Monday, May 30, 2022

Dr. Ron Pine reviews Of Books and Beasts

 Thank you, Ron!

From Dr. Ronald H., Pine, Mammalogist:

This marvelously helpful and informative collection of 400 short reviews of books that will be of interest to and use by those involved in cryptozoology should be on the bookshelf of every one of them.  Actually, amateur and professional naturalists of all sorts will find this a most useful book to own.  That’s because Bille has included reviews of many excellent natural history books that don’t deal at all with cryptozoology or do so only tangentially,  Bille believes that the cryptozoology-inclined should give themselves a good contextual background in natural history in general.  Unfortunately, the subtitle, ‘’A Cryptozoologist’s Library’’ might be a bit off-putting to mainline naturalists who would, in fact, find benefit from owning such a book.  And the cryptozoological reviews might awaken an interest in cryptozoology in them. There really was no way, however, in which Bille could have legitimately omitted the words ‘’cryptozoologist’’ or “cryptozoology” from both the title and subtitle, owing to the book's intent. I have a fair amount of knowledge of the books reviewed, have read many, and Bille’s choices are excellent and I don’t see how they could have been improved upon.  The reviews range in length from a single sentence to a bit in excess of two pages.

Bille generally does a good job at neither advocating for nor arguing against the existence of any particular cryptid and includes books highly critical of cryptozoological claims as well as ones highly partisan in the other direction.  As it happens, I am pretty much a skeptic through and through and Bille’s treatment of the cryptozoological enterprise is more friendly than mine would be.  I maintain, for example, that cryptozoology is a pseudoscience while Bille considers it to be a science.  He states that it is a science because it fits Popper’s ‘’definition'' of science, in that it contains falsifiable propositions.  I would maintain that Popper did not provide a ‘’definition'' of science but merely provided a criterion for which sorts of theories and hypotheses could be regarded as of use in science.  In any event, Popper did not claim that just any system of falsifiable hypotheses necessarily constitutes a science. 

Bille’s list is divided into four sections, one on books dealing, in particular, with cryptozoological issues (constituting a bit more than a third of the pages); one on “other sciences” (present-day and paleontological zoological natural history); one on ‘’crypto-fiction’’(novels and the like and, mercifully, omitting “monster porn,” which is a thing); and one termed a “miscellany.’’  The last does contain reviews dealing with books that don’t fit well into the previous three sections but, curiously, also contains ones that unequivocally would.

There is a general Introduction and each section also has its own Introduction and there is an “Afterwords” consisting of Bille’s ideas concerning which unknown animals are the most likely to turn up and information on his own publications.  The Acknowledgments include the usual, along with a note on how Bille chose which books to review, and another on publishers who produce cryptozoological books.  There is a curious section labeled “Index” which lists, for each of the four sections, the book titles in alphabetical order and with the name(s) of the author or authors also provided, and with each entry numbered in sequence; followed by an alphabetical list of all the authors, without numbers. No page numbers are given.  

Scattered throughout the text are relevant pithy comments by various notables and comments by Bille and called ‘’Matt’s Musings.’'

The factual quality of the book is quite high. One quibble that I have is that in some places Matt seems to be out of sympathy with scientific specimen collecting and overestimates its effects on animal population  numbers but in other places he seems to celebrate the presence of these specimens once they’ve been incorporated into the research collections in a museum.  In his treatment of Ivan T. Sanderson's “Animal Treasure,” Bille mentions Sanderson’s report of a cryptid giant bat, but omits mention of the lizard which Sanderson claimed emitted a sound (literally) as loud as a foghorn.  Although Bille discussed movies based on  some of the novels, he missed the cinema version of ‘’The Relic.’’  Portions of that movie were filmed in the Field Museum in Chicago, when I had an office there. 


