More on the mainstreamification of cryptozoology: former cryptids and hypothetical cryptids

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I have tried desperately to not be distracted by the mysterious rodents, new gigantic dinosaurs and Iberian lynxes that have been on my mind lately - plus lots of things are happening with the 'Dinosaurs - A Historical Perspective' conference that I'm co-organising with Dick Moody, Eric Buffetaut and Dave Martill (to be held in May 2008: more news later). Before the whole white squirrel thing, I was talking about cryptozoology (here), in particular on the ideas that (1) a cryptid is any animal reported from anecdotal data (i.e., it does not have to be a 'monster'), and that (2) given that cryptozoology is the investigation of cryptids, any worker who investigates a cryptid is doing cryptozoological research.

My assertions seem to have drawn a fairly equal amount of agreement and disagreement, and thanks to everyone who has proffered an opinion. Some of the opinions have arrived in emails - apologies if I haven't replied yet, I am becoming increasingly ineffective at dealing with emails due to sheer volume. Anway: here, we continue (part I is mandatory reading before you proceed. Again, remember that this text was written to be delivered as a talk, so some of it doesn't quite make sense when seen as written text)...

If we're studying eyewitness accounts of such former cryptids as Mountain gorillas, Okapis and Komodo dragons, and those accounts pre-date the official discovery of these species, does this mean that this research is cryptozoological? The obvious answer is yes, but in admitting this we're saying that a substantial amount of research on the history of zoological exploration and discovery was and is cryptozoological in scope. But here we come to a problem: not all the scientists who do research on the history of discovery of such things as the okapi, the Mountain gorilla, the Komodo dragon and so on, call themselves cryptozoologists... they would instead regard themselves as standard card-carrying zoologists. So should we be saying that such people are actually cryptozoologists? Should the term 'cryptozoology' be far more widely applied than it currently is? My personal opinion is that yes, it should, but I don't think that this will happen because of the negative stigma attached to the name.

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But by pursuing cryptids - mystery animals, known only from anecdotal data - the zoologists who have discovered such animals as the Okapi, the Kipunji, the Odedi and so on are all employing the research methods of cryptozoology, and hence are part-time cryptozoologists, whether they like it or not. So people ordinarily regarded as mainstream zoologists do sometimes or often engage in cryptozoological research. The result of this is that it's very difficult - if not impossible - to define a boundary between cryptozoology and 'conventional' zoology.

There are perhaps two solutions to this problem. One is that we should abolish the term cryptozoology altogether, and argue that anyone who's investigating a cryptid is simply doing zoological field work. The other is that we get more zoologists to realise what cryptozoology really is, and hence try and get rid of the 'monster hunting' label and the negative stigma so often attached to the subject (there's a subject that I'm going to deliberately avoid here, and that's the role of amateurs in cryptozoology. The fact that many amateur enthusiasts call themselves cryptozoologists also prevents wider application of the term; however, I am not disparaging or discouraging the valuable role of amateurs in this field).

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However, we have to remember that cryptozoology isn't just about the investigation of animals... if we're investigating creatures that sometimes exist only in legend and anecdote, there's always the possibility that such creatures don't really exist at all in the real world, but are instead entirely the products of folklore, superstition and so on. Indeed it's well established that cryptozoology has another overlap: with the study of folklore.

So I would say that a zoologist can indulge in cryptozoological work, a folklorist can indulge in cryptozoological work, but a dedicated cryptozoologist combines work on both zoology and folklore. The term 'cryptozoologist' is actually used, therefore, for three quite distinct types of researchers: this is something that hasn't really been acknowledged and I feel that it explains why different areas of cryptozoology have different levels of credibility. The zoology-based cryptozoologist looks at the mystery animals being investigated by the folklore-based cryptozoologist, and thinks that they are highly unlikely to exist as real animals. The folklore-based cryptozoologist looks at the often rather mundane animals being investigated by the zoology-based cryptozoologist and thinks that the creatures concerned are so ordinary that they're probably nothing to do with cryptozoology. A dedicated cryptozoologist - who combines investigation of both of these fields - is interested in both areas, and finds both real animals, and entities that exist only in folklore, of equal research interest.

Hypothetical cryptids

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We've previously looked at the odedi - a small dull brown passerine described in 2006 (LeCroy & Barker 2006) but known long prior to this as a cryptid (for more, see the ver 1 article here). The discovery of the Odedi brings us to another subject that again blurs the boundary between cryptozoology and conventional zoology. This is the fact that, when we try to come up with a model that explains the distribution of the Odedi and its relatives across the islands of the SW Pacific, we have to conclude that there are almost certainly additional members of this bush warbler group that as yet remain undiscovered on various of these SW Pacific islands. So we're talking about animals that likely exist, but have yet to be documented by the discovery of actual specimens, and remain unknown as cryptids [the adjacent map is a modified version of a figure from LeCroy & Barker (2006)].

