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!

Search This Blog

Loading...

Thursday, 19 March 2015

BOTHERSOME BEITHIRS AND OTHER FRESHWATER MYSTERY EELS?


Delightful depiction of Nessie as a giant eel (© Richard Pullen)

I have already discussed on ShukerNature the prospect that certain serpentiform sea monsters might be still-undiscovered giant marine eels – Dr Bernard Heuvelmans's 'super-eel' category of sea serpent (click here). Similarly, a number of freshwater mystery beasts reported from Britain and elsewhere in the world may also conceivably be unusually large eels - a thought-provoking possibility previously visited on ShukerNature in relation to reports from ancient times of supposed giant blue eels inhabiting India's Ganges River (click here), and now revisited in the following selection of additional eye-opening examples.


NEVER BOTH A BEITHIR

The Loch Ness monster (LNM) may well be Scotland's best known freshwater mystery beast, but it is not this country's only one. Far less familiar yet no less intriguing in its own way is the beithir. In 1994, a correspondent to the English magazine Athene published two fascinating articles containing various modern-day beithir sightings. During early 1975, he encountered a fisherman near Inverness who claimed that he and four others once sighted a beithir lying coiled in shallow water close to the edge of a deep gorge upstream of the Falls of Kilmorack. When it realised that it had been observed, however, it thrashed wildly about before finally swimming up the gorge near Beaufort Castle and disappearing. The fishermen estimated its length at around 10 ft.

Four months later, the Athene correspondent learnt of another sighting, this time offshore of Eilean Aigas, an island in the River Beauly, Highland. He was also informed by a keeper at Strathmore that during the 1930s his wife's parents had seen beithirs moving overland at Loch a' Mhuillidh, near Glen Strathfarrar and the mountain of Sgurr na Lapaich. After discussing these reports with various zoological colleagues, he considered that the beithir was probably an extra-large variety of eel – fishes that are well known for their ability to leave the water and move overland to forage when circumstances necessitate, and even to sustain themselves out of water for protracted periods.

The European eel, painting from 1837 (public domain)

Indeed, the Athene correspondent was informed by a Devon farmer that during the extremely harsh winter of 1947, his mother had been badly frightened to discover a number of eels alive and well in the farm's hayloft, where they had evidently been sheltering since the freezing over of the nearby river some time earlier. The rest of the family came to see this wonder, including the farmer himself (then still a boy), and his father confirmed that they were indeed eels, and not snakes (as his mother had initially assumed).


IS NESSIE A EUNUCH EEL?

The LNM (always assuming that it actually exists, of course!) has been labelled as many things by many people – a surviving plesiosaur, an unknown species of long-necked seal, and a wayward sturgeon being among the most popular identities proffered over the years. However, some eyewitnesses and zoological authorities – notably the late Dr Maurice Burton – have favoured a giant eel, possibly up to 30 ft long.

Under normal circumstances, the common or European eel Anguilla anguilla does not exceed 5 ft, and even the conger eel Conger conger (one of the world's largest eel species, rivalled only by certain moray eels) rarely exceeds 10 ft. However, ichthyological researchers have revealed that growth in eels is more rapid in confined bodies of water (such as a loch), in water that is not subjected to seasonal temperature changes (a condition met with in the deeper portions of a deep lake, like Loch Ness), and is not uniform (some specimens grow much faster than others belonging to the same species).

Collectively, therefore, these factors support the possibility that abnormally large eels do indeed exist in Loch Ness. Moreover, sightings of such fishes have been claimed by divers here. Also of significance is the fact that eels will sometimes swim on their side at or near the water surface, yielding the familiar humped profile described by Nessie eyewitnesses. And a 18-30-ft-long eel could certainly produce the sizeable wakes and other water disturbances often reported for this most famous – and infamous – of all aquatic monsters.

The conger eel (public domain)

Consequently, I would not be at all surprised if the presence of extra-large eels in Loch Ness is conclusively demonstrated one day. However, I cannot reconcile any kind of eel with the oft-reported vertical head-and-neck (aka 'periscope') category of LNM sightings, nor with the land LNM sightings that have described a clearly-visible four-limbed, long-necked, long-tailed animal.

Yet regardless of what creature these latter observations feature (assuming once again their validity), there is no reason why Loch Ness should not contain some extra-large eels too. After all, any loch that can boast a volume of roughly 1.8 cubic miles must surely have sufficient room for more than one type of monster!

