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!

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Saturday, 24 September 2016

TURNING UP LIKE A BAD BLENNY - A SMALL BUT DEADLY MIDDLE EASTERN MYSTERY FISH?


Three (un)usual suspects as the identity of the Shatt-al-Arab's venomous mystery fish – the Asian stinging catfish (top); the long-tailed moray eel (centre), and the bull shark (bottom) (public domain)

Yesterday, here on ShukerNature, I offered a blenny for your thoughts (click here). So today, I'm offering another one! You can thank me later.

The Shatt-al-Arab is a 120-mile-long river formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the southern Iraq town of Al-Qurnah. Flowing southwards, it constitutes the physical border of Iraq with Iran, and empties into the Persian Gulf. Many species of fish inhabit its waters, but one of them may be a notable species still unknown to science.

The Shatt-al-Arab river (public domain)

I first learnt of this small but potentially significant unidentified freshwater fish many years ago, when reading Dangerous To Man (1975), Roger Caras's definitive book on creatures hostile to humans, but its mystery remains unsolved to this day. In his book, Caras included the following brief but very intriguing paragraph:

From Tehran comes a report of a diminutive black fish found in the Shatt al Arab River. It reputedly has killed twenty-eight people with a venomous bite. Death is said to be swift. No other information is presently available. (No other fish is known to have a venomous bite, and this report is at least suspect.)

What makes the above snippet so interesting (apart from the fact that except for my own researches into it and documentation of it in various of my books and articles, I have never encountered anything more about this creature anywhere) is Caras's claim that it is its bite that is venomous and that no other fish is known to have a venomous bite. In contrast, a wide range of piscean species possess venomous spines, for instance, or toxin-secreting skin.

My copy of Dangerous To Man by Roger Caras (© Roger Caras; reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial, Fair Use basis only)

But if we assume that such a fish does indeed exist, what could it be, and how can its reputedly venomous nature be explained? Various candidates can be selected from the many thousands of fish species already known to science, but none can offer a comprehensively satisfying solution.

When I originally read Caras's report, the first candidate that came to mind, for several reasons, was the Asian stinging catfish Heteropneustes [formerly Saccobranchus] fossilis. This species does indeed inhabit the Shatt-al-Arab (though it is an imported rather than a native fish here, originating from Indochina). Moreover, it is often only around 4 in long (though it can grow up to 1 ft), it is definitely black in colour, and, of particular significance, it is known to be venomous. So far, so good.

Asian stinging catfish (public domain)

However, unlike the Shatt-al-Arab mystery fish, the Asian stinging catfish is venomous due not to a toxic bite but instead to a poison gland at the base of a spine on each of its two pectoral fins. This can yield an extremely painful but not fatal sting. Consequently, even if victims (or onlookers) were mistaken in assuming that this catfish had bitten them (unless perhaps it had done so in self-defence if they had been molesting it, but this would not have been a source of venom), they would not have died from its fin spines' sting. Exit H. fossilis from further consideration.

A second candidate is the long-tailed or slender giant moray eel Strophidon sathete (aka Thyrsoidea macrura). Although typically marine, and distributed widely in the tropical Indo-Pacific Ocean, it is well known for entering estuaries and travelling considerable distances up rivers, including the Shatt-al-Arab. What is particularly interesting about this species in relation to the latter river's mystery fish is that in a sense it can be said to have a toxic bite, albeit not in the usual convention.

Long-tailed (slender giant) moray eel (public domain)

True, its teeth do not actually secrete a toxin, via poison sacs, like those of venomous reptiles do. However, as a voracious carnivore the long-tailed moray eel will certainly have pieces of rotting flesh left over from previous meals and packed with pathogenic bacteria sticking to its teeth, just like crocodiles and carnivorous mammals like lions and tigers do. Consequently, a bite from this fish might well transfer some of those bacteria into the wound caused by its teeth, which in turn may lead to septicaemia developing, especially in someone with a less than robust immune system, such as a child, an elderly person, or someone recovering from a major illness. Even so, no known human fatalities resulting from a bite by this moray eel species are on record, and there is also the not-inconsiderable problem of size difference to reconcile, because it can attain a maximum length of up to 12 ft when fully grown (even its average length is over 2 ft). So this species can hardly be deemed 'diminutive', like the Shatt-al-Arab mystery fish. Don't call us, S. sathete.

Nor can the bull shark Carcharhinus leucas be termed diminutive, bearing in mind that it averages 7.5 ft long. Unlike most sharks, this notably aggressive species is frequently found in freshwater habitats, including the Shatt-al-Arab River, and like those of moray eels its teeth are brimming with pathogenic bacteria from rotting meat still attached from earlier meals. So again, a bite from this fish, although not intrinsically venomous, might well lead to blood poisoning. And several human deaths caused by this fish attacking them have been confirmed here. But as even a new-born specimen is normally around 2.5 ft long, this species clearly has no bearing upon the identity of the Shatt-al-Arab mystery fish.

