lørdag den 5. oktober 2013

Danish crocodiles

A couple of days ago Swedish and Danish newspapers were full of a story about how a raid by the Swedish police on a house in the outskirts of the city of Malmö in southern Sweden had yielded among other things a 2 meter long Nile crocodile stomping around in a greenhouse, and a similar sized, although dead reptile in a freezer in the basement. When asked about the crocodiles, the wife of a man suspected of running a major rencing operation, commented rather wistfully, that the crocodiles had been a gift to her husband, and that she was mighty tired of them, as she had hoped to use the greenhouse for other purposes. Having searched the premises, the police left with a number of suspected stolen items, but left the crocodile in the greenhouse for the time being. When asked about it, local police admitted they were at a loss, as to what should be done with the reptile. 

This rather charming story had me delving into my files, as mysterious crocodiles and other large reptiles have been seen from time to time, in and around Denmark and southern Sweden - rather surprisingly, as the reptilian fauna of the Nordic countries is small - the number of species is very low, and said species are definitely on the small side. Nevertheless - in the 1930's stories were being told of a crocodile in Ringkøbing Fjord, are large shallow bay in western Denmark. No trace of the animal was ever found, but some very large pikes have been caught in the same area, and they may be responsible for the sightings. 

During WW2 several large snakes were making themselves known to the general public in several parts of Denmark. To day I would without hesitation have suggested they were escapees, but in the 1940's keeping large boas or pythons as pets, were hardly the thing. So what were they? 

In the early 1960's a crocodile was sighted several times in Roskilde Fjord, a very long and narrow fiord stretching some 30 km northwards from form the city of Roskilde in eastern Denmark. And about 10 years later, a dead crocodile was actually found in the central section of the fiord. In 1976 yet another crocodile was found in roughly the same neck of the woods, so to speak, but in this case it was stuffed!!

The 1980's saw stories about an alligator emerging from Lake Vomb in southern Sweden, a lake also connected with several sightings of lake monsters. But, and this is most important, several of the sightings described a deep rumbling roar emanating from the lake, and in one case directly from the animal - the eyewitness even claimed the water around the alligator was boiling when it was roaring. Alligators are indeed very noisy animals, and the water around a roaring alligator does foam and fizz, so I wouldn't entirely rule out, that some idiot had put an alligator in the lake. In the 1980's more and more people were becoming interested in keeping strange and exotic pets, so it wouldn't be totally impossible. 

Round about this time more and more stories about large snakes started surfacing as well, but this was almost certainly escaped or released pets, none of which presumably were capable of surviving a Danish or Swedish winter, so they were never able to establish themselves in the wild.

tirsdag den 24. september 2013

The search for the truth - and a giant monitor lizard

I think it was Jon Downes, the illustrious leader of the Centre for Fortean Zoology, that once said something along the lines of "Cryptozoology is not the search for monsters, but the search for the truth" - a sentiment in which I totally agree, but since so much of cryptozoology, especially on the internet, is about people almost having the evidence for Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster of similar creatures, one could easily assume that was all there is to cryptozoology. And of the things that turn out to be quite ordinaryt, one hears almost nothing, so here is the cautionary tale of a giant monitor lizard that wasn't.

For many years stories about extremely large lizards have been coming out of the australian outback. And we are talking very large lizards, bigger even than the Komodo dragon which is supposed to be the biggest living species of lizard. There are quite a few stories about animals the size of a small truck, and sometimes even bigger. Australien cryptozoologist Rex Gilroy has been suggesting for years that these sightings are evidence of the continued survival of Megalania prisca, a lizard one could easily have mistaken for a small dinosaur. So imagine my surprise and excitement, when about ten days ago, I received the following picture.

