Posted by: johnkpatterson | July 29, 2015

A Plausible Monster? Part Two

Introduction

My previous post in this series details the reasons why there might be at least one so-called “monster” (well, unknown animal) in one of the most impenetrable regions of the world: Mokele-mbembe, in Central Africa. If it accomplished anything, however, all it did was open the door and display the Congo Basin as a good hiding spot for a large animal. Here, I hope to highlight the evidence that suggests this hiding spot indeed harbors an unknown species.

Important Caveat: I will be upfront and admit this current presentation is less organized than I would like it to be. Certainly nothing compared to the tight argumentation provided by Max Hawthorne in the other post I published today. Sometimes I have been unable to track down the photographs I hoped to link to or include in this post, or was unable to reach some key people, but hopefully that will change very soon. If you’d like to learn more, I have a bibliography and weblinks at the end of this post.

First will come the reports of physical traces, which help as tangible indications that something big, rare, and unknown to science resides in the Congo Basin. Secondly, there will be a brief recap of anecdotal evidence.

Physical Traces

Due to the difficulties mentioned in the first “Plausible Monster” post, I wouldn’t be surprised if a creature of unknown classification lives in the Congo Basin, yet visiting tourists/biologists/explorers have not gathered physical evidence. Nevertheless, there is one incident that stands out above others.

The following information comes from William J. Gibbons’ books “Mokele-Mbembe: Mystery Beast of the Congo Basin” and “The Official Mokele-Mbembe Factbook” and from correspondence with my close friend Robert Mullin, who has been on three trips to Cameroon to attempt to gather information on this animal and search for it (in that country it’s known as La Kila Bembe, along with several other tribal names).

As one expedition in 2004 (members included Brian Sass, Peter Beach, and local guide and hunter Pierre Sima) traveled by boat down the Dja River, they came across a little spit of land known locally as “Swamp Island.” There, the jungle’s normally dense shroud of overhanging vines had been stripped away by an herbivore, to a height of eighteen feet. Large tracks were present on the ground, about the size of an elephant’s, but with prominent claws on the toes. Neither elephants nor hippos nor rhinos have these claws.

According to the local guides they hired (whose livelihood, it’s worth pointing out, depends on their expertise at tracking animals and discerning their behavior from the traces they leave behind), the footprints came from two adult animals and a juvenile, who were moving side to side and grazing on the vines hanging above the bank. The toe of one of those footprints was made into a plaster cast, but unfortunately not enough plaster was available to cast the entire foot (I’ll be happy to post a picture of this cast and/or footprints, as soon as I can obtain one).

From what I understand, the tracks bore a strong resemblance to these ones, found by Michel Ballot in 2013 in Cameroon. Each track is about 12 inches in diameter, and does not bear a resemblance to anything known to live in Central Africa. I got the photo from here.

From what I understand, the tracks bore a strong resemblance to these ones, found by Michel Ballot in 2013 in Cameroon, on “Bee Island.” Each track is about 12 inches in diameter, and does not bear a resemblance to anything known to live in Central Africa. I got the photo from here.

Near the area of stripped vegetation were several caves in the ground. Caves like this, according to the natives in Congo and Cameroon, are used by Mokele-mbembes to estivate during the dry season (estivation is like hibernation when water is scarce, and is practiced by lungfish and certain frogs on the African savannah). A plaster cast of what looked like a claw mark was allegedly extracted from the surrounding mud by Peter Beach.

If the natives desired to fool the Western explorers, this would seem an unnecessarily elaborate hoax. Perhaps they could fake stripped vines or a footprint or two or put some scratch marks on the walls of an already existing cave. But when the area can only be reached by canoe, to do all three may demand too much time and effort from the natives’ most immediate concern: hunting and gathering to feed their tribe.

What if another large herbivore, already classified by science, could explain what was at the riverbank? Obviously a hippo or rhinoceros does not reach a grazing height of eighteen feet. Giraffes can, but they do not live in this part of Africa — the Congo Basin’s riverbanks might as well be quicksand to any large animal without wide feet to distribute its weight over the soft earth. The best candidate among known animals would be the forest elephant. I’d be willing to allow the possibility of a pair of forest elephants (of unusually great size) with a juvenile, rearing up on their hind legs, and plucking leaves at eighteen feet, if their trunks were extended. The main problem with this alternative is the prominent claws on the footprints, and the fact that the native guides didn’t just identify them as elephant tracks.

Given the details of what was found in this area, the simplest explanation appears to be this: the members of this expedition came across the grazing area of an unclassified species, and arguably the largest to live in the Congo Basin.