Ronald H. Pine, Ph. D.
Adjunct Research Associate,
Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center,
University of Kansas;
Research Associate, Museum of 
Texas Tech University

Matt Bille, author, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Book Review: Between Ape and Human

This book postulates, albeit cautiously, the idea a descendant of the famed "hobbits" (Homo floresiensis) may still live on the Indonesian island of Flores. Dr. Gregory Forth is an anthropologist who did a lot of field work in one section of the island where the Lio people call small "ape-men" lia ho'a. (The name more commonly heard in cryptozoology, ebu gogo, is from a different tribe in a different location.)  Forth provides a great education for cryptozoological researchers about the need to understand indigenous accounts of animals based on the nuances of local culture and languages. The Lio, for example, have different words for head hair and body hair, which provide useful, but they also use the same word for “monkey” and “ape,” which can be confusing. (The Lio had almost no knowledge of apes until the modern era.) Forth also has a lot of interesting things to report about interpretations of the Ling Bua fossils, cultural views of unknown primates, and contamination. The original views of the Lio people about the lia ho’a have been slowly changed by folklore about elf-like creatures discussed on larger islands like Borneo where they’ve traveled for work. Modern entertainment has made inroads, too.

People advocating for a new species as startling as this one sometimes rely on masses of evidence: e.g., “There are 3,000 Bigfoot sightings, so they can’t all be wrong.” What Forth considers good eyewitness accounts number only in the dozens, so he focuses on drawing out commonalities and creating an accurate portrait. I think at times he tries too hard to minimize differences in reports and beliefs, but he’s the one who’s lived there and has the most expertise of anyone at understanding Lio accounts.  The “ape-men” seem to cluster around one meter tall for adult males, and they avoid humans except to raid gardens or grab a chicken. Females, especially, are extremely cautious: there are few good descriptions of them. They have minimal language and don’t appear to make stone tools or fire.  Frost feels they are, generally, a match for the hobbits based on our admittedly limited current knowledge. 

I would have liked more discussion about the ebu gogo – Forth treats only one sighting of those in any depth. Surely they are (if real, extant primates) the same species. Forth’s writing is good, although the opening gave me a mild case of emdash poisoning. This book definitely needed a map.

Forth uses the word “cryptozoology,” but with cation: he never makes comparisons to things like Bigfoot-hunting. The case that this particular creature exists rests on generally-held beliefs plus a handful of sightings. I can't find any reviews at all in the scientific press, which is not promising and may be due to the fragility of the evidence: there's not even a footprint cast or photo, so this book is more about the belief than the primate. In the end, the argument for current existence is thin, but Forth knows it, but he’s intrigued, and who would not be? 

Matt Bille

Author, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library 


Sunday, May 15, 2022

The Creatures of the Kon-Tiki voyage


The Creatures of the Kon-Tiki voyage

                It's hard to imagine a better platform for observing marine life than a slow, silent raft.  The crew of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl's balsa Kon-Tiki discovered this was true when, in 1947, they set out to test Heyerdahl's theory that South American natives could have spread people and culture across the Pacific through raft voyages. The raft sailed west for 101 days until it fetched up on a reef in the Tuamotu Islands.

While scientists today reject Heyerdahl’s idea, given genetic and cultural proof that Polynesia was populated from the other direction, this voyage by six men and a parrot (Lorita, if you’re wondering) was an audacious effort.  The carrying of modern charts and a radio didn’t do much to reduce the hazards of the voyage. The “hull” consisted of nine balsa logs, about two feet in diameter and up to 45 feet long, with smaller logs lashed across them.  Allegedly, a naval officer bet Heyerdahl and his crew a lifetime supply of whisky that they’d never make it across the Pacific alive. (Whether he paid off is not reported.)   

                The raft became something of a floating island, festooned with seaweed and investigated by all manner of marine fauna. The six men of the raft's international crew observed countless sea creatures, including a titanic whale shark which lingered for two days until a crewman pointlessly drove a harpoon into its head.  Heyerdahl also recorded a blue shark he estimated was nearly twenty feet long, which would be (by quite a margin) a record for that sleek predator.

                The voyage did not result in the formal description of any new species, but the crew did collect the first whole specimen of the weird deep-water predator called the snake mackerel. "Collect" may be too strong a word, since the Kon Tiki's two specimens of the fish obligingly jumped onto the raft at night.

                The snake mackerel was previously known only from a few skeletal remains washed ashore in South America. The new specimens showed the eel-shaped fish was about three feet long in life. It was colored violet and blue and featured large black eyes and bladelike teeth. One drowsy crewmember studied this finned nightmare for a moment and shook his head. "No, fish like that don't exist," he decided.

