Dr KARL SHUKER

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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Wednesday, 29 March 2017

A COUPLE OF CRYPTO-PLATYPUSES FROM NORTH AMERICA


Platypus, painted by John Lewin, 1808 (public domain)

The egg-laying, venom-spurred, electroreceptive, and thoroughly astonishing duck-billed platypus Ornithorhynchus anatinus has always been one of my favourite wild animals, and even today I can still readily recall how, as a small child during the early 1960s, my tiny plastic platypuses from my model zoo would, if left overlooked on a carpet or rug at home, unerringly find themselves sucked up into my unsuspecting mother's vacuum cleaner, resulting in an all-too-familiar, ominous clattering sound that always swiftly ensued before they were ejected in varying states of mangled morphology!

Platypus, depicted upon an Australian postage stamp issued in 1937 (public domain)

Famed as an exclusively Australian oddity in the modern-day living state, no platypus species, from either the present or the palaeontological past, has ever been confirmed from North America – which is why the following couple of cryptozoological cases have long intrigued me.

A platypus being shown to the public (© TwoWings/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

Mystery beast investigators everywhere owe a great debt of thanks to longstanding cryptozoological and herpetological enthusiast Chad Arment, author of The Search For Hidden Animals (1995), for establishing a highly successful internet cryptozoological discussion group cz@onelist.com (subsequently cz@yahoogroups.com) – that lasted for many years online. As its webmaster, Chad oversaw discussions concerning all manner of fascinating cryptids, including numerous examples not aired outside of cyberspace. Among the most remarkable, however, is one that Chad himself brought to the group's attention - the exceedingly curious case of the putative platypus from San Luis Valley, in Colorado.

Platypus engraving, 1800s (public domain)

In a short cz@onelist posting of 18 June 1999, Chad referred to Christopher O'Brien's book The Mysterious Valley (1996), in which O'Brien had briefly mentioned that strange animals have been seen for many years in San Luis Valley and that during the 1960s some individuals claimed to have found a supposed platypus in a high mountain lake within the Blanca Peaks area.

Platypus swimming (© Klaus/Wikipedia CCBY-SA 2.0 licence)

Not surprisingly, Chad was curious to learn whether anyone else knew anything further. On 7 August 1999, Colorado-based cz@onelist crypto-contributor Bobbie Short posted an e-mail received by her that same day from a correspondent, Rob Alley, concerning this same subject. It read as follows:

Several years ago Mike F., a successful Ketchikan businessman, contractor and retired fisherman asked me following a chat about Sasquatches whether I had ever studied or read anything about platypuses in North America, specifically whether I knew of any prehistoric giant forms. When I got back to him on this and replied that there may have been a slightly larger earlier form known but not in N.A., but nothing really big, he looked puzzled. I asked him why and after a moment's hesitation he answered that as a young man forty or so years ago he had stood on shore near Mountain Point south of Ketchikan [in Alaska, USA] and spent a minute watching an animal in the water at very close range that simply resembled a giant platypus. He described the creature as dark with a bill and feet like a platypus only the overall size was six feet or possibly greater. He gave no mention of the tail if there was one. The sighting was in shallow water on a rocky shoreline and the creature was close to the surface. I could probably get a few more details such as season and so on. This man is an experienced commercial fisherman and stated categorically that it was not a known species of seal. Ocean temp here doesn't vary much from 50 degrees. All I have right now.

I've never seen or known of a platypus sitting upright – but if one did, or could, it may look like this wonderful 19th-Century natural history book engraving (public domain)

The platypus is an egg-laying, monotreme mammal, and as noted by Rob Alley there are indeed larger species of monotreme on record, but these are all fossil forms, from Australasia (one such species, originally thought to have been a giant platypus, has since been reclassified as a zaglossid spiny anteater). In more recent years, fossil remains of monotremes have also been uncovered in the New World, but currently only in South America.

My painted concrete platypus (© Dr Karl Shuker)

These latter remains consist of a single upper and two lower teeth, which were found in Patagonia, Argentina, and date from the lower Palaeocene epoch (61 million years ago). In 1992, the species from which they originated was formally christened Monotrematum sudamericanum (but more recently some researchers have reclassified it within the existing Australian fossil genus Obdurodon). Its teeth are approximately twice as large as those of any other species of platypus, living or fossil, and it is currently the only platypus species known from outside Australia.

