Syndicated from the Web

THE SIX-LEGGED SEA SERPENT OF STRONSAY – STILL BASKING IN CRYPTOZOOLOGICAL CONTROVERSY?

by on Nov.16, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Modern-day artistic representation of what the Stronsay beast might have looked like if it had literally resembled in life the eyewitness descriptions of it in death (© Tim Morris)
Down through the centuries, countless reports of mysterious sea ‘monsters’ have been reported, often grouped together within that infamously heterogeneous cryptozoological conglomerate popularly known collectively as the Great Sea Serpent. In most cases, such reports consist entirely of eyewitness sightings, unsubstantiated by anything tangible that can be directly examined afterwards by interested researchers. Occasionally, however, physical evidence IS obtained…
Perhaps the most famous of such cases occurred at Stronsay, one of the Orkney Islands off northern Scotland. On 26 September 1808, farmer John Peace was fishing east of Rothiesholm Point when he saw what seemed to be the carcase of a whale, cast up onto the rocks, above which were flocks of circling seabirds. He rowed up to it in his boat and examined it, and found that it was a very peculiar-looking creature, which did not resemble anything known to him. At that same time, another farmer, George Sherar, was watching Peace from the shore, and was able to confirm all of this. About 10 days later, moreover, he was able to see it for himself, because it was washed ashore on Stronsay, lying on its belly just below the high tide mark.
When Sherar discovered it there, he measured it, and found it to be 55 ft long. At least two other eyewitnesses (the afore-mentioned Peace and carpenter Thomas Fotheringhame) also measured it, and they obtained the same result. It was very serpentine, almost eel-like in general build, but possessed a 15-ft neck, a small head, and a long mane running along its back to the end of its tail. Most bizarre of all, however, was that it seemed to have three pairs of legs, and each foot had five or six toes. Sherar salvaged some vertebrae and the skull of this extraordinary creature – duly dubbed the Stronsay beast.
From the Wernerian Natural History Society’s memoirs for 1808-1810, published in 1811, a sketch of the Stronsay sea serpent based upon eyewitness George Sherar’s description and agreed by Sherar to be “an exact resemblance” of what he saw (public domain)
Details of its discovery and description ultimately reached Patrick Neill, secretary of Edinburgh’s Wernerian Natural History Society, and at a meeting of the society on 19 November 1808 Neill released some details on this subject. At the next meeting, on 14 January 1809, he gave the Stronsay beast a formal scientific name – Halsydrus pontoppidani *, ‘Pontoppidan’s water snake of the sea’ (after Erik Pontoppidan, an 18th-Century Norwegian bishop who had collected many sea serpent reports).
Erik Pontoppidan (public domain)
At that same meeting, Scottish anatomist Dr John Barclay, who had examined some of the beast’s remains in Orkney, presented a paper in which he described the vertebrae, skull, and one of the creature’s legs. His paper, accompanied with detailed diagrams, was published in 1811, within the society’s memoirs, and attracted a great deal of attention. The vertebrae were very striking, resembling cotton reels, and were cartilaginous, but with calcification that radiated from the centre of each vertebra in a star-like pattern. The leg was also cartilaginous, but was not a real, jointed leg at all; it was merely a fin.
Dr John Barclay, 1820 portrait (public domain)
To many people, these features meant little, but they meant a great deal to the eminent naturalist Sir Everard Home, who was working at that time upon an exhaustive study of the basking shark Cetorhinus maximus – the world’s second largest species of shark, but generally harmless, living on plankton. When Home heard about the Stronsay beast, he felt sure that it must have been a shark. This is because the only creatures to have cartilaginous vertebrae are sharks and rays, and the only creatures to have cartilaginous vertebrae with star-shaped calcification are sharks. Furthermore, when he compared the Stronsay beast’s vertebrae and other salvaged remains with the corresponding portions of a known specimen of basking shark, they matched very closely.
Sir Everard Home (public domain)
Yet the long-necked, six-legged, mane-bearing Stronsay beast lookednothing like a basking shark – so how could this drastic difference in appearance be resolved? In fact, it was quite simple.
Stronsay beast vertebrae, an engraving from Barclay’s 1811 paper (public domain)
When basking shark carcases begin to decompose, the entire gill apparatus falls away, taking with it the shark’s characteristic jaws, and leaving behind only its small cranium and its exposed backbone, which have the appearance of a small head and a long neck. The triangular dorsal fin also rots away, sometimes leaving behind the rays, which can look a little like a mane – especially when the fish’s skin also decays, allowing the underlying muscle fibres and connective tissue to break up into hair-like growth.
Additionally, the end of the backbone only runs into the top fluke of the tail, which means that during decomposition the lower tail fluke falls off, leaving behind what looks like a long slender tail. The pectoral and sometimes the pelvic fins remain attached, but become distorted, so that they can (with a little imagination!) look like legs with feet and toes. The resulting deceptively plesiosaur-like carcase is popularly (and fittingly) dubbed a pseudo-plesiosaur.
Finally, male sharks have a pair of leg-like copulatory organs called claspers, which would yield a third pair of ‘legs’, as happened with the Stronsay beast. Suddenly, a male basking shark has become a hairy six-legged long-necked sea serpent!
How a basking shark carcase decomposes into a pseudo-plesiosaur (© Markus Bühler/Journal of Cryptozoology)
Over the years, almost all of the Stronsay beast’s preserved remains have been lost or destroyed, but three vertebrae are retained in Edinburgh’s Royal Museum of Scotland – the last remnants of Stronsay’s world-famous hexapodal sea serpent. Its mystery, conversely, continues to the present day, and for very good reason. The longest conclusively-identified basking shark that has been accurately measured was a truly exceptional specimen caught in 1851 in Canada’s Bay of Fundy; whereas the average length for its species is under 26 ft, this veritable monster was a mighty 40 ft 3 in. Yet even that is almost 15 ft less than the length claimed by eyewitnesses for the Stronsay beast. Even the largest scientifically-measured specimen of the world’s biggest fish – the whale shark Rhincodon typus – was only(!) 41.5 ft long.
Accordingly, in 2008 archaeogeneticist Dr Yvonne Simpson, who had been studying the Stronsay beast’s few preserved remains since 2001, was reported in various media interviews as stating that due to its size she wondered whether it may have been some other species of shark rather than a basking shark, and was hoping to conduct DNA tests upon some newly-recovered bone fragments from this contentious carcase that had been given to her by a private collector (Daily Telegraph, 8 September 2008). However, nothing further seems to have emerged regarding this potentially exciting prospect.
Some cryptozoologists have also questioned whether the 55-ft Stronsay beast really was a basking shark, speculating that it may have belonged to a still-unknown, giant relative. One of the world’s largest known sharks, the formidable megamouth Megachasma pelagios, remained wholly unknown to humankind until 15 November 1976, when the first recorded specimen was accidentally hauled up from the sea near the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Consequently, the prospect of undiscovered species of extra-large shark still eluding scientific discovery in modern times is far from being as unlikely as one might otherwise assume.
Megamouth shark (© FLMNH Ichthyology/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
Alternatively, might the Stronsay beast simply have been an exceptionally large specimen of basking shark after all? In a Facebook comment concerning this classic sea monster carcase posted on 16 October 2019, American cryptozoologist Ken Gerhard offered the following pertinent thoughts:
Of course there were more outsized fish in those days – before population explosions, pollution and aggressive, industrialized fishing took hold. Perhaps the Stronsay Beast represented one of the last monster-sized basking sharks? 
This is the possibility that I personally consider most reasonable.
A third option is that the latter beast’s size may have been measured inaccurately by its eyewitnesses – the option favoured by Home, who discounted the claimed 55-ft total length in favour of a more conservative yet still very impressive 36 ft. Yet if so, it seems very strange that three separate people measured it (one of whom, Thomas Fotheringhame, was a carpenter and therefore skilled in accurate measurement) and all obtained the same 55-ft total length for it. As is so often true with cryptozoological cases that date back quite considerably, it is likely that no conclusive answer will ever be obtained, so the controversy surrounding the Stronsay beast seems destined to persist indefinitely.
Having said that: during December 1941, history somewhat repeated itself in the Orkneys when a strange carcase, 25 ft long, was washed ashore at Scapa Flow. Its superficially prehistoric, plesiosaurian appearance was presumably sufficient for Provost J.G. Marwick, who had documented it in detail in a local newspaper account (Orkney Blast, 30 January 1942), to dub this enigma ‘Scapasaurus’. Fortunately, a single vertebra from its remains was preserved and retained at London’s Natural History Museum, which readily identified it as a basking shark.
* Taxonomic tail-note: Halsydrus pontoppidani Neill, 1809 is currently designated as a junior synonym of the basking shark’s officially-recognised binomial name, Cetorhinus maximus Gunnerus, 1765.
Basking shark (public domain)
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THE SIX-LEGGED SEA SERPENT OF STRONSAY – STILL BASKING IN CRYPTOZOOLOGICAL CONTROVERSY?

by on Nov.16, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Modern-day artistic representation of what the Stronsay beast might have looked like if it had literally resembled in life the eyewitness descriptions of it in death (© Tim Morris)
Down through the centuries, countless reports of mysterious sea ‘monsters’ have been reported, often grouped together within that infamously heterogeneous cryptozoological conglomerate popularly known collectively as the Great Sea Serpent. In most cases, such reports consist entirely of eyewitness sightings, unsubstantiated by anything tangible that can be directly examined afterwards by interested researchers. Occasionally, however, physical evidence IS obtained…
Perhaps the most famous of such cases occurred at Stronsay, one of the Orkney Islands off northern Scotland. On 26 September 1808, farmer John Peace was fishing east of Rothiesholm Point when he saw what seemed to be the carcase of a whale, cast up onto the rocks, above which were flocks of circling seabirds. He rowed up to it in his boat and examined it, and found that it was a very peculiar-looking creature, which did not resemble anything known to him. At that same time, another farmer, George Sherar, was watching Peace from the shore, and was able to confirm all of this. About 10 days later, moreover, he was able to see it for himself, because it was washed ashore on Stronsay, lying on its belly just below the high tide mark.
When Sherar discovered it there, he measured it, and found it to be 55 ft long. At least two other eyewitnesses (the afore-mentioned Peace and carpenter Thomas Fotheringhame) also measured it, and they obtained the same result. It was very serpentine, almost eel-like in general build, but possessed a 15-ft neck, a small head, and a long mane running along its back to the end of its tail. Most bizarre of all, however, was that it seemed to have three pairs of legs, and each foot had five or six toes. Sherar salvaged some vertebrae and the skull of this extraordinary creature – duly dubbed the Stronsay beast.
From the Wernerian Natural History Society’s memoirs for 1808-1810, published in 1811, a sketch of the Stronsay sea serpent based upon eyewitness George Sherar’s description and agreed by Sherar to be “an exact resemblance” of what he saw (public domain)
Details of its discovery and description ultimately reached Patrick Neill, secretary of Edinburgh’s Wernerian Natural History Society, and at a meeting of the society on 19 November 1808 Neill released some details on this subject. At the next meeting, on 14 January 1809, he gave the Stronsay beast a formal scientific name – Halsydrus pontoppidani *, ‘Pontoppidan’s water snake of the sea’ (after Erik Pontoppidan, an 18th-Century Norwegian bishop who had collected many sea serpent reports).
Erik Pontoppidan (public domain)
At that same meeting, Scottish anatomist Dr John Barclay, who had examined some of the beast’s remains in Orkney, presented a paper in which he described the vertebrae, skull, and one of the creature’s legs. His paper, accompanied with detailed diagrams, was published in 1811, within the society’s memoirs, and attracted a great deal of attention. The vertebrae were very striking, resembling cotton reels, and were cartilaginous, but with calcification that radiated from the centre of each vertebra in a star-like pattern. The leg was also cartilaginous, but was not a real, jointed leg at all; it was merely a fin.
Dr John Barclay, 1820 portrait (public domain)
To many people, these features meant little, but they meant a great deal to the eminent naturalist Sir Everard Home, who was working at that time upon an exhaustive study of the basking shark Cetorhinus maximus – the world’s second largest species of shark, but generally harmless, living on plankton. When Home heard about the Stronsay beast, he felt sure that it must have been a shark. This is because the only creatures to have cartilaginous vertebrae are sharks and rays, and the only creatures to have cartilaginous vertebrae with star-shaped calcification are sharks. Furthermore, when he compared the Stronsay beast’s vertebrae and other salvaged remains with the corresponding portions of a known specimen of basking shark, they matched very closely.
Sir Everard Home (public domain)
Yet the long-necked, six-legged, mane-bearing Stronsay beast lookednothing like a basking shark – so how could this drastic difference in appearance be resolved? In fact, it was quite simple.
Stronsay beast vertebrae, an engraving from Barclay’s 1811 paper (public domain)
When basking shark carcases begin to decompose, the entire gill apparatus falls away, taking with it the shark’s characteristic jaws, and leaving behind only its small cranium and its exposed backbone, which have the appearance of a small head and a long neck. The triangular dorsal fin also rots away, sometimes leaving behind the rays, which can look a little like a mane – especially when the fish’s skin also decays, allowing the underlying muscle fibres and connective tissue to break up into hair-like growth.
Additionally, the end of the backbone only runs into the top fluke of the tail, which means that during decomposition the lower tail fluke falls off, leaving behind what looks like a long slender tail. The pectoral and sometimes the pelvic fins remain attached, but become distorted, so that they can (with a little imagination!) look like legs with feet and toes. The resulting deceptively plesiosaur-like carcase is popularly (and fittingly) dubbed a pseudo-plesiosaur.
Finally, male sharks have a pair of leg-like copulatory organs called claspers, which would yield a third pair of ‘legs’, as happened with the Stronsay beast. Suddenly, a male basking shark has become a hairy six-legged long-necked sea serpent!
How a basking shark carcase decomposes into a pseudo-plesiosaur (© Markus Bühler/Journal of Cryptozoology)
Over the years, almost all of the Stronsay beast’s preserved remains have been lost or destroyed, but three vertebrae are retained in Edinburgh’s Royal Museum of Scotland – the last remnants of Stronsay’s world-famous hexapodal sea serpent. Its mystery, conversely, continues to the present day, and for very good reason. The longest conclusively-identified basking shark that has been accurately measured was a truly exceptional specimen caught in 1851 in Canada’s Bay of Fundy; whereas the average length for its species is under 26 ft, this veritable monster was a mighty 40 ft 3 in. Yet even that is almost 15 ft less than the length claimed by eyewitnesses for the Stronsay beast. Even the largest scientifically-measured specimen of the world’s biggest fish – the whale shark Rhincodon typus – was only(!) 41.5 ft long.
Accordingly, in 2008 archaeogeneticist Dr Yvonne Simpson, who had been studying the Stronsay beast’s few preserved remains since 2001, was reported in various media interviews as stating that due to its size she wondered whether it may have been some other species of shark rather than a basking shark, and was hoping to conduct DNA tests upon some newly-recovered bone fragments from this contentious carcase that had been given to her by a private collector (Daily Telegraph, 8 September 2008). However, nothing further seems to have emerged regarding this potentially exciting prospect.
Some cryptozoologists have also questioned whether the 55-ft Stronsay beast really was a basking shark, speculating that it may have belonged to a still-unknown, giant relative. One of the world’s largest known sharks, the formidable megamouth Megachasma pelagios, remained wholly unknown to humankind until 15 November 1976, when the first recorded specimen was accidentally hauled up from the sea near the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Consequently, the prospect of undiscovered species of extra-large shark still eluding scientific discovery in modern times is far from being as unlikely as one might otherwise assume.
Megamouth shark (© FLMNH Ichthyology/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
Alternatively, might the Stronsay beast simply have been an exceptionally large specimen of basking shark after all? In a Facebook comment concerning this classic sea monster carcase posted on 16 October 2019, American cryptozoologist Ken Gerhard offered the following pertinent thoughts:
Of course there were more outsized fish in those days – before population explosions, pollution and aggressive, industrialized fishing took hold. Perhaps the Stronsay Beast represented one of the last monster-sized basking sharks? 
This is the possibility that I personally consider most reasonable.
A third option is that the latter beast’s size may have been measured inaccurately by its eyewitnesses – the option favoured by Home, who discounted the claimed 55-ft total length in favour of a more conservative yet still very impressive 36 ft. Yet if so, it seems very strange that three separate people measured it (one of whom, Thomas Fotheringhame, was a carpenter and therefore skilled in accurate measurement) and all obtained the same 55-ft total length for it. As is so often true with cryptozoological cases that date back quite considerably, it is likely that no conclusive answer will ever be obtained, so the controversy surrounding the Stronsay beast seems destined to persist indefinitely.
Having said that: during December 1941, history somewhat repeated itself in the Orkneys when a strange carcase, 25 ft long, was washed ashore at Scapa Flow. Its superficially prehistoric, plesiosaurian appearance was presumably sufficient for Provost J.G. Marwick, who had documented it in detail in a local newspaper account (Orkney Blast, 30 January 1942), to dub this enigma ‘Scapasaurus’. Fortunately, a single vertebra from its remains was preserved and retained at London’s Natural History Museum, which readily identified it as a basking shark.
* Taxonomic tail-note: Halsydrus pontoppidani Neill, 1809 is currently designated as a junior synonym of the basking shark’s officially-recognised binomial name, Cetorhinus maximus Gunnerus, 1765.
Basking shark (public domain)
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FINDING A FOSSIL NANDI BEAR? – OR, SIMBAKUBWA VS CHEMOSIT