If we want to test the possibility that these hypothetical birds exist, there are two ways of doing this: one is by looking for specimens, whether that's live birds, traces of live birds, archaeological samples, or fossils. The other is by seeing if the people of the relevant region have any knowledge of such birds. If we're now looking for anecdotal evidence for hypothetical animals - is this also cryptozoology? I think it is... I've been trying to come up with a catchy title for these sorts of animals: I can't, the best I can do is label them 'hypothetical cryptids'

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Another example of this sort of thing involves the unusual, small, predominantly terrestrial crocodiles that are now known to have inhabited several islands of the Pacific Ocean. The first of these to be discovered was Mekosuchus inexpectatus, from New Caledonia. It was probably still alive about 1700 years ago, and the discovery of its bones associated with human kitchen waste strongly suggests that it was hunted and eaten by people. It lived alongside several other New Caledonian endemics that are now extinct, including large lizards, terrestrial turtles, giant megapodes (that's mound-nesting birds) and flightless rails. In 2002, a second Mekosuchus species, M. kalpokasi, was reported from Efate Island off Vanuatu - its remains have been carbon-dated to about 3000 years ago, and, again, its association with pottery fragments and other bits of human waste indicate that it was hunted by people, and hunted to extinction. Fiji was home to another one of these small terrestrial crocodiles: it's called Volia atholandersoni. The only known specimen is probably between 20,000 and 10,000 years old, whereas humans have only been on Fiji for the last 3000 years, so we can't yet demonstrate whether humans caused its extinction (for more on island-dwelling mekosuchines, see the ver 1 article here).

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By reconstructing the evolutionary history of these animals, we have reason to think that these small, island-dwelling crocodiles were present on various of the islands of the south-west Pacific: in other words, that multiple other species existed, and as yet remain undiscovered. Regardless of the model that's favoured to explain the distribution of these crocodiles on New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Fiji, we have to conclude that they were likely to have been present on islands around New Caledonia, on various of the Fijian islands, on the Solomon islands, and perhaps as far east as Tonga and Samoa (Mead et al. 2002, Molnar et al. 2002). These animals are almost certainly extinct (I'm not implying that they might be hiding out, awaiting discovery in the modern day), but not only do we currently lack archaeological or palaeontological evidence of their presence, to date, no one has reported any ethnic traditions, stories or sightings that seem to describe these crocodiles. However, we should expect such evidence to exist, and we should search through ethnic evidence - stories, legends and so on - with these hypothetical cryptids in mind.

And, again, that's not the end, but I have to stop there. The final part will be posted next.

Refs - -

LeCroy, M. & Barker, F. K. 2006. A new species of bush-warbler from Bougainville Island and a monophyletic origin for southwest Pacific Cettia. American Museum Novitates 3511, 1-20.

Mead, J. I., Steadman, D. W., Bedford, S. H., Bell. C. J. & Spriggs, M. 2002. New extinct mekosuchine crocodile from Vanuatu, South Pacific. Copeia 2002, 632-641.

Molnar, R. E., Worthy, T. & Willis, P. M. A. 2002. An extinct Pleistocene endemic mekosuchine crocodilian from Fiji. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 22, 612-628.

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What you need is a re-branding. How about "exploratory zoology" or "discovery zoology"?

By Mike from Ottawa (not verified) on 16 Oct 2007 #permalink

Interestingly, your line of thinking parallels my own predictions about where unknown bird species might be.

I pinpointed little-known tropical islands and mountain ranges in tropics. Later are ecologically separate, so it is likely that narrow-range species evolved.

So, to find unknown birds (and presumably mammals) go to:
-Andes valleys (well, obvious)
-smaller Indonesian islands - many Indonesian islands, surprisingly, are relatively accessible and were only very casually visited by ornithologists.
-New Guinea forests and valleys,
-Eastern ARC mountains in Africa.

Rather surprising, and fantastic is, that there can be BIG undiscovered animals if they have restricted range. So, who knows - maybe there is unknown cassowary somewhere in part of New Guinea? Or unknown curassow in Andes?

I hope sometime have enough time and courage to go myself. ;-)

Yes! Holocene mekosuchines, one of my absolute favourties among recently extinct animals. They only stay even very cryptic in literature, and even their actual appearance is still hard to reconstruct (the first picture is for all who don't know if from Balouet's book, and the artist who made it made several other reconstructions which are at least doubtfull). But not only those mekosuchines from Ozeania's islands are really interesting, the meiolaniids which are, as far as I know, only known from New Caledonia to have survived in historic times. But given the fact that those tortoises managed to populate many even extremly small islands, and that the islands around New Caledonia were only settled by humans some thousand years ago, I would predict the discovery of further meiolaniid turtles which survived well into the holocene on other islands. This could be even own species, and not only subspecies.

