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

Introduction

[Here’s section B]

In the previous installments of this series, I have been arguing for the likelihood of an unclassified animal species living in the Congo.

Skeptics are not buying it, often for understandable reasons. The notion of a large land-dwelling animal still being undiscovered sounds rather larger-than-life to many people, especially with Western civilization enjoying the conveniences of satellite photography, Google Earth, smartphones, and Youtube. And given Mokele-mbembe’s well-known resemblance to a sauropod dinosaur, many people see that as plenty of reason to dismiss the animal as a myth or rumor. Great fodder for a sensationalistic Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, perhaps, but not worthy of serious consideration in the halls of zoology.

The problem is, the typical skeptical responses regarding Mokele-mbembe are not nearly as compelling as they are for other “monsters” like Sasquatch or the Abominable Snowman. (That was stated at length beforehand, but it bears mentioning again)

Of course, it doesn’t help when someone spouts off the libelous declaration that anyone who takes Mokele-mbembe seriously is some fundamentalist tool, trying to find a live dinosaur just so they can stick it to Darwin. (Darren Naish once assured me that anyone who thinks the animal is real is either a creationist or a wishful thinker, a claim which I know for a fact to be inaccurate) If one brings up Roy Mackal as a credentialed scientist who took Mokele-mbembe seriously (and he was certainly no creationist), he is waved off as an eccentric with tenure, and his credentials “aren’t the right kind” for him to be an authority.

Strange, considering that this guy who’s making a big deal about credentials and qualification (and continues his nasty habit of committing the genetic fallacy) has declared the following:

“[Y]ou don’t need a Ph.D. to do good science, and not all people who have Ph.D.s are good scientists either. As those of us who have gone through the ordeal know, a Ph.D. only proves that you can survive a grueling test of endurance in doing research and writing a dissertation on a very narrow topic. It doesn’t prove that you are smarter than anyone else or more qualified to render an opinion than anyone else.” ~ Donald Prothero, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, page 16, emphasis added

I guess credentials and qualifications ultimately don’t matter, until you decide to smear anyone you want to label a pseudoscientist or quirky eccentric who doesn’t merit serious attention.

Of course, this business about credentials amounts to little more than an annoying distraction from the stark, black-and-white question “Is Mokele-mbembe a real animal or not?” That is the real heart of the matter.

So without further ado, let’s address some of the bigger, more understandable objections.

1. “There would have to be a breeding population of these animals to survive, and there would have to be too many for their species to escape notice in the 21st century.”

No one’s proposing Mokele-mbembe is a single animal. So when asking how a big animal species can be reproducing and yet exist in small enough numbers to escape detection, we should probably ask a question: do we have large animals that are critically endangered, that are running out of that oft-mentioned breeding population? The answer seems quite evident when one considers the Giant Panda, Black Rhinoceros, Blue Whale, Mountain Gorilla, Sumatran Tiger, Leatherback Sea Turtle, Orinoco Crocodile, Sumatran Elephant, and numerous others. They have wild populations in serious danger of being wiped out.

Given the (limited) evidence available and its seeming to match the pattern of a rare but real creature, I for one am unwilling to take the chance that Mokele-mbembe is merely a legend after all. The Congo Basin carries many dangers to rare animals in general. These include disease, deforestation, poaching, hunting, the mere fact of human encroachment, and so forth. If this animal does exist I’d rather we discover it before we no longer have a chance to conserve and protect it, thank you. By then we would have lost a unique creature, and much of the blame would lie with Western academics who saw fit to dismiss it as a myth until it was too late.

2. “The natives should be able to provide the remains of this animal, like the animal hides they use for shields or the bird feathers they use in ceremonial dresses. They haven’t shown us anything, so that’s a serious red flag.”

This criticism would be a devastating blow against the idea that Mokele-mbembe is a living animal species, but for one obvious fact: the natives need to successfully hunt a creature before such tangible traces become potentially available. Initially, the sole reason why the scientific community could study physical remains of the okapi was because the natives hunted and killed the animal, from time to time.

The natives in Central Africa that allegedly run into Mokele-mbembe describe its size and ferocity as comparable to (or greater than) those of a hippopotamus, which possesses an infamous temper. If it exists, this rare animal carries too much risk and hassle for even the more adventurous hunters to treat it as quarry. In addition to its short temper, they claim the animal is a large pest that disturbs their fishing activities when it grazes on foliage, and it can capsize canoes when surfacing from the river. Depending on where you go, the natives either think it’s a dangerous god-monster that must not be trifled with, or simply a large and problematic animal they’d rather live without.

[Note: In actuality, there have been a few anecdotes of giant reptilian creatures killed in the Congo, with horns or hides or bones being harvested and kept “somewhere,” but without the physical remains themselves to back these rumors up, I will not use these stories to argue my case.]

3. “Satellites should have photographed Mokele-mbembe long ago. They can photograph elephants on the African savannah, so there’s nowhere this animal could hide.”

