As a regular reader, you might know that Tet Zoo has been going for over nine years now. I’ve written about a lot of stuff, I’ve been intrigued and enthused by a substantial number of animals and animal-themed topics, and I’ve been attracted to a variety of controversial ideas and claimed discoveries. And I’ve gotten a lot of things wrong, either because I’ve misunderstood or misinterpreted bits of data, because I’ve attached myself to erroneous or wayward causes, or because – in keeping with the nature of blogging – I’ve written about things in hasty fashion and didn’t take the time to look into them properly, or get a more informed, experienced perspective. It’s some of these ‘things I’ve gotten wrong’ that I want to discuss here: consider this article both an introspection, and an update on various subjects covered here over the years.
One brief comment on “being wrong”. There is nothing wrong with being wrong in science so long as logic, internal consistency and supporting evidence are involved (and so long, of course, as your being wrong doesn’t have serious impacts as goes economics, welfare, medical practise, the environment…). Science is all about formulating ideas on the basis of the evidence to hand, and is thus in eternal flux as long as new data comes in and new things are learnt. In fact, if your ideas are fixed and don’t change as more data comes in and as you learn new stuff, you’re doing it wrong. So, changing your mind according to the evidence is good, normal practise.
Blogs function more as diaries of ideas than do the conventional outlets that scientists use (like published papers and books). Indeed, blogs were initially invented to serve this diary-like role. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that ideas discussed in blog articles turn out to be wrong or due for abandonment down the line. And, yes, there are even people who say that if you don’t blog about things you later regret, you’re being too boring. With all of this in mind, let’s look at just a few of the things I’ve supported in the past but no longer find viable or supportable today.
The existence of sasquatch. Cryptozoology – the study of ‘mystery animals’ – has been a mainstay here at Tet Zoo ever since things got started in 2006. Of the many cryptozoologically-themed things that have always been in the background here at Tet Zoo, bigfoot (or sasquatch) has remained a constant presence (in the proverbial sense).
And, back in 2006 I’m not (too) ashamed to say that I was quite taken with recently compiled evidence which really did look quite good… at the time. Anatomically consistent dermal ridges identified on footprint casts, the hominin-shaped ‘Skookum body cast’, and new and positive opinions on the Patterson-Gimlin footage that came from people who seemed to know what they were talking about… there was talk of a ‘quiet revolution’ in primatology, whereby qualified people who know monkeys and apes were looking at the sasquatch evidence and finding it compelling. This view was promoted in Chris Murphy’s 2004 book (which I reviewed, in favourable terms, for Fortean Times) Meet the Sasquatch, and in the famous/infamous 2003 movie Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science.
Put all this together, and the result is my 2006, Tet Zoo ver 1 article ‘Frame 352, and all that‘ (‘Frame 352′ refers to the iconic frame of the Patterson-Gimlin film, where the subject is nicely framed in profile, arms mid-swing, head facing the viewer). Pro-sasquatch people saw this as my coming out in support of sasquatch; a result is that I today find myself listed on one website as among ‘5 Scientists Who Believe in Bigfoot… Sorta‘. Well, the ‘sorta’ is right, since I specifically said that I shouldn’t be labelled a ‘believer’. More importantly, work done since 2006 on dermal ridges and the Skookum cast has shown that they cannot be used as evidence in support of sasquatch’s existence, while new reviews of the Patterson-Gimlin film have done a lot to damage its credibility (Conway et al. 2013, Loxton & Prothero 2013).
My current take on sasquatch – enunciated in several Tet Zoo ver 3 articles as well as in print (Naish 2012, Conway et al. 2013) – is that it’s a sociological phenomenon, not a zoological one. Evidence that sasquatch might be real has not been put forward. 2006 Darren wasn’t a total idiot: rather, he was impressed by evidence that hadn’t been subjected to sufficient, or the right sort, of scrutiny. There’s a cautionary tale there that I try to keep in mind all the time.
