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Friday, September 11, 2015

There Be Dragons

"If you don't believe in dragons, it is curiously true,
That the dragons you disparage, choose to not believe in you."

- Jack Prelutsky

When a Dutch aviator's plane was forced down on a small island in the Malay Archipelago (modern day Indonesia) in 1912, the pilot came back with stories that chilled the blood and titillated the ears of scientists.  On barren Komodo, the aviator encountered dragons - massive lizards, some in excess of ten feet in length, that preyed upon deer, pigs, and, if the reports of the few residents were to be believed, man.  Now, just over a century later, the Komodo dragon is one of the world's most famed reptiles, recognized as the world's largest lizard and the star of zoo exhibits around the globe.

The Komodo dragon was not alone.  In the last century-and-a-half, numerous large animals, some very bizarre, have been introduced to Western science.  The okapi, the secretive forest giraffe of the Congo, was not known to science until the dawn of the last century.  Not long before that, the African forests had revealed other mysterious "new" animals - the pygmy hippopotamus, the giant forest hog, and, most famous of all, the gorilla.  Today, the giant panda is one of the world's most recognizable animals, but it was unknown outside of its native China until after the middle of the nineteenth century, after the American Civil War.  In the 1990's, the sao la, a beautiful antelope-like creature, was discovered in the forests of Southeast Asia.  Even into this millennium, animal discoveries occur - evidence the description of a fifth species of tapir late last year.

(I'm acknowledging that none of these animals were every actually “discovered” – native peoples in their home countries had long known about them.  Sir Harry Johnson, for example, learned about the existence of the okapi from the Mbuti pygmies of the Ituri Forest, who obviously were already familiar with the animal.   We’re instead referring to their being discovered by the world at large]

Every time one of these unlikely discoveries occurs, the question is begged – what else could be out there?

A Franco-Belgian writer named Bernard Heuvelmans spent a lot of time pondering that question, so much so that he eventually went on to establish an entirely new field of science (if you’re going to call it that) to address the question.  He called it “Cryptozoology” or, “The Study of Unknown or Hidden Animals.”  Essentially, it is the quest for animals that aren’t known to science.  Their quarries range from the seemingly plausible (giant anacondas, pygmy elephants) to the outright bizarre (sea serpents, three-legged bears, and a United Nations’ worth of ape-men, most famously including Bigfoot and the yeti).  The Loch Ness Monster ranks as one of the most famous hidden animals, or “Cryptids”. 

An exhibit in the Louisiana Swamp display at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans pays homage to the Loup Garou, a werewolf-like creature of local folklore

There isn’t much evidence for many of these hidden animals, and many scientists shake their heads at the more outlandish examples.  After all, how much time and money has gone into Sasquatch hunting without a single bit of convincing proof?  Still, the crypto-hunters can manage to carry their argument on two grounds.  Firstly, you can’t prove a negative.  If one were captured, you could prove definitively that the Loch Ness Monster does exist, but no matter how many failed attempts occur, you can never prove that it doesn’t.  Secondly, they have been right before, with animals that scientists have long denied the existence of coming to light.  It’s not for nothing that the symbol of the now-defunct International Society of Cryptozoology was the okapi.

There’s a line between acknowledging that newly discovered species await us in the wild and between expecting to find Bigfoot trolling around in the woods of the Pacific Northwest.  When considering cryptids, consider the following

·        Is there actually an ecological niche for that species to exist in?  Why do I doubt Bigfoot?  Because I can’t really imagine what a giant, gorilla-like animal is doing to survive in northern California.  What is it eating?  How does it survive the winters?  Why are there no other giant apes at similar latitudes around the world?  Conversely, if you tried telling me that there was a species of undiscovered ape in the heart of the Amazon, I’d consider that more plausible.
·        It can’t be just one.  Again, look at Bigfoot.  Is he immortal, or a single female that practices parthenogenesis or something?  Because there can’t just be ONE Bigfoot (Bigfeet?).  There has to be a population, large enough to support a certain amount of genetic diversity.  One Bigfoot could conceivably hide very well.  A population of 500 or so?  You’d think eventually one would get hit by a car, or caught in a trap, or stroll in front of a camera trap.
·        Listen to locals.  Many “lost” animals were never lost… the local people knew they were there all the long, even if they themselves seldom saw them.  At the very least, they won’t get an unknown animal confused with a familiar known one.  Many cryptozoologists look to local folklore and mythology for evidence of hidden beasts.  This isn’t always accurate or enough though – after all, European legends are full or tales of unicorns and dragons and centaurs.
·        Obey the laws of physics – even Bigfoot seems plausible compared to some of the animals some folks talk about, like vultures the size of airplanes that pass between different dimensions on a whim…

There’s a sub-set of cryptozoologists, more closely aligned with traditional scientists, which are interested in a different sort of hidden animal – animals that we know existed, sometimes quiet recently, but are now gone.  One of the best examples is the ivory-billed woodpecker.  The size of a duck, this giant woodpecker was declared extinct decades ago, but rumors and sightings still persist to this day, including among folks who can’t de brushed-off as crack-pots, such as Cornell University ornithologists.

I’d like to believe that there are still some big mysteries awaiting us out there – a major unknown animal, or a rediscovered extinct one.  Still, I’d hate to think that a quixotic quest for something which probably doesn’t exist (again, Bigfoot) could distract attention away from the animals that we know are here and know need our help.  Want to save cryptids?  Easy – we just need to save as much remaining wild space as remains of this earth.  That’ll preserve habitat for all animals – known and unknown, seen and unseen.

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