On the trail of those on the trail of elusive species

Robyn Williams: Now, remember this?

Archival news material: The last known Tasmanian tiger may have died nearly a century ago but the rumour mill surrounding possible sightings of the elusive species continues to run hot. A team of hardy Thylacine hunters are certain they have tracked one down and they say they have the evidence to prove it.

Media Watch presenter Paul Barry: And how's that for amazing news? The Tasmanian tiger is alive and well. And how do we know? Well, a brand-new video of the elusive beast was released last week, and the Daily Mail tells us: 'Footage appears to show proof that the Tasmanian tiger does exist.'

Robyn Williams: Blurry sighting number 10,000 perhaps. Dr Rhys Jones of Cardiff talked about all that in Brighton.

Welcome to Brighton. Any adventures on the beach?

Rhys Jones: Thank you very much Robyn. Yes, it's been fantastic. A few adventures on the beach. I was warned before I came down here; whatever you do, don't take a bag of chips out onto the beach and try and eat it because the seagulls will have them before you do. But no, I finished my talk last night here, went down onto the beach, onto the promenade afterwards, and there I was, as I was listening to the lapping of the waves on the shingle there, which was just beautiful, and a little fox ran in front of me, right in the middle of Brighton town centre. Wow! And so I've fallen in love with Brighton, it's wonderful.

Robyn Williams: Why did it please you so much? Because many people would find the fox to be a pest.

Rhys Jones: Oh it cannot possibly be a pest, not even by definition because it is a native British animal. We should embrace it and love it. It's our last wild canid. What is there not to love?

Robyn Williams: But your own interest in these animals…about the evidence or what?

Rhys Jones: Well, I gave a talk last night which I entitled 'Fantastic Beasts and Why We See Them'. So I do a lot of work alongside the police here and when people have extraordinary sightings of animals which we wouldn't normally come cross here in the British Isles, I'll normally get called out to see if there's any evidence to support that sighting. Perhaps the most extraordinary one recently was the Welsh Bigfoot. I honestly now on the heels of Caerphilly there was a sighting of Bigfoot. I'm not sure how well Bigfoot swims or if Bigfoot vacations but I haven't heard of him outside of the US before. No, I think we got roughly to the bottom of that one. But we see some extraordinary things, especially big cats, a lot of big cat sightings.

Robyn Williams: Any of them proved to be zoo escapers or what?

Rhys Jones: That's always the thing we are worried about, is that when people see these animals, is there any potential for an escaped zoo animal? Are we dealing here with a threat to the public of course, that's what we've got to try and find out and we've got to find out rapidly. A lot of the times people are seeing these animals when they least expect them. So they are driving home at night, they are a little bit tired, it's just coming to twilight, and all of a sudden they turn a corner and there in front of them on the road is what they perceive as a big cat.

So one example was a gentleman had seen a big black cat and he said to me, 'Could you believe it, as the cat was eating roadkill in front of me, it saw me, looked straight at me and then leapt eight foot over a wall to the left of me. So what type of animal do we have that leaps eight feet?' Of course then I was able to say to him that just a healthy moggy can jump to about 8.5 feet, about 2.5 metres, and he was astonished, he had no idea a cat could do that. But of course if you are not expecting to see it, you're a little bit tired, if you are in a moving vehicle, it's hard to judge then the size of the animal. And if you see it do an extraordinary thing that you didn't know that one of our pet animals can undertake, well of course two and two suddenly equals five.

Robyn Williams: And of course these days when everyone carries various equipment and phones which can take pictures, in one of the spottings of the Tasmanian tiger, so-called, the other day there was some sort of a blurry picture. But surely as a scientist you would expect there to be evidence beyond just recollection.

Rhys Jones: You would expect it, that would be logical, and as a scientist I can never prove a negative. All I can do is go out and I look for the empirical evidence to support that an animal is still there. It's tantalising. Some people bring fantastic photos. But can I really rule out a fox with mange? I probably can't, and this is the problem. And what we need is some really, really good photos that we can substantiate were taken at a certain time in a certain location and that we've got other witnesses, and also that there is physical evidence left behind. And if we are able to start to put all those together and also hopefully multiple sightings reported in the same place by different people completely separately, you know, that aren't talking to one another, that's when we start to get interested.

But just because people have got camera phones doesn't mean they're going to see extraordinary beasts, because I had to CAT scan a chimpanzee the other day. We did that by taking it to a human hospital, and there we were, taking the chimpanzee…it was a sedated chimpanzee, I should add…past all of these people in the waiting room, and there they were, looking down into their camera phones and tweeting away and posting away, and not one of them looked up. So you know what, sometimes if an extraordinary beast goes right under your nose, it doesn't mean you're going to be able to take a photo of it.

Robyn Williams: What made you be interested, Rhys Jones, in this phenomenon in the first place?

Rhys Jones: I've always been interested to see if some of these amazing beasts are out there, and we have over time of course come across animals and plants that we thought were long extinct and suddenly we found, actually no, this is valid, there they are, they are out there for everyone to see. So there are still incredible things to discover. You don't have to go to the ends of the earth either. I found a new species of nematode worm right under my feet in Wales. So there's lots of species still to discover. The age of discovery is still out there for all of us.

Robyn Williams: Dr Rhys Jones lectures at the University of Cardiff in Wales and he was encountering ferals at the British Science Festival in Brighton.