Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. 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), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), and more recently 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), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is already considered to be his magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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

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Thursday, 19 April 2018


An adult female specimen of the dodo's closest relative, the Rodrigues solitaire, as drawn in 1708 by French explorer François Leguat and thereby constituting the only illustration of this now-extinct flightless species prepared by someone who directly saw it in the living state (public domain)

The Indian Ocean's Mascarene archipelago – of which the islands of Mauritius, Réunion, and Rodrigues are its largest, principal members – has acquired everlasting fame as the former home of one of the world's most celebrated and curious subfamilies of extinct birds. I refer, of course, to those flightless hook-billed pigeons of gargantuan stature and grotesque appearance known to zoologists as Raphinae but to everyone else as the dodos and solitaires.

Indeed, the dodo of Mauritius, Raphus cucullatus (the still commonly-applied but obsolete genus Didus being a junior synonym of Raphus), has become the modern-day epitome of obsolescence. "As dead as the dodo" is the ultimate phrase used to describe anything, avian or otherwise, that is irrevocably dated, destroyed, or deceased.

The most ironic aspect of the dodos' extinction is that at one time there was every opportunity to save them. Quite a number of dodos were brought back to Europe, and unlike so many of the tropics' much more delicate avifauna they appeared to be physiologically robust.

Indeed, as David Day pertinently remarked in The Doomsday Book of Animals (1981), any birds that could survive the rough sea voyages of the 17th Century had to be tough. (There is even a confirmed record of a living dodo that reached the Japanese city of Nagasaki in 1647, which is the last recorded dodo specimen in captivity.)

Sir John Tenniel's famous illustration of Alice with the Dodo and other caucus race competitors, from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865); modern, zoological reconstructions of the dodo favour a sleeker, less plump appearance for it (public domain)

Furthermore, some apparently survived for a number of years in their new European homes. If serious attempts had been made to save them by captive breeding, the existence of these Alice-in-Wonderland birds within today's parklands and gardens may well have been a firm reality instead of an intangible romantic fantasy. Yet no such attempt was made.

Instead, the Mauritius dodo is generally believed to have died out in or around 1681. Moreover, this species' Mascarene relative - the still-sizeable but rather more streamlined solitaire of Rodrigues, Pezophaps solitaria - apparently followed it into oblivion by the latter part of the 18th Century.

A third once-recognised species, the Réunion solitaire Raphus solitarius, which died out at much the same time as its Rodrigues namesake, is nowadays deemed to have been a species of ibis, not a dodo or solitaire at all, and has been reclassified accordingly.

Moreover, a fourth erstwhile species, Réunion's supposed white dodo Victoriornis imperialis, has been thoroughly traduced and entirely discredited taxonomically. I plan to document these two discounted forms in a future ShukerNature article.

Life-sized models of the Réunion white dodo (confusingly labelled alternatively as the solitaire, which on Réunion was a separate but equally non-existent raphine species) and the Mauritius dodo at Tring Natural History Museum (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Even so, is it possible that some raphine representatives survived beyond these officially-recognized dates of extinction, persisting instead into much more recent times? Let us consider the intriguing if highly-convoluted case of the Nazareth dodo.

Although Mauritius, Réunion, and Rodrigues are without doubt the largest and best known Mascarene islands, they are not the only ones contained within this particular Indian Ocean archipelago. To the north of its major trio lie many far smaller and much less familiar islets and banks. Indeed, most of these have never been explored or even inhabited by humans. Yet at least one could be of considerable significance to the possibility of recent dodo survival.

In 1638, French explorer François Cauche led an expedition to Mauritius and later wrote a detailed account of his adventures. In it, he referred to "oiseaux de Nazaret" ('birds of Nazareth') in relation to dodos. Consequently, several subsequent books included mention of a new species - Didus nazarenus – the Nazareth dodo. But where was Nazareth? What exactly did it mean? Was it the name of some mysterious island? Or could it have been merely a mistranslation of some descriptive phrase used in connection with ordinary dodos? It was all most bewildering.

In his book The Lungfish and the Unicorn (1941), republished in expanded form as The Lungfish, the Dodo and the Unicorn in 1948, Willy Ley, a German-born scientist and science writer much interested in cryptozoology (or what he quaintly referred to as 'romantic zoology'), re-examined the confusing case of the Nazareth dodo. He favoured the last-mentioned explanation as the most likely solution.

My copy of Willy Ley's book The Lungfish, the Dodo and the Unicorn (© Dr Karl Shuker/Viking Press)

The first European explorers of Mauritius were Dutch, and these had referred to the dodos as "Walghvogel" ('nauseating birds'), on account of their less-than-tasty flesh. Ley observed that the translation of this into French was "oiseaux de nausée", which sounds similar to "oiseaux de Nazaret".

Added to this is the fact that Ley could find no evidence (at first) for the existence of a Nazareth Island - except for a few ancient maps carrying the name, and he dismissed its presence on these maps as nothing more than a synonym for one of the major Mascarene islands. However, the position of 'Nazareth Island' as marked on these did not correspond with the known location of any of the major Mascarenes - a puzzling inconsistency that Ley explained away as cartographical inaccuracy.

And so, according to Ley, Cauche had mistaken "oiseaux de nausée" for "oiseaux de Nazaret", with Nazareth being nothing more than an alternative name for one of the three principal Mascarenes. All of this seemed eminently plausible - until, as he would reveal in his later book Exotic Zoology (1959), Ley discovered that a 'Nazareth Island' totally separate from these latter islands really did exist.

It turned out that this was the name that early Portuguese sailors had given to a tiny islet called the Île Tromelin. Of 54° 25' E longitude and 15° 51' S latitude, this is a remote diminutive island (less than three miles long) lying approximately 375 miles northwest of Mauritius, 250 miles east of Madagascar, and sited within the Mascarene Basin. Even more stimulating than his identification of Tromelin as the mysterious 'Nazareth Island', however, was Ley's discovery that the 19th-Century Dutch zoologist and dodo expert Dr Anthonie Cornelius Oudemans (who was also a diligent if derided chronicler of sea serpent reports – click here) had suggested that Tromelin may be worth exploring in search of fossil (and even living) dodos!

Willy Ley (public domain)

As he noted in a full report in his book Searching For Hidden Animals (1980), veteran cryptozoologist and university-based biochemist Prof. Roy Mackal had followed up the history of the Nazareth dodos and Ley's corresponding researches very closely. Consequently, intrigued by the zoological potential ascribed to Tromelin by Oudemans, Prof. Mackal set out to learn more about this mysterious islet.

