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), 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.

ShukerNature - http://www.karlshuker.blogspot.com

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

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Tuesday, 23 September 2014

EXPOSING THE INDONESIAN GIGA-GECKO – A HOAX OF MONSTROUS PROPORTIONS!

The (in)famous photo of Indonesia's deceptive giga-gecko as widely present online (© Arbin)

In recent times, a very striking photograph has attracted appreciable attention on the Net, due to the fact that it ostensibly depicts a gecko of truly gargantuan proportions - not so much a mega-gecko as a veritable giga-gecko! In reality, however, as I swiftly realised when observing it, what this photograph truly depicts is something very different from what it may initially seem to do.

After conducting some online research, I was able to trace the photo back to a news article posted in May 2010 by a Rudy Hartono on a website entitled 'My Funny' (which didn't bode well for the article's contents having a sound scientific basis; click here to access the article). That in turn was based upon a couple of reports appearing in the Tribun Kaltim newspaper on 5 and 6 May 2010 (click here to see their contents reproduced on Promo Spektakuler's blog). These sources claimed that the gigantic gecko, supposedly weighing a colossal 64 kg, had been captured in a forest by a teenager in Nunukan, just inside Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) on the border with the Malaysian state of Sabah on the southeast Asian island of Borneo, and, after many people had shown great interest in purchasing it, had finally been sold for the eye-watering sum of 64 million Malaysian ringgits (approximately 20 million US dollars) to an Indonesian businessman. He in turn had promptly exited Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan) with his purchase, taking it instead to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Since then, nothing more has been heard about this incredible creature – for a very good reason. The entire story was fictitious, and the photograph (claimed in a brief Jakarta Post report of 5 May 2010 to have been snapped by someone identified only as Arbin) was an excellent example of optical trickery. Clearly, the giga-gecko was a hoax, but who had perpetrated it? That remains a mystery.

Giga-gecko photograph published in the Tribun-Kaltim newspaper on 5 May 2010 (© Arbin/Tribun-Kaltim)

The gecko specimen in question is actually a very familiar, widely-distributed Asian species known as the tokay gecko Gekko gecko, which is instantly recognisable by virtue of its bluish-grey body liberally patterned with bright red or yellow spots. Although the second largest species of gecko alive today, its maximum total length is a mere 20 in and its maximum weight no more than 0.4 kg. The reason why the specimen in the photograph seems so enormous is that it is sited very much closer to the camera than are the man and the cat sitting on (and under) the railing. This is a classic example of an optical illusion known as forced perspective, often seen in photographs and which, as effectively demonstrated here, can generate some very dramatic (as well as potentially deceiving) images when purposefully engineered.

A tokay gecko (© Jnguyen327/Wikipedia)

The final nail in the coffin of this reptilian riddle was supplied when an inquisitive blogger named Abdul Wahid downloaded the gecko photograph directly from the Tribun Kaltim newspaper report. For as Abdul revealed in a blog post for 15 May 2010 (click here), he duly discovered that the photo was encoded with information detailing that it had been edited using Adobe Photoshop software. In short, this image was not only an example of forced perspective but had also been photo-manipulated on a computer.

Exit the elusive – and definitely illusive – Indonesian giga-gecko!


DELCOURT'S GIANT GECKO AND THE KAWEKAWEAU

Whereas the Indonesian giga-gecko is merely a monster of photo-manipulation, out-sized wholly by optical trickery as opposed to natural selection, there really is a recently-discovered, bona fide giant gecko – one that although is (relatively speaking) of much more modest dimensions, can boast a history of discovery and abiding mystery that is much more fascinating and significant than any fake or fraud.

Perhaps the most surprising, and belated, herpetological discovery of modern times was that of Delcourt's giant gecko during the early 1980s. For over a century, a stuffed specimen of a most unusual and exceptionally big gecko, yellow-brown in colour with red longitudinal stripes, had been on public display in the Marseilles Natural History Museum, France. Yet in all that time no scientist had ever taken notice of it – until 1979, when the museum's herpetology curator, Alain Delcourt, was sufficiently curious about this 2-ft-long taxiderm lizard to send photographs of it to several reptile experts worldwide.

Alain Delcourt holding the type (and only known) specimen of his reptilian namesake, Delcourt's giant gecko - a taxiderm specimen at Marseilles Natural History Museum (© Prof. Aaron Bauer)

No-one, however, could identify it, and when this unique specimen was formally examined, it was found to represent a wholly unknown species, which in 1986 was officially named Hoplodactylus delcourti. It is by far the largest species of modern-day gecko known to science, making its apparent extinction all the more tragic, as no additional specimens, preserved or living, are on record.

Indeed, there was not even any record of where this enigmatic species' only known specimen – the Marseilles taxiderm individual - had originated. However, because it most closely resembled certain smaller geckos native to New Zealand, scientists assume that this was its provenance.

