Tag Archives: cryptoids

Masked Palm Civet – Newcomer, Oldcomer, or Native?

23 Jan

Hi blog.

We’re experiencing some of the coldest weather for years.  Snow has been forecast on a few days but hasn’t fallen to any real extent.  Instead, we’ve experienced days of single digit maximum temperatures – including at least one when the maximum outside converged with fridge temperature, and another when the pipes froze up enough to stop all water to our kitchen until after 11!

Apart from birds – and we know the logistical problems of photographing those with a mobile phone – the possibilities for finding interesting wildlife to write about are quite limited.

I thought I’d take a break from nature and look at some folklore and mythology, and borrowed some books about ghosts and supernatural creatures from my local library.  But an apparently real historical account with a strange animal grabbed my interest.

According to the Kikaishu, a pair of strange animals were sighted at a shrine in Edo in the summer of 1799.  The larger one escaped, but the smaller one was struck with a stick and brought to the home of the land owner.

The actual description is quite vague.  The animal revived, and was observed to eat chicken, fish, and fruit, but ignore grains.  It was about the size a small dog, but looked like a weasel.  Its colour was black with a yellowish-red patch from its chest to its jaw, interspersed with black spots, but no information is recorded as to the number of toes, whether or not it could climb trees, and the like.  What is certain is that the observers were familiar enough with weasels to recognise it as something other than a weasel, ermine or marten.

The illustration is not particularly helpful either – we have no idea as to whether the artist even saw the creature in question.

The creature described in the Kikaishu

However, I believe the mystery animal is a civet.

A masked palm civet, courtesy of Wikipedia

I’ve mentioned the masked palm civet (Paguma larvata) in other posts, and there are arguments as to whether or not it is a native species, a species introduced centuries ago, or a late-19th century or early-20th century import, or possibly even a combination of the above.

I personally suspect its official status as an invasive species and unofficial status as agricultural pest are interlinked – it is easier to declare an animal a pest if it is perceived to not be native.

So, if the masked palm civet (or possibly other civet species) existed in Japan pre-1869, where is the evidence?  There appears to be no fossil evidence of viverrids in Japan.  However, there are regional variations in Japanese civet’s coat patterns, and differences in skull measurements between Japanese and overseas specimens, suggesting the existence of a native sub-species.  And while there are no old records specifically of civets – there was no Japanese name for them at that time – it is easy to imagine them included under the old names of mujina and mami.

Furthermore, there are dozens of cryptids in Japanese folklore.  Some believe the civet to be the basis of (at least some of) the legends of the raiju.  Raiju (雷獣) – literally “lightning beasts” – were believed to live in the skies but occasionally fall to earth during thunderstorms.

Raiju in an 1841 print by Takehara. These creatures bear more than a passing resemblance to masked palm civets, don’t you think?

The raiju has many regional –and often bizarre – variations, including appearing like a six-legged, two-tailed wolf, a crab that walks on four claws, and a seahorse-like beast.  The ones relevant to this post, however, are typically described as: being the size of a dog, cat or mujina; possessing a racoon dog-like coat; having five eagle-like claws; having sharp teeth; and being racoon dog-like in appearance.  More about the raiju can be found here.

Masked palm civets are sometimes confused with racoon dogs, badgers, raccoons and even cats to the extent that pest control companies, local governments and NPO groups publish pamphlets on how to distinguish and identify the animals in question.  If semi-rural people in the internet age have trouble telling a racoon dog from a civet, imagine how much harder it would have been for an urbanised Edo-ite.

Masked palm civets are partially arboreal and generally nocturnal.  However, it is not hard to imagine individuals being knocked out of or forced down from a tree during a thunder storm.  Growing to a body length of around 60 cm and a tail of 40 cm, it is significantly larger than a weasel and matches the size of some of the cryptid animals described above.  Equally important, civets have five toes on each foot, distinguishing them from cats and racoon dogs.  They are omnivores, and like fruit with high sugar content, in addition to small prey.

Now, nothing I’ve said proves anything about the origins of Japan’s masked palm civets.  I personally believe that they were most likely introduced – possibly unintentionally – several hundred years ago.  I’d be even happier, though, if solid evidence could point to a native population.  Hopefully, research will throw more light on the subject.

