Karl Shuker's Blog

January 12, 2015

A fairy hound, one of the Cwn Annwn - the hounds of Annwn, the Celtic Otherworld (© Simon Wyatt)
Characterised by their sable-hued pelage, blazing red eyes, spectral nature, and their traditional association with disaster and death, the zooform phenomena known as Black Dogs have been extensively documented. Equally mysterious, but far less familiar, are their pallid counterparts, the White Dogs and fairy hounds. Nevertheless, these canine phantoms are by no means rare.
One of Great Britain's most famous White Dogs is Gally-trot, reported in the North Country and Suffolk, which resembles a bullock-sized dog with a white shaggy coat. Gally-trot earns its name from its tendency to chase after anyone who runs away from it, and from its fearsome demeanour ('Gally' translates as 'to frighten'). What may be the same apparition has also been recorded specifically from a marshy pool near Burgh, in Suffolk, called Bath Slough.
During the years leading up to World War II, a White Dog was often seen racing across the road linking the Norfolk villages of Great and Little Snoring, and on one occasion an unsuspecting motorist drove directly through it! Equally intangible is the white hound of Cator Common, Dartmoor, which, in one particularly memorable modern-day instance, abruptly disappeared in full view of a lady who had stretched out her hand to stroke it.
A pack of White Dogs
Even more extraordinary, as brought to my notice by cryptozoologist Jan Williams, is the White Dog reported from Leek Brook in Staffordshire. Just like its Black Dog equivalent, East Anglia's Old Shuck, this particular White Dog has no head! Another Black Dog trait mirrored by certain White Dogs is their association with chains - as demonstrated by the white hound of Bunbury, Cheshire, which is normally observed dragging a length of chain behind it.
A few Black Dogs have actually materialised inside churches, and there is at least one White Dog on file with a similar claim to fame. Resembling a ghostly white hound, this preternatural beast reputedly appears inside the church at Pluckley, Kent - not too surprising a locality, perhaps, as Pluckley is popularly deemed 'the most haunted village in England'.
Mystery beast investigator Neil Arnold has publicised a fascinating but hitherto little-known, present-day sighting of a White Dog. One evening during the early 1950s, a soldier based at an army camp inside Richmond Park was returning to the camp after visiting London when he noticed that the park's deer seemed unusually disturbed. Suddenly, several deer raced by him in a state of great panic, and when he looked behind them he was amazed to see a huge, pure-white hound, of hideous appearance with immense teeth, chasing after them. However, it was no normal, corporeal dog. Instead of running across the ground, this uncanny entity was racing through the air, at a height of about 1 ft above the ground!
The Richmond Park White Dog (© C. Martin)
Although most reports of White Dogs emanate from Great Britain, there are varied traditions elsewhere too. For instance: Lamper, the Hebridean death dog, is white, and runs round in circles to warn of an impending death. Werewolf lore has it that the loup-garou (French werewolf) can assume the guise of a White Dog. And in Romania, gypsies claim that many cemeteries here are occupied by white spirit wolves, which guard the living by discovering and destroying any vampires that may arise within these graveyards.
In his book Animal Ghosts (1913), veteran ghost investigator Elliott O'Donnell recalled how an acquaintance called Rappaport had encountered a pack of spectral hounds one winter's night on the slope of Russia's Ural Mountains. Headed towards a lake, Rappaport had been riding aboard a horse-drawn coach when a fierce pack of wolves had begun pursuing it. Despite his success in shooting some of them, however, Rappaport and the coach driver, Ivan, feared that they would soon be overwhelmed by the savage, snarling horde. Then, without any warning, the air was filled with a loud baying sound. Racing towards their coach was another canine pack. However, this one was composed not of wolves but of enormous white hounds. At the sight of these weird beasts, the wolves turned tail and fled:
"On came the hounds - more beautiful dogs I had never seen; as they swept by, more than one brushed against my knees, though I could feel nothing save intense cold. When they were about twenty yards ahead of us, they slowed down, and maintained that distance in front of us till we arrived on the shores of the lake. There they halted, and throwing back their heads, bayed as if in farewell, and suddenly vanished. We knew then that they were no earthly hounds, but spirit ones, sent by a merciful Providence to save us from a cruel death."
Lancashire's gabriel hounds are phantom dogs that race through the air, rather like the Richmond Park beast, and are sometimes said to be luminous white in colour, but are readily distinguished from 'normal' canine spectres (white or otherwise) by having human heads.
A fire-breathing White Dog (Johannes Gehrts)
Another pack of ghostly White Dogs has been reported near Wellington in Somerset, whose open-mouthed members allegedly emit flame from between their jaws as they race along. This case has been investigated by renowned British folklorist Ruth L. Tongue, who has linked it to the longstanding British tradition of fairy hounds.
Also known as hounds of the hill, fairy hounds are said to be the hunting dogs of the Little People, who dwell in hollow hills. And according to Welsh mythology, a pack of these ethereal creatures, known as the Cwn Annwn, was also owned by Arawn, King of Annwn - the Celtic Otherworld. Resembling large white hounds with long slim legs, they are characterised by their ruby-red ears and eyes.
Celtic fairy hounds - the Cwn Annwn (© Roger Garland)
Researching Somerset fairy hounds, Ruth Tongue noted a modern sighting near Priddy. The eyewitness was a man who had seen two huge dogs, taller than Irish wolfhounds but with a rough white coat and red ears, walking by him, on the other side of the road, making no noise. According to local lore, he had been very lucky, because if they had walked by him on the same side of the road, or had uttered any sound, he would have surely died.
In her book Forgotten Folk-Tales of the English Counties (1970), Tongue included a story recalled in 1917 by a Mrs Foden of Long Mynd, and also known in Cheshire, with a similar variant in Irish folklore. It concerns a labourer's young assistant who was going home from work late one night when he saw a huge dog, larger than a calf, with a rough white coat and red ears, lying in some bushes. Thinking at first that it was a foot-sore foxhound, he collected some soothing dock leaves to wrap around its feet. After collecting them and calling the dog to him, however, he realised that it was "...one of the fairy hounds from the hill who bring death or ill-luck".
Although badly frightened, the boy boldly bandaged the animal's paws, then wished it good night before continuing his journey home. Nothing untoward happened to him, but one dark evening in November he was going back home along that same road when a huge demonic goat-like beast confronted him, with glowing green eyes. Transfixed with fear, the boy was certain that he would be killed - when suddenly a huge White Dog with red ears appeared from nowhere and ferociously attacked the goat-beast, enabling the boy to escape. Click here for my own detailed retelling of this folktale in an earlier ShukerNature post.
A porcelain fairy hound (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Of course, such tales as this could be dismissed as nothing more than charming but wholly fictitious folklore...except for the fact that such animals are still being reported today. Each year at sunrise on Midsummer Day, a ghostly priest reputedly enters West Kennet Long Barrow, a Neolithic tomb overlooking Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, and is followed by a spectral White Dog with red ears. A similar beast with fiery eyes is said to appear each evening at midnight in a Neolithic burial chamber called the Devil's Den, at Fyfield, also in Wiltshire.
Old traditions die hard, and those featuring White Dogs and fairy hounds are no exception.
A White Dog

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Published on January 12, 2015 08:04 • 17 views

January 10, 2015

Models of straight-tusked elephants Palaeoloxodon (© Apotea/Wikipedia)
As recently as 3000 years ago, elephants were still living wild in northern China, which may come as something of a surprise to many people. But something far more surprising concerning them has lately been proposed.
It had long been assumed that these were Asian elephants Elephas maximus, because this familiar modern-day species still exists today in southern China. However, researches conducted by a team of scientists from Shaanxi Normal University and Northwest University in Xi'an and from the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research in Beijing, and published on 19 December 2012 in a Quaternary International paper, sensationally divulged that the northern China elephants seemingly belonged to an entirely separate, ostensibly long-extinct genus, Palaeoloxodon – housing the straight-tusked elephants.

Might Palaeoloxodon warrant an entry in my book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors ?
Until now, China's Palaeoloxodon species (as yet unnamed) was thought to have died out at the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary, approximately 10,000 years ago. However, the Chinese team's findings indicate that it was still alive at least 7000 years longer, into historic times – a veritable prehistoric survivor, in fact.

The team's revelations were based upon their re-examination of 3000-year-old fossil teeth hitherto believed to have been from Elephas but now recognised to belong to Palaeoloxodon; and their reinterpretation of 33 northern Chinese elephant-shaped bronze wares from the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties (c. 4100-2300 years ago) whose trunks all had two grasping finger-like digits, whereas the trunk of E. maximus only ever has one, thus suggesting that these bronzes may depict Palaeoloxodon, not Elephas.
Possible Palaeoloxodon depicted by ancient Chinese ware, with two-fingered trunk-ending ringed in red (© Quaternary International)
Not everyone agrees that this partial resurrection of Palaeoloxodon in China is valid, however, with fossil elephant experts Drs Adrian Lister and Victoria Herridge claiming that the supposed dental differentiating features are merely contrast artefacts created by the low resolution of the photographs as published in the Chinese team's paper and that these features do not appear in better-quality photographic reproductions. They also note that cultural and iconographical aspects appertaining to Chinese art at the time of the bronzes' creation might reconcile their double-digited trunks with Elephas after all, not requiring the need to resurrect Palaeoloxodon.
In short, it is likely that this intriguing subject will attract further palaeontological scrutiny and contention for some time to come.
Ornate sculpture of an Asian elephant Elephas maximus (© Dr Karl Shuker)

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Published on January 10, 2015 20:03 • 5 views

