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Prehistoric Survivors? They Are Really Most Sincerely Dead

Sounds Sciencey

Sharon Hill

February 28, 2014

A popular gambit in cryptozoology is to say that a cryptid is a real animal that was presumed long extinct but has lived on undetected. Here is why that sounds sciencey, but is bad reasoning.

“From what I have heard of the animal, it seems to me that it can only be some kind of dinosaur, seemingly akin to the brontosaurus. As the stories come from so many different sources, and all tend to substantiate each other, I am almost convinced that some such reptile must still be in existence. At great expense, therefore, I sent out an expedition to find the monster, but unfortunately they were compelled to return home without having proved anything, either one way or the other. [...] Notwithstanding this failure, I have not relinquished the hope of being able to present science with indisputable evidence of the existence of the monster.”

From Beasts and Men: Being Carl Hagenbeck's Experiences for Half a Century Among Wild Animals, 1912. An abridged translation by H.S.R. Elliot and A.G. Thacker, p 96-7.

artwork of men and dinosaur

The book From Beasts and Men, containing the excerpt above about a report of a living dinosaur, was published the same year as Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World. Hagenbeck, a zookeeper and exotic animal merchant, speculated that there existed a real “lost world” in the unexplored areas of Africa. (Loxton and Prothero, 2013; Magin, 2010) The idea that a lone survivor or a population of living fossils is out there to be found by courageous explorers is accepted by many of today’s self-styled cryptozoologists (those who research ethno-known, but not scientifically verified animals). Buoyed by the discovery of the coelacanth in 1938, a rare, lobe-finned fish that was presumed extinct for sixty-six million years, these specialty researchers sustain their wishful thinking that more fabulous finds are out there, even dinosaurs and other iconic prehistoric beasts.

The most famous cryptid claimed to be a survivor of ages long past is the Loch Ness Monster. One of the most popular explanations you will hear proposed for Nessie in the media is that it is a plesiosaur, a marine reptile that disappeared from the fossil record sixty-six million years ago with other large fauna at the same time as pterosaurs (flying reptiles) and dinosaurs (land reptiles) went extinct. There are many and various good reasons to conclude Nessie is NOT a plesiosaur (which is best left to professionals to explain). Besides the fact that the creature has not been shown to be an actual mystery, the plesiosaur hypothesis, specifically, is ridiculous and should be abandoned, as should other suggestions of prehistoric survivors. I’ll explain why this idea should be killed with fire, and in the process, I’ll tell you about the dozens of other extinct animals said to still be seen alive in modern times. Thanks A.C. Doyle!

The Prehistoric Survivor Paradigm (PSP)

Doyle was inspired by the wilds of South America to create his prehistoric plateau populated by dinosaurs, plesiosaurs, pterodactyls and ape-men in The Lost World. Many works of literature and film also capitalized on this popular theme. (Loxton and Prothero, 2013; Coleman, 2007) Fiction is a powerful influence on culture just as culture influences fiction. Paleontological discoveries were all the rage in the late nineteenth century as skeletal remains were extracted by the tons from the American West, described, classified and mounted in museums. The public was astounded at the size and strangeness of these new, real monsters. It did not seem implausible that animals of the distant past could yet survive in the unexplored places of the world (Magin, 2010) especially if you were unfamiliar with the immensity of geologic time. This is exactly when the idea of still living dinosaurs emerged.

In the early days of the intrepid natural explorer to the Dark Continent, there had been rumors of monstrous inhabitants known from strange track ways. It is commonly noted that Central Africa was a particularly fine candidate for a “lost world” since it has not changed much climatologically or geologically. But, indeed it HAS. That parts of the world remain untouched by natural changes is a myth.

