Sunday, January 27, 2013

What Cryptids Should We Give Up On?

What Cryptids Should We Give Up On?

It might be the toughest, though rarely spoken, question in cryptozoology. Should cryptozoologists forget about some cases?

It’s a hard question for a number of reasons. First, no one has the authority to make a list and dictate to anyone what they should forget about. Second, the evidence for different cryptids can get better over time (or worse, if a hoax is revealed).

Finally, what standards do you apply? If the evidence doesn’t improve for 50 years, say, do you drop the case? A hundred years? A thousand?

I pulled the “50 year” example from the old IUCN standard that a species unreported for 50 years was considered extinct. They no longer use that – it’s now “When there is no reasonable doubt the last individual has died” – but that’s not a perfect standard either. Witness the extinction and subsequent evidence for Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus.)

Sometimes it’s not difficult to give up. If a cryptid fish or lizard or bird, for example, was reported from a restricted habitat, and the habitat has been drained or paved over, ok. But wait. Is even that an easy rule? What about the ivory-billed woodpecker? Almost everyone gave up after the last known habitat, the Singer Tract in Louisiana, was logged out. But the bird was rediscovered (briefly) in the form of a Cuban population written off after its habitat was destroyed, and then again in the U.S. in Arkansas. The bird had been extirpated from its known habitat but found another suitable patch, or it was there all along. (Yes, I think the rediscovery was genuine, but I realize that creates a whole additional layer of judgment/opinion.)

Let’s focus from here on out on the large animals. Draw a line for terrestrial or marine creatures at about 20kg, just because you have to draw a line somewhere. Insects, rodents, small fish, and birds often get around too easily to be sure about. Let’s also set aside reclassifications, when someone making a DNA study, for example, finds that a known group of dolphins should be divided into two species based on genetics. We’ll focus on sizable animals looked for by scientists (calling themselves cryptozoologists or not) in the field. As shown by van Roosemalen’s peccary, such discoveries do still happen, and I’m quite certain that more are coming.

So when can we be sure of abandoning a search? Well, some very small lakes in Ireland and Scotland reported to house sizable animals have been cleared with nets and/or dynamite. So I’d forget about those. But those are easy cases, or they should be.

Possible standards: Here are Seven Rules for When to Give Up. These are a bit messy and overlapping, and there are known exceptions to all of them, but we must start somewhere.

- No one has reported the animal in 25 years (somewhat arbitrary, but ½ of the old IUCN standard feels about right: the standard was written when travel and communications were much more limited)

- A large majority of the known or suspected habitat has been destroyed

- Scattered sightings have continued, but the quality of evidence hasn’t changed in 25 years – that is, all we have are a limited number of additional sightings, no hard evidence or good imagery

- The animal is very unlikely based on the habitat, food chain, etc. and there’s no hard evidence

- We have no fossil evidence of it or its recent ancestors in the region in question

- With presumed-extinct species, the opinion of authorities like government bodies, the WWF, and the IUCN is lined up solidly on the “extinct” side

- When the creature was reported once, or in a brief period, and there are no credible sightings since.

An animal meeting one or more of these standards is at risk unless the evidence is good. For example, the fossil rule is helpful but not by itself definitive: all the known chimp and gorilla fossils could go in my hat. We certainly don’t know all the fossil species even on well-trodden continents. But it’s a factor. Even an animal meeting three or more rules might reappear: the Bermuda petrel survived habitat destruction and three centuries without sightings – but it makes it so improbable the limited resources should go elsewhere.

So on to some practical cases. If there was a single global cryptozoological organization, and I was head of it, where would I stop expending resources?

Here are some I would give up on:

Champ. While some of the reports seem compelling, the lake freezes over. If you postulate a reptile or mammal evolved gills, you can argue that – stranger things have happened – but the further out on an evolutionary limb you have to go, the weaker that limb gets. The odds are just too long to make it worth the effort of looking, especially with no decent film/video evidence (the Mansi photo, I think, was of a floating log). Chad Arment pointed out to me the pattern of freezing should allow for significant amounts of air to be trapped beneath the ice, and some seals survive in similar situations, but I can’t see that as a long-term survival strategy: one unusually hard and fast freeze, and the whole species is dead at one blow..

This gets into the tricky business of evaluating eyewitness reports, especially for those of us who have not met the witnesses. But even the most ardent cryptozoologist has to admit that not all the large creatures around the world supported by apparently sincere eyewitness accounts are real. As Frederick the Great once said, “He who defends everything defends nothing.” Unless the world is swarming with large undiscovered species, you have to throw some of them out. Once you’re past that hurdle, what standard applies? You have to dismiss some animals despite what witnesses swear to, because there’s no other evidence and/or the environmental factors make it unlikely. The reports of sasquatch-like creatures in the British Isles are a good example: we have no evidence for any primate life on the islands ever, the wild habitat has steadily shrunk, the reports are rare and unsupported by any other type of evidence. Whatever people’s experiences, there is no physical giant primate involved.

Live dinosaurs as a group. Yes, the coelacanth proved a Mesozoic creature could exist despite a gap in the fossil record. However, every post-1938 discovery of an animal from that era has been tiny (neopilina, remipedes, graptolites, and so on.) Every one. At some point, you have to quit. No part of the terrestrial habitat went through the K-T event untouched, and no place has been static dino-suitable habitat continually for 60 million years. (See Jacobs’ Quest for the African Dinosaurs (sneering in tone, but scientifically persuasive) concerning the habitat for Mokele-Mbembe. There might still be something, like a big monitor lizard, at the heart of the Mokele-Mbembe tales, but no dinosaur.)

