RECALLING SHUKER’S LORICIFERAN – MY VERY OWN MINI-BEAST

by on Sep.07, 2016, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Caroline Gast’s exquisite illustration of Pliciloricus enigmaticus, a close relative of Shuker’s loriciferan P. shukeri (public domain)
Eleven years ago, I was very honoured to receive what must surely be the greatest personal accolade for any zoologist – a new species of animal was named after me. The creature in question is Shuker’s loriciferan Pliciloricus shukeri – but how and why did this come about, and what exactly is a loriciferan anyway?
Although these creatures are only tiny in size, from a taxonomic standpoint the discovery of loriciferans was one of the most significant events of the entire 20thCentury, because they added a totally new phylum to the officially recognised roster of animal life. Excerpted and expanded from my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals(2012), here is their fascinating history, including the scientific debut in 2005 of P. shukeri.
My three books on new and rediscovered animals (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Loricifera – a Prediction Come True
Giving one’s name to an uncommonly ugly form of animal larva may not be everyone’s idea of obtaining scientific immortality, but it is nonetheless an effective way to achieve this – especially when that larva’s species is so utterly different from all others that a completely new phylumhas to be created to accommodate it.
Its story began in 1961 when, as a student at Washington‘s National Museum of Natural History, Robert Higgins predicted the existence of a remarkable little creature unlike any known to science at that time. By a sadistically ironic twist of fate, in May 1974 he actually found a real-life specimen of his hitherto-hypothetical creature – but failed to recognise it for what it was! Instead, he deemed it to be nothing more than a larval priapulid worm.
The following year, however, another specimen was found, this time by Danish zoologist Dr Reinhardt Møbjerg Kristensen, from the University of Copenhagen. Yet as bad luck would have it, the tiny animal was destroyed during its preparation for transmission electron microscopy. Happily, between 1976 and 1979 Dr Kristensen discovered some larvae, in shell gravel obtained from depths of 330-365 ft outside western Greenland‘s Godhavn Harbour. And finally, in April 1982, an adult turned up – completely by accident.
Ventral view of adult female loriciferan Nanaloricus mysticus (After R. M. Kristensen, 1983, ‘Loricifera, a new phylum with Aschelminthes characters from the meiobenthus’, Z. Zool. Syst. Evolutionsforsch., 21(3): 163–180)
Kristensen had obtained a huge sample of shell gravel from a depth of 83-100 ft during field work at the Marine Biological Station in Roscoff, France, and was in a hurry to examine the minute creatures living between the gravel particles, as this was his last day there before leaving for Denmark again. Consequently, instead of employing the usual sophisticated but somewhat protracted techniques for dislodging animals from the particles, lack of sufficient time spurred him to use a cruder but much quicker method – simply washing the gravel in freshwater.

The change in salt concentration experienced by the tiny marine organisms in the gravel shocked them into loosening their grip on its particles, and they could then be collected in the surrounding water. Among the creatures obtained in this way was an adult of Higgins’s postulated animal form, plus others from every stage in its life history. Shortly afterwards, specimens belonging to a slightly different species were obtained from Greenland gravel samples, using this same technique.

By now, Kristensen and Higgins had learnt about each other’s interest in these mysterious minute creatures, and had teamed up to work on them. They discovered that the individual (a larva) collected by Higgins in 1974 was indeed of the same group, but sufficiently different from Kristensen’s species to warrant separation within a new genus and family. As for the creatures in toto, true to Higgins’s expectations they required a brand new phylum. In 1983, Kristensen named it Loricifera, and formally described its first species, the Roscoff one, which he christened Nanaloricus mysticus.
Scanning electron micrograph of two Nanaloricus mysticus Higgins larvae; scale bar = 100 μm (© Dr Reinhardt M. Kristensen)
A tiny creature, no more than 0.01 in long, with a fairly squat body and a head section bearing a collar of radiating spines, it leads a sedentary existence – quite unlike its free-swimming larva, whose striated, pear-shaped body has a rear pair of flipper-like appendages. Anatomically, the species combines features from several different phyla, but is characterised by a unique mouth, consisting of a long tube that can be retracted completely within the creature’s body in a manner not previously recorded from any other type of animal.
As for Higgins, although he did not have the honour of describing the first real-life species of his conjectured creature he was given an unusual consolation prize – ever afterwards, the basic larval type produced by loriciferans would be officially referred to in zoological parlance as the Higgins larva. Higgins’s reaction to this accolade was to comment: “I’m very pleased of course, even though it is such an ugly creature”. Twenty-two years after his student prognostication, his hypothetical animal was hypothetical no longer.
Incidentally, in 1986 Higgins was able to describe the species to which his lost specimen had belonged; its scientific name is Pliciloricus enigmaticus, and it was just one of eight new species that Higgins and Kristensen described within a single paper. The other seven species were: P. dubius, P. gracilis, P. orphanus, P. profundus, Rugiloricus carolinensis, R. cauliculus, and R. ornatus. In 1988, Kristensen described a notably important species, P. hadalis – the first loriciferan recorded from fine sediment (red clay), from a depth (27,082 ft) great enough to be included within the hadal bathymetric zone, and from the western Pacific.
Shuker’s loriciferan Pliciloricus shukeri; scale bar = 200 μm (© Dr Reinhardt M. Kristensen)
Loriciferans possess five distinct body regions – the mouth cone, consisting of a small terminal mouth; the head (introvert), containing the brain; the neck; and a trunk portion that is in turn divided into the thorax and the abdomen. The abdomen is surrounded by a series of plates yielding a corset-like or girdle-like arrangement known as the lorica (from which they derive their zoological name, and also the vernacular name ‘girdle wearers’), which is variously cuticular or highly folded in form. On their head, they bear several whorls of protective spines called scalids (earning them a second, rarely-used vernacular name – ‘brush-heads’), and because adult loriciferans can withdraw their head into their neck, and their neck in turn into their trunk, when they do so it means that their head is then entirely protected by the lorica laterally and the scalids dorsally (which stick outwards). Although they do possess a body cavity, it is not a true one lined completely by mesoderm tissue (i.e. a coelom), but is one that is only partly mesoderm-lined (i.e. a pseudocoelom). They entirely lack a circulatory system and a respiratory system, but they do possess a straight-through gut from proximal mouth to distal anus, and also a well-developed nervous system. The sexes are separate (males and females), each of which possesses a single pair of gonads.

Morphologically, loriciferans share affinities with two phyla of superficially worm-like creatures – the priapulids and the kinorhynchs, and have been traditionally grouped with them in a clade known as Scalidophora. More recently, however, molecular studies have promoted a closer taxonomic affinity between Loricifera and Nematomorpha (the latter phylum containing the horsehair worms).

In February 1992, I was delighted and honoured to learn from Dr Kristensen that in due course he would be naming a new species of loriciferan after me (at that time, he had nearly 70 undescribed species in his collection!), in recognition of the very significant contribution made to the zoological literature by my first book on new and rediscovered animals – The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993). He later informed me that ‘my’ loriciferan was currently the most interesting species known, because it is neotenous, i.e. its Higgins larval stage becomes sexually mature precociously, developing an ovary, so the post-larval stage is reduced. Also, it was the first loriciferan species known to possess a double secondary organ, and was markedly different from all previously-described Pliciloricus species, thereby requiring the diagnosis of the genus Pliciloricus to be amended accordingly.

Schematic diagram of the adult, type specimen of P. shukeri from Heiner and Kristensen, 2005 (© Drs Iben Heiner and Reinhardt M. Kristensen)
Three specimens of Shuker’s loriciferan (one 210-μm-long adult, serving as the holotype or type specimen, and two smaller Higgins larvae, serving as paratypes) had been collected at BIOFAR (Benthic Investigation of the Faroe Islands) Station 627 on the Faroe Bank by the German research vessel Valdiviain 1990, and their species was formally described by Kristensen and fellow loriciferan researcher Dr Iben Heiner in 2005, when it was duly christened Pliciloricus shukeri. Quoting from their paper, the etymological derivation of this species’ name is as follows:
The name of this species epithet is in honor of Dr. Karl Shuker, a prominent expert in cryptozoology. The new species is dedicated to Dr. Shuker for his outstanding book “The Lost Ark, New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century”. In this book, the discovery of Loricifera received much credit as one of the major events of the 20th Century.
The full reference to the paper in which P. shukeri is formally named and described, and which should be accessed for the entire, highly-detailed morphological description of ‘my’ species, is:
HEINER, I. and KRISTENSEN, R.M. (2005). Two new species of the genus Pliciloricus (Loricifera, Pliciloricidae) from the Faroe Bank, North Atlantic. Zoologischer Anzeiger, 243(3): 121-138.
(The other new loriciferan species described by them in the above paper was P. leocaudatus, the ‘lion-tailed loriciferan’.)
Schematic diagram of one of the Higgins larva paratypes of P. shukeri from Heiner and Kristensen, 2005 (© Drs Iben Heiner and Reinhardt M. Kristensen)
Currently, 26 species of loriciferan in eight genera have been described, but at least a hundred more have been discovered and are currently awaiting description. Indeed, with delicious irony in view of their only very recent arrival in the annals of zoological discovery, based upon the findings of studies conducted so far the loriciferans appear to be one of the most abundant groups of meiofauna in the deep sea (meiofauna being tiny organisms inhabiting the spaces between sediment particles and smaller in body size than macrofauna but bigger than microfauna), they have also been shown to occur in mud on shallower water, and they may actually be one of the dominant meiofauna groups .
Moreover, in April 2010 the existence of a trio ofloriciferan species inhabiting the sediments at the bottom of the L’Atalante basin in the Mediterranean Sea, over 10,000 ft deep, was formally documented in a paper (click here to access it) authored by a team of researchers that once again included Drs Kristensen and Heiner, and which was published in the scientific journal BMB Biology. This revelation was of great zoological notability, because these three loriciferan species (respectively constituting a new Pliciloricus species, a new Rugiloricusspecies, and a new Spinoloricus species) were the first multicellular organisms known to spend their entire lives in an anoxic or anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment.

They can achieve this remarkable feat because they utilise hydrogenosomes (or similar organelles) rather than mitochondria for providing energy. Less than 0.04 in (1 mm) long, these very specialised loriciferans undergo their life cycles in the total absence not only of oxygen but also of light.
Light microscopy image of the new species of anoxic Spinoloricus loriciferan, stained with Rose Bengal; scale bar = 50 μm (© Roberto Danavaro et al., 2010/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0 licence)

Despite having been formally known to science for over three decades now, the loriciferans have clearly lost none of their capacity to surprise the zoological world!

My sincere thanks to Dr Reinhardt M. Kristensen for most kindly making available to me for use in my writings his illustrations included here – and, above all else, for doing me the immense honour of naming a new species after me, something that I’d always dreamed about since a very small child but never expected to happen. Sometimes, dreams really do come true.
And who knows, perhaps one day a second, closely-related, but presently-unfulfilled dream of mine will also come true – that someone will also name a new species after my late mother, Mary Shuker (without whose love, guidance, and encouragement I would never have achieved anything, including writing The Lost Ark and my other books), so that her name will very deservedly live on, and that she will therefore continue to be remembered when I am no longer here to do so.  God bless you Mom, I love you and miss you so much.
Shuker’s loriciferan (© Dr Reinhardt M. Kristensen)
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RECALLING SHUKER’S LORICIFERAN – MY VERY OWN MINI-BEAST

by on Sep.07, 2016, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Caroline Gast’s exquisite illustration of Pliciloricus enigmaticus, a close relative of Shuker’s loriciferan P. shukeri (public domain)
Eleven years ago, I was very honoured to receive what must surely be the greatest personal accolade for any zoologist – a new species of animal was named after me. The creature in question is Shuker’s loriciferan Pliciloricus shukeri – but how and why did this come about, and what exactly is a loriciferan anyway?
Although these creatures are only tiny in size, from a taxonomic standpoint the discovery of loriciferans was one of the most significant events of the entire 20thCentury, because they added a totally new phylum to the officially recognised roster of animal life. Excerpted and expanded from my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals(2012), here is their fascinating history, including the scientific debut in 2005 of P. shukeri.
My three books on new and rediscovered animals (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Loricifera – a Prediction Come True
Giving one’s name to an uncommonly ugly form of animal larva may not be everyone’s idea of obtaining scientific immortality, but it is nonetheless an effective way to achieve this – especially when that larva’s species is so utterly different from all others that a completely new phylumhas to be created to accommodate it.
Its story began in 1961 when, as a student at Washington‘s National Museum of Natural History, Robert Higgins predicted the existence of a remarkable little creature unlike any known to science at that time. By a sadistically ironic twist of fate, in May 1974 he actually found a real-life specimen of his hitherto-hypothetical creature – but failed to recognise it for what it was! Instead, he deemed it to be nothing more than a larval priapulid worm.
The following year, however, another specimen was found, this time by Danish zoologist Dr Reinhardt Møbjerg Kristensen, from the University of Copenhagen. Yet as bad luck would have it, the tiny animal was destroyed during its preparation for transmission electron microscopy. Happily, between 1976 and 1979 Dr Kristensen discovered some larvae, in shell gravel obtained from depths of 330-365 ft outside western Greenland‘s Godhavn Harbour. And finally, in April 1982, an adult turned up – completely by accident.
Ventral view of adult female loriciferan Nanaloricus mysticus (After R. M. Kristensen, 1983, ‘Loricifera, a new phylum with Aschelminthes characters from the meiobenthus’, Z. Zool. Syst. Evolutionsforsch., 21(3): 163–180)
Kristensen had obtained a huge sample of shell gravel from a depth of 83-100 ft during field work at the Marine Biological Station in Roscoff, France, and was in a hurry to examine the minute creatures living between the gravel particles, as this was his last day there before leaving for Denmark again. Consequently, instead of employing the usual sophisticated but somewhat protracted techniques for dislodging animals from the particles, lack of sufficient time spurred him to use a cruder but much quicker method – simply washing the gravel in freshwater.

The change in salt concentration experienced by the tiny marine organisms in the gravel shocked them into loosening their grip on its particles, and they could then be collected in the surrounding water. Among the creatures obtained in this way was an adult of Higgins’s postulated animal form, plus others from every stage in its life history. Shortly afterwards, specimens belonging to a slightly different species were obtained from Greenland gravel samples, using this same technique.

By now, Kristensen and Higgins had learnt about each other’s interest in these mysterious minute creatures, and had teamed up to work on them. They discovered that the individual (a larva) collected by Higgins in 1974 was indeed of the same group, but sufficiently different from Kristensen’s species to warrant separation within a new genus and family. As for the creatures in toto, true to Higgins’s expectations they required a brand new phylum. In 1983, Kristensen named it Loricifera, and formally described its first species, the Roscoff one, which he christened Nanaloricus mysticus.
Scanning electron micrograph of two Nanaloricus mysticus Higgins larvae; scale bar = 100 μm (© Dr Reinhardt M. Kristensen)
A tiny creature, no more than 0.01 in long, with a fairly squat body and a head section bearing a collar of radiating spines, it leads a sedentary existence – quite unlike its free-swimming larva, whose striated, pear-shaped body has a rear pair of flipper-like appendages. Anatomically, the species combines features from several different phyla, but is characterised by a unique mouth, consisting of a long tube that can be retracted completely within the creature’s body in a manner not previously recorded from any other type of animal.
As for Higgins, although he did not have the honour of describing the first real-life species of his conjectured creature he was given an unusual consolation prize – ever afterwards, the basic larval type produced by loriciferans would be officially referred to in zoological parlance as the Higgins larva. Higgins’s reaction to this accolade was to comment: “I’m very pleased of course, even though it is such an ugly creature”. Twenty-two years after his student prognostication, his hypothetical animal was hypothetical no longer.
Incidentally, in 1986 Higgins was able to describe the species to which his lost specimen had belonged; its scientific name is Pliciloricus enigmaticus, and it was just one of eight new species that Higgins and Kristensen described within a single paper. The other seven species were: P. dubius, P. gracilis, P. orphanus, P. profundus, Rugiloricus carolinensis, R. cauliculus, and R. ornatus. In 1988, Kristensen described a notably important species, P. hadalis – the first loriciferan recorded from fine sediment (red clay), from a depth (27,082 ft) great enough to be included within the hadal bathymetric zone, and from the western Pacific.
Shuker’s loriciferan Pliciloricus shukeri; scale bar = 200 μm (© Dr Reinhardt M. Kristensen)
Loriciferans possess five distinct body regions – the mouth cone, consisting of a small terminal mouth; the head (introvert), containing the brain; the neck; and a trunk portion that is in turn divided into the thorax and the abdomen. The abdomen is surrounded by a series of plates yielding a corset-like or girdle-like arrangement known as the lorica (from which they derive their zoological name, and also the vernacular name ‘girdle wearers’), which is variously cuticular or highly folded in form. On their head, they bear several whorls of protective spines called scalids (earning them a second, rarely-used vernacular name – ‘brush-heads’), and because adult loriciferans can withdraw their head into their neck, and their neck in turn into their trunk, when they do so it means that their head is then entirely protected by the lorica laterally and the scalids dorsally (which stick outwards). Although they do possess a body cavity, it is not a true one lined completely by mesoderm tissue (i.e. a coelom), but is one that is only partly mesoderm-lined (i.e. a pseudocoelom). They entirely lack a circulatory system and a respiratory system, but they do possess a straight-through gut from proximal mouth to distal anus, and also a well-developed nervous system. The sexes are separate (males and females), each of which possesses a single pair of gonads.