Delcourt's giant gecko visualised in life (© Markus Bühler)

No-one, however, could identify it, and when this unique specimen was Moreover, the traditional lore of New Zealand's Maori people refers to a large, supposedly mythical lizard called the kawekaweau. Said to measure around 2 ft long, and pale brown in colour with red longitudinal stripes, its description compares very closely to H. delcourti, strongly suggesting that the two are one and the same.

Artistic representation of the kawekaweau chomping a New Zealand giant cricket or weta (© Justin Case aka Hodari Nundu/Deviantart.com)

And in recent years, there have even been some unconfirmed reports of living specimens on North Island. So perhaps one day Delcourt's giant gecko will be rediscovered alive after all.

For a comprehensive account of Delcourt's giant gecko, check out my Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals.











Tuesday, 16 September 2014

AT LAST - MY VERY OWN MYSTERY ANIMAL SIGHTING!

Did I see a wallaby (i.e. like this specimen photographed elsewhere by me a year or so ago) on the loose tonight in the wilds of Walsall, England - or something far stranger? (© Dr Karl Shuker)

I dimly remember reading somewhere, a long time ago, veteran cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans stating something along the lines of how pleased in one sense he was that he had never personally seen a mystery animal, because if ever he did do so, it would destroy his objectivity when attempting to assess future anecdotal cryptozoological evidence. (Since writing this, I have been informed by Australian correspondent Malcolm Smith that it appeared in Heuvelmans's 1968 book, In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, and that he was referring specifically to the Loch Ness monster - thanks for looking this up for me, Malcolm!). I know how Heuvelmans felt, because apart from encountering an anomalously large praying mantis in South Africa a few years ago (click here for full details) and an unusually sizeable curly-coated taxiderm mole in junior school (click here), I had never seen a mystery animal myself – until tonight, that is. For this is when I had two close-up (albeit very fleeting) observations of a creature that in spite of my decades of field observations of wildlife throughout the world coupled with my professional training as a fully-qualified zoologist and my lifelong fascination with animals of every kind (the more exotic and unusual the better), I was (and remain) completely unable to identify.

So now, gentle reader, in the hope that you may have better luck in doing so, based upon the information that I shall provide, here is my account (while the details are still fresh in my mind) of what I saw a mere 4 hours ago – i.e. a few minutes before midnight on the evening of Monday 15 September 2014.

T'was a dark and stormy night…  Sorry, couldn't resist that! Seriously, however, it was indeed a dark night, and it had been raining heavily earlier too, but the rain had now stopped. I had been to a quiz in a pub on the Lichfield Road (A461) just outside the town of Walsall in the West Midlands, England – and no, I hadn't drunk anything alcoholic! – and was now driving back home along the Lichfield Road heading towards Walsall town centre.

Just before midnight, I was approaching a series of small side-roads on the left-hand side of Lichfield Road, with a petrol station a little further along on the right-hand side, and a crossroads just beyond that with a large side-road branching off to the right, leading to the Walsall suburb of Pelsall (if fellow Fortean writer Nick Redfern is reading this, he will know exactly where I am describing, as he once lived only a mile or so away, in Pelsall itself.)

A brown hare Lepus europaeus, native to England (public domain)

As I was coming up to the left-hand side-roads as mentioned above, travelling at no more than 30 mph, my headlights lit up a stationary object positioned on the centre-line markings of Lichfield Road. I thought at first that it may be a large rock or even possibly a cardboard box or something that had fallen from a car or lorry. As I drew up to it, however, just a few feet away, the 'thing' suddenly moved, away from my car, and heading across the right-hand side of the road to the kerb.

In the fleeting moments when it was fully illuminated by my headlights (my sighting only lasted about 5 seconds at most), I was able to observe that it was a creature about the size of a wallaby or a large hare (why I am using these particular animals as size comparisons will become clear shortly), it was light/medium-grey in colour (or at least it appeared so in the headlights' beam), and it had long shaggy hair (this feature was very visible). Its head was long, but I didn’t spot any ears (hence I am assuming that they were not large or otherwise distinctive). Similarly, I do not recall seeing a tail, so possibly this was not of conspicuous size either?

In any case, by far its most distinctive feature was not morphological but rather locomotory, because when it moved away from me across the road, it did so in a very distinctive, eye-catching manner. Instead of simply running or scurrying, it moved via a series of low, hunched, quadrupedal bounds, revealing that its hind limbs were powerful and seemed larger than its forelimbs. This mode of locomotion resembled that of various Australian wallabies seen by me close-up in various zoos, bounding around on all fours, and seen at greater distance in the wild Down Under too. It also called to mind the movements of hares that I have encountered in the wild here in Britain, though these bounded in a much faster, more active manner than this creature did. Moreover, although hares only sport very short tails, they have very large noticeable ears, and they do not have long grey shaggy fur. Wallabies, conversely, do have grey fur in some species, but it is not long and shaggy, their ears are quite large, and they have very long, conspicuous tails.

