Saturday, 18 September 2010

Stoat funeral processions

It is very rare that I slip into the mind of a Fortean and actually write about something that cannot be examined scientifically, so please forgive me...

The reason for my slip is one Maurice Burton. A well known zoologist during his life, he wrote many books and articles dealing with natural history, but also looked at cryptozoology. I first came across him in Peter Costello’s In Search of Lake Monsters where he (Costello) repeatedly criticised Burton for hypothesising that the Loch Ness Monster, and many other such creatures, were rising and falling logs, as well as misidentifications. I am currently reading Just Like an Animal by Burton, which gives a wide range of examples showing that many traits that ignorant people assume are only possessed by Homo sapiens, as well as some “higher” apes, are found in a wide range of other animals. Indeed, the most polite animals on earth don’t actually have backbones...

Anyway, at one point he records some instances of animal funeral processions; the most interesting of which (well, there are only two examples given) regards a procession of stoats. He notes that “about a hundred stoats in twos [were] following four carrying the dead body of another stoat.” Apparently this was published in the Irish Times and it “carried the comment that the legend of such ‘funerals’ is persistent throughout Eire.” This was first published by him in More Animal Legends, so if anyone has that book I would be most grateful if you got in touch with me...

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The only thing on the internet I can find that mentions other stoat funerals than this is a requiem entitled The Beauty and the Wonder of the Erne written by Charlie Ward who is a “journalist, broadcaster, and ardent angler.” This appears to have been published online in November 2009, but it provides no information on when it was actually written, who is/was Charlie Ward and when he saw the stoat funeral march. Anyway, he notes:

I watched a stoat's funeral. It was up at the Old Mill above Laputa, just before dark. Two-by-two they marched along the top of a wide, low wall, not twenty feet from me. Then came four with the corpse upside down between them, a leg in each sharp-toothed mouth.

“Ten more, two-by-two, followed, all making a low, whimpering, keening sound. The cortege, numbering about thirty or forty, disappeared into the culvert covering the old millrace, and went out of my life forever. Do stoats have communal cemeteries as elephants are reputed to have?”

This does sound like a similar story to Burton’s, but without his original book I cannot check the source. Regardless of whether this is a different reference or not, it does nothing to help support the existence of stoat funerals and burial processions. One hundred stoats marching in line is totally out of character for a stoat; most of the time they are fairly shy animals, though I, and many others, have seen them being very bold, especially if they are used to people. The closest I have got to a wild stoat was about 2” through a pane of glass before it got bored of me and decided to go down its hole under the chalet. I should note at this point that the stoat must have been incredibly tolerant of people because it had chosen to live in the middle of Centre Parks in Nottingham...

Stoats are also highly territorial and are usually seen singly. The only times that more than one may be seen at a time is when they are mating, fighting, or the parents with their young. To my knowledge, one hundred stoats together have never been reported other than the two references above, but if anyone knows of any others I would be most interested in reading them.

So, based on some simple knowledge of stoat behaviour, we can discount the existence of stoat funerals, and I would suggest that these are purely folkloric ideas with no basis in reality. The written sightings of such things are highly likely to be hoaxes, however, I would be quite happy to take back my opinion if it turns out there is a good body of evidence to support such events. A photo of such a funeral procession, consisting of around one hundred stoats wearing waistcoats and top hats, would do very nicely.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

On the hunt for Dinsdale’s signature...

Tim Dinsdale should need no introduction to readers of this blog, so I won’t give him one. A couple of days ago I found a copy of “Project Water Horse” for £1 from a second hand book dealers, which is very little for the book which would normally, according to Amazon, retail at over £5 for the book and postage. This, however, was not the reason for me buying the book with a poker face and leaving the shop pretty rapidly lest the seller realise their mistake. There, on the third page in the book was scrawled a signature which looked like it spelt “Tim Dinsdale” which is underlined.


