Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Was that a Moa I saw?

A miner writes to a New Zealand paper to say that whilst he and his mate were prospecting for gold last autumn, between lake Rotorua and the Cannibal Gorges, in the province of Nelson, he saw what he believed to be the moa. His description is as follows: - 

"We heard a strange screeching noise in a gully about a hundred yards from where we were camped, and went to where the noise proceeded from, and to our surprise we saw two gigantic birds coming towards us. They did not show the least alarm at seeing us, but continued coming to where we were, so we took to our heels. We heard them two or three times that night again.  Having no gun with us we thought it advisable to start the next morning, for fear they would tackle us. One of them was apparently about twelve feet high, and the other somewhat smaller, with feathers resembling the kiwi's."

Hardwicke's Science-Gossip, vol. XV, 1879.

File:Moa Heinrich Harder.jpg
Some people annoying a couple of moas, as imagined by Heinrich Harder (via Wikimedia).

FF Notes:
There were nine species of moa on New Zealand. They were flightless but could kick the arse of most other creatures due to their enormous size. Like the miners claimed, some did get as big as 12 feet tall. But Wikipedia begs to differ on the sound they would have made - at least some had tracheal rings, which are associated with resonating deep calls in extant species of birds.

It's thought that they were all extinct by 1445, hunted by the Maori. They were only 'rediscovered' in the 1830s, when Sir Richard Owen (founder of the Natural History Museum in London) figured out what sort of bone he'd been sent by his Australian uncle.

Sightings persist until very recently. You can read a paper detailing some of them here. 
But it's probably unlikely that they still exist, sadly.

The idea that they could still exist, or people want them to exist, or people want to tell stories about them existing, really interests me. One of my favourite creatures is the thylacine - a similarly beleaguered animal that lived in Australia until its eventual extinction in the 1930s. People are still seeing those stripey marsupials on and off. Sometimes I go to visit a real (albeit dusty) one in Bristol Museum. 

Later in the magazine, a cynic writes that they can't find a Lake Rotorua on the south island of NZ, nor the 'Cannibal Gorge'. But actually they're there, although it's a pretty big area between them. It's nice to think the moas might have been about. But I should get a grip.

Great Auk Eggs


"Two eggs of the extinct great auk were sold at Mr. J.C. Stevens's Auction Rooms, Covent Garden, on June 20th last. One was an unrecorded egg from France, and attained a record price of £330 15s. It is said to be the finest example yet sold in the Stevens Rooms. 

Its length is 5 1/16 inches, though the usual length for these eggs is from 3 3/4 inches to 4 1/2 inches. It is a perfect specimen and of good colour.

The second egg passed through the same rooms in  1894, as recorded in Science-Gossip (vol. i., N.S., p. 75), when it sold for 175 guineas. At the sale of June 20th it reached a price of 180 guineas.

Science-Gossip, vol. VII, 1900-1901.


File:Oeufs002b,47.png
An illustration of a Great Auk egg by Adolphe Millot, now on Wikimedia Commons.


FF Notes:
This is a sorry example of the sad behaviour of human beings. Great Auks (as you can read about on the NHM website) used to gather in huge numbers off Scotland. Unfortunately they couldn't fly, so people used to find it very easy to catch and kill them when they were on land. They were killed for their flesh, their feathers, their eggs and their greasy auk oil.

So by the early 1800s, they were getting pretty rare. Museums and egg collectors got in on the act too. By the 1850s the species went extinct. It all seems rather unnecessary in retrospect. And we're still doing similar things today.

So when the eggs were sold at the auction house above, the bird had been gone for about 50 years. Yet people still wanted the eggs - for prestige? According to this website, £330 in 1900 would be worth over £36,000 today. For an egg... So this story isn't fortean as such. But the strange human behaviour makes it weirdly interesting.

Today it's a criminal offence to take eggs from the wild, and has been since 1954. But it's also illegal even to possess an egg of a British wild bird. Some years ago at work, we were bequeathed an old egg collection. It was impossible to say how old the eggs were. But although they were probably old enough not to get me sent to prison, I couldn't actually have proved how old they were or where they came from. So I eventually decided to crush them and throw them in the bin.

It was dreadful because they were beautiful and fascinating things. But I couldn't get over how they'd been taken by someone from under the bum of a bird that was trying to breed. Most of them weren't even labelled and it's possible they came from rare species. They had to go.


Conjoined Fish

Abnormal Trout.

When putting a number of two months' old trout fry (S. fario) into a reservoir near here, I noticed one with two perfectly formed heads joined by a web of skin just behind the gills, the bodies merging into one at the dorsal fin.


The after part of the body is perfectly formed, and the fish did not seem to have any difference of opinion as to the direction it was to take in swimming and appeared lively and well. It was brought away and put into a small tank, where it has since died and is now preserved in spirits.

I am informed by the gamekeeper who hatched it that fry with two heads or two tails are not uncommon, but he has never seen a yearling trout with two heads. I enclose a sketch showing side and upper views of the fish, from which it will be seen that one head is about half a head longer than the other.

-- Thomas Winder, Sheffield.
Hardwicke's Science-Gossip, 1886.



FF Note:
It struck me that we often see photos in the Fortean Times of conjoined mammals and snakes. But 'siamese' fish photos are definitely lacking. Perhaps they aren't noticed because they're aquatic, and maybe they don't survive long and just get eaten, unseen by terrestrial apes.