The stories about what created the tracks were made up whole cloth by natives or from the explorers themselves. The term “dinosaur” to describe the monsters was tacked on in the twentieth century as the knowledge about the past existence of real monsters spread. (Loxton and Prothero, 2013) One classic “living dinosaur” legend is that of Mokèlé-mbèmbé—the “half elephant, half dragon” monster of the Congo. According to the chapter on Mokèlé-mbèmbé in the cryptozoology chronicle, Abominable Science (Loxton and Prothero, 2013), Carl Hagenbeck initiated this legend as noted in my opening quotation. His “credible” reports were from Rhodesia (now defined as Zambia and Zimbabwe). But the modern Mokèlé-mbèmbé legend is from Lake Tele in the Congo basin, some 1200 miles away. Did it migrate? Well, sort of. African dinosaur lore appears to have been distilled from several creative stories from different locations. Early in the cultural history of dinosaurs, brontosaurs (now officially named Apatosaurus) were seen as swamp-dwelling animals. Similar dinosaur-like cryptids such as the Nsanga and Chipekwe were said to be so gigantic they frightened elephants. There were tales of the plate-backed Mbielu-Mbielu-Mbielu creature said to resemble a stegosaur. The Emela Ntouka and the Ngoubou were described with a frilled head and horns like ceratopsian dinosaurs. What ELSE could they be except dinosaurs? It sounds scientifically conservative to extrapolate from animals that we know once existed. Instead, it's actually lazy thinking; there is no evidence to support such speculation when we have better evidence that there are no longer living populations of these animals. Even our evidence about dinosaur habitat has evolved. They are no longer assumed to be tropical swamp dwellers. The modern evidence clashes with these legends created under the old pop-culture ideas of dinosaurs.

Paleozoologist Dr. Darren Naish regularly uses the term “Prehistoric Survivor Paradigm” (PSP) to address this cryptozoological habit of resurrecting extinct animals as potential explanations for cryptids. In a blog post from 2006 for the popular science blog Tetrapod Zoology, he talks about how cryptozoology writers are still endorsing this idea and why it was actually an unscientific conclusion to make. To suggest that these mystery animals were not only real (with their descriptions taken at face value, a dangerous assumption to make), but surviving descendants of an extinct population was unjustifiable speculation. As a corollary, one must also conclude that the fossil record is unreliable. Though it IS imperfect, he notes, it's really not as bad as people think it is (Naish, 2003), especially for marine animals. Naish picks apart the PSP in his most recent book on speculative zoology, The Cryptozoologicon (Conway, et al. 2013), calling it a “boring” explanation used just because a carcass or description of a cryptid somewhat resembles what we think the extinct animals would look like today. Moreover, some cryptozoology researchers not only assume some cryptids are prehistoric survivors but they speculate on how further evolution occurred to the present time—a marine animal adapts to fresh water, it might have grown spines, perhaps ancient whale lineages became more serpent-like (and account for sea serpent sightings), etc. Such speculation is fun and entertaining, but to suggest they are genuine is ludicrous to those who actually study the fossils of those animals.

Interestingly, many who subscribe to the paradigm that extinct animals still survive have strong creationist tendencies. They assume, irrationally, that by finding a living dinosaur, evolution will somehow be disproven. They often won't hide their anti-evolution aims (Loxton and Prothero, 2013) since wealthy Christian backers will fund those expensive expeditions to the Congo to find proof of living fossils. These expeditions are not headed by zoologists, but by men who will spread God’s word to the natives while on the track of monsters. The media, unaware of the excursive, non-zoological agenda of these trips, will treat the explorers the same as a bona fide biologist that they almost never are. In 2012, a group of American kids with no scientific training attempted to raise money for a Congo trip to find the dinosaurs and giant spiders they heard about in questionable legends. They succeeded with funding but were woefully ill equipped and ill prepared for the adventure, which was scuttled upon arrival. The interesting observation is all they had needed to raise the funds was an exciting story and a boatload of hope (or perhaps faith). They seemed to be dismissive (or ignorant) of the more likely explanation for these incredible monster stories from Africa—that of manufactured myths to entertain the tourists. The natives told past visitors incredible tales that got positive reactions. It is clear that researchers showed illustrations of dinosaurs that elicited confirmation of what they wanted to hear. The legend grew but evidence was lacking.