In recent years, the giant eel identity for Nessie has been modified by some cryptozoological researchers to yield a creature as remarkable in itself as any bona fide monster – namely, a giant eunuch eel.  It has been suggested that Nessie may be a gigantic, sterile or eunuch specimen of the common eel – one that did not swim out to sea and spawn but instead stayed in the loch, grew exceptionally long (25-30 ft), lived to a much greater age than normal, and was rendered sterile by some currently-undetermined factor present in this and other deep, cold, northern lakes.

This is undeniably a fascinating, thought-provoking theory, but Dr Scott McNaught, Professor of Lake Biology at Central Michigan University, has stated that even if such eels did arise, they would tend to grow thicker rather than longer. Nevertheless, giant eels remain a distinct possibility in relation to some of the world’s more serpentiform lake monsters on record.


MONSTER EELS IN THE MASCARENES

The concept of giant freshwater eels is by no means limited to Britain. For example: a number of deep pools in the Mascarene island of Réunion, near Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, are supposedly inhabited by gigantic landlocked eels.

In a letter to The Field magazine, published on 10 February 1934, Courtenay Bennett recalled seeing during the 1890s when Consul at Réunion a dead specimen that had been caught in one such pool, the Mare à Poule d'Eaux, which is said to be very deep in places. It was so immense that "steaks as thick as a man's thighs were cut" from its flesh.

Mare à Poule d'Eaux (© http://www.chat-reunion.com)

According to native testimony, moreover, during the heavy winter rains the giant eels could apparently be seen circling along the sides of this lake, searching for a way out. Being so exposed, however, they were prime targets for local hunters, who would catch them using a harpoon and a rope hitched round a tree. Their flesh would then be sold for food in a neighbouring village.


EXTRA-LARGE EELS IN JAPAN?

Several of Japan's biggest lakes are associated with accounts of freshwater eels reputedly much larger than typical specimens on record from these localities. A concise coverage of such creatures appeared in a detailed article concerning Japanese giant mystery fishes that was written by Brent Swancer and posted on 30 April 2014 to the Mysterious Universe website (click here to access the full article) and reads as follows:

Various locations in Japan have had reports of huge eels far larger than any known native species.

Workers doing construction on a floodgate on the Edo river reported coming across enormous eels measuring 2 meters (6.6 feet) long. According to the account, four of the eels were spotted and some of the workers even attempted to capture one, as the eels appeared to be rather lethargic and slow moving. They were unsuccessful as they did not have the equipment to properly catch one. Upon returning to the scene later on with the tools they needed, they found that the mysterious giant eels were nowhere to be seen.

Another account comes from Lake Biwa, which is in Shiga Prefecture, and is the largest freshwater lake in Japan. In the 1980s, there were several reports of giant eels inhabiting the lake.

One such sighting was made by a large group of people aboard one of the lakes many pleasure boats. Startled ferry passengers reported seeing several very large eels swimming at the surface far from shore. The eels were described as being around 3 meters (around 10 feet) long, and a silvery blue color. The eels appeared to be leisurely gliding along beside the boat and were observed for around 15 minutes before moving off out of sight.

A fisherman on the same lake reported actually hooking and reeling in an eel that was reported to be around 8 feet in length. In this case, the eel was kept and eaten. Another fisherman on the lake reported seeing a similarly sized eel rooting through mud in shallow water near the shore.

Japan's Lake Biwa, as seen from Higashiamagoidake (public domain)

Interestingly, the giant blue eels of Lake Biwa readily recall comparably-described mystery beasts from India's Ganges River as reported by several early chroniclers (click here for my earlier-mentioned ShukerNature coverage of these latter cryptids).


GIANT EELS IN OHIO?

Although giant eels are a popular identity for water monsters, of both the marine and freshwater variety, because the size of eels is notoriously difficult to gauge accurately in the wild due to their sinuous movements and usual lack of background scale for precise length estimation this means that eyewitness reports of giant specimens are normally difficult to take seriously – which is why the following account is so significant. On 3 February 2015, Facebook friend Chris R. Richards from Covington, Washington State, USA, posted on the page of the Facebook group Cryptozoology the following hitherto-unpublished report of a huge freshwater eel that he and his father had personally witnessed during the 1990s:

I believe whole heartily in giant eels. I saw one as long as my canoe back in the later nineties. They could result in sea monster claims. Hocking River Ohio. Directly off the side of the canoe in clear water near upper part of river. At first thought it was a tree with algae in water, then saw the head and realized the "algae" was actually a frill. The animal was thicker than my arm. The head was at the front of the 15ft Coleman canoe and the tail end trailed behind my back seat. At the time this was amazing to both my father and I. Only later did I come to fully appreciate how amazing this sighting was. I got to see it the longest as we slowly passed it and I was in the back of the boat. [The eel was] 12 to 15 ft.