[from Darren: an article on meiolaniids is half-done, and in the to-do list]

More good analysis. I would suggest that your "hypothetical cryptids" are cryptids of which we lack sighting reports - they don't require a different name, just a slight expansion of what we think of as cryptids. Try: "Cryptid: an animal whose existence is hypothesized from circumstantial, anecdontal, or direct evidence, but of which we have no type specimen and no generally accepted scientific description."

P.S. You probably know this, but Wilfred Neill, in this book The Last of the Ruling Reptiles (1971) reported fragmentary skeletal evidence found in 1954 for an undiscovered freshwater croc on Celebes, and reports of another one from New Britain.

I'm afraid those 'hypothetical cryptids' are almost certain to be 'hypothetical extinct cryptids' as far as most Pacific islands are concerned. Very few islands have been really thoroughly searched for subfossils yet. As David Steadman pointed out long ago, almost every oceanic island high enough not to have been flooded by the mid-Holocene or last interglacial transgressions is likely to have had at least one endemic flightless rail before humans reached it.

By Tommy Tyrberg (not verified) on 16 Oct 2007 #permalink

An important distiction seems to be whether one is doing fieldwork. We need a disparaging term to take over from "cryptozoölogist", which presently is doing double duty. "Armchair cryptozoölogist" seems like the right idea, but is a mouthful. (Although maybe zoologists are uniquely well disposed to like mouthfuls?) Just using the term creates in the mind of the reader the opposite sort, which concept might equally well be bound to "cryptozoölogist" as to "field cryptozoölogist". Zoölogy, in general, may be pursued without fieldwork only in the presence of type specimens or other gathered data; cryptozoölogy seems to leave very little for the non-fieldworker to do.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 16 Oct 2007 #permalink

If you look to Polynesian myths and legend they all have references to large monsters (they take on many forms varying from whales, sharks or often large reptiles).

Now my examination on this topic is restricted to the "Taniwha" of New Zealand's Maori traditional mythology. Here the Taniwha are most often monsters associated with water, and though can take the form of indigenous dangerous marine animals such as sharks (New Zealand is home to a surprisingly healthy great white shark population), and whales. The Taniwha also has a form that is described as a large Tuatara.

This is interesting in conjunction with your land crocs as I have found specific references by researchers of Maori mythology state the similarities of Taniwha to a crocodile are dead on. This crocodilian sub division of Taniwha didn't originate in New Zealand, but rather was part of other Polynesian mythology that was brought with the original Maori settlers.

Why I mention this is that the one book I have handy here on my desk Maori Myth and Legend by A.W. Reed 1972 might give people a good link to connect myths with unknown crocodiles in the south pacific.

'More usually {Taniwha} were huge reptiles in form, with an insatiable desire for human flesh, even for whole canoe-loads of people. Interestingly there were no reptiles in Polynesia that could have given rise to the concept of crocodile like monsters, and this has led to the speculation that they were a racial memory from tropical islands.'

Not sure if that's a help or of interest to anyone. I wasn't researching Taniwha for crypto purposes, but rather for background on some fiction I'm writing. The numerous times I hit sentences like that (can't recall the books I got out of the library where these other refs were in) about the crocodilian nature of Taniwha despite no crocs on Polynesian islands rang a bell with lost terrestrial crocs.

I wonder if vagrant saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) could start these Polynesian myths. Mekosuchine crocodiles were too small to be danger for people.

Just something which I remembered. One side result of recent DNA research of moas was that 54% of bones were wrongly assigned to species. It is first verification of quality of describing subfossil birds from bones. It means, simply, that probably 50% of other subfossil bird bones were also misassigned and large number of subfossil/extinct bird species is invalid. Indeed, because moa bones are among the biggest and best studied bird fossils, proportion of wrongly identified fossil birds is probably be even bigger.

Does this mean you think all subfossil birds have as extreme sexual dimorphism like Dinornis maximus and D. robustus did?

By David Marjanovi? (not verified) on 19 Oct 2007 #permalink

Hi David,


Sexual dimorphism in size of moas was known before molecular study and authors merely write that they confirm it. I suppose that, if it occured in other birds, it would also be detected.

Darren, Thank you for your website it is very interesting. Instead of renaming Cryptozoology I put something to the name.I call it Biblical Cryptozoology because there is cryptids that are revealed in the Bible. Such as behemoth,leviathan,satyrs,unicorns,fiery flying serpents,and many other creatures.Need to check out the book called,"Biblical Cryptozoology:Revealed Cryptids of the Bible". It can be viewed on Thank you!

By Dale Stuckwish (not verified) on 26 Jan 2010 #permalink

Behemoth = hippo, leviathan = Nile crocodile, satyrs = mistranslation of I forgot what, unicorns = mistranslation of ordinary cattle (well, auerochsen perhaps)...

There are better translations out there than the King James Version, you know. The KJV is a piece of English literature. As a translation, it sucks.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 27 Jan 2010 #permalink