Virtual Institute


by Michel Raynal

 (last update : 14 July 1999)


Cryptozoology is not the science of giant unknown animals, as misinformed people (including some cryptozoologists) believe. The wrongness of this received idea has been demonstrated, with figures in support, by Bernard Heuvelmans (1986, 1987) and by Raynal (1987). Of course, living brontosaurs strike our imagination, but the size of the unknown animals we are dealing with, cannot be a criterium, and little unknown animals should not be neglected (and in fact their existence is often much more likely than these "monsters").
It is true that a minimum size is generally required. As cryptozoology is mainly based on sightings by laymen, an unknown animal should be of a sufficient size to be observed, and recognized as such (i.e. unknown). Of course, if a layman observes an animal unknown to science, only the size of a sparrow, it is likely that he will not realize that he is observing an unknown animal, unless he is a specialist of the zoological group in question. On the other hand, if he observes a very large animal, he will have some reason to suppose that it is an unknown creature : this is a simple matter of fact, but not a strict rule : special colours, a strange behaviour, an anatomical detail, etc., are also likely to catch the layman’s attention.
As the size is not a criterium to state what is cryptozoological and what is not, Bauer and Russell (1988) have thus suggested an intensive research in what they call "microcryptozoology", that is to say the search for little unidentified animals, but Dethier and Dethier-Sakamoto (1988) noticed :

"We entirely agree with Bauer and Russell when they point out the importance of searching for small and discrete unknown animals. If they are not ethnoknown, however, they are, of course, outside the scope of cryptozoology."

This statement, though often true, is not an absolute rule. The definition of cryptozoology by Heuvelmans (1988) is much less restrictive :

"The scientific study of hidden animals, i.e. of still unknown animal forms about which only testimonial and circumstancial evidence is available, or material evidence considered insufficient by some."

As a consequence, a cryptozoological research is still possible when no observation or native tradition is available : any information based on circumstancial evidence, allowing to forsee the existence of an unknown animal form, is relevant to cryptozoology.
It is the case for a very little animal -- a moth ! -- the story of which is one of the most remarkable victories of a true cryptozoological mind, though it is, curiously enough, unknown to most cryptozoologists...
For its opponents, cryptozoology is nothing else than a hunt for wild geese, as it has never obtained any positive result. This statement, often repeated, shows either a great ignorance of the history of zoology, or a deliberate dishonesty : the giant squid (Architeuthis), the okapi (Okapia johnstoni) and the Congo peacock (Afropavo congensis) -- to mention these three animals only -- had been "cryptozoologically" predicted. And the author has published an impressive list of the recent victories of cryptozoology for the years 1986-1996 (Raynal 1989, 1996).


The predicted moth

In 1862, the famous naturalist Charles Darwin (figure 1) published a book on the evolutionary biology of orchids, On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects. Studying the angraecoids, he remarked that they were pollinisated by specific insects. One of these orchids from Madagascar, Angraecum sesquipedale, had nectaries eleven and a half inches (28.6 cm) long, with only the lower inch and a half (3.8 cm) filled with nectar. From the structure of this orchid, Darwin "predicted" the existence of an unknown moth :

"It is, however, surprising that any insect should be able to reach the nectar : our English sphinxes have probosces as long as their bodies ; but in Madagascar there must be moths with probosces capable of extension to a length of between ten and eleven inches !" (Darwin 1862).

Figure 1 : Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Darwin then made an experiment. He took a cylinder, one-tenth of an inch (2.5 mm) in diameter, and pushed it down through the cleft of the rostrellum :

"By this means alone I succeeded in each case in withdrawing the pollinia ; and it cannot, I think, be doubted that a large moth must thus act ; namely, by driving its proboscis up to the very base, through the cleft of the rostrellum, so as to reach the extremity of the nectary ; and then withdrawing its proboscis with the pollinia attached to it."

This insect would affect of course the fertilization of the orchid, and Darwin concluded to the survival of this moth from ecological evidence :

"The pollinia would not be withdrawn until some huge moth, with a wonderfully long proboscis, tried to drain the last drop. If such great moths were to become extinct in Madagascar, assuredly the Angraecum would become extinct."