The frill was presumably the eel's long, low dorsal fin, which runs along almost the entire length of the body in freshwater anguillid (true) eels. What makes this report so exciting is that there is an unambiguous scale present in it – the known length of the canoe, alongside which the eel was aligned, thereby making its total length very easy to ascertain.

American eel (public domain)

The only such species recorded from Ohio is the common American eel Anguilla rostrata, which officially grows up to 4 ft long. Consequently, judging from the scale provided by the canoe, the eel seen by Chris and his father was 3-4 times longer than this species' official maximum size.

Assuming their report to be genuine (and I'm not aware of any reason to doubt it), there seems little option but to assume, therefore, that bona fide giant freshwater eels do indeed exist, at least in the Ohio waterways, which is a remarkable situation and clearly of notable cryptozoological interest.

Reconstruction of the possible appearance of the Ganges giant blue mystery eel (© Dr Karl Shuker)






Monday, 9 March 2015

THE CAMP FIRCOM CADDY CARCASE - MONSTER OR MONTAGE? - REVIEWING A LITTLE-KNOWN SEA SERPENT CONTROVERSY


The two picture postcards (#1 top, #2 bottom) depicting the Camp Fircom Caddy carcase (public domain/FPL)

Few cryptozoologists will be unaware of the Naden Harbour carcase – an enigmatic serpentine animal carcase measuring 10-12 ft long, sporting what looked like a camel-like head, long neck, pectoral flippers or fins, a very elongate body, and a fringed tail-like section that may have been a pair of hind limbs and/or a bona fide tail. It had been removed from the stomach of a sperm whale by flensing (blubber-removing) workers in a whaling station at Naden Harbour in Canada's Queen Charlotte Islands one day in early July 1937, and had then been placed by them on a long table draped with a white cloth and photographed.

Tragically, the carcase is apparently long-vanished, presumably discarded, but three photographs of it remain, and portray a creature that is sufficiently strange in appearance to have incited considerable controversy ever since as to its possible identity. Almost exactly 20 years ago and based upon the surviving photographic evidence, Dr Ed L. Bousfield, currently a Research Associate at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, and Prof. Paul H. LeBlond, now retired from the Department of Oceanography at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, designated the Naden Harbour carcase (believed to be of a juvenile individual) as the type specimen of the longstanding serpentiform mystery beast informally known as Caddy or Cadborosaurus, the Cadboro Bay sea serpent, frequently reported off the northern Pacific coast of Canada and the U.S.A. In a paper constituting a supplement to the inaugural volume of the scientific journal Amphipacifica, published on 20 April 1995, based upon this specimen's morphology as seen in the photos they proposed that Caddy was a living, modern-day species of plesiosaur and they formally named its species Cadborosaurus willsi.

The Naden Harbour carcase - a juvenile Caddy specimen? (G.V. Boorman/public domain)

Far less familiar than the Naden Harbour carcase photographs, conversely, are two Caddy-linked pictures that were first brought to my notice 20 years ago. To my knowledge, they had never previously received any cryptozoological attention, and even today they remain little-publicised. Consequently, this present ShukerNature article reviews for the very first time the history and most notable opinions that have been offered to date in relation to the tantalising object(s) that these pictures depict.

Back in the mid-1990s, I was writing the text to my forthcoming book, The Unexplained: An Illustrated Guide to the World's Natural and Paranormal Mysteries, and Janet Bord of the Fortean Picture Library was supplying me with a number of illustrations for possible inclusion within it.

