Karl, first of all I’d like to thank you very much for giving us your time today.
Your career and popularity seems to go from strength to strength with every book released becoming a firm favourite amongst your audience. You have a long list of achievements ranging from the publication of 25 books over the last 26 years, a PhD in zoology and comparative physiology, a big win on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, consultancies for the annual Guinness World Records book and the CFZ. Also a regular columnist for Fortean Times and Fate magazine, you even had a new species of Loricifera named after you, and of course last year you were given the golden Yeti and title of Cryptozoologist of the Year 2016. I’m wondering what you would consider to be your proudest achievement?
I’m not sure that I can choose just one, as I’ve experienced a pretty diverse range of happenings down through the years, some of which you’ve already mentioned here. Certainly, all of those were major events in my life, most recently the wonderful surprise of receiving the Golden Yeti award as Cryptozoologist of the Year 2016, and also a second Golden Yeti for my newest book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors being named as Cryptozoology Book of the Year 2016. Having a new species named after oneself is what every zoologist or botanist dreams about, so when that happened to me, via Pliciloricus shukeri, that was definitely a very proud moment too. So also was that memorable day back in 1989 when my six complementary author copies of my very first book, Mystery Cats of the World, arrived through the post. But I definitely knew that I’d made some sort of impact when, playing on a pub quiz machine one evening back in the mid-2000s, a question about me came up! You know that you’ve made it when you’re the subject of a pub quiz machine question, LOL! But seriously, my proudest achievement has always been anything that made my family – and most of all my mother – proud of me. Without her constant love and encouragement throughout my life, I wouldn’t have achieved anything. How I wish that she were still here, to have witnessed and enjoyed my successes during the past four years – she would have certainly been very proud, which in turn would have made me so too.
I’d like if I may to take you back to 2005 when you had a new species of Loricifera named after you, Pliciloricus shukeri. Can you tell us a little bit about the creature and how it came about that it was named after yourself?
Composed of five distinctive body regions, loriciferans are microscopic but multicellular invertebrate animals that are among the most abundant groups of meiofauna in the deep sea (meiofauna being tiny organisms inhabiting the spaces between sediment particles and smaller in body size than macrofauna but bigger than microfauna). They have also been shown to occur in mud on shallower water, and they may actually be one of the dominant meiofauna groups. Remarkably, however, they remained entirely unknown to science until as recently as 1983, when the first known species was formally described and named. In addition, loriciferans proved so radically different from all other animals that they required the creation of an entirely new phylum – the highest category or level in taxonomic classification – in order to accommodate them within the grand scheme of zoological classification. I included this extraordinary series of events in The Lost Ark (1993), which was the first of my three books dealing with new and rediscovered animals of modern times, and, indeed, was the first book ever published that was devoted to such creatures. Moreover, the loriciferans’ co-discoverer, Danish zoologist Prof. Reinhardt Kristensen, considered this book of mine to be such a major contribution to zoology that in 2005 he and his co-author honoured me by naming a new species of lorificeran after me, Pliciloricus shukeri. In the scientific paper in which this species was officially described and named, Prof. Kristensen included as their explanation for its name the following citation:
“The name of this species epithet is in honor of Dr. Karl Shuker, a prominent expert in cryptozoology. The new species is dedicated to Dr. Shuker for his outstanding book “The Lost Ark, New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century”. In this book, the discovery of Loricifera received much credit as one of the major events of the 20th Century.”
For more information concerning ‘my’ loriciferan, please check out a recent ShukerNature blog article of mine documenting it, at: http://karlshuker.blogspot.co.uk/2016/09/recalling-shukers-loriciferan-my-very.html
Cryptozoology is sometimes referred to as a pseudoscience and will often be put down as a nonsense by academia. How is your work received by your fellows in the scientific world? Have you received any backlash or ridicule from that community for the work that you do?
As in all areas of life, there will always be those who support you and your work, those who are disinterested, and those who denigrate. Happily, I’ve experienced far more instances of the first-mentioned response than of the other two, with my books on new and rediscovered animals, many of whose cases constitute major success stories for cryptozoology, having attracted particularly favourable reception from the international mainstream zoological community as well as from cryptozoologists. The fact that I always seek to analyse cryptozoological cases in a scientific manner and entirely impartially, objectively, with no preconceived notions or bias, following where the evidence leads (as opposed to twisting the evidence to fit preconceived notions), and being perfectly willing to change my views as an investigation proceeds if the evidence uncovered by me calls for such changes, also obviously means that my writings have attracted interest from the mainstream scientific world as opposed to solely within the crypto-world. One aspect that I emphasise time and time again is that with cryptozoology, there are no facts, only opinions, as to what any given mystery beast may be – only if physical remains of that beast are obtained that can be examined scientifically can it be formally, conclusively identified. And once that happens, the beast is no longer a mystery beast, a cryptid, because it is no longer a mystery. So, the moment that a mystery beast is formally identified, it is no longer a creature of cryptozoology but is now a creature of mainstream zoology.
