Sceptics love to poke fun at cryptozoologists, but there are strange creatures out there whose existence has yet to be confirmed by science
Friday 15 July 2011
I'm not sure who or what is more monstrous: the smug sceptics or the scant cryptids.
Let me explain. Having interviewed Debbie Martyr (research conservationist with Flora and Fauna International) 12 years ago about her apparent sighting of the primate cryptid the orang pendek in Sumatra and more recently interviewing ape expert Ian Redmond on his research into sasquatch/big foot (supported by David Attenborough and Jane Goodall), over the years I have acquired a fascination for primate cryptids. So I was eager to attend a recent lecture at the Zoological Society London (ZSL) entitled "Cryptozoology: science or pseudoscience?".
Henry Gee, a senior editor at Nature looking and behaving like a jovial, off-duty roadie dressed in grubby T shirt and ruby crocs, chaired the event in which Drs Michael Woodley, Charles Paxton and Darren Naish presented their crypto data.
Paxton reminded us that atmospheric electrical disturbances such as sprites, blue jets and elves were only identified in the 1980s and 1990s when they were photographed. Until then, anecdotal reports of flashes of light above the clouds were frequently ignored. Scientists used to dismiss accounts of meteorites as paranormal fantasy and poured scorn on eyewitness descriptions from lucky survivors of rogue waves – until satellite images in the 1990s confirmed their existence. The mountain gorilla wasn't believed to exist by Western science until two were shot dead in 1902, and the bonobo was not credited with being a unique species until 1930. In the past 20 years, 70 species of primate have been newly described, including a Vietnamese gibbon and the Bili ape: a large, sub-species of chimp from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2009, a Papua New Guinean crater yielded up a cat-sized species of woolly rat, among other previously undiscovered creatures.
In an age of satellites and robotic submersibles, it's easy to assume, with a "been there done that" attitude, that we know all there is to know about Earth. Clearly nature is far from being fully understood by science, and yet some sceptics persist in contemptuously sneering at almost everything outside of their immediate knowledge. With their high-systemised inability to tolerate newness, they stymie open scientific debate, bully original thinkers and drive away those with fascinating new data on unknown species.
I was sad to witness this and their non-reflective guffawing at ZSL. Paxton and Naish seemed particularly conscious of this spiked criticism and made a point of distancing themselves from misleading and bad science. Nothing wrong with that, but they were so ardent in this respect that the friend I was with mistakenly thought the panel were themselves anti-cryptozoology.
The three speakers focused their statistical analysis on sea monsters, Paxton saying that he prefers the term monster to cryptid. He also wanted to assure the audience that, "taxpayers have no fear, your money is not spent on crypto research, scientists do this in their spare time." Paxton's talk underscored the fact that anomalies should be actively pursued and science should be about wonderment.
But how should science deal with low-frequency phenomena that might well be real? One approach is to break witness reports down and analyse interesting properties. To illustrate, Paxon used his data of "initial reported distance" from sea monsters given by witnesses aboard boats. Significantly, initial sighting are usually reported close to the boat. Paxton wasn't sure why this might be. I would suggest that it is because witnesses do not know what they do not know – they have to see it close-up to be confident they are witnessing something unexpected. An unknown creature seen at a distance could be dismissed as a dolphin or a piece of wood. Initial sightings of terrestrial cryptids also tend to be at close proximity, and again the same factor may well apply.
Naish addressed the "prehistoric survivor paradigm". Some 65m years ago, during the late cretaceous, the coelacanth, the plesiosaur and many other species disappeared from the fossil record during a mass extinction. But in 1938 and again in 1999 two species of coelacanth were discovered. This Lazarus-like survival of the coelacanth gives confidence to those who suggest a long-necked surviving plesiosaur swims in our lochs and oceans. As a palaeontologist Naish was able to explain how the vertebrae of plesiosaurs could not move in the flexible, swan-like motion often described in reported sightings. But he believes this is a case of wrong classification rather than an indication that sea monsters do not exist. We were reminded of the new Indonesian species of ray and shark and the two recently identified (1991/2002) species of beaked whale, inhabiting a deep-sea niche: the deep sea and its inhabitants are barely understood.
During the Q&A an elderly sceptic quipped: "Some people say they've seen aliens and have even talked to them!" The panel trod an uneasy path as they attempted to accommodate these sorts of jibes while keeping on track.
The three speakers confirmed that their modelling indicates there are between 10 and 50 large species of marine animals yet to be described. They were also in agreement that marine sampling methods for cryptids must be established and remain constant.
For those readers left wanting more, the Weird Weekend is the biggest gathering of cryptozoologists in the world, held in Devon in August. Naish will again be speaking.