The unidentified leucistic bird in the photos sent by my Wind Point correspondent have generated a lot of interesting discussion (as well as a heart-rending tale from one of our regular commenters). Most of the debate has been grackle vs. cowbird. When I first saw one of the pictures (the third of those I posted), I thought it was a crow, but zooming out showed it was much smaller. My correspondent had suggested cowbird, and that was my suspicion too, due to the brown ‘hood’. But as several readers pointed out, the bill is not conical and finch-like like a cowbirds. I should also say the native habitat is deciduous forest– sugar maple, basswood– with prairie/savanna not far off, but far from the more coniferous northern forests of Wisconsin, which makes something like a gray jay highly improbable on distributional grounds.
Several readers have commented on the enlargement and jpeg artifacts interfering with deciphering. I’ll ask my correspondent if he has the original files in a more lossless format, but in the meantime here are the pictures not enlarged, which may aid in identifying the bird. The size of the bird is easier to judge with more context, and, in the third picture, you can see that it was in company with a grackle. (My correspondent thought the other bird was a starling, but the light mark near the head is not its bill; IIRC, he had other photos that when we checked showed it was a grackle. The presence of the grackle might lean one toward the leucistic bird being a grackle, but icterids often occur in mixed species flocks.
I’ll add some bird photos sent by three readers. From Stephen Barnard, who seems to see every U.S. bird in Idaho, we have a pair of American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), which are in fact known to breed in parts of the state:
This is a mated pair. The males grow a weird “horn” on their beaks during breeding season. These are very large birds and voracious fish eaters, so I chase them away from the creek whenever I see them.
And some photos from England by reader Mal Morrison:
A few photos taken over the last couple of days on Roborough Down, which is land between Plymouth and Dartmoor in Devon. The first couple is of a Linnet (Carduelis cannabina). The next is, I think, a Corn Bunting (Miliaria calandra) although I’m open to correction not having seen one before. The last is a Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) with its breakfast.
And, in Diana MacPherson’s part of Canada, the male (but not the female) hummingbirds have arrived from the south:
In the following photos, we have no problem spotting the bird– it sticks out like a sore thumb. Rather, the problem is the bird is not a nightjar– it’s pretty much the opposite in terms of background matching! We’ve recently paid some attention to color variation in squirrels, and reader Jason sent some especially marvelous photos of a multicolored gray squirrel from Toronto. We have here another case of distinctive color variation in a vertebrate. So distinctive, in fact, I’m not sure what kind of bird it is– can readers help me out here?
The pictures were sent by my Wind Point, Wisconsin, correspondent, who is an accomplished photographer, but the above pictures are much enlarged from originals shot through a glass window, hence the resolution is not as crisp as might be hoped for. The bird was in his yard in Wind Point, not far from Lake Michigan, and the pictures were taken on May 11.
I have an idea as to what it is, but I won’t say so as to not influence readers’ identifications. Please weigh in with your identifications below.
JAC: I’m adding on to Greg’s post two pictures that will count, along with the leucistic bird above, as readers’ wildlife photos. They are by Stephen Barnard of Idaho, and show a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) and a great blue heron (Ardea herodias):
Why, so can I, or so can any man; But are there any to come when you do call for them?”
In writing about today’s Loch Ness Monster Google Doodle, Jerry noted that I have taught about cryptozoology (the science of “hidden animals”) for many years, and we’ve written about it here at WEIT on several occasions, including a mention of the Loch Ness Monster. The “surgeon’s photo”, supposedly taken in 1934 by military physician Lt. Col. Robert K. Wilson, features in Jerry’s piece, and, indeed, in most accounts of the monster. Although the photo shown by Jerry is well known, it is less well known that it is cropped from a larger image. Here’s the original.
I have always been suspicious of the surgeon’s photograph, because it seemed to me that the ripples are the wrong scale for a large object. This is not something I could quantify, but, just as in older Japanese monster movies you could tell it was a scale-model city burning (and not Tokyo) because the flames didn’t look right, the water doesn’t look right for something the size of the monster. Commenters on the original photo note that the far side of the Loch is visible in the distance, but I can’t see it in this version (see Update below).
