Karl Shuker's Blog
March 8, 2018
Exquisite engraving from 1898 of Phrynus tessellatus, a Caribbean species of amblypygid or tailless whip scorpion (public domain)
Readers of a certain age (i.e. my own or older) will probably recognise that the main title of this ShukerNature article of mine is a totally shameless parody of the title from a famous comedy song released in 1938 by the much-loved British war-time singer Gracie Fields, the song in question being 'It's the Biggest Aspidastra in the World!' (I know, I know, but it was just too fantastic a pun to let pass!).
And here, just in case you were wondering what one looked like, is an aspidistra (note correct spelling of name) – although, sadly, it's not the biggest in the world! (© Frank C. Müller/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
Anyway, aspidistras aside (but see this blog article's epilogue for a short note regarding the odd spelling and pronunciation of their name as featured in Gracie's song but nowhere else), just what areamblypygids?
Illustration of an amblypygid from C.L. Koch's Die Arachniden (1841) (public domain)
I first learned about them as a child when reading the August 1966 issue of the then-monthly (previously-weekly) British magazine Animals, which contained an article by naturalist R.C.H. Sweeney memorably entitled ''Monsters' of the Caves'. This proved to be an excerpt from his forthcoming book The Scurrying Bush, and told of his encountering these ostensibly unearthly creatures while exploring various large, many-tunnelled caves in Tanzania's Mkulumuzi Gorge. Also known as tailless whip scorpions, amblypygids are arachnids related to the vinegaroons or tailed whip scorpions, but they look more like exceedingly long-limbed spiders, albeit of the kind from which nightmares are spawned. In reality, however, they are basically harmless, lacking both a sting and venom fangs, though they can give quite a nasty bite with their chelicerae (the principal, inner jaws of arachnids) or nip with their pincer-bearing pedipalps (the outer jaws of arachnids).
A vinegaroon or tailed whip scorpion, exhibiting its posterior whip-tail or flagellum and its elongated first pair of limbs or whip-legs (© Glenn Bartolotti/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
Whereas the vinegaroons earn their tailed whip scorpion appellation primarily from their long whip-like tail or flagellum, the amblypygids earn their tailless whip scorpion counterpart not just from the fact that they lack any such tail but also from their specialised first pair of limbs, which are exceptionally long and slender (as they also are but to a much lesser extent in vinegaroons), thereby possessing a fanciful resemblance to whips (even though they are not utilised in any comparable manner to such implements). Indeed, their 'whip limbs' are so inordinately elongate (even by normal amblypygid limb standards!) that they can measure up to several times the length of their entire body, and are so fragile that they readily snap off.
Amblypygid with one damaged whip limb (© Iskander HFC/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Coupling their whip limbs with these extraordinary arachnids' spider-like overall superficial appearance, amblypygids are sometimes loosely dubbed whip spiders, but in reality they constitute an entirely separate taxonomic order of arachnids (Amblypygi) from true spiders (Araneae), just as tailed whip scorpions (Thelyphonida) do from true scorpions (Scorpiones) (again, these latter two groups are superficially reminiscent of one another externally, this time due primarily to the posterior tail-like flagellum of the tailed whip scorpions recalling the posterior sting of the true scorpions).
An amalgamation of amblypygids (© Geoff Hume/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
And as if matters of taxonomic identity and affinity were not confused enough already by now in relation to amblypygids, they are also often mistakenly thought by laypeople to be allied to insects! The reason for this ostensibly strange assumption is due to a behavioural quirk they exhibit that is unique to whip scorpions among arachnids but is a major characteristic of insects. For whereas virtually all other arachnids move using all eight limbs, the amblypygids run (very rapidly) and scuttle around only on six legs (just like insects), with their whip limbs, far too fragile and lengthy to be able to function as locomotory limbs, held upwards and outwards.
An amblypygid from Togo in western Africa, showing the full extent of its whip limbs (© Notafly/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
In fact, their whip limbs are actually used as tactile sensory organs, stretched out fully to make contact with their surroundings amid the stygian environment in which these arachnids usually live (and in which eyesight is rendered largely obsolete, despite their possessing eight simple eyes). This activity provides their amblypygid owners with detailed information concerning obstacles, the nearness of walls, and the width of cracks in walls or other surfaces into which they can squeeze their wafer-thin, dorsoventrally flattened body in order to escape or remain hidden from potential predators. In short, their whip limbs fulfil a similar function in terms of gauging distances and widths of potential escape routes to the antennae of insects, and the whiskers or vibrissae of certain mammals, such as cats and rodents. They are also used to 'feel' for prey (mostly arthropods, including other amblypygids occasionally, but also small vertebrates sometimes), which is then rapidly seized by their much stouter and more powerful outermost pair of mouthparts, the pedipalps, and handed to their chelicerae to macerate into liquid form for sucking into the mouth and thence the gut.
A pregnant amblypygid (© Pavel Kirillov/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA. 2.0 licence)
Most fascinating of all, however, is that research studies conducted at Cornell University in New York, USA, and published in December 2017 have suggested that in some species of amblypygid, adult females may actually use their whip limbs to communicate with their offspring, which in turn may be doing the same to communicate not only with their mother but also with their fellow siblings. If so, this is one of the few examples of social interaction known among arachnids,
Close-up view of a Togo amblypygid's formidable spine-fringed pedipalps (© Notafly/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
In amblypygids, their pedipalps are also very long (albeit far less so than their whips), with a series of thorny spines running along their inner edge, and each pedipalp bears at its tip a noticeably large, powerful pincer for firmly grasping hold of prey, similar in basic appearance to the chela of a large crustacean such as a crab or lobster. Just like theirs, moreover, these can also inflict a not-insignificant skin-puncturing nip to unwary, intrusive fingers, or noses, of anything posing a threat to the amblypygid. When the latter is at rest, however, its pedipalps are held directly in front of its mouth, folded back upon themselves.
An amblypygid at rest, with its pedipalps characteristically folded back upon themselves (© Psychonaught/Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)
Over 150 species of living amblypygid have currently been described (plus various fossil forms dating back as far as the Carboniferous Period, over 300 million years ago), and they collectively occur in many tropical and subtropical regions of the world including Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Australia, but due to their reclusive behaviour these arachnids are rarely seen unless specifically searched for, because they are all nocturnal and also spend much of their time concealed in leaf litter or inside cracks or crevices within tree bark or the walls and roof of caves – unless moulting. For during moulting, which happens several times during their lifetime, amblypygids normally hang downward from cave roofs or other raised surfaces, shedding their old exoskeleton down onto the ground and remaining suspended until their new exoskeleton hardens and darkens.
An amblypygid found in a cave in Lanquin, Guatemala (© Nick Johnson/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)
Needless to say, however, anyone encountering at close range such a bizarre-looking creature within the shadowy gloom of a cave or other dark abode but unfamiliar with their nature could be forgiven for barely suppressing a shriek of horror, especially if the amblypygid in question is one of the more substantial species. Even the normally redoubtable American zoologist, cryptozoologist, and animal collector Ivan T. Sanderson freely confessed in his book Animal Treasure (1937), detailing his collecting of animals in West Africa, that he personally considered these particular arachnids to be loathsome and nightmarish. As they are certainly frightful in form albeit quite innocuous in nature, and given that if encountered unexpectedly in the wild, with their extended whip limbs they are liable to stroke the face of anyone peering unwarily close to them, it is not difficult to understand his view.
Beautiful vintage illustration of an amblypygid showing its whip limbs extended, dating back to 1911-1919 (public domain)
As for size, just how large are the largest amblypygids? This question leads us into potentially controversial territory, because the most sizeable species have sometimes been referred to as the largest of all living arachnids. However, this claim is by no means as straightforward as it may initially seem, because 'largeness' is not a quantifiable property of an object.
An amblypygid from Chorao island, Goa, in India (© Biusch/Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)
The length of an object can usually be directly measured, using various systems of unit, including the imperial system (inches, feet, yards, miles, etc) and the metric system (millimetres, centimetres, metres, kilometres, etc). So too can an object's weight, via units such as ounces, pounds, stones, and tons (in the imperial system), and milligrams, grams, kilograms, and tonnes (in the metric system). The same is also true of its area and volume. But how do you measure largeness – what units of largeness exist? There are no such units, because largeness is a subjective, abstract concept, not an objective, quantifiable, measurable property. Consequently, when something is said to be the largest example of its kind, it is often something that is both the longest and the heaviest of its kind – but there are many instances when the longest of its kind is not also the heaviest. So which is then the largest – the longest of its kind, or the heaviest?
Komodo dragon (left) and Salvadori's monitor (right) – heavier vs longer, so which is larger, and why? (© Dr Karl Shuker / public domain)
If the heavier of the two contenders also exhibits a sizeable length, we tend to favour the heavier when talking about the largest, simply because visually it is more impressive. This is why, for instance, the much heavier but shorter Komodo dragon Varanus komodoensis is deemed the world's largest species of lizard, rather than Salvadori's monitor V. salvadorii, which is longer but much lighter. But again, there are exceptions, and if surface area considerations are also taken into account the situation becomes even more complex (should the African plains elephant Loxodonta africana really be deemed the largest land mammal, for example, rather than the much taller and more visually impressive yet much lighter giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis, and how do their respective surface areas compare?), thereby making judgements concerning the largest of anything fraught with difficulties and inconsistencies.
As seen here with this Brazilian example, the limbs of amblypygids are disproportionately lengthy relative to their body size (most especially their whip limbs, which can be several times as long as their body) (© KatzBird/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)
So, applying this to arachnids, it can be readily appreciated that we can easily quantify which is the longest living arachnid (India's giant forest scorpion Heterometrus swammerdami, up to 11.9 in long), and the heaviest living arachnid (northern South America's goliath bird-eating spider Theraphosa blondi, up to 6.2 oz), but not the largest living arachnid. The reason why those particular amblypygids with the longest, heaviest bodies among such arachnids have also been called the largest of all living arachnids is that when their whip limbs are fully extended laterally, the span from whip-tip to whip-tip is far greater than the leg span of any other arachnid when its longest legs are similarly extended laterally.
A specimen of Acanthophrynus coronatus (© Raquel Cisneros/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
The amblypygid record-holder in this capacity is Acanthophrynus coronatus, inhabiting caves in Central and northern South America, with specimens boasting an extremely impressive fully-extended whip-tip to whip-tip span of up to 27.6 in, and able to prey upon lizards and frogs comparable in size to itself – it truly is the biggest amblypygid in the world! It is also famous for stridulating with its chelicerae. However, the body length and especially the body weight even of these most substantial amblypygids are still much less than those of the most sizeable scorpions and spiders.
