How Legends Lead Scientists to New Species

| by Ocean Wise

In 1493, Christopher Columbus was sailing near Haiti when he spotted three mermaids basking in the sun. They “rose well out of the sea,” the Admiral wrote in his ship log, “but they are not so beautiful as they are painted, though to some extent they have the form of a human face.”

“Mermaids and manatees, fantastical creatures and undocumented animals: this is where the fields of cryptozoology and mainstream science collide.”

Sadly, these were not mermaids. They were manatees — a marine mammal related to elephants. With their heavily whiskered faces, pinprick eyes, and bloated bodies, these gentle sea cows are not particularly feminine looking. But after being cooped up on an all-male ship for so long, the manatee was half-woman enough for Columbus.
Mermaids and manatees, fantastical creatures and undocumented animals: this is where the fields of cryptozoology and mainstream science collide. Cryptozoology is the study of hidden animals, known as “cryptids”: chupacabras, krakens, Yetis, nightmare-devouring demons, the Loch Ness monster, the Abominable Snowman and, of course, the mermaid.

The scientific community often dismisses cryptozoology because it doesn’t follow the scientific method and because cryptozoologists chase after monster myths rather than rigorously and equally pursuing all new life forms. Meanwhile, cryptozoologists point to their work raising awareness of endangered and extinct animals, like the Tasmanian tiger, the okapi and the dodo bird.

Naturalists once thought the dodo bird nothing but a fantasy. But, in the late 16th century, Dutch seafarers documented the flightless, now-extinct bird and dubbed them “dodaersen” (Dutch for fat-asses).

Despite their differences, cryptozoology and academic science share a common goal: discover new species. In recent years, they’ve started to collaborate in new and fruitful ways. In 2012, Bryan Sykes, Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, posted a call for “organic material from formally undescribed species or ‘cryptids’, for the purpose of their species identification by genetic means.” Sykes and his colleagues at the Museum of Zoology have the tools and the access to DNA-test a single strand of hair. So, why not test out some cryptid hair?

Sykes’ study — the first-ever systematic genetic survey of primate hair — was published in 2014 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. No positive ID on Bigfoot just yet, but two Himalayan samples sent in from cryptozoologists matched the DNA of a polar bear from the Pleistocene era that ended 11,700 years ago.

“86% of terrestrial species and 91% of aquatic species are still leading unclassified lives around the planet.”

By providing testable evidence, like so-called Yeti hair, cryptozoologists can help scientists document unknown or hybrid species. In this pursuit, taxonomists and biologists need all the help they can get. A 2010 study estimated that 86% of terrestrial species and 91% of aquatic species are still leading unclassified lives around the planet.

Back in 1493, when Christopher Columbus mistook a manatee for a mermaid, the modern method of classifying animals was still 265 years in the future. From a distance, the species could look human. The manatee can turn her head about. She has mammary glands in about the same place as a woman. And her forearm bends at the elbow, so she cradles her newborn the same way humans do.

Manatees have mammary glands in about the same place as human females, which might have been the reason Columbus mistook them for mermaids.

As an Italian, Columbus would have no experience with the manatees or their Indo-West Pacific cousins, the dugongs, which frequent water far from European shores. His description became the first written record of the manatee. The species’ scientific name pays tribute to the fantastical first impression the mammal made hundreds of years ago: Sirenia – a reference to the legendary mermaids that sung sailors to their death.

It’s also nod to the myths and legends that lead to the discovery of new species.