Episode 039: The Devil’s Footprints

Happy Halloween, everyone! This week’s episode is about a spooky occurrence in 1855, where people in Devon woke to find small hoofprints all over the place, even on roofs. Join us in an attempt to figure out just what animal might have made the devil’s footprints!

The footprints as drawn by the Rev. Ellacombe from newspaper accounts:

The h*ckin adorable wood mouse:

Link to lots of pictures of jumping wood mice omg

Wood mouse prints from jumping, from Leutscher via Dash (see further reading, below):

Mystery print from 2009:

Further reading:

The Devil’s Hoofmarks: Source Material on the Great Devon Mystery of 1855 edited by Mike Dash

HALLOWEEN BONUS AW YISS! I’ve unlocked the following Patreon bonus episodes so everyone can listen. You should be able to open them in your browser without needing a Patreon login:

Animals That Glow

The Beast of Busco

Weird Teeth

Carnivorous Plants

Also thank you for buying a lot of copies of my book Skytown:

Amazon USA

Amazon UK

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast Halloween episode for 2017. I’m your host, Kate Shaw. This is the best time of the year if you like candy, ghost stories, monsters, wearing spooky costumes, and buying all the bat decorations in Target. I have so many bat decorations. I’ve stopped taking them down after Halloween and my room looks like a bat cave.

Before we get started, a quick heads-up that I’ve unlocked a few of the older Patreon bonus episodes so that anyone can listen to them. They won’t show up in your feed but I have links to the specific episodes in this week’s show notes so you can go listen to them in your browser if you’re interested. You don’t even need a Patreon login. I hope you enjoy them as an extra Halloween treat.

Another reminder that I have a novel available through Fox Spirit Books. It’s called Skytown and it’s a fun steampunk adventure story. I’ll put a link in the shownotes if you want to learn more.

Oh, and if you want a Strange Animals Podcast sticker, just send me your mailing address at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com and I’ll mail you one!

Now, on with the spooky Halloween episode!

This week’s episode is something that has baffled me since I read about it as a kid. It’s baffled everyone for more than 150 years. I’ll tell you now that while I make one suggestion that seems plausible to me, it’s by no means a perfect match for the creature that made…the devil’s footprints.

/reverb reverb reverb

The winter of 1855 was especially bitter in England. Around Devon, the rivers froze solid and temperatures stayed below freezing almost every day and night from January to March. On the night of February 8 it snowed, but towards dawn a brief thaw turned the falling snow to rain before the temperature dropped again and a frost fell. When residents of Devon woke on the morning of February 9, they found some 4” of snow on the ground, or 10 cm. They also found small hoofprints everywhere.

These weren’t ordinary hoofprints. A donkey or pony hadn’t gotten loose during the night and wandered around. Some of the prints did look like a donkey’s, but some appeared cloven, more like a large goat’s hoof. And the stride was short, only about 8” between most prints, or a little over 20 cm, sometimes about double that. Besides, the prints appeared in places where a donkey couldn’t possibly have left prints: on rooftops, inside gardens with tall walls and locked gates. Even a nimble goat couldn’t have managed that without someone hearing a goat bounding around. Sometimes a line of prints would walk right up to an obstacle, like a haystack or hedge, and continue on the other side as though the obstacle didn’t exist. Tracks began or ended abruptly as though the animal had dropped from or flown into the sky.

And there were untold thousands of the prints. Some villages had prints in almost every yard. They appeared in churchyards among gravestones, in gardens and on doorsteps, in fields and roads. They meandered from place to place or sometimes continued in a straight line. And they appeared to be made not by a four-footed animal but by something walking on its hind legs, placing one hoof nearly in front of the other.

People tracked some of the prints for miles without coming across any clue as to what had made them. A few forward thinkers made sketches of the prints and jotted down notes. By February 13, reports of the strange footprints had made it into the local newspapers.

Beyond the often maddeningly vague newspaper accounts, most of what we know about the hoofprints comes from the Reverend H.T. Ellacombe, who was vicar of the parish of Clyst St George from 1850 to 1885. He collected letters and sketches and made his own notes about the event, since some of the prints appeared in his own rectory grounds. Local historian Major Antony Gibbs discovered Ellacombe’s bundle of notes and letters in 1952, tucked away in a church office gathering dust.

But a series of letters published in 1855 by the Illustrated London News has been more influential than Ellacombe’s information. The letters were written by someone who signed himself “South Devon,” and we know from Ellacombe that South Devon was a 19-year-old local man whom Ellacombe called “young D’Urban.”

William D’Urban’s letters were exciting, to say the least. If you’ve heard anything about the devil’s footprints before, it was probably mostly details from D’Urban’s account. According to him, all the prints were identical in size, the stride likewise did not vary, and the prints were one unbroken trail at least 40 miles and as much as 100 miles in length, or 64 to 160 kilometers. This has sometimes been garbled in later retellings as a perfectly straight trail 100 miles long. D’Urban was also the one who claimed the prints continued from one side of the River Exe to the other side, two miles distant. It’s not clear if the river was frozen at this point, although it was frozen so solid by late February that an enterprising stove manufacturer ran pipes from the gas main onto the river ice and cooked an entire dinner for 30 on it while people skated all around him and probably tripped over the gas pipes. Moreover, the river is an estuary of the sea so has tides, and at low tide it’s barely a few hundred yards wide in some areas, or say 200 meters, and barely four feet deep, or about 1.2 meters.

Even at the time, D’Urban’s account was refuted by other locals, whose letters responding to South Devon’s letters were printed in follow-up issues of the paper. Apparently newspapers back then were like really slow social media. People wrote letters in response to other letters they’d seen in the newspaper, and other people wrote letters in response to those letters. Old timey people really needed Facebook. And cameras, because we don’t have very many sketches of the footprints and the ones we do have aren’t very detailed.

So what did the tracks really look like? As far as we know, most of the tracks were about 4 inches long, or 10 cm, and 2.75 inches across, or 7 cm. They did vary in size and shape from place to place, which argues that more than one animal made them and that hoaxers weren’t involved, since hoaxers would leave identical prints. I’ll put Ellacombe’s drawings of the prints, which he copied from newspaper reports, in the show notes to give you an idea of what they looked like. When you hear the word hoofprint it’s easy to think of a crisp, well-marked round hoof, maybe even with a horseshoe, but these prints were kind of wobbly in shape—not unexpected since they were all somewhat distorted by the night’s thaw and refreeze.

One of the people who wrote in to denounce some of D’Urban’s details was a Reverend G.M. Musgrave, vicar of Exmouth, and one of the things Musgrave also mentions is that he himself had suggested to his parishioners that the tracks were made by kangaroos escaped from a private menagerie. But, he admits, he didn’t actually believe this, he was only trying to stop his parishioners from believing that the devil had walked through their town.

The devil only started getting blamed for the footprints once it was clear no one really knew what had caused them. Lots of animals were suggested as culprits, most of which were about as likely as Musgrave’s kangaroos. Among the suggestions were badgers, rats or mice, hares, wolves, cats, monkeys, toads, or various birds. One anonymous letter-writer said that a friend had examined the tracks, noted that some of them showed claw marks, and suggested the animal might be an otter—mostly as a way to explain how the trail passed under low branches without disturbing them and through a six-inch, or 15 cm, pipe.

Other suggestions were even more outlandish, like the runaway balloon trailing a rope theory. Or the complex and largely irrational theory proposed in 1973 that seven Romany tribes conspired to lay the tracks in one night using stilts made from stepladders, in an attempt to scare some other tribes away. Or the 1972 theory that UFOs were measuring…something…with lasers and the tracks were left as a result, by lasers. Measuring things.

Leaving aside the theories that are clearly farfetched, like animals escaped from menageries and UFOs, and going with the assumption that whatever left the tracks was likely a real animal native to England, what might have left the devil’s footprints? I’m going out on a limb and suggesting maybe it wasn’t the devil.

Badgers, otters, and wolves leave tracks much too large to fit the bill. Toads are cold-blooded and would not be active in the snow. Birds do not leave miles of prints in snow at night, not even owls hunting mice on the ground, as they sometimes do. The tracks of deer would probably be recognized no matter how distorted the melting snow might have made them, and there are no reports of dew claw marks that deer prints show.

