them as a gift by the opposing Greeks; his warning went unheeded and the Trojans fatally wheeled the horse into their city, thereby precipitating their destruction at the hands of the Greek soldiers concealed inside it, but to punish him for trying to prevent the horse from being accepted, the goddess Athena (the Greeks' divine supporter) sent two giant snakes to kill him and his sons.

Or: A Trojan priest of Apollo who broke his oath of celibacy by fathering his sons, so as a punishment Apollo sent two giant snakes to kill him and his sons.

Or: A Trojan priest of Poseidon who desecrated his temple by indulging in sexual intercourse within its perimeter, so as a punishment Poseidon sent forth two great serpents of the sea across the waves to kill him and his sons.

 
Engraving of Laocoön and his sons being attacked by giant snakes from the sea, in Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, c.1516-20 (public domain)

Of these, the third version is the one most commonly cited and favoured, and is featured dramatically within ancient Roman poet Virgil's classic epic The Aeneid (written 29-19 BC):

Two snakes from Tenedos (I shudder to think of it) come on over the peaceful sea unwinding their huge coils and swim abreast towards the shore. Their breasts rise among the billows, their bloody crests tower over the waves; their flanks skim the abyss, and their vast tails curve in sinuous coils, the waves carrying the spume. Already they have reached the beach: their burning eyes shine, red with blood and flame; their tongues, like a dart, flicker in their mouths, which they lick, hissing...

Tenedos is an island in Turkey where according to legend the Greeks hid their army, to fool the Trojans into believing that the war between their two nations was finally over – a treacherous ruse augmented by their deceitful gifting to the Trojans of the Trojan Horse.

 
Vintage illustration of the oarfish (aka giant oarfish or ribbonfish) (public domain)

Way back in the 1970s, I studied sections of The Aeneid (including the above one) as part of my Latin O-Level course, and I can still well remember thinking how very reminiscent Poseidon's fire-crested sea serpents were of a certain huge and highly distinctive species of marine fish. Moreover, when I subsequently acquired and read veteran cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans's classic tome In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents (1968), I discovered that I wasn't the only one to have recognised this similarity. Here is what Heuvelmans wrote:

The colour of these snakes' crests makes one suspect that Virgil's terrific picture may be inspired, in parts at least, by one of the most mysterious of the world's larger fishes, the oarfish Regalecus glesne...It is long and serpentine, and right along its spine is a crest of bright coral red which it can raise into a sort of plume on its head.

Just how long this surreal but wholly inoffensive ribbon-like fish can be is very much a matter for conjecture, as I examined in an entire chapter devoted to it within my book A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), and also here on ShukerNature. It is certainly known to measure over 30 ft long, but some plausible if unconfirmed lengths of up to 50 ft have also been documented.

 
A Greek wall plate of mine depicting the vineyard-unearthed 'Laocoön and His Sons' statue (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Consequently, whereas the vineyard statue's visual portrayal of Laocoön and his sons' dreadful fate at the coils of their constricting nemeses was probably more naturalistic, merely inspired by pythons, verbal versions of the Laocoön legend like that of Virgil in which the giant serpents were huge crested snakes of the sea sent across the waves by Poseidon were more melodramatic, and conceivably inspired by rare sightings and strandings ashore of the spectacular oarfish. (They certainly do not recall any of the known, elapid species of sea snake currently documented.) Or, as Heuvelmans put it:

It is therefore more likely that the two serpents from Tenedos whose "bloody crests tower over the waves" were modelled on oarfish. There is even less doubt that these huge fragile fish could not have done the least harm, even to a newborn baby left upon the beach. But poetic licence will explain much...

Indeed it will.

 
My replica in resin from Greece of the 'Laocoön and His Sons' statue (© Dr Karl Shuker)
 
 

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

SNAKES WITH WINGS - AND OTHER STRANGE THINGS!