by on Nov.06, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Reconstruction of the likely appearance in life of Simbakubwa kutokaafrika (© Mauricio Anton/Ohio University/AFP/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 and also a Wikipedia Commons-available image – but reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Heavy breathing and a grunting noise heralded the brute’s emergence into the open of the runway. It had evidently heard them and was bent on making trouble. Scott had never imagined a beast so peculiar; in size, it was as big as a buffalo and stood fully that height at the shoulder: the hind-quarters sloped down like those of a hyena, and it had the hyena’s short, coarse hair, but here all similarity to that cowardly animal ceased. It had an enormous square head and short ears like those of a lion, a long snout with protruding incisors and a small, red-tinged eye. The creature moved like a large ape, its lengthy arms hanging down before it, the paws just touching the ground, and Scott was amazed to see that these paws were like an ape’s: prehensile, and equipped with thumb and fingers. …
‘Ahi…i…e ! the Nandi Bear,’ gasped one of the boys, through chattering teeth.
          C.T. Stoneham – ‘The Bear of the Nandi’, in Killers and Their Prey
The above quote is from a short story of fiction, but its subject may be only too real. Also known variously as the chemosit, kerit, koddoelo, gadett, and khodumodumo, Africa’s legendary Nandi bear must surely be one of the (if not THE) most formidable, ferocious mammalian cryptids ever documented, judging at least from the horrific experiences claimed by some of those persons who have allegedly encountered it at close range. Having said that, this infamously-aggressive, murderous monster has scarcely been reported for at least 60 years now, leading even the most optimistic mystery beast investigators to suspect that even if it were indeed real, it may have simply died out, quite probably as a result of its once-extensive, dense, rarely-penetrated Nandi and adjacent (once-contiguous) Kakamega Forest domain having been severely cut back and turned into farmland. Irrespective of its terrifying, ultra-dangerous nature, the loss of such a creature before its very existence had been confirmed and its taxonomic identity formally determined would be a profound zoological tragedy.
However, thanks to an ostensibly unrelated yet very significant (albeit extremely belated) palaeontological discovery made public just a short time ago, some decidedly chemosit-shaped shadows have begun to rise and thence flit tellingly through the collective cryptozoological consciousness.
One day in 2013, while conducting postgraduate research at Kenya’s Nairobi Museum, palaeontologist Matthew Borths from Ohio University, USA, happened to open a cabinet drawer, and made a truly incredible discovery. Inside the drawer was an enormous fossil lower jawbone bearing some teeth, plus some individual teeth, a heel bone, and some distal toe bones. When enquiring about these mysterious remains, Borths learned that they had originally been collected as far back as 1978-1980 during various scientific excavations at an early Miocene-aged fossil bed named Meswa Bridge, in western Kenya, but had never been formally examined by anyone, lying forgotten and unstudied in that drawer for over 30 years instead. Moreover, he discovered that another Ohio University palaeontological researcher, Nancy Stevens, had also seen them in that same drawer and had puzzled over them when she too had been conducting research at Nairobi Museum.
Skeleton of Hyaenodon horridus, a North American species of hyaenodontid (public domain)
After Barths contacted her, they lost no time in researching these remains comprehensively, and revealed that they belonged to a hitherto-undescribed but quite enormous species of primitive mammalian creodont carnivore known as a hyaenodontid. The hyaenodontid lineage’s most recent fossils are around 5-6 million years old (those of the giant new species were some 22 million years old), after which they apparently became extinct. Using three different methods of size estimate, Borths and Stevens obtained estimated total body masses for this very belatedly-recognised species of 280 kg, 1308 kg, and 1554 kg, plus a total length estimated at up to 2.5 m and a height of up to 0.75 m. If the creature had attained the upper estimates of mass, length, and height, it would have been at least as big as the polar bear, today’s largest terrestrial mammalian carnivore, but rather less than that if it had only attained the lowest estimates (something not mentioned in media reports).
In a 17 April 2019 Journal of Paleontology paper, they formally named this giant hyaenodontid Simbakubwa kutokaafrika, which is Swahili for ‘big lion from Africa’. For although entirely unrelated to it, this huge beast would definitely have been an apex predator in its time, just like the lion is today. All in all, therefore, an exceedingly interesting and significant palaeontological find – but what bearing (if any) does it have upon cryptozoology? Let’s rephrase that question as: don’t you just love totally random, meaningless coincidences?
Kisumu County in western Kenya contains Meswa Bridge, the site where the long-overlooked remains of a monstrously-huge fossil mammalian carnivore were discovered; and Kisumu County just so happens to be situated immediately below western Kenya’s Nandi County, which contains the dense, once-contiguous Nandi Forest where a monstrously-huge mystery mammalian carnivore dubbed the Nandi bear has been reported many times. But what is, or was, the Nandi bear? (Alleged sightings during the past 70 years have been far fewer than back in the early 20th Century, leading to speculation that even if it were real, it may now have died out.)
Maps revealing the very close proximity of western Kenya’s Kisumu County (left) and Nandi County (right); maps created by me from Wikipedia maps (public domain)
In fact, this ferocious, greatly-feared cryptid has been described in so many different ways by eyewitnesses down through the years that some cryptozoologists, including Dr Bernard Heuvelmans and myself, have opined in our respective works that the Nandi bear is almost certainly a non-existent composite. That is to say, it has been ‘created’ via the erroneous lumping together by native traditions and Western investigators alike of sightings of several very different animals, known and unknown.
These may include such disparate species as hyaenas, baboons, large male ratels, and aardvarks. According to some peoples’ views, additionally, one or more prehistoric survivors may also be involved, like the giant short-faced hyaena Pachycrocuta brevirostris, the African bear Agriotheriium africanum, the giant baboon Dinopithecus ingens, and/or maybe one of those bizarre claw-footed ungulates known as chalicotheres.
All of these latter creatures were still in existence in Africa as recently as the Pleistocene (2.5 million to 11.7 thousand years ago), as confirmed by fossil finds. (See my book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors for an extensive documentation of the Nandi bear and its preponderance of proposed identities.)

Should a surviving hyaenodontid (not necessarily Simbakubwaitself, but potentially a reclusive modern-day descendant, one whose morphology and gait may have changed somewhat during the 22 million years of evolution occurring from Simbakubwa‘s time into modern times) now also be added to this list? Who can say?
Everything about the Nandi bear is highly speculative and fiendishly complicated, but my cryptozoological antennae definitely began twitching when I saw how unexpectedly close to one another were the fossil bed where Simbakubwa‘s remains were found and the Nandi Forest where the Nandi bear was traditionally reported. Like I said earlier, don’t you just love totally random, meaningless coincidences??
Just for the record, I have modified my personal opinion recently as to the most likely identity of the Nandi bear, thanks to a truly remarkable and exceedingly exciting but previously obscure report hitherto unknown to me that I only lately obtained, and which I am now very actively investigating. More news concerning this will appear here on ShukerNature if and when I have it. Meanwhile, for previous ShukerNature accounts appertaining to the Nandi bear, please click here, here, here, here, and here.
Size comparison of Simbakubwa and human (© Mauricio Anton/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
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A DECAPITATED UNICORN FROM SOUTH AFRICA – ANOTHER LONG-OVERLOOKED CRYPTOZOOLOGICAL CONUNDRUM RESURRECTED AND RESOLVED

by on Sep.27, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

The colour drawing of the creature’s head, from Rev. John Campbell’s book Travels in South Africa, Undertaken at the Request of the London Missionary Society; Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country, Volume 1 (Francis Westley: London, 1822) (public domain)
One thing I’ve come particularly to admire about Karl over the years is his dogged persistence in following up a promising cryptozoological tid-bit or intriguing clue in the hopes that it will yield up something more substantial farther down the line. Even when the trail goes cold, Karl will wait until a new lead emerges – whether from a fresh piece of witness testimony, a letter from one of his many correspondents or a bit of evidence turned up in a forgotten book or archive.
Fortean Times editor David Sutton, in his foreword to my book Karl Shuker’s Alien Zoo (published in 2010, a compilation of many of my AZ columns and other cryptozoological writings that have appeared in FT down through the years)
From my earliest days, I have always been blessed (or cursed?) with an insatiable fascination for the obscure, the overlooked, and quite frequently the downright outlandish within the diverse realm of natural history, or unnatural history, as I tend to dub those anomalous cases that are of such particular interest to me – a fascination, moreover, that is constantly spurred on by an equally insistent curiosity to uncover the facts behind them. And in his above-quoted words, David Sutton has summarised all of this very succinctly and astutely, because for me there is indeed nothing more exciting in cryptozoological research than serendipitously encountering in some obscure source a tantalising line or two concerning a mysterious creature not only hitherto-unknown to me but which, upon preliminary investigation, appears to have left no further trace in public history and is certainly entirely undocumented in the cryptozoological literature.
When faced with such a case, I always bring to mind those famous Shakespeare-purloined words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes so often spoken with keen delight to his faithful assistant Dr Watson upon finding himself in a similar situation: “The game is afoot!”
Furthermore, just as Holmes could call upon Watson, not to mention his equally loyal gang of Baker Street Irregulars, to assist him in his clue-gathering endeavours, so too have I been equally fortunate for so many years to be able to call upon a veritable army of Watsons and BSIs in my own investigations, albeit of the cryptozoological rather than the criminological kind. These include the noble readers of Fortean Times, and, especially, those steadfast devotees of my long-running Alien Zoo column therein (now in its 22nd consecutive year). And so it was with the case featuring in this present article, once again previously undocumented, unexamined, and unsolved within the cryptozoological world.
As is so often true with cases like this, it all began entirely by chance, while surfing online during the evening of 27 June 2017, and, after an initial investigation by me signally failed to uncover any information or clues whatsoever concerning it, resulted in a plea for assistance from my indefatigable band of FT Watsons and BSIs via a short item included by me in one of my AZ columns – in this particular instance the column that appeared in FT356 (August 2017). Here is what I wrote:
How often have I stumbled upon a hitherto-unsuspected report of great interest while looking for something entirely different, and the following example is no exception. While browsing through Vol. 9 (April-October 1821) of a British periodical entitled The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines in search of an account concerning a giant spider (which I did eventually locate and which formed the basis of a subsequent ShukerNature blog article of mine), I chanced upon a short but fascinating report of a reputed unicorn that had lately been sent to Britain, possibly while still alive, but which I’d never read about anywhere else before. So here it is:
THE UNICORN.
Another animal resembling the description of the unicorn, as given by Pliny, is now on its way to this country from Africa; it nearly resembles the horse in figure, but is much smaller, and the single horn projecting from the fore head is considerably shorter than is given in the real or supposed delineations of that doubtful creature.
What could this very intriguing creature have been? Bearing in mind that it was entirely unknown to me prior to my serendipitous finding of the above report, whatever it was had evidently failed to excite the media once it did arrive in Britain, and yet its description matches nothing familiar to me from Africa. The facts that it was horse-like and bore its single horn upon its brow would seem, if reported correctly, to eliminate a young rhinoceros. For both African species (black rhino and white rhino) have two horns each, but with neither one borne upon the brow, and even as calves they are burly in form, not remotely equine. Might it therefore have been a freak specimen of some antelope species, in which a single central horn had developed instead of the normal pair of lateral horns? Occasional ‘unicorn’ specimens of goats, sheep, and even deer have been confirmed, so this would not be impossible. Moreover, certain African antelopes are superficially horse-like. Indeed, one in particular, the roan antelope, is sufficiently so for it to have been given the formal binomial name Hippotragus equinus(‘horse horse-goat’). Equally ambiguous is the state in which this mystery beast was sent to Britain from Africa, because the report does not make it clear whether the animal was dead or still alive. If it were still alive, however, where is it likely to have been sent? In later years, the premier recipient of exotic live beasts was London Zoo, but this establishment did not open until 27 April 1828. In 1832, the animals contained in the Tower of London’s menagerie were transferred to London Zoo’s collection, so perhaps, back in 1821, the unicorn, or whatever it was, had been sent to the Tower? Also, whatever happened to its remains? Are they languishing unstudied or even unlabelled in a museum somewhere today? If anyone reading my AZ account has any knowledge concerning this tantalising lost beast, we’d love to hear from you at FT.
The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines, vol. 9 (April-October 1821), p. 486; ShukerNature, http://karlshuker.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/dracula-van-helsing-and-giant-spiders.html28 June 2017.
Time passed, and it began to look as if even the resourceful readers of FTmay have been impaled at least metaphorically upon the sharp horns of the dilemma (if not the horn of the beast itself!) posed by this lately-disinterred crypto-conundrum, for responses came there none. Nor did my own continuing searches succeed in locating any further material relating to it. An inviolate impasse appeared to have been met – but then, on 4 September 2017 I received a short email from FT reader Daniel Frankham that finally shone some much-needed light upon this enshadowed mystery.
In his email, Daniel informed me that after reading my AZ unicorn item and then searching through the British Newspaper Archive’s website, he’d obtained scans of two relevant newspaper reports, which he kindly attached with his email to me. One of these was from the Caledonian Mercury of 20 August 1821 that provided an account of the creature’s discovery, and the other was from the Cheltenham Chronicle of 4 October 1821 that mentioned the presentation of the latter’s horn to the Museum of the London Missionary Society.
They also identified the person responsible for the procurement of this reputed unicorn, but which turned out to have been shot dead rather than captured alive. He was the Reverend John Campbell (1766-1840), a Scottish missionary and traveller, who was sent twice (in 1812 and again in 1819) by the London Missionary Society to South Africa‘s Cape region to inspect and repair missionary stations there.
Sepia engraving depicting Rev. John Campbell, from Robert Philip’s book The Life, Times and Missionary Enterprises of the Rev. John Campbell (John Snow: London, 1841) (public domain)
The relevant section from the Caledonian Mercury‘s report reads as follows:
THE UNICORN
Mr Campbell has kindly favoured us with the following description of the head of a very singular animal, which he has just brought from the interior of Africa. We also have had an oppor­tunity of seeing it, and fully agree with Mr Campbell, that the animal itself must have answered the description of the Reem or Unicorn, which is frequently mentioned in Scripture. — “The animal,” says Mr Campbell, “was killed by my Hottentots in the Mashow country, near the city of Mashow, about two hundred miles N.E. of New Latakoo [now Dithakong, in present-day South Africa‘s Northern Cape], to the westward of Delagoa Bay. My Hottentots never having seen or heard of an animal with one horn of so great a length, cut off its head, and brought it bleeding to me on the back of an ox. From its great weight, and being about twelve hundred miles from the Cape of Good Hope, I was obliged to reduce it by cutting off the under jaw. The Hottentots cut up the rest of the animal for food, which, with the help of the natives, they brought on the backs of oxen to Mashow. The horn, which is nearly black, is exactly three feet long, project­ing from the forehead, about nine or ten inches above the nose. From the nose to the ears mea­sured three feet. There is a small horny projection of about eight inches immediately be­hind the great horn, designed for keeping fast or steady whatever is penetrated by the great horn. There is neither hair nor wool on the skin, which is the colour of brown snuff. The animal was well known to the natives. It is a species of the rhinoceros; but, if I may judge of its bulk from the size of its head, it must have been much larger than any of the seven rhino­ceroses which my party shot, one of which measured eleven feet from the tip of the nose to the root of the tail. The skull and horn excited great curiosity at the Cape. Most were of opi­nion that it was all we should have for the unicorn. An animal the size of a horse, which the fancied unicorn is supposed to be, would not an­swer the description of the unicorn given by Job, chap. xxxix [39]. verse 9. et seq., but in every other part of the description this animal exactly answers to it.” — Pliny’s description of the unicorn is a sort of medium between Mr Campbell’s account and the animal depicted on the Royal coat of arms.
And here is the relevant section from the Cheltenham Chronicle‘s report:
Gloucestershire Auxiliary Missionary Society
The Fifth Anniversary of this Society was held in Gloucester on Monday last…The Meeting received a very important detail from the Rev. J. Campbell, who has twice visited the Missionary Stations in South Africa
