Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Tuesday, 28 July 2015

THE LONG-NECKED SEAL IN CRYPTOZOOLOGY - PART 1: GIRAFFE SEALS AND SEA SERPENTS

Restoration of the Loch Ness monster as a long-necked seal (© Anthony Wallis)

Although many mainstream palaeontologists may shudder at the merest thought of it, the Loch Ness monster's most readily-conceived public image will always be that of a typical plesiosaur – all neck, tail, and paddled limbs. Lurking in its shadow, never too far from scientific consciousness but a million miles away from popular recognition, however, is a second cervically-endowed yet very different identity candidate – the long-necked seal. Yet whereas the plesiosaur's at least erstwhile reality is unequivocally validated by the fossil record (albeit one in which this reptilian lineage is currently curtailed at a point over 60 million years ago), tangible evidence for the existence at any point in our planet's history of the kind of veritable giraffe-necked pinniped required to satisfy a mammalian identity for Nessie and other comparable 'periscope-profile' aquatic cryptids is conspicuous only by its absence. Indeed, to all intent and purpose there is no more proof for the reality of the long-necked seal than there is for the Loch Ness monster itself. So. when and how did this hypothetical horror come into theoretical being, and why does it persist in casting its nebulous shadow over the much more romantic (if no more realistic?) image of its plesiosaurian rival? It's time to find out!


A LONG-FORGOTTEN LONG-NECKED SEAL AT THE ROYAL SOCIETY

Although in modern times the concept of the long-necked seal as a zoological reality has been promoted most visibly by the cryptozoological triumvirate of Oudemans, Heuvelmans, and Costello, a mysterious creature not only fitting its description but actually referred to by that very same name had been documented as far back as the 1600s, but was completely overlooked by cryptid chroniclers until the 1990s. This was when American cryptozoologist Scott Mardis made a highly significant discovery, by spotting its long-forgotten description on microfiche at the University of Vermont, after which he duly brought this surprising but potentially very important beast to present-day public attention at long last via an article published on 7 August 1996 in a Vermont weekly magazine entitled Vox.

Scott's Vox article  - click it to enlarge for reading purposes (© Scott Mardis/Vox)

In 1681, botanist Dr Nehemiah Grew published a catalogue of curiosities that could be found at that time in the museum of London's Royal Society. It was entitled Musaeum Regalis Societatis: Or a Catalogue and Description of the Natural and Artificial Rarities Belonging to the Royal Society and Preserved at Gresham Colledge [sic], and among the many specimen descriptions penned by Grew that it contained was one of a still-unidentified form of long-necked seal, based upon a preserved skin from an apparently young individual of this mystifying creature. Specifically referring to it as 'the long-necked seal', Grew described it on p. 95 of his catalogue as follows:

THE LONG-NECK'D SEAL. I find him no where distinctly mention'd. He is much slenderer than either of the former [two other pinnipeds documented by him earlier – see below]. But that wherein he principally differs, is the length of his Neck. For from his Nose-end to his fore-Feet, and from thence to his Tail, are the same measure. As also in that instead of fore-Feet, he hath rather Finns [sic]; not having any Claws thereon, as have the other kinds.

Conversely, in most known species of pinniped the length of their neck is only about half the length of their lower body.

Title page of Dr Nehemiah Grew's Musaeum Regalis Societatis (public domain)

Grew's description was subsequently reiterated by James Parsons in a paper on marine seals published by Philosophical Transactions, a Royal Society journal, on 1 January 1751. In it, he listed various known species, and he included the long-necked seal within this list. Here is Parsons's slightly expanded version of Grew's original description of it:

He is much slenderer than either of the former; but that, wherein he principally differs, is the length of his neck; for from his nose-end to his fore-feet, and from thence to his tail, are the same measure; as also in that, instead of his fore-feet, he hath rather fins; not having any claws thereon, as have the other kinds. The head and neck of this species are exactly like those of an otter…That before described [the long-necked seal], was 7 feet and an half in length; and, being very young, had scarce any teeth at all.

Accompanying its description, moreover, was an illustration of this unidentified creature (reproduced in Scott's Vox article), which portrayed it with a decidedly elongate neck, and was captioned 'the long necked seal or sea-calf'. It was depicted alongside two other seals (the same two as described by Grew prior to the long-necked seal).

Depiction of the Royal Society's long-necked seal specimen in Parsons's 1751 paper (public domain)

One of these two was termed 'the common seal' (i.e. Phoca vitulina), and was readily identifiable as this species. The other one, conversely, was more perplexing, being dubbed 'the tortoise-headed seal' (and which must wait for its own review elsewhere!). In his seal listing at the end of his paper, Parsons noted that the long-necked seal could be found "on the shores of divers[e] countries".

