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

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my ShukerNature blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my published books (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Eclectarium blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Starsteeds blog's poetry and other lyrical writings (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

Search This Blog

Loading...

PLEASE COME IN, I'VE BEEN EXPECTING YOU...

PLEASE COME IN, I'VE BEEN EXPECTING YOU...
WELCOME TO SHUKERNATURE - ENJOY YOUR VISIT - BEWARE OF THE RAPTOR!

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

INTRODUCING THE HOMEN-GALHO – PORTUGAL'S MYSTERIOUS TWIG MAN ENTITY…OR ENT?



Green-tinted version of 'Family Tree', by Robert M. Williams, chanced upon and purchased by me as a large-sized print in a charity shop at Warwick, England, in c.2012 (© Robert M. Williams – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

One of my favourite races of being in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy are those animate trees known as ents, but I always assumed that they were totally fictitious. Thanks to some fascinating if thoroughly perplexing information received by me recently, however, I'm no longer quite so sure!

On 16 August 2016, Portuguese correspondent Tiago Cardoso kindly brought to my attention and also translated into English for me a short item from Vanessa Fidalgo's book Seres Mágicos em Portugal [Magic Beings in Portugal], published in 2014, but which I have not previously seen mentioned in any English-language publication. The item concerns a mystifying being known locally as the homen-galho or twig man, and here it is:

I will tell a story that was told to me by my grandfather, about a creature that lives in the forest near the village of Pessegueiro, in northern Portugal.

According to my grandfather, when he was a young man, that is, about 40 years ago, during an autumn night there in the village of Pessegueiro a group of friends of which he was part spotted a naked creature that moved as a man (i.e. on two legs), but the head appeared to bear tree twigs. It was exceptionally tall and thin. When it noticed them, the creature was perplexed to see them, a situation which gave the impression that its eyes were human, but also allowed them to see that it had something that looked like moss on its face. My grandfather and his friends chased the creature, entering into the forest, throwing stones at it, but when they entered the densest areas of the grove, they lost sight of it.

Then, they heard animal-like noises, and dragging of vegetation, which, in the exact words of my grandfather: "stopped everything, until the animals became afraid and fled".

At that moment, they also fled, in panic, to the village cafe, where they told what had happened. Obviously at that time no one believed their account, but, over the years, people here have heard more accounts of sightings of this creature. It seems that the descriptions were continuing until six years ago.

Front cover of the novel L'Aurore des Chrysalides written by Yanis Taieb, which features an entity reminiscent of twig man descriptions (© Yanis Taieb – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

It was six years ago when it was last reported, by a group of young people...They were in the street when they heard a strange noise, similar to the noises made by the dragging of something very heavy. They came to see what was there, and that was when one of them saw a very thin, strange figure, and he exclaimed: "Look that man, he looks like a twig!".

Then, they all remarked about the man having tree-trunk-like structures on its head, and they associated this immediately with the description that they had heard from old men. Like the group containing my grandfather, they ran to the nearest cafe to find people and to claim that they had seen the 'twig man'.

At first, no one understood what they were talking about, but after a more detailed explanation everyone ran to the place of their sighting, but there was no longer anything there. Only a total silence.

Since that day, no 'forest creature' or 'twig man' has been seen, but in the village the story never died and everybody knows that in the forest exists something that is not human.

When I first read this, I wondered about wild men or woodwose, as such entities have been reported in Spain right into modern times, but the repeated claims that Portugal's twig man has tree-like twigs or trunks projecting from its head are certainly very difficult to explain via this identity. Having said that, moss on its face is less problematic, so might the twigs simply be vegetation caught up in the hair on the creature's head?

Yet even if this is so, its extreme thinness and tallness does not recall wild man reports, in which their dimensions tend to be little different from those of modern, civilised humans.

'The Takkenman', a life-sized Dutch bronze statue by Henk Vos that mirrors descriptions of Portugal's twig man (© Henkvosb/Wikipedia CC SA 3POINT0 Unported)

Conversely, what the twig man does closely resemble is the LOTR ent, typified by the stately Treebeard, and who knows, perhaps this fictitious yet famous entity has indeed directly inspired and coloured the twig man reports. Yet it seems unlikely that such a blatantly invented creature as an animate tree would do this. So at present, the Portuguese twig man is a notable enigma - a legend come to life, or even a fictional entity made factual.

If any ShukerNature reader knows anything about the twig man, I’d love to hear from you. Meanwhile, my thanks to Tiago Cardoso for alerting me to this incongruous Iberian.