An Australian Bennett's wallaby in quadrupedal stance (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Furthermore, even if this mystery beast were indeed some species of escapee wallaby on the loose (long shaggy fur notwithstanding!), where had it come from? Over the years, a sizeable number of wallabies have absconded from captivity throughout Britain, and some have even established naturalised colonies here, but there are no zoos or wildlife parks in the specific area where I saw the animal documented by me here.

Another possibility is an escapee mara or Patagonian cavy Dolichotis patagonum, a fairly large South American rodent with big ears and long legs that looks superficially hare-like, has brown-grey (but not long and shaggy) fur, is commonly maintained in captivity in Britain, and has been known to abscond from time to time. Again, however, there is no likely origin for such a creature in this specific location. Reeves's muntjac deer Muntiacus reevesi, native to China but existing in naturalised form in many parts of Britain, are known to live in the wild in this vicinity, and are around the same size as the creature that I encountered, but they do not have long shaggy fur and do not move in this manner. I even wondered whether it might be an injured or deformed dog or fox (it bore no resemblance whatsoever to a cat), but it did not seem ill or in pain, and its mode of locomotion, although unusual, did not appear abnormal or forced in any way. Instead, it seemed a totally normal facet of its behaviour, and enabled the creature to move swiftly and easily.

A mara, hare-like in superficial form (© Jagvar/Wikipedia)

After registering my initial sighting of this mystery creature, I naturally wanted to stop the car, get out, and pursue it on foot, but I couldn't do so because, frustratingly, I had a car tailgating me – had I braked and stopped dead in my tracks, this car was so close behind me that it would very probably have driven straight into the back of mine. So I was forced to drive on for a little way until, just past the garage on the right, I was able to find a left-hand side road to turn into and shake off the car behind, which duly carried on along the Lichfield Road. So I was then able to perform a u-turn on that road and head back along it to where I had seen the creature.

When I approached the spot, I caught sight of it again, now standing stationary on the grass verge on the right-hand side of the road. This of course had been the left-hand side when I had been driving along the road earlier and had originally spied the creature squatting in the middle of the road. Consequently, for it to be where it was now, it had evidently re-crossed the road during my brief journey onwards when attempting to shake off the car behind me.

A male Reeves's muntjac – a naturalised Chinese species in much of England nowadays, including the West Midlands, but not possessing long grey shaggy fur (© Margoz/Wikipedia)

I stopped the car and watched it from the opposite side of the road (which is only a single carriageway), hoping to get a better look at it this time, and although my car's headlights were now not trained upon it, I could clearly perceive its long shaggy fur, which even without headlight illumination still appeared grey in colour, thereby indicating that this was indeed its pelage's true colour. Within just a few moments, however, the animal began moving along the verge, via the same low, hunched, quadrupedal bounding movements, until it came to a small side road, and disappeared into it. I started the car again at once, and was able to drive straight across the Lichfield Road into this side road without having to pause for any traffic. The side road proved to be a very short cul-de-sac (blind-ending road, with no exit at its far end), consisting of a high wall running along the length of its left-hand side and a series of front gardens fringing the length of its right-hand side. All of the gardens led up to houses and were open, i.e. none was closed-off with gates, and there was no sign of the creature, which meant that it must have concealed itself in one of these gardens, but which one, and where? They were all large and some seemed to lead down the side of their house, presumably to back gardens, so, quite frankly, the creature could have been anywhere, and not readily visible anyway under cover of darkness.

Needless to say, it did not seem the most sensible option from a legal perspective to commit trespassing by stalking around other peoples' gardens with a torch but without asking permission. Equally, it would have wasted far too much time knocking on their doors to ask each home owner in turn if I could explore their garden. In addition, the chances are that they wouldn't have allowed me to do so anyway – after all, a complete stranger claiming to be looking for a mystery animal in a person's garden during the dead of night is unlikely to receive the most cordial of receptions from said garden's owner! Consequently, albeit with great reluctance, I had no option but to abandon the chase for 'my' elusive cryptid. True, I did drive back out of the side-road (which I believe to be Meadow Close, but will check to be sure when I drive past it again later this week) and wait in my car near its entrance for a while, just in case the creature did re-emerge, but it didn't.

So here is where my story ends, in unsatisfyingly inconclusive manner – an all-too-familiar feature in cryptozoological encounters but no less frustrating for that. Any thoughts concerning the animal's possible identity would be welcomed here. As someone who normally has no problem whatsoever in identifying living mammals (or birds), if not always to the precise species then at least to their basic taxonomic grouping (genus or family), the fact that I am unable to do so with this creature (even when taking into account that I only saw it very fleetingly and at night) is nothing if not surprising and, indeed, very disconcerting for me – especially as I have seen foxes, a badger, all manner of dogs and domestic cats running around at night and have always readily identified them. If pressed to say what it reminded me of most closely, I would have to say a huge, wallaby-sized (but not wallaby-resembling), very shaggy-furred (and possibly tail-less or only very short-tailed) rat, yet which moved with the gait of a wallaby, albeit one less given to vertical bounds than a typical wallaby. I would also greatly appreciate receiving news regarding any other sightings of a similar beast that may have been reported lately from this locality. Thanks very much indeed!

