ELUCIDATING THE TWO ‘CIVIL WAR PTERODACTYL’ THUNDERBIRD PHOTOGRAPHS

by on Jan.03, 2021, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

 
The two so-called Civil War Pterodactyl thunderbird photographs: the PTP photo (top) and the AP photo (bottom) (both photos © FreakyLinks/Haxan Films/Regency Television/20th Century Fox Television – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Over the years, I have documented on ShukerNature a number of alleged thunderbird photographs (some of them even being claimed on various online sites to be THE infamous, missing thunderbird photograph – click herefor the latter’s fascinating if highly frustrating history), and I have exposed each one of them either as an intentionally deceiving hoax perpetrated by creator(s) unknown, or as a pastiche deliberately intended as a tribute to the missing thunderbird photo that has been openly and unequivocally identified as a pastiche by its creator(s). Click here, here,here, and hereto access these cases. Yet the photographs from this particular cryptozoological category that have elicited the most queries sent to me by readers, and continue to do so, are the two that form the subject of this first ShukerNature blog article of mine in 2021 – namely, the so-called Civil War Pterodactyl thunderbird photos.

Before I go any further, however, I must point out that their full details were first revealed online elsewhere (see later for a clickable link to that source). Consequently, this present concise article of mine is intended merely as a summary, an elucidation, for anyone who has not seen that very comprehensive original coverage and is therefore checking ShukerNature for information concerning them instead.

First and foremost, setting the scene: as my article’s title and opening illustrations clearly demonstrate, there is not just one Civil War Pterodactyl thunderbird photograph (as is sometimes mistakenly assumed), but two. Although superficially similar, each depicting a group of men in American Civil War uniforms standing around a large seemingly-killed pterodactyl-like mystery beast lying on the ground, and therefore corresponding with some claimed recollections of the missing thunderbird photo (in turn explaining why they have been popularly dubbed the Civil War Pterodactyl thunderbird photos), a closer look readily shows that the two beasts are in fact quite different, as are the men.

Both photos look very old and tattered, their existence ostensibly indicating that at some stage during the American Civil War (1861-1865), a group of soldiers somehow managed to kill a living, modern-day pterodactyl, or something extraordinarily like one. As a result, the two images have variously appeared separately and together on many online sites and elsewhere as evidence that these winged reptiles did not become extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Period approximately 65 million years ago as currently indicated by the fossil record, but have somehow survived into the present age, at least in North America.

In fact, the reality is very different. As will be seen, both Civil War Pterodactyl thunderbird photographs have the same origin, and are completely artificial, but were created for two very different, entirely separate purposes.

One of these photos is commonly dubbed the PTP Photo online, and sometimes even the PTP Pterodactyl Photo, although the latter is decidedly tautological, bearing in mind that PTP is short for Pterosaur Photo (and as pterodactyls constitute a major taxonomic group of pterosaurs, this means that if referred to in full it would be the Pterosaur Photo Pterodactyl Photo!). Here it is:

 
The PTP Photo (© FreakyLinks/Haxan Films/Regency Television/20th Century Fox Television – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

The other photo does not seem to have a specific name. Consequently, for reasons that will shortly become obvious, I shall refer to it hereafter as the AP Photo, with AP being short for Advance Publicity. Here it is:

 
The AP Photo (© FreakyLinks/Haxan Films/Regency Television/20th Century Fox Television – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Originally screened from October 2000 until June 2001, FreakyLinks was a single-season, 13-episode science fiction TV show originating in the USA. It was created by American film producer Gregg Hale (best known for producing the movie The Blair Witch Project) and David S. Hoyer (an American film-maker, novelist, and comic book writer, with many superhero movie screenplays to his name, most notably those for the trilogy of Blade movies and the Dark Knight trilogy of Batman movies). The production companies responsible for bringing FreakyLinks to the small screen were Haxan Films, Regency Television, and 20th Century Fox Television

The focus of FreakyLinks is a mysteries-obsessed geek named Derek Barnes (played by Ethan Embry), who has a website entitled FreakyLinksthrough which he channels his investigations and findings relating to a wide range of unexplained phenomena, and he is assisted in his endeavours to uncover the truth by a couple of friends. Each episode deals with a different case investigated by them, and the subject of Episode 4, which is entitled ‘Coelacanth This!’, is a series of recent attacks upon people by some huge winged mystery beast. Derek believes that this may be a living pterodactyl (i.e. a prehistoric survivor, hence the coelacanth reference in this episode’s title) and, in turn, the origin of cryptozoological thunderbird reports dating back more than a century.

This is where the two Civil War Pterodactyl photos come in, because the PTP Photo had been created specifically (and digitally) by a VFX company hired by the production design team at FreakyLinks to appear (as indeed it did) in ‘Coelacanth This!’, which was first screened on 27 October 2000. At the time of my writing and uploading this blog article of mine onto ShukerNature, ‘Coelacanth This!’ can be watched for free here on YouTube, so you can readily confirm for yourself that the PTP Photo does indeed appear in this episode. Moreover, below are three screen shots of this photo’s presence in it that reveal precisely when it first appears (it does so more than once in this episode – see the end of this present article for a screen shot of its reappearance).

 
Three screen shots of the PTP photo’s first appearance in ‘Coelacanth This!’ – Episode 4 of FreakyLinks – please click each one to enlarge it for viewing pueposes FreakyLinks/Haxan Films/Regency Television/20th Century Fox Television – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

The PTP photo should not be (but very often is) confused with an earlier, visually inferior Civil War pterodactyl photo. This latter picture is none other than the AP Photo, which features different actors as the Civil War soldiers, plus a different pterodactyl, in the form of a physical model. The AP Photo had also been created for FreakyLinks but, crucially, was used by them solely for advance publicity purposes, being included (together with a specially-created back story for it) in their FreakyLinks website (which in turn had been launched two years prior to the show’s actual screening in order to promote it), but never actually appearing onscreen in the show itself.

Two decades later finds the FreakyLinks website now archived within the website of Haxan Films, but if you click hereyou can still access the page from it containing the AP Photo. Moreover, the pterodactyl model from the AP Photo is now housed at veteran cryptozoologist Loren Coleman’s famous International Cryptozoology Museum at Portland, in Maine, USA.

 
Screen shot of the relevant section of the page from the original FreakyLinks website (now archived within the site of Haxan Films) that contains the AP photo – please click it to enlarge for reading purposes (© FreakyLinks/Haxan Films/Regency Television/20th Century Fox Television – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

But why do two different Civil War Pterodactyl photos associated with FreakyLinksexist? Why wasn’t just one created, to appear both onscreen in the show itself and online in its publicity website? The reason is as follows.

The AP Photo was created first, but apparently there was subsequently a problem in obtaining talent releases for the actors featured in it, which would be needed if it were indeed to be shown onscreen in the episode. Also, the show’s production designer allegedly didn’t think that the AP Photo’s pterodactyl was very impressive.

So Haxan Films hired the visual-effects company E=MC2 Digital to create a second, more spectacular Civil War Pterodactyl photo (which would then be shown in the episode), and signed up new actors to appear in it. The result was the PTP photo, with the pterodactyl in it being a digitally-added image this time, as far as I’m aware, rather than a physical model.

So, to reiterate the key fact here: it was the PTP photo that was used onscreen in the actual FreakyLinks episode, not the AP Photo, which appeared instead in the show’s online publicity website.

All of this and more concerning the two different FreakyLinks Civil War Pterodactyl photos was first revealed by Brian Dunning in a fascinating Skeptoid podcast and accompanying online transcript of 9 January 2018 that finally and comprehensively dispelled the confusion that had hitherto enshrouded these two images for so long online. Consequently, I strongly recommend that you click hereto listen to his podcast and/or read his transcript for full details concerning this now fully-resolved but still very interesting cryptozoological case. (A detailed analysis of the PTP photo within the context of putative living pterosaurs can also be accessed here.)

 
A screen shot showing the reappearance of the PTP Photo near the end of the ‘Coelacanth This!’ episode of FreakyLinksFreakyLinks/Haxan Films/Regency Television/20th Century Fox Television – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

 

 

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ELUCIDATING THE TWO ‘CIVIL WAR PTERODACTYL’ THUNDERBIRD PHOTOGRAPHS

by on Jan.03, 2021, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

 
The two so-called Civil War Pterodactyl thunderbird photographs: the PTP photo (top) and the AP photo (bottom) (both photos © FreakyLinks/Haxan Films/Regency Television/20th Century Fox Television – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Over the years, I have documented on ShukerNature a number of alleged thunderbird photographs (some of them even being claimed on various online sites to be THE infamous, missing thunderbird photograph – click herefor the latter’s fascinating if highly frustrating history), and I have exposed each one of them either as an intentionally deceiving hoax perpetrated by creator(s) unknown, or as a pastiche deliberately intended as a tribute to the missing thunderbird photo that has been openly and unequivocally identified as a pastiche by its creator(s). Click here, here,here, and hereto access these cases. Yet the photographs from this particular cryptozoological category that have elicited the most queries sent to me by readers, and continue to do so, are the two that form the subject of this first ShukerNature blog article of mine in 2021 – namely, the so-called Civil War Pterodactyl thunderbird photos.

Before I go any further, however, I must point out that their full details were first revealed online elsewhere (see later for a clickable link to that source). Consequently, this present concise article of mine is intended merely as a summary, an elucidation, for anyone who has not seen that very comprehensive original coverage and is therefore checking ShukerNature for information concerning them instead.

First and foremost, setting the scene: as my article’s title and opening illustrations clearly demonstrate, there is not just one Civil War Pterodactyl thunderbird photograph (as is sometimes mistakenly assumed), but two. Although superficially similar, each depicting a group of men in American Civil War uniforms standing around a large seemingly-killed pterodactyl-like mystery beast lying on the ground, and therefore corresponding with some claimed recollections of the missing thunderbird photo (in turn explaining why they have been popularly dubbed the Civil War Pterodactyl thunderbird photos), a closer look readily shows that the two beasts are in fact quite different, as are the men.

Both photos look very old and tattered, their existence ostensibly indicating that at some stage during the American Civil War (1861-1865), a group of soldiers somehow managed to kill a living, modern-day pterodactyl, or something extraordinarily like one. As a result, the two images have variously appeared separately and together on many online sites and elsewhere as evidence that these winged reptiles did not become extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Period approximately 65 million years ago as currently indicated by the fossil record, but have somehow survived into the present age, at least in North America.

In fact, the reality is very different. As will be seen, both Civil War Pterodactyl thunderbird photographs have the same origin, and are completely artificial, but were created for two very different, entirely separate purposes.

One of these photos is commonly dubbed the PTP Photo online, and sometimes even the PTP Pterodactyl Photo, although the latter is decidedly tautological, bearing in mind that PTP is short for Pterosaur Photo (and as pterodactyls constitute a major taxonomic group of pterosaurs, this means that if referred to in full it would be the Pterosaur Photo Pterodactyl Photo!). Here it is:

 
The PTP Photo (© FreakyLinks/Haxan Films/Regency Television/20th Century Fox Television – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

The other photo does not seem to have a specific name. Consequently, for reasons that will shortly become obvious, I shall refer to it hereafter as the AP Photo, with AP being short for Advance Publicity. Here it is:

 
The AP Photo (© FreakyLinks/Haxan Films/Regency Television/20th Century Fox Television – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Originally screened from October 2000 until June 2001, FreakyLinks was a single-season, 13-episode science fiction TV show originating in the USA. It was created by American film producer Gregg Hale (best known for producing the movie The Blair Witch Project) and David S. Hoyer (an American film-maker, novelist, and comic book writer, with many superhero movie screenplays to his name, most notably those for the trilogy of Blade movies and the Dark Knight trilogy of Batman movies). The production companies responsible for bringing FreakyLinks to the small screen were Haxan Films, Regency Television, and 20th Century Fox Television

The focus of FreakyLinks is a mysteries-obsessed geek named Derek Barnes (played by Ethan Embry), who has a website entitled FreakyLinksthrough which he channels his investigations and findings relating to a wide range of unexplained phenomena, and he is assisted in his endeavours to uncover the truth by a couple of friends. Each episode deals with a different case investigated by them, and the subject of Episode 4, which is entitled ‘Coelacanth This!’, is a series of recent attacks upon people by some huge winged mystery beast. Derek believes that this may be a living pterodactyl (i.e. a prehistoric survivor, hence the coelacanth reference in this episode’s title) and, in turn, the origin of cryptozoological thunderbird reports dating back more than a century.

This is where the two Civil War Pterodactyl photos come in, because the PTP Photo had been created specifically (and digitally) by a VFX company hired by the production design team at FreakyLinks to appear (as indeed it did) in ‘Coelacanth This!’, which was first screened on 27 October 2000. At the time of my writing and uploading this blog article of mine onto ShukerNature, ‘Coelacanth This!’ can be watched for free here on YouTube, so you can readily confirm for yourself that the PTP Photo does indeed appear in this episode. Moreover, below are three screen shots of this photo’s presence in it that reveal precisely when it first appears (it does so more than once in this episode – see the end of this present article for a screen shot of its reappearance).

 
Three screen shots of the PTP photo’s first appearance in ‘Coelacanth This!’ – Episode 4 of FreakyLinks – please click each one to enlarge it for viewing pueposes FreakyLinks/Haxan Films/Regency Television/20th Century Fox Television – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

The PTP photo should not be (but very often is) confused with an earlier, visually inferior Civil War pterodactyl photo. This latter picture is none other than the AP Photo, which features different actors as the Civil War soldiers, plus a different pterodactyl, in the form of a physical model. The AP Photo had also been created for FreakyLinks but, crucially, was used by them solely for advance publicity purposes, being included (together with a specially-created back story for it) in their FreakyLinks website (which in turn had been launched two years prior to the show’s actual screening in order to promote it), but never actually appearing onscreen in the show itself.

Two decades later finds the FreakyLinks website now archived within the website of Haxan Films, but if you click hereyou can still access the page from it containing the AP Photo. Moreover, the pterodactyl model from the AP Photo is now housed at veteran cryptozoologist Loren Coleman’s famous International Cryptozoology Museum at Portland, in Maine, USA.

 
Screen shot of the relevant section of the page from the original FreakyLinks website (now archived within the site of Haxan Films) that contains the AP photo – please click it to enlarge for reading purposes (© FreakyLinks/Haxan Films/Regency Television/20th Century Fox Television – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

But why do two different Civil War Pterodactyl photos associated with FreakyLinksexist? Why wasn’t just one created, to appear both onscreen in the show itself and online in its publicity website? The reason is as follows.

The AP Photo was created first, but apparently there was subsequently a problem in obtaining talent releases for the actors featured in it, which would be needed if it were indeed to be shown onscreen in the episode. Also, the show’s production designer allegedly didn’t think that the AP Photo’s pterodactyl was very impressive.

So Haxan Films hired the visual-effects company E=MC2 Digital to create a second, more spectacular Civil War Pterodactyl photo (which would then be shown in the episode), and signed up new actors to appear in it. The result was the PTP photo, with the pterodactyl in it being a digitally-added image this time, as far as I’m aware, rather than a physical model.

So, to reiterate the key fact here: it was the PTP photo that was used onscreen in the actual FreakyLinks episode, not the AP Photo, which appeared instead in the show’s online publicity website.

All of this and more concerning the two different FreakyLinks Civil War Pterodactyl photos was first revealed by Brian Dunning in a fascinating Skeptoid podcast and accompanying online transcript of 9 January 2018 that finally and comprehensively dispelled the confusion that had hitherto enshrouded these two images for so long online. Consequently, I strongly recommend that you click hereto listen to his podcast and/or read his transcript for full details concerning this now fully-resolved but still very interesting cryptozoological case. (A detailed analysis of the PTP photo within the context of putative living pterosaurs can also be accessed here.)

 
A screen shot showing the reappearance of the PTP Photo near the end of the ‘Coelacanth This!’ episode of FreakyLinksFreakyLinks/Haxan Films/Regency Television/20th Century Fox Television – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

 

 

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BIG BIRD IS BACK IN BRITAIN – TWICE OVER!

by on Dec.31, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Exquisite 1860s illustrations of the common crane (left) and the white stork (right), two spectacular species making very welcome returns to Britain as re-establishing breeding birds (public domain)

There hasn’t been a great deal to be thankful for in 2020, but on the ornithological front Great Britain has two very notable reasons to consider this year a favourably memorable one. This is due to the very welcome return as potentially re-establishing UK breeding birds of two very sizeable, spectacular species. Veritable Big Birds of Sesame Street stature, in fact, at least when compared to most other feathered members of the British fauna, they were both formerly native here, but until now have been conspicuous only by their continued absence from our shores for several centuries, except as non-breeding vagrant visitors.

So what better way to end this dismal year than on an avian high, by documenting these two very significant success stories here as my final blog article for 2020 on ShukerNature.

 

CRANING FOR ATTENTION

A bird that commands attention for the simple fact that, at over 4 ft tall and sporting a wingspan of up to 8 ft across, it is difficult to overlook is the common crane Grus grus – and for especially good reason lately.

This is because, after having been exterminated in Britain by hunting and habitat destruction several centuries ago, during the 1600s, this stately long-necked species has recently made a dramatic comeback here, and for two wholly separate reasons.

 
Common cranes, painted by Edward Neale, 1890s (public domain)

Firstly, in 1979 a few individuals from mainland Europe returned to their former wetland homeland in Norfolk in eastern England and began to breed, gradually increasing their numbers during the next 40 years.

Secondly, conservation work to improve wetlands elsewhere in England eventually encouraged this greatly-welcomed prodigal bird to spread further afield too.

 
A pair of common cranes (© Олексій Карпенко/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

In April 2020, the UK Crane Working Group was pleased to announce that crane numbers in Britain have reached their highest number for more than 400 years, with 56 breeding pairs here last year and 26 chicks successfully reared.

So if this very positive trend continues, with crane numbers increasing still further and its geographical range continuing to expand, it seems likely that before very much longer, wildlife enthusiasts in the UK may not have to crane their own necks too hard in order to catch sight of this elegant bird here once again.

 

STORKING A PLACE IN HISTORY

With the common crane gradually re-establishing itself in Britain after having previously died out here back in the 1600s, I’m delighted to say that another tall, equally spectacular bird is seeking to do the same after an even longer absence.

Standing up to 4 ft tall and boasting a wingspan of up to 7 ft, the white stork Ciconia ciconia is last known to have successfully nested in the UK way back in 1416, when a pair did so at St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh. Since then, this famous species has been but a rare non-breeding visitor to Britain from continental Europe – until last year, that is.

 
Adult male (left) and juvenile (right) white storks, painted by M.A. Koekkoek, from Ornithologia Neerlandica, Vol. 1, by E.D. van Oort, 1868 (public domain)

Founded in 2016 by a partnership of private landowners and nature conservation charities, the White Stork Project operates in three localities in Surrey and West Sussex, southern England, and using a series of injured storks from Poland that cannot fly far it hopes to re-establish the species as a breeding bird here.