It appears that Mr. Campbell’s visit has been productive of a discovery alike important to Revelation and to science. At a city which he reached beyond Lattakoo, the inhabitants on complaining, that their harvest that year had been defective, urged Mr. C. to request his men to shoot a rhinocerous [sic] for them. His Hottentots accordingly went in pursuit of one, and were providentially directed to an animal which in the Scriptures is called the unicorn. It was long thought that the rhinoceros was the animal there described, but the head of the one shot being brought to Mr. C. he immediately perceived it to be the unicorn of the Scriptures. He has deposited the horn in the Museum of the London Missionary Society and, in the opinion of scientific men, it is pronounced to be that of the unicorn so long sought after.
Reading these two newspaper reports and the Atheneumaccount, it is only too clear that there is considerable confusion and some notable descriptive discrepancies in relation to the nature of the animal shot by Campbell‘s men.
According to the Atheneum report, this creature “nearly resembles the horse in figure, but is much smaller”, and its “single horn”, said to project from its forehead, “is considerably shorter” than that which is normally ascribed to the legendary unicorn. Yet in the Caledonian Mercury report, its horn alone, which again was said to project from the forehead (but now with a much smaller second one behind it), was claimed to have measured 3 ft long, which would be disproportionately lengthy (and therefore highly cumbersome and unwieldy) if the animal were “much smaller” than a horse. And indeed, in the Caledonian Mercuryreport, the creature was stated by Rev. Campbell to have been “much larger” than any of the seven rhinoceroses shot by his men earlier.
Moreover, in that same report, the creature itself was specifically referred to by Campbell as a rhinoceros, yet there is no known species of rhinoceros that typically possesses a brow-borne horn of any shape or form, let alone one that is 3 ft long (and even has a second, smaller one positioned behind it). And throughout the Cheltenham Chronicle‘s report, a clear distinction is made between rhinoceroses and the creature killed by Campbell‘s man, which was identified unequivocally in this report by unnamed “scientific men” as the biblical unicorn, and thereby supplanted longstanding belief that the latter beast was a rhinoceros. (In fact, the biblical unicorn, or re’em, is nowadays popularly deemed to have been the then still-surviving aurochs or European wild ox Bos primigenius, which became extinct in 1627 AD, but that, as they say, is another story!)
Faced with such a mass of contradictions and controversies, it seemed as if the only way in which this truly perplexing mystery might ever be conclusively resolved would be to determine whether the creature’s principal horn still existed and, if so, gain sight of it in order to attempt a positive identification of its erstwhile bearer. As it happened, however, this option did not need to be acted upon, because the information already present in the two newspaper reports suggested an alternative line of investigation, one that could be instigated straight away, and which, when I did so, proved to be not only much swifter but also entirely successful.
Colour map showing the locations mentioned here by me (most of whose names have changed since 1822) in relation to more familiar locations (whose names remain the same today as they were back then), from Rev. John Campbell’s book Travels in South Africa, Undertaken at the Request of the London Missionary Society; Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country, Volume 1 (Francis Westley: London, 1822) (public domain) (NB – please click map to enlarge for reading purposes)
As noted earlier, these two reports revealed that the person responsible for the so-called unicorn’s procurement and the retention of its principal horn was Rev. John Campbell, and when I researched his life history I discovered that he had documented his second visit to the Cape in a two-volume travel memoir entitled Travels in South Africa…Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country. Volume 1 was published in 1822, but a copy of it in pdf form was readily accessible online, so I duly downloaded it, and sure enough, within just a few moments of locating the relevant section within it, the very curious case of Mashow’s beheaded unicorn was a mystery no longer.
In an entry for 19 May 1820, Campbell provided his own, first-hand account concerning the killing of this ‘unicorn’ (which took place in Mashow while he was away) and its morphological appearance. As will now be seen, his account differs in places from the versions in the two above-quoted newspaper reports, and shows the Atheneum account in particular to be woefully ill-informed:
During our absence from Mashow two rhinoceroses came into the town during the night, when the inhabitants assembled and killed them both. The rhinoceroses…having been cut up, were brought, the one in a waggon, the other on pack-oxen…They brought also the head of one of them, which was different from all the others that had been killed. The common African rhinoceros has a crooked horn resembling a cock’s spur, which rises about nine or ten inches above the nose and inclines backward; immediately behind this is a short thick horn; but the head they brought had a straight horn projecting three feet from the forehead, about ten inches above the tip of the nose. The projection of this great horn very much resembles that of the fanciful unicorn in the British arms. It has a small thick horny substance, eight inches long, immediately behind it, which can hardly be observed on the animal at the distance of a hundred yards, and seems to be designed for keeping fast that which is penetrated by the long horn; so that this species of rhinoceros must appear really like a unicorn when running in the field. The head resembled in size a nine-gallon cask, and measured three feet from the mouth to the ear, and being much larger than that of the one with the crooked horn, and which measured eleven feet in length, the animal itself must have been still larger and more formidable. From its weight, and the position of the horn, it appears capable of overcoming any creature hitherto known. Hardly any of the natives took the smallest notice of the head, but treated it as a thing familiar to them. As the entire horn is perfectly solid, the natives, I afterwards heard, make from one horn four handles for their battle-axes. Our people wounded another, which they reported to be much larger.
Appended to Campbell‘s account was the following footnote penned by him, confirming the subsequent destination of the head (including its still-attached principal horn and diminutive second horn):
The head being so weighty; and the distance to the Cape so great, it appeared necessary to cut off the under jaw and leave it behind…The animal is considered by naturalists, since the arrival of the skull in London, to be the unicorn of the ancients, and the same as that which is described in the xxxixth chapter of the book of Job. The part of the head brought to London, may be seen at the Missionary Museum; and, for such as may not have the opportunity of seeing the head itself, the annexed drawing of it has been made.
Also worth recalling here is a second footnote, this time appended to a concise summary of Campbell’s ‘unicorn’ incident that appeared in an extensive biography of Campbell written by Robert, Philip, entitled The Life, Times and Missionary Enterprises of the Rev. John Campbell, and published in 1841. This second footnote expanded upon the details provided in Campbell’s, by mentioning that one notable scientific figure holding the view that this creature was indeed the identity of the biblical unicorn described in the book of Job had been Sir Everard Home FRS (1756-1832). He was a British surgeon and prolific author on animal anatomy, who had written an essay about the creature, which he had read to the Royal Society. I also have on file the concise summary of Campbell‘s account from his book that appeared in issue #362 of the Monthly Magazine, published on 1 January 1822.
Painting of Sir Everard Home (public domain)
As for the oft-cited biblical unicorn account contained in verses 9-12 from the 39th chapter of the Book of Job (which evidently refers to a very powerful animal, yet provides no descriptive information concerning any aspect of its actual form, not even its celebrated horn), here it is:
Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?
Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?
Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him?
Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?
In addition, while in the process of preparing this article I uncovered a further, highly illuminating reference in the form of another book penned by Campbell, entitled African Light Thrown on a Selection of Scripture Texts, and published in 1835. In it, Campbell proffered a much more detailed account of the creature’s principal horn than given by him in his earlier work from 1822, and also divulged more details regarding the opinion of Home and others concerning the creature’s nature. The pertinent extract is as follows:
About twelve hundred miles up, in the interior of Africa, from the Cape of Good Hope, we shot a large animal, evidently a species of rhinoceros, with a strong horn projecting from its forehead about three feet. Its horn is not like that of the cow, which is hollow within, but is, to the very heart, composed of a solid, horny substance, and is capable, from its own strength, and the great weight of the animal, (perhaps two tons) with facility to pierce through the most powerful animal known, yea even a brick wall. I brought home the creature’s skull, with the horn and massy [masticating?] teeth in it.
The skull, &c. was thrice examined by the late Sir Everard Home, who was reckoned one of the first [i.e. foremost] naturalists in Britain, to whom I gave all the information in my power concerning the animal. He afterwards composed an essay on it, which he read to the Royal Society, which they printed [but a copy of which I have yet to trace]. He, in the first place, considered all the animals found in a fossil state that approached to the unicorn; then those that were known; and last, the skull I had brought from a latitude in Africa where no European had been before, except one party who were all murdered a little higher up.
After stating various arguments, and particularly attending to the description given of the unicorn in the thirty-ninth chapter of the book of Job, Sir Everard gave it as his opinion, “That this animal was the unicorn of the Bible.”
A party of gentlemen, from India, when viewing the skull at the Cape of Good Hope, compared its horn, as an offensive weapon, with the offensive weapons of all the animals they were acquainted with in India, and likewise with such as they had read of; after much conversation, they were unanimously of opinion, that this animal had the most powerful offensive weapon of any animal at present known in the world.
His skin is about an inch in thickness, like that of the African rhinoceros, which cannot be penetrated by a musket ball, except immediately behind the ear, or above the head of the foreleg, where the skin is thinner than in the other parts of the body.
As shown earlier, the 39th chapter of the Book of Job contains no descriptive details whatsoever concerning the biblical unicorn’s form, so I remain unclear as to how that passage could have convinced Home that Campbell‘s creature was the biblical unicorn’s identity. Campbell, conversely, had provided a very accurate description of the nature and form of a rhinoceros horn, which in reality constitutes an extremely dense, solid, keratinous mass, but which exhibits a deceptively horn-like external appearance. Equally, there is no doubt from his two separate accounts quoted here that Campbell did consider this ‘unicorn’ to be a rhinoceros, and a very large one at that, albeit with a highly aberrant horn complement – or was it highly aberrant? It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, so it was with a mixture of delight but also initial bewilderment that I beheld the full-page colour drawing of this animal’s head that accompanied his original, 1822 account, and which I have already reproduced at the beginning of this present ShukerNature article of mine but for ease of access will reproduce again herewith:
Head of decapitated ‘unicorn’ as documented and depicted in Campbell‘s 1822 book (public domain)
First and foremost it has to be said that this is certainly not one of the most accurate renditions of a rhinoceros head that I have ever seen. Nevertheless, it clearly reveals that in spite of Campbell‘s claim to the contrary (and faithfully reiterated in the subsequent media versions presented by me here), the long, slender, principal horn was not borne upon the creature’s brow at all, but just behind its nose. True, in the drawing it was positioned a little further back than is typical for modern-day rhinos, but even so it is still borne upon the nasal bones, with the much smaller second horn sited just behind it, exactly as in all African rhinos, whether of the black (aka hook-lipped) species Diceros bicornisor of the white (aka square-lipped) species Ceratotherium simum (some taxonomists split the latter into two species, northern and southern, but this does not have bearing upon the case under consideration here). Consequently, any comparisons to unicorns are instantly discredited, because the fabled unicorn’s single horn characteristically arises directly from the centre of its brow, i.e. from its frontal bones.
Having said this, one might conceivably argue that as the drawing was far from being an exact depiction of a rhinoceros head, perhaps its placement of the long principal horn upon the nasal bones was in fact another manifestation of its inaccuracy, and that it should have depicted this horn arising from the frontal bones instead, in accordance with Campbell’s verbal description of it projecting “from the forehead”. Yet if this were true, surely Campbell would either have not included the drawing in his book at all or, at the very least, would have appended to it a comment highlighting its error.
Consequently, to my mind the likeliest explanation for this specific but significant inconsistency between drawing and description is that it was in fact Campbell who was less than precise, when describing the long principal horn’s location on the creature’s head, but that as he apparently had no issue with the drawing, its depiction of this horn’s location was indeed a faithful representation of what he had seen and had tried (albeit ineffectively) to convey verbally. This explanation in turn meant that yet another line of speculation that I had considered – namely, that perhaps this particular individual really had possessed a freak, teratological horn projecting from its brow – was also unnecessary. Interestingly, as I mentioned in a chapter reviewing contentious rhinoceroses contained in my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), towards the end of the 19th Century London Zoo exhibited a female great Indian rhino Rhinoceros unicornis (a species normally possessing only a single horn) that bore a rudimentary second horn upon her forehead – but this minor excrescence was far-removed indeed from the formidable 3-ft-long primary horn under consideration here.
Back in Campbell’s time, both the black rhinoceros and the white rhinoceros still existed throughout South Africa, but the species referred to above by him as the common African rhinoceros was the black rhino, whose principal horn tends to be shorter, more curved, and burlier than that of the white rhino, which in contrast is sometimes extremely long, straighter, but slender – thereby corresponding well with both the drawing and Campbell’s verbal description. Similarly, the white rhino’s second horn is often extremely small, again corresponding with drawing and description alike.
Colour photograph of the head of a living South African white rhinoceros that has a notably long, slender principal horn recalling that of Campbell’s specimen from 1820 (public domain)
Lastly, but of crucial significance, is that whereas the black rhinoceros had been formally described and taxonomically named as long ago as 1758 (by none other than Linnaeus himself), the white rhinoceros remained scientifically unrecognised until 1817. While exploring South Africa from 1810 to 1815, English explorer-naturalist William J. Burchell had heard tell from the Boer settlers of a mysterious giant rhinoceros, bigger than the black species. After finally confirming its existence when encountering it at Chue Springs on 16 October 1812 and collecting some teeth, horns, and epinasal skin, in 1817 Burchell dubbed this newly-revealed, extra-large species the white rhinoceros Rhinoceros simus– ‘white’ actually being a mistranslation of the Afrikaans word for ‘wide’, referring to its broad lips. (In 1867, British zoologist John E. Gray transferred it into its own genus, Ceratotherium, and changed its species name to simum.) In short, the white rhinoceros was still largely unknown outside zoological circles in 1820 when Campbell encountered it, which undoubtedly increased still further his confusion regarding it at that time.
Taking all of the above-discussed aspects into consideration, it is evident that the decapitated unicorn from South Africa was simply a white rhinoceros, incompletely recognised by Campbell (though entirely familiar to the natives, as noted by him), inaccurately reported by the media (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!), and implausibly transmuted by scholars of Scripture and science alike into the zoological identity of a biblical mystery beast (but one that in reality was most probably something very different indeed).
My sincere thanks to Daniel Frankham for his much-appreciated assistance in my resurrection and unmasking of this fascinating but long-overlooked denizen of the Dark Continent, and also for confirming yet again that I can always rely upon my diligent detachment of Fortean Watsons and FT Irregulars to seek out clues and track down evidence upon my behalf whenever the cryptozoological game is afoot!
SELECTED REFERENCES
ANON., ‘The Unicorn’, Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh), 20 August (1821).
ANON., ‘Gloucestershire Auxiliary Missionary Society’, Cheltenham Chronicle (Cheltenham), 4 October (1821).
ANON., ‘The Unicorn’, The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines, 9 (April-October): 486 (1821).
ANON., ‘Africa‘, Monthly Magazine, 52(6) (no. 362; 1 January): 543 (1822).
CAMPBELL, John, Travels in South Africa, Undertaken at the Request of the London Missionary Society; Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country, Volume 1 (Francis Westley: London, 1822).
CAMPBELL, John, African Light Thrown on a Selection of Scripture Texts (Waugh & Innes: Edinburgh, 1835).
FRANKHAM, Daniel, ‘Personal communication’, 4 September (2017).
PHILIP, Robert, The Life, Times and Missionary Enterprises of the Rev. John Campbell (John Snow: London, 1841).
PICKERING, Jane, ‘William J. Burchell’s South African Mammal Collection, 1810-1815’, Archives of Natural History, 24(3): 311-326 (1997).
SHUKER, Karl P.N., Extraordinary Animals Revisited (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2007).
SHUKER, Karl P.N., ‘Whither the Unicorn?’, in Alien Zoo, Fortean Times, no. 356 (August): 25 (2017).
WENDT, Herbert, Out of Noah’s Ark: The Story of Man’s Discovery of the Animal Kingdom (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London, 1956).
For more details concerning unusual or unexpected forms of rhinoceros, please see my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited.

