Friday, 27 April 2018

Mystery tree crab officially discovered

Artist's impression of the tree crab now known as Kani maranjandu, back in 2011 when it was still a mystery animal. From Pygmy Elephants (Matt Salusbury, CFZ Press 2013)

The "mystery" tree crab described to me by a local eyewitness I interviewed over a decade ago turns out to be a real animal after all, and has been formally scientifically described.

Back in 2011 I was in Kerala, on the trail of a cryptid (unknown animal), the kallaana or pygmy elephant, said to be a type of Asian elephant that reached only five feet (1.5m) in height at the shoulder in adulthood. (See my report on my Kerala expedition here.)

As often happens in the hunt for mystery animals, the search for one cryptid throws up reports of another. I talked to award-winning wildlife photographer Sali Palode, who said the local Kani tribal people had shown him the mystery tree crab and he'd been able to photograph it. There were then photos by Sali of the mystery tree crab on his website (in the "insects" section!)

Sali in my interview – with his agent, Badhan Madhavan, translating from English to Malayalam – told how Kani elder Kamalsanan had led him to the tree crabs, and how the Kani used parts of the tree crab as a medicine for ear complaints. The Kani have an excellent reputation for traditional medicine. The receive royalties for medicines made from the leaves of the "jeevani" shrub, which grows in their lands, which turns out to me a miracle wonder drug stimulant.

Sali's description – of a quite large crab with long legs, purple in colour and with yellow front claws – turns out to have been entirely accurate. He also described how they moved very fast among the trees – as his website says, "the speed with which this crab scrambles up a tree is phenomenal."

This description of the animal's behaviour led some of the arthropod experts to whom I spoke to speculate that Sali was confusing it with yet another local cryptid – a large arboreal "tarantula-type spider" that remains as yet undescribed by science. Carl Marshall, an arthropod expert, told me he thought from its description this could be a Peocilatheria tarantula.

Sir David Attenborough was contacted by my colleague Richard Muirhead to ask him his opinion about the possibility of tree crabs living in the Keralan forests. He didn't have a problem with the idea, saying he'd found crabs living in the forests of Madagascar, saying "there is nothing strange about finding crabs in the Madagascan forests – or indeed in Kerala."

Sali described the crabs as living in "gaps" in trees, which turned out to be accurate too. Crabs need water to breed – this they do in hollows in the trees where rainwater gathers.

Recently, a survey of freshwater crabs in the region took place, begun in 2014 under the leadership of Dr Biju Kumar. The surveyors befriended the Kani, who led them to the arboreal tree crabs, known in the Kani language as "maranjandu." A male and a female specimen were captured, leading to the discovery that it was not just a new species of crab, but a who new genus. It's been formally given the Latin name Kani maranjandu. (See the write-up in
Phys.Org here
. ) One of the photos of the tree crabs in the report is by Sali Palode.

The description of the Kani and my witness Sali Palode turns out to be entirely accurate. This phenomenon is well known in cryptozoology circles (cryptozoology being the study of as yet unknown animals) – an animal of often "ethno-known" – known by a local ethnic community but disregarded by mainstream science, often regarded as a local superstition, until it turns out to be absolutely true. The okapi and the gorilla were both once "ethno-known" mystery animals before the descriptions by local people were confirmed.

The tree crabs were discovered in Kottor Reserve Forest, which is not far from the Keralan capital, Trivandrum and has an elephant rescue centre. But I predict that there's another population of the tree crabs awaiting discovery in another nature reserve nearby, the Neyyar Peppara reserve, which is where Sali saw and photographed them.

I went into Neyyar Peppara with Sali and Kani guide Mallan Kani in April 2011, having been given permission by Wildlife Warden Sharma of the Kerala Forest Department.

We didn't encounter any tree crabs, tarantulas or pygmy elephants, but we did have an encounter with a stampeding herd of guar – wild bison. We briefly stopped off at Mallan's house – the Kani are allowed to live in the forest reserve – where I saw some of the edible plants he had growing in his forest garden, including three kinds of ginger – ginger, wild ginger and "Bali ginger", arrowroot for making biscuits, cashews and mangos.

Access to the Kani is usually restricted, so I was granted to rare privilege of being allowed to go into their reserve. At the end of the day we stopped for a late lunch of fresh coconuts in one of the Kani settlements – the Kani whose house we stopped at went up a tree to cut coconuts for us.