Be that as it may, no additional skins of long-necked seals have been forthcoming since the time of Grew and Parsons – their specimen thus being unique. So where is this zoologically-priceless skin today – what may well be the only physical evidence of a cryptozoological long-necked seal ever obtained by science? Tragically, no-one knows – like so many other remarkable specimens of mysterious, unidentified creatures, it has seemingly been lost, vanished into that great void where cryptid material seems irresistibly and inexorably drawn, never to be seen again.


FROM OUDEMANS TO HEUVELMANS – AND FROM MEGOPHIAS TO MEGALOTARIA

Although, therefore, as revealed above, this was not its earliest appearance in the historical chronicles, the long-necked seal first made cryptozoological headlines during the early 1890s. This was when Dutch zoologist and passionate sea serpent investigator Dr Anthonie C. Oudemans envisaged just such a beast as the answer to one of the greatest riddles in 19th-Century natural history – the elusive identity of the even more elusive 'great sea serpent'.

After analysing numerous sea serpent reports originating from seas all around the world and dating back centuries in some cases, Oudemans considered that their most plausible explanation was the scientifically-undiscovered presence of an enormous species of seal, boasting a cosmopolitan distribution, and morphologically distinguished from all presently-known species not only by its huge size (capable of growing up to 200 ft long) and long slender tail (a very unseal-like feature), but, in particular, by its very sizeable, elongate neck (which bore a noticeable mane in the male). In illustrations depicting its likely appearance in life, it looked very like a mammalian plesiosaur (or a plesiosaurian mammal).

Oudemans even gave this seagoing marvel its very own taxonomic binomial – Megophias megophias, thereby classifying it as a new species within a (now-defunct) genus that had been coined back in 1817 by French-American naturalist and passionate sea serpent investigator Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz in his published description of an uncaptured snake-like marine cryptid responsible for a spate of reported sea serpent sightings off Gloucester, New England, at that time (Megophias translates as 'big snake').

Front cover of the first edition of Oudemans's The Great Sea-Serpent, featuring a gilt representation of the head of the Daedalus sea serpent (public domain)

In 1892, Oudemans published his extensive study and conclusions in his now-classic tome The Great Sea-Serpent, which makes fascinating if frustrating reading. For at the risk of perpetuating further this unintentional bout of alliteration, his resolution of the sea serpent problem was fatally flawed. Anyone reading the vast array of sightings documented by him can readily perceive that the beasts observed belong to a variety of discernibly distinct types. Yet Oudemans, inexplicably, chose to shoe-horn them all into one, resulting in his creation of M. megophias as a 'one-size-fits-all' solution that was doomed to failure when attempting to convince mainstream scientists already highly suspicious of sea serpent reality that it was truly the taxonomic alter ego of this incognito maritime enigma.

Oudemans's illustrations of his proposed long-necked (and long-tailed) mega-seal Megophias megophias (public domain)

And so, inevitably, Megophias floundered, Oudemans's ill-fated composite creation garnering little in the way of zoological credibility for itself, and rapidly sinking without trace into the gloomy abyss of scientific obscurity instead. And there it would linger, unloved and unlooked-for, all but forgotten for almost three-quarters of a century, until the long-necked seal hypothesis was finally retrieved, revived, and reconstituted in a very different form as part of a much more comprehensive, and complex, sea serpent classification conceived by a certain Belgian cryptozoologist – Dr Bernard Heuvelmans.

Not only did Heuvelmans share a similar surname with Oudemans, when his own magnum opus on the sea serpent mystery was first published, in 1965 in French, it likewise shared the same name as Oudemans's – Le Grand Serpent-de-Mer ('The Great Sea-Serpent'). (Three years later, somewhat abridged and combined with a greatly-shortened version of an originally separate book on the giant squid and giant octopus, it was published in English as In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents.) And even his postulated long-necked mega-seal had a similar generic name to Oudemans's Megophias – namely, Megalotaria. But that is where the similarities ended.

First edition of Heuvelmans's tome Le Grand Serpent-de-Mer (© Plon)

Not making the same mistake as his near-namesake predecessor, in his grand scheme of sea serpent classification Heuvelmans conceived no less than nine distinct categories. Each constituted a different, scientifically-undiscovered species, and which he believed collectively explained all of the major sea serpent sightings reported from around the world down through history.

These hypothesised species were: a giant yellow tadpole-like creature of indeterminate taxonomic affinities;  a gigantic 'super eel' (and/or a very elongate form of shark); a marine reptile resembling a prehistoric mosasaur or a flippered crocodilian; an immense sea turtle; a many-humped serpentine zeuglodont-like cetacean; an armoured anomaly that he considered to be another zeuglodont due to his mistaken belief that armoured zeuglodonts were known from the fossil record (in reality, these were later exposed to be normal zeuglodonts whose remains had been found in association with armour-like scales derived from other, entirely unrelated fossil creatures); an exceedingly primitive stem cetacean of superficially otter-like form but much greater size and still possessing four limbs (his so-called 'super-otter'); and two separate types of pinniped, both of which were either tailless or near-tailless, like all modern-day species.