Click here to watch this superb video clip of the hairy octopus, as filmed by Christian Loader for Eco Divers Resort Lembeh (click here to access their fantastic website!) and uploaded onto YouTube by WeirdunderWaterWorld  on 24 January 2012 (© Christian Loader/ Eco Divers Resort Lembeh)
Just because a species has yet to be formally named and described by science doesn't mean that it is invisible. On the contrary – in the case of the hairy octopus of Indonesia's Lembeh diving resort off north Sulawesi (=Celebes), it is a veritable online megastar!
Since 2008, a number of eyecatching videos and photographs have appeared on several websites, including YouTube, portraying a small species of octopus (body size 1.5-5 cm, arm length 3-10 cm) that varies in colour between specimens from brown or red to white or cream, and is covered in an extraordinary profusion of hair-like skin flaps or extrusions that superficially resemble strands of seaweed. The smaller the specimen, the more flaps it often bears, and when present among genuine clumps of seaweed it is virtually invisible, so effective is its remarkable camouflage.
Yet although it remains undescribed by science, this fascinating species is frequently encountered by divers (although in terms of specimen numbers it seems to be rare). Indeed, a page devoted to it on the official website of the Lembeh Resort includes an impressively lengthy list of dive sites where it has been seen (click here ), and it has been reported at all times of the year. It has also been reported off Komodo and Ambon. A close-up video of one specimen shows its 'pseudo-seaweed' skin extrusions in great detail, and they are truly astonishing in their verisimilitude.
Let us hope, therefore, that the hairy octopus will soon receive some greatly-deserved formal attention and an official name from zoologists after having been viewed at Lembeh and elsewhere by divers for several years, thereby granting this most intriguing little creature some long-overdue scientific respectability (indeed, the diversity in 'hair' morphology as revealed in various videos - see below - is so great that there may even be several different species of hairy octopus, all awaiting formal recognition).
Here is a chronological listing of videos of the hairy octopus currently viewable on YouTube:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAuRBcO1AiE&spfreload=10 3 March 2008.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wgrx1wADUJE&spfreload=10 15 December 2009.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nbcRnAQWcU&spfreload=10 24 January 2012.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=666PVE2sCug&spfreload=10 2 October 2012.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ogmWooXfeQ&spfreload=10 15 October 2012.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glav6wH1LO8&spfreload=10 1 December 2012.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3othvBOero&spfreload=10 22 July 2013.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKbIzcwoIqE&spfreload=10 29 October 2014.
The mimic octopus (top left) and wunderpus (bottom right) (© William Rebsamen)
Interestingly, the hairy octopus is not the only example from recent times of a very unusual, distinctive species of octopus to have remained undescribed by science several years after first being reported by divers and swimmers. Two other, very famous ones recorded from Indonesian waters are the mimic octopus Thaumoctopus mimicus and the wunderpus Wunderpus photogenicus, whose remarkable appearance, mimicry abilities, history of discovery, and eventual scientific description are fully documented in my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals .

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Published on January 10, 2015 05:57 • 7 views

December 27, 2014

Reconstruction of the possible appearance of India's giant blue eels
The ancient chroniclers of natural history documented as factual a considerable number of extremely strange, mysterious creatures that are exceedingly implausible from a modern-day zoological standpoint.
Few of these, however, can surely be stranger, more mysterious, and certainly more implausible than the giant worm-like eels with vivid blue bodies that were soberly claimed by Ctesias, Solinus, Philostratus, Aelian, Pliny, and several other famous early scholars to dwell amid the dank riverbed ooze of the Ganges and other major rivers in India.
19th-Century engraving of common European eels Anguilla anguilla emerging from riverbed ooze
According to Gaius Iulius Solinus (a renowned Latin scholar and compiler who flourished during the 3rd Century AD), these amazing creatures were 30 ft long. However, their dimensions grew ever larger with repeated retellings by later writers, until they eventually acquired sufficient stature – up to 300 ft long now – to emerge from their muddy seclusion beneath the dark cloak of evening and prey upon oxen, camels, and even elephants!
Not surprisingly, this spectacular species of giant freshwater eel has never been brought to scientific attention. True, there are several species of very large sea-dwelling eels, including various morays, that are blue in colour. However, there are none known to science that are of comparable size and colour but which occur in rivers (interestingly, the longest moray of all, the slender giant moray Strophidon sathete, is known from the Ganges and is said to grow up to 13 ft long but is red-grey in colour, not blue). So unless the Ganges giant blue eel simply originated with sightings from Asia of sizeable blue marine eels whose correct provenance and dimensions were later documented incorrectly or confused by chroniclers in Europe, then in best angling traditions it is no doubt a classic case of "the one that got away"!
Giant blue moray eel photographed off Thailand (© Tropical Dive Club – click here to visit its website)
Having said that, however, in recent times I made an interesting discovery that may perhaps provide an alternative core of zoological truth from which the yarn of the giant blue, elephant-engulfing, worm-like Ganges eel was subsequently elaborated and exaggerated.
I discovered that Mount Kinabalu on the island of Borneo is home to a sizeable species of earthworm, measuring up to 28 in long when fully stretched out, which is iridescent blue in colour. Called the Kinabalu giant blue earthworm (but not confined to Borneo, as it also exists on several other nearby southeast Asian islands as well as New Guinea), it is known scientifically as Pheretima darnleiensis.
Kinabalu giant blue earthworm being swallowed by the Kinabalu giant red leech, a recently-discovered species (© BBC)
Moreover, it is such a familiar creature in this region of southern Asia that it is not beyond the realms of possibility that travellers journeying from here to India in bygone times mentioned this eyecatching worm there, and in so doing set the seeds for its transplanted mythification when chronicled in Europe.
Less likely but not impossible is that Asia once harboured a species of blue earthworm rivalling in size those famous giant species native respectively to South Africa and Africa. The largest in Australia is the Gippsland giant earthworm Megascolides australis, up to 10 ft long (occasionally more), with a blue-grey body, and to which Pheretima darnleiensis just so happens to be closely related. Moreover, Australia is also home to an extremely large species of bright Prussian-blue earthworm, Terriswalkeris terraereginae, which can grow up to 6.5 ft long, is native to the far north of Queensland, and secretes luminescent mucus. Consequently, sizeable blue earthworms existing in Australasia is by no means unprecedented.
Queensland giant blue earthworm Terriswalkeris terraereginae (reproduced widely online but original source unknown to me)
If recollections of a giant blue Asian earthworm or even the smaller Pheretima darnleiensis by travellers returning home in Europe became ever more embroidered and distorted with the passing of time, the result might well be a non-existent monster that was not so much a worm-like eel as just a worm, albeit one of unusual, memorable colouration and whose dimensions had become outrageously exaggerated down the generations of retellings.
Thus are legends born.
Another blue moray eel, the Indopacific ribbon eel Rhinomuraena quaesita, emerging from sea-bottom (public domain)

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Published on December 27, 2014 00:06 • 9 views

December 26, 2014

An anguilline Norwegian seaserpent (sea-orm) depicted on Swedish cleric Olaus Magnus's famous antiquarian maritime map of 1539, the Carta Marina
One of cryptozoology's most enigmatic episodes is undoubtedly the very curious (and confusing) case of the bottled sea serpent.
This had attracted particular attention in 1965, when sea monsters enjoyed a renaissance in scientific respectability - thanks to the publication that year of a now-classic tome by cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans, entitled Le Grand Serpent-de-Mer (a somewhat different English version, In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, appeared in 1968, also incorporating a greatly condensed version of another of his books, dealing with the giant squid and alleged giant octopuses).
First edition of Le Grand Serpent-de-Mer (© Dr Bernard Heuvelmans/Plon Publishing)
Within his book, Heuvelmans proffered evidence for believing that 'the great sea serpent', one of cryptozoology's most celebrated creatures, might actually be a non-existent composite - i.e. it had been 'created' via the erroneous lumping together (by previous investigators) of eyewitness reports that in reality feature a number of totally different types of animal.
In short, there was no single, morphologically heterogeneous species wholly responsible for all sea serpent reports on record. Instead, there were several well-defined, separate species collectively responsible for those reports.
Heuvelmans's 'super eel' category of sea serpent (© Tim Morris)
Some of them, according to Heuvelmans, were species still unknown to science, and included various unusual seals and whales, a giant turtle, a marine crocodile-like reptile, and a giant-sized 'super eel'. If his hypothesis was correct, this would have profound ichthyological implications.
For as a result of a chance discovery made over 30 years earlier, it meant that at least one bona fide sea serpent had already been captured - a sea serpent whose remains, moreover, were preserved, bottled, and available for scientific scrutiny!
Common European eel Anguilla anguilla , 1837 painting
On 31 January 1930, the Danish research vessel Dana unexpectedly captured an exceptionally long eel larva (leptocephalus) at a depth of about 900 ft, west of the Agulhas Bank and south of the Cape of GoodHope, South Africa. Whereas leptocephali of the common European eel Anguilla anguillameasure a mere 3 in long at most, and even those of the formidable conger eel Conger conger only reach 4 in, the Dana's remarkable specimen was a colossal 6 ft 1.5 in! This in itself was quite staggering, but its implications were even more astounding.

