Cryptozoology is the study of animals or alleged animals that are known only from anecdotal evidence. The field has a bit of an image problem. Frankly, this isn’t much of a surprise when you look at the busy efforts of the various creationists, true believers and cranks who express interest in the subject.
And several recent claims about yeti and sasquatch DNA haven’t exactly done much to further the view that cryptozoological studies are being conducted in a manner typical for scientific research (you don’t have a published paper, but you want the world to know that you’ve submitted a manuscript? Good work).
However… while being careful (as always) to make clear the point that an interest in cryptozoology does not demonstrate ‘belief’ in, or acceptance of, specific cryptozoological ‘targets’, I still maintain that cryptozoology cannot and should not be considered a pseudoscience. Why? Mostly because there is no contradiction whatsoever between the scepticism, hypothesis-testing, self-correction and need for autoptic evidence typical of ‘proper’ science with analyses of cryptozoological data, nor does investigation of cryptozoological data hinge on the assumption that there are always real, flesh-and-blood animals at the bottom of eyewitness reports.
Indeed, cryptozoological research is informed by folklorists (e.g., Meurger & Gagnon 1988, Campion-Vincent 1992, Meurger 1995, Dendle 2006), sociologists (e.g., Baylor Religion Survey 2007), anthropologists (e.g., Burney & Ramilisonina 1999) and by those interested in how eyewitnesses perceive, report and recall observations (e.g., Rabbit 2000, Paxton 2009). Lest we think that all people seriously interested in cryptozoology are kooks or creationists, note that many self-styled cryptozoologists understand full well the requirements of ‘proper’ science and normal scientific procedure.
Furthermore, quite a few technically qualified biologists have investigated animals initially known only from anecdotal reports, meaning that they too have indulged in cryptozoological research, whether they like it or not (e.g., Jones et al. 2005, LeCroy & Barker 2006, Geissmann et al. 2010).
As I said the last time I discussed this issue (July 2011), the stigma attached to the term ‘cryptozoology’ perhaps means that it’s time to give up on it entirely and to recognise instead that the study of ‘mystery animals’ either falls within the remit of conventional zoology, mammalogy, ornithology or whatever, or mythology, sociology or even psychology.
A quick history of academic venues devoted to cryptozoology
Nevertheless, there have been a few attempts to get cryptozoology taken seriously as an independent area of academic study. In 1982, the International Society of Cryptozoology (or ISC) was formed. It involved a board of consultants that mostly consisted of experienced and qualified zoologists, palaeontologists and other scientists. A peer-reviewed journal, Cryptozoology, was published annually. Alas, financial issues led to the ISC’s decline and the demise of its journal in 1996. That’s a shame, since the journal’s standards were reasonably high and its issues contain a great deal of interesting material.
1996 saw the debut of The Cryptozoology Review. Despite being desktop-published and edited by people who – at the time – were mere college students, it included a huge number of worthy and professionally compiled articles. It had run its course by 2004, ending memorably with a fantastically sceptical editorial.
In December 2008, the Musée Cantonal de Zoologie of Lausanne in Switzerland began publication of the French-language cryptozoological journal Kraken: Archives de Cryptozoologie. Many contributions published in Kraken concern correspondence or archival material rather than peer-reviewed research, but it seems that the journal was attracting increasingly technical papers towards the end of its run (e.g., Woodley 2011). Unfortunately, it only lasted for three issues (the last published in 2011), and is also now defunct.
If research on ‘mystery animals’ overlaps entirely with other areas of research – either in the biological or cultural sciences – then maybe technical papers relevant to cryptozoology should be able to stand on their own in the ‘mainstream’ scientific literature. But, given that there is undeniably a community of researchers specially interested in cryptozoological research, and a need for discussion, review and critique of issues relevant to the field, a good argument can be made that cryptozoology needs a dedicated peer-reviewed journal. And that’s why we’re here, for November 2012 saw the publication of Volume One of a new peer-reviewed publication devoted to cryptozoology: The Journal of Cryptozoology.