Nessie. Yep, Nessie. It hurts me to write off this beloved myth, but I think it is a myth, or, at best, a lone creature that found its way into the lake as a youngster and has since died. (I do believe there’s at least one elongated marine animal reported as a “sea serpent,” so I’m not contradicting myself here.) I don’t consider all the evidence explained (the Dinsdale film still doesn’t look like a boat to me, although I could be wrong), but there’s been nothing since the 1970s that made me really pay attention, and the ecosystem to support a standing colony or large predators isn’t there. There are few reports and no photographs of anything traversing the River Ness, and the water level rules out an underwater tunnel, so I don’t think we’re dealing with something that comes and goes.

A few years ago, I would have chucked Sasquatch into this Phantom Zone. Missing a huge primate in North America seemed absurd. Frankly, it still does. But a few of the 2000-and-later reports, plus Pyle’s ecological analysis, have moved the needle on my “Real or Imaginary” gauge just a bit. I don’t find any of the imagery to be definitive, not even the PG film, but I want the Big Guy to exist, and maybe, just maybe, he does.

We don’t have to dismiss all the large land animals. New populations of very large land animals have been found recently, and that’s not very different from finding new species. We have the mainland population of the Javan rhinoceros (soon re-exterminated by poachers), the distinctive-looking Asian elephants of Nepal’s Bardia National Park, and the spectacular discovery of an estimated 100,000 or more western lowland gorillas in 2007. It’s been a while since a new species of land animal over the 100kg threshold was found (Vu Quang ox, 1992), but there are quite a few examples since then of smaller but still substantial animals and the aforementioned new populations. So we don’t have to forget about all large cryptids on the basics that all large animals have been found. They may well not have. The orang-pendek and van Roosmalen’s jaguar (the latter likely being a subspecies) are examples of such animals likely to be confirmed soon.

Online Discussion Results

When I put this out on FaceBook pages, I got some interesting suggestions. First, Matt Wetzel pointed out that investigations of remote areas normally produce some useful scientific data even if no cryptid is found, or if it’s a known animal that was outside its known habitat or activities (the ri case comes to mind), and that’s true as far as it goes. Ian C. Thomas suggested this rule: “Definitely once an environment that purportedly supported the species is gone.”

Karianne Muckle on MonsterTalk offered a helpful response: “When your lack of evidence (and evolutionary evidence against) your subject is so overwhelming that it can no longer be ignored.”

Kyle German added a point I hadn’t thought of: “When it appears and disappears within a very short timeframe, say twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Think of the Dover Demon and the Enfield Horror. Both creatures that have yet to reappear.” I added that one to my Rules.

Skeptical writer Ben Radford felt that “if something hasn't been reported in decades (such as the thylacine), it's probably safe to assume that it's no longer alive, even if it was recently.” In fact there have been a few recent thylacine sightings, but the point is valid, and I already had a version of it in my rules.

Someone (I can’t find the post) suggested, “When your book about it no longer sells.” Oft in laughter is the ring of truth: when you can’t spark any interest outside the small circle of cryptozoologists, you may still be right, but it is cause for reflection. As someone said, “To claim the mantle of Galileo, you must not only be suffering ridicule: you must also be provably right.”

Now, what about recent extinctions? I’ve written separately about the fact that cryptozoologists must understand there may never be a solution to every mystery. The Queensland marsupial tiger or yarri is an example of an animal that may well have existed (there are fossils of thylacoleonids that might fit the bill) but might now be gone. The suggestion of “one and done” sightings of now extinct animals has been offered in other cases, such as Steller’s sea monkey and the predator photographed by Rilla Martin in Australia in 1964 (which might in fact be the yarri, though the match to descriptions of the living animal is problematical.) Discovering that an animal did recently exist (for example, finding thylacine remains from the late 20th century) can be a significant scientific find. So some searches are worth doing even if no one is sure a species is still breathing. I wonder if the yeti might turn out to belong in this category.

Some people will find this list too harsh, too skeptical. Others might think the opposite.  But I repeat, these are indicators I'm offering.  No one rule suffices to declare a species beyond the pale.  But the fact is we do have limited resources, and that is true of any branch of science.  No one, astronomer or zoologist, has all the resources he or she might desire.  So hopefully, I'll start a worthwhile conversation.

There ARE new animals out there, and some will be spectacular.  Keep exploring!


Clark said...

It is surprising you argue for less than the fifty year limit when many animals continue to be rediscovered after that. Creatures like the coelacanth were missing for fifty million years. Whatever anyone does I would not give up on lazarus taxa being discovered. Climate changes resulting in changes in range of habitat so we must look where similar habitat exists today.
@You say: "With presumed-extinct species, the opinion of authorities like government bodies, the WWF, and the IUCN is lined up solidly on the “extinct” side" This is a terrible example of ad veracundium or argument from authority.
@Champ and lake cryptids in general very often may visit from the ocean as postulated by Rupert Thomas Gould in his The Case for the Sea Serpent.
@Nessie may no longer visit since the canal and dam were built.
@How could the Dinsdale film be a fish when it was reported to be mahogany colored?
@There was a likely recent Thylacine carcass found in Australia during the twentieth century.

Matt Bille said...

You can find people to take either side of every point you mentioned. The argument from authority is not always convincing or corrct (I think various US bodies have been wrong for a long time about the Eastern cougar), but these bodies do represent scientists who study a given topic, so their views do deserve some weight. Dinsdale thought the object was reddish, but there's no evidence to be had from a black and white film of a very distant object. The age of the thylacine carcass is debated, with Douglas in the minority (though I would not be terribly shocked if a mainland thylacine turned up. ) Thanks as always for speaking up.