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.

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com

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Friday, 24 June 2016

GENERAL GORDON AND THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE - A BOTANICAL FOLLY OF BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS?


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

        Hans Christian Andersen – 'The Garden of Paradise',
                              in Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales


Holding a dehusked, hollow coco-de-mer seed or 'double coconut' (© Dr Karl Shuker)

2015 marked the 130th anniversary of the death of one of Britain's greatest military heroes – General Charles Gordon (1833-1885). Actually attaining the rank of Major-General during a long and distinguished military career, he will forever be remembered for his many acts of outstanding bravery on the battlefield. Not least of these was his valiant stand against the Mahdi's forces during the relentlessly violent Siege of Khartoum (13 March 1884 to 26 January 1885) in Sudan that finally claimed his life and those of so many of his men as well as numerous civilians while awaiting the arrival there of a tardy relief force. In stark contrast, however, it is nowadays all but forgotten that he also held a highly unexpected but passionate belief relating to a certain tropical island and its botanical wonders.

At the end of their 10-day honeymoon spent on North Island in the Republic of Seychelles during May 2011, the UK's Prince William and his bride the former Kate Middleton (now Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) received from this 115-island nation's foreign minister Jean-Paul Adam a very unusual honeymoon souvenir – the enormous 'double coconut' of the coco-de-mer tree, endemic to a handful of islands in the Seychelles archipelago.  The remarkable likeness in shape of this tree's bilobed seed to a certain part of a lady's anatomy is (in)famous, so the royal honeymooners may well have been aware of it too – but would they also have been aware, I wonder, of its alleged biblical link? Specifically, would they have realised that at least in the opinion of one very notable figure, they were now the owners of nothing less than a seed from the fruit of the Garden of Eden's Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – the very same fruit that fatefully tempted Eve and then Adam too, causing them to be banished by God from Eden forever?

Adam and Eve alongside the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, together with the pre-cursed Serpent, interestingly portrayed here as a bipedal human-headed reptile or draconopides (click here for a ShukerNature blog article on the draconopides/pre-cursed Serpent concept) – this painting is 'The Temptation', by Hugo van der Goes, 1470 (public domain)

The coco-de-mer Lodoicea maldivica (sometimes referred as Lodicea sechellarum, but this is a junior synonym) is unquestionably one of the most iconic species native to the Seychelles. Today, it occurs principally upon just a single major island – Praslin, the group's second-largest member, roughly 8 miles long. It formerly existed on several smaller isles too, all close to Praslin, but today it survives on only one of these, Curieuse, situated just off Praslin's northern coast, and is officially categorised by the IUCN as endangered. Additionally, therefore, it has been deliberately introduced to certain other Seychelles islands in order to establish new populations, thus assisting in its conservation. Belonging to the palm tree family Arecaceae, the coco-de-mer is the only member of the genus Lodoicea, coined for it by French naturalist Jacques Julien Houtou de Labillardière and generally believed to commemorate Laodice, the most beautiful daughter of Troy's King Priam (although a few researchers have suggested the French King Louis XV as a possible alternative name-source, 'Lodoicus' being Latin for 'Louis').

The coco-de-mer is a dioecious species (male and female flowers occur on separate trees), it can grow to 100 ft tall or more (with male trees being taller than females), takes 25-50 years to reach maturity, lives for well over a century (its maximum lifespan is still unknown), and sports huge, fan-shaped, leathery leaves, pale-green in colour, measuring up to 46 ft across, 13 ft long, and capturing as much as 98 per cent of all rainfall. However, its most noteworthy claim to fame, earning this tree species a place in the record books, is its gigantic fruit (shaped like a normal, single coconut) containing the huge bilobed 'double coconut' seed, which is the largest seed produced by any species of plant.

Fruit on female coco-de-mer tree (public domain)

[NB - strictly speaking, a nut is defined as a specific category of fruit - one that possesses a hard shell (the husk) and a seed inside. However, in general parlance the term 'nut' is also often used in reference to a hard-walled edible seed (as is the term 'kernel'). Consequently, in this chapter I have completely avoided using the ambiguous term 'nut', in favour of the non-interchangeable terms 'fruit' for the combination of outer shell and inner seed, and 'seed' for the seed itself. As for 'double coconut', this is a term applied specifically and famously to the coco-de-mer's bilobed seed, so I have employed it here with this same meaning.]

