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), The Unexplained (1996), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), 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), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is already considered to be his magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016), 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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Thursday, 8 March 2018


Exquisite engraving from 1898 of Phrynus tessellatus, a Caribbean species of amblypygid or tailless whip scorpion (public domain)

Readers of a certain age (i.e. my own or older) will probably recognise that the main title of this ShukerNature article of mine is a totally shameless parody of the title from a famous comedy song released in 1938 by the much-loved British war-time singer Gracie Fields, the song in question being 'It's the Biggest Aspidastra in the World!' (I know, I know, but it was just too fantastic a pun to let pass!).

And here, just in case you were wondering what one looked like, is an aspidistra (note correct spelling of name) – although, sadly, it's not the biggest in the world! (© Frank C. Müller/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

Anyway, aspidistras aside (but see this blog article's epilogue for a short note regarding the odd spelling and pronunciation of their name as featured in Gracie's song but nowhere else), just what are amblypygids?

Illustration of an amblypygid from C.L. Koch's Die Arachniden (1841) (public domain)

I first learned about them as a child when reading the August 1966 issue of the then-monthly (previously-weekly) British magazine Animals, which contained an article by naturalist R.C.H. Sweeney memorably entitled ''Monsters' of the Caves'. This proved to be an excerpt from his forthcoming book The Scurrying Bush, and told of his encountering these ostensibly unearthly creatures while exploring various large, many-tunnelled caves in Tanzania's Mkulumuzi Gorge. Also known as tailless whip scorpions, amblypygids are arachnids related to the vinegaroons or tailed whip scorpions, but they look more like exceedingly long-limbed spiders, albeit of the kind from which nightmares are spawned. In reality, however, they are basically harmless, lacking both a sting and venom fangs, though they can give quite a nasty bite with their chelicerae (the principal, inner jaws of arachnids) or nip with their pincer-bearing pedipalps (the outer jaws of arachnids).

A vinegaroon or tailed whip scorpion, exhibiting its posterior whip-tail or flagellum and its elongated first pair of limbs or whip-legs (© Glenn Bartolotti/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

Whereas the vinegaroons earn their tailed whip scorpion appellation primarily from their long whip-like tail or flagellum, the amblypygids earn their tailless whip scorpion counterpart not just from the fact that they lack any such tail but also from their specialised first pair of limbs, which are exceptionally long and slender (as they also are but to a much lesser extent in vinegaroons), thereby possessing a fanciful resemblance to whips (even though they are not utilised in any comparable manner to such implements). Indeed, their 'whip limbs' are so inordinately elongate (even by normal amblypygid limb standards!) that they can measure up to several times the length of their entire body, and are so fragile that they readily snap off.

Amblypygid with one damaged whip limb (© Iskander HFC/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Coupling their whip limbs with these extraordinary arachnids' spider-like overall outward appearance, amblypygids are sometimes loosely dubbed whip spiders, but in reality they constitute an entirely separate taxonomic order of arachnids (Amblypygi) from true spiders (Araneae), just as tailed whip scorpions (Thelyphonida) do from true scorpions (Scorpiones) (again, these latter two groups are superficially reminiscent of one another externally, this time due primarily to the posterior tail-like flagellum of the tailed whip scorpions recalling the posterior sting of the true scorpions).

An amalgamation of amblypygids (© Geoff Hume/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

And as if matters of taxonomic identity and affinity were not confused enough already by now in relation to amblypygids, they are also often mistakenly thought by laypeople to be allied to insects! The reason for this ostensibly strange assumption is due to a behavioural quirk they exhibit that is unique to whip scorpions among arachnids but is a major characteristic of insects. For whereas virtually all other arachnids move using all eight limbs, the amblypygids run (very rapidly) and scuttle around only on six legs (just like insects), with their whip limbs, far too fragile and lengthy to be able to function as locomotory limbs, held upwards and outwards.

An amblypygid from Togo in western Africa, showing the full extent of its whip limbs (© Notafly/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

In fact, their whip limbs are actually used as tactile sensory organs, stretched out fully to make contact with their surroundings amid the stygian environment in which these arachnids usually live (and in which eyesight is rendered largely obsolete, despite their possessing eight simple eyes). This activity provides their amblypygid owners with detailed information concerning obstacles, the nearness of walls, and the width of cracks in walls or other surfaces into which they can squeeze their wafer-thin, dorsoventrally flattened body in order to escape or remain hidden from potential predators. In short, their whip limbs fulfil a similar function in terms of gauging distances and widths of potential escape routes to the antennae of insects, and the whiskers or vibrissae of certain mammals, such as cats and rodents. They are also used to 'feel' for prey (mostly arthropods, including other amblypygids occasionally, but also small vertebrates sometimes), which once detected is rapidly seized by their much stouter and more powerful outermost pair of mouthparts, the pedipalps. These in turn hand the prey to, then hold it firmly in place for, the chelicerae to macerate into liquid form for sucking into the mouth and thence the gut.

