The scientific imaginary creatures (III): Snouters and the lost world of Hyi-yi-yi

Rhinochilopus musicus, a snouter known for its musical abilities. Image from here

An undiscovered island…

After several days aimlessly wandering in a boat through the Pacific Ocean, Einar Pettersson-Skamtvist, a Swede soldier, finally set foot on an island. His escape from the Japanese prisoner’s camp had been a success. But luck is ephemeral and found himself drifting on a malfunctioning boat. On the verge of starvation and dehydration, he finally sighted an island, which its inhabitants, a Polynesian tribe that had been uncontacted for more than 200 hundred years, referred to as Hiddudify.

Hiddudify was part of a discrete archipelago of 18 islands in the south of the Pacific Ocean called Hy-yi-yi, the remnants of an old continental island, isolated from other landmasses since the end of the Cretaceous. There, flora and fauna were unconventional, with remnants of a prehistoric time: forests of giant lycophytes such as Necolepidodendron; a lost relative of Lepidodendron, the huge tree that reigned the ecosystems prior to the age of the Dinosaur and a vast array of forgotten animals.

Amongst the unique creatures of the archipelago, a group rapidly attracted the attention of several scientists: the Rhinogradentia or Snouters, a group of small mammals with elongated noses. Harald Stümpfke, a German zoologist, became a world expert in this group of peculiar animals, writing “The Snouters, form and life of the Rhinogradentia” the main work on this subject, to which this article is based. Sadly, this was an unconcluded work.

On the 10th anniversary of the foundation of the Darwin Institute of Hyi-yi-yi, a big conference was held in the main island, to which Stümpfke and most world experts on Rhinogrades were participating. No one was aware, though, that just some kilometers away, the US army, in the middle of the Cold War, was trying his nuclear armament. Waves engulfed the whole archipelago, and with it all the knowledge about the Rhinogradentia.

At that time, Gerold Steiner, a zoologist from Heidelberg had been commissioned to illustrate the upcoming work of Prof. Stümpfke. He found himself with the only existing draft of “The Snouters, form and life of the Rhinogradentia” on his hands,  one of the only accounts of these animals on Earth. The book was succesfully published in 1957 and the Rhinogradentia, therefore, had a way to survive.

-It was in this way that the lifework of a seeker after Truth could be presented to the scientific world and to a broader audience. The knowledge of a now-vanished world. Adapted from Gerold Steiner-1958

The truth is, that none of this is true. Gerold Steiner, is though, real, and the author of this flagrant lie (that we retold here). The Rhinogradentia are of course part of our Scientific imaginary creatures series.

Everything is about the nose…

The main characteristic of the Snouters is, of course, the extended nasarium. The nose in these small rodent-like animals is an evolutionary marvel which has taken multiple roles. In fact, all most other limbs, as well as other organs,  especially legs and ears are mostly reduced, and their function has been replaced by a weird-looking elongated nose. Only a species, Archirrhinos (old nose) maintains most of his originals functions, with the nose being just a support in hunting (they use it as a way to role).

When “fishes” started to walk on land, gills became unusable, but respiration was taken up by the vocal part and proto-lungs. In a similar fashion, having walking noses such as in Mammontops makes the respiration function, to say the least, difficult. In this case, Snouters don’t really breathe through the nose, but from the tear-gland (we could say they breathe through their tears), for example, or have specialized conducts for exhalation and inhalation (such as those found in the two known aquatic snouters).

Helped by a long isolated history and the magic of island geography, Snouters have one of the most variable lifestyles in any mammal group. Here is a summary;

-Sessile snouters: they are stuck to the ground with a modified snouty nose and prey on insects using glooey tails. Species exemple: Dulcicauda griseaurella.

-Parasitic snouters: parasitism is not common in mammals. Some mammals may steal to survive, or feed on living animals (such as blood-seeking bats), but none has reduced traits resulting from a parasitic lifestyle. But snouters have, indeed, parasitic species, such as Rhinotaenia tridacnae, an aquatic species that has lost most of its traits.

