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The sukotyro, as depicted in a colour engraving from 1812 (Dr Karl Shuker)
In cryptozoology, it is always a delight to unearth accounts of hitherto-obscure mystery beasts from the archives of antiquity. Lately two such creatures, hailing from widely disparate geographical regions but of oddly similar appearance, have occupied my attention simultaneously, though with very different outcomes, as will be seen!
THE TUSKED MEGALOPEDUS
It was American cryptozoological contact Marc Gaglione who first brought the tusked megalopedus to my attention, asking me in early 2011 if I’d ever heard of this enigmatic beast:
“What are some animals, small or large, that are known only from a single specimen, skin, or skull? Is there something called a Tusked Megalopedus? I read the name somewhere.”
However, I certainly hadn’t, because I would have definitely remembered a name as distinctive as ‘tusked megalopedus’, and, indeed, would have actively investigated it – if only because of the tantalising cryptozoological coincidence that ‘megalopedus’ translates as ‘bigfoot’! But a bigfoot with tusks? Moreover, judging from the context of Marc’s message, it appeared that this creature was known only from a single specimen, making it even more curious.
Mirroring that situation, internet searches for information concerning the tusked megalopedus yielded only a single but highly informative source. It stated that this mysterious creature had been described by no less an authority than Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), the famous Roman naturalist-scholar and author of the encyclopaedic work Historia Naturalis. It also claimed that the only known specimen of the megalopedus was ensconced in a quite extraordinary cabinet of curiosities, and it included a description of this remarkable collection as witnessed by a visiting journalist that contains a brief account of that unique specimen:
“…a strange stuffed animal greeted his eye: a large, tapirlike mammal with a huge muzzle, powerful forelegs, bulbous head, and curving tusks. It was like nothing he had ever seen before; a freak. He bent down to make out the dim label: Only known specimen of the Tusked Megalopedus, described by Pliny, thought to be fantastical until this specimen was shot in the Belgian Congo by the English explorer Col. Sir Henry F. Moreton, in 1869…[But] could it be true? A large mammal, completely unknown to science?”
So where can this peerless repository of the world’s only tusked megalopedus, and untold other scientific treasures besides, be found? Yes, you’ve guessed it – in the pages of a novel! Published in 2002 and entitled (what else?) The Cabinet of Curiosities, it was written by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and is the source of the above statements and quote.
Once I’d discovered that, I contacted Marc, who confirmed that this was indeed the book where he had read about the megalopedus, but he had wondered whether, although the story was fiction, the animal itself may have been genuine. Certainly, Pliny documented many bizarre creatures in his encyclopaedia, some of which were later unmasked as legendary beasts or even wholly fictitious monsters with no basis either in fact or in folklore, so such a situation would not be unprecedented.
Reconstruction of the tusked megalopedus’s appearance as described in The Cabinet of Curiosities (Tim Morris)
As far as I am aware, however, there is no mention of the tusked megalopedus in any of Pliny’s works. Another reason for doubting even an erstwhile existence for this ultra-cryptic creature supposedly hailing from the Belgian Congo is that the name of its discoverer, Col. Sir Henry F. Moreton, is clearly inspired by that of a real explorer, Sir Henry Morton Stanley, who did indeed contribute to a major zoological discovery in the Belgian Congo – the okapi, in 1901.
Nevertheless, I would be delighted to be proven wrong, and receive verifiable evidence that Pliny genuinely documented the mystifying megalopedus, or even something comparable upon which the megalopedus may have been based. Consequently, if anyone out there can do so, please send in details!
Having said that, there is one final, but extremely significant twist in the tale (if not the tail!) of the tusked megalopedus. Even though this is assuredly a make-believe mammal, its description is strangely reminiscent of a seemingly genuine yet wholly obscure, long-forgotten mystery beast that I serendipitously uncovered during my megalopedus investigations. And the name of this overlooked oddity? The sukotyro of Java.
While seeking possible images of the megalopedus before discovering its true nature, I spotted a very unusual antiquarian print for sale online. It depicted two animals. One was Australia’s familiar duck-billed platypus. The other was an entirely unfamiliar hoofed mammal labelled as the sukotyro. This print was a colour plate taken from Ebenezer Sibly’s A Universal System of Natural History
(1794). I collect antiquarian natural history prints as a hobby, but I was reluctant to purchase this one as I considered its asking price to be unjustifiably high. Happily, however, further internet perusal soon yielded several other plates depicting this same creature, all dating from the early 1800s.