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A DECAPITATED UNICORN FROM SOUTH AFRICA – ANOTHER LONG-OVERLOOKED CRYPTOZOOLOGICAL CONUNDRUM RESURRECTED AND RESOLVED

by on Sep.27, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

The colour drawing of the creature’s head, from Rev. John Campbell’s book Travels in South Africa, Undertaken at the Request of the London Missionary Society; Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country, Volume 1 (Francis Westley: London, 1822) (public domain)
One thing I’ve come particularly to admire about Karl over the years is his dogged persistence in following up a promising cryptozoological tid-bit or intriguing clue in the hopes that it will yield up something more substantial farther down the line. Even when the trail goes cold, Karl will wait until a new lead emerges – whether from a fresh piece of witness testimony, a letter from one of his many correspondents or a bit of evidence turned up in a forgotten book or archive.
Fortean Times editor David Sutton, in his foreword to my book Karl Shuker’s Alien Zoo (published in 2010, a compilation of many of my AZ columns and other cryptozoological writings that have appeared in FT down through the years)
From my earliest days, I have always been blessed (or cursed?) with an insatiable fascination for the obscure, the overlooked, and quite frequently the downright outlandish within the diverse realm of natural history, or unnatural history, as I tend to dub those anomalous cases that are of such particular interest to me – a fascination, moreover, that is constantly spurred on by an equally insistent curiosity to uncover the facts behind them. And in his above-quoted words, David Sutton has summarised all of this very succinctly and astutely, because for me there is indeed nothing more exciting in cryptozoological research than serendipitously encountering in some obscure source a tantalising line or two concerning a mysterious creature not only hitherto-unknown to me but which, upon preliminary investigation, appears to have left no further trace in public history and is certainly entirely undocumented in the cryptozoological literature.
When faced with such a case, I always bring to mind those famous Shakespeare-purloined words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes so often spoken with keen delight to his faithful assistant Dr Watson upon finding himself in a similar situation: “The game is afoot!”
Furthermore, just as Holmes could call upon Watson, not to mention his equally loyal gang of Baker Street Irregulars, to assist him in his clue-gathering endeavours, so too have I been equally fortunate for so many years to be able to call upon a veritable army of Watsons and BSIs in my own investigations, albeit of the cryptozoological rather than the criminological kind. These include the noble readers of Fortean Times, and, especially, those steadfast devotees of my long-running Alien Zoo column therein (now in its 22nd consecutive year). And so it was with the case featuring in this present article, once again previously undocumented, unexamined, and unsolved within the cryptozoological world.
As is so often true with cases like this, it all began entirely by chance, while surfing online during the evening of 27 June 2017, and, after an initial investigation by me signally failed to uncover any information or clues whatsoever concerning it, resulted in a plea for assistance from my indefatigable band of FT Watsons and BSIs via a short item included by me in one of my AZ columns – in this particular instance the column that appeared in FT356 (August 2017). Here is what I wrote:
How often have I stumbled upon a hitherto-unsuspected report of great interest while looking for something entirely different, and the following example is no exception. While browsing through Vol. 9 (April-October 1821) of a British periodical entitled The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines in search of an account concerning a giant spider (which I did eventually locate and which formed the basis of a subsequent ShukerNature blog article of mine), I chanced upon a short but fascinating report of a reputed unicorn that had lately been sent to Britain, possibly while still alive, but which I’d never read about anywhere else before. So here it is:
THE UNICORN.
Another animal resembling the description of the unicorn, as given by Pliny, is now on its way to this country from Africa; it nearly resembles the horse in figure, but is much smaller, and the single horn projecting from the fore head is considerably shorter than is given in the real or supposed delineations of that doubtful creature.
What could this very intriguing creature have been? Bearing in mind that it was entirely unknown to me prior to my serendipitous finding of the above report, whatever it was had evidently failed to excite the media once it did arrive in Britain, and yet its description matches nothing familiar to me from Africa. The facts that it was horse-like and bore its single horn upon its brow would seem, if reported correctly, to eliminate a young rhinoceros. For both African species (black rhino and white rhino) have two horns each, but with neither one borne upon the brow, and even as calves they are burly in form, not remotely equine. Might it therefore have been a freak specimen of some antelope species, in which a single central horn had developed instead of the normal pair of lateral horns? Occasional ‘unicorn’ specimens of goats, sheep, and even deer have been confirmed, so this would not be impossible. Moreover, certain African antelopes are superficially horse-like. Indeed, one in particular, the roan antelope, is sufficiently so for it to have been given the formal binomial name Hippotragus equinus(‘horse horse-goat’). Equally ambiguous is the state in which this mystery beast was sent to Britain from Africa, because the report does not make it clear whether the animal was dead or still alive. If it were still alive, however, where is it likely to have been sent? In later years, the premier recipient of exotic live beasts was London Zoo, but this establishment did not open until 27 April 1828. In 1832, the animals contained in the Tower of London’s menagerie were transferred to London Zoo’s collection, so perhaps, back in 1821, the unicorn, or whatever it was, had been sent to the Tower? Also, whatever happened to its remains? Are they languishing unstudied or even unlabelled in a museum somewhere today? If anyone reading my AZ account has any knowledge concerning this tantalising lost beast, we’d love to hear from you at FT.
The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines, vol. 9 (April-October 1821), p. 486; ShukerNature, http://karlshuker.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/dracula-van-helsing-and-giant-spiders.html28 June 2017.
Time passed, and it began to look as if even the resourceful readers of FTmay have been impaled at least metaphorically upon the sharp horns of the dilemma (if not the horn of the beast itself!) posed by this lately-disinterred crypto-conundrum, for responses came there none. Nor did my own continuing searches succeed in locating any further material relating to it. An inviolate impasse appeared to have been met – but then, on 4 September 2017 I received a short email from FT reader Daniel Frankham that finally shone some much-needed light upon this enshadowed mystery.
In his email, Daniel informed me that after reading my AZ unicorn item and then searching through the British Newspaper Archive’s website, he’d obtained scans of two relevant newspaper reports, which he kindly attached with his email to me. One of these was from the Caledonian Mercury of 20 August 1821 that provided an account of the creature’s discovery, and the other was from the Cheltenham Chronicle of 4 October 1821 that mentioned the presentation of the latter’s horn to the Museum of the London Missionary Society.
They also identified the person responsible for the procurement of this reputed unicorn, but which turned out to have been shot dead rather than captured alive. He was the Reverend John Campbell (1766-1840), a Scottish missionary and traveller, who was sent twice (in 1812 and again in 1819) by the London Missionary Society to South Africa‘s Cape region to inspect and repair missionary stations there.
Sepia engraving depicting Rev. John Campbell, from Robert Philip’s book The Life, Times and Missionary Enterprises of the Rev. John Campbell (John Snow: London, 1841) (public domain)
The relevant section from the Caledonian Mercury‘s report reads as follows:
THE UNICORN
Mr Campbell has kindly favoured us with the following description of the head of a very singular animal, which he has just brought from the interior of Africa. We also have had an oppor­tunity of seeing it, and fully agree with Mr Campbell, that the animal itself must have answered the description of the Reem or Unicorn, which is frequently mentioned in Scripture. — “The animal,” says Mr Campbell, “was killed by my Hottentots in the Mashow country, near the city of Mashow, about two hundred miles N.E. of New Latakoo [now Dithakong, in present-day South Africa‘s Northern Cape], to the westward of Delagoa Bay. My Hottentots never having seen or heard of an animal with one horn of so great a length, cut off its head, and brought it bleeding to me on the back of an ox. From its great weight, and being about twelve hundred miles from the Cape of Good Hope, I was obliged to reduce it by cutting off the under jaw. The Hottentots cut up the rest of the animal for food, which, with the help of the natives, they brought on the backs of oxen to Mashow. The horn, which is nearly black, is exactly three feet long, project­ing from the forehead, about nine or ten inches above the nose. From the nose to the ears mea­sured three feet. There is a small horny projection of about eight inches immediately be­hind the great horn, designed for keeping fast or steady whatever is penetrated by the great horn. There is neither hair nor wool on the skin, which is the colour of brown snuff. The animal was well known to the natives. It is a species of the rhinoceros; but, if I may judge of its bulk from the size of its head, it must have been much larger than any of the seven rhino­ceroses which my party shot, one of which measured eleven feet from the tip of the nose to the root of the tail. The skull and horn excited great curiosity at the Cape. Most were of opi­nion that it was all we should have for the unicorn. An animal the size of a horse, which the fancied unicorn is supposed to be, would not an­swer the description of the unicorn given by Job, chap. xxxix [39]. verse 9. et seq., but in every other part of the description this animal exactly answers to it.” — Pliny’s description of the unicorn is a sort of medium between Mr Campbell’s account and the animal depicted on the Royal coat of arms.
And here is the relevant section from the Cheltenham Chronicle‘s report:
Gloucestershire Auxiliary Missionary Society
The Fifth Anniversary of this Society was held in Gloucester on Monday last…The Meeting received a very important detail from the Rev. J. Campbell, who has twice visited the Missionary Stations in South Africa
It appears that Mr. Campbell’s visit has been productive of a discovery alike important to Revelation and to science. At a city which he reached beyond Lattakoo, the inhabitants on complaining, that their harvest that year had been defective, urged Mr. C. to request his men to shoot a rhinocerous [sic] for them. His Hottentots accordingly went in pursuit of one, and were providentially directed to an animal which in the Scriptures is called the unicorn. It was long thought that the rhinoceros was the animal there described, but the head of the one shot being brought to Mr. C. he immediately perceived it to be the unicorn of the Scriptures. He has deposited the horn in the Museum of the London Missionary Society and, in the opinion of scientific men, it is pronounced to be that of the unicorn so long sought after.
Reading these two newspaper reports and the Atheneumaccount, it is only too clear that there is considerable confusion and some notable descriptive discrepancies in relation to the nature of the animal shot by Campbell‘s men.
According to the Atheneum report, this creature “nearly resembles the horse in figure, but is much smaller”, and its “single horn”, said to project from its forehead, “is considerably shorter” than that which is normally ascribed to the legendary unicorn. Yet in the Caledonian Mercury report, its horn alone, which again was said to project from the forehead (but now with a much smaller second one behind it), was claimed to have measured 3 ft long, which would be disproportionately lengthy (and therefore highly cumbersome and unwieldy) if the animal were “much smaller” than a horse. And indeed, in the Caledonian Mercuryreport, the creature was stated by Rev. Campbell to have been “much larger” than any of the seven rhinoceroses shot by his men earlier.
Moreover, in that same report, the creature itself was specifically referred to by Campbell as a rhinoceros, yet there is no known species of rhinoceros that typically possesses a brow-borne horn of any shape or form, let alone one that is 3 ft long (and even has a second, smaller one positioned behind it). And throughout the Cheltenham Chronicle‘s report, a clear distinction is made between rhinoceroses and the creature killed by Campbell‘s man, which was identified unequivocally in this report by unnamed “scientific men” as the biblical unicorn, and thereby supplanted longstanding belief that the latter beast was a rhinoceros. (In fact, the biblical unicorn, or re’em, is nowadays popularly deemed to have been the then still-surviving aurochs or European wild ox Bos primigenius, which became extinct in 1627 AD, but that, as they say, is another story!)
Faced with such a mass of contradictions and controversies, it seemed as if the only way in which this truly perplexing mystery might ever be conclusively resolved would be to determine whether the creature’s principal horn still existed and, if so, gain sight of it in order to attempt a positive identification of its erstwhile bearer. As it happened, however, this option did not need to be acted upon, because the information already present in the two newspaper reports suggested an alternative line of investigation, one that could be instigated straight away, and which, when I did so, proved to be not only much swifter but also entirely successful.
Colour map showing the locations mentioned here by me (most of whose names have changed since 1822) in relation to more familiar locations (whose names remain the same today as they were back then), from Rev. John Campbell’s book Travels in South Africa, Undertaken at the Request of the London Missionary Society; Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country, Volume 1 (Francis Westley: London, 1822) (public domain) (NB – please click map to enlarge for reading purposes)
As noted earlier, these two reports revealed that the person responsible for the so-called unicorn’s procurement and the retention of its principal horn was Rev. John Campbell, and when I researched his life history I discovered that he had documented his second visit to the Cape in a two-volume travel memoir entitled Travels in South Africa…Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country. Volume 1 was published in 1822, but a copy of it in pdf form was readily accessible online, so I duly downloaded it, and sure enough, within just a few moments of locating the relevant section within it, the very curious case of Mashow’s beheaded unicorn was a mystery no longer.
In an entry for 19 May 1820, Campbell provided his own, first-hand account concerning the killing of this ‘unicorn’ (which took place in Mashow while he was away) and its morphological appearance. As will now be seen, his account differs in places from the versions in the two above-quoted newspaper reports, and shows the Atheneum account in particular to be woefully ill-informed:
During our absence from Mashow two rhinoceroses came into the town during the night, when the inhabitants assembled and killed them both. The rhinoceroses…having been cut up, were brought, the one in a waggon, the other on pack-oxen…They brought also the head of one of them, which was different from all the others that had been killed. The common African rhinoceros has a crooked horn resembling a cock’s spur, which rises about nine or ten inches above the nose and inclines backward; immediately behind this is a short thick horn; but the head they brought had a straight horn projecting three feet from the forehead, about ten inches above the tip of the nose. The projection of this great horn very much resembles that of the fanciful unicorn in the British arms. It has a small thick horny substance, eight inches long, immediately behind it, which can hardly be observed on the animal at the distance of a hundred yards, and seems to be designed for keeping fast that which is penetrated by the long horn; so that this species of rhinoceros must appear really like a unicorn when running in the field. The head resembled in size a nine-gallon cask, and measured three feet from the mouth to the ear, and being much larger than that of the one with the crooked horn, and which measured eleven feet in length, the animal itself must have been still larger and more formidable. From its weight, and the position of the horn, it appears capable of overcoming any creature hitherto known. Hardly any of the natives took the smallest notice of the head, but treated it as a thing familiar to them. As the entire horn is perfectly solid, the natives, I afterwards heard, make from one horn four handles for their battle-axes. Our people wounded another, which they reported to be much larger.
Appended to Campbell‘s account was the following footnote penned by him, confirming the subsequent destination of the head (including its still-attached principal horn and diminutive second horn):
The head being so weighty; and the distance to the Cape so great, it appeared necessary to cut off the under jaw and leave it behind…The animal is considered by naturalists, since the arrival of the skull in London, to be the unicorn of the ancients, and the same as that which is described in the xxxixth chapter of the book of Job. The part of the head brought to London, may be seen at the Missionary Museum; and, for such as may not have the opportunity of seeing the head itself, the annexed drawing of it has been made.
Also worth recalling here is a second footnote, this time appended to a concise summary of Campbell’s ‘unicorn’ incident that appeared in an extensive biography of Campbell written by Robert, Philip, entitled The Life, Times and Missionary Enterprises of the Rev. John Campbell, and published in 1841. This second footnote expanded upon the details provided in Campbell’s, by mentioning that one notable scientific figure holding the view that this creature was indeed the identity of the biblical unicorn described in the book of Job had been Sir Everard Home FRS (1756-1832). He was a British surgeon and prolific author on animal anatomy, who had written an essay about the creature, which he had read to the Royal Society. I also have on file the concise summary of Campbell‘s account from his book that appeared in issue #362 of the Monthly Magazine, published on 1 January 1822.
Painting of Sir Everard Home (public domain)
As for the oft-cited biblical unicorn account contained in verses 9-12 from the 39th chapter of the Book of Job (which evidently refers to a very powerful animal, yet provides no descriptive information concerning any aspect of its actual form, not even its celebrated horn), here it is:
Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?
Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?
Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him?
Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?
In addition, while in the process of preparing this article I uncovered a further, highly illuminating reference in the form of another book penned by Campbell, entitled African Light Thrown on a Selection of Scripture Texts, and published in 1835. In it, Campbell proffered a much more detailed account of the creature’s principal horn than given by him in his earlier work from 1822, and also divulged more details regarding the opinion of Home and others concerning the creature’s nature. The pertinent extract is as follows:
About twelve hundred miles up, in the interior of Africa, from the Cape of Good Hope, we shot a large animal, evidently a species of rhinoceros, with a strong horn projecting from its forehead about three feet. Its horn is not like that of the cow, which is hollow within, but is, to the very heart, composed of a solid, horny substance, and is capable, from its own strength, and the great weight of the animal, (perhaps two tons) with facility to pierce through the most powerful animal known, yea even a brick wall. I brought home the creature’s skull, with the horn and massy [masticating?] teeth in it.
The skull, &c. was thrice examined by the late Sir Everard Home, who was reckoned one of the first [i.e. foremost] naturalists in Britain, to whom I gave all the information in my power concerning the animal. He afterwards composed an essay on it, which he read to the Royal Society, which they printed [but a copy of which I have yet to trace]. He, in the first place, considered all the animals found in a fossil state that approached to the unicorn; then those that were known; and last, the skull I had brought from a latitude in Africa where no European had been before, except one party who were all murdered a little higher up.
After stating various arguments, and particularly attending to the description given of the unicorn in the thirty-ninth chapter of the book of Job, Sir Everard gave it as his opinion, “That this animal was the unicorn of the Bible.”
A party of gentlemen, from India, when viewing the skull at the Cape of Good Hope, compared its horn, as an offensive weapon, with the offensive weapons of all the animals they were acquainted with in India, and likewise with such as they had read of; after much conversation, they were unanimously of opinion, that this animal had the most powerful offensive weapon of any animal at present known in the world.
His skin is about an inch in thickness, like that of the African rhinoceros, which cannot be penetrated by a musket ball, except immediately behind the ear, or above the head of the foreleg, where the skin is thinner than in the other parts of the body.
As shown earlier, the 39th chapter of the Book of Job contains no descriptive details whatsoever concerning the biblical unicorn’s form, so I remain unclear as to how that passage could have convinced Home that Campbell‘s creature was the biblical unicorn’s identity. Campbell, conversely, had provided a very accurate description of the nature and form of a rhinoceros horn, which in reality constitutes an extremely dense, solid, keratinous mass, but which exhibits a deceptively horn-like external appearance. Equally, there is no doubt from his two separate accounts quoted here that Campbell did consider this ‘unicorn’ to be a rhinoceros, and a very large one at that, albeit with a highly aberrant horn complement – or was it highly aberrant? It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, so it was with a mixture of delight but also initial bewilderment that I beheld the full-page colour drawing of this animal’s head that accompanied his original, 1822 account, and which I have already reproduced at the beginning of this present ShukerNature article of mine but for ease of access will reproduce again herewith:
Head of decapitated ‘unicorn’ as documented and depicted in Campbell‘s 1822 book (public domain)
First and foremost it has to be said that this is certainly not one of the most accurate renditions of a rhinoceros head that I have ever seen. Nevertheless, it clearly reveals that in spite of Campbell‘s claim to the contrary (and faithfully reiterated in the subsequent media versions presented by me here), the long, slender, principal horn was not borne upon the creature’s brow at all, but just behind its nose. True, in the drawing it was positioned a little further back than is typical for modern-day rhinos, but even so it is still borne upon the nasal bones, with the much smaller second horn sited just behind it, exactly as in all African rhinos, whether of the black (aka hook-lipped) species Diceros bicornisor of the white (aka square-lipped) species Ceratotherium simum (some taxonomists split the latter into two species, northern and southern, but this does not have bearing upon the case under consideration here). Consequently, any comparisons to unicorns are instantly discredited, because the fabled unicorn’s single horn characteristically arises directly from the centre of its brow, i.e. from its frontal bones.
Having said this, one might conceivably argue that as the drawing was far from being an exact depiction of a rhinoceros head, perhaps its placement of the long principal horn upon the nasal bones was in fact another manifestation of its inaccuracy, and that it should have depicted this horn arising from the frontal bones instead, in accordance with Campbell’s verbal description of it projecting “from the forehead”. Yet if this were true, surely Campbell would either have not included the drawing in his book at all or, at the very least, would have appended to it a comment highlighting its error.
Consequently, to my mind the likeliest explanation for this specific but significant inconsistency between drawing and description is that it was in fact Campbell who was less than precise, when describing the long principal horn’s location on the creature’s head, but that as he apparently had no issue with the drawing, its depiction of this horn’s location was indeed a faithful representation of what he had seen and had tried (albeit ineffectively) to convey verbally. This explanation in turn meant that yet another line of speculation that I had considered – namely, that perhaps this particular individual really had possessed a freak, teratological horn projecting from its brow – was also unnecessary. Interestingly, as I mentioned in a chapter reviewing contentious rhinoceroses contained in my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), towards the end of the 19th Century London Zoo exhibited a female great Indian rhino Rhinoceros unicornis (a species normally possessing only a single horn) that bore a rudimentary second horn upon her forehead – but this minor excrescence was far-removed indeed from the formidable 3-ft-long primary horn under consideration here.
Back in Campbell’s time, both the black rhinoceros and the white rhinoceros still existed throughout South Africa, but the species referred to above by him as the common African rhinoceros was the black rhino, whose principal horn tends to be shorter, more curved, and burlier than that of the white rhino, which in contrast is sometimes extremely long, straighter, but slender – thereby corresponding well with both the drawing and Campbell’s verbal description. Similarly, the white rhino’s second horn is often extremely small, again corresponding with drawing and description alike.
Colour photograph of the head of a living South African white rhinoceros that has a notably long, slender principal horn recalling that of Campbell’s specimen from 1820 (public domain)
Lastly, but of crucial significance, is that whereas the black rhinoceros had been formally described and taxonomically named as long ago as 1758 (by none other than Linnaeus himself), the white rhinoceros remained scientifically unrecognised until 1817. While exploring South Africa from 1810 to 1815, English explorer-naturalist William J. Burchell had heard tell from the Boer settlers of a mysterious giant rhinoceros, bigger than the black species. After finally confirming its existence when encountering it at Chue Springs on 16 October 1812 and collecting some teeth, horns, and epinasal skin, in 1817 Burchell dubbed this newly-revealed, extra-large species the white rhinoceros Rhinoceros simus– ‘white’ actually being a mistranslation of the Afrikaans word for ‘wide’, referring to its broad lips. (In 1867, British zoologist John E. Gray transferred it into its own genus, Ceratotherium, and changed its species name to simum.) In short, the white rhinoceros was still largely unknown outside zoological circles in 1820 when Campbell encountered it, which undoubtedly increased still further his confusion regarding it at that time.
Taking all of the above-discussed aspects into consideration, it is evident that the decapitated unicorn from South Africa was simply a white rhinoceros, incompletely recognised by Campbell (though entirely familiar to the natives, as noted by him), inaccurately reported by the media (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!), and implausibly transmuted by scholars of Scripture and science alike into the zoological identity of a biblical mystery beast (but one that in reality was most probably something very different indeed).
My sincere thanks to Daniel Frankham for his much-appreciated assistance in my resurrection and unmasking of this fascinating but long-overlooked denizen of the Dark Continent, and also for confirming yet again that I can always rely upon my diligent detachment of Fortean Watsons and FT Irregulars to seek out clues and track down evidence upon my behalf whenever the cryptozoological game is afoot!
SELECTED REFERENCES
ANON., ‘The Unicorn’, Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh), 20 August (1821).
ANON., ‘Gloucestershire Auxiliary Missionary Society’, Cheltenham Chronicle (Cheltenham), 4 October (1821).
ANON., ‘The Unicorn’, The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines, 9 (April-October): 486 (1821).
ANON., ‘Africa‘, Monthly Magazine, 52(6) (no. 362; 1 January): 543 (1822).
CAMPBELL, John, Travels in South Africa, Undertaken at the Request of the London Missionary Society; Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country, Volume 1 (Francis Westley: London, 1822).
CAMPBELL, John, African Light Thrown on a Selection of Scripture Texts (Waugh & Innes: Edinburgh, 1835).
FRANKHAM, Daniel, ‘Personal communication’, 4 September (2017).
PHILIP, Robert, The Life, Times and Missionary Enterprises of the Rev. John Campbell (John Snow: London, 1841).
PICKERING, Jane, ‘William J. Burchell’s South African Mammal Collection, 1810-1815’, Archives of Natural History, 24(3): 311-326 (1997).
SHUKER, Karl P.N., Extraordinary Animals Revisited (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2007).
SHUKER, Karl P.N., ‘Whither the Unicorn?’, in Alien Zoo, Fortean Times, no. 356 (August): 25 (2017).
WENDT, Herbert, Out of Noah’s Ark: The Story of Man’s Discovery of the Animal Kingdom (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London, 1956).
For more details concerning unusual or unexpected forms of rhinoceros, please see my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited.

