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), 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), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), 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

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

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

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

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

Search This Blog




Wednesday, 18 November 2015


The original version of the Charles Hamilton Smith/William Home Lizars illustration of the Nubian naked hyaena that appeared as Plate 27 in Volume II of The Natural History of Dogs...Including Also the Genera Hyaena and Proteles, published in 1840 (public domain)

Four species of modern-day hyaena are presently recognised by science – the spotted hyaena Crocuta crocuta, the striped hyaena Hyaena hyaena, the brown hyaena Hyaena brunnea, and the aardwolf Proteles cristatus – all four of which possess a respectable (and sometimes notably shaggy) pelage. This is why a very unexpected discovery of mine has left me decidedly perplexed.

Serendipity has played a significant part in several of my cryptozoological finds, and this one is no exception. While perusing the internet in search of some 19th-Century engravings depicting a totally different type of animal, I happened upon the truly remarkable engraving opening this present ShukerNature blog article. As can be seen, the animal in question is labelled in it as a "naked hyaena of the desert Africa", and apart from sporting a dorsal mane, a tail tuft, some cheek fur, and some short hair running under its chin and along its throat, it does indeed appear to be naked. Yet as far as I am aware, no animal matching its bizarre appearance is known today.

Eager to learn more about this bald enigma, I scoured the internet in search of the engraving's original, published source, and was pleased to uncover it quite readily. The artwork for the engraving had been prepared by a 19th-Century naturalist and artist called Charles Hamilton Smith, which was then engraved by William Home Lizars, a celebrated Scottish engraver. It appeared as Plate XXVII in Volume II of The Natural History of Dogs...Including Also the Genera Hyaena and Proteles, published in 1840, authored by Hamilton Smith, and part of a major series of animal tomes edited by Sir William Jardine and entitled The Naturalist's Library. I was also able to trace online the relevant text concerning this mysterious hyaena from that volume, in which it had been categorised as a form of the striped hyaena. On page 278, its description then read as follows:


Hyaena vulgaris [a commonly-used synonym of Hyaena hyaena]

This race is small and gaunt, entirely destitute of hair, excepting the mane on the ridge of the neck and back. The bare skin is of a purplish black, the body is short, and the tip of the tail is furnished with a small brush.

I would have expected an animal as visually arresting as this to be extensively documented. Yet despite a diligent search online and through every relevant publication in my not-inconsiderable personal zoological library, I have so far been unable to uncover any additional information concerning it, not even the briefest of mentions. It is as if it never existed. So how can Nubia's anomalous naked desert hyaena be explained, and what has happened to it?

As Jardine classed it as a form of the striped hyaena, the naked desert hyaena presumably belonged to the latter species' Nubian subspecies, Hyaena hyaena dubbah, which does inhabit desert fringes (though not the interiors of true deserts) and sub-desert terrain. However, this subspecies possesses a normal, uniformly fully-furred pelage, not just a dorsal mane, tail tuft, and a few very restricted areas of hair elsewhere.

Normal striped hyaena, sketch from 1902 (public domain)

Could it be, therefore, that the naked desert hyaena was based upon some freak, near-hairless individuals, yielding a local non-taxonomic variety? Or (as a less plausible but more zoologically-intriguing alternative option) did it constitute a discrete race, distinct from the typical Nubian striped hyaena, which may have bred true? If the latter were correct, then the naked desert hyaena would surely have represented a valid subspecies in its own right.

Yet as I am not aware of any evidence suggesting that this extraordinary form still survives today, the prospect of the naked desert hyaena being a non-taxonomic freak variety of the Nubian striped hyaena seems the more rational of these two options, with its limited number of specimens simply dying out without perpetuating their strain. After all, bare skin is hardly an advantageous feature for a surface-dwelling desert mammal's successful existence beneath an unrelenting blazing sun, and is unlikely, therefore, to be actively selected for via evolution's 'survival of the fittest' modus operandi.

The cause of a freak hairless variety's nakedness would surely be the expression of some form of mutant gene allele. Such a situation is responsible for hairlessness in a number of other mammalian species, though different mutant alleles cause hairlessness in different species (i.e. this condition is not caused by one and the same allele across the entire spectrum of species known to exhibit freak hairlessness).

