A cryptozoology meeting at the Zoological Society of London



On July 12th 2011 a very interesting thing is happening - interesting, that is, if you're interested in the academic evaluation of cryptozoological data. ZSL (the Zoological Society of London) is hosting the meeting 'Cryptozoology: science or pseudoscience?'. Speakers are Charles Paxton, Michael Woodley and myself. Henry Gee is acting as chair.

Given that one of the things we hope to address is whether cryptozoology - whatever that term might mean - should be considered a valid branch of zoological science, this meeting shouldn't be taken as evidence that cryptozoology has finally "come in from the cold", nor that the doors are wide open for the acceptance by 'mainstream science' of cryptozoologists and cryptozoological investigations.


Nevertheless, this is an important step and it demonstrates that the investigation of mystery animal reports remains a topic of interest to trained scientists, or some trained scientists at least. Note that we shouldn't say that the meeting demonstrates how cryptozoology has become of great interest to trained scientists, since this has always been the case: many scientists associated with non-controversial, 'mainstream' zoological efforts have had a vested interest in mystery animal reports and have frequently published cryptozoological data and speculations (the board of the now defunct International Society of Cryptozoology included a list of notable biologists and palaeobiologists, among them Nicholas Hotton, C. Levett Smith, Pascal Tassy and George Zug). This phenomenon explains - in part - why I can't really agree that cryptozoology is pseudoscientific: sure, some of the people interested in the subject have not adopted a scientific, parsimonious, evidence-led approach, but many others definitely have and do.


In fact, the whole 'science or pseudoscience' issue is so complex with regard to cryptozoology that I don't think it's possible to make a simple decision one way or another. Like many trained scientists, I regard myself as what you'd call a sceptic, but I don't see that being a sceptic is at all incongruous with an interest in cryptozoology, nor even with being a 'cryptozoologist', and lots of people happy to call themselves dedicated cryptozoologists would and do agree with me. [Adjacent graph, from Paxton (2009), shows - counter-intuitively, perhaps - that a significant percentage of reported sightings of unidentified large marine animals occur at a claimed close range, and not at great distance. Why? Charles will be discussing this sort of thing in his talk.]

What I object to in particular is the knee-jerk reaction that any interest in cryptozoology makes you a crank or a naïve believer in the impossible. Not only are some targets of cryptozoology entirely 'believable' (example: new marine sharks and cetaceans*), the assumption that people interested in cryptozoology necessarily 'believe' in the existence of the supposed targets of cryptozoology is erroneous. Clearly, you can investigate mystery animal reports because you're interested in what they might tell you about the evolution and transmission of folklore, the reliability and abilities of eyewitnesses, and so on. Furthermore, I always thought that the scientific evaluation of claims of any kind was meant to be a good thing (see comments in Woodley et al. (2008)). Basically, there's definitely science to do here, whether you advocate the possible existence of the respective supposed animal species or not.

* An assortment of reported 'crypto-cetaceans' are shown above. One day I'll get round to covering this subject here on Tet Zoo.

There's lots more that could be said about this subject, much of it discussed here on Tet Zoo before (see links below). It will be interesting to see what gets covered in the discussion session we'll be having at the meeting. While the meeting is on cryptozoology in general, the talks are mostly focused on marine cryptozoology, or 'sea monsters' if you like. That's not through deliberate choice, it's just a consequence of the fact that those of us behind the organisation of the event are mostly interested in the marine side of things. Hopefully it'll work out.


So, I hope to see some of you there. The ZSL's page on the event is here. There's a meal afterwards (you have to book and pay for it, of course). I really look forward to the event.

I noticed recently that there doesn't seem to be a list of links to the many sea monster articles that have been covered on Tet Zoo: in the interests of providing a sort of clearing house, here we go...

And for articles on what cryptozoology - in my opinion - is and is not, please see...

Refs - -

Paxton, C. G. M. (2009). The plural of "anecdote" can be "data": statistical analysis of viewing distances in reports of unidentified giant marine animals 1758-2000. Journal of Zoology, 279, 381-387

Woodley, M. A., Naish, D. & Shanahan, H. P. 2008. How many extant pinniped species remain to be described? Historical Biology 20, 225-235.

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Personally, I blame the media. Cryptozoology shows (with the exception of Wildlife Case Files and one or two others) are too often either true believers looking for confirmation, or people shooting a reality show about themselves looking for a monster. Neither does the field much good.

To be fair, they are better than the UFO shows, which I can typically watch for maybe 10 minutes before I flip the channel. And some, like Monsterquest, have actually found their monsters on occasion (two sharks and a squid to date).

By heteromeles (not verified) on 10 Jun 2011 #permalink

While it is of course completely possible to be a skeptic who is interested in cryptozoology, I think you have to admit that it is pretty rare. That is why I like this blog so much, BTW - you do an excellent job of squaring that circle.

I wouldn't blame the media--I'd blame the frequent hoaxes and some of the not-quite-believable cryptids.

Is that a dolphin with two dorsal fins? (Or, you know, another dolphin swimming behind it?)

"In fact, the whole 'science or pseudoscience' issue is so complex with regard to cryptozoology that I don't think it's possible to make a simple decision one way or another."

Well put!

Truly hate to disagree, but I think you're a cryptozoologist only as long as you're a believer. Not a blind believer, of course, but open-minded.

Once you dismiss the cryptid as a real entity, your scientific investigation falls outside the zoology field and into the equally interesting fields of cultural psychology or anthropology

Hence, a completely skeptic cryptozoologist (or ufologist or paranormal investigator...) is actually a psychologist deep inside. Both believer and skeptic are doing scientific research, they're just on different fields! Which of them will be correct depends, of course, in the existence or non-existence of said phenomenon

Middle photo: wtf is that? (Although the canoe is suspiciously becalmed).

Middle photo: wtf is that? (Although the canoe is suspiciously becalmed).

See the second link in the list -- the Hook Island sea monster.

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 10 Jun 2011 #permalink

And some, like Monsterquest, have actually found their monsters on occasion (two sharks and a squid to date).

When was that?

By gray Stanback (not verified) on 10 Jun 2011 #permalink

Aw, I wish I was going to that conference :( As it is, instead of being out in the field collecting data I have just spent a few hours re-reading Darren's cryptozoology posts of the past. Brilliant stuff but, phew, brings out the nutters in the comments doesn't it?

Furthermore, I always thought that the scientific evaluation of claims of any kind was meant to be a good thing

Meh. There comes a point where continued investigation of Sasquatch Isreal or the ivory-billed woodpecker crosses the line from futile to mock-worthy.

@7: Monsterquest found:
--Greenland Shark in the St. Lawrence sea-way (actually, they were investigating reports of sharks in American rivers in general)
--Whale shark in Gulf of California (following reports of giant black sharks in the Sea of Cortez)
--Oversized Humboldt squid in the Gulf of California

Actually, a couple of their other investigations could arguably be counted as successes, but I'm just going with either physical encounters or really good camera shots of identifiable beasts.

Not sure when the shows first aired.

By heteromeles (not verified) on 10 Jun 2011 #permalink

This makes me so happy. I love this idea. However, I hope it doesn't give those not-so-credible researchers more reason to hype their credibility with co-opted sciencey goodness. Not too long ago, there was a dust up about cryptozoology being called "pseudoscience" on BoingBoing.net. The real story wasn't quite to straightforward as that but revealed a lot about the complainer and the state of the field. That story is here: http://idoubtit.wordpress.com/2011/05/23/want-to-shed-the-pseudoscience…

Most of today's cryptozoologists don't even come close to the likes of Darren and others. They are amateurs out there not to do inquiry but to find justification for their belief. So, there is a huge range of quality from low to high. That makes it difficult to define exactly who is a "cryptozoologist" and what that even means.

