Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Crowdsourced TetZooCon 2015 report

TetZooCon 2015 back in November was a great success and a lot of fun, I only regret I wasn't able to stay 'till the end. Naturally, Pygmy Elephants was on sale throughout the day at a discount. (Extra links will be added to this post shortly.)

The venue was the London Wetlands Centre in Barnes, which must have London's most spectacular view from a Gent's toilet's window, even on a very rainy day like the day of TetZooCon.

First on was TetZoo instigator Darren Naish, on "The Evolution of Sea Monsters", and some of ridiculous lengths cryptozoologists have gone to in order to try to fit a vast range of one-off sightings into known zoology, often including hypothetical loosely species based on the fossil record but given a bizarre (and evidence-free) evolutionary spin in an attempt to accommodate them (clumsily) into known zoology.

I particularly liked Naish's "cryptozoological pyramid of inferences":

I was on next, speaking on, you guessed it, pygmy elephants. I'll leave the audience - both in the room and monitoring it via Twitter - to summarise my talk.

This included Loxodonta pumilio, an alleged pygmy elephant species, a specimen of which was once on show at Bronx Zoo. Although when he died and his remains went the American Museum of Natural History in New York a century ago, they were pretty convinced he was a bog-standard juvenile forest elephant.

"Congo", as Bronx Zoo's "pygmy elephant" specimen was known, is regarded as the best evidence for a pygmy elephant in uncritical internet regurgitation circles, but few realise that he was an infant at the time. The talk was an opportunity to show some rarely seen "before" and "after" photos that make "Congo" seem less like a pygmy after all...

It's always interesting to see what engages the punters most, and at TetZooCon it seemed to be:

World Wildlife Fund Malaysia accidentally upgrading its Borneo (Asian) elephants to "pygmy elephents" in a press release (more on this here.):

(Paleo-artist Jon Conway is co-instigator of TetZooCon.)

The discussion of how much smaller Borneo elephants are than mainland Asian elephants prompted a virtual exchange with Dr Victoria Herridge, the Natural History Museum's discoverer of Mammathus creticus (and more recently another Mediterranean pygmy elephant), as well as the presenter of Mammoth Autopsy. It ended with a virtual wave to me from Tori.

The revelation that miniature, fist-sized "pygmy elephant" talismans change hands in Thailand and Burma for a lot of money, and their extraordinary source, caused a lot of excitement:

As did the assertion, put about by British big game hunter WR Foran and others, that perfidious French ivory hunters invented the whole "pygmy elephant" thing as a scam to circumvent regulations banning the shooting of juvenile elephants, by claiming that they'd just shot adult (made-up) pygmies instead:

Punters also found the idea of fossil Mediterranean pygmy elephants having litters particularly cool. In answer to a question, I explained that the Spignallo Cave site in Sicily yielded lots of pygmy elephant skeletons, of which many were juveniles or infants. This suggests a high level of infant mortality, and the bit about pygmy elephants having litters of several young was speculation based on this. (Modern African elephants have only one calf at a time, with a gestation period of almost two years. There's a life reconstruction of a juvenile Elephas falconeri here and a "fossil pygmy elephant identification chart" here.)

One of the audience identified with the Sicilian fossil pygmy elephant Elephas falconeri (aka Paleoloxodon falconeri) in particular, as he was from Sicily too (or at least from Italy). (Although his photo actually shows the pygmy stegodon Stegadon floriensis on the left, from Indonesia. Elephas falconeri is here.)

There was also Twitter chatter about "hoaxes involving young", particularly those perpetrated by circus manager PT Barnum, and Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey's Circus, who had several dodgy pygmy elephants in their menagerie:

The bit about forest elephant females, from their late teens upwards, adopting the orphaned infants who had lost their mothers to poachers after they had weaned also provoked responses. This is in the Dzanga Clearing study of forest elephant behaviour, carried out by the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Central African Republic, which lasted well over a decade. Orphan savannah elephant infants, by contrast, invariably don't survive. (It's thought that a 1982 photo from Congo Brazzaville of a herd of small elephants, with young, is in fact a herd of infants orphaned by poaching and adopted by teenage females. You'll have to read Pygmy Elephants for more information, it includes a reproduction of the 1982 photos of the Congo-Brazzaville alleged pygmy elephant herd.)

There followed Jessica Lawrence-Wujek's talk on why Ichthyosaurs are the coolest reptiles of the Mesozoic. The more you study Ichthyosaurs, the more bizarre they get, particularly their paddles. These started life as the fingers of a limb, but these seem to have sprouted more and more bits out of the sides of what used to be digits as they evolved. They were creatures of the "shallow seas" - seas of around 100 feet deep at the most, but their big eyes suggest they may have been diving further into the dark depths of the Mesozoic waters.

Urban birder David Lindo described how his "Great British Bird" competition elected the robin as Britain's favourite bird - appropriate, as robins behave differently in the UK than on the European mainland. On the Continent, they're forest birds that follow deer or bison, waiting for the to churn up the bugs they feed on. Only in Britain are they garden birds that look to human gardeners to turn up bugs for them. He described the awkward silence in a North American bird hide when he shouted excitedly about seeing a particular type of rare tit. "We call it a titmouse or a chicadee", a North American birder eventually told him.

