Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is already considered to be his magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com/index.htm

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my ShukerNature blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my published books (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Eclectarium blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Starsteeds blog's poetry and other lyrical writings (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

Search This Blog

PLEASE COME IN, I'VE BEEN EXPECTING YOU...

PLEASE COME IN, I'VE BEEN EXPECTING YOU...
WELCOME TO SHUKERNATURE - ENJOY YOUR VISIT - BEWARE OF THE RAPTOR!

Sunday, 26 February 2017

THE GIANT GRASSHOPPER OF WISCONSIN - FOCUSING UPON A PHONEY PHOTOGRAPH


The iconic photograph of A.L. Butts holding up a supposed giant grasshopper that he had allegedly shot dead in his apple orchard during 1937 (public domain)

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, I purchased a trio of fascinating books that totally captivated me, reading them from cover to cover and then re-reading them numerous times thereafter. Indeed, even today I still return to them periodically and dip inside their fact-filled pages. Presented by The People's Almanac, these international bestsellers were: The Book of Lists (1977), The Book of Lists 2 (1980), and The Book of Lists 3 (1983). They were written by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace, and, as their titles suggest, they were packed throughout with annotated lists on every conceivable subject, and included many specialist ones that were compiled by a lengthy series of credited contributors with extensive knowledge on those particular s objects.

One of my favourite lists appeared in the third book of this series. Entitled '8 Worst Monster Hoaxes', the list had been compiled by none other than cryptozoology's very own Loren Coleman, and included concise accounts of such famous crypto-frauds as Phineas Barnum's Feejee mermaid, the giant model used in the notorious Silver Lake monster hoax, the supposed living Jersey devil put on show that proved to be a kangaroo painted with green stripes and with fake wings attached (click here to read my ShukerNature account of this faux monster), the controversial photo of de Loys's supposed South American ape, and – a case that I'd not encountered until reading this book – the giant grasshoppers that allegedly invaded the apple orchard of farmer A.L. Butts from Wisconsin. Here, quoting from his list, is what Loren wrote concerning this extraordinary episode:

GIANT GRASSHOPPERS OF BUTTS ORCHARD
On Sept. 9, 1937, the following headline appeared on the front page of the Tomah (Wis.) Monitor-Herald: "Giant Grasshoppers Invade Butts Orchard East of City." The accompanying story gave details of the invasion. Apparently, after eating some special plant food that farmer A. L. Butts had sowed on his apple orchard, the grasshoppers grew to an astounding 3 ft. in length—large enough to snap off tree limbs as they leaped about the orchard. Along with the article, there were photographs of the mutant insects being hunted with shotguns. Because the story was continued on page four, many readers never got to the final paragraph, which suggested that it was all a put-on: "If there are those who doubt our story it will not be a new experience, inasmuch as most newspaper writers are thought to be the darndest liars in the world." The elaborate hoax was concocted by Mr. Butts and the Monitor-Herald publisher, B. J. Fuller.

My greatly-treasured copy of The Book of Lists 3 (© David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace / Corgi Books - reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

Accompanying Loren's account was the eyecatching photograph that opens this present ShukerNature blog article of mine, except that in Loren's account the photo was reproduced by the book's publisher in mirror-image format, the only instance that I'm aware of in which it has appeared in this orientation. It was one of the pictures that had been included in the above-noted Tomah Monitor-Herald newspaper's hoax report.

Not surprisingly, with the coming of the internet such a striking image as this one was not going to go unnoticed and uncommented-upon online, and indeed, it currently appears on countless websites. Yet although on the vast majority of these sites it is readily denounced as a hoax, there is rarely if ever any provision of details supporting such a claim, and on some sites there is even earnest discussion as to whether it actually is a hoax or whether the giant grasshopper portrayed in it is real!