In the interests of clarity, could we define cryptozoology in a way that separates it clearly from the ordinary discovery and description of new species? It seems to me that the dividing line is largely the quality of the evidence. Would that be it?

Also, it would help the credibility of the field if you could document a few of its successes -- i.e. cryptids that eventually gained enough evidence to turn them into ordinary new species. Would Latimeria count? How about those Vietnamese bovids? Or you might mention some other benefits.

By John Harshman (not verified) on 10 Jun 2011 #permalink

John Harshman (#12)

In the interests of clarity, could we define cryptozoology in a way that separates it clearly from the ordinary discovery and description of new species?

I'd argue that in order for a discovery to be considered 'cryptozoological' the animal in question would have to be known (or proposed) from anecdotal, ethnological, ichnological, or photo/video information before a 'hard' discovery. Coelacanths would not be examples as while they were known to local peoples, nobody in the outside world had the slightest inkling they were still around and their discoveries were totally out of the blue, so to speak. On the flip side, some of van Roosmalen's discoveries - if they turn out to be genuine new species - would count as cryptozoological as at least in some instances he pursued 'ethnoknown' leads to get physical specimens.

The Okapi is well known to have been discovered from native reports and so was ethnoknown. While the Coelacanth was not specifically predicted, lazarus taxa or prehistoric survivors have in general long been predicted by Cryptozoologists.

I wonder if Darren's article in the rare Fortean Studies Volume 7 will ever become available elsewhere, say in a collection of his articles?

By Laurence Crossen (not verified) on 10 Jun 2011 #permalink

I'm not sure Latimeria wasn't an ethnoknown cryptid. I remember an old, old magazine article from the 1970s (Sea Frontiers?). They had a small article and picture which showed a supposedly 19th century spanish gold coelocanth, perfectly identifiable.

I'm willing to bet we don't know who the first westerner was to see a coelocanth, but it probably wasn't Hendrik Goosen. To those who first saw it, it was just a weird fish, until a professor saw it and realized how very weird it was.

By heteromeles (not verified) on 10 Jun 2011 #permalink

heteromeles (#15):

Fricke, H. & Plante, R. (2001). Silver coelacanths from Spain are not proofs of a Pre-scientific Discovery. Environmental Biology Of Fishes 61(4), 461-463. DOI: 10.1023/A:1011669812133

Executive summary: the silver Coelacanths were made between 1954 and 1965 in Spain and based on a photograph of the holotype.


Laurence Crossen (14):

While the Coelacanth was not specifically predicted, lazarus taxa or prehistoric survivors have in general long been predicted by Cryptozoologists.

Okaaaay. Discovery of one... presumed extinct and phylogenetically isolated taxon (I really hate the term "prehistoric survivor")... doesn't necessarily make the discovery of additional taxa any more probable. And while resurrected taxa have been proposed for a while, it could be argued that the discovery of the Coelacanth popularized the notion of "prehistoric survivors" in Cryptozoological speculation.

I've been interested in CZ since childhood, but try to apply a keener edge with a skeptical approach. I've written an essay before, for cryptozoology.com, explaining why there are no surviving _Megalania_ in Australia (often repeated, never substantiated) from an evolutionary view (incorporating Wroe's re-evaluation of their sizes), physiological, ecological, from the perspective of scientific endeavour in Australia (we find heaps of new reptiles every year), and also dispensing some of the often repeated myths (eg about "herpetologist Frank Gordon" who apparently saw a massive lizard longer than his truck, but has apparently never written for any herp resources, has no online presence, noone has ever met him, and only ever appears in repeats of the claim)...

By Marcus Good (not verified) on 10 Jun 2011 #permalink

What a crypto conference in London and no Karl Shuker?

By Bob Michaels (not verified) on 10 Jun 2011 #permalink

@16: darn. Another beautiful story destroyed by a cruel fact. Thanks for the reference though.

By heteromeles (not verified) on 10 Jun 2011 #permalink

Marcus: Just so you know, Wroe's re-evaluation of Megalanias size was complete hogwash, compare vertebrae of a perentie and megalania, and it's clear that Meg was as big as a sdaltwater croc.

By Tim Morris (not verified) on 10 Jun 2011 #permalink

Many thanks for comments â lots to respond to. First off...

Comment 3 (Mike Keesey): yes, that's a dolphin with two dorsal fins. It's the animal reported and written up by Quoy and Gaimard in 1824 and described by them as Delphinus rhinoceros. The new generic name Cetodipterus Raynal & Sylvestre, 1991 was later suggested for this cryptid.

Comment 4 (Morsa): cryptozoology is the study of animals known only from anecdotal evidence (you may be aware that many researchers are regarding the subject as one focused on 'ethnoknown' animals). Those various creatures reported in stories, mythologies and eyewitness accounts might turn out to be new species, but they might also be members of known species, they might be composites of more than one species, or they might not be real animals at all. If you're interested in studying such 'anecdotal' unknowns, it doesn't follow that you necessarily assume the existence of a real animal at the bottom of it. Ergo, I cannot agree that someone interested in cryptozoology is a 'believer' by default (though it's certainly true that many people who call themselves cryptozoologists are aiming to endorse predetermined belief). One of the great complications with cryptozoology is that the subject incorporates both zoology and folklore â while some 'cryptids' can be interpreted within a zoological framework, others cannot, so the outcomes of some cryptozoological investigations could be of special interest to zoologists, while the outcomes of others could well be restricted to psychology and folklore. Naturally, I'm one of those people most interested in those 'cryptids'/'ethnoknowns' that do seem to be based on real animal species, but Iâm interested in seeing where the evidence goes and wouldnât say that my interest in these entities makes me a 'believer'.

Comment 9 (stogoe): ok, you might argue that the continued investigation of certain cryptids seems like a waste of time, by which you mean that previous investigations have determined that there isn't a real animal at the bottom of the reports (I'm not necessarily convinced that this is true, but I see your point). Again, as per above, this assumes that the 'new species' hypothesis is the only one worthy of study. It isnât. Let's say that a given cryptozoological target is 100% hypothetical, and that all accounts and sightings are completely fictional. Well, even in such a case I can still see several phenomena worthy of study - though, as per above, they would indeed be of more interest to psychologists than zoologists.

As for the definition of cryptozoology in general (John Harshman, comment 12), it is definitely not concerned with the 'ordinary' discovery of new taxa, but is specifically the study of creatures reported from anecdote and as yet unconfirmed from specimens (this is essentially what Cameron says in comment 13). This is very clear (e.g., Heuvelmans 1982), and it's also clear from lists of cryptozoological 'targets' that â contrary to what is often said â size and/or 'monstrosity' are not important (e.g., Heuvelmans 1986, Shuker 1998). The great complication for me is that many 'ordinary'/non-spectacular new animal species are documented via anecdotal evidence first, and are only confirmed by the retrieval of specimens later on: recent examples include the Kipunji, Odedi, Arunachal macaque, Leaf deer, Palawan rail, Dingiso and Giant peccary, and older ones include the Mountain gorilla, Okapi, Komodo dragon and Kouprey. While many people interested in cryptozoology are only interested in the 'monsters', I cannot agree that published definitions of cryptozoology restrict the field to such entities: it's the anecdotal or ethnoknown component thatâs key. This interpretation means (as I've said several times before) that many 'ordinary'/'mainstream' zoologists do cryptozoological work, it's just that they donât call it that. Of course, we then have the problem that the term 'cryptozoologist' is mostly associated with amateur researchers who are focused only on the interpretation of cryptids, and don't do, nor are they qualified in, 'mainstream' biology. I honestly don't know what to do about this apparent conflict.

As for cryptozoological successes â contrary to what people think, they are loads: see that partial list above (Latimeria is not among them, since it wasnât convincingly documented by anecdotal/ethnoknown data prior to its official discovery). People heard about these animals through tales or rumours, went searching for them, and found them. The association of the term cryptozoology with Loch Ness monsters and Bigfoot mean that people tend to equate it with failure, but I cannot agree given the definition of what cryptozoology is.

