Cryptozoology, BioForteana, and Remarkable Species
Monday, August 24, 2009
Monday, July 06, 2009
A Strange Fish from Yap
I recently ran across mention of a "mystery fish" from the Micronesian island of Yap, in Kenneth Brower's 1983 book, A Song for Satawal. Brower mentions that in a paper on ethno-ichthyology of the island, Dr. Margie Falanruw listed a fish the Yapese call galuf nu medai, translated as "monitor lizard of the sea." She noted: "Lives in mangroves, head like a crocodile, caught at night, has lizard-like skin and red meat that tastes like salmon. Three to four feet long."
It sounded interesting, so I contacted Dr. Falanruw to see if it was actually unknown. She was kind enough to provide an identification of the fish: Cymbacephalus beauforti, or crocodilefish.
But, she notes that she is currently working on the description of a new reptile from the region, so zoological discovery continues, even in a fairly well-known part of the world.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Mystery Animals of South Sudan
Sudan has monsters of its own, for certain. They swim in the Nile, lurk in the swamps and hide in the forests awaiting stray travelers to prey upon. In the fertile South, contrasted by the more arid regions of the country with which Sudan is commonly affiliated, the landscape remains largely undeveloped and human settlement is restricted to a handful of well spaced towns with a countryside sparsely populated by tiny hut villages. Much of the land remains untamed, unconquered and in some areas, much feared for its wildlife. There are areas even today where villagers will not enter for fear of the monsters believed to inhabit them.
Normally in my research I take lengths to avoid the word monster. It’s a primitive term, suggesting something outside the boundaries of the natural world. But since being here, “monster” seems appropriate when contemplating the dangers lurking about in this post-war frontier. Monsters will snatch you from the river bank if you linger too long. Others threaten to encoil you until you’re constricted to death. Then, there are the ones you don't notice at all until, following bouts of illness, you eventually find the protruding shape of a large worm coursing beneath your skin. When faced with such real threats it doesn’t seem to matter how many times one has seen documentaries on crocodiles or pythons or the horror that is Guinea Worm, the realization that one could be dispatched, or in the case of the latter, infected as such, sends a spark into the primitive realms of the mind and quickly we recall what it’s like to be prey, again. What were animals on television become monsters as one nervously fumbles to hasten their bathroom excursion in the secluded bush.
Speak with a local Nuer or Dinka and one finds a curious thing. Their list of recognized fauna doesn’t end with those we as Westerners would be familiar with from zoo visits and Discovery Channel. Each cultural group has their own cultural-zoology, or “ethnozoology.” And it’s here, in the folklore of an indigenous group, that the hunt begins by sifting through tribal lore. As always one must learn to better understand a culture before one can best understand their extra-animals. What is intended to be mythical or serve as a boogey man (as every culture has one) vs. an animal that is regarded as extremely rare? What is only known from oral tradition vs. something that is encountered in recent times? What given traits described to a creature are likely based on a fearful superstition vs. actual observations? In the case of animals like frogs or crocodiles being described as being of extraordinary size or unexpected color (many allusions can be found to “black” crocodiles) do these represent unique specimens or a potentially new species?
There’s also the matter of being a layman to the field of zoology—my having to find out if a seemingly extraordinary animal is necessarily ‘new’ to science or already recognized. One Dinka man described to me a type of antelope that lived mostly in the swampy parts of the Nile and had the ability to swim underwater when startled. He’d heard stories of them but had the rare fortune to briefly observe one during the war while being ferried on a small fishing boat. A diving antelope? Seems remarkable enough but Googling those two words we find this incredible animal (the Sitatunga) can be found within zoos. This strange elongated fish I saw a villager carrying while I was riding along on a supply convoy far into the countryside, was that also recognized species? The basketball-sized frogs from the swamps of the Bor region, could those be of a known species reaching exceptional size or does their given color combination not comply with any of the already recognized frogs in Sudan?
At present I’ve invested a total of seven long months in the semi-autonomous South Sudan. Within my time here I’ve gathered bits and pieces of folklore pertaining to potential mystery critters from various sources. First though, a review of what’s already been written in cryptozoology literature about Sudan’s potential mystery animals. With the assistance of a small but effective circle of email-based research colleagues, we thumbed through our books for anything to do with cryptids in Sudan. Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans includes the following in his “Track of Unknown Animals”:
Chepekwe: Described as a ‘giant Iguana’ which supposedly attacks Rhinos, Hippos, and Elephants. This is mentioned as haunting the basin areas of Sudan and surrounding countries.
Dingonek: Something of a hodge-podge of a saber-toothed tiger with some sort of armor-like hide and as big as a hippo, seen near Mara River or Ngare Dubash which runs into Lake Victoria.
Nyokodoing: a sort of “water panther,” amphibious, large-fanged.
Lukwata: A large aquatic creature supposedly encountered in Lake Victoria (which flows into Sudan).
Lau: An enormous super-snake or aquatic reptile of some sort reputed to dwell in Nile swamps. Possibly the same animal as the Lukwata.
