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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Friday, January 30, 2009

On the Track of Unknown Terrapins

Friday seems to be chelonian day here at the CFZ Bloggo, and so, in order to compliment the charming article by Glen Vaudrey, here is a reprint of an article I wrote for Fortean Times nearly six years ago....

The late great Bernard Heuvelmans once wrote that "there are lost worlds everywhere ". It is a dictum which has been quoted many times in the last 40 years by cryptozoologists who are determined to prove that many species of new animals still remain to be discovered. It is, of course, true. A multinational marine census which hopes to catalogue all the animals and plants in the world's oceans recently announced that they are discovering an average of three new fish species a week. Even the Zoology of the British Isles - arguably the most well explored place on the planet is in a continual state of flux. Within the last year or so it has been proved that at least two new species of reptiles and amphibians - the pool frog, and the European green lizard are indeed British residents. A fascinating article in the the Herpetological Review even suggests that there may be up to seven taxa of European water frog resident in the UK. It is probable that these are mostly introductions - but in the light of recent discoveries it would, in my opinion at least, be unwise to reject the possibility that at least some of these may well be native to Britain.

However, to return to Heuvelmans's dictum. Unknown animals can indeed be found anywhere, but it I feel that it was very unlikely that when the "father of cryptozoology" made the statement are that he realised that some 40 years later there would be a pair of a bona fide species of unknown animal residing in a home-made garden shed tacked onto the back of a mid-terrace house in Exeter.

In the 12 years that I have been running the Centre for Fortean Zoology I have carried out many investigations into strange, and bizarre creatures. However, I have to admit that many of the higher profile investigations that we have done - and especially many of the TV programmes which we have made about the more media-friendly cryptids such as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster et al - have been done purely to finance some of the projects which are closer to my heart involving smaller and ( in the public's eyes at least), less interesting animals.

In the early summer, whilst Richard was tramping around the jungles of Sumatra in search of the Orang-Pendek, I had a telephone call from my old friend and colleague Darren Naish. He told me that the university department where he worked had become a home for a number of terrapins, including two which nobody had been able to identify. Would we, be interested in taking them on? Since my youngest days I have been fascinated by aquatic reptiles. The CFZ is home to various of these creatures and I'm always happy to take more. A few weeks later Darren and his boss arrived for lunch, and with them came the three large turtles. The female - called Gladys - is a very large red eared terrapin. These animals have been commonly kept as pets for over 50 years, and while I am very fond of them (and am quite happy to have another one in my collection), her only Fortean significance is that she is a fine example of the species which since the craze for such things which surrounded the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle" movie about 13 years ago has become naturalised in various parts of the UK.

The other two turtles are something else entirely. Both males, Cuthbert and Spots ( no we ain't responsible for the names), appear to be members of the same species. Nobody - not even the keen herpetologists who work and live at the CFZ, nor any of the Zoologists who have visited us in the last six months I able to identify them.

They are particularly attractive looking reptiles. They have broad, flat, heads covered in a striking pattern of grey and brown spots. Both of them have a tendency to turn pink on various occasions. When Cuthbert first exhibited this propensity we panicked. When a semi aquatic turtle wayward turns pink it usually means that it is suffering from serious blood poisoning. We rushed him down to a friendly neighbourhood vet who gave him a course of antibiotic injections, and told us to keep him segregated from the others. This we did, and to our great delight he slowly recovered his normal coloration and carried on eating heartily. A week later he did exactly the same thing again.

They have now been living with us for nearly six months. Spots has exhibited courtship behaviour with Gladys on several occasions and has also become very territorial, forcing Cuthbert out of the water whenever he feels horny. We still have no idea what they are, which is why we have prevailed upon FT to print this peice for us. From the configurations of on their shells and plastrons they appear to be Emydids - from the same family as Gladys and all the other North American fresh water terrapins. However, they don't look reminiscent of any of the known species. Their provenance is very murky indeed. Together with Gladys they were donated to Portsmouth University when they outgrew their homes in suburbia. Because all three turtles are roughly the same size it is - I feel - reasonably safe to assume that they were purchased at the same time, probably from a pet shop. However there is no way of finding out for sure.

They may, of course be either a rare colour morph of the red eared terrapin, or they may be a hybrid which has hitherto been unknown to science. I feel, that because the two unknown animals are so similar that a hybrid is unlikely. However, it is not impossible. Over the past 30 years or so, a large proportion of the red eared terrapins which have been imported into the UK have come from farms in Singapore, the Philippines and Hong Kong. It is not impossible that - if these are hybrids - that they are a hybrid between the red eared terrapin and some Asian species. However, I feel that this is highly unlikely. The best prognosis - in my opinion at least - is that they are either a hitherto unknown North American species, or an Asian species which merely looks like its distant cousins from the New World.

The Centre for Fortean Zoology has never been about trying to prove any theory. Our job is to find out the truth - however prosaic it turns out to be. I am hoping that somebody reading this article will recognise the pictures and be able to tell us what species Cuthbert and Spots actually are. If we have been completely dumb and that they are obviously members of a well known species I apologise to everyone out there in Forteanaland for having wasted their time. If not, then any suggestions from anyone about how we can resolve this mystery will be gratefully appreciated.
To bring the story up to date, "Spots" died in 2004, but Cuthbert and Gladys are now living in their winter quarters - a heated tank in the CFZ Museum. However, this very afternoon I have to go into Bideford for a diabetic eye test, and on the way home Graham and I are going to look at an old cast iron bath which we have been donated. If it proves suitable, it will be manhandled back to Woolsery, and converted into a turtle pond - summer quarters for Gladys and Cuthbert, and our two newly acquired map turtles.
But the main crux of the article remains. What the heck is Cuthbert?


Richard Muirhead said...

I hope you find out who Cuthburt is Jon! There were terrapins or turtles in the wild in Oxfordshire in the 1960s according to a letter I once received-but I can`t find it. Also,there is a very old (c.100-150 years ago) report of terrapins in a Wiltshire water trough,I vaguely recall-Richard Muirhead

fleury said...

i hope you find out what he is! he looks very cute in that photo but i bet he is more bitey in real life!

Retrieverman said...

Could he be a razoback musk turtle?


If he's not, he sounds like a new species of musk turtle.

Retrieverman said...

After doing some research on the topic, I think he's a new color morph of the North American pond slider of which the red-ear is but one subspecies. Cuthbert even has the vestiges of red around his "ears."

These turtles are bred in huge swamplands in Louisiana, where the hatchlings are collected and shipped off to Southeast Asia, where they wind up in all sorts markets. Because these turtles are big volume breeders and the turtle farmers collect virtually every hatching, we get a vast array of birth defects and mutations in this species. In fact, some turtle farmers even sell those with mutations and defects for a higher price!


There are now melanistic red-eared sliders for sell:


It would not be outside the realm of possibility for a speckled morph of the red-eared slider or other pond slider subspecies.

I assume that when you say he does courtship behavior that he scratches at her head with his long claws one his front feet. I once spent hours in a pet shop watching a male red-eared slider do that behavior to a large albino female.