A Plausible Monster? Part Three: Answering Criticisms, section B

Cameroon

Okay, now to dive into this topic once more. This will be the last post I do on this topic for a while, and I apologize for its considerable word count. There was a lot of ground to cover. But at last, here is section B. More criticisms answered. I welcome feedback, whether positive or negative.

You can find part one here, part two here, and part three-A here.

 

“The descriptions are inconsistent, so we can dismiss Mokele-mbembe as a monster of the imagination.”

Skeptics tend to say the Mokele-mbembe is just a legend, with inconsistent descriptions pieced together from sightings (or cultural memories, if the animal no longer lives in the area) of rhinos, elephants, giant snakes, and even giraffes.

However, this blanket statement all but ignores the information reported by those who have actually gone to the trouble of putting boots on the ground and speaking to the natives themselves, like Bill Gibbons and the late Roy Mackal. (You can read their reports for yourself in their books, listed in the bibliography below)

When interviewing people who claim to have actually seen the creature, there is a huge spike in the consistency of their descriptions. They describe a creature at least the size of a hippopotamus, with a bulbous body, long neck and tail, and small head. It attacks hippos but is an herbivore, and has dark, dull coloration, sometimes with dermal spines (the Cameroonian natives confidently stated that the spines are only on the male, but that females are bigger and have longer necks). The larger, more mature specimens are described as having hard armor, akin to the armor of crocodilians and possessed by several species of sauropods.

To keep the inconsistency charge afloat, the skeptic must resort to a comparatively small number of instances, such as a group of pygmies referring to a picture of a rhinoceros as Mokele-mbembe (included in National Geographic’s special Congo issue from several years back), or a witch doctor describing it as a river spirit that can take any shape or size in Rory Nugent’s “Drums Along the Congo.” There are others besides these, but once again the consistent descriptions far outnumber the inconsistent. What goes all but ignored are the descriptions by those who, again, claim to have seen the animal with their own eyes.

The most prominent inconsistencies seem to come from two sources. First, natives from the wrong parts of the Congo Basin who have heard rumors of the animal but don’t claim to have seen it. Second, from skeptics conflating the long-necked creature with another unknown beast, the rhino-like Emela-ntouka. The latter would assume the animals are overlapping versions of the same myth rather than allow the possibility of not one, but two unknown large animals.

The natives themselves (that is, those who claim to have seen Mokele-mbembe) have no trouble making a distinction between a long-necked creature and one that resembles a rhinoceros. As far as I know, they have always treated these two animals as separate, instead of one mystery animal whose appearance morphs in the spreading of rumors.

“The natives treat this creature as supernatural. They think it’s a boogeyman, a god. Why bother pretending it’s real?”

This objection carries very little argumentative power, for two reasons. First, most natives of the Congo hold animistic beliefs, where everything has spiritual significance and often is imbued with supernatural abilities. Including known animals, from hornbills to hippos. Animism grants everything some kind of spiritual dimension, myth and reality alike.

Second, the various tribes of pygmies have differing attitudes toward Mokele-mbembe. Some of them indeed regard the creature as something with spiritual or godlike powers that set it aside from all other creatures. Others, especially the Baka tribe in Cameroon, just consider it a rare animal which they’d rather not encounter, thanks to its tendency to attack canoes and disturb their fishing. Dangerous, to be certain, but no more a boogeyman than a temperamental rhino or an angry bull elephant.

“The Congo Basin may still hide many secrets, but there have simply been too many expeditions to the area looking for Mokele-mbembe. They would have surely found proof by now if the creature was there.”

I must admit, this is the strongest and most thought-provoking objection I’ve heard. Thus it demands to be seriously considered, and treated with a sober mind.

Whether these expeditions would “surely” have discovered this animal rather depends on the quality and duration of the expeditions. There have indeed been many trips, but a sizeable portion have invested their time primarily in gathering eyewitness testimonies instead of searching for the creature itself, and the vast majority of expeditions have been anything but well-equipped. Even in their searches, almost every expedition has been “looking” for a rare, reclusive animal like a fisherman “looking” for fish without bait. To my knowledge, no one has even tried luring it or searching over a wide area.

