That cryptozoology conference: mystery lizards, sea monsters and whale penises, 40 years of the Patterson footage

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So I've told you all about the Wellnhofer pterosaur meeting (three links), and I've told you all about the 55th SVPCA (here and here). But there was a third conference I attended recently (August 17th-19th) that I have yet to write about - it was that cryptozoology one. As some of you might recall, I'm going to avoid using the name of the meeting: it's not that there's anything wrong with the name... it's just that it doesn't exactly do the whole subject of cryptozoology any favours. But, anyway, here are my assorted thoughts. As usual, I'm not going to cover everything, just the controversial lizards and beech martens, British big cats, sea serpents and whale genitalia, 40 years of the Patterson footage... stuff like that...

Before we start, here's the obligatory bit of text in which I attempt to justify my interest and involvement in cryptozoology. Firstly, I no longer care what anyone else thinks: I'm interested in this stuff, and that's good enough for me. Secondly, contrary to the idea that mystery animal research is all arm-wavy crap promoted by people who live in fairy-land, there is definitely a lot of stuff within the remit of cryptozoological research that makes the subject worthy of proper scientific attention. Furthermore - as I've argued before and as I'll argue again in a little while - there isn't really any obvious boundary between 'pure' cryptozoology and 'mainstream' zoology, and a great many 'mainstream' zoologists do cryptozoology, it's just that they just rarely explain that this is what they're doing.

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Thirdly, and in keeping with what I said in the SV-POW! article about some subject areas being particularly important in terms of their role in the promotion of scientific education, mystery animal research can be really important in terms of promoting science. Many people are (1) disproportionately interested in such things as sasquatch and Loch Ness (for example), and (2) hold opinions - negative or positive - on such things that are based more on their personal feelings than on any objective assessment of whatever evidence might exist. I don't think it's been done that widely, but we could certainly use mystery animals to better introduce people (again, kids in particular) to the way science works. Anyway, on to business [adjacent image shows (left to right) my home-boys Richard Hing, Mark Witton and Graeme Elliott. Insert hilarious comment].

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Jon McGowan spoke about controversial animals reported from Dorset (in southern England). Britain's fauna is better known than that of pretty much any other place in the world, but we still have lots of things to be confused about. Take the green lizard colony that inhabits Bournemouth's Boscombe Cliffs. It includes two species: Lacerta trilineata and L. bilineata.... neither are thought to be native to mainland Britain: they were first reported in 1999* and are almost certainly introduced, but this remains the subject of debate [adjacent pic shows head of breeding male L. bilineata]. If you want to know more, check out the ver 1 article here, or see Gleed-Owen (2004) or Naish (2006). Boscombe Cliffs are also home to another (supposedly) non-native lacertid, the Wall lizard Podarcis muralis. Animals in the Bournemouth wall lizard colony have changed over time: a lot of the individuals are of the green-backed form most associated with Spain and western Italy, but what percentage of the population is composed of lizards of this type has varied. Again, some people now think that wall lizards might be overlooked natives in some parts of southern England, but the fact that new-look varieties have mysteriously appeared and then proliferated within some colonies indicates that people are releasing captive individuals, though quite why remains a good question (for more on English wall lizards see the Beasts of Portland article).

* There is, however, a good report from 1994, and local people claim to have been aware of the lizards even prior to this.

Some of the best field sign for British big cats comes from Dorset and has been recorded by Jon: we're talking about scat, tracks, kills and numerous hairs. The hairs collected by Jon have been identified by laboratories as belonging to lynx and leopard. A manuscript is in preparation (and I do mean for a peer-reviewed technical journal; not for a local newsletter or a cryptozoology fanzine). As regular Tet Zoo readers will know, the idea that alien big cats are abroad in the British countryside is not bs concocted by the tourist board or by farmers in quest of compensation; it is an entirely reasonable notion that is backed by good physical evidence (see ver 1 articles here and here, and the Portland article here).

Also on mammals, Jon discussed controversies regarding British deer (are some English roe deer actually relicts of Pleistocene populations?) and mustelids. The idea that the Beech marten Martes foina is a British native is an old one that was popular among Victorian naturalists. My take on this has always been that people were seeing variation within the (indisputably native) Pine marten M. martes, and erroneously interpreting this as evidence for two species (Naish 1997a, b). It turns out, however, that there are British beech marten specimens in museum collections in southern England, though whether they are definitely of local origin remains to be confirmed.