                Of special interest, however, are the visitors that couldn't be identified at all.

                Heyerdahl recorded that, on several nights, the raft was surrounded by "round heads two or three feet in diameter, lying motionless and staring at us with great glowing eyes."  At other times, the crew spotted "balls of light" over three feet across, flashing on and off under the waves.

                One night, a massive, phosphorescent form maneuvered back and forth under the Kon-Tiki. It appeared to change shape, then split into two and then three shining things, whose visible parts alone were estimated at thirty feet long.  No features were visible, just the huge, vaguely oval backs of the three unknown animals, circling under the raft for hours without surfacing. Fascinated crewmembers hung lights over the side to lure the mysterious visitors up, but without results.

                The crew also observed fish they couldn't name.  One was described rather puzzlingly in the log as a "thick dark-colored fish with a broad white body, thin tail, and spikes."  Another was six feet long with a "thin snout, large dorsal fin near head and a smaller one in the middle of the back, heavy sickle-shaped tailfin."  It swam by "wriggling its body like an eel."  On one occasion, thirty of these were observed in a school.

                Several times the raft passed "a huge dark mass, the size of the floor of a room," which remained motionless as they drifted by.

                Heyerdahl thought this last creature was a giant manta ray. Some of the other fellow travelers might have been enormous squid. And the others…?

All six men made the trip safely. The parrot, alas, was killed by a wave, although a hitchhiking crab named Johannes became a popular pet. Heyerdahl died in 2002, and his raft is on display in Oslo in his native Norway. Interestingly, one recent study (Ioannidi et. al., 2020) reported there was at least one instance in which a few South Americans did make this voyage.

Several rafts have made this crossing since, but none met all the creatures Heyerdahl reported. Might it still be worth repeating with modern sonar, night vision equipment, and collecting apparatus? I can’t find any source in which Heyerdahl’s creatures were identified, although I suspect the large fish have been identified since the voyage.  Still, some of Kon-Tiki’s strange companions could remain mysteries for years to come, reminders that beneath the waves is something very much like another planet, where we are only visitors. 

Heyerdahl, Thor. Kon-Tiki. George Allen and Unwin, 1950

Alexander G. Ioannidi et. al.. “Native American gene flow into Polynesia predating Easter Island settlement,” Nature, July 2020

Albright, Syd. “HISTORY CORNER: Thor Heyerdahl and Kon-Tiki,,” April 22, 221,

Saturday, May 07, 2022

Book Review: Monster Hunt

Monster Hunt

by Tim Dinsdale

Acropolis books, 1972 edition, 295pp. 

This is a book from what one might call the golden age of monster hunting, back when everything seemed possible and eager adventurers scoured the globe. 

Tim Dinsdale is most famous for his 1961 film of the Loch Ness Monster. He would go on to take part in many more monster expeditions and photographic efforts. In this book his writing brims with hope, optimism, and digs at “science.”

Dinsdale feels that organized science is ignoring what he thinks is definitive evidence: not only his film, but multiple-witness sightings from different locations and the entire body of reports and stories about the monster.

Dinsdale goes on to look at sea serpents: not surprisingly. these are his second-favorite creatures. Most of the stories are familiar to readers of Heuvelmans or Gould. 

Dinsdale branches out into reporting and commenting on everything from giant catfish in South America (which are not entirely out of realm of possibility), blob-like carcasses washed up around the world, and Amazonian snakes, some allegedly over 100 feet long. Until I first read this book, I’d never heard of the claim by fishermen who caught and examined a small mermaid and let it go. It’s surely a hoax, but it’s interesting reading. The same is true for the tale of whalers who claim they’ve seen an animal with no visible features except a huge black back they've never gotten close enough to harpoon.

Dinsdale recounts his own expeditions of the Loch including the famous 1971 sonar expedition. He includes photographs of sonar charts and claims that the loch houses caves and overhangs that might conceal a monster. Dinsdale does not reject conventional explanations in some cases, but he's certain there’s enough to prove the monster’s existence. It’s unfortunate that Dinsdale never got the evidence he wanted or the success he thought was surely just around the corner. One puts away this book with a bit of sadness knowing, in 2022, that this romantic quest ended in the same ambiguous realm where it began.