A Dinosaur Expedition Doomed From the Start

A wannabe-biologist is planning to bring a dinosaur back alive, even though the creature he’s after doesn’t exist

Feedloader (Clickability)

There aren’t any sauropods in the Congo Basin. There’s not a scrap of evidence that long-necked, swamp-wallowing dinosaurs are hiding somewhere in the jungles of Africa, or anywhere else. And I say that as someone who was enthralled when I saw the puppet brontosaurs of 1985′s Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (see the clip above), arguably the best movie dinosaurs before Jurassic Park stomped along. After seeing that movie, I really, really wanted there to be living sauropods, but the evidence simply doesn’t exist.

Rumors that there might be an Apatosaurus-like dinosaur in the Congo Basin have circulated for years. Young earth creationists have been especially enamored with the idea, as they wrongly believe that finding a living, non-avian dinosaur will discredit evolutionary theory. (The existence of a living sauropod wouldn’t be any worse for evolutionary theory than the discovery of modern coelacanths. These archaic fish were thought to be extinct, but once living fish were discovered, they fell perfectly well within what scientists have understood about evolutionary patterns since Darwin’s day.)

Numerous expeditions have been launched in search of the legendary animal. None have come back with evidence that some Cretaceous holdover is hanging out in Lake Tele or anywhere else. You’d think that a population of huge, amphibious dinosaurs would leave plenty of tracks, scat and skeletal remains behind, but—surprise, surprise—apparently not. There is a collection of stories, fuzzy photos, audio recordings and supposed footprint casts, but none of this adds up to anything. The last of the sauropods died more than 65 million years ago. If they had survived beyond that time, we would have certainly picked up the trail of the survivors in the fossil record.

Even modern field ecology argues against the existence of large dinosaurs in the Congo Basin. Zoologists often conduct multiple searches for species that went extinct during recent history. Sometimes a few hold-outs turn up, and the search intensity is key here. In a study tracking the rediscovery of presumably extinct mammals, zoologists Diana Fisher and Simon Blomberg found that still-extant species were often found again after three to six searches were conducted. After that point, the likelihood of success plummets. Given that there have been over a dozen unsuccessful expeditions to the Congo Basin looking for sauropods—immense creatures that would leave plenty of evidence in the landscape if they existed—the conclusion is clear. There are no amphibious dinosaurs to find.

But the facts haven’t discouraged Stephen McCullah. A few months ago various news services reported that the wannabe biologist launched a Kickstarter page to fund a three-month expedition to the Congo Basin in hopes of capturing Mokele-mbembe, the name by which the mythical sauropod is often called. Sure, McCullah mentions that the trip’s goal will be “categorizing plant and animal species in the vastly unexplored Republic of the Congo,” but the focus of his pitch is clearly the search for a dinosaur that doesn’t exist. Not surprisingly, McCullah and his team don’t seem to have any formal qualifications to speak of. (McCullah’s bio says he studied biology at Missouri State University and UMKC, but that’s all.) Passion is great, but the Kickstarter page for the project gives no indication that he and his team are trained in field techniques or are approaching the trip with a scientific attitude. (See this video from Chicago’s Field Museum to see what responsible field biology really looks like.) It just seems like a kid’s bid for fame on someone else’s dime.

McCullah’s expedition recently hit its funding goal. It looks like the expedition is on, and rumor has it that the trip will be turned into another crummy basic cable documentary. If the program is anything like the MonsterQuest episode about Mokele-mbembe, it will be another hyped waste of time.

Throughout all this, many journalists have handled McCullah with kid gloves. The fact that someone says he intends to capture a living sauropod is apparently much more important to some media outlets than the fact that such a creature no longer exists. Some of the worst coverage has come from the Huffington Post, which, as science writer Seth Mnookin has commented, has featured plenty of bad science and facile reasoning. Lee Speigel, a journalist focused on UFO-related stories and a self-professed “truth seeker,” concluded his first article about McCullah’s expedition with: “One thing’s for certain: will have to bring enough equipment. Capturing a living dinosaur may require some very big nets.”

Speigel’s follow-up was even more credulous. After acknowledging that paleontologists have not found any indication of modern or recent sauropods, Speigel cites an ambiguous 5,000-year-old pictograph found in the Amazon as evidence that humans and non-avian dinosaurs overlapped in time. Speigel omits the fact that the two “researchers” who make the grand claims about the ancient art—Vance Nelson and Harry Nibourg—are creationists who have a strong bias in favor of modern dinosaurs because of their fundamentalist beliefs. In another evidence-free portion of the piece, Speigel writes, “Many previous expeditions have attempted to follow up on these reports by tracking the dangerous, swampy Likouala region of Congo, which has a climate not much changed since dinosaurs roamed in large numbers millions of years ago.” Never mind that the continents have shifted and the climate has in fact fluctuated widely over the past 66 million years—Speigel is setting up the Congo Basin as a pristine lost world where Cretaceous monsters still lurk.

The coda to the article is even better. Speigel reported that McCullah’s team planned to bring firearms on the trip, with the implication that expedition members might slay any dinosaur they find. McCullah wrote back: “Killing a creature like mokele-mbembe is really not an option as far as the team is concerned. If it were a life-threatening situation, that could change, but our plan for a confrontation with a mokele-like creature as of now is to chemically subdue the animal.” The plan is to bring “mokele-mbembe back alive,” McCullah said. Clearly he hasn’t seen 1925′s Lost Worldsauropods and cities don’t mix. But it’s all absolutely absurd. McCullah’s team is carefully planning to use firearms on an imaginary animal. You can’t tranquilize a dinosaur that doesn’t exist.

Reports like Speigels are why I wish ill-informed journalists would just leave dinosaurs alone. It’s so easy to quickly and foolishly regurgitate fantastic claims, and when reality isn’t as wonderful as the claims being made, some writers aren’t above just making stuff up as they see fit. In this case, McCullah’s expedition was really a non-story. “Wannabe-adventurer seeks dinosaur that doesn’t exist” isn’t much of a headline. Some writers bought into fantasy to sell the story, leaving all those inconvenient facts behind.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.