A pregnant amblypygid (© Pavel Kirillov/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA. 2.0 licence)

Most fascinating of all, however, is that research studies conducted at Cornell University in New York, USA, and published in December 2017 have suggested that in some species of amblypygid, adult females may actually use their whip limbs to communicate with their offspring, which in turn may be doing the same to communicate not only with their mother but also with their fellow siblings. If so, this is one of the few examples of social interaction known among arachnids,

Close-up view of a Togo amblypygid's formidable spine-fringed pedipalps (© Notafly/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

In amblypygids, their pedipalps are also very long (albeit far less so than their whips), with a series of thorny spines running along their inner edge, and each pedipalp bears at its tip a noticeably large, powerful pincer for firmly grasping hold of prey, similar in basic appearance to the chela of a large crustacean such as a crab or lobster. Just like theirs, moreover, these can also inflict a not-insignificant skin-puncturing nip to unwary, intrusive fingers, or noses, of anything posing a threat to the amblypygid. When the latter is at rest, however, its pedipalps are held directly in front of, and at right angles to, its mouth, folded back upon themselves.

An amblypygid at rest, with its pedipalps characteristically folded back upon themselves (© Psychonaught/Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)

Over 150 species of living amblypygid have currently been described (plus various fossil forms dating back as far as the Carboniferous Period, over 300 million years ago), and they collectively occur in many tropical and subtropical regions of the world including Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Australia, but due to their reclusive behaviour these arachnids are rarely seen unless specifically searched for, because they are all nocturnal and also spend much of their time concealed in leaf litter or inside cracks or crevices within tree bark or the walls and roof of caves – unless moulting. For during moulting, which happens several times during their lifetime, amblypygids normally hang downward from cave roofs or other raised surfaces, shedding their old exoskeleton down onto the ground and remaining suspended until their new exoskeleton hardens and darkens.

An amblypygid found in a cave in Lanquin, Guatemala (© Nick Johnson/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)

Needless to say, however, anyone encountering at close range such a bizarre-looking creature within the shadowy gloom of a cave or other dark abode but unfamiliar with their nature could be forgiven for barely suppressing a shriek of horror, especially if the amblypygid in question is one of the more substantial species. Even the normally redoubtable American zoologist, cryptozoologist, and animal collector Ivan T. Sanderson freely confessed in his book Animal Treasure (1937), detailing his collecting of animals in West Africa, that he personally considered these particular arachnids to be loathsome and nightmarish. As they are certainly frightful in form, albeit quite innocuous in nature, and given that if encountered unexpectedly in the wild they are liable with their extended whip limbs to stroke the face of anyone peering unwarily close to them, it is not difficult to understand his view.

Beautiful vintage illustration of an amblypygid showing its whip limbs extended, dating back to 1911-1919 (public domain)

As for size, just how large are the largest amblypygids? This question leads us into potentially controversial territory, because the most sizeable species have sometimes been referred to as the largest of all living arachnids. However, this claim is by no means as straightforward as it may initially seem, because 'largeness' is not a quantifiable property of an object.

An amblypygid from Chorao island, Goa, in India (© Biusch/Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)

The length of an object can usually be directly measured, using various systems of unit, including the imperial system (inches, feet, yards, miles, etc) and the metric system (millimetres, centimetres, metres, kilometres, etc). So too can an object's weight, via units such as ounces, pounds, stones, and tons (in the imperial system), and milligrams, grams, kilograms, and tonnes (in the metric system). The same is also true of its area and its volume. But how do you measure its largeness – what units of largeness exist? There are no such units, because largeness is a subjective, abstract concept, not an objective, quantifiable, measurable property. Consequently, when something is said to be the largest example of its kind, it is often something that is both the longest and the heaviest of its kind – but there are many instances when the longest of its kind is not also the heaviest. So which is then the largest – the longest of its kind, or the heaviest?

Komodo dragon (left) and Salvadori's monitor (right) – heavier vs longer, so which is larger, and why? (© Dr Karl Shuker / public domain)

If the heavier of the two contenders also exhibits a sizeable length, we tend to favour the heavier when talking about the largest, simply because visually it is more impressive. This is why, for instance, the much heavier but shorter Komodo dragon Varanus komodoensis is deemed the world's largest species of lizard, rather than Salvadori's monitor V. salvadorii, which is longer but much lighter. But again, there are exceptions, and if surface area considerations are also taken into account the situation becomes even more complex (should the African plains elephant Loxodonta africana really be deemed the largest land mammal, for example, rather than the much taller and more visually impressive yet much lighter giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis, and how do their respective surface areas compare?), thereby making judgements concerning the largest of anything fraught with difficulties and inconsistencies.