What about cats? Cats leave small neat footprints in snow with prints nearly in front of each other. With the brief thaw, feral cats might be out hunting for mice and other animals around houses and gardens, exactly where many prints were found. Cats can climb well, and a small cat might be able to accomplish some of the astonishing feats reported, like getting through dense hedges or larger pipes. And we do have a witness whose report is interesting. A tenant of Aller Farm in Dawlish, the only person we know to have been outside during the night in question, said that his cat had left tracks in the snow, and that the thaw and rain melted them, after which they froze again into small hoof-like shapes. So it’s possible that at least some of the prints were made by cats.

Rats sometimes hop through snow on all four feet, leaving deeper impressions that do look remarkably like the hoofprints seen. Rats can also get through quite small spaces and climb well. The main drawbacks of this theory are that hopping rats leave clear tail prints and rats don’t hop for miles. Rats also usually leave prints larger than the ones found. But again, it’s possible that at least some of the prints were made by rats.

Finally, what about mice? When I was a kid, this argument seemed ridiculously weak. I had pet mice. I knew there was no way a mouse could leave a horseshoe shaped print in the snow. But I was only familiar with pet white mice and house mice. There’s a type of mouse common throughout Europe that I think might be our culprit. Let’s find out why, and learn about the wood mouse.

The wood mouse, also called the long-tailed field mouse, is as adorable as the otter but won’t kill you. It’s a cute little rodent with a long tail, sandy-brown or orangey fur, white or gray belly and legs, and big ears. Not counting its tail, it’s about 6 to 15 cm long, or 2 ½ to 6 inches long, and its tail can be as long as its body. It mostly eats seeds and nuts, although it will also eat roots, shoots, berries and other fruit, moss, fungi, snails, and insects when seeds aren’t available.

Like many rodents, it discovered a long time ago that humans are useful nuisances, so it frequently lives around houses and barns, although not usually in houses. It generally lives in burrows it digs in fields, gardens, or among the roots of trees, although sometimes it will make its nest in birdhouses, hollow logs, or in thick vegetation. The nesting chamber of a mouse’s burrow is lined with leaves, grass, and moss, and it may also dig chambers where it stores extra food.

In warm weather wood mice aren’t very social, but in winter they will sleep in pairs or groups to stay warm. They don’t hibernate, but in especially cold weather they become torpid. They’re nocturnal animals, good climbers, jumpers, and swimmers.

While it forages, a wood mouse will pick up small items like leaves and twigs and place them in conspicuous locations to mark certain areas. As far as researchers know, wood mice and humans are the only animals to mark trails with items, known as way-marking. A mouse’s typical winter territory is around 2000 square meters, or half an acre.

All this is interesting, but why do I think the devil’s footprints were mostly made by wood mice? Well, wood mice flee from predators by hopping on all four legs. They’re built like tiny kangaroos, with long hind legs and comparatively short forelegs. I had a hard time finding information about wood mice jumping, just references to their ability to jump sometimes quite long distances. Then I found an awesome site by a photographer with lots of action shots of the wood mice around their garden. I’ll put a link in the show notes. Unfortunately the page hasn’t been updated for a while, but it’s full of photos of mice in mid-leap. The photographer puts food out and apparently sets up cameras that react to movement—like mini trail cams. It’s clear just from these shots that wood mice can and do jump a lot.

Unlike a rat, a jumping wood mouse doesn’t leave much of a tail mark in snow. It can also keep up this hopping gait for a long time, which it would do since it’s a more efficient way to travel through snow taller than the animal is high. It jumps with its feet together so the print it leaves behind roughly resembles a V shape where the two sides of the V don’t connect. Any amount of thawing and refreezing can turn that print into a cloven hoof print or a donkey-like hoof print.

Moreover, mice can get through extremely small holes and pipes, can burrow straight through haystacks, can hop across roofs without making noise. Where people reported finding prints that vanish in the middle of open fields, the mouse could have disappeared into a burrow, been picked off by an owl, or just stopped hopping and started walking, leaving footprints so small and shallow they likely didn’t survive the thaw.

But why were there so many prints on this particular night? Remember, the winter had been harsh but that particular night there was a brief thaw. It’s very possible that even slightly warmer weather would bring hungry mice out in droves to forage. The unusual weather conditions distorting otherwise barely noticeable tracks into hoofprints, and human nature, did the rest.

But if that’s the case, why haven’t people reported seeing the same mysterious prints at other times? Actually, they have, both before and after 1855.

The earliest account anyone has found in the papers was an 1840 report in the London Times of strange prints in Scotland. Other accounts date from the 1850s, 1890, the 1920s, the 1950s, and so on until 2009.

Some of these accounts are of much larger prints, some don’t match up with the hoofprints seen in 1855, but some sound similar. In 1957, for instance, when Lynda Hanson in Hull was a child, a line of cloven hoofprints 4” long and 12” apart appeared in her family’s garden in about an inch of snow that had fallen overnight. They vanished in the middle of the garden. Ms. Hanson notes that the family dog didn’t bark. He probably would have barked at the devil. Just saying.

Another interesting report comes from a sighting in late 1962 or early 1963. Zoologist Alfred Leutscher, writing in the April 20, 1965 edition of Animals and expanding on a talk he gave to the Zoological Society of London about the sighting, explains some tracks he found in Epping Forest. I’ll quote from his description. “It was during a search for snow tracks in Epping Forest, in the severe winter of 1962-3, that I came across dozens of trails of the wood mouse, each consisting of small ‘V-shaped’ marks regularly spaced out and conforming to the measurements which were given a hundred years ago. When I found them I was totally unaware of their significance.”

There are problems with this, of course. While the account says the tracks were identical to those reported in 1855, they’re described as V-shaped rather than hooflike. I have no doubt Leutscher’s prints were from wood mice, but whether they were the same type of thing seen in 1855 in Devon, we can’t know for sure since the reports from the 1855 sighting are so unclear.

Like I said, while the wood mouse is a good candidate for what caused the devil’s footprints, it’s not perfect. Why would mice be hopping around on snow-covered roofs, for instance? But nothing else fits the evidence we have as well as the wood mouse does.

In 2009, Jill Wade of North Devon woke up to snow and found a line of hoof-like prints across her garden. A zoologist who examined the prints suggested they might be those of a rabbit or hare, although since the prints were only 5” long, or 12.5 cm, that would have to be a little baby bunny. But the great thing in this case is we have photographs. Good ones. I’ll put one in the show notes. It definitely looks like a hoofprint—and it also looks like little animal legs made it.

One interesting thing. The wide part of a wood mouse’s print, the one that would make the rear of a hoofprint, is actually at the animal’s front. So anyone following the devil’s tracks in 1855 was following them backwards. Assuming the culprit really was a horde of hungry wood mice, and not the actual devil.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening, and Happy Halloween!


Episode 038: The Canvey Island Monster

This week we’re looking at the confusing and mysterious Canvey Island Monster! Is it really a monster? Is it just a fish, and if so what kind? And who’s telling the truth about what washed up when and where?

The initial article in a Canvey Island newspaper, from CanveyIsland.org.

The photo shown on many sites, with the implication or statement that it accompanied the article above:

The photo found by Garth Haslam of Anomoly (highly recommended reading at that link!). Note the enormous difference in font between this newspaper text and the clipping above:

A monkfish:

See also the Frontiers of Zoology page (and scroll way down for the full text of the “mermaid” description).

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

We’re getting closer and closer to Halloween. Things are getting weird. This week we’re going to learn about something called the Canvey Island Monster.

Canvey is a seven square mile, or 18 ½ square km, island off the southern coast of England not far from London. It’s barely above sea level and on Jan 31, 1953, a tidal surge overtopped the sea wall in the night and drowned 58 people. Its marshes are home to lots of plants and animals, including some insects that at one point were thought extinct. It was also a fashionable vacation area in Victorian times and can claim lots of ghost, such as one story told by night fishermen who sometimes see a Viking standing on the mudflats staring out to sea. He supposedly drowned while waiting for his ship to return. But Canvey Island’s big claim to fame these days is something that happened late in the same year of the big flood, 1953.

This is the story as reported pretty much everywhere. Some time in November of 1953, a body washed ashore. We don’t know exactly what day it was or who found it. It was lying in shallow water, and its finders pulled it farther ashore and covered it with seaweed, presumably so nothing would bother it and it wouldn’t wash back out with the tide. They went for the police, but the police had no idea what they were looking at. They called “the government” who sent two zoologists to identify the body. But the zoologists didn’t know what it was either. They had the body incinerated and left without making an official report.