The Dana giant leptocephalus as a preserved, bottled specimen (© Prof. Jørgen Nielsen/Zoological Museum of Copenhagen/courtesy of Lars Thomas)
During their metamorphosis from leptocephalus to adult, true eels (anguillids) greatly increase their total length - the precise index of growth varying between species. In the common eel, the increase is generally eighteen-fold, producing adults measuring around 4.5 ft; in the conger, it can be as much as thirty-fold, yielding adults up to 10 ft.
19th-Century engraving of a conger eel
Consequently, as conceded by Dana ichthyologist Dr Anton Bruun, in the case of the Dana leptocephalus, which was already 6 ftlong, there existed the incredible possibility that this would have metamorphosed into a monstrous adult measuring anything between 108-180 ft, with a length of 50 ft seemingly the very minimum (less than a nine-fold increase) that even the most prudent estimator might expect of such a larva! Needless to say, any species of eel attaining such stupendous lengths as these would make an excellent candidate for those sea serpents grouped within Heuvelmans's 'super eel' category.
Artistic representation of an adult super eel's possible appearance in life (© Thomas Finley)
After its capture, the Dana leptocephalus was preserved in alcohol and has since resided in a specimen bottle within the collections of Copenhagen University's Zoological Museum. Periodically, it has been taken out of its bottle to be examined, and as a result it has gradually shrunk, but it remained a notable riddle in need of an answer – especially when, as the years progressed, a few other inordinately long leptocephali were obtained.
In 1959, an anatomically similar but somewhat shorter specimen, collected on 16 July 1958 in shallow water at Westland, South Island, New Zealand, was described by ichthyologist Peter Castle as a new species, which he formally dubbed Leptocephalus giganteus – and to which the Dana specimen was later assigned. 

The holotype (type specimen) of Leptocephalus giganteus - full provenance details given above (© Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (P.002603)/Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence)
Interestingly, the Danish research vessel Galathea supposedly obtained a 6 ftleptocephalus during its voyages in the early 1950s, but no formal record of this (let alone the specimen itself) appears to exist. Even so, two specimens of L. giganteuscertainly did exist, and the reality of the infamously elusive sea serpent, or at least one of its constituent members, seemed at last to have been fully endorsed. Inevitably, however, the truth proved very different.

In 1966, two much smaller specimens of L. giganteus were documented. Measuring just under 4 inand 11 inrespectively, they had been sifted from the stomach contents of an Alepisauruslancet fish captured in the western Atlantic. Except for their modest lengths, they corresponded very closely to the New Zealand example, and were carefully studied by Miami Universityichthyologist Dr David G. Smith, in a bid to pinpoint conclusively the taxonomic affinities of L. giganteus in relation to the many other species of eel known to science.
An adult specimen of the snubnosed spiny eel Notacanthus chemnitzii, a typical notacanthid (public domain)
In March 1970, he exploded the sea serpent scenario for L. giganteus - by announcing that its two smaller specimens were the larvae of a notacanthid (spiny eel), not of an anguillid (true eel). This spelled doom for their species' claim to fame as (in its adult phase) a genuine sea serpent - because in stark contrast to the leptocephali of true eels, those of notacanthids do not greatly increase their length during metamorphosis from larva to adult.
Consequently, predictions that mature specimens of L. giganteus would measure over 100 ftwere totally unfounded. Instead, when the unknown adult phase of this species was finally collected, it would be very little longer than the leptocephalus, i.e. a mere 6 ft or so.
An adult specimen of the froghead worm eel Coloconger raniceps, a typical short-tailed eel or colocongrid (public domain)
More recently, however, this reclassification of L. giganteus as a notacanthid has itself been challenged, so that nowadays it is popularly classed instead as a species of short-tailed eel (aka worm eel or colocongrid), within the family Colocongridae, housed in turn within Anguilliformes, the order of true eels. Accordingly, it has been renamed Coloconger giganteus (although some researchers still deem it to be a notacanthid).
In any event, just like the notacanthids, the short-tailed eels do not display a sizeable increase of length during larva-to-adult transformation. So the identification of C. (or L.) giganteus as a sea serpent remains null and void.
Konrad Gesner's version of Olaus Magnus's anguilline sea serpent, as included in Gesner's Historiae Animalium, 1558
Of course, there may indeed be eels of gigantic length still eluding scientific detection in the vastness of the oceans - giant anguillids, for example, that are compatible with Heuvelmans's concept of the 'super eel' category of sea serpent - but unlike C. (or L.) giganteus, these have yet to be captured, preserved, and bottled.
This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and updated from my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals (2012).

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Published on December 26, 2014 11:44 • 11 views