Despite emanating from different sources, these plates’ depictions were all clearly based upon the same, earlier, original illustration (see later here). And as they were reasonably priced, I duly purchased no less than three large, excellent plates (two in colour, one b/w) that included the instantly-recognisable sukotyro image (together with various well-known beasts). At a later date I also succeeded in purchasing a reasonably-priced 1804-dated version of Sibly’s plate.
The platypus (top) and the sukotyro (bottom), depicted in a colour plate from 1804 (Dr Karl Shuker)
As the images reproduced here from some of these plates reveal, the sukotyro does not readily resemble any known mammal. Its large, burly body (variously portrayed as elephantine grey or deep-brown in coloured depictions) is somewhat rhinoceros-like in general shape but its smooth skin lacks these creatures’ characteristic armour, and its long, bushy-tipped tail differs from their shorter versions. Equally distinct is the short upright narrow mane that runs down the entire length of its back.
Furthermore, each of its feet appears to possess four hooves (thereby allying it with the pigs, hippos, camels, ruminants, and other even-toed ungulates or artiodactyls, whereas the rhinos are odd-toed ungulates or perissodactyls, which also include the horses and tapirs). Its head is also totally unlike that of any rhinoceros, sporting a sturdy but elongate, hornless muzzle ending in a pair of decidedly porcine nostrils, a pair of long, pendant ears, and, most distinctive of all, a pair of truly extraordinary tusks.
A b/w undated plate depicting the sukotyro (Dr Karl Shuker)
Bizarrely, all of the sukotyro illustrations that I have seen depict these tusks emerging from a point located directly beneath and behind the eyes rather than from any anterior region of the jaws. In addition, they are held above the level of the snout, and (rather like those of elephants) are almost entirely horizontal in orientation with only their tips exhibiting a slight upward curve. I can only assume, therefore, that these depictions are meant to signify (albeit with poor artistry) that the sukotyro’s tusks emerge from some site at the back of the (upper?) jaws.
Tusks aside, in overall appearance the sukotyro resembles a big wild pig, but where does (or did) it come from? What, if indeed anything, is known about this strange creature?
Niewhoff’s 17th-Century illustration of the sukotyro, alongside an elephant, a jackal, and other animals (Dr Karl Shuker)
The earliest known description of the sukotyro is that of Johan Niewhoff (aka Niuhoff and Neuhoff) in his account of his travels to the East Indies, entitled Die Gesantschaft der Ost-Indischen Gesellschaft in den Vereinigten Niederländern, and published in 1669. He also included an illustration of it (as reproduced directly above this paragraph), upon which all subsequent ones appear to have been directly based. His description, kindly translated from Dutch into English for me by longstanding Dutch cryptozoological correspondent Gerard Van Leusden, reads as follows:
“The animal Sukotyro as it is called by the Chinese has a wonderful and strange shape. It is about as big as an ox, has a snout like a pig, two long rough ears and a long hairy tail and two eyes that stand high, completely different from those in other animals, alongside the head.
“At each side of the head, along the ears, are two long horns or tusks that are darker than the teeth of the elephant. The animal lives from vegetables and is seldom captured.”
Tapir (top) and sukotyro (bottom) in a colour plate from A New Cabinet Cyclopedia, published in 1819 (Dr Karl Shuker)
My continuing searches revealed that the sukotyro received its most authoritative scientific coverage in 1799, by British Museum zoologist Dr George Shaw in Vol 1 of his exhaustive 16-volume General Zoology: Or Systematic Natural History.
The sukotyro as depicted in a copper engraving within Shaw’s treatise (Dr Karl Shuker)
Inserting it directly but somewhat hesitantly after the elephant in this volume’s main text (and neglecting to mention, incidentally, that in 1792 its species had been formally christened Sukotyro indicus by fellow zoologist Robert Kerr), Shaw paraphrased Niewhoff’s description and concisely documented this enigmatic mammal as follows:
“That we may not seem to neglect so remarkable an animal, though hitherto so very imperfectly known, we shall here introduce the Sukotyro. This, according to Niewhoff, its only describer, and who has figured it in his travels to the East Indies [Die Gesantschaft der Ost-Indischen Gesellschaft in den Vereinigten Niederländern, 1669, containing the original illustration reproduced above], is a quadruped of a very singular shape. Its size is that of a large ox: the snout like that of a hog: the ears long and rough; and the tail thick and bushy. The eyes are placed upright in the head, quite differently from those of other quadrupeds. On each side the head, next to the eyes, stand the horns, or rather teeth, not quite so thick as those of an Elephant. This animal feeds upon herbage, and is but seldom taken. It is a native of Java, and is called by the Chinese Sukotyro. This is all the description given by Niewhoff. The figure is repeated in Churchill’s Collection of Voyages and Travels, vol. 2. p. 360. Niewhoff was a Dutch traveller, who visited the East Indies about the middle of the last century, viz. about the year 1563 [sic – should be 1653], and continued his peregrinations for several years. It must be confessed that some of the figures introduced into his works are not remarkable for their accuracy.”