As seen here with this Brazilian example, the limbs of amblypygids are disproportionately lengthy relative to their body size (most especially their whip limbs, which can be several times as long as their body) (© KatzBird/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)

So, applying this to arachnids, it can be readily appreciated that we can easily quantify which is the longest species of living arachnid (India's giant forest scorpion Heterometrus swammerdami, up to 11.9 in long), and the heaviest species of living arachnid (northern South America's goliath bird-eating spider Theraphosa blondi, up to 6.2 oz), but not the largest species of living arachnid. The reason why those particular amblypygids with the longest, heaviest bodies among such arachnids have also been called the largest species of all living arachnids is that when their whip limbs are fully extended laterally, the span from whip-tip to whip-tip is far greater than the leg span of any other arachnid when its longest legs are similarly extended laterally.

A specimen of Acanthophrynus coronatus (© Raquel Cisneros/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

The amblypygid record-holder in this capacity is Acanthophrynus coronatus, inhabiting caves in Central and northern South America, with specimens boasting an extremely impressive fully-extended whip-tip to whip-tip span of up to 27.6 in, and able to prey upon lizards and frogs comparable in size to itself – it truly is the biggest amblypygid in the world! It is also famous for stridulating with its chelicerae. However, the body length and especially the body weight even of these most substantial of amblypygids are still much less than those of the most sizeable scorpions and spiders.

Another sizeable amblypygid, Damon [formerly Titanodamon] johnstoni from West Africa (public domain)

All of which leads very conveniently to a question that I've been asked on more than one occasion by fellow fans of the Harry Potter series of movies. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, bringing to the big screen the eponymous fourth novel in J.K. Rowling's celebrated Harry Potter heptalogy, during a lesson at Hogwarts in which the three Unforgivable Spells are being demonstrated, the teacher in question, ostensibly Alastor 'Mad-Eye' Moody (though in the climax of the book and movie it is revealed that this is not Moody at all but is in fact Barty Crouch Jr impersonating him using Polyjuice Potion), applies the spells to what many viewers have simply assumed to be a made-up, non-existent spider-like monster, but which is actually an amblypygid. It is also placed on pupil Ron Weasley's head - much to Ron's evident horror! However, this amblypygid is far larger in every way – body length, body width, and limb length – than even the mighty A. coronatus. How is that possible? In fact, this very imposing on-screen amblypygid was entirely computer-generated – during which process the fundamental form of a real amblypygid was recreated, but with its proportions greatly enlarged in order to make it look more monstrous.

Screenshot from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (screenshot obtained here) depicting Ron Weasley (played by Rupert Grint) not enjoying his exceedingly close encounter with the giant amblypygid (© J.K. Rowling/Mike Newell/Heyday Films/Patalex IV Productions/Warner Brothers Pictures – reproduced here on a strictly educational non-commercial Fair Use basis for the purposes of review only)

Finally: it may come as something of a surprise to ShukerNature readers who were not previously familiar with amblypygids, but these somewhat alienesque arachnids can be obtained through the pet trade and actually make good pets, although the most commonly-kept pet species is Damon diadema from Tanzania; the much bigger A. coronatus does not fare well in this capacity and therefore is not generally available commercially. As long as they are well-fed and suitably housed in large glass enclosures with all environmental requirements (especially temperature, humidity, substrate, and hiding places) fully met, amblypygids are generally quite docile, much more so than any other type of large arachnid.

Damon diadema (© AdrxO90/Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Having said that: in a video clip that was recently doing the rounds on social media, a captive amblypygid specimen belonging to the extremely large Tanzanian species Euphrynichus amanica was being teased by its presumed owner in order to incite it to extend its lengthy pedipalps and snap their pincers at the owner's finger for the camera, which the distraught amblypygid, being forced to adopt a defensive mode, duly did on several occasions, but backing away whenever possible from what it perceived to be a threat from the finger. Finally, the owner closed their hand over the amblypygid and picked it up, and after a few seconds its pedipalps could be seen to move down onto the owner's little finger, whereupon the owner abruptly and visibly flinched before swiftly placing the amblypygid back down and looking at their finger. The pedipalps' movements were too rapid to be absolutely certain of what happened, but after freezing the relevant frame it looked to me as if the unsettled amblypygid had pinched its owner's finger with at least one if not both of them – an action that according to descriptions elsewhere apparently elicits the sensation of having a thorn piercing the skin. (Incidentally, a version of this video clip was uploaded onto YouTube on 7 March 2016 and can currently be viewed here, but I wish to point out that there is no suggestion anywhere that the person who uploaded it is actually the person featured in it; indeed, what looks like the same specimen and owner also appear in a different YouTube video clip uploaded a month earlier by a seemingly different person and viewable here.)