A second version of the Charles Hamilton Smith/William Home Lizars illustration of the Nubian naked hyaena (public domain)

Having considered genetic options, there are also some externally-induced possibilities to consider. Foremost of these is that in reality, Nubia's naked desert hyaena consisted of individuals suffering from some form of skin ailment, such as mange (caused by tiny parasitic mites), whose debilitating effects may also explain their small body size and gaunt appearance. In other words, these creatures' growth may have been stunted, due to their ill health reducing their ability to find food. Having said that, on first sight the distribution of hair on the animal depicted in Smith's engraved artwork seems far too regular to be explained in this way. Mange-infected animals often have irregular, inconsistently-distributed patches of hairlessness.

In the most severe cases of mange, however, sometimes the only fur remaining on an infected animal is a prominent line of hair running down its neck and along its back, a ruff around its neck extending from behind its ears and over its cheeks down to its chin and throat, and sometimes a tuft at the end of its tail. This description perfectly corresponds with the distribution of hair described by Jardine for Nubia's naked desert hyaena and depicted in Smith's representation of it.

Consequently, I consider it most likely that this latter mystery beast, long banished from the annals of natural history, was merely based upon one or more specimens of mange-ridden, under-nourished hyaena that had been out-competed by bigger, fitter, healthier hyaenas in the less environmentally-adverse areas at the fringes of Nubia's desert, and had thus been forced to seek sanctuary amid this desert's more arid, less hospitable interior instead.

The Cuero specimen of Texas blue hairless dog, preserved as a taxiderm specimen (© CFZ)

Support for this theory comes from an ostensibly unexpected cryptozoological source – the chupacabra. Or, to be more precise, from the so-called hairless blue dogs of Texas that have been frequently if erroneously identified as blood-sucking chupacabras (especially in media reports). The most famous example is the specimen that rancher Phylis Canion found dead just in front of her ranch outside the small Texas town of Cuero on 14 July 2007. DNA samples were taken, which identified it as a coyote, albeit one that apparently possessed at least a smidgen of Mexican wolf ancestry too, thereby suggesting that a degree of hybridisation had occurred between these two species at some stage in this creature's family tree.

Media reports regularly state that its blue-grey skin was completely hairless when it was discovered. However, as he disclosed when investigating this intriguing animal, chupacabra researcher Ben Radford noted that photographs taken of it by Canion on the day that she found it outside her home clearly showed a conspicuous line of hair running from behind its ears down its neck and along the centre of its back. This is of course a classic indication of the presence of mange, and other 'hairless blue dogs' on record have presented a similar appearance.

Also very pertinent to this subject is the so-called 'Isle of Wight Monster' that had been scaring people there since early autumn 1939, and was said by eyewitnesses to possess the head of a lion. When it was finally snared and shot on 16 February 1940, however, the IOW Monster proved to be nothing more exotic than an old fox with very advanced mange that had left a ruff of hair around its neck, resembling a lion's mane, but very little fur elsewhere on its body.

Mexican hairless dogs or xolos (public domain)

Providing a useful contrast, in January 2010 a completely hairless raccoon was found dead on the Runaway golf course in Wise County, Texas, where it had quite likely frozen to death in the wintry weather. Originally, it was assumed to have been suffering from mange, but when examined by biologists it was shown not to have been after all. Hence its highly unusual condition was most probably congenital (as is also true with the xolo, Mexico's famous hairless dog breed), emphasising well that mange does not generally reduce an individual to a state of total hairlessness.

Another interesting specimen of relevance here is the horse with soft velvet-like skin of a lilac-blue shade and totally lacking not only hair but also hair follicles that was discovered in South Africa by a merchant called Lashmar during 1860 (and which I've documented here on ShukerNature). He spied it among a herd of quagga Equus quagga quagga (the semi-striped subspecies of plains zebra that became extinct in 1883), successfully captured it, and brought it back to England in 1863, where it was exhibited in London's Crystal Palace during February 1868.