My book The Unexplained (1996) © Dr Karl Shuker)

Unfortunately, she was not able to supply me with any of the Naden Harbour images as these had not been placed with the FPL and there was some degree of uncertainty concerning who owned their copyright at that time (they are now in the public domain). So although I did document it in my book, I couldn't illustrate my coverage with one of the pictures of it. Nevertheless, Janet was able to find a couple of old picture postcards depicting an alleged Caddy carcase washed up at Camp Fircom in British Columbia, Canada, on 4 October 1936 (less than a year before the Naden Harbour carcase was retrieved), and which I had never seen before. Janet did not have any details concerning these pictures on file other than the handwritten captions that were already printed upon them, and I was unable to uncover any mention of them in any of the sources of Caddy information available to me. (As for the actual postcards themselves, I assume from their style and the rather primitive quality of their photographs that they were originally on sale in the Camp Fircom area not long after the carcase had originally been discovered there.)

Frustratingly, moreover, the deadlines for writing and submitting to the publishers each section of the book's text meant that by the time that I'd received these interesting images, I'd already written and submitted my full quota of allotted text for my book's Caddy entry, so I couldn't have documented them there anyway. All that I could do, and which is precisely what I did do, was include the more detailed of the two images (Picture Postcard #1), tagged with the following informative caption: "Postcard depicting an unusual marine carcase, possibly a Caddy, that was found on the beach at Camp Fircom, British Columbia, on 4 October 1936".

The Camp Fircom Caddy carcase, Picture Postcard #1 (public domain/FPL)

In truth, however, the more that I looked at these pictures, especially the close-up view afforded by Picture #1, the more confused I became about what precisely I was looking at, because they certainly didn't resemble the more traditional supposed sea serpent carcases that wash up from time to time and invariably prove to be the highly decomposed, distorted remains of sharks, whales, or oarfishes. Indeed, by the time that my book was published in 1996, I considered it likely that they showed nothing more than a collection of sea-divulged debris, which may or may not have been artfully arranged by person(s) unknown to look monstrous in every sense, and thence cash in (possibly literally, via the sale of the picture postcards depicting this deceiving creation?) on the tradition of sea monster sightings in this part of the world. Nevertheless, I was pleased to have been able to include at least one of these puzzling pictures in my book, just in case it elicited any responses from readers supplying additional information or opinions relating to it. And sure enough, this is precisely what happened.

During the second week of February 1997, I received a detailed report from a then-university zoology student of Southampton, England, documenting his opinion as to what Picture #1 actually showed. That student is now palaeontologist Dr Darren Naish, who, like me, has long been interested in cryptozoological subjects in addition to mainstream zoology. Having viewed the photo at length in my book, Darren reported that although there were certain superficial similarities to the Naden Harbour carcase (large skull-like object with an apparent eye socket, long thin elongate body with a pair of anterior lateral projections sited where pectoral fins might be expected to be), he considered it to be a hoax – consisting of a montage of objects that he suspected had been deliberately chosen and arranged to give the impression of a carcase. The supposed skull, he felt, did not actually possess any definite skull characters, and, tellingly, its eye socket, placed in just the right location to resemble a true eye socket was, in Darren's view, the shell of a mussel. As for the long elongate body, he considered this to be the stem of a large plant, probably kelp, with finger-like projections at its distal or 'tail' end resembling the root-like holdfasts that anchor kelp to rocks. In short, a collection of marine/beach detritus deliberately positioned to look like a serpentiform monster carcase, thus echoing my own view regarding this.

Mindful that he hadn't seen Picture #2, I sent Darren a photocopy of it, which he briefly referred to (and he also included sketches of both pictures) within an expanded, illustrated version of the original report that he had previously sent to me, which was published in the summer 1997 issue of The Cryptozoology Review, now defunct. In it, he reaffirmed his opinion that the carcase was a composite of kelp, mussel shell, and beach rocks. Interestingly, although I could see why he thought that the eye socket in Picture #1's depiction of the skull-like object was a mussel shell, in Picture #2 it seems to me to be a genuine socket, i.e. a hole, because when this picture is enlarged I am sure that the seawater behind the skull-like object can actually be seen through the socket. That aside, however, I definitely concur and reaffirm that the Camp Fircom Caddy may be monstrous in form but is merely a montage in nature.

The Camp Fircom Caddy carcase, Picture Postcard #2 (public domain/FPL)

Even so, are the main components of it truly botanical rather than zoological in identity?

At much the same time that I was corresponding with Darren regarding these two pictures, I was also awaiting a response from Prof. LeBlond, to whom I had sent photocopies of the pictures, enquiring his opinion as to what they may portray.