An amblypygid in El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico – as readily seen here, a nip from amblypygid pedipalps like these, while not dangerous, is nonetheless not recommended! (© George Gallice/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)

And the moral of this incident? Never antagonise an amblypygid!

Amblypygids make interesting and docile pets if treated kindly (© Caspar S/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)


Yes, I am indeed aware that on both the original 78 rpm record and the sheet music to the afore-mentioned Gracie Fields comedy song from 1938, the name of the titular plant was spelt 'Aspidastra', not 'Aspidistra', and that Gracie even pronounced it that way when singing the song. Nevertheless, this spelling and her pronunciation were incorrect, but nowhere have I been able to discover how and why such an error arose, nor why it was perpetuated and never corrected. And as Gracie herself passed away in 1979, it may well remain a mystery indefinitely.

Gracie Fields in 1937, a year before her famous botanically-themed song was released (public domain)

Saturday, 3 March 2018


Vintage picture postcard from my collection, depicting a canine foster mother with her trio of lion x tiger hybrid cub fosterlings (from the archives of Dr Karl Shuker)

Just over a week ago on ShukerNature (click here), I briefly mentioned how, several years ago, while browsing through some picture postcards at a local collectors fair, I chanced upon a vintage example depicting a dog acting as foster mother to three lion x tiger hybrid cubs.

Never having seen this picture before, I swiftly purchased the postcard, and subsequently reproduced it in my book Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012) – which as far as I'm aware is the first time that this picture has ever appeared in any publication, certainly any dealing specifically with unusual cats.

My book Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery, published in 2012 (© Dr Karl Shuker/CFZ Press)

Since then, I've browsed online several times seeking other early illustrations of lion x tiger hybrids, to include in a planned future article, and have found some very interesting examples (adding to various ones already contained in my archives and included by me in my above-cited book). However, I have never once spotted my postcard's picture, not even when I have conducted specific Google Image Searches for it.

Consequently, as a ShukerNature Picture History exclusive, I am presenting it herewith – seemingly the first time, therefore, that this fascinating image has ever appeared online too. In addition, its caption has served as a starting point for me to conduct some research into the history of this picture and its subjects, so here is what I've uncovered.

Once again, my vintage picture postcard of a canine foster mother with her three lion x tiger hybrid cub fosterlings (from the archives of Dr Karl Shuker)

As seen here, this postcard's inset caption reads as follows: "FOSTER MOTHER WITH HYBRID LION-TIGER CUBS. The Bostock Jungle, Earls Court Exhibition. Direction: FRANK C. BOSTOCK.". But who was Frank C. Bostock, what was his Jungle, and when did it appear at Earl's Court?

In fact, as zoological historians will be readily aware, the name Bostock is intimately associated with menageries and other animal-featuring exhibitions, including circuses, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, being a major part of a veritable menagerie dynasty.

Edward H. Bostock (public domain)

It all began in 1805, when George Wombwell (1777-1850) founded a menagerie in Soho, London, but which began touring Britain in 1810 as Wombwell's Travelling Menagerie, and subsequently traversed widely across the European continent, followed by North America (coast to coast), South Africa, India, the Orient, and even as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. During this time, it had continued to expand unabatedly, until at its height it was the largest of its kind in the world.

By the late 1880s, this mega-menagerie was owned and run by one of Wombwell's great-nephews, Edward Henry Bostock (1858-1940), whose father James Bostock had in 1852 married Emma Wombwell, a much-loved niece of George Wombwell. Edward purchased it on 28 February 1889 from his mother Emma (who had received it earlier from her sister, a Mrs Edmonds, who in turn had inherited it from Wombwell upon his death). Edward had previously worked there until September 1883, and enhanced its already-considerable success by combining it with a circus, and renaming it Bostock and Wombwell's Menagerie (subsequently Bostock and Wombwell's Royal Menagerie). So popular did this enterprise prove to be that it continued to tour Britain until December 1931, when it staged its final show, at the Old Sheep Market in Newcastle, northern England. In 1932, Edward sold his animals to London Zoo at Whipsnade.

A poster for Bostock and Wombwell's Menagerie, dating from c.1900 (public domain)

Meanwhile, back in 1897 Edward built in Glasgow his very own Scottish Zoo, a non-touring attraction that was the first permanent zoo in Scotland, but which again incorporated a circus too, so it became known formally as the Zoo-Circus Building (and later the Zoo-Hippodrome Building). He also became a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London.

