Syndicated from the Web

DRAKE AND THE DRAGON – ON THE TRACK OF NEW GUINEA’S AWE-INSPIRING ARTRELLIA

by on Sep.18, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Is New Guinea home to gigantic monitor lizards? (© Dr Karl Shuker)
The surname ‘Drake’ is derived from ‘dragon’. Consequently, it is nothing if not appropriate that revealing a real-life dragon was one of the goals of ‘Operation Drake’. This was a two-year-long international voyage of scientific discovery spanning 1978-1980, which was mounted by the Scientific Exploration Society and led by intrepid world explorer Lieutenant-Colonel (now Colonel) John Blashford-Snell, featuring a global team of Young Explorers (aged 17-24), and named in honour of the famous Elizabethan circumnavigator Sir Francis Drake. As for the sought-after dragon, this was the much-dreaded Papuan dragon or artrellia said to inhabit the jungles of New Guinea. But let us begin at the beginning of this modern-day search for a veritable medieval monster.
Since the end of the 19th Century, reports of gigantic, often tree-climbing reptiles have been emerging quite regularly from Papua New Guinea (PNG, but known prior to the end of World War II as Australian New Guinea). This is the country occupying the eastern half of New Guinea – a vast island mini-continent that boasts a land area of more than 300,000 square miles, and constitutes the world’s second-largest island (only Greenland is larger). Said to be up to 30 ft, possibly even 40 ft, long (thereby far exceeding the length of even the biggest Komodo dragons – see later) and, in the case of mid-sized specimens, given to dropping down from overhanging branches onto unsuspecting creatures (and sometimes humans) walking by underneath, these ‘dragons’ are termed the artrellia by the New Guinea natives – who, understandably, live in considerable fear of these great beasts, and liken them to giant arboreal crocodiles or lizards. They have been given a number of local names, including the artrellia (also spelled variously as artrelia, atrela, otrelia, otrila, etc), the piako, and, in Neo-Melanesian Pidgin (Tok Pisin), the pukpuk bilong tri – a name that loosely translates as ‘tree-climbing crocodile’. Many Westerners have also seen them.
Some monitors are very adept arboreally (Wikipedia copyright-free image)
During the three Archbold Expeditions of 1933-1939 to New Guinea, sent out by New York’s American Museum of Natural History but financed and led by American zoologist and philanthropist Richard Archbold, the expedition members were consistently warned by their native helpers to beware of gigantic man-eating lizards that dwelt in the depths of this island’s unexplored jungles.
In World War II, moreover, a number of British, American, Australian, and Japanese soldiers stationed in what would become PNG claimed to have spied huge lizards estimated at 15-20 ft long. Similarly, in 1960 David Marsh (at that time District Commissioner of Port Moresby, PNG’s capital) stated that he had made two sightings of such reptiles during the early 1940s in western PNG. Also in 1960, two administration agricultural officers, Lindsay Green and Fred Kleckhan, succeeded in obtaining the skin and jawbone of a New Guinea ‘dragon’; they had discovered these relics in a native village near Kairuku, 70 miles northwest of Port Moresby. Moreover, a report in Brisbane’s Courier Mail newspaper for 22 January 1960 quoted PNG Patrol Officer Ian Gibbons as stating:
Wherever I have gone in the coastal districts of the territory where wallabies are common, I have found natives who know of these dragons. In several places I had natives do drawings of the dragons. The drawings were amazingly similar and looked very much like a photograph of the Komodo dragon.
A Komodo dragon Varanus komodoensis, the world’s largest lizard currently known by science to exist today © Dr Karl Shuker)
Most exciting of all, and at the same time that these above-noted reports from 1960 were being publicised, Rachel Cleland – the wife of the then-Administrator at Port Moresby – claimed that in August 1959 she had actually seen a living specimen in captivity in the remote Daru district, during a visit to a mission station near Balimo, and that she had been told by a missionary there that the local natives had seen some 20-ft-long specimens. As far as I am aware, however, no photographs of the captive specimen were taken, nor any record documented of its fate (and that of its remains if it died in captivity rather than being released back into the wild at some point).
In 1961, explorers David George and Robert Grant encountered a giant lizard in the Strachan Island District of southern PNG. According to their description, it stood almost 4 ft high, was grey in colour, with a 3-ft-long neck, and a total length estimated by them to be approximately 26 ft. Not surprisingly, they kept their distance from this leviathanesque lizard, watching no doubt with great relief when it disappeared into the surrounding jungle.
Journey Into The Stone Age by David M. Davies (© David M. Davies/Robert Hale Ltd – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
The trail of the artrellia was evidently growing ever warmer, and fresh findings continued to be made as the years rolled by. In his book Journey Into The Stone Age (1969), traveller David M. Davies recalled being shown by some primitive valley-inhabiting PNG natives an unusual native drawing on a cave wall, which appeared to depict a huge lizard running on its hind legs, and of which his native companions were evidently very afraid:
The rain continued to pour down, and we noticed some scratches on the walls, so we turned our attention to these. We could make out some crude drawings of birds which showed that these people, like the Papuans outside the valley, had a bird complex. But there was also a queer creature drawn very large on the wall. It seemed to represent a huge lizard which was running on its hind legs. I remembered the reports of [Jim] Taylor and [Ivan] Champion, early explorers in Australian New Guinea [see below], who had seen these lizards and described them as very large and living in trees. On one of the expeditions Champion spoke of a local man who had been killed by such a lizard, which had dropped on to him from a tree. John (one of the missionaries) said he had heard something about them from the New Guineans themselves, but had never met anyone who had seen one. As we pointed at the drawing our hosts drew back, the whites of their eyes flashing. It seemed to be the only thing of which they were afraid.
Sent forth by Lieutenant Governor Hubert Murray to do the honours for his Papuan administration, during the late 1920s North-West Patrol Officers Ivan Champion and Charles Karius found fame by becoming the first white explorers to traverse New Guinea across its widest point, crossing from the headwaters of the Fly River to the Sepik River. After being thwarted by a seemingly impenetrable mountain wall on their first attempt, they successfully achieved this impressive navigational feat on their second, which concluded in 1928. Champion published full details of their epic journey, what they encountered, and all manner of interesting native testimony in his book Across New Guinea From the Fly to the Sepik (1932). As for explorer Jim Taylor, he famously led expeditions into Australian New Guinea’s Highlands during the 1930s.
Location of Fly River in PNG (© Roke/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
A major artrellia breakthrough occurred less than a decade after the 1969 publication of Davies’s book when, in December 1978, news emerged concerning the successful filming three months earlier of a 2.8-m- (9-ft-) long New Guinea dragon by Jean Becker and Christian Meyer near the Fly River. Apparently, it was just one of a population of such creatures believed to exist in southern PNG, and which seemed to be monitor lizards. However, it was still not clear whether they constituted a new species.
That issue was finally resolved during the South Pacific phase of ‘Operation Drake’, via an expedition in December 1979/January 1980 to the PNG swamplands, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Blashford-Snell. As he subsequently documented in his book Mysteries: Encounters With the Unexplained (1983), he had heard numerous native stories of these enormous beasts, and was regaled with tales of their ferocity and the danger to anyone seeking to capture one of them. Notwithstanding this, he was so intrigued by these reports that he became determined to resolve this longstanding zoological mystery once and for all – by revealing conclusively both the reality and the zoological identity of New Guinea’s fearsome dragon.
Lieutenant-Colonel Blashford-Snell (© Centre for Fortean Zoology)
Sadly, however, his expedition’s attempts to achieve these goals consistently met with failure as the natives were very loathe to participate in the pursuit – until he resorted to an age-old but universally successful ploy. He bribed them! And sure enough, on 12 December 1979 in the coastal village of Masingara, west of Daru in PNG’s Western Province, he was duly presented with a real-life artrellia, which had been shot by a villager but was still alive when brought back into camp. True, it was far from the 30-ft monster that the expedition team had been hoping for, measuring instead a mere 6 ft 1.5 in (which included a 4 ft-1.25-in tail). Nevertheless, the natives were still palpably nervous of this dying mini-dragon, and assured the team unhesitatingly that it was a genuine artrellia, albeit a very young one (on 11 January 1980 its formalin-preserved body was presented to PNG’s National Museum in Port Moresby).
When it was examined by the team’s zoologist, Ian Redmond (destined to become a world-renowned conservationist), he recognized its species straight away. It was a frequently arboreal lizard known zoologically as Varanus salvadorii, Salvadori’s monitor (not to be confused – although it often is – with the similarly-named salvator monitor Varanus salvator). Moreover, he confirmed that this was indeed only a very young specimen – so to what size could fully-adult ones grow? Handsomely marked with black and gold spots, it was equipped with a fiery-colored flame-thrower facsimile for a tongue continually flicking in and out of its mouth in faithful homage to those conflagrating dragons of legend, and explaining Papuan native testimony that the artrellia breathes fire. Certainly, Salvadori’s monitor is a visually impressive species and is known from fully-confirmed records to exceed 10 feet in total length quite regularly when adult, thereby making it the longest species of lizard alive today in the world.
Salvadori’s monitor (public domain)
Worth noting here, incidentally, is that the title of the world’s longest species of lizard is often, but erroneously, ascribed to a famous relative of Salvadori’s monitor – the Komodo dragon Varanus komodoensis, native to Komodo and a few other small Indonesian islands. In reality, however, the Komodo dragon is not the longest, because it rarely exceeds 10 ft – but it is the largest. The reason for this distinction is that whereas at least two-thirds of the total length of Salvadori’s monitor consists of its very slender tail, the tail of the Komodo dragon only accounts for half of its total length – so the Komodo dragon is much sturdier and heavier than the more svelte, lightweight Salvadori’s monitor.
Adding further support to this latter species being one and the same as the legendary artrellia, it has long been known that natives inhabiting the Fly River area of PNG commonly refer to Salvadori’s monitor as the tree crocodile. It is the largest of the seven varanid species known to exist on New Guinea, and inhabits lowland forests as well as coastal mangrove swamps, but usually in fairly remote, largely inaccessible localities, making field studies of this impressive species difficult to undertake.
The Fly River (public domain)
Based upon the sizeable number of reports describing quite immense artrellias in New Guinea, it would seem that Salvadori’s monitor can far exceed even the longest officially verified record for its species – that of 15 ft 7 in, recorded from a male specimen measured over 30 years ago by researcher Michael Pope. So far, however, no-one has captured a 30-ft or 40-ft artrellia (not even a 20-ft specimen, in fact), but sightings continue. In the more remote jungles and swamps of New Guinea (of which there are a very great many still in need of scientific investigation, not only in PNG but also in this vast island’s western, Indonesian half – formerly known as Irian Jaya), which are little-frequented by native tribes and scarcely explored at all by Westerners, thereby constituting sanctuaries for larger forms of life, it is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility that extra-large artrellia specimens do indeed exist, undisturbed and free from human persecution.
During that same ‘Operation Drake’ expedition, Ian Redmond had a brief but direct face-to-face encounter with what may well have been a sizeable Salvadori’s monitor. He was later interviewed on-screen concerning his experience for an episode of the very popular television series ‘Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World’ (first screened in 1980) that dealt with a wide range of mystery beasts from around the world (the episode in question was entitled ‘Dragons, Dinosaurs and Giant Snakes’). Here is his verbatim account of that notable confrontation:
We were staking out water-holes, because the lizard has to come for water every day, and some of the water-holes are in a creek bed. So you’re below the level of the forest floor, in a creek bed, by a pool. And one day, there were two of us, a few hundred yards apart – I was sitting by one pool, another chap by another pool. And I’d been sitting there for several hours, and nothing happening, it was about 10 o’clock in the morning. And I heard these footsteps. It’s a forest floor, so there’s lots of dry leaves on the floor. This is quiet, softly scrunching of dry leaves. Now, if you hear a lizard moving through the forest, it’s a scurrying sound, it doesn’t sound like footsteps. And I thought it must be either the other chap coming over – whether he was playing about and trying to sneak up on me, I didn’t know. But it sounded very stealthy. So I was sitting down there, and I hear this coming up behind me. And obviously, you decide, at some point you’ve got to have a look. So, as they were getting closer, I thought: “Well, person or animal, I’m going to see what it is”. So I slowly sat up and looked around. And about 10 ft away – my eyes were about on the level of the bank – about 10 ft away, there was a log, and just over the log was this great lizard head. Now, I couldn’t see the whole body, but I could see that the head and shoulders were a lot lot bigger than the one which had been shot. So I went down for my camera again, and as I went down to get my camera the lizard moved away.
And here is the episode itself, currently uploaded and viewable on YouTube – Ian’s interview begins at 13 min 30 sec into the video: 
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fanU9tzmvRs
I have known Ian for some years, and when I mentioned to him that I was preparing this article he very kindly sent me his unpublished field notes concerning the search by him and others during ‘Operation Drake’ for the artrellia, and he gave me full permission to cite anything from them in my article that I so wished – thank you very much, Ian! This has enabled me to incorporate a number of important details throughout this article that had not previously been publicly available, and I now have a specific date for Ian’s famous sighting of the lizard head above the log – 16 December 1979. Moreover, in view of his sighting’s great significance in the search for the artrellia, I feel that it would be very valuable and insightful to read Ian’s account of it in his field notes for that date, especially as it includes some very interesting additional information not previously revealed, so here it is:
16th December 1979
10.00am:  Sitting in creek bed beside small pool.  Hear what sounds like the cautious step of a bare-foot human approaching from W (rear);  slowly raise my head above bank and see at approx. 8-10m [possibly meant 8-10 ft, which would then correspond with his TV interview’s 10-ft statement, or vice-versa?] the head and shoulders of an ATRELA – it freezes, I reach down for my camera but it moves away (not hurried, at the same pace) out of sight but not far.  Nothing further heard – perhaps up tree?  Seemed bigger than 6ft 1.5in specimen – perhaps 8ft? total length.
Round bend in creek bed, found firm clay pig wallow with tracks of large monitor, some complicated by overlying tracks of smaller one.   Fore-foot tracks were 8-9cm long (not clear palm of hand) and 4cm wide; heels of hind-foot very clear (imprint of scales visible) and were 24cm apart (between centre of left heel to centre of right heel).  Footprint minus toes was about 10.5cm by 5.5cm, and very clear length of outer toe to heel of left foot was 13cm.   If the ratio of outer toe/foot length to total length of the 6ft 1.5in is the same as for this individual, it would be approx. 302-345cm total length.
The pool and creek bed featured in Ian’s sighting were located just outside the village of Tati, which was a two-and-a half-hour walk northeast of Masingara, where the 6-ft-1.5-in specimen had been shot four days earlier.
Close-up of the head of a Salvadori’s monitor, revealing this species’ characteristic bulbous snout (Wikipedia copyright-free image)
Local reports often claim that the artrellia will sometimes rise up onto its hind legs, and that in this position big specimens can stand 10 ft tall, looking positively dinosaurian in appearance. On 1 January 1980, Ian had been walking back to Masingara from the village of Giringorede with a native hunter named Buwae Gire. In the Giringorede dialect, the artrellia is known as the piako, and Gire informed Ian that an old man had actually sat on top of one such beast, having mistaken it for a fallen tree trunk until it moved and then abruptly reared up onto its hind legs. The piako didn’t attack him, but not surprisingly he fled away in terror.In his field notes for that day, Ian recorded the following additional information given to him by Gire:
[The old man] estimated its length to be 12 paces (he [Gire] paced the length for me) – i.e. about 36 ft.
Biggest one seen by Buwae himself was about 16 feet (I measured the distance along the ground indicated by him). He sometimes eats smaller ones; they are quite common in the area – while walking he would expect to see one every hour or hour and a half.  They eat animals that they catch by jumping from a tree.  I asked if he had ever seen this, and he said yes. I asked him what the lizard caught on that occasion, and he replied, “One of my hunting dogs!” This had the ring of truth about it, and I saw no reason to doubt his observations.
As recorded by a number of herpetological observers and researchers down through the years, including John Netherton and David P. Badger in their book Lizards: A Natural History of Some Uncommon Creatures (2002), it is well known that some species of monitor – including Salvadori’s – will indeed raise themselves up like this to scrutinize their surroundings. They can even briefly run bipedally too, on their hind legs alone, should the need arise. Such behaviour could also explain the cave drawing reported by David M. Davies.
Artistic representation of an au angi angi (© William M. Rebsamen)
Finally: Another mystery monitor reported from New Guinea but far less familiar, cryptozoologically speaking, than the artrellia is the au angi angi. Whereas the artrellia is said to be terrestrial and arboreal, the au angi angi is reputedly amphibious, a freshwater form inhabiting a number of swamps and rivers, and allegedly measuring up to 27 ft long, thereby indicating that there could be exceptionally large specimens of water monitor still awaiting verification on this mini-island continent too. Moreover, along the banks of New Guinea’s Casurina coast is said to live a monstrous form of lizard larger than the Komodo dragon and known by the natives of that region as the cuscus (but not to be confused with the possum-related New Guinea – and Australian – marsupials of that same name).
Over the years, I’ve noted on a number of occasions that just like most things, mystery beasts have a tendency to go in and out of fashion. At present, the artrellia seems to be one that is very much out of fashion, inasmuch as it rarely rates a mention in surveys of mystery creatures even of passing interest to cryptozoologists, let alone ones that are actively being sought by them in the field. This may be due to the revelation by the ‘Operation Drake’ team that the artrellia belongs to a species already known to science, with the attendant implication that seeking it further is therefore no longer of cryptozoological –or even of mainstream zoological – interest.
Head and neck of an adult Salvadori’s monitor – a veritable dragon of Papua? (copyright-free Wikipedia image)
Yet if native testimony is to be believed (and the capture of the young artrellia in December 1979  confirmed that such a creature did indeed exist and was not merely a myth), there are huge artrellia specimens still out there in the jungles and swamplands of New Guinea awaiting formal confirmation of their reality – a reality that may in turn affirm that the Komodo dragon is not the largest living species of lizard after all, that instead we should be handing over this longstanding record to some truly gargantuan Salvadori’s monitors instead. That should be exciting enough, surely, to warrant new quests for such goliaths of the reptile world. Then again, that may perhaps equally explain at least some of the reluctance to go forth in search of them. After all, to seek veritable dragons, we need a literal St George, or at least a modern-day Sir Francis Drake, and such brave, determined heroes may well be as difficult to locate in today’s unadventurous times as the dragons themselves!
I wish to offer my very sincere thanks to Ian Redmond for sharing with me and permitting me to utilize for this article his field notes from the ‘Operation Drake’ PNG expedition as well as an unpublished paper incorporating them that he co-authored with the late Mark K. Bayless. Mark was an extremely knowledgeable herpetoculturist from California who was also a longstanding friend of mine, having swapped a considerable amount of cryptozoological information with me down through the years relating to herpetology, and whose untimely death in November 2006 at the age of only 46 devastated me. RIP Mark, you are greatly missed, and I am dedicating this ShukerNature blog article of mine to your memory.
POSTSCRIPT – 10 September 2020
Today I received the following fascinating email from Jordan Beck who as a missionary’s son has lived and grown up among the tribal people in Indonesian New Guinea (the western half of New Guinea). Here is the very intriguing information contained in his email to me:
Hi I recently read you article Drake and the Dragon [a hard copy version of this online ShukerNature blog article] and I was really fascinated by it. I am a missionary kid in Papua Indonesia and I live in the lowland swamps. Our tribal people have stories of lizards that eat people, boars and cassowaries. When I showed them your article they all pointed to the Komodo Dragon and said that’s the lizard that eats people. When I asked them if they had seen it they all said that they had and they said if you see them run. When I asked them how big they get they said roughly a size of 15-19 ft. When I showed them the Croc monitor [Salvadori’s monitor] they said the large man eating lizard was black like the Komodo Dragon not spotted. On another account we were up river on a[n] adventure and on the beach I found 6 inches wide monitor foot prints in the sand [-] when I showed our guide he told us that those were the foot prints of the large man eating lizards and that we should keep a careful watch on the surrounding jungle.
Could it be that there is an extra-large version of Salvadori’s monitor inhabiting this section of New Guinea that is not spotted? Such a lizard would superficially resemble the Komodo dragon, and therefore explain why the New Guinea tribal people questioned by Jordan selected photos of this latter non-native species as resembling the dreaded man-eating giant lizards claimed by them to exist here.
Alongside a life-sized Komodo dragon model (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Leave a Comment more...

