Cryptozoology

by Greg Mayer

The spotted lion is a favorite topic within cryptozoology. Bernard Heuvelmans, the late Belgian zoologist known as the “father of cryptozoology”, defined cryptozoology as

The scientific study of hidden animals, i.e., of still unknown animal forms about which only testimonial and circumstantial evidence is available, or material evidence considered insufficient by some!

Although, not mentioned in the brief definition, Heuvelmans also included the study of known, but supposedly extinct, animals, that might still be extant, based on testimonial or circumstantial evidence. Animals that are of interest to cyptozoologists are known as cryptids.

The roster of cryptids includes such beasties as the Loch Ness monster, the abominable snowman, and bigfoot. This might suggest to some that cryptozoology is pretty out there, a pseudoscience. But, in fact, the question of what cryptozoology is turns out to be more interesting, as the spotted lion story itself indicates.

Many zoologists (especially systematic zoologists), like cryptozoologists, are interested in discovering and describing previously unknown species of animals (with my friend and colleague Skip Lazell, I’ve described one myself). For many zoologists, in fact, its their full time occupation. There are millions of undescribed species of animals awaiting scientific investigation.

So if cryptozoologists are looking for undescribed species, and zoologists are looking for undescribed species, what’s the difference? Well, one minor difference is that cryptozoologists tend to be interested in fairly large undiscovered species. Most newly described species are small (most are insects), although a few pretty big ones have been discovered in the recent past (e.g., giant muntjac, sao la, megamouth shark, and Chacoan peccary).

But size isn’t the key difference. The key difference is what sort of evidence is taken to be compelling evidence of the existence of an animal. For a zoologist, testimonial evidence, such as stories about spotted lions, might be a good reason to go looking for something, but you don’t have any real evidence until you actually get one of the animals. Having an actual specimen is the standard of evidence in systematic zoology. In cryptozoology, there is a wide range of practice in what kind of evidence is considered compelling. Heuvelmans himself leaned pretty strongly toward accepting testimony as fairly compelling (while strongly rejecting, however, attempts to make cryptozoology a form of mysticism or paranormal exploration, as was done in, for example, John Keel’s Strange Creatures From Time and Space). Other cryptozoologists, however, explicitly adopt the zoological standard of evidence. In their Cryptozoology A to Z, Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark write about some cryptids in the following way

Unfortunately, without a specimen, this can only be conjecture. [referring to the possible identity of a supposed giant bear of Kamchatka]

and

And it is from the Dani [a New Guinea tribe] that [Tim] Flannery received his first real evidence of the bondegezou, in the form of skins and associated trophies. [referring to a newly discovered species of tree kangaroo known as the bondegezou; emphases added in both quotes]

And, in writing about what cryptids are, they state

It is often impossible to tell which category an unknown animal actually inhabits until you catch it. [emphasis added]

In stressing the importance of obtaining a specimen(s) in figuring out what cryptids are, Coleman and Clark are doing just what a systematic zoologist would do. There is no difference in their standards of evidence, only in what catches their attention as being worthy of inquiry. The latter is a matter of personal interest and taste, not scientific method, so the Coleman & Clark practice of cryptozoology is not pseudoscience at all. (There are also a lot of crack pots and frauds out there too.)

Coleman, in addition to his own website, contributes to the website Cryptomundo. But my favorite website dealing with cryptozoology is Darren Naish’s Tetrapod Zoology. He’s a dinosaur paleontologist, and most of his posts are on more orthodox aspects of tetrapod zoology, but he posts occasionally on cryptozoological topics, often analyzing evidence, and sometimes resolving the issue. Here, for example, are his insightful explications of the Montauk Monster, a cryptid from my home island, which turned out to be a raccoon that had expired and gone to meet ‘is maker. Go to his site and look around for more fun posts like these.

23 Comments

  1. MadScientist
    Posted February 5, 2010 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    I swear I spotted a spotted chupacabra just the other day …

  2. Posted February 5, 2010 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Creationists sometimes dabble in the loony end of cryptozoology. There’s the well-known “plesiosaur” carcass hauled up by a fishing trawler some years ago, and I’ve also encountered enthusiasm for reports of a possible living sauropod in Africa.

  3. Marilyn
    Posted February 5, 2010 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Are you serious? Because you say so, cryptozooly is not quacky? You have to be kiddin’ or medicated

    • tomh
      Posted February 5, 2010 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

      Well, he gave his reasons and explanations. Do you have any?

    • Posted February 5, 2010 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

      He didn’t say that (and he spelled it right, and he wasn’t rude). Notice “so the Coleman & Clark practice of cryptozoology is not pseudoscience at all.” That doesn’t mean all cryptozoology is not pseudoscience, nor did he say that. Reading comprehension fail.

    • blue
      Posted February 5, 2010 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

      he didn’t say cryptozooly is not quacky, he said some cryptozooloGists are not pseudo-scientific.

