Monster hunting? Well, no. No.

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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.

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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].

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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.

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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).

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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.

The painting of Heuvelmans & friends is priceless.

Hm... the black-haired one is the almasty... Which one is the yeti, the red-haired or the blond one? Is the bigfoot in there?

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 11 Oct 2007 #permalink

The painting of Heuvelmans & friends is priceless.

Hm... the black-haired one is the almasty... Which one is the yeti, the red-haired or the blond one? Is the bigfoot in there?

Yeah, I love that painting. The black animal is the 'pongoid man', which Heuvelmans and others have regarded as a living neanderthal (Heuvelmans 1969, Loofs-Wissowa 1994). Heuvelmans argued that the term 'yeti' encompassed two unknown primates: a large one, and a smaller, reddish one, and these are the other two in the picture.

Ref - -

Heuvelmans, B. 1969. Note preliminaire sur un specimen conserve dans la glace, d'une forme encore inconnue d'hominide vivant Homo pongoides (sp. seu subsp. nov.). Bulletin de I'Institut Royal des Science Naturelles de Belgique 45, 1-24.

Loofs-Wissowa, H. 1994. The penic rectus as a marker in human palaeontology? Human Evolution 9, 343-356.

Fair points, Darren, but as almost all self-styled cryptozoologists (as opposed to zoologists discovering new species) are only interested in the weird, mishapen, big animals then isn't cryptozoology indeed the study of monsters?

But in a sense it does not matter. It is not subject matter that makes something scientific, it is methods, so you can have scientific monster hunters and unscientific monster hunters. The trouble with having the term "cryptozoology" for this though is that it allows thoughtless skeptics to be dismissive based on the subject matter without first thinking about the methods involved.

By Charles Paxton (not verified) on 11 Oct 2007 #permalink

Most undescribed animals are discovered quickly and painlessly, as soon as somebody looks for them. Often, they are bought on local market before seen in the wild. Naming them is different story - it often takes years before anybody bothers to formally name them. Odedi was known and twitched by birdwatchers for over 20 years before it was formally named. This is not a science, this is anti-science ;-) Much similar to paleontology,where fossils are often overlooked or undescribed for years.

How would you feel if there were excursions to watch Bigfoots in Yellowstone for decades, and no mammalologist bothered to write a formal description of one?

P.S. About a story that Paul Gaugin painted endemic Porphyrio gallinule on Tahiti. Gaugin has at least two paintings with large purple bird. Bird on second painting (on display in MEMA in New York) looks like poorly made curassow if anything. This leaves no doubt that purple birds were painted from Gaugin's imagination, not real model.

Largest hominid is of course Chewbacca from "Star Wars", black is from "Planet of the apes", what is the rusty one?

BTW. Anybody ever bothered with Nesophontes the Carribean "shrew"? Did anybody look for DNA in it? Did anybody carbon-dated remains? Did a batch of bones in "very fresh" owl pellets were carbon-dated to confirm their recent age? Pretty odd disinterest to what can be separate order of mammals...

[from Darren: I'm covering nesophontids (and other Caribbean endemics) in part II or III. Yes, those famous 'young' remains were carbon-dated in 1999 - - and proved to be about 500 years old. More soon]

My another favorite is Bibymalagasia. Again, unknown oddity. last time saw id dumped near xanathrans...

[from Darren: Szalay and colleagues say that these animals might be odd aardvarks after all. Other than that, they're still of enigmatic affinities so far as I know]

Darren: will you be following up that first pic with a post at SV-POW! about the vertebrae of Mokele-mbembe? :-)

[from Darren: yes. Yes I will. If you've seen Disney's 'Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend' you'll know what a mokele-mbembe vertebra looks like :) ]

By Mike from Ottawa (not verified) on 11 Oct 2007 #permalink

Well shucks, that is the first time I've heard that forgot the "h" in T. bernhardi :)

[from Darren: thanks]

As for that Gauguin painting it is named "Le Sorcier de Hiva Oa" and the bird on it certainly looks very much like a Porphyrio. Now a large, perhaps flightless, species of purple gallinule, Porphyrio paepae, is known archaeologically from Hiva Oa and it is certainly not impossible that it could have survived until 1902. Recently another extinct Pacific bird, the parrot Eclectus infectus, that was also only known from fossils was found to have been illustrated alive by the Malaspina expedition on Vavau, Tonga in 1793 (in addition to a Gallirallus rail that is not known as a fossil yet).
About that "curassow", do you know where it was painted?
Extinct megapodes are known from many Pacific islands, though admittedly not from the Marquesas or Society Islands.