MOON CARROT MUSINGS AND MEMORIES – BUT NOT FORGETTING MOON-CALVES, MANDRAKES, AND A PARCEL THAT TALKS!

by on Sep.11, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Hardback first edition of The Talking Parcel(© Gerald Durrell/HarperCollins – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Moon carrots may not seem the most obvious choice of subject for a ShukerNature blog article, but there is good reason for my doing so, inasmuch as there is what I believe to be a hitherto-unrevealed link between these exotic-sounding plants and a noteworthy devotee of cryptozoology who featured them in a delightful children’s novel replete with mythological creatures of many kinds. But to begin at the beginning…
The existence of moon carrots was first brought to my attention when, as a child, my grandad Ernest Timmins (my mother’s father) bought for me as a Christmas present in 1968 (my ninth Christmas) an absolutely wonderful book entitled The Natural History of Europe.
The Natural History of Europe – from countless readings of my much-loved copy of this book (containing a greatly-treasured handwritten message inside from Grandad, who passed away just a few years later), and which I still own today, its dustjacket was totally wrecked many years ago, but I was eventually able to buy a replacement for it, seen here (© Harry Garms/Wilhelm Eigener/Paul Hamlyn Publishing Group – reproduced on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
My copy was the second impression (published in 1968) of the 1967 English-language version of a German book entitled Pflanzen und Tiere Europas(‘European Plants and Animals’) that had originally been published in 1962. Written by Harry Garms and brimming throughout with the most delightful full-colour illustrations by Wilhelm Eigener, this fascinating book documented a vast array of fauna and flora inhabiting Europe, many of which were entirely new to me at that tender age, so it was instrumental in teaching me an immense amount about this continent’s wildlife. Its contents were divided up into several discrete habitat-themed sections: Woods and Forests; Heath, Moor and Tundra; Freshwater; Sea and Shore; Meadows and Pastureland; Field, Garden and Park; and Mountains.
One of the non-British plants documented and depicted on p. 182 in the Meadows and Pastureland section was the annual moon carrot Seseli annuum. Yet in spite of its imaginative English name, it turned out merely to be a species of herb, albeit one that is indeed taxonomically akin to the true carrot Daucus carota sativus by being a member of the same plant family, Apiaceae (the umbellifers), and similarly producing a conical taproot. (Moreover, a closely related species, Seseli sibirica [= sibiricum], known simply as the moon carrot but native to Britain this time, was included on p. 222 in the Field, Garden and Park section.)
Moon carrot flowers – more than a hundred Seselispecies are known, and many are referred to colloquially as moon carrots (© Andrey Zharkikh/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)
Nevertheless, I was not the only person who was captivated by the moon carrot’s memorable moniker. So too was the wildlife celebrity who had penned a foreword to this book – none other than Jersey Zoo founder, bestselling author, and longstanding cryptozoological enthusiast Gerald Durrell. Indeed, within his witty foreword can be found the following wonderful, inimitably Durrellesque lines, celebrating the fact that not only is this book an indispensable addition to the luggage of any keen naturalist visiting Europe but also:
…it is worth possessing for the sheer poetry that it contains. Who would mind an insect bite or two providing you were sure that they had been inflicted by the Spangle-winged Mosquito? Who, when swimming in the sea, would not be charmed to meet a fish called a Dentex (which sounds faintly like a new brand of toothpaste), or the Painted Comber (which must surely have some connection with mermaids)? But it is among the plants that the botanists have really let themselves run wild. Who would not stop, even on an autobahn, to get more closely acquainted with a Nodding Bur-marigold or Curtis’s Mouse-ear or the Ramping Fumitory or even the Hawkweed Treacle-mustard? Who would not love to watch some worthy farmer gathering his crop of Annual Moon Carrot?
A portion of p. 182 from The Natural History of Europe that contains its description and depiction of the annual moon carrot – click to enlarge for reading purposes (© Harry Garms/Wilhelm Eigener/Paul Hamlyn Publishing Group – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
It has been over 50 years since I first read those delightfully evocative words, but typing them here now it seems like only yesterday, as they made such a deep impression in my memory – and not only in mine. Fast-forward a decade, and by the end of the 1970s I had joyfully read every book written up until then by Gerald Durrell himself, chronicling his numerous animal-collecting expeditions to all manner of far-flung tropical lands, his founding of Jersey Zoo, and of course his enchanting childhood as a passionate boy-naturalist growing up with his family (and other animals) on the idyllic Greek island of Corfu.
What I hadn’t realized, however, was that he had also written some children’s fantasy novels – until, when browsing through a bookshop one day during the early 1980s, I happened upon a paperback edition of one of them, entitled The Talking Parcel. The copy that I was looking at and duly purchased had been published in 1983 by Lions, of Fontana, and was the fifth impression of the Lions 1976 paperback edition. The original hardback edition, whose colourful dustjacket depicted a very imposing cockatrice in fiery finery (see this present ShukerNature blog article’s opening picture), had been published two years earlier by Collins, in 1974 (and is now extremely collectable!).
My Lions paperback edition of Gerald Durrell’s novel The Talking Parcel (© Gerald Durrell/Lions, of Fontana – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Back home, I started reading my latest literary acquisition straight away, whose story concerns three children (Penelope, Simon, and Peter) who find a talking parcel on the beach, which when opened reveals inside a somewhat bossy parrot (named Parrot – or, as he prefers to be called, The Parrot), who takes them to the fantasy land of Mythologia in order to rescue its kindly old magician, H.H., from the clutches of the dreadful cockatrices. Needless to say, I was delighted to discover that its story features all manner of other mythological and even cryptozoological creatures too, including werewolves, mermaids, griffons, phoenixes, shrieking mandrake plants, Tabitha the last dragon, a sea serpent named Oswald, and even some delightful Durrell-created beasties known as moon-calves. These latter animals are giant dark-green snails with golden and green shells but the heads of mooing bull calves, whose shells bear Hot and Cold taps for releasing milk as well as a third one specifically for cream. But my greatest surprise and pleasure came from finding that The Talking Parcelcontains numerous references to none other than moon carrots! However, these are no ordinary ones – for as explained on p. 88 of my paperback copy, they had been created by the afore-mentioned magician H.H., are striped red and white, and, when hung up to dry after having being gathered, reveal written inscriptions upon their outer surface that are instructions for preparing whatever delicious full-course meal they describe, using nothing more than the special powder contained inside them.
Bearing in mind that his novel The Talking Parcel was not published until 1974, whereas he had written his moon carrot-mentioning foreword for The Natural History of Europe some time prior to its publication in 1967, I think it very likely that the moon carrot’s presence in the latter book had served as direct inspiration for Gerald Durrell (whose foreword for it revealed that he had clearly been entertained by this plant’s name) to incorporate it within his subsequent novel, albeit in a now much-magicalised form. And if so, how happy I am that it did, elevating what had hitherto been an obscure, little-known plant outside botanical circles into a magical delight that has since charmed, and continues to charm, generations of children – as well as a fair few parents – and not only via his original novel.
A publicity image for The Talking Parcel animated feature (© Brian Cosgrove/Mark Hall/Cosgrove Hall Films – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
In 1978, an extremely prolific UK-based animation studio named Cosgrove Hall Films (after its founder animators Brian Cosgrove and Mark Hall, and famed for such still-popular, fondly-remembered children’s TV shows as Danger Mouse, SuperTed, Chorlton and the Wheelies, The Wind on the Willows, and Count Dukula), released a 40-minute animated version of The Talking Parcel, adapted from Durrell’s novel by Rosemary Anne Sisson and directed by Brian Cosgrove himself. Its beloved characters are voiced by some of Britain’s most popular actors and actresses at that time, including Freddie Jones as Parrot, Windsor Davies as the bombastic Chief Cockatrice Roy Kinnear as a shifty but ultimately loyal toad named Ethelred, Mollie Sugden as Hortense the French flying train, and Sir Michael Hordern as Oswald the sea serpent. Of the original three children in the novel, only Penelope appears in this cartoon version, but otherwise it adheres fairly closely to the novel’s basic storyline. Moreover, in faithful homage to the novel’s introductory chapter, it opens with a scene featuring Parrot inside the parcel singing two verses of a very catchy song entitled ‘Moon Carrot Pie’ (the novel contains additional verses).
The Talking Parcelanimated movie has been screened (and watched by me) a number of times on the UK TV channel ITV down through the years, and it has also been officially released on both VHS videocassette and DVD (although I have yet to find a reasonably-priced one in either format to add to my collection of animated productions). If you’d like to view it right now, however, you can currently do so here, free of charge, on YouTube. And so, altogether now:
Moon carrot Pie, Moon carrot Pie,
It’ll liven you up, bring a gleam to your eye.
Oh, a dragon, a unicorn, sea serpent high,
They all love their slices of
Moon carrot Pie.
My grandad Ernest Timmins with me, mid-1960s (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Leave a Comment more...

