Saturday, September 10, 2016

Zwaanendael Mermaid- Delaware

For a brief period in 1631, Dutch colonists in North America tried to establish a small settlement named Zwaanendael along the Delaware River. Unfortunately, the colony did not last more than a year before it was destroyed in a skirmish with local Native Americans.

Despite its brief existence, Zwaanendael is credited as the first known European settlement in the region that would become Delaware, and the 300th anniversary of its founding was commemorated with the creation of the Zwaanendael Museum. Despite its name, the Museum focuses not on the ill-fated colony, but on the entire history of southeastern Delaware as a whole. There are exhibits on the ecology of the river estuary, local history- particularly the British attack on the city of Lewes in the War of 1812- and the lighthouses of the region.

The Zwaanendael Museum, Modeled after the town hall in Hoorn, the Netherlands. Photo from WIkimedia Commons, uploaded by user Smallbones.

The Museum also houses a strange little curiosity: a mummified “mermaid” in its own blue velvet-lined glass case. The mermaid was given to the prominent Martin family in the city of Lewes (built on the site of the vanished Dutch colony) by a sea captain. In 1941, the mummy was permanently lent to the Museum until 1985 when locals bought the creature from the Martin’s estate to ensure that it remained a permanent fixture of the museum.

The Zwaanendael mermaid bears little resemble to the classic image of these aquatic beings as attractive women with fish tails. A wide toothy mouth and large, ridged eye sockets dominate its simian face. Its hands are clawed like a reptile’s. It’s torso is covered in bony ridges. Its skin and scales are an ashy gray-black  On top of all that, the creature is small- no more than a foot or so in length. It bears a much closer resemblance to its “cousin”, the Fiji Mermaid, made famous by P.T. Barnum. Both creatures are, of course, clever taxidermy specimens akin to jackalopes, jenny hanivers, or fur-bearing trouts. They are also part of a larger tradition of taxidermied monsters that have their roots in 18th century Japan.

Misemono were a popular type of carnival in Old Edo (modern-day Tokyo). They featured all manner of entertainments- actors, storytellers, exotic animals, local craftsmen- which were believed to bring good luck and fortune to attendees. One of the more unusual sights at the misemono were the bodies of mermaids or ningyo. Unlike the beautiful mermaids of Europe and the Mediterranean, ningyo were more monstrous and fish-like. In Japanese legends, eating the flesh of one of these creatures was said to grant renewed youth and immortality, though obtaining this delicacy often leads to dire consequences since ningyo could curse those who killed their kin. They could even destroy entire towns with hurricanes and tsunami.

Despite the risks, it was still popular to display mummified “ningyo” at carnivals in the hopes that at least a little of that coveted youth and longevity would rub off on attendees without requiring them to actually eat the creature’s flesh.  And if a mermaid was too hard to come by, a taxidermied substitute certainly wouldn’t hurt. Thus there developed a cottage industry of fishermen constructing ningyo out of the bodies of fish and small monkeys dressed up with paper-maché, wood and lacquer.
The ubiquity of fake ningyo meant that inevitably more than a few of them would make their way overseas, brought home as curiosities by sailors from America and Europe, where the folklore behind the creatures was lost, leaving them blank slants upon which others could write their own mythologies.

Ningyo are actually only one category of manufactured Japanese monsters. Mummified oni, kappa, tengu and other yokai were also common created as carnival attractions. Some of them even ended up at Buddhist temples, perhaps to add a bit of tangibility to the unseen supernatural world.


The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons: A Field Guide to Japanese Yokai, written and illustrated by Matthew Meyer

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Fresno Nightcrawlers Variant 3: Enzymes of the Leviathan

I’m fascinated by the concept of beings existing in higher dimensions beyond the four that we know. Beings that we see only fleetingly as they move through our plane of existence. In order to get a better handle on this idea, imagine a two-dimensional being living on a flat surface that has length and width but no depth. A three-dimensional creature passing into this 2-D universe would only be visible as the part of them that is immediately passing through the plane. Thus, they would appear as “slices” of the whole. As a shifting 2-D blob, seeming to expand and contract and twist. If you’ve ever read the book Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott, you’ll have a good idea of what I’m talking about.
Now, imagine that one of these higher-dimensional beings is so immense that even the parts that do pass into our dimension- parts which seem large to us- are actually just the tiniest cell components to this leviathan.

This is what I’ve imagined for this version of the Fresno Nightcrawlers. Here, the “walking wishbones” are actually gigantic versions of microscopic proteins known as kinesins. Within every cell is a network of strands called microtubules which act as a sort of “railway” for the transport of important molecules and cellular building blocks. Kinesins are proteins that transport these molecular cargos along the microtubules via a long chain attached to them. To move, kinesins use a “hand-over-hand” (or, more accurately, “protein head over protein head”) motion which looks remarkably like walking.