Giant orangutans. During 2009, I read John MacKinnon’s famous book In Search of the Red Ape (MacKinnon 1974). Therein, MacKinnon recounts the occasion in which he observed a gigantic, near-black male orangutan, seen walking along a forest track in MacKinnon’s direction. Familiar with work on the surprisingly adept bipedal abilities of orangs, with the existence of really large fossil orangutans, and with intriguing historical accounts describing surprisingly big modern orangutan specimens (recounted by Arment 2004), I jumped to conclusions and interpreted MacKinnon’s anecdote as providing authoritative support for the existence of gargantuan, terrestrial, bipedally walking orangutans. If you’re wondering, we’re talking here about animals with a standing height of something like 1.7 to 1.9 m.
I didn’t jump to these conclusions because I ‘wanted’ giant, bipedally walking orangutans to exist (or because I was biased by, or influenced by, my familiarity with stories of hairy Asian crypto-hominids). Rather, I think it’s one of those cases where things seemingly came together and I got too excited. Did MacKinnon see a giant, bipedal orangutan? Nope: he never said anything about bipedal walking, so quadrupedality should be assumed (thanks to Bob Alderson for pointing that out). And is there evidence for truly gigantic modern orangutans in the first place? Again, nope. Lim Tze Tshen kindly pointed out that the supposedly giant orangutan specimens described by Arment (2004) had been re-measured and shown to be rather ordinary.
MacKinnon’s story remains a really neat one, whatever my wayward take on it. Hey, you live and learn.
The controversial origins of the domestic dog. Anyone who knows anything about animals is familiar with the idea that the domestic dog Canis familiaris is a subset of the wolf C. lupus… or, a messy series of domesticated, hybridised wolf populations that perhaps represent a few different domestication events… whatever. A huge amount of work supporting this model has been published. But – shock horror – there are other models out there.
An idea that’s been around for a long time and has never really gone away is that C. familiaris is not part of the wolf clade, the domestic dog instead representing the direct descendant of a wild, coyote-sized canid that has existed as a distinct population ever since it diverged from the common ancestor that also gave rise to other Canis species (e.g., Manwell & Baker 1983). This model points to weaknesses with the ‘dogs are wolves’ hypothesis, draws attention to the superficial similarity present between dingos, New Guinea singing dogs and the pariah dogs of tropical Asia, and argues that dogs more or less ‘domesticated themselves’ by moving in at the fringes of settlements. [New Guinea singing dog photo below by Patti McNeal.]
I really got into this after reading Janice Koler-Matznick’s several articles on the subject (Koler-Matznick et al. 2001, Koler-Matznick 2002) and wrote a fairly strong ‘dogs are not wolves’ article at Tet Zoo ver 1. Some people were unhappy with what I said, and they told me so. And, yeah, they included some big names in the world of dog and wolf studies.
Discussing this issue in full, and refuting everything I said in that 2006 article, would require a lengthy article all its own, and that ain’t gonna happen today. All I’ll say now is that the ‘dogs are not wolves’ model is not viable in view of the mountains of molecular work now done on dogs, wolves and other canids (e.g., Savolainen et al. 2002, Lindblad-Toh et al. 2005, Pang et al. 2009, vonHoldt et al. 2010, Larson et al. 2012, Freedman et al. 2014). Seriously, it’s dead: dogs really are deeply nested within wolves, and the idea that dogs ‘self-domesticated’ in the manner that domestic cats probably did does not explain the incredible and tight co-evolution present between our species and C. familiaris.
Mastiff cats and rabbit-headed cats. Another non-standard view I’ve found myself supporting over the years concerns the alleged presence in the British countryside of free-living, non-native cat species; so-called ‘alien big cats’. As is well known, people claim to see lynxes, jungle cats and even leopards and pumas running around in the wilds of the UK. The ‘mainstream’, authoritative view on this issue is that it’s all the result of wishful thinking and misinterpretation.