Representations of Heuvelmans's nine categories of sea serpent (© Tim Morris)

One of these pinnipeds, with a shorter neck, huge eyes, and a very noticeable mane, was dubbed by him the merhorse. The other, which combined the body and limbs of a typical otariid or eared seal (i.e. fur seals and sea-lions, possessing external ears) with an exceedingly long, giraffe-proportioned neck, he dubbed the long-necked (nowadays shortened to longneck), and proposed for it the binomial name Megalotaria longicollis ('long-necked big otariid'). (Incidentally, in their 2003 book The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents, and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep, veteran American cryptozoologists/fortean writers Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe merged the merhorse and longneck into a single sea serpent type, which they dubbed the waterhorse.)

After more than 70 years in zoological – and cryptozoological – exile, the long-necked seal was back!

Restoration of the long-necked seal Megalotaria longicollis in Heuvelmans's book, based upon his identikit description of it (© Bernard Heuvelmans/Alika Watteau/Plon)

From analysing 82 eyewitness accounts of alleged long-necked sea serpents, of which he deemed 48 to be certain, in his book Heuvelmans produced the following 'identikit' description of what he considered the likely morphology of this alleged cryptid to be:

A sea-animal of fairly large size, much bigger than the biggest pinnpeds and recognizable by its very long slender neck. Its general shape can vary greatly because of its thick layers of fat: sometimes cigar-shaped, sometimes serpentine when swimming fast, it may seem thick and stumpy when hunched up on itself. The relatively small head is round in shape with a somewhat tapering muzzle, sometimes like that of a seal or dog, sometimes like that of a horse, camel or giraffe. This apparent contradiction in testimony is doubtless due to the head lengthening with age, as is the rule among mammals.

The eyes are very small and can hardly be seen except from very close. In young ones there are a few whiskers on the muzzle. Two little horns can sometimes be seen on the head; these are probably erectile tubes arising round the nostrils. As the eyes are practically invisible, it is hard to place these tubes exactly in relation to them: at all events they rise from the top of the head. They would enable the animal to come to the surface to breathe without lifting its head out of the water, an arrangement like the skin-diver's schnorkel [sic]…

The neck is long and cylindrical; it is extremely flexible and can bend in any direction, especially in a vertical plane like a swan's. It may also stick perpendicularly out of the water like a telegraph pole. It has no mane, but a sort of collar, perhaps a fold in the skin, behind the head is sometimes mentioned.

The body is massive, thick and covered with rolls of fat so that it may, according as it bends, show one, two or three big dorsal humps, the middle of the three being the biggest. It has been suggested that these humps are inflatable air-sacs. This is possible, and the explanation cannot be excluded, but there is no need for any such theory in this case.

The spine forms a slight ridge all along its length, this may be due to a hairy crest or be accentuated by one.

There are four webbed feet, the front pair of which are often visible when the animal stands up vertically in the water, as the pinnipeds often do…When the hind feet are spread out in the same plane, they may sometimes look like a horizontal bilobate tail, as in the cetaceans. But they can also be held face to face, as the pinnipeds often do, and may then look like a fish's tail…

There does not seem to be much tail: at the very most it is a mere stump.

The skin looks smooth when it is wet and shining, but seen from close to it looks wrinkled and rough, like a walrus's or an elephant's. It is very dark brown on top, with black, grey or whitish mottling, while the underneath of the belly is dirty yellow and much lighter.

…Apart from one or two extravagant estimates of 200 feet or so, almost all the witnesses give a length between 15 and 65 feet60 feet often being given in round figures. There is, it is true, a series of witnesses who give lengths between 65 and 100 feet, and even as much as 120, but they seem to be influenced by the preconceived idea that it is a serpent, a plesiosaur, or even Oudemans's Megophias, and to assume it must have a tail as long as its neck and so extrapolate unjustifiably from the visible part of the body.

Speaking of extrapolating unjustifiably: I first read Heuvelmans's book over 30 years ago, and back then it seemed to me to be a work of superlative, near-genius zoological detection, worthy of the peerless if fictitious Sherlock Holmes himself (and indeed, Heuvelmans has actually been referred to as the Sherlock Holmes of zoology). In later years, conversely, as my own knowledge of cryptozoology, its methods, and its shortcomings increased, I re-read the book several times, and on each occasion with increasing scepticism regarding Heuvelmans's bold claims and intricate deductions.

A modern-day representation of Heuvelmans's longneck sea serpent category (© Tim Morris)

Even taking into account the fact that he rejected many eyewitness reports as implausible, I personally feel that he nonetheless placed far too much emphasis upon the literal content of those that he did accept, i.e. he drew in-depth, often excessive, conclusions from the descriptions contained in those latter reports that, in my view, cannot be justified, because we simply have no idea just how accurate those descriptions really were.

