Saturday, 26 December 2009

MAX ON THE TRACK OF THE CHEPEKWE

Hi all,

I am looking for some help in tracking down an online version of a very famous cryptozoological photograph, namely that which was taken in the early 1930’s (some references give the date as 1932) by J. C. Johanson of the Central African cryptid the Chepekwe. Various synonyms are in use, and it may also be known as the Chipekwe, Mbilintu and Mfuku. Supposedly, the cryptid is a huge reptile, reported from various countries in Central Africa. It has a single horn/tusk upon its head, a large body and dark, smooth skin.

However, although the photograph I am looking for is a hoax, and the animal itself seems to be too volatile in its descriptions to be conceivable (in my eyes at least), I am still very interested in seeing the hoaxed photo. I expect a lot of cryptozoological commentators have never seen the photograph in question, so it would be nice to bring it to an area of larger attention via the CFZ blog. Everything I search for brings up the three things the internet is most fond of finding; namely miscellaneous rubbish, Scarlett Johansson or pornography.

Thanks to anyone who can shed some light on this.

Max

Friday, 13 November 2009

Giant Snakes - for Goodness Sakes

Initially, I must say I am very grateful to Matt Pickering for bringing this to my attention. He forwarded me a post about this photo, supposedly from China which shows a giant 55ft long “boa”. Seeing as no-one has really taken a constructive look at this, I thought I would start something.

The text below is from Ananova.com, and most of it is reproduced below:

“It was originally posted in a thread on the website of the People's Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper in China. The thread claimed the snake was one of two enormous boas found by workers clearing forest for a new road outside Guping city, Jiangxi province. They apparently woke up the sleeping snakes during attempts to bulldoze a huge mound of earth. "On the third dig, the operator found there was blood amongst the soil, and with a further dig, a dying snake appeared," said the post. "At the same time, another gold coloured giant boa appeared with its mouth wide open. The driver was paralysed with fear, while the other workers ran for their lives. "By the time the workers came back, the wounded boa had died, while the other snake had disappeared. The bulldozer operator was so sick that he couldn't even stand up." The post claimed that the digger driver was so traumatised that he suffered a heart attack on his way to hospital and later died. The dead snake was 55ft (16.7m) long, weighed 300kg and was estimated to be 140 years old, according to the post. However, local government officials in Guiping say the story and photograph are almost certainly a hoax as giant boas are not native to the area.”

Make of the story what you will, but for this I will just stick to working out what the snake species is, and how large it is. First, just to get our bearings, Jiangxi is in the South East of China. This area does have some huge snakes, but not large boas. No Chinese boa would ever get to 55ft. A python would have to be the culprit. Burmese pythons (Python molurus bivittatus) are the largest species that definitely occurs in the region, but Jiangxi lies close to the ranges of the Indian python (Python molurus molurus) and the giant reticulated python (Python reticulatus). All these species get to 16ft, but the Burmese and reticulated can get larger; up to 30ft (the reticulated is usually longer and currently holds the title of the world’s largest scientifically verified snake). Giant snakes over the 30ft mark have been reported from South East Asia, the naga could well be a giant species of python, so clearly a 55ft long snake would be of major cryptozoological interest.

But does the snake species pictured match any of the three largest snakes from the rough area? Well, looking at the back of the python, it has large dark blotches along its length that get larger toward the middle of the snake. The blotches are a brown-grey colour in the centre, with black margins then going to pale. There are smaller dark markings in this pale area which seem to follow a line between the large blotches and the pale underside. The underside is paler and seems to have some small spots of dark pigment on, a peppery effect if you will. Red blood can be seen coming from the snake’s mouth. The snake is fairly slim, but it has a thickened “saddle”, suggesting it is in the process of digesting a meal.

Burmese pythons have very similar blotches on their back that would certainly fit in with the blotches in the photo. They also have paler undersides, but they can be very variable in colour. Usually the markings in-between the blotches are darker than the snake in the photo, but their variability over such a large distribution range, including the region where the photo is supposed to have been taken, makes them a strong contender for the individual photographed.

Indian pythons have very similar markings to the Burmese, but tend to be darker overall with less mottling. Because the snake in the photo is quite light in colour, it is more likely to be a Burmese than an Indian, plus the Indian’s range is more southerly than Jiangxi. This pretty much rules the Indian python out as a candidate.

Reticulated pythons have very similar blotch markings to the Burmese, but usually have a distinct yellow-green background colour in contrast to the Burmese’s usual pale brown background. These snakes are also variable in colour, but not to the extent that Burmese pythons are. Reticulated pythons also occur further south than Jiangxi province, making their presence there unlikely. Of the two species, I would say the Burmese python is more likely to be the species in the picture.

But how big is the snake in question? The first thing to note is that the photo has been taken with a wide angle lens. The slightly oddly shaped foliage to the left and right of the image results from the bent effect that wide angle lenses achieve to get more image in the frame. These types of lenses also shorten the apparent distance between the foreground and back ground, making objects in the foreground appear larger, and those in the background appear smaller. Making measurements on a zoomed in version of the photo, the snake is roughly 43cm long, adding 5 cm for the rest of the tail which is not in the photo. Using 55 feet as a reference, the people in the background are therefore 4.8cm tall, or just over 6.1 feet tall (conversion factor of 1.279). This is an estimate based entirely on the image itself with no allowances.

But, although this measurement puts the men at the back of the photo into a size range appropriate for a human, the digger poses a problem. It is not a large model, being very flat to the ground. Now look at the scoop. Any digger of the size apparent in the photo would topple over as the scoop reaches out. Using the above calculation, the scoop appears to be 8.18 feet wide, a monstrous scoop! With the same calculation, the digger is 8.69 feet wide, in other words, way too small to support a scoop nearly as wide as itself! Looking at the thickness of the arm compared to the thickness of the digger, the scoop must be smaller than 8 feet. Being vaguely familiar with diggers, and having a similar size digger at my old employers, the scoop is probably in the 3 foot area, perhaps a little larger. For the purposes of simplicity, and to be generous, let’s call the scoop 3.5 feet wide.

Now using this as a length indicator, because the scoop and snake are the same distance away from the camera, the measurement will not be affected by the lens. 26.5cm is the length taken for the snake, and 5cm for the scoop. The snake is 5.3 times the length of the scoop, so roughly a 18.55ft long snake. Or, a perfectly average sized adult individual for either a reticulated or Burmese python. Even if the scoop was 4 feet wide, the snake would be 21 feet long. To get the reported 55ft, the scoop would need to be over 10 feet wide! For a new world record holding snake at 34 feet, the scoop would need to be 6.4 feet wide, a very big scoop and one totally impossible for the size of the vehicle. This is a hoax; it merely shows an average to moderately large individual of a well known species.

If I was to make a guess at the species shown, I would go for the Burmese python based on the distribution of the animal, and that the markings between the photo and the species match very well.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

NEVER MIND THE AUROCHS

The Aurochs has played an extremely important part of human lives for thousands of years. In it’s wild state it was hunted to provide food, leather and tendons for bow strings. After being domesticated, it now decides the fate of billions of people worldwide thanks to its meat. At an estimated 1.53bn cattle in 2001, the species is clearly of massive importance in the modern world.

But back to the Aurochs. It is probable that it was domesticated 8,000-6,000 years ago by a number of different cultures around the world. It was exterminated in Britain somewhere between 4,100-2,750 years ago (or the Bronze age if you would like), but in the 13th century (AD), the Aurochs was only left, in its wild state, in eastern Europe. In 1564, gamekeepers surveyed the lands and found 38 cattle. In 1627 the last female died, and the wild species became extinct.