 
Artistic representation of the Namibian flying snake based upon eyewitness descriptions (© Philippa Foster)

 

I went once to a certain place in Arabia, almost exactly opposite the city of Buto, to make inquiries concerning the winged serpents. On my arrival I saw the back-bones and ribs of serpents in such numbers as it is impossible to describe: of the ribs there were a multitude of heaps, some great, some small, some middle-sized. The place where the bones lie is at the entrance of a narrow gorge between steep mountains, where there open upon a spacious plain communicating with the great plain of Egypt. The story goes that with the spring the winged snakes come flying from Arabia towards Egypt, but are met in this gorge by the birds called ibises, who forbid their entrance and destroy them all. The Arabians assert, and the Egyptians also admit, that it is on account of the service thus rendered that the Egyptians hold the ibis in so much reverence.

   Herodotus – The History, Book II

 

Despite its common name, the so-called flying snake Chrysopelea ornata of southeast Asia cannot actively fly. However, it is well known that this distinctive species can glide for up to 300 ft through the air by launching itself from a tree while simultaneously spreading its ribs and flattening its body, until its undersurface is concave, thereby transforming itself into a ribbon-shaped parachute.

 
Southeast Asia's known flying snake Chrysopelea ornata (public domain)

Yet according to some remarkable reports filed away within the bulging archives of cryptozoology, there may be some currently-undescribed species of snake that are capable of true flight, i.e. achieved with the aid of wings or comparable means of active propulsion.

 

THE NAMIBIAN FLYING SNAKE

One such mystery beast is the supposed flying snake that has been reported not only by the native Namaqua people but also by a number of European eyewitnesses within the Namib Desert of southern Namibia. According to their generally consistent accounts, it has a brown or yellow body mottled with dark spots, an inflated neck, and a very large head bearing a pair of short backward-pointing horns - plus, very remarkably, a glowing 'torch' in the centre of its brow. Most astonishing of all, however, is the pair of membranous bat-like wings allegedly emerging from the sides of its neck or mouth.

Eyewitnesses have stated that this extraordinary snake launches itself from the summit of a high rocky ledge, then soars down to the ground, landing with an appreciable impact and producing scaly tracks in the dusty earth. In 1942, while tending sheep in the mountains at Keetmanshoop, teenager Michael Esterhuise threw a stone at what he had assumed to be a large monitor lizard lurking inside a rocky crack. When it emerged, however, it revealed itself to be a big snake with a pair of wing-like structures projecting from the sides of its mouth.

 
A second reconstruction of the Namibian flying snake's possible appearance (© Tim Morris)

On a separate occasion, moreover, one of these serpents soared down towards Esterhuise after having launched itself from a rocky ledge. When it landed, hitting the ground with great force, Esterhuise fainted, and when he was later found (unharmed though still unconscious) by a search party, the snake had gone but its tracks remained. They were subsequently examined by no less celebrated a naturalist than Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer – curator of South Africa's East London Museum and immortalised zoologically as the discoverer of that famous 'living fossil' fish the coelacanth Latimeria chalumnae in 1938. In her opinion, these tracks, containing the clear impression of scales, were indeed consistent with the marks that a snake would make.

A South African television documentary by Angus Whitty Productions, entitled In Search of the Giant Flying Snake of Namibia and first broadcast in 1995, contained testimony from a number of alleged eyewitnesses, which provided estimates of this mystery serpent's total length that ranged from 9 ft to 15 ft. The programme also specially prepared and featured on-screen a detailed drawing of the latter snake's alleged appearance based upon such testimony.

 
Screenshot of the flying snake drawing from In Search of the Giant Flying Snake of Namibia (© Angus Whitty Productions – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Well worth noting is that Namibia is a former German colony, so it is not impossible that Teutonic legends of lightning snakes retold here by German settlers may have infiltrated and influenced native Namibian lore. However, such legends cannot leave physical, tangible tracks like those examined by Miss Courtenay-Latimer, so perhaps a real snake is indeed present but one whose appearance has been exaggerated or distorted in the telling due to shock by those who have unexpectedly encountered it.

If so, the Namibian flying snake may still be an undescribed species, but one that in reality merely sports a pair of extensible lateral membranes similar to those of the famous Asian gliding lizard Draco volans (though whether such structures would be sufficiently adept, aerodynamically, to bear so sizeable a snake through the air is another matter), plus a pair of horny projections resembling the 'eyebrow' horns of certain African vipers. As for its glowing 'torch', this may be nothing more mysterious than a highly-reflective patch of shining scales on its brow.