So what did the body look like? It measured about two and a half feet long, or about 76 centimeters. It’s described as a marine animal with thick brownish-red skin, protruding eyes in a pulpy head, sharp teeth, and gills, but it also had hind legs with no forelegs. Remarkably, its feet each had five toes that together were shaped roughly like a horseshoe. The zoologists reportedly said it looked as though it would be able to walk upright on its legs.

Then, in summer of 1954, another one washed ashore. This one was bigger, almost 4 feet long or 120 cm. It weighed about 25 pounds, or 11.3 kilograms. A short article appeared on August 13, 1954 in either the Canvey Chronicle or the Canvey News. There is a clipping on CanveyIsland.org and if you look at the show notes you can see it there too, along with a photograph of the creature.

The headline reads “Fish with feet found on beach.” I’ll read the entire article since it’s very short:

“A fish with feet was found on the beach at Canvey on Tuesday by the Rev. Joseph D. Overs. He described the fish as being over four feet long with staring eyes and a large mouth. Underneath, on its stomach, it had two feet, each with five toes. It was dead and had apparently been damaged by being washed against the rocks. A peculiar fish was found in almost the same place last year and identified as a pocket or ‘fiddler fish.’”

Under that is a subheading titled SEAL TOO and the sentence “For the first time within living memory a seal was seen in Benfleet Creek, near the bridge, on Tuesday.”

All this seems pretty straightforward, but it’s not. There’s a lot to unpack and a lot more information that sheds light on the events. But first let’s take a quick detour to find out what that November 1953 body might have been. What’s a fiddler fish?

There’s a fiddler ray, sometimes called a banjo ray, which I’m delighted to learn is a type of guitarfish. Guitarfish are only slightly guitar shaped. They mostly look like little sharks if you smooshed the shark’s head flat. The fiddler ray has a rounder flattened head than a guitarfish. It lives around Australia and likes shallow, sandy bays, where it eats mostly shellfish and crabs. It’s harmless and edible. But it’s not reddish-brown, it doesn’t have sharp teeth, and it certainly doesn’t have anything that could be called legs by any stretch of the imagination.

I couldn’t find any other marine animals called fiddler fish. As for pocket fish, Google helpfully offered me an urban dictionary entry, gadgets used when fishing, stock photos of plastic fish in shirt pockets, a cookbook, and some miscellaneous entries about video games and songs I’ve never heard of. I couldn’t find an actual fish called a pocket fish.

So we’ll go with the fiddler ray as mentioned in the article. But I just can’t connect a fiddler ray with the thing that supposedly washed up onshore in 1953.

It also seems odd that the newspaper article doesn’t mention the two zoologists supposedly sent by “the government” who couldn’t identify the 1953 monster. For that matter, it doesn’t say that the 1954 fish was the same type of thing found in 1953. It just says “a peculiar fish was found in almost the same place last year”. Not the same kind of fish. The same place. I’ll come back to that in a few minutes.

As it happens, I didn’t have to look too hard to find out how this got so scrambled. I discovered an excellent website called Anomalies that really digs into the topic. A link is in the show notes if you want to read more.

In 1959–only about five years after the weird thing washed ashore on Canvey Island–writer and radio personality Frank Edwards published a book called Stranger Than Science. It’s since been reprinted many times and I have clear memories of reading it as a kid, although I don’t remember anything about the Canvey Island monster. It was a popular book and full of…less than stellar research.

Edwards’ book is the main source used for subsequent accounts of the Canvey Island monster, including the Wikipedia page. It’s Edwards who claims there were two such monsters, Edwards who describes the feet as having toes arranged in a U shape, Edwards who introduces us to the mysterious government-sent zoologists who tell everyone the monster is a bipedal marine animal but it’s okay, it’s harmless, hey, let’s just burn this body and tell no one.

It appears that Edwards made a lot of this up. For instance, there were no baffled zoologists. Why would you even send a pair of zoologists to look at a fish? You’d send an ichthyologist or marine biologist of some kind. Just because someone is trained in the study of animals doesn’t mean they’re good at identifying fish.

The 1954 newspaper story was picked up by the Associated Press, but the full text of the AP article is even shorter than the original, although slightly more sensational, as follows: “A grotesque sea creature four feet long and with two five-toed feet was found on the beach here Tuesday by Reverend Joseph D. Overs. He described the thing, which was dead, as ‘a sort of fish with staring eyes and a large mouth underneath. It has two perfect feet, each with five pink toes.’”

The original 1954 article says that Reverend Joseph D. Overs found the body. According to the CanveyIsland.org page, while Overs was a reverend, he wasn’t the local vicar or anything like that. Apparently he was a reverend of the Old Roman Catholic Church of Great Britain, with a handful of parishioners who met for services at his lodging house. But he was better known as the island’s photographer, and was popular and well-liked. He took the photo of the fish himself, although he may not actually have been the one to find it. The webpage suggests that the reporter included Overs’ title of reverend to give the article more zing and that Overs didn’t usually use his title.

The CanveyIsland.org site is for residents, with a chatty tone, and many of the comments are from people who knew Overs. One 2011 comment about the mystery fish monster, left by a Colin Day, reads: “I was THERE. I was a young lad of nine at the time. I noticed a group of peers in a crowd on the beach. Kids were prodding it with their spades. I ACTUALLY TOUCHED IT! I thought it was a person at first as I could only see part of it through the crowd. Its flesh was NOT fish-like scales. It was a pinkish color and looked like wobbly human flesh with cellulite, orange peel texture. I remember shouting to the other kids ‘It’s a mermaid’ over and over.”

While the fish itself is long gone–no one’s sure what happened to it, but a deep hole in the sand was probably involved, because I bet it stank–we do have that single black and white photograph. What does it show?

It’s a wide-bodied fish with a huge gaping mouth, fins or projections of some kind to either side, and a long, tapering tail. Since it’s a face-on photo, it’s hard to get a good idea of where the fins are situated. They seem to be near the massive head but might be farther back. The fish appears pale, at least in comparison to the dark ground, and we have the eyewitness description of at least one little boy that it was pink, although Edwards claims it was reddish-brown.

Locals are convinced it was an angler fish, and ichthyologists have suggested an anglerfish species known as a monkfish or a related species called a frogfish. Let’s take a look at both.

The monkfish is broad and flattish, with a tapering tail, a big wide mouth with sharp teeth, and two roughly triangular fins jutting out from its sides. It lives in the ocean around England, as well as in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. It hunts among seaweed near the ocean floor, sometimes using its muscular fins to walk itself along instead of swimming. Its skin does not have scales but it is bumpy. Like other angler fish, it has a lure on its head, modified from a dorsal fin spine, that it can move around to attract small fish and other prey. When something touches the lure, YOMP, the monkfish gulps it down. Like the sabertooth fish we talked about in episode 34, the monkfish has an expandable stomach and can swallow prey as big as it is. And it can get big–almost seven feet long for a big female, or over 2 meters.

The frogfish prefers tropical and subtropical oceans, although it does live in the Mediterranean. It’s smaller than the monkfish, barely more than a foot long or around 35 centimeters, and it’s rounded rather than flattened. Some species of frogfish have elaborate filaments called spinules all over their bodies that help them blend in with seaweed and other plants. The frogfish frankly doesn’t look much like the fish in the picture, and is too small to fit the description, but it does have one thing in the plus column that the monkfish doesn’t. Many species are orange, yellow, or pink in color. The monkfish is dark.

But there are more than 200 species of anglerfish known. Many are seldom seen because they live so far down on the bottom of the ocean. In fact, the deep sea anglerfish is the one you’ve probably heard of, the one where the male bites the much bigger female and actually fuses to her body. He remains with her the rest of her life, basically just acting as a built-in egg fertilizer.

In July 1833, six men on a deep-sea fishing vessel caught a three-foot long or just under one meter long fish they claimed was a mermaid. In their sworn statement later they described it carefully, and it’s clear from the description that they had actually caught some species of anglerfish. I won’t quote the entire description here because it’s long, but I’ll link to the Frontiers of Zoology website where I found it. Its back was light gray and its front, as they said–actually the underparts of the fish–were white. They even described its lure, which they thought was some sort of hearing apparatus. So nine-year-old Colin Day was right, in a way. He’d seen a mermaid. And I’m happy to report that the fishermen who’d caught the mermaid in 1833 carefully released it back into the ocean. Because it’s bad luck to harm a mermaid.