From my own experiences of eyewitness accounts, I am well aware of the all-too-human failure of observers lacking a detailed knowledge of animals to describe with any notable degree of zoological accuracy the physical appearance of creatures that were unfamiliar to them (especially if doing so entirely from memory, and/or from a time some distance removed from the actual event and/or if they had encountered the creatures unexpectedly). This also applies to size estimates proffered by them. Such failure is surely responsible in no small way for the not-inconsiderable variations in eyewitness descriptions noted by Heuvelmans in his extensive and inordinately-detailed Megalotaria identikit account quoted by me above (and which is precisely why I reproduced it verbatim), most notably regarding the shape of its head, rather than (as he evidently if rashly believed) such variations being explicable entirely via anatomical or age-related phenomena.

In short, I believe that Heuvelmans placed far too much reliance upon the literal accuracy of eyewitness reports and far too little upon the likelihood that much of what was described in them were artefacts arising from poor zoological knowledge, inaccurate description, and flawed recollection.

A third representation of Megalotaria longicollis (© Stefano Maugeri/Gruppo Criptozoologia Italia)

In addition, following a close examination of Heuvelmans's sea serpent researches and his resulting nine-category classification system, German cryptozoologist Ulrich Magin argued in an extensive Fortean Studies paper from 1996 that far from being the outcome of an objective data analysis, Heuvelmans's sea serpent categories are subjective and predetermined, and that they don't actually function successfully when applied to individual cases. Magin's opinion is shared by British palaeontologist and cryptozoological author Dr Darren Naish, as expressed in a Fortean Studies paper of his own, from 2001.

Ideally, to avoid any subjectivity creeping into the data analysis when attempting to distinguish morphological categories of sea serpent present in the data, the analyser should be doing so blind, i.e. using eyewitness descriptions alone as the basis for creating sea serpent categories, not taking into account geographical localities or any other factors like Heuvelmans did. However, the analyser would then be vulnerable to falling foul of the uncertainty that invariably surrounds the accuracy of anecdotal evidence. For the most comprehensive examination and assessment of Heuvelmans's sea serpent classification, see Dr Michael A. Woodley's book In the Wake of Bernard Heuvelmans (2008).

In the Wake of Bernard Heuvelmans (© Dr Michael A. Woodley/CFZ Press)

All of the above criticisms also apply in relation to Heuvelmans's equally extensive, confident description of Megalotaria's behaviour, yet once again based solely upon eyewitness testimony. According to his interpretation of such sources, this elusive giraffe-necked maritime cryptid:

…is certainly the only sea-serpent that is amphibious. It is extremely flexible. The chief component of its movements is in the vertical plane; and this is mainly seen in its head swinging backwards and forwards when raised out of the water. This is also striking when the animal bounds on land, rhythmically gathering its hind legs up near its front ones and then leaping forward with the front ones, as the sea-lions do.

Observers are often struck by the animal's staggering speed, which is quite exceptional at sea. Prodigious speeds, like that of an express train are mentioned, but more trustworthy witnesses, with more knowledge of the sea, generally give speeds between 15 and 35 knots. Such speeds seem to imply that it is a predator feeding on very fast-swimming fish. To catch its prey, the long-necked sea-serpent must make use of its long flexible neck to dart its jaws suddenly well ahead of its body.

When the animal moves very fast turbulence waves appear on its very fat body as they sometimes do on the fatter pinnipeds, and this creates an illusion of small humps close together…

No breath is ever visible. When the animal appears on the surface it sometimes leaves a greasy wake on the sea, as pinnipeds likewise do.

A careful study of this type of animal…shows that its sight is rather poor…it must hunt its prey chiefly by sonar, as all the pinnipeds seem to do...

It is evidently like a sort of huge gressigrade [i.e. otariid] pinniped with a very long neck, and more specialized than the sea-lions for a purely marine existence. It is true that this usually pelagic animal is still able to move on land, but it seems unlikely that it is obliged to go there to give birth: parturition must be able to take place at sea, a considerable advance over the sea-lions.

In addition to my above concerns regarding how literally he took eyewitness description, I also have some rather more specific criticisms of Heuvelmans's giant long-necked seal as the identity of the longneck sea serpent.

Robert Elsmore's ingenious illustration of a living Megalotaria superimposed upon the historical long-necked seal image in Parsons's 1751 paper (© Robert Elsmore)

For a creature as huge as Megalotaria yet only possessing tiny eyes, poor eyesight, and vibrissae present only in juveniles, utilising sonar for hunting its prey would not be an unreasonable prediction (as long as we remember that these above-cited characteristics are based entirely upon anecdotal, not physical, evidence). However, it is rendered far less plausible by the stark fact that even today, a full half-century after Heuvelmans wrote those above-quoted lines concerning this possibility, there is still no consensus that pinnipeds actually do employ sonar in hunting prey; over the years, this intriguing possibility has attracted many claims and counterclaims, but no conclusive evidence has been forthcoming. Nor has any for the possession of snorkel-like breathing tubes arising round the nostrils in any known pinniped species; so although such structures might indeed explain eyewitness reports of supposed horns, they would nevertheless be a notable evolutionary novelty.

