Half a century ago, Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans first codified cryptozoology in his book On the Track of Unknown Animals.

The Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) are still on the track, and have been since 1992. But as if chasing unknown animals wasn't enough, we are involved in education, conservation, and good old-fashioned natural history! We already have three journals, the largest cryptozoological publishing house in the world, CFZtv, and the largest cryptozoological conference in the English-speaking world, but in January 2009 someone suggested that we started a daily online magazine! The CFZ bloggo is a collaborative effort by a coalition of members, friends, and supporters of the CFZ, and covers all the subjects with which we deal, with a smattering of music, high strangeness and surreal humour to make up the mix.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

GUEST BLOGGER TONY LUCAS: Where have all the cryptids gone?

Tony Lucas is one of our New Zealand representatives. We first published his work in the 2008 Yearbook when he wrote us an overview of New Zealand cryptozoology. New Zealand is a particularly fascinating place because of its zoological isolation from the rest of the world. However, Tony argues that although it was once home to many mystery animals, it is now - quite possibly - too late.

If we look back on the history of Cryptid sightings, the further back we go the more frequent the sightings seem to be. It seems once an area is colonised sightings appear, instead of as one would expect to increase, to decline sharply.

Is it because these creatures seek retreats further apart from the colonised areas or is a more menacing mechanism at work here?

The New Zealand Moehau and corresponding hominoids used to be plentiful and frequently spoken of by the Maori people. European colonizers made a push to populate the land for farming and instead of sightings and encounters becoming more numerous, as one would expect, what creatures that were encountered had gone from being barbarous, confrontational monsters of the forest to wary, timid creatures which would abscond at the first sign of humans.

Could it be these hominoids associated mankind with death? Sightings declined, and nowadays are virtually unheard-of. Why should these creatures associate us with death? Simple: in a single word.... disease.

We have witnessed it down through history where a less advanced civilization, free from the many pathogenic woes of their discoverers and conquerors, are wiped out of existence, or nearly so, by pathogenic marauders to which the new arrivals are totally immune.

The conquistadors brought smallpox and influenza to the Aztecs. In scarcely 100 years the Aztec population collapsed from 22 million down to a mere 2 million, a 90% loss in population. Easter Island and the Canary Islands also endured the same fate in the 16th century via measles, whooping cough and influenza.

However, this is not just restricted to humans; rats on Australia's Christmas Island were decimated by a hyper disease carried there by other rats that had jumped ship. Nowadays the Tasmanian Devil faces annihilation by a lethal type of introduced facial cancer, the list goes on and on.

Isolated island populations appear the most vulnerable as they are populations already under pressure from habitat loss and often hunting. This tendency clearly shows domestic introductions have had an impact on wild populations, and if they are genetically close it doesn't take much for a pathogen to jump hosts. This has been noticed and is still a concern with the recent H5N1 Bird flu epidemic.

One hypothesis advanced for the extinction of the Mega-Herbivores advocates that it was human introduced diseases that tilted the balance and lead to the mass extinctions which followed. With hunting and climate change it is easy to see how this could occur.

Taking this into account, judging by the absence of sightings here in New Zealand, I fear many of our Cryptid species may already have succumbed and for them, it is now too late. The Moehau is an excellent example. If these hominids were genetically close to humans the smallpox, measles and influenza which colonized the country alongside the colonists may have spelt their death knell.

A species already under pressure by habitat loss due to clearance for farming of the land by both Maori and European colonizers, all it would have taken would have been an outbreak of disease to drive the species to extinction.

Was a headless and partially devoured body of a miner and a woman found with her neck broken and 1882 the result of vengeance by a grief stricken Moehau? Interestingly, Bigfoot tracks in the United States have exhibited foot deformities and witnesses have also reported these creatures hobbling, being assisted and supported by another creature and acting sickly. Could these maladies be from catching some ailment to which they have no resistance?

Back in New Zealand, the Moa, the most famous of New Zealand Cryptids, was also under pressure from hunting and habitat loss.

Accounts also became spasmodic with colonization. Could the poultry and species introduced by the Acclimatization Society, such as sparrows, blackbirds, Indian mynah and countless others, have carried disease along with them to which the Moa had no immunity?

A poultry disease like infectious bronchitis which is highly contagious, could easily have wiped out or reduced Moa populations to unfrequented pockets far away from areas of contamination.

I believe the Moehau to be no more.

The last possibly dying from something as uncomplicated as the flu. Moas may yet hang on in remote and relatively unexplored areas like Fiordland in the lower South Island. But I'm forced to ask myself how many additional Cryptids worldwide have we doomed by introducing microscopic pathogens that neither known or cared for the rarity of the next victim.


Paddy said...

A brilliant and thought provoking article - and perhaps something for any expeditions in search of these creatures to be keeping in mind. Better safe than sorry!

Chris Clark said...

Very interesting, but what are hominids doing in New Zealand? It has been separated from the rest of the world for 85 million years, long before primates, and has no native land mammals except a couple of bat species. If there are - or ever were - hominids then homo erectus must have been a very much better sailor than we ever imagined. They are supposed to have reached Sardinia, and the 'hobbits' of Flores show that they had some means of crossing the Lombok Strait, but crossing the 1200 miles from Australia (even if there were any reason to believe they reached Australia in the first place) is an achievement of a whole different order. Even for the Polynesians, who became master navigators, New Zealand was almost the last place they reached.

Perhaps this is one case where the Downes-Freeman theory of animal archetypes really is the most parsimonious explanation: the Maoris (in their imagination only)populated New Zealand with one of the ur-beasts of the racial unconscious, the great ape that would have been one of the threats and rivals to our pre-human ancestors.