Shit happens part VI – crowned with barbed wire

Deer antlers are in my opinion one of the most bizarre organs among all mammals. A pair of bones sometimes surpassing the mass of the limb bones which grows annually in extremely short time out of the skull just to quickly nectrotize and still stay attached on the head for the rest of the season until it gets lost via some sort of autotomie. That´s just incredibly odd in every aspect, even more so for a mammal.

But having such an elaborate structure on the head can also lead to really stupid accidents as shown in part I of the series. Another example of an antler-related accident is this quite capital pair of antlers from a museum of the Polish Academy of Sciences at Popielno. This stag had its antlers fully entangled into barbed wire:

Red deer antlers entangled into barbed wire.

Red deer antlers entangled into barbed wire. Museum of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Popielno

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Shit happens part V – grasped by killer mussels

Bivalves are usually not the kind of animals which are regarded as potentially dangerous. But they can actually cause a lot of trouble or even fatal accidents if they accidentally grasp other beings with their shells. One of this cases is shown here, a quite unfortunate black-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) which had its feet caught between the shells of a freshwater mussel. The mussels in question could be a swan mussel (Anodonta cygnea) or another Anodonta species. Like so many other cases from the „shit happens“- series, this photo was taken at the Danish Museum for Hunting and Forestry at Hørsholm.


Black-headed gull caught by a mussel

I sadly don´t know more about the background of this case, for example if the gull was found dead or if it managed to come somehow out of the water with the mussel crasped on its legs. Similar cases of birds getting caught with their bills in mussels are well recorded, and Darren Naish wrote a very interesting blogpost about this topic at Tetrapod Zoology, including hypothetical accidents involving pterosaurs and giant prehistoric clams like Platyceramus.

Besides waterfowl, newts can be also highly affected by clam-related accidents. In one study which involved the alpine newt (Ichthyosaura alpestris) population of a pond in Austria, 78 of 182 caught specimens had clams attached. In most cases this clams, which belonged to a Sphaerium-species, were attached to the limbs, in one case even on the mandible. Of the 78 clam-plaqued newts 18 had even two clams attached at once, and two other specimens had even three. This clams were so tightly attached on the newts that it was not possible to remove them without crushing the shells or harming the newts. One try resulted in the accidental amputantion of a newt´s phalange. In 15 newts missing toes were recorded, which were most probably also a result of clam-accidents.

There are also stories of giant clams of the genus Tridacna, which involve lethal accidents of pearl divers. The question remains how many of them are true and not just legends, but it seems really not fully unreasonable that such accidents could have happened on occasion. The famous diving pioneer and marine biologist Hans Hass once made an experiment to test this idea. He used the leg of a window dummy which was filled with plaster and pushed it between the shells of a giant clam. The shells of the giant bivalve closed immediately, and it was fully impossible to remove the artificial leg. They had to haul the whole giant clam out of the water and cut the closing muscles to get the leg free. Something like this could theoretically really happen to people wading in the shallow water of coral reefs. Here are some photos of this experiment from the book In unberührte Tiefen (1971) by Hans Hass:

Artificial leg caught in giant clam (Tridacna gigas). Photos from "In unberührten Tiefen" by Hans Hass.

Artificial leg in giant clam (Tridacna gigas). Photos from „In unberührte Tiefen“ by Hans Hass.

So possibly the now somewhat outdated German synonym „Mördermuschel“ (killer clam) for the large Tridacna species is not fully inappropriate.

See more about giant clams on Bestiarium here.

Veröffentlicht unter Amphibien, Mollusken, shit happens, Vögel, Wirbellose | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

Shit happens part IV – a barbel muzzled with a rubber ring

A lot of mischance can happen to tetrapods, but non-tetrdapod vertebrates are also not immune towards misadventures. One example for this is this common barbel (Barbus barbus) from the exhibition of the Deutsches Jagd-und Fichereimuseum (German Hunting and Fishing Museum) at Munich, which was found with its mouth muzzled with a rubber ring:

Common barbel with mouth caught in rubber ring.

Common barbel with mouth caught in rubber ring.