Treebeard, an ent, depicted in spectacular fashion by world-renowned fantasy artist Rodney Matthews (© Rodney Matthews – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)





Tuesday, 6 December 2016

FISHER PIGS, SWAMP PIGS, HELL PIGS, AND TERMINATOR PIGS – ENTELODONTS EMERGENT IN HUNGARY?


Life-sized entelodont statue in Reutlingen, Germany (© Markus Bühler)

Whereas Arthurian legend had its Fisher King, rural Hungarian lore apparently once included an ostensibly real but presently-unidentified mystery beast known as the fisher pig. Also termed the swamp pig, this hitherto-obscure creature, seemingly undocumented in mainstream cryptozoological literature until now, was kindly brought to my attention by Facebook colleague and Hungarian crypto-investigator Orosz István via a series of FB communications during early July 2016, and which can be summarised as follows.

The old shepherding folk of his country still speak of this mysterious animal, which they claim to be extinct now (allegedly dying out during the 1880-1890s, according to a mention of it by famous Hungarian agricultural writer Imre Somogyu in his celebrated 1942 book Kertmagyarország Felé), but which once lived in marshes around the rivers Tisza and Körös. It did not graze like normal wild boars, and its diet consisted of crabs and fishes. When I asked Orosz if any illustrations of fisher/swamp pigs existed, he replied that he was not aware of any, but added that it was said to be very big, with a curved back, and lived in large herds.

Restoration of Daeodon shoshonensis (Public domain)

This interesting account attracted a wide range of speculation on FB, including whether it may actually have constituted a late-surviving species of entelodont. These omnivorous pig-like ungulates (but constituting a separate taxonomic family from true pigs) existed in Eurasia and North America from the middle Eocene to the early Miocene (37 million to 16 million years ago), culminating in their last but largest representative Daeodon shoshonensis (aka Dinohyus hollandi). Distributed widely across the U.S.A., this monstrous so-called 'hell pig' or 'terminator pig' stood around 6 ft tall at the shoulder and sported a massive 3-ft-long skull.

However, it seems highly unlikely that such conspicuous creatures as entelodonts could have survived into modern times in Europe without having attracted very appreciable, sustained attention from the sporting fraternity, for whom they would have made extremely noteworthy targets and thence trophies (i.e. mounted heads, preserved pelts, etc), to be displayed proudly in hunting lodges and country estates across the continent. And yet no such specimens seemingly exist; none, at least, has been brought to public notice so far.

Feral pigs (public domain)

Much more plausibly, Orosz felt that the fisher pig was probably nothing more than a local variety of the familiar European wild boar Sus scrofa, whereas fellow Hungarian crypto-enthusiast Tötös Miklós considered that it may have been a feral (run-wild) variety of domestic pig. Both wild boars and feral domestic pigs will indeed inhabit swamps and marshes, are famously omnivorous, and are known to enter shallow water to devour fishes and invertebrates.

Yet as wild boars and feral domestic pigs are such well known creatures in this region of Europe, why would any that lived in the Tisza and Körös marshes be delineated with their own name by the local shepherds, unless they had evolved a distinctive morphology and lifestyle that separated them from more typical wild boar and ferals at least in the eyes of the shepherds (if not in those of zoologists)? For now, therefore, the Hungarian fisher pig remains a thought-provoking cryptozoological conundrum.

Front view of life-sized entelodont statue in Reutlingen, Germany (© Markus Bühler)

My sincere thanks to Facebook friends Orosz István and Tötös Miklós for their much-appreciated information and insights concerning their country's enigmatic fisher pig, and to Markus Bühler for his excellent entelodont statue photographs.

This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted from my newly-published mega-book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors – at 0ver 600 pages and almost 260,000 words long, and with more than 300 illustrations, most in full-colour and including many spectacular but hitherto-unpublished artworks, an ideal Christmas present for any crypto-fan!





Monday, 5 December 2016

DEBUNKING THE DISCOVERY OF A DEAD DRAGON


Stills available online from a 'mockumentary' b/w video showing the supposed discovery of a dead dragon - click stills to enlarge (© Cuarto Milenio – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

I investigated and debunked the following case back in summer 2016, and others have done so too, but as it is still inciting speculation online I am presenting herewith on ShukerNature my own findings regarding it, in the hope that this deceased dragon can finally be laid to rest permanently.

