By Kurt Broz
Last April I was assisting other biologists in surveying for a protected species of toad. While walking a dry creek bed far from civilization in the late evening, amid the standard sounds of bats and crickets, we heard a terrifying call.
This sound was almost primate-like. The other two biologists were entirely baffled as the call was certainly not from a species known in southern California. I imagine people unfamiliar with the natural world could easily mistake it for any number of animals, real or fictional.
This happens more often than you’d think, even for trained biologists. Having a solid understanding of the natural world or a completing a biology degree doesn’t make you impervious to being mystifed or making a mistake. As a skeptical scientist, though, we refrain from jumping to absurd conclusions or calling something an undocumented new species.
Luckily, I recognized the call as an Indian peacock (Pavo cristatus) looking for some peahen companionship. What was an Indian bird doing in rural southern California, miles from the nearest zoo? I can’t answer that, but I can make an educated guess. Peafowl are very common birds for zoos, roadside menageries, and people who house exotic animals. Florida even has a feral population of these birds. It is feasible that parts of California may have feral, breeding peafowl populations as well.
I live and work in an area of California where people have existed for at least 10,000 years. The Native Americans, Spanish, and other settlers kept fairly complex records of the natural world. The Spanish Missionaries kept detailed records and wonderful writings on everything they saw, giving us a fascinating record of the natural environment and the changes over time. (Suggested reading: California’s Fading Wildflowers: Lost Legacy and Biological Invasion by Richard A. Minnich, 2008). In the United States, you would be hard pressed to find a single acre of land anywhere that hadn’t previously been crossed by a human being. We have an excellent working knowledge our current environment and natural history going back thousands of years in brilliant detail; millions more years via fossil records. So, when I see reports of Bigfoot, lake monsters, giant mystery birds, and other unlikely animals within the areas I live and work, I doubt them, but I remember how I identified a peacock in the middle of nowhere and I start to understand how people might come to strange conclusions. The key difference, however: peafowl are real animals that have been transported around the world by humans and documented in non-native areas.
Thinking critically about the natural world does not take away from the enjoyment of it. Practical, skeptical thinking about the natural world can be enhanced by doing the following:
- Spend time outside. Many of the people I find jumping to (likely false) conclusions don’t spend much time away from the city or suburbs.
- Utilize field guides. Every group of organisms (insects, birds, mammals, etc.) has their own useful field guides with pictures and life history.
- If you find something novel or strange, document it. Take several good pictures and videos including a scale object for size reference. Make some detailed notes like time of day, exact location, and any variables that could contribute to a conclusion: light intensity, wind, etc.
- Contact experts. Even if you have 40 years of experience in the field or an area of the world, you still can’t know everything. If you have questions, get another opinion by someone familiar with the area.
- Check locality records. Most places in the world have records of plants and animals in the area. A good place to start is a nearby museum or college. Also, historic records from non-scientific resources can be useful as many people have kept detailed records of the natural world for various reasons.
- Use reliable, online resources. These are often kept updated with new species accounts long before a field guide is revised. If you doubt an online resource, see if other experts in that field are using it. You can probably ditch a resource scientists aren’t using.
- Admitting that you don’t have an answer is better than fitting a wrong answer to the information at hand.
There are dozens of new mysteries in biology that naturalists, with or without specialized training, can solve. New species can still be found in the United States for those who look, like fireflies in Delaware or a centipede species in Central Park. Like my peacock, non-native and introduced species can show up in unlikely places, sometimes providing invaluable information to scientists and land managers.
It’s unlikely that anyone will secure a Bigfoot or a lake monster as the source of their mystery encounter. Exciting discoveries in modern science are usually small, like finding new insects, plants, or known species in new locations. It’s very rare that anyone discovers a large unique species in a place thoroughly explored by biologists and passionate naturalists, such as Southern California. When mystery moments do happen – a strange animal call, a weird organism in the distance, or a bizarre creature flying above – it’s always safest to first assume a normal, but still satisfying, explanation. Applying some practical skepticism while enjoying nature can open an entire world where mysteries can be found, and perhaps even be solved and new knowledge gained.