In his letter of reply, dated 3 March 1997, Prof. LeBlond noted that he had seen: "…pictures of a lot of Caddy-like carcasses which have usually turned out to be sharks. Most of them look a lot like the Camp Fircom picture". Of particular interest was his comment:

What makes me think that the Camp Fircom carcass is yet another shark is the uniform roundness of the vertebrae, especially as seen in the upper picture [Picture #1]. The Neah Bay shark bones looked a lot like that: a "log" made of a series of cylindrical vertebrae, without extensions or projections.

Shark remains are sometimes found washed ashore at Neah Bay and elsewhere along the Pacific U.S. state of Washington's coast, and needless to say there are many cases on file (from North America and elsewhere around the world) of such remains being mistaken by eyewitnesses for sea serpent carcases.

Basking shark vertebrae

Paul also stated that he had forwarded the photocopied pictures to Dr Bousfield, who very kindly wrote to me on 27 August 1997 with his own comments regarding them:

I tend to agree with Paul that the Camp Fircom carcase is very probably that of a basking shark. Local beach carcasses that have been attributed to "Caddy"-like animals appear similar to the remains of your photograph. Virtually all such remains, reported (with photographs) during the past 70+ years, have proven to be those of the large pelagic shark species common in surface waters of the North American Pacific coastal marine region.

The only photographs considered by us as reliably that of a "Caddy" carcass, are three fairly good images, taken from three different camera angles by two different photographers, at the Naden Harbour whaling station in 1937, and now deposited in the B.C. Provincial Archives here in Victoria.

Two of the three Naden Harbour carcase photographs are included in their book Cadborosaurus: Survivor From the Deep, published during the same year, 1995, as their more formal Amphipacifica paper.

Cadborosaurus: Survivor From the Deep (1995)
(© LeBlond & Bousfield/Horsdal & Schubart)

So might the Camp Fircom Caddy carcase be a highly-decomposed shark, or at least include some shark-derived components within a heterogeneous array of objects?

For a long time, this enigmatic entity attracted little if any additional attention other than its two pictures featuring in a handful of East European cryptozoological websites but with no attendant comments concerning them. In a guest article regarding the Naden Harbour carcase that appeared in Jay Cooney's Bizarre Zoology blog on 17 June 2013, however, Florida-based cryptozoologist Scott Mardis did briefly refer to the Camp Fircom carcase and included Picture #1. After noting Darren's opinion regarding its composition and then comparing it to some illustrations of basking shark vertebrae, Scott commented: "I'm not so sure, because it looks very basking sharky to me", and I agree that there is indeed a notable degree of similarity between the supposed carcase's elongate body and the vertebral column of a shark.

On 17 February of this present year, Darren posted his detailed sketch of Picture #1 on his Facebook page's timeline and tagged me in his post. He also now opined that the carcase's body certainly resembled a shark's vertebral column (thus updating his original identification of it as a possible plant stem back in his article from 1997), but remained unsure as to the nature of the carcase's other components. This elicited on my own Facebook page's timeline a number of detailed responses from German cryptozoological researcher Markus Bühler, who illustrated them with relevant images obtained online. Like Paul, Ed, Scott, myself, and now Darren too, Markus favoured a shark identity for at least some of the objects constituting the Camp Fircom Caddy carcase, and I am summarising as follows the various points that he raised in relation to this.

Screenshot of the opening posts in the Camp Fircom Caddy carcase discussion thread on my Facebook page's timeline – there were far too many posts to include screenshots of the entire thread, but it yielded an extremely interesting exchange of views

With respect to the carcase's supposed skull, Markus considered that Picture #1 possibly does show a cranium with a hole, but in a predominantly dorsal view, so that the hole is not an eye socket but is instead the epiphyseal foramen (a large dorsally-sited cranial opening that houses the pineal body in living sharks). If so, then the projections above and below it could be the upper parts of the laterally-sited eye orbits. He also noted that the skull may be from a shark but not a basking shark, perhaps instead from a species with very different cranial proportions from those of a basking shark, which could explain why it does not provide an exact match with a basking shark cranium.