Anecdotal Evidence

Any “cryptid” can boast of stories and sightings, no matter how unlikely their existence or how bizarre/supernatural the creature. But the general pattern of Mokele-mbembe sightings does appear to match the pattern of seeing a rare animal. First, consider the people claiming they see Mokele-mbembe: native tribes that have little to no contact with each other (several of which have never seen a white man until recent times). Yet they all describe a creature with an elephantine body and four legs with stout digging claws, a small head, long neck and tail, dark and dull coloration, and iguana-like spines running along its vertebrae.

Without a real animal to account for these sightings there would have to be an impressively extensive (and impressively hidden) conspiracy among the tribes to “get their story straight” to fool any explorers who ask them about unusual animals in the region. And given that many particular tribes go without contact for decades by white explorers with an interest in this long-necked animal, they would have to maintain this little conspiracy among their own people for years and years, without any gullible foreigners to string along. Human nature simply doesn’t work like that.

There’s a surprising amount of biological plausibility in their description, as well. For example, the creature’s alleged vocalizations are deep and rumbling, said to be the product of a dewlap they can inflate like a bullfrog. Another example is their tail being used as a weapon to kill hippos or crocodiles straying into their territory. Some tribes in Congo do regard it as a spirit or god, with fantastic attributes (read Rory Nugent’s book Drums Along the Congo for a wealth of details), but in Cameroon the creature is almost always treated as natural, neither mythical nor supernatural.

Afterword

The alternative hypotheses to explain these facts (the natives are just messing with visitors; it’s only folklore; the natives are describing rhinos or giraffes; natives are misidentifying known animals, etc.) do not even come close to explaining the full picture that has been forming in the heart of Africa. Take the earlier post’s explanation of why the Congo Basin is still largely a blank space on the map, and couple it with the lines of evidence stated in this post (with more to come, I pray). A pattern of ripples starts to form, which seems to point to one explanation above all others:

An unclassified animal species, critically endangered and with reclusive habits, is likely to reside in the river systems and swamps of the Congo Basin.

Alternative explanations have largely focused on trying to wave off or ridicule this hypothesis rather than seriously consider it. These will be dealt with in the final post.

Bibliography

“Mokele-Mbembe: Mystery Beast of the Congo Basin” by William J. Gibbons

“The Official Mokele-Mbembe Factbook” by the Cameroon Discovery Team

“A Living Dinosaur? In Search of Mokele-Mbembe” by Roy P. Mackal, PhD

“Drums Along the Congo: On the Trail of Mokele-Mbembe, the Last Living Dinosaur” by Rory Nugent

Links

http://debunkthatjunk.blogspot.com/2012/04/mokele-mbembe-surviving-african.html

http://cryptomundo.com/cryptozoo-news/new-mokele-bk/

http://cryptomundo.com/cryptozoo-news/mullin-mm/

http://visitcryptoville.com/page/2/

A few months ago, I wrote a post arguing for the likelihood that there is a big, unidentified animal living in the Congo Basin. (Future posts on the same topic are on the way) And while I tend to not hold my breath for the discovery of creatures like Sasquatch or Nessie, in this case the skeptics’ explanations are neither convincing nor parsimonious. The available evidence is best accounted for by a real animal rather than folklore.

This past week, not only has someone brought my attention to another massive, unidentified creature that’s likely to exist, but he has presented evidence that is, in a scientific sense, more compelling.

Max Hawthorne is the author of a horror novel called “Kronos Rising,” which I am reading and thoroughly enjoying. It has drawn many favorable comparisons to “Jaws,” involving a prehistoric reptile that terrorizes a seaside community.

But in one of those beautiful moments where life imitates art, Max’s extensive knowledge of marine creatures sheds light on an enigma that has stumped marine biologists for over a decade.

In 2003, something ate a 9-foot Great White shark off the coast of Australia. The shark had been tagged with a tracker that could measure temperature and depth. But what could it have been?

Come on, I know you're thinking it.

Come on, I know you’re thinking it. Copyright Universal Pictures.

At first, most of the scientific community was supremely confident that there was nothing “sensational” to the event, and that the predator was simply a bigger Great White. The only problem was, that made no sense whatsoever given the available evidence.

I’ll let Max take over with a hypothesis he posted on Facebook (reproduced here with his permission), and then contribute some brief thoughts afterward.

###

SUPER PREDATOR – IT’S NOT WHAT THEY SAY IT IS by Max Hawthorne

I watched the documentary “Super Predator” recently. It’s the follow-up to last year’s “Hunt for the Super Predator.” I enjoyed both shows, but after having studied all the data, I find myself compelled to weigh in, because something’s not right.

Last year’s show (and I have no doubt they’ve set things up for a third episode for next year) ended with the premise that the creature that devoured a 3-meter great white shark (named “Shark Alpha” in the Bremer canyon off AU was simply a larger (i.e. 5-meter) great white. I thought this was rubbish. There was no definitive proof of the claim, and it was, IMHO, a fluff piece to quell the media storm and put people’s minds at ease.

