CRYPTOZOOLOGY – a strange word for a strange science. Let's face it, any discipline which includes the study of everything from the Loch Ness monster, a fur-lined trout and millions of species of nematode worms is nothing if not eclectic.
This science of finding as-yet-unknown creatures covers a broad area. It ranges from the sea monsters and chimera that most of the scientific community would dismiss, to the millions of creatures that we know do exist but have just never been seen or described by science.
Dr Geoff Swinney is the curator of lower vertebrates, fish, amphibians and reptiles at the National Museums of Scotland. His is also their resident cryptozoologist, looking after those animals that – as he says, "one day might be". His broad remit covers everything from new species of bats to taxidermy hoaxes."It's all a spectrum," says Swinney. "At one end are animals who have not been described by the scientific community and at the other end we have things like this constructed mermaid."
With that Swinney takes down a glass case from a shelf in the small neon-lit underground room where he keeps his cryptozoological specimens. What he places on the table is strange and grotesque. A small mermaid creature, vertebrae notched along the back and adorned with an ancient leathery head, in which is a set of teeth more ferocious than your average Alsatians.
These creatures turned up in the 19th century and caused a sensation. When Barnum, the circus pioneer, displayed his feejee mermaid the crowds went wild. No-one then considered it to be a fake, yet Swinney explains that's exactly what it was.
"It's a real fish, a rass, the head is modelled from papier mch or something, and then the teeth belong to the rass."
The fact that it's a fake doesn't make it any less interesting for science. Swinney believes that there might be more to these mermaids than a taxidermist's joke to fool the gullible.
"One might speculate that these weren't produced in a trivial way, but might have had other purposes, like a votive offering to be floated out to sea. That’s what's interesting about it."
There are a handful of world-famous cryptozoological animals. The Himalayas have the Yeti, Africa has the Ninki-nanka, and America has Big Foot. Here in Scotland we have perhaps the most well-known – Nessie.
"The Loch Ness monster is a classic example of cryptozoology," says Swinney. "It was formally described by a photograph and it does have a scientific name, which was done as a way of protecting the animal if it was ever found."Scotland has a number of other mythical sea monsters. In this little room in the bowels of the Museum of Scotland there are the remains of the only sea monster ever to have been found and preserved by science.
The beast of Stronsay was swept ashore the Orkney island during a winter storm in 1808. Local fishermen saw something they simply couldn't recognise. They were skilled people, whose lives were intimately tied to the sea, but they had no idea what it was that had been washed up that day.
The case became well-known in Britain, and scientists from Edinburgh and London made their way to Orkney. The same storms that had brought the creature to shore also took it back and by the time the scientists arrived all that remained were bits and pieces.
The islanders described the beast, explaining that it measured 55 feet in length, had a long neck, six legs and a hairy mane. Strands of the hair and some of the vertebrae remained and were taken back to Edinburgh. A London scientist, Sir Everard Home, took the skull to London. Swinney describes what happened next.
"The animal became a cause clbre and polarised scientific opinion across the border. The Scots said it was an unknown animal and named it Halsydrus Pontoppidani, (after a Norwegian bishop who recorded sea monsters in the 18th century), but Everard Home said it was a basking shark."
The mystery remained until 1987 when Swinney analysed the vertebrae and concluded – definitively – that it was indeed a basking shark. The myth of the monster was popped. As Swinney admits, part of the role of a cryptozoologist is to be a party-pooper.Perhaps the most famous specimen in Edinburgh is a rather strange looking hybrid – a fur-bearing trout. Some time ago a lady brought it into the museum. The woman had purchased the furry fish in Canada where she had been told the story of a lake so cold the creature actually grew fur in winter.
What she had was a taxidermist construction made to amuse and fool – a rainbow trout covered with rabbit fur. She was so annoyed that she left the trout with the museum, where sadly after many years it was discarded.
Later when a book about animal fakes was published everyone wanted to see the museum's fur-lined trout. So as not to disappoint, the museum's taxidermist made a new one.
The fish continued to garner publicity and the original taxidermist heard about it and offered to make another one for the museum - which amuses Swinney no end.
"Now we have the fake fake and the fake on which the fake fake was faked!"
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