So it’s entirely possible that the Canvey Island monster is a species of anglerfish that’s closely related to the monkfish but is pink like a frogfish. Or maybe it was just a variant color or albino. It’s too bad no one kept the fish, but at least we have a photo.

Or do we? We don’t actually know that that photo accompanied the 1954 article. The Anomalist researcher, Garth Haslam, has tried repeatedly to contact a librarian, reporter, or the author of the CanveyIsland.org site to verify the photo’s presence with the original newspaper article, but no one has replied. The Canvey Island library does have archives of one of the two newspapers from that era…but the 1954 papers are missing. Haslam is understandably frustrated and points out that the original description of the fish doesn’t mention its tail, which is quite long and would have been notable. He suggests the picture may actually accompany a different article entirely. He has managed to track down a bigger clip of the fish photo which includes part of a different article’s text next to it…and you know what? The font type is completely different from the font used in the 1954 article. I think Haslam’s right. I don’t think that photo is of the Canvey Island Monster at all.

This was where I was going to laugh like a vampire and wish you a happy Halloween. But then I went and found an article from the Londonderry Sentinel from August 12, 1954. I used up one of my free introductory British Newspaper Archive page accesses to read it, so you’re going to hear the entire thing even though most of it is identical to the Canvey Island newspaper article. But there is one very important addition at the end.

The headline reads ‘Clergyman Finds Fish with Feet’ and the article reads:

“A large fish with feet was found washed up on the beach at Canvey Island, Essex, on Tuesday, by Reverend Joseph D. Overs, a local clergyman. ‘It was over four feet long with staring eyes and a large mouth. Underneath it had two perfect feet, each with five toes. It was dead and had been damaged by being washed against rocks,’ said Mr. Overs. A similar fish was found almost in the same spot at Canvey last November. Mr. Overs said later that the fish had been identified as a pocket fish.

“The fish, which is also known as angler, sea devil, frog or toad fish, and fishing frog, is a British fish, and the name Angler is said to have been derived from its preying on small fish, which it attacts by moving worm-like filaments attached to the head and mouth.”

Now we know that Frank Edwards didn’t completely invent that November 1953 fish. But even if the newspaper picture didn’t come from the 1954 article—and I’m pretty sure it didn’t—it seems clear from this article that we’re talking about anglerfish anyway. Even the 1953 fish’s identification as a fiddler fish isn’t too surprising, since the fiddler ray does superficially resemble an anglerfish in that it has a large head but a much slenderer body that tapers in a long tail. The angler fish’s fins are strong and thick, and if the body was damaged as Overs reported, the ends of the fins may have been frayed to resemble toes.

But I do have one last thing to add. Remember how in Stranger Than Science, Frank Edwards describes the fish as having five toes arranged in a U shape? Where on earth did that come from? Well, for some reason Edwards was convinced that the Canvey Island Monster was the same thing that left hoofmarks in the snow all over Devonshire in February of 1855. No one else has made that connection and I have no idea why Edwards decided to link them. Devon and Canvey are over 200 miles apart, or about 360 kilometers. But if Edwards wanted to use the Canvey Island Monster to solve the mystery of the devil’s footprints, he had to make people believe not only that the fish was bipedal but that it had feet whose prints would resemble hooves.

I don’t think the Canvey Island monster was out cavorting in the snow in 1855, leaving hundreds of miles of hoofmarks on roofs and in walled gardens. But something left those hoofmarks. But to learn more about the devil’s footprints, you’re going to have to wait for next week.

[thunder crash muahaha!]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 037: The Dobhar-Chu

This week we’re in Ireland learning about the dobhar-chú, a vicious creature that might be an otter but might be a KING otter! Either way, it’s a killer.

The weird creature carved on Grace Connolly’s gravestone:

How can such an adorable floof be so MURDEROUS? Eurasian otter:

The giant otter (from South America) imitating a sea serpent (hmm):

Giant otter has teeth:

Further reading:

The Search for the Last Undiscovered Animals by Karl PN Shuker

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

We’re one week closer to Halloween, and it’s time to learn about a mysterious, deadly animal from Ireland called the Dobhar-chú (pronounced do-war-coo). Appropriately enough, our story starts in a graveyard.

Conwall Cemetery is in the town of Drummans, near the valley of Glenade. In the cemetery is a sandstone grave marker lying flat on the ground. It’s about 4 ½ feet wide and nearly two feet high, or 1.37 by .6 meters, and is dated September 24, 1722. The name on the stone is Grace Con, wife of Ter MacLoghlin. But the main part of the stone is made up of a carving of an animal.

I’ll put a picture of the carving in the show notes. It’s not very clear, but basically, it looks like a heavy-bodied dog with limbs folded beneath it as though it’s crouching. It has a long tail although that has mostly worn off. Its head is small, with tiny ears, and its neck is folded back so that its head lies along its back. A hand holds the hilt of a sword that is plunged into the animal’s neck, with the tip of the sword just visible below the belly.

There are various stories and poems about what happened to Grace Con, or Grace Connolly, but they’re all basically the same. Incidentally, it was Gaelic custom for women to retain their maiden names, which is why Grace’s last name doesn’t match her husband’s.

One morning Grace went down to the lake either to wash or to do laundry, reports differ. When she didn’t return home, her husband Terence McGloughlan went to find her. But when he reached the lake, he found his wife’s body–with a monstrous animal, the dobhar-chú, feeding on it. Terence killed the beast, but as it died it gave a piercing whistle or squeal. The squeal was answered by another animal from the lake, which surfaced and charged Terence.

He fled home just ahead of the monster, leaped on his horse, and galloped away with the monster pursuing. Eventually his horse tired, so Terence dismounted and turned the horse sideways across the road to act as a sort of shield. When the dobhar-chú ducked to run beneath the horse’s belly, Terence stabbed it through the heart.

Dobhar-chú is an Irish term meaning water-hound. It’s used as a name for the Eurasian otter, but can also refer to something called a master otter or king otter. But before we go any farther, let’s get some background on the otters that live in Ireland and Scotland, since the legend of the dobhar-chú is known in both places.

The Eurasian otter lives throughout Europe and Asia. It’s shy, solitary, and territorial. It’s a pretty big animal, and some big adult males can grow as long as four and a half feet, or 1.4 meters, including the tail. Females are smaller. The otter’s toes are webbed, which makes it a good swimmer. It’s dark brown above, grayish-brown below, with white or cream-colored markings around the throat and cheeks. It has a long, slender body and flattened head with tiny ears and sensitive whiskers. Oh, and it’s incredibly cute. Oh my gosh is it cute.

The otter eats fish, frogs, and invertebrates like crayfish. It lives in rivers and lakes and likes plenty of cover around the water’s edge. While it prefers fresh water, it will enter the ocean, but it needs fresh water both to drink and to clean salt from its coat. It’s usually nocturnal and is especially active at dusk and dawn, although if an otter’s territory is along the coast it will be more active during the day since it forages in rock pools at low tide for fish and invertebrates. Sometimes people call otters who live along the coast sea otters, but in Great Britain and most of Europe they’re the same type of otter that lives in freshwater.

Instead of having one den, an otter’s territory has a number of places where it sleeps or just hangs out. Above-ground areas are called couches and are well hidden in dense vegetation and frequently on small islands. Underground areas are called holts. A holt might be dug into a river bank, among a big tree’s roots, or just be a crevice among fallen rocks. A mother otter will have her babies in a holt that’s fairly remote from her usual activities. She usually has two or three babies at a time, called cubs.

An otter marks its territory with droppings that actually smell nice, like new-mown hay. I have not smelled them myself so I can’t vouch for this. The droppings are called spraints. While otters were once common throughout Europe, they’re much rarer these days, mostly because they can’t live in polluted streams, and these days they are totally protected. You’re not even allowed to damage an otter’s couch or holt, much less the otter itself.

Now we know about the otter, but what’s a master otter? According to Irish and Scottish folklore, it’s basically a super-otter. It’s much larger than a regular otter and sometimes appears with scores of regular otters as though leading them, and it may have some magic powers. Carrying its pelt, or part of its pelt, is said to protect someone from injury or shipwreck. One description says it’s white except for black ear tips and a black cross on its back, another says it’s half wolf, half fish. One account from 1684 calls it an Irish crocodile and describes it as “of the pitch of an ordinary greyhound, of a black slimy skin, without hair,” and says it’s also called a water-dog or Anchu. Whatever it is, it’s rare and dangerous.