Even the supportive skeptics in the comments here realize this argument is hardly airtight. Everyone’s aware that rain forests have a thick canopy, right? Savannahs don’t. Observing animals from above is considerably easier when there’s nothing in the way. Just like in any rain forest, the Congo Basin has plenty in the way.

(to be continued in “Answering Criticisms, section B”)

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. Additionally, the guides were unaware of any elephant activity in the area.

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).

There seems to be too much smoke, if the fire is only a legend. 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 posts.

[Side Note: Contrary to the accusation leveled by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero on p. 286 of their book “Abominable Science,” the claim that Mokele-mbembe estivates was not concocted by cryptozoologists, trying to make excuses for why they hadn’t found the animal. It is a claim the natives themselves put forward. In fact, those interviewing the natives expressed skepticism until they got a good look at the alleged caves. Loxton and Prothero put forward some thought-provoking objections, but other arguments of theirs have a pitifully weak foundation.]

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

Mokele-Mbembe: Mystery Beast of the Congo Basin

Inside Story: Mullin On Mokele-Mbembe

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

A Plausible Monster? Part One

[Now that they are published, here’s part two and part three-A, and three-B will be released soon]

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,

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. Another discovery made at roughly the same time was the Bili Ape, a new type of chimpanzee that plausibly eats lions and other big cats. (makes you wonder what else could be hiding in that region, 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.

Victims of Abuse, Easy Labels, and Fiction

Rant warning.

Are we getting too eager to be seen as victims? What happened to brushing the dust off your shoulders and going on with life?

“Nowadays, we are conditioned to see ourselves as potential victims of numerous groups, races, organizations, institutions, chemicals, climates, and people. It’s almost humorous the degree to which some will go to apply the label of ‘victim’ to themselves, despite the harm it does to those who genuinely have been victimized.” ~ Mike Duran

Yep. Totally agree. He’s talking about abuse in churches in particular, but I’ve seen the terms “abuse” and “victim” getting tossed around every which way. Even in situations where it’s clearly not a case of victimization.

There is real abuse, and there are real victims. But I make it harder for them if I throw labels around like a troublesome student tossing paper airplanes in the classroom. And the real victims and abuses are cheapened, easier to ignore and marginalize, when everyone’s claiming to be a victim of abuse.

Chik-Fil-A, anyone? Don’t like their owner’s stance on gay marriage? Then don’t eat at their restaurant. By all means, complain. Write letters. Boycott. However, the owner’s opinions don’t translate to gay couples not being allowed to eat there, or being forced to drink from separate drinking fountains. Why slap the label of abuse onto his words?

I’ve also seen it a lot in talks of “sexist” or “racist” or “homophobic” content in fiction writing.

And it’s getting exhausting.

[Side note: I’m looking right at you, io9.com. Why must so many cool or interesting articles be buried under all the ridiculous, completely false character assassination? To be fair, that last link is from Jezebel, but io9 shared it. Close enough.]

Do those attitudes sometimes pop up in fiction? Of course they do. Heck, H.P. Lovecraft still makes people shake their heads with the clear racism in his writing.

But a book isn’t racist just because all of its good characters are white. There are lots of white villains in Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, too. Remember? A lack of strong female characters in a TV show isn’t enough to charge the writer with chauvinism. (On a related note, it’s sad to see lots of people arguing who is or isn’t a strong female character on Doctor Who, but then writer Steven Moffat is accused of being a sexist pig. Cut it out.)

Maybe he/she just grew up around white people and they’re writing in a mode of existence that is “default” for them, or he/she can’t write strong female characters well, and they’re playing to their strengths.

Variety in fiction is a beautiful thing, and if political correctness has its way, authors will write books that all have the same feel, cater to the same hot-button topics, say the same things, seek to satisfy the same audience in the same way, and they’ll never be allowed to go anywhere unusual or dangerous.

If authors are frowned upon every time they take a risk, or we try forcing them to focus on aspects of life they don’t feel qualified to write about, are we really allowing authors to be themselves? I don’t think so.

But, back to the overall topic about abuse and victimhood making easy labels. Again, please be careful in saying who’s a victim and who’s abusing someone else. These trigger words have wrecked reputations and lives without adequate cause, and that…well, that does qualify as abuse.

A Brighter Day for Paleontology? Switek Steps Down

Edit: June 05, 2013

Evidently, reacting to a link I stumbled across on another paleontologist’s site and then having something critical to say about it is clear proof of “trolling” in Mr. Switek’s mind, just because I’ve criticized him in the past, and I must be someone who’s obsessed and out to “get” him.

Or maybe I saw him doing something I cannot stand (condescending to others if they don’t see the world like he does, and making mountains out of paleontological mole hills), and tried multiple times to call him out for it. Either way, I neither threaten him nor trawl his account for excuses to snipe at him, nor do I call him names. Nothing that I can remember, in any case. If I think he says something that insults my intelligence, I’ll say so. But his best excuse is “go away and shut up.” Which of course doesn’t go over well with me, since I see a problem in his treatment of other people that’s still not getting solved.

