The New Drake Equation

The conservationist world got some rare good news last week. A pair of researchers at the University of Queensland researched every species of mammal that had, at one time since the 1500’s, been deemed extinct, and concluded that, in approximately one-third of cases, reports of their deaths had been greatly exaggerated. This hopefully means that up a third of mammals currently considered extinct today may actually just be extremely rare and hiding. The whole article is worth the read (especially since it’s by my favorite science blogger, Brian Switek). But I’ll summarize, too.

Considering not just how many mammal species survived, but what kind of mammals survived, the researchers noticed a trend. If the species was declared extinct — which is usually official 50 years after a confirmed sighting, or after an exhaustive search — because of human hunting, it was probably truly extinct. Likewise for death by invasive species. But if habitat loss was the murder weapon, it was more than likely that a few members of the species survived somewhere. If that’s the case now, it means it’s possible to save them.

A good deal of my blog is dedicated to cryptozoology, the study of hidden animals. Cryptozoology isn’t just unicorns and Sasquatch. It’s also the search for hypothetical animals, as well as the search for animals that used to exist but haven’t been seen in some time. Is it largely a sensationalist pseudoscience? Sure. Do cryptozoologists waste their time and reputations hunting chupacabras for the benefit of History Channel specials? Absolutely. But when it comes down to finding real-life hidden animals — like, say, the possible one-third of “extinct” mammals out there — it’s a good idea to have a little faith in folklore and trust that maybe the illiterate villager who saw the shadow of an animal out of the corner of his eye is telling the truth. That’s precisely how the Horton Plains Slender Loris was finally rediscovered last summer, after having been declared extinct in 1937.

Lorises are nocturnal primates that live in the forests of Southern Asia. Unlike the monkeys, which are evolved for agility, lorises hunt by stealth and slowness. Built with owl-like eyes for superior night vision and depth perception, and with a strong grip (reinforced with sticky urine) for stalking insects on the ends of thin twigs, they are the ultimate creepers. Unlike the “slow lorises,” the slender loris is capable of dashing short distances through the trees when necessary. But they are still an extremely shy and furtive species, preferring to blend in with the gloom in the canopies of their upland rainforests.

The Horton Plains Slender Loris, a subspecies of the Red Slender Loris, was the victim of British imperialism. A native of one plateau in Sri Lanka, its homeland was largely clear-cut to satisfy the Queen’s unslakable thirst for tea. With the reminder that animals don’t exist until a white man scientifically describes them, I’ll say that the Norton Plains Slender Loris was first documented in 1937, after which it promptly disappeared for 65 years. In 2002, it was spotted by the glow of its eyes in a flashlight’s beam. In 2009, after a thousand nights of searching, it was re-discovered and finally, for the first time ever, photographed. There are estimated to be merely 60-100 alive.

Except the loris had been spotted before in that 65-year hiatus. It was only four times, and only by native Sri Lankans, but it was enough to keep hope alive.

In the very first Quantum Biologist, I made an oblique reference to the Drake Equation. This is the rough, shorthand formula developed by astrophysicist Frank Drake to estimate how many technological civilizations capable of interstellar communication might exist in the galaxy. Some people find it eloquent, others find it useless, but it still serves as the model for astrobiology and the search for intelligent life. You can read about it yourself, or let astrophysicist and author of “Contact” Carl Sagan explain it in mellifluous baritone:


If you close your eyes, Carl Sagan sounds eerily like Barack Obama. Try it!

Why do I bring up the search for intelligent life in the galaxy? Because I believe it’s analogous to the search for life on Earth. While the original Drake Equation is hotly argued by astronomers, with many siding with the Rare Earth theory that our planet is uniquely suitable for life, Frank Drake predicted that there may be many, many intelligent life forms in the Galaxy, considering its 400 Billion stars. Astrobiology is the study of life on other planets, none of which yet has been found. In other words, it’s cryptozoology in space.

So when it comes to cryptids, might there be a New Drake Equation that could predict the likelihood of a species’ existence? Or would there be far too many variables? I suggest it not because I’m eager to prove the existence of the Loch Ness Monster — in fact, I’m more eager to disprove it so we can get on with our lives — but because the fate of hundreds of M.I.A. species may hang in the balance. We can’t save a species we presume is extinct. The H.P. slender loris happened to be saved because one of them looked at a flashlight in the dark; in light of the possibility of other species’ continuing existence, don’t we owe other “extinct” mammals a shot? Could an algebraic formula distinguish “impossible” from “possible” from “probable” when it comes to complex life forms?

Feel free to help build an equation with me in the comments. What would be the variables that would go into it? “Amount of Habitat Needed Per Potentially Mating Pair,” for example. “Existence of Viable Food Source,” “Time Since Last Confirmed Sighting,” “Life Span,” etc.

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About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

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