In August 2016, several correspondents brought to my attention a remarkable b/w video snippet doing the rounds online that showed a team of scientists apparently finding the recently-deceased, still-intact, non-decomposed body of a bona fide dragon. Worryingly, judging from comments posted underneath the video, quite a few people seriously considered it likely that this beast was real. Consequently, I lost no time in investigating the video to determine its origin and uncover the true nature of the dragon in it. Happily, I soon discovered that the video was actually a deliberately-created faux film clip contained within a Spanish TV documentary on dragons entitled Cuarto Milenio (Fourth Millennium), fronted by zoologist Fernando Gonzalez.

Moreover, the dragon itself was a very skilfully-produced, large-sized model, over 12 ft long, created specifically for the documentary by acclaimed Spanish artist-sculptor Juan Villa Herrera and a team of assistants at his workshop, which took a week to prepare. The dragon was constructed from latex and flexible foam, except for its wings, teeth, and claws. Unfortunately, some unidentified person(s) had taken a copy of the documentary's faux film clip and had distributed it online as proof that dragons do exist, thereby creating the appreciable confusion that duly ensued – and which even engendered a variant claim that the dragon in question had been found in Tibet!

Still from video showing how the dragon was painstakingly created by Juan Villa Herrera and his team (© Cuarto Milenio – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

At the time of writing, a copy of the b/w faux film clip can be viewed online here, uploaded on 23 February 2016. A colour version of it can be viewed online here, uploaded onto Facebook by Sokh Phally on 19 August 2016. And a superb video revealing how the dragon was constructed step by step by its creator and assistants can be viewed online here, uploaded by Juan Villa Herrero on 21 February 2016.

And for the most comprehensive and extensively-illustrated documentation of dragons currently in print. be sure to check out my full-colour book Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture – the perfect Christmas present for all serious draconophiles everywhere!





Friday, 2 December 2016

SHUKERNATURE EXCLUSIVES – THE ONLY STORE FOR OFFICIAL SHUKERNATURE MERCHANDISE



ShukerNature t-shirt (© Dr Karl Shuker/Zazzle)

Several years ago, I opened a store on Zazzle's website, but I didn't do a great deal with it – until now. Renaming it ShukerNature Exclusives, I've launched a wide selection of official ShukerNature blog merchandise and other cryptozoology-related items designed by yours truly (and with many other items on the way too) – from t-shirts, hoodies, jackets, and baseball caps to postcards, coasters, mugs, key-rings, bumper stickers, and much more besides, all attractively decorated with ShukerNature and other crypto motifs.

ShukerNature postcard (© Dr Karl Shuker/Zazzle)

So, with Christmas fast approaching and all of those gifts still to seek out, why not pay a visit to ShukerNature Exclusives? If you're a ShukerNature blog fan, and want to let the world know, just click here to browse through the only official ShukerNature merchandise available anywhere. Go on, you know you want to!

Ameranthropoides loysi t-shirt (© Dr Karl Shuker/Zazzle)




Friday, 25 November 2016

STILL IN SEARCH OF PREHISTORIC SURVIVORS - AFTER 21 YEARS, THE WAIT IS FINALLY OVER!



It has been 21 years since the original publication back in 1995 of In Search of Prehistoric Survivors, considered by many to be my finest cryptozoological volume. Not surprisingly, then, in subsequent years there has been a growing, persistent clamour among its numerous fans worldwide for me to prepare a new, updated edition. Now, at last, fulfilling a longstanding promise, I have done so - and what an update it is!

At over 600 pages long, with a word count of almost 260,000, more than 300 colour and b/w illustrations (including many stunning renditions plus spectacular cover artwork by acclaimed crypto-artist William M. Rebsamen), and a brand-new foreword penned by fellow crypto-chronicler Michael Newton, this is both a massively-expanded new edition of the original volume and a valid stand-alone book in its own right, because it contains many entirely new cryptids as well as updates for all of those previously included here. The result is the most comprehensive documentation and analysis ever published of those diverse mystery beasts that at one time or another have been postulated to be bona fide prehistoric survivors.

Where it all began, 21 years ago - the original edition, In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors, published in 1995 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

But if these elusive beasts do indeed exist, could they really be creatures that time forgot? From sea serpents and lake monsters to living non-avian dinosaurs and surviving pterodactyls, from bunyips and behemoths to Nandi bears, devil-pigs, thunderbirds, thylacoleonids, and many many more, read the meticulous, objective, and always scrupulously scientific assessments of each and every cryptozoological case presented in this fascinating book, and judge for yourself.

An ideal Christmas present for every cryptozoological enthusiast, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors can now be ordered on Amazon and elsewhere online – click here to visit its dedicated page on my website, which contains direct clickable links to its purchasing pages on Amazon USA and Amazon UK respectively. And if you order it here on Amazon USA between now and November 28 (up to 02:59 am EST) 2016, using the promo code HOLIDAYBOOK at checkout under the "Gift cards & promotional codes" section, you will save a sizeable $10 off its selling price!!







