onsdag den 5. november 2014

The loneliest spider

To most members of the general public, as well as newspaper reporters and other lower life forms, cryptozoology is all about hunting for monsters – and the bigger and more scary, the better. Every now and then, an alien big cat can be included, especially if somebody has been scared out of their wits, their dog has disappeared, or they are now to frightened to go outside. In a pinch, a supposedly extinct animal can be included, but there has to be something special about it, and of course dinosaurs are the best. This is all well and good, but they are also missing out of a considerable part of the action. Cryptozoology is about animals that are unexpected in some fashion. There is no size criteria involved. This is why I have become increasingly interested in what I have dubbed microcryptozoology, i.e. hunting for unexpected invertebrates and other forms of small fry. And the best thing is, anybody can do it. You could f.inst. do worse than spend part of your spare time hunting for a companion to the world’s loneliest spider (or maybe not the world’s, but then at least Denmark’s loneliest spider).

In 1904 Danish zoologist William Sørensen published a description of a new species of spider. It was called Lycosa danica (today Pardosa danica) and the description was based on the type-specimen, a female collected in 1883 in a place called ”Mols Bjerge”, which today is one of Denmark’s national parks, and one of the most species-rich places in the country. The animal Sørensen described was found ”at the foot of a sunny hillside with a dense growth of heather”. It is not a particularly small spider. Like many other species of the family Lycosidae it is a powerful and fast running hunter some 15 mm in length. There are 38 other species of Lycosaidae known from Denmark, and most of these are fairly easy to find and study. But not so danica. Apart from the specimen found in 1883, not a single other specimen has ever been found – anywhere. The original locality for danica is completely overgrown with juniperbushes and broom today, which might explain why it has never been found here again, but on the other hand, other parts of the national park are still heather-covered hills. But despite the fact that Mols Bjerge is one of the most intensely studied areas in Denmark – still no second spider.



I find it a bit hard to swallow, that the specimen Sørensen found in 1883 was the last of its kind, but it definitely seems so. But, small animals are good at hiding themselves, so it still may be out there and in fact living in completely different surroundings – the first one found was perhaps lost – who knows? The only certain thing is that a live specimen hasn’t been seen for 131 years. So what are you waiting for?

fredag den 24. oktober 2014

Goodness, gracious, great balls of... hair?

In the beginning of September I was contacted by a biologist from Skørping, a town in Northern Denmark, and she had a problem. She herself had been contacted by locals, who had found a number of rather strange flimsy balls of what at first looked like some sort of plant-fibres. All of them had been found in hay-bales when people had broken them apart to put in their stables and on, and now they were quite anxious to know what they were dealing with. There was in fact no lack of suggestions as to the actual nature of these weird balls: mouse nests, some sort of insect nests, algal balls, you name it. The only thing lacking was somebody suggesting they were of extraterrestrial origin. But none of the suggestions really fitted the bill, or indeed the ball. The balls were between 5 and 10 centimetres in length, too big for insects and too small for rodents of any kind, and besides that they had no defined internal hollow, as one would expect for any kind of nest, so what on earth??

After a little bit of mail correspondence the Skørping biologist agreed to send me one of the fibrous balls (no jokes or snide remarks please!), so that I could take a closer look.


When I opened the envelope, I found a flattened and slightly elongated disc of light brown or cream-coloured fibres that looked very much like hair, and indeed so they turned out to be, when I put them under the microscope. The hairs were quite short, rather stiff, only about 2-2½ centimetres in length, but very uniform in size, colour and shape. It took a fair while to tease the hairs apart and sort them, but it turned out that the hairballs consisted of horsehairs and cowhairs in roughly equal proportions with a smaller amount of doghairs, probably Labrador, thrown in for good measure. All of which, when I talked to the good people of Skørping, turned out to be consistent with the kinds of animals that had been romping in the fields, where the hay to make the hay-bales had been grown.

The only question was how on earth they had been formed, as they were clearly not made by animals. My only suggestion is that they were formed by the hairs of various animals that had been shedding their coat, and instead of catching on barbed wire and fence posts as one so often sees, when one is out and about. The hairs had blown back and forth across the fields until they had formed these weird looking balls, and where they had caught in the grass growing in the field, they had ended up in the hay-bales. Apparently some of the other hairballs did in fact have plant material caught in the, which would indicate, that my explanation is at least on the right track. But I would still be very interested to hear from anybody with a better idea, or with previous experience of the same phenomenon.

onsdag den 22. oktober 2014

A lot of bull...

