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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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.


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SCRUTINIZING THE SHOEBILL – THE BIRD WORLD’S INCREDIBLE WHALE-HEADED KING

by on Aug.14, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

A close-up of a taxiderm shoebill’s head, highlighting its extraordinary beak (left) and a vintage portrayal of a shoebill first published in 1901 (right) (© Dr Karl Shuker / public domain)
One of the bird world’s oddest-looking species is unquestionably Balaeniceps rex, whose scientific name translates as ‘whale-headed king’ – but as its head bears little resemblance to a whale, this is a somewhat strange name, even for as strange a bird as Balaeniceps. Standing up to 5 ft tall, its general appearance is that of a large, round-shouldered stork with slaty blue-grey plumage and an untidy crest, but distinguishing it instantly from any genuine stork is its enormous, grotesque beak.
Roughly 8 in long, with a sharply hooked tip, this incongruous structure greatly resembles a clog-like shoe, earning Balaenicepsa much more apt and more commonly used name – shoebill. Similarly, the Arabs call this bird Abu-markub, ‘Father of the shoe’.
Vintage illustration of the shoebill’s head (top) and a shoebill skull readily demonstrating its beak’s disproportionately huge size compared to the rest of its skull (bottom) (© Huub Veldhuijzen van Zanten/Naturalis Biodiversity Center – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
A peculiar but characteristic behavioural attribute of the shoebill is its tendency to stand perfectly still for lengthy periods of times. Recalling this, several years ago a correspondent informed me that when she was a child visiting her first zoo, she saw what she initially assumed to be a statue of some strange dinosaur-bird, because it was completely immobile. Fascinated, she stood and looked at it unsuspectingly for a time – until, without warning and in best Talos tradition (fans of the classic Ray Harryhausen film Jason and the Argonauts from 1963 will know exactly what I mean here!), this ‘statue’ slowly turned its head until it was staring directly at her! Its steely gaze peering down its huge beak into her face totally petrified the poor little girl, who was convinced that she was about to be torn apart and devoured!
Happily, the shoebill is in reality a shy, inoffensive species, inhabiting the relatively inaccessible papyrus marshes and floating swamps of the Upper Nile and its central East African tributaries, where it uses its massive beak to catch and extract prey such as fish, water snakes, and frogs (possibly even small mammals, and young crocodiles too) from the surrounding vegetation. It was once believed that its shoe-like shape was a specific adaptation for scooping lungfishes out of the mud, but as lungfishes do not form this species’ principal diet, that idea seems unfounded – just as unfounded, it would appear, as many of the assumptions put forward over the years regarding this species’ taxonomic affinity to other birds.
Section from an 1870s chromatolithograph depicting a pair of shoebills in their natural swampland habitat (public domain)
Science first became aware of the shoebill in the early 1840s. In his Expedition to Discover the Sources of the White Nile, in the Years 1840, 1841 (1849), German explorer Ferdinand Werne reported that on 15 December 1840 his party saw a remarkable bird that seemed to them to be as large as a young camel, with a huge pelican-like beak, but lacking the pelican’s characteristic pouch. This was undoubtedly a shoebill; sadly, Werne was asleep at the time and his party was unwilling to wake him, so he never observed it himself.
Eight years later, however, German ornithologist-explorer Baron Johann W. von Müller was more fortunate, catching sight of two shoebills. Moreover, upon his return to base at Khartoum, Sudan, he saw a pair of dead specimens for sale offered by a slave-dealer. The price that he was asking was too high to interest Baron von Müller, but not long afterwards they were purchased by a traveller from Nottingham named Mansfield Parkyns, who brought them back to England when he returned with various other animal specimens collected during his African sojourn. These were studied by the eminent bird painter John Gould, who prepared a formal scientific description of the shoebill, presented on 14 January 1851 at a meeting of London’s Zoological Society and published later that year in its Proceedings. And in 1860, Britain’s first pair of living shoebills arrived at London Zoo, courtesy of Welsh traveller John Petherick.