So what might it be? As it happens, there is a species of otter that sounds a lot like the dobhar-chú. It’s called the giant otter, and while these days a big male is not much more than about 5 and a half feet long, or 1.7 meters, in the past before they were nearly driven extinct for their fur, big males sometimes grew eight feet long, or 2.4 meters. Those lengths don’t even include the tail. The giant otter is brown or reddish in color, but when it’s wet it looks black. It has a white pattern on its throat that individuals use to identify each other, because unlike other otters, the giant otter is social, communicates with its clan members with whistles and other noises, is mostly active during the day, and can be aggressive. All this sure sounds like the dobhar-chú. The only problem is, the giant otter lives in South America, an entire ocean away from Europe.

Could a similar species of giant otter have once lived in Ireland and Scotland? We don’t have very many otter fossils, unfortunately–but we do have a recently discovered fossil of a new otter species from China. It’s been named Siamogale melilutra and it’s twice the size of the giant otter. From its teeth, it probably ate a lot of freshwater shellfish. The fossil dates to 6.24 million years ago, so it’s not likely that it was running around in Ireland in the early 18th century. But it’s interesting to know that really big otters did once exist in Asia, so it’s always possible that a species of rare giant otter also lived in parts of Europe until fairly recently.

Of course, it might be that the dobhar-chú really is just a folktale and not based on a real animal at all. Some accounts of a king otter say it’s the seventh cub of an ordinary otter, and the king otter’s magical attributes also push it farther into the realm of folklore than objective reality. It’s also possible that the dobhar-chú and the king otter are completely different animals, one real, one a folktale, with some confusion between the two since that’s just how people think.

I’m inclined to think that might be the case. So if we assume that the dobhar-chú is just an unusually large otter, does it fit the reported story? Do otters ever attack people?

Otter attacks are extremely rare, and usually only occur if a mother otter feels someone is threatening her cubs. In North America, where the river otter is very similar to the Eurasian otter, only 44 documented cases of an otter attacking a human have been recorded since 1875. Then again, when an otter does attack it can actually kill a human. Heck, the North American river otter occasionally kills alligators. An otter’s bite is similar in strength to that of a big dog, and it will chase people for at least a short distance if provoked. It can run 18 mph, or 30 km per hour. Usain Bolt can sprint 28 mph, or 45 km per hour, but most of us are a lot slower no matter how motivated we are.

In August of 2016, a Quebec woman swimming in a lake was attacked by an otter that repeatedly bit her legs until she managed to reach a dock with a ladder. Fortunately the otter didn’t chase her once she left the water. Needless to say, this is extremely unusual behavior for an otter, but it does happen. In 2014 an eight-year-old boy and his grandmother were swimming in a river in Washington state when an otter attacked the boy. When his grandmother came to his rescue, the otter turned on her. In 2013 a woman swimming in Yellowstone National Park was bitten and clawed by an otter. Her face, arms, and hands were bitten and some bones in her right hand broken. Fortunately, all these people recovered fully, but all of them had to spend time in the hospital.

So if Grace Connolly was in the lake back in 1733, bathing or washing clothes, and an otter took exception to her presence, it might well have killed her. The rest of the story might be embellishment or the otter might have also chased or attacked Grace’s husband before he managed to kill it. Either way, I don’t think we need to hypothesize about a rare giant otter in this case. A regular otter in a bad mood is scary enough.

Those little guys are cute as all get out, but don’t get too close. They bite.

Next week we’ll take a look at another water monster, this one from the sea–a weird and hideous two-legged fish thing–as we get closer and closer to Halloween.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 036: Patagonian giants, Yowie, and Bunyip (Bigfoot part 2)

Part two of the Bigfoot episode sort of got away from me. We start with giants of Patagonia and end up, inexplicably, with seals in Australia. But it’s a fun ride along the way, where we learn about real giants in Patagonia, folkloric giants in Patagonia, the Yowie of Australia, and the Bunyip of Australia. And Southern elephant seals.

Some map giants:

Yowie candy, because it’s getting close to Halloween:

A drawing of the bunyip geoglyph:

A map showing where the geoglyph was located. Old maps are neat:

The southern elephant seal. Look at that magnificent snoot!

Further reading:

Monsters of Patagonia by Austin Whittall

What to make of the Yowie?” By Darren Naish

“Buckley’s Bunyip” by Paul Michael Donovan, in The Journal of Cryptozoology, Vol. 4 (Dec 2016)

Further listening:

The Folklore Podcast December 15 2016 episode “Bunyip: Devil of the Riverbed

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

We’re one week closer to Halloween and deep in monster lore. Last week we learned about the Yeti. This week we’re going to learn about bigfoot-type legends from other parts of the world—specifically, Patagonia and Australia.

Patagonia isn’t a country but a region at the southern tip of South America. Part of it is in Chile, part in Argentina. It includes the Andes Mountains, and the southern end is only 600 miles from Antarctica. People have lived in the area for at least 13,000 years and there are many different indigenous cultures still living there today.

Much of South America was originally populated by the little-known Clovis People, who migrated into the Americas from Asia once the glaciers retreated from Alaska. The Clovis People are supposed to have arrived around 13,000 years ago, but archaeologists have dated some non-Clovis sites in both North and South America to much earlier than that. One theory is that an earlier human migration reached South America by sea from the South Pacific, although this is controversial. DNA studies of First Nations people suggest that there may have been an earlier migration from Asia into North America, possibly 20,000 years ago, before the Clovis People arrived.

The first Europeans to visit Patagonia were Magellan and his crew on their voyage around the world. They spent the winter in Patagonia in 1520, and Magellan is the one who named the area. Specifically, he named its people Patagons, and reported that they were giants.

Antonio Pigafetta was one of only 18 survivors of the expedition. When he got home, he wrote about his adventures. He described the Patagons as nine to twelve feet tall, or 2 and three-quarters to over 3 and a half meters tall.

Soon everyone in Europe knew Patagonia was the land of giants. Maps of the region included illustrations of bearded men nearly twice as tall as the explorers greeting them. It would be easy to dismiss the accounts of giants as inventions to sell a few books, except that other explorers were reporting the same thing.

A priest from a Spanish expedition reported that in 1525 he saw native men who were 13 spans tall, or 9 feet, or 2.75 meters. In 1577 Sir Francis Drake visited Patagonia, and later his chaplain reported seeing giants 5 cubits tall, or 7 ½ feet, or 2.3 meters. In 1579 another Spanish expedition started a short-lived settlement in the Strait of Magellan, which ended up being renamed Port Famine, and maybe they wouldn’t have starved if they hadn’t started off by killing one of the giant locals. According to the expedition leader, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, it took ten men to capture the native. Only one settler survived the bitter winters and lack of provisions. He was rescued by an Englishman, Sir Thomas Cavendish, who didn’t see any giants but did see footprints he reported as 18” long, or almost 46 centimeters.

The reports of giants continued, in 1591, 1599, 1614, 1641, and so on well into the 18th century. In 1615 two men dug up some stone cairns and underneath found human skeletons they said were ten or eleven feet long, or a bit over 3 meters. In 1642 Dutch admiral Henry Brewer reported more 18” footsteps in Tierra del Fuego.

All this sounds definitive. But other expeditions didn’t report seeing giants, including those from 1535, 1540, a land exploration from 1557 to 1559, 1618, another land expedition from 1623 to 1624, 1670, and so on. Tellingly, after a 1741 shipwreck on the southern Chilean coast, a survivor, John Bulkeley, claimed he encountered gigantic men in the area—but Thomas Pascoe, a member of the same fleet, disagreed. He said the people in the area were average-sized—and, incidentally, not wild cannibals as Bulkeley claimed. Pascoe called them “harmless, civil, and inoffensive.”

So what’s going on? Are all these people, hundreds of sailors, soldiers, priests, and even naturalists, from different eras and nations, all liars?

In 1767, Captain Samuel Wallis, apparently fed up with the conflicting reports about giants, sailed to Patagonia with a measuring rod. There he measured some very tall people, for sure, but not giants. The tallest man he measured was 6 feet 7 inches, or 2.01 meters, with several others only an inch or two shorter. But, he reported, most were between 5 feet 10 inches and six feet tall, or 1.78 to 1.83 meters. And their feet, he mentioned, were quite small.