In a letter published in the June 12, 1873, issue of Nature, W.A. Forbes asked if readers were aware of such moths in Madagascar, and he proposed an identification :

"They would probably be Sphingidae of some kind, as no other moths would combine sufficient size and length of proboscis." (Forbes 1873).

Herman Müller, in the July 17 issue of the same year, mentioned that his brother had caught in Brazil a sphinx "the proboscis of which has a length of about 0.25 metres", demonstrating that Darwin's moth was not at all impossible (Müller 1873). In the second edition of his book (1877), the father of natural selection remarked :

"This belief of mine has been ridiculed by some entomologists, but we now know from Fritz Müller that there is a sphinx-moth in South Brazil which has a proboscis of nearly sufficient length, for when dried it was between ten and eleven inches long. When not protruded it is coiled up into a spiral of at least twenty windings." (Darwin 1877).

Meanwhile, Alfred Russel Wallace (figure 2), the father of biogeography, commented at greater length on this orchid, firstly in an article for the Quarterly Journal of Science (1867), then in his book Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (1871), and he came to the same conclusion :

"I may here mention that some of the large sphinx moths of the tropics have probosces as long as the nectary of Angraecum sesquipedale. I have carefully measured the proboscis of a specimen of Macrosilia cluentius [=Cocytius cluentius] from South America, in the collections of the British Museum, and find it to be nine inches and a quarter long ! One from tropical Africa (Macrosilia morgani) [=Xanthopan morgani] is seven inches and a half. [...]. That such a moth exists in Madagascar may be safely predicted ; and naturalists who visit that island should search for it with as much confidance as astronomers searched for the planet Neptune, and I venture to predict they will be equally successful !" (Wallace 1867, 1871).

Figure 2 : Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)

This last remark alluded to German astronomer Galle, who had searched for, and found, the planet Neptune, after French mathematician Le Verrier predicted its existence and position, from calculations on the orbite of Uranus, the then last known planet of the solar system -- a well-known case in the history of sciences, often mentioned for its significance in epistemology.
And the idea of a close relation with the large sphingid of tropical Africa, Xanthopan morgani, which has a proboscis about 20 cm, was quite judicious and prophetic. This "cryptolepidoptere" was actually found and described 41 years after Darwin's prediction : it belonged to that very species, but it was a new sub-species, which Rothschild and Jordan named Xanthopan morgani praedicta in 1903, i.e. "predicted",which is fully justified (Rothschild and Jordan 1903). This insect has a wing span of 13 to 15 cm, of the color of a dead leaf and its proboscis is actually 25 cm (ten inches) long (figure 3). 

Figure 3 : the moth Xanthopan morgani praedicta
and the star orchid Angraecum sesquipedale
(photograph : Marcel Lecoufle)

This contribution to cryptozoology is remarkable, as it concerns the prediction, from phytobiology and ecology (i.e. from circumstancial evidence only), of an unknown moth (at the level of the subspecies), the existence and the identification of which have been experimentally confirmed a posteriori. This should be considered an important victory of a true cryptozoological mind, shared at least by two of the greatest naturalists of the nineteenth century, to wit Darwin and Wallace.


A second unknown moth ?

History now seems to be repeating itself : American entomologist Gene Kritsky, of the Mount Saint Joseph on the Ohio College in Cincinnati, recently made an hypothesis similar to Darwin's prediction. Another Madagascar orchid, Angraecum longicalcar, has a rostrellum still deeper than that of A. sesquipedale : about 16 inches (40 cm). Consequently, Gene Kritsky predicted in the American Entomologist of Winter 1991 the existence of another unknown large moth in Madagascar, with a proboscis 15 inches (38 cm) long ! (Kritsky 1991, Angier 1992).

Let us hope that we will not have to wait 41 years before this new predicted moth will be found...



Many thanks for their kind help to Marcel Lecoufle (orchidophilist, Boissy Saint-Léger, France), Gene Kritsky (Mount Saint Joseph on the Ohio College, Cincinnati), and Joël Minet and Jean Orousset (both from the laboratory of Entomology, Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris).



click on the French page "Le papillon prédit de Madagascar : un succès méconnu de la cryptozoologie", then on the button "Return" of your browser.



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