Exquisite engraving from 1897 depicting various palm trees, including the coco-de-mer at right of image together with its unmistakeable double coconut and catkin-like male inflorescence (public domain)

Produced by female coco-de-mer trees, the fruit measures 16-20 in across, weighs 33-66 lb (up to 39 lb of which is the weight of the seed inside it), and takes 6-7 years to mature, plus a minimum of  two further years to germinate. The seed's bilobed shape infamously lends it more than a passing resemblance in form to a woman's buttocks on one side and to her stomach and thighs on the other side (resulting in it becoming a potent fertility symbol in the Seychelles and also nurturing a traditional belief there that its pulpy white meat possesses powerful aphrodisiac properties).

And as if this wasn't sufficiently suggestive, male coco-de-mer trees produce very sizeable catkin-like inflorescences (measuring up to 3 ft long) that are decidedly phallic in shape.

Beautiful painting of the coco-de-mer's male inflorescence and its ripe fruits, produced in 1883 by Marianne North (public domain)

Not surprisingly, these distinctive features have given rise to some very colourful local legends concerning this unique species of Seychelles palm.

Indeed, one particularly popular folk-belief here is that on wild stormy nights, the male trees uproot themselves, pair up with the still-rooted female trees, and engage in passionate love-making under the cover of darkness.

Inflorescence on male coco-de-mer tree (© ViloWiki/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

The coco-de-mer's fruit is so heavy that whenever one falls into the sea, it is unable to float, sinking straight to the sea bottom instead, where it gradually rots, the husk falling away and the internal seed breaking down and releasing gas, which enables this now-hollow, bare, and much lighter structure to rise to the surface of the sea and float great distances, carried by the current. Because the seed is no longer fertile, however, even if it reaches land it cannot germinate and give rise to a tree (thus explaining this species' extremely limited distribution).

However, so spectacular is its outward form that several centuries ago these seeds would command enormous prices as greatly-prized curiosities among the more wealthy collectors, or were given as gifts to royalty (a tradition upheld with William and Kate!).

A bilobed de-husked hollow nut or double coconut of the coco-de-mer tree (© Dr Karl Shuker)

The Seychelles first became known to the West via Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama's recorded sighting of these islands in 1502, and the coco-de-mer tree itself was formally discovered in 1768 by a French engineer named Barré, who was sent to explore Praslin following France's acquisition of this archipelago during the 1740s. Long before these events, however, this tree's spectacular seed was already well known to fishermen in such diverse localities as the Maldives, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and India. This is because hollow, internally-rotted specimens were sometimes carried by the sea from the Seychelles to the shores of these and other countries with Indian Ocean coastlines. Indeed, it was the finding of such seeds around the Maldives that led to the mistaken belief among some early naturalists that the tree which produced them must exist somewhere here, thus earning it the maldivica portion of its binomial taxonomic name.

Moreover, the seeds' presence on the sea surface led the fishermen to believe that they must have originated from some majestic form of underwater tree ('coco-de-mer' is French for 'sea coconut'), growing in stately splendour beneath the waves. Some even believed that a griffin-like monster-bird deity called Garuda lived in this subaquatic tree's mighty branches, from where it would periodically rise up to hunt elephants and tigers – all complete fantasy, yet still being reiterated, albeit sceptically, as recently as the 1700s by the likes of German botanist Georg Eberhard Rumpf (aka Rumphius) in his 6-volume magnum opus, the Herbarium Amboinense, which was published posthumously in 1741 (almost 40 years after his death).

My wooden statuette of Garuda, from Bali (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Strange as these notions might seem, however, an even stranger one would not only be aired but also be fervently supported by a very notable historical figure during the late 1800s.

The figure in question was none other than the celebrated British army officer and diplomat Major-General Charles George Gordon – Gordon of Khartoum – and his avowed if highly eccentric belief was that the coco-de-mer tree was in fact the Garden of Eden's Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as alluded to in the Bible. But how and why did he come to believe in such an extraordinary notion?