In 2019, one of its females plus an unringed, possibly wild stork visiting from the continent paired up, built a nest in a tree within the Knepp Castle Estate, West Sussex, and laid some eggs, but tragically they failed to hatch.

 
A pair of adult white storks on their nest (© Andrea0250/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

As all storks do, this pair then spent the winter in warmer, African climes, but they returned to the same estate this spring, built a nest in a tree near to the one that they used last year, the female laid some eggs again – and this time, in early May, they hatched!

The White Stork Project is naturally delighted, and hopes that this much-anticipated event will herald the beginning of the breeding pair’s stately species staking its much-deserved place in Britain’s natural history once more. The Project’s aim is to restore a population of at least 50 breeding pairs of white storks in southern England by 2030.

 
A gorgeous painting of white storks from Richard Crossley’s The Crossley ID Guide Britain and Ireland (© Richard Crossley/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

 

Today, 31 December 2020, marks the 126thanniversary of the birth of my maternal grandmother, Gertrude Timmins, who passed away at the age of 99 in April 1994. I can still vividly remember Nan telling me when I was a youngster that once, while on a guided tour somewhere in Great Britain during the early 1900s, she saw an unusual bird that the guide identified as a crane. From her description of it, the bird seemed too small for such a species, but she stressed that the guide had insisted that it was indeed a crane. So who knows, maybe it was – a juvenile straggler, perhaps, a lonely stranger on the shore, like so many of us are.

 
Nan with my Jack Russell terrier Patch during the mid/late 1970s (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Happy birthday, Nan – how I wish that you, Mom, and all of my family were here with me to celebrate your big day today, and to greet the New Year all together tomorrow.

 

Wishing all of my ShukerNature readers a very happy, healthy 2021, and hoping that it will inspire me to prepare and post many exciting new blog articles here on ShukerNature!

 
Common cranes portrayed in another breathtakingly beautiful painting from Richard Crossley’s The Crossley ID Guide Britain and Ireland (© Richard Crossley/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

 

 

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BIG BIRD IS BACK IN BRITAIN – TWICE OVER!

by on Dec.31, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Exquisite 1860s illustrations of the common crane (left) and the white stork (right), two spectacular species making very welcome returns to Britain as re-establishing breeding birds (public domain)

There hasn’t been a great deal to be thankful for in 2020, but on the ornithological front Great Britain has two very notable reasons to consider this year a favourably memorable one. This is due to the very welcome return as potentially re-establishing UK breeding birds of two very sizeable, spectacular species. Veritable Big Birds of Sesame Street stature, in fact, at least when compared to most other feathered members of the British fauna, they were both formerly native here, but until now have been conspicuous only by their continued absence from our shores for several centuries, except as non-breeding vagrant visitors.

So what better way to end this dismal year than on an avian high, by documenting these two very significant success stories here as my final blog article for 2020 on ShukerNature.

 

CRANING FOR ATTENTION

A bird that commands attention for the simple fact that, at over 4 ft tall and sporting a wingspan of up to 8 ft across, it is difficult to overlook is the common crane Grus grus – and for especially good reason lately.

This is because, after having been exterminated in Britain by hunting and habitat destruction several centuries ago, during the 1600s, this stately long-necked species has recently made a dramatic comeback here, and for two wholly separate reasons.

 
Common cranes, painted by Edward Neale, 1890s (public domain)

Firstly, in 1979 a few individuals from mainland Europe returned to their former wetland homeland in Norfolk in eastern England and began to breed, gradually increasing their numbers during the next 40 years.

Secondly, conservation work to improve wetlands elsewhere in England eventually encouraged this greatly-welcomed prodigal bird to spread further afield too.

 
A pair of common cranes (© Олексій Карпенко/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

In April 2020, the UK Crane Working Group was pleased to announce that crane numbers in Britain have reached their highest number for more than 400 years, with 56 breeding pairs here last year and 26 chicks successfully reared.

So if this very positive trend continues, with crane numbers increasing still further and its geographical range continuing to expand, it seems likely that before very much longer, wildlife enthusiasts in the UK may not have to crane their own necks too hard in order to catch sight of this elegant bird here once again.

 

STORKING A PLACE IN HISTORY

With the common crane gradually re-establishing itself in Britain after having previously died out here back in the 1600s, I’m delighted to say that another tall, equally spectacular bird is seeking to do the same after an even longer absence.

Standing up to 4 ft tall and boasting a wingspan of up to 7 ft, the white stork Ciconia ciconia is last known to have successfully nested in the UK way back in 1416, when a pair did so at St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh. Since then, this famous species has been but a rare non-breeding visitor to Britain from continental Europe – until last year, that is.

 
Adult male (left) and juvenile (right) white storks, painted by M.A. Koekkoek, from Ornithologia Neerlandica, Vol. 1, by E.D. van Oort, 1868 (public domain)

Founded in 2016 by a partnership of private landowners and nature conservation charities, the White Stork Project operates in three localities in Surrey and West Sussex, southern England, and using a series of injured storks from Poland that cannot fly far it hopes to re-establish the species as a breeding bird here.

In 2019, one of its females plus an unringed, possibly wild stork visiting from the continent paired up, built a nest in a tree within the Knepp Castle Estate, West Sussex, and laid some eggs, but tragically they failed to hatch.

 
A pair of adult white storks on their nest (© Andrea0250/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

As all storks do, this pair then spent the winter in warmer, African climes, but they returned to the same estate this spring, built a nest in a tree near to the one that they used last year, the female laid some eggs again – and this time, in early May, they hatched!

The White Stork Project is naturally delighted, and hopes that this much-anticipated event will herald the beginning of the breeding pair’s stately species staking its much-deserved place in Britain’s natural history once more. The Project’s aim is to restore a population of at least 50 breeding pairs of white storks in southern England by 2030.

 
A gorgeous painting of white storks from Richard Crossley’s The Crossley ID Guide Britain and Ireland (© Richard Crossley/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

 

Today, 31 December 2020, marks the 126thanniversary of the birth of my maternal grandmother, Gertrude Timmins, who passed away at the age of 99 in April 1994. I can still vividly remember Nan telling me when I was a youngster that once, while on a guided tour somewhere in Great Britain during the early 1900s, she saw an unusual bird that the guide identified as a crane. From her description of it, the bird seemed too small for such a species, but she stressed that the guide had insisted that it was indeed a crane. So who knows, maybe it was – a juvenile straggler, perhaps, a lonely stranger on the shore, like so many of us are.

 
Nan with my Jack Russell terrier Patch during the mid/late 1970s (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Happy birthday, Nan – how I wish that you, Mom, and all of my family were here with me to celebrate your big day today, and to greet the New Year all together tomorrow.

 

Wishing all of my ShukerNature readers a very happy, healthy 2021, and hoping that it will inspire me to prepare and post many exciting new blog articles here on ShukerNature!

 
Common cranes portrayed in another breathtakingly beautiful painting from Richard Crossley’s The Crossley ID Guide Britain and Ireland (© Richard Crossley/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

 

 

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MISSING MACAWS OF THE WEST INDIES – Part 2: A MULTICOLOURED MULTITUDE OF MYSTERY MACAWS

by on Dec.31, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

 
Dominican green and yellow macaw statuette, its colouring digitally created to match Atwood’s description (© Dr Karl Shuker)

In Part 1 of this 2-part ShukerNature blog article (click hereto access it), I surveyed an array of mysterious, seemingly-vanished or even still-undiscovered types of macaw with either predominantly blue or predominantly red plumage. Now, in Part 2, I am reviewing a number of varicoloured lost macaws, sporting plumages that were either green and yellow or blue and yellow, and will then be assessing the entire spectrum of Caribbean mystery macaws whose histories I have documented in Parts 1 and 2.

 

ENIGMAS IN GREEN AND YELLOW

Although there is no species of macaw with almost exclusively green and yellow plumage alive today, two so-called green and yellow macaws, both now extinct, have been described and named from the West Indies. Having said that, one of these, the Jamaican green and yellow macaw Ara erythrocephala, which became extinct around 1842 and was formally named by Lord Walter Rothschild in a 1905 scientific paper, also had a red head, blue wings, and a red-and-blue tail! Only its neck, shoulders, and underparts were green, and only the under plumage of its wings and tail was yellow. Consequently, it is also known as the red-headed green macaw.

 

Jamaican green and yellow macaw Ara erythrocephala, painted by Dutch wildlife artist John Gerrard Keulemans for Lord Walter Rothschild’s book Extinct Birds, 1907 (public domain)

According to Jamaican resident Richard Hill (who assisted naturalist Philip H. Gosse in preparing his book The Birds of Jamaica – see Part 1 of my article), this species could be found in a very remote mountain district between Trelawney and St Anne’s, and also in the southern part of Jamaica’s Cockpit region. Interestingly, Hill did not consider it to be resident in Jamaica, because he claimed that it could only be found there during the winter period, and he assumed that it bred in Mexico instead.

 

Hill also deemed it to be one and the same as the military (aka great green) macaw A. militaris. Yet a red head is conspicuous only by its absence in that principally all-green species.

 

Military or great green macaws Ara militaris(public domain)

Unlike the Jamaican green and yellow macaw, the other one, the Dominican green and yellow macaw Ara atwoodi, believed to have died out around 1800, was indeed principally green and yellow. Today, it is known directly only from a short description penned by British colonial judge Thomas Atwood (after whom it was named) in his book The History of the Island of Dominica (1791). This is what he wrote:

 

The mackaw [sic] is of the parrot kind, but larger than the common parrot [a species of amazon parrot, much smaller than any macaw], and makes a more disagreeable, harsh noise. They are in great plenty, as are also parrots in this island; have both of them a delightful green and yellow plumage, with a scarlet-coloured fleshy substance from the ears to the root of the bill, of which colour is likewise the chief feathers of their wings and tails. They breed on the tops of the highest trees, where they feed on the berries in great numbers together; and are easily discovered by their loud chattering noise, which at a distance resembles human voices. The mackaws cannot be taught to articulate words; but the parrots of this country may, by taking pains with them when caught young. The flesh of both is eat[en], but being very fat, it wastes in roasting, and eats dry and insipid; for which reason, they are chiefly used to make soup of, which is accounted very nutritive.

 

Originally categorised as conspecific with the long-extinct Guadeloupe red macaw Ara guadeloupensis, after reading Atwood’s account Austin Hobart Clark reclassified it as a separate species in 1908.

 

Dominican green and yellow macaw Ara atwoodi, painted by Rafael Nascimento (© Rafael Nascimento)

Tantalisingly, moreover, there is a version of a famous painting that actually depicts a principally green and yellow macaw. The painting in question is the spectacular dodo portrait prepared in 1626 by Flemish artist Roelandt Savery, which I previously referred to in Part 1 of this article, in relation to the mysterious, predominantly all-red macaw depicted by Savery to the immediate left of the dodo and which readily recalls descriptions of the vanished Guadeloupe red macaw.

 

However, this painting also contains a second macaw, depicted to the right of the dodo. On first sight, it looks very like the familiar blue and yellow macaw (aka blue and gold macaw) Ara ararauna from the South American mainland. Yet a closer look reveals that its under-tail coverts are yellow, whereas those of A. ararauna are blue. Nor is that all.

 

Dodo with two mystery macaws in Roelandt Savery’s famous dodo painting, 1626 (public domain)

 As I noted in Part 1, Japan’s dodo expert Masauji Hachisuka owned a copy of Savery’s painting, which had been specially prepared for him by another famous but much later bird artist, John Gerrard Keulemans (1842-1912). It is a near-identical reproduction of Savery’s original, except that the colours of the macaws in it are more distinct (also, the dodo itself is more brown than grey).

 

Of particular interest, the plumage of the right-hand macaw is not blue and yellow but is instead green and yellow. What, I wonder, is the significance of this notable colour discrepancy between Savery’s original painting and Hachisuka’s version of it?

 

Dodo with two mystery macaws in Keulemans’s copy of Savery’s original painting, in the frontispiece of Hachisuka book (public domain)

Might it be that Hachisuka believed that down through the centuries the colours in Savery’s painting had faded, and therefore when Hachisuka commissioned his version of it he had attempted to re-create its original appearance? If so, this meant that unless constituting a freak colour variety of it, the right-hand macaw may not have been a specimen of Ara ararauna at all (as already implied anyway by virtue of its yellow under-tail coverts?), but was conceivably an entirely different, seemingly now-extinct green and yellow species instead.

 

More conservative, alternative options include the prospect that it was an entirely non-existent, fictitious bird, ‘invented’ by Savery purely as colourful support for the more prosaic plumage of the dodo. Or perhaps it had once existed but Savery’s depiction of it was based not upon any physical specimens but instead upon inaccurate verbal descriptions of a known species.

 

Blue and yellow macaw statuette (left), and the same statuette but now photoshopped into a green and yellow macaw (right) in order to simulate the right-hand macaw present in Savery’s dodo painting (© Dr Karl Shuker)

But what if Savery’s right-hand macaw had been real, had been depicted accurately by Savery, and before fading during subsequent centuries had genuinely been green and yellow, and not blue and yellow? Might it therefore be a representation of the Dominican green and yellow macaw, thereby indicating that at least one specimen of this now-lost form had been brought back to Holland prior to its species’ extinction?

 

Needless to say, this is all very speculative, but in view of the presence in the same painting of a second mysterious macaw that also just so happens to resemble accounts of another now-vanished West Indian macaw, it is nothing if not a most intriguing coincidence, to say the very least.

Bartholomeus van Bassen’s painting ‘Renaissance Interior With Banqueters’, 1618-1620 – please click to enlarge for viewing purposes (public domain)

No less interesting, moreover, is the equally mystifying macaw depicted in a second very noteworthy painting, this time prepared by Bartholomeus van Bassen (1590-1652), a celebrated Dutch architect and artist. Perhaps his most famous painting was ‘Renaissance Interior With Banqueters’ – an extremely detailed, sophisticated work of art that took from 1618 to 1620 to complete. Notwithstanding the architectural splendours and opulence that it depicts, the most fascinating aspect of it for me, however, is the parrot perching upon a chair in this painting’s bottom left-hand corner, because it does not appear to correspond with any species known to be living today.

As noted earlier, artists have often included much-modified or even entirely fictitious examples of birds in their works, simply to enhance their visual appeal. In this particular case, conversely, van Bassen’s painting is so meticulously executed and so accurate in all other details, including those of other creatures included in it, that it seems highly unlikely that he would have added a made-up bird.

Close-up of the mystery parrot in Bartholomeus van Bassen’s painting ‘Renaissance Interior With Banqueters’, 1618-1620 (public domain)

This case was brought to my attention some years ago by pets specialist and author David Alderton, who shares my view that the bird is unlikely to be an ornithological invention on van Bassen’s part. In an email to me, David stated:

What I would say is that the other animals in the scene are very clearly recognisable. Based on its position in the painting, and its perch on rare/expensive material, this tends to suggest that this parrot is significant. It would have been rare and exotic of course – representing a flamboyant display of wealth in a very clear visual way, and I can’t see it would have been a “fictional” bird.

So if we assume that the parrot represents a bona fide species, are there any that resemble it in some way?

Carolina parakeets, painted by John James Audubon (public domain)

On first glance, it recalls the Carolina parakeet Conuropsis carolinensis, a predominantly green-plumaged species with a bright yellow head marked with red. Once common in North America, it suffered greatly from habitat destruction, from being captured for the pet trade, and by being heavily persecuted due to its fondness for farmers’ crops, until the last confirmed specimen died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1918. Closer observation, however, reveals a number of marked differences between this now-demised species and van Bassen’s painted parrot.

Van Bassen’s parrot has golden-yellow underparts, whereas the Carolina parakeet’s were green; it also has yellow lateral tail feathers whereas all of the Carolina’s tail feathers were green; its wing primaries are red, not green like the Carolina’s; the red markings on its head are more extensive than the Carolina’s; and its relative proportions are very different from the Carolina’s. Van Bassen’s parrot has a much longer tail, a more powerful beak, and, judging scale from the chair upon which it is perched, a much larger overall body size. Indeed, in general appearance, the category of parrots that it most closely agrees with is the macaws.

Sun conure (© H. Zell/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Consequently, attempts to liken it to various small species of South American conure parakeet, such as the sun conure Aratinga solstitialis and the jenday conure A. jandaya, are not satisfactory either, unless of course the bird has been badly painted, with incorrect plumage and/or dimensions.

For all of the reasons already discussed with regard to the prospect of its being a fictitious species, however, this notion seems untenable.

Jenday conure (public domain)

However closely one studies images of a painting, even close-up ones of a specific section of it, there can be no substitute for viewing the painting itself directly. Happily, David Alderton was able to do precisely this, when ‘Renaissance Interior With Banqueters’ was on display several years ago at the National Gallery in London. As a result, he noticed various features of the parrot not readily visible even in close-up images of it. These include the presence of a white brow line above its eye, and, of particular interest, the extensive amount of bare white facial skin – a feature characterising macaws. Usually this area is limited to the sides of the face around the eyes, and at the beak’s base, but in van Bassen’s bird it also extends onto the top of the head.

After viewing the bird directly in the painting, David wondered whether it may be a Cuban red macaw Ara tricolor, whose last confirmed wild specimen was shot in 1864, since when this species has been deemed to be extinct (click here to access my coverage of this species in Part 1 of the present ShukerNature article). However, he conceded that the Cuban red macaw’s plumage exhibited certain noticeable differences from van Bassen’s. The most significant of these are the Cuban’s blue wing primaries, its red cheeks, neck, and underparts, its red and blue tail feathers, and the much less extensive area of white facial skin.

Cuban red macaw Ara tricolor, by Keulemans, from Rothschild’s Extinct Birds, 1907 (public domain)

Conversely, Thomas Atwood’s above-quoted description of the Dominican green and yellow macaw accords well with van Bassen’s portrayed parrot – the precise configuration of its head’s red colouration, its red wing feathers, and obviously its predominantly green and yellow plumage. True, Atwood did not mention any area of white on the Dominican macaws’ faces, but in some species of macaw this region turns red if the bird becomes excited, so perhaps he simply didn’t observe any macaws when in a quiescent state, only when they were squawking animatedly while feeding.

The only inconsistency in appearance between van Bassen’s bird and Atwood’s Dominican macaws is the mention of red tail feathers in his description, whereas the central tail feathers of van Bassen’s parrot are green and the lateral ones are yellow. Perhaps, however, there was a slight degree of variation in the Dominican macaw’s plumage colouration (sexual dimorphism, for instance?) that could account for this discrepancy? In all other respects, the match is much closer than for any other species, living or extinct.

A representation of the Dominican green and yellow macaw, created by A.C. Tatarinov by modifying Keulemans’s original painting of a blue and yellow macaw Ara ararauna, but not including the red tail and red wing feathers mentioned for the former species by Atwood (public domain)

So, as already suggested for Savery’s mystery right-hand macaw, could it be that the enigmatic parrot perched in this other highly-renowned Dutch artist’s early 17th-Century painting was a living Dominican green and yellow macaw, brought back to Europe as an eyecatching pet by (or for) a wealthy Dutch citizen?