Tuesday, 22 November 2016

THE BIS-COBRA – INDIA'S VENOMOUS LIZARD THAT NEVER WAS


First edition of EHA's delightful book, The Tribes On My Frontier (public domain)


Snakes of all kinds are held in great horror by the natives of India, and they slay indiscriminately and ruthlessly all they come across, but this horror pales before the terror inspired even by the names of the bis-cobra and goh-sámp,—terror so great, that, if met with, the harmless animals are given the widest berth possible, and their destruction is never attempted. Though actual animals, they are virtually mythical, that is as regards the deadly properties assigned to them, and we easily recognise in them the originals of the flame-breathing dragon and deadly basilisk. The gaze of the bis-cobra is awful even from a distance and its bite is instant death; and if the goh-sámp breathes upon, or at you, you fall dead at once.

   H.F. Hutchinson – Nature, 9 October 1879


In villages across the length and breadth of India even today, there remains tangible fear concerning a creature that may be small in size but is gargantuan in terms of the terror that the mere sight of it generates. Known most commonly as the bis-cobra, according to generations of fervently-believed native folklore and superstition this modest-sized Asian lizard has such a venomous bite that anyone so inflicted will die instantly. Needless to say, no species matching this description is known to science. Yet there is no doubt that the bis-cobra does exist. So what precisely is this noxious entity, and how can these contradictions be resolved?

The name 'bis-cobra' (or 'biscopra'), which is used most prevalently in western India, loosely translates as 'venomous cobra'. Bearing in mind that all cobras are venomous, this is a particularly direct, hard-hitting way of emphasising just how exceptionally toxic this animal is – or, to be more accurate, allegedly is.

I first read about the bis-cobra many years ago, when perusing a delightful, humorous book on Indian wildlife entitled The Tribes On My Frontier, published in 1904 and written by 'EHA' - the pen-name of Indian amateur naturalist and artist Edward Hamilton Aitken (1851-1909). His description of it summarises very succinctly the basic attributes of this mysterious reptile:

But of all the things in this earth that bite or sting, the palm belongs to the biscobra, a creature whose very name seems to indicate that it is twice as bad as the cobra. Though known by the terror of its name to natives and Europeans alike, it has never been described in the proceedings of any learned society, nor has it yet received a scientific name. In fact, it occupies much the same place in science as the sea-serpent, and accurate information regarding it is still a desideratum. The awful deadliness of its bite admits of no question, being supported by countless authentic instances; our own old ghorawalla [horse-keeper] was killed by one. The points on which evidence is required are – first, whether there is any such animal as the biscobra; second, whether, if it does exist, it is a snake with legs or a lizard without them. By inquiry among natives I have learned a few remarkable facts about it, as, for instance, that it has eight legs, and is a hybrid between a cobra and that gigantic lizard commonly miscalled an iguana [in India, 'iguana' is a term popularly misapplied to monitor lizards]; but last year a brood of them suddenly appeared in Dustypore, and I saw several. The first was killed by some of the bravest of my own men with stones, for it can spring four feet, and no one may approach it without hazard of life. Even when dead it is exceedingly dangerous, but, with my usual hardihood, I examined it. It was nine inches long, and in appearance like a pretty brownish lizard spotted with yellow. It has no trace of poison-fangs, but I was assured that an animal so deadly could dispense with these. If it simply spits at a man his fate is sealed.

After some effort, EHA finally managed to capture a bis-cobra alive in his own garden using a butterfly-net, much to the great consternation of his native butler, watching the proceedings from a considerable distance. He then kept it for a time as a pet, without suffering any adverse effects.

EHA's own bis-cobra drawing in The Tribes On My Frontier (public domain)

Pre-dating EHA's account by several decades, however, was a lengthy report on the bis-cobra by a Mr John Grant that featured in the inaugural volume of the Calcutta Journal of Natural History, published in 1840. In it, Grant referred to a specimen of a reputed bis-cobra specially captured for him to examine. Approximately 6 in long, it was attractively patterned with irregular streaks of small bead-like markings of alternating dark and light grey colour. Anxious to observe its lethal effect, Grant introduced a mouse into the glass container housing this lizard. But far from the mouse meeting a rapid demise, it fought spiritedly with the lizard for a short time, each biting the other, before the two combatants retreated to opposite sides of the container, neither of them appearing any worse for their savage encounter. So much for the bis-cobra's virulent venom.