He discovered from a nautical chart depicting the isle (and produced from a Madagascan survey of the area carried out in 1959) that its only links with humanity were its ownership by France and its possession of a small airstrip plus a meteorological station (apparently of automatic type). Nothing seemed to be known of its wildlife.

Thanks to the vast information resources that have been made readily available via the internet in the decades that have passed since Mackal's book was published, conversely, this latter statement is no longer true.

As confirmed by a factsheet devoted to Tromelin produced and updated by BirdLife International (click here to access it), we now know that this tiny isle, currently an unmanned nature reserve but with four permanent staff in attendance at the meteorological station, is home to two significant populations of seabird – the masked booby Sula dactylatra and the red-footed booby S. sula. It is also used for roosting purposes by frigate birds (two different species of which formerly bred here), but according to the factsheet there are no resident land birds. There are, however, brown rats, which have reached the isle via ships, and which have to be poisoned periodically in order to keep their numbers down.

Roelant Savery's beautiful painting 'Landscape with Birds', produced in 1628, which includes among its diverse avian array a dodo, standing just in front of a cassowary and to the immediate left of a heron (public domain)

Coupling the existence here of rats (infamous on certain other islands for their baneful effects upon flightless birds) with the no-doubt-watchful, attentive presence of the meteorological station's staff, it would seem unlikely, therefore, that any relatively large and flightless species of bird, let alone anything as potentially distinctive as a dodo relative, could survive here undetected.

Many other comparably tiny and insignificant islets exist in this area, however, most of which remain scientifically unexplored or unnoticed. As Mackal noted, this is no doubt due at least in part to the existence of treacherous reefs and shoals that would make any attempt at landing on these islands hazardous in the extreme.

Almost 40 such islands, all of which are less than half a square mile in area, make up the Cargados Carajos Shoals (aka Saint Brandon), which are primarily fishing stations. Then there are the two Agaléga Islands, connected by a sandbar and covered with coconut palms, and again used for fishing. But what of their wildlife? Seabirds and turtles constitute the most familiar inhabitants of the Cargados Carajos Shoals, whereas the Agaléga Islands are famed for their very own subspecies of day gecko, Phelsuma borbonica agalegae, found nowhere elsebut might there be other, more elusive species here too, still evading scientific detection? Having said that, the invasion of some of these islands by rats, rabbits, and chickens doesn't bode well for any such species. Then again...

Relative to the Cargados Shoals, Mackal reported that as many as a dozen of these islands may house zoological and botanical surprises. Could these include living relatives of the dodo, unknown to the zoological world? It seems very unlikely, but let us hope, nevertheless, that other scientists will follow Mackal's lead, and investigate in detail some of the major Mascarenes' minor neighbours. Who knows for certain what the zoological rewards may be?

Even more exotic than the Nazareth dodo, my very own blue dodo! (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Monday, 2 April 2018


A meeting with Medusa: here am I in an almost too-close-for-comfort encounter with Greek mythology's most (in)famous gorgon - notice how I am taking good care not to look her in the eye...
This is Ray Harryhausen's original model of Medusa, as featured in his star-studded fantasy movie Clash of the Titans (1981) and currently on display at Valence House Museum's 'Dinosaurs, Harryhausen and Me' exhibition, organised by Alan Friswell, official model restorer to the Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation (photo © Dr Karl Shuker)

On 29 March 2018, I visited Valence House Museum in Dagenham, Essex, just outside London, England, to see a wonderful exhibition entitled 'Dinosaurs, Harryhausen and Me', which featured a sizeable number of the iconic, world-famous dinosaur and monster models created by the legendary special-effects genius Ray Harryhausen and appearing in a number of his celebrated Stop-Motion science-fiction and fantasy movies, including Jason and the Argonauts (hydra, two fighting skeletons), The Valley of Gwangi (Gwangi, Styracosaurus, Eohippus, Ornithomimus, Lope), Clash of the Titans (Pegasus, Medusa, Bubo the living mechanical owl), Mysterious Island (giant ammonite/nautiloid mollusc), One Million Years BC (Ceratosaurus), and First Men in the Moon (Grand/Prime Lunar – the big-brained leader of the moon-ruling insectoid Selenites).

The 'Me' in the exhibition's title is none other than a longstanding Facebook friend of mine, expert model maker Alan Friswell, who was personally appointed by Ray to restore all of his priceless models, as some had suffered damage and wear during the 40+ years since they had originally been made. Alan also very kindly made for me a wonderful full-sized Feejee mermaid that I greatly treasure – thanks Al!

(Left) Holding my spectacular Feejee mermaid made for me by Alan Friswell; (Right) Alan himself with my mermaid on the day that he presented it to me when we met at Dagenham in 2010 – thanks again, Al! (photos © Dr Karl Shuker)

As Alan is local to Dagenham, the Museum was very keen to stage the exhibition, which is proving extremely popular, and it was an absolute delight for me to view at first hand so many of the awesome creations that captivated me on screen when I first saw their films as a youth and which still do when I rewatch them today. A selection of framed artworks produced by Ray is also on display here, together with some of Alan's own stunning models. Alan is to be heartily congratulated upon organising such a captivating and thoroughly unique exhibition in England, which lasts until 30 June 2018, and even has free entry, so do try and visit, especially if, like me, you're a lifelong Harryhausen fan. Highly recommended!!

Moreover, as a fan, rather than simply sharing on ShukerNature some of the photographs that I snapped of the amazing items featured in this exhibition I thought that it would be interesting and entertaining to annotate them with various fascinating facts and snippets of pertinent information relating to each one that I've collected and conserved down through the years, so here goes:


The original model of El Diablo, the diminutive prehistoric dawn horse or Eohippus from The Valley of Gwangi (photo © Dr Karl Shuker)

This is my all-time personal favourite of all of Ray's many marvellous creations – El Diablo, the little prehistoric Eohippus that features in Ray's spellbinding Western/sci-fi movie The Valley of Gwangi (1969). The stupefied reaction of the movie's scientist character, Prof. Bromley (played superbly by the highly-respected English character actor Laurence Naismith) upon seeing El Diablo, and referring to him as the greatest scientific discovery of the age, was a major cryptozoological incitement to me at the tender age when I first viewed this fantastic movie. Click here to view the classic footage that introduces El Diablo in it.

Incidentally, although when I was a child this ancestral equid (from the early Eocene, c.50 million years ago) was indeed referred to zoologically by the iconic name Eohippus ('dawn horse'), it was subsequently renamed Hyracotherium (a much duller, far less evocative monicker, in my opinion), due to the strict, inflexible rules of nomenclatural precedence (it appeared that the latter name had been assigned to it prior to Eohippus). Happily, however, it is now Eohippus once more, because the genus Hyracotherium has lately been shown to be a paraphyletic hotchpotch, an artificial assemblage of various unrelated forms. So, welcome back, little dawn horse, you've been greatly missed!