Edward was always looking out for particularly unusual, exotic animals with which to draw in ever greater audiences to his zoo and touring menagerie, and, as I have documented in two earlier ShukerNature articles (click here and here), it was he who purchased in May 1908 the extraordinary three-species big cat hybrid Uneeka, a lijagupard (lion x jaguar-leopard hybrid), for display in Glasgow after she had been exhibited for a couple of weeks at London Zoo.

Frederick Frohawk's exquisite illustration from 1908 of Uneeka the lijagupard when still living at London Zoo (public domain)

No less involved with menageries than Edward, however, was his younger brother, Frank Charles Bostock (1866-1912). Edward utilised Glasgow as his primary base, but after running his own menagerie for a time in Britain before selling it to Edward, Frank then broke away by journeying to the USA in 1893 and establishing wild animal shows there instead, with partners Francis and Joseph Ferari, especially in New York at Coney Island's vast Dreamland amusement park until 1903, and becoming known as 'The Animal King'. During the opening decade of the 20th Century, Frank returned to Britain from New York as an extremely experienced menagerie keeper and exhibitor but also greatly skilled in the American 'big show' tradition of public entertainment.

Accordingly, he deftly combined these two previously quite discrete elements to great success via the creation of a huge touring animal-themed exhibition officially known as Bostock's Arena and Jungle (but often shortened simply to Bostock's Jungle), which travelled from city to city and, in 1908, was staged at Earl's Court Exhibition Centre, London – during which the three lion x tiger hybrids featured in my vintage picture postcard were displayed. Big cat hybrids were very popular in such shows back then, due to their unusual nature and often very distinctive appearance.

Frank C. Bostock (public domain)

Tragically, however, the immense effort that Frank put into all of his shows and tours proved too much. In early October 1912, after having already become seriously ill with what was claimed by the media to be nervous exhaustion but which was apparently a stroke, he was found to have contracted influenza too, and passed away on 8 October, his 46th birthday, at his Kensington Mansions home in London. Unlike a number of other menagerie owners, Frank was famous and much-respected for the kind treatment that he always showed to his animals – a memorable quote attributed to him is: "Kindness is the whip used to lead dumb animals to obey" – and his funeral was attended by many hundreds of fans and fellow showmen, including the legendary circus owner Pat Collins. At the time of his death, Frank owned over 1000 animals, but I have yet to discover what happened to them afterwards – were they purchased, perhaps, by Edward, or sold off separately to other menageries, zoos, circuses, and/or private individuals? If anyone reading this article of mine has any information, I'd be most grateful to receive it and incorporate here, but credited fully to them by me as always.

Finally: one of Frank's most celebrated animal stars, who brought him considerable fame and prestige, was a trained chimpanzee called Consul the Man Chimp – so-named because of his almost-human behaviour. Insured for what was then the enormous sum of £20,000 and dressed in the nattiest of human clothes (which he would put on and take off all by himself, mend if required, and even wash and put out to dry), Consul habitually walked upright, smoked cigarettes, drank wine and whisky as well as tea and hot chocolate, ate meals using a knife and fork, always travelled first-class, stayed only in the best hotels, and expertly drove his own electric car. Nor was Consul unique. Following his death in 1904, he was replaced by a succession of new Consuls, some performing simultaneously at different shows run by Frank, who as already noted was an accomplished animal trainer. Reading about Consul and his successors, I am reminded irresistibly of another so-called 'man chimp' (aka a humanzee) – whose name was Oliver (read all about him here), and whose famously human demeanour now, in the light of those displayed by Frank's Consuls, seems a good deal less exceptional than traditionally deemed.

Vintage picture postcard (from the same series as my dog/cubs card presented here) depicting one of the later Consul the Man Chimp individuals, who took part in the 1908 Bostock's Jungle exhibition at Earl's Court in London where the lion x tiger hybrid cubs also appeared (public domain)


Shortly after completing this ShukerNature article, I was interested to discover that Frank C. Bostock had written a book on the subject of animal training, published in 1903, entitled The Training of Wild Animals, and currently still in print. Tracing a copy of the original edition online, I saw that it had been edited by wildlife authoress/journalist Ellen Velvin FZS, whose Editor's Note at the beginning of the book provides what certainly appears to be a direct corroboration of Frank's reputation with regard to his animals, and as such definitely bears reiterating. So here it is in full:

Before editing this book, I took the op­portunity offered by Mr. Frank C. Bostock of practically living in one of his animal exhibitions for a few weeks, in order to see things as they were, and not as I had always heard of them.

I was allowed to go in and out at all times and all hours; to enter the training-schools whenever I liked; to go behind the runways and cages,—a special privilege given to the trainers only, as a rule,—and to be a spectator of whatever happened to be going on at the time.