 

THE TL'IISH NAAT'A'I OR ARIZONA FLYING SNAKE

For a number of years, American cryptozoologist Nick Sucik has been investigating reports of an equally mystifying but even more obscure aerial anomaly of the serpentine kind - the tl'iish naat'a'í (pronounced 'kleesh-not-ahee' and translated as 'snake that flies'). Also known as the Arizona flying snake, apparently this bizarre reptile is a familiar creature there to the Navajo Nation, and to the Hopi Nation as well (who refer to it by names translating as 'sun snake'). They all describe it as being fundamentally serpentine in form, generally around 2 m long, and dull grey in colour (although sometimes said to have a red belly), but possessing a pair of retractable and virtually transparent wing-like membranes. These emerge from behind its head, run laterally along much of its body's length, can flap vigorously and very rapidly, and are thus used for active flight (rather than passive gliding) purposes.

Some eyewitnesses have stated that these membranes sparkle in the sun when illuminated at certain angles. They also claim that this mysterious reptile constructs a kind of nest from twigs, located along the sides of cliffs or among rocks; and that when airborne, its flying membranes make a hissing sound, likened by some witnesses to a passenger jet's noise when passing by overhead. Comparable reports have also emerged from both the Texas and the Mexican sides of the Rio Grande, including one sighting of an unusual snake-like entity flying amid a group of bats here that was videoed by a security camera at Lajitas, Texas, and can be viewed on YouTube. Sadly, the alleged serpent is only glimpsed briefly and even then not clearly. Some viewers have opined that it may itself have been a bat (albeit a much larger one) or even an owl, but Nick is not convinced by such identities.

The video can presently be accessed here on YouTube, where it was posted by a Gil Bartee on 26 June 2008. Sadly, however, the alleged serpent is only glimpsed very briefly (I assume that it is the entity appearing at 0:54 minutes into the video – Bartee provides no details), and even then not clearly. Some viewers have opined that it may itself have been a bat (albeit a much larger one) or even an owl, but Nick is not convinced by such identities.

 
Artistic representation of the Arizona flying snake (© Tim Morris)

On 10 November 2016, British cryptozoological researcher Richard Muirhead posted in Facebook's Cryptozoology Herpetological Research Group a hitherto-obscure newspaper article dealing principally with the afore-mentioned, long-known Asian flying snake Chrysopelea ornata, but whose final paragraph contained information that is definitely of cryptozoological interest. Published in the Oregonian on 15 March 1942, the paragraph in question reads as follows:

A western prototype [i.e. of Chrysopelea ornata] is reputed to exist somewhere in Southern Mexico, although snake experts have made many fruitless expeditions into the interior for living specimens.

Might this be a previously-unpublicised reference to the tl'iish naat'a'í? If so, however, it indicates that this mystery snake, or something comparable, exists further south in Mexico than the Rio Grande.

In 2004, Nick prepared a detailed paper documenting traditional folklore and contemporary sightings relating to the tl'iish naat'a'í, which could formerly be viewed online (at: http://www.azcentral.com/12news/pics/dragonsofthedine.pdf) but has now disappeared (happily, I downloaded a copy for my files while it was still online), and contains a number of fascinating eyewitness accounts of this truly extraordinary, zoologically-unknown snake.

 

EUROPEAN WINGED SNAKES

Remarkably, some intriguing but thoroughly mystifying, modern-day reports of aerial snakes have even been filed from Europe. For instance, one day during 1930 or 1931, the mother of André Mellira was preparing lunch in a hut deep within the forest at the mountain village of La Bollène-Vésubie, close to Nice, southern France, when she looked out of the window and saw what looked like a green snake with wings! Moreover, this amazing creature promptly flew down from the branches of a tree close by and landed upon the hut's window sill. When Mellira's mother cried out in fear and alarm, however, her unexpected winged visitor dived down into a bush and vanished. Intriguingly, there is a longstanding tradition of winged snakes inhabiting the southern Alps, but these have always been discounted by scientists as myths.