Gwangi, the theropod dinosaur model that thrilled and terrified movie-goers in equal measure when it starred in The Valley of Gwangi (photo © Dr Karl Shuker)

Although Gwangi was officially described as a Jurassic Allosaurus, Ray Harryhausen freely confessed that he had also been inspired by the latter dinosaur's Cretaceous descendant Tyrannosaurus rex when designing its model, combining elements from both forms to create a truly terrifying theropod that wreaked havoc and mayhem when hauled out of its prehistoric valley enclave into the modern-day realm of humanity.

Ray was famed for the incredibly life-like, realistic appearance of his creations when seen on screen, due in no small way to the myriad of small but highly individualistic behavioural nuances with which he imbued all of them. For me, this is epitomised by the scene from The Valley of Gwangi in which a friendly performing circus elephant is suddenly confronted, attacked, and mercilessly slaughtered by a rampaging, newly-escaped Gwangi. Despite knowing full well that the elephant, just like Gwangi, was actually a Stop-Motion model, not a real elephant, it was thanks to Ray's genius in animating it so realistically that when I viewed this film for the first time as a teenager I was thoroughly traumatised by its savage death at the claws and teeth of Gwangi, and even today I always find that particular scene difficult to watch. Testament, indeed, to Ray's astonishing cinematic skills! If you care to watch it, click here – but don’t expect me to!


Ray's Ornithomimus plus El Diablo (top) and Styracosaurus (bottom) models from The Valley of Gwangi (photos © Dr Karl Shuker)

El Diablo and Gwangi are not the only prehistoric creatures featuring in The Valley of Gwangi. In addition to a pterosaur (almost obligatory in a movie of this nature), there are also an Ornithomimus and a Styracosaurus. Relatively small and fast-running in bipedal mode, the Ornithomimus ('bird-mimic') is being swiftly pursued by an astonished trio of cowboys on horseback within the mysterious valley when abruptly the hitherto-concealed Gwangi bursts into view, leans down, neatly snaps up the hapless bird-mimic dinosaur in its great jaws, and begins feeding upon its still-twitching body. Not surprisingly, the cowboys duly choose discretion as the better part of valour, and ride away very swiftly in the opposite direction – although one of them does turn around briefly and fires a couple of ill-advised shots in the great reptile's direction, before racing off again when a menacing, totally-uninjured Gwangi makes it abundantly clear that it does not take kindly to its meal being disrupted in such an impolite manner! Click here to view this tense, electrifying scene.

The Styracosaurus, conversely, is made of sterner stuff, because when it is attacked by Gwangi a little later in the film, it soon puts its long and very formidable sharply-pointed snout-horn to effective use, fending off Gwangi with fierce thrusts to the latter's underparts – until cruelly betrayed by a group of cowboys keeping watch from a safe distance. Planning to capture Gwangi alive for exhibition purposes, they treacherously collude in its attack upon the Styracosaurus, their leader Carlos spearing the horned dinosaur in order to weaken it, thereby enabling Gwangi to overcome its defensive manoeuvres and kill it. Click here to watch this literally monstrous scene of treachery and tragedy!


The formidable many-tentacled giant ammonite/nautiloid mollusc from Mysterious Island (photo © Dr Karl Shuker)

Loosely based upon the Jules Verne novel The Mysterious Island (1874), this classic Ray Harryhausen movie from 1961 features a host of giant mutated creatures as well as some prehistoric survivors. Most famous of these latter is a terror bird Phorusrhacos (although many film-goers mistakenly assumed that it was simply a giant chicken!), but also present is this awesome giant ammonite (or nautiloid, according to some sources). Another of my favourite if lesser-known Harryhausen creations, this gargantuan marine mollusc appears near the end of the film and furiously battles the heroes during their valiant attempt to escape the island by raising from the deep a sunken but otherwise seaworthy pirate ship. Click here to view the dramatic underwater scene in which it appears.

At one time or another, virtually every major taxonomic group of prehistoric animals has been cited as a possible identity for some cryptid, but as far as I'm aware no such mystery beast has ever been likened to a living ammonite or a living fossil-type nautiloid. Today, the nautiloids are represented solely by the handful of pearly (chambered) nautilus species. As for the ammonites: constituting a discrete subclass within the molluscan class Cephalopoda (containing today's octopuses, true squids, cuttlefishes, nautiluses, and vampire squid), the ammonites were once a dominant group within the prevailing marine fauna, but their last representatives died out during the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous, c.66 million years ago…didn't they?


Grand (aka Prime) Lunar, the insectoid Selenites' big-brained leader, ensconced upon a crystal throne, from First Men in the Moon (photo © Dr Karl Shuker)

Based upon the eponymous sci-fi novel by H.G. Wells from 1901, in which some eccentric Victorian-era English scientists successfully travel to the moon (i.e. many decades before America's real-life Apollo missions), this delightful British movie from 1964 features some of Ray's most distinctive creations, including giant caterpillar-like mooncalves, and the insectoid ruling lunar race, the Selenites, whose leader is the grotesquely big-brained Grand (aka Prime) Lunar. Click here to view them in an original 1960s trailer for this film.

The concluding section of the movie shows the purported first-ever manned landing on the moon, in 1964, by a team of UN scientists, only for them to discover that the English scientists had long ago beaten them to it, and had left their leader, Prof. Cavor, behind there at his request. He now was dead, but so too was the entire Selenite civilisation, victims of the common cold viruses that Cavor had inadvertently brought with him from Earth. Needless to say, this closely echoes the famous denouement in an earlier H.G. Wells novel, The War of the Worlds, in which the seemingly unstoppable Martians invading Earth are ultimately overcome not by the might of humanity, but rather by our planet's tiniest inhabitants, the viruses, against which the Martians have no defence.


Ray's beautiful model of the legendary winged horse Pegasus that appears in Clash of the Titans (photo © Dr Karl Shuker)

Ray's last but also his technically greatest film was Clash of the Titans (1981), a breathtaking mythological melange of a movie in which strands and characters from a number of different classical legends are deftly woven together to create a thrilling storyline that loosely centres upon the dramatic saga of the Greek hero Perseus and his daring rescue of the princess Andromeda from a horrific sea monster. The winged horse Pegasus, ridden here by Perseus during his ultimately successful bid to save Andromeda, didn't actually feature in the original version of this particular legend – instead, Perseus had been equipped with winged sandals presented to him by Hermes, whereas Pegasus had borne an entirely different hero, Bellerophon, during his battle with the monstrous Chimaera. Nevertheless, Pegasus's inclusion provides a truly scintillating additional spark of movie magic to what is already a spellbinding, highly suspenseful tale of monsters and mystery, and which even incorporates a Nordic interloper in the shape of the Kraken, no less – or at least its name, which is understandable, given that the Greek sea monster's original name, Cetus (from which 'cetacean' is derived, the formal zoological term for all whales, dolphins, and porpoises), would certainly have been far less dramatic or memorable to movie-goers.

