Tag Archives: cryptozoology

Dog Whistles & Subwoofers

Last Friday’s horrific earthquake and tsunami in Japan got me thinking about the last major tsunami in memory, the cataclysmic Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Much was made of the fact that, though entire towns were leveled by the flood, very few wild animals perished. It seems that about eight hours before the tsunami hit the shore, there was a massive migration of animals to higher ground. What tipped them off? The infrasonic sound of the approaching wave rumbling under their feet. And when I think of infrasound, the first animal I think of is the giraffe.

Really? I don't remember saying anything.

Why the giraffe? Why not a well-known basso profundo like the elephant? I have written about giraffes before, mainly in the context of how incredibly gay they are. But I’ve never written about their songs.

It was thought for centuries that giraffes were practically mute. Like rabbits, they were only known to make sounds in times of distress or courtship: whinnies, bleats, snorts, coughs, and even the occasional groan, mew, or bellow. But it was presumed that, for the most part, giraffes were simply very tall wallflowers. Then, in 1998, a bioacoustician named Elizabeth von Muggenthaler borrowed some high-tech equipment and discovered that giraffes are actually extremely talkative. They’re simply having a conversation below our range of hearing.

That giraffes are basses should have been obvious from the necks.

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Neanderthals in the Mist

There is no such thing as Bigfoot. There’s no Sasquatch, no Stink-Ape, no Yeti. The existence of Bigfoot, I believe, is indefensible: there are no fossils, no remains, not even Bigfoot scat. But a more interesting question than “Does Bigfoot exist?” is “Why doesn’t Bigfoot exist?” In other words, why isn’t there room for a large, hairy primate in the forests of North America? The answer, I believe, is two-fold. The first reason there aren’t more monkeys north of the Rio Grande is that primates don’t tend to do well in chilly climates. The other reason is that if Bigfoot were real, we would have eaten him by now.

The Golden Snub-Nosed Monkey is the primate living at the highest, coldest altitudes besides mankind. While those hot spring-loving Japanese Macaques are the northernmost-dwelling monkey, the Golden Snub-Nosed Monkey tolerates cold the best in its home in the mountains of Southern China, up to 14,850 feet above sea level. This semi-arboreal species able to survive the freezing temperatures with their double layer of golden fur, and by eating lichen and tree bark during the winter. They’ve been seen eating snow, and digging through the snow to find grasses when times are really tough. These sociable monkeys have no qualms about huddling together for warmth, and make a variety of cheerful noises — often without moving their faces at all. They’re the ventriloquists of the monkey world.

So this is as close as evolution has come yet to producing a Yeti. No ape besides us can stand snow, as apes are either vegetarians or omnivores, and palatable plants are in short supply in places that have white Christmases. If our imaginary Bigfoot existed, he’d be in direct competition with another giant, hairy omnivore: the grizzly bear. It is, after all, what undoubtedly made “Bigfoot’s” tracks. When it comes to the big fuzzy monster niche, perhaps the giant shoes had already been filled. And perhaps that’s for the best, because Homo sapiens has a habit of taking out its competition in the hominid department: first, the other species of humans, and now, the monkeys.

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The Rogue Taxidermist

A proper 18th century English naturalist does not wear a crew cut.

He also does not pretend to be a dog and bite his dinner guests under the table. He never rides a crocodile. He never punches out a python. When visiting the Vatican, a proper naturalist does not scale the roof of St. Peter’s. The Pope should not have to tell him to remove his gloves from the lightning rod this instant. It is unseemly for a naturalist to traverse South America entirely barefoot. And it is downright unheard-of for a naturalist to put one specimen’s head on another specimen’s body for the express purpose of making fun of the Protestants. But Charles Waterton, known to all as The Squire, was not a proper naturalist.


The Squire abides.

If Alexander von Humboldt was the paragon of a scientifically reasonable European naturalist in South America, Charles Waterton was his opposite. If Humboldt was the hero, Waterton was the joker. Whether The Squire was simply an aristocratic eccentric or a dangerously unhinged, bat-shit crazy lunatic, well, you decide.

Born to a Catholic noble family whose lineage included eight saints and four historical figures found in the works of Shakespeare, Waterton’s hyperactivity and rambunctiousness defied his blueblood upbringing and pushed him toward naturalism and exploration from an early age. Though he never discovered any species, or even bothered using the scientific names of the ones he studied, he was a keen observer of animal behavior. Basing his explorations around his family estate in British Guiana, he contributed to Europe’s understanding of neotropical fauna, and published a wildly popular memoir of his travels called Wanderings in South America that inspired a young Charles Darwin and, later, an even younger Alfred Russell Wallace to set sail for the continent.