The single most striking feature of Megalotaria, the one that earns for it its common name, is its exceedingly long neck. According to Heuvelmans, this neck "is extremely flexible and can bend in any direction, especially in a vertical plane like a swan's". One wonders, however, exactly how flexible did he mean by "extremely flexible", in view of the fact that as a mammal Megalotaria is exceedingly likely to have possessed only seven cervical vertebrae. It is the rotational and pivotal capacity of a vertical bony prong arising upwards from the axis (the second cervical vertebra) called the dens, which protrudes up through the ring-shaped atlas (the highly-specialised first cervical vertebra), yielding the atlanto-occipital joint, that enables the mammalian head (attached directly to the atlas) to turn through a considerable angle horizontally, and also to nod up and down.

But what about the rest of the neck? Assuming that it does contain only seven vertebrae, how feasible are Heuvelmans's claims about the extreme, swan-like flexibility of the neck of Megalotaria? One might expect that through much of its length, it would be as inflexible as a stiff rod – but in reality there is a notable mammalian precedent for this not being the case. The giraffe's very long cervical vertebrae are connected to one another via ball-and-socket joints, thereby affording each section of the neck a remarkable degree of flexibility for such an exceptionally elongated structure yet composed of only a small number of very long, rigid props. Might Megalotaria possess a comparable cervical arrangement? If so, this would be yet another major evolutionary novelty.

Equally problematic is Heuvelmans's proposal that Megalotaria is a pelagic otariid that gives birth at sea, bearing in mind that otariids are in fact the most terrestrial of all pinnipeds, much more so than phocids or earless seals. For unlike phocids, the otariids can turn their hind limbs forward and are therefore able to walk on land. Also, they all breed on land, they come ashore more often than phocids (especially when moulting their fur), and often the adult males each maintain a harem of females on land (polygyny). Consequently, otariids are the least likely seals to have yielded a species exhibiting the predominately sea-living lifestyle that he envisaged for Megalotaria. Also, it is the phocids, not the otariids, that have also produced the biggest known modern-day pinnipeds – the two species of elephant seal Mirounga spp (which are even bigger than the walruses). And Heuvelmans's assertion that Megalotaria "bounds on land, rhythmically gathering its hind legs up near its front ones and then leaping forward with the front ones, as the sea-lions do", which does recall the terrestrial locomotion of otariids rather than phocids, was actually based upon just a single eyewitness account, so it is hardly a well-attested characteristic. Overall, therefore, it is more likely that if Megalotaria does exist, it is a phocid, not an otariid (Megaphoca, anyone?).

Wonderful vintage painting of an elephant seal by Johann Bechstein, 1796 (public domain)

Heuvelmans discounted the possibility that the longneck sea serpent sports anything but the shortest of tails – if, indeed, it possesses one at all. This clearly corresponds with a pinniped identity (a major problem with Oudemans's Megophias as any kind of seal was its very lengthy tail, because modern-day pinnipeds are conspicuously bereft of such a sizeable appendage). Yet he seemingly chose to ignore those eyewitness accounts that described longnecks with long tails. True, some such tails may have been artefacts, i.e. merely wakes or trails of bubbles, but others seemed genuine structures.

Heuvelmans concluded his coverage of Megalotaria by stating that apart from polar waters it exhibited a cosmopolitan distribution (an assertion drawn from the geographical distribution of eyewitness reports), generally sighted near the coast in cold temperate regions and in mid-ocean in warm temperate zones. Based upon more detailed analysis of the geographical spread of sightings plotted against the time of year when they have occurred, Heuvelmans further concluded that Megalotaria prefers spending the spring and warm season in northern cold temperate regions, migrating to the tropics to spend the end of the summer and the autumn there, before moving even further south into the southern hemisphere's temperate zone to spend the end of this latter hemisphere's summer there, thus avoiding entirely the cold extreme of the northern winter.

However, the reality of a highly mobile (and hence more readily encountered?) species of seal that is also "much bigger than the biggest pinnipeds" and occurs globally is one that I find difficult to accept. After all, the biggest pinniped currently known to exist today, the mighty southern elephant seal Mirounga leonina, already measures up to 22.5 ft long and can weigh over 10,000 lb – dimensions that are hardly inconsiderable.

Vintage photograph from 1936 depicting Goliath the elephant seal and his keeper at Vincennes Zoo, Paris, which readily reveals the huge size of such pinnipeds (public domain)

Yet if Heuvelmans is to be believed, this latter pinniped is positively dwarfed by a truly colossal species that is three times its size, and whose long-necked morphology sets it even further apart from all other pinnipeds, but which, incredibly, is still unrepresented by a single specimen. Not even so much as a beached skull or skeleton portion appears ever to have been discovered and retrieved on any coast anywhere in the world, despite Heuvelmans's assertion that the longneck is of cosmopolitan distribution, and whereas occasional remains even of exceedingly little-known and quite possibly uncommon species of beaked whale and other very large, exclusively maritime mammals have indeed been found washed ashore.