Another sizeable amblypygid, Damon[formerly Titanodamon] johnstoni from West Africa (public domain)
All of which leads very conveniently to a question that I've been asked on more than one occasion by fellow fans of the Harry Potter series of movies. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, bringing to the big screen the eponymous fourth novel in J.K. Rowling's celebrated Harry Potter heptalogy, during a lesson at Hogwarts in which the three Unforgivable Spells are being demonstrated, the teacher in question, ostensibly Alastor 'Mad-Eye' Moody (though in the climax of the book and movie it is revealed that this is not Moody at all but is in fact Barty Crouch Jr impersonating him using Polyjuice Potion), applies the spells to what many viewers have simply assumed to be a made-up, non-existent spider-like monster, but which is actually an amblypygid. It is also placed on pupil Ron Weasley's head - much to Ron's evident horror! However, this amblypygid is far larger in every way – body length, body width, and limb length – than even the mighty A. coronatus. How is that possible? In fact, this very imposing on-screen amblypygid was entirely computer-generated – during which process the fundamental form of a real amblypygid was recreated, but with its proportions greatly-enlarged in order to make it look more monstrous.
Screenshot from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (screenshot obtained here ) depicting Ron Weasley (played by Rupert Grint) not enjoying his exceedingly close encounter with the giant amblypygid (© J.K. Rowling/Mike Newell/Heyday Films/Patalex IV Productions/Warner Brothers Pictures – reproduced here on a strictly educational non-commercial Fair Use basis for the purposes of review only)
Finally: it may come as something of a surprise to ShukerNature readers who were not previously familiar with amblypygids, but these somewhat alienesque arachnids can be obtained through the pet trade and actually make good pets, although the most commonly-kept pet species is Damon diadema from Tanzania; the much bigger A. coronatus does not fare well in this capacity and therefore is not generally available commercially. As long as they are well-fed and suitably housed in large glass enclosures with all environmental factors (especially temperature, humidity, substrate, and hiding places) fully met, amblypygids are generally quite docile, much more so than any other type of arachnid.
Damon diadema (© AdrxO90/Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Having said that: in a video clip that was recently doing the rounds on social media, a captive amblypygid specimen belonging to the extremely large Tanzanian species Euphrynichus amanica was being teased by its presumed owner in order to incite it to extend its lengthy pedipalps and snap their pincers at the owner's finger for the camera, which the distraught amblypygid, being forced to adopt a defensive mode, duly did on several occasions, but backing away whenever possible from what it perceived to be a threat from the finger. Finally, the owner closed their hand over the amblypygid and picked it up, and after a few seconds its pedipalps could be seen to move down onto the owner's little finger, whereupon the owner abruptly and visibly flinched before placing the amblypygid back down and looking at their finger. The pedipalps' movements were too swift to be absolutely certain of what happened, but after freezing the relevant frame it looked as if the unsettled amblypygid had pinched its owner's finger with at least one if not both of them – an action that according to descriptions elsewhere apparently elicits the sensation of having a thorn piercing the skin. (Incidentally, a version of this video clip was uploaded onto YouTube in March 2016 and can currently be viewed here , but I wish to point out that there is no suggestion anywhere that the person who uploaded it is actually the person featured in it; indeed, what looks like the same specimen and owner also appear in a different YouTube video clip uploaded a month earlier by a seemingly different person and viewable here .)
An amblypygid in El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico – as readily seen here, a nip from amblypygid pedipalps like these, while not dangerous, is nonetheless not recommended! (© George Gallice/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)
And the moral of this incident? Never antagonise an amblypygid!
Amblypygids make interesting and docile pets if treated kindly (© Caspar S/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)
EPILOGUE: PEDANTS' CORNER
Yes, I am indeed aware that on both the original 78 rpm record and the sheet music to the afore-mentioned Gracie Fields comedy song from 1938, the name of the titular plant was spelt 'Aspidastra', not 'Aspidistra', and that Gracie even pronounced it that way when singing the song. Nevertheless, this spelling and her pronunciation were incorrect, but nowhere have I been able to discover how and why such an error arose, nor why it was perpetuated and never corrected. And as Gracie herself passed away in 1979, it may well remain a mystery indefinitely.
Gracie Fields in 1937, a year before her famous song was released (public domain)
Published on March 08, 2018 13:54 • 1 view
March 3, 2018
REARING HER LION X TIGER HYBRID CUBS WITH DOGGED DETERMINATION! A SHUKERNATURE PICTURE HISTORY EXCLUSIVE
Vintage picture postcard from my collection, depicting a canine foster mother with her trio of lion x tiger hybrid cub fosterlings (from the archives of Dr Karl Shuker)
Just over a week ago on ShukerNature (click here ), I briefly mentioned how, several years ago, while browsing through some picture postcards at a local collectors fair, I chanced upon a vintage example depicting a dog acting as foster mother to three lion x tiger hybrid cubs.
Never having seen this picture before, I swiftly purchased the postcard, and subsequently reproduced it in my book Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012) – which as far as I'm aware is the first time that this picture has ever appeared in any publication, certainly any dealing specifically with unusual cats.
My book Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery , published in 2012 (© Dr Karl Shuker/CFZ Press)
Since then, I've browsed online several times seeking other early illustrations of lion x tiger hybrids, to include in a planned future article, and have found some very interesting examples (adding to various ones already contained in my archives and included by me in my above-cited book). However, I have never once spotted my postcard's picture, not even when I have conducted specific Google Image Searches for it.
Consequently, as a ShukerNature Picture History exclusive, I am presenting it herewith – seemingly the first time, therefore, that this fascinating image has ever appeared online too. In addition, its caption has served as a starting point for me to conduct some research into the history of this picture and its subjects, so here is what I've uncovered.
Once again, my vintage picture postcard of a canine foster mother with her three lion x tiger hybrid cub fosterlings (from the archives of Dr Karl Shuker)
As seen here, this postcard's inset caption reads as follows: "FOSTER MOTHER WITH HYBRID LION-TIGER CUBS. The Bostock Jungle, Earls CourtExhibition. Direction: FRANK C. BOSTOCK.". But who was Frank C. Bostock, what was his Jungle, and when did it appear at Earl's Court?
In fact, as zoological historians will be readily aware, the name Bostock is intimately associated with menageries and other animal-featuring exhibitions, including circuses, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, being a major part of a veritable menagerie dynasty.
Edward H. Bostock (public domain)
It all began in 1805, when George Wombwell (1777-1850) founded a menagerie in Soho, London, but which began touring Britain in 1810 as Wombwell's Travelling Menagerie, and subsequently traversed widely across the European continent, followed by North America (coast to coast), South Africa, India, the Orient, and even as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. During this time, it had continued to expand unabatedly, until at its height it was the largest of its kind in the world.
By the late 1880s, this mega-menagerie was owned and run by one of Wombwell's great-nephews, Edward Henry Bostock (1858-1940), purchasing it in 1889 after having previously worked there until 1883, and enhancing its already-considerable success by combining it with a circus, and renaming it the Bostock and Wombwell Menagerie (subsequently the Bostock and Wombwell Royal Menagerie). So popular did this enterprise prove to be that it continued to tour Britain until December 1931, when it staged its final show, at the Old Sheep Market in Newcastle, northern England. In 1932, Edward sold his animals to London Zoo at Whipsnade.
A poster for the Bostock and Wombwell Menagerie, dating from c.1900 (public domain)
Meanwhile, back in 1897 Edward built in Glasgow his very own Scottish Zoo, a non-touring attraction that was the first permanent zoo in Scotland, but which again incorporated a circus too, so it became known formally as the Zoo-Circus Building (and later the Zoo-Hippodrome Building). He also became a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London.
Edward was always looking out for particularly unusual, exotic animals with which to draw in ever greater audiences to his zoo and touring menagerie, and, as I have documented in two earlier ShukerNature articles (click here and here ), it was he who purchased in May 1908 the extraordinary three-species big cat hybrid Uneeka, a lijagupard (lion x jaguar-leopard hybrid), for display in Glasgow after she had been exhibited for a couple of weeks at London Zoo.
Frederick Frohawk's exquisite illustration from 1908 of Uneeka the lijagupard when still living at London Zoo (public domain)
No less involved with menageries than Edward, however, was his younger brother, Frank Charles Bostock (1866-1912). Whereas Edward utilised Glasgow in Britain as his primary base, Frank broke away by journeying to the USA in 1893 and establishing wild animal shows there with partners Francis and Joseph Ferari, especially in New York at Coney Island's vast Dreamland amusement park until 1903. During the opening decade of the 20thCentury, he returned to Britain from New York as an extremely experienced menagerie keeper and exhibitor but also greatly skilled in the American 'big show' tradition of public entertainment.
Accordingly, he deftly combined these two previously quite discrete elements to great success via the creation of a huge touring animal-themed exhibition officially known as Bostock's Arena and Jungle (but often shortened simply to Bostock's Jungle), which travelled from city to city and, in 1908, was staged at Earl's Court Exhibition Centre, London – during which the three lion x tiger hybrids featured in my vintage picture postcard were displayed. Big cat hybrids were very popular in such shows back then, due to their unusual nature and often very distinctive appearance.
Frank C. Bostock (public domain)
Tragically, however, the immense effort that Frank put into all of his shows and tours proved too much. In early October 1912, after having already become seriously ill with what was claimed by the media to be nervous exhaustion but which was apparently a stroke, he was found to have contracted influenza too, and passed away on 8 October, his 46th birthday, at his Kensington Mansions home in London. Unlike a number of other menagerie owners, Frank was famous and much-respected for the kind treatment that he always showed to his animals – a memorable quote attributed to him is: "Kindness is the whip used to lead dumb animals to obey" – and his funeral was attended by many hundreds of fans and fellow showmen, including the legendary circus owner Pat Collins. At the time of his death, Frank owned over 1000 animals, but I have yet to discover what happened to them afterwards – were they purchased, perhaps, by Edward, or sold off separately to other menageries, zoos, circuses, and/or private individuals? If anyone reading this article of mine has any information, I'd be most grateful to receive it and incorporate here, but credited fully to them by me as always.
Finally: one of Frank's most celebrated animal stars, who brought him considerable fame and prestige, was a trained chimpanzee called Consul the Man Chimp – so-named because of his almost-human behaviour. Insured for what was then the enormous sum of £20,000 and dressed in the nattiest of human clothes (which he would put on and take off all by himself, mend if required, and even wash and put out to dry), Consul habitually walked upright, smoked cigarettes, drank wine and whisky as well as tea and hot chocolate, ate meals using a knife and fork, always travelled first-class, stayed only in the best hotels, and expertly drove his own electric car. Nor was Consul unique. Following his death in 1904, he was replaced by a succession of new Consuls, some performing simultaneously at different shows run by Frank, who as already noted was an accomplished animal trainer. Reading about Consul and his successors, I am reminded irresistibly of another so-called 'man chimp' (aka a humanzee) – whose name was Oliver (read all about him here ), and whose famously human demeanour now, in the light of those displayed by Frank's Consuls, seems a good deal less exceptional than traditionally deemed.