In this year’s show, the filmmakers changed their story. Now they’ve presented the theory that a MUCH larger shark, i.e. a Carcharodon megalodon – one that inhabits the abyssal depths – was responsible for the attack on Shark Alpha. They backed this up with a photo of an 80-foot pygmy blue whale sporting a bite scar on its peduncle measuring a whopping 5 feet across. They also stated that the shark that unsuccessfully attacked the pygmy blue would have measured nearly 40 feet in length.

The facts dictate otherwise.

1- Per http://www.cwr.org.au/research/bluewhales.html, the pygmy blue measured 20-21 meters, i.e. a maximum of 69 feet.

2- Also, per the same site’s data, the bite on the whale’s tail measured a maximum of 1.2 meters across. That’s a smidgen less than 4 feet, not 5, indicating a shark around 32 feet long. A sub-adult Megalodon? Possibly. Or maybe just a really huge great white.

3- There is no indication that this pygmy blue whale was attacked in the Bremer canyon, so any insinuation that the shark that bit the whale is the same animal that devoured Shark Alpha is a stretch.

4- Per her satellite tag/tracker, Alpha’s body temperature, when attacked, was confirmed at 46 degrees Fahrenheit. Her body temperature, again per the tag, went from 46 to 78 degrees almost instantly after she was devoured.

5- White sharks have a body temperature that normally ranges from 10-14 degrees Fahrenheit above the surrounding water (the inside of the belly being the highest temp differential). Under extreme circumstances, the maximum differential has been listed at a difference of 25 degrees.

6- Based on body temperature alone, there is no way shark alpha was eaten by another great white. The temperature difference is too extreme. Moreover, if Megalodon is still alive, and has a body temperature anything like its relative, the great white, (a reasonable assumption), it would also fall within this range.

7- Megalodon was a shallow water predator. It makes no sense that it would loiter in the extreme deep where little food exists. Especially not when a banquet of whales waits at the surface.

8- The “Hunt for the Super Predator” special showed that the creature that ate Alpha remained at depths ranging from the surface to 300 feet immediately after feeding, and for the next 8 days, until the tracker/tag was excreted. This was ignored by the new show, assumedly as it would derail their “Abyssal Megalodon” theory. In fact, the “super predator’s” movements in the water column are, in actuality, similar to those of an Orca. It indicates an air breathing predator that does NOT live in the darkness of the abyss.

9- This fact is backed up by Alpha’s behavior, immediately prior to her being consumed. Once attacked, she dove to nearly 2,000 feet at high speed before she was caught and killed. This indicates an attacker that was both fast and capable of deep dives, as well as being able to accurately track fleeing prey in complete darkness (echolocation, anyone?).

10- Retreating/emergency diving to extreme depths when threatened or attacked is a documented tactic white sharks employ when one of their number has been killed by Orcas. This raises the possibility that Shark Alpha may have instinctively tried to employ this same tactic in an attempt to flee what she recognized as a large, air-breathing carnivore.

11- Per the tracker/tag, the digestive process of the “super predator” took 8 days. A great white’s digestive tract takes 24-48 hours, from what I’ve read. Something else digested Alpha – something that dissolves its meal slowly – and based on my experience keeping large crocodilians and such, that would seem to indicate a reptile.

12- Lastly, adult leatherback sea turtles have been known to have core body temperatures 32 degrees Fahrenheit above the surrounding sea water. If the water temperature around shark alpha was 46 degrees and you add 32 to it, you get the EXACT 78 degree body temperature of the Super Predator. Of course, leatherbacks eat jellyfish, not 3-meter white sharks. But the interesting thing about them is that they ARE marine reptiles. This implies that the creature that ate Alpha may ALSO have been a marine reptile of some kind.

SUMMARY: THE EVIDENCE SUPPORTS MY HYPOTHESIS THAT SHARK ALPHA WAS EATEN BY A LARGE, AIR BREATHING ANIMAL: ONE THAT COULD NAVIGATE IN TOTAL DARKNESS, SURVIVE THE PRESSURES OF THE ABYSS, CATCH A FLEEING GREAT WHITE SWIMMING AT 30+ MPH & SWALLOW IT WHOLE, HAD A BODY TEMPERATURE 32 DEGREES HIGHER THAN THE SURROUNDING WATER, HABITUALLY STAYED NEAR THE SURFACE FOR 8+ DAYS AFTER EATING ITS MEAL, AND TOOK 8 DAYS TO DIGEST.

