Secret species of the Congo: monkeys … and dinosaurs?

To the astonishment of the world’s media, a new monkey species was revealed today, the lesula. Although the species had been known for some time by people in the area, it first came to the attention of scientists when they found a captive animal held by a schoolteacher.

The fact that the lesula was discovered in the Congo raises new questions about what other animals inhabit that vast region. Large parts of it remain as yet unexplored by the international scientific community. Most of all, it raises the question: are there dinosaurs in Africa?

For the best part of a century, there have been reported sightings of a large sauropod in the Congo area, known locally as mokele-mbembe. Most sightings describe a small head, a long neck and a large body, while others claim that the animal has a horn. Its name means ‘the one who stops rivers’. Numerous researchers have travelled to the area around Lake Tele where the creature reportedly lives. These include professional biologists, such as Dr Roy P. MacKal of the University of Chicago. Something of a legend amongst cryptozoologists, Mackal has been quoted as saying “There are no monsters. Just unidentified animals.”

Often the various expeditions to the Lake Tele area would show silhouettes of animals to local people, including real species unknown in central Africa. Without hesitating, the local people point to a diplodocus-type creature as mokele-mbembe. However, this may be down to a linguistic misunderstanding. Later investigators have found that most people in the region consider mokele-mbembe to be a mythical creature. So when people point to the diplodocus, it may be that they are doing exactly what a resident of Milton Keynes would do if asked to point to a silhouette of a unicorn. Just identifying a horse with a horn is not the same as believing it exists.

Up until now, all expeditions in search of mokele-mbembe have proved fruitless. Nevertheless, there are still sightings of the creature, discoveries of its footprints, and oral reports of encounters. Some sceptics remain unimpressed, arguing that it would be impossible for a dinosaur to have existed unchanged in the Congo region for 65 million years.

However, similar species have done just that. Modern crocodiles have remained almost unchanged from the Cretaceous period and they do inhabit the rivers and lakes of the Congo. Saltwater crocodiles can grow to almost six metres, and weigh as much as 1,000 kilos. So it is a myth to believe that the age of great reptiles is over. The saltwater crocodile is not even the largest reptile on earth: that honour belongs to the reticulated python of southern Asia, which has somehow managed to keep its seven-metre coils out of the hands of humanity up to the present day.

On the other hand, it may be argued that most of the large animals that have been discovered in recent years are mammals. Classic examples are the four new species of deer discovered in Vietnam in the 1990s, the most famous of which is the saola. However, many large reptiles have also joined the ever-growing bestiary of modern science.  A two-metre-long monitor lizard was spotted just three years ago in the Philippines: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/04/100407-new-giant-lizard-varabus-bitatawa-biology-letters/ Admittedly, varanus bitatawa evaded detection for so long by spending its time dozing in the treetops, which would be beyond the average diplodocus.

The discovery of the lesula monkey is just another tantalising glimpse at the world that lies beyond our homes and villages. What other secrets remain hidden in the jungles of Africa and Asia, out of sight of humanity? Perhaps one day mokele-mbembe will stumble out of the undergrowth into the uncompromising glare of movie cameras and film crews. Personally, I hope not. It’s better off where it is.