REVIEWING ‘THE DARK’ (AKA ‘THE RELIC’ AKA ‘THE GOD RAT’)

by on Sep.09, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Three different video/DVD covers for The Dark – the centre picture is on the cover of the DVD version that I own (© Craig Pryce/Lightshow Communications – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Readers of ShukerNature may not all know that in July 2020 I launched a new blog, Shuker In MovieLand (SIML), in which I review all manner of movies (and occasionally TV shows) that I’ve previously watched. They include a wide range of genres, from sci-fi, fantasy, super-heroes, and animation, to musicals, comedy, historical drama, crime fiction, and much more besides. Needless to say, however, as a cryptozoologist I have a particular preference for monster movies, and have already reviewed on SIML several films that contain a cryptozoology theme. Most of these are well known movies, but, intriguingly, the review of mine on SIML that currently boasts more hits than any other is of a very obscure, little-known monster movie, variously entitled The Dark, The Relic, and The God Rat.
As I feel sure that it will be of interest to ShukerNature readers too, I am reproducing my review of this movie here, and I earnestly suggest that you seek out the movie itself and watch it, because it makes very entertaining viewing. So, without further ado, here is my review of The Dark, whose original, shorter version I posted on my Facebook timeline on 30 November 2019.
Last night [29 November 2019] I watched a long-anticipated cryptozoology-themed movie, The Dark (aka The Relicaka The God Rat – see later), originally released in Italy in 1993. Directed by Craig Pryce, it stars Stephen McHattie as a leather-jacketed, motorbike-riding cryptozoologist (sounds familiar??) named Gary ‘Hunter’ Henderson. He is seeking a mysterious, scientifically-undescribed subterranean beast akin to a giant carnivorous rodent that excavates huge tunnels underneath a graveyard, feeds upon recently-interred corpses, and secretes a slimy substance that has miraculous, swift-acting healing properties. Filmed in Canada, this unusual movie also stars Neve Campbell, making her big-screen debut, as Hunter’s girlfriend Jesse Donovan.
The monster is only seen in brief glimpses, and then only its toothy long-jawed head and long-clawed forepaws for the most part. The plot is fairly pedestrian – a good cryptozoologist seeking to study and preserve the creature for its taxonomic significance as an apparent prehistoric survivor and also for its slime’s potentially immense medicinal benefits versus a bad vengeful ex-cop relentlessly seeking to slay it in revenge for its self-defence killing of his police partner when he was still on the force.
Stephen McHattie as Gary ‘Hunter’ Henderson in The Dark (© Craig Pryce/Lightshow Communications – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
However, what has always intrigued me about this movie, which had particularly spurred me on for so long to seek it out on DVD (no easy matter!) and view it, was that its cryptid subject is more than a little reminiscent of a bona fide mystery beast. Reported from Scotland, this latter cryptid is known as the earth hound, and is indeed said to frequent graveyards and devour buried corpses. My book Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999) was the first crypto-book to investigate and document the earth hound, but if you click hereyou can access a ShukerNature blog article of mine concerning this fascinating mystery beast.
The DVD of The Dark that I own actually has a German-language cover (see centre picture in the trio of photographs opening this present blog post), on which this movie is entitled The Relic(in English) and The God Rat (in German), but the movie that plays on the DVD disc itself is the original English version and is entitled in its opening credits as The Dark.
Incidentally, this present movie should not be confused – but often is – with another cryptozoology-themed film also entitled The Relic. Directed by Peter Hyams and originally released in 1997, its very different plot concerns a monstrous entity inadvertently transported back to the USA from South America, which duly runs amok in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. I have this movie on DVD too, but haven’t watched it yet – be sure that once I do, however, I shall be duly reviewing on Shuker In MovieLand!
Last, but by no means least, The Dark is currently available (as of today, 10 September 2020, anyway) to watch in its entirety free of charge on YouTube (click here to do so). Consequently, if you’re a fan of monster movies with a cryptozoology theme like I am, I strongly recommend that you make the most of this golden opportunity to watch this otherwise difficult-to-find movie while you can, in case it is subsequently deleted from YT.
Reconstruction of the likely appearance in life of the mysterious earth hound as based upon alleged eyewitness descriptions (© William M. Rebsamen)

Leave a Comment more...

REVIEWING ‘THE DARK’ (AKA ‘THE RELIC’ AKA ‘THE GOD RAT’)

by on Sep.09, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Three different video/DVD covers for The Dark – the centre picture is on the cover of the DVD version that I own (© Craig Pryce/Lightshow Communications – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Readers of ShukerNature may not all know that in July 2020 I launched a new blog, Shuker In MovieLand (SIML), in which I review all manner of movies (and occasionally TV shows) that I’ve previously watched. They include a wide range of genres, from sci-fi, fantasy, super-heroes, and animation, to musicals, comedy, historical drama, crime fiction, and much more besides. Needless to say, however, as a cryptozoologist I have a particular preference for monster movies, and have already reviewed on SIML several films that contain a cryptozoology theme. Most of these are well known movies, but, intriguingly, the review of mine on SIML that currently boasts more hits than any other is of a very obscure, little-known monster movie, variously entitled The Dark, The Relic, and The God Rat.
As I feel sure that it will be of interest to ShukerNature readers too, I am reproducing my review of this movie here, and I earnestly suggest that you seek out the movie itself and watch it, because it makes very entertaining viewing. So, without further ado, here is my review of The Dark, whose original, shorter version I posted on my Facebook timeline on 30 November 2019.
Last night [29 November 2019] I watched a long-anticipated cryptozoology-themed movie, The Dark (aka The Relicaka The God Rat – see later), originally released in Italy in 1993. Directed by Craig Pryce, it stars Stephen McHattie as a leather-jacketed, motorbike-riding cryptozoologist (sounds familiar??) named Gary ‘Hunter’ Henderson. He is seeking a mysterious, scientifically-undescribed subterranean beast akin to a giant carnivorous rodent that excavates huge tunnels underneath a graveyard, feeds upon recently-interred corpses, and secretes a slimy substance that has miraculous, swift-acting healing properties. Filmed in Canada, this unusual movie also stars Neve Campbell, making her big-screen debut, as Hunter’s girlfriend Jesse Donovan.
The monster is only seen in brief glimpses, and then only its toothy long-jawed head and long-clawed forepaws for the most part. The plot is fairly pedestrian – a good cryptozoologist seeking to study and preserve the creature for its taxonomic significance as an apparent prehistoric survivor and also for its slime’s potentially immense medicinal benefits versus a bad vengeful ex-cop relentlessly seeking to slay it in revenge for its self-defence killing of his police partner when he was still on the force.
Stephen McHattie as Gary ‘Hunter’ Henderson in The Dark (© Craig Pryce/Lightshow Communications – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
However, what has always intrigued me about this movie, which had particularly spurred me on for so long to seek it out on DVD (no easy matter!) and view it, was that its cryptid subject is more than a little reminiscent of a bona fide mystery beast. Reported from Scotland, this latter cryptid is known as the earth hound, and is indeed said to frequent graveyards and devour buried corpses. My book Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999) was the first crypto-book to investigate and document the earth hound, but if you click hereyou can access a ShukerNature blog article of mine concerning this fascinating mystery beast.
The DVD of The Dark that I own actually has a German-language cover (see centre picture in the trio of photographs opening this present blog post), on which this movie is entitled The Relic(in English) and The God Rat (in German), but the movie that plays on the DVD disc itself is the original English version and is entitled in its opening credits as The Dark.
Incidentally, this present movie should not be confused – but often is – with another cryptozoology-themed film also entitled The Relic. Directed by Peter Hyams and originally released in 1997, its very different plot concerns a monstrous entity inadvertently transported back to the USA from South America, which duly runs amok in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. I have this movie on DVD too, but haven’t watched it yet – be sure that once I do, however, I shall be duly reviewing on Shuker In MovieLand!
Last, but by no means least, The Dark is currently available (as of today, 10 September 2020, anyway) to watch in its entirety free of charge on YouTube (click here to do so). Consequently, if you’re a fan of monster movies with a cryptozoology theme like I am, I strongly recommend that you make the most of this golden opportunity to watch this otherwise difficult-to-find movie while you can, in case it is subsequently deleted from YT.
Reconstruction of the likely appearance in life of the mysterious earth hound as based upon alleged eyewitness descriptions (© William M. Rebsamen)

Leave a Comment more...