Refs - -

Heuvelmans, B. 1982. What is cryptozoology? Cryptozoology 1, 1-12.

- . 1986. Annotated checklist of apparently unknown animals with which cryptozoology is concerned. Cryptozoology 5, 1-26.

Shuker, K. P. N. 1998. A supplement to Dr Bernard Heuvelmans' checklist of cryptozoological animals. Fortean Studies 5, 208-229.

Ah, this is on my birthday, and I would have loved to been part of this presentation panel.

By Loren Coleman (not verified) on 11 Jun 2011 #permalink

We would love to have made it into a larger event with more speakers, but there's only room on the schedule for three talks.

Cryptozoology is certainly a legitimate science, and as long as it's pursued with caution and discipline, it can achieve excellent results. The fact is, new animal species are being discovered all the time, and that should certainly be enough to quiet critics who sniff that it's a "pseudoscience". By the way, I once belonged to the I.S.C. It's publications were years late and they still had the audacity to raise their membership fees! It's hardly surprising that it's defunct.

Some sciences are based on the object of their study. Primatology is an example; it is the study of primates (by various techniques).

Some sciences are based on the technique which is used, no matter what phenomenon is being studied. These tend to be driven by technological equipment in labs -- microscopes, telescopes, DNA sequences, etc.

A real problem for cryptozoology is that it does not fit into either of these categories.

Cryptozoology might be defined as the study of animals (1) for which some evidence exists (2) that is widely considered by biologists specializing in the appropriate fields to be inadequate in the face of (3) strong arguments that the animals do not exist. If there is no evidence at all, no one will be looking for the animal. If there are not strong arguments (as opposed to rigorous proof, which is rarely if ever possible) against the animal's existence (as there are for Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and most other celebrity cryptids), the preliminary sparsity of evidence only makes this zoology in progress, not cryptozoology. To say the least, it is hard to take seriously a science defined by inadequate evidence and rejection by qualified peers.

If cryptozoology is a science, it is odd that at the moment of success -- the capture of a Bigfoot or Yeti, for example -- its practitioners immediately cease to be the best qualified to study the new animal. A captive Bigfoot would be a primate but no longer a cryptid, so primatologists would be the best qualified to study him.

IMO: cryptozoology is the investigation of creatures that are believed to exist, but do not. If it exists, it's just normal old everyday zoology.

Obviously, we may not know to which field an uninvestigated anecdotal creature belongs and this is the realm for "scientific cryptozoology". If it turns out the creature exists, studying it is no longer cryptozoology; if it turns out the creature doesn't exist, studying it is no longer scientific. Only so long as we are ignorant on this point can it be both...

I think the word "believe" may be confusing discussion. To some people it suggests an all-or-nothing sort of conviction, with religious associations. Among formally oriented philosophers (mathematical game and decision theorists, economists...) it is generally recognized that the relevant attitude toward a proposition when we talk about believing it is one that comes in degrees: your "degree of partial belief" that a proposition is true is how probable you think it is that the proposition is true.

Psychology is... hairily, mindbogglingly, complicated, but (at least under idealizations that have allowed a significant theory to be developed) degree of belief is objectively measurable by the "put your money where your mouth is" test: your degree of belief that something is true is (under lots of provisos) proportional to the odds you you would accept on a bet that it is true.

Darren thinks it is worthwhile for zoologists to investigate (at least some) cryptid reports: at the level of investing scientific time and effort, in other words, he is willing to place a bet on the existence of, say, Cetodipterans at non-ridiculous odds. So I would say he is (if not a "believer," which to me implies a judgment of probability over 50%) at least a stronger partial believer than the "it's all utter hogwash and a disgrace that the ZSL puts this sort of thing on its calendar" kind of sceptic.

(Yes. Current evidence strongly confirms the hypothesis that philosophers are longwinded. Sorry.)

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 11 Jun 2011 #permalink

Skepticism about the existence of cryptids is different than skepticism about cryptozoology as a scientific field. In much the same way, astrology would not be established as a serious science even if an astrologer somewhere had predicted a tsunami and nuclear accident for Japan this year.

If cryptozoology is a science, it is at about the level of development where chemistry was when it was still struggling to separate itself from alchemy.

As for "degree of partial belief", and based solely on a general impression from what I can read on the internet, I'd give the orang pendek a 10% chance of being a new species, Bigfoot a 1% chance of being a new species, and Nessie about a one-in-a-million chance of being a new species. Of these 3, only Nessie falls into the "it's all utter hogwash and a disgrace" category (and that mostly because, in addition to other problems, the lake has been thoroughly searched on more than one occasion).

I suspect that many of the skeptics are little (if any) more sophisticated than the true believers. Because of that, I have a modest proposal:

One of the underdeveloped aspects of cryptozoology is that intersection between zoology, anthropology, and psychology. There are probably some neat ways of studying how and why people either misinterpret evidence or lie to make up cryptids.

This is an area where crytpozoology can do a lot of real science. In general, none of the life sciences are terribly good at spotting problematic data and discoveries (to phrase it politely, without accusing anyone of fraud or deceit). Cryptozoology could actually make great contributions, less by finding sasquatch and more by studying how people fool themselves, fool others, and set themselves up to be fooled.

This is not a criticism of anyone here. Rather, it's a note that good cryptozoologists have to be very sophisticated at interviewing, evaluating evidence, and so forth, and this is a perfectly reasonable field of study in itself.

By heteromeles (not verified) on 11 Jun 2011 #permalink

"Cryptozoology could actually make great contributions, less by finding sasquatch and more by studying how people fool themselves, fool others, and set themselves up to be fooled."

Similarly, suppose we called both James Randi and Uri Geller "psychics". Through this unfortunate bit of semantics we might conclude that psychics have a lot to offer science. If we call Randi a "skeptic", now it's much clearer that he's the one from whom we might expect meaningful contributions.

IOW, you're absolutely right in a sense, but there's some semantic untangling to do. A "cryptozoologist" might be either very good at spotting hoaxes or very good at being fooled by hoaxes.

IOW, you're absolutely right in a sense, but there's some semantic untangling to do. A "cryptozoologist" might be either very good at spotting hoaxes or very good at being fooled by hoaxes.


How about "cryptid zoologist" (that is, a zoologist with an interest in cryptids, rather than necessarily believing in them) for the former?

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 11 Jun 2011 #permalink

If cryptozoology is a science, it is odd that at the moment of success -- the capture of a Bigfoot or Yeti, for example -- its practitioners immediately cease to be the best qualified to study the new animal. A captive Bigfoot would be a primate but no longer a cryptid, so primatologists would be the best qualified to study him.

Good point, except that people can be cryptozoologists and primatologists at the same time.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 11 Jun 2011 #permalink

That scatter graph is crying out for logarithmic scales.

And now I am very sad that I live in the American Midwest and am not fabulously wealthy (or at least wealthy enough to fly out to London on a whim), because a cryptozoology conference sounds like a truly fantabulous time. I am terribly envious! I hope you have a lovely time and return to blog all about it.

Hold the next one in Wisconsin! We have cheese! and the Hodag!

By Nice Ogress (not verified) on 12 Jun 2011 #permalink

Good point, except that people can be cryptozoologists and primatologists at the same time.

It would be in the capacity of a primatologist, rather than that of a cryptozoologist, that such a person would be well-qualified to study Bigfoot.

I don't know of anything else that claims to be science that becomes irrelevant once the quality of data is good enough to be definitive.