This would presumably explain, therefore, the anatomically aberrant positioning of the sukotyro’s tusks, and also, probably, the upright positioning of its eyes. Of course, if the latter are portrayed correctly, it could be suggested that the sukotyro spends time submerged in water, with only its eyes showing above the surface, as with hippopotamuses, whose eyes are also placed high on their skull. However, so too are the hippos’ nostrils and ears, whereas those of the sukotyro are not, thereby reducing the likelihood that it does spend any length of time largely submerged.
The sukotyro (top) and Asian elephant (bottom) in a colour plate from 1806 (Dr Karl Shuker)
As for the sukotyro’s tusks: ignoring their potentially-inaccurate horizontal orientation, they remind me both in shape and in size of those bizarre versions sported by the babirusas of Indonesia (formerly a single species, but recently split into several separate ones). These grotesque-looking wild pigs are famous for the huge vertical tusks sported by the males, in which not only the lower tusks but also the much larger upper ones project vertically upwards, with the upper ones growing directly through the top of the snout!
Babirusas are native to Celebes (Sulawesi) and various much smaller islands close by, but zoologists believe that they may have been deliberately introduced onto at least some of these latter isles by human activity rather than by natural migration. If so, might they also have been transported elsewhere in Indonesia, perhaps as far west as Java, in fact?
Following Shaw’s cautious coverage of the sukotyro, other zoologists adopted an even more sceptical view of it. This deepened still further following the revelation that a pair of alleged sukotyro tusks acquired by British Museum founder Sir Hans Sloane during the 1700s were actually the horns of an Indian water buffalo. These had been presented as a gift to Sloane by a Mr Doyle after he had discovered them in a partially worm-eaten state inside the cellar of a shop in Wapping, London, and were formally documented in 1727 within the Memoirs of the Academy of Sciences. Eventually, with no further specimens or data regarding it coming to light, the scientific world dismissed the sukotyro as a hoax, after which it quietly vanished from the natural history books. But was it really a hoax?
Babirusa (top) and sukotyro (bottom) – comparable, or conspecific? (Hirscheber-Wikipedia/Dr Karl Shuker)
The more I look at the depictions of the sukotyro, the more they seem – at least to me – to resemble a distorted but still-identifiable portrait of a babirusa. There is no indication that any of these porcine species exist on Java today, but perhaps Niewoff’s mystifying sukotyro is evidence that one did exist there long ago. Alternatively, could this cryptid even have been an unknown relative of the babirusas, differing from them via its bulkier form and longer ears, but still recognisably akin?
Finally, an even more controversial, dramatic possibility is that the sukotyro was a bona fide prehistoric survivor. If we assume that its extraordinary tusks really were horizontal, and not an artefact of poor artistry, its overall form calls to mind a modest-sized stegodont, a cousin of today’s elephants, complete with proboscis (albeit rather short in the sukotyro images), floppy ears, and long hairy-tipped tail.
Stegodon florensis (Povorot/Flickr)
Moreover, a dwarf, buffalo-sized species of stegodont, Stegodon florensis, is known to have survived on the island of Flores, just east of Java, until as recently as 12,000 years ago – so could a comparable form have existed on Java too, and lingered even longer there, right into historical times?
Sadly, we will probably never know, for in a very real sense the lost, forgotten sukotyro is today just as intangible as its literary, fictional doppelgänger, the tusked megalopedus.
Undated colour plate (c.1770-1820) depicting a female Asian elephant with a suckling calf (top) and the sukotyro (bottom) (Dr Karl Shuker)
This ShukerNature post is exclusively excerpted from my next book, Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology, to be published in 2013 by Anomalist Books.