Thursday, July 30, 2020

Review: Cats of Magic, Mythology and Mystery

Cats of Magic, Mythology and Mystery
by Dr. Karl Shuker
CFZ press, 2012

This sumptuously illustrated book offers a tour through the many mysteries of cats. A few of the topics include cat hybrids (lion x leopard, lion x tiger, and so on), cryptozoological cats (big cats or cat-like predators reported around the world, including saber-tooths and the "Queensland marsupial tiger,") cats in legends, claims of psychic and precognitive cats, "winged cats" with unusual skin conditions, wild felines reported outside (sometimes WAY outside) their known ranges, and even the nutty claims of cat x dog hybrids. The Cheshire Cat, the  Eastern cougar, the reports of lions in the United States - every cat a cryptozoologist could think of makes at least a passing appearance.  
This is a book meant to survey the entire subject area and provide photos, paintings, drawings, and so forth of as many of the unusual cats as possible. Accordingly, the text does not go into great depth on the individual cases, but there's enough to make it fascinating reading. It is odd there is no bibliography outside Karl's own works. The pages are made of unusually thin, non-glossy paper so I'll be careful with it: I assume this was a tradeoff to keep weight and cost down with so many illustrations.  But this lovely, lively book will have your imagination purring.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Vintage Book Review: Undersea Frontiers

Revisting another old book: Undersea Frontiers: Exploring by Deep-Diving SubmarinesGardner Soule (Rand McNally, 1968, 253 pp.)CLASSIC DIVING BOOKS - Submersibles, and early submarines.This book covered a lot of interesting and, in 1968, new and exciting explorations. He includes such events as the Triestedive and the ramming of the submersible Alvin by a swordfish, but also two events of interest as marine biology mysteries.
One is a photograph of a still-unclassified colonial creature, 15 feet long, wound about by ridges progressing by turning like a screw. The picture and accompanying film were taken by a ROV called Mobot, built by Hughes, next to a Shell Oil rig.
The other is the sighting, presented here in detail, of two men on the Deepstar 4000 who saw a fish 30-40 feet long they said was not a shark and did not match any known species. It still doesn’t. Soule got the story first-hand from Dr. Eugene LaFond, who said the fish swam “right up to the window.” Pilot Joe Thompson said he saw the whole fish as it swam along the port side and “I guessed its length. But we had stuck instruments into the bottom. You know how far apart your instruments are.” Interestingly, the two experst at first did not discuss it, thinking they wouldn't be belived, but their reactions were on the submersible's audio tape. They did talk, and they haven't been disbelieved, even if debate emerged over whether they could somehow have misidentifed a huge sleeper shark. They never accepted that explanation.

Basking Sharks and Such

I saw an article today on the unfortunate stranding of a 4.4 meter (15-foot) basking shark on the Yorkshire coast. Locals and officials made a major effort to get it off the beach and back in the ocean, but it seemed to be disoriented or ill, and it could not be persuaded to return to the sea.  
Basking sharks are wholly inoffensive creatures, but they can be a pain to cryptozoolohgists.  A basking shark that washes up on share, partly decayed, doesn;t look much like a basking shark. Indeed, it doesn't look like a shark at all: it looks like a long-necked "monster." 
A word of background. This filter-feeder reaches at least 13m (40 feet) in length, making it the second-larget shark and second-largest fish in the world. A BBC article and some other sources give the record at 13.72 m (clearly a trnaslation from the estimate of 45 feet.  British biologist Michael Bright, in a book called There Are Giants in the Sea, reported claims of 17 m and more.   There have been fisheries hunting it for meat and oil, but the modern threat - a terrible one - is the demand for shark fins for use in soup. A huge basking shark dorsal fin can fetch as high as $50,000 U.S. (depending on the source you consult) and there's no guarantee the basking shark and its even larger cousin, the whale shark, will survive this brutal poaching. 

BASKING SHARK (Cetorhinus maximus)

The nose of the basking shark, fated to become a "sea monster head." (Image NOAA)

Cetorhinus maximus is found worldwide and thus is apt to turn up almost anywhere a "sea monster" might be suspected. When a basking shark dies and drifts ashore (from natural causes or from "finners," whe cut the fins off and drop the shark back in the water to die), it decomposes in a most peculiar fashion. The lower jaw and the gill section drop off, the lower lobe of the tail disappears, and what you have when such a partially decayed carcass reaches shore is something that looks very much like a creature with a small head on a long neck. As the skin erodes, it can even look “furry.”
These imitation plesiosaurs have caused commotion in cases like the "Stronsay beast" of 1808, long thought a sea monster of some sort and apparently a huge basking shark: the carcass was claiemd to be as long as 55 feet. Such a carcass appeared in Massachusetts in 1970 and was actually served in a local restaurant as sea monster stew. Health codes seem to have been a little looser in those days.
The basking shark was the apparent culprit in the Japanese fishing boat Zuiyo Maru's "catch" in 1977, which was reported around the world as a plesiosaur and at first glance it rather looked like one. Some photos and tissue samples confirmed the identification, although a few cryptozoologists still wonder whether the experts got it right.
I can never resist a chance to include the only poem I know of on stranded “sea serpents.”  It appeared in the Manchester Guardian Weekly in 1942.  The writer is known only as “Lucio.” The newspaper advised me there were no copyright problems with reprinting it, so here we go.  


