Monkeying around with mystery tales

A weekly appreciation of nature.

Sean Wood

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PICTURE the scene: It is 1920 and you find yourself in the dense forests along the Venezuela-Columbia border.
The rain is battering heavily on the lofty canopy 100 feet above and the distant call of a howler monkey distracts you momentarily from your work as a geologist.
Unknown to you, there are a couple of watchers in the woods, and they are just about to approach you in a menacing fashion.
CRASH through the undergrowth they come, the 8ft male to the fore, with his partner at his side. What do you do? Shoot them of course Well, that is what Swiss geologist Francois de Loys did when the above scenario actually happened 81 years ago.
De Loys and his party were, to say the least, a little shocked. The anthropoid apes were new to science and have not been seen since.
The corpse pictured here is in fact the female - the geologists have quickly propped her up on a packing case to take a photograph.
When their expedition was completed, de Loy circulated the pictures to both scientists and the press to a mixed reaction.
Some heralded the discovery of a new species and it was named Ameranthropoldes loysi, because of its remarkable human lineaments, while others claimed it was nothing more than an overgrown spider monkey. In the ensuing years the photograph has been subjected to as much examination as the Turin Shroud and the jury is still out.
By now, some readers will be thinking this sounds a bit like that famous picture of the Loch Ness Monster. And that is exactly what it is, a puzzle, a mystery, a possibility. Does the Tasmanian tiger still exist or did Yorkshireman Wilf Batty kill the last one in 1936? Did Sir Peter Scott realise that his scientific name for Nessie, Nessiteras Rhombopteryx, was an anagram of 'monster hoax by Sir Peter S'?
And is the wonderful cine film of Bigfoot running through a forest clearing in North America nothing more than an elaborate prank by a man in fancy dress?
Would readers like to know the answer? I certainly would and I have to admit that I have been fascinated by the subject of cryptozoology - the study of 'hidden' animals - ever since I attended the annual conference of the International Society of Cryptozoology in 1987.
The society's leading light and first president, Bernard Heuvelmans, has just died at the age of 84. He combined boyish enthusiasm with scienfific thoroughness and right up to his death he continued to travel the globe looking for evidence of cyrptid species.
These induded the giant sloth, the infamous yeti, the terrifying kracken and that old favourite, the sea serpent. Heuvelmans and his ilk completely ignored the cynics and were able to cite an assortment of precedents to back up their claims. The okapi was only discovered in 1901, the giant Komodo dragon was believed to be nothing more than native suspicion until a western traveller spotted one in 1912, and then there is my personal favourite, the deep sea ceolacanth.
This prehistoric deep sea fish was pulled from a shark net off the coast of western Africa in 1938. Previously it was only known from fossils and thought to have become extinct millions of years earlier.

Things that go "bloop in the dark sea

ANY READERS planning on swimming in the sea this summer please look away now.
Either that or ensure you carry some kind of electric marine cattle prod to ward off things from the deep!
To be more precise, things that go 'bloop' in the night have attracted the interest of marine biologists and crypto-zoologists from across the globe, ever since the mysterious sound was picked up by sensors originally put in place to monitor the movement of Soviet submarines.
The frequency of the acoustic signal resembles known marine animal-calls, it is however, much louder. So noisy is this unknown creature, that the calls have been detected by sensors three thousand miles apart. Even the largest whales cannot shout that loud.

20,000 leagues under the sea

There have been suggestions that a giant squid, like the one pictured here in an engraving by Edward Etherington in 1887, is responsible.
These almost mythical animals are believed to survive depths of up to three miles, but none have been caught alive. The largest dead squid measured 60ft, including the length of its tentacles, but it is almost certain that they can grow much bigger.
Some researchers think that the squid is unlikely to make a 'bloop' sound, but even then they qualify their comment with a 'you never know' rider.
Phil Lobel, a marine biologist at Boston University, said in New Scientist magazine: "Cephalopods have no gas-filled sac, so they have no way to make that type of noise. though you can never rule anything of it completely."
The signals, which were first picked up in 1997, have been recorded by listening stations hundreds of metres below the ocean surface. At this depth the sound waves become trapped in a layer of water known as the 'deep sound channel', a phenomenon where a combination of pressure and temperature combine to allow sound waves to keep on travelling.
The majority of the sounds detected have been identified as coming from whales, ships or earthquakes, but the 'bloop' has them all guessing.
It is refreshing to know that man has not conquered the denizens of the deep, and I am sure that there are still a great number of undiscovered creatures both in the oceans and on land waiting to be discovered.
Could the 'bloop' emanate from the fabled Kracken, the giant many-tentacled sea monster which gave many a Jack Tar nightmares? I'd like to think so, and woe betide any cynic who might deride this notion, because it is not a safe bet these days to say never.
Perhaps the most famous discovery in the past hundred years to confound the experts, was the ceolacanth, a large deep sea fish thought extinct for millions of years, until one was caught in a fishing net near the Comoros Islands in 1938.
And even in the late 20th century, mammals were being discovered on a regular basis, including a couple of large ungulates in the dense forests of Vietnam, a tree climbing marsupial in Australia and new species of dolphin in the Indian Ocean.
My guess is that we will keep discovering new species and I have to confess to being intrigued by mysteries like the 'bloop', and I never tire of the ongoing saga of the Yeti, Bigfoot and Nessie.
What do you think, is a monster to blame for the 'bloop'?
Or do you believe all these stories to be merely fanciful nonsense?