This picture was taken in 1986 by a danish couple visiting Kakadu National Park. According to them, they were looking across a grassy plain, when what they thought were a fallen tree trunk suddenly stood up and walked away. To say they were surprised, would be putting it mildly. "I am quite sure the animal was at least one meter longer than our car (a Holden stationcar)." Now that is a seriously big lizard, and as one can readily see from the picture, it is a rather massive and powerful animal. So what are we dealing with here? 

Although I have been to Australia several times, and have seen various monitor lizards, or goannas, as they prefer to call them Down Under, I felt far from qualified to identify this animal with any kind of certainty. Instead I contacted the Australian branch of the Centre for Fortean Zoology, and asked them if they perhaps had a herpetologist contact that could do the deed.

They had indeed, and within very few answers an answer came back. As far as the herp man could see, bearing in mind the picture is not of the best quality, this was in fact a yellowspotted monitor lizard (Varanus panoptes), a rather well fed, and perhaps old individual - hence the rather dull colour, and as such nothing special. It is in fact a very common species in and around Kakadu. I myself have seen several of them, but all of them rather small individuals with far more prominent spots than this one. 

As for the large size? Well, my correspondents described that they were not just surprised, they were absolutely terrified, and in such a state, and when seeing an animal walking across a rather featureless plain, where you can't relly judge how close it is - it is extremely easy to exaggerate the size.

One day someone ought to do some research into how often and how much people misjudge the size of animals. 

Anyway - this is also cryptozoology!!!

torsdag den 29. august 2013

The not so mysterious Gardar skull

In the summer of 1926 a sensation was dragged from the ground at Gardar in southwestern Greenland. An excavation of an old norse/Viking settlement found among other things a piece of skull and half a lower jaw looking so extraordinary it made international frontpage news, was discussed in the scientific journal Nature, and made the leader of the Danish excavation team F. C. C. Hansen describe it as a new species of human that he suggested should be called Homo gardarensis. And one has to admit, that especially the lower jaw looks rather strange. The skull is quite thick and solid, and the jawbone is at least twice the depth of a normal one.

Various international experts, though interested in the finds, adviced caution. Anthropologist Arthur Keith suggested the bones were from an individual suffering from acromegaly, a glandular disorder resulting in excessive growth of the bones of especially the hands and face. Hansen though was undeterred, and suggested among other things, that if primitive men like this had lived side by side with modern man, they could amongst other things have been the inspiration for the stories about Viking berserker warriors, or perhaps even for the many Scandinavian stories about trolls.

Nevertheless, interest in Homo gardarensis started to wane rather quickly, and the specimens eventually ended up in the collections of the Panum Institute in Copenhagen, the University of Copenhagen’s department of medicine and anthropology, where they have lain almost forgotten ever since.
ALMOST forgotten that is, because if you take to the internet and start searching for information about the Gardar skull, you will find that a healthy little conspiracy theory seems to have grown up around it. Various writers insists that the skull can’t possibly be human, among other reasons because it is HUGE – this idea is to some extent based on Hansen’s original attempt to reconstruct the complete skull, as very few of these writers have seen the actual specimens, let alone handled them. And they also insists that the Panum Institute are keeping the skull hidden or simply refuses other scientists and researchers access to them, because if they truth of the skull were revealed, all of anthropology would be turned upside down, and all the scientists would sit back with egg on their face, and of course they want to avoid this at all costs. The Gardar skull might even be a specimen of a Bigfoot, alma, almasty – you name it.

Well, as so often before, there is quite a gap between the real world and what has been written about a controversial specimen. When I were to take part in the 2013 Weird Weekend in Devon, to talk about The Natural History of Trolls and The Cryptozoology of Greenland, I thought it would be nice to bring along some pictures of the Gardar skull – if at all possible.

It turned out to be so easy, it was almost laughable. Professor Niels Lynnerup, who is the curator of the Panum Institute collection of anthropological specimens, was more than forthcoming. Of course I could see the specimens and photograph them to my heart’s content. I just had to wear gloves, as sooner or later, as part of the institute’s ongoing research in the old Norsemen, the skull will be DNA-tested. So much for the myth of the Gardar skull being hidden and kept out of the reach of researchers.

