What happens when a well-respected paleontologist and two science artists create a book about monsters? You get Cryptozoologicon, a brilliant, funny book that conjures up the magic of your favorite cryptids, from chupacabra to the yeti, while also subjecting them to scientific scrutiny. This is perhaps the greatest, and most beautifully illustrated, work of speculative evolutionary biology you'll ever read.
What's so fascinating about this book, written by paleontologist Darren Naish, and artists John Conway and C.M. Kosemen, is that it respects both the legends behind these monsters and the science that debunks them. It's a complicated merger between speculative fiction and scientific analysis, which the group also showcased in their previous collaboration, All Yesterdays. In that book, the group explored new directions in how to depict ancient animals, with often mind-blowing results. With Cryptozoologicon, they are trying something more speculative still. They've put together an extensive collection of cryptids from around the world, drawn them in gorgeous panels, and provided both a scientific debunkery as well as an enthusiastic, fictional endorsement of the creature's existence.
The authors explain their logic:
For each cryptid, our entries consist of three sections. We consider it important that people understand exactly what we have done. In the first section of text, we briefly review what people have said beforehand about the given cryptid. We refer to the key accounts and describe what the creature is supposed to look like. In the second section, we present an evaluation of the reports, make a conclusion about the identity of the given cryptid, and decide whether the accounts refer to a real creature or not. Given that we have included quite a range of mystery animals in our book – some of which are fairly ridiculous and others of which have essentially been debunked – our conclusions range from the open-ended to the 'case closed' type.
Finally, we include a third section of text in which we deliberately jump onto the bandwagon of speculation, and wax lyrical about the identity, evolution and biology of the cryptid concerned, tongue firmly planted in cheek...We have written these speculative sections as if we ourselves are confident, true-believer cryptozoologist authors, hence the strong, misguided 'anti-science' vibe that emanates from some of the text (and which, sorry to say, echoes comments genuinely made by real cryptozoologists).
Also, I love this little bit of snark at the end of the introduction:
If you see cryptozoologists referring to our speculations as if they're presented as serious . . . it merely shows that they haven't read the text you're reading now.
The Mbielu-Mbielu-Mbielu — Illustration by C. M. Kosemen
It's the Congolese "animal with planks growing out of its back." The authors say they're sick of hearing it compared to Mesozoic dinosaurs, and offer this alternate explanation:
Confronted with the Mbielu-Mbielu-Mbielu, we were immediately reminded of the bichirs (the name is pronounced 'bikers'), an interesting group of fish not previously mentioned in connection with this cryptid (though we do have to note that a species of bichir was named Polypterus mokelembembe in 2006).
The Beast of Gévaudan — Illustration by John Conway
This creature supposedly terrorized south-eastern France in the late 18th century, upsetting many a lovely picnic in the countryside.
Write the authors:
In creating cryptids from eyewitness accounts and other sources, cryptozoologists have indulged in an incredible amount of speculation on the identities and evolutionary histories of the creatures concerned. A cryptid is not just allocated to a specific group of organisms: its evolutionary history, biogeography and ecology are hypothesised about as well. In short, cryptozoologists can be accused of 'theorising' hypothetical animals to life . . . What cryptozoologists need to appreciate is that the cryptids they endorse are speculative entities, and and that proposals about the evolution, biology and ecology of such hypothesised creatures are essentially exercises in speculative fiction.
It is this speculative aspect of cryptozoology that really appealed to us. And, thus, the Cryptozoologicon was conceived: the idea being that we indulge in the same game, providing specula- tive backgrounds and identities to a select list of cryptids.
This book is part of a rare subgenre of science fiction: speculative evolutionary biology.
Bunyip - Illustration by John Conway
This Australian creature has been described in "vague yet terrifying" terms, but mostly as a dark-furred "seal-dog." It's probably a hoax, but the jury is still out on this one. What's certain is that Conway's illustration makes this the cutest cryptid ever.