Veröffentlicht unter Fische, shit happens | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

Shit happens part III – a tufted duck with a rubber ring girdle

Shit happens not only to mammals, but to birds as well. This poor tufted duck (Aythya fuligula) somehow managed to put a rubber ring over its body.


Tufted duck (Aythya fuligula) caught in rubber ring

I wonder if this possibly already happened when the duck was still not full-grown or if it was already full-grown. Like the last photos this specimen was also photographed at the Danish Museum for Hunting and Forestry at Hørsholm.

Veröffentlicht unter shit happens, Vögel | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

Shit happens part II – deadlock in a tree hole

This series will feature several kinds of accidents which include deer. So I make a break and go on with a marten. Like in the antlers from the first part of the series, the specimen comes from the Danish Museum for Hunting and Forestry at Hørsholm. It is a marten which was found halfway into a hollow tree trunk.

marten which got stuck in a tree hole

marten which got stuck in a tree hole

A close up of the two photos which show the original finding place:


And another one:


And for those of you who can read Danish a close-up of the information board:


Veröffentlicht unter shit happens, Säugetiere | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

Shit happens part I – when antlers get stuck and grown into trees

Sometimes animals – like humans -have just really bad luck and come into situations which lead to weird handicaps or even bizarre deaths. In this series I want to show some of those cases.

Many of them are from one of my all-time-favourite museums, the Danish Museum for Hunting and Forestry at Hørsholm. This museum has besides many other great things one of the largest collections of freak animals I have ever seen, like unusual hybrids, various mutations and pathologies and many more. One of the more remarkable pieces on exhibit is a red deer cranium found grown with its antlers into a tree:

Red deer antlers grown into tree, Danish Museum for Hunting and Forestry, Hørsholm

Another angle:


Close-up of the ingrown part of the antler:


It seems the deer became entangled with its left antler crown in the fork of a branch. It could not free itself and died anytime, and the antler with the skull still attached was grown into the wood when the tree was growing over the following years.

Here is also an old description of this particular case and another similar one:


The original description:


And the close-up of the depiction:

Veröffentlicht unter shit happens, Säugetiere | 2 Kommentare

Photo of the day: Aye aye skull

It´s quite hot here at the moment and I have not much time to write a more extensive blogpost, so here´s a photo of an aye aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) skull in all its weirdness. The photo was taken at the Zoologische Schausammlung (public zoological collection) at Heidelberg:


Aye aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) skull, Zoologische Schausammlung Heidelberg


Veröffentlicht unter Anatomie, Bild des Tages, Säugetiere | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

American Bullfrogs at Lake Agia, Crete

During my holiday on Crete some years ago, I visited Lake Agia, a small artificial lake in the southwest of the island. This reservoir is mainly known for its various species of waterfowls and a popular place for birders. But even more interesting for me was the chance to see American bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana) in the wild. Several years ago somebody tried to breed them commercially for their meat in that area, and -not surprisingly- some managed to escape and breed in Lake Agia.

I have no idea how successful they did reproduce there, because I could only find one single specimen and hear another one. But it was still highly impressive to watch a bullfrog from a distance of only a few metres. Bullfrogs are usually not kept in zoos, and if you have never seen one before, it´s really amazing to see a living frog of that dimensions, especially if you are only familiar with the much smaller European species.


There are allochthonous populations of American bullfrogs in several areas of Europe, for example Italy or Southern France. There was (or still is) even a population in Germany in the area of Karlsruhe.


Here is a panorama shot which shows a part of Lake Agia. Sadly only a short way alongside the lakefront is accesible. I also took there some of the very best photos of Balkan green lizards (Lacerta trilineata) during the holiday, perhaps because the lizards there are more familiar with people and lesser shy.


Besides the bullfrog, the many birds and the Balkan green lizards I could also find a lot of Caspian turtles (Mauremys caspica). So if you should be on Crete anytime, try to make a trip to Lake Agia. At best you rent a car to reach it, but it is also possible to walk the pretty long (1h+) way from the next bus-stop near the coast, for example from Kato Stalos.


