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Wednesday, January 14, 2009
The idea of people keeping unknown creatures in captivity may sound surprising but it’s not without precedent. The creature Max has been looking into are invertebrates, all relatively small but sometimes much larger creatures can make it into captivity unknown to the ‘experts’.
Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie AKA Mr George Wombwell’s Royal Menagerie was one of a number of mobile zoos that toured the UK in the 18th and 19th centuries. The first was run by a man named Pidcock back in 1708. They consisted of wild beasts in cages that were horse drawn around the country from town to town. The set up seems odd to us today and must have been stressful to both the horses and the animals they transported. Escapes were commonplace and a number of people were recorded to have been killed by wild animals that absconded from these zoos on wheels.
In 1855 Wombwells exhibited the first captive gorilla in Europe. The lowland gorilla had only been discovered in 1847 by Thomas Staughton Savage. Only skulls and pelts had made it to European museums. The Wombell ape was, for a long while mislabled as a chimpanzee. Acording to zoo historian and education officer Malcome Whitehead, the gorilla was at first fed on roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and beer! If I’d had been around back then I would have been dressing up in an ape skin and applying for a place at Wombwells.
Even further back early zoos may have been behind some of the stories of legendary beasts in Britain.Confusion and controversy surround this legend on the Suffolk / Essex border. Both the town of Bures and the village of Wormingford lay claim to the story as their own. In a 19th century translation of a document from 1405, the story is told of a fearful dragon that had a hide impenetrable to arrows and which disappeared into the marsh after having caused “much hurt”. It dwelt in and around water and had four legs and a long tail.
Wormingford begs to differ, saying that the creature resided there and was finally killed by Sir George de la Haye.
The description of this dragon sounds very like a crocodile. Indeed, many think it was such a beast that got free from the Royal menagerie at the Tower of London and made its way to Suffolk. One can readily imagine the fear a 20-30 foot reptile would have struck into the hearts of the peasants.
An escaped exotic is probably behind the St Leonard’s Forest dragon of 1614.This wild briar is a part of the once vast forest of the Weald. In 1614 a limbless serpentine beast appeared here. It was some nine feet long that killed both man and beast with poison that it ‘cast forth’. For a while it became infamous in the area. It was said to raise up its head and look in an arrogant manner about itself. The creature fed on rabbits. It sounds very much like a cobra, possibly brought back from abroad by a traveler or merchant and which subsequently got free.
“A farmer is calling in sharpshooters to deal with a big cat believed to be responsible for destroying 28 of his pedigree sheep and dozens of others in a grisly three-week spate of killings in Somerset. On Thursday John Chislett, 28, who farms on the Mendip Hills, told how he saw the beast he believes is responsible – a black puma-like animal which calmly stopped to look at him, then disappeared over a hedge. He said: "The sheep had deep rips in their sides and other injuries which would not have been caused by a dog. Then two days ago when my fiancée and I were up there where the sheep were attacked we saw a big black cat. It was like a puma, nothing like a dog. It was just walking down a hedgerow only 30 yards away. It stopped and looked at us and then just carried on walking and jumped over the hedge.”
In the past month three farmers who keep sheep in the area have lost dozens of livestock, killed or fatally mutilated by a mystery animal.
Mr Chislett, who lives in the Mendip village of West Cranmore, described his horror at finding animals from his 250-strong flock, dead or dying at Long Cross in Stoke St Michael. Speaking from the scene of the tragedy yesterday he said: "This is no dog. The sheep have slashes across them, deep rips in their sides, their guts have been pulled out and their ears ripped off. Two have had their throats ripped out. A dog will chase, worry, kill, and leave, or the sheep often die from the worry of the chase – but this is not the work of a dog.”
Max was particularly interested because he - quite literally - only lives just around the corner from the scene if the attacks. He knows several people, including his own sister, who have seen what appear to be mystery cats in the area, and has always had a deep and enduring interest in cryptozoology. Showing powers of persuasion which I certanly never had at his age, he persuaded a young lady called Cassie to accompany him, and - taking advantage of a spate of free periods bestowed upon them by a munificent Education Authority - they went in search of adventure.
