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Cryptozoology: Science or pseudoscience?

Part of “Pseudoscience A to Z”, a series of articles first appearing in the OSSCI newsletter about topics that have not been subjected to much critical thinking by their promoters.

Cryptozoology runs the gamut from the ludicrous (sasquatches are shape-shifting extra-dimensional aliens), through the outlandish (remnant populations of dinosaurs), to the highly unlikely (mammoths still existing in Siberia), ending at the mildly curious (fifty foot snakes). In between all these are creatures that would make a science fiction writer proud.

The term Cryptozoology was coined by Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans (1916 – 2001), whose work and writings on the subject, particularly his 1955 book ‘On the Track of Unknown Animals’, earned him the unofficial title of ‘Father of Cryptozoology’. He was a formally trained zoologist but with an obvious taste for the unusual. Other luminaries in the field include Loren Coleman, Lucien Blancou, and Dr Karl P.N. Shuker.

Is Cryptozoology a science or a pseudoscience? A perusal of the internet shows that in the main it is definitely ‘pseudo’, but I don’t think that this covers all aspects of it. Example; A researcher working away in the bowels of a museum comes across an uncatalogued skin that she does not recognize. Documentation states that it was collected in the Amazon basin in 1893. A cross check of all available literature fails to turn up any further reference. However, the skin is real, and the animal definitely existed at some time. (Actually stuff like this happens often, and it will probably continue for quite a while.) If our hypothetical researcher decides to mount an expedition to find live examples, they are now stepping into the realm of Cryptozoology, as the search is now on for an unknown animal. Much of Cryptozoology is concerned with exactly this, a search for animals that have not been seen for a long time, and are considered extinct by most authorities. Recent examples would be the Thylacine or marsupial wolf of Tasmania, the Moas of New Zealand, and the Passenger Pigeon of North America. The approach that many researchers take is definitely unscientific, overly credulous, and naïve, but it is possible to take a scholarly, respectable attitude. After all, many animals declared extinct have been found alive and well, and sometimes in healthy populations. The Chacoan Peccary, previously known only from Ice Age bones, was found alive in South America, the Bermuda Petrel was declared extinct twice yet still cruises the Atlantic Ocean, and just within the past few days it has been announced that the Cuban Solenodon, a primitive shrew-like mammal, has been rediscovered.

There is one major snag with these findings as it relates to our subject; few if any such discoveries have been anticipated in the Cryptozoological literature. They are continually looking for long lost animals without success, but missing the real ones tripped over by undergrads tromping the bushes gathering mundane data on bird droppings. A glaring case would be that of the Coelacanth, that well known ancient fish rediscovered off the Comoros Islands in 1938 after about a 65 million year hiatus. For years some Cryptozoologists have whispered about a supposed population in the Caribbean, but a few years ago a doctor on honeymoon in Indonesia discovered one for sale at a local fish market. Subsequent searches have confirmed a new population there, perhaps a distinct species. If you wanted to find a sea further from the Caribbean, you would have to walk in the footsteps of Armstrong and Aldrin.

If you are looking for current information on Cryptozoology you could hardly do better than to head for the web page run by Ben S. Roesch at:

The writings of Mr. Roesch are almost an anomaly in the field. He is erudite, skeptical of many Cryptozoological claims, and unafraid to take people to task when they overstep the bounds of common sense. In a discipline that is in serious need of more discipline, he is a bright light indeed. Being a keen amateur naturalist I have a soft spot for Cryptozoology, and I hope that it survives in spite of itself. If more people of Mr. Roesch’s calibre enter the arena it is in good hands.

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