December 25, 2014

The giant oarfish Regalecus glesne(© John Norris Wood)
The beautiful artwork by John Norris Wood that opens this present ShukerNature blog article is the very first illustration of the giant oarfish Regalecus glesne that I ever saw. It appeared in a 96-issue part-work publication from the late 1960s that in Britain was entitled Purnell's Encyclopedia of Animal Life (and Funk and Wagnall's Wildlife Encyclopedia in the States), and which my parents bought me each week as a child. Such was this image's impact upon me that even today, whenever I read about Regalecus, it is Wood's picture that always comes immediately to mind. Hence it would have been unthinkable for me to blog about this remarkable species – one that has long fascinated me – without heading my account with his truly iconic illustration, which portrays to such stunning effect the spectacular appearance of one of the world's most extraordinary, enigmatic, and famously elusive animals.
Engraving of a giant oarfish underwater, from The Royal Natural History (1896), edited by Dr Richard Lydekker
And the giant oarfish is indeed spectacular. What other fish can boast a silver-skinned, scaleless, laterally-compressed, ribbon-like body of illusively serpentiform appearance known to measure over 30 ft long (and with plausible if unconfirmed lengths of up to 50 ftalso documented – see below); a blood-red erectile crest composed of the first few greatly-elongated rays of the dorsal fin and memorably compared to a Native American's head-dress by science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke; an equally erythristic but shorter-rayed remaining dorsal fin running the entire length of its body; a horse-like head with protrusible toothless jaws; and a pair of very long, oar-shaped pelvic fins that earn this singular species its most frequently-used common name?
Engraving of a beached giant oarfish, from A History of the Fishes of the British Islands (1862-1866)
The giant oarfish is the world's longest species of bony fish (Osteichthyes), but the question asked more than any other about this species is just how long is it? The most authoritative answer is as follows, quoted from Mark Carwardine's standard work on animal superlatives, published in 2007 by London's Natural History Museum and duly entitled Natural History Museum Animal Records, which is also the data source cited by Guinness World Records:
"A specimen seen swimming off Asbury Park, New Jersey, USA, by a team of scientists from the Sandy Hook Marine Laboratory on 18 July 1963, was estimated to measure 15 m (50 ft) in length. Although this is purely an estimate, it is noteworthy because it was seen by experienced observers who, at the time, were aboard the 26 m (85 ft) research vessel Challenger, which gave them a yard stick for measuring the fish's length. With regard to scientifically measured records, there are a number of oarfish exceeding 7 m (23 ft) in length; for example, in 1885, a specimen 7.6 m (25 ft) long, weighing 272 kg (600 lb), was caught by fishermen off Pemaquid Point, Maine, USA."
One of the scientists aboard Challenger when it had its close encounter with that mega-large giant oarfish in 1963 was Dr Lionel A. Walford from the Sandy Hook Marine Laboratory of the Bureau of Sports Fisheries and Wildlife. In a subsequent interview, Dr Walford evocatively recalled that it "resembled a transparent sea monster. It looked like so much jelly. I could see no bones, and no eyes or mouth. But there it was, undulating along, looking as if it were made of fluid glass".
Opah and giant oarfish, from Field Book of Giant Fishes (© G.P. Putnam, NY, 1949)
A near-legendary yet globally-distributed inhabitant of tropical and temperate mesopelagic waters from 660 ft to 3300 ft in depth, the giant oarfish is a member of the taxonomic order Lampriformes (aka Lampridiformes), whose other members include the ribbonfishes, dealfishes, opahs or moonfishes, crestfishes and bandfishes, taper-tails, thread-tails, and velifers.
Together with the oarfishes, they are collectively known as lamprids and constitute some 20 species in seven families. Most lamprids possess long, ribbon-shaped (taeniform) bodies, the remainder (most notably the opahs) are rounded, deep-bodied (bathysome); all are laterally flattened, and most have bright red fins, and often a very lengthy dorsal fin.
Engraving of a North Pacific crestfish Lophotus capellei (also known as the unicorn fish for obvious reasons), from The Royal Natural History (1896), edited by Dr Richard Lydekker
The giant oarfish is the only member of its genus, Regalecus, and, with a single exception, is the only member of its entire taxonomic family, Regalecidae. That lone exception is the streamer fish Agrostichthys parkeri, a lesser-known species that is superficially similar in basic appearance to Regalecusbut much shorter in length (no more than 10 ft long), and also possessing far fewer gill-rakers (8-10, as compared with 40-58 in the giant oarfish).
Interestingly, the streamer fish is apparently electrogenic, as people handling specimens of it sometimes claim to have experienced a very mild electric shock. However, no such effect has apparently been reported in relation to the giant oarfish (which in view of its much greater length is probably just as well!).
The streamer fish Agrostichthys parkeri – the second, lesser-known, smaller species of oarfish
The streamer fish was formally described and named in 1904, when it was housed with the giant oarfish in the genus Regalecus as R. parkeri, but in 1924 it was reassigned to a separate, newly-created genus, Agrostichthys, in which it remains to this day. This mysterious species is currently known only from seven specimens, all collected in southern oceans.
Moreover, due to its deep pelagic existence, the giant oarfish is also notably under-represented by physical specimens (despite its far bigger size), with most of those that have been documented consisting of specimens that have been beached after storms or found dying or dead in coastal shallows. Click here to see a short video containing a number of interesting photographs of recently-stranded giant oarfishes. (However, please note that this video's thumbnail image, which also appears just over halfway through the video (at 1:35 min), does NOT depict oarfishes. Whether by accident or design is unclear, but what it does depict is, to put it delicately, the very sizeable sexual organs of two whales!)
The 'Seaham sea serpent' – a dead 10-ft giant oarfish found washed up at Seaham, in County Durham, northern England, during 2009 (public domain)
Yet regardless of its evanescence, Regalecushas been known to science for a much greater time-span than Agrostichthys, having been officially described and named as long ago as the second half of the 18th Century, by the Norwegian biologist Peter Ascanius (1723-1803).
Intrigued to read this historic scientific account, I spent quite some time seeking it online, but finally succeeded in unearthing a copy of the description in question. Just a few lines long, it was published on page 5 inPart 2 of Ascanius's great work – Icones Rerum Naturalium, ou Figures Enluminées d'Histoire Naturelle du Nord, written primarily in French, but with species descriptions written in Latin. Part 2 was published in Copenhagen in 1772. And here it is:
Ascanius's description of the giant oarfish (click to enlarge for reading purposes)
Ascanius also included the following illustration of this dramatic species' type specimen:
The type specimen or holotype of the giant oarfish Regalecus glesne Ascanius 1772
As seen in his description, Ascanius formally named the giant oarfish Regalecus glesne, which is still accepted as its official binomial name, although during the years that have followed Ascanius's account, many other binomials have been applied to it, all of which are now deemed to be junior synonyms. Here is a full listing of them, as given in the giant oarfish's Wikipedia entry and crosschecked by me on various specialist ichthyological websites:
Table of binomial synonyms for the giant oarfish Regalecus glesne (Wikipedia) – click to enlarge
Incidentally, some researchers deem Regalecus russelii, named by the eminent French zoologist Baron Georges Cuvier in 1816, to be a valid second species, but most consider it to be conspecific with R. glesne. Ditto for Regalecus pacificus, named in 1878; and Regalecus kinoi, named in 1991.
For further details concerning the systematics of Regalecus, be sure to check out the following publication:
Tyson R. Roberts's major contribution to our knowledge of the giant oarfish
Regalecussignifies kinship to a king, and is derived from the giant oarfish's popular alternative name, 'king-of-the-herrings' (the name utilised as a common name for it by Ascanius in his description). That in turn is derived from a longstanding folk tradition that this gigantic species leads shoals of herrings to their spawning grounds.
A comparable folk-belief among the Macah people west of Canada's Strait of Juan de Fuca has earned a related fish, Trachipterus altivelis, a species of ribbonfish, the common name 'king-of-the-salmon'.
Trachypterus altivelis , the 'king-of-the-salmon' (public domain)
The giant oarfish's specific name, glesne, derives from the name of a farm at Glesvaer (aka Glesnaes), near to the major Norwegian city of Bergen, where this species' type specimen was found. As for the name 'oarfish', this originates from an early false assumption that this species swims by circular, rowing movements of its oar-shaped pelvic fins (scientists nowadays believe that these unusual fins are used for taste detection).
In reality, this elongate species' swimming movements are much more intriguing, and diverse, as it can swim holding its body horizontally and also holding it vertically. In horizontal mode, it moves by undulating its body-length dorsal fin while keeping its body straight (a mode of locomotion called amiiform swimming).  In July 2008, while kayaking in Baja California, Mexico, on a trip organised by Un-Cruise Adventures, guests filmed two giant oarfishes exhibiting amiiform swimming in shallow water. The oarfishes were each around 15 ft long, and an excellent-quality video filmed of them by one of the guests can be viewed here .
Model of a giant oarfish suspended vertically in the Sant Hall of Oceans at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. (© Tim Evanson/Wikipedia)
As he exclusively documented in the June 1997 of the British magazine BBC Wildlife, during a recent dive off Nassau in the Bahamas Brian Skerry was fortunate enough not only to encounter a living giant oarfish at close range but also to photograph it – and he was amazed to observe it holding its long thin body not horizontally but totally upright and perfectly rigid, with its pelvic rays splayed out to its sides to yield a cruciform outline, while seemingly propelling itself entirely via movements of its dorsal fin. Until then, no-one had suspected that this serpentine species could orient itself and move through the water in a perpendicular fashion. Ichthyologists now believe that the giant oarfish specifically adopts this vertical or columnar stance when searching for prey. Click here to view a video obtained via ROV (remote-operated vehicle) by Serpent Project scientists in 2010 of a very big giant oarfish, measuring between 16 ft and 32 ft long, swimming underwater both horizontally and vertically in the Gulf of Mexico. It is the first film of this species swimming in its natural, mesopelagic zone habitat, rather than in shallow water.
Any self-respecting cryptozoological enthusiast will tell you that the giant oarfish is a popular mainstream explanation for sightings and reports of at least some alleged sea serpents – and after all, with its enormous length and extremely elongate form, this is surely little wonder. On 22 January 1860 (not 1880, as given in some accounts), for instance, a dying Regalecus measuring 16 ft 7 in long but less than 1 ft wide was discovered washed ashore at Hungary Bay on Bermuda's Hamilton Island by George Trimingham and a relative as they strolled along the beach there, and was duly labelled as a dead sea serpent by a Captain Hawtaigne in a letter published in The Zoologist (even though his description of it left no doubt whatsoever that it was a giant oarfish). Happily, the creature's true identity was swiftly confirmed when its carcase was examined thoroughly soon afterwards by Bermuda-based naturalist J. Matthew Jones.
Engraving of Bermuda's Hungary Bay giant oarfish, sketched by W.D. Munro for 3 March 1860 issue of Harper's Weekly (public domain)
Moreover, in a letter to The Times newspaper of London,  which was published by it on 15 June 1877, British zoologist Dr Andrew Smith voiced what remains today a popular consensus among the scientific community when he confidently asserted:
"I am, as a zoologist, fully convinced that very many of the reported appearances of sea-serpents are explicable on the supposition that giant tape-fish [i.e. giant oarfishes] – of the existence of which no reasonable doubt can be entertained – have been seen."
Consequently, it may come as something of a surprise to discover that Dr Bernard Heuvelmans, the Father of Cryptozoology himself, no less, was scathing about the idea of giant oarfishes being mistaken for sea serpents in his standard work In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents(1968). He pointed out that this species' very large, unique, bright-red crest would readily identify it for what it truly was – a giant oarfish, thereby unequivocally differentiating it from any serpentine cryptid.
Heuvelmans also claimed that the biggest specimen of giant oarfish ever accurately measured was only just over 21 ft in length. This may – or may not – be the specimen depicted in the following photograph (there is some controversy concerning this):
A giant oarfish on the beach at Newport, Orange County, California, in 1907 (public domain)
He discounted all reports of longer specimens as exaggerations, adding uncompromisingly: "It seems that the only reason why there has been an attempt to stretch the maximum size of the [giant] oarfish, is in order to explain the sea-serpent by an animal known to science".
These seem harsh criticisms. In fairness, however, I must point out that they were written before confirmed specimens exceeding 21 ft were discovered (except, that is, for the 25-ft Pemaquid Point individual of 1885, which, oddly, Heuvelmans does not mention at all in his book), and also before films of living oarfishes were obtained – films which show that the vivid red crest is actually nowhere near as conspicuous when the fish is swimming as Heuvelmans had apparently assumed it would be.
Moreover, if observers who are not familiar with this species should see a giant oarfish when it is swimming in horizontal, amiiform mode (as exemplified by the above-linked video filmed by the Un-Cruise Adventure tourist in 2008), or even if found stranded ashore (as with the Bermuda specimen), it is easy to understand why they might indeed be wondering if they had encountered a veritable sea serpent from the deep - possibly even a maned one, as the giant oarfish's long, low dorsal fin might well explain sightings of elongate sea serpents sporting manes.
First UK edition of In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents (© Dr Bernard Heuvelmans/Rupert Hart-Davis)
One type of sea monster that Heuvelmans did feel certain was linked directly to the giant oarfish, conversely, was a specific type of marine serpent dragon that featured in a famous story from classical Greek mythology.
During the Trojan War, Laocoön, a priest of Poseidon, voiced his suspicion that the wooden horse of Troy given by the Greeks was some sort of trick, not to be trusted, and begged for it to be destroyed. In response, the Greeks' divine supporter, the goddess Athena, sent two enormous limbless sea dragons with blood-red crests through the waters until they reached Laocoön, whereupon they emerged and killed him, as well as his two sons.
'Laocoön and His Sons' – marble statue, c.200 BC (public domain)
Heuvelmans's linking of these crested sea dragons with the giant oarfish seems reasonable, as the story may well have been inspired at least in part by a Mediterranean stranding of one or more giant oarfishes, whose striking appearance would no doubt have stayed long in the memories of those who witnessed them.
Nor are sea serpents and marine dragons the only legendary beasts that have been associated with the giant oarfish either. So too have Asia's ancient snake deities, the nagas, as I noted in my book Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013):
"Allegedly seized from the Mekong River by the American Army in Laos on 27 June 1973 during the Vietnam War, a supposed queen naga or nagini is depicted in a famous much-reproduced photograph that is often seen displayed as a curio in tourist bars, restaurants, markets, and guest-houses around Thailand. However, the creature in question is visibly recognisable as a dead [giant] oarfish, held up for display by a number of men.
"Moreover, it is now known that this oarfish specimen, measuring 25.5 ft long, was actually found not in Asia at all, but off the coast of Coronado Island, near San Diego, California, by some US Navy SEAL trainees in late 1996, and those are the men who are holding it."
The famous photograph of a supposed nagini, clearly a giant oarfish (public domain)
There are also two little-known Icelandic sea monsters that may have been inspired by reports of the giant oarfish, judging from their bright red dorsal crests. For although this species is not generally found in Arctic waters, it is known from Scandinavian coasts further south (its holotype being one notable example).
These monsters are the red-maned hrosshvalur or horse-whale and the aptly-named raudkembingur or red-crest. Both appeared on a set of Icelandic postage stamps depicting eight of this country's mythological monsters, issued on 19 March 2009 (click here for more details).
The red-maned hrosshvalur or horse-whale at top-left and the raudkembingur or red-crest at bottom-right, as portrayed on Icelandic postage stamps
Incidentally, although the giant oarfish was not formally recognised by science until Ascanius's description of it in 1772, the myth of Laocoön's destruction is not the only evidence that this mysterious, little-seen, yet instantly-recognisable species had been known long before then.
Direct confirmation of this comes from the fact that a preserved giant oarfish was present in the cabinet of curiosities displayed at Palazzo Gravina in Naples, Italy, by Ferrante Imperato, a Neapolitan apothecary. He referred to this specimen as Spada marina ('sea sword') in his Dell'Historia Naturale (1599) – which contains a plate depicting his cabinet of curiosities with the giant oarfish clearly visible upon one of the walls:
Ferrante Imperato's cabinet of curiosities, featuring a giant oarfish (arrowed in red) – click to enlarge (BIG image!)
I'll leave the final words on the giant oarfish to the late Arthur C. Clarke, one of whose characters in his classic sea monster-featuring science-fiction novel The Deep Range (1957) voiced the following, very fitting description and equally telling cryptozoological sentiment:
"...but the really spectacular one is the oarfish – Regalecus glesne. That's got a face like a horse, a crest of brilliant red quills like an Indian brave's headdress – and a snakelike body which may be seventy feet long. Since we know that these things exist, how do you expect us to be surprised at anything the sea can produce?"
Amen to that!
Beautiful colour engraving of a giant oarfish, with a close-up of its surprisingly equine head and protrusible toothless jaws

