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.

Tasmanian tiger, or Thylacinus, in Washington D.C. National Zoo, around 1904.
The thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, in the Washington D.C. National Zoo around 1904. The species went extinct just a few decades later.

Photo courtesy of E.J. Keller Baker/Smithsonian Institution archives

This summer Australian naturalist John Young assembled members of the media and told them something they should not have believed: He had found night parrots. Night parrots! A combination of words so evocative it made the journalists’ mouths water. Parrots of the night—a species some thought had gone extinct. Though sightings of these curious little birds occasionally trickled in from Australia’s arid center, no live birds had been captured or photographed in decades. John Young was here to change all that—if he was telling the truth.

Journalists had good cause to be skeptical. Young was not releasing the images or the sound recordings he said he had obtained of the mysterious species. Nor was he revealing the location of the birds, for fear, he said, that they would be threatened by an onslaught of birders and media.

More damaging to his credibility, though, was the widespread understanding that in 2006, Young had faked the discovery of a different Australian parrot species, a bird he dubbed the blue-browed fig parrot. He had shown photographs, announced the authorship of scientific papers, and again nobly withheld the birds’ location for their own protection. However, Young’s claims were quickly unraveled. A photography expert from Melbourne found evidence that the blue-browed fig parrot photos were manipulated images of another species. Young produced no additional information to back up his claims, and he slunk into the outback.

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It can be very hard to know whether a species is in fact extinct. After all, we’re still finding species we didn’t know existed in the first place. The difficulty of proving that a species is gone, combined with the human desire to believe that we aren’t responsible for wiping an entire innocent species off the face of the Earth, has led to the creation of a hazy frontier of probably extinct species. We are willing to hope that a species is still alive long after it’s last been seen, and those who do rediscover lost species—such as the coelacanth, kakapo, or Lord Howe Island stick insect—are hailed as heroes. As you can imagine, it’s an atmosphere ripe for fraud. These are some of the most shameless and creative examples of fakery, deception, and willful blindness from around the world.

Thylacine (last confirmed sighting: 1936, Tasmania)

The thylacine was a fascinating creature: a marsupial, like a koala or a kangaroo, but with gigantic jaws and a fierce reputation. In modern history, the wolflike animal lived only on the island of Tasmania. After European settlers arrived, it developed a predilection for sheep and chickens, leading farmers and bounty hunters to relentlessly hunt the animals. The last wild thylacine was shot in 1930, and the last known animal, named Benjamin, died in the Hobart Zoo in 1936.

However, by the time of its extinction, the “Tasmanian tiger” had secured its place in the Tasmanian identity—the creature is depicted on both the island’s coat of arms and its current government logo—and locals still aren’t ready to let it go. Hundreds of searches have been conducted, in which people have scoured appropriate habitats and followed up on the many unconfirmed sightings.

Perhaps the most promising lead was a set of photographs taken by Kevin Cameron in 1985 of what appeared to be a thylacine digging behind a tree in Western Australia. As is often the case with probably extinct species, the photographs raised more questions than answers. Haven’t thylacine been extinct on mainland Australia for thousands of years? Why couldn’t he get a photo showing its head? Why is there a rifle laying in the foreground? Cameron was unable to offer any additional evidence, and the photos are now generally thought to depict either a stuffed thylacine or a different animal. Despite 80 years without proof, sightings continue to pour in.

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.”

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.

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