In both situations, therefore, it would appear that all such sites are blissfully unaware of Loren's above-quoted account, and also of the more recent version by Leland Gregory – a concise coverage of this phoney incident appearing in Gregory's wonderfully-entitled book Stupid History: Tales of Stupidity, Strangeness, and Mythconceptions Throughout the Ages (2007). It includes the following specific details concerning the photographs contained in the hoax newspaper report: "Accompanying the article were photographs of shotgun-toting hunters tracking down the mutant insects as well as a picture of Farmer Butts holding up a dead grasshopper like a prize fish" – the latter being an excellent description of the famous image opening my own article here. But that is not all.

Picture postcards from 1937 featuring this iconic giant grasshopper image but giving different claimed locations for it; note also that in the middle postcard the grasshopper seems to be held at a slightly different angle, and with both antennae hanging down, indicating that this is a second, hitherto-unrecognised photo - see below for more details (public domain)

In many online sites containing this photograph, it takes the form of a vintage-looking picture postcard, inasmuch as beneath the main portion of the image (containing Butts holding the grasshopper) but superimposed upon the lowermost portion of the image itself (a section of ground present below Butts's feet and rifle end that was not present in the version of this picture accompanying Loren's account, which was therefore cropped as well as mirror-image-reversed) is white handwriting in the style that was frequently seen in such picture postcards dating back to the first half of the 20th Century. This handwriting provides the location where the photograph was supposedly taken, plus the photo's copyright owner and year.

In most examples that I have seen, the information given is: 'GRASSHOPPER SHOT NEAR MILES CITY MONT. © 1937 COLES STUDIO GLASGOW MONT'. However, I have also seen versions in which the location is variously given as 'NEAR MANDAN NORTH DAKOTA', and 'NEAR MEDORA NORTH DAKOTA' (and in this latter version, the adjective 'GIANT' is applied to the grasshopper). The year and copyright details, conversely, are the same as those given in the Miles City Montana version.

Of particular interest, moreover, is that in one such version (pictured above), labelled as 'NEAR MANDAN NORTH DAKOTA', the angle at which the grasshopper is being held by Butts is slightly different from in all other versions seen by me, and with both of its antennae (not just one) hanging downwards, as well as less of its feet emerging from out of Butts's fist. In other words, this is apparently a second, hitherto-unrecognised photograph of Butts and the giant grasshopper, yet clearly produced during the same session as the famous one, because Butts's pose is identical in both, whereas the grasshopper's is very similar - but not identical - in both.

There are also various additional versions online that may be of more recent date, as the locations given are simply added in typescript within a separate block beneath the entire image, rather than as handwriting superimposed upon the lowermost portion of the image. One such example gives the supposed location of where the 'giant grasshopper' was shot as 'Near C.P.R. Station Moose Jaw, Sask.', with 'Sask.' being an abbreviation for the state of Saskatchewan in Canada. (There are also all manner of modern-day parodies, spoofs, and pastiches of this now-classic image online, featuring characters from famous television shows, computer/video games, and much more besides.)

Two spoofs of the Butts giant grasshopper photograph: the left-hand-one provides a humorous twist to its content; the right-hand-one features Butch DeLoria, leader of the Tunnel Snakes gang in Fallout 3, an action role-playing open world video game that includes giant cockroach-like insects called radroaches (© owner unknown to me / © Fallout Wiki)

Bearing in mind that the hoax was set in Wisconsin, USA, all of the above-noted claimed locations for the grasshopper shooting given on the various picture postcards are themselves fake. But once again, that is not all. What is particularly odd, and therefore very intriguing, is that I have yet to find a single picture postcard of this image online that actually gives anywhere in Wisconsin as the claimed location!

Moreover, the very fact that there are in existence picture postcards depicting this image that date back to 1937, the exact same year in which the hoax report was published by the Tomah Monitor-Herald newspaper, makes me wonder which came first – the picture postcards or the newspaper hoax? If the hoax came first, then the postcards were made as a spin-off using the image from the report and with the writing giving supposed location and copyright details being subsequently added. But if the postcards came first, complete with the writing present, then the writing would need to be removed from them before the image could be included in the report. The easiest way to do this would be simply to crop the photo to just below Butts's feet (exactly as was done in The Book of Lists 3), thereby deleting the lowermost portion of the image containing the writing. But if the latter is true, does this mean that the hoax newspaper report was actually inspired by (and thus made direct use of) a pre-existing picture postcard that occurred with different claimed locations written upon it, but set its fictitious incident in a location (Wisconsin) separate from any of those claimed on the postcard versions?