In 2007, an extensive 117-page article written by cryptozoological enthusiast Robert Cornes that supported the possibility of the longneck sea serpent and its freshwater counterpart constituting some form of undiscovered long-necked pinniped was published in that year's CFZ Yearbook, and included a number of thought-provoking speculations. One of these was that perhaps this surreal seal does come ashore to breed (rather than doing so at sea, as proposed by Heuvelmans) but remains unseen while on land by breeding in remote, inaccessible caves. Bearing in mind that seals breeding on land is generally not only a very visual affair but also a very noisy one, it would surely require a highly secluded location indeed for Megalotaria to breed while remaining out of earshot. Another speculation concerned whether the lengthy neck may assist in thermoregulation, in a manner reminiscent of one confirmed with seal flippers – in which warm blood can be diverted into these limbs, after which they are waved in the air to assist the animal in cooling off.

A long-necked seal on the front cover of the CFZ 2007 Yearbook, which contains Cornes's very detailed article on this hypothetical pinniped (© CFZ/Robert Cornes)

Also in 2007, sea serpent researcher Bruce A. Champagne published a comprehensive article entitled 'A classification system for large, unidentified marine animals based on the examinations of reported observations' within the multi-contributor tome Elementum Bestia (edited by American cryptozoologist Craig Heinselman). Like Heuvelmans, Champagne differentiated nine different sea serpent types, but they did not all correspond with Heuvelmans's; moreover, he also subdivided some of these types to yield several subtypes.

One of Champagne's nine types was the longneck, which he then split into two subtypes, distinguished primarily via the size of the head in relation to the neck diameter. Most longneck sightings were assigned by him to the first subtype, in which the head's diameter was the same as or slightly smaller than that of the neck. In addition, and going totally against Heuvelmans's opinion, Champagne proposed that this longneck subtype sported a long tail (thereby hearkening back to Oudemans and Megophias). The second subtype, in which the head's diameter was larger than the neck's, consisted of five sightings from the North Atlantic off Great Britain and Denmark, and all five of these featured robust animals that, according to the eyewitnesses, were over 55 ft long, and therefore much bigger than those longnecks constituting the first subtype, which did not exceed 30 ft at most.

Representation of Champagne's two longneck subtypes, compared with Heuvelmans's Megalotaria longneck (© Tim Morris)

To me, the longneck sea serpent is an enigma – a cryptid that I want so much to exist, as it would solve so many cryptozoological riddles – and not just marine ones either, as I'll be discussing in Part 2 of this ShukerNature blog article – but which, at least in the guise of Megalotaria as envisaged by Heuvelmans, seems beset by serious shortcomings.


This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted from my forthcoming book, Here's Nessie!: A Monstrous Compendium from Loch Ness.

William Michael Mott's spectacular artwork featuring a trio of horned/snorkelled longnecks, which will be appearing in my Nessie book (© William Michael Mott)





Wednesday, 22 July 2015

NICK REDFERN REVIEWS DRAGONS IN ZOOLOGY, CRYPTOZOOLOGY, AND CULTURE - THANKS NICK!


Dragons are clearly in season right now. Following hot on the heels of two excellent recent reviews of my book Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture, by Richard Freeman in the CFZ's magazine Animals and Men and by Matt Salusbury in Fortean Times respectively (click here to read both reviews on ShukerNature), is a third fantastic review, this time by none other than fellow cryptozoologist, bestselling author, and - most important of all! - Black Countryman Nick Redfern.

Please click here to read Nick's review on the spectacular website Mysterious Universe.

Thanks again, Nick - bostin' review, as we Black Countrymen say!! (And for those of you who may not have any idea what I'm talking about and what or even where the Black Country is - shame on you! - click here to read Wikipedia's account of this historical region of the West Midlands in England, where Nick and I were both born, just a couple of mile or so from each other, in fact, and which has such a long, proud heritage in England's development and advancement, especially during the Industrial Revolution).

http://mysteriousuniverse.org/2015/07/dragons-zoology-culture-and-more/
Header to Nick's review of my dragons book on Mysterious Universe ((c) Nick Redfern/Mysterious Universe)







Saturday, 18 July 2015

DEBUNKING A TRIO OF QUASI-COLOURED MOCK PYTHONS


Photograph of a supposed green and white ball python, found by me on Pinterest (see below for © of original photograph)

Having a longstanding interest in animal colour morphs, I knew that something was very wrong – distinctly off-colour, in every sense – when, while browsing on the image-sharing/-hosting website Pinterest a couple of days ago in search of some unusual animal photographs to pin to my recently-created Pinterest board devoted to cryptozoology, animal mythology, and (un) natural history, I came upon the remarkable picture opening this present ShukerNature blog article. (Click here to view my Pinterest board - but you'll need to sign into Pinterest's site once you've clicked this link before it will let you see my board.)

