Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Myth come to life

While I've been known to make fun of the cryptid hunters, there's something to be said for their persistence.

Not only do we have people working hard to prove the continued existence of animals thought by science to be extinct -- most notably, the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) of southern Australia, which actually has a Facebook page devoted to sightings -- there are the devotees of animals science has never admitted in the first place, like Bigfoot, Nessie, and dozens of lesser-known denizens of myth and legend.

Despite my skepticism, no one would be more delighted than me if one of these elusive beasties turned out to be real.  Which is why I was so tickled when a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link about a cryptid I'd never heard of -- the Corsican cat-fox -- which was just proven to be very real indeed.

The legend has been around for centuries; a wildcat in Corsica that is larger than your typical house cat, has rusty brown fur, and a long, ringed tail, notorious for raiding chicken coops.  Called in the Corsican language ghjattu-volpe -- "cat-fox" -- it was thought to be a myth.

It's not.  In an intensive effort to establish the legend's veracity, the ghjattu-volpe was found -- not only photographed, but captured for DNA sampling.

Genetic analysis has shown that its DNA is distinct from domestic cats, from wildcats in mainland Europe, and wildcats in the neighboring island of Sardinia.  

The fact that this animal stayed undetected for so long has left the locals saying "see, we told you so," and encouraged the absolute hell out of the proponents of other elusive animal claims.  Even so, I think some cryptids are unlikely in the extreme -- the Loch Ness Monster topping that list.  The idea that there is a breeding population of plesiosaurs in Loch Ness, which somehow survived the last ice age (during which that region of Scotland was under a thirty-meter-thick sheet of ice) and has gone undetected despite years of searching with sonar and other high-tech telemetry devices, strikes me as a little ridiculous.

However, I don't find anything inherently implausible about there being a large, elusive proto-hominid in the Pacific Northwest.  I lived in Seattle for ten years and spent my summers camping in the Cascades and Olympics, and man, that is some trackless wilderness up there.  Neither do I doubt the possibility of the survival of thylacines, ivory-billed woodpeckers, and various other thought-to-be-extinct species.

But "possible" and "not inherently implausible" doesn't equal "real."  I remain very much a "show me the money" type.  And that means more than just blurred photos and videos.  (To borrow a phrase from Neil deGrasse Tyson, Photoshop probably has an "add Bigfoot" button.)  Until there's hard evidence, I'm not going to be in the True Believer column.

Even so, I have to admit that the Corsican cat-fox certainly is encouraging to those of us who want to believe.


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