CONCLUSION: SHARK ALPHA WAS CONSUMED BY A HUGE MARINE REPTILE: DISCLUDING UNKNOWN SPECIES AND FOCUSING ON THE FOSSIL RECORD, POSSIBLE CANDIDATES INCLUDE EITHER A GIANT MOSASAUR OR A PLIOSAUR. GIVEN THE DEPTHS THE PREDATOR DESCENDED TO IN PURSUIT OF THE SHARK, AND THAT MOSASAURS WERE SHALLOW DIVING, COLD-BLOODED REPTILES LIKE THEIR MODERN RELATIVES, MONITOR LIZARDS, I’M BETTING ON THE LATTER.

Looks like KRONOS RISING may not be pure fiction after all ;)

Max Hawthorne, author
www.kronosrising.com

###

Well done, sir.

Keep in mind, whatever ate this Great White was too warm for another shark, and whales don’t get that cold. Orcas and Sperm Whales have a body temperature that corresponds with ours, and the digestive process of both whales and sharks takes far less than eight days.

But given the temperature and the amount of time the tracker spent in the predator’s body, an enormous marine reptile appears to be the most satisfactory candidate. Finding one of these creatures would settle the question of whether it is a living fossil like in Hawthorne’s book, or a new kind of animal altogether.

Max has also pointed out in my correspondence with him that predators tend to give a wide berth to bigger predators. This could help explain why we haven’t seen more of these animals, if they think large, noisy boats are simply bigger creatures they’d rather avoid. And if a reptile were to come up for air, it could easily be mistaken for a surfacing whale.

Even today, the ocean is surprising us far too profoundly for us to scoff at the notion of an unknown giant predator. Anecdotes of reptilian sea monsters go back thousands of years, but today’s skeptical community waves those off, because in their view, anecdotal evidence “doesn’t count.” I can’t tell you how refreshing and satisfying it is, to find that even the evidence they allow for is marshaling against the old orthodoxy. Our world is still full of surprises.

Here there be monsters.

Posted by: johnkpatterson | July 26, 2015

New Paintings

Brontosaurus comes out of hiding

“Brontosaurus Comes Out of Hiding.” Welcome back, Thunder Lizard. We missed you. :)

Fan art for the excellent "Jurassic World." A Velociraptor meeting with the Indominus rex.

Fan art for the excellent “Jurassic World.” A Velociraptor meeting with the Indominus rex.

Stylized representations of two ancient sea creatures, a trilobite (top) and an ammonite (bottom).

Stylized representations of two ancient sea creatures, a trilobite (top) and an ammonite (bottom).

Posted by: johnkpatterson | April 27, 2015

Professor Prothero’s Preening, Pungent Prattle

“You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he came to be so silly….you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.” C.S. Lewis, “Bulverism,” God in the Dock (emphasis in original)

In my last post I explained I’m generally no longer inclined to stand up and argue for the existence of Bigfoot, Chupacabra, or the Mongolian Death Worm. But if someone uses faulty argumentation against their existence, it’s still enough to make me wince. Especially if they have a PhD and wrote an entire book that seems dedicated to this faulty reasoning, and published it under an academic press.

A very exhaustively cited book on cryptozoology, Abominable Science is coauthored by Daniel Loxton (who seems like a very nice, fair-minded guy, and a very talented artist as well) and Donald Prothero, PhD (a paleontologist and professor at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, CA).

It’s not so much the book I am commenting on here (though that may happen after I’ve read the whole thing…honestly, I’m a slow reader, so I don’t know when that’s going to happen). But given the Amazon description, its subtitle (Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids), and what I had read of Prothero beforehand, I got suspicious that he’d already decided his conclusion before gathering research. Hence the quote about bulverism above.

Long story short: I expressed my suspicions on Twitter a while back, and it seems Prothero was informed. And judging by a comment on one of his blog posts, he wasn’t very happy about the suspicion. Normally I wouldn’t respond to something like this, certainly not at length. But each sentence was either false or so poorly argued, I elected to craft a response anyway.

Even if a skeptic is right on a particular subject, broken logic will never give him or her a solid basis on which to stand. In this case, it’s about time someone called him out for it. As a scientist, Prothero has a responsibility to use solid argumentation and make his case like a professional.

Okay, so here’s the comment. In its entirety.

“Clearly, this person hasn’t read the book, nor does he understand what we said. The genetic fallacy is only a fallacy if the origins story in question has no relevance to the truth or falsity of the argument being made. But the long story lines that Daniel teased out about the history of each of these cryptids–especially how their descriptions are inconsistent, how they are strongly influenced by cultural factors such as current movies, how they are full of hoaxes and bad data that the cryptozoologists NEVER expunge, and how they compile “lists of sightings” which are houses of cards, with nearly every one of them useless or questionable–is VERY relevant to the credibility of each cryptid.