In 1994, the story broke that the photo was a hoax arranged by Marmaduke Wetherell, a big game hunter, in order to embarrass the Daily Mail. (If only Wetherell were alive today, so that he could see how thorough a job the Mail does in embarrassing itself every day without his assistance!) Some have considered the hoax story a hoax, but that’s not the consensus view. Stephen Lyons has a good account of the photo on PBS’s Nova website. His account is part of a companion website for the NOVA film “The Beast of Loch Ness” (1999), and I can recommend both the site and the film (which features participants in the Academy of Applied Sciences expeditions– see below),
As Jerry notes, Wilson was always very cagey about the photo and the circumstances under which it was taken, and what was in it. As Nicholas Witchell put it in The Loch Ness Story (1975),
Colonel Wilson refused to enlarge upon the bare facts of his story and would not try to estimate the size of the object. In fact, he never claimed that he had photographed the ‘Monster’; all he ever said was that he photographed an object moving in the waters of Loch Ness. He wrote: ‘I am not able to describe what I saw. As I finished, the object moved a little and submerged.’
Witchell took this to be the sober reticence of a scientifically trained observer, but in hindsight we can see it as a guy being real careful not to lie. In teaching cryptozoology, I have the students read the account of the photo in Witchell, and ask them about exactly which claims (extraordinary or otherwise) were made by Wilson (Answer: essentially, none). If the hoax story is true, then Wilson must have been in on it, but depending on exactly how the photos were taken, everything he subsequently said could be true.
In addition to the surgeon’s photo, there are also the famous “flipper photos” of 1972, and the “body and neck” and “head photos of 1975. These were taken by a team from the Academy of Applied Sciences led by Robert Rines and Harold Edgerton. Edgerton was a well-known physicist, inventor, and pioneer in photographic technology who was also a Nessie skeptic, but agreed to help inventor and lawyer Rines, an MIT alumnus, in his quest to photograph the beast.
The flipper photos seemed the most like a definite object in the water, but Dick Raynor, a member of the 1972 team, has argued, convincingly I think, that they are simply photos of the Loch bottom that have been enhanced beyond recognition. The 1975 photos aren’t clearly of anything, to my eye. Here’s one of them.
The 1972 and 1975 pictures were the subject of some scientific interest, with publication in science/technology media, and an account of a Cornell University conference in the scientific literature (Adler, 1976). Adler and other well respected herpetologists were impressed at the time for the evidence of something being in the Loch, but this was before the degree of alteration by enhancement was widely known. There are things in the Loch– sturgeons have been long known, and, more recently, seals, which have convex backs and heads that stick up at the surface, have been found in the Loch.
The now infamous Garry Trudeau gently ribbed the Academy of Applied Sciences Loch Ness expeditions in a series of Doonesbury cartoons in 1976; here are my two favorites.
And finally, I must applaud Google’s Streetviews of Loch Ness and the vicinity of Castle Urquhart– they include what looks like a trebuchet, my favorite medieval siege engine!
Update. Reader Michael notes that there are even less cropped versions of the surgeon’s photo in which the opposite shore is visible. He provides a link, but it’s rather long, so I here provide the photo, from Darren Naish’s Tet Zoo blog, which we have long commended for its cryptozoological acumen. Also, I note that a few readers of Jerry’s Google Doodle post also thought, like I did, that the ripples in the surgeon’s photo looked fishy for an animal supposed to be quite large. (Jerry told me about his post early today, and I set about writing my post before reading the comments on his.)
Adler, K. 1976. Loch Ness Monster evidence presented at Cornell University. Herpetological Review 7:41-46. (My copy of this, in one of the first journals I subscribed to while in high school, is a treasured part of my library.)
Rines, R.H., H.E. Edgerton, C.W. Wyckhoff, and M. Klein. 1976. Search for the Loch Ness Monster. Technology Review March/April 1976, pp. 25-40.
The Telegraph and the Times have stories up about the creature below from China, which they’ve dubbed the “oriental yeti”.