During that period, all manner of rare and extremely exotic fauna were being transported here from every known corner of the globe, many of which had never before been seen in Europe. Consequently, a colourful macaw would be nothing special or unexpected on that score.

Keulemans’s original blue and yellow macaw Ara ararauna painting (public domain)

What wouldbe very special, and extremely unexpected, however, is if the macaw species in question subsequently became extinct but its exquisite appearance was preserved under the very nose of every art-lover in an extremely famous, spectacular painting, yet without its identity or zoological significance being recognised – until now?

If true, this is a great tragedy. After all, to paraphrase a certain classic comedy sketch from the golden age of British television, it may be an ex-parrot, but it had lovely plumage…

 

BEWILDERMENT IN BLUE AND YELLOW

 

The last two Caribbean mystery macaws to be documented here have separate taxonomic binomial names but only a shared common name – the Martinique macaw. This because these blue and yellow species may well have been one and the same species, yet there is no guarantee that even a single species existed. Bewildered? Then read on.

 

The Martinique macaw proper, as it were, is A. martinicus, which like so many other mystery macaws of the West Indies was formally named by Rothschild in his 1905 paper, although he originally assigned it not to the genus Ara but rather to the blue macaw genus Anodorhynchus(reclassifying it as an Ara species two years later in his book Extinct Birds). Rothschild based his description of it (as did Keulemans when preparing a full-colour painting of it for Extinct Birds) upon a brief account penned by French Jesuit priest Père Jacques Bouton during the 1630s. Bouton stated that the macaws of Martinique were two or three times as large as this island’s other parrots, with blue and saffron plumage and a good body, and could be taught to talk.

 

Martinique macaw Ara martinicus, painted by Keulemans (public domain)

At least two early paintings exist that may depict the Martinique macaw, one of which is none other than the previously-mentioned dodo painting by Savery, if we assume that the right-hand macaw really was blue and yellow, rather than green and yellow that through time has faded to blue and yellow. Of particular interest at the time was an announcement by Cuban scientist Mario Sánchez y Roig in early 1936 that he had uncovered a taxiderm specimen of this species, which had supposedly been collected in 1845 and mounted a year later. When fellow scientist J.T. Zimmer examined it just a short time after its discovery, however, it was swiftly exposed as a hoax, created by person(s) unknown.

It proved to be a composite specimen, in which the tail of an Old World Streptopeliadove had been combined with the head, body, and wings of a Chilean burrowing parrot Cyanoliseus patagonus byroni [now renamed bloxami]. Bearing in mind, however, that this parrot is small and predominantly green, it is difficult to comprehend how it could possibly have been intended or expected to impersonate with any prospect of success a large blue and yellow macaw.

Chilean burrowing parrot Cyanoliseus patagonus bloxami, painted by Edward Lear during the 1800s (public domain)

Tainting the taxonomic waters even further: in his 1907 book Extinct Birds, Rothschild described a second, ostensibly distinct but equally lost species of Caribbean blue and yellow macaw that he formally dubbed A. erythrura, and he also included a full-colour painting of it once again prepared specially by Keulemans.

Rothschild had based this species upon a description in Charles de Rochefort’s work Histoire Naturelle et Morale des Îles Antilles de l’Amerique (1658) of a type of macaw of unknown provenance within the West Indies, although both Martinique and Jamaica have been offered as possibilities by researchers.

Mysterious macaw Ara erythrura, aka satin macaw or red-tailed blue and yellow macaw, painted by Keulemans, (public domain)

According to de Rochefort, its head, back, and the upper side of its neck were satiny sky blue, its belly, the underside of its neck, and its wings’ underparts were yellow, and its tail was entirely red. Accordingly, it has since been dubbed variously as the red-tailed blue and yellow macaw, the satin macaw, the mysterious macaw, and, confusingly, the Martinique macaw.

American ornithologist James C. Greenway viewed this description with grave reservations, noting that de Rochefort had never even visited Jamaica, and suspecting instead that he had based it upon an earlier account written by Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre. Today, most ornithologists consider A. martinicus and A. erythrura as merely synonyms for the same single species, the Martinique macaw.

Psittacus alux maximus, a mystery blue macaw with yellow wing tips and red under-tail feathers, depicted in an early painting by an unknown artist (public domain)

Tantalisingly, however, in December 2012 Brazil-based mystery parrot enthusiast Rafael Nascimento drew my attention to a published but hitherto-obscure early painting entitled Psittacus alux maximus, and of currently-undetermined origin and painter. It depicts a predominantly blue macaw but with golden-yellow wing tips and red under-tail feathers that is somewhat reminiscent of A. erythrura except for lacking the latter’s yellow underside.

Rafael had discovered the painting online on Facebook’s ‘Sixth Extinction Forum’, which stated that it had been found in the central library of Paris’s National Museum of Natural History but offered no additional information concerning it or the macaw that it depicts. Consequently, Rafael contacted the museum for details, but did not receive any reply.

Mystery blue and yellow macaw painted by Eleazar Albin in mid-1700s, possibly Ara martinicus (public domain)

Also worthy of note is a painting produced during the mid-1700s by English naturalist and watercolour artist Eleazar Albin depicting an unidentified blue and yellow macaw said to have originated in Jamaica but which may be Ara martinicus.

Moreover, in 1740 Albin painted a striking red and blue macaw that again was supposedly of Jamaican provenance but is known only from this single illustration, and hence is referred to nowadays as Albin’s macaw.

Albin’s Macaw, painted by Eleazar Albin in 1740 (public domain)

 

KNOWN MACAWS OF UNKNOWN APPEARANCE

 

Irrespective of these contentious (albeit scientifically-named) macaw forms documented by me in Parts 1 and 2 of this ShukerNature article, moreover, there is also the intriguing possibility that there were others that unquestionably existed but died out before their physical appearance had been documented. Two such macaws are certainly known, being represented by physical evidence.

 

One of these is A. autocthones, the enigmatic macaw of St Croix (one of the American Virgin Islands), which has never been reported in the living state. It was long known only from a single leg bone obtained there, but is now also known from some skeletal material described in 2008 from Puerto Rico. The other is the currently-unnamed Montserrat macaw, presently known from just a single coracoid bone, and again of entirely unknown visual appearance.

 

IN SEARCH OF ORIGINS AND IDENTITIES

As noted earlier, because almost all of the ostensibly vanished Caribbean macaws documented by me in this 2-part article are known only from descriptions and paintings, not from any physical remains (the Cuban red macaw remaining the lone major exception to date), many ornithologists have discounted them as hypothetical species that may never have existed.

 

Instead, they suggest, these intangible birds may have been based solely upon misidentified or inaccurately-described known species (possibly even escapee pets belonging to certain mainland South American species) or hybrids of known species. It is certainly well-established that mainland South American species of parrot, including the large showy macaws, have frequently been imported into the West Indies from the mainland, and not only by Europeans and indigenous peoples during historic times but also by Palaeoamericans during prehistoric times.

 

A hybrid macaw with predominantly blue, green, and yellow plumage (public domain)

However, as seen here, descriptions of the lost, mystery macaws reported from various of the Caribbean islands do not correspond with known mainland species. So unless their chroniclers’ descriptions were invariably inaccurate, at least some such macaws may well have represented bona fide species distinct from mainland ones rather than merely escapee non-native pets belonging to various mainland species.

 

This discrepancy between descriptions of mystery macaws reported in the West Indies and known mainland species also provides problems when attempting to identify Caribbean macaws as native West Indian representatives of various mainland species (as James C. Greenway unconvincingly sought to do, for instance, with Jamaica’s green and yellow macaw in relation to the mainland’s military macaw A. militaris). Having said that, it may be that while still conspecific with their respective mainland counterparts the Caribbean mystery macaws had nonetheless diverged from them morphologically, perhaps even to the point of constituting valid island subspecies of the latter species. Yet if this were the case, i.e. that although conspecific with various mainland species the Caribbean macaws were native, island-indigenous representatives of them, they would surely be present in these islands’ subfossil fauna. Yet no such subfossils have ever been found on any of the main Caribbean islands.

 

Hybrid macaw with green and yellow plumage (© Justin Henry/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)

As for hybrids: macaws are famous for being able to yield an astonishing array and diversity of crossbred varieties, including many F1, F2, and even F3-generation hybrids – and of such dazzling polychromatic splendour, far exceeding in multicoloured resplendence any of the many pure-bred macaw species, that I have no doubt that in terms of plumage colour any of the Caribbean mystery macaws documented here could conceivably result from hybridisation between various known species.

 

However, for such crossbreeding to occur there would need to be progenitor species here to begin with, which in turn hearkens back to the problems highlighted above in relation to such a prospect.

 

Might a green and yellow strain of hybrid macaw, like this exquisite individual specifically photographed for me by Facebook friend Michael Andrew Leigh at Singapore’s famous Bird Gardens in April 2014, explain some of the earlier-documented historical reports of green and yellow macaws on Jamaica and Dominica? (© Michael Andrew Leigh)

How about mutations? Both Tony Pittman and Brazil-based mystery parrot enthusiast Rafael Nascimento have informed me that a very beautiful mutation of the blue and yellow macaw occurs naturally in Brazil, whose aviculturalists refer to it as ‘A. mosaica’, on account of the eyecatching blue-mosaic pattern decorating the golden-yellow portions of its plumage. This in turn provides a precedent for other mutations similarly occurring in the wild state and thereby possibly even explaining some of the Caribbean’s mysterious lost macaws, but all of this is pure speculation, with no physical evidence whatsoever to substantiate any of it.

 

The same applies to a fifth option that certain ornithologists have favoured – namely, that some Caribbean mystery macaws may actually have been tapiré artefacts, i.e. specimens whose normal, natural colouration has been artificially altered by Amerindians.

 

Might some Caribbean mystery macaws have been based upon nothing more than escaped pet specimens of known mainland species, such as South America’s familiar blue and yellow macaw? (copyright-free)

My own notion is that quite possibly a combination of all of these suggestions may collectively explain the Caribbean’s controversial diversity of lost macaws. In other words: some of these mystery macaws might indeed be based upon nothing more than escapee non-native (i.e. mainland-derived) pets and/or inaccurate descriptions; whereas certain others could have genuinely constituted native island-specific subspecies of known mainland species (a very common occurrence in evolution across the entire zoological spectrum) or even distinct species. Also, a few may have been exotic escapee/released hybrids originally bred from mainland species imported in certain Caribbean islands; and there might even have been occasional spontaneous mutations arising on these islands, originating again from imported mainland species; plus one or two cases of tapiré macaws may possibly having been produced by natives here to sell as high-priced curiosities to visitors.

 

Personally speaking, I consider the first two of these five options to be much more likely than the others, but without physical evidence to examine we can never know for certain what any of these fascinating but irretrievably lost West Indian macaws truly were.

 

A gorgeous multicoloured hybrid macaw (public domain)

 

Finally: for more mystery blue macaws documented on ShukerNature, not to mention turquoise, glaucous, purple, and even black forms, please click hereand here.

 

I wish to offer my sincere thanks to Rafael Nascimento for bringing several hitherto obscure mystery macaws to my attention and which I have thereby been able to document in this present 2-part ShukerNature article, and also for so generously permitting me to include some of his beautiful paintings of various mystery macaws in it. Thanks also go to David Alderton for kindly alerting me to van Bassen’s painting and its perplexing parrot, and to Michael Andrew Leigh for kindly photographing for me the green and yellow hybrid macaw at Singapore Bird Gardens (I wonder which specific type of hybrid macaw this bird is?).

 

A very handsome pair of blue and yellow macaws – representing one of the many macaw species that definitely do exist! (public domain)

 

This 2-part ShukerNature article is excerpted from a work-in-progress book of mine, Mystery Birds of the World – look out for it in due course.

 

And finally: does anyone happen to know which precise type of hybrid macaw the following beautiful individual is, which I encountered with its handler while visiting Mandalay Bay Hotel, on the Strip in Las Vegas, during a Stateside holiday in 2004? All suggestions would be greatly welcomed – thanks very much!

 

A beautiful hybrid macaw of currently-undetermined identity on display with its handler at Mandalay Bay Hotel, Las Vegas, which I visited in 2004 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

 

 

 

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MISSING MACAWS OF THE WEST INDIES – Part 2: A MULTICOLOURED MULTITUDE OF MYSTERY MACAWS

by on Dec.31, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

 
Dominican green and yellow macaw statuette, its colouring digitally created to match Atwood’s description (© Dr Karl Shuker)

In Part 1 of this 2-part ShukerNature blog article (click hereto access it), I surveyed an array of mysterious, seemingly-vanished or even still-undiscovered types of macaw with either predominantly blue or predominantly red plumage. Now, in Part 2, I am reviewing a number of varicoloured lost macaws, sporting plumages that were either green and yellow or blue and yellow, and will then be assessing the entire spectrum of Caribbean mystery macaws whose histories I have documented in Parts 1 and 2.

 

ENIGMAS IN GREEN AND YELLOW

Although there is no species of macaw with almost exclusively green and yellow plumage alive today, two so-called green and yellow macaws, both now extinct, have been described and named from the West Indies. Having said that, one of these, the Jamaican green and yellow macaw Ara erythrocephala, which became extinct around 1842 and was formally named by Lord Walter Rothschild in a 1905 scientific paper, also had a red head, blue wings, and a red-and-blue tail! Only its neck, shoulders, and underparts were green, and only the under plumage of its wings and tail was yellow. Consequently, it is also known as the red-headed green macaw.

 

Jamaican green and yellow macaw Ara erythrocephala, painted by Dutch wildlife artist John Gerrard Keulemans for Lord Walter Rothschild’s book Extinct Birds, 1907 (public domain)

According to Jamaican resident Richard Hill (who assisted naturalist Philip H. Gosse in preparing his book The Birds of Jamaica – see Part 1 of my article), this species could be found in a very remote mountain district between Trelawney and St Anne’s, and also in the southern part of Jamaica’s Cockpit region. Interestingly, Hill did not consider it to be resident in Jamaica, because he claimed that it could only be found there during the winter period, and he assumed that it bred in Mexico instead.

 

Hill also deemed it to be one and the same as the military (aka great green) macaw A. militaris. Yet a red head is conspicuous only by its absence in that principally all-green species.

 

Military or great green macaws Ara militaris(public domain)

Unlike the Jamaican green and yellow macaw, the other one, the Dominican green and yellow macaw Ara atwoodi, believed to have died out around 1800, was indeed principally green and yellow. Today, it is known directly only from a short description penned by British colonial judge Thomas Atwood (after whom it was named) in his book The History of the Island of Dominica (1791). This is what he wrote:

 

The mackaw [sic] is of the parrot kind, but larger than the common parrot [a species of amazon parrot, much smaller than any macaw], and makes a more disagreeable, harsh noise. They are in great plenty, as are also parrots in this island; have both of them a delightful green and yellow plumage, with a scarlet-coloured fleshy substance from the ears to the root of the bill, of which colour is likewise the chief feathers of their wings and tails. They breed on the tops of the highest trees, where they feed on the berries in great numbers together; and are easily discovered by their loud chattering noise, which at a distance resembles human voices. The mackaws cannot be taught to articulate words; but the parrots of this country may, by taking pains with them when caught young. The flesh of both is eat[en], but being very fat, it wastes in roasting, and eats dry and insipid; for which reason, they are chiefly used to make soup of, which is accounted very nutritive.

 

Originally categorised as conspecific with the long-extinct Guadeloupe red macaw Ara guadeloupensis, after reading Atwood’s account Austin Hobart Clark reclassified it as a separate species in 1908.

 

Dominican green and yellow macaw Ara atwoodi, painted by Rafael Nascimento (© Rafael Nascimento)

Tantalisingly, moreover, there is a version of a famous painting that actually depicts a principally green and yellow macaw. The painting in question is the spectacular dodo portrait prepared in 1626 by Flemish artist Roelandt Savery, which I previously referred to in Part 1 of this article, in relation to the mysterious, predominantly all-red macaw depicted by Savery to the immediate left of the dodo and which readily recalls descriptions of the vanished Guadeloupe red macaw.

 

However, this painting also contains a second macaw, depicted to the right of the dodo. On first sight, it looks very like the familiar blue and yellow macaw (aka blue and gold macaw) Ara ararauna from the South American mainland. Yet a closer look reveals that its under-tail coverts are yellow, whereas those of A. ararauna are blue. Nor is that all.

 

Dodo with two mystery macaws in Roelandt Savery’s famous dodo painting, 1626 (public domain)

 As I noted in Part 1, Japan’s dodo expert Masauji Hachisuka owned a copy of Savery’s painting, which had been specially prepared for him by another famous but much later bird artist, John Gerrard Keulemans (1842-1912). It is a near-identical reproduction of Savery’s original, except that the colours of the macaws in it are more distinct (also, the dodo itself is more brown than grey).

 

Of particular interest, the plumage of the right-hand macaw is not blue and yellow but is instead green and yellow. What, I wonder, is the significance of this notable colour discrepancy between Savery’s original painting and Hachisuka’s version of it?

 

Dodo with two mystery macaws in Keulemans’s copy of Savery’s original painting, in the frontispiece of Hachisuka book (public domain)

Might it be that Hachisuka believed that down through the centuries the colours in Savery’s painting had faded, and therefore when Hachisuka commissioned his version of it he had attempted to re-create its original appearance? If so, this meant that unless constituting a freak colour variety of it, the right-hand macaw may not have been a specimen of Ara ararauna at all (as already implied anyway by virtue of its yellow under-tail coverts?), but was conceivably an entirely different, seemingly now-extinct green and yellow species instead.

 

More conservative, alternative options include the prospect that it was an entirely non-existent, fictitious bird, ‘invented’ by Savery purely as colourful support for the more prosaic plumage of the dodo. Or perhaps it had once existed but Savery’s depiction of it was based not upon any physical specimens but instead upon inaccurate verbal descriptions of a known species.

 

Blue and yellow macaw statuette (left), and the same statuette but now photoshopped into a green and yellow macaw (right) in order to simulate the right-hand macaw present in Savery’s dodo painting (© Dr Karl Shuker)

But what if Savery’s right-hand macaw had been real, had been depicted accurately by Savery, and before fading during subsequent centuries had genuinely been green and yellow, and not blue and yellow? Might it therefore be a representation of the Dominican green and yellow macaw, thereby indicating that at least one specimen of this now-lost form had been brought back to Holland prior to its species’ extinction?

 

Needless to say, this is all very speculative, but in view of the presence in the same painting of a second mysterious macaw that also just so happens to resemble accounts of another now-vanished West Indian macaw, it is nothing if not a most intriguing coincidence, to say the very least.