Additionally Michael Newton’s extensive Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology includes for Sudan:
Woadd-El-Uma: described as an unknown hominid or merbeing. Amphibious, covered in brown or red hair. June 1832, Joseph Russeger found strange footprints (identified as this creature by a guide) near the third cataract of the Nile. They were 10 inches long, with four long toes and one opposed big toe.
Netwon also makes reference to a primate-like being referred to as the “Waab” and a single-horned rhinoceros.
My own list of odd critters described to me by locals would include black “mutant” crocodiles, river-dwelling octopus, man-eating humanoids, frogs the size of basketballs, gigantic crocodiles, horned snakes, snakes with feathers on their tails and a gigantic, black, swamp-dwelling, gold-vomiting super-snake.
It’s that last one, known as the lau, that I’ve applied the most effort into exploring through regional folklore. And in the process of learning about the lau we find an inescapable relevance to a certain aerial photograph from 1959 in neighboring Zaire (now Congo).
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Ethnoknowns from the Philippines
There's a report of species newly recorded from Mindanao island, which includes two folkloric accounts of animals that may or may not be recognized species (and may or may not be something as yet undescribed). The first is a "red-faced monkey":
"A group of red-faced monkeys that can mimic human laughter has been sighted in the mountain ranges of Sal-dab, a sacred mountain in Northern Mindanao, The STAR learned recently.
"The monkey that mimics human voice is known to natives as Uma-ay and is believed to bring a curse on whoever sees it.
"According to local folklore, whoever sees the creature will lose his way in the jungle or may encounter misfortune, accident or even death along the way." ...
"A tribal trapper interviewed by The STAR last year said the Uma-ay looks human because they do not have hair on their faces and can mimic the human voice. They grow up to the size of the native monkeys in the area.
"'The laugh of an Uma-ay is an ominous sign, it means misfortune or even death,' the tribal hunter said in the Hiliga-onon dialect.
"The hunter declined to name the location of the place where the Uma-ay can be found but said it is sacred ground where tribal elders offer sacrifices and perform yearly rituals to appease their gods."
Now, Mindanao has one recognized monkey species, the common crab-eating macaque. That species isn't known for a bright red face (though that trait is known in the related Japanese macaque). So, might these red-faced monkeys be something new? A variant of the recognized macaque species? Or just a bit of local folklore? Another ethnoknown is briefly noted:
"Aside from the Uma-ay, the tribal folk also mentioned that they sighted an unnamed feathered bird that has mammal’s hair.
"Just like the Uma-ay, the bird also mimics the human voice but its favorite sound is the cry of a newborn baby.
"The natives call the creature Ukang (owl) or gulus (ghost). This nocturnal bird is often heard making noise at night but only a few elders have actually seen it.
"Tribe members believe that the Uma-ay mimics the human voice to drive away the Kalumbata (monkey-eating eagle), which regularly hover in the area in search for food.
"It is said that Uma-ays would simultaneously sound their laughter to confuse the marauding eagles."
Not enough details, and most of this might be superstition masking the description. Whenever you have strange nocturnal calls, there's a potential for mistaking the identity. (News source.)
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Ethnoknown Viper Hunt
A news article from the Telegraph (Calcutta) notes that a year-long hunt in Arunachal Pradesh, in search of a large dangerous snake was successful, with the capture of two specimens.
"Barta, as the local Nyishi tribesmen call the six-foot-something reptile, is the most-feared creature among the tribes in Arunachal Pradesh.
"According to Nyishi folklore, sighting of a barta, meaning the deadliest of all the snakes, is a bad omen." ...
"'Going by the colour, count and patterns of the newly-found snakes which differ from Protobothrops kaulbacki, another species of pit viper snake spotted by Ronald Kaulback in the forests of Upper Myanmar in 1940, it can be said that it is probably a new species found never before in the forests. Although at a glance they look similar to the snake found in Myanmar, their features differ from Protobothrops kaulbacki. The blood samples of the snakes have been sent for DNA tests to a Hyderabad-based laboratory this month. We are awaiting an official confirmation,' Bhatt told The Telegraph."
Sunday, September 16, 2007
New (Previously Ethnoknown) Flying Fox
A new fruit bat was discovered on Mindoro Island in February 2006. From the Philippines:
[Dr. Mundita] "Lim said a team from the Comparative Biogeography and Conservation of Philippine Vertebrates (CBCPV) project conducted an expedition in Mindoro Occidental early last year that led to the discovery of the new fruit bat species, which has been named as the 'Mindoro Stripe-Faced Fruitbat' for its striking facial features and the island on which it was found.
"'A local resident of Sablayan first described the flying fox in great detail to us, but we were unconvinced until the species showed up in our nets,' said CBCPV mammologist Jake Esselstyn." ...
"The scientific description of the new species, Styloctenium mindorensis, was published last week in the Journal of Mammalogy." ...
"'The bat is very colorful; most of its hair is orange and it sports three white stripes on its face as well as a black beard, which distinguishes it from all other known fruit bats,' she said." ...
"The new flying fox is known to be only from Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro but the CBCPV team is hopeful that the bat will be found in other areas of the province.
"Another bat species from Mindoro is under study by CBCPV team members and is thought to be new to science as well, Lim revealed."