There are thousands of cryptids out there and through your research you have brought many to our attention that we would have never heard about, but if you could pick just one to be accepted by mainstream science what would it be and why?
If the Congolese mokele-mbembe exists and if it really is a living sauropod dinosaur, its formal discovery would be an astonishing zoological event, unprecedented in the entire history of modern-day cryptozoology. So that would probably be my choice – but please note the two uses of ‘if’ in my phrasing of that choice. Such a little word, but one that should not – must not – ever be overlooked or ignored when engaged in any kind of cryptozoological speculation.
When most people first hear about cryptozoology they may immediately think of the creature that supposedly dwells in Loch Ness; worldwide, it has to be one of the best-known cryptids. But what are your thoughts on the matter? If it does exist, what type of creature do you suppose it to be? And out of all of the sightings and photographs, do we really have any concrete evidence of its existence?
Over the years, I’ve written articles, book sections, blog posts, etc on a wide range of subjects appertaining to the supposed Loch Ness monster, many of which were collected together in book form and published last year by CFZ Press as my 24th book, entitled Here’s Nessie! A Monstrous Compendium From Loch Ness. The vast array of claimed sightings, some of which involved multiple eyewitnesses, certain very intriguing sonar traces, and – a particular interest of mine – the claimed land sightings collectively make me consider it feasible that something as yet unexplained satisfactorily by science is involved, whether that ‘something’ be zoological, meteorological, hydrological, and/or optical. Moreover, the extraordinary diversity of sightings strongly indicates that no single answer is involved – whatever ‘Nessie’ may be, it must surely be a composite that has been created by mistakenly lumping together an array of very different, discrete phenomena. In terms of zoological components within such a composite, in my book I have assessed a wide range of zoological identities that have been put forward down through the years, everything from plesiosaurs, zeuglodonts, giant eels, and sturgeons, to otters, salamanders, long-necked seals, and all manner of other options too, but I don’t feel that we have enough solid evidence in favour of any of them to propose one above the others as the likeliest Nessie identity, always assuming that it is an animate entity anyway (and even if it is, once again it is likely to involve more than one such type). What I did discover when compiling the book and researching additional issues relating to the LNM is a true and quite remarkable incident in which samples of flesh from an unidentified, extra-large mystery beast in the loch were actually obtained, only to be inadvertently discarded, their enormous scientific value not having been realised until it was too late. Imagine what DNA analysis could have achieved with them!! The Loch Ness monster unmasked at last? If only…
You mention in both Flying Toads and In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors about the theory that some lake monsters may be a surviving species of zeuglodont, a snake-like elongated whale that was supposed to have become extinct some 25 million years ago. What are your thoughts on its existence now – could we really have a creature or creatures that have lasted since the Miocene swimming in our waters?
Everything that exists today has prehistoric ancestors – nothing has simply appeared out of nowhere in the present day with no antecedents. So if a zeuglodont is indeed existing today (and please note the ‘if’ word again), yes it will have stemmed from Miocene ancestors, but what needs to be noted here is that it hasn’t “lasted” since the Miocene. That is, it isn’t represented by individual, near-immortal specimens that have lived for millions of years from the Miocene into the present day. Instead, it will consist of a modern-day species that has descended from Miocene ancestors, i.e. a zeuglodont lineage has persisted, with its members existing in populations and living, reproducing, dying, and above all else evolving. Continued evolution will have occurred during the 25 million years or so that have occurred between the deaths of the zeuglodonts represented by the most recent fossils currently known and the existence of any current-day zeuglodonts. So the latter are not likely to look exactly like the former, any more than early fossil mammals from the Mesozoic look like the vast morphological diversity of modern-day mammals alive today. This in turn lends support to sightings of serpentiform mammal-like mystery beasts that look quite – but not entirely – similar to current reconstructions of the likely appearance in life of prehistoric zeuglodonts, because continuous evolution occurring beyond the Miocene and into the present day might explain such differences. Please note, however, that this is all purely speculative, which, as I’ve noted earlier here, is all that cryptozoology can be in the absence of physical remains to examine.
And whilst we are on the subject of prehistoric survivors your new book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors is out now; how does it differ from its predecessor In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (1995)? Also, in the years between the two books, have you noticed any changes in peoples’ acceptance or non-acceptance around the stories of these creatures that are reported to still be walking the earth?
The new book is vastly bigger than the former one, containing approximately three times as many pages (just over 600), three times as many words (almost 260,000), and three times as many illustrations. This is due to my including many additional cryptids not documented at all in the previous book, as well as exhaustively updating and expanding all of the sections that were contained in the previous book. The result is the most comprehensive single-volume cryptozoology book that I have ever written – or, indeed, am ever likely to write, and is the product of 21 years of continuing research, from when the first book was published until the middle of last years. As for acceptance or non-acceptance of the creatures in the books: cryptids certainly have a tendency to come in and out of fashion, so that some creatures, such as sea serpents, for instance, do not seem to enjoy such a high public or scientific profile today as they once did, and as a result they tend to be discounted more readily, whereas others that are presently enjoying increased or maintained publicity, such as various freshwater monsters, feline mystery beasts, and winged cryptids, continue to attract a wide spectrum of response, from full acceptance to outright denial. But again, however forcefully such responses are expressed, never let it be forgotten that they are only opinions, not facts.