Here’s an awesome animation of kinesin at work:

In this scenario, the Nightcrawlers are the only visible part of the cellular structure with the cargo, attachment chain and microtubule pathway the “creature” is moving on existing in a dimension we can’t see. 

Why, though, is this one component visible in our dimension? Perhaps there is something about the physical structure of our universe that makes them more stable or efficient, much like how many enzymes work best in a warmer environment.

Or perhaps the appearance of these beings in our dimension was only a fleeting accident that just happened to be caught on film.

Extrapolating from the idea of the Nightcrawlers as giant kinesin proteins, I also created a few more giant molecules from this unfathomably huge beast that might accidentally drift into our plane of existence for a few moments.

Ribosomes are bundles of RNA and proteins that read the cell’s DNA to build new proteins.

Molecular Chaperones are containers that guide freshly-formed protein chains into the proper shapes to create functional enzymes.

ATP Synthase is a large molecule embedded in the cell membrane that is used to generate ATP (adenosine triphosphate) an essential molecule that is used as an energy source in the cell.

Proteosomes and Ubiquitin are enzymes designed to break down other enzymes and proteins that are no longer needed.  Ubiquitin attaches a tag to proteins, and proteosome attacks these marked molecules, breaking them down into its constituent amino acids.

There would, of course, be billions of molecules in this higher-dimensional titan that would have no equivalent to Earthly structures. Thus the inclusion of an “Unkown Organelle”

On a final note, here’s another fun little animation explaining the role of kinesin in the body:


Our Molecular Nature: The Body's Motors, Machines and Messages by David S. Goodsell

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Fresno Nightcrawler Variant 2: Hyperdimensional Anomalocaris

Here's another speculative variation on the California "wishbone" cryptid.

Anomalocarids were a taxonomic group of large marine predatory invertebrates of the Paleozoic. Though they have no direct descendants, fossil evidence indicates that they were close relatives of arthropods, tardigrades and a small phylum of animals known as onycophorans, or velvet worms.

Various species of anomalocarids and their close relatives. Clockwise from top right: Schinderhannes bartelsi, Pambdelurion whittingtoni, Peytoia (Laggania) nathorsti, Anomalocaris canadensis, Amplectobelua symbrachiata, Hurdia victoria, Opabinia regalis, Kerygmachela kierkegaardi

Anomalocarids propelled themselves through the water using a series of lobes or fins along their sides that they waved in a sinuous motion rather like the wings of a stingray or the fins of a squid. The most distinctive feature of anomalocarids, however, was the pair of jointed Great Appendages that sprouted just in front of their mouths. In most species, these mandibles were adorned with sharp spines to help them capture and tear apart prey. Some of these creatures, however, developed into giant, gentle filter-feeders, using the elongated spines on their Great Appendages like strainers to catch plankton.

More anomalocarids. Top: Hurdia victoria. Bottom: Stanleycaris hirpex

Anomalocarid fossils were for a long time only known from the Cambrian period- the earliest age of large, multicellular mobile animals. But the discovery in 2009 of Schinderhannes bartelsi in the Hunsrück Slate of Germany extended their range all the way to the Devonian.

I've long been a fan of anomalocarids, as you can probably tell from all the drawings I've done of them. Heck, I've even designed a couple speculative species, like this one here.

My Speculative Hermit Anomalocaris, Repticaris caerulea.
In an interesting instance of life imitating art, one of my speculative animals even "predicted" the discovery of one of the first known filter-feeding anomalocarids called Tamisiocaris. Here's a picture of my invented animal, Cetimimus barbus:

And here's a reconstruction of Tamisiocaris by Rob Nicholls:

So, anyway, what's this got to do with the Fresno Nightcrawler? Well, while watching those two famous videos, I couldn't help noticing that the critter's legs looked a bit like anomalocarid Great Appendages (of course, when you've constantly got anomalocarids on the brain like me, it's not hard to see them everywhere). I started wondering: what if the weird "walking wishbone" we see is only a small part of a larger animal? What if the rest of it exists in another dimension we can't perceive? Perhaps the walking "legs" are actually modified mandibles that tow the animal along. Here I have imagined the creature's lateral swimming lobes having become huge flaps, forming a net or basket for capturing "astral plankton" which floats all around us just a few dimensions away. 

On a final note, this won't be the last time you see me interpret a cryptid as a sort of unusual anomalocarid. Stay tuned for more! 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Snallygaster- Maryland

In the early 1700s, German settlers moved into Maryland from Pennsylvania, bringing with them many of their myths and legends. Among these were tales of the schnelle geister or “quick spirits”, supernatural beings that could sometimes be merely annoying-- knocking things over and creating bad smells-- and sometimes malevolent-- stealing children or forming huge battalions of writhing specters to rain down on helpless and unsuspecting humans.