Vintage picture postcard (from the same series as my dog/cubs card presented here) depicting one of the later Consul the Man Chimp individuals, who took part in the 1908 Bostock's Jungle exhibition at Earl's Court in London where the lion x tiger hybrid cubs also appeared (public domain)
Shortly after completing this ShukerNature article, I was interested to discover that Frank C. Bostock had written a book on the subject of animal training, published in 1903, entitled The Training of Wild Animals, and currently still in print. Tracing a copy of the original edition online, I saw that it had been edited by wildlife authoress/journalist Ellen Velvin FZS, whose Editor's Note at the beginning of the book provides what certainly appears to be a direct corroboration of Frank's reputation with regard to his animals, and as such definitely bears reiterating. So here it is in full:
Before editing this book, I took the opportunity offered by Mr. Frank C. Bostock of practically living in one of his animal exhibitions for a few weeks, in order to see things as they were, and not as I had always heard of them.
I was allowed to go in and out at all times and all hours; to enter the training-schools whenever I liked; to go behind the runways and cages,—a special privilege given to the trainers only, as a rule,—and to be a spectator of whatever happened to be going on at the time.
The thing which interested me most, and to which I paid special attention, was that at no time in this exhibition did I once see the slightest act of cruelty in any way. Each one of the trainers and keepers had pride in his own special animals, and I had many proofs of their kindness and consideration to their charges. The sick animals were most carefully looked after and doctored, and in one case of a lion cub having convulsions, I noticed dim eyes in more than one keeper when the poor little animal was convulsed and racked with suffering.
Had I seen the least cruelty or neglect in any way, I need scarcely say nothing would have induced me to edit this book.
Illustration from a programme advertising one of Frank's American animal shows from 1901, held in Buffalo, New York, in which he would sit casually reading a newspaper in the midst of a pride of 25 lions (public domain)
Published on March 03, 2018 09:22
February 28, 2018
IDENTIFYING A LOST MULTICOLOURED RACING PIGEON IN MIJAS - LET'S ALL DO OUR BEST TO HELP THIS POOR LITTLE SPANISH STRAY TO FIND ITSELF BACK HOME
The unexpectedly colourful pigeon encountered and photographed at Mijas, Spain, by Steve Mandell (© Steve Mandell)
This latest ShukerNature blog article of mine has a twofold mission – not only to entertain and educate (just like I hope that all of my articles do) but also to assist if at all possible in reuniting its poor lost subject with its owner.
On 19 February 2018, Paul Sieveking at Fortean Times forwarded to me for my thoughts a very interesting email that he had received earlier that same day from FT reader Steve Mandell, concerning a most unusual multicoloured pigeon that he had seen during the Spanish holiday from which he and his family had just returned home. Steve also attached two excellent close-up colour photographs of the pigeon in question, and as soon as I saw them I knew the precise nature of their subject. Consequently, I sent details concerning this to Paul, and I also contacted Steve, enclosing in my email to him not only the same details but also a request for permission to document this very interesting case here on ShukerNature and to include in it his two photos. Steve very kindly agreed to my request, so here is the remarkable story behind that equally remarkable pigeon.
Hailing from East Sussex, England, Steve revealed in his email that he and his family had been holidaying at Benalmadena on Spain's Costa del Sol when:
During our stay, we all went on a day trip to the nearby mountain village of Mijas. After a browse around their rather quirky Museum of Miniatures, we took a stroll around the beautiful Parque la Muralla which edges the cliff faces.
We turned a corner to look into a deep gorge where several feral pigeons were basking in the early spring sunshine. Then I noticed, sitting all alone, a pigeon with markings that could only be described as parrot-like. It took me a while to believe what my eyes were seeing as this bird could only be described as a pigeon/parrot hybrid. I have enclosed 2 photos for you and your readers' perusal.
On the bus trip back down to the coast I searched the internet but could only find a story from Queens, NY, which seems to be a hoax and doesn't resemble what I saw…
If anyone can shed some light on what this creature is, I'd be most grateful. If not, I'm laying claim to the discovery of a new species.
Sadly for Steve, what he saw was nothing so ornithologically exciting as either a new species or a pigeon x parrot hybrid, but it is still very interesting, and surprisingly little-known outside Spain. Fortunately, however, I had read about such birds a fair while ago, and therefore knew its secret. It was a domestic racing pigeon, and not some highly-specialised, dramatically-plumed breed either, just a totally standard specimen, but with one significant, peculiarly Spanish variation upon the typical racing pigeon theme.
Steve's second photograph of the gaudy-plumed pigeon that he encountered at Mijas, Spain (© Steve Mandell)
In Murcia and Valencia, there is a longstanding tradition among the racing pigeon fraternity for breeders to paint their pigeons in rainbow hues and then release them to pursue a single female pigeon. Whichever male bird stays with the female the longest wins the competition. Each breeder paints his pigeons in different colour complements from those of all other breeders, so the breeders can readily follow their own birds by eye, and rescue them if they should become entangled in foliage, etc. Champion pigeons in this sport are greatly valued, because they bestow immense prestige upon their owners.
So captivated by these varicoloured pigeons, their driven owners, and the whole intense culture surrounding them was photographer Ricardo Cases that in 2011 he published a limited-edition photobook entitled Paloma al Aire ('Pigeon in the Air'), filled with stunning colour photos of the birds and their owners, and which attracted considerable attention later that same year at the Arles photography festival (click here to read an article concerning Cases's book, and here to see a selection of spectacular photographs from it). Indeed, so popular did it prove that in 2014, Cases published a second edition.
Nor are photographs of these Spanish painted pigeons confined to Cases's photobooks. Scouring the internet, I soon found various other photos, including one of a green-winged individual that had been snapped at Bocairent in Valencia but which was extremely similar to the one encountered by Steve in Mijas (click here to view this Valencia specimen) – so much so, in fact, that both birds very likely belonged to the same breeder. Another painted pigeon from the same location in Valencia that I found a photograph of was one with bright orange wings (click here to view it).
(Incidentally, back in August 2012 the famous feral pigeons of St Mark's Square in Venice, Italy, were similarly airbrushed in a polychromatic palette of garish hues by Swiss artist Julian Charrière and German artist Julius von Bismarck, as part of a one-off performance for the architecture Biennale exhibition – click here for details.)
A typical unpainted feral pigeon (© Muhammad Mahdi Karim/Wikipedia – GFDL 1.2 licence)
Clearly, therefore, the parrot-plumed pigeon sighted and photographed by Steve was one such Spanish racing bird, but, tragically, it had not found its way back home to its owner. Instead, it was lost, adrift and alone in Mijas, and, as a domestic racing pigeon rather than a feral urban pigeon, had evidently been unable to assimilate with the latter birds, thus explaining its solitary, set-apart existence when seen by Steve.
So this is where you, gentle readers, come in. Wouldn't it be wonderful if this poor stray pigeon could be reunited with its owner? Perhaps it can. If everyone reading this article SHARES it with friends, colleagues, and groups (not just Likes it), so that it circulates far and wide on social media sites, and receives a high placement in search engine listings, then maybe it will be seen by someone who recognises this distinctively-painted pigeon and/or knows its owner and can inform him accordingly of the pigeon's current presence in Mijas – maybe it will even be seen directly by the pigeon's owner himself – who would then be in a position to visit Mijas and seek out his missing bird.
True, I know that it is a long shot, but sometimes long shots are successful, and we all know that remarkable successes have certainly been achieved when the power of social media has been harnessed and mobilised.
So, please, do what you can to help this lost pigeon find its way home – after all, not all miracles are big, some are small, but are just as wonderful if they happen, and who knows, this one just might. Thank you all most sincerely for any assistance that you can offer, and thanks again to Steve Mandell for so kindly making this case and his photos available to me for documentation here.
Close-ups of Steve Mandell's two photographs of the lost painted racing pigeon that he saw in Mijas, Spain, during February 2018, and which urgently needs and deserves our help to bring it back home (© Steve Mandell)
Published on February 28, 2018 13:57
February 26, 2018
THE MERMAID OF HARALDSKAER - THE FISHY TALE OF A FISHY TAIL (AND SKELETON!) DISPLAYED AT THE DANISH NATIONAL MUSEUM
The mermaid of Haraldskaer's skeleton, exhibited at the Danish National Museum, Copenhagen, in 2012 (© Danish National Museum – reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis, for review purposes only)
Only a few days after watching, and greatly enjoying, Guillermo del Toro's wonderful fantasy movie The Shape of Water, concerning a captured amphibious humanoid (click here to read my review of it), earlier today I was asked on Facebook whether I knew anything about the subject of a striking photograph currently doing the rounds on social media sites, including the Fortean Times Appreciation Group on FB. Happily, I knew quite a lot about it, so here is the remarkable history of the mermaid of Haraldskaer.
The photograph in question is the one that opens this present ShukerNature blog article of mine, and shows what seems on first sight to be the skeleton of a mermaid. The photo had been shared on the Fortean Times Appreciation FB group from another such group, Pictures in History, where some brief details of its supposed origin and nature had been provided, and which are as follows.
Allegedly, this skeleton is that of a mermaid that had been found at Haraldskaer in mainland Denmark by a farmer while ploughing his field. And according to a more detailed description presented alongside it at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen where the mermaid of Haraldskaer has been on display since 2010, it was about 18 years old, with long thick hair and long sharp canines, and also had a purse that contained a shark's tooth, a snake's tail, a mussel shell, and a flower (just like any self-respecting mermaid would be expected to keep inside her purse). Its species is claimed to be Hydronymphus pesci, believed extinct since the end of the 17th Century, and apart from a missing left hand the skeleton is complete, much more so than the only other known H. pesci skeleton, apparently held at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, which lacks a tail. Moreover, this species is believed to belong to the Asian lineage of merfolk, thereby making the finding of specimens in Europe especially rare.
Close-up of the tail of the Haraldskaer mermaid skeleton (© Danish National Museum – reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis, for review purposes only)
Altogether a fascinating history, but, needless to say, entirely fictitious. In fact, as Danish zoologist and cryptozoological researcher Lars Thomas has kindly informed me, the Haraldskaer mermaid skeleton, complete with shark-inspired tail, was manufactured by Mille Rude, a Danish artist, for a special exhibition staged in Copenhagen during 2012. It was later moved to a different museum, possibly the museum in Vejle on the east coast of the Jutland peninsula, constituting western Denmark. So far, so straightforward, but this is cryptozoology, albeit featuring in this instance an unequivocal cryptozoological gaff (an artificially constructed specimen). Consequently, nothing is ever that straightforward, as will be revealed a little later here.