Ray was once asked where he had derived his inspiration for choreographing and animating Pegasus in flight, as it seemed so natural, so realistic. In reply, he revealed that he had consulted what he personally considered to be the finest source in existence relating to such matters – namely, the idyllic scene from Disney's immortal animated film Fantasia (1940) that features a phalanx of winged horses flying through the sky before spiralling downwards to land gracefully upon a pastel-hued lake like a flock of equine swans (click here to view this enchanting scene – one of my all-time favourite animated sequences, set to the lyrical theme arising midway through the third movement of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony). Additionally, click here to view a short documentary segment featuring Ray talking about how Pegasus was designed for realistic flight, and also including some excerpts from Clash of the Titans featuring the winged steed in action.


Bubo, the living mechanical owl with metallic plumage from Clash of the Titans (photo © Dr Karl Shuker)

Also appearing in Clash of the Titans is Bubo, a living mechanical owl created from brass and iron by the fire god Hephaestus as a metallic replica of the real Bubo, the wise pet owl of Athena, goddess of knowledge and wisdom. Its function, as dictated by Zeus, the supreme Greek god and also father of Perseus, is to lead Perseus to the Graeae or Grey Sisters (aka the Stygian Witches), who, albeit only with great reluctance, will tell him how to defeat the Kraken. Click here to view Bubo's somewhat less than dignified debut in the company of Perseus, when he unwarily perches upon a dead branch and unceremoniously crashes to the ground (Bubo, that is – not Perseus!).

Ray's Bubo model was intricately constructed by him from golden and silver-coloured metal, and was radio-controlled when in the presence of the movie's actors and actresses – a dazzling cast list of thespians that include such celebrated stars of stage and screen as Sir Laurence Olivier (Zeus), Claire Bloom (Hera), Maggie Smith (the sea goddess Thetis), Ursula Andress (Aphrodite), Sian Phillips (Queen Cassiopeia), and the then still-upcoming actor Harry Hamlin as Perseus.


A petrifying (in every sense) portrayal of Medusa the gorgon – Ray's terrifying model that features in Clash of the Titans (photo © Dr Karl Shuker)

The Stygian Witches inform Perseus that the Kraken can only be killed with the head of the gorgon Medusa, whose dreadful eyes even when dead would instantly turn to stone any living thing that gazed directly at them. So it becomes Perseus's quest to seek out and slay Medusa, but it will be no easy task, given that he can look at her only indirectly, via her mirrored reflection on the surface of his highly-polished shield.

In the original Greek myth, Medusa was once an inordinately beautiful maiden before being transformed into her now-monstrous snake-haired, petrifying form by Athena after Medusa had been assaulted by Poseidon in Athena's temple, an act that the goddess deemed to be a defilement of her earthly abode (despite the fact that Medusa had been the innocent party!). Nevertheless, Medusa retains her comely body and lissom legs. Ray, however, considered that for her to be an effective on-screen monster, Medusa needed to be much more frightening in form, and so in the extremely detailed bronze model that he constructed he replaced her traditional human lower torso and legs with the limbless body of a giant serpent, and even added at the tip of its tail a large vibrating rattle as famously borne by rattlesnakes, as well as equipping her with a bow and quiver of deadly arrows to shoot at anyone entering her temple hideaway who was skilful enough to evade her lethal stare. Click here to view the nightmarish battle between Perseus and Medusa staged within the sinister torch-lit semi-darkness of the temple's silent, shadowy interior. And click here to read a ShukerNature article of mine concerning not only Medusa herself but also a host of real-life gorgon-dubbed creatures from the past and the present.


Ray's spectacular seven-headed, twin-tailed hydra model that is utilised in Jason and the Argonauts (photo © Dr Karl Shuker)

Ray's ingenuity for improvisation and adaptation was by no means limited to his vision of how Medusa should appear on screen. Other notable examples include his two-headed roc in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and his giant horn-skulled troglodyte in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). Moreover, in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), one of the Greek hero Jason's many monstrous antagonists encountered during his quest for the fabled Golden Fleece is the multi-headed hydra that in classical Greek mythology was actually confronted by Heracles instead, its eventual defeat being the second of his twelve great labours (click here for further details). In that latter legend, the hydra was generally described as nine-headed, but Ray considered that it would be too difficult to animate effectively nine independent heads and necks via Stop-Motion techniques, so he reduced its quota to seven. Possibly to compensate for this, however, he provided it with a bifurcated tail.

In this movie, the hydra guards the tree upon which the glittering Golden Fleece is suspended, whereas in the original Greek myth it was guarded by a never-sleeping single-headed dragon as well as by a herd of brass-hoofed bulls that breathed fire and whose teeth if planted in the ground would transform into an army of soldiers. Ray skilfully utilised this latter characteristic, with the teeth of the hydra if planted in the ground transforming into an army of deathless fighting skeletons. Click here to view Jason's epic battle with the multi-headed hydra. And don’t forget to check out my Eclectarium blog article here concerning the history of another iconic monster from this same movie – Talos, the giant bronze statue that disconcertingly comes to life and relentlessly pursues Jason and his fellow Argonauts as they desperately strive to escape his lethal metallic clutches (click here to view this decidedly eerie scene).


Two fighting skeletons that appeared in Jason and the Argonauts (photos © Dr Karl Shuker)

One of Ray's most celebrated accomplishments in Stop-Motion animation was undoubtedly his bringing to the screen those spectacular scenes featuring armies of fighting skeletons, raised up from the ground as deathless warriors to strike terror – as well as any weapons that they are brandishing! – into the hearts of their mortal opponents. They appear most famously in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), when King Aeëtes sows into the ground the teeth of the hydra newly slain by Jason; after Aeëtes then prays to Hecate, goddess of witchcraft, a company of seven weapon-armed living skeletons – 'the Children of Hydra's Teeth' – rises up out of the ground and furiously attacks Jason and two companions. After a prolonged battle in which both of his companions are killed by them, Jason successfully escapes their clutches by leaping into the sea where he is rescued by the Argonauts aboard their vessel.