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Published on December 25, 2014 16:03 • 12 views

December 23, 2014

Steller's sea-cows (© William Rebsamen)
Dr Georg Wilhelm Steller was a German physician and naturalist participating during the early 1740s in the last of Danish explorer Vitus Bering's Russian expeditions to the Arctic waters (now called the Bering Sea) separating Siberia's Kamchatka Peninsula from Alaska. During this expedition, Steller documented many new species of animal, including four very contentious forms that continue to arouse cryptozoological curiosity even today. I have already documented one of these, Steller's sea-bear, on ShukerNature (click here ), so here now are the other three.

Distantly related to elephants, the manatees and dugongs are herbivorous aquatic mammals known as sirenians, with fish-like tails, no hind limbs, and flippers for forelimbs. Nowadays, the largest living sirenian is the Caribbean manatee Trichechus manatus, which is up to 15 ft long, but there was once a much bigger species, called Steller's sea-cow Hydrodamalis gigas (=Rhytina stelleri). Measuring up to 30 ft long and weighing several tons, this gigantic sea mammal was discovered in 1741 inthe shallow waters around Copper Islandand nearby Bering Island- named after Vitus Bering, whose expedition was virtually wrecked here that year. While marooned on this island, Steller studied the sea-cows (the only scientist ever to do so), which existed in great numbers, but the other sailors slaughtered them for food.
Georg Steller's own drawing of the giant sea-cow species named after him
When he returned to Kamchatkawith news of this enormous but inoffensive species, it became such a greatly-desired source of meat for future sea travellers that by 1768 - just 27 years after Steller had first discovered it - every single sea-cow appeared to have been killed. Not one could be found alive, and since then science has classified this species as extinct. Every so often, however, sailors and other maritime voyagers journeying through the icy waters formerly frequented by Steller's sea-cow have spied extremely large, unidentified creatures closely resembling this officially vanished, giant sirenian.
In 1879, while exploring the polar waters traversed more than a century earlier by Steller, Swedish naturalist Baron Erik Nordenskjöld visited Bering Island in his vessel, Vega. He was startled to learn from one islander, Pitr Vasilijef Burdukovskij, that for the first 2-3 years after his father had settled here from mainland Russiain 1777, sea-cows were still being seen - and were still being killed, to use their tough hides for making baydars (native boats).
Local postage stamp depicting a Steller's sea-cow, issued by the Commander Islands
Even more intriguing was the testimony of two other islanders, Feodor Mertchenin and Nicanor Stepnoff, who claimed that as recently as 1854, they had encountered on the eastern side of Bering Island a very large sea mammal wholly unfamiliar to them - which had brown skin, no dorsal fin, small forefeet, and a very thick forebody that tapered further back. It blew out air, but through its large mouth instead of through blow-holes like a whale, and about 15 ft of its body's length rose above the water surface as it moved.
Nordenskjöld was sure that they had seen a Steller's sea-cow, because their description contained details of sea-cow morphology given in Steller's documented account, which they had never seen. However, when Stepnoff was later interviewed by American researcher Leonhard Stejneger, he concluded that the creature encountered by them had actually been a female narwhal Monodon monoceros (that famous species of toothed whale whose males characteristically possess a single long spiralled tusk, once believed to be the unicorn's horn). Stejneger also felt that Nordenskjöld had misunderstood Burdukovskij's statement regarding when his father had settled on Bering Island, and considered that the correct date was 1774, not 1777.
Model of a Steller's sea-cow prepared by Markus Bühler (© Markus Bühler)
In 1911-1913, afisherman claimed to have seen a dead Steller's sea-cow, brought in by the sea current towards the Cape of Chaplinon Siberia's easternmost tip, close to the Bering Strait. Frustratingly, this potentially sensational discovery was never investigated.
Perhaps the most compelling sighting occurred in July 1962 near Cape Navarin, south of the Gulf of Anadyr, lying northeast of Kamchatka's coast. Six strange animals were spied in shallow water by the crew of the whaling ship Buran about 300 ft away. They were said to be 20-26 ft long, with dark skin, an upper lip split into two sections, a relatively small head clearly delineated from its body, and a sharply-fringed tail. Scientists postulated that these animals must have been female narwhals. However, the description provided by the Buran whalers fits Steller's sea-cow more closely than a female narwhal, and it seems unlikely that experienced whalers would fail to recognise such a familiar creature.
Engraving of a Steller's sea-cow from 1886
In summer 1976, some salmon factory workers at Anapkinskaya Bay, just south of Cape Navarin, reported seeing, and actually touching, the carcase of a stranded sea-cow. One of them, Ivan Nikiforovich Chechulin, was interviewed by Vladimir Malukovich from the Kamchatka Museum of Local Lore, and stated that the mysterious animal had very dark skin, flippers, and a forked tail. Reaching out to touch this creature, they had noticed that it also had a prominent snout. When Malukovich showed Chechulin various pictures of sea creatures to assist him in identifying what he and his colleagues had seen, the creature whose picture he selected as corresponding with their mystery beast was Steller's sea-cow.
In the late 1970s, British explorer Derek Hutchinson launched an expedition to search for sea-cows off the Aleutian Islands, as did Soviet physicist Dr Anatoly Shkunkov in the early 1980s off Kamchatka. Neither met with success. Even so, as speculated by cryptozoologists such as Professor Roy P. Mackal in his book Searching For Hidden Animals (1980), and Michel Raynal (INFO Journal, February 1987), some sea-cows may have avoided annihilation by moving away from their former haunts, into more remote regions - of which the freezing waters and bleak coastlines around Kamchatka, the Aleutians, and elsewhere in this daunting polar wilderness are plentifully supplied yet extremely difficult to explore satisfactorily.

Whereas Steller's sea-cow, even if indeed extinct today, has been extensively documented and is physically represented in museums by skeletal material, we still have next to nothing on file (let alone in the flesh) concerning Steller's most cryptic avian discovery.
While shipwrecked on Bering Island during 1741-42, Steller briefly referred in his journal to a mystifying species that he called a "white sea-raven" - a rare bird "...not seen in the Siberian coast...[and which is] impossible to reach because it only alights singly on the cliffs facing the sea". However, this species has never been formally identified; nor does it appear to have been reported again by anyone else. So what could it be?
Surfbird (© Marlin Harms/Wikipedia)
Seeking an answer to this baffling riddle, I communicated in June 1998 with cryptozoological enthusiast Chris Orrick, who has made a special study of Steller's own publications and other Steller-related works. Chris speculated that Steller's white sea-raven may actually be some species that is known to science today, but was unknown at least to Europeans back in the early 1740s - possibly a species native to the Aleutiansbut rarely if ever seen around Kamchatka. One candidate offered by Chris was the surfbird Aphriza virgata, a white-plumaged wader from Alaskaand America's western Pacific that may not have been familiar to Steller.
Danish cryptozoologist Lars Thomas from Copenhagen's Zoological Museumwas also intrigued by the mystery of the white sea-raven's identity, and he has offered me his own opinion regarding it. Steller was German, and Lars pointed out that cormorants are referred to in German as sea-ravens. Indeed, a hitherto unknown species of cormorant, the now-extinct spectacled cormorant Phalacrocorax perspicillatus, discovered by Steller during this same expedition, was referred to by him as a sea-raven.
Spectacled cormorant, painted in 1869 by Joseph Wolf
Consequently, Lars argued that Steller's mention of a white sea-raven may in reality refer to a white cormorant (either an albino or a young specimen, as some juveniles are much paler than their dark-plumed adults).
Alternatively, it may be a bird that superficially resembles a white cormorant, such as the pigeon guillemotCepphus columba in winter plumage, or possibly even a vagrant gannet or booby.
Pigeon guillemot (© Yathin S. Krishnappa/Wikipedia)
During our communications, Chris revealed that in a letter to the Russian Academy, dated 16 November 1742, Steller announced that he had prepared and sent two scientific papers - one dealing with North American birds and fishes, the other with Bering Island's birds and fishes. In view of Steller's meticulous manner of documentation, it is likely that the latter paper would have contained a detailed description of the white sea-raven. Unfortunately, however, neither of these manuscripts is known today, but they may still exist, albeit possibly unrecognised, amid the Academy's vast archives in St Petersburg.
Unless these or other additional 18th Century documents on this incognito seabird are uncovered, however, its identity will probably never be exposed. Ironically, as Chris noted, we may already know what Steller's sea-raven is, but without realising that we know!