Markus considered that shark-derived contributions to the carcase might principally consist of its cranium and vertebral column, but he did also wonder whether, if so, the finger-like projections at the right-hand side of the carcase's body, originally labelled as kelp holdfasts by Darren, may be parts of the shark's fin rays and he posted some online photos of a fully defleshed shark carcase found underwater that bore exposed fin rays resembling the 'fingers' of the Camp Fircom conglomerate. In addition, as he correctly pointed out, in some species of shark the spinal column between cranium and caudal fin is surprisingly short, so these 'fingers' may specifically be exposed rays from the lower lobe of the shark's caudal fin.

Concluding the Camp Fircom carcase discussion thread on my FB timeline, Darren reflected that he'd never considered that a shark may have contributed to this creation when preparing his original article, but still felt that its overall appearance was the result of an assortment of debris and that this was the key point. That is, the alleged Camp Fircom Caddy carcase was merely a conglomeration of objects from different sources, not a single entity – and I agree entirely with this assessment.

Reconstruction of the possible appearance in life of an adult female Caddy (© Tim Morris)

Regardless of whether its body derives from kelp or a shark, or whether its 'fingers' are holdfasts or fin rays, or whether its skull is a rock or a shark cranium, or whether the latter object's hole is an eye socket or an epiphyseal foramen or even just a deceptive mussel shell, there can be no doubt that what the Camp Fircom composite is not, and never could be, is a deceased Caddy. In short, this is one cryptozoological carcase (and mystery) that, finally, not so much rests in peace as in pieces – very different pieces from a range of very different origins.

I wish to offer my sincere thanks to Dr Ed Bousfield, Markus Bühler, Prof. Paul LeBlond, Scott Mardis, and especially Dr Darren Naish for sharing their views with me concerning the Camp Fircom Caddy carcase, and to Janet Bord of the Fortean Picture Library for so kindly bringing its two picture postcard images to my attention all those years ago.

Artistic representation of Cadborosaurus willsi (© Thomas Finley)







Monday, 2 March 2015

SPIDERS WITH WINGS? IMPLAUSIBLE THINGS!



Never in the long and very diverse history of spiders – a very significant arachnid order (Araneae) whose lineage dates back more than 300 million years according to the known fossil record – has there ever been a spider with wings. And why should there be? Virtually all spiders display a lifestyle that has no place or need in it for wings, relying upon stealth and ambush to survive and to capture their prey, not flamboyant aerial activity like some bizarre eight-legged dragonfly. Nevertheless, this has not prevented flying spiders from winging their way every so often through both hard-copy and online media reports – to the delight of connoisseurs of the strange and uncanny, and to the despair of hardcore arachnophobes! So here are three of the most entertaining and engrossing accounts that I have seen which showcase these faux yet fabulous fliers of the spider kind.


A WINGED TERROR ON TUMBLR

During 2012, several users of the website Tumblr posted online what initially looked like a bona fide but unidentified newspaper clipping of a supposedly newly-discovered species of winged spider. The clipping consisted of a b/w photograph of the spider in question, entitled 'Scientist discovers winged spider', but with no accompanying details concerning it or its discovery. A close look at the photo, however, soon revealed that it was a not-especially efficient exercise in image manipulation of the photoshopped variety. The spider depicted was in fact a common (and wingless!) species of fishing (aka raft) spider belonging to the genus Dolomedes.

The fake report of a winged spider featuring a photoshopped image of an ordinary wolf spider (creator/s unknown)

In addition, as later revealed on the famous hoax-busting Snopes website as well as on several others too, the original photograph of it that had subsequently been manipulated by person(s) unknown to yield the winged spider is one that had been snapped on 23 September 2007 at Durham in North Carolina by Will Cook from Duke University in Durham, and had appeared (it still does in fact) on the website North Carolina Spider Photos (here is a direct link to this photo on the latter website).

Will Cook's original, undoctored photograph of a Dolomedes wolf spider (© Will Cook)

On 10 March 2014, the fake clipping and photo were revisited by the website of a UK computer services company, Digital Plumbing, which provided an extensive report about them, including details of how the winged spider, which in this report was unscientifically named Volat-Araneus (it should have been the other way around and italicised, of course, i.e. Araneus volat, if the aim was for it to resemble a genuine taxonomic binomial), preyed upon the poisonous (and real) false widow spider Steatoda nobilis.

A false widow spider Steatoda nobilis (public domain)

However, the report was peppered with clues that it was a hoax, and indeed, halfway through it its (unnamed) writer confessed this openly, explaining that the report's sole purpose had been to attract the attention of readers, who would now, the writer hoped, take note that this website was that of a company offering technology repairs and other services, as detailed in the remainder of the report.  In short, Digital Plumbing's report was a very novel marketing ploy, quite possibly the first one ever to utilise a non-existent winged spider to attract potential customers.