Bull shark (public domain)

As I researched further into this ichthyological puzzle, however, I made an unexpected breakthrough, by discovering that one crucial aspect of Caras's account was fundamentally incorrect. Contrary to his statement, some fishes do possess a genuinely venomous bite.

And one of these is the blackline fang blenny Meiacanthus nigrolineatus. Its lower jaw bears sizeable canine teeth that have grooved sides and venom-producing tissue at their base. These teeth enable it to produce a sufficiently unpleasant bite to deter all predatory fishes, large and small. In general appearance, it is relatively nondescript – no more than 3.75 in long, with a blue-grey head and foreparts, and the remainder of its body pale yellow. There is also a thin black stripe running lengthwise just beneath its dorsal fin, which earns it its common name.

Blackline fang blenny (© Akvariumugamyba at http://akvariumugamyba.lt/ - reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

Over 830 species of true blenny or blennioid are currently known to science, generally small in size and scaleless but many-toothed, and are of worldwide distribution. Most are marine fishes, as indeed is the blackline fang blenny, which is native to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez and Aqaba. However, there are freshwater species too (such as the well-known Salaria fluviatilis, which is native to rivers in several European countries as well as in Morocco, Algeria, Israel, and Turkey).

No human fatalities have been recorded with the blackline fang blenny, but what if the Shatt-al-Arab River is harbouring a still-undescribed, darker-coloured, but otherwise comparable freshwater relative that is capable of producing a more potent venom? If such a creature, known locally but attracting little notice from the outside, scientific world, is one day captured and formally identified, then our mystery fish will surely have been unmasked at last - turning up like the bad blenny that it is.

My special thanks to French ichthyologist Dr François de Sarre for very kindly sharing his own thoughts and comments with me regarding this fishy affair.


This ShukerNature blog article is adapted and expanded from my book Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times.





Friday, 23 September 2016

A BLENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS - HEUVELMANS'S MIDGET BLENNY (AS WAS), TO BE PRECISE


Side view of the Caneva combtooth blenny (public domain)

True blennies (aka blennioids, to distinguish them from a range of other, only distantly-related fishes also frequently dubbed 'blennies') are generally small, elongate fishes superficially reminiscent of gobies and dragonets, but collectively belonging to six taxonomic families housed within the perciform suborder Blennioidei. Over 800 species are currently recognised, some of marine persuasion, some brackish, and some freshwater, but in recent times this number has decreased by one due to an unexpected taxonomic twist.

It all began in February 1986, when a new species of combtooth blenny was described by French ichthyologist Dr François Charousset in a paper published by the periodical Ezhegodnik Zoologicheskogo Muzeya Akademiia nauk SSSR and also in a version of it published by Clin d'Oeil, after two specimens had been collected by him in Mediterranean waters off Croatia's Istrian coast (specifically in Istria's Zelena Laguna). A small, yellow-headed blenny, just under 3 in long and commonly known locally as the midget, such a relatively unspectacular fish and its discovery would not normally be considered particularly remarkable or significant.

My collection of cryptozoology books authored by 'the Father of Cryptozoology', Dr Bernard Heuvelmans (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Yet the midget was noteworthy, because it epitomised the definition of a cryptozoological animal. Namely, a species (or subspecies) known to the local people sharing its domain, but whose existence has long remained unconfirmed by science. So it was with the midget, reported by the locals for several decades but eluding scientific detection until Charousset's collection of the two Istrian specimens.

Accordingly, Charousset very appropriately christened this new combtooth blenny Lipophrys heuvelmansi - in honour of veteran cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans, popularly called ‘the father of cryptozoology’ due to his seminal work in this emerging investigative science.

A male specimen of the Caneva combtooth blenny spawning, clearly displaying the very broad black facial stripe that mature males of this species develop as a secondary sex characteristic during the breeding season (public domain)

Unfortunately, however, that honour has now been rescinded for taxonomic reasons. In 2015, via a scientific paper published in the journal Naturalista Siciliano (series 4, vol 39, no, 2, pp. 97-103 – accessible online here), a four-strong team of Italian researchers that included marine ecologist Francesco Tiralongo and cryptozoological researcher Lorenzo Rossi closely compared the morphology of one of the midget's two procured specimens (which had been preserved in alcohol in the Museum of Lausanne, Musée Cantonal de Zoologie) with that of a mature male specimen of the closely-related Caneva combtooth blenny Microlipophrys [formerly Lipophrys] canevae sampled in Italy's Tyrrhenian Sea during its species' breeding season. The team could not find any taxonomically significant differences between the two fishes.

Growing up to 3 in long, M. canevae is native to the Mediterranean and also to the northeast Atlantic Ocean near Portugal, and for much of the year both sexes of this species exhibit a uniformly yellow head. During the breeding season, however, lasting from April to August each year, mature males develop as a secondary sex characteristic a very broad black stripe running centrally up their face, from the lower edge of the jaw upwards to the first ray of their dorsal fin – and of particular significance, this exactly matches the appearance of the face of the two Heuvelmans midget specimens, both of which just so happened to have been collected by Charousset in June. i.e. right in the middle of the breeding season for M. canevae.