Another pair of shoebills in their natural habitat, this time painted by okapi discoverer Sir Harry Johnston and published in 1902 (public domain)
Meanwhile, the controversy concerning this species’ relationship to other birds had begun in earnest. Gould had classified it as an aberrant, long-legged pelican; but other ornithologists did not agree with that, and tended to ally it either with the herons or with the storks. Today, the shoebill is generally categorised as the sole living occupant of its own family, discrete from both the herons and the storks. The reason for the phenomenal difficulty in satisfactorily classifying this bird rests with its anatomy and behaviour, which embrace a perplexing potpourri of features drawn from at least three different bird families – and two different orders.
Powder-downs are pairs of strange feathers that are never shed, but perpetually fray at their tips to yield a powder that the bird rubs into its other feathers. Herons have three pairs, and the shoebill has a single pair, but storks have none. Also in common with herons, the shoebill’s rear toe is held at the same level as its three forward-pointing toes (the rear toe is raised in storks); and when it flies, the shoebill tucks its head and neck backwards, like herons once again.
And a smile on the face of the shoebill? (photo by Sengkang – copyrighted free use)
Even so, whereas in herons the stapes (birds’ only middle-ear bone) is primitive in form, avian evolutionist Dr Alan Feduccia showed that it has an identical derived shape in the storks and the shoebill (Nature, 21 April 1977). Also agreeing with the storks: the shoebill’s middle toe is less than half the length of the tarsus (heel-bone), and it has no webbing between its toes (herons have a partial web between 2-3 of theirs). It displays the storks’ beak-clattering behaviour too.
Yet as if all of this were not already sufficient to demonstrate the shoebill’s transitional form and conduct, its skull exhibits certain features similar to those of a completely separate order of birds – Pelecaniformes, the pelicans. Furthermore, in true pelican style, it flies with its large beak resting on its breast. Indeed, in 1957 the detailed skeletal studies undertaken by former British Museum ornithologist Dr Patricia A. Cottam on the shoebill convinced her that Gould had been correct all along, that this enigmatic species really was most closely related to the pelicans. However, other researchers (notably Dr Joel Cracraft in the ornithological journal Auk, 1985) dismissed its similarities as examples of convergence, i.e. they reasoned that because the shoebill and the pelicans exist in similar habitats and have similar lifestyles, they have evolved into similar forms, even though they originate from separate ancestral stocks.
An exquisite engraving from 1860 depicting a pair of shoebills (public domain)
Then in February 1986 after having directly compared the shoebill’s DNA with that of herons, storks, and pelicans, researchers Drs Charles G. Sibley and Jon E. Ahlquist announced in Scientific Americanthat, contrary to all expectations, the shoebill’s DNA most closely matched that of the pelicans! They published further data in support of their finds during the 1990s. In 2001, extensive research involving DNA hybridisation as well as nuclear and mitochondrial DNA sequence analyses by a team headed by Dr Marcel van Tuinen added further support for the pelicans, the shoebill, and another enigmatic species called the hammerhead or hamerkop Scopus umbretta being of monophyletic (common) origin.
Comparable results were also obtained from a comprehensive osteological study by Frankfurt-based ornithologist Dr Gerald Mayr, published in 2003. Modern studies thus offer persuasive evidence for believing, as Gould had proposed over 160 years ago, that the shoebill is basically an aberrant pelican, and that its cranial affinities with pelicans signify direct kinship rather than deceptive evolutionary convergence.
Shoebills – not singular storks but peculiar pelicans, relatively speaking (public domain)
In recent years, the shoebill’s classification has also attracted attention because the results of more detailed genetic comparisons (notably the extensive phylogenomic study by Dr Shannon J. Hackett and a large team of co-workers – Science, 12 July 2008), involving many different avian genera and families, have required taxonomists to carry out a major overhaul of the contents of the avian orders Ciconiiformes and Pelecaniformes. These changes can be summarised as follows.