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British big cats were looked at by Chris Moiser. He reviewed sightings and reports that have come from Cornwall within the past year, and also discussed the shaggy grey animal photographed on Bodmin Moor by Martin Whitley (the photos appeared widely in the press earlier this year: a cropped version of one of them is shown here). It's clearly a dog, but a claim from a local woman that it is her pet Newfoundland is clearly false as the proportions are totally different. In fact, despite comments from some corners, I don't think it's a Newfoundland at all: it is more likely to be a mongrel that had bearded collie in its ancestry.

Grigoriy Panchenko, flown in specially from Ukraine for the meeting, discussed his thoughts and discoveries about the almasty, a wildman from the Caucasus. Grigoriy and his colleagues have gathered an unbelievable amount of information on the natural history of this cryptid; some of it, allegedly, from direct observation. I found a lot of this remarkable, and will leave my comments at that :) My understanding was that Grigoriy would be revealing details about the recently-discovered bones that he and his colleagues have discovered, and which they have identified as belonging to an almasty. To my extreme disappointment, he only mentioned these in passing, and not even as part of the talk. The elements are just a single clavicle and tibia: they are highly similar to those of Homo sapiens, and are currently being studied by Marie-Jeanne Koffmann.

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Charles Paxton gave two talks: one on the study of sea monsters in general, and the other on his hypothesis that some sea serpent sightings (like the famous Egede sighting of 1734, depicted at the very top of the article) might actually have been of whale genitals. I won't discuss the latter any further as I'm sure you're already very familiar with it (Paxton et al. 2004). In keeping with what I said at the very start of this article, Charles argues that the investigation of anomalies like 'monsters' is a really important and rewarding part of science. It's also an entirely valid area of endeavour, particularly in the case of mysterious marine animals: there are clearly lots of new things to find (Paxton 1998, 2001, Raynal 2001, Solow & Smith 2005). One of the commonest problem areas in cryptozoology is the reliability of eyewitness evidence: just what are you prepared to accept? Well, Charles has been doing what he can to test this. Essentially, eyewitnesses are unreliable, but some are more unreliable than others. More on this in the future, I'm sure. In the adjacent image, Charles pokes himself in the eye in a desperate effort to avoid being photographed.

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Making a very rare appearance at the meeting was that most elusive of cryptozoologists, Karl Shuker, who was there to sign his newly-released book Extraordinary Animals Revisited. Believe it or don't, this is the first time Karl and I have met, and we spent most of an afternoon catching up (see adjacent pic.. dammit, I'm wearing that bloody shirt again). We spoke about koupreys and Vietnamese muntjacs, rabbit-headed cats, king cheetahs, frasercots, Marc van Roosmalen, and the carn-pnay*. And, for those of you that follow such things, yes Karl and I have kissed and made-up.

* Or carn-pnag, or agak, or Jimi river frog. I had entirely missed the fact that this animal proved not to be legendary: Michael Tyler had named it Rana jimiensis in 1963 (according to Frost et al. (2006) it should be Sylvirana jimiensis). It proved not to be as big as originally rumoured (SVL 160 mm). I wrote about it here on ver 1.

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Paul Vella gave an excellent talk on 40 years of the Patterson footage. As anyone who hung out with me at SVPCA or the Wellnhofer meeting can confirm, I've already said far too much on the subject of sasquatch this year and will avoid saying any more for the time being, this despite the fact that October 20th is the 40th birthday of the Patterson footage, and that a new peer-reviewed paper on the apparent authenticity of sasquatch tracks is about to appear in the literature. While Paul covered much of the back-story to the filming, the technical details concerning the film site, the camera, the filming speed, the anatomy, and the claimed debunkings that have appeared over the years, he concentrated in particular on one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the footage: exactly how Patterson and Gimlin were able to develop a fim - taken on a Friday - by Sunday the 22nd. This is a big problem, though it seems that it happened. In fact, Patterson, John Green, René Dahinden and Jim McClarin watched the film repeatedly on the Sunday, scratching it badly in the projector they were using and damaging it beyond repair. That's Paul in the adjacent image: hey, it was the last night of the meeting.

