Chinese Lake Monsters?

3 10 2007

When I was a kid I was essentially convinced that the Loch Ness Monster (“Nessie”) was real. There were so many photos, videos, books, and crappy B-movies that there had to be something in the lake, right? Although I didn’t have a clue what all the blobs and smudgy bits on some of the most famous photographs might show, in my heart I wanted Nessie to be a Plesiosaurus, and I drew sketches of the monster continuously for a while. My semi-obsession with Nessie was prior to the famous outing of the “Surgeon’s Photograph” and I doubt there is any long-necked seal, Tullimonstrum, Cretaceous hold-over, giant Conger Eel, or enigmatic sea slug inhabiting the lake, but that hasn’t stopped some people from claiming that they have evidence of a monstrous creature in the Loch, even if they strain credulity (see here and here for one such instance from this past year).

As any well-informed lake monster buff knows, however, Scotland isn’t the only place in the world to claim lake monsters, legends of serpentine creatures being prevalent all over the world. Many of the sightings have been shown to be myths or hoaxes, but even now and then news breaks of some more shaking, out-of-focus, and distant video of something moving through the water, and that’s just what happened this past week. A tourist visiting Kansai Lake in the Heavenly Mountains area of the Xinjiang region claims to have shot footage of a number of “monsters,” the video shown on the Chinese national news;

The video is not much different from many other such videos I’ve seen, and the long-range shots don’t prove anything one way or another. The closer shots, showing something moving just under or just over the surface, are more interesting, but they don’t seem to show anything that I would call “monstrous.” Indeed, large fish like salmon do inhabit the lake, and the video is more likely to be of fish (if it is indeed showing something alive) than any sort of “monster.” This story is also relatively close on the heels of another “monster” sighting from Tianchi Lake, reported on Sept. 10 of this year. As the graphic on the bottom of the Cryptomundo posting about the Kansai video shows, though, some are already jumping to conclusions about the rather traditional (and far-fetched) identity of the mysterious creatures (if unknown creatures they be).

Are there creatures in the world that have as yet escaped discovery or are new to science? Of course there are, but poorly-shot video such as the one shown above does not prove that giant marine reptiles are living in freshwater lakes all over the world. Nature is strange and beautiful enough on its own without needed myths concocted or promulgated about it, and even if the creatures in the footage mentioned above are new, I don’t think they are going to represent any whole new Class or Order of organisms that has escaped detection thus far.

‘Nessie’ spotter Holmes also seeing Fairies?

5 06 2007

There are some things you just can’t make up. A few days ago a new “Nessie” video made the news, and Gordon Holmes (the man behind the camera) seemed very excited about the prospect of capturing the presumed lake monster on film. As I said upon initially seeing the video, however, it doesn’t seem to show anything spectacular or that interesting, and I would even say that it’s “poor” in that there is no frame of reference whatsoever. What the news stories did not tell us, however, was that Holmes is known for his unhinged beliefs. Thanks to Loren Coleman on Cryptomundo (and to Benjamin Radford of LiveScience), it has now come to attention that Holmes, via his personal university page, sells his home-made video;

Booklet + Video CD £4.00
My Camcorder obtained Fairy like images in the heather on Ilkley Moor & Cottingley Beck”

As if that weren’t enough, the description of his latest book should raise of few red flags;

‘Trice Visualisation’

which describes a sort of medical condition I have for visualising a sort of frame from a Dream whilst being conscious. Intricate Patterns rotate, or the inside of a room appears to be within arms length of me, also Cartoon-like Sketches. These images only last about 40 seconds before fading and usually the experience occurs every few months on average.

Clearly Holmes has some eccentric beliefs, and as Coleman stated in her article the past activities of those who make extraordinary claims should be taken into account. Indeed, as Carl Sagan so often said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and in this case it is severely lacking.

The Loch Ness shadowy, blurry, blob-thing

1 06 2007

Note: WordPress ate my original post, like some infernal lake-beast encrusted with slime and barnacles, so this version isn’t as in-depth as the original due to lack of patience.

Yesterday, 55-year-old lab tech. Gordon Holmes was in the news for a video he made of a shadowy object in Loch Ness. He claims that “creature” was 45 feet long and moving at a speed of 6 miles per hour, although the video he made lacks a frame a reference for speed or size. Check it out for yourself;

I was surprised to see the famous Surgeon’s Photo show up in news reports heralding Holmes’ video, however; the photo was revealed to be a hoax in 1993. Likewise, one of my most favorite images of “Nessie” (and the photo that convinced me, as a child, that there could be something in the loch) has also been revealed to be a hoax, sinking the idea that some mesozoic sea-going reptile still survives in the cold and cloudy waters of Loch Ness. This hasn’t stopped people from believing whatever they want, however, and the possibility of spotting the monster still acts of a draw to the area.

While Holmes speaks of the video potentially being carefully analyzed, and while the overall quality of the video is good, I don’t think it’s going to tell us anything new about whatever it is that keeps causing the Nessie mythology to continue. Indeed, the Holmes video isn’t very different from plenty of other videos and photographs of long-shadows I’ve seen, none of which point to a plesiosaur or mosasaur living in Loch Ness.

