Beyond Bigfoot: the science of cryptozoology

Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com
March 26, 2012



Hidden animals and new species: over 100 years of discovery. An interview with Karl Shuker.

The last thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, is believed to have died in 1936. However many contend that the species could still survive including unconfirmed sightings in Tasmania, Australia, and New Guinea. The thylacine was the world's largest carnivorous marsupial. Painting by Henry Constatine Richter, 1845.
The last thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, is believed to have died in 1936. However many contend that the species could still survive including unconfirmed sightings in Tasmania, Australia, and New Guinea. The thylacine was the world's largest carnivorous marsupial. Painting by Henry Constatine Richter, 1845.



Anyone who doubts cryptozoology, which in Greek means the "study of hidden animals," should remember the many lessons of the past 110 years: the mountain gorilla (discovered in 1902), the colossal squid (discovered in 1925, but a full specimen not caught until 1981), and the saola (discovered in 1992) to name a few. Every year, almost 20,000 new species are described by the world's scientists, and a new book by Dr. Karl Shuker, The Encycloapedia of New and Rediscovered Animals, highlights some of the most incredible and notable new animals uncovered during the past century.

In an interview with mongabay.com, Shuker says the top three zoological discoveries since 1900 would have to be the okapi, the coelacanth, and the saola, also known as the Vu Quang ox. His book highlights these three discoveries along with hundreds of others, including species discovered as recently as last year.

Shuker, a zoologist by training, has made a name for himself in cryptozoology by pursuing "hidden animals" with scientific rigor. While cryptozoologists sometimes struggle for serious acceptance of their evidence, Shuker says that may just be the nature of pursuing animals rumored to exist.


"Cryptozoologists who investigate cases of cryptids in a scientific manner are pursuing the same paths as 'mainstream' scientists. Ironically, however, as soon as one of the cryptids that they investigate is formally discovered, it is, by definition, no longer a cryptid, and immediately becomes a subject for study by zoologists instead. So in a sense, cryptozoology can never win, because as soon as one of its subjects is confirmed to be real, it is no longer cryptozoological but zoological instead."

To boost the discovery of new species, Shuker is starting a new scientific journal devoted to evidence of the hidden animals.

"I hope that cryptozoological researchers will submit papers to the journal that are totally worthy of publication in mainstream zoological journals but which may not be accepted by them simply because their subject is cryptozoological, which seems a great tragedy and injustice," he notes.

There are many places in the world where discoveries, even of big and charismatic animals, is still quite possible. Shuker says researchers should focus on "remote, little-explored regions, such as the rainforests of South America, Asia, Africa, Australia, and New Guinea; the vast, inhospitable Arctic zones; and obviously the even more vast oceans and large freshwater lakes in tropical regions that have attracted little scientific attention so far."

But even as scientists are documenting new species left-and-right, Shuker warns in his book that extinction may be just as likely a fate for many of the world's hidden species as discovery.

Shuker with the skull of the extinct smilodon. Photo courtesy of Karl Shuker.
Shuker with the skull of the extinct smilodon. Photo courtesy of Karl Shuker.
"The wholesale destruction of tropical rainforests, together with the obscene pollution of the oceans and freshwater ecosystems, has alerted scientists and the public to the frightening truths about likely consequences of such desecration," he writes in book's Introduction. The best way to combat the loss of the world's hidden biodiversity is "to protect the habitats where such creatures are being reported. After all, if their habitat is destroyed, they will unquestionably become extinct, meaning that we stand the very real risk of losing some remarkable animals before they were ever made known to science."

In a March 2012 interview Karl Shuker shares favorite stories from his book, The Encycloapedia of New and Rediscovered Animals; explains how genetic research has up-ended our knowledge of species; and tells mongabay.com which famous cryptids might have the best chance of discovery.



INTERVIEW WITH KARL SHUKER: NEW SPECIES OVER THE LAST 110 YEARS

Delcourt's giant gecko, or the kawekaweau, may be extinct or it might still exist in New Zealand. Illustration by Markus Buhler.
Delcourt's giant gecko, or the kawekaweau, may be extinct or it might still exist in New Zealand. Illustration by Markus Buhler.