What has never been determined, however, is whether this remarkable animal was truly a domestic horse – for if so, where had it come from? Alternatively, and much more logically, might it have been a freak hairless quagga, thereby explaining why it was associating with quaggas?

Illustration of a blue horse produced by digital photo-manipulation that compares well with the description of the South African/Crystal Palace hairless blue horse (© Daisiem/worth1000 reproduced here via the Fair Use convention on a strictly non-commercial, educational use only basis)

Irrespective of its precise taxonomic identity, it was the first of many hairless equine individuals to be publicly displayed down through the years. Others of prominence include Caoutchouc - a black, entirely hairless feral horse (even lacking eyelashes) with skin resembling India-rubber that had been captured in Australia and was displayed widely around the world during the 1870s; and two individuals from the 1890s. One of these was Wild Nell, dubbed the 'India-rubber skinned mare'. The other was Bluebell, the $25,000 'hairless wonder'. As with the totally hairless raccoon from Texas and the Mexican hairless dog, these horses' complete absence of hair was due to the expression of a mutant gene allele, not to any external skin complaint.

A fourth explanation for freak hairlessness is influence by non-pathological external factors, such as climate and diet – and this is the explanation favoured by experts for the gradual but ultimately near-total loss of hair suffered by three female Andean spectacled bears housed at Germany's Leipzig Zoo and previously fully-furred. Their plight and grotesque appearance hit media headlines worldwide during late 2009, but it transpired that a similar phenomenon had struck a number of other, unrelated spectacled bears in captivity elsewhere around the world too - thereby eliminating a common source of infection or a shared genetic fault from consideration.

One of the three hairless spectacled bears from Leipzig Zoo (© EPA – reproduced here via the Fair Use convention on a strictly non-commercial, educational use only basis)

In short, hairlessness in mammals can be caused by a number of different factors, but judging from its specific appearance I still favour mange or some comparable skin infection as the most reasonable explanation for the naked desert hyaena of Nubia. To my knowledge, this is the first case of hairlessness in hyaenas that has ever been brought to cryptozoological attention, and does not even appear to have featured in any mainstream zoological works since Jardine's tome.

Indeed, it is this very state of being conspicuous only by its absence that lends further support to the likelihood that this hyaena is – or was - a short-lived, unrepeated, pathologically-induced curiosity rather than a genetically-engendered, non-taxonomic curiosity or local variety, or a distinct taxonomic race. For if any of the latter possibilities were correct, I am certain that something not only as morphologically memorable as a near-hairless hyaena but also of such potential genetic and evolutionary significance would have attracted ongoing scientific interest, leading to this beast's continued documentation in the zoological literature.

Instead, like so many other wildlife oddities, Nubia's naked desert hyaena was only of brief, passing interest, and no doubt vanished from existence soon afterwards anyway, thereafter to be forgotten for generations until I happened by chance to uncover what seems to be the only illustration ever prepared of this fascinating creature, and realised that here was a forgotten treasure from the dark vaults of unnatural history that richly deserved to be retrieved and redisplayed. It was ever thus.

A third version of the Charles Hamilton Smith/William Home Lizars illustration of the Nubian naked hyaena (public domain)

Sunday, 8 November 2015


Sourced at last – this oft-posted online photograph of a supposed pterodactylian thunderbird shot by hunters (© Chris Smith, all rights reserved by him; NB – this picture is reproduced here on a strictly Fair Use non-commercial educational basis only)

The missing thunderbird photograph is among the most famous of all cryptozoological mysteries, and one that I have already documented in detail on ShukerNature (click here). As a result of its fame, over the years it has inspired the creation of many hoax photos purporting to be the real thing, and also many non-hoax pastiches of it – but unfortunately, when such photos appear online and become widely circulated there, it is not always apparent which is which, especially as all too many websites post such photos with credulous claims that they depict real creatures, thereby blurring further an already nebulous situation.

One supposed thunderbird photograph that has been circulated on numerous sites is the very striking illustration opening this present ShukerNature blog article, and which has intrigued me for some time. Looking at the pterosaur in it, it was evident to me that it was a model of a Pteranodon that had been added via some form of photo-manipulation process to a possibly genuine, vintage photograph of hunters, thereby creating the oft-described scene that the real missing thunderbird photo allegedly depicts (always assuming, of course, that such a photo itself ever existed!).