Ok so staying on the subject of prehistoric survivors I wonder if you’ll indulge a little personal interest of mine and give me your thoughts on Mokele-mbembe, the famous Congolese river cryptid?
This has long been a favourite of mine too, enhanced no doubt by the tantalising possibility of it being a living sauropod dinosaur, judging at least from its outward similarity to such creatures. A number of more conservative but very novel identities have also been proposed for it, such as an exceedingly long-necked monitor lizard, a gigantic long-necked freshwater turtle, and even (although perhaps not so conservative!) some form of inordinately long-necked mammal. However, none of these latter identities have found favour with native people interviewed by Western explorers and missionaries, as the native people are already very familiar with monitors, freshwater turtles, and local mammals, and readily distinguish the mokele-mbembe from all of these. Sceptics have discounted the concept of a surviving sauropod on the grounds that the mokele-mbembe’s alleged lifestyle is not compatible with what has been proposed for sauropods based upon fossil evidence. But as all such fossils are of Mesozoic age, i.e. dating back at least 65 million years, such comparisons do not take into account the fundamental truth that if a sauropod lineage did survive the mass extinction at the Mesozoic’s close, such animals would have continued evolving, changing, and adapting if they were to survive in an equally changeable environment. So if, for instance, their once-dry, arid environment transformed into swampland, for sauropods to continue existing there they would have needed to evolve and adapt accordingly, resulting in secondarily-aquatic forms that would behave differently from what has been predicted from fossils of species that had inhabited drier regions. Also of significance is that fossil formation is famously rare in the tropical jungle swampland terrain where the mokele-mbembe is said to exist, so absence of fossil evidence to fill in the 65-million-year ghost lineage that exists if this cryptid is indeed a living sauropod dinosaur is by no means surprising, especially in such a vast, inaccessible, and inhospitable terrain as the Congolese Likouala swamplands. And don’t take my word for just how vast, inaccessible, and inhospitable this terrain is – do what I’ve done, and talk to people who’ve actually been there, such as the late Prof. Roy Mackal, Bill Gibbons, and Adam Davies. Crypto-sceptics are quick to scoff and mock that large unknown beasts could exist here, but perhaps they may be less scathing if they had witnessed what faces anyone attempting to solve the mysteries that this near-impenetrable realm contains. If there are any major zoological discoveries still to be made, this is exactly the kind of place where they will be made, among the most sparsely-explored, environmentally-unwelcoming localities on the planet.
It seems the majority of people who are interested in the world of cryptozoology are laymen, their knowledge and experience is not one of a scientific background. What advice would you give the average researcher/field investigator that would help them but also help the world of cryptozoology be more accepted by the mainstream?
Re field investigations: research your cryptid of interest as fully as possible before setting out to look for it. That is essential. One expedition (in)famously visited entirely the wrong country when seeking a certain cryptid because no-one in the team had researched its history well enough even to realise in which country it had actually been reported! Conduct your searches in a serious, scientific manner, armed with as much relevant equipment as possible, not in a half-hearted or frivolous manner that offers no realistic chance of achieving anything – that will do your reputation as a researcher no favours at all, and will certainly not enhance cryptozoology’s standing either. And if you’re documenting cryptids or investigating them in print rather than in the field, once again read as much on the subject beforehand as possible, and be guided by what evidence is present, don’t distort it to fit pre-conceived notions. And always remember: extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, and never confuse facts with opinions, or vice versa.
With 2017 fast approaching, what can we expect from you? Are there any new books or projects we can look forward to in the coming year?
My next (last?) cryptozoological book is a sizeable anthology of some of my most original and unusual ShukerNature blog articles. Many of my online blog articles have documented and investigated fascinating but hitherto-obscure, overlooked, or forgotten cryptids and legendary creatures, so this new book will be the first time that they have ever been recorded in hard-copy print form, and all such material will be updated and expanded with additional information and illustrations wherever possible. The internet is a vast archive of information, but one major downside is that it is also notoriously ephemeral – websites come and go with frightening regularity, whereas books are permanent. So, should there come a time one day when my blog no longer exists online, at least its most significant investigations and most mysterious cryptids will be preserved in print for generations to come. So, yes, look out later this year for ShukerNature: The Book – you know it makes sense!!
Karl thank you once more for your time and a truly fascinating interview I greatly look forward to reading all that you may produce in the future.
To find out more about Karls work you can find furture information in the links below.
Featured image by Daniel Wall