Major-General Charles George Gordon (public domain)

Spurred on by his deeply-held religious beliefs as an evangelical Christian, Gordon had long been passionately (some would even say obsessively) interested in attempting to track down present-day localities that might correspond to various significant sites described in the Bible – in particular the Garden of Eden.

Traditionally, the favoured sites among those who believe that the Garden of Eden truly existed have been in the Middle East, two of the most popular suggestions being a location at the head of the Persian Gulf or one close to Tabriz in Iranian Azerbaijan. As for the Tree of Knowledge: scholars considering it to have been real rather than merely symbolic have typically supported conservative, non-controversial identities for it, such as a species of fig tree or apple tree. Gordon, however, nurtured radically different ideas – ideas that concerned a location far removed from the Middle East, and an exotic tree that bore a fruit much more extraordinary than any fig or apple.

'The Garden of Eden', Thomas Cole, c 1828 (public domain)

During the early 1880s, Gordon spent time in Mauritius as Commander of the Royal Engineers, and in 1881 he visited the Seychelles archipelago (then part of the Crown Colony of Mauritius), about 1000 miles further north, on a military engagement. This was of particular interest to him for non-military reasons too, however, because his Kabbalistic scrutiny of the Bible's Book of Genesis, coupled with his knowledge of geography and place-name etymology, had indicated to him that here may be clues to Eden's location.

Gordon subscribed to what was then the popular theory that a once-mighty but long-since-sunken continent called Lemuria formerly spanned the Indian Ocean from Madagascar to India, and when he entered a lush green valley on Praslin known today as the Vallée de Mai (May Valley), he became convinced that this idyllic tropical location was a last surviving remnant of the Garden of Eden, with the remainder now lying beneath the waves near to Praslin. Moreover, as he gazed up in stupefied awe at its forest of magnificent coco-de-mer trees, present in great profusion and towering above him on every side in this magical, secluded place, Gordon felt certain that these wondrous plants were the direct descendants of the original Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil created by God and present in Eden at the very beginning of the world.

Vallée de Mai (public domain)

Indeed, Gordon deemed it likely that the coco-de-mer seed's suggestive form would have contributed to the temptation that the Tree of Knowledge's forbidden fruit represented. For as he was later to comment to leading British botanist Sir William T. Thiselton-Dyer, at that time the assistant director at Kew's Royal Botanic Gardens:

The fruit is shaped like the human heart, the bud or stem which attaches it to the branch like the male organ of generation. When the husk is taken off, the inner double nut [i.e. seed] is like the belly or thigh of a woman...In a word, its lines are those of the male and female organs of generation, and it is a fruit which cannot fail to attract attention by any one seeing it.

Evidently warming to his theme, in his records Gordon also wrote:

Externally the coco-de-mer represents the belly and thighs, the true seat of carnal desires...[which] caused the plague of our forefathers in the Garden of Eden.

Lending further support to this grandiose notion, at least according to Gordon, was the fact that these trees even possessed their very own Serpent – in reality, a 3-ft-long species of green snake that can frequently be found living amid their foliage.

Nor was that all. Gordon also considered the breadfruit trees Artocarpus altilis present on Praslin to be descended from Eden's original Tree of Life, whose fruit had sustained Adam and Eve during their time in the Garden. For as he already knew well, breadfruit was a staple food not only in the Seychelles but also in Mauritius, as well as in many other locations around the world.

Breadfruit, painted by Marguerite Girvin Gillin, c.1884 (public domain)

Yet if Praslin's Vallée de Mai was truly derived from the Garden of Eden, how could its presence in the middle of the Indian Ocean be explained? Easily, in Gordon's view – because he considered Praslin and the other Seychelles islands to be remnants of the vanished continent of Lemuria, which, he believed, had existed at the world's beginning but had sunk forever beneath the waves during the Great Flood.

So taken was Gordon with his identification of Eden as having existed just offshore of Praslin, with the Vallée de Mai its last surviving portion, and the coco-de-mer as the Tree of Knowledge, with its immense fruit the still-existing instrument of humanity's fall and expulsion from Eden at the dawn of time, that he wrote various articles and corresponded with a number of authorities, including those at Kew in 1882, as well as William Scott, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Pamplemousses, near Port Louis, Mauritius, concerning his eccentric beliefs.

