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A living dinosaur in the Congo? (Part 2)

by Donald Prothero, Jun 29 2011

Although not as well publicized as Bigfoot, Nessie, or the Yeti, the legends of Mokele Mbembe, the alleged dinosaur in the Congo, have a long history. The name is from the Lingala language, and translates to “one who stops the flow of rivers”. It is most often reported in the upper reaches of the Congo Basin in Congo, Zambia, and Cameroon, and in Lake Tele and surrounding regions. Most accounts describe it to be the size of an elephant with a long neck, hairless, with a tail five to ten feet long, although the descriptions are highly discrepant between different sources. The color has been described as reddish-brown, brown, or gray, depending upon the account. It is said to live in deeper water of the lakes in the Congo Basin, and in the deep channels in the cutbanks of the rivers as well. Some descriptions suggest it has pillar-like legs and leaves tracks with a three-clawed foot impression, although other accounts differ about its trackways.

The history of accounts and descriptions of the beast from both native peoples and missionaries goes back to at least 1776, with a book by the French missionary Abbe Lievain Bonaventure, who reported huge footprints a meter in diameter with claw prints. In 1909 Lt. Paul Gratz collected legendary accounts of a creature from Zambia known to the locals as Nsanga and Lake Bangweulu, the first account that describes it as dinosaur-like. As detailed by Mackal, numerous other accounts have accumulated over the years, although they differ greatly in details, and are highly inconsistent about many important features. Most of the accounts come from a variety of native peoples, and it is hard to tell how much of their description is based on actual experience, and how much is legend that has been passed down and distorted through retelling. A few westerners (mostly missionaries) claim to have caught brief glimpses the creature, but their accounts are also highly inconsistent and hard to interpret. Every attempt to obtain reliable photographs, film, or footprint casts of this alleged beast has failed to show anything conclusive. The 1985 shots by Rory Nugent were too blurry to be interpreted. The film shot by zoologist Marcellin Agnagna in 1983 was also useless. Agnagna first claimed it was because he failed to remove the lens cap, but later claimed it was because the camera was set at macro-focus rather than telephoto.

More revealing is how many expeditions have traveled through the region without encountering even a few locals who recognize the creature, let alone obtaining any convincing evidence. In 1985–1986, creationist William Gibbons spent two months around Lake Tele, found no sightings of Mokele Mbembe, but did discover that Agnagna was stealing from their supplies. The 1986 Dutch expedition organized by Ronald Botterweg, looked all around Lake Tele, but found no physical evidence, nor did their guides have any recollection of the mokele mbembe. A 1988 Japanese expedition and film crew tried to capture footage for their documentary, but managed only an aerial shot of something large and blurry in the waters of Lake Tele, which could have been swimming elephants or two men in a canoe. In 1989, the British writer Redmond O’Hanlon toured the area and interviewed many local peoples who told him the creature was a spirit and not a physical being. Gibbons’ second expedition in 1992 failed to provide any evidence except for two blurry photos which Gibbons claimed were of the creature’s head. In 1999, J. Michael Fay led a large biological transect through the region and reported nothing relevant to the creature. Gibbons’ third expedition in 2000 obtained nothing, either, although local accounts mentioned that it had a horn and might have been a rhinoceros (an animal unknown to the locals since it normally lives in savannas, scrublands, and grasslands, not in the Congolese jungle). Gibbons led another expedition in 2001, again with no results. In 2006, the Milt Marcy expedition recovered nothing except an indistinct plaster cast of what was claimed to be a footprint. The same year, National Geographic funded a big expedition for their TV series Dangerous Encounters, and found no evidence of the monster, either. In 2008, an episode of Destination Truth on the SciFi channel (now called SyFy) shot a lot of footage in the region, but the only thing they filmed turned out to a long-distance sequence that turned out to be two partially submerged hippos.

It interesting to note that as more and more expeditions have been mounted in the past 30 years with better technology and more sophisticated methods, much less evidence has been recovered. It is also striking that the accounts are so inconsistent that one group of westerners thought it was a sauropod, while yet another heard about the horns and assumed it was a horned ceratopsian dinosaur like Styracosaurus. Finally, many of the descriptions turn out to be hippos or crocodiles in the water. On several occasions the descriptions could apply to a rhinoceros, which is seldom seen in these jungles and would be just as exotic to the natives as Mokele Mbembe.