Anyway, that is the background to the story. This morning, whilst researching Vampire Bat control, I got distracted and ended up reading Walker’s Mammals of the World (1999). It was here that I got distracted again by Artiodactyls, and got reading about wild cattle. The author then mentioned something extraordinary. Harrison (1972) had discussed possible Aurochs late survival in Iraq. D. L. Harrison had written in “The Mammals of Arabia” that the Aurochs could have survived into the early 20th century in Iraq. After googling this, I can find the book for sale, but there is nothing about late Aurochs survival in Iraq. No website mentions it, only to say that the Aurochs probably became extinct in the Middle East and surrounding areas a few thousand years ago. Is there anyone out there who knows more about this, or would have access to a copy of the book? Please please let me know if you can, this could be a very interesting bit of sort-of crypto information.

A taxonomic footnote: Although it is usually given the name of Bos taurus, domesticated cattle have more resently been fitted into B. primigenius. European cattle developed from the subspecies B. p. primigenius, whilst the Indian Zebu was developed from B. p. namadicus. I have tried to avoid giving anything a scientific name in this blog; chances are when it comes out the taxonomy will be out of date!

Friday, 28 August 2009

The white hot flame.

White morphs of aquarium fish are relatively easy to find in aquaria. Albino Giant Danios, Convict cichlids, Tiger Barbs, Oscars, Kribensis, Guppies and Mollys are commonly found in pet shops, as are leucistic morphs of Bristlenose and Sailfin plecs. Leucistic morphs occur when there is a lack of melanin pigment (the pigment that causes dark colours in organisms) over the body, but not on the eyes. You may have read Jon’s blog this morning whereby he mentions some white Firemouth cichlids. These are common aquarium fish, mainly bought for their attractive red throats and ease of care and breeding. The photo below shows a male engaged in a visual threat display.

I will now take the time to completely move off topic and talk about visual threat displays in cichlids. Firemouths and their genus (Thorichthys) are one of the few cichlids that have evolved a mechanism to reduce the amount of energy expended when defending their territory. Cichlids as a group are extremely territorial, and males usually go for the full blown method of defence; attack. As a way of defending your livelihood, it is a good technique. It is fast, as the biggest male usually wins, but often wounds are sustained which need healing. This healing, together with the actual act of fighting, incurs a cost to the fish, that of using energy from food to provide energy to perform these two acts. This energy would have been spent normally on getting big, and thus the fish is able to win more fights. Cichlids don’t have great eye sight, and as they usually live at the bottom of rivers and lakes, visuals are not normally that important, so they are usually dull in colour, or coloured in very obvious patterns (the convict is a good example, being banded completely in black and white). Firemouths have however evolved a method of defence which reduces the energy lost by fighting. The red throat from which they get their common name can be expanded to produce a very obvious signal. Indeed, in a study by Evans and Norris (1996), males with larger and redder throats won more display conflicts than those that did not, regardless of size! So, a very large, but dull male would lose to a colourful, but much smaller male. Only if the opponents are matched in colour will they actually fight. Interestingly, and again, in opposition to most cichlids, female Thorichthys are almost as colourful as males, but smaller. In normal cichlid pairs, the male defends the territory, leaving the female to tend the eggs and fry, but with these guys, both sexes help defend. This makes the territory more secure, and ensures better survival for the fry.

But how have they evolved this method of display? With a cichlids standard eye sight and choice of habitat this display would not really be seen! It would seem then that Thorichthys have evolved better eyesight than normal cichlids, but also live in clearer waters where they can see each other properly. But to my knowledge this experiment has never been carried out! Never mind. Interestingly, you may have seen Jon or I blogging about out Thorichthys sp. “Mixteco Blue”, an undiscribed species. These guys don’t have the same throats as Firemouths, but it will be interesting to see if they have the same displays. Anyway, to the crux of this blog.

Jon spoke about white Firemouths the other day (photo above), presumably these are either albinos, or leucistic. Either way, these guys don’t have the red throats that are as we have seen an integral part of their lifestyle. So, will this change their display? I would expect that it does. If we can get hold of some of these guys and raise them to adulthood, we will be able to perform experiments on them to see if the display is actually present or if they omit it completely and resort straight away to violence. If they do try to display, what will the outcome be? As the red is reduced drastically, with they just give up and fight? But my main point is that if these fish do display to each other, fail to resolve the struggle visually and end up fighting, is it right to breed fish which are unable to perform their natural behaviour? Personally, I don’t think it is. We will certainly be having a go at breeding them, but not to sell on the offspring, but just to see if there is any change in behaviour, but I am sure most who keep them will not be so scrupulous. I would love to know if it is just me who thinks this, or if I have any more support out there!

Thursday, 30 July 2009

BITTERN BOOGIE DROPOUT




Max has just finished his A-levels, which is - I suppose - a perfectly valid reason for him not having done any bloggo stuff for yonks. However he has managed to sneak out a few times to sit in his car and listen to Tarkus with a peculiar look on his face, and occasionall to do a little bit of bird watching. He usually takes his camera with him, and over the last few months has built up a fantastic library of images of the wildlife of the Wells region of Somerset. Here are some of them...


Bitterns are very strange birds. Being a heron they have the families typical features of a long bill, long legs and a fondness for fishing. My two local nature reserves, Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall, have been given large grants in order to attract bitterns. They need extensive reed beds, but with water levels such that they can build a nest which is at ground level, but not in danger of any flooding. The two nature reserves are at such an altitude that they are not in risk of flooding from global warming, even if the estimate of 17ft higher sea levels (the last interglacial period had sea levels 22ft higher than today, so this figure is not really, in a long term view, anything to worry about) is found to be too small, then the bitterns will be fine as they are well above sea level. This makes the colony sustainable in the long term.

Anyway, bitterns are now breeding at Ham Wall, which is great news. I went down there a few weeks ago to see what I could see, and I saw 7 episodes of flight from the bitterns, plus 3 lots of booming from the males. The photos from this trip are shown below. At Shapwick Heath I have seen 3 bittern flights, but they are not currently known to be breeding.

As an interesting postscript, there is a Little Bittern at Ham Wall at the moment. This is a rare bird indeed, not currently breeding in Britain. They are found all over Europe, apart from Britain. It would not surprise me if within 20 years they begin to breed in Britain. At the bottom of this page is some footage of it being bitterny.






Tuesday, 7 July 2009

HEY HEY MAMA SAID THE WAY YOU MOVE, GONNA MAKE YOU SWEAT GONNA MAKE YOU GROOVE

Hopefully most of you will have read the initial Gurt Dog story from yesterday, plus Dan Holdsworth’s posting this morning. To answer his question, posted as a comment on the original story, in a public way, the sighting occurred somewhere to the North East of Westbury Sub-Mendip along one of the country lanes. Looking on Google Earth, you can find the rough area by searching the above village and moving up the hill to the North East, moving to an eye altitude of 12000ft, with Priddy toward the top right of the image, Westbury down the left hand side about halfway up, and Ebbor Gorge and Wookey Hole Caves in the bottom right of the image. From this position, you can pan to the East until you reach a village called Rookham. This village marks the easterly border of the sighting area. This should give you a good view of the area, mostly of fields and a small wooded gorge. The sighting would thus have been at quite a high elevation, between 700-900ft above sea level. A rough set of coordinates is: 51º14’10 to 51º15’00 North, and 2º42’17 to 2º39’00 West.

For those without Google Earth, Google Maps will work fine. In fact, it is probably best to look at both Earth and Maps to get a good feel for the area, only Maps shows the roads along which the sighting must have occurred. Just follow the above directions with this URL: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?daddr=Westbury+Sub+Mendip,+Wells,+Somerset,+UK&geocode=CUqSmQK1JgThFVreDQMdz4vW_w&dirflg=&saddr=wells&f=d&hl=en&sll=51.246283,-2.716713&sspn=0.022458,0.055017&ie=UTF8&ll=51.23043,-2.669334&spn=0.044932,0.110035&z=13

The village of Priddy has always had an association with big cat stories and sightings, most of which are in the roads toward the South East of the village. They pop up from time to time in the local paper, along with the occasional livestock kill. Now, I am sure that some big cat sightings are spectral in origin, but the vast majority are of flesh and blood animals in the way we understand it. Other than the generalised Black/Gurt/spectral Dog stories, I was unaware of any sightings of the fellow around the North of Wells, until now of course.