I have to admit that I wasn’t always so skeptical, however, especially in the days before the Surgeon’s Photo was proven to be a hoax and the “flipper photograph” seemed like solid evidence. There were plenty of books and documentaries available about lake monsters and dinosaurs in isolated patches of jungle (see Mokele-mbembe), so who was I to argue with such “authorities”? In the end, Richard Ellis’ book Monsters of the Sea became the only reliable book about strange “hidden creatures” like Cadborosaurus willsi and the chances of Carcharocles megalodon surviving somewhere in the deep, although I still enjoy sitting down to watch some movie-cheese like The Loch Ness Horror and The Legend of the Dinosaurs (in which no actual dinosaurs appear) when I can track them down. Speaking of media cheese, Steve Alten (of MEG fame), recently contributed to the Loch Ness hoax mythology with some stunts meant to publicize his recent book The Loch, proposing that the nasty beast is really a large eel rather than prehistoric reptile. I have yet to read it, and I can’t say it’s a top priority for my summer reading.

Hogzilla II: Bringing Home the Bacon

29 05 2007

According to some recent news reports, “Hogzilla” may no longer be top hog when it comes to monster swine. If this tall-tale is indeed authentic, 11-year-old Jamison Stone killed a 9 foot long, 1,051 pound hog with a “Smith & Wesson customized .50 caliber revolver shooting 350 grain bullets” somewhere in the Alabama backwoods. The seemingly iconic image of the young boy with his prize pig has circled the internet, but there is certainly more than may initially meet the eye to the picture.

If you look closely, you’ll note that you can see Jamison’s knee sticking up above the back of the pig, showing that he’s kneeling. If the hog was as big as the image makes it seem, you wouldn’t be able to see Jamison if he were kneeling behind the animal. Such is a common camera trick used by hunters to make their prizes look bigger than they really are. While local news outlets might be eating the story up, reporters from hither-and-yon are a little more skeptical. Toby Harnden of the Telegraph writes the following in a wonderfully-titled article “Is 87-stone hog hunter telling porkies?“;

Is this one of biggest wild hogs to have roamed the earth? Or a hoax by Alabama rednecks, cleverly using perspective, knowledge of hunting and the power of the internet to have a joke at the expense of urban dwellers everywhere?

Apparently there are no remains to examine or exhume as with Hogzilla; Stone’s pig is already being processed into sausage, the head being prepared by a taxidermist. Lack of scientific (or even reasonably reliable) measurement hasn’t stopped Stone’s father from setting up, however, which touts his son’s kill and features some more photos of the pig. The extra photos show the use of forced perspective and camera tricks even more clearly, however, and the pig seems to be of varying size depending on what image you’re looking at. Is it a big pig? Surely, but not nearly as large as the well-publicized press image seems to support. Not surprisingly, however, Jamison already has a role in the upcoming schlock-film The Legend of Hogzilla (if you must see a giant-hog film, rent Razorback, which it seems the new film plagiarizes to some degree), and given the fact that there are some rather large boars roaming the south, I suspect every now and then a similar tale will pop up for a moment on the news feeds. I just hope the next time such an event occurs that experts are called in to examine and measure the animal, rather than having tons of snapshots and “just-so” stories floating about leaving no one with any answers.

The Dragons of Eden

25 05 2007

Now the serpent was more subtle and crafty than any living creature of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Can it really be that God has said, You shall not eat from every tree of the garden?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit from the trees of the garden, except the fruit from the tree which is in the middle of the garden. God has said, ‘You shall not eat of it, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You shall not surely die, for God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing the difference between good and evil and blessing and calamity. – Genesis 3:1-5 [Amplified Bible]


One of the great “untold stories” of the American Museum of Natural History is that of the Tyrannosaurus rex battle that never was. In 1913, Henry Fairfield Osborn and Barnum Brown published a bulletin with a potential pose for two of the towering theropods, fighting over a carcass, expressed as a scale model.

T rex fight
From Tyrannosaurus : restoration and model of the skeleton. Bulletin of the AMNH ; v. 32, article 4.

This reconstruction never came to pass, however, and the museum’s singular Tyrannosaurus mount stood upright, holding out its feeble arms while dragging its tail for many years. Today, the AMNH’s Tyrannosaurus takes on a more contemporary and accurate pose, but when two of the dinosaurs came to compete over a meal it must have been just as awesome and frightening as Osborn and Brown envisioned in 1913. Unfortunately, we will never know how such a drama would have played out as the great “Tyrant King” did not survive the end of the Cretaceous, at least outside of the imaginations of paleontologists and dino-philes worldwide.

There are some, however, who claim that humans would have been present to witness such a confrontation. Such beasts did not always bite and claw at each other over carrion, but rather became cursed to do so because of the folly of Man. Indeed, when the Serpent in the Garden tricked Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit, he really did his reptilian brethren a disservice, condemning them to experience competition, hunger, disease, and death, rather than peacefully sharing Eden with the fragile humans and cracking coconuts with their enormous jaws as they were intended. After the Fall, Adam and Eve had to live in a world with such monstrous forms they would certainly need to know the difference between “blessing and calamity,” and the survival of the human species becomes even more spectacular given the carnage gigantic theropods could have wreaked on the first people.