Howard: you present a good argument, but I cannot help but feel that you've missed the point somewhat: this being that cryptozoology already exists as a valid scientific endeavour, no matter what the objections. That is, there are people collecting and studying 'mystery animal' reports within a scientific framework of evidence collection and hypothesis testing. Granted, at least some people calling themselves cryptozoologists are not doing this, but others are, including the qualified biologists who have investigated - or are investigating - 'mystery animal' accounts. I see cryptozoology as that branch of zoology involved with the collection and examination of anecdotal evidence.

Arguably, this area of study is not obviously distinct from the rest of zoology, so I can certainly see that recognition of cryptozoology as a 'separate science' is not helpful (and further unhelpful is the popular idea that it's all about amateurs looking for the Loch Ness monster). But then, as a 'mainstream' zoologist, the hypothetical discovery of any given cryptid is not (for me) the end of it being of interest. And I'm not sure that cryptozoology evaporates once a given 'mystery animal' becomes discovered, since there remains a phase of our knowledge where that given animal was only known from anecdote.

I think cryptozoology falls squarely in the category of a science based on the techniques being used. After all, we are defining it as the study of animals based on folklore, trace evidence, and other sorts of circumstantial evidence.

Sorry I've been gone so long ( if anyone noticed). I think that cryptozoology should be considered a branch of zoology. Many zoologist technically are cryptozoologist, as they discover new species of animal. Darren, though there are likely quite a few whales that are undiscovered, I have to point out that many serpentine sea cryptids are described as being reptilian. Richard Freeman has gathered many such reports, though he may be biased by his love of dragons.

... there are people collecting and studying 'mystery animal' reports within a scientific framework of evidence collection and hypothesis testing.

Yes, that is true; those activities are common to many subfields of zoology. What I contest is that they constitute a valid unified subfield. An entomologist who looks into native reports of a bright orange bumblebee is doing entomology; a herpetologist who looks into native reports of a bright orange tree frog is doing herpetology. These two scientists will need some of the same skills, particularly relating to getting the locals to share their stories in detail and distinguishing what they actually saw from what they assumed; in spite of this, I doubt whether these small part of entemology and herpetology deserve to be broken off and described as a single subfield, and I don't think the entemologist or the herpetologist would call themselves cryptozoologists.

No, the term cryptozoology is usually reserved for the search for really implausible creatures which defy solid principles of biology (mermaids), physics (Mothman), or statistical probability (Nessie). It is really hard, if not impossible, to make a real subfield of science out of this.

Maybe it would help to specify what a field or subfield of science should include. I think it would have to contain all aspects of the "scientific method": hypothesis, observation or experiment, and refined theory. Many ancient cultures noted odd things in the sky, such as supernovae, eclipses, and comets, but they were not doing science, at least in the modern sense. Cryptozoology has lots of hypotheses and lots of people (with widely varying degrees of training and equipment) attempting observation and experiment, but because the actual discovery of a Bigfoot would move him out of cryptozoology, it can't really have a refined theory.

Ok, thanks - that's an interesting argument and I'm somewhat embarrassed that I hadn't considered it beforehand. I'm still not sure I agree, in part because (1) it isn't clear that practitioners of a given subfield need to be unified for that subfield to be recognised, (2) it's just not true that the term cryptozoology is only associated with problematic entities (there are people who call themselves cryptozoologists yet have devoted years of study to mystery rails or lizards), and (3) surely the biologists who practise/publish on mystery animal reports are, in fact, employing the methodology of what could be considered a 'valid, unified subfield'. In any case, I think we've moved the goalposts here: the initial argument is whether cryptozoology can be considered scientific or not. Clearly it can... the argument remains whether it's wise to call a qualified entomologist or herpetologist (or whatever) a cryptozoologist. The problem I have is that the 'targets' of cryptozoologist span a huge spectrum - from the tremendously mundane to the near-unbelievable.

If something is a legitimate subject of scientific inquiry (which to me includes everything except the plainly supernatural/mythological), and is investigated by scientific methods, where is the problem in calling it a science? As for the exact relationship to zoology: rather than thinking of it as a sub-field like primatology, I regard it as a kind of shadow zone around zoology, containing things which we have more or less evidence to be true. The job of cryptozoology is either to bring these things fully into the light (when they become part of zoology), or to demonstrate that they do not exist.

There are similar fringe areas in other sciences. Astronomy in particular has such things as Transient Lunar Phenomena and the Ashen Light of Venus. Although both have been observed by professional astronomers (including Herschel), there is no general agreement that they are real. Professionals have no time to train their telescopes on the moon in the hope of seeing a TLP, so the search is largely left to amateurs; nobody calls this cryptoastronomy.

As for cryptozoology being confined to fanciful creatures like mermaids or honest politicians, this is as wrong as it gets. My own criterion when looking for a cryptid is that it is very likely to exist, and that its existence is scientifically important. I am more likely to spend a week looking for a leprechaun to guide me to a crock of gold than I am to search for mermaids.

By Chris Clark (not verified) on 12 Jun 2011 #permalink

I think we've moved the goalposts here: the initial argument is whether cryptozoology can be considered scientific or not. Clearly it can...

Of course, you're referring only to the "most scientific" cryptozoologists. I suppose only theoretical physics gets more cranks identifying themselves as practitioners than cryptozoology. The type of people you're referring to are not scientists because they engage in cryptozoology; they're already scientists but are willing to listen to witness accounts. I still think there's a difference.

As some point we're reduced to arguing semantics. I do think there are systematic problems with considering cryptozoology a complete scientific field or sub-field, but I probably would not care if so many self-proclaimed cryptozoolists were not busy concocting wild theories based on flimsy evidence for celebrity cryptids.

Professionals have no time to train their telescopes on the moon in the hope of seeing a TLP....

That's a very good point, and one I've made elsewhere (with the example of comet searches). Look, I've got no problem with verifiable evidence, no matter where it comes from. I have actually required my "integrated science" students to read THE TREES OF PRIDE by G.K. Chesterton (http://www.pagebypagebooks.com/Gilbert_K_Chesterton/The_Trees_of_Pride/), which has an important moral about not letting preconceptions get in the way of evidence.

If people want to set up trail cams in the hope of finding Bigfoot, more power to 'em. If Bigfoot ever turns out to be real, I'll be delighted. Until they come up with adequate evidence for THAT, though, I'm not much interested in unsubstantiated theories about the migratory patterns or number of species of Bigfoot.


People heard about these animals through tales or rumours, went searching for them, and found them.

How common are such romantic 'in search of'-expeditions really? Correct me if I'm wrong, but (those specific examples that you mentioned notwithstanding) surely many/most 'newly discovered' animal species have, in fact, been found more or less fortuitously by researchers who were out in the field studying something else altogether?

Thanks for continuing comments, interesting stuff. Obviously I agree with Howard that the 'scientific cryptozoologists' I have in mind are, indeed, already qualified scientists and are thus different from (say) those unqualified amateurs who call themselves cryptozoologists. But... mystery animal research spans such a spectrum of researchers and research targets that I still don't get where we can draw the line.

Dartian: yes, the majority of new species are discovered off the bat, as it were, and but a comparatively small number are discovered following the investigation of anecdote (examples given above: see also Lorenzo Rossi's article The role of circumstantial evidence in the discovery and description of new species of primates since 2000 and conservation implications). Comparatively, discoveries that follow investigations of 'ethnoknowns' might not be that common, but they seem common enough.

A good example of how not to investigate cryptids can be seen on the Animal Planet show, Finding Bigfoot. While I applaud the enthusiasm of the crew at the BFRO (Bigfoot Field Research Organization), their techniques are a bit lacking.

The problem with the BFRO is, their searching harder, not smarter.

While I watch that show, I find myself hooting (or is that howling?) at the screen. Talk about confirmation bias!

The humorous thing about BFRO is that they inadvertently provide detailed instructions for how to spoof them. Since there are people (students of Tom Brown Jr's scout school, for instance) who could spoof most or all of their findings, I think they should get really suspicious about what they are finding.