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THE BLOOD-DRINKING ‘DEATH BIRDS’ OF ETHIOPIA – ON SILENT, SINISTER WINGS THEY COME…

by on Sep.02, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Assuming that they do exist, just what ARE the terrifying ‘death birds’ of Ethiopia (© Ben Male)
The little-known cryptozoological case of the Ethiopian ‘death bird’ is unremittingly macabre and horrific, more akin to the gothic outpourings of Poe and Le Fanu than to anything from the dispassionate, sober chronicles of zoology. Yet in spite of this, it is only too real; at the present time, moreover, it is also unsolved. I am most grateful to Queensland zoologist Malcolm Smith for bringing this chilling but hitherto unexamined case to my attention, and for kindly supplying me with a copy of the original source of information concerning it.
It was during an archaeological expedition to Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) during the early 1930s, before the country was invaded by Italian troops prior to World War II, that Hungarian/American amateur archaeologist and anthropologist ‘Count’ Byron Khun de Prorok (1896-1954) first learnt of Devil’s Cave, whose grisly secret he subsequently documented in his travelogue Dead Men Do Tell Tales(1933).
Journeying through the province of Walaga, he resided for a time at the home of its governor, Dajjazmac Mariam, and while there he was approached by one of the servants, a young boy who began to tell him about a secret cave situated roughly an hour’s horseback-ride away, near a place called Lekempti. It was known to the local people as Devil’s Cave, and was widely held to be an abode of evil and horror – plagued by devil-men who prowled its darkened recesses in the guise of ferocious hyaenas, and by flocks of a greatly-feared form of bat referred to as the death bird.
No-one had ever dared to penetrate this mysterious cavern, but de Prorok decided to defy its forbidding reputation, because he thought it possible that there would be prehistoric rock paintings inside (especially as its notoriety would have served well in warding off potential trespassers, who might have desecrated any artwork preserved within its stygian gloom).
‘Count’ Byron Khun de Prorok (public domain)
When de Prorok told his young informant of his decision to visit Devil’s Cave, the boy was terrified, but after being bribed with a plentiful supply of gifts he agreed very reluctantly to act as de Prorok’s guide – though only on the strict understanding that he would not be held responsible for anything that happened!
The cave was situated high among rocky pinnacles and jungle foliage, but de Prorok succeeded in scrambling up to it, and in removing the several heavy boulders blocking its entrance. Armed with a gun, and leaving his guide trembling with fear outside, he cautiously stepped inside – and was almost bowled over a few minutes later by a panic-stricken pack of hyaenas hurtling down one of the passages to the newly-unsealed entrance. Seeking to defend himself against a possible attack by them, he shot one that approached a little too close for comfort, and the echoes from the blast reverberated far and wide, ultimately reaching the ears of two goatherds who came to the cave mouth to find out what was happening. Here they were met by de Prorok, who had followed the hyaenas at a respectful distance during their shambolic exit, and was greatly shocked by the men’s pitiful state – they seemed little more than animated skeletons, upon which were hung a few tattered rags.
When, with the boy as interpreter, they learnt that de Prorok planned to go back inside the cave, they implored him to change his mind, warning him of the death birds. De Prorok, however, was not afraid of bats and made his way once more through the cave’s sombre corridors, until he suddenly heard a loud whirring sound overhead. This proved to be a huge cloud of bats, which flew rapidly towards the cave mouth when he fired off a shot in alarm. These, he presumed, must be the dreaded death birds, a line of speculation speedily confirmed when only moments later a rain of bat excrement, dislodged by the shot, began to pelt down upon him from the cave roof, accompanied by an asphyxiating stench that drove him back almost at once to the entrance in search of breathable air.
Outside, he enquired why everyone was so afraid of these bats, to which the two goatherds and the boy all replied that they were blood-suckers – that night after night they came to drink the blood of anyone living near the cave until eventually their unfortunate victims died. This was why the only people living here now were the goatherds (who were forced to do so by the goats’ owners), and was the reason for their emaciated state. The death birds’ vampiresque activities ensured that none of the goatherds lived very long, but they were always replaced by others, thereby providing the goats with constant supervision – and the death birds with a constant supply of their ghoulish nutriment.
Dead Men Do Tell Tales(public domain)
To provide him with additional proof of their statements, the two goatherds took de Prorok to their camp nearby; all of the herders there were equally skeletal – and one was close to death. Little more than a pile of bones scarcely held together by a shroud of ashen skin, this living corpse of a man lay huddled in a cot, with blood-stained rags and clothes on either side, and was so weakened by the nightly depredations of the visiting death birds that he was unable to stand, capable only of extending a wraith-like arm. The goatherds told de Prorok that the death birds settled upon their bodies while they were asleep, so softly that they did not even wake; and that they were sizeable beasts, with wingspans of 12-18 in.
As for physical evidence of the death birds’ sanguinivorous nature, the goatherds showed him their arms, which clearly bore a number of small wounds – the puncture marks left behind by these winged leeches once they had gorged themselves upon their hapless hosts?
Nothing more has emerged concerning this gruesome affair, but for zoologists it would have some significant repercussions if de Prorok’s account could be shown to be accurate. Only three modern-day species of blood-drinking bat are currently known to science – and all three of these are confined exclusively to the Americas!
Common vampire bat Desmodus rotundus (© Uwe Schmidt/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
These are the notorious vampire bats, of which the best-known is the common vampire Desmodus rotundus, whose range extends from northern Mexico to central Chile, northern Argentina, Uruguay, and Trinidad; its numbers have dramatically increased since the introduction of sheep and other livestock to these areas with the coming of the Europeans, serving to expand the diversity and numbers of potential prey victims for it. The other two species are the white-winged vampire Diaemus youngi, recorded from northeastern Mexico to eastern Peru, northern Argentina, Brazil, and Trinidad; and the hairy-legged vampire Diphylla ecaudata, ranging from southern Texas to eastern Peru and southern Brazil.
(As a thought-provoking digression, there may also be a fourth, giant vampire bat in existence. Within the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington for 7 December 1988, researchers Drs Gary S. Morgan, Omar J. Linares, and Clayton E. Ray formally described a new species of vampire, 25% larger in size than Desmodus rotundus, based upon two incomplete skulls and skeletal remains found in Venezuela’s famous Cueva del Guácharo – home of the extraordinary radar-emitting oilbird Steatornis caripensis. Dubbed D. draculae, this giant vampire bat’s remains date from the Pleistocene. However, Brazilian zoologists Drs E. Trajano and M. de Vivo, in a Mammalia paper from 1991, noted that there are reports of local inhabitants in southeastern Brazil’s Ribeira Valley referring to attacks upon cattle and horses by large bats that could suggest the continuing survival here of D. draculae, although despite extensive recent searches of caves in this area none has been found…so far?)
Over the years, a great deal of misinformation has been dissipated concerning this nocturnal, terror-inducing trio of micro-bats – including the persistent fallacy that they actively suck blood out of wounds; and the equally tenacious, fanciful misconception that they are enormous beasts with gigantic wings into which they are only too eager to enfold their stricken victims while draining them of their precious scarlet fluid. In contrast, the truth is (as always) far less exotic and extravagant.
Any creature that can subsist entirely upon a diet of blood (sanginivory) must obviously be highly specialised, and the vampire bats are no exception; Canadian biologist Dr Brock Fenton from Young University in Ontario has suggested that they evolved from bats that originally consumed blood-sucking insects attracted to wounds on large animals, but which eventually acquired a taste for the animals’ blood themselves. Yet in overall external appearance these nefarious species are disappointingly mundane – with an unimpressive total length of only 2-3.5 in, a very modest wingspan of 5-6 in, and a covering of unmemorably brown, short fur. Only when they open their mouth to reveal a distinctive pair of shear-like upper incisors do they display the first intimation of their sinister lifestyle.
Head and face of a common vampire bat, revealing its specialised dentition (© Uwe Schmidt/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA4.0 licence)
These incisors terminate in a central point and have long, scalpel-sharp edges, perfectly adapted for surreptitiously shaving a thin sliver of skin from the body or neck of an unsuspecting (usually sleeping) victim – detected by the vampire’s ultrasonic echo-location faculties. The wound that is produced is sufficiently deep to slice through the skin’s capillaries, but not deep enough to disturb the victim and thereby waken it (or arouse its attention if already awake) – stealth is the byword of the vampire’s lifestyle. Aiding the furtive creation of this finely-engineered wound are the bat’s canine teeth, shorter than the incisors but just as sharp.
Once the wound begins to seep blood in a steady flow, the vampire, delicately clinging to the flank or back of its victim with its wings and hook-like thumbs (not with its sharp claws – yet another fallacy), avidly laps the escaping fluid with its grooved, muscular tongue. It can also suck it up by folding its tongue over a notch in its lower lip to yield a tube, but it only sucks blood that has already flowed out of the wound. In addition, its saliva contains anticoagulants, preventing the blood from clotting, and thereby providing the bat with an ample supply (but causing its victim to lose more than would have been the case if the wound had been inflicted by some other type of sharp cutting implement).
Indeed, one of these anticoagulants, plasminogen activator (Bat-PA for short), shows promise as a powerful drug in the prevention of the severe physiological damage caused by heart attacks in humans, according to a study of its effects by research fellow Dr Stephen Gardell at Merck Sharp & Dohme Research Laboratories in West Point, Pennsylvania.
The vampire’s teeth, tongue, and thumbs are not the only specialised facets of its anatomy – its gut also exhibits some important modifications. Enabling the bat to gorge itself thoroughly before bidding its victim a silent adieu, its stomach has an enormous extra compartment – a tubular, blind-ending diverticulum unattached to the rest of the digestive tract and capable of prodigious distension, rendering it able to hold a voluminous quantity of blood. Sometimes the bat can scarcely fly after feeding, because it is so heavy with freshly ingested blood. Also, its oesophagus is specialised for efficient water absorption, a necessity for any obligate sanguinivore because blood contains an appreciable proportion of water.
Exclusively sanguinivorous bats, like this common vampire, are known to science only from the New World, not from the Old World as well (© Desmodus/Wikipedia – CC BY SA 3.0 licence)
What all of this means in relation to the Ethiopian death bird is that any bat thriving solely or even predominantly upon a diet of blood is inevitably a much-modified species, rigorously adapted for such a lifestyle – rather than a mere opportunist species that in certain localities has switched (through some unusual set of circumstances) from its normal diet to a sanguinivorous existence. In other words, if de Prorok’s account is a truthful one, then surely the death bird must be a species new to science? After all, there is currently no known species of Old World bat that is a confirmed dedicated blood-drinker. This, then, is plainly one plausible answer to the death bird mystery – but it is not the only such answer.
I am exceedingly grateful to the late John Edwards Hill, bat specialist and formerly Principal Scientific Officer at London’s Natural History Museum, who presented me with a great deal of information that offers a completely different outlook upon this perplexing case. It is well known that the New World vampire bats transmit livestock diseases from one animal victim to another, in a manner paralleling the activities of mosquitoes and other sanguinivorous insect vectors. They also carry rabies to humans, although this is a much rarer occurrence than the more lurid reports in the popular press would have us believe. Moreover, bats of many species all around the world are known to contract many different types of bacterial, viral, and protozoan diseases, which can be spread to other organisms via parasites such as body lice and ticks that live upon the bats’ skin or fur. Relapsing fever in humans, for example, is caused by the bacterium Borrelia recurrentis, carried by lice and ticks that have in turn derived it from former rodent or bat hosts.
Accordingly, during communications concerning the death bird, Hill suggested to me that it is possible that humans venturing in or near a cave heavily infested with bats (like Devil’s Cave, for instance) would become infected with such diseases – if lice or ticks, dropping from the bats as they flew overhead, bit the unfortunate humans upon which they landed. A parasite-borne infection of this nature would account for the bite-like wounds of the goatherds observed by de Prorok; and, depending upon the precise type of infection, could ultimately give rise to the emaciated condition exhibited by these afflicted persons.
Additionally, native superstition and a deep-rooted fear of bats might be sufficient, when coupled with the distressing effects of a parasite-borne infection, to nurture the belief among such poorly-educated people as these that they were the victims of blood-sucking bats – the notion of vampirism is very ancient and widespread in human cultures worldwide (the Maya of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica even worshipped the vampire bat as a god – Camazotz).           
Camazotz, as conceived by Hodari Nundu (© Hodari Nundu/Deviantart)
Two other medical explanations for the death bird case were also raised by Hill during our correspondence (although he rated both of these as being less plausible than the likelihood of a parasite-borne disease’s involvement). These are as follows.
As Devil’s Cave contained large quantities of bat excrement, perhaps these droppings harboured the spores of the soil fungus Histoplasma capsulatum (even though this is more usually associated with bird guano). If inhaled, these spores can cause an infection of the lungs known as histoplasmosis, which can prove fatal (but severe cases are not common).
Alternatively, an illness called Weil’s disease again offers some notable parallels with the ‘death bird syndrome’. Also referred to as epidemic spirochaetal jaundice and as leptospirosis icterohaemorrhagica, Weil’s disease is caused by spirochaete bacteria of the genus Leptospira, and is usually spread by rodents, but the bacteria have been found in a few species of bat too. Infection generally occurs through infected drinking water, and among the ensuing symptoms of contraction is the appearance of small haemorrhages in the skin, which could be mistaken for bites. Also, the accompanying damage to the kidneys and liver, jaundice, and overall malaise experienced by sufferers could explain the goatherds’ haggard, wasted form.
Clearly, then, the case of the dreaded death bird and the stricken herders is far from being as straightforward as it seemed on first sight, and may involve any one, or perhaps even more than one, of the above solutions. Also well worth noting is that de Prorok was (in)famous for gross exaggeration and imaginative narratives, so it is by no means evident how much of his testimony concerning his visit and experiences relating to Devil’s Cave can be taken as fact.
Micrograph showing histoplasmosis. Liver biopsy. Periodic acid-Schiff diastase (PAS-D) stain. Histoplasma = clumps of small bright red circles (© Nephron/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
One aspect of the case that is evident, however, is the necessity for a specimen of the death bird to be collected and formally studied. Only then might the resolution of this mystifying and macabre cryptozoological riddle be finally achieved.
Yet in view of the perennially uncertain political climate associated with Ethiopia in modern times, even this is unlikely to prove an easy task to accomplish.
Until then, the secret of this purportedly deadly, unidentified creature will remain as dark and impenetrable as the grim cave from which its winged minions allegedly issue forth each night to perform their vile abominations upon the latest tragic campful of doomed, defenceless goatherds.
This ShukerNature article is excerpted and updated from my book The Beasts That Hide From Man.

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THE BLOOD-DRINKING ‘DEATH BIRDS’ OF ETHIOPIA – ON SILENT, SINISTER WINGS THEY COME…