An answer to this key question may well be forthcoming if we knew what format the giant grasshopper photograph takes in the newspaper report? Is the full image present, including the lowermost portion of ground beneath Butts's feet and rifle end but with no writing superimposed, thus confirming that the newspaper report came first? Or is the image cropped to just below Butts's feet, thereby strongly suggesting (albeit not confirming) that there may have been writing on the deleted lowermost portion?

That is definitely the all-important question here, one that might shed major new light upon the origin of this iconic photograph. Yet, maddeningly, it is also one that I am presently unable to answer – for the simple yet highly frustrating reason that so far I have been unable to set eyes upon a copy of the two-page hoax report from the Tomah Monitor-Herald newspaper of 9 September 1937. I have managed to locate a version of this story that appeared in the Juneau County Chronicle (of Mauston, Wisconsin) on 16 September 1937, but this is a much shorter version, and only includes a single photograph (and which, unfortunately, is not the one under consideration here), one that is again an evident but much less professionally-produced hoax image.

Section of the front page of the Juneau County Chronicle for 16 September 1937 containing the giant grasshopper story (public domain)

That same photograph, incidentally, depicting Butts and someone else shooting a giant grasshopper in Butts's orchard, is also apparently the opening photo in the original Tomah Monitor-Herald report, and I have been kindly informed by Facebook friend and correspondent Bob Deis that the other person in the photo is none other than B.J. Fuller from the Tomah Monitor-Herald, who, as noted earlier, co-engineered the hoax with Butts.

Bob has given me a cutting from the Daily Tribune (Wisconsin Rapids) newspaper of 14 September 1937 that confirms this, Fuller openly admitting the hoax with Butts (variously spelt 'Butz' and 'Buts' here). Confusingly, this cutting initially names Fuller as merely a reporter for the Tomah Monitor-Herald, not as its editor (naming L.W. Kenny as editor instead), thereby seemingly contradicting Loren's afore-quoted account, but a few paragraphs later it then does name Fuller as editor! It also identifies the person who took that particular photograph of the two men shooting the giant grasshopper as one Reverend H.S. Schaller. I wonder if Schaller also took the famous photo of Butts holding up the giant grasshopper under consideration here? Thanks very much Bob for providing me with this informative cutting! And here it is:



Cutting from the Daily Tribune (Wisconsin Rapids), 14 September 1937, confirming that the Wisconsin giant grasshopper hunt was indeed a hoax concocted by Butts and Fuller (public domain)
 
Needless to say, moreover, if anyone reading this ShukerNature article can provide me with a copy of the elusive Tomah Monitor-Herald report (or even any details concerning the appearance of the photograph in question here), I would very much appreciate it!

Well worth pointing out here is that picture postcards may well be linked to this hoax newspaper report in more ways than one, because it just so happens that in 1935, i.e. at least two years before this report was published, a picture postcard photographer/publisher named Frank D. Conard from Garden City, Kansas, had begun issuing what would become a very lengthy series of popular postcards depicting humorous illustrations featuring giant grasshoppers and spanning three decades.

Long before Photoshop was ever thought of, and eschewing even the popular optical illusion of forced perspective, Conard created his delightful pictures by simply but very effectively inserting enlarged images of grasshoppers into all manner of everyday scenes (a selection of which can be seen below). He also produced similar montage-based pictures featuring other enlarged images of animals, including jackrabbits and fishes. Picture postcards in this highly-collectible genre are known as exaggeration postcards.