A WINGED SPIDER VIDEO AND A WINGLESS MISNOMER

Flying spider #2 has only appeared once (to my knowledge) – as an even less convincing photoshopped image presented in an extremely brief YouTube video uploaded on 15 October 2013 by Brian Griffin under the title 'Have Scientists Discovered a Winged Spider?' (click here to watch it).

In it, mention is made of the fact that a species called the long-winged kite spider is already known to science. This is perfectly true, the species in question being a forest-dweller known formally as Gasteracantha versicolor, which is native to the subtropics and tropics of eastern, central, and southern Africa, as well as Madagascar. However, 'long-winged' is something of a misnomer, because its 'wings' are not of the membranous, flight-producing variety. Instead, they are a pair of immobile sclerotised spines, borne laterally upon the opisthosoma or abdominal section of this spider's body in the adult female.

Gasteracantha versicolor, female, in South Africa's Krantzkloof Natuurreservaat (© JMK/Wikipedia)


THE ITALIAN TOMB SPIDER – ENCOUNTERED IN THE CATACOMBS

Far older and also far more intriguing than the previous two examples is the third member of this trio of winged wonders – albeit this time a truly grotesque Lovecraftian horror, a cryptic cryptid from the crypts in fact, known as the Italian tomb spider.

I first learnt of this macabre entity courtesy of British cryptozoological archive peruser Richard Muirhead, who sent me an unlabelled review report of an article that had originally appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette. Happily, I was soon able to trace the original source of this review report – namely, the San Francisco Call, which had published it on 29 November 1896. The report makes such compelling if unnerving reading that I am reproducing it in its entirety below – the first time, as far as I am aware, that it has ever appeared in an online cryptozoological article:

San Francisco Call, Volume 80, Number 182, 29 November 1896

ITALY'S TOMB SPIDER

A Thing So Odd That It is Believed to Exist Only in Imagination.

The people of Italy believe in the existence of a wonderful creature which, for the want of a better name, is called the tomb spider. The entomologists know nothing of this queer beast, and declare that it only exists in the fancy of the superstitious persons and those whose curiosity or business makes it necessary for them to explore old ruins, tombs, catacombs, etc. According to the popular account the tomb spider is of a pure white color, has wings like those of a bat, a dozen horrid crooked legs and a body three or four times the size of the largest tropical American tarantula.

The accounts of this queer insect and his out-of-the-way places of abode are by no means common, and on that account the information concerning him which we will be able to give the "curious" is very meager. Any Italian will tell you that such a creature exists, however, and that he is occasionally met with in old mines and caverns, as well as in tombs and subterranean ruins. The London Saturday Review has an article from a correspondent who was present when some Roman workmen unearthed a church of the fifth century. He says: "We were standing by one of the heavy pillars that had originally supported the roof, when something flashed down from the pitchy darkness overhead and paused full in the candle-light beside us, at about a level with our eyes. It was distinctly as visible as a thing could be at a distance of three feet, and appeared to be an insect about half the size of a man's fist, white as wax and with its many long legs gathered in a bunch as it crouched on the stone.

"Our guide had seen, or at least heard of this uncanny insect of ill omen before, but was by no means reconciled to its presence, as his notions proved. He glanced around uncomfortably for a moment and then moved away, we following. It seems really a bit queer, but it is said that the strongest nerves give way in the presence of this insect of such ghostly mien. Even today this uncanny apparition is said to be an unclassified monster — an eternal mystery. When the grave spider is encountered by those opening tombs and vaults it is thought to be a 'sign' of death to one of the workmen or some member of his family." - Pall Mall Gazette.

An almost identical account also appeared in another American newspaper, the Sausalito News, on 23 January 1897.

Vintage engraving of catacombs

What can we say about such a bizarre report? The spider, if indeed we can apply such a name to a creature sporting wings and a dozen legs, is unlike any life form known either upon or beneath the surface of Planet Earth, even if we generously assume that it may be a grossly exaggerated or embroidered description of a pallid form of bat or an exceptionally large moth.