Several subsequent European measuring expeditions revealed the same proportions among the Tehuelche, a large and varied group of nomadic people who lived throughout Patagonia. The Tehuelche were among the tallest people in the world. Since the average height of a northern European in the 16th century was 5’ 6” or 1.67 meters, and the average height of a southern European was only 5 feet or 1.5 meters, a group of people whose average height was 6’1” or 1.86 meters would seem like giants. The rest was likely due to exaggeration.

The Tehuelche were almost completely destroyed in the late 19th century, and those who survived warfare and introduced diseases were mostly absorbed into other groups. Only about 6,000 Tehuelche remain scattered across South America.

But were the Tehuelche the only so-called giants in Patagonia? Various Europeans reported another group called the Tiremenen or the Caucauhue, who were not just tall, but stout and muscular mountain people last seen around the 1700s. They were supposedly bigger than the Tehuelche, warlike and dangerous. According to various stories, the Tehuelche finally killed the last of them after a fierce battle. Survivors of the battle took refuge in a cave, where the Tehuelche lit fires and asphyxiated them with thick smoke.

So far, all these giants are people, not furry Bigfoots. But there are plenty of stories from various indigenous groups of wild men and monsters in Patagonia, especially in the forests and mountains. According to the Alakuf, the Mwono was a snow man that lived among the glaciers and high mountains and left tracks in the snow. Over a thousand miles north, or 2,000 km, the Mapuche told a similar story. The Carcancho were hairy solitary men who lived in the mountains. They could stand almost 7 feet tall, or over 2 meters, and left large footprints in the snow. The Mapuche also believed that a giant with fiery red hair and beard, called a Trauko, lived along the Collón Curá River.

While the Mapuche people have lived in what is now Chile and Argentina for some 2500 years, they differ genetically from other indigenous peoples of Patagonia. When they moved into Patagonia, they conquered and absorbed many other tribes, and it’s possible many of their stories of the olden days come from those tribes. They say that giant animals once lived in the area but that their ancestors killed most of them, along with the evil giants that once lived there too. It’s hard not to speculate that the giant animals were megafauna like giant ground sloths. But all the people who migrated to the Americas were humans—no Neandertals or other of our relations made it there as far as we know—and until humans arrived, there were no members of the ape family in the Americas.

So what about other primates? Researchers aren’t sure how monkeys made it to South America, but they’ve been there for some 37 million years. They lived first in the Amazon basin and spread slowly throughout South and Central America. But there are no species of monkey in Patagonia and there hasn’t been for millions of years. The few species of monkey that had spread into Patagonia had already gone extinct long before our first human ancestor started walking upright, so it’s not likely that the first human settlers of Patagonia encountered monkeys. Of course, you never know what fossils might come to light in the future, and there are scattered stories about tribes of men with tails in Patagonia.

In his marvelous book The Monsters of Patagonia, author Austin Whittall suggests that the Patagonian wild man legends, as well as other story elements, may be connected to Australian Aboriginal legends. If the original settlers of Patagonia did arrive by sea from Austronesia, which is by no means established, they would have adapted their stories to their new home. Whittall also suggests that one story in particular may be related to Homo erectus, our direct human ancestor who probably went extinct when humans began competing with them for resources. The ancestors of the Australian Aborigines probably did encounter Homo erectus. Maybe that was the source of the Yowie legend.

I probably don’t need to point out that this is fringey, fringey stuff. But it’s fun to think about.

The Yowie in Australian Aboriginal lore is a man-like monster that’s seven or even as much as 12 feet tall, or around 2 to 3 and a half meters. It has big feet, although some stories say its feet are backwards so people tracking it are actually going the wrong way. Sometimes the Yowie is said to have long white hair. Modern interpretations of the Yowie are a lot like the Sasquatch, with brown or reddish hair all over and arms that hang to its knees.

Many older accounts by European settlers refer to this creature by various other names, including wood devil, Australian gorilla, and Yahoo. I don’t know if Yahoo was an attempt at pronouncing an unfamiliar Aboriginal word or if 19th century pop culture was still drawing on Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. In Swift’s story, yahoos are brutish but human-like creatures much despised by the narrator, who prefers the company of the intelligent horses that treat the yahoos as servants. Oh, the satire was subtle back in 1726.

These days, the Yowie is as firmly entrenched in Australian culture as Sasquatch is in North American culture. Yowies sell chocolates and toys, appear in cartoons, and like Sasquatch hunters, Yowie hunters run around in the Australian bush and make plaster casts of big footprints.

Let me tell you something important about plaster. It’s a terrible way to make casts of footprints or anything else. Not only does it produce tiny ridges along its edges as it dries, which have been interpreted as dermal ridges of bigfoot feet, it also generates heat as it dries, which has the potential to alter the prints it’s supposed to be faithfully representing. These days, field scientists use dental stone or latex to take casts. Plaster is cheap and readily available, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best.

Anyway, the earliest colonial reports of the Yowie are from around the early 19th century. European settlers sometimes treated the Yowie as a real animal that had yet to be discovered, sometimes as an amusing Aboriginal superstition. Reported Yowie sightings were relatively uncommon until the 1970s. At that point, cryptozoologist Rex Gilroy, whom I disparaged in episode 32 for being secretive about his findings and data, started showing up in the Australian media with big plaster casts of what he claimed were Yowie tracks.

The problem with the Yowie is that Australia, even less so than Patagonia, has never been home to any animal that stands upright the way humans do. Most of Australia’s large mammals are marsupials so they aren’t even remotely related to apes.

It’s possible that the Aboriginal tales of the Yowie are old, old memories of Homo erectus or other human relatives, as I suggested about the Patagonian wild men. But it’s also possible that the Yowie is a monster of human imagination. Cultures from around the world have stories of big people and little people who sometimes help, sometimes cause mischief, or are sometimes just plain menacing. It seems to be a human trait to people the landscape with giants and dwarves.

The more research I do about any cryptid, as opposed to animals we know exist or used to exist, the more I realize cryptozoology is actually about people. It’s the study not so much of unknown animals, it’s the study of how humans interact with the unknown. Sometimes I’m disappointed when I trace a fascinating story back to its primary source and discover it’s not as mysterious as later versions of the event make it out to be. But sometimes I come across something so purely human that I don’t even care that the mystery has evaporated.

So let me tell you about the Bunyip. This is another Australian monster, one that sometimes gets confused with the Yowie in popular culture, or sometimes gets lumped in with lake monsters. I learned about this from an article by Paul Michael Donovan in the 2016 Journal of Cryptozoology, called “Buckley’s Bunyip.” Shortly after I read the article, I happened to listen to the “Bunyip: Devil of the Riverbed” episode of the Folklore Podcast. That episode was an interview with none other than Paul Michael Donovan about the same material his article covered, so if you want more information, check the show notes for a link to that episode.

The bunyip is supposed to be a monster that attacks and eats people who come too near the waterholes or lagoons where it lives. Descriptions vary, but it’s sometimes said to be gray and covered with feathers, with a peculiar two-tone bellow that it uses to warn people away. By about the 1850s the word bunyip had been adopted into Australian English as a term meaning something like humbug or poser.

There was an Aboriginal sacred site near Ararat, Victoria where the outline of a bunyip was carved into the ground and the turf removed from within the figure. Every year the local indigenous people would gather to re-carve the figure so it wouldn’t become overgrown, because it symbolized an important event. At that spot, two brothers had been attacked by a bunyip. It killed one of the men and the other speared the bunyip and killed it. When he brought his family and others back to retrieve his brother’s body, they traced around the bunyip.

The bunyip carving is long gone, since eventually the last Aborigine who was part of the ritual died sometime in the 1850s and the site was fenced off for cattle grazing. But we have a drawing of the geoglyph from 1867. A copy of it is in the show notes. It’s generally taken to be a two-legged sea serpent type monster with a small head and a relatively short, thick tail. Some people think it represents a bird like an emu.

But if you turn it around, with the small head being the end of a tail, and the blunt tail being a head, suddenly it makes sense. It’s the shape of a seal.

The Southern elephant seal lives around the Antarctic, but it is a rare visitor to Australia. It’s also enormous, twice the size of a walrus, six or seven times heavier than a Polar bear. The males can grow over 20 feet long, or over six meters, while females are typically about half that length. The male also has an inflatable proboscis with which it makes horrible roaring sounds. This is a clip of what it sounds like, although these calls are from Northern elephant seals, which are much smaller than Southern elephant seals. Still pretty darn big, though.