Looking at the website that Dan Holdsworth posted up earlier, if you match up the images of North Somerset, then click on “view layers”, and tick the box on Europe marked “Europe BRGM 1:1.5M Faults”, you will see a series of black lines, along which faults lie. If you match the One Geology map up with either Google Earth or Maps, it can be seen that Westbury Sub-Mendip lies very very close to the most northern fault in Somerset. However, if you match up the coordinates on the One Geology with those obtained from Google Earth, the village ends up being much further inland than it actually is. If the position of the fault is correct, then the village of Westbury Sub-Mendip lies close enough to the fault for this sighting to provide evidence for Dan’s theory about faults and zooforms being linked, but I cannot find if the fault is still active. I have found a list of earthquakes in Somerset, but this is unfortunately only dates, not locations.

However, my computer decided to restart, and for the life of me I cannot find the webpage again! So, instead we have some details of earthquakes that have occurred in the Wells area. Mathew of Paris recorded the effects of the Wells' earthquake on December 21, 1248:

“...an earthquake occurred in England, by which (as told to the writer of this work by the Bishop of Bath in whose diocese it occurred) the walls of the buildings were burst asunder, the stones were torn from their places, and gaps appeared in the ruined walls. The vaulted roof which has been placed on the top of the church of Wells by the great efforts of the builder, a mass of great size and weight, was hurled so as to strike great terror into all who heard it....”

The Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries for 1895 gives details about a number of shocks around Priddy, Wells, Shepton Mallet and Glastonbury on December 30, 1893. At Wookey it seemed as if the earth was assuming an undulating motion, such as is observed on the waves of the sea. The first of the shocks, for there were several, was preceded by what seemed to be 'a terrific explosion' (Anon, 1895). This explosion is the noise that the fault made as it slipped, thus showing that the fault was close by.

Ahah! My efforts have been rewarded! Anyone seriously interested in researching zooforms and faults will enjoy this groovy tool. Follow the link below and hover over the “Earthquakes” tab at the top. Move the mouse down to “Interactive UK Earthquakes Map”. In the new window you can select the area you want to look at, then fiddle around with the tabs on the left hand side. Zooming in on the sighting area there are 5 earthquakes occurring within 10kms of the rough sighting area. One occurred 8kms away, one 4kms, one 7kms and 2 10kms away. Evidence? I should say so!

Thursday, 18 June 2009

A ROE BY ANY OTHER NAME




Max is in the middle of his A-Levels at the moment, which is - I suppose - a perfectly valid reason for him not having done any bloggo stuff for yonks.

However he has managed to sneak out a few times to sit in his car and listen to Tarkus with a peculiar look on his face, and occasionally to do a little bit of bird watching.

He usually takes his camera with him, and over the last few months has built up a fantastic library of images of the wildlife of the Wells region of Somerset. Here, in a new series, are some of them...










I was out bird watching ‘t other day to stop myself from having a mental breakdown, (it being the second week of my A-Levels) and I found myself sat in a silent hide hoping for something interesting like a hobby or bittern to pop down, drink a pint of shandy (you can’t drink and fly remember) with me in front of the camera, before going off about on their daily business. I waited for half an hour or so, and heard a rustling in the reeds to my left.

“Great Scott!” Exclaimed I, “It must be a hoatzin!” (OK I didn't say anything of the sort, but in my Biology exam yesterday there was a question about hoatzins, and I feel incredibly smug because I think that I was the only person in class to know what the hell they were).

It was not a hoatzin, but a very cute female roe deer with her young (interesting rod deer fact: their coats are grey in winter (see the photo posted on my blog a while ago about the roe deer being killed by a big cat) and a light orange to red colour in the summer).

They were not bothered by me, and came to within 10 yards of my position, not minding as the camera shutter clicked or I dropped my binoculars. The female moved into the reeds in front of me, whilst the baby stayed a little way back, obviously still a bit new to this whole thing.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Grebe-oh Guru




Max is in the middle of his A-Levels at the moment, which is - I suppose - a perfectly valid reason for him not having done any bloggo stuff for yonks. However he has managed to sneak out a few times to sit in his car and listen to Tarkus with a peculiar look on his face, and occasionall to do a little bit of bird watching. He usually takes his camera with him, and over the last few months has built up a fantastic library of images of the wildlife of the Wells region of Somerset. Here, in a new series, are some of them...




Whilst out at a local reservoir checking out the local birds, I saw a pair of Great Crested Grebes. These are the largest British grebes (adults are usually 1200g in weight), though not the largest in the world , they are still impressive birds. Fire-red head tufts, often extended upon meeting another grebe, are their most impressive feature (other than their stupendous diving abilities) and form an integral part of their mating display. The male and female erect the tufts and begin to dance around each other, each doing the same as the other. So, if the male moves his head to the left, so does the female. If the female moves her head back to the right, so does the male. Note: this is NOT a mirror image!


The grebes swam closer to my vantage position, and, causing annoyance to a nearby fisherman, began to display. This was great for me, and I started snapping away. Behind me, an elderly couple walked past and the gentleman (as indeed, he was) exclaimed

“How brilliant! Crested grebes displaying. Go on son, get in there!”

The last part was yelled directly at the male grebe, who then zipped under water. Bugger, thought I , that is the end of them displaying at such close range.

The male popped back up again just as I began to wander off, with a large piece of weed in his beak. He began to display to an impressed female, and again the gentleman got overly excited and shouted “That’s the stuff lad! You are going to get some tonight!” His wife told him sharply to shut up before chatting to me about the camera.

Only when I got home did I realise that the photos were so out of focus (I have now learnt from this mistake, and have changed the autofocus point), so I must apologise for it!

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

OUT AND ABOUT WITH MAX: Egrets


Max is in the middle of his A-Levels at the moment, which is - I suppose - a perfectly valid reason for him not having done any bloggo stuff for yonks. However he has managed to sneak out a few times to sit in his car and listen to Tarkus with a peculiar look on his face, and occasionall to do a little bit of bird watching. He usually takes his camera with him, and over the last few months has built up a fantastic library of images of the wildlife of the Wells region of Somerset. Here, in a new series, are some of them...

Here, at a place called Shapwick, back in March, we see two rare egrets.

For those of you not in the know, egrets are any of several heron species, most of which are white or buff, and several of which develop fine plumes (usually milky white) during the breeding season.

Many egrets are members of the genera Egretta or Ardea which contain other species named as herons rather than egrets. The distinction between a heron and an egret is rather vague, and depends more on appearance than biology. The word "egret" comes from the French word "aigrette", referring to the long filamentous feathers that seem to cascade down an egret's back during the breeding season.

They were hunted to extinction in Britain during the 19th Century, mainly because the aforementioned feathers were so sought after.

However, they have been very succesful in recolonising the UK with four species existing here now..

However, it is unusual to see two species together at once, and Max was very pleased to be able to photograph a little egret Egretta garzetta (left) and a great egret Ardea alba (right) together.













Thursday, 23 April 2009

A non-cryptozoological trip to Redditch

You should all have by now read Ross’ turn of events regarding last Sunday’s auction. Now, I am not going to attempt to pretend that this was a purely cryptozoological trip, far from it; it was a chance for those who went to get their hands on some great new fish. Ross wanted to get his tanks started with something attractive, but easy to keep; Jon wanted anything with a sp. “something” at the end of its name; Emma wanted some fish for her community tanks; and I wanted both anything with sp. “something” (this means that this certain fish has not been scientifically described, but it is probably from the genus before the “sp.” part. So, Cryptoheros sp. "Honduran red point" relates to an undiscribed cichlid from the Cryptoheros genus, probably from Honduras) and something to sit with a couple of other medium sized cichlids in a 3ft tank opposite my chair to entertain me.

After paying the rather high entry fee, we were given a load of free tubs of food, which we worked out as being worth about £5 more than the entry ticket, so I wasn’t too disappointed. After a quick general meeting (which none of our party had much to say, we were not members), we listened to a talk by Bernd Degen, a Discus breeder and show master for over 30 years. He talked about first showing Discus (with some great photos of the massive Japanese shows) and some of the techniques people use to get that “perfect” discus, then he moved on to a talk about keeping discus in a planted aquarium, something I have always advocated.