As the Germanic legends merged with the larger melting pot of beliefs in Maryland, schnelle geister became snollygoster, then finally snallygaster, a general term for any sort of boogieman or mysterious creature.

In 1909, the term Snallygaster took on a distinct, terrifying form when the Middletown Valley Register of Frederick County reported that a huge, dragon-like creature had flown out of a cave in South Mountain and snatched up a local man, Bill Gifferson. The monster carried Grifeerson to the top of a hill where it pierced his throat with its needle-sharp beak and drank his blood.

Sightings of the Snallygaster exploded after this incident. Suddenly newspapers all over Frederick County, and even into nearby West Virginia, were overflowing with reports of terrifying run-ins with this blood-drinking dragon. Drawing on local folklore, the beast was quickly dubbed Snallygaster, though a few papers briefly gave it alternative, equally colorful names such as “Go-devil”, “Bovulopus”, “Octollopus” and “Gigantiloeutus”.

Descriptions of the creature varied, but most claimed that it resembled a winged reptile with iron claws and a pointed beak for draining its victims of blood. It was also said to have a single, enormous eye in the center of its forehead. A few stories claimed that it even had tentacles like an octopus-- though where these were located on its body or what it used them for was never specified.

Some tales claimed that seven pointed stars would drive off the beast, which allegedly led many in Frederick County and surrounding areas to place these symbols on the outside walls of their barns and houses. It is worth noting, though, that stars with four, five or six points were already common folk motifs on the houses of many German settlers (seven-pointed stars were rarer, but not unheard of), so this detail may have just been an embellishment playing off an already prominent decoration in the South Mountain area.

Snallygaster reports continued throughout 1909, gradually fading away by the end of the year.  The frenzy was finally capped off by a tongue-in-cheek letter to Middletown Valley Register written by an “expert” who claimed that the beast was of a species of monsters that lived deep within the Earth. The beast terrorizing Frederick County, so the writer claimed, had come to the surface after an earthquake opened a chasm in the South Mountains leading to its subterranean home. The article concluded with a report of a fictitious scientific expedition that had seen the creature fly back into its cave, at which point another earthquake sealed it up.

The Snallygaster resurfaced again in 1932 in a new flurry of newspaper reports. This time, though, the beast appeared to meet its demise when the Register reported that local prohibition agents had busted into a bootlegger’s hideout only to find the place abandoned and the partially-dissolved corpse of the Snallygaster floating in the moonshine mash where it had apparently fallen after being overcome by the alcoholic fumes.

Despite its apparent death, the Snallygaster would continue to make sporadic appearances in local papers over the years, even inspiring a 1976 article about a fictitious Hemmingway-style safari to track it down once and for all.

Snallygaster at rest, standing on its mantle-foot and modified tentacles.

The bizarre appearance of the Snallygaster, along with its colorful, often outlandish history, bears more than a passing resemblance to many other tall tales of mysterious and deadly flying monsters heard throughout America- and indeed, throughout the world. This is no coincidence, for the Snallygaster began as a hoax created by the editors of the Middletown Valley Register to drum up sales for their paper. The story proved so popular that other papers picked it up, often embellishing the tale with their own details. Newspapers have a long history of punching up and sensationalizing stories-- or even creating stories whole cloth in the age before journalistic integrity- to attract and entertain readers.  Indeed, many old papers were more like the Weekly World News (or most internet message boards, to use a contemporary example) than a reputable source for information.

In more recent reports-particularly internet articles- the Snallygaster has developed an “archenemy” in the form of the Dwayyo, a black-furred biped sometimes described as being ape-like, sometimes said to be more like a werewolf or a dog walking on its hind legs. According to folklore, the Dwayyo will attack the Snallygaster on sight, though no explanation is given for this animosity. Nor is the mammalian beast itself given much of a backstory. The first reported sightings of the Dwayyo came in a series of 1965 articles in the Frederick News written by George May, which described a black, bigfoot-like monster terrorizing the county. 

May’s articles may actually be responsible for the rivalry between the Dwayyo and the Snallygaster. One of his last articles suggested that increased sightings of the furred beast signalled the eclipsing of interest in Maryland’s other, draconic monster. His prediction, though, did not bear out since the Snallygaster has proven to be the far more popular creature.

Mythical monsters often serve as a metaphor for aspects of humanity. Sea serpents and krakens can represent our awe and fear of the ocean. Wendigo personify the terror and loneliness of the boreal woods and the desperation that leads to cannibalism. Elves, trolls, huldra and other fey beings symbolize the mystery and danger of the deep forest. The Snallygaster, too, once held a dark and potent symbolism-- specifically the evils of racism. Many of the early reports claimed that the beast specifically targeted African-American victims.