by on Sep.02, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Assuming that they do exist, just what ARE the terrifying ‘death birds’ of Ethiopia (© Ben Male)
The little-known cryptozoological case of the Ethiopian ‘death bird’ is unremittingly macabre and horrific, more akin to the gothic outpourings of Poe and Le Fanu than to anything from the dispassionate, sober chronicles of zoology. Yet in spite of this, it is only too real; at the present time, moreover, it is also unsolved. I am most grateful to Queensland zoologist Malcolm Smith for bringing this chilling but hitherto unexamined case to my attention, and for kindly supplying me with a copy of the original source of information concerning it.
It was during an archaeological expedition to Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) during the early 1930s, before the country was invaded by Italian troops prior to World War II, that Hungarian/American amateur archaeologist and anthropologist ‘Count’ Byron Khun de Prorok (1896-1954) first learnt of Devil’s Cave, whose grisly secret he subsequently documented in his travelogue Dead Men Do Tell Tales(1933).
Journeying through the province of Walaga, he resided for a time at the home of its governor, Dajjazmac Mariam, and while there he was approached by one of the servants, a young boy who began to tell him about a secret cave situated roughly an hour’s horseback-ride away, near a place called Lekempti. It was known to the local people as Devil’s Cave, and was widely held to be an abode of evil and horror – plagued by devil-men who prowled its darkened recesses in the guise of ferocious hyaenas, and by flocks of a greatly-feared form of bat referred to as the death bird.
No-one had ever dared to penetrate this mysterious cavern, but de Prorok decided to defy its forbidding reputation, because he thought it possible that there would be prehistoric rock paintings inside (especially as its notoriety would have served well in warding off potential trespassers, who might have desecrated any artwork preserved within its stygian gloom).
‘Count’ Byron Khun de Prorok (public domain)
When de Prorok told his young informant of his decision to visit Devil’s Cave, the boy was terrified, but after being bribed with a plentiful supply of gifts he agreed very reluctantly to act as de Prorok’s guide – though only on the strict understanding that he would not be held responsible for anything that happened!
The cave was situated high among rocky pinnacles and jungle foliage, but de Prorok succeeded in scrambling up to it, and in removing the several heavy boulders blocking its entrance. Armed with a gun, and leaving his guide trembling with fear outside, he cautiously stepped inside – and was almost bowled over a few minutes later by a panic-stricken pack of hyaenas hurtling down one of the passages to the newly-unsealed entrance. Seeking to defend himself against a possible attack by them, he shot one that approached a little too close for comfort, and the echoes from the blast reverberated far and wide, ultimately reaching the ears of two goatherds who came to the cave mouth to find out what was happening. Here they were met by de Prorok, who had followed the hyaenas at a respectful distance during their shambolic exit, and was greatly shocked by the men’s pitiful state – they seemed little more than animated skeletons, upon which were hung a few tattered rags.
When, with the boy as interpreter, they learnt that de Prorok planned to go back inside the cave, they implored him to change his mind, warning him of the death birds. De Prorok, however, was not afraid of bats and made his way once more through the cave’s sombre corridors, until he suddenly heard a loud whirring sound overhead. This proved to be a huge cloud of bats, which flew rapidly towards the cave mouth when he fired off a shot in alarm. These, he presumed, must be the dreaded death birds, a line of speculation speedily confirmed when only moments later a rain of bat excrement, dislodged by the shot, began to pelt down upon him from the cave roof, accompanied by an asphyxiating stench that drove him back almost at once to the entrance in search of breathable air.
Outside, he enquired why everyone was so afraid of these bats, to which the two goatherds and the boy all replied that they were blood-suckers – that night after night they came to drink the blood of anyone living near the cave until eventually their unfortunate victims died. This was why the only people living here now were the goatherds (who were forced to do so by the goats’ owners), and was the reason for their emaciated state. The death birds’ vampiresque activities ensured that none of the goatherds lived very long, but they were always replaced by others, thereby providing the goats with constant supervision – and the death birds with a constant supply of their ghoulish nutriment.
Dead Men Do Tell Tales(public domain)
To provide him with additional proof of their statements, the two goatherds took de Prorok to their camp nearby; all of the herders there were equally skeletal – and one was close to death. Little more than a pile of bones scarcely held together by a shroud of ashen skin, this living corpse of a man lay huddled in a cot, with blood-stained rags and clothes on either side, and was so weakened by the nightly depredations of the visiting death birds that he was unable to stand, capable only of extending a wraith-like arm. The goatherds told de Prorok that the death birds settled upon their bodies while they were asleep, so softly that they did not even wake; and that they were sizeable beasts, with wingspans of 12-18 in.
As for physical evidence of the death birds’ sanguinivorous nature, the goatherds showed him their arms, which clearly bore a number of small wounds – the puncture marks left behind by these winged leeches once they had gorged themselves upon their hapless hosts?
Nothing more has emerged concerning this gruesome affair, but for zoologists it would have some significant repercussions if de Prorok’s account could be shown to be accurate. Only three modern-day species of blood-drinking bat are currently known to science – and all three of these are confined exclusively to the Americas!
Common vampire bat Desmodus rotundus (© Uwe Schmidt/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
These are the notorious vampire bats, of which the best-known is the common vampire Desmodus rotundus, whose range extends from northern Mexico to central Chile, northern Argentina, Uruguay, and Trinidad; its numbers have dramatically increased since the introduction of sheep and other livestock to these areas with the coming of the Europeans, serving to expand the diversity and numbers of potential prey victims for it. The other two species are the white-winged vampire Diaemus youngi, recorded from northeastern Mexico to eastern Peru, northern Argentina, Brazil, and Trinidad; and the hairy-legged vampire Diphylla ecaudata, ranging from southern Texas to eastern Peru and southern Brazil.
(As a thought-provoking digression, there may also be a fourth, giant vampire bat in existence. Within the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington for 7 December 1988, researchers Drs Gary S. Morgan, Omar J. Linares, and Clayton E. Ray formally described a new species of vampire, 25% larger in size than Desmodus rotundus, based upon two incomplete skulls and skeletal remains found in Venezuela’s famous Cueva del Guácharo – home of the extraordinary radar-emitting oilbird Steatornis caripensis. Dubbed D. draculae, this giant vampire bat’s remains date from the Pleistocene. However, Brazilian zoologists Drs E. Trajano and M. de Vivo, in a Mammalia paper from 1991, noted that there are reports of local inhabitants in southeastern Brazil’s Ribeira Valley referring to attacks upon cattle and horses by large bats that could suggest the continuing survival here of D. draculae, although despite extensive recent searches of caves in this area none has been found…so far?)
Over the years, a great deal of misinformation has been dissipated concerning this nocturnal, terror-inducing trio of micro-bats – including the persistent fallacy that they actively suck blood out of wounds; and the equally tenacious, fanciful misconception that they are enormous beasts with gigantic wings into which they are only too eager to enfold their stricken victims while draining them of their precious scarlet fluid. In contrast, the truth is (as always) far less exotic and extravagant.
Any creature that can subsist entirely upon a diet of blood (sanginivory) must obviously be highly specialised, and the vampire bats are no exception; Canadian biologist Dr Brock Fenton from Young University in Ontario has suggested that they evolved from bats that originally consumed blood-sucking insects attracted to wounds on large animals, but which eventually acquired a taste for the animals’ blood themselves. Yet in overall external appearance these nefarious species are disappointingly mundane – with an unimpressive total length of only 2-3.5 in, a very modest wingspan of 5-6 in, and a covering of unmemorably brown, short fur. Only when they open their mouth to reveal a distinctive pair of shear-like upper incisors do they display the first intimation of their sinister lifestyle.
Head and face of a common vampire bat, revealing its specialised dentition (© Uwe Schmidt/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA4.0 licence)
These incisors terminate in a central point and have long, scalpel-sharp edges, perfectly adapted for surreptitiously shaving a thin sliver of skin from the body or neck of an unsuspecting (usually sleeping) victim – detected by the vampire’s ultrasonic echo-location faculties. The wound that is produced is sufficiently deep to slice through the skin’s capillaries, but not deep enough to disturb the victim and thereby waken it (or arouse its attention if already awake) – stealth is the byword of the vampire’s lifestyle. Aiding the furtive creation of this finely-engineered wound are the bat’s canine teeth, shorter than the incisors but just as sharp.
Once the wound begins to seep blood in a steady flow, the vampire, delicately clinging to the flank or back of its victim with its wings and hook-like thumbs (not with its sharp claws – yet another fallacy), avidly laps the escaping fluid with its grooved, muscular tongue. It can also suck it up by folding its tongue over a notch in its lower lip to yield a tube, but it only sucks blood that has already flowed out of the wound. In addition, its saliva contains anticoagulants, preventing the blood from clotting, and thereby providing the bat with an ample supply (but causing its victim to lose more than would have been the case if the wound had been inflicted by some other type of sharp cutting implement).
Indeed, one of these anticoagulants, plasminogen activator (Bat-PA for short), shows promise as a powerful drug in the prevention of the severe physiological damage caused by heart attacks in humans, according to a study of its effects by research fellow Dr Stephen Gardell at Merck Sharp & Dohme Research Laboratories in West Point, Pennsylvania.
The vampire’s teeth, tongue, and thumbs are not the only specialised facets of its anatomy – its gut also exhibits some important modifications. Enabling the bat to gorge itself thoroughly before bidding its victim a silent adieu, its stomach has an enormous extra compartment – a tubular, blind-ending diverticulum unattached to the rest of the digestive tract and capable of prodigious distension, rendering it able to hold a voluminous quantity of blood. Sometimes the bat can scarcely fly after feeding, because it is so heavy with freshly ingested blood. Also, its oesophagus is specialised for efficient water absorption, a necessity for any obligate sanguinivore because blood contains an appreciable proportion of water.
Exclusively sanguinivorous bats, like this common vampire, are known to science only from the New World, not from the Old World as well (© Desmodus/Wikipedia – CC BY SA 3.0 licence)
What all of this means in relation to the Ethiopian death bird is that any bat thriving solely or even predominantly upon a diet of blood is inevitably a much-modified species, rigorously adapted for such a lifestyle – rather than a mere opportunist species that in certain localities has switched (through some unusual set of circumstances) from its normal diet to a sanguinivorous existence. In other words, if de Prorok’s account is a truthful one, then surely the death bird must be a species new to science? After all, there is currently no known species of Old World bat that is a confirmed dedicated blood-drinker. This, then, is plainly one plausible answer to the death bird mystery – but it is not the only such answer.
I am exceedingly grateful to the late John Edwards Hill, bat specialist and formerly Principal Scientific Officer at London’s Natural History Museum, who presented me with a great deal of information that offers a completely different outlook upon this perplexing case. It is well known that the New World vampire bats transmit livestock diseases from one animal victim to another, in a manner paralleling the activities of mosquitoes and other sanguinivorous insect vectors. They also carry rabies to humans, although this is a much rarer occurrence than the more lurid reports in the popular press would have us believe. Moreover, bats of many species all around the world are known to contract many different types of bacterial, viral, and protozoan diseases, which can be spread to other organisms via parasites such as body lice and ticks that live upon the bats’ skin or fur. Relapsing fever in humans, for example, is caused by the bacterium Borrelia recurrentis, carried by lice and ticks that have in turn derived it from former rodent or bat hosts.
Accordingly, during communications concerning the death bird, Hill suggested to me that it is possible that humans venturing in or near a cave heavily infested with bats (like Devil’s Cave, for instance) would become infected with such diseases – if lice or ticks, dropping from the bats as they flew overhead, bit the unfortunate humans upon which they landed. A parasite-borne infection of this nature would account for the bite-like wounds of the goatherds observed by de Prorok; and, depending upon the precise type of infection, could ultimately give rise to the emaciated condition exhibited by these afflicted persons.
Additionally, native superstition and a deep-rooted fear of bats might be sufficient, when coupled with the distressing effects of a parasite-borne infection, to nurture the belief among such poorly-educated people as these that they were the victims of blood-sucking bats – the notion of vampirism is very ancient and widespread in human cultures worldwide (the Maya of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica even worshipped the vampire bat as a god – Camazotz).           
Camazotz, as conceived by Hodari Nundu (© Hodari Nundu/Deviantart)
Two other medical explanations for the death bird case were also raised by Hill during our correspondence (although he rated both of these as being less plausible than the likelihood of a parasite-borne disease’s involvement). These are as follows.
As Devil’s Cave contained large quantities of bat excrement, perhaps these droppings harboured the spores of the soil fungus Histoplasma capsulatum (even though this is more usually associated with bird guano). If inhaled, these spores can cause an infection of the lungs known as histoplasmosis, which can prove fatal (but severe cases are not common).
Alternatively, an illness called Weil’s disease again offers some notable parallels with the ‘death bird syndrome’. Also referred to as epidemic spirochaetal jaundice and as leptospirosis icterohaemorrhagica, Weil’s disease is caused by spirochaete bacteria of the genus Leptospira, and is usually spread by rodents, but the bacteria have been found in a few species of bat too. Infection generally occurs through infected drinking water, and among the ensuing symptoms of contraction is the appearance of small haemorrhages in the skin, which could be mistaken for bites. Also, the accompanying damage to the kidneys and liver, jaundice, and overall malaise experienced by sufferers could explain the goatherds’ haggard, wasted form.
Clearly, then, the case of the dreaded death bird and the stricken herders is far from being as straightforward as it seemed on first sight, and may involve any one, or perhaps even more than one, of the above solutions. Also well worth noting is that de Prorok was (in)famous for gross exaggeration and imaginative narratives, so it is by no means evident how much of his testimony concerning his visit and experiences relating to Devil’s Cave can be taken as fact.
Micrograph showing histoplasmosis. Liver biopsy. Periodic acid-Schiff diastase (PAS-D) stain. Histoplasma = clumps of small bright red circles (© Nephron/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
One aspect of the case that is evident, however, is the necessity for a specimen of the death bird to be collected and formally studied. Only then might the resolution of this mystifying and macabre cryptozoological riddle be finally achieved.
Yet in view of the perennially uncertain political climate associated with Ethiopia in modern times, even this is unlikely to prove an easy task to accomplish.
Until then, the secret of this purportedly deadly, unidentified creature will remain as dark and impenetrable as the grim cave from which its winged minions allegedly issue forth each night to perform their vile abominations upon the latest tragic campful of doomed, defenceless goatherds.
This ShukerNature article is excerpted and updated from my book The Beasts That Hide From Man.

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THE SIRENS OF ST HELENA

by on Jul.20, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Alongside a manatee statue at Sea World in San Diego, California (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Those highly-modified aquatic ungulates (hoofed mammals) known as the sirenians or sea-cows, represented today by the manatees and dugongs, are already well known in cryptozoological circles by virtue of the extensively documented (yet incompletely verified) claim that they are responsible for many mermaid or siren sightings reported from around the world (hence the sea-cows’ zoological name – ‘sirenian’).
Other sirenian claims upon the cryptozoologist’s attention include: the possibility that the largest of all modern-day species, the supposedly extinct Steller’s sea-cow Hydrodamalis gigas, still survives; the unmasking in 1985 of the ri (an aquatic mystery beast from New Guinea) as the dugong Dugong dugon; the one-time disputed existence of the dugong in Chinese waters; and the likelihood that an unidentified creature reported from various West African lakes and another such animal from eastern South America’s Lake Titicaca may constitute unknown species of sirenian. In addition, there is the case presented here, one that had not been previously documented by cryptozoologists until my own writings on this subject were published.
There are three known species of present-day manatee. The Amazon manatee Trichechus inunguis inhabits the estuaries of the Orinoco and the Amazon; the Caribbean manatee T. manatus is distributed from the coasts of Virginia in the southeastern United States to the West Indies and the northern coasts of Brazil; and the African manatee T. senegalensis frequents the coasts and rivers of West Africa from Senegal to Angola. At one time, moreover, there were also persistent reports of putative manatees around the coasts of St Helena, a small south Atlantic island, almost equidistant from South America and Africa.
In view of the fact that there is a region on the southwestern coast of St Helena that is actually named Manatee Bay (sometimes spelt ‘Manati’), one could be forgiven for assuming that there was never any uncertainty about these creatures’ identity. In reality, however, this entire matter has never been unequivocally resolved, as evinced by the following selection of reports and the highly contradictory opinions that they have elicited.
A melange of manatees exhibiting their varied poses and movements in a vintage engraving (public domain)
As documented in a Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London article from 1935, Cornish traveller Peter Mundy journeyed in 1655 to India on the Aleppo Merchant, and during his return voyage the following year on the same vessel he paid a brief visit to St Helena. While walking along the beach near Chappell Valley, he saw a strange creature lying ashore and apparently severely injured. Mundy went nearer to examine it:
However, when I touched it, [it] raised his forepart, gaping on mee with his wide and terrible jawes. It had the coullor (yellowish) and terrible countenance of a lion, with four greatt teeth, besides smalle, long, bigge smelling hairs or mustaches.
The creature attempted to make its way back to the sea, but Mundy dispatched it with stones. It was evidently very large:
…in length aboutt ten foote and five foote aboutt the middle. Some say it was a seale, others notte. I terme itt a sealionesse, beeing a femall.
In his journal, Mundy included a sketch of this animal (reproduced in Fraser’s account), which leaves no doubt that it was indeed a species of pinniped (seals, sea-lions, walruses).
Peter Mundy: Merchant Adventurer – a modern-day history of Mundy, edited by R.E. Pritchard (© Bodleian Library/R.E. Pritchard, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
As uncovered by St Helena resident G.C. Kitching, the Public Records of Jamestown (this island’s capital) contain many allusions to alleged manatees or sea-cows (including what appears to be the first usage of the name ‘Manatee Bay’, which occurred on 27 January 1679). For example, one such record, for 28 August 1682, listed the capture of “several sea-cows”; and on 20 March 1690, another record noted the following incident:
Tuesday, Goodwin and Coales brought up for killing a Sea-Cow, and not paying the Company’s Royalty. They desire pardon, and say the Sea-Cow was very small; the oyle would not amount to above four or five gallons.
On 11 May 1691, a record mentioned that a sea-cow had appeared on shore at Windward, just a month before traveller William Dampier visited St Helena. Dampier became most intrigued by the alleged existence of manatees around the island’s coasts:
I was also informed that they get Manatee or Sea Cows here, which seemed very strange to me. Therefore inquiring more strictly into the matter, I found the Santa Hellena Manatee to be, by their shapes, and manner of lying ashore on the Rocks, those Creatures called Sea-lyons: for the Manatee never come ashore, neither are they found near any rocky Shores, as this Island is, there being no feeding for them in such places. Besides, in this Island there is no River for them to drink at, tho’ there is a small Brook runs into the Sea, out of the Valley by the Fort.
Returning to the records, on 29 August 1716 they reported that 400 lb of ambergris was found in Manatee Bay, and on 11 September 1739 “A Sea-Cow [was] killed upon Old Woman’s Valley beach, as it was lying asleep, by Warrall and Greentree”.
Steller’s sea-lion bull, exhibiting its characteristically leonine mane (© Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)
John Barnes’s A Tour Through the Island of St. Helena(1817) contains a detailed account of these supposed sirenians as described by reliable observer and St Helena resident Lieutenant Thomas Leech, who identified them as sea-lions. Yet in complete contrast, another equally proficient observer, Dr Walter Henry, just as confidently identified them as manatees, stating in the second volume of his Events of a Military Life (1843):
We had sea-cows at St. Helena, the Trichechus Dugong, but they were not common. When shooting near Buttermilk Point with another officer one calm evening, we stumbled on one lying on a low rock close to the water’s edge, and a hideous ugly brute it was, shaped like a large calf, with bright green eyes as big as saucers. We only caught a glimpse of it for a few seconds, for as soon as it noticed us, it jumped into the sea, in the most awkward and sprawling manner.
Note that Henry couched his references to these creatures’ existence around St Helena in the past tense. This is because the last recorded appearance of such animals here took place in 1810, when one came ashore at Stone Top Valley beach, and was duly shot by a Mr Burnham. It measured 7 ft long, and 10 gallons of oil were obtained from it. Another of these creatures was also reported in 1810, this time from Manatee Bay.
Since then, St Helena‘s purported manatee appears to have been extinct, and as is so often the case it was only then that science began to take an interest in it. After reading an account of this creature in J.C. Melliss’s St. Helena: A Physical, Historical, and Topographical Description of the Island (1875), in which Melliss claimed that it belonged either to the African or to the Caribbean species of manatee, on 20 June 1899 English zoologist Dr Richard Lydekker published a short review of the subject in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, which contained a number of the accounts given above in this present ShukerNature article. Although stating categorically that he did not wish to express a definite opinion concerning whether or not the animal could truly be some form of sirenian, Lydekker nonetheless ventured to speculate that if this were indeed its identity, it probably constituted a distinct species (perhaps even requiring a separate genus), as he felt unable to believe that it belonged to either of the manatee species nominated by Melliss.
Cape (brown) fur seal (© Karelj/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
In 1933, the entire matter was the subject of an extensive examination by Dr Theodor Mortensen of Copenhagen‘s Zoological Museum, as published in the journal Videnskabelige Meddelelser fra Dansk Naturhistorisk Forening. After careful consideration of the varied and often conflicting reports that he had succeeded in gathering, Mortensen came out in support of the views of Mundy and Leech – that the St Helena manatee was in reality a sea-lion.
Moreover, Mortensen even boldly identified its species – the Cape (brown) fur seal Arctocephalus pusillus (=antarcticus) – and believed the matter to be closed, reviving it briefly on 17 March 1934 in Nature merely to include mention of Dampier’s account, which he had not seen when preparing his detailed paper. Certain other records, given in this present article of mine but again not seen by Mortensen, were presented as a response to his Nature note in Kitching’s own Naturereport, published on 4 July 1936, but Kitching did not express any opinion regarding the creature’s identity.
By way of contrast, as outlined within his report of Mundy’s sighting, in 1935 F.C. Fraser had leaned very heavily in favour of one specific identity – once again involving a pinniped, but not a sea-lion this time. Instead, Fraser nominated a true (i.e. earless) seal – namely, a young male specimen of the southern elephant seal Mirounga leonina. As its scientific name suggests, this creature does bear a fancied resemblance to a lion-like beast, and is therefore more reminiscent of a sea-lion (albeit one of massive proportions) than are most other true seals. Even so, it bears rather less resemblance to the beast depicted in Mundy’s illustration. Moreover, as revealed in 2005 via a Latin American Journal of Aquatic Mammals paper jointly authored by Juan José Alava and Raúl Carvajal, this species did historically breed on St Helena, but equally they were readily recognised for what they were.
Since the 1930s, the St Helena manatee – or sea-lion, or elephant seal – seems to have been forgotten, like so many other ‘inconvenient’ animals, but could it really have been a sirenian? Sadly, the reports on file are not sufficient in themselves to provide an unequivocal answer – all that they can do is offer certain important clues.
Male southern elephant seal (© B. Navez/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
For instance, as manatees measure up to 15 ft long the St Helena beasts were evidently large enough, and their description as calf-shaped by Henry also conforms with that identity. Conversely, the saucer-shaped eyes of Henry’s beast conflict markedly with the small, relatively insignificant versions sported by the generally myopic manatees. Large eyes are characteristic of pinnipeds, as are the fearsome jaws and teeth of Mundy’s animal. The same can also be said of the latter’s moustaches – but as manatees have a bristly upper lip too, this feature is less discriminatory.
If the St Helena beasts were sirenians, their presence around this island indicates that they may truly have constituted a species in their own right. After all, as Lydekker pointed out in defence of his belief that they belonged neither to the African nor to the Caribbean species of manatee, although it is conceivable that a specimen or two may occasionally be carried from Africa or America to St Helena this surely could not occur regularly.
As it happens, there is one notable feature mentioned in a number of the reports cited in this chapter and elsewhere that on first sight greatly decreases the likelihood that these animals belonged to anyspecies of manatee – known or unknown. Although they will rest on the surface of the water in shallow stretches when not feeding, manatees do not generally come ashore. Yet according to several independent accounts, the St Helena beasts have frequently been seen resting (even sleeping) on the sands or on rocks, completely out of the water, after the fashion of pinnipeds. Also, the large amount of oil obtained from their carcases is more suggestive of seals than of sirenians.
So are we to conclude that they were not sirenians after all, instead merely large seals or sea-lions? Yet if this is indeed all that they were, why did the islanders refer to them so deliberately as manatees or sea-cows? It is extremely rare for pinnipeds to be referred to anywhere by such names. In addition, as Lydekker judiciously pointed out, just because knownsirenians do not normally come ashore voluntarily, this does not mean that there could not be an unknown distinctive species of sirenian that does (or did) come ashore under certain circumstances.
An early and very charming but thoroughly inaccurate, seal-like portrayal of manatees, from De Nieuwe en onbekende weereld – of Beschryving van America en ‘t zuid-land, by Arnoldus Montanus, 1671, clearly showing a definite confusion back then between sirenians and pinnipeds (public domain)
And this is where we must leave the mystery of St Helena‘s sirenians-that-might-be-seals – still unsolved, and quite likely to remain that way indefinitely, due to the tragic probability that its subject is extinct, lost to science before its identity had even been established.
Finally, there is at least one case on record that constitutes the exact reverse of this one, because it involves some supposed seals that were ultimately revealed to be sirenians. Sea mammals assumed to be seals had been reported from the Red Sea island of Shadwan – but as recorded in 1939 by Paul Budker, when the animals featured in these reports were finally investigated they proved to be dugongs, which are indeed native to the Red Sea.
This ShukerNature article is excerpted and updated from my book The Beasts That Hide From Man.