Platypus, from Wild Life of the World, A Descriptive Survey of the Geographical Distribution of Animals Volume III, by Richard Lydekker, 1916 (public domain)

As for living representatives, however, only one platypus species, Ornithorhynchus anatinus, is known, and that is of course exclusively Australian and freshwater. So if it was definitely not a seal, just what did Michael F. see near Mountain Point? An otter is the most likely non-cryptozoological possibility. Yet if his sighting was as good as it appears to have been, such an identity can hardly reconcile his description of a platypus-like bill and feet.

Platypus diving underwater (© Ester Inbar/Wikipedia free use)

As for the mountain lake, unnamed by Christopher O'Brien: in an e-mail to me of 26 September 1999, Bobbie stated that Blanca Peak is in Colorado's Sangre de Cristo mountains and the only lake up that high (approximately 14,300 ft) is Lake Como, so this is presumably the body of water in which the creature was sighted.

Platypuses, painted by John Gould, mid-1800s (public domain)

Nevertheless, these two mystery platypus-lookalike beasts - one freshwater in Colorado, the other marine in Alaska - remain among the most tenuous, but also most tantalising, to have emerged from the depths of the Crypto-Web.

And finally – Ever imagined Ernst Stavro Blofeld as a cryptozoologist? Imagine no longer: "Good evening, Dr Shuker, I've been expecting you..." (© Dr Karl Shuker)


UPDATE: 30 March 2017

Today, Chad Arment kindly drew to my attention a third crypto-platypus version reported from North America, but this time from Canada. In John Warms's book Strange Creatures Seldom Seen (2015), John collated a number of reports received by him of a mysterious aquatic beast allegedly resembling the North American beaver Castor canadensis in overall appearance and size, but instantly differentiated from this familiar rodent species by sporting a distinctive duck-like beak, which has reputedly been seen in several Manitoban and Saskatchewan lakes. Moreover, it is known locally by various First Nation names that translate into English as duck beaver, beaver duck, or duck mole.

Artist Jarmo Sinisalo's rendition of the Manitoba crypto-platypus or duck beaver based upon several eyewitness descriptions and sketches, and appearing in John Warms's book (© Jarmo Sinisalo/John Warms/Coachwhip Publications)

John also recorded claims that specimens of this cryptid have actually been killed, but as is all too often the norm in cryptozoology these potentially invaluable specimens were never preserved and submitted for formal scientific examination to determine their precise zoological identity. One person affirmed that he had once captured such a creature in a beaver lodge - so could it be that at least this Canadian crypto-platypus form is in fact a developmentally aberrant, teratological version of the normal beaver? It could explain why, if true, a specimen was discovered inside a beaver lodge.



This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and expanded from my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited.






Sunday, 19 March 2017

THREE-HORNED RHINOCEROSES AND ALBRECHT DÜRER'S SHOULDER-HORNED SURPRISE


Digital creation of a three-horned white rhinoceros (digital manipulation © Dr Karl Shuker using a public domain photograph)


There was the forest three-horned dark rhino that would be in small herds that would occasionally run into the snares of man. These forest rhinos were deemed by many as a prized possession.

   Douglas S. Taylor – Sword of Souls: Chronicles of Caledon


The three-horned rhinoceroses referred to in the above quotation are fictitious, but factual records do indeed exist of rhino specimens possessing extra (supernumerary) horns. Of the five species of rhinoceros alive today, two of them (the great Indian Rhinoceros unicornis and the Javan R. sondaicus) each typically sports one horn, whereas the other three (the Sumatran Dicerorhinus sumatrensis, African white Ceratotherium simum, and African black Diceros bicornis) each typically sports two. Very rarely, however, exceptions to this standard rule arise, and as reported widely in the media during late December 2015 one such exception has lately been encountered and photographed in Namibia's Etosha National Park by 73-year-old Jim Gibson.

Eschewing its species' normal two-horn condition (and its taxonomic name too), the adult black rhinoceros Diceros bicornis (translating as 'two-horned two-horned') in question also bears a slender but distinctive, forward-curving third horn, sprouting forth from the centre of its brow (click here to see photos of this singular beast, and here to view a short video clip of it). Its extra horn would not cause this rhino any discomfort; and if resulting from a non-genetic developmental abnormality occurring when the rhino was a foetus, it would not be inherited by any of its offspring. If caused by a mutant gene, however, it could be inherited - this latter situation probably explaining why triple-horned black rhinoceroses were once quite common around Zambia’s Lake Young.

On 10 February 1906, big game hunter Abel Chapman shot a three-horned black rhinoceros at Elmenteita in British East Africa (now Kenya), and a photograph of Chapman posing alongside its head subsequently appeared in his book Retrospect: 1851-1928 (1928). That same book also included a drawing of this animal. And a similar specimen was exhibited alive at Lisbon Zoo, Portugal, as documented in two International Zoo Yearbook reports of 1978.