In her book East of Suez (1901), Alice Perrin included an eventful incident in which a European living in India demonstrated dramatically but beyond any doubt that the bite of a bis-cobra was harmless. He achieved this by lifting a brown and yellow specimen out of a pot in which it had been trapped, and then, when it seized hold of his hand with its teeth, holding it up, still biting him, for all of his horror-stricken native helpers to witness. After anxiously waiting for a while to watch their doomed master's fully-anticipated demise, they finally dispersed when it became clear that he was totally unharmed. Perrin also documented an encounter with a tree-climbing bis-cobra, measuring about 14 in long.

Alice Perrin's book East of Suez, Speaking Tiger Books reprint, 2015 (© Speaking Tiger Books, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

EHA was not the only source of native lore claiming that the bis-cobra doesn't even have to bite in order for its venom to prove lethal. Several other writers have also alleged that it only has to spit a single drop onto someone's skin for its potency to prove instantaneously fatal, searing through the victim's skin, entering their bloodstream, and eliciting certain death. Indeed, in his book Indian Peepshow (1937), Henry Newman was even assured by a local man that if this dire lizard so much as spat at a tree (let alone a person), a hole would burn right through and the tree would die.

In parts of India outside the western zone where reports of the bis-cobra are most rife, this supposedly deadly beast is conflated with another mysterious but equally malign reptile called the hun khun. Likened to a small slow-moving lizard with a fat tail, much the same powers of venomous potency are attributed to it as to the bis-cobra, but even the blood of the hun khun is reportedly toxic, and its skin reputedly contains lethal poison glands.

As science knows of no species corresponding to the bis-cobra, how can this enigmatic lizard be explained? Down through the decades, several different zoological identities have been proposed for it. In their book Venomous Reptiles (1969), Sherman and Madge Minton proposed that the bis-cobra was the East Indian leopard gecko Eublepharis hardwickii, a small stout species with a noticeably thick tail. Of course, as this gecko (like all others) is wholly harmless, in order to accommodate its identification as the bis-cobra the latter's dread reputation as a highly venomous creature must necessarily be nothing more than native superstition and folklore. The Mintons identified the hun khun as the closely related fat-tailed or common leopard gecko E. macularius.

Fat-tailed or common leopard gecko Eublepharis macularius (public domain)

Henry Newman noted that in the hotter, drier parts of India, 'bis-cobra' was a term applied to a rarely-seen, fleet-footed species of grey lizard. And that in Eastern Bengal, it is an elusive crested lizard occasionally spied in gardens and on walls.

In his recently-updated two-volume encyclopaedia of cryptozoology, Mysterious Creatures (2013-14), George Eberhart noted the Mintons' view. He also speculated that an alternative explanation for the bis-cobra is that it is a non-existent composite beast, created by locals combining (and sometimes confusing) reports of venomous snakes with non-venomous lizards.

By far the most commonly-held view as to the bis-cobra's identity today, however, is one that, ironically, had originally been suggested by a number of authors more than a century ago. In his earlier-mentioned book, for instance, EHA recalled how his captured bis-cobra gradually grew larger until within a few weeks it had developed into an unmistakeable 'iguana' (in India, a commonly-used colloquial, albeit zoologically-inaccurate, name for a varanid or monitor lizard). He concluded dryly:

Some people would jump to the conclusion that it was a young iguana to begin with. My butler would endure the thumbscrew sooner.

Similarly, in his above-documented Calcutta Journal of Natural History report from 1840, John Grant concluded that the specimen which he had pitted against the mouse was nothing more than a young goshamp – a local name in present-day Bangladesh and West Bengal for the common Indian (Bengal) monitor Varanus bengalensis. This species is widely distributed throughout the Indian subcontinent, and whereas adults are mainly terrestrial, juveniles are more arboreal, thereby explaining reports of tree-climbing bis-cobras. Their spotted patterning also matches morphological descriptions of the bis-cobra.

Photograph of EHA (public domain)

Moreover, writing in Beast and Man in India (1891), John Lockwood Kipling stated:

The large lizard, varanus [sic] dracaena, which is perfectly innocuous, like all Indian lizards, is called the bis-cobra by some.

Varanus dracaena is a synonym of Varanus bengalensis. Kipling actually owned a pet specimen of this monitor species, and whenever he held it he was invariably warned of its supposed deadliness by native observers.

Monitors were also confidently identified as the bis-cobra by L.S.S. O'Malley in his book Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Sikkim (1917). In Eye in the Jungle (2006), acclaimed Tamil writer M. Krishnan affirmed that the dreaded bis-cobra has been shown by naturalists to be nothing more than young, harmless specimens of the common Indian monitor – a statement confirmed in the standard work on this varanid species, Walter Auffenberg's monograph The Bengal Monitor (1994). Today, therefore, the term 'bis-cobra' is treated merely as a synonym for the latter monitor.