FOXED BY THE TALE OF A FOX WITH TWO TAILS!

by on Sep.01, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Johann E. Ridinger’s exquisite engraving of what Germany’s two-tailed fox from 1734 may have looked like in life, and which I have lightly tinted here for purely aesthetic reasons (public domain)
During more than three decades as a full-time cryptozoologist and animal anomalist, I have received my fair share of intriguing, unexpected communications, but one of the most interesting and unusual of these arrived very recently, in the form of an email from a correspondent (who wishes to remain anonymous) on behalf of his son, asking me if I had ever encountered any real-life reports of foxes with two tails.
As it so happens, I had. Delving deep into my archives, I dragged out a 19th-Century periodical report that I’d had on file for almost 30 years, documenting just such a creature and even including an engraving of what it may have looked like in life (which is the picture that opens this present ShukerNature blog article of mine), but I had never done anything with it.
Consequently, I lost no time in scanning this long-neglected account and emailing it to my correspondent. Moreover, this in turn inspired me to document it on ShukerNature – so here it is.
Portrait from 1880 of Frank Buckland (public domain)
Published in the 6 May 1876 issue of the British nature periodical Land and Water (vol 21, p 338), the report in question had been written by none other than eminent English zoologist and natural historian Frank Buckland (1826-1888), who (rather like me) had always been fascinated by the more eccentric examples to be found among the vast diversity of Nature. Here is what he wrote:
FOX WITH TWO BRUSHES…
Our esteemed correspondent, “C.,” has been kind enough to send tracings of some remarkable drawings that occur in Ridinger’s celebrated work. About 150 years ago, this wonderful artist brought out his celebrated copperplates or etchings, of which the following are considered the best: Eight plates of wild animals; forty plates of observations of wild animals; fables of animals, sixteen plates; hunting of animals of the chase by dogs, eight plates; Paradise, in twelve plates. I confess I was rather astonished to see that there had ever existed such a thing as a fox with two brushes. Ridinger, however, must have had some good authority for giving the portrait of this curious animal.
       “C.” writes as follows, quoting probably from Ridinger: “The fox was killed on the 14thFebruary, 1734, in the Orannenberger [=Oranienburg] Forest, four German miles from Berlin. The skin was kept for the sake of its rarity, at the Royal Museum of Art and Natural Science (Konigliche Kunst und Naturalien Kammer). Perhaps your correspondent, “B.W.,” would be able to tell us if there is still at the Royal Museum any record of this skin.”
And here, for its historical worth, is a scan of Buckland’s published report as it appeared in Land and Water, including Ridinger’s engraving of this extraordinary animal:
Frank Buckland’s Land and Water report of 6 May 1876, together with Ridinger’s original 18th-Century engraving, of a two-tailed fox killed in Germany on 14 February 1734 – click it to enlarge for reading purposes (public domain)
Ridinger, incidentally, was the celebrated German painter, engraver, and publisher Johann Elias Ridinger (1698-1767). He was extremely famous for his beautiful, life-like engravings of animals, as well as hunting scenes, culminating in his superlative, inordinately sumptuous tome Ridinger’s Coloured Animal Kingdom.
Although the concept of a fox with two tails (i.e. a dicaudate or bicaudate fox, to cite the technical terms given to this particular teratological condition) may initially seem highly implausible if not downright impossible, in reality such an occurrence can be readily explained – nothing more dramatic, in fact, than the result of a freak longitudinal splitting of the embryonic tail bud during the fox foetus’s development, yielding two tails united at their base. Although this is the only case of a dicaudate fox that I have on file, I have records of other dicaudate individuals from a wide range of different species.
As for this German vulpine example’s skin, conversely: sadly, the chances are that it no longer exists. This is because the procedures available back in the 18th Century for preserving animal skins were generally not sufficiently advanced to guarantee their long-term survival, so that they eventually disintegrated or were devoured by bugs. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to know if at least an official record or other documentation of it still exists at the above-mentioned Royal Museum – something that my German friends and colleagues may like to look into for me??
A mezzotint of Johann Elias Ridinger, dating from c.1750 (public domain)

Leave a Comment more...

DIGGING UP A BURROWING CAT

by on Aug.29, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

A sand cat (TimVickers/Wikipedia – public domain)
I am greatly indebted to English cryptozoological researcher Richard Muirhead for bringing to my attention an extremely curious report published on 26 January 1925 by the Leeds Mercury. It concerns what was referred to by the report as a burrowing cat, but what it truly was could well be another matter entirely. Here is the report in question:
A “Burrowing” Cat.

Captain Buchanan was engaged on scientific work, for Lord Rothschild and the British Museum, and brought back some remarkable relics of his journey through the heart of the Sahara.

          His collection was the first brought from there.

          One of the most valuable specimens was the skin of a “burrowing cat,” the only specimen in any collection in the world.

          This animal greatly resembles a cat, but is able to burrow like a rabbit. It is beautifully marked, has a fine coat, and lynx-like ears.

          Captain Buchanan started from Lagos, Nigeria, travelled up country about 700 miles to Cano, and then struck across the vast desert to Algiers.
Captain Angus Buchanan as depicted on a vintage picture postcard from my personal collection (public domain)
Captain Buchanan was Captain Angus Buchanan MC, the famous British explorer who (with his cameraman) was the first white explorer to cross the Sahara by camel. So, assuming that the above report is genuine and not journalistic hokum (but its specific naming of Buchanan, his zoologist sponsor Lord Walter Rothschild, and the British Museum suggests that it is indeed genuine), what could this odd-sounding creature be?
Sand cats are specifically adapted for desert life and can be found in burrows (TimVickers/Wikipedia – public domain)
When reading the report, I immediately thought of the sand cat Felis margarita, a small species that does inhabit the Sahara and is in fact the world’s only known felid adapted for desert life. Some (although not all) specimens are handsomely marked with stripes and spots, and its ears can appear pointed and therefore somewhat reminiscent of a lynx’s. Moreover, it does indeed retreat into burrows when the prevailing temperature is too extreme.
The ears of the sand cat can appear pointed, especially when viewed at certain angles (Clément Bardot/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
However, the sand cat’s existence was known to science long before 1925 (it was formally named in 1858), with many specimens already preserved in museums worldwide. So if it were a sand cat, the report’s claim that Buchanan’s was the first specimen in any collection is very mystifying.
Are the mysterious burrowing cat and the desert-inhabiting sand cat one and the same species? (TimVickers/Wikipedia – public domain)

Leave a Comment more...

DIGGING UP A BURROWING CAT

by on Aug.29, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

A sand cat (TimVickers/Wikipedia – public domain)
I am greatly indebted to English cryptozoological researcher Richard Muirhead for bringing to my attention an extremely curious report published on 26 January 1925 by the Leeds Mercury. It concerns what was referred to by the report as a burrowing cat, but what it truly was could well be another matter entirely. Here is the report in question:
A “Burrowing” Cat.

Captain Buchanan was engaged on scientific work, for Lord Rothschild and the British Museum, and brought back some remarkable relics of his journey through the heart of the Sahara.

          His collection was the first brought from there.

          One of the most valuable specimens was the skin of a “burrowing cat,” the only specimen in any collection in the world.

          This animal greatly resembles a cat, but is able to burrow like a rabbit. It is beautifully marked, has a fine coat, and lynx-like ears.

          Captain Buchanan started from Lagos, Nigeria, travelled up country about 700 miles to Cano, and then struck across the vast desert to Algiers.
Captain Angus Buchanan as depicted on a vintage picture postcard from my personal collection (public domain)
Captain Buchanan was Captain Angus Buchanan MC, the famous British explorer who (with his cameraman) was the first white explorer to cross the Sahara by camel. So, assuming that the above report is genuine and not journalistic hokum (but its specific naming of Buchanan, his zoologist sponsor Lord Walter Rothschild, and the British Museum suggests that it is indeed genuine), what could this odd-sounding creature be?
Sand cats are specifically adapted for desert life and can be found in burrows (TimVickers/Wikipedia – public domain)
When reading the report, I immediately thought of the sand cat Felis margarita, a small species that does inhabit the Sahara and is in fact the world’s only known felid adapted for desert life. Some (although not all) specimens are handsomely marked with stripes and spots, and its ears can appear pointed and therefore somewhat reminiscent of a lynx’s. Moreover, it does indeed retreat into burrows when the prevailing temperature is too extreme.
The ears of the sand cat can appear pointed, especially when viewed at certain angles (Clément Bardot/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
However, the sand cat’s existence was known to science long before 1925 (it was formally named in 1858), with many specimens already preserved in museums worldwide. So if it were a sand cat, the report’s claim that Buchanan’s was the first specimen in any collection is very mystifying.
Are the mysterious burrowing cat and the desert-inhabiting sand cat one and the same species? (TimVickers/Wikipedia – public domain)

Leave a Comment more...

WHEN IS A CRYPTID NOT A CRYPTID? WHEN IT’S THE MEGAMOUTH SHARK…MAYBE?

by on Aug.23, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Photograph of the very first megamouth shark specimen to come to the attention of scientists, or anyone else for that matter, and revealing very readily why this remarkable species received its memorable name (© Charles Okamura/Honolulu Advertiser – reproduced here by kind permission of the Honolulu Advertiser, on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
This is my 700th ShukerNature blog article – so to celebrate such a momentous occasion, I decided to choose for its subject something that was big – and not just in physical size either, but also in zoological significance. Needless to say, the megamouth shark Megachasma pelagios accords perfectly with both of these requirements, so here it is, making its long-awaited starring-role debut on ShukerNature.
In terms of precise cryptozoological definitions, what makes a cryptid a cryptid, i.e. a creature of cryptozoology? There are two basic criteria. Namely, that it is an animal claimed to exist by and be known to people sharing its geographical location and habitat (i.e. it is ethno-known), but which is not officially recognized or formally described by science (i.e. it is scientifically unknown). Virtually all of the 20th and 21stCenturies’ most spectacular ‘new’ creatures were once cryptids, i.e. animals already known locally but hitherto unknown scientifically, such as the okapi, mountain gorilla, Komodo dragon, coelacanths, Vu Quang ox (saola), and dingiso tree kangaroo, to name but a few.
Side view of my megamouth model (© Dr Karl Shuker)
However, there is one very dramatic zoological discovery that is an equally dramatic exception to this rule – the megamouth shark. When what proved to be the first of a considerable series of procured specimens in the years and decades to follow was accidentally captured off Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands on 15 November 1976 by the anchor of a research vessel (see later for full details), its remarkable, visually unique species was entirely new not only to scientists but also to everyone else, even local fishermen. No-one anywhere had ever seen anything like it before.
In other words, this newly-revealed shark species was not just scientifically unknown, it was ethno-unknown too. That in turn means that despite erroneous claims to the contrary as present on many websites and elsewhere, according to strict cryptozoologial conventions the megamouth shark was never a cryptid. Its discovery was totally unheralded, completely unpredicted, and thoroughly anomalous.
Size comparison between the megamouth’s holotype specimen and a human diver (© Slate Weasel/Wikipedia, public domain)
Although such a situation is far from unusual among very small, inconspicuous animals, with creatures as big (one Taiwanese specimen was apparently 23 ft long) and inordinately distinctive (thanks to its gargantuan mouth) as the megamouth, conversely, it was (and remains) virtually unparalleled.
In fact, the only readily comparable example that comes to mind, and which was also brought to scientific and public attention for the first time during the mid-1970s, were the 10-ft-tall or so vertical tube worms with flamboyant crimson tentacles that were discovered fringing the never-before-visited hydrothermal vents or rifts on the ocean floor by scientists inside the US research submarine Alvin. Specimens were collected, studied, and their radically new species, outwardly unlike anything ever encountered before but most closely related to the pogonophorans or beard worms, was subsequently described and formally named Riftia pachyptila.
Distribution map for the megamouth shark (© Chris_huh/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Back to the megamouth, and during the decades succeeding its 1970s unveiling, there have been just over 100 additional specimens recorded, including some living ones as well as beached carcases, and from almost every major oceanic region worldwide. This makes it all the more astonishing that such a sizeable, unmistakable species of shark had remained wholly undetected by humankind down through all the ages until as late in time as 1976 – because there certainly did not appear to be a single recorded instance of anyone anywhere ever having previously reported seeing or catching something that could conceivably have been a megamouth.
To me, however, this situation has always seemed to be just too incredible, too implausible, surely, to be true – as a consequence of which I have spent a lot of time through the years searching online for any clues that may indicate otherwise, i.e. that might, just might, turn up some evidence for prior (pre-1976) knowledge of the megamouth’s existence, which in turn would mean that it was indeed a cryptid after all. Yet time and again, my searches were always in vain – it almost seemed as if by some unexplained biological miracle, on 15 November 1976 the megamouth had spontaneously generated from seawater! But then, one day, some information ostensibly of the kind that I had been actively seeking for so long sought me out instead.
Megamouth shark illustration (© CSIRO National Fish Collection – Dianne J. Bray, Megachasma in Fishes of Australia/Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)
On 8 December 2011, responding to a photograph of the finalized full cover for my forthcoming Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals that I had posted on my Facebook timeline (or wall, as it was called back then), correspondent H. James Plaskett added the following short but immensely interesting comment:
The Bermudian Teddy Tucker told me the Chinese were catching the megamouth shark in the Pacific in the 1880s.
Needless to say, I found this claim to be quite electrifying in terms of its potential scientific significance, so I lost no time in contacting James and eliciting from him some contact details for Teddy Tucker, after which I emailed him with a request for any additional details that he could send me. Here, in a ShukerNature world-exclusive, is his full, never previously-published response, dated 18 January 2012:
I received your inquiry with interest.  During the Beebe Project, we, the National Geographic, University of Maryland and several organizations interested in the deep ocean, were primarily interested in the habitats of the water column.  We observed many large deep sea animals that were impossible to accurately identify.  These creatures were seen on deep water cameras deployed to 6,000 feet.
During seventy years of working on and in the ocean, mostly around Bermuda, in the fall of the year, Oct., Nov. and Dec., the Cuvier beaked whales feed around the sea mounts, situated on the Bermuda Rise.  The food these whales seemed to prefer is a large mid-water octopus, how large I do not know, never having seen one intact.  I have collected large pieces of these octopus[es] during the feeding frenzy of these whales on the surface.
During an expedition to the Pacific, I had the opportunity to witness a similar feeding frenzy by a similar type of whales feeding on what appeared to be the same sort of octopus, during this trip two Japanese scientists on board, told me that the Chinese fished for these large gelatinous type of octopus in large deep water drift nets, which occasionally caught large megamouth sharks, which tangled in the nets.
It would seem that the shark and the whale might feed on this type of octopus, at least they seem to feed in the same depth.  It would be difficult to make a positive identification without having an actual specimen.  It would be reasonable to assume that the Chinese would have known about the megamouth for many years, as they have been using deep water drift nets for a long time.
I hope this information is helpful.
Megamouth shark showing huge mouth, used for filter-feeding – preserved specimen, Japan (© OpenCage/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.5 licence)
Needless to say, as a dedicated planktivorous filter-feeder, swimming slowly through the sea with its huge mouth wide open, filtering water for plankton and jellyfishes, the megamouth shark is unlikely to feed upon octopuses, gelatinous or otherwise. Conversely, at least 11 megamouth specimens have been recorded off Japan and one off mainland China since 1976 (plus others off Taiwan), so its modern-day presence in this region of the Pacific Ocean is fully confirmed. As to whether Chinese fishermen were catching specimens almost a century prior to 1976, however, this bold but fascinating claim presently remains unverified.
Yet, undeniably, any such claim also remains extremely tantalizing, and offers a worthwhile starting point from which to explore anew the exciting possibility that this most notable non-cryptid may turn out to have been a bona fide cryptid after all. Having said that, my periodic peregrinations online in search of megamouth knowledge among bygone Sinian fishing folk and fishing communities has yet to prove successful – but there is always tomorrow… Or even yesterday:
Californian newspaper report from 1966 concerning an unidentified shark that may have been a megamouth? (© Times, San Mateo – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Also of potential interest here is the above Californian newspaper report from 15 August 1966, which came to my attention in June 2016, courtesy of fellow British cryptozoological researcher Richard Muirhead. It appeared in The Times (San Mateo).