Reference: Olson, S. L. 2006. Birds, including extinct species, encountered by the Malaspina Expedition on Vava'u, Tonga, in 1793. Archives of Natural History 33(1):42-52.

By Tommy Tyrberg (not verified) on 11 Oct 2007 #permalink

Perhaps little-known is...

Raynal, M. 2006. Paul Gauguin's mystery bird. In Arment, C. (ed) Cryptozoology and the Investigation of Lesser-Known Mystery Animals. Coachwhip Publication (Landisville, Pennsylvania), pp. 115-136.

Having read this, I find the idea that Gaugin's bird might be the same thing as Porphyrio paepae pretty reasonable.

Its a shame more of Hevulmans books havent been translated into english.

What happened to the theory that the yeti is a bear who often walks on its hind legs? (which would be remarkable in itself)

The word `yeti` is a sanskrit word meaning `hair` with particular reference to a naked holy man who lives in the high mountains or dense forests.

Alexandia david neel describes and encounter with two of these in her book `With Mystics and magicians in tibet`

They were not particularly holy or human even, its easy to see how the wild man of the mountains developed.

What happened to the theory that the yeti is a bear who often walks on its hind legs? (which would be remarkable in itself)

This was the theory promoted by famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner in his My Quest for the Yeti book. When asked about this theory in a 1999 interview, Brian Blessed (best known as an actor, but also an explorer with a special interest in the Himalayas) said that Messner had changed his mind after literally walking into one. Blessed stated in the interview '[Messner] walked round a corner, quite literally INTO a yeti. It had a domed head, was eight to eight and a half feet tall, and was covered with hair. It had green eyes. I asked him if it could have been an ape or a bear, and he said it was much more like a giant man with mongoloid features and hairy skin'. The interviewer (British cryptozoologist Richard Freeman) said 'I thought Messner believed that the yeti was a bipedal bear?'; Blessed replied 'No, not since he got the close-up film of it' (Freeman 1999). Even by 1997, Messner claimed to have had four encounters with yeti, and to have two photos: one of a mother and baby, and one a skeleton.

And does 'yeti' mean 'hair'? It's most often said to be based on the Tibetan 'yeh-teh' which means 'small man-like animal', or 'person-animal', or something like that.

Ref - -

Freeman, R. 1999. The quest interview with Brian Blessed. Quest Magazine 2 (5), 18-20.

Excellent intro, waiting for the main course :)
I concur absolutely that the image of cryptozoology in the minds of many is entirely framed by the more fantastic end of the field. Whereas the central idea that there are still significant numbers of larger (i.e. not just insects and microscopic organisms)creatures not formally recognised, but known from anecdotes and local accounts seems very soundly based.

Jerzy made two points I'd like to comment on.

Firstly material relevant to new species being held for many years before being published for the world at large - while I understand that the work involved in researching, writing up and getting published such material is substantial, I still think it inexcusable that some researchers have 'sat on' potentially very important material for many years, in some cases several decades (actually that sounds uncomfortable!). If they really don't have time to work on it pass it on to someone who does. It's particularly annoying when the researcher keeps making comments about the significance of the find in a manner that no one else can comment on.

The second point relates to Gaugin's purple birds. I can't comment on the second painting - but the case for the bird in the Sorcerer painting being a representation of the Porphyrio species known from sub-fossil remains seems quite strong.

I have read Messner's book on the yeti - a curious book, interesting, and yes making a reasonable case that some yeti sightings may actually be bears, but it really doesn't account for some categories of sighting. It is also alleged, as noted above, that he subsequently changed his mind, and concluded that only some yeti sightings were bears, and that the 'real yeti' (if there is such a thing) is something else entirely.

By Mark Lees (not verified) on 11 Oct 2007 #permalink

I didn't want to say anything as I don't want to get into an argument, but I don't agree with Jerzy's assertion that new species are generally discovered quickly and painlessly. Yes - this happens in some cases (e.g., most [but not all] of the Vu Quang artiodactyls), but certainly not in all or even most cases. There are a large number of avian cryptids for example (including such things as owls, rails, swifts, touracos and passerines) that have been reported consistently over the years but remain unrepresented by specimens: the odedi was known since the 1970s but as a mystery bird of uncertain identity - a specimen wasn't obtained until 2000, and the species was then duly written up for formal publication (which happened in 2006).