The real bis-cobra - a juvenile common Indian monitor Varanus bengalensis (Jayendra Chiplunkar/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

All that remains to explain now are supposed cases (such as that of EHA's ghorawalla) in which a bite from a bis-cobra, i.e. a young Indian monitor lizard, caused a person's death. If such cases are indeed genuine, how are such deaths possible, bearing in mind that V. bengalensis is not venomous?

Various possibilities come to mind. For instance, in recent years it has been shown that certain varanids, notably the Komodo dragon V. komodoensis, do actually possess venom glands. Although the venom produced by them is not normally fatal to humans, someone exceptionally sensitive to it may conceivably suffer anaphylaxis in a manner comparable to the response of certain people to the venom in bee or wasp stings. And even if no venom is present, the bacteria present on the teeth of these lizards could readily infect a wound created by a bite from one, and thus induce septicaemia. Moreover, the superstitious fear generated by the bis-cobra may in itself be sufficient to bring about death by heart failure in someone bitten by a monitor lizard.

It may well be that isolated incidents involving one or more of these causes of death following a bite from a technically harmless lizard were sufficient to engender the tenacious myth of the lethal bis-cobra, especially among medically-untrained villagers. It would also explain the diversity of lizard species claimed by them to be the bis-cobra at one time or another. The ultimate result was a fascinatingly Frankensteinian creation of the deadliest lizard that never actually existed.

This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted from my book The Menagerie of Marvels: A Third Compendium of Extraordinary Animals.






Friday, 4 November 2016

THE VEGETABLE LAMB OF TARTARY - HALF PLANT, HALF ANIMAL, WHOLLY AMAZING!


Vegetable lamb, Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch, 1806 (public domain)


Feeding on grass, and th'airy moisture licking
Such as those Borometz of Scythia bred
Of slender seeds, and with green fodder fed;
Although their bodies, noses, mouths and eyes,
Of new-yeaned lambs have full the form and guise,
And should be very lambs, save that for foot
Within the ground they fix a living root
Which at their navel grows; and dies that day
That they have browsed the neighbouring grass away.

Guillaume de Salustre du Bartas – La Semaine


For many centuries, naturalists seriously believed that a small fleecy creature originated from a truly extraordinary plant's fruit, and was therefore a unique fusion of zoology and botany. Hence its name – the vegetable lamb.

Three depictions of vegetable lambs, 1887 (public domain)

The most extensive modern-day documentation of the vegetable lamb, also known as the barometz or borometz, can be found in Jan Bondeson's fascinating book The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History (1999). In it, he reveals that lore relating to lambs supposedly growing out of the ground dates back many centuries in China. Moreover, the earliest known mention of such a creature anywhere appears in a Jewish text from 436 AD entitled the Talmud Ierosolimitanum, or Jerusalem Talmud, written by Rabbi Jochanan, which refers to the yeduah, a lamb-like beast that sprouted from the ground attached to a plant stem. However, it was not until the 14th Century and the publication of a certain English nobleman's extraordinary travelogue that this bizarre plant-animal first attracted appreciable Western attention, after which it swiftly became a staple inclusion in any self-respecting bestiary.

The travelogue in question chronicled the astounding voyages of Sir John Mandeville around the then-known world, in which he claimed to have personally observed all manner of incredible and highly implausible creatures, including the vegetable lamb. This latter entity was supposedly encountered by him during his sojourn in a region of Tartary (a name used at that time for much of northern and central Asia) that nowadays constitutes China. Here is what he wrote about it:

There grows there a kind of fruit as big as gourds, and when it is ripe men open it and find inside an animal of flesh and blood and bone, like a little lamb without wool. And the people of that land eat the animal, and the fruit too. It is a great marvel.

Vegetable lamb as portrayed in Mandeville's travelogue, 14th Century (public domain)

In later centuries, it was revealed that Mandeville had never existed and that his travelogue was a clever hoax, quite probably executed by a 14th-Century Benedictine monk of Flemish extraction called Jan de Langhe, ingeniously incorporating and interpolating tracts extracted from several earlier works penned by real writers (a medieval Italian Franciscan friar and explorer called Odoric of Pordenone in the case of this travelogue's vegetable lamb information).