The thing which interested me most, and to which I paid special attention, was that at no time in this exhibition did I once see the slightest act of cruelty in any way. Each one of the trainers and keepers had pride in his own special animals, and I had many proofs of their kindness and consideration to their charges. The sick animals were most care­fully looked after and doctored, and in one case of a lion cub having convulsions, I noticed dim eyes in more than one keeper when the poor little animal was convulsed and racked with suffering.

Had I seen the least cruelty or neglect in any way, I need scarcely say nothing would have induced me to edit this book.

Illustration from a programme advertising one of Frank's American animal shows from 1901, held in Buffalo, New York, in which he would sit casually reading a newspaper in the midst of a pride of 25 lions (public domain)

Wednesday, 28 February 2018


The unexpectedly colourful pigeon encountered and photographed at Mijas, Spain, by Steve Mandell (© Steve Mandell)

This latest ShukerNature blog article of mine has a twofold mission – not only to entertain and educate (just like I hope that all of my articles do) but also to assist if at all possible in reuniting its poor lost subject with its owner.

On 19 February 2018, Paul Sieveking at Fortean Times forwarded to me for my thoughts a very interesting email that he had received earlier that same day from FT reader Steve Mandell, concerning a most unusual multicoloured pigeon that he had seen during the Spanish holiday from which he and his family had just returned home. Steve also attached two excellent close-up colour photographs of the pigeon in question, and as soon as I saw them I knew the precise nature of their subject. Consequently, I sent details concerning this to Paul, and I also contacted Steve, enclosing in my email to him not only the same details but also a request for permission to document this very interesting case here on ShukerNature and to include in it his two photos. Steve very kindly agreed to my request, so here is the remarkable story behind that equally remarkable pigeon.

Hailing from East Sussex, England, Steve revealed in his email that he and his family had been holidaying at Benalmadena on Spain's Costa del Sol when:

During our stay, we all went on a day trip to the nearby mountain village of Mijas. After a browse around their rather quirky Museum of Miniatures, we took a stroll around the beautiful Parque la Muralla which edges the cliff faces.

We turned a corner to look into a deep gorge where several feral pigeons were basking in the early spring sunshine. Then I noticed, sitting all alone, a pigeon with markings that could only be described as parrot-like. It took me a while to believe what my eyes were seeing as this bird could only be described as a pigeon/parrot hybrid. I have enclosed 2 photos for you and your readers' perusal.

On the bus trip back down to the coast I searched the internet but could only find a story from Queens, NY, which seems to be a hoax and doesn't resemble what I saw…

If anyone can shed some light on what this creature is, I'd be most grateful. If not, I'm laying claim to the discovery of a new species.

Sadly for Steve, what he saw was nothing so ornithologically exciting as either a new species or a pigeon x parrot hybrid, but it is still very interesting, and surprisingly little-known outside Spain. Fortunately, however, I had read about such birds a fair while ago, and therefore knew its secret. It was a domestic racing pigeon, and not some highly-specialised, dramatically-plumed breed either, just a totally standard specimen, but with one significant, peculiarly Spanish variation upon the typical racing pigeon theme.

Steve's second photograph of the gaudy-plumed pigeon that he encountered at Mijas, Spain (© Steve Mandell)

In Murcia and Valencia, there is a longstanding tradition among the racing pigeon fraternity for breeders to paint their pigeons in rainbow hues and then release them to pursue a single female pigeon. Whichever male bird stays with the female the longest wins the competition. Each breeder paints his pigeons in different colour complements from those of all other breeders, so the breeders can readily follow their own birds by eye, and rescue them if they should become entangled in foliage, etc. Champion pigeons in this sport are greatly valued, because they bestow immense prestige upon their owners.

So captivated by these varicoloured pigeons, their driven owners, and the whole intense culture surrounding them was photographer Ricardo Cases that in 2011 he published a limited-edition photobook entitled Paloma al Aire ('Pigeon in the Air'), filled with stunning colour photos of the birds and their owners, and which attracted considerable attention later that same year at the Arles photography festival (click here to read an article concerning Cases's book, and here to see a selection of spectacular photographs from it). Indeed, so popular did it prove that in 2014, Cases published a second edition.

Nor are photographs of these Spanish painted pigeons confined to Cases's photobooks. Scouring the internet, I soon found various other photos, including one of a green-winged individual that had been snapped at Bocairent in Valencia but which was extremely similar to the one encountered by Steve in Mijas (click here to view this Valencia specimen) – so much so, in fact, that both birds very likely belonged to the same breeder. Another painted pigeon from the same location in Valencia that I found a photograph of was one with bright orange wings (click here to view it).