Traditionally, Ciconiiformes has contained the following families: Ardeidae (herons, egrets, bitterns), Balaenicipitidae (shoebill), Scopidae (hammerhead), Ciconiidae (storks), Threskiornithidae (ibises and spoonbills), and Phoenicopteridae (flamingos). Pelecaniformes, meanwhile, has contained Phaethontidae (tropic-birds), Fregatidae (frigate-birds), Sulidae (gannets and boobies), Anhingidae (anhingas or darters), Phalacrocoracidae (cormorants and shags), and Pelecanidae (pelicans). However, modern genetic studies have shown fairly convincingly that Pelecaniformes is polyphyletic, i.e. its families do not all originate from a single common ancestor, but in reality seem to constitute three entirely separate evolutionary lineages. One of these lineages consists of the tropic-birds, which therefore are now housed within their own separate order, Phaethontiformes. A second lineage comprises the gannets and boobies, cormorants and shags, anhingas, and frigate-birds. So these have all been grouped together within their own new order too, Suliformes. This means that only one original family remains within Pelecaniformes – the pelicans, constituting a third separate lineage.
Facing up to some taxonomic tribulations (© Leyo/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
However, genetic studies have also shown, somewhat unexpectedly, that within the order Ciconiiformes are certain families – namely, the herons, bitterns, and egrets; the shoebill; the hammerhead; and the ibises and spoonbills – that are more closely related to the pelicans than they are to the remaining ciconiiform families. In short, Ciconiiformes is also polyphyletic. Consequently, these pelican-allied families have now been removed from Ciconiiformes and placed alongside the pelican family within Pelecaniformes. And the flamingos have been allocated their own separate order, Phoenicopteriformes. This means that the only family now remaining in Ciconiiformes is the storks.
Having said that, however, some taxonomists believe that the New World vultures’ family, Cathartidae, and the extinct teratorns’ family, Teratornithidae, are actually more closely related to the storks than to the Old World vultures or any other birds of prey. Consequently, they have duly included Cathartidae and Teratornithidae alongside the stork family Ciconiidae in Ciconiiformes. Meanwhile, the shoebill is nowadays back to where it began when first formally described during the 1800s, as a member of the pelican order. However, it is seen, along with the hammerhead, as a taxonomic link between Pelecaniformes and Ciconiiformes.
Shoebill showing off its powerful pinions (© Pelican/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)
Even the shoebill’s fossil antecedents have stimulated taxonomic turmoil. Until its reclassification in 1980 by Dr Pierce Brodkorb as an ancestral shoebill (based upon the finding of a tarsometatarsus that revealed this taxonomic affinity), Goliathia andrewsi had been classed as an aberrant heron. It was first described in 1930 by Hungarian palaeontologist Dr Kálmán Lambrecht, following the discovery of an ulna bone dating from the early Oligocene, which had been obtained in the Jebel Qatrani Formation within Egypt’s Fayum Province. The only other widely-accepted fossil relative of the shoebill is Paludavis richae, with remains found in Tunisia and Pakistan, but these are more recent, from the Miocene.
Of cryptozoological interest is the shoebill’s implication in a very curious case of mistaken identity. From time to time, reports emerge from various remote regions of Central Africa describing alleged sightings of large, macabre-looking creatures soaring through the skies and bearing an impressive resemblance to those long-extinct flying reptilians, the pterosaurs. However, it is more than likely that many of these involve shoebills, as noted by zoologist Dr Maurice Burton (Animals, 18 February 1964 – click hereto read more about his comments on ShukerNature) and subsequently explored in greater detail by me within my books In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995) and Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors(2016) – click herefor coverage on ShukerNature of my books’ documentation. There is no doubt that this strange bird has a distinctly prehistoric appearance, especially when viewed in flight, and anyone unfamiliar with the striking spectacle of its huge, 8.5-ft wingspan and giant beak could certainly be forgiven for thinking that they had spied an aerial anachronism, a cryptic creature supposedly dead for more than 64 million years.