 
An illustration from a 1723 publication by Swiss scholar Johann Jakob Scheuchzer depicting an alleged alpine winged snake (public domain)

A 12-year-old Bulgarian girl called Hazel Göksu was walking towards a spring very near her home one summer evening in 1947 in order to fill two buckets with water. Suddenly, however, she noticed what initially looked like some branches lying on the path ahead, but as she drew nearer she realised that they were thin snakes. Black, grey, and white in colour, and 1-2 m long, they abruptly emitted a peculiar cry - and then launched themselves into the air, flying 2-3 m above the ground in a straight line to the spring, about 150 m away, before vanishing behind some trees. Hazel was so frightened by what she had seen that she ran back to her home immediately, and never visited the spring again alone.

 

A COUPLE OF REPTILIAN LONDON PECULIARS?

Perhaps the most unexpected flying snakes ever recorded from Europe, however, were reported even closer to home – West London. According to a correspondent writing as 'SB' in The Gentleman's Magazine on 20 April 1798, a truly remarkable animal was observed during early August 1776 just a few miles west of London:

The strange object was of the serpent kind: its size that of the largest common snake; and as well as it could be discovered from so transient a view of it, resembled it by a kind of grey mottled skin. The head of this extraordinary animal appeared about the size of a small woman's hand. It had a pair of short wings very forward on the body, near its head; and the length of the whole body was about two feet. Its flight was very gentle; it seemed too heavy to fly either fast or high; and its manner of flying was not in an horizontal attitude, but with its head considerably higher than the tail; so that it seemed continually labouring to ascend without ever being able to raise itself much higher than seven or eight feet from the ground.

 
Bestiary illustration of a flying snake-like reptile (public domain)

This same magazine subsequently published a second, more recent report, by a correspondent signing only as 'JR' - describing a sighting by a friend of the same (or a very similar) flying snake encountered at 10.30 pm on 15 July 1797 on the road between Hammersmith and Hyde Park Corner:

The body was of a dark colour, about the thickness of the lower part of a man's arm, about two feet long. The wings were very short, and placed near the head. The head was raised above the body. It was not seven or eight feet from the ground. Being an animal of such uncommon description, I was particular in noticing the day of the month, and likewise being the day preceding a most dreadful storm of thunder and lightning.

If we are willing to accept that these reports are not outright hoaxes (worth noting, however, is that neither of the authors supplied their name), or bizarre exaggerations of some large insect like a damselfly or robber fly (both of which when in flight sometimes hold their body in a similar pose to that described for this winged serpent), or some abstruse example of 18th-Century political satire, we can only assume that the observers were not zoologically-informed, and had mistaken some other, less bizarre creature for a flying snake.

 
 Robber fly (© Vengolis/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

Indeed, this particular case reminds me of those occasions on which I have been asked to remove 'baby horned snakes' from neighbours' gardens during the summer, only to discover time and time again that they are actually the large, distinctive caterpillars of the great elephant hawk moth Deilephila elpenor. Having said that, however, and having read many times the authors' respective descriptions quoted above of what they allegedly saw, I still do not have even the slightest notion of what this enigmatic creature may have been!

 

EGYPT'S PLAGUE OF FLYING SERPENTS

Finally: no discussion of aerial snakes could be complete without considering the very curious case of Egypt's supposed plague of flying serpents.

In early times, small but highly venomous snakes of many different colours but all possessing membranous bat-like wings reputedly existed in Arabia, and congregated in great throngs upon the trees that produced the much-sought-after frankincense resin.

 
Bestiary engraving of two Arabian flying snakes and an ibis (public domain)

According to the celebrated Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c.484–425 BC):

[The Arabians] gather frankincense by burning that storax [styrax resin] which Phoenicians carry to Hellas; they burn this and so get the frankincense; for the spice-bearing trees are guarded by small winged snakes of varied colour, many around each tree; these are the snakes that attack Egypt. Nothing except the smoke of storax will drive them away from the trees.

So numerous were they, in fact, that during their springtime migration from Arabia towards Egypt, the very air resounded with their incessant hissing and the unceasing beating of innumerable wings. Happily, however, Egypt's sacred ibises soon decimated these toxic ophidian locusts, devouring them in such vast quantities that none remained.

Many scholars believe that these winged wonders really were locusts, whose 'transformation' into snakes was due merely to exaggerated, elaborated retellings by successive storytellers down through the ages. Others claim that they really were snakes, but that their wings were either hearsay or fictitious additions purposefully supplied later by chroniclers anxious to enhance their tomes' dramatic content.