In his fascinating book, Film Fantasy Scrapbook (1981), in which he provided numerous behind-the-scenes recollections and inside information for each of his movies, Ray Harryhausen made the following very insightful comments concerning what he referred to as the Skeleton Sequence in Jason and the Argonauts: "Technically, it was unprecedented in the sphere of fantasy filming. When one pauses to contemplate that there were seven skeletons fighting three men, with each skeleton having five appendages to move in each frame of film, this means that an unprecedented 35 animated movements had to be synchronized with three live actors' movements; so one can readily see why it took four and a half months to record the sequence for the screen". Click here to view the fruits of Ray's Herculean labours in creating this extraordinary scene.


Ray's model of the horn-snouted Ceratosaurus from One Million Years BC (photo © Dr Karl Shuker)

In real life, Ceratosaurus was a theropod dinosaur from the Late Jurassic Period, approximately 150 million years ago. In Ray's British-made movie One Million Years BC, conversely, released in 1966, it co-exists with primitive cave-dwelling humans (including Loana, a very voluptuous cave-woman played by none other than Raquel Welch), as do many other officially long-vanished prehistoric beasts, such as pterosaurs, Brontosaurus, Allosaurus, and the gargantuan sea turtle Archelon. Yet although chronologically incongruous, as with all of Ray's movies the monsters are truly marvellous, but perhaps the single most memorable scene is a lengthy set-piece battle between a Ceratosaurus and a Triceratops, which the latter eventually wins, leaving behind the severely stunned but still breathing Ceratosaurus lying prone and gasping upon the ground. For increased dramatic effect, the Ceratosaurus is about twice as big as it would have been in real life. Click here to watch their gladiatorial conflict!

In another extremely memorable scene from this same movie (click here to view it), Loana is abducted by a very big pterosaur, specifically a Pteranodon, carrying her aloft in its talons to its nest into which it is just about to drop her in order for its hungry offspring to devour her when it is itself attacked by another pterosaur, this time a giant Rhamphorhynchus. During the resulting mid-air melée between these two mighty flying reptiles (click here to view it), Loana is inadvertently dropped by her original abductor, falling wounded but still alive into the sea as the pterosaurs fly away, still locked together in mortal combat.


Two displayed models created by Alan Friswell – a Rhamphorhynchus pterosaur and a Tenontosaurus dinosaur (models © Alan Friswell; photo © Dr Karl Shuker)

In addition to those of Ray, some models produced by Alan Friswell were also displayed in the exhibition. One of these was a Rhamphorhynchus pterosaur, which, as I have learnt from Alan, was one of his earliest Stop-Motion creations. Another, made by Alan about 15 years ago, was a very impressive Tenontosaurus – a herbivorous ornithopod dinosaur from the Early Cretaceous, related to (and also morphologically reminiscent of) the more famous Iguanodon, and which browsed upon ferns and shrubs. And a third model, one of Alan's specialities, was a superb full-sized Feejee mermaid.

Also on display was a model of the boy Lope from The Valley of Gwangi, and which is of especial significance, because this was the model originally given by Ray to Alan to work upon as a test of his restoration skills, which in turn so impressed him that he duly gave Alan the position of official restorer of all of his models.

The model of Lope (photo © Dr Karl Shuker)

Speaking of which: the very detailed, annulated shell of the earlier-mentioned giant ammonite/nautiloid mollusc on display here was actually made by Alan, upon Ray's request, because the original had been lost many years previously.

So too had the Grand Lunar's crystal throne, and once more upon Ray's request Alan had manufactured a replacement, as well as creating a sturdier replica of Grand Lunar himself – and again it is actually Alan's versions of these latter two models that are on display, because although the original Grand Lunar still exists, it is far too fragile to be transported anywhere.

Alan Friswell's self-made Feejee mermaid on display (model © Alan Friswell; photo © Dr Karl Shuker)

Also present in the exhibition was a framed selection of Ray's original artworks, produced by him as preparatory and guide illustrations for various of his movies.

Four of my favourite examples, seen here, show a cowboy chasing the Ornithomimus in The Valley of Gwangi; training El Diablo the Eohippus to be a circus performer in the same movie; an escaped Gwangi rampaging in the city; and Medusa confronting a couple of would-be slayers inside her temple hideaway from Clash of the Titans.

Four original artworks by Ray Harryhausen (photo © Dr Karl Shuker)


Many years ago, I was delighted to obtain Ray's autograph framed alongside a photograph of him posing with his Medusa model from Clash of the Titans. Never did I ever imagine that one day I too would be photographed alongside it. Truly an example, albeit a highly unexpected one for me, of the great Circle of Life?

If you too are a fan of Ray Harryhausen and his exceptional contributions to the world of science fiction and fantasy cinema, you really do need to visit this awesome exhibition and see for yourself, as I did, some of his extraordinary creations that by virtue of his spellbinding Stop-Motion skills he was able to conjure forth in the living state on screen – a veritable magician of the movies, no less, infused with the power to resurrect dinosaurs, reanimate skeletons, and breathe tangible vitality into an entire menagerie of monsters that had never previously thrived outside the confines of human imagination. Click here to read coverage of this exhibition on the official website of The Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation.

The upper side (top) and under side (bottom) of Valence House Museum's official flyer for this exhibition (© Valence House Museum – reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis, for review purposes only)

NB – Except for the Feejee mermaids and Alan Friswell's other models, all models and artworks depicted above in my photographs for this ShukerNature review article are © The Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation.

About 15 years ago, I was most surprised but also very delighted to see – and purchase – at a movie memorabilia collector's fair held in England a sizeable plastic replica of the savage cyclopoid centaur created by Ray that battles Sinbad and also a griffin in the second of his three Sinbad-themed fantasy movies, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973). Click here to watch this monumental battle.

My replica of the cyclopoid centaur from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (photo © Dr Karl Shuker)

In addition, I've seen photographs of a splendid large-scale model of the winged homunculus from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, as well as of an equally eye-catching one of the ymir, a giant reptilian alien life-form from 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). Unfortunately, however, I've never seen any actual examples of either of these models anywhere.

Last but definitely not least in this Harryhausen celebration: here is a photograph of my above-mentioned framed autograph of Ray:

My framed autograph of the late, truly great Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013), featuring alongside him in the accompanying illustration Medusa in full model form and also as a larger-scale head/shoulders model, as well as Bubo, Gwangi's Styracosaurus opponent, one of Jason's living skeleton foes, and the evil, accursed half-man/half-beast Prince Calibos from Clash of the Titans (photo © Dr Karl Shuker)

Wednesday, 21 March 2018


Do truly gargantuan pitcher plants, bearing pitchers far greater and more capacious in size than those of any species currently known to science, still await formal discovery and description? (public domain)

As someone with a longstanding interest in reports of giant but scientifically-unconfirmed forms of carnivorous plant, in my book The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003) I compiled a detailed chapter of accounts relating to this fascinating subject, and which remains the most extensive single coverage of it ever published. They included such infamous examples as the reputed but highly implausible Madagascan man-eating tree (click also here), a range of ferocious flora from Mexico, Central, and South America, and even a still-unidentified mouse-eating plant from India that was once supposedly on public display in London.