-Fying snouters: there is only one flying snouter (Otopteryx volitans), but given that powered flight only has appeared four times in animals (insects, pterosaurs, birds, bats) this feat is impressive. And, to no surprise, they fly with… their ears, which are not cartilaginous, but bony. The snout serves as a support both in air and as a means of propulsion. Related species, such as Hopsorrhinus aureus use this shove-like nose as a way to jump, instead.

-Predator snouters: some Rhinogradentia use their noses to capture prey. Emunctator presents long threads filled with a sticky secretion that serves as a fishing trap. Ranunculonasus has several noses shaped as flowers that lure insects using a vanilla-like fragrance. Once the insects step onto the noses, they secrete acidic substances that digest them. As a bonus, they have chameleon powers and can change their colors depending on the surrounding flowers. Carbulonasus follows a similar strategy, but his whole body resembles a flowe.

-Walkers and sliders: some snouters use their noses as a means of transportation. Nasobema uses his 4 noses as feet, while its tail serves as a grabbing extremity. Rhinolimacius, on the other hand, only has one nose, which also enables movement but it does so by sliding, in a similar way to what snails and slimes do.

Sessile, flying, jumping and walking snouters. Image adapted from the original book

Beyond the joke

This is just but a very brief summary of the creatures known as Rhinogradentia. Steiner’s book is, though, a fantastic work of imagination. It not only includes species description, but it also has references to:

-Behavior: Rhinolimacius are known to do courtship dances that involve the male running around the female, or as described, “has a grotesque resemblance to a human couple dancing on skates”.

-Phylogenetic consequences: The appearance of the rhinogradentia in the animal tree caused certain commotion, especially when tube-living snouters (Remanonasus menorrhinus) were discovered. According to the accounts of Stümpfke imaginary contemporaries these where lost relatives between mammas and Turbellarians (tube-living worms), those reshaping the whole animal tree. Crazy.

-Cultural influence: The tribes of Hy-yi-yi, have, of course, small mythologies regarding the snouters. In the honatata fest, for example, humans play instruments following the mating songs of Rhinochilopus (see first drawing). In fact, these species are musically very intelligent and are known to have learned to sing Bach in captivity.

series 2
Snouters that use the nasaria as a mean of locomotion or as a cryptic trap

And, of course, the book would not be finished with an invented anatomy (ductuli osmatici, corpora spongiosa, sphincter gasotubalis…), an invented bibliography, invented records of Snouters in captivity… As well as invented names, which clearly point to the joke , such as Tyranonnasus or author’s names, such as Bromeante de Burlas (Spanish-like name made of the work joke and prank) or Spassmann (German for fun-man).

The legacy and island biogeography

Anatomy, behavior, life-style… The tales of the rhinogradentia account for all of these, but they are also an imaginary tool to understand the power of evolution and the construction of phylogenies.

Although the plethora of lifestyles an adaptations in the rhinogradentia are hard to believe, to some extreme they can be attributed to the special conditions of island biogeography. Islands are the perfect evolutionary laboratories, as populations become scarce and isolated. If migration between islands is low, this gives isolated mutations the opportunity to become widespread within the islands.

More cryptic snouters (Carbulonasus) and the basal group of the snouters, Archirrhinos.

However not only being an island is important, but the type of island too. The Hyi-yi-yi archipelago has conveniently been isolated from the mainlaind since the Cretaceous, which has lead to the existence of such “prehistoric” creatures. The islands themselves are big and heterogenoeus enough that they can provide different habitats to which the rhinogradentia can adapt. One similar real example could be the island of Madagascar, which offers enough types of habitat to present a big variety of plants and animals such as chamaeleons and strepsirrhini monkeys like lemurs.

Now you may comprehend the work and “seriousness” of this book, and you may not be the only one. Several fake descriptions of rhinogrades have been published since then (the russian edition of the book even has an appendix), and some museums and exhibition still make use of the ultimate joke.

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Steiner, G. (1981). The snouters: form and life of the rhinogrades. University of Chicago Press. (Translation of the Russian edition)

In the next issue…

The series “Imaginary creatures” comes to an end. The last creatures will be those not made by a blind watchmaker.


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