Sunday, March 24, 2013

Give up on "Lake Monsters?"

Cryptozoologists - myself included - love the idea that large undiscovered animals lurk almost at our doorsteps, in the lakes and rivers.
I no longer believe that they do.  With some qualifications, I think they are mythical.  I could be wrong, and I hope I am.  But as decades pass with no better evidence, we ought to take a very hard look at this business.

I know there are many respectable people who are certain what they have seen in Okanagan and Champlain and Loch Ness.  But there are many sources of error.  And what do we make of the fact that, after decades of modern cryptozoological investigation, we have not a single piece of hard evidence from any location?
We have some suggestive things, to be sure. The Folden film from Okanagan, the Dinsdale film from Ness, that really odd piece of video like a moving underwater pipe from Champlain.  Dinsdale's film still doesn't look like a boat to me, although I can't say for certain it isn't.  Some of the sonar and hydrophone work in Ness and Champlain is intriguing. But "unexplained" and "proof of a large unknown animal" are not quite the same thing.
(By the way, I am making an exception for Lake Iliamna, where the creatures are clearly fish: this may prove to be the case in several other lakes as well.)
I am arguing here that the Holy Grail of lake monsters - a viable population of very large creatures unknown to science - is not going to be found.
We have lake monsters reported from around the world. All of them cannot be real.  As we try to draw the line at lakes with an impressive collection of sightings and discard the rest, it's pretty fuzzy. Where do we draw it? If we dismiss seemingly solid reports from Lake X, do we have to dismiss the ones from Lake Y? No, not necessarily, but it's a difficult judgment call.
There are rare things in the world that only a few people have been lucky enough to see, like ball lightning, Mesoplodon Species B, the kouprey, the (I think this one is valid) orang-pendek.  But despite the size of our lakes, we're dealing with restricted areas with increasing populations of boaters, fisherfolk, and so forth, with almost everyone in developed nations now carrying a camera-capable cell phone. 
I can't give any credence, despite a handful of sightings, to the idea basilosaurids or plesiosaurs can haul out on land, so it's okay that we have not caught any lake monsters on the shore. But that also  means I don't think lake monsters elude us by crossing land between lakes, where they are likely to be spotted and certain to leave evidence of their passing..
We also have no eggs or nests, so we are considering only possible animals that bear live young in the water.    Again, this could be the case. 
I happen to believe there is at least one large unknown, maybe two, behind "sea serpent" reports. And I grant that the occasional sea creature (be it sea elephant, shark, or unclassified giant eel) can wander far up rivers and into lakes.  So some sightings may be, in fact, and individual of a species unknown to science.  But if we go back to the question of a breeding colony of giant animals in a lake, the case for that eventuality does not convince me.  
We're talking about creatures who have existed for centuries, and what do we have? Eyewitnesses, sincere ones to be sure.  But no bodies. No fish with big unexplained teeth marks on them. No definitive film or video.  Not (so far as I am aware) a single sighting from the air in any of the "major" monster lakes outside Iliamna.  No scales or other residue from a collision.  Some broken fishing lines and torn nets, but we can't say from what.  If we could somehow, from a God's-eye view, remove all the cases caused by sturgeon, swimming moose, seiche waves, and so on, what would we have left? Some intriguing stuff, to be sure, but convincing evidence for overlooked colonies of huge animals?  Again, aside from the occasional wayward sea creature, known or unknown, I don't think what's left is convincing.
Some may think me illogical, since I believe in an oceangoing unknown of which there are NO photographs (the Mary F pictures are completely unconvincing, and videotape from  Chesapeake Bay is intriguing but inconclusive.) But there's a difference between a breeding population in 139 million square miles of ocean and one in a lake, even a big lake. 
I salute and encourage the efforts of those who try to find creatures in such lakes. I wish you amazing success.  You may find something that's wandered up form the oceans: it can happen with known animals, it can happen with unknown ones. You may find an outsized specimen of a sturgeon or other freshwater fish, But I'm not anticipating you'll find any endemic lake creatures.  Years pass bringing more evidence, but never bringing hard evidence.  I think it's a gap that will never be closed.

atlantic sturgeon and shortnose sturgeon
In this photo you see the Atlantic sturgeon (top) and Shortnose sturgeon (bottom) (or Acipenser oxyrinchus and Acipenser brevirostrum), both showing the ridged backs with their dermal scutes that can make these fish look, at the surface, like a row of fins or humps following a prehistoric-looking head. (NOAA)


Laurence Clark Crossen said...

The idea is that, if basilosaurs and plesiosaurs can move off of a beach and back into the water then their corpses are less likely to be found beached. Considering that plesiosaurs have four flippers and basilosaurs are elongate for whales I think they must be much more capable of freeing themselves from a beach than whales. There is a recent news video of an elephant seal moving about on a street in South America just this past week.

It has long been supposed that plesiosaurs laid eggs on beaches? Only recently has some evidence been found they may have borne live young. Perhaps some laid eggs and others did not. The matter is not settled.

I certainly agree there are no populations of basilosaurs or plesiosaurs living primarily in lakes. I suggest they still live in the oceans and occasionally venture into fresh water when fishing is good.

It seems to me that after the many known sources of error have been factored in, the sighting reports provide much that remains to be explained.

Laurence Clark Crossen said...

"Why did the elephant seal cross the road?"

Laurence Clark Crossen said...

Regarding the question of whether a large enough breeding population may be there if large lake cryptids move over land to mate...

This would obviously be more evident than if they only laid eggs on a beach at night and then returned to the ocean via a river.

Matt Bille said...

All the recent Plesiosaur publications I've read indicate they bore live young at sea. Now that makes them less likely to be discovered than if they laid eggs on land, of course.

Laurence Clark Crossen said...

Lacustrine plesiosaurs are known to have existed. I suspect they laid eggs.

Matt Bille said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Bille said...

There's a lot to be learned there. I know there's at least one species that colonized fresh water, but it wasn't an early bird: it only showed up well after the species had established live birth at sea. Why would it have changed birthing modes?

Laurence Clark Crossen said...

I always regard it as an unwarranted inference to suppose that the earliest fossil indicates how early the creature existed. This is the same way people jump to conclusions about extinction, presuming the date of the last fossil was the date of the extinction. There does not exist a complete fossil record discovered as yet and there never will. I think that they first laid eggs and then only some evolved to give live birth. Why would the ones that remained near shore give up laying eggs?

Matt Bille said...

Clark, it could have happend that way, and your point about the fossil record is valid. I would say, though, that no mystery lake creature lays eggs on shore because there's never even been a report, much less documentation, of a nest or eggs in any of these cases.