Frustrating to be sure, but this isn’t always the fault of the people leading these trips. If your expedition intends to investigate something that initially sounds far-fetched, such as a dinosaur-like animal hiding in the rainforest, good luck obtaining some grant money or well-funded investors. Going to the region usually means you need to pay expenses out-of-pocket. When you have to finance it yourself, the proper equipment that accompanies conservationist/observational expeditions can thin your wallet at an alarming rate. And what equipment you can gather might prove inadequate.

Another important fact is that governments of the target countries — People’s Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, and Cameroon — are infamous for being corrupt and hardly caring about Western explorers stomping around their jungles. Bureaucracy and infuriating, pointless waiting periods are a burdensome fact of life for anyone involved with those governments (even more so than in America, if that can be believed). Even when expeditions actually make it to the country, it can take weeks to get a visa signed. I recommend once again the books in the bibliography below to see for yourself. When a visa is finally signed, normally it’s very limited in the time allowed. This leaves most expeditions a couple of days or weeks to go poking around the jungle and interviewing natives, hoping to find anything of consequence.

Skeptics tend to point at the lack of solid evidence despite numerous expeditions, and say this doesn’t bode well for Mokele-Mbembe as a real animal. Then they will turn right around and note (correctly) that many of the people searching for it had little to no prior field experience in tracking animals. Additionally, on p. 287 of “Abominable Science,” skeptics Loxton and Prothero rightly note that many of these expeditions to the Congo “do little more than arrive and turn around.” The very next paragraph features them gloating that more expeditions have yielded far less evidence of Mokele-mbembe’s existence, despite their acknowledgement that the trips are not long-term and are seldom as thorough as they could have been.

Do I have to spell it out? If most of these visitors to the Congo were not qualified to look for rare animals in inaccessible environments (especially in so hostile an environment as the Congo), and often manage to accomplish little more than arriving and returning home, should we be surprised that physical proof has not been gathered?

By the way, about that last link above: remember the gorillas I mentioned earlier in this series? It’s hard to overestimate the ecological impact 125,000 gorillas will have on an ecosystem. And yet the Congo is to this day so dense and so unexplored, we had no idea these extra primates existed until 2007. It’s not that biologists aren’t doing their jobs. It’s just that the Congo is still, in ecological terms, a largely blank space on the map.

“The natives are just seeing snakes with their heads lifted out of the water, or swimming elephants with their trunks lifted up like snorkels so they can breathe. This can create the illusion of a large long-necked creature, and the witness’ mind just fills in the details afterward.”

It is true that the human mind can be tricked into remembering details that were not present, and misidentify known creatures for unknown ones. But the charge of misidentification is a weak one, for (as Robert Mullin has pointed out) the natives are quite familiar with the animals around them. They are dependent on local nature to a greater extent than we tend to be in the West. Their very lives depend on quick wits and keen observation, and identifying the animals and plants they share the jungle with. The jungle is their grocery store, their home, their pharmacy; and the river is their highway system.

The natives are quick to take offense if you try telling them they misidentified an animal (it’s one of the fastest ways to insult them), and for good reason: these same hunters and fishermen know very well what a swimming snake or elephant looks like, for they have seen it hundreds of times before, and they state emphatically that they caught sight of something very different.

Once again, I’d also love to know how separate tribes can semi-hallucinate imaginary water beasts with the same morphology, over and over and over again.

Addendum: “But it can’t be a dinosaur!”

I’ve wanted to tackle this for a while, and there’s multiple arguments I will bring under this umbrella. Keep in mind, I didn’t go to the trouble of writing these blog posts to argue for extant dinosaurs; only for the likelihood of an unknown species.

But once again, I found the skeptic’s case leaves much to be desired in this line of thought, and that’s putting it charitably.

For the heck of it, I’ll pick these arguments apart as well. This last part will focus on the specific objections against a dinosaurian identity for Mokele-mbembe. I’ll leave other possible candidates aside for this section, such as giant turtles, amphibians, or long-necked monitor lizards.

 a. No dinosaur fossils occur after the Cretaceous extinction.