But by then, the fictional Mandeville's equally fictitious coverage of the vegetable lamb had firmly taken root, in every sense, firing both the imagination of Western naturalists anxious to see for themselves this true wonder of Creation and the inspiration of Western artists including depictions of it in religious illustrations. Perhaps the best example of the latter is the very detailed, ornate frontispiece plate included in English herbalist John Parkinson's monumental treatise Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629), in which a vegetable lamb can be perceived just behind Adam in the Garden of Eden.

Frontispiece to John Parkinson's Paradisus Terrestris, 1629, vegetable lamb arrowed - click image to enlarge it (public domain)

During the mid-16th Century, an equally influential account of the vegetable lamb appeared, this time penned by the celebrated scholar-diplomat Baron Sigismund von Herberstein (1486-1566), who had twice been the German emperor's ambassador at the Court of Muscovy (a Russian principality centring upon Moscow). In his account, published in 1549 within his magnum opus Notes on Muscovite Affairs, he added several important details, derived from information passed on to him by a number of different Russian sources.

In contrast to the Mandeville description claiming that it lacked wool, the Baron's account stated that the vegetable lamb possessed not only a normal lamb's head with eyes and ears, but also a normal lamb's woolly fleece. Its tiny limbs even sported hooves, though these were exceedingly delicate as they were apparently composed merely of compressed hairs, not the hard horny substance of real lambs' hooves. The lamb was permanently attached to a long stem, comparable to an umbilical cord, which grew vertically to a height of approximately 2.5 ft, thus suspending the lamb high above the ground, but it could apparently use its weight to bend the stem downwards, thereby enabling it to stand and walk upon the ground, and also to graze upon any grass or foliage that was within its reach.

Vegetable lamb, from Claude Duret's 1605 book (public domain)

Unfortunately for the vegetable lamb, however, as documented by botanist and fervent barometz believer Claude Duret in his Histoire Admirable des Plantes et Herbes Esmerueillables et Miraculeuses en Nature (1605), its flesh was very palatable (said by those who had eaten it to taste like crab meat) and its blood resembled honey. Consequently, it attracted particular gastronomic attention not only from humans but also from marauding packs of wolves, against which the little lamb had no defence. It could not even flee them, as it was irrevocably attached to its stem, and so was invariably torn apart and devoured by its ravaging attackers. Nor was that the only tragic fate that regularly befell this poor creature. Due again to its permanent tethering via its stem, once the lamb had eaten all of the grass and other vegetation within its reach it was doomed to starve to death, after which its plant progenitor died too.

Yet although such tales and accounts made absorbing reading, even in that pre-scientific age scholars still sought physical evidence to corroborate them whenever possible - but what physical evidence existed to confirm the reality of the vegetable lamb? According to the Tartars, they utilised this creature's fine wool as padding for the caps that they wore on their shaven heads at night for warmth, and also – of particular excitement to Western naturalists – some Muscovites claimed that the Tartars would occasionally sell entire vegetable lamb skins, albeit only for inordinately high prices.

Vegetable lamb depicted in an antique French print, circa 1728 (public domain)

As recorded by Jan Bondeson in his own comprehensive barometz writings, one person who was aware of such claims was Sir Richard Lea, who in 1570 had been appointed the ambassador of England's Queen Elizabeth I to the court of the Russian Tsar, Ivan IV ('The Terrible'). Moreover, he actually succeeded in obtaining a coat lined with vegetable lamb skins, after trading for it with the tsar an exquisite grinding mortar hewn from a magnificent piece of agate. Upon his death in 1609, Sir Richard bequeathed this zoo-botanical (or phyto-zoological?) treasure for safekeeping and study to none other than Oxford's nowadays world-famous Bodleian Library, which had been founded during that same period of time by Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613). Sadly, however, his expectation was not met, as the coat was simply left to deteriorate in condition inside Sir Thomas's own closet. Despite attempts to repair and renovate it during the 1630s and 1640s, it was probably discarded not long afterwards, because by the end of that century its whereabouts were no longer known and have never been ascertained since.

Notwithstanding this very regrettable loss (although 17th-Century German naturalist Dr Engelbert Kaempfer revealed that other such artefacts sold by Tartars were actually derived from the skins of unborn Astrakhan lambs), several entire preserved vegetable lambs have also been formally documented. One, measuring just over 1 ft long, resembled a four-legged wooden branch covered in a shining dark-yellow fleece.

Engraving of Buckley's vegetable lamb, exhibited by Sir Hans Sloane (public domain)

It had originally been purchased from an Indian merchant by a Mr Buckley, and in 1698 it was exhibited at the Royal Society of London by the Society's Secretary, Sir Hans Sloane (whose own extremely substantial collection of artefacts became the foundation of the British Museum after he bequeathed them to the nation).

