By naughtily avoiding the long list of things that I’m supposed to be doing in my ‘spare’ time I’ve finally done it: adapted my monumental, keynote cryptozoology conference speech into an article(s) for publication here at Tet Zoo. Ok, so it wasn’t so ‘monumental’ or ‘keynote’, but I thought I might as well recycle it anyway (for more on the conference in question see the article here). The general message here might, by now, be familiar to Tet Zoo regulars, as I’ve been promoting the same view for a while now…
The talk included several hundred words on the discoveries made by Marc van Roosmalen (which I covered previously on Tet Zoo here: more on Marc and his work in the near future*), and those made by Peter Hocking (again, covered previously here), and it also included some lengthy stuff on the discovery of both the kipunji and the odedi. Because all of this stuff has been done to death on Tet Zoo before, I’ve chopped all of it out from the version you’re seeing here. Please remember that the following text was written to be delivered as a talk: I’ve modified it to make it more readable (and have added the relevant references), but there are still a few places where it doesn’t quite work. Fingers crossed.
* He has a new website up by the way. The new dwarf manatee species is named there if you’re interested (it’s called Trichechus bernhardi – you heard it here first).
Cryptozoology is the study of mystery animals (or cryptids), and it’s often portrayed as a fringe subject, more akin to ufology and parapsychology than to mainstream zoology or biology. Indeed the commonest ‘working definition’ that we encounter for cryptozoology is that the subject is mostly concerned with the search for fantastic beasts or monsters (e.g., Dendle 2006). But contrary to the way it’s often portrayed or described, cryptozoology is not ‘monster hunting’, nor is the subject concerned only with unusual or remarkable animals, or with animals that might be late-surviving members of groups otherwise known only as fossils. The main area that I want to cover here is the overlap that exists between cryptozoology and mainstream zoology. In fact, this area of overlap is so extensive that we might even wonder whether there’s such a thing as cryptozoology at all.
Different people have held various different interpretations of what cryptozoology is, and what it encompasses. A good place to start is with Bernard Heuvelmans (1916-2001), the Belgian zoologist who essentially pioneered the subject of cryptozoology during the 1950s. Heuvelmans wrote widely about cryptids from all around the world, and in 1986 produced a list of those cryptids that he regarded as most likely to await discovery (Heuvelmans 1986). Unfortunately however, Heuvelmans didn’t stick to the same definition of cryptozoology over the years: in a 1983 article, he wrote that, in order to become a cryptid, a creature has to be ‘truly singular, unexpected, paradoxical, striking, or emotionally upsetting’, and he argued that it was these qualities that allowed mysterious creatures to become incorporated into myths and traditions, and hence to become cryptids (Heuvelmans 1983, p. 5). A version of this definition (the idea that animals have to be remarkable or visually striking in order to become cryptids) was later favoured by Richard Greenwell (1942-2005), the former co-founder and secretary of the International Society of Cryptozoology; consequently this definition has enjoyed quite wide acceptance [the adjacent image, showing Heuvelmans and an assortment of crypto-primates, is by Alika Lindbergh].
This type of definition is totally subjective however: who’s to say what makes any given creature ‘truly singular, unexpected, paradoxical, striking, or emotionally upsetting’? This subjectivity makes this definition entirely unsatisfactory. Furthermore, Heuvelmans and others have regarded as cryptids many creatures that didn’t conform to this definition. In Heuvelmans’ 1986 list, for example, we find such cryptids as a small marmot-sized mammal from Ethiopia, a small wildcat from the Mediterranean, and a small flightless rail from the south Pacific (Heuvelmans 1986) [see accompanying image: a slide from the talk]. None of those creatures can be described as ‘truly singular, unexpected, paradoxical, striking, or emotionally upsetting': what makes them cryptids is the fact that they’re known from anecdotal data, but have yet to be authenticated on the basis of procured specimens.
