Bigfoot devours olinguito

A friend who works in television told me recently: “Crypto is huge.”

Meaning cryptozoology. Meaning that there’s a growing demand for TV programs about mythical creatures like Bigfoot, or the Loch Ness Monster, or mermaids, and that these programs are enthusiastically added to prime time lineups at channels like Animal Planet or TLC.The latest example is the Discovery Channel’s blockbuster mockumentary on Megalodon.  “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives” got huge ratings for Discovery and instantly incited outrage, because the monster does not, in fact, live. It’s been extinct for millions of years. This is a genre of programming that seems increasingly popular: Blatant fiction dressed up as fact, interspersed with wild speculation, framed by a few disclaimers here and there for the purists. You can’t quite call it a hoax, but neither is it a triumph of science communication.

Of course people still want their beliefs to be scientifically grounded, and thus they demand that any show about cryptids should include interviews with scientists, or at least actors portraying scientists — as was the case with “Megalodon.” Also there must be a ritual invocation of the idea that most of the world remains unmapped, and the darkest forests and deepest seas may yet hold incredible, undiscovered species of fauna, and that, in general, Science has just scratched the surface of our existence and just about anything is possible.

Now comes the olinguito.

The olinguito has the distinguishing feature of being real. It exists. The Smithsonian announced this week that scientists had discovered this new species of mammal, a carnivore that lives in tree canopies in the Andes. It’s a cuddly little thing. What a shock to find this creature in 2013! Read the excellent story by my colleague Meeri Kim.

Figuring out that this was, in fact, a new species, is a case of superior scientific detective work, one that ranged from museum collections to the DNA lab to the Andean cloud forests. But scientists should make sure that they don’t give the cryptozoologists a reason to hype this as a sign that the woods are full of strange creatures not yet described in the literature. The leader of the team reporting the discovery, Kristofer Helgen, was quoted in a press release saying, “The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed.” And: “If new carnivores can still be found, what other surprises await us? So many of the world’s species are not yet known to science. Documenting them is the first step toward understanding the full richness and diversity of life on Earth.”

Well, fine, sure, there are all kinds of surprises out there. But they’re not going to include the Yeti. And the simple fact is that the olinguito had not escaped detection all these years. Olinguitos have even lived in zoos. But it had been misidentified. Zoologists had considered it to be a member of another species, the olingo. Zookeepers wondered why it didn’t mate with other olingos.

Now we know. Good excuse. Sorry, honey, I’m a different species.

 

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."

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Joel Achenbach · August 13, 2013