Since the wolf was officially entered onto the list of Danish mammals in 2012 after an absence of almost 200 years, there has been a lot of debate and discussions between people who see the wolf as something, vicisous, snarling and bloodthirsty that should be eradicated from Denmark as quickly as possible and other people who welcomes the wolves as a magnificent addition to the Danish fauna.

There have already been cases of farmers, especially sheepfarmers experiencing attacks on their livestock by wolves (they have all been compensated for their losses), and a couple of possible attacks on domestic dogs, but now there has been an attack that will probably get the anti-wolf lobby up in arms yet again. This time a 200 kg bull-calf has been attacked an partially eaten by a large or several large predators. A picture can be found here:

http://ekstrabladet.dk/nyheder/samfund/article5231702.ece

The general idea is of course, that wolves (or possibly dogs) are responsible for the attack, but I have a sneaking suspicion that you can't completely exclude a big cat. The rather neat way of killing smacks of feline methods. Dogs or wolves are a bit more messy when it comes to killing. But we shall know soon enough. Various samples taken from the dead bull calf has been sent away for DNA-analysis, and we just have to wait and see.

mandag den 20. oktober 2014

A nice bit of art

Cryptozoological art is not a subject I study on a daily basis, but recently a rather famous piece of crypto-art has come my way. I was contacted by a friend who works in Danish television who had been clearing out his office. These things happen every now and then - I even do something similar once every decade or so - and unusual things can be brought into the light on such occasion. And so it happened, that I was asked whether I would like to grace one of my walls with "a coulpe of sea-serpents". I didn't really know what to expect, but apparantly it was a picture that Danish television had bought many years ago, and now had written off completely - so it was either me or the skip. I agreed to give whatever it was a caring home, and sat back and awaited the next postal delivery.

A few days went by - and lo and behold - this arrived:



This is the rather famous courtship in Loch Ness, painted by sir Peter Scott, round about the time that he and some ofter researchers decided to give the Loch Ness monster a scientific name - Nessiteras rhombopteryx - which some clever clogs quickly pointed out was also an anagram for "Monster hoax by Sir Peter S." Never mind, it is a nice picture, and it now hangs on the wall in my living room. And in cause you should wonder, it is not the original, that sold as far as I know a couple of years ago at auction for a princely sum. But this is a numbered print, signed by the great man himself. I am quite pleased with that. Drop by some day, and I will show it to you.

mandag den 13. oktober 2014

Red hairs in the morning - and in a small glass vial

Those who were present at this year’s Weird Weekend in Hartland in North Devon in August, saw me on several occasions brandishing a small glass vial containing a tuft of long red hairs that I was going to analyse at the earliest possible moment – or so I kept promising everybody. Unfortunately other matters, such as making a living, kept elbowing their way to the front of the line, and pushing the vial and other small matters towards the back, so it has taken me close to two months getting around to it.

So first of all, what are these hairs, and how come they are now in my possession? It is a fairly long story, but I shall try to make it short. In 1991 I was working as a tour guide in New Zealand, and on one of the trips I worked with a driver a few years younger than myself. We became friends and have stayed in touch ever since. Last year he came in to a serious amount of money and decided to spend them on the trip to end all trips. Until then he had never been outside of New Zealand. So off he went, and in March this year he was in Borneo where some locals gave him a tuft of hair, telling him it was from an upright manlike ape that lived in the jungle. And he should have it because it would bring him luck, and they think he needed it, as he had told them he was planning to go around the world. Luckily he remembered my interest in all matters cryptozoological, so he sent me a sample of the hairs to have a look at – and those are the hairs I have been waving about.

The next part of the story is of course, what are they? The hairs are fairly coarse and stiff, with a deep reddish brown colour. In a microscope they look slightly faded, and I have a sneaking suspicion they are quite old. If you study the surface pattern of protein scales, quite a lot of them have been rubbed off, which is typical of old hairs. They are clearly primate, with hollows in the central part of the hairs and a fairly narrow cortex, and because of the colour there are very few species they can be.