“Even if we had not compiled the historical record of each cryptid, the rest of the book demolishes the possibility of their existence by a whole range of biological, geological and paleontological constraints that this critic clearly never read about. As usual, he’s doing the usual creationist tactic to avoid the confrontation of hard data against his beliefs: dismiss it with an irrelevant or false argument and then ignore it.”

Oh dear, where to begin?

First of all, I already admitted to not reading the book at the time. Check Twitter to see for yourself. I expressed concern that it was going to be a book with weak argumentation. I have a copy from the library at the moment. While some of its arguments are stronger than I worried, elsewhere those fears are being realized in spades.

Things don’t get any better when he gives the definition of “genetic fallacy” as the necessary condition under which it happens. That’s what the genetic fallacy teaches us: an idea’s origin doesn’t have any bearing on that idea’s truth or falsehood. Prothero is basically saying “a frog is only a frog if it’s a tailless amphibian of the order Anura.”

Duh. That’s what it means.

The next sentence makes a fair point, but Prothero doesn’t justify his position. He’s right that the case for most mystery animals appears lacking. I’ve stated at length that I don’t expect Bigfoot or Nessie or Yeti to be real, even if I want them to be real. (Mokele-mbembe, on the other hand…might be a different story — I’ll continue that series as soon as more citations can be gathered)

Given the absence of a foundation of hard evidence, I’m inclined to agree with his overall conclusion. However, he then overestimates what the evidence gathered thus far actually tells us; then he dives to the bottom of the barrel, scooping out cryptozoology’s familiar and well-established legacy of hoaxes, some genuinely preposterous ideas (Bigfoot being able to move to other dimensions, for instance), and the fact that humans can be made vulnerable to deception. To which Prothero, of course, is immune. The starting assumption in the book and his worldview appears to be that these sightings are not caused by unclassified species of animals (even though that sounds like a perfectly modest and reasonable possibility), therefore the explanation must lie in psychology and old-fashioned gullibility, and this is sufficient to explain pretty much the entirety of cryptozoology.

In other words: “It’s never credible and none of these animals exist, because look at all the weirdos and liars who go looking for monsters. Ta-da! No unclassified animal species needed. All you need are hoaxers, the credulous, and fundamentalists on a crusade to destroy science, and there you have it.”

Welcome back to the genetic fallacy, Professor. You have provided a textbook example of it, in more ways than one.

Oh, but you see, it’s totally okay that he does this, because SCIENCE! tells us that these creatures can’t possibly exist anyway. “The rest of the book demolishes the possibility of their existence…”

Oh? Says who? Is it scientifically impossible that there is an ape of unknown classification in the Himalayas? Is it impossible that a large something-or-other is lurking in the cloudy waters of Loch Ness?

Of course not! It’s unlikely, but no possibility is demolished. Why take the position that it’s impossible?

  • “Says the fossil record,” which Prothero seems to believe is overall complete with no big surprises awaiting us. Never mind that they keep finding a new species of dinosaur every couple of months. Many of which are totally unexpected. Not to mention the numerous other newly identified animal and plant species routinely recovered from the field or dusted off in museum archives. Paleontology is a great scientific endeavor, but when they can’t even get the nonexistence of Brontosaurus right, you’d be wise to learn to never say never.
  • “Says biology,” because of course we’ve learned every single impact an organism can have on its environment. We can instantly detect the impact a species has when something is amiss. Oh, except for the 125,000 extra gorillas found in the Congo in 2007. And the new species we discover all the time on submarine dives to the darkest corners of our oceans. Hmm, maybe we don’t have all the evidence in yet?
  • “Says geology” because…well, I’m not sure what he means. It seems paleontology would have more to say about animals than would general geology. It was kind of a broad brush to start with.

Then he throws out a red herring that implies anyone who says he commits the genetic fallacy is on the wrong side of the origins fence. As if no one who accepts evolution could possibly see anything wrong with his logic, or as if this has anything to do with the veracity of his claims.

Basically, he got caught committing the genetic fallacy. But rather than owning up to it or beefing up his arguments or retracting them, he opted to flaunt his dubious line of reasoning in everyone’s face, and yell that he’s totally justified in doing so. This is such an insult to logic that Mister Spock would do a “Live Long and Prosper” facepalm.

Skeptics, you’ll do yourselves and others a huge favor if you can please get your act together.

UPDATE, APRIL 29, 2015: Regarding Prothero’s stance that the fossil record doesn’t hold animals that can be properly called “cryptids,” I’d like to point out yet another unexpected discovery reported today: a pigeon-sized dinosaur in China, with elongated arms and fingers, and membranes underneath that strongly resemble the wings of a bat.

That’s right. If this fossil is genuine, they basically discovered a small dragon. You’re welcome.

Posted by: johnkpatterson | March 23, 2015

A Plausible Monster? Part One

I could go back to staying “safe” on this blog, and not stick my neck out again. Nothing weird or controversial.