When professor Lynnerup then took out a key and opened the glass-fronted cupboard where the skull parts were placed with a copy of the original Danish newspaper describing them, my first feeling was a slight disappointment. What that all? Where was the HUGE skull I had been reading about?
Anyway – professor Lynnerup showed me into an empty lab, took out a big sheet of paper, placed the skull and the jaw on it, gave me some gloves, and left me to it.

So much for the myth of secrecy.

First of all, the skull is not HUGE, it is well within the size limits of modern man, as the photograph shows, it actually looks somewhat small. The lens cap in the middle of the photographs has a diameter of 65 millimeters, so absolutely no giant here. This misunderstanding probably arose from the original attempt to reconstruct the whole skull. At the time archeologists had only rudimentary knowledge of how much bones could be warped, bent, twisted or compressed in the ground, so what is in fact an almost complete top part of the skull – it ends just above the eyebrows at front, and just above where the junction with the spine at the back – was seen as a only a partial top part, which gave a skull far to big in the final reconstruction.
The lower jaw does look strange, but it has been flattened in the ground as well, making it easy to reconstruct it as bigger than it actually was. And the large depth of the jawbone is, despite what some writers claims, easily explainable as the result of acromegaly, or even some sort of injury – a severely broken of crushed jaw - and there a some indications of that – which could also have been the cause of the excessive bone growth.

So much for the myth of the giant skull.

All in all, there is nothing mysterious or gigantic about the Gardar skull. It is not being kept locked away, out of the reach of researchers, and it is absolutely not evidence for the existence of Bigfoots, yetis or anything of the sort. So please stop writing about it.

torsdag den 25. juli 2013

The panther on the 11th fairway

Sightings of big cats are not especially common in Denmark, although we have had some from time to time – a few lynxes (strangely enough the most common type in Denmark), the odd panther, a lion or two and even a serval and a possible cheetah. Now things (or should that be cats) are afoot again. About ten days ago, a girl wrote to the Danish natural history website “Fugle og Natur” (www.fugleognatur.dk) with her sighting of a big cat seen on a golf course north of the Danish capital Copenhagen. Unfortunately her sighting was three weeks old at the time, so chances of finding tracks, hairs or any other physical remains were rather small, as the exact position of the animal at the time of the sighting could not be established.

“My boyfriend and I saw a large, dark cat with a short fur and a long tail about as long as the rest of the animal. We would judge the animal to weigh something like 10-20 kg, but it was hard to be certain as it was 100 meters away. The animal looked very much like a black panther. It was seen on a golf course near Birkerød on the 22nd of June 2013 between 1730 and 1830 in the evening. We couldn’t take a photo, as the animal very quickly disappeared in some shrubs. We tried to look on the internet to identify the animal which we think looked like a panther.”

I have corresponded with the girl, and she seems very straightforward and down to earth. But as in so many cases there are problems. Especially the fact that the animal seems to be to large to be a domestic cat, but on the other hand to small to be a leopard. I have tried to visit the place of the sighting and look for physical tracks, but with no luck. I have also talked to the golf club whether any members had seen anything, but also with no luck so far. I have managed to dig up a couple of other sightings from the area from earlier this summer, but nothing definitive and nothing that can tell us what is going on.

If I learn more, I will report in it – stay tuned! 

onsdag den 22. maj 2013

More wolf tales

The Danish authorities have released a map showing the various sightings of wolves in Denmark since the official rediscovery of the animal last winter. The official estimate is between two and five wolves. This is all well and good, but of course the deer-hunting season has also just started in Denmark, so everybody is waiting and dreading the time when some trigger-happy hunter who's been reading the Brothers Grimm to many times, starts blasting away at the wolves. Unfortunately several of them have already bragged about planning to do just that if the wolf got in their cross-hairs - just to protect their children and life-stock of course. Rumours have already started about wolves already having been shot - morons!!!


onsdag den 8. maj 2013

Beetle rediscovered in Denmark after 45 years

Danish naturalist Klaus Bek Nielsen had an inkling something major was afoot, when a rather dapper beetle suddenly trundled across an area of good ant-lion territory on the danish island Møn. He had been out exploring with a friend for most of the day, when this beetle suddenly appeared. Closer inspection and confirmation by several experts revealed it to be a specimen of Chrysolina carnifex - as seen on this very nice photo taken by Klaus Bek Nielsen.