Meanwhile: One of the most famous tourist attractions in Denmark is Erik Eriksen's charming bronze statue of the eponymous character in Hans Christian Andersen's delightful 1837 fairytale The Little Mermaid. Eriksen's sculpture, measuring just 50 in high and weighing 385 lb, was officially unveiled on 23 August 1913, residing on permanent display thereafter upon a rock at the edge of Copenhagen's harbour. Since then, it has been visited, posed alongside, and photographed by millions of tourists from all over the world, including my mother and myself back in 1979, and is officially classed as a National Treasure of Denmark
For much of 2010, however, this fish-tailed icon was temporarily absent from her accustomed site at the harbour side when she starred instead in the Danish Pavilion at the 2010 World Expo, held in Shanghai, China, remaining there from late March to 31 October. So forlorn and forsaken was the rocky prominence upon which she had sat for generations, gazing wistfully across the waters, however, that a plan, or, to be precise, a prank, was hatched to replace her there, if only for a very short time, but with something equally fishy – in every sense.
Erik Eriksen's statue of The Little Mermaid (© Dr Karl Shuker)
And so it was that on 31 March, just before April Fool's Day, the skeleton of a mermaid duly appeared in the statue's stead, sitting on her rock in a similar pose, and heralded with the somewhat macabre announcement to the media that the Little Mermaid had returned. After residing there for two hours, during which time it had attracted considerable attention and photo-snapping from locals and tourists alike, the skeleton was removed and taken to the Natural History Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen, where it was on public display throughout the Easter holiday period. But what is the true nature of this very striking specimen?
It is, of course, another gaff – this time consisting of a human skeleton down to and including its hips, plus the tail of a swordfish Xiphias gladius. Its creation and the prank of placing it briefly on show at the harbour during the Little Mermaid's Chinese leave of absence was the brainchild of Hanne Strager, the head of exhibitions at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen, and it certainly attracted immense interest – and not just in spring 2010. It had actually been created a couple of years earlier at the museum, to feature in an exhibition there devoted to legendary animals, and had been specifically structured to mimic the pose adopted by the Little Mermaid statue. But what has any of this to do with the Haraldskaer mermaid skeleton? I'm glad that you asked.
The skeleton of the Haraldskaer mermaid as posed upon the Little Mermaid statue's rock (© Natural History Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen – reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis, for review purposes only)
Photographs of the Haraldskaer mermaid skeleton have been circulating widely online for some years, and far more so, unfortunately, than the facts behind them, so that these pictures have incited (and continue to incite) much speculation as to whether the skeleton is actually genuine. Not only that, in an all-too-familiar trend seen on the Net with unusual images, they have even inspired various entirely new, but equally fictitious histories for it.
Consequently, I have seen some sites claiming that the skeleton has been the subject of much controversy since being discovered in Poland(!), and even in Indonesia – one site affirming that it had been discovered in Surabaya, on the island of Java. Worst of all, however, is that all of the media reports that I have read concerning it, even those from ostensibly respectable sources, have either been incomplete or decidedly ambiguous, inasmuch as they have implied that the Haraldskaer mermaid skeleton (created by Rude) and the mermaid skeleton placed briefly on the Little Mermaid statue's rock (and whose creation was overseen by Strager) are one and the same, when in reality they are entirely different, albeit extremely similar specimens. Hence I wish to thank Lars Thomas most sincerely for revealing to me the true situation, and thereby assisting me to bring to a close the exceedingly curious and hitherto highly-confused case of the two mermaid skeletons, and also to Richard S. White and Markus Bühler for arousing my suspicions regarding the online sources consulted by me when originally preparing this blog article. Indeed, it now means that this article of mine may well be the only account presently online that provides an accurate, non-conflated coverage of these two gaffs.
A popular expression is that you can't keep a good man (or woman) down. Neither, it would seem, can you keep a good mermaid (or two) down, nor even, at the risk of mixing metaphors even further, can the internet let sleeping mermaids lie – even ones that never existed to begin with!
My mother Mary Shuker and I visiting the Little Mermaid in 1979 (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Published on February 26, 2018 07:55 • 1 view
February 23, 2018
Film still featuring the Amazonian gill man from The Shape of Water (2017 - first screened on 13 February 2018 in the UK) and a publicity poster for it (© Guillermo Del Toro/TSG Entertainment/Double Dare You Productions/Fox Searchlight Pictures – reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis for review purposes only)
Yesterday afternoon I paid my first visit of 2018 to my local cinema, to see The Shape of Water, and what a memorable, moving, and thoroughly mesmerising movie it was.
A fantasy drama directed by Guillermo del Toro, which earned for him a greatly-deserved BAFTA award for Best Director last Sunday, it is based upon a story co-written by him and Vanessa Taylor, and pays homage to a favourite monster movie from his childhood – the classic b/w 1950s film The Creature From the Black Lagoon. However, it also readily recalls one of his own earlier movies, Pan's Labyrinth (click here to read my mini-review of this equally spellbinding film after watching it last year), which is another dark fantasy by him imbued with the same fundamental message proffered now in The Shape of Water - namely, that love knows no boundaries, that love really can conquer all.
Film still featuring the gill man (played on land by Ben Chapman) and Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) in The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954); and photograph of Ricou Browning, the uncredited actor who played the gill man in underwater scenes, with the gill man's head costume (© Jack Arnold/Universal Pictures – reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis for review purposes only / public domain)
The Shape of Water is a deftly-fused mash-up of the intrinsic themes present in Charles Perrault's timeless fairy tale Beauty and the Beast (self-explanatory) and Victor Hugo's immortal novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame (who is the monster, and who is the man?), and depicts both components brilliantly. For 'creature feature' aficionados and cryptozoologists alike, the film's visual focus is an Amazonian gill man (bearing a notable resemblance, as it does, to certain amphibious humanoid entities allegedly encountered in reality - click here to read a ShukerNature article by me concerning them), who had been worshipped as a living god by the local native tribes before being captured alive by sadistic military man Colonel Richard Strickland (played with tangible malevolence by Michael Shannon) and hauled back by him to a top-secret aerospace research facility in Baltimore, USA. Here he plans for this astonishing being, capable of breathing both on land and underwater, to be vivisected in order to learn how it functions physiologically, as a means of determining how humans could be modified or at least assisted in the future to live in Space, and thereby placing the USA far ahead of competing Russian technology during this early 1960s Cold War-set time period.
Played by Doug Jones in a truly stunning, breathtaking performance, this freshwater bipedal merman is an absolute triumph of seamless acting skill, costume creation, and overlain CGI, who conveys an incredible diversity of emotions, from savage survival to tender love, without speaking a single word. And so too does the heroine, Elisa Esposito, played with BAFTA- and Academy Award-nominated genius by Sally Hawkins, a young woman working as a cleaner at the research facility who for reasons darkly hinted at but never confirmed has been mute since her earliest days, when she was rescued from a river as an abandoned orphan with unexplained scars on her neck, but she can hear normally and is able to communicate far more eloquently than most people who are gifted with speech.
Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water: Creating a Fairy Tale for Troubled Times by Gina McIntyre, foreword by Guillermo del Toro – gorgeous large-format book published in December 2017, documenting the making of the film and its associated art (© Gina McIntyre and Guillermo del Toro – reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis for review purposes only)
It contains one truly gory but mercifully brief scene, in which one of their allies is hideously tortured by the vengeful Strickland after Elisa rescues and flees with the gill man just before it is due to be vivisected, but otherwise this magical, totally captivating film is required, unmissable viewing for lovers of sci-fi, fantasy, cryptozoology, period drama, and yes, romance too.
The period settings were superb, especially Elisa's apartment and that of her artist friend Giles (played by Richard Jenkins) down the hall, and so too were the evocative songs from the 1940s (an era beloved by Giles) – including a particular favourite of mine from that bygone age, 'I Know Why (And So Do You)', which served as a recurrent, unofficial theme (click here to view and listen to the version utilised, featuring Paula Kelly & The Modernaires with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, which originally appeared in the 1941 movie Sun Valley Serenade). However, the vibrant magnetism between Elisa and the gill man, communicated wordlessly throughout but with palpable, ever-increasing intensity, is the beating heart of this extraordinary film.
A scene from Pan's Labyrinth, featuring the faun and the young heroine Ofelia (© Guillermo del Toro/Telecinco Cinema/Estudios Picasso/Tequila Gang/Esperanto Filmoj/Sententia Entertainment/Warner Bros - reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis for review purposes only)
Without giving anything away, the sublime ending of this movie and of Pan's Labyrinth are very similar in theme and execution, but given the nature of their stories there could have been no other option - any other conclusion would have cheated the audience and made a mockery of these films' raison d'être. If you see no other movie on the big screen this year, do go and see The Shape of Water, which is definitely afforded a significant additional dimension by a cinematic presentation and has been justifiably nominated for no fewer than 13 Academy Awards, and, for a couple of hours, enables us to enter another world, one of fantasy, terror, pathos, and, above all, love - in all of its strange, hypnotic, unfathomable, indefinable, but life-empowering potency and glory. And if after having read my review, you still don't believe me, be sure to click here to view a tempting taster of a trailer for this movie currently accessible on YouTube.
Finally, and on a very personal note, in the last few seconds of the film the artist character Giles, who opened the film with a few words of introduction, ends it now with a few more, this time including a quote from a poem that I wasn't previously familiar with, but whose words, for reasons that those of you who know me and my own story well will fully understand, resonated within not only my heart but also my very soul, so that for several minutes after the film had ended and the credits were rolling by, I just sat there, alone, in the darkness, and remembered...
Unable to perceive the shape of You,I find You all around me.Your presence fills my eyes with Your love,It humbles my heart,For You are everywhere.
Attributed to the 12th-Century Persian poet Hakim Sanai
My mother Mary Shuker and I, holding my two models of the gill man from The Creature From the Black Lagoon movie, which was Guillermo del Toro's inspiration for The Shape of Water (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Published on February 23, 2018 19:20 • 5 views
February 21, 2018
Painting of a Pilgrim Fathers Thanksgiving feast seemingly attended by a sasquatch! (Public domain image digitally photo-manipulated by person/s unknown to me)
It's been a while since I posted a ShukerNature Picture of the Day, but I recently saw online an eyecatching illustration that seemed ready-made for this purpose, so here it is, presented above.
Moreover, this nothing-if-not-memorable image has lately been reposted far and wide on social media sites and beyond, and has attracted much speculation as to whether it and the extraordinary event depicted by it might actually be real – so naturally I had to find out, and this is what I found.
As can be seen, it appears to be a painting of a very early American Thanksgiving celebration, featuring Pilgrim Father figures with their families, friends, and some visiting Native American representatives…plus one highly unexpected, additional attendee. Occupying centre stage, right at the heart of all of the activities and, judging from its expression, taking a keen, intelligent interest in everything, is a bigfoot (sasquatch), albeit one with somewhat orangutan-hued fur.