But that’s boring. And in some respects, it wouldn’t be right. For today, I thought a nice swim into deeper waters would do us some good. It’s invigorating.

Come on in! The water's quite pleasant.

Come on in! The water’s quite pleasant.

Today’s topic involves cryptozoology — the practice of investigating and searching for animals that have not been classified by science, but are reported by sightings and/or folklore. Think Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster, sea serpents, etc.

Here and now, I mean to neither take down nor advocate cryptozoology as a practice. This is not being written to defend or demolish it, or classify it as science or pseudoscience. That last distinction is odiously bureaucratic. I care much less about whether a claim is classified as science than I care about whether it is true. My main concern is in whether the animal really exists or not.

If you want to know my position on cryptozoology, here it is: In short, I reluctantly take the position that most “cryptids” (the animals cryptozoologists seek to find) most likely do not exist. But I’d be more than happy to be proven wrong if someone can show proof of their existence.

I used to think the world full of monsters, waiting to be discovered and ushered into our textbooks, zoos, and museum displays. From Nessie to Yeti, I was fascinated by the possibility of weird and spectacular creatures, and treated their existence like it was a near certainty. Of course, they haven’t showed up thus far. Nowadays, I hold out little to no hope in a monster at Loch Ness. Tourists and live webcams can only miss a large creature for so long. Nor does Bigfoot seem at all likely, as far as I can tell. In the Pacific Northwest you can hardly throw a rock without hitting somebody’s log cabin or pickup truck. Not the environment I’d expect an undiscovered primate to call home.

I’d love to be wrong about Bigfoot and/or Nessie, but I’ll be deeply shocked if I am.

On the other hand, this should never be cause to discount all cryptids as equally ridiculous or unlikely. You are no doubt familiar with the phrase “even a broken watch can be right twice a day.” A species of large animal can still persist undiscovered and unclassified, even today. Most of the new animals we are finding consist of insects and deep sea-dwellers. But on occasion, something a bit more spectacular can be uncovered. Several factors can be conducive to a species escaping detection by the scientific community:

  1. It lives in an environment where it can easily hide. By now this would be limited mostly to dense tropical rain forests and deep oceans.
  2. It is critically endangered, either through human activity or environmental factors. Specimens will be rare, as will physical traces (carcasses, footprints, scat, etc.).
  3. The animal’s environment can quickly erase traces, making it difficult to detect or track. Again, rain forests and oceans are the biggest offenders. Such an environment also presents great difficulty in bringing proof of a new species to the outside world, either from remains not getting refrigerated before they rot away, or the hostility of its native species and/or human populations.
  4. The animal has reclusive habits, tending to avoid human habitation (as a lot of animals do, from okapis to panda bears to cougars).
  5. If natives in a remote region tell about an unknown animal living in their part of the world, a biologist can be biased against the creature’s existence and assume that the animal is mythical rather than biological. It is quite possible his suspicions are correct, of course. If there ever was such an animal, it may have become extinct or migrated to another area. Still, one has to wonder how many times the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater, and a legitimate species had been missed by the biologist because he’d assumed it could not be there.

There is at least one cryptid that matches all of these factors. Therefore I am prepared to argue that its existence is more likely than its nonexistence. I speak of Mokele-mbembe, from the Congo swamps and jungles of Central Africa. Its range purportedly extends across Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Gabon, and Cameroon.

My painting, "Cameroon." Acrylics on watercolor paper, approx. 7 by 9 inches.

One of my latest paintings, “Cameroon.” Acrylics on watercolor paper, approx. 7 by 9 inches.

The name means either “One who stops the flow of rivers” or “He who divides the waters.” Its described morphology bears a resemblance to that of a small sauropod dinosaur. These are the long-necked herbivores sometimes informally called “Brontosaurs.” Both sauropods and Mokele-mbembe possess long necks and tails, small heads, and elephantine bodies with four feet.

Please take care to note: I am not here to argue whether dinosaurs persist in Africa today. I am arguing for the likelihood of a rare and unrecognized species living in the Congo basin. So please don’t comment with a post like “Sauropods can’t live in swamps, because of x, y and z.” We can discuss that in a later post, an addendum to this one.

Regardless of what kind of animal it is, what does Mokele-mbembe have that most other “cryptids” don’t? What keeps its existence plausible, even (in my estimation) likely?

The answer in a nutshell: The right environment and obstacles, where we could expect its discovery to be delayed.

