Friday, 5 August 2011

New paper on memory has important implications for cryptozoology

Finally, a blog update. Only a quick one, but it’s a start nevertheless. A really important psychology paper was recently published by Simons & Chabris (2011) in the open-access journal PLoS ONE. It shows, basically, that the public’s perception of memory is pretty much at odds with what is actually known about memory. Ed Young at Not Exactly Rocket Science has, as usual, written a very good review of the paper, which you can read here:

But this paper has a huge number of applications in cryptozoology. Irrespective of what some people say, it really doesn’t matter how certain eyewitnesses are about the accuracy of their statement, the fact of the matter is that the mind plays tricks on you (not literally). Eyewitness evidence can basically be ignored, unless there is a large enough pool of data with which to analyze it scientifically, and to tease out the most commonly reported characteristics which are thus the most likely to be on the animal itself. The authors are not cryptozoologists, and have not written a paper designed to help cryptozoologists, but the findings of said paper should be of real interest to everyone. And yes, by everyone I do mean the 10 people who are actually going to read this blog entry. So, in order to see this paper get more hits from Googlers in the future, I will now pepper this with key words:

Psychology; Cryptozoology; Big Cats; Memory; Evolution; Cryptozoology; Simons & Chabris; Psychology; Loch Ness Monster; Eyewitness; Cryptozoology; Montauk Monster; Memory; Gable Film; Cryptozoology; Psychology.

That’ll do. So, to reiterate, the paper is open access, which means that everyone with an internet connection can download it and read it. The more hysterical people within the cryptozoological community who claim that somehow mainstream science is trying to exclude outsiders from sharing in the latest discoveries shouls take note. The cryptozoological community (and indeed the police) and anyone else reliant on eyewitness testimony? should consider these findings closely.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

A novel sea monster report. Or not...

This newspaper report was originally published on Saturday the 16th of October, 1725, in Farley's Bristol News. I have copied the report below:

"Bristol, the 16th. Last Wednesday morning, when the Fishermen went to take up their Nets at Fosset-Point, they found entangled in them, and dead, a Fish call'd a SEILE, or Sea Dog, being 4 Foot 4 Inches long, very fat, as big in Body as a Man; the Head much like a Calfe's without Ears, the snout like a Lion's, but the under Jaw and set of Teeth like a young Mastiff; his fore Legs short, but thick and strong as Lion's, having 5 Tallons on each Foot, shap'd like a Christian's Hand, it's hinder Legs are Finny, and the Feet like a Goose, with 4 strong Tallons in each, and near a Foot wide; the Tail like a Deer's Skut, and Fundament like a Dog-Bitch, being full of Young; with a Navel like a Christian's, and a Skin as fine as Velvet, full of mottled spots; above a Hundred Weight; the like hath hardly ever been taken in or near our channels. It was brought up to Town the same Morning, and ever since expos'd to publick view."

At this point, with a normal "sea-monster" report, you, dear reader, would be allowed to make up your own mind on what the animal was. This time, I am not giving you that luxury: the animal is blatantly a common/harbour seal Phoca vitulina.

Yes, I know, the report calls the animal a Seile, but still, that description is pretty blatant. Apart from the references to "thick and strong" forelegs, the calf head, the lack of reference to a "Finny", taloned forearm and the missing digits on the hind limbs, the description is clear.

But the report is still really interesting, even if no sea-monsters are described within. What, for instance, is up with the repeated references to Christians? Can you tell a Christian apart from other people by their hands or navels?

But really, if you try to imagine the animal as the article describes you do come up with something that does look like a seal, but a very strange one with well developed, strong human-like forearms.

It does go to show: its probably best not to look too deeply into old newspaper reports of sea-monsters. People do have a colossal tendency to "monsterify" even fairly mundane discoveries.

And as to how I found this article? Its long and complicated, but once again I have to thank the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery...

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Review: Moa Sightings by Bruce Spittle.