Morphologically, loriciferans share affinities with two phyla of superficially worm-like creatures – the priapulids and the kinorhynchs, and have been traditionally grouped with them in a clade known as Scalidophora. More recently, however, molecular studies have promoted a closer taxonomic affinity between Loricifera and Nematomorpha (the latter phylum containing the horsehair worms).

In February 1992, I was delighted and honoured to learn from Dr Kristensen that in due course he would be naming a new species of loriciferan after me (at that time, he had nearly 70 undescribed species in his collection!), in recognition of the very significant contribution made to the zoological literature by my first book on new and rediscovered animals – The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993). He later informed me that ‘my’ loriciferan was currently the most interesting species known, because it is neotenous, i.e. its Higgins larval stage becomes sexually mature precociously, developing an ovary, so the post-larval stage is reduced. Also, it was the first loriciferan species known to possess a double secondary organ, and was markedly different from all previously-described Pliciloricus species, thereby requiring the diagnosis of the genus Pliciloricus to be amended accordingly.

Schematic diagram of the adult, type specimen of P. shukeri from Heiner and Kristensen, 2005 (© Drs Iben Heiner and Reinhardt M. Kristensen)
Three specimens of Shuker’s loriciferan (one 210-μm-long adult, serving as the holotype or type specimen, and two smaller Higgins larvae, serving as paratypes) had been collected at BIOFAR (Benthic Investigation of the Faroe Islands) Station 627 on the Faroe Bank by the German research vessel Valdiviain 1990, and their species was formally described by Kristensen and fellow loriciferan researcher Dr Iben Heiner in 2005, when it was duly christened Pliciloricus shukeri. Quoting from their paper, the etymological derivation of this species’ name is as follows:
The name of this species epithet is in honor of Dr. Karl Shuker, a prominent expert in cryptozoology. The new species is dedicated to Dr. Shuker for his outstanding book “The Lost Ark, New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century”. In this book, the discovery of Loricifera received much credit as one of the major events of the 20th Century.
The full reference to the paper in which P. shukeri is formally named and described, and which should be accessed for the entire, highly-detailed morphological description of ‘my’ species, is:
HEINER, I. and KRISTENSEN, R.M. (2005). Two new species of the genus Pliciloricus (Loricifera, Pliciloricidae) from the Faroe Bank, North Atlantic. Zoologischer Anzeiger, 243(3): 121-138.
(The other new loriciferan species described by them in the above paper was P. leocaudatus, the ‘lion-tailed loriciferan’.)
Schematic diagram of one of the Higgins larva paratypes of P. shukeri from Heiner and Kristensen, 2005 (© Drs Iben Heiner and Reinhardt M. Kristensen)
Currently, 26 species of loriciferan in eight genera have been described, but at least a hundred more have been discovered and are currently awaiting description. Indeed, with delicious irony in view of their only very recent arrival in the annals of zoological discovery, based upon the findings of studies conducted so far the loriciferans appear to be one of the most abundant groups of meiofauna in the deep sea (meiofauna being tiny organisms inhabiting the spaces between sediment particles and smaller in body size than macrofauna but bigger than microfauna), they have also been shown to occur in mud on shallower water, and they may actually be one of the dominant meiofauna groups .
Moreover, in April 2010 the existence of a trio ofloriciferan species inhabiting the sediments at the bottom of the L’Atalante basin in the Mediterranean Sea, over 10,000 ft deep, was formally documented in a paper (click here to access it) authored by a team of researchers that once again included Drs Kristensen and Heiner, and which was published in the scientific journal BMB Biology. This revelation was of great zoological notability, because these three loriciferan species (respectively constituting a new Pliciloricus species, a new Rugiloricusspecies, and a new Spinoloricus species) were the first multicellular organisms known to spend their entire lives in an anoxic or anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment.

They can achieve this remarkable feat because they utilise hydrogenosomes (or similar organelles) rather than mitochondria for providing energy. Less than 0.04 in (1 mm) long, these very specialised loriciferans undergo their life cycles in the total absence not only of oxygen but also of light.
Light microscopy image of the new species of anoxic Spinoloricus loriciferan, stained with Rose Bengal; scale bar = 50 μm (© Roberto Danavaro et al., 2010/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0 licence)

Despite having been formally known to science for over three decades now, the loriciferans have clearly lost none of their capacity to surprise the zoological world!

My sincere thanks to Dr Reinhardt M. Kristensen for most kindly making available to me for use in my writings his illustrations included here – and, above all else, for doing me the immense honour of naming a new species after me, something that I’d always dreamed about since a very small child but never expected to happen. Sometimes, dreams really do come true.
And who knows, perhaps one day a second, closely-related, but presently-unfulfilled dream of mine will also come true – that someone will also name a new species after my late mother, Mary Shuker (without whose love, guidance, and encouragement I would never have achieved anything, including writing The Lost Ark and my other books), so that her name will very deservedly live on, and that she will therefore continue to be remembered when I am no longer here to do so.  God bless you Mom, I love you and miss you so much.
Shuker’s loriciferan (© Dr Reinhardt M. Kristensen)
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THE CAMBODIAN ‘STEGOSAUR’ – AN ANACHRONISM FROM ANGKOR WAT?

by on Aug.30, 2016, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

The enigmatic Cambodian ‘stegosaur’ glyph at Ta Prohm, AngkorWat, with the external decorative plate motif clearly visible encircling its circle’s outer perimeter (© John and Lesley Burke)
Mystery creatures, and evidence in support of their existence, can turn up in the most unlikely places, but few can be as unexpected, surely, as Cambodia‘s centuries-old carving of an alleged stegosaurian dinosaur!
Stegosaurs constituted a taxonomic suborder of ornithischian (‘bird-hipped’) dinosaurs that existed from the mid-Jurassic Period to the early Cretaceous Period, i.e. approximately 170-120 million years ago. They lived predominantly in North America, Europe, and China, but at least one species is known from Africa, and possibly one from India too. Herbivorous and quadrupedal, the most famous morphological attributes of the stegosaurs were the double (occasionally single) row of very large, flat, upright plates running down the centre of their back, and the arrangement of long spikes (the so-called thagomizer) borne upon their tail. Proportionately, their head was very small relative to the rest of their body. Indeed, in the most famous genus, North America‘s Stegosaurus, their brain was only the size of a walnut whereas their body was the size of a van!
Whereas the last confirmed stegosaurs died out over 100 million years ago, one of Cambodia’s most beautiful edifices, the jungle temple of Ta Prohm, was created a mere 900 years or so ago, and forms part of the Angkor Wat temple complex, which collectively is internationally famous for being the largest religious monument in the world. Dedicated to the Hindu deity Vishnu by the Khmer King Suryavarman who built it during the early 12th Century, Angkor Wat did indeed begin as a Hindu temple, for the Khmer Empire and in what was then its capital, Yasodharapura, now Angkor, but by the end of that century it had been transformed into a Buddhist temple.
Ruined temples and giant overgrown tree roots at Ta Prohm, AngkorWat (public domain)
Like other temples from this time period and Angkor Wat complex, Ta Prohm is intricately adorned with images from Hindu and Buddhist mythology as well as many depictions of animals. These latter include numerous circular glyphs each containing the carving of some local creature – but Ta Prohm also has one truly exceptional glyph unique to itself. Near to one of this temple’s entrances is a circular glyph containing the carving of a burly quadrupedal beast ostensibly bearing a row of upright plates along its back – an image irresistibly reminiscent of a stegosaurian dinosaur!
This anomalous carving is very popular with local guides, who delight in baffling Western tourists by asking them if they believe that dinosaurs still existed as recently as 900 years ago and then showing this glyph to them. Could it therefore be a modern fake, skilfully carved amid the genuine glyphs by a trickster hoping to fool unsuspecting tourists? Or is it a bona fide 900-year-old sculpture? Having spoken to a number of people who have visited Angkor Wat and have viewed this glyph close-up at Ta Prohm, I am assured by all of them that it looks of comparable age to the other glyphs surrounding it, with no visible indications that it has been carved any more recently than any of the others there.
So how can this very intriguing, seemingly anachronistic depiction be explained? Some cryptozoologists cite it as proof that a stegosaurian lineage must have survived into modern times somewhere in this vicinity but has remained undiscovered by science (the notion that this carving may portray a living stegosaur appears to have been first promoted during the late 1990s, in a couple of books on Angkor Wat written by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques). Others have suggested that perhaps it was inspired by the temple’s architects having seen some fossilised stegosaur remains. And there also is the option that it is a stegosaur only by accidental design, i.e. that its plates are not a physical component of the creature, but merely background decoration inside the circle containing it, and that to associate them with the animal is therefore a mistake. Let’s consider each of these possibilities.
The Cambodian stegosaur glyph in close-up (© John and Lesley Burke)
If we ignore its plates, the rest of the creature does not actually look much like a stegosaur as depicted in palaeontological restorations, certainly not as depicted in modern restorations (i.e. in contrast to those dating from several decades ago, but which are still the ones commonly brought to mind by laymen who may not be familiar with up-to-date versions in palaeontological publications). In particular, its apparent lateral cranial horns are decidedly non-stegosaurian, and the stegosaurs’ distinctive, characteristic thagomizer is conspicuous only by its absence in this glyph. Also contrasting with fossil stegosaurs are its relatively large head and short tail – the reverse condition to that more commonly exhibited by the former dinosaurs.
Then again, if a stegosaurian lineage has indeed somehow persisted into modern times, such differences from fossilised stegosaurs as those noted above are certainly not so radical that they could not have arisen during the 100 million years or so of continuing evolution that will have occurred from the early Cretaceous to the present day. One only has to compare, for instance, the relatively unspecialised range of mammals or birds existing during the early Cretaceous to the vast morphological diversity of mammalian or avian forms alive today to see just how extensively evolution can modify outward morphology during that particular period of time.
However, if anything as dramatic as a living stegosaur does indeed exist (or has done until very recently) anywhere within the area of Cambodia, one might reasonably expect rather more pictorial evidence of such existence than a single small carving tucked away amidst a myriad of other animal carvings. Yet I am not aware of any comparable design anywhere else in Asian art. To my knowledge, there is no suggestion of stegosaurian creatures in Cambodian mythology or folklore either, nor, indeed, in that of any other corpus of Asian traditions (thus contrasting very markedly, for example, with the extensive native beliefs associated with the mokele-mbembe in the Congo). And there is certainly no documented physical evidence for such a creature’s reality – no preserved plates, skeletal remains, etc, described in any publication that I have ever encountered or seen any mention of during my researches.
Fossil skeleton of a Late Jurassic Chinese stegosaur, Tuojiangosaurus (© Ayca Wilson/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0 licence)
Moreover, even fossil stegosaur remains so far disinterred in Asia are restricted to China (predominantly) and India (very controversially – much of these proved upon closer inspection to be derived from plesiosaurs instead!). This in turn reduces the likelihood that the ‘stegosaur’ glyph was carved 900 years ago by a local sculptor who had previously seen fossil remains of such a creature, unless (and which is certainly not impossible but unlikely) the sculptor had visited China and had seen such remains there?
Yet even if it does not represent a living contemporary (or a prehistoric fossil) stegosaur, might it conceivably depict some still-undiscovered modern-day animal that superficially resembles a stegosaur? If so, however, there do not appear to be any local sightings or lore on record concerning it
Another option is that it may be some local mythological creature (though I am unaware of any from this region of the world that match its appearance). Certainly, there is a varied mixture of the factual and the fictitious among the fauna depicted at Angkor Wat.
Scaly(?) ridge-backed mystery beast – a stylised pangolin? – depicted directly below the stegosaur glyph at Ta Prohm (© John and Lesley Burke)
Directly below the stegosaur glyph, for instance, is one portraying a mystifying unidentified quadruped with cross-hatching on its body that may be meant to represent scales, plus a distinct series of dorsal ridges that in this instance are definitely part of the animal. Its somewhat pointed head is reminiscent of that of a pangolin or scaly anteater, which could also explain the cross-hatching.
Yet unless the depiction as a whole is very stylised (particularly its dorsal ridges), it does not closely resemble a pangolin (or indeed any other real, whole creature) in other morphological respects. However, as suggested elsewhere by German cryptozoologist Markus Bühler, might it represent the head of a wild pig? There is certainly a degree of resemblance. Alternatively, it may be some type of mythological entity.
Oriental demon depicted directly below the putative pangolin glyph at Ta Prohm (© John and Lesley Burke)
Directly below that glyph, moreover, is one that portrays a typical Oriental demon, grinning maniacally at anybody spotting it there.
To my mind, however, by far the simplest and most plausible explanation for the enigmatic stegosaur glyph is that its resemblance to one of those plate-backed dinosaurs is an artefact – i.e. it is simply some form of local present-day known creature that has been carved with a plate-like decorative motif in the background, but which in turn has been wrongly associated directly with the creature. The reason that I favour this explanation is that such a motif can also be seen surrounding other carved animals of several different types enclosed within their respective glyph circles at Angkor Wat. These include birds, a water buffalo, deer, monkeys, and even mythological demons, as noted above (and in certain of these glyphs, moreover, the motif bears a resemblance to lotus leaves).
The stegosaur glyph (arrowed) in situ with other animal glyphs, including a water buffalo directly above it, an unidentified animal directly below it, and a mythological demon directly below that – click picture to enlarge it (© John and Lesley Burke)
Although the plates surrounding the alleged stegosaur do seem somewhat more well-defined (but might this indicate some very selective modern-day enhancement by a hoaxer seeking to enhance its superficial stegosaur appearance?), their general shape and size are much the same as those surrounding other carved animals. In addition, this same plate motif is also present encircling the outer perimeter of the glyph circles enclosing the carved animals, including that of the ‘stegosaur’, as readily seen in the photograph opening this present ShukerNature blog article.
Looking closely at the latter creature, its head in particular is shaped very like that of a rhinoceros, as has also been commented upon elsewhere by Markus Bühler and various others. Even its ‘cranial horns’ resemble the long pointed ears of such mammals. Conversely, its back seems more arched than is true of rhinos, but this discrepancy could merely be due to stylising, or once again may simply be a design artefact, the creature having been depicted in this unnatural, hardly life-like pose (for a rhino) simply in order for it to fit more readily inside its circular setting.
The Cambodian ‘moa’ carving at AngkorWat (public domain)
Incidentally, adapting the shape of an animal during its depiction in order to fit it more snugly within a designated space for it is an option that I have already explored elsewhere on ShukerNature (click here) in relation to a second anomalous Angkor Wat carving – the so-called Cambodian moa.
Returning to rhinos and the suspect stegosaur: on the latter creature’s body are indications of the skin pleats exhibited by Asian rhinos of the genus Rhinoceros (i.e. the great Indian R. unicornis and the Javan or scaled R. sondaicus, the latter of which definitely still existed in Cambodia 900 years ago, with the former possibly doing so too). Even the creature’s lack of a nasal horn is not an obstacle to identifying it as a rhino of this genus, because female Javan rhinos are sometimes hornless.
19th-Century chromolithograph of a very short-horned Javan rhinoceros exhibited at LondonZoo in 1877, showing its skin pleats (public domain)
Another line of speculation that has been proposed by some investigators is that the creature actually represents a very stylised portrayal of some form of lizard, suggestions having included a chameleon (though there is none in southeast Asia) or one of the several species of southeast Asian agamid known as mountain horned dragons Acanthosaura sp. However, any similarities between the carving and such reptiles seem far less apparent (if indeed present at all) to me than those readily visible between the carving and a stylised and/or modified-to-fit rhinoceros. Equally, whereas an even better fit for the creature’s ‘cranial horns’ than the pointed ears of a rhino would be the horns of a wild ox, the rest of the creature’s depiction is a better fit for a rhino than for an ox.
Of course, we shall never know for sure the intended taxonomic identity of the supposed stegosaur in this perplexing carving. However, it does seem much more likely to be a stylised depiction of some local known species rather than anything more radical. After all, it surely couldn’t have been based upon a sighting of a real-life stegosaur…could it?
Life-sized model of a Stegosaurus (© Dr Karl Shuker)
My sincere thanks to John and Lesley Burke for specifically seeking out and photographing for me the ‘stegosaur’ glyph at Ta Prohm in Angkor Wat during their visit to Cambodia in 2001.
This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and enlarged from my forthcoming book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors…coming very soon.
 