After a break, the auction began. The first lot was exactly what I wanted, a 4” male Nandopsis salvini, a medium sized predatory cichlid from Guatemala. This is a stunning fish not that often seen in the shops. When it is, it is usual £5+ for a juvenile about 1-2” long. My male over 8 times that size for £8 was a bargain.

From then on in, our table ended up buying about12-15 lots of fish; I cannot even remember what we got! Emma got hold of her community angelfish and an unusual species of Corydoras catfish, Jon got his beloved Rams (at about half the cost of buying from a shop, and better quality) as well as Aequidens sp. “Peru” (a nice smallish cichlid, similar to the hobby staple the Blue Acara, see top photo); whilst Ross ended up with another undiscribed species (Krobia sp. “red cheek” if you are interested) and various other fish to fill his tanks up with. I got myself a group of Thorichthys sp. 'Mixteco Blue' (see bottom photo) which are currently sat in Jon’s local the Farmer’s Arms. These cost me about £3 for 8 youngsters. This is just plain stupid!

Following from the excitement of the auction, we had Alf Stalsberg, a writer and traveller who was speaking about Aequidens sp. “Silver Saum”. Time for taxonomic cock up! Aquarists may well have heard of a fish called a “Green Terror” (why? Because they are generally a metallic green, and are seriously aggressive). Now, this was thought to be a species called Aequidens rivulatus. This was debunked a good few years back, and the hobby’s fish is now known as A. sp. “Gold Saum” because of the gold edges to the fins. A. sp. “Silver Saum” is very similar, but has silver edges to the fins. Stalsberg went out to collect these fish, and found that these three cichlids represented different species. Now, the Americans (his words not mine!) “walked in and think they know everything!” and said that this was rubbish, A. rivulatus was the species in the hobby, and the others were just geographical variants. Well, says Stalsberg, do variants of a species occurring in the same river system breed only with fish with their own colour edging? No says he, they would all breed together. The fact they he has witnessed a separate breeding divide in the wild proves that they are different species. I for one feel that this argument will carry on for a long time...

After a quick raffle, we went home again to get the fish into their new aquaria. The traffic was terrible and I for one got back about an hour later than expected, but hey, if this is the price to pay for such a superb day, then I would gladly do it again.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

THE UNIDENTIFIED FISHES OF YOUTUBE PART TWO: An Unidentified Submarine Object

Round 2 of the unidentified fish blogs. Here, we go all crypto and look at a U.S.O. from a lake somewhere. (Sadly, we have no idea where, which makes things more confusing). In the film, we see a group of small orange-yellow “things” surfacing and dropping repetedly, before dropping and not reappearing. This is clearly not one animal, so the cameraman's idea that it is a manatee is so wrong that I am going to stop midsentence.







Little groups of the things break off from time to time and disappear quickly. Now, I can think of two suggestions as to what it may be, but they both have their faults.

1. A group of small fish that are being corralled into a ball by an organised group of predators. Depending on where the footage was filmed, it could be a group of bass (small or large mouthed) or perch that are attacting the small fish. This accounts for the rising and falling of the fish in the water column plus the smaller groups splitting off. The disappearence of the fish occurs when the predators are full, and leave to digest their meal. However, if predators were attacking, there would be some splashes from boh the small fish, and larger splashes from the predaors. Plus, bright orange bait fish? I've not seen many species that are this colour.

2. Snakehead fry. Yay! Snakeheads! When snakeheads spawn and the eggs hatch, the parents push the young up to the surface to fill their “lungs” with air. If the babies don’t inflate their “lungs” quickly, they die. Snakehead fry are bright orange-yellow, which accounts for the colour. They are also not prone to jumping out of the wach much, which accounts for the lack of surface movement. The small groups are quickly herded back into the main group by one of he parents, which accounts for the short-lived nature of the small groups. At 2:21 a small fish jumps out of the water. The orange group drops down again, probably because the adults moved off to get rid of this interloper into their area, before surfacing again when the adults push them back up.

This too has its problems. The only footage I have seen of snakeheads exhibiting this behaviour shows them doing it in shallower water, usually with some cover from plants and rocks. The main argument against it however, is that snakeheads are not found in English speaking countries (as natives), and any local would have no trouble identifying a cresh of baby snakeheads as being so. This could well be video footage of introduced snakeheads in the USA breeding (as if there was not enough evidence), if it is indeed from the USA.

GUEST BLOGGER DAVID MARSHALL: L Numbered catfish

Since my yesterday's posting about the new catfish species, I have had a number of emails asking what I mean by "L Numbered" catfish. To explain, here is an article by David Marshall, reprinted from the 2007 CFZ Yearbook:

In the late 1980's a small variety of loricarins new to the U.K. aquarium hobby began appearing in aquatic retail outlets. All of these fish were given exotic-sounding common names so a small white fish with black stripes was sold as the emperor or zebra peckoltia, a fish with wavy black and yellow markings the scribbled plec, and one with a dark black body and white spots was sold as the vampire plec.

From the scant information that could be obtained, mainly through friendly retailers, U.K. aquarists were led to believe that all of these fish had originated from the Rio Xingu area of Brazil and were vegetarian by nature. It would take sometime for this information to be corrected, and make aquarists realise that these particular loricarins’ natural range extended beyond the Xingu area and that their dietary requirements were actually very varied.

As more of these loricarins began to appear, the sales tickets on their aquaria (first seen in Yorkshire through L 018 - Baryancistrus niveatus 'golden nugget') began to show a sequence that began with the letter L followed by a series of numbers. Shortly afterwards the letters LDA began the sequence with some of these fish. The shape and character of the sequenced species was also starting to change as no longer did they all have the look of a miniature plecostomus, but some resembled whiptail catfish, others large otocinclus, and then came the truly bizarre sight of little loricarins with grey and black marbled patterns - best described as elongated wine gums with fins. What on earth was going on?


Confusion in Germany

When all was revealed, it became clear that these loricarins had been available on the European mainland for some time before we had seen them in the U.K. They were appearing not only from the Rio Xingu, but from many other areas of South America. As each new fish had been discovered, the well known German magazine DATZ had featured their portrait.

Worried about varying common names that had been given to these fish in the trade, the DATZ Editorial staff had come up with a system in which each new fish would be given an L-Sequenced number that would allow it to be universally recognised, until the scientific community could get through the tortuous procedure of giving them a proper scientific name. Going back in their records revealed that the fish U.K. hobbyists would come to know as the `white spot pleco` had been the first to be pictured, so this fish began the L Sequence as L 001 (L1). With some of the new species, it was clear to see that these were only colour, or regional, variants of loricarins already sequenced. So this was indicated, by adding a lower-case letter at the end of their number. Thus L O90d is the fourth known variant of ‘panaque species Peru'.

The Editorial staff of the rival German magazine Das Aquarium had also received photographs of other new loricarins coming out of South America, along with different-looking photographs of some of the L numbered fish, so not to be outdone they created the LDA numbering system for their photographs. Starting this sequence was the gold peckoltia which thus became LDA 01 (LDA1).

So from the start, we had confusion with different L and LDA numbers applying to the same fish. This became even more compounded when regional and colour variations of sequenced loricarins would slip through the system, thus giving them a totally different L number than that already assigned for their kind.

This would become partly to blame for further errors occurring, as other aquatic publications began captioning loricarin photographs with incorrect L and LDA numbers. These problems aside, the two sequencing systems remain the recognised - and best - way to keep a record of all the subject species, until the arduous task of scientifically naming them all is finally completed.


How many L and LDA numbered fish do we know about?