During the 15 years that have passed since my above-noted book was published, I have obtained information concerning several additional but equally mysterious examples, and I may well prepare a sequel chapter in some future book or possibly an article for a periodical or for online reading here on ShukerNature. However, although collectively they allegedly exhibit a wide diversity of forms and prey-capturing techniques, not one of these contentious botanical beasts has ever been of the pitcher plant persuasion – until now.

Chromolithograph depicting pitcher plants, Venus flytraps, and other known types of carnivorous plant (public domain)

Pitcher plants famously possess deep liquid-filled cavities, the liquid being produced by the plants as a combined drowning agent and digestive fluid, and the pitchers typically forming from either specialised cupped leaves or buds, into which they entice small crawling or flying insects, utilising eyecatching pigments or nectar bribes. Once inside a pitcher, the insect cannot escape, the pitcher's internal wall being extremely slippery and sometimes bearing downward-curving spine-like hairs too, which prevent its hapless victim from exiting, so it ultimately drowns in the liquid, whereupon its body duly dissolves, and its nutritional constituents are then absorbed by the plant, often via glands in the pitcher's lower regions.

Happily, however, as will be discussed in more detail later, even the largest of these fiendish botanical snares are of only quite modest dimensions, incapable of trapping anything bigger than a small lizard or rodent – all of which is why the following case, recently discovered online by me but not previously formally documented and examined, is so fascinating, and not a little frightening too.

Prof. Ernst Haeckel's spectacular montage of Nepenthes pitcher plants from his gorgeously-illustrated two-volume work Kunstformen der Natur ('Art Forms in Nature'), published in 1904 (public domain)

While browsing the Net in search of possible additional reports to add to those already collected by me for inclusion in my above-proposed sequel to my chapter on mystery carnivorous plants, I spotted on YouTube a video that promised from its title to be a possible source of such reports. Entitled 'Cryptobotany: Five Cryptid Plants' (click here to view it), it was uploaded on 23 April 2017 by someone with the user name 'Truth is scarier than fiction'. Watching it, I was initially disappointed, as I was already familiar with all five of the mystery plants referred to in it, but then I looked at the comments that had been posted below it, and my disappointment dissipated immediately as I read the astonishing two-comment eyewitness account that had been posted in May 2017 by a viewer named Kai Russell. Here are the relevant details from that account:

Ok so I live in the Pine Barrens of NJ, USA and when I was about 12 me and my older cousin walked 5+ miles into the wilderness (he was hunting I was just along for the adventure) and Midway through the day we come across a 4 or 5 ft high weird type of pitcher plant. My cousin who was around 26 or 27 at that time knew it wasn't the normal type of pitcher plant we see in the area. It was oozing a purple ish white thick sap that look liked purple ish Marshmellow fluff and it smelled like a rotten corpse. Long story short... we got home and did research...the plant doesn't exist, or should I say isn't recognized by science. The pitcher part of the plant was 80% of the plant while the known pitcher plants have these little tiny Pitchers. The plant looked like it was from the rain Forest or was CGI from the movie journey to the center of the earth. We didn't touch the thing but I wish we would have opened the pitcher...it could have been a deer in it rotting away, it was that big and wide, skinnier at the top and bottom. I went to the spot 8 years later and couldn't find the plant...I've been there 5+ times since I'm now 26 and haven't seen it since 12 and my memory of the directions of getting to the general area of the plant are slipping each type....someone tell me they've seen an unidentified plant because I've never heard of anyone else having seen one.

That is actually the first time either of us have said anything outside the family. The area we were when we encountered this is probably 15 to 20 miles from the Pygmy Forest in NJ. It's an area of pine trees that grow only 4 ft tall for some reason (I don't think science knows) but the pine barrens has a decent about [sic – amount] of organisms that are only found here, those dwarf pine trees are one of them. You can get an idea of the area if you search Dwarf pine forest New Jersey or Pygmy Forest NJ. Ironically I've witnessed triangle shape UFOs in the area as well and if you look it up you can find the news story because a lot of others witnessed these too. Not saying they are connected. It's a weird area for sure.

If this report is genuine, and obviously there is no way of knowing for certain without any independent corroboration, then the plant described in it is truly exceptional – indeed, truly monstrous – for several very different reasons. But before proceeding any further, it would be worthwhile to put this case in context by reviewing the basic attributes and geographical distribution of the various types of pitcher plant that are already known to science.

Exquisite illustration depicting three species of Nepenthes pitcher plant, from Flore des Serres et des Jardin de l’Europe, vol. 22, (1845) – click to enlarge for reading the original, inset caption identifying these species (public domain)

Pitcher plants occur in various forms and constitute several different taxonomic families, of which the largest and best known is Nepenthaceae. This family contains approximately 150 species as well as numerous hybrids and cultivars but all belonging to the single genus Nepenthes.

Native to the Old World (predominantly southeastern Asia but also Madagascar, Sri Lanka, New Guinea, and northernmost Australia), these are the ones whose sometimes sizeable and often very brightly-coloured pitchers are featured so frequently in television documentaries concerning tropical forests.

Nepenthes northiana, painted by English biologist/botanical artist Marianne North (1830-1890) and named in her honour (public domain)

These plants' pitchers begin as buds and are borne at the end of tendrils extending from the midribs of normal leaves. They sport a small lid acting as a landing strip for insects, which, once upon it, are then attracted by nectar lures and colouration to a very noticeable ribbed rim or peristome, brightly-hued but so slippery that when they land or crawl upon it they slip inside the pitcher. And once inside, the pitcher's highly-waxed, equally slippery internal wall is very effective in prevents them from crawling back out and escaping. Instead, they inevitably fall into the pitcher's digestive juice and drown, with their bodies' nutrients then being assimilated into the plant, leaving their carcases to collect at the bottom of the pitcher.

The largest pitchers of Nepenthes pitcher plants hang so low to the ground that they actually rest upon it, and these can grow to an impressive size, capable of holding up to around 4.5 pints of liquid and big enough for creatures as large as rats and lizards to drown inside them. Nevertheless, it is nothing if not interesting to recall that the largest example of a pitcher so far recorded, growing on a specimen of N. rajah (native to Mounts Kinabalu and Tambuyukon in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo), remained undocumented by science until as recently as 26 March 2011. This was when it was encountered during a Sabah Society visit to Mesilau, on the east ridge of Mt Kinabalu. Measured by Alex Lamb, a member of that visiting team, it was found to be a record-breaking 16 in tall and extremely capacious, and it was then collected for preservation at Mesilau Headquarters.