If the Cambodian stegosaur were indeed real… – ‘Angkor’s Way’ (© Michael J. Smith)
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DREDGING UP SOME LIVING TRILOBITES?

by on Aug.12, 2016, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Large-scale model of the ‘Dudley bug’ trilobite Calymene blumenbachii (© Dr Karl Shuker)
One of the best-known groups of fossil animal are the trilobites (‘three-lobed’), this name deriving from the distinctive three-lobed structure of their body, which consists of the cephalon (head shield), the thorax, and the pygidium (tail shield). Ranging in size from a dinner plate down to a pea, they are famed for their segmented body form, numerous pairs of limbs, and extremely well-developed compound eyes.
Global but exclusively marine in distribution, this taxonomic class of arthropods was one of the earliest, with the first-known representatives in the fossil record dating back approximately 540-520 million years to the early Cambrian Period (though it is suspected that there may well have been earlier forms as yet unrepresented by documented fossils dating as far back as 700 million years, to the pre-Cambrian).
Beautiful illustration of trilobites from Système Silurien du Centre de la Bohême, by Joachim Barrande, 1852 (public domain)
Bearing in mind how zoologically familiar they are today and how their taxonomic identity as arthropods is indisputable, it may come as something of a surprise to learn that the first trilobite fossils to attract notable scientific attention, during the 1700s, incited considerable controversy as to what type of creature they represented, resulting in some exceedingly bizarre notions being aired in all seriousness.
They were initially deemed to be ancient, three-lobed clam-like seashells (and were duly dubbed Concha triloba), because these particular trilobite fossils showed only the animals’ dorsal side (thereby concealing the fact that trilobites actually possessed legs – lots of legs, in fact!).
A diverse selection of fossil trilobites on a slab (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Not everyone agreed with this identification, however, and offered various alternative but equally erroneous suggestions. The normally authoritative British zoologist Dr George Shaw (1751-1813), for instance, proposed that trilobites were fossil caterpillars, while some contemporaries opined that they were archaic centipedes, or (less preposterous) crustaceans.
The matter remained contentious until American palaeontologist Charles D. Walcott resolved it in a very convincing manner – by skilfully and painstakingly using a hacksaw to open up no fewer than 3,500 fossils of curled-up trilobites, thereby revealing the presence of their jointed legs, and, in turn, these hitherto-baffling beasts’ true nature as arthropods.
Spectacular, life-like model of Bristolia bristolensis, a notably long-spined species of early Cambrian trilobite from the southwestern USA (© Andrew ‘Trilobite’ Scott – click herefor a ShukerNature exclusive showcasing many other examples of Andrew’s stunning artwork)
During the lengthy course of their evolution, the trilobites became exceedingly successful, yielding a vast diversity of species (some 17,000 are currently recognised) as well as body forms and lifestyles before decreasing markedly in the Devonian, and finally dying out completely around 252 million years ago (in the mass extinction that occurred at the end of the Permian) – or did they? There is no well-established reason why they should have done.
As a zoologist living in the West Midlands, England, I am very aware that one particular trilobite species, Calymene blumenbachii from the Silurian Period, is so abundant in the fossiliferous limestone quarries of Wren’s Nest in the West Midlands town of Dudley that it is popularly known as the Dudley bug or Dudley locust, and even appears on the Dudley County Borough Council’s official coat-of-arms. Naturally, therefore, I’ve been a fan of trilobites ever since childhood, and my fossil collection contains several specimens, but my interest in cryptozoology would subsequently yield an additional reason for my being fascinated by them.
Dudley bug trilobite, from James Geikie’s Outlines of Geology, 2nd rev. edit, 1883 (public domain)
In the mid-1980s, I purchased veteran American cryptozoologist Prof. Roy P. Mackal’s classic book Searching For Hidden Animals (which had originally been published in 1980 in the U.S.A., but not until 1983 in the U.K.), and was delighted to find that it documented a wide range of lesser-known cryptids.
However, one chapter that obviously attracted my particular interest was tantalisingly entitled ‘Living Trilobites?’. It included a discussion as to whether any representatives of these archaic arthropods might have survived the Permian mega-death and persisted in benthic anonymity on the ocean floor into the present day.
Prof. Roy P. Mackal and the UKhb 1st edition of his book Searching For Hidden Animals (© Prof. Roy P. Mackal/Cadogan Books)
As Mackal noted, many trilobites were shallow coastal dwellers (especially the later ones), yet no living trilobites from such localities have ever been discovered. Consequently, the only hope for modern-day survival is if “some forms adapted to a deeper, more obscure environment and there found refuge” – or if some that were already so adapted simply persisted. Should this scenario have indeed taken place, it could explain why no Cenozoic trilobite fossils have ever been found – because these would not be readily discovered or accessed on the ocean floor. But what about obtaining living specimens there?
Until reading Mackal’s book, I hadn’t been aware that the very first global marine research expedition, the voyage of HMS Challenger from 21 December 1872 to 26 May 1876, seriously believed that living trilobites might be dredged up from the ocean bottom. But although countless specimens that included representatives of over 4,000 hitherto-unknown animal species were indeed procured there, none of them were trilobites. Or, as worded in the authoritative Encyclopaedia Britannica‘s eleventh edition, published in 1911, the “faint hope” of finding such creatures was not realised.
HMS Challenger portrayed in an engraving from 1858 (pubic domain)
In reality, however, a few years before this expedition had even set out on its epic voyage of zoological discovery, a claim had been made that a living trilobite had already been obtained, and from a depth of 1,200 fathoms (7,200 ft). Moreover, this claim was actually believed for a time before the creature’s true, non-trilobite identity was revealed. Another veteran cryptozoological chronicler, Willy Ley, who briefly reported the case in one of his many articles, didn’t provide further details, but as noted by Mackal the timing and morphological similarities strongly suggests that the discovery in question was actually that of a certain Antarctic species of isopod crustacean (the taxonomic group which includes woodlice and sea slaters) that is astonishingly trilobite-like in outward appearance.
Brought to scientific attention in 1830, its first officially recorded specimen had actually been found inside the gut of a marine fish examined by American naturalist Dr James Eights while visiting the South Shetland Islands between Patagonia and Antarctica during the so-called ‘Expedition of 1830’. Emphasising its remarkable morphological convergence, in 1833 Eights formally christened this memorable new species Brongniartia [now Ceratoserolis] trilobitoides. And it was indeed initially mistaken for one of these prehistoric arthropods by some observers, but it sports two pairs of antennae (a crustacean characteristic), whereas trilobites only had one.
Ceratoserolis trilobitoides from James Eights’s 1833 description paper (public domain)
Other modern-day creatures that have often been mistaken for living trilobites are chitons and water pennies. Chitons (or polyplacophorans, to give them their formal zoological name) constitute a taxonomic class of molluscs characterised by their very distinctive shells, which are composed of eight separate but slightly overlapping plates, and afford these animals a superficially segmented appearance dorsally.
If a chiton is turned over, however, its ventral body surface is seen to be non-segmented and only possessing a single, typically-molluscan foot, in contrast to the many limb pairs possessed by trilobites. As for water pennies, these trilobite imposters are the larval stage of certain aquatic freshwater psephenid beetles, belonging to the genus Mataeopsephus.
19th-Century engraving of chitons (public domain)
Also superficially trilobite-like in outward dorsal appearance are both the larvae and the larval form-retaining adult females of lycid (net-winged) beetles belonging to the genus Platerodrilus, and which are therefore known colloquially as trilobite beetles (click herefor a ShukerNature article featuring these distinctive insects). Native principally to tropical rainforests in India and southeastern Asia, some of them are brightly coloured.
Finally, the juvenile stage of those famous ‘living fossils’ known as xiphosurans or horseshoe crabs is termed a trilobite larva, once again because of its superficial similarity to genuine trilobites. Horseshoe crabs, incidentally, are the closest living relatives of another taxonomic group of iconic fossil arthropods – the eurypterids or sea scorpions.
Exquisite illustration by Ernst Haeckel from 1904 featuring trilobites, horseshoe crabs, and sea scorpions (© public domain)
Back in the 1980s, a bizarre story emanating from Australia briefly hit the news headlines, claiming that some trilobites had been found inhabiting Perth‘s storm drains. Not surprisingly, however, this was soon exposed as a hoax, featuring an old tyre that had been cut into the shape of a trilobite.
A fossil trilobite species of familiar, non-extreme morphology (public domain)
Numerous deepsea collecting expeditions have been launched since Challenger, but none has ever procured any living trilobites, and yet some tantalising indirect (or, to be precise, ichnological) evidence for such creatures may have been recorded, which Mackal described as follows:
…in 1967, I was invited by Ralph Buchsbaum, professor of zoology at the University of Pittsburgh, to give a seminar on our researches at Loch Ness. During the social hour after the presentation one of his colleagues told me about experimental photography of the sea bottom that was in progress. He stated that photographs of fresh tracks identical to the Cruciana [sic – Cruziana], the fossilized trilobite tracks, had been obtained. He expressed the hope that traps could be lowered to catch whatever was making these highly suggestive tracks. As far as I know the nature of these tracks was never determined and nothing was ever trapped, because of a subsequent loss of funding for the project. The business of identifying sea-bottom trails and tracks is a tricky one and to infer living trilobites from a track is even more tricky. A marvelous collection of sea-bottom tracks and trails is presented in a book entitled The Face of the Deepby B. C. Heezen and C. D. Hollister. Only a tiny fraction of aquatic animal tracks have been identified, so that fertile ground for new discoveries is indeed abundant…Underwater photography of the ocean floor…appears to be a promising tool for future cryptozoological expeditions.
Cruzianafrom Portugal(public domain)
Cruziana is a famous trace fossil taking the form of elongate, bilobed burrows that are roughly bilaterally symmetrical. As noted in a 2010 Lethaia paper by Dr Stephen Donovan, many examples are believed to be the tracks or trails yielded by trilobites while deposit-feeding, but certain others are deemed not to be, because they were present in freshwater environments (where no trilobite fossils have so far been found) and/or were of Triassic date, by which time all trilobites were supposed to have died out. But were these ostensibly anachronistic tracks actually made by surviving post-Permian trilobites for which direct fossil evidence has simply not been found as yet?
Incidentally, two other types of trace fossil believed to have been created by trilobites are Rusophycus and Diplichnites. The former fossils are excavations featuring little or no forward movements, and have therefore been interpreted as traces left by trilobites while resting or in defence/protection mode. In contrast, the latter fossils are believed to be traces left by trilobites while walking upon the sediment surface.
Rusophycustrace fossil from Ordovician Period (public domain)
Mackal ended his living trilobites chapter on a somewhat pessimistic note, concluding: “While not impossible, it is most improbable that living trilobites still exist”. After that, this fascinating prospect appeared to have vanished from the modern world just as surely, it would seem, as the trilobites themselves – which is why I was so startled, but delighted, by a certain comment allegedly made by a well-respected current scientist more recently.
On 24 June 2004, Yahoo! News released online a report concerning the receipt of a $600,000 start-up grant from the private Alfred Sloan foundation for a proposed 10-year international survey of the oceans’ depths, at an estimated total cost of US $1 billion, to be funded by governments, companies and private donors, and officially dubbed the Census of Marine Life (CoML). As part of this grand-scale project, scientists led by researchers from the University of Alaska planned to use robot submarines and sonar to track down life forms in the Arctic Ocean‘s chilling deepwater domain, and expectations were that by the end of its decade-long course, the survey could easily have doubled the number of species known from this particular ocean.
Three-dimensional reconstruction of Drotops armatus, a very spiny species of Devonian trilobite from Morocco (public domain)
All very worthy indeed, but what caught my eye amid all of these statements was one attributed in the news report to none other than Dr Ron O’Dor, chief scientist of the multi-nation CoML. According to the report, whose exact wording is quoted here as follows, Dr O’Dor “speculated that Arctic waters might hide creatures known only from fossils, such as trilobites that flourished 300 million years ago”. It would seem, therefore, that the notion of finding living trilobites has not been entirely discounted by scientists after all.
Happily, the CoML did indeed take place, this very ambitious project ultimately featuring scientists from more than 80 different nations, and releasing the world’s first-ever census in 2010 – but no living trilobites were listed. Nevertheless, there is a notable precedent well worth mentioning here.
Pilina, a fossil monoplacophoran outwardly resembling modern-day Neopilina (public domain)
The monoplacophorans are a primitive taxonomic class of molluscs, whose youngest fossil species date from around 380 million years ago. On 6 May 1952, however, trawling off Mexico‘s western coast at a depth of almost 12,000 ft in dark, muddy clay, the Danish research ship Galathea hauled up 10 complete specimens and three empty shells of a small, seemingly unremarkable mollusc superficially resembling a limpet but which proved upon scientific examination to be a living monoplacophoran. This hitherto-unknown species was formally named Neopilina galatheae, since when further specimens of it, and of several additional modern-day species too, have been obtained (see my Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals, 2012, for full details).
Structurally, these living monoplacophorans are very different internally from their archaic fossil ancestors, so if living trilobites do exist, these too are likely to be highly evolved species. Nevertheless, the discovery of Neopilina and kin readily demonstrates that it is by no means impossible for invertebrates deemed by their fossil record to have died out in very far-distant prehistoric ages to be represented, in fact, by living species that have simply evaded scientific detection.
A classic late-1800s illustration of living trilobites by Heinrich Harder (public domain)
This ShukerNature blog article is adapted from my forthcoming book Still In Search of Prehistoric Survivors.

