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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Sunday, January 15, 2012

WATCHER OF THE SKIES: Albatrosses and grebes

As regular CFZ-watchers will know, for some time, Corinna has been doing a column for Animals & Men and a regular segment on On The Track... about out of place birds, rare vagrants, and basically all things feathery and fortean.

Because we live in strange times, there are more and more bird stories that come her way, so she has now moved onto the main CFZ bloggo with a new column with the same name as her aforementioned ones...

Global warming helping endangered wandering albatross

The wandering albatross is an endangered bird which rides on strong winds and spends much of its life on the wing. After analysis of 40 years of data on this bird living on the windy Crozet Islands that lie south of Madagascar has revealed that increased wind speeds courtesy of global warming are giving ‘a lift’ to this endangered species, according to a study reported in Science. The windier conditions over the Southern Ocean are allowing the birds to shorten their time at sea as they can cover feeding grounds quicker, therefore the albatross parents can spend more time on the nest, which in turn makes it easier to rear chicks.

Researchers, led by Henri Weimerskirch of the Centre d'Etudes Biologiques de Chizé in France said: "We aimed to assess whether the foraging performance of albatrosses has changed over the past few decades in relation to wind conditions and to understand the possible consequences of such change on life history (breeding performance and condition).”

The Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) (also known as the Snowy Albatross or White-winged Albatross) was first described by Carolus Linnaeus, in 1758 and has the largest wingspan of any living bird, averaging from 2.51–3.50m (8.2–11.5ft). They have a large pink bill and feet and also have a salt gland situated above the nasal passage which helps desalinate their bodies due to the large quantities of sea water they take in. This excretes a high saline solution through their nose. Pairs mate for life and breed every two years and feed on cephalopods, small fish and crustaceans at night. They also feed on animal refuse floating on the sea, eating so much sometimes that they are unable to fly, causing them to rest helplessly on the water.

Their long wing bones were sought after for tobacco-pipe stems, causing them to be captured by sailors. New Zealand Maoris also used these bones; for flutes, needles, tattoing chisel blades and barns for fishhooks due to their light but very strong composition. In the days of sail and early explorers of the southern seas the wandering albatross could often been seen wheeling in wide circles around the ships it followed, never being seen to land and continuing its flight even in tempestuous weather seemingly tireless. Those of you who have read Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner will be well aware of “the evil fate of him who shot with his cross-bow the ‘bird of good omen’.”

Read more about the study at: http://www.wirralnews.co.uk/wirral-news/local-wirral-news/2012/01/11/merseyside-farmers-help-wild-birds-in-pioneering-new-scheme-80491-30093997/
Slavonian Grebes – study on their breeding requirements

A report by Louise Smith, Media and Communications Officer at the RSPB, says that stopping the introduction of pike into Scottish lochs may help to ensure the future of one of Scotland’s rarests birds, the Slavonian grebe. A study led by the RSPB and funded partly by Scottish Natural Heritage investigated into what influences breeding Slavonian grebes in choosing certain lochs to raise their young. Those lochs that have pike had fewer small fish, which are a valuable food source for the grebes, whereas moderately sized lochs that have a wealth of small fish such as sticklebacks and minnows, clear water in which to hunt the fish and plenty of nesting habitat were the most suitable. The Slavonian grebe did not begin breeding in the UK until 1908 and its population is still restricted to northern Scotland, showing only 29 breeding pairs remaining according to the latest counts.
Notes from the RSPB include:

“Slavonian grebes are strong swimmers and build their nests in sedge beds. They arrive back in Scotland in March/April and leave in autumn.

Slavonian grebes are best recognised by their colourful summer plumage and trilling calls. Both males and females have golden ear tufts, black faces and deep red eyes.

Around half of the UK population of Slavonian grebes breed at Loch Ruthven. The RSPB has a nature reserve at the eastern end of the loch. In the spring and summer, it is possible to get excellent views of displaying grebes in front of the hide.

The study is titled and authored: Ron W. Summers, Roddy A. Mavor, Sandra Hogg & Ron Harriman 2011 Lake characteristics and their selection by breeding Slavonian grebes Podicpes auritus in Scotland Bird Study 58, 349-356.”
You can find out more on: http://www.rspb.org.uk/media/releases/301721-new-study-reveals-slavonian-grebes-breeding-musthaves

JON'S JOURNAL: Ness than Zero

So it's that time of the year again; the time that the media, prompted possibly by those jolly nice people at the Loch Ness Monster Fan Club remind all and sundry
that there is a prize on offer for the person or persons who made the best 'Nessie' sighting of the year.