For although I knew that a dazzling range and vast number of colour morphs have been developed for many snake species (including various pythons and boas) commonly sold in the pet trade (such selectively-bred forms being referred to as designer snakes), I felt pretty sure that these did not include a green and white variety for the African ball python Python regius (aka the royal python), regardless of what my eyes were seeing when looking at this particular photograph. (I know that a morph dubbed 'green' does exist, but in reality it is merely khaki, not grass-green like the specimen in this photo.) Anxious not to lose it, however, I swiftly pinned it to my Pinterest board, and then did what I always do as standard practice nowadays whenever confronted by a strange or unexpected animal picture – I conducted a Google image search for it online, in the hope of tracing its origin.

A normal, wild-type specimen of the ball python (public domain)

But all that I could find, pages and pages of them, were links to this self-same image on dozens of other Pinterest pages as well as many pages on other image-sharing/-hosting websites too, such as Tumblr and Flickr, yet with no clues whatsoever as to where it had originated. I didn't even come upon a single comment from any of these numerous image-sharers that queried whether these pythons of a very different colour were genuine. (Then again, if it's on the internet it must be true! lol)

Something that I did find, however, was that this photo of a green-and-white ball python was not one of a kind, because during my search I discovered two equally unlikely variations upon its crazy colour scheme.

The same photograph as the one opening this ShukerNature blog article, and again common on image-sharing/-hosting websites, but in which the green hue has been replaced by a pink hue (see below for © of original photograph)

That is to say, I found some copies of exactly the same photo but in which the green hue had been replaced by pink, and some other copies in which it had been replaced by lilac – both of them once again being shared ad infinitum on Pinterest, Flickr, Tumbr, etc, but also once again with no clues as to where either of these variants had originated, and no challenges to their serpentine subjects' authenticity.

The same photograph as the one opening this ShukerNature blog article, and again common on image-sharing/-hosting websites, but in which the green hue has been replaced by a lilac hue (see below for © of original photograph)

The fact that I had now uncovered three different colour versions of the very same photograph meant either that two of these versions were fakes, photo-manipulated by person(s) unknown from the third, or that all three were fakes, photo-manipulated from a true-to-life original version that I had yet to locate online. I favoured the latter possibility, because, as already noted, I was not aware of any comparable yet genuine green, pink, or lilac colour morphs existing for the ball python, and after checking a number of websites devoted to ball python morphs I found no evidence whatsoever that any of the three did indeed exist. Clearly, therefore, there was a fourth, original, unmodified version of the photo out there somewhere, currently unseen by me, and which would prove to be the original version – but what might the snake in it look like, what would its true colouration be?

When I had first seen the green version, it had struck me straight away that, ignoring its markings' bizarre colouration and focusing instead upon their form and paleness, the snake recalled the ball python's very abundant golden colour morph. This particular colour morph has been developed by selective captive breeding in a number of other constrictor species too, perhaps most famously in the Burmese python P. bivittatus. Golden specimens of this latter species are exceptionally popular, very highly-prized pets due to the enhancement of their already beautiful appearance by way of the huge and extremely impressive body size for which this species is renowned (and which, again, is actively selected for when captive-bred by the pet trade).

A xanthistic Burmese python (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Genetically speaking, this golden morph is xanthistic, i.e. it occurs due to the expression of a certain specific mutant gene allele that causes a specimen possessing this allele to produce an excess of yellow pigmentation; sometimes the specimen's normal red pigment for its species is lacking and has been replaced entirely by yellow pigment. Despite this, however, in the pet trade xanthistic snake specimens are often confusingly called albinos (yet, genetically, this term should only be used to describe pure-white specimens with pink eyes, such specimens being caused by different gene alleles from those responsible for xanthism). The most sought-after xanthistic pythons of all are ones that lack both red and black pigmentation, resulting in exceptionally handsome specimens that seem almost to emit a golden glow when viewed under certain levels of illumination, and are known technically as amelanic xanthistic pythons.

Consequently, I decided to conduct another Google image search, but this time using the specific search phrase 'albino ball python' – and sure enough, after scouring through countless photos of such snakes, I finally came upon one that, except for the snake's colour in it, was identical to the green, pink, and lilac versions that I'd previously encountered online. There could be no doubt – this particular photograph of a normal, real-life golden ball python was the original that had been photo-manipulated very professionally if anonymously by agent(s) unknown. And here, as absolute proof, is that original, undoctored photograph.

Golden (or so-called 'albino') ball python (© Nat Turner/all rights reserved – fair use only here on ShukerNature; click here to access Nat's webpage containing full  technical details for this photograph)

This photograph had been snapped without flash by American photographer Nat Turner on 22 May 2004, it depicts what Nat describes as a large female specimen, and it had been posted by him onto his Flickr site, which is where I found it. Moreover, it is one of several photos by Nat that seem to depict the same specimen, and which are all contained in an online Flickr album of his entitled 'Snakes'.