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A QUINTET OF QUAGGA PHOTOGRAPHS

by on Aug.09, 2016, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

A very attractive colourised version of one of the five known photographs of a living quagga (colourising © Michael/Flickr CC BY 2.0 licence)
The quagga Equus quagga quagga was formerly the southernmost subspecies of the plains zebra until its extinction in 1883 – a tragic loss resulting from its extermination via over-hunting in its native South African grasslands and scrublands domain by 1878, followed by the eventual deaths of the few specimens left in captivity. The very last of these specimens died in Amsterdam Zoo on 12 August 1883, this fateful day thus becoming the quagga’s official extinction date. However, it remains famous even today for being the only semi-striped zebra – i.e. only its head, neck, and forequarters were striped, the remainder of its body and its legs entirely lacked any such markings.
For many years now, the Quagga Project in South Africa has been attempting to ‘breed back’ the quagga’s distinctive outward appearance (phenotype) using individuals of the closely-related Burchell’s zebra that exhibit reduced striping, and it has achieved some degree of success. Yet even if or when exact quagga lookalikes are indeed created, they cannot really be deemed ‘true’ quaggas, because there is currently no way of confirming whether their genetic make-up (genotype) is comparable with that of the original, real quaggas, or whether the genetic route taken in producing these facsimile quaggas is the same one that occurred naturally during the quagga’s original evolution. Nevertheless, I still consider it a very worthwhile goal, because the sight of quagga-like animals re-inhabiting the lands where the original quagga once roamed would be nothing if not inspirational, so I sincerely hope that the Quagga Project will be fully successful in its ambition to re-create at least in outward form this very iconic animal. Please click hereto visit the Project’s official website for full details of its history and ongoing work.
Bred-back quagga-like zebras of the Quagga Project near Devil’s Peak, Cape Town, in South Africa (© Oggmus/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Meanwhile, during last weekend a lively debate took place on Facebook between some friends of mine, stemming from various incorrect information on this subject present in certain websites, which wrongly claimed that only one photograph depicting a live quagga existed, and that this specimen was from Amsterdam Zoo. Consequently, as the quagga has long been of great interest to me, now seems like as good a time as any for me to present the full, correct facts concerning this particular facet of its history.
Our visual knowledge of the quagga in the living state is based not upon one but upon five separate photographs. All of them in black-and-white format, these are currently the only known images obtained of a live quagga, and they all depict the same individual, which, moreover, was housed not at Amsterdam Zoo but at London Zoo. An adult mare, she was the second of three quaggas to be exhibited there, having been purchased by the zoo from animal dealer Carl Jamrach on 15 March 1851. She died on 15 July 1872, but her mounted skin is on display at Edinburgh‘s Royal Museum of Scotland, and her skeleton is housed in the USA at Yale University‘s Peabody Museum (it was purchased for the museum during the late 1800s by celebrated dinosaur fossil collector Othniel C. Marsh for the princely sum of £10).
And now, presented in decreasing order of familiarity and accompanied by what information (sometimes only very sparse) is known about each one, here is the quintet of famous – and not-so-famous – quagga photographs portraying her. As every one of them is well over a century old, all five of these photographs are in the public domain.
PHOTO #1
This is unquestionably the best known and also the best quality-wise of the five photographs of a living quagga – so much so that many modern-day variations of it have been created, including mock-sepia ones, fully colourised ones (like the beautiful example opening this present ShukerNature blog article), and even ones in which the quagga has been cut out of the original photograph and superimposed onto entirely different backgrounds.
According to Dr Philip L. Sclater, then Secretary of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), writing in 1901, the original b/w version of this photograph was prepared from a magic lantern slide produced by photographer Frederick York (1823-1903), most probably during summer 1870.
PHOTO #2
Almost as well known as Photo #1, this photograph was also prepared from a magic lantern slide produced by Frederick York, and at much the same time as Photo #1 too, i.e. probably during summer 1870.
PHOTO #3
This photograph was taken by Frank Haes (1832-1916) in 1864 and utilised by him in the production of a stereoscopic photo-card, to be viewed through a special instrument known as a stereoscope, which yielded a dramatic 3-D effect (similar to the effect produced by that very popular children’s viewing device from the 1960s onwards called the View-Master – I still have mine!). The gentleman in the photo was a zookeeper, and the quagga was in one of the yards of the 1859 Equid wing of London Zoo’s Antelope House, later demolished to make way for the Elephant and Rhinoceros pavilion.
PHOTO #4
Far less famous than the preceding three, this photograph was probably taken during the 1860s, and by a photographer whose name is apparently unrecorded. Only two original prints of it are known, one of which was discovered as recently as 1991 in Munich by Walter Huber; until then, the only known print was one housed in the collections of London‘s Natural History Museum. This particular quagga photograph has long intrigued me because the angle at which it was shot has rendered the quagga’s legs sufficiently short and foreshortened its body to an extent that makes it look remarkably foal-like rather than the fully adult specimen that we know it to have been.
PHOTO #5
Photo #4 is often referred to as the least-known of the quagga quintet, but in my opinion this accolade should be bestowed upon Photo #5. For whereas Photo #4 has appeared in a number of publications and websites, Photo #5 has hardly appeared anywhere – indeed, until I uploaded this present article of mine onto my blog I had yet to see it anywhere online. As with Photo #4, it was probably taken during the 1860s, but again the identity of the photographer is presently unknown.
So there they are, five brief snippets of time from the life of a creature whose kind no longer exists thanks to our own species’ bloodlust, but preserved for all eternity in the still silence of these photographs, captured in monochromatic majesty by the camera lens as surely and as securely as erstwhile insects are encapsulated within golden globules of amber.
In view of the (very) varying accuracy of information on this subject presently available on the internet, you can be reassured that this ShukerNature article’s information was derived from two ultra-reliable, hard-copy sources, which also constitute two of my favourite publications.
My two information sources for this present ShukerNature blog article (© John Edwards / (© Errol Fuller/Bloomsbury)
One of these sources is a superb collection of vintage photographs in book form, which was compiled, written, and published by celebrated London Zoo historian and longstanding friend John Edwards, entitled London Zoo From Old Photographs 1852-1914. It was originally published in 1996, but in 2012 it was republished as a second edition containing many additional photos. Both editions include some scientifically valuable yet poignant photographs of several different animal forms (not only the quagga) that were formerly exhibited at London Zoo in the living state but which have since become extinct.
My other source, also written by a longstanding friend, is a magnificent, unique book entitled Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record, authored by Errol Fuller, an acclaimed expert on extinct fauna. It was published in 2013, and is devoted entirely to documenting rare photographs of living creatures belonging to species or subspecies that later became extinct. Again, fascinating but exceedingly poignant, the photographs generating a depth of emotion that not even the greatest artworks depicting such creatures can elicit, because when we view such photos we are, in a very real sense, viewing these lost creatures’ ghosts, traces of their former existence that have transcended death to remain visible long after the creatures themselves have vanished forever from our world.
Speaking of artwork, here are two of the finest quagga paintings based upon living specimens:
Quagga stallion in King Louis XVI’s menagerie at Versailles, France, painted by Nicolas Marechal in 1793 (public domain)
Quagga stallion at London‘s Royal College of Surgeons, painted by Jacques-Laurent Agasse during the early 1800s (public domain)
And finally, here is one of the various mock-sepia versions of Quagga Photo #1 that I have encountered while browsing online:
Mock-sepia version of one of Frederick York’s two London Zoo quagga photographs produced probably during summer 1870 (public domain)
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THE STOA, THE SUWA, AND THE WASHORIWE – A TRIO OF PREHISTORIC SURVIVORS FROM THE REAL ‘LOST WORLD’?

by on Aug.04, 2016, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Front and back cover from my much-read, greatly-treasured 1970s paperback edition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic crypto-novel The Lost World (Cover illustration © Pan Books – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use Policy only basis)
It is not widely known, but when writing his famous novel The Lost World (published in 1912), in which dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and other Mesozoic reptiles have survived into the present day amid a totally isolated realm present on the plateau at the summit of a very high tepui (a vertically-sided, flat-topped or table-topped mountain in South America), one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s inspirations was a real but still highly mysterious tepui known as Kurupira.

It was named after the curupira, a legendary Amazonian man-beast-like entity. This particular tepui stands 3,435 ft above sea level, and is situated on the Venezuelan-Brazilian border.

The curupira, as depicted in the painting ‘O Curupira’ by Manoel Santago, 1926 (public domain)
Conan Doyle had learnt about Kurupira from the famous, subsequently-lost explorer Lt-Col. Percy H. Fawcett. He had lately led an expedition to a much more famous tepui in the same region, Mount Roraima.

There are more than 100 tepuis in South America, and at 9,220 ft above sea level Mount Roraima is the highest (and also the largest) in the Pakaraima chain on the borders of Brazil, Venezuela, and Guyana.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (left) and Lieut-Col. Percy H. Fawcett (right) (public domain)
Although they did not encounter any prehistoric creatures on Roraima, Fawcett and his team did receive various native reports of frightening monsters said to inhabit Kurupira and its environs from the local Waiká Indians who inhabit the jungle area around the vicinity of its base. It was Fawcett’s recollections of these reports that provided Conan Doyle with further plot ideas during his novel’s preparation.
In particular, he was enthralled by Fawcett’s tales of an exceedingly voracious bipedal reptile known to the Waiká as the stoa, which was investigated more recently by Czech zoologist Jaroslav Mareš, who documented some of his findings in his cryptozoological encyclopaedia Svět Tajemných Zvířat (‘The World of Mysterious Animals‘), published in 1997. Mareš spent time residing at Kurupira’s base during an expedition there in 1978 (sadly, their attempts to scale this tepui’s steep sides proved unsuccessful), and he learnt about the Waiká Indians’ belief in the stoa and other alleged monsters here.
My copy of Jaroslav Mareš’s cryptozoological encyclopaedia Svět Tajemných Zvířat (‘The World of Mysterious Animals‘) (© Jaroslav Mareš/Littera Bohemica)
They described the stoa as measuring up to 25 ft long and superficially resembling a giant-sized caiman (several species of these South American freshwater alligator relatives are known, but all are of far smaller size). However, they also stated that it can be readily distinguished from such reptiles by way of the following major differences.
First and foremost of these was the very notable fact that the stoa is exclusively bipedal, moving entirely upon its two gigantic hind legs, because its front limbs are so short that it cannot stand upon them. Its jaws are much shorter than a caiman’s too, but its head is taller, and it bears a pair of prominent horns above its eyes, which are somewhat reminiscent of those sported by the South American horned frogs Ceratophrys spp.
Horned frog Ceratophrys ornata (public domain)
The Waiká likened its body colouration to theirs too (i.e. green or golden-brown with darker markings), but its mouth is not as wide as that of these famously wide-mouthed frogs, and its skin is covered with hard, non-overlapping, tubercular scales. Above all, they affirmed that there is never any hope of escape if pursued by a stoa.
Moreover, Mareš revealed that this Indian account was confirmed by the missionaries from the Porto da Maloca settlement on the upper Rio Mapulau, located approximately 15 miles from Kurupira as the crow flies. However, they did not believe that the stoa is real. For them, it is just a part of Waiká mythology.
Artistic rendition of the possible appearance in life of the stoa, alongside a human for scale purposes (© Connor Lachmanec)
Mareš has also written three books specifically devoted to Kurupira and its mysteries Hledání Ztraceného Světa (‘In Search of The Lost World‘), which documented his 1978 expedition and was published in 1992; Hrůza Zvaná Kurupira(‘The Horror Named Kurupira’), published in 2001; and Kurupira: Zlověstné Tajemství (‘Kurupira: Sinister Secrets’), published in 2005. In the second of these three, Mareš mentioned meeting during spring 1997 at Boa Vista (capital of Roraima, Brazil’s northernmost state) a Scottish gold-prospector whose real name Mareš has not publicly disclosed, referring to him instead only by the pseudonym ‘Reginald Riggs’.
Mareš had previously met Riggs in 1978, during his above-mentioned expedition to Mount Roraima. In his 2001 book, Mareš revealed that while Riggs was prospecting in the vicinity of Kurupira he had befriended a Waiká tribesman named Retewa, who supplied him with information concerning the stoa, another dinosaurian cryptid called the suwa, and a pterosaur-like beast termed the washoriwe.
Hrůza Zvaná Kurupira(2001) and Kurupira: Zlověstné Tajemství(2005) (© Jaroslav Mareš)
According to Retewa (via Riggs), the stoa’s most common prey are tapirs. Apparently, it conceals itself in dense forest close to a riverbank where these large horse-related ungulates bathe, then abruptly emerges to attack them when they arrive there. It will also devour capybaras, those sizeable pig-like rodents that occur here too. One account related by Retewa to Riggs concerned a reputed confrontation between some hunters from his village and a stoa that they inadvertently encountered while it was looking out for prey. They shot at it with their arrows, but they failed to penetrate its hard, scale-protected skin, and the enraged stoa killed several of them before the others fled.
In an attempt to explain both the origin of the Waiká’s firm belief in the stoa and (as he also discovered during his investigations) the complete absence of any such belief among Indian tribes living further out from Kurupira, Mareš has cautiously offered the following thought-provoking theory. He suggests that if the stoa is indeed real, perhaps its species is normally confined entirely to this tepui’s lofty isolated plateau, but that a single individual may very occasionally find its way into their ground-level territory via a crack or fracture leading down the tepui from its summit to its base, after which the Waiká live in great fear of it, even after its eventual death, thereby maintaining and reinforcing its presence in their minds and lore for another generation or so until the next accidental stoa visitation occurs.
Restoration of the possible appearance in life of Carnotaurus (© Lida Xing and Yi Liu/Wikipedia CC BY 2.5 licence)
As for what the stoa may be, taxonomically speaking, if it does truly exist: in his cryptozoological encyclopaedia, Mareš noted that during the Cretaceous, South America was home to a taxonomic family of theropod dinosaurs known as the abelisaurids, which were bipedal, carnivorous, and, in some cases, extremely large. The most famous abelisaurid was Carnotaurus sastrei, which was up to 30 ft long, and as noted by Mareš it also happens to be potentially relevant to the stoa for two very different but equally intriguing morphology-based reasons. Firstly: dating from the late Cretaceous and disinterred in 1984 from the La Colonia Formation in Argentina’s Chubut Province, its only recorded but exceptionally well-preserved fossilised skeleton shows that this particular abelisaurid species bore a pair of sharp pointed horns above its eyes, just like the stoa (Carnotaurus translates as ‘flesh-eating bull’). Secondly: this skeleton is so well preserved that it reveals that the skin of Carnotaurus bore hard non-overlapping scales all over it, just like the stoa.
Coupled with the overall similarity in outward form and size between Carnotaurus and the stoa, these more specific, unexpectedly-matching features led Mareš to speculate as to whether this abelisaurid’s lineage may have escaped the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous and has possibly lingered on through the Cenozoic Era into the present-day here in this very remote South American location, isolated atop a high tepui except for rare occasions when one might find its way down into the junglelands at Kurupira’s base.
The still-classic (if scientifically-superseded) restoration of sauropods by Charles Knight, 1897 (public domain)
The stoa was not the only putative dinosaur of Kurupira spoken about by Retewa to Riggs. He also claimed that up on this tepui’s plateau lives another very strange creature, known to the Waitá as the suwa, a picture of which he drew in the sand for Riggs to see, and a copy of which Riggs in turn drew in his diary, later seen by Mareš. The picture shows a bulky, long-necked, quadrupedal creature, which Riggs likened to a sauropod dinosaur or even a plesiosaur (however, its limbs were clearly portrayed in the drawing as legs, not flippers).
According to the Waiká, moreover, a third mystery creature, called by them the washoriwe, would sometimes swoop down from Kurupira’s high summit into the jungle at its base, skimming through this Indian tribe’s territory on huge wings that boasted a span of 20 ft or more. In addition, it bore a long bony backward-pointing crest upon its head, and sported a very long pointed beak.
Plateau on top of the tepui in The Lost World (1912) (public domain)
Waiká lore attests that this terrifying entity is the immortal forefather of all vampire bats. Yet whereas the immortal forefathers of all other creatures in their lore closely resemble their respective descendants (except for the much greater size of the forefathers), the long-beaked, bony-crested washoriwe bears scant resemblance to the short-faced, crestless vampire bats. Moreover, whereas these latter bats are strictly nocturnal, the washoriwe reputedly flies only during the daytime.
After highlighting these significant morphological and behavioural discrepancies in his cryptozoological encyclopaedia, Mareš pointed out how, in stark contrast, the washoriwe seemed to be very similar in form and lifestyle to certain pterosaurs. He also commented upon the curious coincidence of how frequently the finding of complete, perfectly-preserved fossil pterosaurs by palaeontologists had occurred in this same region in modern times.
Prof. Challenger vs the pterosaurs in The Lost World (© Richard Svensson)
Might the Waiká’s belief in the washoriwe have been inspired, therefore, by their own possible finding of fossil pterosaur remains here from time to time? Or might it even be, as again pondered by Mareš, that the abundance of such remains in this region lends support to the possibility that a pterosaurian lineage has persisted here right into the present day, currently undiscovered by science but well known to the local Indians, who refer to these airborne prehistoric survivors as washoriwes?
When Mareš met Riggs in Boa Vista, Roraima (Brazil‘s northernmost state), during spring 1997, he learnt that, near a waterfall at Kurupira, Riggs had caught sight of a mysterious flying creature that Retewa had identified as a washoriwe. Moreover, in his cryptozoological encyclopaedia, Mareš stated that other gold-prospectors in this same area have also claimed to have seen such creatures here, flying high above the jungle’s tree tops, and some have even sworn that they have been attacked by them.
Do pterosaurs swoop down to the ground from Kurupira’s plateau? (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Yet amidst all of these claims of Mesozoic monsters alive and well and living in splendid isolation on Kurupira’s lofty plateau, there is a key question desperately needing to be asked. For even if we actually accept that a stoa may very occasionally find its way down from this tepui’s summit to its base, and that washoriwes might indeed sometimes wing their way down too, the very burly, quadupedal, sauropod-like form of the suwa unequivocally debars this cryptid from following suit – so how can the Waiká be aware of its existence? Interestingly, Riggs actually asked Retewa how his people could know what exists on the plateau at the top of Kurupira, but Retewa was unable to provide an answer. So perhaps – as surmised by the missionaries – all of their claims regarding monsters are truly based upon nothing more substantial than traditional Waiká mythology, with no foundation in reality.
Alternatively, could it be that at least in earlier days, some of the Waiká’s bravest warriors actually scaled Kurupira’s daunting height, explored its plateau, and then returned to their tribe back on the ground with stories (exaggerated or otherwise) of what they had seen there? And, if so, perhaps what they saw there was so terrifying that they have never returned, but the original eyewitness reports have been preserved in their tribal lore down through succeeding generations. Who can say?
Mini-poster for The Lost World, 1925 film (public domain)
I wish to take this opportunity to thank very sincerely my friend Miroslav ‘Mirek’ Fišmeister from the Czech Republic for so kindly translating into English for me all of the relevant passages regarding Kurupira and the stoa, suwa, and washoriwe from Mareš’s books. This has enabled me to present here the most extensive, accurate coverage of these cryptids ever produced in English.
Previously, the only English-language reports concerning them that I had been aware of, all of them online, were sparse, confused, and sometimes entirely inaccurate. The principal reason for this inaccuracy stemmed from the fact that a prehistoric monster called the stoa actually appears in Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World, in which it is described as a warty-skinned, toad-like reptile, leaping on its hind legs, but larger than the largest elephant, and of frightful, horrible appearance.
The stoa as depicted in The Lost World film of 1925 (public domain)
This has inspired some erroneous online speculation, i.e. that there is no cryptozoological basis for the stoa, that it is entirely fictitious, a baseless invention of Conan Doyle for his novel. In reality, however, as I have now revealed here, it is the exact reverse that is true. Namely, that the stoa in his novel was directly inspired by reports of Kurupira’s cryptozoological stoa as told to him by Fawcett.
Yet another longstanding example of online cryptozoological confusion is finally elucidated and resolved.
This ShukerNature blog article is exclusively adapted from my forthcoming book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors.