Diagram from the paper of Tiralongo et al. (2015) illustrating the extreme similarity between Heuvelmans's midget combtooth blenny (A, top) and a mature male specimen of the Caneva combtooth blenny collected during the breeding season (B, bottom) (© Tiralongo et al., 2015, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

Consequently, taking this and all of the other morphological similarities fully documented by them in their paper into consideration, the team concluded that the two L. heuvelmansi specimens were nothing more than mature males of M. canevae. So, as these two species are apparently conspecific, and because M. canevae had been formally named and described way back in 1880 (i.e. over a century before L. heuvelmansi), the team affirmed in accordance with the rules of nomenclatural precedence that L. heuvelmansi should be considered hereafter to be merely a junior synonym of M. canevae.

RIP Heuvelmans's midget combtooth blenny.

My sincere thanks to Lorenzo Rossi for very kindly bringing his team's revelatory paper to my attention recently.

A female Caneva combtooth blenny, lacking the black head stripe that mature males acquire during the spawning season (public domain)





Friday, 16 September 2016

HERE'S NESSIE! – MY LOCH NESS MONSTER BOOK IS PUBLISHED!


Here's Nessie! A Monstrous Compendium From Loch Ness – my 24th book, now in print (© Dr Karl Shuker/CFZ Press)

It is all thanks to my mother Mary Shuker taking me as a child to the town of Walsall in the West Midlands, England, one afternoon during the late 1960s that I first learnt of the Loch Ness monster (LNM). For it was while we were browsing together that day in Walsall's branch of the books and stationery shop W.H. Smith that Mom bought me a thoroughly amazing, captivating book entitled Stranger Than People.

Published in 1968, it was packed with lavishly-illustrated spreads documenting mysteries from the real world, the world of myths and legends, and the world of fiction (which included some wonderful, specially-written short stories). It is within the pages of this momentous, life-changing volume, one that profoundly influenced and nurtured what has become my lifelong interest in mysterious phenomena (especially of the cryptozoological and zoomythological kinds), that I first read about such diverse but fascinating subjects as the yeti, the colossus of Rhodes, Edgar Cayce and telepathy, werewolves and vampires, the kraken, giants, the minotaur, Von Kempelen's chess player, mermaids, witches and witchcraft, 'deathless' warriors, aliens, trolls, zombies, leprechauns, feral children, Herne the hunter, Moby Dick – and, of course, Nessie, the Loch Ness monster (LNM).

With two wonderful, life-changing books – The Story of the Loch Ness Monster and Stranger Than People; and with one wonderful, life-changing lady – my mother, Mary Shuker (© Dr Karl Shuker)

A few years later, moreover, during a visit to the Warwickshire, England, town of Stratford-upon-Avon (birthplace of William Shakespeare), Mom bought me my first LNM book, Tim Dinsdale's The Story of the Loch Ness Monster (1973). An enthralling account of this Scottish mystery beast's remarkable history, it was justifiably lauded as a Commended Title in the prestigious Times Educational Supplement Information Book Awards during that same year.

Needless to say, I was hooked - and have been in relation to this long-necked aquatic cryptid ever since – unlike Nessie, conversely, which continues to be just as evasive today as way back then, over 40 years ago now, but, equally, remains just as thought-provoking and enigmatic too.

Tim Dinsdale, to whom my book is dedicated (© Prof. Henry H. Bauer)

Indeed, the LNM is not only the premier mystery beast of the United Kingdom, it also vies with the bigfoot or sasquatch as the most famous one anywhere in the world. Little wonder, therefore, that during my many years as a cryptozoological researcher and writer I should have documented it and all manner of aspects relating to it in a wide range of publications.

Now, however, for the very first time and in direct response to popular demand, the vast majority of these previously disparate Nessie-themed writings of mine have finally been brought together, and in expanded, updated form whenever possible too, to yield my newly-published LNM compendium, covering a fascinating, extremely broad spectrum of pertinent topics.

Nessie, is this really you? Artistic reconstruction of what the LNM may look like, always assuming of course that such an entity actually exists! (© Connor Lachmanec)

The first two chapters set the scene by offering a comprehensive review of the history and controversies associated with this most contentious of aquatic cryptids. The others that follow them investigate such subjects as some of the most – and least – plausible taxonomic identities that have been proposed for it; the closely-linked traditional Scottish folklore of kelpies and other water-horses; a look at various Nessie-related hoaxes; an extensive survey of less familiar water monsters reported from other Highland lochs; some reviews of Nessie-related material; a hitherto-unpublished LNM sighting given to me by none other than leading Nessie researcher and eyewitness Tim Dinsdale shortly before his untimely death (and to whom my book is dedicated); Nessie and the noble hobby of philately; a retrospective devoted to the historic LNM conference staged by the International Society of Cryptozoology at Edinburgh's Royal Museum of Scotland in 1987; the abiding paradox of the mystifying Pictish beast as intricately carved upon numerous ancient symbol stones by Scotland's early 'painted people' the Picts; my very own tribute in verse to Nessie; an annotated, YouTube-linked listing of Nessie-themed songs and music videos; and much more too!

