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Half a century ago, Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans first codified cryptozoology in his book On the Track of Unknown Animals.

The Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) are still on the track, and have been since 1992. But as if chasing unknown animals wasn't enough, we are involved in education, conservation, and good old-fashioned natural history! We already have three journals, the largest cryptozoological publishing house in the world, CFZtv, and the largest cryptozoological conference in the English-speaking world, but in January 2009 someone suggested that we started a daily online magazine! The CFZ bloggo is a collaborative effort by a coalition of members, friends, and supporters of the CFZ, and covers all the subjects with which we deal, with a smattering of music, high strangeness and surreal humour to make up the mix.

It is edited by CFZ Director Jon Downes, and subbed by the lovely Lizzy Bitakara'mire (formerly Clancy), scourge of improper syntax. The daily newsblog is edited by Corinna Downes, head administratrix of the CFZ, and the indexing is done by Lee Canty and Kathy Imbriani. There is regular news from the CFZ Mystery Cat study group, and regular fortean bird news from 'The Watcher of the Skies'. Regular bloggers include Dr Karl Shuker, Dale Drinnon, Richard Muirhead and Richard Freeman.The CFZ bloggo is updated daily, and there's nothing quite like it anywhere else. Come and join us...

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

GUEST BLOGGER RICHARD FREEMAN: Cellar Surprises

Guest Blogger time for Richard Freeman again. It almost seems silly introducing Richard to you all once again when he makes an appearance as guest blogger several times a week. However our viewing audience/readers (whatever you like to call yourselves) is growing so fast that it is certain that some of you missed the last time I introduced him.



So, Richard is one of my closest friends, and is the Zoological Director of the CFZ, and this time he is waxing lyrical on a subject dear to both of us - museums.

In any given museum a large proportion of the specimens will be off show. This is especially true of large, old collections that have amassed mind-boggling amounts of material over the years. The Natural History Museum has literally millions of specimens. In collections like this it’s not surprising that some material does not see the light of day in decades.

Occasionally a great zoological discovery will be made, not in some remote jungle or deep ocean, but in a museum. Old, mislabelled, or forgotten exhibits can by a cryptozoological gold mine.

A large stuffed lizard lay unnoticed in the Marseilles Natural History Museum for years. It was on display but no one, scientist or layman, noticed anything unusual. This was odd as the lizard was a gecko two feet long, twice as big as the largest species known to science! It was not until 1979 that it drew the attention of the curator of herpetology Alian Delcourt. Taking measurements and photos, he posted them to herpetologists around the world.

Villanova University herpetologist Aaron M Bauer and Canadian Biologist Dr Anthony P Russell identified it as a gecko, but a giant new species. The specimen was unlabelled but it was identified as belonging to the Hoplodactylus genus of New Zealand and accordingly given the name Hoplodactylus delcourti. It seemed to have been collected in the mid 1800s.

In Maori legend there is a large tree dwelling lizard that sounds remarkably like Delcourt’s giant gecko. Known as the Kawekaeau, such a beast was killed in 1870 by an Urewera Maori chief in the Waimana Valley on North Island. The description exactly fits the museum specimen.

Sightings still occur today. James Mack, assistant Curator of New Zealand’s National Museum, has regular reports from North Island’s east coast forests. A living specimen has yet to be caught, but it seems like this giant gecko is one of the most likely cryptids to exist.

One of the strangest and most bloody stories in the annals of cryptozoology is that of The Beast of Gevaudan. This weird beast was said to be bigger than a wolf with forelegs longer than the hind ones. It had upright ears, a short tail and stripes along its hindquarters. In 1764, a 14-year-old girl tending sheep was killed and eaten by the creature near Langogne. By November 11th, other women and children were devoured by the Beast. An army unit was sent to hunt the creature, but failed.

The killings continued in December with a boy, two girls and a shepherd falling to its jaws. In 1765, the creature was again after man flesh and a team of volunteers killed 100 wolves, as the creature was generally believed to be some form of huge wolf. By mid-September of 1675, 77 people had been killed in a stretch of land covering around 31 miles. On the 20th of September a big wolf was shot and the attacks seemed to cease.

The monster re-appeared in December when two children were eaten near Mont Mouchet. More victims followed in 1766 and continued unabated into 1767. It was obvious that the large wolf shot in 1675 was not the culprit.

Finally, Jean Chastel shot a large creature with a reddish pelt at Nozerolles. After this, the killing ceased totally. The Beast was crudely stuffed then displayed in the region for two weeks. It was no wolf and people did not seem to know quite what the killer was including the naturalist, the Comte de Buffon. The remains were sent to the Museum of Natural History in Paris and forgotten for 52 year until it was finally examined and identified as a striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena).

The striped hyena lives in India and the Middle East, but was at one time common in the Caucasus Mountains. As I discovered on my recent trip there, sightings of these creatures suggest that they are returning to their old haunts. This is still a long way from France but perhaps one had escaped from a travelling circus. Maybe this explained its lack of fear in the presence of humans.

The striped hyena was supposed to have killed children in the Caucasus and in Central Asia. This fits in with the Beast’s nature. In the district of Yereven
in the Caucasus in the 1880s, hyenas were thought to be responsible for the disappearance or injuring of 25 children and three adults who slept outdoors. Further incidents in that area of striped hyenas killing children were reported in the 1890s and 1900s, as well as in Azerbaidjan in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1962, nine children were thought to have been taken by hyenas in the town of Bhagalpur in the Bihar State in a six week period. In Kanataka, Bihar state, attacks on children have been reported as recently as 1974 when 19 children up to the age of four years were reported killed at night. On March 13th 2005, a hyena injured 70 persons in six villages of Sonsor Tehsil.

The most amazing thing about the whole case is that it took so long to identify the creature whose remains had been sitting in a museum for half a century.

In an earlier blog about odd animals turning up in travelling zoos, I mentioned the case of the Gurt Dog of Ennerdale. It has some parallels with the Gevaudan case. A massive, dog like animal with a striped hide, the Gurt Dog drank the blood of its victims and bested any dogs sent after it. I postulated that it was a thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) that had escaped from a travelling zoo. It was finally killed after being wakened by gunshot then attacked by a pack of hounds in 1816. Its remains were displayed in Keswick Museum until it was closed in the middle of the 19th Century and its contents summarily thrown on a tip! The modern Keswick Museum has no knowledge of the fate of the beast’s remains. Perhaps someone retrieved the remains from the dump and the skull of the Gurt Dog is gathering dust in someone’s basement to this day.

Debbie Martyr, orang-pendek witness and Indonesian Tiger Conservation group leader told me in 2003 that she was sure that some Dutch Museums held remains of the mystery ape orang-pendek. She believes that they are mislabelled as orang-utans and that a thorough search of skulls brought back from Sumatra in colonial times would prove the orang-pendek’s existence. It would not be as exciting as trekking through the steaming jungles, but if someone with an intimate knowledge of orang-utan skulls were to sift through the Dutch collections, a zoological bombshell might be waiting.

The next time you are in a museum, take a closer look at the things behind the glass. You never know what might turn up.



1 comment:

fleury said...

If I get work experience at all the natural history museums I am applying at i'l make sure i have a good rummage through the more forgotten of their storage rooms!
:D