More idiocy than you can shake a stick at

31 01 2007

Apparently I haven’t been paying close enough attention to cryptozoology in the past few years, the internet fueling the amount of nutty claims put out exponentially. For instance, I had never heard of Colonel John-Blashford Snell, but apparently Answers in Genesis thinks he’s pretty spiffy and he’s the Honarary Life President of the Centre for Fortean Zoology. It’s nice that cryptozoologists are able to get together and have friends, and Colonel Blashford-Snell has made some contributions to exploration, but by and large the proof is not in the pudding, as you might say.

Despite the eye-rolling I usually engage in when confronted with cryptozoology, I was at first intruiged upon viewing the photos of the “new” kind of elephant. The forehead of these specimens seem more pronounced and more akin to extinct relatives, but I decided to do a google image search for “male indian elephant” just to check out how these photos compare. As soon as the results came back the credibility of the photos evaporated. Have a look at the head-on skull structure of the proposed mystery elephant and then take a gander as a similar angle of this guy, and this one too while you’re at it. AiG’s elephants seem to have a slight difference, but it falls snugly within the realm of variation. Perhaps these animals are geographically isolated and the “steeper” forehead is a trait that would best differentiate them as a possible subspecies, but it’s not the mind-blowing proof they make it out to be. I guess AiG couldn’t be bothered to compare the photos with actual Indian Elephant photos either, knowing their credibility would disappear if they actually gave an honest comparison of known elephants and this “unknown” species.

Once I had found out about CFZ, some of their recent activies involving expeditions to find a mythical creature named “Ninki Nanka” started popping up all over the search results, even garnering articles in The Guardian and BBC Online. Much like reports of other “dinosaurian” creatures or lake monsters, descriptions of the animal seem to vary and although everyone knows someone who’s seen it, no one seems to have seen it themselves. Generally, however, the creature is described as a Nessie-type creature, with a long neck and horns on its head. According to this article locals even tried to dupe the team by handing them “rotting film”, attempting to pass them off as scales of the creature. I’m sure none of them would admit to it, but I have to wonder how much of a hoot local people get out of “great white hunters” showing up trying to prove the existence of dragons and other such things. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of species out there we haven’t even seen yet (the oceans being home to many of them), but there seems to be this pervasive need to find living dinosaurs or giant reptiles, some people being so enamored with them that they would rather they still be stalking the land.

As for images of the creature(s), no one has yet been able to snap a photo and reports are highly varied. This website depicts various mystery creatures sought after in the 2006 Gambia expedition, the official logo of the expedition and rending of the carcass being pliosaur-like and referring to a creature known as “Gambo”, the following image being essentially a giant monitor lizard (depicting one incarnation of Ninki Nanka), and I’m not even going to comment on the photo of the team which follows other than it doesn’t exactly inspire my confidence in their research methods. Upon looking a little further, Gambia seems to be crawling with unknown creatures, listed in this webpage from the Fortean Times. In contrast, according to the BBC article

…according to the expedition’s blog, after being shown pictures of various reptiles and mythical animals, the ranger said the creature’s [Ninki Nanka’s] face most resembled that of a Chinese dragon.

Growing tired of the Gambia nonsense, I followed another lead already analyzed by Darren Naish of Tetrapod Zoology, dealing with what are known as “Phantom Cats”/”Alien Big Cats”(ABCs). The proliferation of exotic cats as pets (and their subsequent release into the wild) accounts for some of these sightings, others probably caused by that feeling of being watched/stalked you get at night in the woods, perhaps being an incarnation of “Pleistocene Memories.” Even so, there is strong evidence suggesting that cats that escape/are set loose from captivity end up in areas that they are not native to, varying in size from housecat/wildcat hybrids to pumas. Darren does a good runthrough of the material on his blog so I’m not going to copy it, but on the subject of the “neatness” of the kills I think the clenliness of the kill site is overemphisized. Cougars, for instance, are somewhat wasteful eaters, and even though they incisions made by teeth and claws may be “clean” there is going to be quite a bit of extra viscera left (unless the cat is starving, which could be true in a non-native habitat). The wikipedia entry mentions clean punctures or slit throats, but to the best of my understanding big cats have not mastered the jugular-slice ability with their claws, death by suffocation/severing of the spinal cord by big canines being the primary mode to kill prey once it has been caught. In essence, the presence of ABCs shouldn’t be grouped in as fringe-science or cryptozoology because it is dealing with the real dispersals of exotic (and potentially invasive) species in various locales, and I would think such study would be of interest to ecologists. It seems like these cats, especially the big ones belonging to the genus Panthera and Puma, can’t establish a breeding population because there is only one or two members in any area at a given time, and that is no guarantee they’ll be of opposite sex, mate, or even be able to start a population without intense inbreeding. Thus it is appropriate to drop the term ABC’s or “Phantom Cats”, such titles smacking of pseudoscience, and identifying such phenomena for what they are; exotic species finding their way into various environments. Such events aren’t limited to cats, the Everglades in Florida suffering from pet snakes and other animals being released when they’re too large or troublesome for owners to keep. I even remember seeing a Disney animal-handler catch a snake in a pool and he couldn’t tell me what kind it was, saying that the staff were puzzled by this variety that seemed to be a hybrid between endemic and foreign species. If there is any truth to this, I don’t know, but the reality of exotics making their way into endemic populations is reality and the ecological ramifications of such events should not be ignored.

I know I come down hard on cryptozoology at times, and to tell the absolute truth, I do find it interesting. I don’t find much of it credible, no, but I think it is important to pay attention or at least catalouge such claims as perhaps one day a new species will be discovered that will explain odd sightings in a particular area, and perhaps if any respectable scientists journey to the regions said to be inhabited by legendary animals they will come back with data on new species of insects, mammals, reptiles, etc. that have gone unnoticed during all the expeditions looking for dinosaurs and giant vampire bats. Some things get blown way out of proportion or perhaps are even hoaxed for one reason or another, but as I learned with the “phantom cat” idea, sometimes mainstram scientists do ignore relevant data about things that may seem hard to explain at first. To make a (perhaps bad) analogy, when Plate Tectonics was first proposed it was a joke, but now we know it was right and it’s a central part of earth sciences. This doesn’t mean that just because scientists don’t accept an idea, it’s really credible and they just have to come around to it, but rather that sometimes things are pushed aside or overlooked, and a record of seemingly extraneous claims should at least be maintained so that someday we may hope to explain them when they are perhaps finally illuminated.



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