Misunderstood Marine Life # 3 – Cryptics and Cryptids

In my mind, where I imagine people are so interested in what I do that they hang on every carefully chosen word I write, I imagine some unspecified mob of readers looking over my I *heart* cryptozoology post and going “Whoa now, pardner!” (yes, you all sound like cowboys in my mind) “You just said there was a difference between cryptozoology and real zoology, but you deal with cryptic species all the time! What’s up with that?”

Cryptic hammerhead shark. Photo from http://www.physorg.com/news68994294.html

Cryptic species and cryptid species are two very different beasts. Cryptids are the mysterious, unidentified creatures that cryptozoology deals with. They haven’t been studied in depth by virtue of the fact that they haven’t been tracked, captured, or even well documented. In contrast a cryptic species is one that is morphologically and ecologically indistinguishable from another species, but is genetically distinct. A cryptic species has been under our microscopes the whole time, but has been studied as if it were one species when it is really another. A perfect example of this was a discovery in 2006 of a cryptic species of hammerhead shark, physically identical, but genetically distinct, and sharing territory with the…

Well, what do we call the original species when a cryptic is discovered? As a unit of evolution, both species are technically cryptic. They’re both morphological indistinguishable from each other, yet genetically distinct. Usually, the dominant population keeps the original scientific name. In the case of the hammerhead, the globally distributed population remained Sphyrna lewini while the Atlantic population was designated the cryptic species awaiting reclassification. In other cases, both species are reassigned. Sometimes, one, both, or many new cryptics receive a three word naming scheme.

The hunt for cryptics is often part of a large study to characterize contributors to an ecosystem. As more ecologic studies rely on genetic tools to assess ecologic parameters, more cryptic species are being discovered. The hunt for cryptids is a quest to discover completely new animals that have yet to be described by science.