When they arrived at Chislett’s farm, they found that the situation is worse than they had thought. The predations have become so numerous that he is seriously considering giving up his flock. He has seen a light brown, puma-like animal on a number of occasions, and other people in the area have reported seeing similar creatures, as well as `black panthers` and `a lynx with a long tail`. He showed Max and Cassie six of the bodies of his slaughtered sheep. They took photographs, the most explicit of which is printed - exclusively - above. Interestingly, Mr Chislett told them that although some internal organs - including lungs - had been left in the carcass when originally found, they had subsequently disappeared, which leads one to suspect that the damage to the cadavers has been exacerbated somewhat by secondary predation - probably by foxes.
Max took a sheaf of the new CFZ Mystery Cat reporting forms with him, and has also started a publicity campaign in his local area appealing for more witnesses. Max has a part time job at a local outdoor sports centre, and is in a prime position to gather more information.
At the CFZ annual general meeting last weekend we gave him the CFZ trigger cameras with which to try his luck. He obtained permission from Mr Chislett and put them up on his land. Sadly, when visiting one of them this morning he found that it had been stolen. He is very disappointed, as are we. We worked very hard to raise the money to buy the cameras, and it is particularly galling when some oik just decides to make off with them. We are now starting a fundraising campaign to raise money to buy replacements. There is a paypal donation button on the right-hand side of this page. Please give generously, because it is only with your help that our investigations will continue.
Bernard Heuvelmans has been oft quoted as saying 'There are lost worlds everywhere' to show his belief that new animals can turn up in the most unexpected of places, but undescribed animals sat in a small cage stacked under dozens of others in the corner of someone’s room? It sounds like we are beginning to take this quote a little too far...
However, in the last few years a surprising number of animals have turned up in the pet trade. In-country collectors often grab what ever interesting animals they can (for instance) for the exotic invertebrates trade. They often come across new species to science, although very often the collectors have known about them for ages, and by the time hobbyists such as myself get hold of them someone has usually identified them to genus level and we can make a pretty good inference about their captive care. These are usually common and easily kept species like cockroaches (indeed, at the time of writing, a German friend of mine is keeping about a dozen species of cockroach which have no scientific name), but quite often larger more impressive animals like scorpions and giant centipedes.
These two cockroaches are known to family level only. The species with the white markings on its head comes from Sri-Lanka, and the other species, the well known African Bullet Roach, comes from Africa, but no-one knows for certain where. There is a rumor that the originals came from the slopes of a volcano, but its name eludes me.
The scorpion is from Tanzania, and is known to genus level (Pandinus). It may well turn out to be a colour morph of a previously described species, probably smithi. The centipede is also from Tanzania, and is again onlyknown to genus level (Scolopendra).
THE STORY OF `CUDDLES`
The case of Cuddles is one of the best. A bottom dwelling shark, she was bought in by a pet shop, sold to an animal rescue centre, taken to a zoo for two years before being moved, again, to an aquarium where she was, finally, exhibited in an aquarium and viewed from the side by someone with knowledge on sharks who “realised she was special”. She is about 700mm long, covered in bristles which are themselves covered in red algae and who moves more like a hopping frogfish than a shark. Shark experts who have examined her say she is not a known species, and appears to be adapted for an existence in deep caves. Her irises are permanently open, suggesting a permanently dark environment, with very wide nostrils and, most interestingly of all, a fifth gill. This is used as a plankton sieve, and you will know about other plankton eating sharks such as the huge whale, megamouth and basking sharks, but this is a plankton eating shark with a difference. It can easily alter its diet to large food items such as fish or benthonic invertebrates.
Some other plankton eating sharks have been known to eat large food items to supplement their diet, but Cuddles seems to do this with much, much greater regularity than any other plankton eating shark. I can find no reference to her scientific name on the internet; however a writer for a well known diving magazine has stated that Cuddles has already been described as Pseudoginglymostoma brevicaudatum, a small species of nurse shark and, according to him, “the dozy creature was transformed, overnight, into a freak of nature” by the media.
Seeing as this is the only reference I could find to this sharks current name and that no-one else has commented on any articles saying what Cuddles really is, this writer’s statement must be taken with a pinch of rather potent salt. The mystery, it appears, still lingers. For something to do in the mean time, you can visit Cuddles in the Sea Star aquarium, in Coburg, Germany.
MORE QUASI-CRYPTIC FISHES FROM MAX...
The "new danio" is currently undiscribed and was found by aquarists in India who saw it for sale in a couple of shops. It is known to be a Cryprinid.
