Saturday, December 01, 2012

Cryptozoology: Some mysteries will never be solved

Cryptozoologists, concerned as we are with the rare and the missing species of the world, have a very unsettling dilemma on our hands. And it’s not one we’ll ever solve. More than anyone else, even the mainstream of zoologists and biologists and paleobiologists and so on, we live in a world where some answers will never be found.

Cryptozoologists have a habit of endlessly mulling over some classic cases of animal sightings that don’t fit known species. The Shipton yeti tracks, the Valhalla sea serpent, Steller’s sea ape, and other examples of encounters that, in and of themselves, are compelling, but have never followed up by better evidence, or in some cases, any good evidence for continued survival.

Take one of my favorite cases, the Valhalla sea serpent. Two well-qualified naturalists, members of the Zoological Society of London, got a good look, directly and through binoculars, at an animal which didn’t fit – remotely – with any known species. Despite my respect for Richard Ellis, his suggestion of a squid behaving bizarrely doesn’t convince me at all. This is either an unknown animal or – well, there really isn’t another explanation. It’s a better case than any of the individual sea serpent reports before or since.

But if it’s an unknown species, why have we gone 107 years without proof? It may be this is a huge deepwater eel seen only on rare and fortunate occasions. I tend to think it is. But there’s another explanation: it’s a rare species, already on the way out when encountered. If, as one witness suggested, it was a mammal, I think it likely there are few of them left, and maybe none. Dr. Roy Mackal once wrote that the long-necked sea serpent, presumably related to the pinnipeds, might be an ascending species. He may have had the animal right but its status wrong. If so, cryptozoologists a hundred or a thousand years from now may still be debating the animal’s existence.

That’s the conundrum cryptozoologists must exist with. That no matter how hard we work, we won’t resolve every case. In some situations, no one will ever be certain.

It’s our duty to science, though, to think about such things. If we don’t run the risk of exploring what may be blind alleys, we run the bigger risk of writing some important discoveries – and that includes discovering a species is recently extinct.  Finding that yarri skull, or the skin of one of those parrots in a museum, will still tell us much. Even negative investigations matter in science. If a given creature did not survive in a given era or environment, that tells us something about nature as well.   Still, there have been, by one count, 13 recent mammal rediscoveries. Another study found only 36 percent of reported mammal extinctions were definite. So if it was there – whether established by a type specimen, or only hinted at by sightings—it may still be there. And that’s why we keep looking.


scott mardis said...

Very well put. Kudos to you.

scott mardis said...

Very well put.