The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 8

Andrias Scheuchzeri

The inquisitiveness of man is boundless. It was not enough that Professor J. W. Hopkins (Yale University), the greatest authority of the day in the field of herpatology, had declared these mysterious creatures to be unscientific humbug and mere fantasy; both the specialist and the general press began to report frequent discoveries of these previously unknown animals, resembling giant newts, in all parts of the Pacific Ocean. Relatively reliable reports came from the Solomon Isles, Schoutoen Island, Kapingamarang, Butarit and Tapeteuea, and then further reports came from entire archipelagoes: Nudufetau, Fanufuti, Nukonono and Fukaofu, and then from Kiau, Uahuka, Uapu and Pukapuka. Rumours about Captain van Toch’s demons and Miss Lily’s tritons circulated around Melanesia and Polynesia respectively; and the papers judged there must be various kinds of underwater and prehistoric monsters, especially as the summer had begun and there was nothing else to write about. The underwater monsters were especially successful among their readers and tritons became the height of fashion in the USA that season; a spectacular revue called Poseidon was performed three hundred times in New York with three hundred of the most beautiful tritonesses and syrens; on the beaches of Miami and California young people bathed in costumes of tritons and nayads (ie. three strings of pearls and nothing else), while in the states of the midwest the Movement for the Suppression of Immorality gained enormously in numbers; there were public demonstrations and several negroes were hanged or burned alive.

Eventually the National Geographic Magazine published a special edition covering the scientific expeditions of Columbia University (instigated by J.S. Tincker, otherwise known as the Tin-can King). The reports were endorsed by P. L. Smith, W. Kleinschmidt, Charles Kovar, Louis Forgeron and D. Herrero, which covered all the worlds’ authorities in the disciplines of fish parasites, ringworm, botany, infusoria and aphids. Their extensive coverage included:

. . . On the island of Rakahanga the expedition first encountered prints left by the rear legs of a hitherto unknown species of newt. The prints show five toes, between three and four centimetres long. The number of prints left shows that the coast around the island must have been swarming with these newts. There were no prints of front legs (apart from one set of four, clearly left by a juvenile), showing clearly that these newt move about on their rear limbs.

. . . It is worth mentioning that there is neither river nor marshland on the island of Rakahanga; this indicates that these newts live in the sea and are most likely the only representatives of that order living in a pelagic environment. It is well known, of course, that the Mexican axolotl (Amblystoma mexicanum) lives in salt lakes, but not even the classic work of W. Korngold, Caudate Amphibians (Urodela), Berlin, 1913, makes any mention of newts living in the sea.

. . . We waited until into the afternoon in order that we might catch, or at least catch sight of, a live specimen, but in vain. With some regret, we left the island of Rakahanga, where D. Herrer had been successful in finding a beautiful new species of lizard heperoptera. We met with much greater success, however, on the island of Tongarewa. We waited on the foreshore with our guns in our hands. Soon after sunset, the head of a newt emerged from the water, relatively large and slightly flattened. After a short while the newts climbed out onto the sand, swaying as they walked on their hind legs but nonetheless quite agile. When sitting they were just over three feet in height. They sat around in a wide circle and began making distinctive and vigorous circling movements of the upper parts of their bodies, giving the impression that they were dancing. W. Kleinschmidt stood up in order to obtain a better view. At this, the newts turned to look at him and soon were entirely stiff and motionless; they then began with remarkable speed to approach him, uttering sibilant barking sounds. When they were about seven paces away we opened fire on them. They fled, very quickly, and threw themselves into the sea; they were not seen again that evening. On the shore, there remained no more than two dead newts and one newt with a broken spine, uttering an odd sound, something like ogod, ogod, ogod. It then expired after W. Kleinschmidt used a knife to open its pulmonary cavity . . .

(There followed a series of anatomical details which we laymen would be unable to understand; readers with specialist knowledge are referred to the bulletin cited.)

The above indicators make it clear that this was a typical member of the order of caudate amphibians (urodela) which, as is widely known, includes the salamander genus (salamandridae), comprising the family of spotted salamanders (tritons) and newts (salamandrae), and the family of tadpole spawning newts (ichthyoidea), made up of the pseudo-gilled newts (cryptobranchiata) and the gilled newts (phanerobranchiata). The newt found on the island of Tongarewa seems to be most closely related to the tadpole spawning pseudo-gilled newts; in many respects, including its size, it is reminiscent of the great Japanese newt (megalobatrachus sieboldii) or the American hellbender, better known as the mud devil, but it does distinguish itself from these species by its well developed sensors and the greater length and strength of its limbs which enable it to move with some facility both in water and on land. (There followed further details of comparative anatomy).