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CARL MEETS A BLUE DEVIL IN BELIZE

by on Jul.13, 2016, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post


Photograph of the elusive blue devil (© Carl Portman)
No, I haven’t spelt my name incorrectly in the title of this present ShukerNature blog article. The Carl referred to here is not me, but is instead arachnid expert Carl Portman, a longstanding friend of mine who has sought out rare and unusual invertebrates (especially spiders) in remote, exotic locations throughout the world. During one such search, moreover, he actually encountered a very remarkable, and beautiful, species that may still be scientifically undescribed and named. However, it does have a local name – the blue devil.
As he only made public for the first time quite recently, in an Animals and Men article (May 2015) for the CFZ, it was while visiting Black Rock in Belize during April 2014 that Carl first learnt about something that may be very special indeed. He was told about a certain cave situated high up in the mountainside that locals claimed was home to a magical kind of very large blue spider known as the blue devil. Although it sounded more likely to be folklore than fact, he decided to visit the cave, just in case, and after an arduous near-vertical climb accompanied by his wife Susan and a native guide called Carlos, he finally reached the cave’s opening and entered it. During a lengthy trek through its gloomy interior, they came upon quite a range of animals, including frogs, lizards, cave lice, tailless whip scorpions (amblypygids), bats, and some spiders too – but none of the blue devil variety.
Phrynus tessellatus, an amblypygid (public domain)
Reluctantly, they eventually decided to trek back to the entrance, but before they reached it, and to everyone’s amazement but delight, Carlos spotted one of these elusive, magical creatures – a blue devil! The size of Carl’s hand and indeed a brilliant, vibrant blue, it was possibly a species of wolf spider, and Carl swiftly snapped a few photographs of this spectacular arachnid before it vanished back into the cave’s stygian depths.
Despite being very knowledgeable and experienced regarding spiders, Carl had no idea of the blue devil’s species, and according to Carlos they are found only in this cave, nowhere else. Could it therefore be a dramatic new species? Only if a specimen is collected and subjected to scientific scrutiny can its taxonomic status be conclusively determined, but as I learnt from Carl in July 2015 during some personal communications with him on the subject of this very anomalous arachnid, he definitely hopes to return to study it, so an answer to the riddle of its identity may soon be forthcoming. Meanwhile, however, the blue devil of Belize remains a hidden, thought-provoking mystery.
A very striking, known species of blue spider – the  aptly-named cobalt blue tarantula Haplopelma lividum, from Myanmar and Thailand, which was formally described and named as a new species as recently as 1996 (public domain)
This ShukerNature blog article is a modified version of a news item that I wrote in 2015 for one of my Alien Zoo columns in Fortean Times, and my grateful thanks go to Carl Portman for very kindly permitting me to include his blue devil photograph.
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LINNAEUS’S HELLISH FURY WORM – THE HISTORY (AND MYSTERY) OF A NON-EXISTENT MICRO-ASSASSIN

by on Jul.04, 2016, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post


‘Swamp Critter’ (© Andrew Scott)
Certainly, had Dr Clarke been stung by the furia infernalis at the moment that he expressed his disbelief of its existence, one would be almost tempted to think that the worm possessed, along with its other infernal attributes, that of knowledge, and had punished the Doctor for his scepticism.
   Henry D. Inglis – A Personal Narrative of a Journey Through Norway, Part of Sweden, and the Islands and States of Denmark
Can a tiny creature that doesn’t even exist inflict agonising pain and even death upon its human victims? Ordinarily, I would say no – but the history (and mystery) of the virtually forgotten yet decidedly bizarre micro-assassin documented here is anything but ordinary.
Carl von Linné (1707-1778), or Carolus Linnaeus, the Latinised version of his name by which he became known throughout the scientific world, was the Swedish botanist who famously devised the Linnaean nomenclatural system of classification by which all species of organism are given a formal binomial name, and are categorised in an ascending series of taxonomic echelons, from species, genera, and families, up through orders, classes, phyla (though this particular echelon was not among his originals), and kingdoms. However, a bizarre incident that occurred one day early in his career almost brought it, and, indeed, his entire life, to a premature end, and resulted in his making a rare but significant error.
Portrait of Linnaeus, painted by Alexander Roslin, 1775 (public domain)
In 1728, while still a student, an impoverished Linnaeus was lodging at the home of the eminent Swedish scientist Kilian Stobaeus, professor of physics and botany at the University of Lund, but he was keen to amass his own herbal, so he spent much time out in this region’s marshes, collecting and classifying botanical specimens. On the fateful day in question, Linnaeus was visiting an area just outside Lund in search of more specimens when suddenly he felt something sting his neck.
Rather than assuming the unseen culprit to be some type of insect, however, Linnaeus later deemed it to be a tiny slender worm, because he had been made aware of such a creature from local rural lore. Although it did not appear to have a specific name, this worm was said to be carried on the wind from overhanging vegetation, was extremely venomous, and was armed with a spike at one end that injected the venom, after which the worm swiftly burrowed deep within its victim’s flesh, the combined effects of its venom and its burrowing activity resulting not only in agonising pain but actual death if not treated rapidly.

And sure enough, within a very short space of time Linnaeus’s neck and also one arm had become so greatly inflamed, with the supposed worm apparently buried too deeply in his flesh for him to extricate it, that by the time he had managed to make his way back home his very life had become severely endangered. Happily, however, the swiftly-administered expertise of Stobaeus and a physician called Dr Schnell – who incised Linnaeus’s arm from armpit to elbow – proved sufficient to quell the worm’s dire effects, and Linnaeus recovered.
Systema Naturae, 10th edition, 1758, title page (public domain)
Nevertheless, the experience had such a profound effect upon him that when he published in two volumes (in 1758 and 1759 respectively) the tenth, ground-breaking edition of his taxonomic magnum opus, Systema Naturae, Linnaeus included a formal description and exceedingly apt binomial name for his diminutive but deadly vermiform assailant and would-be assassin. He dubbed it Furia infernalis, the hellish fury worm, after the Furies.
Also known as the Erinyes, these were a terrifying trio of ancient, Underworld goddesses from Greek mythology that meted out merciless vengeance, relentless punishment, and inescapable retribution to sinners on Earth until they finally died in torment. The best-known story featuring the Furies is their persecution of Orestes (a dramatic scene captured by several artists down through the centuries), after he had killed his mother Clytemnestra following his shocking discovery that she had murdered his father Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae and leader of the combined Greek forces during the Trojan War, after he had returned home to Greece following the end of the war.
‘Orestes Pursued by the Furies’, painted by Carl Rahl, c.1852 (public domain)
Included within the Vermes (Worms) section of his work, Linnaeus’s description in Latin of Furia infernalis reads in English as follows:
Body thread-like, of equal thickness throughout. On both sides of its body it has a single row of closely-pressed recurved stings.
Habitat: northern marshes of Bothnia and Sweden. Worst of all: falling from the sky onto the bodies of animals, it quickly penetrates, killing with atrocious pain within a quarter of an hour.
Linnaeus’s original Latin description of Furia infernalis in Systema Naturae, 10th edition, 1758 (public domain)
Bearing in mind that he had not actually seen the worm that attacked him, however, how could Linnaeus provide such a precise if concise morphological description of it? In fact, he based his account on two entirely separate sources. One of these (referenced by him in his account) was a then-unpublished paper on the fury worm, again written in Latin, but authored this time by a former pupil, naturalist Dr Daniel C. Solander, which utilised testimony from various local victims of supposed fury worm attacks as well as traditional rural lore concerning it.
Solander had originally submitted his paper to Acta Upsaliensia (the transactions of the Royal Society of Sciences at Uppsala Academy) during the 1750s, but due to a break in the publishing of this journal that lasted from 1751 to 1772 it did not appear in print until 1773, within the inaugural volume of the rebooted Nova Acta Regiae Societatis Scientiarum Upsaliensis.
Portrait of Dr Daniel C. Solander (public domain)
Linnaeus’s second source of information was a local peasant. This was the person who had told him that the cause of his injury had been a specific type of worm, one that is carried on the wind and penetrates the flesh of anything that it lands upon. Moreover, this same peasant subsequently brought to him a dead specimen of a tiny vermiform creature that he claimed was one such worm. However, the specimen was so dried and desiccated that its taxonomic identity is unlikely to have been readily discerned, and it does not appear to have been retained, so no modern-day reappraisal of it is possible.
The respective publications of Linnaeus and Solander attracted appreciable interest in the scientific world, especially in view of Linnaeus’s eminent standing by then and his direct experience with this small but potentially lethal creature. As a result, a wide range of additional publications featuring it began to appear, some of which provided interesting local information as well as additional accounts from persons claiming to have been victims of its formidable actions – as now presented here in what is the most comprehensive documentation of the fury worm ever compiled.
Portrait of Dr Edward D. Clarke, a coloured stipple engraving by E. Scriven after J. Opie, 1825 (public domain)
The fury worm was supposedly native to northern Sweden, Lapland and Bothnia (both of these regions being shared between Sweden and Finland), and Russia. One of the most remarkable cases supposedly involving this creature featured the famous English traveller-naturalist Dr Edward D. Clarke, due to the extraordinary coincidence that formed part of it, as recorded by Clarke in his multi-volume opus Travels in Various Countries in Europe, Asia and Africa (1810-1819). Journeying towards the Swedish town of Sundswall in late June 1799:
A remarkable circumstance happened to the author, just before his arrival at this place [Sundswall], upon the first of July. He had been reading the life of Linnaeus, in the open travelling waggon, as he proceeded on the route; and was giving an ac­count to his companion of the marvellous manner in which that celebrated naturalist had nearly lost his life, in consequence of being wounded by a worm, said to have fallen from the air — Furia infernalis; expressing, at the same time, his incredulity, as to the existence of such an animal, and, of course, his disbelief of the fact. At this moment, he was himself attacked in the same extraordinary manner, and perhaps by the same creature. A sharp pain, preceded by slight irritation, took place in his left wrist. It was confined, at first, to a small dark point, hardly visible; and which he supposed to proceed from the sting of a gnat. Presently, it became so severe, that the whole of the left arm was affected, quite to the shoulder, which, as well as the joints of the elbow and fingers, became benumbed. The consequence might have been more serious, if he had not resorted to a mode of cure pointed out by the inhabitants; namely, a poultice of curd; to which he added the well-known Goulardlotion, prepared from the acetite of lead.
(Cheese or curd poultices are traditionally claimed to reduce inflammation – but although this has not been scientifically confirmed, modern-day athletes have been known to resort to using them in the treatment of such conditions.)
Reindeer, a sizeable herd of which was supposedly killed by Furia in 1823 (public domain)
Nor were humans the only victims of the injurious if invisible fury worm. In a paper surveying this mystifying mini-beast, published by the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal in 1827, Arthur de Capell Brooke claimed:
It appears, that the Furia does not confine its attacks to the human race, but that cattle, and the rein-deer in particular, are exposed to it. In 1823, the Laplanders are stated to have suf­fered so greatly in their herds, that 5000 head died from the sling of this creature; and that even the wolves and other animals, that preyed upon the dead carcases, caught the infection, and died with the same symptoms. A Laplander, who posses­sed 500 deer, on perceiving the destruction among them, thought it best to kill the whole herd; but so quickly did its ravages spread, that, before he could accomplish his purpose, they all died. Great numbers of cattle and sheep were likewise destroy­ed by its attacks, and it fell, in some degree, upon the human species, a few having become victims to it. A young girl, who was shearing some sheep, that had died from the attack of the Furia, felt, while thus employed, a sudden pain in one of her fingers, which rapidly increased, and, on examining the part, she found a small puncture like the prick of a needle; her mas­ter, who was by, had the presence of mind to cut the finger off on the spot, and it was the means of saving her life.
The pest is stated to have been confined to Russian and Swe­dish Lapland, and did not spread higher than Muonioniska. Norwegian Lapland fortunately was not visited with this cala­mity; and, in order to prevent it from being introduced, all furs, during the year of its prevalence, were forbidden to be pur­chased*.
(*I have since ascertained, that, in consequence of the alarm excited by the reported ravages of the Furia, an edict was actually issued from the Amtmand [Ambassador] of Finmark [a county of Norway], prohibiting the introduction of all furs into the country during that year.)
Back in 1804, the Reverend William Bingley had included the following details in Vol. 3 of his Animal Biography:
Only one species [of Furia], the Furia infernalis, has been hitherto discovered. In Finland, Bothnia, and the northern provinces of Sweden, the people were often seized with an acute pain, confined to a mere point, in the face, or other exposed part of the body, which afterwards increased to a most excruciating degree, and sometimes, even within a few hours after its commencement, proved fatal. This disorder was more particularly observed in Finland, especially about marshy places, and always in autumn. At length it was discovered that the pain instantly succeeded something that dropped out of the air, and almost in a moment penetrated and bu­ried itself in the flesh. On more accurate attention, the Furia was detected as the cause. It is about half an inch in length, and of a carnation colour, often black at the apex. It creeps up the stalks of sedge-grass, and shrubs in the marshes, whence it is often carried off by the wind; and if the naked parts of the skin of any person happen to be directly in its course it immediately adheres, and buries itself within. The first sensation is said to be like that arising from the prick of a needle, this is succeeded by a violent itching of the part, soon after acute pain, a red spot and gangrene, at last an inflamma­tory fever, accompanied with swoonings. In the course of two days, at the farthest, death follows, unless the worm be extracted immediately, which is very difficult to be done. The Finlanders say, however, that a poultice of curds, or cheese, will al­lay the pain, and entice the animal out. Perhaps the most effectual method is carefully to dissect be­tween the muscles where it had entered, and thus extract it with the knife.
This is a particularly notable account inasmuch as it includes not only a very eyecatching body colouration (carnation) for the fury worm but also a size for it (half an inch) that if accurate should again be readily visible to the naked eye. Yet in spite of that, eyewitness descriptions of this creature were generally conspicuous only by their absence. Nor does there appear to be a single illustration of a fury worm dating back to the time when it was being reported. Clearly, something was very amiss here, and it would not be much longer before scientists began to realise this, and to reflect upon the Furia case in a new and more discerning manner, as will be seen.
Portrait of Prof. Peter S. Pallas by Tardier (public domain)
In 1800, an extensive account on the subject of Furia as originally written by no less an authority than the eminent German-born Russian zoologist and botanist Prof. Peter S. Pallas had been reprinted in the Philosophical Magazine, edited by Alexander Tilloch. The most important section of Pallas’s account, also featuring some of the afore-mentioned Dr Solander’s findings concerning the fury worm as given in his Latin paper, reads as follows:
According to his observations, the extensive fens in the northern part of Bothnia are the principal seat of this destructive insect, and the tu­mours it produces have been remarked chiefly by the inha­bitants of these districts or those who travel through them. In men, this disease generally attacks those parts of the body which are exposed to the air, such as the hands, arms, neck, etc. A prick like that of a needle is first felt, after which a black speck is seen in the place, and a violent itching ensues. This is soon after followed with extreme pain, a red spot is produced, and the neighbouring parts are inflamed. As the disease increases, the parts become more irritated and painful, and the patients are seized with an inflammatory fever, accompanied with fits of fainting and delirium, which, often carries them off in the course of a few days, and sometimes of a few hours. Some, however, get over this fever, but are affected in the injured part with malignant and te­dious sores, which often remain incurable during their whole lives.
Dr. Solander was himself an eye-witness of a case of this kind, and he mentions others which were related to him by persons worthy of credit. The greater part of them occurred in the spring and summer, though instances of this disease have been observed in winter. When the worm has pene­trated into the flesh, it is often impossible to save the patient even by cutting out the affected part; but it sometimes hap­pens that the small animal which is the cause of the evil may be extracted with a pair of pincers, or the teeth, if the proper means be employed immediately after the puncture is felt. When this is done by cutting, the patient, if the worm has penetrated to a great depth, is exposed to the most excruci­ating pain. Old women, who perform the operation of cut­ting the flesh or extracting the worm with a variety of superstitious practices, are accustomed to apply birch-tar to the wound, and then to bind it up. In one case, the worm was extracted by the accidental application of curdled milk or new cheese, and the patient cured in the course of six hours. This remedy was afterwards repeated with success. When the patient dies, the destructive insect, it is said, comes forth of its own accord from the mortified part.
But in whatever manner it may come forth, it has always the appearance of a very tender small worm, of the size of a hair, about half an inch in length, of a flesh or whitish yel­low colour, and often black at the extremities. On each side it is armed with a single row of uncommonly tender bristles standing backwards, which enable it to penetrate the flesh better; and in all probability these bristles occasion that acute pain which is felt, and prevent it from being extracted. No rings or indentations can be observed on it; and, except the bristles, it has a great resemblance to the hair-worm.
This is the singular animal which Linnaeus has admitted into his system under the very proper name of the Furia infernalis. It is however hardly possible to suppose, with this naturalist, that the above worm falls down from the atmosphere; for it will be difficult to explain by what power it can raise itself into the air. But the wonder will cease if we suppose that this worm may be borne aloft on bits of straw or the leaves of trees, and may then be conveyed by the winds till it at length falls down on the body of some animal.
In Pallas’s account, the terms ‘insect’ and ‘worm’ were used interchangeably, so ‘insect’ was clearly being employed in a generic, non-entomological sense there.
However, the tide of scientific opinion would soon be turning away from a vermiform identity and toward some type of bona fide insect as the explanation for the malign yet mysterious Furia, and one much-publicised case that greatly promoted this change of heart was the following one. It appeared in a travelogue entitled A Personal Narrative of a Journey Through Norway, Part of Sweden, and the Islands and States of Denmark, first published in 1829 and whose author originally used the pen-name Derwent Conway. In a later edition, appearing in 1837, however, he reverted to his real name, Henry D. Inglis. After documenting Dr Edward D. Clarke’s injury supposedly caused by Furia back in June 1799, Inglis presented a very pertinent observation of his own, made by him during his journey through Norway:
Sitting one day, along with a peasant who had been my guide to a trouting stream, upon a trunk of a tree, in some boggy ground, covered with coarse grass, and here and there a few cranberry bushes, I saw a very small fly of a gray colour, suddenly light upon the back of my companion’s hand, and as suddenly fall off. Immediately after he lifted up his hand, complaining of acute pain; and there appeared a small blackish speck where I had seen the insect alight. He immediately said he was bitten by a worm, and made the utmost speed to reach a house where he might have a curd-poultice applied. The hand and arm swelled and were much inflamed, and the man cried out with the excessive pain. The moment I saw the hand, and heard the man complain of acute pain, and say he was stung by a worm, I called to mind the circumstance related of Dr Clarke; and from the subsequent symptoms, application, and cure, I could have little doubt that both were stung by the same creature. I am no naturalist; but I have thought it right to relate a fact that came within my own observation, the value of which I leave to be estimated by others. I would only add, that neither Dr Clarke, nor any one who has had a poultice applied for the purpose of extracting the worm, have said that they saw the worm when it was extracted.
There can be no doubt here that this classic fury worm scenario was actually elicited not by a worm at all but rather by an insect, seemingly one of the countless tiny blood-sucking ceratopogonids or biting midges belonging to the taxonomic order Diptera (housing the true flies, gnats, and mosquitoes) that infest the marshy lands of northern Scandinavia.
A one-sixteenth-inch-long (1.6-mm) female biting midge Culicoides sonorensisfeeding on blood delivered through an artificial membrane developed for mass insect rearing (public domain)
Incidentally, one modern-day mention of Furia suggested a horse-fly as a possible identity. However, these particular insects have already been so familiar in their own right to farmers and other rural workers since the very earliest of times, due to their large, readily-visible, aggressive nature coupled with their adult females’ only too well-known biting capability, that this seems exceedingly implausible.