Vallée de Mai palm forest (© Brocken Inaglory/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

He also sent specimens of the coco-de-mer and breadfruit tree fruits to Kew, and even prepared a detailed map in which he linked Praslin to the four rivers mentioned in the Bible as landmarks for Eden. Unsurprisingly, however, his beliefs were not greeted with enthusiasm from contemporary scientists and writers. In particular, Gordon's concept of the coco-de-mer with its gargantuan double coconut as a plausible contender for the Tree of Knowledge was swiftly and robustly dismissed by his critics.

After all, as pointed out very reasonably by writer and onetime Seychelles resident H. Watley Estridge, for instance, how was Eve meant to climb to the top of a 100-ft-tall tree and carry down with her a fruit almost 2 ft across and weighing up to 66 lb (heavier than 3 bowling balls!), and then take a bite through its immensely hard, 4-in-thick husk before offering it to Adam? True, she might have sought one that had already fallen to the ground; however, the Bible specifically states that Eve had stretched out her hand and plucked a fruit – clearly implying that she had taken it directly from the tree.

Eve stretching out her hand and plucking a fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, as portrayed in 'The Garden of Eden With the Fall of Man' by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens (public domain)

Alternatively, as Gordon deftly represented in a detailed drawing prepared by him, the afore-mentioned green snake associated with coco-de-mer trees on Praslin could have made its way up the tree to fetch one for Eve. Yet this option has to assume of course that such a modestly-sized reptile actually possessed the strength and dexterity to carry it back down to her (or even to bite through its sturdy stem so that it would then fall to the ground) after securing one!

However, the considerable problem posed by Adam and Eve lacking the necessary density of dentition to avoid breaking their teeth when attempting to bite through its rock-hard exterior and equally firm kernel inside seemingly defied all attempts at resolution. Even the resourceful Gordon himself was at a loss to provide a satisfactory response to this particular obstacle.

Breadfruit tree in the Seychelles (public domain)

Equally, how could the breadfruit tree be descended from Eden's Tree of Life when it wasn't even endemic to the Seychelles? This species' ancestral, wild homeland was New Guinea (and possibly the Moluccas and Philippines too), from where it was subsequently introduced to many Polynesian islands, beginning around 3000 years ago, and from these to the Caribbean by the French during the late 1700s, and thence to the Maldives, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Madagascar, Africa, much of Asia, Central and South America, northern Australia, and southern Florida.

As for Lemuria, what physical proof was there to support the theory that this supposedly lost continent had ever existed to begin with? None, at least as far as the scientific world was – and still is – concerned, with no known geological formation under the Indian Ocean corresponding to Lemuria, and with the discontinuities in biogeography that the concept of Lemuria seemed to explain during the 1800s later being rendered superfluous and obsolete by modern theories of continental drift and plate tectonics.

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

Following Gordon's tragic death in 1885, his idiosyncratic theories regarding Eden, its Tree of Knowledge, and their supposed link to the Seychelles fell into disrepute and were swiftly discarded, scarcely even referred to, let alone documented in detail, within modern-day publications – until now.

Nevertheless, the magic and mystery surrounding the coco-de-mer lives on. For with ultimate, bare-faced irony, the species whose female trees notoriously produce enormous, unashamedly lewd seeds that impersonate a woman's pelvis and whose male trees infamously yield huge, decidedly phallic inflorescences laden with pollen has never revealed the modus operandi by which its pollination is actually effected in the wild state.

How ironic it would be if the Seychelles' 'Tree of Knowledge' were found to be pollinated by a serpent! (public domain)

Is the male tree's pollen simply dispersed by the wind (anemophily), or is pollination a zoophilous process (i.e. involving animals, perhaps insects, or birds, or bats, or even reptiles)? How deliciously delightful (not to mention supremely ironic) it would be if the coco-de-mer's pollinator proved to be none other than the green snake that lurks amid its foliage – or the Tree of Knowledge propagated by the Serpent, as Gordon might have described such a discovery.

Yet not even Gordon, surely, could ever have imagined anything quite as Fortean as that!