The Times headline writer notes that it “looks like a bear without fur”. The story is so absurd, I first thought it an April Fools joke, but the datelines are April 5 or 6, so I guess not.
So what’s absurd? First, there’s the name. ‘Yeti’ is a name for the abominable snowman, the supposed bipedal ape or ape-man of the Himalayas. The animal in the photo obviously bears not the slightest resemblance to a man or ape. ‘Oriental’ is a curious modifier for yeti, since yetis are Oriental– they occur (or are supposed to occur) in Asia. Whoever bestowed this moniker on the creature evidently hasn’t the slightest idea what the word ‘yeti’ means, and perhaps doesn’t know what ‘oriental’ means either.
Then there’s the description of it as a ‘bear without fur’. While it is only very sparsely haired, it doesn’t look at all like a bear. The head and ear shape are all wrong, but if this is too subtle, it has a long, thick tail! (Hint: bears have very short tails; more bear info here.) The creature is said to have emerged from ‘ancient woodlands’, which sounds mysterious, but the articles note it was trapped by local hunters. Both articles betray very low standards of science journalism; really, in fact, no standards at all.
So it’s not a bear or a yeti; what is it? It’s clearly a mammal of the order Carnivora (but not of the bear family, Ursidae) suffering from some skin disease, likely mange. It doesn’t look like a member of the dog, cat or weasel families to me, but it does look like a civet, so my money is on a mangy civet. (Here’s info on a civet that occurs in China– I’m not saying it’s this particular species; more on civets in general here.) The forlorn looking critter is said to have been sent to Beijing for DNA tests. Darren Naish over at Tetrapod Zoology is good at getting to the bottom of these sorts of stories, and I hope he’ll take this one up.
By the way, this is what a mangy bear does look like.
UPDATE. At Mammoth Tales, John McKay also says it’s a civet, specifically a binturong.
The king cheetah, known only from southern Africa, is a striking pattern variation of the common cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). Instead of being spotted, the dark markings of the king cheetah coalesce into stripes and vermiculations, especially along the dorsal midline. King cheetahs are to common cheetahs as blotched tabbies are to spotted tabbies, not just in the similarity of the patterns, but in their genetic relationship: the king pattern is a variation within populations of the same species, and both patterns can occur in the same litter.
In 1927, R.I. Pocock of the British Museum named the king cheetah as a new species, Acinonyx rex, the holotype being a specimen at the Queen Victoria Memorial Library and Museum in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). In 1932 the zoologist Angel Cabrera suggested that the king cheetah was merely a coat pattern variant of the common cheetah. For many decades after that the question of the status of the king cheetah was unresolved, as few specimens were known, and genetic experiments on cheetahs not possible. Cryptozoologists became interested in the king cheetah as a ‘semi-cryptid’– a not quite undiscovered species of large mammal, but at least a mysterious one.
In the 1970s more king cheetahs turned up, and methods of captive breeding of cheetahs, developed for conservation purposes, had advanced to the point where it was possible to investigate the question. In 1986, R.J. van Arde and Ann van Dyk of Pretoria University and the National Zoo in Pretoria, South Africa, showed that the king coat pattern was due to a recessive mutation at a single autosomal locus, thus vindicating Cabrera’s hypothesis from 50 years earlier. King cheetahs are now found in several animal parks in South Africa, and can be easily seen and photographed.
The story of the king cheetah shows that even when a new species is described and named according to the best practices, including insuring a publicly available holotype, it doesn’t guarantee that the species so named is new. It might be a new species, but it might also be a geographic or within-population variation of a known species (the latter in the case of the king cheetah), or in some cases nothing new at all (as when the describer is unaware that a description had been published previously).
The scientific study of hidden animals, i.e., of still unknown animal forms about which only testimonial and circumstantial evidence is available, or material evidence considered insufficient by some!
Although, not mentioned in the brief definition, Heuvelmans also included the study of known, but supposedly extinct, animals, that might still be extant, based on testimonial or circumstantial evidence. Animals that are of interest to cyptozoologists are known as cryptids.