I received a copy a few weeks ago and have now read it cover to cover. Edited by famous cryptozoological author Karl Shuker (Karl blogs at ShukerNature), the journal employs the expertise of a list of qualified workers who act as reviewers of the submitted papers. Each issue counts as a whole volume, rather than as one issue. If you’re expecting a giant, slick, glossy volume, perhaps on par with the sort of thing produced by Elsevier, you’ll be disappointed, since it’s small and slim and the only colour is on the cover. However, the production values are about equal with that seen in many smaller journals, including the ISC journal Cryptozoology. The King cheetah has been chosen as the journal’s emblem.
Putting together the first issue of a new journal is always tricky, since the number of authors willing and able to submit work to a brand-new venue – especially that on a specialised sub-discipline – is often low. With that in mind, Volume One only includes four papers, and none are ‘game changers’ likely to inspire future research or see substantial citation in other studies. Nevertheless, all should be of some interest to those intrigued by mystery animal reports. It’s a good start at least: it will be interesting to see the sorts of submissions attracted to the journal in future. Discussion articles and reviews are encouraged.
Anyway, what, exactly, is included in this inaugural issue? Let’s look at the articles.
In the very first of them, Andrew May (2012) argues that Bayesian search algorithms of the sort used in search-and-rescue operations and military tactics can be applied to cryptozoology. Perhaps – he suggests – the use of ‘Digital Search Assistant’ software could be used to narrow down the search areas for given animals, or their remains or den sites. Search efforts of this sort have been mentioned in connection with cryptozoological targets before. During the early 1990s, Henry Nix used BIOCLIM software to predict the habitat preference for the supposedly extinct Thylacine Thylacinus cynocephalus. Reportedly, the regions recovered as potential ‘thylacine habitat hotspots’ matched the places where people claimed to see them. I recall reading about this research in New Scientist but don’t know if it was ever published as a paper – anybody know?
The Queensland tiger!
Malcolm Smith’s (2012) paper presents hitherto unpublished data on the ‘Queensland tiger’ track reported by Walter Scott in 1872 (but discovered by surveyor Alfred Hull in 1871). The track isn’t an obvious match for any known mammal and remains an enigma. For those of you who don’t know, the Queensland tiger is a striped, long-tailed, superficially cat-like animal, reported by various witnesses during the 19th and 20th centuries (though read on), and later suggested by several authors to be a surviving representative of the otherwise fossil marsupial lion family (Shuker 1989, 1995, Healy & Cropper 1994, Heuvelmans 1995).
Alas, “[D]espite the early popularity of this proposal, it failed to win adherents in the technical zoological community and has never been supported by material evidence or photographic documentation” (Naish 2012, p. 46). Sightings of Queensland tigers were never that numerous to begin with, but they seemingly tailed off some time after the 1950s. One interpretation is that the animal became super-rare or even extinct during this time. Another is that it never existed in the first place: if you read the original accounts, they could be flat-out hoaxes or confused, garbled or misinterpreted descriptions of quolls, thylacines or other animals. The 1871 footprint and certain eyewitness accounts of large, striped, predatory-looking marsupialesque Australian mammals (like Gary Opit’s 1969 report) remain intriguing and unexplained, however.
Pseudoplesiosaurs and that Australian dead cat again
Moving on, Markus Hemmler (2012) describes the two ‘sea monster’ carcasses that were discovered on the Orkney Islands, Scotland, in 1941 and 1942. Such carcasses typically turn out to be partially decomposed Basking sharks Cetorhinus maximus or boneless lumps of decomposing whale tissue. And the Basking shark explanation is the one that applies here, as Hemmler demonstrates by pointing to detailed anatomical features evident in surviving photographs.