I suspect very few of those who roll their eyes and mock the mere possibility of this animal being real would maintain their contempt if they took time to consider the kind of environment the Congo basin really is:

  • A region shredded by guerilla warfare, poaching and disease outbreaks that have a habit of shutting down expeditions to the area
  • Stifling jungles that pose a serious challenge to even the most seasoned explorers
  • An almost total lack of internet and technological infrastructure (so long, smartphones) outside the cities of the region — electricity is “expensive and unreliable” in Cameroon, for instance
  • A dense canopy of trees a hundred and fifty feet high that does a great job at hiding the rain forest from satellite photography
  • This Florida-sized jungle is so dense that it’s mostly unexplored to this day, even to the point that it hid over 100,000 western lowland gorillas from scientific eyes until just eight years ago (makes you wonder what else could be hiding there, doesn’t it?)
  • Largely corrupt governments, held together by miles of red tape, which don’t exactly roll out the red carpet to Western explorers, unless they’re with bigger organizations like the BBC, National Geographic or the World Wildlife Fund

Neither the Pacific Northwest nor any Scottish Loch can boast of such an ideal hiding place for an unclassified, critically endangered species.

At the risk of stating the painfully obvious, a good hiding spot does not necessarily harbor an unknown species. But in the next installment of this series, I’ll provide the main reasons why I think the evidence thus far gathered is quite sufficient to warrant further, more thorough investigation.

And then I can add another post, to tackle what have been some embarrassingly bad arguments against the Mokele-mbembe’s existence. I do allow for the possibility that the skeptics are correct, but they are in desperate need of improved reasoning. As I have stated before, being right for the wrong reasons is almost as bad as being flat-out wrong.

Posted by: johnkpatterson | March 4, 2015

Watching the Watchmen: Thoughts on Abiogenesis

I will be upfront and say I lack training in microbiology and biochemistry, and this post is intended to be a big-picture pondering on the subject, rather than a paper for peer review. So feel free to take what I write with a five pound bag of salt.

Abiogenesis is the notion that biological life can coalesce out of molecules. In this scenario, no more than the right circumstances and chemicals are required, and they can be acted upon by natural laws to bring about a complex self-replicating molecule that could eventually give rise to what we would normally call a cell.

It is also something that has never been replicated in the laboratory. The actual results behind the optimistic rhetoric of life’s “building blocks” (amino acids, etc.) being generated in the laboratory pales in comparison to our increased understanding of what would be required to be present in even the simplest conceivable cell, one much simpler than the ones we have yet detected under a microscope. And yet abiogenesis is taken for granted as having occurred at some point in the past, whether on Earth or elsewhere.

Some time ago on Facebook, I had a couple of debates with natural history illustrator and paleoartist Julius Csotonyi, who is also very well-trained in microbiology. My position was (and is) that decades of experimentation give us excellent reason to harshly criticize the assumption of abiogenesis, and even discard it. He pointed me to many, many papers on the subject and the basic argument put forward was, “We’re working on it, and are getting more answers. We just need more time to figure out how [not if] abiogenesis happened.” I would point out more problems after looking over the arguments given (and the papers I had time to peruse), and more papers would be thrown down to trip me up. All in the name of benevolently “educating” me, you understand.

Nonetheless, I know enough to recognize what we should be seeing if Csotonyi and other microbiologists are correct in saying abiogenesis must have happened. The issue was not what the papers contained, but what was missing from them. My basic requirement, that went all but ignored, was “Show me a cell or self-replicating complex molecule.”

We all know that either one of those showing up in a test tube would be the biggest biochemical breakthrough in this century and would instantly flood journals and social media both. In the meantime, the gap between laboratory results and the requirements to generate a cell should be shrinking. If that gap expands, it’s a good bet that abiogenesis is a faulty hypothesis, and to hold it as the clear explanation for life’s origin is to engage in pseudoscience.

As far as I can tell, a handful of possible but hotly debated answers have been uncovered, but that handful is dwarfed by the mountains of newly uncovered questions and obstacles. The gap between lab results and the requirements to generate even the simplest cell seems to grow every year.

Still, is there some chance that the stated results of abiogenesis experiments give any cause for excitement at someday creating a cell, or at least a self-replicating complex molecule?

Let us imagine a compulsive gambler who has racked up several million dollars in debt. Hoping to win it back, he returns to the tables, and manages to win a few hundred bucks. But he has not come close to paying it off. He’s even lost enough times, in his renewed efforts, to add another million to the bill.

Would any hope or optimism on the gambler’s part be warranted?

The obvious answer also applies to the ever-hopeful microbiologist who still seeks to find a way to generate a basic cell in a test tube. (I invoke gambling not to say life would generate “randomly.” This is a question of debt, or the criteria that an experiment’s results must satisfy before we can reach a cell.)

I admire the dogged persistence for a desired result. What disappoints and frustrates me is the double header of assuming the process must be possible, combined with a climate of hubris in academia, which perceives anyone who says abiogenesis cannot happen to be uneducated, or unwilling to consider it — perhaps out of some nefarious religious motivation.