Vicky Coules recounted The Future is Wild, an After Man-style animated series about the animals that inherit the Earth after we leave (in spaceships to go to a nicer planet, apparently, at the behest of the American network funding it.) Elephantine megasquid colonise the land looking very much like HP Lovecraft's Cthulu. An elephant seal-like giant flightless gannet colonised the frozen regions. Mammals are consigned to history, the last one being a hamster-like "pog" kept as food by seed-gathering spiders. The future Earth includes an Antarctic rain forest, which reminded me of the "Strontium Dog" story from 1980s 2000AD sci-fi comic in which mutant bounty hunters land in an Antarctic rainforest (the result of human-made climate change) and encounter fauna including "monkey-gators".

There then followed the paleoart session on which Naish, Conway and Mark Witton (they all know their pterosaurs!) led us in an illuminating life reconstruction exercise. We were given deliberately badly done cast of one of the Solnhofen pterodactyl casts (one of the people on my table had actually been to Solnhofen) and asked to draw it as a bird, a bat, a reptile or whatever the features suggested. My hopping moorhen with teeth that couldn't fold its wings fully and that had vestiges of fingers used as sort of whiskers to detect wind direction didn't make the top five. Then I had to dash off on Mystery Animals of Suffolk business, I very much regret.

Both Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs and the Scientific American TetZoo blog have excellent reports on TetZooCon 2015.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Pygmy Elephants at TetZooCon 2015 - imminent!

John Conway's excellent TetZooCon icon of myself as an elephant-bodied "Tetzooconian" does give me a rather out-of-date hairstyle! Copyright: John Conway, reproduced here with his permission.

I’m a speaker at TetZooCon 2015 on Saturday 14 November, speaking on Pygmy Elephants.

TetZooCon is the brainchild of Dr Darren Naish of TetZoo (Tetrapod Zoology), Scientific American’s most popular blog, and paleo-artist John Conway (check).

It’s all day Saturday at the London Wetlands Centre, London Wetland Centre
 Queen Elizabeth Walk
, Barnes, London SW13 9WT. Tickets, if there are any still left, are here.

I am very humbled as a mere journalist with a humanities degree to have been invited to speak to an audience with an intimidating large proportion of proper scientists - zoologists and palaeontologists in particular!

My talk will whizz through some of the alleged modern pygmy elephants, including some that weren’t in the Pygmy Elephants book that I’ve stumbled across since the book came out. (Examples here and here.)

Here’s the abstract I sent to Dr Darren Naish, who organises TetZooCon:

Living pygmy elephants?
Matt Salusbury, freelance journalist @Pyg_Eleph

The prehistoric pygmy elephants, pygmy stegodons and pygmy mammoths have been formally described to science and are well-documented, but claims have also been made in modern times for the existence of living pygmy elephants.
There have been sighting, photos, cine film and shootings of – allegedly – adult elephants said to be only five foot (1.52 metres) tall from Central and West Africa, and more recently from south India.

There are alleged specimens – bones and skins of pygmy elephants in museums or collections, but on closer examination these turn out to be not all that they seem.

Some are honest misidentifications, a few are hoaxes and some of the much-quoted written sources used as supporting evidence have become somewhat garbled in the retelling.

Zoologists, cryptozoologists and eyewitnesses have described a variety of alleged pygmy proboscideans – including Pliny the Elder’s “bastard elephants,” the respectably Latin-named Loxodonta pumillio, the wakawaka of the Belgian Congo, “kallana”, the “stone elephant” of Kerala, esesmasas (the “incarnation of the Devil” from Spain’s tiny African empire), “scimitar-tusked” aggressive pale pygmy elephants of the Kibali-Ituri forest, the sama oule reddish coloured pointy-headed Malian elephants, as well as some dubious animals advertised as miniature pachyderms by the great circus impresario PT Barnum. The actual evidence for the existence of these animals, however, is unimpressive.

Naturally, Pygmy Elephants will be on sale at a discount at TetZooCon. I'll be ending my talk (a manageable half-hour) with a quick pitch to the proper scientists for collaboration on a couple of projects, only one of which I can name here, a "Mighty Giant.. dig'd up" in 1652 that is most likely the bones of an mammoth or elephant.

Let's just say the other is something to do with mystery animals in Suffolk, and features the world premiere of a very couple of minutes of some kind of animal captured on CCTV somewhere not far from the South Norfolk/North Suffolk border!

The references from my talk will be linked from this page later. Humorous anecdotes from the day will be on the Pygmy Elephants twitter feed.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Finally found a photo of an elephant ploughing

In - of all places - the Museum of East Anglian Life, Stowmarket, Suffolk - I saw this photo on display. Its source wasn't given, beyond 1879, India. (It was part of a hall displaying ploughs and other agricultural machinery.)

Both Sukumar Raman and Jacob Cheeran, Asian elephant experts I talked to, said they'd heard of, or seen photos of, ploughing elephants. Cheeran said he'd seen early 20th century photos of ploughing elephants in Burma. He said the biggest problem with ploughing elephants would be the gears for the plough, it being such a big animal it would be hard to set up the gears. (Most contemporary ploughs, including those pulled by bullocks in India, are assumed to have gears these days.)

