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The Phantom Big Cats Stalking the UK

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In July 2015, Carole Desforges spotted a large, weird creature prowling around the lawn near her home in Plymouth in southwestern England. She thought it was a fox at first, but after a second glance, decided it was much too big, with long, cat-like legs that made it seem more like a leopard or a panther. And it was all black, unlike the foxes native to the region, which are generally red. Carole managed to snap a few shots of the creature before it skulked away. Friends suggested it might be a puma or a lynx.

She wasn’t the first Briton to behold such a sight. Far from it, in fact.

Stories of large felines roaming the countryside have long permeated the culture of rural England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales. In his book Rural Rides, written in the 1820s, author William Cobbett wrote about spotting a cat that was “as big as a middle-sized spaniel dog” near the ruins of the Waverley Abbey in London, claiming it was hanging out inside a hollow elm. A few centuries before that, a medieval Welsh book talked about the Cath Palug (“Clawed Cat”), a black kitten who grows into a huge cat and stalks the Isle of Anglesey eating warriors—nine score of them, to be precise. And since the 1930s, the region of Buchan in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, has been home to many sightings of a beast described as a huge black panther. Throughout the centuries, they’ve been known by a few different names: phantom cats, mystery cats, Alien Big Cats or ABCs (referring to the fact that no such animal is native to the area), or British Big Cats (BBCs).

No one’s entirely sure whether these things are real or not, and as you might expect, there are more than a few theories out there. Some cryptozoologists take the “alien” in ABCs quite literally, positing that the cats come from another world and are linked to UFO sightings, while others insist that British big cats are the remnants of Ice Age fauna, having survived in small numbers, as living fossils, for thousands of years. Others, perhaps more reasonably, figure that the British big cats are nothing more than the progeny of escaped pets, as it was fashionable among wealthy people in the first half of the 20th century to keep exotic animals in private homes (that is, until the Dangerous Wild Animals Act banned this practice in Britain in 1976). A lot of people say they’re just stray dogs, and some similarly suggest that the phantom black dog of British folklore, which brings bad luck to anyone who crosses its path, has been conflated with the apocryphal big cats.

But the big cats crop up in modern times regularly, too. Reports of the Beast of Exmoor, described as a gray or black cat standing 4 to 6 feet tall and hunting livestock in the moorlands of Devon and Somerset, began in the ‘70s, and in 1983, a farmer in South Moulton said it was responsible for slashing the throats of more than 100 of his sheep. Other regions throughout England have come with their own phantom cats, most of which are black: The Beast of Burford, the Wildcat of Woodchester, the Fen Tiger of Cambridgeshire. In the Forest of Dean, near the Welsh border, the local legendary leopard is simply known as Boris.

There are so many reports of big cat sightings throughout the UK—about a thousand every year—that there’s even such a thing as the British Big Cat Society, a network of people across the UK who research, catalogue, and analyze stories—and possible evidence—of big cats in the area. “The BBCS enables the public to report their sightings and Big Cat 'incidents' to an 'understanding ear,'” its website explains, “and we can react appropriately where necessary.”

Then there’s Danny Nineham, who works solo with just his “legs and brains,” to analyze cat sightings for various police forces, collecting photos (and feline skulls); he reports that about 90 percent of the BBC sightings are black cats. However, “that's because black stands out,” Nineham says in an interview on the Scottish Big Cat Trust website. “It's conspicuous out in the fields, whereas brown blends in more.” In a 2013 interview with the Welsh newspaper Daily Post, Nineham said he received reports of big cat sightings every single day, from people across the country.

Carcasses of animals displaying bite marks similar to those of large cats have also been showing up in British forests for decades. At the Royal Agricultural University in Gloucester, an animal scientist named Dr. Andrew Hemmings has studied at least 20 such animal skeletons, with three of them bearing bite marks that could belong to a big cat. However, it’s hard to differentiate between bite marks left by a dog, badger, fox, or other carnivore and those left by an unknown species of cat whose teeth haven’t been studied. As such, none of the tests have been conclusive.