Hardcover: 448 pages
Publisher: Paua Press Limited; 1st edition (January 1, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0473153564
ISBN-13: 978-0473153564

ISBN-10: 0473153572
ISBN-13: 978-0473153571

ISBN-10: 0473153580
ISBN-13: 978-0473153588

Once in a while, I get my hands on a book which makes me think “why on earth don’t more people write like this”? Most cryptozoological books are, basically, rubbish. Yes, there are a number of great books out there, but an awful lot just rehash previously covered stories, or dive into the paranormal and sensationalism to increase sales. This book is about as far removed as one can get from these works of tripe.

Split across three volumes, “Moa Sightings” is a real behemoth which, due to its high price tag, will not sell many copies. But anyone with a great interest in moas or New Zealand’s cryptozoology should sell a portion of the family silver and buy the whole set. In five words, the three books are incredible.

Hardback with full colour printing throughout, the books are very high quality indeed. The front cover, I feel, looks a little basic, but that really does not matter. Upon opening the book, you are greeted to a wonderful range of maps (there are probably hundreds of maps between the three volumes), portraits and biographies of most of the witnesses, drawings of skeletons and huge numbers of photographs of the areas in which the sightings occurred. This is a book which draws you into New Zealand. The maps and photographs help you picture the areas vividly in your mind; whilst the long and detailed discussions of each sighting help you assess the circumstances in which the sighting event occurred.

The analysis of the Freaney photograph for instance is 283 pages long. That is enough for a book alone on the photograph. Though the analysis is generally very thorough, and the photographs clear, I would have liked to have seen more photo measurement analysis, perhaps comparing the measurements and angles to a deer. This is a slight weak link in the book, and because of this it does not change my opinion that the photograph shows a young red deer, but in reality, this is pretty much the only negative point (and it did really make me consider my initial opinion). If Mr. Spittle published his analysis of the Freaney photograph as a separate, much smaller and more affordable book, I think he would do the world of cryptozoology a huge favour.

This book then is exactly how cryptozoology should be done. Has is changed my opinion on the Freaney photograph? No. Has it changed my opinion that there are no large (4ft tall+) species of moa still alive? No, I remain sure that they are extinct. Has it changed my opinion that there are no small species of moa still alive? Sort of I suppose; I think there is a high chance they lived until the 1800’s, but I don’t think there are any left alive.

To finish this review then, I am going to quote Mr. Spittle on why he formed Paua Press Limited in 2007: “Just as a paua [Haliotis, a species of New Zealand abalone] appears dull and nondescript on the outside but is of compelling interest when the surface dross is taken away, I am hopeful that the books my press publishes will have, at their centre, something of substance for the reader.” He is absolutely correct, this is an incredible book, “On The Track...” for moa enthusiasts. For God’s sake ask for it as a birthday present...


Tuesday, 4 January 2011

TAN 10 appeal

Due to the ongoing success of The Amateur Naturalist magazine, I have decided to make our tenth issue a special covering Europe. European animals, European conservation, and European news. European species in the exotic pet trade are sometimes seen as being boring, presumably due to the assumption that animals from distant lands must be more interesting than common or familiar animals here in Europe. Nothing could be further from the truth...

If you feel you would like to contribute to the next issue, please email me ( with your idea. The deadline for submissions is somewhere is the start of February.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Stoat funeral processions

It is very rare that I slip into the mind of a Fortean and actually write about something that cannot be examined scientifically, so please forgive me...

The reason for my slip is one Maurice Burton. A well known zoologist during his life, he wrote many books and articles dealing with natural history, but also looked at cryptozoology. I first came across him in Peter Costello’s In Search of Lake Monsters where he (Costello) repeatedly criticised Burton for hypothesising that the Loch Ness Monster, and many other such creatures, were rising and falling logs, as well as misidentifications. I am currently reading Just Like an Animal by Burton, which gives a wide range of examples showing that many traits that ignorant people assume are only possessed by Homo sapiens, as well as some “higher” apes, are found in a wide range of other animals. Indeed, the most polite animals on earth don’t actually have backbones...

Anyway, at one point he records some instances of animal funeral processions; the most interesting of which (well, there are only two examples given) regards a procession of stoats. He notes that “about a hundred stoats in twos [were] following four carrying the dead body of another stoat.” Apparently this was published in the Irish Times and it “carried the comment that the legend of such ‘funerals’ is persistent throughout Eire.” This was first published by him in More Animal Legends, so if anyone has that book I would be most grateful if you got in touch with me...