WANTED

22 Jun

The Japanese news (which is notorious for frequently being bereft of actual news content) has been having a field day with the recent apprehension of Tatsuya Takahashi, the last of a trio of Aum Shinrikyo members wanted for the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks.

On the run for 17 years, Takahashi had a ¥1000000 reward for information leading to his arrest.  I wish I had been able to supply that information… but, wait… an acquaintance, a retired police officer, tells me that such rewards are subject to tax, and the actual post-tax amount would be about half.  There’s simply no money in bounty hunting.

 

Or is there?  Every few years there is a new reported sighting of the tsuchinoko, with local governments and private businesses offering between ¥1 million and ¥100 million for its capture.  Failing that, a good photo can get up to ¥1000000.

 

The tsuchinoko (槌の子, usually ツチノコ) is a cryptozoological snake.  It has around 40 regional names, including bachihebi, tatekurikaeshi, tsuchimbo, tsuchihebi, nozuchi and tsuchikorobi.  These last two names are also shared with those of two mythical snake-like spirits.

 

One of the oldest known deptictions of the nozuchi (tsuchinoko)

 

Another of the oldest depections of the nozuchi, physically matching the typical description of the tsucinoko – the body being much wider than the head.

 

A nozuchi as depicted in the Wakansansaizue. It looks like an ordinary snake to me…

 

Artist Sekien Toriyama’s impression of a nozuchi. This looks like a hairy snake, or a VERY hungry caterpillar.

 

So, what exactly should I be looking for?  Typical descriptions include:

  • a short (30-80 cm) but very wide body (about beer bottle width), thin tail, and distinct neck.
  • daytime active
  • moving like an inchworm, or holding its tail in its mouth and rolling like the legendary hoopsnake
  • exceptionally fast
  • capable of jumping to heights of five metres and lengths of two metres (claims of 10 metres have been made)
  • vocalising a cry that sounds like “chii”
  • a fondness for sake, and being attracted to the smell of miso, dried squid, or burning hair
  • snoring
  • possibly extremely venomous

 

Clearly, most of these are nonsense.  Claims of discovery of a dead specimen have often been followed with further claims that the body “just disappeared”, or that a captured creature was released for fear of being cursed.

 

Actual samples have all turned out to be other creatures, and most sightings can be explained as snakes that have recently swallowed a large prey, or escaped exotic species such as the blue-tongued lizard, sleepy lizard, or death adder.

 

An immature eastern blue tongued lizard, courtesy of Wikipedia. Note the wide body and short legs.

 

A related reptile, the sleepy lizard. Again, it has a triangular head, wide body and small legs. Thanks, Wikipedia.

 

A death adder. This snake is short and quite wide. Its tail is very thin, and it superficially matches the description of the tsuchinoko.
It is also highly venomous.
Photo taken from Wikipedia

 

Confusing a lizard for a snake may seem a pretty basic mistake, but don’t forget that there are only three species of lizard in Eastern Japan – none of them even approaching the above-mentioned two in size and mass.  Also, even in their native Australia, sleepy lizards and blue-tongues are occasionally mistaken for snakes.  Their limbs are small in relation to their body size, and, typical of skinks, they can move rapidly by pulling their legs in close to their bodies and wriggling in a snake-like manner.

Most people are also unaware that while a snake’s scales are smallest on the back and increase in size towards the belly, a lizard’s scales are uniform in size around the body.

 

A 2009 photo, purportedly of a tsuchinoko, that appeared in an article in the Sankei earlier this month.
Bad news for anyone that paid for this – look at the scales. They’re uniform in size. Conclusion – it’s a lizard!
Photo from the Sankei Shimbun.

 

The chances that tsuchinoko exist seem quite slim.  Nevertheless, as a quick web search shows, there are groups and societies dedicated to tsuchinoko, and several towns have annual (cash-cow?) tsuchinoko hunting events.  And it is a convenient fall-back position for the nation’s sports newspapers during slow news weeks.

 

Still, I keep my eyes open.  I don’t want that ¥100000000 chance to slip through my fingers.

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