Bartholomeus van Bassen’s painting ‘Renaissance Interior With Banqueters’, 1618-1620 – please click to enlarge for viewing purposes (public domain)

No less interesting, moreover, is the equally mystifying macaw depicted in a second very noteworthy painting, this time prepared by Bartholomeus van Bassen (1590-1652), a celebrated Dutch architect and artist. Perhaps his most famous painting was ‘Renaissance Interior With Banqueters’ – an extremely detailed, sophisticated work of art that took from 1618 to 1620 to complete. Notwithstanding the architectural splendours and opulence that it depicts, the most fascinating aspect of it for me, however, is the parrot perching upon a chair in this painting’s bottom left-hand corner, because it does not appear to correspond with any species known to be living today.

As noted earlier, artists have often included much-modified or even entirely fictitious examples of birds in their works, simply to enhance their visual appeal. In this particular case, conversely, van Bassen’s painting is so meticulously executed and so accurate in all other details, including those of other creatures included in it, that it seems highly unlikely that he would have added a made-up bird.

Close-up of the mystery parrot in Bartholomeus van Bassen’s painting ‘Renaissance Interior With Banqueters’, 1618-1620 (public domain)

This case was brought to my attention some years ago by pets specialist and author David Alderton, who shares my view that the bird is unlikely to be an ornithological invention on van Bassen’s part. In an email to me, David stated:

What I would say is that the other animals in the scene are very clearly recognisable. Based on its position in the painting, and its perch on rare/expensive material, this tends to suggest that this parrot is significant. It would have been rare and exotic of course – representing a flamboyant display of wealth in a very clear visual way, and I can’t see it would have been a “fictional” bird.

So if we assume that the parrot represents a bona fide species, are there any that resemble it in some way?

Carolina parakeets, painted by John James Audubon (public domain)

On first glance, it recalls the Carolina parakeet Conuropsis carolinensis, a predominantly green-plumaged species with a bright yellow head marked with red. Once common in North America, it suffered greatly from habitat destruction, from being captured for the pet trade, and by being heavily persecuted due to its fondness for farmers’ crops, until the last confirmed specimen died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1918. Closer observation, however, reveals a number of marked differences between this now-demised species and van Bassen’s painted parrot.

Van Bassen’s parrot has golden-yellow underparts, whereas the Carolina parakeet’s were green; it also has yellow lateral tail feathers whereas all of the Carolina’s tail feathers were green; its wing primaries are red, not green like the Carolina’s; the red markings on its head are more extensive than the Carolina’s; and its relative proportions are very different from the Carolina’s. Van Bassen’s parrot has a much longer tail, a more powerful beak, and, judging scale from the chair upon which it is perched, a much larger overall body size. Indeed, in general appearance, the category of parrots that it most closely agrees with is the macaws.

Sun conure (© H. Zell/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Consequently, attempts to liken it to various small species of South American conure parakeet, such as the sun conure Aratinga solstitialis and the jenday conure A. jandaya, are not satisfactory either, unless of course the bird has been badly painted, with incorrect plumage and/or dimensions.

For all of the reasons already discussed with regard to the prospect of its being a fictitious species, however, this notion seems untenable.

Jenday conure (public domain)

However closely one studies images of a painting, even close-up ones of a specific section of it, there can be no substitute for viewing the painting itself directly. Happily, David Alderton was able to do precisely this, when ‘Renaissance Interior With Banqueters’ was on display several years ago at the National Gallery in London. As a result, he noticed various features of the parrot not readily visible even in close-up images of it. These include the presence of a white brow line above its eye, and, of particular interest, the extensive amount of bare white facial skin – a feature characterising macaws. Usually this area is limited to the sides of the face around the eyes, and at the beak’s base, but in van Bassen’s bird it also extends onto the top of the head.

After viewing the bird directly in the painting, David wondered whether it may be a Cuban red macaw Ara tricolor, whose last confirmed wild specimen was shot in 1864, since when this species has been deemed to be extinct (click here to access my coverage of this species in Part 1 of the present ShukerNature article). However, he conceded that the Cuban red macaw’s plumage exhibited certain noticeable differences from van Bassen’s. The most significant of these are the Cuban’s blue wing primaries, its red cheeks, neck, and underparts, its red and blue tail feathers, and the much less extensive area of white facial skin.

Cuban red macaw Ara tricolor, by Keulemans, from Rothschild’s Extinct Birds, 1907 (public domain)

Conversely, Thomas Atwood’s above-quoted description of the Dominican green and yellow macaw accords well with van Bassen’s portrayed parrot – the precise configuration of its head’s red colouration, its red wing feathers, and obviously its predominantly green and yellow plumage. True, Atwood did not mention any area of white on the Dominican macaws’ faces, but in some species of macaw this region turns red if the bird becomes excited, so perhaps he simply didn’t observe any macaws when in a quiescent state, only when they were squawking animatedly while feeding.

The only inconsistency in appearance between van Bassen’s bird and Atwood’s Dominican macaws is the mention of red tail feathers in his description, whereas the central tail feathers of van Bassen’s parrot are green and the lateral ones are yellow. Perhaps, however, there was a slight degree of variation in the Dominican macaw’s plumage colouration (sexual dimorphism, for instance?) that could account for this discrepancy? In all other respects, the match is much closer than for any other species, living or extinct.

A representation of the Dominican green and yellow macaw, created by A.C. Tatarinov by modifying Keulemans’s original painting of a blue and yellow macaw Ara ararauna, but not including the red tail and red wing feathers mentioned for the former species by Atwood (public domain)

So, as already suggested for Savery’s mystery right-hand macaw, could it be that the enigmatic parrot perched in this other highly-renowned Dutch artist’s early 17th-Century painting was a living Dominican green and yellow macaw, brought back to Europe as an eyecatching pet by (or for) a wealthy Dutch citizen?

During that period, all manner of rare and extremely exotic fauna were being transported here from every known corner of the globe, many of which had never before been seen in Europe. Consequently, a colourful macaw would be nothing special or unexpected on that score.

Keulemans’s original blue and yellow macaw Ara ararauna painting (public domain)

What wouldbe very special, and extremely unexpected, however, is if the macaw species in question subsequently became extinct but its exquisite appearance was preserved under the very nose of every art-lover in an extremely famous, spectacular painting, yet without its identity or zoological significance being recognised – until now?

If true, this is a great tragedy. After all, to paraphrase a certain classic comedy sketch from the golden age of British television, it may be an ex-parrot, but it had lovely plumage…

 

BEWILDERMENT IN BLUE AND YELLOW

 

The last two Caribbean mystery macaws to be documented here have separate taxonomic binomial names but only a shared common name – the Martinique macaw. This because these blue and yellow species may well have been one and the same species, yet there is no guarantee that even a single species existed. Bewildered? Then read on.

 

The Martinique macaw proper, as it were, is A. martinicus, which like so many other mystery macaws of the West Indies was formally named by Rothschild in his 1905 paper, although he originally assigned it not to the genus Ara but rather to the blue macaw genus Anodorhynchus(reclassifying it as an Ara species two years later in his book Extinct Birds). Rothschild based his description of it (as did Keulemans when preparing a full-colour painting of it for Extinct Birds) upon a brief account penned by French Jesuit priest Père Jacques Bouton during the 1630s. Bouton stated that the macaws of Martinique were two or three times as large as this island’s other parrots, with blue and saffron plumage and a good body, and could be taught to talk.

 

Martinique macaw Ara martinicus, painted by Keulemans (public domain)

At least two early paintings exist that may depict the Martinique macaw, one of which is none other than the previously-mentioned dodo painting by Savery, if we assume that the right-hand macaw really was blue and yellow, rather than green and yellow that through time has faded to blue and yellow. Of particular interest at the time was an announcement by Cuban scientist Mario Sánchez y Roig in early 1936 that he had uncovered a taxiderm specimen of this species, which had supposedly been collected in 1845 and mounted a year later. When fellow scientist J.T. Zimmer examined it just a short time after its discovery, however, it was swiftly exposed as a hoax, created by person(s) unknown.

It proved to be a composite specimen, in which the tail of an Old World Streptopeliadove had been combined with the head, body, and wings of a Chilean burrowing parrot Cyanoliseus patagonus byroni [now renamed bloxami]. Bearing in mind, however, that this parrot is small and predominantly green, it is difficult to comprehend how it could possibly have been intended or expected to impersonate with any prospect of success a large blue and yellow macaw.

Chilean burrowing parrot Cyanoliseus patagonus bloxami, painted by Edward Lear during the 1800s (public domain)

Tainting the taxonomic waters even further: in his 1907 book Extinct Birds, Rothschild described a second, ostensibly distinct but equally lost species of Caribbean blue and yellow macaw that he formally dubbed A. erythrura, and he also included a full-colour painting of it once again prepared specially by Keulemans.

Rothschild had based this species upon a description in Charles de Rochefort’s work Histoire Naturelle et Morale des Îles Antilles de l’Amerique (1658) of a type of macaw of unknown provenance within the West Indies, although both Martinique and Jamaica have been offered as possibilities by researchers.

Mysterious macaw Ara erythrura, aka satin macaw or red-tailed blue and yellow macaw, painted by Keulemans, (public domain)

According to de Rochefort, its head, back, and the upper side of its neck were satiny sky blue, its belly, the underside of its neck, and its wings’ underparts were yellow, and its tail was entirely red. Accordingly, it has since been dubbed variously as the red-tailed blue and yellow macaw, the satin macaw, the mysterious macaw, and, confusingly, the Martinique macaw.

American ornithologist James C. Greenway viewed this description with grave reservations, noting that de Rochefort had never even visited Jamaica, and suspecting instead that he had based it upon an earlier account written by Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre. Today, most ornithologists consider A. martinicus and A. erythrura as merely synonyms for the same single species, the Martinique macaw.

Psittacus alux maximus, a mystery blue macaw with yellow wing tips and red under-tail feathers, depicted in an early painting by an unknown artist (public domain)

Tantalisingly, however, in December 2012 Brazil-based mystery parrot enthusiast Rafael Nascimento drew my attention to a published but hitherto-obscure early painting entitled Psittacus alux maximus, and of currently-undetermined origin and painter. It depicts a predominantly blue macaw but with golden-yellow wing tips and red under-tail feathers that is somewhat reminiscent of A. erythrura except for lacking the latter’s yellow underside.

Rafael had discovered the painting online on Facebook’s ‘Sixth Extinction Forum’, which stated that it had been found in the central library of Paris’s National Museum of Natural History but offered no additional information concerning it or the macaw that it depicts. Consequently, Rafael contacted the museum for details, but did not receive any reply.

Mystery blue and yellow macaw painted by Eleazar Albin in mid-1700s, possibly Ara martinicus (public domain)

Also worthy of note is a painting produced during the mid-1700s by English naturalist and watercolour artist Eleazar Albin depicting an unidentified blue and yellow macaw said to have originated in Jamaica but which may be Ara martinicus.

Moreover, in 1740 Albin painted a striking red and blue macaw that again was supposedly of Jamaican provenance but is known only from this single illustration, and hence is referred to nowadays as Albin’s macaw.

Albin’s Macaw, painted by Eleazar Albin in 1740 (public domain)

 

KNOWN MACAWS OF UNKNOWN APPEARANCE

 

Irrespective of these contentious (albeit scientifically-named) macaw forms documented by me in Parts 1 and 2 of this ShukerNature article, moreover, there is also the intriguing possibility that there were others that unquestionably existed but died out before their physical appearance had been documented. Two such macaws are certainly known, being represented by physical evidence.

 

One of these is A. autocthones, the enigmatic macaw of St Croix (one of the American Virgin Islands), which has never been reported in the living state. It was long known only from a single leg bone obtained there, but is now also known from some skeletal material described in 2008 from Puerto Rico. The other is the currently-unnamed Montserrat macaw, presently known from just a single coracoid bone, and again of entirely unknown visual appearance.

 

IN SEARCH OF ORIGINS AND IDENTITIES

As noted earlier, because almost all of the ostensibly vanished Caribbean macaws documented by me in this 2-part article are known only from descriptions and paintings, not from any physical remains (the Cuban red macaw remaining the lone major exception to date), many ornithologists have discounted them as hypothetical species that may never have existed.

 

Instead, they suggest, these intangible birds may have been based solely upon misidentified or inaccurately-described known species (possibly even escapee pets belonging to certain mainland South American species) or hybrids of known species. It is certainly well-established that mainland South American species of parrot, including the large showy macaws, have frequently been imported into the West Indies from the mainland, and not only by Europeans and indigenous peoples during historic times but also by Palaeoamericans during prehistoric times.

 

A hybrid macaw with predominantly blue, green, and yellow plumage (public domain)

However, as seen here, descriptions of the lost, mystery macaws reported from various of the Caribbean islands do not correspond with known mainland species. So unless their chroniclers’ descriptions were invariably inaccurate, at least some such macaws may well have represented bona fide species distinct from mainland ones rather than merely escapee non-native pets belonging to various mainland species.

 

This discrepancy between descriptions of mystery macaws reported in the West Indies and known mainland species also provides problems when attempting to identify Caribbean macaws as native West Indian representatives of various mainland species (as James C. Greenway unconvincingly sought to do, for instance, with Jamaica’s green and yellow macaw in relation to the mainland’s military macaw A. militaris). Having said that, it may be that while still conspecific with their respective mainland counterparts the Caribbean mystery macaws had nonetheless diverged from them morphologically, perhaps even to the point of constituting valid island subspecies of the latter species. Yet if this were the case, i.e. that although conspecific with various mainland species the Caribbean macaws were native, island-indigenous representatives of them, they would surely be present in these islands’ subfossil fauna. Yet no such subfossils have ever been found on any of the main Caribbean islands.

 

Hybrid macaw with green and yellow plumage (© Justin Henry/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)

As for hybrids: macaws are famous for being able to yield an astonishing array and diversity of crossbred varieties, including many F1, F2, and even F3-generation hybrids – and of such dazzling polychromatic splendour, far exceeding in multicoloured resplendence any of the many pure-bred macaw species, that I have no doubt that in terms of plumage colour any of the Caribbean mystery macaws documented here could conceivably result from hybridisation between various known species.

 

However, for such crossbreeding to occur there would need to be progenitor species here to begin with, which in turn hearkens back to the problems highlighted above in relation to such a prospect.

 

Might a green and yellow strain of hybrid macaw, like this exquisite individual specifically photographed for me by Facebook friend Michael Andrew Leigh at Singapore’s famous Bird Gardens in April 2014, explain some of the earlier-documented historical reports of green and yellow macaws on Jamaica and Dominica? (© Michael Andrew Leigh)

How about mutations? Both Tony Pittman and Brazil-based mystery parrot enthusiast Rafael Nascimento have informed me that a very beautiful mutation of the blue and yellow macaw occurs naturally in Brazil, whose aviculturalists refer to it as ‘A. mosaica’, on account of the eyecatching blue-mosaic pattern decorating the golden-yellow portions of its plumage. This in turn provides a precedent for other mutations similarly occurring in the wild state and thereby possibly even explaining some of the Caribbean’s mysterious lost macaws, but all of this is pure speculation, with no physical evidence whatsoever to substantiate any of it.

 

The same applies to a fifth option that certain ornithologists have favoured – namely, that some Caribbean mystery macaws may actually have been tapiré artefacts, i.e. specimens whose normal, natural colouration has been artificially altered by Amerindians.

 

Might some Caribbean mystery macaws have been based upon nothing more than escaped pet specimens of known mainland species, such as South America’s familiar blue and yellow macaw? (copyright-free)

My own notion is that quite possibly a combination of all of these suggestions may collectively explain the Caribbean’s controversial diversity of lost macaws. In other words: some of these mystery macaws might indeed be based upon nothing more than escapee non-native (i.e. mainland-derived) pets and/or inaccurate descriptions; whereas certain others could have genuinely constituted native island-specific subspecies of known mainland species (a very common occurrence in evolution across the entire zoological spectrum) or even distinct species. Also, a few may have been exotic escapee/released hybrids originally bred from mainland species imported in certain Caribbean islands; and there might even have been occasional spontaneous mutations arising on these islands, originating again from imported mainland species; plus one or two cases of tapiré macaws may possibly having been produced by natives here to sell as high-priced curiosities to visitors.

 

Personally speaking, I consider the first two of these five options to be much more likely than the others, but without physical evidence to examine we can never know for certain what any of these fascinating but irretrievably lost West Indian macaws truly were.

 

A gorgeous multicoloured hybrid macaw (public domain)

 

Finally: for more mystery blue macaws documented on ShukerNature, not to mention turquoise, glaucous, purple, and even black forms, please click hereand here.

 

I wish to offer my sincere thanks to Rafael Nascimento for bringing several hitherto obscure mystery macaws to my attention and which I have thereby been able to document in this present 2-part ShukerNature article, and also for so generously permitting me to include some of his beautiful paintings of various mystery macaws in it. Thanks also go to David Alderton for kindly alerting me to van Bassen’s painting and its perplexing parrot, and to Michael Andrew Leigh for kindly photographing for me the green and yellow hybrid macaw at Singapore Bird Gardens (I wonder which specific type of hybrid macaw this bird is?).

 

A very handsome pair of blue and yellow macaws – representing one of the many macaw species that definitely do exist! (public domain)

 

This 2-part ShukerNature article is excerpted from a work-in-progress book of mine, Mystery Birds of the World – look out for it in due course.

 

And finally: does anyone happen to know which precise type of hybrid macaw the following beautiful individual is, which I encountered with its handler while visiting Mandalay Bay Hotel, on the Strip in Las Vegas, during a Stateside holiday in 2004? All suggestions would be greatly welcomed – thanks very much!

 

A beautiful hybrid macaw of currently-undetermined identity on display with its handler at Mandalay Bay Hotel, Las Vegas, which I visited in 2004 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

 

 

 

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MISSING MACAWS OF THE WEST INDIES – Part 2: A MULTICOLOURED MULTITUDE OF MYSTERY MACAWS

by on Dec.31, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

 
Dominican green and yellow macaw statuette, its colouring digitally created to match Atwood’s description (© Dr Karl Shuker)

In Part 1 of this 2-part ShukerNature blog article (click hereto access it), I surveyed an array of mysterious, seemingly-vanished or even still-undiscovered types of macaw with either predominantly blue or predominantly red plumage. Now, in Part 2, I am reviewing a number of varicoloured lost macaws, sporting plumages that were either green and yellow or blue and yellow, and will then be assessing the entire spectrum of Caribbean mystery macaws whose histories I have documented in Parts 1 and 2.

 

ENIGMAS IN GREEN AND YELLOW

Although there is no species of macaw with almost exclusively green and yellow plumage alive today, two so-called green and yellow macaws, both now extinct, have been described and named from the West Indies. Having said that, one of these, the Jamaican green and yellow macaw Ara erythrocephala, which became extinct around 1842 and was formally named by Lord Walter Rothschild in a 1905 scientific paper, also had a red head, blue wings, and a red-and-blue tail! Only its neck, shoulders, and underparts were green, and only the under plumage of its wings and tail was yellow. Consequently, it is also known as the red-headed green macaw.

