Why we need cryptozoology (without bigfoot)

By: Richard J. Ladle

It had a long beak and short wings. Then it dawned on me. I was probably holding a large-billed reed warbler. I was dumbstruck. It felt as if I was holding a living dodo.”

Phillip Round, Assistant Biology Professor, Department of Biology, Mahidol University, Bangkok.

On the 13th of November 1867 a rather drab looking little bird with a large beak was caught in the Sutlej Valley, north-west India by the grandly named Allan Octavian Hume. Hume had recently started work as the Commissioner of Customs for India’s North West Province, but his real passion was birds – his home in Rothney Castle on Jakhu Hill, Shimla, housed a private museum that contained over 80,000 preserved specimens from across the sub-continent[1]. He named his new discovery the long-billed reed warbler (latin name: Acrocephalus orinus), stuffed it, and added it to his impressive collection. As far as can be told its discovery barely registered with the zoologists and naturalists of the day. After all, this was the golden age of discovery where colonial naturalists and professional collectors such as Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection, were garnering accolades for their remarkable travels to some of the least known habitats on earth. New species of big animals, including birds and mammals, were being recorded on an almost weekly basis. Hume himself was responsible for describing more than 90 new species of bird.

220px-Acrocephalus_orinus_Tajikistan

However, the large-billed reed warbler then did something unexpected and extraordinary. It disappeared. For 139 years the only thing known about this peculiar little bird was derived from that single, stuffed specimen that had lain unmolested in a locked drawer of the bird room of the British Museum of Natural History – the final repository of all of Hume’s collection. Indeed, the very fact that only one individual had ever been seen, led some scientists to question whether the large-billed reed warbler was even a distinct species. Perhaps it was just an unfortunate mutant, or even a hybrid between two different species. Such hybrids can often possess unexpected features[2]. It wasn’t until 2002 when advances in genetic technology allowed DNA to be extracted from the unique museum specimen that scientists finally confirmed it to be a true species, genetically distinct from all other known warblers.

There are two obvious reasons for a species to disappear from the knowledge banks of western science. The first and most likely was that the species had become extinct. For example, 23 years before the discovery of the large-billed reed warbler the great auk (Alca impennis), a large and impressive seabird, was hunted to extinction by fisherman. The last recorded individuals being ‘collected’ by Icelandic fishermen in 1844. A combination of the busy waters of the northern Atlantic and the requirements of seabirds to nest on dry land mean that the chances of finding a live great Auk today are essentially zero. However, unlike the auk, there was always a chance that the large-billed reed warbler still existed. Beyond extinction, its disappearance could have been due to a number of factors. For example, a tiny global population size, inhabiting a remote poorly explored location plus behaviour and coloration that made it hard for scientists to detect, and possibly exacerbated by a lack of effort to find it.

Great_Auk_Thomas_Bewick_1804

Even though there was always a small chance that this species still existed, with each passing year this possibility declined. After all, India was relatively well surveyed by Hume and other Victorian naturalists and, more recently, the establishment of global conservation NGOs such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, Conservation International and BirdLife International in the 1980s and 1990s had injected new resources and expertise into the global search for rare species. Moreover, as India’s economic power grew in the latter part of the 20th century, its university sector also expanded and a new generation of ‘home grown’ zoologists began to explore and document the extraordinary wildlife of this diverse sub-continent.

As the new century dawned, the large-billed reed warbler had attained an almost mythical status among the bird watchers of the world. This drab little bird with the over-sized beak had become a ghost, whispered about in darkened bars over cold beers by strange men with stranger obsessions. And then, in 2006 against all hope and reason, it reappeared after an absence of 139 years. Even more extraordinary, the new specimen was caught not in India, but in neighbouring Thailand, a staggering 3,100 kilometres from where the first specimen had been recorded. The surprised re-discoverer was Phillip Round, an Assistant Professor at Mahidol University, Bangkok, who was engaged in a routine ringing exercise (attaching permanent identity bands to the legs of wild birds). Round had set up his nets in an unpromising area for capturing the world’s rarest bird – an experimental waste water treatment area (or ‘sewage works’ as the newspapers described it), 120 km from the Thai capital, Bangkok.

The bird was carefully measured and a few feathers were removed from which DNA could be extracted and compared with the 1867 specimen. When the evidence came back it confirmed what was clear to the eyes. This was indeed the long lost, large-billed reed-warbler. However, the DNA analysis revealed another, perhaps more intriguing, story about the warbler. If the bird was as rare as it appeared then members of the tiny remnant population would have been forced to breed with close relatives for many generations. Such inbreeding leaves an indelible imprint on the genetic make-up of an individual because they tend to inherit the same version of genes from both their mother and father. However, Round’s specimen showed no signs of inbreeding suggesting that there was still a relatively robust population of large-billed reed warblers whose breeding and wintering areas were unknown.

