Thursday, July 21, 2011

Cryptids: A glaring dichotomy

The sci-fi/fantasy arm of Gawker, io9, is having a "cryptid summer," about which I was initially, well, skeptical.

But I think they've handled it fairly well. And today brings us probably the best example of this:

Compare and contrast

The Weirdest Mystery Animals in the World


Ten extinct animals that have been rediscovered

Look, I think monster stories and legends are fun and awesome. But it is notable that, with one "exception,", discovered land animals of the 20th century and early 21st century are more or less mundane. They aren't the monsters of folklore and cryptozoology.

The "maybe" exception is the Bili Ape. The exact nature of the Bili Ape is still a matter of controversy, but it is physiologically fairly similar to other chimpanzees (it is behavior which is more strikingly different). While extremely interesting and important for primate studies, it is not very surprising that one group of chimpanzees with different behavior might not be recognized without careful observation, and certainly isn't the stuff of cryptozoology (the typical cryptid quarry is usually something monstrous that looks nothing like any other species around it).

In the oceans, more "monstrous" creatures do continue to be discovered, which is not surprising given the largely unexplored nature of the seas (whereas exploration of the land was largely a matter of Europeans and their documentation entering the rest of the globe, a process mostly concluded by the twentieth century). However, these creatures are typically not the stuff of legends, but instead complete surprises (see the megamouth shark for example, or the coelacanth for that matter, and arguably the colossal squid). The last great discovery of a truly monstrous creature of legend from the seas would be the giant squid, and while video of a living squid has only been captured in the early 21st century, bodies of the Architeuthis dux have been collected by scientists for a century and a half.

A century of specimens of one of the "name brand" cryptids would easily move such creatures (as it did with the giant squid) out of the shadows of myth, and into the realm of biology. But body parts or complete specimens of "name brand" cryptids, on the other hand, often only surface in the context of conflicting stories, before the whole thing falls apart (any number of examples can suffice, but the Georgia Bigfoot is a good recent example).

A project for an enterprising researcher might be to count up the number of documented sightings of the giant squid during the time period specimens have been recovered (since the 1850s). I'd be curious to know which has been seen more often and with more regularity: the giant squid which produced numerous carcasses, or a sea serpent/lake monster/hairy humanoid/pteradon/bloodsucking freak that has produced no corpses.