Moreover, Sloane exhibited a second preserved vegetable lamb at the Royal Society in 1725, this specimen originating in Russia and belonging to German physician Dr Johann P. Breyn. As Jan Bondeson has so aptly commented, however, it looked more like a fox terrier than a lamb!

Engraving of Dr Johann Breyn's terrier-like vegetable lamb (public domain)

Sadly, both of those specimens are now lost, but at least two others do still exist. One of them is a prize exhibit at the Garden Museum in Lambeth, London, which I specifically visited on 6 February 2015 in order to see it. When I arrived, however, I was sad to discover that it was not presently on display, but after the museum's exhibitions curator, Emily Fuggle, learnt of my interest in mysterious and mythological creatures she very kindly treated me to a private viewing of their celebrated specimen, currently residing in the museum's store. Standing in silent dignity, a mute and motionless marvel from a long-bygone age, the vegetable lamb of Lambeth peered ever outwards through the large glass dome inside which it was detained.

This memorable specimen, probably created during the mid-1800s, was an unexpected but very welcome donation to the museum some years ago from a Cambridgeshire doctor whose family had hitherto owned it for over 150 years, but Emily informed me that it is now too fragile and vulnerable to the effects of light and photography from which its antiquarian glass cupola can no longer shield it adequately for it to be placed on public display at present. Happily, however, there are plans for this unique wonder to return on show at the museum as a permanent exhibit, housed inside a special new case affording it full protection, so I look forward to a return visit there one day to see it again.

Vegetable lamb at Garden Museum, Lambeth, London (© T.P. Holland, Creative Commons Attributions Licence/Wikipedia - included here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

The second preserved vegetable lamb specimen, which has resided inside its very own chest of drawers for over 200 years, is maintained in the stores of London's Natural History Museum, having only been placed on display once – briefly, in 1934 – during modern times.

However, an engraving of it was prepared during the 18th Century by John and Andrew Rymsdyk, and appears in their Museum Britannicum (1778).

The Natural History Museum's vegetable lamb, as depicted in an engraving from 1778 (public domain)

Needless to say, vegetable lambs do not, could not exist, and never have done – they are nothing more than an exotic, imaginative fable from the Middle Ages. So how can the preserved specimens be explained – what exactly are they?

After examining the two examples that he exhibited at the Royal Society, Sloane had no doubts whatsoever concerning their identity. Both of them were nothing more than the inverted, hairy rhizome or rootstock of some form of large fern, whose roots had been removed, and four of whose frond stems had been retained but carefully shaved and modified to resemble slender legs.

Vegetable lambs depicted in artificially-modified, pseudo-zoological form on left, and in natural, fern-bearing form on right, from Svenska Familj-Journalen, vol. 18, 1879 (public domain)

And the only reason why this correct identification had not been readily recognised earlier is that the fern species in question did not begin to be widely introduced into Europe from its native habitat in China and the Malayan Peninsula until the 1800s.

A very large arborescent tree fern that grows up to 3 ft in height and whose fronds can reach 10 ft in length when fully mature, it is nowadays commonly known as the woolly fern, and has been scientifically dubbed Cibotium barometz – both names commemorating its link to the vegetable lamb legend.

Cibotium barometz (public domain)

All that remains to be answered, therefore, is how the myth of the vegetable lamb arose in the first place.

In a concise book devoted to this legendary entity, published in 1887 and entitled The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, Brighton Aquarium naturalist Henry Lee proposed that it was inspired by the cotton plant Gossypium herbaceum, whose white clumps of fleecy cotton fibres surrounding the plant's seeds (revealed when its ripe seed pods burst during warm weather) superficially resemble tiny lambs attached to stems. This hypothesis has been supported by a number of subsequent researchers.

Henry Lee's vegetable lamb book's front cover, 1887 (public domain)

However, as Jan Bondeson has tellingly pointed out, the cotton plant had been a familiar, widely-utilised species in Europe for centuries, and for even longer in China, yet with no suggestion anywhere on record of any myths or fables linking it to the production of lambs. So although initially appealing, Lee's proposal is definitely lacking in material support.

Consequently, although we know unquestionably that the vegetable lamb as a biological reality is an impossible concept, the riddle of how belief in this most fantastic of fantasy life-forms began, becoming an enduring myth in China, the Middle East, and thence Europe, still lacks a convincing answer even today.

Vegetable lamb as depicted in Henry Lee's book, The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, 1887 (public domain)


This ShukerNature blog article is exclusively excerpted and expanded from my book A Manifestation of Monsters.