Google map showing Meadow Close (arrowed), just off the Lichfield Road or A461 (© Google, 2014)


STOP PRESS 19 September 2014 - A SOLUTION TO THE MYSTERY?

As I have already noted, if I had to say what my mystery beast most resembled I'd nominate a huge rat but which moved somewhat like a wallaby, via a series of short crouching bounds. Sitting here at home tonight, reminiscing about my sighting, I suddenly remembered a thought that had momentarily popped into my head when I saw it the first time as it moved away from my car, but which I had promptly forgotten afterwards. Namely: "That looks like a coypu!". My surprise at seeing the creature must have consigned this thought to the back of my mind ever since, until tonight. As soon as I recalled it, however, I started researching the coypu, paying particular attention to the appearance and described gait of this very large, notable species of non-native rodent.

Known in the fur trade as the nutria, the coypu Myocastor coypus is a species of large-bodied, short-tailed, semi-aquatic rodent that superficially resembles a giant rat (it averages around 3ft in total length), but is sufficiently distinct taxonomically from rats and indeed from all other rodents to require housing within a taxonomic family all to itself. It sports brown bristly guard hairs that protect its very dense grey under-fur (much prized in the fur trade), and although native to South America, it has been maintained and bred in fur farms in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa for its valuable pelt. During the early 1960s, however, a number of specimens escaped in the East Anglia region of England, where they found this region's marshy freshwater wetlands very much to their liking, and soon began breeding very prolifically, becoming a major invasive pest species due to destructive herbivory and profound burrowing behaviour. After reaching a peak population of around 200,000 individuals, the coypu was subjected to an intensive government-sponsored eradication programme, and was officially declared exterminated within the UK in 1989. However, a number of unconfirmed sightings have been reported since then, and very occasionally a specimen has actually been obtained - leading to speculation by some researchers as to whether there might possibly be a small but viable population still out there.


A coypu with wet fur, making it look greyer than it would do when dry (© Petar Milosevic/Wikipedia - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3-0 Unported Licence) 

Checking out images of the coypu online, there is little doubt that this species resembles my mystery beast more closely than anything else that I know of. True, its grey dense under-fur is normally concealed by its bristly brown guard hairs, but pictures of it newly-emerged from water show that it appears greyish (and very shaggy) in such circumstances, because the wet guard hairs are matted together in clumps, thus exposing portions of the under-fur beneath, which appears shaggy due to its soaking in water.

What makes this trait even more interesting and pertinent is that after doing some more research concerning the area where I saw the creature, I discovered that it contains not only fields, open spaces, and even a small nature reserve (the Lime Pits Nature Reserve), but also some very large pools and the Rushall Canal. If the creature is indeed a coypu, such a location as this offers a very compatible habitat for its continued survival. But that is still not all.


A coypu with drier fur, but still readily showing it to be long-haired (© Silverije/Wikipedia)

Checking up the coypu's gait, I found consistent descriptions online stating that under normal conditions this species moves slowly on land with "a crouching gait", but if disturbed it will "bound rapidly away". This is of course a perfect description of the mystery creature's movements as witnessed by me. Moreover, the coypu normally emerges from its burrow and becomes active just before sunset, and returns to its burrow just before sunrise, thus corresponding with the time that I saw it.

Taking all of the above into account, I therefore offer a coypu as a tentative but plausible contender for my mystery beast in terms of both morphology and movements. But if this is truly its identity, one major mystery still requires a solution - where has the coypu originated? Coypus have certainly been maintained in zoos here in England in modern times, as well as in fur farms. Has there been a recent escape locally in the Midlands, or might such an event have occurred elsewhere but with the coypu subsequently making its way here, possibly following the canal system in its search for the river plants upon which it feeds? Obviously, all of this is highly speculative, but for the first time since Monday night, I feel somewhat less disconcerted regarding my failure to identify straight away this most unexpected mystery beast.

A fair-furred coypu in captivity - not relevant to my sighting but still interesting in its own right (© Norbert Nagel/Wikipedia)

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Sunday, 7 September 2014

CATERPILLAR BEARS, BULLDOG BEARS, AND GOD BEARS – URSINE CRYPTIDS OF KAMCHATKA

Alongside a life-sized model of Arctodus simus, the giant short-faced bear from America's Pleistocene; part of the spectacular 'Mammoths: Ice Age Giants' exhibition recently staged at London's Natural History Museum (© Dr Karl Shuker)

In spring 1987, amid the far northeastern Kamchatka peninsula region of what was then the Soviet Union but is now Russia, hunter Rodion Sivolobov obtained the skin of a giant white bear. To most eyes, it might simply look like the pelt of an oversized polar bear, but according to Sivolobov, and the area's local reindeer breeders, it is something very different - and very special. They believe it to be from a huge and extremely distinctive species of bear still awaiting official scientific discovery - a formidable, highly ferocious creature known as the irkuiem (aka irquiem).