An extremely unusual portrayal of the Tree of Knowledge – 'Tree of Knowledge (Initiation)', by Mordecai Moreh (copyright free)


SELECTED REFERENCES

ANON. (n.d.). Coco de mer. Botanic Gardens Conservation International, https://www.bgci.org/ourwork/coco_de_mer/

ANON. (n.d.). Coco-de-mer. 3am Thoughts, https://3amthoughts.com/article/miscellaneous/coco-de-mer

ANON. (2010). Study of coco-de-mer – Lodicea sechellarum. Kew Royal Botanic Gardens website, http://images.kew.org/study-of-coco-de-mer-lodicea-sechellarum/print/7899198.html 3 February.

ANON. (2011). I should coco… Wills and Kate are given rare aphrodisiac 'love nut' as honeymoon gift. Daily Mail (London), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1389748/Kate-Middleton-Prince-William-given-rare-aphrodisiac-love-nut-honeymoon-gift.html 23 May.

ASPIN, Richard (2014). Spotlight: General Gordon's Tree of Life. Wellcome Library Blog, http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/2014/04/spotlight-general-gordons-tree-of-life/ 17 April.

BLACKBURN, Julia (1995). The Book of Colour: A Family Memoir. Jonathan Cape (London).

EMBODEN, William A. (1974). Bizarre Plants: Magical, Monstrous, Mythical. Studio Vista (London).

LEY, Willy (1955). Salamanders and Other Wonders: Still More Adventures of a Romantic Naturalist. Viking Press (New York).

POLLOCK, John (1993). Gordon: The Man Behind the Legend. Constable (London).

SCOTT, Tim (2011). Royal honeymooners' 'erotic' Seychelles souvenir. BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/9538059.stm 16 July.

An almost dream-like portrayal of Eve being tempted by the Serpent alongside the Tree of Knowledge and a sleeping Adam in the Garden of Eden, by William Blake (public domain)





Tuesday, 31 May 2016

GIANT BIRDS FROM THE TOMBS OF THE PHARAOHS


Depiction of the bennu (© Jeff Dahl/Wikipedia GFDL licence)

The phoenix may be the most famous feathered mystery associated with ancient Egypt - but it is not the only one. Equally mystifying is the bennu bird, which frequently appeared in the Books of the Dead - the hieroglyphic texts that accompanied the deceased in their coffins during the Fifth Dynasty (c.2466-2322 BC) at Heliopolis. Each text was a long roll of papyrus, summarising in picture writing the life of the deceased person alongside whose corpse it had been placed within the coffin. It also offered advice on gaining acceptance for entry into the next world, and revealed that upon acceptance the person would encounter the holy bennu bird, which would bear his or her soul to Ra, the supreme god.

Within the picture text, the bennu is unambiguously depicted as a gigantic heron - taller than a man, with long legs and pointed bill, a slender curved neck, and a pair of very elongate plumes on its head - resembling those of the Eurasian grey heron Ardea cinerea.

The Eurasian grey heron (public domain)

Archaeologist Dr Ella Hoch, from Copenhagen University's Geological Museum, became curious to discover the inspiration for the noble bennu. Perhaps it had originally been based upon the grey heron (which does exist in Egypt), but had been enlarged in the depictions to emphasise its sacred status and significant role?

Alternatively, it might have been inspired by travellers' reports of the genuinely lofty goliath heron A. goliath, standing up to 5 ft tall, from the Arabian peninsula and sub-Saharan Africa. By far the most compelling possibility, however, had still to be disclosed.

The goliath heron, 1838 painting (public domain)

In 1958, extensive archaeological studies began on the island of Umm an-Nar (aka Umm al-Nar), which lies adjacent to Abu Dhabi of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in the lagoon complex off the Trucial Coast. Great quantities of animal remains were eventually unearthed, which Hoch documented during the late 1970s in her museum's Contributions to Palaeontology journal. To her surprise but delight, these included some fragments constituting the distal end of the left tibiotarsus (lower leg bone) of an enormous heron - one that was probably even taller than the goliath heron, the world's tallest living species. Indeed, some estimates give its height as having been up to almost 7 ft, i.e. taller than an average human, and with a wingspan approaching 9 ft. Other remains from this newly-revealed colossus were later found, some from separate sites in the Umm an-Nar settlement, and one fragment from Failaka Island, offshore from Kuwait.