Supplementing these diverse subjects is an equally eclectic selection of illustrations - a dedicated Nessie gallery containing a dazzling array of spectacular full-colour LNM artwork, including a number of specially-commissioned, previously-unpublished examples - plus a wide range of text images, a delightful foreword by veteran Nessie researcher Prof. Henry H. Bauer, very comprehensive bibliography of non-fiction LNM books, a listing of current Nessie-themed websites, and a detailed index.

Smirnoff's famous, fondly-remembered Nessie-themed magazine advertisement from the 1980s (© Smirnoff – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

So without further ado, I hope that you enjoy my latest, 24th book, welcoming you to the sometimes decidedly weird yet always totally wonderful world of Nessie - the mystifying but ever-memorable monster of Loch Ness.

My book is available here on Amazon USA, and here on Amazon UK (the 'temporarily unavailable' notice on the latter site merely relates to its need to order more stock of it), as well as directly from the publisher, CFZ Press, here.

Peek-a-boo! – Styxosaurus plesiosaur (© Julian Johnson/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2DOT0 licence)




Wednesday, 7 September 2016

RECALLING SHUKER'S LORICIFERAN – MY VERY OWN MINI-BEAST


Caroline Gast's exquisite illustration of Pliciloricus enigmaticus, a close relative of Shuker's loriciferan P. shukeri (public domain)

Eleven years ago, I was very honoured to receive what must surely be the greatest personal accolade for any zoologist – a new species of animal was named after me. The creature in question is Shuker's loriciferan Pliciloricus shukeri – but how and why did this come about, and what exactly is a loriciferan anyway?

Although these creatures are only tiny in size, from a taxonomic standpoint the discovery of loriciferans was one of the most significant events of the entire 20th Century, because they added a totally new phylum to the officially recognised roster of animal life. Excerpted and expanded from my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals (2012), here is their fascinating history, including the scientific debut in 2005 of P. shukeri.

My three books on new and rediscovered animals (© Dr Karl Shuker)


Loricifera - a Prediction Come True
Giving one's name to an uncommonly ugly form of animal larva may not be everyone's idea of obtaining scientific immortality, but it is nonetheless an effective way to achieve this - especially when that larva's species is so utterly different from all others that a completely new phylum has to be created to accommodate it.

Its story began in 1961 when, as a student at Washington's National Museum of Natural History, Robert Higgins predicted the existence of a remarkable little creature unlike any known to science at that time. By a sadistically ironic twist of fate, in May 1974 he actually found a real-life specimen of his hitherto-hypothetical creature - but failed to recognise it for what it was! Instead, he deemed it to be nothing more than a larval priapulid worm.

The following year, however, another specimen was found, this time by Danish zoologist Dr Reinhardt Møbjerg Kristensen, from the University of Copenhagen. Yet as bad luck would have it, the tiny animal was destroyed during its preparation for transmission electron microscopy. Happily, between 1976 and 1979 Dr Kristensen discovered some larvae, in shell gravel obtained from depths of 330-365 ft outside western Greenland's Godhavn Harbour. And finally, in April 1982, an adult turned up - completely by accident.

Ventral view of adult female loriciferan Nanaloricus mysticus (After R. M. Kristensen, 1983, 'Loricifera, a new phylum with Aschelminthes characters from the meiobenthus', Z. Zool. Syst. Evolutionsforsch., 21(3): 163–180)

Kristensen had obtained a huge sample of shell gravel from a depth of 83-100 ft during field work at the Marine Biological Station in Roscoff, France, and was in a hurry to examine the minute creatures living between the gravel particles, as this was his last day there before leaving for Denmark again. Consequently, instead of employing the usual sophisticated but somewhat protracted techniques for dislodging animals from the particles, lack of sufficient time spurred him to use a cruder but much quicker method - simply washing the gravel in freshwater.

The change in salt concentration experienced by the tiny marine organisms in the gravel shocked them into loosening their grip on its particles, and they could then be collected in the surrounding water. Among the creatures obtained in this way was an adult of Higgins's postulated animal form, plus others from every stage in its life history. Shortly afterwards, specimens belonging to a slightly different species were obtained from Greenland gravel samples, using this same technique.

By now, Kristensen and Higgins had learnt about each other's interest in these mysterious minute creatures, and had teamed up to work on them. They discovered that the individual (a larva) collected by Higgins in 1974 was indeed of the same group, but sufficiently different from Kristensen's species to warrant separation within a new genus and family. As for the creatures in toto, true to Higgins's expectations they required a brand new phylum. In 1983, Kristensen named it Loricifera, and formally described its first species, the Roscoff one, which he christened Nanaloricus mysticus.

