February 5, 2010 • 4:58 pm

by Greg Mayer

The spotted lion is a favorite topic within cryptozoology. Bernard Heuvelmans, the late Belgian zoologist known as the “father of cryptozoology”, defined cryptozoology as

The scientific study of hidden animals, i.e., of still unknown animal forms about which only testimonial and circumstantial evidence is available, or material evidence considered insufficient by some!

Although, not mentioned in the brief definition, Heuvelmans also included the study of known, but supposedly extinct, animals, that might still be extant, based on testimonial or circumstantial evidence. Animals that are of interest to cyptozoologists are known as cryptids.

The roster of cryptids includes such beasties as the Loch Ness monster, the abominable snowman, and bigfoot. This might suggest to some that cryptozoology is pretty out there, a pseudoscience. But, in fact, the question of what cryptozoology is turns out to be more interesting, as the spotted lion story itself indicates.

Many zoologists (especially systematic zoologists), like cryptozoologists, are interested in discovering and describing previously unknown species of animals (with my friend and colleague Skip Lazell, I’ve described one myself). For many zoologists, in fact, its their full time occupation. There are millions of undescribed species of animals awaiting scientific investigation.

So if cryptozoologists are looking for undescribed species, and zoologists are looking for undescribed species, what’s the difference? Well, one minor difference is that cryptozoologists tend to be interested in fairly large undiscovered species. Most newly described species are small (most are insects), although a few pretty big ones have been discovered in the recent past (e.g., giant muntjac, sao la, megamouth shark, and Chacoan peccary).

But size isn’t the key difference. The key difference is what sort of evidence is taken to be compelling evidence of the existence of an animal. For a zoologist, testimonial evidence, such as stories about spotted lions, might be a good reason to go looking for something, but you don’t have any real evidence until you actually get one of the animals. Having an actual specimen is the standard of evidence in systematic zoology. In cryptozoology, there is a wide range of practice in what kind of evidence is considered compelling. Heuvelmans himself leaned pretty strongly toward accepting testimony as fairly compelling (while strongly rejecting, however, attempts to make cryptozoology a form of mysticism or paranormal exploration, as was done in, for example, John Keel’s Strange Creatures From Time and Space). Other cryptozoologists, however, explicitly adopt the zoological standard of evidence. In their Cryptozoology A to Z, Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark write about some cryptids in the following way

Unfortunately, without a specimen, this can only be conjecture. [referring to the possible identity of a supposed giant bear of Kamchatka]


And it is from the Dani [a New Guinea tribe] that [Tim] Flannery received his first real evidence of the bondegezou, in the form of skins and associated trophies. [referring to a newly discovered species of tree kangaroo known as the bondegezou; emphases added in both quotes]

And, in writing about what cryptids are, they state

It is often impossible to tell which category an unknown animal actually inhabits until you catch it. [emphasis added]

In stressing the importance of obtaining a specimen(s) in figuring out what cryptids are, Coleman and Clark are doing just what a systematic zoologist would do. There is no difference in their standards of evidence, only in what catches their attention as being worthy of inquiry. The latter is a matter of personal interest and taste, not scientific method, so the Coleman & Clark practice of cryptozoology is not pseudoscience at all. (There are also a lot of crack pots and frauds out there too.)

Coleman, in addition to his own website, contributes to the website Cryptomundo. But my favorite website dealing with cryptozoology is Darren Naish’s Tetrapod Zoology. He’s a dinosaur paleontologist, and most of his posts are on more orthodox aspects of tetrapod zoology, but he posts occasionally on cryptozoological topics, often analyzing evidence, and sometimes resolving the issue. Here, for example, are his insightful explications of the Montauk Monster, a cryptid from my home island, which turned out to be a raccoon that had expired and gone to meet ‘is maker. Go to his site and look around for more fun posts like these.