While many mistakes have been made, I can’t give up on the idea: I haven’t seen a ‘British big cat’ myself, but I have seen droppings, tracks, bite marks on bones, and hairs and whiskers attributed to these animals. Tooth marks left on the bones of livestock are difficult to explain away unless larger felid species were involved (Coard 2007), there’s evidence from a taxiderm specimen that non-native felids have occurred wild in Britain as far back as the early 1900s (Blake et al. 2013), and both morphological and molecular analyses of felid hairs recovered from the British countryside have been matched to leopards. A large morphological study of hairs collected in England identified many as those of Eurasian lynx, puma and leopard. Alas, some of the work mentioned here is unpublished*. Because no-one else seems to be doing it, I made a push to get this field data published myself a few years ago, but I had to give up because I just cannot make the time to take on yet more commitments.
* Though much of it has been at least mentioned in Rick Minter’s 2011 book on the subject (Minter 2011).
Anyway… round about the fringes of the ‘British big cat’ phenomenon are a few remarkable ideas that I’ve been far too kind on in the past. During the 1980s, writer-researcher Di Francis argued that ‘British big cats’ are not a hodgepodge of diverse non-native escapees and illicit introductions, but, rather, members of an overlooked native species. During a 2007 conference, I suggested the name Mastiff cat for this hypothetical animal on account of its supposed mastiff-faced appearance. And I was feeling somewhat kind to the Mastiff cat hypothesis in 2007 because images of two weird carcasses – one a road-killed animal from Wiltshire in southern England (see p. 121 of Minter 2011), the other a carcass found in Scotland – both seemed to depict peculiar short-faced large felids that didn’t match anything we know of. Could they, I mused in a 2007 Tet Zoo article, show that the Mastiff cat hypothesis had something going for it after all? Well, no. That carcass from Wiltshire probably isn’t a cat at all (it seems to be a dog), and the Scottish one is almost definitely just a dead domestic cat.
Then there’s the so-called Rabbit-headed cat, an alleged ‘new’ form of small cat, also described by Francis in various of her writings. Rabbit-headed cats are black, roman-nosed felids, known from assorted carcasses found in the UK, and said to have a number of cranial and dental peculiarities relative to Scottish wildcats, domestic cats, and Kellas cats. And, yes, the favoured popular name is dumb enough to invite ridicule, which is why there was a bit of a push to get a new one into use (‘Roman-nosed cat’ being my favoured alternative). [Adjacent art by SkyJaguar.]
Don’t get me wrong: I was never convinced enough to provide ringing endorsement for the existence of this animal, but I did find the assorted cranial characters “highly intriguing”, and I said favourable things about the claimed validity of this alleged cat form. Today, I join those who think that these cats are not remarkable; that they are hybrids of a not-particularly-special sort, and that their supposedly unusual crania and dental features can all be explained within the context of ontogeny and variation within Felis catus.
That’s where we have to end for now. There are a lot more things that I’d say I’ve “gotten wrong” over the years, and I fully plan to talk about some more of them in future articles.
For articles relevant to some of the topics covered here, see…
- Williams and Lang’s Australian Big Cats: do pumas, giant feral cats and mystery marsupials stalk the Australian outback?
- Another meeting with the Hayling Island Jungle cat
- A lynx, shot dead in England in c. 1903
- The Cryptozoologicon (Volume I): here, at last
- Loxton and Prothero’s Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids; the Tet Zoo review
Refs – -
Blake, M., Naish, D., Larson, G., King, C. L., Nowell, G., Sakamoto, M. & Barnett, R. 2013. Multidisciplinary investigation of a ‘British big cat’: a lynx killed in southern England c. 1903. Historical Biology 26, 441-448.
Coard, R. 2007. Ascertaining an agent: using tooth pit data to determine the carnivores responsible for predation in cases of suspected big cat kills. Journal of Archaeological Science 34, 1677-1684.
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