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Thread: A natural history of the sphinxes

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    A natural history of the sphinxes

    http://eobasileus.blogspot.com/2008/...-sphinxes.html
    The history of the sphinxes has long been a subject of dispute. It has been generally agreed upon that sphinxes form a neat, monophyletic clade, referred to as the Androleonidae. However, the relationships between individual species are far from clear. This essay will try to make sense of the different claims, discredit dubious and spurious allegations, and attempt to establish a unified history of the sphinxes for future generations.

    Sphinxes are distinguished from other animals by a practically human head on a feline body. Most are intelligent, and some can even converse with humans. Over the centuries, sphinxes have been classified as cats, hominids, or hybrids.

    The latest and most compelling hypothesis, however, assigns the sphinxes to the primates. According to this revolutionary discovery, the sphinxes are be basal cercopithecoids that became top predators. In this way, their bodies converged inexorably on the feline form, until they became almost identical, convergent duplicates of big cats - down to the retractile claws. It is not so difficult to imagine primates becoming predatory; baboons, for instance, will take down prey when needed. While baboons can be seen evolving into doglike predators, sphinxes likely are the descendants of solitary rainforest monkeys that used their claws in capturing prey.

    The face, on the other hand, seems to have imitate the human face. It is unclear exactly why that should be so. Perhaps sphinxes were as intelligent as the legends tell, and, with the help of human faces, could successfully delude humans. Or maybe they had more simian heads, and someone was fibbing.

    Androleonidae itself is divided into the clearly human-faced Androleoninae and the more bestial Mantichorinae. They may be sister clades, or the Mantichorinae may be an offshoot within the Androleoninae. Sphinxes, like other legendary creatures, are notoriously uncooperative, and attempts at mtDNA study have resulted in failure*. For the purposes of this essay, the traditional classification scheme (i.e. separate branches) will be followed.

    *We still haven't found all the remains of the last molecular biologist who tried.

    It is generally accepted that the North African sphinxes (Androleo) are the most basal members of the Androleoninae, and provided further support to the old supposition that the family originated in Northern Africa and then moved into Asia and Europe (the Out of Africa hypothesis).

    The best-known species in this genus is the much-studied royal Egyptian sphinx (Androleo pharaonis). Revered by the Egyptians for its power and intelligence, it was held in such high esteem that pharaohs were depicted in their guise. The ram-headed criosphinx and the hawk-headed hieracosphinx, on the other hand, are believed to have been later artistic embellishments, unrelated to the actual sphinx.

    Asia maintained a healthy population of sphinxes, closer to the ancestral stock in terms of morphology. The Asian androleonines remain similar to the body plan established by African sphinxes, with a convincingly human head on a lion's body. Indian sphinxes (Androleo purushamrigai), Burmese sphinxes (Androleo manusihai), and Sri Lankan sphinxes (Androleo narasimhai) are held in the same reverence as the royal Egyptian sphinx, and commonly feature in temples and carvings as divine protectors.

    Up till here, sphinxes are still recognizable as feline creatures with human heads. However, things take a turn for the (much more) confusing with the next clade of sphinxes.

    The Grecian sphinx (Pterandroleo aenigmolalia) is far more problematic, not least because it has wings. Descended from the all-but-extinct Babylonian sphinx (Pterandroleo babylonicus), the Grecian sphinx is the only species of European sphinx.

    Like the Egyptian sphinx, the Grecian sphinx is quite intelligent, capable of human speech, and - uniquely - can pose fiendish riddles. Grecian sphinxes were also much more territorial than the African species. The best-known specimen established its territory near Thebes, killing all who could not answer its riddle before it itself was killed by Oedipus - but then, you probably know the story. Given that the specimen was female, it would seem that Grecian sphinx females are at least as powerful and territorial as males.

    The most distinctive feature of the Grecian sphinx - one which has divided generations of mythozoologists - is the pair of avian wings. Whereas dragon wings have been explained by either fortuitous mutation or extreme development of rib wings, the presence of feathered bird's wings on a mammal is less convincing. At the moment, the most parsimonious explanation is that they were added on later by fanciful historians. Other suggestions including billowing, wing-like manes and hypertrophied scapulae with pseudo-feather structures. Suffice to say that there is no convincing consensus yet.

    The members of the Mantichorinae have no record of being suave and urbane. This branch of the sphinx family turned the dials of ferocity up to 11, and nowhere is this clearer than in the manticore (Martichora anthropophaga).

    The only member of its genus, the manticore may be found in the deepest Asian forests. Its range formerly included Persia and Mesopotamis, but its present habitat is mainly the Indonesian jungle, where it has no natural predators.

    A manticore is all business. Its face is much less human than that of its relatives, and its mouth opens to reveal rows of sharp teeth. Quills are present on the tip of the tail, anchored by very weak attachments; the manticore can shoot them at prey with a quick flick of its tail. The quills are extremely venomous, suggesting an atavistic throwback to more primitive venomous mammals such as the platypus. Finally, manticores communicate with each other via their brilliant, trumpet-like voices; these have been compared to the calls of howler monkeys and lend further credence to the primate hypothesis.

    Manticores are deadly predators. Their venom kills instantaneously, and their sharp teeth and powerful digestive juices make short work of prey. They will eat their way through anything, and anyone who disappears completely in the jungle may be said to have been eaten by a manticore.

    Horned manticores (Ceratomanticora) are a genus of manticores that developed horns and tusks for intraspecific display. These include the Asian mantygre (Ceratomanticora heraldica) and the large, long-tailed, impressively-striped piasa (Xenoceratotigris americanum). The latter species, the only North American sphinx, was once believed to be winged; however, this is almost certainly a fabrication.

    The horns of these species are keratin-sheathed extensions of the skull. These range from simple structures in the mantygre to the branching "antlers" of the piasa (unlike true antlers, they are not deciduous). Both the horns and the tusks are useful display structures, but the delicate horns probably do not take part in fighting and predation.

    Finally, some animals that may or may not be sphinxes include the chiang-liang and mountain hui of China, and the Aztec itzpapalotl, which occasionally includes human and jaguar attributes.

    Picture credits: everything from Wikipedia except the mantygre, from here.


    Further reading

    Bones, Indiana. (1943) Materials and Methods for Sphinx hunting. Gannet Books.

    Carnival, Lord A. (1913) The Sphinx through the Ages. Newt Books.

    Trasch, Lotta. (2004) Visual Guide to Sphinxes. KD Books.

    Dubitable, N. (1974) Sphinxes I have known. Piltdown Press.

    First, Hugo. (1980) Into the Manticore's Forest. Hit or Myth Books.

    Luk, Wot. (2001) Asian Sphinxes Checklist. Prin Ting Press.

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    Veteran Member PyramidHead's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Potoooooooo View Post

    The face, on the other hand, seems to have imitate the human face. It is unclear exactly why that should be so. Perhaps sphinxes were as intelligent as the legends tell, and, with the help of human faces, could successfully delude humans. Or maybe they had more simian heads, and someone was fibbing.

    someone was fibbing.

    someone was fibbing.

    someone was fibbing.
    By jove, I think he's onto something!

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    a few more types

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    Member aupmanyav's Avatar
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    Long time, Potoooooooo. Great to see your posts again.

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    Quote Originally Posted by aupmanyav View Post
    Long time, Potoooooooo. Great to see your posts again.
    Glad to see you back as well

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    Dougal Dixon's future anthropoid the Horrane would make a darn good sphinx

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