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KIPLING AND KARAIT – AN OPHIDIAN BUNGLE IN THE JUNGLE BOOK?

by on Jun.28, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Exquisite illustration of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi the mongoose and an unspecified Indian snake, from a 1924 French edition of The Jungle Book (public domain)
…when Teddy came running down the path, Rikki-tikki was ready to be petted.
But just as Teddy was stooping, something flinched a little in the dust, and a tiny voice said: ‘Be careful. I am death!’ It was Karait, the dusty brown snakeling that lies for choice on the dusty earth; and his bite is as dangerous as the cobra’s. But he is so small that nobody thinks of him, and so he does the more harm to people.
…Karait struck out. Rikki jumped sideways and tried to run in, but the wicked little dusty grey head lashed within a fraction of his shoulder, and he had to jump over the body, and the head followed his heels close…[but] Karait had lunged out once too far, and Rikki-tikki had sprung, jumped on the snake’s back, dropped his head far between his fore-legs, bitten as high up the back as he could get hold, and rolled away. That bite paralysed Karait [killing him].
        Rudyard Kipling – ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’, in The Jungle Book
Two of my best-loved books as a child (and still today, for that matter) were The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895), both authored by Rudyard Kipling, which I first read at much the same time that Disney’s classic animated movie version was first screened in cinemas (1967), and which I also adored despite its many liberties taken with Kipling’s source material. Although they are most famous for their Mowgli stories, these two books also contained a number of others that did not feature him and were not set in the Indian jungle.
Of these non-Mowgli tales, my own personal favourite was ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’, which was included in the first of Kipling’s two Jungle Books. Its eponymous mongoose star (henceforth referred to here simply as RTT for brevity) successfully and successively saved from a series of potentially lethal attacks by Nag and Nagaina – a malign pair of garden-inhabiting Indian (spectacled) cobras Naja naja – the human family that he had ‘adopted’ after their young son Teddy had rescued him from almost drowning in a flood.
The front cover and spine (the latter depicting RTT confronting a cobra) from the hardback first edition of The Jungle Book (1894) (public domain)
However, cobras were not the only snakes that RTT dispatched. He also killed a much smaller but seemingly no less deadly serpentine threat to Teddy and family – namely, the “dusty brown snakeling” Karait, whose meagre description provided by Kipling is quoted in full at the beginning of this present ShukerNature blog article. Even as a child (and nascent cryptozoologist), I was fascinated by Karait, for whereas cobras were readily familiar to me, Karait remained mysterious, because no formal identification of his species was provided by Kipling.
So what was Karait – possibly an inaccurately-described known living species (i.e. a veritable bungle in The Jungle Book), or an entirely fictitious one that Kipling had specifically invented for his RTT story, or conceivably even a real species but one that was either now long-extinct or had still to be formally described and named by science? There was only one way to deal with these and other options on offer. So after watching a cartoon version of it and then re-reading the original story a few months ago, I conducted some investigations into Kipling’s minute but highly mystifying Karait, and here is what I found out.
Adult specimen of the common Indian krait Bungarus caeruleus (© Jayendra Chiplunkar/Wikipedia  CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Naturally, the name ‘Karait’ instantly calls to mind the very similar name ‘krait’, applied both colloquially and scientifically to a number of species of venomous elapid snake native to India and elsewhere in Asia, and belonging to the genus Bungarus – which is why as a child I had simply assumed from his name that Karait had indeed merely been a krait. However, my fascination with Kipling’s diminutive yet deadly dust serpent increased during subsequent years, in tandem with my burgeoning ophidian knowledge, when I realised that what little morphological and behavioural information concerning Karait had been given by Kipling did not accord with any krait species (either in its adult or in its juvenile form) that was known to exist anywhere within or even beyond the Indian Subcontinent.
The most familiar krait species, and also the most abundant, widely distributed one in India, is the common Indian krait B. caeruleus. When adult, however, it can attain a total length of up to 5.75 ft (3 ft on average, but still very much longer than Kipling’s Karait), and its body is handsomely marked with a characteristic banded pattern of light and dark stripes (often black and white, but famously black and gold in the closely-related banded krait B. fasciatus, also native to India and up to 7 ft long). Moreover, when it is a juvenile and therefore much smaller (hence much more comparable in size to Karait than the adult is), its stripes are even more distinct than they are in the adult snake and its background colouration is bluish, not brown.
The banded krait Bungarus fasciatus as depicted in Joseph Ewart’s book The Poisonous Snakes of India (1878) (public domain)
Most other krait species also exhibit striping, albeit of different degrees of vividness. Needless to say, however, any mention of such markings in Kipling’s description of Karait is conspicuous only by its absence, which would be highly unusual for Kipling if he had indeed intended Karait to be a krait, because his knowledge and descriptions of other Indian fauna was always very skilled. True, a few krait species do not possess stripes, but these still tend to have a very bold background body colour, such as shiny brown, glossy black, or even deep blue with a bright red head in one species (B. flaviceps from southeast Asia), so once again they differ substantially from the nondescript appearance ascribed by Kipling to Karait.
It is odd, therefore, that Wikipedia’s entry for the genus Bungarus refers to Kipling’s Karait as “a small sand-colored krait”, apparently unaware of the fundamental morphological flaws in such an identification that I have enumerated above. Similarly unaware, it would seem, is the Kipling Society, because on its official website its brief entry for Karait states: “karait (or krait) A small highly poisonous snake, known to Kipling and common in India“. Common in India it may be (and, indeed, is), but small it certainly is not.
Red-headed krait Bungarus flaviceps (© Touchthestove/Wikipedia – CC BY 4.0 licence)
No less damaging to a krait identity claim for Karait than incompatible morphology is the notable reluctance of these snakes to bite or strike out at a potential aggressor, preferring to coil up and hide their head within their coils, exposing and lifting up their tail tip instead. This behaviour does not correspond at all with the much more active, antagonistic striking behaviour of Karait, plus their predominantly nocturnal lifestyle means that kraits rarely encounter humans during the daytime anyway, which is when Karait encountered Teddy. Consequently, as the only link between the kraits and Karait is a shared colloquial name, it would seem most parsimonious to assume that Kipling simply selected the name Karait for its sound or familiarity, rather than to indicate any taxonomic affinity between his story’s snake and the genuine kraits.
The website Litcharts offers a very different ophidian identity from a krait for Karait – nothing less, in fact, than an infant cobra. In its list of minor characters that appear in Kipling’s story ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’, it describes Karait as:
The young cobra hatchling, implied to be a child of Nag and Nagaina, whom Rikki-tikki battles in the garden early in the story. His small size in fact makes him more dangerous than the older snakes, as he is quicker and harder to catch, but Rikki-tikki defeats him nonetheless.
This entry’s claim baffles me, because nowhere in Kipling’s coverage of Karait and his unsuccessful attack upon RTT can I spot any implication that Karait was a young cobra hatchling, other than perhaps the term ‘snakeling’, which may imply a young snake. Equally, however, it may imply a small adult snake. In any case, even the smallest Indian cobra hatchlings, which still measure a respectable 10 in long, possess their species’ characteristic hood yet which, just like the stripes of kraits, is again conspicuous only by its absence in Kipling’s description of Karait. Furthermore, by specifically stating that Karait’s bite “is as dangerous as the cobra’s”, surely Kipling is actually delineating Karait from the cobra, rather than assimilating it with the latter snake? Certainly, that is how this statement reads to me.
A young Indian cobra Naja najaexhibiting its species’ characteristic hood (© Muhammad Sharif Khan/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.5 licence)
A third snake identity, and one that I feel has much greater plausibility than either of the previous two discussed here, is a species of saw-scaled viper, belonging to the genus Echis, which includes among its number the Indian saw-scaled viper E. carinatus, the best-known representative. Just like Karait, these snakes are small, predominantly brown with only faint patterning sometimes, extremely venomous, notoriously irascible, and often found in dry, dusty, arid terrain, where they are very inconspicuous, frequently burying themselves in sand or dirt until only their head is visible, thereby enabling them to ambush unsuspecting approaching prey. Is it just a coincidence, therefore, that Kipling specifically states that Karait “lies for choice on the dusty earth”?
Moreover, these snakes readily strike out aggressively if threatened, just as Karait did, and so potent is their venom (as was Karait’s) that saw-scaled vipers are one of the most significant snake-bite threats throughout their zoogeographical range, killing many people every year. Yet some such species are no more than 1 ft long even as adults. Clearly, therefore, this type of snake corresponds very closely with Karait across a wide range of different characteristics – morphological, behavioural, and ecological. Also worthy of note here is the hump-nosed viper Hypnale hypnale, which is native to India, greyish-brown in colour with a double row of large black spots, and no more than around 2 ft long (averages 12-15 in). However, it generally frequents dense jungles and hilly coffee plantations, rather than the more arid, dusty terrain favoured by Echis, and spends the day hidden in thick bushes and leaf litter.
Indian saw-scaled viper Echis carinatus (© Saleem Hameed/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.5 licence)
The fourth identity to be considered here is fundamentally different from the others inasmuch as it is based not upon factual similarities but rather upon fallacious ones. Superstitious, non-scientific traditional native lore in many regions of the world often ascribes all manner of fanciful, often highly venomous attributes to various animal species that in reality are entirely harmless. For instance, there is an Indian lizard known locally as the bis-cobra that for untold ages has been deemed by fearful villagers in rural areas to be totally lethal in every way, yet as confirmed by scientific examination of specimens it is in reality completely innocuous (click hereto read my ShukerNature blog article concerning this unfairly-maligned saurian). Various geckos and chameleons are viewed with comparable yet wholly unwarranted native dread too. Certain equally inoffensive species of worm-like limbless amphibian known as caecilians, various worm-like limbless reptiles called amphisbaenians, and some reclusive fossorial snakes like sand boas and blind (thread) snakes have also suffered persecution due to similarly erroneous layman beliefs.
While investigating the possible taxonomic identity of Karait, I communicated with Mark O’Shea, the internationally-renowned snake researcher and handler from the West Midlands Safari Park, based not very far from where I live, and Mark echoed my own thoughts regarding this identity option, stating: “People fear what they think are dangerous even if they aren’t, i.e. blue-tongued skink or large geckos”. Could it be, therefore, that Karait belongs to one such species, i.e. a very small and thoroughly harmless dust-dwelling serpent (or serpentine herp of some other kind) that has been wrongly deemed to be venomous? But why would Kipling continue to perpetrate such a fallacy? Surely as a keen amateur naturalist he would have preferred to expose it in his story as being nonsensical folklore with no foundation in fact?
Brahminy blind snake Indotyphlops braminus (© Jjargoud/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Also well worth considering is that Karait may have been a total invention on Kipling’s part, created perhaps to add an unexpected, additional element of danger into a plot that already contained the ever-present threat posed by the malevolent pair of cobras Nag and Nagaina (whose evil plan was to kill RTT and the humans, and then move into their house). There is, after all, a notable literary precedent for the incorporation of a deadly but zoologically non-existent Indian serpent into a work of fiction – none other than the lethal Indian swamp adder or ‘speckled band’ that confronted the master detective Sherlock Holmes in a famous short story penned by Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ was first published in 1892 (by London‘s Strand Magazine), i.e. just a couple of years before Kipling’s Jungle Books were published (click hereto see my comprehensive investigation of Conan Doyle’s sinister swamp adder on ShukerNature). Who knows, might it even have directly inspired Kipling to dream up a fictitious death-dealing serpent of his own?
Rather less likely, but by no means impossible, is that Karait represented either a valid species that did exist back in Kipling’s time but has since become extinct without ever having been formally named and described, or one that still exists but is so elusive that it has yet to be officially discovered and recognised by science. With no supportive evidence known to me for either of these two options, however, they must remain for now entirely speculative.
Artistic representation of the possible morphology of Conan Doyle’s fictitious Indian swamp adder (© Tim Morris)
At this stage in my investigation, therefore, the identity for Karait that I personally deemed to be most tenable was that of a saw-scaled viper, but I always greatly value receiving the thoughts, opinions, and possible additional information offered by other interested parties too. Consequently, on 25 March 2019 I posted the following concise summary of the Karait case on my Facebook timeline and also in various snake-relevant FB groups:
Watching the 1974 Chuck Jones cartoon version of Rudyard Kipling’s mongoose-starring story Rikki-Tikki-Tavi recently, I was reminded of a mystery that always puzzled me when reading it as a child. To which species did the extremely venomous but tiny dust-inhabiting, “dusty brown snakeling” Karait belong? As a child, I’d simply assumed that it was a species of krait, on account of the similarity in names and the occurrence of kraits in India. but when I learnt more about such snakes I discovered that young Indian kraits Bungarus caeruleus are actually vividly striped and bluish in colour, not unmarked and dusty brown. And even young kraits seem bigger than Karait was. I’ve since read various alternative suggestions, e.g. that Karait was actually a saw-scaled viper, or even an infant cobra. Or could he have been a wholly fictional species, as apparently the Indian swamp adder that confronted Conan Doyle’s detective Sherlock Holmes was? There may even be the possibility that it is a real yet totally harmless small species, like one of the Gerrhopilidae blind snakes of India, but which is erroneously deemed in local folklore to be very venomous. There are many such cases on record, from caecilians to an Indian lizard dubbed the bis-cobra, which I have previously documented. Do any of my herpetological friends or those of Indian heritage have any ideas as to Karait’s likely identity? If so, I’d love to read your thoughts! Here is Kipling’s all-too-brief description of Karait’s morphology: [I then quoted the first major paragraph of the excerpt from Kipling’s book that opens this present ShukerNature article.]
The common Indian krait as depicted in Joseph Ewart’s book The Poisonous Snakes of India (1878) (public domain)
I then sat back to await any postings that may be forthcoming. In the event, I received quite a number of comments (including a greatly welcomed, detailed evaluation by American biologist Dr Christopher Mallery that closely echoed my own thought processes regarding the case), which revealed that the overriding opinion concerning Karait’s likely identity was the same as mine – a saw-scaled viper.
However, there was one nagging problem with this identity that I could neither resolve nor overlook. If Karait had truly been based upon a saw-scaled viper, why did Kipling, who was so knowledgeable concerning Indian fauna, give to it a name that is applied locally to the krait? This made no sense at all – until, that is, Robert Twombley, a longstanding Facebook friend who is passionately interested in both herpetology and cryptozoology, and is also the creator of the reptile/amphibian-specific cryptozoological group Ethnoherpetology, posted a brief but remarkable revelation there on 29 March 2019 that was entirely new to me, but which in my opinion provides the long sought-after missing piece of the perplexing Karait jigsaw puzzle. Here is what he wrote:
Bungarus caeruleus (Schneider, 1801) and Bungarus fasciatus (Schneider, 1801), were once placed in the same genus Pseudoboa (Schneider, 1801) same with Echis carinatus (Schneider, 1801).
Johann G.T. Schneider (public domain)
In other words, back in 1801 the Indian (as well as the banded) krait and the Indian saw-scaled viper had been taxonomically lumped together by German naturalist Johann G.T. Schneider within the very same genus, Pseudoboa (which he had officially coined in his 1801 treatise Historiae Amphibiorum Naturalis et Literariae Fasciculus Secundus Continens Crocodilos, Scincos, Chamaesauras, Boas, Pseudoboas, Elaps, Angues, Amphisbaenas et Caecilias), and were therefore viewed scientifically as closely-related, similar serpents. (It was only in later years that they were eventually shown to be quite distinct, both anatomically and genetically, so were duly split not only into separate genera but also into separate taxonomic families – Elapidae for the kraits as well as the cobras, and Viperidae for the vipers.) So it is not unreasonable to assume that back then the colloquial name ‘karait’ had been more inclusive too, all of which could in turn explain why Kipling had applied the latter name to a snake that was quite evidently not a krait but a saw-scaled viper.
My sincere thanks to Robert Twombley, Dr Christopher Mallery, Mark O’Shea, and all of the other correspondents who so kindly responded to my FB enquiry with their greatly-valued thoughts and views.
Photographic portrait of Rudyard Kipling (public domain)
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SHUNKA WARAK’IN, RINGDOCUS, GUYASTICUTUS, ROCKY MOUNTAIN HYAENA – A TANGLE OF TERMS FOR A VERY TAXING TAXIDERM BEAST