Such beliefs cause enough cognitive dissonance to cause permanent brain damage and run counter to reality, but that doesn’t change the fact that this coming Memorial Day, the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum will be opening. Attempting to turn America away from evolution, the root of all our social ills according to the group, Ken Ham and many others have spent $27,000,000 and countless hours in order to take humanity back to the Garden of Eden physically and mentally, a time of communion with God in which ignorance was cherished and knowledge of anything but the one Book considered dangerous. To Ham and other creationists, the time Eden was a time when “Dragon’s Hearts Were Good” (to borrow the title of a children’s book by another AiG leader, Buddy Davis), and the rampaging dinosaurs that helped exemplify the ramifications of man’s Fall gave rise to the still persisting tales of dragons, sea monsters, and monsters hidden in far-away jungles.

If hundreds (if not thousands) of people donated over $27,000,000 dollars, money that could have been better spent on more admirable causes than a creation museum, can there be something to this view? Is there anything at all that would suggest that AiG and its supporters might be correct? The answer is an unequivocal “No!”; the only way that Ken Ham and others seemingly escape both evidence and logic is by jamming their fingers firmly in their ears and singing “Onward, Christian Soliders” at the top of their lungs. And so, without further introduction, I present to you my case that the truth behind the dinosaur-dragon connection lies not on a 6,000-year-old Mesopotamian plain but in the ground, where the bones of long-dead beasts will gladly share their wisdom with those who seek it.

“…speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee” (Job 12:8)

The dinosaur known as Scrotum

In 1676, the word “dinosaur” had yet to be added to the lexicon. This doesn’t mean, however, that all the remains of prehistoric creatures were tucked away in the strata, patiently awaiting the day in 1840 when Sir Richard Owen would formally describe the “Dinosauria.” In fact, quite the opposite was true; throughout history strange bones, tracks, and other fossils appeared all over the world, few knowing how to make heads or tails of the strange remnants. One such fossil was sent to Robert Plot in 1676, which he described the following year in his book Natural History of Oxfordshire, coming to the conclusion that it was a part of a huge creature’s femur, probably from some sort of giant, pictured below.

Scrotum humanum
The infamous “Scrotum humanum” (ref: Wikipedia: Megalosaurus)

Plot’s analysis is often forgotten, however, as it was the reanalysis of this bone fragment that become one of the most celebrated accounts of a paleontological error in history. In 1763, Richard Brookes redescribed Plot’s fossil as being similar to a gigantic pair of human testicles, dubbing it (informally) Scrotum humanum. Today we know it as part of a femur from Megalosaurus(1), Plot’s description being surprisingly on the mark (how could he have known about dinosaurs in 1676?), but it is Brookes’ description that is more telling of the the mindset about fossils at the time, when paleontology was certainly having “growing pains.”

Mystery of the Tongue Stones

While Nicolas Steno made an important contribution to science in describing principles of stratigraphy (Preliminary discourse to a dissertation on a solid body naturally contained within a solid, 1669), it was his dissection of a shark in 1666 that helped to shatter the intellectual quagmire about fossils at the time. In Steno’s day, no one was quite sure were fossils came from; some said they fell from the sky or heavenly bodies, others that they naturally grew inside the rocks, and yet others (in the famous “seashell on the mountaintop” problem) that fossils of marine organisms were deposited by the Biblical Flood. Robert Plot, the man who correctly identified the Megalosaurus fragment as being part of a femur, described plenty of “star-stones,” “horses’ heads,” “screw-stones,” and “bulls’ hearts,” later turning out to be various bivalves, corals, or other invertebrate animals. Rather than going along with such conventional “wisdom,” (acquiescing to Biblical authority either explicitly or implicitly) Steno suggested that glossopetrae look like shark teeth because they are shark teeth, the ones in the ground matching the teeth he inspected in the mouth of the Great White Shark. The teeth may have changed in chemical composition, but there could be no mistaking their form, running counter to the various ideas about the teeth falling from the moon or being the fossilized tongues of snakes driven out of Ireland.

Adding to the Confusion

Steno’s assertion about the shark teeth should have been heard far and wide, changing the infant discipline of paleontology, but old habits died hard. In 1726 Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer published his infamous work Wurzburg lithography, featuring lizards, crustaceans, comets, and the petrified name of God, all of which being etched in stone as a joke on the “insufferably pompous” (Gould, 1998) professor, even though the hoaxers tried to dissaude Beringer from publishing when they learned how seriously he was taking the “lying stones.” Even prior to Beringer’s and Brookes’ mistakes, fossils were being shoved into categories that would cause the least amount of conflict with Scripture. Indeed, giants seemed to be a perfect wastebasket category in which to place any large bones that might challenge the idea of a young earth;

Cotton Math, the New England pastor, naturalist, and “authority” on witchcraft, proclaimed in 1706 that the fossil bones and teeth of a mastodon found along the Hudson River in New York State around 1705 belonged to a race of vanished humans, “godless giants drowned in Noah’s Flood.”