My recommendation? If they want to set up baited camera stations for bigfoots, they should at least put the food inside puzzles, preferably puzzles containing surfaces that snag hair samples, DNA samples, and fingerprints. Considering the puzzles they put out for ravens and parrots, it shouldn't be too hard to design something appropriate.

By heteromeles (not verified) on 13 Jun 2011 #permalink

Thanks Darren for the #44 article. This is actually the only one I know ever of your "new, rational" approach to cryptozoology. It would be worthwhile if primatologists collected such anecdotal evidence of unknown primates. Like Cameroon large galago or big pale loris.

Similar info is collected for birds - but nobody considers it cryptozoology.

Re: orang pendek, yeti etc. - it was negatively verified several times, including by famous mountaneer Reinhold Meissner. Several ones were shot and identified as bears.

For me, cryptozoology must involve animals which are big or otherwise highly unusual, and there must be extended period of lack of direct, scientific evidence, where only information about animal was cultural and non-scientific. And a cryptid must create scientific disbelief - a report of albino deer doesn't count. Otherwise almost every bird discovery would be cryptozoology.

Thanks, Jerzy. Reinhold Messner is not a reliable person to quote on yetis, for the reason discussed here. I don't see that the 'targets' of cryptozoology must be large, unusual, or create disbelief; those properties are all subjective (and many mystery animals searched for by cryptozoologists are not large - the rail of Hiva-Oa being a classic example). The key thing is the prior rumoured existence of the creature via myth, anecdote etc.

Grover Krantz, anthropologist (originally specializing in Homo Erectus), Bigfoot researcher, on display, with his dog, at the Smithsonian.

(Via this awesome Monster Talk episode, with tons of cool details about Krantz, Ivan Sanderson and other folk interested in bigfoot, including government intelligence connections to bigfoot and yeti researchers, oil millionaires funding bigfoot researchers, top Smithsonian people looking for the Minnesota Iceman, and much more.)

(Yes, I know this is 6 days old. But it's still a great episode.)


I think a few distinctions are worth making.

First of all, what would you say is the relationship between ethnozoology (much less controversial in itself) and cryptozoology? They are certainly not identical, but there seems to be some overlap.

Secondly, it is clear there are several competing definitions of cryptzoology. Some definitions are broad and allow cryptozoology to be credited with the successes of scientists who probably did not think of themselves as cryptzoologists. Other definitions are more narrow and concern people who definitely view themselves as cryptozoologists engaged in high risk/high reward research; this kind of cryptozoology has produced very little success. There is a qualitative difference between the two kinds of definition, and only the second, narrow definition is "publicly visible": Monsterquest won't be making an episode about the rail of Hiva-Oa any time soon.

There is so much overlap between ethnozoology, 'cryptozoology as conventionally imagined' and mainstream, routine zoology that - as per the many other comments in this thread - I cannot see an easy place to draw the line. I can see how it might seem desirable to distinguish between (1) unqualified amateurs who go bigfoot hunting on the weekend and (2) technical scientists who employ rigour and publish in the peer-reviewed literature etc... but things just aren't that simple. I will not ever agree that cryptozoology is 'monster hunting' because, as mentioned before, even self-proclaimed cryptozoologists have happily spent time and resources investigating small, mundune creatures that, by definition, conform to the idea of what a cryptid is meant to be. Heuvelmans, for example, wrote about unverified Mediterranean wildcats, and a marmot-like mammal from Ethiopia; Karl Shuker has written about a small, mystery fish from Shatt al Arab, the Goodenough Island mystery bird and so on.

Anyway, I'm hoping that all of this can be covered at the ZSL meeting. As per above, I don't see a simple answer to this. Methinks I'm repeating myself.


There is that. However, when you find foot prints indicating a 10 foot stride, you gotta wonder. :)

Look at it this way, a person that tall is going to be noticed.

@52: Oh, I do wonder. I wonder, for instance, how you get prints that are perfectly shaped with no splatter, when made with wet dirt on concrete (and how long did they last, for that matter?). Or how something that's seven feet tall makes prints 10 feet apart, yet there's no heel gouge from where the heel digs in, no center plate where the soil buckled under the force, no splatter from where it kicked off...

Tom Brown Jr. actually published a book called The Science and Art of Tracking, and while his statements haven't been (to my knowledge) replicated in peer-reviewed, scientific journals, he presented ample evidence that that the speed and weight of a print-maker will radically affect the characteristics of the print in the soil. Inside a footprint, soil will buckle when forced past its limits of plasticity, dirt gets kicked up by toes moving, and you should be able to tell when something that ways 100 plus kilos kicks off to take a stride that's longer than it is tall.

Brown points out that prints should be lit *from the side* when photographed (with a flashlight), so that their topography shows up in the picture, rather than lit from behind the camera, where all the features wash out. Oh well.

He runs a school in New Jersey that teaches tracking, along with various survival skills, how to sneak around in the woods, etc. While I don't think he's faking bigfoot sightings, I think people he trained (or people who read his books) could easily do so, if they wanted to.

By heteromeles (not verified) on 15 Jun 2011 #permalink

I probably don't know enough about the research that goes on under the label "ethnozoology" to justify my opinion, but I think of ethnozoology and cryptozoology as having almost diametrically opposite goals. C. takes "folk" lore as a guide to help extend zoological knowledge, E. looks at the structure of "folk" zoology itself, and more or less needs the relevant zoology to be fully available.

Example: Ethnozoology as an aid to historical linguistics. In the theorizing about where the ancestral protolanguage of the Indo-European language family was spoken, a word supposedly meaning "salmon" has figured prominently. (The word is the one that produces the Yiddish "lox". Supposed cognates have been identified in many branches of the Indo-European family, including Indic.) The reasoning went "If they had a word for salmon, they must have lived somewhere where there are salmon," which was embarrassing because other lines of evidence suggested that the "Urheimat" of the Indo-Europeans was outside the natural range of S. salar. So: possibility that the word had changed its application, and originally referred to some sort of trout? At this point appeal was made to ethnozoology: the nomenclature of salmonid fishes in a range of languages (many of them, by memory, spoken by Siberian aboriginal groups) was studied to see which species were more likely to share names: which species, in other words, were most likely to "inherit" a name originally applied to which others. (Conclusion was that the word might originally have been applied to some kind of trout found in rivers flowing into the Caspian Sea, which was much nicer given the other evidence.)

Now, the point of the example: the study of the ethnotaxonomy of salmonids was only useful in this application because the actual species to which various ethnozoonyms were applied was known: if there had been suspicion that the picture was confused by cryptofish, the ethnozoology would not have supported the reasoning about what changes in reference were plausible for an ichthyonym.

(Example, b.t.w., is real, though I can't remember the author. Original paper from late 1970s? 1980s? was called "Contributions to the Indo-European Salmon Problem," and I think there was a subsequent monograph. (David Marjanovic, do you have the reference?))

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 15 Jun 2011 #permalink

Not having David Marjanovic (who tends to have unbelievably detailed knowledge both of zoology and of linguistics) at the next desk to ask, I tried the back-up: Google.
The historical linguist who used ethnozoology to help with the Indo-European Salmon Problem was A.R. Diebold; the paper I described was in a 1974 volume "Progress in Historical Linguistics" edited by Christie.

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 15 Jun 2011 #permalink


Have you ever gone on site to study any prints. Especially the prints made in a small town neighborhood? I realize you may not have the time, but one of the big drawbacks of relying on experts lies in the competence and honesty of those experts.

The episode in question did not go into detail, so I am left wondering about the footprints in question. I do note that the prints in question were made in asphalt, a medium that tends to be well, hard under normal conditions. Any animal able to produce visible footprints in cold asphalt has to be coming down with some force.

What I'm getting at is this, that the video doesn't give us enough information to speak authoritatively about just how the prints were made. They may well be fake, but if they are, why the ten foot stride.