This ShukerNature blog article is adapted from my book The Menagerie of Marvels.
Awe-inspiring sight of a shoebill in flight (© Tom Tarrant/Wikipedia – CC BY SA.30 licence)

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SCRUTINIZING THE SHOEBILL – THE BIRD WORLD’S INCREDIBLE WHALE-HEADED KING

by on Aug.14, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

A close-up of a taxiderm shoebill’s head, highlighting its extraordinary beak (left) and a vintage portrayal of a shoebill first published in 1901 (right) (© Dr Karl Shuker / public domain)
One of the bird world’s oddest-looking species is unquestionably Balaeniceps rex, whose scientific name translates as ‘whale-headed king’ – but as its head bears little resemblance to a whale, this is a somewhat strange name, even for as strange a bird as Balaeniceps. Standing up to 5 ft tall, its general appearance is that of a large, round-shouldered stork with slaty blue-grey plumage and an untidy crest, but distinguishing it instantly from any genuine stork is its enormous, grotesque beak.
Roughly 8 in long, with a sharply hooked tip, this incongruous structure greatly resembles a clog-like shoe, earning Balaenicepsa much more apt and more commonly used name – shoebill. Similarly, the Arabs call this bird Abu-markub, ‘Father of the shoe’.
Vintage illustration of the shoebill’s head (top) and a shoebill skull readily demonstrating its beak’s disproportionately huge size compared to the rest of its skull (bottom) (© Huub Veldhuijzen van Zanten/Naturalis Biodiversity Center – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
A peculiar but characteristic behavioural attribute of the shoebill is its tendency to stand perfectly still for lengthy periods of times. Recalling this, several years ago a correspondent informed me that when she was a child visiting her first zoo, she saw what she initially assumed to be a statue of some strange dinosaur-bird, because it was completely immobile. Fascinated, she stood and looked at it unsuspectingly for a time – until, without warning and in best Talos tradition (fans of the classic Ray Harryhausen film Jason and the Argonauts from 1963 will know exactly what I mean here!), this ‘statue’ slowly turned its head until it was staring directly at her! Its steely gaze peering down its huge beak into her face totally petrified the poor little girl, who was convinced that she was about to be torn apart and devoured!
Happily, the shoebill is in reality a shy, inoffensive species, inhabiting the relatively inaccessible papyrus marshes and floating swamps of the Upper Nile and its central East African tributaries, where it uses its massive beak to catch and extract prey such as fish, water snakes, and frogs (possibly even small mammals, and young crocodiles too) from the surrounding vegetation. It was once believed that its shoe-like shape was a specific adaptation for scooping lungfishes out of the mud, but as lungfishes do not form this species’ principal diet, that idea seems unfounded – just as unfounded, it would appear, as many of the assumptions put forward over the years regarding this species’ taxonomic affinity to other birds.
Section from an 1870s chromatolithograph depicting a pair of shoebills in their natural swampland habitat (public domain)
Science first became aware of the shoebill in the early 1840s. In his Expedition to Discover the Sources of the White Nile, in the Years 1840, 1841 (1849), German explorer Ferdinand Werne reported that on 15 December 1840 his party saw a remarkable bird that seemed to them to be as large as a young camel, with a huge pelican-like beak, but lacking the pelican’s characteristic pouch. This was undoubtedly a shoebill; sadly, Werne was asleep at the time and his party was unwilling to wake him, so he never observed it himself.