 
A swarm of locusts vividly depicted in a chromolithograph from 1890 (public domain)

Whatever the explanation, it can be said with certainty that in spite of Herodotus's first-hand observation of what he claimed to be masses of piled-up skeletons of these creatures (see this present ShukerNature article's opening quotation), no such snakes exist in the Middle East today. Presumably, therefore, the skeletons seen by him were not from snakes at all (with no detailed description or illustrations of them to examine, it is impossible to know for sure) – or perhaps their macabre mode of reproduction explains their demise.

For according yet again to the writings of Herodotus (and those of several other ancient historians too), at the very height of passion the female Arabian winged snake would bite her unfortunate partner's head off, rather like a serpentine praying mantis. And when the young snakes developing inside her afterwards had attained the required size for emerging into outside world, they would gnaw their way out of their mother's body, chewing through her uterus and gut, thereby killing her in the process.

Consequently, even if such fanciful creatures really did exist at one time, cursed with such a deadly mode of reproduction and birth it is perhaps little wonder that Arabia's flying serpents became extinct! In reality, however, it seems far more plausible that such claims were based upon misinterpretations of skin sloughing in snakes, with observers of such activity wrongly assuming that a matured snake offspring was bursting out through the skin of a dead parent. Or, to put it another way: in addition to being a highly influential scholar, Herodotus was nothing if not an imaginative one!

 

Finally: just in case you may be wondering – I certainly haven't forgotten the extraordinary winged feathered snakes reported from various localities in Wales, as documented by me in my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings and also appearing on its front cover. The reason why they're not included above in this present ShukerNature article is that they've already been featured extensively in a previous one, devoted entirely to them – so please click here to access it.

 
From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (© Dr Karl Shuker/Llewellyn Publications)
 

Monday, 20 September 2021

ALL FINGERS AND THUMBS – INVESTIGATING FELINE POLYDACTYLY

 
A male polydactylous kitten, sporting 23 toes (© Howie831/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

One of the most frequently reported and familiar teratological conditions exhibited by humans is the possession of extra fingers, toes, or both which is known as polydactyly or hyperdactyly. This genetically-induced phenomenon has also been widely reported among many other animals, including the domestic cat Felis catus a species that normally has five toes on each of its fore paws, and four on each of its hind paws.

Monitored breeding programmes with polydactylous cats (which are also known as mitten cats, boxer cats, or thumb cats, depending upon toe numbers present) suggest that the trait is dominant and autosomal (i.e. not sex-linked), but the variation of phenotypic expression is so great that more than one mutant allele may well be responsible.

In its least visible form, feline polydactyly results in one or both of the fore paws sporting a slightly larger than normal first digit (as it contains an extra phalanx bone), which stands apart from the rest of the paw like a false thumb. Sometimes, however, this 'false thumb' is flanked by one or even two well-formed supernumerary toes, thereby raising the paw's total number to six or seven.

 
Right front paw of a male polydactylous domestic cat; each circle indicates a toe (six confirmed), and the circle with a question mark indicates what might be a further, seventh toe (public domain)

Feline polydactyly can be limited to the fore paws (but not normally to the hind paws), or can be exhibited by fore and hind paws. A classic example of the latter state was displayed by a very handsome polydactylous tabby called Vodka, who shared his long and happy life with Frances Shipp, at that time co-proprietor of Midnight Books in Sidmouth, Devon.

Frances received Vodka as a Christmas present from her mother in 1980 when he was just a few weeks old, and she soon discovered that her delightful feline friend had six toes on each paw. Throughout the 13 years of his life, Vodka was very fond of climbing trees, an activity that would surely benefit from the bonus of having extra toes.

Vodka possessed 24 toes in total, but the current record for the greatest number exhibited by a polydactylous cat has apparently been held since the early 1970s by an extraordinary tom memorably named Mickey Mouse, and owned by Renee Delgade of Westlake Village, California. In October 1974, a report revealed that Mickey had eight toes on each paw, yielding an astonishing count of 32 in total.