Mongabay: What do you think have been the top three biological discoveries of the last 110 years?

Karl Shuker: In terms of both zoological significance and spectacular external appearance, I would have to say the okapi, discovered in 1901; the coelacanth, discovered in 1938; and the Vu Quang ox or saola, discovered in 1992. Each of these was visually unique, unlike anything previously known to science. The okapi was, almost a contradiction in terms, a short-necked giraffe, and one that shunned the wide open plains in favor of dense, shadowy jungles, and was boldly marked with stripes instead of spots. The coelacanth possessed remarkable leg-like fins, and unique three-lobed tail fin, and resurrected an entire lineage of archaic coelacanths from over 65 million years of presumed extinction. The Vu Quang ox constituted an extraordinary combination of buffalo-like body and long antelope-like horns, and even today there is no firm agreement as to how it should be classified within the bovid family of hoofed mammals.

Mongabay: Your new book covers stories behind hundreds of new discovered species. Do you have any favorite story that you'd like to share?

The okapi and the saola bookend the remarkable zoological discoveries of the 20th Century. Illustration by William Rebsamen.
The okapi and the saola bookend the remarkable zoological discoveries of the 20th Century. Illustration by William Rebsamen.
Karl Shuker: Perhaps the one discovery that includes everything in its history is that of Delcourt's giant gecko. Far bigger than any other species of gecko, it is known only from a single taxiderm specimen whose provenance is unconfirmed, but which was on public display for over a century in the Marseilles Museum, France, before, during the 1980s, it was finally recognized to be a species still undescribed by science! Moreover, although its origin has never been determined, this unique specimen is similar to certain much smaller gecko species native to New Zealand, suggesting that this is probably where it was originally obtained. When this was revealed, further investigations uncovered the remarkable fact that a lizard hitherto thought to be mythical, known as the kawekaweau, but which was basically identical in appearance to Delcourt's giant gecko, featured in the traditional lore of New Zealand's Maori people! In short, it may well be that the kawekaweau and Delcourt's giant gecko are one and the same species, and as if that were not exciting enough, there have been reports, so far unconfirmed, of living specimens in various remote regions of New Zealand, so perhaps this two-in-one lizard species still survives today!

Mongabay: Why was the discovery of the saola in Vietnam in 1992 so important

Karl Shuker: The area of Vietnam where it had been discovered, Vu Quang, had never been scientifically explored before, and was in a region that had experienced intense fighting during the Vietnam War, so scientists did not expect to find anything very significant there when it finally became open to detailed exploration during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Instead, a veritable herd of new species of hoofed mammals were discovered there, of which the saola was only the first. Another major find, just two years later in Vu Quang, was the giant muntjac, the world's largest species if barking deer. 



Mongabay: The deep sea remains largely unexplored. What are some of the most notable discoveries from this region?

Karl Shuker: Many extraordinary new species of whale and dolphin have been discovered during the past century, so too has the colossal squid and the megamouth shark, but greatest of all must surely be the vent worlds on the ocean floor, surrounding hot-water vents. Here, huge tube-dwelling worms with bright red tentacles, hairy snails, long acorn worms resembling strings of spaghetti, jellyfish that look like dandelion clocks, and all manner of other truly bizarre and all hitherto unknown species have been discovered since the first vent world system was revealed in the mid-1970s when the exploratory submarine Alvin carried scientists down to the ocean floor near the Galapagos Islands. 


Mongabay: How is genetics research changing the way researchers discover and document new species?

The coelacanth proved to be one of the most shocking discoveries of the 20th Century. Illustration by William Rebsamen.
The coelacanth proved to be one of the most shocking discoveries of the 20th Century. Illustration by William Rebsamen.
Karl Shuker: It is adding a whole new dimension to the subject because it is revealing that some hidden species are right before our eyes but have not been recognized before due to the fact that externally they are virtually indistinguishable from other species; only when their genetic make-up is examined is their separate species status uncovered. Consequently, many once-single species have been 'split' into a number of separate ones as a result of genetic analyses. Lemurs in particular have seen a massive increase in species numbers recently due to this splitting process. The clouded leopard has been split into two species, as has the African elephant, and some researchers believe that the giraffe is actually not one but several species. 