For 10 years, Sivolobov had been collecting reports of this creature, much rarer and twice as big as Kamchatka's notably large brown bears, with a height at the withers of 4.5 ft and weighing as much as 1.5 tons. According to local testimony, the irkuiem has a relatively small head, short back legs, and a highly unusual running gait - throwing down its forepaws and heaving the back ones up to meet them, almost like a caterpillar! As for its luxuriant, snow-white fur, when Sivolobov succeeded in obtaining a skin of one of these bizarre-sounding 'caterpillar bears' he promptly sent samples from it, together with a photograph of the entire pelt, to a number of zoologists in Moscow and St Petersburg for their opinions. Inevitably, however, the general consensus was that dental and cranial samples would also be needed in order to attempt a conclusive identification of its species, so Sivolobov hopes to set forth and successfully procure these necessary specimens one day – but surely the very considerable advancements in DNA analyses that have taken place since then would yield some significant results now too?

In the meantime, he has good reason for remaining optimistic that the irkuiem's eventual discovery will prove to be a major cryptozoological triumph - for according to no less august an authority than internationally-esteemed Russian zoologist Prof. Nikolai K. Vereshchagin (d. 2008), this elusive creature could well prove to be a surviving representative of one of the Pleistocene's most impressive mammalian carnivores, the short-faced bear Arctodus simus.

Comparison of size between Arctodus simus and Homo sapiens (© Dantheman9758-Wikipedia GFDL)

Up to 6 ft high at the shoulder, up to 12 ft tall when standing erect on its hind legs, boasting a 14-ft vertical arm reach, and weighing as much as 2 tons, this monstrously huge bear, one of the largest of all mammalian land carnivores, was distributed from Alaska down as far as California (where it was particularly common) on the North American continent. (A second, less-famous, smaller species, A. pristinus, was confined to the southern US states - especially Florida - and also Mexico.)

Also termed the bulldog bear, Arctodus was characterised not only by its squat-looking face (actually an optical illusion engendered by its short nasal regions and deep snout), but also by its relatively short body and very long legs. The result was an uncommonly gracile bear wholly unlike any species known today – so much so, in fact, that the true nature of its hunting mode remains a subject for much debate.

Its gracility argues against Arctodus being able to use sheer physical strength to overcome its prey, and yet its great bulk equally argues against it being able to use its lengthy limbs to chase after prey in a fleet-footed, flexible, cheetah-like manner. Consequently, a popular theory is that this giant bear was a kleptoparasite – i.e. using its formidable size and undoubted aggression to frighten away smaller carnivores from their kill and then steal it from them.

Skull of Arctodus simus (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Yet regardless of which modus operandi it employed in obtaining prey, Arctodus was undoubtedly successful at doing so for some considerable time, having originated around 800,000 years ago during the mid-Pleistocene epoch and persisting throughout the remainder of this geological time period. Nevertheless, the eventual extinction of the American mammoths, mastodonts, camels, horses, and other herbivorous megafauna upon which it preyed, changing climatic conditions, and encroaching competition from the smaller but highly resourceful brown bear Ursus arctos all played a part in its own gradual demise, so that by the end of the Pleistocene, the short-faced bear had supposedly died out - but had it?

During the latter part of the Pleistocene until around 15,500 BP, Alaska was joined via the Bering land-bridge to Siberia. In 1988, Calgary University zoologist Valerius Geist suggested that the brutal belligerence of Arctodus might actually have impeded primitive man's passage from the Old World into the New World via the land-bridge. However, that self-same continental connection might also have featured prominently in this bear's own movements. Could Arctodus have migrated across it from northern North America into eastern Asia, subsequently dying out in its original New World homeland, but persisting undetected by science amid Kamchatka's remote, harsh terrain?

If so, continued evolution may even have modified its limbs, reducing their length to yield a body shape more comparable to its chief competitor, the brown bear, but retaining its greater body size as a further means of combating the brown bear's ecological rivalry - thus yielding the irkuiem described by the Kamchatkan reindeer breeders. Having said that, the 'caterpillar bear' locomotory aspect of the irkuiem remains an enigma, to say the least, but we shall see – or not, as the case may be – should supplementary information be forthcoming one say.

Skeleton of Arctodus simus from California's famous La Brea tar pits (© Riku64/Wikipedia)

Interestingly, certain findings show that even in North America the short-faced bear survived to a more recent date than traditionally believed. In March 1992, Utah palaeontologists Drs David D. Gillette and David B. Madsen documented their excavation four years earlier at central Utah's Huntington Reservoir of a partial cranium and isolated rib belonging to a short-faced bear that dated less than 11,400 BP (Before Present day) - i.e. over a thousand years more recent than the previous record for the youngest remains of this species. Moreover, they speculate that relict populations may have persisted until 10,000 years BP, or even later - beyond the Pleistocene, into historic times.