[seals honking]

The elephant seal is also an aggressive carnivore. If an elephant seal strayed inland up a river or stream, which does sometimes happen, the Aboriginal people of the area would definitely take notice of the monster.

So the bunyip is, in the end, a true monster. And the bunyip’s story is a deeply human one. A man’s brother died. His family mourned, and commemorated the event with a carving that withstood who knows how many years. Oh, and the carving’s size? It was about eight meters long. That’s 26 feet.

I’m not entirely sure how I ended up talking about seals when we started out talking about giants of Patagonia. But hey, the southern elephant seal lives in Patagonia too.

I could easily do two or three more episodes about bigfoots around the world, but I’m ready for something else. Next week we’ll learn about a four-footed monster from Ireland, a Halloween story if I ever heard one since it starts with a gravestone.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 035: The Yeti (Bigfoot part 1)

It’s October, MONSTER MONTH! We’re starting it off right with an episode about the Yeti! I literally could have made this episode an hour long without even touching on half the information out there, but no one wants to listen to me talk for that long. If you’re intrigued and want to hear more about our big furry friend from the Himalayas, check out the fine podcasts listed below.

The Himalayas, in map form:

A Himalayan brown bear (tongue blep alert!):

A bear standing up (this is a brown bear from Alaska but I like the picture. Bears stand up a lot):

Recommended listening:

Museum of Natural Mystery – episode 14: “Backtracking with Bigfoot” – highly recommended for information about North American bigfoot/Sasquatch lore and history. It’s family friendly and not very long. I heart it.

MonsterTalk – episode 116 “Yetipalooza” – lots of Yeti information and some terrible, terrible puns

Strange Matters Podcast – “Legendary Humanoid Creatures” – a good overview of a lot of different bigfoot type monsters, including the Yeti

Hidden Creatures Podcast – Episode Six A “Yearning for the Yeti’s Discovery” and Episode Six B “The Yeti…Again” – lots of info on the Yeti

All of the above should be family friendly, with possible mild language.

Resources/further reading:

The Historical Bigfoot by Chad Arment

Abominable Science! by Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero

Hunting Monsters by Darren Naish

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

It’s October and that means monsters. Let’s jump right in with one of the biggest stars of cryptozoology, bigfoot!

As part of my research for this episode, I listened to other podcasts that have covered bigfoot and his kin. One of those was the Museum of Natural Mystery’s episode 14, Backtracking with Bigfoot. I was more than a little dismayed when I listened to that one, because it’s exactly what I had hoped to do with this episode. In fact, while Museum of Natural Mystery covers other topics than just animals, when they do focus on animals they scratch the same itch I created Strange Animals podcast to scratch. If I’d discovered them earlier, the podcast you’re listening to now would probably be about music or something, not animals.

There’s a link to Backtracking with Bigfoot in the show notes and I highly recommend you go listen to it. It focuses mainly on the Bigfoot phenomenon in North America, from Sasquatch to skunk apes. Rather than cover the same ground, my focus here is going to be on bigfoot legends from other parts of the world. There’s so much fascinating information out there that I had to break the episode into two parts. This week we’re looking at the yeti.

But first, some background. There are a couple of starting places for the modern concept of bigfoot. In 1921, the Everest Reconnaissance Expedition found tracks in the snow resembling a bare human foot. They realized the tracks were probably made by wolves, the front and rear tracks overlapping and the snow melted enough to obscure the paw pads. Expedition leader Charles Howard-Bury wrote that the expedition’s Sherpa guides claimed the tracks were made by a wild hairy man.

At about the same time, the 1920s, British Columbian schoolteacher John W. Burns was collecting reports of Native encounters with giant wild people. He coined the term Sasquatch by anglicizing a couple of different words from several different Native dialects.

Burns published his stories in magazines. Howard-Bury talked to reporters about his Everest expedition. The idea of bigfoot took shape and took off in the public imagination. It merged with giant apes and ape-men in popular culture, like King Kong in 1933 and the movie Tarzan the Ape Man in 1932, both of which were huge hits.

Before this, from the early 19th century to around the 1940s, newspaper reports that would today be called bigfoot sightings were attributed to wild men or occasionally to escaped gorillas or other apes. Some were hoaxes, some seem to concern real humans living outside of society, and some are probably misidentifications of bears and other real animals. Very few suggest the wild man in question was a creature unknown to science. This doesn’t mean there aren’t any legit sightings of an actual bigfoot mixed in, just that bigfoot wasn’t yet a common concept.

But by 1967, year of the famous Patterson-Gimlin film, the notion of bigfoot as a huge, hairy, upright ape was firmly planted in western culture. Most of us know a fair amount about North American Sasquatches just from popular culture. ‘Squatch-hunters on TV stumble around in the woods at night, which by the way I never understood since apes are not nocturnal. Bigfoot appears in TV commercials, movies, and is the subject of documentaries that are all pretty much identical. But most of us are less familiar with the Yeti.

The English-speaking world first learned about the Yeti after a 1921 expedition to Mount Everest. As I mentioned a few minutes ago, the expedition members recognized that a line of huge human-like prints they spotted in the snow above 20,000 feet probably belonged to wolves or some other four-legged animal. The forepaw and hind paw prints overlapped, making a double track of what looked like long, relatively narrow footprints. Then the snow partially melted, obscuring the details and enlarging the prints. Colonel Howard-Bury, the expedition leader, was very clear about this in the London Times in October 1921, and dismissed as superstition the Sherpas’ statement that the tracks belonged to a hairy wild man.

Maybe all that was true, but if you’re a journalist hoping to sell papers, which story are you going to run with? After the expedition returned to India, journalist Henry Newman interviewed the porters and published a sensational account of their stories. He translated their name for the wild man, Metoh kangmi, as “abominable snowman.” Maybe you’ve heard of it.

As it turns out, Metoh kangmi means something closer to man-bear. In fact, it means man-bear, man-bear, because both mi-te and kangmi mean the same thing.

The peoples who live in and around the Himalayas speak a lot of different languages. They also have a lot of different names for what we call the Yeti. Yeti is a corruption of a Sherpa term, yeh-teh, meaning “animal of rocky places,” although it may be related to the term meh-teh, which means man-bear. Other terms translate to wild man, cattle bear, brown bear, and white bear. I’m going to refer to all these creatures as the Yeti for convenience sake.

While the pop culture version of the Yeti is a white bigfoot striding through the snow, actual sightings of Yetis are of brown, black, or even reddish creatures. Local Yeti lore throughout the Himalayas doesn’t describe a specifically upright apeman or even a particularly human-like monster, either. To locals, yetis are fairly amorphous, and when they are described, they tend to have bear-like or even big-cat-like characteristics.

As an example, here’s a quote from one of the earliest Yeti reports, from 1889. I’m taking the quote from the book Abominable Science by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero. Links to all the books I used in my research are in the show notes, of course. Anyway, the quote itself comes from a book called Among the Himalayas by Laurence A. Waddell:

“Some large footprints in the snow led across our track, and away up to higher peaks. These are alleged to be the trail of the hairy wild men who are believed to live amongst the eternal snows, along with the mythical white lions, whose roar is reputed to be heard during storms. The belief in these creatures is universal among Tibetans. None, however, of the many Tibetans I have interrogated on this subject could ever give me an authentic case. On the most superficial investigation it always resolved itself into something that somebody heard tell of.”

Waddell goes on to declare that the wild man was nothing more than a bear, then says that the people of the area are just superstitious ignoramuses.

I dislike that most descriptions and discussions about Yetis are filtered through European experiences, and that the older reports especially have a high-handed tone that ruffles my feathers—not just racist, but classist as well. Brown people and poor people are not stupid, and what someone from one culture dismisses as a superstition may be a deeply held religious belief in another culture. Moreover, as anthropologist John Napier wrote in 1973, the superstitious sherpas that white explorers sneer at may actually have been having a sly joke at their employers’ expense—that or they’re just being polite and telling their employers what they think they want to hear. Or both, heck. People are complicated.

