Thursday, 9 December 2010

Mother always taught me: "Never eat singing food."

Evolution (Gee Note: If you believe in it that is. If you don't, well that's cool I guess. I don't believe in Ryan Seacrest. I'm still waiting for the day when he falls apart live on national television and reveals a puppeteer from Jim Henson's Creature Shop working him from underneath. One day my friends. One day. By the way Christmas is coming up, which means I get to watch The Muppet Christmas Carol again. Yes deep down I am still six years old.) doesn't always make sense.

Take, if you will, the Terrible Hairy Fly (Gee Note: Coincidentally "Terrible Hairy Fly" would also be my ring name if I ever achieve my life long dream of becoming a Mexican wrestler). Recently rediscovered after a 62 year gap it is, well, kinda rubbish. For a start it can't actually fly, having wings that are… not really wings. They're more like pointless limbs sprouting out of it's back than anything else. In addition our creepy crawly friend is practically blind, likes making love in bat faeces, and looks like Bernie Ecclestone after seven rounds with a mugger.




So the question is, at what point in the cycle of natural selection does a fly think "You know what? This flying thing is overrated. I mean sure it helps me find food and evade predators. But, really, nobody's ever been made happier by flying. So to hell with it. I'm going to stay right here by this flying rodent poo and watch the ladies go by."?  It's pretty crazy when you think about it.

Speaking of which, ever hear the one about the Mokele-Mbembe, the dinosaur in the Congo?

Meet Abbé Lievain Bonaventure. Abbé was a French missionary kicking around the Congo River in the mid 1700's, and in 1776 he published a book about his life there. Most of it consists of Bonaventure describing various plants found in the region, or how the natives were lovely/complete bastards. However in one passage Abbé describes wandering through the jungle one day only to stumble upon something quite remarkable. Namely (Gee Note: President Obama's birth certificate? GEDDIT?!?! Because he's in Africa. Ah ha ha ha. Ah ha ha. Ha. Man I should, like, write a sitcom or something) a set of giant footprints, unlike any he had ever seen before. According to our boy in black the animal that left them "must have been monstrous: the marks of the claws were noted on the ground, and these formed a print about three feet in circumference."

Fast forward 134 years and enter Carl Hagenbeck. Hagenbeck, born in Hamburg in 1844, was the son of a fishmonger. As a way of generating some extra cash his father would occasionally deal in exotic animals, and it was because of this Hagenbeck junior found himself in possession of a couple of seals and a polar bear at the age of 14 (Gee Note: No really. That was Papa's way of spoiling the kid. Now I can understand the seals. I mean they're kinda harmless and look a bit like a non threatening version of Ja Rule. But a f***ing Polar Bear?! That's not a responsible gift to give to a child surely? It would be like Saddam Hussein handing a nuclear warhead to Uday Hussein on his 12th birthday. "Your mother said I was spoiling you. But I saw it in the Argos catalogue and I couldn't resist. Nothing is too good for my boy! Now I've kept the receipt so if you don't like the colour we can change it". Madness I tell you).

This started a life long obsession with young Carl, who went on to collect various beasties like they were Pokemon (Gee Note: Pokemon's still a thing with the kids right? Huh? What the hell is a "Ben 10"?). In fact Hagenbeck became a real life Kraven The Hunter, capturing and transporting the world's craziest creatures for display in zoos all across Europe. He even managed to strike up a professional relationship with one P. T. Barnum, to whom he supplied many a strange and rare attraction for folks to view at a price.

Anyway to cut a long story short, in 1909 Hagenbeck published his autobiography "Beasts and Men". The book, guaranteed to be wildly popular to begin with, soon started making headlines around the world. Thanks in no small part to the claim that something rather large and unusual was stomping it's way through Zaire. According to Carl, various tribesmen and animal experts familiar with the area had told him of a creature there that was "half elephant, half dragon" (Gee Note: And we shall call it a "Dragant". Although it's not to be confused with Drag-Ant, a wildly popular stage act within the gay insect community). Indeed naturalist Joseph Menges reported to him that it was "some kind of dinosaur, seemingly akin to the brontosaurs."

And with that the legend of "Mokele-Mbembe", the Sauropod of the African jungle that time forgot, was born.

It became a bit of a media sensation, leading to stories printed all across North America and Europe in the daily newspapers. Which is remarkable considering that the only evidence for this monster was "some dude told another dude who then wrote it down". Still it ignited the imagination and passion of many a brave explorer, and off they trotted to the Congo to find themselves a rootin' tootin' dinosawwwwr.