And before I end this comment, let me note that a running stride does tend to be longer than a walking stride, and that the witness did mention that the purported sasquatch was running at the time of observation

@54: I haven't gone to study sasquatch prints, and I don't pretend to be a decent tracker, either.

The basic point is that all of the tracks they have shown could have been easily faker, despite their statements, and they did not show the basic information that could have helped even someone as ignorant as me to determine whether they were genuine. That's an issue.

As for tracks on asphalt, my impression was that the tracks were made with mud/dirt on top of the asphalt, not impressed into the asphalt surface. Did I miss something? Assuming it was mud, I'd expect to see all sorts of splatter marks, especially if the animal was running. You can demonstrate this to your own satisfaction, simply by walking across a dirt surface, then running across that same surface. You should be able to see a difference, ignoring the stride length.

By heteromeles (not verified) on 15 Jun 2011 #permalink

They showed the scene in daylight, not a sign of mud to be seen. Asphalt is not an urban phenomenon after all. :)

Could they do the job better? Yes, they could. But, you are forgetting the most important lesson any skeptic needs to learn. That is, why it is important to verify what those you disagree with say, it is doubly important to verify what those you agree with say.

Not to shanghai this thread, but it seems to me that you are starting from the a priori assumption that sasquatch can't exist, and will adopt any reasoning or line of evidence that confirms your bias. You rightly speak of confirmation where the BFRO is concerned, but have you ever considered your own?


You have told us that the prints in question could've been faked, but you haven't shown us they were faked. For all their faults as researchers, at least the BFRO crew are willing to actually look into the claims they receive.

Darwin's Theory of Evolution has a lot of power, descriptive and prescriptive power. The one flaw all creationists have in common is their profound ignorance of the depth and breadth of the Theory of Evolution. There may be no sasquatch, but the hypothesis there is has descriptive and prescriptive power. It explains certain phenomenon, and it predicts that if one actually looks one is going find a currently unknown large primate.

What you've been telling us is that evidence pointing to sasquatch is faked. What you forget is what Thor Heyerdahl forgot with his Kon Tiki stunt, should is not is. You tell us that evidence is faked, but you don't show us it is faked, and that is where your thinking falls flat. As both you and the BFRO forget, a priori thinking at best delays honest scientific work and leads to stagnation.

If there is a nocturnal giant primate wandering around in the forests of the world, why can't we have the bigfoot equivalent of a Jane Goodall, someone who simply goes out, tracks down a population, desensitizes them to her presence, and gathers the evidence needed to prove they exist and to understand their natural history? Goodall's techniques have been around for decades, they've worked with every other ape and many primates (and black bears too, for that matter, if sasquatch isn't a primate), and her methods are amenable to television.

I'm agnostic but doubtful about the actual existence of bigfoot. It would be incredibly cool if the species existed, since it would be the biggest wild omnivore in most of its purported range. However, I went to school in bigfoot country, up in the Pacific northwest. It's wild and rugged and all that (and extremely fun to visit and live in). It's also better known, biologically, than places like the southern California deserts that they want to pave with solar plants.

While bigfoot the mystery is fun, ultimately, we've got to ask why there's so little unambiguous evidence, why the evidence we do have could all be faked, and why productive approaches (like what Jane Goodall did with the Gombe chimps), are never tried.

If people are trying to elevate bigfoot studies to the level of reputable science, they have to do a lot better. Researchers can do population studies based on chimp poop in the Congo (with said poop brought back to the US for genotyping). They have found that one wolverine in the Sierra Nevada (via camera trap) and got enough hairs to determine which population it belonged to. Heck, students can sample fishes in their local markets and demonstrate that fish fillets are being mislabeled. So why is it so impossible with bigfoot to get a clear picture, to obtain an uncontaminated DNA sample from feces or hair, or check the tracks to see if the marks in the prints match the purported movement? It's not a good picture at all.

By heteromeles (not verified) on 15 Jun 2011 #permalink

heteromeles ,

On your final point I agree with you. The science could be better. The folks at the BFRO need to be sat down and put through a class on how to do field research. Barging about like a rhino on crack is not how you study any animal.

The first I've been pushing for years; why don't we see people heading out to do some serious, long term work on the problem? We need some Leakey's Girls for cryptid primates.

Your second point, however, I couldn't disagree with more. You're assuming that your personal experience answers everything. One day, oh so long ago, it was common knowledge that you never saw moose in Missouri. Until the day came when a moose was spotted in Missouri. Naturalists around the world learned that while ordinarily moose do not frequent Missouri, on great occasion they do.

Then you have reports of coyotes invading east coast states, which they were not known to do in ye olde days.

By point is, this is a matter we could learn a lot from, were we to explore it. If it could be explained as the work of bears, it would teach us a lot about bears. If every example proved to be the work of hoaxsters, it would be instructive about how hoaxsters work. But first it must be investigated. But until people learn to take the mystery seriously, we're going to make no substantial progress in the field.

Actually, the second point isn't based on my "personal experience," it's based on numbers of herbarium records from each region. I'm a botanist, you see. I also have a lot of zoologist friends, who have searched the PNW for everything from spotted owls to fishers. They find these rare species. Not bigfoot.

Almost all of the new species botanists are finding in California are in the deserts of southern California, and they are being found because people are going on to previously closed ranch-land and remote wilderness areas, as these areas are opened for solar and wind plants.

To the Missouri moose, we can add the Sierra wolverine, the Malibu condors and black bears, and similar known cryptids. We can even add the southern Wisconsin wolves, although I don't think they've been officially verified yet.

What we can't add is bigfoot. That's one hell of an outlier, and it's a good reason to be suspicious.

What I'd say is that, if someone finds they're in the territory of a genuine sasquatch, they should habituate it to their presence. Then they should collect good pictures, fecal samples, hair samples, and freeze the latter two. Freezer bags and latex gloves are sufficient for the last two, and both are available for a few bucks at any supermarket or pharmacy. Then they should go to a primatology professor with their evidence and start a PhD program studying the natural history of bigfoot. If they have sufficient evidence before they start the study, they'll have a career working on the biology of these organisms, shading inevitably into their conservation. What can possibly go wrong? Being the world's expert on the largest wild primate is a slam-dunk career. Heck, start a kid on it when he's in his teens, and he'll sail through college on a full scholarship.

Instead, we have BFRO and reality TV.

By heteromeles (not verified) on 16 Jun 2011 #permalink

All searches you suggest were done many times. The result is not surprising, absence of Bigfoots.

BTW, amusing tetrapod research equipment:

I wonder if there is a name for a proposal which was tried many times, shown not to work, but still knocks around - possibly because disproving was much less interesting than the idea.

BTW. If cryptozoology is a branch of science, it chooses its research really badly. People look for Bigfoot and Loch Ness Monster, but not for several really likely cryptids. For example giant lemurs and dwarf hippos from the vicinity of Belo sur la Mer in S Madagascar. New, recent remains of Homo floresiensis/Ebu Gogo in Flores. Thylacines in New Guinea. None of the latter three is against major facts of current zoology and rationality.

"To the Missouri moose, we can add the Sierra wolverine, the Malibu condors and black bears, and similar known cryptids. We can even add the southern Wisconsin wolves, although I don't think they've been officially verified yet."

This is not surprising, because it is well known that occassional individuals of big mammals and birds wander hundreds of kms away from the normal range of the species. And they often quickly move further or die. In Europe you had visits of moose (elk) in Denmark, bear in Germany, leopard in Greece, bearded vulture in the Netherlands etc.

Actually, Jerzy, Forensic cryptozoology may be viable. I'm a bit skeptical about the ones you've mentioned being still alive (usual problem of big animal, small range, no recent sightings aside from the orang pendek), but there's quite reasonable chance that their bones are still around as subfossils.