(Incidentally, back in August 2012 the famous feral pigeons of St Mark's Square in Venice, Italy, were similarly airbrushed in a polychromatic palette of garish hues by Swiss artist Julian Charrière and German artist Julius von Bismarck, as part of a one-off performance for the architecture Biennale exhibition – click here for details.)

A typical unpainted feral pigeon (© Muhammad Mahdi Karim/Wikipedia – GFDL 1.2 licence)

Clearly, therefore, the parrot-plumed pigeon sighted and photographed by Steve was one such Spanish racing bird, but, tragically, it had not found its way back home to its owner. Instead, it was lost, adrift and alone in Mijas, and, as a domestic racing pigeon rather than a feral urban pigeon, had evidently been unable to assimilate with the latter birds, thus explaining its solitary, set-apart existence when seen by Steve.

So this is where you, gentle readers, come in. Wouldn't it be wonderful if this poor stray pigeon could be reunited with its owner? Perhaps it can. If everyone reading this article SHARES it with friends, colleagues, and groups (not just Likes it), so that it circulates far and wide on social media sites, and receives a high placement in search engine listings, then maybe it will be seen by someone who recognises this distinctively-painted pigeon and/or knows its owner and can inform him accordingly of the pigeon's current presence in Mijas – maybe it will even be seen directly by the pigeon's owner himself – who would then be in a position to visit Mijas and seek out his missing bird.

True, I know that it is a long shot, but sometimes long shots are successful, and we all know that remarkable successes have certainly been achieved when the power of social media has been harnessed and mobilised.

So, please, do what you can to help this lost pigeon find its way home – after all, not all miracles are big, some are small, but are just as wonderful if they happen, and who knows, this one just might. Thank you all most sincerely for any assistance that you can offer, and thanks again to Steve Mandell for so kindly making this case and his photos available to me for documentation here.

Close-ups of Steve Mandell's two photographs of the lost painted racing pigeon that he saw in Mijas, Spain, during February 2018, and which urgently needs and deserves our help to bring it back home (© Steve Mandell)

Monday, 26 February 2018


The mermaid of Haraldskaer's skeleton, exhibited at the Danish National Museum, Copenhagen, in 2012 (© Danish National Museum – reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis, for review purposes only)

Only a few days after watching, and greatly enjoying, Guillermo del Toro's wonderful fantasy movie The Shape of Water, concerning a captured amphibious humanoid (click here to read my review of it), earlier today I was asked on Facebook whether I knew anything about the subject of a striking photograph currently doing the rounds on social media sites, including the Fortean Times Appreciation Group on FB. Happily, I knew quite a lot about it, so here is the remarkable history of the mermaid of Haraldskaer.

The photograph in question is the one that opens this present ShukerNature blog article of mine, and shows what seems on first sight to be the skeleton of a mermaid. The photo had been shared on the Fortean Times Appreciation FB group from another such group, Pictures in History, where some brief details of its supposed origin and nature had been provided, and which are as follows.

Allegedly, this skeleton is that of a mermaid that had been found at Haraldskaer in mainland Denmark by a farmer while ploughing his field. And according to a more detailed description presented alongside it at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen where the mermaid of Haraldskaer was first displayed, in 2012, it was about 18 years old, with long thick hair and long sharp canines, and also had a purse that contained a shark's tooth, a snake's tail, a mussel shell, and a flower (just like any self-respecting mermaid would be expected to keep inside her purse). Its species is claimed to be Hydronymphus pesci, believed extinct since the end of the 17th Century, and apart from a missing left hand the skeleton is complete, much more so than the only other known H. pesci skeleton, apparently held at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, which lacks a tail. Moreover, this species is believed to belong to the Asian lineage of merfolk, thereby making the finding of specimens in Europe especially rare.

Close-up of the tail of the Haraldskaer mermaid skeleton (© Danish National Museum – reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis, for review purposes only)

Altogether a fascinating history, but, needless to say, entirely fictitious. In fact, as Danish zoologist and cryptozoological researcher Lars Thomas has kindly informed me, the Haraldskaer mermaid skeleton, complete with shark-inspired tail, was manufactured by Mille Rude, a Danish artist, for a special exhibition staged at the Danish National Museum, Copenhagen, during 2012. Rude took her inspiration from the very famous real discovery in 1835 of Haraldskaer Woman - the naturally-preserved body of a young woman found in Haraldskaer Bog, and dating back to approximately 490 BC (pre-Roman Iron Age).

