Thursday, July 14, 2011
In Praise of Cryptobiologists
In fact they should offer a decent prize for the safe capture of a whole range of cryptids in order to encourage the work they do. The blind, dumb and stupid can locate a gazelle while stumbling drunk across the African Savanna. Yet the moment you are looking for refugia constrained fauna, you have to:
1 Predict the existence of such refugia.
2 Properly describe such refugia.
3 Predict the existence of a survival population in the refugia.
4 Predict the characteristics of such a creature.
5 Locate plausible local sightings that make the hunt even possible.
6 Spend hundreds of thousands of dollars over years in order to locate and describe the animal.
7 Get increditably lucky.
And of course, in the case of the Sasquatch, the creature is nocturnal and smart and is actively avoiding any such contact.
And while we are at it, most of these creatures just happen to be nocturnal and generally scarce.
Just how many grad students and their professors are going to attempt the above program? For that, as in the mining industry we need prospectors. So give a prize.
This week we picked up the real trail of the ‘extinct’ giant ground sloth and in past work we have tightened our noose around a theropod, giant owls, sea serpents, and several swamp based large reptiles.
In the meantime, ten thousand individual class A sightings of Bigfoot make skepticism a fool’s errand and a major program well worth the push.
The call of the weird: In praise of cryptobiologists
22 June 2011 by William Laurance
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Scientists who search for obscure or supposedly extinct creatures are not getting the respect and recognition they deserve
LAST December an 8-second amateur video went viral. Shot in remote northern
, the blurry footage featured a
long-tailed mammal trotting across a meadow with an oddly stilted gait.
According to the film-maker, Tasmania
McAllister, the animal was a Tasmanian tiger. Murray
The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, is a wolf-sized marsupial predator that has been presumed extinct since the last known specimen died in
zoo in 1936. Yet
despite its apparent demise, reports of Tassie tigers refuse to die. Hundreds
of sightings, many from seemingly credible observers, have been recorded, both
and on the mainland. Tasmania
When I saw the video there was something vaguely familiar about it. Then it hit me: the animal moved like a red fox. I'd raised a fox as a boy in the western US, and they have a peculiar way of trotting. Soon, others were saying the same thing. Then a faecal sample McAllister collected was analysed for its DNA: it was a red fox.
McAllister has been searching for the Tasmanian tiger since 1998. Though he might not describe himself as such, he is a cryptobiologist, a chaser of mythical, mysterious or supposedly extinct species. Cryptobiologists are a diverse lot, ranging from conventional scientists to eccentrics far from the mainstream. All share a dream of discovering elusive or unknown creatures unrecognised by conventional science - and with it their share of instant fame.
Everyone knows about fabled creatures like Nessie and Bigfoot, but cryptobiologists actually chase a far larger menagerie of exotic beasts which they collectively term "cryptids". Some, like the Tasmanian tiger, clearly once existed. Others, such as giant vampire bats, conceivably might exist, having somehow escaped the attentions of conventional scientists. The third category, oddities such as the
devil and the mothman, are strictly on the fringes.
The more credible side of the cryptobiology crowd can be a pretty serious lot. Some, such as tropical ecologist David Bickford of the
of Singapore and Aaron
Bauer, an evolutionary biologist and herpetologist at Villanova
University in , are respected mainstream
scientists. Bickford has discovered a number of previously unknown species,
including a bizarre lungless
frog that lives only beneath waterfalls in Pennsylvania Borneo.
The most committed cryptobiologists spend big sums of their own money to finance their quests. Being outside the realm of traditional science, they don't usually have a choice.
For example, the late Grover Krantz, a physical anthropologist at
University, invested around $50,000
for a light aircraft, infrared heat detector and other expensive gear in a
decades-long search for Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest.
But for mainstream scientists, being a cryptobiologist isn't easy. Some have paid for their efforts in more than money. Roy Mackal, a dedicated chaser of Nessie and mokele-mbembe, an aquatic dinosaur that supposedly lives in the Congo basin, was booted out of the biology department at the University of Chicago; few if any dispute that his cryptid-seeking was the chief cause. Others endure sneers from their colleagues, a loss of credibility and even academic isolation.
Why tolerate such treatment? "The search for the fringe and fanciful captivates many people," says Mike Trenerry, a biologist with the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management who uses automatic cameras to search for rare beasts. "We want to believe there is more out there than what we already know about."
And the truth, of course, is that even in the 21st century, the natural world is still brimming with mystery. Tropical biologists commonly find that half or more of the insect species they capture in the rainforest canopy are new to science. Undiscovered fish and other species are frequently found in the deep sea. Up to half of all the plant species in the Amazon are still scientifically undocumented.
Not all of the new discoveries are small or obscure. The Mindoro fruit bat, discovered in the
in 2007, has a 1-metre
wingspan. The same year saw the discovery of a venomous
snake in Philippines Australia and a
large electric ray in . South Africa
And despite the misfire of the recent Tasmanian tiger video, there are many Lazarus species that have been rediscovered after having been presumed extinct. Until 1951, the Bermuda petrel had not been seen by scientists for 330 years. The Javan elephant, okapi, coelacanth, mountain pygmy possum, venomous Cuban solenodon and giant terror skink were also erroneously consigned to oblivion. The Laotian rock rat, discovered in 1996, is now the sole known representative of a rodent family that was thought to have vanished 11 million years ago. The Wollemi pine - the only known survivor of a 200-million-year-old plant family - was discovered in 1994 just a stone's throw from
. Sydney, Australia
It is the Lazarus species, perhaps more than any other cryptid group, that most inspire cryptobiologists. They give them hope by revealing that nature is still very much shrouded in uncertainty. From the coelacanth to the mountain pygmy possum, Cuban solenodon and giant terror skink, even dramatic species are sometimes wrongly presumed to have vanished
So we should celebrate the intrepid efforts of cryptobiologists. Yes, they chase bizarre creatures and flit around the fringes of conventional science, but we ought to appreciate their adventurous spirit rather than be disdainful.
William Laurance is a distinguished professor and Australian Laureate at James Cook University in Cairns,
. He also holds the Prince
Bernhard Chair in International Nature Conservation at the University of
Utrecht, the Netherlands Australia