A Mythical Man-Eater: the Wobbo or Mantillit

"In Science-Gossip for June, 1867 (p.128), in an article upon an old natural history more than a century old, I described a strange beast called the Lamia. This creature is said to be bred in Libya; to decoy men to it by exposing its bosom; to have a face and breast like a beautiful woman; and its hinder parts like a goat. This is said to be the creature mentioned as the Lieliath in the 34th chapter of Isaiah and the 4th chapter of Lamentations. So runs the old chronicler.

Never having heard of the monster I was amused to read of a legend existing in modern Abyssinia regarding it, which seems to require some explanation, as it is so very circumstantial. Mansfield Parkyns says, in his very interesting work entitled "Life in Abyssinia" published by Murray in 1868 (on p.404): 

"There is an animal, which I know not where to class, as no European has hitherto succeeded in obtaining a specimen of it: it is supposed by the natives to be far more active, powerful and dangerous than even the lion, and consequently held by them in the greatest possible dread. They call it 'wobbo' or 'mantillit,' and some hold it in superstitious awe, looking upon it more in the light of an evil spirit with an animal's form than a wild beast.

Their descriptions of this animal are vague in the extreme: some say that its skin is partly that of a lion, but intermixed with that of the leopard and hyena; others, again, assert that its face is human, or very like it. It appears int he valleys, happily only rarely; for they say that when it takes its abode near a village, it pays nightly visits, entertaining the very houses, and carrying off the children, and even occasionally grown-up persons. One had been killed some years ago on the river Weney, and its skin presented to Oubi (king of Tigre); but i could never discover what became of it. I heard of a village which had suffered considerably from its depredations, and for several days watched every night in the neighbourhood, but without success."

--F.A.A.

 Hardwicke's Science Gossip, 1874.

Martigora engraving.jpg
Not really a Wobbo but a Manticore. Looks a bit similar. From Joannes Jonstonus's 1678 book.

FF Notes:

Abyssinia (Ethiopia) is nowhere near Libya so I think F.A.A's conflation of the biblical Lamia and the contemporary Wobbo is very imaginative indeed, especially considering their descriptions only coincide with their human-like faces.

But the idea of the Wobbo or Mantillit is rather interesting - that the creature sneaking up on them in the night isn't merely a big cat after some dinner, but something more supernatural.

Mr Cryptozoology, Karl Shuker, says on his blog:
The Ethiopian wobo is known chiefly from the baffling pelt formerly exhibited at the principal cathedral of Eifag. According to Ethiopia's Amhara and Tigré inhabitants, the wobo is larger than a lion and yellowish-brown or brownish-grey in colour with black stripes. Sceptics dismiss the Eifag skin as a tiger Panthera tigris pelt brought there from Asia by a traveller or merchant, but as the wobo is a familiar beast to many Ethiopians, this is not a satisfactory explanation - especially when an identical creature, dubbed the abu sotan, has been reported from the mountains near the River Rahad in neighbouring Sudan.
Curiously, I don't see any place called 'Eifag' in Ethiopia. Or anywhere.  There's a Ifag / Yifag but I don't know if it's a big enough sort of place you'd find a cathedral (this page suggests it was once important for trade and had excellent wine). Maybe I'm wrong, but the internet is certainly devoid of much information. So that's a bit bemusing. And it's been copied all over the internet. Naughty Mr Shuker and lazy copiers. I wonder if it's been taken from the original Mr Cryptozoology, Bernard Heuvelman's book (in French)  'Les Felins Encore Inconnus d'Afrique' and is some sort of translatery misunderstanding.

So beware of repeating things you've read on the internet. Obviously I don't doubt in the human-faced Wobbo. But it sounds as elusive as the Eifag cathedral.


Anomalous Animal in Loch Assynt



"At a late meeting of the Ashmolean Society, Oxford, the Secretary read a communication made to Lord Francis Egerton, by one of the agents on the Duke of Sutherland's estate, respecting an animal said to have been repeatedly seen in Loch Assynt. 

In the autumn of 1837, it was observed by two young men, Kenneth McLeod, and Donald McKay, who were fishing in the loch. It appeared close to the end of one of their fishing-rods, and is described by them as having large eyes, and it opened its mouth so wide, "that they could see down to its very heart."

The colour was grey, the hair like bristles, the tusks large, the ears hanging down like those of a sheepdog, the shape of the head altogether was like a bull-dog, but broader. It was seen again soon afterwards on a small island in the loch, and is described as about the size of a stirk, but broader in the back, about three feet high, with four legs, like those of a pig, but stouter.

The description given by other persons of it, correspond generally with the above. It was seen five times in three years - the last time in 1839."

From 'The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction", Dec. 26th, 1840.


File:Loch Assynt from Cnoc an Lochain Fheoir - geograph.org.uk - 546799.jpg
John Street's image of Loch Assynt on Wikimedia Commons.

FF Notes. 

A 'stirk' is a young bullock or heifer, between one and two years old.

Walruses have bristley faces and large tusks, and jowly bulldogish faces, but they don't have ears. They also don't have what could be described as four pig-like legs: they have flippery limbs.

Hippos on the other hand... they've got stout piggy legs, and you can certainly see a long way into them when they yawn; they have tusks and they do have ears, and they're even a little bit whiskery. But a hippo in Loch Assynt? That's a lot more crazy than a walrus.

Seals and sea-lions are whiskery and have nice large eyes. But definitely no piggy legs. And no tusks. And otters are far too small.

The mystery remains :)