It is hard to keep track of LDA numbered fish through publications available in Britain, but by September 2003 a total of 76 loricarins had been sequenced. Thankfully, information on the L numbered loricarins is easier to come by, and of September 2004 the sequence had reached number 387. According to the Y.A.A.S. Fish Showing Size Guides, a total of 52 L numbered fish have now received valid scientific names, and these are split into a large number of genus classifications. With the LDA sequence, this process appears to be going much more slowly with fewer than 20 of these species having gone through - as yet - the scientific nomenclature process.

The well-known Canadian aquarist and fish collector Oliver Lucanus, while speaking to members of the Catfish Study Group UK, believes that there are many more such fish awaiting discovery, but that this task may become a race against time, as the increasing demands caused by intensive agriculture and search for mineral wealth, threaten the future of many habitats.

On the other side of the coin, a number of communities along the Rio Xingu now make a living collecting just one or two of the most popular L and LDA numbered fish, and such is the conservation concern over this practice, that we have already seen a collecting ban put upon the beautiful zebra peckoltia.

Golden rules

There are four golden rules which apply to keeping L and LDA sequenced fish:

1. Always find out as much information as you can about any of the loricarins that you wish to purchase. Not only do their feeding habits vary greatly, so too do their natural habitats, so we find fish originating from river rapids, lowland rivers, uncharted depths, brackish areas, sandbanks, areas rich in plant growth, and fast flowing rivers where fallen trees provide the cover, all lumped together under the sequencing systems.

2. Never purchase specimens with thin-looking bodies and sunken stomachs, as once many of these species have ceased eating, they may never have the will to do so again.

Although the majority of these fish will take standard catfish food tablets, sticks, and flakes, in aquaria, many are specialised feeders. The best guide we have to establishing the supplementary foods needed in order to maintain their health, is by looking at their teeth (which is not always easily achieved).

4. Basically, those with a single row of thin teeth on each side of their mouths, prefer a vegetarian diet. Those with two rows of impressive-looking teeth, bore into wood, so thus need to be provided with mopani or bogwood. Those which appear to have two sets of woodlice imprinted onto their mouthpad, are omnivorous by nature, whilst those with mouths that show a pattern resembling an Olympic Torch, need to be fed a carnivorous diet - including mussels and shrimps.

As we shall see, it is important to do daily checks, if possible, as to the health of all L and LDA sequenced fish.

A warning

We cannot leave the L and LDA numbers without warning of the main drawback in keeping these particular fish. A number of these loricarins are prone to dying very suddenly and without giving any indications of ill health. When we realise that this has happened, we should remove the body straight away, and make a water change to help clear any pollutant this death may have caused to the aquarium water. Unfortunately many die unnoticed, and this is when the real problem begins, as the flesh of a number of these species can begin to decay very quickly.

As this decay sets in, a 'bacterial soup' is soon formed. This 'soup' badly affects the breathing of fellow tank companions, and when this condition takes hold, it can have devastating effects upon the whole community. Over the years, I have heard a number of accounts of whole aquariums - be they stocked at low or high densities - wiped out through this condition, and - sadly - large water changes and commercial aquarium disease treatments proved no antidote.

Without a properly-conducted scientific investigation, we do not know if this bacteria, or whatever it actually may prove to be, is dormant in the body of a number of these species, or if some of the aquarium foods they are fed - such as mussels - actually cause its fermentation.

Just to reassure our readers, many L and LDA sequenced fish are long-lived, and I had the company of a coffee and cream Plec for close-on eleven years.

In Part Two of this article, we will take an in-depth look at a number of the most popular L and LDA numbered loricarins.

n Part One of this article we looked at how the L and LDA numbering system for loricarins came about. This time we will focus on the most popular L and LDA numbered fish, looking at their care and breeding.


Ancistrus

Picking out one bristlenose from the sequenced fish was difficult, so I opted for LDA 08 (gold marbled bristlenose or Ancistrus 'species Mato Grosso'), originating from Brazil, which has the scientific name of Ancistrus claro. Growing to 6cm, these fish have a beautiful orange-brown body colour. Males are told apart from females through larger - and thicker - head spines.

LDA 08 prefers a hard water environment with a temperature of 26C. I kept a trio - one male and two females - in the company of swordtails without any problems. Like all Ancistrus they are very quarrelsome, and stake-out territories which are held until feeding time, when the urge to devour flaked foods, algae wafers, catfish tablets, and any brineshrimp, missed by the swordtails brought about a truce in proceedings.

Although these fish are very hardy, and resistant to many aquatic diseases, they are prone to one particular malady - vibration syndrome. When a severe thunderstorm hit the Ryedale area, the thunder caused the shelf, on which the aquarium housing my trio was kept, to vibrate. This caused such panic that I had the heartache of seeing the fish roll over and die in front of my eyes.

To write fully about the breeding procedure and fry care of LDA 08 would need an article to itself: A compatible pair seeks out a cave-like structure. Once the female has spawned, she - rather sensibly - vacates the cave, leaving her mate to guard the orange coloured eggs. An overactive male can do great damage to a female spent of ova, so this is something we must taken account of. About a week after the eggs hatch, the fry will be seen scurrying over the substrate and glass etc. feeding upon algae.

We help their growth through feeding crushed algae tablets, boiled nettles, and by trying to get them to eat live brineshrimp. Unfortunately for those of us who prize the natural forms of fish, some of the sequenced Ancistrus are already showing the signs of commercial breeding programmes, and currently available are butterfly forms of the xanthic-looking L 144 (which is much easier to breed than LDA 08) with such large fins that they find manoeuvring around their aquaria very difficult.


Chaetostoma

This genus is home to the bulldog plecs. So many bulldogs, of various sizes and colour patterns, are arriving in the U.K. at the current time that they appear to have by-passed the L and LDA numbering sequences. Of those which are sequenced, L 188 (white spotted bulldog), and LDA 11 (marbled Mato Grosso bulldog), have lovely body patterns upon importation but, as with the majority of their genus, these patterns often fade to an overall muddy green colour as the fish begin to age.

There are two very important factors to be considered when keeping these fish. Firstly, always quarantine any potential new tankmates, as all bulldogs are prone to whitespot disease, and can become so badly infected that you cannot see the flesh for spots. Secondly, always keep bulldogs as single specimens, as members of a group will often, unseen; wear each other down to a situation where only one survives.
Much debate has ensued about how these fish - some of which are found in brackish waters - should be kept in aquaria. From my own experiences they prefer an aquarium no larger than 60x30x30cm, pH7, airflow just above normal, and plenty of regular water changes.

All standard aquarium foods are eaten with great gusto. I have found that small barbs and platies make good companions.

I have only come across one spawning report for these fish. The aquarist concerned kept two bulldogs in separate aquaria side by side. One day it was discovered that one of these fish had jumped into the others tank, and, when found, was seriously battered. Concerned about the health of the resident bulldog, a search ensued, with the aquarist having the surprise of finding the fish - assumed to be a male - guarding eggs in a crevice between two rocks.


Cochilodon

L 77 (coffee and cream plec.), L 137 (rusty plec.), L 138 (black-spotted 'Bruno' plec.) and an un-sequenced Cochilodon with blue eyes, are all recognised under the tag of Panaque species 'Bruno'. Of all the L numbers, L 77 is probably the one most prone to whitespot upon importation, but - thankfully - this is easily treated by using the old method of raising the water temperature, and scrupulously siphoning the gravel.

When a scientific classification comes along, it may well be that all the four 'Bruno' species are given the same scientific name, because they are so alike in features, that only slight differences in body and eye colour tell one from the other. These fish originate from Brazil, where they reproduce inside the trunks of decaying trees, and can reach a size of 30cm. Although their sucker-like mouths are adapted to chewing at wood, they take standard aquarium foods with great enthusiasm. Keep at a pH of 7 and a temperature of 26C. They will accept various tankmates from Corydoras through to large Synodontis.


Hypancistrus

This genus was erected in order to accommodate the beautiful ice-blue and white striped fish Hypancistrus zebra (emperor or zebra Peckoltia). Although there are several other similar shaped and coloured L numbers, the true zebra is L 046. Also worth looking out for is the queen arabesque, L 260, which is widely tipped to make an official appearance in the Hypancistrus genus in the near future.