But consider what has happened when Europeans eager to discover the “truth” of the Yeti encounter Buddhist monks with Yeti relics. In 1959 Tom Slick, a rich Texas oilman who liked to indulge his hobby of bigfoot hunting—we met him in the giant salamander episode, you may remember—funded an expedition to Nepal to hunt for the Yeti. This was his fourth Yeti hunt, and some historians suspect he and many other explorers in the area had CIA connections. This was during the cold war, remember. But Slick’s interest in the Yeti was genuine, and during his 1958 expedition he had tried to buy a mummified Yeti hand from a Buddhist monastery in Pangboche, Nepal. The hand, along with a Yeti scalp, was a sacred relic and definitely not for sale. So in 1959 Slick arranged for explorer Peter Byrne to go back to the monastery and steal a finger from the hand. Supposedly Byrne replaced the missing finger with a human finger he had brought with him. Where on earth do you even get a human finger? Anyway, as Byrne reports, to get the finger out of Nepal he gave it to the actor Jimmy Stewart, who was one of the expedition’s backers. Stewart’s wife Gloria smuggled the Yeti finger out of the country in her lingerie case. It was later analyzed and found to be a human finger.

Everything about this story is horrible. First of all, it is not cool to steal sacred relics. Second, it’s not cool to swap out human body parts to cover your theft. And third, you know what they did with the stolen Yeti finger that turned out to be human? They lost it, that’s what they did. For decades no one knew where it had gone. Fortunately, it was rediscovered in a London museum in 2008, and DNA analysis confirmed it was human. The BBC interviewed Byrne in 2011 and his story had changed somewhat about his acquisition of the finger. He now says he paid the monastery for it. Mmhm. Sure. Someone stole the rest of the hand from the monastery in the 1990s, along with a yeti skull-cap.

Other Yeti remains have been analyzed more ethically. Sir Edmund Hillary, the guy who first summited Everest, and zoologist Marlon Perkins mounted an expedition in 1960 through ‘61, and went back to the Pangboche monastery to examine their relics. But this time, no one stole anything. In fact, the expedition paid for some repairs to the monastery, and paid for a village elder to accompany a Yeti scalp they were allowed to borrow, which they sent to be analyzed. They also raised money to construct schools and medical clinics in remote villages, among other good works.

The Yeti scalp, and others like it, turned out to be made from the shoulder skin of a goat-like wild animal called a serow. In fact, the Hillary-Perkins expedition was able to make its own Yeti scalps with serow skins dried over a conical wooden mold. It sent its homemade scalps with the borrowed scalp for analysis without telling the lab that some were not authentic. The results came back that all the scalps were made from the same type of animal skin.

In 1986 mountaineer Reinhold Messner had a terrifying encounter with an unknown animal. I’m going to quote it at length because it’s pretty awesome. It’s from his book My Quest for the Yeti, but I have taken the quote again from Abominable Science.

“Making my way through some ash-colored juniper bushes, I suddenly heard an eerie sound—a whistling noise, similar to the warning call mountain goats make. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the outline of an upright figure dart between the trees to the edge of the clearing, where low-growing thickets covered the steep slope. The figure hurried on, silent and hunched forward, disappearing behind a tree only to reappear again against the moonlight. It stopped for a moment and turned to look at me. Again I heard the whistle, more of an angry hiss, and for a heartbeat I saw eyes and teeth. The creature towered menacingly, its face a gray shadow, its body a black outline. Covered with hair, it stood upright on two short legs and had powerful arms that hung down almost to its knees. I guessed it to be over seven feet tall. Its body looked much heavier than that of a man of that size, but it moved with such agility and power toward the edge of the escarpment that I was both startled and relieved. Most I was stunned. No human would have been able to run like that in the middle of the night. It stopped again beyond the trees by the low-growing thickets, as if to catch its breath, and stood motionless in the moonlit night without looking back.”

Messner finishes the sighting by saying it rushed up the slope out of sight on all fours. Messner fled to the nearest village.

After that he spent the next ten years searching for more information on the Yeti. He examined Yeti remains in various monasteries and in all cases found they were either taxidermied creations made from various known animals, or the pelts of bears. In 1997 in the peaks of the Nanga Partains, he and his guide Rozi Ali saw what the locals called a dremo. That’s a Tibetan word commonly used for both the yeti and the Himalayan brown bear. Here’s his description:

“One afternoon, after a long trek, we encountered another dremo. He fled when he saw us, but then seemed to stop and rest in a hollow. I approached the spot from behind some ridges so that he wouldn’t pick up my scent. Rozi Ali followed me. When I began to climb down to where the animal was sleeping in the grass, Rozi Ali tried to stop me. I broke free from his grasp and came within twenty yards of the animal, where I took some good pictures. Rozi Ali, crouching some way back, begged me to make a run for it. He was sweating with fear.

“The animal woke up and looked at me in the way a startled child would a stranger. It was a young brown bear.”

He also says they saw another dremo later, while in Kashmir, and it was “running away on two legs. From a distance it looked uncannily like a wild man”. But it too was a brown bear.

Messner concluded, not unreasonably, that the Yeti was a bear. Many others agree. As it happens, I agree too, and I wonder if a bear that walks upright like a person is perhaps considered to have supernatural traits. After all, Messner found it eerie even when he knew what he was seeing. That might explain the overlap between terms for yeti and terms for bears, and would also explain why so many words translated as yeti actually mean man-bear. But I’d be delighted if a strange upright animal lives in the remote parts of the world, even if that strange animal just turns out to be a new species of bear.

In 2014, geneticists from Oxford University analyzed hair samples from a Himalayan bear and determined that the DNA was similar to that of a 40,000 year old polar bear. But a new analysis in 2015 by geneticists from the Smithsonian and the University of Kansas was a lot less exciting, determining that the hair belonged to a native brown bear after all—but probably to a rare, endangered subspecies of brown bear that lives in parts of the Himalayas, sometimes called the Tibetan blue bear. It’s not blue, by the way. It’s brown. I don’t know why it’s called a blue bear.

The Himalayan brown bear usually lives above the timber line in the mountains and like other bears is omnivorous. That means it eats both plants and meat. It especially likes to eat marmots, a chubby rodent related to squirrels that looks a lot like a prairie dog.

Many cryptozoologists think the Yeti and other bigfoot-type creatures must be either an unknown offshoot of the human family, like a Neandertal, or another unknown great ape that has developed an upright stance, such as a descendant of Gigantopithecus. They even propose that different types of bigfoots are different species of upright ape, all unknown to science.

I do think there are a lot of unknown animals out there, but I’m definitely skeptical that somehow we’ve overlooked multiple living species of giant apes, and not only that, that we haven’t even found fossil or subfossil remains of any of them. Gigantopithecus, by the way, is RIGHT out as a possibility. It was huge, sure, and an ape, sure, but it disappeared from the fossil record 300,000 years ago and ate mostly bamboo. Some researchers think it died out due to competition with pandas, in fact. It was related to orangutans and probably looked more like a big gorilla than a human, and would not stand upright. Remember that among all mammals, humans are the only ones who have developed true bipedalism, and we’ve sacrificed a lot in exchange. For instance, we have weak backs, childbirth is much more difficult, and we frequently die from falling off our own feet and cracking our heads, despite our massively thickened skulls. Other apes would not have developed bipedalism unless they faced the same intense evolutionary pressures that our ancestors did millions of years ago. But we have found no evidence whatsoever that other apes developed bipedalism.

So what about the Yeti being the descendants of Neandertals or other close human relatives? That’s a stronger argument, but if you’ve listened to episode 25 about our close cousins, you’ll remember that they were wearing jewelry and making tools before disappearing from the fossil record only around 30,000 years ago. They didn’t have fur and wouldn’t have been walking around in the snow with bare feet. Our cousins basically looked and acted a whole lot like we do. Remember also that the ancestors of humans and our close relations have been painting our bare skins with ochre and other minerals for 300,000 years for social reasons. We’re not going to go back to sprouting thick fur coats and wandering the mountains in solitude, not without many millions of years of selective evolutionary pressures. But bears are already big hairy solitary animals, and bears can and do walk upright for stretches, especially younger animals.

I could talk about the Yeti for the next hour and still not cover all the material available, so if you’re a Yeti enthusiast who’s sputtering about me skipping all the best evidence, there are a ton of excellent podcasts who’ve covered the topic in much more detail and come up with much different conclusions than I have. I’ve included links to a bunch of them in the show notes for anyone who’s interested in digging a lot deeper into the Yeti’s history.

Next week we’ll be visiting other remote areas of the world to look at more obscure bigfoot-type legends, from Australia’s bunyip and yowie to the giants of Patagonia. Until then, remember to sample the candy you bought to give out on Halloween, to make sure you made good choices. It’s okay if you have to get more later.

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