In 2013, the mermaid skeleton was displayed at the Art Museum in Vejle on the east coast of the Jutland peninsula, constituting western Denmark, and a year later it was aptly exhibited in the manatee enclosure at Odense Zoo in central Denmark (manatees are popularly deemed to be the inspiration for mermaid sightings). In 2016, its perambulations took it to the Maritime Museum in Elsinore, Denmark, where it remains on display today. So far, so straightforward, but this is cryptozoology, albeit featuring in this instance an unequivocal cryptozoological gaff (an artificially constructed specimen). Consequently, nothing is ever that straightforward, as will be revealed a little later here.

Humorous 19th-Century illustration of a beautiful mermaid clearly less than impressed by the decidedly homely appearance of her supposed real-life inspiration, a manatee (public domain)

Meanwhile: One of the most famous tourist attractions in Denmark is Erik Eriksen's charming bronze statue of the eponymous character in Hans Christian Andersen's delightful 1837 fairytale The Little Mermaid. Eriksen's sculpture, measuring just 50 in high and weighing 385 lb, was officially unveiled  on 23 August 1913, residing on permanent display thereafter upon a rock at the edge of Copenhagen's harbour. Since then, it has been visited, posed alongside, and photographed by millions of tourists from all over the world, including my mother and myself back in 1979, and is officially classed as a National Treasure of Denmark

For much of 2010, however, this fish-tailed icon was temporarily absent from her accustomed site at the harbour side when she starred instead in the Danish Pavilion at the 2010 World Expo, held in Shanghai, China, remaining there from late March to 20 November. So forlorn and forsaken was the rocky prominence upon which she had sat for generations, gazing wistfully across the waters, however, that a plan, or, to be precise, a prank, was hatched to replace her there, if only for a very short time, but with something equally fishy – in every sense.

Erik Eriksen's statue of the Little Mermaid (© Dr Karl Shuker)

And so it was that on Maundy Thursday 2010, the skeleton of a mermaid duly appeared in the statue's stead, sitting in a similar pose on a plaster replica of her rock but placed very near to hers, and heralded with the somewhat macabre announcement to the media that the Little Mermaid had returned. After residing there for two hours, during which time it had attracted considerable attention and photo-snapping from locals and tourists alike, the skeleton was removed (to ensure that the fickle Danish weather did not damage it) and taken to the Natural History Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen, where it was on public display throughout the Easter holiday period. But what is the true nature of this very striking specimen?

It is, of course, another gaff – this time consisting of a human skeleton down to and including its hips, plus the tail of a swordfish Xiphias gladius. Its creation and the prank of placing it briefly on show at the harbour during the Little Mermaid's Chinese leave of absence was the brainchild of  Hanne Strager, at that time the head of exhibitions at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen, and it certainly attracted immense interest – and not just in spring 2010. It had actually been created a few years earlier at the museum, to feature in an exhibition there devoted to legendary creatures, and had been specifically structured to mimic the pose adopted by the Little Mermaid statue. But what has any of this to do with the Haraldskaer mermaid skeleton? I'm glad that you asked.

The Natural History Museum of Denmark's mermaid skeleton gaff, posed upon a plaster replica of the Little Mermaid statue's rock (© Natural History Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen – reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis, for review purposes only)

Photographs of the Haraldskaer mermaid skeleton have been circulating widely online for some years, and far more so, unfortunately, than the facts behind them, so that these pictures have incited (and continue to incite) much speculation as to whether the skeleton is actually genuine. Not only that, in an all-too-familiar trend seen on the Net with unusual images, they have even inspired various entirely new, but equally fictitious histories for it.

Consequently, I have seen some sites claiming that the skeleton has been the subject of much controversy since being discovered in Poland(!), and even in Indonesia – one site affirming that it had been discovered in Surabaya, on the island of Java. Worst of all, however, is that all of the media reports that I have read concerning it, even those from ostensibly respectable sources, have either been incomplete or decidedly ambiguous, inasmuch as they have implied that the Haraldskaer mermaid skeleton (created by Rude) and the mermaid skeleton placed briefly on the plaster replica of the Little Mermaid statue's rock (and whose creation was overseen by Strager) are one and the same, when in reality they are entirely different, albeit extremely similar specimens. Hence I wish to thank Lars Thomas most sincerely for revealing to me the true situation, and thereby assisting me to bring to a close the exceedingly curious and hitherto highly-confused case of the two mermaid skeletons, and also to Richard S. White and Markus Bühler for arousing my suspicions regarding the online sources consulted by me when originally preparing this blog article. Indeed, it now means that this article of mine may well be the only account presently online that provides an accurate, non-conflated coverage of these two gaffs.

A popular expression is that you can't keep a good man (or woman) down. Neither, it would seem, can you keep a good mermaid (or two) down; nor, at the risk of mixing metaphors further, can the internet let sleeping mermaids lie – not even ones that never existed to begin with!

My mother Mary Shuker and I visiting the Little Mermaid in 1979 (© Dr Karl Shuker)