Tracing this pterodactylian thunderbird photo from one website to another, the earliest appearances that I've been able to find for it online are from 2012 – but tonight, following yet another online search, inspired by having been alerted by a correspondent to its appearance in the newly-published December 2015 issue of the monthly magazine True West, I finally discovered both its origin and its creator!

A model of Pteranodon in flight (© Dr Karl Shuker)

It turns out that the photo is not a hoax but rather an affectionate homage in pastiche form to the original missing thunderbird photograph, and once you know where to look online it is openly identified as having been created by highly-acclaimed digital illustration artist Chris Smith from Croydon in London, England, who has also created an equally wonderful digital image of a pair of mokele-mbembes encountered by some pygmies in the Congolese swamplands. Click here to view both of these excellent artworks, which were posted on the Vividvisuals website's blog by Chris on 15 April 2013, and where I discovered them tonight.

Also, an enlargement of his pterodactylian thunderbird photo can be viewed here on Chris's own Flickr page, which reveals that he created this spectacular image on 27 October 2010. I strongly recommend all fans of fantasy and science-fiction art to visit Chris's Flickr page (click here), because it contains some of the most spectacular digital artwork from these genres that I have ever seen, and even includes some awesome front-cover illustrations that he has prepared for Fortean Times.

Another cryptozoological case solved and closed!

Further details concerning thunderbirds and the missing thunderbird photograph will appear in the expanded, updated edition of my book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors…coming soon.

Saturday, 7 November 2015


Beautiful painting of a male great argus pheasant by Daniel Giraud Elliot (public domain)

Evidence for the erstwhile reality of the double-banded argus pheasant Argusianus bipunctatus, one of the world's most mysterious crypto-birds, is best described as feather-light - in every sense.

Male great argus pheasant (© Francesco Veronesi/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0)

Truly a giant among pheasants, an adult male specimen of the great argus pheasant Argusianus argus (=giganteus) can measure up to 6.5 ft long. Native to the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and Borneo, it is also instantly recognised by virtue of its extremely long slender tail, and its huge fan-like wings, whose broad feathers are ornately embellished with rows of spectacular ocelli (eye-like markings) with which to capture the attention of female argus pheasants during courtship (and which earned these birds their name too - Argus being the many-eyed watchman from Greek mythology). There is also a lesser-known related species, the crested argus pheasant Rheinardia ocellata, once again native to southeast Asia but housed in a separate genus.

A pair of crested argus pheasants, painted by George Edward Lodge (public domain)

On 8 April 1871, moreover, T.W. Wood published a short report in The Field documenting a singular partial feather of unknown provenance and very unusual appearance. A portion of a male bird's primary from the right wing, on first sight it resembled those of the great argus. Closer observation, however, revealed that this strange plume bore two bands of speckled, chocolate-brown colouration - one on its broad web, and one on its narrow web. In contrast, corresponding plumes from the great argus bear only one such band, on their broad web.

1870s engraving showing a close-up of the unique double-banded argus pheasant feather (top) alongside that of a great argus pheasant feather (bottom) (public domain)

Consequently, Wood deemed that the aberrant feather must have originated from a second, hitherto-unknown species of argus, and he duly dubbed this unseen species Argus [now Argusianus] bipunctatus, the double-banded argus pheasant.

The first three feathers in this illustration are from the crested argus pheasant, the fourth is the single, unique feather from the double-banded argus pheasant (public domain)

The lone feather from Wood's newly-created species was presented by Edward Bartlett in 1891 to the British Museum (Natural History)'s ornithological collection at Tring, where it still resides today as the only tangible evidence for the double-banded argus's reality. No sightings of this most mysterious bird have ever been reported either - which can be explained at least in part by the simple fact that no-one really knows where to begin looking for it.

