Cryptozoological Nomenclature

Posted by: Loren Coleman on April 6th, 2007

MN Iceman

The Minnesota Iceman. Copyright Loren Coleman 1969.

French cryptozoologist Michel Raynal has passed along an interesting, but perhaps challenging to cryptozoologists, paper that has been published in Zootaxa 1409: 1–22 (2007), entitled: “Does nomenclatural availability of nomina of new species or subspecies require the deposition of vouchers in collections?”

The following is the paper’s “Abstract”:

Several species of birds and primates recently described opened a debate in the zoological community on the possibility of naming new species or subspecies without material onomatophores (“name-bearing types”) deposited in collections. The current writing of the Code is ambiguous in this respect. We support here the view that such practice is not doing a service to the discipline of taxonomy as illustrations, DNA sequences or “definitions” cannot replace voucher specimens. The latter are and will be badly needed for the proper knowledge of the vanishing biodiversity of our planet. We review arguments pro and con the need to have a Rule in the Code requiring the deposition of onomatophores in collections for the proper and valid creation of new nomina in zoological nomenclature. In conclusion, we propose a more drastic Rule in this respect but also the possibility, in some exceptional cases, to apply to the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature to make nomina available even in the absence of material onomatophores.

Various arguments and examples discussed throughout this paper impact directly on cryptozoology. Take, for instance, these two:

This case might be the most convincing one for the formal description of species without having actual specimens in hands. Ancient iconographic documents are sometimes used by some taxonomists to provide evidence that the specimens which were used to produce these illustrations belonged indeed in unknown, or at least undescribed and unnamed, zoological species. This may even in some extreme cases be possible using solely descriptions in words, without illustrations, when these descriptions are detailed enough, and apparently accurate enough, to warrant such conclusions.

A good example of this situation is the formal description and naming by Bour (1978) of a new tortoise from the Mascarene, based on illustrations published in 1737 that were precise enough to allow ascertaining the diagnostic characters of this species, which had become extinct around 1840 as a result of man’s exploita-tion (Bour 1984), and which was until then known only by imprecise descriptions of travellers. Interestingly, this description prompted the discovery of subfossil remains of the same species, which allowed a more complete redescription (Bour 1979), and later to show that this species was in fact the one that had been originally named Testudo indica Schneider, 1783 on the basis of a holotype, still extant, but which had been considered for two centuries of unknown origin (Arnold 1979, Austin et al. 2002). Such exceptional discoveries will no doubt remain possible in the future, and it certainly would not be appropriate to forbid the naming of such species because no specimen is available.


As discussed below, a photograph by itself cannot be used as an objective proof of the existence of an animal, and a verbal description or a testimony, even if supported by several witnesses, cannot qualify as a scientific evidence, for several reasons spanning from observations that are inaccurate (although honest) due to various material reasons, to deliberate falsification or pure invention. Good examples of such problems are those posed by the various “mythical animals” that have been “seen”, sometimes by many “witnesses”, but for which material evidence is still missing, such as the abominable snowman and its avatars (yeti, migu, bar-manu, sasquatch, etc.), the Loch Ness monster and various “sea snakes” and other marine monsters. Most of these stories are purely verbal, but some “material documents” indeed exist, such as “photos” of the Loch Ness monster or of the sasquatch, or recordings of the voice of the Caucasian barmanu, which all have in comment to be of “bad quality” (photos out of focus, recordings with noisy background, etc.).

In a few cases, Latin nomina were indeed proposed for such “animals”, despite the absence of specimens, but on the basis of testimonies, descriptions, traces such as footprints, hair or “scalp”, or even photographs.

An interesting case is that of the “iceman” formally described and named Homo pongoides on the basis of a specimen purported to have been examined through ice in an itinerant circus, but which later “disappeared”, and for which several photographs and drawings were published (Heuvelmans 1969, Heuvelmans & Porchnev 1974). What can science do with such “descriptions” and nomina? How can the criterion of Article 1.3.1 for exclusion of “hypothetical concepts” be applied? Is the nomen Homo pongoides a hoplonym or an anoplo-nym, and, if it is a hoplonym, what is its status? Valid nomen, synonym, nomen dubium? If deposition of a specimen in a public collection was compulsory for availability of new nomina, such a question would not be raised, and formal description would have to await capture of a specimen or discovery of remains attributed to this “taxon”.