The roster of cryptids includes such beasties as the Loch Ness monster, the abominable snowman, and bigfoot. This might suggest to some that cryptozoology is pretty out there, a pseudoscience. But, in fact, the question of what cryptozoology is turns out to be more interesting, as the spotted lion story itself indicates.
Many zoologists (especially systematic zoologists), like cryptozoologists, are interested in discovering and describing previously unknown species of animals (with my friend and colleague Skip Lazell, I’ve described one myself). For many zoologists, in fact, its their full time occupation. There are millions of undescribed species of animals awaiting scientific investigation.
So if cryptozoologists are looking for undescribed species, and zoologists are looking for undescribed species, what’s the difference? Well, one minor difference is that cryptozoologists tend to be interested in fairly large undiscovered species. Most newly described species are small (most are insects), although a few pretty big ones have been discovered in the recent past (e.g., giant muntjac, sao la, megamouth shark, and Chacoan peccary).
But size isn’t the key difference. The key difference is what sort of evidence is taken to be compelling evidence of the existence of an animal. For a zoologist, testimonial evidence, such as stories about spotted lions, might be a good reason to go looking for something, but you don’t have any real evidence until you actually get one of the animals. Having an actual specimen is the standard of evidence in systematic zoology. In cryptozoology, there is a wide range of practice in what kind of evidence is considered compelling. Heuvelmans himself leaned pretty strongly toward accepting testimony as fairly compelling (while strongly rejecting, however, attempts to make cryptozoology a form of mysticism or paranormal exploration, as was done in, for example, John Keel’s Strange Creatures From Time and Space). Other cryptozoologists, however, explicitly adopt the zoological standard of evidence. In their Cryptozoology A to Z, Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark write about some cryptids in the following way
Unfortunately, without a specimen, this can only be conjecture. [referring to the possible identity of a supposed giant bear of Kamchatka]
And it is from the Dani [a New Guinea tribe] that [Tim] Flannery received his first real evidence of the bondegezou, in the form of skins and associated trophies. [referring to a newly discovered species of tree kangaroo known as the bondegezou; emphases added in both quotes]
And, in writing about what cryptids are, they state
It is often impossible to tell which category an unknown animal actually inhabits until you catch it. [emphasis added]
In stressing the importance of obtaining a specimen(s) in figuring out what cryptids are, Coleman and Clark are doing just what a systematic zoologist would do. There is no difference in their standards of evidence, only in what catches their attention as being worthy of inquiry. The latter is a matter of personal interest and taste, not scientific method, so the Coleman & Clark practice of cryptozoology is not pseudoscience at all. (There are also a lot of crack pots and frauds out there too.)
Coleman, in addition to his own website, contributes to the website Cryptomundo. But my favorite website dealing with cryptozoology is Darren Naish’s Tetrapod Zoology. He’s a dinosaur paleontologist, and most of his posts are on more orthodox aspects of tetrapod zoology, but he posts occasionally on cryptozoological topics, often analyzing evidence, and sometimes resolving the issue. Here, for example, are his insightful explications of the Montauk Monster, a cryptid from my home island, which turned out to be a raccoon that had expired and gone to meet ‘is maker. Go to his site and look around for more fun posts like these.
The photograph above is the best evidence we have for the existence of spotted lions. (The skin’s total length is 8 ft. 8 in., so it’s not a cub!). I’ve previously noted that photographs are not the best evidence for documenting the existence of a previously unknown species of animal, but in this case we have the benefit of the fact that the specimen in the photograph was examined by Reginald Pocock of the British Museum (Natural History) in the 1930s. Here is some of what Pocock, a world authority on cats, had to say, about the specimen loaned to him by Kenneth Gandar Dower (subscription required):
…it is a remarkable specimen owing to the distinctness of the spots in a beast of its size.
It is a male. … From it’s size I guessed it to be about three years old, a year or more short of full size.
…the peculiarity of the skin lies in the distinctness of its pattern of spots, consisting of large “jaguarine” rosettes arranged in obliquely vertical lines and extending over the flanks, shoulders and thighs up to the darker spinal area where they disappear.