A pair of Bornean great argus pheasants painted by Archibald Thorburn (public domain)

Pheasant expert Dr Jean Delacour suspected that Java would prove to be the homeland of this cryptic bird, but his several searches for it here all proved unsuccessful. In 1983, ornithologist G.W.H. Davison nominated Tioman, an offshore island of eastern Malaysia, as a more plausible provenance, though not a very promising one. This is because Tioman had been well-explored scientifically during the 20th Century, thereby rendering it unlikely that a bird as sizeable as a species of argus pheasant could still exist there undetected.

A chromolithograph from 1837 of a male specimen of the great argus pheasant (public domain)

In other words, if this speculative species was indeed native to Tioman, it must surely now be extinct. Yet if so, this would be exceptionally tragic, because the aerodynamic properties of its unique feather as determined from its precise physical structure are so poor that this ostensibly lost species might conceivably have been flightless - and, if so, would have constituted the only species of flightless modern-day pheasant known to science.

A pair of Malayan great argus pheasants painted by Archibald Thorburn (public domain)

Having said that, in a Journal of Field Ornithology paper from 1992 K.S. Parkes dismissed this perplexing plume as nothing more than a freak feather from a great argus, in which the normal single band of speckled brown colouration had been duplicated via the expression of a mutant gene. Moreover, following the International Ornithological Congress's removal of the double-banded argus from its list of valid taxa in 2011, a year later the IUCN followed suit by removing it from its list of extinct bird species. Hence the double-banded argus is currently the avian equivalent of a persona non gratis as far as ornithological taxonomy is concerned, and unless any new discovery is made in the future it is likely to remain so.

An 1887 engraving of a male great argus pheasant (public domain)

This ShukerNature blog article is expanded from my book Mysteries of Planet Earth.

Saturday, 31 October 2015


Reconstruction of the makalala's possible appearance in life (© Markus Bühler)

Here's something suitable for Hallowe'en from the cryptozoological chronicles – a monster bird with a taste for flesh...human flesh.

No one doubts that the tallest species of bird alive today is Struthio camelus, the ostrich - no-one, that is, except for the Wasequa people (most probably an alternative, kiSwahili name for the Zigua - see Pat the Plant's very informative comments posted at the end of this ShukerNature blog article - thanks Pat!), who inhabit an unspecified interior region of mainland Tanzania 8-9 days' journey from the coast of Zanzibar (the Zigua live directly inland from Zanzibar).

According to a report by a Count Marschall (Bulletin de la Société Philomatique, 1878-9), as recently as the 1870s these people averred that their territory harboured a monstrous bird even taller than the 8-ft-high ostrich, equipped with very long legs, the head and beak of a bird of prey (which it puts to good use when feeding on carrion from animal carcases), and the ability to take to the air in sustained, powerful flight. Also, each of its wingtips bears hard plates composed of a horny, compact substance, and when it strikes its wings together they produce a very loud noise, earning this bird its local name - makalala ('noisy').

Marschall claimed that the makalala is said by the Wasequas to be very fierce, but can be killed if the correct strategy is employed. Engaging upon an extremely hazardous version of 'playing possum', the would-be assassin has to lie on the ground and feign death, until the makalala approaches close enough to seize the supposed human carcase - whereupon the latter must reanimate himself instantly and deliver the fatal blow before the makalala can rectify its mistake!

A second reconstruction of the makalala's possible appearance in life (© Tim Morris)

So far, this could all be discounted as fanciful native folklore - but physical remains of the makalala may have been recorded too. Marschall mentioned a Dr Fischer, who saw in Zanzibar an object that he identified unhesitatingly as a rib from some form of gigantic bird. Narrowing from one end to the other, this alleged rib had a width of 8 in at its widest end, and was just under 1 in at its narrowest end. Unfortunately, Marschall did not record whether Fischer sent it to a scientific institution for conclusive identification and retention.

However, Marschall did record another possible source of makalala remains - because he noted that native chiefs placed makalala skulls on their heads, using them as helmets! Could any of these bizarre examples of protective headgear still be owned today by Wasequa tribesmen?