 

Jamaican green and yellow macaw Ara erythrocephala, painted by Dutch wildlife artist John Gerrard Keulemans for Lord Walter Rothschild’s book Extinct Birds, 1907 (public domain)

According to Jamaican resident Richard Hill (who assisted naturalist Philip H. Gosse in preparing his book The Birds of Jamaica – see Part 1 of my article), this species could be found in a very remote mountain district between Trelawney and St Anne’s, and also in the southern part of Jamaica’s Cockpit region. Interestingly, Hill did not consider it to be resident in Jamaica, because he claimed that it could only be found there during the winter period, and he assumed that it bred in Mexico instead.

 

Hill also deemed it to be one and the same as the military (aka great green) macaw A. militaris. Yet a red head is conspicuous only by its absence in that principally all-green species.

 

Military or great green macaws Ara militaris(public domain)

Unlike the Jamaican green and yellow macaw, the other one, the Dominican green and yellow macaw Ara atwoodi, believed to have died out around 1800, was indeed principally green and yellow. Today, it is known directly only from a short description penned by British colonial judge Thomas Atwood (after whom it was named) in his book The History of the Island of Dominica (1791). This is what he wrote:

 

The mackaw [sic] is of the parrot kind, but larger than the common parrot [a species of amazon parrot, much smaller than any macaw], and makes a more disagreeable, harsh noise. They are in great plenty, as are also parrots in this island; have both of them a delightful green and yellow plumage, with a scarlet-coloured fleshy substance from the ears to the root of the bill, of which colour is likewise the chief feathers of their wings and tails. They breed on the tops of the highest trees, where they feed on the berries in great numbers together; and are easily discovered by their loud chattering noise, which at a distance resembles human voices. The mackaws cannot be taught to articulate words; but the parrots of this country may, by taking pains with them when caught young. The flesh of both is eat[en], but being very fat, it wastes in roasting, and eats dry and insipid; for which reason, they are chiefly used to make soup of, which is accounted very nutritive.

 

Originally categorised as conspecific with the long-extinct Guadeloupe red macaw Ara guadeloupensis, after reading Atwood’s account Austin Hobart Clark reclassified it as a separate species in 1908.

 

Dominican green and yellow macaw Ara atwoodi, painted by Rafael Nascimento (© Rafael Nascimento)

Tantalisingly, moreover, there is a version of a famous painting that actually depicts a principally green and yellow macaw. The painting in question is the spectacular dodo portrait prepared in 1626 by Flemish artist Roelandt Savery, which I previously referred to in Part 1 of this article, in relation to the mysterious, predominantly all-red macaw depicted by Savery to the immediate left of the dodo and which readily recalls descriptions of the vanished Guadeloupe red macaw.

 

However, this painting also contains a second macaw, depicted to the right of the dodo. On first sight, it looks very like the familiar blue and yellow macaw (aka blue and gold macaw) Ara ararauna from the South American mainland. Yet a closer look reveals that its under-tail coverts are yellow, whereas those of A. ararauna are blue. Nor is that all.

 

Dodo with two mystery macaws in Roelandt Savery’s famous dodo painting, 1626 (public domain)

 As I noted in Part 1, Japan’s dodo expert Masauji Hachisuka owned a copy of Savery’s painting, which had been specially prepared for him by another famous but much later bird artist, John Gerrard Keulemans (1842-1912). It is a near-identical reproduction of Savery’s original, except that the colours of the macaws in it are more distinct (also, the dodo itself is more brown than grey).

 

Of particular interest, the plumage of the right-hand macaw is not blue and yellow but is instead green and yellow. What, I wonder, is the significance of this notable colour discrepancy between Savery’s original painting and Hachisuka’s version of it?

 

Dodo with two mystery macaws in Keulemans’s copy of Savery’s original painting, in the frontispiece of Hachisuka book (public domain)

Might it be that Hachisuka believed that down through the centuries the colours in Savery’s painting had faded, and therefore when Hachisuka commissioned his version of it he had attempted to re-create its original appearance? If so, this meant that unless constituting a freak colour variety of it, the right-hand macaw may not have been a specimen of Ara ararauna at all (as already implied anyway by virtue of its yellow under-tail coverts?), but was conceivably an entirely different, seemingly now-extinct green and yellow species instead.

 

More conservative, alternative options include the prospect that it was an entirely non-existent, fictitious bird, ‘invented’ by Savery purely as colourful support for the more prosaic plumage of the dodo. Or perhaps it had once existed but Savery’s depiction of it was based not upon any physical specimens but instead upon inaccurate verbal descriptions of a known species.

 

Blue and yellow macaw statuette (left), and the same statuette but now photoshopped into a green and yellow macaw (right) in order to simulate the right-hand macaw present in Savery’s dodo painting (© Dr Karl Shuker)

But what if Savery’s right-hand macaw had been real, had been depicted accurately by Savery, and before fading during subsequent centuries had genuinely been green and yellow, and not blue and yellow? Might it therefore be a representation of the Dominican green and yellow macaw, thereby indicating that at least one specimen of this now-lost form had been brought back to Holland prior to its species’ extinction?

 

Needless to say, this is all very speculative, but in view of the presence in the same painting of a second mysterious macaw that also just so happens to resemble accounts of another now-vanished West Indian macaw, it is nothing if not a most intriguing coincidence, to say the very least.

Bartholomeus van Bassen’s painting ‘Renaissance Interior With Banqueters’, 1618-1620 – please click to enlarge for viewing purposes (public domain)

No less interesting, moreover, is the equally mystifying macaw depicted in a second very noteworthy painting, this time prepared by Bartholomeus van Bassen (1590-1652), a celebrated Dutch architect and artist. Perhaps his most famous painting was ‘Renaissance Interior With Banqueters’ – an extremely detailed, sophisticated work of art that took from 1618 to 1620 to complete. Notwithstanding the architectural splendours and opulence that it depicts, the most fascinating aspect of it for me, however, is the parrot perching upon a chair in this painting’s bottom left-hand corner, because it does not appear to correspond with any species known to be living today.

As noted earlier, artists have often included much-modified or even entirely fictitious examples of birds in their works, simply to enhance their visual appeal. In this particular case, conversely, van Bassen’s painting is so meticulously executed and so accurate in all other details, including those of other creatures included in it, that it seems highly unlikely that he would have added a made-up bird.

Close-up of the mystery parrot in Bartholomeus van Bassen’s painting ‘Renaissance Interior With Banqueters’, 1618-1620 (public domain)

This case was brought to my attention some years ago by pets specialist and author David Alderton, who shares my view that the bird is unlikely to be an ornithological invention on van Bassen’s part. In an email to me, David stated:

What I would say is that the other animals in the scene are very clearly recognisable. Based on its position in the painting, and its perch on rare/expensive material, this tends to suggest that this parrot is significant. It would have been rare and exotic of course – representing a flamboyant display of wealth in a very clear visual way, and I can’t see it would have been a “fictional” bird.

So if we assume that the parrot represents a bona fide species, are there any that resemble it in some way?

Carolina parakeets, painted by John James Audubon (public domain)

On first glance, it recalls the Carolina parakeet Conuropsis carolinensis, a predominantly green-plumaged species with a bright yellow head marked with red. Once common in North America, it suffered greatly from habitat destruction, from being captured for the pet trade, and by being heavily persecuted due to its fondness for farmers’ crops, until the last confirmed specimen died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1918. Closer observation, however, reveals a number of marked differences between this now-demised species and van Bassen’s painted parrot.

Van Bassen’s parrot has golden-yellow underparts, whereas the Carolina parakeet’s were green; it also has yellow lateral tail feathers whereas all of the Carolina’s tail feathers were green; its wing primaries are red, not green like the Carolina’s; the red markings on its head are more extensive than the Carolina’s; and its relative proportions are very different from the Carolina’s. Van Bassen’s parrot has a much longer tail, a more powerful beak, and, judging scale from the chair upon which it is perched, a much larger overall body size. Indeed, in general appearance, the category of parrots that it most closely agrees with is the macaws.

Sun conure (© H. Zell/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Consequently, attempts to liken it to various small species of South American conure parakeet, such as the sun conure Aratinga solstitialis and the jenday conure A. jandaya, are not satisfactory either, unless of course the bird has been badly painted, with incorrect plumage and/or dimensions.

For all of the reasons already discussed with regard to the prospect of its being a fictitious species, however, this notion seems untenable.

Jenday conure (public domain)

However closely one studies images of a painting, even close-up ones of a specific section of it, there can be no substitute for viewing the painting itself directly. Happily, David Alderton was able to do precisely this, when ‘Renaissance Interior With Banqueters’ was on display several years ago at the National Gallery in London. As a result, he noticed various features of the parrot not readily visible even in close-up images of it. These include the presence of a white brow line above its eye, and, of particular interest, the extensive amount of bare white facial skin – a feature characterising macaws. Usually this area is limited to the sides of the face around the eyes, and at the beak’s base, but in van Bassen’s bird it also extends onto the top of the head.

After viewing the bird directly in the painting, David wondered whether it may be a Cuban red macaw Ara tricolor, whose last confirmed wild specimen was shot in 1864, since when this species has been deemed to be extinct (click here to access my coverage of this species in Part 1 of the present ShukerNature article). However, he conceded that the Cuban red macaw’s plumage exhibited certain noticeable differences from van Bassen’s. The most significant of these are the Cuban’s blue wing primaries, its red cheeks, neck, and underparts, its red and blue tail feathers, and the much less extensive area of white facial skin.

Cuban red macaw Ara tricolor, by Keulemans, from Rothschild’s Extinct Birds, 1907 (public domain)

Conversely, Thomas Atwood’s above-quoted description of the Dominican green and yellow macaw accords well with van Bassen’s portrayed parrot – the precise configuration of its head’s red colouration, its red wing feathers, and obviously its predominantly green and yellow plumage. True, Atwood did not mention any area of white on the Dominican macaws’ faces, but in some species of macaw this region turns red if the bird becomes excited, so perhaps he simply didn’t observe any macaws when in a quiescent state, only when they were squawking animatedly while feeding.

The only inconsistency in appearance between van Bassen’s bird and Atwood’s Dominican macaws is the mention of red tail feathers in his description, whereas the central tail feathers of van Bassen’s parrot are green and the lateral ones are yellow. Perhaps, however, there was a slight degree of variation in the Dominican macaw’s plumage colouration (sexual dimorphism, for instance?) that could account for this discrepancy? In all other respects, the match is much closer than for any other species, living or extinct.

A representation of the Dominican green and yellow macaw, created by A.C. Tatarinov by modifying Keulemans’s original painting of a blue and yellow macaw Ara ararauna, but not including the red tail and red wing feathers mentioned for the former species by Atwood (public domain)

So, as already suggested for Savery’s mystery right-hand macaw, could it be that the enigmatic parrot perched in this other highly-renowned Dutch artist’s early 17th-Century painting was a living Dominican green and yellow macaw, brought back to Europe as an eyecatching pet by (or for) a wealthy Dutch citizen?

During that period, all manner of rare and extremely exotic fauna were being transported here from every known corner of the globe, many of which had never before been seen in Europe. Consequently, a colourful macaw would be nothing special or unexpected on that score.

Keulemans’s original blue and yellow macaw Ara ararauna painting (public domain)

What wouldbe very special, and extremely unexpected, however, is if the macaw species in question subsequently became extinct but its exquisite appearance was preserved under the very nose of every art-lover in an extremely famous, spectacular painting, yet without its identity or zoological significance being recognised – until now?

If true, this is a great tragedy. After all, to paraphrase a certain classic comedy sketch from the golden age of British television, it may be an ex-parrot, but it had lovely plumage…

 

BEWILDERMENT IN BLUE AND YELLOW

 

The last two Caribbean mystery macaws to be documented here have separate taxonomic binomial names but only a shared common name – the Martinique macaw. This because these blue and yellow species may well have been one and the same species, yet there is no guarantee that even a single species existed. Bewildered? Then read on.

 

The Martinique macaw proper, as it were, is A. martinicus, which like so many other mystery macaws of the West Indies was formally named by Rothschild in his 1905 paper, although he originally assigned it not to the genus Ara but rather to the blue macaw genus Anodorhynchus(reclassifying it as an Ara species two years later in his book Extinct Birds). Rothschild based his description of it (as did Keulemans when preparing a full-colour painting of it for Extinct Birds) upon a brief account penned by French Jesuit priest Père Jacques Bouton during the 1630s. Bouton stated that the macaws of Martinique were two or three times as large as this island’s other parrots, with blue and saffron plumage and a good body, and could be taught to talk.

 

Martinique macaw Ara martinicus, painted by Keulemans (public domain)

At least two early paintings exist that may depict the Martinique macaw, one of which is none other than the previously-mentioned dodo painting by Savery, if we assume that the right-hand macaw really was blue and yellow, rather than green and yellow that through time has faded to blue and yellow. Of particular interest at the time was an announcement by Cuban scientist Mario Sánchez y Roig in early 1936 that he had uncovered a taxiderm specimen of this species, which had supposedly been collected in 1845 and mounted a year later. When fellow scientist J.T. Zimmer examined it just a short time after its discovery, however, it was swiftly exposed as a hoax, created by person(s) unknown.

It proved to be a composite specimen, in which the tail of an Old World Streptopeliadove had been combined with the head, body, and wings of a Chilean burrowing parrot Cyanoliseus patagonus byroni [now renamed bloxami]. Bearing in mind, however, that this parrot is small and predominantly green, it is difficult to comprehend how it could possibly have been intended or expected to impersonate with any prospect of success a large blue and yellow macaw.

Chilean burrowing parrot Cyanoliseus patagonus bloxami, painted by Edward Lear during the 1800s (public domain)

Tainting the taxonomic waters even further: in his 1907 book Extinct Birds, Rothschild described a second, ostensibly distinct but equally lost species of Caribbean blue and yellow macaw that he formally dubbed A. erythrura, and he also included a full-colour painting of it once again prepared specially by Keulemans.

Rothschild had based this species upon a description in Charles de Rochefort’s work Histoire Naturelle et Morale des Îles Antilles de l’Amerique (1658) of a type of macaw of unknown provenance within the West Indies, although both Martinique and Jamaica have been offered as possibilities by researchers.

Mysterious macaw Ara erythrura, aka satin macaw or red-tailed blue and yellow macaw, painted by Keulemans, (public domain)

According to de Rochefort, its head, back, and the upper side of its neck were satiny sky blue, its belly, the underside of its neck, and its wings’ underparts were yellow, and its tail was entirely red. Accordingly, it has since been dubbed variously as the red-tailed blue and yellow macaw, the satin macaw, the mysterious macaw, and, confusingly, the Martinique macaw.

American ornithologist James C. Greenway viewed this description with grave reservations, noting that de Rochefort had never even visited Jamaica, and suspecting instead that he had based it upon an earlier account written by Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre. Today, most ornithologists consider A. martinicus and A. erythrura as merely synonyms for the same single species, the Martinique macaw.

Psittacus alux maximus, a mystery blue macaw with yellow wing tips and red under-tail feathers, depicted in an early painting by an unknown artist (public domain)

Tantalisingly, however, in December 2012 Brazil-based mystery parrot enthusiast Rafael Nascimento drew my attention to a published but hitherto-obscure early painting entitled Psittacus alux maximus, and of currently-undetermined origin and painter. It depicts a predominantly blue macaw but with golden-yellow wing tips and red under-tail feathers that is somewhat reminiscent of A. erythrura except for lacking the latter’s yellow underside.

Rafael had discovered the painting online on Facebook’s ‘Sixth Extinction Forum’, which stated that it had been found in the central library of Paris’s National Museum of Natural History but offered no additional information concerning it or the macaw that it depicts. Consequently, Rafael contacted the museum for details, but did not receive any reply.

Mystery blue and yellow macaw painted by Eleazar Albin in mid-1700s, possibly Ara martinicus (public domain)

Also worthy of note is a painting produced during the mid-1700s by English naturalist and watercolour artist Eleazar Albin depicting an unidentified blue and yellow macaw said to have originated in Jamaica but which may be Ara martinicus.

Moreover, in 1740 Albin painted a striking red and blue macaw that again was supposedly of Jamaican provenance but is known only from this single illustration, and hence is referred to nowadays as Albin’s macaw.

Albin’s Macaw, painted by Eleazar Albin in 1740 (public domain)

 

KNOWN MACAWS OF UNKNOWN APPEARANCE

 

Irrespective of these contentious (albeit scientifically-named) macaw forms documented by me in Parts 1 and 2 of this ShukerNature article, moreover, there is also the intriguing possibility that there were others that unquestionably existed but died out before their physical appearance had been documented. Two such macaws are certainly known, being represented by physical evidence.

 

One of these is A. autocthones, the enigmatic macaw of St Croix (one of the American Virgin Islands), which has never been reported in the living state. It was long known only from a single leg bone obtained there, but is now also known from some skeletal material described in 2008 from Puerto Rico. The other is the currently-unnamed Montserrat macaw, presently known from just a single coracoid bone, and again of entirely unknown visual appearance.

 

IN SEARCH OF ORIGINS AND IDENTITIES

As noted earlier, because almost all of the ostensibly vanished Caribbean macaws documented by me in this 2-part article are known only from descriptions and paintings, not from any physical remains (the Cuban red macaw remaining the lone major exception to date), many ornithologists have discounted them as hypothetical species that may never have existed.

 

Instead, they suggest, these intangible birds may have been based solely upon misidentified or inaccurately-described known species (possibly even escapee pets belonging to certain mainland South American species) or hybrids of known species. It is certainly well-established that mainland South American species of parrot, including the large showy macaws, have frequently been imported into the West Indies from the mainland, and not only by Europeans and indigenous peoples during historic times but also by Palaeoamericans during prehistoric times.

 

A hybrid macaw with predominantly blue, green, and yellow plumage (public domain)

However, as seen here, descriptions of the lost, mystery macaws reported from various of the Caribbean islands do not correspond with known mainland species. So unless their chroniclers’ descriptions were invariably inaccurate, at least some such macaws may well have represented bona fide species distinct from mainland ones rather than merely escapee non-native pets belonging to various mainland species.

 

This discrepancy between descriptions of mystery macaws reported in the West Indies and known mainland species also provides problems when attempting to identify Caribbean macaws as native West Indian representatives of various mainland species (as James C. Greenway unconvincingly sought to do, for instance, with Jamaica’s green and yellow macaw in relation to the mainland’s military macaw A. militaris). Having said that, it may be that while still conspecific with their respective mainland counterparts the Caribbean mystery macaws had nonetheless diverged from them morphologically, perhaps even to the point of constituting valid island subspecies of the latter species. Yet if this were the case, i.e. that although conspecific with various mainland species the Caribbean macaws were native, island-indigenous representatives of them, they would surely be present in these islands’ subfossil fauna. Yet no such subfossils have ever been found on any of the main Caribbean islands.