(Ref: Dinosaurs of the East Coast by David Weishampel and Luther Young)

Indigenous people had their own take on the massive bones found in various locales too, one of the most famous being Big Bone Lick, located in (ironically, at least in terms of this essay) Boone County, Kentucky. The following are two similar accounts relating where the massive bones came from [Ref: Dinosaurs of the East Coast by David Weishampel and Luther Young (pg. 51-52)];

A Shawnee legend surrounding five mastodon skeletons from Big Bone Lick was described in 1762 by naturalist James Wright of Pennsylvania:

They had indeed a tradition, such might Creatures, once frequented those Savannahs, that there were then men of a size proportionationable to them, who used to kill them, and tye them in Their Noppusses And throw them upon their Backs As an Indian now dos a Deer, that they had seen Marks in rocks, which tradition said, were made by these Great & Strong Men, when they sate down with their Burthens, such as a Man makes by sitting down on the Snow, that when there were no more of these strong Men left alive, God Kiled these Mighty Creatures, that they should not hurt the Present race of Indians, And added, God had Kill’d these last 5 they had been questioned about, which the Interpreter said was to be understood, they supposed them to have been Killed by lightning. (James Wright to John Bartram, August 22, 1762, British Museum, Add. MSS 21648, fols. 333-334)

[I]n 1785, [Thomas] Jefferson wrote about a legend told to him by a delegation of warriors from the Delaware tribe:

In ancient times, a herd of these tremendous animals came to the Big-bone licks, and began an universal destruction of the bear, deer, elks, buffaloes, and other animals, which had been created for the use of the Indians; that the Great Man above, looking down and seeing this, was so enraged that he seized his lightning, descended on the earth, seated himself on a neighboring mountain, on a rock, of which his seat and the print of this feet are still to be seen, and hurled his bolts among them till the whole were slaughtered, except the big bull, who presenting his length, it wounded him in the side; whereon, springing round, he bounded over the Ohio, over the Wabash, the Illinois, and finally over the great lakes, where he is living at this day.

As mentioned at the beginning of the first excerpt, today we know that the bones belonged mastodons, possibly attracted to the area (along with other animals) because it served as a salt lick. How could the Native Americans have known about the fate of the giant elephantine beasts? While the bones became surrounded by mythology, the Native Americans did not mistake them for giants or human monsters, as occurred in other parts of the world. Indeed, the legendary Cyclops owes its origin to mammoths and mastodons as well, the island of Sicily (where, according to mythology, Cyclops were supposed to have dwelt) giving up the remains of many of the extinct mammals, and it is easy to see how a mammoth skull could be confused for that of a giant, one-eyed monster.

Of Oxen and Dragons

Legends surrounding fossils were not restricted to the Greeks or Native Americans, of course; all over the world there are tales describing dragons and other fantastic creatures. In this account, from the book Hunting Dinosaurs, enormous bones are related to a more familiar creature imbued with special powers;

“Fifty-five years ago, a French geologist called Josue-Heilmann Hoffet went to Indochina to conduct a geological survey and found dinosaur bones. Near the border between Vietnam and Laos there is a very small village in a dry teak forest. The people of the village are Qatang and they are animists. Hoffet arrived in this small village, and when he began observing the rocks, the people say, ‘Oh, you must be looking for the stone bones-of the sacred buffalo.’ They told Hoffet that when the sacred buffalo are young, they carry the sun in the sky each day, and when they get old, they die in this place, not far from the village. This is their legend. They took him to see the big vertebrae of the sacred buffalo. They were dinosaur bones. Hoffet was fascinated and wanted to collect the bones, but they told him, ‘You cannot touch these vertebrae because they are sacred. If perhaps you do a sacrifice, maybe you can collect some of them.’ So he paid them a buffalo, a young buffalo, and he was allowed to collect some of the fossil bones. He described these bones in 1936 in Hanoi in a small paper, ‘Description of New Titanosaurians in Bas-Laos.’

[Ref: Hunting Dinosaurs by Louie Psihoyos and John Knoebber (page 132)]

While the people of the village Hoffet visited may have revered the bones and were loathe to let them go (at least, not for free), other asian cultures did not have the same desire to preserve fossils. Such is the case with Traditional Chinese Medicine, consisting of some traditional remedies like massage/acupuncture and other controversial folk-medicine practices including the use of shark fin, tiger penis, sea horses, rhino horn, and even fossils in an attempt to either enhance or heal an individual. From the AMNH Mythical Creatures website;

For using dragon’s bones, first cook odorous plants; bathe the bones twice in hot water, pound them to powder and put this in bags of gauze. Take a couple of young swallows and, after taking out their intestines and stomach, put the bags in the swallows and hang them over a well. After one night take the bags out of the swallows, rub the powder and mix it into medicines for strengthening the kidneys. The efficacy of such a medicine is as it were divine! – Chinese medical scholar Lei Xiao (AD 420-477)

There is no doubt that what the bones being discussed are not the bones of actual dragons or even (as creationists may assert) living dinosaurs, but fossil bones found in various regions all over China. It is almost painful to think how many specimens have been lost so that some people could have stronger kidneys. It should be noted, however, that many “dragon bones” are actually fossil mammals, not dinosaurs or any other Mesozoic reptile, which goes to show that mammals are often just as much the basis for dragon lore as dinosaurs are, and this trend is not only apparent in Asia.