None of the many creatures documented by Steller, however, is as curious, or controversial, as the bizarre animal observed by him for over 2 hours during the afternoon of 10 August 1741, at approximately 52.5°N latitude, 155°W longitude. He described it as follows:
It was about two Russian ells [about 5 ft] in length; the head was like a dog's, with pointed erect ears. From the upper and lower lips on both sides whiskers hung down which made it look almost like a Chinaman. The eyes were large; the body was longish round and thick, tapering gradually towards the tail. The skin seemed thickly covered with hair, of a gray color on the back, but reddish white on the belly; in the water, however, the whole animal appeared entirely reddish and cow-colored. The tail was divided into two fins, of which the upper, as in the case of sharks, was twice as large as the lower. Nothing struck me more surprising than the fact that neither forefeet as in the marine amphibians nor, in their stead, fins were to be seen...For over two hours it swam around our ship, looking, as with admiration, first at the one and then at the other of us. At times it came so near to the ship that it could have been touched with a pole, but as soon as anybody stirred it moved away a little further. It could raise itself one-third of its length out of the water exactly like a man, and sometimes it remained in this position for several minutes. After it had observed us for about half an hour, it shot like an arrow under our vessel and came up again on the other side; shortly after, it dived again and reappeared in the old place; and in this way it dived perhaps thirty times.
After watching this extraordinary creature frolicking comically in the water with a long strand of seaweed for a time, Steller, greatly desiring to procure their strange sea visitor in order to prepare a detailed description, loaded his gun and fired two shots at it. Happily, the animal was not harmed, and swam away, though they saw it (or another of its kind) on several subsequent occasions in different stretches of the sea.
Reconstruction of the possible appearance of Steller's sea-monkey (© Craig Gosling)
No known species corresponds with Steller's description of this peculiar beast, which became known as Steller's sea-monkey or sea-ape. Moreover, until fairly recently, no further sighting of such a creature had ever been reported either, leading scientists to speculate that whatever it had been, its species must surely now be extinct. On a clear afternoon in June 1965, however, eminent British yachtsman-adventurer Brigadier Miles Smeeton was sailing by the central Aleutian Islands aboard his 46-ft ketch Tzu Hang, with his wife, daughter, and a friend aboard, when he and the others sighted a remarkable sea-beast.
As since documented by explorer-journalist Miles Clark (BBC Wildlife, January 1987), lying in the water close off the port bow was what seemed to be a 5-ft-long animal with 4-5-in-long reddish-yellow hair, and a head more dog-like than seal-like, whose dark intelligent eyes were placed close together, rather than set laterally on the head like a seal's. Indeed, Henry Combe, the Smeetons' friend aboard their ketch, stated that it had a face rather like a Tibetan shih-tzu terrier "...with drooping Chinese whiskers". As the vessel drew nearer, this maritime mandarin "...made a slow undulating dive and disappeared beneath the ship". No-one spied any limbs or fins. Their observation of it had lasted 10-15 seconds, and they have remained convinced that it was not a seal. Although sea otters occur in these waters, this creature did not resemble any sea otter previously spied by them either.
An alternative reconstruction of Steller's sea-monkey (© Tim Morris)
Conversely, it closely corresponds with Steller's description over two centuries earlier of his mystifying sea-monkey, thereby giving cryptozoologists hope that its species still exists. As for its identity, however, there is still no satisfactory explanation. Its inquisitive, playful, intelligent, supremely agile behaviour are all characteristics of seals and otters, yet Smeeton and his fellow observers are convinced that their creature was neither of these, and it certainly does not bear any immediate resemblance to such animals - set apart by its apparent absence of forelimbs, its asymmetrical vertical tail, and its mandarin-style whiskers. Equally, it seems highly improbable that any wildlife observer as experienced and as meticulously accurate in chronicling his observations afterwards as Steller would fail to recognise it as a type of seal or otter if this is truly all that it was. In fact, Steller was so perplexed by the creature that he made no attempt whatsoever to classify it.
Via independent lines of research, Chris Orrick and Jay Ellis Ransom, formerly executive director of the Aleutian-Bering Sea Expeditions Research Library in Oregon, have both formulated theories that Steller's sea-monkey may have been a vagrant specimen of the Hawaiian monk seal Monachus schauinslandi - one that had wandered north far from its normal Hawaiian archipelago domain. Chris also suggests that it may have been undergoing its annual moult at the time, explaining its fur's appearance as documented by Steller. Nevertheless, it still requires an appreciable stretch of the imagination to convert the sea-monkeys described here into any form of seal, Hawaiian monk or otherwise.
Hawaiian monk seal resting vertically in the water (public domain)
Perhaps one day a zoologist voyaging in the Bering Sea will espy Steller's most enigmatic discovery, which seems still to survive in these frigid waters, and in so doing may finally resolve a fascinating zoological mystery that has persisted for more than 250 years.
This ShukerNature post is excerpted from my book Mysteries of Planet Earth .

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Published on December 23, 2014 16:24 • 13 views

December 21, 2014

Spotted marten, full view, right-hand side (© Gabriele Lüke)
The global internet auction site Ebay may not seem a particularly likely source of anomalous animal specimens, but over the years some undeniably intriguing examples have turned up on it – from mouse-sized 'venomous water elephants' from Thailand (hoaxes) and a stuffed skunk ape head (hoax) to alleged bigfoot hair (?) and some sea urchins that were found to belong to a species hitherto-undescribed by science (true!).
The most recent addition to this exclusive if eclectic company was kindly brought to my attention on 16 December 2014 by Facebook friend Martin Cotterill. Listed on Ebay's German site, it consisted of a taxiderm marten specimen, but unlike any marten conceived by Mother Nature, this particular individual sported spots - a distinctly eyecatching pelage liberally dappled with large black blotches and also boasting a genet-like or even leopardesque background colouration. Indeed, as I stated when posting the images of this wonderful animal on my own Facebook timeline, if a marten could hybridise with a genet (which it can't!) the offspring might look something like this!
Spotted marten, front view (© Gabriele Lüke)
Obviously it was a fake, and in its Ebay listing's description its seller openly stated that it had been treated to look like a miniature leopard, so its spots had been deliberately added to it (in a decidedly professional, naturalistic manner too, I might add). Consequently, it was not an attempt to hoax anyone, merely to delight – which this veritable leopard marten definitely did. So much so that it attracted a sizeable number of watchers and bidders, and finally sold (on 21 December) for the very hefty price-tag of 208.88 euros! Click here to see its original listing while it is still online – like that of all sold items on Ebay, the listing will disappear within the next month or so.
Prior to its sale, however, and anxious to learn more about it but aware that my fluency in German has its limitations, I asked German cryptozoologists Markus Bühler and Markus Hemmler if they would make some enquiries on my behalf to the seller regarding this fascinating specimen, with particular emphasis upon the precise technique used to apply its coat's spotting in such an impressively naturalistic, expert way. Both of them very kindly did so (thanks guys!), and discovered that this spotted marten's seller was also its creator – a notable German artist called Gabriele Lüke.
Spotted marten, full view, left-hand side (© Gabriele Lüke)
Gabriele stated to Markus Hemmler that she had no objection to my writing about the marten. However – and, albeit frustratingly but totally understandably too – she did not wish to reveal the nature of her technique for applying the spots to its pelage, because it is one to which she has devoted much time and money.
I had a very specific reason for wanting to learn how the spotting had been achieved so masterfully, a reason relating to a certain animal anomaly that has intrigued me for quite some time (and which I plan to document fully in a future ShukerNature post), but naturally I fully appreciate and accept Gabriele's wish for secrecy concerning her own particular technique. I also thank her most sincerely for so kindly permitting me to document her maculate marvel, and I hope that its successful bidder will treasure this unique, delightful animal.
If only such a photogenic creature truly existed – even the giant panda, Bambi, and the Andrex puppy might well struggle to compete with a leopard marten in the cuteness stakes!
Spotted marten, dorsal view (© Gabriele Lüke)

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Published on December 21, 2014 16:29 • 5 views