Needless to say, if this painting were genuine, dated back to some far-gone period in American history, and depicted a real incident, it would constitute an astonishing piece of evidence in support of the bigfoot's reality. However, being only too aware from my investigations of numerous previous examples of supposed visual proof for cryptid existence of how readily images can be digitally photo-manipulated using Photoshop and other such programs, I had little (if any) doubt that this was yet another such case, with the bigfoot image having been digitally added to some genuine pre-existing artwork. But to confirm my suspicions, I needed to uncover that artwork.
Happily, this task took very little time to accomplish, thanks to a successful Google Image-driven online search duly conducted by me. Consequently, I was soon gazing on my computer screen at that original, unmodified, and conspicuously bigfoot-lacking painting – and here it is:
'The First Thanksgiving 1621', painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, sometime between c.1912 and c.1915 (public domain)
As captioned above, the painting in question is entitled 'The First Thanksgiving 1621', and had been produced sometime between c.1912 and c.1915 by Philadelphia-born American painter Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930), who was best known for his series of 78 paintings depicting scenes from American history entitled 'The Pageant of a Nation'.
This is currently the largest series of American historical paintings produced by an artist working alone, rather than with assistants or as part of a collaborative artist group. The above painting is part of that series, and as confirmed by its title it portrays the very first Thanksgiving celebration to have taken place in North America, which occurred in 1621. This was a major three-day event that was held during the end of September or early October, and in the painting Ferris depicted the Pilgrim Fathers and their families sharing their feast with (un?)invited members from the Native American Wampanoag nation.
However, this famous artwork has attracted various criticisms concerning inaccuracies of depiction in it by Ferris relating to both the Pilgrim Father colonists and the Wampanoag figures. Apparently, the black costumes worn by the colonists in this painting are incorrect, inasmuch as back in 1621 the colonists would have been wearing brightly-coloured costumes, but without buckles, because those accoutrements did not come into fashion until much later during that century.
Equally, the Wampanoag did not wear elaborate feathered head-dresses like those that they are portrayed wearing here by Ferris, nor would they have sat on the ground, and there would have been more of them present at the feast than colonists, because they are known to have outnumbered the colonists 2:1.
Perhaps it is just as well, therefore, that the bigfoot's presence in this painting as seen in the version of it circulating online and investigated here on ShukerNature is due entirely to photo-manipulated fraudulence (and by person/s unknown) rather than in any way to Ferris – otherwise, painting purists may well have suffered a serious bout of collective, convulsive apoplexy!
Now you see it, now you don't – comparing the photo-manipulated, bigfoot-incorporating faked version of Ferris's painting (top) with the unmodified, bigfoot-lacking original version (bottom) (public domain)
Published on February 21, 2018 08:47 • 1 view
February 18, 2018
BEHOLD, UNEEKA! UNCOVERING A HITHERTO-FORGOTTEN PHOTOGRAPH OF THE ONLY LIVING LIJAGUPARD EVER TO BE EXHIBITED IN BRITAIN – A SHUKERNATURE WORLD-EXCLUSIVE!
Newly-uncovered by me, the only known photograph of Uneeka the lijagupard in the living state (from the archives of Dr Karl Shuker)
A few months ago here on ShukerNature, I recalled the eventful history of a truly remarkable big cat – namely, an adult female three-wayhybrid aptly dubbed Uneeka, her parents being a male lion and a female jaguar x leopard hybrid (click here to access my article), thereby making her a lijagupard. Originally claimed to be a new species and exhibited in London Zoo for just over a fortnight during April 1908, then purchased by Glasgow-based circus/menagerie owner Edward H. Bostock on 2 May for the very sizeable sum of 1030 guineas and taken back with him to Glasgow in Scotland, Uneeka was allegedly killed just over a year later by a lion that supposedly broke through from its own cage into Uneeka's. Yet, very strangely, when Uneeka's pelt was dressed and subsequently mounted as a taxiderm specimen (since displayed in Paris's National Museum of Natural History), it was found not to bear a single tear or scratch.
Although there are photographs available of this taxiderm specimen, some of which have featured in various scientific papers and other publications, as far as I am aware only one illustration depicting Uneeka when alive has ever appeared in any documentation of her. Included in a number of my own writings and also present online, this was a very elegant rendition executed in 1908 by English zoological artist Frederick W. Frohawk – and here it is:
Uneeka, depicted in 1908 by Frederick W. Frohawk (public domain)
Consequently, I was both delighted but also very startled when recently browsing through some vintage issues of a London weekly magazine entitled the Illustrated London News to discover in one of them a b/w photograph of Uneeka in the living state! Portraying her sitting inside a cage, this zoologically-invaluable image was one of a series of photographs depicting various London-themed subjects that had lately been in the news, all presented together on a single page in the 9 May 1908 issue of this magazine.
And so it is with great pleasure that now, as a ShukerNature world-exclusive, I reproduce here in this present article of mine (the first time to my knowledge that it has ever appeared in a zoological publication) this ostensibly unique, certainly hitherto long-forgotten photograph of Uneeka as a then still-living lijagupard – the only such hybrid ever exhibited alive anywhere in Britain.
The photograph of Uneeka with its original caption underneath (from the archives of Dr Karl Shuker)
Despite its great age (almost 120 years old), this photograph clearly reveals not only Uneeka's lioness-like head and face but also the large size and intricate patterning of her rosettes, emphasising how extremely attractive and exotic this elegant felid must have appeared to those visitors who had been fortunate enough to observe her during her short period of display at London Zoo and her somewhat longer exhibition at Glasgow prior to her mysterious demise there. The photo's brief accompanying caption confirms that Uneeka had just been sold to Mr Bostock for the afore-mentioned sum of 1030 guineas, so presumably she had been snapped while still in London, and was awaiting transportation back to Glasgow with him.
Down through the years, I have been blessed with some exceedingly fortunate if entirely unexpected, unsought-for picture-related discoveries relative to unusual big cats, of which my uncovering this long-overlooked vintage photograph of Uneeka the lijagupard is only the most recent.
The January 1970 newspaper article re Johnny the Japanese leopon that I rediscovered entirely by accident 30 years later and now treasure greatly! (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Back in 2000, for example, and via the most unlikely manner conceivable, I rediscovered a copy of an illustrated newspaper article that I had originally seen over 30 years earlier, in January 1970, concerning the popularity in a Japanese zoo of an inordinately handsome male leopon (leopard x lioness) hybrid called Johnny (click here to access my full account of the truly extraordinary events leading up to my refinding this well-remembered but long-lost article).
A few years later, while idly browsing through a box of old picture postcards at a local collector's fair, I spotted – and swiftly purchased – a vintage postcard whose picture was of a domestic dog acting as a surrogate mother to some lion x tiger hybrid cubs, and which I had never seen before, nor since, but which I subsequently published in my book Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), the first time as far as I can tell that it had ever appeared in any publication.
Remarkably, not long afterwards, and at the very same collector's fair, I was looking through a box of assorted brochures when I found in excellent condition a copy of a Bristol Zoo guide that I had once owned many years ago as a child in the late 1960s but which I had cut up for its pictures, to paste into a scrapbook, and had bitterly regretted doing so afterwards, but had never found another copy of it. The reason why this particular zoo guide had meant so much to me was that its front cover consisted of a beautiful full-colour photograph of a white tiger, the first picture of a white tiger that I had ever seen. But now, almost 40 years later, there was this fondly-remembered picture in front of me again. So, not surprisingly, I lost no time in buying the guide, where it takes pride of place in my collection of zoo guides (click here for more details).
The much-loved Bristol Zoo guide from the 1960s that I was fortunate enough to find again and buy again, after almost 40 years, complete with its beautiful white tiger cover (© Bristol Zoo Gardens/Dr Karl Shuker)
And just last year, I was astounded to learn that a book that I owned just so happened to contain the only known colour photograph of Cubanacan – a magnificent male litigon (the offspring of a mating between a male lion and a female tiger x lioness hybrid). Once the world's largest big cat in captivity, he was born at India's Alipore Zoo in 1979, and had been exhibited there during the 1980s until his eventual death.
Moreover, what made my ownership of a book containing this important photograph even more significant was that Indian researchers had long thought the photo to be lost, until I brought its existence in that book to the attention of celebrated Indian naturalist Shubhobroto S. Ghosh (currently Wildlife Project Manager of World Animal Protection in India). Shortly afterwards, I co-authored with him a Cubanacan-themed article (click here to read it online) in which we reproduced this historic picture for the very first time in any Indian publication (click here for my full ShukerNature account of this wonderful rediscovery).
If only my good fortune in serendipitously unearthing obscure and long-overlooked big cat illustrations could extend to rediscovering equally arcane images of the avian persuasion too – for then, the alleged missing thunderbird photograph (click here for details) might one day be neither alleged nor missing!
The only known colour photograph of Cubanacan the litigon, which I fortuitously rediscovered (© Alipore Zoo)
Published on February 18, 2018 16:56 • 2 views
February 16, 2018
Wiveliscombe winged cat report from the November 1899 issue of Strand Magazine – click to enlarge for reading purposes (public domain)
In November 1899, as revealed above, London's Strand Magazinecontained a short report and accompanying photograph of a most unusual cat. Owned by a lady from Wiveliscombe, Somerset, it seemed just like any other ordinary household moggy - except for one very dramatic difference. Sprouting from its mid-back, i.e. roughly midway between its shoulders and its haunches, was a large pair of furry wings! Amazing as it might seem, this is neither a hoax nor a unique case.
As readers of my writings, especially those dealing with mysteries and anomalies of the feline kind, will be readily aware, back in the early 1990s I revealed the long-awaited answer to the riddle of winged cats (but more about that later), my discovery being further corroborated in subsequent years by veterinary examinations of such animals. Moreover, I have written extensively about winged cats on numerous occasions down through the years from the early 1990s onwards, in various of my books and in many articles (especially for Fortean Times).
Consequently, it was with not a little surprise that I realised only very recently that I have presented scant coverage of such creatures here on ShukerNature. So in order to rectify this grievous omission on my part, here is a detailed history and annotated checklist of winged cats, not only compiled from my various previous writings and researches (and which, you will not be surprised to hear, have been copied and plagiarised extensively online and elsewhere, just like so much of my work – ah well, what is it that they say about imitation and flattery?), but also exclusively including for this present ShukerNature blog article some additional examples and illustrations never previously included in any winged cat compilation.