As for bigfoot, remember, I'm not the believer here.

Full disclosure: I watch the finding bigfoot because I included bigfoot in a science fiction story I recently wrote for fun. The conceit is that "bigfoot" is actually the powered exoskeleton worn by agents of the Time Patrol when they're doing back country recon, with SmartPelt technology to make it hard for them to be detected or pursued. Advanced biotech, of course. The nice part about this bit of silliness is that whenever someone talks seriously about "there's a lot of bigfoot activity in XXX National forest," I turn to my partner and say, "Wow, there must be something seriously wrong with the space-time continuum there. I'll have to write a story about it." And we both laugh.

Right now, it's as good an explanation as any for why giant hairy people have been seen all over the world, even in Australia. Something's wrong with the space-time continuum there, and they're out remediating the problem, whatever it is.

By heteromeles (not verified) on 16 Jun 2011 #permalink


With all the bears, deer, and songbirds out there, why do you see so few of them? If urban raccoons and urban possums are such a problem, why do we see so few of them?

On Cryptid Apes

The yowie I have problems with, because there is no way the animal could've gotten to Australia. The yowie is an Aussie joke.

The rest? I see no reason why they couldn't exist, and any number of reasons why they do.

The hoaxes? To many, and they present a big problem for serious research. The worst result of all the hoaxing is the alienation of people who might otherwise be out looking for cryptid apes.

To end this spiel I have to ask, does anybody remember the contretempts regarding the bili ape, now recognized as a population of chimpanzees?

People looked, people found evidence, we discovered the ape. We aren't we looking for the sasquatch or the yeti?

My Post can be found at Mythusmage Opines. It's my final word on the subject. All I shall say here is if you wish to see me change by mind on the Patterson Film, you going to need evidence. Conclusive, incontrovertible evidence that answers my questions.

Why use a woman? Who was she?

Why such heavy protheses on her head?

Why such an extensive make up job?

How did she sustain such an injury to her leg?

Who was the physician who treated that injury?

Why such a reluctance to allow for the existence of sasquatch?

When you're willing to talk about this subject as an adult, then we'll talk. Until then, you can keep on denying to your heart's content. Me, I've got grown up things to do.

#68--If the standard of proof is that high for those who don't believe that the Patterson video shows a sasquatch, why isn't it equally high for those who believe that it does?

So, give me conclusive, incontrovertible answers to some skeptic's questions:

What is the gender of the sasquatch in the Patterson video?

How much does it weigh?

How tall is it?

How old is it?

What do sasquatches eat?

How much sexual dimorphism is there in sasquatch?

Are they monogamous, polygynous, or polyandrous?

How big are their populations?

What is their distribution?

What is their phylogenetic placement?

Should I consider you childish if you can't provide answers to these questions, but believe in sasquatch anyways?

As the author of a children's book "New Animal Discoveries", I have had a long-time interest in this subject. Many years ago, as a teenager, I was given a copy of "On the Track of Unknown Animals" and devoured it. However, I think I have to describe myself as a skeptic today.

This has nothing to do with defining cryptozoology as a science or otherwise. I suspect those who would describe themselves as cryptozoologists range from serious scientists to cranks, quasi-religious nuts and conspiracy theorists, with a great many bemused naturalists in between.

I have not done a critical analysis of cryptids. However, I note two interesting observations: first, that a very large number of new species have been discovered since Huevelmans' day, and second, that despite this not one of Huevelman's cryptids has been proven to exist. Surely, if cryptozoology were a reasonable predictor of future discoveries we would expect at least some of the animals discussed by Huevelmans to have been among the host of new discoveries to have turned up in the last half-century or more.

From this I derive the view that cryptozoology is in fact a remarkably poor predictor of what is actually out there. In fact I could argue that the more an animal is seen without being conclusively "discovered" - usually by everyone except those best qualified to understand what they are looking at - the less likely it is to actually exist.

I contrast this with the way real discoveries are usually made - with the unequivocal finding of a specimen, often without the slightest suspicion on the part of scientists (as opposed to local people) that such a creature might exist. The saola is a perfect example: an animal discovered by the finding of unequivocal skulls, on the first day of a scientific expedition into it's range, without the slightest suspicion, as far as I am aware, on the part of the scientists involved that there might be such a creature. With this history the saola might be the perfect "anti-cryptid".

Cryptozoology, in fact, seems to be best at singling out animals that probably do not, in fact, exist. I would argue that the more attention is focused on a cryptid without its actually turning up - especially if it is markedly different from any surviving species, and not simply (say) a new species of warbler or antbird that birders have seen or heard, or even photographed (like the new flowerpecker from Borneo) but which have hardly entered the public eye - the less likely it is to exist.

Bigfoot may be the prize example. Scientists are pretty good at nailing the mammals of North America down to the last shrew. How could they have missed an animal that seems to be seen more often by everyone else than a good many creatures that we know exist? And no matter how good a living Bigfoot might be at hiding, dead ones are presumably lousy at it - where are the subfossil remains? Is there any other animal of comparable size in North America not known from subfossil remains? Bigfoot, to me, seems to have more in common with UFOs than with the saola, though of course I would love to be wrong!

Perhaps cryptozoology is best as a study not just of potential discoveries but of popular delusions. Real discoveries, by and large, owe very little to the type of cryptozoology Huevelmans espoused.

Ron Orenstein

Re Ronald Orenstein (#70)--
This seems to be a discussion we have every few years on Tet Zoo! I think I made the point you make (the depressing record of non-discoveries of critters from Heuvelmans's "On the Track..." (the first book I ever bought with my own money!) a few years ago, and got taken to task for it by Loren Coleman, who pointed to some more hopeful evidence...
Of course, we don't yet know whether Homo floresiensis (or similar species on other Indonesian Islands) survived into the modern era to give rise to the Orang Pendek story, but if it did, then good physical evidence HAS been found for one of Heuvelmans's cryptids!
Re: "Scientists are pretty good at nailing the mammals of North America down to the last shrew." New species of N.A. mammals continue to be described (often "cryptic" rather than "cryptid"!): I think the record of discovery dates suggests a high likelihood that there still remain undescribed NA mammal species... though perhaps most of them are closer to shrew than to bigfoot size.

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 19 Jun 2011 #permalink

To Allen Hazen:

Yes, Huevelmans, right or not, was fun to read!

On the subject of Homo floresiensis - other than the fact that this species was unknown in Huevelmans' day, I do not see much difference between this and other Huevelmans "cryptids" that are well known in the fossil record (eg mammoths, moas, and ground sloths) - except for the fact that not only do we have no evidence of its survival into modern times, we have no evidence that it ever occurred on the islands where the orang pendek is supposed to have lived. As such it is arguably less of a case of evidence for a Huevelmans cryptid than the presence of moa bones in New Zealand.

Of course new mammals continue to turn up, but as you note they are a far cry from being the sort of megafaunal cryptid that would really set hearts aflutter. For that, many cryptozoologists continue to point to the Okapi and the giant squid - doesn't it tell you something that the best megafaunal examples are now well over a century old?


not one of Huevelman's cryptids has been proven to exist

To be fair, Heuvelmans [sic] did write about the 'king cheetah' at a time when the existence of this animal wasn't widely acknowledged by scientists. But, of course, the king cheetah is not a new species or even a new subspecies; it's just a rare colour variant of the ordinary cheetah.

Is there any other animal of comparable size in North America not known from subfossil remains?

Off the top of my head, I can't think of any such species, at least not among terrestrial taxa - even if we generously interpret "of comparable size" to mean "the size of a bobcat or bigger". Already back in 1980, when the paleontologists Björn Kurtén and Elaine Anderson published the book Pleistocene Mammals of North America, the Pleistocene-Holocene North American large mammal fossil record was remarkably complete. I don't have that book at hand, but IIRC, according to its authors virtually all large native species (with the possible exception of the problematic red wolf) that are today known to be extant in the USA and Canada were also known as fossils/subfossils by then. And, of course, this fossil record has only become more complete since 1980.