Now, I never met Dinsdale (seeing as he died before I was born means this is not surprising), and searching for his signature online brings up nothing. So, dear readers, does anyone own something signed by Dinsdale? If you do own anything, I would be really grateful if you could email me a photograph of the signature to:

Thanks to anyone who can help.

Oh, and the classic depiction of a plesiosaur with a lamb in its mouth is only being used to spice up what is otherwise a slightly dull blog post...

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


The above are all videos (including the one posted up on the CFZ Bloggo the other day) which show an elongated aquatic animal similar to either an eel or a sea snake living in a tidal pool in Hawaii. The video posted in the original bloggobit intimated that this was Laticauda colubrina, a seasnake unknown from Hawaii (top right). Initially I thought the animal was a zebra moray eel (Gymnomuraena zebra), which is pictured top left, but further research made things much more interesting, for about five minutes.

First stop, a list of fish species for Hawaii. There are seventeen listed Muraenidae species in Hawaii, from giants to dwarfs. The video shows an animal between 40-100cm in length; easily within the size range of the target species, the zebra moray. However, on this particular list, the zebra was not listed as being present in Hawaii. The implication for cryptozoology was obvious. What was it doing there? Was it a released ex-captive individual? Was it totally unrecorded? Was it a new species to science that just looked similar to a zebra?

These questions were all answered rapidly when it turned out that there was a slight typo thing, and the zebra was listed outside of the other Muraenidae from Hawaii. Mystery solved, the animal in the videos is a zebra moray eel.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

A tale of a giant eel

I was up in Cumbria last weekend, just passing through from Scotland. I spent my first few years in Cumbria and have subsequently always thought of this as my home, not the South-West. Anyway...

A friend took me up to see the ospreys at Bassenthwaite lake (the 2 chicks have recently fledged) and we were rewarded with a lovely sighting of the male eating a fish (likely a perch). I got talking to one of the volunteers about their diets, and she mentioned that the other week a heron (well known for being very greedy at times) decided to take on a giant eel. Naturally, I asked how big this eel would have been. She said it was very thick for an eel, and was almost bent double to the ground when the heron picked it up.

Now, eels usually get to around a meter in length, but can in a number of documented cases grow up to 1.5 meters, and weights over 11 pounds. So, how large do herons get? Well, a height of around a meter is about right, and so this would make this eel anything from 120cm to 180cm. By any accounts, that’s a very big eel, and a potential British record.

Then again, I’m not so sure if the British anglers associations would be happy about giving the fisherman’s name as “A. Heron”...

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Bullhead bonanza (or not, as it turns out)

My biology class at school was always a little dull. We never really went on field trips, unless it was for a vitally important piece of coursework of course, but generally found ourselves stuck inside a large beige laboratory. So imagine my surprise when my younger sister bursts in exclaiming that her class had been out stream dipping on a stream I had never heard of, and that most importantly, they had caught some bullheads, miller’s thumbs, Cottus gobio, whatever you want to call them. This is our only freshwater sculpin, (a cottid as was pointed out earlier today by an anonymous reader) and it was not a species I had seen before. I set off the next day armed with a net, buckets and a friend to help catch them.

It took us a few minutes to find where they were hiding, and after a while we had our first bullhead. Admittedly, it was only about 10mm long, but still, it was a bullhead. More searching revealed a couple of juveniles, around 40mm long. But then we stumbled along a dead individual. And another. And then another. This was strange. Bullheads are long lived for small fish, and the chances of seeing these dead specimens all dying from old age was disproven due to the huge variation in size, from babies right up to huge 120mm adult males. By the end of the day, we had caught 6 bullheads of a range of sizes and seen others alive (plus a few young 3-spined sticklebacks and an adult female), but seen more dead ones in a state of decay. We found no dead sticklebacks, which is odd, and anyone thinking that my sisters class from the other day were to blame, they can’t have been because we went quite far upstream to catch ours whereas they went downstream.

We also found a putrid dead badger upstream with a huge pile of maggots on top. I chose not to tell my sister this...