It would be more accurate (and more gracious) to say that those more removed from the assumption that life can start by natural means may, ironically, be more observant and more willing to follow where the data points. Not only have the predictions of abiogenesis failed (or “been revised” to put it more politely), but the hurdles of statistics and chemistry have added to the problems with even the simplest conceivable cell assembling from a state without biological life.

This is much more than scientific inquiry whittling down explanations and refining the hypothesis. The debt does not merely still stand; it has been augmented.

The insistence of the True Believer combines with the momentum of grant money and an assumption that is less warranted than ever, that life “must have spontaneously generated” by natural process (the words of Stephen Hawking). Thus today’s model of Spontaneous Generation spins its wheels, all the while demanding exclusivity in laboratory and classroom alike.

My request remains. A cell or self-replicating complex molecule will do. Neither a computer simulation of a cell nor the laughably mislabeled “protocells” so far generated will satisfy the demand for abiogenesis to be scientifically tenable.

If the hypothesis fails, what should we replace it with? I am even less qualified to offer an answer to that, so I won’t dare speak on any replacement theory. All I can do is give speculation:

The changeable rules of “proper” science may cling to abiogenesis in the teeth of the evidence and hang a no-creators-allowed sign on its clubhouse door. But, if such a creator happens to exist, the necessity of such a being’s handiwork may insist on giving Him a hearing anyway.

Posted by: johnkpatterson | March 4, 2015

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Speech to Congress

A happy Purim to all, my friends and family!

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a rare thing to find courage and conviction among the leaders of today’s nations. But Benjamin Netanyahu exemplifies both in yesterday’s address to Congress. Normally I won’t touch political issues with a ten foot pole. I weary of the arguments and backbiting and ignoring of important points.

But not with this. Not today.

Today, I am more delighted than ever to say I stand alongside Israel, and support in prayers and in spirit their stand against tyrants who wish their annihilation. The hatred of Israel by violent men is often greeted with either sympathy for the attackers’ plight, or a stony and telling silence. But it is a genuine relief and encouragement to see so many cheer Netanyahu and give him more standing ovations than a speaker can hope for.

This is what courage looks like. May God Almighty bless Israel. May He grant them peace and divine protection from their foes, and may He bless all those who stand up with them.

Posted by: johnkpatterson | February 3, 2015

Getting Published in Prehistoric Times, New Art Show

It’s been a busy couple of months with a new job, but there’s some good news. I have been re-invited back to the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center to sell artwork at their arts and crafts fair. The fair is planned for July 11th, and I’ll be working on more artwork.

5 dino paintings

Brachiosaurus WP_003985

I’m also happy to report that this Apatosaurus painting is currently on hold to be printed in the summer 2015 issue of Prehistoric Times magazine, which is almost required reading for those with a passion for paleontology.

Apatosaurus for PT

Now if I can just return to a regular habit of fiction writing…

Posted by: johnkpatterson | December 23, 2014

Is it Okay to Keep Scaly Raptors in Jurassic World?

Raptor with feathers (1)

Speedy seems to have no problems with the idea.

It’s a Velociraptor. With feathers.

I regret nothing.

There’s a huge difference between caring about accuracy (that’s good), and whining about it with an overpowering sense of entitlement (that’s bad) to see feathered dinosaurs in a movie series where the already-cloned Velociraptors have a few differences in color, but lack any plumage. I tried treating the plumage-pushers like they had a sense of decency, flexibility, and/or maturity. Turns out I was naive.

The best way to deal with these bullies is to mock them, then ignore their tantrums. Consider this my farewell letter to the stark-raving madness and nitpicking. No point in arguing anymore with those who fume, fuss, and froth at the mouth over feathers. It’s Christmas time.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Posted by: johnkpatterson | November 26, 2014

On the Superversive: A Science Fiction Credo

johnkpatterson:

I have nothing to add. Josh Young deserves a standing ovation for this.

Originally posted on The Badger Contemplates....:

(Man, this blog is turning into an odd mishmash of theology and SF.)

(Also, spoilers ahead for Robotech/Macross and Firefly/Serenity.)

Edit: Jagi has informed me that Superversive and the Human Wave movement were independently developed. They’re still very similar ;)

The illustrious L. Jagi Lamplighter has a post today discussing the goals of the Superversive literary movement. Superversive is a bit of a refinement, as I understand it, of Sarah Hoyt’s Human Wave science fiction movement, which calls for stories that are fun rather than emotionally punishing for the sake of being emotionally punishing.

It’s not going to come as a surprise to anyone that knows me that I like my stories dark. I like my stories to be nailbiters, heroes fighting against all odds. I like my stories rough, and I want my heroes to suffer a bit. I’m not opposed to killing a beloved…

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