Panaque

Of the several colour forms of Panaque nigrolineatus (royal or pin-striped Plec/Panaque) which carry an L number, and derive from Southern Columbia, my favourite is L 191 which, when young, has a brilliant black-coloured background to its body. Although capable of growing to 25cm, those seen in aquaria rarely reach this size.

An aquarium of at least 90x30x30cm is needed to house a nigrolineatus. They make good tank companions, but dislike the company of their own kind. Although soft, slightly acid to neutral water is recommended, they will tolerate some deviation from this. Keep at a temperature of 25C. Bogwood or mopani wood must always be included in the set-up, as they take various enzymes from this wood which aid digestion. These fish need much vegetable matter to be included in their diet, so we turn to algae wafers, and vegetable-based flake foods

Panaque have the strangest life expectancy of any loricarin that I know. As their teeth are worn down, through munching at wood, several new sets are regenerated. Once the last set is used the fish are no longer able to feed so - sadly - starve to death. Their end, therefore, comes not through age but through how much wood they have consumed.


Pseudancistrus

To show how both the L and LDA systems can have numbers relating to the same fish, we will talk about the beautiful Pseudancistrus leopardus (leopard Acanthicus) identified by the numbers LDA 07 and L 114. They come from fast running water courses, and are natives of Brazil. Depending upon their mood, the plec-like body shows either a yellow or orange background, with a beautiful foreground of black spotting and bars. The tail is a bright orange-red.

Although I have not tried this, I am reliably informed that it is possible to keep several of these fish in one aquarium. This aquarium would need to be of a fair size, as these fish can reach a total body length of 35cm. Filtration needs to be of a high quality, as the catfish will start to fade away if their aquarium is not in pristine condition. Keep at a temperature of 27C. Although these fish are primarily vegetarian, taking lettuce and pieces of raw potato. They will take commercial catfish pellets, and large-sized flake foods.

The sexes are distinguishable, as the edges of the pectoral fins are thicker in males, who also tend to be the more aggressive. We have few pointers as to how these fish actually reproduce, but it is believed that they may follow the Cochilodon way of making nesting sites in the wood of decaying trees.

Finally we must mention the loricarin species sold as L 128 (blue Pleco.) and L 200 (green Plec.). These fish, which originate from the Rio Orinoco, have become the basis of cottage industries for several villages, with young boys diving to great depths in order to catch the best specimens. There was a time when all of their catches were exported almost exclusively for the Japanese aquarium market, but now these beauties are appearing more often in the U.K. So close in characteristics are these two forms, that in the near future they may both carry the same scientific name.

Friday, 17 April 2009

THE UNIDENTIFIED FISHES OF YOUTUBE - Part Three

Time for a slight change now I feel. We can now look at a number of different videos showing undiscribed fish. First is this handsome fellow:

It is another cafish, but this time it is from the family Aucheripteridae, or the driftwood catfishes. These are a cracking group that is rarely seen in captivity because few people want a catfish that sits under driftwood all day and is generally of a nervous disposition. I, obviously, love them to bits.

I have no idea what this fellow is, so that will do for now on taxonomy. There is one interesting footnote to this specuies though. The chap in the film is a male which is shown by a very strange modification. If you look at his anal fin, he first few rays of it are modified into a copulatory organ much like that seen in fish like guppys and platys. This family of catfish are the only ones to have evolved such a device, making them a very interesting group indeed.



Here is another Loricariidae catfish. Nothing to say here other than it is a male again.



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stWLsqJFfRs

THE UNIDENTIFIED FISHES OF YOUTUBE PART ONE

Youtube is a powerful tool. I spent some time this morning looking around its archive to try and find something interesting to witter about for a bit. So here we are, a look at the undescribed species of Youtube.

We had best start with some fish. First we have this very attractive Loricariidae, or, a plec. These are common inhabitants of aquariums, but they are either one of the huge species which are sold as “only growing to “4”” and the size of the tank”, or one of the stunning “L-numbers” which are almost always wild caught, very pretty and astoundingly expensive. £30 is about what you need for one of the more common species, but individuals selling for multiples of hundreds are fairly commonplace. This is an adult male, so at about 7cm he is one of the smaller species. The thickened first ray on his pectoral fins show him to be a sexually mature male, ready to defend his site from all comers.

It is a Venezuelan species, which in itself is nothing unusual, but if in the video you look closely 26 seconds through, you should notice fronds on the front if he fish’s sucking mouth. These are modified sensory barbels which help in the search for food. Not many Loricariidae have these, so this species is unusual in having them. It is thought to be from the genus Leporacanthicus, but appears to be the smallest species in the group: the others all get over 20cm in length. Its dorsal fin appears to be much more triangular than all the other species in the genus, but hey, I am not a taxonomist.

Yet.





Thursday, 16 April 2009

KOUPREY KAPERS


Let us start from the off by saying this: Bovids are cool. My personal favorities are the large wild species like Bison, Indian Water Buffalo and Guar, but the most interesting from a crypto point of view are Kouprey, a huge species from (mainly) Cambodia growing just shy of one ton for a bull.

They live primarily in deep forests, and their thin bodies are an adaptation for moving through dense woodland. Like most large bovids, they are diurnal and only feed in the daytime. They are not closely related to any other species of wild ox, but they are placed in the genus Bos (species sauveli) along with most wild cattle. The males have a huge dewlap which is probably used in sexual selection: for Kouprey this works better than large horns (although, the male’s horns are faily large) for attracing a mate, because the thin dewlap helps the male move in dense forest; horns would get in the way!

As the worlds rarest large mammal, they are a critically endangered species. Only 250 are thought to remain in the wild: although some people claim that they have not been observed since 1957 (possibly 1983) tracks and skulls for sale on local markets can help to esimate the population. The IUCN has this to say about the species:

“This species is listed as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct). The total population is unknown, and the species is most likely to be extinct. At most, there could only a few individuals remaining, certainly many less than 250 mature individuals, and almost certainly less than 50 mature individuals. The high level of hunting in the region has led to a significant decline, estimated at over 80% in the last 30 years”

They are thought to live in Vietnam where a group of park rangers spotted what may have been 3 Kouprey (but could have been a small group of Banteng or Guar) with the forward pointing horns typical of the species. The Vietnam group supposedly gets much larger than the Cambodian (up to 1.5 tons), putting it in a position to get the title for the “worlds largest Bovid”, beating the Guar by a few hundred kilogrames. It has however not been cirtified that this group exists, so more researech needs to be done in the area.

The Kouprey sat in a small grey zone for a while after it was discovered that the species shares an awful lot of DNA with the Banteng (anoher species of wild ox), such that the scientists who made the discovery asserted that the mating between the Banteng and probably the Zebu could only have occurred in the last 50 years, perhaps to produce a new variant of very tough cattle to survive in harsh conditions. This view was very trendy for a while, until someone unearthed a Kouprey skull just under 100,000 years old.

The hybrid argument was dropped.

The Kouprey is interesting to us cryptozoologists because it was only discovered in 1937. Why on earth the Okapi is trotted out so ofen as being a very large species of mammal which survived until the 20th century without having being “discovered” by science, when the Kouprey is 4 times the size, and was first described 36 years later, I just don’t know!


The other interesting point is that there is supposedly a smaller species/regional variant which is hinted at on some webpages, but despite my best efforts I just can’t find anything on it at all. The main reason for writing this is so that I could show you this cracking video which I found by fluke. (when and how it was taken when the creatures have allegedly not been seen for fifty two years I cannot say) Enjoy!

Saturday, 11 April 2009

SCORP STORY

I have a thing for arthropods. I had guessed that you, dear reader, had already grasped that fact, but just to reiterate it, here is the funny tale of just one of Britain’s top tiny pond predators, the common water scorpion.