Whereas cryptozoological sceptics condemn attempts to reconcile the irkuiem with Arctodus simus, or a modified version of it, as little more than wishful thinking, Prof. Vereshchagin remained convinced that the prospect holds promise:

"I personally do not in any way exclude the possibility that there is an eighth species of bear in the world today. The theory that it could be a close relative of an extinct Ice Age bear does not seem so far-fetched either."

Perhaps a future expedition by Sivolobov or some other intrepid investigator will vindicate the late Prof. Vereshchagin's opinion?

Life-sized model of Arctodus simus (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Incidentally, 'irkuiem' is not the only name that has been applied to this particular cryptid. It has been referred to as the god bear too, which is somewhat confusing, however, because this moniker has also been used in relation to a second type of huge (yet very different) ursine mystery beast of Kamchatka, one that is instantly distinguished from the irkuiem by virtue of its jet-black fur.

Long before the irkuiem became news, the forested peninsula of Kamchatka was already noted for very large bears, though these were long-haired brown bears, which in 1851 were dubbed Ursus arctos beringianus, the Kamchatka brown bear - the largest Eurasian subspecies of brown bear. Officially, the mighty Kodiak bear U. a. middendorffi of southwestern Alaska's Kodiak Archipelago, sporting an average total length of 8 ft and shoulder height of 4.33 ft in the male, is the largest subspecies of brown bear alive today anywhere. However, in 1936, Swedish scientist Dr Sten Bergman noted in a Journal of Mammalogy paper that Kamchatka may house a gigantic, short-furred, jet-black bear form that exceeds in size all other bears.

Kodiak bear catching salmon in the wild (public domain)

Dr Bergman had been shown the pelt of one of these mysterious out-sized beasts in autumn 1920 during a 1920-22 Swedish expedition there, and he also recorded an equally colossal skull allegedly from one such bear, plus an enormous bear paw print measuring just under 15 in long and 10 in wide. Both the skull and the paw print had been observed (and, in the case of the paw print, photographed) by fellow Swedish scientist René Malaise, during his nine-year inhabitation of Kamchatka.

The existence of such a bear form in this region has been supported to some extent by Russian sources, according to David Day, who noted in his book The Doomsday Book of Animals (1981) that weights of 2296 lb, 2227 lb, and 2311 lb have been recorded by Russian hunters from specimens here. But as the most recent records concerning such huge bears date back to the early 1920s, it must be assumed that they have since disappeared. (Incidentally, some researchers have erroneously assigned the taxonomic name U. a. piscator specifically to these ursine giants, but in reality this name had already been coined long before such creatures had become known to scientists, having originally been applied, albeit synonymously, to the Kamchatka brown bear. In 1855)

Kamchatka brown bear (public domain)

Having said that, rumours persist that some specimens do still exist in certain remote Siberian localities closed off by the Soviet military during the Cold War, so who knows? Perhaps it may be premature to write off Bergman's black-furred mega-bear just yet. Nevertheless, the morphological variability of Ursus arctos is notoriously, infamously immense - inciting the description and naming at one time or another of no less than 96 different taxa of brown bear in North America alone, plus another 271 in the Old World!

All of which means that even if it does still survive, Kamchatka's giant short-furred mystery black bear is more likely to represent a mere (if spectacular) non-taxonomic variant than a discrete taxonomic form in its own right.  But until, if ever, some physical evidence can be made available for DNA analysis, its true zoological identity seems destined forever to bemuse and mystify in best cryptozoological fashion.

How (not!) to grin and bear it, at Niagara, Canada, in 2000 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

This ShukerNature article is excerpted and updated from extracts appearing in my books In Search of Prehistoric Survivors and From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings.





Sunday, 24 August 2014

CACTUS CATS, SPLINTER CATS, AND SLIVER CATS – THREE AMERICAN FIERCE CRITTERS OF THE FELINE KIND

Cactus cat painting (© William Rebsamen)

The lumberjacks, hillbillies, cowboys, and other frontier folk of the early American West created a fascinating, entirely original world of folklore, inhabited by all manner of extraordinary creatures, Collectively termed Fierce Critters, these included several overtly outrageous examples of the feline variety, as exemplified by the highly suspect but wickedly amusing trio presented here.


CAROUSING WITH THE CACTUS CAT

Surely the most memorable of all fictitious felids from the American West is the cactus cat of Arizona, New Mexico, and southern California. On first glance, it simply looks like a rather large but otherwise nondescript black domestic cat, standing about 2 ft at the shoulder and weighing around 30 lb - but look again. Then you will see that its ebony fur is strangely thorny or spiky, especially at the tips of its ears and tail, and also upon its brows. You will also observe that its long tail is branched at the end - but, most striking of all, you will perceive a thin blade of razor-sharp bone running along the edge of each of its two front legs. These blades serve a very important function.