by on Jun.24, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Enlargement photograph of a picture postcard of The Beast displayed alongside its glass case (photograph © Shane Lea)
Last month, a friend of mine informed me that just a few years ago he had been fortunate enough to view up close and personal(ly) something truly rare in cryptozoology – an actual physical specimen of a putative cryptid. And not just any cryptid either. Nothing less, in fact, than a suspected shunka warak’in – one of North America‘s lesser-known but no less interesting mystery creatures.
I first documented the shunka warak’in back in 2007, within my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited, and I added a very important update to my account when that book was reprinted not long afterwards. So, before I document my friend’s first-hand impressions of the afore-mentioned specimen, here is what I originally wrote 12 years ago concerning this very intriguing New World unknown animal:
The taxiderm ringdocus exhibit (aka The Beast) originally displayed in Sherwood’s store/museum, where it was also labelled as a guyasticutus and a Rocky Mountainhyena (public domain)
Translating as ‘carrying-off dogs’, ‘shunka warak’in’ is the name given by the Ioway and other Native Americans living along the U.S.A.-Canada border to a strange dark-furred creature likened morphologically to a cross between a wolf and a hyaena, which sports a lupine head and high shoulders, but also a sloping back and short hindlimbs – bestowing upon it a hyaenid outline. As its name suggests, the shunka warak’in is said to sneak into the tribes’ camps at night and seize any unwary dogs, and it cries like a human if killed.
Sometime during the 1880s, a mystifying creature fitting this description was shot and killed by the grandfather of zoologist Dr Ross E. Hutchins (who documented the incident in his book Trails to Nature’s Mysteries, 1977) on his ranch in the Madison River Valley north of Ennis, Montana. Unlike so many other cryptozoological corpses, however, this one was actually preserved, becoming a cased taxiderm specimen that was subsequently exhibited for many years by a grocer called Sherwood at his store-cum-museum near Henry Lake, Idaho, Sherwood terming it a ‘ringdocus’. Moreover, a good-quality photograph of this unique specimen was taken, revealing its somewhat composite form – and appears in Hutchins’s book. This is just as well, because the whereabouts of the specimen itself are currently unknown, as it has apparently been moved in recent years to somewhere in the West Yellowstonearea.
After reading Hutchins’s account and seeing the photo, veteran American cryptozoologist Loren Coleman keenly pursued this intriguing subject further, and together with fellow cryptozoologist Mark A. Hall he uncovered other accounts and data concerning odd hyaena-like beasts reported in North America over the years, which he duly collated in an article devoted entirely to the shunka warak’in (Fortean Times, June 1996). One further report dates from as recently as 1991, in Canada, when a peculiar hyaena-lookalike beast was observed by several eyewitnesses near to the Alberta Wildlife Park (Fortean Times, February-March 1992).
A seemingly different, clearer photograph of the taxiderm ringdocus/The Beast specimen (photographer’s identity presently unknown to me, photograph seemingly in the public domain, but in any case reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Moreover, an additional report that may well have bearing upon the shunka warak’in case but which has not been published until now is one that was brought to my attention by cryptozoological artist William Rebsamen in an email to me of 19 May 1998. In it, Bill recalled meeting up a few days earlier with his high school art teacher, Ron Thomas, and had been very surprised to learn that Ron had a longstanding interest in cryptozoology. Described by Bill as a very non-nonsense person with a lifetime’s woodsman experience from growing up on a New Jersey horse ranch and moving to the Oklahoma pan-handle working with horses before finally settling down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, to become an art teacher, Ron passed on to Bill some very interesting information:
Ron also asked me if I’d ever heard of a strange predator that was not to be mistaken by locals as a bear or dog. Ron said he did not think much after first hearing about this from an old farmer who lived near him until he heard the same description from a totally unrelated second source near the same area. It is described as massively built in the front of its body while having shorter legs in back and travels in an unusual gait. As though Ron read my mind he next told me it sounds to him like some sort of hyena except that it is coal black in color. This reminded me of an article in Fortean Times (FT 87, page 42) in Loren’s ‘On the Trail’ of the mysterious (but poorly taxidermed) hyena like creature pictured in a photo from the Southwest.
I totally agree with Bill that Ron’s mystery beast certainly recalls Loren’s shunka warak’in – but if such a beast does indeed exist, what could it be? The most conservative notion is that reports of it feature nothing more than freak/deformed wolves or odd feral mongrel dogs. Even the stuffed specimen, sloping back notwithstanding, appears more canine than hyaenine in overall form as depicted in the photo of it. Additionally, an escaped/released genuine hyaena or two may also have been sighted. However, with the exception of the very dark-furred but also very rare brown hyaena Hyaena brunnea, modern-day hyaenas are generally light-coloured with distinctive spots or stripes (depending upon the species).
Brown hyaena in the Gemsbok National Park, South Africa (© Bernard Dupont/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)
As for any possibility that it really is a wolf x hyaena hybrid, this is not tenable, because canids and hyaenids belong to two totally separate taxonomic families. Consequently, it is highly unlikely that a wolf-hyaena mating would even produce offspring at all, let alone viable ones.
Three very dramatic identities that have been proposed [by various cryptozoological investigators] involve the prospect of prehistoric survival. One of these identities is an undiscovered, modern-day borophagine – a superficially hyaena-like subfamily of canids represented by fossils in North America’s Oligocene to Pliocene epochs (34-2.5 million years ago). However, their hypershortened faces differ markedly from the long-snouted profile of the stuffed creature. The second suggestion is a surviving Chasmaporthetes ossifragus, America’s formidable hunting hyaena, which officially became extinct around 10,000 years ago [since revised to around 0.78 million years ago]. And the third is a relict amphicyonid, an identity that has also been applied to another mystery mammalian carnivore reported from North America, the waheela [click here to read more about this cryptid on ShukerNature].
Of course, one of the best possible ways of ascertaining the identity of at least one supposed shunka warak’in is to trace the Sherwood-owned taxiderm specimen, and perform DNA analysis on hair samples taken from it. So if you live in or plan to visit the West Yellowstonearea, and you happen to spot a strange-looking, stuffed ‘hyaena-wolf’ ensconced in a large glass case there, don’t shun it as a freak or a fake. Take some photos, ask its owners as many questions about it as you can, and please send me whatever images and information concerning it and its new location that you are able to. It may indeed prove to be nothing more startling than a shabbily-preserved wolf or dog – then again, it might prove to be a major cryptozoological find.
Cormocyon copei, a species of dog-like borophagine, depicted by Roger Witter in his Turtle Cove mural (public domain, according to Wikipedia – click herefor details)
Not long after my book containing the above account was published, a highly significant rediscovery was made – none other than the seemingly long-lost taxiderm ringdocus itself! Needless to say, I was most anxious to add details of this very important new episode in the history of the shunka warak’in to my earlier documentation of it, so an updated reprint of my book was swiftly published that contained the following additional coverage:
STOP PRESS: The long-lost stuffed ‘ringdocus’ (p. 99), which corresponded well with descriptions of the mysterious shunka warak’in, has been found! After reading a story about it in late October 2007, Jack Kirby, another grandson of Israel Hutchins, tracked down the elusive exhibit to the Idaho Museum of Natural History [IMNH] in Pocatello [where, unbeknownst to cryptozoologists, it had long been in storage together with Sherwood’s other taxiderm specimens, ever since they had all been donated to this museum]. Moreover, the museum agreed to loan it to Kirkby in order for it to be displayed at the Madison Valley History [Association] Museum [MVHAM, in Ennis, Montana]. A new examination of this famous specimen has revealed some previously-undocumented details. It measures 48 inches from the tip of its snout to its rump, not including its tail, and stands 27-28 in high at the shoulder. As portrayed in a photograph accompanying an article concerning its unexpected rediscovery published by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle on 15 November 2007 [click here to read this article and view the full-colour photo of it alongside Jack Kirby], its snout is noticeably narrow, and its coat is dark-brown, almost black, in colour, with lighter tan areas, and includes the faint impression of stripes on its flanks. Despite its age and travels around America, this potentially significant taxiderm specimen is in remarkably good condition, with no signs of wear or tear or even any fading of coat colouration. Could it truly be a shunka warak’in? And, if so, what in taxonomic terms is the shunka warak’in? Now that the lost has been found, DNA analyses of hair and tissue from the long-preserved exhibit may at last provide some answers.
More than a decade after I wrote the above stop-press account, however, my hopes and expectations that samples from the stuffed ringdocus (nowadays also known as The Beast) would be submitted for DNA analysis to reveal its taxonomic identity have still to be fulfilled. Apparently, this is or has been due at least in part to legality issues concerning which of the two museums featuring in this specimen’s modern-day history (i.e. the INHM and the MVHAM) has the legal authority to allow such samples to be procured from it and dispatched for testing – click herefor more details regarding this complex matter as contained within a Cryptomundo article authored and posted by Loren Coleman on 27 May 2009. Having said that: according to a noteworthy comment posted below that article on 21 September 2012 by now-retired museum professional/vertebrate palaeontologist Richard S. White, the INHM has deaccessioned the specimen and conveyed ownership of it to the person who had previously borrowed it, i.e. Jack Kirby, which if so presumably means, therefore, that responsibility for permitting or preventing DNA analyses now lies wholly within the MVHAM’s remit.
Meanwhile, I am pleased to be able to present herewith some interesting, hitherto-unpublished Beast data, in the form of first-hand eyewitness information and photographs kindly supplied to me by Shane Lea from Montana, plus details of a second, much more recent Montana mystery canid. Shane is a longstanding cryptozoological correspondent and friend of mine, who specifically visited Ennis’s MVHAM a few years ago in order to observe its most enigmatic exhibit, The Beast, where it has been housed ever since it was originally loaned there from the IMNH in 2007.
Enlargement photograph of a second picture postcard of The Beast (photograph © Shane Lea)
In a series of emails sent to me during May and June 2019, Shane revealed that the MVHAM is a small natural history museum containing a nice collection of familiar North American mammals, plus The Beast, which is contained within a large glass case at the front of the building. Due to a combination of poor lighting and camera-flash reflections off its glass case dooming to inevitable failure any attempt made to photograph this specimen directly, Shane chose instead to photograph in close-up a couple of full-colour picture postcards depicting it that he purchased there, and then print enlargements of his photos on glossy paper in order to exhibit and examine The Beast’s features afterwards in more detail.
When subsequently discussing its possible identity with me via email, Shane stated that he favoured a wolf, whereas I mentioned in reply that I leaned more towards either an exceedingly cross-bred domestic dog or the hybrid offspring of some such dog and a wolf. Both of us readily discounted any hyaena or prehistoric survivor identity, because it clearly was not the former and it appeared far too nondescript in appearance, relatively speaking, for it to be any of the latter options noted earlier here. To quote Shane:
[The] specimen I saw was no larger than an ordinary wolf…As I viewed “The Beast,” the whole time I was thinking in my mind “wolf.” Believe you me, I was looking for any hyena-like characteristics. No-one would love to find something “prehistoric” more than me, but, you have to keep your head on straight and be realistic, otherwise you’ll just end up fooling yourself. You brought up a very valid point that I had not considered before, the cross-breed consideration. One thing that always bothered me about the account of this beast, was that as recalled in the book: “Trails To Nature’s Mysteries,” this animal that was shot and killed, was described as being friendly toward the dogs around the ranch in Montana. Now, why would an animal described as “carrying-off-dogs” be friendly and non-aggressive w/dogs, unless it was actually part dog itself?
Trails To Nature’s Mysteries by Dr Ross E. Hutchins (© Dr Ross E. Hutchins/Dodd, Mead – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only – click here to purchase a copy on Amazon’s USA site)
This latter comment by Shane is a very valid one. For although it is not unknown for a wild canid to lack hostility towards an encountered domestic dog, such encounters generally involve either downright hostility or open avoidance between the two animals.
Equally worthy of note, however, is a comment dated 10 January 2008 and posted underneath a Cryptomundo news item authored on 15 November 2007 by Loren Coleman regarding The Beast’s rediscovery (click hereto read it), in which a reader with the username MustangAppy claimed:
I know for a fact that the previous Mammology [sic] Curator and the current Paleontology Curator at IMNH have both examined this animal and stated that this is a poorly mounted black wolf, period.
John James Audubon’s classic painting of a black wolf (public domain)
Also of interest is that in May 2018 a large canine mystery beast was once again shot in Montana. Here is what I subsequently wrote about it in one of my Alien Zoo cryptozoology news columns of 2018 for Fortean Times:
IS A MONTANACRYPTID CRYING WOLF? Even more perplexing and media headlines-generating is the mystifying canine cryptid that was shot on a private ranch near Denton in the Lewistown area of northcentral Montana, USA, on 16 May 2018. With long greyish-brown fur, a large head, and a definite canine appearance, it superficially recalls a wolf in overall form. Yet according to Ty Smucker, wolf management specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), who has examined close-up colour photos of this creature’s body, its feet seem too small, its ears too large, and its body and limbs too short. As to be expected, the story of its procurement and unresolved taxonomic status soon went viral on social media, resulting in a diverse array of identities having been proposed for it, ranging from the mundane to the monstrous. At one end of this taxonomic spectrum are suggestions that it may be a specimen of the elusive dogman, a bizarre entity whose existence remains unconfirmed but is said to be capable of walking bipedally, like a humanoid dog. A related notion, whose seriousness remains as undetermined as the creature’s identity, is that it is a werewolf. No less thought-provoking are opinions that it is nothing less than a dire wolf Canis dirus, a very large, burly New World species believed to have become extinct almost 10,000 years ago. Another postulated cryptozoological connection is one that links it to an equally contentious wolf-like or even hyaena-like American mystery beast known variously as the shunka warak’in or ringdocus, an alleged (but never verified) taxiderm specimen of which is currently on display at the Madison Valley History Association Museum [MVHAM] in Ennis, Montana. And then there is the proposal that it is a young, emaciated grizzly bear – but I have yet to see any young bear, emaciated or otherwise, that has a characteristically canine head and jaws, not to mention a long bushy tail! My own thoughts are that it is a pure-bred wolf, a wolf x domestic dog hybrid, or a pure-bred domestic dog but of decidedly crossbred ancestry in terms of the number and varieties of breeds that may well have contributed to it (i.e. a mongrel or mutt of no recognised heritage). Among domestic species of mammal, the domestic dog is unparalleled in terms of its morphological and genetic diversity, so much so that I have little doubt that this diversity could readily engender the phenotype of the Dentonbeast under consideration here. All too often in cryptozoology, an unusual specimen is procured, only for its remains to be discarded or lost without any samples having been secured from it and subjected to formal scientific examination. Happily, however, in this particular instance that sorry series of events has not occurred. Instead, FWP game wardens went to investigate it after it had been shot, and its entire carcase has been sent to their laboratory at Bozeman for continued study. Bruce Auchly, information manager for Montana FWP, has publicly stated that they are now awaiting a DNA report back from the lab, after which we may finally know whether Denton‘s cryptid was merely crying wolf or whether it really was something out of the ordinary. In mid-June, the results contained in that keenly-awaited DNA report were made public by Montana‘s FWP in an official press release. This revealed that despite the fact that certain investigators had opined that it looked odd, the mystery beast in question was in reality nothing more than a very ordinary adult female grey wolf Canis lupus. In other words, not a dire wolf at all, merely a dire disappointment, at least as far as some cryptozoologists were concerned. [A CBS news report of this specimen’s discovery and denouement that includes photographs of it can be accessed here.]
Conversely, neither of the two cryptozoologically fundamental questions regarding The Beast can be answered conclusively at present. What is its taxonomic identity? And regardless of what it is taxonomically, is The Beast one and the same as whatever the shunka warak’in is? (Always assuming, of course, that the shunka warak’in traditional folklore is actually based upon a real creature, rather than merely a wholly mythical, non-existent one.) Or, to combine the two: assuming once again that it is indeed real and not just a myth, is the shunka warak’in whatever The Beast is?
Digitally-created shunka warak’in image created by ‘69.146.147.248 aka A FANDOM User’ (who states here: “I’m happy to see it still floating around the internet” (© 69.146.147.248 aka A FANDOM User, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Let us hope that whatever legal wrangles may be impeding the prospect of samples from The Beast being made available for DNA analyses can be resolved in the near future, so that at least the first of these two questions can at last be answered. Of course, who can say whether the likelihood that an unidentified mystery beast will always attract more visitors than an identified non-mystery one may also be playing a part in this complex scenario…?
The last words on The Beast, ringdocus, guyasticutus, shunka warak’in, Rocky Mountain hyaena, or whatever else one chooses to term this most taxing of taxiderm specimens belong to Shane, to whom I owe a great debt of thanks for so very kindly providing me with his very informative insights and photographs regarding The Beast, and also for his unfailing support and encouragement that he has always given to me down through our many years of cryptozoological correspondence, which I appreciate most sincerely – thank you so much, Shane!!
For lack of a better name, the cryptid in Montana was also called “Ringdocus,” an unfortunate moniker. But…at least the “Ringdocus” was preserved and can be viewed to this day. That at least is some small consolation for the poor cryptid’s unfortunate demise. R.I.P. “Ringdocus,” whatever you are.
Amen to that!
My book Extraordinary Animals Revisited, in which I first documented the shunka warak’in and The Beast (© Dr Karl Shuker/CFZ Press)
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