Digital creation of a three-horned black rhinoceros (digital manipulation © Dr Karl Shuker using a public domain photograph)

Three-horned examples of unspecified two-horned rhinoceros species in southern Africa were alluded to by Swedish explorer-naturalist Charles J. Andersson in his book Lake Ngami (1861), which documented his four years spent exploring southwestern Africa, including time spent during 1854 at this nowadays very famous but then newly-discovered lake in Botswana:

I have met persons who told me that they have killed rhinoceroses with three horns; but in all such cases (and they have been but few), the third, or posterior horn is so small as to be scarcely perceptible.

Even Linnaeus mentioned three-horned rhinoceroses - to his description of the black rhinoceros in Gmelin’s edition (1788) of Systema Naturae was added: “Rarior est Rhinoceros tricornis, tertia cum cornu ex alterato priorem excrescente”. In the past, moreover, Sumatran native hunters asserted that three-horned specimens of the Sumatran rhinoceros were occasionally met with too.

In most cases, the extra horn is usually nothing more than a small, rounded knob - a rudimentary third horn positioned behind the two normal ones. Similarly, towards the end of the 19th Century, London Zoo exhibited a female great Indian rhinoceros that bore a rudimentary second horn upon her forehead. Alternatively, a pseudo-third horn can develop via the splitting into two of one of the normal, pre-existing horns, as seen in the following photograph of one such zoo specimen:

Captive rhinoceros with pseudo-third horn (© Owen Burnham)

Occasionally, even more extreme cases are recorded. One such individual was the abnormal female black rhinoceros shot during August 1904 in a dense covert west of Kenya’s Jambeni Mountains, at an elevation of 4150 ft above sea-level, and reported by Colonel W.H. Broun in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London on 14 November 1905. In addition to the two normal horns, this rhino had a third, rudimentary horn between its ears, plus a fourth, equally diminutive example located about 4 in further back.

During his extensive black rhinoceros researches, renowned German zoologist Dr Bernard Grzimek encountered reports of a five-horned specimen, and even of rhinos with horns growing out of their bodies. He also suggested that the famous woodcut of a great Indian rhinoceros bearing an incongruously-sited horn on its shoulder produced by Albrecht Dürer in 1515 (and later copied by Conrad Gesner in his Historiae Animalium, Liber I, 1551) may have been truly based upon an abnormally horned specimen.

Albrecht Dürer’s famous shoulder-horned rhinoceros woodcut (public domain)

At one time, this idea was discounted in favour of the theory that the horn was either an error on the part of Dürer, or, if genuine, merely an excrescence developed by the rhinoceros in question during its long confinement in the ship bringing it from India to Portugal’s King Manuel the Great, at Lisbon (the king then offering it up as a gift to Pope Leo X). Moreover, as discussed in 1961 via an entire paper on the subject written by Dr K.C.A. Schulz and published in African Wild Life, rough sores of a horny nature have been observed for some time among black rhinos too.

However, Grzimek’s view was reinforced in spring 1968, when Prof. Heini Hediger photographed a white rhinoceros living in San Francisco Zoo that bore a bona fide, unequivocal shoulder horn, measuring some 4 in high. Prof. Hediger subsequently documented this distinctive creature via an illustrated Zoologische Garten article published in 1970.

At present, the precise reasons for the development of extra horns by rhinoceroses remain relatively unclear. In some cases, a genetic origin is indicated, especially when they involve several multi-horned specimens inhabiting one specific locality, as with the Lake Young individuals. Injury-induced development (echoing the ‘excrescence theory’ for Dürer’s specimen) may also occur - as documented from various antelopes and deer possessing supernumerary (and often oddly located) horns, sometimes emerging from the forehead, face, or even sites on the body.

Digital creation of a three-horned southern white rhinoceros (photograph and digital manipulation © Dr Karl Shuker)

NB – As noted in their respective credits above, all of the photographs of three-horned rhinoceroses included here have been created by me via digital manipulation of existing photographs of normal two-horned specimens, because although, as this present article of mine unequivocally demonstrates, rhinos with supernumerary horns are a reality, I am not aware of any existing photos of such specimens other than those of the above-documented Namibian individual and the photo in Abel Chapman's book depicting him alongside his three-horned rhino head (unfortunately, however, I have so far been unable to obtain sight of this latter picture). Consequently, if anyone knows of any photographs depicting supernumerary-horned rhinos, or drawings based upon documented specimens of such creatures, I would greatly welcome details.