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Andrias Scheuchzeri

After we had prepared the skeletons of the animals killed we made a very interesting observation: the skeleton of these newts is almost identical with the fossil remains of a newt’s skeleton found by Dr. Johannes Jakob Scheuchzer in the Öhningen Fault and described by him in his “Homo Diluvii Testis”, published in 1726. Readers less familiar with his work are reminded that the above mentioned Dr. Scheuchzer regarded this fossil as the remains of a human being from before the Flood. “Members of the educated World,” he writes, “will see from the accompanying Woodcut that there is no Doubt whatsoever that we are dealing with a Man who was Witness to the Great Flood; there is no Feature that does not make ample Display of what could only be a Feature of Mankind, for it does everywhere conform with all the individual Parts of the Skeleton of Man in all its Dimensions. It is a Man made of Stone and shown from the Front; it is a Memorial of Man in a Form now extinct, older than all the Tombs of the Romans, Greeks or even Egyptians or any other People of the East.” At a later date, Cuvier recognised the Öhningen fossil skeleton as that of a newt, known as Cryptobranchus Primaevus or Andrias Scheuchzeri Tschudi and long since considered extinct. By means of osteological comparisonswe were able to identify this newt as the primitive and supposedly extinct newt, Andrias. The mysterious ancient reptile, as the newspapers described it, is nothing other than the newt with covered gills known from the fossil record as Andrias Scheuchzeri; or if a new name is needed Cryptobranchus Tinckeri Erectus or the Polynesian Great Newt.

. . . The question as to why this interesting giant newt has hitherto escaped scientific attention remains a mystery, especially considering the large numbers in which it is found on the islands of Rakahanga and Tongarewa in the Manihiki archipelago. Neither Randolph nor Montgomery make mention of it in their publication Two Years in the Manihiki Islands (1885). The local inhabitants insist that this animal - which they also consider to be poisonous - began to appear no more than six or eight years ago. They say that these sea demons are capable of speech (!), and that in the bays where they live they construct entire systems of weirs and sea-walls in a way that resembles underwater cities; that the water in their bays remains as still as a mill pond throughout the entire year; that they excavate dens and passages in the ground under the water which are many meters long and in which they remain during the day; that at night they come out into the fields to steal sweet potatoes and yams and take hoes and pickaxes and other tools from the human population. The native people have developed a strong aversion to the newts and even live somewhat in fear of them; many of them have preferred to move away to other areas. It is clear that this is nothing more than primitive legends and superstitions resulting from the revolting appearance and upright stance and gait, somewhat resembling the walk of a human being, of these harmless giant newts.

. . . Travellers tales, according to which these newts are also to be found on other islands than Manihiki, should be taken with extreme caution. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the fresh footprints found on the shore of the island of Tongatabu and published by Captain Croisset in La Nature are those of Andrias Scheuchzer. This finding is of especial importance given that they form a connection between their appearance on the Manihiki Islands with Australasia, where so many vestiges of the development of ancient fauna have been preserved; let us bear in mind in particular the antediluvian lizard hateri or tuatara, which survives to this day on Stephen Island. These islands are mostly sparsely inhabited and hardly touched by civilization, and it is possible that isolated remains of species elsewhere extinct may have continued to survive there. Thanks to the efforts of Mister J.S. Tincker, an antediluvian newt has now been added to the ancient lizard, hateri. If the good Dr. Johannes Jakob Scheuchzer were alive today he would see the resurrection of his Adam of Öhningen . . .

This learned bulletin would certainly have been sufficient to satisfy scientific curiosity about the mysterious sea monsters that were being talked about so much. Unfortunately though, the Dutch researcher, van Hogenhouck, published a report at the same time in which he classified these covered-gilled giant newts in the order of proper newts or tritons under the name of megatriton molucccanus and established that they were distributed throughout the Dutch-Sundanese islands of Jilolo, Morotai and Ceram; there was also a report by the French scientist Dr. Mignard who saw them as typical salamanders and concluded that they had originated in the French islands of Takaroa, Rangiroa and Raroia, calling them simply cryptobranchus salamandroides; there was also a report from H.W. Spence in which he claimed to have recognised a new order of pelagidae, native to the Gilbert Isles, which could be classified under the species name of pelagotriton spencei. Mr. Spence succeeded in transporting a live specimen to London Zoo, where it became the subject of further research and was given the names pelagobatrachus hookeri, salamandrops maritimus, abranchus giganteus, amphiuma gigas and many others. Many scientists insisted that pelagotriton spencei was the same as cryptobranchus tinckeri or that Mignards salamander was no other than andrias scheuchzeri; there were many disputes about priority and other purely scientific questions. So it was that in the end every nation had its own giant newts and furiously and scientifically criticised the newts of other nations. That is why there never was any scientifically agreed opinion about the whole great matter of the newts.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:34