Following on from the pronouncements of such notable authorities as German physiologist Prof. Johann F. Blumenbach and eminent Swedish worm specialist Prof. Karl A. Rudolphi (widely credited as being ‘the Father of Helminthology’), who had previously – and publicly – professed serious doubt as to its reality, by the end of the 19th Century the fury worm had largely been dismissed by the scientific world as non-existent, as fabulous as the unicorn, cyclops, and minotaur.

This was due in no small way to the inescapable fact that despite its notoriety since Linnaeus’s near-fatal encounter, not a single example of his much-dreaded vermiform assailant had ever been scientifically examined and verified. (It is nowadays acknowledged that the alleged specimen brought to him by the peasant had most likely been nothing more than an insect larva.) Indeed, even Linnaeus himself had eventually come to doubt that the creature responsible for his injury had been a worm, believing instead that the extreme severity of his affliction had clouded his judgement when attempting to classify the culprit. Moreover, despite generic claims appearing in several Furia documentations from the late 1700s to the mid-1800s concerning how the worm had sometimes been extracted from the flesh of its supposed victims, there never seemed to be any first-hand accounts of the worm itself from witnesses present at such events.
Also by the late 1800s, increased medical knowledge had led to widespread recognition that certain people (and individual animals) could exhibit hypersensitive responses or allergic reactions to insect bites and stings, not to mention septic wounds caused by bacteria or viruses, resulting in an array of highly alarming and sometimes life-threatening symptoms corresponding accurately with those described by Linnaeus and other supposed fury worm victims. Furthermore, they can be incited even by insects as tiny and inconspicuous as biting midges of the kind witnessed by Inglis (and which no doubt explained Linnaeus’s attack too – midges abound in marshy terrain). In stark contrast, not even the most proficient medical practitioners had any concept of such phenomena back in Linnaeus’s time. Consequently, they were much more susceptible to believing in the existence of a deadly worm fervently if falsely deemed real by local peasants steeped in centuries of imaginative, unfounded folklore and groundless superstition.
Interestingly, some authorities during the 20th Century suggested that certain victims with symptoms originally claimed to have been the work of the fury worm may actually have been suffering from a version of anthrax, a deadly disease caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis – as famously discovered by pioneering German microbiologist Dr Robert Koch in 1875. Anthrax occurs in four versions – inhalation, injection, intestinal, and cutaneous (skin), with the last-mentioned one being the version proposed by supporters of an anthrax explanation for fury worm symptoms. It occurs when endospores produced by the bacterium enter a victim’s skin via skin abrasions.
Skin ulcer with black central spot, as caused by cutaneous anthrax (public domain)
In reality, however, this identity fails to provide a satisfactory solution to the fury worm riddle. For whereas cutaneous anthrax does indeed produce an ulcer with a black central dot recalling the black spot or speck that would appear shortly after a supposed sting and penetration by a fury worm, it is usually painless, in stark contrast to the excruciating pain suffered by victims of the alleged worm. In addition, cutaneous anthrax is rarely fatal if treated, because the infection is normally confined to the skin, whereas the effects of a supposed fury worm sting and penetration used to spread swiftly through a victim’s body and cause severe, rapid swelling and inflammation – all of which is indicative of a hyper-allergenic reaction to an insect sting or bite.
I did consider the possibility that the culprit for the fury worm’s nefarious crimes was conceivably a tick or a mite. Infected ticks of the genus Ixodes are vectors of Lyme disease (caused by Borrelia bacteria), but its most common initial symptom is a red rash that is neither itchy nor painful (unlike the acute inflammation attributed to Furia), and these small blood-sucking arachnids are ectoparasitic; they do not burrow inside their hosts’ flesh like Furiadid.
Male and female Ixodes ricinus, a vector of Lyme disease – this photograph shows the small male tick copulating with the much larger female tick (public domain)
Conversely, many mites are microscopic (explaining why Furia was never seen?) and, again like Furia, some certainly do burrow into the skin of their much larger hosts. The familiar skin ailments scabies and mange are caused by such creatures. In addition, dust mites can induce allergic diseases that include eczema, which can be quite severe in hypersensitive victims.
Also worth noting is that the larvae of trombiculid chigger mites, which feed upon humans skin flakes and in so doing are responsible for the red and notoriously itchy skin rash known as trombiculosis or chigger bite, make contact with their victims in a manner that is reminiscent of descriptions given in various Furiaaccounts already documented here – as shown via the following excerpt from Wikipedia’s trombiculosis entry:
Chiggers are commonly found on the tip of blades of grasses to catch a host, so keeping grass short, and removing brush and wood debris where potential mite hosts may live, can limit their impact on an area. Sunlight that penetrates the grass will make the lawn drier and make it less favorable for chigger survival.
Chiggers seem to affect warm covered areas of the body more than drier areas. Thus, the bites are often clustered behind the knees, or beneath tight undergarments such as socks, underwear, or brassieres. Areas higher in the body (chest, back, waist-band, and under-arms) are affected more easily in small children than in adults, since children are shorter and are more likely than adults to come in contact with low-lying vegetation and dry grass where chiggers thrive.
Diagram of a larval chigger mite showing its jawparts (chelicerae) and its stylostome, i.e. the hardened tube of dead cells that the mite forms when feeding upon skin (public domain)
Ordinarily, therefore, I would suggest that perhaps a form of parasitic mite may have been responsible for at least some cases attributed to the fury worm. However, I am not aware of any that engender such uniquely devastating effects upon their hosts as those induced by Furia, especially as the latter reputedly achieved them via the action of just a single specimen, not even by several simultaneously. So unless Furia was a species of inordinately hostile parasitic mite that died out before its correct taxonomic identity could be scientifically revealed, which seems highly unlikely, a mite is surely a very remote explanation for it.

Equally, a single tiny worm blown by a wind current onto the skin of its human victim, then stinging and instantly burrowing deep within the victim’s skin where it rapidly induces agonising pain and quite often death does not recall the lifestyle and modus operandi of any of the many different taxa of parasitic worm (which include tapeworms, thorny-headed worms, various flukes and nematodes, larval horsehair worms, tongue worms), despite their considerable variety of form and activity.

In any case, the extreme rapidity of the virulent and sometimes fatal activity claimed for Furia(Linnaeus himself alleged that it could kill a human in as little as 15 minutes) clashes with a fundamental tenet of parasite evolution and success, which is to keep its host alive and healthy for as long as possible while the parasite is benefiting from their association. After all, if the host dies prematurely, the parasite loses its nutrient supply, its home, and also in multi-host species the opportunity for the next stage in its life cycle to transfer to its next host. So how could Furia possibly benefit by killing its host so quickly – and indeed, what benefit did it gain by burrowing beneath its victim’s flesh anyway? Remarkably, however, this basic question seems never even to have been posed in any of the many Furia documentations that I have read, let alone answered. To my mind, therefore, the fury worm as a parasite of any kind (let alone an actual worm) exhibiting the extreme behaviour ascribed to it makes no zoological sense at all.
As for the herds of reindeer supposedly killed in Lapland by Furia, conversely, modern science has revealed that a worm was indeed responsible for their deaths (such fatalities still occur today), but it wasn’t the fury worm. Instead, these deer were and still are afflicted by neurocysticercosis – an infectious disease caused by the presence in their brains of larvae from the pork tapeworm Taenia solium, which can also affect humans. Here, the parasite does indeed kill its host, but not before the parasite’s larvae have had time to mature, so that they are ready to enter their new host when it eats the meat of their present one.
Photograph of neurocysticercosis (public domain)

Quite frankly, the most reasonable, sensible explanation for the fury worm is that it was never anything more than simply a convenient composite scapegoat, a non-existent ‘bogeyman worm’ of strictly folkloric origin that rural Scandinavians would habitually blame for any unexpected bite, sting, abscess, or other skin-sited ailment whose origin they could not readily determine, whether that be a particular type of insect, or arachnid, or tapeworm, or bacterium, etc. This would explain the marked inconsistency of claims regarding the fury worm’s supposed morphology, its sting’s symptoms, and the speed of their lethality, because in reality they had not originated from a single inimical species at all, but instead from a whole range of them, yet wrongly combined with each other in rural tradition and superstition to yield an entirely fictitious composite, the fury worm.

In Pallas’s lengthy account of the fury worm presented earlier here, he stated that it compared closely with a hair worm. Also known as horsehair worms or nematomorphs and of worldwide distribution, these come in many different species, and sizes – ranging from around 20 in to as lengthy as 6 ft, but no more than 0.12 in across (and sometimes as little as 0.04 in). Inhabiting ponds, streams, puddles, and even horse troughs (there are also some marine species, as well as some semi-terrestrial ones), the adults are free-living, whereas the larvae parasitise small arthropods. The most familiar horsehair worms belong to the genus Gordius, and in the Vermes section of his Systema Naturae (10th edition), Linnaeus placed Furia directly below his naming and description of Gordius, thus emphasising their supposed similarity as claimed by local testimony.

Providing a very relevant precedent and caveat here, however, is that these same rural Scandinavian peasants who believed in the fury worm and its dread stinging/flesh-burrowing activity also seriously believed that Gordius was venomous too, yet in reality it is entirely harmless. Equally, just as they were convinced that Furiadropped down upon its victims directly from the sky or was carried to them on the wind, they asserted that Gordius worms were actually hairs that had originally been shed from the manes of horses but which then had spontaneously come alive. In other words, there are good reasons indeed to treat their beliefs and claims regarding Furia with grave suspicion.
The common horsehair worm Gordius aquaticus (public domain)
The widespread fallacy in rural Sweden that Gordius was venomous was exposed scientifically as far back as the early 1820s by Prof. Anders Retzius, a Swedish anatomist with a particular interest in Furia, as described in 1827 by Arthur de Capell Brooke in his earlier-cited Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal paper:
…the Acade­my of Sciences at Stockholm, with an anxious desire to discover the truth, has promised, on several occasions, a considerable re­ward to whoever should lay before it a specimen of the animal in question [Furia infernalis]; none, however, have been presented to their notice, but what, upon examination, have been proved to be fictitious. With this information I have been favoured by Mr Retzius of Stockholm, son of the late distinguished naturalist [Prof. Anders Jahan Retzius]. This gentleman has informed me, that he has himself made frequent searches to no purpose on the borders of the Mäler, and other Swedish lakes, in the hopes of discovering this formidable being; and he adds, that, with regard to the Gordius aquaticus, or hair-worm, the bite of which has been supposed to be danger­ous, his own personal experience has convinced him, that it is perfectly harmless; for, during the space of ten years, when he resided at Carlberg, as physician of the military academy, he was daily accustomed to see the young cadets of the establish­ment bathing in places where these animals were to be seen in thousands, and yet no accident was ever the result.
Who knows, perhaps the Scandinavian peasants’ mistaken yet longstanding supposition that horsehair worms were venomous may also have played an active role in their nurturing an even more imaginative belief, in an even more deadly but this time entirely fictitious version – which an erroneously-afflicted Linnaeus duly dubbed the fury worm. And thus was a fable made fact, until medical science finally swept it into the dustbin of discredited disease-mongers, alongside the tooth worm, the sweat louse, and other comparably noxious yet equally non-existent pathological ne’er-do-wells.
‘The Remorse of Orestes’, after killing Clytemnestra, surrounded and harassed by the Furies, painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1862 (public domain)
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REMEMBERING PEDRO – THE MISSING MINI-MUMMY OF WYOMING