Mongabay: Your book also looks at rediscovered species, those that have been missing for years, which of these were the most surprising?

Karl Shuker: The rediscovery of the cahow or Bermuda petrel was truly astonishing—this small seabird supposedly became extinct during the 1620s, after which nothing more was heard of it whatsoever until, wholly out of the blue, a living specimen was discovered in 1906, followed by others from the 1930s onwards. Then there are various entire lineages of animals believed extinct for millions of years until some hitherto-unknown modern-day species are found alive and well—most famously the coelacanths but also others such as the neoglypheid crustaceans, the monoplacophoran molluscs, and, most recently, the Laotian rock rat or kha-nyou. This remarkable mammal was discovered alive and well in Laos in 1996 and was later found to be a living diatomyid—a family of rodents previously thought to have been extinct for at least 11 million years.



CRYPTOZOOLOGY



Keyan spotted lions are a 'cryptid' species with unconfirmed sightings in Africa. Illustration by William Rebsamen.
Keyan spotted lions are a 'cryptid' species with unconfirmed sightings in Africa. Illustration by William Rebsamen.



Mongabay: How do you define cryptozoology?

Karl Shuker: The scientific investigation of animals whose existence or identity has yet to be confirmed by science.

Mongabay: Some cryptozoologists are dismissed by scientists. Do you think there's common ground between the two sets?

Karl Shuker: Cryptozoologists who investigate cases of cryptids in a scientific manner are pursuing the same paths as 'mainstream' scientists. Ironically, however, as soon as one of the cryptids that they investigate is formally discovered, it is, by definition, no longer a cryptid, and immediately becomes a subject for study by zoologists instead. So in a sense, cryptozoology can never win, because as soon as one of its subjects is confirmed to be real, it is no longer cryptozoological but zoological instead.

Mongabay: You're involved in a new scientific periodical, the Journal of Cryptozoology. What do you and your collaborators hope to accomplish with this new journal?

The orang pendak is an unconfirmed primate in Sumatra. Illustration by Tim Morris.
The orang pendak is an unconfirmed primate in Sumatra. Illustration by Tim Morris.
Karl Shuker: Since the demise of the International Society of Cryptozoology and its journal, Cryptozoology, several years ago, there has been no peer-reviewed scientific journal devoted to mystery animals and their scientific investigation. So this new journal, the Journal of Cryptozoology, published by CFZ Press and edited by myself, aims to fill that crucial gap in the literature. I hope that cryptozoological researchers will submit papers to the journal that are totally worthy of publication in mainstream zoological journals but which may not be accepted by them simply because their subject is cryptozoological, which seems a great tragedy and injustice. All submitted papers will be subjected to evaluation by two independent, zoologically-qualified reviewers, thereby receiving exactly the same treatment that papers submitted to mainstream zoological journals receive.

Mongabay: When should we expect the first edition?

Karl Shuker: I have already received a number of very interesting, promising papers, which are currently being evaluated, so I am hoping that Volume 1 will be published later this year.

Mongabay: Where can people find out more information, such as how to submit?

Karl Shuker: The Journal of Cryptozoology has its own Facebook Likes Page and also a Facebook Groups Page, its own website is currently in preparation, and all details concerning submissions can be found on a special announcements page on my ShukerNature blog.

Mongabay: Are there any species that you think the cryptozoological community should be spending more time on?

Karl Shuker: Lots of cryptozoologists have different ideas concerning this, and different favorite cryptids. Personally, I would like to see more time spent on investigating cryptids that once attracted widespread attention but which, for all manner of different reasons, have faded from public attention in modern times – creatures such as the Kenyan spotted lion and Nandi bear, the New Guinea devil pig, the Alpine tatzelworm, and the New Zealand waitoreke, to name but a few.

Mongabay: Any species that you think its time to give up on?

Karl Shuker: No—never say never!



THE FUTURE OF NEW SPECIES

The discovery of the Kha-nyou shocked researchers as this family of rodents was supposed to be extinct for millions of years. Illustration by Markus Buhler.
The discovery of the Kha-nyou shocked researchers as this family of rodents was supposed to be extinct for millions of years. Illustration by Markus Buhler.