In view of the fact that several megamouth shark specimens have been washed ashore off California or recorded in Californian waters (see later), I wonder if the extremely big unidentified shark seen and photographed underwater off Los Angeles in that 1966 newspaper report was a megamouth. If so, this scientifically-documented specimen had been recorded 10 years before the megamouth’s official scientific discovery in 1976. Alternatively, perhaps it was a Pacific sleeper shark Somniosus pacificus, due to the great depth at which it was sighted, but this species was already well known to ichthyologists well before 1966 (it was formally named in 1944).

The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals (© Dr Karl Shuker/Coachwhip Publications)
Meanwhile, for anyone who has not previously encountered the engrossing history of the megamouth’s modern-day discovery, here is how I documented it in my Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals, published in 2012:
Most fishermen have a cherished tale or two about ‘the big one that got away’, but none can surely compete with the following version – in which, just for a change, the whopper in question did not get away, much to the delight of marine biologists throughout the world.
            On 15 November 1976, a team of researchers from the Hawaii Laboratory of the Naval Undersea Center (now known as the Naval Ocean Systems Center) was aboard the research vessel AFB-14, sited about 26 miles northeast of Kahuku Point, Oahu, in the Hawaiian Islands. During the course of their work, two large parachutes employed as sea anchors were dropped overboard, and lowered to a depth of 500 ft. Later that day, when the boat was ready to leave for home, the researchers hauled the parachutes back up – and found that one of them had drawn up the greatest ichthyological discovery since the coelacanth! Entangled in the parachute was a gigantic shark, measuring 14.5 ft in total length, weighing 1653 lb, and differing radically in appearance from all other sharks on record.
            Recognising its worth, the team hauled its mighty body aboard on rollers, and sent it at once to the Naval Undersea Center’s Kaneohe Laboratory, where biologist Lieut. Linda Hubbell lost no time in contacting the University of Hawaii. Next morning, it was examined by Dr Leighton R. Taylor, director of the university’s Waikiki Aquarium, after which its body was quick-frozen at a firm of tuna packers, and retained there until, on 29 November, it was transported (still frozen) to a specially-constructed preservation tank at the National Maritime Fisheries Service’s Kewalo dock site. It was then thawed and injected with formalin, procedures that marked the commencement of what was to be an intensive period of study in relation to this unique specimen – swiftly recognised to represent a dramatically new species never before brought to the attention of science. The study lasted almost seven years, and was undertaken jointly by Dr Taylor, Dr Paul Struhsaker of the Fisheries Service, and shark specialist Dr Leonard Compagno from San Francisco State University. Preserved, the specimen is now held at Honolulu’s Bernice P. Bishop Museum.
            The head of this strange shark was very large, long, and broad, but not pointed like that of more typical sharks, whereas its lengthy, cylindrical body tapered markedly from the broad neck to the slender heterocercal tail (i.e. the tail’s upper lobe was much longer than its lower lobe). Its pectoral fins were also long and slender, but its pelvic fins and anal fin were very small – smaller than the first of its two dorsal fins. Identifying it straight away as a male, its pelvic fins bore a pair of elongate claspers (a male shark’s copulatory organs).
Dorsolateral view of my megamouth model, showing its huge head and jaws (© Dr Karl Shuker)
            The specimen’s huge size made its species, on average, the sixth largest species of modern-day shark known to science, but even more striking than its overall bulk was its mouth. Relative to the rest of its body, its mouth was exceedingly large and wide – a feature that soon earned it in newspaper reports a very fitting soubriquet – ‘megamouth’, which became accepted by science as this species’ official English name. In addition to its size, the megamouth’s mighty orifice was distinguished by its thick lips, more than 400 tiny teeth arranged in 236 rows, a very unusual anatomy which meant that its jaws did not lower at the bottom like those of most sharks but flapped open at the top instead, and – most startling of all – a silvery mouth lining that glowed in the dark!
            Despite initial speculation that this unexpected last-mentioned feature was due to light-emitting structures comparable to the bioluminescent organs of many deepsea fishes and other benthic life, insufficient evidence was obtained from the study to verify this. Even so, when taken together with the megamouth’s immense size but only tiny, relatively useless teeth, various other anatomical attributes, plus the great depth at which it was captured, its glowing jaws indicated that this mysterious marine form was itself a deepsea denizen, whose lifestyle probably consisted of slow cruises through the inky darkness of the sea’s depths with its huge, glowing jaws held open, to entice inside great numbers of tiny marine organisms. Thus, the megamouth was a harmless plankton feeder, a gentle giant.
            All of this and much more was recorded in the paper prepared by Taylor, Struhsaker, and Compagno, constituting the megamouth’s formal scientific description and published on 6 July 1983. Their study had revealed this mighty creature to be so unlike all other sharks that they had not merely classed it as a new species, they had also placed it in an entire genus and family all to itself. Approving of ‘megamouth’ as its common name, Taylor and colleagues made it the basis of this species’ scientific name too, christening it Megachasma pelagios (‘great yawning mouth of the open sea’) – sole member of the family Megachasmidae, but most closely allied to the basking shark Cetorhinus maximus, another plankton feeder.
            Attempts to catch a second megamouth for comparison purposes proved unsuccessful until November 1984, when another megamouth was caught – but, once again, completely by accident. This time, a commercial fishing vessel named Helgatook the honours, snaring it unknowingly within a gill net at a depth of only 125 ft, while based close to California’s Santa Catalina Island, near Los Angeles. Needless to say, this priceless specimen was carefully brought ashore, and was sent at once to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Tissue samples were taken and stomach contents removed, after which its 14-ft-long body was stored in a frozen state within a temporary case until work upon a specially-prepared fibreglass display unit was completed, whereupon the new megamouth was preserved and retained thereafter within its 500 gallons of 70 per cent ethanol.
Preserved megamouth in tank at the Western Australian Maritime Museum (© Saberwyn/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
            The megamouth’s known distribution range expanded dramatically with the third specimen’s discovery. On 18 August 1988, an adult male almost 17 ft long was found washed up on a beach near Mandurah, a holiday resort south of Perth, Western Australia. When news of its appearance reached the Western Australian Museum, ichthyologist Dr Tim Berra (visiting from Ohio State University) and a team of fish researchers swiftly travelled to the beach to salvage the shark’s body. This was just as well, because some of the resort’s residents, not realising its immense scientific significance, had been attempting (albeit unsuccessfully) to push it back into the sea!
            The scientists were delighted to find that this latest megamouth was still in good condition, and it was ultimately preserved and housed in a fibreglass display tank like that of the Los Angeles specimen. During the tank’s construction, it was retained in a frozen state, enabling the museum’s taxidermist to prepare a plaster cast of its body for exhibition.
            On 23 January 1989, a fourth megamouth appeared, stranded dead on the sandy beach of Hamamatsu City in Japan’s Shizuoka Prefecture, yielding the first record of this species from the western Pacific. An adult male, estimated at over 13 ft in total length, it attracted the notice of a photographer who took some good pictures of it that demonstrated beyond any doubt that it really was a megamouth – all of which was very fortunate, because shortly afterwards, before there was time to rescue it, this scientifically invaluable specimen was washed back out to sea and lost. The photos, however, were sent to Dr Kazuhiro Nakaya, who published them in a short Japanese Journal of Ichthyology report. Less than six months after this specimen’s brief appearance, a second Japanese megamouth made the headlines, when on 12 June a living specimen was caught in a net in Suruga Bay. Photographs confirming its identity as a megamouth were taken, after which it was released unharmed.
Megamouth shark, preserved, Japan (© OpenCage/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.5 licence)
The next episode in the megamouth saga however, was truly spectacular. On 21 October 1990, a sixth specimen turned up, measuring 16 ft 3 in and snared in a drift net off Dana Point, in California. It was towed to shore by the net’s vessel, and was found to be still alive. Marine biologist Dr Dennis Kelly, from the Orange Coast College, gently examined the huge fish, and decided that although it would not survive in captivity, it would probably live if released back into the sea. And so, very carefully, it was set free, and was filmed underwater as it swam slowly down into the depths from which it had earlier arisen.
Moreover, capitalising upon this unique opportunity to discover a little more about its species’ lifestyle, a radio transmitter was attached to its body. This enabled researchers to track it in the sea for the next three days (after which time the transmitter’s batteries ran out), and revealed that it exhibited vertical migration – moving to the ocean surface only at night, and descending back into the depths at dawn – which explains how this extremely large and striking species had escaped scientific detection for so long.
A living megamouth (© FLMNH Ichthyology/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
            Almost exactly 18 years after the first one was hauled up by a research vessel off Oahu, a seventh megamouth appeared. This proved to be the first female specimen on record, and was washed up in Hakata Bay, Kyushu, on 29 November 1994. The third Japanese megamouth, its body measured 15.5 ft, weighed 0.8 ton, and was transported to Fukuoka’s Marine World Museum, where it was deep-frozen, prior to permanent preservation.
            A hitherto unsuspected portion of this species’ distribution range was revealed on 4 May 1995, when the first megamouth to be recorded from the Atlantic Ocean was captured by a French tuna fishing vessel, Le Bougainville, in its purse seine, roughly 40 miles off Dakar, Senegal. This eighth megamouth was a young male, measuring only 6 ft or so in total length. Regrettably, however, its body was not preserved.
            Megamouth #9 extended its species’ known distribution even further, for this specimen, another young male, approximately 6 ft 3 in long, was procured off southern Brazil, on 18 September 1995. Its body was retained by the Instituto de Pesca, in São Paulo, Brazil.
            It was the fourth time for Japan when the megamouth made its next confirmed appearance, courtesy of only the second known female specimen turning up on 1 May 1997 near Toba. More than 16 ft long, its carcase was taken to Toba Aquarium.
Megamouth shark preserved at Toba Aquarium, Japan (© OpenCage/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.5 licence)
            On the evening of 20 February 1998, yet another specimen (#11) of this maritime megastar surfaced – caught by three Filipino fishermen in Macajalar Bay, Cagayan de Oro, in the Philippines, and estimated to measure around 16 ft. The first on record from this island group, its taxonomic identity was confirmed on 21 March 1998 by Dr Leonard Compagno. Unfortunately, its body was hacked to pieces after it had been landed and photographed. Moreover, a female megamouth captured at Atawa in Mie, Japan, on 23 April 1998 was subsequently discarded.
            Megamouth #14, another female specimen and measuring approximately 17 ft long, was captured in a drift gillnet roughly 30 miles west of San Diego, California, on 1 October 1999. The third megamouth to be caught off southern California, after being photographed it was released again, still in good health.
            In addition, Genoa Aquarium worker Pietro Pecchioni claimed in an internet shark discussion group that he saw and photographed what may have been a living megamouth, being harassed by three sperm whales near the island of Nain, off northern Sulawesi, Indonesia, on 30 August 1998. The shark measured 15-18 ft long, and Pecchioni spied it while in the company of a group of people participating in a WWF whale-watching programme. When the whales saw the watchers, they came towards them, then swam away, so the shark survived. At the time of his claim (4 September 1998), Pecchioni’s photos had not been developed, but when they were, the shark’s identity as a megamouth was confirmed (making it megamouth specimen #13); and the encounter was formally documented by Pecchioni and Milan University zoologist Dr Carla Benoldi in 1999 on the website of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s ichthyology department.
Megamouth specimen preserved at Keikyu Aburatsubo Marine Park, Kanagawa, Japan (© Oos/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
On 19 October 2001, megamouth #15, a male specimen roughly 18 ft long, was caught alive in a drift gillnet by a commercial swordfish vessel sited about 42 miles northwest of San Diego. After a United States National Marine Fisheries Service observer aboard the vessel had photographed its unexpected catch and had also taken a tissue biopsy from it, this megamouth was also released in good condition.
Another notable specimen was megamouth #23, which was washed up on 13 March 2004, onto Gapang Beach in northernmost Sumatra. Only relatively small, measuring just over 3 ft in length, it was subsequently frozen at the Lumba Lumba Dive Centre, and following formal examination by scientists it was deposited at Cibinong Museum. Interestingly, because of marked differences in shape between this megamouth’s dorsal fins and those of all previously recorded specimens (and also between its anal fin and those of previous specimens), when formally documenting it later that year a team of researchers suggested that these differences may indicate the existence of a second species of megamouth, but no further evidence for such a situation has been presented since then.
Megamouth #26 was discovered on 4 November 2004, stranded but still alive at Namocon Beach, in Tigbauan, Iloilo City, in the Philippines. An adult female measuring approximately 16.5 ft long and weighing roughly a ton, this was the third megamouth to have been recorded in the Philippines, and bore a wound that may have been a spear wound, or possibly a bite from the cookie cutter shark Isistius brasiliensis. The megamouth was formally identified the day after its discovery by an official from the Southeast Asia Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC), after which 16 men carried it to a SEAFDEC aquarium where it lived for a day. It was then preserved in 10 per cent formalin within a 1-ton fibreglass tank.
Megamouth sightings map, 1976-2010 (© Skyler30/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
            As of August 2011, 53 specimens of the megamouth shark have been obtained or conclusively sighted [but as of August 2020 this number has increased to just over 100]. The three most recent ones are: #51, a specimen of unknown sex caught off eastern Taiwan on 19 June 2010, but later cut up for meat that was sold at a local market, with only a jaw retained; #52, a dead juvenile male specimen captured by fishermen close to the western Baja California peninsula of Mexico on 12 June 2011; and #53, an individual of unspecified sex but measuring approximately 10 ft long that was recorded from Japan’s Kanagawa Prefecture on 1 July 2011. A comprehensive listing of these, together with pertinent details of their respective discoveries, plus a detailed bibliography of sources, can be accessed on a number of online websites.
            Finally: an intriguing footnote (fin-note?) to the megamouth history is that this species’ own discovery set the scene for a remarkable parasitological parallel. During the study of the very first megamouth specimen, an extremely strange form of tapeworm was found inside its intestine. When closely examined, this peculiar parasite proved to be not just a new species (later named Mixodigma leptaleum), but one so different from all others that it required a completely new genus and family – exactly like its megamouth host!
Since I wrote that account, fossilised teeth from what are believed by some palaeontologists to have been two ancestral megamouth species (M. alisonae and M. applegatei) dating back to the late Eocene/early Miocene have been disinterred. If correctly identified, these readily prove – if proof were needed! – that the present-day megamouth species M. pelagios did not generate spontaneously in 1976 after all!
On the contrary, this amazing creature’s existence and evolution can be traced back millions of years – making it even more astonishing, vertical migration notwithstanding, that it successfully eluded discovery by science and the public alike until less than half a century ago (unless there really are some Sinian insinuations to the contrary still to be uncovered?).
Miniature Sheet depicting the megamouth, issued by the Comoros in 2010, from my own stamp collection (© Comoros Philatelic Bureau – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
In view of this, I can’t think of a better way in which to bring ShukerNature’s mega-monograph of the megamouth to a fitting close than by reflecting upon the following quote from the previously-mentioned ichthyological expert Dr Leighton R. Taylor, as contained in a published interview with the Waikiki Beach Press newspaper:
The discovery of megamouth does one thing. It reaffirms science’s suspicion that there are still all kinds of things – very large things – living in our oceans that we still don’t know about. And that’s very exciting.
It is indeed!
PS – If you would like to see footage of a living megamouth shark, be sure to click here to see one that was filmed off Japan earlier this year, 2020; plus here and here to see others as featured in a couple of online mini-megamouth documentaries.
Present but uncredited on several websites online – how a genuine photograph of a beached megamouth shark has been converted by hoaxer(s) unknown into a fake photograph of a beached plesiosaur (© owner/s unknown to me, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Leave a Comment more...