As is well known, lion-cubs at birth generally, but not always, show a pattern of spots or stripes supposed, probably correctly, to be the remnants of an ancestral pattern transmitted from the time when lions were denizens of forests or jungles. In nearly all cases this juvenile pattern vanishes at three or four months on the body, but persists longer on the belly and legs and may sometimes be visible on those parts at maturity, especially apparently in sone lionesses from East Africa. Mr. Gandar Dower’s lion-skin is quite exceptional in this respect.
Pocock went on to indicate the absence of this pattern in a large series of adult specimens at the British Museum and the United States National Museum, but noted one account and one photograph that indicated at least an approach to being spotted. He also examined a skull provided by Gandar Dower, which may have come from this specimen, or from a female shot at the same time; the skulls were not kept when the animals were skinned, but one was retrieved later. Pocock concluded
…it is clear that no precise conclusion can be formed regarding this interesting beast until skins and skulls of adults have been collected.
As noted above, the skin was brought to Pocock by Kenneth Gandar Dower. Gandar Dower had read accounts of the spotted lion and mounted an expedition to East Africa to try to find one, but was unsuccessful, save for the skin and skull which he obtained from Michael Trent, a farmer in the Aberdare Mountains of Kenya, who had shot a pair of spotted lions a few years earlier. Gandar Dower recounted his expedition in a book, The Spotted Lion. Bernard Heuvelmans summarized Gandar Dower’s investigations, and recounted later stories of the spotted lion in his On the Track of Unknown Animals.
So what is the spotted lion? There are several possibilities. First, it might represent a distinct population that lives in the Aberdare Mountains of Kenya. In this case, it might be a species distinct from other lions, or it could be a geographical race or subspecies of the familiar lion. Second, it could just be a rare individual variation, in the same way that populations of house cats have spotted, striped, particolored, solid, etc. patterns occurring in individuals that are part of the same breeding population (and, indeed, part of the same litter). Finally, it could be a hybrid, perhaps between a lion and a leopard. Pocock, however, was well familiar with interspecific hybrids in large cats, and did not mention this possibility; also, interspecific hybridization in large cats is known (almost?) exclusively among captive animals. So, a hybrid origin does not seem likely to me.
If the first possibility is true, then there would indeed be something we can rightfully call the spotted lion. If the second is true, while there would then be known to exist lions with spots, there would not be a distinct natural population. And if the third is true, then there aren’t spotted lions at all– only lion-leopard hybrids that have spots. Further study of the skin or supposed skull, especially using modern techniques, might have allowed at least some of the possibilities to be eliminated, but unfortunately, Pocock apparently did not retain them at the British Museum, and I am unaware of their current whereabouts. (I had thought they were at the British Museum until reading Pocock’s full account, in which he notes the specimens were left for him to examine, but makes no mention of them being donated to the collection.) To solve this problem, we thus must, as Pocock did over 70 years ago, await the collection of more specimens.
Gandar Dower, K. 1937. The Spotted Lion. Little Brown, Boston.
Heuvelmans, B. 1959. On the Track of Unknown Animals. Hill and Wang, New York.
Pocock, R.I. 1937. Note on the spotted lion of the Aberdares. pp. 317-321 in Gandar Dower, 1937.
No, it’s not a reptilian hors d’oeuvre. It’s pictures of a Galapagos land iguana, Conolophus subcristatus, to whet your appetites for those Jerry will have when he gets back. I toured the Galapagos 20 years ago, and took loads of pictures, but they’re Kodachromes (which I haven’t scanned), so the pictures of our saurian friend below are from my colleague and fellow evolutionary biologist Joe Balsano, who visisted in 2007, and then kindly regaled my Darwin class with tales and pictures of his adventure. (More Galapagos reptile photos, at the Galapagos Conservancy, here.)
The Galapagos land iguana, Conolophus subcristatus (Joe Balsano).