The fact that we still haven't found sasquatch's fossil bones (or, indeed, its fossilised footprints) is something that should give pause even to the most enthusiastic 'bigfoot believer'.

David Marjanovic, do you have the reference?

Alas, no. I have very little primary literature on linguistics and didn't know about the paper you mention at all.

several really likely cryptids. For example giant lemurs and dwarf hippos from the vicinity of Belo sur la Mer in S Madagascar.


I had no idea! Please tell me more!

But, of course, the king cheetah is not a new species or even a new subspecies; it's just a rare colour variant of the ordinary cheetah.

To be fair, you can't tell that by just looking at it, so I'd count it.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 19 Jun 2011 #permalink

@David Marjanovic

One thing is that 50 years passed from the publication of Heuvelmans' book. In the 1950's, existence of yeti or orang pendek could be discussed seriously, as eg. complex life on Venus. Now, 50 years later, after failed searches and better access to habitats, not really.

coming a bit late to this interesting thread but.
Re Allen Hazen comment 54 and preceding comments on ethnozoology. I've often wondered why scientists with an interest in cryptozoology do not pay more attention to the ethnobiological literature. An important difference seems to be that cryptozoologists, if they are scientists at all, are coming more from the biological side while ethnozoologists are coming more from the anthropology side.
Whatever papers ethnobiologists like to produce, they do need to be experienced, knowledgeable and skilled in distinguishing which 'ethnoknown' species correspond to what we would call 'real' animals and which are unlikely to. Then they have to work out which species they are, which is not at all easy and requires some cultural as well as biological savvy. Many cryptids, as Darren points out in comment 21, are likely to be known species. To avoid falling into these pitfalls, a biologist should be aware that, for example, different cultures can have radically different concepts of colour so it is easy to think that someone has told you that an animal is 'black' when in fact that is not what they meant.
So I feel that anyone with the time, resources and connections who wants to try and improve the reputation of cryptozoology as a valid scientific endeavour should work with an ethnobiologist as well as with some biologists who have successfully used interview data to develop a set of guidelines for people looking for possible new species from interviews.
I don't believe it's possible to confirm the existence of a species based on interview data but I think that a better and more standardized use of those data would allow sensible cryptozoologists to rule out a lot of unpromising leads and focus, as Jerzy recommends, on 'ethnoknowns' with a higher probability of being real.
Also, if you had a set of standardized guidelines, it would give you a standard set of questions to ask about any breathless and overhyped report of a cryptid sighting from a remote part of the world.

By farandfew (not verified) on 20 Jun 2011 #permalink

Thanks, Jerzy!

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 21 Jun 2011 #permalink


I like your ideas. I think one of the problems with cryptozoolgy is that it is in no sense a discipline; it is about as undisciplined as can be conceived. To be a zoologist, most people would agree you have to AT LEAST have a bachelor's degree that's related to zoology, and a Ph.D. is strongly preferred. To be a cryptozoologist, you apparently need some kind of camera and an internet connection. The fact that some may have Ph.D.'s seems to be about as important to the status of cryptozoology as the fact that some have red hair.


"To be fair, Heuvelmans [sic] did write about the 'king cheetah' at a time when the existence of this animal wasn't widely acknowledged by scientists. But, of course, the king cheetah is not a new species or even a new subspecies; it's just a rare colour variant of the ordinary cheetah."

The thing was formally named and had a type specimen back in 1927. Once the specimen's been in a museum for 30 years, saying that it exists doesn't qualify as a prediction, exactly.


The thing was formally named and had a type specimen back in 1927.

That's true, but the king cheetah's taxonomical status remained highly controversial for several decades (pretty much until the 1970ies, in fact), and it wasn't known whether it was a one-off freak or whether there was a whole population of king cheetahs out there. It's because of these controversies that Heuvelmans included it in On the Track of Unknown Animals. (And, to be completely fair to Heuvelmans, in his book he favoured the explanation that king cheetahs are merely "abnormal" common cheetahs rather than representatives of a wholly new species.)

the specimen's been in a museum for 30 years

Actually, that king cheetah type specimen was apparently destroyed in 1951.

saying that it exists doesn't qualify as a prediction

For the record, I intentionally didn't use the word "prediction" in comment #73.

@Howard (78)
That's not necessarily true, actually. Depending, in part on your definition of 'zoologist'. My Dad (Dr.CS Houston) has enough reputation as an ornithologist that he was elected Vice President of the AOU once. Of course, he's a bander, rather than typical field biologist.

Also, think of Crawford H Greenewalt, whose book on hummingbirds has surely never been and probably never will be equaled. (Although that was photography, again, not 'normal' field biology.)

Similarly, although it's not zoology at all, significant work is done in observational astronomy by amateurs.

By David Houston (not verified) on 25 Jun 2011 #permalink

A better example, more up-to-date, is Jared Diamond.

By David Houston (not verified) on 25 Jun 2011 #permalink


I think I may have expressed myself poorly.

(1) I'm less interested in sheepskins on the wall than in the content of the knowledge. It is of course possible, in principle, to learn the same material that usually goes into a degree without actually attending college. (Well, at least for a bachelor's degree; a lack of equipment and, more importantly, the lack of personal communication with experts would make it difficult to achieve the same level of mastery though private study that one can achieve in graduate school.) However, there still remains a standardized and fairly comprehensive body of knowledge for zoology, which is manifested in university curricula. It's also the case that the university degree route is both the standard and accepted entry into serious zoology.

In contrast, I see no real evidence that a systematic body of knowledge exists for cryptozoology. No doubt a self-identified cryptozoologist is expected to have some familiarity with a number of "witness reports" ranging from apparently serious accounts by sincere individuals to transparently sensational stories for newspapers -- but that's about it. What should a cryptozoologist know about, for instance, anatomy or evolutionary biology?

(2) Can amateurs contribute to science? Sure. So can technicians. But the standard for astronomy is not the backyard astronomer, and the standard for ornithology is not the weekend bird-watcher. The amateur astronomer and the amateur birdwatcher understand that, for all they may contribute, they are essentially hobbyists. Go over to cryptomundo.com and suggest that their counterparts in cryptozoology are hobbyists, though.

@83: I'm always extremely careful about denigrating hobbyists.

One of the best fields botanists I know in southern California is self taught, used to work for the postal service. PhDs go to him for identification and location help, since he's had more time to get to know the plants than they have. Moreover, he regularly hits the library in UCLA to stay up to date.

Conversely, I went the PhD route. That makes me capable of learning quite a lot, but I work to stay honest about the limits of my knowledge, and respectful of those who know more about something than I do.

Ultimately, I think the quality of the science is what's important. The degree signifies an accomplishment, more than universal skill or knowledge.

That definitely goes for cryptozoologists too.

By heteromeles (not verified) on 25 Jun 2011 #permalink

@heteromeles: I see no contradiction between what I said and what you said. You say the postal carrier was better at identifying plants than Ph.D. botanists; I don't doubt it. An experienced military marksman would likewise be better at quickly estimating the point of impact of a bullet than a Ph.D. physicist.

You're right; I also think the quality of the science is what's important. It's because of the quality of the science that I am so unimpressed with cryptozoology. Its ratio of verifiable results / hype is closer to zero than that of any recognized science I can think of. This is not surprising, in part because cryptozoology is not capable of iterating the scientific method -- if a type specimen is produced, it's no longer cryptozoology -- and in part because there are no accepted standards for what a cryptozoologist should know or be able to do. Both these facts distinguish cryptozoology from established science.

Please say someone is recording this event?!

By Ethologist (not verified) on 11 Jul 2011 #permalink