And then there was me... if you care, stay tuned for the next post. On the whole social side of things, it follows that the after-hours behaviour at cryptozoology meetings is particularly appalling. At least no-one stole my bed this time. Oh - hold on: I didn't have a bed.

Thanks to Jon and Corinna Downes and Richard Freeman for an excellent conference.

Refs - -

Frost, D. R., Grant, T., Faivovich, J., Bain, R. H., Haas, A., Haddad, C. F. B., De Sá, R. O., Channing, A., Wilkinson, M., Donnellan, S. C., Raxworthy, C. J., Campbell, J. A., Blotto, B. L., Moler, P., Drewes, R. C., Nussbaum, R. A., Lynch, J. D., Green, D. M. & Wheeler, W. C. 2006. The amphibian tree of life. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 297, 1-370.

Gleed-Owen, C. P. 2004. Green lizards and Wall lizards on Bournemouth Cliffs. Herpetological Bulletin 88, 3-7.

Naish, D. 1997a. Southwest England's small carnivorans: a case of ferreting through the literature. The Cryptozoology Review 1 (3), 23-31.

- . 1997b. Further notes on unrecognized British mustelids. The Cryptozoology Review 2 (2), 28-31.

- . 2006. The Western green lizard: a new breeding species for Britain. Southampton Natural History Annual Report 2006, 12-15.

Paxton, C. 1998. A cumulative species description curve for large open water marine animals. Journal of the Marine Biologists Association, U.K. 78, 1389-1391.

- . 2001. Predicting pelagic peculiarities: some thoughts on future discoveries in the open seas. In Heinselman, C. (ed) Dracontology Special Number 1: Being an Examination of Unknown Aquatic Animals. Craig Heinselman (Francestown, New Hampshire), pp. 60-65.

- ., 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.

Raynal, M. 2001. Cryptocetology and mathematics: how many cetaceans remain to be discovered? In Heinselman, C. (ed) Dracontology Special Number 1: Being an Examination of Unknown Aquatic Animals. Craig Heinselman (Francestown, New Hampshire), pp. 75-90.

Solow, A. R. & Smith, W. K. 2005. On estimating the number of species from the discovery record. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 272, 285-287.


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Jumping out of lurkerdom for this...

I'd really, really like to hear more about the Almasty stuff, both the supposed observation and the bones. Nearly-human cryptids are one of those topics that just excite me to quite unreasonable levels...

(I presume you're aware of the "Zana" case? Apologies of you've already blogged about it, i'd be very interested in your opinion of that...)

Thanks also for saying that the "Dartmoor Beast" photo is Wclearly a dog". The number of things people have claimed to see in that photo is truly incredible.

Re the Frasercot, could it possibly be an aberrantly coloured snow leopard?

Also, you mention Marc von Roosmalen - I've been meaning to blog about him, and the wider political context of his arrest. Do you know what the current situation is in his case?

Patterson/Gimlin Film: People were processing motion picture film at home from the very beginnings of film. You can see analyses of the film plus videos at (I'd link there, but apparently Scienceblogs thinks it's a spam site or something). I think you'll find more serious scientific work in those analyses than in the typical debunking essay.

I must ask, if the subject was faked, why all the detail? The limb proportions, the sagittal crest, the herniated muscle way out in the boonies. The expenditure of resources when it could've been done much cheaper and closer to home. Why all the effort when it really wasn't necessary for a simple prank.

Almasty: Considering what it might be, it makes sense the creature would have a human-like tibia and clavicle. Even if a modern Neanderthal is exant, there would still be some degree of overlap with human skeletal range. Consider that Australian Aborigines are considered to have a robust skeleton, though not as robust as the typical Paleolithic neanderthal. Or the Almasty may just be descended from an aboriginal ancient modern human population, one that predates the current modern modern human population.

I hope genetic testing is being or has been done on the specimens. A skull to examine would be real helpful, especially when you consider that neanderthal brows were ossified whereas Australian Aboriginal brows are made of cartilege.

"Why all the effort when it really wasn't necessary for a simple prank."

To allow you to pose that question?