A selection of Frank D. Conard's giant grasshopper-themed exaggeration postcards – click to enlarge (public domain)

Conard in turn had been inspired to produce his giant grasshopper-themed exaggeration postcards by a real-life grasshopper-featuring event that had taken place in Garden City, Kansas, during 1935. Namely, a major a plague of grasshoppers (albeit of normal size, happily!), which had attracted considerable media attention elsewhere across the USA, as other prairie states were also suffering from similar scourges at that time. In a December 2004 article concerning exaggeration picture postcards that was published on the Kansas Historical Society's website, Conard is quoted as having once said:

The idea [for producing his famous giant grasshopper-themed exaggeration postcards] came to me after a flight of grasshoppers swarmed into Garden City attracted by the lights, and it was impossible to fill an automobile gasoline tank at filling stations that night. I went home to sleep, but awoke at 3:00 a.m. and all I could think about was grasshoppers. By morning I had the idea of having fun with the grasshoppers, and took my pictures and superimposed the hoppers with humans. I didn't do it for adverse impressions of Kansas, but as an exaggerated joke.

Taking all of this into account, could it be that Coles Studio of Glasgow, Montana, the publisher of the picture postcards featuring Butts and the giant grasshopper and labelled with a variety of different claimed locations, was inspired by those of Conard, and/or by the real events that in turn had inspired Conard, to create some grasshopper-themed exaggeration postcards of its own? Indeed, can we even be absolutely certain that the person in this image actually is Butts? After all, if the postcards came first, before the hoax newspaper report, with one such postcard merely being the inspiration for the report and then simply included within it when it was finally published, who can say for certain who the person is in the image? It could be anyone. Butts might simply have lent his name to the hoax newspaper report, with the photo featuring whoever it was who had posed for it as a Coles Studio picture postcard long before the hoax newspaper story had ever been conceived.

A second selection of Frank D. Conard's giant grasshopper-themed exaggeration postcards – click to enlarge (public domain)

I've spent a fair amount of time online seeking any details or publication lists appertaining to the output of Coles during the 1930s, in the hope of pinning down specifically when in 1937 the grasshopper postcards depicting Butts (or whoever it is) holding the giant grasshopper were first issued, but, sadly, all to no avail.

However, thanks to a correspondent with the username Pattock, who, in a comment posted at the end of this article of mine, kindly brought them to my attention, I am now aware of two giant grasshopper-themed exaggeration picture postcards issued by Coles Studio in 1939 and 1938 respectively. So here they are:

Two giant grasshopper-themed exaggeration picture postcards issued by Coles Studio in 1939 and 1938 respectively - click to enlarge (public domain)

As for the giant grasshopper itself in the famous Coles Studio picture postcard under discussion here: one further intrigue awaits consideration. Does the postcard depicting it simply consist of an enlarged photo of a normal grasshopper that has been carefully inserted into a photo of Butts(?) in the normal montage-style manner of creating exaggeration picture postcards (but in at least two slightly different poses, as revealed earlier)? Or could the grasshopper have possibly been an actual full-sized giant grasshopper model?

The reason that I ask this is twofold. Firstly, on some websites I have seen claims, albeit unsubstantiated by any supporting evidence, alleging this to be the case. Secondly, although it seems an unlikely prospect there is in fact a notable fully-confirmed precedent – one that involves the following 'giant grasshopper' photograph, which again appears on numerous websites:

Holding down a giant grasshopper – actually a model (public domain)

As with the Butts photo, there are all kinds of claims circulating online regarding it being a hoax image, alongside other claims questioning whether the grasshopper is actually a bona fide living giant grasshopper. In fact, it is neither – as revealed on 8 October 2012 by Maureen A. Taylor in her Photo Detective column within Family Tree Magazine (and viewable online here). Following an investigation of this tantalising image, Maureen discovered that the giant grasshopper was an iron sculpture that had been created by Thomas Talcott Hersey of Mitchell, South Dakota, during the late 1930s, yet again as a result of being inspired by the real-life grasshopper plagues of that period, one of which had killed his own crops in his home state. Moreover, Hersey's giant grasshopper sculpture, which he had dubbed Galloping Gertie, attracted considerable interest and attention. Indeed, as Maureen noted:

When he displayed his invention at Corn Palace Week in Mitchell and charged a nickel to view it, he earned enough to support his family for a winter.  Hersey ended up with a commission from a man who hired him to make a housefly, a flea, a black widow spider and a monarch butterfly to show at county fairs.