Last of  the Tasmanian tigers, Benjamin, photographed in 1933 and Hobart Zoo, where Benjamin spent his last three years

On this day in 1936, in a tiny zoo located in a peaceful coiner of Tasmania, unfolded a quiet tragedy. Benjamin, the last of his kind, lay dying. Three years earlier, in the Tasmanian woods he called horne, trappers had come and the life he had known came to an end and his slow, lonely death had begun. 1936 had been a strange year for weather in Tasmania, long days of searing hot sun were followed by longer nights of freezing darkness and, through it all, Benjamin had suffered. Caged in a tiny chicken-wire enclosure, he seemed to have been forgotten by keepers at the Hobart Zoo. The small wooden box that served as his sleeping quarters was locked for days, leaving him with no retreat from the elements, and he was left little water to quench his thirst. The night of September 6, 1936, was colder than most and, by morning, with no keepers to care for him and nowhere to shelter from the cold, Benjamin, the last of the Tasmanian tigers, died and his species passed into extinction. Thylacinus cynocephulus, nicknamed the Tasmanian tiger, was the last surviving member of a family of marsupial predators thylacines - which had lived in Australia and Tasmania for millions of years until the arrival of humans. Man's arrival on the Australian continent 4,000years ago - and the dogs (dingos) he brought with him - pushed the tiger from the mainland until, 2,000 years later, the island of Tasmania became its last refuge. Without competition from dingos, Tasmanian tigers - whose name came from the dark stripes found on its back, rump and tail - lived on a diet of kangaroo, wombat, possum and birds. Then, in 1803, livestock farming white settlers arrived on the island and added sheep to the tiger's menu. It didn't take long before the tiger became public enemy No.1. In 1830, the first bounty was offered by the Van Diemens Land Company and, by 1888, the Tasmanian government as offering a prize of £1 for every dead 'tiger'. The unfortunate creature also fell foul of a propaganda campaign designed to stir up public hatred by painting the Tasmanian tiger as voracious livestock killer. During one such campaign photographs were distributed claiming to show one in the act of slaughtering chickens - in reality it was a posed shot of a stuffed tiger. The tactics worked and,between 1876 and 1896 more than 3,400 tigers were turne din for the reward and made into waistcoats. It didn't take long for numbers to dwindle. In 1902 only 119 bounties were claimed and by 1909 the number tracked down by hunters had dropped to two. In 1901, when it started to become apparent the tiger was in trouble - or, more importantly, the supply of specimens available for sale to private collections was in trouble a conservation campaign was launched. Benjamin was the last Tasmania 1933, he was sold d to the Hohart Zoo - where the last film footage of the animal was taken. On July 10, 1936, the Tasmanian tiger was granted official protection by the Tasmanian government - 59 days later Benjainin, last of the Tasmanian tigers, was dead. As a final insult to the beast - and an indication of how little regard was paid to it, Benjamin was never properly sexed and it - is now thought that he may have been a she. September 7 is now National Threatened Species Day in Australia.

[Metro Sep7,2007]

Tasmanian tiger facts

  • The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, was the largest known carniverous marsupial of modern times
  • The oldest thylacine fossils were found in north-west Queensland and date back 23million years
  • The first Europeans to encounter the Tasmanian tiger may have done so in 1642 when explorers reported seeing 'wild beasts having claws like a Tyger'
  • The jaws of a Tasmanian Tiger are believed to have opened wider than any other mammal and may have been used as a threat display
  • It is believed to have been a nocturnal predator, preferring woods and grasslands where its stripes would act as camouflage it is thought that, like a hyena, the Tasmanian tiger would chase its prey over long distances to tire it out - its large jaws would be used to pin the animal down
  • The last known wild thylacine to be killed was shot in 1930 by farmer Wilt Batty in Mawbanna, in the north-east of Tasmania
  • In 2002, hopes were raised that scientists might bring back the Tasmanian tiger by cloning. It was hoped that DNA taken from a preserved thylacine pup specimen (left) would prove viable. However by 2005, the project was shelved when it was found the DNA was too badly degraded
  • Since 1936 there have been numerous sightings of Tasmanian tigers in the wild - to date, none has been confirmed


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