Or perhaps it wasn't a simple prank. Perhaps they genuinely believed there were sasquatch out there, but were frustrated by the lack of serious attention paid to it by the scientific community and decided to produce a high quality fake film to prime the pump of scientific interest, sure it would result eventually in in the discovery of real evidence of the sasquatch. Honestly believing something and faking the evidence for it are behind a great many of the wrongful convictions even good legal systems throw up on a fairly regular basis, so it's not an outlandish sort of thought process for human beings.

By Mike from Ottawa (not verified) on 08 Oct 2007 #permalink

It's interesting about the Beech Marten, because there has been talk about Beech Martens in Sweden too, and I don't believe a word of it.
Incidentally habitat can't be used to reliably separate Beech Marten from Pine Marten. In the eighties we had an epidemic that almost wiped out the fox in Sweden, whereupon the Pine Marten population exploded and they started to turn up in seemingly quite impossible habitats. At Lake Tåkern (which is a large very shallow eutrophic lake surrounded by dead flat open farmland) we have even had them raiding gull colonies out in the reedbeds, as if they were minks. Fortunately the fox are coming back now, so I hope the martens will be confined to the forests once more.

By Tommy Tyrberg (not verified) on 08 Oct 2007 #permalink

Cartilage in the eyebrows? On top of the frontal bone, which is a dermal bone? That would mean the cartilages are neomorphic, which in turn would be a surprise, to me anyway. Does someone know more about that?

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 08 Oct 2007 #permalink

Mike from Ottawa,

You're guessing. Science isn't done by guessing. Science is done by guessing, then finding evidence that supports or refutes your guesses. People have made a lot of guesses as to why Patterson et al may have faked the scene, but nobody has yet provided any solid evidence that the scene was faked at all.

It is a truism that we tend to see what we want to see. We have a tendency to interpret data in a manner that supports our hypotheses. What skeptics tend to do is forget that they are just as prone to this as any other group of people. People they trust say there can be no bipedal great ape in the American northwest, therefor a photograph or film of such has to be faked. It necessarily follows that forensic evidence pointing to such an animal must also be fraudulent, no matter how such an hypothesis strains credulity. We'd much rather accept the words of a noted expert speaking from recalcitrant ignorance, then a specimen lying on the examination table.

Ever examined Patty's arms? Noticed the proportions between the upper arm and the forearm? Notice how they differ from human proportions?

Ever studied how Patty walks? Ever noticed how natural that walk is? It's not a studied walk, it's not a practiced walk, it's the way she walks normally. We can walk that way, but it's not natural to us. We need to rehearse it, we need to remember to do it. A natural gait is not something you need to remember to do.

There are other clues in the Patterson/Gimlin film, but you need to be ready to put aside what you want to be true.

I now leave you with this question. If it was something they set up, why didn't they have more film with them?

I've been waiting for the cryptozoology - I wanted to attend that conference but was unable to due to other commitments.

I find myself very confused by the Patterson film. On first viewing it (years ago) I thought immediately 'fake' - but I have watched it numerous times since, and read quite a bit of the background evidence, and find it more plausible as time has passed. I'm still far from convinced, but I don't think it can be dismissed lightly, indeed the results of the attempts to debunk it have tended to strengthen the case in my mind.

I had previously read about nineteenth century beech marten specimens from southwest England. I assume that even if they were indigenous they are extinct now - given that even pine martens are rare in the UK outside of Scotland. Where pine martens do occur in the rest of the UK they are rarely seen.

By Mark Lees (not verified) on 08 Oct 2007 #permalink

I would love to hear anyone's opinion on this:

This is the "Monster(s) of Kanasi Lake".

"Kanasi Lake is in Western China. For many hundreds of years, local residents have claimed that a monster or monsters live in the lake, and now they've got it on film. Local scientists theorize that the animal is a type of gigantic salmon (taimen salmon, which can allegedly reach four tonnes)."

Other measurements of the Taimen salmon are closer to about 200 lbs, but still an awful big fish.

The link is to the first of two videos on youtube of whatever it is doing whatever it is they are doing. Its the better of the pair.

So which of us is the furry freak? I'm hoping it's Mark....

[from Darren: pleased to see you're paying attention to the image names - I intend to have fun with them :) ]

By Graeme Elliott (not verified) on 11 Oct 2007 #permalink