The Implausible Plesiosaur

Plesiosauria is an order of astounding aquatic reptiles that lived during the Mesozoic era from 205 to 65 million years ago, contemporaneous with dinosaurs. Though there are more than a hundred named species, Plesiosaurus is the genus/species1 most familiar to non-scientists, having a barrel-like body and a long neck ending in a small head full of teeth. Front and rear flippers allowed it to “fly” through the water. It does not appear to have been capable of significant land locomotion but that does not stop speculation a modern plesiosaur version could crawl around the shore and scare the local inhabitants.

artwork of plesiosaur

Besides being the most exciting explanation proposed for Nessie, a relict plesiosaur is also the favored explanation for the cadborosaurus and other lake and near-shore monster sightings. A body, called the Naden Harbour carcass, was found in the stomach of a whale in 1937 on the Canadian Pacific coast. It had a plesiosaur-like outline—long neck, small head. Another “possible” plesiosaur cited by proponents of the PSP is that of the stinking carcass hauled up by the fishing crew of the ship Zuiyo Maru near New Zealand in 1977. In both cases the carcass was in an advanced state of decomposition but there is no good evidence to conclude each was anything other than the remains of a known animal. They are often referred to as possible modern plesiosaurs.

One tale from the early twentieth century illustrates the typical cryptozoological characteristic of unreliable and downright contradictory descriptions of mysterious cryptids. In 1922, the New York Times ran a story about a professor who received two reports of a plesiosaur still alive in a lake in the Patagonian Andes. The reports sent to Clementi Onelli ranged from a “black shadow” swimming away to that of an animal with a head like a horse and long neck held above the water surface. Within weeks following the media reports, the animal was quite oddly hypothesized to be a glyptodon (an extinct giant armadillo-relative) or a megatherium (giant ground sloth, also extinct). How one animal managed to encompass all these diverse forms is a wondrous achievement! Expeditions to the area were failures (perhaps because they didn't know what they were supposed to find). (Arment, 2004)

Cryptozoologists love the story of the coelacanth fish that supposedly went AWOL in the fossil record for sixty-six million years.2 The deep sea, they knowingly state, can conceal many mysteries including small populations of prehistoric survivors. Dr. Naish, however, points out several reasons why the coelacanth hide and find is not comparable to plesiosaur fossils. Although still often touted in non-professional crypto-books that coelacanth fossils are unknown past the K-Pg extinction2 event, this appears to be false. (Naish, 2010) Paleogene fossil remains of coelacanths were poor and easily overlooked by paleontologists. It’s possible that, as is the case with many uncatalogued fossils, there are additional samples sitting unidentified in museum archives.

Large aquatic vertebrates have generally excellent fossil records. (Naish, 2003) Animals such as plesiosaurids, ichthyosaurids, mosasaurids, and primitive whales are all groups that were “theorized back to life” by imaginative cryptid writers. (Conway, et al. 2013) The oceans (and even some deep lakes, like Loch Ness, and large rivers) are also thought by a few optimists to still hide zeuglodonts (ancient whales), thalattosuchians (long-snouted crocs resembling sea serpents), pliosaurs (short-necked plesiosaurs), large armored fish called placodonts, giant sea scorpions (eurypterids) and archelon, the four-meter long sea turtle we last find at the K-Pg extinction boundary. The idea of an ancient giant shark still alive was such a fantastic idea that Megalodon got his own TV special on Animal Planet in 2013 complete with faked footage to suggest that a toothy monstrous menace still roamed the sea. The fake documentary influenced the opinion of many viewers who now entertain the belief that it's still out there. If any of these animals indeed survived past their presumed extinction, we should find representative fossils. We don't. Absence of evidence IS evidence of absence.

As much as I would LOVE to believe plesiosaurs are still around, Nessie is not a plesiosaur or any other prehistoric survivor. No known group of vertebrates has been found alive after disappearing completely from the fossil record some sixty-six million years ago (Naish, 2003). Therefore, paleontologists can be confident that these sea-faring reptiles are indeed extinct.