 
Vodka, Frances Shipp's polydactylous cat (© Frances Shipp)

A polydactylous cat of very notable prominence was a grey-furred six-toed tom called Slippers, who was owned by none other than President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States. Yet Slippers gained feline immortality not through any colossal toe count. Instead, he chose simply to take a siesta one day stretched right across a rug occupying the entire floor space of a certain corridor in the White House - at the very time that a dignified procession of top-level diplomats, including a renowned ambassador's wife escorted by the president, was making its way down this same corridor!

Wars have been initiated over far less than the deliberate obstruction of such a glittering assemblage's movements but in Slipper's case, feline felicity evidently prevailed. For with great deference and care in order to avoid disturbing his slumber, every member of the procession stepped very delicately around Slipper's reposing form, after which this eminent ensemble of some of the world's most important political figures continued its ceremonious passage down the corridor. A cat may indeed look at a king or, in this particular instance, divert a diplomat or two!

President Roosevelt was not the only famous owner of a polydactylous cat. Author Ernest Hemingway owned several at his mansion in Key West, Florida. The very first was presented to him by a sea captain who believed that the presence of such animals on board brought good luck. Indeed, so closely linked did Hemingway's name eventually become with polydactylous cats that 'Hemingway cat' has become a widely-used common name for these extra-toed domestic felids.

 
One of the many polydactylous cats living on Ernest Hemingway's Key West estate; photo snapped by Marc Averette on 10 February 2007 (© Marc Averette/Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)

Although feline polydactyly has been well documented from domestic cats, it is not so widely known that a few examples are also on record from their larger, wild brethren. In 1925, for instance, the Maharaj Kumar Shree Vijayarajji of Cutch in India published a photograph in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society depicting a leopard Panthera pardus with an extra claw-bearing toe on each hind paw.

Several years earlier, this same journal had carried a letter by S. Eardley-Wilmot referring to a leopard shot by him in Oude, which had sported five fully-developed toes and claws on each hind paw. And in 1946, the journal published a letter by Virbhadrasinh, H.H. Maharana of Lunawada, who had lately bagged a leopard with an extra fully-functional retractile claw on each of its hind paws.

These reports are particularly interesting, because in stark contrast to the polydactylous condition recorded from domestic cats, it would appear that in the leopard this teratological trait can be wholly restricted to the hind paws (thereby indicating that a different mutant allele is responsible).

 
A polydactylous kitten (© Catxx/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

The last word on feline polydactyly, however, must surely be left to the following couple of truly exceptional examples:

One of these was a singularly special queen called Triple, born on 5 March 1976 and owned by Mr and Mrs Bertram Bobnock of Iron River, Michigan. As noted in Gerald Wood's Guinness Book of Pet Records (1984), Triple had no less than 30 toes – but this is not too surprising. After all, she did have five legs...and six paws! The other example was a male polydactylous orange tabby named Gizmo, who sported two paws on each of his front limbs, with each of these four paws possessing 4 toes, plus 7 toes on each of his two hind paws, thereby yielding a grand total of 30 toes!

And be sure to click here to read a ShukerNature article devoted to polydactylous ('horned') horses!

 
A photograph of Gizmo snapped by his owner in April 2017, revealing his extraordinary toe (and paw!) count (© Watching 4 Jesus/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

 

 

Friday, 17 September 2021

DOL HAREUBANG AND HAETAE - A COUPLE OF KOREAN CURIOSITIES

 
What is the identity of this small but heavy, dimple-surfaced statuette that I purchased many years ago in an English charity shop? Only recently did I find out – and was most surprised by what it proved to be, so be sure to check out my ShukerNature article here to discover its most interesting, unexpected identity! (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Throughout my far-flung travels overseas down through the decades, whenever I've brought some mementoes back home afterwards I've always attempted to choose items of direct cultural relevance to the country or countries that I've visited, as opposed to more generic souvenirs. Equally, when perusing items at collector's fairs, markets, car boot sales, etc, I've always been drawn to unusual, distinctive ethnic items, especially if their country of origin is, at least at the time of my purchasing them, unknown not only to the purveyor but also to me – thereby encouraging me to conduct some detective work in order to uncover their nature and provenance.

So it was with the enigmatic little statuette whose photograph opens this present ShukerNature article of mine, and which I purchased at least 15 years ago at a charity shop in the English city of Wolverhampton. Standing just a few inches tall, it is made of black stone and is surprisingly heavy for its small size, with a very distinctive multi-dimpled surface, long ears (somewhat like Easter Island's giant moai), and very large bulging eyes.

