Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Footprints in the Sand

     I am not a footprint aficionado. They are hard enough to interpret at the best of times. Perhaps I am being unfair, for they have their use in cryptozoology. Several times I have seen a photo or sketch of a print left by an alleged "tiger", and recognized it immediately as having been made by a big dog. But the reverse is not the case. Although I have been shown prints which certainly looked like they came from a big cat, in no case could I be sure that they had been made by such a creature. Robert Downing and Virginia Fifield, who had been following "cougar" reports from the eastern U.S. for years, claimed that anybody who wanted to be able to distinguish dog tracks from those of "cougars" needed to first of all examine several thousand tracks of dogs of different breeds, under different conditions.
     In the Queensland Museum, Dr Ralph Molnar once showed me a cast of a footprint that was beyond weird. It was long and thin, with a groove down the middle. But apart from a couple of small side claws, the truly astonishing feature was the pair of huge, central clawed digits which bent downwards at a vertical angle of almost 90 degrees. It was hard to see how any animal could walk that way. Yet the explanation was simple: it belonged to a wallaby. Wallabies and kangaroos do not always hop; over short distances they walk, the large hindfeet moving in unison, and the smaller forepaws being extended for support. Often, particularly over difficult terrain, the hindfeet are placed right next to each other. This is what happened in the above case, making it appear a single footprint, and the long central toe of each foot bent vertically down to gain purchase, because it was travelling through mud. I have also been caught out in another case, where a wallaby's combined hindfeet produced a composite, apparently single footprint. Moral of the story: the simple explanation is more likely to be the case.
     With this in mind, I'd like to share some clippings Dr Molnar gave me of The Brisbane Courier  of 1918. They refer to footprints discovered on Stradbroke Island, one of the large sand islands which guard the approach of Moreton Bay, east of Brisbane.

May 27th, 1918
Remarkable Footprints
    A party of Brisbane yachtsmen, including Mr. Harry Biggs, of Edward-street, Mr. J. Connor, lately licensee of the Carlton Hotel, Mr. T. Faunce, the well-known interstate cricketer, who has just returned to Queensland after doing his "bit" in France, and Mr.  A. Behrend returned from a fishing trip down the Bay on Wednesday,  and relate an experience which has caused them considerable mental travail.  On Tuesday last at dawn they landed at Jumpin-pin, Stradbroke Island, and on the freshly washed sand impinging on the sea they came across a string of footprints of some unknown animal, which they followed for half a mile until it was finally lost in the sea-drift. The prints had apparently been made by a biped having three large pads arranged in the form of a shamrock, with a smaller pad answering to the relative position of the spur on the foot of a gallinaceous bird. The print was 8in. [20 cm] long from the "toe" to the "heel", and a similar width in cross section, and resembled the footprint of a camel, were that animal a biped and not a quadruped. The footprints were fully 4ft. [1.2 m] apart, and were undoubtedly bipedal, and, as one of the party explains, were similar to the footprints that one might expect to have been made by one of the extinct mammoth birds of New Zealand, were their toes thickened into camel pads.

May 28th, 1918
Those "Remarkable Footprints"
     Mr. A. Meston writes: Sir, - Harry Biggs and his party of yachtsmen have confused the track of a common Stradbroke Island red wallaby with that of a camel, or an elephant, or a moa, or a diprotodont, or an atlantasaurus, or some other extinct colossal quadruped, or a bipedal monstrosity of a Paleozoic age. The red wallaby, or any other wallaby, makes exactly the same footprints in sand as those described by Biggs and his corsairs. Six years ago a scared tourist wrote to me to say that he had seen the tracks of some tremendous animal in a sand dune near Broadsound, and wanted to know if it was a mastodon, or a grampas, or what the blacks called a "boggawoggawumpiewump," and I replied asking him to have a day among the wallabies that made the tracks, and he went back there and wrote to say that I was right. The sight of his own footprint on the sand beach of Juan Fernandez must have scared Robinson Crusoe even less than the footprints of the innocent herbivorous red wallaby of Stradbroke affrighted friend Harry Biggs and the astonished buccaneers of his "Marine Expedition" to the wild ocean solitudes of Jumpin-pin, the "Jump-binn-binn" of the aboriginals. The Biggs party may be pardoned for their delusion, as wallaby and kangaroo tracks in sand would mystify anybody who had never seen them before.

May 30th, 1918
Those Footprints
     Mr. T. B. Faunce writes: Sir, - Being one of Mr. Biggs's party during his recent trip down the bay, I also had the opportunity of seeing and inspecting the footprints now designated as those "Remarkable Footprints," and after reading  Mr. Meston's explanation in Tuesday's paper I am still anxious to have further information from Mr. Meston, if he will be kind enough to supply it. Does the common Stradbroke Island red wallaby usually hop on one leg only, or does he keep both feet together, so as to make an impression resembling one complete foot only? I should think that any wallaby or kangaroo would leave two distinct impressions when moving along, and if not too quickly quite probably show the impression of a portion of each leg as well, in addition show some sign of claws and perhaps tail. In these "Remarkable Footprints" only one impression was shown at a time, each impression being 4ft. behind the other, each impression being eight inches long from toe to heel and eight inches across, and showing no claw marks; impressions were as near a possible in a straight line, not zigzagging as is usual in the case of the ordinary quadruped. In addition, each impression seemed deliberate, showing no signs of hurry or any excessive strain on the back portion of the impression that one would expect were a shove off required. In no portion of the half mile or so that we traced the marks were there any variation of the impressions made in the sand, not even when the hard damp sand was reached where the marks disappeared into the sea. Mr. Meston's letter at present leaves me more curious than ever. So I trust he will explain the various matters I mention above as all Mr. Biggs's party and several others equally acquainted with the Bay and all adjacent foreshores are still very anxious to get to the bottom of it.
     "Moreton Bay" writes: Sir, - I am sorry to differ from Mr. Meston and other writers about the mysterious tracks on Stradbroke Island. They are undoubtedly the footprints of the "Wander Bird." I have frequently seen these tracks at Amity and at other places. If Mr. Biggs or Mr. Meston will apply to me  I will be glad to give them the full description of the habits of the birds, &c.

     Ah! The days when life was simpler, and you had to rely on whatever details the witness thought was relevant, and nothing more! Nowadays, out would whip half a dozen mobile phones, and a full scan of all the tracks would have been uploaded onto YouTube, and "gone viral" by the time the fishing party had got home.
     I find it unlikely that a bipedal bogey with a four foot stride is still lurking around the island across the bay from my home. I shall therefore treat this as one more glitch in the even running of the universe. Who knows? The tracks may really have been left by a wallaby, of which there are two species on the island. On balance, it seems the least unlikely. If so, however, the description does not ring true. A spacing of four feet would indicate that it was definitely hopping. It should therefore have left a series of two parallel prints of the front part of each hindfoot, with the heel showing only on rare occasions. And no matter how you view it, a wallaby's footprint should not be as wide as long.
     I don't know what species was called a "wander bird" in 1918. However, I do know that birds with a four foot stride are rather uncommon in this part of the world.


  1. any idea what prints in the sand made this ?

  2. Well, it's clearly a biped, and it is putting its considerable weight on the front part of its foot - probably with a leaping or springing motion. Also, the five toes appear to be fused together, as they do not spread. My guess is a human being wearing an unusual type of shoe.