There are 13 Kani hamlets in the forests of the Neyyar Peppara Wildlife sanctuary, these are usually of between 10 and 20 families. The last census, in 2002, put the Kani population of the south Indian state of Kerala at 16,000, with another 48 Kani settlements in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. The Kani language is related to Malayalam (the official language of Kerala) with some elements of the Tamil language. There is controversy around whether the Kani language is a dialect of Malayalam or a language in its own right. Their religion is said – by others – to be ancestor worship with elements of Hinduism and Christianity. The name "Kani" just means "people who live in the forest."

The Kani turned out to be entirely right about the tree crabs. I was a bit sceptical about that other "ethno-known" Keralan cryptid, the kallaana pygmy elephant. Experts on elephant ecology told me they thought it likely that these were misidentified young elephants who had "poor body condition" during the dry season and who took on a wrinkled, emaciated appearance that made them look older than they were. But if the Kani are right about the tree crab, perhaps we should take heed of their description of the pygmy elephant and the mystery tree tarantula.

After all, the Western Ghats hill range where the tree crabs live is a biodiversity hotspot. Burrowing frogs were discovered there a few years ago, while new species of gecko are discovered there so often it's hardly even news.

There's another Keralan cryptid – outside the range of the Kani and further north, in the tea plantations of Malabar. This is the pogeyan – a mystery grey-brown coloured leopard without spots. Its name means "the cat that comes and goes with the mist" in the Malayalam language.

You can read about all these Keralan cryptids, and much more, in my book Pygmy Elephants, available here.

Friday, 2 March 2018

West Suffolk mummified cat safari

This article first appeared as a Fortean Traveller piece in Fortean Times FT 363, February 2018

Moyse's Hall's newest mummified cat, recently acquired mummified cat, shortly before it went on display along with the others mentioned in this article. Photo: courtesy Alex McWhirter, Moyse's Hall Museum.

It was once common practice for cats or kittens to be walled up (sometimes alive) during the building of houses, to bring good luck and to ward off fires and evil spirits. They are still being uncovered, usually from spaces in roofs or around chimneys. (King James VI of Scotland, in his 1597 philosophical dissertation on witchcraft Daemonologie, discusses how malevolent spirits or “spectres” that trouble houses are most likely to enter them via the chimney.) Those entombed cats that haven’t rotted away mostly date from the 17th and 18th centuries and have been naturally mummified and preserved, giving them a scary, skeletal look, like hairless gremlins.

One such specimen turned up at The Trading Post curiosity shop in Wells, Somerset in 2012, (Daily Mail, 9 May 2012,) brought in by a customer who found it during restoration of their 300-year-old house. There’s a mummified cat on show at The Stag Inn pub in Hastings, while the one you can see at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, was found wedged up an organ pipe.

Although mummified cats on display in the British Isles are a bit unevenly distributed, fans of the slightly gruesome with moderately strong stomachs can take in an easily do-able cluster of them in the western half of the county of Suffolk. They’re even handily all on the same bus route. If you’re doing the West Suffolk mummified cat safari by car, it’s all within easy reach of the A134.

The best place to start your West Suffolk mystery cat cluster tour is at its epicentre in Bury St Edmunds. (Just “Bury” to locals, always pronounced “berry”.) There are two mummified cats and two mummified kittens on display in Bury’s 12th century Moyse’s Hall, now a museum. It also has some examples of an Elizabethan regional speciality in its public collection – witch bottles. These are earthenware bottles filled with pins, needles and nails and concealed as a protection against witches.

Mummified cats already on display at Moyse's Hall in Bury

Moyse’s Hall’s mummified kittens are part of the Barley House Hoard, from a farm in the mid-Suffolk village of Winston. This hoard of objects deliberately dropped into a space near the chimney date from around 1650 to 1730 and includes six felines in total, with a rat (sadly currently not on display at Moyse’s Hall), many shoes, pigs’ trotters, goose wing bones with notches cut in them and plenty else besides that presumably brought good luck. The scored goose bones could have been some form of crude almanac recording saint’s days.

The Barley House Hoard is one of four “spiritual middens” in the county of Suffolk, accumulations of stuff found in houses dropped into spaces around the chimney for good luck, sometimes spaces specially built into a dwelling.

Other such Suffolk lucky hoard of stuff deposited in spaces near chimneys include Cutchey’s Farm – a broken firkin lid, horseshoes, padlocks, stirrups, a shoe with a hole in it, through which a rat skull was found protruding, along with loads of other stuff. Archaeologist Timothy N D Easton described (in Historical Archaeology, 2013, 47, 1) how Cutchey’s Farm’s then owner, facing a run of financial bad luck after parting with the hoard in the 1980s, begged for the return of the “lucky” items. They eventually settled on the re-internment of a single child’s shoe.