Theoretically, a small brown or grey lizard, a small rodent, an insect, a small fish or a small, dull bird – reported by eyewitnesses but not matching any formally named species – is a cryptid, even though it’s thoroughly dull, unremarkable, and unlikely to be incorporated into myth. So cryptozoology should be defined as the study of animals that are known only from eyewitness or other anecdotal evidence – from sightings, photos, stories or accounts. In this respect they’re different from animals for which we have type specimens: that is, specimens that have been obtained, and later deposited in museums, or other collections.
So there is no requirement at all for cryptids to be unusually large, or morphologically remarkable, or anachronistic, or in fact special in any way. As soon as we appreciate that cryptids might often be perfectly normal creatures – they don’t have to be monsters or in any way fantastic – then we can appreciate that cryptozoology is not in any way a fringe subject. In fact, given that a significant number of ‘ordinary’ card-carrying zoologists pursue creatures that are known only from eyewitness or other anecdotal evidence, the pursuit of cryptids is a perfectly normal, everyday area of zoological research.
Further verification for this comes from the fact that a considerable number of officially accepted, well known animals were cryptids prior to their ‘official’ recognition: we can call these animals ‘former cryptids’. The lowland gorilla is a good example of a former cryptid: it was known to Europeans, through legends, by the 1600s and almost certainly much earlier as well. But not until the 1840s did scientists learn that this was a real animal, and not merely a mythical one. Similarly, the Mountain gorilla – officially recognised as a new animal in 1901 – had been reported to European explorers during the 1860s but, like the lowland gorilla, had been dismissed as legendary. The Okapi – finally discovered in 1900 – had also been reported by local people prior to 1900. The Shoebill stork, a large African waterbird (closely related to pelicans and not to storks) was officially named and described as a new species in 1851, but an 1840 sighting had been published in 1849, and again it was known to local people much, much earlier than this. The Komodo dragon was officially described in 1912, but we know from reports gathered in 1840 and 1910 that people on Komodo were familiar with this animal, and knew it as the boeaja darat, the ‘land crocodile’. The kouprey [shown in adjacent pic] – a large forest ox, native to Cambodia – wasn’t officially recognised and named until 1937, but an 1860 account specifically mentions a ‘black or blackish grey wild ox’ from Cambodia, so the kouprey was in fact known from anecdotal data – it was a cryptid – long prior to 1937 (Shuker 1991, 2002, Heuvelmans 1995, Galbreath et al. 2007).
In fact many of the larger mammals and birds that have been discovered by westerners since the 1700s were former cryptids, and a great many less impressive animals – including various birds, lizards, marsupials and hoofed mammals, many of them described in recent years and months – are also former cryptids. Such animals are still being discovered and described by scientists: two particularly good modern examples are the Kipunji (a recently described Tanzanian monkey, described in 2005: it’s shown in the adjacent image) and the Odedi (a bush warbler from Bougainville Island in the SW Pacific, described in 2006) [ver 1 articles on both of these former cryptids can be seen here and here].
And that’s the end of part I – I’ll post part II next.
Refs – –
Dendle, P. 2006. Cryptozoology in the medieval and modern worlds. Folklore 117, 190-206.
Galbreath, G. J., Mordacq, J. C. & Weiler, F. H. 2007. An evolutionary conundrum involving kouprey and banteng: a response from Galbreath, Mordacq and Weiler. Journal of Zoology 271, 253-254.
Heuvelmans, B. 1983. How many animal species remain to be discovered? Cryptozoology 2, 1-24.
– . 1995. On the Track of Unknown Animals. Kegan Paul International, London.
– . 1986. Annotated checklist of apparently unknown animals with which cryptozoology is concerned. Cryptozoology 5, 1-26.
Shuker, K. P. N. 1991. Extraordinary Animals Worldwide. Robert Hale, London.
– . 2002. The New Zoo. House of Stratus, Thirsk, North Yorkshire.