More nature reports from Crete can be found here, for example about Rodopou and Lake Kournas.

Veröffentlicht unter Amphibien, Naturbeobachtungen, Neozoen, Neozoen/Invasive species | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

More green lizards: Blue-headed males and tiny juveniles

Today I made another walk in the territory of the local green lizard population. I found again a very nice male specimen with a magnifcient blueish colouration on its head and throat.

Smaragdeidechse 2 (1)

Another shot:

Smaragdeidechse 2 (2)

I discovered it already a few weeks ago on another walk, but sadly I had my camera at that time not with me and could only take a photo with my mobile phone.

Smaragdeidechse 2 (5)

I was however somewhat under the impression that the blue colour had already faded to some degree since the last encounter.
I was even more surprised when I disovered on my way back two tiny juveniles.

Smaragdeidechse 2 (3)

Sadly one was resting in a dry wall only around 5 m away from a traktor which was just spraying something (probably fertilizer, herbicides or pesticides) on some nearby grape vines. I really hope they are not too heavily affected by the viticultural side effects.

Here is a photo of the second juvenile lizard I found:

Smaragdeidechse 2 (4)

At least it´s really nice to see they obviously successfully reproduce there.



Veröffentlicht unter Naturbeobachtungen, Reptilien | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

The shoulder horn of Dürer´s marvelous Rhinocerus – revealing a 501 year old mystery beast

The woodcut of Albrecht Dürer´s „Rhinocerus“ is certainly one of the most iconic animal depictions of the Renaissance. Dating from 1515, a time when books about natural history still usually showed wild mixes of real animals and fully fantastic beings side by side, it is one of the very first depiction of a rhino in European art, and for centuries, one of the most style-defining.

Rhinoceros by Albrecht Dürer, image from Wikipedia

Rhinoceros by Albrecht Dürer, image from Wikipedia

This particular Indian rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) was a specimen which arrived in 1515 after a long odyssey over sea at Portugal, where it lived in the menagery of Ribeira Palace at Lisbon. The earliest known depiction of the Rhinocerus is a pretty crude drawing by Giovanni Giacomo Penni, a florentine physician who wrote a letter with a poem and a sketch of the rhino, which was published in Rome on 13 July 1515, not even eight weeks after the rhino had arrived at Lisbon.

Rhinocerus at Lisbon by Giovanni Giacomo Penni, 1515. Image from Wikipedia

Not much later,in early 1516, it was shipped again  as a gift from King Manuel I of Portugal to Pope Leo X. Unfortunately the rhino died when the ship on which it was transported shipwrecked off the Italian coast. The carcass of the rhino was later found on the coast of Villefranche.Its skin was preserved and sent back to Lisbon, where it was mounted as a taxidermy specimen. Not much later, the mounted rhino skin made again its way over sea towards Rome, where it finally arrived after its second voyage.

Albrecht Dürer´s woodcut was based on two letters. One was by the merchant Valentin Fernandez, who sent a letter with a descripton of the rhino to a friend at Nürnberg. He had seen the animal himself shortly after its arrival at Lisbon. A second letter from Lisbon, written by an unknown sender, arrived at around the same at Nürnberg and included also sketch of the rhino.

Pen and ink drawing sent to Albrecht Dürer in 1515, collection of the British Museum. Image from Wikipedia

The similarity to the later woodcut is very big, and only a few details, like the fine serration on the backside, were additionally added by Dürer.

Also in 1515, Hans Burgkmair, a German artist from Augsburg, published a woodcut of the Rhinocerus. He had also correspondence with befriended merchants in Lisbon and Nürnberg, but it is not known if he was aware of the same letters and the sketch used by Dürer. His rhinocerus looks much lesser fancy and extravagant as those of Dürer and appears more realistic, but its proportions and features are arguably not even really closer to the life appearance of an Indian rhino than the woodcut by Dürer.

