The cryptic appeal of Cryptozoology

By SciBooks 27/02/2014 5


crypto coverby Sophie Fern

REVIEW: Cryptozoologicon: the biology, evolution and mythology of hidden animals
by John Conway, C.M. Kosemen and Darren Naish

Irregular books, 2013

If it is possible to have a coffee table e-book, that is exactly what this is – a volume to dip into for edification and entertainment.  With tongues firmly lodged in cheeks, the authors take a sceptical and scientific look at the imaginative world of cryptozoology,  part of an emerging genre of fictional biology.

‘Cryptids’ are the fantastic beasts, that may (or may not) exist, which are known from folklore and anecdote, rather than physical specimens and confirmed sightings. This book introduces cryptozoology and its main practitioners, and then goes on to examine the evidence for and against the existence of various beasts, some as familiar as the Bunyip, provisionally named Thylacophoca hirsuticus, and many new and exotic ones – the Dingonek and Cadborosaurus, for example, not to mention the Mbielu-Mbielu-Mbielu and the Trinity Alps Salamander! From hoop snakes biting their tails to form a living wheel, to benthic seasnakes and various hominid-like apes (Yeti, Big Foot, de Loys Ape all feature) each beast is carefully illustrated – or imaginatively reconstructed! The text outlines the mythology and discovery of each, but the main focus is on the credibility of the discoverers, sources and supporting evidence, if any, of their actual existence.

Anecdotal as well as factual clues in the literature together provide the basis for analysis and speculation.  The authors are fairly certain, for example, that the Canvey Island Monster, a reportedly bipedal fish that washed up in Southern England in 1953, was actually a large anglerfish.  Its transformation into some sort of strange monster was a mixture of media sensationalism, and insufficient data being recorded from what must have been a decaying, and extremely pungent, carcass.  Indeed, according to the authors, insufficient data is often the cause for these creatures being mistakenly identified as cryptids rather than as animals that are sometimes well known to locals in the area.

Of course, with many cryptids, there is a suspicion of hoax.  The discovered footprints of the New Zealand Waitoreke, an “otter-like mystery mammal” are likely to be in this category, and the many sightings of the Australian Bunyip, were probably based on previous accounts rather than a succession of  sightings.  Many reported cryptid sightings are due to glimpses of creatures unfamiliar to explorers and/or embody  local lore and folk tales.  Stories of the Himalayan Yeti and the Sumatran Orang-Pendek were interpreted literally by explorers who, having convinced themselves that a monstrous creature exists, set out to prove its existence – there is a lesson in there for many of us.

In the final section of each description, the authors make an imaginative leap of faith and speculate on the (assumed) origins of the animal and let their, thoroughly well informed, imaginations run riot.  Whether geeking out on fossil data or sketching possible phylogenetic trees, they seem to have had a huge amount of fun in applying scientific process to the evidence accumulated from popular culture – including UFOs –  and science.   

While fun is what Cryptozoologican is mostly about, there is a unique value in  knowledgeable people evaluating speculative evidence; I can imagine setting this for an undergraduate class, to encourage students not to believe everything they see in print!But I suspect that, for most people, Cryptozoologican will come under the category of “interesting, but why?”, though it will surely tickle the fancy of a select group of ‘anthro-zoological’ freethinkers.

Sophie Fern is a marine biologist and writer who has studied all over the world and now lives on the Otago Peninsula.


5 Responses to “The cryptic appeal of Cryptozoology”

  • Hi Sophie,
    Glad you enjoyed the book. We read it for our book group and I didn’t like it at all; I thought the tone veered between wanting to be taken seriously and being a spoof. Successful spoofs require total commitment from the authors to be carried off with aplomb, For a fabulous example of this, see
    “How to keep dinosaurs” by Robert Mash.
    http://www.theguardian.com/science/2004/nov/18/peerreview.research

    Richard Dawkins wrote the introduction.

  • Hi Carol,
    “How to keep Dinosaurs” looks fantastic! I’ll check it out, and thanks for the recommendation. I don’t think these guys were seriously looking to spoof, just to geek out and have fun, which I reckon they did.
    Sophie

  • Cheers Sophie. I thought the Cryptozoologican authors could have either gone down the path of a cultural exploration of the mythical beasts (folk tales, anecdotes, illustrations, cultural history etc) or gone for the spoof in a big way, but they kind of steered a path through the middle, which didn’t really work for me.

    But anyway thank you so much for putting the time into doing book reviews.

  • I would suggest it’s not just a spoof but a pointed satire, on the mannerisms and dodgy reasoning of the cryptozoological authors who portray themselves as very scientific, but leap at once to the “prehistoric survivor paradigm” (as Naish has called it). The authors are pointing out that, OK, if you want to be all scientific, we can out-science you! I found the satire to be even more educational than the “standard” crytid debunking.

  • Hi Mike,
    That was the bit that worked best for me too. As you say, they went for it in the “we can out-science you” area.
    Sophie