Click here to discover how I revealed that this decidedly bizarre 17th-Century engraving of a bat-winged cat was most probably an early attempt to depict a colugo or flying lemur (public domain)
WINGED CATS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
The earliest record that I have so far encountered of what appears to be a bona fide winged cat exhibits all the characteristics of the more famous examples that would be documented decades later. In 1854, the celebrated American writer Henry David Thoreau published a book entitled Walden; or Life in the Woods, which recounted the two years that he had purposefully spent living apart from the rest of the world in a self-built cabin amid woodlands by the shores of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. In his book, Thoreau recalled that in 1842 a very peculiar cat lived in a Lincoln farmhouse owned by a Gilian Baker close to the pond. The cat's sex was unknown, but was referred to for convenience by Thoreau as 'she', and according to her owner she had first appeared in the neighbourhood during April 1841, before eventually being taken in by the Baker family. She was specifically referred to locally as a 'winged cat' - for good reason:
...that she was of a dark brownish-grey colour, with a white spot on her throat, and white feet, and had a large bushy tail like a fox; that in the winter the fur grew thick and flatted out along her sides, forming stripes [often misquoted as strips] ten or twelve inches long by two and a half wide, and under her chin like a muff, the upper side loose, the under matted like felt, and in the spring these appendages dropped off. They gave me a pair of her "wings", which I keep still. There is no appearance of a membrane about them. Some thought it was part flying-squirrel or some other wild animal.
However strange a winged cat might seem, it pales into insignificance beside a crossbreed of cat and flying squirrel, which is truly a zoological impossibility for fundamental taxonomic, genetic, and behavioural reasons.
A brightly-plumed winged cat from f 174 r in the Maastricht Hours (public domain)
Incidentally, the reason why I referred to the Thoreau-documented example as "the earliest record that I have so far encountered of what appears to be a bona fide winged cat" is that I also have on file a winged cat illustration that predates it by several centuries, but was clearly not intended to represent a real animal. I discovered it a while ago in a medieval illuminated devotional manuscript entitled the Maastricht Hours, produced in the Netherlands and dating back to the early 1300s. It appears in the margin on the recto side of folio 174. However, as seen here, its wings are not furry, but instead are feathered and brightly-hued, like those of a bird.
Clearly, just like snail-cats (click here for more details) and elephant rats (click here ), not to mention a Yoda-lookalike ( here ) and even a Nosferatu doppelgänger ( here ), they owe more to the ennui-fuelled imagination of the monks laboriously engaged in the prolonged, boredom-inducing task of creating or transcribing these magnificent works seeking solace in surreptitiously doodling these subversive, humorous marginalia mini-monsters than to anything engendered by Mother Nature!
Meanwhile, in June 1893 a number of English newspapers carried reports of a most unusual court case, featuring the stealing of a winged cat in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. According to these reports, its wings were nothing more than clumps of matted fur. Nevertheless, it evidently must have looked sufficiently strange and novel to have incited someone to steal it from its owner. Here is a facsimile of the actual report that appeared in the Bristol Mercury newspaper for 23 June 1893:
Coverage of the court case re the Leeds winged cat, from the Bristol Mercury, 23 June 1893 - click to enlarge for reading purposes (public domain)
On 3 August 1894, Cambridgeshire's Independent Press newspaper carried the following intriguing report:
A live cat with wings resembling those of a duckling is now being exhibited in the neighbourhood by Mr David Badcock of the Ship Inn, Reach [near Peterborough]. The cat which is a year old did not until recently expose such a remarkable freak of nature, but being somewhat roughly handled spread out its wings. The owner charges the sum of 2d for callers in the daytime to see such a strange beast and has commented taking it round the neighbouring villages in the evenings to exhibit.
Sadly, however, it seems that Mr Badcock made too much of a show of his marvellous moggie, because a week later the Independent Press reported that it had been catnapped!
The "Remarkable cat" reported in our last issue has been stolen. It is hoped however the thief or thieves will soon be run down, as the animal, our correspondent understands, has been traced to Liverpool.
Nothing more emerged regarding this story, so whether the cat was reclaimed is unknown.
Delightful stone ornament of a winged cat, albeit of the whimsical feather-winged variety - or should that be pheasant-winged, like the following real-life example? (© Randi MacDonald)
From Cambridgeshire to Derbyshire, and a report from 26 June 1897 in a Matlock newspaper, the High Peak News, that described a doubly-strange winged cat. It had been shot by a Mr Roper of Winster, who had seen it on Brown Edge and mistook it for a fox:
It proved to be an extraordinarily large tomcat, tortoiseshell in colour with fur two and a half inches long, with the remarkable addition of fully-grown pheasant's wings projecting from each side of its fourth rib...Never has its like been seen before, and eyewitnesses state that, when running, the animal used its wings outstretched, to help it over the surface of the ground, which it covered at a tremendous pace.
Ironically, the most unusual characteristic of this particular cat is not its "pheasant's wings", which is probably no more than a fanciful way of describing long filamentous expanses of furry skin (as opposed to feathers!), but rather its sex. Due to the tortoiseshell condition being a sex-linked genetic mutation, virtually all tortoiseshell cats are female, thus making a male tortoiseshell cat if anything even more extraordinary than a winged cat.
A beautiful grey Angora winged cat from Spain, called Angolina, enraptured the Madrid media during May 1950. Owned by Juan Priego, a porter living near to Spain's houses of parliament, Angolina had been purchased in a Madrid pet shop, but had originally derived from Barcelona, together with her two normal, non-winged brothers. In June 1959, a second winged cat was reported from Madrid. Known as Michi, she was owned by an electrician. Not surprisingly, Angolina's eyecatching appearance attracted all manner of explanations. The most memorable of these, however, must surely be the theory that she signalled the return of a race of prehistoric flying cats originating from before the Great Flood of Noah!
Newspaper photograph of Michi (public domain)
In 1950, a fully-grown female tortoiseshell cat called Sandy gave her owners and neighbours in Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, a considerable shock when suddenly, without any previous warning, she began to grow a sizeable pair of wings on her shoulders! As a result, Sandy became so famous in the area that she was eventually displayed for a time in a local carnival.
One morning prior to the 1970s, the Manchester builder's firm of Banister Walton and Co in Trafford Park received an uninvited visitor of a very unusual kind. A dark, fluffy kitten strayed into their yard, and when the foreman picked it up he noticed to his surprise that it had two furry growths on its back. The kitten decided to make the yard its home, staying there for several years, and acquiring for the firm an appreciable amount of local publicity, because after about 12 months the kitten's 'growths' had matured into a pair of 11-in-long wings. And as if these were not strange enough, this peculiar animal's tail was also very odd. Instead of being long and slender like that of most cats, it was broad and flattened. Although a star during its lifetime, after its death Manchester's flat-tailed cat with wings was gradually forgotten, until later workers at the building firm began doubting that it had ever existed. Happily, its reality was confirmed on 23 September 1975, when, responding to one such worker's request for proof, the Manchester Evening News published a photograph of this feline wonder.
Sometimes, there have been allegations that cats like these can actually utilise their wings for flying! On 11 June 1933, for instance, the Sunday Dispatch newspaper published a photo of a black-and-white cat with extremely impressive wings (arising from just in front of its hindquarters) which it could raise up and down. It had been found during the evening of 9 June, prowling in the stables of Mrs Hughes Griffiths of Summerstown, Oxford, who alerted Oxford Zoo. Shortly afterwards, the zoo's managing director Frank Owen and its curator W.E. Sawyer successfully netted the animal unharmed, and took it back with them to the zoo. What makes this specimen particularly interesting is that according to Mrs Griffiths, it "used its wings in a manner similar to a bird", enabling it to leap considerable distances.
Oxford winged cat (public domain)
An even more spectacular winged cat was the fearsome specimen shot in northern Sweden during June 1949 after it had supposedly swooped down upon a child. However, it is highly unlikely that it actually "swooped" - it had, most probably, simply jumped upon the child's back or shoulders unexpectedly from behind. Nevertheless, this specimen does have one special claim to fame, the biggest wingspan on record for any winged cat - an astonishing 23 in!
Yet even these remarkable examples seem positively mundane in comparison with the feline horror reported from the community of Alfred, in Ontario, Canada, during 1966. Black in colour, it was graphically referred to as a vampire cat, because it not only bore two 7-in-long furry wings on its back, but also possessed a pair of lengthy, needle-sharp fangs protruding from its mouth. Most bizarre of all, however, was the sensational claim by local eyewitnesses that this eerie beast could truly fly - screaming ferociously as it soared above the ground on outstretched wings, scaring frightened onlookers, and attacking normal, earthbound cats. Its reign of terror lasted for several weeks, but ended on 24 June, when it was shot dead by shopkeeper Jean J. Revers. The body of Alfred's extraordinary 'vampire cat' was initially buried, but it had attracted such attention when alive that it was soon exhumed and made available for a scientific autopsy, performed on 30 June by Dr E.B. Meas, director of the Kemptville Agricultural School's veterinary laboratory nearby. When its supposed wings were examined, however, they proved merely to be a loose, ragged extension of matted fur, sprouting from its back's lower, lumbar region and insufficiently substantial to support any form of true flight. Furthermore, the cat itself was found to have been almost starved, and rabid - explaining its insane, vicious attacks upon other animals and people. All in all, it was in such a poor state of health that it would certainly have been too weak even to walk or run properly, let alone fly - making even more puzzling the statements by eyewitnesses that it had indeed been observed flying, and over an appreciable period of time.
Canadian winged cat history closely repeated itself in October 1993, for this was when another savage winged cat from that same country and again gifted with supposed flying abilities – or at least prodigious powers of leaping – was shot dead after attacking a cat and a dog, this time in Ayersville, Quebec. According to a report published in L'Argenteuil on 4 October 1993, and which included a photograph of the dead black-and-white cat's carcase with its black-furred wings raised above its body, after leaping 40 ft and attacking the two animals it had hidden under the porch of Ayersville resident Conrad Larocque, but was shot dead by him with seven 22-gauge bullets. The subsequent fate of this winged cat's carcase, claimed in the report to have weighed 20 lb, is unknown.
Newspaper report re Thomas-Mitzi, from the Philadelphia Inquirer, 7 June 1959 – click to enlarge for reading purposes (© Philadelphia Inquirer, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis educational/review purposes only)
No less controversial, but for a very different reason, was a winged cat called Thomas or Mitzi, the name depending upon which of the two parties claiming ownership of this curious creature was its rightful owner. The case went to court on 5 October 1959, in West Virginia's Pineville, where teenager Douglas Shelton said that he had found 'Thomas' (actually a female cat!) in a tree during May of that year. Disputing his claim was Mrs Charles Hicks, who stated that 'Thomas' was really 'Mitzi', who had run away from her home some time earlier. Before any ruling could be given, however, the case offered up a very surprising climax. When the cat was brought into the court as an official exhibit, it was found to lack the vital feature required by any bona fide winged cat. Thomas-Mitzi was wingless! In July, it had apparently shed its wings, but they had been kept afterwards in a cardboard box, and were shown by Shelton to the judge. Following this shock disclosure, Mrs Hicks announced that the cat was not hers after all, and one of America's most unusual court cases was duly dismissed.