WHEN IS A CRYPTID NOT A CRYPTID? WHEN IT’S THE MEGAMOUTH SHARK…MAYBE?

by on Aug.23, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Photograph of the very first megamouth shark specimen to come to the attention of scientists, or anyone else for that matter, and revealing very readily why this remarkable species received its memorable name (© Charles Okamura/Honolulu Advertiser – reproduced here by kind permission of the Honolulu Advertiser, on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
This is my 700th ShukerNature blog article – so to celebrate such a momentous occasion, I decided to choose for its subject something that was big – and not just in physical size either, but also in zoological significance. Needless to say, the megamouth shark Megachasma pelagios accords perfectly with both of these requirements, so here it is, making its long-awaited starring-role debut on ShukerNature.
In terms of precise cryptozoological definitions, what makes a cryptid a cryptid, i.e. a creature of cryptozoology? There are two basic criteria. Namely, that it is an animal claimed to exist by and be known to people sharing its geographical location and habitat (i.e. it is ethno-known), but which is not officially recognized or formally described by science (i.e. it is scientifically unknown). Virtually all of the 20th and 21stCenturies’ most spectacular ‘new’ creatures were once cryptids, i.e. animals already known locally but hitherto unknown scientifically, such as the okapi, mountain gorilla, Komodo dragon, coelacanths, Vu Quang ox (saola), and dingiso tree kangaroo, to name but a few.
Side view of my megamouth model (© Dr Karl Shuker)
However, there is one very dramatic zoological discovery that is an equally dramatic exception to this rule – the megamouth shark. When what proved to be the first of a considerable series of procured specimens in the years and decades to follow was accidentally captured off Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands on 15 November 1976 by the anchor of a research vessel (see later for full details), its remarkable, visually unique species was entirely new not only to scientists but also to everyone else, even local fishermen. No-one anywhere had ever seen anything like it before.
In other words, this newly-revealed shark species was not just scientifically unknown, it was ethno-unknown too. That in turn means that despite erroneous claims to the contrary as present on many websites and elsewhere, according to strict cryptozoologial conventions the megamouth shark was never a cryptid. Its discovery was totally unheralded, completely unpredicted, and thoroughly anomalous.
Size comparison between the megamouth’s holotype specimen and a human diver (© Slate Weasel/Wikipedia, public domain)
Although such a situation is far from unusual among very small, inconspicuous animals, with creatures as big (one Taiwanese specimen was apparently 23 ft long) and inordinately distinctive (thanks to its gargantuan mouth) as the megamouth, conversely, it was (and remains) virtually unparalleled.
In fact, the only readily comparable example that comes to mind, and which was also brought to scientific and public attention for the first time during the mid-1970s, were the 10-ft-tall or so vertical tube worms with flamboyant crimson tentacles that were discovered fringing the never-before-visited hydrothermal vents or rifts on the ocean floor by scientists inside the US research submarine Alvin. Specimens were collected, studied, and their radically new species, outwardly unlike anything ever encountered before but most closely related to the pogonophorans or beard worms, was subsequently described and formally named Riftia pachyptila.
Distribution map for the megamouth shark (© Chris_huh/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Back to the megamouth, and during the decades succeeding its 1970s unveiling, there have been just over 100 additional specimens recorded, including some living ones as well as beached carcases, and from almost every major oceanic region worldwide. This makes it all the more astonishing that such a sizeable, unmistakable species of shark had remained wholly undetected by humankind down through all the ages until as late in time as 1976 – because there certainly did not appear to be a single recorded instance of anyone anywhere ever having previously reported seeing or catching something that could conceivably have been a megamouth.
To me, however, this situation has always seemed to be just too incredible, too implausible, surely, to be true – as a consequence of which I have spent a lot of time through the years searching online for any clues that may indicate otherwise, i.e. that might, just might, turn up some evidence for prior (pre-1976) knowledge of the megamouth’s existence, which in turn would mean that it was indeed a cryptid after all. Yet time and again, my searches were always in vain – it almost seemed as if by some unexplained biological miracle, on 15 November 1976 the megamouth had spontaneously generated from seawater! But then, one day, some information ostensibly of the kind that I had been actively seeking for so long sought me out instead.
Megamouth shark illustration (© CSIRO National Fish Collection – Dianne J. Bray, Megachasma in Fishes of Australia/Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)
On 8 December 2011, responding to a photograph of the finalized full cover for my forthcoming Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals that I had posted on my Facebook timeline (or wall, as it was called back then), correspondent H. James Plaskett added the following short but immensely interesting comment:
The Bermudian Teddy Tucker told me the Chinese were catching the megamouth shark in the Pacific in the 1880s.
Needless to say, I found this claim to be quite electrifying in terms of its potential scientific significance, so I lost no time in contacting James and eliciting from him some contact details for Teddy Tucker, after which I emailed him with a request for any additional details that he could send me. Here, in a ShukerNature world-exclusive, is his full, never previously-published response, dated 18 January 2012:
I received your inquiry with interest.  During the Beebe Project, we, the National Geographic, University of Maryland and several organizations interested in the deep ocean, were primarily interested in the habitats of the water column.  We observed many large deep sea animals that were impossible to accurately identify.  These creatures were seen on deep water cameras deployed to 6,000 feet.
During seventy years of working on and in the ocean, mostly around Bermuda, in the fall of the year, Oct., Nov. and Dec., the Cuvier beaked whales feed around the sea mounts, situated on the Bermuda Rise.  The food these whales seemed to prefer is a large mid-water octopus, how large I do not know, never having seen one intact.  I have collected large pieces of these octopus[es] during the feeding frenzy of these whales on the surface.
During an expedition to the Pacific, I had the opportunity to witness a similar feeding frenzy by a similar type of whales feeding on what appeared to be the same sort of octopus, during this trip two Japanese scientists on board, told me that the Chinese fished for these large gelatinous type of octopus in large deep water drift nets, which occasionally caught large megamouth sharks, which tangled in the nets.
It would seem that the shark and the whale might feed on this type of octopus, at least they seem to feed in the same depth.  It would be difficult to make a positive identification without having an actual specimen.  It would be reasonable to assume that the Chinese would have known about the megamouth for many years, as they have been using deep water drift nets for a long time.
I hope this information is helpful.
Megamouth shark showing huge mouth, used for filter-feeding – preserved specimen, Japan (© OpenCage/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.5 licence)
Needless to say, as a dedicated planktivorous filter-feeder, swimming slowly through the sea with its huge mouth wide open, filtering water for plankton and jellyfishes, the megamouth shark is unlikely to feed upon octopuses, gelatinous or otherwise. Conversely, at least 11 megamouth specimens have been recorded off Japan and one off mainland China since 1976 (plus others off Taiwan), so its modern-day presence in this region of the Pacific Ocean is fully confirmed. As to whether Chinese fishermen were catching specimens almost a century prior to 1976, however, this bold but fascinating claim presently remains unverified.
Yet, undeniably, any such claim also remains extremely tantalizing, and offers a worthwhile starting point from which to explore anew the exciting possibility that this most notable non-cryptid may turn out to have been a bona fide cryptid after all. Having said that, my periodic peregrinations online in search of megamouth knowledge among bygone Sinian fishing folk and fishing communities has yet to prove successful – but there is always tomorrow… Or even yesterday:
Californian newspaper report from 1966 concerning an unidentified shark that may have been a megamouth? (© Times, San Mateo – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Also of potential interest here is the above Californian newspaper report from 15 August 1966, which came to my attention in June 2016, courtesy of fellow British cryptozoological researcher Richard Muirhead. It appeared in The Times (San Mateo).