Thanks to my afore-mentioned correspondent Pat, I now have a copy of a second makalala document from the same time period - namely, the published account by the Dr Fischer alluded to by Marschall in his own report. He was Dr Gustav A. Fischer, and his account of the makalala was part of a much longer report co-authored in German with Dr A. Reichenow, which was published in 1878 within the Journal für Ornithologie. Interestingly, in his own account Fischer described the makalala as being very shy (rather than very fierce as claimed for him by Marschall in his report), and stated that he was reluctant to believe that the rib-like structure came from a bird (whereas Marschall claimed that Fischer readily identified it as such), but otherwise the two descriptions correspond well with one another.

Assuming, against all the odds, that the makalala is real - that the frightening scenario of a carnivorous bird taller than the ostrich surviving into historical times somewhere in mainland Tanzania's interior is not a grotesque fantasy but a sober fact - what could it be? Several interesting, albeit mutually-exclusive lines of speculation compete for attention.

The first of these to be discussed here was kindly brought to my attention by German cryptozoologist Markus Bühler. Breeding throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, sporting an immense wingspan of up to 10.5 ft (even greater spans have been claimed but presently not verified), standing up to 5 ft tall, and weighing as much as 20 lb, the well known marabou stork Leptoptilos crumenifer (syn. crumeniferus) is certainly an extremely impressive, potentially formidable bird. Indeed, when specimens are scavenging from a carcase, they will sometimes even ward off vultures once the latter birds of prey have torn chunks of flesh from the carcase with their hooked beaks (which marabous lack). Even so, it seems unlikely that such a familiar species could have somehow been converted by local myth and superstition into a mystery bird.

The marabou stork (© DickDaniels/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

However, as Markus pointed out, during the Pliocene, Africa was also home to an even bigger species of marabou stork, L. falconeri, Falconer's marabou. Like L. crumenifer, it was widespread across northern and eastern Africa but stood around 6.5 ft tall (taller than an adult human of average height) and weighed up to 44 lb (as heavy as a small child). In comparison to L. crumenifer, Falconer's marabou exhibited a slight reduction in wing size, therefore possibly being more terrestrial than its modern-day relative, but it was still fully able to fly. As birds often look much bigger than they actually are, due to their plumage and pneumatic internal system adding substantial volume to their forms, this already-huge species would have been truly monstrous in appearance, added to which its possibly greater terrestrial lifestyle means that it may possibly have been able to kill and eat bigger creatures than L. crumenifer.

Based upon fossil evidence, Falconer's marabou stork had become extinct by the end of the Pliocene 2.5 million years ago, but if it had somehow survived into historical times (with what would be its more recent fossils not having been uncovered so far), there is no doubt that it could have been a thought-provoking makalala candidate (albeit one lacking the raptorial beak claimed by the Wasequas for the makalala). Even the latter's supposed wing-clapping sounds might in reality have been a confused memory of the beak-clapping sounds often produced by storks, and which would have been very loud if made by Falconer's marabou. However, there is currently no scientific evidence that the latter species did survive into historical times.

Another very large and intriguing species of bird that once inhabited Africa is Eremopezus eocaenus, which, as its name indicates, lived during the Eocene (specifically the late Eocene, between 36 and 33 million years ago). Its fossil remains, which have been obtained from Jebel Qatrani Formation deposits around the Qasr el Sagha escarpment, north of the Birket Qarun lake near Faiyum in Egypt, indicate that this was a very large, flightless, and quite possibly predatory bird, probably as tall as a small emu or large rhea but bulkier in form. Its taxonomic position has incited much debate, and it has yet to be confidently allied with any existing avian lineage, but the enigmatic Eremopezus does possess certain interesting and quite specific anatomical similarities with the secretary bird – a highly distinctive African species that will feature a little later in this discussion of potential makalala identities.

Could Eremopezus itself, however, be linked to the latter mystery bird? It seems implausible that this species could have lingered on into the present day or given rise to modern-day descendants without some geographically intervening remains have been found somewhere between Egypt and Tanzania's portion of East Africa. Then again, the fossil record is famously incomplete.