A year earlier, but attracting far less attention than that of Thomas-Mitzi, another American winged cat had also been the subject of a court case. One day during late July 1958, the disputed creature in question had turned up unheralded at the home of Mr and Mrs Overbey, who lived in Sinai, Boston, in Massachusetts. Mrs Overbey decided to keep their unexpected visitor, and exhibited it in a wire mesh cage in their barn, where for the next few days it attracted many visitors anxious to see such a strange animal. However, one of these visitors, a neighbour named Mrs Alice Ferrell, claimed that she was the owner of this cat, and said that its name was Susie (notwithstanding the fact that it was male! – what is it about winged cats that seems to cause such ambiguity when naming them??). The resulting dispute between the two women became so heated that the case finally went to court, where, after much deliberation, the presiding judge awarded ownership to Mrs Ferrell – not that it made any difference, however, because by this time the cat had vanished, believed by both parties to have been stolen by some unknown third party.
Yet again in America, but this time Pennsylvania, a one-year-old tomcat named Fluffy, owned by 11-year-old Barbara Grimm of Georges Twp, hit the headlines in May 1965 when he began sprouting a pair of laterally-extending wings a fortnight earlier. A photo of Fluffy with outspread wings appeared in the Evening Standard (Uniontown, Penns.) on 12 May 1965, but this is the first time that Fluffy has been documented in any winged cat review.
Newspaper report re Fluffy, from the Evening Standard (Uniontown, Penns., 12 May 1965 – click to enlarge for reading purposes (© Evening Standard, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis educational/review purposes only)
In August 1995, Steve Volk revealed that several years earlier, while visiting the Isle of Wight off southern England, he spotted a taxiderm specimen of a winged cat in a tourist attraction exhibiting other stuffed animals, as well as waxworks of historical people associated with the island. It would be interesting to see if this cat could still be traced.
Also first brought to public attention in 1995 was a friendly tabby cat with very fluffy fur that almost concealed its distinctive wings. Fortunately, however, they were noticed by Martin Milner, when he bent down to stroke the animal while passing through its home village of Backbarrow, during a holiday in Cumbria, northern England, in April 1995. He later learnt that the winged tabby belonged to Backbarrow's retired postman.
In May 2007, news emerged of a winged cat in China – the first recorded from that vast country. Owned by Granny Feng of Xianyang city in Shaanxi province, the white four-year-old tom with a handsome black and white face was the proud possessor of a pair of hairy 8-inch-long wings, and has been pictured in media accounts worldwide. His wings began as a small pair of bumps in April 2007, but within a month had quickly grown into their much-photographed form. According to Feng, they contain bone, but this is more likely to be gristle, or even hard pads of matted fur. Intriguingly, Feng also claims that her tom grew his wings after being harassed by many female cats in heat.
Turkish winged cat (© owner unknown – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
During 2008, a winged cat was reported in Oguz, Turkey. Owned by a Mrs Kuhak, this somewhat belligerent grey-furred specimen meows loudly whenever anyone comes to her door, then shakes its wings angrily if the visitor is not deterred – as confirmed in video clips recorded by Kuhak on her mobile phone and accessible on YouTube (at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tbFy...). Happily, the enticement of a bowl of yoghurt offered by its owner is apparently sufficient to pacify this bizarre feline guard-dog.
Most recently, longstanding Czech friend and correspondent Miroslav 'Mirek' Fišmeister kindly brought to my attention a Moravian winged cat. Publicised during May 2017 by the Czech media, the cat in question is known as Mike, and has been looked after for the past year by the Semrad family from Vržanov, a small Moravian village near the city of Jihlava on the border of Moravia and Bohemia. Until mid-2017, Mike had sported a very dense coat that outwardly rendered him just like any other such cat, but when he shed it the hitherto-unsuspected presence of a pair of long furry 'wings' was revealed, sprouting from his flanks just in front of his haunches. Moreover, whereas some such appendages are in reality nothing more than clumps of unshed matted fur, in Mike's case his wings are apparently sensitive to touch, contain cartilage, and are still growing, according to various bemused scientists who have examined Mike. Consequently, it has been suggested that perhaps they represent externally-visible indications of an otherwise-concealed, internal twin, one that did not develop and separate normally during embryogeny. Although many cases of so-called parasitic twins are indeed known from a wide range of animals, including humans, it is far more likely that the correct explanation for Mike's wings is that they are the result of a rare genetically-induced skin condition that I'll be discussing here shortly. An excellent video of Mike displaying his wings is still currently viewable here .
Other examples on file include: a black-and-white winged cat from Anglesey, revealed in 1986, and providentially photographed just before it unexpectedly shed its wings; a similar cat from Sheffield called Sally (despite being a tom!), photographed in 1939; a winged cat of disputed sex called Thomas-Bessy, born in 1900 and whose rightful ownership had been contested in an English court case reminiscent of America's more recent version featuring Thomas-Mitzi; a Dutch example from 2008 named Prul, owned by a vet (more about Prul later); and a Scottish feral specimen from 2010, regularly fed and photographed by journalist Derek Uchman (ditto).
The Anglesey winged cat (© Wyn Williams)
FINDING THE ANSWER IN F.C.A.
Having long been interested in these furry anomalies, during the 1990s I instigated a thorough investigation by scanning the veterinary literature in search of further information and potential clues regarding their identity. It became clear that certain supposed winged cats were merely ordinary cats with thick wads of matted fur that looked vaguely wing-like and passively flapped up and down when the cats walked. However, during my search I also came upon several veterinary articles concerning a very obscure, genetically-inherited skin disorder of cats called feline cutaneous asthenia (F.C.A.).
Cats displaying F.C.A. have abnormally fragile skin that is exceptionally elastic in nature, especially on their shoulders and along their back, readily stretching to yield furry wing-like extensions that can be raised slightly if sufficient muscle fibres are present. Sometimes, these wings eventually peel off, but without any bleeding occurring, thereby creating the illusion that they have been shed or have moulted.
One of the most striking examples, documented in 1977 by American veterinary researchers Drs Donald F. Patterson and Ronald R. Minor in the journal Laboratory Investigation, was a young tom with short grey fur. The skin on its back's lumbar region was so hyperextensible that when gently lifted it could extend to a distance above the spine equal to 22 per cent of the cat's entire body length! Their paper included a photograph recording this incredible feat - it portrayed a classic 'winged cat'. The same was also true regarding the others documented in those articles. From these, it was perfectly clear that the extraordinary, hitherto-unexplained winged cats of magazine and newspaper reports were in reality specimens suffering from F.C.A.
Prul with his wings gently held out (© Martine Smids)
The mystery of the winged cats was finally solved - but why had no-one previously exposed the link between these creatures and F.C.A.? The answer is quite straightforward. Those scientists familiar with F.C.A. did not know about winged cat reports in the popular press, and those mystery animal investigators familiar with winged cat reports in the popular press did not know about F.C.A.! As both a scientist and an investigator of mystery animals, however, I was in the happy position of being able to make the crucial connection.
More than a decade after making that connection, I was contacted by Martine Smids, a small animals veterinarian from the Netherlands, who is the proud owner of a bona fide winged cat - a male called Prul. In a series of emails to me, beginning on 24 January 2008, Martine provided the following information (as well as some excellent photographs):
I own a so called 'winged cat'. It was brought to our practice in November 2005 at the age of 6 months. He was brought in because he had lost the complete skin of his tail, in a fight with a dog. The tail needed to be amputated. The owner...decided to leave the cat with us (this instead of euthanising the cat immediately). The cat didn't seem to be sick or unhappy, so I decided to keep the cat, although I didn't know what was wrong with him at that point. After weeks of diagnostic investigations and talking to veterinarian dermatologists, the diagnosis of Cutis [sic] Asthenia was made.
Close-up of Prul's hyperextensible skin (© Martine Smids)
Now, 2 years later, the cat is doing fine. Of course he is an indoor cat and he wears most of the time a little baby-sweater to protect his skin...Whenever he has skin lesions, I treat them very easy with agraffes (staples), he doesn't need sedation for this and even the largest wounds heal within a week. His wounds don't bleed and don't seem to hurt really...
Prul hasn't always 'wings', he only really has them when he has been licking on a certain spot for a long time, his skin stretches then into folds, sometimes his skin tears. These folds usually disappear after a while, when he stops licking.
Martine's Prul corroborates the direct link between winged cats and FCA that I’d uncovered back in the early 1990s - thereby bringing to a satisfactory conclusion an extraordinary feline mystery that had perplexed both the general public and the public media for many generations.
Close-up of Prul's wings (© Martine Smids)
On 17 April 2012, I was delighted to receive a batch of photographs and the following details from Malcolm Blacow of South County Dublin, concerning the first Irish winged cat of which I'm aware:
For over a year now, a semi feral cat has been living - on and off (and after seeing off the previous tenant) - in my garden in South County Dublin. It is a cute and affectionate ginger...which has been named variously Little Miss Monster, Little Mr Monster (it's not clear yet what sex it is) and The Bucket (for its eating ability) - originally showed no signs of the genetic mutation it now plainly exhibits. I'm not sure how old the cat is, but I get the feeling it's quite young so maybe that's a contributory factor.
The wings were located towards the rear end of the cat's back, a common site for wing development, and as the cat's fur is clearly well-groomed rather than matted, the wings are not merely clumps of matted fur. Instead, this animal seems to be a genuine F.C.A.-exhibiting winged cat.
The South County Dublinwinged cat (© Malcolm Blacow)
And on 14 September 2010, I received the following details and photographs of a feral winged cat that was being regularly fed by Scottish journalist Derek Uchman of Montifieth in Angus:
We have had a very timid stray cat visit our door for food for a couple of years now. As its fur is extremely long, and we are unable to groom it let alone entice it indoors, it gets very matted. This fur then slowly peels back to reveal a pair of "wings". Purely composed of hair they cannot be "flapped"...After a period of several months, the whole lot drops off, and the process begins again.
From his description and pictures, it was clear that in this particular case the wings did not derive from F.C.A. but were merely pads of matted fur, but a winged cat is still a winged cat, regardless of the mechanism by which its wings have developed.
The Montifieth winged cat (© Derek Uchman)
After contacting Derek directly, I learnt from him that he had retained the wings that the cat had shed a few months ago. Moreover, he was happy to give them to me if I would like them. Needless to say, my reply was such that, just three days later, a Special Delivery package arrived to my home, containing a most remarkable unnatural history specimen. It consisted of a thick, matted, yet clean mass of grey-streaked brown fur constituting two extensions (one longer than the other), and was remarkably resilient in texture, even though there was no skin or connective tissue attached. So now, among my many other zoological curios is a sealed transparent case containing the shed wings of a bona fide winged cat (click here for more photos).
Finally: continuing my previously-promised intermittent series of early cryptozoological and other anomalous animal articles of mine reproduced here on ShukerNature from their defunct original British and continental European magazines, I have dipped back into my archives to uncover one of my earliest winged cat articles, appearing in print only a short while after my F.C.A. revelation.