      I think we can all agree that cryptozooly is quite quacky, particularly the search for the Giant Honking Mallard of Loch Daffy. very cryptozooly.

    • Marilyn
      Posted February 6, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      I did not mean to be rude,god forbid! if anybody thought that I apologize: medicated is common parlance in some subcultures and actually is a benovelent form of “what are you on?” as for the missed letters, sorry, Im a descendent of Lucky Luke, i.e: faster than my own shadow, the board cant keep up with my train of thought. As for crytozoology, it seemed curious to bring the subject up after pseudoscience. Was hoping for some interesting psychological slip; However, I still claim there are unsettled and unsettling issues about this-pseudoscience, lies, cheating and hopes; case in point : Dr ira casson and his testimony about NFL players head injuries ? Sadly, for decades, NFL has denied that the the sports results in massive concussions leading to brain damage and death. Is Dr Casson a pseudoscientist or a criminal? Are we and the NFL accomplices ?? How come we are so strident about vaccine/autism and else? How do we choose to denounce one and not the other? With this, Im leaving for a scientist-tail gate party-and enjoy the superbowel…ave cesar morituri te salutant!!

      • Posted February 8, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        Is this the same Marilyn that has been doing the anti-evolution trolling?

        The NFL head injury thing is actually very interesting, and I think that you will find that skeptics are increasingly interested in it. I seem to recall at least one skeptic blog covering it. The differences between this and the anti-vax paranoia are: 1) the evidence against a vaccine/autism link is overwhelming and has been for some time, while the evidence demonstrating the NFL/head injury link is only just starting to become truly compelling in the last few years; and 2) vaccination is a matter of public health that affects hundreds of millions of people, while football head injuries effects a few tens of thousands (a few thousand in the NFL, then plus college players). Note I am not making the argument that, “Well, they consented, so who cares!”, because it has not really been informed consent, and in any case, pressuring someone to undergo traumatic brain injury for the sake of their career is probably not okay anyway. But in terms of priorities, I’m far more worried about a possible resurgence of measles than I am about (non-contagious) head injuries in football players.

  4. Posted February 5, 2010 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    “Heuvelmans also included the study of known, but supposedly extinct, animals, that might still be extant, based on testimonial or circumstantial evidence.”

    I don’t suppose anybody’s seen an Ivory Bill again, since that one time? Ivory Bill still very crypto?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted February 5, 2010 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

      No, the Ivory Bill has not been seen again. See http://www.birds.cornell.edu/ivory/ for the latest. Cornell people were part of the disputed 2004 rediscovery, so this site takes an honest, but optimistic view. The issues in establishing the continued existence of the Ivory Bill are essentially the same as those in establishing the existence of a cryptid. Sight records and photographic evidence are of limited utility. Although not drawing the parallel to cryptozoology, Jerome Jackson (2006, Auk 123:1-15) clearly identified the difficulties in accepting eyewitness testimony (see http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/24/science/24ivor.html?_r=1 ). Jackson famously derided the Ivory Bill rediscovery as “faith based ornithology”; to say that a claim is faith based is about the most damning criticism a scientist can make.

      GCM

      • Posted February 6, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

        Thanks Greg. I thought as much.

        I so want to believe. No that’s not right – I so wish there were grounds for belief.

  5. Bill
    Posted February 5, 2010 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    Just to second the words of praise for Tet Zoo – best crypto zoo site ever, not to mention all the other good stuff

    • blue
      Posted February 5, 2010 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

      and don’t forget SV-POW, another blog darren contributes to! though that one is REALLY paleoanthropologeeky, strictly for the ‘ardcore…

  6. Posted February 6, 2010 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    My problem with cryptozoologists as a whole is their antipathy towards scientists. My problem with scientists as a whole is their antipathy towards cryptozoologists. Is it too late to foster a relationship between the two as exists between amateur and professional astronomers?

    Greg, I agree with you regarding evidence. However, I strongly disagree with those who categorically reject even the strongest circumstantial evidence. Circumstantial evidence may do no more than present the possibility, but at least it raises the possibility.

    Oh, and before another raises the objection, “What evidence?” let me point people to another supporter of my favorite cryptid, Jeff Meldrum. He may not have a body, but he’s got a ton of circumstantial evidence a PHD candidate in zoology could do a thesis on.

    The problem I see with cryptozoologists is, they tend to conflate all sorts of different creatures. This is also the problem I see with scientists where cryptozoology is concerned. Such as the chupacabra are creatures of myth and legend. Folk tales in other words. When a living chupy is found it invariably turns out to be a canine with a very bad case of mange. Animals such as Champ (Lake Champlain) are also creatures of folklore, with no reliable evidence pointing to them, but mostly anecdote and supposition.

    Contrast this to animals such as the almas and the yeti, for which there are footprints and hairs as well as sightings. As a matter of fact, there is a story out of Russia wherein a female almas was captured by villagers in the Russian Far East, wed to one of those villagers, and had children by him (look up “Almas” in Wikipedia).