Scanning electron micrograph of two Nanaloricus mysticus Higgins larvae; scale bar = 100 μm (© Dr Reinhardt M. Kristensen)

A tiny creature, no more than 0.01 in long, with a fairly squat body and a head section bearing a collar of radiating spines, it leads a sedentary existence - quite unlike its free-swimming larva, whose striated, pear-shaped body has a rear pair of flipper-like appendages. Anatomically, the species combines features from several different phyla, but is characterised by a unique mouth, consisting of a long tube that can be retracted completely within the creature's body in a manner not previously recorded from any other type of animal.

As for Higgins, although he did not have the honour of describing the first real-life species of his conjectured creature he was given an unusual consolation prize - ever afterwards, the basic larval type produced by loriciferans would be officially referred to in zoological parlance as the Higgins larva. Higgins's reaction to this accolade was to comment: “I'm very pleased of course, even though it is such an ugly creature”. Twenty-two years after his student prognostication, his hypothetical animal was hypothetical no longer.

Incidentally, in 1986 Higgins was able to describe the species to which his lost specimen had belonged; its scientific name is Pliciloricus enigmaticus, and it was just one of eight new species that Higgins and Kristensen described within a single paper. The other seven species were: P. dubius, P. gracilis, P. orphanus, P. profundus, Rugiloricus carolinensis, R. cauliculus, and R. ornatus. In 1988, Kristensen described a notably important species, P. hadalis - the first loriciferan recorded from fine sediment (red clay), from a depth (27,082 ft) great enough to be included within the hadal bathymetric zone, and from the western Pacific.

Shuker's loriciferan Pliciloricus shukeri; scale bar = 200 μm (© Dr Reinhardt M. Kristensen)

Loriciferans possess five distinct body regions - the mouth cone, consisting of a small terminal mouth; the head (introvert), containing the brain; the neck; and a trunk portion that is in turn divided into the thorax and the abdomen. The abdomen is surrounded by a series of plates yielding a corset-like or girdle-like arrangement known as the lorica (from which they derive their zoological name, and also the vernacular name 'girdle wearers'), which is variously cuticular or highly folded in form. On their head, they bear several whorls of protective spines called scalids (earning them a second, rarely-used vernacular name - 'brush-heads'), and because adult loriciferans can withdraw their head into their neck, and their neck in turn into their trunk, when they do so it means that their head is then entirely protected by the lorica laterally and the scalids dorsally (which stick outwards). Although they do possess a body cavity, it is not a true one lined completely by mesoderm tissue (i.e. a coelom), but is one that is only partly mesoderm-lined (i.e. a pseudocoelom). They entirely lack a circulatory system and a respiratory system, but they do possess a straight-through gut from proximal mouth to distal anus, and also a well-developed nervous system. The sexes are separate (males and females), each of which possesses a single pair of gonads.

Morphologically, loriciferans share affinities with two phyla of superficially worm-like creatures - the priapulids and the kinorhynchs, and have been traditionally grouped with them in a clade known as Scalidophora. More recently, however, molecular studies have promoted a closer taxonomic affinity between Loricifera and Nematomorpha (the latter phylum containing the horsehair worms).

In February 1992, I was delighted and honoured to learn from Dr Kristensen that in due course he would be naming a new species of loriciferan after me (at that time, he had nearly 70 undescribed species in his collection!), in recognition of the very significant contribution made to the zoological literature by my first book on new and rediscovered animals – The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993). He later informed me that 'my' loriciferan was currently the most interesting species known, because it is neotenous, i.e. its Higgins larval stage becomes sexually mature precociously, developing an ovary, so the post-larval stage is reduced. Also, it was the first loriciferan species known to possess a double secondary organ, and was markedly different from all previously-described Pliciloricus species, thereby requiring the diagnosis of the genus Pliciloricus to be amended accordingly.

Schematic diagram of the adult, type specimen of P. shukeri from Heiner and Kristensen, 2005 (© Drs Iben Heiner and Reinhardt M. Kristensen)

Three specimens of Shuker's loriciferan (one 210-μm-long adult, serving as the holotype or type specimen, and two smaller Higgins larvae, serving as paratypes) had been collected at BIOFAR (Benthic Investigation of the Faroe Islands) Station 627 on the Faroe Bank by the German research vessel Valdivia in 1990, and their species was formally described by Kristensen and fellow loriciferan researcher Dr Iben Heiner in 2005, when it was duly christened Pliciloricus shukeri. Quoting from their paper, the etymological derivation of this species’ name is as follows:

The name of this species epithet is in honor of Dr. Karl Shuker, a prominent expert in cryptozoology. The new species is dedicated to Dr. Shuker for his outstanding book “The Lost Ark, New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century”. In this book, the discovery of Loricifera received much credit as one of the major events of the 20th Century.