Published on 8 September 1993 in the now long-defunct British weekly magazine Me, it covered all of the major examples on record at that time (plus a photograph of the Manchester builders yard's flat-tailed winged cat), and here it is:
My winged cat article in the 8 September 1993 issue of the long-defunct British weekly magazine Me – please click to enlarge for reading purposes (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Nor could I end this article without including, for the first time in any of my winged cat coverages, the following brief but memorable (albeit highly mystifying) report brought to my attention by indefatigable bibliographical researcher Richard Muirhead. Published on 10 October 1906 ina Minnesota newspaper entitled the Duluth News-Tribune, its subject may, or may not, have been a winged cat, but it is certainly deserving of attention:
A CAT WITH WINGSThe boatswain of "The Caspian," an English schooner, brought with him from India a strange animal bird, which he always referred to as his "Tabby." It certainly looked more like a cat than anything else, but it was probably some freak of the animal world. It had two pairs of wings, but could fly only with difficulty, like a tame duck.
For the most comprehensive coverages of winged cats ever published, containing a number of additional cases not reported in this present ShukerNature blog article of mine, please see the relevant, respective chapters in my books Dr Shuker's Casebook and Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery .
My thanks to all of the winged cat eyewitnesses named here who kindly supplied me with details of their sightings, and to Richard Muirhead for generously providing me with archive material concerning several winged cat cases, including some that were entirely new to me.
Measuring approximately 12 in long, the shed wings of the Montifieth winged cat (© Derek Uchman)
Published on February 16, 2018 18:55 • 3 views
February 14, 2018
Albeit for all the wrong reasons, a very memorable engraving prepared by Friedrich Specht, portraying a concealed thylacine in the wild paying very close attention to a couple of unsuspecting kiwis nearby – from Das Buch Für Alle (1890) (public domain)
I used to think that double-takes were exclusive to clowns in circuses and comedy actors in silent movies. Yet not so long ago, while browsing the internet in search of information regarding the Queensland moa (click here to read my subsequent ShukerNature coverage of this avian anomaly), I performed a double-take that even the great Chaplin himself would, I'm sure, have been justifiably proud.
And the reason for my doing so was that I had unexpectedly caught sight of the illustration opening this present ShukerNature article – an illustration whose content did not immediately register upon my consciousness, so that my gaze momentarily passed elsewhere – until, that is, its patent zoological absurdity suddenly detonated inside my mind, causing me to look back instantly at it, mesmerised by doubt, amazement, and total bewilderment!
Yes, I had observed it correctly – this extraordinary engraving did indeed portray a concealed thylacine (aka Tasmanian wolf and Tasmanian tiger) Thylacinus cynocephalus in the wild paying very close attention to a trio of unsuspecting kiwis nearby. Artistically, it was well executed, but zoogeographically it was preposterous, for the simple reason that although thylacines are known from physical evidence to have existed at one time or another in Tasmania (confirmed until 1936), the Australian mainland (confirmed until c.2,300 years ago), and New Guinea (confirmed during Pleistocene), these remarkably wolf-like marsupials have never existed at any time in New Zealand, whereas kiwis have never existed anywhere else at any time but in New Zealand.
So how can we explain this illustration of the impossible, depicting a scene that could never have occurred in nature?
Engraving of Friedrich Specht, from 1892 (public domain)
Researching it online, I discovered to my great surprise that this most perplexing picture had been prepared by none other than the celebrated German wildlife illustrator Friedrich Specht (1839-1909), whose exquisite natural history engravings adorned many major multi-volume works published during the late 1800s, including Alfred E. Brehm's Brehms Tierleben (1864-1869) and Sir Richard Lydekker's The Royal Natural History (1894-1896). More specifically, I learned that this particular engraving by him had appeared in Das Buch Für Alle (1890), though I have so far been unable to locate a copy of the latter public-domain book online in order to see the engraving in situ and thus discover the precise context in which it appeared.
Bearing in mind how meticulously accurate his wildlife artwork has always been in the various natural history tomes containing it that I have both perused and purchased down through the years (including Lydekker's above-mentioned series and an English translation of Brehm's), the only plausible if somewhat startling explanation for this incongruous image is that Specht simply wasn't aware either that thylacines have never existed in New Zealand or that kiwis have never existed in Tasmania or mainland Australia. Yet someone as zoologically knowledgeable as Specht would certainly have done, surely?
Perhaps not, because while researching this thylacine-featuring Specht engraving I came upon a second example that included what may be another zoogeographical mismatch. As seen here, this one, which once again had appeared in Das Buch Für Alle, featured two thylacines pursuing an emu Dromaius novaehollandiae. On first sight, this seems straightforward, because Tasmania was indeed once home its very own emu subspecies, D. n. diemenensis, but which, tragically, had been hunted into extinction by the mid-1800s. However, it was supposedly distinguishable morphologically from the mainland Australian version, D. n. novaehollandiae, not only by throat-related colouring and neck feathering differences (paler throat, unfeathered neck) but also by a somewhat smaller overall size.
Yet based upon the relative proportions of the emu and the thylacines depicted in Specht's engraving, and also the appearance of that emu's throat (dark) and neck (feathered), it seems to me that the latter bird is of the mainland Australian subspecies rather than of the Tasmanian subspecies. However, as the thylacine became extinct on the mainland over 2,000 years ago, it would surely be rather unlikely that mainland Australia was the setting portrayed in this image.
Specht's engraving of two thylacines pursuing a taxonomically ambiguous emu, from Das Buch Für Alle (1890) (public domain)
Once again, therefore, Specht's knowledge of Antipodean fauna may have been deficient here, not realising that the Tasmanian emu looked different from its mainland Australian relative, and/or not realising that the thylacine had died out long ago in mainland Australia.
Having said that, it is true that around the time of the Tasmanian emu's extinction, mainland Australian emus were introduced onto its island homeland, and there is even some thought that these mainland interlopers may have actually hastened their native Tasmanian kin into extinction by hybridising with its last few surviving individuals. So, even if Specht's depicted emu is indeed of the mainland Australian subspecies, its occurrence in the presence of thylacines may not be inconsistent with a Tasmanian setting for his engraving after all.
Incidentally, while researching these two anomalous illustrations I also discovered that both of them were included in Tasmanian Tiger: A Lesson To Be Learnt (1998), authored by Eric Guiler and Philippe Godard, with the contribution of David Maguire. Yet while they shared my bemusement regarding the thylacine and kiwis example, and also my reservations concerning the thylacines and emu example, they did not provide any additional background information relating to either of them.
It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in at least the example of Specht's thylacine and kiwis engraving, it is probably worth a good deal less, with only its high level of artistry to commend it. Even so, discovering it was certainly a highlight of that particular online surfing session for me – then again, I am easily pleased!
Above: Hand-coloured lithograph, c.1910, of a Tasmanian emu prepared by John G. Keulemans, from The Birds of Australia by Gregory M. Mathews (public domain); Below: painting by John Gould of mainland Australian emus for his book Birds of Australia, Vol. 6(1865) (public domain)
Published on February 14, 2018 10:27 • 2 views
February 12, 2018
Photographs of the moss-overgrown skeleton and skull of a supposed water-horse at Ord, on the Inner Hebridean Isle of Skye, Scotland – please click to enlarge (© Leanne Geraerts)
Whereas Ringo Starr of The Beatles famously wrote and first performed in the 1960s his delightful song Octopus's Garden (one of my all-time favourite Beatles songs) about wanting to be under the sea in the garden of an eight-limbed cephalopod mollusc, all of which in turn irresistibly inspired me when deciding upon a title for this present ShukerNature blog article of mine, the rather more mysterious aquatic entity documented here is beside rather than beneath the sea, and only its mortal remains, well, remain – but they are in a garden, and overshadowed – indeed, overgrown – by moss. Let me explain.
On 15 October 2016, longstanding friend and fellow cryptozoological enthusiast Mike Playfair shared with me on Facebook some fascinating photographs recently snapped by a mutual friend, Leanne Geraerts, during her recent visit to the Inner Hebridean island of Skye. What made them so fascinating was their subject – the alleged skeleton of an each uisge, the much-dreaded Scottish water-horse!
Beautiful artistic representation of a water-horse (© Randi MacDonald)
Although a local attraction at Ord on Skye, where it is ensconced in the garden of a private home next to Ord's beach and easily observed in close-up detail by passers-by, this remarkable specimen has attracted surprisingly little cryptozoological attention, and these were the first photos of it that I had ever seen. According to the somewhat laconic public information plaque alongside it:
EACH UISGE EARBALLACHHYDRO EQUUS EXTENDUSLONG-TAILED WATER HORSEThis is the only known example of this rare beast - a distant relative of the better known Monstra Nessium Hydro[.] E.E. is usually sighted only twice a year when it swims inshore to browse on whelks. This specimen was stranded at an exceptionally low tide in 1967.
The skeleton is nowadays greatly overgrown with moss, but its basic anatomical features were still clearly visible, revealing it to be some form of whale. Scouring for more visual material online, I discovered a handful of websites that mentioned it briefly and included a few additional pictures (click here for the Faery Folklorist's observations and photos of it), but surprisingly its precise taxonomic identity did not appear to have ever been investigated. Consequently, I duly posted in my Journal of Cryptozoology Facebook group and several others some links to these sites and their photos, which attracted considerable interest.
The Ord water horse's skull (left) and a skull of Cuvier's beaked whale (right) (© Leanne Geraerts / © OpenCage/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.5 licence )
Moreover, based upon close comparisons of photos of its skull with ones depicting those of the various cetacean species known to inhabit or visit Scottish waters, I was able to determine that the water horse of Ord had actually been a Cuvier's beaked whale Ziphius cavirostris. This identity was also fully supported by fellow cryptozoological investigators Markus Bühler, Markus Hemmler, and Cameron McCormick. Incidentally, a Cuvier's beaked whale skull also proved to be the identity of another interesting initially-unidentified specimen (click here for details and for sight of an excellent photo of the skull, in turn providing an additional comparison with that of the Ord water horse).
For although its skull superficially resembles that of the northern bottlenose whale Hyperoodon ampullatus, the shape of the vertex (the upper skull portion, composed of four bones - the frontal, the paired parietals, and the occipital) corresponds much more favourably to that of one of the latter species' relatives, Ziphius, which is commonly found in waters surrounding the British Isles. Another cryptozoological mystery solved.
A skeleton and model of Cuvier's beaked whale exhibited at Geneva Museum, Switzerland (© Eveha/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
My sincere thanks to Leanne Geraerts for very kindly making her photographs available to me, to Mike Playfair for bringing yet another fascinating cryptozoological specimen to my attention, and to Markus Bühler, Markus Hemmler, and Cameron McCormick for their much-valued thoughts and opinions.
This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and expanded from my Alien Zoo cryptozoology news-roundup column in Fortean Times #348 (Christmas 2016 issue).
The public information plaque present alongside the Ord water-horse's skeleton (© Leanne Geraerts)
Published on February 12, 2018 07:25 • 2 views