 

Hybrid macaw with green and yellow plumage (© Justin Henry/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)

As for hybrids: macaws are famous for being able to yield an astonishing array and diversity of crossbred varieties, including many F1, F2, and even F3-generation hybrids – and of such dazzling polychromatic splendour, far exceeding in multicoloured resplendence any of the many pure-bred macaw species, that I have no doubt that in terms of plumage colour any of the Caribbean mystery macaws documented here could conceivably result from hybridisation between various known species.

 

However, for such crossbreeding to occur there would need to be progenitor species here to begin with, which in turn hearkens back to the problems highlighted above in relation to such a prospect.

 

Might a green and yellow strain of hybrid macaw, like this exquisite individual specifically photographed for me by Facebook friend Michael Andrew Leigh at Singapore’s famous Bird Gardens in April 2014, explain some of the earlier-documented historical reports of green and yellow macaws on Jamaica and Dominica? (© Michael Andrew Leigh)

How about mutations? Both Tony Pittman and Brazil-based mystery parrot enthusiast Rafael Nascimento have informed me that a very beautiful mutation of the blue and yellow macaw occurs naturally in Brazil, whose aviculturalists refer to it as ‘A. mosaica’, on account of the eyecatching blue-mosaic pattern decorating the golden-yellow portions of its plumage. This in turn provides a precedent for other mutations similarly occurring in the wild state and thereby possibly even explaining some of the Caribbean’s mysterious lost macaws, but all of this is pure speculation, with no physical evidence whatsoever to substantiate any of it.

 

The same applies to a fifth option that certain ornithologists have favoured – namely, that some Caribbean mystery macaws may actually have been tapiré artefacts, i.e. specimens whose normal, natural colouration has been artificially altered by Amerindians.

 

Might some Caribbean mystery macaws have been based upon nothing more than escaped pet specimens of known mainland species, such as South America’s familiar blue and yellow macaw? (copyright-free)

My own notion is that quite possibly a combination of all of these suggestions may collectively explain the Caribbean’s controversial diversity of lost macaws. In other words: some of these mystery macaws might indeed be based upon nothing more than escapee non-native (i.e. mainland-derived) pets and/or inaccurate descriptions; whereas certain others could have genuinely constituted native island-specific subspecies of known mainland species (a very common occurrence in evolution across the entire zoological spectrum) or even distinct species. Also, a few may have been exotic escapee/released hybrids originally bred from mainland species imported in certain Caribbean islands; and there might even have been occasional spontaneous mutations arising on these islands, originating again from imported mainland species; plus one or two cases of tapiré macaws may possibly having been produced by natives here to sell as high-priced curiosities to visitors.

 

Personally speaking, I consider the first two of these five options to be much more likely than the others, but without physical evidence to examine we can never know for certain what any of these fascinating but irretrievably lost West Indian macaws truly were.

 

A gorgeous multicoloured hybrid macaw (public domain)

 

Finally: for more mystery blue macaws documented on ShukerNature, not to mention turquoise, glaucous, purple, and even black forms, please click hereand here.

 

I wish to offer my sincere thanks to Rafael Nascimento for bringing several hitherto obscure mystery macaws to my attention and which I have thereby been able to document in this present 2-part ShukerNature article, and also for so generously permitting me to include some of his beautiful paintings of various mystery macaws in it. Thanks also go to David Alderton for kindly alerting me to van Bassen’s painting and its perplexing parrot, and to Michael Andrew Leigh for kindly photographing for me the green and yellow hybrid macaw at Singapore Bird Gardens (I wonder which specific type of hybrid macaw this bird is?).

 

A very handsome pair of blue and yellow macaws – representing one of the many macaw species that definitely do exist! (public domain)

 

This 2-part ShukerNature article is excerpted from a work-in-progress book of mine, Mystery Birds of the World – look out for it in due course.

 

And finally: does anyone happen to know which precise type of hybrid macaw the following beautiful individual is, which I encountered with its handler while visiting Mandalay Bay Hotel, on the Strip in Las Vegas, during a Stateside holiday in 2004? All suggestions would be greatly welcomed – thanks very much!

 

A beautiful hybrid macaw of currently-undetermined identity on display with its handler at Mandalay Bay Hotel, Las Vegas, which I visited in 2004 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

 

 

 

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MISSING MACAWS OF THE WEST INDIES – Part 1: RIDDLES IN RED AND YELLOW

by on Dec.30, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Jan Steen’s mystery red macaw (left); and Roelandt Savery’s mystery red macaw (right) (both public domain)

In two previous ShukerNature blog articles, I surveyed a number of mysterious, seemingly-vanished or even still-undiscovered types of macaw with very diverse histories but united morphologically by their eyecatching plumage whose hues were all drawn from the blue, indigo, and violet sections of the colour spectrum (please click here and hereto access these two articles). However, as will now be revealed in Part 1 of this major new 2-part ShukerNature article on missing macaws, also on file are some equally intriguing, mystifying examples of lost mystery macaws whose plumage exhibits vibrant hues drawn from the colour spectrum’s red, orange, and yellow sections, and which were all reputedly different from any of the familiar macaw species known today. All of these species, moreover, were reported from the West Indies archipelago (click here for a very much briefer, introductory coverage of them on ShukerNature several years ago), and many chroniclers claimed that macaws were once extremely common there, yet today none of its islands (other than Trinidad, but see my comment later here) are home to any macaws at all.

Although I have since read many much more detailed accounts of them elsewhere, when still only a child I first learned about the Caribbean’s lost macaws from Purnell’s Encyclopedia of Animal Life. This was an extremely comprehensive, authoritative six-volume wildlife encyclopaedia first published during the 1960s and edited by zoologists Drs Maurice Burton and Robert Burton – which included the following very succinct summary of most of them:

The red macaw of Jamaica has not been seen since 1765 and the green and yellow macaw of the same island became extinct in the early 19th century. The Guadeloupe red macaw became extinct a century before this [i.e. during the 1700s] and the Dominican green and yellow macaw in the late 18th Century. The Martinique macaw has not been heard of since 1640 and then there was one which has been called the mysterious macaw. No specimen of this is known but a description of it was published in 1658 – and that is all we know of it except that it lived on ‘one of the West Indian islands’.

The red macaw of Jamaica is A. gossei; the Jamaican green and yellow macaw is A. erythrocephala; the Guadeloupe red macaw is A. guadeloupensis; the Dominican green and yellow macaw is A. atwoodi; and the Martinique macaw is A. martinicus. As for the ‘mysterious macaw’, this is A. erythrura, and like the Martinique macaw it was principally blue and yellow in colour.

Cuban red macaw on Cuban postage stamps (public domain)

Two additional erstwhile Caribbean macaws not noted above by the Burtons are the Cuban red macaw A. tricolor and the scientifically-undescribed Hispaniolan red macaw (there is also the purple macaw of Guadeloupe Anodorhynchus purpurascens, already documented by me on ShukerNature here). I shall be examining the Caribbean’s green and yellow mystery macaws as well as its blue and yellow mystery macaws in Part 2 of this article, so let us concentrate now upon its red and yellow examples.

Incidentally, I wish to point out that the illustrations that I am presenting here and also in Part 2 include several beautiful paintings depicting these birds’ possible appearance in life that were commissioned by Lord Walter Rothschild for his magnificent tome Extinct Birds (1907).

In addition, please note that I am omitting from these two Parts’ discussion any coverage or consideration referring to the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, because only one mystery macaw has ever been documented from either of them. This is Seaforth’s macaw, described in 1822 from Trinidad by ornithologist J.A. Latham (but by no-one else), and almost certainly referable to a colour variety of the scarlet macaw Ara macao, a South American mainland species but which is native there too. Indeed, unlike all other Caribbean islands, but no doubt due to its very close proximity to South America, Trinidad is known to be inhabited by mainland macaw species (no less than four, in fact, including the above-noted scarlet macaw, plus the blue and yellow macaw A. ararauna, the red-shouldered macaw Diopsittaca nobilis, and the red-bellied macaw Orthopsittaca manilatus).

 

THE CUBAN RED MACAW

Depending upon which authority is consulted, as many as 15 endemic macaw species may have once inhabited various islands in the West Indies, but all of them are now extinct – always assuming, of course, that they ever existed to begin with. Indeed, most of them are nowadays commonly referred to in ornithological circles as hypothetical. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt whatsoever that at least one striking, predominantly red-plumed species of indigenous Caribbean macaw did indeed once exist.

This is because there are not only many eyewitness reports of it on file but also at least 19 preserved skins and taxiderm specimens in 15 major city museums around the world (including Liverpool, London, Berlin, Dresden, Paris, Stockholm, Washington DC, New York, Cambridge in Massachusetts, and Havana), plus subfossil remains. This species is, or was, the Cuban red macaw Ara tricolor, which, as its common name suggests, formerly inhabited the island of Cuba (plus the much smaller Isle of Pines, aka the Isla de la Juventud, nearby).

Quite small for a macaw, measuring a mere 20 in long, when adult this species was predominantly red and yellow in colour, but its wings were purplish-blue, and its tail was blue with pale blue upper tail coverts (hence its binomial name, tricolor – ‘three-coloured’, i.e. red, yellow, and blue). As in all macaws, the sexes were alike, but according to American zoologist Austin Hobart Clark, writing in an Auk paper of 1905 concerning Greater Antillean macaws, its juveniles were mostly green, rather than exhibiting the tricoloured plumage of the adults. No specimen or description of its egg is known.

Cuban red macaw, by John Gerrard Keulemans, from Lord Walter Rothschild’s book Extinct Birds, 1907 (public domain)

Judging from a plethora of good native eyewitness accounts, the Cuban macaw existed in small populations scattered virtually throughout its island home, nesting in holes in palm trees and feeding upon fruit and seeds plus flower buds and sprouts, but was most common in the extensively forested area of Cuba’s vast Zapata Swamp (Ciénaga de Zapata). There is contention as to how tasty (or otherwise) its flesh was, but it is certainly known that it was hunted by Cubans for its meat, and that its young were captured alive by them to be sold and bred as pets.

Although the Cuban red macaw was still said to be abundant in 1849, by the 1850s only one large flock still existed, which frequently came to feed at a small group of trees at Zarabanda in the Zapata Swamp, where quite a few of them were ‘collected’ (i.e. killed) by German-Cuban ornithologist Dr Juan C.C. Gundlach. This activity on his part and also by others, coupled with portions of its swampland habitat being lost to the creation of plantations, proved disastrous for the species, and in 1864 the last pair of Cuban red macaws known to have been killed in the wild were shot at San Francisco de la Vega.

This is not near the Zapata Swamp on mainland Cuba as frequently yet erroneously reported, but rather on the Isle of Pines, as correctly identified in 2013 by James W. Wiley and Guy M. Kirwan in their extensive Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club paper on extinct Caribbean macaws. They also correctly stated that it was a pair of macaws that was shot there, not a single one as is still so often mistakenly claimed by other writers.

Cuban red macaw, by François-Nicolas Martinet, 1765 (public domain)

Two single specimens were reputedly shot as late as 1867 by members of Spanish writer-priest Antonio Perpiña’s entourage while travelling through central Cuba, and Gundlach believed that the species existed in the Zapata Swamp until as late as the mid-1880s, but there is no physical evidence to support his claim. Perhaps the best-known captive specimen is one that lived at Paris’s famous Jardin des Plantes, its body being donated to Paris’s National Museum of Natural History in 1842 after its death on 6 October of that year. However, once again contradicting frequent but incorrect claims cited elsewhere, it was not the last captive specimen.

One that was exhibited at Amsterdam Zoo, for instance, survived until 1858, and a specimen living in the Knowsley Park aviaries of the 13th Earl of Derby died in March 1846. Both of these latter specimens were again donated to museums following their deaths, with the Knowsley Park individual being retained at Liverpool’s World Museum.

Habitat destruction, hunting them for their meat, and the capturing of young macaws to serve as pets have also been cited as causes for the extinction of the other lost Caribbean macaws documented here and in Part 2, and certainly they showed surprisingly little fear of their hunters, thereby making their killing a tragically easy task. Yet unlike the Cuban red macaw, there are no preserved skins or stuffed specimens of any of these latter forms. As will now be seen, however, there are for at least certain of them some noteworthy written accounts and intriguing illustrations testifying to their erstwhile reality.

 

RED MACAWS OF HISPANIOLA AND GUADELOUPE

Until the end of the 16thCentury, a scientifically-undescribed species of red macaw, one that was fairly similar in appearance to that of Cuba, may also have existed on the neighbouring island of Hispaniola, judging from a short description given in 1561 by Spanish historian and Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas within his authoritative three-volume Historia de Las Indias (History of the West Indies).

Differentiating by their respective size three different species of Hispaniolan parrot (seemingly a macaw, an amazon parrot, and a conure), he stated:

The largest…differ from those of the other islands in that they have over the bill or the forehead white, not green or red; those of this species that are in the island of Cuba have over the bill or the forehead red.

A single later report of a macaw on Hispaniola, on the authority of local resident M. Deshayes, was subsequently documented in 1779 by the eminent French naturalist Count Georges-Louis de Buffon within his multi-volume magnum opus Histoire Naturelle. In 1983, German macaw enthusiast Dieter Hoppe dubbed the Hispaniolan red macaw Ara tricolor haitiusin his book Aras, thereby classifying it as a subspecies of the Cuban macaw.

Possible appearance of the Hispaniolan red macaw, envisaged by Brazilian bird artist Rafael Nascimento (© Rafael Nascimento)

A third alleged Caribbean species that was apparently predominantly red-plumed, and which was formally named by Austin Hobart Clark in 1905, was the Guadeloupe red macaw A. guadeloupensis, also known as the lesser Antillean macaw. The first known mention of this species by a European derived from the voyages of none other than Christopher Columbus, who mentioned in his writings that when visiting Guadeloupe in 1493, his landing party observed “red parrots as large as chickens” there (or guacamayos, as referred to by the island’s native Caribs at that time). And according to Diego Álvarez Chanca, who joined Columbus on his second voyage (1493-94), they took two such macaws from the houses of Caribs encountered by them on Guadeloupe.

Furthermore, during the 1650s, French missionary Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre also referred to these very distinctive red macaws of Guadeloupe, which he termed the arras and documented as follows:

The Arras is a sort of Parrot bigger than all the others. This is proved because those of Guadaloupe [sic] are larger than all the other Parrots, both those from the Islands as well as from the Mainland; while this Arras is larger than these by one third. It has the head, the neck, the belly and the back of the colour of fire; its wings are a mixture of yellow, azure, and crimson feathers; while the tail is entirely red and a foot-and-a-half long.

A sepia line drawing of one such macaw in the company of various other Guadeloupe fauna appears in Du Tertre’s book Histoire Generale des Antilles (1667).

Guadeloupe red macaw, arrowed, in drawing from Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre’s book Histoire Generale des Antilles, 1667 (public domain)

In Die New Welt (1534), German humanist and historian Johann Huttich stated that he had recorded on Guadeloupe a red macaw “present in such numbers as grasshoppers are with us”, thereby indicating that it was very common back then. Nevertheless, this fiery-plumed macaw had seemingly vanished before the end of the 1700s, and has never been conclusively identified with any species alive today. Of great interest, however, is that it readily recalls a mysterious, predominantly red macaw featured prominently in one of the most famous depictions of another extinct bird, the Mauritius dodo Raphus cucullatus.

 

The depiction in question is a beautiful oil painting by Flemish artist Roelandt Savery (1576-1639), which was painted in Holland in 1626. It was once owned by George Edwards (1694-1773), a very talented English bird painter and author in his own right, and it is now housed at London’s Natural History Museum. This great work has become virtually the ‘standard’ notion of what the dodo looked like in life (though in more recent times, the veracity of its chubby form has been questioned), and has thus attracted great attention.

In stark contrast, almost entirely ignored from an ornithological standpoint are the two very striking, colourful parrots that Savery painted to the dodo’s immediate left and top-right in this same painting. Judging from their size and form, they are evidently macaws, but they do not resemble any known species. I’ll be dealing with Savery’s right-hand macaw in Part 2 of this article, as it is of potential relevance to two different Caribbean mystery macaws that I’ll be documenting there. However, his left-hand macaw may well be equally pertinent to one specific Caribbean mystery macaw discussed here in Part 1, because other than its pale facial skin and some yellow-gold and blue wing plumes, this latter Savery-depicted macaw is entirely red.

Dodo and two mystery macaws, in Roelandt Savery’s painting, 1626 (public domain)

If these two depicted macaws were meant to be real, it suggests that they may be lost (and possibly even undescribed) species, or unusual freak/hybrid individuals, but what happened to the specimens that they were based upon? Or could they have been ‘invented’ by Savery purely as colourful support for the more prosaic plumage of the dodo? Or perhaps they did exist but Savery’s depictions of them were based not upon physical specimens but instead upon inaccurate verbal descriptions of known species?

What I find so interesting about Savery’s depicted left-hand macaw is that it greatly recalls Du Tertre’s description of the arras or Guadeloupe red macaw – so much so, in fact, that I cannot help but wonder whether a specimen of this latter macaw was brought back to Holland and became the model for Savery’s red macaw.

Moreover, in his book The Dodo and Kindred Birds (1953), Japanese dodo expert Masauji Hachisuka included as the frontispiece a copy of Savery’s original painting specially prepared for him by another famous but much later bird artist, John Gerrard Keulemans (1842-1912), and stated in the accompanying caption that the two macaws depicted in it were indeed from the West Indies.

Dodo and two mystery macaws, in Keulemans’s copy of Savery’s painting, in the frontispiece of Hachisuka’s dodo book (public domain)

Certainly, transportation of Caribbean birds back to Europe in post-Columbus times frequently occurred. Hence it is by no means impossible that one or more Guadeloupe red macaws found their way to Europe at the time of Savery when this species was still extant in its West Indies homeland.

Having said that, while communicating in December 2010 with Jolyon Parrish, subsequently the author of The Dodo and the Solitaire: A Natural History (2012), I was informed by him that Savery sometimes altered the colours of his subjects to suit his specific needs for the painting in question, and that I should therefore be wary of placing too much emphasis upon the colours of the depicted dodo’s two macaw companions. Jolyon also stated that some ornithologists have sought to identify Savery’s depicted red specimen not as a Guadeloupe red macaw but rather as the much more familiar, and extant, red and blue (aka green-winged) macaw A. chloroptera from the South American mainland.

However, I find such an identification to be both surprising and implausible, because Savery’s mostly blue-lacking and entirely green-lacking red macaw bears scant resemblance to A. chloroptera, bearing in mind that the latter species has vivid, instantly visible, and very sizeable portions of both blue and green upon its wings.

Red and blue (aka green-winged) macaw Ara chloroptera(copyright-free)

In any case, Savery’s painting is not the only putative depiction of a Guadeloupe red macaw on record. A second, but hitherto much more obscure example was kindly brought to my attention in July 2013 by Brazil-based bird artist and crypto-ornithological researcher Rafael Nascimento.