These expeditions were met with varying degrees of success. In 1919 a 32 man expedition organised by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. ended in tragedy. A train carrying the team to supposedly diplodocus infested waters crashed, killing four outright and seriously wounding many more.  Conversely, legendary cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson claimed to have spotted the elusive target on a trip to Cameroon in 1932, describing the creature's head as nearly the size of a hippo itself. "I don't know what we saw, but the animal, the monster, burned itself into my retinas. It looked like something that ought to have been dead millions of years ago. As a scientist, I should have been happy, of course, but this encounter was so frightening, so nasty that I never want to see it again." When he asked his guides what in the blue hell had just happened they replied "m'koo m'bemboo".

However despite the numerous attempts to catch a glimpse of this notorious beast, hard facts were tough to come by. Indeed, outside of the tales told by locals and the occasional roar head off in the distance, "Mokey" left very little physical evidence in it's wake. (Gee Note: Which considering it's supposed to be the size of an armoured truck, is quite the accomplishment. I mean there are professional spies who leave more of a trail than this thing. Actually, thinking about it, that would make one hell of television series. "Dino-Spy: The Cold War Files". Throw in a brontosaurus wearing a dinner jacket and an evil Russian T-Rex with a monocle and you've got yourself a hit show. Seriously, I've got half a mind to pitch this to the BBC).

That was until 1987 and Dr. Roy P Mackel's book "A Living Dinosaur?" hit the shelves. Dr Mackal was a former Marine in WWII, who later became Professor of Zoology at the University of Chicago. (Gee Note: Which I can totally relate to because I am also a delicious mixture of brains and brawn). An avid advocate of cryptozoology, Mackal himself had journeyed to the Congo on two separate occasions. And while he never managed to spot the Mokele-Mbembe, he did collect numerous statements from first hand witnesses. These he collated and, with his own narration, transformed them in to "A Living Dinosaur?". The most striking thing was the similarity of these reports. As Mackal himself puts it:

The witnesses described animals that were 15 to 30 feet long, mostly head, neck and tail. The head was distinctly snake-like, a long thin tail, and a body approximating the size of an elephant, or at least that of a hippopotamus. The legs are short, with the hind legs possessing three claws. The animals are a reddish brown in color, and have a rooster-like frill running from the top of the head down the back of the neck.

About 300 pages in Roy mentions a letter he had received from someone named Atelier Yvan Ridel, before reprinting the letter in full.

A member, as you are yourself, of the J.N.E. (Writers-journalists for Nature and Ecology), I am a professional photographer and passionate amateur naturalist.  This explains why I photograph, as the occasions arise just about every animal (wild ones, especially), that I counter -- from the smallest to the largest.

(Gee Note: Man that sounds like good hobby. Better than mine anyway, which involves eating an entire tub of ice cream and watching reality television shows. That counts as a hobby right?).

Ridel helpfully supplied a photograph with the letter, this one to be precise.




This is how I happened to have taken the slide I have enclosed (a duplicate), showing the footprint of what I believed at the time (1966) to be a hippopotamus, without even realizing that the foot that had made it had only 3 toes.  But, not thinking that far, I didn't believe it could be anything else, so filed the negative and scarcely thought of it again.

I ought to mention that this photo was taken in August or September of 1966 in the Congo (Brazza) on a steep river bank and that the animal's tracks lead out of a mass of reeds, crossed a little beach area and descended into the water.

Now we're talking.

You see anecdotes of woovy bezerk monsters are all well good, but they're tough to believe without something else to back them up. For example, when I was growing up every kid in my class was convinced that if you went in to the bathroom at night, turned off all of the lights and said the words "Bloody Mary" three times in to a mirror, a ghost would turn up and rip your eyes out. But just because everyone said it would happen didn't make it true (Gee Note: Although I'll be buggered if I'm going to try it. I mean I really like my eyes. They help me see things. Like flowers. And mountains. And Monster Trucks on the telly. Eyes are pretty goddam awesome in that regard). It's the same in this case. Except "Bloody Mary" is a bloody great big lizard. And she doesn't rip your eyes out. And she might not be a "she". So it's not really the same at all when you think about it.

But it doesn't end there, oh no siree. In 1983 zoologist Marcellin Agnanga visited the area known as Lake Tele, a veritable hot spot for dino sightings. While there he claims to have seen the fabled creature from a stones throw away. According to Agnanga it had a small head, a long neck, and a large broad back (Gee Note: Sounds like my ex. Hey-oh.), and luckily Agnanga had his video camera with him. Unluckily Marcellin was to home movies what Rise Of The Robots was to videogames, and he either left the lens cap on or forgot to set the camera to record at a distance, depending on who you believe.