The story of the large-billed reed warbler did not end with Round’s solitary specimen. Only a couple of months after the rediscovery another specimen was unearthed, but this time not in an ornithologist’s net. Researchers at the RSPB’s natural history museum in the small town of Tring in Bedfordshire, England, found a specimen that had been collected in October 1869 in Mussoorie, Uttar Pradesh, Northern India. Inspired by this unusual rediscovery scientists began to trawl through the major museums of the world in search of more misplaced or misidentified specimens of the reed warbler. They were not disappointed. In 2008 a group of ornithologists and museum researchers led by warbler expert, Lars Svensson, announced they had found another 10 specimens, originating from diverse locations in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Thailand – a remarkable geographic spread for a bird that had hardly ever been seen.

While Svensson and his colleagues were preparing their findings for publication the British ornithologist Robert J. Timmins was engaged in some of his own research. In June 2008 he was involved in an extensive bird survey of north-eastern Afghanistan for the American based NGO, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). On the morning of the 3rd of June, he wandered into some brush-like vegetation near the village of Goz Khun, where the Wakhan and Pamir rivers meet to form the mighty Amu Darya River. Almost immediately he came across a reed warbler with a long bill singing vigorously. Timmins was not particularly familiar with the birds of the region so, other than taking down some rough notes, he didn’t immediately recognise the potential significance of his find. Wandering further along the edge of the river he saw or heard another 12 birds of the same species, making it the second commonest bird in his brief morning survey.

If Svensson had already published his research then Timmins might have known that in 1937 the American zoologist and museum collector Walter Koelz had collected two large-billed reed warblers in the same Afghan valley. On his return to the UK, Timmins quickly established contact with Svensson and became aware of the potential significance of his observations. New surveys were planned and, in June 2009, three research assistants from the Wildlife Conservation Society were able to capture 19 warblers. When the feather samples and the photographs finally made their way into the hands of Lars Svensson the mystery was officially over – the world’s least known bird had been found, somewhat appropriately in one of the most inhospitable and violent countries on the planet.

One of the things that makes the story of the large-billed reed warbler so fascinating is that such a distinctive and unusual looking creature could have evaded the attention of western science (and ranks of amateur birdwatchers) for so long. This would be perfectly understandable for a new beetle species that lives deep within the Amazon rainforest, or a species of deep sea squid dredged up from the abyssal plain. However, birds are probably the most studied animal group on earth. They are (relatively) big, frequently colourful and noisy, and are pursued with relentless intensity by a large number of dedicated amateurs and professionals for whom bird-watching is almost akin to a religious faith. The significance of the rediscovery of the large-billed reed warbler is that it gives hope that other ‘extinct’ species may still, beyond all expectation, still survive in isolated habitats, far from the gaze of western science in some of the world’s last hidden places. Moreover, if a bird that has not been seen for nearly one and a half centuries can re-appear, does this suggest that there are still feathered and furred species, unknown to science, waiting to be found?

The study of such ‘hidden’ species is known as cryptozoology and is a subject not held in a great deal of esteem by the mainstream scientific community – mainly because of its associations with the hunt for Bigfoot, the Yeti, and other quasi-mythical creatures. This is unfortunate on two levels. Firstly, as habitats shrink across the world and the full effects of pollution, climate change, invasive species and over-hunting take their toll, there will be many more species driven to the edge of extinction, some of which will pass beyond the knowledge of the global scientific community. The tools and techniques of cryptozoology will be needed to locate and re-locate these species, providing a last opportunity to drag them back from the precipice of extinction. Secondly, cryptozoology is a fascinating subject in its own right and has been transformed in recent years through the application of new technologies. For example, we now have the power to detect new and hidden species without ever seeing them – linking the DNA extracted from dusty museum specimens with that obtained from cast-off feathers, stray hairs, or even the cells that slough off the wall of the intestine during defecation. Giant databases (e.g. http://www.gbif.org) are being constructed that link all the information stored in museums with more recent research, allowing scientists to pinpoint possible localities for rarely seen species. This book will outline these advances in tools and thinking with the aim of bringing cryptozoology back into the mainstream of scientific research.

In addition to being useful and fascinating, cryptozoology may also fulfil some deep-seated human desires that have been sadly diminishing by our fast-food, pre-packaged, predictably safe society. Discoveries and rediscoveries remind us that the natural world is still mysterious and full of hidden treasures – that deep within the woods and glades there could be strange animals living their lives beyond the gaze of science. Moreover, now more than ever, we need some hope that nature can survive the onslaught of humanity. Cryptozoology with its real-life tales of loss and resurrection provides this – rare good news stories in the battle to conserve the diversity of life on earth. Furthermore, some cryptozoologists themselves make interesting subjects. Stories of zoological discovery and rediscovery are often associated with human tales of obsession and dedication – of people who spend their lifetime chasing wraiths and myths, perusing dusty illustrations in forgotten books, and collating second-hand accounts of close encounters with tantalisingly ‘almost identifiable’ animals. Some of these people are real-life Indiana Jones figures – combining deep learning with amazing adventures to some of the last wilderness areas on the planet. Others are simply bafflingly eccentric, and not a few are mendacious or even fraudulent.

[1] Hume used his massive collection to compile an authoritative account of the Birds of India – the culmination of his life’s work. Sadly, this was lost in 1885 when an illiterate servant inadvertently sold all of Hume’s manuscripts as scrap paper.

[2] For example, the rare offspring of tigers and lions suffer from congenital gigantism.

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