Celestichthys margaritatus is a funny little fish. It is certainly a Cryprinid, and was originally called a Galaxy rasbora. This worked for a year or so, but then, someone who appears to have no grounding in scientific research, desided to say on a large aquarist forum that it is not a rasbora, and was a danio. He then called it a celestial pearl danio, and so, pretty much becuase this is a stunning photo and the people that kept it were the sort of people who much have everything correct and proper, called it this new name on pretty much no evidence for it being so. Why this species' common name was changed so rapidly because it wasn't "right", and yet Labeo sharks are still called sharks because of their resembalence, I will never know. Anyway, so someone had a quick look at the fish, and described it Celestichthys margaritatus. By this point its numbers were running down in the wild due to over colecting. Now, there is pretty much a straight export ban for this species, and captive breeding efforts are underway to keep it in culture. However, new evidence has been cited for this species being a Danio species, and we may see its genus being changed.
Max will be appearing on stage at the Weird Weekend this year talking about this very subject, and we are hoping to have some of these currently unknown creatures on display. He will also be featured on RadioCFZ within the next few days. So watch this space....
"Once a year in Woolsery something magical happens. A quiet village turns into a meeting place for monster hunters for the weekend when the CFZ hosts the weird weekend. The monster hunters are joined by experts from other fields in Forteana for a weekend of talks, where they present their latest findings. Unlike other conferences though the weird weekend is not all talk; it also includes lectures, events and cake eating competitions aimed at (mainly) at children to entertain the younger generation at the same time as their parents."
The weird weekend is, indeed, a magical three days. For one weekend in the year the little North Devon village of Woolsery becomes the weirdest place in England, if not the whole planet. The Villagers enter wholeheartedly into the fun, and many of them get involved in organising what has become the largest Cryptozoological Conference in the English-speaking world. Now in its tenth year, the convention attracts speakers and visitors from all over the world and showcases the findings of investigators into strange phenomena.
Cryptozoologists, parapsychologists, ufologists, and folklorists are descending on Woolfardisworthy Community Centre to share their findings and insights. Unlike other events, the Weird Weekend will also include workshops giving tips to budding paranormal investigators, and even a programme of special events for children. The Weird Weekend is the only fortean conference in the world that is truly a family event, although those veterans of previous events should be reassured that it is still as anarchically silly as ever!
This year I think that we have surpassed ourselves with our choice of guests. There are still two more major guests whom we are waiting to confirm, but so far, the following speakers are confirmed:
ANDY ROBERTS: The big grey man of Ben McDhui
NEIL ARNOLD: Zooform Phenomena - monsters amongst us
MAX BLAKE: Unknown animals in pet shops
PAUL ROSE: My life with the cryptozoologists
ALAN MURDIE: Forteana from Colombia
JONATHAN McGOWAN: TBA
NICK REDFERN: Planet of the Apemen - Stalin's hybrid army
RONAN COGHLAN: TBA
TIM MATTHEWS: Crop Circle Confusion
PAUL VELLA: The Minnesota Iceman
Dr KARL SHUKER: Book launch
RICHARD FREEMAN: Expedition report
OLL LEWIS: Welsh dragons and the gwiber
MICHAEL WOODLEY: A proposed system of taxonomy for cryptozoology
JONATHAN DOWNES: Compere
It is - we think - a pleasantly eccentric mixture of academia and entertainment, of old guard and young turks. The oldest speaker is in his sixties, and the youngest isn't out of his teens. Nick Redfern is flying in all the way from Dallas, and Oll Lewis is walking less than a quarter of a mile to get there. There will be theatre, music, films, art exhibitions, and comedy as well as the lectures. There are stalls, workshops, a children's play area, a sumptious menu and cheap drinks. It is a place to see old friends and meet new ones. And, as long as you book in advance, it is only £20 per head for the whole weekend. Kids under 16 are free, as long as they are accompanied by a responsible adult.
I would seriously suggest that you buy your tickets well in advance from The Weird Weekend Website as well as booking your accomodation equally well in advance. Last year there were no B&B rooms available for love or money within a five mile radius of the village by the time that the beginning of August came around.....
So, this year it is the 14th-16th August...see you there
PS. For those of you wanting a little taster of what is in store, check out our guest blogger Max Blake, as he gives a taster of what is in his talk, with a lavishly illustrated article on unknown animals which turn up in the pet trade...