Finally: if three-horned rhinoceroses are not exotic enough for you, how about three-humped camels and a bull African elephant with two trunks? If you think that I'm joking, be sure to click here on ShukerNature and discover that I'm not!

This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and greatly expanded from my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited.





Wednesday, 8 March 2017

POSTHUMOUS SIGHTINGS OF PASSENGER PIGEONS?


Passenger pigeons (juvenile, left; male, centre; female, right), from Birds of New York by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, 1910 – did this species survive beyond 1914? (public domain)

The most numerous species of wild bird ever known was the phenomenally plentiful passenger pigeon Ectopistes migratorius, a dainty, slender-bodied, long-tailed bird with blue-grey head, neck, back, and wings, and cinnamon-pink underparts. It has been estimated that during the 19th Century’s early years, its total population contained between five and ten thousand million birds. Or to put it another way, this single species may have accounted for as much as 45 per cent of the entire bird population of America! One of the most evocative descriptions of its immense numbers during its heyday appeared in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction for 16 November 1822:
 
The accounts of the enormous flocks in which the passenger, or wild pigeons, fly about in North America, seem to an European like the tales of Baron Munchausen; but the travellers are ‘all in a story.’ In Upper Canada, says Mr. Howison, in his entertaining ‘Sketches,’ you may kill 20 or 30 at one shot, out of the masses which darken the air. And in the United States, according to Wilson, the ornithologist, they sometimes desolate and lay waste a tract of country 40 or 50 miles long, and 5 or 6 broad, by making it their breeding-place. While in the state of Ohio, Mr. Wilson saw a flock of these birds which extended, he judged, more than a mile in breadth, and continued to pass over his head at the rate of one mile in a minute, during four hours — thus making its whole length about 240 miles. According to his moderate estimate, this flock contained two thousand two hundred and thirty millions, two hundred and seventy-two pigeons.

A flock of passenger pigeons being hunted in Louisiana, The Illustrated Shooting and Dramatic News, 1875 (public domain)

It seems inconceivable that less than a century after the above report had been published the passenger pigeon had been completely exterminated, but this is precisely what happened.

As a result of an unutterably ruthless, relentless programme of persecution (on a scale unparalleled even in man’s nefarious history of wildlife destruction), perpetrated by trigger-happy gun-toters attracted by the awesome spectacle of the birds’ mass migrations, by 1 September 1914 only one solitary specimen remained alive. This was a 29-year-old hen bird named ‘Martha Washington’, exhibited at Cincinnati Zoo. And shortly after noon on that fateful September day, this last humble survivor of an ostensibly indomitable, indestructible species died. The unthinkable had happened - the passenger pigeon, whose vast migrating flocks had virtually eclipsed the sun in the time of the great American painter John James Audubon, was no more.

Martha Washington, the last known passenger pigeon, pictured alive on left, and as a taxiderm specimen at Washington DC's Smithsonian Institution on right (public domain)

Officially, that is. For at least another decade, alleged sightings of passenger pigeons were frequently reported, but scientists tended to dismiss these as mistaken observations of the smaller but superficially similar mourning dove Zenaida macroura, still a common species today. In September 1929, however, a remarkable report emerged that could not be discarded so readily. This was the month in which Michigan University bacteriologist Prof. Philip Hadley, in the company of a Mr Foard, an old friend familiar with the land, had been hunting in a virtually uninhabited wilderness nestling within Michigan’s northern peninsula.

They had been hunting there for some time when Foard drew Hadley’s attention to a bird perched close by, and declared that it was a passenger pigeon - which he had observed in enormous numbers when younger. Needless to say, Hadley turned at once to spy this exceedingly unexpected specimen, but just as he caught sight of it the bird took flight. Nevertheless, it did seem to him to be pigeon-like in form, with a pointed tail, and he clearly believed the incident to be of significance, because he sent details to the eminent US journal Science, which in turn judged it to be important enough to warrant publication in its issue of 14 February 1930.

Passenger pigeon, from Pigeons, Sir William Jardine, 1835 (public domain)

Within his letter, Hadley also referred to a couple of other recent sightings, documented a month earlier by Kendrick Kimball in the Detroit News (5 January). One of these sightings had been made on 10 June 1929, by Robert H. Wright of Munissing, Michigan. Wright was convinced that the pair of birds that he saw at close range on Highway M-28, about 16 miles from Munissing, were passenger pigeons. In the other sighting, made between Indianapolis and Kokomo while driving from Florida, Dr Samuel R. Landes spotted a flock of approximately 15 birds that he readily identified as passenger pigeons. Both Wright and Landes were familiar with this species’ appearance — like so many others, they had shot hundreds of them during the late 1870s.