This is based on the shaky reasoning that an animal lineage will inevitably leave a consistent fossil record during its entire existence. Sometimes paleontologists do find a pattern that matches this, but other times they don’t. Remind me again, where are the fossils of coelacanths and wollemi pines that occur in post-dinosaur layers? Correct me if I’m wrong, but last I heard there aren’t any that have been recovered thus far. (They had been presumed to go extinct with the dinosaurs, but were recently discovered alive)

[Update: apparently there are at least 2 possible examples of coelacanth fossils occurring in post-Mesozoic layers of rock, but that is hardly enough to show a nice, consistent presence in the fossil record. Keep in mind, we’re talking about a 65 million year gap. That’s tens of millions of years where the coelacanths go missing, and yet were clearly still alive and breeding.]

A large animal may take longer to decay, which some say makes them more likely to be fossilized, that is still not enough. If it lives in an environment where carcasses decompose rapidly (like, say, a rain forest), why expect any fossil record at all?

And by the way, the fossil record’s seeming dearth of dinosaur fossils post-Cretaceous notwithstanding, dinosaurs were extremely varied. I’m not convinced even a comet impact could take them all out. Exactly how plausible is it to presume that every single sauropod, tyrannosaur, ceratopsian, ankylosaur, hadrosaur, ornithomimosaur, etc. went immediately extinct at the end of the Cretaceous, but creatures far more sensitive to drastic environmental changes (such as amphibians) survived and quickly recovered? Just food for thought.

b. It cannot be a sauropod, because sauropods were not adapted to live in swamps or jungles, or submerge in water. Swamp-dwelling, semi-aquatic sauropods are a completely outdated idea.

It’s true that the sauropod dinosaurs in the known fossil record appear to be ill-adapted for semi-aquatic life, let alone in jungles. Their fossilized trackways and skeletons show their feet would likely sink in such terrain.

But why exactly should we assume that a hypothetical modern descendant of a sauropod is going to be exactly the same in its habits, habitat, and anatomical details as the sauropods from the fossil record? Aren’t there supposed to be 65 million years separating us from them?

I’ll just throw this out there: if it takes “only” eight million years to get from land-dwelling mammals to whales, a sauropod will have no trouble adapting to changing environmental pressures. As long as they are still alive, animals adapt. Why dismiss a modified sauropod when known survivors of the Mesozoic (crocodilians, lizards, snakes, turtles, platypus, etc.) were able to adapt yet retain their overall morphology?

Some more food for thought: if it is an “outdated picture of a sauropod,” it’s quite strange that the natives have been saying for decades that Mokele-mbembe possesses features recently discovered in sauropods, including dermal spines and armor that sounds curiously like osteoderms. (It’s quite telling that Darren Naish’s April Fool’s satire, linked just above, conveniently omits the dermal spines and bony osteoderms, so he can make Mokele-mbembe look more “outdated” than what the natives actually report. Rather disingenuous of him, if you ask me.)

c. Sauropods were too large and needed a tremendous amount of vegetation to nourish themselves.

The most popular sauropods were indeed colossal life forms, some of them approaching a hundred tons in weight and growing over a hundred feet long. Argentinosaurus, Brachiosaurus, Camarasaurus, Dreadnoughtus…the mind boggles at the sizes they could reach, and the number of calories required to maintain such a body.

However, the fossil record also includes dwarf sauropods like Europasaurus and Vulcanodon. Some of these dinosaurs reach the reported size of Mokele-mbembe, or even smaller. In fact, insular dwarfism is a well-documented phenomenon in animals when their range and resources are severely limited. Few people know that elephants smaller than cows once inhabited the island of Crete. Normally this happens when big animals are confined to a small island, but I wonder if the same thing can happen if the animal dwells in a dense jungle and has a specialized diet (Mokele-mbembe is reported to feed on several different types of leaves, but primarily eats the foliage and fruit of the Landolphia, or malombo vine).

d. A breeding herd of sauropods would put quite a dent into the vegetation of the Congo Basin. Such creatures needed gigantic amounts of vegetation to feed themselves. Their eating alone would tell us they were there.