Furthermore,  the website points out:

"In Maryland: A Guide to the Old Line State, the author directly alludes to such attitudes by stating: 

“In the Middletown Valley section of western Maryland the fabulous ‘snallygaster’ flies into a little settlement of log cabins that served as slave quarters prior to the Civil War. The great bird preys upon Negro children out after dark, and on occasion has even been known to carry off a full-grown man to its lair in the near-by mountains.”

It is worth noting that these previous lines, specifically the phrases "preys upon," "after dark" and "carry off," are highly suggestive of the practice of lynching. In the contemporary period so-called "sunset towns" were declared wherein African Americans would be barred from entering after nightfall. Any "violators" would be sought out by lynch mobs, dragged to a secluded location and "dealt" with."

The symbolism behind a monster may change over time, of course. Vampires were once personifications of our fears of death, illness and, in the case of Stoker's Dracula, rape and sexually-transmitted diseases. Today they often symbolize a longing for immortality and the simultaneous fear of watching everyone and everything one loves crumble to dust around them.

The Snallygaster likewise has undergone an evolution in what it represents. Its association with racism and the evils of lynching has all but disappeared. Now the beast, like the Mothman, Thnuderbirds, Bigfoot and other cryptids, symbolizes the unexplored, a longing for mysteries and a fear and simultaneous desire for the unknown. 

For my interpretation of the Snallygaster, I drew inspiration from descriptions of it as a one-eyed, tentacled dragon. However, rather than make it a reptile with cephalopod arms, I made it a flying squid with wings formed from the fin around its mantle. The hind legs are also extensions of the body fin with fringe-like papillae serving as “toes”. The front limbs of my version are actually highly modified tentacles with hooks sprouting from the tips of the suckers forming the “claws”.

The majority of information for this post came from an excellent book by Patrick Boyton called Snallygaster: The Lost Legend of Frederick County. It’s short, but thorough and definitely worth checking out.

Snallygaster: The Lost Legend of Frederick County by Patrick Boyton

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Fresno Nightcrawler Variant 1: Echinoderm

Making a slight departure from the usual state cryptid post to have a little fun with one of my favorite folklore critters.

The Fresno Nightcrawlers are bizarre cryptids from California that are little more than small, round heads atop long legs, rather like living wishbones or hairpins. They're known from a set of videos posted to Youtube. The first is a grainy surveillance video that shows two of the creatures seemingly floating over a lawn with their legs billowing out as if they were covered in loose fabric.  The second surveillance video, filmed in nearby Yosemite National Park, gives a clearer image of a larger Nightcrawler strolling down a path accompanied by a smaller individual (its young, perhaps?).

The nightcrawlers have been associated with a series of photographs of tree-branch sculptures that resemble them. Some internet posters have claimed that the Nightcrawlers are nature spirits that are well-known to local residents, and the statues are a sort of homage to them. Its even claimed that they are present in the myths of the local First Nations peoples.

There is, however, no record of these beings in local folklore nor in Native mythology. The most likely explanation is that the videos are clever hoaxes and the folklore has been added on to give some depth to the creatures.

Hoax they may be, but I still think the Nightcrawlers are pretty neat cryptid/folklore creatures. The biologist in me was intrigued by what they might be if they were real. So I've been doing a series of speculative drawings on possible Nightcrawler identities.

For this image above, I've interpreted the Nightcrawlers as highly-modifed, land-dwelling echinoderms. Specifically, they are members of an extinct group called cystoids, which superficially resemble the more well-known crinoids or sea lilies.

An illustration of several echinoderm species. The five stalked creatures in the center are cystoids. Illustration by Ernst Haeckel

 In my drawing, the plate-covered arms of the cystoid ancestor have become the Nightcrawlers' walking legs. The rows of finger-like tentacles extending from the backs of the legs are tube-feet, short nozzle-like tentacles that echinoderms use for movement. The ring of hexagonal plates around the center of the creature's egg-shaped bodies are "eyes" formed from many smaller light-sensitive plates. These are similar to the multi-faceted plate-eyes of modern day brittlestars.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Tuttle Bottoms Monster article in Cryptid Culture #3

Issue #3 of Cryptid Culture magazine is out. Featuring my article about the Tuttle Bottoms beastie.

Get it here.

Tuttle Bottoms Monster- Illinois

Here's an illustration I did of an unusual hairy cryptid from around Harrisburg, IL.for an article I wrote in Cryptid Culture magazine.

The Tuttle Bottoms Monster is unique among hairy cryptids because of its long, anteater-like snout.

For my interpretation of the beast, I imagined it as a chalicothere- a species of extinct, sloth-like animals distantly related to horses- that had evolved a long, gharial-like snouth for catching fish.