Anyway, like I said.. I don't want to argue. Thank you to everyone for their very thoughtful comments on this issue.

"...close-up film of it."? I was familiar with Meissner's previous, less-than-conclusive statements on the yeti, but until now, reading Brian Blessed's comment, I was unaware that Meissner believes he has a close-up film. Has anyone ever seen this film or even a still of it?

I've seen struggles lately over the definition of 'cryptozoology'. Interested folks range from those with the down to earth explanations like yours to the ones way out there saying Bigfoot is an extraterrestrial. I'm really soured over the most mainstream cryptozoologists. They change their ideas to suit whatever gets them notoriety and they are less than scientific about it - using sensationalism freely. I'll stop talking now and wait until the next installment...

You have captured my attention sir, in a wonderfully positive way. I am what many derisively recognize as a skeptic, but despite my indelible doubt and even disbelief in nearly all of the "monster" cryptids, I have always held a fascination for the more mundane rumored animals. Your article was a refreshing breath of untainted air in the realm of cryptozoology. I very much look forward to the next segment.

When you have finished, I may seek permission to quote you on my obscure little site.

Etymological footnote:
The name yeh-teh is derived from Sherpa Tibetan. The meaning of the first element is not clear, in spite of several suggested meanings. The second part is probably from ti, te, tre, trel (depending on dialect), written dred in literary Tibetan. Dred can either be a kind of bear, a hyena, a kind of ape or a demon.
Note that Tibet houses neither apes nor hyenas, and that non-mysterious bears are called dom/tom.
At any rate mi-dred (mi = human) and mi-rgod/migu 'wild man' are better documented Tibetan names for our hairy friend.

I feel sheepish...I thought the red-furred chap in the painting was an Orang Pendek.

By Anthony Docimo (not verified) on 12 Oct 2007 #permalink

I was swallowing Bernard Heuvelmans books as a child. They were all translated into Serbian long time ago and easily available in libraries and bookstores. I read them all.

I feel sheepish...I thought the red-furred chap in the painting was an Orang Pendek.

That's what I thought right after I had clicked "Post". But it is too big for that.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 13 Oct 2007 #permalink


An excellent introduction. I look forward to the rest of it. I agree cryptozoology should draw no arbitrary lines on size, etc. In my two books on the subject, I tried to show how important discoveries extend down to the smallest vertebrates and then into the insects, spiders, and the rest of the invertebrates.
I read Messner's book, but I couldn't make much sense out of it. He also at one time claimed to have a yeti skeleton, but has never said where this is or why it's not been produced. He's a great mountaineer, but I didn't think he'd added much useful information to the hunt for the yeti.
Matt Bille
Author, Shadows of Existence

To Darren:
You seem to misunderstand my argument. My point is: unknown animals, even tiny songbirds, are quickly discovered if area is searched and it is done in proper way. Recent discoveries are if area was not searched (like remote Vietnam which was politically closed), or area was not searched in species-specific manner (eg. tropical islands were not listened at night for small owls) or species is cryptic (specimens were collected but overlooked or misidenfied) or researches didn't bother (like in Odedi case). This is completely different situation from yetis, mokele-mbeles, British big cats etc., where animal is large, unmistakable and said to live in accessible area, and there were repeated searches for it.

To Mark Lees:
I suggest simply finding a complete list of Gaugin works and looking carefully. I seen picture with purple bird and it was sort of misshapen chicken with tiny bill, long neck, round head etc. It was plainly, generic bird painted as non-zoologists paint birds from imagination. It leaves no doubt that birds were simply decorative motifs, in the same way as flowers or trees or monsters are often not based on any biological species.

To Darren again:
if you are looking for something to be busy rest of life as zoologist, unknown vertebrates indeed can do. There are dozens of mystery birds known from one specimen which should be DNA-reassessed as real/not. From memory: Liverpool pigeon, nechisar nightjar, vaurie's nightjar etc. There are dozens of groups where DNA analysis would totaly change species/subspecies composition and probably have important conservation application (rare unrecognized species or rare endangered species are not valid). But don't look for yeti. ;-)

PS. Is the red monkey from film "Jumanji"?

Yes, there are lots of fans of Heuvelmans book over there... Only problem is that it was written in 1950's. Half century later and no cryptid surfaced...

Was in Swiss national park last year. No sign of tatzelwurm, really. ;-)

Just two not very cryptic cryptids: undescribed flycatcher from Sulawesi and shortwing from Philippines:

here and here...