The cactus cat earns its name from its passion for imbibing the sap of cacti, which it obtains by slashing their bases with its front legs' bony blades. Swiftly the sap begins to flow, but the cactus cat refrains from drinking this liquid until it has fermented into a potently alcoholic brew - whereupon it laps up the liquor in an unbridled fervour.

Inevitably, this demented felid becomes ever more intoxicated, until, when finally satiated, it staggers away, screeching and caterwauling uproariously in unabashed, drunken delight, very ready and only too willing to thrash unmercifully with its spiny, lashing tail anything, or anyone, approaching too closely - as many a cowboy, albeit while in a similar state of intoxication himself, has frequently testified.

Cactus cat (© Richard Svensson)


THE SPLINTER CAT – A FELINE BATTERING RAM, OR A MIAOWING RHINO!

The splinter cat must surely be evolution's answer in feline form to the rhinoceros. Feeding upon wild bees and raccoons, the splinter cat has developed a particularly violent means of flushing them out of their arboreal hideaway.

Like an animated battering ram, it charges head-first into a likely-looking tree, crashing its specially-reinforced forehead against the trunk with a thunderous collision. Not surprisingly, any raccoons or bees residing in the tree's branches flee in terror - right into the splinter cat's waiting jaws.

Splinter cat (© Richard Svensson)


THE SMILE ON THE FACE OF THE SLIVER CAT

Rather more subtle, but no less successful, than that of the splinter cat is the ploy adopted by the sliver cat. Its prey is somewhat larger than the splinter cat's, for it is inordinately fond of lumberjacks. So much so, in fact, that it will spend many hours patiently lying in wait for one to pass by under the branch of a pine tree on which it is lying concealed.

And as soon as one does, the splinter cat smiles sweetly at him - before deftly rapping the hapless tree-feller on top of his head with the smooth side of the hard mace-like knob borne at the tip of its tail.

The other side of this mace is spiked, for good reason - because as soon as it has concussed its victim, the splinter cat uses the spiky side of its mace to hook into the lumberjack's clothing, before hauling his inert body up into the tree, for a close encounter of the fatal kind!

Sliver cat (© Richard Svensson)


Further details concerning these and other fabulous felids from North American folklore can be found in my book Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012).







Friday, 22 August 2014

DUNG-HEAPS, DEVIL-PIGS, AND MONCKTON'S GAZEKA

Dramatic depiction of a extra-large devil-pig on the rampage (© Marc Dupont)

With an area of more than 340,000 square miles, New Guinea is second only to Greenland as the largest island in the world (Australia is bigger than both but is officially deemed an island continent, rather than a mere island). It is divided politically into Irian Jaya or Indonesian New Guinea as its western half (and which itself is divided into two separate Indonesian provinces – Papua, and West Papua, the latter also being called West Irian Jaya) and the independent country of Papua New Guinea (PNG) as its eastern half.

Map of New Guinea, showing its political division between Indonesia and PNG (© Wikipedia)

Throughout this mega-island's length and breadth, however, are dense and often little-explored rainforests where various surprising new species of animal have been revealed in recent years, including a black-and-white panda-like whistling tree kangaroo known as the dingiso Dendrolagus mbaiso (see my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals for full details) - and also where several more may still await discovery, judging from reports on file of certain bizarre beasts that cannot be satisfactorily reconciled by science with any species known to exist here.

First Day Cover issued in 1996 by Indonesia, depicting a dingiso, and also bearing two cuscus stamps (from my personal philatelic collection)

The history of what must surely be among the most intriguing of these varied New Guinea cryptids began in a distinctly prosaic, unromantic manner - the finding of an unexpected pile of dung. In 1875, the eminent English scientific journal Nature carried a couple of letters from Alfred O. Walker concerning the recent discovery by Lieutenant Sidney Smith and Captain Moresby from H.M.S. Basilisk of a startlingly large heap of fresh dung in a forest while surveying on PNG's north coast, between Huon Bay and Cape Basilisk. Indeed, the pile of excrement in question was so big and its overall appearance was such that the men assumed it to have been left by some form of rhinoceros. Yet there is no known species of rhino native to New Guinea.

The mystery deepened via a further Nature letter of 1875, submitted this time by German zoologist Dr Adolf Meyer, who confirmed that the Papuans inhabiting the south coast of the Geelvinks Bay knew of a rare but very large pig-like creature in the area. And in 1906, two such beasts were finally encountered, albeit in a wholly unplanned manner.

Portrait of Captain Charles A.W. Monckton from 1899

During the spring of that year, explorer Captain Charles A.W. Monckton was leading a major expedition to PNG's Mount Albert Edward. On May 10, two of his team's members, an army private called Ogi and a village constable called Oina, were sent on ahead to investigate a track discovered by the expedition the previous day. Somehow the two men became separated, and while seeking Oina, Ogi came upon two extraordinary creatures grazing nearby.