First, a little taxomony. Water scorpions are insects (ED: no, really Max? Tell us something we don’t know) from the family Hemiptera. A colloquial name for most small insects is a “bug”, but this name is actually the common name for the Hemiptera. Hemiptera are called so because they have two pair of wings, the front of which is very thick and serves as a sort of armour. Hemi= half, ptera=wing. Get it?

As well as the wing thing, bugs are distinguished by having an incomplete life cycle (where the young pass through stages of being nymphs before full adulthood, just like cockroaches, Phasmids, grasshoppers and mantids) and sucking mouthparts. They are known as a “primitive” order because they have an incomplete life cycle, but they still have more than 60,000 species described, more than any other primitive order. They are infact the only inscts to be found in the open ocean (a funny group of water striders, you know, the funny fellows which sit on top of the water in your pond in summer). Some common bugs (other than those mentioned) include: assassin bugs, leaf/stink bugs, backswimmers and leaf-footed bugs.

Water scorpions come from the family Nepidae, which is very similar to the family Belostomatidae, or the giant water bugs. They both fullfill very similar niches in their environment: highly cryptic ambush predators who stalk the upper reaches of ponds, lakes and streams. Both families are always a shade of brown (kinda hard to look like a dead leaf if you are not brown) with large and very stong raptorial front legs. With these they grab onto prey before injecting them with a cocktail of venom and digestive juices, and then sucking out the mush. There are two species of water scorpion in British waters, the common (the short fat fellow) and the stick (the long thin one). I have never seen a stick water scorpion, but the other day I found my first common waterscorpion for about a dozen years.

I am currently wrighting a huge piece of Geology coursework. To avoid it killing me, I try to get out every day if I can. On Friday, I decided to go out to a local garden centre or two to have a look around. Now, thanks to some interesting benefits of competition which I am not going to discuss here, in one place on my route there are two large garden centers right next to each other. In front of the larger one there lie a couple of large ponds. I have never bothered to look at these before, but seeing as I walked right passed one on my way to the other garden centre, I had to take a look. It must have been about 35ft long, 8ft wide, but only 1.5ft deep. There was thick reed growth, but oddly, no other aquatic plants. This made it great for looking into, and in about 3 seconds, I had seen my first newt of the day. A possibly smooth, possibly palmate female. This was followed by about 15 more, so I got bored of looking for newts, and mumbled to myself: “Ooo, this would make prefect water scorpion habitat”. I looked, but to no avail.

Until I moved to a different side of the pond and immediately found one. I was slightly surprised; I have said “Ooo, this would make prefect water scorpion habitat” to myself more times than I can remember, but never seen one, so I thanked the giant water bugs in the sky, and began the tricky process of getting the beggar to walk onto a reed stem so that I could pin it down with another piece and transport it back to the car...

In which I had a plastic bag filled with water and some small snails I had got (for free) from the garden centre. There was nothing for it, I had to take my new fiend home with me in this bag. So I did so.

He is currently sat in a small tub on my desk, and I have managed to persuade him to eat a dead baby cockroach, which bodes well for his future life in captivity. He is living with some small snails and is doing rather well. A handy thing about water scorpions is that they don’t have gills, instead relying on a pair of tubes coming out of their back end to reach up out of the water and breathe. This means they can easily acclimatise to different waters (temperature still remains an issue however) and thus they can settle down in captivity very easily.


What I would really like to have now is a couple of giant water bugs. Forget the inch that my water scorpion is, the larger giant water bugs get to over 4 inches, tha largest even hits 6”, making them easily able to make a meal of newts, fish and very large fat snails. What has this got to do with cryptozoology? Could a giant water bug/water scorpion account for sightings of a huge aggressive preadator that lives in the congo and has been known to take down hippos? Err, no. This story has nothing to do with cryptozoology. But hey, I bet you all learnt something from that tale did you not?

Saturday, 21 March 2009

DON'T BOGART THAT ROACH

EDITOR'S NOTE: It wasn't actually Maxy who came up with that title. I wonder if you can guess what it actually was?

This whole new species in the pet trade thing of mine is coming along nicely. I recently received an order, to be split between CFZ HQ and myself, consisting of 5 undiscribed species of cockroach. These are not cryptids, but they are the next best things; something science has yet to find a name for. They range from being tiny dark brown animals; right up to large showy species which are pretty enough for every naturalist to admire. In this little collection of gems, we have species that are known to species level, but appear to be a new sub-species, those known to genus, and 2 are known to family only. The last two especially are special indeed.

But before we take a look at the different species, let us first look at what the hell a cockroach is. They can be grouped into a couple of “looks”, each suited for a different habitat and mode of life (NOTE: these groupings are not taxologically correct). First we have the large bodied flightless species who spend their time either underground, or under shelter of some sort. We also have the smaller long legged reduced wing species, which lead a more active existence. They tend to run from danger, not fly. The small species with full wings are the most common; indeed, the British species belong to this group. Finally, you have the large winged species. Most of these are partially arboreal, but some become so large that they can no longer fly.


Termites, mantids and cockroaches are closely related, and the name Dictyoptera has been erected to name the group. Cockroaches first evolved in the early Carboniferous period, about 359MYA. Mantids evolved from “proto-cockroaches” about 145MYA in the very early cretaceous. So, as Tyrannosaurus rex was romping around biting chunks out of Ceratopsians, early mantids were munching their way through small invertebrates on a micro level. Proto-cockroaches (or Blattoptera) are cockroach like insects that the true cockroaches first evolved from. Looking at a large cockroaches’ leg, you can see the numerous large spines projecting downwards from the leg. It is not hard to see how these could have evolved into raptorial appendages. Termites are just social wood eating cockroaches. They probably evolved about 120MYA in the Cretaceous from a similar group to Cryptocercus, a small wood eating cockroach. Genetic studies have shown that Cryptocercus shares more DNA with termites than any other genus of cockroaches. It is the only cockroach to exhibit true social behaviors like caring for it’s young. I always find it funny when I say “cockroach” to people, and get a repulsed face. Say mantis or termite to them, and they usually hold them with regard and respect in their mind. You now know that they are basically the same thing.

Cockroaches are best known for being pest insects, which some of them are. But only 25-30 species out of the 4,000 around today are pests. They are generally tough animals, able to survive for a long time without food or water. Indeed, that old myth about cockroaches being able to survive for a month without it’s head is actually true!
In cockroaches, the head performs sensory functions like sight and smell, as well as being the holder of the mouth through which the roach drinks and feeds. Like all insects, the mouth is not used as a respiratory organ, instead they breathe through a series of tubes called trachea. Outlet holes called spiracles on the side of the abdomen open into the trachea, which, like our lungs, feed oxygen to the tissues, and remove carbon dioxide. Large species, with their high oxygen requirement, need to pump their abdomen often to keep air moving through the tubes. Insects also have no brain, they instead have ganglia decentralised throughout the body. Each ganglia controls, say, one pair of legs and acts both independently and in combined movements with the other pairs. In chordates, decapitation leads to death as almost all functions are controlled by the brain. In insects, they will carry on living until starvation, desiccation or predation claim them.

Another myth is that cockroaches will survive through a nuclear war. Well, they will certainly survive better than us, but for an insect, they are nothing special. Most cockroaches have a radiation resistance 6-12 times higher than a human, but animals like flies have even higher resistances. Radiation affects cells only when they are dividing, either by mitosis or meiosis. In humans, cells divide constantly to grow our bodies, repair ourselves or to produce sex cells. In insects, cell division only occurs at ecdysis (skin shedding). Only after they have shed their skin, do the cells begin to divide to quickly grow their bodies before they harden. If a nuclear blast occurred whilst they were hardening, they would be effected. If it occurred whilst the insect was hard, there would be little effect to the insect. However, long-term radiation could hit the insects when they shed, so they are as at risk as us to long-term radiation.