Nepenthes rajah, depicted in Sir Spenser St. John's two-volume tome Life in the Forests of the Far East; Or Travels in Northern Borneo (1863) (public domain)

The pitcher plants native to North America, the so-called trumpet pitchers of the family Sarraceniaeceae, constituting a single genus Sarracenia that contains 8-11 species (depending upon individual opinion), are smaller, with pitchers of no more than 8 in at most, sometimes held horizontally, and consisting of leaves that have evolved into a long slim funnel or pitcher form.

However, the pitchers look and function in much the same way as those of Nepenthes species, except that they additionally possess a much more sizeable lid-like operculum that helps to prevent rainwater entering the pitcher and diluting its digestive fluid. The slippery inner wall of the pitchers also bears fine downward-pointing hairs that provide further difficulties for any insect attempting to crawl back out.

The purple trumpet pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea, as depicted in American Medicinal Plants: An Illustrated and Descriptive Guide to the American Plants Used as Homopathic [sic] Remedies (1887) (public domain)

Closely related to the trumpet pitchers and housed within the same taxonomic family is the very distinctive-looking cobra plant Darlingtonia californica, native to California and Oregon. Its tall tubular pitcher-yielding leaves (up to 3 ft tall but far less capacious than those of the Nepenthes species) earn this species its memorable common name by the fancied resemblance of each of them to the rearing head of a cobra, complete with a forked leaf resembling a cobra's paired fangs or forked tongue, the forked leaf serving to attract insects and act as landing strips for them.

Somewhat sadistically, this pitcher plant species is unique in providing several false exits from its pitcher, each of which tempts its trapped victims to crawl towards it, hoping to escape, but only to fail time and again when they invariably discover that the apparent exit is not an exit at all, until finally they become so exhausted that they fall down into the digestive fluid and die.

Cobra plants Darlingtonia californica – a beautiful chromolithograph from The Floral magazine (1869) (public domain)

Also contained within the taxonomic family of trumpet pitchers are the 23 species of South American marsh-dwelling pitcher plant belonging to the genus Heliamphora. In these species, the pitcher consists of a folded leaf whose edges are fused together into a tubular shape. Depending upon the species, the pitchers range from just a couple of inches tall (in H. minor and H. pulchella) to over 20 in tall (in H. ionasi).

Completing the preponderance of pitcher plants around the world is their sole Antipodean representative, the Albany pitcher plant Cephalotus follicularis, limited to just a single location in southwestern Australia and the only member of its taxonomic family, Cephalotaceae. Its pitchers are only around 2 in long, and resemble moccasin shoes.

The pitchers of Australia's Albany pitcher plant – illustration from Curtis's Botanical Magazine, vol. 58 (1831) (public domain)

Re-reading Kai Russell's claimed sighting of the mystery mega-pitcher plant from New Jersey, USA, in light of what I have written above regarding the much smaller, known pitcher plant species on file, a number of points relating to the plausibility or otherwise of the former immediately come to mind. Namely, this crypto-plant's size and, as a result of that, its likely prey; its solitary pitcher plus its own solitary presence; and the apparent lack of knowledge concerning it among anyone else in the vicinity.

The truly monstrous, enormous size of this mystery pitcher plant is such that doubts as to its reality were uppermost in my mind from the very moment when I first read Russell's testimony. After all, it is not merely twice or even three times taller than known pitcher plant species – at an estimated 4 to 5 ft tall, its pitcher is 6 to 7.5 times taller than those of known American pitchers (Sarracenia spp.), and is even 3 to 3.75 times taller than the tallest pitcher specimen ever confirmed for any recognised species (i.e. the 16-in pitcher from a Nepenthes rajah plant in Borneo mentioned earlier here). Yet we are expected to believe that such a truly spectacular, immense species has remained undiscovered by science, and not even amid the dense, sometimes scarcely penetrable, hostile rainforests of southeast Asia but merely in a far from inaccessible or inhospitable area of North American wilderness in New Jersey?

Nepenthes rajah pitchers, from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, vol. 131 - series 4, vol. 1 (1905) (public domain)

Moreover, this mystery plant's huge pitcher size leads me inevitably to contemplate why it is so huge – what potential prey could have incited the evolution of such a vastly-capacious vessel in order to ensnare it? With smaller pitchers, their prey are in turn much less robust and hence far less capable of escaping from the pitcher than anything big enough to find itself inside the giant pitcher of this mystery plant. Russell speculated that perhaps its pitcher contained a deer – but how would a deer come to be inside such a pitcher in the first place? It wouldn’t simply drop (or fly) inside, in the way that insects and very small vertebrates like tiny lizards or frogs do with normal-sized pitchers – instead, it would have to physically jump inside, but what would induce it to do that? And even if it did do so, what was to stop it simply jumping back out again?

True, Russell noted that he wished that he and his companion had opened the pitcher, this comment thereby implying that the pitcher possessed an operculum, serving as a lid, as do the pitchers of various smaller, known species of pitcher plant. Yet even if such a lid were indeed present, could it really be firm enough to prevent something as large and powerful as a deer from forcing its way out? And in any case, what could such a plant do if a trapped, panic-stricken deer began kicking at the pitcher's enclosing wall with its sharp hooves, tearing holes in it? It would need to be an exceptionally sturdy, thick-walled pitcher to withstand such activity and prevent the deer from breaking out through it.

Cobra plant pitchers can be up to 3 ft tall, but are far less capacious and sturdy than typical pitcher plants' pitchers – illustration from c.1871 (public domain)

Perhaps Russell was wrong in assuming that because of its huge size, the plant's pitcher could have been containing a deer – was it the extremely noxious stench, redolent of rotting flesh, emanating from the purplish-white marshmallow-like 'sap' oozing forth from the pitcher that had inspired this assumption on his part? Perhaps instead of a single very large prey victim, the pitcher actually contained the carcases of several smaller victims, such as rats, opossums, snakes, or other small/medium-sized vertebrates. Yet even less sizeable species like these are still sufficiently robust, surely, to be able to clamber back out again if for any reason they should have initially fallen or climbed into the pitcher (lured, perhaps, by some inviting scent?) – unless, of course, the inner walls of the pitcher are, as in smaller versions, too slippery to provide them with footholds when attempting to climb out, so that they eventually drown in the digestive juices presumably present inside the pitcher? Speaking of juices and fluids, just what was that vile-smelling sap-like substance seeping from the mystery plant anyway? I've never heard of anything like that in relation to known species of pitcher plant.