It is true that a giant species of sauropod would be detected long before now, because of the damage such animals would do to a forest while grazing. But once again, we have to keep in mind the natives are not describing the titans prominently featured in museums and movies, like 70 foot Apatosaurs or 100 foot Argentinosaurs. They describe creatures with sauropod-like morphology that only get to about 30-35 feet in length. That’s half the length of many famous sauropods. And according to the square-cube law, if you shrank an Apatosaurus to half its size, it would weigh one eighth as much as it did originally. That means it will need far less vegetation to feed itself. We shouldn’t expect a small population of elephant-sized sauropods (or other herbivores) to carve a path of bare-earth devastation through their grazing territories. Certainly not in the quickly-regrowing jungles of the Congo Basin.

Afterword

If the animal does indeed exist outside of human imagination, I hope and pray we find and preserve this species before it goes extinct, especially since the Congo is liable to swallow up every trace of its existence if it dies out.

Either way, perhaps I’m writing these abominably long blog posts in vain. I must account for that very real possibility at all times. Despite my suspicions and the case I’ve tried to carefully build in these posts, Mokele-mbembe might one day turn out to be a legend or a case of mistaken identity after all.

The point I’m attempting to make here is that such a conclusion is currently not based on exhaustive exploration, the efforts of well-equipped search parties, or anything close to an airtight case assembled by those who argue against the creature’s existence. Therefore, much of the skepticism against Mokele-mbembe is based on false conclusions, and on false premises as well. My position is that there still much room on our world for creatures such as these. If they are there, God willing, someone will discover them soon. I hope I’m around to enjoy it, if and when that day comes.

Bibliography

If this topic interests you, I highly encourage you to read and evaluate both sides, and reach your own conclusions. Here’s some resources to help you get started.

In Favor:

“A Living Dinosaur?” by Roy Mackal

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

“Drums Along the Congo” by Rory Nugent

Mokele Mbembe: Africa’s Last Dinosaur?

Against:

“Abominable Science” by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero

A Dinosaur Expedition Doomed from the Start

A Living Dinosaur in the Congo?

“No Mercy: A Journey into the Heart of the Congo” by Redmond O’Hanlon

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5 thoughts on “A Plausible Monster? Part Three: Answering Criticisms, section B

  1. “why exactly should we assume that a hypothetical modern descendant of a sauropod is going to be exactly the same in its habits, habitat, and anatomical details as the sauropods from the fossil record? Aren’t there supposed to be 65 million years separating us from them?”

    I believe it’s possible that there is a small population of these creatures, smaller in size and reclusive, that could be in existence.

    But your comment struck me as odd, being that we see incredible stasis among organisms. There are creatures of all kinds that are exactly the same today as their ancient predecessors, from millions of years up to 1/2 a billion years ago! This is really a laughable thing about Darwinism. In roughly the same time that a single celled organism changed into a blue whale, chipmunk, dragonfly and rosebush (et al) we have other organisms that haven’t changed at all. Darwinism is so flexible that it can explain everything, without any understanding of how or why just guesses. Yet challenge even the most insignificant of its tenets at your own peril, you will be mocked more that someone claiming a Mokele-mbembe is actually alive today. Ha!

    • Thanks for the comment, groovyman! I appreciate it.

      There are indeed many “living fossils” that look very much like their modern counterparts, but more often than not there are minor differences. Thanks to the overall morphology you can still find an overpowering resemblance.

      That’s my point, addressing the critique of a sauropod identity for this creature. If such an animal managed to make it to the modern day, its overall morphology might still have the defining characteristics that make a sauropod a sauropod, but we have every reason to expect smaller traits to change (diet, foot anatomy, etc.), particularly in response to environmental pressures.

  2. Pingback: A Plausible Monster? Part Three: Answering Criticisms, section A | John K. Patterson

  3. I found this series a refreshing ballanced approach to a controversial subject. This is a rare thing for the internet from my experience.

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