There were, apparently, three sightings last year, and two of them were photographed. According to Fox News (and as someone who hardly ever watches television any more, I don't understand nuances of the 'Fox News Jokes' that circulate the web on a regular basis) the contenders for the prize are as follows:

1. While on vacation in May, William and Joan Jobes saw what appeared to be a head peaking above the water 200 to 300 yards off shore in Fort Augustus, Inverness-shire.
2. In June, Jan and Simon Hargreaves caught a glimpse of Nessie in the Loch near the village of Foyers, but didn't manage to get the monster on film.
3. Then in September, fish farm worker Jon Rowe snapped an idyllic photo of a large, dark shape and two humps in the water beneath the arch of a rainbow.

All very well and good, but the pictures themselves are hardly conclusive:

Joan Jobes' picture

Jon Rowe's picture

At least both pictures appear to show something. Many pictures from Loch Ness show nothing more than peculiar waves (this picture below was taken by yours truly in December 2005, when Richard and I visited the Loch to make a particularly futile slice of Mickey Mouse television).

I have no idea what either of them show, but I have my doubts that either are of a bona fide unknown species of animal. I would, however, love to be proved wrong.

Whilst on the subject of Loch Ness check this out:


A blog post by Tim Wall on Discovery News, claims that: "Just as the bubble in a carpenter's level moves back and forth depending on the surface it rests upon, Scotland's Loch Ness tilts back and forth according to the movement of the ground beneath it caused by the tides on the nearby North Sea. The motion is so subtle GPS couldn't even track it."

What impact this peculiar geophysical enigma has on the cryptozoological life of the Great Glen, I don't know, but it is interesting nonetheless.

Cold-blooded cognition: Tortoises quick on the uptake (Via Herp Digest)

Cold-blooded cognition: Tortoises quick on the uptake
12/26/11 by Jeff Hecht, New Scientist

Tortoises aren't noted for their speed but they are surprisingly quick-witted

"IT ALL stems from Moses," says Anna Wilkinson. Moses is her pet red-footed tortoise and a bit of a celebrity in the science world. Why? First, he outsmarted rats in a maze. Then he was the inspiration for a new lab studying reptile intelligence and the evolutionary origins of cognition. Now he has helped Wilkinson win an Ig Nobel prize. Victory for slow and steady.

This fruitful partnership began in 2004, after Wilkinson, now at the University of Lincoln, UK, started graduate school at the University of York, also in the UK. She was studying bird cognition but had earlier become fascinated by tortoises while employed in education and research at Flamingo Land zoo in North Yorkshire, UK. Although working with primates, she found herself drawn to the tortoise enclosure. Even when most of the group was basking in the sun, she recalls, at least one tortoise was exploring or feeding, and when a person walked in they all perked up, sensing that food was likely to follow. "They were always just fascinating," she says. So, a tortoise was the obvious choice as a pet.

Moses's first big academic break came in 2006. Wilkinson was attending a lecture on how rats remember their paths through a maze, when she started thinking: "Moses can do that." Afterwards, she asked the lecturer, Geoffrey Hall, if anyone had tried putting tortoises in such mazes. A literature search indicated that reptiles in general have proved pretty dim when subjected to cognitive tests. Undeterred, Hall and Wilkinson decided to see what Moses was capable of.

The pair set up a tortoise-sized test maze similar to the eight-armed radial structure used for rats and mice, then put Moses through his paces. As with the rodents he was placed in the centre of the maze and given eight chances to retrieve food from the arms - each of which had a morsel at its end. Moses quickly learned to find his way around so that he didn't revisit arms where he had already eaten the food. Like the rodents, he seemed to create a "cognitive map" from the objects he could see in the world beyond the maze. However, when Wilkinson and Hall obscured these landmarks, Moses took up a different strategy - he systematically visited the arm next to the one he had just left, allowing him to retrieve all eight food scraps (Journal of Comparative Psychology, vol 121, p 412). This flexibility of behaviour has never been seen in mammals, which seek new landmarks when old ones are removed. Clever Moses.

Wilkinson and Hall were now interested in why reptiles had performed so poorly in previous cognitive studies. Taking a closer look at the reports, they found the problem. The earlier research had been done at cool temperatures, which left the cold-blooded animals feeling sluggish. Moses, by contrast, had performed at 29 °C, near the average temperature of the red-footed tortoise's native habitat in Central and South America. The warmer temperatures boosted Moses's metabolism, making him alert, lively and ready to conquer a maze.

Having finished her dissertation, Wilkinson started postdoctoral research at the University of Vienna, Austria. There, her supervisor Ludwig Huber encouraged her to pursue her interest in reptiles. In 2007 they set up the cold-blooded cognition lab. With seven more red-footed tortoises - as well as some jewelled lizards - they were ready to find out just how smart reptiles are.