Is that “trolling,” or being an annoying busybody? Either way, it’s not laudable. I apologize for sometimes being frustrated. I confess I should have let it go long ago, something I already admitted. For honesty’s sake, I’d just love to see him treat others with more respect and more open-mindedness. But fine. I’ll gladly stop paying him attention. He already gets far too much as it is.

————————————————

After four years, Brian Switek is leaving his “Dinosaur Tracking” Blog for the Smithsonian and moving on to what I hope are bigger and better things. Though I wish him the best of luck (honest, I do), I confess that I’m glad about it. Sorry, fellow paleo-nerds.

Here’s the thing: I wanted to love Switek’s blog. I really did. There are many informative posts, I admire and envy his depth and breadth of knowledge, and his devotion to scientific accuracy is quite laudable.

Here’s the problem: His concern for scientific accuracy was rarely expressed in a constructive light. Most of the time it was excessive griping about how movies and TV shows don’t portray dinosaurs quite as accurately as museums and the peer-reviewed literature, or bemoaning all the “inexcusable” mistakes the public at large was making about dinosaurs. At one point he even asked the media to “leave dinosaurs alone” because he couldn’t stand the inaccuracies.

But that’s like asking science fiction movies to “leave space alone” because they rarely get their astrophysics right. I don’t recall Neil DeGrasse Tyson stating that we should stop making space operas. And for all their inaccuracies, Star Wars and Star Trek somehow inspired a whole generation of scientists, engineers, and astronauts.

Wait, inaccurate movies inspiring people toward science and education?! No. Freaking. Way. Imagine that! Maybe there’s a glimmer of hope for Jurassic Park to keep inspiring kids to become paleontologists, even with its featherless Velociraptors and poisonous Dilophosaurs.

Not that science isn’t important — of course it is! And I am not saying entertainers have license to throw accuracy to the wind — they should make an effort, most of the time. But entertainment has purposes besides educating people about all the minutiae of scientific accuracy. Sometimes you just get a better story by fudging a couple of details. And if it is somehow a flaw or a mistake, it’s not the end of the world (today’s date notwithstanding). It’s best to shrug it off and let it go, rather than hop onto a Smithsonian blog and sniffle at all those uneducated masses, as they make errors so tremendous and damaging, they’d be better off just leaving dinosaurs to the professionals.

I’ll listen gladly to other paleontologists, thank you, namely those who allow people to imagine and exercise a little artistic license.

Characters: Conflict vs. Suffering

Characters are the reason fiction exists. Or so I am told. And this means it is most important to ripen your characters until their stories satisfy the reader. If you focus on plot before character, you’ll get a cool summary of events, but it reads like a news story, and it will be virtually impossible for readers to be immersed and feel like it’s happening to them. If your emphasis goes to worldbuilding, you might get a nice 400 page travelogue (whether or not it’s a world you made up), but again it will be a little cold and aloof — two things fiction are not supposed to be.

Characters are important, is what I’m saying. And one of the basic commandments for a writer is “Make things difficult for them.” Often this has been spoken of in terms of a character “suffering.” It might also be referred to as “conflict.” Interest can only be maintained in a story if something prevents a character from getting what they want.

For the sake of honesty, I’ve lately discovered that I prefer the second term. Maybe that’s just for me individually. I haven’t lived an especially hard life, and like most people I hate the idea of bullying or making anyone suffer. For me, there’s something deeper and more painful than mere discomfort that springs from the idea of maliciously forcing a person to go through a hard time even if it’s for a good end, like writing a satisfactory tale. Just because I want a character to rescue his/her one true love from an assassin and want to make the task overwhelmingly hard doesn’t mean I’m going to do something I hate. If you can do this (to fictional people, mind you) and still tell a great story, then you have my utmost respect and admiration.

However, I can still make the character’s journey difficult and keep myself inspired and glad to be writing at the same time — if I tackle the same problem from the approach of “conflict.” For some reason, that approach gets my own gears turning. Ideas pour out onto the page when I’m not putting some obstacle in the way of a protagonist out of some hidden malice, but because they need a problem to solve that is interesting, urgent, or high-stakes.

Probably a matter of semantics, I know. Nevertheless, even if the character is traumatized and suffers because of the “conflict,” I still need to treat it like a puzzle, and hope to God that I don’t end up with cold, aloof fiction. The approach may be a little more detached, but I take more joy in it, and still realize its final result must hit home for the reader and engage them emotionally.

By the way, yes, I know these characters exist only in my head. It’s still my job to regard them as colleagues and human beings. After all, I’m telling their story, and trying to make readers care about them.

How about you? Do you like approaching characters from a standpoint of suffering or conflict, or something else altogether? I’d love to have some input and get a discussion going. That is, when I’m not frantically trying to finish my own novel’s edits.

Thanks for putting up with another of my dry, abstract ramblings. I do appreciate it!