The Squire’s eccentricities were innumerable. When a doctor told him to put his injured foot under running water, he went to Niagara Falls. He was a devotee of the medical practice of bloodletting — considered obsolete quackery even in his day — and wanted so badly to be bitten by a vampire bat that he maintained a habit of sleeping with his big toe uncovered to bait one. (He never succeeded.) He fell in love with his wife at first sight… at her baptism. She was the daughter of an Arawak princess and a Scottish nobleman and colleague, and at the infant’s baptism he fell in love and decided there and then that she was the girl he was going to marry. After that, he planned his expeditions so that they traveled through her small Guianan village, so that he could visit and check up on her. When she was seventeen, he took her away to England and married her. She died the next year, giving birth to their son. After that, and for the rest of his life, he always slept on the floor with a thin blanket and a wooden block for a pillow, out of equal parts grief and guilt. In Waterton’s later years, he established the world’s first nature preserve around his English estate, and became one of the world’s first opponents of pollution when chemicals from a nearby soap factory began affecting the waterfowl. He kept his propensity for walking around his grounds barefoot and climbing both trees and walls without ladders (which he deeply distrusted.)

Besides scientific experimentation, he had two major hobbies. The first was writing essays damning his scientific nemeses, namely John James Audubon and Charles Darwin. In truth, he considered most scientists his enemies, as he was regarded as an unhinged kook by the naturalist community. The most minor disagreements set him ranting and raving; after a manifesto-length screed against Audubon spurred by some negligible quibble over the olfactory faculties of vultures, one prominent scientist declared him “stark, staring mad.” When magazines would no longer publish his invectives, he printed them on pamphlets and sent them to everyone.

His second hobby, and perhaps his greatest legacy, was taxidermy. Today, taxidermy seems to be strictly for redneck hunters who want that 8-pointer on their wall, and the Norman Bates types with a death fetish. But for most of the history of zoology, taxidermy was an essential skill for any naturalist. It was simply too difficult to capture a live animal and transport it out of the jungle and over the ocean. Alfred Russell Wallace financed his journeys in the South Pacific by shooting and stuffing birds-of-paradise, and Audubon’s paintings were certainly not modeled on live birds. Charles Waterton was a master taxidermist, inventing his own procedure using something he called “sublimate of mercury.” (In fact, he taught his unique procedure to a slave at his British Guiana estate, and that slave, later freed and practicing taxidermy in Scotland, ended up teaching The Squire’s future nemesis Charles Darwin the art.) Greater than his gift for preservation, though, was his creativity. For many of the specimens that The Squire sent home from Guiana had no likeness to any creature, living or previously imagined.

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Heart of Darkness

We’ve had a few theme weeks here on The Quantum Biologist: Shark Week, Ant Week, and Vice Week. Today we begin a new theme week: Old Dead White Naturalist Guy Week! This week is an homage to the courageous, pith-helmeted, mustachioed white men of the 19th century who ventured to the far corners of the globe in the name of science, enlightenment, empire, or just adventure, along with the fascinating animals they “discovered.” (Sir Pilkington-Smythe should be pleased.) I’ll avoid the obvious names, like Darwin and Wallace and Audubon, in order to give credit to those whose names are less-remembered by the modern public. Whether for brilliance, bravado, or simply eccentricity, these are men I believe deserve greater fame.

Or, in this case, infamy.

Sir Henry Morton Stanley was not a naturalist. He was an explorer, and probably the model for exactly what you imagine when you think of the phrase “pith-helmeted, mustachioed white men.” Welsh-born and American-raised, Stanley was a hard-pressed foreign correspondent for a New York newspaper when he was tapped to head the expedition to find rock star Scottish missionary Dr. David Livingstone, last seen gadding about the Dark Continent. It was Stanley who coined the phrase “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”, though there is no evidence that he ever uttered the phrase when he finally found Dr. Livingstone in Tanzania. (Livingstone does not mention it, and for reasons mysterious to the world, Stanley tore out the pages of his diary detailing the encounter.)


Real men keep diaries.