The quasi-coloured mock pythons beloved and believed in by so many online image sharers were no more – a trio of counterfeit serpents duly debunked and discarded, yet another case of photo-manipulation chicanery summarily expunged from the archives of valid zoological anomalies.

A specimen of the ball python's black-eyed leucistic ('snow') morph (© The Urban Zoo – be sure to click here to visit their excellent pet-store website)

Incidentally, another very popular python morph that is sometimes termed albino in the pet trade, but which once again is very different genetically, is the snow python. For although it does possess the albino mutant gene allele, it also possesses the axanthic mutant gene allele, whose effect is the exact opposite of the xanthic version, because it does not increase yellow pigmentation but reduces it instead. The combined effect of these two alleles' expression is an ethereal-looking snake that is pure-white all over like a bona fide albino specimen, but has blue or black eyes, instead of pink ones like an albino.

Finally: it may seem scarcely believable but it is not unknown for park rangers and others to witness occasionally the astonishing spectacle of an enormous Burmese python locked in mortal combat with a mighty American alligator in the Florida Everglades. Such titanic battles occur because this huge non-native ophidian species has successfully established breeding populations here following pet specimens having escaped and/or been deliberately released during the 20th Century. And because both are top reptilian predators, whenever they encounter one another neither one of them is willing to back down.

Battle of the reptilian behemoths – a wild-type naturalised ball python versus an adult American alligator (public domain)




Friday, 17 July 2015

REVIEWING DRAGONS IN ZOOLOGY, CRYPTOZOOLOGY, AND CULTURE


My second dragons book – Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture, published by Coachwhip Publications (© Dr Karl Shuker/Coachwhip Publications)

The year 1995 saw the publication of two books of mine, one of which was Dragons: A Natural History – a lavishly-illustrated volume in which I concentrated upon providing a series of vibrant, lyrical retellings of famous and lesser-known dragon myths, legends, and folktales from around the world, arranged into chapters focusing upon different morphological and natural history categories of dragon, and interspersed throughout with smatterings of cryptozoological content and snippets of other dragon-related background information. Over the years, it was translated into over a dozen languages, has been reissued many times, and, judging from its huge sales worldwide, may well be the most successful non-fiction book on dragons ever published. So how could I follow that?

Some of the many English and foreign-language editions of my book Dragons: A Natural History – From left to right, top row: English, Czech, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese; bottom row: Estonian, Hungarian, German, Dutch, and French – click image to enlarge it (© Dr Karl Shuker)

And yet I did want to follow it, because I'd always planned to write an extremely comprehensive review of dragons in their entirety – not just their myths, morphology, and natural history, but also providing in-depth coverages of the real-life and possible cryptozoological influences responsible for engendering dragons, and these mythical monsters' omnipresence in human culture, both ancient and modern – from religion and the mystic arts to the visual arts and literature, fashion to sport, tattoos to compute games, rock music to dream interpretation, and mush more besides.

With my very own young dragon skull and dragon egg… © Dr Karl Shuker)

After extensive research, I finally wrote my long-planned second dragons book – entitled Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture – and saw it published in 2013 by Coachwhip Publications of Greenville, Ohio. It constitutes one of the most comprehensive dragon-themed factual books ever published, is sumptuously illustrated throughout in full colour, and today I was delighted to see not one but two positive, encouraging reviews of it.

The beautiful dragon painting by the very talented cryptozoological artist Thomas Finley that appears on the front cover of my newest dragons book (© Thomas Finley)

By one of those wonderful coincidences that happen only rarely but help to restore one's belief that the world may indeed be a good place to inhabit when they do happen, today I received in the post two different magazines, only to discover that they each contained an excellent review of my newest, second dragons book. One was written by fellow dragons aficionado Richard Freeman, and appeared in #52 (February 2015) of the Centre for Fortean Zoology's magazine Animals and Men; the other was written by longstanding cryptozoogical researcher Matt Salusbury, and appeared in #330 (August 2015) of Fortean Times.

So for those of you who haven't read my new dragons book and may be interested in doing so, here are these two reviews, each one a two-pager. Please click the images to enlarge them for reading purposes.

Richard Freeman's review of my book Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture in Animals and Men (© Richard Freeman/Animals and Men)


Matt Salusbury's review of my book Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture in Fortean Times (© Matt Salusbury/Fortean Times)

My sincere thanks to Rich and Matt for their reviews, which have made all of the toil researching such a vast albeit fascinating subject as dragons worthwhile.

If you'd like to read more about my new dragons book, please click here to read its own page on my website, which also includes direct links to Amazon's USA and UK sites for anyone wishing to purchase a copy. Also, please click here if you'd like to purchase a copy via its publisher, Coachwhip Publications (which is also the publisher of my definitive Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals). Click here and here for more information about my new dragons book as posted on ShukerNature; and click here and here to read two lengthy excerpts from it exclusively on ShukerNature.

My two books published so far by Coachwhip Publications (© Dr Karl Shuker/Coachwhip Publications)