And interesting overview of many undescribed birds known worldwide: here.

I really love your blog, especially the cryptozoology and Amazonian species posts. I was wondering if many practicing "established" scientists are involved in cryptozoology in one fashion or another? Great work

Darren, I'm delighted to see you tackling this, as cryptozoology's a long-standing interest of mine (Karl Shuker, a favoured author).
I had a very interesting conversation with Niels Bonde on May 7th at the closing dinner of the dinosaur conference, touching on yetis, almas, alleged or potential ape-human hybrids, etc.
I would be interested to hear your views on almas and on the Minnesota Iceman (as near as I recall, this was an alleged human or near-human anthropoid embedded in a block of ice and exhibited around USA last century. Its provenance was complicated by the alleged appearance of bullet wound in the alleged corpse. It disappeared from view when interest allegedly began to be taken in the legal aspects of the killing of this allegedly human being...)
Could Neanderthals survive today, do you think? Or other genetically-distinctive human groups, noticeably beyond the range we accept as 'normal', in out-of-the-way places? (since various people-groups have only become recognised and accepted by Westerners in past few hundred years... previously exhibited as weird and wonderful or monstrous primitives. Bushmen, Tasmanians, Tierra del Fuegans...

By Graham King (not verified) on 17 Jun 2008 #permalink

Ecellent material! Excellent blog!

Interesting to read about Messner changing his opinion on the true identity of the yeti once again. As far as I'm aware though his book on the subject came out in 2000 (at least the English version). At any rate, there are several post-1999 interviews in which he reiterates the bear theory put forward in his book, including one where he relates the observation of the sleeping 'yeti' clearly being a bear. I am still waiting on Messner's yeti skeleton, pics and alleged footage to be revealed at his proposed yeti museum in Italy. It was meant initially tied up with the release of his book so the possibility of a PR stunt seems fair.

Here is a very interesting response by Helmut Loof-Wissova to a review of Messner's 'My Quest for the Yeti':

Public Riposte to Reinhold Messner's Book Review by Lynn Arave
Date: Thu, 27 Apr 2000
From: Vera Joveska
Subject: Messner's Yeti-book

Dear Bobbie,
Thanks for sending Lynn Arave's review of Reinhold Messner's book "Yeti, Legende und Wirklichkeit", published 1998 by S. Fischer, Stuttgart (year e-mail of 9th April). This review leads one to think of the book as an important addition to the scientific Yeti-literature or even, as its subtitle ("Legend and Reality") seems to suggest, the last word on the Yeti problem altogether. But this is not so.

I have got this book myself, read it carefully and I am thoroughly disgusted by it. Messner (who, although ethnically Austrian, is from and lives in South Tyrol and therefore has the Italian nationality) sees himself not only as a mountaineer but also as a Thinker, a Philosopher and an authority on all that concerns the Himalayas. An excellent mountain climber he certainly is; however, there must be grave doubts about his ability to think logically and his competence in anything other than how to get on top of mountain peaks.

Maybe Lynn's knowledge of German is not profound enough to realize that "Yeti, Legende und Wirklichkeit" is so full of platitudes, contradictions and sensational drivel without any attempt at conveying reliable information (place names are even falsified so as not to give away the exact location of the author's "research!") that it simply cannot be taken seriously.

Cryptozoologists, in particular, have nothing to gain from reading this book other than a deep sense of frustration abut a lost opportunity: if, as the blurb says, this twaddle is the outcome of two decades of expeditions and over 20,000 km marching on foot through the highest mountain region of the world by "the most famous mountain climber of our times", one could be forgiven to wonder whether it would not have been better for all concerned if Reinhold Messner had simply hired a helicopter to go places.

Perhaps you could make this clear in your correspondence with our colleagues and especially those to whom you sent Lynn's review of the Messner Yeti book.

Kind regards and best wishes,

Dr. Helmut Loof-Wissova

Vera Joveska
Centre Administrator
Southeast Asia Centre & South and West Asia Centre Faculty of Asian Studies
Australian National University
Ph: 02 6249 3163 Fax: 02 6279 8326

"Ethnically Austrian". Now there's a concept... :o) But, yes, his mother tongue is German, as is that of most people in South Tyrol.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 01 Mar 2010 #permalink

Yeah, I'm not really sure what Dr Loof-Wissova was trying to point out there in regards to ethnicity.

She clearly wanted to point out the last sentence of my comment and phrased it awkwardly.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 03 Mar 2010 #permalink