Although vaguely pig-like, each of these animals was approximately 3.5 ft tall, and 5 ft long, with a very dark, patterned hide, cloven feet, a long snout, and a horse-like (hairy?) tail. Ogi was so frightened by these weird creatures, which he referred to as devil-pigs as he felt sure that they must be demons in porcine guise, that he tried to shoot one, but missed. What happened after that is unclear, because when he was later found by Oina and taken back to camp, Ogi was in a severe state of shock, and unable to recollect anything further.

Lurid depiction of the Papuan devil-pig as an implausibly-rapacious, elephant-sized carnivore - from a highly-imaginative report published by the Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Gazette in 1910

Intriguingly, Ogi's testimony gained partial support from expedition leader Captain Monckton himself, because he affirmed that some very large cloven-footed tracks had indeed been found on Mount Albert Edward. And a mysterious, unidentified long-snouted beast had also been sighted during an expedition to Mount Scratchley.

There is even native testimony of such a creature from Irian Jaya, gathered in 1910 by Walter Goodfellow in the vicinity of the Mimiko River during an expedition launched by the British Ornithologists Union, and which was the inspiration for a hilariously over-blown and exceedingly exaggerated account published later that same year in an American newspaper, the Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Gazette.

Ambun mystery beast as represented by one of the Ambun stone carvings, and depicted here on a postage stamp issued by Papua New Guinea (NB – the stamp mis-spells 'Ambun' as 'Ambum')

Most tantalising of all, however, is a series of stone carvings collected from 1962 onwards in the Ambun Valley of PNG's highlands-situated Enga Province, and only a few millennia old at most. They depict a very odd-looking mammal with a rotund body, forelimbs and hindlimbs clasping its belly, a well-demarcated neck, narrow head, large eyes and ears, and a notable trunk-like snout curving downwards and bearing a pair of flaring nostrils at its tip.

Traditionally, this animal has been identified as a New Guinea long-beaked echidna (spiny anteater) Zaglossus sp., even though the resemblance is superficial at best, as the carved beast lacks spines and its bulky trunk with well-defined nostrils is very different from the echidna's slender tubicolous beak and ill-defined nostrils. Further discrepancies from the carved beast are the echidna's tiny eyes and ears, globular head, and almost non-existent neck.

New Guinea long-beaked (Zaglossus) echidnas depicted in a lithograph from 1910

In 1987, however, mammalogist James I. Menzies proposed a much more dramatic, yet morphologically more compatible, identity. He claimed that the Ambun beast was a palorchestid diprotodont - a large and very bizarre-looking herbivorous marsupial, which did indeed have big eyes, a short trunk, well-delineated external ears, and other features displayed by the carvings.

Moreover, palorchestids would have looked very like giant pigs or even tapirs in life, and certainly startling enough if encountered unexpectedly to conjure up notions of pig demons or devil-pigs in the minds of frightened locals.

Palorchestid reconstruction (© Nobu Tamura/Wikipedia)

The only problem with this persuasive identity is that palorchestids are known from fossil remains only in Australia (none are presently on record from New Guinea), where they became extinct around 13,000 years ago - or did they?

The resemblance between cryptic devil-pig, palaeontological palorchestid, and carved Ambun beast is sufficiently telling to support the exciting possibility that in New Guinea's near-impenetrable, sparsely-explored jungle heartlands, some of these amazing animals still exist, albeit currently unrepresented by uncovered fossils and rarely seen in the living state, with only their tracks - and the odd dung-heap - to betray their presence.

Another palorchestid reconstruction (© Tim Morris)

Incidentally, a longstanding source of much confusion and misinformation regarding the Papuan devil-pig is the application to it by person(s) unknown of the nickname 'Monckton's gazeka'. It is often claimed to be a genuine, official name for this cryptid, supposedly applied to it by English-speakers in New Guinea to honour Monckton – in reality, however, it is actually a somewhat sarcastic put-down of the latter explorer. It derives from an entirely fictitious mystery beast called the gazeka, which was created by English comic actor George Graves, who introduced it in the stage musical The Little Michus at Daly's Theatre, London, in 1905. So popular did Graves's creation become during the early 1900s, moreover, that it even inspired competitions to produce the best illustration of what his imaginary beast may look like

The original gazeka – a depiction of George Graves's version from 1905 as featured in a Perrier's Water advertisement (public domain)

According to Graves, the gazeka had been discovered by an explorer accompanied on his travels by a case of whiskey, and who thought he may have seen it once before, in some form of dream. Clearly, therefore, whoever shortly afterwards dubbed the Papuan devil-pig 'Monckton's gazeka' was utilising Graves's then-famous creature creation to make a sly, topical dig at Monckton's expense, implying that he had dreamt up the devil-pig, possibly while under the influence of alcohol!

Photograph of the Ambun stone mystery beast (photo source unknown to me)

Further information concerning the Papuan devil-pig can be found in my book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors.