Tuesday, January 05, 2016

ICM Conference, Day 2 (updated and completed entry)

International Cryptozoology Museum Conference
Day 2
January 5, 2016

Today was the full day of presentations here at the ICM conference. Not to throw in a plug, but the Casa Monica is a great old hotel, updated with all the amenities, and Loren Coleman of the ICM did a great job in picking the hotel and getting everyone an affordable rate at the height of tourist season.
I’d forgotten how touristy Florida was: the tackiness is so assertive that a kind of grandeur creeps into it.  It’s different from the tackiness you see in most tourist spots, though: in Florida, it’s an affectionate kind of tacky, where everyone, locals and visitors, is in on the joke and no one takes it too seriously.  This is the first European city in the Americas, and there’s a lot of real history showing its face amid the T-shirt shops. 

Anyway, today was all about presentations. I am a skeptic of most cryptozoolgical claims: it would take more than we have now to make me believe in huge unknown American primates or Mongolian death worms.  But the level of science in the presentations was frankly higher than I’d expected, and I came away understanding much better WHY the convinced people are convinced.  People who are sure cryptozoology has nothing to offer science should spend more time with these folks.  At the very least, their work tells us more about folklore, beliefs, and the way we view nature. At the most, it may yet point the way to some major discoveries. (BTW, these are in the order I wrote them up, not exactly the order they were presented in.)

My presentation on bears was very well received. I pointed out mysteries that still exist with bears (the reported giant black variety of the Kamchatka brown bear) while arguing that other questions, such as the identity of the odd grizzly known as MacFarlane’s bear, can be put to rest. Bears offer many lessons for cryptozoologists, from the ways they are tracked and studied to the attitudes of officialdom toward inconvenient reports.  I gave the presentation to Loren and will share it with anyone who asks.

My day: photo by Michelle Souliere of the ICM (I'm having some trouble downloading images from my phone, but will get it done.) 

French cryptozoologist Michael Raynal couldn’t attend in person or by Skype, so Loren Coleman did his presentation on the giant octopus of St. Augustine. It was a fascinating presentation, with a lot of old news clippings and photos, with Dr. Paul LeBlond (see below), a Canadian, helping out by translating some verbiage from the French. The carcass that came ashore in 1896, was, very probably, a sperm whale’s blubber/skin/connective tissue, but as long as we’re not absolutely certain, some mystery – and some fun – remains. (Or I hope it does: personally I write this off now as a whale. As usual, I hope I'm wrong.) Terry Cullen, a herpetological genetics expert in attendance, suggested the newest tests should be done on the bits of tissue that still remain as samples. Loren made the interesting point that the tourist mecca of St. Augustine has somehow missed making any financial hay out of this event: indeed, local shops hold nothing about it at all.  

Dr. LeBlond, a physicist and oceanographer whose curiosity drew him into the “Caddy” business some years ago, opened by describing two recurrent “sea monster” motifs of First Nations people in the British Columbia and adjoining areas. What’s come to be called “Caddy” is also well known locally, and LeBlond has amassed a large collection of sightings which he believes make the two most important criteria: 1) Clearly an animal, and 2) not a KNOWN animal. Plotting these by length from 10 feet (noting that 10-footers could be seals), to 100-footers (mistaken whales?) yields a cluster at 40-59 feet.   He notes that sighting areas do not stay static over time: that is, you can have a run of sightings in one area, then a gap of several years before that area produces another sighting. On the complex issue of the Nash video of numerous animals which appear to be harassing a pod of belugas, he notes the animals turned back when they neared a fishing boat’s nets, and, while features like flippers were never seen, the front ends seemed to have a profile something like a Boeing 747 with its bulbous nose section. At one point, in a video segment which is either lost or taped over, LeBlond and cryptozoologist John Kirk (viewing it separately) saw a head, a bit like a seal’s but much more oval in horizontal cross-section when seen from the front and with a smaller neck, pop up and look toward the camera. I discussed with him afterward the question of how sure he was that a drawing of this, circulated widely in the cryptozoological community and in his latest book, was accurate. He was cautious about it: it matched what he remembered, but with he and Kirk contributing what they thought the tape showed at a considerable distance to an artist, the final drawing is “about five steps removed” from what the actual animal looks like, and there is some margin for error. 

Archaeologist/anthropologist Kathy Strain gave a very thought-provoking presentation about the prevalence of Sasquatch-type creatures in Native American lore.  I knew there were a lot of legends, stories, and, supposedly, history about such creatures, but I had no idea how ubiquitous it was. “Hairy Man” type creatures exist in art, basketry, songs, dances, totem poles, and oral histories, much of it pre-Columbian.  While there are many variations, a common and amusing one was that females carried baskets and swept up bad children to take them away to eat, while males, often half-human, sort of blundered around eating mostly nuts and shellfish.  Strain showed old films of dances, showed pictographs of Hairy Man people weeping (because humans were afraid of them), and played back a haunting song from one tribe that only women were allowed to sing (it asked the Hairy Man to come take away the spirits of the dead at a funeral.)  Since many Western stories are about real animals endowed with fanciful characteristics, she argues, these kinds of beliefs don’t mean the animals are not real. When I asked how a non-expert could differentiate between spiritual and physical creatures in Native American tales, she explained that a creature could be either or both, just as Christians and others believe we are both body and spirit/soul. The art object she showed that stuck with me was a centuries-old Haida mask decorated with horsehair that looks so much like an ape that she is  stumped to suggest what else it could be, and I had the same reaction. While many cultures can tell visitors what they want to hear, either to please them or to pull their legs, Strain believes the unbroken continuity of countless tribes’ beliefs across ages indicate that recent additions don’t detract from the essential point that those who lived here before Columbus widely believed such creatures were real, and many believe they are here still. (Native Americans believe that, however their own ancestors arrived in North America, the hairy ones were already here just as all the other animals were.) None of this adds up to hard evidence of existence, but collectively it's a bit challenging to just dismiss as myth.

Cliff Barackman gave a very good tutorial on footprints, focusing mostly on mystery primates but with other examples. He stressed that a footprint is not an image of the foot: it is an image of the damage the foot did to the ground, which may be quite different.  Indeed, two footprints made in succession by the same animal can look different, and footprints' origin can be disguised by various forces: for example, overlapping bear tracks can look surprisingly human.  A common trait in fake sasquatch feet is the lack of flexibility: Barackman argues the real primate he believes exists has very flexible feet (some experts say there is a mid-tarsal break, essentially an extra joint, but Cliff doesn’t go that far). He dismisses three- and four-toed impressions as hoaxes.  He argues several sets of “real” tracks have very clear dermal ridges, although he did not really address how wide the variation is in what are deemed by various researchers to be authentic five-toed sasquatch tracks.  On the rarity of apparent juvenile impressions, he and others at the conference have noted that genuine juvenile footprints might be taken for bare human feet.  Whatever one thinks of sasquatch, he imparted a great deal of useful information, especially for us suburban folk trying to understand technical discussions over footprints. He has collected some 50 impressions of Sumatra’s orang-pendek and, while he believes this is a real animal, doesn’t believe it’s related to the Flores “hobbits” – the widely separated big toe is distinctly ape-like.
I asked him about one of the most puzzling footprints of all time, that photographed in the snows of Everest by Shipton and Ward, and he felt this was not related to sasquatch-type creatures or the orang-pendek: if it was a genuine print, it belonged to some other species.

Biologist and TV host Pat Spain of the series Beast Hunters stood up, and I'm glad he was late in the day because following his act would have been impossible. Funny, personable, and persuasive, he explained how a biologist who started by studying shellfish (he once submitted a paper subtitled  "Sprat Pain by Pat Spain" ended up chasing cryptids all over the world. Along the way, he discovered that watching a Westerner use the latrine is entertainment in a remote Cameroon village and that young female orangutans are capable of molesting a human male in the most intimate, uncomfortable, and embarrassing ways possible.
He felt at least two animals, mokele-mbembe and the Mongolian death worm, were cultural constructs, and explained what purpose each legend served in its respective culture. He noted that with mokele-mbembe, looking at pictures of different animals has been gamed by local entrepreneurs: people looked to the guides for nods on whether they should say a certain animal lived in their area.
Spain didn't see an orang-pendek but is convinced they exist. The local people he worked with in Sumatra not only seemed truthful but a bit awed by the animal's humanlike locomotion: while it may be a type of gibbon, it walks bipedally by nature, without the usual gibbon arm-balancing. He emphasized the people he talked to knew every detail of the lives of gibbons, orangutans, and other local primates.  Most memorably, he reported a conversation with Dr. Mike Morwood, the discoverer of the 18,000-year-old Flores "hobbits," who told Spain he had hard evidence, which he planned to publish, showing that species was alive into the 1920s! The evidence was apparently lost or misplaced with the scientist's premature death of cancer in 2013, although it may lie somewhere in his archives awaiting rediscovery. Someone really needs to push this hard and find out what he had.
Likewise, the certainty of a tribe Spain befriended in the Amazon (by going through an incredibly painful ritual involving gloves filled with huge stinging ants) about the mapinguari made him feel some kind of ground sloth was a distinct possibility.  He also thinks some form of large sea creature exists within the "Caddy" data. He doesn't know what it is, but the number of sincere witnesses he  talked to, given the fact that "every marine scientist believes there are some large animals left undiscovered," makes him fairly certain something is afoot.
Spain argued hard that cryptozoology and "mainstream" biology are mutually supporting: his work on Caddy included looking at the oarfish as a candidate and funded the first-ever CAT scan of an oarfish, producing a trove of data on that very strange creature.
I asked Spain about the use of cryptozoology in science education, something I've proposed a panel on for the June 2016 Denver ComiCon. He thinks it's very valuable and described how he's gotten young people to learn about the woods by suggesting they look for Bigfoot and along the way studying animal tracking, ecology, and the food chain. Loren Coleman asked him if mokele-mbembe might be, not a reptile, but a semi-aquatic rhino: Spain is certain, though, that the area he examined houses nothing exceptional. (The geology of the area, he noted, ruled out any underground or underwater caves, although he did not go to one other site, Lake Tele: it's unreachable due to conflicts. )

We ended up at a theater watching Revenge of the Creature, the slightly inferior but still impressive sequel to The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Lagoon films remain surprisingly effective and affecting: the creature's loneliness and his torment at being shocked by scientists studying his learning capability come through well, and the suits remain superb even on close examination.

 And so ended a very, very interesting day.

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Jenny Hayes said...
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