Pliny the Elder in his Natural Histories talks about "nothi", "bastard elephants" used for ploughing in India, assumed to have been smaller elephants. But as you can see from the engraving, it's a massive, adult male tusker pulling an absolutely huge plough. It's quite possible, of course, that the drawing's not accurate. The ploughmen (ploughmen-mahouts?) don't look particularly like farmers to me, and the elephant, with its straight tusks, isn't particularly well rendered.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Pygmy Elephants talk at TetZooCon - 14 November 2015

I've just been confirmed as a speaker at TetZooCon 2015, Saturday 14 November at the London Wetlands Centre. Naturally, I will be flogging some books there. More details follow.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Quite big for pygmies - Fortean Times review of Pygmy Elephants

This first appeared in Fortean Times, FT 320 (November 2014) and is reproduced here with the permission of both the review's author, Dr Karl Shuker and Fortean Times editor David Sutton.

Quite big for pygmies

Unknown animals are not generally as conspicuous as widely
photographed but oddly shadowy pygmy elephants

Pygmy Elephants - On the Track of the World's Largest Dwarfs

Matt Salusbury
CFZ Press (Bideford), 2013
Paperback, 314 pp, illustrated, glossary, bibliography, index, ISBN 9781909488151

The Tasmanian wolf or thylacine is often dubbed the world's most common extinct animal on account of the number of unverified sightings since the last confirmed specimen died in 1936. By that reckoning, pygmy elephants must rate not only as the world's largest dwarfs but also as the world's most conspicuous unknown animals, since alleged pygmy elephants have been filmed in the wild close-up and with a clarity unlike the ill-defined blobs normally characteristic of cryptid images.

Specimens have been kept in major zoos around the world and preserved in museums after their deaths, yet their zoological status has remained controversial. Faced with such a shadowy, scientifically anonymous history given such animals' corporeal presence (a history stretches back over a century in terms of Western knowledge, let alone the countless ages of native knowledge), it is perhaps inevitable that it has taken until the second decade of the 21st century to have an entire book devoted to pygmy elephants.The wait has been worthwhile.

The first four chapters of this fact-fest on pygmy elephants documents the fascinating range of island-endemic prehistoric forms, some of which survived into (semi-) modern times, and the tendency towards dwarfism or gigantism that frequently occurs as a consequence of insular evolution. The proboscidean examples merit a book of their own. Chapter 5 sets the scene for documenting the African pygmy elephant by revealing how taxonomic splitters delineated the African forest elephant from the African savannah elephant. They promoted it to a separate, second African species of elephant in its own right, thus providing a precedent for discovering a 'new' species in the modern scientific age.

Chapters 6-8 are devoted to the African pygmy elephant, documenting its history and recorded specimens. Some researchers have categorised it as a valid species in its own right; others have discounted it as

merely a juvenile form or even a dwarfed, teratological version of the forest elephant. (This mirrors the early scientific history of the pygmy hippopotamus relative to the much larger common hippopotamus). Also included here is a detailed account of the West African water elephant, a semi-aquatic cryptid that has long been a favourite of mine.

Chapters 9- 10 focus upon the kallana, or Asian pygmy elephant, in its permutations and document the bizarre mouse-sized 'water weevil' elephants - small but supposedly deadly mini-beasts that occasionally turn up in dried form on eBay. The author visited India to interview kallana eyewitnesses and obtained photos previously unpublished outside the subcontinent. There is much new information here in addition to the historical literature.

The final chapter considers the likelihood that pygmy elephants exist; the author concludes that they do not. How, then, can the specimens and filmed evidence be explained? To discover how he seeks to resolve this paradox, you'll have to read the book! There are illustrations throughout the text, many of which were new to me.

There is a useful glossary, an illustrated identification guide and a detailed bibliography. But what about websites that were consulted during research and have subsequently vanished? This is a bane for authors in the Internet age, but thanks to an addendum to the bibliography, readers can rediscover these ostensibly lost sources, which is great news.

It's customary to find things to gripe about when reviewing a book, but I found little. One minor source of frustration, however, is that the list of contents does not include page numbers for the chapters (a contents page with numbers is here, sorry!), so the only way to find, say, Chapter 6, is to flick through the book. There is the inevitable sprinkling of factual errors that pop up in any work bristling with facts and figures. To quote just one example: it was Maurice Rothschild, not Baron Walter Rothschild, who purchased an anomalous tusk in an Addis Ababa ivory market in the early 20th century.

Overall, however, this is an absorbing read. I do not agree with all of the author's conclusions about the validity or otherwise of pygmy elephants. However, his diligent compilation, presentation and analysis of the hitherto disparate history and facts about these enigmatic animals, plus his own addition of important new data to their archive of material as exclusively revealed in this book, make it a publication very deserving to be read by everyone interested in such creatures. If you're looking for information on stature-challenged pachyderms, this is the publication to consult.

Karl Shuker

Fortean Times Verdict