Cockroaches are generally silent animals, but supposedly there is a Floridian species which makes a chirping noise. Better known is the hiss that members of the tribe Gromphadorhini make by contacting their abdomen and forcing air out of the spiracles to create a predator repelling hiss. Members of this group (particularly from the genus Gromphadorhina) are common pets for those with a taste for the unusual, and are often seen in zoos as a handalable exhibit because they are a very large insect that although very impressive looking, is actually very calm when used to being handled. Cockroaches are in fact fairly large for insects. Like mantids, the smallest members of the group are about thumbnail sized (with the average being just above this size), whilst the group contains a very high number of large insects. Some of the largest and most impressive are:

Blaberus giganteus, the giant cave cockroach. At up to 90mm long, this is one of the longest cockroaches. Males are slim and fly well, but females have such massive bodies that the best they can manage is a sort of controlled fall. Males are often aggressive to each other, and both sexes release a very pungent smell which always reminds me of a nice vaguely fruity chemical. A few nymphs of this species usually retail for a couple of quid each.
Macropanesthia rhinoceros is the largest cockroach. At 75mm long, it is not the longest, but it’s sheer bulk more than makes up for this. They can weigh about 35g, which is huge for a terrestrial arthropod. They live for over 10 years and feed on eucalyptus bark and leaves exclusively. They dig and live in deep burrows with networks all around. Males (being larger and with a shovel shaped pronotum) do most of the digging, and the young usually stay in the burrow for a year before they move off. An adult pair of this species can set you back £80!
Megaloblatta insignis is the longest cockroach. At 105mm long, it is a huge beast that has been very poorly documented in the wild. It apparently (and very oddly) mimics larger Blaberus species, but differs in a few areas obvious to a layman, chiefly amongst which, no Blaberus is the uniform brown that M. insignis is. This could be something to do with the defensive chemical I spoke about earlier, but this is just my hypothesis and not scientific fact. This species has not been raised in captivity in the west.

But enough about roaches as a whole, we need to look at the species currently in my care. We start with a species known in the trade as the African Bullet Roach. Why? Well, they are from Africa and move as fast as a bullet! They are a small species getting to between 12-17mm as adults and were first collected in about 1997/8 at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. They are so easy to keep and breed that they are being used as feeder roaches for larger amphibians and reptiles. Just run that through your head, an unidentified species, being so common and numerous, that it is thrown to toads without a second glance!


The second species is one that I have yet to photograph properly, due to their small size and fast speed! This is Blaberidae sp. “Kenya”. Notice the “dae” on the end of that name. This means that this species is only known to family level, not even genus (like the above species). Males are an appealing orange colour, but females are a dark brown with reduced wings. They are only small at 10-12mm, but I am really looking forward to breeding them.

Now we look at Pycnoscelus sp. " Malaysia”, a small parthinogenic species (where females can produce offspring without a male) related to the sort-of-pest-sort-of-not Pycnoscelus surinamensis which causes a problem with its size and speed by being able to do well in most conditions (as long as there is a lot of moisture), so it jump’s animal tanks easily. They are tiny, which adults rarely reaching 10mm.


A cracking species is Eublaberus sp. “Pantanal”. This species is related to two common roaches in the hobby, E. disanti and E. posticus, but has much more black on it’s head with paler wings. It is found in a more southerly area than the other two species, and at 50mm, it is longer than the other two species. It is a stunning critter and both nymphs and adults are very showy whilst being rather shy and tending to burrow.



Finally, we have a new colour form of Eurycotis opaca, a large species up to 50mm long. It is related to pest species, but is itself not a pest. It has the build of a running species, but it is much larger than most. Adult’s have a blaze of colour on the pronotum which looks to me vaguely like a setting sun.

I have tried to contact a chap called Darren Mann, an expert in cockroaches, to see if he can identify whether it is worth naming them ourselves, or if they turn out to be a colour form of described species. He is out of office until early April, but naturally, I will keep you updated on developments.
We are also working on a project to try and document the behaviour and biology of these animals involving volunteers from the CFZ readershi[, so watch this space.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Back-dating the Somerset Cat.

On Monday, I went on a field trip. Field trips in Geology are a common occurrence; what better way to learn about rocks than to get out there and look? We were off to a place called Vallis Vale in East Somerset, the site of an unconformity. An unconformity occurs when sediments are laid down, folded so the beds lie at an angle, and then eroded.
Younger sediments form on top of the old sediment in typical straight beds, and an unconformity is created. They are only visible when falling sea levels and colliding continents cause the unconformity to rise above “normal” ground level.
Cutting by a river or quarrying also helps. You can see in the photo the different dips of the beds. The beds themselves can be dated by looking at the fossils within them; the rock below is from the Carboniferous period, and the rock above is from the Jurassic. This site is geologically important as it was described in the world's first Geological Survey memoir in 1846 and helped establish the science. Anyway...


In the minibus on the way up, through the sounds of Rush’s “2112”, I overheard my teacher talking to the lad sat in the front seat that he had seen a “black panther” crossing this road at night. I realised where we were, and found that we were about 800m from the field in which the big cat has been killing dozens of sheep! Hooray!

The next day I stayed behind to ask him about it. He said he had been driving along the road at about 2145 to take his son’s babysitter home, when out of a wood on the left this Labrador walked out onto the road. He stopped to see if it was ok (clearly a dog walking around on its own is a cause for concern), but it suddenly dawned on him that it was a big cat. He stopped the car and watched the cat watch him. It carried on it’s way to the right, and he can remember clearly pressing the button to wind the window up; just in case.

He also said that his first encounter of big cats (or rather, something) happened at around the same time when climbing in Cheddar Gorge. He was getting up to the top of the ridge in an area where no people go because it is very heavily wooded. He got to the top of the ridge, and found an area of scraped ground with a large mound of foul smelling dung deposited inside. He didn’t recognise it as being something he was familiar, but he left it due to the difficulties in getting it back down again.

My teacher is not unknowledgable when it comes to animals; parts of teaching geology necessitate a good knowledge of the natural world, and I would take his account as highly credible. The diagnostic features he remembers are; very long thin tail, jet black colour (“such that if it was hidden in bracken or a ditch, you could come within 3ft of it and not notice it was there” he said), slightly pointed ears and a very calm demeanour. It’s total length was about 2m long.

This is all very interesting, but there was one more thing. The sighting happened 14 years ago.

Friday, 13 March 2009

COMPETITION: Walking in a winter wonderland

Back in early February, as I am sure you remember, the British Isles had a flurry of snow. Here in Somerset, we had our fair share, and I - being the good field-man I am - went up to the usual place to see if Mr. Kitty had left any traces of his existence. The farmer had moved his sheep away into shelter over the cold snap, so I knew that there would be no new kills to poke.

I battled my way up to the field, parked up, got out and had a look around. I was extremely surprised to see the amount of snow prints I did (nothing feline though), and got round to the fun business of identifying them all, as all good naturalists should. Now, I know what most of these are, but the real question is, do you, the CFZ blog readers, have any idea what these prints are from? The person who sends in the most accurate answers as to what the following 8 photos show wins a year’s subscription to either The Amateur Naturalist or Animals & Men magazine, it’s your choice! Answers can be sent to max@cfz.org.uk. The number at the end of the text next to the photo shows the question number.

First up, we have this image. Any ideas? They are right down to the ground (3”), so we must be dealing with something with fairly small feet for its body size.
The two prints are about 6” apart, and each print is 1.5” wide. Claws are clearly visible, which are short but thick.
The central pad is also diagnostic. [1]



Ok, now try this. We have two prints, which plunge very deep into the snow with a pretty large amount of kicked back snow. The prints are about 1-1.5” in diameter, and are about 1’ apart. What do you think they are? [2]






Moving briefly to a photo I took near my house, what have we here?
We have thinner snow, maybe an inch, with two sets of prints.
One very large long one and two smaller distinct prints. The prints are about 2” wide.
Any ideas? [3]


And this one? An odd one this. The snow is very thin here. [4]






And this? Four points originating from a central source. [5]













Right, let’s get tough. The next few photos are fairly indistinct, and I won’t be adding my suggestions and hints for any of these. Good luck!



Oh, and just for fun, this is the amount of prints that you get around a decaying carcass as scavengers, errr, scavenge for meat left on the bones.