Height comparison of Homo sapiens alongside a selection of terror bird species (from left to right) Kelenken guillermoi, Phorusrhacos longissimus, and Titanis walleri, plus the diatrymid Gastornis parisiensis (public domain)

With flagrant disregard for zoogeographical dictates, the makalala readily recalls the phorusrhacids or terror birds. These were an aptly-named taxonomic group of huge flesh-eating birds known predominantly (but not exclusively) from the New World, and which attained their awesome zenith with a truly gigantic, spectacular species from Argentina's Patagonia region called Kelenken guillermoi.

Sporting a massive 28-inch-skull armed with an enormous hooked beak, this 10-12-ft-tall horror died out approximately 15 million years ago during the mid-Miocene, whereas Titanis walleri (originally thought to have been 10-12 ft tall too until further finds led it to be downsized to a still-daunting 5-6 ft) not only reached North America but lived there in Texas and Florida until as least as recently as 2.5 million years ago, making it the youngest terror bird species currently known. However, these fearful birds were flightless, as their wings were vestigial. Moreover, although confirmed terror bird fossils have been discovered in the Americas and also Antarctica, the only known fossil evidence for their erstwhile existence in Africa is a single femur from an individual that had lived during the early or early-to-mid-Eocene (i.e. between 52 million years and 46 million years ago) in what is today southwestern Algeria. In 2011, this mysterious species was named Lavocatavis africana.

Red-legged seriema Cariama cristata (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Even so, could the makalala be an undiscovered modern-day species? There is one notable precedent for such speculation, because some zoologists consider it plausible that a living, flying species of phorusrhacid-related bird is already known from Africa – namely, that strange, stork-like bird of prey called the secretary bird Sagittarius serpentarius. Although it is commonly classed as an aberrant accipitrid based upon molecular analyses, egg albumen comparisons have suggested in the past a closer taxonomic allegiance between this species and a pair of South American birds known as seriemas - which constitute the last surviving members of a phorusrhacid-allied taxonomic family.

The secretary bird (© Brian Ralphs/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0 licence; photo cropped)

In any event, the secretary bird affords a compelling correspondence to the makalala's morphology (albeit on a rather more modest scale). Standing up to 4.5 ft tall on notably long, crane-like legs, and endowed with strong wings that support a powerful, soaring flight, plus the head and hooked beak of a bird of prey, the secretary bird constitutes a very acceptable makalala in miniature. Furthermore, when attacking snakes (an important part of its diet) it frequently shields itself from potentially fatal strikes with its outstretched wings, which are equipped with horny tips - i.e. claws on the tips of its 'finger bones' (phalanges), instantly recalling those of the makalala.

This last-mentioned correspondence is particularly telling, because there are very few species of bird alive today that are equipped with these wingtip claws. Indeed, other than the secretary bird, the only ones presently known are the three species of crane-allied birds called finfoots or sun-grebes, plus three vaguely grouse-like relative of waterfowl known as screamers, native to South America, and including the black-necked screamer Chauna chavaria, the cross-sectional shape of whose wing spurs is such that they are particularly noisy when clapped together. In addition, a strange pheasant-like bird known as the hoatzin Opisthocomus hoazin, again from South America, produces curiously reptile-like offspring able to crawl along tree branches by virtue of two large, mobile claws on each wing, but these are lost as the chicks mature. Over the years, the hoatzin has been classified with numerous different avian groups, including the galliforms, cuckoos, touracos, mousebirds, waders, sand-grouses, and many others, but it is currently deemed to represent the oldest living avian lineage, discrete from all others alive today.

Illustration of the black-necked screamer, by Joseph Wolf, 1864 (public domain)

Certain other birds, like the jacanas or lily-trotters, the spur-winged goose Plectropterus gambensis, the spur-winged plover Vanellus spinosus, and a pair of Antarctic endemics called sheathbills, possess horny spurs on their wings, used in combat - but these are variously sited on the 'wrist bones' (carpals) or 'hand bones' (metacarpals), not upon the finger tips.

Out of all of these species, moreover, only one - the secretary bird - is predominantly carnivorous. Could the makalala, therefore, be some form of extra-large secretary bird - not necessarily as tall as the Wasequas state (their fear of it could certainly have inflated their estimate of its height), but much bigger than today's single known species? If so, a suitable scientific name for it would be Megasagittarius clamosus - 'the noisy, giant secretary bird'.