The biggest problem with the Mokele Mbembe accounts, however, is not from the remarkably poor evidence gathered so far. It comes from a whole host of problems with basic principles of biology and paleontology that are seldom or never addressed by cryptozoologists. These include:

  1. Population constraints: whatever Mokele Mbembe is, it cannot be a singleton or a handful of individuals. For dinosaurs to have survived unchanged in the Congo for the last 65 million years, there would need to be a sizable population of them. If such were truly the case, there would not be a handful of inconsistent accounts and little direct evidence. There would have to be hundreds of carcasses and skeletal parts left over the region over the past century of western exploration. Although the swampy regions of the Congo are not ideal places to preserve skeletons, nevertheless skeletal remains of elephants, hippos and many other beasts are found all the time. For a population of animals this large, some hard evidence would surely have been found by now if the animal actually existed.
  2. Aerial surveillance: In addition, large populations of air-breathing sauropods would not be able to hide underwater indefinitely, especially now that modern evidence from paleontology shows that sauropods preferred dry open habitats, not submerging themselves in rivers or swamps, never dragged their tails, and fed on the tops of conifers (not jungle swamp angiosperms). If a population of such creatures actually existed, they would have been seen by the many regular zoological expeditions that cross the region every year, especially by the aerial surveys that are frequently mounted to count large animal populations. Indeed, with the quality of our spy satellites able to spot an object less than a meter across, or even the ability of Google Earth to resolve the details of your own backyard, it should be possible for anyone looking at such images to spot something eventually. So far, no dice.
  3. The fossil record: Although the jungles of the Congo Basin are not the ideal place to preserve or find fossils, we have an excellent record of the past 200 million years from many parts of Africa. We have Permian and Triassic beds from South Africa that yield excellent specimens of the mammal-like synapsids and some of the earliest dinosaurs. The late Jurassic Tendaguru beds in Tanzania yield some of the best known sauropods, including the huge Brachiosaurus in the Berlin Museum, which is the largest complete sauropod skeleton known. There are also Cretaceous sauropods (mostly titanosaurs) from a variety of regions in Africa, including the remarkable discoveries by Paul Sereno in the western Sahara. And then, in Africa just like in every other locality around the world, the non-avian dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago, and not one bone has been found to show that they survived the events at the end of the Cretaceous. The African fossil record of the past 65 million years of the “Age of Mammals” is excellent, with plenty of localities that preserve large-bodied animals like mastodonts and arsinoitheres—but not one scrap of dinosaur. The fossil record is not perfect, but for animals as large as dinosaurs, we can be pretty confident that if there is not a single scrap of dinosaur bone, yet good preservation of mammals of similar size, that there were no dinosaurs left alive to be fossilized.

The Hidden Agenda: Creationism

Most of the active explorers seeking Mokele Mbembe today have another agenda: young-earth creationism. All the expeditions by William Gibbons were undertaken with this purpose, and most of the other current websites that promote Mokele Mbembe (see endnotes) are also explicitly creationist in their approach, rather than scientific or even quasi-scientific, like most Bigfoot sites. For some reasons, creationists have the strange notion that the discovery of such a creature will somehow overthrow the entire evidence of evolution. This is utter garbage. The reality of evolution is based on a gigantic amount of evidence from the fossil record, and a single find of a late-persisting species does not overturn this mountain of data.

Creationists point to the coelacanth as somehow upsetting the evolutionary story, but all that this discovery did was extend the time range of a species known rarely from Late Cretaceous beds into the present. Bill Gibbons shows their typical thinking:

“The Coelacanth was discovered alive and well in 1938 after having been dismissed as extinct for as long as 200 million years. The embarrassing thing about that for evolutionists was that it was thought to be a foundational species for the transformation of fish into amphibians and as such, should be extinct, since foundation species are not supposed to continue surviving past their progeny. The Coelacanth paid no attention to those scientists and just kept right on “keeping on” to the present day.”

The errors in this statement show their complete lack of understanding of the fossil record. Coelacanths were not thought to be extinct for 200 million years, but we have fossils as young as 70 million years in age. Contrary to their strange notions of evolution, coelacanths were not “foundational species for the transformation of fish into amphibians”, but just a primitive group of lobe-finned fish that occurred in the late Devonian (360 million years ago) alongside the earliest relatives of amphibians, as well as the earliest lungfish (also lobe-finned). Coelacanths were NEVER thought to be ancestral to amphibians by any evolutionary biologist or paleontologist. Even more revealing is that they are following the outdated “ladder of creation” notion of evolution, where ancestors must die off to give rise to their descendants. As detailed by Prothero (Chapter 3), this is completely erroneous. Evolution is bushy and branching, and primitive groups often survive and live side-by-side with their descendant groups. This crazy idea is akin to saying that your grandfather must have died the moment your father was born, and your father died when you were born, and you could not have ever lived at the same time as your grandfather.

If it were not clear enough from their general arguments, their motives are clearly spelled out by Gibbons himself on his website:

“In case there is any doubt about our motivation for this work I should tell you that we feel that the discovery of any of these creatures will be an earthshaking event. It is our belief that eliminating common objections regarding why the Bible can’t be trusted, and demonstrating the historical and scientific accuracy of Scripture will naturally lead people to the next logical step in thinking: If the Bible is true in other respects, what does that tell us about its spiritual ramifications? When the evolution hypothesis was proposed 150 years ago, it was with the expressed intent of destroying the church and Christianity along with it. If a wrench of this kind could be thrown into the machinery of evolution it would go a long way toward turning people back to the only real truth, the Word of God.”

There are many lies and distortions in this statement, but the one that really stands out is the falsehood that evolution was proposed expressly to destroy the Church. In fact, evolution was only proposed to explain the pattern of life, and many evolutionary biologists today are still devoutly religious and have no conflict with evolution. Evolution only undermines the religious beliefs of fundamentalists, who insist that the Book of Genesis must be true in every detail, despite huge amounts of evidence to the contrary. In any case, that statement certainly speaks for itself. The quest for Mokele Mbembe is no longer just an idle search for a cryptid by amateurs and renegade scientists like Roy Mackal. The “explorers” spending their time looking for it have an anti-science agenda, and cannot be trusted with their data or their interpretations. Their search is a part of the global effort by creationists to overthrow the the evidence of evolution, and undermine the teaching of science by any means possible. As such, it cannot be dismissed or treated lightly, but must bear the full scrutiny of the scientific community as an effort to destroy science, just like their attempts to push their textbooks into public-school science classes.

(The preceding post is an excerpt from an upcoming book, Bigfoot, Yeti, Nessie: Cryptozoology Examined,by myself and Daniel Loxton, due to be published by Columbia Univ. Press in 2012)

14 Responses to “A living dinosaur in the Congo? (Part 2)”

  1. Petrucio says:

    I have two bones to pick about this:

    “Indeed, with the quality of our spy satellites able to spot an object less than a meter across, or even the ability of Google Earth to resolve the details of your own backyard, it should be possible for anyone looking at such images to spot something eventually”

    – Sure, you can resolve details of your backyard, where air traffic is high. How about you try zooming in a random low populated region in Africa and find me some elefants?

    – Sure, our spy sats are great and all that. Not sure how one would get the time to use them for scientific endeavors instead of military.

  2. Stephen James says:

    Unfortunately, SyFy is much more Fy and much less Sy lately.

  3. WScott says:

    @ Petrucio: Yeah, I thought the same thing. In particular, I doubt our spy satellites spend a lot of time looking at the Congo.
    Apart from that nitpick tho, great article! I look forward to the new book.

    • MadScientist says:

      Spy sats look everywhere – whether someone cares to downlink the images for any specific region is another matter. There is no need to make use of spy sat images though; imagers such as the ‘quickbird 2′ (2x2ft on the ground) are good enough for most things.

  4. Thomas says:

    “How about you try zooming in a random low populated region in
    Africa and find me some elefants?”

    10.903497,19.93229 (Google Earth is fun)(Also, Hi-Res shots use planes, not satellites.)

    “Sure, our spy sats are great and all that. Not sure how one would
    get the time to use them for scientific endeavors instead of

  5. MadScientist says:

    Why look for Mokele Mbembe – can’t Gibbons just get his god to appear on TV one day to tell everyone that he did indeed inspire the bible and that the world is a mere 6000 years or so old?

    • Sajanas says:

      Its probably the same impulse that has people looking for a wooden boat on top of a mountain. Motivations of religious fervor don’t dovetail well with common sense and logic.

  6. jre says:

    As you’re likely aware, there is an excellent chapter on mokele mbembe in Willy Ley’s classic Exotic Zoology (itself a compilation from his other works on biology). I’ll see if I can find any good tidbits when I get my books unpacked.

    And why am I so late to the thread, you may ask? Just found you! Looking forward to keeping current with the new posts.

    I really, really enjoyed your talk with Rosenau and Scott at TAM, by the way. You have some work ahead of you if you want to top it next year.

  7. arjun says:

    One shouldn’t be too skeptical about claims of extinct animals being spotted or weird undiscovered animals, since such animals do turn up from time to time. OTOH, i’ll wait till there’s a clear photo or a live specimen before i’ll really believe it! The thing that creationists purposely ignore is that evolution is an evolving theory (no pun intended), and contradictions and anomolies do not mean scrapping the whole thing.

    • Wrong says:

      You should be skeptical about all things: “Extroadinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” You’re talking about Cynicism, which is not skepticism. I’ll be skeptical of something until proof is provided. If they want to claim there’s a dinosaur in the congo, I’m not going to believe it until I see some form of proof. Blurred photos and dodgy casts do not count. ONTFH-Don’t believe it until there’s proof. I don’t believe that Utahraptors, Gigantosaurs, or Diplodocus still exist, and I won’t, until there is better evidence. You on the other hand, by that idea, acknowledge the possibility of their existance.