Looking for Leviathans: a Scientific Peek at Cryptozoological Claims
How many unknown large aquatic animals await discovery by science?
Where might these animals be found?
What might these animals be?
How useful are anecdotes for science?
All these questions are open to scientific scrutiny, estimation and possible solution. Ecological theory, statistical induction and a few assumptions about the nature of human knowledge allow the probability of discovery and the nature of unknown aquatic animals to be predicted. There tend to be two extreme positions on this. Some scientific skeptics assume the data (mere anecdotes) are not amenable to investigation and no science can or has been undertaken on cryptozoological data. Whereas believers think no scientists have bothered considering their anecdotal data. In fact, given certain caveats, anecdotal data can be analysed statistically and if it does not necessarily tell us about monsters, it can tell us about the monster reporting process. Cryptozoology should be of interest to philosophers of science in that it currently dances at the fringes of science. Some of the activity characterised as cryptozoology is clearly non-scientific whereas other activity most definitely is. And some stands in the grey area in between.
This site details some of my scientific work looking at the evidence for the existence of unknown large aquatic animals, “monsters”, for want of a better term. I am interested in evaluating the evidence for such animals by the application of novel but strictly scientific methods. Unlike most practitioners in this field, all my work is published in peer reviewed research journals and it is mostly based on statistics. So if you want to know about the real hard peer reviewed science behind cryptozoological claims of unknown species then this is the place.
My work has appeared in television documentaries notably The Missing Evidence: The Loch Ness Monster for the Smithsonian Channel, The Truth Behind: Loch Ness for National Geographic, Mythical Beasts for the Science Channel and Mysteries of the Museum: Loch Ness.
Work is ongoing. I am currently pondering the discovery rates for large marine animals, how big certain marine megafauna get, Loch Ness Monster, mermaids, merbeings, 19th century sea serpents and the kraken.
I also have some resources you can use for free if you are a small not for profit museum etc. wanting the core of a temporary exhibition on the science of sea monsters or mermaids: A0 foamex posters.
Estimating the Diversity of Unknown Aquatic Animals
A paper of mine in 1998 looked at this in a fairly clunky way. The methods have been improved on now. But the take away message remains the same. There are unknown large marine animals out there awaiting discovery by science. That, of course, does not mean they are seen by people!
Quality of Eyewitness Testimony
The most controversial aspect of cryptozoology as a method is its reliance on eyewitness testimony. Whilst it is often assumed such evidence is not of high quality. This assumption has been but little tested in a cryptozoological context. We explored one feature of such testimony: the consistency of witnesses. Under uncontrolled conditions, it is surprisingly high.
Features of Eyewitness Reports
The raw data of cryptozoology is reports. The reports show some interesting statistic features. Paxton (2009) looked at some statistical aspects of sea monster reports. Secondhand and anonymous reports can be distinguished from firsthand reports. Paxton & Naish (2019) tested L. Sprague de Camp's hypothesis that sea monster reports became more like Mesozoic marine reptiles as knowledge of them spread. There is a trend towards sea monsters being portrayed as more "necky" and less "serpenty" over the last 200 years. This reflects de Camp's idea but there may be other factors involved. However the analysis does suggest witnesses may be influenced by culture.
Sea serpent reported by Hans Egede
One particular sea serpent report that has attracted I and my colleagues’ attention is investigated here.
Releasing the kraken
My most controversial paper explored how long giant squid might get. The really rather conservative statistics suggest there could be some long animals at there, at least bigger than those recently observed. For a flavour of the debate, see this article and this article. The BBC also did a nice graphic too. A lot of news outlets claimed that the paper claimed giant squid grew as big as a school buses. British school buses are not a standard unit of length and whilst Architeuthis may get as long as a north American school bus they certainly don't get as big as school buses. To any doubters of my claims, I will happily bet a bottle of kraken rum that a squid of mantle length > 2.25 m will be found in the next 10 years.
The Loch Ness Monster
Every so often a news report comes out with a "new" explanation for the Loch Ness Monster. In fact most explanations for the Loch Ness Monster were initially thought of in the period 1930 - 1934. A historical list of Loch Ness Monster hypotheses can be found here. A big statistical analysis of Loch Ness Monster accounts is currently under review. Follow up papers will explore more about Nessie.
Sea monks are an irregularly reported monster from northern European seas. Rob Holland and I explored the history of the one documented from Denmark in 1546, here.
Last modified: May 2019. C.G.M. Paxton