    Then you have the American Hyena, where we do have reported remains, which are supposed to be tested, but other than the mention on Loren Coleman’s site, nothing. So having the remains doesn’t necessarily mean an animal gets identified. The why leads us to the question of human behavior, and why we do so many self-destructive things.

    I could also mention how species keep getting discovered from photographs, in oceanography, but that’s a special case and involves trained observers. For now let me note that cryptozoologists could start working smarter, scientists could stop being so damn hostile to the idea of unknown animals, and this myth that cryptids must perforce be equivalent to magic and similar psychic phenomena.

    • Posted February 6, 2010 at 12:19 am | Permalink

      (I spaced this, my Aspergers you know.)

      …[phenomena] could be discarded like the festering crap it is.

    • Notagod
      Posted February 6, 2010 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, and like zombies too, because there are like 53,4d22,6t66 christians that can prove that one right there.

      • Posted February 6, 2010 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

        Notagod, If ever you had occasion to kill yourself I would advise against falling on your sword. You’d only wind up frustrated.

    • llewelly
      Posted February 8, 2010 at 12:50 am | Permalink

      The problem I see with cryptozoologists is, they tend to conflate all sorts of different creatures. This is also the problem I see with scientists where cryptozoology is concerned. Such as the chupacabra are creatures of myth and legend. Folk tales in other words. When a living chupy is found it invariably turns out to be a canine with a very bad case of mange. Animals such as Champ (Lake Champlain) are also creatures of folklore, with no reliable evidence pointing to them, but mostly anecdote and supposition.
      Contrast this to animals such as the almas and the yeti, for which there are footprints and hairs as well as sightings. As a matter of fact, there is a story out of Russia wherein a female almas was captured by villagers in the Russian Far East, wed to one of those villagers, and had children by him (look up “Almas” in Wikipedia).

      Uh, “… had children by him”?
      Without evidence, human / non-human hybrids are either folklore or Star Trek.

  7. Brian
    Posted February 6, 2010 at 2:56 am | Permalink

    I think cryptozoologists should search for the Tassy Tiger or Thylacaleo that seem to be spotted now and again. That said, I think it’s usually a mangy fox instead of a Thylacaine. And I don’t think Thylacaleo has been about for many thousands of years. But we know that they did exist.

  8. Marilyn
    Posted February 6, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Isnt the world a small village? Frontal Cortex wrote a comment on cryptozoology!! Well, tangentially and inadvertently His geist is taxonomy. I wont comment, but I say of course!!!: how was I so rude not to mention Jorge Luis Borges and his Celestial Emporium of benevolent knowledge?-I used to have it under my pillow..in spanish-Borges wrote more about cryptozoology? Neruda, the chilean poet, also did cryptozoo, I humbly declare I love cryptozoo; talk about slips… Youll find Borges astounding astounding, I suggest. sorry sorry

  9. Peter N
    Posted February 6, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to recommend an excellent podcast devoted to cryptozoology, “Monster Talk”, at http://www.skeptic.com/podcasts/; and also the blog http://forgetomori.com/ (which covers an array of extraordinary claims, with a lot of crypto stuff).

  10. Posted February 7, 2010 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    I see one comment maker, even in her reply to others, continues to spell the topic under discussion (including the one about the misspelling of “cryptozooly”) as “crytozoology.” I suppose there’s some kind of prank being played on us, but whatever. Some of us do take cryptozoology seriously, and yet have a sense of humor too.

    Yes, Darren Naish’s blog is good and quite academic, befitting my friend Darren’s frame-of-reference. We don’t engage in popularity contests, and are happy people finally have choices to pick from in cryptozoological blogs. My blog contributions at Cryptomundo,com, around for a half decade now, contain a wide range of academic to popular culture postings. I appreciate that people here like them. Thank you.

    Unfortunately, it does seem, we have to put up with things like the Montauk Monster (which I named, btw) that turned out to be a raccoon, and media accounts of “Texas Chupacabas” and “Maine Mutants,” which are really mangy dogs, dead coyotes, and thin foxes.

    Despite these attention-seeking bumps along the way, there are scores of discoveries of new species happening every week because people are employing the cryptozoological method. We all are enriched by these.

    I look forward to all of you – fans, friends, skeptics, debunkers, and merely interested folks stopping by and visiting with me at and taking a tour of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine, during the coming months.

    Best wishes to all,
    Loren

  11. Posted February 8, 2010 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    I think of cryptozoology as a “pseudo-pseudoscience”, in that there is nothing psuedoscience-y about it per se, but unfortunately it often winds up being practiced as a pseudoscience. (Present company excepted, of course!) There are other fields where this is a problem, too, e.g. the fine line between herbalism and pharmacognosy.

    Anyway, great post Greg. I found the part about differing standards vs. differing interests especially illuminating.


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