Hersey even produced a picture postcard of Galloping Gertie (the image included by me above), in which he is shown pretending to hold it down, assisted by his nephew Harry (Bart) Hersey and David John Hersey, and which also bears the caption 'Capturing "Whopper Hopper" near Mitchell, S.D. The largest grasshopper in existence 54 inches long weight 73 pounds'. And it is this picture, often reproduced sans caption, which is the one doing the rounds online. So, yes, models of giant grasshoppers are not beyond the realms of possibility at all.

As for real-life giant grasshoppers, conversely, that of course is a very different matter. For fundamental anatomical and physiological regions, especially ones relating to respiration, no species of insect living today could attain the stature of those included in any of the images presented above in this present article. Having said that, and albeit on a much more modest scale, there are some undeniably impressive species of grasshopper native to various parts of North America, but none more so, surely, than the eastern lubber grasshopper Romalea microptera (=guttata).

An eastern lubber grasshopper (public domain)

Common throughout Florida, but up to 4 inches long, and brightly coloured in garish yellow, orange, and red with black stripes to warn would-be predators of its toxic nature, it came as something of a shock to me when I first encountered this monstrous entity while visiting the Everglades back in 1981. A slow-moving species not given to energetic hopping and generally too heavy to fly via its undersized wings, there seemed to be lubbers crawling underfoot everywhere, emitting loud hisses and secreting foul-smelling foamy exudations, until I was more than happy to step onto one of the boats to take me away from these hexapodal horrors and on through what seemed by comparison to be the relative tranquillity of the alligator-infested swamps!

Meanwhile, my search here and online continues apace for the final piece of the long-incomplete jigsaw constituting the mystery of the Butts giant grasshopper phoney photograph – that evanescent newspaper report from the Tomah Monitor-Herald of 9 September 1937. Once – if ever – I have that to hand, I may finally be able to determine in best chicken and egg tradition which came first, the Coles Studio picture postcards of this memorable image or its appearance in the newspaper report.

So, once again, if there is anyone out there reading this ShukerNature article who can offer any information (including a specific first publication date for the picture postcards), or, best of all, an image of the two-page newspaper report, I would be very happy to hear from you!

Two enthralling Weekly World News stories featuring the Butts giant grasshopper photograph (© Weekly World News – included here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

Finally: how could any photograph featuring a man holding a 3-ft-long grasshopper fail to attract the attention of the wonderful Weekly World News? Sure enough, this inestimable publication has featured the Butts photo in not one but two WWN stories. In the first, published on 9 April 1991, it was used as the basis of a highly entertaining report concerning a New Zealand farmer named Barry Gissler who had shot a 23-lb giant grasshopper less than a month earlier, on 15 March. And in the second, published just over a year later on 16 June 1992, the unfortunate Mr Gissler had alas been found dead with a broken neck and strange bite marks on his body. Had New Zealand's mega-hoppers taken revenge upon the murderer of one of their burly six-legged brethren? Only the WWN can answer that question – and who knows, perhaps one day, in a third fascinating instalment of this gripping grasshopper yarn, it will do!

Incidentally, just in case you were wondering: The world's largest known true grasshopper (as opposed to the highly-specialised wetas of New Zealand) is a currently-unidentified species documented from the border of Malaysia and Thailand that measures 10 in long and is capable of leaping up to 15 ft. So perhaps giant grasshoppers are not such a figment of fantasy after all!

NB – As far as I am aware, all of the illustrations included here are in the public domain unless stated otherwise. In any case, however, they are all included here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only, exclusively for educational, review purposes.