That phrase is the most the average modern person knows about Sir Henry Morton Stanley. You can vaguely conjure an image of him in his khakis, bushwhacking his way through cannibal territory, hacking snakes with a machete and waxing his mustache with his free hand. What people forget is the utter, unmitigated brutality of this man, who was really nothing more than a flag-planting pawn for European powers carving up the African continent for their own appetites. Stanley’s expedition to find Livingstone was half media event, half mission of conquest; his 7,000 mile route from Zanzibar to Tanzania was claimed by England, while Stanley’s New York Herald sold record papers. After another newspaper-financed expedition down the River Congo, during which he lost 242 of the 356 members of his entourage — a full 2/3rds, he was commissioned by King Leopold II to map out the Congo and claim it for Belgium. Leopold II’s conquest of the Free State of Congo is one of the most brutal in modern times, amounting to nothing less than enslavement and genocide, with over half the Congolese dying under Belgium’s rubber bootheel. Stanley’s baggage train traveled in long routes through Africa to claim the greatest amount of land, spreading disease and violence where ever they went. Stanley himself was said by one peer to “shoot negroes as if they were monkeys.”

So why is Stanley the subject of my post? Following yesterday’s essay on cryptozoology, I wanted to write on a mammal that Stanley didn’t find himself, but “discovered” through local rumor. It is one of the most elusive mammals in the world for its size — so elusive that it was not scientifically described until the 20th century and was not photographed alive in the wild until 2008. It’s the okapi.

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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.

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Left-Handed Life

A few months ago, the New York Times published an Op-Ed that struck me in my mystery-loving heart. Instead of interpreting it, I’ll link to it here; it’s well worth the read. In summary:

The best way to tell if life could have evolved on other planets, the author postulates, is to see if it independently evolved twice on Earth. In other words, he entertains the possibility that there is a “shadow life” here on Earth that we’ve never been able to detect because we’ve never looked for it — our instruments were never calibrated to find it, or it lives only in unreachable places, like molten lava or beneath the Earth’s crust — with a different chemical make-up and natural history than known life. Instead of having its origins in the same thunderstruck pool of primordial soup, “Life 2.0” might have arisen via a completely different path. It might have left-handed amino acids, instead of our regular right-handed ones, or have cells that use arsenic in place of phosphorus. There could be an invisible, simultaneous biology living right on top our own.

You could see how this would appeal to me.

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Venom

I like to start each day by drinking a nice hot mug of cobra venom.

Did I say cobra venom? I meant coffee. But if I wanted to, I could certainly drink cobra venom, provided I didn’t have any cuts in my mouth or esophagus. I offer this as an example of one of the many ways that “venom” is not synonymous with “poison.” A poison can be anything that harms the body, from complex organic compounds to heavy metals to atomic radiation to bleach under the kitchen sink. But venom is special. Venom is an arrangement of proteins and enzymes that must be injected into a victim’s bloodstream through a mechanical device, such as a fang. Poisons are land mines that anyone can step on; venoms are delivered special to you.

Most of the venomous animals in the world are snakes, but there are a fair number of fish and lizards that deal death as well. The stonefish, the world’s most venomous fish, uses spines to defend itself against attackers, and can certainly kill a human, and gila monsters, one of two North American venomous lizards, produce a neurotoxin which cause an excruciatingly painful paralysis. The world’s most venomous land snake, Australia’s Inland Taipan, has never killed a human due to its reclusiveness, but the venom in one bite is powerful enough to kill 100 people. A few molluscs make the list: the golf ball-sized blue-ringed octopus — again, Australian — has a blinding, paralyzing toxin that will kill a human victim in minutes, and for which there is no antivenin. The venom is nearly identical to that of the marbled cone snail, nicknamed the “cigarette snail” because you’ve got about enough time left on Earth for one cigarette after it stabs you with its neurotoxin-tipped harpoon. But the most venomous animal in the world is the infamous box jelly, the “suckerpunch of the sea,” a nearly-invisible predator responsible for over 5,500 human deaths since 1954. Of course, its fatal deathblow usually comes from the drowning triggered by extreme pain before the venom can stop the victim’s heart.

Clearly, venoms are useful to predators across the animal kingdom: reptiles, fish, insects, cnidarians, molluscs, and even a few amphibians. Why, then, aren’t more animals venomous? And why aren’t there any venomous mammals? And here is where a few of you zoophiles say, What about the duck-billed platypus? Very good; just testing you. The male duckbilled platypus, and only the male, has venomous spurs on its hind legs. The few other venomous mammals are all types of shrew, including one of the rarest and strangest: the solenodon.

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