Eight years later, however, German ornithologist-explorer Baron Johann W. von Müller was more fortunate, catching sight of two shoebills. Moreover, upon his return to base at Khartoum, Sudan, he saw a pair of dead specimens for sale offered by a slave-dealer. The price that he was asking was too high to interest Baron von Müller, but not long afterwards they were purchased by a traveller from Nottingham named Mansfield Parkyns, who brought them back to England when he returned with various other animal specimens collected during his African sojourn. These were studied by the eminent bird painter John Gould, who prepared a formal scientific description of the shoebill, presented on 14 January 1851 at a meeting of London’s Zoological Society and published later that year in its Proceedings. And in 1860, Britain’s first pair of living shoebills arrived at London Zoo, courtesy of Welsh traveller John Petherick.
Another pair of shoebills in their natural habitat, this time painted by okapi discoverer Sir Harry Johnston and published in 1902 (public domain)
Meanwhile, the controversy concerning this species’ relationship to other birds had begun in earnest. Gould had classified it as an aberrant, long-legged pelican; but other ornithologists did not agree with that, and tended to ally it either with the herons or with the storks. Today, the shoebill is generally categorised as the sole living occupant of its own family, discrete from both the herons and the storks. The reason for the phenomenal difficulty in satisfactorily classifying this bird rests with its anatomy and behaviour, which embrace a perplexing potpourri of features drawn from at least three different bird families – and two different orders.
Powder-downs are pairs of strange feathers that are never shed, but perpetually fray at their tips to yield a powder that the bird rubs into its other feathers. Herons have three pairs, and the shoebill has a single pair, but storks have none. Also in common with herons, the shoebill’s rear toe is held at the same level as its three forward-pointing toes (the rear toe is raised in storks); and when it flies, the shoebill tucks its head and neck backwards, like herons once again.
And a smile on the face of the shoebill? (photo by Sengkang – copyrighted free use)
Even so, whereas in herons the stapes (birds’ only middle-ear bone) is primitive in form, avian evolutionist Dr Alan Feduccia showed that it has an identical derived shape in the storks and the shoebill (Nature, 21 April 1977). Also agreeing with the storks: the shoebill’s middle toe is less than half the length of the tarsus (heel-bone), and it has no webbing between its toes (herons have a partial web between 2-3 of theirs). It displays the storks’ beak-clattering behaviour too.
Yet as if all of this were not already sufficient to demonstrate the shoebill’s transitional form and conduct, its skull exhibits certain features similar to those of a completely separate order of birds – Pelecaniformes, the pelicans. Furthermore, in true pelican style, it flies with its large beak resting on its breast. Indeed, in 1957 the detailed skeletal studies undertaken by former British Museum ornithologist Dr Patricia A. Cottam on the shoebill convinced her that Gould had been correct all along, that this enigmatic species really was most closely related to the pelicans. However, other researchers (notably Dr Joel Cracraft in the ornithological journal Auk, 1985) dismissed its similarities as examples of convergence, i.e. they reasoned that because the shoebill and the pelicans exist in similar habitats and have similar lifestyles, they have evolved into similar forms, even though they originate from separate ancestral stocks.
An exquisite engraving from 1860 depicting a pair of shoebills (public domain)
Then in February 1986 after having directly compared the shoebill’s DNA with that of herons, storks, and pelicans, researchers Drs Charles G. Sibley and Jon E. Ahlquist announced in Scientific Americanthat, contrary to all expectations, the shoebill’s DNA most closely matched that of the pelicans! They published further data in support of their finds during the 1990s. In 2001, extensive research involving DNA hybridisation as well as nuclear and mitochondrial DNA sequence analyses by a team headed by Dr Marcel van Tuinen added further support for the pelicans, the shoebill, and another enigmatic species called the hammerhead or hamerkop Scopus umbretta being of monophyletic (common) origin.
Comparable results were also obtained from a comprehensive osteological study by Frankfurt-based ornithologist Dr Gerald Mayr, published in 2003. Modern studies thus offer persuasive evidence for believing, as Gould had proposed over 160 years ago, that the shoebill is basically an aberrant pelican, and that its cranial affinities with pelicans signify direct kinship rather than deceptive evolutionary convergence.