The Chubacabra - Illustration by John Conway
This creature, often seen in Latin America, is "the great monster of our time," even though it doesn't exist. Still, the authors joke their way through a species description:
Clearly, the Chupacabra is a semi-bipedal, nocturnal, predatory marsupial, the likes of which is unknown to science. Equipped with a long, robust tail, forelimbs proportioned something like those of a primate, and an ability to leap and climb, this sharp-toothed predator (which we name Deinoroo caprophagus) is convergently similar to the Australasian macropods in some respects but is actually a very large opossum. Indeed, the formidable dentition, strong jaws and enlarged upper canines of opossums required little evolutionary modification to produce a large-bodied predator.
Flying Rods - Illustration by John Conway
These "super-fast skyfish of the atmosphere" have been seen in Mexico and the United States. They're popular in the conspiracy community, and look completely amazing in this image. Do they exist? Nope.
Long-necked Seal — Illustration by John Conway
This 30-meter-long beast has been spotted all over the world. Biologically, however, it's almost impossible:
The notion of the giant, long-necked pinniped proved popular in the cryptozoological literature, and the idea that the creature might be real has never really gone away, even though truly long- necked pinnipeds remain unknown from the fossil record, and even though the incredible size often described for the creature makes its reality unlikely.
Megalodon - Illustration by John Conway
Nope, not real. But awesome!
Minhocão - Illustration by John Conway
This "long-bodied, channel-digging South American serpentine thing" should probably be fighting Megalodon. The authors explain:
The Minhocão is not a gigantic snake, nor do the giant snake stories from the Amazon refer to the same entity as the thing that people have labelled the Minhocão. But, what the hell, we wanted to illustrate a gigantic anaconda anyway. Based on the extremely reliable and undoubtedly authentic accounts reported by Fawcett and others, we propose the existence of a veritable super-anaconda that we dub Stupendaconda portentificus, or the Stupendaconda.
The Row — Illustration by John Conway
The authors say this "long-necked turtle" from New Guinea is like "various Mesozoic dinosaurs: the long neck of a sauropod, the frill of a ceratopsian, the plates of a stegosaur, and so on." No, it does not actually exist.
Waitoreke - Illustration by John Conway
This New Zealand cryptid is basically an otter crossed with a beaver, for double the adorableness. Sightings of this mammal cryptid could actually have come from people glimpsing hairy-nosed otters that got transplanted to New Zealand by Indonesian sailors.
Yeti — Illustration by John Conway
The authors say at the outset that Yetis probably don't exist, but still engage in this amusing speculation about the Yeti as a hominin:
While some authors have implied or argued that the Yeti and Bigfoot are members of the human lineage, we prefer the view that these are bipedal pongines, convergently similar to hominins in some ways but different with respect to the details of anatomy, gait and behaviour. Indeed, Yeti sightings create the impression of a hominid not all that different from the paranthropines, the more robust of the extinct, African australopithecines. Dinanthropoides walks bipedally with slightly bent knees, its body leaning more forwards than is the case in our species, and its long arms reaching down to its knees. Its resting poses more recall those of orangutans and gorillas than humans, and it can even move quad- rupedally when scrambling up hillsides and among large rocks.
Zuiyo Maru Creature - Illustration by C.M. Koseman
This creature is based on a "mystery carcass" found off the coast of New Zealand in the 1970s. There are quite a number of cryptid tales based on such carcasses that wash up from the ocean, and they all tend to end the way this one did. A group of scientists analyzed the carcass and found that it was just the body of a partly-rotted and damaged shark.
Gambo — Illustration by C.M. Koseman
Rumors of this creature come mostly from a 1983 sighting of another weird carcass on Bungalow Beach, Gambia. That such a creature exists is totally implausible, but our intrepid authors have an explanation:
Gambo is not actually a reptile at all. Instead, it is a gigantic, fully aquatic, marine-adapted monotreme, the largest and most specialised member of a platypus lineage that originated in Zealandia during the Cretaceous and then adapted to marine conditions as this landmass was flooded and gradually drowned during the course of the Cenozoic.
This is just a taste of the awesomeness in store for you in this book. You can get your copy of Cryptozoologicon from Irregular Books