Dragons of the Carpathian Caves

A number of European caves, especially in central Europe, traditionally maintain the name of the dragon’s (or dragons’) cave or lair. During the 17th century, the German doctor Petersonius Hayn found some large skulls, isolated teeth, and bones in several caves in the Carpathian Mountains around Moravia. In 1673, Hayn had a article published by the Halle Academy of Sciences entitled “Skulls of Dragons in the Carpathians.” Around the same time, another German, named Vette, found similar remains in Transylvania. According to their discoverer, these bones belonged to flying dragons. Illustrations of the material described by Hayn and Vette still exist. In both cases, they are of Quaternary cave bears, a powerful animal that was one of the largest carnivorous mammals. The famous Austrian paleontologist Othenio Abel analyzed the legend of the dragon of Klagenfurt (Austria) early in the 20th century. At the beginning of the 14th century in the spot known as the “Dragon’s Grave,” the skull of a woolly rhinoceros from the ice age was found and was subsequently exhibited in the city’s town hall. This specimen served as a model for the sculptor Ulrich Vogesland for this creation of a statue of a dragon, which today is an emblem of the city of Klagenfurt.

[Ref: Starring T. rex!: Dinosaur Mythology and Popular Culture by Jose Luiz Sanz (pg. 122-123)]

Just in case all these prior descriptions have not made things clear, wherever there have been fossils, legends have cropped up to explain them. While the dinosaurs and mammoth mammals of times long-gone are now extinct, they did leave us their bones, startling remnants that inherently fire the imagination. Could such creatures still be living? When Georges Cuvier, in 1796, showed that species did indeed go extinct, not everyone believed him. Rejecting the idea that nature could produce a creature and later eliminate it, Thomas Jefferson instructed Louis and Clark to keep their eyes open for mammoths and other large beasts on their trek west (Native American lore apparently fueling his idea that the beasts could still be alive somewhere in the unexplored recesses of the continent). Today, of course, we know Cuvier to be right, but the prospect that some vestige of a “lost world” survives in an ocean trench or fetid jungle still captures the imaginations of many. While there are plenty of strange creatures of ancient heritage still alive today (perhaps the most famous being the coelacanth Latimeria chalumnae) (3), they seemingly do not hold a candle to the huge and varied creatures that lived during the Mesozoic, and such monstrous forms inspired Ray Bradbury to write a short story called “The Fog Horn“;

Up From the Depths

We waited a moment. And then I began to hear it. First a great vacuumed sucking of air, and then the lament, the bewilderment, the loneliness of the great monster, folded over upon us, above us, so that the sickening reek of its body filled the air, a stone’s thickness away from our cellar. The monster gasped and cried. The tower was gone. The light was gone. The thing that had called it across a million years was gone. And the monster was opening its mouth and sending out great sounds. The sounds of a Fog Horn, again and again. And ships far at sea, not finding the light, not seeing anything, but passing and hearing late that night must’ve thought: There it is, the lonely sound, the Lonesome Bay horn. All’s well. We’ve rounded the cape.

The story ended up being an inspiration in its own right, as well, becoming the basis for the cult classic The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms trailer

“Are we delving into mysteries we weren’t meant to know? Is mankind challenging powers behind the cosmic barriers? Will science unleash the fearsome forces of lost worlds?” Such questions seem to belie a mistrust and misunderstanding of science. While Japan had a more blatant allegory in Gojira, “Beast” (which actually predates the famous man-in-suit monster by a year) attempts to achieve a similar end for American audiences; how can we trust scientists when they unleashed the terrible power of the atomic bomb? If such destructive power is the aim of science, maybe there are things (as the closed-minded gentleman in the trailer suggests) that are better left unsolved. While there are certainly lines of inquiry that we would do well to keep closed (eugenics being the most famous example), I can’t help but think that the spirit of this particular trailer somewhat reflects the attitudes of many present-day creationists towards evolution. To them, science has become a corrupt process driven to subjugate and undermine mankind under the inherently evil hand of atheism, doing away with everything good in the world. Any good scientist, however, knows that the study of the world as it is (or was, given our discussion of paleontology) does not dictate morality or the way things should be, yet this distinction is seldom made by those threatened by the idea of an old earth or any non-Deluge model for the extinction of ancient life.

England’s attempt to capitalize on the radioactive reptile craze lurched out of the sea in 1959 in the form of Behemoth the Sea Monster (or, rather redundantly, The Giant Behemoth). (2)

Behemoth the Sea Monster trailer

According to the trailer, the titular monster (aka “a geometrical progression of deadly menace,” which I suppose could also apply to killer fractals) is the very same Behemoth (“The Biggest Thing Since Creation”) described in the Bible’s book of Job, except that the film creature seems to have been confused with the enigmatic Leviathan (also featured in Job). The Bible says nothing about Behemoth having radioactive powers or electric charges, but oddly enough the fictional monster has more in common with current creationist dogma than the creature God points out in an attempt to humble and awe Job.

“Why is there a giant elephant penis in my Bible?”

Here are the oft-cited passages concerning Behemoth from Job 40:15-24 (King James Version):

15 Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox.
16 Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly.
17 He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together.
18 His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.
19 He is the chief of the ways of God: he that made him can make his sword to approach unto him.
20 Surely the mountains bring him forth food, where all the beasts of the field play.
21 He lieth under the shady trees, in the covert of the reed, and fens.
22 The shady trees cover him with their shadow; the willows of the brook compass him about.
23 Behold, he drinketh up a river, and hasteth not: he trusteth that he can draw up Jordan into his mouth.
24 He taketh it with his eyes: his nose pierceth through snares.