Foto/billede af Klit-Guldbille     (Chrysolina carnifex)

This is the first confirmed sighting of the beetle in Denmark since 1967. Bek Nielsen and his friend is probably the only living naturalist in Denmark to have seen this beetle. All earlier sightings were made by people who are now all dead.

torsdag den 2. maj 2013

Wolf hunters and other morons

Wolves have been a big issue in Denmark for several months now – for the first time in 200 years we now have wolves living in our little country – two of them to be exact. But unfortunately all the loonies have started to come out of the woodwork as well. Some people seem to have their knowledge of wolves from the tales of the Brothers Grimm, and we have been subjected to all kinds of paranoid and hysterical ramblings from people who are now too frightened to take a walk in their local wood, from politicians who are certain the wolves have been released by biologists as part of some kind of underhanded scheme to suppress people living in rural areas. An organization has even started to collect signatures to get the government to sanction killing the wolves.

The latest is “anonymous” hunters declaring that when the deer hunting season starts in a couple of weeks, the wolves will not be a problem, as they will shoot them on sight. They are even bragging about two wolves that have allegedly already been shot and buried quietly. Unfortunately stupidity is not illegal in this country, but they even have the audacity to say that the wolves have been shot as an act of compassion – this is based on a photo of one of the wolves taken by an automatic camera a few weeks ago showing a wolf shedding its winter coat. “This wolf is clearly severely debilitated by mange, so we are in fact doing it a favour by shooting it.”

This one is only sleeping in the sun by the way.

Oh yes – and of course there is also an element of “them and us”. Them being people like me living in the capital, and not knowing a thing about nature, unlike a certain group of farmers and other people living in rural areas who see themselves as the only people who truly understand what’s going on in nature, and who see themselves as living in pact with nature and the seasons. “How do you think it would be to live beside a ferocious predator like a wolf? some of them have shouted at me – you can of course if you like, exchange ferocious with bloodthirsty or something even more scary. I have even been told that if my child was eaten by a wolf I would be sorry that I hadn’t listened to those sane voices wanting the wolves to be killed as quickly as possible.

And to think I had this idea that the Middle Ages was long gone. Silly me!

The wild and wanton wallaby

We have an important cryptozoological anniversary on our hands here in Denmark today. A red-necked wallaby have now been on the loose for a year since it ran away from its owner, a farmer on the Danish island Ærø in the spring of 2012. Despite the winter and spring 2012/2013 being very cold and nasty, the animal is probably having the time of its life. It is regularly seen by locals, and it has been moving around all over the island. The owner, who is something of a wallaby afficionado (he's got 15 all together) has been trying to catch the animal on and off for most of the year, but is is proving difficult, and since it is doing so well, he isn't trying to hard. Locals are even now trying to persuade him to release some more, and make them into a tourist attraction.

Rampant marsupials are nothing new in Denmark. This wallby is not the first, and will probably not be the last. Most of the sightings during the years (and they stretch back about a century) are of red-necked wallabies. They are a tough and very adaptable species having no problems with the danish climate. One set of sightings though, from the early 1960's are a wee bit different. That particular kangaroo was described as being very big - close to 2 meters, and bright red. Giant red kangaroo anyone? This was in the southern parts of the island Zealand, about 50 km's southwest of the danish capital of Copenhagen. It was seen 7 times all together, and then disappeared without a trace.