A vintage giant grasshopper-themed exaggeration postcard in colour (© currently unknown to me despite having made considerable searches for information – any available details will be gratefully received)



UPDATE AND DENOUEMENT – 6 March 2017

Today I was delighted and extremely grateful to receive from David Kranz, the Associate Librarian in the Archives of La Crosse Public Library in Wisconsin, USA, scans of the complete, original two-page Tomah Monitor-Herald giant grasshopper hoax report from 9 September 1937 that I have been anxiously seeking for so long! Thank you so much! And yes indeed, there on page 1, just below and to the left of the photograph of a grasshopper being shot in a tree, was the very familiar photo that has been under discussion throughout this present ShukerNature blog article of mine, showing a man holding up vertically a supposed dead giant grasshopper, hanging head down, its back feet clutched in the man's fist. Reading the full article, however, it is intriguing to note that Butts is never actually identified as the man in this photo. All that is said about it, in fact, is as follows:

The picture at the left shows one of the big hoppers that had been shot.

So even now, there is no categorical proof that the man in this photo really is Butts.

As for the photograph itself as included in this hoax report, it is the more familiar version, i.e. with only one of the grasshopper's antennae hanging straight down (the other one curling almost horizontally to the left), and with a substantial amount of the grasshopper's back feet emerging out of Butts' fist. Moreover, it is neither in mirror-image version, nor, significantly, does it contain any details of location, date, or the Coles Studio in handwriting beneath Butts and the grasshopper – because in this newspaper report the image is cropped to just below Butts's feet.

This therefore lends weight to my earlier suggestion that it was the picture postcard of this image (with the details in handwriting superimposed upon an additional, lowermost section of the image, present beneath Butts's feet) that came first, before the newspaper report, and which had then been incorporated into the newspaper report by the simple expedient of someone having cropped beforehand that lowermost section of image containing the handwriting from the main portion of the image. Why else would the image have been cropped? It wasn't as if the section of image beneath Butts's feet was extensive and would therefore occupy space that could be better used in some other way within the report. And despite all of my numerous, extensive searches made in relation to this image, I have never once come upon a version of it that retains this missing lowermost section but without the handwritten source details, etc., being superimposed upon it.

Consequently, until (if ever) any such version of the image does turn up, it seems parsimonious to conclude that this iconic image did indeed begin life as a Coles Studio exaggeration picture postcard, issued some time in 1937 but definitely prior to the publication of the hoax newspaper report in the Tomah Monitor-Herald on 9 September 1937, and that it then appeared within that report in cropped form, with all details of publisher, date, and location having been deleted, and with the very terse, uninformative reference to it within the main text of the report suspending over it in Damoclesian verisimilitude a potentially perpetual question mark as to whether the man depicted in it was indeed Butts at all.

Finally, be sure not to miss out on Bob Deis's awesome Cryptozoology Anthology: Strange and Mysterious Creatures in Men's Adventure Magazines – check it out here!











Saturday, 25 February 2017

ARE FRUIT BATS FLYING PRIMATES? ANOTHER RETROSPECTIVE FROM OUT OF THE ARCHIVES


A fruit bat in flight at Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens, Australia (© Daniel Vianna/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)


But when he brushes up against a screen,
We are afraid of what our eyes have seen:

For something is amiss or out of place
When mice with wings can wear a human face.

        Theodore Roethke – ‘The Bat’


The following article of mine was originally published by Fortean Times in its April 1997 issue (and is reprinted in unchanged form below). Yet despite the initially encouraging research documented in it, the passage of time following its publication did not prove kind to the flying primates hypothesis. In more recent years, sufficient evidence against its veracity as obtained via comparative DNA analysis with primates, mega-bats, and micro-bats has been proffered for it to be largely (though not entirely) discounted nowadays by mainstream workers. (A detailed examination of this evidence is presented online here in British palaeontologist Dr Darren Naish’s Tetrapod Zoology blog.) Nevertheless, even though the notion of fruit bats as our winged cousins may have been grounded, zoologically speaking it remains of undeniable historical interest, and was such a charming novelty while it lasted that I couldn’t resist recalling it on ShukerNature as part of my occasional 'Out of the Archives' series – so here it is.

The minute fruit bat Cynopterus minutus with outstretched wings (© Wibowo Djatmiko/Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

The fortean literature contains reports of some exceedingly bizarre entities, but few are any stranger than the various bat-winged humanoids spasmodically reported from certain corners of the world. These include such aerial anomalies as the Vietnamese 'bat-woman' soberly described by three American Marines in 1969, the child-abducting orang bati from the Indonesian island of Seram, and the letayuschiy chelovek ('flying human') reputedly frequenting the enormous taiga forest within far-eastern Russia's Primorskiy Kray Territory (click here for further details).

