Nature Blog Network

Saturday 5 February 2011

Review: Moa Sightings by Bruce Spittle.

Hardcover: 448 pages
Publisher: Paua Press Limited; 1st edition (January 1, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0473153564
ISBN-13: 978-0473153564

ISBN-10: 0473153572
ISBN-13: 978-0473153571

ISBN-10: 0473153580
ISBN-13: 978-0473153588

Once in a while, I get my hands on a book which makes me think “why on earth don’t more people write like this”? Most cryptozoological books are, basically, rubbish. Yes, there are a number of great books out there, but an awful lot just rehash previously covered stories, or dive into the paranormal and sensationalism to increase sales. This book is about as far removed as one can get from these works of tripe.

Split across three volumes, “Moa Sightings” is a real behemoth which, due to its high price tag, will not sell many copies. But anyone with a great interest in moas or New Zealand’s cryptozoology should sell a portion of the family silver and buy the whole set. In five words, the three books are incredible.

Hardback with full colour printing throughout, the books are very high quality indeed. The front cover, I feel, looks a little basic, but that really does not matter. Upon opening the book, you are greeted to a wonderful range of maps (there are probably hundreds of maps between the three volumes), portraits and biographies of most of the witnesses, drawings of skeletons and huge numbers of photographs of the areas in which the sightings occurred. This is a book which draws you into New Zealand. The maps and photographs help you picture the areas vividly in your mind; whilst the long and detailed discussions of each sighting help you assess the circumstances in which the sighting event occurred.

The analysis of the Freaney photograph for instance is 283 pages long. That is enough for a book alone on the photograph. Though the analysis is generally very thorough, and the photographs clear, I would have liked to have seen more photo measurement analysis, perhaps comparing the measurements and angles to a deer. This is a slight weak link in the book, and because of this it does not change my opinion that the photograph shows a young red deer, but in reality, this is pretty much the only negative point (and it did really make me consider my initial opinion). If Mr. Spittle published his analysis of the Freaney photograph as a separate, much smaller and more affordable book, I think he would do the world of cryptozoology a huge favour.

This book then is exactly how cryptozoology should be done. Has is changed my opinion on the Freaney photograph? No. Has it changed my opinion that there are no large (4ft tall+) species of moa still alive? No, I remain sure that they are extinct. Has it changed my opinion that there are no small species of moa still alive? Sort of I suppose; I think there is a high chance they lived until the 1800’s, but I don’t think there are any left alive.

To finish this review then, I am going to quote Mr. Spittle on why he formed Paua Press Limited in 2007: “Just as a paua [Haliotis, a species of New Zealand abalone] appears dull and nondescript on the outside but is of compelling interest when the surface dross is taken away, I am hopeful that the books my press publishes will have, at their centre, something of substance for the reader.” He is absolutely correct, this is an incredible book, “On The Track...” for moa enthusiasts. For God’s sake ask for it as a birthday present...


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?

Saturday 26 December 2009


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.


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, 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


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!