Yet again the doubting Thomas
Takes our precious monster from us
And proceeds once more to bomb us
With disclosures stern and stark,
Lo! our portent meteoric
Doped with dismal paregoric
Sinks from monster prehistoric
To a common Basking Shark.

When we thought we had before us
An undoubted something-saurus
From the days when all was porous
In the world's well-watered dish
These confounded men of science
Setting fancy at defiance
Go and put their cold reliance
On an unembellished fish.

But the monster fan, unbeaten
Calls for something more to sweeten
Yarns so moldy and moth-eaten
And he takes a stouter stand
For some long-delayed survival
From days distant and archival
When the lizards had no rival
In their lordship of the land.

We need something more terrific
Than these learned lads specific
I defy their scientific
And uncompromising quiz
Their pretensions need unmasking
Here's a question for the asking-
How could any shark go basking
With the weather what it is?

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Zoology on the Shelves

I have a nice collection of books on zoology and cryptozoology, and it can be fascinating to pull a few old ones out of the shelves every once in a while. Often I forgot I had them.  If this sort of thing interests you, too, you've come to the right blog. Most of these are long out of print but can be tracked down (if expensively) in used form.

 Animal Fakes & Frauds
By Peter Dance (Sampson Low, 1976, 128pp.)

This slender hardcover is a unique book, with countless fascinating illustrations of manufactured beasties. Dance was a conchologist at the British Museum and saw many such creations for himself.  He discusses animals of myth and legend and includes old drawings with the histories of known fakes, such as “Jenny Haniver” mer-creatures, “feejee” mermaids, “dragons” made from skates or rays, fake yeti scalps, and Dr. Albert Koch’s elaborate 114-foot “sea serpent” skeleton.  America’s most enduring fake creatures, the jackalope and the fur-bearing trout, get in here, too. (The other modern American contribution, the “alligator man” does not, and I’m not sure why.)  He learned that Jenny Hanivers were still being made in Mexico for tourists whose fascination with the deep exceeded their ichthyological acumen. Dance also presents little-known fakes like the gruck (head of duck, body of a grouse), faked composite insects, taxidermied mammal crosses, a vole and a mole skeleton intermixed for a “new mouse,” fake fossils, and much more. It’s a wondrous read. 

The Sherpa and the Snowman   
by Charles Robert Stonor (Hollis & Carter, 1955, 209pp)

The Sherpa and the snowman: Stonor, Charles: Books
This is one of those now-quaint books from the days when the Western-centric view was that the rest of the world was exotic and strange (and of course primitive and unenlightened) and no one knew what discoveries might be made. Anthropologist Charles Stonor led a 1953-54 expedition looking for the yeti. He spent months in Nepal talking to witnesses and gathering modern reports, old tales, and myths as well as tromping through the snows looking at tracks and excrement and hoping the see the creature. He failed on the latter count, but came away thinking the yeti existed. What makes this somewhat meandering book enduring is that Stonor documented the cultural context of the yeti before radio, TV, and countless other expeditions and explorers mucked it up. Side Note: this is one of the cases where I prize my old hardcover copy but have no recollection of where I got it.

The Case for the Sea Serpent
Rupert T. Gould (Phillip Allan, 1930: reprint by Coachwhip in 2008, 191pp. The reprint is what I have, but I show here the original cover.)
Rupert T. Gould, Sette of Odd Volumes, 1930, Rare ...

Writing when many witnesses to the “classic” cases from the late 1800s and early 1900s were still alive, Gould constructed a brief for the sea serpent's existence that might still eclipse any later single book, even Heuvelmans’ massive In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. He introduces the subject and the cases that intrigued him, including chapters on the most important sightings, like those from the ships Daedalus and Valhalla. He includes the famous report of a creature seen in its entirety by the HMS Fly but cautions it depends on one person’s secondhand account of what the Fly’s captain supposedly told him, with nothing to corroborate it. He concluded there were three species at large: a long-necked seal, a reptile descended from (or convergently evolved to resemble) a plesiosaur, and a “gigantic turtle-like creature” which depended heavily on the closeup description of the Australian “moha moha.” He did not suggest any giant eel or eel-like fish or serpent. The moha moha as described is an impossible chimera, but the other two have appeared in some form in every marine cryptozoology book since. 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Hats, Cryptozoology, and Other Ramblings About Hats

Off the usual topics today to have a little fun with hats.
I came across a post Loren Coleman wrote in 2013 which discussed cvryptozoologists in general and the need for one critical accessory: a cool hat.  Ken Gerhard is almost unrecognizable without his leather cowboy hat, and the late Scott Norman and I used to kid about his fedora vs. my black low-crown Stetson.  Loren likes fedoras, too.  Lyle Blackburn and his cowboy hat are still looking for sasquatch (who does not appear to wear a hat), and Australia's Tim "The Yowie Man" of course goes with the Aussie outback hat.  That crops up almost as often as fedoras do.  See Loren's post for pictures.
I am proud to say I seem to have found a unique hat niche. When my day-to-day Stetson gets really beat up after a couple of years, I move it into the outfit I use to play wizard Harry Dresden at comic conventions. 

