I had a
monster plesiosaur whale of a time last night chairing a meeting at the Zoological Society of London on cryptozoology, and thought I ought to scribble a few words about the proceedings before I am submerged by other duties.
The meeting asked the question – is cryptozoology a science or a pseudoscience? I suspect that most people would veer to the latter view. After all, cryptozoology tends to group with aliens as subjects likely to attract muesli. There is, however, a movement of scientific sympathy towards the study of unknown animals, given that it should be the business of scientists to study unknown things – a tendency with which I have much sympathy, which presumably explains why I was asked to chair the proceedings.
A scientist who creates an hypothesis (which is, let’s face it, any and all scientists) is engaging in an act of willful world-creation, speculating ahead of the evidence – necessarily so – about what might be Out There. If cryptozoology is a science, then, it should be possible to create hypotheses about the kinds of unknown creatures that might lurk somewhere in the world, and the chances of finding such things. This was the concern of the first speaker, Michael Woodley. Woodley is an ‘independent scholar’ – a term that usually makes the blood of editors run cold – but then even those card-carrying scientists that are interested in cryptozoology tend to pursue this activity outside working hours, the availability of grants for hunting for monstrous marginalia being somewhat sparse. However, he’s teamed up with Darren Naish from the University of Portsmouth – the third speaker in the session,
bone bona fide palaeontologist and blogger – to assess various cryptozoological problems (you can find a relevant example here: warning – contains citations to real papers in the peer-reviewed literature.)
Woodley has been working out the likelihood of discovering various sorts of unknown creature by plotting the rate of discovery of new species in the group in question – in this case, which I’ll come to in a minute – pinnipeds, that is, seals and sealions. Discoveries tend to follow a sigmoid pattern, being slow to begin with, then picking up rapidly as more scientists devote more effort to collecting and classifying, and then tapering off. The curve for pinnipeds, as it happens, has not quite plateau’d out: there could be anything between zero and around twenty new species of pinniped remaining to be discovered, but the likelihood is that the number is definitely more than zero. In which case, it could be that some reports of long-necked creatures in the sea could be reports of long-necked pinnipeds.
But what about those reports? How reliable are they? This was the question posed by the second speaker, Dr Charles Paxton of the University of St Andrews. In his day job, Dr Paxton wonders how various surveys of difficult-to-find sea creatures, such as whales, can tell one anything useful about ecology and population biology, so it’s not too much of a stretch for him to apply his statistical knowledge to analyzing reports of sightings of ‘sea monsters’. The plural of ‘anecdote’, he contends, might be ‘data’: by collating reports of sea-monster sightings, Paxton can say quite a bit about the inherent biases of observers, a factor that might be of more general use. For example, he’s discovered that people, in general, underestimate distances – sea monsters in one’s recollection appear much closer than they are. He’s even tested this idea experimentally, creating a body of data, underpinned by controlled study, that exposes systematic bias in reports of strange creatures, at least at sea.
Et finalement, Dr Darren Naish, who elegantly debunked the view that unknown sea monsters might be relic populations of plesiosaur, because plesiosaur necks did not, actually, move in the sinuous, swan-like way described in sea-monster sightings – such images owe their inspiration to older, outdated views of plesiosaur palaeobiology. Adherents of the relic-plesiosaur view sometimes say that if living fossils such as the coelacanth exist, then why shouldn’t plesiosaurs have likewise been absent from the fossil record, surviving until modern times? It’s a fair question – but one that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Plesiosaur fossils are not uncommon throughout the Mesozoic, before their extinction 65 million years ago
last Wednesday. Their bones are large, heavy and diagnostic. It is therefore unlikely that plesiosaurs swam through the oceans for the entire 65-million-year span of subsequent history without leaving any fossils at all. Coelacanths, in contrast, were always rare, and now have a Cenozoic record, so the comparison between coelacanths and plesiosaurs is inappropriate.
And then there’s parsimony. When deciding how to classify a sea monster, it’s always better to veer towards more credible solutions (whales, seals) than less credible ones (plesiosaurs and so on). It’s almost always the case that a sea monster turns out to be something already known, or, if not, then something related to something already known. A plesiosaur described as having fur and whiskers is more likely to be a seal than a plesiosaur that has spent 65 million years evolving such structures de novo. Naish looked at the particular case of Cadborosaurus, a long, sinuous sea-serpent from British Columbia (seemingly a haunt of many strange and exotic beings), sighted many times and supposedly authenticated by a carcass photographed in 1937 which has since been lost – ruling out the possibility of examination to see if it might be something more likely, such as a heavily rotted basking shark. Reports of a ‘baby’ Cadborosaurus are more plausibly interpreted as a misidentified species of pipefish.
So, yes, it’s possible to apply critical thinking to cryptozoology, and so make some headway. But there’s a problem – as soon as a former cryptozoological being emerges into evidential reality, it is removed from the purview of cryptozoology and becomes the subject of a mainstream science, namely zoology. It seems hard to believe that the okapis and gorillas that attract visitors to London Zoo were, once upon a time, barely-believed subjects of travelers’ tales. This distinction seems rather unfair, as it condemns cryptozoology to be forever on the fringes. The proceedings yesterday at the ZSL, based in all cases on previous publications in respectable per-reviewed journals, suggest to me that it’s time, I think, to admit cryptozoology to the table of zoology.
UPDATE: Darren Naish has posted an account of the meeting here.