Nonetheless, the last confirmed wild specimen was shot in 1899, at Babcock, Wisconsin, so is it really possible that the birds reported three decades later by the eyewitnesses above were truly passenger pigeons? It seems rather unlikely, at least at first, because after the last major flocks had been slaughtered (in 1878), stragglers did not survive long, and matings became ever fewer. It seemed as if the species could only persist and reproduce when present in huge flocks. At the same time, of course, the familiarity of the eyewitnesses with the species makes their testimony all that more difficult to discount.

A pair of taxiderm passenger pigeons at San Antonio, Texas (© Jonathan Downes/CFZ)

Perhaps certain fairly secluded localities did house a last few specimens, which existed undetected beyond the date of Martha’s death, and possibly even mated every now and then, and which were encountered only when their flights traversed areas frequented by humans, or when humans occasionally passed by their hideaways. Yet without the immense congregations necessary to provide the stimulus for normal, full-scale reproduction, they could surely do no more than extend their species’ survival by a few years. Long before the last individual had died, whether in 1914 or in the 1930s, the passenger pigeon’s descent into extinction had already begun, irrevocably and inevitably, with the disappearance of its vast flocks. After that, it could only be a matter of time.

Surely, then, the ‘passenger pigeon’ spied in March 1965 at Homer, Michigan, by Irene Llewellyn (Fate, September 1965) and another spied the same year by Stella Fenell at New Jersey’s Park Ridge (Fate, January 1966), not to mention an intriguing series of recently-claimed passenger pigeon sightings chronicled online in 2014, 2015, and 2016 by the website HoriconBirds.com, were only mourning doves ... weren’t they?

John James Audubon's famous painting of a pair of passenger pigeons, from his spectacular tome The Birds of America, 1827-1838 (public domain)

An Antipodean equivalent of sorts is the flock pigeon Phaps (=Histriophaps) histrionica, also known as the flock bronzewing. In the 1800s, huge flocks, containing millions of birds, lived on the grass plains of New South Wales and Queensland. Today, though, it is a relatively rare species (it was once thought to be extinct), categorised as Threatened by the IUCN.

This time, however, the cause is not man himself but his animals. The flock pigeon is a seed-eater, but generations of grazing cattle and sheep have prevented the plains’ grass from seeding adequately.

A flock pigeon (© Christopher Walker/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Of course, courtesy of the extraordinary technological advances taking place daily in the modern-day world that we all inhabit, perhaps we should never say never in relation to the prospect of one day seeing bona fide passenger pigeons alive and well again. On 8 February 2012, a meeting was convened at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, by a group of interested researchers from the non-profit genetic research organisation Revive & Restore, to explore the technical plausibility of resurrecting this iconic species via genomic engineering, as well as to examine the potential cultural, social, political, and ecological ramifications of restoring it to life and perhaps even reintroducing it into the wild. After presentations by a range of participants and discussions concerning their contributions, the group concluded that the genetic technique proposed should be tested to see how effective it may be, and how it could be improved, with this goal in mind.

So who knows? Maybe one day the passenger pigeon will indeed return, if no longer to darken the skies with vast flocks as in former times but at least to live again in the land where it rightfully belongs and where it would certainly have remained had its existence not been wilfully extinguished by our own species.

Passenger pigeons, frontispiece to The Passenger Pigeon, 1907 (public domain)

Finally: by an extraordinary quirk of fate, one of the last passenger pigeon individuals whose demise in the wild state was formally documented was actually shot not anywhere in the New World but, remarkably, in the English countryside instead. An escapee from captivity, it was shot in Yorkshire during 1876, as recorded in  T.A. Coward's book The Birds of the British Isles and Their Eggs - Second Series (1920). Moreover, this was just one of at least eight passenger pigeon specimens recorded from the wild in Great Britain.

Were all of them merely captive escapees, or might one or more have been genuine transatlantic vagrants? Sadly, it is highly unlikely that we shall ever know the answer to this intriguing question. My grateful thanks to correspondent Philip Jensen for kindly bringing this fascinating snippet of information to my attention.

Passenger pigeon, Plate 23 in Vol 1 of The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and Bahamas by Mark Catesby, George Edwards, 1754 (public domain)

For my tribute in verse to the passenger pigeon, please click here; and for its philatelic prominence, please click here.

This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and expanded from my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited.