This is from a draft paper I put together in 2009. It was to be part of a paper I had hoped to present to the Eastern Cougar Foundation. Comments are welcome.
Above: Melanistic puma.
Attempting To Gather Scientific Evidence For Species
Exotic Animals Register [EAR]
From a very early age I learnt “science demands proof” and that, zoologically speaking, ”the body of evidence” is just that. A corpse. Without a corpse to dissect and study we are told that science cannot accept anything as existing.
The Carthaginian, Hanno, encountered a Lowland gorilla [Gorilla g. gorilla] briefly but that was two thousand years ago. Andrew Battle, in the late 16th century had encountered Lowland Gorillas and his account of this, as well as encounters with other forms of African wildlife were presented in a book in 1614.
Skulls, parts of skeletons and even skins were brought back to Europe, the UK in particular, but those travellers presenting this evidence were often laughed out of scientific places of learning.
Even though gorillas had been exhibited in travelling menageries –we know that in 1855,Wombwell’s travelling menagerie had a gorilla called “Jenny” on display and there are news reports of gorilla [“an African wild man of the forest”] coming in by ship in 1800,it was not until 1851 that the existence of the gorilla was scientifically accepted and catalogued.
In August,1902,Captain von Beringe succeeded in killing two gorillas but recovered only one body which was sent back to Europe and classed as Gorilla gorilla beringei –the Eastern Gorilla.
We have, in the UK, tracks identified by experts specialising in Felids at zoological gardens and even former African trackers running a deer park here, as being leopard [Panthera pardus]. Anyone picking up a field guide to tracks or even accessing the internet today can identify such tracks. There have been hairs recovered by police after “big cat” incidents that have been DNA tested by two reputable laboratories and the results were Panthera pardus.
There are also tracks and hairs consistent with the Puma [Puma concolor] and lynx species [Lynx lynx]. There are many very credible witnesses who have seen cats at close proximity [0-20m] and some of these were trained naturalists and one senior lecturer in zoology at a university who was also an expert wildlife consultant. It is fair to say that there is also good photographic and video footage of non-native species.
We also have photographic records of large cat [puma] attack on horses and a large number of photographs of sheep, deer and other prey animals bearing all the signs of typical large cat kills. Recordings of puma calls even.
Despite this, some experts say they still want a body as “proof” –a totally pointless exercise unless it is out of curiosity [Red Paper: Felids -unpublished]
It should be unacceptable that, in the 21st century, science requires a corpse as evidence that a particular animal exists. We can, with non-injuring ‘traps’ and other means, not to mention remote trail-camera traps, gain enough evidence that a species exists but killing an animal might have dire consequences. What if a Felid or other animal killed is a female and has young. Without the mother to provide food those young will die. And without maternal training to give older cubs hunting skills they will need, those young can become “messy killers”.
And what if the animal killed is, say, the last male or female of the species,or at least last of a breeding pair? The species is lost.
In the 1970s,there was a great debate, often heated, amongst Hominologists, those looking for the Sasquatch/Bigfoot in the USA and Canada and Almasty in the former USSR[source]. Leading US researcher John Green, along with Grover Krantz, put forward the same old argument “science needs a corpse as proof –so shoot a Bigfoot”.
Dmitri Bayanov, of the Darwin Museum, Moscow, argued that, if the hominid was a relic primitive man population then shooting one would be homicide and at the time I came out on Mr. Bayanov’s side based on our not knowing how many such hominids there might be, if any, and if the last one of a breeding pair was killed the science might be happy but the species was doomed.
But in the 1970s we never had DNA testing or the other scientific and technical aids that we have today.
What I am putting forward in this paper are ways to gain evidence that science can study and base conclusions on without a body. The methodology can be applied to most animals whether felid, canid or hominid. It is based on past experience as a naturalist as well as other training that cannot be specified.
It is in fact an intelligence gathering methodology in which physical traces of a species as well as other visual data are gathered and analysed. This information should then help decide the basis of how to proceed next.
"In some circumstances it can be safely assumed that if a certain event had occurred, evidence of it could be discovered by qualified investigators. In such circumstances it is perfectly reasonable to take the absence of proof of its occurrence as positive proof of its non-occurrence."
This is something that Carl Sagan once wrote about. The argument from ignorance for "absence of evidence" isn't necessarily fallacious. For instance, that a new, potentially life saving drug poses no long term health risk unless proven otherwise. It might be argued that were such an argument to rely imprudently on the lack of research to promote such a conclusion, it would be considered an informal fallacy- whereas the former can be a persuasive way to shift the burden of proof in an argument or debate.
Carl Sagan criticized such "impatience with ambiguity" in cosmologist Martin Rees' maxim, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" (Sagan, Carl (1997). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1st ed.). New York: Ballantine. p. 213. ISBN 0-345-40946-9. OCLC 32855551)
To put it in another way: jurors at a trial might be told by the prosecution that a defendant had been heard to say in a heated arguement "I will kill you!" Ten days later the subject of this outburst was fond dead. Therefore the defendant did it. The defendant is known to have had a violent past. The defence would then claim "where is the proof?"
I was once astonished when Sagan, again, stated that there is no evidence that extraterrestrials (in "UFOs") are visiting the Earth -but there is no evidence that extraterrestrials (in "UFO") are not visiting the Earth.
A scientist at whatever level -university big name down to the lowly naturalist- must always keep this in mind in whatever field they are involved in.
"absence of evidence is not evidence of absence"
Feed-back is always welcome.