Suffolk hoards of lucky charms have also been pulled out of houses at Hestley Hall – broken pots, chicken’s feet, fruit stones and a lot else besides – and Earl Soham – over 30 shoes from the 1830s, gloves, a bottle containing a horse medicine made from hornbill glands from India, a pair of braces, a framed mirror, a bunch of lavender. Earl Soham’s 19th century hoard was less about good luck – it had turned into a sort of early time capsule.

Another six mummified cats were discovered by builders doing work on a house in Fakenham Magna, not far from Bury, in 1972. (They’re not on display anywhere as far as I know.) The builders reported being scared by strange tapping noises and footsteps while working on the property.

Also in Bury, a few minutes walk from Moyse’s Hall, is The Nutshell pub – allegedly Britain’s smallest public house – which has a fine, leathery specimen of a mummified cat hanging from the ceiling, along with all the foreign banknotes that have ended up there over the years. Should you find yourself in the pedestrianized centre of Bury, The Nutshell is well worth a visit.

The magnificent mummified cat hanging in tiny Nutshell Pub, also in Bury

In its bar that’s just 15 feet by 7 feet, it’s almost impossible not to get pulled into one of the conversations that’s going on there, often among Bury’s tiny “alternative” community. If you can’t fight banter with even better banter, it’s not for you.

Ask nicely for permission to photograph their magnificent mummified cat, and whatever you do, do NOT touch it. Like a lot of East Anglian mummified cats, there’s said to be a curse attached to it. I heard an apocryphal tale about The Nutshell’s mummified cat being stolen, as a result of a prank by “other ranks” in a locally-based military unit, only for it to be returned not long after by a grim-faced off duty soldier (out of uniform but still identifiable by his haircut) who turned up at the pub at opening time and handed it back without a word.

From Bury bus station, the Chambers 753 bus takes you on an uneventful 35-minute drive to Lavenham. Most of the rural rides round here are on double deckers, so enjoy the view.

You know you’ve arrived in the village of Lavenham, with its 321 listed buildings, when the houses all go a bit mental – suddenly every building is a half-timbered eccentric wonky-angled extravagance with insane overhangs, often painted in bizarre colours. Look down any side street and every building in it has just the same level of medieval madness. It used to be one of the Wool Towns, where immensely wealthy wool magnates settled. While it’s a town no more, most of its 15th and 16th century Wool Town era houses still stand.

Suddenly things start to look a bit mental when you enter Lavenham

Head straight for Lavenham’s white painted Guildhall with its elaborately carved timbers. It once housed a jail, but now it’s a National Trust property and local museum whose magnificent mummified cat is worth the price of admission alone.

He goes by the name of Rameses. He was found hidden in a roof in one of the nearby houses. So magnificently well preserved is he that he still has the tips of his ears and most of his whiskers. None of the staff could tell me why he’s called Rameses, although I suspect it’s something to do with Egyptians and mummification – Egyptologist Robert Gayer Anderson and his twin brother Thomas settled in Lavenham in the 1920s and raised money to save the Guildhall.

Ramesses the mummified cat on display at Lavenham Guildhall

If you have time to kill in Lavenham before the 753 bus (from The Swan pub) takes you onward to your next mummified cat stop in Sudbury, there’s the De Vere House. This 14th century red brick and half-timbered residence was world famous even before it featured as Harry Potter’s decaying birthplace and ancestral home in the film of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1. Check out also the Market Square, which stood in for the market square of Bury St Edmunds in the not particularly historically accurate witch-burning scene in Hammer House of Horror’s Witchfinder General, starring Vincent Price.

The De Vere house in Lavenham, already famous before it became a Harry Potter location

Next stop Sudbury, birthplace of the painter Thomas Gainsborough (his most famous painting, Mr and Mrs Andrews, was painted in a landscape on the edge of Sudbury.) Gainsborough’s statue stands in the town’s market place, not far from Gainsborough’s House, now a museum, at 46 Gainsborough Street.

The fortean traveller to Sudbury, however, would be more interested in a very steep hill down by the River Stour. Here there are highland cattle grazing in nearby fields by the riverbank and swans gliding down the river. Here is Walnut Tree Lane, one of the very few slopes in Suffolk so steep that if you’ve come here by bike you absolutely have to get off and walk, as I did. At the end of this lane is the Mill Hotel. Even though there was a wedding reception about to start when I dropped in, the very welcoming receptionist had absolutely no problem with my request to crouch down by the floor in the corner and photograph their mummified cat.