And speaking of carcasses, a few have turned up as possible culprits as well. A Canadian lynx was shot and killed in Devon in the early 1900s, and its teeth showed that it had spent a significant amount of time living in captivity. Much later, in 1980, a puma was captured in Inverness-shire, Scotland, after sightings spanning several years; it was sent to a zoo for the rest of its life, where it was found to be reasonably docile (it enjoyed being tickled). As well, the skull of a leopard was discovered by a young boy on Scotland’s Bodmin Moor in the 1990s. It was at first thought to be evidence of the terrible Beast of Bodmin, but the Natural History Museum in London determined that it’d been discarded on the moor after being imported to the UK as part of a leopard skin rug.

Despite all of these consistent sightings, it’s apparently been difficult get a clear photo of any of the elusive black kitties. In 2000, an 11-year-old boy had perhaps the closest encounter with one so far, when he was left with long scratches on his face after a juvenile “tiger-like” animal attacked him as he played in a field with his brother in Trellech, Monmouthshire. The boy clashed with the creature after “following a black tail” into the grass, which he thought belonged to his pet cat, Sylvester, and got a faceful of claws for his trouble. Even a subsequent police search by helicopter with heat-seeking devices turned up no trace of the animal.

A Scottish wildcat. Image credit: iStock

The British Isles do have a wild member of the cat family that some folks think are being mistaken for BBCs. The Scottish wildcat is found in the highlands in the northern half of Scotland and numbers only about 4000 at most; they’re elusive, living in underground dens and hollow trees. However, they don’t really match the descriptions of these phantom cats. Scottish wildcats aren’t much bigger than a house cat, and they’re certainly not anywhere near the size of the “panthers” and “leopards” that have been reported. They’re also not black—they’re more along the lines of a tabby on steroids.

Meanwhile, it should be said that the United Kingdom seems to have a significant problem with large felines escaping from zoos. Since the late 18th century, dozens of lynxes, caracals, panthers, and pumas have slunk out of their cages (and have mostly been apprehended or killed shortly thereafter).

The debate shows no signs of stopping, seeing as the big cat sightings haven’t either—whether they’re real beasts who’ve been terrorizing the sheep of the United Kingdom for centuries or are just campfire stories made up to scare British children.

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Big Questions
Why Do We Dive With Sharks But Not Crocodiles?
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Why do we dive with sharks but not crocodiles?

Eli Rosenberg:

The issue is the assumption that sharks' instincts are stronger and more basic.

There are a couple of reasons swimming with sharks is safer:

1. Most sharks do not like the way people taste. They expect their prey to taste a certain way, like fish/seal, and we do not taste like that. Sharks also do not like the sensation of eating people. Bigger sharks like great whites enjoy prey with a high fat-bone ratio like seals. Smaller sharks enjoy eating fish, which they can gobble in one bite. So, while they might bite us, they pretty quickly decide “That’s not for me” and swim away. There is only one shark that doesn’t really care about humans tasting icky: that shark is our good friend the tiger shark. He is one of the most dangerous species because of his nondiscriminatory taste (he’s called the garbage can of the sea)!

2. Sharks are not animals that enjoy a fight. Our big friend the great white enjoys ambushing seals. This sneak attack is why it sometimes mistakes people for seals or sea turtles. Sharks do not need to fight for food. The vast majority of sharks species are not territorial (some are, like the blacktip and bull). The ones that are territorial tend to be the more aggressive species that are more dangerous to dive with.

3. Sharks attacked about 81 people in 2016, according to the University of Florida. Only four were fatal. Most were surfers.

4. Meanwhile, this is the saltwater crocodile. The saltwater crocodile is not a big, fishy friend, like the shark. He is an opportunistic, aggressive, giant beast.


5. Crocodiles attack hundreds to thousands of people every single year. Depending on the species, one-third to one-half are fatal. You have a better chance of survival if you played Russian roulette.

6. The Death Roll. When a crocodile wants to kill something big, the crocodile grabs it and rolls. This drowns and disorients the victim (you). Here is a PG video of the death roll. (There is also a video on YouTube in which a man stuck his arm into an alligator’s mouth and he death rolled. You don’t want to see what happened.)

7. Remember how the shark doesn’t want to eat you or fight you? This primordial beast will eat you and enjoy it. There is a crocodile dubbed Gustave, who has allegedly killed around 300 people. (I personally believe 300 is a hyped number and the true number might be around 100, but yikes, that’s a lot). Gustave has reportedly killed people for funsies. He’s killed them and gone back to his business. So maybe they won’t even eat you.