Surely, Behemoth would be a beast to be feared, if it even existed. While we certainly could debate whether the animal described above is merely myth or based upon a living creature, for our purposes I am going to assume that some living animal provided the basis for such poetic prose. Needless to say we are dealing with an immense and powerful animal, living in or around a lake or river. What gigantic animals would have been alive in Job’s time that could have caused such an impression? Hippos and elephants are our main contenders, but creationists often attempt to apply the brakes at this point; “It was no mammal, it was a dinosaur!” In nearly every instance I have encountered, they make damn sure to quote the first half of verse 17, “He moveth his tail like a cedar.” In fact, Allan K. Steel spends a fair bit of time agonizing over the verse fragment in one of AiG’s treatments on Behemoth, overlooking the most obvious conclusion about the identity of Behemoth’s “tail.”

(Before fully revealing what the seemingly crucial verse 17 tells us, it should be noted that Archy dealt with this very subject many months ago, just as I did in one of my more popular ProgressiveU posts.)

Looking at the context in which verse 17 is found, it seems strikingly apparent that the “tail” of Behemoth is really a gigantic phallus, one that would certainly speak to the sexual potency of its owner. While “swings” is the most often used verb in creationist literature, other translations use words/phrases like “extends,” “stiffens,” “makes his tail stiff,” “erects,” “stretches,” and “extendeth down stiffly” (among others) seem to be just as common if not moreso, making it seem like the organ in question can be lengthened/stiffened by Behemoth rather than just swung about (although I’m sure that happened as well).

Even if we were to momentarily forget about the verb in question, putting the first half of verse 17 in context paints a fairly provocative picture;

16 Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly.
17 He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together.

It’s quite obvious that this part of the passage is describing the virility, the sexual prowess and potency, of Behemoth, and it would be odd that in the middle of such a frank description the beginning of verse 17 would divert to talk about the tail. Verse 16 is quite clear that Behemoth has “his strength… in his loins”, the last half of 17 describing the massive testicles of the animal (and it should further be considered that a bull elephants testicles are “wrapped together” internally, making them impossible to castrate in captivity). In case all of this discussion has been too subtle, it is plain to see that what creationists are hanging their case on is not the whiplash tail of a long-extinct sauropod, but rather a massive mammalian penis, and perhaps they are so embarrassed about the sexual frankness of the surrounding passages that they have chosen to ignore them altogether.

England’s Dragon That Wasn’t

Stretching their case even further, many creationists often cite the legend of England’s patron saint, St. George, as evidence of dinosaurs making it to recent times. In various books, from Duane Gish’s terrible Dinosaurs by Design to the aforementioned When Dragon’s Hearts Were Good, a relatively recently-discovered theropod named Baryonyx has been adapted into the role of dragon. While Gish’s version makes some attempt at accurate reconstruction, many of the AiG renditions have the dinosaur bearing extra horns, waddles, and other strange appendages in order to make it look like a dragon. Here is part of their bried description of the dinosaur;

Baryonyx is on display at the Natural History Museum in London. If you ever get the chance to view this wonderful specimen, remember that you just might be looking at the skeleton of one of the dragons from English history and legend (e.g. Sir George the Dragon Slayer) or one of the dragons spoken of in the Bible. One can easily understand how people could embellish the features of a dinosaur like Baryonyx over the years, adding fanciful appendages, etc., to result in some of the dragon pictures and sculptures that have come down to us today.

[Ref:The Great Dinosaur Mystery SOLVED! by Ken Ham (p.37)]

Why this dinosaur and not some other? Baryonyx had the disctinction of being discovered in England, making it a perfect candidate for AiG’s dragon mythology, but although choosing a British theropod may seem obvious it entirely undermines AiG’s case.

Strike 1: We have no historical proof that Saint George even existed outside of the fanciful religious text the Golden Legend, so we cannot even be sure that there really was a Saint George to do the dragon slaying!

Strike 2: The mythology surrounding Saint George and the dragon came from the middle east, as told by crusaders as they returned home. Given the location in which the events (if they even happened) occurred, Baryonyx would be a poor choice given the confrontation in question didn’t even occur in England.

Stirke 3: The “slaying of a dragon” could easily refer to the destruction of pagan cults in a particular region, or (being this was set in the middle east) the slaying of a crocodile. It is even in question whether George did the slaying, given that Saint Theodore of Amasea is purported to have slain a crocodile (“dragon”) in the region, and is even depicted standing on the reptiles corpse in a famous statue in Venice, Italy.

Given all these facts, there is absolutely no compelling reason to believe that St. George confronted a dinosaur, much less even existed himself. Why a fundamentalist protestant group like AiG would attempt to use part of Catholic mythology to prove their point (notice how he is “Sir” George in the excerpt) I don’t know, and I can only assume that they simply didn’t research their assertion. Given this poor scholarship, why should anyone trust them? Why should the average person pay $20 to be lied to? AiG’s various mistakes and intellectual dishonesty are well-known, yet they keep spewing out discredited creationist dogma as if it were something new. It is not; if anything else, the new “state of the art” museum represents a huge step backward, intellectually speaking, attempting to breathe life into a long-dead idea. The most frightening thing, however, is how many people they manage to take in this way.