Shoebills – not singular storks but peculiar pelicans, relatively speaking (public domain)
In recent years, the shoebill’s classification has also attracted attention because the results of more detailed genetic comparisons (notably the extensive phylogenomic study by Dr Shannon J. Hackett and a large team of co-workers – Science, 12 July 2008), involving many different avian genera and families, have required taxonomists to carry out a major overhaul of the contents of the avian orders Ciconiiformes and Pelecaniformes. These changes can be summarised as follows.
Traditionally, Ciconiiformes has contained the following families: Ardeidae (herons, egrets, bitterns), Balaenicipitidae (shoebill), Scopidae (hammerhead), Ciconiidae (storks), Threskiornithidae (ibises and spoonbills), and Phoenicopteridae (flamingos). Pelecaniformes, meanwhile, has contained Phaethontidae (tropic-birds), Fregatidae (frigate-birds), Sulidae (gannets and boobies), Anhingidae (anhingas or darters), Phalacrocoracidae (cormorants and shags), and Pelecanidae (pelicans). However, modern genetic studies have shown fairly convincingly that Pelecaniformes is polyphyletic, i.e. its families do not all originate from a single common ancestor, but in reality seem to constitute three entirely separate evolutionary lineages. One of these lineages consists of the tropic-birds, which therefore are now housed within their own separate order, Phaethontiformes. A second lineage comprises the gannets and boobies, cormorants and shags, anhingas, and frigate-birds. So these have all been grouped together within their own new order too, Suliformes. This means that only one original family remains within Pelecaniformes – the pelicans, constituting a third separate lineage.
Facing up to some taxonomic tribulations (© Leyo/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
However, genetic studies have also shown, somewhat unexpectedly, that within the order Ciconiiformes are certain families – namely, the herons, bitterns, and egrets; the shoebill; the hammerhead; and the ibises and spoonbills – that are more closely related to the pelicans than they are to the remaining ciconiiform families. In short, Ciconiiformes is also polyphyletic. Consequently, these pelican-allied families have now been removed from Ciconiiformes and placed alongside the pelican family within Pelecaniformes. And the flamingos have been allocated their own separate order, Phoenicopteriformes. This means that the only family now remaining in Ciconiiformes is the storks.
Having said that, however, some taxonomists believe that the New World vultures’ family, Cathartidae, and the extinct teratorns’ family, Teratornithidae, are actually more closely related to the storks than to the Old World vultures or any other birds of prey. Consequently, they have duly included Cathartidae and Teratornithidae alongside the stork family Ciconiidae in Ciconiiformes. Meanwhile, the shoebill is nowadays back to where it began when first formally described during the 1800s, as a member of the pelican order. However, it is seen, along with the hammerhead, as a taxonomic link between Pelecaniformes and Ciconiiformes.
Shoebill showing off its powerful pinions (© Pelican/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)
Even the shoebill’s fossil antecedents have stimulated taxonomic turmoil. Until its reclassification in 1980 by Dr Pierce Brodkorb as an ancestral shoebill (based upon the finding of a tarsometatarsus that revealed this taxonomic affinity), Goliathia andrewsi had been classed as an aberrant heron. It was first described in 1930 by Hungarian palaeontologist Dr Kálmán Lambrecht, following the discovery of an ulna bone dating from the early Oligocene, which had been obtained in the Jebel Qatrani Formation within Egypt’s Fayum Province. The only other widely-accepted fossil relative of the shoebill is Paludavis richae, with remains found in Tunisia and Pakistan, but these are more recent, from the Miocene.