Mummified cat in the floor of the Mill Hotel, Sudbury

It’s on display in a glass-topped casket set in the floor. Its skin is a ghostly white; it’s curled up with its head looking over its shoulder, a fang revealed. It’s a fine specimen in a good state of preservation, apart from a few large holes chewed in it by some kind of insect. It was found in 1975 and reburied in its casket by the then Mayor of Sudbury, after Canon Peter Schneider of the Church of England reportedly declined to perform a religious ceremony for a dead cat. Now it’s on display under thick glass in a recess in the corner of the floor in the lobby, where it was found.

As far as I’m aware, for the next nearest mummified cat on display you’d have to go all the way to King’s Lynn, over 40 miles north of Bury in North Norfolk, where there’s one at The Red Cat pub and hotel. However, dedicated mummified cat spotters can take the Beestons 91 bus from Sudbury bus station all the way to Ipswich, which has good train connections and whose Ipswich Museum has a modestly-sized Egyptology gallery complete with two mummified and embalmed Egyptian cat mummies.

Egyptian cat mummies in Ipswich Museum

The bus journey from Sudbury to Ipswich on the Beeston 91 double decker bus – run by England’s oldest private sector bus company – takes just over an hour and it’s quite a ride. There aren’t may stops on the A1071 road that takes you through South Suffolk, so the driver has his foot down on the gas pedal most of the way.

This article is an update (on 2 March 2018) of the article that appeared in Fortean Times, with an additional photo of the newly acquired mummiified cat at Moyse's Hall and additional information on the Gayer Anderson twins.

Travel information

Moyse’s Hall Museum, Cornhill, Bury St Edmunds, open every day, adults £4,
Lavenham Guildhall, for opening times, adults £6.50.
The Nutshell, The Thoroughfare, Bury St Edmunds, pub opening hours,, Walnut Tree Lane, Sudbury
Ipswich Museum, admission free, open Tuesday to Sunday,

Chambers 753 bus service – Bury St Edmunds to Lavenham (35 minutes), Lavenham to Sudbury (30 minutes). Buy on the bus day tickets for unlimited travel on their network at £9 for adults. .
Beestons 91 or 91C bus service from Sudbury bus station to Ipswich (buy tickets on the bus.) .
Neither bus service runs on Sundays.

Trains from Bury St Edmunds to Ipswich, Cambridge or Peterborough
Trains from Sudbury to Marks Tey (change for London Liverpool St)
Trains from Ipswich to London, Norwich, Cambridge, Peterborough

See also my earlier report, "Mummified cats in He Say Land" on this blog

Words and all images except the top on from Moyse's Hall, © Matt Salusbury

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The Kindness of Strangers

This article (without the above illustration, in a slightly shorter version) first appeared in Fortean Times Christmas 2017

'TIS the season for giving, with professional fundraisers and chuggers rattling collecting tins, whether virtual or in the physical universe. At this time of year it’s worth noting that delinquent altruism ain’t what it used to be.

Delinquent altruism? Older Fortean Times readers will recall its regular round-ups from the days when cash was still king, featuring the phenomenon of random strangers who regularly seemed to hand out banknotes indiscriminately to bystanders in the street.

Back in 2003, for example, a man who wanted to share his stock market winnings emptied just under US $10,000-worth of dollar and yen banknotes from shopping bags into the streets below the TV Tower in Nagoya, Japan. He reportedly said, "I have too much money. I don't need it," (Times of India, December 24 2003.)

Some mystery benefactors preferred to post money through letterboxes - such as the woman seen posting at least £600 in £20 notes in envelopes through letterboxes of houses in Ramsgate, together with notes saying, "a gift to you." (London Evening Standard, 4 April 2001, FT 153;20). Others slipped banknotes under motorists' windscreen wipers. New London, Connecticut resident Felix Pope was among those who found a $20 bill in that way one morning in April 2000, while noticing all the other cars in the street had $20 bills under their wipers too. (FT 153;20.) The practice was still going strong around Christmas 2005 in Birmingham, where a "Secret Santa" paid parking tickets, leaving cash with Christmas cards under windscreen wipers along with the penalty notices issued. (Metro December 21 2005).

A more inventive mystery benefactor threw wads of Italian lira denominations out of a light aircraft over a busy square in Rome in 1977. (Reveille, 7 January 1977).