December 18, 2014

A captive pacarana (public domain)
There are over 2,200 species of modern-day rodent currently known to science, but only a handful are so radically different from all others that they have been assigned an entire taxonomic family all to themselves. However, the extraordinary – and exceptionally large - rodent documented here (and which also happens to be one of my favourite mammals) has indeed received that rare accolade. Moreover, as will now be revealed, the history of its scientific discovery - and rediscovery - is just as remarkable as it is.
The year 1904 was a momentous year for mice, for it marked the rediscovery of a truly astonishing and extremely mysterious, controversial rodent that science had dubbed 'the terrible mouse', due to the fact that it was as large as a fox terrier!
Needless to say, any mouse the size of a small dog is no ordinary mouse, and in truth this species is not a bona fide mouse at all. If anything, it more closely resembles a long-tailed, spineless porcupine in general shape, and sports a handsome grey-black pelage decorated with longitudinal rows of white spots, which compares well with that of the South American common paca or spotted cavy Cuniculus paca, which is a fairly large relative of the guinea pig (but not the world's third largest rodent, as certain websites erroneously claim).
Common pacas (© HumedoTepezc/Wikipedia)
Indeed, in its native Andean homeland, the 'terrible mouse' is known locally as the pacarana ('false paca'). Yet it is neither paca nor porcupine either. Instead, as noted above, it is sufficiently removed from all living rodents to require its very own taxonomic family, Dinomyidae, thereby making it one of the most important mammalian discoveries of the past 150 years - not to mention one of the most elusive. Several prehistoric relatives of the pacarana have subsequently been described from fossil remains, and some of these were quite enormous in size (one, Josephoartigasia monesi, which lived 4-2 million years ago during the Pliocene and early Pleistocene epochs, was the size of a bison and is the largest rodent presently known to have existed). However, no other living dinomyids have been discovered, thus making the pacarana the very last representative of its entire lineage.
Josephoartigasia monesi reconstruction inspired by the pacarana (© Nobu Tamura/Wikipedia)
Measuring up to 100 cm long and weighing as much as 15 kg, the pacarana is the world's third largest living rodent (exceeded only by the capybaras and beavers – but not by the paca, see above), and was discovered in 1873 by Prof. Constantin Jelski, curator of Poland's Cracow Museum. Financed by Polish nobleman Count Constantin Branicki, Jelski was engaged in zoological explorations in Peru when, one morning at daybreak, he observed an extremely large but wholly unfamiliar rodent. It had very long whiskers and a fairly lengthy tail, and was wandering through an orchard in the garden of Amablo Mari's hacienda near Vitoc, in the eastern Peruvian Andes. He swiftly dispatched the poor creature, and sent its skin and most of its skeleton back to Warsaw, where it gained the attention of Prof. Wilhelm Peters, Berlin Zoo's director, who meticulously studied its anatomy. Recognising that this huge rodent represented a dramatically new species, by the end of 1873 he had published a scientific description of it, in which he named it Dinomys branickii - 'Branicki's terrible mouse'. The pacarana had made its scientific debut.
19th-Century engraving of the pacarana specimen encountered by Jelski
Peters's studies disclosed that its anatomy was a bewildering amalgamation of features drawn from several quite different rodent families. In terms of its pelage and limb structure, it compared well with the paca, but unlike the five-toed (pentadactyl) configuration of the latter's paws the pacarana's each possessed just four toes. Many of its cranial and skeletal features (not to mention its long, hairy tail) also set it well apart from the paca, especially the flattened shape of the front section of its sternum (breast bone), and the development of its clavicles (collar bones).
19th-Century engraving of the common paca for comparison purposes with the previous engraving of a pacarana
Certain less conspicuous features of its anatomy were reminiscent of the capybara, but various others (including the shape of its molar teeth) corresponded most closely with those of the chinchillas. There were also some additional characteristics that seemed to ally it with the West Indies’ coypu-like hutias. Little wonder then that Peters elected to create a completely separate taxonomic family for it!
The pacarana was clearly a major find - yet no sooner had it been discovered than it vanished. For three decades nothing more was heard of this 'false paca', and zoologists worldwide feared that it was extinct.
Dr Emil Goeldi (public domain)
Then in May 1904, Dr Emilio Goeldi (1959-1917), director of Brazil's Para (now Belem) Museum, received a cage containing two living pacaranas (an adult female and a subadult male). These precious animals had been sent from the upper Rio Purus, Brazil, and proved to be extremely docile, inoffensive creatures, totally belying their 'terrible mouse' image. They were swiftly transferred to Brazil's Zoological Gardens, but tragically the adult female died shortly afterwards, following the birth of the first of two offspring that she was carrying.
Rare, early 20th Century photograph of a captive pacarana
In 1919, a more unusual-than-normal pacarana was described by Alipio de Miranda Ribeiro. Instead of being greyish-black in colour, it was brown, so Ribeiro designated it as the type specimen of a new species, christened D. pacarana. Three years earlier, the first pacarana recorded from Colombia had been collected (near La Candela, Huila); in 1921, this became the type of a third species, D. gigas. During the early 1920s, a series of pacaranas was procured by Edmund Heller from localities in Peru and also Brazil, so that by the 1930s a number of museum specimens existed, which were then examined carefully by Dr Colin Sanborn in the most detailed pacarana study undertaken at that time. Publishing his findings in 1931, he revealed that D. pacarana and D. gigas were nothing more than varieties of D. branickii, which meant that only a single species existed after all.
Brown-furred (or faded black-furred?) taxiderm pacarana specimen at the Berlin Natural History Museum (© Markus Bühler)
A rarely-glimpsed, nocturnal inhabitant of mountain forests, the pacarana feeds on leaves, fruit, and grass, usually associates in groups of four and five, and is hunted as a source of food by its Indian neighbours, but little else is known about its lifestyle in the wild state. It is currently classed as a vulnerable species by the IUCN, yet as a result of its secretive habits and relatively inconspicuous habitat it may be more abundant than hitherto suspected (nowadays it is known to be fairly common, for instance, in Bolivia’s Cotapata National Park).
Taxiderm pacarana at Tring Natural History Museum, Hertfordshire, England (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Due to this species’ notoriously elusive nature, however, down through the years zoos have prized pacaranas almost as much as giant pandas - which is why early 1947 was a singularly memorable time for Philadelphia Zoo. It was then that it received an innocuous-looking crate from legendary animal dealer Warren Buck of Camden, New Jersey, with the laconic remark: “Here’s a new one on me. Maybe you know what it is”. When the crate was opened, to everyone astonishment it contained a living pacarana! And just like Goeldi’s twosome, it proved to be delightfully tame and affectionate, showing no inclination to bite, and liking nothing better than to greet its visitors with a cheerful grunt and to sit upright on its hindlegs crunching a potato or carrot gripped firmly between its forepaws.
Of the handful of captive pacaranas obtained more recently and exhibited at such zoos as Zurich (the first to breed them), Basle, and San Diego (where I was fortunate enough to see my first live pacaranas in 2004), most have been of similarly pacific temperament. Indeed, they actively seek out their human visitors to nuzzle them and rub themselves against their legs almost like cats, or even to be picked up and carried just like playful puppies - truly a species with no desire whatsoever to live up to its formidable Dinomys designation!
Pacarana depicted on a postage stamp issued by Equatorial Guinea
Finally: Demonstrating that not only the pacarana but also the true pacas may well have some extra-large surprises in store for science is an exciting recent discovery made in Brazil by Dutch zoologist Dr Marc van Roosmalen. There are three currently-recognised species of true paca. Namely: the above-mentioned common paca C. paca; the smaller, longer-furred, and less-familiar mountain paca C. taczanowskii; and Hernandez's mountain paca C. hernandezi, described and named as recently as 2010 after mitochondrial DNA analyses confirmed its separate taxonomic status from the mountain paca. These are almost-tailless rodents normally no more than 60 cm long (often less), averaging 7 kg in weight, and adorned with usually four longitudinal rows of white spots on each side of their blackish-brown-furred body

Mountain paca (© WebmasterRioblanco/Wikipedia)
However, just a few years ago, Marc encountered – and collected – in Brazil a much larger form of true paca, known locally as the paca concha. It appears to have a very wide distribution range, and is distinguished from the two recognised species by its greater size (weighing up to 13 kg), its lighter fur colour, and the merging of most of its spots into longitudinal lines.
The holotype of the currently-undescribed giant paca (© Dr Marc van Roosmalen)
In a scientific paper currently awaiting publication, Marc has named this extra-large form as a new species. Several suspected specimens of giant paca are held at Brazil’s Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi, where Marc’s holotype of this potential new species, killed for food by a local hunter on 28 May 2006 near Tucunaré, has been deposited. So perhaps Count Branicki’s false paca now has a rival among the real pacas in terms both of physical stature and of complete surprise to the zoological community, thanks to its unexpected discovery.
This ShukerNature post is an expanded version of my pacarana account in my Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals .

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Published on December 18, 2014 20:08 • 10 views