Of cryptozoological interest is the shoebill’s implication in a very curious case of mistaken identity. From time to time, reports emerge from various remote regions of Central Africa describing alleged sightings of large, macabre-looking creatures soaring through the skies and bearing an impressive resemblance to those long-extinct flying reptilians, the pterosaurs. However, it is more than likely that many of these involve shoebills, as noted by zoologist Dr Maurice Burton (Animals, 18 February 1964 – click hereto read more about his comments on ShukerNature) and subsequently explored in greater detail by me within my books In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995) and Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors(2016) – click herefor coverage on ShukerNature of my books’ documentation. There is no doubt that this strange bird has a distinctly prehistoric appearance, especially when viewed in flight, and anyone unfamiliar with the striking spectacle of its huge, 8.5-ft wingspan and giant beak could certainly be forgiven for thinking that they had spied an aerial anachronism, a cryptic creature supposedly dead for more than 64 million years.
This ShukerNature blog article is adapted from my book The Menagerie of Marvels.
Awe-inspiring sight of a shoebill in flight (© Tom Tarrant/Wikipedia – CC BY SA.30 licence)

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A TRIO OF MEDITERRANEAN MYSTERY SNAKES

by on Aug.06, 2020, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

A horned viper – the identity of Tunisia’s tantalizing taguerga? (public domain)
Many mystery serpents have been reported from remote, little-explored, inaccessible and/or inhospitable regions of the world – but not all. Down through the ages, a number of mysterious, unidentified forms have also been documented from various countries and islands lying on either side of the Mediterranean Sea, including the following thought-provoking threesome.
THE COLOVIA – A MEDITERRANEAN MEGA-SNAKE?
In various of his writings, veteran cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans referred to the alleged presence in the Mediterranean provinces within France, Spain, northern Italy, and Greece of an unidentified snake claimed by observers to be 9-12 ft long (and occasionally ever longer).
Other mystery beast investigators have also reported this serpentine enigma, which is often said to be dark green in colour, and in Italy is referred to as the colovia. One such snake was actually responsible for a traffic accident when it unexpectedly crossed a busy road near Chinchilla de Monte Aragón, in Spain’s Albicete Province, on 22 July 1969. Back in December 1933, a colovia was tracked down and killed in a marsh close to the Sicilian city of Syracuse, but its carcase was not preserved.
Eastern Montpellier snake (Barbod Safaei/released into the public domain)
If we assume that the colovia’s dimensions may well have been somewhat exaggerated or over-estimated by eyewitnesses, a plausible identity for it is the Montpellier snake Malpolon monspessulanus. Named after a city in southern France, this mildly-venomous rear-fanged colubrid is common through much of the Mediterranean basin. It is quite variable in colour, from dark grey to olive green, and can grow up to 8.5 ft long, possibly longer in exceptional specimens. Its presence has not been confirmed in Sicily nor anywhere in mainland Greece (its eastern subspecies, M. m. insignitus, deemed a separate species by some workers, occurs on a number of Greek islands, as well as on Cyprus), but these areas are certainly compatible with its survival.
So perhaps reports from there of unidentified colovia-type mystery snakes indicate that the Montpellier snake’s distribution range within Europe’s Mediterranean lands is even greater than presently recognised.
THE VIRGIN MARY SNAKES OF CEPHALONIA
Cephalonia is the largest of western Greece’s seven principal Ionian islands, lying in the Ionian Sea – which is in turn an elongated embayment of the Mediterranean Sea. Every year on 16 August – known here as the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady (the Virgin Mary) – the small southeastern village of Markopoulo hosts a Marian celebration, but its most famous, and mystifying, attendants are not of the human variety. Virtually every year for more than two centuries, during the fortnight leading up to this festival considerable numbers of snakes mysteriously appear at the foot of the Old Bell Steeple by Markopoulo’s Church of Our Lady, and just as mysteriously vanish again when the festival ends.
Their unusual behaviour has earned these serpents the local names of ‘Virgin Mary snakes’ and ‘Our Lady’s snakes’. This religious association is heightened by the small black cruciform mark that they allegedly bear on their heads and also at the forked tip of their tongues. They all appear to belong to the same single species, but which one this is does not seem to have been formally ascertained by herpetologists. However, they have attracted the attention and interest of several correspondents of mine, as first revealed in my book Mysteries of Planet Earth and now in greater detail here.