The Umm an-Nar material dates from 2,600 BC to 2,000 BC (i.e. the third millennium BC), whereas the Kuwait bone is more recent, from c.1,800 BC, thereby collectively yielding a span of time that wholly encompasses the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt (c.2,494-2,345 BC) - during which period the bennu appeared in Books of the Dead illustrations. The model for the bennu may therefore have been this now-extinct giant heron - a possibility not lost upon Hoch, who christened its species Ardea bennuides.

Bennu depicted on ancient Egyptian papyrus (Wikipedia/Public domain)

However, there is also evidence to suggest an even more startling prospect - that this giant heron was still alive as recently as 200 years ago.

In an American Journal of Science report from 1845, its author, a Mr Bonomi, disclosed that between 1821 and 1823 traveller James Burton had chanced upon three enormous conical nests, all within the space of a mile, at a place called Gebel ez Zeit (aka Gebel Zeit), situated on the Red Sea's Egyptian coast, opposite the Mount Sinai peninsula. They had been constructed from all manner of materials, ranging from sticks, weeds, and fish bones to fragments from what had apparently been a very recent shipwreck, and which included a shoe, strands of woollen cloth, a silver watch, and the ribcage of a man - a victim of the shipwreck, whose remaining bones and tattered clothing were spotted by Burton a little further along the coast.

Modern-day, multicoloured depiction of the bennu on a tablecloth purchased by me in Cairo, Egypt, in 2006 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

The nests were colossal in size, with an estimated height (and also a basal diameter) of about 15 ft, and an apical diameter of 2.5-3 ft.

Understandably, Burton was thoroughly bemused concerning their origin - until he began to question the local Arabs. They stated that the nests were those of a huge type of stork-like bird that had deserted the area not long before his arrival there.

Facsimile of a vignette from the Egyptian Book of the Dead of Ani – the bennu is pictured midway along the second row of depictions (public domain)

No such bird is known here today; but as his curiosity had been aroused by this episode, Bonomi undertook some investigations of his own, and uncovered persuasive, independent evidence in support of the Arabs' claim.

Delving through the documents of early writers describing Egypt in the far-off days of the pharaohs, he came upon the description of a giant stork once native to the Nile Delta region, and which, in the form of a painted bas-relief, is sculptured upon the wall within the tomb of an officer belonging to the household of Pharaoh Cheops (also called Khufu or Shufu), from the Fourth Dynasty.

Grey heron and Oriental white stork, showing the principal morphological differences between typical heron and typical stork (© Cory/Wikipedia CC BY2.1 jp)

According to these sources, it was a bird of gregarious habits, with white plumage, long tail feathers, and a long straight bill; the male additionally bore a tuft on the back of its head, and another upon its breast. However, these features all more readily recall a heron, an egret or even certain cranes rather than a stork, and they compare well with representations of the bennu. Is it plausible, therefore, that this 'stork' was actually Ardea bennuides?

Whatever its taxonomic identity, however, at the time of Pharaoh Cheops (c.2,600 BC) it still survived in the vicinity of the Delta, because specimens were occasionally trapped by the region's peasantry. The nests spied by Burton were probably the product of several generations of these birds (thereby explaining their immense size) rather than just a single pair - and their most recent contributors may have been this species' last representatives.

Heron/bennu hieroglyph in temple of Luxor, Egypt (© Dr Karl Shuker)

How tragic, and how ironic, if the bennu, the bird that bore the souls of humans to Heaven, ultimately met its own death at the hand of humans.


This ShukerNature blog post is excerpted from my forthcoming book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors.







Tuesday, 10 May 2016

A FROG AS BIG AS A GOAT - THE MOST MYSTIFYING LOCH NESS MONSTER SIGHTING EVER?


Might the bizarre-sounding cryptid allegedly encountered by diver Duncan Macdonald while underwater in Loch Ness during the late 19th Century have looked something like this? (© Richard Svensson)

Of all of the many Nessie-related subjects documented by me down through the years (and now collected together in my forthcoming book Here's Nessie: A Monstrous Compendium From Loch Ness), few have attracted so many enquiries from readers and correspondents as the extraordinary 'frog as big as a goat' supposedly sighted one day by diver Duncan Macdonald while underwater in Loch Ness during the late 1800s (click here for an earlier mention of this cryptid by me on ShukerNature). The incident was first reported almost half a century later, in Inverness's Northern Chronicle newspaper (by an unnamed writer) on 31 January 1934, and this report has in turn been referred to by a number of subsequent publications, but (as far as I am aware) it has never been republished anywhere in full – until now!