The bird in question is a large red macaw, depicted sitting on a perch in the top-left corner of an oil painting from c.1665 by Dutch artist Jan Steen, entitled ‘The Way You Hear It, Is The Way You Sing It’. As I soon realised when viewing it, this bird closely resembles Savery’s depicted red mystery macaw (see the direct visual comparison of them that opens this present ShukerNature article).

Both of these birds have yellow and blue wing plumes (although the blue plumes are scarcely discernable in Steen’s bird), but otherwise their plumage is uniformly red. Were these two depictions based upon two different specimens of the same species, I wonder – and could that species have been the now-demised Guadeloupe red macaw? Or perhaps Steen’s depicted macaw was directly inspired by Savery’s? But who can now say with any degree of certainty, more than four centuries later?

Mystery red macaw in Jan Steen’s oil painting, ‘The Way You Hear It Is The Way You Sing It’, c.1665 (public domain)

Yet for there now to be two classical works of art depicting what is clearly one and the same variety of mystery red macaw, and one that corresponds closely with a verbal description of an ostensibly real but long-lost Caribbean species, certainly lends weight to the prospect that this latter macaw was indeed real, and not merely hypothetical, as some ornithologists have suggested due to no physical evidence for its former realty having been procured to date.

Also worthy of mention here is a colour plate that appeared in François-Nicolas Martinet’s Histoire Naturelle (1765), which depicts a supposed Guadeloupe red macaw. Thanks to its wings’ very striking blue and yellow plumes, which are much more prominent than those of the red mystery macaws depicted respectively by Savery and Steen, however, this bird bears much more of a resemblance to the scarlet macaw, and it may simply represent an imported scarlet macaw specimen.

A revised version of this plate that appeared in a contemporary work by Buffon makes it look even more like a scarlet macaw. Nevertheless, in both versions it lacks the blue tail feathers characteristic of the latter species but apparently lacking in the Guadeloupe red macaw, so this artwork remains something of an enigma.

Possible Guadeloupe red macaw depiction from François-Nicolas Martinet’s book, Histoire Naturelle, 1765 (left); version of Martinet’s plate depicting possible Guadeloupe red macaw, in contemporary tome by Buffon (right) (both images in the public domain)

 

THE JAMAICAN RED MACAW

The final principally red Caribbean macaw on record is A. gossei, the Jamaican red macaw (also known as the yellow-headed macaw). It was one of several extinct West Indies parrots formally described and named in 1905 by Lord Rothschild within a paper published by the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club. Rothschild named this particular macaw in honour of the famous Victorian naturalist Philip Henry Gosse, who in his book The Birds of Jamaica (1847) had documented an individual shot about 10 miles east of Lucea in c.1765 by a Mr Odell.

Gosse had obtained his information concerning this specimen from an account sent to him by a Dr Robinson (not Robertson, as often mistakenly given elsewhere) who had observed it as a preserved taxiderm exhibit (but lacking its legs). Sadly, this unique specimen, the only one known of the Jamaican red macaw, is now lost, but Robinson’s description of it is preserved in Gosse’s book, so here it is:

Basal half of upper mandible black, apical half ash-coloured; lower mandible black, tip only ash-coloured. Forehead, crown, and back of neck bright yellow. Sides of face around eyes, anterior and lateral part of neck, and back, a fine scarlet. Wing coverts and breast, deep sanguine red. Winglet and primaries, an elegant light blue. The legs and feet were said to have been black; the tail red and yellow intermixed.

Jamaican red macaw Ara gossei, by Joseph Smit, from Rothschild’s book Extinct Birds, 1907 (public domain)

Of great interest, moreover, is that in 2003, researchers C.T. Fisher and F.E. Warr, writing on the subject of avian-related library and manuscript resources in a paper published by the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club, revealed that a hitherto-overlooked full-colour painting of a mysterious Jamaican macaw largely fitting Robinson’s description as documented by Gosse had lately been discovered in a work containing many wildlife paintings published in 1765 – namely, Lieutenant L.J. Robins’s The Natural History of Jamaica. The copy of this work in which the painting had been spotted was owned by the Earl of Derby.

Other researchers have since speculated that it was more likely to have been a Cuban red macaw that had been imported into Jamaica. (Moreover, parrot expert Tony Pittman has mentioned to me that A. gossei as a whole, not just this one specimen, might well have been based entirely upon examples of A. tricolor imported or traded from Cuba and therefore never existed as a valid species in its own right.)

Yet as can be seen here by comparing my article’s illustrations of the Cuban red macaw with the Robins-derived painting, the Jamaican red macaw does not correspond precisely with the Cuban red macaw. In particular, its golden-yellow underparts differ markedly from the much darker underparts of the Cuban red macaw, as does its bright red back in comparison with the Cuban’s very dark back.

Possible Jamaican red macaw painting in Lieutenant L.J. Robins’s book The Natural History of Jamaica, 1765 (public domain)

Evidencing that mainland South American macaws (or, at the very least, known macaw species from Trinidad) have indeed been imported into Jamaica, within an Archives of Natural History paper published in October 2010 ornithological researcher S.T. Turvey documented a previously-unconsidered watercolour painting of a probable scarlet macaw A. macao that had lived on Jamaica, where it had been depicted in 1765 by John Lindsay.

However, whereas this latter specimen certainly does resemble the scarlet macaw, it does not recall either the macaw in the Robins painting or the macaw of Robinson’s verbal description, indicating once again that A. gossei was a distinct, valid Jamaican endemic. Indeed, concluding their coverage of A. gossei within their authoritative tome Extinct Birds (2012), Julian P. Hume and Michael Walters opined:

Thus there seems to be reasonable evidence that at least one other endemic red macaw, along with Ara tricolor of Cuba, once occurred in the West Indies. Whether it justified specific status is now impossible to ascertain.

Scarlet macaw Ara macao, showing its characteristic blue tail plumes (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Finally: in 1967, within the second revised edition of his classic volume Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World, the esteemed American ornithologist James C. Greenway opined that perhaps the scarlet macaw, the Cuban red macaw, and the mysterious red macaws reported from Hispaniola, Guadeloupe, and Jamaica collectively constituted a species complex, or superspecies as he called it. However, with no specimens of the last three macaws to examine, this must remain just an opinion, albeit a most intriguing one.

 

Next time, in Part 2 of this ShukerNature article, I shall be examining reports and illustrations of some lost Caribbean macaws that reputedly sported green and yellow or blue and yellow plumage, as well as surveying the possible taxonomic status of a most interesting macaw-like mystery parrot featured in a very famous painting by the celebrated 17th-Century Dutch architect and painter Bartholomeus van Bassen – so don’t miss it!

Extinct Birds author Lord Walter Rothschild aboard his famous zebra-drawn carriage (public domain)

 

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MISSING MACAWS OF THE WEST INDIES – Part 1: RIDDLES IN RED AND YELLOW

by on Dec.30, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Jan Steen’s mystery red macaw (left); and Roelandt Savery’s mystery red macaw (right) (both public domain)

In two previous ShukerNature blog articles, I surveyed a number of mysterious, seemingly-vanished or even still-undiscovered types of macaw with very diverse histories but united morphologically by their eyecatching plumage whose hues were all drawn from the blue, indigo, and violet sections of the colour spectrum (please click here and hereto access these two articles). However, as will now be revealed in Part 1 of this major new 2-part ShukerNature article on missing macaws, also on file are some equally intriguing, mystifying examples of lost mystery macaws whose plumage exhibits vibrant hues drawn from the colour spectrum’s red, orange, and yellow sections, and which were all reputedly different from any of the familiar macaw species known today. All of these species, moreover, were reported from the West Indies archipelago (click here for a very much briefer, introductory coverage of them on ShukerNature several years ago), and many chroniclers claimed that macaws were once extremely common there, yet today none of its islands (other than Trinidad, but see my comment later here) are home to any macaws at all.

Although I have since read many much more detailed accounts of them elsewhere, when still only a child I first learned about the Caribbean’s lost macaws from Purnell’s Encyclopedia of Animal Life. This was an extremely comprehensive, authoritative six-volume wildlife encyclopaedia first published during the 1960s and edited by zoologists Drs Maurice Burton and Robert Burton – which included the following very succinct summary of most of them:

The red macaw of Jamaica has not been seen since 1765 and the green and yellow macaw of the same island became extinct in the early 19th century. The Guadeloupe red macaw became extinct a century before this [i.e. during the 1700s] and the Dominican green and yellow macaw in the late 18th Century. The Martinique macaw has not been heard of since 1640 and then there was one which has been called the mysterious macaw. No specimen of this is known but a description of it was published in 1658 – and that is all we know of it except that it lived on ‘one of the West Indian islands’.

The red macaw of Jamaica is A. gossei; the Jamaican green and yellow macaw is A. erythrocephala; the Guadeloupe red macaw is A. guadeloupensis; the Dominican green and yellow macaw is A. atwoodi; and the Martinique macaw is A. martinicus. As for the ‘mysterious macaw’, this is A. erythrura, and like the Martinique macaw it was principally blue and yellow in colour.

Cuban red macaw on Cuban postage stamps (public domain)

Two additional erstwhile Caribbean macaws not noted above by the Burtons are the Cuban red macaw A. tricolor and the scientifically-undescribed Hispaniolan red macaw (there is also the purple macaw of Guadeloupe Anodorhynchus purpurascens, already documented by me on ShukerNature here). I shall be examining the Caribbean’s green and yellow mystery macaws as well as its blue and yellow mystery macaws in Part 2 of this article, so let us concentrate now upon its red and yellow examples.

Incidentally, I wish to point out that the illustrations that I am presenting here and also in Part 2 include several beautiful paintings depicting these birds’ possible appearance in life that were commissioned by Lord Walter Rothschild for his magnificent tome Extinct Birds (1907).

In addition, please note that I am omitting from these two Parts’ discussion any coverage or consideration referring to the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, because only one mystery macaw has ever been documented from either of them. This is Seaforth’s macaw, described in 1822 from Trinidad by ornithologist J.A. Latham (but by no-one else), and almost certainly referable to a colour variety of the scarlet macaw Ara macao, a South American mainland species but which is native there too. Indeed, unlike all other Caribbean islands, but no doubt due to its very close proximity to South America, Trinidad is known to be inhabited by mainland macaw species (no less than four, in fact, including the above-noted scarlet macaw, plus the blue and yellow macaw A. ararauna, the red-shouldered macaw Diopsittaca nobilis, and the red-bellied macaw Orthopsittaca manilatus).

 

THE CUBAN RED MACAW

Depending upon which authority is consulted, as many as 15 endemic macaw species may have once inhabited various islands in the West Indies, but all of them are now extinct – always assuming, of course, that they ever existed to begin with. Indeed, most of them are nowadays commonly referred to in ornithological circles as hypothetical. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt whatsoever that at least one striking, predominantly red-plumed species of indigenous Caribbean macaw did indeed once exist.

This is because there are not only many eyewitness reports of it on file but also at least 19 preserved skins and taxiderm specimens in 15 major city museums around the world (including Liverpool, London, Berlin, Dresden, Paris, Stockholm, Washington DC, New York, Cambridge in Massachusetts, and Havana), plus subfossil remains. This species is, or was, the Cuban red macaw Ara tricolor, which, as its common name suggests, formerly inhabited the island of Cuba (plus the much smaller Isle of Pines, aka the Isla de la Juventud, nearby).

Quite small for a macaw, measuring a mere 20 in long, when adult this species was predominantly red and yellow in colour, but its wings were purplish-blue, and its tail was blue with pale blue upper tail coverts (hence its binomial name, tricolor – ‘three-coloured’, i.e. red, yellow, and blue). As in all macaws, the sexes were alike, but according to American zoologist Austin Hobart Clark, writing in an Auk paper of 1905 concerning Greater Antillean macaws, its juveniles were mostly green, rather than exhibiting the tricoloured plumage of the adults. No specimen or description of its egg is known.

Cuban red macaw, by John Gerrard Keulemans, from Lord Walter Rothschild’s book Extinct Birds, 1907 (public domain)

Judging from a plethora of good native eyewitness accounts, the Cuban macaw existed in small populations scattered virtually throughout its island home, nesting in holes in palm trees and feeding upon fruit and seeds plus flower buds and sprouts, but was most common in the extensively forested area of Cuba’s vast Zapata Swamp (Ciénaga de Zapata). There is contention as to how tasty (or otherwise) its flesh was, but it is certainly known that it was hunted by Cubans for its meat, and that its young were captured alive by them to be sold and bred as pets.

Although the Cuban red macaw was still said to be abundant in 1849, by the 1850s only one large flock still existed, which frequently came to feed at a small group of trees at Zarabanda in the Zapata Swamp, where quite a few of them were ‘collected’ (i.e. killed) by German-Cuban ornithologist Dr Juan C.C. Gundlach. This activity on his part and also by others, coupled with portions of its swampland habitat being lost to the creation of plantations, proved disastrous for the species, and in 1864 the last pair of Cuban red macaws known to have been killed in the wild were shot at San Francisco de la Vega.

This is not near the Zapata Swamp on mainland Cuba as frequently yet erroneously reported, but rather on the Isle of Pines, as correctly identified in 2013 by James W. Wiley and Guy M. Kirwan in their extensive Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club paper on extinct Caribbean macaws. They also correctly stated that it was a pair of macaws that was shot there, not a single one as is still so often mistakenly claimed by other writers.

Cuban red macaw, by François-Nicolas Martinet, 1765 (public domain)

Two single specimens were reputedly shot as late as 1867 by members of Spanish writer-priest Antonio Perpiña’s entourage while travelling through central Cuba, and Gundlach believed that the species existed in the Zapata Swamp until as late as the mid-1880s, but there is no physical evidence to support his claim. Perhaps the best-known captive specimen is one that lived at Paris’s famous Jardin des Plantes, its body being donated to Paris’s National Museum of Natural History in 1842 after its death on 6 October of that year. However, once again contradicting frequent but incorrect claims cited elsewhere, it was not the last captive specimen.

One that was exhibited at Amsterdam Zoo, for instance, survived until 1858, and a specimen living in the Knowsley Park aviaries of the 13th Earl of Derby died in March 1846. Both of these latter specimens were again donated to museums following their deaths, with the Knowsley Park individual being retained at Liverpool’s World Museum.

Habitat destruction, hunting them for their meat, and the capturing of young macaws to serve as pets have also been cited as causes for the extinction of the other lost Caribbean macaws documented here and in Part 2, and certainly they showed surprisingly little fear of their hunters, thereby making their killing a tragically easy task. Yet unlike the Cuban red macaw, there are no preserved skins or stuffed specimens of any of these latter forms. As will now be seen, however, there are for at least certain of them some noteworthy written accounts and intriguing illustrations testifying to their erstwhile reality.

 

RED MACAWS OF HISPANIOLA AND GUADELOUPE

Until the end of the 16thCentury, a scientifically-undescribed species of red macaw, one that was fairly similar in appearance to that of Cuba, may also have existed on the neighbouring island of Hispaniola, judging from a short description given in 1561 by Spanish historian and Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas within his authoritative three-volume Historia de Las Indias (History of the West Indies).

Differentiating by their respective size three different species of Hispaniolan parrot (seemingly a macaw, an amazon parrot, and a conure), he stated:

The largest…differ from those of the other islands in that they have over the bill or the forehead white, not green or red; those of this species that are in the island of Cuba have over the bill or the forehead red.

A single later report of a macaw on Hispaniola, on the authority of local resident M. Deshayes, was subsequently documented in 1779 by the eminent French naturalist Count Georges-Louis de Buffon within his multi-volume magnum opus Histoire Naturelle. In 1983, German macaw enthusiast Dieter Hoppe dubbed the Hispaniolan red macaw Ara tricolor haitiusin his book Aras, thereby classifying it as a subspecies of the Cuban macaw.

Possible appearance of the Hispaniolan red macaw, envisaged by Brazilian bird artist Rafael Nascimento (© Rafael Nascimento)

A third alleged Caribbean species that was apparently predominantly red-plumed, and which was formally named by Austin Hobart Clark in 1905, was the Guadeloupe red macaw A. guadeloupensis, also known as the lesser Antillean macaw. The first known mention of this species by a European derived from the voyages of none other than Christopher Columbus, who mentioned in his writings that when visiting Guadeloupe in 1493, his landing party observed “red parrots as large as chickens” there (or guacamayos, as referred to by the island’s native Caribs at that time). And according to Diego Álvarez Chanca, who joined Columbus on his second voyage (1493-94), they took two such macaws from the houses of Caribs encountered by them on Guadeloupe.

Furthermore, during the 1650s, French missionary Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre also referred to these very distinctive red macaws of Guadeloupe, which he termed the arras and documented as follows:

The Arras is a sort of Parrot bigger than all the others. This is proved because those of Guadaloupe [sic] are larger than all the other Parrots, both those from the Islands as well as from the Mainland; while this Arras is larger than these by one third. It has the head, the neck, the belly and the back of the colour of fire; its wings are a mixture of yellow, azure, and crimson feathers; while the tail is entirely red and a foot-and-a-half long.

A sepia line drawing of one such macaw in the company of various other Guadeloupe fauna appears in Du Tertre’s book Histoire Generale des Antilles (1667).

Guadeloupe red macaw, arrowed, in drawing from Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre’s book Histoire Generale des Antilles, 1667 (public domain)

In Die New Welt (1534), German humanist and historian Johann Huttich stated that he had recorded on Guadeloupe a red macaw “present in such numbers as grasshoppers are with us”, thereby indicating that it was very common back then. Nevertheless, this fiery-plumed macaw had seemingly vanished before the end of the 1700s, and has never been conclusively identified with any species alive today. Of great interest, however, is that it readily recalls a mysterious, predominantly red macaw featured prominently in one of the most famous depictions of another extinct bird, the Mauritius dodo Raphus cucullatus.

 

The depiction in question is a beautiful oil painting by Flemish artist Roelandt Savery (1576-1639), which was painted in Holland in 1626. It was once owned by George Edwards (1694-1773), a very talented English bird painter and author in his own right, and it is now housed at London’s Natural History Museum. This great work has become virtually the ‘standard’ notion of what the dodo looked like in life (though in more recent times, the veracity of its chubby form has been questioned), and has thus attracted great attention.

In stark contrast, almost entirely ignored from an ornithological standpoint are the two very striking, colourful parrots that Savery painted to the dodo’s immediate left and top-right in this same painting. Judging from their size and form, they are evidently macaws, but they do not resemble any known species. I’ll be dealing with Savery’s right-hand macaw in Part 2 of this article, as it is of potential relevance to two different Caribbean mystery macaws that I’ll be documenting there. However, his left-hand macaw may well be equally pertinent to one specific Caribbean mystery macaw discussed here in Part 1, because other than its pale facial skin and some yellow-gold and blue wing plumes, this latter Savery-depicted macaw is entirely red.