Indeed, for a bit more on the role of photographs and the naming of cryptids, there is this interesting passage:

There is no need to turn to deep-sea organisms to encounter problems with descriptions of new taxa based only on photographs. Examples of such problems, discussed by Pauwels & Meirte (1996) and Pauwels & Chérot (1997), include the description of the “Loch Ness monster” as Nessiteras rhombopteryx by Scott & Rines (1975), that of Cryptophidion annamense by Wallach & Jones (1992) and that of Cadborosaurus willsi by Bousfield & Leblond (1995). These cases, and several other ones, belong in the domain of “cryptozoology”, a pseudo-science created by Bernard Heuvelmans on the basis of a misunderstanding, because he thought that onomatophores were required by the Code for description of new zoological taxa (Pauwels & Chérot 1997): in fact, they were not then, but the problems created by such descriptions led many zoologists to hope that the fourth edition of the Code would require the designation of an onomatophore and its deposition in a collection for nomen availability. In the absence of such a Rule, it is formally impossible to exclude from zoological nomenclature some extreme cases of “hypothetical concepts” described as new taxa. Thus,the description by Quintart (1989), as Marsupilami franquini, of the marsupilami, an imaginary animal created in cartoons by Franquin, was recorded in the Zoological Record, and there is no reason why the Rhino-gradentia, imaginary organisms described with extravagant details by an imaginary professor (Stümpke 1962), should not be so!

I note the authors are behind in their cryptozoology readings. It is generally agreed today that Ivan T. Sanderson, not Heuvelmans, coined the word “cryptozoology.” And several people might be seen as being founders of the zoological subdivision we call “cryptozoology” today. Therefore, I would hardly say that this is a correct statement by the paper’s authors: ” ‘cryptozoology’, a pseudo-science created by Bernard Heuvelmans”!

To read the entire paper, see, below. It is a pdf. Please upload it by merely clicking:Cryptozoological Nomenclature

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

8 Responses to “Cryptozoological Nomenclature”

  1. graybear responds:

    An exhausting entry all adding up to “ya gotta have a body.” This one decides it, folks. Photographs won’t be enough, body parts (hairs and scat and other DNA sources) won’t be enough. There has to be a body in a drawer somewhere, where any qualified scientist can examine it, in order to be properly described. And if it isn’t properly described, then it doesn’t exist. End of story.

    I can only hope that the body is one found after a natural death, not after a bullet or poison brings a sas down. But, sadly, the odds are against it.

  2. Ranatemporaria responds:

    Loren, I’m not sure if the author is claiming that Heuvelmans coined the word “cryptozoology”, but instead was the first to define it as new and separate discipline.

  3. joppa responds:

    Whew ! It is always interesting how certain folks declare thenselves to be the gate keepers of various scientific disciplines. I guess if you can make up enough fancy words and create your own secret language you become the warden. Well, we all do it. Lawyers have their own language, doctors do, and even Bigfoot researchers.

    Whenever something big and hairy crosses the road in front of me or stomps around my campsite in the wee hours of the night, I prefer to use the most common form of:

    ” WHAT THE ****** WAS THAT !!!”

    Fill in your own descriptive term based on the region of the country you are in or for that matter, where you are in the world.

  4. mystery_man responds:

    This is a very interesting article. I certainly agree with the importance of having a body in order to properly document and classify organisms rather than relying on photos or descriptions. Not only does it confirm the existence of the creature, but a more accurate taxonomical assessment and classification can be made of it. I can accept photos as circumnstantial evidence and in some cases even pretty hard proof, but in the end a body is in most cases very importnant, in my opinion. A photo may show that something is there, but I feel taxonomy can be a tricky thing even with known species that have a specimen, so any attempt to classify the photographed organism without any physical body has a good chance of being off the mark. Even with the case of the tortoise mentioned in the article, a body was eventually involved in a complete description. The importance of a holotype when it comes to cryptids can not be over stated as far as I’m concerned. One thing that bothered me with the piece is the description of cryptozoology as a psuedo science. Just goes to show you what we are up against as far as the world of science goes.

  5. Bob Michaels responds:

    Bottom line, cryptozoologists you can name it, but we taxonomists can change it, upon examination of the genetic and anatomical evidence. It is what it is.

  6. elsanto responds:

    A brilliant piece of orthodox scientist liturgy! It just goes to show the extent to which Philip Pullman was on the mark in writing science as religion in “His Dark Materials.” There’s something so satisfying about using the brand “pseudo science”. It leaves the believer feeling somewhat superior to those who follow the lesser dogma of religion (for no orthodox scientists are capable of recognizing that what they follow is, indeed, a religion) because “pseudo science” leave one with the taint of having screamed “heretic!” (Though the two are one and the same, ultimately). Separating Raynal’s reason from his religiosity, however, one finds that his reason is sound. For taxonomic purposes, DNA sequences will never suffice. The discipline of taxonomy by its very nature requires accurate assessment of physical features.

    Just my two cents.

  7. elsanto responds:

    Whoops. That should have been “doesn’t leave one with the taint…” That’s what I get for posting under the influence of good sake and sushi.

  8. Mnynames responds:

    Yep, all those fancy words boil down to, “We need a body!”

    Something tells me that there has to be some allowances for size here though, as I doubt there are drawers full of dessicated gorillas or mummified sperm whales somewhere. Of course, we do have articulated skeletons, and significant chunks ‘o mammals, like severed hands and heads and whatnot (so I suppose any hands of TRULY unknown origin would count).

    On a complete sidenote, I absolutely LOVED Stumpke’s Rhinogrades when I was in High School, so much so I eventually had to hunt down my own copy of his book. A wonderful study in speculative evolution!

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