I went down there again today briefly just to get some photos, and saw four dead specimens, and 3 live, one of which was certainly the large adult we caught last time. Does anyone have any ideas what could have caused this?

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

What A "Bee" That Was

A lot has been said about the decline of our bumblebees in the last few years, but fortunately my garden at home still has large numbers of bees visiting which come and go as the flowers on different plants open and mature. Anyway, earlier today I decided to finally begin the long process of teaching myself to identify the bees in the garden. I, like many people, will know that there are a large range of both social and solitary bees which make their way into British gardens each year, and many of them, being constantly on the move in a manner somewhat akin to a clockwork toy, are tricky to narrow down to species level without a close up photograph.

There are 6 main species of British bumblebee (this name specifically refers to members of the genus Bombus) and 95% of sightings of furry bees will be these. Other furry bees include mason (Osmia), miners (Andrena) and hairy footed flower bees (Anthophora), as well as less common Bombus. Many others still look more like honey bees, or, like the white faced bee, something totally different.


Bombus terrestris is the most common species, the typical big bee with a pale tip to the abdomen and two bold yellow bands, one at the top of the abdomen, the other on the thorax. Queens are large, prompting the, frankly stunning, headline “bees as big as mice!” to be plastered everywhere. On a bizarre side note, this was one of my favourite random phrases to throw around in conversation last spring. And on another side note, typing said phrase into google has the CFZ news blog as its third link. I suppose we must be doing something right!

If you live up north, you are more likely to have B. lucorum as your main large bumble bee, though it is common in the south as well. It is similar to B. terrestris, but the yellow bands are paler and the tip of the abdomen is a crisp white. Like B. terrestris, they have short tongues, and sometimes cheat flowers out of nectar by biting through the side of long flowers to steal their food directly. They are declining slightly in abundance, but are faring better than many species.

Bombus horturum is another common bumblebee. Smaller than the above species, and with a longer tongue, B. horturum lives in small colonies in many different habitats, but in summer is often the most common species found in woodlands. Getting a close photograph of its head shows that the workers of this species have a longer head than relatives, but observation should show the extra yellow band on the thorax and the slimmer build over both B. lucorum and B. terrestris.

Ginger fuzzy bees can belong to a number of species, but the most common is Bombus pascuorum. Small and with a medium length tongue, B. pascuorum can be distinguished simply from similar solitary bees by its round compound eyes, which are much taller and slimmer in Anthophora. There are reports of this species being aggressive if disturbed when nesting or feeding, but casual observation should not cause it to attack.


By far the most easily recognised bee is Bombus lapidaries. It’s simple colour scheme, with a jet black body and red abdomen tip, renders it easy to identity in the field. Their short tongues mean that they need a landing platform on the flowers they land on, so they have a slim build to reduce weight and to make it easier for them to successfully land on a flower. They are doing well for themselves at the moment, spreading northwards at a strong pace. They are now common in Aberdeen, whereas 50 years ago they were extremely rare.

The final of the Big 6, as they are so called, is Bombus pratorum. The smallest of the 6, and with a short tongue, they are generally found on daisy-like plants with big easy landing pads and very short flowers. Though one of the most variable bee species, the abdomen tip is almost always brown, orange or pink, or any shade in-between. The colour tip of B. lapidaries is much more pronounced, but both the colour of the tip and diminutive size differentiates B. pratorum from the other species. A yellow bar on the thorax is generally present, but its extent (from a full thick band, to a couple of hairs) varies. The yellow bar on the abdomen may be full, broken, or non-existent. The photographs show an individual which lacks this yellow bar.

So there you have it, a quick guide to the 6 most commonly found bumblebee species in Britain. I would recommend looking at some photos of each species on the internet to get a better feel for what they look like. But, next time you are out in the garden, don’t just take the bumblebees for granted, do them the honour of studying them closely to see what they really are!

I must apologise quickly for both the quality of the photographs and the identifications, the lens I was using was rubbish, but any mistakes in the identification of the bees are totally my fault!