Rhinocerus by Hans Burgkmair, Augsburg 1515. Image from Wikipedia


Dürer´s illustration with the fantastically appearing scales and rivet-like skin pattern, that seems to blend into a crafted yet organic body armour, still amazes with its bizarre beauty. It hast inspired artists for more than half a millenium now, even Salvador Dalí who created a large bronce cast of the rhino. The most unusual feature of the rhino, a tiny twisted horn growing out of its shoulder area, makes it even more appealing to think that Dürer and the unknown illstrator of the foreging pen and ink drawing added a lot of fictional details on the animal for the sake of artistic freedom.

However, those details were probably not even that fictional at all. As weird as the armour-like pattern of the skin looks, it is in fact not that different from the real skin condition of Indian rhinos. Even the gorget-like „neck armour“ is actually not much different from the large neck wrinkles.

Indian Rhino form Wikimedia Commons

Indian Rhino form Wikimedia Commons

The arrangment of the various skin wrinkles is in the main quite close to the real animal. The rivet-like skin bosses are also, even if somewhat exaggerated, both in size and arrangment mainly consistent. It has been suggested that the unusual skin was a result of the long journey over sea in a small enclosure, which could have resulted into a dermatitis or excessive skin growth, but it is quite hard to say if this is really a convincing explanation, especially since the differences between the depictions and the living animal are not that big at al.

Indian rhino from Wikimedia Commons

Indian rhino from Wikimedia Commons

The rivet-like skin-bosses in detail:

Skin of Indian Rhino from Philadelphia Zoo, modified image from Wikimedia Commons

Skin of Indian Rhino from Philadelphia Zoo, modified image from Wikimedia Commons

The scale-like skin on the legs of Dürer´s Rhinocoeros, which appears strangley misplaced on a mammal, is also only a comparably subtle modification of the real skin pattern. The gnarly surface of the skin really looks much more like those of a tortoise or other reptile with polygonal scale pattern, and even slightly appears to form overlaying „fish“-scale structures on the upper parts of the legs.


Indian Rhino leg skin detail, modified image form Wikimedia Commons

So even if the scales on the legs of the Rhinoceros are not fully realistically depicted, they still are not that different from the legs of an actual Indian rhino, even if Dürer and the original illustrator clearly exaggerated and altered the amount and structure of the rhino´s skin to some degree.

For more than a century Dürer´s woodcut was by far the most influential source for depictions of rhinos and was more or less accurately copied for countless times. Even in the 18th century the legacy of the Dürer rhino was found in artistic depiction.

Alessandro de’ Medici even included the rhino, which was obviously highly influenced by Dürer´s woodcut, into his coat of arms.

Coat of arms of Alessandro de’ Medici. Image from Wikipedia

But what about the most intriguing feature of Dürer´s rhino, the spiraling horn growing out of its shoulder? Ancient artists and scholars who based their description mainly on the few already existing artworks and reports assumed that this horn was really existing. Some even speculated that it was used in intraspecific combats. Some of those depictions show the dorsal horn in an even more twisted and bigger way than the original drawing and woodcut, and there is at least one depiction which shows also a second smaller dorsal horn. The question remains, was it simply a fully imaginary rendition of the unknown illustrator who drew the reference for Dürer´s woodcut at Lisbon?

Well, probably not, at least it was not a fully fictional reinvention. Small horn-like structures are actually known from from white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum), as documented by Bernhard Grzimek and later Karl Shuker (Extraordinairy Animals Revisited, 2007). Based on reports of white rhinos with unusual horns growing on their bodies, Bernhard Grzimek already suggested decades ago that there was possibly a connection with the shoulder horn of Dürer´s Rhinoceros (Thanks to Karl Shuker, who provided me this information). Here is for example a white rhino from Lake Nakuru National Park, which shows three small ceratinous skin growths in its neck area:

White rhino, photo from Wikimedia Commons.

White rhino, photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Detail of the shoulder area:

White_Rhinoceros_in_Lake_Nakuru_National_Park,_February_2007 detail

Similar hyperceratoses in the shoulder area also occur in Indian rhinos.