Yet in spite of its singular appearance, and despite my making a number of attempts to discover something about it, all of my investigations met with failure. Consequently, I had no idea at all where this curious carving had originated or which entity it is meant to represent – until 2021, that is. For in April of this year, after reposting a photograph of it on my Facebook timeline (I'd first posted the same photo there six years earlier, back in April 2015, but it had not elicited any positive response from anyone), I received the long-awaited answer to this longstanding mystery. One of my quizzing friends and fellow West Midlander, Neil Russell, was able to identify my puzzling little figurine for me.

It is a dol hareubang, a stone statuette of the guardian deities of Jeju Island, off southern South Korea, carved from porous basaltic (volcanic) rock, and placed outside gates to offer both protection from interdimensional demons and fertility. Awesome!! Mine is only very small, clearly created as a souvenir of South Korea, but the originals on Jeju are up to 10 ft tall. Thanks Neil!

 
A full-sized dol hareubang on display outside the National Folk Museum of Korea at Seoul, South Korea (© Ethan Doyle White/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

Following the belated success in discovering via Neil the identity and provenance of my previously perplexing statuette, I was duly reminded of a previous Korean curiosity that had formerly mystified me for some years. It too was a statue, albeit a much bigger one this time and one that was not owned by me.

Amid my archives of mystery beast data collected online is a public domain photograph depicting a very large stone statue of an extremely eyecatching legendary beast, but one whose identity had long been unknown to me. This was because (most unusually for me!) I had somehow failed to record any details concerning it – no name, no provenance, nothing at all, in fact, except for its photo's public domain status. The beast itself looked vaguely similar to China's famous Dogs of Fo, but was sufficiently distinct for me to feel sure that it would prove to be a legendary entity in its own right – and sure enough, it was.

In the past, I'd carried out a number of reverse picture searches, in the hope of discovering a website containing the mysterious photograph, but all had met with failure – until I conducted yet another such search in 2010 while preparing my book Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times. And this time – success! It turned up on a Wikipedia page devoted to a Chinese mythical creature known as a xiezhi, but the entity in the photograph that I was interested in was not a xiezhi per se, but rather a Korean equivalent of sorts, known as a haetae, with the photograph depicting a haetae statue in the grounds of a Korean palace.

And here is that photograph:

 
The onetime tantalising photograph depicting a haetae statue in the grounds of a Korean palace (public domain)

Never having visited the Korean peninsula, I've not seen haetae statues in the flesh – or stone, to be precise! However, it would appear that as the haetae is deemed there to be a guardian beast and in particular a valued protector against natural disasters such as earthquakes and fires, it is represented by statues in a number of significant sites in South Korea. Moreover, it has been the official symbol of Seoul itself since 2009.

Both canine and leonine in shape, the haetae sports a pair of very sizeable upper fangs more in keeping with a sabre-tooth than either a dog or a lion – and unlike any form of known canid or felid, this muscular mammal eats fire and is covered in sharp scales. In some representations, it also bears a small central horn upon its brow like that of a very short-horned unicorn, and a bell hangs upon a ribbon around its neck. Furthermore, it is supposedly able to travel back and forth through time, to distinguish between right and wrong so that it punishes wrongdoers without mercy, to bite the moon if so desiring (thus explaining the latter's waning period), and even to cause an eclipse.

According to ancient Korean tradition, this immensely powerful creature is native to the frontiers of Manchuria and appeared as a city-protecting entity in architectural sculpture during the early Joseon dynasty (the last dynastic kingdom of Korea, lasting for five centuries, from July 1392 to October 1897).

So if ever I'm fortunate enough to visit the Korean peninsula one day, I'll be sure to say a very respectful hello to its exceedingly formidable fire-eating lion dog (or dog lion) aka the moon-munching, time-travelling haetae!

 
Second photograph of a haetae statue = this is one of a pair, in front of the reconstructed South Gate of Kyongbok Palace, in Seoul, South Korea, guarding it against fire; photo snapped in c.1900 (photo source: Cornell University Library – no publishing restrictions)