And why was there only one such pitcher present? In known, smaller species of pitcher plant, more than one pitcher is produced simultaneously per plant – I am not aware of any confirmed species that only yields a single pitcher at any one time per plant. Given the huge size of the mystery plant's pitcher, however, I can conceive of how basic evolutionary survival strategy may result in a giant species producing just one huge pitcher as an alternative to a less sizeable species producing several smaller pitchers. i.e. evoking the phenomenon of r and K selection. An r selection strategy is one in which an individual produces lots of small, simple offspring, whereas a K selection strategy is one in which an individual produces fewer but larger, more complex offspring. These two strategies thus represent diametrically opposite mechanisms for utilising the same amount of physiological resources to achieve the same end, i.e. the survival of sufficient offspring for their species to remain viable. Even so, surely there would have been other such plants in the vicinity, not just one plant with one pitcher? Or could it be that a very marked spacing apart of specimens would be required in order for all of them to obtain sufficient prey victims, with Russell and his companion simply not having conducted a sufficiently wide search for further specimens?

Nepenthes masteriana pitcher plants, depicted by Jean Linden, from L'Illustration Horticole, late 1800s - even these sizeable pitchers are produced  as several per plant (public domain)

This unanswered query leads directly on to yet another one – why was Russell unable to relocate this plant when he attempted to do so at various times in the future? As it seems to me to be a completely untenable, illogical assumption that only one such plant existed in this entire area, a lone, unique specimen of a truly remarkable, novel species, even if he had not rediscovered the actual specimen that he and his companion had originally encountered he surely would have found others during his subsequent searches in that same area? Perhaps the original one had died during the period between his encounter with it and his first search for it afterwards, but others would still be there, in the same general vicinity.

Last, but by no means least, is the seemingly inexplicable scenario whereby no-one from that area is aware of such a plant's existence there, based at least upon Russell's statement that he had never heard of anyone else having seen one. Whereas cryptozoological entities are mobile and therefore can be notoriously elusive and difficult to track down, cryptobotanical (or cryptophytological) entities are by their very nature stationary, immobile, and thereby much more likely both to be encountered and, certainly, to be subsequently re-encountered. Consequently, anything as visually arresting and thence memorable as a 4-5-ft tall pitcher plant is hardly likely to go unnoticed or noticed but subsequently unrecalled by local people, especially hunters and trekkers visiting the wild yet traversable area where it allegedly existed.

Could a pitcher plant grow large enough for its pitcher(s) to engulf prey as large as fawns or even adult deer? (public domain)

In summary: taking all of the above factors into consideration, in my opinion this account of a giant pitcher plant potentially capable of devouring prey the size of deer seems very difficult to accept. Having said that, in the absence of any independent background details I am not entirely discounting it either – perhaps there are ways of reconciling it with some known, or currently unknown, species that I have failed to consider, although at present I am not personally aware of any.

Nevertheless, and as always with such cases, I would love to be proved wrong. So if anyone reading this ShukerNature article can offer any additional information, thoughts, or opinions relating to its subject, I'd greatly welcome seeing them posted in the comments section below.

Illustration from 1891 by Matilda Smith of the historic first-ever flowering of a titan arum at Kew Gardens, England, in 1879 – from Curtis's Botanical Magazine, vol. 117 (public domain)

Interestingly, when reading Russell's statement that the plant looked like something from a rainforest, an image suddenly flashed into my mind of a very eyecatching giant plant species entirely unrelated to pitchers but which did recall to a certain extent his description of the mystery mega-pitcher, and which is indeed a rainforest species. The species in question is the titan arum or corpse plant Amorphophallus titanum, native to the rainforests of Indonesia's Greater Sundanese islands of Sumatra and Java. It consists of a somewhat pitcher-shaped bract known as a spathe, out of the centre of which, during the blooming period of the plant's existence, grows a very tall spine-like inflorescence, called the spadix – which at up to 10 ft in height is the tallest unbranched inflorescence of any plant species. Moreover, the plant exudes a powerful stench reminiscent of rotting flesh, attracting flies that inadvertently pollinate the plant when brushing against its male and female flowers while seeking the non-existent carrion that they have been fooled by the plant's scent into believing is there.

A titan arum prior to producing its tall, infamously phallic spadix inside its sizeable and outwardly pitcher-like spathe but beginning to emit its foul stink might, I suppose, be liable to be mistaken for a veritable giant pitcher plant, although it does not possess any operculum – but how could one explain the presence of such an exotic, tropical, exclusively southeast Asian species (and one that even in cultivation is notoriously difficult to maintain) surviving in the middle of a decidedly non-tropical wilderness within New Jersey? To my mind, the presence there of such a plant would be no less remarkable and mystifying than that of a bona fide scientifically-undiscovered species of giant pitcher plant!

A titan arum in flower (public domain)

Finally: I do actually know of – and have even personally visited – one entirely genuine example of a giant pitcher plant, albeit not of the living variety, sadly. You will no doubt have noted that I made no mention in its caption or anywhere else in the present ShukerNature article so far regarding the nature of the absolutely gargantuan pitcher plant depicted in the very spectacular photograph opening this article, but now, having inflamed your curiosity for long enough, all is finally revealed.

It is in fact a magnificent sculpture, an exceedingly ornate water fountain, to be exact, standing more than 25 ft tall, which is situated right in the centre of Malaysia's capital city, Kuala Lumpur. Erected on Jalan Parlimen at the edge of Merdeka Square by Kuala Lumpur City Hall and known officially as the Periuk Kera Fountain ('periuk kera' being the local name for pitcher plants), it is made of fibre-glass and takes the form of a gigantic tree stump around which the tendrils of no fewer than eight colossal Nepenthes pitchers are entwined, with a torrent of water cascading out of each pitcher. A beautiful pavilion has been constructed around it, containing benches and with shade provided by lush bougainvillea. I was fortunate enough to visit and photograph this fantastic creation when Mom and I visited Kuala Lumpur in 2005, and it was a truly breathtaking sight, entirely dwarfing my 5'10" stature when I stood in front of its surreal and even very slightly sinister enormity for Mom to snap the photo below. If ever there was an appropriate time for that famous pantomime cry "It's behind you!" to echo forth, that was definitely the time! Incidentally, if anyone knows who sculpted this superb fountain and when it was officially unveiled to the public, I'd greatly appreciate details.

Standing in front of the wonderful pitcher plant-themed Periuk Kera Fountain in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, during 2005 (© Dr Karl Shuker)