The first link above for the Galapagos land iguana, from the Galapagos Conservation Trust (the UK companion to the US-based Galapagos Conservancy) is slightly out of date when it says there are two species of Galapagos land iguana: there are three. The common, or just Galapagos, land iguana, Conolophus subcristatus, is shown above. The Barrington land iguana, C. pallidus, occurs only on the island of Santa Fe (also known as Barrington). The two species differ fairly subtly in color and scalation (pallidus being less colorful, with a more distinctive crest of spines; see the original description by Edmund Heller here [go to Proceedings of the Washington Academy of Sciences in the left sidebar], and the classic paper by van Denburgh and Slevin on Galapagos iguanid lizards from the California Academy Expedition here [go to Proceedings-California Academy of Sciences 4th series in the left sidebar]). These subtle differences are the sort of differences between allopatric populations (i.e., populations inhabiting distinct, nonoverlapping, geographic areas) that can lead to long and inconclusive arguments as to whether the populations should be recognized as species, or subspecies, or not named at all. These arguments are a common, and not at all unexpected, issue when dealing with organisms living on islands. (The evolutionary process issues involved, although not the taxonomic issues, are dealt with comprehensively in Jerry’s and Allen Orr’s Speciation.) But the newly discovered species the pink land iguana of Volcan Wolf on Isla Isabela (Albemarle), Conolophus marthae, is not one of these wishy-washy, is-it or is-it-not-a-species, cases: it’s a new species, alright.
The pink land iguana, Conolophus marthae. From Gentile, G., et al. 2009. An overlooked pink species of land iguana in the Galápagos. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106:507-511.
It is amply distinct, both morphologically and genetically, from the other two species, including in coloration and form of the nuchal crest, as you can see from the pictures above. But, more importantly, it is also sympatric (i.e., living together in the same place) with the common land iguana. This is important because the truest test of species status is the test of sympatry: whether two forms interbreed when they co-occur in nature. In this case, the two species live together side by side, and reproductive isolating barriers, such as differences in male behavior (see the original species description by Gabriele Gentile and Howard Snell), keep them genetically isolated from one another. (Gentile and colleagues did find a single individual which showed evidence of some genetic mixing, but it is evidently insufficient to breakdown the genetic isolation of the forms.) This is a really remarkable and exciting discovery, given how many scientists, park rangers, and even just tourists, have traversed these islands. (I have been to Isabela, not far, at least as the crow flies, from where the new species was discovered.)
Although I think it’s fair to say that interested scientists have been delighted by the discovery of the pink land iguana, a number have been disturbed by what Gentile and Snell did, or rather didn’t do, in naming the species: they did not collect a specimen to document the species, but relied upon blood samples and photos. Usually, when a new species of animal is described, a particular specimen is designated the holotype, and preserved and deposited in the collection of a museum that will make the specimen available for study by other scientists. The specific identity of the holotype fixes the application of the name, and study of the holotype helps resolve any questions or confusions concerning the status or identity of the species, as well as contributing to further knowledge of the species’ biology. But if there is no holotypic specimen, then other scientists are unable to check the describer’s claims, or test their conclusions, or advance the study of the species in any way. Gentile and Snell were aware that what they were doing was problematic, and addressed the question in their paper. They even designated a particular iguana as the holotype, but left it in the wild, hoping that at some later time it might be retrieved using a radio tag they put in it. They did not collect it out of concern that loss of even a single individual might drive the species extinct.
Alain Dubois of the Museum nationale d’Histoire naturelle and Andre Nemesio of the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil, have led the criticism of Gentile and Snell, while acknowledging that there may be times when it is not wise to collect a specimen. See papers by them here, here, and here; Thomas Donegan of Fundacion Proaves supports what Gentile and Snell did. In the bad old days of systematic zoology, species were often named without holotypes, and this led to much confusion. Lately, there have been several species named for which holotypes have not been collected, for the same reasons advanced by Gentile and Snell, and this has led to much controversy; many of the key papers are cited in the woks of Dubois, Nemesio, and Donegan, or in works cited therein.
Some people might ask, what’s wrong with a photo? Well, I think it should be evident that there are many things you can’t determine from a photo, but perhaps a mention of the most famous species named on the basis of a photograph will make some of the problems clear: that species is the Loch Ness monster, Nessiteras rhombopteryx (abstract only without subscription). To put it only a bit too simply, specimens are what separate zoology from cryptozoology, science from pseudoscience. More on this in a later post.