In view of the fact that several megamouth shark specimens have been washed ashore off California or recorded in Californian waters (see later), I wonder if the extremely big unidentified shark seen and photographed underwater off Los Angeles in that 1966 newspaper report was a megamouth. If so, this scientifically-documented specimen had been recorded 10 years before the megamouth’s official scientific discovery in 1976. Alternatively, perhaps it was a Pacific sleeper shark Somniosus pacificus, due to the great depth at which it was sighted, but this species was already well known to ichthyologists well before 1966 (it was formally named in 1944).

The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals (© Dr Karl Shuker/Coachwhip Publications)
Meanwhile, for anyone who has not previously encountered the engrossing history of the megamouth’s modern-day discovery, here is how I documented it in my Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals, published in 2012:
Most fishermen have a cherished tale or two about ‘the big one that got away’, but none can surely compete with the following version – in which, just for a change, the whopper in question did not get away, much to the delight of marine biologists throughout the world.
            On 15 November 1976, a team of researchers from the Hawaii Laboratory of the Naval Undersea Center (now known as the Naval Ocean Systems Center) was aboard the research vessel AFB-14, sited about 26 miles northeast of Kahuku Point, Oahu, in the Hawaiian Islands. During the course of their work, two large parachutes employed as sea anchors were dropped overboard, and lowered to a depth of 500 ft. Later that day, when the boat was ready to leave for home, the researchers hauled the parachutes back up – and found that one of them had drawn up the greatest ichthyological discovery since the coelacanth! Entangled in the parachute was a gigantic shark, measuring 14.5 ft in total length, weighing 1653 lb, and differing radically in appearance from all other sharks on record.
            Recognising its worth, the team hauled its mighty body aboard on rollers, and sent it at once to the Naval Undersea Center’s Kaneohe Laboratory, where biologist Lieut. Linda Hubbell lost no time in contacting the University of Hawaii. Next morning, it was examined by Dr Leighton R. Taylor, director of the university’s Waikiki Aquarium, after which its body was quick-frozen at a firm of tuna packers, and retained there until, on 29 November, it was transported (still frozen) to a specially-constructed preservation tank at the National Maritime Fisheries Service’s Kewalo dock site. It was then thawed and injected with formalin, procedures that marked the commencement of what was to be an intensive period of study in relation to this unique specimen – swiftly recognised to represent a dramatically new species never before brought to the attention of science. The study lasted almost seven years, and was undertaken jointly by Dr Taylor, Dr Paul Struhsaker of the Fisheries Service, and shark specialist Dr Leonard Compagno from San Francisco State University. Preserved, the specimen is now held at Honolulu’s Bernice P. Bishop Museum.
            The head of this strange shark was very large, long, and broad, but not pointed like that of more typical sharks, whereas its lengthy, cylindrical body tapered markedly from the broad neck to the slender heterocercal tail (i.e. the tail’s upper lobe was much longer than its lower lobe). Its pectoral fins were also long and slender, but its pelvic fins and anal fin were very small – smaller than the first of its two dorsal fins. Identifying it straight away as a male, its pelvic fins bore a pair of elongate claspers (a male shark’s copulatory organs).
Dorsolateral view of my megamouth model, showing its huge head and jaws (© Dr Karl Shuker)
            The specimen’s huge size made its species, on average, the sixth largest species of modern-day shark known to science, but even more striking than its overall bulk was its mouth. Relative to the rest of its body, its mouth was exceedingly large and wide – a feature that soon earned it in newspaper reports a very fitting soubriquet – ‘megamouth’, which became accepted by science as this species’ official English name. In addition to its size, the megamouth’s mighty orifice was distinguished by its thick lips, more than 400 tiny teeth arranged in 236 rows, a very unusual anatomy which meant that its jaws did not lower at the bottom like those of most sharks but flapped open at the top instead, and – most startling of all – a silvery mouth lining that glowed in the dark!
            Despite initial speculation that this unexpected last-mentioned feature was due to light-emitting structures comparable to the bioluminescent organs of many deepsea fishes and other benthic life, insufficient evidence was obtained from the study to verify this. Even so, when taken together with the megamouth’s immense size but only tiny, relatively useless teeth, various other anatomical attributes, plus the great depth at which it was captured, its glowing jaws indicated that this mysterious marine form was itself a deepsea denizen, whose lifestyle probably consisted of slow cruises through the inky darkness of the sea’s depths with its huge, glowing jaws held open, to entice inside great numbers of tiny marine organisms. Thus, the megamouth was a harmless plankton feeder, a gentle giant.
            All of this and much more was recorded in the paper prepared by Taylor, Struhsaker, and Compagno, constituting the megamouth’s formal scientific description and published on 6 July 1983. Their study had revealed this mighty creature to be so unlike all other sharks that they had not merely classed it as a new species, they had also placed it in an entire genus and family all to itself. Approving of ‘megamouth’ as its common name, Taylor and colleagues made it the basis of this species’ scientific name too, christening it Megachasma pelagios (‘great yawning mouth of the open sea’) – sole member of the family Megachasmidae, but most closely allied to the basking shark Cetorhinus maximus, another plankton feeder.
            Attempts to catch a second megamouth for comparison purposes proved unsuccessful until November 1984, when another megamouth was caught – but, once again, completely by accident. This time, a commercial fishing vessel named Helgatook the honours, snaring it unknowingly within a gill net at a depth of only 125 ft, while based close to California’s Santa Catalina Island, near Los Angeles. Needless to say, this priceless specimen was carefully brought ashore, and was sent at once to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Tissue samples were taken and stomach contents removed, after which its 14-ft-long body was stored in a frozen state within a temporary case until work upon a specially-prepared fibreglass display unit was completed, whereupon the new megamouth was preserved and retained thereafter within its 500 gallons of 70 per cent ethanol.
Preserved megamouth in tank at the Western Australian Maritime Museum (© Saberwyn/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
            The megamouth’s known distribution range expanded dramatically with the third specimen’s discovery. On 18 August 1988, an adult male almost 17 ft long was found washed up on a beach near Mandurah, a holiday resort south of Perth, Western Australia. When news of its appearance reached the Western Australian Museum, ichthyologist Dr Tim Berra (visiting from Ohio State University) and a team of fish researchers swiftly travelled to the beach to salvage the shark’s body. This was just as well, because some of the resort’s residents, not realising its immense scientific significance, had been attempting (albeit unsuccessfully) to push it back into the sea!
            The scientists were delighted to find that this latest megamouth was still in good condition, and it was ultimately preserved and housed in a fibreglass display tank like that of the Los Angeles specimen. During the tank’s construction, it was retained in a frozen state, enabling the museum’s taxidermist to prepare a plaster cast of its body for exhibition.
            On 23 January 1989, a fourth megamouth appeared, stranded dead on the sandy beach of Hamamatsu City in Japan’s Shizuoka Prefecture, yielding the first record of this species from the western Pacific. An adult male, estimated at over 13 ft in total length, it attracted the notice of a photographer who took some good pictures of it that demonstrated beyond any doubt that it really was a megamouth – all of which was very fortunate, because shortly afterwards, before there was time to rescue it, this scientifically invaluable specimen was washed back out to sea and lost. The photos, however, were sent to Dr Kazuhiro Nakaya, who published them in a short Japanese Journal of Ichthyology report. Less than six months after this specimen’s brief appearance, a second Japanese megamouth made the headlines, when on 12 June a living specimen was caught in a net in Suruga Bay. Photographs confirming its identity as a megamouth were taken, after which it was released unharmed.
Megamouth shark, preserved, Japan (© OpenCage/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.5 licence)
The next episode in the megamouth saga however, was truly spectacular. On 21 October 1990, a sixth specimen turned up, measuring 16 ft 3 in and snared in a drift net off Dana Point, in California. It was towed to shore by the net’s vessel, and was found to be still alive. Marine biologist Dr Dennis Kelly, from the Orange Coast College, gently examined the huge fish, and decided that although it would not survive in captivity, it would probably live if released back into the sea. And so, very carefully, it was set free, and was filmed underwater as it swam slowly down into the depths from which it had earlier arisen.
Moreover, capitalising upon this unique opportunity to discover a little more about its species’ lifestyle, a radio transmitter was attached to its body. This enabled researchers to track it in the sea for the next three days (after which time the transmitter’s batteries ran out), and revealed that it exhibited vertical migration – moving to the ocean surface only at night, and descending back into the depths at dawn – which explains how this extremely large and striking species had escaped scientific detection for so long.
A living megamouth (© FLMNH Ichthyology/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
            Almost exactly 18 years after the first one was hauled up by a research vessel off Oahu, a seventh megamouth appeared. This proved to be the first female specimen on record, and was washed up in Hakata Bay, Kyushu, on 29 November 1994. The third Japanese megamouth, its body measured 15.5 ft, weighed 0.8 ton, and was transported to Fukuoka’s Marine World Museum, where it was deep-frozen, prior to permanent preservation.
            A hitherto unsuspected portion of this species’ distribution range was revealed on 4 May 1995, when the first megamouth to be recorded from the Atlantic Ocean was captured by a French tuna fishing vessel, Le Bougainville, in its purse seine, roughly 40 miles off Dakar, Senegal. This eighth megamouth was a young male, measuring only 6 ft or so in total length. Regrettably, however, its body was not preserved.
            Megamouth #9 extended its species’ known distribution even further, for this specimen, another young male, approximately 6 ft 3 in long, was procured off southern Brazil, on 18 September 1995. Its body was retained by the Instituto de Pesca, in São Paulo, Brazil.
            It was the fourth time for Japan when the megamouth made its next confirmed appearance, courtesy of only the second known female specimen turning up on 1 May 1997 near Toba. More than 16 ft long, its carcase was taken to Toba Aquarium.
Megamouth shark preserved at Toba Aquarium, Japan (© OpenCage/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.5 licence)
            On the evening of 20 February 1998, yet another specimen (#11) of this maritime megastar surfaced – caught by three Filipino fishermen in Macajalar Bay, Cagayan de Oro, in the Philippines, and estimated to measure around 16 ft. The first on record from this island group, its taxonomic identity was confirmed on 21 March 1998 by Dr Leonard Compagno. Unfortunately, its body was hacked to pieces after it had been landed and photographed. Moreover, a female megamouth captured at Atawa in Mie, Japan, on 23 April 1998 was subsequently discarded.
            Megamouth #14, another female specimen and measuring approximately 17 ft long, was captured in a drift gillnet roughly 30 miles west of San Diego, California, on 1 October 1999. The third megamouth to be caught off southern California, after being photographed it was released again, still in good health.
            In addition, Genoa Aquarium worker Pietro Pecchioni claimed in an internet shark discussion group that he saw and photographed what may have been a living megamouth, being harassed by three sperm whales near the island of Nain, off northern Sulawesi, Indonesia, on 30 August 1998. The shark measured 15-18 ft long, and Pecchioni spied it while in the company of a group of people participating in a WWF whale-watching programme. When the whales saw the watchers, they came towards them, then swam away, so the shark survived. At the time of his claim (4 September 1998), Pecchioni’s photos had not been developed, but when they were, the shark’s identity as a megamouth was confirmed (making it megamouth specimen #13); and the encounter was formally documented by Pecchioni and Milan University zoologist Dr Carla Benoldi in 1999 on the website of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s ichthyology department.
Megamouth specimen preserved at Keikyu Aburatsubo Marine Park, Kanagawa, Japan (© Oos/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
On 19 October 2001, megamouth #15, a male specimen roughly 18 ft long, was caught alive in a drift gillnet by a commercial swordfish vessel sited about 42 miles northwest of San Diego. After a United States National Marine Fisheries Service observer aboard the vessel had photographed its unexpected catch and had also taken a tissue biopsy from it, this megamouth was also released in good condition.
Another notable specimen was megamouth #23, which was washed up on 13 March 2004, onto Gapang Beach in northernmost Sumatra. Only relatively small, measuring just over 3 ft in length, it was subsequently frozen at the Lumba Lumba Dive Centre, and following formal examination by scientists it was deposited at Cibinong Museum. Interestingly, because of marked differences in shape between this megamouth’s dorsal fins and those of all previously recorded specimens (and also between its anal fin and those of previous specimens), when formally documenting it later that year a team of researchers suggested that these differences may indicate the existence of a second species of megamouth, but no further evidence for such a situation has been presented since then.
Megamouth #26 was discovered on 4 November 2004, stranded but still alive at Namocon Beach, in Tigbauan, Iloilo City, in the Philippines. An adult female measuring approximately 16.5 ft long and weighing roughly a ton, this was the third megamouth to have been recorded in the Philippines, and bore a wound that may have been a spear wound, or possibly a bite from the cookie cutter shark Isistius brasiliensis. The megamouth was formally identified the day after its discovery by an official from the Southeast Asia Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC), after which 16 men carried it to a SEAFDEC aquarium where it lived for a day. It was then preserved in 10 per cent formalin within a 1-ton fibreglass tank.
Megamouth sightings map, 1976-2010 (© Skyler30/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
            As of August 2011, 53 specimens of the megamouth shark have been obtained or conclusively sighted [but as of August 2020 this number has increased to just over 100]. The three most recent ones are: #51, a specimen of unknown sex caught off eastern Taiwan on 19 June 2010, but later cut up for meat that was sold at a local market, with only a jaw retained; #52, a dead juvenile male specimen captured by fishermen close to the western Baja California peninsula of Mexico on 12 June 2011; and #53, an individual of unspecified sex but measuring approximately 10 ft long that was recorded from Japan’s Kanagawa Prefecture on 1 July 2011. A comprehensive listing of these, together with pertinent details of their respective discoveries, plus a detailed bibliography of sources, can be accessed on a number of online websites.
            Finally: an intriguing footnote (fin-note?) to the megamouth history is that this species’ own discovery set the scene for a remarkable parasitological parallel. During the study of the very first megamouth specimen, an extremely strange form of tapeworm was found inside its intestine. When closely examined, this peculiar parasite proved to be not just a new species (later named Mixodigma leptaleum), but one so different from all others that it required a completely new genus and family – exactly like its megamouth host!
Since I wrote that account, fossilised teeth from what are believed by some palaeontologists to have been two ancestral megamouth species (M. alisonae and M. applegatei) dating back to the late Eocene/early Miocene have been disinterred. If correctly identified, these readily prove – if proof were needed! – that the present-day megamouth species M. pelagios did not generate spontaneously in 1976 after all!
On the contrary, this amazing creature’s existence and evolution can be traced back millions of years – making it even more astonishing, vertical migration notwithstanding, that it successfully eluded discovery by science and the public alike until less than half a century ago (unless there really are some Sinian insinuations to the contrary still to be uncovered?).
Miniature Sheet depicting the megamouth, issued by the Comoros in 2010, from my own stamp collection (© Comoros Philatelic Bureau – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
In view of this, I can’t think of a better way in which to bring ShukerNature’s mega-monograph of the megamouth to a fitting close than by reflecting upon the following quote from the previously-mentioned ichthyological expert Dr Leighton R. Taylor, as contained in a published interview with the Waikiki Beach Press newspaper:
The discovery of megamouth does one thing. It reaffirms science’s suspicion that there are still all kinds of things – very large things – living in our oceans that we still don’t know about. And that’s very exciting.
It is indeed!
PS – If you would like to see footage of a living megamouth shark, be sure to click here to see one that was filmed off Japan earlier this year, 2020; plus here and here to see others as featured in a couple of online mini-megamouth documentaries.
Present but uncredited on several websites online – how a genuine photograph of a beached megamouth shark has been converted by hoaxer(s) unknown into a fake photograph of a beached plesiosaur (© owner/s unknown to me, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Leave a Comment more...