Courtesy of the indefatigable research skills of fellow cryptozoological investigator Richard Muirhead (thanks Richard!), earlier today I was delighted to receive a copy of the original Northern Chronicle article, which actually consisted of several different Nessie-themed items linked together. Here is the quite short but very intriguing one concerning Macdonald's alleged encounter:

A DIVER'S EXPERIENCE

Many stories have been circulated by those who go down to the depths inside a diving-bell. Some of them are, doubtless, true; others, of course, must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. But the truth of any story can very often be guaranteed by a little careful investigation.

Here is such a story, and, as it concerns Loch Ness, and the experience which befell a well-known diver, it might, by reason of its uniqueness, act as a spur to those whose training has fitted them to probe the mysteries of marine zoology, for, in the opinion of the writer, it is but another aspect of the case of the Loch Ness "monster."

Some forty-five to fifty years ago a small sailing vessel carrying a cargo of guano, when making the passage through Loch Ness, struck a submerged reef known as "Johnnie's Point," and sank, fortunately without loss of life.

The mishap occurred during the night, and when dawn broke it was seen that the tops of the masts were still above water.

Realising that the vessel might be raised, a squad of men was quickly on the scene, and chains were passed underneath the hulk.

But ere the job was completed the action of the water suddenly dislodged the craft, and she vanished into the depths.

Still hoping to salve the wreck, the owner secured the services of Mr Duncan Macdonald, a noted diving expert, who was at the time employed at the Crinan Canal.

Mr Macdonald duly arrived, and it was from the Caledonian Canal Company's diving-barge that he carried out operations.

A STRANGE CREATURE

After having made a descent of thirty feet, Mr Macdonald signalled that he wished to come up, and, on being questioned as to whether there was any sign of the ship, he said there was none.

From this it was obvious that further attempts would be useless, so he was undressed, and the party prepared to make for Fort-Augustus, their headquarters.

Now one man in the party, having heard stories of a strange creature which was said to live in the loch, began to question the diver. The latter, however, was at first rather diffident about taking any part in the conversation.

Yet, since the others knew that anything he might tell them would be perfectly true, they persisted, and finally the diver said that he saw a strange creature that day.

It lay, he said, on a ledge of rock, on the self-same ledge, apparently, on which the keel of the wrecked vessel had rested, about thirty feet down.

There, he continued, lay a queer-looking beast, which he described as something in the nature of a huge frog.

It stared at him, but, as it showed neither ferocity nor fear, he did not disturb it. In his own words he "saw that the beast made no effort to interfere with me, and I did not interfere with it." As to size, the diver said the creature was "as big as a goat, or a good wedder [Scots dialect word for a castrated male sheep]."

The story, exactly as given, was told by Mr Donald Fraser, lock-keeper, Fort Augustus, who often heard the diver (his own grand-uncle) tell it many years ago.

STRANGE CREATURES

Naturally, this incident raises some very important questions, and the first is – Is the frog-like creature related in any way to the "monster" or "monsters" which inhabit Loch Ness?

Or does the diver's story show that such creatures are entirely different from the present "monster"?

If this be so, it is not unreasonable to presume that they might prove to be the form, or perhaps one of the forms[,] of life with which – who can tell? – Loch Ness abounds, and on which the "monster" sustains itself.

In any case[,] past reports of strange creatures having been seen in the loch show conclusively that they and their kind have had their homes there for centuries, and, this being so, it would seem that were they living on fish life, i.e., salmon and trout, to the extent that some people think they do, the whole or at least most of the salmon kind – still fairly plentiful – would long since have been decimated.

Thus, there being no reason at all why the above statements should be doubted, it will surely be granted that the time is ripe for some competent body to conduct an investigation into the under-water life of Loch Ness.

This remarkable report does indeed raise some very important questions, though not necessarily the ones posed in it by its anonymous author.