Four-striped snake (public domain)
According to one of them, Cephalonia chronicler Victor J. Kean, these snakes are non-venomous, are said to have “skin like silk”, and are popularly believed by the villagers to possess thaumaturgic powers. One plausible candidate is the four-striped snake Elaphe quatuorlineata, a non-venomous constricting species of colubrid that occurs on Cephalonia, and whose head can bear a variety of dark markings, especially in its bolder-marked juvenile form. Moreover, herpetologist Dr Klaus-Dieter Schulz has pointed out that this species is known to be associated with Christian traditions elsewhere in southern Europe, including the annual snake procession at Cucullo, Italy, in honour of St Dominic.
When he paid a visit to Markopoulo on 16 August one year during the mid-1990s, Alistair Underwood from Preston, in Lancashire, England, observed the Virgin Mary snakes congregating outside the Church of Our Lady, where they were freely handled by the local villagers, who even draped them fearlessly around their necks. The villagers also allowed them to enter the church, and to make their way towards a large silver icon of the Virgin Mary. Some websites that I have seen in which this ceremony is described (e.g. here) claim that the species in question is the European cat snake Telescopus fallax. This is a colubrid that is indeed native to Cephalonia and several other Greek islands too. Moreover, it is actually venomous, but because it is rear-fanged its venom is rarely injected in defensive biting, so it is not deemed to be a threat to humans.

19th-Century engraving of a European cat snake (public domain)
According to Cephalonian researcher Spyros Tassis Bekatoros, the only years in which the Virgin Mary snakes have not made an appearance at Markopoulo’s Marian festival are those spanning the German occupation of Cephalonia in World War II (during which period the occupying forces may have banned the Marian festival after learning about its ophidian participants), and the year 1953, when much of the island was devastated by an earthquake. This latter information may hold clues concerning the link between these snakes and the festival.
Although snakes are generally deaf to airborne vibrations (i.e. sounds), they respond very readily to groundborne ones. Consequently, Alistair Underwood suggested that the increased human activity and its associated groundborne vibrations during the Marian festival and its preceding preparations may explain the coincident appearance of the Virgin Mary snakes during those periods. If so, then the exceptional terrestrial reverberations that occurred during the 1953 earthquake would have greatly disturbed the snakes, disrupting their normal behaviour and obscuring the lesser vibrational stimuli emanating from human activity at the Marian festival that year.
THE HORNED TAGUERGA OF TUNISIA
In the first volume of his scholarly publication Exploration Scientifique de la Tunisie (1884), French archaeologist and diplomat Charles Tissot reported the alleged occurrence of a very sizeable Tunisian mystery snake known as the taguerga, which supposedly bears a pair of short but sharp horns on its head. Vehemently believed by the locals to be extremely venomous, this greatly-feared reptile is said to be as thick as a man’s thigh, and to attain a total length of 7-12 ft. It reputedly frequents the mountains of southern Tunisia’s Sahara region.
Horned viper (Patrick Jean, released into the public domain)
The locals consider taguergas to be specimens of the common horned viper Cerastes cerastes (a species that is indeed native to Tunisia) but which have attained an exceptionally venerable age and have continued growing throughout this abnormally-extended period of time, thus explaining their great size, as horned vipers do not normally exceed 3 ft long. Conversely, Dr Bernard Heuvelmans speculated that it may be a puff adder Bitis arietans, which sometimes bears horn-like scales upon its head. However, this species only rarely exceeds 5 ft long, and is not known to occur in Tunisia, although it is recorded from Morocco.


For an additional Mediterranean mystery snake, please click hereto access my ShukerNature blog article investigating the possible taxonomic identity of St Paul’s mystifying Maltese viper.
St Paul bitten by Malta’s alleged viper, engraving by Hendrik Goltzius, c1580 (public domain)

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