Feb 09 2012

A Living Mammoth?

This story is a classic of cryptozoology. A paranormal researcher claims to have come into possession of a video of an alleged living woolly mammoth. Immediately, skeptical red flags should be flying, but let’s take a deep breath and look more closely at the story.

First, it is always good to go into any exploration or investigation with an open but informed mind. Too often people equate “open mind” with a mind empty of all relevant information. Before scientists embark on a new line of research they typically will first see everything that has already been researched on the topic, to see if the idea has already been answered, or if it is even plausible.

In this case we may or may not be able to come up with a definitive answer, but we can start by considering the plausibility of the claim (what some might call “armchair skepticism”, but should not be denigrated). Mammoths largely died out about 10,000 years ago. Recent fossil evidence suggests that a population of dwarf woolly mammoths survived on Wrangel island, off the coast of Siberia, up until as recently at 4,000 years ago. It is not entirely implausible that a small population of even large mammals could survive in the remote wilderness without being detected.

The probability is fairly small, however. Even dwarf mammoths are large creatures. A sustainable breeding population would require at least 2000 individuals, and large animals would have to range fairly widely to find food. There would also be 4,000 years of frozen or fossilized mammoths to find, if they were alive for this entire time. So while the probability is not zero, it is small. In skeptical terms, this means that we can be convinced that living woolly mammoths are lurking in the Siberian wilderness, but we would need convincing evidence.

That last bit is what we never seem to get. The world of cryptozoology deals largely with those creatures that are unknown to science – which means we have no specimens, either living or dead. There are no articulated skeletons, or even just skulls, in museums. Sometimes cryptozoology deals with creatures that are known to have lived once but are believed (with good reason) to be extinct.

What really keeps cryptozoology on the fringe, however, are their methods. Proponents of bigfoot or Nessie offer consistently ambiguous evidence. Often we get nothing more than anecdotes – some guy’s second or third hand testimony about what they saw.  The typical photo or video is usually just at the edge of detection, so that we can see a provocative suggestion of the alleged creature, but not enough details to make a positive ID. Is that bigfoot or a person in a costume? Pictures and videos seem almost designed to not offer a definitive answer. Sometimes the image is just visual noise, which some humorously call “blobsquatch” (at least in reference to bigfoot). Such images are not evidence – they are little more than pareidolia and wishful thinking.

Now let’s take a look at these current images: video of a large furry mammal slowly strolling across a windy river (I guess it could be a lake). We have no reference for objective scale, so there is a wide range of sizes it could be. The image is out of focus, too distant to make out detail, and the environment appears misty. In other words – it’s perfect for a horror movie when you don’t want the audience to get a clear look at the monster. You want the audience to fill in the details with their imagination, and so does the promoter of this film. When it is suggested to you that the video is of a mammoth, then that is how your brain constructs the image.

I showed the video to my 12 year-old daughter, without any explanation, and just asked her what she was looking at. Without hesitation or doubt she said it was a bear. That, in my opinion, is the likely answer. The animal can be within the size range of a large bear. Bears are known to walk across lakes and rivers hunting for fish. What might be interpreted as a trunk can easily be a fish in the bear’s mouth. If you look at the video thinking that it is a video of a bear with a fish in its mouth, then that is what you see.

There is nothing in the video to make one suspect that it is a woolly mammoth, or that can rule out a bear eating a fish. Between the two possibilities, Occam’s razor strongly favors the bear – because then we don’t have to introduce the new element of a surviving population of mammoths.

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