The full reference to the paper in which P. shukeri is formally named and described, and which should be accessed for the entire, highly-detailed morphological description of 'my' species, is:

HEINER, I. and KRISTENSEN, R.M. (2005). Two new species of the genus Pliciloricus (Loricifera, Pliciloricidae) from the Faroe Bank, North Atlantic. Zoologischer Anzeiger, 243(3): 121-138.

(The other new loriciferan species described by them in the above paper was P. leocaudatus, the 'lion-tailed loriciferan'.)

Schematic diagram of one of the Higgins larva paratypes of P. shukeri from Heiner and Kristensen, 2005 (© Drs Iben Heiner and Reinhardt M. Kristensen)

Currently, 26 species of loriciferan in eight genera have been described, but at least a hundred more have been discovered and are currently awaiting description. Indeed, with delicious irony in view of their only very recent arrival in the annals of zoological discovery, based upon the findings of studies conducted so far the loriciferans appear to be one of the most abundant groups of meiofauna in the deep sea (meiofauna being tiny organisms inhabiting the spaces between sediment particles and smaller in body size than macrofauna but bigger than microfauna), they have also been shown to occur in mud on shallower water, and they may actually be one of the dominant meiofauna groups .

Moreover, in April 2010 the existence of a trio of loriciferan species inhabiting the sediments at the bottom of the L'Atalante basin in the Mediterranean Sea, over 10,000 ft deep, was formally documented in a paper (click here to access it) authored by a team of researchers that once again included Drs Kristensen and Heiner, and which was published in the scientific journal BMB Biology. This revelation was of great zoological notability, because these three loriciferan species (respectively constituting a new Pliciloricus species, a new Rugiloricus species, and a new Spinoloricus species) were the first multicellular organisms known to spend their entire lives in an anoxic or anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment.

They can achieve this remarkable feat because they utilise hydrogenosomes (or similar organelles) rather than mitochondria for providing energy. Less than 0.04 in (1 mm) long, these very specialised loriciferans undergo their life cycles in the total absence not only of oxygen but also of light.

Light microscopy image of the new species of anoxic Spinoloricus loriciferan, stained with Rose Bengal; scale bar = 50 μm (© Roberto Danavaro et al., 2010/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0 licence)

Despite having been formally known to science for over three decades now, the loriciferans have clearly lost none of their capacity to surprise the zoological world!

My sincere thanks to Dr Reinhardt M. Kristensen for most kindly making available to me for use in my writings his illustrations included here – and, above all else, for doing me the immense honour of naming a new species after me, something that I'd always dreamed about since a very small child but never expected to happen. Sometimes, dreams really do come true.

And who knows, perhaps one day a second, closely-related, but presently-unfulfilled dream of mine will also come true – that someone will also name a new species after my late mother, Mary Shuker (without whose love, guidance, and encouragement I would never have achieved anything, including writing The Lost Ark and my other books), so that her name will very deservedly live on, and that she will therefore continue to be remembered when I am no longer here to do so.  God bless you Mom, I love you and miss you so much.

Shuker's loriciferan (© Dr Reinhardt M. Kristensen)






Tuesday, 30 August 2016

THE CAMBODIAN 'STEGOSAUR' - AN ANACHRONISM FROM ANGKOR WAT?


The enigmatic Cambodian 'stegosaur' glyph at Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat, with the external decorative plate motif clearly visible encircling its circle's outer perimeter (© John and Lesley Burke)

Mystery creatures, and evidence in support of their existence, can turn up in the most unlikely places, but few can be as unexpected, surely, as Cambodia's centuries-old carving of an alleged stegosaurian dinosaur!

Stegosaurs constituted a taxonomic suborder of ornithischian ('bird-hipped') dinosaurs that existed from the mid-Jurassic Period to the early Cretaceous Period, i.e. approximately 170-120 million years ago. They lived predominantly in North America, Europe, and China, but at least one species is known from Africa, and possibly one from India too. Herbivorous and quadrupedal, the most famous morphological attributes of the stegosaurs were the double (occasionally single) row of very large, flat, upright plates running down the centre of their back, and the arrangement of long spikes (the so-called thagomizer) borne upon their tail. Proportionately, their head was very small relative to the rest of their body. Indeed, in the most famous genus, North America's Stegosaurus, their brain was only the size of a walnut whereas their body was the size of a van!

Whereas the last confirmed stegosaurs died out over 100 million years ago, one of Cambodia's most beautiful edifices, the jungle temple of Ta Prohm, was created a mere 900 years or so ago, and forms part of the Angkor Wat temple complex, which collectively is internationally famous for being the largest religious monument in the world. Dedicated to the Hindu deity Vishnu by the Khmer King Suryavarman who built it during the early 12th Century, Angkor Wat did indeed begin as a Hindu temple, for the Khmer Empire and in what was then its capital, Yasodharapura, now Angkor, but by the end of that century it had been transformed into a Buddhist temple.

