Why Do So Many People Fake Sightings of Extinct Species?

The state of the universe.
Sept. 5 2013 3:41 PM

Crying Wolf. And Auk. And Tasmanian Tiger.

Fake sightings of probably extinct species.

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Great auk (last confirmed sighting: 1852, Newfoundland)

On the other end of the fearsomeness spectrum from the thylacine is the great auk, a flightless relative of the puffin native to the North Atlantic. Once numbering in the millions, great auks were easy prey for hunters looking for food, fishing bait, and down feathers to stuff pillows. By the mid-1800s, the bird was doomed. The last known pair was captured and strangled on an island off Iceland in 1844, its egg smashed under a boot heel.

In 1951, however, someone walking along Mantoloking Beach in New Jersey discovered a pair of huge, webbed footprints leading to the water. They could only have belonged to the great auk, everyone assumed, and soon journalists were taking plaster castings and birders were camping on the beach. No one ever caught a glimpse of the bird, but the tracks would reappear in the sand whenever the excitement died down. Two years after the first sightings, a local insurance broker named Jim Turner came forward and admitted he had fabricated the whole thing using plywood and an old pair of shoes. When asked to explain his actions, Turner simply offered: “It gets awfully quiet around here in winter.”

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Eastern cougar (last confirmed sighting: 1938, Maine)

The eastern cougar may or may not be a distinct subspecies of Felis couguar, but in any case the original eastern population is extinct. Cougars once ranged from Maine to Georgia, but where carnivores meet humans, humans win. Unconfirmed sightings are frequent, though, and many a crusty Maine woodsman has a story about some big cat caught in his truck’s headlights or glimpsed bounding through the forest. Complicating matters, cougars can travel long distances, and cougars from the West occasionally do make it to the East: An individual killed along a Connecticut highway in 2011 was found to have walked there from South Dakota.

Still, hoaxes abound. A 14-year-old Illinois boy claimed he was attacked by a cougar while deer hunting, but he actually just fell out of his tree stand. A New York man was arrested in 2009 after video he claimed showed a full-grown cougar in his yard turned out to be of a 14-inch housecat. Police in Michigan Tasered a cougar holed up in a drainpipe, but it turned out to be a stuffed toy. The most common ruse is the ol’ real photograph, inaccurate location gag, which has placed mountain lions in almost every Eastern location except the top of the Empire State Building.

Ivory-billed woodpecker (last confirmed sighting in U.S.: 1936, Louisiana)

This one still stings for American birders. No hoax or fraud was involved—just the overwhelming desire to believe something was true. Ivory-billed woodpeckers were gregarious denizens of primeval Southern hardwood swamps, each pair needing a large area to gather food. Loggers came in the late 1800s and cut down all the swamp forests, and that was pretty much that.

The remoteness of potential ivory-billed habitat kept hope alive, however. In 2004 a team of scientists from Cornell—home of the best-respected ornithology department in the nation—announced the discovery of an ivory-billed woodpecker in a remote Arkansas bayou, complete with a grainy video taken from a canoe. The findings were published in the prestigious journal Science, which boldly proclaimed: “Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America.”

The bird world was taken by storm as hundreds of volunteers and journalists descended on Arkansas. Large tracts of land were purchased and protected. Sufjan Stevens wrote a pretty song about it. Despite the scrutiny, though, no ivory-billed woodpeckers were found. Others began to dissect the video, Zapruder-style, and found it inconclusive. Though additional sightings are still reported, the majority of American birders have, after a sigh, resigned themselves to the likely fate of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Despite constant disappointment, the hope of rediscovering “extinct” species is much harder to kill than the species themselves. Every promising development seems worth the lifetimes of fruitless search. Indeed, the night parrot feathers collected by John Young proved to be the genuine article, validating his claim of rediscovery (or his access to feathers of an existing specimen). The sagas and the searches will go on. Keep your eyes open.

Nicholas Lund lives and birds in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Birdist. Follow him on Twitter.