File:Mustela erminea upright.jpg

The only thing on the internet I can find that mentions other stoat funerals than this is a requiem entitled The Beauty and the Wonder of the Erne written by Charlie Ward who is a “journalist, broadcaster, and ardent angler.” This appears to have been published online in November 2009, but it provides no information on when it was actually written, who is/was Charlie Ward and when he saw the stoat funeral march. Anyway, he notes:

I watched a stoat's funeral. It was up at the Old Mill above Laputa, just before dark. Two-by-two they marched along the top of a wide, low wall, not twenty feet from me. Then came four with the corpse upside down between them, a leg in each sharp-toothed mouth.

“Ten more, two-by-two, followed, all making a low, whimpering, keening sound. The cortege, numbering about thirty or forty, disappeared into the culvert covering the old millrace, and went out of my life forever. Do stoats have communal cemeteries as elephants are reputed to have?”

This does sound like a similar story to Burton’s, but without his original book I cannot check the source. Regardless of whether this is a different reference or not, it does nothing to help support the existence of stoat funerals and burial processions. One hundred stoats marching in line is totally out of character for a stoat; most of the time they are fairly shy animals, though I, and many others, have seen them being very bold, especially if they are used to people. The closest I have got to a wild stoat was about 2” through a pane of glass before it got bored of me and decided to go down its hole under the chalet. I should note at this point that the stoat must have been incredibly tolerant of people because it had chosen to live in the middle of Centre Parks in Nottingham...

Stoats are also highly territorial and are usually seen singly. The only times that more than one may be seen at a time is when they are mating, fighting, or the parents with their young. To my knowledge, one hundred stoats together have never been reported other than the two references above, but if anyone knows of any others I would be most interested in reading them.

So, based on some simple knowledge of stoat behaviour, we can discount the existence of stoat funerals, and I would suggest that these are purely folkloric ideas with no basis in reality. The written sightings of such things are highly likely to be hoaxes, however, I would be quite happy to take back my opinion if it turns out there is a good body of evidence to support such events. A photo of such a funeral procession, consisting of around one hundred stoats wearing waistcoats and top hats, would do very nicely.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

On the hunt for Dinsdale’s signature...

Tim Dinsdale should need no introduction to readers of this blog, so I won’t give him one. A couple of days ago I found a copy of “Project Water Horse” for £1 from a second hand book dealers, which is very little for the book which would normally, according to Amazon, retail at over £5 for the book and postage. This, however, was not the reason for me buying the book with a poker face and leaving the shop pretty rapidly lest the seller realise their mistake. There, on the third page in the book was scrawled a signature which looked like it spelt “Tim Dinsdale” which is underlined.


Now, I never met Dinsdale (seeing as he died before I was born means this is not surprising), and searching for his signature online brings up nothing. So, dear readers, does anyone own something signed by Dinsdale? If you do own anything, I would be really grateful if you could email me a photograph of the signature to:

Thanks to anyone who can help.

Oh, and the classic depiction of a plesiosaur with a lamb in its mouth is only being used to spice up what is otherwise a slightly dull blog post...

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


The above are all videos (including the one posted up on the CFZ Bloggo the other day) which show an elongated aquatic animal similar to either an eel or a sea snake living in a tidal pool in Hawaii. The video posted in the original bloggobit intimated that this was Laticauda colubrina, a seasnake unknown from Hawaii (top right). Initially I thought the animal was a zebra moray eel (Gymnomuraena zebra), which is pictured top left, but further research made things much more interesting, for about five minutes.

First stop, a list of fish species for Hawaii. There are seventeen listed Muraenidae species in Hawaii, from giants to dwarfs. The video shows an animal between 40-100cm in length; easily within the size range of the target species, the zebra moray. However, on this particular list, the zebra was not listed as being present in Hawaii. The implication for cryptozoology was obvious. What was it doing there? Was it a released ex-captive individual? Was it totally unrecorded? Was it a new species to science that just looked similar to a zebra?

These questions were all answered rapidly when it turned out that there was a slight typo thing, and the zebra was listed outside of the other Muraenidae from Hawaii. Mystery solved, the animal in the videos is a zebra moray eel.