by on Jun.27, 2016, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Two views of Pedro plus one of his x-rays from 1950 (public domain)
In a two-part ShukerNature article (click here and here) from 2009, I documented a wide range of accounts concerning mysterious dwarf-like or pygmy-like humanoid entities that have been reported across the length and breadth of North America, and are often colloquially – and collectively – referred to as littlefeet. One of the most interesting of these was Pedro, the so-called mini-mummy or mountain mummy of Wyoming, because this was an actual specimen (not just an eyewitness report or a tale from traditional folklore). Also, it had been discovered in a most unexpected location, and subsequently featured in a very intriguing chain of events. Back in 2009, my article’s documentation of Pedro was fairly brief, but since then I have investigated this mystifying entity is further detail, enabling me to flesh out or highlight various aspects of its story that had previously been somewhat obscure, contradictory, or totally confused in other accounts accessed by me. Consequently, I am now presenting here a much-expanded, updated version of my original ShukerNature coverage of Pedro.
Pedro’s extraordinary modern-day history may have begun one day in October 1932 (but see later for an alternative claimed date), when gold-prospectors Cecil Main (spelt ‘Mayne’ in some accounts) and Frank Carr blasted a hole through the wall of a ravine in the San Pedro Mountains, about 65 miles southwest of the city of Casper, Wyoming – and made a momentous discovery. The wall had been hiding a small, room-like, hitherto-sealed cavern, which contained a ledge, 2.5 ft off the ground. And sitting on that ledge, in cross-legged pixie-like pose, with its arms folded across its chest, was the mummy of a diminutive humanoid figure, with a sitting height of less than 7 in and a total height of only 14 in.
Front view of Pedro (public domain)
Sporting a tanned if wrinkled bronze-coloured skin, barrel-shaped body, well-preserved penis. large hands, long fingers, low brow, very wide mouth with large lips, and broad flat nose, this strange figure resembled a smirking old man, who seemed almost to be winking at its two amazed discoverers, because one of its large eyes was half-closed. Nevertheless, it was evident that this entity had been dead for a very long time, and its death did not appear to have been a pleasant one. Its head was abnormally flat, and was covered with a dark gelatinous substance – later examinations by scientists suggested that its skull may have been smashed by an extremely heavy blow, and the gelatinous substance was congealed blood and exposed brain tissue. Also, some reports claim that it had a broken clavicle (or scapula in certain others), as well as some broken vertebrae, and pointed “front teeth”.
Due to its mountain provenance, this remarkable specimen was soon dubbed Pedro by the media, following its discovery’s announcement in a report by the Casper TribuneHerald newspaper on 21 October 1932 (but once again see later for an alternative claimed date).
When Main and Carr brought Pedro back home with them to Casper, it was widely denounced as a hoax. Carr died shortly afterwards, and in April 1934 Main sold Pedro to Homer F. Sherill from Crawford, Nebraska, who subsequently exhibited it encased inside a large glass dome as a curio at a circus there (as well as at several sideshows elsewhere), where it was seen by Eugene Bashor in 1936. Although he was only a boy at that time, Bashor was so fascinated by Pedro’s enigmatic appearance that he went on to become a leading, longstanding investigator of North American mini-mummy and littlefoot reports.
Sideshow poster for Pedro (public domain)
Sherill owned Pedro for at least 7 years, but somehow this anomalous little entity subsequently turned up at Jones Drug Store in Meeteetse, a small town in Park County, Wyoming, where it remained on display until it was spied there one day in the mid-1940s by Ivan Goodman, a used car salesman from Casper, who reputedly purchased it from the drug store’s owner, Floyd Jones, for several thousand dollars. Thereafter, Goodman utilised Pedro’s eyecatching appearance to attract people to his car lot, and for which it became an unofficial mascot, with images of it being placed by Goodman in advertisements for his auto dealership. Moreover, it was during its period of ownership by Goodman that Bashor saw Pedro for a second time, in 1948, sitting on Goodman’s desk.
In 1950, Goodman permitted some interested scientists to examine his ‘mascot’ in an attempt to uncover its true nature. The most detailed examination, including an x-ray analysis, was conducted by anthropologist Dr Henry (‘Harry’) Shapiro from New York’s American Museum of Natural History. According to a Casper Tribune-Herald report of 5 March 1950, this study confirmed that Pedro was not a fake but did indeed contain a complete if minuscule skeleton, a fully-fused skull (seemingly verifying that it was an adult humanoid, not an infant), plus a full set of teeth. Some accounts have even claimed that Shapiro opined that Pedro had been approximately 65 years old upon death; others, conversely, alleged that he had identified it as an infant. Nor is this the only source of controversy regarding Pedro, as will be seen later here.
In that same newspaper report, Goodman himself was quoted as stating: “After an exhaustive study by the scientists it was agreed that it was the only specimen known of a human race of that type which perhaps dated back a million years”. However, such a dramatic claim as this seems unlikely to have been made by the scientists, so it may well have originated from the canny Goodman instead – possibly as an additional means of publicising his car business. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing for sure, because Goodman died later that same year.
Side view of Pedro (public domain)
Just before his death, Goodman loaned Pedro to Leonard Wadler, a New York businessman, for study purposes. However, it was never returned to Goodman’s family, and Wadler moved to Florida soon afterwards, allegedly dying there during the 1980s. But what happened to Pedro? No-one knows, because no-one has been able to trace Wadler’s precise movements and whereabouts once he had acquired Pedro. One report claimed that Wadler’s family was contacted by (unnamed) investigators some time after his death enquiring where Pedro may now be, but that they had no idea either.
In a bid to rectify this regrettable situation, John Adolfi from Syracuse, New York, owner of the Bibleland Studios website, publicly announced on 3 February 2005 via a Casper Star-Tribune report by Brendan Burke that he would pay $10,000 for Pedro, if it still existed. He would then submit Pedro for DNA analyses, more x-ray studies, and magnetic resonance imaging in order to determine once and for all its precise identity. So far, however, Adolfi’s reward remains unclaimed.
Reward poster for Pedro, issued by John Adolfi of Bibleland Studios (© John Adolfi/Bibleland Studios – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)
Incidentally, back on 13 November 1936 one of Pedro’s original discoverers, Cecil Main, had signed an official affidavit containing what he claimed to be the true facts behind their notable find, and which was sworn in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska, and officially recorded in Hot Springs County, Wyoming, on 16 August 1943. Oddly, however, this document contains what would appear to be some glaring inconsistencies with other versions of events.
In it, Main stated that Pedro had been discovered by them in June 1934. Conversely, as already noted in this present ShukerNature article, a report documenting that event had allegedly been published in the Casper Tribune-Herald on 21 October 1932, followed by additional articles published by this same newspaper in that same year, at least according to Brendan Burke’s above-mentioned Casper Star-Tribune report from 2005. Here is what Burke wrote in it:
Mayne was prospecting for gold near Pathfinder Reservoir when an explosion he detonated revealed a small cave, according to a Oct. 21, 1932, article in the Casper Tribune-Herald. Inside the cave Mayne found the mummified remains of what looked like a tiny human.
Debate about the mummy’s nature started soon after it was found. Some said it was a hoax. Others said it was the mummified remains of a baby. And others said it was one of the little people spoken about in Indian legends, according to Casper Tribune-Herald stories from 1932.
So if these supposed Casper Tribune-Herald reports from 1932 do indeed exist, then Main‘s claimed date of June 1934 was clearly incorrect. Main also alleged in his affidavit of November 1936 that Pedro was “now owned by Homer F. Sherill, and located in the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois“. Yet once again, contemporary reports claim that Main had sold Pedro to Sherill in April 1934 (i.e. two months before it had even been discovered, according to the discovery date given in Main‘s affidavit). Moreover, as noted by Rebecca Hein in an undated online article concerning Pedro accessible within the WyoHistorywebsite:
Archivist Armand Esai notes that the Field Museum has no record of the mummy’s presence during that time. The item still could have been there on loan or for identification, but because it was not part of the museum’s official collection, the mummy was not listed in the records.
As seen, the discrepancies between different accounts as to whether Shapiro had (or had not) claimed that Pedro exhibited certain adult characteristics are by no means the only contentious aspects of Pedro’s post-discovery history.
Pedro inside his glass dome, with ruler to show size (public domain)
Fortunately, at least Pedro’s original x-ray plates are still on file and thus confirmed, as are some vintage photographs of it, including those presented here. Moreover, not long after Pedro’s initial discovery by the two prospectors, a Mexican shepherd called José Martinez reputedly found another mummy and six separate skulls on a ranch in the same vicinity. After soon suffering a number of mishaps, however, Martinez considered them to be jinxed, so he swiftly replaced them where he had found them.
Other mini-mummies have also been reported over the years from elsewhere in the U.S.A. One of the most noteworthy of these was a 3-ft-tall, red-haired specimen discovered during the 1920s on a ledge in Kentucky‘s famous Mammoth Cave, and which seemed to be only a few centuries old. During 1922, sheep-herder Bill Street claimed to have found several small skulls and whole mummies in Montana‘s Beartooth Mountains, but their present whereabouts are unclear. Two young men on a day off from the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 came upon a dead pygmy with sharp teeth in Wyoming‘s Wind River Mountains, but both died soon afterwards, and others who saw it allegedly died from severe illnesses.
In 1969, author John ‘Ace’ Bonar visited orthopaedic specialist Richard Phelps in Casper to see the preserved head of a mysterious tiny humanoid that he was displaying at that time in his shop. Bonar learnt that the head had originally been taken from a cliff near Wyoming‘s Muddy Gap. After Phelps’s death in 1980, his daughter donated the preserved pygmy head to the University of Wyoming in Laramie, where it is still said to be today.
According to Bonar, the husband of Winnie Cardell from Alcova, Wyoming, also owned a mini-mummy – until he loaned it to a college professor, who never returned it. A specimen closely resembling Pedro, meanwhile, attracted media attention in January 1979 when it was loaned to Californian antique appraiser Kent Diehl of San Anselmo for examination. Just under 1 ft long, with an indentation at the back of the head indicating brain injury as the cause of death, the mummy was supposedly found in Central America during 1919, but Diehl would not publicly identify the family from Marin, California, that presently owns it.
This anterosuperior view of the head of an anencephalic human foetus demonstrates the disorganised connective tissue membrane that covers the top of the skull in the absence of the calvarium or skullcap (public domain)
Some researchers consider Pedro to have been a grossly-malformed human child or foetus – possibly with anencephaly, a teratological condition in which the brain has not developed fully (if at all) during foetal maturation. This latter identity was proposed for Pedro by anthropologist Prof. George W. Gill from the University of Wyoming after examining photos of it first shown to him by his students in 1971. Moreover, in 1994, after appearing with Eugene Bashor on an episode of the TV show Unsolved Mysteries hosted by Robert Stack and dealing with Pedro, Gill was contacted by a rancher from Cheyenne (Wyoming’s capital) claiming to own a mini-mummy. This one proved to be a tiny blond-haired girl, only 4 in high, and dubbed Chiquita, which one of the rancher’s (great-)grandfathers (reports differ) had purchased from a sheep-herder in or around 1929 and which had been kept ever since inside a trunk in his home’s attic.
When Gill examined Chiquita and DNA analyses were conducted upon it, assisted by the Denver Children’s Hospital, he found that it was indeed an anencephalic Native American infant (examination of a femur removed from this mini-mummy had revealed that its distal ends had not closed, a sign of infancy). In their book Mountain Spirit: The Sheep Eater Indians of Yellowstone (2006), Lawrence L. Loendorf and Nancy M. Stone stated that radiocarbon dating tests had indicated that it was around 500 years old.
With regard to Pedro, conversely, if its adult characteristics allegedly revealed by Shapiro during his 1950 study were genuine, and not erroneous identifications (or erroneous claims made by the media), they would seem to contradict an anencephalic status for it. (Incidentally, one report read by me claiming that Gill had studied Pedro’s x-rays directly after Shapiro had conducted his own 1950 study of them, and that it was Shapiro who had personally given the x-rays to Gill at that time, is clearly in error, because in 1950 Gill was still only a child/youth.)
One of Pedro’s x-rays from 1950 (public domain)
Also, why was Pedro placed on the ledge and then sealed away inside that small room-like cavern within the Pedro Mountains? After all, this does seem not only a very purposeful but also a very strange and extreme action for anyone to take with merely a malformed infant. And who placed it there anyway?
As documented in my 2009 two-part ShukerNature article on littlefeet, there are many Amerindian traditions of mysterious races of dwarves or pygmies. And some of these allegedly kill their own kind when they become old or infirm by beheading them, or by smashing their skulls – in precisely the way that Pedro and its Central American lookalike may have met their deaths. Just a coincidence?
Artistic representation of a North American littlefoot (© Tim Morris)
The story of Pedro the Wyoming mini-mummy is undoubtedly one of the most muddled, contradictory histories that I have ever encountered, so much so that I seriously doubt at this late stage in the proceedings, over 80 years since its discovery by Main and Carr, whether an entirely accurate course of events concerning this very enigmatic little entity will ever be pieced together.
Meanwhile, documenting Pedro in his book Stranger Than Science(1959), veteran mysteries investigator Frank Edwards made the following pertinent comment:
Scientists from far and near have examined this tiny fellow and have gone away amazed. He is unlike anything they ever saw before. Sitting there on the shelf in Casper, visible, disturbing evidence that science may have overlooked him and his kind much too long.
Moreover, just as there are two sides to every coin, in his own book The Monster Trap (1976) Peter Haining offered an equally disturbing, obverse view:
For as some of the more serious-minded of the old people of Casper who were alive at the time of the discovery will tell you, they believe the little man was one of a whole race of barbaric dwarf people who once lived in the region in ancient times. And they get the distinct impression from looking at him that he had been sitting there behind the stone wall for thousands of years waiting for someone – or something – to return.
Now just suppose, they go on with the merest hesitation, that the long-awaited return of what-ever-it-might-be has taken place – and it has found nothing there…
Seemingly not for thousands of years, but still a chilling little vignette, to say the least. And who knows – perhaps it really would have been best in this instance to have let sleeping dogs lie, or dormant dwarves dream on?
If anyone owns (or can obtain) copies of any of the Casper Tribune-Herald newspaper reports that were allegedly published in 1932 (and hence almost two years before the date of Pedro’s discovery as claimed in Cecil Main’s affidavit), I would love to see them! Thanks very much.
NB – As far as I aware, all illustrations included in this article are in the public domain (unless stated otherwise), including the x-rays (according to Wikipedia’s entry for Pedro, they are in the public domain for the following reason: “Copyright expired because the work was published without a copyright notice and/or without the necessary copyright registration.”), but in any case I am including all of them here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only.
Casper historian Bob David holding Pedro in a pre-1950 photograph (public domain)
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GENERAL GORDON AND THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE – A BOTANICAL FOLLY OF BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS?

by on Jun.24, 2016, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

The Fairy smiled, and led him into a large and lofty room, the walls of which appeared transparent… In the middle of the room stood a tree, with luxuriant hanging branches, on which golden apples, large and small, appeared amongst the green leaves. This was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, of the fruit of which Adam and Eve had eaten. From each leaf dripped a bright red dew-drop, as if the tree were shedding tears of blood.