The transformation of shark carcasses into so-called pseudoplesiosaurs is a well-known phenomenon, frequently mentioned or discussed in the mystery animal literature. However, as is so often the case with things that are seemingly ‘well-known’, said phenomenon is – so far as I know – not well described or well documented in the technical literature. Hemmler’s (2012) article includes some noteworthy observations on those parts of Basking shark anatomy that remain obvious in pseudoplesiosaurs. Good stuff; maybe it will inspire a detailed analysis of shark decomposition and the acquisition of the pseudoplesiosaur form.
Finally, that Naish guy has an article in the volume as well: it’s the technical version of my evaluation of the Margaret River mammal carcass, previously written about on Tet Zoo ver 2 in May 2009. A single colour photo of a peculiar mammal carcass, taken in or around 1975, has been intimated to be possibly relevant to the Queensland tiger mystery. Both the general form of the carcass and the visible details of the animal’s dentition lead me to argue that the carcass is actually that of a domestic cat, though note the caveat that “the unknown whereabouts of the carcase… combined with the poor quality of the surviving photograph, means that we will likely never be able to arrive at a conclusive identification” (Naish 2012, p. 48).
So, there we have it. Volume One of The Journal of Cryptozoology is out, and very nice it is too. I look forward to seeing the contents of Volume Two, I congratulate those involved in the production and putting-together of this inaugural issue, and I hope that the dialogue and debate about the nature and direction of cryptozoology – however we understand and define this term – continues.
Volume One can be purchased online here; it is just £6.99, with an international postage and packing charge of £2 being required as well (so, £8.99 or US$14.5 or EUR11). Unfortunately, it does not seem that pdfs are available online, nor is this an open-access endeavour (for now).
Several of the issues discussed here have been covered on Tet Zoo before. See…
- Statistics, seals and sea monsters in the technical literature
- Identifying that ‘Jaws’ carcass
- A cryptozoology meeting at the Zoological Society of London
- Cryptozoology at the Zoological Society of London. Cryptozoology: time to come in from the cold? Or, Cryptozoology: avoid at all costs?
- Williams and Lang’s Australian Big Cats: do pumas, giant feral cats and mystery marsupials stalk the Australian outback?
Refs - -
Burney, D. A. & Ramilisonina. 1999. The kilopilopitsofy, kidoky, and bokyboky: accounts of strange animals from Belo-sur-mer, Madagascar, and the megafaunal "extinction window". American Anthropologist 100, 957-966.
Campion-Vincent, V. 1992. Appearances of beasts and mystery-cats in France. Folklore 103, 160-183.
Dendle, P. 2006. Cryptozoology in the medieval and modern worlds. Folklore 117, 190-206.
Geissmann, T., Lwin, N., Aung, S. N., Aung, T. N ., Aung, Z. M., Hla, T. H., Grindley, M. & Momberg, F. 2010. A new species of snub-nosed monkey, genus Rhinopithecus Milne-Edwards, 1872 (Primates, Colobinae), from Nothern Kachin State, northeastern Myanmar. American Journal of Primatology 72, 1-12.
Healy, T. & Cropper, P. 1994. Out of the Shadows: Mystery Animals of Australia. Ironbark, Chippendale, Australia.
Heuvelmans, B. 1995. On the Track of Unknown Animals. Kegan Paul International, London.
Hemmler, M. 2012. Hunda ‘Scapasaurus’ photo (re)discovered, with explanation of descriptive trends in relation to pseudoplesiosaurs. The Journal of Cryptozoology 1, 25-43.
Jones, T., Ehardt, C. L., Butynski, T. M., Davenport, T. R. B., Mpunga, N. E., Machaga, S. J. & De Luca, D. W. 2005. The Highland mangabey Lophocebus kipunji: a new species of African monkey. Science 308, 1161-1164.
LeCroy, M. & Barker, F. K. 2006. A new species of bush-warbler from Bougainville Island and a monophyletic origin for southwest Pacific Cettia. American Museum Novitates 3511, 1-20.
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