Living Pterosaurs

It is possible to hide in the ocean for a long time but you certainly will have difficulty remaining secretive if you are a giant flying critter. Yet, there are many reports of people observing enormous flying creatures they describe as “prehistoric-looking.” There are stories of huge condor-type birds, with wingspans comparable to a plane, in parts of Pennsylvania, Alaska, and Illinois. (Hall, 2004) Some speculate these birds were Teratorns that went extinct in the Pleistocene era. A less bird-like Thunderbird is known from the American West. People claim to see airborne animals that resemble pterosaurs.3 They are described as huge, dragon-like, winged creatures, having leathery skin instead of feathers and sometimes a tooth-filled beak and a head crest. Pterosaurs lived and died along with dinosaurs. The attained astonishing diversity and monstrous size but left no descendants.

A Fortean Times piece cites a story from 1873 where a steamship crew off Micronesia caught a black, furry, “savage” animal resembling “the pterodactyl of the antidiluvian ages.” Actually, it sounds more like a large fruit bat. But they didn't recognize it. (Magin, 2010) This story is remarkably similar to the encounter reported by (crypto)zoologist Ivan T. Sanderson of the animal called the Olitiau in the southern Cameroon that attacked his crew. He described it as having “dracula” wings. Again, it most likely was a fruit bat but speculation continues that it was a pterosaur because that makes for a really neat story.

The legendary kongamato of Zambia and the Congo is described as possibly an existing rhamphorynchoid pterosaur—having a long thin tail ending in a diamond shaped rudder. Acrobatic flying lizards that glow with bioluminescence as they flit about the rivers in Papua New Guinea are known as ropen. Popular cryptid writers describe the ropen as being a potential living pterosaur. However, some birds bear a remarkable similarity to rhamphorynchoids in flight. Long legs trail behind looking like thin tail with a rudder. Frigate birds have angular wings and a long tail that cause them to be mistaken for pterosaurs in flight. Revealingly, ornithologists and even casual bird watchers have not cataloged sightings of pterosaurs. Living pterosaurs most certainly no longer patrol our skies.

rhamphorynchoid/frigate birdSources: left, right

Still Roaming the Land

Tales of prehistoric survivors come from all continents and there are almost too many names and varieties to keep track of. (Eberhart, 2002) Besides the dinosaurs from Africa, here is a little taste of the range of prehistoric animals still reported alive.

Megalania, fifteen- to twenty-foot long lizards in Australia and New Guinea that died out 20,000 years ago, is speculated to account for sightings of the Burrunjor.

Thylacoleo was a marsupial lion of Australia that is suspected to be behind reports of the “Queensland Tiger” or yarri. It has been suggested, without proper evidence, that this animal is a mainland version of the extinct Tasmanian tiger (thylacine).

Also in Australia, a giant wombat, possibly the legendary Bunyip, is connected to diprotodonts, extinct for 7,000 years.

In South America, rather unreliable reports surfaced of sightings of saber-toothed cats. And the fearsome Mapinguari is reported in Brazil and Bolivia as a giant ground sloth or giant anteater last known from the Pleistocene.

The waheela, a bear-dog creature resembling an extinct amphicyonid, is claimed to still exist even though the fossil record shows it died out five million years ago in North America. Imaginative authors speculate that waheelas account for reports of dogmen or modern werewolves in the northern United States.

Reports of the Nandi bear, or Ngoloko, a cryptid out of Africa has been hypothesized to be an Atlas bear, a giant baboon, a short-faced hyena, or a chalicothere (herbivore that lived 40–3.5 million years ago) most due to its characteristically short rear legs and longer front legs.

Of course, we can't forget the species of prehistoric primates still said to roam the earth. A common proposed explanation from Bigfoot believers is that today’s North American Sasquatch is a relict Gigantopithecus (which paleontologists know only from teeth and jaw parts). The Asian versions of wild men have been speculated to be hominids that we assumed were long gone, perhaps even Neanderthals. But use of modern DNA and measuring techniques squash that idea; samples of supposed modern remains or descendants of these creatures have been tested and come back as modern human.