Digging for the Truth

Whether the Creation Museum will be a success or failure is anyone’s guess; I’m sure there are plenty of church groups that have already booked their trips over the last year or so. They’ll get their fair share of skeptical visitors as well, people who have intact and working BS detectors who want to see for themselves what all the fuss was about. While this museum is certainly the largest and most advanced, its message is not new, and I can’t help but wonder if it will end up like another controversial theme park. A mere 4 years ago, on May 23, 2003, Erich Anton Paul von Däniken, author of Chariots of the Gods?, opened Mystery Park in Interlaken, Switzerland. Based upon notions about “ancient astronauts” and alien intervention on earth so fanciful they bordered on the psychotic, the park was scoffed at by many and closed on November 19, 2006 due to financial problems (likely filed under “Money: Lack thereof”). (4) Will AiG’s museum succomb to the same fate? Nobody knows, but given the current cultural climate of the United States at present, it is perhaps more likely that it will be a success.

Writing to his friend Asa Gray, Charles Darwin once related;

I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their [larva] feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

Indeed, rather than the world being filled with joys and pleasures as described by William Paley in Natural Theology (a book that was very influential on Darwin as a young man), there seemed to be so much pain, misery, and loss. With the literal Genesis account intellecutally untenable, what are we to conclude? Are we to continue to hold on to the concept of the universe as we wish it to be, a place where mankind is the crown of creation, subduing all of nature for our own benefit? This is not merely a debate about when dinosaurs lived and died or whether there was a global Flood; it’s about how we see and experience the world around us. It may be easy, even emotionally fulfilling, to believe that nature exists for our benefit by the grace of God, but I simply don’t see it (nor can I without a frontal lobotomy, or similar procedure). What good can come from a traditional delusion that doesn’t seek to illuminate, but rather do away with notions that are deemed “unsafe”?

Our attainment of intellegence and understanding began ages ago, regardless of whether you accept that it is one of our advantages us imbued to us by evolution or is a consequence of Eve’s teeth sinking into the flesh of the cursed fruit; we do not have the luxury of creating a fantasy world where we are isolated from the rest of life on earth. Rather than being ashamed of our ancestry, instead of ever-cramming more and more skeletons into the overflowing closet, why not embrace our evolutionary heritage? If we can’t do this, then we can no longer regard “truth” as a virtue, and we will have finally succeeded in subjugating the most unruly of all life; ourselves.

(1) It is unlikely that Brookes actually intended to officially name whatever creature the bone came from Scrotum humanum, given that such a binomial would be strangely inappropriate to describe an entire organism. Thankfully, the name was not used and is considered a “forgotten name” by the ICZN, otherwise many children might be learning about the first described dinosaur, Scrotum, when the unit on dinosaurs came up in class (although it would be interesting to sit in on a school-board meeting where irate parents arrived to protest their children learning about the extinct, carnivorous Scrotum).

(2) Just as an aside, the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (a “Rhedosaurus”) and The Giant Behemoth appeared together at least once in popular culture, taking down the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the super-gory Dinosaurs Attack! card series.

(3) It should be noted that while many have called this fish a “living fossil” or asserted that it has lived unchanged since the demise of the dinosaurs, this is utterly untrue. Such is the confusion when one extant representative of a group of organisms bears the name for all its extinct relatives, as there were once many different kinds of coelacanths swimming the seas. In fact, Latimeria chalumnae is not known from the fossil record, although there are some known fossils from close relatives like Macropoma.

(4) There are rumors that the part will soon open again, but this remains to be seen and I will not consider it to be anything more than wishful thinking on the part of “believers” at the moment.

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.

Some monsters are real

26 01 2007

Last night my wife and I got to have a little Mystery Science Theater 3000-type viewing of the recently released stinkbomb, Primeval, as we were the only two people in the theater (the only other people in the theater left about 1/3 of the way through). I grew up watching bad movies, films like Alligator (written by John Sayles, no less) being among my favorites (see Orca, Tentacles, Piranha, Prophecy, THEM!, Frogs, Grizzly, etc. for more examples) and almost always on TV every other month or so via TNT/Sci-Fi/TBS/FOX. Come to think of it, I spent a good deal of my childhood watching monster movies (begging my parents to stay up late), playing with my Legos and trying not to think about the weird noises in the night that became all-too-abundant after the film ended. I never really grew out of the phase, seeking out real life monsters rather than giving them up, and I still love anything that has to do with dinosaurs, sharks, crocodiles, or man-eating monsters born via radioactive sludge in films, expecting nothing much and having a good time ripping on the bad production values. If it gives you any indication of the quality of the movie, Primeval gave my wife and I plenty of material to riff on.