Ruined temples and giant overgrown tree roots at Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat (public domain)

Like other temples from this time period and Angkor Wat complex, Ta Prohm is intricately adorned with images from Hindu and Buddhist mythology as well as many depictions of animals. These latter include numerous circular glyphs each containing the carving of some local creature - but Ta Prohm also has one truly exceptional glyph unique to itself. Near to one of this temple's entrances is a circular glyph containing the carving of a burly quadrupedal beast ostensibly bearing a row of upright plates along its back - an image irresistibly reminiscent of a stegosaurian dinosaur!

This anomalous carving is very popular with local guides, who delight in baffling Western tourists by asking them if they believe that dinosaurs still existed as recently as 900 years ago and then showing this glyph to them. Could it therefore be a modern fake, skilfully carved amid the genuine glyphs by a trickster hoping to fool unsuspecting tourists? Or is it a bona fide 900-year-old sculpture? Having spoken to a number of people who have visited Angkor Wat and have viewed this glyph close-up at Ta Prohm, I am assured by all of them that it looks of comparable age to the other glyphs surrounding it, with no visible indications that it has been carved any more recently than any of the others there.

So how can this very intriguing, seemingly anachronistic depiction be explained? Some cryptozoologists cite it as proof that a stegosaurian lineage must have survived into modern times somewhere in this vicinity but has remained undiscovered by science (the notion that this carving may portray a living stegosaur appears to have been first promoted during the late 1990s, in a couple of books on Angkor Wat written by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques). Others have suggested that perhaps it was inspired by the temple's architects having seen some fossilised stegosaur remains. And there also is the option that it is a stegosaur only by accidental design, i.e. that its plates are not a physical component of the creature, but merely background decoration inside the circle containing it, and that to associate them with the animal is therefore a mistake. Let's consider each of these possibilities.

The Cambodian stegosaur glyph in close-up (© John and Lesley Burke)

If we ignore its plates, the rest of the creature does not actually look much like a stegosaur as depicted in palaeontological restorations, certainly not as depicted in modern restorations (i.e. in contrast to those dating from several decades ago, but which are still the ones commonly brought to mind by laymen who may not be familiar with up-to-date versions in palaeontological publications). In particular, its apparent lateral cranial horns are decidedly non-stegosaurian, and the stegosaurs' distinctive, characteristic thagomizer is conspicuous only by its absence in this glyph. Also contrasting with fossil stegosaurs are its relatively large head and short tail – the reverse condition to that more commonly exhibited by the former dinosaurs.

Then again, if a stegosaurian lineage has indeed somehow persisted into modern times, such differences from fossilised stegosaurs as those noted above are certainly not so radical that they could not have arisen during the 100 million years or so of continuing evolution that will have occurred from the early Cretaceous to the present day. One only has to compare, for instance, the relatively unspecialised range of mammals or birds existing during the early Cretaceous to the vast morphological diversity of mammalian or avian forms alive today to see just how extensively evolution can modify outward morphology during that particular period of time.

However, if anything as dramatic as a living stegosaur does indeed exist (or has done until very recently) anywhere within the area of Cambodia, one might reasonably expect rather more pictorial evidence of such existence than a single small carving tucked away amidst a myriad of other animal carvings. Yet I am not aware of any comparable design anywhere else in Asian art. To my knowledge, there is no suggestion of stegosaurian creatures in Cambodian mythology or folklore either, nor, indeed, in that of any other corpus of Asian traditions (thus contrasting very markedly, for example, with the extensive native beliefs associated with the mokele-mbembe in the Congo). And there is certainly no documented physical evidence for such a creature's reality – no preserved plates, skeletal remains, etc, described in any publication that I have ever encountered or seen any mention of during my researches.

Fossil skeleton of a Late Jurassic Chinese stegosaur, Tuojiangosaurus (© Ayca Wilson/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0 licence)

Moreover, even fossil stegosaur remains so far disinterred in Asia are restricted to China (predominantly) and India (very controversially – much of these proved upon closer inspection to be derived from plesiosaurs instead!). This in turn reduces the likelihood that the 'stegosaur' glyph was carved 900 years ago by a local sculptor who had previously seen fossil remains of such a creature, unless (and which is certainly not impossible but unlikely) the sculptor had visited China and had seen such remains there?

Yet even if it does not represent a living contemporary (or a prehistoric fossil) stegosaur, might it conceivably depict some still-undiscovered modern-day animal that superficially resembles a stegosaur? If so, however, there do not appear to be any local sightings or lore on record concerning it

Another option is that it may be some local mythological creature (though I am unaware of any from this region of the world that match its appearance). Certainly, there is a varied mixture of the factual and the fictitious among the fauna depicted at Angkor Wat.