Zoologists have traditionally averted their eyes from such heretical horrors as these, but in a classic 'fact is stranger than fiction' scenario, a remarkable evolutionary theory has lately re-emerged that unites humans and bats in a wholly unexpected evolutionary manner.


FLYING FOXES AS WINGED PRIMATES?

As far back as 1910, W.K. Gregory proposed that bats were closely related to primates - the order of mammals containing the lemurs, monkeys, apes, and humans. More recently, Dr Alan Walker revealed that dental features of a supposed fossil primate christened Propotto leakeyi in 1967 by American zoologist Prof. George Gaylord Simpson indicated that it was not a primate at all, but actually a species of fruit bat.

In 1986, however, Queensland University neurobiologist Dr John D. Pettigrew took this whole issue of apparent bat-primate affinity one very significant step further, by providing thought-provoking evidence for believing that the fruit bats may be more than just relatives of primates - that, in reality, these winged mammals are primates!

Chuuk flying fox Pteropus insularis, PZSL 1882 (public domain)

All species of bat are traditionally grouped together within the taxonomic order of mammals known as Chiroptera. Within that order, however, they are split into two well-defined suborders. The fruit bats or flying foxes belong to the suborder Megachiroptera ('big bats'), and are therefore colloquially termed mega-bats. All of the other bats belong to the second suborder, Microchiroptera ('small bats'), and hence are termed micro-bats.


MACRO-BATS AND MICRO-BATS – NOT SEEING EYE TO EYE?

As a neurobiologist, Dr Pettigrew had been interested in determining the degree of similarity between the nervous systems of mega-bats and micro-bats. In particular, he sought to compare the pattern of connections linking the retina of the eyes with a portion of the mid-brain called the tectum, or superior colliculus. He used specimens of three Pteropus species of fruit bat to represent the mega-bats. And to obtain the most effective comparison with these, he chose for his micro-bat representatives some specimens of the Australian ghost bat Macroderma gigas - one of the world's largest micro-bats. Ideally suited for this purpose because its visual system is better developed than that of many other micro-bats, it has large eyes like those of fruit bats, and retinas with a similar positional arrangement.

The Australian ghost bat, a giant species of micro-bat (public domain)

Pettigrew's examination of all of these specimens revealed that the pattern of retinotectal neural connections was very different between mega-bats and micro-bats, but far more important was the precise manner in which they differed - providing a radically new insight not merely into bat evolution but also into the family tree of humanity.

Reporting his remarkable findings in 1986, Pettigrew announced that the retinotectal pattern of connections in fruit bats was very similar to the highly-advanced version possessed by primates. That fact was made even more astounding by the knowledge that until this discovery, the primate pattern had been unique. In other words, it had unambiguously distinguished primates not only from all other mammals (including the micro-bats) but also from all other vertebrates, i.e. fishes, amphibians, reptiles, and birds - all of which have a quite different, more primitive pattern. Suddenly, the fruit bats were in taxonomic turmoil.


NOT SUCH A FLIGHT OF FANCY?

Until now, the fact that micro-bats and mega-bats all possessed wings and were capable of controlled flight had been considered sufficient proof that they were directly related, because it seemed unlikely that true flight could have evolved in two totally independent groups of mammals. Gliding, via extensible membranes of skin, had evolved several times (e.g. in the scaly-tail rodents – click here for some cryptozoological connections); the 'flying' squirrels; three different groups of 'flying' marsupial phalanger; and the peculiar colugos or 'flying lemurs' – click here), but this did not require such anatomical specialisations as the evolution of bona fide, flapping wings for true flight.

Scaly-tails, one species of which is locally dubbed the flying jackal (public domain)

Yet it seemed even less likely that the advanced retinotectal pathway displayed by primates could have evolved wholly independently in fruit bats.

