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.

fredag den 10. januar 2014

Cthulhu awakes! - or perhaps not...

During the last few days, this rather impressive photograph have started doing the rounds on the internet. It was sent to me by FB friend Margit From, who had found it on the website of The Lightly Braised Turnip, which we all know is a bastion of truth. They basically claim, that an enormous squid has beached itself on the coast of California, and that it was a result of radioactive pollution from the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan.

Impressive picture one must say, although the shadow under the creatures looks a bit iffy to say the least. Maybe because this squid had already beached itself in october 2013 in Spain. On that occasion it was considerably smaller, although the photographer by creative use of forced perspective did his best to make it look monstrous. This picture can be seen on the www.live.science.com.

All in all, a nice piece of photoshop work - but thanks to eagly-eyed FB contact Martin Relsted, I can also show you the original picture the squid was superimposed upon. In this case a picture from a whale-stranding in Chile in November 2011. This can be found, on among others the website of english.cntv.cn. This shows the roped off carcass of a dead whale and a large group of spectators, corresponding exactly to what we see around the monstrous squid.

So, a fake if ever there was one. And although I can only agree with the underlying sentiment, that the radioactive pollution from the Fukushima plant in an environmental disaster, this is not the way to highlight the problem!!

torsdag den 9. januar 2014


Strange things are a-foot (or should that be a-hoof) in little old Denmark (and in neighbouring Sweden for that matter) at the moment. 2014 have started out with a bona-fide mystery. It is not strictly cryptozoological as such, but it is rater weird.

Within the last week or so 11 dead cows have washed ashore in Denmark (3 animals) and in southern Sweden (8 animals). This is strange enough in itself, but upon closer examination of said cows, things started to take a rather sinister turn. All the cows had their back legs tied together, the abdomen had been cut open, and in case of the Swedish cows, their ears had been cut off.

People of a more paranoid persuasion have of course started muttering dark sentiments about secret government experiments, elements of the more extreme fringes of the UFO-fraternity have already started insisting on sightings of strange lights in the sky around the time of the cow findings, whereas Danish and Swedish authorities are considering whether it is a case of somebody, perhaps a ship in the Baltic, getting rid of sick or diseased cows and trying to cover their tracks by removing ears tags and so forth. They haven’t been completely thorough – one of the cows found in Denmark still had its ears – and a tag, so work is now being done trying to trace this tag. It is a kind not known in Denmark, so the theory is, it is Russian, or perhaps from some of the Baltic countries.

The Danish cows are to be examined closely at the Agricultural University in Copenhagen, where the experts hope to be able to ascertain the couse of death, and determine whether the cows had some kind of disease that would make it for example illegal to export or import them. 

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.