HEEDING THE HAMMERHEAD – AFRICA’S STORM-INVOKING LIGHTNING BIRD

by on Aug.21, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

The mysterious hammerhead – a meteorological mage? (© Charles J. Sharp/Wikipedia – CC BY SA 4.0 licence)

 

In my previous ShukerNature article (click hereto access it), I reviewed the remarkable history of a truly remarkable bird, the shoebill Balaeniceps rex. Now, in this present ShukerNature article, I turn my attention to its somewhat smaller but no less extraordinary close relative, the hammerhead.

Just under 2 ft long and resembling a short-legged stocky heron with sombre earth-brown plumage, the hammerhead (aka hamerkop, hammerkop, and hammerkopf – all of Afrikaans origin) derives its names from its long, backward-pointing crest which, when carried horizontally, resembles the nail-pulling end of a claw hammer. Moreover, as its crest and its large pointed beak collectively resemble the outline of an anvil, this peculiar bird is also known as the anvil-head.

Close-up of the hammerhead’s very distinctive head (© Bernard Dupont/Wikipedia – CC BY SA 2.0 licence)

Widely distributed along the riverbanks, marshes, and ponds of tropical Africa, Madagascar, and Arabia, the hammerhead was first brought to scientific attention during the mid-1700s, in Senegal, by French traveller-naturalist Michel Adanson. In 1760, it was formally described by French zoologist Marthurin J. Brisson, who assigned it to a new genus, Scopus, to which its species name, umbretta, was added in 1789 by German zoologist Johann Gmelin. Its full binomial name thus translates as ‘with broom and small shade’. Explaining this seemingly odd choice of name, the hammerhead’s bushy crest allegedly reminded Brisson of a broom, whereas, somewhat curiously, its crest and beak supposedly reminded Gmelin of a small sunshade! Having said that, it has also been suggested that umbretta derives from ‘umber’, which is another name for the earth-brown shade of this bird’s plumage.

Any mystery regarding the hammerhead’s name, however, pales into insignificance compared to that which still surrounds its precise relationship to other birds. Just like the shoebill, it embodies an ambiguous assemblage of characters that at the same time link it to and separate it from both the heron family and the stork family.

Dating from 1776, this is a very early colour illustration of the hammerhead (public domain)

The hammerhead’s heron-like attributes include the incomplete encircling of its bronchi (air tubes) with cartilage – the gaps are sealed with membrane; the pectinate (comb-like) shape of its middle toe’s claw; and its rear toe’s alignment at the same level as its forward-pointing ones. Yet its lack of powder-downs suggests an affinity with storks, as does the extension of its neck in flight. Electrophoretic examination of its egg-white proteins by Sibley and Ahlquist in 1972 also revealed a correspondence with storks.

Conversely, the hammerhead’s general behaviour is neither heron-like nor stork-like. And its parasitic lice (useful indicators of evolutionary affinity between species, as closely related host species often have closely related parasites) are most similar to those of plovers, which belong to an entirely different avian order – Charadriiformes, the wading birds. In the past, some workers had suggested that its nearest relative was the shoebill, but as the latter bird’s own classification was still in a state of taxonomic flux, this was not particularly illuminating!

It might be wading here in the physical sense, but the hammerhead is not a wading bird in the taxonomic sense (Voidoffrogs/Wikipedia – copyright free)

Most recently, however, based upon the findings of extensive genetic studies, both the hammerhead’s family and that of the shoebill (as well as that of the herons) have been removed entirely from the stork order, Ciconiiformes, and rehoused within the pelican order, Pelecaniformes instead. Consequently, this allies them more closely with the pelicans and the herons than with the storks.

For many years, the hammerhead’s fossil ancestry was unknown. In 1984, however, Dr S.L. Olson documented an early Pliocene representative, named Scopus xenopus, from Langebaanweg, in South Africa’s Cape Province.

The hammerhead may look like a small heron, but its closest relatives are actually the pelicans and the shoebill (© Charles J. Sharp/Wikipedia – CC BY SA 4.0 licence)

The hammerhead is famous behaviourally for boisterously cavorting in wild, highly vocal display dances when associating in small flocks during the breeding season, which varies from one locality to another. Otherwise it is a rather silent, unassuming bird, patrolling the shallow waters of ponds in search of fishes, amphibians (especially the clawed toad Xenopus), water insects, and the occasional snail or worm, which it hunts by disturbing the mud at the bottom of the pond with its partially-webbed feet or its slightly-hooked beak.

Curiously, the hammerhead has inspired many strange superstitions and legends. For example, in certain parts of its range it is referred to as the lightning bird, because the local tribes attribute it with the magical power to invoke terrifying storms at will, and they are also convinced that it can command floods and control the rain. The Kalahari bushmen believe that if anyone tries to rob its nest they will be struck by lightning, and that killing this bird will displease the evil deity Khauna. Another of its titles is ‘the King of Birds’, because the natives widely believe that other birds help it to build its nest, by bringing it offerings of twigs and leaves.

Small, dark, and sinister is how the hammerhead is unfairly portrayed in many native myths and superstitions (© Dr Karl Shuker)

This odd idea probably stemmed from the enormous size of the hammerhead’s nest – which measures up to 4.5 ft in breadth and 6 ft in height, weighs as much as 200 lb, is composed of up to 10,000 sticks, and is sufficiently capacious to house a fully-grown human. It does seem hard to believe at first that this immense edifice could be constructed by two such modest-sized birds as a pair of hammerheads, and yet there is no scientific evidence at all to support the claim that they receive assistance from other species. Ironically, the exact reverse is true.

As disclosed in a superb Anglia TV documentary film entitled The Legend of the Lightning Bird (first screened in Britain on 20 April 1984), other birds frequently take pieces away from the hammerhead’s nest, to use in their own! Nevertheless, such blatant theft clearly does not dissuade this species from nest-building – on the contrary, and whether breeding or not, hammerheads construct 3-5 of these huge nests per year.

Exquisite 1890s engraving of hammerheads with their enormous nests (public domain)

Another local belief, vehemently affirmed by the Xhosa, a Bantu people from South Africa, is that this prodigious nest is divided internally into three distinct ‘rooms’ – a bedroom for hatching purposes, a dining room for feeding and food storage, and a general hallway. This was also seriously subscribed to by many renowned scientists at one time, including Dr Richard Lydekker (in The Royal Natural History, 1894-6). Yet although observations have since confirmed that there are various partitions and ledges inside the nest, there is no evidence for the existence of discrete rooms. Equally, there is no proof that the hammerheads store food inside the nest.

Its nests are so huge that several other animal species often make their homes inside too, including monitor lizards and large snakes, which probably explains folkloric belief in this bird as a shape-shifter. After all, if a hammerhead is seen entering the nest and a big lizard or snake is then seen coming out of it, non-scientific observers steeped in traditional rumour and superstition can be forgiven for drawing an ostensibly evident yet totally erroneous conclusion. Another, more amusing piece of folklore related to its nest is that whenever anyone living in hammerhead territory has their hair cut, they must take great care to collect every last snippet afterwards, because if the hammerhead finds even the smallest tuft and decorates its nest with it, the hair’s former owner will assuredly go bald!

Another very attractive 19th-Century engraving of hammerheads and their mega-nests, from Beiträge zur Ornithologie Südafrikas, 1882 (public domain)

This distinctive species also has a widespread reputation among native tribes as a harbinger of doom, presumably because of its somewhat sinister appearance when poised motionless at the side of a pool – a dark, sombre silhouette, with its unique hammerheaded outline. And when staring fixedly into the water in this manner, it is said to be gaining visions of the future. Amazingly, it is a bird of such ill omen that many locals will desert their homes or villages if a hammerhead should as much as fly overhead, as they fear that death will otherwise occur there!

Similarly, should one of these birds be heard calling during the evening, and especially if it calls three times in succession, someone will supposedly die during the night. And in Madagascar, natives believe that anyone who destroys its nest will contract leprosy. Moreover, if a hammerhead should fly towards white-water rafts on the Zambezi, the rafting guides will frantically wave their arms, scream, and shout as loudly as possible in order to scare it away, because they firmly believe that bad luck will ensue if it should fly over the rafts.
Hammerhead with outstretched wings, revealing its unexpectedly sizeable wingspan when seen in flight (© Lip Kee/Wikipedia CC BY SA 2.0 licence)

Such notoriety is totally undeserved, as the hammerhead is a thoroughly harmless, inoffensive species – normally. However, Nos. 124 and 126 of the Witwatersrand Bird Club News contain reports of hammerheads aggressively seeing off various birds of prey! Nevertheless, it is no bad thing for it to be burdened with such a bad reputation, for it actually operates in the bird’s favour. This is because natives consider it highly unlucky to hurt or kill a hammerhead, so the species enjoys a protected existence, exempt from the depredations of humankind.
This ShukerNature blog article is adapted and updated from my book The Menagerie of Marvels.


Leave a Comment more...

Site Representation Request

If you have a relevant website and wish to be represented on WhereMonstersDwell.com, please send a link to your site with a brief description and be sure to include a note granting permission to include your content. Send requests to netherworldnetwork[at]comcast[dot]net with the subject line "content feed permission" and we will be happy to consider adding your site to our family of associated websites.

Information Content Disclaimer

The views and opinions stated in any and all of the articles represented on this site are solely those of the contributing author or authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WhereMonstersDwell.com, The Netherworld Network, its parent company or any affiliated companies, or any individual, groups, or companies mentioned in articles on this site.