8. Sharks are mostly predictable. Crocodiles are completely unpredictable.

9. Are you in the water or by the edge of the water? You are fair game to a crocodile.

10. Crocodiles have been known to hang out together. The friend group that murders together eats together. Basks of crocodiles have even murdered hippopotamuses, the murder river horse. Do you think you don't look like an appetizer?

11. Wow, look at this. This blacktip swims among the beautiful coral, surrounded by crystal clear waters and staggering biodiversity. I want to swim there!

Oh wow, such mud. I can’t say I feel the urge to take a dip. (Thanks to all who pointed this out!)

12. This is not swimming with the crocodiles. More like a 3D aquarium.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Animals
10 Filling Facts About Turkeys
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Don’t be fooled by their reputation for being thoughtless. These roly-poly birds have a few tricks up their wings.

1. THE BIRDS WERE NAMED AFTER THE COUNTRY.

The turkey is an American bird, so why does it share its name with a country on the other side of the world? Laziness, mostly. Turkish traders had been importing African guinea fowl to Europe for some time when North American explorers started shipping M. gallopavo back to the Old World. The American birds looked kind of like the African “turkey-cocks,” and so Europeans called them “turkeys.” Eventually, the word “turkey” came to describe M. gallopavo exclusively.

2. THEY NEARLY WENT EXTINCT.

By the early 20th century, the combination of overzealous hunting and habitat destruction had dwindled the turkey populations down to 30,000. With the help of conservationists, the turkey made a comeback. The birds are now so numerous that they’ve become a nuisance in some parts of the country.

3. THEY’VE GOT TWO STOMACHS.

Like all birds, turkeys don’t have teeth, so they’ve got to enlist some extra help to break down their food. Each swallowed mouthful goes first into a chamber called a proventriculus, which uses stomach acid to start softening the food. From there, food travels to the gizzard, where specialized muscles smash it into smaller pieces.

4. FEMALE TURKEYS DON’T GOBBLE.

Turkeys of both sexes purr, whistle, cackle, and yelp, but only the males gobble. A gobble is the male turkey’s version of a lion’s roar, announcing his presence to females and warning his rivals to stay away. To maximize the range of their calls, male turkeys often gobble from the treetops.

5. THEY SLEEP IN TREES.

Due to their deliciousness, turkeys have a lot of natural predators. As the sun goes down, the turkeys go up—into the trees. They start by flying onto a low branch, then clumsily hop their way upward, branch by branch, until they reach a safe height.

6. BOTH MALE AND FEMALE TURKEYS HAVE WATTLES.

The wattle is the red dangly bit under the turkey’s chin. The red thing on top of the beak is called a snood. Both sexes have those, too, but they’re more functional in male turkeys. Studies have shown that female turkeys prefer mates with longer snoods, which may indicate health and good genes.

7. THEY HAVE REALLY GOOD VISION.

Turkey eyes are really, really sharp. On top of that, they’ve got terrific peripheral vision. We humans can only see about 180 degrees, but given the placement of their eyes on the sides of their heads, turkeys can see 270 degrees. They’ve also got way better color vision than we do and can see ultraviolet light.

8. THEY’RE FAST ON THE GROUND, TOO.

You wouldn’t guess it by looking at them, but turkeys can really book it when they need to. We already know they’re fast in the air; on land, a running turkey can reach a speed of up to 25 mph—as fast as a charging elephant.

9. THEY’RE SMART … BUT NOT THAT SMART.

Turkeys can recognize each other by sound, and they can visualize a map of their territory. They can also plan ahead and recognize patterns. In other ways, they’re very, very simple animals. Male turkeys will attack anything that looks remotely like a threat, including their own reflections in windows and car doors.

10. IN THE EVENT OF A TURKEY ATTACK, CALL THE POLICE.

They might look silly, but a belligerent turkey is no joke. Male turkeys work very hard to impress other turkeys, and what could be more impressive than attacking a bigger animal? Turkey behavior experts advise those who find themselves in close quarters with the big birds to call the police if things get mean. Until the authorities arrive, they say, your best bet is to make yourself as big and imposing as you possibly can.

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