Before I go any further, I do want to say thank you to my wife for coming along with me to the film, indulging my boyish tendency to go out and watch monster movies even though I know they’re going to be utterly appalling. As she commented after we left the theater, she was surprised Primveal got a theatrical release, the special effects just a step above horrid Sci-Fi Channel original movies like Mammoth (the worst movie I have EVER seen, EVER!) and Attack of the Sabertooth. Indeed, during the first nighttime appearance of the films killer crocodile, it looked like it was a CGI-version of the old stop-motion animation style of Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen, exaggerated and fast movements of the featured creature in order to make it seem more “lifelike.” Even when we got to see the croc in full daylight, the CGI paled in comparison to what could have been achieved with puppets, and giving it an endless supply of stamina as it awkwardly galloped after Orlando Jones was incredibly silly. Granted, crocodiles look silly when they “gallop” anyway, but whoever did the biomechanics research for this movie obviously has never seen a fast-moving crocodilian. I really don’t understand why move companies put so much into crappy CGI-rendered monsters when puppets look better and add to the realism of the film; the sharks in the film Deep Blue Sea looked great as puppets but horrid as CGI-rendered monsters. There’s plenty of gore in the film as well, but usually it’s so dark it’s hard to make out what exactly is being ripped apart (except at the end when the crocodile pops the main human antagonists head like a grape), and in classic movie-monster style it knows how to take out underwater supports of a pier in order to get at the humans, it literally sniffs out the bad guy at the end, it eats a soldier about to rape a woman, it has an endless amount of energy & cunning, so really nothing like a real crocodile at all. What is more frightening to me are the real animals, the ones that are so swift, deadly, and quiet that you often attacks are little more than someone bathing never to you and then they’re suddenly gone in a swirl of water. Such is an account in the car-wreck of a coffee table book The Eyelids of Morning, in which a young man was standing on a rock in a body of water and then he suddenly wasn’t there, appearing a short way downriver in the jaws of a Nile Crocodile, which later was caught and the young man’s legs were extracted from the crocs stomach (framed in a blood-spattered cardboard box in the book). Such events are enough to keep me out of Africa’s rivers, lakes, and streams.

Primeval would have been bad enough if it was simply concocted by a group of executives who decided that Lake Placid was a great work of cinema, but it’s actually loosely inspired by a real killer crocodile named Gustave (named by Burundians for a ruthless president during civil war). Studied almost exclusively by Patrice Faye, a French self-proclaimed naturalist, Gustave lives in the waterways of Burundi, especially Lake Tanganyika and Rusizi River, reportedly reaching a length of 20 feet and weighing a ton (suggesting he has long surpassed the average 45-year longevity of most Nile Crocodiles). Such a large crocodile is enough to make people afraid by merit of its size alone, but Gustave has been charged with over 200 human deaths (as well as one adult hippo), the body count going ever-higher.


The above picture is one of the few I’ve seen of Gustave, the few pictures floating around on the internet not having much for scale in the pictures and most of the pictures Faye has taken have not made it to public viewing, apparently. While on assignment to track down the killer croc, the National Geographic team dispatched never found Gustave, and there has been little to no news about the whereabouts of the creature since 2005. The National Geographic article about the expedition has an editor’s note update, suggesting that Gustave has not been seen since at least November of 2006 (the rainy season making it difficult to track him), although 10 more deaths have been added to the list of fatalities. There is little doubt that Gustave has killed many people, but many remain skeptical of his legendary appetite for human flesh, seeming more like a catch-all explanation whenever anyone goes missing or gets taken by any crocodile. Indeed, how can you tell the size (or identity) of a crocodile when they are underwater? The one characteristic that seems to confirm the genuine attacks from other incidents is the fact that Gustave bears a dark scar on his head, something that is independently confirmed by those who get a good look at him during attacks. We know crocodiles kill and eat many people in various parts of the world every year (there’s no such thing as a “man-eating crocodile” because at least for saltwater and Nile crocodiles, they all have the propensity to do it if the opportunity arises), and it’s easy to believe that a crocodile of such gargantuan size would have an appetite to match, but there seems to be little actual evidence to back this up. Indeed, I haven’t seen any official reports made, books published, or other scientific discussions of case studies for those supposedly killed by Gustave (as is done with shark attacks via the Global Shark Attack File) and Faye doesn’t seem in much of a hurry to get empirical data out to the scientific community at large. Sure, everyone knows of Gustave and would like to catch him for study, but he has become more of a living legend to be captured/exploited than an actual animal to be studied. If Gustave is anything like the mythology makes him out to be, such a case study would be very illuminating from the perspective of ethology and human/ecological interactions, but it seems that the few scientists who have gone there have been so enthralled with trying to catch Leviathan for the cameras that all other empirical study doesn’t mean very much. I don’t mean this as a put-down to people like Brady Barr (the scientist who went with National Geographic), but what if we took the focus off trying to catch the animal and instead tried to figure out what the role of such a huge animal is in an ecosystem and what he is eating.

I don’t know if the mystery of Gustave will ever be fully solved, and it is likely that his story will fade away into obscurity over time. In places that are impoverished and torn by war, who has time to think about monsters in their own backyard? Once such places become developed, then all that was once wild is either tamed or exterminated, so either way Gustave seems more like a remnant of the mystery and danger Africa used to represent when it was still (dubiously) known as the “Dark Continent,” and because such mystery and the Jungian need to still have monsters in today’s world, I don’t think we’re ever going to know as much as we should about such a magnificent animal.