Dodo and two mystery macaws, in Roelandt Savery’s painting, 1626 (public domain)

If these two depicted macaws were meant to be real, it suggests that they may be lost (and possibly even undescribed) species, or unusual freak/hybrid individuals, but what happened to the specimens that they were based upon? Or could they have been ‘invented’ by Savery purely as colourful support for the more prosaic plumage of the dodo? Or perhaps they did exist but Savery’s depictions of them were based not upon physical specimens but instead upon inaccurate verbal descriptions of known species?

What I find so interesting about Savery’s depicted left-hand macaw is that it greatly recalls Du Tertre’s description of the arras or Guadeloupe red macaw – so much so, in fact, that I cannot help but wonder whether a specimen of this latter macaw was brought back to Holland and became the model for Savery’s red macaw.

Moreover, in his book The Dodo and Kindred Birds (1953), Japanese dodo expert Masauji Hachisuka included as the frontispiece a copy of Savery’s original painting specially prepared for him by another famous but much later bird artist, John Gerrard Keulemans (1842-1912), and stated in the accompanying caption that the two macaws depicted in it were indeed from the West Indies.

Dodo and two mystery macaws, in Keulemans’s copy of Savery’s painting, in the frontispiece of Hachisuka’s dodo book (public domain)

Certainly, transportation of Caribbean birds back to Europe in post-Columbus times frequently occurred. Hence it is by no means impossible that one or more Guadeloupe red macaws found their way to Europe at the time of Savery when this species was still extant in its West Indies homeland.

Having said that, while communicating in December 2010 with Jolyon Parrish, subsequently the author of The Dodo and the Solitaire: A Natural History (2012), I was informed by him that Savery sometimes altered the colours of his subjects to suit his specific needs for the painting in question, and that I should therefore be wary of placing too much emphasis upon the colours of the depicted dodo’s two macaw companions. Jolyon also stated that some ornithologists have sought to identify Savery’s depicted red specimen not as a Guadeloupe red macaw but rather as the much more familiar, and extant, red and blue (aka green-winged) macaw A. chloroptera from the South American mainland.

However, I find such an identification to be both surprising and implausible, because Savery’s mostly blue-lacking and entirely green-lacking red macaw bears scant resemblance to A. chloroptera, bearing in mind that the latter species has vivid, instantly visible, and very sizeable portions of both blue and green upon its wings.

Red and blue (aka green-winged) macaw Ara chloroptera(copyright-free)

In any case, Savery’s painting is not the only putative depiction of a Guadeloupe red macaw on record. A second, but hitherto much more obscure example was kindly brought to my attention in July 2013 by Brazil-based bird artist and crypto-ornithological researcher Rafael Nascimento.

The bird in question is a large red macaw, depicted sitting on a perch in the top-left corner of an oil painting from c.1665 by Dutch artist Jan Steen, entitled ‘The Way You Hear It, Is The Way You Sing It’. As I soon realised when viewing it, this bird closely resembles Savery’s depicted red mystery macaw (see the direct visual comparison of them that opens this present ShukerNature article).

Both of these birds have yellow and blue wing plumes (although the blue plumes are scarcely discernable in Steen’s bird), but otherwise their plumage is uniformly red. Were these two depictions based upon two different specimens of the same species, I wonder – and could that species have been the now-demised Guadeloupe red macaw? Or perhaps Steen’s depicted macaw was directly inspired by Savery’s? But who can now say with any degree of certainty, more than four centuries later?

Mystery red macaw in Jan Steen’s oil painting, ‘The Way You Hear It Is The Way You Sing It’, c.1665 (public domain)

Yet for there now to be two classical works of art depicting what is clearly one and the same variety of mystery red macaw, and one that corresponds closely with a verbal description of an ostensibly real but long-lost Caribbean species, certainly lends weight to the prospect that this latter macaw was indeed real, and not merely hypothetical, as some ornithologists have suggested due to no physical evidence for its former realty having been procured to date.

Also worthy of mention here is a colour plate that appeared in François-Nicolas Martinet’s Histoire Naturelle (1765), which depicts a supposed Guadeloupe red macaw. Thanks to its wings’ very striking blue and yellow plumes, which are much more prominent than those of the red mystery macaws depicted respectively by Savery and Steen, however, this bird bears much more of a resemblance to the scarlet macaw, and it may simply represent an imported scarlet macaw specimen.

A revised version of this plate that appeared in a contemporary work by Buffon makes it look even more like a scarlet macaw. Nevertheless, in both versions it lacks the blue tail feathers characteristic of the latter species but apparently lacking in the Guadeloupe red macaw, so this artwork remains something of an enigma.

Possible Guadeloupe red macaw depiction from François-Nicolas Martinet’s book, Histoire Naturelle, 1765 (left); version of Martinet’s plate depicting possible Guadeloupe red macaw, in contemporary tome by Buffon (right) (both images in the public domain)

 

THE JAMAICAN RED MACAW

The final principally red Caribbean macaw on record is A. gossei, the Jamaican red macaw (also known as the yellow-headed macaw). It was one of several extinct West Indies parrots formally described and named in 1905 by Lord Rothschild within a paper published by the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club. Rothschild named this particular macaw in honour of the famous Victorian naturalist Philip Henry Gosse, who in his book The Birds of Jamaica (1847) had documented an individual shot about 10 miles east of Lucea in c.1765 by a Mr Odell.

Gosse had obtained his information concerning this specimen from an account sent to him by a Dr Robinson (not Robertson, as often mistakenly given elsewhere) who had observed it as a preserved taxiderm exhibit (but lacking its legs). Sadly, this unique specimen, the only one known of the Jamaican red macaw, is now lost, but Robinson’s description of it is preserved in Gosse’s book, so here it is:

Basal half of upper mandible black, apical half ash-coloured; lower mandible black, tip only ash-coloured. Forehead, crown, and back of neck bright yellow. Sides of face around eyes, anterior and lateral part of neck, and back, a fine scarlet. Wing coverts and breast, deep sanguine red. Winglet and primaries, an elegant light blue. The legs and feet were said to have been black; the tail red and yellow intermixed.

Jamaican red macaw Ara gossei, by Joseph Smit, from Rothschild’s book Extinct Birds, 1907 (public domain)

Of great interest, moreover, is that in 2003, researchers C.T. Fisher and F.E. Warr, writing on the subject of avian-related library and manuscript resources in a paper published by the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club, revealed that a hitherto-overlooked full-colour painting of a mysterious Jamaican macaw largely fitting Robinson’s description as documented by Gosse had lately been discovered in a work containing many wildlife paintings published in 1765 – namely, Lieutenant L.J. Robins’s The Natural History of Jamaica. The copy of this work in which the painting had been spotted was owned by the Earl of Derby.

Other researchers have since speculated that it was more likely to have been a Cuban red macaw that had been imported into Jamaica. (Moreover, parrot expert Tony Pittman has mentioned to me that A. gossei as a whole, not just this one specimen, might well have been based entirely upon examples of A. tricolor imported or traded from Cuba and therefore never existed as a valid species in its own right.)

Yet as can be seen here by comparing my article’s illustrations of the Cuban red macaw with the Robins-derived painting, the Jamaican red macaw does not correspond precisely with the Cuban red macaw. In particular, its golden-yellow underparts differ markedly from the much darker underparts of the Cuban red macaw, as does its bright red back in comparison with the Cuban’s very dark back.

Possible Jamaican red macaw painting in Lieutenant L.J. Robins’s book The Natural History of Jamaica, 1765 (public domain)

Evidencing that mainland South American macaws (or, at the very least, known macaw species from Trinidad) have indeed been imported into Jamaica, within an Archives of Natural History paper published in October 2010 ornithological researcher S.T. Turvey documented a previously-unconsidered watercolour painting of a probable scarlet macaw A. macao that had lived on Jamaica, where it had been depicted in 1765 by John Lindsay.

However, whereas this latter specimen certainly does resemble the scarlet macaw, it does not recall either the macaw in the Robins painting or the macaw of Robinson’s verbal description, indicating once again that A. gossei was a distinct, valid Jamaican endemic. Indeed, concluding their coverage of A. gossei within their authoritative tome Extinct Birds (2012), Julian P. Hume and Michael Walters opined:

Thus there seems to be reasonable evidence that at least one other endemic red macaw, along with Ara tricolor of Cuba, once occurred in the West Indies. Whether it justified specific status is now impossible to ascertain.

Scarlet macaw Ara macao, showing its characteristic blue tail plumes (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Finally: in 1967, within the second revised edition of his classic volume Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World, the esteemed American ornithologist James C. Greenway opined that perhaps the scarlet macaw, the Cuban red macaw, and the mysterious red macaws reported from Hispaniola, Guadeloupe, and Jamaica collectively constituted a species complex, or superspecies as he called it. However, with no specimens of the last three macaws to examine, this must remain just an opinion, albeit a most intriguing one.

 

Next time, in Part 2 of this ShukerNature article, I shall be examining reports and illustrations of some lost Caribbean macaws that reputedly sported green and yellow or blue and yellow plumage, as well as surveying the possible taxonomic status of a most interesting macaw-like mystery parrot featured in a very famous painting by the celebrated 17th-Century Dutch architect and painter Bartholomeus van Bassen – so don’t miss it!

Extinct Birds author Lord Walter Rothschild aboard his famous zebra-drawn carriage (public domain)

 

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STUPENDOUS SEA TURTLES – MORE THAN JUST A MARITIME MYTH?

by on Dec.28, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Skeleton of Archelon(public domain)

Do the vast oceans of our planet conceal great sea turtles far larger than any that are officially known to exist there?

The largest species of sea turtle ever known to have existed was Archelon ischyros, which lived some 70 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous Period in the seas around what is now North America. The largest specimen on record measured over 13 ft long and roughly 16 ft across from flipper to flipper.

Leathery turtle on beach (public domain)

In comparison, the largest species known to exist today, the leathery (leatherback) turtle Dermochelys coriacea, attains a maximum recorded length of a ‘mere’ 9.8 ft, but averages only 6-7 ft.

However, reports of substantially larger sea turtles are also on file – veritable behemoths, in fact, which if their existence were ever scientifically confirmed would rival even the mighty Archelonitself.

 

FATHER-OF-ALL-THE-TURTLES

In his classic if highly controversial tome In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents (1968), Belgian cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans postulated the existence of a number of hypothetical creatures to explain hundreds of reports of sea serpents from around the globe. One of them was what he termed the ‘Father-of-All-the-Turtles’ – a name originally given by native Sumatran fishermen to a traditional sea deity in which they vehemently believe, and which allegedly assumes the guise of a gargantuan marine turtle.

Father-of-All-the-Turtles (© Tim Morris)

Alternative sea serpent classification systems subsequently devised by other cryptozoologists have also included this category, and there are several notable eyewitness accounts on file indicating that a turtle of truly immense size may indeed have been encountered in various far-flung maritime localities.

 

GIANT TURTLES IN ANTIQUITY AND MEDIEVAL TIMES

Perhaps the earliest report dates back as far as the 3rd Century AD. This was when Roman scholar Claudius Aelianus (popularly known merely as Aelian), writing in his 17-volume treatise De Natura Animalium, referred to the existence in the Indian Ocean of turtles so colossal in size that their huge shells – said to be as much as 23.5 ft in circumference – were sometimes used by the native people as roofing material! Modern-day sceptics have claimed that if such shells truly existed, they must have been fossils. And it is certainly true that portions of fossilised shells from the land-living prehistoric giant tortoise Megalochelys [=Colossochelys] atlas have been unearthed in the rich deposits of Nepal’s Siwalik Hills. Yet fossil shells would surely have been too brittle and much too heavy for roofing purposes.

Megalochelys [=Colossochelys] atlasreconstructions (© Vjdchauhan/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Writing in his own magnum opus, Geography, which he completed in 1154 AD, Muhammad al-Idrisi, a notable Moroccan Islamic traveller, cartographer, and archaeologist, referred to comparably immense turtles, up to 20 cubits (33 ft) long, living in the Sea of Herkend, off the west coast of Sri Lanka, whose females contained up to a thousand eggs. Although he never personally visited Asia, he collated considerable amounts of detailed information from Islamic explorers and merchants, and recorded on Islamic maps. Having said that, however, turtles generally lay no more than a hundred eggs at a time, not a thousand, so perhaps some such reports were exaggerated (which may also account for the huge size claimed for these Herkend turtles?).

 

CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS AND ANNIE L. HALL

Possibly the most famous eyewitness of a reputed mega-chelonian was none other than New World discoverer Christopher Columbus. In early September 1494, along with several of his crew, he witnessed an extraordinary creature likened to a whale-sized turtle with a visible pair of flippers and a long tail that kept its head above the water surface while swimming by as his vessels were sailing east along the southern coast of what is now the Dominican Republic, occupying the right-hand half of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

Posthumous painting allegedly depicting Christopher Columbus, by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519; no confirmed paintings of Columbus are currently known (public domain)

On 30 March 1883, while aboard the schooner ‘Annie L. Hall’ in the North Atlantic’s Grand Banks, Captain Augustus G. Hall and his crew spied what they initially took to be an upturned vessel but which, when they approached to within 25 ft of it, proved to be an enormous turtle. By comparing its dimensions with those of their vessel, they were able to estimate its total length as being at least 40 ft, its width as 29.5 ft, and its height from its carapace’s apex to its plastron or under-shell’s most ventral point as 29.5 ft. Even its flippers were immense – each one approximately 20 ft long. Not surprisingly, the captain deemed it inadvisable to attempt capturing this shell-bearing leviathan!

 

TURTLES OF A (VERY) DIFFERENT COLOUR!

During the 1950s, two ultra-giant turtles were reported that were highly distinctive due not only to their great size but also to their very unusual colouration. One of these was an alleged 14-ft-long yellow turtle witnessed on 8 March 1955 by L. Alejandro Velasco while stranded on a raft off Colombia’s Gulf of Urabá. Its claimed length is greater than that of the largest leathery turtle on record.

Using a hawksbill turtle as its basis, a species native to the waters off Colombia, might the mysterious Colombian yellow sea turtle have looked something like this? (© Dr Karl Shuker)

The other was a 44-ft-long pure-white turtle with 14-ft flippers that was sighted south of Nova Scotia, Canada, in June 1956 by crew on board the cargo steamer ‘Rhapsody’. According to their account, this huge creature could raise its head 8 ft out of the water.

 

ENCOUNTERING THE SOAY BEAST

Perhaps the most famous and controversial modern-day sighting of an alleged giant sea turtle occurred just a few years later, off the Scottish Inner Hebridean island of Soay. On 13 September 1959, while fishing here for mackerel, holidaying engineer James Gavin and local fisherman Tex Geddes were very startled to observe an extremely large sea creature swimming directly towards their boat, its head and back readily visible above the sea surface, until it was no more than 60 ft away.

According to their description, documented in a major Illustrated London News report of 4 June 1960, the head of this remarkable beast was definitely reptilian and resembled a tortoise’s, with lateral eyes and a rounded face plus a horizontal gash for a mouth when closed, but it was as big as a donkey’s, and the neck was cylindrical. The exposed portion of its back was humped in shape, and running down the centre was a series of triangular-shaped spines or serrations, like the teeth of a saw. The animal was so close that when it opened its mouth to breathe, emitting a very loud whistling roar, they could see the red lining inside, and what looked like loose flaps of skin hanging down from the roof, but there were no teeth.

Sketches of Soay Beast’s alleged appearance, from Illustrated London News, 4 June 1960 ((© Illustrated London News – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

After remaining in sight for five minutes, their extraordinary visitor dived forward and vanished beneath the water surface, then emerged again almost a quarter of a mile away, before disappearing completely as they watched it. Moreover, the crews of two lobster boats, fishing north of Mallaig on the Scottish mainland, also spied this mysterious creature, much to their alarm!

Due to its mid-dorsal serrations, British zoologist Dr Maurice Burton wondered whether it may have been an escapee iguana, but the remainder of the Soay beast’s description does not correspond with such an identity at all, and much more readily recalls a chelonian. Moreover, certain terrapins even possess dorsal serrations, though terrapins are of course freshwater species, not marine.

 

COULD UNDISCOVERED MEGA-TURTLES EXIST TODAY?

Reading through the above reports, various objections to the possibility of giant turtles existing undiscovered by science soon come to mind, but are they insurmountable? For instance: all known species of sea turtle have only short tails, so the long tail of the specimen sighted by Columbus and his crew is unexpected. Yet there are no sound anatomical or physiological reasons why a long-tailed species might not exist. In any case, it may be that at least part of the tail’s length was an optical illusion, caused by the wake created as it swam by.

The odd colours of the two specimens reported during the mid-1950s pose another problem. However, perhaps the yellow colouration of the Colombian individual was merely due to reflected sunlight, or it might have been a rare xanthic (yellow mutant) individual. Equally, the white ‘Rhapsody’-spied turtle may conceivably have been an albino or leucistic specimen – such individuals have been reported from many reptilian species, even ones as large as crocodiles and alligators. Indeed, a scan through Google will soon turn up a number of spectacular photographs of leucistic sea turtle specimens, confirming that such creatures can indeed arise (click hereto see them). Having said that, some hawksbill turtles Eretmochelys imbricata can appear golden-brownish in colour, and even some non-leucistic green turtles Chelonia mydas look quite pale. Nevertheless, they do not attain the huge sizes claimed for the Colombian and ‘Rhapsody’ specimens respectively.

Exquisite vintage illustration of a leathery turtle by Ernst Haeckel, 1902 (public domain)

The cold-water regions in which the ‘Rhapsody’ specimen and the Soay beast were sighted argues on first sight against their being reptiles. However, the leathery turtle is famed for its ability to withstand coldwater temperatures, and of particular note in relation to the Soay case is the remarkable but fully-confirmed fact that in August 1971 a leathery turtle was caught near Mallaig!

If mega-turtles do truly exist, they must be at least predominantly pelagic in occurrence, otherwise they would have been seen far more frequently. Yet even if this is so, surely they would have been observed on land at some point, coming ashore to lay their eggs? Possibly – then again, there are countless small, remote, uninhabited tropical islands and island groups that have never been visited by humans. Indonesia, for instance, consists of over 17,500 islands, and more than 7,100 constitute the Philippines.

Alongside the model of a gigantic sea turtle hatchling at Birmingham Sea Life Centre, 2013 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

So perhaps it is beneath the coastal sands of tiny isles such as these, emerging at night for just a few hours only once every 2-3 years and far removed from prying human eyes or from other potential sources of danger to their precious offspring, where these shy reptilian giants (so adept when at sea but so vulnerable when on land) entrust their precious eggs and, while depositing them, their own lives too, before returning once more to the safety of their vast maritime domain.

Who knows? One day, possibly, an intrepid adventurer may visit one of these anonymous specks of land and there encounter a trail of huge flipper prints left behind by some great chelonian Man Friday.

Olive ridley sea turtles Lepidochelys olivacea ashore on a Mexican beach (© Claudio Giovenzana/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and adapted from my book Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History.


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