Staying with the secretary bird line of speculation, is it conceivable, alternatively, that the makalala was a false secretary bird, i.e. some other raptorial species, possibly another accipitrid (the eagles, hawks, and Old World vultures), that had assumed via convergent evolution a form outwardly comparable to Sagittarius? Although this is just another suggestion with no tangible evidence to support it directly, there is actually an interesting confirmed precedent for such an ostensibly unlikely premise.

In 1989, Drs Alan Feduccia and Michael R. Voorhies formally described a remarkable new species of North American fossil accipitrid from the late Miocene whose tarsometatarsal structure was nearly identical morphologically to that of the secretary bird. Indeed, the convergence was so striking that they christened this species Apatosagittarius terrenus, which translates as 'terrestrial false secretary bird', because they considered it likely that just like the true secretary bird, it had exhibited a predominantly terrestrial hunting lifestyle. In fact, it was only because the tarsometatarsus bore some attached phalanges (toe bones) whose structure was very different from those of the secretary bird that Feduccia and Voorhies were able to confirm that Apatosagittarius was not a true secretary bird, but was merely an anatomical impersonator.

The shoebill - close-up of its head revealing its immense hooked beak, and a beautiful shoebill illustration from 1901 (© Dr Karl Shuker/public domain)

Finally, a sizeable predatory bird native to western Tanzania but possibly venturing eastward occasionally into the region supposedly inhabited by the makalala is the shoebill Balaeniceps rex. Once deemed to be an aberrant stork but nowadays considered to be more closely related to pelicans, this highly distinctive species stands up to 5 ft tall, sports a very impressive 8.5-ft wingspan, is famed for its enormous hooked beak, and has such a positively prehistoric appearance when seen in flight that it has been proposed by some zoologists as the identity of supposed living pterosaurs spasmodically reported from various regions of East and Central Africa - click here for a ShukerNature blog article on this subject.

However, the shoebill's wings do not possess horny tips, so it could not make the loud wing-claps characterising the makalala. In addition, being principally piscivorous it doesn't scavenge carcases, it is shy of humans, and as its overall appearance is so singular that it seems unlikely the Wasequa would confuse such an unmistakeable species with anything else or convert it into a much larger, quite different mystery bird, this would seem to rule out the shoebill from further consideration concerning the makalala - unless, of course, there is a still-undiscovered species of giant shoebill out there...?

With a life-sized model of the North American terror bird Titanis walleri (© Dr Karl Shuker)

All of the lines of speculation discussed above – with identity contenders ranging from marabou storks, shoebills, and terror birds to secretary birds, false secretary birds, and even the anomalous Eremopezus – are certainly absorbing and thought-provoking, but even if any of them is valid, it is scarcely likely to yield a living makalala, sadly. After all, a bird as large and as visually distinctive as this one would surely be hard-pressed indeed to remain undiscovered by science for long, regardless of the geographical locality involved - yet there do not appear to be any post-19th-Century reports of its existence.

Consequently, even if the makalala was a reality in the 1870s, presumably it no longer survives - but that does not mean that its former existence cannot be verified. As noted earlier, among the valued possessions and relics of present-day Wasequas there may still be one or more of the revered helmets worn by long-departed chiefs. Should one of these tribal heirlooms pass into the hands of an ornithologist, the lucky recipient could well find himself holding a bona fide makalala skull!

The above ShukerNature blog article is excerpted from my long-awaited updated edition of In Search of Prehistoric Survivors – coming soon…

And staying with monstrous birds, be sure to click here to read my ShukerNature article about the seriously scary giant marabou 'stork of doom' pictured below that was still alive in southeast Asia as recently as the late Pleistocene, approximately 18,000 years ago.

Leptoptilos robustus, the spectacular if flightless giant marabou stork of Flores, and one of the diminutive real-life hobbits (Flores Man Homo floresiensis) that lived in its formidable shadow (© Hodari Nundu)

For a comprehensive coverage of the terror birds' evolution and fossil history, check out my book The Menagerie of Marvels, which features on its front and back covers a spectacular pair of terror birds depicted by acclaimed artist Anthony Wallis – thanks Ant!