Indian rhino with small hyperceratosis in shoulder area. Modified photo from Wikimedia Commons

Indian rhino with small hyperceratosis in shoulder area. Modified photo from Wikimedia Commons

Another detail photo:


Indian rhino with hyperceratosis in shoulder area

This small areas of excessive skin growths are however still far away from something like a horn, not to mention a twisted narwhale-tusk like horn. But there are even much more extreme cases. When I was many years ago at the zoological collection at Hamburg, I noticed a taxidermied Indian rhino in the collection which had a strange outgrowth in its upper neck area. A row of blunt ceratinous knobs and spikes, from which one was even forming a small horn-like structure.

Indian Rhino, Zoological Collection Hamburg. Photo by Sven Sachs, Naturkundemuseum Bielefeld

At that time I sadly took no photo of the whole specimen, but luckily my good friend Sven Sachs had one from a recent visit of the museum and gave me kindly permission to use it for my blog. Here is a photo I took of the head and neck area:

Indian rhino with shouldern horns, Zoological Collection Hamburg. Photo Markus Bühler

A closer look:


This photo shows the small blunt „horn“

A somewhat modified close-up which shows the surface structure. The „horns“ seems comparably massive and there is also apparantly some wear on their surface.

Detail of ceratinous shoulder horn and humps

Another photo of the rhino which I took in a more frontal view:

Indian rhino with shoulder horns, Zoological Collection Hamburg, Photo Markus Bühler

Indian rhino with shoulder horns, Zoological Collection Hamburg, Photo Markus Bühler

I can not say what causes this hyperceratosis, if it occurs mainly in very old specimens or if it is even a pathological condition, some sort of skin reaction on external irritations, or if similar growth processes like those of the cranial horns are on work in misplaced areas. A histological examination of such a skin or reports of captive specimens could give probably more answers. The presence of nearly perfectly formed neck- or shoulder horns in some white rhinos indicates however that there actually is a connection of some sort with the cranial horns.

Another case of three comparably large neck-horns in a white rhino from Duisburg Zoo can be seen here. It was a nearly 50 years old female named Nongoma which died in 2014.

A comparison of Dürer´s woodcut with a graphically modified photo the taxidermy specimen from Hamburg. I think it is also noteworthy that there are in front of the spiraled horn also some other, smaller outgrowths on the neck, which are in line with the multiple areas of hyperceratosis found in some of the rhinos shown above.

Dürernashorn Vergleich 2

The twisted horn of the Rhinocerus is clearly a product of artistic freedom, but the horn-and boss-like structures, which really are present in some individual rhinos, show that it was not just a fully fictional decorative element. It would have been a quite extreme case of coincidence if somebody just invented a shoulder horn for rhinos without any knowledge that similar outgrowths really occur in exactly that area. Perhaps there were already older reports from Asia or even Africa which mentioned those shoulder horns, but there is a chance that the rhino at Lisabon was really one of the rare specimens which had such a condition.

(Update): I was also just informed by Connor Lachmanec about a white rhino with a neck or shoulder horn in Vancouver Zoo. This rhino named Charlie has a pretty enormous horn growing of of its neck, which is not just an amorphous growth or callus but a nearly perfectly formed horn. It seems there were possibly once even two other horns which are now broken off. See the amazing photos of Charlie here, here and here.

The simple sketch by Giovanni Giacomo Penni shows nothing that would indicate such a thing. The more detailed woodcut by Hans Burgkmair shows also no horn-like structures over the shoulder or neck, but interestingly he added a mane of bristles on the top of the neck, a feature not found in Indian rhinos. Was it a reinvented detail, perhaps because Burgkmair or his correspondents assumed this animal was somehow similar to a wild boar? Or was it possibly an interpretation of really existing gnarly growth on the neck of this rhino?

We will never know for sure of course. But after this detailed look at the most famous rhino in art history, the Rhinocerus of Albrecht Dürer appears no more that fantastic and made-up as usually assumed, and even some of its more bizarre features like the shoulder horn have quite probably a real origin. So more than 500 years after Albrecht Dürer published the famous woodcut, his marvelous beast has finally redeemed itself to some degree from its overly fantastically appearing depiction.


Veröffentlicht unter Blogposts in English, Kryptozoologie, Populäre Irrtümer, Säugetiere | 4 Kommentare