One skill Wilkinson and Huber were keen to explore was gaze-following. The ability to look where another individual is looking is important because it can alert you to potential predators, or food. It is also a complex behaviour, which requires understanding that another animal's gaze can convey useful information, working out where it is looking and turning to focus on the same spot. Gaze-following has long been thought of as a talent exclusive to primates, but recently it has been found in goats and a few birds. It turns out that red-footed tortoises can do it too.

When Huber and Wilkinson shone a laser pointer at an overhead screen to attract the attention of one tortoise, they found that another individual, behind the screen, also looked up (Animal Cognition, vol 13, p 765).

Gaze-following had never been tested in reptiles before. The fact that red-footed tortoises can do it was surprising, given that they are usually solitary in the wild so may not be expected to evolve the ability to take cues from others.

Their performance on a second task was even more intriguing. The researchers found tortoises can learn to find hidden food by watching another tortoise walk around a wall to collect a treat (Biology Letters, vol 6, p 614). This indicates that tortoises are capable of social learning, a trait thought to have evolved as a special cognitive adaptation in social animals. The discovery raises the possibility that social learning may simply be an extension of general learning capabilities rather than a specialist skill.
Moses and his pals have done much to raise the intellectual standing of tortoises, but there is one test they famously failed. Contagious yawning is thought to arise from empathy, but Wilkinson doubted this theory. She spent six months teaching one tortoise to yawn in the hope that others would learn the trick - even though tortoises lack empathy. The yawns stubbornly refused to spread, Wilkinson and Huber reported in a paper that earned them the Ig Nobel prize earlier this year (Current Zoology, vol 57, p 477).

Wilkinson's work is helping revive interest in reptile cognition, says Gordon Burghardt at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. This is important because most research on animal cognition has been on mammals or birds. Reptiles split from those groups more than 250 million years ago, so studies of how they think can shed light on the evolutionary roots of animal intelligence. Burghardt recently found "surprisingly advanced" social learning in pond turtles, a more social group than tortoises. Meanwhile, Manuel Leal and Brian Powell at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, have found that tree-dwelling anole lizards from Puerto Rico can solve simple problems to find food - a behaviour previously seen only in birds and mammals.

Reptiles are clearly far smarter than we thought. Wilkinson has one explanation - at least for Moses and his ilk. Tortoises receive no care after they hatch, so they have to learn on their own, she points out. And with a very high attrition rate, there is strong natural selection for intelligence. "They learn things very fast because they have to do so to survive," she says. "They are learning machines."

New York Monster Rat Will Haunt Your Every Dream



OLL LEWIS: Yesterday's News Today


Colonel March of Scotland Yard is a 1950s British television series based on author John Dickson Carr's (a.k.a. Carter Dickson) fictional detective Colonel March from his book The Department of Queer Complaints (1940). Carr was a mystery author who specialized in locked-room whodunnits and other 'impossible' crimes; murder mysteries that seemed to defy possibility. The stories of the television series followed in the same vein with Detective March solving cases that baffle Scotland Yard and the British police. The series was made at Southall Studios in Middlesex, England, and was produced by Fountain Films for ITV. The series premiered in 1955 with a total of 26 episodes. The show starred Boris Karloff as the urbane, eye-patched sleuth (no reason was ever given for the loss of his eye). Other regulars included Ewan Roberts as Inspector Ames of Scotland Yard and Eric Pohlmann as Inspector Goron of the Paris Sûreté.

Boris Karloff - born William Henry Pratt, November 23rd 1887 - passed away February 2nd 1969 (age 81).

Tonight's Story The Abominable Snowman

Boris Karloff ... Col. Perceval March
Ewan Roberts ... Inspector Ames
Doris Nolan ... Mary Gray
Ivan Craig ... Osborne
Olaf Pooley ... Carlmeddy
Alec Mango ... Narbu
Peter Bathurst ... Major Brian Forbes-Williams

Directed By Bernard Knowles
Screenplay Written By Leslie Slote
Story Written By John Dickson Carr
Produced By Hannah Weinstein
Cinematography By Lionel Banes
Film Editing By Thelma Connell
Assistant Director George Mills
Original Music By Edwin Astley
Art Direction By Cedric Dawe

P.S. Edwin Astley was Pete Townshend's father-in-law

Original Air Date: March 7, 1956 (UK)
Season 1, Episode 2
Filming Locations: Southall Studios, Southall, Middlesex, England, UK
Production Co: Fountain Films, Independent Television (ITV), Panda Productions Inc.