Mongabay: Certainly, new species will continue to be found for centuries. Where do you think are the best places to find undiscovered species?

Karl Shuker: Those areas of the world that still contain remote, little-explored regions, such as the rainforests of South America, Asia, Africa, Australia, and New Guinea; the vast, inhospitable Arctic zones; and obviously the even more vast oceans and large freshwater lakes in tropical regions that have attracted little scientific attention so far. 


Mongabay: Given the discovery of the saola, do you think it's possible other large terrestrial mammals remain undiscovered in parts of the world?

Recent research, including genetic analysis, has shown that there are two distinct species of clouded leopard. Illustration courtesy of Karl Shuker.
Recent research, including genetic analysis, has shown that there are two distinct species of clouded leopard. Illustration courtesy of Karl Shuker.
Karl Shuker: Until such areas of the globe as those mentioned by me above have been fully explored, there has to be a chance of such survival, as exemplified by the saola, giant muntjac, dingiso tree kangaroo in New Guinea, giant peccary, Bili ape, and kipunji mangabey—all discovered during the past 20 years. 



Mongabay: Which famous cryptic species do you think have the best chance of being proven over the next century?

Karl Shuker: Both the orang pendek or 'short man' of Sumatra and the ever-elusive thylacine or Tasmanian wolf must stand a decent chance of discovery, due to the intensive efforts being made to discover the former and the intriguing hair and spoor samples already obtained; and the wide geographical range of sightings for the latter, limited not just to Tasmania but also to mainland Australia and New Guinea, both of which are confirmed to have been home to this species in the past. 


Mongabay: What measure could society take to protect that have not even been found yet?

Karl Shuker: By far the single most important measure is to protect the habitats where such creatures are being reported. After all, if their habitat is destroyed, they will unquestionably become extinct, meaning that we stand the very real risk of losing some remarkable animals before they were ever made known to science. 




Long baffling to primatologists, and a heated subject of cryptozoologists, the Billi ape has recently been confirmed as chimpanzee, but displays unique gorilla-like behaviors and it generally larger than other chimps. Photo courtesy of Karl Shuker.
Long baffling to primatologists, and a heated subject of cryptozoologists, the Billi ape has recently been confirmed as chimpanzee, but displays unique gorilla-like behaviors and it generally larger than other chimps. Photo courtesy of Karl Shuker.



One of the most surprising discoveries in the ocean in recent years was the megamouth shark, discovered in 1976. Photo courtesy of Karl Shuker..
One of the most surprising discoveries in the ocean in recent years was the megamouth shark, discovered in 1976. Photo courtesy of Karl Shuker.



One of the mot surprising discoveries in the ocean in recent years was the megamouth shark, discovered in 1976. Photo courtesy of Karl Shuker.
The kipunji mangabey was only discovered in 2003 in Tanzania; it represents the first new monkey genus since 1923, but is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Photo courtesy of Karl Shuker.



Glypheid lobsters were only known from the fossil record until researchers discovered a specimen of one in a museum in 1975. Two species are now known, including the one in the photo above, called the Neoglyphea inopinatum. They are not lobsters, but a unique type of crustacean. Photo courtesy of Karl Shuker.
Glypheid lobsters were only known from the fossil record until researchers discovered a specimen of one in a museum in 1975. Two species are now known, including the one in the photo above, called the Neoglyphea inopinatum. They are not lobsters, but a unique type of crustacean. Photo courtesy of Karl Shuker.



The giant muntjac, or large-antlered muntjac, was discovered in 1994 in Vietnam. It shares the forest with the saola. Illustration by: William Rebsamen.
The giant muntjac, or large-antlered muntjac, was discovered in 1994 in Vietnam. It shares the forest with the saola. Illustration by: William Rebsamen.



To order a copy of Shuker's new book: The Encycloapedia of New and Rediscovered Animals.

Follow Shuker's adventure on his blog: ShukerNature.















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CITATION:
Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (March 26, 2012).

Beyond Bigfoot: the science of cryptozoology.

http://news.mongabay.com/2012/0326-hance_interview_shuker.html