The First Space Race: Launching the World’s First ...
My standard hat, worn in this case while hawking my creature novel The Dolmen
International Cryptozoology Conference / January 2016 / St ...
Old hat, from about 2006.

A hat for a wizard

One of my hats is in Loren's International Cryptozoology Museum.  I wore that one while filming MonsterQuest. If you're curious, it's a low-cost brand: I've moved on to real Stetsons, which are kind of a family thing. My grandfather on my mom's side was a friend of the head of the Stetson hat business.  In World War II, very few Stetson hats could be made because all the felt was needed for uniforms, but once a year, a deliveryman would drop off one hat at Mom's old house in Maine.
As he noted, I'm not the field researcher, more an academic type, but I like to at least look like I'm going somewhere adventurous.  (Both photos of me in Loren's post were taken in zoos.) Also, I live in Colorado Springs, and UV rays and bald heads at 6,000 feet don't get along.

  Since I'm rambling about hats, I still tip mine.  Archaic? I don't know. When my mom was a girl she met Robert Frost, who removed his hat and bowed. If it was good enough for Robert Frost, it's good enough for me. 

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Review: Fossils for Kids, by Ashley Hall

There's a lot to like and not much to quibble about in paleontologist Ashley Hall's excellent book  for gradeschool fossil-lovers.  
The dinosaurs get center stage at first, but Hall spends nearly as much time on other vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants.  (Having worked at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Hall of course includes its most famous fossil, the armored fish Dunkleosteus: she mentions the nickname "the Cleveland Cleaver," which is one I hadn't heard before.)  She intersperses all this with good explanations of things like how fossils form and how they are dated, adding in mentions of famous paleontologists and some student acitivites. 
The writing is clear, the illustrations are excellent, and the science is up-to-the-minute, which is REALLY hard to do in 21st century paleontology. I've been reading about dinosaurs for fifty years, and I still learned some things. 
Some nitpicks: The first page mentions Miocene fossils, but the Miocene is never defined. A few pages devoted to individual species (e.g.,the the shark Cretalamna) show partial fossils and could use an image of what the whole animal looked like.  

Fossils for Kids: A Junior Scientist's Guide to Dinosaur Bones, Ancient Animals, and Prehistoric Life on Earth

These are minor things, though, in a first-rate book that fills a gap for the future scientist.  (I wish I'd had something like this so many years back!)  It doesn't hurt that Hall herself is an example reminding kids that women belong in this field, too. Every school library in America needs a few copies of this book.

Friday, July 10, 2020

A Grand Slam of Dunkleosteus models

The latest Dunkleosteus model I found turns out to be part of a group. A Cleveland Museum of Natural History contest produced the irresistible name “a slam of Dunks” for any assemblage of the world's coolest fossi fish, so I use it here for four closely related models or toys that have popped up.
I found my newest Dunk on eBay. It’s made in China and marketed in a series called “Animal Paradise.”  Other Devonian creatures would not have included the Dunk in anything called an animal paradise, but anyway it struck me as a very handsome animal, garbed mostly in green with spots and countershading. (That's offset a bit, alas, by the peculiar "panda" circles around the eyes. I don't think Dunks put on makeup for their dinner dates.)  
The second thing that struck me was it was identical to the popular (though inaccurate) Schleich Dunkleosteus. All the telltale features were there: single-lobed tail, external armor with scratches, those weird giant scutes running down the flanks, and bizarre scalloped fins unlike any seen in real life on placoderms or anything else.  

Top photos posted by Amazon sellers: bottom photos (you can see a bit of a dropoff) by Matt Bille

The AP animal differs only in some minor things like slightly protruding lower biting plates and slight upward curvature of the fins, but those look like ordinary manufacturing variations. So the same factory, I think, is running these off, although they altered the mold just a bit to removes the manufacturers’ name and the national origin of the model. That indicates it wasn’t intended for export to the U.S.  

It does, though, turn up on Amazon from a seller called “LoveinDIY.” So if you want one, you can grab it. I DO prefer it to the Schleich model on the paint job, which makes it look as through the armor is under skin (which it probably was) rather than completely exposed bone. 
The other two Dunks inspired by this are a larger Chinese-made foam model, a fun toy if not really a “model,” and the toy from the Animal Planet Dunkleosteus Deep Sea Exploration Playset. The latter is what tank experts would call “up-armored,” but the fins and other details definitely indicate the modeler was looking at some version of the Schliech dunk.

L-R: Animal Planet, foam model sold under names including Fantasea, Animals Paradise, and Schleich

Finally, the paint job on the new looks heavily influences by the Mojo Dunk that’s one of my favorites. 
So everything here (including the MOJO Dunk) is manufactured in China, and the ones making up the four-Dunk Grand Slam are either of the same origin or cross-pollinated (legally or otherwise, I’ve no idea.) 
So there are Dunks for every taste. That’s the good news, as always!
Now about those fins…