Scaly(?) ridge-backed mystery beast – a stylised pangolin? – depicted directly below the stegosaur glyph at Ta Prohm (© John and Lesley Burke)

Directly below the stegosaur glyph, for instance, is one portraying a mystifying unidentified quadruped with cross-hatching on its body that may be meant to represent scales, plus a distinct series of dorsal ridges that in this instance are definitely part of the animal. Its somewhat pointed head is reminiscent of that of a pangolin or scaly anteater, which could also explain the cross-hatching.

Yet unless the depiction as a whole is very stylised (particularly its dorsal ridges), it does not closely resemble a pangolin (or indeed any other real, whole creature) in other morphological respects. However, as suggested elsewhere by German cryptozoologist Markus Bühler, might it represent the head of a wild pig? There is certainly a degree of resemblance. Alternatively, it may be some type of mythological entity.

Oriental demon depicted directly below the putative pangolin glyph at Ta Prohm (© John and Lesley Burke)

Directly below that glyph, moreover, is one that portrays a typical Oriental demon, grinning maniacally at anybody spotting it there.

To my mind, however, by far the simplest and most plausible explanation for the enigmatic stegosaur glyph is that its resemblance to one of those plate-backed dinosaurs is an artefact – i.e. it is simply some form of local present-day known creature that has been carved with a plate-like decorative motif in the background, but which in turn has been wrongly associated directly with the creature. The reason that I favour this explanation is that such a motif can also be seen surrounding other carved animals of several different types enclosed within their respective glyph circles at Angkor Wat. These include birds, a water buffalo, deer, monkeys, and even mythological demons, as noted above (and in certain of these glyphs, moreover, the motif bears a resemblance to lotus leaves).

The stegosaur glyph (arrowed) in situ with other animal glyphs, including a water buffalo directly above it, an unidentified animal directly below it, and a mythological demon directly below that - click picture to enlarge it (© John and Lesley Burke)

Although the plates surrounding the alleged stegosaur do seem somewhat more well-defined (but might this indicate some very selective modern-day enhancement by a hoaxer seeking to enhance its superficial stegosaur appearance?), their general shape and size are much the same as those surrounding other carved animals. In addition, this same plate motif is also present encircling the outer perimeter of the glyph circles enclosing the carved animals, including that of the 'stegosaur', as readily seen in the photograph opening this present ShukerNature blog article.

Looking closely at the latter creature, its head in particular is shaped very like that of a rhinoceros, as has also been commented upon elsewhere by Markus Bühler and various others. Even its 'cranial horns' resemble the long pointed ears of such mammals. Conversely, its back seems more arched than is true of rhinos, but this discrepancy could merely be due to stylising, or once again may simply be a design artefact, the creature having been depicted in this unnatural, hardly life-like pose (for a rhino) simply in order for it to fit more readily inside its circular setting.

The Cambodian 'moa' carving at Angkor Wat (public domain)

Incidentally, adapting the shape of an animal during its depiction in order to fit it more snugly within a designated space for it is an option that I have already explored elsewhere on ShukerNature (click here) in relation to a second anomalous Angkor Wat carving - the so-called Cambodian moa.

Returning to rhinos and the suspect stegosaur: on the latter creature's body are indications of the skin pleats exhibited by Asian rhinos of the genus Rhinoceros (i.e. the great Indian R. unicornis and the Javan or scaled R. sondaicus, the latter of which definitely still existed in Cambodia 900 years ago, with the former possibly doing so too). Even the creature's lack of a nasal horn is not an obstacle to identifying it as a rhino of this genus, because female Javan rhinos are sometimes hornless.

19th-Century chromolithograph of a very short-horned Javan rhinoceros exhibited at London Zoo in 1877, showing its skin pleats (public domain)

Another line of speculation that has been proposed by some investigators is that the creature actually represents a very stylised portrayal of some form of lizard, suggestions having included a chameleon (though there is none in southeast Asia) or one of the several species of southeast Asian agamid known as mountain horned dragons Acanthosaura sp. However, any similarities between the carving and such reptiles seem far less apparent (if indeed present at all) to me than those readily visible between the carving and a stylised and/or modified-to-fit rhinoceros. Equally, whereas an even better fit for the creature's 'cranial horns' than the pointed ears of a rhino would be the horns of a wild ox, the rest of the creature's depiction is a better fit for a rhino than for an ox.

Of course, we shall never know for sure the intended taxonomic identity of the supposed stegosaur in this perplexing carving. However, it does seem much more likely to be a stylised depiction of some local known species rather than anything more radical. After all, it surely couldn't have been based upon a sighting of a real-life stegosaur...could it?

Life-sized model of a Stegosaurus (© Dr Karl Shuker)

My sincere thanks to John and Lesley Burke for specifically seeking out and photographing for me the 'stegosaur' glyph at Ta Prohm in Angkor Wat during their visit to Cambodia in 2001.


This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and enlarged from my forthcoming book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors…coming very soon.
 
If the Cambodian stegosaur were indeed real… - 'Angkor's Way' (© Michael J. Smith)