An elderly, smartly-dressed man in the trilby known as Goldfinger left at least £18,000 in gold sovereigns in people’s gardens in Portsmouth in 1992. Much of this was handed into Hampshire Police. They tracked Goldfinger down, interviewed him and decided he’d obtained his money honestly, was of sound mind and at liberty to give it away. (The News [Portsmouth], 4, 8, 24, 28 October 1991.)

Identikit picture of the man known as "Goldfinger" sought by Hampshire Police after he left gold sovereigns and silver Dutch guilders in gardens in Portsmouth. Hampshire Police, released into the public domain

The "Good Samaritan" of Rochester, New York wore a cape and a black hat with a plume as he handed out one $100 bill to each passer-by in June 1987. He reportedly said he'd had tried giving out money dressed in ordinary clothes, but people had been too scared to take it. (FT 59;38) A mystery man in a ski-mask and a three-piece suit experienced similar difficulty giving away money to puzzled bystanders in McCook, Nebraska, in 1986. (Houston Chronicle, 30 November 1986). And it was a “smartly-dressed man” who handed out at least a grand in fivers to passers-by in Keighley, Yorkshire in 2002. (FT 166, January 2002.)

More sinister was "The Riddler" a middle-aged man in glasses and a suit giving away at least one new tenner in "prizes" to any child in the parks of Benfleet, Essex, who could answer his cryptic riddles. Last seen in 1987, he'd been active for many years, eluding police after a chase through woodland. (FT 59;38)

I've kept an eye on delinquent altruism since I found myself involved in the "Free Shop", an anti-capitalist stunt in London’s Oxford Street just before Christmas 2003. It was basically a help-yourself secondhand shop where everything was given away. I was a little perturbed to find not one but two police photographers from the Met's Forward Intelligence Team photographing me, although Constable DM 603 who came along from Marylebone nick did tell us, "Very well done."

The 2003 "Free Shop" in London's Oxford Street

Since that apparent golden age of random strangers handing out money and gifts in the street, the practice seems to have declined. This is partly down to enforcement by the likes of the British Transport Police, whose Chief Inspector David Dickson was telling Londoners as of 2004 that they were fuelling the capital's drug trade if they so much as gave their unwanted Day Travelcards to ticket touts in Underground stations. (Metro 1 March 2004).

Like a lot of phenomena that were once cool, the act of showering random bystanders with gifts in the street has become increasingly commodified, examples from more recent years have the whiff of a gone-wrong marketing stunt about them.

A case in point was the "cash mob", the rain of banknotes leading to a stampede in London’s busy Covent Garden shopping zone back in September 2006. The two people throwing a grand’s worth of fivers into the air turned out to be winners of a competition to advertise the show Brotherhood on the FX TV channel, promoted by the MySpace website. The victors won the right to throw a grand in the air and keep as much as they could catch. (London Lite, 28 September 2006.)

Another commodified "random" giving operation to emerge in recent years was "Tips for Jesus", a tipping syndicate, named from notes left behind along with cash tips of up to $6000 in restaurants and strip clubs across the US and Mexico a few years ago. There were suspicions that some “Silicon Valley people” were somehow involved. (BBC Radio 4 Today, 21 February 2014).

The latest "random acts of kindness" sensation was the Hidden Cash Guy, who led many a local resident on "scavenger hunts" through clues via the Twitter handle @HiddenCash to envelopes (or Pez dispensers, or Angry Birds toys) stuffed with on average $50-100. These had been left mostly in public parks across San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and New Haven, Connecticut and numerous other cities throughout 2015, after which they ceased. Hidden Cash Guy was outed as real estate investor Jason Buzi, together an associate. (Huffington Post, 10 June 2014).

Random acts of kindness today seem, well, a little less random. A contemporary example is Kindness Week, in which primary school children are encouraged by their teachers to do "random" acts of kindness, along the lines of dropping off biscuits in decorated boxes in doorsteps around their village. Benhall Primary School in Suffolk was one of many institutions exhibiting such behaviour with the blessing of their deputy headteacher in March of 2015. (East Anglian Daily Times 10 March 2015.)

But wait! People may not randomly throw cash around in the street anymore, but subversive giving’s alive and well, thanks to the wonders of web platform-based crowdfunding. Recent high-profile examples include successful industrial tribunal cases brought by "precarious workers" including cycle couriers, university cleaners and Deliveroo workers organised as the Independent Workers of Great Britain. Previously way beyond their budget, their legal actions are now crowdfunded within hours of launching. Giving out money in the street seems to have been replaced by the much more subversive practice of mass donations that give a two-fingered salute to authority by supporting underdogs in otherwise impossible struggles.

© Matt Salusbury