December 5, 2014

As a small child, this is the first picture that I ever saw of Ceratogaulus – in my trusty How and Why Wonder Book of Prehistoric Mammals, 1964 (© John Hull/Transworld)
Horned rodents, devil's corkscrews, and terrible snails may not seem to have a lot in common, but in reality these three ostensibly separate strands are intricately intertwined within a singularly unusual, interesting chapter in the history of zoological discovery, as now revealed.
It all began in 1891, when geologist Dr Erwin H. Barbour from the University of Nebraska was shown some extraordinary formations by local rancher Charles E. Holmes in the Badlands of northwestern Nebraska, USA. Holmes and Dr Barbour colloquially dubbed them 'devil's corkscrews', as they did indeed resemble gigantic subterranean screws, each one penetrating several metres below the earth's surface, and constituting an elongated spiral of hardened earth.
Daimonelix , illustration from 1892 (public domain)
Dr Barbour proposed that these were the fossilised remains of giant freshwater sponges, his theory having been influenced by the belief current at that time that the deposits in which they occurred, and which dated to the Miocene epoch approximately 20 million years ago, were the remains of a huge freshwater lake,
Moreover, recalling the informal 'devil's corkscrew' nickname that he and Holmes had coined for them, in a short paper published by the journal Science in 1892 Barbour gave to these perplexing structures the formal scientific name Daimonelix ('devil's screw'), sometimes spelled Daimonhelix or Daemonelix in later works. Not everyone, however, was convinced by his theory that they were prehistoric sponges.
Daimonelix diagram from Barbour's 1892 paper (public domain)
A number of authorities favoured the possibility that they were artefacts, each one having been created by the intertwining of roots from some form of prehistoric plant that had subsequently rotted away (or even by pairs of prehistoric plants, one coiling tightly around the other), with the spiral-shaped space that they had left behind becoming filled with mud, ultimately yielding one of these remarkable giant underground 'screws'. And once subsequent research had shown that the deposits containing them were not the remains of a lake at all but were associated with semi-arid grassland instead, even Barbour quietly abandoned his freshwater sponge proposal in favour of the plant theory.
However, the name Daimonelix remained valid, because although scientific genera and species names are generally given only to organisms (modern-day or fossil), a notable exception to this nomenclatural rule concerns ichnofossils or trace fossils. These are fossils not of organisms themselves but of the traces left behind by them, such as footprints, burrows, coprolites, feeding marks, plant root cavities, etc, and they too receive scientific genera and (sometimes) species names.
Daimonelix , fossil rodent burrow, Sioux County, Nebraska, Early Miocene, close-up (public domain)
A third theory concerning the nature of the devil's corkscrews was put forward by Dr Theodor Fuchs and Edward Drinker Cope, who independently suggested in 1893 that they were the fossilised burrows of a Miocene rodent. This notion attracted appreciable interest – but if true, what kind of rodent could have been responsible? One candidate favoured in various popular-format publications for quite some time during the 20th Century was a creature no less extraordinary than the corkscrews themselves.
In 1902, Dr William D. Matthew published a paper in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History in which he formally described a new species of fossil rodent hailing from Colorado and dating back to the Miocene, but which was so different from all previously recorded species that it also required the creation of a new genus. Based upon a skull found in 1898, he named this novel creature Ceratogaulus rhinocerus – a very apt name, because, unique among all rodents at that time, it bore a pair of short but very distinctive vertically-oriented horns, sited laterally upon the dorsal surface of its nasal bones' posterior section.
Ceratogaulus [aka Epigaulus] hatcheri, illustration from 1913 (public domain)
In later years, three additional horned species were discovered and named – Ceratogaulus anecdotus, C. hatcheri, and C. minor. Some of these were initially housed in a separate genus, Epigaulus(created in 1907), and C. minor has been reassigned by some workers to the related genus Mylagaulus, but the current consensus is that all four belong to Ceratogaulus. In addition, a fifth horned species, but which unequivocally belongs to the genus Mylagaulus rather than Ceratogaulus, was scientifically described as recently as 2012. Named Mylagaulus cornusaulax, it lived in western Oklahoma during the Miocene. Four other Mylagaulusspecies (not counting C. minor if classed as belonging to this genus) are also known, but none of these was horned.
Known technically and collectively as mylagaulids, the horned rodents and several closely-related genera of non-horned species constitute an entirely extinct taxonomic family, existing from the Miocene to the Pliocene and (in the case of the horned species) unique to North America, but belonging to the squirrel lineage of rodents (Sciuromorpha). Moreover, examination of complete and near-complete skeletal remains has revealed that they superficially resembled marmots and other ground squirrels too, both in size (measuring roughly 60 cmlong) and in overall appearance – except of course for the five horned species' nasal horns, which make them the smallest horned mammals known to science. The horned species are sometimes colloquially referred to as horned gophers, but this is a misnomer, because gophers are only very distantly related to them. 'Horned marmot' would be a much more appropriate name.
Two Ceratogaulus specimens and a prehistoric hare (public domain)
Suggestions that the devil's corkscrews could be the fossilised remains of burrows excavated by these rodents, utilising their horns, attracted interest, and remained in contention as the solution to this longstanding mystery until as recently as the 1970s (my little How and Why Wonder Book of Prehistoric Mammals was still supporting it back in 1964). However, studies focusing upon the precise conformation of their horns and speculating upon what this conformation indicated in relation to their possible functions revealed that such an idea was inherently and fatally flawed. Both the position and the shape of the horns are inconsistent with their being efficient digging tools.
By being located on the posterior rather than the anterior section of the nasal bones, the horns could not be used for digging through earth without the animal's muzzle constantly getting in the way, severely impeding the efficiency of this activity. Moreover, in later species the horns were positioned even further back than in the earlier ones, so it is evident that these rodents' evolutionary development became increasingly contrary to their horns being used as digging tools. The horns' very broad, thick shape also argued persuasively against their effectiveness as digging tools (it is nowadays believed that they served as defensive weapons instead). And so too did the telling fact that no remains of horned rodents discovered in direct association with devil's corkscrews had ever been documented.
Ceratogaulus hatcheri skeleton (© Ryan Somma/Wikipedia)
But if the horned rodents were not responsible for these structures, then what was? As far back as 1905, Dr Olaf A Peterson from the Carnegie Museum had revealed that some of them contained fossilised bones from Palaeocastor fossor and P. magnus - two prehistoric species of small terrestrial beaver. They had existed in Nebraska and elsewhere in North America's Great Plains region during the late Oligocene and Miocene epochs. However, it was not until 1977 that their responsibility for creating the devil's corkscrews was confirmed, via a scientific paper published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, and authored by Drs Larry D. Martin and D.K. Bennett.
In it, the authors disclosed that these enigmatic underground spirals were in fact the helical shaft sections of Palaeocastorburrows, each complete burrow consisting of a single entrance mound, a long spiralled shaft, and a lower living chamber. These burrows also possessed interconnecting side-passages, and the authors' paper revealed that very extensive subterranean Palaeocastor colonies had existed (Dr Martin had discovered one that contained over 200 separate burrows), which were comparable in size and network complexity to the underground labyrinthine 'towns' or 'cities' produced by those modern-day North American ground squirrels known as prairie dogs.
Palaeocastor reconstruction (© Nobu Tamura/Wikipedia)
In addition, Martin's research at the University of Kansas had uncovered that the beavers excavated these screw-shaped burrow shafts with their incisor teeth, not with their claws (as various previous proponents of a rodent origin for such structures had wrongly assumed). For instead of finding narrow claw marks on the burrow walls, which is what he had expected, Martin instead discovered numerous broad grooves – which he was able to duplicate exactly by scraping the incisors of fossil Palaeocastorskulls into wet sand. The very regular spirals of their burrows' shafts (i.e. the devil's corkscrews) had been constructed by the beavers via a continuous series of either left-handed or right-handed incisor strokes.
And as final proof that Palaeocastor was indeed the engineer of the devil's corkscrews, the wider chambers immediately below these spiralled shafts were sometimes found to contain perfectly-preserved fossil skeletons of adult beavers and beaver cubs, thereby verifying that they were indeed the burrows' living quarters for these beavers.
Palaeocastor fossil remains inside burrow's living chamber (public domain)
After almost a century, the mystery of North America's devil's corkscrews was a mystery no more; but across the Atlantic in England, an equally spectacular edifice of spiralled structure has continued to baffle the scientific world. Its name? Dinocochlea– 'the terrible snail'.
In 1921, during the construction of a new arterial road near Hastings in the Wealden area of Sussex, an enormous spiral-shaped object was uncovered and excavated from early Cretaceous clay after having been spotted by site engineer H.L. Tucker. Outwardly it resembled the spiralled shell of certain marine gastropod molluscs, in particular those of the genus Turritella, which is represented by numerous living and fossil species.
Fossil Turritella specimens (public domain)
Accordingly, when it was formally described in 1922 by London's Natural History Museum molluscan specialist Dr Bernard B. Woodward within the Geological Magazine, he named it Dinocochlea ingens, and did indeed categorise it as a fossil gastropod, albeit one of immense proportions.
Measuring more than 2 m in length, it was far bigger than any other gastropod species known then, or now. However, this identification incited much controversy.
Dinocochlea in situ (public domain)
For whereas spiralled gastropod shells normally bear ridges and possess coils that taper to a point,  Dinocochlea did not, and there were no shell traces preserved with it either. Its freakishly large size was also difficult to reconcile with a gastropod identity.
Recalling the devil's corkscrews of North America, was it possible, therefore, that Dinocochlea was actually the fossilised burrow of some still-undiscovered species of prehistoric rodent? Alternatively, bearing in mind that it was uncovered near to a quarry famous for the quantity of Iguanodon and other giant reptilian fossils discovered there, could it be a dinosaur coprolite (fossilised faecal deposit)? Once again, however, its gargantuan size (even for a coprolite of dinosaur origin!) and also its spiralled shape's very precise, regular form argued against this, as did the fact that there was no partially-digested organic material associated with it, which is normally the case with preserved coprolites. So what could this very curious, anomalous object be?
Dinocochlea , 1922 newspaper image (public domain)
In June 2011, palaeontologist Dr Paul Taylor from London's Natural History Museum (where Dinocochleahad been deposited following its discovery) officially presented a new and very plausible explanation.
In a paper published by the Proceedings of the Geologists' Association, he proposed that it had indeed originated as a corkscrew-shaped burrow, but a horizontal one rather than the vertically-oriented devil's corkscrews, and had not been created by any rodent but instead by a fossil species of capitellid polychaete worm known as a threadworm. Yet as these were only a few millimetres in diameter, how could so tiny a creature have produced such a monstrously huge trace fossil as Dinocochlea?
Dinocochlea life-sized model and Dr Paul Taylor of London's NHM (public domain)
Having examined cross-section specimens of it, which revealed that they were filled with concentric bands of sediment resembling the growth rings of tree trunks, Dr Taylor suggested that although initially very small, this worm burrow had acted as a nucleus for concretion growth (which is characterised by the presence of such rings or bands internally).
That is, the space originally created by the burrow would induce the movement into it of surrounding mineral cements, which would themselves then leave behind a space that would in turn induce the movement into it of more surrounding cements, and so on, until eventually, if conditions for its preservation were just right, what began as a tiny thin worm burrow would ultimately become enormously enlarged, yielding the very dramatic pseudo-gastropod, mega-burrow trace fossil that we know today as Dinocochlea.
An absolutely delightful cartoon version of Ceratogaulus (© Ursulav/deviantart)
From horned marmots and burrow-digging beavers to devil's corkscrews and terrible snails-that-weren't, it is evident that however distant our planet's past may be, it still possesses the power to perplex, surprise, inform, and fascinate us in a myriad of different ways.
The very attractive front cover of the How and Why Wonder Book of Prehistoric Mammals (© John Hull/Transworld)

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Published on December 05, 2014 13:03 • 9 views

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