First and foremost: as Loch Ness is famous for the blackness of its waters due to their high concentration of peat, how could Macdonald have perceived this goat-sized 'frog' – or indeed anything else, for that matter – while diving at a depth of 30 ft? Having said that, the very fact that he went down there at all, in search of the sunken guano vessel, suggests that some degree of underwater vision must be possible at such depths in this loch. Perhaps, however, the viewing conditions were not sufficient for him to obtain a clear picture of the creature's form, so, who knows, maybe it wasn't genuinely frog-like after all, but actually was simply a typical Nessie longneck viewed at an angle at which its neck was not visible to him.

Alternatively, there is even the possibility that in reality it was some very large form of vaguely frog-like fish – an extremely big wels catfish Siluris glanis, perhaps, whose wide mouth would certainly call to mind that of a frog if encountered face-on in poor visibility. The wels is not native to Britain, it was introduced to various lakes here from Germany during the 1870s and 1880s, but Loch Ness is not one of the lakes featured in documented introductions. Of course, as so many illegal introductions/releases of non-native species across Britain during the past two centuries readily testify, however, just because no documented introductions of wels specimens into Loch Ness are on record, this doesn't necessarily mean that none has taken place...

Is this what Macdonald really saw? (© William M. Rebsamen)

Moving on, it is well worth noting that the Northern Chronicle's telling of this incident is very matter-of-fact, in stark contrast to modern-day retellings, which generally claim that Macdonald was terror-stricken, refused to speak about his sighting for days afterwards, etc, etc. Consequently, these would appear to be melodramatic embellishments added subsequently by person(s) unknown.

The notion aired by the above report's author that perhaps this creature was not itself Nessie but was instead some second, entirely different species of monster – and one, moreover, that may actually constitute the prey of the 'real' Nessie – offers a fascinating if implausible prospect to say the least, doubling the quandary of whether any type of large cryptid inhabits this vast expanse of freshwater.

Loch Ness is BIG!! (public domain)

Equally thought-provoking is the author's claim that "...past reports of strange creatures having been seen in the loch show conclusively that they and their kind have had their homes there for centuries". On the contrary, because cryptozoological sceptics in particular habitually discount traditional stories of water-horses and water-bulls existing here, for instance, as nothing more than folk-tales, with no factual basis.

Moreover, in a very extensive Fortean Studies paper published in 2001 that surveyed no fewer than 87 cases of mysterious beasts allegedly spied in or on the shores of Loch Ness prior to 1933 (the year that marked the beginning the modern age of Nessie sightings), German cryptozoological investigator Ulrich Magin dismissed all of them as featuring mere legends, unsubstantiated rumours, or creatures that were unrelated to the long-necked Nessie-type cryptids reported from this loch from 1933 onwards. He concluded that there was no pre-1930s tradition of monsters inhabiting Loch Ness, only the possibility that some marine creature had somehow entered it during the early 1930s and that this is what had given rise to subsequent sightings of monsters there. This prospect is one that had been contemplated by the likes of early LNM chroniclers Lieutenant Commander Rupert T. Gould and Dr Anthonie C. Oudemans too.

An engraving of Dr Anthonie C. Oudemans (public domain)

But what did Magin think about Macdonald's 'giant frog'? In his listing, this was Case #32, but, interestingly, he was apparently unaware of its original Northern Chronicle source, because he stated: "This is a story which appears in most books about Nessie but always without reference", and he cited one such book, Peter Costello's In Search of Lake Monsters (1974), as the source that he had consulted.

After quoting Costello's brief version of Macdonald's own description of this underwater mystery beast's appearance, Magin concluded "...the description is unlikely to refer to a long-necked animal or any other animal known in the loch". Or indeed elsewhere, in fact, as I am certainly not aware of any living species of frog-like creature the size of a goat that is currently known to science in the living state (there are of course various extremely large amphibians known from the fossil record).

At present, therefore, the goat-sized 'frog' of Loch Ness remains a major enigma in the Nessie chronicles. Nevertheless, now that its original published source has been resurrected and reproduced here, one of the most mystifying and paradoxical LNM-associated reports – ostensibly unlikely, yet supplied by a very experienced and seemingly highly-reliable eyewitness - is finally readily available for scrutiny and further investigation by future Nessie researchers.


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

You never know what you may encounter when diving underwater in Loch Ness! (© William M. Rebsamen)