In short, by exhibiting the latter organisation of neural connections, fruit bats now provided persuasive reasons for zoologists to consider seriously the quite extraordinary possibility that these winged mammals were not bats at all, in the sense of being relatives of the micro-bats. Instead, they were nothing less than flying primates!

Wallace's fruit bats Styloctenium wallacei, 1896 (public domain)

Moreover, as Pettigrew noted in his paper, even the wings of mega-bats and micro-bats are not as similar as commonly thought. On the contrary, they show certain consistent skeletal differences, which point once again to separate evolutionary lines. And even that is not all - thanks to Dermoptera, that tiny taxonomic order of gliding mammals known somewhat haplessly as the flying lemurs (bearing in mind that they are not lemurs, and do not fly!) or, more suitably, as the colugos.

For by combining previously-disclosed similarities in blood proteins between the primates and the flying lemurs with the structural and neural homology apparent between the flying lemurs' gliding membranes and the wings of the mega-bats, extra evidence is obtained for a direct evolutionary link between fruit bats, primates, and the flying lemurs - thus resurrecting another possibility that had been suggested by researchers in the past.


FACING UP TO THE FACTS

One of the most familiar external differences between mega-bats and micro-bats is the basic shape of their face.

The remarkably lemur-like face of a Pteropus fruit bat (public domain)

Whereas the face of most fruit bats is surprisingly vulpine (hence ‘flying fox’) or even lemurine, in many micro-bats it is flatter in shape - though in some species, evolution has superimposed upon this shape all manner of grotesque flaps and projections.

The uniquely grotesque face of the aptly-named Antillean ghost-faced bat Mormoops blainvillii, a species of micro-bat native to the West Indies (public domain)

The lemur-like shape exhibited by the face of many fruit bats has traditionally been dismissed as evolutionary convergence, engendered merely by these two mammalian groups' comparable frugivorous tendencies.

Judging from Pettigrew's revelations, however, there may now be good reason to believe that such a similarity is a manifestation of a genuine taxonomic relationship between lemurs and fruit bats. The faces of the flying lemurs are also very lemurine (hence their name), which ties in with the above-noted serological evidence for a direct, flying lemur-primate link.

A colugo or flying lemur, again presenting a very lemurine face (hence its name) (public domain)

Thought-provoking indeed is the evidence for believing that fruit bats are legitimate, albeit aerially-modified, offshoots from the fundamental family tree of the primates. As Pettigrew pointed out, it is highly implausible that the reverse theory is true (i.e. that the fruit bats gave rise to the primates), because fruit bats seem to be relatively recent species, first evolving long after the primate link had emerged.


EVIDENCE FOR AND AGAINST FLYING PRIMATES

Inevitably, no theory as radical as one implying primate parentage for the fruit bats will remain unchallenged for very long. In 1992, for instance, molecular biologist Dr Wendy Bailey and two other colleagues from Detroit's Wayne State University School of Medicine announced that DNA analysis of the epsilon(e)-globin gene of both groups of bats, primates, and a selection of other mammals implies that the two bat groups are more closely related to one another than either is to any other mammalian group. This finding would therefore seem to support the traditional bat classification., but as noted by proponents of Pettigrew's ideas, it does not explain the extraordinary development by fruit bats of the primates' diagnostic visual pathway. Consequently, this tantalising physiological riddle currently remains unanswered.

Moreover, in a comparative immunological study whose results were published during 1994, Drs Arnd Schreiber, Doris Erker, and Klausdieter Bauer from Heidelberg University showed that proteins in the blood serum of fruit bats and primates share enough features to suggest a close taxonomic relationship between these two mammalian groups after all - thus bringing this continuing controversy full circle.

Samoan fruit bats Pteropus samoensis, 1858 (public domain)

Many primitive tribes believe that fruit bats are the spirits of their long-departed ancestors. In view of the fascinating disclosures reported here, these tribes could be closer to the truth than they realise!

This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted from my book Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo – a massive compendium of my Alien Zoo cryptozoological news reports and my longer Lost Ark cryptozoological articles that have been published in Fortean Times since the late 1990s.