Like most scientific communities, the world of academic tetrapod zoology is an incestuous place. Inspired by a comment made here at Tet Zoo by Matt Wedel – co-author, colleague and one of the three SV-POWsketeers – Cameron McCormick (who works on guppies but is collaborating with Michael Woodley and yours truly on sea monsters) has a new post up at Lord Geekington that I find pretty interesting. Employing the new term ‘phylogenetic roulette’, he laments the fact that people are inclined to latch on to highly specific identifications when mystery animals are reported, even though critical thinking and parsimony show that they’ve either gone way too far with the evidence they have, or have gone well astray in their interpretation, or both. As it happens, the doyen of sea monster research – statistician and fisheries biologist Charles Paxton – has been saying similar things in his lectures and published papers. As a case study, Cameron looks at one of the most famous sea-serpent cases of all time, the Daedalus encounter of 1848. Here is one of the famous Daedalus illustrations…
The Daedalus creature has been a ‘classic’ sea monster (viz, an unidentified giant marine animal representing a new, scientifically unrecognised creature) for some. As Cameron discusses, a specific yet very wrong identification was discussed by one prominent 19th century scientist. Others have proposed that the Daedalus creature was a giant squid. Naish (2001) – which I really must make a pdf of, if only I knew how to – says ‘Most writers are familiar with the appearance of this creature due to the rendition published in the Illustrated London News under the supervision of the ship’s captain. However, an original sketch drawn by Lt. Edgar Drummond reveals far less detail, and a creature far more distant, than the ILN illustration. Ellis contends, as did Lee in 1884, that the Daedalus serpent may actually have been a giant squid swimming backwards with the end of its tail above the water surface. Drummond’s sketch does not discount this possibility and, furthermore, shows that our ‘traditional’ view of this account may be more colourful (and impressive) than it actually was. This sighting is thus not such a ‘classic’ after all.’ (p. 76). Ah, dammit. We scientists and our pesky reliance on evidence.
On ‘phylogenetic roulette’, while the term is new, the concept has of course been around for a while: the late Clinton Keeling referred to it as grasping at straws. I don’t think this is entirely fair, given that the people who propose unlikely identities for given cryptids typically latch on to what is, at the least, a very superficial resemblance. Naish (2001) – oh, have I mentioned this article? – includes a whole section titled ‘A rash approach to identification’ in which I lamented the fact that cryptozoologists have tended to go too far in proposing specific identifications for cryptids when ‘it is not at all unscientific to conclude that an answer is elusive, or indeterminable based on the available data’ (p. 79). Of course, this does not negate the fact that – in some cases – we can make broad-brush inferences about the sorts of animals we might be dealing with (Woodley et al. 2009), and remember too that there are at least a few cases where we can make specific identifications. The latter are exceptional, however (Paxton et al. 2004, Paxton & Holland 2005). Anyway, please see Cameron’s article for further discussion.
For previous articles on aquatic cryptids see…
- Really: photos of the Loch Ness monster
- The sad death of the Lake Khaiyr monster
- Best lake monster image ever: the Mansi photo
- The Long-necked seal, described 1751
- Filming Migo, the monster of Lake Dakataua
- Statistics, seals and sea monsters in the technical literature
Refs – -
Naish, D. 2001. Sea serpents, seals and coelacanths: an attempt at a holistic approach to the identity of large aquatic cryptids. In Simmons, I. & Quin, M. (eds) Fortean Studies Volume 7. John Brown Publishing (London), pp. 75-94.
Paxton, C. & Holland, R. 2005. Was Steenstrup right? A new interpretation of the 16th century sea monk of the Øresund. Steenstrupia 28, 39-47.
- ., Knatterud, E. & Hedley, S. L. 2004. Cetaceans, sex and sea serpents: an analysis of the Egede accounts of a “most dreadful monster” seen off the coast of Greenland in 1734. Archives of Natural History 32, 1-9.
Woodley, M. A., Naish, D. & Shanahan, H. P. 2009. How many extant pinniped species remain to be described? Historical Biology doi:10.1080/08912960902830210