Unfortunately there is nothing strange or mysterious about them – they are not from an orang pendek. It would of course be especially interesting if they where, as they are from Borneo, where the number of orang pendek sightings is considerably lower than in Sumatra where several expeditions, including a handful of CFZ-organized efforts have been looking for the thing.


Alas - when I looked closer of the distribution of the melanin and the various internal structures of the hairs it became quite clear that they are from an orang-utan. I can only speculate as to whether my friend was tricked and some orang-utan hairs was passed off as something more than that, or whether those friendly locals really thought it was something special. Since he didn’t pay anything, I think they really thought they gave him something special. 

tirsdag den 17. juni 2014

The tale of the mouse in the bedroom


If you think this looks like a dead mouse in a jar, you would be perfectly correct. It is in fact a dead mouse in a jar, but it is not just any old dead mouse. It is in fact a dead spiny mouse of the genus Acomys, and once, not that many years ago, this spiny mouse was merrily skipping about along with a bunch of colleagues in a tank in the spare bedroom at the headquarters of the Centre for Fortean Zoology in North Devon. But – and this is where the plot thickens – as in so many others cases when it comes to animals in the pet trade, nobody knew for sure what species of spiny mouse this was. There are 21 different species you see, so it is not entirely irrelevant. As a matter of fact there are quite a number of species of animals in the pet trade, which have been known and bred for years, but still await formal scientific description and recognition.

Anyway, I digress, and we must get back to the mouse in hand… case in hand. Mouse – whatever! Once during a visit to the CFZ HQ, the spiny mouse became a subject of discussion, and I was given a hair-sample which I would study in an attempt to identify the exact species. This I tried to do on and off for several years, bit with absolutely no luck. I could not match the hairs of the CFZ mouse to any known species of which I could get comparative hair-samples. In the end I told the CFZ people, that if we should ever have any chance of a proper ID, I would need a complete animal.

So, more time went by, and one day, one of said mice keeled over and died, and a thorough examination was now possible. But it turned out to be much easier said than done. Some of the recognized species of spiny mice are so similar it is not always possible to separate them. A DNA-examination would of course solve the problem, but scientific grade DNA-tests cost money, lots of money, and we dearly hoped it would be possible to establish the identity of the mice without having to fork out large amounts of cash.

Alas it wasn’t – not completely anyway, although some very nice people at the Natural History Museum in Copenhagen did their very best to help me. The mouse is either Acomys cahirinus or Acomys cilicicus, and that’s about as close as we are going to get, unless I can persuade a DNA-researcher that the mouse is of sufficient scientific interest to do a DNA-test for free. I happen to think that the mouse is in fact a hybrid of the two mentioned species, as I have never been able to match the hairs completely to either of the two species, although there are similarities in both directions. And hybrids are always interesting, although if the mouse had been wild caught, it would have been even more interesting. Under the artificial conditions of captivity, almost anything in possible.

mandag den 13. januar 2014

The cows that didn't come home

The mystery of the dead cows (14 altogether) that have washed ashore in Denmark and Sweden during the last couple of weeks now seems to have been solved. There has been a lot of speculation about the case in the media, as the cows had their back legs tied together, the abdomen cut open, and their ears cut off. 
Closer examination of some of the dead animals only served to deepen the mystery, as they seemed to be very high quality animals, and at least two of them seemed to have been killed with a bolt gun.

A few days ago, an eye-witness came up with the crucial information that cracked the case. This man is the nautical equivalent of a trainspotter, and a couple of days after Christmas he had been out for a walk along the Kiel Channel in Germany. That day he saw a Lebanese ship loaded with cattle sailing through the channel. 

Police have later been able to track the ship to a Russian harbor where the ship was refused permission to land because they had about a dozen dead animals on board. The ship had been through some rough weather, and it is possible the animals were killed by the ship tossing in the waves or had to be put down, because they panicked and possibly hurt themselves in the process.

The theory is that the ship sailed back into the Baltic, and simply dumped the cows. The back legs were tied together to allow a crane to pick them up, the abdomen was cut open probably because the crew on the ship thought it would make them sink, and the ears (eartags) were cut off for the captain to be able to prove he had had the animals on board.

Unfortunately for him, dumping anything in the Baltic is illegal, so the authorities in Denmark, Sweden and Germany are now waiting for the ship to try and leave the Baltic again. And then it will probably be stopped, and the crew and captain prosecuted.

Here is a link to a danish tv-report on the cows.