Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History

BioFortean Review, (June 2007, No. 13)

The New Siberian Roc

Chad Arment

In 1819-1820, a report of a strange specimen made the rounds of various scientific and philosophical publications. Published in full in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine and in The Philosophical Magazine and Journal, and in edited versions elsewhere, the report stated:

"Enormous Bird.—Mr. Henderson has discovered, in New Siberia, the claws of a bird measuring each a yard in length; and the [Yakuts] assured him, they had frequently, in their hunting excursions, met with skeletons, and even feathers, of this bird, the quills of which were large enough to admit a man's arm. This is a fact in support of the tradition, that the earth was formerly inhabited by giants, for men, not exceeding ourselves in stature, would have been helpless against birds of prey of this magnitude. Captain Cook mentions having seen a monstrous bird's nest in New Holland, on a low sandy island, in Endeavour River, with trees upon it, and an incredible number of sea fowl; he found an eagle's nest with young ones, which he killed, and the nest of some other bird, of a most enormous size; it was built with large sticks upon the ground, and was no less than six and twenty feet in circumference, and two feet eight inches high."

Nothing is heard again about these giant "claws," though a brief note in Thomas W. Knox's Overland Through Asia (1871) may refer to the same case:

"Bones of the rhinoceros and hippopotamus abound in Northern Siberia, and like those of the mammoth are found in the frozen earth. In the last century the body of a rhinoceros of an extinct species was found on the river Vilouy, a tributary of the Lena. In the museum at St. Petersburg there is a head of the Arctic rhinoceros on which the skin and tendons remain, and a foot of the same animal displays a portion of its hair. The claws of an enormous bird are also found in the north, some of them three feet long, and jointed through their whole length like the claws of an ostrich."

New Siberia is part of the Anzhu Island group that is surrounded by the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Laptev Sea to the west, and the East Siberian Sea to the east. (These and nearby islands have been referred to as the New Siberian Islands, so it may not be wise to specify a particular island for Henderson's find at this point.) Arctic conditions bring nine months of snow cover every year. Massive amounts of fossil ivory were taken from the New Siberian Islands during the early 1800s. Remains of other ice age creatures were also discovered, with the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica noting mammoth, rhino, bison, stag, saiga, antelope, horse, reindeer, and tiger. No other mentions of giant birds appear to be made for this region, and the New World teratorns have not been documented in Asia.

The idea of three-foot claws on a bird seems far exaggerated. It doesn't appear that many writers about large birds like Aiolornis or Argentavis have speculated on the size of the claws of those species; perhaps due to lack of physical evidence. But, if Argentavis magnificens, the largest known flying bird, stood five to six feet high, running perhaps 9 foot from tip of bill to tip of tail, three-foot claws would be far oversized and unwieldy.

But, does the story necessarily have to be a hoax? Setting aside unsubstantiated rumors of giant feathers, there's a good possibility that the "claws" were actual specimens, but misidentified. As noted by Tregear (1894):

"Rhinoceros horns brought to Europe by ancient travellers were supposed to be claws of griffins, those great four-footed birds with claws like lions, spoken of by Herodotus and Ctesias. The Siberians also think that the fossil horns of the rhinoceros are the claws of an enormous bird, and thence has grown a myth that monstrous birds in olden times fought with the ancestors of men."

So this Mr. Henderson, whoever he might have been, probably did not recognize the woolly rhinoceros horn specimens in hand (which could reach almost three feet in length), and let his imagination carry him to a wrong conclusion. A similar mistake occurred in South America, where a prong from the shell of the Indo-Pacific Chiragra spider conch was discovered in the Gran Chaco and misidentified as the fossil rear-fang of a giant snake (Shuker 1997). At least one online image of a woolly rhino's horn shows a banded pattern that might, out of context, remind someone of the scaled feet ("jointed throughout their whole length") of an ostrich.

References:

  • Anonymous. 1819-1820. Enormous Bird. Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 6(Oct. 1819-March 1920): 215.
  • Image. Woolly Rhinoceros Skeleton. http://www.arizonaskiesmeteorites.com/Wooly_Rhino_Fossils/Wooly_Rhino_Skeleton/
  • Knox, Thomas W. 1871. Overland Through Asia. Pictures of Siberian, Chinese, and Tartar Life. New York, Astor House. Gutenberg E-text.
  • Shuker, Karl P. N. 1997. From Flying Toads to Snakes with Wings. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn.
  • Tregear, Edward. 1894. Myths of Observation. Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand 27: 579-593.

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