Leave it to the Japanese to go one better then. In 1992 a documentary crew from the land of the rising sun were filming some 2nd unit footage from a small plane flying over Lake Tele.  While in the air the camerman noticed a disturbance from the water below. He proceeded to record the following action.



Now this video has generated a great deal of debate. "It's a dinosaur!" say some. "Rubbish. It's a person in a row boat!" say others. "It's an elephant going for a swim!" yet more people cry. In the end it's just too grainy to truly decipher. It could be a be a Brontosaurus. It could also be a bird with a long neck. Like an emu. (Gee Note: Or Naomi Campbell, if one of the contestants on hit 80's tv gameshow Family Fortunes are to be believed. For those not in the know, FF eventually became notorious for the idiotic and often bizarre answers the players would blurt out. Such as - Q: Name something that makes you scream. A: A squirrel, and - Q: Name a number you have to memorise. A: Seven. In retrospect it really is no wonder that host Les Dennis had a breakdown on national television in 2002. I mean sure, the fact that his wife was being banged like a big bass drum by another guy may also have played some part in that. But considering what his working life consisted of it's amazing he managed to hold it together for as long as he did).

Since then there have been numerous visits to the region in search of "Denver" (Gee Note: Did you know that "Denver The Last Dinosaur" only had one series? It turns out that a guitar playing aptosaur who can, for reasons that are not entirely made clear, travel through time isn't all that bankable. Hmmm. I may have to rethink my Dino-Spy series. Maybe throw in something for the male 18-34 demographic. A stegosaurus in a bikini perhaps? Yes. That's it. She can be a professional surfer/kung fu expert who also happens to be a stegosaurus. This can't fail!). Alas all of them have come back pretty much empty handed, except for the usual stories from pygmies about a giant reptile splashing around in lakes, eating shrubs, and picking fights with hippos.

So I guess the question is, what are the chances that a living fossil is tearing around the dark continent? Well, honestly, it appears to be pretty slim.

Now before we start, some people reading this will have undoubtedly heard of the Coelacanth. If you haven't then I'll try and explain as briefly as possible, The Coelacanth is a fish that was thought to have been extinct for approximately 65 million years. That was until one was found swimming around quite happily off the coast of South Africa in 1938. It has become the poster child for misguided creationists all over the globe who have apparently taken on the "Dinosaur in the Congo" crusade as a way of proving that God really created the universe. Why they do this I have no idea. I mean even if it's true it doesn't really prove God exists. Just that one giant lizard is reeeaalllly good at hiding.

But people often point to the Coelacanth and go “See? Scientists schmientists. They don't know everything. Look at this primitive and, let's face it, really ugly fish. They thought it didn't exist. But it does. You can poke it if you don't believe me. Go on. Poke the fish. Poke it. Hmmm. I can't help but notice you're not poking the fish. Listen buddy, we didn't drive all the way to SeaWorld for you to just stare. So just poke the f***ing thing and we'll move on.”. Except that argument is all kinds of mental when you think about it.

For a start we know more about the surface of the Moon than we do about the sea floor, and Coelacanth can live some 700m beneath the surface. Also they're dark blue, hide in caves all day, and can only be found in waters which have a temperature between 14°c and 22°c. With the ocean covering two-thirds of the Earth trying to find a Coelacanth is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Except, and here's the key bit, nobody was actually looking for one. Until 1938 it hadn't entered anyone's head that a Coelacanth might actually still be swimming about somewhere. Now it is true that the Coelacanth disappeared from the fossil record since the Cretaceous period. But all that can tell you is that the fossil record is incomplete and should really be used as a rough guide.

Basically what it boils down to is this. Let's say, conservatively, that the Mokele-Mbembe is about the size of an elephant. And let's say, generously, the area it inhabits is about the size of Florida. In 90 years of searching, and with all the technological advances we've made in that time, we haven't come close to finding anything. Outside of eye witness reports, we've had the grand total of one photo of a footprint and one shaky video.

Of course the argument is that the Congo is ridiculously difficult to travel to and once there it's quite an ordeal to get from one spot to the next. But with hippos and elephants both on the endangered species list, and with numbers of each steadily dwindling, we can still find plenty of wildlife programmes capturing these animals in their native habitat. Not to be able to find a lizard of similar size even after 90 years of trying just doesn't make sense, especially after the first thing anyone on an expedition does is grill the pygmies as to where exactly this thing is.

But then, on the flip side of the coin, evolution doesn't always make sense. Just ask the Terrible Hairy Fly.

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