There are several mentions of Ice Age animals still alive. Once again, 12,000 years may not seem that long, but it really is for not finding living specimens of really large and obvious mammals. In February of 2012, The Sun (UK) tabloid published a photo and video (on the web site) declared to be evidence of a wooly mammoth traversing a river in Russia. It was blurry, the features indistinguishable, and the source dubious—a known hoaxer who runs a weird news website. Still, a real live mammoth in Siberia seemed plausible to many. Mammoths survived in dwarf form on Wrangel Island of the coast of Alaska for 10,000 years after they disappeared from the American mainland. Could a small population have continued on living in the remote arctic wilderness?

Unfortunately, no. In short order, the Siberian mammoth video was discovered to be a computer graphics hoax—film of a real river in Russia with a fake mammoth added in.

Once again, the hopeful evidence disintegrates.

There is a great desire, even by non-cryptozoologists, to discover a lost world full of surprises. The eyewitness accounts, legends, creative interpretation of traditional art, and the human propensity to convert fantasy into reality is not enough to support the idea that long-extinct prehistoric animals are still with us. Sure, there is a chance we might discover another Lazarus taxon4, but it won’t be the fanciful flying dragons, the elephant killer, or massive toothy sea monster. Still, when people really want to believe it, they sometimes actually see it. Therefore, these stories, for they are nothing greater than that, are passed along in pop culture. Some believe they are true. We can continue to study and admire these prehistoric animals as evolutionary treasures and as characters in science fiction, but we cannot resurrect them with just wishful thinking and dubious claims.


References

Arment, C. (ed.) (2004) “The Patagonian ‘Plesiosaur’ Expedition of 1922.” North American Biofortean Review 6(2) No. 15, pp. 3-11.

Coleman, L. (2007) “Prehistoric Cryptofiction.” Cryptomundo blog.

Conway, J., Kosemen, C.M., and Naish, D. (2013) The Cryptozoologicon Volume 1.

Eberhart, G. (2002) Mysterious Creatures.

Hall, M.A. (2004) Thunderbirds: America's Living Legends of Giant Birds

Jeffreys, M.D.W. (1944) African Pterodactyls. Journal of the Royal African Society (pp. 72-74). Reprinted at http://www.strangeark.com/reprints/ptero.html.

Loxton, D and Prothero, D. (2013) Abominable Science.

Magin, U. (2010) “Living Pterodactyls”. Fortean Times No. 267 October 2010.

Naish, D. (2003) “On Plesiosaurs, Basilosaurs, and Problems with Reconstructions.” North American Biofortean Review 5(3) No. 12.

Naish, D. (2006) “On those pesky prehistoric survivors: A call to arms.” Tetrapod Zoology blog.

Naish, D. (2010) “A sea monster poster for the 9th European Symposium of Cryptozoology.” Tetrapod Zoology blog.

Shuker, K.P.N. (1995) In Search of Prehistoric Survivors.

Smith, D.G. and Mangiocopra G. (2004) “An 1900’s Prehistoric Amazon Monster – An Explorers Encounter, Cryptofiction or a Combination of Both.” North American Biofortean Review 6(1) No. 14, p 19-27.

Footnotes

1. There is currently only one species listed in the genus Plesiosaurus, P. dolichodeirus.

2. The K-Pg, Cretaceous-Paleogene, extinction occurred sixty-six million years ago. Previously called the K-T extinction (T for Tertiary), this is the most popularly known giant extinction event since it killed off all non-avian dinosaurs, marine reptiles, and pterosaurs as well as many other animal groups, and created new environmental niches for small mammals and birds to exploit. The current coup d’etat for the mass death was a large meteor impact in the Yucatan that affected environmental conditions worldwide.

3. Commonly but incorrectly called “pterodactyls” which are one suborder of pterosaurs, the more proper term refers to the entire range of pterosaurs including rhamphorynchoids.

4. Known as “Lazarus taxon,” many documented findings exist of animals that appeared to be extinct but were later found alive. The record seems to be monoplacophores, mollusks that were known from fossils 380 million years ago but were discovered alive in Costa Rica in 1952.

Sharon Hill

Sharon Hill's photo

Sharon Hill specializes in issues of science and the public and runs the Doubtful News website. Sharon can be reached at shill@centerforinquiry.net.