        Hans Christian Andersen – ‘The Garden of Paradise‘,
                              in Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales
Holding a dehusked, hollow coco-de-mer seed or ‘double coconut’ (© Dr Karl Shuker)
2015 marked the 130th anniversary of the death of one of Britain‘s greatest military heroes – General Charles Gordon (1833-1885). Actually attaining the rank of Major-General during a long and distinguished military career, he will forever be remembered for his many acts of outstanding bravery on the battlefield. Not least of these was his valiant stand against the Mahdi’s forces during the relentlessly violent Siege of Khartoum (13 March 1884 to 26 January 1885) in Sudan that finally claimed his life and those of so many of his men as well as numerous civilians while awaiting the arrival there of a tardy relief force. In stark contrast, however, it is nowadays all but forgotten that he also held a highly unexpected but passionate belief relating to a certain tropical island and its botanical wonders.
At the end of their 10-day honeymoon spent on North Island in the Republic of Seychelles during May 2011, the UK’s Prince William and his bride the former Kate Middleton (now Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) received from this 115-island nation’s foreign minister Jean-Paul Adam a very unusual honeymoon souvenir – the enormous ‘double coconut’ of the coco-de-mer tree, endemic to a handful of islands in the Seychelles archipelago.  The remarkable likeness in shape of this tree’s bilobed seed to a certain part of a lady’s anatomy is (in)famous, so the royal honeymooners may well have been aware of it too – but would they also have been aware, I wonder, of its alleged biblical link? Specifically, would they have realised that at least in the opinion of one very notable figure, they were now the owners of nothing less than a seed from the fruit of the Garden of Eden’s Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – the very same fruit that fatefully tempted Eve and then Adam too, causing them to be banished by God from Eden forever?
Adam and Eve alongside the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, together with the pre-cursed Serpent, interestingly portrayed here as a bipedal human-headed reptile or draconopides (click herefor a ShukerNature blog article on the draconopides/pre-cursed Serpent concept) – this painting is ‘The Temptation’, by Hugo van der Goes, 1470 (public domain)
The coco-de-mer Lodoicea maldivica (sometimes referred as Lodicea sechellarum, but this is a junior synonym) is unquestionably one of the most iconic species native to the Seychelles. Today, it occurs principally upon just a single major island – Praslin, the group’s second-largest member, roughly 8 miles long. It formerly existed on several smaller isles too, all close to Praslin, but today it survives on only one of these, Curieuse, situated just off Praslin’s northern coast, and is officially categorised by the IUCN as endangered. Additionally, therefore, it has been deliberately introduced to certain other Seychelles islands in order to establish new populations, thus assisting in its conservation. Belonging to the palm tree family Arecaceae, the coco-de-mer is the only member of the genus Lodoicea, coined for it by French naturalist Jacques Julien Houtou de Labillardière and generally believed to commemorate Laodice, the most beautiful daughter of Troy’s King Priam (although a few researchers have suggested the French King Louis XV as a possible alternative name-source, ‘Lodoicus’ being Latin for ‘Louis’).
The coco-de-mer is a dioecious species (male and female flowers occur on separate trees), it can grow to 100 ft tall or more (with male trees being taller than females), takes 25-50 years to reach maturity, lives for well over a century (its maximum lifespan is still unknown), and sports huge, fan-shaped, leathery leaves, pale-green in colour, measuring up to 46 ft across, 13 ft long, and capturing as much as 98 per cent of all rainfall. However, its most noteworthy claim to fame, earning this tree species a place in the record books, is its gigantic fruit (shaped like a normal, single coconut) containing the huge bilobed ‘double coconut’ seed, which is the largest seed produced by any species of plant.
Fruit on female coco-de-mer tree (public domain)
[NB – strictly speaking, a nut is defined as a specific category of fruit – one that possesses a hard shell (the husk) and a seed inside. However, in general parlance the term ‘nut’ is also often used in reference to a hard-walled edible seed (as is the term ‘kernel’). Consequently, in this chapter I have completely avoided using the ambiguous term ‘nut’, in favour of the non-interchangeable terms ‘fruit’ for the combination of outer shell and inner seed, and ‘seed’ for the seed itself. As for ‘double coconut’, this is a term applied specifically and famously to the coco-de-mer’s bilobed seed, so I have employed it here with this same meaning.]
Exquisite engraving from 1897 depicting various palm trees, including the coco-de-mer at right of image together with its unmistakeable double coconut and catkin-like male inflorescence (public domain)
Produced by female coco-de-mer trees, the fruit measures 16-20 in across, weighs 33-66 lb (up to 39 lb of which is the weight of the seed inside it), and takes 6-7 years to mature, plus a minimum of  two further years to germinate. The seed’s bilobed shape infamously lends it more than a passing resemblance in form to a woman’s buttocks on one side and to her stomach and thighs on the other side (resulting in it becoming a potent fertility symbol in the Seychelles and also nurturing a traditional belief there that its pulpy white meat possesses powerful aphrodisiac properties).
And as if this wasn’t sufficiently suggestive, male coco-de-mer trees produce very sizeable catkin-like inflorescences (measuring up to 3 ft long) that are decidedly phallic in shape.
Beautiful painting of the coco-de-mer’s male inflorescence and its ripe fruits, produced in 1883 by Marianne North (public domain)
Not surprisingly, these distinctive features have given rise to some very colourful local legends concerning this unique species of Seychelles palm.
Indeed, one particularly popular folk-belief here is that on wild stormy nights, the male trees uproot themselves, pair up with the still-rooted female trees, and engage in passionate love-making under the cover of darkness.
Inflorescence on male coco-de-mer tree (© ViloWiki/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
The coco-de-mer’s fruit is so heavy that whenever one falls into the sea, it is unable to float, sinking straight to the sea bottom instead, where it gradually rots, the husk falling away and the internal seed breaking down and releasing gas, which enables this now-hollow, bare, and much lighter structure to rise to the surface of the sea and float great distances, carried by the current. Because the seed is no longer fertile, however, even if it reaches land it cannot germinate and give rise to a tree (thus explaining this species’ extremely limited distribution).
However, so spectacular is its outward form that several centuries ago these seeds would command enormous prices as greatly-prized curiosities among the more wealthy collectors, or were given as gifts to royalty (a tradition upheld with William and Kate!).
A bilobed de-husked hollow nut or double coconut of the coco-de-mer tree (© Dr Karl Shuker)
The Seychelles first became known to the West via Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama’s recorded sighting of these islands in 1502, and the coco-de-mer tree itself was formally discovered in 1768 by a French engineer named Barré, who was sent to explore Praslin following France‘s acquisition of this archipelago during the 1740s. Long before these events, however, this tree’s spectacular seed was already well known to fishermen in such diverse localities as the Maldives, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and India. This is because hollow, internally-rotted specimens were sometimes carried by the sea from the Seychelles to the shores of these and other countries with Indian Ocean coastlines. Indeed, it was the finding of such seeds around the Maldives that led to the mistaken belief among some early naturalists that the tree which produced them must exist somewhere here, thus earning it the maldivica portion of its binomial taxonomic name.
Moreover, the seeds’ presence on the sea surface led the fishermen to believe that they must have originated from some majestic form of underwater tree (‘coco-de-mer’ is French for ‘sea coconut’), growing in stately splendour beneath the waves. Some even believed that a griffin-like monster-bird deity called Garuda lived in this subaquatic tree’s mighty branches, from where it would periodically rise up to hunt elephants and tigers – all complete fantasy, yet still being reiterated, albeit sceptically, as recently as the 1700s by the likes of German botanist Georg Eberhard Rumpf (aka Rumphius) in his 6-volume magnum opus, the Herbarium Amboinense, which was published posthumously in 1741 (almost 40 years after his death).
My wooden statuette of Garuda, from Bali (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Strange as these notions might seem, however, an even stranger one would not only be aired but also be fervently supported by a very notable historical figure during the late 1800s.
The figure in question was none other than the celebrated British army officer and diplomat Major-General Charles George Gordon – Gordon of Khartoum – and his avowed if highly eccentric belief was that the coco-de-mer tree was in fact the Garden of Eden’s Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as alluded to in the Bible. But how and why did he come to believe in such an extraordinary notion?
Major-General Charles George Gordon (public domain)
Spurred on by his deeply-held religious beliefs as an evangelical Christian, Gordon had long been passionately (some would even say obsessively) interested in attempting to track down present-day localities that might correspond to various significant sites described in the Bible – in particular the Garden of Eden.
Traditionally, the favoured sites among those who believe that the Garden of Eden truly existed have been in the Middle East, two of the most popular suggestions being a location at the head of the Persian Gulf or one close to Tabriz in Iranian Azerbaijan. As for the Tree of Knowledge: scholars considering it to have been real rather than merely symbolic have typically supported conservative, non-controversial identities for it, such as a species of fig tree or apple tree. Gordon, however, nurtured radically different ideas – ideas that concerned a location far removed from the Middle East, and an exotic tree that bore a fruit much more extraordinary than any fig or apple.

‘The Garden of Eden’, Thomas Cole, c 1828 (public domain)
During the early 1880s, Gordon spent time in Mauritius as Commander of the Royal Engineers, and in 1881 he visited the Seychelles archipelago (then part of the Crown Colony of Mauritius), about 1000 miles further north, on a military engagement. This was of particular interest to him for non-military reasons too, however, because his Kabbalistic scrutiny of the Bible’s Book of Genesis, coupled with his knowledge of geography and place-name etymology, had indicated to him that here may be clues to Eden‘s location.
Gordon subscribed to what was then the popular theory that a once-mighty but long-since-sunken continent called Lemuria formerly spanned the Indian Ocean from Madagascar to India, and when he entered a lush green valley on Praslin known today as the Vallée de Mai (May Valley), he became convinced that this idyllic tropical location was a last surviving remnant of the Garden of Eden, with the remainder now lying beneath the waves near to Praslin. Moreover, as he gazed up in stupefied awe at its forest of magnificent coco-de-mer trees, present in great profusion and towering above him on every side in this magical, secluded place, Gordon felt certain that these wondrous plants were the direct descendants of the original Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil created by God and present in Eden at the very beginning of the world.
Vallée de Mai (public domain)
Indeed, Gordon deemed it likely that the coco-de-mer seed’s suggestive form would have contributed to the temptation that the Tree of Knowledge’s forbidden fruit represented. For as he was later to comment to leading British botanist Sir William T. Thiselton-Dyer, at that time the assistant director at Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens:
The fruit is shaped like the human heart, the bud or stem which attaches it to the branch like the male organ of generation. When the husk is taken off, the inner double nut [i.e. seed] is like the belly or thigh of a woman…In a word, its lines are those of the male and female organs of generation, and it is a fruit which cannot fail to attract attention by any one seeing it.
Evidently warming to his theme, in his records Gordon also wrote:
Externally the coco-de-mer represents the belly and thighs, the true seat of carnal desires…[which] caused the plague of our forefathers in the Garden of Eden.
Lending further support to this grandiose notion, at least according to Gordon, was the fact that these trees even possessed their very own Serpent – in reality, a 3-ft-long species of green snake that can frequently be found living amid their foliage.
Nor was that all. Gordon also considered the breadfruit trees Artocarpus altilis present on Praslin to be descended from Eden‘s original Tree of Life, whose fruit had sustained Adam and Eve during their time in the Garden. For as he already knew well, breadfruit was a staple food not only in the Seychelles but also in Mauritius, as well as in many other locations around the world.
Breadfruit, painted by Marguerite Girvin Gillin, c.1884 (public domain)
Yet if Praslin’s Vallée de Mai was truly derived from the Garden of Eden, how could its presence in the middle of the Indian Ocean be explained? Easily, in Gordon’s view – because he considered Praslin and the other Seychelles islands to be remnants of the vanished continent of Lemuria, which, he believed, had existed at the world’s beginning but had sunk forever beneath the waves during the Great Flood.
So taken was Gordon with his identification of Eden as having existed just offshore of Praslin, with the Vallée de Mai its last surviving portion, and the coco-de-mer as the Tree of Knowledge, with its immense fruit the still-existing instrument of humanity’s fall and expulsion from Eden at the dawn of time, that he wrote various articles and corresponded with a number of authorities, including those at Kew in 1882, as well as William Scott, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Pamplemousses, near Port Louis, Mauritius, concerning his eccentric beliefs.
Vallée de Mai palm forest (© Brocken Inaglory/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
He also sent specimens of the coco-de-mer and breadfruit tree fruits to Kew, and even prepared a detailed map in which he linked Praslin to the four rivers mentioned in the Bible as landmarks for Eden. Unsurprisingly, however, his beliefs were not greeted with enthusiasm from contemporary scientists and writers. In particular, Gordon’s concept of the coco-de-mer with its gargantuan double coconut as a plausible contender for the Tree of Knowledge was swiftly and robustly dismissed by his critics.
After all, as pointed out very reasonably by writer and onetime Seychelles resident H. Watley Estridge, for instance, how was Eve meant to climb to the top of a 100-ft-tall tree and carry down with her a fruit almost 2 ft across and weighing up to 66 lb (heavier than 3 bowling balls!), and then take a bite through its immensely hard, 4-in-thick husk before offering it to Adam? True, she might have sought one that had already fallen to the ground; however, the Bible specifically states that Eve had stretched out her hand and plucked a fruit – clearly implying that she had taken it directly from the tree.
Eve stretching out her hand and plucking a fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, as portrayed in ‘The Garden of Eden With the Fall of Man’ by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens (public domain)
Alternatively, as Gordon deftly represented in a detailed drawing prepared by him, the afore-mentioned green snake associated with coco-de-mer trees on Praslin could have made its way up the tree to fetch one for Eve. Yet this option has to assume of course that such a modestly-sized reptile actually possessed the strength and dexterity to carry it back down to her (or even to bite through its sturdy stem so that it would then fall to the ground) after securing one!
However, the considerable problem posed by Adam and Eve lacking the necessary density of dentition to avoid breaking their teeth when attempting to bite through its rock-hard exterior and equally firm kernel inside seemingly defied all attempts at resolution. Even the resourceful Gordon himself was at a loss to provide a satisfactory response to this particular obstacle.
Breadfruit tree in the Seychelles(public domain)
Equally, how could the breadfruit tree be descended from Eden‘s Tree of Life when it wasn’t even endemic to the Seychelles? This species’ ancestral, wild homeland was New Guinea (and possibly the Moluccas and Philippines too), from where it was subsequently introduced to many Polynesian islands, beginning around 3000 years ago, and from these to the Caribbean by the French during the late 1700s, and thence to the Maldives, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Madagascar, Africa, much of Asia, Central and South America, northern Australia, and southern Florida.
As for Lemuria, what physical proof was there to support the theory that this supposedly lost continent had ever existed to begin with? None, at least as far as the scientific world was – and still is – concerned, with no known geological formation under the Indian Ocean corresponding to Lemuria, and with the discontinuities in biogeography that the concept of Lemuria seemed to explain during the 1800s later being rendered superfluous and obsolete by modern theories of continental drift and plate tectonics.

Map of Lemuria superimposed on the modern continents, from William Scott-Elliot’s book The Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria, 1896 (public domain)

Following Gordon’s tragic death in 1885, his idiosyncratic theories regarding Eden, its Tree of Knowledge, and their supposed link to the Seychelles fell into disrepute and were swiftly discarded, scarcely even referred to, let alone documented in detail, within modern-day publications – until now.
Nevertheless, the magic and mystery surrounding the coco-de-mer lives on. For with ultimate, bare-faced irony, the species whose female trees notoriously produce enormous, unashamedly lewd seeds that impersonate a woman’s pelvis and whose male trees infamously yield huge, decidedly phallic inflorescences laden with pollen has never revealed the modus operandi by which its pollination is actually effected in the wild state.
How ironic it would be if the Seychelles‘ ‘Tree of Knowledge’ were found to be pollinated by a serpent! (public domain)
Is the male tree’s pollen simply dispersed by the wind (anemophily), or is pollination a zoophilous process (i.e. involving animals, perhaps insects, or birds, or bats, or even reptiles)? How deliciously delightful (not to mention supremely ironic) it would be if the coco-de-mer’s pollinator proved to be none other than the green snake that lurks amid its foliage – or the Tree of Knowledge propagated by the Serpent, as Gordon might have described such a discovery.
Yet not even Gordon, surely, could ever have imagined anything quite as Fortean as that!
An extremely unusual portrayal of the Tree of Knowledge – ‘Tree of Knowledge (Initiation)’, by Mordecai Moreh (copyright free)
SELECTED REFERENCES
ANON. (n.d.). Coco de mer. Botanic Gardens Conservation International, https://www.bgci.org/ourwork/coco_de_mer/
ANON. (n.d.). Coco-de-mer. 3am Thoughts, https://3amthoughts.com/article/miscellaneous/coco-de-mer
ANON. (2010). Study of coco-de-mer – Lodicea sechellarum. Kew Royal Botanic Gardens website, http://images.kew.org/study-of-coco-de-mer-lodicea-sechellarum/print/7899198.html 3 February.
ANON. (2011). I should coco… Wills and Kate are given rare aphrodisiac ‘love nut’ as honeymoon gift. Daily Mail (London), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1389748/Kate-Middleton-Prince-William-given-rare-aphrodisiac-love-nut-honeymoon-gift.html 23 May.
ASPIN, Richard (2014). Spotlight: General Gordon’s Tree of Life. Wellcome Library Blog, http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/2014/04/spotlight-general-gordons-tree-of-life/ 17 April.
BLACKBURN, Julia (1995). The Book of Colour: A Family Memoir. Jonathan Cape (London).
EMBODEN, William A. (1974). Bizarre Plants: Magical, Monstrous, Mythical. Studio Vista (London).
LEY, Willy (1955). Salamanders and Other Wonders: Still More Adventures of a Romantic Naturalist. Viking Press (New York).
POLLOCK, John (1993). Gordon: The Man Behind the Legend. Constable (London).
SCOTT, Tim (2011). Royal honeymooners’ ‘erotic’ Seychelles souvenir. BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/9538059.stm 16 July.
An almost dream-like portrayal of Eve being tempted by the Serpent alongside the Tree of Knowledge and a sleeping Adam in the Garden of Eden, by William Blake (public domain)

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