Interestingly, as I documented in my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals (2012), a dramatically new species of large cavernicolous spider with a pure white abdomen (opithosoma) was discovered by science in quite recent times, amid the deeper regions of Koloa Cave on the Hawaiian island of Kauai and a few others on this same island's southeastern coast, yielding six populations in total. Formally dubbed Adelocosa anops in 1973, this spelaean spider (sole member of its genus) delights in a very contradictory common name - the no-eyed big-eyed wolf spider! The reason for this stems from Adelocosa's membership of a taxonomic family of wolf spiders whose species are generally typified by very large, well-developed eyes, and are thus called big-eyed wolf spiders. In the case of Adelocosa, however, its ancestors apparently abandoned a traditional above-ground lifestyle in favour of a highly-specialised subterranean one instead - in which eyes were superfluous. Consequently, during the resulting evolution of this much-modified cave-dwelling species, they were eventually lost, thus explaining the apparent paradox of a no-eyed big-eyed spider.

Although made known to science only fairly recently, this distinctive spider has long been familiar to Kauai's indigenous people, who call it pe'e pe'e maka'ole. It is easily identified not only by its lack of eyes but also by its long and semi-transparent, orange-coloured legs (the normal complement of eight in number), its orange-brown cephalothorax (combined head-and-body section), and its ghostly white opisthosoma. Needless to say, however, it does not possess wings!

The Hawaiian no-eyed big-eyed spider (public domain)

As for the Italian tomb spider that does allegedly possess wings, conversely: during the 19th Century, gruesome, highly fanciful yarns of this nature were a popular genre of journalistic reportage, invented purely for entertainment purposes and never meant to be taken seriously, although they sometimes were – especially by the more credulous and less perspicacious of readers. In my opinion, this San Francisco Call report from 1896 is clearly a prime example from such a genre.

Having said that, however, I'd still be interested to read the article from the London Saturday Review referred to in the latter report (always assuming that such an article does exist), just in case its telling of the tale of Italy's dreaded tomb or grave spider is any less lurid and rather more believable. After all, even an account of a wingless spider sporting only the standard octet of legs typical for its kind but which is unusually large in size, is ghostly-white in colour, and exclusively inhabits crypts, catacombs, and other subterranean residences of the deceased would be sufficiently distinct from all recognised spider species to warrant more than passing interest from arachnologists and cryptozoologists alike.

'Spider's Room' (© Minhee-Kim/Deviantart)

So if anyone reading this present ShukerNature blog article can trace and send to me a copy of the relevant Saturday Review article, I'd very much like to see it – thanks very much!


BALLOONING SPIDERS AND ANGEL HAIR

Finally: although spiders, being wingless, cannot actively fly, some species can and do practise a type of passive gliding known as ballooning, which is often linked directly to a semi-mysterious phenomenon known as angel hair.

Angel hair is the name given to long, white, gossamer-like filaments that descend earthward often in vast quantities, cloaking meadows, streets, houses, or anything else that they land upon with their ethereal, silken strands. But what is angel hair - and where does it come from? Many eyewitnesses describe angel hair as resembling spider webs, and in most (though not all) cases this is indeed what it probably is (but see my book Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008) for some angel hair reports that clearly do not involve spider gossamer).

A sheet web composed of gossamer and woven by Linyphia hortensis, a species of money spider (Wikipedia)

Very few reports of angel hair actually mention the presence of spiders amid the shroud-like sheets and threads drifting downwards or discovered festooning the ground. Yet there is little doubt that this gauzy, filamentous material is merely an aggregation of threads produced by congregations of tiny money spiders (belonging to the family Linyphiidae) in order to become airborne by a process known as ballooning.

A money spider (public domain)

Silken threads drawn out of their spinnerets when the spiders face a strong wind are lifted, together with the attached spiders, into the air by the wind and carried aloft, the spiders sometimes travelling great distances before finally gliding back to earth. Once there, they simply abandon their threads, yielding spiderless, gossamer-like sheets called angel hair - as confirmed on several occasions by analysis of samples collected.


In short: apart from ballooning spiders, these eight-legged arachnids are reassuringly earthbound, and all are indefatigably wingless – unless you live in Italy and are well-versed in folklore appertaining to grim subterranean realms, and featuring encounters with monstrous creatures that never penetrate up into the light of day, something for which we can all be very thankful, especially if the tomb spider is a typical respresentative of this shadowy fauna of the catacombs and crypts.